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Vincenzo Di Laurentis, thirty-three-year-old crown prince of the Principality of Arancia, stood before the camera on the balcony of the royal palace overlooking the gardens to officially open the April Fifteenth Lemon and Orange Festival. This was his first public appearance since the funeral of his wife, Princess Michelina, six weeks ago. He waved to the crowds that had come out en masse.
His country was nestled between the borders of France and Italy on the coast of the Mediterranean. Eighty thousand people lived in the city of the same name. The other thirty thousand made up the population that lived in the smaller towns and villages. Besides tourism, it had depended on the lemon and orange industries for centuries.
For the next two weeks the country would celebrate the mainstay of their economy with marching bands in the streets, food fairs, floats and statuary in the parks decorated with lemons and other citrus fruit.
Vincenzo had just gotten back from a series of visits to three continents, doing business for the monarchy with other heads of state. It felt good to be with his father, King Guilio, again. On his return, he'd forgotten how beautiful Arancia could be in the spring with its orchards in full flower. He felt an air of excitement coming from the people that winter was over. As for himself, the darkness that had consumed him over the last six weeks since Michelina's death seemed to be dissipating.
Their marriage had never been a love match. Though betrothed at sixteen, they'd spent very little time together before their wedding fourteen years later. When he'd walked into their apartment earlier this afternoon, more than any other emotion, he was aware of a haunting sense of guilt for not having been able to love her the way she'd loved him.
Romantic love never grew on his part for her, only respect and admiration for her determination to keep up the image of a happily married couple. They'd suffered through three miscarriages hoping for a child, but it hadn't happened.
His passion had never been aroused when they'd made love because he hadn't been in love with her, but he'd done his best to show her tenderness. He'd known passion with other women before he'd married Michelina. But it had only been a physical response because he was never able to give his heart, knowing he was betrothed.
Vincenzo suspected Michelina's parents had undergone the same kind of unfulfilled marriage. He knew his own parents had struggled. It was the rare occurrence when a royal couple actually achieved marital happiness. Michelina had wanted their marriage to be different, and Vincenzo had tried. But you couldn't force love. That had to spring from a source all on its own.
However there was one thing he had been able to do that had brought them their first real happiness as man and wife. In fact it was the only thing that had gotten him through this dark period. Just a few days before she'd died, they'd learned they were pregnant again. Only this time they'd taken the necessary steps to prevent another miscarriage.
Relieved that his last duty for today was over, he left the balcony anxious to visit the woman who'd been willing to be a gestational surrogate for them. Abby Loretto, the American girl who'd become his friend. Since twelve years of age she'd been living on the palace grounds with her Italian father, who was chief of security.
Vincenzo had been eighteen, with his own set of friends and a few girlfriends his own age, when Abby had arrived on the scene. Yet Abby had become the constant in the background of his life, more like a younger sister flitting in and out of his daily life. It was almost like having a sibling. In a way he felt closer to Abby than he'd ever felt to his sister, Gianna, who was six years older.
The two of them had played in the sea or the swimming pool. She was fun and bright. He could be his real self around her, able to throw off his cares and relax with her in a way he couldn't with anyone else. Because she lived on the grounds and knew the inner workings of the palace, she already had the understanding of what it was to be a royal. They didn't have to talk about it.
When his mother had died, Abby had joined him on long walks, offering comfort. When he didn't want anyone else around, he wanted her. She'd lost her mother, too, and understood what he was going through. She asked nothing from him, wanted nothing but to be his friend and share small confidences.
Because they'd been in each other's lives on a continual basis, he realized it was inevitable that they'd bonded and had developed a trust.
She'd been so woven into the fabric of his life that years later, when she'd offered to be a surrogate mother for him and Michelina, it all seemed part of the same piece. His wife had liked Abby a great deal. The three of them had been in consultation for several months before the procedure had been performed. They'd worked like a team until Mi-chelina's unexpected death.
He'd gotten used to their meetings with the doctor and the psychologist. While he'd been away on business, it had felt like years instead of weeks since he'd seen or talked to Abby. Now that she was carrying Vin-cenzo's son or daughter, she was his lifeline from here on out. He needed to see her and be with her.
All he could think about was getting back to make certain she and the baby were doing well. But accompanying this need was an uncomfortable sense of guilt he couldn't shake. Less than two months ago he'd lost his wife. While still in mourning over the marriage that had been less than perfect, he now found himself concentrating on another woman, who was carrying the baby he and Michelina had made.
It was only natural he cared about Abby, who'd agreed to perform this miracle. Before long he was going to be a father, all because of her! Yet with Michelina gone, it didn't seem right.
But neither was it wrong.
While he'd been traveling, he hadn't had time to dig deep into his soul, but now that he was back, he didn't know how to deal with this new emotional dilemma facing him, and he left the balcony conflicted.
Abigail Loretto, known to her friends as Abby, sat alone on the couch in her apartment at the palace, drying her hair while she was glued to the television. She'd been watching the live broadcast of Prince Vincenzo opening the fruit festival from the balcony of the palace.
Abby hadn't known he was back. Her Italian-born father, Carlo Loretto, the chief of palace security, had been so busy, he obviously hadn't had time to inform her.
She'd first met Vincenzo sixteen years earlier, when her father had been made the head of palace security. The king had brought him and his American-born wife and young daughter from the Arancian Embassy in Washington, D.C., to live in the apartment on the palace grounds. She'd been twelve to his eighteen.
