Raising the Crown

Book Dedication




This book is dedicated to the late Gina & Leonard "Lenny" Schiavone, and their daughter,

Juliana "Julie" Truchan, who is survived by her husband, Joseph "Poppy Joe" Truchan.

The following message below is an open letter written to all of them.




I remember eating out of a jar of grape jelly under the kitchen table when I was a small child, not knowing when my next meal would be. I also remember living in the Sixth Street Shelter in Allentown, PA, when we were homeless with no other place to go. Those days were the most uncertain and unstable. But I also remember you coming to the rescue more times than I could count. We were poor, and we struggled, but you were there to ensure we had food in our mouths. You provided the clothes we had on our backs. You even gave us many endless, countless hours and days of joy and quality time with Mike and me while our baby brother Kristopher underwent cancer treatments for Neuroblastoma.


I miss the days of feeding the squirrels at the park and watching the squirrels take the peanuts right out of Lenny's hands while he talked to them in a gentle, kind voice. I miss the days of sitting on the front porch with Lenny in Allentown and watching people walk the street while we talked about random stuff. I miss the days of Gina taking us shopping at a secret Italian specialty grocery store, while I went walking around the store with wonder and awe. I miss the days where we'd all watch Wheel of Fortune together in the living room and try to play along with the game contestants on the TV. We always found it funny, and we giggled whether our guesses were right or wrong.


I miss all the fabulous Easter fun, family barbeques, and sleepovers when Mike and I were kids, and always "stealing" Poppy Joe's nose, and throwing darts, and having barrels of laughs. I also miss the days when Julie and Poppy Joe took my little brother Mike and me on a beautiful family-oriented Christian retreat up in the mountains, with Poppy Joe introducing us to indoor rock climbing, and ziplining, and more. Poppy Joe, a special thanks goes to you and Julie for investing in my spirituality back then, for caring enough to show me the way.


Thank you all for everything you've done for our family. Thank you for all the laughs, smiles, and comfort. Thank you for all the food, the clothes, and for just generally being there for us through the good and hard times. Thank you for all the beautiful memories, all of which I'll hold close to my heart forever. I'm patiently waiting for the day we'll all be reunited in the Kingdom of God. Until then, may you - Lenny, Gina, and Julie- rest in peace in paradise.



In Loving Memory:


Leonard J. Schiavone

Gina M. Schiavone

Juliana Truchan


Requiescat in pace. Ti amo.

Rest in peace. I love you.

Prologue

A Princess's Final Moments




Oh, my God! I can't believe he's chasing me! That son of a gun is actually chasing me down a highway at ninety miles an hour! This man was crazy, and to prove my point, he just aggressively rammed into my back bumper. This made my body violently jerk forward, and I felt the whiplash that followed instantly, but thank God the airbags didn't go off!

"WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM ME?" I shouted with tears that streamed down my face while I simultaneously looked in my rearview mirror and then added five more miles to my speedometer.

"JUST LEAVE ME ALONE ALREADY!"

My husband was crazy, abusive, really, and I felt so stupid for allowing him to ever come into my life. I had to leave him, though, and find my son's father! Please, somebody, call the police, because I had to ditch my cell phone! I threw it out so he wouldn't track me with it, and I planned on stopping at a convenience store somewhere along the way to upstate New York. However, nothing's gone according to plan since I dropped Luca off at my mother and father's place. Tim knew where I was, and he seemed to read my mind and tracked me to the highway unless he had a tracker on my car. Surely a cop or state trooper was around here on the highway by now! Get this crazy son of a bitch off my tail!

I couldn't help the tears that flowed endlessly in fear. I had dropped my son off with my parents earlier because once I saw the welts on his back last night, I knew my husband's abuse was no longer just focused on me. Until last night's discovery, I thought Timothy only ever laid a hand on me. Then I caught Luca, my sweet, sweet ten-year-old prince, changing into his pajamas as he got ready for bed. Only then did I know something was wrong.

That's when I saw the welts. That's when I asked him about them. That's when he broke down and cried more than I had ever seen him cry in the first decade of his life. His confession of everything that my husband did to him since this monster entered our lives has made me realize just how stupid I've been all along. I should've stayed in Xudia when my baby boy was born.

I'm the heir, and first in line, for the crown of Xudia, which was a small, charming, and peaceful country located snugly between Italy and Croatia while Slovenia hugged it from behind. If I would have just stayed there in Xudia, as was customary for each generation of Xudian royals to be born in the Palace of Moscjen, the Capital of my country, then I would have never met Tim. Oh, Camila, what the hell have you put your son through? My hands trembled on the wheel in fear, but thoughts of my little boy's smile brought me comfort. Oh, he was so much like his father, his biological father.

His father was a famous musician and a notable Hollywood actor I met when I was fifteen years old, right before he caught his big break and became a household name. Giovanni Vincenzo Palladino was his name, but his father already went by Giovanni, and he had a cousin whom everyone called Gio, and they had an Uncle Vincenzo. That being said, to stand apart from his male relatives with the same name, he decided his stage and registered Screen Actors Guild name would be Vince Palladino. Our son, Luca, knew all about him and the fact that Vince was his biological father, but Luca also knew that Vince didn't know about his existence at all. Oh, my precious little boy adored his father on the screen and listened to his music; he wanted more than anything to meet him, but he understood why I'd kept him away from his father all these years.

I couldn't tell Vince about Luca. I wanted to, especially right after he told me he wanted kids with me, but his mother tried to give me money to dissolve my pregnancy with Luca when she found out. I did nothing wrong, but being that his mother was an Italian with hatred towards Xudians, she never accepted me. I was never good enough for Vince, her only baby boy. Xudia and Italy have been at war with one another for seven centuries over a piece of land no bigger than Rhode Island that consisted entirely of Xudia because Italy felt the land had rightfully belonged to them.

Thankfully, there was a wall similar to that of the Wall of China in strength and durability, but not large enough to be visible from space. This wall at the border between Xudia and Italy has stopped most of the fighting throughout both countries, but the hatred remains so intense that the violence at the border continues with no end in sight. King Chaudhry Oorija is dying, and I have tried to convince him to end the war because, legally, Italy couldn't take our land in this modern era, and the hatred has to stop. During King Chaudhry's rule, Italy has tried multiple occasions to offer a peace treaty, but His Majesty is stubborn and isn't one to let go of a centuries-old grudge. If I make it out of this shitty mess that I have right now with this monster of a husband, I will take my son back to Xudia for his rightful crown training, and he will accept his coronation, and then he will sign a peace treaty with Italy once and for all.

Luca and I both want to see peace among his two peoples in his lifetime, for he is half Italian and half Xudian, and I want to see him honor both cultures without being subjected to racism. Even though she doesn't know I'm a princess, I wanted to show his paternal grandmother that her hatred will lose. Hatred, prejudice, and bigotry will lose. While I'm 100% Xudian, the Italian culture will always be a part of me because of my son and his father, both of whom I love with all my heart. I always offered Mrs. Palladino truce and peace and respect until she shoved money into my hands and told me in a hushed voice that Vince couldn't be a father at twenty-three years old, or it would undo everything he had worked so hard for up to that point.

She thought I wasn't good enough, and she thought I was just a gold digger. My king restricted me from telling her and Vince the truth about my royal lineage. I couldn't tell her I was a princess and that her grandson would be a prince. I couldn't tell her that I was the wealthiest person in my native country next to the king. All she could know was that I was from Xudia, and to her, that meant I wasn't good enough for her son.

Focus, Camila, focus on the task at hand. Lose your tail and get the hell to New York! As soon as you can lose this monster, find someplace to get another phone and call Ana. Let her know what's going on, so she can give Vince a heads up that I'm coming since his agent won't return my calls. I tried to reach Ana earlier, but her phone went straight to voicemail, which only meant she was still in bed.

Anastasia, or Ana as she preferred, was Vince's wife now, and she was the mother of their two younger sons, though she was also a pretty amazing woman. She came after me ten years ago when she first found out I dumped Vince. She was furious that a woman 'like me' could make a strong, level-headed man cry as much as Vince did after he woke up one morning to read my goodbye letter on the pillow next to him. She slapped me too. I deserved it since I broke Vince's heart, but I couldn't conceal the truth from Ana.

I told her everything. I told her about my background and my upbringing. I told her about the last conversation I had with Vince's mother and how she gave me money to abort Luca when she saw the lab results I had in my purse. I told her about my last conversation with Vince and how I couldn't tell him what his mother said to me because it would have devastated him. I told her how I didn't want to be the reason Vince would burn the bridge of the relationship he has with his mother because that's what would've happened if he knew what she told me.

Ana then cried with me, hugged me in comfort to no end as if we had been sisters or best friends all along, and then she begged me. She pleaded with me to drop abortion as an option. In the end, I found Ana was right, and I owe Luca's life to her. She was in love with Vince when I left him, so I told her to be his rock and comfort and marry him. If I couldn't be with Vince, then I didn't want him with anyone else, only her. I knew she would treat him like the king I wish they allowed me to have as my royal consort.

I made her promise not to tell Vince of Luca's existence, and if she kept that promise, I would allow her to stay in our lives as she so desperately wanted, and she found a way every year to visit Luca on his birthday in Xudia. Luca stayed in contact with her throughout the years with email and video exchanges, but only when Vince was away on tour or a film project or when Ana was on her job as a linguist. Finally, on Luca's tenth birthday, I confessed to Luca that she was his father's wife, which made her his stepmother. I thought for sure that Luca would feel betrayed for not knowing this truth sooner and that he would question my love for him or something along those lines, but Luca confessed that he already knew. Unbeknownst to Ana and myself, Luca had watched his father's every move in the limelight, and sometimes Ana and their sons were by Vince's side for all the world to see.

Instead of being angry or upset and throwing a fit like an ordinary ten-year-old kid would have done, Luca remained calm and just told us he understood. At that moment, Ana and I both knew what an extraordinary person Luca was growing up to be. We knew he would make a glorious king, a king with a gentle heart, and a king who would be wise beyond his years. I told Ana that if anything ever happened to me, I would legally hand full custody over to her and Vince because I knew that they would continue to raise him just as I have. Ana laughed and assured me nothing would ever happen, but as I felt another violent jolt towards my steering wheel, I now knew that to be an unforeseen lie.

I felt it. I would not make it out of this alive, not while this bastard kept ramming into my back bumper. Finally, I saw red and blue lights and a siren catching up to us. Tim had changed lanes to go around me, and before I realized it, he’d belligerently cut me off. Instinct kicked in, and I turned the wheel in response, and after hitting the highway divider, my car flipped. My very last few thoughts in the air were on Vince and my final conversation with Luca.


***


"Luca, it's time to meet your father," I told him as I knelt to his level outside my parents' house and met his beautiful brown eyes. "But I have to go get him first. I need you to stay here where nana and pappy can keep you safe, okay?"

"No, Mommy, I want to come with you!"

"No, Luca, you can't come with me. It's not safe. Baby, I would never forgive myself if something happened to you while you were with me on this trip." Luca's eyes welled up with tears, and I knew this upset him. "You've wanted to meet your daddy for a long time, sweetie, and I will make it a reality, I promise, but I need to do this alone. Do you trust me?" Luca nodded in response, and then I held my baby boy's face. "I love you so much, sweetie."

"I love you too, Mommy."


***


I then kissed my baby's forehead and left him on the porch steps with his grandparents. I feared for my life, but I had enough hope in me to turn to Vince and Ana. Little did I know until now, I would never meet up with them, and I would never be the one to tell Vince why I left him to begin with. I would never be the one to introduce him to our son, and little did I know until now, this memory with Luca would be my last. Please, Vince, take care of our little prince.

Chapter 1

The Past Comes Calling with Royal Discoveries




It was a hot summer night in the town of Malone, New York. I had just come off a bar stage after a very well enjoyed performance I put on. I had to take a short break before I started my autograph signing for VIP ticket holders. When I found myself in a hall that was free of bar guests, I delighted in the silence. Thank God for soundproof doors because I seriously needed a few minutes without a single screaming fan, as I’ve been non-stop these past two weeks on a tour of performances every day in major cities along the eastern seaboard. When I saw my trusted security guard and long-time friend, José, walk up to me with a serious expression on his face, I knew something was up.

“Hey, Vince,” he called.

José was a big, burly man who stood about six foot and five inches tall, and he had the appearance of a tough biker, but he had the heart of a teddy bear. He'd been my personal bodyguard since I was thrust into stardom at the age of fifteen. I've known him for eighteen years, and he probably knew everything about me by now, including my darkest secrets. As much as I loved my father, José was like a second father to me, and he was always such a clown, which explains how I knew that something was wrong.

“What’s up, José?” I asked when I stopped in my tracks.

“You’ve got an unexpected visitor,” he said. “I was going to refuse him entrance back here, but you need to see him. It’s, it’s about Camila.”

Camila? Good Lord! It’s been … a solid decade since I’ve seen or heard from her, and I can’t remember the last time she even came to mind.

“What about Camila?” I asked, now concerned.

“Mr. Crane … uh … Camila’s husband is waiting for you in your dressing room. I was going to pass the message along to you and take down his number since you have a full schedule, but what he has to say really should be said in person.”

Okay, he officially scared me. The look on his face, and his refusal to say what was precisely up with Camila, was a sure sign that something was wrong. José gestured me towards the dressing room, and he opened the door for me when we approached it. After it opened, the first thing I saw was a man dressed up in what looked like a full-on cowboy outfit. It came complete with the hat and stirrup boots, and the whole ensemble was colored in earthy blue and brown tones. When the man turned around, I could swear he’d just stepped out of an old western movie. He wore a brown oversized out-of-date mustache with very curly tips, and I figured he was outdoors a lot because he was pretty tanned. He probably stood about six foot even, but his eyes told me there was a mystery to him, a hidden agenda.

“Has he been checked?” I asked José softly when I met José’s eyes.

“Yes,” José replied. “Surprisingly, he even volunteered to undergo a background check. He’s clean. I’ll leave you to some privacy because you’re going to need it, but I’ll be right outside this door.”

I nodded and stood silently until the door closed behind me.

“Ah, Mr. Palladino, it’s about time we finally met,” said the man as he walked towards me. “My name’s Timmy, Timothy Crane. I’ve heard so much about you.”

When he extended his hand for a shake, I felt as if he had put up a huge front. I smiled, though, and I forced myself to accept his handshake. Something about him irked me as we shook hands and gave me goosebumps. How in the hell did Camila go from dating me to marrying this guy? I could hardly believe this was her husband.

“What can I do for you, Mr. Crane?” I asked as I pulled my hand back and walked towards the vanity dresser across the room, though I kept my eyes on him through the mirror.

“Oh, please, Mr. Crane is my father. Call me Timmy.”

I didn’t want to call him anything. To be honest, I didn’t even want him here because his presence meant I had to dig up a past I tried hard to forget, and I succeeded for ten years – until now. Camila left me, and I never understood why, but I just knew that I couldn’t afford to be bitter right now.

Timmy doesn’t strike me as the kind of man who would meet me - his wife’s ex-fiancé - unless something was wrong. I just smiled for a few moments as I sat down in the vanity chair and grabbed a towel that was already placed on the vanity desk from the venue staff. I wiped the sweat off my face and temples, and when I felt my face dry, I looked back at Mr. Crane through the mirror.

“What can I do for you, Timmy?” I asked as I met his gaze.

I can honestly say I have never heard of a full-grown man known by a child’s nickname. 

“Well, I’m Camila Juric’s husband. She spoke highly of you, sir.”

“I know who you are,” I said. “You’re the luckiest guy in the world. Congratulations. How’s Camila?”

“Thank you, but I’d hardly consider myself lucky right now. Camila … uh … I’m sorry, but there’s no easy way to say this.”

I watched as he stood in silence for a few moments while he looked down at the floor. His hands were now on his hips, and he took a deep sigh. I then knew he had bad news for me.

“Just spit it out,” I told him as I turned around in my chair to look directly into Mr. Crane’s eyes. “Give it to me straight. What’s wrong with Camila? Is she sick? Hurt?”

Mr. Crane slowly brought his head up with tears now in his eyes, though he refused to let them slip from his hold.

“She’s dead.”

Everything, the whole world, all my thoughts, even time, froze for me as soon as he spoke those words. I held my breath as I tried to keep my composure. The tears instantly surfaced as I felt my heart shatter into millions of pieces all over again, something I hadn’t felt in this way since the day she left me, only this time, a part of my soul felt like it was ripped out. I wanted to collapse, but I wasn’t about to do so in front of a stranger, not someone who was the husband of my first love.

“When?” I asked as I didn’t know what else to say at the moment.

“Three days ago, on the eve of July 4th,” was his answer. “It was a car accident.”

“No … no, this is just a nightmare.”

“I know, it’s unfortunate, but shit happens. Someone cut her off on the highway and caused her to crash into the highway divider.”

How could he be so calm about this? All I wanted to do was break down and cry.

“I’m sorry we had to meet like this,” Mr. Crane added. “But I am glad I was able to reach you. Camila’s parents tried contacting your agent, Mr. Michaelson, but your agent never returned their calls. They’ve been trying to get a hold of you all day yesterday about Camila’s will.”

I’ve never met Camila’s parents, but the fact that Camila had a will was news to me.

“Camila has a will?” I inquired.

“Yes, you’re in it,” Mr. Crane said.

“I’m in it?” I asked, even more surprised.

She was the one who left me. Why would I be in her will?

“Yes,” Mr. Crane answered. “Her wake is in three days.” 

I watched as he took something out of his flannel shirt pocket. It was a small piece of paper folded neatly, and he handed it to me.

“I’m sure Camila would want you there. Her parents definitely will be, and they’d probably appreciate it if you showed up, showing how much you cared for Camila by paying your respects.”

Why don’t I like his tone?

“Of course, I cared about her!” I answered with a sharp tone as I snatched the paper from him. “I would’ve given my life for her if I could!”

Mr. Crane was silent for a moment, surprised by my outburst, and I just sighed in defeat.

“I’m sorry,” I apologized. “I just wasn’t …”

“Expecting this, I know,” he said. “And I’m sorry, but I truly am pressed for time. I have to track down an old friend of Camila’s in Canada. I just wanted you to know what happened. I know you were important to Camila.”

“Thank you,” I spoke as I stood up to face him. “I appreciate you coming out here to meet me.”

“No, thank you, Mr. Palladino,” Mr. Crane said. “Have a nice night.”

“You too,” I answered as I watched him walk out of the room.

When he didn’t close the door behind him, José appeared from the side, from inside the hall.

“Vince?”

I instantly put my hand up, which signaled for him to stop talking.

“Cancel the autograph signing. Get all the names and addresses of the VIP ticket holders. We’ll issue and send them all a one-time VIP pass to any concert of their choice at any time. I can’t go out there right now. I just … I can’t.”

“I understand,” José whispered as he saw the tears in my eyes. “Let me know if there’s anything else I can do. I’m sorry, Vince. I’m so sorry for your loss. I know what she meant to you. She was such a sweet girl.”

I couldn’t say anything further to him. José knew I needed to be alone, so he simply closed the door and left me to my thoughts. I looked down at the paper that Mr. Crane gave me, and I opened it. The note then revealed an address, date, and time. It was for Camila’s wake, and it was three days out. My Camila … my first love … she was … gone. I could hardly believe it. I quickly pulled out my cell phone from my pockets and speed-dialed my wife in Greece. After three rings, she picked up, and she spoke in her usual cheery voice.

“Hello, darling.”

Oh, how I wished that she was here with me now and not in Greece with our two sons and her parents.

“Ana,” I called in almost a whisper.

My voice failed miserably at trying to stay strong. My wife instantly knew something was wrong because her following words were only filled with concern.

“What’s wrong, sweetie?”

“Camila …”

I didn’t want to say it out loud, but I knew I had to. My knees trembled in fear and buckled out before me, so then I fell to the floor. Ana knew who Camila was, and she knew what Camila meant to me. After all, she was there for me when Camila left me, and Ana picked up the pieces of my broken heart and put them back together with her own love. Now my heart was shattered once again. This time, I let the tears fall because I knew there was no sense in holding them back.

“She’s dead. She’s … she’s gone.”


***


Two days had passed, and it was noon on the day of Camila’s wake. This was about to be the longest day of my life. I didn't know if I'd get a hotel or not, so I packed a day’s worth of clothes and the necessities just to be safe. I told my agent, Jacob Michaelson, that he’d better keep my schedule cleared for this entire week, or he was fired. He was already under enough fire for keeping Camila’s parents’ calls from me. Ana wanted to come home and be here with me, but our little boys were having too much fun with her parents in Greece, so I convinced her I'd be okay without her. She helped me through a lot when it came to Camila, and I wanted her to hold me when I was in shock about Camila, but in all honesty, I needed this time to myself. I needed time to mourn alone.

I grabbed my duffle bag and locked up my house. I always loved the drive down to North Carolina, but this was one drive I dreaded because it meant I had to say goodbye to the one I first gave my heart to eighteen years ago. I took a deep sigh once I sat down in my car. I sat there for a few moments in silence, and I felt the tears coming again, but I couldn’t let them slip while driving on the road. I quickly wiped my eyes dry before turning on the car, and then I put on my seatbelt. On the drive down to Point Pleasant, North Carolina, my mind went back to one of my favorite memories of Camila and me on our beach.


***


“Cami?” I called as I held her in my arms and my head rested on hers.

“Yes, Vince?” she said as she turned her head towards mine.

In our peripheral vision, the sun was rising from the horizon. We had spent the night on the beach where we made love to one another for the first time. We were seventeen.

“No matter where I am in this world, my heart will forever be here with you,” I told her. “You have my heart for always, baby.”

Camila gazed passionately into my eyes and smiled softly.

“I know,” she replied. “I see you in the spotlight, pushing away the girls who are always throwing themselves at you. Never stop carrying my heart with you, Vince Palladino.”

I sat silently and just gazed softly into her eyes.

“I love you, Camila,” I whispered.

Camila smiled even wider at me, and she tenderly placed a kiss on my nose.

“I love you too, Vince.”


***


The drive to Point Pleasant was a lot quicker than I thought it would be, probably because my foot was heavy on the gas pedal while my mind was on Camila. It was also a smooth, cleared drive down as well, especially when I hit the backroads. I arrived early enough that I still had another hour until Camila’s wake, so I went to the beach, our beach. It was funny how every time I came to this beach, whether alone or with Camila, there was never a soul around. 

It was probably because it was private property with some large boulders and rocks. People usually preferred beaches free of such obstacles, but Camila and I never minded because we loved it for the privacy. For a good forty-five minutes, I just sat in our most precious spot, and I shed a few tears, and I couldn’t speak. Truth be told, I hadn’t said a word since I convinced my wife to stay in Greece for the remainder of her trip with our boys. When I eventually arrived at Camila’s wake, I got looks of confusion and surprise from many people.

“Vincenzo Palladino?”

I turned my head at the sound of my name and saw an elderly couple standing before me. I figured they might have been Camila’s parents.

“Yes,” I answered.

“Oh, we are so glad Mr. Michaelson gave you the news. We were afraid you would miss this,” said the graying woman. “I’m Marija Juric, and this is my husband, Kristijan.”

I knew Camila had an American accent, but her parents don’t. I remembered Camila told me once that her parents emigrated from Xudia, which was long before she was born, so they’ve been in the country for a long while. Their accents have weakened over time, but they were still strong enough to pick up on them, probably because I’ve never heard an authentic Xudian accent before.

“Oh, hi! It’s an honor to meet you, but please, you can call me Vince,” I replied as I extended my hand for a shake from both of them, which they immediately accepted.

“I’m embarrassed to say this, but my agent kept your calls from me. It was Camila’s husband that came to see me in New York three nights ago. I’d just got done performing when he gave me the news.”

“Wait, Timothy Crane came to see you? Where in New York? The police are looking for him.”

This news sure surprised me.

“I was in Malone. He didn’t see me for long. He said he had to go track down an old friend of Camila’s in Canada,” I explained.

“Camila didn’t have any friends in Canada,” Kristijan said. “He is on the run for what he did to our little girl. Marija, darling, go notify Detective Landon and let him know what we just found out.”

“I will,” she said. “Mr. Palladino, if you will excuse me?”

“No problem,” I said as I smiled softly.

When Marija disappeared, I locked eyes with Kristijan, and he spoke up.

“I am glad we have finally met,” he said.

“I’m sorry we haven’t met sooner,” I told him as he patted me on my shoulder.

“I regret that it is under these circumstances, but to be honest, Marija and I have heard many good things about you from Camila for years, ever since she was fifteen. I am not sure if Timothy Crane told you, but I am the executor of my little girl’s will, and you are in it. I know you are a pretty busy guy, so I will have you sign some papers today with my wife being witness, but first, I want you to meet someone.”

I didn’t say anything at first. I just followed Kristijan through the house. Eventually, we reached the living room. I stopped in my shoes when I saw a little boy in front of Camila’s opened casket. He was on the floor, knees to his chest, and he cried as he held something in his arms. Kristijan stopped in his tracks, too, when he saw my eyes were on that boy.

“Do you know who that little boy is?” Kristijan asked me. I had no words. I just shook my head no. “That is Luca. He has not left Camila’s side since her casket arrived.”

I didn’t know any little kid named Luca, but why did he look so familiar?

“He is Camila’s son,” Kristijan said. Those words instantly echoed in my mind. She had a son? “And he is your son too,” Kristijan added.

I gazed back into Kristijan’s eyes with surprise.

“I’m sorry,” I apologized. “I must not have heard you right. What did you say?”

Kristijan smiled softly.

“No, you heard me right. Luca is your son. Camila already gave birth to him before she met that … that husband of hers.”

To say the cat had my tongue was a total understatement. I had no words. I was stunned.

“It is my understanding from my daughter that you knew nothing of Luca, that you didn’t even know your love for each other created such a miracle because Camila didn’t want him ruining your career as a musician at such a young age.”

This explanation caught me off guard too. So that’s why she left me? I can’t say I was pleased to know I’ve had a son I didn’t know about for the last decade, but I was sure glad I now understood why she left because she left without any real explanation.

“Luca is the reason that you are in Camila’s will,” Kristijan stated. “She wanted to make sure that if anything ever happened to her, he would be placed in your care and out of harm’s way.”

I then turned my gaze from Kristijan to Luca. That’s why he looked so familiar. He looked so much like me from when I was his age.

“What did Timothy do to Camila?” I asked, keeping my eyes on Luca. “What did he do to her that makes him dangerous?”

“It is too inappropriate to discuss here, but I can tell you that Timothy Crane is one of many of his disturbing aliases. He is a wanted man in fifteen other states for sexually heinous crimes.”

That was all Kristijan needed to say for me to understand what kind of man Timothy was. It made me sad, though, but I had to know something.

“Did she die in a car accident, or was he lying?” I asked as I now looked back into Kristijan’s eyes.

“No, the accident really happened, but he was the cause of it. Eyewitnesses told the authorities he was chasing her and driving recklessly. He killed others in the process and killed her by trying to get ahead of her, but then she crashed into the highway divider. The fatalities in all were five.”

“Oh, my God,” was all I could say in a soft tone as I crossed my arms against my chest, and my left hand momentarily covered my eyes.

“I see you are a husband?” Kristijan questioned as he looked at the ring on my left ring finger. “She is Ana, yes, Anastasia Vasallo?”

Did he always speak so proper? And how did he know who my wife was?

“Yes, my wife, Ana, knew Camila, and she’s in Greece visiting her parents with our sons, though she does send her condolences,” I answered. “Ana knows who

Camila was to me, and she wishes she could be here to pay her respects. If I may ask, how do you know about Ana? Did Camila tell you about her?”

Kristijan placed both of his hands on my shoulders and smiled widely.

“When Camila was pregnant with Luca, she wasn’t going to keep him. In my country, abortion is a death sentence to the parents who choose to abort their unborn children. We believe all life is precious and miraculous, so abortion is illegal.”

What? She was going to abort Luca?! I didn’t just hear this!

“Ana came down here ten years ago to find out why my daughter left you and broke your heart, only to learn what Camila was going to do, and your darling wife somehow convinced Camila to keep her son. Nobody else talked her out of what she was going to do.”

Wait a minute. What? Ana came down here and talked to Camila? Why didn’t she ever tell me about this? And she convinced Cami to keep Luca?

“Ana is a Godsend. Though I would have preferred you to marry my daughter, you are a lucky, lucky man to have Ana as your wife. She will be a wonderful stepmother to my grandson.”

Oh, Ana and I will have a very serious talk when she gets back home. She has a lot of explaining to do. I just smiled warmly at Kristijan and spoke up.

“Thank you, sir,” I said.

“Well, marvelous!” Kristijan exclaimed. “Now, you must come to meet Luca.”

Instantly I grew nervous. Did Luca know about me? Would he accept me? Would he reject me? Would he even want to come home with me? I have so many questions.

“Come, come!” Kristijan spoke in excitement as he urged me to move forward. “I will let you two talk a bit before you sign the paperwork.”

“What if he doesn’t like me?” I asked Kristijan as I looked him in the eyes. “What if he doesn’t want to come home with me?”

“Nonsense,” Kristijan answered. “He will love you just as you are, and he is very kindhearted like his mother. You will see. Now go. Go spend a little time with your son.”

The old man reminded me of my mother, who always tried to get me to do something that she wanted my attention and focus on. I turned my attention to the little boy who sat in front of Camila’s casket. I looked to Kristijan, who nodded with approval and gestured with his hands in enthusiasm for me to get a move on. I then headed over to the casket and slowly got down to the young boy’s level. Just as I’d done so, his head lifted, and our eyes met for the first time.

“Hey there, kiddo,” I whispered.

He wiped away his tears with his left arm as he held something in his right hand.

“Hi,” he replied in a quiet voice.

I was sad for his loss, and I hated knowing he had to learn about death at the tender age of ten, though he also had an expression of curiosity in his chestnut brown eyes as he stared back into mine.

“Your grandpa told me to come to see you,” I said in a kind voice. “Do you know who I am?”

Luca stayed quiet, but he nodded his head, and then he turned the object around to reveal it was a picture frame. Inside the frame was a beautiful picture from the only professional, private photoshoot I had with his mother right after I proposed to her. The frame itself had the following engraved message on the bottom: Mommy & Daddy. Tears instantly welled up in my eyes, but I did my best to keep my sobs back because I didn’t want to seem weak in front of him. He knew who I was!

“Yeah, kiddo,” I continued.

I failed miserably at trying to remain strong. Luca set the picture frame down on the floor, and he stood up and then wrapped his arms around me. His eyes mirrored mine with tears, and then he brought his face to my shoulder.

“I miss Mommy,” he said.

I gently wrapped my arms around him, held him snugly to my chest, and then my tears broke free. It was hard for me to believe I had a ten-year-old kid in this world that I didn’t know existed until today. Better yet, he was mine and Camila’s. He felt like magic, and so did this hug. It was one of the most incredible feelings in the world.

“I miss her too,” was the only other thing I could say right now.

Both of us cried in silence, but I sensed our hug brought comfort to one another, and it was at this moment I knew we needed each other. I wanted to be angry over the fact that I missed out on the first ten years of Luca’s life, but I knew there was no point in being angry and getting all worked up over it. I could never be angry with Camila.

However, I would get the answers I knew I deserved, and I will get them from Ana. God bless her, though, because she was the only one who could convince Camila to bring this beautiful boy into this world.

“Kristijan,” I heard a male call towards Camila’s father. “I must once again insist that the boy returns with his mother’s casket for her proper burial and for the boy to begin his training.”

“I have already told you,” Kristijan replied. “The boy must go with his father. It is in Camila’s will.”

“And the boy was born in her royal chambers back home,” added the mystery man. Did I just hear ‘royal’ chambers? “The Crown insists, Kristijan. The king is dying, and there is no one else in line to take the crown. Luca must begin his training.”

“I’ll be right back, kiddo,” I whispered.

Luca let go of me and got back into the position he sat in earlier, and then I stood up. I went back over to Kristijan and this mystery man, whose name I didn’t know yet. 

“I’m sorry, Charles, but Camila’s American last will states that the boy must go with his father, and because she was naturalized as an American citizen, America has legal jurisdiction over this matter.”

“Excuse me,” I said as I interrupted the two arguing men, whom everyone had their eyes on at this point. “But shouldn’t this matter be discussed elsewhere? It is dishonoring the one person everyone is here to pay their respects to.”

“You must be the wop,” replied the mystery man, now named Charles by Kristijan.

This statement threw me off. I hadn’t heard that derogatory term since I lived in Brooklyn when I was a child. The tone with which this man said it told me this was meant with hatred for my full-blooded Italian heritage. This wasn’t just a racial slur towards me but also my proud culture and people, and I didn’t appreciate it.

“Excuse me?” I said as I got in his face. “This Italian is half the reason you’re even here.”

I wanted to tell him off. If Camila and I would’ve never met, then this man wouldn’t be here, asking for Luca to begin his ‘crown’ training because he wouldn’t even exist. I wanted to tell the man this, but I knew it would be a low blow, even for me, so I decided not to say it. I was angry, though. To be honest, I was surprised at how level-headed I was right now.

“Luca is my son, and had I known about him from the beginning, I would’ve stood right by him and his mother. If Luca wants to return to your country for his mother’s burial, I’ll be honored to take him, but as far as this ‘training’ that you speak of goes, you’ll have to go through me, his father. And, just so you’re aware, by calling me such an insulting name as you have done means not only disrespect for my culture, but half of Luca’s as well, so you dishonor Luca with your manners of disrespect,” I told the man.

I usually think about what I should say before saying it, though I surprised myself with my statement's second half. I don’t know where it came from, but I’m sure glad I said it because it was the truth. Charles also quickly realized that I was right, and embarrassment now painted itself across his face. 

“Where are the papers, Kristijan?” I asked as I kept my eyes on Charles. “I’ll sign them right now.”

In my peripheral vision, I sensed by the look on Kristijan’s face that he was pleased with my response to Charles, as he smiled smugly towards the man.

“Yes, you can follow me to my office,” he replied towards me, and so I turned my attention towards him and followed him out of the living room, and we both left Charles behind.

When we entered Kristijan’s office, I saw Marija was already in here, and she was in the middle of a conversation with someone.

“Please accept my apologies for Xir Charles and his behavior. It is true when he says King Chaudhry Oorija is requesting Luca to return to Xudia. Luca should have started his crown training when he was five, but my daughter didn't want Luca’s life to be about royalty. Camila wanted to teach him respect and humility and enjoy his childhood before it was over. We started her training when she was five, and she hated that we did so, told us she felt she never really had a childhood, and that she owed it to Luca to give him one that he deserved.”

“With all due respect, I understand where Camila’s coming from,” I replied kindly. “My mother pushed me into the limelight when I was eight. She put me on stage for theatre and music as often as she could, and I hated it at first. I eventually grew out of that phase, and I’m happy she pushed me out of my comfort zone, but at the same time, there were times I bucked against her authority. Actually, that’s how I met Cami. My parents were down here in North Carolina and prepping me for a big audition, but I wanted none of it and ran to the beach, where I first met Cami for a day. We were fifteen then.”

Kristijan smiled warmly at me when he heard this.

“Ahhh, so you were the boy she met on the beach!” he said. “You got her grounded for two weeks because she didn’t come home for dinner that night.”

I saw that Kristijan thought of this memory fondly, as the smile on his face remained there, and in turn, I just chuckled. I thought for a moment back to when Cami and I first met. It was true we met at fifteen for that one day at the beach, but we wouldn’t see each other again until two years later. That’s when we started to get to know each other.

“My apologies,” I replied. “Though I did make sure she had something to eat.”

“A hot dog, chips, and soda,” Kristijan said. “With the last five dollars that you had in your pockets.”

Both of us chuckled, and then we looked toward Marija, who then introduced the person she was talking to as Kristijan’s brother, who was also in the room as a witness for the legal paperwork I needed to sign. When the papers were all brought out, I then saw Luca’s birth certificate from Xudia. Everyone in the room stood still when they saw me freeze in my shoes while I stared at that birth certificate.

“Vince?” Kristijan called. “Are you alright?”

“Yeah,” I replied in a quiet voice as I looked up into his eyes. “I just didn’t realize she named him after me.”

“Ahhh, yes, Luca Giovanni Palladino,” Kristijan replied. “The crown and council are not happy about it, considering my country and yours have been at war with one another for a few centuries now, but Luca has been there a few times, has shown the people of his kind heart, and has shown them he has earned his right to be the heir to the throne. The people of Xudia love him and consider him their crown prince. He is only ten, but I think he would make a great king for Xudia someday. However, per my little girl’s request, I would not force it upon him if he didn’t want it.”

My eyebrows furrowed in confusion for a moment as a question popped into my head.

“If you don’t mind me asking, what would happen to Xudia if the king died and if Luca didn’t want the crown?”

Marija and Kristijan exchanged serious expressions with each other. It didn’t give me any comfort whatsoever. Did Ana know about any of this? What had I gotten myself into? Lord, help me!

Chapter 2

A Princess's Final Words




It was obvious Luca was no ordinary child and that he was meant for extraordinary things, but how was I going to raise the crown Prince of Xudia - a country that was as tiny as Rhode Island tucked away between Italy, Greece, and Slovenia?

“The people of Xudia would riot, and the dukes would fight to step up for the crown. Since the fourteenth century, my bloodline had ruled Xudia,” Marija finally explained when she met my eyes. “If Luca forfeits his right to the throne, then the next person in line would technically be the Duke of Vopuyune, but the other dukes would have a right to challenge him.”

“Wait, what? Vope-” I started to pronounce, but I had a hard time trying to repeat what she said.

Marija smiled warmly with a soft chuckle.

“It is pronounced Voh-poi-yoon,” she replied further. “It is the most northern province of Xudia. The Duke of Vopuyune is Xir Charles Oswad.”

Wait. I looked to Kristijan, and he nodded. Did he just confirm that I just told off a duke? 

“Yes, we just spoke with Xir Charles in the family room.”

Oh, wow. Shit. Way to go on making a fool of yourself there, Palladino.

“And I just … ?” I started to ask as I pointed towards the door behind me, but I was too stunned to finish my question.

“Yes,” Kristijan continued with a chuckle. “You just put him in his place. I have been waiting for many years for someone to do this. He is what you would call a piece of work, someone that few people dare to stand up to. However, my wife is right. The people would riot, should Luca forfeit his right to the crown.”

“Yes,” Marija added. “The people are strong supporters of my family, and they want Luca to take the throne when the time comes. Luca loves the people, but he knows nothing of being a part of a royal lineage or the duties involved, except that he is the prince and heir to the throne of Xudia and that he’s now also the Duke of Aedon, which is the southernmost region of Xudia.”

I was at a complete loss for words right now. Just an hour ago, I thought I was coming here to pay my respects to Camila, and now I’d be walking out of her parents’ home with a son I never knew about, who just happens to be the Duke of Aedon, and the heir to the crown of Xudia. My head was spinning, and I was overwhelmed with this news.

“You said earlier that you have sons with your wife in Greece?” Kristijan asked me.

That was a random question.

“Yes, we have two boys,” I answered. “Eli is eight years old. Matthew is six, but he goes by his middle name, Kris. We also have another child on the way, though we’re hoping it’ll be a girl.”

“Very nice. Congratulations. Are they homeschooled, in private school, or public school?” Kristijan further inquired.

Now I can see where Kristijan was going with his questions.

“Thank you, and my mother homeschools them.”

The look on both of Camila’s parents’ faces dropped when they heard this.

“Oh, no, no, no!” Kristijan replied in a stern tone. “Luca cannot be homeschooled by her. Ana must homeschool him.”

“I assure you, sir, that my mother is good at what she does,” I said.

“No, no, no,” Kristijan refused. “If Ana cannot homeschool Luca, then Xir Charles, being that he is the right hand to King Chaudhry, will put in a request for a personal teacher to come live with you.”

I was confused by Kristijan’s change in attitude. He seemed furious now. I looked to Marija for some explanation, and she saw it on my face, so she now came forward and stood beside her husband.

“Your mother tried to give our daughter $15,000 to abort Luca and never speak to you again,” she explained. “Camila was devastated when she came home to us, and she said she was told by your mother that she wasn’t good enough for you, that our daughter would ruin your career if she gave birth to Luca. She didn’t take your mother’s money, but your mother’s reaction is why she was set on aborting Luca until Ana came to the rescue.”

This response floored me. I was going to say my mother wasn’t capable of doing that kind of thing, as I knew for a fact that she didn’t believe in abortion, but then I thought about this for a moment. My mother never approved of Camila, and she thought Camila was a bad influence every time I rebelled against my mother’s authority because it always seemed to be a coincidence. In truth, every time I rebelled in my teen years, it was because I was tired of the fact that my mother continuously peered over my shoulder, and I needed my space, and Camila was right there to keep me level-headed. I shook my head in disgrace for my mother’s ugly behavior towards Camila.

“I am so sorry,” I apologized sincerely. “I didn’t know that. I will be having a talk with my mother about that. I’ll also talk to Ana to see if she’s willing to cut down on her hours as a Linguist and see about homeschooling Luca. If not, then I’ll get back in touch with you to see what we can do for him.”

Kristijan and Marija seemed pleased with my response.

“Thank you,” Kristijan said as a smile reappeared while he placed both of his hands on my shoulders. “I like you, Vince. I see why my little girl fell in love with you. You will make a good father to my grandson. How long are you here for?”

“Well, I’ve considered staying in a hotel tonight and then hitting the road tomorrow morning, but I haven’t made a decision yet.”

“Please allow us to open our home to you for tonight,” Kristijan offered. “Allow us some time to get to know you better. It is also customary for all living relatives for our dearly departed to attend the funeral service held in Xudia, so Luca should attend, and he wants to. Still, once these papers are signed, it will be up to you whether or not he can go. We are leaving tomorrow afternoon, but you and Luca are welcome to fly with us back to Xudia as a courtesy of the Crown.”

“I want to respect your customs, and if Luca wants to go, then I will be honored to stay here and travel with you all to Xudia.”

Marija and Kristijan seemed even more pleased to hear this, and they exchanged satisfied expressions with one another before they looked back to me again.

“Perfect!” he exclaimed as he now let go of my shoulders and turned towards the paperwork again. “I do not want to keep you here in this office all day, filling out paperwork, so shall we take care of this and get it over with?”

“Yes,” I answered as we all now approached the office desk again and focused on the task at hand.

Once all the paperwork was filled out, which took about twenty minutes to a half-hour, Kristijan turned to his wife.

“Darling, will you please go get Paolo?” Without saying a word, Marija nodded while both she and her brother-in-law left the room, and then Kristijan spoke again toward me. “Paolo will take your measurements down and report it back to the palace so that they can get started right away on your formal funeral attire. We have stringent royal funeral customs, so it is of the utmost urgency they get started on making your ensemble straight away.”

Again, I was at a loss for words, and my world was changing. I better call Ana after this has all been said and done. Once my measurements were taken, I took a quick step outside the house and dialed my wife in Greece.

“Hey, sweetie,” she said in a tender tone as she picked up on the first ring. “How’s everything going?”

“As well as one can expect,” I began. “Oh, and, uh … I finally met Luca …”

The other end of the line was quiet for a few moments, which meant Ana was in shock at what I said, though I stayed silent and waited with patience for her response. She knew my silence was her opportunity to find a quiet spot where she could confirm every truth kept from me, and if I knew my wife, she would come forward. Then she finally spoke.

“I’m glad you finally met him,” she whispered. “I’m sorry it had to be under such an unfortunate circumstance, and I’m sorry I didn’t tell you about him sooner, but Camila made me promise not to tell you. It was the only way I could convince her not to abort him.”

“Really?” I asked in a sarcastic tone as I felt the tears in my eyes. 

It was hard for me not to let my anger over this situation get the best of me, but I did what I could to keep from raising my voice toward Ana.

“Honey, I tried my hardest,” she protested.

I heard the tears in her tone as well. I knew she was pretty upset about this situation. If I knew her as well as I thought I did, she probably felt guilty about it, and I swear I could almost see it on her face. 

“She said she’d bring him to full term and keep him only under the condition that I didn’t ever tell you. I went to see her in Xudia after she had him, and I went to see her every year afterward in Xudia for his birthday, and each time she refused me permission to tell you, said she would keep him there permanently if I told you. I really tried, Vince.

She didn’t want your mother to find out that she kept Luca and wanted to keep him as far away from her as possible. I don’t think she ever forgave your mother for what she did to her, for making her feel unworthy of you, and trying to buy her off in the process.”

I couldn’t be angry with Ana. I couldn’t even be upset with Camila. However, I was livid with my mother and furious about this situation because none of this should’ve ever happened.

“I don’t blame her for wanting to keep Luca as far away from my mother as possible. I can’t believe my mother did what she did,” I replied as I tried to keep it together.

“Just wait until I get back home. She’s really going to hear it from me, but thank you, Ana, for doing what you did for Cami and Luca.”

“So, you’re not angry with me?”

“No,” I said softly, lovingly. “I truly believe you did your best, and it’s one of the reasons why I love you so much.”

I now heard the smile in her tone.

“I love you too, honey,” she replied.

“Since you’ve seen them every year, I take it you’re also aware that Cami was a princess and that Luca is next in line for the throne of Xudia?” I half-stated, half-asked.

“Yes, I’m aware of that,” she said. “I’m also aware of the fact that the king is dying and awaiting Luca’s return for preparations to be a king.”

How did she come across this news? Unless Cami told her. Yeah, that’s a rhetorical question.

“I’m not so sure about that …” I began. “That’s what Xudia wants, but Cami willed it so that I take over legal custody of him.”

“What? Seriously?” Ana inquired. “I thought she was messing with me when she told me that last year!”

“Yes, I’m serious. I signed the paperwork already,” I answered. “I refuse to miss out on any more of his life, Ana. Ten years has been long enough. However, this means that we’ll have to make some sacrifices, but we’ll discuss those further when we’re both back home. I’m going back to Xudia with Luca and the Jurics so that Luca can formally attend Cami’s royal funeral service, and it’s their custom to expect him to be there, so I guess that means I’m going, too.”

“I understand, though wait until you get to Xudia. It’s a beautiful country, especially in the Aedon and Moscjen regions.”

I heard Eli and Kris now calling for their mother’s attention in the background.

“Should I tell them about the news of the newest addition to our household?” she asked. “Or should I wait until we’re all home?”

“Wait until we’re all home,” I told her. “I know Eli won’t be happy that he’s no longer the oldest, but he’ll have to get over it.”

Ana chuckled softly over the phone.

“Okay, well, I’ll see you when we get home in a few days, okay? I love you.”

“I love you too,” I replied. “Give the boys a hug and kiss from me.”

“I will.”

With that, we both disconnected from the call and went about our business. When I went back inside the Juric house, I saw some people started to leave already, but then when I looked at my Rolex's time, I noticed it was near the end of the hours of Camila’s wake. How did the time go so fast? When I looked back over at Luca, I saw that a little girl now sat with him, and she had her hair up, so I saw she had a hearing aid in her left ear. She seemed upset, but Luca tried hard to cover his face, and she tried over and over to catch his attention and remove his hands from his face. 

When he finally did, I saw he was beet red in the face as tears streamed down them, and I knew why. It broke my heart to see him so devastated like this, but then I watched as the little girl used her hands for what appeared to be American Sign Language. I had no idea what she was saying to him, but he seemed to understand because he signed right back to her. Their hand movements were so fluid and graceful. I’d never seen American Sign Language in person before, but it was beautiful.

The little girl soon wrapped herself around Luca, which I sensed was to comfort him, and I just knew they were close friends, maybe even best friends. Luca returned the petite brunette’s embrace, and he cried on her shoulders. I didn’t realize that Luca spoke American Sign Language, but I knew there was a lot to learn about him yet, and I couldn’t wait. A few of Camila’s best friends from childhood had approached me. They talked to me for a little while because they had been fans of mine since I was in a teenage pop-rock band where I played the keyboard. I was seventeen when that band formed, though all the members mutually agreed to part ways after three years due to interests in various business adventures. Camila’s friends followed my music and acting career anyways and paid me some compliments. Because they were Camila’s friends and knew about her royalty, the fact that Camila and I were once an item never seemed to faze them, and neither had the fact that I was a celebrity, just as long as Camila was happy.

After they said their goodbyes to Mr. and Mrs. Juric and paid their final respects to Camila, they left. I wanted there to be as few people in the room as possible when I went up to Camila’s opened casket to pay my respects. I knew I didn’t want Luca to see me cry. Eventually, it was just me, Camila’s parents, Luca, the little Deaf girl, and her parents. When the funeral director had returned with the hearse, I knew I needed to get my closure now, so I walked over to the casket, where Luca and his friend were. They both acknowledged my presence immediately.

“Hi,” I said with a small wave to both kids.

“Luna,” he called out loud but signed her name at the same time, which caught her attention, and then he spoke up again as he signed some more. “This is my father.”

Then he looked at me.

“This is my best friend, Luna,” he continued as he still signed.

Luna smiled towards me, and then she did three signs slowly. With the first one, she swiped her right palm face down across her left palm facing up. Then she brought both hands up and put them in fists, but the index fingers pointed straight up, and the fists came together. Then she removed her left hand and pointed straight at me.

“She says it’s nice to meet you,” Luca translated.

I smiled warmly and carefully signed the same signs back to her. They were simple enough, right? Then she turned toward Luca with excitement and made more signs towards him. Luca couldn’t help but smile now, and he turned his attention back to me.

“She says you sign really well.”

“Thank you,” I replied. “Can I have some alone time with your mommy?”

Suddenly the smile on Luca’s face disappeared, and he signed to his friend, but both of them got up and quietly walked away. I stood up again and now looked inside the casket for the first time. When I knew no one was within earshot, I spoke up, but I talked as quietly as possible and placed my hands on the casket.

“Please tell me this isn’t real,” I said as tears surfaced. “Because this is a nightmare … and a world without you in it is a world I don’t want to live in, but I’m going to wake up tomorrow morning, in a strange place, and I’m going to feel empty, because … because you’re gone.”

I then brought the back of my hand to her cheek for the first time in ten years, and her cheek felt as solid as cement and colder than ice. There was no way I could hold it together now. Even though it was one-sided, I continued to speak because I knew this would be my last conversation with her.

“I’m so sorry for what my mother did to you,” I apologized as my voice cracked up on me. “And I'm sorry for how she treated you all those years. I wish I could say she was only looking out for my best interests, but there was no excuse for what she did. I don’t blame you, Cam, for keeping our son as far away from her as you could. I have half a mind to disown her myself, but that would be hurting my younger boys, Eli and Kris, whom I’m sure Ana has told you about.”

My mind went back to the last time I was with Cami, which was the night before leaving me for good.


***


We were lying in my bed, all snuggled together, and I’d never been happier. She gazed lovingly into my eyes before she spoke up.

“Vince?”

“Yes?” I replied.

“Have you ever thought about kids?”

I propped my head up with my left hand, which was supported by my arm.

“Actually, no,” I answered. “But let’s talk about it.” Camila smiled as she traced her right-hand fingers along my bare chest, but she kept her eyes on mine. “Do you see yourself having any?”

She was quiet for a few moments as her smile grew wider.

“I would love to have children with you, but I don’t know where you stand on the idea since you’re a musician and usually traveling the country with your album tours and with your acting gigs.”

I was silent for a few moments as I knew she was right. I had no time to be a father, which was why the thought of being a father never really occurred, but now she mentioned it …

“For you, Cam, I’d have kids right now. I mean, we’re twenty-three. We’re full-grown adults. I’d also want to put a second ring on your finger, if you know what I mean. We don’t need a big wedding. Just a judge and a witness, if you want. You’re my best friend, Cam, and you know everything there is to know about me.”

“But what about your careers?” Cami asked. “Wouldn’t you be worried that parenting and marriage would get in the way?”

I had a feeling she was concerned that being a family man would overwhelm me with what I loved doing as an actor and musician. Her looking out for me only made me love her more. I placed my left hand upon her face as I now spoke up.

“It’s true that I love acting and singing, but trust me when I say it’s not everything. You are everything to me, Cam, and if I’m honest, I could use some time away from the limelight. You know better than anyone that sometimes I need my space and distance from the chaos and attention that comes with being in Hollywood. Besides, even if I didn’t need some downtime, I could still be a father and a husband. Just look at all the other celebrities out there. If they can do it, why can’t we?”

“Because your mother doesn’t approve of me,” Cami replied softly. “She never has, and she never will.”

