Who knows what might have happened next, if his mother hadn’t chosen that moment to appear. As always, she was perfectly groomed and as dazzling as a rare jewel in an absolutely exquisite pink silk suit. Parisian runway, no doubt.
Apologizing politely and lifting her arched brows, she said there was a crisis that needed Nico’s attention immediately.
“Can’t it wait?” he said in a low, irritable tone.
She shook her head and swept from the room, her footsteps growing fainter in the hall.
“Sorry, darling.” There was only a faint echo of passion in his voice. He squeezed Regina’s hand and kissed her lightly on the cheek.
Then he was gone, too, and she was left alone on her stone parapet with only her beautiful view for companionship.
Juliet without her Romeo.
Hugging herself, she leaned against the balustrade, shuddering in frustration. She needed a job, something to do, anything.
But what? What could she do today? She began to pace the balcony. What did a future princess do to amuse herself all day in paradise?
The garden beckoned beneath her. The sunlight was brilliant in the trees. There was an ineffable sweetness of flowers mingling with the scent of the sea.
She dashed out of the red rooms. She would take a walk among the flowers again, a long meditative walk in the garden. She would watch the swans.
When she grew bored with the big white birds, who were content with each other and their placid pond and paid no attention to her, she meandered along the gravel paths until she grew tired of the garden, too. She felt confined, lost.
As she was about to turn back toward the palazzo, she discovered a little gate shrouded with ancient grape vines. A gardener was weeding nearby, so she asked him where the path led.
Yanking an earphone out of his ear, the man stood up. He was dark and thick around the middle. His white shirt was caked with black dirt; his silver curls wet with sweat. His English was as terrible as her Italian, but somehow he managed to make her understand with many smiles and much wild gesticulating that the vine and the path were pre-Roman, that the trail had been used for centuries by the shepherds and their flocks.
How wonderful. She opened the gate and wandered like a child in a land of enchantment for an hour or more, forgetting her restlessness and feeling that she was useless, as she explored the terraced gardens and ochre-colored villas that dotted the cliffs above the sea.
Only when she became thoroughly lost did she notice the time. She sat down on a low rock and pulled out her cell phone, which she must have switched off. When she turned it on, she saw that Nico had called her at least five or six times.
When she rang him, his voice was terse and cold. “Where are you?”
“I don’t know. I was walking in the garden. I found a little gate and a shepherd’s trail that led down the cliffs. I didn’t think. I’m afraid I’m lost.”
For a long moment he didn’t speak. “I’ve been worried sick.” He asked her to describe her whereabouts.
Five minutes later, he was loping down the steep path toward her. When he saw her, he stopped and sucked in air.
She took three faltering steps up the mountain toward him.
“I thought you’d left me,” he said.
“I’m sorry if I worried you.”
A long silence followed her statement. He stood very still. How lonely he looked, she suddenly thought, her heart going to him. Did he need her then, just a little?
Or was she only imagining that he did?
Who was he really, this prince she was marrying?
This handsome stranger?
A dazed Princess Donna Regina Carina Tomei di Romano sat in the red rooms alone staring at the glittering band of diamonds on her left hand. She still wore the simple white suit she’d been married in, as well as the little hat with its short veil.
She had married a man she hardly knew.
The private ceremony in the magnificent Salon d’Or with her family and Nico’s royal mother watching had been awful, simply awful, at least for her. Because of her morning sickness, Regina’s voice had been inaudible to all but Nico, who’d leaned close to hear.
Well, now he was trapped, and so was she. And the whole world was watching, waiting for the first sign of a crack in one of her glass slippers.
The palazzo had notified the press immediately after the ceremony. A trusted journalist, who’d agreed to allow Gloriana final approval of his article, wanted to write Regina’s “Cinderella story.” Gloriana had personally granted him a private interview with Regina on the terrace.
Unfortunately, his first two questions had made Regina too sick to complete the interview.
Question number one: “Was Prince Nico’s ‘good friend’ Princess Viola on the guest list?”