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She might be passionately attached to Niroli, but there was no doubt that Venice had a very special place in her heart, Natalia acknowledged, lifting her hand to try to stop the breeze from playing with the heavy weight of her thick dark curls. She was waiting for the water taxi to take her to her destination, and was totally oblivious to the admiring male looks she was attracting. When one man proved bold enough to murmur, 'Bella, bella,' caressingly as he stopped to stand and stare openly at her, she couldn't help but laugh, her marine blue eyes sparkling with the rich colour of the lido in the sunshine. Just having her sombre mood lightened for a few seconds was a much needed relief at the moment.
It was all very well having sleepless nights and worrying herself half a stone thinner over whether or not she had made the right decision, but what she ought to be asking herself surely was why on earth had she ever agreed to do it in the first place.
The water taxi arrived and she picked up her small weekend bag and stepped into the taxi with ease and elegance. She was a tall woman of close to six feet who wore her height with calm pride.
'Via Venetii? The Buchesetti Spa Hotel,' she asked the vaporetto driver.
'Sì,' he agreed, with open admiration in his gaze.
The tranquil ride to her destination made Natalia reflect ruefully on the uncomfortable speed with which the direction of her life had suddenly changed. Increasingly she was waking up in the morning feeling as though she had stepped on board a train that had then suddenly picked up speed to such an extent that she was beginning to feel that it was running away with her.
So why had she allowed it to happen in the first place? After all no one had forced her.
No? When your king appealed to you personally for your help to save the future of your country, a country you loved, you didn't just turn round and say no, did you? At least not if you were a Carini.
The trouble was that, since she had said yes, the list of reasons why in her own interests she would have been better off saying no had begun to grow by the day.
'Via Venetii,' the vaporetto driver pointed out to her, interrupting her thoughts.
'The hotel, she is not far now. Is a very beautiful hotel. You go there before?'
'Yes,'Natalia told him. She could see from the expression on his face that the answer had sounded more curt than she had intended. But how could she explain to him how she felt about the fact that she had been obliged to sell her beloved spa hotel on Niroli to this one in Venice?
True, the choice of whom she should sell to had been her own. True, too, that she knew that the new owners, Maya and Howard, would uphold her own high standards, now that they had officially added her spa to their portfolio, but that still did not mean that she was not allowed to grieve for her much cherished and loved 'baby', did it?
So why give it up in the first place? Why give up the life she had worked so hard to build for herself to enter into an arranged marriage of state? So that she could be a princess? Natalia almost laughed out loud, the white flash of her even white teeth contrasting with the full warmth of her soft red lips making the driver of the vaporetto sigh in a way that caused Natalia to look away to conceal her amusement.
At twenty-nine she had had ample time to get used to her effect on the opposite sex.
To get used to her effect on the opposite sex, but never to fall in love. And now with her forthcoming marriage to the newly discovered heir to the Nirolian throne she was giving up the chance to do so for ever, wasn't she? After all, she wasn't foolish enough to think that a marriage arranged between two strangers by a king whose only thought was to secure the future of his kingdom could by some miracle turn into a passionately intense and lifelong love affair, was she? Not when she had never, ever fallen in love; not when her sole reason for agreeing to this marriage had been her passionate love, not for a man, but for a country, her country, just as her husband-to-be's desire was directed towards the throne of Niroli and not towards her. Could it work? Was she as mad as she was beginning to think to have agreed to marry Prince Kadir just so that she would be there at his side to ensure that he ruled her beloved country with wisdom and love? If only there were someone she could turn to for advice, but there wasn't. The king had forbidden her to discuss the matter with anyone.
The elegant and exclusive spa hotel that was her destination had its own landing stage. As she saw it approaching Natalia turned to pick up her bag. As she did so a man striding impatiently across the small square to the side of the hotel caught her eye, as much for any other reason as for his height. At almost six feet herself, she was appreciative of the visual impact of men who were taller than her, and this man was certainly that, taller, and broad shouldered, with surprisingly hard-packed muscles, too, for a man who looked as though he was closer to forty than thirty. Thick dark hair that just brushed the collar of his jacket gleamed with good health under the brilliant sunlight. His skin was warmly olive and although he was too far away for Natalia to see the colour of his eyes she could see the hard, precision hewn perfection of his facial bone structure with its high cheekbones and strong jaw. Here was a man, she acknowledged.
As though by some alchemic means he had somehow sensed her interest and paused, turning his head to look directly at her. She still could not see the colour of his eyes, but she could see that he was even more stunningly handsome face on than he had been in profile. It had to be the sun that was making her feel slightly dizzy and not the fact that he was looking at her Had been looking at her, she recognised to her relief as he turned away and resumed his progress across the square. As the vaporetto pulled into the landing stage she admitted to herself that her brief interest in this man was not the wisest of things in a woman soon to enter into a dynastic marriage. How was she going to go on in that marriage if she was experiencing sexual desire for another man now? Sexual desire? That was ridiculous. She had simply been looking at him, that was all, and anyway he had gone now, and she was hardly likely to ever see him again, was she?
When Natalia arrived in the lobby, Maya hurried forward to hug her exuberantly.
'This is so good of you to come and help us with the transition of ownership. We wanted it to go smoothly and there's still so much to learn about your Nirolian spa. We had not dared to hope that you would be generous enough to come back to Venice so quickly.'
Natalia returned the hug a bit guiltily. It was impossible of course for her to tell her that the main reason she was back in Venice was because King Giorgio had wanted her out of the way until the newly discovered heir to the throne of Niroli had arrived on the island. Then she would be allowed to return and they would be presented, with full pomp and dignity, to the people of Niroli, along with the announcement of their marriage.
'But why can't I remain here?' she had questioned the king.
