After a beat, she said in an uncharacteristically guarded tone, “I haven’t agreed to a-anything yet.”
“Y-you can’t force me to do anything.”
His lips curved. “Ah, but you know I won’t have to, cara. Yes?”
“Because of my debt?”
The double doors in front of her were suddenly flung open, and a dark-haired girl came running out. “Papa!”
To Luca’s credit, he didn’t let go of her hand even with her daughter approaching. Instead he bent down, expecting and receiving a warm hug and a sweet kiss on his cheek.
“I missed you, Papa.”
“I missed you, too, principesa.”
As Luca pulled away and straightened, the little girl turned her attention towards Vivian, and she found herself holding her breath.
“Green eyes,” the child suddenly breathed.
Luca grinned. “Yes.”
His daughter took a step towards Vivian. “Do you clean?”
“Umm…” She glanced at Luca in bemusement.
“My daughter is asking if you clean for a living.”
Oh. Unsure whether it was a good or bad question, she slowly made herself nod, unwilling to lie about her job. To her surprise, she saw a smile break over the girl’s incredibly lovely face, dimples flashing, her slightly open mouth revealing a chipped tooth.
“Vivi,” the girl whispered in seeming awe, and she moved even closer to Vivian. Her small hand curled on her pants, tightening around the fabric as she said, “Princess Vivi?”
But there was such hope shining in the girl’s eyes that Vivian heard herself say, “Yes.” She cleared her throat. “I’m Princess Vivi.”
And from that moment, Luca’s daughter took over, tugging her hand as she pulled Vivian into the house. “I am Eula,” she said with adorable seriousness. “I’m going to be your daughter when you marry Papa.”
Her eyes flew to Luca in shock, but Luca had his hands in his pants’ pockets and was gazing down at the patterns on the carpet with extreme fascination.
Eula tugged her hand. “This is our castle.”
“It’s, umm, very beautiful.”
Eula beamed. “You like it?”
“Then you’ll live here?”
And she so walked into that one, she thought ruefully.
“Umm, if I could.”
“You can!” Eula pointed to the grand staircase at the left. “If we go up, you can see my room.”
“You can show Vivi her room later,” Luca interjected then. “But for now, I think it’s time for dinner. Would you like to have Vivi join us?”
Eula nodded eagerly and turned to Vivian. Luca also turned to her, and she found herself the subject of two pairs of identical light blue gazes. Utterly defeated by the charismatic duo, she said cautiously, “I’d love to have dinner with you.” And when Eula beamed, she realized with a pang that it was feeling dangerously addictive, doing things just to earn a smile from a little girl.
Was this really the same four-year-old terror that Luca told her about? How could this beautiful little girl be anyone’s worst nightmare?
“Will you tell chef that we have a visitor dining with us, Eula?”
As the little girl half ran down the hallway to their right, he called out, “And wait for us at the dining room, si?”
When Eula was out of earshot, Luca turned towards her with a raised eyebrow, and she didn’t hesitate, asking accusingly, “Were you just trying to scare me off by making her sound like this horrible brat?”
He laughed. “I’m flattered you find my daughter that charming, but trust me, cara. There’s a monster behind that angelic face.”
“You’ll see.” He paused. “Even so, I would like to express my gratitude this early on for being understanding of my daughter’s willfulness and…impertinence, if you will.”
“She wasn’t impertinent at all,” she said honestly. “But…” Vivian bit her lip. “Can you just honestly tell me why she seems to know me and really thinks I’m going to be her mom?”
Luca inhaled heavily, saying, “That is my fault. Two months ago, about a week after we met, I received a call from her school. I learned that her classmates had been bullying her for not having a mother, which I never knew. Apparently, one day she lost her temper and—-” He paused.
More than intrigued now, she asked, “And?”
“Well, she has a vivid imagination, you see, and quite the temper like I mentioned, which she unfortunately inherited for me. Also, her favorite cartoon is Alice in Wonderland, so that day, she pretended she was the Red Queen, made herself sound scary, and she told the girls who were bullying her, ‘Off with your heads!’ And it was effective.” But instead of looking disapproving, Luca appeared proud and satisfied. “She actually managed to scare the other kids away and made them believe that they were going to suffer some kind of divine punishment that was inescapable—-”
Vivian’s laughter spilled out.
Luca grinned. “Now, do you believe me when I tell you she can be a person’s worst nightmare?”
Still giggling, she nodded. Wiping tears of mirth from her eyes, she revealed, “I can’t imagine her looking so terrifying, but I believe you. What happened afterwards?”