I watched as the smile faded from her face. It was true that my mother didn’t like her. I, however, didn’t care one way or another about what she thought of my fiancée.

“Baby, don’t worry about her. In her eyes, nobody will ever be good enough for me, but that’s because I’m her only child.”

“She likes Ana …”

I knew she picked up on this a long time ago when I first went to college.

“That’s because Ana’s graduating with high honors in Linguistics in sixteen different languages, and she’s going to continue her education over in Europe. Ana’s independent and looking to make her own money and travel the world, speaking all those languages. I don’t care for money, and I want to be with someone who would settle down with me, someone who doesn’t care about money. I don’t want a career-minded woman. What I want is a family-oriented woman. I want you, Cam, so what my mother wants for me is irrelevant because she has no say in the matter. I’m an adult, and I will handle my life however I want and need to, and I want and need you in my life. Like I’ve said before, you’re everything to me, and I love you with every fiber of my being. If my mother can’t handle that, then it’s her loss.”

Camila’s eyes watered in joy at my words, and I couldn’t help but kiss her gently upon her forehead, then her nose, and then upon her lips.

“I love you too, Vince,” she said as our lips parted momentarily.


***


I knew she did. Those were our last words to each other. We ended that conversation by making love to each other, and when I awoke the following day, I found a letter on her pillow. In the letter, she told me that she couldn’t be with someone whose mother disapproved of her despite how much she loved me, and she only wanted what was best for me. She also permitted me to date Ana, with whom I’d only been friends at that point, but she liked Ana a lot.

“If I’d have known what my mother said to you, I’d have chased you around the world,” I whispered. “I should’ve chased after you anyways. I knew where you were. I’m sorry I failed you.”

Before I could say anything else, I was interrupted by the funeral director, who was now within my peripheral line of sight.

“Sir? I have come to collect the body-”

Did he just say ‘the body?’ I felt the fire of anger in my veins, but I kept as calm as I could. Then I spoke up, but I didn’t look at him.

“This isn’t just any random body. This is Princess Camila Juric of Xudia. Have some decency and respect.”

“Vince?” 

I knew the voice belonged to Camila’s mother. When I turned in her direction, I knew she saw my tears, and then she turned towards the funeral director.

“Will you please give us a few more minutes with my daughter?” she asked him. Without saying a word, the man gave her a subtle bow, and then he stepped outside. “I wanted to give this to you in private when everyone left because Camila wanted it this way. She wanted you to read this here in private. It was part of her will.”

I looked down into her eyes as I tried to clear my tears. It was another letter, but this one was in an envelope, and I just knew it was Camila’s final words. I felt my heart breaking all over again. A part of me didn’t want to read this letter because it would be the last one, but at the same time, I knew I needed to read this letter, not just for me, but for her as well. I then took the envelope from Marija.

“I’ll leave you alone to read this, and I don’t know what it says, nor is it my business to know what’s spoken between the two of you.”

“Mrs. Juric-” I began, though she interrupted me.

“Please … call me Marija.”

“I hope you know how much I loved your daughter,” I told her as tears once again built up in my eyes.

Marija’s eyes mirrored mine in tears, and she brought her right hand up to my left cheek.

“Your love for her reminds me of my husband’s for me,” she said passionately. “My husband would do anything for me; therefore, I know you would do the same for my daughter. It would’ve been an honor to have you as my son-in-law, but I am pleased to know that even though you are not, that will never take away the fact that you are my grandson's father. So that makes you family, and I am honored to call you that.”

Marija brought me into a brief hug of comfort.

“Thank you,” I told her quietly.

Before long, I was alone again, and I looked down at the letter in my hands. My name was written in Camila’s ever so perfect and beautiful handwriting on the face of the envelope. When I turned the envelope around, I saw the envelope was sealed shut, which was definitely for my eyes only. I sniffled as I carefully opened the envelope and then took out the letter. There were other contents too, such as pictures, but I just focused on the letter for right now, and as I read it, I heard her voice in my head.

“Dear Giovanni.”Oh, no. Just her calling me by my legal first name alone was enough to make me cry. Keep it together, Palladino.

“If you’re reading this, then it can only mean one thing. Writing this is the second hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my life, with the first being that I left you ten years ago. By the time you’ve already gotten this letter, you’ll have met Luca, our son. You’re probably wondering why I didn’t tell you about him ten years ago when I was pregnant with him, aren’t you?”

It would’ve been nice to know back then that I would be a father, yes, but I understand why you did what you did, Cami.

“Do you remember when we had our first discussion of having children?”

Yes, I do, and I remember it as clear as if it was yesterday.

“I wanted to tell you the good news then, and I almost did, but your mother’s private conversation with me from earlier that day had overwhelmed me. You see, in my culture where I am from, mothers are more important than fathers. Women in my country of Xudia are treated with the highest of honors and respect. We prefer a queen over a king to rule our land, but our queen, my grandmother, died long ago when she gave birth to my mother.”

Wow. I had not realized this. 

“What a mother says, we are typically required to obey, as long as it does not break any one of our laws. So as much as I loved you when you said your mother’s wishes for you were irrelevant, I couldn’t agree with you. I may have dual citizenship with America, but I know my family’s roots, and I was raised as if I was back home in Xudia, so I felt I had to obey your mother’s wishes, to an extent, of course. Your mother tried to give me money to end my pregnancy with Luca as quickly as possible, but I refused to take her cheque. She firmly believed I was only interested in your wealth and your fame, but I couldn’t tell her about my royal lineage, about the fact that I would never need money.”

But you didn’t abort him, though.

“Honestly, I have your beautiful wife, Ana, to thank for that.”

Wait, what? She really had a lot of respect for Ana, didn’t she?

“Ana was with me at the abortion clinic, and I was just minutes away from having the procedure, and she cried her heart out and begged me not to go through with it. She was, even so, willing to adopt him! That’s how adamant she was on making sure our son was brought into this world. I pray you won’t be angry with Ana for keeping all of this a secret from you because, as a princess, I ordered her not to.”

My emotions made my face feel hot, and I felt the tears threatening to slip from my eyes once again. I could hardly believe Camila was saying she was taking full responsibility for this whole thing. I’m not angry with you, Cami, and I’m not angry with Ana either. I could never be upset with either of you over this. I just don’t understand why you were taken from all of us. Why was your husband the reason for killing you by chasing you on the road? What had he done to you for causing you to run from him? I need you to tell me what the hell was going on!

“I should have stayed with you, Vince. I should have told you about the news of my pregnancy with Luca. Because I left you, I found someone else, and he turned out to be the worst mistake of my entire life, and if you’re reading this, then this mistake has cost me my own life.”

What the fuck. What the actual … calm down, Palladino, and just keep reading. She’s trying to explain.

“He was charming when I met him, and I played right into his act until it was too late. I had not realized he would be the biggest nightmare of my life until two years into our marriage when Luca was four. If he had been in my country, he would have been arrested and executed when he first started hitting me. He’s a controlling narcissist who’s turned into the cruelest person I’ve ever met, but my country does not believe in divorce unless infidelity is involved. I couldn’t let anyone know of what he did to me behind closed doors. I allowed him to touch me and talk to me in whatever way he wanted for six years until I found out he was touching Luca.”

Wait, what? Excuse me? What did you just say?

“If you take a look on Luca’s back, you might still see some marks, but I’ve/added some pictures to this letter to show you what they looked like when they first happened.”

I opened the envelope again and took out some of the pictures that she spoke about, and they were pictures of huge welts on his back. I had tears of anger in my eyes, and the blood in my veins was on fire with rage, and all I wanted to do was find that sick bastard and kill him! How dare he even see me at my concert up in Malone?

“After I saw the proof that he had been beating on Luca with a belt, I knew I had to leave him, and I did. You see, Luca is a special boy, and it is dangerous for him to be beaten in the way my husband did. Luca was born with hemophilia, and along the way, he caught Hepatitis C from a blood transfusion. He was symptomless until he went into acute liver failure. He was six years old when he had to have a liver transplant and undergo treatment for Hepatitis C. Somehow, and the healthy liver had given him new blood clotting factors that his doctors think have cured his hemophilia. I don’t trust this, which is why I needed to get Luca away from Tim as soon as possible. I left Luca in my parents’ care and told them I was driving up to see you and Ana in New York because I knew I needed your help.”

Wow. I don’t even know what to say to this.

“If you’re reading this, then something has gone wrong. I’m so, so, so terribly sorry that you have to be reading this letter.”

There were tear stains all over this letter, and most of this letter was legible, but in this one spot, I could barely make out what it said. The fact that she cried when she wrote this pushed my emotions over the edge. A couple of my own tears slipped onto the letter at this point.

“I love you so much, Giovanni, and I’ve never stopped loving you. I wish I could take back these ten years. I wish it more than anything in this world, but I can’t, and I’m so, so, so sorry that I can’t!”

All I wanted to do now was hold her in my arms, and comfort her, and tell her it was going to be all right … but it wasn’t. That fucking monster took her away from the people of her country, from her family, from Luca, and me! I couldn’t help but pace back and forth now as I scrunched the letter into my right hand, with the photos and envelope in my left hand, and I had to look away and close my eyes. I wanted to break shit, to break everything in this world, and break the pieces of everything I could touch, to show precisely how broken I felt down to my core. I didn’t know what to do with myself right now.

I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that someone like Timothy Crane could be so damn awful and cruel! I already knew he was wanted in fifteen different states for sexually heinous crimes, though now I knew he was a wife beater and a child abuser, which just angered me on so many levels. Why would someone abuse women and children? This whole thing was a damn nightmare straight out of hell! I stopped again in front of the casket, took a pause, and de-scrunched the letter because there was quite a bit more I knew I needed to read.

“Nothing I could ever do in this world could ever make up for your lost time with Luca or for the wrong I have done you, but there was only one thing I could think of that may remotely help. I have changed my will so that you will get full legal guardianship over Luca. He has dual citizenship with America and with Xudia.”

The way she talked about Ana calmed me down to an extent. My ex-fiancé, who was the mother of my oldest son, and my wife were good friends? How many people could say that? It brought a small smile to my face. However, there was still much more to read.

“There are a few things you should know about Luca. Remember when I graduated high school at the ripe young age of fourteen? Well, Luca’s even smarter than me, and he’ll be finishing his primary education in two more years, if not sooner. Unlike me, however, he takes his studies very seriously.”

I had to chuckle at that last bit there. Camila hated school work. She always found it tedious and boring. 

“He loves to read, and you will often find him reading in other languages, and he has an idyllic memory. He is very fluent in English, Xudian, Italian, Russian, Croatian, Spanish, Greek – which he got interested in, because of Ana –, and American Sign Language – which is because of his best friend, who is a Deaf girl from Xudia – and her name is Luna. Speaking of American Sign Language, Luca single-handedly created the first school for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing in Xudia. Ana’s help guided some of Xudian’s best teachers into learning American Sign Language and taught it back to the young children. His inspiration from the school was when he met Luna when they were six, and she couldn’t get an education because she couldn’t hear. She couldn’t communicate with anyone because Xudia didn’t have any government assistance or resources of any kind for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.

When Luca learned of the lack of resources, he decided to start his own school, and he started it with Luna. Luna was also an orphan with no family, so we found some American friends who said they would adopt her, and now she’s here in North Carolina. It can be hard to separate the two of them when they’re together because they’re best friends and can stick together like glue. If I’m honest, I think Luca has a little crush on her, but he refuses to tell me, though I know Luca will be devastated he’ll be moving out of state and away from Luna. I do know, however, that he cares about her too much to let her disappear from his life, so he’ll find ways to keep in touch with her, which is fine with me because Luna is a total sweetheart, and I pray you will get to meet her someday.”

I had to smile over this one. Luna did seem like a total sweetheart. However, I found it quite surprising that Luca founded a school for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing in Xudia. That was a fantastic and proud accomplishment. I was even more surprised to learn that Ana was in Xudia that much, but now that I think of all her pro bono work, I remember her saying something about creating a school to help Deaf and Hard of Hearing children learn ways to communicate.

“Luca also loves to help feed and clothe the homeless. He has assisted doctors in Xudia with their sick and injured patients as well. He’ll spend a lot of his precious time with the elderly and open doors for everyone. He loves, and he lives, to serve others. He has to put a smile on at least one person a day, or he’s not satisfied.

I couldn’t help the tears anymore. I looked down at Camila in her casket. A couple of sobs escaped my lips as my hands now gripped the edge of her casket.

“Oh, Cami,” I said between sobs. “I love you too.”

I leaned into the casket and gently placed my lips upon hers for one last kiss. I needed to for closure. When I removed mine from hers after a few moments, I spoke again.

I stayed in her face as I’d always done when she was alive.

“I promise I’ll take good care of him. I’ll do what you’ve been doing with him.” I could no longer stand. I had this sudden urge to just kneel before her, so I did. “I will do everything I can for him. I promise, Cami.”

I was quiet for a few moments, but I didn’t hear Luca approach, nor did I see him, as my head was down, and my eyes were closed. He gently placed his hand upon my right shoulder, which got me to open my eyes, and I saw the funeral director had returned, and so had Camila’s parents. Luca stepped up to his mother’s casket, and he kissed his mother on her forehead.

“I promise to take good care of my father,” he said to her. “This isn’t goodbye, but until I see you again someday, I will always keep you in my heart. I love you, mommy.”

Then Luca stepped away, which allowed the funeral director to do his job. More tears approached when he closed the casket, but Luca now stood beside me and reached out to me with his left palm facing up. I knew he wanted me to grab his hand, so I put the letter in my left hand and held his hand. We both stood in silence as we watched the funeral director take Camila out of the house. When the door closed behind that man, Luca immediately threw himself into my arms and sobbed away with his face now buried into my neck after I got down to his level.

“I know, kiddo,” I replied as I wrapped both of my arms around him and tenderly pressed my head upon his. “I love her too.”

Together, in each other's arms, we both cried.

Chapter 3

A Boy's Joy and a Mother's Pain




W

hen I was finally alone at night with Luca, who now climbed into his bed, I sat down next to him with a relaxed sigh. This kid looked so much like me from when I was a kid that it was uncanny. His dark hair, that’s debatable on whose color he got, but he definitely had my eyes, my nose, my cheeky, goofy smile, and even my skin tone. However, the way he carried himself and treated everyone, that was Camila through and through. He shared her ability to see the best in people, had her intelligence, and he was a lover.

“My grandma and pop-pop told me I would be moving in with you, up in New York,” he said as he settled into his pillows and underneath his blankets.

Every time Luca talked, I heard a strange accent. It was weirder than his grandparents’. It sounded like a blend between Camila’s American accent with a hint of a Xudian accent, which to me closely resembled those of the Greek and Croatian. It was almost like Luca couldn’t decide which of his cultures he wanted to represent more when he spoke, so he chose both America and Xudia. It didn’t matter to me, though, because it was still adorable coming from a ten-year-old

“Yes,” I replied. “But we’re going back to Xudia tomorrow with your grandparents for a few days first.”

“Good,” Luca replied. “There are some people there that I want you to meet. You will love my country. I can’t wait to show you the elegance of Moscjen, and the mountains of Vopuyune, and the fields of Darijam, and the caves of Taergorija, and the shores of Aedon. I think you’re going to love the caves the most, though. They’re truly my best-kept secret for a reason, and you’ll for sure appreciate it when I can take you there for an afternoon picnic.”

He seemed thrilled that he couldn’t wait to show me around his country. It brought a brief smile to my face. I adored his enthusiasm.

“I can’t wait,” I told him. “But, Luca, can I talk to you about some things?”

“Of course,” he replied as he sat upright and gazed into my eyes expectantly.

Truthfully, I wanted to talk to him about the pictures his mother gave me in that letter, but at the last second something told me that this wasn’t the right time, so I quickly thought of something else that I was curious about earlier this evening.

“I heard you know Ana,” I replied.

Suddenly, as if it was Christmas, his eyes lit up in pure joy. I knew by how expressive his eyes were that he inherited this trait from me as well. I knew he was about to rave about Ana.

“Yes!” he exclaimed. “She’s Mommy’s friend from Greece. She comes to see me every year on my birthday in Xudia. She always brings me the best presents.”

“Oh, yeah?” I replied as I was so intrigued by his bond with Ana.'

I wanted to know precisely how much interaction my wife had with him. I wanted to see how close they were to each other. It was hard for me to believe that Ana had a bond with him after all these years, and if I were anyone else, I would have instantly felt betrayed by her keeping Luca’s existence a secret from me. However, I knew that Camila faced many difficult decisions and that, ultimately, Ana saved my son. How could I ever feel betrayed by her in this matter, though, if she was the only one who could save the life of this brilliant kid now sitting in bed before me?

“Yeah, she always buys me a book printed in Greek!”

I couldn’t help but chuckle as Luca seemed to be wired awake suddenly.

“So you like Ana?” I asked him.

“She’s the best!” Luca replied as he now settled back into his pillows. “She taught me Greek back in Xudia and in email and video chat when she couldn’t see me, which was most of the year. Actually, I only ever saw her around my birthday. She travels a lot. She knows sixteen languages! I can’t wait to learn that many.”

“This may sound like a silly question,” I said. “But do you like Xudia?”

“I love Xudia,” he answered. “Everyone there is so nice, but I love being an American too. However, I don’t have any power here, but I can make a difference in Xudia.”

I was surprised at how little confidence he had in himself with making a difference here in America.

“Why can’t you make a difference here?” I asked him.

“Because most Americans don’t know who I am, that I am Prince and heir to the throne of Xudia. In fact, most Americans have never even heard of Xudia.” 

Well, kiddo, my fame is about to put your country on the map because there was no way I’ll be able to keep any of this away from the media. I’m surprised no one has gotten wind of this yet. I already knew the paparazzi would try and make a scandal of this. They’ve already tried to link me with Camila when she and I started getting serious ten years ago when they tried to figure out who my “mystery woman” was. She immediately did absolutely everything she could to hide from the public eye, which I now guess had everything to do with her being a princess.

“So I don’t have any political influence here. Besides, everyone here thinks all political leaders are just liars. I don’t want to be seen as a liar. I want to make a difference here, but I don’t know how to. Back home in Xudia, it is much easier because my people take me seriously.”

“I can’t speak for Xudia, but I can say that here in America, you do not need to have political ties to make a difference,” I told him. “Here in America, anyone can make a difference. If you can make the first school for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing in your country of Xudia, so they aren’t left out in the darkness of the entire world of communication and to access their human right to education, then you can do anything. America is a great place with many opportunities to make something of yourself, and I see a lot of potential in you, Luca.”

Luca was quiet for a few moments, but he smiled real wide, which told me he was pleased to hear what I told him.

“What do you want me to call you?” he asked me.

“You can call me whatever you want,” I answered.

“What do Eli and Kris call you?”

“They call me Daddy,” I spoke. “But if you want to call me Dad, Daddy, Papa, Father, or anything else like that, go right ahead.”

Luca was again quiet for a few moments, but this time his smile disappeared, and I sensed he thought about my response, and then that smile of his returned.

“Abbo,” he said. “I will call you Abbo.”

What on earth was an abbo, and did I just hear my first Xudian word?

“What does that mean?” I asked him.

“Abbo means ‘father’ in Xudian,” he explained.

“There you go,” I said. “That works. You’ll have to teach me some Xudian.”

“I definitely will,” Luca replied.

“So, Luca,” I said as I did my best to turn this into a more serious conversation. “What are your plans for the crown? Do you have any intentions of accepting it or passing it off to someone else?”

Luca sat up right now.

“My king is dying, and my people need me, so I must accept it.”

“Okay, then, as I understand it, your crown training would be five years?” I asked. “Are you ready for that?”

“No,” Luca replied. “But I must be prepared. As it stands now, my king will likely die before I can legally accept my coronation when I turn sixteen. With his prognosis, he will be lucky if he makes it another six months. I will have to have a regent ruler until then - if my king dies before I can accept my coronation, that is. So I need to be ready before then.”

“But is that what you want?” I asked.

“Eventually,” he said quietly. “There are things I want to do before my coronation, but I feel I do not have the time.”

There we go. Luca was definitely my son. He had specific goals and ambitions in mind, and I wondered what they were.

“Such as?” I asked.

“I want to go with you on one of your film projects and have an acting part in it as well, and I want to sing with you on stage. I also want to travel to Italy, to Greece even, but my king has forbidden me to go into Italy.”

“Did he tell you why?” I asked.

“No,” Luca replied. “Just that it’s very dangerous for me to go and that he cannot protect me there. He says I will find out in my crown training under the subject of Military Strategies.”

That’s an interesting education subject, but I guess an appropriate and valuable one for a king-in-training.

“Well, I can tell you for sure that it’s because Italy and Xudia hate each other and have been fighting for many, many years. Your king may not be allowed to bring anyone into Italy, and your diplomatic immunity may not apply there, so if you go to Italy, he may not have any means to protect you there.”

“Well … Mommy’s Xudian, and you’re Italian, and you don’t hate each other.”

I saw where Luca was going with this. It brought a smile to my face for a moment. Then I parted my lips.

“That’s because your mother and I fell in love before we learned of each other’s heritage. Even then, we weren’t bothered by where we came from. Your mother and I don’t have prejudices against other cultures and races.”

“Well … I really want to go to Italy. I want to see where you come from, and I want to meet the Pope and the Prime Minister. I want Italy and Xudia to stop fighting and to get along, but I don’t think that will happen, not until I become king. I love my Xudian heritage, but I also love my Italian heritage too. It really bothers me to know that my two cultures hate each other.”

“I know, kiddo,” I replied. “We’ll figure something out, but in the meantime, you should get some sleep. We have a long day ahead of us tomorrow.”

“Parli Italiano?”

I knew Luca was asking me if I spoke Italian. It warmed my heart to hear him actually speak it. My other boys refused to speak it outside of their own mandatory studies.

“Sì,” I replied, which told him that my answer was yes.

I started to walk away, but I heard that nickname pass his lips again.

“Abbo?”

I turned around to face him again.

“What does ‘wop’ mean?” he asked.

He must have heard Xir Charles call me that name. I sighed as the smile on my face disappeared.

“It’s a bad derogatory name, or racial slur, for Italians.”

“You mean like Mick is for the Irish and-”

“Yes, exactly,” I told him quickly. “And it’s like I always tell Eli and Kris, I better not ever hear you use any racial slurs, or your mouth will be washed out with soap.”

Luca’s eyes widened in shock for a moment but then went back to normal, and then he spoke up.

“You would dare to punish the future King of Xudia?” he asked as he sat upright.

I knew he was joking because he had a smirk on his face, but he was also curious to see what my response was.

“Yes, I would, because he’s not a king yet, and in my house, he won’t be given any special treatment, except for what is expected of him when he has to handle his duties as the heir to the Xudian throne.”

Luca nodded in understanding.

“I can respect that, abbo,” he said as he settled back into his pillows. “Goodnight.”

I smiled again as I walked over to his bedroom door, and then I put my hand over his light switch as I stepped out, but I looked back into his brown eyes.

“Goodnight, son,” I told him.

It was weird to call another kid, one older than my other two boys, my son. At the same time, I felt proud because Luca was very mature for his age. I had a feeling that Luca wasn’t going to give me too much trouble, so in that respect, I can say he’s more like his mother. I, myself, gave my mother hell growing up. Luca didn’t seem to carry that habit unless he was on his best behavior right now, and if that’s the case, then I’ll eventually see a rebellious side to him. However, I knew that raising Luca was going to be completely different from raising Eli and Kris. Since Ana has been to Xudia for a decade, she must know quite a bit about their culture, so I’m sure she would help me learn more about Luca’s culture, so I was confident in my ability to raise Luca just fine. I just wish that Camila was still here with us, so she saw Luca grow up and watch him eventually become King of Xudia.

After I closed Luca’s bedroom door, I then went to the only other available bedroom in this house, which happened to once belong to a young and teenaged Camila. I knew the room had not changed much since Camila matured and moved out on her own. Her room was a mixture of some teenage obsessions, like posters of musicians and actors, and some more mature stuff, like a bookshelf of really thick books, books for college students in different subjects. I had tears in my eyes because it felt like this room was frozen in time, and my gut told me the room would always stay like this. I didn’t want to disrespect this room by messing it up, even if I was just sleeping in her bed.

“Are you okay with sleeping in here?” asked a kind and gentle voice from behind. “I know it is hard for even myself to step in here. I cannot remove anything or touch anything without crying.”

I turned around to face Camila’s sweet mother, and I mirrored her soft but sad smile. Her gray hair was all up in a bun earlier today, but now she let her long hair all down, and it had a relaxed wave to it. When I looked into her eyes, I saw Camila because she and her mother shared the same crystal blue eyes. It was easy to know that Camila took after her mother in appearance and that had Camila had the opportunity to grow old, and she would have aged gracefully, just like her mother. Unfortunately, this would never happen.

“I’m so sorry for what happened to Camila,” I said to her quietly. “It makes me so sick to know that her husband was behind her death. If I knew about Luca when she was pregnant with him, I would have chased her all over the world because I wanted more than anything to marry her. I would have been good to her.”

Camila’s mother had tears in her eyes.

“I know,” she replied as the first of her tears slipped from her hold. “Her decision to keep Luca from you had nothing to do with you, specifically, but rather -”

“I know,” I replied. “It had everything to do with my mother, and I want to apologize for that. I want to apologize for my mother’s attitude and behavior towards Cami.”

“You are so sweet, Vince, and I would accept your apology, but Camila has told me frequently that she would leave it up to Luca to accept the apology directly from your mother.”

Wow. Just . . . wow.

“I understand, but does this mean that Luca knows the history between --” I began in curiosity, though Mrs. Juric already knew what the question was.

“Your mother and Camila?” she finished. “Yes, and Luca has vowed he would reserve his judgment until after he would meet her, and I anticipate he will, now that he’s in your care?”

Oh, yeah, he’s definitely my kid.

“I’ll talk to him about meeting her once we’re all settled in at my place. Can I talk to you about something that Camila mentioned in the letter I read earlier?”

“Sure,” Mrs. Juric replied as she sat down next to me on the bed in curiosity.

“She gave me pictures of the welts on Luca’s back … ”

Camila’s mother was silent for a moment, but I could also see the tears that surfaced.

“I’m not sure what she told you in her letter, but she and Luca confessed that it was happening for two years. Camila told us the day she dropped Luca off that he kept it from her all this time. She said she had been up all night making arrangements, writing letters, and making her final will just hours before her father notarized it since he has a personal side business as a legal notary, and we have a friend who is a judge. We tried to tell her that if we just got the police involved, she could file a restraining order against her husband, but she insisted there wasn’t a moment to lose, not after the way their last conversation ended. We called the police, but she insisted on leaving and finding you before personally speaking with the cops. She knew Luca would be safe with us for the time being if we called the police, but she feared for her own life. All she could think about was you. She quite literally called your agent ten times.”

Okay, Mr. Michaelson was officially fired when I get back home. He made me super angry, yet I felt so helpless because I couldn’t do anything to prevent what happened to Camila. I sighed in defeat as I looked down for a moment.

“I’m so sorry,” I apologized. “I didn’t get any messages.”

“It’s not your fault,” Mrs. Juric replied. “Whether or not you got the messages would not have made a difference because that husband of hers was determined to … ”

I saw it in Mrs. Juric’s eyes. She blamed herself. I knew she was about to break, but she inhaled deeply and kept her kind eyes locked with mine.

“I’m sorry,” she apologized. “I am quite exhausted. Is there anything I can do for you before I turn in for the night?”

I knew this was her way to say she was finished with this conversation. I understood. I respected this wish.

“Actually, yes. With all due respect, I don’t think I can sleep in here,” I answered softly.

Mrs. Juric nodded in understanding.

“I understand. I will quickly make a place for you in the den down in the basement. It gets a little chilly down there. Come on down whenever you are ready. If you have any trouble sleeping, feel free to watch television or find comfort in whatever it is that you may find comfort in. Our home is yours.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Juric.”

The woman smiled softly as she brought her hand up to my face as she had done earlier. I saw so much pain in her eyes as she thought about Camila. I sensed she tried to hide it, but it was too obvious now, but I didn't dare point it out to her.

“Please … Just call me Marija.” I felt super awkward with the idea of that, but there was no need to call her by her first name at this moment, so I just nodded respectfully.

“Good night, Vince.”

“Good night, and thank you for your hospitality,” I answered. “It means a lot to me.”

Instead of saying a word, Mrs. Juric nodded in acknowledgment with a subtle bow of her head, and then she left the room. I took one last glance around my first love’s teenage room and then walked out. I liked Camila’s parents. They’re so kind, and genuine, and respectful. Before I left the room, I turned back and looked above Camila’s bed. Above it was a big picture frame of her in a professional shoot, probably at the age of nineteen, based on the style of hair she had back when this photo was taken. She had her long raven locks styled to the side with subtle caramel highlights to add beauty and life to her gorgeous and soft hair. Tears immediately surfaced, but I kept hold of them and did as Mrs. Juric did with a deep intake of air.

“Good night, Camila,” I whispered as I turned off the light to her room and then closed the door but stood there frozen for a moment before I walked away. “I love you.”

Chapter 4

An Interesting Turn of Events




I

was used to sleeping in strange places, but it was hard for me to sleep in this house. Honestly, I got no sleep whatsoever. All I could think about was that monster who came to see me in upstate New York after one of my solo performances. Who in the hell does that kind of thing? Does he think this is a game? I knew there was something about him that I didn’t like when I shook his hand during his introduction. Good God, I can’t believe I even accepted his handshake. It takes a sick, twisted, and perverted individual to pull the kind of move he did that night.

Before I knew it, my mind had taken me back to the morning that Camila had left me. She was noted for always leaving my apartment earlier than when the sun rose in the morning, so she could avoid the paparazzi that would crowd around my secured apartment building, but she never left a note or letter for me. That’s why I had a sense of dread when I saw that letter on her pillow that morning ten years ago. I remembered going over to my parents’ house later that afternoon to confront my mother. Until now, that has been the only other time in my life that I was furious with my mother.


***


“What did you say to her yesterday, Mother?” I asked as I was in my mother’s face in the kitchen.

“I didn’t say anything to her!” my mother exclaimed as the ends of her curly raven locks whipped me in the nose and chin while she turned around to finish cooking Pop’s lunch on the stove. “We just talked about some lab work that she’s recently had done, that’s all.”

“C’mon, Ma, you and I both know that’s a lie! Cami wouldn’t just up and leave me! I saw the tear stains on this letter she wrote,” I told her as I tried to show her the letter Camila left to me, but my mother shoved my hand out of her face. “She told me in her letter she couldn’t be with me because you don’t accept her, and you never will! I’ve done everything that you’ve ever asked of me. I’ve done every audition, played in every show and every movie you wanted me to, and I even gave you and Pop every dollar I ever made until I turned eighteen! Why can’t you just give me this one thing, this one thing called freedom to love who I want to love? Why!”

“Oh, alright, Giovanni, calm down!” she yelled back as she met my glare with her own chestnut brown eyes, and then she put her right hand on her hip and looked me straight in the eyes. “Do you seriously think her family is going to accept her being married to an Italian? I sure as hell know our family won’t accept her being a volmen!”

My mother didn’t just call Camila by the derogatory name of her own Xudian culture!

“That’s it; I’m finished with you!” I shouted back as I turned around and grabbed my car keys off the kitchen table.

“Giovanni, I’m only looking out for your best interests!”

I turned around as quickly as I could and gazed hard into my mother’s eyes.

“If you were looking out for my best interests, you wouldn’t be doing this to me!” I fired back. “You would see that your hatred for the love of my life and her culture is tearing me apart!”

I knew my mother saw my tears of devastation threatening to slip from my hold, but she didn’t care about how much this hurt me.

“You were bullied for most of our time in Brooklyn, called a wop every single day by whites, blacks, even Spanish when you went to school, and you cried every day when you came home from school. If you don’t think that marrying a Xudian and mixing your blood with hers in children would make things worse for your children, then you better remind yourself of what you went through with such racism against you. It’s hard enough to honor and protect your heritage and be proud of it while simultaneously dealing with racism and trying to live the American dream! Why do you want to make it more difficult for your future children? That is what I told Camila yesterday, and she knows that I’m right!”

I had tears in my eyes. It was hard for me to see my mother in this light, but now I understood why she felt the way she did. It hurt more to hear it from her, but I knew she was honest in her statement.

“She’s volmen, Giovanni.”

And there it was. My mother - a devout Catholic and a follower of Jesus - had just confirmed that she was indeed a racist. Calling Camila a dirty thief in her own Xudian language was a derogatory term for their culture. Camila once told me it had everything to do with the history between Italy and Xudia. I couldn’t believe my mother used this word twice now in this argument!

“C’mon, Mother, this is 2009! Society has come a long way from the days of the old, so who in the hell do you think you are, calling Camila volmen when you’re supposed to be this God-fearing person who tries to follow Christ? You might go to church every week, but you’re certainly not a Christian if you’re racist against any other culture!” I shouted as my blood boiled in a rage I had never known before. “I’m done with you!”

“Giovanni!” she started, but I pounded both of my fists hard on the kitchen table, which shut her up real quick.

“You’re a hypocrite, Mother, and I don’t want anything to do with you or any of our racist family ever again! If being an Italian means being a racist and a hypocrite, then as far as I’m concerned, I’m an American, and that’s it! Screw heritage and screw you!” I saw tears build up in my mother’s eyes, but I didn’t care because it was about time she felt some kind of pain that she brought on to me. “I’m done with you! I’m done with you trying to control me and control who comes in and out of my life! I don’t ever want to see you or hear from you again!”

“How dare you speak to me like that!” she started to say, but this time I walked away from the table and threw my right dominant index finger in her face.

“No, Mother! How dare you? How dare you try to tell me who I can and cannot love? As I said, I’m done! You can go to Hell!”


***


My mother couldn’t say anything to my last statement. She just cried as I turned around and walked out. A year and a half would pass before she and I spoke again, and we only spoke again because of Ana. I don’t know what conversation those two had when Ana and I had gotten engaged, but Ana somehow got my mother to apologize first. Then I apologized because my mother wasn’t the only one who did and said things in that argument that shouldn’t have been said and done.

Now that I recall that fight, it was easy to see that the signs were there. I was just so angry with my mother that I missed what she said about Camila’s lab work and talking about a future family. How could I have missed that? If I hadn’t let my anger get the best of me that afternoon, I would’ve connected the dots, and I would’ve driven down here to North Carolina and chased after Camila immediately. I would never have let her go if I knew she was pregnant. Had I connected the dots that day and chased her down here, she never would have married the monster she did because she wouldn’t have met him. God, if I would have only chased after her ten years ago, she would still be alive today.

Now I knew why I couldn’t sleep. Tears instantly filled my eyes and threatened to fall, and I couldn’t hold them back. I couldn’t sit upright, but I couldn’t lie down anymore either, so I just rolled to my left side and slipped off the sofa in the darkness of the den as the sobs escaped uncontrollably. In one move, as I glided off the couch, I was able to turn my body at least to face the sofa, and I was soon on my knees with my forehead buried into the edge of the couch. The guilt, the shame overwhelmed me into such despair.

“Oh, God!” I exclaimed at the start of my first official prayer in a decade.

After that last fight with my mother over Camila leaving me, I had walked away from the church and turned my back on God. I wondered a lot these last few years if He even actually existed, but now I’m faced with the thoughts of what happens after death. Is this the end for Camila? It can’t be! There has to be a good place, a Heaven for truly good people like my Cami, even if I never made it there myself.

“Please … hear me! Forgive me of every sin, of every sin … transgression … and iniquity that I’ve committed.” I slowly but gradually brought my hands above my forehead on the sofa. “I’m sorry … for turning my back on You! What happened to her … I know that I’m to blame, but please forgive me for not chasing her … for not standing by her side when she needed me to protect her … please send me a sign that she didn’t suffer in her death, that she came to You in peace … please!”

I couldn’t finish my prayer with the usual ending because I couldn’t find the courage to speak anymore due to the overpowering guilt and shame I now had on my back. My anguish wholly consumed me, and I just couldn’t find the strength to fight it, so I just let it all out.

“Oh, Father in Heaven, please hear my prayer.”

What the … how did he get down here without my knowledge? I had perfect hearing! His words were just so comforting to hear that it had gradually quieted my soul, which in turn stilled my sorrow, for I somehow knew I needed to hear more of that soothing voice of my son, which was music to my ears right now.

“Please replace Abbo’s guilt and shame with everlasting peace. Show Your presence to him and bring him comfort, for the pain he is in is great, and he needs You now more than ever. I will help him too.”

He even sounded like he was right next to me on my left. I turned on the lights and confirmed my suspicion of his position near me but stayed quiet as I listened to his sweet prayer. He was so different from his brothers.

“I know now what it is that You want me to say to him, and I understand why, so by Your will, it will be done. Just please wrap Your loving arms around him for all the comfort and peace, and strength he needs to get through this. In Jesus’ name, Amen.”

This kid … was incredible! I sensed an immense fire in him for the love of God and Christ that it had me in tears. I don’t even know what to say to him, except …

“Amen.”

I watched as he made the sign of the cross on his forehead, chest, and his shoulders, a telltale sign that Camila had him practicing his faith through Catholicism. I turned around and sat down on the floor with my back to the front of the sofa. My eyes met his, and silence filled the air. Then I realized I wanted to ask him something.

“How long have you been down there?” I asked as I placed my right arm on the couch, and stretched it over the edge while I brought my left knee up to my chest, and hung my left arm over my left knee.

He was quiet for a moment as our eyes remain locked. I knew he had something on his mind.

“I came down here when you were listening to music with those buds in your ears. Mommy once told me I have perfect hearing, like you, so I knew I needed to be super quiet.”

That was probably about a couple of hours ago. Has he truly been down here that long? Why?

“I couldn’t sleep … and knowing you’re here in the house …” he continued as he used this opportunity to turn around, sit himself down beside me on my right, and then continued to stare into my eyes as he rested the back of his neck and head against my right arm. “I just wanted to be close to you.”

I … don’t know what to say to that. I just stayed silent and basked in the fact that he wanted to be close. Man, do I wish I could have seen him grow from such a tiny miracle at birth to this kid sitting beside me! Eli wasn’t very affectionate, but when he was, he was usually snuggled up to Ana. Kris was super affectionate, and he was always all over me. It was this kid before me that I wasn’t too sure of yet. I knew that I had to be careful with him because I didn’t want his wires to get crossed between the abuse he endured from his stepfather and the genuine fatherly love and guidance that I would give him. It was a given that he was a huge hugger since he wrapped his arms around me several times today, but I don’t ever want him to think I would be abusive like his stepfather was.

“I’ve personally overheard the police officers telling my nana and pappy about the accident. Mommy died on impact.” My breath shook at those words, and I felt the sting of tears in my eyes again, but I kept my gaze on Luca, and he mirrored my tears as well. “She didn’t suffer, not for one second, and she is experiencing the greatest peace she can know. She is home in Heaven and in joy over the fact that you and I are finally together. I know this in my heart. I can feel it.”

I had to nod in agreement to this.

“You didn’t commit any sin or transgression or iniquity against mommy or me by not being there for us. I don’t know if you can feel it, Abbo, but something profound is happening in our lives right now. Everything happens for a reason, and it’s my firm belief you weren’t meant to be in mine and Mommy’s lives these past ten years because you were meant to be with Ana. You were meant to have the kids you have, including the one that is on her way.” Wait … did he just say her? “God wrote our lives long before any of us were ever born, which means He has never been and never will be caught off guard because He knows exactly what happens, how it happens, and why.”

Wow. This kid was definitely on to something, and he was very perceptive. I can see why Camila had raised him the way she did. This kid had a serious destiny ahead of him. He will make a great leader someday.

“Please don’t blame yourself for what happened to Mommy. The accident wasn’t your fault. You’re not to blame, and you never will be. Remember this phrase: ‘Be still and know that I am God.’”

I nodded in acknowledgment.

“I am,” I replied.

“No, Abbo, I don’t think you understand,” Luca answered, which confused me. How was a ten-year-old child telling me that I don’t understand what ‘being still’ meant? “In original Hebrew, ‘to be still’ actually means ‘to let go.’ Let go of your fears, your guilt, your shame, and your stress. Let go of it all while knowing who God is and what He’s done for you, and what He’ll do for you. God is mighty, Abbo, and He will take you further in your faith and strength and courage and confidence than you ever thought possible - if you only give to Him by letting go of what holds you back.”

Wow. Just … wow.

“I don’t blame you for not being there because, in truth, you have been there for me every day.” Wait, what? “You’ve been there for me through your shows, and your movies, and through your music. You just didn’t know it … until now, that is. I love you, Abbo.”

Aw. His words touched me. I didn’t even know what to say to him, except for the obvious with a smile.

“I love you too, kiddo.”

Chapter 5

A New Day Dawning




L

uca went upstairs to change when the sun rose, and I just got ready down here in the den. When I was finished and had all my things packed, I folded the blanket I was given and placed it neatly on the sofa next to the pillow that I straightened out. Once completed, I took my stuff and headed upstairs. I soon saw that Xir Charles Oswad had returned to the house, and it seemed he was in a bit of a tiff. He was tall and slender, probably about six foot even, with extremely dark hair and olive-toned skin, like Kristijan’s. Kristijan’s skin, however, was slightly darker, and he was short and stocky. He couldn’t have been more than five feet and six inches in height.

“Must we bring the Italian?” Xir Charles Oswad asked as he hadn’t realized I was within hearing range.

His hatred for my culture couldn’t be more obvious, but at least he didn’t use a racial slur this time. Since he was the right hand to the King of Xudia, I just knew I would have to deal with him more than I did yesterday and probably more so today. He was an integral part of the royal court, and since I was handed custody of the heir to the Xudian throne, I would have to deal with this man on many more occasions formally. As much as I hate to see how he has been a horrid representation of the hatred of his people, I knew I’d have to represent my people in the best light, which meant I’d have to be friendly and respectful to him even when the occasion wouldn’t call for it.

“Does His Majesty want the prince to return to Xudia?” asked Mr. Juric.

Before I realized it, Luca was by my side and watched me watch those two quietly argue with one another, and he smirked. I brought my right index finger up to my lips as a signal for him to be quiet, and then he made some hand signs, but his lips parted in silence.

“I don’t like him,” he spoke with no noise and then pointed to Xir Charles.

“Me either,” I mouthed back in silence with a headshake and smirk.

At least I wasn’t alone in how I felt about this man. We both then turned our attention back onto his grandfather and Xir Charles. 

“Yes, but --” Xir Charles began, though Mr. Juric wouldn’t let him finish.

“Then you are going to have to deal with Mr. Palladino. His Majesty cannot disregard Vince’s custodial rights over the crown prince. Now he has agreed to bring Luca back to Xudia, and I’m sure Luca will not leave without showing Vince the sights. There will be a time and a place to discuss the future of the crown. His Majesty can rest assured of that.”

Xir Charles huffed but stayed silent, and I took this as my opportunity to announce my presence. I think that Luca knew what I was about to do in the way I moved because he stepped forward first, and then I just followed.

“Good morning,” I stated out loud.

Immediately the look on both of Xir Charles and Mr. Juric’s faces told me that their little argument was now over.

“Good morning,” Kristijan replied, and then he looked at my duffle bag in my hands. “I see you are read and packed?”

“Yes, absolutely,” I answered. Before packing up in New York, I had considered catching a flight to join my wife and boys in Greece after Camila’s funeral, though a flight to Greece was out of the picture for the moment, but thank God I brought my passport along. “I’m ready whenever you are.”

“Wonderful!” Mrs. Juric responded from behind as I heard steps approach. “Is the plane ready?”

I turned to find Mrs. Juric had her attention solely on Xir Charles, and when I turned to look at him, I saw him bow subtly.

“They are preparing it for us now as we speak, milady,” he replied as he stood up straight again. “They should be ready for takeoff by the time we get there.”

“Excellent,” Mrs. Juric replied. “Please see to it that the bags are packed into the car, and please take Mr. Palladino’s bag as well.”

“Oh, no, I would be happy to help pack the bags,” I stated, which surprised everyone, but I turned my eyes on Xir Charles. “Let me help you, Sir.”

“It is pronounced Zir, like your English Z,” he corrected in a sarcastic tone, but then he saw the stern look from Kristijan. “With all due respect, of course. You will be an honored guest in our palace and our country, but anyone with the title of Xir may not be as nice about educating an honored guest in the correct pronunciation.”

Oh, he hated my guts, but I won’t let that deter me from my plan, so I just smiled.

“Thank you. I appreciate that,” I said as I now followed him to the kitchen where the other suitcases were, and I grabbed one while he grabbed two.

When we got outside, and led me to one of the two cars, and he opened the trunk. Then he put the suitcases inside, turned around to face me, and proceeded to take my duffel bag and the other suitcase from me.

“No one touches my duffle bag but me,” I replied, but I gave him the suitcase.

Xir Charles retracted his hands with the suitcase in one and put that suitcase in the trunk, but then he placed both his hands behind his back as he met my stern gaze.

“You are the guardian of the crown prince, are you not?” he asked me.

Oh, great, here comes that condescending tone of his.

“Yes, but --”

“No buts,” he interrupted with a glare. “As the guardian of the crown prince, you won’t be expected to lift even a finger, despite how much people will want to spit at you for being an Italian with direct access to our crown prince and the royal court.”

I stepped in front of him at this point. I was so close that my nose almost touched his.

“Listen up, pal,” I warned him softly. “You’re making it really difficult for me to show you respect, which you don’t even deserve right now. I have no issues with Xudia or the king. I don’t hate your culture or spit on it. I never have, and I never will. I’m not a racist, and maybe some Italians don’t like your culture, but not all of them are like that. If you would just set aside your anger and show me a smidge of respect, you would be surprised at how far my respect for you would go.”

“Believe it or not, Mr. Palladino, this is me being nice, and I’m only as nice as I am because His Majesty has demanded so.”

The king? Really? Okay …

“Well then, respectfully, Xir, I suggest you adjust your tone because you come off as rude and condescending,” I replied as I put my duffel bag in the trunk and then shut the trunk and looked him in the eyes. “I have to ask. Why do you hate my culture so much?”

Xir Charles was about to respond, but I quickly parted my lips again.

“Never mind. That’s a stupid question that will only result in a bigger argument that’s just not worth my time. Let me ask you this. Is there any chance that you and I could start over with each other? Honestly? We both know we’re going to have to deal with each other for … well … probably the rest of our lives.”

Xir Charles inhaled deeply, which I think was a sigh of defeat, possibly?

“As much as I hate to say this, you are probably correct,” he agreed as he corrected his posture and adjusted his tone to a more respectful one. “I suppose we could … start over … but don’t expect me to hug you or shake your hand. I apologize for calling you a wop yesterday. It’s just that … every Italian I have ever met has either spit on me, or they were just downright nasty to me.”

“Well, shame on them,” I spoke. “I’m sorry that you had to go through that, but I can assure you that not all of us were raised in families that breed hatred. We need to start being kind to one another and show each other that neither of us is a bad person. I know Luca wants to bring peace to both our cultures, and if Luca is going to be a good king, we need to start somewhere. I don’t expect the two of us to be best friends or anything, but we should be united in the name of peace when we stand beside Luca.”

Xir Charles seemed quite surprised by my statement, and he relaxed his posture.

“Thank you, Mr. Palladino, and I have to say … you make a compelling argument.”

“Well, alright then,” I replied as I extended my dominant right hand for a shake. “Do we have a deal?”

Xir Charles looked at my hand for a moment.

“Is that an Italian thing to do, to make a deal by shaking your hands?”

I wanted to chuckle, but I didn’t want to come off as rude.

“No, it’s an American thing. My heritage may be Italian, but my nationality is American. That’s where I was born and raised.”

He was quiet for another moment, but then when he looked at my hand again, I saw a slight smirk, and then he shook my hand.

“Well, okay, I suppose we have a deal,” he replied as we both met each other’s gaze. “Now, I must go fetch the royals, for we must be in the air soon. His Majesty expects our arrival to be as soon as possible.”

I nodded in understanding as I let go of the handshake and watched as he took off. This conversation went better than I expected! Before I knew it, we were all together in the car and then on the private royal Xudian plane in the air. Since Luca and I had spent most of the early morning awake, and I couldn’t sleep then, I was too tired to remain awake for the whole flight. I got in at least enough sleep while flying over the entire Atlantic Ocean.

“Oh, child, I see inside your soul / That all your sins have taken their toll.”

That voice! Holy smokes! Immediately I woke up to find my ten-year-old son singing softly with his eyes closed as he sat across from me with earbuds in his ears. 

“I know that deep inside your heart / You’ve completely fallen apart.”

I wondered what artist he sang along to. I know I haven’t kept up to date with any contemporary worship artists, but this song was beautiful! I had instant tears in my eyes for two reasons. Camila was an okay singer, but this kid inherited his voice from me, and it made me proud to hear such a beautiful melody roll off his lips. Not only that, but the song … I knew he was mid-way through the song, but I needed to hear it from the start, though the song he sang moved me in such an unexpected way.

“But sweet, sweet child of Mine, I want you to see / That up on the cross your sins have died with me.”

Oh, my God. It was challenging to fight the tears. I had to wipe the initial ones away before they had a chance to slip.

“Please take My hand and walk with Me / I’ll tell you the truth, with Me you’re free.”

If I knew he would have sung this, I would have taken out my cell phone and turned on the camera. His lips closed now, but now he hummed along instead. He had such an expression of peace on his face, though. Did Ana ever hear him sing or sing like this? It would have floored my mother to listen to him sing right now.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Mrs. Juric asked from the windows at the other side.

I nodded as I turned in her direction.

“Oh, yes,” I answered. “If he wasn’t the crown prince, he sure could make a killing as a musician.”

Mrs. Juric nodded in agreement with a smile.

“Oh, you’re awake!” Luca exclaimed.

I guess he did have perfect hearing if he heard me talk through the music playing in his earbuds. I turned back in his direction and smiled. He returned my smile and then parted hips lips.

“We’re almost to England. We’ll have to stop there to refuel. Are you hungry?”

Not really.

“Are you?” I asked him.

“We already ate breakfast and lunch, but we didn’t want to disturb your sleep. You seemed so peaceful.”

That’s because my body was exhausted, as I’d been running on so little sleep these last few days. I was going to collapse sooner or later. I’ve never had trouble falling asleep on airplanes, though. Cruises and airplane rides were the places I actually got my best sleep, and I guess knowing that my son was close brought me comfort as well because it meant he was safe and out of harm’s way where the monster couldn’t get to him. So between all of that, it was easy for me to catch up on some of my Z’s.

“I can wait a while yet, to be honest,” I answered.

I really wasn’t hungry. I haven’t had much of an appetite over these past few days. I should eat, but I can wait until dinner time, I guess. It was still surreal for me, in a sense, to be traveling on a private royal plane to a country that my son was going to rule someday as their king. I could just sense that there was a new day dawning, and, to be frank, I wasn’t sure if I was ready for this yet.

Chapter 6

Just the Beginning




Since we couldn’t enter through Italy’s air space, we had to go around it and stop in Warsaw, Poland, and Ljubljana, Slovenia, before we turned south into Xudia. This trip literally took up an entire day, but that was okay with me because I got to bond with my son and his mother’s parents. I learned that Mr. Juric wasn’t Camila’s biological father, but instead, he was her stepfather from Croatia. Her biological father had died shortly after Mrs. Juric became pregnant with Camila. Sadly, they couldn’t do much for him because he had a bad fall and died from internal bleeding due to his Hemophilia.

Because Mrs. Juric’s second husband wasn’t of their Xudian culture, she was forced to give up her right to the throne, but Camila still inherited the crown because she was born in the palace of Moscjen. However, Mrs. Juric had an older sister named Anja, so when their mother died from giving birth to Marija, Anja took over their mother’s rule. Anja’s first husband died from a brain aneurysm, so she married Chaudhry Oorija, the one who was currently king. He didn’t have any heirs to the throne because Marija’s sister was barren, so Luca came to be next in line since Camila also married outside of their culture. Camila and Marija were still princesses due to their royal lineage, and because of their marriages to outsiders, they had no other choice but to pass the crown down to the next person in line.

“After the funeral, my king is going to plead with me to stay in Xudia,” Luca said as he locked his eyes with mine near the last forty-five minutes of our flight. “I would not be surprised if he pulled you aside as well since you are now my legal guardian.”

“I figured as much,” I replied, though I knew that Luca had something on his mind. “Do you want to stay?”

Luca was quiet for a few moments.

