Winter Wedding for the Prince(4)

By: Barbara Wallace


Unfortunately, for men like him, what he wanted didn’t always matter. The mantle of responsibility outweighed personal desire every time.

Leaving his coffee behind, he joined her at the window. “Corinthia’s almost ready for the holiday,” he said, noting the men arranging greenery outside. “They’ll be lighting the candles tonight.”

Rosa didn’t answer. She stood with her hands clasped tightly behind her back, stiff and formal, like a proper royal servant, a pose she usually only struck in public. Armando didn’t like it. He preferred the relaxed, irreverent Rosa who kept him on his toes and saved him from drowning in his grief.

After Christina died, he’d wanted to die, too. What good was living if his heart lay six feet underground? Rosa had been the only one who had been able to break through the darkness that filled his soul. She needed him, she’d claimed, to help her rebuild following her divorce. It was a lie, of course—Rosa was one of the strongest women he knew—but he let her think he believed the excuse. Helping her find a lawyer and place to live gave him a reason to drag himself out of bed that first day. Then, when she became his assistant, there were meetings and charitable initiatives and other projects she insisted needed his attention, and so he continued dragging himself out of bed. Until the day came when getting up was no longer a trial.

She’d kept him tied to the land of the living, Rosa did. Without her, he would still be lost in his grief. Or rather, lost even deeper.

Which was why he needed her support now.

“You never met my grandfather, did you?”

“King Damian? No.” She wasn’t so annoyed that she couldn’t give him a side-eyed look. Of course she hadn’t met the man. Illness forced him off the throne before Armando was born.

“He came upstairs to my room one night, a few weeks before he died, and got me out of bed so I could see what it looked like with candles lit in every window. I must have been seven or eight at the time. Corinthia City wasn’t as developed as it is now. Anyway, he told me how all those candles represented Corinthians hoping for the future. ‘One day you will be responsible for those candles,’ he told me. ‘It will be up to you to keep them burning bright.’ I never forgot.” The words were the weight pressing on his shoulders every time he saw a candle flickering.

He turned to look at his sister-in-law. “Father’s aging, Rosa. I could see it this past month when Arianna disappeared. He’s never truly gotten over Mama’s death...” He paused to let the irony of his words settle between them. The curse of the Santoro men: to live a lifetime of grieving. “And I think he would like to step down, but he’s afraid for the future. It’s important he know that as his successor, I am willing to do whatever it takes to keep those lights burning.”

“Including political marriage.”

He shrugged. “Ours won’t be the first royal marriage based on obligation rather than love.” If anything, a man in his position was lucky to have spent four years with a wife he did love. “It would be nice, however, to know I have my best friend’s support. Do I?”

The clock on the nearby mantel ticked off the seconds while he waited for her response. Unfortunately, her eyes were cast downward. They were the one feature that couldn’t mask her feelings. In that way, she was like her sister. Christina had also had expressive brown eyes. Beyond their eyes, however, the two were dramatically different. Christina had been all passion and energy, with a beauty that commanded attention. Rosa was softer. Whereas Christina was bright like a star, her sister was more the glow of a candle.

Finally, her shoulders relaxed. “Of course you have my blessing,” she said. “You know I can never say no to you.”

Armando’s shoulders relaxed in turn. “I know. It’s my charm.”

“No, it’s because you’re going to be king. I say no and you might have me thrown in the dungeon.”

“As one does.” He relaxed a little more. Rosa making jokes was always a good sign. “I’m serious, Rosa. Your support is important to me.” Just thinking he might not have it had left a tight knot in the center of his chest.

A hand brushed his arm. Initiating contact with a member of the royal family was considered a violation of protocol, but he and Rosa had been together too long for either of them to care about rules. There were times, in fact, when he found her touch comforting. Like now, the way her fingertips seemed to brush the tension from his muscles. “You have it. Seriously. I just wish...”

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