Book: Bella Donna
© 2004 MARGRETT DAWSON
South of Naples, Italy. May, 1930.
“We put her in the stable. This way, dottore.”
Enrico spat into the heap of dung by the door and picked up the lantern to light the way, holding it low to shine on the old stones under their feet. The muzzle loader hung from his shoulder, casting a grotesque, hunchbacked shadow. He managed to shuffle fast for a man with a stiff knee, and Marco had to lengthen his stride to keep up.
“Who is she, Enrico?” he said as low as he could. Using the lantern was bad enough. No need to advertise his presence by being overheard.
“God only knows. That’s your job to find out. Just take her off my hands. Wild cat, she is. Bit me, she did.” He waved his free hand to show a grubby bandage.
“What did you do to her?’
“Nothing, signore, nothing at all. We found her on the beach and held her for you.” The old man used the dialect Marco remembered from his youth. Remarkable how easy it was to slip back into the old rhythms.
“Hmm. No one touched her?”
Enrico spat again. “We had to touch her to bring her inside, didn’t we? Maybe the boys took their time holding her. Young men, you know how they are.”
A couple of ducks squawked their displeasure at being disturbed so late at night.
Marco sighed. Holding her. If they hadn’t raped her, it wouldn’t have been because they had any misplaced scruples. Enrico’s sons had a reputation for skewering anything and anyone, whether with their knives or with their cocks.
Enrico handed Marco the lantern and lifted the bar to the stable door with both hands. Marco peered into the gloom, raising the light to send the rays into the far corners.
At first he could see nothing. “Where?”
“Over in the last cow stall, dottore.”
He moved closer and the lantern swung, now illuminating a stall, then sending it into deep shadow. There had been no cows in the barn for more than a year, but the aroma of dung and hay still hung in the air.
He stopped when he saw the woman. “Dear God.”
She rose from the filthy straw, roused by the light and the sound of their approach. Ropes looped to the wooden slats at each side of the stall, holding her arms at the wrists. Another thick tether was wound around a slim waist and disappeared somewhere in the dimness behind her legs. She dropped her head, shielding her eyes from the sudden light. Her black hair hung long and matted around her face. Dried blood smeared her cheek.
She wore a shift that finished at the knee and had once been white. Now it was stained and torn, barely covering her thighs, but it shimmered in the half-light. Satin or silk. The bodice had ripped and one piece fell toward her waist as she moved, baring her breast to a spot just above her nipple. The breast was round and firm, a perfect mound, just the size for a man’s hand. He glimpsed the soft pink of her areola. To his surprise he felt himself respond, a movement between his legs where there had been little sign of life in recent months.
She pushed her hair back from her face and glared at him defiantly, her hands in fists on her hips, seemingly oblivious to her nakedness. “Seen enough? Or do you want to put your filthy paws all over me too?” She spoke in English.
She tossed her head. “Don’t signorina me. Get me out of this godforsaken hole. Do you hear me? Untie me.” She shook the ropes that held her like a cow ready for milking. Her voice sounded hoarse, either from the seawater she’d swallowed or from screaming when Enrico’s sons grabbed her. Probably both.
He took a step closer and she lunged at him. He leapt back, almost dropping the lantern, and answered in her language.
“Take care unless you wish the whole structure to go up in flames.”
“Take care, my arse. Who cares if it burns?” She peered at him in the gloom. “So you speak English. At least that’s something. Who are you? Where am I? And why am I tied up here like a yearling?” She shook her hands again, swishing the ropes through the straw.
She’d lost her shoes somewhere and black mud encased her feet. Blood had trickled down her leg and dried. He hoped to God it was from a wound. He felt a stab of pity.
“They are ignorant men but they believed they were acting in my interests. I am glad they did not hurt you. Do you have a name, signorina?” he asked.
She took in a deep breath and the tatters across her chest moved apart, revealing the deep valley between her breasts. Again that faint stirring below his waist.
“Untie me first,” she said. She lifted both wrists toward him. He saw the tightness of her jaw and the gleam of moisture in her eyes. “Please.”
“Watch her, dottore.” Enrico seized his arm, but he shook him off impatiently.
“Loosen the ropes.”
Enrico muttered below his breath, but moved to do as he was told.
“The wrists first.” Marco had no desire to give the peasant a reason to touch her waist.
Ill-pleased, Enrico seized her arm and cut the tether with a slash of his knife. She quivered when he touched her, but held steady. Only the quick rise and fall of her chest betrayed her dislike. Enrico yanked on the other rope and cut her free. She massaged her wrists where the cable had chafed.
Enrico took hold of the leash tied to her waist and weighed the strands in his calloused hand, as if contemplating whether or not to set her loose.
“Do it. Now.” Marco’s voice carried the authority of countless generations of feudal lords.
Without a word, Enrico wound the rope around his arm and sliced it close to the floor.
He stepped toward Marco, compelling the woman to follow him, leading her like a colt. He held out the cut end of the rope, and Marco took it as if in a dream. The woman stood in front of him, her breast exposed, her thighs almost completely bare. He held her as surely as he might hold a horse he meant to tame.
He handed the lantern back to Enrico, placed the coil of rope on the ground and shrugged out of his jacket. “Put this around you.”
For a moment he thought she would run. He saw the movement as she shifted her weight to the balls of her feet, but Enrico took a step to block the opening to the stall and she fell back.
Without a word, she took his coat and slipped her arms in the sleeves. It barely covered her generous breasts, but at least that delicious nipple was out of sight of the peasant’s eyes.
Enrico snickered. “She’ll need more than that to cover her like a decent woman. With respect, dottore,” he added as Marco fixed him with a glare.
“Of course.” Marco turned to the woman again. She stood unwavering now on her two feet, her chin up and her mouth firm. “Please follow me, signorina.”
Praying she would follow and not give Enrico the excuse to manhandle her again, Marco turned and led the way from the cow stall. At the door to the shed he stood aside for her to pass. She had gathered the trailing rope over her arm and carried it like the train of a ball gown. She brushed past him like a duchess and waited for him to guide her across the farmyard as if he would lead her into dinner in a palace.
Without a word he swept her up into his arms.
He expected her to resist and tightened his grip as she tensed against him. “Put me down. I can walk.” Her fist thumped against his shoulder.
“You would not wish to walk on the muck, signorina. Underneath there are tiny stones that will hurt your feet. Believe me, after two paces you would beg me to carry you again.”
But he tightened his grip, and she stopped struggling. He felt her relax against him.
Over the smells of the barnyard he caught the scent of her body, the briny tang of seawater that had dried in her hair and a faint perfume, like apricots in the sun. He carried her easily, conscious of the warmth of her bare legs against his supporting arm. His hand rested on her thigh, inches from the dark sweetness hidden between her legs. His cock swelled, pushing against her hip.
The arm that held her around the shoulders could easily wander further and caress her firm breast, now hidden under his old green coat. He could flick his fingers against the nipple, feel it pucker and harden-
It had been many months since he had felt any desire to hold a woman in his arms. Even the strumpets, always available and who followed his pitiful group of outcasts had not been able to tempt him.
He found his way to the cottage and thrust open the door with a sharp kick.
Inside, a rough wooden table took up most of the room in front of a smoldering fireplace. Hams hung from the rafters, curing slowly in the smoke from the embers. In one corner a curtain did a poor job of hiding a large bed, and a radio played softly, tuned to the national broadcasting service. A lamp with a naked flame added its fumes to the stifling air.
Enrico followed him into the house, quickly slamming and bolting the door behind them. He turned to grasp Marco’s sleeve. “You should not have come in here, signore. We are poor people. If the Blackshirts get wind of you-”
Marco set the girl down on her feet. “I shall delay for a few hours only. This woman needs care.”
Enrico waved his hands. “No, no, dottore. Not here. Take her away. Look after her somewhere else.”
“Post a guard at the turn off on the main road. Here-” Marco dug into the pocket of his trousers and took out a coin. “Give the boy this. There is more for you if I leave here safely. And if you bring me a tub of warm water.”
The woman’s eyes flickered from one to the other as she tried to follow the gist of their conversation. Even if she spoke Italian, it was unlikely she could follow the thick accents of the mountain people.
Enrico bit the coin, and gave a gap-toothed smile. “Si, dottore.” With a final leer at the woman he left the room.
Marco bolted the door behind him and turned to her.
She rubbed a hand across her face. “Are you a doctor?
“A doctor?” he laughed. “Not any more. My name is Marco.” He took her hand and brought it to his lips. Her fingers were slender and delicate, tipped with blood red polish. “At your service, bella donna.”
He bent over her hand and looked up at her. Her eyes were fixed on his mouth as he kissed her fingertips and she ran the tip of her tongue over her lips. The taste of her skin sent another jolt to his loins.
“Only Marco?” she whispered. “What is your other name?”
The coat had fallen open and she no longer tried to conceal the sweet curve of her breast, which rose and fell with each breath. His lips tingled with the urge to press his mouth to that succulent nipple. Instead, he released her hand and took a step back. “I have no other name.”
He guided her to one of the rough wooden chairs. “Sit, please. I will get you some food.”
“No, nothing, thank you.” She shook her head, but took the chair and rubbed her hand over her face in a weary gesture. “Just contact someone. Does anyone have a telephone? If you send word to my father, he’ll get me out of this hovel and will reward you better than you paid that man. More money than you ever expected to have.”
“Money doesn’t matter to me.”
“It matters a lot to most people. I don’t suppose you’re an exception.” She held out her hand again. “Lady Emma Houndsdale. My father is the Earl of Bicester. I was a passenger on the steamship Lady Rose out of Southampton, bound for Cairo. We had just left Naples. There was a fire. Panic everywhere and I went in the water.” She shuddered. “Now tell me exactly where we are.”
“I cannot do that.”
She looked at him, her eyes wide in disbelief. “You don’t know where we are?” She spoke slowly. She must think him an idiot.
“I didn’t say that. I said I cannot tell you where we are. It would place these people in danger.”
He took her hand and folded it between his two palms. He wanted to kiss each of her fingers, suck them into his mouth, eat his way up her arm to the curve of her neck-he pulled himself together. “I heard the ship foundered off the coast.”
She shuddered and took back her hand, drawing the coat together as if she suddenly felt a chill. “It was horrible. The noise, the screams.” She closed her eyes. “And all the time we could see the lights on the shore.”
She squared her shoulders and looked him in the eye again. “Well, I was washed ashore like Sinbad, but I’ve had quite enough adventures for this week. Where have they taken the other survivors?
Marco knelt beside her and shook his head. “I do not believe there were any.”
She went pale and clutched at the rough edge of the table, seeking support. He took hold of her shoulders and steadied her. “No one?” she whispered.
“I regret that they have only announced finding bodies so far.” He gestured to the radio. “Thanks to Enrico’s one extravagance, I have heard the latest news.”
She leaned her head against him and he felt her draw in her breath. “All gone?” she repeated. “Only me left?”
“That is possible.” He put his lips to her hair, breathing in the scent of her, mixed with aromas of his old coat. “I am sorry.”
A tear gathered in the corner of her eye and he wiped it away with his thumb. Underneath her eye a blue bruise discolored her cheek. He traced its outline with a feather touch until he could tilt her chin. She turned her head toward him and he slipped his hands inside the coat, sliding along the smooth silk of her shift, and then the satin of her skin. His heart thudded and the pressure grew in his groin as his cock responded. She sighed, a long, deep sigh and rested her face on his chest. He bent his head and skimmed her forehead with his lips.
She murmured something deep in her throat and he pulled her tight into him. His thumb found her nipple and it immediately puckered, standing up from her firm, round breast. He took in a shuddering breath. It had been so long, so long-
She pushed against his shoulders and he freed her. “Forgive me, signorina. That was inexcusable.” He pushed her hair back from her face, fighting to keep his hands from moving over every inch of her, from throwing her on the table and plunging-
“You’re forgiven, dottore.” She edged away from him, gave him a mocking smile. “I was forgetting myself. Put it down to the shipwreck. Heightened emotions and all that. They say danger makes people crave sex.” She shrugged, making his jacket ride higher on her thighs. He wondered if he’d ever be able to wear it again without provoking an erection.
She looked around the cluttered room. “You must have police or something nearby. Can you send a message?”
“The police in this area are not my friends. If we contact them, I am a dead man. I am afraid, Lady Emma, that you must stay with me until I can take you to safety.”
She gave a disbelieving laugh, a short scornful sound that darted through his bones and settled between his legs. He concentrated on his breathing. He knew one thing was for damned sure. He couldn’t let her see how she affected him…
She hardened her soft lips into a thin line, her delicate chin raised. Folding her arms beneath her breasts, she thrust them under his gaze, then drew a deep breath, taunting him further. Dio mio.
He swallowed hard, forcing his gaze back to her flushed cheeks and eyes.
“Tell me…” She came closer. The room suddenly seemed smaller, the temperature scorching, and the air incredibly thick.
He ached with longing for…what? He sucked in a shaky breath, trying not to think about the insistent throbbing between his legs.
Her eyes locked on his. Mistake. He couldn’t breathe, couldn’t move, couldn’t think.
She laid her hand on his arm. He flinched as if scalded, but didn’t pull away. He couldn’t have brushed her hand from his arm if his life depended on it.
Before she could say more, there was a thud at the door. As if released from a spell, Marco got to his feet and pulled back the bolt. Two burly young men edged into the room, carrying a heavy wooden tub.
“Set it down near the fire,” Marco ordered. These were the two whose hands had been all over Emma when they found her. Maybe the ones who had bruised her face. The heat of anger rose up in him and he moved to shield her from their stares.
Still trying to steal looks at her, the men did as they were bid. They placed the tub on the floor and went out, only to reappear with pails of water. Some sloshed over the sides as they turned their eyes on the woman while they filled the tub. She pulled the coat tighter around her.
He found another coin for them. “Get out.”
They scuttled away. Marco heard their coarse laughter as he bolted the door. He turned back to his captive. “They know no better.”
“They are the least of my concerns. I need to contact the nearest British Consul.”
“In due time.”
“What in damnation are you talking about?” She looked around the room and glanced down at her bare legs. “What kind of a man are you?”
“An honorable one, although you find me in strange circumstances. I said I would take you to a place of safety and I will do so. In a few days.” He hoped his voice was reassuring. God only knew what would happen to her if they were caught before they reached the caves.
She looked him up and down, a sneer of distaste twisting her pretty mouth. “You want ransom money, don’t you? I’m your hostage.”
