He stood over her for an hour, his shadow falling across her pale face. The dinner hour came and went, and yet he felt compelled to stay and watch over her. At least, when she was asleep, he could protect her from the forces in this house, in his world, even from the forces within himself that resented and threatened her.
Finally, he leaned down and kissed her lips gently. She stirred and smiled. When she whispered his name, he wanted to kiss her again and again. But he knew that if he did so, he would not stop.
The first thing Regina noticed when she awakened at dawn was the pink sun streaming through the long windows, filling the beautiful room with soft feathers of early light. She felt the pillow beside her and realized she was alone.
Nico had not come.
A t eight o’clock sharp, a young maid with creamy skin and a white apron announced to Regina in a beautiful Polish accent that breakfast was to be served on the north terrace at nine and that she would be back to fetch her.
“Where’s Nico? I mean, Prince Nico?”
The pretty maid looked confused. “Sorry, signorina. Princess Gloriana told me to come. That’s all I know.”
She curtsied and was about to go when Regina called her back.
“I’ve been up and dressed for hours. I would like to walk in the garden. Could you show me the way and then come find me there?”
“As you wish, madame.”
Nico had not come. With a sickening feeling of abandonment, she followed the girl outside to the pool where the swans made ripples across its dark, glassy surface. Birds were singing in the cypress trees. Exotic blossoms bloomed in the flower beds even though it was autumn.
Some variety of flower must bloom all year here in this centuries-old paradise. But where was Nico? She glanced up at the palazzo and thought she saw a tall, dark man and a blond woman at a long window watching her. Then they vanished, and she wondered if they’d seen her or if she’d merely imagined them.
She began to walk along the intricate gravel paths that wound through the beautiful garden overhanging the sea, this garden that seemed more fantasy than reality. At first, she tried to concentrate on the crunching sound her feet made so that she wouldn’t dwell on Nico or the multitude of questions that tortured her heart.
Then she began to enjoy the glories of the garden with its mountains that climbed to the sky on one side and the blue sea that stretched forever on the other.
Her verdant surroundings were so beautiful that soon her walk took over. Her mood became meditative, and she opened her heart to infinite possibilities.
She was here. She was to marry Nico. All her life she’d thought she could plan and that her ambitions and work would take her where she wanted. But she’d lost touch with herself. She’d done things she wasn’t proud of. She’d wanted more than her career, more than marriage to a respected professional. Only, she hadn’t known what more was until now. No man had ever felt so right as Nico, who was from this extravagant world that she had never even imagined.
Life was so much more mysterious than she’d bargained for. One never knew what the next moment would be or bring. As she stared at the palazzo, she couldn’t begin to imagine what her life would be like as his wife.
The maid came as she’d promised, startling Regina out of her reverie and then leading her back inside. Regina followed through what seemed like miles of galleries and sitting rooms, all filled with rococo, neoclassical and Louis XVI furnishings. Through the centuries, Romanos must have collected these beautiful things and designed rooms to display them advantageously. As always, the beauty of the palazzo dazzled and overwhelmed her as the garden and its simple pleasures had not.
Suddenly, a door opened, and a slim blond woman, a younger version of Nico’s mother, emerged into the hall. Then, as if to catch her breath or regain her composure after some unfortunate encounter, the woman stopped and stood outside the door for a long moment. Then lifting her chin, she turned and headed straight for Regina.
She had fine, delicate features; soft, light-colored hair and luminous violet eyes. Her complexion glowed. She was exquisite and so perfectly made that, except for her stricken expression, she seemed more like a doll than a human.
Principessa Donna Viola Eugenia di Frezano.
Regina gasped in awe and then compassion swept her.
Viola had frozen, too. Then without a word, the princess turned and fled, but not before Regina had seen that her cheeks were streaked with tears.
No servant needed to lead Viola through the maze of gilded rooms. Clearly, even blinded by tears, she knew this maze of ornate rooms by heart.
When Regina looked inside the door from which Viola had come, she saw a grim-faced Nico staring out a tall window. Was it the same window where she’d seen the couple watching her?