“Yes and no,” he answered thoughtfully. “No, because I get to be with you finally.”

If a heart could melt, mine certainly would have. I had tears in my eyes, but I kept them. I felt so bad that I couldn’t be there for this kid in the first ten years of his life!

“And yes, because … ?”

Luca smiled warmly.

“Look out the window. You should be seeing the mountains of Vopuyune right about now.”

I did as Luca asked, and I swear my breath got caught in my throat. These mountains were lush and green and gorgeous. I saw villages dispersed throughout the region on the outskirts of the hills and inside the mountains. The towns in the region of Vopuyune had an agricultural feel to them because outside of the mountains seemed to be cattle, horse, and sheep farms. There were even some fields where I saw some magnificent horses run free.

I honestly didn’t know if Xudia appeared to be more of a third world or first world, but this luxurious royal airplane made me think Xudia was a first-world country. It felt like it was a lot like the official airplane of the president of the United States, except this one belonged to Xudia. It had a lot of closed-off cabins and even an office room for official royal meetings. Xir Charles spent most of the flight in his own private quarters, except during meal times. Then he was out to help the flight attendants with preparing meals and delivering them to us.

“You have a beautiful country,” I replied as I pulled back and simultaneously turned towards my son and his grandparents.

“You just wait; you haven’t seen anything yet,” Marija stated.

“You’re going to love the caves, Abbo.”

I looked into my son’s eyes and saw that he was in awe. This would be the second time he’s mentioned those caves, and now I was curious, wanted to know what was so special about them. I had to respond to this.

“Oh, yeah?” He nodded but said nothing, though the grin on his face just got as wide as it could get. “Are you going to tell me what makes them special?”

“No,” he answered quickly. “You’re going to have to find out for yourself. I don’t want to spoil the surprise, but I must ask you. Do you still scuba dive or snorkel? Mommy said you were once certified to scuba dive, but I haven’t ever seen any pictures online of you scuba diving or snorkeling.”

“Yes, I’m still certified to scuba, but I haven’t had a diving adventure since Ana got pregnant with your brother, Eli. We all do snorkel from time to time, but in remote places, where we can get some privacy away from mainstream media.”

“Okay, good,” Luca replied.

“Why do you ask?”

Luca moved forward in his seat and lifted his eyebrows for a playful moment.

“Because if you are going to see the most beautiful parts of the Taergorijan caves, you need scuba diving and snorkel equipment, depending on which section you want to explore. The deeper you go, the more beautiful it is.”

Cave diving? Is he for real? I have honestly never dived in a cave before, not a real one, anyway.

“Why do you look like you’re afraid?” he asked when the expression on his face turned concerned after he studied mine for a few moments. “Have you never dived in a cave before?”

Was I that obvious?

“Actually, no, I haven’t,” I answered sheepishly. “I also didn’t think to bring my scuba gear with me.”

“Don’t worry about that,” Mr. Juric said as our attention was drawn to him. “We have scuba gear and suits in every size available. And, Luca, you know that Marko must go with you, right? There will be absolutely no sneaking off on him! He is there to make sure nothing goes wrong.”

Luca responded to him in Xudian, but Marija now spoke up to me again.

“Look out the window,” she said. “And tell me what you see now. You should see the fields of Darijam.”

I did as she asked, and when I looked out the window, I saw we were now in a new region, which looked like many fields and some villages, and some farmhouses were spread out. I saw grapes growing, wheat growing, and some other vegetables growing.

“I see wheat, vineyards, and … what are those fields growing purple plants?”

“Plum pitaya,” Marija answered, which caused me to look back at her. “It’s a type of lettuce, but purple like a plum, and can be a little sweet if left to ripen. It is a favorite in a lot of Mediterranean dishes.”

Ah, yes, I knew pretty well what it was. I had just never seen it in the ground before. I also had not realized that plum pitaya came from Xudia.

“Plum pitaya is one of our main sources of income with the import-export trade we have going with a lot of the countries surrounding the Mediterranean.”

“But not Italy, right?” I asked her. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen it in any dish in their restaurants or sold in the markets. I’ve seen it and had it in Greece but never saw it in Italy.”

Marija chuckled softly as her husband and Luca quieted down and turned to her.

“Yes, it is true Italy is exempt from the plum pitaya market,” she confirmed as the smile left her face, but she still kept her eyes locked with mine. “You are quite observant.”

“We’ll fix that,” Luca said, and then my eyes locked with his. “The king will ask me to stay here in Xudia, to begin my crown training here, may even be willing to expedite my training since I’m so smart.”

Seriously?

“And what will you tell him?”

“That I shall start it at home with you until I complete the first two years of basic training.”

“Then what?”

“Then I will be required to be here … in Xudia. I will be twelve then if the training goes according to plan. What would you do?”

Oh, shit. He was right. This would be a major game-changer in my professional career. It was bad enough that I canceled a week of tour dates for my latest album that went platinum. I couldn’t cancel the entire tour. Could I? I don’t know. I’m going to have to talk to Ana about this.

“I don’t know yet, kiddo,” I said honestly. “This is going to mean some major changes, things I have to talk to Ana about first.”

I think Marija saw panic in my face because she immediately responded.

“It’s alright, Vince. It’s natural for this to feel overwhelming to you. I assure you that Ana knows our customs quite well.” At that moment, I heard the ‘ding’ that every airplane has as a standard safety precaution, and I looked up and saw the buckle-up symbol was now lit up. “There will be plenty of time to talk about the crown later. Give our country a chance, get to know it. You might surprise yourself and fall in love with our culture like your wife has a long time ago.”

Oh? This was news to me. Man, Ana and I needed to talk. Once I saw Luca and his grandparents put their seatbelts on, I did as well. I looked out the window and saw we were so close. I no longer saw the fields of Darijam. 

As we descended, I saw how modernized this city was, and then I knew it was Moscjen. It was so elegant and looked so clean, and in the distance, I saw a grand and beautiful palace. It had an Indian or ancient Arabian-inspired style with its numerous white towers with gold domes. It was breathtaking! I saw what Luca meant when he had previously talked about the elegance of Moscjen.

“Wow,” was all I could say.

“I think he likes it already,” Luca said to his grandparents.

I turned to Luca and found a massive smirk on his face again as he now looked at me again.

“Just a little bit longer, Abbo, and then we can get off this plane.”

As soon as he said that, I felt the wheels coming out of their respective spots in the plane’s underside and knew we were landing within a couple of minutes. That was my favorite part of flying, the landing, and the takeoff. There was just something about the high speeds on the runway that brought me comfort when it touched down or started up. And there it was, the wheels finally touched the ground, and I was super nervous. I hoped I wouldn’t get the same treatment from the people of this country that I had initially received from Xir Charles.

Chapter 7

Welcome Home




Once we landed, it was clear there were no cars here in Moscjen. Most people either had bicycles or horse-drawn carriages in various styles, and some even had total electric vehicles, though those vehicles were relatively tiny. The airport was small and simply just a runway that was big enough for this plane to take off from or land on, but now they prepared to fly the plane back to the Slovenian border where the Xudian royal aircraft’s hangar was built and secured. According to Camila’s parents, it was highly discouraged to even bring the plane here into Xudia because of their laws which helped to protect the environment by eliminating carbon emissions as much as possible. However, it was allowed under certain circumstances, such as the one we faced with bringing Princess Camila home in her casket.

Once we exited the plane, I saw that there were about eight armed guards that had already placed Camila’s casket on top of a mobile platform they already prepared for her. They stood firmly in position, four on the left side and four on the right side, to carry her to the palace tombs where all royals were buried. There was also an enclosed black and royal blue horse-drawn carriage with a beautiful gold decal on it, which guards also surrounded. Those guards dressed differently compared to the ones focused on Camila’s casket. The ones that protected the royal coach had more of an appearance that closely resembled medieval knights with a more modern and slender touch, which to me was kind of weird for this day and age.

They were the ones that I figured were some of Xudian’s elite soldiers, but it sure surprised me with how old-fashioned they dressed. They carried a shield in their left arm, but in their right hand, they held a Xudian flag that had a pole length of about seven or eight feet, though I wasn’t too sure on the actual height. They also had real swords attached to the left sides of their fully armored bodies, which made me wonder how they handled the weaponry of today’s modern world. There was certainly no way they could fend off the bullets of guns, as well as any form of nuclear power, with their shields and swords. Or maybe I’m wrong, and it’s all just customary for show because every single shield and knight-like uniformed soldier had shiny armor and metal that looked like it just came off a production line.

As for the other soldiers who now carried Camila’s casket, they looked more world-class. The fashion industry could probably borrow some inspiration from these soldiers. It was easy to see that they wore grey skin-tight hoses with short, black, almost futuristic-looking leather boots that appeared to have no shoe buckles, hook and loops, laces, or zippers. How in the world could they get those boots on and off their feet? It also appeared at first as if they had virtually no means of protection, but upon a closer look, I saw they all did wear handguns and holsters right below the black sash wrapped around their uniforms at the hips.

The most fascinating part about their uniform was this navy blue, grey, and red, almost mesh-like material that just hung freely in alternating stripes from the black sash as if it was a jester’s costume skirt, but it stopped at the knees. Their navy blue breeches matched their forearm braces, which I knew were made of Kevlar. I liked how the forearm braces went over the thumbs and up to the elbows. I saw that they had some smaller weapons like knives in the pockets inside the forearm braces for close combat. From the waist up, it was easy to see these soldiers wore solid black Kevlar vests. 

Under the slim Kevlar vests were navy blue short-sleeved shirts that matched their shoes perfectly when it came to the material they were made of. They had chainmail overtop, though. On the chest of the Kevlar vests were bold white initials of X.S.F. I guessed that was the acronym for their branch of the military service or government agency. It must also be how they identified themselves in a crisis whenever somebody utilized their services.

“Mr. Palladino!”

I turned my head where I heard my name and immediately realized that the Xudian Police Force had held a crowd of rowdy people back and away from the plane about fifty feet, several of which had cameras and tried to catch my attention. Oh, great! Were the paparazzi here already? I had a feeling all hell would break loose on the internet before the end of the day. I promised Ana I would call her and let her know I’ve landed in Xudia, but once I’d do that after we reached the palace and settled in, I planned to turn off my phone for the rest of this trip. I didn’t want to be disrespectful and rude to the people of this country, which already hated my own culture, and I needed to be the best example and show this nation that my people were not bad. I also wasn’t ready to deal with my mother, and if the paparazzi were here, the news of my visit to Xudia would hit the internet in less than an hour, and my mother would soon call my phone tirelessly until I answered it. Xir Charles drew my attention away from the unruly crowd by whispering into my ear.

“Come quickly. We must get into the coach and head towards the palace before the crowds here get larger.”

I nodded in total agreement on this, and he stayed by my side, as did Camila’s parents, and Luca walked in front of us. We stepped up a notch and focused only on the royal coach until we got inside and sat down. It was one of those enclosed carriages, so it was easy to hide my face from the crowd for now and still be able to relax. Just as I turned my head towards Xir Charles, he spoke to Camila’s parents in Xudian, and they responded to him in Xudian. There was tension between all of us, and I just had a feeling their conversation was about me, but of course, I couldn’t accuse or confirm, though Luca spoke up to me in Italian.

“You look very much like our king when he was your age,” he explained to me in Italian, which instantly got a dirty look from Xir Charles and Camila’s parents. He threw a look right back at them before his eyes met mine, and he continued in Italian. “Have no fear. They cannot understand us. This conversation is just between you and me, but Abbo, I must tell you … once my people see your face, you will be the talk of our nation, and soon the conspiracy theories will start.”

This was odd. Spine chilling, to be honest. Just plain creepy.

“How much do I look like your king?” I asked, and of course, kept the conversation in Italian, though that didn’t keep prying ears from trying to understand anyways.

Luca was quiet for a moment before he spoke up again.

“Enough for the people to question our king’s past before accepting the crown, or enough for the people to question our king’s true Xudian lineage. Any doubt in our king means doubt in our government, which will create nothing but much civil unrest, which would be trouble we really cannot have right now.”

Luca’s explanation had me worried, but he remained calm and showed no change in emotion.

“Well, what do you think?” I asked him. “Do you think I look like him?”

“I have seen a portrait of him and our late queen when they first married. It is in his royal chambers and huge, and … you do look identical to him. It is creepy. To many of our people, when they see you for the first time in your first official public appearance at the funeral tomorrow, it will be like looking at a ghost. Do not be surprised if the people make no interaction with you and step away from you in fear, not because of your Italian heritage, but because of how much you look like our king from when he was young. He has aged a lot since he has undergone treatment for pancreatic cancer, so he won’t appear anything like he used to look. However, when he sees you … ”

“He’ll have questions for me, isn’t he, personal questions that I may or may not be able to answer because I have no clue why I look a lot like he did when he was young. Am I going to be allowed access to see that phot--” I began to ask, but Luca knew already what was on my mind. 

“No,” Luca interrupted quickly. “It is in his royal chambers, and very few people are allowed in His Majesty’s chambers. Not even Ana or Mommy have ever seen his chambers. I snuck in there one time through the hidden pathways between every room in the palace. But whatever you do, Abbo, never question the king. If he asks you any questions you cannot answer, be sure to add the words ‘with all due respect,’ unless he says you can be informal with him. The king has a very short temper, and these days, he is short on patience as well.”

I was quiet for a few moments, and I knew Luca knew I had a lot on my mind.

“Okay, we get it; we will speak English,” Xir Charles stated.

Luca put his right index finger up in front of Xir Charles, who sat across from him, and the man shut up instantly. Then Luca turned back to me again and continued in Italian. I knew he wasn’t ready to end our private conversation.

“I can sneak a visit into the royal chambers again and snap a picture of the king’s portrait from when he was-”

“No, no, no,” I answered back. “No sneaking around in the palace, please. I don’t want either of us to get caught in something that goes against any restrictions, rules, or laws. There’s bound to be some serious consequences with that, so no.”

Luca definitely inherited my bad habit of sneaking around and being in places he didn’t belong, which I used to do when I was a minor because it was a way for me to break free from all my mother’s restrictions she had on me. Sometimes I got caught, sometimes I didn’t. If Luca would ever be a kid that gets into any kind of trouble, it would most certainly involve the act of sneaking around, which meant I would have to keep an extra close eye on him in that regard. Good God, he’ll be raging with hormones in a few years too, which meant I would need to keep an eye on him and his habit of sneaking around. I knew Luca knew that behind the serious expression on my face, I was a little anxious with his suggestion of sneaking around in the king’s royal chambers because he placed his right hand on top of my left.

“Okay, I promise I won’t,” he said, but then he finally turned back to the English language. “When we reach the palace and enter the throne room, you will want to stop about three-quarters of the way into the room so that you may kneel properly. Your right knee should touch the floor, and your right arm should form a ‘V’ across your chest, with your fist touching your left shoulder, and your head should bow. You must also not speak in the throne room unless His Majesty addresses you directly.”

I nodded in acknowledgment.

“Good to know,” I replied. “Thank you.”

“It may sound ridiculous, but knowing you hardly know our culture, His Majesty will certainly appreciate these gestures,” Mr. Juric stated.

“Hardly. He won’t be pleased to have an Ital--” Xir Charles immediately caught the dirty look that Luca threw him, so the man quickly corrected himself as he met my eyes again. “An outsider at the royal funeral for Princess Camila. No offense.”

“No offense taken,” I replied. “I understand there’s a lot of history between our two cultures, but I’m not here to disrespect yours. I’m here to pay my respects to Princess Camila and make sure that Luca can do this as well. Of course, as Luca’s legal guardian and father, I will do everything I can to be there for him, as he does want to accept the crown.”

Xir Charles immediately lit up with surprise and turned over to Luca.

“Is this true? You have made your final decision?” he asked.

“I have,” Luca replied quietly, calmly. “But there are matters I would like to discuss with His Majesty in private quarters with only my father to be present before I publicly announce that I will accept the crown.”

This seemed to frustrate Xir Charles, as it was written all over his face, but he managed to muster a smile with a subtle nod of his head in acknowledgment.

“Of course, sire, as you wish,” he said softly but then shut up for the rest of the trip.

About halfway through the ride, all of the soldiers that carried Camila’s casket split off from us, and so had the medieval knight-like soldiers. We had gone in the direction towards the palace, and before I knew it, I was face to face with this grand and beautiful building. Just as soon as the horses stopped this royal coach ride, I heard trumpets sounding. I looked out the window to find more soldiers that looked like the ones carrying Camila to the royal burial tombs. These soldiers were lined up in the form of a path, and they stood there playing their trumpets until we walked towards the palace entrance.

Just as soon as we entered, the trumpets stopped, but we were quickly taken to the throne room first. When we had arrived, I saw the King of Xudia upon his throne with a cane in his right hand, though he looked so fragile. No amount of navy blue and white garment beautifully adorned by gold and other fancy colorful jewels could hide the fact that this ruler sitting before us was practically skin and bones. His head hung low like a man too weak to lift his head and see anyone before him, and he looked like he was in his seventies and simply too tired to carry on. When I laid my eyes on him, I sensed the urgency in Luca accepting the crown because this king before us didn’t have long for this world anymore, and the fact that this was so painfully obvious made me feel sorry for him.

Since Xir Charles was ahead of Luca, and Luca was ahead of his grandparents, I saw in action how they knelt before their king, though I expected that Mrs. Juric would only need to curtsy. Just as Luca had told me how to do so, Xir Charles did his kneel, and one by one, everyone else followed until I was last to show my respect. Having seen how the others did it, I knew I could do it, so then I did. It certainly felt awkward, but I honestly wanted to make a great first impression and be as respectful as possible. Then I heard the oddest phrase that I didn’t think I would hear from the King of Xudia.

“Vieni avanti,” he commanded, which meant ‘Come forward’ in Italian.

Did he know Italian? He may have looked weak, but his stern voice showed me there indeed was strength in him yet. I did as he asked, and when I approached the steps of the throne, the guards there immediately brought their halberds in front of me, and these ax-like weapons on their poles made an ‘X’ right smack in front of my face, which prevented me from stepping forward.

“N’os fjo’nei!” he shouted to his guards. I didn’t know what that meant in Xudian, but they immediately removed the ‘X’ in front of me and placed their weapons back by their sides. “Vieni qui.”

Clearly, his guards didn’t understand Italian, though he was undoubtedly fluent when he told me to ‘Come here,’ as he pointed towards the space before him. I slowly did as he asked, and I carefully observed his guards, ensuring they wouldn’t harm me, though I guess whatever he said to them in Xudian was a command to let me through. Once I walked past them, I slowly took to the seven steps before me, and I saw the king’s eyes had locked with mine the moment mine fell upon his face. When I approached him, I once again kneeled as I had done before and bowed my head with my eyes closed. Before I knew it, I felt the king’s cane underneath my chin, and slowly it had lifted my face as I opened my eyes and once more met the king’s own eyes, which I could now see were brown and filled with a pleasant surprise.

“Ahhh … Mr. Giovanni Vincenzo Palladino, the second of his name … and the son of Giovanni Vincenzo Vincenzo and Alessia Noemi Palladino.”

How did he know who my parents were? Perhaps he had help in researching my family and me. However, I didn’t know if this was my cue to respond or not, so I just stayed quiet.

“I have been waiting for this moment for many years, though I didn’t truly think this moment would ever arrive,” spoke the king quietly in English, almost in a whisper. Then he continued the next part of his statement in Italian with a phrase that stunned and confused me. “Benvenuto a casa.”

Why did he just tell me ‘Welcome home’ in Italian? Why did he say it so low so that no one heard him? Why did he look so ecstatic to see me? Why had he waited for this moment for many years? Was there more to the story about what Luca said about how I was identical in appearance to the king when he was my age? Upon a much closer look into his eyes, something had changed. Then I knew the answer to all my new questions about this man. Still, I honestly didn’t know if I could face the truth because if I did, it would change everything I ever knew about myself, including my identity.

Chapter 8

Heart-to-Heart




“Have you lost your tongue?” the king asked me in English. I hardly knew what to expect in this situation and didn’t know how to speak to a king. “You may speak freely.”

“Uh … Your Majesty,” I answered as I almost fumbled over my own words, so I stupidly bowed my head once more to cover up my embarrassment. “Thank you for the warm welcome. It’s an honor to be here.”

Once more, I felt the top of the king’s cane against my chin, so I followed his silent command and looked him in the eyes once more. He was gentle with the cane now underneath my chin, and his eyes showed only kindness.

“You may stand,” he continued. “Somebody will now show you to your quarters. Once you have settled in, you will meet me in the gardens, yes? I will arrange for one of your quarter guards to bring you. Then later, we shall have a banquet for you.”

I was stunned to hear this, but I knew I couldn’t argue with the king, so I smiled as I stood up but bowed softly.

“I would be honored, Your Majesty.”

“Good!” he exclaimed with a huge smile on his face. “Because we have much to discuss.”

Before I knew it, some guards took us to our rooms, and my mouth dropped when I saw mine. This room was probably around 1,300 square feet! If this room I stood in now was just a guest room, I wondered how big the rooms for royals were. I watched as my quarter guards closed the door behind me, and I figured they would probably remain there because there seemed to be many guards protecting a lot of rooms in this palace – not all the rooms, but certainly a great deal on this floor. I guess it was time to take a beat? If the king said he would arrange for one of my quarter guards to take me to the meeting in the gardens, I guess I was to relax in here for the time being.

I studied the room a great deal and found it to be decorated beautifully in gold, royal blue, and charcoal grey with so many earthy tones. I walked around the room for a bit as I took note of all the framed portraits of the landscapes of Xudia, and then I noticed there was an opening in a wall. I walked over to it and realized it was a little hall that led to another part of the room. It took me in the left direction about five feet, then forward about two, and then in the right direction again for another five feet. With the way these walls were designed, I almost missed it, and I wondered if there were many rooms like this in this palace? It would not surprise me because it would certainly make sense, especially for security purposes. At the end of this mini warped pathway, I turned to my left to find the hugest bathroom that I think I’ve ever seen in real life. Thank God they have modern plumbing here, but that in-floor Jacuzzi tub took up the entire center of this part of the room, which had an overhead shower installation built into the ceiling, yet it was so vintage in style and color!

I went back to the central part of the room and could hardly believe how flawless this room was, so perfect that I almost felt kind of … dare I say it … spoiled? I looked over at the California king-sized canopy bed with really thick, probably super expensive drapes that were rich in earth-toned colors. My eyes soon turned to an aged Oakwood side table that had a picture frame on it. Upon closer inspection, when I approached and picked it up, I saw that it was Ana and me with our two boys laughing on a private beach from one of the family vacations we took two years ago. This must be the room Ana occupied when she was here, and the fact that she purposely left this picture here so that she saw our boys and me before she went to bed at night and woke up each morning just made me love her even more. I couldn’t wait to hold her in my arms again. I missed her like crazy right now.

“I see you have found Ana’s picture,” said a voice from behind.

I turned in the direction, knowing instantly that Luca and I were perplexed at how he snuck up on me like this. How did he manage to do that? When the guards had initially closed the front entrance, a creaking noise went along with it, but I didn’t hear that creak again, this time with Luca here. I looked around to see if there was another door, but there wasn’t. He giggled playfully when he knew his sudden appearance threw me off, but he didn’t leave me puzzled for too long as he quickly spoke up.

“I can see that you are confused, but don’t be. Remember the hidden pathways I mentioned earlier in the coach?”

Now it made sense.

“Ah, yes, I do,” I answered and looked in the direction that he pointed by an antique desk that also seemed to be made of Oakwood. 

He pointed specifically to the wall, though it was closed, and the designs on the wall made it impossible to see the outline of the door built into that wall.

“I will show you the hidden passages tonight, but for now, I will log you into the laptop so that you can video call Ana,” Luca explained.

“Oh, that’s not necessary. I’ll just be making a quick ca--” I started to say, but once I took out my phone, I realized I was out of cell phone tower range.

“Believe me when I say that it sucks we don’t yet have cell phone towers in Xudia, but they’re in the works to be built. Ana knows this too, so I’m sure she is expecting a video chat before long. I just need to connect you to the VPN of the palace to do so.”

My eyes followed Luca over to the desk, and then I saw Ana’s Trillion laptop there, so I followed him. I watched as he pressed the following keys of b-@-1-L-3-y-o-3-!-7-!-2 while he spoke out loud at the same time.

“Bailey … March 17th … 2012.”

My eyes lit up in surprise when he entered that password into the laptop without any trouble while he said that name and date out loud. Hearing that name pass my oldest son’s lips nearly brought tears to my eyes. I tried to hide them, though, and held them back.

“She told you the password to the laptop?”

Luca looked up to me in response, confused by my reaction.

“Yes,” he said softly in a hesitant tone while he hit the ‘enter’ button on the keyboard so that it could finish its boot up. “When she gave me the laptop, she asked me not to change the password, so I haven’t. Does this upset you, Abbo?”

I turned away from the desk for a moment and walked over to the bed because I just knew I couldn’t let Luca see the tears collect in my eyes. I took in a deep breath as quietly as I could to remain calm about this, and then I managed to hold the tears back with strength. When I turned around again to look him in the eyes, I gestured with my head for him to come over here, which he did.

“Did she tell you what that name and those numbers mean?” I asked softly.

“No, but the letters reminded me of St. Patrick’s Day and Bailey’s Irish Cream liqueur. I thought it was cool. With all the studies I do in many various topics, one thing that never seems to stick with me are passwords unless I work out my own sort of mnemonics system based on associations and connections.”

Did he just say mnemonics? I did have a boy genius for a son, didn’t I? I haven’t heard this term since I graduated high school!

“You might think it’s a cool memory retention exercise, but please do us both a favor and leave alcohol out of it? You especially should never touch it, by the way, even when you’re an adult.”

I probably should’ve left the topic about that password alone. Hopefully, this new matter that I’ve changed the conversation over to will make Luca forget about the former subject. I’m pretty sure Ana would be angry and upset with me if she knew I told Luca what Bailey and those numbers meant to us.

“Yes, I know. Alcohol is a blood thinner and not something for someone with my condition. I assume Mommy told you about it in her letter?” Luca asked as he looked towards me and gazed into my eyes, yet all I could do was nod in silence. “You know what I wanted, Abbo, what I really wished I could have had the opportunity to be?”

I watched as Luca went back to the laptop but turned his back to it for a few moments and leaned his butt against the desk while he simultaneously folded his arms across his chest.

“What do you wish you could’ve been?”

“A doctor.”

That threw me off.

“A doctor? Really?” I asked.

Luca smirked as he looked down at the floor in front of him for a few moments.

“Yes. For a brief moment when I thought I didn’t want to be king, I studied in the world of medicine. I guess I was inspired after my liver transplant gave my blood the ability to clot on a more normal basis. It’s not a preferred treatment method for Hemophiliacs because it’s not a guarantee, though it is fascinating! I started helping out the doctors here with their patients, and when I came across a ward of young children dying of cancer, I wanted to cure them. I studied all kinds of medicines, all kinds of treatments, not only in the fields of Radiation and Oncology but just … all across the board, you know?” I watched as Luca’s eyes stayed on the floor for a few moments longer, but this time he had a sad expression painted on his face. “I wanted to help those children. None of them deserve cancer, but some of them don’t deserve the cards they were dealt with when it comes to life in general.”

I sensed that Luca had a story to share, as his eyes welled up with tears in them, and now he met my silent gaze.

“Take Rheya, for example. She’s twelve, and she has no family. She was orphaned as a newborn baby, only a few weeks old, but we believe she was orphaned because she is Deaf. She was diagnosed with Neuroblastoma at age five, and she’s been battling it on and off ever since, but she is a fighter. She’s Luna’s best friend, and she’s like a sister to me. She’s fighting for that one special day that some family will finally adopt her, but the statistics of our country show that no one wants to adopt a Deaf child or a child that is Hard of Hearing. Luna was actually the first Deaf child of Xudia to be adopted in recorded history, and that is only because Americans adopted her.”

That was sad. I mean, it was good for Luna, but the statistics of Deaf children adoptions here in Xudia were depressing to hear. Wait a minute … did he say the girl’s name is Rheya?

“Wait, did you say the girl’s name is Rheya?”

“Yes, Rheya Kujiac.” Why does that name sound so familiar? “Did Ana ever talk to you about her? I know Ana told Mommy once that she wanted to adopt Rheya but needed to speak to you first about that.”

Now I remember! A couple of years ago, after Ana went through her sixth miscarriage, she came to me and begged me to consider adopting a little girl she had met named Rheya, but it was right after losing our last baby. I thought it was a coping mechanism for her grief, and I, too, was distressed over that miscarriage. I had told her then that I didn’t think it would be a good idea to try to have any more kids. It was stupid and insensitive to say, even out of anger and frustration, and Ana and I didn’t talk for two whole months. 

During that time, she wouldn’t even let me sleep in bed with her. I had to sleep in one of the guest bedrooms. When I realized I was wrong, I put my pride and stubbornness aside to apologize to her, and then she finally allowed me back into our bed. I was even willing to talk about the idea of adoption, but at that point, she didn’t want to talk about it anymore. Anytime we tried to have kids, she miscarried, but now that we haven’t meant to try for two years, she was pregnant again. I hoped to God she brought the baby to full-term this time! I couldn’t help but think of Rheya, though. I was so stubborn and angry in my grief when Ana first mentioned her that I wasn’t willing to hear about Rheya’s story back then.

“She did talk with me about it, but honestly, at that time, my heart wasn’t ready to be a parent to another child, not after --”

“I remember that,” Luca stated quietly. “I remember Mommy crying on the phone with Ana when that happened. I’m sorry about Yarrow.”

“You know about Yarrow?” I asked.

“I know about all six, including the first one you lost in March of 2012. I kind of figured out the password is probably the name of the first one and the date Ana miscarried.”

That wasn’t a bad guess, but certainly, it was off by a little bit. I suppose that if he knew about all six, I could give him the real explanation. I gestured with my head for him to sit down on the bed, and when he did, I then spoke up.

“That’s a good guess, but … Bellamy … was going to be the name of our first child,” I started. “Bellamy … was conceived on Valentine’s Day, but then we lost the baby on March 7th. That name in the laptop password … Bailey … are the initials of all the babies we lost in the order of when we lost them and --”

“Those numbers aren’t a date, are they?” Luca interrupted. “Each one is according to how far along Ana was in her pregnancy with them.”

I nodded my head before I spoke up again, this time with tears that threatened to slip.

“Bellamy was three weeks, so not even a month, but Alex was three months, and Ica was one month. Lili, though … she was seven months. She seemed the strongest, but … then she was stillborn … and, of course, there was Embry who … like Ica … was also only one month.”

I don’t think I’ve ever talked about them out loud, their names, and … the tears were back.

“And Yarrow was two months,” Luca finished. “I’m so sorry for your loss of each of them, Abbo, and I’m sorry if I’ve upset you. I can understand why you weren’t ready to consider adoption when Ana brought it up to you.”

“You didn’t upset me, Luca, I promise,” I replied softly. “It’s just hard … to say their names out loud, but you should know who they were. We would’ve been a huge family.”

Luca was quiet for a few moments until he scooted closer and now sat right next to me. Then he placed his left hand on my heart. I knew he felt my sorrow.

“We are a big family … here … in the heart.”

I sensed Luca knew what I felt right now because the more he gazed into my eyes, the more his own eyes showed empathy as he mirrored my heartaches. The silence in the room, along with us just sitting here, was exactly what he knew I needed. I had no more words right now, and he didn’t need any, but he immediately removed his hand from my chest when there was a knock at the front door. Then he stood up and turned around. He held his shoulders back in a regal manner, spoke up sternly in Xudian, and then the doors opened.

“Your Highness,” said the quarter guard as he bowed. “I have been requested by the king to bring Mr. Palladino to the gardens.”

Luca and I once again met each other’s gaze, and with his head, he gestured towards the front door.

“Go,” he said softly. “I will video call Ana and let her know that we’ve arrived.”

“I will,” I said as I stood up. “But tell me, how’s Rheya doing now?”

Luca smiled warmly at this and put both his hands behind his back.

“Would you like to see for yourself and meet her?” he asked.

“It would be my honor,” I answered. “I’ll see you later?”

The biggest grin appeared from Luca’s face now, and I knew he tried to contain his excitement.

“Count on it,” he replied with a subtle nod of agreement.

I mirrored his body language and then left the room with my guard. I enjoyed our little heart-to-heart conversation immensely, and I looked forward to many more. For now, though, it was time to have a different kind of conversation.

Chapter 9

Truth Behind the Bitterness




When I was taken to the gardens, I saw the king already waited for me, but this time he had a pipe in his left hand while his cane remained in his right. I did what my quarter guard did with his bow towards Luca and bowed with my right arm in the shape of a ‘V’ as my fist touched my left shoulder. I’m not sure if I could ever get used to this. It still felt so awkward.

“Your Majesty,” I acknowledged.

“You do not need to bow to me right now, Giovanni,” said the king, which prompted me to stand as I was before. “Uh, it is okay that I call you that, right, or would you prefer your nickname, Vince?”

“His Majesty may call me by whatever name pleases him most,” I answered.

“Very well, I shall call you by your given name,” the king replied. “After all, Giovanni is a strong name, and your father, he is a good man.”

“You know my father?”

Wait, I shouldn’t have questioned him, should I?

“Indeed,” the king stated. “Walk with me.”

I stayed on the king’s right side just in case he had issues with his cane so that I could help him. However, the wind had blown this way, and since I was pretty close to the king, I could now smell what it was he had in his pipe as he took a hit. I wasn’t really into the weed scene, but given the king’s health condition, if he had marijuana in that pipe, it was clear that he was in a great deal of pain. He still chose to walk in the gardens with me, which also said something about his character.

“I knew both of your parents, Giovanni. Your father was my best friend. We all grew up near the wall, them on the Italian side and me on the Xudian side. Ohhh … I do not wish to bore you with the details of the past, but I must say we all met around the age of ten, between the rocky boulders of the beach at the border.”

Beach … rocky boulders … boy, this sounded familiar.

“We didn’t care about the racial divide between our two nations then, and we had even vowed that we would grow up to eliminate that racism, but … when we did grow up, I had a noble calling to answer, and then your parents left for America. I wanted them to be honored guests and residents here in Xudia, but my decisions then negatively impacted their trust in me, and rightfully so. I married the queen, and your parents married each other, and none of us have spoken to one another since.”

I think I understood what happened and why my mother had such a bitter hatred for Xudians, but I wouldn’t dare confirm this with the king. Luca told me not to question him, so I heeded that little piece of advice for now and just kept my mouth shut. No, this was going to be a conversation I would save for my mother.

“But enough about me,” he said as he briefly turned his head in my direction and met my gaze. “I want to hear all about you.”

I was pretty sure the king already knew everything there was to know about me, but if he was curious to know my view on how I saw things as I grew up, then he must be interested in getting to know me.

“Well … ”F I started, as I wasn’t too sure on what he wanted to know first, but I figured perhaps the basics would be best for the moment. “I grew up in New York as an only child, I have a Master’s degree in Fine Arts from Julliard, and I have a lot of acting and music credits to my name.”

“Oh, yes, yes! I saw your last film, Darkness of Kheria. You played an elvish king with a dark, abusive past who overcame his sinister temptations and found himself on a path of redemption, all while earning his kingdom’s trust and bringing them out of the evil reign of his enemies. I also saw in the credits that you wrote the screenplay. A remarkable production, I must say!”

I smiled as he raved about my movie.

“Thank you, Your Highness, but I have my talented professors from Julliard to thank for my much-improved skills since I was a teenager, as well as the cast and directors and producers. We all worked together to bring the best quality to the film that we could as a team.”

“If given the knowledge and access to the right tools, I think you would do well in Politics.”

Was he about to lead into a conversation about having Luca rule? The king suddenly stopped and turned to me. When our eyes locked, I saw regret in them, but also curiosity.

“Were you happy with your parents? Growing up?”

I stopped in my tracks when I wondered where this question came from.

“Well, Your Highness, that depends on one’s definition of ‘happiness.’ My mother and I butted heads a lot, but she did raise me right, and with respect.”

The king chuckled for a moment, but since he said he knew her from when they were kids, he probably knew what kind of person she was, though I didn’t dare comment on his chuckle.

“And your father? Did he treat you well?”

I gazed deeply into the king’s eyes, and I could now see his curiosity hid his sadness. How could I answer this without offending him or making him sadder than he already seemed?

“It’s like you mentioned earlier; he is a very good man,” I answered.

“A very good man,” the king added.

“Unlike my mother, he’s even-tempered, always remains calm and collected, and even though he’s a pretty sensitive guy, he’s quite reserved in his emotions, as well as his thoughts and opinions. He’s very wise, and respectful, and great to turn to for advice. He never dished out any punishment when I rebelled, as he left that up to my mother, but he’s always been there for me, and he’s always supported me.”

Just as I had finished my statement, I saw another change in the king’s eyes, and this time they grew shiny. I knew it would have resulted in tears, but the king was strong and wouldn’t let them build up. He inhaled sharply and looked towards the garden pathway in front of us.

“That’s the Giovanni I knew. Still the same man today as he was back then. Tell me … do you think they would come here if I called for them?”

“I’m pretty sure my father would, but to be honest, sire, I don’t know if my mother would. I have yet to confront her about hurting Camila the way she did.”

“Our current laws would not have accepted a marriage between you and the princess, but I could have changed that if Camila would have insisted on marrying you,” the king continued, but now he met my gaze again. “Though your mother was out of line in the way she treated Camila. Frankly, I was quite surprised to learn what your mother did, because she knows our language and laws. When Camila first told me your name when she was a teenager, I had forbidden her from telling you of her royal lineage because I didn’t want your mother taking her anger for me out on Camila.”

Wait … what?

“I agree with you 100% in regards to the disrespect my mother had shown Camila, but I must admit that I’m confused on what you mean by my mother’s anger towards you.”

“I fear, Giovanni, that the bitterness your mother placed on Camila was my fault. It wasn’t Camila that your mother hated. It was the fact that Camila represented the Xudian culture, and that meant only another reminder of … well … me.”

I watched as the king took to his pipe. I knew he was in a great deal of pain. This was probably too much for him to be out here.

“Will you help me back to my chambers? I fear that I have underestimated my health today.”

His voice changed. The strength in it changed to defeat. He was in a lot of pain. And he was tired. He looked the part.

“Of course, Your Majesty,” I replied as I stepped as close to him as I could, and he took my offer for him to use my arms for support.

My quarter guard came to his aid on the other side and took his pipe and cane. I hardly knew this king, this man, but it felt right to be here, to help him, not just because he was royalty or because he was a sick man dying from an insanely horrible disease. There was something about him that I connected to so easily. When he grabbed hold of my arms, I sensed he was relieved that I was here. I wished I could provide more comfort to him, but at the same time, I just knew this was enough for now.

It took a little while, but once we reached the king’s chambers, I was unsure if he wanted me to follow, but then I felt his grip on me tighten just ever so slightly. He said nothing to me but muttered a simple and small-phrase in Xudian to his guards, who then opened his chamber doors for us. Once we entered the foyer room, I saw the portrait Luca had described earlier, and I froze right there in my shoes. The woman in the picture with a crown was an older woman who appeared about 20 years older than the king. Still, I had no interest in her, as my eyes were focused on how the king in the portrait looked identical to me when he was in his thirties. I was surprised he allowed me this far into his room because he had not previously allowed Ana or even Camila to see this, and I’ve only met him less than an hour ago.

Or was it his intention that I see this? I mean, if it weren’t, he would have ordered my quarter guard to take me back to my quarters, right? I now felt the king’s eyes on me, but I couldn’t pull my gaze from the portrait until he practically squeezed hard enough to interrupt the blood flow to my arms, which made me look back into his eyes. He didn’t speak, but the look on his face and in his eyes told me he knew and that he knew I knew. He looked towards his chamber doors again, and I knew it was time to move forward and help him in there.

Once we were in his royal chambers, I saw that his room was just as big as mine, if not a little bit bigger. Either I had a special room, or all the rooms in the palace were this large, but it was remarkable either way. The king repeated something in Xudian, but towards my quarter guard, who in turn gave him back his cane. He then released my arms from his, so I stopped again in my tracks and watched as he used his cane to walk towards his bed. The king’s guards unmade the left side of his bed for easier access.

“Do you play any instruments?” the king asked in a soft tone as he turned around to face me once he approached his bed.

“I do, Your Highness,” I answered. “The drums, guitar, and the piano.”

“Will you play me something at dinner, something on the piano?”

“I would be honored,” I stated with a subtle bow.

I watched as the king sat down on his bed and said something else to his guards and my quarter guard in Xudian. They all left the room this time, and the king reached out to me with his left hand.

“Please stay until they bring my doctor.”

“Of course, Your Majesty,” I replied as I approached him.

I couldn’t help but fall to my knees in front of him with this news. I knew he didn’t want to come right out and say it because he didn’t want to offend me or upset me, but it was pretty clear to both of us why I took after him in appearance. I had tears in my eyes, but they quickly dissipated when the king asked me a new question.

“Will you do me a favor? I know you hardly know me, so this favor might be much to ask, and I would understand if it was.”

“Of course, Your Majesty, no favor is too small or big.”

The king smiled for a brief moment, and I mirrored it before he spoke again.

“When you return to America, can you call for your parents? I wish to see them one last time before I leave this world. I want to apologize to them and tell them I have found Gino. They deserve to be reunited.”

Who the hell was Gino? 

“And you will return with them?” he asked. “Soon?”

“I would be honored,” I answered with a smile and bow of my head.

Once again, I felt his cane against my chin, and he lifted my face to look back into his eyes.

“We are not in the throne room or a formal setting. You need not bow to me right now. Ti’em meu abbio.”

Abbio. What was abbio? I knew ‘abbo’ meant ‘father,’ but what was ‘abbio?’ Did that mean ‘son?’ I had a feeling that the king just confirmed my suspicions, but I couldn’t yet understand.

“Please forgive me,” said the king in English as his eyes once again showed regret and sadness.

“For what?”

“Gur mú kiamp iri gur téa.”

I still don’t know what he said, but there was a lot of guilt and remorse in his tone. He needed forgiveness on something, but I didn’t know how to forgive him because I couldn’t understand what he needed forgiveness for. Before I had a chance to ask him what he meant by his statement, his two guards had returned with a man in a white lab coat with a bag of medical tools, so he must be the king’s doctor.

“I forgive you,” I told him in Italian.

I didn’t know why I forgave him yet, but I knew he needed absolution. The doctor then spoke to me in English.

“If you will please leave? I must examine His Majesty privately.”

I bowed once more towards the king and acknowledged the doctor’s request before turning around and leaving. There were guards now in the foyer room who closed the door behind me into the king’s room, and I stood in the foyer room for a few moments, as I just had to once more look at that huge portrait hanging up on the wall. I now know the truth - the absolute truth - behind the bitterness my mother always showed towards Camila. It wasn’t because Camila was Camila, but because of the Xudian culture that she represented. My mother didn’t want to be reminded of this culture any more than she was already reminded every time she looked at me because I looked just like the man she loved who broke her heart. My father, the man who raised me and whose name I proudly carried, must know I’m not biologically related to him. How could they keep this truth from me, though? Tears welled up in my eyes when I looked into the eyes of the king in the portrait, and all I wanted to do was stay by his side because now it hit me that time was running out for me to get to know him as my … my natural father.

Chapter 10

A New Truth




When I left the foyer room and entered the main hallway, I noticed that Xir Charles and my quarter guard were there and Luca and his guards. Xir Charles had quickly approached me with daggers in his eyes.

“If you have done anything to worsen His Majesty’s health--”

“Hold your tongue!” Luca snapped.

“With all due respect, sire --” Xir Charles tried to say, though Luca interrupted him yet again, this time with a fire in his tone that I didn’t know he had.

“You will hold your tongue, Xir!”

Instantly Charles shut up, and since he saw how angry Luca was now, he did a complete formal kneel and bow of his head.

“Your Majesty.”

Damn. This kid was a force to be reckoned with! Take note, Palladino, about how not to piss off the future King of Xudia in his own palace.

“What is the king’s condition?” Luca asked as he softened his tone while he met my eyes.

“He’s in a lot of pain,” I replied. “We were in the middle of our walk in the gardens when he suddenly asked for my help to bring him back to his chambers.”

“He must be if he asked you to bring him back here,” Luca nearly whispered as he thought on my answer for a moment while he looked at the floor, but then he looked up again and past me.

I heard the doctor approach from behind, and the guards at the chamber doors now closed off all access to the king.

“I gave His Majesty a dose of Morphoxin for the pain,” said the doctor, but we could all tell he also held back some information.

“What is the latest prognosis?” Luca asked as he kept his eyes on the doctor.

Charles stood up again, and we both also looked towards the doctor.

“Six weeks,” answered the doctor. “All we can do now is to assure His Majesty’s comfort by easing his pain and helping him to maintain his appetite, but he must continue to be reminded not to exert too much energy at once.”

Six weeks? That’s all the time I had left with him was six weeks? How was I going to …?

“Thank you for updating me on His Majesty’s condition,” Luca stated. The doctor bowed softly towards him and then walked away. “Xir Charles, you may return to your normal business.”

Xir Charles did the same as the doctor, and then he soon left me to my son, who then looked up at me in curiosity.

“Something is wrong,” he said. “I can see it in your eyes.”

I couldn’t let Luca know what I now knew, could I? I should at least talk to Ana first.

“It’s just … disheartening to hear how little time His Majesty has left,” I answered carefully. “I really like him.”

“I can see that. I assume you have now seen the portrait?” Luca asked me in Italian.

I knew this was his way of keeping our conversation private so that the guards couldn’t understand us. I also kept the conversation in Italian.

“Yes, but what is your theory on why we look so nearly identical?” I asked.

“Do you really want to know?” Luca answered in the form of a question. “Because it might change your perspective on a lot of things, and if you’re not comfortable with that-.”

“I really want to know, Luca,” I told him. “I need the truth.”

I wanted to know if he already figured it out or not that the king was, in fact, his paternal biological grandfather.

“In my opinion, there’s only one reason why you look so much like him, and it’s a biological one. I just can’t connect the facts yet, because all I know about your parents is that they’re from the city of Trieste in Italy, and the missing variable is the connection between your parents and the king.”

“Well, His Majesty has confirmed the connection to me,” I answered.

“So the king has confirmed he is biologically related to you?”

“I’m pretty sure he has, but I couldn’t understand what he said in Xudian.”

“What did he say in Xudian? Do you remember the words?” Luca asked as he kept his eyes on mine.

“My best pronunciation of it is, ‘Tee em may you abbio.’ Please forgive me if I said it wrong,” I answered in an apologetic tone.

“You have nothing to be sorry about. You said it right,” Luca replied. “When His Majesty said that, he was telling you that you are his son.” I knew it. “Which means that by right, you are next in line for the throne.”

Wait, what? Did I just hear that right? He has to be messing with me …

“I thought that for one to inherit the crown, they would have to be born in this palace?” I asked.

“That remains true under the current law, but His Majesty couldn’t produce an heir with our queen, which is why we all thought I was next in line, but really His Majesty does have an heir. There is a loophole in the law, Abbo, and you are the loophole. Besides, our government is not a constitutional monarchy, like what you see in the United Kingdom. We have an absolute monarchy here, which means the king has total control over the government. He could legitimize you, change the law, and transmit his power over to you, so no government official in the High Council could do anything to change that because transmission of absolute monarch power is hereditary.”

Holy shit. Should I pinch myself? I must be dreaming. Was he serious? This can’t be real or true, can it?

“I would not be surprised, however, if the entire High Council would demand the king to create a parliament to keep your reign in check, should the king legitimize you and hand his power over to you.” What? “But, Abbo, you and I must stand our ground on changing our people’s perception of Italians. We cannot do that if we establish a parliament because it is likely to allow the perception to change. Do you agree?”

What would this do to my career in music and acting? In America, if one goes into politics, they must leave the entertainment industry altogether. Is that how it was here?

Probably. Shit.

“I agree; we need to change people’s hatred into love and acceptance of one another. How we are going to go about this, though, I don’t know yet. I’m not sure if that will be me or not. I wouldn’t count on me being king of your country.”

“You mean our country?” Luca asked in a corrective tone. “You are Xudian too, you know.”

He was right. I was no longer 100% Italian like I thought I was all my life. Now at thirty-three years old, I found out I was half Italian and half Xudian. I don’t have a problem with the change in my heritage, but I do have a right to know where I came from and who my biological father was. When I return stateside, I will be talking with my parents because I needed a sincere apology from them for keeping me from the truth.

“You’re right. I’m sorry,” I apologized.

“You don’t need to apologize, Abbo,” Luca replied. “You only just found out. I know it will take some time for it to register truly. In the meantime, I think it would benefit you and our people for them to meet you finally and see you for who you are. Shall we start with Rheya now?”

What did he mean by benefiting the people of Xudia in regards to them meeting me? How did that connect with meeting Rheya?

“I’m not sure I follow, but you already know I would love to meet Rheya.”

“Rjion,” Luca called as he turned to his guards, who stood about five feet away from us, and then he spoke to them in Xudian.

One of the guards bowed to him and walked away.

“So, Abbo, while Rjion is getting our carriage ready, I would like you to meet Marko,” he said in English as he gestured towards the guard that remained with us. Was this the one that Mr. Juric mentioned on the plane when we talked about cave diving? “Some guards come and go, but Marko is like a father to me and has been assigned to my detail since I was born here in this palace. I will admit that while I sneak away from him on occasion, which is only when I feel like the world is closing in on me and I need space to breathe and think, I want you to know that I trust Marko with my life … completely. There were times when my stepfather tried to get close to me at night during our family visits here in Xudia, but … Marko has been my protector, so much so that at night, a guard replaces him at the doors, and Marko remains in my quarters with me as my defender and shield.”

Ah! It was a comfort to know that Luca had a personal guard that he trusted with his life. This reminded me of José, and how much I trusted him with my own life, and that he knew me better than most.

“It is an honor to meet you, sire,” Marko said in English as he bowed towards me. 

“You don’t need to bow to me, but the honor is all mine,” I replied as I reached my hand for a shake.

Marko stood up but looked confused when I extended my right hand for a shake, and he turned to Luca for approval. Luca nodded, and then Marko took my hand and met my gaze. In turn, I placed my left hand on top of his.

“Thank you, Marko, for always working to protect my son within these borders of Xudia. Your commitment to your job, and your loyalty to the crown, are much appreciated.”

Marko smiled and bowed softly with his head.

“It is a pleasure and an honor to be recognized, Sire.”

Why does he keep calling me that? That was the second time in less than a minute he’s done it. I looked to Luca in confusion, and then he spoke up.

“Marko is the only guard in the Royal Xudian Army that knows and is fluent in Italian, so he has heard our entire conversation about your true lineage and connection to the king. In addition to their native tongue of Xudian, the soldiers that join the RXA are required only to be fluent in English, German, and Slovenian upon completion of their military entrance exams. They can also become fluent in French and Spanish if they choose to undergo additional education at their own expense while off duty. However, most do not know Italian for obvious reasons, though I have commanded Marko long ago to become fluent in the language with me to help ensure my safety with secure communications. He is under oath to not repeat anything in any other language to anyone else when I speak Italian in front of him, so you can trust him to keep our conversations private unless I mention it otherwise in front of others.”

Good to know.

“Luca!”

We all turned towards Camila’s mother as she called out to Luca while she walked down the hall with her security detail. Once she approached us with a serious expression on her face, Luca spoke up.

“Is something wrong?” he asked her.

“Detective Landon has sent us an email update on the whereabouts of Timothy Crane, whose real name is Adam Rochford. He has been spotted in Moscow, various locations in Ukraine, and hopped a flight from Ukraine to Croatia with the alias of Allen Markowitz. America does not have an extradition treaty with Croatia,” Mrs. Juric answered.

“Ah, but we do!” Luca answered but froze as he thought about what his grandmother said before looking back up at her again. “He’s coming for me.”

“Which is why your grandfather is setting up an emergency meeting with the High Council. Croatia flagged all his aliases, so if he tries to leave the country using any one of his formerly known identities, they will detain him and start the extradition paperwork, and they’ll notify us.” Just as Mrs. Juric finished her statement, her eyebrows furrowed in concern. “Where’s Rjion?”

“I’ve sent him to prepare our coach. Abbo and I have just made plans to meet with Rheya.”

“Ah, Rheya would love to see you, I’m sure. You should go, but Marko,” Mrs. Juric replied as she now met Marko’s eyes. “I want two extra guards with you. Until my daughter’s murderer has been caught and imprisoned, I want you, Rjion, and two other guards with you at all times. I also want you to assign two extra guards to this fine gentleman as well.”

