Christina Rose secretly longs for a fairy-tale wedding, but her betrothal to Prince Antonio of Halencia was just a ruse to prevent a royal scandal!
Now the press can't get enough of this Cinderella princess, but Christina's still waiting for the clock to strike midnight on their arrangement. It may have started out purely for convenience, yet now that their wedding is upon them, dare she hope that Prince Antonio has more than just "I do" to say but "I love you," as well?
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
August, Monte Calanetti, Italy
The floor-length mirror reflected a princess bride whose flowing white wedding dress, with the heavy intricate beading, followed the lines of her slender rounded figure to perfection. It probably weighed thirty pounds, but her five-foot-nine height helped her to carry it off with a regal air.
The delicate tiara with sapphires, the something-borrowed, something-blue gift from the queen, Christina's soon-to-be mother-in-law, held the lace mantilla made by the nuns. The lace overlying her red-gold hair, to the satin slippers on her feet, formed a whole that looked pretty.
"I actually feel like a bride." Her breath caught. "That can't be me!" she whispered to herself. Her very recent makeover was nothing short of miraculous.
Christina Rose, soon-to-be bride of Crown Prince Antonio de L'Accardi of Halencia, turned to one side, then the other, as past memories of being called an ugly duckling, the chubby one, filled her mind.
From adolescence until the ripe old age of twenty-eight, she'd had to live with those unflattering remarks muttered by the people around her. Not that she really heard people say those things once she'd grown up and had been spending her time doing charity work on behalf of her prominent family. But she knew it was what people were thinking.
In truth her own parents were the ones who'd scarred her. They'd left her with nannies from the time she was born. And as she'd grown, her father had constantly belittled her with hurtful barbs by comparing her unfavorably to her friends. "Why is our daughter so dumpy?" she'd once heard him say. "Why didn't we get a boy?" They'd picked out the name Christopher, but had to change it to Christina when she was born.
His unkind remarks during those impressionable years had been wounds that struck deep, especially considering that Christina's mother had been a former supermodel.
Christina didn't know how her father could have said such cruel things to his daughter when she had loved both her parents so much and desperately wanted their approval. Between her unattractive brownish-red hair she'd always worn in a ponytail, to her teeth that had needed straightening, she'd been an embarrassment to her parents, who moved in the highest of political and social circles in Halencia.
In order to keep her out of sight, they'd sent their overweight daughter to boarding school in Montreux, Switzerland, where forty-five girls from affluent, titled families were sent from countries around the world.
Her pain at having to live away year after year until she turned eighteen had been her deepest sorrow. Christina was a poor reflection on her parents, whose world revolved around impressing other important people in the upper echelons of society, including the favor of the royal family of Halencia. Her father particularly didn't want her around when they were entertaining important dignitaries, which was most of the time.
If it hadn't been for Elena, the daughter of Halencia's royal family attending the French-speaking boarding school who'd become her closest friend, Christina didn't know how she would have survived her time there. With both of them being from Italian-speaking Halencia, their nationality and own dialect had immediately created a bond between the two women.
Though Elena bore the title of Princess Elena de L'Accardi, she'd never used it at school or behaved as if she were better than Christina. If anything, she was a free spirit, on the wild side, and good-looking like her older brother, the handsome Crown Prince Antonio de L'Accardi, who was the heartthrob of Halencia, beloved by the people. He'd had a hold on Christina's heart from the first moment she met him.
Elena never worried about breaking a few rules, like meeting a boyfriend at the local ice-skating rink in Montreux without their headmistress finding out. And worse, sneaking out to his nearby boarding school and going rowing on the lake at midnight, or sneaking her out for a joyride to Geneva in the Lamborghini his wealthy parents had bought him.
Christina had loved being with Elena and secretly wished she could be outgoing and confident like her dear friend. When the royal family went on their many vacations, Christina missed Elena terribly. It was during those times that Christina developed a close friendship with the quiet-spoken Maru-sha from Kenya.
Marusha was the daughter of the chief of the westernized Kikuyu tribe who'd sent his daughter to be educated in Switzerland. Marusha suffered from homesickness and she and Christina had comforted each other. Their long talks had prompted Christina to fly to Kenya after she turned eighteen and Marusha prevailed on her father to open doors for Christina to do charity work there.
Once she'd established a foundation in Halencia to deal with the business side, Christina stationed herself in Africa and lost herself in giving help to others. She knew she was better off being far away from home where she couldn't be hurt by her parents' dissatisfaction with her.