He fisted his hands in anger, but forced himself to speak calmly. “It pains me that you think so. I will do my best to make you comfortable and to keep you safe. But you will have to follow my orders.”
Her eyebrows rose and she gave a gasp of disbelief. “Orders? I’ve never followed a man’s orders in my life.”
God, he would like to see her on her knees before him, begging to know his wishes, eager to comply with his every desire… He fought to control the pounding of his blood, giving no hint of the lustful thoughts that besieged his mind. “I can believe that.” He indicated the tub sitting in front of the fire. “I am sure you wish to clean your skin of the salt. They brought warm water for you. You may bathe.”
Her eyebrows lifted. “Surely not in your presence? A gentleman would leave.”
He shrugged. “There are few gentlemen here. You have no other choice, bella donna.”
She stood. “Fancy that. Bella donna. Beautiful lady.” She took off his coat and hung it on the back of the chair. “In my country it’s the name of a poisonous plant.”
She fingered the torn edge of her shift that skimmed the nipple of her left breast.
Marco stood across the room from her, his arms folded, his back against the rough wooden door. He held his body under tight control, even while the blood pounded in his veins and his cock begged to be set free of his confining clothing. He steeled his expression to give nothing away, but still felt her under his hands as they had snaked under the old coat.
Her eyes on his face, she dropped her hands to the hem of her shift and began to lift it, a small, secretive smile on her lips. “You had better turn away.”
His jaw tightened and the blood throbbed in his groin. If she stripped in front of his eyes, how in God’s name would he be able to hold back? What kind of an animal would she think him? He turned to face the wall.
The shift rustled as she raised her arms above her head, drawing the cloth up her body. His nerve ends twitched as he saw in his mind’s eye the slow revelation of her thighs, her belly, the dark patch between her legs that would match the color of her hair. He knew exactly the curve of her waist, the swell of her breast, the sweet hollow at the base of her throat. He closed his eyes and forced a deep breath.
He heard the lap of the water as she stepped into the tub.
“You can turn around now. I’m reasonably decent.” Her voice mocked him and his sense of chivalry.
He turned. The water reached the same spot as the torn shift, revealing the curve of her breast, shrouding her nipples.
She lay back, the ends of her hair trailing on her shoulders. “Is there any soap?”
Emma stretched in the water, letting the warmth soothe her aching muscles. At least she was alive. Was it possible that everyone else on the boat was dead? Even if these people knew differently, there was no way of knowing if they would tell her the truth. They were bandits, that much was obvious, and this tall man, Marco, who’d given her his coat in an amusing gesture of gallantry, then carried her across the filthy farmyard, was their leader.
She still hadn’t figured out exactly why the two oafish peasants had scooped her up off the beach and brought her here. Marco said he didn’t want money, but he hadn’t convinced her. Everyone had their price whether it was gold coin or a roll in the hay.
Last night on the boat, that nice young officer had pointed out the lights of Naples as they steamed out of the Bay. But God only knew where she was now. Somehow she had to persuade this Marco to take her to civilization. Daddy would pay any kind of ransom and think it cheap enough to get his precious daughter back.
She sighed. So much for turning her back on her old life. This Marco might think he was in charge, but he wanted her and she understood enough about men to know there would come a point when he’d do anything she asked just to get inside her. If she played it right. And she would do it, if that was the price to set her free.
He came close and handed her a bar of yellow soap. She let her fingers linger on his as she took the offering. He had the most amazing eyes, dark and luminous under strong brows. His face was lean and rugged, with high cheekbones, while his lips showed red and forceful amidst a black stubble only a few days old. She already knew how they tasted and how strong his arms were.
She let her gaze skim the rest of his muscular torso. It had felt warm and powerful pressed close to hers. A tiny warm ache of desire that had started between her thighs when he held her, spread slowly and deliciously up into her belly. Persuading him to help her might not be such a hardship after all.
“Thank you,” she whispered.
He gave a little bow and stepped back. The soap smelled foul, probably made from mutton fat or something equally disgusting, but she was in no position to be fussy. She slid under the water so her hair floated on the surface and then came up for air.
After she’d worked up a lather, his eyes followed the veiled movement of her breasts as she raised her arms to twist her hair on top of her head like a crown. She’d bet five pounds he was hiding something large and tempting inside those trousers.
She lifted one leg and ran the soap along its length, taking her time to arch her foot and show the slenderness of her calf. His gaze came to rest on the water that hid the top of her thighs.
“Did Enrico’s sons molest you in any way?”
She looked at him from under lowered lashes, wondering how much to tell him. It might be a good idea to keep his mind on the possibility of sex with her. She saw his throat work as he swallowed.
“They had their hands all over me. One of them had me pinned against the wall, while the other undid his trousers. Their father came, so they tied me up and brought me here instead.”
The flush of anger stained his cheekbones. “Signorina- I shall see that they are reprimanded.”
“I’m glad to hear it.” She splashed water on her shoulders and saw him lick his lips as the droplets cascaded down her breasts. Was he one of those who were aroused by the thought of forcing a woman? “I suppose I owe Enrico my safety, although he doesn’t look like someone who would rescue a damsel in distress.”
“Enrico knows better than to incur my displeasure.”
“I see. Well, that’s good to know. I don’t mind telling you I thought I was a goner.” She could not repress a shiver, although she tried to keep her tone light. She didn’t want anyone to know how terrified she’d been. How frightened she still was, if the truth be told and if she allowed herself to think. The Houndsdales had fought in every battle from Agincourt to the Somme. Just because she was a woman didn’t mean that she would accept whatever these men dished out to her. She had nothing to rely on save her own wits and determination if she was to get away from here.
She held out the soap to him. “Wash my back.”
Without a word, he took a step toward her. She saw a faint tremble in the hand he held out to her as she placed the slippery bar in his palm. He rubbed the soap between his hands and touched her shoulder with the foam. She thought she was ready for the feel of his fingers, but a tingling shock ran through her, catching her off guard. Leaning forward, she presented her back.
He knelt, letting his hands slide over her, from her neck to the base of her spine. His fingers crept over every muscle, every bone, around her side to the swell of each breast. Her breath came quicker as the spark in her belly grew into a glowing ember. Look what good behavior has done for you, she thought in disgust. She’d abstained from sex, been as chaste as a virginal debutante for the last six months, only to find her treacherous body reacting like a silly schoolgirl when she needed to keep her head on straight and her mind focused on her own safety.
She closed her eyes, hypnotized by the warmth of his exploring fingers. Careful, girl, she thought. Who’s in control here?
With an effort she opened her eyes and sat back, forcing him to take his hands from her.
“Very nice, thank you,” she said. Color stained his cheekbones and his eyes glittered as if with a fever. For two pins she’d stand up and reach out for him, letting him press her wet body to his firm torso. Just for a fleeting moment she allowed herself to imagine the feel of him against her, then brought her thoughts under control. She had to play him carefully, saving the prize for last.
“Anchors aweigh,” she said, and slid under the water to rinse her hair.
“I don’t suppose you have any fresh water, do you?” she asked when she emerged.
“There is some cold-”
“Don’t worry. I’ll make do.” She smiled at him sweetly, hoping his cock was rising, begging for release. “Do you have a towel?”
He sprang to his feet as if goaded. “Of course, signorina.” In two steps he had seized a large cloth from a nail in the wall and held it up. She looked at it dubiously. It was more than likely the grayish hue signaled a lack of washing rather than a natural fiber. She gave a mental shrug. This ordeal couldn’t last long. She’d tease this fellow until he had no resistance left, and then he’d deliver her to a nice hotel in a large city where she could contact the authorities. Forget all the nonsense about not telling her where they were and not being able to send a message. Forget the few days in his safekeeping. A few hours maybe. She’d be on her way home in no time. The worst that could happen would be she’d have to break her promise to lead a reformed life.
He held the dirty-looking cloth in front of his face, hiding his eyes, and she rose as gracefully as she could from the water, allowing him to wrap it around her. She twisted the ends above her breasts and he handed her another, smaller cloth to dry her hair.
The material clung to her damp breasts and to her thighs as she moved. The feel of the rough weave was arousing her even more. Her breasts tingled, and it wasn’t only the bathwater moistening the inside of her thighs.
She gathered up the torn shift and thrust it toward him. “Burn it, and find me some clothes,” she said. “And then we’ll talk about how I can get home.” She looked at him sharply and raised her eyebrows. “You can find me something to wear, I suppose? You don’t expect me to travel home naked?”
Marco took the dirty cloth from her. The silky surface rippled smoothly under his fingers as if it were her skin. Naked? If he had the choice, he’d keep her tied up without a stitch of clothing just as he’d found her and damn the consequences. But he had no such choice. The thin cloth of the towel was soaked where it touched her body and clung sensuously to her breasts and thighs. Her nipples jutted in peaks, begging for a man to touch and squeeze them. His fingers itched to do just that, to find out where she liked to be caressed, how hard she would have him suck her breasts, what sounds she would make when he pleasured her-
She raised her hands and loosed the small cloth from her head.
With an effort, he turned and thrust the remains of the shift into the fire, making the flame flicker and sending a plume of smoke into the room.
“Dammit, take care, man.” She coughed and waved the fumes away, but drew nearer to the fire. Kneeling down, she threw her hair forward and let it hang over her face, allowing the warmth to dry it.
Marco swallowed. On all fours she presented a temptation hard to resist. The damp cloth molded the curve of her ass and fell away from her belly, allowing the faint light from the flames to outline the shape of her body, luring, enticing exploring hands.
He stifled a groan in his throat, and she looked at him sideways from under the fall of hair. “Did you say something?”
He shook his head and backed away. “I will ask Enrico’s wife if she has something you can wear, signorina.” He let himself out of the door and stood for a long moment, his back hard against the solid wood. The latch jabbed into his side but he welcomed the pain. Somehow he had to control himself. He had never known a woman who could so inflame him with a single glance. He drew deep breaths of the night air. She claimed to be the daughter of an English lord. He should be thinking how this might affect his mission, calculating the risks of returning her to the authorities. Instead, his foolish head was full with a young man’s fantasies. She made it spin with impossible desires.
“Dio mio,” he muttered under his breath as he pushed away from the door. There was something about her that inspired him with a terrible madness. “God preserve me from the devil’s temptations.” He went to find Enrico.
Emma finished drying her hair and sat on the floor, her arms hugging her knees. What kind of pickle had she landed herself in? It might be 1930 in the real world, but this place was positively medieval. As soon as she had some clothing to wear, she would work on finding her way back to civilization. The Lady Rose had pulled out of Naples after dinner, around ten in the evening, and the fire had broken out shortly before midnight. How far could a steamship with one hundred and fifty passengers travel in two hours? She must be somewhere on the coast just south of the Bay of Naples.
She felt a stab of sorrow at the thought of the other passengers, especially her maid, Catherine. Surely they couldn’t all be dead? Some of them must have been washed ashore just as she was. She couldn’t imagine any reason why she would have been saved over the others.
The rattle of the door latch brought her to her feet, ready to do battle if one of Enrico’s sons appeared. Marco edged into the room with an armful of clothing. She remained wary, still not too sure how much she could trust him. So far he seemed well disposed towards her, and she meant to keep him that way.
A hunk of bread sat balanced on top of the pile in his arms, and wobbled as he closed the door with his foot. Under his arm he carried a flagon of wine.
He dumped everything on the table, grabbing the bread as it rolled off the heap.
“Here.” He thrust it out to her and pulled a knife from his belt. Instinctively she flinched, but he ignored her. In two paces he reached one of the hams hanging from the rafters and sliced off a chunk of meat. “Eat while you can. Time grows short.”
Emma took the oily ham from his fingers. The rich, smoky aroma set the juices flowing in her stomach. Suddenly she realized she was ravenous and brought the meat to her mouth, holding the bread in her other hand and tearing bites from each as she filled her belly. The primitive meal tasted wonderful.
Marco smiled as her teeth ripped into the ham. “Hunger is a great equalizer,” he said, cutting a slice of ham for himself. He passed her the flagon, and she brought it to her lips, slick with the juices of the rich meat. The wine was thick and rough and made her cough as she swallowed. Marco took the bottle from her and placed his lips where her mouth had been, his eyes holding hers. She sensed the pull in her abdomen as he touched the bottle, just as if he had placed a kiss on her sensitive flesh. Her breasts tingled, and she felt a delicious quiver between her legs.
She swallowed a wad of bread and passed the loaf to him. He tore off a chunk and began to eat. After a few bites, she slowed her fierce attack on the food and watched him, taking in the firm line of his jaw, shadowed by dark stubble. She followed the movement of his throat as he swallowed, the play of his fingers as he broke off pieces of bread and ham. His hair was long and dark, caught at his nape with a leather thong. He wore trousers in a coarse, dark fabric, fastened at his waist with a wide leather belt. His shirt was open at the throat, allowing a glimpse of more dark hair.
Her eyes wandered down across his shoulders to his hands again. She was fascinated by his hands. The feel of them on her body lingered in her memory, sending a thrill along her nerves. His fingers were slender and brown. She caught sight of tiny, light-colored scars scattered over his skin.
She brought the last of the ham to her mouth then froze, horrified, as he turned his hand to brush crumbs from his shirt.
The thumb on his right hand finished at the knuckle.
She sucked in her breath and he looked up, realizing what she had seen. “Ah, you noticed the handiwork of our friends, the Blackshirts,” he said with a shrug. “It was a warning to show me what they could do. Of course a surgeon cannot work without fingers.”
Emma felt weak at the knees and reached for the chair to sit. It was the second time he’d mentioned the Blackshirts. “Someone did that to you?” she whispered. There was a lot more danger here than she had imagined. “Why?”
“I’ll tell you about it sometime,” he said. “We must leave.” He finished the last of his bread and took another draft of the wine. “Drink. We have a long trek.”
Emma shook her head. The greasy ham threatened to rise in her throat and she fought the nausea. “Enough,” she whispered.
Marco brushed his hands together and picked up a piece of clothing. “Enrico’s wife assures me this is all freshly laundered,” he said. “I told her that she would be paid in good time.” He thrust a long, black skirt at her. “Put this on.”
Emma took the skirt with a trembling hand and stepped into it. It tied around the waist with a frayed drawstring and she pulled the folds of material into some semblance of evenness around her hips. Next she picked up a brown tunic. She turned her back, untying the towel knotted around her breasts, letting the cloth drop to the floor. The loose garment fell from her shoulders, almost reaching her knees.