“I hope, Your Highness, that I am not too forward when I say that I strongly believe we need to have an equal measure of security for His Majesty’s father as well. Based on the criminal’s history, the man will try to go after …” Marko’s eyes met with mine and, with the information he just learned about me during my private conversation with Luca in Italian, I knew he didn’t know what to call me right now.

“Uh, that would be Mr. Palladino,” I added with a soft bow of my head for courtesy.

“Yes, Mr. Palladino,” Marko continued as he met Mrs. Juric’s gaze again.

“Hmmm, you may be right. Very well then. Four security guards at all times as well for Mr. Palladino. If you will excuse me, I must inform the king of the urgent news.”

Both Marko and I bowed towards Mrs. Juric, but then she looked at me and smiled warmly.

“I may carry the title of ‘Princess,’ but you don’t ever need to bow to me, Mr. Palladino. I hope you fellas have a wonderful time with Rheya,” Mrs. Juric stated as she now met Luca’s gaze. “Do tell her ‘hello’ for me.”

“Of course, Nana,” Luca replied as he respectfully bowed his head in acknowledgment, and with that, Mrs. Juric left us and headed towards the king’s royal chambers.

I wondered if she also knew of my true lineage. I watched as the guards at the king’s chamber doors allowed her in, and then they closed the doors behind her. She must have known, and I suddenly felt foolish, for I felt like I was the last to know about my truth, yet I should have been told first by my parents. Not only that, but how should one handle a new truth about their identity when it involves a royal lineage with the potential for being next in line to become a king? Seriously, I had absolutely no idea how to deal with my new truth or how I could even accept it in the world.

Chapter 11

To Be or Not to Be Legitimized




When Luca and I had reached the Children’s Hospital of Moscjen, I immediately noticed four stories in height but massive in length. When we entered the building with each of our respective set of four guards, the nurses at the front desk immediately bowed towards Luca, and then they spoke to him in Xudian. After he responded to them, he then turned to me.

“She’s on the 4th floor, which means she’s terminal,” Luca replied with a sad and concerned expression on his face. “Follow me.”

How heartbreaking! I did as Luca asked, and once we entered the elevator with our guards, we then hit the 4th floor. After we walked into the ward, we were once again met with a few nurses at the front desk, and they bowed to Luca and spoke to him in Xudian. Before long, they took us to Rheya’s room. One of the first things I noticed about this ward was that it was immaculate but bright and colorful, and it had lots of toys and books, none of which appeared to have been played with lately. This room of Rheya’s, however, only had a few books and no toys whatsoever. Our guards stayed at the door, four on the inside of this room and four in the hall. I saw Rheya all curled up into a little ball, and compared to that standard hospital bed, she just looked so tiny, and my heart instantly melted!

She was asleep, but when Luca had approached, he tenderly placed the back of his left hand upon her right cheek and stroked her skin ever so lovingly. It didn’t take that precious little gem too long to wake up and realize that she had visitors, one of whom she was even so fond of. When her eyes opened and met with Luca’s, she immediately but slowly sat upright. It looked to me like she barely had the energy right now to sit upright, but she mustered all the strength she had to do so, and she did it so gracefully while using both her arms to get herself in the proper position. I hadn’t spoken to her or been introduced to her yet, and already I wanted to adopt her!

“Hello, beautiful sister,” Luca said out loud as he used his hands to communicate with her.

Rheya smiled warmly, and after she propped her pillows behind her neck and back, she then signed right back to him. I have got to learn sign language as soon as possible!

“I want to introduce you to someone very special to me,” he spoke again as he continued to sign to her, and then he looked over his shoulder at me and gestured for me to approach them. I did as he wanted, and then he introduced us. “Rheya, this is my father. Abbo, meet Rheya.”

I thought back on what Luna had signed to me at Camila’s wake in North Carolina, and when I remembered the signs I repeated back to her, I knew I could apply that here, and so I did.

“It’s nice to meet you,” I said out loud as I signed.

This pleased Rheya, and then she continued to sign to me, which would have overwhelmed me and my attempts to communicate with her, but Luca was there to translate.

“You sign so well!” Luca translated with a big smile. “It’s so nice to meet you. I’m so sorry you have to see me like this.”

“Can you translate for me too?” I asked Luca, who then looked at me and nodded as he looked back to Rheya again. “Thank you, but that’s all I know for now. I know I

have a long way to go, but it’s a start, and you don’t need to apologize. You’re beautiful and so sweet. Luca has told me quite a bit about you, and I hear you know Ana?”

After Luca finished translating what I said, she signed right back but kept her eyes on me as she did so. Then Luca spoke up again.

“Thank you, sir, and yes, Ana is awesome! I love her so much! She is like the mother I never had, the kind of mother I wish I had, and the kind of mother I pray God will bring for me to keep.”

Tears immediately welled up in my eyes, but Rheya saw this and continued to sign.

“Don’t cry,” Luca said out loud for her. “I have faith that God will provide. I know I will have someone to call ‘Mother’ before my life is over.”

Has she already accepted her fate? How then did she have so much hope? I guess it was true when Luca said Rheya had a strong will to live if only it meant she would finally find a family to call her own. I would have said something to that, but then she turned her eyes on Luca and signed to him.

“I’m sorry, Rheya, but Ana’s not here with us today,” Luca replied out loud as he signed back to her. “But I was able to video call her. She told me to tell you that she misses you and loves you, and she promises to come back real soon, sooner than you could know.”

Ana always had a way with children that made them love her no matter what. In this case, I sensed there was a pretty close bond between her and Rheya. Was I cruel in denying Ana the opportunity to adopt this sweet little girl two years ago? Seeing it from precious Rheya’s perspective sure made it feel like I was in the wrong this whole time. I felt the guilt as it tried to overwhelm my emotions, but I couldn’t let it show, so I held back for now and decided to revisit the topic of adoption with Ana when I could finally have her in my arms again.

We spent the afternoon with Rheya, even had lunch with her, and it seemed that both company and food was just the thing to give her that boost of energy that made her so much more spirited. She had a million-dollar smile, and it really brought out the bright and cheerful person that I was inspired by this afternoon. I found out her favorite color was turquoise, which was interesting because she and I had that in common. Her favorite card game was Hearts, though card games weren’t my thing, as I sucked at them. Rheya loved Chess but hated playing with Luca because his intelligence was too advanced for her playing level. She invited me to play a game with her instead, and I took up that invitation because I enjoyed a good chess game. Even though the game lasted a couple of hours, we had a great time, and Rheya beat me. I was always a good sport about losing, though, so it only mattered to me that it made Rheya feel good about herself.

“I hate to cut the fun short, but we must return to the palace. It is getting late, and we must not be late for supper. His Majesty is big on punctuality,” Luca stated as he signed to Rheya.

Rheya seemed disappointed, but she signed directly to Luca, and then he smiled.

“Of course, we will be happy to come back tomorrow,” Luca replied, and then he turned to me. “She adores you and thinks you’re awesome.”

“How do I say the same?” I asked. “I want to tell her myself.”

Luca showed me with his right hand in the form of a ‘Y’ and moved it away from his chin and towards Rheya, and then back to his chin twice. When I repeated it, I looked to Rheya, and she smiled the widest smile.

“Can I hug you?” she asked me in sign language as Luca spoke for her.

I mirrored Rheya’s smile, sat down on her bed, and opened my arms wide for her. She immediately wrapped her tiny little arms around me, and she felt so much smaller than she looked. I was gentle with her because I sensed how frail she truly was, and I didn’t want to hurt her. The way she so delicately placed the side of her beautiful head on my chest made my heart melt, and I knew right then that I wanted to adopt her. 


***


Before I knew it, Luca and I were back at the palace.

“Ah, hello, hello!” stated the king as we entered the dining hall, which was nearly three times the size of my room.

The king seemed to be in better spirits, which made me happy to see, but I followed Luca’s cue when he did an informal bow.

“It is good to see you, Your Majesty,” Luca said when he stood casually again but approached the king. “Will Nana and Pappy be joining us for supper?”

“Actually, no, they have already eaten. This is a dinner between the three of us,” said the king as I approached and stood beside Luca. “I’ve got a delicious meal planned! Broasted garlic & beans snapper, with pressure cooked fennel linguine alle vongole, which will be followed by elderberry & vanilla whip.”

An Italian dish on tonight’s menu? Was the king trying to butter me up? Luca turned to me and smiled wide.

“Excellent!” he exclaimed. “Oh, you are going to love the broasted garlic and beans snapper and the elderberry and vanilla whip. The elderberry and vanilla whip is my favorite dessert. Actually, the whole meal is my favorite!”

His excitement for dinner sure made me smile, but it made me wonder if this was the king was up to something, though I didn’t dare ask the king directly.

“Can’t wait to try it all,” I replied with a warm smile.

“Fennel linguine is one of my favorites too, though I must say my all-time favorite version is your mother’s,” the king said towards me as he now gestured to the seat on his left. “Please, have a seat.”

I did as the king asked and sat down in the seat he wanted me in, and Luca sat across from me on the king’s right side.

“Sebastjian!” the king called, and immediately a servant came out of the kitchen and did an informal bow. “Please bring some white wine for Mr. Palladino and some Winter’s Dutchess for myself and the young prince.”

“Thank you, Your Highness, though I don’t drink alcohol. I haven’t touched it in seven years.”

I saw the expression on Luca’s face change in surprise when I said that, and the king was quiet for a moment, as he was also stunned.

“Well, alright, Sebastjian, make that three glasses of Winter’s Dutchess.”

Once again, the servant bowed, but this time he turned on his heel and went back into the kitchen. The king’s eyes once again met with mine, and he had an odd smirk about him

“So you are seven years sober, huh?” he asked. “Nara never mentioned that in her report.”

“Who’s Nara?” I asked.

“She is noctivalagar, our term for a ninja of the knights, and she is our greatest protector. She is the top in her field for private investigations, and she is the best martial arts teacher in Xudia,” Luca explained. “However, I too am surprised that she hasn’t mentioned in her report that you’re a recovering alcoholic. Honestly, I’m surprised even Mommy didn’t tell me.”

“That’s because I didn’t become an alcoholic until your mother left me,” I stated, but then realized both the king and Luca were disheartened by my response, almost as if they were offended and hurt by what I said, so I knew I had to explain further. “That’s, of course, not to say your mother herself drove me to the drink. It was the fact that I couldn’t handle her breaking my heart, and all I wanted to do was drown my sorrows. It wouldn’t be until Ana became pregnant with your brother Eli when she and your grandmother would give me an ultimatum. They helped me see the error of my ways, yet I was afraid there would be a scandal in the tabloids if the world knew I was an alcoholic, so I confided in my security guard. It turns out he’s a certified recovering alcoholic Counselor with his own group of celebrities who are also recovering alcoholics. He became my sponsor, and whenever I need an emergency meeting, and we can’t get the group together, he’s the one I turn to. He’s been my bodyguard since I was thrust into stardom as a teenager, and I just trust him completely with my life.”

“Ah, well, when you return to Xudia with your parents, you must bring your bodyguard. We shall make him an honored guest and open a conversation with him about employment for the crown,” said the king. “Why is he not here with you now, if I may ask?” 

Wait, what? Hire José for the crown? I’m … not sure he’d be into that.

“He volunteered to oversee and assist my agent in handling my affairs until I return home to New York,” I answered.

“If I asked you which celebrities were part of your AA meetings, would you tell me?” Luca asked.

“No,” I said without missing a beat as I looked into his eyes. “Because it’s called Alcoholics Anonymous for a reason, kiddo.”

Luca smiled softly and nodded in understanding.

“I can respect that, Abbo.”

It was silent between us until the king spoke up a few moments later.

“Giovanni?”

“Yes, Your Majesty?” I replied as I brought my attention back onto the king.

“I wanted to talk to you about your residential status.” 

Uh-oh. What could that mean? Was he about to ask me to move here to Xudia? Probably. There was only one way to find out.

“Would you consider moving here to Xudia on a more permanent basis?” he asked.

Hah. I guessed it right. I wasn’t sure how to answer his question without offending him, though.

“Would this be for Luca’s crown training?” I asked.

“Well … yes, but … I would like to have you here by my side and legitimize you as my son.”

How in the hell was I going to respond to this? I haven’t had a chance to confront my parents about Camila and Luca and the lies on my paternal lineage and half of my heritage or bring Ana up to speed on everything going on. Honestly, I would be perfectly okay with him just admitting now that I am his son, but what reason would there be to legitimize this fact in Xudia unless he wanted me to become the next King of Xudia? Why did I have this gut feeling that even though I’ve seen a lot of twists and turns in my life these past few days, this wasn’t the end of them, but rather the beginning? I could already see how I’d have to give up everything I’ve ever worked hard for in my life in America if I was called to become King or King Regent of Xudia or just to be here to keep Luca in my life. 

I absolutely knew I wanted to get to know Luca and strengthen my bond with him. I already missed out on so much of his young life, and he’d be an adult six years from now. However, I wasn’t sure I was ready to be thrust in the spotlight of being the legitimate son of Xudia’s dying leader, and in turn, become the heir apparent to the throne, as this was all just happening way too fast. So to be legitimized or not was the question and an odd question at this point in my life. For sure, though, I didn’t yet know what my answer would or should be.

Chapter 12

Anger, Comfort, and Exhaustion, but Who's Gino?




When I had retired to my quarters after dinner, I couldn’t help but want to spend the remainder of my night standing at one of the huge windows that overlooked the entire west side of Xudia. My view was composed of mountains to the right side, and some of it was also open waters towards the left. At the horizon itself, the beautiful sun was setting so gracefully. It became a representation of letting go of everything I knew of my former life and saying goodbye to it forever. My life was quite literally changing in so many ways, and it would continue to do so for a while.

“Abbo?”

He was very good at sneaking in and out of rooms, wasn’t he? Once again, I hadn’t heard him come in, which meant that he probably entered through the secret corridors located throughout the palace. Truth be told, I wanted to be left alone right now, but I didn’t have the heart to turn him away.

“Sí?” was the only thing I could answer with at this moment as I kept my eyes upon the majestic city and province of Moscjen.

“Are you alright?” he asked as he approached and stood by my left side. “You’ve hardly said much at supper, except for the basics of what the king wanted to discuss, and even then, you were not yet willing to undergo negotiations. Instead, you said you’d revisit the discussions of legitimization and regency upon your return. I can sense, Abbo, that His Majesty has overwhelmed you, hasn’t he?”

“I’m fine; it’s just a lot to process, that’s all,” I whispered as I met my son’s eyes for a moment. 

“Fair enough. Since I was old enough to understand, I’ve known all about my royal lineage, and I’ve been raised with that knowledge. You are already an adult with a well-established life, and you are just finding out now of your royal lineage. That must not be easy to process at all.” You’ve got that right, kiddo. “I’m not going to ask you what decision you’re leaning towards. I won’t even ask you what you plan to do when we return to America because I know you need some time to look over all your options thoroughly. I will say, however, that just because you are heir to the throne does not mean you have to accept the crown, not as regent or as a legitimized king. We the people would understand, simply because you weren’t born into our culture, which means you weren’t raised with our cultural expect--”

“I never had the chance,” I interrupted as I had simultaneously looked back out through the window, and though my response was meant more for me, Luca still heard me.

“You are angry, Abbo,” he answered.

“You … have nooo idea,” I replied in as calm a manner as I could with my arms behind my back.

The silence between us was deafening, and I felt that Luca’s eyes were still only focused on me. Just about 75% of the sun was gone now behind the horizon. I saw street lights in the city now turning on one by one, and the same with many houses. Truth be told, I was fuming in anger right now, but Luca wasn’t the one I was angry with, and he didn’t deserve to see me blow up in front of him when I was angry with someone else.

“When you leave the day after Mommy’s funeral, I will return with you to America,” he spokes.

“No, you won’t,” I said sternly as I looked back into his eyes. “That vile and repulsive criminal that your mother married is still out there, and he’s after you. You’re safer here with all your guards and soldiers around your palace.”

“How long will you be gone?”

“I don’t know yet,” I answered. “I have to talk to Ana first. I know you know I have a nationwide sold-out album tour waiting for me to pick up where I left off, so that’s something that’s going to need my immediate attention. I also need to talk to your grandparents … my parents.”

Luca kept his eyes on me for a few moments, and I knew he had something on his mind, and then he parted his lips.

“Are you going to bring them here when you return, as the king has asked at supper?”

“All I can do is try, kiddo, though I can’t make any promises. To be honest with you, I’m not sure that I want you to meet your grandmother right now, or ever.”

“I know you are angry with her, Abbo, but that’s not your decision to make for me. I know I’m only ten years old, but I’m far from any normal kid my age. Mommy told me about the conversation she had with your mother on that last day she was with you in New York before she left you the next morning. I asked her to tell me the conversation word for word.”

I couldn’t help the tears in my eyes as I now placed my left hand on his right shoulder, and I bent forward to become more eye level with him.

“Then you know why I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to meet her, at least not right now.”

“Abbo, listen,” Luca said as he now took my hand off his shoulder. “You are angry with her for a lot of reasons. You are angry with her for keeping you and Mommy apart. You are angry with her for trying to give Mommy money to terminate her pregnancy with me. You are angry with her for not telling you that your father is the King of Xudia, and you are angry with her for keeping that rightful bond with him from you. You are angry with her for all the lies she gave you while she kept so many secrets behind your back.”

Was I that easy to read? Wait, what am I saying? This kid was just too smart for his own good. I stood up in my normal stance again, my hands once more behind my back, and then I sighed deeply. What was I to do with this kid?

“I understand, Abbo. I was angry once upon a time too about how mia nonna treated Mommy, and ultimately, me. I was angry with her because, honestly, what she did to Mommy kept me from knowing you. I know you’re angry with your mother and that you need to talk with her, but guess what, Abbo? So do I. Nonna needs to answer to me for what she did to Mommy, for the way she treated her, and for the way she disregarded my life before I was even born. I need her to look into my eyes and really understand and own up to her mistakes. I need to hear it from her lips, how sorry she is, and I need to hear her ask for my forgiveness.”

That right there proved he was very much like me, stubborn streak and all. I still didn’t think it was an excellent idea for him to meet my mother. I know he wanted to meet her, but she didn’t deserve to meet him, not after she wanted him aborted. I knew he was the kind of person that preferred to face a problem head-on, even if it meant confrontation, because ultimately, he wanted a resolution. I just had a gut feeling he wasn’t going to settle.  

“And do you know what else? I highly doubt that monster is going to come back to America since he just left. After all, he’s wanted in a lot of states, maybe more than any of us even know yet. So I hardly think he’d make a run for me in America this soon. Not only that, but I honestly just wanted a few normal days to spend some time with you … just you … before our lives get crazier than they already are, and you know things will never be ordinary again when you return.” I knew Luca was upset with me now, and I watched as he walked back towards the secret passage door, and he looked over his shoulders as he opened the door. “I’m not going to beg you, Abbo, but at least consider taking me with you for the next week or so. We’ve already lost too much time, and if there’s a lesson to be learned over these past few days, it’s that time is just too short.”

With that said, Luca left my room and closed the door to the secret corridor. I knew he was right, but really, wasn’t I right too? Okay, maybe he had a point or two about my mother, but I had a good point as well that was in regards to his safety, right? Or was he on to something about that horrendous criminal avoiding America right now? I don’t know right now, to be honest. The jetlag from getting in this morning has finally caught up to me, and I’m just exhausted. I turned to the bed I knew would be mine for these next two nights, and the longer I stared at it, the more I wanted to climb into that bed, but then there was a knock on my front quarter doors.

“Come in!”

No, really, just go away. I’m sick of people right now. Those doors opened, though, and they quickly revealed Camila’s mother. 

“Vince?” she called as she entered my quarters.

Okay, I couldn’t say no to Mrs. Juric, so I walked towards her with a soft smile and my arms still behind my back, and then we met halfway in the room near the foot of my bed.

“Hello, Marija, how are you?” I asked her as I saw she had a manila folder in her arms.

“I am well, thank you. How are you holding up? I heard today was a rather busy day with the young ones, followed by an earnest conversation at dinner.”

“Yes, it’s been a taxing day, but you know what? I enjoyed meeting Rheya. Don’t tell anyone yet, but I’m going to talk to Ana about adopting her.”

By the look on Marija’s face, I knew she was in awe over this.

“Aw, that’s so kind of you,” Marija replied. “You do know she’s terminal, though, right? I don’t want you to get into an adoption, hoping she’s going to recover, just to lose her in the end.”

“I know, but I want to adopt her anyway,” I answered.

Marija’s face had turned serious.

“Well, if you and Ana agree to an adoption, come to me formally because I oversee all the welfare of our nation’s children, which includes adoptions. Just so you are aware, the adoption process is very different between American adoptions and Xudian adoptions. I can get you through all the red tape quite quickly, but the process will be different. It will be impacted by the decision you make on whether you are going to keep your American citizenship and become a permanent resident here, or you trade your American citizenship for a Xudian citizenship.”

She was right. That did sound like a lot of red tape we’d have to go through. In my honest opinion, though, Rheya was worth it.

“I understand,” I replied and then gestured towards the manila folder. “Is that for me?”

“Yes,” Marija replied as she handed it to me. “The Point Pleasant Police Department back in North Carolina have faxed over all the paperwork earlier today, including the police reports for the accident and what we filed on behalf of Luca with the abuse he endured. If I may say, and you may correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m not sure how you would feel about reading these police reports. I must say, however, that you strike me as a man who would prefer to have easy access to all the necessary paperwork, should it ever be required of you to access them at any given point. For example, I highly suggest to you that you get Luca the psychological help that he needs, and I imagine the psychologist you would choose for Luca would probably require this paperwork I have in this folder.”

This alarmed me on a level I didn’t like. However, I did take the manila folder when she handed it to me, but I kept my eyes locked with hers.

“Luca is naturally gifted in putting on a façade that others cannot see through. However, he’s having a lot of trouble sleeping at night. He didn’t sleep at all on the plane, and Kristijan caught him taking Levatadine.”

My eyebrows furrowed in confusion, and I now placed the folder at the foot of the bed.

“Wait, what’s Levatadine?” I asked.

“It is an over-the-counter medication that is used for people who need to be awake for extended periods. Depending on the user’s metabolism and dosage, a single pill can keep the individual awake for as long as 48 hours. When Kristijan questioned him on the plane after he took the few pills Luca had in his stash, Luca admitted he had taken one back at the house when you asked for privacy with Camila.” Well, that explains why he was awake the entire night I had spent at their house. “He admitted that the stash Kristijan took from him was actually what was left in the bottle Camila had in a bag she mistakenly placed in Luca’s stuff that she left with us.”

I knew that there was more to the story with the pills. Why did Camila even have them? What need did she have for them, unless, of course, she was paranoid about her husband catching her off guard or something if she was asleep?

“Camila was taking them?” I asked.

“I’m afraid that’s what the toxicology report says in the folder. They said she had a thousand milligrams in her system, which means she probably abused them habitually to stay awake. Either that, or she was trying to stay awake for her drive until she could reach you in New York. That’s what the detectives think was going on with her on why she had them in her system. For so many years, she hid the fact that her husband was abusing her, but when she discovered he was abusing Luca, she brought him to us and told us everything.”

I knew that Marija was barely holding onto her emotional strength right now. She tried with all her might, but the tears were ready to fall. Before I realized it, the sobs had escaped.

“Oh, my baby girl!” she exclaimed in total despair. “My poor baby girl!”

She placed her hands in front of her face as a means to hide her grief, but this broken heart knew her heart’s pain all too well, so I lovingly placed my arms around her.

When I brought her in close to comfort her, with her hands still on her face, she leaned into me and just wept away. I had no words for her, as I hardly knew this woman, but I knew that she didn’t need words right now. She just needed comfort and a few moments to be allowed to grieve in the way she needed to. I held her for what felt like a good hour or so but was probably just five or ten minutes, but it sure calmed her down.

“Thank you,” she whispered once she pulled from my arms and met my gaze. “I’m sorry about all the tears --”

“You don’t have to apologize,” I interrupted. “I understand there’s a time and place here to be strong in front of the public and to show strength as a leader of a nation, but I also understand grief needs its own time and place too. So, with that being said, I’m here anytime you need a shoulder to cry on, even though we hardly know each other right now.”

“We will get to know each other quite well, I am sure,” Marija replied as she placed her right hand on my left cheek. “Kristijan and I have decided that we are going to sell our place in North Carolina and move back here. I have once upon a time completed my own crown training, so I can be of valuable use for advice to you and Luca when the time comes.”

“So then you know the truth?” I asked her. “About what the king wants?”

“Yes,” Marija answered as she removed her hand from my face. “I have known him since he was your age. I’ve known for many, many years, since before Luca was born, when my daughter told me about you and showed me what you looked like then. She didn’t know the king in his younger days, so she didn’t think anything of your appearance, but it was quite obvious to Kristijan and myself. We have no place to question the king, so we just remained silent about our suspicions, though he’s making you priority right now with the High Council in regards to legitimization.”

“I imagine they’re not happy about the idea because I wasn’t raised with the Xudian cultural expectations,” I replied.

“I won’t lie to you. It’s true that the High Council is not happy about it, but they also understand that they shouldn’t hold that against you. They have agreed to meet with you upon your return.”

I nodded in acknowledgment, but then I was reminded of my earlier conversation with the king in his chambers about someone named Gino.

“Can I ask you a totally random question?” I responded with curiosity.

“Of course,” Marija replied.

“Can you tell me who Gino is?” I asked.

“No, I can’t say that I’ve ever heard that name before. Why do you ask?” Marija answered.

“The king mentioned him earlier, when he asked me to bring my parents back when I return. He told me to tell them he found Gino.”

Marija thought on this for a few moments before she parted her lips.

“What I can tell you is that is not a Xudian name, but an Italian one. Whoever this ‘Gino’ is must be someone from the past that the king and your parents share. We know the king used to go to Italy a lot in his younger days and his childhood, but we know so little of what he did there or how he knew your parents, as he is quite private about his history there. He resisted at first when the queen called him to be her consort; however, his family was of wealth and high social status, and he would have brought shame to his family if he declined the queen’s offer of marriage. I knew in our meeting earlier with the High Council that by bringing you up in a conversation of legitimacy, it was plain to see in his eyes that he’s trying to make amends, which is what one often does when they know their life is --”

I saw tears in Marija’s eyes, and I couldn’t help but mirror them, but she held them back and continued to talk. “I think whoever this ‘Gino’ is, is somebody important to your parents, and if he’s asking you to tell them that he found Gino, then that’s a task that must be completed. I’m sorry I can’t be of much use in this topic.”

I smiled and hugged her.

“Don’t worry about it,” I answered. “You’ve helped me plenty, trust me.”

When we parted ways from our second hug, she smiled again, and I knew I made her feel better.

“And you have helped me as well. I pray you will sleep well tonight, Vince, as you deserve it, but should you need anything, there are guards right outside your door. They are fluent in English, too, so they are ready to assist you in whatever you need.”

“Thank you, Marija, and I pray you will also sleep well.”

Marija bowed softly to me, and I mirrored her gesture.

“Goodnight, Vince,” she said as she turned on her heel.

“Goodnight,” I whispered as I watched her leave, and the guards closed my doors behind her.

I sighed deeply as I turned around and faced my bed. I quickly remembered I had placed the manila folder of police reports at the foot of my bed and walked over to it. I was tempted to look through it when I picked it up, but I just had this gut feeling if I did, I’d probably have nightmares. I didn’t want any nightmares right now. I felt the adrenaline coursing through my veins, so I knew that more than anything, I just needed some sleep. 

I headed over to the desk and placed the manila folder there. I knew I would have to open it, though definitely not now and maybe not tomorrow, but I will probably open it and read it on my way home. I then turned to the left side of the bed, where the nightstand with Ana’s picture of our family was, and I opened the first drawer. I took off my shirt, folded it neatly, placed it inside the drawer, and soon closed it. Then I unrolled the covers on my side of the bed, climbed in, and looked at that picture once more.

I hadn’t realized it until now, but I regret declining Ana’s offer to be with me in North Carolina to pay our respects to Camila and her family. I needed Ana right now, and she would have been here, but it is what it is. I knew I would see her soon enough. Her vacation in Greece would soon be coming to an end, and I would meet back up with her back in New York before returning here to Xudia. I turned off the light on the nightstand behind the picture frame and then got comfortable in bed and soon drifted off.

Chapter 13

Love at First Song




“Hello? Can you hear me? Hello!”

When I looked up, my eyes opened, and I saw a raven-haired girl around my age in a bikini as she stood over my body and had her left hand on her left hip with a look of impatience on her face.

“Who are you?” I asked.

“I’m Camila Juric, one of the owners of this beach, but the better question is who are you, and why are you sunbathing on my rocks? This is private property, and I could have you arrested for trespassing.”

My God, she was incredibly hot! I sat upright and casually looked at her from her feet to her head. Luckily, I had my sunglasses on so that she couldn’t see me eye-googling her. She had the toned body and perfect hourglass shape of a model, and her dark tresses came down just below her bosom, but they lay on the sides as if she wanted me to see her figure.

“I’m sorry,” I apologized as I lowered my sunglasses down on my nose for a few moments to lock my eyes with her own, dare I say, gorgeous hazelnut peepers. “I just wanted to lay out and catch some sun away from the crowds. Please don’t call the cops unless, of course, you want to cuff me yourself. Then, by all means, please feel free to do so.”

Camila looked at me for a moment, squinted, and then I saw a smirk had slowly crept up on her face. Before I knew it, she laughed the most adorable laugh, and I knew she caught on to my lame pick-up line. When I put my sunglasses back up to my eyes, I studied her bathing suit discreetly and saw the American flag print, which meant she was proud to be an American.

“You know, if that was supposed to be a pick-up line, you certainly need some practice,” she replied as she now brought both her arms up to her chest and crossed them into a fold, and then she shifted all her weight onto her right leg.

I brought my knees up to my chest and rested my arms on top, but kept my eyes on hers.

“Well … it was supposed to be more of an ice breaker to tone down the seriousness of my intrusion on your property. Can you please forgive me for trespassing? I promise I won’t vandalize the place or have a party, and I promise I’ll pick up after myself. I’m just your average teenaged boy who needs to get away from his parents and the crowds once in a while to relax.”

Camila was quiet for a few moments, and then she smiled and removed her arms from her chest.

“I forgive you … if you give me your name,” she said.

Now look who was flirting! It made me smile, but I couldn’t let her know yet that I already really liked her. That being said, I played it cool and casual.

“I’m Giovanni Palladino, named after my dad, but I go by my middle name, Vincenzo, or Vince for short.”

Camila was quiet again, but this time her smile disappeared, and I knew something was wrong.

“Do … I have something on my face?” I asked as I playfully touched my face but secretly hoped she’d give me the honest answer.

“No,” she answered. “There’s nothing wrong with your face, except maybe it might be too handsome for its own good.”

Did she just call me handsome? I laughed in nervousness as I turned my attention towards the water out ahead. Don’t be a nerd, Palladino. Girls like cool guys. Be cool.

“You’re the only one outside my family who seems to think so,” I replied quietly.

Damn it, Palladino, what did I just say? Don’t … be … a nerd! 

“Well, you just wait, Vince. The ladies will be all over you before long,” Camila stated as she now moved to sit down next to me on my right. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’ve heard New Yorkers down here enough to pick up on their accents. Is that where you’re from?”

“You’re right on the nose with that one,” I confirmed with a casual smile as I met her gaze again. “Yes, I was born and raised in Brooklyn. What about you?”

“I was raised here, but I was born elsewhere, though I’m not really supposed to tell,” Camila said as she mimicked my sitting style, but in reverse.

“Are you an illegal?” I whispered with curiosity as I leaned in close to her.

Honestly, I was joking, and by her accent, I knew she was American.

“No, I’m not illegal, but if I told you where I’m from, I might have to kill you.”

I couldn’t help but laugh out loud at that one. I knew by the playful smirk on her face that she was only playing around. Just go with the flow, Palladino. I nodded in acknowledgment before I parted my lips.

“I see how it is,” I told her with nonchalance. “But you know what? That’s okay. I like a lady with a little mystery to her.”

Camila giggled, but then she crossed her legs and positioned her body to more directly facing mine.

“So tell me, Vince, how old are you?” she asked. “And how long are you here for?”

“I’m fifteen, and I’m here for two weeks. I’m here partially on business with my parents, but mostly here on vacation.”

“Oh, that’s cool. I’m fifteen as well.”

Oh, thank God she volunteered that information because I hated asking a girl her age. My mother always told me it was rude to ask, and I wanted to avoid getting slapped or ignored, but I always want to know what a girl’s age was. I don’t like them younger than me because they’re too immature, but I don’t like them that much older than me either. Camila was my age, which was just perfect for me, and she seemed so mature … and cool … and just so damn beautiful! I’ve got to get her digits before the day was over.

“So what business do you have here with your parents?” she asked.

Should I tell her? Hm … she did own this private property, or really it was her family that owned it, which meant she came from money. I don’t think I’d have to worry about her trying to get into my pockets. Besides, she already likes me for me. She’s cool, Palladino, you can tell her.

“I’m here for a casting call and an audition for a musical,” I answered as I looked out upon the waters.

“You don’t sound too thrilled about it,” Camila replied. “Is that why you needed a break from your parents and the crowds?”

Damn … she was good! She didn’t just hear my answer, my words, but she also listened to my tone and the emotions behind my statement. She was actually listening to me. She was either a detail-oriented person, or she cared about what I had to say. Either way, her efforts to listen to me were much appreciated and made me feel more comfortable sharing how I felt.

“Pretty much. My parents are constantly watching over my shoulder, and my mother’s always pushing me towards the limelight, and she insists on me practicing my acting and singing skills all the time. It’s honestly getting on my last nerve, because I just want to be a normal teenager, you know?”

Okay, Palladino, stop. Girls don’t like guys who complain. So just stop whining.

“You know, I do know exactly how you feel. I’ve known that pressure all too well. My life has never been ordinary and will never be simple. I try, though. I seriously try to hold on to any tiny bit of normalcy that I can get, but I wake up all too soon every single time I try to hold onto it.”

Damn. I sensed she knew precisely what I meant, and the way she described how she felt was exactly how I felt too. She’s a keeper, Palladino.

“Well, here’s to a few moments of normalcy for us right here and right now,” I told her, and then I gestured with my head towards the laguna. “Want to take a dip?”

“I’d love to, but before we jump, I have to ask … how long can you hold your breath underwater?”

That was a damn good question. I thought about this for a few moments. I never really counted, to be honest.

“Um … I’d say probably close to a minute. Why do you ask?”

And now, a sinister smirk had spread across her face.

“Good enough. Thirty seconds is all you need. I should go back to the house real quick to grab an extra pair of goggles for you. Will you wait here for me for a few minutes?”

“Of course,” I answered. “Though I can also swim without goggles.”

“Oh, we’ll be going down under,” Camila stated as she now stood up. “It’s important to protect your corneas from seawater.”

Corneas? Did she really just say that? Why did I get this sudden feeling that she was a … dare I say it … nerd?

“Um, corneas?” I asked her as I also stood up. “You mean my eyes?”

“Yes, exactly,” Camila replied, but then she laughed. “I’m sorry. Sometimes I talk too much like a geek, but then again, I’ve already graduated high school.”

Holy shit. I guess it was okay for me to be a nerd around her after all!

“It’s okay,” I spoke with a chuckle. “I like it, you being a nerd. I’m not anywhere near graduation yet, but I am a year ahead with homeschooling, so I’m a little bit of a nerd too, but I’m never nerdier than when I’m talking about Fantasy and Science Fiction. In fact, if my mother would let me, I’d walk around permanently with elvish ears.”

Camila’s head went backward in a hearty laugh as she placed her left hand on my right arm. I loved hearing her laugh and seeing her smile the way she did. When she looked into my eyes again, she spoke up.

“Oh, my God! I love it! Let’s be elves together!”

“Okay!” was my response with my own laugh. “Works for me!”

“Okay, good, I’ll be right back.”

“Take your time,” I said as I watched her walk down this flat rock and then jump off when she reached the sand.

She was perfect even in her walk until she disappeared behind another set of rocks farther down the beach. I went to the edge of this flat rock that extended past the sandy part of the beach, and when I looked down into the waters, I knew this part was deep. What did she have in mind that was down under? I sat at the edge of the rock and just watched the waters. It was probably a good ten minutes before she finally returned.

“Okay, I’m back!” she announced.

She was totally out of breath, which meant she must have run back here from her house as quickly as she could.

“Are you okay?” I asked as she handed me her second pair of goggles, and she nodded.

I also took note of the fact that she returned with a flashlight.

“Yes,” she then said out loud after she caught her breath. “My bike is out of commission, and my dad won’t be able to fix it until he comes home, so I had to walk back to the house.”

“But you ran back here,” I stated.

“Only because I don’t want to miss another second of hanging out with the coolest dude I’ve ever met. By the way, I have a little surprise for you after we’ve reached my secret spot down under.”

“Really? Can’t wait!”

“Awesome. Now … you need to do what I do when I dive, okay?” I nodded in acknowledgment and continued to listen. “You will have to make sure you’re about five feet under, and that’s where you’ll see an opening in the rocks to your left. You must follow me in and come up at the same spot that I do once I’m inside the rocks, okay? There’s a narrow hollow pocket there where we can come up for a little bit of air before reaching our spot that’s just a little further.”

Why didn’t I like the sound of this narrow hollow pocket she mentioned?

“Are you claustrophobic?” she asked.

Abso-freakin’-lutely!

“No, but this sounds dangerous,” I had to say. “Are you sure we should be doing this?”

“I do this a lot. In fact, I’ve been doing this since I was five.” Really? “I’ve not run into an issue yet. As long as you keep your eyes focused on me, you’ll be fine. I promise. Do you trust me?”

I looked deeply into her eyes and, even though her grin seemed as if she had some mischief up her sleeve, I somehow knew I could trust her.

“Yes,” I told her.

“Great,” she replied with a smile as she placed her goggles over her eyes, which meant she was ready to swim, so I put my goggles on as well. “Now wait three seconds after I’m in the water. Then make your dive, okay?”

I couldn’t help but feel nervous about her statement, but if she’s done this for the last ten years, I guess she’s doing something right in her swimming. I nodded in acknowledgment and then watched as she dived so gracefully into the water with arms and head first and no fear whatsoever. This was officially the wildest thing I did up to this point, but … one … two and … here I go! Holy shit! This water was freezing! Focus, Palladino; she’s flashing the light at you. Swim, you little daredevil! Before I knew it, we were both inside the narrow hollow pocket Camila mentioned earlier, and our heads came up out of the water, and I had a minor panic attack.

“Breathe, Vince,” she instructed as she held my face to keep me calm. “You’re okay.”

I wasn’t usually an underwater swimmer. Sometimes I did swim underwater, but I’ve never swum underwater in anything but a pool, so to do this inside rocks was … terrifying, because … well … what if we got trapped?! And then she grabbed my face and kissed me, briefly in the form of a peck, but a kiss was still a kiss.

“Giovanni,” she called after she pulled her lips from mine, which drew my attention entirely onto her. “There we go. See? You’re doing fine.”

The calmness in her face helped a lot.

“I’m sorry,” I stated quietly. “I must seem like an idiot --”

“You’re not an idiot,” she replied. “But you might be a little crazy for following a psycho chick inside a mysterious underwater hole in the rocks.”

“You’re not a psycho, and it may be mysterious to me, but this place is known very well to you, so I trust you,” I stated. “By the way, I like that you called me by my first name.”

“Well, to be honest, it’s a strong name, and it suits you well,” she explained, which made me feel a lot better, and she completely diminished my anxiety.

“How are we able to breathe in here?” I asked her as I looked around.

When she said this hollow pocket was narrow, she wasn’t kidding. It was hard to maneuver in this tight spot, and our bodies were actually in close proximity, so that meant neither of us could investigate and find out how this hollow pocket of air was possible

“I have no clue, to be honest, but I’m guessing there’s some air coming from somewhere on the other side of this little rocky point. I’ve been a little too afraid to try and crawl through, so I just take it for what it is. You ready to reach our spot?”

I loved how she already called it ‘our spot,’ and we haven’t even reached it yet.

“Not quite,” I said. “But I will be if you kiss me again.”

Lame. I know. It did make her smile, though. I placed both my hands on her waist, and gently pulled her body closer, and hoped this would be okay with her. When she only leaned her face closer to mine, I knew that was her way of saying it was okay to keep my hands where they were. Then her lips were once more connected with mine, and I enjoyed this as much as I could, but it only lasted about ten seconds.

“If you want more, you’ll just have to follow me,” she spoke casually with a giggle and a smirk that followed. “C’mon.”

And then she disappeared into the water, but I quickly did the same so that I could keep her within my line of sight. Before I knew it, we had reached ‘our spot,’ and then I knew there wasn’t anything to be afraid of. When I came up for more air, I saw a vast space with a flat pathway that led to another area, which meant this was an underwater cave system of sorts. She was already on the dry, rocky surface and had her flashlight shut off because she had a larger flashlight near the entryway that lit the room up, which was super cool.

“This … is … awesome!” I exclaimed in excitement as I also climbed up onto the surface and sat next to her. “It’s not so bad after all.”

“See? I told you,” she replied as she took off her goggles and set them down on her right. “Thanks for trusting a total stranger.”

I had to chuckle at that one as I took off my own goggles and put them down on my left side.

“You’re not a stranger,” I told her as I brought my left knee up to my chest and leaned my left elbow on it while I simultaneously met her gaze. “I’m comfortable around you. You’re my friend if you want to be.”

“What if I wanted to be more?” she asked as she intentionally placed her left hand beside my right one that I had resting on the dry platform.

I couldn’t help but look down at her hand as it touched mine, and then when I looked into her eyes, I suddenly knew why she had an expression of mischief that she had before we dove into the water in the first place.

“Well, that depends,” I answered.

“On … ?”

I knew she would say that.

“On how much you really want to invest in a guy who’s only here in town for vacation,” I explained.

“Would you ever come back?” she asked.

I saw in her eyes that she was a little concerned, though she tried to hide it.

“Oh, hell yeah, on every chance I’d get!” I exclaimed with enthusiasm, but then I calmed down. “I know we’ve only met today, but I’ve never been this comfortable with talking to someone like I feel I can with you. Up on the surface, you actually listened to me. No one ever wants to hear what I want, or need, to say. I can sense that we come from two totally different worlds, but that doesn’t matter because we understand each other. I feel like with you, those two other worlds we come from don’t even matter as we’ve just created our own world. Does that sound odd?”

She looked relieved now.

“No,” she whispered as she kept her eyes locked with mine in a soft gaze. “Not at all. What if I told you I already have my digits and email address on a piece of paper, all ready for me to give to you at the end of the day?”

“Is that supposed to be my surprise?” I asked.

Suddenly she lit up and then stood up.

“Actually, no, but that reminds me. Hold on.”

I watched as she hurried out of sight for a minute, but then I saw she had two sets of elvish ears when she came back. 

“Oh, my God,” I said with a laugh as I realized just how much of a nerd she was. “You didn’t!”

“I did,” she replied as she approached, sat down, and handed me a pair. “Consider them a gift, something to remember me by when you go home.”

“Or whenever I’m traveling,” I told her as I took the pair she gave me. “I am so putting them on right now.”

Camila watched as I put them on my ears, and then she did the same thing with her own pair.

“Now we can truly be elves together,” she suggested with the dorkiest smile on her face. “You cool with taking pics and vids?”

“Sure, as long as it’s not scandalous enough for tabloid news, though. My mother would kill me.”

“Oh, I come from a famous political family that’s known all around Europe. I can’t afford any scandals for my family. It’s why I don’t have social media. It makes it hard for the paparazzi to use my private life against me for their own pleasures and monetary gain.”

“Okay, cool, so we’re both on the same page about privacy then,” I replied as Camila got up again and disappeared once more, but she soon returned with her cell phone.

“Oh, for sure!” Camila exclaimed as she sat down next to me, this time right practically against my body. “These adventures are all just between you and me. Besides, I like the idea that if our worlds are too much for us, we can turn to each other for a breath of fresh air.”

“Fresh air,” I repeated as I turned my face into hers, and our noses barely touched. “I like that. A breath of fresh air.”

“Yeah?” Camila replied softly. “Are you leaning into me because you want another kiss?”

“Yeah,” I whispered as I turned my head to the right.

“Is that because you want to be more than friends?” she continued in curiosity.

“Only if you want to be,” I answered as my lips were just centimeters from hers.

“I think you know I do,” was all she needed to say before my lips found themselves on hers.

I heard her cell phone’s camera snapping as we kissed, but I didn’t care at all. I gently brought my left hand up to her face's right side and held it there. She was a soft kisser, tender and slow in the movement of her lips, and I couldn’t help but mirror this. I know we kissed a couple of times already in the hollow pocket earlier, but as far as I was concerned, this was our first official kiss because it lasted longer than 10 seconds, and we were both really into it. I had never been kissed by a girl before her, but I was so glad I hadn’t, because now I could call her my first kiss, and what better lady was there than this beautiful one right here … on my lap? She was perfect for me.

My God, she was making herself at home by climbing onto my lap, but her lips never left mine, and her focus had only grown stronger. She was careful in the way she sat down, though I felt her groin right in front of mine, and I couldn’t help the erection that started. I had never had a girl on me like this before, but I knew I didn’t want to take it any further than this make-out session, so I had to figure out a way to stop this erection. Then she gradually pressed her groin onto mine, and then a soft ‘mmm’ hummed off her lips, which I knew was her way of saying she liked that I was so physically attracted to her. Her knees had hugged my sides as if she was determined to keep me in this position, which I honestly didn’t mind.

That hum from her lips, though. I prayed to God she wouldn’t do that again because that was sexier than I ever would’ve thought. Please don’t do that again. Please! Please …

She had put the phone down beside us and brought both arms around my neck, and soon her hands found themselves in my hair. That’s what I was waiting for, her arms around me, and it was my turn to do the same. I removed my hand from her face and then wrapped her all up in my arms. To have someone in my arms, someone who wanted me and liked me for me, was the best feeling in the whole damn world right now. Before I knew it, she had pulled her lips from mine, but she kept her gaze of passion locked with my eyes.

“I … kind of have a little song in my heart,” she confessed. “Does that sound stupid?”

“Not at all, because I have one in my heart too. Let’s hear it,” I told her.

“You first?”

I get it. Little Miss Shy. I had to chuckle for a moment, but it was cool. Her shyness and nervousness that displayed across her face were kind of cute. For a moment, I touched her nose with mine and wiggled them, and then I parted my lips.

“I have met a brand new friend today / And this might sound like a total cliché / But I know in my heart I’ve got to say / She takes away the grey in my day.”

I saw the excitement in her eyes, and then she stood up from my lap while her knees now rested on the rocks beside my hips, and then her arms spread out in pure joy.

“Today on my rocks, I found a beach bum,” she sang as she looked up at the rocky ceiling, but then she brought her hands inward towards her heart and looked back into my eyes. Did she really just call me a beach bum, though? “He was sleeping, but where did he come from?”

Then her hands found themselves around my face again.

“Oh, I must confess, he’s just so handsome.” And then she came back down into my lap ever so tenderly while her face grew close once more. “I needed to know his name and then some.”

This would make a fantastic love ballad. I wanted to sing it together. She had such a beautiful voice.

“Since we’ve met, we’ve stuck together like glue,” I started to sing, but then she chimed in.

“Baby, we’re stuck together like glue / And when you looked into my eyes I knew / You were the one I needed to pursue / And I just never want to say-”

“Adieu,” I finished for her.

I don’t know how I knew she was going to say that, but the fact that I finished her statement for her excited her even more than she already was. It excited me just as much. We were both really into this.

“Because we’re stuck together like glue / Stuck together like glue,” I continued.

“Stuck together like glu-u-ue!” she followed with her arms spread wide open while her face went backward in what seemed like an expression of pure joy on her face.

Man, does she have a set of pipes on her! Her voice deserved to be heard, and it should never be hidden from the world. I wrapped my arms tighter around her but gently, of course, and brought her body even closer to mine.“Oh, I must confess … I don’t know what to do … My temperature’s risen to 102 /, And I wondered if she had a clue / Or did she have these new feelings too?” I sang while she brought her head back and mere inches from mine with that gorgeous smile of hers.

Songwriting came easy to me, as I was a creative type and always writing lyrics when I was alone, but it appears that it came easy to Camila, too. I loved the fact that we did this duet together and made it up as we go along. She made me want to never stop singing.

“He makes me feel alive inside,” she sang as she grabbed my face once more. “And truth be told, I am terrified / ‘Cause I’ve never felt what I’ve felt so electrified!”

She turned her face sideways, and I knew she wanted another kiss. I turned my head sideways too and brought my lips ever so close.

“And when our lips do touch, my feelings are … ma-a-agnifi-i-i-i-ied.”

She sang that last word so softly, and I knew what this meant. I liked her a lot, and she wanted me, too. Together we had such perfect harmony! She was perfect for me.

She was the one.

My heart leaped for joy and fluttered in my throat when she kissed me again, but this time my mind grew hazy, and I knew it was because I was in love. Most people would usually say they fell in love at first sight, but not us, though, not me and Cami. We fell in love with each other at first song. From the first moment we sang together, I knew she was the one. It was amazing to discover that our hearts were 100% in sync with one another, and they both played the same melody throughout our veins. It sounds stupid because we just met each other today, but truth be told, I felt like I’ve known her all my life. When she had tenderly placed her soft lips once more upon my own, I knew right then and there that my heart was tuned to her, and absolutely nothing could ever change that. This girl was it!

Chapter 14

A Cold, Hard, and Bitter Reality





When I awoke from my dream, I was immediately filled with sorrow, which was more profound than I had previously felt. I enjoyed the dream about the first memory I ever made with Camila, and I didn’t want it to end. I wanted more than anything to go back to that time because if I would’ve known then what I knew now, I would’ve stuck closer to Camila, and I would’ve followed her back to North Carolina to convince her to marry me before our son would’ve been born. Now I was in her palace, in her homeland, alive and about ready to pay my respects to her royal funeral. I was having a hard time wrapping my head around this fact, yet at the same time, it was like my mind didn’t want to. My mind didn’t want to face the reality that Camila was no longer here with us. Neither did my heart. The tears formed in my eyes, and my nose instantly turned stuffy, so I sniffed to clear my nasal passage and tried to wipe away my tears before they fell on this luxurious pillow underneath my head.

“Hey,” I heard softly.

For a moment, she sounded like Camila in that soft tone. I hadn’t realized until now, but someone was in bed with me, and she hadn’t moved a muscle until just now. I paid close attention to her movements and quickly realized it was my wife. Wait … my wife was here? When did she get in?

“Ana?”

“Hey, sweetie,” she replied, again in the same quiet tone as before, but this time she reached out to my face.

It felt amazing to feel her warmth. God, I missed her like crazy! I just wanted to cry in her arms.

“How long have you been here?” I asked instead as I tried to keep my composure.

“I just got in about an hour ago.”

“What made you decide to come?” I continued in question.

“Well, when I had that video call with Luca earlier, so I knew you arrived safely, he told me he sensed you needed me, and he asked for me to come. After he caught me up on some things when I got in, I knew he was right, and I’m glad I came. Besides coming here for you, though, I really did want to come and pay my respects to my best friend, as it’s what she would have wanted.”

Ana considered Camila to be her best friend? 

“I kissed her,” I blurted out loud.

I watched as my wife’s eyebrows furrowed in confusion.

“What do you mean?” she asked.

It was hard enough to be honest in this moment, but to repeat it? Tears formed in my eyes as my lips parted again. I didn’t want to say it again.

“I kissed Cami. I kissed her cold, dead lips.”

Don’t get me wrong. I preferred transparency over lies, even if it meant Ana might be upset or mad with me. It was the fact that when I kissed Camila, that’s when I realized she truly wasn’t coming back. That’s why it was hard for me to admit this out loud. However, now that Ana understood what I meant, she had tears in her eyes, but not for the reasons I thought she would.

“Thank you for being honest with me. I know this must not be easy, and –”

“You mean you’re not mad that I did what I did?” I asked.

I seriously thought she would’ve been more hurt by the fact that I kissed someone other than her.