Most of her teenage years had been spent studying him, including his tall, hard-muscled physique. Instead of a film star or a famous rock star, she'd idolized Vincenzo. She'd even kept a scrapbook that followed his life, but she'd kept it hidden from her parents. Of course, that was a long time ago.
The crown prince, the most striking male Abby had ever met in her life, had many looks depending on his mood. From what she could see now, he appeared more rested since his trip.
Sometimes when he was aloof, those black eyes and furrowed brows that matched his glistening black hair made her afraid to approach him. Other times he could be charming and fun, even a tease. No one was immune from his masculine charisma. Michelina had been the most fortunate woman alive.
His picture was always on the cover of magazines and newspapers in Europe. The camera loved the handsome thirty-three-year-old son of Arancia, with his olive skin and aquiline features. Dogged by the press, he made the nightly news on television somewhere on the continent every day of the year.
The knowledge that he was home from his travels sent a wave of warmth through her body. Six weeks without seeing or talking to him about the baby had felt like an eternity. She knew he'd get in touch with her at some point. But after being away, he would have so much work to catch up on at home, it might be another week before she heard his voice on the phone.
Now that he'd left the balcony and had gone back inside the palace, the station began showing a segment of the funeral that had been televised on every channel throughout the kingdom and Europe six weeks ago.
She would never forget her father's phone call. "I have bad news. Before Vincenzo and Michelina were due to return to Arancia today, she went for an early-morning ride on her horse. Vincenzo rode with her. While she was galloping ahead of him, the horse stepped in a hole. It tossed her over end. When she hit the ground, she died on impact."
Michelina was dead?
It was like déjà vu, sending Abby back to that horrific moment when she'd learned her own mother had died.
Poor Vincenzo. He'd seen the whole thing She couldn't stand it. "Oh, Dad- he's lost his wife. Their baby will never know its mother."
Before long she was driven to the hospital, where Dr. DeLuca had his office. "My dear Abby, what a terrible shock this has been. I'm glad your father brought you here. I'm going to keep you in the hospital overnight and possibly longer to make certain you're all right. The prince has enough pain to deal with. Knowing you're being looked after will be a great comfort to him. Excuse me while I arrange for a private room."
When he left, Abby turned to her father. "Vincenzo must be in absolute agony."
He kissed her forehead. "I know he is, but right now it's you I'm worried about. Your blood pressure is up. I plan to stay with you and will tell Signor Faustino you've caught a bad cold, but will be back to work in a few days."
"You can't stay with me here, Dad. Your place is at the palace. The king will want you there."
"Not tonight. My assistant is in charge, and Guilio wants to be there for his son. My daughter needs me, and I need you, so let that be the end of the discussion."
Her father's words had been final. Deep down she'd been glad he'd remained with her.
Abby kept watching the funeral she'd lived through once before. It was shocking to see how gaunt and shadowed Vincenzo's handsome features had been back then. His wife's death seemed to have aged him.
The most beautiful man she'd ever known in her life made a striking yet lonely figure in his mourning finery. Once again her soul shuddered to see his somber expression as he walked behind the funeral cortege toward the cathedral. He led Michelina's favorite horse from the palace stable alongside him. The chestnut mare was covered in a throw of his wife's favorite pink roses. The scene was so heart wrenching, Abby felt tears well up once again.
Behind him came the king, in his uniform of state, and his mother-in-law, dressed in a black mantilla and suit. They rode in the black-and-gold carriage with the siblings of both families. When the broadcast moved inside the cathedral, Abby listened once again to the scripture reading and remarks from the archbishop. When it was over and the bells from the cathedral rang out their mournful sound, she was once more a trembling mass of painful emotions.
"For those of you who've just tuned in, you're watching the funeral procession of Her Royal Highness Princess Michelina Cavelli, the wife of Crown Prince Vincenzo Di Laurentis of the Principality of Arancia. Earlier in the week she was killed in a tragic horse-riding accident on the grounds of the royal palace on the island kingdom of Gemelli.
"In the carriage is His Majesty Guilio Di Laurentis, King of Arancia, her father-in-law. His wife, Queen Annamaria, passed away two years ago. Seated next to him is his daughter, Princess Gianna Di Laurentis Roselli and her husband, Count Roselli of the Cinq Terres of Italy.
"Opposite them is Her Majesty Queen Bianca Cavelli, mother of Princess Michelina. Her husband, King Gregorio Cavelli of Gemelli, was recently deceased. Also seated in the royal carriage is His Royal Highness Crown Prince Valentino Cavelli of Gemelli and Prince Vitoli Cavelli, the brothers of Princess Michelina.
"On this day of great sadness for both royal houses, one has to speculate on the future of the Principality of Arancia. The world has been waiting to hear that their Royal Highnesses were expecting a child after three miscarriages, but tragically the love match between Michelina and Vincenzo ended too soon.
"Should the Princess Gianna and her husband, Count Enzio Roselli, have offspring, then their child will be third in line to-"
Abby shut off the TV with the remote and got to her feet, unable to watch any more. She shouldn't have allowed herself to live through that funeral segment a second time. Vincenzo's trip appeared to have done him some good. It was better to leave the tragic past behind and concentrate on the future.
She walked into the den to do some work at her laptop. Her dinner would be arriving shortly. Except for the occasional meal out with her best friend, Carolena, Abby normally ate in while she worked on one of her law briefs. But she had little appetite tonight.
How hard for Vincenzo to come back to the palace with no wife to greet him. His loneliness had to be exquisite and her heart ached for him.