'After all I shall have to make arrangements for the future of the business.'
'You are a woman and I cannot permit you to remain where you could be tempted to break the vow of secrecy I have sworn you to.'
She had of course been tempted to object to the use of that contemptuous 'you are a woman' but, knowing King Giorgio as she did, she had decided that there wasn't very much point, and then she had received the frantic plea to return to Venice to discuss the handover of the business with Maya and Howard. They had expressed their wish to buy some of her special formulae for the oils she used.
The truth was that, much as his old-fashioned attitudes often infuriated her, on this occasion, and perhaps against her own best interests, she had actually felt slightly sorry for the king when he had approached her with his unexpected proposition. He had run through each and every one of his potential male heirs in turn and been forced to reject them. Loving Niroli every bit as much as he did, she had fully understood his contrasting feelings of joy at the discovery that he had fathered an illegitimate son during a brief affair over forty years ago with an Arabian princess, and anxiety about offering this son the throne in case his son's Arabian upbringing meant that his ideas on how to rule were not suited to Niroli. And, yes, if she was honest it had been flatteringvery flatteringto be told by King Giorgio that he had picked her out of all his single female subjects to become the wife of Niroli's future King because he had seen in her certain strengths and virtues that reminded him of his beloved first wife, Queen Sophia.
Everyone knew how much the people of Niroli had loved and revered King Georigo's first wife and how much she had done for Niroli. As a little girl Natalia had woven foolish daydreams as children did of somehow going back in time to meet Queen Sophia and 'helping' her with her work. Now she had been given that opportunity in reality, or at least an opportunity to continue the work Queen Sophia had begun. At the time, filled with euphoria at the thought of her coming role in the future of her country, she hadn't thought marriage to a stranger too much of a price to pay. After all she had never been in love and had no expectation of being in love; she liked to think of herself as practically minded and she had embraced the idea of taking a marriage between two people with a common goal and making it work. Of course, even then she had had some doubts and concerns. Marriage to a future king meant producing that future king's heirs and spares, and that of course meant having sex with him. But King Giorgio had been too thrilled not to mention the fact that his secret son looked very like him, and since the king, even now in his old age, was a very good-looking man Natalia was assuming that her future husband was reasonably physically attractive.
What about his personality, though? she wondered and worried now. What if he was the kind of man she just could not grow to like or respect? If he was, she wouldn't want to abandon her country to him, would she? No, she would want to do what she could to offset those faults in him as his wife. Those who thought they knew her as a forward-thinking, successful business-woman would, of course, be stunned and disbelieving when the news did break, and would no doubt question why she had not immediately refused to have anything whatsoever to do with the king's grand plan.
But then that was the trouble, wasn't it? Whilst on the surface she might appear to be all modern, she herself was something of an anomaly in that deep down inside her there was something else. That 'something' was her passionate and deep-rooted love for her country, for its past and its present but most of all for its future. Or rather the future it could have in the right hands. Because Niroli, like so much of the rest of the world, was at a crisis point where traditional values were clashing badly with modernity; where those on and off the island like herself, who wanted to see Niroli move forward into a future that guarded and protected its unique geographical benefits rather than wasted and abused them, were often in conflict with those who could see no reason not to squander Niroli's natural assets, or even worse those who sought to strip the island of its unique heritage in the name of progress by turning it into one huge tourist attraction.
What Natalia favoured was a different way, an ecologically and Nirolian friendly way that would preserve the best of their traditions as well as move them forward into a prosperous future. She had never made any secret of her feelings about this. Her commitment to her other work, as an apothecary using natural oils and holistic treatments in the spa she had set up, was well known. However, as Natalia Carini she could only do so much and her sphere of influence was limited to those who for the most part shared her views. As Niroli's Queen she would be in a far, far more influential position to make very real and worthwhile changes. Certainly far more so than she did as the granddaughter of the island's acknowledged expert vintner.
'I'd be very happy to give you exclusive rights to some of my special oil recipes,' she told Maya now, switching her thoughts.
'We have been using the samples you were kind enough to give us during the negotiations for the purchase of your spa,' the sweet round faced Italian said, 'and our clients have raved about them. The deep muscle replenisher you have created for sportsmen has found particular favour and we have a growing client list of sportsmen already using our spasskiers, football and polo players mainlywho come to us by word-of-mouth recommendation, and Howard has been panicking that we would soon run out of your oil.'
Natalia laughed. She was as responsive to flattery when it was genuine and given for the right reasons as anyone else, and it always delighted her when people reported favourably on her therapeutic oils.
'Then it is just as well perhaps that I took Howard's hint when he phoned last week and brought you a fresh supply with me,'she told Maya.Whilst she knew she could hardly continue to run a business once she was married to Prince Kadir, one thing Natalia did intend to stick out for was her own private space where she could continue to use her 'nose' as a perfumiernot to create new perfumes so much as to use the ingredients that went into them in a more therapeutic way. Just as music and now colour were both recognised as having healing properties, increasingly people were beginning to accept that scents also possessed the power to heal the body, the mind and the heart when blended and used properly. It was one of her dreams to create a range of scents that would do this, and now she had added to that a new dream of using her position as Niroli's Queen to set up a charity to distribute them to those in need.
'You will dine with us later this evening, I hope, but for now we thought you might welcome some free time to enjoy Venice, before we sit down together to talk over the mechanics of the purchase of your oil recipes.'
'That would suit me perfectly,' Natalia confirmed.
She laughed when Maya hugged her again and said emotionally, 'Oh, Natalia, I am so glad that you are willing to do this for us.'
As she returned Maya's grateful hug, Natalia acknowledged that she had been hoping to have a bit of time for herself, because there was one place in particular that she really wanted to go.