The Cursed Princess

The Cursed Princess by Alexandra Marell- Contemporary Romance
The Cursed Princess
by Alexandra Marell

An Island Of Sorellina Romance, Book 1
Contemporary Romance
Format: eBook
Length: 53,000/Novella
Released: June 2012

Come to the beautiful Italian island of Sorellina – where the magic will never let you go…

Billionaire Dario Denaro hasn’t come to the Island of Sorellina to fall in love again. He’s here to oversee the renovation of Villa Cristina, the most exclusive of the Denaro residences. And Elena Marcante, who’s on the island to visit her ailing grandmother, certainly doesn’t expect to run into the man who left her twenty years ago without a word of goodbye. But Cristina the cat has other ideas. Once the most noble Princess Cristina Denaro, she was cursed by her jealous lover, Bernardo Marcante, to live as a humble cat until a Denaro and a Marcante declare undying love. But after five hundred years and with the family feud still running deep, Cristina is desperate, while Bernardo’s spirit lurks in the ruins of the old temple wracked with remorse for what he did to her.

Dario and Elena are no longer a pair of love-struck teens, but will they remember that magical summer they spent together? With hope of ever breaking the curse fading and with a few family secrets revealed along the way, Cristina is determined the medieval cathedral bells will finally ring out for the union of a Denaro and a Marcante.

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Read An Excerpt


 

Prologue

Five hundred years ago

“It’s all wrong, Marta. Do it again.”

The most noble princess Cristina Denaro tugged at the pins holding her hair and shook her head, sending an unruly mass of dark curls tumbling down her back. She huffed in frustration.

“Pin it up, Marta. Like I told you, with the flowers. And hurry or I’ll be late.”

“Late?” Marta, her old nursemaid, flicked a glance at the window. “Late or not, you think he will still come after your father the King announced your betrothal to the Count for all of Sorellina to hear? After you publicly declared your undying love for the man?” Lips set in a disapproving line, she gathered the mass of hair in her fist and twisted it expertly into a knot.

Cristina smiled. “Bernardo will come. He will know I only said that to satisfy my father. I did not mean it. And my father can announce all he likes. I will not marry the Count.”

“You think to cheat the King of this alliance? And that they will let a lowly soldier take you from under their noses?” Marta pushed hairpins into the knot and teased out spiralling curls to frame Cristina’s face. Tears misted her eyes. “I will miss you, Cristina. Please be careful.”

“And I will miss you, too, dear Marta.” Without turning from the mirror, Cristina reached for a silk handkerchief and handed it to her old nursemaid. She turned her face to survey the new hairstyle and smiled. “Bernardo does so love my hair. He tells me so with such beautiful words. I do love him, Marta. With all my heart.”

Marta sniffed and dabbed at her eyes. I am too old to come with you, and what good will come from the union of a princess and a lowly soldier of the guard? You know what they will do to him if they catch you?”

Cristina turned, deadly serious now. “But they will not catch us. We are to be happy, Marta. The Oracle told me so. Kiss me and wish me happiness, too. We will be happy, I know it.”

“Of course I wish you happiness, dear Cristina. Now never mind your hair.” Marta leaned from the open leaded window. “There he is, waiting in the shadows where we hid your bags. No, he’s moving into the light, what is he doing? Walking onto the terrace for all to see? What folly is this?”

Cristina ran to the window, her face creased with dismay at the sight of the broad shoulders and bright hair she loved so much. In one fist Bernardo carried a crumpled paper.

“Bernardo, no,” she whispered. “Step away from the light or they will see you. It’s not what it seems. I can explain.”

“Let them see me,” he cried for all the world to hear. A note of anguish coloured his voice as he waved the announcement paper. She watched in horror as he threw himself at the creeping vines under her window and climbed. Frantically, she glanced at the bedroom door.

Please don’t let her mother send a servant to find out why she was taking so long to go down to the reception where even now the King and the Count planned her wedding. How had it become so late? She should have been away by now. Bernardo climbed over the stone windowsill and advanced on her.

“So you are to marry the Count? And you could not be happier with the union according to this pronouncement. You love him with the heart you gave to me? All your pretty words to me were for naught? How could I ever have believed a lowly soldier and a princess could ever be one?” He made a sound of disgust and thrust the paper into her hand.