Marco handed her the last piece. “This is a shawl. Take it,” he said impatiently as she hesitated. “It will be cold in the mountains. And it will cover your hair.”
Emma stared uncomprehending. “Mountains? Where are you taking me?”
“I have a rendezvous I cannot miss. When that is done, I’ll take you to the Naples road.”
“You have no reason to take me with you.”
“Would you prefer I left you with Enrico’s sons?”
Her heart lurched at the mere thought. “Of course not. Leave me close to a village where I can find some lodging and send a message.”
“I can’t risk it, Lady Emma. You would betray me.”
“And if I gave you my word?”
He shook his head. “Believe me, I am not anxious to take extra baggage. But even if I could trust you, I don’t trust the police.”
“This is outrageous.”
“They would get information from you, one way or another.” He handed her a pair of shoes with a wooden sole and leather straps. “For your feet.”
Before she could protest further, the door flew open and the taller of Enrico’s sons rushed into the room, letting out a stream of words. Marco uttered a short, sharp expletive in response and ran through the doorway. Hoping that whatever the man had told Marco was important enough to distract him for few moments, she thrust her feet into the wooden clogs and hurried after him. Stay with Enrico’s sons indeed! Despite what he said, she was sure she could slip away and find someone in authority.
She edged quietly through the doorway, and quickly stepped out of the beam of light from the room behind her, but her movement drew the attention of one of four men standing in a ring, talking with Marco. He raised his voice in sharp warning and the others turned to look at her, muttering ominously. Her heart sank. There was no hope of flight. Two horses and two mules stood waiting, great bulging sacks strapped to their backs. She could sense the hostility in the air and hesitated on the rough cobbles of the yard.
Marco glanced at her, then spoke to them in dialect, a note of authority in his voice. Three of the men nodded, but one spoke up, obviously protesting.
“Noè vero.” Marco brandished a piece of rope and a cloth and turned to Emma. He covered the distance between them in three swift strides.
Before she could react, his arms went around her and she struggled in his powerful grip. “What the hell are they saying? What are you doing?” she hissed.
“We received a warning. The garrison is on the move. They will be here at daybreak. The men don’t want to take you with us.”
“Then let me go. I can deal with a few country policemen.”
“This is not your peaceful English countryside, Lady Emma. I cannot leave you, nor let you put us at risk. My men think you will betray us by making a noise, or trying to run if you are free to do so.”
“Bloody right I would.”
“Exactly. I had to agree to this-” As he spoke, he wound the rope around her waist and attached the free end to his belt. “Forgive me, bella donna,” he said, and bound the cloth around her mouth.
The men watched and nodded their heads. “Va bene,” she heard.
Gagged and tied to Marco, seething with inward fury, she had to follow as the small procession left the yard in the gray light of dawn and took the steep, stony path leading up into the hills. Marco led a mule and three of the men and animals went ahead, one followed. She supposed he was a lookout, covering their rear.
The pack animals picked their path around the scrub and cairns of stones. The sun was not yet over the horizon and the air was cool, making her glad of the shawl. Her instinct was to tear the gag from her mouth since Marco had left her hands free. But what was the point? She would never be able to untie the rope around her waist before they grabbed her again and maybe bound her hands too.
She wrapped the shawl more tightly around her and concentrated on keeping her footing. Everything shimmered in shades of silver and black. The sun behind the ridge of hills tinted the peaks with a line of pale light, but only made the western side darker. The shapes of the animals were a deeper gray against the slate color of the rocks, and she heard the faint gasps of the men as they climbed alongside them. It was hard to believe this was the same coastline with its bright greens and reds she had seen in full daylight.
In less than five minutes she glimpsed a smooth path leading off to the right. It followed the contour of the slope, winding upward in easy stages. She turned her feet toward it, only to be brought up short as Marco continued in a straight line. She stumbled as the rope jerked her toward him and he caught her in his arms. When she felt his body against hers, the same thing happened as when he’d touched her naked back. Her heart almost stopped, her breath seized up, and her knees felt weak. She stiffened in resistance, unwilling to recognize the sudden increase in the rhythm of her breathing, refusing to give in to the urge to mold her body to his, to feel again the strength of his chest.
He spoke against her ear, brushing her cheek with his lips, setting her pulse to racing. “That path leads us to certain discovery. Stay close to me.”
It seemed to her that he hesitated a moment as she leaned against him before he steadied her and continued behind the pack train. She had no choice but to follow, seething with anger at her helplessness, at his stubbornness and at the undeniable sexual pull he had over her. That bothered her the most. She’d known he wanted her from the moment he’d set eyes on her, and she’d planned to use that desire to her advantage. But her own reactions were causing her a problem. This was not the way she did it. Even when she’d played the weekend games at the elegant country homes back in England, she was the one who set the pace, she decided when to kiss, how to seduce. She was used to playing a man like a fish, leaving her deepest emotions untouched. For once, she might have met her match.
There seemed to be no discernable path, and they climbed in a direct line. The men strode ahead at a steady gait, obviously accustomed to negotiating the ascent, but soon she found herself scrambling on all fours as the scree slipped and rolled beneath her feet. Her leg muscles screamed in protest at the strain. Marco took her arm to help a couple of times, but she shook him off impatiently. The less touching the better for now.
They climbed in silence until the man in the lead raised a hand and they halted. The sound of an engine came from the left. Quickly the men led the animals deep into a clump of bushes and Marco grabbed her arm. He pulled her hard against him and clamped his other hand over her mouth. Instinctively she stiffened and resisted until she lifted her eyes and saw the grim expression on his face. The mute appeal in his gaze spoke more than words. He desperately needed her to cooperate and he feared the outcome if she drew attention to them. The fate of these men and their leader rested in her hands.
Her eyes locked on his, she relaxed and nodded, allowing him to lead her after the men. In the thicket they listened, not daring to breathe as the vehicle grew closer. They peered through the network of branches until a few minutes later an open lorry lumbered past, armed soldiers standing in the back.
As the rumble of the engine faded to their right, the men relaxed their hold on the muzzles of the animals and Marco let her go. She stood for a moment close against him, the fleeting moment of empathy soon over. With a quiet word to the men, Marco took up his position in the procession and they set off across the wide track where the lorry had passed, to resume the climb.
Unable to speak, she forced her thoughts into some kind of order. Marco and his band were in hiding, wanted by the police. Ergo, they were criminals. She could easily believe that Enrico and his sons might find themselves on the wrong side of the law. And the men with them now were rough-looking and surly. But Marco was apparently a doctor. She hadn’t had much to do with doctors back in London. A broken arm after riding too hard in a point to point, the usual childhood things like measles. The doctors she’d seen were cool and clinical or gruff and grandfatherly. She couldn’t imagine any of them leading a band of brigands. So what had he done that made him a wanted man?
He didn’t seem violent or cruel. He’d brought her clothes and food and looked at her with those hot eyes that made her stomach clench in response. She feared the attack on her senses much more than any threat to her body.
He’d mentioned the Blackshirts. She knew who they were, thanks to two or three lectures from Johnny Westmarland and some other smooth-talking man from MI5 a year ago. It had been useless to protest that she had no political opinions whatsoever, that she’d only been in Lady Ellersby’s circle simply because she liked going to bed with different men. To hear them go on about it all, anyone would have thought she’d been ready to sell the Crown jewels. But the attack on Johnny and his fiancée Gillian and the subsequent fuss and bother had given her a good fright and she’d had to swear off men and casual couplings. One day she supposed she’d get married when Daddy insisted. So here she was, as chaste as a nun for the last few months, and contemplating bedding this very unsuitable man who’d tied her up, ravished her with his gaze and was bearing her off to God knows where.
One thing she knew-if Marco was fighting the Blackshirts and Mussolini’s government, the less she knew about it the better. And the less Marco knew about her accidental involvement with the Fascist sympathizers in Britain, the better too.
Gradually the sun rose above the hills, bringing color and life to the surroundings. At first they had passed through ancient terraces on the dry hills, where men had cultivated vines and fruits for centuries, but Emma was in no mood to appreciate the stark beauty around her. Scuttling and panting, she fought her way beside Marco. Twice he stopped at the top of a particularly steep rise and offered his hand. The first time she refused and slid back several feet in payment for her stubborn independence. The second time she gave her hand and he pulled her up until she topped the slope, landing hard against him. The aromas of thyme and flowering bushes rose around them and she caught the scent of him, of male sweat and leather, as he took hold of her. His arms gripped her, his face inches from her mouth.
She looked up into his eyes and locked her gaze with his. Keeping her still clamped against him with one hard arm, he pulled the gag from her mouth and instinctively she moistened her lips with the tip of her tongue. After a long moment, he took the bandana from around his neck and brushed the drops of moisture from her brow. Her breath caught in her throat and she closed her eyes. The pack animals and their drivers had disappeared behind a wall of rock. She and Marco were alone in the world, under the warmth of the morning sun. A faint breeze ruffled her skirt, pressing the fabric against her legs. He held her so tightly she felt his erection against her mound. She had no underwear. Marco knew that. At the thought, moisture oozed between her legs. Her breath came in gasps, and her heart thundered in her chest.
Oh, God, she thought. This might be where I lose control.
She met his eyes again and a warm wave rippled through her at the heat in his gaze. What was it about this man that made her want to do things she had vowed never to do again? She swallowed hard, unable to move away, struggling against the urge to bury her hands in his hair and drag his lips down to meet hers.
What harm had there ever been in one kiss? It was a good tactic, she thought. Let him kiss her this once and she would be over it. She would use this moment to prove there was no special magic in kissing him, no wild pleasure missing from her life.
At the same time as a voice urged her on, another told her it was madness.
Move away. The faint voice of reason sounded in her head, but the fire that smoldered in her belly overcame logic.
With infinite slowness he bent his face to hers until their lips barely touched. It could not truly be called a kiss. It was as if a feather brushed across her mouth, sending tingles along the sensitive nerve points. She was lost. The wind blew a strand of his long hair across her cheek and made her heart do another flip. Instinctively she reached up, standing on tiptoe. The movement added a little pressure to the joining of their mouths. Still Marco hesitated.
A tremor coursed through her, compounding her need and her confusion. He stroked her shoulder, trailing his fingers down her arms and she let fall her shawl to snake her arms around the back of his neck. He murmured something against her mouth. She couldn’t tell if he was protesting or asking for more, couldn’t tell if he spoke English or Italian. It didn’t matter. Their bodies were communicating with no words.
Hot blood engorged her lips, her breasts and the damp folds between her legs. Her nipples ached, begging for his touch. Her vagina yearned, crying tears, longing for him to thrust his long, hard cock deep inside. If there had been a stone to stand on, she would have raised herself on it, to wind her legs around his waist, to open herself, to impale herself on him.
Her arms rested lightly on his shoulders. Still she waited.
His breath mingled with hers and yet still he did not truly kiss her. She rubbed her belly against his hardness and tried to move so that his cock pressed between her legs. As if a dam had burst, he groaned and pressed hard on her mouth. As his mouth sank deeper over hers, she forgot to think. She forgot where she was, who he was, where he was taking her. She forgot she was supposed to be able to walk away from this kiss as she’d walked away from a hundred others, sure that she could happily exist without it for the rest of her life.
All she knew was the hot pressure of his lips on hers, the shape of his mouth that fit hers so perfectly, the taste of crushed flowers and leather that clung to him, inflaming her senses. His lips forced hers to part and his tongue thrust inside, stroking at first as if to test her readiness, then invading, probing. His mouth was all she had imagined. Soft, yet strong and masterful. The invasion of his flickering tongue mimicked the subtle pulsing of every nerve in her body. He pressed harder still, with a rising passion, and she gladly opened to him, sighing as he held her tight. Her breathing quickened as she met his kiss, and gave into her need.
Her hand eased under his jacket, resting against the softness of his skin, as her fingertips sensed his heartbeat. She broke the kiss, smiled up at him, and resting her head on his shoulder, listened to the pounding of his blood. She would have fallen in a boneless heap had he not held her tight against him.
At last she seized the back of his head with both hands and pulled him even tighter to her, so that his teeth bruised her lip. At the same time his hands moved to her waist, sliding up her ribs, until his thumbs met the swell of the underside of her breast. He stroked the curve, pressing the rough fabric against her, tracing the line up to her nipples.
A sudden shout from below made them move apart. The rear guard came into sight, looking up. One of the mule drivers appeared above them, waving. Marco waved back and lifted the water skin in the air, shouting a reply. Emma guessed he was saying they had paused for a drink.
She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand, feeling the tingle where his lips had been. She pulled her shawl around her, taking long, slow breaths to calm her racing heart. “It doesn’t sound as if we need to keep silent any longer,” she said.
“No, we are safe for the moment. I will not gag you. That way I can look at your mouth and imagine what I would like to do to it. Or what it could do to me.” He took the end of the rope that he had pushed aside when he’d lifted her tunic. “But I’ll keep you by my side.”
He let her drink and replaced the skin in its holder at his waist, then set off again up the slope, leading her beside him.
Marco felt the pull of the rope in his hand as he advanced to where his band was waiting, reminding him of the woman he led once again as if on a leash. The tightness in his groin subsided slowly, but he knew it would take only a glance at her to make him hard again. He’d seen her barely clothed and he’d seen her in the shapeless peasant dress. It made no difference. The glimpse of a curve of her breast, a simple glance from her eyes were enough to set his blood racing and start up an ache in his balls.
He hadn’t been prepared for this. Since Claudia had died he hadn’t even looked at a woman. His soul had room for nothing but thoughts of revenge and hatred. Only to be ambushed by a spoiled, haughty English miss. He couldn’t have chosen worse if he’d tried. He cursed the fate that had brought her to that particular piece of beach at that particular time.
Merda. She was foreign, she was dangerous, she was arrogant, and all he wanted to do was throw her down and ram himself into her until she begged for more.
By the time they stopped to rest, the sun was high overhead. They’d climbed above the terraces and penetrated into the rocky hills. The lead drover halted under the shade of a scrawny tree and looped the reins over a branch.
Emma felt the tension go out of the rope as Marco let it drop. She stumbled into the sparse shade and sank to the ground. One of the men asked Marco a question and they all drew in a huddle to talk, leaving her unwatched for the first time, but she was too exhausted to think of flight. She eased her wooden shoes off her aching feet and rubbed her toes. How could anyone have made a shoe that was totally inflexible, yet registered every stone on the path?
A hand thrust a water gourd at her and she looked up to where Marco towered over her. She took the skin and put it to her lips. The water was warm and tasted stale, with a bitter tang. Her throat was so dry she didn’t care.
