Gianfranco was glad he had accepted the invitation of his friend, Tom Fredericks, the owner of the St.George Art Gallery. The afternoon preview for an exhibition of Adrian Elliott's paintings was now in full swing. Gianfranco admired the painter, and it was a relief being among people where an Italian princely title didn't matter. He sighed. It was also a relief having escaped unscathed from his Aunt Flavia's well-meant, determined attempts to marry him off to a woman she thought suitable. Not in a zillion years would he tie himself to a vain, promiscuous, malicious clothes horse like Luciana Scotto. Strange that his aunt did not seem to realize what Luciana was. Gianfranco shrugged imperceptibly. Flavia had led a sheltered, pampered existence, protected from life's rougher edges by her beloved Niccolo. I should tell her that I don't want her to move from the Palazzo. It would be too much of a wrench for her, and I like my own house far better
A man's whiny tenor sounded behind him. "Tell me why you admire Adrian Elliott? His paintings seem so simple, he probably knocks them off in half an hour. Yet, by his prices, anyone would think he spent days, weeks, on them."
A soft, melodious woman's voice said, "It is because Adrian is an accomplished artist that he can make very complex work seem easy." When the man snorted, the woman's voice went on, "The same difference as there is between the ballet and a circus performance. The dancers make their very difficult work seem effortless, and in a circus, there's a drum roll, the performer shows an agonized face, he trembles with the effort of doing this very difficult thing, and people are deceived."
The man's voice, now angry, challenged, "Are you saying that I can't tell an artistic performance from a circus trick?"
The woman's voice held a smile. "Only if you think Adrian's work easy." Intrigued, Gianfranco turned and gazed straight into a pair of intelligent silver-grey eyes, set in a beautiful face, surrounded by luxuriant coppery blonde curls. Realizing he needed to speak instantly, or lose the contact, he said, "Forgive me for speaking to you, but your remarks reflect exactly what Picasso once said, when someone asked him how long it had taken him to paint a certain, smallish painting. He said, "Three hours, and forty-five years."
Smiling, the woman lifted her long, dark lashes to Gianfranco, her eyes sparkling silver. "How delightful--and how true." The owner of the whining tenor scuttled away, leaving the terrain to the winner.
They were interrupted by a handsome, dark blond man, carrying a tray of champagne flutes, who said, "These remarks deserve champagne." Turning to Gianfranco, he said, "Relax, Tom made sure to pour only Krug this afternoon--just for you."
"Thanks, Jeff," said Gianfranco easily. Turning to the woman, he said, "Do you know Jeff Harcourt...?"
Jeff threw Gianfranco an admiring look. "That's the smoothest way I've ever seen a man get himself introduced to a beautiful woman." He turned to the woman. "Suzanne, let me introduce Prince Gianfranco di San Benedetto. Gianfranco, this lady is Suzanne de Beauvoir."
"Your Highness," Suzanne said, with a small, elegant curtsy.
Gianfranco frowned. "Oh, please don't..." The frown turning into a smile, he went on, "Ms. de Beauvoir--French?"
"Yes, I am, by ancestry. I'm sorry if my curtsy displeased you--it was instinctive." She glanced at him, seemingly confused.
Gianfranco shrugged one strong, well-shaped shoulder that owed nothing to the superb Italian tailoring of his clothing. "The title is not that of a ruling prince. We're just an old family that has the title--we're Serene, not Royal. Our lands are merely vineyards in Toscana--I mean, Tuscany."
Jeff interrupted, "Huge vineyards in Tuscany--the size of a small country."
Gianfranco shrugged. "You exaggerate." Jeff grinned, shaking his head. Gianfranco glanced around. "I'm glad to say the title doesn't count for anything, here. Which is probably why I like living here."
"You live in the United States, Prince?"
"Please call me Gianfranco, and yes, I not only live in the United States, I live right here in Ocean Breeze."
"That is a bit unusual, I agree. And please call me Suzanne."
Contrary to his usual habit of telling people nothing of his private life, he found himself explaining, "My mother was then living with me, and the wintry chill of Manhattan and Long Island did not agree with her. Her doctors said that she'd do better in a climate that more closely resembled Italy, and I decided that this part of Florida came close to the weather we have in Toscana--Tuscany." He paused. "Even so, my mother passed away after a couple of years..." His voice trailed off.
"I'm sorry for your loss," Suzanne said formally. She thought for a moment. "Was your mother a widow? Then perhaps she did not want to live on without her husband." Gianfranco lifted a slim, black brow. His parents had entered into a dynastic marriage without anyone caring whether they loved each other. They had always had separate private suites. His mother had devoted her time to him--her only child--and to charities. His father had had a string of discreet mistresses, and died of a stroke in the arms of his latest and youngest one.
Calmly, he said, "You might have something there."
A woman claimed her attention. He half-listened to, "Suzanne, I heard you've got a new car," and Suzanne's reply, "Yes, a yellow Saturn. I love it." The other voice went on about mileage, but Gianfranco no longer paid attention. An idea had come to him.
He quickly turned to his head of security, doubling today as his bodyguard. "Burt, see to it that the men spirit away that small yellow Saturn." Burt Hickman nodded without a word, hurrying out of the art gallery, to speak to his men. When Gianfranco glanced out, ten minutes later, the Saturn had disappeared. With a satisfied nod, he went in search of Suzanne again.
Am I seriously considering her for this mockery of a marriage my uncle has wished on me? He was forced to answer, yes. Heartily sick of impoverished European nobility stalking him for the riches of the pre-nuptial agreement--once the marriage was over and a divorce obtained--he had fled Europe in the hope of finding a more appealing choice of women here. He smiled. On his very first try, he had. True, she was of French parentage, but she was born here, that was obvious. No attempt at making herself more interesting by using a French accent. Ah, no. She seemed comfortable in her own skin. Beautiful, well-mannered and totally at ease in a social situation. All the same, he'd have to be careful how he handled this. Creating circumstances that would earn him her gratitude was just the beginning.