“He will not have you, Cristina.”

“Stubborn man, I am not marrying the Count.” She gentled her voice. How desperately she needed to kiss her Bernardo Marcante, to make him understand why she said the things on the paper. She reached for his face, a palm on each of his cheeks trying to pull him down to her.

“Kiss me my love and do not look so cross. I have eyes only for you.”

“That’s not what it says on this paper. What a fool I am. I loved you, Cristina. You’ll never know how much.” Very close now she saw the fury in his blue eyes, the passion too. Such dangerous passion between them, they put thunderstorms to shame.

A knock on her bedroom door. Marta crossed herself and cowered in the corner of the room. The door creaked open, a shaft of light from one of the wall sconces illuminated a face peering around.

“Princess, your betrothed is waiting for you. How pleased the Count was to hear of your happiness at this union. To hear how much you loved him already.” Eyes widening, she noticed the soldier, his expression dark as thunder, standing at the window.

“Oh, who is this? Princess? Oh how could you?” Twirling the maid fled from the room, screaming for guards. Marta closed the door and shrank into a corner, muttering frantic prayers.

“Don’t listen to her, Bernardo.” Cristina threw herself at him, putting herself between him and the bedroom door. He could not mean to go down to the salon and confront the Count, could he? From the corridor, she heard the maid’s shrieking cries, the thunder of booted feet. The door burst open and three guards squeezed through, swords already drawn.

Mayhem!

“I knew it.” With one swift movement, Bernardo drew the sword at his belt. It hissed from the leather sheath and flashed in the candlelight. For an awful moment Cristina shrank from him, fearing he was about to send her to oblivion for this one silly misunderstanding. The sword arced and he lunged instead for one of the guards.

“Bernardo, no.” Foolish man, now he’d sealed both of their dooms. If only she’d been on time, she might have explained without all this drama. If only her hair had behaved for once.

This foolish pride of his, and her vanity would cost them everything.

“If I cannot have you, then no one will, Cristina.” Bernardo swung the sword as more guards poured through the open door and then she saw other faces cramming into the opening, heard their cries of dismay and confusion. And there was Bernardo thrusting something else into her hand, ice in his eyes. Cristina stared at the small curse-stone, terror clutching at her heart.

“Bernardo, how could you do this? Why couldn’t you trust me?” Her skin prickled and the world about her, the beautiful canopied bed, the richly woven rugs blurred and faded.

“Trust you? I curse you, Cristina. A Denaro will never love a Marcante. How could I have ever believed it? Let the Count marry the kitchen cat.”

She heard the scrape of sword on sword as her beloved threw himself into the advancing guards. One moment she was watching the fight, the next she was staring at leather boots and stamping feet that threatened to trample her. Cristina scurried into the shadow of her great bed and crouched, quivering with shock. The curse-stone curse lay discarded on the rug.

“Oh my love, what have you done?” She saw him roar and fall. Heard him call her name with his last breath. Saw his spirit rise and drift to the window and out into the night. On trembling legs she leaped for the opening, knowing she would fight to the death if they tried to stop her. No one did.

How very odd? Why weren’t they jumping from the window after her? Calling her name?

Bernardo, or rather his spirit, hovered on the far edge of the fountain garden. She raced up the steps after him.

“Wait my love, I can explain.”

He should know, before he passed over. She stopped to catch her breath on a sob. He couldn’t be dead, she couldn’t bear it.

And something was very wrong. Heart hammering, she stared into one of the fountain pools. He’d cursed her. Said the Count could marry the kitchen cat.

In the wavering water, a cat, white with black-tipped ears stared back at her. What had her beloved done?

“Bernardo!” The word came out as a protesting yowl. “Bernardo, come back here this moment and put this right. Bernardo, my love.” She refused to look back, could not bear to think about his fallen body on her bedroom floor. They were calling for her now, fanning out to search the gardens, some carrying torches aloft. No one paid the white cat any heed. No one saw her broken heart.

“Bernardo.” Cristina raced for the steps, taking them almost in flight. A flash of white fur streaking through the topiary gardens, past the yew maze and out onto the goat-track that led to the old temple to the god Jupiter, built by a civilisation long gone and now only a ruin. Now she could see in the dark, she searched the broken pillars and stones for the forlorn spirit.

