Forgetting her fear, she turned on him. “Where are we going?”
He said only, “You’ll see,” as the car left the main road, traveled through a wooded hillside and began to climb.
“I want to go to my hotel.”
His glance was quick and unsmiling. “Later. I told you that I had to show you something.”
The Fiat snarled up a steep hill lined with cypress trees and towering hot-pink oleanders on one side and dazzling views of the sapphire Gulf of Salerno on the other. Finally, they reached a tall golden gate that surely stood on the top of the mountain.
“Where are we?” she whispered.
He wrenched the Fiat to a stop and spoke blistering Italian into a little box on his side of the car.
No sooner had he said his name than the gates whooshed open, revealing an immense, opulent, late-Gothic palazzo with Moorish curlicues. The grand palazzo looked out on a park of lush lawns and bright flower beds that had been carved out of the craggy mountainside. Although not all that large, the palazzo was gorgeous. Somehow, Regina knew that men of taste and immense wealth had created it.
“Where are we?” she repeated, both her curiosity and wonder expanding.
Wordlessly, he drove her inside. When the gates clanged behind them, she felt a momentary frisson of panic, terrified she might be trapped in the wonderland forever.
Then she caught her breath because, on closer inspection, the palazzo standing in its sea of green with cliffs on one side and the sea on the other was so beautiful. She had never been anywhere so beautiful.
“Where are we?”
“This is the Palazzo Romano.” He spoke in a low, dead voice. His blue eyes regarded her warily. “It is one of my family’s many ancestral palazzos. A favorite, in fact, even though it is really only a small country home for us.”
“Now you’re telling me you’re rich?”
She scanned the high, pink walls of the palazzo perched on its cliff top promontory and felt eyes, unseen and unfriendly, watching her. She stiffened at the thought that she was being judged inferior in some way and was unwelcome here.
“You mean this is your future wife’s home,” she exclaimed.
“The Palazzo Romano will be her home. Yes. But only when she marries me.”
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.