She bowed her head slightly, sipping the dark liquid. For a moment, they sat silently, allowing the jazz club ambiance to melt over them. Lisa felt Francesco’s eyes upon her, tracing her profile. For once, her tongue felt glued to the roof of her mouth, too uncertain to make the first move.
“Where are you from, anyway?” Francesco asked then.
Lisa looked back up at him, suddenly shy. She sensed his words were far from a boundary she’d set between them. But she offered a single, solitary word, hoping it would help them onto a necessary path, one that would fuel him to tell her more secrets.
“Detroit,” she murmured.
“I see,” he said. “I’m assuming our childhoods were very different, then.”
“I wasn’t royalty, for one,” Lisa smiled, easing up slightly.
“Right. Of course. Sometimes, it’s difficult for me to understand other peoples’ realities; being a prince is the only life I’ve ever known.”
“You couldn’t have had a normal childhood. I’m guessing your mother and father had an arranged marriage, as well?” Lisa asked.
Francesco nodded, his eyes suddenly far away. “He was good to her. He didn’t have any choice, of course, but he ensured that she had every worldly comfort, especially as I was growing up. I don’t think my mother ever wanted to have children. But of course, she didn’t have a choice.”
“Why not?” Lisa asked, leaning closer.
“Well, my father grew up as a prince of Aluzzi. He always knew he would rule one day. My mother, by contrast, was a princess in a neighboring kingdom, and she had no love for the Aluzzi people. She wanted to remain with her brothers and sisters, especially after the crown turned power over to the people, and kings and queens were no more in her country. She hated the notion that people needed rulers. She wanted to live an ordinary life.”
“But she was married to your father before all of that happened?” Lisa asked.
Francesco nodded. “The paperwork was drawn up when she was a girl, and she was married to my father when she was 17. By the time her home kingdom became a republic, I had already been born, meaning she had a family. She was stuck.”
“That’s terrible,” Lisa murmured, imagining that feeling of being trapped, knowing that home, freedom, and family were just a few hundred miles away.
“The next few years weren’t easy for her. She had my sister, a girl who fits the ‘princess’ title far more than Princess Rose, even. A spoiled brat,” Francesco said, scoffing. “And a few years later, I became a teenager, and began to live in the public eye. It wasn’t necessarily my choice. The paparazzi. They latch onto you. They don’t let you go.”
Lisa’s stomach twisted at the words. “I see,” she said. “And what were you up to, to make the paparazzi fawn over you? Surely, there was a story there.” Her eyes twinkled. She hoped she wasn’t giving herself away.
“I’m sure you’d recognize the stories, although they were years ago,” he said. “I was something of a wild teenager, always throwing parties with models and actors and the richest of the rich. Nothing was too grand for me, especially at the time. I felt I had something to prove. I wasn’t the sweet, little prince that I’d been portrayed as when I’d been a child. I was wild. I was free. And I had more money than a god.”
Lisa felt the sarcasm beneath his last words. His sadness was deep. She felt her fingers inch toward his, yearning to touch him.
“But I didn’t really want to be famous. Not after that first year of the tabloids following my every move,” Francesco continued. “It was painful, knowing that my parents could see what the world was saying about me. I would hide away in my chambers, knowing that I was reckless, that I was ruining us all. And I couldn’t stop.”
Lisa paused, tracing her teeth with her tongue. “Was Princess Rose at these parties?” she asked.
“Sometimes,” he answered, his voice somber. “We both knew what our parents wanted, but we assumed we could get out of it. Sometimes, we’d get into screaming matches—each of us with our own agenda. As we grew older, she said marrying would be good for our status. Nothing has ever mattered to her more than that.” He stabbed his finger upon the table, almost in time with the jazz tune that was playing. The trumpet burst in Lisa’s ears, startling her.
“And now, the wedding,” the Prince continued. “Paparazzi are everywhere, declaring to the world that Rose and I are constantly fighting. Cue me renting out every single table in that restaurant, just to avoid them.” He bowed his head lethargically, heavy with sadness. “I don’t know what to do, Lisa. I’ve never been at such a loss.”
Lisa felt entrenched with guilt. As he spoke of the paparazzi, she began to feel disgust at her assignment. Rocco was a sleazy, ruthless man, standing in his high-rise apartment. And she was a soldier in his army.
She didn’t belong with Rocco. She loved people. She wanted to fight for goodness, for art, for truth.
She cleared her throat, the wine rushing to her head. She felt tipsy. And Francesco’s eyes were too alluring.
“Childhoods are rough,” she murmured, filling the space between them. “No matter how hard you work to escape your circumstances, it seems you never can.”
“Your circumstances in Detroit?” he asked her. His intrigue was unexpected. What interest could he have in her silly little life? And yet, she found herself forming the words.
“That’s right,” Lisa began. “I remember days when we didn’t have food on the table. My mother worked tirelessly at one factory job after another. It seemed she was always being made redundant, always going to the unemployment office, and always driving me a few minutes late to school. It was our pattern. It was our life.”
Lisa smiled sadly, diving into the depths of her past. “I’m sorry if it’s too much information, but I remember the other children making fun of me, telling me I didn’t belong with them. It was my own form of torture. It was my own form of paparazzi. And it was horrible.”