Marco sank down beside her and picked up one of her feet. The feel of his fingers on her ankle sent a shiver through her. He noticed the faint movement and paused, his eyes on her face. She grew even warmer under his gaze and felt her body soften, ready to fold against him.
Without a word, Marco took his bandana and tore it into strips. He bound her feet expertly and quickly. “There,” he said. “That will prevent the chafing.”
“Thank you. How much farther are you taking me?”
He took some bread and hard cheese from one of his men. “Another hour will bring us to the caves.” He waved his hand in the direction of a rocky outcrop much higher up. Emma shielded her eyes to follow his direction.
“Caves? Why are you going to caves? Who on earth are you people?”
“We have a settlement there. Tonight we will talk. When we are all safe.” He passed her a piece of bread and cheese. “Eat.”
Emma shook her head. She wouldn’t be able to eat a thing. What in God’s name were these people up to? She wondered if she’d ever see her home and her family again.
The last hour of their trek into the mountains took them over even rougher terrain. The slope grew steeper, compelling the drivers to push and pull the pack animals along the winding track. Clouds blew up in the afternoon and covered the sun. Emma shivered and wrapped the shawl tighter around her shoulders.
At last they reached a flat area, walled in by a sheer rock face on two sides. The third side rimmed a steep drop down to the beginning of the terraces through which they’d labored. Far in the distance, where the sun still shone, the deep blue sea sparkled, and she could make out tiny boats moving like toys on the water.
But she had no interest in admiring the landscape. The muscles of her calves and thighs burned as if knives had sliced into them. Her dry throat made it difficult to swallow. And she was hungry. When Marco let go of the rope that led her, she sank down upon a rock and put her head in her hands, thinking of the food and drink that had gone to the bottom of the Mediterranean with the Lady Rose. Succulent steaks, delicious soups, ices and sparkling water-
Why hadn’t she made a run for it while they were still in the farmyard? Her uncle had fought in the Boer war and always spoke well of the enemy soldiers who never gave up looking for an escape route, even when it seemed hopeless. If she’d tried, she might have made it, and even if she’d been caught, she couldn’t have been worse off than she was now. A prisoner.
Marco squatted beside her and she looked up. He took her hand in his. “Va bene, bella donna. We have arrived. Now you can rest.”
She straightened her shoulders. “Thank God for that.” She looked around at the men unloading the sacks from the animals. “I suppose you can’t tell me where we are.”
“No. It is still best that you don’t know. Behind us,” he waved his damaged hand toward the rock face, “is the grotto where we can shelter.”
Emma pushed her hair back to peer more closely at the stone walls. The grottos she knew about were elaborate fantasies constructed in lush gardens by wealthy men who had run out of things to do with their money. “I don’t see a grotto.”
Marco smiled. “That is the idea, my lady.”
“Oh for God’s sake.” Emma stood up. “Just call me Emma. Under the circumstances I don’t think we need stand on ceremony.”
He rose to his feet, still holding her fingers, and gave a little bow. “Whatever you wish.” He brushed his thumb over the back of her hand. The caress sent a quiver straight to her heart. She looked at the lines of fatigue etched more deeply around his mouth and longed to smooth them, to rest her fingertips against his lips.
“Come,” he said, “I will show you my domain.”
Still holding her hand, he drew her toward a long vertical crack in the rock. As they approached she saw that the slit was, in fact, a deep opening that faced away from the path, making it almost invisible to anyone venturing to climb this far.
Marco led her through the opening. The narrow aperture rose steeply for a few yards, then widened into a vast cave that soared overhead, too high for her to distinguish the roof. On her right ran a manmade wall of chiseled stones in which she saw windows, some in darkness, some with flickering lights behind them. Several people moved around at ground level as if sauntering in a village square. Torches flamed in sockets on the cave walls and a fire burned in one corner. A woman leaned over it, stirring something in a cooking pot. A child scampered by, pursued by an older boy.
The women gave a little bob and the men touched a finger to their head in a salute as Marco passed. All seemed to bear a great respect for him.
“My God,” she said in amazement. “What is this place?”
“This is my village,” Marco said in a low voice. “The shelters were built years ago and we adapted them to our use. In another cave not far away, the people built a church. Here, circumstances dictated that we had to be more practical.”
Emma shook her head in wonder. For all the activity, a pall of silence hung over the whole place. Even the children who had run by had not uttered a sound. Every community in Italy she had ever visited had been full of noise, of quarrels at full volume, of song.
“Why is it so quiet?”
“Voices carry great distances in the mountains. There are villages in the valleys and on the hillsides. Each a long way on foot, but close in a direct line. If we are to maintain our security we cannot risk arousing the curiosity of anyone below. The children know not to shout in their play.”
Marco’s touch had set her heart to hammering, but now apprehension made it beat even faster. “Aren’t you afraid that I will give your hiding place away when I return to Naples?”
He smiled at her, a smile that never reached his eyes. “If our mission is successful, we will no longer have need of it. Even if you could find your way here again.”
“But-” Before she could continue, a man of about thirty came up to them and threw his arms around Marco. The two men embraced and exchanged a few words.
Marco turned to her. “This is Giovanni,” he said.
She gave the man a friendly smile, but met a hostile glare. His dark eyes swept her from head to toe.
Seemingly unaware of Giovanni’s silence, Marco continued, “He has news for me and I must talk to him. You can sit here.” He led her to a bench carved out of the rock. She sank into it and wriggled her behind against the smooth surface. Giovanni stood waiting for Marco and she caught his eye. His face remained expressionless, then he frowned and looked away. For everyone, including Marco, she was the enemy, tolerated for their own protection. Face up to it, girl. You’re the only one here who really cares what happens to Emma Houndsdale.
An overwhelming longing to be home swept through her. Just about now, Daddy would be pouring a glass of sherry and asking her about her day, sharing comments and insights about the people they had come across. The hour before dinner in the evening was their special time. It had been pointed out to her often enough that her father overindulged her, but no one really understood the bond that existed between them. No one but she could make him laugh after a long day in the City. No one else shared his love of the countryside around the estate. When she married, as marry she must to ensure the continuation of the line, she would choose someone who would respect her father and all he stood for.
She leaned back and watched the scene before her. Men and women moved around the open space, all obviously intent on business. The few children sat in a group, huddled over some kind of a game. From time to time a peal of laughter rang out, quickly hushed by a nearby adult.
Her gaze drifted back to the two men, their heads close together, deep in discussion. Marco held a paper in his hand, folding the creases with sharp movements. He seemed upset by what Giovanni was telling him. Once he waved the paper in the air.
A profound weariness stole over her. Fatigue and the bizarre surroundings could easily convince her this was all a dream.
Her mind wandered back to what he had said about betrayal. How far could she trust him? How far was he willing to trust her? There was an edge of danger to all this that made her pulse quicken even as she still considered how she could get away.
Marco refused to give her information about the name of the place. Maybe his name was false too. Although there was little danger of her encouraging the authorities to look for one Marco out of several million in Italy. Even if she did tell anyone, she could only talk of Marco, who has a friend called Giovanni. Of course at once, we will find them, signorina. She smiled to herself as she imagined the shrug of the shoulders and the poorly concealed sidelong glances from any Italian policeman who might deign to spare her a few minutes.
Through half-closed eyes she continued to watch Marco. He was taller than the other men, handsome in an Arab sheik kind of way. She knew how firm and toned his body felt. If he climbed up here on a regular basis, his thighs would be like steel traps.
A sudden image of being held between his thighs sent warmth down low in her belly and she squirmed, crossing her legs as if that would banish her desires.
It seemed that the longer she stayed in his company, the more her thoughts dwelt on lying naked with him. Her nerve endings quivered as she imagined his body pressed hard against her, the texture of his skin under her exploring fingers, the feel of his hand on her breast. Her breath came faster and her heart rate quickened. He wanted her and that gave her power over him if she chose to use it. Not too many men, with the exception of Johnny Westmarland, had ever resisted her for long when she set her cap at them. But granting Marco sexual favors in return for freedom would certainly recoil on her, ensnaring the hunter together with the prey. If he held her, kissed her again as he had on the way up to his hiding place she would be lost. She dared not linger if she was to remain resolute. Besides, prisoners had a duty to escape.
She shifted her shoulders against the rock wall of the cave. Despite the cool mountain air, the stiff climb had left her feeling hot and dirty. Hoping to catch a cooler breeze, she lifted her hair from the nape of her neck. It hung limp and lifeless against her hand, still heavy with salt and the remains of the crude soap. A movement close by drew her attention and she looked up, catching the stare of a young woman about her own age. The girl blushed and looked away.
“Don’t go,” Emma called softly. “Do you have something I could use on my hair?” She mimed combing the tangled mess.
The girl bobbed in a curtsey and sped away. Had she even understood? Thank God Marco spoke good English, although it made her much more dependant on him than she liked.
The girl hurried back to her side, holding out a tortoiseshell comb and a small hand mirror.
“Grazie.” At least she’d learned to say a few words in Italian from her holiday in Rome. She began to work the comb through her hair, frowning as she tried to recall a few more phrases. She wasn’t likely to be ordering from a menu, so she could forget anything but words for basic food.
The comb stuck on a knot of hair and she cried out in pain. The young woman watched her, wide-eyed.
“Bugger this for a lark,” Emma said. Here was one frustration she could do something about. “Do you have scissors?” She made a cutting gesture with her fingers. Again the girl nodded and sped away.
Emma looked at herself in the mirror. Her face already looked thinner and her nose and forehead had turned pink from the sun. She ran her fingertip around her lips, feeling the tingling response. Despite her weariness, despite the danger and the circumstances around her, her body sparked with an inner energy that had nothing to do with the hours spent in the water or the long climb up the mountain, but had everything to do with the mysterious Marco.
The girl came back and thrust long-handled shears into her hand. She said something incomprehensible. Emma smiled her thanks and grasped a hank of hair. Despite their obvious age, the scissors were sharp and she snipped off a handful of hair just below her ear. She paused for a moment and looked again in the mirror. A glimmer of the old Emma with the fashionable bob was beginning to reappear.
“Tally ho,” she whispered and sawed off another clump.
She heard a gasp from behind her and felt the girl’s fingers on her hands. “Signora,” she said, “signora, no.”
“Oh yes. Oh most definitely si, si.”
“Auito. Momento, signora.” The young woman tugged at the scissors and Emma understood she wanted to help. She let go of the blades and watched in the hand mirror as the girl snipped off the rest of the long tresses and evened the ends. A year of her life disappeared with the hair. A year of the new reformed Emma, who no longer went to titillating parties, who had nothing to do with politics. A year’s penance that had finished by putting her on a boat to Cairo and then washed her up at the mercy of an Italian brigand who set her pulses racing and her blood on fire.
When her hair was as short as it had ever been, she moistened her lips, still watching as the comb ran the length of each strand. She shook her head. It felt light and unencumbered.
“Bene,” she said and grinned at the girl.
“Io sono Irena,” the girl replied, pointing to her own chest.
“Well, Irena, I’m happy to meet you.” Emma shook the girl’s brown hand. “Thank you for your help.”
A shadow fell across them. Irena dropped her hand and the smile disappeared from her face as Giovanni loomed over them and spoke sharply. The girl gathered up the things she had brought, gave another bob and hurried away.
Emma watched her go, then turned to Giovanni. “Was that necessary?” she asked. “She only wanted to help me.”
Giovanni frowned, making his expression even more dark and brooding. To her surprise he spoke in English. “No talking with our people.”
Before she could protest, Marco strode up to them and dismissed Giovanni with a wave of his hand. The man disappeared in the direction of the dwellings. They all seemed very good at ordering people around.
“I don’t think he likes me,” Emma said.
“It’s not his job to like anyone. He is responsible for our security.” Marco looked at her more closely. “You have cut off your hair.”
“Absolutely right. It feels good.” She bent her head forward and shook it again, peering at him through the dark curtain.
“You should have asked me first.”
She paused in her movements. “I beg your pardon?”
“It will be more difficult to disguise you as one of us. Italian women do not cut their hair.”
“I’d bet five pounds that some of them do. But let’s talk about leaving here-”
“It will soon be dark,” he said abruptly. “We must talk. Then, you must eat and sleep. Come with me.”
He turned on his heel and took two steps, picking up a flaming torch, then looked back at her, tapping the paper he still carried against his leg. “Come.”
Emma stood with a sigh. This wasn’t going to be easy.
She followed Marco farther into the cave, noticing that most of the people who had seemed so busy when she arrived had disappeared, probably into the houses or outside. Way at the back was an empty space where the roof was lower than in the inhabited area. It was a darned good job she wasn’t claustrophobic, she thought as they moved into the tight space. Marco wouldn’t want a prisoner with the screaming heebie-jeebies.
Marco stopped by some boxes piled against the farthest wall. “Sit.”
All this bossing around was beginning to irritate her, but she did as she was told.
Marco paced before her. He waved the paper under her nose. “This is yesterday’s newspaper,” he said.
“What news is there? Do they have anything about the ship?”
He opened it out so she could see the headlines and columns. “All the front page.” He folded it smaller again and pointed to one column. “Here is the passenger list and the names of the bodies they have recovered.”
Emma craned her neck to see better. It was difficult to make out the small print in the flickering light.
Marco let his finger rest on a name under the heading: Morti. “Here is Lady Emma Houndsdale. They recovered her corpse last night.”
“What?” Emma seized the paper and peered more closely. There were three lists, one of the passengers, one of the bodies. The last column held the names of five survivors.
“I don’t understand.”
“They found a body they identified as Lady Emma. So that leaves the question of who you are.”
“I’m Emma Houndsdale.” She searched the passenger list. “There she is-” She pointed to a name. “Catherine Hall. She was-is-my maid. They haven’t found her. I mean, they have found her.” She closed her eyes and held back tears. “Poor Catherine,” she whispered. “Poor, poor Catherine.”
She let the paper fall and leaned back against the stone wall. “We changed places last night. She has dark hair like me and is about the same height. There was a fancy dress party after dinner and I let her go in my costume. She was excited about it and I thought it would bore me to death. No one would know who she was behind the mask. She and I had traded places before.”
Catherine had given her many an alibi in the past when she wanted to slip away unobserved from a boring evening. Or had a secret rendezvous.
She looked at him as the hot tears brimmed in her eyes and she blinked them back. “My family must believe I’m dead,” she said. “You have to take me back to Naples first thing in the morning. I need to let them know the truth.” The thought of her grieving father stabbed at her heart. Don’t mourn me, Daddy. I’m alive. I’ll be home soon.