He would not pass over. She would not allow it.

Bernardo’s spirit sat on a fallen altar stone, his soldier’s gloves streaked red, the blooded sword at his feet. His expression grimly fixed on the far horizon.

Could he see her? See what he did to her?

Cristina shook her unfamiliar fur and leaped up onto the stone. In all his foolish jealousy, she still loved him. She would always love him. And curses could be broken. She had only to find the key.

For one horrible moment a gut-wrenching panic gripped her heart. He’d turned her into a beast. How could she live like this? What would she do? And then she heaved in three quick breaths and lifted her chin. Furry she may be, but she was still the Most Noble Princess Cristina and she must never forget that.

So he believed a Denaro could never love a Marcante? Well he could think again. She lifted her chin, a stubborn gesture her old nurse knew all too well. The Princess Cristina would not let so trivial a thing as being turned into a cat stop her from breaking this curse.

“A Denaro must declare undying love for a Marcante, must seal their union for all to see and then the curse will be broken? Is that the key my love?” In her head she heard her own voice, not the meow of a cat. Could Bernardo hear her? Did he know she was still inside this furry shell?

Lifting a paw, she touched his arm and watched it go right through his shimmering form. He should have passed over by now. Was the curse keeping him here, earthbound? Was there still hope?

Good. A wave of irritation ruffled her fur. If only he’d discussed this with her, given her time to explain why she’d publicly declared her love for the Count. Men! Always jumping to the wrong conclusions.

“You will not pass over, Bernardo. I will not allow it. I will break this curse and prove my love for you if it takes three millennia.”

No sign that he’d seen or heard her. Bernardo continued to gaze out over the moonlit sea.

Another Denaro must love another Marcante. Not an easy task given the divide in their stations. Not every day a Princess fell in love with a soldier or a person of lower rank. But then she was no ordinary Princess and he no ordinary soldier and didn’t love see beyond rank and straight into the heart? It would happen again, she would see to that. And then she and her Bernardo would be together for all time.

In this world or the next, she had no clue. Break the curse and then she would know where they were to spend eternity.

“Don’t move from this spot,” she ordered the immobile spirit. “I’ll be back.”

She slipped from the rock and onto the goat path. No brothers or sisters of her own, but a large Denaro contingent had gathered from all over the island and beyond for her wedding to the Count. Finely built males and beautiful women; they were Denaro’s after all. And hadn’t she heard Bernardo mention he had a whole tribe of kin living down on the coast in Sorellina town? If they were half as beautiful as he, then perhaps this task wouldn’t be so hard after all.

She had only to help forge a union, one with the other and she and Bernardo would be together.

And so her quest began.

 

Chapter 1

Five Hundred Years Later

Someone new was living in her house. After years of sadness and neglect, life was returning to the former royal palace.

On quivering legs, Cristina, once a noble princess and now a humble garden cat, crept forward for a better view.

The vintage Maserati, out of the garage and parked under the vine smothered pergola. A thread of smoke, spiralling from the centre of a neatly-raked heap of garden clippings. A pair of tan boots discarded on the marble terrace.

And behind the heavy lace curtains of the stone-mullioned windows, the silhouette of a man pacing back and forth, a phone clamped to his ear. Cristina heard the unmistakeable note of command in the voice that broke the quiet of the afternoon.

How many months had it been since Nonno Giuseppe, the old family patriarch died? Three, four? How long since they’d carried him out and closed up the family villa?

Sniffing the air, she caught the spicy scent of the local sausage so beloved of the tourists who flooded the island in high summer. The smell of freshly-brewed coffee and the local bread mingled with the faint tang of expensive aftershave and new leather.

A tingle of excitement rippled her fur. Dario Denaro visited so rarely, she barely recognised the man he’d become. Only his voice told her the old patriarch’s eldest grandson had finally remembered the former royal palace that had formed part of his considerable inheritance. He would be in his late thirties by now, which meant that one woman, or even several may have already ensnared him. Monied men rarely wanted for partners willing to share their fortunes.

Please let him be unattached and in want of love. Or at least in between wives, she prayed. And please let him remember his first love.