“Why should I be? I kept my friendship with her a secret from you and kept you from having a relationship with your son. So at the very least, I owe you the closure you need with Cami, and I have no right to judge you in however you need to get that closure.”

I saw in the moonlight that the first of her tears fell, and based on the tone she used in her voice, I knew she was riddled with guilt.

“Would you be upset with me if I said I still love her?” I asked.

Her eyes remained locked with mine, though she didn’t miss a beat.

“No, because sometimes, truly, a person can love more than one person at a time. I know, Vince, that your love for Cami is totally different from your love for me. I’ve always known that you’ve never stopped loving her, but you know what? You’ve also never compared me to her or her to me. I’ll be honest and say I was rooting for you and Cami back in the day when I went down to North Carolina to confront her and try and convince her to come back to New York. When she told me she was pregnant with Luca, I should have tried harder. I’m so sorry that I didn’t try hard enough.”

What? Was this really how she felt? I saw she was about to have an emotional breakdown.

“But then you and I wouldn’t have gotten married and created the beautiful children and the beautiful life we have,” I told her. “I love you, Ana, and I will never leave your side. I don’t ever want to live my life without you, and I don’t know what I’d do if something happened to you.”

“I know, but I can’t help but feel like … if I would’ve only tried harder to convince her to move back to New York, she would still be alive today because she wouldn’t have met that monster if she married you.”

My wife, my precious, loving, beautiful wife, felt guilty over something she had no control over. How could I stop her tears? I hated seeing her like this when it wasn’t her fault at all. Besides, she was pregnant and couldn’t afford to be stressed out like this. I tenderly cupped her face with my left hand, and I had my lips parted to say something, but apparently, Ana had something else to add to her statement.

“And to make matters worse, I didn’t answer her calls.”

Huh?

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“On the day she was in the accident, she called me several times, and I had such a bad migraine, so I was sleeping and had my phone off,” she further explained.

“Did she leave you any messages?” I had to ask.

“Yes. There’s even one she left for you at the end, and I have one from Luca after the accident.”

“Do you still have them?” I asked.

“Yes. I can’t bring myself to delete them,” she answered.

I got out of bed, walked around to Ana’s side, and sat down next to her as I picked up her phone from her side table. I went to turn it on, but as soon as I picked it up, the motion sensor lit up the screen, which surprised me.

“Your phone’s on,” I told her when I met her eyes again as she turned her body to face me on this side of the bed.

She always shut it off when she slept because she was a Linguist who constantly got tiresome calls in the middle of the night for random translation services, usually emergencies. However, she was allowed to decline them to ensure she got the proper amount of sleep she could get during her pregnancy or if she was on vacation, but she could also choose to answer those calls if she wanted during those times. For the sake of our sanity, though, she stopped accepting translation requests during sleeping hours, so that’s why she kept her phone off in the middle of the night.

“I know,” she replied. “I haven’t been able to turn it off since I first saw and listened to those messages.”

I understood how she felt, and I couldn’t blame her for never wanting to miss another important call again.

“Besides, I’ve already faxed in my resignation to NSLN, so I’m no longer receiving any calls for translation requests.”

“What? But you love North Star! You’ve been with them since college,” I told her as I turned the light on, so I saw her face better.

It had been Ana’s dream since she was seven years old to travel all over the globe with North Star Lingual Networks, for they were the most sought-after company with their professionalism and hiring the best language interpreters in their field. Ana wanted to work her way up to CEO and take over the company. In fact, she was the assistant to the assistant CEO. For her to give up on her dream now, after all the hard work she put into her education and all the time and passion she invested with North Star, really said something.

“I know, but I’m too stressed out right now, and we’ve just been given full custody of Luca. We’ve got two kids with another baby on the way, and now we have the future King of Xudia in our care for the next six years,” she said as she wiped the tears from her eyes. “I don’t know if you’ve realized it yet, but our lives have just totally changed. We can never go back to the way things were. Based on my conversation with Luca yesterday via our video call, I knew then that moving here permanently would be a new reality we’ll have to face sooner or later.”

Well, shit … she had a compelling point I couldn’t deny.

“Yeah … ” I replied softly. “I’m beginning to see that.”

Ana placed her right hand on my own, and I looked into her eyes again.

“I can’t be working for NSLN when I’m going to have to devote all my time to helping you and the boys transition into this new way of life.”

I nodded in understanding to this.

“What has Luca caught you up with?” I asked.

Ana smiled now, and she sat upright as she adjusted her pillows behind her.

“He told me about your introduction to the king and how quickly the king has grown so fond of you, and he also told me about how you enjoyed spending your afternoon with Rheya, how your heart just about melted for her. He also told me how happy he is to have you in his life finally,” Ana said, but then her smile faded. “But that he can see how much pain you’re in and how angry you are with your mother. He didn’t feel it was his place to go into details, but he said you and I would have a lot to talk about in regards to that whole situation and that it was much more complicated than simply about how she treated Cami.

”I was surprised to learn that Luca hadn’t told Ana about the fact that the king was my biological father, but I’m glad he didn’t because that should be a discussion between husband and wife.

“Oh, yeah, we definitely have a lot to talk about there, but I’m really not in the mood to talk about my mother right now,” I said as calmly as I could to keep my anger at bay.

“I know,” she replied quietly as she tenderly squeezed my right hand. “We can talk about it tomorrow. If you trust me, I think it would be better that you wait until after the funeral to listen to those voice messages.”

Why did she want me to put the phone down?

“Why?”

“Because you need your sleep,” Ana answered. “And if you listen to these messages now, you will be up all night. I would know.” Yeah, because she was up all night. “So, do you trust me on this?”

I was silent for a good minute because I wanted to listen to those messages, to hear Cami’s voice one last time, but I put the phone back on the side table. Ana knew me better than I knew myself, though, so I knew I would be better off if I just listened to her right now. I nodded in response before I brought her right hand up to my lips, and then I softly kissed the top of her hand.

“Of course, I trust you,” I whispered as I met her gaze, this time in so loving a manner, as I turned my body to face her more directly. “You’ve always known what’s best. I don’t know how you can do this, though.”

“Do what?” she asked as her eyebrows once more furrowed in confusion.

“This,” I said as I gestured towards this whole room, but I meant so much more than just this room alone. “I’ve managed to go without thinking of Cami since I became sober so many years ago, but now that she’s gone, it’s … it’s going to be difficult to not think about her. Just being here reminds me of her … and Luca … I see her in his eyes, in the way he moves, and I can hear her in his voice. I look at him, and … I see how much I missed out on with both of them. It makes me want to go back to yesteryear and –”

Ana had tears in her eyes, but she sniffled and held them back. She placed her right hand on my face, but it didn’t feel right to me at the moment.

“No, don’t,” I told her quietly as I gently removed her hand from my face. It was hard to look her in the eyes right now. “I feel like I’m cheating on you, and I just … I don’t know how to handle this.”

“Vincenzo, honey, trust me when I say you need to look at me.” When I didn’t, she placed her right hand under my chin, but I didn’t stop her this time and gently lifted my face to look into her eyes. “You are not cheating on me, and I’ll tell you why, but I need you to climb back into bed first, okay? Just come back to me.”

I watched as she scooted over to my usual side of the bed, then she turned her body sideways but faced me and patted the empty spot next to her. I did as she asked but turned out the light first and climbed into bed towards her. When I was within reach, she grabbed my face again and guided me as close to her body as she could.

“I know your emotions are all over the place, but you are not cheating on me. You are grieving. You are grieving over your first love, the mother of your firstborn child.” In the moonlight, I saw the tears in Ana’s eyes resurface, and I couldn’t hold onto mine anymore. “I’ve gotten to know everything there was to know about her over the last decade, and I can tell you that it would be hard not to love a woman like her in the ways that we love her.”

I couldn’t keep my composure anymore. The first of my sobs escaped from my lips as I closed my eyes. I also heard the pain in Ana’s voice. This was a cold, hard, and bitter reality I knew neither of us wanted to face. We both hated this.

“I know, honey,” she whispered as she brought my head close to her collar bone. Ana’s words now broke up on her, a sign that she too was as broken inside as I was, and she wept with me. “It’s okay to cry. It’s okay. I miss her too.”

Chapter 15

An Early Rise



When the morning came, I felt like I was hit by a truck. I had a hard time falling asleep after I turned to Ana for comfort when I awoke in the middle of the night, simply because I couldn’t shake the pain of missing Camila or ignore the gaping feeling of emptiness inside me that only grew more prominent. Then, just as the sun rose and brightened the room, the guards came knocking. It seems that the people woke early here in the palace, which I can respect, but I knew the time for lying in bed was now over.

“Come in!” I said just loudly enough that they heard it, and then those quarter doors opened.

Luca was surprised because every time he came into the room, it was through the hidden passage door.

“Good morning, Abbo,” he said as he approached the bed. “Did you sleep well?”

“Good morning, kiddo,” I answered quietly as I sat upright. “I slept about as well as one can in a time like this. How about you?”

“I can’t sleep,” Luca replied.

He better not still be taking those pills that his grandfather found on him.

“Yeah, you and I are going to talk about that,” I stated as I felt my wife stir in bed.

“If you say so, but first thing’s first,” Luca replied as Ana opened her eyes and saw Luca was here with us. 

Aha! Someone now avoided the subject of sleep, and he knew I would get to the bottom of the reason why. Perhaps I should bring him back with me to the states when I returned to settle my affairs and have a talk with my parents. Then, I’d be able to get Luca alone and away from his guards and his people, so I could talk to him about what’s going on with him. He was good at pretending to be normal, or as normal as a kid can be when he’s going to be a king before long, but I just had a feeling he was going through a lot more than he let on. It couldn’t be easy to have all this pressure on him as the future leader of millions of people while having experienced so much abuse from his stepfather that only a select few knew about. I needed to know what was going through his mind. I needed to know how I could be a good father to him and help him in the ways he really needed me to be, in the ways he was hiding from the rest of the world. I left it alone for now, though, as I had a feeling he had something more pressing to tell me.

“If you plan to bathe or shower, you should do it now, as your valets will be here shortly to help you dress, and they will make sure your funeral attire is alright. Good morning, Mimi.”

Mimi? That’s a new one I’d never heard before. I watched as Luca approached his stepmother and then kissed her so tenderly on her forehead. I saw the smile form on her face as she rubbed the sleep from her eyes.

“Good morning, sweet pea,” she replied as she now sat upright in bed, scooted over my way a bit, and then patted her left side of the bed. “Come here and give me some snuggles.”

When Luca climbed onto the bed, I watched as Ana wrapped her loving arms around Luca’s neck, and then she pulled him close to her and sweetly kissed the top of his head. I had to admit that it was nice to finally see how close they were in this bond of theirs. The fact that they were so happy to see each other made me smile. I knew deep down that Kris would accept Luca just as he was, but knowing Eli, I knew he and Luca would clash. I was kind of glad Ana left the boys in her parents’ care back in Greece for the next few days because I wasn’t quite ready to introduce all three of the boys to each other yet, as ridiculous as that sounded. 

I needed them to meet in a neutral setting, and this wasn’t a neutral setting, not for Eli. Instead, I had plans to introduce them all to each other back home once the trip to Greece was over for Ana and the boys, but I’ll revisit those introduction plans when the time comes because I had other priorities to manage today. So I watched as Luca spoke to Ana in Xudian, and then she responded just the same until three men and three women entered the room. Then Luca and An’s conversation stopped immediately, and Luca climbed off the bed.

“I shall leave you both to your valets,” Luca replied as he turned around to face us and bowed softly with his head. 

“Wait, I have a question for you both,” I told them, and both Luca and Ana turned their attention on me. “Do either of you know of anyone named Gino?”

When both of them looked at me super confused, I knew then they didn’t have a clue as to what I was talking about, though Ana shook her head no in response.

“No, why do you ask?” Luca answered in curiosity.

“Just wondering,” I replied. “I’ll see you at breakfast.”

“Oh, there will be no feasting until tomorrow’s dawn,” Luca replied. “But I will see you in a couple of hours. Marko and I need to check in on Rheya, see if she’s well enough to attend the funeral, and if so, we’re bringing her back with us for the day, and she’ll stay the night here in the palace until after breakfast tomorrow. Until then, should you need any further assistance, your guards are right outside your quarter doors. They and your valets have already been made aware of your pending social status, per His Majesty’s request, of course, so please don’t dismiss them when they address you formally.”

I nodded in understanding and acknowledgment. I certainly didn’t want to be the cause of some people losing their jobs. I was curious to see how my guards and valets were going to address me.

“Okay, thank you for letting me know,” I replied. Luca just bowed softly with his head in response and smiled warmly. “And I’ve thought about your request to return with me to the states. I’d love your company and to spend some more time getting to know each other before everything gets crazier than it already is.”

Luca said nothing at first, though he didn’t need to, because the expression on his face spoke for him. His eyes alone glistened instantly in pure joy. I knew this boy looked up to me a lot more than his brothers did. Usually, kids who had backgrounds of any abuse have trust issues with new adults in their lives until trust was earned, but in this case, I’m pretty sure that Camila and Ana made sure Luca could trust me. I’m so thankful for both of them and their love and kindness.

“I would be honored,” he said calmly with another subtle regal bow of his head. “And I can’t wait.”

God, I love this kid! Luca turned on his heel now and left the room. Then the quarter doors closed, and one of them valets spoke up.

“Good morning, Your Majesties,” he said as he bowed formally.

And so it began.

“Your Majesties?” Ana asked softly as she now looked over at my in curiosity.

I knew it was time to have that talk with Ana, but I wanted to have it in Italian, so no one else in this room could understand.

“Doccia?” I asked quietly as I referred to taking a shower with her, though it meant a lot more between us.

Whenever we couldn’t have a private talk with Eli and Kris around during the daytime, we would take a shower together at night after they’ve gone to bed so that they couldn’t hear us. So I knew that Ana knew it was time for another one of those kinds of talks, and she knew it needed to be in Italian.

“Sí,” was her only response as she now sat upright in bed.

“So, how does this work?” I asked in English as I looked to the main valet who addressed me so regally. “What is your name, and what is it that we need to do here? I’m not sure of what a valet does in this kind of circumstance.”

The valet stood in a casual stance again but bowed his head in respect.

“My name is Niko, Sire, and I would be honored to explain to you that my position here is to make sure you are well taken care of. However, the funeral of our beautiful late princess does require us to be extra mindful of the needs of the royal family and make sure you are in the proper attire for the funeral. His Majesty has also instructed me to educate you on all the mandated royal formalities in the palace and throughout our nation. Our people expect the royal family to act and carry themselves in a particular manner. Since you are new to the eyes of our people, they will be watching your every move to see if you are a person they can respect or not. His majesty wants to assure the people that we present you early on to show the people they can accept you as we here in the royal court have. Shall we begin with the fitting process of your day’s ensemble, or do you wish to bathe first?”

Okay, so a valet here was just a more modern-day version of a servant. I could handle that, for the most part, I think. However, I remembered that Luca said earlier that sometimes he goes off on his own, simply so he can just breathe, so hopefully, these guys wouldn’t be on me too much like a bug up my butt. I would expect nothing less for today and the coming weeks, though, because of what’s going on and how new this whole culture was to me, so I knew I needed to be mindful of my valets’ duties in every way possible.

“I’d like to freshen up first, if you don’t mind,” I answered respectfully.

“Not at all, Sire,” Niko replied, again with another soft bow of his head. Would he ever stop doing that, or was I just going to have to get used to that annoying gesture? On the other hand, this appeared to be something everyone did here in the palace, so yes, Palladino, get used to it. “May I step out for a few moments to personally get you both some towels? I shall return before you finish bathing.”

“Of course,” I whispered in acknowledgment. “But when you return, don’t come to the bathroom until I call you because I need to have a private discussion with my wife.”

“As you wish, Your Highness,” Niko said as he once again bowed softly. 

Before either of us knew it, he had turned on his heel and left the room. Then I turned to my wife, gestured with my head towards the bathroom, and she smiled. Then she spoke in Xudian towards her three female valets. They responded to her in the same manner that Niko did with me, only in Xudian, and they all went towards the bathroom.

Then my wife turned her attention on me and spoke in Italian.

“They’re getting our bath ready. Now, please explain to me why they’re addressing us with royal titles when neither you nor I are Xudian.”

Here we go.

“Have you ever seen a picture of the king when he was younger?” I asked.

“No,” Ana answered. “What has that got to do with this, though?”

I was so glad she was fluent in Italian, so we could keep this conversation private.

“Well, I have,” I replied. “There’s a huge portrait of the king and the late queen in the foyer of his royal chambers. The king is young in the portrait, about my age.” Ana nodded as she took in my eyes, though she stayed quiet as she kept her eyes on me. “He could be my twin because he’s identical to me in his appearance, and I mean identical.

”I knew Ana was confused now.

“How is that possible?” she asked, but then I saw she thought on this for a few moments and put two and two together. “Wait … are you saying he’s your biological father?”

I nodded in silence as I saw in her eyes that it finally clicked in her mind. She knew exactly what I meant now. She brought her hands up to her face in shock.

“So that’s what Luca meant when he talked about how angry you were with your mother, about how it was much more complicated than just about the way she treated Cami.”

I’m glad she figured out the message. This conversation barely started, but I hated it already because the anger in me wanted to explode. It coursed through my veins with such fire and animosity that I just wanted to punch something, but I hated to present any kind of violence in front of my wife. She was my best friend and the mother of my children. The only time I ever allowed Ana to see such anger was when I first walked away from my mother a decade ago when she tried to get me to make amends with my mother just weeks after our blow-up. I’ve never hit anyone, but if I was angry enough, it was usually a table or a door that I punched or anything that could be easily replaced.

The boys had never seen me with such rage, though. Kids will watch their parents’ every move and adopt their parents’ habits, so I didn’t believe in acting out in violent fits in front of them. Instead, I believed in maintaining as much control as possible, but sometimes it wasn't easy, like right now.

“I don’t know if I can forgive my mother for this,” I said quietly, with tears that surfaced unexpectedly, while I ran my right hand through my hair in frustration as I now avoided eye contact to focus on keeping my anger at bay. I felt my wife’s heart break as she heard those words pass my lips. “Her hatred goes beyond Cami and the Xudian culture from a time that came before us. There’s nearly half a century of history between my parents and the king that goes back to each of their respective childhoods, and my parents kept everything from me while the king has been completely open and honest with me about it. He’s dying, Ana, and it’s not fair that I’m only getting to know him now when I’ve had a right to know him from the time I was brought into this world.”

Ana was at a loss for words, but her hand remained over her mouth in shock.

“Oh, honey,” she said as she placed her hands on mine while she mirrored my tearful gaze. “Oh, honey, I’m so sorry.”

I quickly wiped my tears away and tried to focus on the more important matter of this topic.

“The king wants to legitimize me and turn the crown over to me, and he doesn’t mean to give me the crown as regent until Luca is of age.”

“He wants you to be king, period,” Ana replied. “Do you realize what’s about to happen? We’re about to hit the front page of every magazine and tabloid in the world.”

She wasn’t kidding either. I already knew that. I didn’t know if I could accept the crown, though.

“I know,” I said. “But I don’t know if I can accept the crown. I don’t know anything about this culture, and I wouldn’t know enough to be worthy of the crown, and would the people even want me as king? This will cause such a stir. So I just … I don’t know what to do, Ana.”

“I know,” she replied as she grabbed my face and kissed me tenderly. “I will be more than happy to educate you on everything I know about Xudia and its customs. I will also teach you the language, but first thing’s first … take a shower.”

She was right. It was time to get ourselves ready for the day. I kissed her gently on the lips.

“Ti amo.”

Ana smiled again, and I couldn’t help but mirror that smile of hers, and then her lips parted in response.

“Ti amo anch’io.”

Chapter 16

No Coming Back




While we bathed, Ana gave me a detailed itinerary of how things would go at the funeral. In advance, she warned me that it would be entirely in Xudian and that it’d be the first internationally televised royal Xudian funeral. I already knew that this meant the world would learn how Luca and I were related. I accepted this, but I didn’t want my parents to find out before I had a chance to tell them myself.

“Hey, babe?” I called as I watched my wife’s valets fit her for her funeral attire after the bath was over.

They made her a priority since Luca approached them after his video call with her yesterday, as the royal palace clothing designers had less than twenty-four hours to design and make her ensemble.

“Yes, darling?” she replied.

I once more spoke strictly in Italian to keep our conversation private, but I allowed my valets to fit me in my funeral attire as well.

“You said you got some voice messages on your phone from Cami, right?”

“Yes, that’s right,” she answered as confusion spread across her face.

“Did you get them before or after I called you from Malone?”

Then the look on her face changed, as she now figured where this conversation headed.

“Honestly? I got them before, but it didn’t feel right to tell you over a phone conversation from halfway around the world. I was making plans to return stateside when you called me and told me what happened. I wanted to tell you in person, face to face because I knew how devastated you’d be.”

Tears formed in my eyes when I heard her explanation. I’m glad she was honest with me. However, I was still upset that she kept her friendship with Cami a secret from me.

“I understand, but I’m not going to lie, though … it honestly hurts that you’ve been in Cami and Luca’s life for these last ten years without my knowledge, that you’ve kept

Luca a secret from me … but I understand. She tied your hands behind your back and threatened to keep Luca here if you told me everything you knew, and I can’t even be angry with her either.”

Tears now formed in Ana’s eyes, and I knew that she was heartbroken over this.

“I’m so sorry, Vince,” she apologized wholeheartedly. “It was never my intention to hurt you.”

“Oh, babe, no; I didn’t say it was you who hurt me. I don’t blame you, Ana, and I don’t blame Cami. Cami did what she did because of how my mother treated her. All of this stems from my mother’s behavior and her poor decisions regarding me and my future. My mother did this, and it hurts in so many ways that I’m … losing myself in my anger towards her. I don’t know how to have a conversation with her without breaking something in the process or without saying something I will regret later. Did Luca tell you that he wants to return with me to the states so that he can talk to her too? Even after knowing everything my mother has said and done to Cami, Luca still wants to meet her and talk to her.”

Ana nodded for a moment before she spoke up.

“He told me last night when I got in,” she answered softly. “He feels this is his only chance to talk to her and confront her directly about how your mother treated Cami. He feels this is the only chance he’ll get to talk with her before he has no choice but to return here permanently to accept the crown upon the day after his sixteenth birthday. I get the feeling, however, that whether or not he’ll have the option of accepting the crown at sixteen will have to do with whatever decision you make as the leader. If you decide to accept the crown on a legitimate basis, then obviously, he won’t be king at sixteen.”

Me? King of Xudia? Get real.

“Oh, I don’t want the crown. I’ll accept it as regency until I find Luca is a man and ready to be a leader, but … to be a king permanently?” I had to laugh at this. “I may be half Xudian, but this country has never even heard of me until now. I really don’t think the country would accept me as king on a more permanent basis, and I seriously don’t want such a high position. I’m only going to accept the title of King Regent because the people want Luca to be their king, and he’s just not yet old enough or mature enough to lead them. We now have in our custody a boy whose stepfather has broken him, and I just have this feeling he’s going to give me a lot of trouble when I try to talk to him about it. He needs to deal with this and talk to a professional to work through his issues because if he doesn’t, then he’ll never be strong, stable, and ready enough to lead his people.”

Ana was silent for a few moments, and I knew something was on her mind when I saw the serious expression on her face.

“I think you’re right,” she said softly. “I saw the manila folder on the desk over there. I’ve never been through anything that he’s been through or seen any of the stuff he’s seen that was done to Cami, so that’s one way in which I can’t relate to him. It’s so heartbreaking to discover all the brokenness in that kid’s young life, but you’re so right because he does need professional help.”

I sighed deeply as I had not realized Ana already looked at that paperwork.

“I didn’t know you already saw the paperwork,” I answered. “I know he’s been through some stuff, but I’ve been waiting for the right moment to look at that paperwork. I know that it’s going to break my heart to read it, and …”

I was at a loss for words.

“I saw it last night, right before I climbed into bed. It was hard to close my eyes without thinking of what that monster did.”

She made me want to look at those files right now rather than on the plane ride home. So, with my hand, I gestured for my valets to stop touching me, and then I walked over to the paperwork.

“I don’t think you should --” she started to say in English, but it was too late, as I had already opened the manila folder.

I read all the words on the first page, and it took a few moments for my mind to register what it was that I just read, and then the fury in my veins returned with a fiery vengeance.

“Get ‘em outta here,” I said as calmly as I could.

Ana knew what that meant. She spoke to both our valets in Xudian. Shortly after, I heard the quarter doors close, which meant Ana and I were now alone. I felt her eyes on me, and I knew she wondered what I’d do. It was tough for me to keep myself in control right now when all I wanted to do was punch a damn wall. I turned the next page, though, and read on. I soon realized that the more I read this report, the more I understood why Ana had trouble sleeping last night. I was so angry that I had tears in my eyes, and I shook in a boiling rage that was nearly ready to blow.

“Vince?”

That was it. I wiped the desk clear of its contents in a fit of fury, which caused paperwork to fly all over the room. I was tired of holding it in anymore.

“That fucking monster!” I shouted in Italian as I now turned around to face my wife. “I fucking dare him to try and come after us, to try and reach Luca again, because I swear if he comes after us or Luca, I’ll fucking kill that piece of shit myself!” 

My wife was quiet now, and she watched as I paced back and forth in front of her. Then in a rare and surprising turnaround, my sobs had pushed their way through my anger.

“How am I ever supposed to forgive my mother for what she did to me by pushing Cami away? If she hadn’t done that, Cami wouldn’t have met him! She wouldn’t have met him, and neither she nor Luca would have gone through the shit he’s put them through! She’d still fucking be here!”

Ana approached me and immediately wrapped her arms around me as I collapsed onto my knees in sorrow and defeat. It was hard for me to allow her to see me in such a state as this, but at the same time, I knew I needed her now more than ever. So I allowed her to wrap her loving, gentle arms around me, and I allowed myself to be consumed by the love and tenderness she gave me.

“Oh, honey,” she spoke in a gentle tone as she sat down on the chair in front of the desk and kissed the top of my head. “Honey, look at me.”

As soon as she said that, I felt her warm hands upon my face, and they lifted me to look up into her eyes of sorrow.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered as a sob escaped her lips. “I’m so sorry you have to go through this. I’m so sorry for what your mother did to you and Cami, and most importantly, Luca. You had a right to know who your birth father was. You had a right to choose who you wanted to spend the rest of your life with. 

Cami and Luca both had a right to have lived without abuse. You had a right to know your firstborn son. That last part, I know I had a hand in personally. I should have told you. I should have told you the truth when I first found out, but I didn’t.”

It took me a few moments, but when I finally found the words, I spoke up.

“I don’t blame you,” I told her softly as I tried to wipe away my tears. 

“But you should,” Ana answered, but before she got another word in, I parted my lips once more.

“No,” I said quietly but firmly. “I shouldn’t, and I won’t, not now and not ever. I read her letter. She told me what happened when you went down to North Carolina to confront her. She gave me every detail in her goodbye letter that her parents gave me.”

A short sob escaped Ana’s lips, and she tried hard to cover it, but this shocked her.

“She was just like us. She was so stubborn. She was adamant about starting a life with Luca, but not with me, simply because of my mother. Cami explained in her letter how important mothers are in the Xudian culture, which is why she was so persistent in leaving me out of her life … because of my mother, and how my mother treated her, so no, you are not to blame here. She told you to come back to me in New York and pick up the pieces. She told you to stand by my side, and you did just that.”

Ana kept her hands on my face and wept again.

“Then why do I feel so guilty?” she asked between her tears.

“I don’t know … survivor’s guilt, maybe?” I answered quietly as tears still threatened to fall, but I kept my composure. “Would you hate me if I said I never want our children, any of them, to have anything to do with my mother again?”

Ana was quiet for a minute, though she shook her head.

“No. No, because I understand where you’re coming from. I understand why. The second time you and I got pregnant, I didn’t tell you immediately because I wanted to see how your mother would react. I told her I was going for an abortion because I didn’t want the decision to be stripped away from me, and you know what she did?”

I was shocked to hear that Ana wanted to abort Alex, but I was curious to know what my mother did, though this news left me speechless.

“She told me to keep it.”

What? Was she serious? Who was I kidding? Ana wouldn’t lie about something like this, though maybe she did back then, but she came clean now. What the hell, Mother?

“Yeah, Vince, she told me to keep Alex, so I did. I didn’t want to abort our baby, honestly, but I needed to know what your mother’s reaction would be since I knew about what she did to Cami. She was so happy that I was pregnant with Alex and flat out told me she would never want me to abort one of her grandbabies, so that little test made it clear as day to me that she was prejudiced against Cami and not me, and yet she damn well knows you are half Xudian.”

Yeah, I’ve decided, my relationship with my mother was now over. There’s no coming back from this. Not after all this.

Chapter 17

Mourning the Dead and Celebrating the Life of a Princess




The funeral was beautiful. I couldn’t understand a single word of it, but Ana stuck close to me and translated everything to me as quietly as she could without being noticed. Rheya was in attendance, and she even held my hand for the most part, which was comforting. Her wish to be near me and have my left hand surprisingly helped, especially since I was on stage with the entire royal court and the king himself. This meant everyone here and worldwide had their eyes on us, except for the times when the cameras were pointed on various entertainers who performed what Xudians had called ‘The Last Song and Dance.’ Interestingly enough, Rheya was one of those performers at one point.

When Rheya took her place in the center of the field before the stage, a giant screen was lit up behind her, which was to the right side of the area, and it displayed a previous recording of Rheya from two years ago. It appears that when Rheya was in remission, she had long, beautiful raven locks. Still, for her performance, she decided to proudly display her bald head with a skinny headwrap that had a rich blue flower displayed at the top of her forehead. She was dressed to the nines like a little blue and purple ballerina, and in the recording was someone I least expected, and of course, the video began just as Rheya had now started her performance on the field. In the video with her was our very own princess, the one and only Camila Juric. I had never known Camila to be a ballerina, let alone the prima ballerina everyone here in Xudia knew her to be.

I was astonished to learn that Camila had never mentioned this fact, or that she loved ballet, and that she often performed with a lot of the ballet companies and their young students here in Xudia for fun. I guess this was part of how she stayed connected with the younger generations of her nation. In her eulogy, I also learned that when they created the Deaf and Hard of Hearing education program, someone deliberately tried to sabotage the event through an attempt to burn down the Taergorjian Citadel reception hall in the province of Taergorjia. In response, Camila had helped to ensure everyone made it out safely, and she had even risked her own life by going back into the bathrooms behind the reception hall to save three Deaf kids that were trapped in there by the fire. Because of her, not a single life was lost that night, and it was considered her bravest and most significant act of patriotism. Yet, at the same time, she remained wholly humbled and gave credit instead to all the firefighters and other emergency personnel that showed up then.

Rheya gave a stunning performance, even though she stopped mid-performance several times due to what I believed was her illness getting in the way of it. It felt like at some points in her routine that she would possibly faint. I knew there was a doctor and paramedics on standby if she needed their help, but she didn’t call for them, and she pushed herself to her limits. One thing she limited herself on in her routine was her turns, though. In the video with Camila, they did many turns and high jumps together, but here on the field, Rheya couldn’t even do half of either anymore. Still, she always remained graceful anytime she segued into her next move.

From the introduction she was given before she entered the field, the audience knew she was sick and dying, but they didn’t seem to care and applauded her anyways after her performance came to an end with the video. Once the video finally ended, the doctor and paramedics who were off to the side of the field immediately approached her, as she looked like she could barely stand, let alone move. Her performance on the field and in the video with Camila had moved me to tears, but those tears threatened to slip from my hold when I saw how she needed help afterward on that field. I knew the fatherly instinct in me just kicked in because all I wanted was to wrap my loving arms around that precious little girl in comfort. I knew my wife caught this because she grabbed my right hand just as quickly as I realized what had happened on the field now, which immediately reminded me to keep myself in check.

I knew Rheya was safe with the doctor and paramedics, and Ana did too. She tenderly squeezed my hand twice, which was a signal to say everything would be okay. I listened to my wife and inhaled deeply. I had to show strength, I know. The whole nation had their eyes on me throughout this funeral, and this entire event was televised, which meant people around the world who already knew who I would also have their eyes on me as well. I saw on the screen from earlier when it showed some royal court members that they also had tears in their eyes throughout the funeral, but not once did they ever let their tears fall. This told me it was okay to allow the tears to surface, to show the world what the princess meant to me, but I simply couldn’t let the tears fall, so I kept my composure as best I could.

I even had to focus on some of my internal breathing exercises to keep myself together. I, myself, have been shown on the screen a couple of times throughout the funeral, so I’m sure the world knew by now. I’d be shocked if my parents and family and friends haven’t heard or seen the news yet. Regardless, I didn’t look forward to the idea that I would now have to explain everything to everyone, especially since I still had trouble with all of this myself. It was almost too much to process, but thankfully I wasn’t alone because I had the unconditional love and support from Ana and Luca to help me through this whole new experience of my life. After the doctor and paramedics helped Rheya off the field during the nation’s applause and standing ovation of her performance, they were quick to take her away from the scene. While someone focused the cameras on the next set of entertainers of the afternoon, Ana quickly leaned into my right ear. She knew I was still concerned for Rheya.

“She’ll be fine,” she whispered. “They’re taking Rheya to her room at the palace to make her comfortable. She’s in good hands, I promise.”

I nodded in acknowledgment but kept my eyes on the fire-breathing dancers who now spread out and took over the entire field. After the morning of … well … mourning the princess, it was an afternoon to celebrate Princess Camila’s life and give her credit as an incredible person and human being. She had only a great love for her people, and she believed in her people’s great potential to be better than generations past and wanted nothing more than to see her people grow in love, acceptance, and success. Various speakers have talked about how she saw goodness in them and encouraged them to shine brighter. She had done this with me as well at one point, especially when it came to my relationship with my mother, as she had always encouraged me to resolve fights with my mother as quickly as possible.

Often when I was a teenager, it was easy to listen to her and quickly end my arguments with my mother because she believed I could be the better person whether I was right or wrong. She never failed to remind me at the same time that my mother was the only mother I would ever have. I knew by how angry I was with my mother that this would be a challenge, but because I was just reminded of what Camila used to do for me … I don’t know. Tears resurfaced again as I knew I would let Camila down and tarnish the great memory of seeing the best in me if I didn’t reconcile with my mother on what I knew would be the most incredible upcoming fight of our lives. So, what the hell was I to do?

Well, Palladino, let’s just start by saving those worries for tomorrow because we’re here today to pay our respects to the late and great Xudian Princess Camila Juric. Speaking of, as the day progressed into the evening hours, the time came for all of us on stage to follow the guards who would carry Camila’s casket to her gravesite just three miles down the road. How they were going to carry a heavy thing like a casket for that length of distance sure beat the hell out of me, but this was a natural part of the royal funeral tradition since the founding of Xudia. So naturally, we would be the ones to walk as we followed, but being that the king was dying, he was offered a carriage ride, though surprisingly, he refused. His answer?

“If a little girl who is also dying of cancer, just as I am, can dance a beautiful and graceful number on stage, then surely I can walk three miles to Princess Camila’s gravesite.”

He was quiet in his response, so only a few of us and the guards who offered him the carriage ride heard him, but the cameras and everyone else who followed was all focused on us at this point. All eyes watched as the king gestured for me to come to his right side, and everyone paid close attention to how he used my left arm for strength and support. For the first time since I was a little kid, I could genuinely say that I wasn’t comfortable with being in the spotlight, not like this. I, however, knew that I needed to ignore every pair of eyes on us right now because this was the king, my father, and he was more important for me to focus on at the moment. Not once in our entire three-mile walk did he let go of me, which comforted me to know he wanted to do this with me rather than ride in a coach the whole way. It became painfully evident towards the end of the walk that, when we reached the gravesite of the princess, the king would need to be transported back to the palace by carriage after this evening was over. Still, I smiled when I saw how the king had prided himself when we reached our destination on foot.

When it was time, his guards came up to him once more and offered to guide him to the throne placed there earlier in the day, but he refused their help. He said something to them in their native tongue, and then they stepped aside in obedience. His grip on my arm remained firm, and when he walked towards the throne, I knew he wanted me by his side. I was happy to oblige because I hardly knew this man, yet he was my father, and I wanted to spend as much time with him as possible. I could just imagine how my parents may have their eyes tuned to this televised event and may have watched my every move with the king so far, and how my mother might not react positively.

I didn’t care, though. I wasn’t a little kid that she could control anymore. What I did with my life now as an adult, and who I allowed in it, was my business, not hers. I no longer owed her a damn thing, but she sure owed me an apology and the truth. I shook the thoughts of my mother out of my head as I refocused my mind back on the present.

After the king let go of me and sat down, I returned to my wife and resumed my place beside her. I wondered how scandalous this looked to the natives of Xudia. I know the older generations of the royal court talked about me before the funeral started because they whispered statements to each other with shocked expressions on their faces as they looked towards me until I passed by them, as they then shut up immediately. In their eyes, I wasn’t Xudian, yet I looked just like their king, and somehow I’ve got a connection to their princess as well, which eventually led to Xudia’s beloved Prince Luca. Everybody here worshipped the ground he walked on, and it was plain to see the same with Princess Camila. During this morning’s funeral service, I was moved by the hundreds, if not thousands, of people who cried and bowed down to the ground and prayed feverishly in all their sorrows. It was tough to keep myself together at that point because I knew through the eyes of her country, Camila was loved by so many, and she was well respected. Even now, people all around the gravesite did the same as they did this morning, but I knew they needed strength from the royal court and their king, so I kept myself together.

This part of the evening didn’t last too long. First, there was a simple speech given by the prime minister of Xudia, followed by a beautiful instrumental song played by what Ana called the criguans, which was the Xudian term for entertainers who played the musical instrument of crigu. They reminded me of bagpipes with their sounds, but each instrument was attached to a small set of portable conga-like drums. Some of the criguans focused on the drums part while others concentrated on the bagpipe-like aspect, though they alternated too, depending on what part of the song they played. Together they all made beautiful music as the casket of Princess Camila was lowered into the ground. 

I knew this would be the end of the funeral service once the song ended. I didn’t want to face the finality of this moment of the first love of my life now laid to rest, but I had no choice in the matter. My wife knew me well, though, for she had once more taken my right hand into her own left, and she squeezed mine with such tender love. May you rest in everlasting peace, Camila, and watch over us all, especially Luca, as he grows into a fine and wonderful man we have brought into this world together. I hate to say goodbye to you, and I won’t because I know I will see you again someday. I just pray you can find it in your heart to forgive me. I love you, Cami. I always have, and I always will.

Chapter 18

Rheya and Abbo




When we got back to the palace, the first thing I wanted to do was check in on Rheya, if she was allowed the company, of course. Along the carriage ride back, I had asked Luca and Ana to show me how to sign a couple of unique phrases that I wanted to say to Rheya, and it was a bit of a learning process with a couple of signs. I practiced the whole way back, and though I was far from perfect, I felt confident enough in my ability to express what I really wanted to tell Rheya. I wanted to tell her how beautiful she was in her performance because she gave an outstanding performance! I also wanted to tell her that we wanted to adopt her when I returned to Xudia in ten days with Luca. I just knew that would make her day. However, when we got there, the doctor had just left her private chambers with a glum expression painted on his face. Why did I have a horrible feeling about this?

“How’s Rheya? May we see her?” I asked.

“I am sorry to say, Sire, but … little Miss Kujiac has passed away.”

Time froze for me. I couldn’t believe this! I just wanted to get to know her. I felt like my world just fell apart again. First, we’ve lost Camila, and now we’ve lost Rheya? What the hell?

“Please tell me this isn’t the truth,” Luca begged with horror displayed across his face as he stepped forward and locked eyes with the doctor, who in turn knelt before the young prince in a formal manner.

The doctor respectfully answered him in Xudian, but Luca only spoke English.

“A blood clot?”

“Yes, Sire, from the Zananavir Trandobazinab.”

That sounded like the medication they gave her had given her a fatal blood clot, I think? God, this was terrible, and Rheya didn’t deserve this kind of fate. Luca was quiet for a few moments, but with a subtle, swift move of his right index and middle fingers closed together, turning up from the inside, the doctor stood back up in his usual stance and walked off.

“Rjion,” Luca then called.

His guard, Rjion, promptly approached and awaited further instruction from Luca. Luca spoke to him in Xudian, and with a soft bow from Rjion, he turned on his heel and walked down the hall shortly before disappearing altogether. Luca then turned to Ana and me with tears in his eyes.

“A couple of weeks ago, the king ordered the doctors to put her on a new experimental medication for cancer patients. He’s also on it even though he is on it, but I guess it didn’t work out for her. Rheya got a blood clot from it.”

I didn’t know what to say. I was indeed at a loss for words. I wanted to comfort him, though, so I sympathetically placed my hands on his shoulders, but he immediately, though gently shrugged my hands away.

“Please don’t,” he said as his voice broke up on him.

Before I knew it, Luca was in Rheya’s guest chambers, and then I exchanged sad expressions with Ana. I knew she was about to cry, so I quickly approached her and wrapped my loving arms around her. Tears collected in my eyes too, but I fought to keep myself together right now, especially for her, because I knew what Rheya meant to her.

“I’m sorry,” I apologized as I tenderly placed my head against my wife’s. “I’m sorry I turned down your initial request to adopt her a while back.”

“Don’t be,” I heard from Ana as she stayed inside my arms with her head against my chest. “Because you were right at the time. I didn’t want to see it your way because I was going through the angry phase of grief, but I’ve since realized you were right. We had just lost Yarrow. We weren’t ready to be parents to another child.”

My wife was usually right in most of our arguments we have, but she always had a hard time admitting it when she was wrong. For her to say it now, even after all this time, made me love her even more. Before I knew it, she left my embrace and went to join Luca in Rheya’s chambers. I followed as well, and as soon as I walked into the room,

I saw Rheya in bed, now in a permanent and unavoidable state of sleep that she would never wake up from. To see her like this and to see my son place himself over her in such despair, I knew I wouldn’t be able to hold my tears for much longer. 

I watched my wife approach on the other side of the bed, and she just picked up Rheya’s lifeless hand as she sat down in a chair next to the bed. She then lowered her head, brought Rheya’s hand up to her forehead, and with tears began to pray in Greek. I approached Luca on the left side of the bed and knelt before him. I knew he needed comfort, but I don’t think he could find it in placing his body over Rheya’s. I tried to gently pull Luca from her and softly call him by his name.

“Luca.”

He shrugged me off and maintained his position. And then he spoke up. What he said was even more upsetting to hear.

“I’m so sorry, Rheya. I should’ve been here for you. I should’ve been here for you when I found out about the trial. I’d have told-”

“Luca,” I called more sternly this time as I firmly pulled him away this time.

It was plain to see in his face how devastated he was over this. It was like seeing him sitting down in front of his mother’s casket all over again at her wake. Only this was worse. God, it was so hard to keep it together right now. I just wanted to cry with him.

“Luca, this wasn’t your fault.”

What he spoke next was devastating, and it made me realize how much pressure he put on himself.

“Yes, it was! I should’ve been here to tell them not to put her in the trial, just like I should’ve never asked Mommy to get you!” Luca protested, but I was quick to shut that down as respectfully as I could.

I sensed he was overwhelmed with grief and despair.

“No, Luca, this wasn’t your fault. She was sick and dying. You need to understand that many times in this world, dying from cancer isn’t pretty. Some people may get lucky and die in their sleep, but more often than not, people die from some complication or other that comes with the disease. It’s not your fault that she was sick and dying, just like it’s not your fault that your mother died in that car wreck that your stepfather caused.” He turned silent, but the guilt and shame in his eyes remained, and the tears seemed never-ending. “We will find that monster and make sure he faces the appropriate punishment for his crimes, but none of this is your fault. None of this is your fault.”

Luca couldn’t hold it together anymore. Then, finally, he’d broken down, and I wrapped him up and comforted him snugly in my arms.

“I can’t lose anyone else!” he exclaimed as his tears of anguish continued.

I couldn’t either, and I was about to have to go through this shortly with my father, the King of Xudia. I couldn’t help but mirror my son’s grief at this point. I just pulled him into my arms and cried right along with him until we couldn’t cry anymore. Before we knew it, the doctor came back with a few guards, a gurney, and even Rjion had returned with Marija, which meant that Luca asked him to get her. Marija immediately went to comfort Ana and cried right along with her, and we all watched as the guards with the gurney put Rheya on it, and before we knew it, she was no longer in the room with us. I learned a little while later they had taken Rheya’s body to the morgue to be cremated. I also found out that she'd be buried in an unnamed grave because she was an orphan when she passed away. This law angered me, and it angered Luca and Ana, but Camila’s mother gave us a pleasant surprise the following day.


***


“I know that you wanted to adopt Rheya and that in your heart, you had already considered her your daughter. Of course, by law, I shouldn’t be doing this, but I have a feeling you’ll be changing the laws around here, so it won’t matter.”

We were confused until the same two guards who took Rheya from this room returned with an urn. It was plain and straightforward, but an urn was an urn, and this one was Rheya’s. So what did Marija plan to do with Rheya’s urn? We watched as she took it from the guards, spoke kindly to them in Xudian, and then they left. My eyes locked with hers, and before I knew it, Rheya’s remains were in my hands.

“You’re really giving this to us?”

“No, Giovanni, I’m giving her to you. Something commands me to. I do, however, strongly recommend that she not leave the palace until it’s her time for a proper burial I know you’ll give her.”

Something?

“Okay, can you ensure she remains under lock and key until my return with Luca?”

“Yes, I know the perfect place. May I?” she asked as she extended her hands towards me.

“Yes, and thank you,” I replied. “This means a lot to me.”

I believed in the traditional burial, not cremation, but this one was out of my hands. The law here saw cremation cheaper, and this is what orphans got. Learning this cultural ‘do’ was heartbreaking, and Marija was right. She hadn’t known me for very long, and already she knew quite a bit about me. She knew I wouldn’t stand for what they would do to Rheya, just stick her in the ground without a proper burial service, especially after the incredible one we just had for Princess Camila. Marija knew she couldn’t change the law because she wasn’t next in line for the crown, but she knew I had the chance, the chance to make things right for Rheya and any other orphan who would die before they would have the opportunity to live a whole life well into adulthood and then some. Marija knew I wouldn’t stand for this. I saw it in her eyes.

“His Majesty does not have an appetite for breakfast, but he has requested a private audience with you. He’s in his chambers if you would like to see him now before you leave. In the meantime, I will fetch a carriage for you two, and I will pray you and Luca both a good and safe flight. My husband and I will remain here to assist His Majesty for now. Ana, I pray you a good and safe flight back to Greece. Perhaps let your parents know they’re welcome to stay here at the palace. We would love to meet them finally. Also, bring your other two sons here as well.”

That will have to wait.

“Actually, Marija, Ana’s meeting with me and Luca in New York when she leaves Greece. We want to introduce the boys to each other in neutral territory, which will be New York. Then, afterward, we’ll all be flying back here together.”

Marija smiled and subtly bowed her head in her own formal way.

“As you wish. I look forward to your return.”

Marija hugged us all and then left the room with her guards, but I had a feeling the king wanted to check in with me and be sure I would bring back my parents. Of course, I would tell him I would try, but at the same time, I can only do so much. If they refuse to come, I can’t force them. It would be interesting, facing them for the first time after all the shit that’s happened this week. Ana told me she would do the little packing we had yet to do, and she and Luca would both meet up with me at the carriage. She told me to go on ahead and have my meeting with the king, so I did. 


***


My guards took me to him, and all he could do when he saw me was smile and urge me to approach with his free right hand. Since he was on the right side of his bed, I decided to approach him from that side. When he patted the spot on the edge of the bed, I followed his command and sat down.

“It is good to see you, Giovanni,” he said. His excitement to see me made me smile, but his smile soon faded. “It has been brought to my attention that little Miss Rheya passed away shortly upon our return last night. She was so beautiful in the field yesterday. I am sad for her loss, but at the same time, she is Heaven’s beautiful gain, and I know she’s with Camila. Giovanni is a prison, to be stuck with such an illness that limits you in so many areas. It is a never-ending nightmare of Hell to be in so much pain, hurt when you breathe, and hurt when you move. But, Rheya is free. She is free from it all.”

He had a good point. I hated it. But I couldn’t deny it. The tears welled up in my eyes, but I wouldn’t dare let them fall, not in front of the king. I didn’t want to offend him in any way.

“I wholeheartedly agree,” I replied softly.

The king’s right hand placed itself over mine that was resting on my right knee to use as strength and support. I looked down at his hand, surprised he kept it there for longer than three seconds, and then I saw something change in his eyes. I now saw fear in his eyes.

“I know you will be leaving quite soon,” he said. “But I must ask you … I hate to ask this of you because I feel like I am putting you in the middle, but I really need to see your mother and father, just one last time. I was going to ask Camila to reach out to your father the next time she came here for a visit, but …” I saw the tears in his eyes. “I know it must seem selfish of me to want to speak to them after the way I hurt them, the way I hurt your mother. I don’t deserve them answering my call, but … I need them to know just how sorry I am. Please, Giovanni, I –”

I couldn’t stand to see how much fear and pain this brought him. I placed my left hand over his right, which was still on top of my right hand, and this seemed to calm him down enough that he stopped mid-statement instantly. I knew exactly what he needed, and I couldn’t deny him that.

“I promise that I will try my hardest to get them here. I’ll go through my dad if I have to, but I will get them here, and I won’t return until they do, but I need something in return.”

I saw tears of relief in the king’s eyes.

“Anything,” he replied simply. “Whatever you want, it’s yours.”

“I need you to promise me something,” I started and waited to see if he would speak up, but he didn’t. “I need you to promise me that you’re going to eat.”

The king was dead silent on this, and I knew he didn’t like this, but his eyes never broke my gaze with him.

“Promise me that you’re going to eat every meal between now and the time I return and that you’ll drink plenty of fluids.”

I allowed my tears to gather once more in my eyes, but I didn’t let them fall. Hopefully, he saw in me how scared I was to lose him. I knew it would happen eventually, but I wanted as much time with him as I could get when I returned. I hated the idea of leaving him now, not after I just learned he was my true natural father. I needed more time with him.

“I need more time with my abbo,” I finished softly.

I knew those words affected him in such a positive way. The sparkle in his eyes returned, and they smiled again, along with his lips. His grip inside my hands tightened as well.

“Okay, Giovanni. I will order some breakfast right now, and I will eat it in your honor. What is your favorite breakfast?”

I couldn’t help but smile at that.

“Eggs benedict with a side of breakfast sausage and bacon,” was my answer.

The king spoke to his closest guard in Xudian, and soon the guard left, and the king looked into my eyes again.

“Very well then. I will enjoy some eggs benedict with sausage and bacon, just for you.”

The fact that he was willing to meet me halfway on this showed me he cared about me. I had to show him the same courtesy, and I told myself I would. It won’t be easy getting my mother here, but perhaps with my father’s help, it may be possible.

“I know you must probably go by now,” he started to say.

“I’m not leaving this room until I see you eat a few bites.”

How bold of me to say … where did that come from? The king smirked and then chuckled. He also shook his head, but he enjoyed this.

“Stubborn, are we?” he asked.

“Always,” was my short answer.

We chatted for a little bit until his breakfast arrived. I would be eating on the plane if I would ever have an appetite, that is. Ana, Luca, and I had stayed up all night, too upset to leave Rheya’s guest chambers and too tired to eat breakfast when the sun rose. So they told us they’d prepare our breakfast on the plane instead since the king decided last minute he didn’t want to eat in the formal dining room. Honestly, now that I think about it, I haven’t eaten that much in the last few days, which I hadn’t even realized, so I’ll probably force myself to eat on the plane. When the king’s breakfast finally arrived, he only wanted my help to sit him upright, and then he smiled when the tray of food was placed on his lap in front of him. Man, how the smell of this delicious breakfast wafted right into my nostrils as it passed by my nose … I could go for some eggs benedict right now. I hadn’t had that in such a long time, since before Ana got pregnant.

“I must confess,” the king said as he distracted me from my thoughts. “I’ve never had the pleasure of trying eggs benedict before, but we have some world-renowned chefs down in our kitchen.”

“Oh, you’re going to love it. It’s been a personal favorite of mine going back to when I was a little kid,” I told him.

I watched as he took his first bite, and the look on his face changed to such pleasure, I had to smile from ear to ear.

“Delicious, isn’t it?” I asked him but only got a subtle nod as he continued to eat. “Good, I’m glad. I will leave you to it, and I’ll be back before you know it.”