Marco shook his head. “Believe me, bella donna, I would do so if I could. I understand that this will cause your family grief. But I have things to do before I can set you free. Tomorrow is impossible.”
She formed no coherent thought. In an instant she was on her feet. “Fine. Good luck to you.”
She spun on her heel and ran toward the entrance to the cave. Marco’s shout echoed behind her as she flew on her sore feet, clutching her shawl. She reached a couple of women hovering over the cooking pots and slid around a spot where a group of children had been playing. The women paused in their cooking to stare at her as she flashed past, but because there were fewer people moving around than earlier, she sped unhindered in a direct line to the narrow entrance.
In a few seconds she was outside in the cool evening air. She hardly paused to take her bearings but set her feet toward the path that led back to the valley, back to roads and policemen and telephones. They had crossed a wide track where the police vehicle had passed. Then she’d been gagged and tied, but she was sure she could find it again. It must lead to a town of some kind.
The path dipped sharply away from the grotto and she paused to catch her breath. Behind her she heard a sharp command, footsteps, and then silence. Was Marco even going to pursue her? Maybe he thought she’d be afraid of the night and the steep descent and would return of her own free will. He’d have another think coming. She hurried on.
At the entrance to the cave Marco hesitated. For a frozen moment he had stared after her as she fled from him, unable to believe what she was doing. He had lunged at her too late, only feeling the movement of the air as her shawl whipped past him. Then Giovanni had sprung to his feet, ready to give chase.
“Stay,” he’d barked.
“She’s dangerous, dottore. I’ll catch her.”
Marco held on to his lieutenant’s arm. “We cannot both leave, amico. I brought her here, she is my responsibility. I will bring her back.”
Where in the names of all the saints did she think she could go? It would soon be dark and she could easily break her neck. He grabbed a blanket in case she hurt herself and he had to cover her, then left the settlement.
She was out of sight when he reached the edge of the cliff. He began to pick his way cautiously down the slope, not wanting the sound of pursuit to spur her to greater speed, increasing the risk of a bad fall.
Who was she? Was she truly Lady Emma Houndsdale or was she a saucy maidservant impersonating her mistress? No matter. Giovanni was right. She was a danger to them until after they had seized the money, the documents and the guns. There had been whispers of the convoy for weeks and at last it had set off from Naples bound for Bari on the east coast. Tomorrow night it would pass over the mountains close to San Matteo.
They had planned this operation for weeks and he didn’t need the distraction of this woman taking his mind off his work, keeping his cock hard and his balls in perpetual torment. He’d had no choice but to bring her with him, even though he knew how he would struggle not to fuck her senseless. He was sure his men believed lust was one reason why he’d insisted she come with them, but he maintained strict discipline amongst them and had to show the example. In truth it had not been difficult for him to live like a monk. Until now. Leadership had its responsibilities and he would never let his people down.
He remembered the feel of her against him, hot and pliant in his arms. When he kissed her on the mountain path she’d responded, letting him ravage her mouth with tongue and lips, molding her body to his, holding his head with both hands to increase the pressure on his mouth.
He’d fantasized about her hair, how it would look and feel when it was clean and shiny. It would spread in a dark curtain over her shoulders, fall around her face as she knelt over him, giving him her breasts to taste and play with. Or how it would look spread on his lap as her hot mouth sent waves of pleasure from his cock into his balls, into his belly.
It had been a shock when she cut it off. Now she looked different, more modern, more foreign. His anger sprang from disappointment at losing his erotic dream, not because she would be harder to disguise.
He forced himself to concentrate on following the path. After a few minutes he heard an exclamation ahead of him, and stones cascaded over the edge of the cliff, bouncing off the rock face until the sound carried no longer. He froze, listening, dreading the sound of her falling. When all was quiet again, he felt for the next foothold and continued his pursuit.
Emma glanced once more behind her. She could still make out the rock face that hid the entrance to the caves. As she watched, a stream of flying creatures rose into the air, dark shapes against the violet tinged sky. Bats! Leaving now for their nightly hunt.
They were a frequent sight on summer evenings at home, and the glimpse of them flitting against the Italian sky was strangely comforting, bringing a link of familiarity to this foreign world.
The air was now much cooler and she wrapped the shawl over her head. Thank goodness she still had that and her wooden shoes, although they hurt like blazes. She’d keep them on until she found grass and could walk barefoot.
She scrambled down the path, clutching at bushes as she passed, sending small stones scattering under her feet as she slid a few yards at a time.
After what seemed a long time she landed on a flat outcrop and took stock. No sound of pursuit. Maybe Marco and his followers had decided not to come after her. Either that or they felt sure she wouldn’t get far and they would easily find her in the morning. The sun had dipped behind the hills and the last vestige of light was fading fast. The bats were no longer visible. She steeled herself against a flash of doubt about the wisdom of running just before nightfall.
Telling herself that she was well ahead of any followers, she looked for the continuation of the track. The sooner she could negotiate the steep slope the better. Then she could lie low for a couple of hours and rest until dawn.
When she could barely see her hand in front of her, she found a space big enough to lie down under a scrubby tree in a shallow hollow a few feet off the track. She thrust aside the biggest stones, making enough room for her body, and wrapped herself tightly in her shawl. The chill in the mountain air without the warmth of the sun made her shiver as she curled into a ball.
Sleep would be impossible, but she closed her eyes, knowing she needed rest. Somewhere on this path down to the valley she would find some kind of habitation and be able to contact the authorities to send a message home. The image of Marco filled her mind, of the possibility of him stalking her through the night. If she escaped, she would never see him again.
She had bedded many men, but none had called to her like the man who had kidnapped her. By rights she should be angry, should detest him, should be thankful she had escaped his imprisonment. But there was a lingering regret that she had to leave him to gain her freedom.
She was still not sure what it was he feared, what drove him to such secrecy. He’d mentioned Blackshirts. She had a vague recollection of newsreel film of men marching in dark uniforms. Arms uplifted in salute, polished boots moving in cadence, cheering crowds.
Other shots showed graves, police violently repulsing rioters. She wished she’d paid more attention. It had all seemed so far away. When she’d found out that Johnny Westmarland was working for MI5 he’d enlightened her about what was going on in Germany. He hadn’t mentioned Italy. Was it the same?
She had no desire to bring violence to the caves. If the Blackshirts were Marco’s enemy, at least she could refrain from leading his enemies to him. She was quite capable of telling a good enough story, without mentioning Marco and his hidden mountain village.
Through the mist of sleep that began to cloud her brain, her thoughts wandered back again to Johnny and Gillian and the fiasco at the Ellersbys’ country house. As far as Emma had been concerned, the house party had been an opportunity for a sexual romp; she’d had no idea of the undercurrents. Johnny had been shadowing German spies, and Gillian had helped him get to the bottom of the betrayal of state secrets.
In the process they’d fallen in love. They’d been completely besotted with each other after the dust settled. Emma had received a good scare when taciturn men in grey suits had questioned her for hours about her presence at the house party, but in truth, Johnny and Gillian were the major reason why she’d decided to change her ways. For the first time she’d seen two people totally in love, totally absorbed in each other to the exclusion of everything else, and she’d been envious. Sex and love, now there was an exciting combination! She might have to settle for a marriage without love eventually, because there had to be an heir to the Houndsdale holdings, but she clung to the very small hope that she might find what Gillian Christie had found in Johnny Westmarland.
Her last drifting thoughts were of the feel of Marco’s hands on her, the pressure of his mouth…
Marco’s eyes quickly grew accustomed to the night after the torchlight of the caves, and he easily made out the shapes of rocks and small trees as he followed the path downward, scanning everywhere for a sign of her passing.
He sensed her before he saw her, the hairs on the back of his neck announcing her nearness. He paused and made out the dark form bundled under a tree in a small hollow. He watched for a moment then, when there was no movement from her, he stepped off the track and crept toward her hiding place.
Once close, he bent over her. She had wrapped the shawl tightly over her head and her legs were curled close to her body. The sight of her lying helpless in the darkness sent his brain reeling. No amount of reason could prevent his immediate physical response to her. Heat flooded him and he felt the tightening in his groin.
She had to be exhausted to sleep so well in the cold. He glanced to the east. No glimmer of dawn as yet. The lack of light would make the immediate return to the caves a slow and dangerous process. There would be no movement on the slopes by anyone for a few hours yet. The temptation to steal a few minutes of delight was irresistible. He slid into the hollow in the earth and folded himself around her. He spread the blanket to cover her legs. His chest made a firm wall against her back and his breath fanned her cheek. He let his hands rest on her ribs.
Then pure instinct took over. At the feel of her his balls tightened and his heart began to pound. His cock swelled, jammed tight against the curve of her ass. It felt good pressed against the length of her, far too good.
Something about this woman triggered a terrible kind of lunacy within him. Raw need ricocheted through him. Ever since she’d returned his kiss on the path into the hills, nothing would do but for him to touch her again. And to demand more than a touch and a kiss.
He moved the shawl aside from her head and nuzzled the sweet, warm hollow of her neck. He breathed in the heady scent of her skin, and she stirred as his lips trailed along the thin line of her collarbone.
“Bella donna, be still.” He whispered in her ear and tightened his hold, his legs molded against hers as they lay fitted together like spoons.
For a moment her body stiffened and resisted him. “What the-”
“Shush, Emma.” He brushed his lips against her exposed nape where her hair had been.
“Marco?” He felt some of the tension leave her. “You found me. I suppose it was pretty hopeless to think I could make it all the way down.” She sighed. “I was dreaming that Catherine had put a warming pan in my bed. I was so cold.” She pressed against him.
Instead of an answer he snaked his arms under her shawl and his hands crept over her, under the material of her tunic, and found her breasts, cupping the tender mounds, kneading them before seeking her nipples. He held each one between gentle fingers, savoring the way they puckered and hardened at his touch. Then he tugged, making her moan low in her throat and press harder against him. A tremor rippled though him as her response to his touch stoked the fire in his belly.
“I shouldn’t be doing this,” she whispered, but she made no move to break away.
He kissed her neck again, but that wasn’t nearly enough. He wanted to taste all of her. Less than a breath later he turned her toward him, bringing her body flush against his. He pressed his lips to hers, deepening the kiss as she clung to him, the softness of her mouth an irresistible promise of the rest of her body that he ached to possess. Thrusting his tongue into her, he took her breath, still stroking and plucking at her breasts with his fingers, tugging gently to make her arch her back and utter a tiny cry. His teeth found her earlobe and nipped at it as he continued to tease her nipples and thrust his cock harder against her.
He wanted her naked, wanted her smooth, silky skin under his fingers, her slender length fitted against him. He lifted the hem of her tunic and to his delight she raised up to help him pull it over her head. In the faint light her breasts shone with a pearly sheen, the nipples dark and tempting as ripe fruit. He grasped her waist, holding her firm, took one breast between his lips and sucked, drawing it deep into his mouth. She gave a cry and arched her back again, making him pull harder.
His touch grew stronger as she began to writhe, and he tweaked the pebbly tips one after the other, tugging, biting, letting go, maintaining the rhythm of thrust and pull until she moaned helpless in his arms.
Her hands moved on his arms and shoulders until she found the opening where his shirt gaped wide and pressed her palms flat against his chest, stroking around his ribs, touching his nipples. The fire in his belly shot upward and he groaned in his throat.
He forced her down again and kissed her cool flesh once more, teasing each nipple with the tip of his tongue, feeling her movements grow wilder as her limbs trembled beneath him. His hands were hot and hard against her bare skin, making her quiver, skimming her rib cage, inching upward. He pressed his mouth against hers, thrusting his tongue deep into her, still stroking and nipping at her breasts.
She didn’t stop him from pulling impatiently at the drawstring of her skirt and, when it was loosened, dragging it from her, exposing her legs and the dark patch at the meeting of her thighs. He feasted his eyes on the length of her and drew his fingertips down from the peak of one breast, over her ribs, to hover over the curls hiding the treasure of her cunt.
“You like that?” she whispered.
“More than I can say.” His voice was tight in his throat.
Her eyes glittered in the starlight as she lay still under his gaze, the rise and fall of her chest matching the pounding of her heart he had felt moments before. She watched him unfasten his trousers and kick them aside, drawing in her breath when his cock sprang free. He knelt over her and she stretched out her hand to touch him.
He was going to explode if he couldn’t do it now. She’d driven him mad with this constant craving since he’d first laid eyes on her. He’d lose what remained of his mind if he couldn’t join with her now
He had to have her.
“Dio!” He closed his eyes as he allowed her to hold him in her curved fingers for just a moment. She lifted her shoulders so her lips met the tip of his quivering cock and explored the cleft with her probing tongue. He had thought his balls were as hard and tight as they could possibly be, but they swelled even more as she teased him with her wicked tongue.
He pressed her down again, making her release him and dropped kisses on the curve of her breasts, laving the sensitive peaks, coaxing her to toss and moan. He loved torturing her, postponing the release they both craved. She trembled at every touch and reached for him again. Moving away from her grasping hands, he slid lower, tickling her navel with his tongue. He slipped his hands under her, cradling the cheeks of her ass, tilting her hips.
She clawed at the ground, then buried her fingers in his hair, pulling his mouth against her. He lifted his face.
“Can you feel it between your legs?” he murmured in her ear.
She squirmed under him, held fast by his body. “You know I can.” The sound of her voice was barley audible over the rustle of the leaves on the bushes around them.
“Tell me what you want.”
“You know what I want.” She groaned. “I want you to fill me.”
“All in good time, bella donna, my lovely lady. Open for me.”
Even had she wished to, Emma was powerless to refuse him.
He squeezed the soft flesh of her backside as she let her legs fall apart. Magnifico. He stroked her inner thighs, murmuring to her, reveling in the power he had to give her pleasure. He lost all thought of what had happened, what was to happen and lived only for the feel of her, for her cries of delight.
He moved lower to rain tiny kisses on her flat stomach, knowing from her groans and the lifting of her hips what it was doing to her. Then he moved lower still, burying his face in the curls between her legs. He heard the sharp intake of her breath as he tongued the soft flesh. She grasped his head between her palms and held him close to her.
“More,” she begged.
He lifted his mouth from nuzzling her.
“How wet are you?”
“Find out. Put your hand there.”
His fingers found the warm wetness between her legs and she whispered, “Yes,” as he explored her delicate folds. He thrust one finger inside her, then two. His thumb massaged the sensitive bud of her clitoris, making her cry out again.