A picture of Elena Marcante bumping up the mountain road in her hired Fiat Cinquecento, windows down, copper curls whipped to a mad tangle by the breeze, popped into her mind.

The timing was perfect, but the practicalities? Cristina refused to waste time worrying about the chasm that still divided Dario and Elena’s families. Where love was concerned, nothing was impossible. And, after five hundred years of failed matchmaking, in her efforts to reset time, she had to admit to being more than a little desperate.

Nothing less than the truest of love would lift this curse she’d carried for half a millennium. All that stood in her way was a feud that ran blood-deep. Two families divided by tragedy and hate. And a gaping, open wound that refused to heal.

Okay, so no one said it would be easy.

Her Most Royal Highness, the Princess Cristina of the Noble House of Denaro straightened her spine and reminded herself that once nothing had been beyond her grasp. She had only to think it and it was hers. Men had killed for a smile from her beautiful lips. Defied their elders, betrayed their families.

One had even captured her heart.

A man whose passion had made her melt with desire. The same man who’d cursed her to live as a humble, domestic cat.

He might at least have turned me into a black cat, she thought licking irritably at a spot on her usually-pristine white paws. How like a man not to appreciate the difficulty of keeping clean when forced to walk about on all fours. How like Bernardo to think with his heart rather than his head.

Her vanity, his pride. A princess and a common soldier. Not exactly a match blessed by the gods. But, after five hundred years, they had both come to realise it was a love worth fighting for.

Cristina’s thoughts returned to the present. To Signor Maserati and Signorina Fiat Cinquecento. Mr Jet-set Lifestyle and Miss Unconventional.

While the man continued to bark orders into his phone, she broke cover and quickly climbed the steps to the veranda. Time to take a closer look at the man who might hold the key to her prison.

Time to find out just how hard this was going to be.

* * * *

He should feel guilty for staying away so long.

Dario Denaro paused to study the fading oil painting hanging in the formal dining room. As a child, he’d hated sitting with his back to his unsmiling grandfather. The eyes still seemed to follow him as he took inventory of the old family villa.

The oldest of the family villas, he reminded himself. And one neglected for far too long. How had he missed the potential? The villa sat on the most exclusive enclave of the island, which was itself a bolt-hole for Europe’s rich and famous. Unrivalled views, the privacy his clients’ sought.

And built on the ruins of a royal palace.

He couldn’t help a rueful smile. Gina, his second wife had been a project in herself. The family jewels had never glittered brighter than when laid against her flawless skin, or when adorning her beautifully manicured hands.

Between the business and his movie star wife, he’d had no time to notice the old family patriarch, quietly fading away in the place he loved most.

Dario pushed down the rising tide of irritation. When had his grandfather ever lowered that stern mask of his? Showed them a more human face than the ruthless man who’d made a fortune by letting his head always rule his heart?

Dario rubbed absently at the nagging pain in his thigh, remembering the argument he’d had with his mother over his choice of university. The day he finally realised the family owned him and any hint of rebellion would see him cut off and by himself. Too cowardly to take the old man on, he’d meekly bowed to his wishes. He was the old man’s heir and one day everything would be his. Then he would do as he damned well pleased.

Only life wasn’t like that. Now fully at the helm of Denaro Enterprises, with all its responsibility and wealth, he was just as trapped. Just as obligated to do what was best for the business rather than for himself.

The leg fracture was healing well, but the question of a limp still remained. He tried not to think about the crash that had put him out of action for half the year and taken the life of one of his best friends. Move on and look to the future. With his grandfather dead and his latest marriage over, it was time to take stock and see where his thirty-nine years had taken him. Time to see if he couldn’t inject a little joy into this life of acquisition and gain, of false smiles and yes-men.

Nonno Giuseppe would be moved to the study. He made a note on his tablet. Replace the portrait with one of the Hoppers or a Picasso or two. Selling the world’s most exclusive jewellery demanded the venue spoke the language of those too rich to notice the price tag.

The New York apartment had proved a successful testing ground for the idea of wining and dining a client for the weekend while they perused the jewellery pieces and made their choice. Perfect for the actors and rock stars only too happy to parade their new bling for the tabloids. Similar plans were afoot for the English country estate, where the old money would be more likely to pay with an oil painting than hard cash.

