The silence between them was suddenly filled with tension.
“You know that the two families have already talked, that the marriage is practically arranged.”
Of course, he knew. It would have already happened if he hadn’t been dragging his feet—grieving. His heart was in the grave, as the saying went.
“You know that today marks…”
“I know,” she said, trying to sound sympathetic. “But it’s been two years.”
His family and the family of his intended, Viola, were modern aristocrats with lineages dating back nearly a thousand years. Both families valued influence, power and money above all. Next, they counted culture, pedigree and tradition, not to mention titles—the grander and more illustrious, the better.
Nico’s parents, who’d left much of his upbringing in the hands of countless nannies, tutors and chauffeurs, had taken the time to teach him and his sister that what really mattered was money, power and luxury, in that order. Personal wishes were to be sacrificed to strengthen the family.
A young man’s dalliances with different types of women, even actresses, were regarded as necessary, perhaps even a healthy diversion. Even after marriage, such playing around was tolerated, although not advisable.
But one did not marry just anyone.
“You’re thirty-five,” his mother reminded him again, just as she had this morning when they’d driven along the narrow roads high above the coastline. “It’s time you settled down…again.”
“I did settle down.”
“She’s dead. You’re alive.”
Was he? Every time the paparazzi caught him with another beautiful actress, the tabloids referred to him as the merry widower. But they didn’t know about the guilt that tore at him over his treatment of Simonetta. How could they, when he’d been blind to what was in his heart until a month before Simonetta had died? At her death, love had overflowed inside him until he’d felt as though he were drowning.
“The principessa is very beautiful,” his mother said.
“Like a jewel with icy fire.”
“Without power and money, Nico, titles are meaningless. She has much to recommend her.”
“So you’ve told me—countless times.”
“You are a prince.”
“A lamentable fact that overly complicates my life.”
“With great privilege comes responsibility. You must marry well and behave responsibly to remain a prince. You must think of your children, of future generations. Our position has never been more fragile than it is in these modern times. Love, if one is lucky, comes after marriage. You loved Simonetta, didn’t you?”
“I was lucky. Lightning will not strike twice in the same place.” Annoyed by his mother, he drew a long breath. Somehow, he resisted the impulse to snap the phone shut. “Please, let’s not talk about Simonetta.”
“My poor tesorino.”
His mother believed grief and all emotions were luxuries for people like them. After World War II, the Romanos had lost ten castles and nearly a million acres to the Russians. The family had prospered since the war by marrying well and diversifying their business interests. They had vast holdings in the Americas, many of which Nico managed.
Still, Viola’s family had fared better in the past century and was much richer than his. His mother had begun courting Viola’s parents at Simonetta’s funeral.
“I understand that the match with Viola would be an exceedingly advantageous one for the family,” he said. “But does everything really have to be about money?”
“Of course not, tesorino. But Viola is very beautiful, is she not? She is not an ogre. You will fall in love with her.”
Nico frowned. As always, his mother had the worst possible timing. Because of Cara, he wished now he’d been more evasive on the subject of Viola when they’d lunched today at the family’s summer palazzo.
He had no taste for marriage. It was too soon. Two hellish years ago he’d lost not only Simonetta but their unborn son, as well, when the brakes of her car had failed, and she and her chauffeur had plunged off the side of a cliff on the French Riviera.
His and Simonetta’s marriage had been arranged, also, and because Nico had resented having to marry her, he hadn’t realized he’d come to love her in the last months of her life.
Because of his willful stubbornness, their happiness had been too brief.
This time of year filled him with memories and regrets. He’d made her unhappy far longer than he’d made her happy. If only he could go back and make it up to her. But it was too late. His mother was right, in a way. Somehow, he had to find a way to move on.