“Please,” she begged.
At last he rose above her and guided his cock toward the softness between her legs, anticipating the tightness of her sheath as he slid inside. The tip of his penis nudged the opening to her cunt and with a long, low groan he filled her at last.
With a sense of fulfillment Emma took him into her body, allowing him to seek her lips, joining their bodies in every possible way. She clutched his hips, pressing him as far inside her as his tongue was deep in her mouth, shuddering and sighing as his engorged cock stretched her and thrust harder. He felt so good inside her, so hard, so right.
The calluses on his palms continued to rub her sensitive areolas, sending shards of sweet agony down into her abdomen, setting her vulva on fire. The ache, relieved for a moment by the feel of him inside her, began to grow again as he drove against her swollen clit. The surge between her legs swelled and churned its way up through her belly until her whole body convulsed, and in desperation she clung to him as hard as she had clung to the piece of driftwood in the sea barely two days before. His own climax broke a mere fraction of time after hers, and she heard his triumphant shout as the hot spurt of his semen caressed the mouth of her womb.
Her body trembled and quivered still after the waves of the storm had washed through her. He held her until she sagged in his arms.
When she stilled, he slid from her and pulled the blanket over them both. He cradled her and kissed her gently, brushing back wisps of her hair with one hand.
After a moment he reached into the pile of clothing for the leather gourd that had hung from a clasp at his waist and undid the top. “Here,” he said, holding it to her lips. “Drink.”
In the gray light of predawn, she let the water run into her open mouth and over her lips. It fell in a gentle cascade down her dry throat. Some drops dribbled down her chin, and fell on the valley above her breasts. He bent his head to catch them with his tongue.
With her fingertips she touched a tiny cut on his lower lip where her teeth had pressed into him, drawing blood. He propped himself on one elbow and looked at her.
“I would like to be naked with you forever,” he said. “But we must dress, bella donna.”
Quickly they scrambled into their clothes. Her skin felt chilled after the heat of passion and she was glad to cover herself. If they were in one of the vast feather beds at home, they would not bother with clothes and would never leave the room. They would be warm and comfortable, pleasuring each other until they both were exhausted. They would sleep in each other’s arms and then start all over again…
His hair had broken loose from the thong that tied it back, framing his face.
Stretching out her hand to touch it she smiled. “Your hair is longer than mine now.”
She saw him flinch and shiver as she touched his shoulder and then his lips. He turned his head to kiss her fingers and desire flamed in her again. His greedy gaze slid over her breasts, down to her hips, to her legs. She could feel the heat in his devouring scrutiny, right through her clothing. She swallowed hard and closed her eyes.
Marco had caught her. His prisoner.
She winced at the foolishness of ever considering bartering her body for freedom. She burned with desire for this man as he did for her, and their bodies had come together at last to assuage the fire. They would do so again because she knew instinctively that the bond between would strengthen with every hour they spent together. The question was how and when.
Facing him, she trailed her hand down his chest, then farther, until it met the bulge in his trousers. She stroked the protrusion.
He closed his eyes and sucked in his breath, biting his lower lip.
A clatter of small stones tumbling down the slope halted Emma’s hand, poised above his thighs. Marco spun around and looked up.
Giovanni appeared above them and paused for the fraction of a second before leaping down beside them. Emma backed up a step, alarmed by the scowl that twisted his features.
Marco and Giovanni spoke in staccato sentences that shot from their mouths like gun fire. She read the tension and anger in their stiff shoulders and furious gestures. Impossible to follow the words, but easy to grasp the obvious hostility.
At last Giovanni took a step toward her, pushing past Marco, who tried to hold him off.
“Basta!” Marco shouted. Then, in English, “Emma, please come here.”
On shaky legs she stepped closer to him. He took her hand and spoke more calmly to Giovanni. Whatever he said seemed to reassure the other man, who nodded and gave a kind of salute, taking a step back.
Marco let out his breath and turned to Emma. “Escaping from our stronghold is very serious,” he said. “Giovanni is my second-in-command and he is justifiably angry. Looking for you has taken me away from my people at a very important time for us.”
Giovanni started to speak, but Marco silenced him with a gesture. “He is correct. In his eyes you are not to be trusted and must be watched closely. In addition, our people have to see that we deal strictly with anyone who threatens us.”
Emma stared at him. This imperious man with the somber expression bore little resemblance to the man who had just brought her to orgasm.
“I’m no threat to you.”
He took a rope from Giovanni. “I have no choice, bella donna.” He took hold of her arm.
Good God, not again! How many times had they tied her up for one reason or another? She lifted her hand, signaling him to stop. He paused, rope in hand.
“I’ll go with you,” she said. “There’s no need to truss me up again.”
Before Marco could reply, Giovanni spat out a few words, stepped forward and lifted her, slinging her over his shoulder like a sack. Enraged at the humiliating position, she struggled to kick out at him, but his arms held her legs in an iron grip. She beat her fists against his back to no avail. He climbed the small slope in three strides, then let her slide unceremoniously to the ground. A horse stood waiting, barebacked, no more than fourteen hands high, tethered to a stunted tree.
Marco followed. “Can you ride?” he asked. She looked up at him from the dirt where she’d landed.
“Of course I can bloody well ride.” She struggled to sit amid the tangle of her skirt.
“I thought that would be the case.” He reached down and hauled her to her feet, while Giovanni untied the horse. “Giovanni wants to tie you across the back of the horse, but I said you should ride upright.” He led her toward the animal.
“He doesn’t agree with me,” he added in a low voice, “so please do not try to run.”
“Aren’t you the one in charge? I won’t have him manhandle me again.”
Marco’s chin lifted. His cheekbones flushed, but with anger or embarrassment she could not tell. “Of course I am in charge, but Giovanni takes his responsibilities seriously. I must often be away and I need him. I do not wish to make the people choose between us. Especially right now.”
Again, the mysterious reference to some special circumstances. “Well, if you told me what’s going on, I might be more willing to cooperate.”
Marco sighed, and shook his head, but before he could answer, Giovanni spat on the ground at her feet and muttered angry words. Marco silenced him with a sharp retort. The other man looked ready to pick her up again, and she pulled back, repelled by the thought of his rough touch. Marco shouldered him aside, and she quickly bent over to seize the hem at the back of her skirt, pulling the material up between her legs, making rough breeches. “Give me a boost,” she ordered Marco.
He cupped his hands for her foot and she rose easily, slinging her other leg over the animal’s back. His hand lingered on her ankle, warm against her skin. She settled her behind more comfortably and looked down at the two men.
“Tie her,” Giovanni said in English. “The people must see.”
“No,” Marco said. “We will hold the reins, one on each side.”
He looked into her eyes, and she read pain and distress in his face. A muscle tightened along his jaw and his lips were clamped in a hard line. He had defended her and was still her best hope to get away. In her own interest she had to support him and not provoke strife. She held out her hands to him, wrists joined. “Do it, if it will satisfy him.” She shrugged. “I’ll break my neck if I try to get off a moving horse with my hands tied.”
The spark of gratitude in his eyes warmed her heart, and she felt a wave of satisfaction at having helped him save face. He looked down and wound the rope loosely around her wrists. When he’d finished, he kept one hand on hers and raised his eyes. His gaze held hers, seeming to want to memorize every detail of her face. The warmth of his fingers spread through her. She could recognize lustfulness when she saw it and knew he was recalling what had happened between them. The realization sent an answering thrill through her. He had shown her that he could drive her wild with pleasure and desire how and when he chose, and there was little she could do about it. In her situation she should have no room in her head for erotic fantasies, but her body had betrayed her. As it would betray her again whenever he touched her. Without a word he dropped his gaze and moved away.
She let out her breath and twined her fingers in the animal’s thick mane. Giovanni seized the halter rope.
As they started off on the trail back to the caves Marco took the rear of the small procession, his mind in turmoil. Looking into Emma’s eyes, touching her, had brought back the powerful craving of the night, making him shudder, quickening his pulse. He would have no peace until he held her close again, felt her molded against him, heard her moans of desire and was free to plunge inside her. The tremor in her hand just now when he’d tied her wrists had made him pause. She had drawn in her breath, tempting him with the movement of her magnificent breasts. He knew she felt the same ache, yearned with the same craving.
Before Giovanni had come upon them, the touch of her fingers tracing the line of his lips had made him flinch as if they trailed fire, but he hadn’t pulled away. He was so enchanted, so imprisoned by her that he doubted he could have resisted her if his life depended on it. Follia. Sheer madness. What in the devil’s name had he been thinking of? His job was to carry out his mission, not entertain lustful dreams, but his mission had faded like an old photograph that has lain for years in a dusty drawer.
He was a man possessed. Like a drunkard who lives for the next mouthful of brandy, he ached to feel her breasts again, to thrust his fingers into the moist folds of her cunt, to watch a film of delight move over her face. The image of her spread out for him, of sliding his swollen cock inside her warm wetness flashed before him. Thank God they had dressed before Giovanni had found them. If he had seen them naked and inflamed by passion, there would be an even greater price for her to pay.
As it was, Giovanni would exact retribution for her attempted escape, and despite being the capo there was little he, Marco, could do about it. He gritted his teeth in anguish at the thought of what lay ahead. A few paces in front of the horse, Giovanni tore a whip-thin branch from a bush as they passed.
One of the horse’s back hooves slid on the pebbles of the rise, the sound bringing Marco back to the reality of the moment. He slapped the horse’s rump with the flat of his hand, making the animal pick up the pace. The curve of Emma’s leg lay temptingly close, and he burned to slide his fingers up inside the cloth of her skirt. Her legs were spread on the back of the horse and he wondered if the movement, the friction of her skirt was exciting her, arousing her as she had been aroused such a short time ago.
Although he knew that Giovanni could turn around at any moment, his hand crept under the fold of her skirt. She looked down at him as she felt his fingers steal up her leg. With a small, secretive smile she raised her eyes and fixed them on Giovanni’s stolid back, as he walked no more than six paces ahead of them.
Marco moved his hand higher on her thigh and felt a quiver go through her. Half a step to the side brought his shoulder on a level with the curve of her ass and allowed his exploring fingers to touch the silky skin of her inner thigh. A fraction higher, he fondled the damp curls at the junction of her legs. She turned a moan into a cough and raised herself very slightly to allow him more access.
His eyes fixed on her face, his fingers parted the wet folds of her cunt and caressed the nub of her clit. He saw her close her eyes and he slid two fingers into her. A frown creased her forehead and her eyes remained closed as he teased her with his fingers, his groin swelling and tightening as she swayed on the horse. Dio, but he loved her responsiveness, her readiness for him
After no more than a minute she stiffened and arched back, clenching his fingers tight inside her sheath. He held her with one arm across the horse’s rump and the other buried deep inside her as she convulsed. He felt her inner muscles shudder, grasping and releasing him in a primeval rhythm. He leaned his head against her side, filled with desire, with longing and with an emotion he had never thought to feel again. It gave him such joy to pleasure her and it caused him such a stab of pain to think of her leaving him that he had to wonder if this was the beginning of love as well as lust.
He shot a quick glance at Giovanni, who still tramped ahead, unaware of the passions being enacted behind him. Marco withdrew his hand from Emma’s body and smoothed her skirt. He felt her hand rest lightly on his head and looked up at her. She smiled down at him, and he took her hand, turning it to place a kiss on her palm. He folded her fingers over and dropped back a pace.
They were close to the cave now.
When they reached the entrance to the caves, the sun was high in the blue sky. Most of the people had gathered outside and watched in silence as the small procession approached. A ripple went through the crowd as they saw Emma perched on the horse and a low murmur rose in the air.
Giovanni came to a stop a scant three paces from the front row of spectators. Several of the women made the sign of the cross while others curved their fingers in the symbol against the evil eye, spitting on the ground. Marco’s heart sank. The mood was not good. The horse tossed its head, sensing the tension in the air, and stamped its feet. Emma leaned forward to stroke its neck, murmuring soft words to soothe it.
A young boy sprang from the crowd and Giovanni handed him the reins.
Marco saw Emma lift her jaw and straighten her back. The proud gesture pierced his heart. He longed to pull her from the horse, and wrap his arms around her, promising to keep her safe, to watch over her. Instead he stepped forward, needing to establish his authority, seriously undermined by Emma’s arrival and her flight.
He waved Giovanni aside and spoke to the assembled people. “Dear friends,” he began, “you all know how much I have sacrificed in this struggle. You all know I hold each and every one of you like a brother or a sister. I would not willingly do anything to harm you. Therefore I am asking you for mercy for this young woman.” He turned and pointed at Emma and saw the color rise in her face. “She is ignorant of our struggle. She has no understanding of what we strive to achieve. It would be wrong to punish her.”
Giovanni elbowed his way past Marco. “This man is our leader,” he said, “but he is not above our rules. His inattention allowed her to escape. If she had reached the village, we would all now be in danger of our lives. We would be preparing to make a last stand against bullets and sabers. If she can disobey our orders and remain unpunished, what will guarantee that any Blackshirt who offers a juicy bribe will not succeed in turning one of our own against us?”
A murmur of approval rose from the crowd.
“I say,” Giovanni concluded, “that the usual punishment be meted out. Unless-” he turned to Marco “-our leader refuses to follow our established code.” His eyes on Marco, he whipped the twig against his leg.
Marco glanced at Emma who sat stiff backed on the horse, her eyes flicking from one speaker to the next, trying to infer meaning from their voices and gestures. There was no real choice for him. If he let her go unscathed, he would lose his position among his people and there would be no voice of reason to keep them safe while they completed the mission they had planned. Giovanni was impetuous and vindictive, a bad combination.
He let out the breath he had been holding. “Take her down,” he ordered. “I will deal with her this evening.”
Emma knew there was a big problem. Although she hadn’t understood a word of what Marco said to the small group of people, she had recognized the strength and passion in his voice. She’d seen some of the listeners nod as he gesticulated to emphasize his points, but others had frowned and murmured in disagreement. As he fell silent she sensed danger in the air. Her heart thudded in her throat. Apprehension knifed through her, making her stomach clench.
She didn’t see the man approach her until a rough hand seized her arm and pulled her off the horse. The fellow grabbed her as she stumbled, holding her against him. She caught a waft of stale sweat and garlic and swallowed a wave of nausea.
She made herself remember all the battle-weary Houndsdales who had never acknowledged defeat. A great uncle had fought at the siege of Mafeking, a cousin had commanded a unit in the trenches in France. She lifted her head proudly.