And the Island of Sorellina would be perfect for those for whom absolute discretion was their first priority.

Dario lifted the faded lace curtain to study the terrace with its view of the sea and the barely-visible Italian mainland, shimmering in the morning mist. Only a short hop by launch. The private jetty below the villa and the gravelled road connecting it to the former royal palace would need updating. He made more notes.

Former royal palace. That always looked good in a sales pitch. A prince or two to go with that would have been even better, but the family had lost their titles in the seventeenth century in some dodgy deal with the Kingdom of Naples and never regained them. Still, Europe didn’t want for minor royals who would be all too pleased to lend their kudos to proceedings, for a fee.

The gardens, still tended by the same ancient gardener, who together with his son and a pair of hunting rifles doubled as site security, were a jungle. The marble terrace cracked with age. He let the curtain drop. Nothing a fortune in cash couldn’t put right. He winked at his grandfather’s disapproving glare.

“Don’t worry, Nonno, it will all be done in the best of taste. Not even you would disapprove of what I have planned.”

“I would not be so sure of that.”

Dario turned to the sound of the voice. “Ahh, Mariella. You don’t think it’s about time this place saw some life?”

Mariella moved to stand beside him, arms folded. “Signor Giuseppe was from another time. He did not like change.”

“You’re not kidding.”

“Respect, Dario! Your nonno felt closer to his past, here. That’s why he left it as it is. Why he chose to die here.”

“Yes, I know. But don’t judge me too harshly for what I must do. The super-rich don’t just stroll into stores for their jewellery and this place is perfect for what I have in mind.” Dario sniffed theatrically, deftly changing the subject. “Is that the Sorellina sausage I smell? Goodness, that takes me back to my youth.”

“What? You’re old now? Dio mio!” Mariella threw up her hands and then glanced at her watch. “I must take my grandson to school so you will have to fend for yourself. Your breakfast is in the kitchen and the coffee made. Just remember your nonno will be watching your every move. And try not to burn the house down while I’m away.”

“As if I would.” Dario tilted his head, giving her his most winsome smile.

“You know that doesn’t work on me,” Mariella returned, her wit still razor sharp. She touched him lightly on the arm. “Dario, it is good to see you again. Though he did not show it, your nonno grieved for the chasm that opened between you.”

“We were all at fault, Mariella.” The truth, so why deny it? “I’m sorry it’s too late to make things right.”

“It’s always too late, Dario. Remember that. But unlike your dear papa, bless his soul, you were given a second chance. Please be gentle with this old house. Take care to leave its memories intact. There are ghosts here that must not be disturbed.”

Still the same old Mariella. Dario schooled his features with difficulty as the old housekeeper shrugged into her black cardigan. She would cross herself on the step, as she always did. Kiss her fingers and touch them to the ancient stone gatepost on her way out. Bless the bedrooms every time she cleaned them.

With Mariella around, what ghost would dare show its face?

Okay, a more discrete painting for the dining room. Weren’t there a couple of Renoirs in the Venice Palazzo? He made a note to call the estate manager in the morning to find out if they were still there or whether they’d found their way to his mother’s New York apartment like most of the other impressionists.

Mariella was right, the villa’s charm lay in its history. Use that as a starting point and fly in Genevieve and the design team to make it all happen.

Or even do it himself? Take some time out to heal and to think. To make a long overdue visit to the gold and obsidian mines and see for himself why Mauro, the Sorellina mine manager, had seen fit to call him at three in the morning with reports of an exclusive new find that was set to rival tanzanite in rarity.

“Have you spoken to Signora Marcante yet about the road?” Mariella reappeared tying a scarf under her chin. “You think you can persuade her to sell with a smile? You know she still hasn’t forgiven you for breaking her window.”

He laughed. “I was all of ten at the time. Not even she could hold a grudge for that long.”

“Don’t underestimate these people. She would not sell to your nonno, she will not sell to you.”

“I need the access legal and clear, Mariella. I can’t bring princes and celebrities up from the harbour by donkey, now can I? Nonno was too mean to offer her the market value, that’s all. I’ll double it, triple it. She’ll sell.”

“We’ll see. Don’t burn the kitchen. I will be back tomorrow.”