“You promise?” he asked me as he took a moment from his food and gazed deeply into my eyes.

“I promise, Abbo,” I answered genuinely with my right hand now over my heart.

It felt weird to call him when my son gave me that nickname, but at the same time, it felt good too.

Chapter 19

Comfort and Suspicion with a Dark Secret




Before we knew it, Luca and I were back on our plane to return stateside, and Ana was on her way back to her parents and our other boys in Greece. Before parting from my wife, though, she reminded me to try and not let my anger get the best of me when I finally sat down and talked with my mother, even though I was well within my rights to be as angry as I was with her. Ana wanted me to be the better person, and at first, I told her I couldn’t make any promises, but I quickly caved with her gentle tone and touch. Finally, I ended up promising her that I would try my best. I didn’t know if I could talk to my mother without yelling at her at this point, but I’ll try. Lord knows I’ll probably need help.

“Abbo?” he called once we were officially in the air.

“Sì?” 

I looked over at him when he called me by name. Every time I gazed into his eyes, I felt like I’ve known him all his life, but my mind has to remind me that I’ve only known this kid for just a few days.

“What will we do first when we return to America?”

“We’ll need to get my car and head back to New York. I have to get the house ready for the market, and I have to cancel my album tour.”

“I don’t think you should cancel your album tour,” Luca answered, which surprised me. “You’ll disappoint thousands of your super dedicated fans, like me.”

Did he not want me to take the crown? I thought he wanted me to take over until he was old enough to handle the job?

“I wish I didn’t have to, kiddo,” I told him. “But for me to go into Politics and become the leader of Xudia, I don’t have a choice. I have to leave the entertainment industry.

Besides, I don’t want to lose any more time with you and the king.”

“You mean your abbo?” Luca asked me after I momentarily looked out the plane window next to me on my left, even though all I saw was clouds when I sat in an aisle seat, though when he questioned me about the king, I couldn’t help but look back into his eyes.

“Yes,” I replied quietly with a soft smile now on my lips. “My abbo.”

It grew quiet between us for a bit. The silence took me back to the few precious moments I’ve had so far with my natural father. After seeing how quickly Rheya had passed, I was afraid I would lose the king before returning to Xudia. I was usually a very calm person with little to no anxiety; however, the thoughts of losing my biological father after I just found him made me quite uncomfortable, and the shaking of my right leg proved it. With my left elbow on the armrest, I had to lean into my hand and just cover my eyes for a few moments because I didn’t want Luca to see how worried I was, so much to the point that tears were ready to push me to the breaking point of my strength. Then, I heard the unclicking of his seatbelt from his rear-facing aisle seat in front of me, and suddenly he was on my left side, in the empty seat next to me.

“Abbo?”

Holy hell! He was literally tright next to my ear. His voice was quiet, though, but it didn’t matter because it felt like my hearing was turned up on extra volume right now with this anxiety.

“What?” I asked in a low voice.

He was silent for a few moments, but then I felt his left hand on my wrist, and he pulled my hand away from my eyes as he spoke.

“Look at me?”

I did as he requested, and I knew he saw how tears threatened to slip from my hold.

“The king is a very hard man, very rough around the edges, very stubborn even now in his old age. Not much is known about him and his personal life, to be honest, and even though he’s got a loyal nation before him, he’s not a very nice man, not to his guards, or his people, or his valets. In fact, up until now, the only one he’s ever really been nice to is Xir Charles.”

Is he kidding me? Xir Charles? He has to be pulling my leg!

“He’s pretty close to Xir Charles. He looks at him, and treats him like a son, and goes out of his way to make sure Xir Charles has everything he could want. It’s almost as if the king feels he owes Xir Charles something.”

Where was he going with this? My tears dissipated as my eyebrows furrowed in confusion.

“What are you trying to say?”

I knew that Luca was deep in his thoughts, though my question brought him back instantly.

“He looks at you the same way he looks at Xir Charles.” Say what? “Only … you’re his real son. As soon as he saw you, Abbo, it was like a light finally lit up his cold, dark soul.”

My right eyebrow went up in surprise at this statement. Cold, dark soul? This statement made me wonder if my mother did have a right to handle certain things the way she did, at least when it came to the king.

“When he looks at you, there’s a joy in him that I have never seen before. That supper we had with him, where you revealed you’re a recovering alcoholic? That’s a side of him that he never shows. So our people are talking about you, Abbo, even our guards when they think no one is listening, and they all say the same thing.”

“Which is … ?” I asked in curiosity.

“That you bring out the best in the king.” Awww. “I know how you feel about being separated from him your whole life. I may not have quite as many years in the separation as you do, but no one understands that feeling of distance more than I do.”

The tears in his eyes brought mine back, and I couldn’t help but let a tear slip this time.

“‘Be still and know that I am.’ Let go of your worries, Abbo, and have faith. The king isn’t ready to part from this world, and there is still life in him yet. I have faith that you will see him again when we return to Xudia, just as you see me right here and right now. You will see, Abbo.”

This kid was something else. He would make an excellent role model to Kris, and maybe even Eli - if Eli would ever get rid of the green monster that I know will come out when they meet. I have a feeling, though, that the one Luca’s going to have the most influence on will be the baby. God, I already missed Ana. She has to go back to our boys while I have to take care of some business on my end.

“Thanks, kiddo,” I said quietly.

Instead of saying anything at first, Luca just leaned in closer, and he tenderly planted a kiss on my forehead. I was stunned by this. His other two brothers weren’t affectionate with me like this. I didn’t know what to make of this, but I felt the sincerity in his kiss. Then he sat down in the seat again, as usual, buckled the seatbelt, and very quickly put his head on my left shoulder. Was he finally tired?

“I have a request before we leave North Carolina,” he finally spoke.

“Oh, yeah?” I asked in curiosity as I kept my eyes down at his face and watched while his eyes softly closed. “What’s that?”

“I want to see the rocks for one last time.”

“What rocks?” I had to ask.

“You know the rocks,” he whispered. “Mommy’s taken me to them many times before. She even told me that’s where you two met and that I was conceived there.”

I was surprised to learn that the rocks were where I got Camila pregnant. Wow. This meant Luca’s conception happened during our last trip there as a couple before she stayed with me in New York for a few weeks.

“If that’s what you want,” I said tentatively, but his tone meant business.

“Yes, Abbo, it’s what I want,” he confirmed. “Even if it’s just for only a few minutes.”

I was quiet for a minute as I nodded my head in agreement, but I realized his eyes were closed, so he couldn’t see me nod.

“Then we’ll do that,” I finally said.

A smile now formed on his lips.

“Thank you, Abbo. I love you.”

His words warmed my heart. He even snuggled in closer. What else was there to say in response? 

“You’re welcome, and I love you too, Luca.”

His fondness for me as his father, even though we’ve known each over for only a few days, really put me at ease. I didn’t know how much longer he would offer this kind of affection for me, as I knew he was maturing and would soon become a man before my eyes. I often heard from friends who have teenagers and adult children just how quickly this kind of child’s love changes, and to treasure it while it lasts. So when I saw that Luca was finally asleep, I breathed deeply in relief. This kid went entirely too long without sleeping these past few days, so it was about time he got some, and now I knew I could get some shuteye too.


***


It felt like hours had passed, and of course, I dreamt of more memories with Camila. When I woke up later, though, I immediately noticed the seat next to me was empty and that Luca was nowhere in sight. I knew we were still in the air when I quickly glanced over at the window to find clouds in the blue, but panic still set in because I didn’t know where Luca was. Then I reminded myself that he could probably be in the lavatory or talking to his guards. So I unbuckled my seatbelt, stood up, and turned around to find both of our guards fast asleep in their seats. 

Still, though, Luca could be in the bathroom. I decided to give him about five or ten minutes to return, and I just looked out the window, just in case he was crafting a fudge pop or two. Instead, all I saw were clouds and blue skies. My thoughts then turned to Camila’s husband, which just put me in a panic. When ten minutes passed, and still Luca had not returned, I knew it was time to find out where he was on this plane.

I first checked the lavatory and found no one was in there. Then I figured I would check the royal conference room next. If he wasn’t there, then he had to be in one of the many closed-off cabins, but I just had a feeling I would find him in the meeting room. When I headed there, I found the door was slightly ajar. I was quiet at first as I peeked in, and sure enough, he was standing there with his back turned to me, which meant he had no idea I was here. His head was down, as if he was looking at something, maybe even deep enough in thought that he couldn’t hear me approach. I couldn’t tell what he was doing in there, so I pushed the door slightly more open, and it made a short squeak, which was just enough to perk my son’s head up with a gasp that followed from him. He turned around instantly but kept both of his hands behind his back.

“Abbo … you’re awake! Did you sleep well? You looked peaceful.”

Well, I wasn’t going to ignore his question, but I also sure as hell wasn’t going to ignore the fact that he was hiding something behind his back. It better not be any more of those damn pills. If they are, I’m going to need to stage an intervention, like now.

“I did sleep well, thank you for asking, but uh . . . what’s that behind your back?”

“It’s not pills if that’s what you’re thinking,” was his reply at first. Then, “I mean …”

I wasn’t sure if I believed him, but he sure just outed himself out to the fact that he does have a problem with pills.

“Uh-huh …” I began as I gestured with my right hand now extended in front of his face. I turned my palm face up as my fingers motioned for him to give me whatever it was he had behind his back. “Hand it over.”

Suddenly Luca had the guiltiest look that I had ever see on his face.

“Will you promise not to be angry and let me explain?”

“If you have to hide it from me when nothing good comes from hiding stuff, then we are going to have to talk about it. I can’t promise you that I won’t be angry, but if you hand it over right now, I’ll promise to try and be patient with you. So hand it over. Now.”

Luca winced for a moment when I got stern with him at the end of my statement. Next, I saw fear reflecting from his eyes, and I realized he was afraid of how I would react from this point. The police report I read on the violent physical and psychological abuse he endured from his stepfather immediately came to mind, so I knew I had to be careful in my next move with him.

“Please?” I added softly this time.

This seemed to dissolve the fear in his eyes, but he sighed in defeat now, and then he brought his hands forth. He then placed in my hand something that I least expected. I honestly thought he was going to hand me a bottle or a bag of pills. I’d listened closely for the rattling of drugs as he brought them forth, but it wasn’t at all what I expected. Instead, he handed me a shiny razor blade that looked brand spanking new.

“Please, please, please don’t be angry,” he said quietly.

Where in the hell did he get a razor blade? And why did he have one in his possession? Oh, this kid had some serious explaining to do. His begging of me not to be angry with him brought tears to my eyes, but the fact that he even had this razor in his possession made me wonder where his mind was, which horrified me.

“Sit down,” I told him sternly but softly.

I could barely keep myself composed in my voice. Did my oldest son have suicidal thoughts? Was the reason he had this razor because of all the abuse he endured, and how he felt guilty for feeling like he caused his mother’s death? Did he suffer that much in mental and emotional pain that he wanted to end his life? What the hell was going on in my son’s mind?

“Abbo?” he called in a whisper as he sat down.

I heard the fear in his voice. I had no words yet, but I gestured with my free left hand for him to be quiet, as I needed to put some words together. I honestly didn’t know how to start this conversation. I’ve never been confronted with something like this. It was clear that my son needed mental help, and I’ll make every effort to ensure he gets that help, but what the hell do I say to someone with these kinds of negative thoughts that went through my own son’s mind? I had to close my eyes for a few moments and bring my left hand up to my eyes before the first of my tears had a chance to fall. Cami, what do I do? Please, help me out here with our son!

“It’s not what you think,” Luca added.

Now I knelt before him but momentarily looked back down at the razor in my hands, and then I looked up into his eyes. I allowed him to see the fear I had in my own eyes because he needed to know how much I was scared of losing him. He instantly mirrored the tears in my eyes, and I knew that he knew just where this conversation was headed.

“You need to explain yourself,” I finally spoke in a calm and rational tone because I knew he needed to feel safe enough to open up to me. I needed him to see that I was here for him, that I’d loved him, that I’d do everything in my power to protect him. “Because I don’t understand, and I need to understand what’s going on in your mind. Please talk to me, Luca. Please … please help me to understand. Why do you have this razor?”

Chapter 20

Lindy's Keeper




The tears in my son’s eyes showed me just how scared, vulnerable, and ashamed he felt right now. 

“I’ve been holding that razor since I was six …”

In the way he let his statement trail off, I sensed he wanted me to figure this out for myself because he didn’t want to admit it aloud. I thought about it for a few moments, and I remembered that Camila’s letter told me that his stepfather abused him. In the police reports I read, Luca told the police he’d been going through this since he was six, sometime after his liver transplant surgery. Was this when all this started, this whole business with the razor?

“You mean to tell me you’ve been keeping this in your possession since your stepfather started beating you after your liver transplant surgery?”

At first, all I got from Luca was a nod, but then he spoke up and further explained himself.

“Technically … before.” 

He can’t be serious, can he?

“You mean you’ve been having suicidal thoughts since before your stepfather started beating you?”

“No, it was actually Mommy who had the suicidal thoughts first.” Wait … what? “I’d watch Mommy during the day when the monster was sleeping or working. Mommy would stare at the razor for hours, just running her fingers along the blade repeatedly until finally, one day, I talked with her and hid it from her. She promised me she would never hurt herself, and she never did, but …”

“But then after the surgery, your stepfather started beating on you, so you started having those same thoughts as your mother, didn’t you?” I asked softly.

Luca tried his best to wipe away his tears, but he nodded at the same time.

“I began to understand Mommy’s pain, but I knew I couldn’t, no matter what he did to me. I couldn’t leave Mommy alone with him for the rest of her life. I couldn’t make myself bleed after all I knew in my life was to try and not bleed because a single papercut could’ve been the death of me before I got my new liver. I still couldn’t go forward with cutting myself, not after everything Mommy did for me to make sure I’d never bleed to death, but …”

“The thoughts are still there?” I finished for him in question.

“I love life, Abbo, but … I’m scared!” I knew where he was headed with this, and I couldn’t help but mirror those same tears of his, those tears of fear and shame that now slipped down his face faster than he could wipe them away. “I can’t close my eyes without him coming to my mind, and I can’t close my eyes without being reminded of … of … everything he did to me! I can’t close my eyes without being reminded that I know he’s coming back for me!”

So that’s why he took pills to stay awake.

“I haven’t been able to sleep since he killed Mommy.” My God, this kid was about to have a breakdown. “I can’t even sleep in my own royal chambers with Marco being ever-present!”

“Is this why you’ve been taking pills to stay awake?”

His entire posture gave out as he began to sob uncontrollably.

“Yes, and I promised my Nana I would try to stay away from them because I know what it means for the human body to go without sleep for long periods. I’m just so tired of being tired, Abbo, and Ijustwanttosleep, I do, butIcan’thelpit! I stole back some pills from the infirmary before we left the palace. They’re in my pockets right now, just in case, becauseeverytimeIclosemyeyes …”

Then he muttered something almost incoherently, as if he was running his words way too close together, and I couldn’t make out even one syllable of what he said now because it sounded so foreign, which meant he was speaking in Xudian. This poor kid was scared to death. I would undoubtedly be taking back those pills he stole from the palace, but I had to handle this the right way first, or he would keep taking the medications. I couldn’t condone what he did in this theft action, but this was a circumstance in which I wasn’t sure he deserved punishment because he was genuinely afraid to fall asleep with thoughts of that monster coming to mind. He was paranoid, and rightfully so because this monster was taunting us, we both knew it.

I was, however, proud of Luca for being honest with me in what he did and that he admitted he still had pills on him. At this point, he could have kept that little fact to himself, and I wouldn’t have known otherwise, but he came forward anyway. I must’ve been doing something right to make him feel safe enough to come forward with this, and now that he admitted why he did what he did, I knew what I had to do. He was hysterical, and it pained me to see him so upset and so petrified because this was my son, and he had been violated in every way possible by his monster of a stepfather, even now through my son’s mind to what feels like no end. I then placed the razor on the conference table and wrapped my firstborn son all up in my tender fatherly embrace.

“Shhh, shhh, shhh,” I shushed lovingly as I gently ran my hands up and down his back for comfort. His face remained in the crevice of my neck, but my shirt was quickly soaked with his tears. “It’s going to be okay, kiddo. I’m so sorry for what he did you to and your mommy, and I’m so, so, so sorry I couldn’t be there to protect you before.”

Saying this out loud made it challenging to keep my emotions in check, but I had to be strong for my kid. The tears in my eyes were pushing, but I inhaled deeply. Keep it together, Giovanni. Just hold him and keep it together. He needs you.

“I’m here now, Luca, and I’m never going to leave you. I promise.”

He once again spoke in Xudian, with his words still too close together, but I didn’t need to understand them this time. I heard it in his tone. I felt it in the way his grip around the backside of my shirt tightened to its max. I couldn’t help but let one of my own sobs escape as I held him tighter to my chest, but comfortably, of course. Our guards had found us to see what all the commotion was about, though they knew not to interfere.

“I’m so sorry, Luca,” I apologized. “I hate what this is doing to you, kiddo, and I’m so sorry you’re dealing with all this. You don’t deserve any of it. I wish I could’ve been there for you before all this happened so that I could protect you from all of it, but I promise that going forward, even if it means my own life, I will keep you safe from harm. I will protect you because you matter. You mean so much to so many people, and you mean so much to me too. I will do everything in my power to see that you and your mommy get the justice you deserve. You’re not alone, and you’ll never need to worry about being alone because I promise I will always be here for you. You are such an incredible person, and you matter, and I love you. You mean everything to me, kiddo, and I love you so much more than you could ever possibly know.”

As much as I hated to say it, he needed to reach his breaking point, and there was no better place than up here in the air, thousands of feet above the ground where no one could contact us, except for our guards and the crew of the plane. It didn’t surprise me that Luca’s exhaustion finally hit him in this way, but I was glad, simply because now we could talk, and so we did for the next few hours. Once I told our guards we were okay and to leave us be to have our private chat, I was surprised at how much Luca shared with me, though he told me everything in Italian so that I was the only one who could understand him. I couldn’t even help but cry with him at some points, and I mean, I bawled because it was devasting to hear what he went through, but I knew I needed to know. I needed to know exactly what I had in my hands with this situation, and I needed to know exactly what it was doing to him because I needed to know precisely what kind of parent he required me to be so that I could help him through this.


***


Once we landed in Poland, we refueled, and then we headed to England. When we were back in the air, I decided to give Luca a little break from our heavy talk and lighten the mood. I knew he was exhausted, and he didn’t even try to hide it. He wasn’t very talkative at this point, but I was honestly okay with that, so I just went with the flow. Although he remained silent, he was quite affectionate with me and repeated what he did earlier by resting his head on my left shoulder. I decided to reciprocate and looped my left arm around his shoulders.

“Abbo?”

“Sì?”

“How comes you haven’t asked me to hand over the pills?”

Hmmm, that was a good question! Truthfully, I forgot about it when he dived into the whole matter of what his monster of a stepfather did to him. I sighed for a moment before I spoke to him.

“You said you made a promise to your Nana that you wouldn’t use any more of them. If you’re anything like me, and I know you are, then I know a promise means a great deal to you and that you really will try to keep the promise you made to your Nana. You could have kept them a secret, and if you hadn’t mentioned them, I wouldn’t have guessed you still had any on you, not after I saw that razor in your hands, but you still told me about them. Even when I had no idea you had them on you, you were honest with me, and you also told me why you had them. I figured that after our little talk, you’d realize that you don’t need those pills because you’ll know I take promises seriously.”

My son smiled at me, and he seemed to be a little more at ease.

“So … when you told me you promised you would never leave me –” 

“Because a promise is a promise,” Luca stated.

“Exactly. I know you’ll give me those pills when you’re ready to.”

I watched as Luca moved around for a bit in his seat, which I knew was because he wanted to reach into his pockets for a few moments, and then he pulled out a bag, along with a small wooden box.

“What’s in the little box?” I asked him.

“It’s Lindy’s home,” Luca answered nonchalantly. “I have a proposal.”

“Who’s Lindy, and what do you mean by a proposal?”

Luca smirked for a moment before he spoke up.

“Lindy’s not who. She’s a what.” Huh? “Lindy’s my razor,” he explained simply.

Okay, both my eyebrows couldn’t help but lift in surprise at this.

“You named your razor?”

“Sì, and I’d like to put her back in her box if you don’t mind, so I would like to propose a trade. I’ll give you the pills, and you can return Lindy to me?”

Was he out of his damn mind?

“Or … how about you give me the pills because I know you know that you don’t need them with me around to protect you while you sleep, and … I’ll put Lindy in her box?”

Luca was quiet for a few moments as the smirk wiped off his face, and then he sighed in defeat.

“You’re not giving Lindy back, are you?”

“No, I most certainly am not,” I answered simply.

“Why? Are you afraid I’m still going to cut myself? Do you not trust me, Abbo?” I honestly didn’t know what to say to him now, and frankly, I was kind of annoyed that he was obsessed over a tiny, sharp piece of metal that could easily do some significant damage. “Do you know how easy it would be for me to go out and buy a set of razors from the store? I don’t even have to be an adult to buy them.”

“Lucaaa,” I warned in a quiet tone as I closed my eyes in slight annoyance.

“Relax, Abbo,” Luca replied. “I don’t want just any old razor. I want Lindy.”

What the hell was it with him and this stupid razor? I opened my eyes and turned to my left in his direction again. He was sitting back in his seat now, all relaxed as if he hadn’t a care in the world.

“Why this razor? Why Lindy?”

“I’m not sure you would understand, and I’m not sure I can explain it to you in a way you can understand.”

Yeah, that wasn’t good enough for me. He wasn’t getting this razor back. Maybe not ever.

“Well, until you can explain to me how and why Lindy is so special, I’ll be Lindy’s keeper. Besides, you don’t want to get caught with a razor, should you ever be in true danger with anyone who may be able to use it against you. Oh, and another thing … your brothers don’t need to be seeing you carry a razor around. You’re their big brother, and they’ll be watching what you say and do.”

Luca was quiet for a moment, deep in thought, and then he smiled at me.

“You’re right, Abbo. I think it’s absolutely a good idea for you to be Lindy’s keeper.” Well, I’m glad he thought so because he’s sure as hell not getting Lindy back. “But can I at least be the one to put her back in her box? I promise to give her and the box right back to you.”

Well … since he promised …

“Okay,” I said as I took it out of my pockets. “She’s probably safest in there anyways.”

I wrapped the razor earlier in some tissue but decided I didn’t want to chance it cutting through my pocket and doing damage to my clothes or myself. So when I handed Lindy him, he casually traded it for his bag of pills. Then I watched as he slid the top of the box open. Inside the box appeared to be a little velvet cushion of sorts, like what one would see inside a jewelry box. I couldn’t help but lift my eyebrows in curiosity to this. Based on our conversation earlier and how he was handling this razor now, I didn’t think he was suicidal. He idealized it, but he cried to me for help, which was a sign that he needed help dealing and sorting out his emotional and psychological pain, and I made myself as available to him as I could. He knew now that he didn’t have to hide anymore the way he’s felt for a long time, and he knew he was safe with me, and he also knew I wasn’t going to leave him.

“Where’d you get that box anyway?” I inquired with curiosity.

“I made it myself,” he said as he now slid the lid to his little box closed after putting Lindy back in her place, and then he handed me the box.

He really made a box? He made a little wooden box? A tiny, pretty wooden box? For a razor that has only a sole purpose of cutting things? A razor that he named Lindy?

“Do you promise to keep her safe and out of Kris and Eli’s way?”

“Oh, you can bet on that,” I said as I put the box in my pocket.

I made a mental note to lock it up in my safe when we could finally reach the house. Sure, I’ll be Lindy’s keeper, but I’m not carrying Lindy around with me everywhere I go. Cami, is there anything else you want to tell me about our son that I need to know? No? Okay, I just thought I’d ask!

“Abbo?”

“Sì?”

I loved it when he called me that name. It felt so unique and personal, but it made me feel like our bond was special enough for such a nickname. Wasn’t it insane to think that just two weeks ago, that my life felt perfect? I was so happy with Ana and our two sons while expecting another little ray of sunshine into our beautiful lives, without a thought of Cami in mind or thinking about a kid she and I ever had together. Now here I was today, wondering how I could have ever lived my life without him. I don’t know that life without him anymore, and, as sad as I am about Cami’s passing, I have never felt more complete than knowing we have such an amazing son together. The same feeling went for my natural father as well. My life seemed to get crazier these days, but guess what? I honestly wouldn’t want it any other way.

“I love you.”

My son’s words warmed my heart and soul in the best way possible. Yes, I really wouldn’t have my life any other way, except to have Cami here with us, but in her way and through our son, she was still here. This kid meant the world to me. I watched as he buckled his seatbelt, and once more rested his head against my shoulder, and soon closed his eyes in total relaxation. I think after the long and winded, emotional conversation we had earlier, he was finally ready to let his guard down and sleep, especially since I’ve assured him over and over that he was safe with me.

“I love you too, kiddo.”

I was right. He slept on the plane during the entire flight to England. At least that’s what it seemed because I, too, rested my head on top of his for some additional shuteye, but when I awoke later, he was still buckled in beside me. I felt much better knowing he was still sleeping. He really needed it.

Chapter 21

Last Flight Home




Sometimes I hated flying, especially on long flights that were more than five hours in length, because there was only so much fun one could have on a plane before boredom sets in. That wasn’t the case with Luca, though. He was pretty much awake the entire time from England to North Carolina, and I was too. 

“Can you tell me what your abbo is like?” he asked me at one point. “Mommy said she met him a couple of times and thought that he was really nice. She said he respected her.”

I smiled warmly when I heard this. I loved the man who raised me. I remembered calling him Papa in my earliest memories, though growing up, I called him Pop. Even to this day, I still called him that, and this will likely never change. Biological or not, he will always be my father.

“He’s a good man,” I replied. “Very tenderhearted and quite reserved and observant. If you want to know what it was like to grow up in Italy in his time, all you have to do is ask him, and he’ll light up like a little kid on Christmas. He loves to tell stories about Italy and his time there. Your nonna grew up in Italy too, but she doesn’t like to talk about it.

She’s proud of her heritage and roots and keeps the language alive, but she's an American as far as she’s concerned. She lived a hard life and has worked hard to make it to America, and she simply won’t have it any other way. Do you like gardening?”

“Eh,” Luca replied as he gestured with his hand.

Judging by the scrunched-up face he made, I knew he didn’t care much for gardening.

“Same here, buddy. I can’t keep a plant alive for anything, but I’ll tell you something. Your nonna’s got a green thumb, and she loooves to plant tomatoes and herbs. She also has some beautiful plants around the house, and her garden in the backyard is gorgeous. She even owns and runs a nursery for plants and shrubbery and sells commercially and privately. I may not be crazy about gardening, but she makes it look easy and majestic. As long as you respect the plants in the house and all around the property, you won’t have any problems with her. Sometimes, I think she loves her plants more than me.”

The last line of my statement was meant to be a joke, and it did make Luca laugh for a few moments, but then he spoke up in a serious tone.

“Honestly, everything that Mommy has told me about her is mostly bad stuff, except for the statistical stuff, like what she believes in heritage and preserving her Italian roots and language. It’s nice to hear that Nonna has a good side to her too.”

His words brought tears to my eyes, maybe because of how betrayed I felt by her right now.“She’s not an easy person to be around,” I admitted. “You’re going to find this out, one way or another. I just don’t want her to hurt you the way she hurt your mother.”

Luca was quiet for a few moments, and his eyes told me he was deep in thought, but his gaze didn’t break from mine. It was as if he was studying me or something. I was curious to know what was on his mind, but I didn’t even have to ask because his lips already parted.

“Would you like to know what I think about her, based on everything I know and on how I’ve been observing you and the king?”

Well, this ought to be interesting.

“What do you think?” I asked.

“I think, and of course, this is just my theory until we speak with Nonna and get more information, but this is what I think …” Here we go. “It’s public knowledge that he was born in a monastery on the border of Xudia and Slovenia, quite near Italy actually, but very little is known about his adoption. The monastery he was born in had a fire in which they lost all their records and books, including the king’s original birth certificate. I think his birth parents are Italian and that his birth mother went to the monastery and had her baby there, and the monastery was willing to adopt him out to anyone willing to take him as their son. So I think the king knows the truth of his origins and that he has spent a lot of time in Italy, maybe to find his birth parents, maybe not, or maybe he just wanted to be connected to his roots? I would be very curious to know if I am right on this.”

That was very bold of him to assume, but then again, he did say this was a theory. Of course, he wouldn’t dare question the king on such a matter, but it’s interesting to me that he’s still speaking in Italian on this, perhaps because the guards and crew on this plane were Xudian? He certainly didn’t want them knowing this theory, which meant he didn’t want this getting back to the king, which I could certainly understand, and I definitely wouldn’t question the king on this either. I can tell through his eyes that he’s thought about this quite thoroughly. I’m intrigued to hear what he has to say entirely on this matter.

“I think he met your parents somewhere along the way and became friends with them for a while.” Oh, he was spot on with this part, at least according to what the king has told me himself. “And I think Nonna fell in love with the king, but he answered the queen’s call, and I know that last part about the queen’s call was true, as that is public knowledge. I believe Nonna was pregnant with you when the queen called for the king to become her consort, and when he chose the queen over Nonna, she became angry and bitter. I think that’s why she was so mean to Mommy because she knew Mommy was Xudian. It just reminded Nonna of what she couldn’t have, and how the king chose a Xudian woman over her, and how he chose the Xudian culture over the traditional Italian roots.”

I was at a loss for words right now, and he was probably right about this. I almost wanted to make a bet on this just to see just how correct his intuition was. Still, after I graduated high school, my father informed me about his and my mother’s distant familial ties to the mafia, as well as a gambling addiction that ran on my mother’s side. I made a promise to him then that I would never gamble, not even if it was over something small and silly. Besides, it would’ve been pointless to make a bet of this anyways, because honestly, my theory on the matter of my mother’s racist attitude toward Camila was almost identical to Luca’s theory. No matter my mother’s history with my natural father, the Xudian king, this still didn’t give her an excuse or the right to treat Camila the way she did. Sarcastically speaking, I so couldn’t wait to hear my mother explain her side of things. What I wanted most from her, though, was a sincere apology and to own up to her mistakes.

“Yeah, well, regardless of why she treated your mother the way she did, your mother never did anything wrong, so your nonna’s attitude towards your mommy was disrespectful and …”

I didn’t know what else to say without sounding disrespectful myself, but Luca seemed to be able to finish my statement for me just fine.

“I believe the word you’re looking for might be something like arrogant, hateful, or even unbecoming?”

There was no way Eli and Kris could ever think up these words, not at their current ages and education levels anyways.

“Exactly,” I answered. “I’m just really, really sorry that your mommy ever experienced such hatred from your nonna.”

I avoided eye contact now because I felt my face grow hot, which meant only one thing.

“Why are you apologizing? You weren’t the one who treated Mommy like that. Nonna was. It’s Nonna that has to answer for what she did to Mommy, and to apologize, and own up to her mistakes.”

I couldn’t help but briefly meet his curious gaze as I wondered if his thought process was a lot like mine because we seemed to think the same, especially when it came to matters like this.

“I know, kiddo,” I spoke in a small voice as I tried my best to remain calm, and I had to close my eyes. “But the whole situation just … angers me to the point that I ju—”

The tears of anger threatened to fall, so I stopped mid-statement, and then I hid my face from Luca. I didn’t want him to see my fury. Even though this wasn’t a kind of anger that I would direct to him, he had seen enough of that through his stepfather, and I didn’t want to chance him thinking he did something wrong to upset me like this. Like I said before, I didn’t believe in presenting violent rage in front of my children because I wanted them to grow up and become fine gentlemen with compassion, empathy, kindness, love, and also respect for others and the world. I wouldn’t call myself a monster, but I wouldn’t call myself perfect either, though I try to do my best as a father and as a man.

“It’s alright, Abbo,” Luca replied softly as he sat back beside me again. “I know you’re still angry. You’ve got that same look on your face that you had back in your chambers after dinner.”

It took a moment to realize when he said ‘chambers,’ he meant my room in the palace. I still couldn’t fully wrap my head around that yet. I wondered if this kid studied me more than I realized, or was I so easy to read?

“Can we please change the subject?” I asked.

“Sure. When will I be meeting José?” Luca asked in curiosity.

There was an interesting topic to discuss. I couldn’t wait to introduce Luca to José because I just knew they’d adore each other. The king wanted to meet him as well, but I couldn’t be sure that I could get José to visit Xudia, for he had a wife and kids he needed to care for. Because Luca’s monster of a stepfather was still out there somewhere, I knew that I wanted the extra security, my own security that I knew I could trust. José knew everything about me, even more so than Pop, and José, on occasion, protected me from crazy fanatics. 

I knew in my heart that José would protect and cared for him in the same way he’s protected and care for me. I planned on calling on my cell phone once we landed in North Carolina because I wanted to talk to him about being an extra guard with us, at least until Camila’s husband was caught and in prison. The thought that he was her husband creeps me out and sends chills down my spine. Ugh! I couldn’t wait for his capture because I wanted my son to be able to sleep at night knowing he was safe. I also wanted my son to stop using those pills because I didn’t know if they had any addictive properties. Between my alcoholism, as well as the king’s, and a known gambling addiction on my mother’s side, it’s safe to assume that addiction runs in the genes. I didn’t want to see Luca affected by this in any manner.

When we landed, a limo was there for us, and it took us back to Luca’s grandparents’ house. On the drive back, I took this as an opportunity to turn on my cell phone, as I had it off during our time in Xudia since I couldn’t get any cell service over there yet. Now that I was back on American soil, I could use it again. When I turned my phone on, I was bombarded with text messages and voice messages from family members in Italy and at home in New York, including my father. Even close friends had texted me and sent me links to news articles about Camila and Luca, as well as how much the Xudian king and I looked alike, etc. I knew I was going to have to confirm the truth with everyone. I didn’t look forward to it because I didn’t want to have to repeat and explain myself over and over, but I’m not going to have a choice in this matter. I just ignored all of those notifications and made my first call to José.

“Hey, Vince,” José answered after the first ring. “I wondered when I’d be hearing from you, all things considering. How are you?”

I was glad to hear his voice finally. 

“Hanging in there, man. How are you?” I replied.

“I’m doing alright. The wife and I took the kids to the shore for a few days. I assume you’re back on American soil?”

“Yeah, we just landed about ten minutes ago. We’re on our way back to get my car. So, I won’t be home until tonight, but I want to talk to you about some things,” I told him.

He grew silent for a few moments. I must have sounded too serious. I hope my tone didn’t come across to him that I would let him find employment elsewhere because I needed him now more than ever. Aside from my wife and parents, there was no one I trusted more with my own life and finances than José. No one.

“I’m inclined to agree with you. I’ve seen how you and your family have become the latest internet sensation in the oddest way. The wife, and the kids, and I all watched

Camila’s televised funeral in Xudia, which was beautiful, by the way.” My eyes collected tears as soon as he said that, but I held onto them. “I imagine you have some tough decisions to make, but I’m guessing those are among some things we have to talk about?”

“Yes, but I also need a meeting too ...”

He was silent again for a few moments. I knew he knew what I meant. Then he spoke up again.

“I had a feeling. I just want you to know, Vince, I’m here for you, no matter what.”

That was reassuring. It made me feel like I wouldn’t lose him over the coming weeks. I didn’t want our bond to end - ever.

“Thanks, man. Would it be too much to meet tonight?” I asked.

“No, not at all. I’ll be on standby, so just call whenever you get in,” José answered. “Be safe in your drive back.”

“I will. See you tonight,” I said.

“See you later.”

We both disconnected the call, and I caught Luca looking at me, which he was probably doing the whole time while I was on the phone.

“How exciting!” he exclaimed in great enthusiasm. “I get to meet José tonight! I can’t wait!”

His excitement brought a smile to my face.

“I can’t wait for you both to meet each other too. You’re going to love him.”

Chapter 22

On the Verge of Going Mad




When we got back to Camila’s parents’ house, Luca had grabbed a couple of things, and while he did that, his guards were quick to check out my car to ensure no bomb had been placed on, in, around, or under my vehicle since we’ve been gone. I highly doubt the monster did anything to my car while we were out of the country because he was out of the country too, but I sure appreciated their thoroughness. When they cleared my car, Luca put a suitcase in the trunk and then asked to go to the shore quickly. The beach belonged to the Jurics, and it was just a little walk, and I did tell Luca on the plane that we could visit the rocks one last time. Considering the direction our lives were headed, I had a feeling this would be the very last time I’d ever visit these rocks where I met Camila and spent a lot of my time with her. Luca and I spent about an hour on the rocks, and we laughed and cried, and we even prayed. It was still nice to make memories here, even though this very last time would only be with Luca. When the hour was up, we headed back to the car, and we drove back home to New York.

We didn’t get in until around midnight. Ana and I lived in a gated community with security on the premises 24/7, so I had to drive through the main entrance. When I approached the front gates and rolled down my window, they recognized me right away but came out of their security stall. I saw the officer on duty tonight was Charles Dellinger. He was a kind elderly gentleman nearing his mandatory retirement age. He was probably one of my favorite guards here, for he reminded me of my father in his personality.

“Hi, Charles,” I greeted.

“Welcome back, Mr. Palladino, or shall I say, Your Majesty?”

This was worse than I thought.

“You’ve heard, huh?” I asked.

“From the kids and grandkids,” he answered. “You should know that it’s all over the news around here. I do want to give you my condolences in regards to the Princess, though.”

“Thank you, but ‘Your Majesty’ is not necessary for me yet, though my son is a whole different story.”

“I see you’ve brought some new friends over?” Charles noted as he looked over at the guard over in my front passenger seat and the guard in the back with Luca.

“My son, Luca, and his security.”

Before I said another word, my son spoke up from the backseat.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, officer.”

Charles smiled towards my son and tipped his head.

“The pleasure is all mine, Your Majesty.” Then Charles turned to me again. “Very nice kid you got there, very nice.”

I couldn’t help but smile at this, though Charles added something else to his statement.

“You should know, José came through about half an hour ago. He’s waiting for you at your place. He didn’t want to bug you while you were driving, but he also didn’t want to surprise you and your extra security either.”

“Thank you for letting me know, Charles. I appreciate that. I hope you have a beautiful night.”

“Thank you, Mr. Palladino. I know you must be tired from your long drive. So, I hope you get some rest, but if you need anything, let us know, alright? Have a good night.”

“I will, thank you, and good night.”

Charles tipped his hat once more, and then he went back inside his stall and opened the gate. Then he let me through and closed the gate. The house was just a couple of streets down, but it was only a one-minute drive from the entrance. I touched the garage door opener on my visor and pressed the button. I saw José parked off to the side of the driveway on my right, and he now got out of his vehicle, but he stayed by his driver’s side door as I pulled into my garage.

“Is that the man the officer at the gate was talking about?” asked one of the guards as he checked out José.

“Yes, his name is José,” I said as I turned off the engine and looked at the guard through my rearview mirror. “He’s been my own personal security guard since I was a kid. So you can trust him.”

Also, in my rearview mirror, I saw movement outside and behind my car, so I got out of the car, and everyone else followed suit. When I closed my door, José had approached, and I hugged him.

“Welcome home, Vince,” José said as he pulled from the hug and gave me a short pat on my right shoulder.

“Thanks,” I replied as our attention now moved on to Luca, who had approached us. “José, I’d like you to meet someone special. Luca, this is my bodyguard, José. José, this is Luca.”

Luca’s lips curled into a huge smile. Then José did something I didn’t know he knew how to do. First, his right knee touched the floor, and then his right arm formed the proper Xudian ‘V’ across his chest as his fist touched his left shoulder, and then he bowed his head.

“It is an honor to meet you, Your Highness.”

“Very impressive,” Luca replied. “But we are not at any formal event, nor are we in the palace, so you do not need to bow to me, nor do you have to be so formal in addressing me. For now, I am simply Luca, and it is my honor to meet you. I have seen you in the spotlight for many years with my abbo here. I’ve been waiting to meet you for the longest time.”

I watched how these two interacted with each other as José stood up straight again, and I knew I was right when I said earlier that they were going to love each other.

“Okay,” I said as I now had everyone’s attention while I went to the entrance into my house but hit the garage door button to close it. “Before we head inside, I have two simple security measures I’d like to discuss. José already knows what I’m about to tell you, but you need to know that my house has a high-tech security system installed. Every entrance into the house requires a code to be put in within 15 seconds, or the security will come here with guns a-blazing. This is a gated community with many VIPS from all sorts of backgrounds like entertainment, politics, science, etcetera, and they take their security very seriously. The code I’m about to share with you must never be spoken out loud. I will say it once and only once. Are you fellows able to remember a 5-digit English numerical code?”

Both of the guards, Aldio and Piero, looked to each other and then back to me, and they nodded.

“We are very fluent in English,” Aldio answered.

“Good. When I open this door, I will input my security code, and then I will push the star button. That’s all that has to be done. Are you ready for the code?”

Both of the Xudian guards nodded once more.

“The code is 1-3-3-7-2,” I said before I turned to the door and unlocked it with my keys. 

Luca and the guards watched me enter the code when they heard the beeping go off. After I pressed the star button, the security system’s beeping noise stopped, and then I turned on the lights and stepped aside to allow everyone into the house. Luca was the first to come inside, and a big smile spread across his face.

“I really like the place.”

“Well, it’s home here in the states, at least for now,” I answered as I headed over to the living room and picked up a remote control from the coffee table, and then turned to the guards. “Another thing I want to bring up is that all windows in the house get closed and locked by seven o’clock in the evening. When no one is home, it’s set up in a way that they stay locked, period, until either Ana is home or I’m home. This remote control can manually lock and unlock every door and every window in the house at any time, in case there’s an emergency.”

Luca nodded his head in understanding.

“That sounds reasonable.”

“And, Luca, I’m going to tell you the same thing I’ve told Eli and Kris. You boys are not to touch this remote control? This is only for adults and security, okay?”

“I understand, Abbo.”

“Good. Now, unfortunately, we’ve already turned our extra guest bedroom into a room for the baby, so we’ll have to put you in Eli’s room for the time being. Are you okay with that?”

“Of course,” Luca replied. “Piero, would you be so kind as to grab my suitcase from the trunk? I’m getting sleepy and would like to soon turn in for the night.”

“Yes, of course, Your Majesty.”

Piero turned towards the garage, but I called his attention real quick, and when he looked at me, I threw my keys towards him.

“Be sure to click the trunk icon on the remote.”

When he caught the keys, he nodded and then turned once again for the garage.

“So, how was the flight?” José asked.

“Long,” I said as I met his gaze. “Too long, if you want my honest opinion.”

José chuckled.

“I saw the televised funeral of the princess,” he said, but then he looked into Luca’s eyes at this point. “And if I may, I’d like to extend my condolences on the loss of your mother. I lost my mother early in life, too, when I was about your age.”

“Really?” Luca replied in surprise, which only got a soft nod from José. “May I ask what happened with her?”

“Complications from her alcoholism.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Luca said in a sympathetic tone with a sad expression on his face before he then turned to me. “I’m tired. Can you show me to the bathroom and the room I’ll be staying in?”

At that moment, Piero had returned with Luca’s suitcase, so I nodded.

“Yes, of course. Follow me.”

I gave Luca and the guards a quick tour of the house and showed them where everything was. I saved Eli’s room for last, and when we got there, Luca seemed quite tired. I knew he wanted to call it a night.

“I will take it from here,” he said as he stepped into the room but turned around to face us. “You promise I’m safe in here, Abbo?”

I got down on my knees and looked him straight in the eyes with the most serious look on my face.

“Would you like to try and open the window and see what happens?” I asked him. “If you were to open any one of Eli’s bedroom windows, the alarm system would automatically go off, and someone in the house has to put the security code into the mainframe within 15 seconds. Nobody is getting in and out of any window in this house without the alarm system waking everyone up in the house, but you can try to open it and see what happens. Give it a try, if you want. I promise you won’t get in trouble.”

Luca stood quietly for a few moments.

“No, that’s okay. I trust you. Besides, I kind of have a headache, so I want to go to bed. I just don’t want to be alone.”

“I promise you’re safe, kiddo, really. The monster can’t get you here.”

“Except in my dreams,” Luca answered in a tone that was low enough for no one else to hear.

“I have an idea. Why don’t you get changed into your PJs, and then I’ll come back to tuck you in? Aldio and Piero will stay here to ensure your safety.”

“I’d rather they stay out in the hall,” Luca stated in English, but then the next part of his statement was spoken in Italian. “Marco’s the only one I trust in the room with me when I’m sleeping.”

And, of course, we couldn’t bring Marco with us on this trip.

“Okay, I’m sure they’ll respect that,” I said in English as I turned to them and found they only nodded in response, though both of them stepped back out into the hall simultaneously before I turned to Luca again. “I’ll be right back, okay?”

I went to the baby’s room and grabbed the new baby monitors initially intended for when the newest addition to the family would be born but considering what’s going on now. They might help make Luca feel more safe and secure. When I returned, I found his door closed and looked to the guards expectantly.

“He said he wanted privacy to change,” Aldio explained.

I nodded in understanding and turned to José.

“Can you grab two sets of AA batteries for me? There should be some in the kitchen utility drawer.”

“Sure thing,” José spoke as he walked away and disappeared.

The next thing I knew, Eli’s bedroom door opened again, and Luca stood there with a smile on his face.

“I really can’t wait to meet Kris and Eli.”

The fact that he was so excited to meet his brothers sure brought a big smile to my face. I couldn’t wait until he met Eli and Kris, too, though I was slightly cautious about Eli. Eli was an extrovert and had a leader’s personality, both of which he got from Ana, and Kris was an extrovert with a follower's personality. Luca was more like me, an introvert who can take on leadership, but we tend to veer more towards being quiet and reserved. I already knew Eli wasn’t going to like the fact that he was no longer the oldest because he took pride in that, so he would be confronted with a whole new way of life once he met Luca.

“Neither can I. You ready for bed?”

Luca nodded, and then he ran over to Eli’s bed and climbed into it. At that moment, José returned with the AA batteries I asked him to get, and he gave them to me. 

“Are you going to keep protecting my father?” Luca asked him directly.

I was going to say something, but José was quick to respond to him.

“I made a promise to your father a long time ago that for as long as I remain under his employment, I will always protect him, and that includes his family, which means you as well.”

Way to go on jumpstarting that conversation I wanted to have with José privately, Luca. I have to say, though, I can’t blame him for being curious. He seemed to like José, and I think he wanted José to stay in the picture, even overseas in Xudia.

“Okay, Luca, so what I have here are baby monitors,” I said in hopes that Luca would change his focus on me. “Since we were unable to bring Marco to the states with us, Aldio and Piero will stand guard just outside your bedroom door while you sleep, okay? I’m going to put this on the night, and I’ll have mine with me. That way, if you’re in any real trouble, I’ll be able to hear you, and I can see you straight away. The only way in and out of this room is through that door, which Aldio and Piero will guard during the night and your windows. As I mentioned earlier, if those windows are touched, whether by being opened on the inside or outside, or someone breaks through the window, the alarm system will automatically go off throughout the house. So you see? You’re perfectly safe here, and the monster is not going to get you.”

“Do you promise?” Luca asked as I put the AA batteries inside both of the baby monitors.

“I promise,” I answered as I placed one of the monitors on the stand and then ruffled his hair for a few moments, which got a smile out of him.

Then he turned to José and smiled even wider.

“Are you going to stay awhile?”

“For as long as I’m needed, yes,” José answered with a smile in return.

“Good, because we could use all the help we can get while the monster’s on the loose.” Then Luca turned to me. “Thank you, Abbo.”

“For what?” I asked.

Luca was quiet for a few moments as he gazed into my eyes.

“For making me feel safe,” he answered simply.

I felt the tears and how they threatened to escape, but I fought them back and leaned forward. He wrapped his arms around me for a hug and I placed my lips on top of his head for a subtle kiss. In such tenderness, I held his face in my hands and brought the top of his head under my chin.

“You’re my son, Luca,” I said firmly. “And I love you. I’d do anything to keep you safe.”

Little did he know, I really would do anything to keep him safe, even if it meant killing Camila’s husband with my bare hands.

“I love you too, Abbo,” he replied as I pulled from the hug, and we once again met each other’s gaze. “Buonanotte.”

“Good night,” I stated in my normal soft tone.

I then stood up from his bed and walked with José towards the door. As I stepped out, I turned around for a moment and watched as Luca now snuggled even deeper into the bed, and then he closed his eyes. I closed the door for the most part but left it open by a tiny crack. I said good night to Aldio and Piero and then walked down the stairs and into the living room with José. Before I realized it, I began one of my usual paces of walking back and forth in exhaustion and frustration. José then spoke up.

“Alright, Vince, go ahead. I can tell that you’ve been holding it in, considering everything I’ve seen on the news so far, yet I have a feeling there’s a lot more to what’s being mentioned on the news, so I know you need to say it.”

I then turned to him and placed both of my hands on his big shoulders.

“You’re right. I’m not sure what all’s been brought to the world’s attention yet, but there’s sooo much I need to tell you. I will start with the fact that I … have been trying like hell to not even think about how much I miss my damn bourbon and whiskey, but … I … need … a drink! With all the craziness that’s hit my life, I feel like I’m on the verge of going mad!”

Chapter 23

Between a Rock and a Hard Place




It was apparent to both of us that I was desperate for a drink. I knew that I could never allow myself another taste of alcohol for as long as I was alive because if I did, it would wholly consume me in every action and every thought. I had a responsibility as a husband and as a father to stay away from the drink.

“You need to breathe, Vince,” José said as he now placed his hands on my shoulders. “Let’s just take this one breath at a time, like we always do, remember? Close your eyes.”

I did as he suggested and then listened to his words. I allowed the sound of his voice to course through my veins, and it found its way inside my head. Then I released my hands from his shoulders and brought them to my sides.

“Take a deep breath, and clear your mind. Everything will be all right.”

It was easy for me to believe his words. Every time he ever said them, reality proved him to be correct. I trusted him with my life and my mind. I remained quiet for a few minutes or so with some silent meditation before speaking up again.

“I assume you’ve read everything that’s hit the news about Luca and me, whether it be fact or fiction,” I answered as I kept my eyes closed and my breathing steady.

“Well, you know I’ve got to stay in the loop. I know you’ll be transparent with me on all the facts, so I know how best to help you and protect you. You went down to North

Carolina to close one door, and you walked through another door that’s opened up a whole new world for you. That can’t be easy on you, man. What you’re going through would drive anyone to drink, but I’m here to tell you that you don’t need it, and I’m proud of you for coming to me on this before making a bad decision on impulse. You can get through this, Vince, and for as long as you want me to be here, I’ll be with you every step of the way.”

My eyes opened when I heard the last part of his statement.

“Even in Xudia?” I asked.

His brown eyes locked with mine, but he didn’t miss a beat.

“Without a doubt, Vince,” he answered. “Rosa and I have kept tabs on all the news about you and Luca, and we both agreed to follow you wherever you need to go, for as long as you need me around. I know I could be of some value and insight to help protect you, Ana, and your children. Even Miguel wants to follow in my footsteps when he gets out of the Marines.”

“I’d be honored to have Miguel on our team when he gets out of the service, but I want you to remain as head of my security detail. We’ve come too far in life to split up now. I need you, José. I need you now more than I ever have in my entire life.”

His words comforted me to the point I felt I could relax the muscles in my shoulders, but I needed him to know I wanted him to remain as my bodyguard.

“Then Rosa, the girls, and I will follow you, Ana, and the boys to Xudia. Miguel will follow in a year when his enlistment is up.”

I nodded in acknowledgment, and though I wanted to respond, I knew by the look on José’s face that there was more he wanted to say.

“Before we continue any further, though, I feel it necessary to tell you something important that’s come up with Jacob Michaelson. He turned in his resignation to me while you were out of the country. Once he found out that you had a son with a Princess whose husband murdered her, he felt he could no longer represent you and that he would do you more harm than good when it comes to your reputation. I hope you don’t mind, but with Rosa’s education and background in media communications and public relations, she took over Jacob’s position and stepped up to bat for you while I’ve been managing the side of things regarding your latest album tour. All things considering, I’ve had to speak with a couple of venues and have events canceled with full ticket refunds as each day passed, which I didn’t think you’d mind.”

Tears formed in my eyes, and José knew they were tears of appreciation, but I wouldn’t let them fall.

