The Nico she knew saluted girls in bars with his beer bottle, went dancing on mountaintops at midnight, made love in dark sea caves. That Nico laughed and was tender, and she thought he had shown her something of his secret, innermost self. But his real life, the ordinary, methodic rhythm of his days, was spent here.
His tall, reed-thin mother hadn’t said a word about how unsuitable Regina was. She’d simply left her in this room with its priceless furniture and jeweled snuff boxes, and the room had spoken volumes.
Regina thought of her parents’ cluttered, three-bedroom tract house with its framed prints and recliners. She was from ordinary, middle-class, all-American stock, and more fortunate than most. But an accident of birth had thrown Nico into an extraordinarily exalted position that she could never belong to or begin to understand.
Impossible relationships. My specialty, she thought.
Measured footsteps rang faintly from the hall. Hoping for Nico, Regina sprang to her feet just as his tall, sharp-featured mother glided inside. Regina tried to smile, but her lips wouldn’t move. His mother, obviously more practiced than Regina, managed a tight little pursing at the edges of her mouth.
“I didn’t do this on purpose,” Regina stammered.
A draft of icy air gusted between them in the ensuing silence.
His mother’s lips moved. “Still, I’m sure you must understand how difficult this is for the family.”
“Well, we’ll have to carry on the best way we know how,” the PrincipessaDonnaGlorianaLuciaRomano said. “This, too, shall pass, as they say.” Again the rigid lifting at the corners of her mouth. “At least the press doesn’t know who you are, and if you don’t tell them—”
Where was Nico?
“Surely you don’t think that I would—”
The PrincipessaDonnaGloriana arched her brows. “Of course not,” she said softly.
Clearly, Gloriana saw Regina as the enemy.
“Massimo has arranged a new airline ticket for you. First class. Tonight.”
So, she was to be bought off with a first-class ticket.
Gloriana nodded, her decorum flawless. Did Regina only imagine that she had a keen talent for using her careful manners and her regal bearing as weapons? Never had Regina felt more common and uncouth, nor so entirely inappropriate for Nico.
“Where’s Nico?” Regina asked, in a crushed voice she barely recognized.
“Right here,” rang his deep, cold voice from the doorway. “Did my mother tell you that everything has been arranged?”
Feeling even more chilled by the coldness in his tone, Regina nodded.
“Mother, we’d better go,” he said.
With a look of resignation, the principessa joined him in the doorway.
Regina wanted to run past both of them and make her escape, but, of course, some reporter would probably find her. Then she would only make more trouble.
With a little shrug, she forced herself to walk slowly toward them. Thrusting her chin upward, she imitated his mother’s haughty carriage so exactly Nico smiled. As Regina’s heels clicked on the parquet, like fingers tapping a keyboard, his mother frowned.
Unable to maintain her regal act, Regina laughed nervously and ran into Nico’s arms. Even though his body felt stiff and wary, he hugged her tightly. His mother’s expression grew arctic.
Inside the limousine, Regina slumped against the leather seat. When Nico got in after another lengthy conversation with his mother, he wrapped his arms around Regina.
“I thought it went fairly well,” he said. “You held your own with her.”
Had she? “My luggage?”
“In the boot.”
The chauffeur slammed doors and started the engine.
“He’s driven on ahead. He’ll meet us. I’m afraid he’ll have to escort you inside once we arrive at your terminal.”
“I understand.” Of course, she didn’t. She was merely trying to sound brave and act sophisticated.
“The last thing I want is for you to be hurt because you became caught up in my life and family’s position and all its complications. I don’t want your name dragged through the mud.”
“I’ll be fine. It could never have worked out. We come from different worlds. This only proves—”
“Cara. Oh, Cara…Sometimes I wonder if all the things that separate us aren’t rather shallow in these modern times. If we simply pursued this relationship, wouldn’t the fuss die down? I’ve been lucky at making money. So what if you don’t have a title or a fortune?”
“And your mother? Would she move on?”
“It wouldn’t be easy for her, not in the beginning, but then she wouldn’t have a choice, would she? She has too many responsibilities to dwell on a single disappointment.”