“I’ll try not to.” He stooped and placed a quick kiss on Mariella’s cheek, now softened and sun-weathered with age. As usual, she flapped him away with an irritable swish of her hand.

“Thank you for tending to Nonno all these years. I’ll make sure you’re well looked after, old friend.”

“You will have no use for me, I suppose, when your rich friends arrive.”

“You will always have a place here.” Mariella played the martyr well, but she’d more than earned a good retirement. “I’ll buy you a new house,” he said, pushing away yet another pang of guilt. He couldn’t see Mariella living easily with the high-class catering team needed to serve the villa.

“I’ll make sure you have a good pension.”

“I have a house, Dario. You owe me nothing.”

“I’ll buy you one anyway. And pay your grandson’s way through school. You’ve more than earned it.”

She treated him to one of her long-suffering sighs before turning for the front doors. “Live with the house, first. Listen and learn. It will tell you what it wants. It will tell you what you want, too.”

Would it? He watched her disappear through the double doors, feeling once again, like the naughty boy she’d scolded so often for stealing her biscotti. That she loved him like a son was beyond doubt. She just had a strange way of showing it.

Before giving himself time to change his mind, he took out his phone and dialled the Rome office. Denaro Enterprises could run itself for a while. Let the villa speak to him. Give his leg time to heal. And find a way to charm Signora Renata Marcante into selling the bungalow and the small plot of land that straddled most of the access to Villa Cristina.

In other words, find a way to change five hundred years of family history. They hadn’t called the old witch Nonna Strega for nothing.

A challenge, but not one he couldn’t handle. Breakfast on the terrace and then climb the old goat path to gather some of the wild poppies for Signora Marcante. Add a little personal touch to the smile and find out if his grandfather’s death might have miraculously brought years of animosity to an end.

“Hey!”

A whirlwind of white fur nearly knocked him off his feet, lunging into the space between his legs and the doorframe then hurtling down the corridor towards the open double doors. Before he could gather his wits, the cat flew down the veranda steps and disappeared into the bushes, his breakfast clamped firmly between its teeth.

* * * *

Nonna Renata was dying. Again.

Elena Marcante smoothed out the linen sheet covering her sleeping grandmother and wondered if this time it might be for real. The past year had seen her age alarmingly and there had been none of the dramatics that usually accompanied one of Nonna’s calls to her deathbed. More than once the family had made the mad dash from England to the Island of Sorellina, expecting the worse only to find the old matriarch sitting on the porch, humming a tune, miraculously recovered.

This time, Elena had been delegated to visit and determine the extent of the emergency. She found Nonna asleep in bed, a shawl about her shoulders, a white cat tucked into the curve of her hip.

“How is she, Cristina?”

The cat’s green eyes regarded her, unblinking. Nonna Renata’s cats were always white and always called Cristina, despite it being the name of the hated villa at the top of the track. It makes life easier, her grandmother would say, with a knowing smile. Cristina gave a small mew of acknowledgement and set about cleaning her paws.

What had Nonna been up to? The marble-topped nightstand was heaped with papers and letters, some with waxed seals, others with writing too faded by time to read. Atop the pile, a newer document dated the previous month.

Proposed acquisition of Casa Marcante by Denaro Enterprises.

Elena read the title with growing irritation. Little wonder Nonna had taken to her bed. This was one battle the Denaros’ refused to stop fighting and one they would never win. Not while Nonna Renata still breathed.

“Get well,” she whispered, refusing to think of the decision she might be forced to make if her grandmother died. She’d call Genaro, the family lawyer, tomorrow and ask him to send the standard refusal letter along with another plea to leave the old woman in peace. Denaro Enterprises could wait the few years she had left and negotiate with the next generation who had more reason to put money over tradition.

Elena crept from the room to make herself a much needed coffee, a to-do list already forming in her mind. Better to drop into town to see Genaro personally and while there, call on Dottore Vincenzo to find out how ill Nonna really was.

The store-cupboard in the lean-to kitchen was uncharacteristically bare. Two cans of tuna and an open pack of pasta, salt, and a dish of dried basil leaves. No rows of preserves and bottled tomatoes. No strings of onion and garlic hanging in plaits from the ceiling hooks.