Caught up in those crippling thoughts, Christina was startled to hear a knock on the door off the main hallway.
"Mi scusi," sounded a deep male voice she hadn't heard since his phone call two months ago. "I'm looking for Christina Rose. Is she in here?"
What was Antonio doing up here outside the doors of the bridal suite?
In a state of absolute panic, Christina ran behind the screen to hide. She'd come up here to be alone and make sure her wedding finery fit and looked right. For him to see her like this before the ceremony would be worse than bad luck!
Her heart pounded so hard she was afraid he could hear it through the doors. Trying to disguise her voice to a lower pitch, she said, "Christina isn't here, signor"
"I think she is," he teased. "I think it's you playing a game with me."
Heat filled her cheeks. He'd found her out. "Well, you can't come in!"
"Now, that's the Christina I remember. Still modest and afraid of your own shadow. What a way to greet your intended beloved."
"Go away, Antonio. You should be at the chapel."
"Is that all you have to say after I've flown thousands of miles to be with my fiancée?"
The large four-carat diamond ring set in antique gold belonging to the L'Accardi royal family had been given to her at their engagement four years ago. Though she'd gone through the sham ritual for the most worthy reason, it had been a personal horror for Christina.
But when her parents had acted overjoyed that she'd snagged the crown prince, she felt she'd gotten their attention at last. Becoming a royal princess had made them look more favorably at her, and that had helped her enter into the final wedding preparations with growing excitement.
The minute Antonio had flown back to the States, she put the ring in a vault for safekeeping. To damage it out in Africa would be unthinkable. She'd only gotten it out to wear on the few times they were together in Halencia. Now it was hidden in her purse.
Christina had never felt like a fiancée, royal or otherwise. She knew Antonio had been dreading this union as much as she had, but he was too honorable for his own good.
Therefore Christina had to follow through on the bargain they'd made for Elena's sake.
"I didn't really believe this day would come."
He'd stayed away in San Francisco on business. The press followed his every move and knew he'd only been with her a handful of times since the engagement. He'd flown home long enough to be seen with her at the palace when she flew in from Africa. They came together in order to perpetuate the myth that they were in love and looking forward to their wedding day.
"San Francisco is a long way from Halencia, Christina, but I should have made time before."
"I know you've been married to your financial interests in Silicon Valley. No fiancée can compete with that." Not when she knew he'd been with beautiful women who were flattered by his attention and couldn't care less that he was engaged.
"You want to marry a successful husband, right? We had an agreement for Elena's sake."
He was right, of course, and it had been a secret between her and Antonio. But no one knew how Christina had pulled off such an improbable coup. The press had dubbed her the Cinderella Bride.
"I know, Antonio, and I plan to honor it. But not one second before I have to go downstairs to the chapel. Don't you have something else to do?"
"I'm doing it right now. Do you mind if I put a little gift on the bed for you?" He'd said it kindly. "I promise I won't look at you and I'll hurry back out."
"What gift? I don't want anything." She knew she sounded ungracious, but she couldn't help it. She'd never been so nervous in her life!
"It's your family brooch, the one that a Rose bride wears at her wedding to bring her marriage luck. One of the stones had come loose, so I had it repaired for you to wear and couldn't get it back to you until today."
Christina had heard the story behind the brooch all her life. It was supposed to bring luck, but she thought it had been lost a long time ago. She'd asked her wedding planner, Lindsay, to try and track it down for her, but to no avail. Her father's aunt Sofia certainly hadn't whispered a word about it during all the wedding preparations. Why hadn't she given it to Christina herself? Furthermore how did Antonio get hold of it?
"Thank you for bringing it to me," she said in a subdued voice. "It means a lot." In fact, more than he could know. A special talisman to bring her luck handed down in the Rose family. Now she felt ready.
"It was important to me that you have it. I want this day to be perfect for you."
She was thrilled by the gesture and heard the door open. If all he had to do was put it on the bed, she should be hearing the doors closing any second now.
"Are you still holding your breath waiting for me to go away, bellissima??"
Bellissima. Christina was not beautiful, but the way he said it made her feel beautiful, and today was her wedding day. She imagined he was trying to win her around with all the ways he knew how. She had no doubts he knew every one of them and more.
He laughed. "I'm still waiting, but we don't need to worry, Christina. After all, this isn't a real marriage."