“Get your hands off me.”
She shoved the man away and shook the loose ropes free from her wrists. Taking a deep breath she turned to face Marco. His eyes were hooded, his lips set in a stern line of disapproval, as he swiftly covered the ground between them and barked an order at the one who had manhandled her.
She touched his sleeve. “Speak to me. Tell me what’s happening.”
“Later.” He freed his arm, gave an order to a young man standing nearby, spun on his heel and walked away.
The youth took her arm.
“I can walk by myself.”
He obviously didn’t understand English because he tightened his grip and pulled her toward the cave entrance. She lengthened her stride to keep up with him rather than be dragged along.
Without a word, the young man led her inside the cave entrance and stopped at a doorway built into the rock face, opened the door with a large, metal key and thrust her through it. Emma stumbled into a cell chiseled out of the bare rock. She whirled around, but the door slammed in her face.
She beat her fist once against the solid wood, then took stock of where she was. With her back to the door, she estimated a span of about six paces to the back wall, maybe ten from side to side. A wooden bench with a coarse-looking blanket stood against the left-hand wall. Nothing else. Through the thickness of the door she could hear the hum of activity gradually pick up as people resumed their tasks.
What did this mean? How long would they keep her here? On trembling legs she moved forward and sat on the bench, which creaked and shifted under her weight. She didn’t need a translation to know that Marco was fighting to retain his leadership of the group. Whether it was only because of her, or for other reasons, some of his followers were ready to rebel. Back home they’d once hired a new footman who had ideas of advancement that put him on a collision course with the head butler. She recognized all the signs of hostility and discontent amongst this group. Where did that leave her? Right in the middle, the meat in the sandwich, as they say.
For the first time she realized there was a slot cut into the door, roughly at waist height. Getting to her feet, she crouched and put her eye to the gap.
She could see nothing but the backs of women, busy stirring pots. A faint waft of soup drifted towards her, mingled with the smell of boiling clothes. The combination was sickening.
After a moment, Marco came into view, deep in conversation with Irena. Emma’s irrational heart leaped in her chest, her breath seized up, and her knees felt weak. His hair was tied back once more and his dark head was bent low as he listened to the girl. He touched her arm. His breath must be fanning her cheek. Irena looked up into his face and Emma felt a stab of jealousy such as she’d never felt before. She couldn’t breathe. Seeing him with Irena, unable to reach him, sent raw need flooding through her. Heated memories of being in his arms last night warred within her against her anger and jealousy. Marco was a handsome man. He was powerful, strong. Did the leader have the pick of the girls? Why wouldn’t they all throw themselves at his feet, dammit?
Emma drew a deep breath and called his name. He looked up, staring at the cell door, and said something more to Irena. The girl nodded. Emma called again, more softly, and this time he came over to the door. He squatted, bringing his face close to hers, and she saw the lines of fatigue etched in his face. He’d arrived at the farmhouse at dead of night, had climbed all day and hadn’t slept last night because of her. He needed to rest. She tried putting her hand through the slot, but then couldn’t see him. She could touch him or look at him. Not both. She chose to leave her fingers for him to grasp and in a few moments she felt his hand on hers. She gripped him tight. He was her anchor.
“Marco, what is happening?”
“Bella donna, I will not lie to you. The people are to vote on your punishment.”
“Punishment? For escaping?”
He stroked the back of her hand with his thumb. “Yes. “
She swallowed. “What do they want?”
He hesitated and she wished she could see his face. When he spoke she heard the pain in his voice. “Usually it means a few strokes with a cane.”
“What is a few?”
“Usually no more than ten.”
She sat back on her heels, trying to absorb what he said. She had been caned once by a governess. She remembered the indignity of her skirts hoisted to her waist, of bending over a chair, then the sting of the strokes even through her underclothes. When her father had heard about it, the woman had packed her bags and left without a reference. She closed her eyes. Daddy couldn’t save her this time. “Who will do it?”
“The rule says the capo, the leader, must do it.”
She gripped his fingers tighter. “You have to beat me?”
“Unless I can persuade them otherwise.”
Her legs turned to water, and she sagged against the door. She was glad she was kneeling. It could only have been for a moment that her breath froze, absorbing the shock, but even after she exhaled and drew air into her lungs, she still couldn’t seem to get enough oxygen.
Fighting for control, she swallowed hard. “Come inside. You owe me that.”
For a long moment he hesitated, then let go her hand. A second or two later she heard the rasp of the key turning in the lock, and she scrambled to her feet as the door swung open to admit him.
He ducked his head to avoid the lintel and stood silent before her, the key in one hand. She stepped backwards, her eyes on him, and felt blindly for the bench. He looked away from her for a brief moment to lock the door from the inside.
In the half-light of the cell, no more than three paces away, he loomed large, seeming to fill the small space. It was as if his body radiated a magnetism, a force field that drew her inexorably to him. She was conscious of the closeness of the walls of the cell. She drew in what air she could and sank down, clasping her arms to her body to hide the trembling.
She had never been one to back down in the face of a challenge. As usual the tension in the air brought out her defiance, her determination to face whatever might happen with dry eyes and a firm chin.
“You had better bloody well tell me what this is all about. It had better be worth letting my father think I’m gone forever and me suffering a beating!”
She could not see his face clearly enough to read his expression. In three steps he was close enough to take her hand.
He took a seat beside her and slipped his other arm around her shoulders. Although she stiffened at first in resistance, he insisted, pulling her against his side so her cheek rested on his shoulder. Despite her fear and anger, the weight of his arm around her back was strangely comforting.
The nearness of his body once again began to drive logical thought from her head. His thigh was warm against her leg, even through the rough fabric of their clothing. She felt the involuntary clenching of the spot deep in her abdomen, then the tiny, insistent ache.
For a final fleeting moment she was able to consider objectively what was happening to her, the power he had over her. Until now she had found it easy to move on after an affair. No hard feelings, no strings attached, and no one got hurt. She had always been honest and told the fellow she had no intention of getting involved. Those were the words that should be coming out of her mouth right now.
The brief flash of lucidity came and went in a twinkling. She felt his chest move as he sucked in a deep breath and her nipples puckered and hardened in response.
He spoke, making the wisps of her hair flutter in his exhalation. “I don’t even really know who you are.”
It wasn’t what she expected. For a moment, she was at a loss for an answer, then understood the deeper meaning beneath his words. Their relationship had progressed to the point where total honesty was the only thing that could save them.
“You call me Emma,” she whispered at last. “That is my name.”
“They say Emma is dead.” His arm tightened around her.
She shook her head and felt the roughness of his jaw against her skin. “No. Catherine and I played a prank, a silly game we had played before. It cost her life.”
She turned in the circle of his arm and found a mere fraction of space separating his mouth from hers. “I am Emma Houndsdale, daughter of a British earl. A foolish girl who has spent too much time indulging herself. The woman who died was my maid,” she whispered against his lips. “I will not lie to you. Will you also tell me all the truth?”
She saw him close his eyes. The fold beside his mouth deepened as he tensed his jaw, struggling with his decision.
She had vowed to be honest. “As far as the world knows, I am lost at sea,” she continued in the same low voice. “You could keep me here, your people could kill me.” She swallowed against the surge of fear. “No one in my home would know. I would disappear without a trace. But you would know.” She paused and he opened his eyes. They were a deep, dark brown and she could see golden flecks in their depths. “And you are an honorable man.”
She raised a hand to stroke his face. He turned his head to plant a kiss on her fingers. She felt the burn of the sparks that snaked through her veins directly to her heart. Her blood pounded in her ears and pooled deep in her belly.
“So tell me why I am here,” she said, fighting the compulsion to melt against him, to lose herself in the warm strength of his body. “Why it is so important to keep me from my father, who has no other children and who has spoiled me all my life?” She gave a tiny smile and brushed the side of his mouth with her lips. “And why do Giovanni and these people want you to give me ten strokes with a cane? Don’t I deserve an explanation before I suffer a beating?”
In response he gave a groan, seized her hips and swung her onto his lap, so she straddled him. He buried his face against her shoulder, squeezing her in his arms, pressing her breasts hard against the wall of his chest.
She looped her arms around his neck and held him, waiting.
He spoke close to her ear. “If I tell you, it will place a great burden on us both. On you, to obey my orders and to become a fugitive as we are, to never fall into the hands of the Blackshirts. On me, to keep you safe, because I cannot risk you giving us away. My people-” he hesitated.
“What?” she whispered, but she had half guessed what he would say.
“-my people have all sworn an oath to die rather than be taken.” The words came in one breath and he fell silent for a moment, allowing them to hang in the air. “Bella donna, my beautiful Emma, I cannot allow that for you. God forgive me, I want you to live more than I want my people to live. I cannot ask you to die for us.”
On the last word he turned his head and kissed her. His kiss was hard, carnal, demanding and her answering arousal was swift and powerful. Desire clouded her mind and shortened her breath. She reached for him, aching with a hunger partially sated during the darkness and which had built afresh in the past hours.
His lips that had spoken of death were warm and alive. The erotic touch of his tongue against hers sent a shudder through her. She felt his arousal through the skirt that covered her spread thighs, his erection pushing hard against the wetness between her legs.
Her muscles ached deep inside her. He released her mouth and caught her hand, holding it against his chest so that she could feel the thud of his heartbeat against her fingertips. He looked down at her, his eyes dark and turbulent. “It’s more than twenty-four hours since you’ve slept properly.”
The desire she felt was powerful enough to chase away exhaustion, urgent enough to provide temporary amnesia about the events of the last two days. She linked her hands behind his head, pulling him down until his mouth touched hers again. “Kiss me again.”
His head bent slowly toward her until at last he joined his mouth to hers.
He reached down and slipped his hands beneath the fabric of her dress. She moaned and tried to catch his hand between her legs as it brushed against her hungry clit. All she wanted was for him to give her release. She would have done anything he said if he would only continue to caress her.
“Not yet,” he murmured against her mouth and let his fingers wander against her side until he reached the tender, sensitive flesh of her breasts. She tried to move her own hands between her legs, but he caught her wrists and held her.
“If you make me hold your arms, then I cannot caress your breasts, can I? Which do you want?”
“You know what I want.” She raised her arms to rest on his shoulders again.
He lifted her skirt around her waist and she raised up to bare the throbbing moistness at the base of her belly. With a grunt of approval, Marco stroked her breasts again, then reached down with one hand to slip his fingers between her thighs and into her. She moaned with pleasure as he stroked inside her and he gave a tiny nod of satisfaction at the sound.
“Loosen my trousers.”
She dropped her hands to the space between them and fumbled with the ties that held the material together. His erection throbbed and pulsed against the back of her hand until at last she undid the final knot and parted the opening to reveal his organ. The head glistened with a pearly drop, and she stroked the slit, smiling as she made it quiver under her fingers. She looked up, still holding his cock and gazed into his eyes. A deep flush had colored his high cheekbones, and his eyes were misty with desire. He returned her smile with a sensual curve of his lips, still stroking her breasts.
The fire pulsing through her bordered on pain. She needed him to fill her so full she would never want again. He stretched her with his fingers, but that wasn’t enough. She wanted more.
She kissed him hard, relishing the scrape of his growing beard against the softness of her mouth, then raised herself on her knees on the bench, gathering her skirts in one hand. He withdrew his fingers and allowed her naked cunt to brush his cock, mingling their juices.
His hands gripped her hips as she positioned herself over his thighs, then very slowly took the tip of his cock into her. She paused as she felt it nudge apart the lips of her cunt, giving herself the time to savor the small penetration. Gradually she lowered her body, taking a tiny piece more of him with each movement. When she wanted to go faster, he held her, making her wait.
When at last she had taken all of him inside her, she let out a breath and held still. She could feel the movement of his cock inside her as it sought to fill her even more, to penetrate even deeper. Marco held her tight against him, and they waited for several breathless, wonderful heartbeats.
Still holding her waist with one hand, he moved the other between her legs and touched her throbbing clit, once, twice. The spark snaked through her from her cunt to her breasts and her inner muscles grasped his cock tighter in response.
He smiled as he felt her reaction and thrust deeper. As if coordinated by a force beyond their own bodies, they inhaled together, then let out their breath as they peaked at the same instant. Emma could not hold back a cry, quickly stifled by Marco’s mouth on hers.
For a few glorious seconds, she felt the warmth and strength of his climax inside her, complementing and extending her orgasm. Eyes closed, she clung to his neck to keep herself from falling. She felt the shudders go through him, initiating and imitating the tremors deep inside her.
My God, sex was always good, she made sure of that, but she’d never experienced sex like this.
She wanted it to last forever, this closeness, this oneness, this wholeness she felt with him. When he withdrew from her she would feel empty, lacking. At last, as the waves quieted and died, she opened her eyes and found Marco’s gaze fixed on her face.
Words were impossible. She gave him a tentative smile. Had he felt the same shattering emotions?
She kissed the side of his mouth, where a tiny white scar marred the line of his lower lip.
He licked the spot she had touched with the tip of his tongue. “I never want to let you go,” he murmured.
“I know. Nor I you.” She gave a little laugh. “Not a very original conversation. But I’ve never said that before to anyone.”
She felt his chest move against her as he drew in a deep breath. “Bella donna, forgive me for what I have brought you into.” He leaned his cheek against her hair. “On the beach, my people were taking a delivery of contraband. We thought you had seen, could betray us-”
She frowned, searching her memory. There had been a number of people on the shore when they’d found her. “Was that what they were doing? Silly me, I thought they were looking for survivors.”
She eased herself off his lap at last. Her skirts fell to cover the top of her legs and she stood beside him, still holding his hand. “Believe me, Marco, even if I’d known what was going on, I would never betray you.”
“I know.” He rubbed his thumb over the back of her fingers and sighed. “Pray that I can convince my people here of that.”
“What are the chances?”
“Not good. The people are tense, afraid-”
She had seen him with his people. Despite what he had said earlier, that he cared more for her, she knew they were dear to him. In her heart as well as in the flesh she and Marco had become one. She straightened her back and took a deep breath. If she thought about the caning any more she would change her mind. “Don’t spend your time and energy. You have things to do. I’ll take the punishment.”
He tightened his grip on her hand, a frown creasing his forehead. “Emma-” he began in protest.
She put her fingers on his lips. “I’ve decided. It’s best for you and for your people. I can’t say I think it’s a good idea…” A small shiver went through her and she turned her thoughts away from what would happen, “…but all things considered, it’s the only solution. When you’ve settled it with them, I hope you’ll tell me what it’s all about.”