She added a shopping trip to the list, ignoring for now, the inevitable argument it would cause. Nonna would be mortified at the thought of a guest having to provide for themselves.

Elena rubbed her temples, massaging the pressure points in a bid to ease the tension. Nonna had guarded her independence so fiercely, flatly refusing to move in with her sister or any of her relatives, insisting on living out her days here at the house where she’d been born and raised and where she’d remained after her marriage to Nonno Alberto.

“Elena. I knew you would come.”

Nonna Renata stood in the doorway, the shawl hanging loosely from her shoulders. Her gaze strayed to the silver-framed photograph of Nonno Alberto, brow creasing when she realised the votive candle had burned down.

“Light one for him, Elena. He would like you to do that.”

“I will, Nonna. Here, sit down and tell me how you are.”

Nonna Renata accepted the arm about her waist without protest. Another bad sign. Elena swallowed a pang at the feel of bony shoulders and a slightness she’d never associated with her beloved nonna.

“You’re looking well, Nonna.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, of course I’m not.” Nonna settled into the chair, adjusting her shawl with care. “Light the candle. Nonno is waiting.”

First things first. Elena bit back the smile. Forty years a widow and not a day passed without a prayer and a candle for her very late husband, Alberto Pasquadibisceglie. The grandfather Elena had never known with the unpronounceable name she’d always hated.

Nonna Renata used her maiden name, as all Italian women did, a name Elena had adopted as soon as she’d been old enough to fill in the official change of name forms. A professional artist needed a name people could pronounce and remember. Elena Marcante had a nice ring to it.

“You must take me to the cemetery this afternoon. This week I have not…” Nonna pulled a handkerchief from the sleeve of her cotton nightgown. “I’ll be with him soon, Elena…”

“Now, now, Nonna.” Elena dropped to one knee at her grandmother’s side. “If you feel well enough, I’ll take you this afternoon, how about that?” She rubbed a thumb over the papery softness of her grandmother’s hand. “And then perhaps a drive to the Grotto, if you feel up to it? We’ll throw a coin into the water and make a wish like we did when I was a child.”

“I need to see Genaro, the lawyer. Call him. Tell him he must come.”

“I will. But you must calm down. All this agitation isn’t good for you.”

Nonna’s hand curled about hers. “That family up there at Villa Cristina, they’re trying to kill me with the worry. They think then you will sell. But you must not. You are the only ones I can trust not to sell. That’s why I’m leaving the house to you and Margarita.”

So Nonna hadn’t changed her will? The rest of the family wouldn’t be pleased to hear that.

“Nonna, you’ll be around for a good few years yet. Let’s have some coffee and we’ll decide what needs to be done.”

“You must go to Villa Cristina. With Giuseppe Denaro gone, they will double their efforts to take my home.”

“I’ll do that, too.” Elena fended off the avalanche of requests with patience borne of years of practice. “My first call must be to Jacob back in England. To tell him I’ll be a few days longer than I thought. He’ll need to organise someone to man my stall while I’m away.”

“So, you still don’t have a proper job, then? You are still living in sinfulness with this–Jacob?”

“He’s my business partner, Nonna. And the Craft Collective is doing well, given the state of the economy. Did I tell you that the queen bought one of my scarves when she visited the village?”

“The queen will see many great-grandchildren before I do.”

Elena couldn’t contain the laughter. A spark of the old Nonna, at last. “Ahh, now there, I have good news for you. Margarita is pregnant again and this time the signs look good for a full-term delivery.”

“Your sister at least is doing her duty. Go, pay your respects to Nonno, then you must visit Villa Cristina. I saw him go up there yesterday, driving over my flower beds in his nonno’s fancy red car. You will tell him to leave me alone.”

Elena rose from her crouch and rolled her shoulders stiff from travelling. Cristina appeared as if from nowhere and immediately jumped possessively onto Nonna’s lap. Who would take her in if Nonna died?

“I see you still have Cristina,” Elena said as she rooted through a drawer for a new candle. “How old is she now?”

“Sixty-two.” No hesitation in Nonna’s reply.

“She looks well on it.” No one ever contradicted Nonna’s assertion that Cristina moved in on her wedding day and had been in residence ever since. “We’ll have our coffee and then I’ll walk up to the villa and have a word with Stefano. I wonder how long it will take him to fritter away the family fortune. Eh?”

