“Thank you for bringing me here,” Regina said grimly.
“You must understand—I cannot betray my family.”
“I do understand.” Her heart was thundering, threatening to explode. “What I don’t understand is why you didn’t tell me the truth in the beginning.”
“Not good enough!”
“All those people in the bar knew who you were?”
“Including those girls who were flirting with you?”
“You deliberately made a fool of me!”
“No. At first, I thought you knew. Later, I played along with your fantasy.”
Her feet crunched noisily in the gravel as she strode to her car. She opened the passenger side door for herself. He got in behind the wheel.
“Are you all right?” he asked.
“Just take me home.”
He started the Fiat. “You could stay…indefinitely,” he said.
“Are you asking me to be your mistress?”
He was gracious enough not to restate his intent.
“We could sleep together while you courted and married your princess?” Regina let out a long sigh and then a little scream. She banged the dashboard with her fists just as she’d banged on so many tables in courtrooms. Then she turned to him again.
“Ohhh! You think I’d settle for that? How could you even ask me such a thing?”
“I love you. I want you. It might be the only way.”
“Haven’t you got any principles?”
“I thought I did, until I met you.”
“Do people like you, princes who live in palazzos, I mean, get everything they want, just because they want it?”
“No. They follow the rules. They are taught that all that matters is influence, power and money. They are taught to marry one of their own kind, so that they can perpetuate their families’ titles, pedigrees and traditions on the solid foundations of their wedded fortunes. It’s all exceedingly dull.”
“Poor little rich prince, who must try to get richer and richer. I’m not going to feel sorry for you, you know.”
“I’m not asking you to. I just want you to understand my future engagement. Viola’s family is richer than mine. The tax man is vicious. For a thousand years my family has lived here and in palazzos grander than this.”
“And they want to be in them for another thousand?”
“Aristocrats do tend to take the long view. Unfortunately, my father lost quite a lot of money, so the family’s future rests on my shoulders.”
“Which fortunately are quite wide.” She paused. “Okay. I see. I understand. I wish you the best. Now, will you take me to my hotel?”
“Just so you understand what is expected of me and why. If I don’t marry DonnaViola, I betray my family.”
“I said I understood. But that’s it. Don’t pretend you’re a good guy. Not when you lied to me.”
Thankfully he didn’t remind her she’d thought she’d been hiring a gigolo.
When he started the car, the gates opened as if by magic. Again, she was aware of unfriendly eyes watching her depart.
“Like I said, at first, I thought you knew who I was, that maybe you were a fortune hunter,” he said.
“That’s so lame.”
“It’s happened before.”
“American tourists recognize you and chase you?”
“Yes. The paparazzi chase me, too.”
“And do you always accommodate them as you did me? The other women, I mean?”
He muttered something under his breath. Then he lifted his chin and stared at the road coldly. He drove back to her hotel silently and slowly, but somehow his carefulness stung her like a deliberate insult.
“Well, do you accommodate them?” she goaded.
He flinched. Good. She’d gotten to him.
“No,” he said, grinding the word between his teeth. “Damn it, no!”
“Then why did you decide to go slumming with me?”
He jerked the car into a driveway on the side of the narrow road just as a bus whipped past them so fast their little car rattled violently. Then he turned and pulled her roughly into his arms.
“I wanted you. I had to have you. I didn’t care about anything else. I’d felt so horrible for so long and there you were—so sweet and adorable. I thought we’d have one night.”
“Why is this happening?”
“Hell if I know why. Hell if I know. Do you think I wanted it to? Damn it, now I want a lifetime. And I can’t have it.”
Before she could say anything, his mouth came down on hers, searing, punishing. His large hands spanned the back of her waist, his palms burning through her thin cotton T-shirt as he pressed her curves against the hard contours of his body.