“I sincerely appreciate what you and Rosa have done for me. You have no idea what it means to me to know that someone has my back while I’ve had to switch my focus onto something new and more important than anything I’ve ever had to do before. Truth be told, though, I was going to fire Jacob, but I’m glad he resigned. It’s one less thing I have to worry about right now. As sad as I am to say this, though, I’m going to have to cancel the entire tour. Based on the way things are going, I won’t have time for my career in the entertainment industry.”

I knew my statement stunned José. I couldn’t help but pace back and forth. I was a pacer when I worried. The anxiety shook my nerves to the point that I had to do something with my hands. I ran my hands through my hair in frustration. I could barely contain it.

“So you’re really going to transition into politics, aren’t you?” he inquired as he now folded his arms across his chest. “You’re going to move to Xudia and take the throne as its new legitimized king?”

I didn’t want to be a king. That was the last thing in the world I wanted right now. I felt I had no choice to a certain extent, though.

“King Regent,” I corrected with a heavy sigh as I now sat down on the nearest armchair and then once again ran a hand through my hair before I looked back up into his eyes again. “The king of Xudia is indeed my natural father, but I wasn’t raised with any knowledge of my Xudian roots, so I wasn’t raised with the cultural expectations that come with being a Xudian. The king is dying, and Luca is the heir the country wants, but he’s too young, and the king won’t live to see Luca’s legal coronation. Luca really wants to accept his responsibility as soon as he’s able when he turns sixteen. He recognizes that he was born under privilege, and with that comes his own set of special obligations that he wants to fulfill, so I don’t believe I have a choice. Ana and I have talked about it, and even she recognizes we have to fulfill our obligations. I know she and Luca will teach me everything there is to know about Xudia, though, so I’m not worried about that. What I am worried about, however, is the monster that killed Camila and abused my son in every way possible, which is why I need you with me now more than ever.”

José stared long and hard at me before he finally spoke.

“I felt horrible when I read about him, utterly sick to my stomach, really. I can’t believe I allowed that criminal access to your dressing room.”

I knew José felt guilty and horrible about this situation.

“You’re fine, José. There was a reason why he was so willing to let you do a background check under his Timothy Crane alias. It was fake. I’m sure if you re-ran the check now, you’d see the red flags, but at the time, the alias wasn’t red-flagged, so no one knew the wiser. I’m just thankful the authorities figured out his real identity and that they’ve been keeping an eye on his face in Europe. His last known location was Croatia, so Xudia’s hoping they’ll catch him and extradite him to their country so that they can punish him per their laws over the murder of their princess. I’m not sure what kind of punishment is in place for that kind of crime, but I bet it’ll likely be considered a capital crime, and he’ll get the max, whether it be life in prison or be put to death. Whatever the case may be, I hope they catch him soon because my son is paranoid as all hell and trying to stay awake by stealing and using levatadine because he’s afraid the monster’s going to get him when he’s asleep.”

José winced when he heard the last part of my statement. He removed his arms from his chest and then sat down on the sofa to my left. He learned forward with an intense look on his face.

“Oh, I’ve heard a lot of bad things about levatadine. I’m surprised the FDA hasn’t put restrictions on it yet. It’s only a few molecules away from speed. Most people use it to stay awake for extended periods, but the longer you go without sleep, the more likely it will impair the brain and keep it from functioning properly. Pairing it with paranoia, lack of sleep, and a family history of addiction is like asking for some serious trouble. Have you talked to him about that yet?”

If anyone knew what complications could arise from taking an over-the-counter medication, it would be José. He was a certified addiction Counselor and stayed on top of the ever-changing knowledge of addiction and mental health. I knew I could trust that he was right in the information he just gave me

“Yes and no,” I answered. “He knows that the king and I are both recovering alcoholics, so I’ve talked to him briefly about that because he’s a hemophiliac, and he should never touch alcohol. Camila told me in a letter that he had a liver transplant that gave him the ability to clot his blood, but hemophilia is still hemophilia.”

“So we’ll handle him with extra care and protect him with extra caution,” José replied. “Good to know. He seems like a good kid.”

I couldn’t help but smile at this statement.

“He is a good kid and, believe it or not, a boy genius. He’s better behaved than Eli and Kris combined. However, I will say that Luca inherited my ability to sneak around. I think we’ll need to nip that bad habit in the bud as soon as possible for his safety before Eli and Kris start following in his footsteps. We can’t have any of them running around without us knowing where they are, not while that bastard is on the loose.”

José smirked for a few moments.

“Ah-hah!” he exclaimed. “Now you know what you’ve put your parents and me through back when you were a teenager.”

I rolled my eyes at that with a brief grin of my own before I turned dead serious again.

“Yeah, I know. I apologize for putting you guys through hell in that regard, but honestly, I think we can both agree it was a different time then,” I stated, which got a nod of agreement from José. “Aside from the fact that I had the occasional run-in with some rowdy fans, I never had any problems with a crazy, abusive rapist who was also a pedophile and a murderer. Luca, on the other hand, does. I want us to talk with him together on that with his own security detail when we’re all back in Xudia. I think he’ll be more agreeable and understanding when he hears it from someone other than just me and Marko, and I mean, I really want him to hear it. It’s one thing when he’s an adult, and he’s king, and Camila’s husband has been captured and brought to justice, you know? I just don’t want to lose him the same way I lost Cami.”

“I’m inclined to agree with you.” I knew he saw the tears of fear in my eyes. “Everything will be all right, Vince. I know that I haven’t done 24/7 security detail for you in the past, mostly just when it comes to doing stuff with your fame and being in the limelight, but do you need me to start being around 24/7? I can be if you need me.”

“He’s not coming to the states right now. He’s got too many warrants out for his arrest in several states. Right now, he’s in Croatia, so I think we’re safe with Luca’s security detail around the clock for now. When we go back to Xudia, though, I think that’s when I’ll need you the most because we’re way too close to Croatia then. Croatia’s a Xudian ally, so they’re on high alert right now. I’d just like your help in closing out my affairs here with my music and selling the house for the time being. All I’ve got to say is I’m glad I’m not in the middle of film production. I hate canceling commitments I’ve already agreed to.”

“I know, Vince, but I think your fans would understand. It’s not like you’re canceling the tour to go on a skiing trip or something, you know? Based on what I’ve seen in the news and how your strongest followers have reacted, I’d give them some credit. As for the rest of America, or the rest of the world, who cares? I know you love music and acting, but I’m inclined to agree with you on closing out this chapter of your life, at least for a few years, because you’re about to become a leader for a new world until the leader Xudia actually wants is old enough and ready for them.”

I took a deep breath when I heard these words. I knew he was right. I hated it, and I hated to leave the only country I’ve ever known for a country I knew very little about, but this wasn’t about me. It was about Luca. It was about raising the crown.

“Thanks for backing me up, man,” I told him. “I’m going to need all the support I can get when I talk to my mother tomorrow.”“Does this maybe have something to do with the fact that your pictures have been compared to that of the Xudian king’s pictures from when he was young?”

“Kind of,” I answered, but then I froze in my steps. “Wait, is there a lot of news out there about the king and me?”

“Oh, yeah. There’s a lot of tabloid news and celebrity gossip about the supposed ‘secret love affair’ between you and Camila, as well as a conspiracy theory on ‘the king’s secret love affair with your mother,’ because ‘how else could you look so identical to the king from when he was your age?’ I mean, you and I both know you didn’t have a secret love affair with Camila because what you two had was real, and you were loyal to each other, but you both just happened to prefer to want to keep it private. There’s a difference there between a love affair and wanting privacy.”

That’s why I had so many text messages and voice messages on my phone. I planned on sending one mass response to all my family and close friends, but not yet.

“I’m here for you because you’re a good man and the only one I’ve served and protected over all these years, so I’ll be honest and tell you that I think it would be a waste of time for you to get caught up on all the news and tabloid rumors surrounding you and your family. Leave the worries about the media and news outlets to Rosa, and leave the worries about selling your house and your other affairs to me. You just focus on your son and your family. We’ve got your back, Vince. We always have, and we always will.”

I had to settle my stateside affairs first, and I was so glad I had José on my side to help me through this. I also had to deal with my mother, which I just knew wasn’t going to be a good day for anyone. Based on how much anger I had for her right now, I had a feeling this will likely be one of the last conversations I would ever have with her, especially if she refused to return to Xudia for the king to make amends.

I also kept in mind what the king told me about how my parents had immigrated to America after he answered the call to become king. My mother felt betrayed by that action because she loved him, and he chose an entire country over her. Not only did I look like him, but in a way, history was about to repeat itself through me. I didn’t want to be a king and a ruler of a nation I knew very little about, but I felt a sense of duty to my son, the rightful heir to their throne. Despite being livid with my mother about how she handled Camila and how she kept my true lineage a secret from me, the thought of truly never speaking to my mother again brought tears to my eyes. 

If there was one thing Camila said to me more than anything else, other than that she loved me, it was that my mother was the only mother I was ever going to have – and she was so right. Every fight I’ve ever had with my mother, even the last one over Camila and my mother's prejudice against the Xudian people, seemed like small potatoes compared to the massive one I knew we were about to have. This was going to be the fight that would either strengthen or destroy our bond forever, and I certainly wasn’t ready for it, but I needed to face her once and for all. I had disowned my mother over the last fight, and it was pure torture to be so angry with her for the length of time that I was. I hate being angry, honestly, but the anger I had then and now was and is justified.

Camila meant the world to me, and now that I’ve met Luca, he did too. I had a right to know my son, to raise him, but I had absolutely no hand in who he was today, other than through half of his genetic make-up and the personality traits he inherited from me. I never got to see him as a newborn. I missed out on hundreds of thousands of opportunities to hold him as a baby, to sing to him when he’d be restless, or just comfort him when he’d let out one of his helpless cries. I missed out on all his early childhood developments, and I had no hand in helping him learn to navigate life with his moral compass. 

He was still a kid, only ten years old, but he was smart as hell and had an IQ of a boy genius with a great deal of common sense. He was a good kid and had a great head on his shoulders, but he was pretty much his own person now. Camila did a beautiful job raising him, but that couldn’t heal the pain and betrayal I felt over this, and I couldn’t change the fact that I missed out on so much. I loved my mother with every fiber of my being, but in the matters of this broken heart whose soul was utterly crushed, I was between a rock and a hard place.

Chapter 24

A Boy's Introduction and a Son's Confrontation




When I had arrived at my parents’ house the next day, Luca followed me to the front door, and with my house key, I unlocked the door. Luca wouldn’t move from the door mat when I stepped inside, so I turned around and looked at him with slight confusion. Then I spoke up.

“What’s wrong, kiddo?”

“Do I take off my shoes or … ?”

I quickly realized he wanted to respect my parents’ house rules, especially if it started with no shoes inside the house, so I smiled. My mother didn’t have this rule, though.

“You can keep your shoes on. That rule doesn’t apply here.”

Luca smiled softly, and he reached out for my hand. I smiled as I took his hand because sometimes he seemed too grown-up, which made me feel like I missed out on so much of his childhood, but he was still very much a little boy deep down in moments like these. I only had six years left with him before he would be an adult in Xudia. Half of his childhood was already over, but I hated to think about this, so I focused my mind on finally introducing him to my mother. Truth be told, I was a little nervous about how my mother would react to him because I knew she was racist against Xudians, and I didn’t want to subject Luca to such hatred, but he insisted on meeting her for himself.

When we walked into the house, my father’s back was the first thing we saw, and he was watering my mother’s house plants. Once he realized he had company by the sound of the front door opening, he turned around and greeted us with a surprised expression. Before he ever spoke, I already knew something was wrong with my mother, for my father never watered any of her plants unless she was sick; otherwise, he’d prefer to be cleaning around the house or cooking in the kitchen. Sometimes he did both simultaneously because he was a stickler for cleanliness and organization, but he also had a passion for cooking. I closed the front door behind me and locked it. 

“Did you not get my voice mail?” my father asked.

He knew my first move after getting home would be to come here, which is why he left a voice mail on my phone, asking me to call first. He didn’t usually do that kind of thing, so I knew something was up. I sensed something was wrong, which is why I came over before returning his call.

“Hello to you too, Pop, and yes. I got it last night before I went to bed at two in the morning, but we need to have some serious talks, and I’d prefer to have those in person if you don’t mind.”

“Now is not a good time, son,” he nearly whispered. “You should have called me on my cell phone

“Son,” I repeated quietly with a chuckle that followed.

My father knew where I was headed with this. It was written all over his face.

“I know you know the truth, Giovanni, but you also need to know that you will always be my son, no matter what happens.”

I heard the worry in his tone. It was as if he was afraid I would disown him after I discovered the truth. I approached him with tears in my eyes and then wrapped my arms around him. I’m disappointed and heartbroken over the fact that he never told me the truth, but he still meant the world to me.

“I know, Pop,” I told him. “And please know that nothing in the world could change how much I love you.”

I felt my father’s grip around me tighten for a few moments before he released me from his own arms. He sniffled but smiled towards Luca.

“You must be Luca,” he said.

Luca smiled and bowed subtly.

“Buongiorno, signore. È un piacere incontrarti.”

Luca’s response brought the hugest smile to my father’s face. Before my father could answer him, though, my mother’s voice could be heard from the kitchen.

“Vince?” she called curiously, and I looked in the direction of the kitchen, where I saw she leaned against the doorway. “What a surprise! I thought you were supposed to be on your new album tour?”

Her statement confused me. My father then immediately gazed into my eyes. Does she even know what’s going on?

“You mean you haven’t heard what’s been going on in the news?” I asked as I looked into her eyes.

My father was quick to answer for her.

“Your mother hasn’t been feeling well, so I’ve had to disconnect the landline because the phone was ringing off the hook, and your mother needed her rest. She still needs her rest, by the way,” he explained as he now met her gaze, but she carelessly waved her hand as a means to shrug off the last part of his statement.

“You worry too much, darling. Come, Vince. I’ll pour you a cup of coffee or espresso, whichever you want, and you can catch me up on what’s going on,” she answered but then disappeared into the kitchen.

If she had known what was happening, she wouldn’t be as carefree and nonchalant as she was right now. I looked to my father, who met my gaze, and I knew by the expression on his face that he kept her in the dark over what was going on. That’s why he wanted me to call him before I came over.

“I’ll stay here with Luca,” he replied as quietly as he could. “You and your mother should talk, but son, please be careful with your words. Remember, she’s not well.”

“I heard that!” exclaimed my mother from a distance. “And if you ask one more person to treat me like I’m on my deathbed, you’ll be moving to the guest bedroom, and you’ll be sleeping with one eye open!”

Yep. That’s who I inherited my perfect hearing from. As for my father, I knew he wouldn’t have any racial issues with Luca, so I knew it was safe to let those two alone with each other. I could actually tell that my father had already taken a liking to Luca, as he lit up with such a joy I hadn’t seen in him for a long time. I patted my father on his shoulder with a soft smirk as I shook my head. I knew he wasn’t going to be able to get away with his statement without my mother hearing him. Nice try, though, Pop. I left those two alone and walked into the kitchen.

I saw my mother at the deluxe espresso machine Ana, and I bought her for last Christmas. She loved her gift and used it as often as she could. We were big coffee drinkers in this family, but I wasn’t in the mood to drink right now, though that wouldn’t stop her from serving me a cup anyway. My mother would never accept anyone’s refusal when she served food or non-alcoholic drinks. So I promptly made my decision.

“I’ll just have a shot of espresso.”

I couldn’t help but notice a few bottles of medications sitting on the kitchen table at the center. My eyebrows furrowed in curiosity, and with my mother’s back to me, I walked over to the table. One by one, I inspected them and saw they were all prescribed in her name, and they had long pharmaceutical words I couldn’t pronounce. My mother was a firm believer in alternative and homeopathic medicine. She honestly wouldn’t take a simple over-the-counter medication specially designed for migraines. So what on earth was she doing with all these medications? I couldn’t help but pick one up and inspect it. How sick was she?

“Put it down.”

I listened to the sternness in her tone and knew she meant business. I had to know what these were for, though. I put the prescription bottle down as my mother now stood beside me on my left. I turned to meet her hardened gaze as she handed me my espresso.

“I’ll be fine, Giovanni,” she continued as she handed my espresso to me. “It’s just a little bump in the road.”

“No, you’re not,” I replied. “A little bump in the road is one kind of antibiotic. You have several different medications on this table. Something tells me these aren’t antibiotics for a virus or an infection.”

“When you think about it, in a sense, I do have an infection.”

“Yeah, an infection that can metastasize if not treated properly.”

My mother went silent when she knew that I knew. I suddenly didn’t want this espresso anymore. I wanted to add to my statement, but she spoke up before I did.

“Drink your espresso before it gets cold.”

She would change the subject like that. She walked away from me, but when I saw her in my peripheral vision on my right side, I noticed she was now looking back into the living room. She had her eyes on Luca and his grandfather as she once more leaned against the open doorframe to the living room.

“By the way, who is your darling companion?” she inquired. “Your father’s taken quite a liking to him.”

I chuckled for a moment and then drank my espresso. I looked into my empty cup for a few moments before I answered her.

“Lui è mio abbio,” I replied softly but proudly.

Then I headed for the sink and quickly washed the cup out before placing it on the dish rack to dry.

“What is ‘abbio?’” she asked as she now turned in my direction.

I was silent as I now turned my back to the sink and leaned against it.

“Son,” I answered, still quietly as I gazed back into my mother’s eyes. I saw the look of confusion on her face for a moment until I finished my explanation. “It means ‘son’ in Xudian.”

I saw that confusion left my mother’s face and what appeared next was dread.

“No …” she whispered as she stepped back into the kitchen and then slowly sat down in the chair nearest to her.

“Yes, Mother,” I told her as anger now filled my voice, but I kept my tone as calm as I could while I approached her at the table. “If it weren’t for Ana saving his life by changing Cami’s mind on abortion, your actions against Cami would’ve been unforgivable. You know, I thought you don’t believe in abortion with your Catholic religion and all, but I guess-”

“I don’t believe in abortion, Vince,” my mother quickly snapped back as she looked back into my eyes. “I just ...”

“What?” I asked as I spread my arms wide open. “You just what, mother? You only believe in it when it’s convenient for you, and my ex-fiancé’s pregnancy was inconvenient for you?”

“No, I don’t believe in abortion, Vince, but Camila knew better as a woman. She should have prevented the mistake she made.”

Did she seriously just call Luca a mistake? I wanted to blow up in her face. It was challenging not to let my anger get the best of me right now. My rage was on the verge of escaping my control. I needed to keep my composure, though. 

“Are you seriously telling me that Luca was a mistake?” I asked quietly. “This amazing ten-year-old kid is two years away from reaching his high school diploma, and he’s six years away from his coronation in Xudia.”

My mother looked into my eyes, shocked when she heard what I said.

“Did you say ‘coronation,’ as in he’s-”

“A prince?” I finished for her in curiosity. “Yes, Xudia’s king is dying, and Luca is next in line for the crown.”

“But how?” my mother asked in complete shock as she now went over and sat at her chair at the kitchen table. “That would mean that Camila’s -”

“A princess?” I asked, again finishing her question for her. “Yeah, that surprised me too when I went down to North Carolina to pay my respects at her wake.”

My mother looked up again with more confusion on her face.

“Wake? Are you saying she’s—”

“Dead?” I replied as tears formed in my eyes. “Yes, her abusive husband is on the run from the police for chasing her car, with his own, into a highway divider and killing her in the process.”

My mother now mirrored my tears, and only hers were filled with guilt and shame. I still did my best to hold my composure, but this time, I placed both of my fists on the kitchen table rather than sitting down next to my mother.

“I understand you were only looking out for my best interests, Mother, and I love you for it, but how could you do this to me? Because of all your actions towards Cami, the way you treated her, and the fact that you tried to buy her an abortion, you made what may be the biggest mistake of your life. If I’m going, to be honest, I’m on the fence right now about what to do with you. I have half a mind to never talk to you again because I’m not sure that what you did to Cami, and ultimately your grandson, is forgivable. From a farewell letter that Cami wrote to me, I know that she could never forgive you, and she took that with her to her grave, and I honestly don’t blame her. You know, you only have one thing going in your favor right now. There’s only one reason why I’m even here at all, and it can be summed up in three words: Kris, Eli, and Luca. For the boys’ sake, I can’t bear to take away Kris and Eli’s special relationship with you, and believe it or not, Luca still wants a relationship with you – even after everything Cami told him about you and your actions.”

My mother’s tears fell now, and I could honestly say that I have never made her cry before, and it killed me to hurt her now, especially since I just found out she has cancer, but I wasn’t finished. I couldn’t leave how I felt about all this bottled up inside, or it would eat me alive, and I’d turn bitter and angry in the end. Then, unexpectedly, a sob escaped my lips, and now my sorrow came forward.

“I loved her, Ma!” I exclaimed as the first of my tears now slipped from my hold. “And she loved me, so much so that she was willing to give up her crown to marry me - me of all people in the world! Our roots may be Italian, and I may represent our culture, that which is the biggest natural enemy to her own Xudian people, but Camila didn’t care!”

“Vince,” my mother started to say, but I quickly interrupted.

“Please let me finish! You owe it to me to let me finish what I have to say!” More tears fell from my mother’s eyes, but she stayed silent, as she knew I was right. “I missed out on Luca’s birth and all of his firsts: his first cry, his first smile, his first feeding, his first steps, his first word, his first boo-boo, his first day of school, and the first ten years of his childhood! I missed out on teaching him how to read and write, I missed out on teaching him how to ride a bike, and I missed out on teaching him how to open doors with respect for others! I missed out on teaching him how to swim, and teaching him our language, and teaching him all about our beautiful culture! He’ll be an adult in six Xudian years, Mother, which means the first half of his childhood is already over. I can never get those years back!”

Rage coursed through my veins, but I couldn’t lose control.

“I don’t know what to tell you, son.”

I looked away from her momentarily and sighed deeply as I bowed my head, and then I closed my eyes.

“How about an apology?” I asked as more of my anger came out now while I glared back into her own eyes. “Or how about an explanation as to why you hated Camila?”

“At the time, Vince, I didn’t like her because she didn’t share our culture,” my mother started to say, but I slammed my right hand down onto the table as hard as I could.

“That’s bullshit! You may have once told me you didn’t want me marrying anyone who wasn’t Italian, but you didn’t seem to have a problem with me marrying Ana, who you know is completely Greek, and you hated Cami long before either of us knew she was Xudian! So tell me, Mother, why did you hate Cami so much? Why?”

“If you want to know the truth that bad, it’s because she was a lovesick distraction for you,” my mother explained. “I thought she would be a gold digger and only be interested in you for your money and fame.”

Immediately, I backed away from the table, scoffed in disgust, and turned around, as I couldn’t look at her right now.

“You were fifteen when you met her on that beach in North Carolina. I honestly thought she was a bad influence on you. It was because of her that you bucked my authority as often as you did when you were a teenager.”

“That’s a lie!” I exclaimed with my voice raising automatically as I whipped my body around and extended my left arm out, pointing my left index finger at her. “You can’t blame my rebellion against her! All my acting out was on me! Since I was five, I was a stubborn little shithead because you forced me into a life of stardom when all I wanted was to be an average kid with normal interests. That’s why I bucked against your authority as often as I did! It just so happened that Cami and I met up every time I was giving you trouble!”

I knew my mother was shocked to see this side of me. I wasn’t typically a yeller. I inhaled deeply as I could felt sorrow wash over me.

“She was the one who reasoned with me,” I explained tearfully. 

My voice broke up on me now. I tried to keep my tears at bay. I had to break eye contact with my mother to focus on this new task, but I failed miserably.

“She played that … that stupid ‘you only have one mother’ card with me … every time I was angry with you and walked away from you. She’s the reason our fights stopped lasting as long as they used to.”

Before I met Camila, fights with my mother would last about a week. I was a stubborn little asshole growing up, but Camila turned me around. She helped shape me into the person I am today.

“Oh, sweetie,” my mother said as she now stood up from the kitchen table.

She tried to approach me, but I couldn’t let her, not while I was so upset like this. So I signaled with my already extended left hand and shook my head.

“Don’t,” I said as I now looked back into my mother’s eyes with a gaze of disappointment. “She almost listened to you, you know. She respected you too much when you didn’t even deserve it, and Camila almost took your money and listened to you. Ana, though … She’s a Godsend, Mother. Ana saved Luca’s life by reaching out to Cami. Then Cami later met that … that stupid, psychotic cowboy who turned abusive on her and our son.”

My mother’s breath was caught in her throat, I knew, because of the way she gasped in horror.

“Oh, honey,” she said as her own voice now broke up on her.

She continued to approach me.

“And now she’s … she’s gone …”

I couldn’t hold myself together anymore. I was exhausted from carrying all the rage inside, and I had no energy left in me to fight my mother. My head bowed in sorrow, and my eyes closed as I gave up trying to hold my composure, and then I felt my mother’s arms engulf me into her comforting embrace. She now wept right with me.

“Oh, sweetie, I’m so sorry,” she apologized as she sobbed right along with me. “I never meant for any of this to happen. All I wanted for you was the best and for you to be happy. I see now that I’ve misjudged Camila and your love for her in so many ways. Please forgive me, Giovanni.”

All I could do was hold her.

Chapter 25

Precious Moments Followed by a New Twisted Truth




Idecided it was best to approach the heavy topic of my genetic origins later. I also planned to get to the bottom of the subject of Gino since the king was desperate for me to let my parents know he found him. However, I thought it was best to save that topic for last. I allowed my mother’s embrace to bring me comfort until I pulled myself together again. By that point, Luca was already in the entryway to the kitchen.

“Abbo?”

My mother and I both turned to him in response, and then my father stood behind Luca.

“Hey, kiddo. Would you like to come in and meet your nonna?” I asked him.

He nodded his head silently as he approached us. Then he bowed to my mother before he spoke up.

“È un piacere incontrarti, signora. Mi chiamo Luca.”

“He speaks Italian?” my mother asked as she looked at me with a massive smile on her face.

“He’s fluent in American Sign Language, English, Italian, and five other languages.”

My mother then turned to Luca, but her smile still got bigger.

“That’s very impressive!” she exclaimed. “If I may ask, what other languages are you fluent in?”

“Croatian, Greek, Russian, Spanish, and of course Xudian. I’m currently learning Hungarian and Slovenian in my studies.”

“My, my!” my mother exclaimed. “Aren’t you a studious little fellow?”

It was plain to see that my mother enjoyed this conversation with Luca, and she genuinely seemed delighted. I could hardly believe what I saw before my very own eyes.

“Oh, yes, very much. I love to learn. Besides, for one to succeed well in life and be prosperous in all they do, they must be educated.”

“You are quite right, young man. But, you know, you look very much like your father when he was your age. Would you like to see some pictures?”

“That would be awesome! I’ve never seen pictures of Abbo before he was fifteen.”

My mother got up from the table and then touched him on his left shoulder.

“Then why don’t you follow me into the living room? I’ve got some photo albums I think you’ll want to see.”

Luca was eager to go with my mother into the living room. He watched as she left the kitchen and exchanged smiles with me briefly before his eyes fell on the kitchen table. I looked to where he had his eyes and then realized he saw my mother’s medications. The smile on his face disappeared. Before he could say anything, though, I spoke up.

“It’s alright, Luca,” I calmly told him while I gestured towards the living room with my head. “Go spend some time with your nonna.”

Luca said nothing but smiled briefly before he turned on his heels and went after his grandmother. Then my father approached me.

“Luca is a brilliant young boy.”

“I know. He’s so different from Eli and Kris.”

“That will be a good thing. Eli and Kris have some learning to do. I don’t foresee any troubles with Kris, but Eli …”

I knew exactly where my father was going with this conversation.

“I know,” I answered as he now took my mother’s place at the table. “Up until now, we’ve placated him by spoiling him with everything he’s ever wanted. Things will have to change in this family, though, whether he likes it or not. I’m just concerned he’s not going to accept Luca, and I am not in a mood to deal with a jealous, rebellious streak. I don’t have the time or the energy for it.”

“I don’t think you’ll have to worry about that because I think Luca will be an excellent role model for both Kris and Eli, and I also think he’ll have complete influence over the little one that Ana is still pregnant with. Do you know the gender yet?”

I had a feeling he’d bring that up.

“Ana does, but I don’t. She wanted to wait to tell me until she brought the boys home from Greece and after we introduced them to Luca. Luca thinks the baby will be a girl, though. I’m petrified she’s going to lose this one after we’ve already lost so many. Once we’re back in Moscjen, though, I don’t want her flying again until after the baby’s born.”

My father nodded in understanding.

“What are you going to do about the album tour?”

“José’s helping me with canceling the tour and getting tickets refunded. I also asked him to help us put the house on the market. Ana and I are hoping for a quick sell.”

I knew this news stunned my father.

“What’s all the rush for?” he asked.

“The king is dying,” I answered softly. 

My father saw the fresh tears in my eyes, and then he nodded.

“Your mother won’t be happy about this, but I understand why you have to do what you need to do. You have a right to get to know him

Neither of us could say anything further at this point, though I had to admit that I was glad he wasn’t fighting me on this subject. Perhaps he’ll be the buffer in the following argument I know I’ll have with my mother about the king and my actual relationship with him. 


***


Later we joined Luca and my mother in the living room, and I watched as my parents shared stories of me growing up. Luca soaked up every moment with them, and my parents also enjoyed this precious time with Luca as he sat on the sofa between them. I had a feeling my father kept himself in the loop with all the gossip and news going around, but he already knew about the king and the fact that he was my natural father long before I became an adult. They knew each other when they were young, so if they didn’t already know my mother was pregnant with me, then it would’ve been entirely too evident from my early childhood days. I also sensed that my father knew I wasn’t moving to Xudia just to be by the king’s side and get to know him, but to be there for Luca as he grew and matured into the king Xudia needed him to be. 

He was a very observant man and quite intuitive, and he also knew me very well. So he’d probably already known all this before I ever returned home. Finally, after about an hour or so, my father decided it was time to make lunch, but he brought my mother her medication first. Luca watched as she took it, and I saw how his face changed. It went from pure joy to a subtle but sad expression that showed a complete understanding of why she took these pills.

“Are you dying?” he asked as my mother just about finished taking her pills, though she choked on a swig of water as she swallowed the last of her medicine.

“Luca,” I warned.

Luca’s eyes met mine in response.

“Mommy’s gone, Rheya’s gone, and the king is dying. I don’t want to lose anyone else, not anytime soon.”

“I promise, Luca, I am not dying,” my mother tried to assure him as she grabbed his attention again when she placed her left arm around his shoulders.

My father then took the medications from her, but Luca’s eyes followed the exchange.

“May I see your prescription bottles?” Luca inquired.

“Basta!” I exclaimed sternly in Italian before switching back to English again. “That’s enough.”

“Oh, for Heaven’s sake, Giovanni. Relax. How much can a child know so much about medications?” my mother replied as she handed him her prescription bottles.

My mother had no idea how intelligent Luca really was.

“I wanted to become an Oncologist at one point, so I have read up on all the latest treatments in the field, and I have read a lot of material in the matter. I also have an idyllic memory,” Luca explained as he studied the labels on the bottles in his hands, but then he immediately stood up from his seat beside her in shock. “Wait a minute. They have you taking Olanzalo-Malodrofusemab?”

The way Luca reacted to the one medication in his hand alarmed me, but it didn’t seem to faze my parents in the slightest bit, though my mother certainly looked impressed about something.

“The fact that you can correctly pronounce the ridiculously long name of that medication on your first try is quite impressive, but yes,” said my mother.

“This medication causes blood clots,” Luca explained as he turned to me with tears in his eyes. “The king is on it too, but it killed Rheya.”

“I am aware that it causes blood clots. Every drug out there has its own negative side effects. It’s why I’ve mainly lived life through alternative and homeopathic medicine, but when it comes to my life, truly, I promise you I’m going to fight anything that threatens it, and I will fight those threats with every fiber of my being.” I watched as my mother tenderly grabbed Luca and turned him around to face her. “I am the fiercest and feistiest person you will ever know, and I won’t lose this fight because I have too many people to live for, including you.”

Hearing those words pass my mother’s lips brought tears to my eyes and, even though I couldn’t see his eyes with his back facing me, I knew her words warmed Luca’s heart too. I kept my composure, though, and held back my tears.

“You really mean that?” he asked in a soft voice as he handed back her prescription bottles.

“Yes, I do,” my mother answered. “I’m so sorry about my awful behavior towards your mother. I was wrong, and I had no right to treat her the way I did, and I deeply regret all the actions I’ve taken towards the two of you. I should’ve never forced her in the position I put her in.”

Luca was quiet for a few moments. I knew he thought about her words. I had a feeling Luca would forgive her. It was easy to see in my mother’s face that she was desperate to be forgiven. I don’t know if it was because of her diagnosis, or because of the conversation I’ve had with her in the kitchen, or if it was even because of a combination of the two, but I saw something change in my mother today.

“It’s alright,” Luca replied in a tender tone. “I forgive you … Nonna.”

His words instantly brought tears to her eyes. Her arms moved towards him like she wanted to hug him, but she was hesitant, though I knew her eyes remained locked with his. 

“Would it be alright if I hugged you?” she asked.

“You don’t have to ask,” Luca answered as he now wrapped his arms around his grandmother’s neck.

This moment caught my emotions off guard. This scene before me brought tears to my eyes as I felt my face simultaneously grow hot. Both Luca and my parents knew what it meant for me to see this today. My son turned his attention toward me, and he was the first to approach. He had tears in his eyes too.

“Abbo?”

“Where . . . do you get your ability to forgive?” I asked him in a quiet tone. “I know it certainly doesn’t come from me, and I know your mother struggled with it.”

Seriously. He forgave my mother just like that. He only met her just today, and he already forgave her. If Camila couldn’t forgive my mother, and I was now struggling to do so, how could Luca do so as easily as he just did? It was like second nature to him.

“Do you really want to know, Abbo?” he asked, but that only got a nod from me, and then he smiled the warmest smile I ever saw on him. “I got it from Jesus.”

Well, of course. Faith was much closer to his heart than I had previously realized. The smile on his face warmed my heart. Then he backed away and stood at the center of the room. He stood with a confident, regal stance.

“Shall we now address the elephant in the room?” he asked as he looked back and forth between my parents and me. “Our return to Xudia? Together as a family?”

My parents exchanged looks, and though my father shrugged, my mother only glared back at him, though she remained silent for a few moments before she turned to Luca.

“I am honored to be invited,” she said tentatively. I saw in her facial expression that she was choosing her words very carefully. “But given the long, dark, painful, and violent history between Italians and Xudians, I do not think it would be in your best interest to –”

Luca was quick to interrupt her.

“With all due respect, I feel I must stop you there. I want you both to know that you will be honored guests, and you will be treated with the utmost respect because you are family to both the King Regent and the heir to the Xudian throne.”

“King Regent?” my mother asked with confusion now painted all over her face.

I had to step in now and explain.

“That would be me. But, Unfortunately, King Chaudhry is dying, and Luca’s too young to begin his reign, so the king is going to publicly claim me as his son when we return to Xudia, and once I’m legitimized, he’s going to pass the crown to me. So this will be the last time we’ll be in the states for a while, maybe even forever.”

The newest expression on my mother’s face made it painfully obvious that she was angry. It surprised me to see how she kept her cool. She closed her eyes for a fewmoments before she then turned to Luca.

“With all due respect, Luca, you do not want to put me in the same room with your dying king because what I would do and say to him would have me arrested, and I do not feel like spending the rest of my life in prison. I appreciate your invitation, but I will have to decline the offer. Now, when the time comes that you should be crowned king, I would be honored to join you in Xudia then because I can see you are a brilliant young man, and I see nothing but great things for you. Where your king remains alive, however, is where I simply cannot be. I pray you will understand when I say that it has absolutely nothing to do with you or your mother.”

Luca and I were both stunned by her response. I’m glad that she was at least civil and honest with Luca. She sighed deeply as she now stood up.

“Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m beginning not to feel well.” Then she briefly placed her hand on Luca’s face and smiled tenderly toward him. “I want to thank you for coming here to meet me. That and your forgiveness is more than I ever deserve, but it means a lot to me, and it tells me what an amazing young man you’re growing up to be. Your mother raised you well.”

My mother walked towards the stairs, but I went after her. She already ascended the first few steps when I called out to her.

“Ma! We need to talk about King Chaudhry and why I look like him.”

My mother partially turned toward me, but when she did, all I saw in her face was rage.

“If you speak his name again one more time, then I will never speak to you again! I want nothing to do with that vile, repulsive bastard!”

Holy hell. Where did that come from?

“Okay, fine,” I answered softly. “But I know the truth behind why I look identical to him.”

My mother was frozen for a moment before my statement truly registered in her mind.

“Is that so?” she began in curiosity as the fire in her tone returned, though tears followed too. “Then you know why I don’t want anything to do with that monster. I mean it, Giovanni. The only thing good that came out of that nightmare he brought upon me was you.”

Wait, what? Before I could fully register what she said, my mother was already up the stairs. There was no way I was letting her off the hook after that statement. I exchanged expressions with my father, and he nodded in approval as he gestured for me to go after her, so I did. What kind of twisted truth was I dealing with now?

Chapter 26

Double-Edged Sword




When I followed my mother to her room, I saw she was already at one of her windows with her back to me. I knew this was her way of trying to keep her emotions in check as I did back at the palace in Moscjen.

“I have tried so hard to protect you from the truth,” she began. I knew she heard me, but I think she also knew I’d follow her. I listened to the tears and pain in her voice.

“But you’re not a child anymore. You’re all grown up now with your own family. So I knew it was only a matter of time before you found out.”

I approached my mother. Through her reflection in the window, I saw the first of her tears roll down her cheeks. I sensed a great deal of agony in her and knew she needed comfort, so I placed a hand on her shoulder.

“I can’t stop you from getting to know him, but you should know that he is not the man he says he is. He betrayed my trust by violating my body, and he betrayed my heart by casting me aside to become the King of Xudia. I will never forgive him for what he did.”

This brought tears to my own eyes. I didn’t want to know that I was the product of a rape, but now I understood my mother’s hatred toward the king. To see her like this and know what he did to her shattered my heart to pieces, and now I wanted absolutely nothing to do with him.

“Do you regret having me?” I asked quietly.

“No,” she answered without missing a beat as she placed her hand over mine. “I admit I was angry when I found out I was pregnant, but I already gave one child up for adoption. I couldn’t bear to lose another.”

Wait, what?

“Wait,” I said in shock at this news of her having a second child, which I never knew before now.

“Yes,” she answered as she turned around to face me. “Your father and I, we had a child together, but we were sixteen years old, and our parents wouldn’t allow us to raise him, so we had to give him up for adoption. You have a half-brother out there, Giovanni, a brother who’s four years older than you. We wanted to name him Gino, but the new parents were instructed to give him a different name so that we couldn’t find him.”

Holy shit! Gino was my brother? What the hell?

“Your father … the man downstairs … he knew you weren’t his, but he still wanted to claim you as his son, and the only way we could do that, and get away from our parents, was to move to America. We were both twenty and so young, but … we knew what we wanted, and we wanted you.”

All I wanted to do was hug my mother, so I wrapped my arms around her and pulled her close. The nightmare of what the king put her through must have haunted her every day that she raised me. I know we had many arguments with each other while I was growing up, and even sometimes as I was an adult, but despite all those fights, I knew in my heart that she still loved me. To know that she gave birth to me, and moved to America so she could keep me, even though I was the product of a rape, really said something to me about who she was deep down in her core. I gently rested the side of my temple against hers as I kept her in my arms and fully realized just how strong she was.

“I hate the man on the Xudian throne, and I hate him with every fiber of my being, but I could never hate you, Giovanni. You are my life, my blessing, a special gift from God.” It was challenging to keep my emotions in check at this point. I tightened my arms around her but snugly, of course. “I never wanted you to know how you were conceived because I didn’t want you to see me any differently, and I didn’t want you to think you were a burden to me. Most children of rape don’t often fare well. They struggle with that awareness of how they were conceived. We wanted you to know that you are our son, so we made sure you got all the attention you need, and we made sure you knew you were loved.”

I couldn’t help but hold her tighter. All I wanted to do was be as close to her as I could. Unfortunately, the tears wouldn’t hold, either.

“I love you, Ma,” I told her. “I’m so sorry you had to go through all that. I don’t know how you remained so strong, especially since I look just like him. Surely that must be a terrible daily reminder of what happened to you when you saw my face everyd—”

My mother wouldn’t let me finish my statement. She dared me not to as she pulled from my hug and looked me hard in the eyes for a few moments.

“Don’t you dare think that about yourself? You may have that bastard’s good looks, but that’s all you inherited from him. You can be very stubborn at times, which you get from me, but you are also one of the gentlest, kindest souls I know. You may have also rebelled against me a few times when you were a teenager and even in your early twenties, but you’ve grown into a fine young man with a great moral compass that you carry with you at all times. You’re very much like –”

I knew what she wanted to say. She tried to tell me I was quite like my father, the man who raised me. But, I sensed she wasn’t sure how I felt about him at this point.

“Pop?” I asked with a smile. “It’s okay, Ma. My feelings haven’t changed about him. In fact, after knowing all this, my feelings about him are more steadfast. Pop is the one who raised me, not the king. Pop is the one whose name I carry, and his name is the one on my birth certificate, not the king’s. I have never been more proud than right now to be the son of Mr. and Mrs. Palladino.”

It was my mother’s turn to wrap her arms around me as she now cried again, but I knew these were tears of relief, maybe even joy.

“I love you, son.”

It warmed my heart to hear her say that.

“I love you too, Ma, and you know what? I’m not going to accept the title of King Regent. I want as little as possible to do with the king. I still have to deal with him, though, for the sake of my son. While the king married into the crown, Luca’s the son of the late Princess Camila, so Luca is the true and rightful heir to the throne of Xudia. I’ve already lost so many years with him, Ma. I can’t miss anymore, and I won’t. He’s still just a boy, but he’s growing up, and soon he’ll be a man in charge of a whole nation of people.”

My mother looked up at me with fresh tears, but she nodded in understanding.

“He needs you, I know.”

I saw the pain in my mother’s eyes. She didn’t want me leaving, and she didn’t want me taking any of her grandkids either.

“I wish you and Pop would come with us. You’d be a lot closer to your family in Italy that you miss so much too, and you’d get to see all your grandkids all the time. The king hasn’t got long for this world, and the baby will be here before you know it. Luca seems to think she’ll be a girl. You might finally be getting the granddaughter you’ve always wanted.”

My mother smirked at me. She knew I was trying to convince her to fly back with us to Xudia, but I also knew she had reservations, and it wouldn’t be this easy to get her to agree. So she playfully shrugged me away while the smirk remained.

“Nice try, Vince. I may come to visit once I know the king has passed, but I’m not leaving America until then. I quite like my freedom just the way it is. You really don’t want me in the same room as your king, let alone in the same country that he rules. I meant what I said downstairs about what I would say and do to that wicked man because he makes my blood boil with a rage I can’t contain.”

“He’s not my king, but I understand where you’re coming from,” I replied. Suddenly, all the color in my mother’s face drained, and then she sighed in exhaustion. “Are you okay?”

She shook her head no for a moment as she then turned toward her bed.

“I need to lie down for a while,” she answered softly. I guided her towards her right side of the bed and safely climbed onto her bed. “You know what they say. Sometimes the cancer treatment is worse than the disease itself, huh?”

I knew she was trying to lift the mood in the air, but it didn’t work.

“Do you need anything? Perhaps a blanket or something?” I asked, but all I got from her was a no. “Are you sure?”

“I’m sure. I’ll be downstairs in a little while. I’m just going to take a nap for now.”

I sat down on the bed beside her for a few minutes. Something was bugging me. A question, a thought, wouldn’t leave me alone.

“Ma,” I said softly as I momentarily avoided eye contact, though I felt her eyes on me as she responded with ‘hm.’ “There’s something I need to ask you, because if I don’t, then it’s always going to be on the back of my mind.”

“Does it have to do with Camila?” she asked.

“Yes,” I answered as my eyes locked with hers.

“I know where this is going. You think my hatred for her went beyond my concerns with her being a bad influence on you and that she only wanted you for your money.”

My mother sighed but kept her eyes on me. She was silent for a good minute, but then tears filled her eyes.

“The answer is yes, it did. When I found out she was Xudian, she instantly became a reminder of what her king did to me. I hated being in her presence because all I could think about was him and how he betrayed me. I used to love the Xudian culture, and your father and I wanted to work with the king at one point towards uniting our two nations, but ... after the king did what he did, and after he chose Xudia and her queen, I can’t help but hate them all. I know it’s wrong of me because he’s just one man, and I have to live with the fact that my hatred killed Camila.”

Her words were a double-edged sword. They pierced my heart in a way I already anticipated, but as much as I hated the pain, I needed to know the truth. Tears filled my eyes, and my mother mirrored them.

“I’m sorry, Giovanni,” she apologized with a sob that escaped her lips, which made it difficult for me to keep my composure. “I’m so sorry. I know I truly don’t deserve your forgiveness, but I hope you will be able to forgive me.”

I saw the fear in her eyes. She feared dying without ever being forgiven. I knew that holding a Christ-based faith meant I needed to forgive her for what she’s done, but I simply couldn’t. Not right now. Maybe someday, but not today.

“I love you, Ma,” I told her as I kissed her on the forehead to give her some comfort. “And I really appreciate all your transparency with me today, more than you could ever know, but … I need time for all this to sink in. My whole life has changed before my very eyes within a matter of days, almost overnight, really. I just need time to process everything. I know it’s not the answer you seek, but I just need time, and this is the best I can do for now.”

My mother nodded as she wiped her tears. I did the same because I knew they’d fall if I missed them.

“I understand, but now that you know the truth about your conception, you should probably know that I told Ana.” This … what? “I didn’t tell her who the man was and why he did what he did, but she knows the basics.”

I had to think about that one for a minute. When did she tell Ana this? Wait …

“When she found out she was pregnant with Eli?” I inquired.

“Yes,” she answered. “You had already gone off the deep end with your drinking, and she was devastated and terrified. She didn’t know what to do because her parents were in Greece, and she felt alone here, so she came crying to me. I shared enough of my story to show her she wasn’t alone and help her make the right decision. I tell you this because I know you’re going to need to lean on someone you can trust with all this information you just learned, and there’s no better person for you to lean on than your wife.”

She was right. This information needed to stay between those of us that knew. No one else can know, not even José and Luca, let alone a therapist or whatever kind of Counselor deals with this kind of crazy family dysfunction. I wanted to turn back time and take back the absolution I gave the king. Forgiveness, true forgiveness, wasn’t within my capability right now.

“I appreciate your honesty,” I told her as I momentarily placed my hand over hers. “Get some rest, okay? Luca and I are yours and Pop’s for the whole day, so we’ll be here whenever you’re ready to come back downstairs.”

My mother nodded and then turned to get some shuteye. I left the room, closed the door behind me, and stood outside her door as tears of anger threatened to burst. Now I had anger for Xudia’s dying king, and I didn’t know what to do about him. I know I don’t want him to legitimize me as his son. I may be genetically linked to him in a way I can’t possibly deny, but Pop was the only father I wanted to claim.

Chapter 27

Gino and the Radicals




When I headed back downstairs, I heard my father singing in the kitchen. It brought a smile to my face because I loved his singing. He never sang in English, though. My earliest memories were of him always singing to me in Italian. He had an amusing habit of doing that while he cooked and cleaned too. Pop was the one I got my love of singing from. I followed his voice into the kitchen and soon felt the joy in the air, and I let that feeling wash over me. It felt amazing to see the warm and beautiful relationship developing between my father and my son, and I loved how those two hit it off so well.

“Hey, Abbo!” Luca acknowledged with the brightest smile plastered to his face. “Won’t you join us as we make a lunch salad with grilled peaches and burrata?”

Ooh, yes, one of my favorite salads! I loved peaches. They were the perfect summer treat for me. This invite to help make lunch was also just the thing I needed to take my mind off the dark and heavy stuff. We made sure there was enough salad made for my mother to have when she returned from her nap, but we soon enjoyed our meal, and afterward, my father took us downstairs into the basement.

The basement was Pop’s territory, but it also used to be our space as the men of the house. He had a talent for woodwork, and it was his stress relief, as he always said it was the one thing that quieted his soul and redirected all his racing thoughts into one single focus. He built every single piece of furniture in this house, and he also built mine and Ana’s bedroom furniture set, as well as the gazebo that was here out in the backyard. The gazebo was Pop’s best work yet, and it was gorgeous. It was custom-made for my wedding with Ana when they hosted our wedding here.

Pop had a heart for the community and the less fortunate, so he often built things for those in need. He even helped to rebuild the home of a family friend after their house burned down. He also made stuff for others as various forms of gifts ranging from grandfather clocks to hot tubs. I loved how crafty he could get with his talent. My all-time favorite gifts from him were the acoustic guitars he would always make for my birthday every year since I was ten.

We even built a few things together, like the enchantingly beautiful cherry Oakwood grandfather clock in the living room we made for my mother for her 45th birthday. Pop was fun to build stuff with, and I knew that Luca would want to try his hand at woodwork. My father would be thrilled to start a project with him, even if it was something small and something that wouldn’t take up too much time. My father showed Luca around the basement and showed him all the projects he had completed down there. His latest project was a rustic ornate sign in which he’ll carve an inspirational quote of sorts, though he refused to go into detail about what quote he’d be carving on this one, and he refused to tell us who it was for.

It felt like it was only for a few minutes, but time flew by fast. Before we knew it, dinner time approached, and my mother asked us if we wanted pizza. Naturally, my father was first to say he’d get right on it, and Luca wanted to watch him make a pie. So all four of us were in the kitchen. Luca sang with him too, of course, but my mother and I just got caught up in conversation with everything else going on.

I didn’t know when would be a good time to bring up the fact that the king wanted me to tell them he found Gino. I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that after all these years, I’ve had a brother somewhere out there in this world, an older brother I never knew existed until today. I studied my parents in their actions, and my father made pizza while he sang as if he didn’t have a care in the world. My mother talked to me about what they’ve been up to while I was doing my album tour. I was caught between a rock and a hard place in the matter of Gino. My mother didn’t need to be reminded of what the king did to her any more than she’d already been reminded of, but she also had a right to know who her son was.

My mother didn’t want anything to do with Xudia or its king, and I couldn’t blame her for feeling that way, but would she change her mind if she knew the king had information she needed to find Gino? I knew my father would return to Xudia with me in a heartbeat, but only if my mother wasn’t as sick as she was. He loved her too much to leave her side in a time like this. Because Ana, Luca, and Marija didn’t know who Gino was, it was easy to figure out that the king kept this as a closely guarded secret, but for what reason? At the very least, I’ll wait until dinner is over before surprising my parents with the news of Gino, but I didn’t want to keep this news to myself for too much longer.

“Are you alright, Vince?” my mother inquired with a concerned expression on her face, which brought me back to the present. “You’ve grown very quiet.”

“Sorry, Ma,” I apologized. “I’ve just got a lot on my mind.”

“Care to share, or does it concern what we discussed upstairs?”

My lips curled into a small smile.

“It can wait ‘til after dinner,” I told her. “And, no, it’s a new and unrelated matter.”

“Does it have anything to do with the regency?” Luca asked me as he turned his attention in my direction for a few moments.

“No, but you know what? I’ve made my decision on that matter. I won’t be accepting it.”

This totally threw Luca off.

“What?” Both my parents were surprised by this outburst, but I had a feeling it was coming. “Why?”

My mother exchanged looks with me for a moment before I locked my eyes with Luca’s.

“Xudia needs a regent who knows her customs and her language, neither of which I know much about. I’ve also never been politically savvy, so I would be a terrible choice as a leader of a nation who-”

Luca interrupted my statement as he stepped forward in anger.

“You cannot decline the offer for regency, Abbo!” Tears had filled his eyes now, and though they threatened to fall, his anger held them back. “If you decline the regency, then Xir Charles will become regent, and I can’t have him sitting on my throne because he and the entire Italian-hating Council would seek to remove me from the throne before I reach my coronation. They do not want me as king because they really hate the fact that I’m Italian and carry an Italian name. You may not see much of their distaste, as they have to fake their respect to us in Xudia’s court, but you forget, Abbo, I have access to all the secret passageways in the palace that most people don’t even know exist, not even Xir Charles. I’ve seen and heard things I shouldn’t know, so I need you to trust me when I say Xir Charles has a plan in place for himself to become a more permanent ruler if he is successful in legally taking my throne before I turn sixteen.”

