Looking formidable in royal-blue silk and huge diamonds, the princess neither smiled nor rose from her Louis XIV desk when they entered. Her calm blue eyes passed over Regina as if she were a ghost and totally invisible.
With a little pucker between her painted brows the princess focused entirely on Nico. “I need to talk to you. Alone. It’s most pressing.”
“Tiberio and Massimo will show Miss Tomei to her suite, the red rooms, so that she can rest. The poor dear looks exhausted.”
So, she had seen the ghost, her future daughter-in-law, after all.
Tiberio Abruzzi materialized as if by magic. The princess nodded at Massimo, who rushed toward the man. Abruzzi turned to Regina, his stern glance ordering her to follow—at once.
Regina seized Nico’s hand and clung.
He squeezed her fingers and then released them. “You’ll be all right. I won’t be long. I promise. I will come for you shortly before dinner, which is at seven.”
Feeling abandoned somehow and overwhelmed by the palazzo again, she lifted her cheek, hoping for some scrap of affection. When his lips brushed her cheek, a wild, tumultuous heat flooded her.
Slowly she lifted her chin. Then she followed Massimo, who walked with her a short way and then turned her over to Abruzzi. After that, she had to race to keep up with the tall servant as he sped silently through the many halls and galleries to the red rooms.
An hour later, she was still alone trying to feel at home in the gorgeous, gilded bedroom that had been assigned to her. She forced herself to study the furniture, the crystal, the brocade curtains, and each of the old masters hanging on the red-satin wallpaper. If she were to live here, she must grow used to the beauty of these delightful rooms and objects; she must learn to take them as her due.
She tried to tilt her chin higher so that she could study the ornate ceiling where splashes of turquoise had been combined with crimson and gold. But suddenly her neck hurt, and she realized she’d been awake for many hours and that all she wanted to do was lie down and wait for Nico.
First, she went to the window and opened it, so that she could smell the cool sweetness of the lightly falling rain. Then loosening the buttons of her dress, she went to the bed and pushed the heavy satin spread back and sank tiredly onto the mattress.
Two months ago, it would not have been dark at this hour. Oh, but how nice it was to stretch out horizontally between cool, clean sheets while the rain tap-danced on the balcony and balustrade outside. Her head ached with exhaustion as she strained to hear Nico’s footsteps.
Soon he would come. She tried to stay awake, but slowly, the rain was music that lulled her. And a black curtain came down. And she was gone.
When Nico knocked at the door of the red rooms and called her name, she didn’t answer, so he slipped inside.
The silent room was shrouded in darkness.
Above the patter of the rain, he heard her sweet sigh from the bed. He turned just as the moon peeped through the clouds, bathing the bed and her with its silvery light.
She looked like an enchanted princess. His princess.
Her lovely face was as pale as alabaster; her hair gleamed like dark satin against her pillows. Her chest, sculpted by the white sheets, moved up and down. Her lips were cherry red and he was eager to wake her and kiss her. But she looked so peaceful asleep; so adorable, almost happy.
His heart swelled with desire and with something even more powerful that he refused to consider. She had not looked like this since he’d dropped her at Fumichino two months ago after they’d made love the whole way to Rome. How her eyes had glimmered with tears at their parting. How she’d clung to him, kissing his cheeks and lips and then burying her face deep into his chest. And only after she’d walked away with Massimo and he’d watched the exact spot where she’d vanished for more than half an hour, the longest thirty minutes in his life, had he even begun to realize how deeply he might need her.
Who was she really? A cynical opportunist who’d used him? Or the gentle, passionate woman he’d fallen in love with?
He didn’t care. Whoever she was, he wanted her. Something had begun that he was powerless to stop. From the first, when she’d waved at Grand-mère from the bench under the lemon tree, he’d wanted her more than he’d ever wanted any woman. And the wanting had only grown more fierce.
Why? Why her?
Did why ever matter? Some things just were. From the beginning, he’d been in over his head, his passion having assumed a life of its own.
Love. War. Birth. Death. Human beings thought they could control such matters, but they were an arrogant, doomed species whose passions ruled them.