The Palazzo Romano? Hadn’t she read about it in her guidebook?
What? Was he telling the truth? Surely not.
He got out of the Fiat and went around to Regina’s side and opened her door. When he put his hand on her arm, she didn’t resist his help getting out.
“Look,” she said, glancing up at the windows again and feeling cold all over. “I see. It’s beautiful. Impressive even.”
“I think most people would be impressed,” he replied, his tone oddly distant. “The paparazzi certainly are.”
He took her hand and pulled her through the gardens, which were vast and well tended. They passed a pool with a pair of swans, countless fountains and statuary before they drew to a stop in an ancient cloister.
“This is my favorite part of the house,” he said.
“It’s quite charming.”
“I used to play here with my sister when I was a little boy.”
Was he telling her the truth?
“My family has a palace in Florence that is filled with four hundred years of fabulous art. We have extensive vineyards outside of Florence, as well. In the centuries when the Romanos really counted, they were known by nothing more than their surname, like the other great families of Florence.”
She took a deep breath. The warm air was sweet with the scent of flowers.
“It was only when we started losing power that we gained our titles,” he continued.
He hadn’t missed a beat. He certainly had his little story, if that’s what it was, down pat.
“You’re good,” she said.
“The Romanos were made marquises quite late in their history, in 1750, when the Dukes of Lorraine started handing out dignities to win the support of the town’s patrician establishment. At first, the family scorned the titles. Not too long afterward, we were made princes.”
When he took her arm and led her out of the cloisters, the tall parapets and towers looming above her seemed even bigger and more intimidating. Again, she had the distinct feeling that she was unwelcome.
There was a formality and a perfection to everything. There wasn’t a single weed in any of the flower beds, nor a wilted petal on any of the roses. And yet, no gardeners could be seen.
“Very impressive,” she repeated, wondering if he really was a Romano. More likely, he was a poor relation, or maybe the son of one of the absent gardeners.
“I understand that you want to live in a palace. Lots of people do…even in the States, which is why we have MacMansions….” She caught herself. She was babbling.
When they rounded a curve in the gravel path and she saw her Fiat, she said, “Just take me to my hotel.”
He stopped. “Listen to me. This is only one of my homes. Now. It is mine now. Before my marriage. Or rather, it is one of my family’s many homes. It might interest you to know that it has been in the family seven hundred years.”
She stared at him. Was he serious?
“Do you work for these people or something?” she asked gently.
“Oh, most definitely.” He smiled, but his eyes were wary and cold. “If we went inside, you would be greeted with dozens of gilded chambers hung with tapestries and baroque chandeliers, not to mention paintings by the great masters, as well as paintings of my ancestors—who resemble me.”
“Really? I’m sure it’s all very lovely.”
“The older woman you saw in the Maserati is my grandmother. Only don’t ever tell her I said she was old. The blonde you saw me with is my mother, the PrincipessaDonnaGlorianaRomano. My father, Principe Don Livio Carlo Romano, died five years ago. My mother wants me, his heir, to do my duty and marry the Principessa Donna Viola Eugenia di Frezano. In fact, my mother is insisting upon it. Yesterday, I gave her my word that I would call Viola, whose family is as eager for the marriage as mine. The paparazzi, not that they know anything, say I’m the most eligible bachelor in Europe.”
She stared at his dark, patrician brow which was knit, at his aquiline nose, at his magnificent warrior’s physique and felt an unpleasant jolt of recognition. He looked tough and arrogant enough to be a conquering prince of old. And he did look a little familiar.
“You’re a prince? You’re really a prince?” Regina searched his incredibly handsome face for some sign of triumph or conceit. Humility was all she saw.
“I wish to hell I wasn’t,” he said. “I wish to hell I could change who I am and follow the path of my heart, which would be a life with you, tesorina.”
Tall, dark and handsome…and an Italian prince to boot. If only she were a princess, too, maybe her life could be a fairy tale.
But Viola was the princess in this fairy tale.