Why did he have to be so good at faking it?
“No! I’m fine!” Her voice was so harsh Susana and Sabrina frowned and shot warning glances her way.
“Try to eat then, dear,” her mother said. “For the baby. Try the cheese.”
Regina stabbed a chunk of ricotta and lifted it to her lips. Satisfied, her mother got up to see about dessert.
When everybody had finished their meal, Regina jumped up and was about to clear the table when her mother raised her hand. “Before we do that, why don’t you tell us how you two met.”
“We—I…” Regina sat back down, unable to find the words.
“On the beach in Amalfi,” Nico said, his eyes softening every time he looked at Regina. “My grandmother owns a shop in Ravello and she met Cara first…and was charmed by her. She’d sold her a dress, a most fetching dress. So, later, when she saw Cara under a lemon tree, she waved at her. I looked over and when Cara looked at me, I couldn’t look away. It was as if—” He stopped. Somehow his silence was riveting. “Nothing like that had ever happened to me before.”
“How romantic,” Susana gushed.
“It was, actually,” he said, looking tenderly at Regina, whose hand lay on the table near him.
When his own larger hand covered hers, she felt a rush of unwanted excitement.
Lacing his fingers through her tense fingers, he brought her hand to his lips. While everyone watched, he kissed her fingertips as he had the first time in the bar. He was very still, his eyes on her face, his earnest gaze a pledge in front of her family.
Regina swallowed, but the sudden lump in her throat refused to go down.
“She swept me off my feet,” he continued, turning her hand and blowing a scorching kiss against her slender blue-veined wrist, a kiss so hot it made the icicles around her heart melt.
The rat! He was only pretending!
Flushing, Regina yanked her hand free. “Everyone finished? Can I take your plates?” Wild with panic, she pushed back from the table and started stacking the plates much too noisily. Nico stood, too, and began to gather the silverware. Susana and Sabrina were about to protest when Dino and David started to howl.
“Bottle time,” Susana said, as mother and grandmother galloped toward the cribs.
Thus, Nico and Regina were left to do the honors of clearing the table and preparing the final course. He made a pot of coffee while she ladled mascarpone custard over sliced pears on crystal plates.
“You probably never did anything like this in your life,” she said.
“I’ll ignore that and carry the desserts to the table.”
“Okay, I’ll be blunt,” she said when he returned for the last two plates. “I want you out of this kitchen and out of my life.”
“You’re going to have to get used to me, you know.”
She was so angry she wanted to scream. When she picked up a spatula, he grabbed it and set it down on the counter.
“You can’t just take over somebody’s life,” she said.
“Then why did you deliberately become pregnant with my child?”
He stared into her eyes longer than she could bear it.
“I swear I didn’t! And you don’t have to marry me!”
Without saying anything, he picked up the last two plates. With a sinking heart, she watched him walk into the dining room, sit down and begin joking with her family as if their exchange had never occurred, as if this were a normal evening.
Normal? His being here, his ordinariness with her family, their acceptance of him was driving her crazy.
Did he intend to win them and break their hearts? Was he that cruel? Or was he just being a man and insensitive and blind as a result?
Except for Regina’s nervous tension, the dessert and coffee went as smoothly as dinner. If she grew increasingly silent, everybody was too thrilled by him and the thought of a wedding in a castle to care.
Conversation flowed on all sides of her without the least difficulty. Her mother graciously accepted the fact that she would not be allowed to plan her daughter’s wedding. It was almost as if Regina’s family had been expecting her pregnancy and this marriage and were overjoyed by them.
Who were these people? She’d never mentioned Nico to any of them. How could he just pop into their lives without any warning, take over, and be so totally accepted?
Why couldn’t they have ever accepted her this easily? Who she was? Why had she had to work so hard for the slightest praise? When she felt her thoughts heading into one of those negative loops, she put on the brakes. Her family and Nico either loved one another or they deserved Oscars, and that was just the way it was.
Later, when they were all laughing together in the living room while she stood in a dark corner, feeling left out, Nico got up, put his arms around her and led her to the couch, where he pulled her down beside him, so that she was in the heart of the family circle. He took her hand in his again and held on tight, ignoring her every attempt to pull free. And the truth was, under different circumstances, she might have enjoyed herself.