She took a deep breath, realizing he was teasing her. "Well, considering that this isn't going to be a real marriage, then I'd say we need all the luck we can get, so please leave before even the ceremony itself is jinxed by your presence here."
"A moment, perfavore. It's a lovely bridal chamber. The balcony off this suite shows the whole walled village of Monte Cala-nettiit's very picturesque. I do believe you have a romantic heart to have chosen the Palazzo di Comparino for our wedding to take place. All nestled and secluded in this place amongst the vineyards rippling over the Tuscan countryside. I couldn't imagine a more perfect setting to celebrate our nuptials."
"After living near the vineyards of the Napa Valley in California all these years, I doubt a spot like this holds much enchantment for you. I guess I should be thanking you for letting our wedding take place here instead of the cathedral in Voti. Now, will you please go so I can finish getting ready?"
Christina was still her vulnerable self. Antonio stopped the teasing for a minute. "If it's any solace to you, I'm sorry for the position I've put you in."
After a long silence she said in a defeated tone, "Don't worry about it." He heard a sadness in her voice. "To be honest, it isn't as if I've had any other offers."
Her comment revealed a little of her conflict, the same conflict torturing him. There was a part of him that wanted to be crazy in love. If only he'd been an ordinary man like his best man, Zach, who could marry the woman who'd captured his heart. To choose a bride his heart wanted had never been a possibility.
When he thought about Christina, he realized she was having similar feelings that increased his guilt, but he couldn't dwell on that right now. It was too late for regrets. They would be married within the hour and he intended to be a good husband to her.
"Just remember we're doing this for Elena," he reminded her, hoping it would help her spirits. "She'll be up in a minute to escort you to the chapel." His eyes closed tightly for a moment. "Would it help if I told you I admire you more than any other woman I know?" It was the truth.
"Actually it wouldn't," she came back. "Thousands of women have entered into political unions disguised as marriage. We thought our engagement wouldn't last long. I thought that after four years you would fly to Africa and tell me in person we didn't have to go through with it."
"I'm afraid that wasn't our destiny, Christina. Everything has escalated out of control, the paparazzi have driven things to a higher pitch. Father's chief assistant, Guido, had me on the phone, urging me to marry you as soon as possible. The people are fed up with my parents. They want our marriage to take place for the good of the monarchy, reminding me of the danger of an abolished royal family if we wait."
"I know. That's because they want you for their king, and you need a queen. I understand that, but I'd rather you didn't start using meaningless platitudes with me."
"I was complimenting you," he asserted.
"I'm glad we could help preserve Elena's reputation along with your family's, but I don't want compliments. Your sister is doing much better these days and has a boyfriend who treats her well. Let's be happy for that and avoid any unnecessary pretense."
Antonio had come to the bridal suite already deeply immersed in troubled thoughts about their forthcoming marriage. Her last remark only added to his anxiety. He put the small velvet-lined box at the foot of the bed. After closing the doors quietly behind him, he left the bridal suite and walked down the corridor to the staircase of the three-storied palazzo.
Zach, his best friend, would be waiting for him in the bedroom just off the staircase of the second floor. By now some hundred and fifty guests had arrived for the ceremony, including his parents and their entourage. The small wedding Christina wanted had grown to royal proportions. It had been inevitable.
Antonio had met Christina when he went to Switzerland many times to visit his younger sister at boarding school. She always asked if her roommate, Christina, could come along with them when they went out for fondue au fromage or took the ferry to see the sights around Lake Geneva.
Though Antonio thought of Christina as his sister's pudgy friend, he'd found her sensible and soft-spoken, and probably the sweetest girl he'd ever met. That favorable impression of her grew deep roots when she'd phoned him in the middle of the night about Elena four years ago.
His sister had needed help because she and her loser addict boyfriend had been hauled off to jail on drug possession. Her boyfriend had been arrested and charged. What if Elena was next to be tainted with a jail record?
The paparazzi would have blown his sister's mistake into a royal scandal that would do great damage to the already damaged royal family. Antonio's parents hadn't been in favor with the country for a long time and were constantly being criticized in the press for their profligate ways.
In order to keep Elena's latest scandalous affair out of the news, Antonio had to think of something quick to take the onus off his wayward younger sister. Thankful beyond words for Christina's swift intervention with that phone call, he was able to turn things around and had talked her into entering into a mock engagement with him to create a new piece of news.