My mother and I were silent for a few moments, as we didn’t know what to say.

“What have you heard?” she questioned as curiosity got the best of her.

“Let’s just say if they had it their way, they’d be willing to get their hands dirty enough to start a Civil War within our borders to remove me and any other Palladino heirs from the throne.” Luca then turned toward me. “You do want to see the monster apprehended and punished for his crimes, don’t you?”

I knew he referred to his stepfather, but my mother seemed confused.

“Of course! What he did to your mother was inexcusable,” I answered.

“Well, then if you don’t accept the regency, you can kiss our Xudian border protection goodbye because the radicals don’t care about the monster. They’re glad that Mommy’s out of the picture because it’s one less obstacle they have to worry about. If you don’t accept the regency, it will be difficult to protect our family and me, and it will be next to impossible to have the monster arrested within our Xudian borders and then tried and hung for his crimes.”

I breathed deeply as I knew he was right. The expression on my mother’s face told me she knew it too.

“You know, I hate to say it, but the kid makes a fair and valid point.”

I tried to relax back into my chair with my right elbow on the table, though I couldn’t help but bring my hand up to my face as I felt conflicted about what to do. I knew becoming king meant something to Luca, a whole lot, because I saw in his eyes that he wanted to make a difference in the world, and his people listened to him. Could declining the regency set off a Civil War? Would the radicals really make an attempt on my life and the lives of my family? What the hell do I do?

“So you mean to tell me that Xir Charles Oswad doesn’t just hold a prejudice against Italians, but he’s also … a radical?” I asked.

Why did I have such a hard time believing this?

“That’s exactly what I’m trying to tell you, Abbo. I couldn’t say it around my security, or on the plane, or back home in Xudia. No place was safe. This is part of why I wanted to return here with you because at least I can warn you of what you’ll be stepping into when we do make our final trip back. I need you to help me secure the Dynasty of the House of Palladino.”

Another sigh escaped my lips. This kid wasn’t going to leave me alone on this. I knew what I had to do. It was hard to believe the words that came out of his mouth, but I had to do something, at least for now. I removed my hand from my face and pointed in his direction.

“I’ll think about it, but you better tell me everything you know. If I’m going to say yes, and become your regent, I’ll need to know everything. I can’t make any guarantees that my final decision will be a yes, but I will guarantee you that whatever my decision, it’s what I feel will be in everyone’s best interests, and I’ll need you to respect that.”

It blew my mind to think that Xir Charles was a radical. If the Council was also a group of such men, I was in for a turbulent time in Xudia. Xir Charles was highly protective of the king, though. Perhaps that was a mask, a front to hide his true colors? If that was the case, then he was in for a rude awakening.

Chapter 28

The Other Sons




Once dinner was over and everyone was full, I figured now was the best time to bring up Gino.

“That pizza was very delicious!” Luca commended.

My father chuckled, and my mother smiled.

“I’m glad you enjoyed that,” Pop replied as he turned his attention toward me. “How about you, Son?”

“Yes, it was delicious,” I said with an effort to sound reassuring.

My mother saw right through it, of course.

“What’s wrong, Vince?” she wondered.

I guess there was no other way to say it.

“The king,” I began as I avoided eye contact for a few moments. “He wants you both to return to Xudia.”

My mother scoffed and threw her hands up as she sighed in exasperation.

“We’re back to this again,” she muttered as her eyes narrowed in my direction, which now demanded my attention.

“The king begged me for your return, said he wanted to apologize. I didn’t know what for at the time, but he was begging for absolution about something. He says he found Gino, and I believe he wants to reunite the three of you. I believe this because the name didn’t ring any bells for Luca, Camila’s parents, or even Ana, which means the king has kept the information about Gino confidential.”

The room then filled with a deafening silence. Rage washed over my mother’s face now. My father had tears in his eyes, though he was stunned and couldn’t move a muscle.

“You need to leave,” she warned in a quiet tone as she closed her eyes and pressed her lips together.

I had a feeling she didn’t want Luca to see her explode, so I nodded in acknowledgment as I stood up, and then I looked to my son.

“Shall we get going, kiddo?” I asked.

“I don’t want to,” he answered with his bottom lip jutting out. “I love being here, but I understand it’s getting late, so I guess I’m ready to leave whenever you are.”

I approached my mother and pressed my lips to her forehead.

“Ana will be home with the boys by the end of the week, so I’ll give you a few days to think this over, but then I’ll be back. I love you, Ma.”

She grumbled with a dismissive wave of her hand but said nothing, and before I knew it, the week flew by. Most of it was spent running errands, but Luca always tagged along. 


***


I grew nervous when the big day came, and my wife and our sons had landed at the airport. At the last minute, my mother showed up at the house and told me they’d return with us to Xudia, though she had some conditions she wanted to discuss. I agreed to hear her out when I returned with Ana and the boys, and she agreed to watch Luca and spend some time with him while I’d be out for a bit.

For a moment there, when I first saw my wife and boys at the airport, life felt just like the way it used to until I saw Eli’s face. His eyebrows lowered with squinting eyes, and his jaw clenched. Ana’s expression when she saw me was of relief. Kris charged at me when he saw me, though. That beautiful sparkle in his eyes brought a smile to my own, and I couldn’t help but bring myself down to his level when he ran into my arms.

“Daddy!” he beamed as he nearly knocked me off my balance.

“Hey, kiddo,” I replied as I wrapped my arms around him.

It felt good to have my youngest son in my arms again finally. I almost forgot how small and fragile he was for his age, so I made sure my hug wasn’t too strong, 

“Did you have a good time in Greece with Yaiyai and Pappoús?”

Yaiyai was Ana’s mother’s nickname from the boys, and the name Pappoús was for her father. She called them Mamá and Bampás, though, and I did too.

“Yes, but I missed you too much. You have to come next time, okay, Daddy?” Kris smelled faintly of the baby shampoo that we used for his super sensitive skin, but it was such a comforting scent, which evoked strong memories of him as the tiniest baby I’ve ever rocked in my gentle, loving arms. “Yaiyai and Pappoús miss you too!”

I don’t know why, but his presence and his voice overwhelmed me in an incredible swiftness that left me speechless. I closed my eyes as a means to keep the tears from coming, and I couldn’t help but hold him tighter. It was as if I needed him to be closer, but this was as physically close as I could get to him without hurting him or squeezing the life out of him. He was six years old, but he was pretty small for his age. He was only forty pounds and stood at forty-two inches.

Kris missed the mark on every single one of his early childhood developmental milestones, but he was also born only at twenty-three weeks old. They didn’t know if he’d survive outside the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit because he came with a lot of health problems that required medical care around the clock, so he spent the first six months of his life in the hospital. He was our little fighter, though. Then they told us he’d probably have severe medical problems we’d need to watch for as he got older, but so far, he’s only been diagnosed with Asthma and severe breathing problems around pet dander. 

To Ana, Kris was a gift from God, which was why she wanted to give him the first name of Matthew. It meant ‘gift of Yahweh,’ though Kris didn’t like his first name and insisted on being called by his middle name instead. We didn’t care because, as far as we were concerned, we were just so happy to have him here with us, and we were even blessed to see him as healthy as he was. I’d actually taken a sabbatical from both my careers for the first three years of his life.

I couldn’t sleep without knowing he was alright. I couldn’t eat unless I knew his stomach was full. I couldn’t focus on anything but him if I stepped away from him for any length of time. I needed him to be happy, healthy, and safe, or I couldn’t function as a normal adult. Like my other two boys, Kris had a special place in my heart, and I loved him with every fiber of my being.

I kissed my son on top of his head and then looked up to find Ana and Eli had finally approached. Ana had a smile now, which I mirrored, but Eli’s expression remained the same. I reached out for him, but he just ignored my arm. Eli was usually enthusiastic to see me after we were apart for a while, but not this time. Something was wrong, and I couldn’t figure out what it was.

“Hey, kiddo!” I greeted as I stood up again. “Did you have a good time in Greece with your grandma and grandpa?”

“I’d rather not talk about it,” he replied with a monotone. “So, can we please just go home now?”

“We sure can but not before I get my hug,” I told him as I attempted to pull him into my arms.

He wasn’t having it, though. He resisted by pulling his arms away while simultaneously stepping out of my reach. Next came a look on his face I’d never seen before. He acted like he wanted nothing to do with me. Did I do something wrong?

“We’re going to talk when we get home, young man,” Ana forewarned with a glare she sent his way before she turned to me and wrapped her arms around me. “Oh, honey, I know we’ve only been apart for a few days, but I’ve missed you like crazy.”

“And you have no idea how much I’ve missed you,” I said as I greeted her with a kiss. “By the way, my mother’s waiting for us at home.”

Ana stepped back for a moment in shock.

“Wait, what? Seriously?” I nodded. “So, things went well?”

I didn’t know how to answer that.

“Wait, Nonna’s at the house?” Kris wondered with a gasp that followed. “Then can we please go home now? Pretty please? With whipped cream and sprinkles and a cherry on top?”

Ana and I couldn’t help but laugh at the sudden impatience in Kris’s voice.

“Of course, kiddo. Why don’t you get in the car while I put the bags in the trunk?”

Kris left his suitcase at his feet as he now hopped toward the car a few feet and then got in. Eli followed suit, though he didn’t hop. I grabbed both of their suitcases and wheeled them to the trunk as I opened it. I used my peripheral vision to confirm that both boys got inside the car and closed their doors. I put their suitcases in the trunk, and Ana stood by my side with her suitcase.

“What the hell was that all about with Eli?” I asked in as low a voice as possible when I met her gaze, though I proceeded to lift her suitcase and place it in the trunk as well.

“He’s um … been asking questions about why he’s got blond hair and gray eyes when everyone on both sides of our families are brown-eyed with medium to dark brown hair. I didn’t know what to say to him at first, so I talked to my mother about it in private, but he … well, let’s just say he’s heard some things he shouldn’t have, and he’s put two and two together.” So … in other words … “He knows the truth, Vince.”

Son of a bitch.

“Damn,” I whispered as I placed my hand on the trunk door, though I didn’t close it just yet because I didn’t want to give the boys an opportunity to peer over their shoulders and read our lips. “I thought we had at least a few more years before he would question his looks. I’m not ready for this.”

“I know,” Ana whispered. “I’m not ready for that discussion either, but my parents’ next-door neighbor’s grandchildren were in town when we were there, and one of them asked Eli if he was adopted because he looked so different from the rest of us.”

While Ana did give birth to Eli, it was true he looked nothing like either of us. Unlike Ana’s flawless olive-colored skin tone, Eli was quite pale. Also, unlike our brown eyes and dark hair, he had sunny blond hair and vibrant grey eyes. We knew he’d eventually ask the question of why he looked so different from the rest of us, but the truth was we hoped he’d never ask. It was hard to face, and I hated thinking about it, but Eli wasn’t genetically mine, and now I was the only one in the world who could relate to him in how he felt about the circumstances in which he was born.

“You know what?” I answered as I held her face with both hands in sweet tenderness. “Why don’t you let me handle it? I’ll talk with him when we get home.”

“He’s furious, though. He’s even thrown and broken a couple of things yesterday at my parents’. Are you sure you want to talk to him alone? We probably should talk to him together.”

Hearing about how Eli was as angry as my wife had described him brought tears to my eyes, but I nodded.

“Yes, I’m sure, because I understand exactly how he feels. I think I’m the only one who can relate to him through his perspective on this. In fact, when we get home, I’d like to make arrangements to have José take you all out for ice cream. Then, I’ll talk to Eli alone, for as long as he needs to talk. He needs to be heard, and he needs to feel that he’s being heard, and I don’t think anyone else should be around for that if you know what I mean.”

My wife was quiet for a few moments, though her gaze remained locked with mine. I kept my hands on her face for a few moments longer, though this time, I leaned in and brushed my lips with hers. I knew she trusted me to straighten things out with our son. By the energy she was putting out, I knew what she was thinking. She was thinking about the monster in her own story.

“Everything will be alright,” I told her when I pulled my lips from hers and wrapped my arms around her in comfort. “We’ll get through this, baby. I promise, okay?” I got a nod from Ana, whom I knew was red in the face from the tears that surfaced. I then wiped away those tears before they slipped too far down her face. “I love you.”

“I love you too, Vince.”

We knew it was time to leave, so she walked to the front passenger side. I quickly closed the trunk and then followed her to her door. She usually preferred to get the door herself, though I insisted on getting it for her whenever she was pregnant or if we were on a special date. It’s just what my father taught me growing up, and I intend for my children to be taught this as well. So it was just the right thing to do. After she got in the car and I closed her door, I then walked around the car and got in on my side. Actually, it was an SUV and something else I just realized we’d have to sell. Now wasn’t the time to think about that, though, so I turned the ignition once everyone buckled in, and then we were on our way home.

Chapter 29

A Father's Unconditional Love




My mother greeted us when we returned to the house. I loved how he was always so excited to see her.

“Nonna!”

“Ciao, Piccolo!” she welcomed as she opened her arms up for him.

Eli just went right past, but I called to him before he got too far.

“Hold it, pal. Your mother and I want you and Kris to meet someone special,” I said as I gestured toward the living room where José, Luca, and the two Xudian guards were.

“Screw you. You’re not my father.”

Those words felt like a punch in the gut.

“What the hell did you just say, young man?” my mother yelled as she turned around in an instant and glared over at Eli.

Eli knew not to talk back to her, so he just gave me the same look he gave me earlier at the airport. I looked over at my mother and saw she was fuming. Ana stepped into the house and greeted my mother before I could get a word in. As my wife gestured for a hug from my mother, I motioned for José to approach, and he did. I asked José yesterday if he could babysit for me. At the same time, I picked the rest of my family up at the airport today because I didn’t want to introduce the boys to each other where paparazzi could be lurking, but then my mother showed up after he already arrived today. I’m glad he stayed because now I had another favor to ask him.

“I need to have a private talk with Eli. Can you and Ana take my mother and the kids out for ice cream in a few minutes?”

“Of course.”

“Thanks,” I answered as I turned to Kris and reached for him. “Hey, kiddo. I have someone special I’d like you to meet. Will you come with me for a bit?”

Kris grabbed my hand as he nodded in response, and then I walked him over to the living room where Luca was. As did his guards, he stood up from the sofa, but Luca ushered them with his hands to sit back down. Luca smiled as he now approached. Both boys gazed into each other, and it wasn’t until now that I realized how alike they were to each other. Until now, I mostly saw Kris’s appearance more similar to Ana’s, especially with his skin tone and how he smiled. Putting these two together in the same room opened my eyes.

“Kris, this may come as a shock, but before I married Mommy, I was involved with someone else. She was a princess, a real princess. We had a son, and I didn’t know about him until a few days ago because we couldn’t be together. This boy standing before you, he’s your brother, and his name is Luca.” Then I turned to Luca. “Luca, I’m sorry you’ve had to wait six years to finally meeting your little brother, but-”

“Patience is a virtue, Abbo, and it’s been worth the wait.”

My heart lifted when I heard that. Then, I watched as Luca bowed before his youngest brother.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Kris.”

Kris just smiled, and when Luca returned to his normal stance, Kris pounced on him in total excitement. Luca smiled from ear to ear, and he returned the enthusiasm with a long-overdue brotherly hug. Then Kris jumped up and down in pure delight.

“Mommy’s right; God is so good! I’ve been praying for God to give me another brother! Oh, it’s so nice to meet you, Luca! Please tell me you’re here to stay? Like forever?”

“I’m definitely not going anywhere, and if I do, I’m taking you all with me.”

The joy between these two was enough to fill the air, and it lifted everyone’s mood.

“Why doesn’t everyone come back to the house, and we’ll have a barbeque?” I turned to my mother when I heard her suggestion. “And, José, why don’t you bring the wife and kids?”

“Are you sure, Ma?”

“Oh, yes, I’m positive! The more, the merrier! I don’t know what’s going on with Eli, so you better straighten it out now. Then come join us when you two have everything settled.”

Well, okay, I guess that’s what we’ll do. I waited until everyone left, including Luca’s Xudian guards. They decided to take José’s car and my mother’s since they couldn’t fit in one car. When I heard both cars leave the driveway, I knew it was time to talk with Eli. I went to mine and Ana’s room first and headed straight for the closet. 

I grabbed two boxes, both of which were locked with unique keys. One box had an unloaded handgun, while the other had a collection of paperwork on Eli’s biological father that was given to me by a private investigator I hired once upon a time. I just knew Eli would ask all the big questions, so why not hand all the information over to him now and just get it out of the way? I know, bringing a handgun into the picture would be an unorthodox way of handling this situation. There was a reason for it, though, and now it was time to unlock both boxes. When I had entered Eli’s room, I saw that he was on his bed, lying down with his back to me. Then I heard his voice.

“Go away. I hate you.”

Tears threatened to form, though I held them back. His words had pierced my heart. I knew he was hurting more, though. I approached him and put both boxes on the floor in front of his bedside table.

“You can hate me all you want, Son, but I’m not leaving until we talk this through.”

“You are not my father!” Eli barked as he stood up from the bed and shoved his lamp off the side table. 

He had also knocked over his picture frame of him and my father, but my reflexes helped me to catch it in time before it broke.

“I wish you and Mommy would just stop lying about it!”

“So this is how it’s going to be? You’re just going to start breaking all your shit?” He was seething at my words with his fists clenched by his side. “Go ahead then. Tear your room up.”

He was confused now, and he didn’t know if I was serious. I knew he needed an outlet, so perhaps it was time to let this be a rage room. Everything in this room was replaceable, and very few things were going to go with us to Xudia, anyway. He didn’t answer me, though. Instead, he just sat back down on his bed and folded his arms across his chest with the same scowl on his face he had at the airport.

“I just don’t understand why you’d hide the truth from me and why you’d keep me from knowing my real father.”

How much did he genuinely hear of the conversation Ana had with her mother? He had tears in his eyes at this point, though. I knelt before him, but our eyes remained locked.

“What exactly did you hear when your mother and grandma had their private discussion?”

“Mommy talked, asked her how to tell me who my real biological father was. Then she said something about ‘viástika,’ cried, and-”

“Do you even know what ‘viástika’ means?” I asked him.

I remembered that term when Ana and my mother first told me what happened to her. After that, Ana repeated it several times until she told me what it meant.

“No, but –”

“Well, then how can you be mad about not being told the truth if you don’t even understand what the word ‘viástika’ means? ‘Viástika’ has everything to do with how you came into this world, Eli.”

Now I know I really confused him. I opened up my gun box, and I carefully removed my gun, even though I had no bullets in the box or the gun. Eli needed to see that it was necessary to be handled with care. Then I looked up at him and handed it over. His eyes lifted in horror.

“Take this for a few minutes,” I told him. “It’s okay. You can take it right now. It’s not loaded.”

He took it, and I knew he didn’t like how heavy it was for his tiny hands.

“It’s heavy,” he said.

“Yes, it is,” I replied him. “It’s also called a weapon, and a weapon is used to kill. Imagine a man coming after you from behind at night out of nowhere, and he held this to your head. Next, imagine that man forcing you against a wall, ripping your clothes off, and violating you most evilly, and then imagine being pistol-whipped afterward. Do you know what being pistol-whipped means?”

Eli shook his head no. I knew he didn’t know the whole truth.

“Imagine that same man taking this gun and knocking you unconscious. That’s what it means to be pistol-whipped. ‘Viástika’ is the Greek term for being raped. It’s when someone forces you to touch their genitalia, or they force themselves onto your genitalia, without your permission.”

The anger was gone. Horror and sadness now washed over his face. I reached for the gun, and he immediately handed it right back.

“How can anybody do that to people?” he asked as tears filled his eyes.

“I don’t know, Eli,” I told him as I put my gun back in the box but then met his gaze again. “There are some people in this world who are just so … cruel … but if you really want to know who your biological father is, then everything there is to know about him is inside this box. He was a bad man, a monster. Your mother wasn’t the first one he raped, but she was certainly his last. He died just a few months before you were born.”

“So … I come from rape?”

I knew by his expression that he finally began to understand the story behind his conception.

“I come from a bad man?”

“Yes, you do,” I answered honestly. “But you also come from an amazing woman. She was terrified of how I’d react when she learned she was pregnant with you. Do you want to know what I told her, how I reacted?”

His only answer was a nod. I stood up from the floor and now sat down on the bed beside him.

“I told her that no matter what, you’re my son. I went with her to every doctor’s visit. I was even there in the hospital room where you were born. I was the one who held you first. I was the one who kissed you first.”

The first of Eli’s tears and sobs escaped now. I knew it was coming. I brought him into my arms.

“You also have my last name because I had asked them to put me on your birth certificate as your father. I asked them to do that,” I continued, but this time I choked on my own cry. “Because I love you, Eli. You’re my son, and you will always be my son. I love you with my whole heart.”

Chapter 30

A Sense of Peace




For a while there, Eli had his arms wrapped around me for comfort. I was glad to know he wasn’t angry with me anymore. It was rare to see him upset like this, as he was generally rough around the edges, and he had a lot of temper tantrums. We’ve had him in behavioral Counseling, but it didn’t seem to help him too much at the time. Perhaps it was time to give it another try once we got to Xudia, now that he was a little older.

“Can I ask you a question?”

“You can ask me anything you want, buddy. I promise I’m here for you, not only right now, but I mean at any time you need to talk or vent or whatever.”

“Is that the same gun that … ?”

I knew what he was trying to ask.

“No,” I told him. “The police confiscated that gun and locked it up as evidence for another crime that he committed. This particular gun is mine. I only brought it out to give you some idea of what happened behind your conception.”

“Why do you have a gun?”

That one threw me off.

“For protection,” I told him. “To keep you all safe in case anyone ever invaded our home.”

Eli thought about that for a few moments before he then changed the subject.

“Do I have any other brothers and sisters?”

“Do you mean through your biological father?” He nodded. “No, but you know what? You do have another brother through me. He’s two years older than you. Do you remember seeing a kid downstairs in the living room a short while ago? The kid with the two mysterious adults in suits?”

“That’s him?”

I nodded in response, though Eli didn’t look too particularly thrilled about it. 

“His name’s Luca, and those men that follow him everywhere are his bodyguards from his country, a country we’re going to be moving to, and when we get there, you and Kris will get your own bodyguards too.”

“And Mommy?”

“Of course,” I told him.

“Good.” Eli was quiet for a few moments, but then he looked into my eyes again. “So, Nonna went through the same thing as Mommy?”

I nodded as I tried to keep those images out of my head.

“Yes, except there wasn’t a gun in Nonna’s case.”

I had tears in my eyes, and he saw them.

“When did you find out?”

“Believe it or not, I’ve only known my truth for a few days.”

“Really?” Eli asked with surprise. “How are you not so angry?”

Now we’re talking.

“Oh, I’m angry, kiddo. I’m angrier than you could imagine, but I’m not angry that I didn’t know the truth. I mean, I was at first, but when Nonna told me the story of what happened to her and how I came to exist, I wanted to punch a wall, and I wanted to punch the man who hurt her so badly. I still do, honestly. You just can’t see how angry I am because I keep it inside.”

Eli sat back down next to me, though he kept his gaze locked with mine.

“How do you keep it inside? The anger?”

I placed my hand on his chest.

“I keep it down in here. I don’t let it control me. I make sure it knows that I’m in control.”

“I don’t know how to control it,” he started to say as tears formed in his eyes. “I’ve tried counting to ten and focusing on my breathing, like you and Mommy showed me, but sometimes I still want to break stuff.”

His temper tantrums could be destructive at times, and I think he inherited it from his biological father because that man had a record for being violent and abusive.

“The trick is to know when it’s alright to be angry and when it’s okay to express what you’re feeling, so that you can move through whatever is upsetting you, but keep the destructive anger at bay. Tell yourself that it’s okay to be angry, but it’s not okay to break things or hurt people.”

“But I don’t hurt people,” Eli protested.

Ana and I were so thankful for that.

“I know,” I stated as I moved my hand from his chest to his face and brought my other hand up as well. “And I’m proud of you for recognizing that it’s not okay to hurt people. Some people out there are so angry, though, that they do hurt people because anger has a sad way of controlling full-grown adults to the point that they’re violent with others. When the anger inside you wants to break things, that’s when you need to count to ten and focus on your breathing. I know it can be hard and that you’re not perfect. I’ve been known to break stuff through my anger, so I know what a struggle it is, but we need to rise above our anger in whatever way works best for each of us.”

Eli took the picture of him and Pop from my lap, and he studied it for a few moments before he spoke again.

“Doesn’t it hurt to look at your father and see that he’s not … you know?”

Genetically related?

“It does,” I confessed, which made me realize he was hurting over the fact that he wasn’t related to me, which meant he still loved me. “But blood doesn’t always count for whom you call family. It’s who’s there for you that counts. Your grandpa has been there for Nonna and me all my life, even before I was born. They came here to America so they could bring me into this world and keep me. He knew I wasn’t his son, but he claimed me anyways because he wanted me. Your grandpa is a wonderful man. I only hope that someday I can be half the man and father that he is.”

Eli took the picture from me and put it back on his bedside table.

“You are,” he said as he turned to me. “You’re my super-dad. Of course, Nonno’s a super-dad too.”

I couldn’t help the tears in my eyes.

“I’m sorry I broke the lamp, and I’m sorry I’ve been so mean to you today,” he apologized. “I don’t hate you at all. I hope you’ll still want to be my dad.”

I stood up and pulled him into my arms.

“Apology accepted,” I stated as I kissed him on top of his head. “I would move mountains for you, kiddo because you’re number one in my heart.”

I gave Eli an extra squeeze in our hug, and he did the same.

“I love you, Dad.”

My heart melted.

“I love you too, Son.”

“I just have one more question.”

“Shoot.”

There was a pause as he looked away for a few moments, but then he locked eyes again.

“Do I have any other brothers and sisters?”

“Do you mean through your biological father?” He nodded. “No, but you know what? You do have another brother through me. I didn’t know he existed until his mommy passed away while you and Kris and Mommy were in Greece. He’ll be living with us from now on, and he’s only two years older than you, but he’s a very nice kid. Would you like to meet him?”

Eli thought about this for a few minutes. I sensed he was unsure of what to do. He didn’t give me a yes or no either way.

“What happened to his mommy?”

“She died in a car crash that her husband caused. He’s twice as dangerous as your biological father was. He’s on the run, and we need to protect your brother from him, so we’ll be moving with him to where he and the rest of us will be safest.”

Eli didn’t say a word at first. Instead, he only picked up the box that contained all his biological father’s information. He stared down at it for a few minutes before he looked up and handed it over.

“I don’t want this.”

Was he serious right now?

“Are you sure?” He nodded.

“I have everything I need to know, and I’m happy with the family I’ve got.”

I could cry, but I nodded in acknowledgment instead.

“Alright. Let me just go put this stuff away, okay? Will you meet me downstairs?” Eli nodded. “Okay, good, and don’t worry about the lamp. I’ll take care of it later.”

“Okay.”

I watched as Eli left the room, and then I picked up my gun box. I took both lockboxes back to my closet and put them back on the top shelf after I locked them. I was glad to know that Eli wanted nothing to do with the evil man that touched his mother. Then I met up with him downstairs, and we went out to the car. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, so I put on my favorite pair of sunglasses.

“Can I wear those sunglasses?”

I turned in my seat to face Eli and took them off.

“I don’t know …” I told him tentatively but playfully.

“Please? I promise I won’t break them. Those are just the coolest pair of sunglasses you have.”

I know.

“You know, your mommy got these for my birthday the year that you were born. Perhaps you might look better in them, so I’ll make you a deal.”

“Okay, what did you have in mind?”

“You know how you and Kris sometimes like to play wrestle?” He nodded. “Well, I don’t want you or Kris wrestling with Luca. He may look okay on the outside, but he’s got a medical condition where the slightest of injuries could seriously put him in the hospital or worse. So, if you promise me that you’ll respect his boundaries and medical condition, and you promise not to get rough with him in any way, I’ll give you these sunglasses.”

Eli reached his arm out.

“I promise,” he said as I handed him the glasses. “So his name’s Luca?”

He sounded a little more interested this time.

“Yes,” I answered as I checked to ensure his seatbelt was on. “You ready to go to Nonna and Nonno’s?”

“Oh, yeah,” Eli replied as he casually put the sunglasses on and crossed his arms to make himself look cool.

I took out another pair of sunglasses from my overhead sunglasses compartment and put on my alternative pair. Then I started the car, put the garage door down, and left. 


***


When we arrived at my parents’ house, I knew everyone would be outback, so we went straight to the backyard. Pop was at the grill and laughing with José, Luca and Kris were playing hacky sack, and Ana was hanging back with my mother. She was the closest, and she heard me open the gate.

“Hi, honey,” she greeted as she momentarily met my eyes with a smile before Eli approached her.

By the time I closed the gate and approached Ana and my mother, Eli was already apologizing for his attitude. Ana was quick to accept his apology with a hug. Then we watched as Eli went to join his brothers and introduce himself to Luca. Luca’s guards were off on the sidelines, keeping their noses out of family business but keeping their eye on Luca. My mother headed back inside the house to make some salad, which left Ana to me. I came up from behind her, wrapped my arms around her, and rested my chin on her right shoulder.

“I take it things went well?” she asked as she kept her eyes on our kids.

“Well, a lamp got broken, but overall the conversation went better than I expected,” I answered. “By the way, when you were talking with your mother, were you speaking in English or Greek?”

“Greek. Why?”

Well, that explains some of Eli’s confusion from earlier.

“Yeah, he didn’t know the whole truth. He didn’t understand what ‘viástika’ meant, but he knows everything now. He didn’t even ask about the man’s name or ask to see a picture of what he looked like. I gave him the box, but he gave it right back, said he knew all he needed to know and that he’s happy with the family he has. He even called me a super-dad.”

Ana turned her head to look at me, though she placed her hand over mind on her growing belly.

“That’s because you are,” she said. “Oh, honey, I’m so thankful to be home with you right now.”

“Well, home will be changing soon,” I commented as I put my eyes back on our sons playing with each other, though Ana was quick to guide my face to look back into her eyes tenderly.

“Oh, darling. A house is a house, and a palace is a palace. What makes whichever place to call home is you because you are my home, Vince.”

She was glowing, and I couldn’t help but mirror the love and joy that radiated from her. With her hand still on my face, she guided me toward her lips, and I knew what she wanted. I brushed my lips with hers, and I knew what she meant by being home. She was my home too, and I wouldn’t wish for it to be anywhere else but with her because she was everything to me. How did I get so blessed with such an incredible, resilient woman as my wife?

After our brief kiss, Ana turned to look back at our kids now playing with each other in their game of hacky sack. All three boys laughed and seemed to get along. This, too, went much better than I anticipated. I gently ran my hands along my wife’s belly and felt the kicks of our little growing baby. That was my favorite feeling in the world, to feel those lively kicks.

“Feels like someone’s a little excited,” I told Ana in a playful tone. “So, are you going to tell me yet if it’s a boy or girl?”

“Mm … tonight,” she teased.

“Yeah? Tonight?” I asked as I now buried my lips into her neck where I knew she was ticklish, and now she giggled.

She smelled incredible. She usually wore so many different kinds of perfume. In fact, she had a different one for every day of the month, several months, but right now, she wasn’t wearing any. So I was able to get a whiff of the peaches and cream body wash she used on her skin, which was her way of telling me what she was looking forward to, and that she knew me well. She knew by showering with this particular body wash scent that I wouldn’t be able to resist. It was a struggle to keep my hands from going to more intimate places on her body, but we both knew now wasn’t the time, so I just put my chin back on her shoulder and rested my temple against her cheek.

“Yeah,” she replied in a soft tone as her hand found its way back on mine. “Just look at this, Vince. Everything’s so perfect right now. We finally have all the boys together, and they’re getting along. I love it, and I love you.”

She was right. I loved watching the boys playing with each other and getting along as well as they were. Everything was perfect except one person was missing, though I imagined her to be playing hacky sack alongside the boys. Then came along a gentle breeze as she disappeared from my imagination, and somehow I knew she was here with us. I sighed heavily, but with a peace that I have never felt before now.

“I love you too.”

Chapter 31

A Message from Beyond the Grave




We spent a good few hours at my parents’ house. When I saw how well everyone got along, I couldn’t help but remain quiet. There was something there, a finality of sorts. Change was in the air, and I knew that I couldn’t do much about it except go with the flow.

I wasn’t hungry, so I ate the bare minimum that I knew would be acceptable to my mother. I kept a close eye on her and Pop, though. They enjoyed this get-together the most, aside from all the kids who now played a game of soccer. My parents were more energetic than I’d seen them in a while, and it was as if they had a new purpose in life, and I had a feeling it had something to do with the fact that they’d soon be reunited with Gino. I wasn’t looking forward to the reunion between my mother and the king, but I couldn’t wait to be part of her reunion with my brother for the first time since he was born.

I looked over at the guards, who keenly kept their focus on Luca. They reminded me of a president’s secret service detail in how they carried themselves and interacted with us from time to time. The expressions on their faces never seemed to change, always remained the same as serious. They were dark-haired, well built, and only cared about their work for the crown. Luca didn’t trust them like he trusted Marco, and I think it might’ve had something to do with how young Marco was compared to these guys, as well as how Marco interacted with him.

These two guys didn’t care to relax and hang with Luca. They were older than me. Did they care about Luca, though, or did they only care about their jobs as guards? Since Luca didn’t trust them, I had to wonder why, and I wondered if I could trust them too. For the time being, though, they seemed loyal to the crown, at least to the king.

My eyes turned over to Luca, who looked so carefree with his brothers and José’s kids. His laugh echoed in my ears as my mind watched him run around in slow motion with a pure childlike joy that just shined right out of him. This kid’s life was anything but ordinary, and he’s been through hell and back. He deserved to have a few days of normalcy before his life would change forever. His laugh, the way he smiled from ear to ear, and the way he ran around in the grass all reminded me of a time when Camila and I were teenagers, and I used to chase her around on the beach. 

I had a couple of brief years where my parents and I lived down in North Carolina because I got a part in a television show, and it was during that time where I spent a lot of my time off with Camila on our private beach. My mother hated it because she was always afraid I’d become a teenaged father, but I promised her when I was sixteen that I wouldn’t have sex until I was an adult. I also promised her that when I did become an adult, I would be responsible. I was able to hold the promise of not having sex until I turned seventeen when they wrote my character out of the show, and I had to return home to New York. I did keep my promise of being safe about sex, though, and Camila secretly got a prescription for birth control. We didn’t know my part in my television show would end so soon, but we did know about our raging hormones, and it was a struggle for the entire year that we were sixteen. She made sure she was on the pill well before we gave in to our temptations. It wouldn’t be until I found out I was going back to New York that we’d finally made love.


***


“No matter where I am in this world, my heart will forever be here with you,” I told her. “You have my heart for always, baby.”

Camila gazed passionately into my eyes and smiled softly.

“I know,” she said. “I see you in the spotlight, pushing away the girls who are always throwing themselves at you. Never stop carrying my heart with you, Vince Palladino.”

I sat silently and just gazed softly into her eyes.

“I love you, Camila,” I said quietly.

Camila smiled even bigger at me, and she tenderly placed a kiss on my nose.

“I love you too, Vince.” There was a moment of silence as she nuzzled into the crevice of my neck while I watched the sun rising after we made love for the first time. “You know, it’s crazy how we both live such chaotic lives, but you always know how to sneak away from the paparazzi to get some privacy with me. When I’m with you, I feel normal and so completely safe. You quiet the craziness, and time with you always feels like it’s standing still.”

“I know what you mean,” I replied. “My mother drives me crazy sometimes with the success she wants for me, but I just want to be normal. I think I can handle the success as long as I have you. You make me feel like I can be myself like I don’t have to hide who I am and that I can be free to do some normal things – even if it’s only for a little while.”


***


Tears collected in my eyes as I was hit with a wave of feeling like my heart was ripped out of my chest, only to be left with a gaping hole where it used to be. I excused myself quietly and moved as fast as possible into my parents’ house before anyone saw the pain I felt. Once I knew I was alone in the kitchen, I stopped dead in the center and brought my hand up to my eyes. I tried hard to focus on my breathing, but then I heard the screen door open from outside. I knew it would be my wife.

I knew she’d approached, so I tried to wave her off from behind with my free hand as I had my back turned to her. As soon as I put that same hand on my hip, though, I already sensed her presence right behind me. I didn’t want her to see me like this while we were having such a perfect evening. So I tried again to focus only on my breathing. Inhaling at a slow and steady pace helped, but when Camila’s smile flashed in my mind, and her laugh echoed in my ear, I couldn’t help the shaking when I exhaled.

“Giovanni.”

Oh, my God. She sounded just like Camila. I whipped my body around as fast as I could when I heard that, but then I realized I was still alone in the kitchen. What the hell? Was I hearing voices now?

Oh, God, no. Please don’t let me start to hear voices. I can’t go crazy. My life is already crazy enough as it is. Was I about to reach my breaking point?

I paced back and forth as my anxiety got the best of me. I was on the brink of an explosion of emotions, and I didn’t know if I could stop it, but I would try my hardest. I continued pacing back and forth as I focused on the breathing exercises I customarily reserved when I was angry. Still, I knew they could be beneficial in a situation like this - if I could only manage to focus hard enough, that is. Just close your eyes, focus on your breathing, and keep it together. Just then, I heard the screen door creak again. I froze in my steps and waited for the calling of my name. Perhaps I was going crazy.

“Vince?”

Now that was my father. I turned around in time to see he already approached. The expression on his face showed concern.

“What’s wrong?” he inquired as he placed his hands on my shoulders.

“Nothing,” I tried to say as I did my best to keep my composure. “It’s just a, just wave. I see my boys playing, and … I see her smile … and I can hear her laugh.”

He mirrored my tears and nodded in acknowledgment. He even pulled me into his arms without a moment’s notice.

“I’m so sorry to hear about what happened to her.” I heard the sorrow in his tone, and it made me want to grab him as tight as I could, which I did. “I’ve read a lot about her these last few days, and I even got to watch the replay of her royal funeral service. I’ve only met her a few times, but I would’ve liked to have known her better. Her life, the things she did, it was all beautiful, and she was incredible, but she deserved so much more than what she got, and so do you, Son.”

His words were the tipping point for me. I lost it after he broke out in tears. All I could do was hold him as we cried together.


***


I was exhausted by the time I got home with Ana and the boys. It wasn’t difficult to put them all to bed because they were tuckered out from all the fun they had at my parents’. Kris was the easiest because I carried him into the house while he stayed asleep from the car ride, and he didn’t stir when I tucked him into bed. Eli mumbled sleepily, but like a zombie, he walked himself to his bed and passed out. Luca didn’t want to invade either of their spaces, so he insisted on sleeping in the living room.

“Abbo?” he called while I brought a blanket and a couple of extra pillows for him.

“Yeah?” I replied as I sat down beside him on the sofa after he made himself comfortable.

“I had a wonderful day, the best day in what’s felt like a really long time. Life feels normal here, and I feel so completely safe with you. It’s hard to describe, but you quiet the craziness. It even felt like Mommy was there with us today.”

I inhaled sharply when I heard that. It was almost identical to what Camila once told me during that special sunrise on the beach.

“I feel like I can be myself here like I don’t have to hide who I am. I feel free to be normal – even if it’s only for a little while.”

“Did your mommy tell you about my conversation on our first sunrise together on the beach?”

His eyebrows furrowed in confusion.

“Huh?”

That was a no. Thank God. Still, though, it was creepy how he repeated my conversation with his mother about normalcy and feeling safe and all.

“Never mind,” I told him quietly as I rubbed my eyes for a moment before I met his gaze again. “Your abbo here’s just really tired. I’m glad you had a good day, kiddo.”

“Buonanotte, Abbo. I love you.”

“I love you, too. Goodnight, Son.”

I kissed him on the forehead before I then turned off the living room lights and headed upstairs. Ana was ready for bed but on the edge of the bed, trying to give herself a foot massage. Her growing belly was giving her too much trouble, though.

“I’ll do it,” I told her. “Just lie down while I get ready for bed, and I’ll give you a foot massage.”

“You look exhausted, though.”

That’s because I am.

“I am, but you know I always make time for you,” I spoke as I approached and kissed her on the forehead before I gazed so lovingly into her eyes. “So … are we having a boy or girl?”

“Impatient, are we?”

“Hell yeah, I’m impatient. You’ve wanted the tour to be over to tell me in person. Well, the tour’s over, baby,” I joked with her as I playfully nibbled into her neck with my hands at her sides on the bed.

She laughed and contorted her neck to keep me away from her sensitive spot, and I smiled as I looked back into her eyes.

“How about this. I’ll go get ready for bed, and then you can tell me while I’m giving you a foot massage?”

“Sounds like a plan.”

Naturally, I was quick to take care of my teeth, wash my face from the stress of the day, etcetera. Though after washing my face, I couldn’t help but gaze into my own eyes through the mirror. My memory of Camila at the beach flashed before my eyes again. 

“When I’m with you, I feel normal and so completely safe.”

Then I was immediately reminded of the discussion I just had with Luca.

“Life feels normal here, and I feel so completely safe with you.”

Was this a message from beyond the grave? Was this the answer I prayed to God for earlier this week on what to do about ruling Xudia as its King Regent? There had to be a connection between Camila and Luca’s statements. Then I remembered what happened in my parents’ kitchen earlier this evening, where I was sure I heard my name being called by a voice that sounded eerily similar to Camila’s.

“Okay,” I said out loud as I nodded to myself in the mirror. “I’ll do it.”

“You’ll do what, honey?” I heard Ana ask from our bed.

I dried my face off and then left our bathroom but leaned in the doorway as I stared into my beautiful wife’s eyes.

“I will accept the crown as King Regent so that I can help Luca solidify his reign. God help me, but … I just feel like he isn’t safe.”“What do you mean?” she inquired as her eyebrows furrowed in confusion. “He’s completely safe with us.”

There’s that phrase again.

“Is he, though?” I wondered as I approached my wife again. She remained at the edge of the bed, so I got down on both knees before grabbing her left foot. “I mean, yeah, he’s indeed safe with us here in our house. We’re moving to Xudia where Luca’s destined to become king, though, and loyalties in the Xudian court are quite divided.”

“How do you know this?” she asked as I worked on her foot. “Oh, that feels amazing.”

I couldn’t help but smirk at her comment for a few moments. She loved it when I gave her foot massages.

“Luca’s given me some insight into who we can’t trust, and before you ask, I’m just going to say that you don’t have a good poker face, so the less you know, the better.”

“Thank God José’s coming with us then.”

“I know.”

We both grew quiet in our words, but the moans of pleasure that came from my wife meant I was working my magic. I couldn’t help but smile at her as I watched her relax with her eyes closed.

“Hey, babe?” she then said.

“Yeah?”

“Can you go in my suitcase quick, the main compartment? You don’t have to unpack anything until tomorrow, but I got something special for you. You’ll know it when you see it.”

“Right now?”

Ana opened her eyes and nodded. I then headed over to the suitcase she had in front of our closet and laid it down on its backside. After unlocking it, unzipping it, and then opening it, I realized why Ana had me go into her suitcase, to begin with. On top of everything packed was the cutest little onesie I’d ever seen, along with a picture frame that protected a picture that was taken with Camila and Rheya together, which I didn’t even know existed. The onesie was pink, and in the chest area, it had a sparkly gold crown with the words ‘Daddy’s Little Princess.’

I couldn’t move at first. I was awestruck. I was thrilled to learn that we now have a little girl on the way, and I was also sad to see that photograph of Camila and Rheya. The first of my tears filled my eyes as I picked up the onesie, and I couldn’t hold them in, though they fell in silence. I didn’t think I could shed any more tears today, but I guess I was wrong.

“Honey?”

I stood up and turned around to face my wife as I simultaneously held the onesie up.

“It’s a girl?” She had tears in her eyes, too, though she nodded as she smiled widely, and I couldn’t help but approach her. “We’re having a baby girl!”

“I figured out the perfect name for her too,” she said as she pulled my face into her hands.

“Oh, yeah?” I asked as I placed my hands by her sides while I moved in close to her face. “What’re you thinking?”

Chapter 32

Return to the Palace




It was a challenge to maintain my composure, but I allowed myself to fall to my knees. I couldn’t help but bow my head in sorrow as fresh tears threatened to fall. My wife’s hands never left my face, though. I was at a total loss for words.

“Honey?” she called as she lifted my face. She had tears in her eyes too. “Is the name too much?”

I shook my head no in response but still couldn’t speak.

“Just an overwhelming surprise?” she then inquired.

I nodded as I took a deep breath. Then I planted my forehead on my wife’s knees. She ran both her hands through my hair, which never failed to comfort me. I allowed her hands to calm me down just long enough for me to wipe my tears and look back up into her eyes. I’ve got the most incredible wife in the whole world!

“It’s perfect,” I finally spoke with a soft smile. I stood up again, and I resumed my position in front of her on the bed. She returned the smile too. “I love it, and I love you.”

“I love you too, Vince,” she cooed before I planted a kiss on her lips.

We soon got under the covers, though I took off my shirt. Ana took hers off too, which meant she wanted skin-to-skin contact. Once she was all settled under the covers, I snuggled up to her from behind. The warmth of her back against my chest and stomach felt amazing. I supported my head with my right arm and used my free hand to trace her left arm.

“Mm, that feels nice,” she mumbled.

I didn’t say anything at first. Instead, I brought my lips up to her shoulder and lightly kissed her there. She let out a short soft moan, which told me she enjoyed this. I continued tracing my fingers up and down her arm for a few minutes and watched as she adjusted her body accordingly. I loved warming her up to all my touches. It was easy to tantalize her by swirling my fingers around and kissing her all over the body. She didn’t usually take long to warm up, though sometimes she pretended it took longer because she was crazy for the touch. The love and tenderness behind it drove her wild, and I’ll admit, I loved the intimacy too.

“I don’t want to fly anywhere until our baby girl’s born. I mean after we return to Xudia.”

It was evident by the tone in her voice that she was afraid she’d have another miscarriage. I was glad she and I shared the same view on this. I was going to wait to bring it up to her after we arrived in Moscjen.

“Okay, baby,” I whispered as I brought my lips to her shoulder again.

This time, though, I made sure my lips were a half-inch closer to her neck. I loved sneaking my lips inward like this because it always intensified her breathing. However, the scent of her peaches ‘n cream body wash on her skin was hard to resist. So, instead of moving my lips away, I just moved in closer to her neck, little by little. My free hand soon came up to her breasts, and I let my fingers do some trace taunts there.

Her hand now ran through my hair while my lips made their way to the crevice of her neck. Her moans became a little more frequent after my lips reached their destination. She threw in a few gasps in-between to try and keep things quiet, though. When it became too much for her to bear, she turned her head in my direction, and I knew what she wanted. I brushed my lips softly with hers at first, and I kept the pace slow and steady. A single kiss from her alone could make me forget my entire day. It’s been a month since we’ve been able to enjoy some alone time with each other. We both wanted it, and we knew we needed it, so we allowed ourselves this night to make sweet love with one another as the passion flowed.


***


Before we all knew it, we were flying back to Xudia. For some, like José and his family, and Eli and Kris, it would be their first time coming to the country. For others, like my parents and me, a different kind of life experience was waiting for us. But, I sensed that for Luca, it would feel like he was home again. He had a smile plastered to his face for almost the entire flight, at least the parts he was awake for anyway.

I sat with my mother while Pop and Luca sat across from us. It was clear to me that they already grew so close with one another, as they immensely enjoyed each other’s company for the duration of the flight. Across the aisle were my wife and José’s wife, and they talked about random things that women always talked about. Behind them were José’s two youngest kids with Eli and Kris, and they also had a lot of fun with each other. Behind my mother and me were José and Luca’s two guards, and they had their conversations going too. The closer we got to Xudia, though, the more my mother’s anxiety showed through her fidgetiness.

“Ma?” I called in a quiet tone as I turned to her on my left. “Stai bene?”

She met my eyes and smiled.

“Sì,” she answered as she grabbed my hand. 

She didn’t seem fine to me.

“Sei sicuro? You sure?” I asked.

“Sì, sì, sto bene,” she reassured.

I knew the smile on her face all too well right now. Unfortunately, it was a fake one, which told me that she was hiding something. In this case, I had a feeling it had something to do with the king and Gino, but she didn’t want to say anything with Luca’s guards sitting right behind us. My instincts told me to let it go, so I did. In our last private conversation, she told me she and Pop would fly with us to Xudia, but she insisted I be present in all discussions with the king, and I agreed to her terms.

I couldn’t blame her for being as worried as she was, even though I promised her that I wouldn’t leave her and Pop alone with the king. I’m sure she was also nervous about being reunited with Gino as well. I wondered what he looked like, and I wondered if he had a family of his own, and would he even accept us? Even I had a twinge of anxiety about the situation, though I remained calm and collected for my mother’s sake. We’ll all find out soon enough.


***


Once we landed in Xudia, we had three horse-drawn carriages waiting for us. Luca wanted to ride with my parents, and his guards went with him. José and his family had a carriage ride together, and I rode with Ana, Eli, and Kris. Because Luca was the crown prince, his carriage was first in line, and my carriage came second, and José’s carriage was last. Before we left our home for the last time, Ana, Luca, and I all taught the boys how to greet the king in the throne room with the appropriate bows of respect. At first, my mother stated she’d refuse to curtsy in the throne room, but I convinced her to respect the court's rules because he wouldn’t be king for too much longer. Along the ride to the palace in Moscjen, Ana and I taught the boys some more basic etiquette that everyone in Xudia will expect of them. Kris was rather eager for this new chapter of our lives, and he couldn’t wait to meet a real king, but Eli was cautious about this whole thing, though he agreed to behave. I didn’t tell either of them yet that the king was their biological grandfather.

When we all arrived at the palace, Xir Charles came out and met up with Luca. I wondered what they talked about until Ana and I approached. Luca spoke something in Xudian to Xir Charles before the man turned on his heel and headed back into the palace, and then Luca turned to us. Before he spoke, though, I saw Marco coming out to greet us. Then I turned my complete focus on my son.

“His Majesty is currently seeking medical attention, so we’ll be going straight to our quarters for now. They’ll let us know when he’s ready to receive us.” Then he turned to José and Rosa after he acknowledged Marco’s approach. “They’re assigning guards to all of us for our protection. Abbo and I are looking to strengthen the security around here in the coming days and weeks. José, I’d like you to meet Marco, my closest guard with whom I trust my life. Marco, this is José, the man my abbo trusts the most with our lives. I’m certain you two will be working closely with each other going forward.”

Marco smiled and gave a subtle bow towards José, and José also returned his gesture.

“Welcome to Xudia, José. I’m delighted to hear we’ll be working together.”

“Thank you, Marco, and the honor is mine. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

“The pleasure is all mine, sir.”

It was easy to see that José and Marco would get along just fine. It made me feel much better about ensuring my family’s safety until we can clear the Xudian court of our enemies. I also wanted to tighten up security nationwide to ensure Luca’s safety from his stepfather. I had to wait, though, until they formally crowned me as King Regent. I heard my parents whispering amongst themselves in Italian, though they seem freaked out by something, so I approached them.

“Che succede?” I asked, which meant, “What’s up?”

The conversation stopped once they knew they had my attention.

“Who was that, the man who just spoke to Luca?” Pop inquired.

“Oh, that’s Xir Charles Oswad. He’s not the nicest of men, but he’s the king’s right-hand man.”

“Can you introduce us?” my mother asked.

What was with my parents’ sudden interest in Xir Charles?

“Sure, there’ll be plenty of time for that. We should get settled in our rooms first, though,” I answered as I saw Marco now lead the way towards the entrance.

It was hard to leave America because I was born and raised there. When the plane's wheels lifted off the runway back in New York, I knew that I would never be going back. I can’t speak for Ely, Kris, and Rheya once they’re all full-grown adults, but I already decided I’d never leave Luca, and he’ll be a king when he’s good and ready. Perhaps they might be so settled into life here that they too may not leave when it’s time to fly the coop. I looked up at the palace before me, my new home, and I knew I’d have some challenges to face here. 

“Here we go,” I muttered to myself as I now followed everyone inside.

I was ready to take on the challenges, the royal responsibilities, and I was willing to accept this palace and this country as my new beautiful home. I knew that starting this new royal chapter of my life would be worth it because it was all for Camila and Luca. I loved them, and I wanted to honor them, which means I would do anything for them.