“Stefano? When does that wastrel ever show up here? No, it was Dario I saw. He sent the letter. He’s the one who wants my house.”

“Nonna.” Elena swallowed down the surge of emotion at the mention of the name she’d last heard at the end of a lunchtime news bulletin.

Dario Denaro, heir to the Denaro fortune was tragically killed today when the vehicle he was travelling in left the road on the Khardung La Pass.

“Dario is dead. Five months ago, in India. It was on the news. Remember?”

Nonna’s face set. “Well, he’s back. Back from the dead so he can drive me to my grave.”

Cristina chose that moment to leap from her comfortable lap and streak through the open door to the garden. Elena turned to open the crockery cupboard, busying herself with finding cups and locating spoons. Breathing through the shock of hearing news she’d wished so desperately to be true.

Mistaken identity. Nonna’s eyes were not what they used to be. Stefano did look very much like his older brother.

“So, you will go?”

“Yes, Nonna. I’ll go.” The fine hairs on the back of her neck prickled. Whether from the thought of meeting a ghost, or having to stand face to face with the man himself, she couldn’t tell. Both prospects were equally frightening.

* * * *

How many times had she made this journey? Cristina picked her way along the stony goat path, eyes set firmly on the softly muted stones of the ruined temple that sat near the top of the mountain. The thrill of catching the first glimpse of her beloved had only grown stronger over the years.

He sat, as always, on the edge of the outer wall, his gaze fixed on the ancient path used now only by the adventurous and the locals. To his right a double-edged sword, on his hands gloves still stained with the blood of his last battle.

A weary prisoner of his own remorse.

She broke cover and leaped onto the tumbled stones. As always, he turned away and spoke words he’d repeated too many times to count.

Tell me you forgive me, Cristina. I cannot look at you unless you forgive me.

I forgave you long ago my love. How many more times must I say it?

Until the sea below us runs dry and this mountain crumbles to dust.

By Jupiter, the man was stubborn!

Bernardo. You are forgiven. Look at me, my love.

His shoulders tightened. How can I look at you when I don’t see you?

I’m here, my love. Trapped in this furry form but here all the same. I cannot bear to see what I did to you. But I have news, Bernardo. And this time, the signs are good.

You really believe you can make a Denaro and a Marcante fall in love?

Have I ever stopped trying?

If only you’d explained everything that night, none of this would have happened.

If only you’d listened to me, given me a chance to speak, none of this would have happened.

So near, she could reach out a paw and touch him, yet as far away as the stars in the heavens. They would meet and sometimes feel the joy of reunion, other times relive the old hurts. Then always sit here together on the warming stone, staring at the curve of the horizon. He lost to his grief and remorse, she increasingly wanting to scratch some sense into him.

The sun would rise for the start of another day and Bernardo would fall silent, leaving her to pick her way back down the mountain to whatever place she currently called home.

And tomorrow they would do this all over again.

When the last streaks of orange gave way to the sparkling blue of the sea, Princess Cristina leaped silently from the stones and crossed the veil separating the seen from the unseen.

Back in the land of the living, she descended to her name-sake villa and turned her mind to more practical matters. Dario was no longer the lanky youth with the cheeky grin who’d pretended indifference to the adoring looks and quiet devotion of the young girl who visited the bungalow at the end of the drive.

Indifference, until that last magical summer before they stepped over into adulthood and different lives.

Twenty years separated the furtive teenage lovers from the sophisticated divorcee and the free spirit. Did the flame still flicker, somewhere in the depths of their hearts, or had it been extinguished by life?

Cristina walked the length of the wall and jumped down into the sunken garden. The formal pool reflected back the shape of a cat, white with black-tipped ears, but if she stared long enough, the image would change and the memories flood back. Black hair hanging wild and free. Eyes the colour of a stormy sky. Full lips, the hint of a knowing smile.

And behind her, Bernardo lifting her hair, bending to kiss her nape. Fingers curling around the curve of her shoulder.

Cristina dipped a paw into the water, breaking the surface into a jigsaw of broken images.

How did she make Dario and Elena feel her desperation?

End of Excerpt…

 

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