She gave him a brave smile and forced back the tears that threatened.
For fifteen minutes after Marco left her, Emma paced her cell. Ten steps one way, six the other. Turn. Ten, turn, six, turn.
What had she done? She’d started with strong ideas of resistance but had finished by giving in to this man in every way. She’d let him tie her up, bring her to this godforsaken spot, subject her to hostile stares and threats and what was his reward? A couple of the best fucks of his life. And of hers, if the truth were told.
That wasn’t the point. She was tired and dirty and her feet hurt. Her hair, what was left of it, was stiff with sweat and probably harbored flies and bugs trapped during the journey. She looked at her once beautiful nails now torn, the polish half gone. Her thighs ached, and not only from the hard climb. Once again, she forced her thoughts away from the memory of Marco’s body, of the masculine scent of rope and horse and leather.
She needed to gather her courage for what was in store, not revel in the sensual feel of his hands on her, of the wetness between her legs-
She whirled at the sound of the door opening.
They had come for her.
Her heart pounded in her throat. How would they do it? Tie her? Strip her? She swallowed the tiny amount of saliva in her dry mouth, lifting her chin and saying a silent prayer that she would acquit herself well.
To her surprise, instead of Marco or Giovanni, Irena and another young woman came into the room. Their arms were full of cloths of different hues. Irena bobbed a little curtsey and said something in Italian. The other girl spoke immediately in English.
“Signora, the dottore has sent us. Please to come with us.”
“You speak English,” Emma said foolishly in her confusion. Her heart was still beating painfully in her chest. “Where are you taking me?”
The girl answered the first question. “Before we came to the caves, I was a student in the university in Naples. I learned English. Someday I hope to resume my studies. Come, signora, Signor Marco wishes to make you more comfortable.”
Comfortable? He was going to beat her in front of all these people. How could he make her more comfortable? Still, it looked as if these girls had brought clean garments and Lord knew she could use a change-
She had nothing to lose by going along with them, and might gain a fresh set of clothing.
She took a step toward them, but still hesitated. “Where?” Maybe this was a trick to get her out of her cell quietly. Maybe they thought she was going to resist, to kick and scream while they dragged her to the whipping post…
The girl who spoke English gave her a reassuring smile and placed a hand on her arm “Outside, signora. There is a place you can bathe in privacy. The dottore has given orders you are not to be followed or disturbed. There will be a guard, but he will be discreet.”
Marco was responding to her compliance about the beating, sending her a message of confidence. She was to be allowed out of the cell, trusted not to run. For some reason, this was a crucial time for him. She had understood that, and Marco knew she wouldn’t go back on her word.
Plus there was an offer of clean clothes and a bath. This was too good to refuse. Though how they could get a bathtub up here, she couldn’t imagine. While these thoughts raced through her head, she followed Irena and her companion out of the cell. Two guards, armed with long rifles, stood at the entrance to the caves, and one fell into step behind them as the three women left the shelter. Irena turned left and took a path Emma hadn’t noticed before. It climbed gently away from the caves and soon led to a deep cleft between two large outcrops of rock. Emma turned to look behind her. The guard halted a few paces back, his rifle held at the ready. Emma saw the tension in his fingers on the stock. He probably thought he would be duty-bound to shoot her dead if she took a step away from the path.
Mountains ringed the spot, shutting out any view of what lay in the distance. She knew the way back to the coast ran due west, but there was no sign of the track, or of the shimmering sea she had glimpsed on the way up. The silence was broken only by the sound of their steps on the stony path until a bird started from the underbrush almost beneath their feet. It took off with a clatter of wings and a protesting squawk.
Back in the moment, Emma turned back to the two girls. “What is your name?” she asked Irena’s friend.
“Teresa,” she replied. “I’m Marco’s sister-in-law.”
Sister-in-law! It hit her like a blow to the solar plexus. His wife’s sister? In reflex she stopped walking. Her lips felt numb, but she gathered her courage to summon up the words, asking for an explanation. Of course, Teresa could be the wife of Marco’s brother, not the sister of his wife. If he had a brother. Was this girl married? Did she dare to ask? Suppose the answer was that Marco had a pretty little wife waiting for him somewhere?
Before she could force out the question, Teresa moved ahead, seemingly unaware of the effect of her announcement, and continued to chat cheerfully. “I am so happy to practice my English. The last book I read was The Wasteland by T.S. Eliot. So interesting. Have you read it?”
Emma’s head spun at the change of subject. Her reading interests had centered mainly on Vogue and Field and Stream. She sometimes glanced at The Lady. And she’d read Hamlet at school. “I’ve heard of it,” she said, struggling to focus her roiling thoughts.
Irena stopped a few paces ahead of them before Teresa could delve any farther into Emma’s abysmal ignorance of English literature or Emma could ask the question burning in her brain.
The question she had to ask, but the answer to which she dreaded.
Emma and Teresa drew level with Irena and found themselves at the edge of a pool. Steam rose lazily into the air and the water shone a deep green.
“Ecco le acque calde,” Irena said with a gesture towards the water.
“ Hot springs,” Teresa explained. “The Romans had baths all over the country because the land has many volcanoes and streams that come warm from the earth. They never built baths up here, but this water is as good as anything in Rome.”
Emma nodded. Maybe after the bath, when her emotions had settled down, she could ask if Marco had a wife. Getting the bad news now or in a half hour wouldn’t make any difference.
Emma looked at the two young women. Teresa’s face wore a sympathetic smile, but Irena looked away, shifting her feet uncomfortably. How thrilled were they at ministering to a woman who had apparently endangered them all by her flight? However nice they were, it wouldn’t change anything about the beating that awaited her.
Teresa took Emma’s arm. “Come, signora. You will bathe and change clothes and then we will give you something to eat at the caves. I am sure you are hungry.”
Emma sighed. She knew she should have felt the pangs of hunger. She couldn’t remember when she last ate. Was it down in Enrico’s hovel? She had a flash of memory of Marco slicing juicy ham and feeding it to her. The suggestion of food now sounded too much like the condemned woman’s last meal. Her stomach churned at the thought.
Teresa shook out a sheet and held it to make a screen from the guard. Emma followed the movement of the girl’s fingers. She wore no rings. How usual was it for married women to go without a wedding band? Not often, in this very Catholic country.
Irena tugged at Emma’s tunic, muttering something, a frown still on her pretty face.
No point in looking a gift horse in the mouth, Emma told herself. Let’s take one thing at a time. Refusing to bathe and change her clothes would not alter a single thing about the beating Marco had promised her, or about the fact he could well be married. With a sigh, she nodded to Irena, pulled the tunic over her head and then loosened the drawstring of her skirt.
Someone had placed rocks to form steps down into the warm depths. The mineral-laden water felt smooth on her skin. It was no more than waist deep, and she found a low ledge on which to sit, so the water lapped her breasts. She settled back, luxuriating in the soothing pool, allowing her tense muscles to relax. The heated water laved her thighs, and caressed her between her legs, freshening the tender flesh. She dipped her head back, letting the water run through her hair.
Too soon, the nagging thoughts crowded in.
Before she’d reformed her life, before the German spies had frightened her half to death in England and had inadvertently brought Johnny and Gillian together, any good-looking, amusing young man had been fair game. Except the married ones. Even during the Game she had always been careful never to sleep with a man still living with his wife. Even Lady Ellersby had known that, and only invited her to the sessions with no married men. She had nothing but contempt for those who cheated on their wives. Her cousin’s husband had stepped out of line with an actress and she’d seen the hurt he’d caused. Marriage might not always be with the one who made your heart flutter-there were other considerations like family and heritage after all-but once you’d taken the vows, it was for better or worse.
Despite her own standards, the men she’d been with had usually only one thing in mind, treating her as a beautiful, desirable object. The only man who had never wanted to take from her, the only one she’d ever been comfortable with, that she trusted or wanted to trust, had been her father. Despite her bold exterior, deep down she was afraid to let anyone behind the façade. She’d soon discovered that going to bed did not mean intimacy. In fact it was a good way to avoid it. In a life crowded with men, none had ever bothered to find out that beneath the glittering surface of Emma the socialite, lurked Emma the woman who longed for a soul mate. No one had ever come close to meeting her hidden dreams, to making her lift the curtain of her true self. Until Marco.
She closed her eyes. She had told Marco she thought him an honorable man. Had she been horribly wrong? Had he been laughing at her all the time, slyly triumphant that it had proved so easy to seduce an Englishwoman, to tame her arrogance? Had his defiance of his people been a sham, calculated to win her confidence so he could stuff his cock inside her and hear her beg for more?
She shifted in the water as a wave of humiliation swept through her. She’d let him tie her on the horse, allowed his hands to stroke and caress her until she climaxed at his mere touch, then she’d ridden him in the cell, driving them both to a fever pitch of desire, even though he’d talked of giving her a public beating.
What had she been thinking? She should have continued on down the mountain when she’d had the chance and made good her escape. Not for the first time she wondered if she’d stopped to rest because she half hoped he would find her. Because in her lustful heart she didn’t want to leave him before she’d slept with him, before he’d thrust deep inside her and made her call out in ecstasy?
For a moment her paranoia took over. She imagined Marco regaling Giovanni with stories of how she’d been ready for him, wet and moaning. Her wild abandon might even by now be a subject of conversation amongst the cave dwellers
Surely that couldn’t be true? Surely Emma Houndsdale, the temptress, the one always in control hadn’t been beaten at her own game? For the first time she felt a true twinge of sympathy for all the young men whose affections she’d trifled with, then discarded.
Despite the heat of the pool, she shivered with a passing chill. She opened her eyes and slid down further into the warm water, letting it swirl over her body. In her mind she heard Marco’s words: “God forgive me, I want you to live more than I want my people to live.”
Were these the words of a cheat, a man who had no honor, no integrity?
She had believed him, swept away by the irresistible passion, by the lure of his body. Swept away and so inflamed by lust she hadn’t given a thought to the fact that he had no French letters, that he’d rammed his cock inside her with no protection, and she’d cried out for more.
Under the water she moved her hand to her flat belly and stroked the taut muscles. Seduction, madness, pregnancy. Wasn’t that the story of so many girls? No one would believe it of Emma Houndsdale. She bit her bottom lip. Daddy would look after her, although he would be shocked and grieved, but she would be damaged goods.
She moved her other hand to her breast, touching it the way Marco had. The nipple was tender from his teasing fingers. He’d nipped and squeezed and stroked until she was mad with desire, leaving her breasts sensitive and aching. Wasn’t soreness of the breasts the very first sign of pregnancy? How long did it take? Surely more than a day or so.
She pulled herself together. It wasn’t like her to wallow in misery, to take on the “poor little me” persona. She might have escaped the possible consequences. She might not be carrying Marco’s child. She knew all kinds of people who’d waited months, even years, to have a baby. No, she wouldn’t think about it. About how she would feel if he’d planted his seed inside her, about the might-have-been. She would resist him in the future, making sure if it hadn’t happened already it never would. Abstinence was the only answer. She would avoid ever being alone with him again.
But her ordeal wasn’t over. The armed guard and the two girls meant she would go back to the caves, and there she would face the punishment she’d agreed to, her head held high. Whether or not Marco had deceived her, she was a Houndsdale and Houndsdales always kept their word and took their medicine.
The sound of a stone rolling underfoot and a movement to one side caught her attention and she looked up, squinting against the sun.
Giovanni stood not two feet away from the edge of the water, leaning on a rifle. In his left hand he held a long, supple twig, which he tapped against his boot. Emma looked around for the girls and the guard.
“I sent them away.” Giovanni spoke softly, his eyes on her. “Don’t stop what you were doing for my sake. I’d like to watch you pleasure yourself.”
Emma hastily withdrew her hands from her body, feeling the blood rise into her cheeks as she understood how he’d interpreted her touch on her belly and breasts. He had crept up without a sound. How long had he been there, watching her?
He leaned forward a few inches and touched her shoulder with the switch, letting the tip of the slim branch trail to her neck, then down to the swell of her breast. She jerked away, clutching at a protruding rock to save herself from falling sideways.
He laughed. “You were not so skittish with our esteemed leader. What did he tell you? Was it easy to persuade you to open your legs for him?”
She swallowed hard and forced herself to look him in the eye. “What the hell do you want? Why did you send the girls away?”
He sank gracefully to the ground, reclining on his hip and propping himself on his right arm. His rifle lay within easy reach. He lounged with his left knee raised, effectively blocking her exit from the water. He touched her again with the twig and she steeled herself not to flinch.
“Bad language doesn’t become you, bella donna.”
It sent a stab to her heart to hear Marco’s name for her on this lout’s lips and she felt her temper rise.
“What do I want?” he continued in a calm voice, for all the world as if they’d been taking afternoon tea, making idle conversation. “I told you I’d like to watch you pleasure yourself.”
“Not bloody likely.”
“Maybe, maybe not.” He touched the whip to her face, tracing the line of her cheek, letting it rest on her mouth. She turned her face away.
“Then I’d like to fuck you.”
She glared at him and her mouth twisted in contempt. He was big and powerful, barring her way from the pool. Even the guard had disappeared. She was going to have to rely on her wits to brazen this out. “You have an extraordinary knowledge of gutter English. I’m not accustomed to propositions couched in quite those terms.”
“No? I’ll take wagers that you’ve heard the words more often than you will admit, Lady Emma Houndsdale. Or is it really Catherine Hall, ladies’ maid with pretensions of grandeur? I think I like that better.”
Emma stared at him, her mind racing. Did he seriously think she was Catherine as it had said in the newspaper?
Before she could respond, he continued in the same lazy voice, still stroking her with the twig. “I have a weakness for English ladies’ maids. So willing, and always eager for little gifts.” He smiled at her. “Marco and I were educated in England. We’re cousins, you know. There’s plenty of scope for learning gutter language, as you call it, from a gang of schoolboys cooped up together for weeks at a time.”
“Cousins?” Emma was torn between ignoring him and questioning him more about Marco. Her need to know won. “Marco has several relatives with him, then? Teresa said she is his sister-in-law. Is she his brother’s wife?”
The rhythmic stroking of the twig continued from her face to her shoulder, to the cleft between her breasts. Her skin twitched in revulsion, but she could not escape the touch of the flail except by standing up.
That was exactly what he wanted her to do. She bit the inside of her mouth to distract herself from the torment.
“His brother’s wife?” He gave a snort of laughter. “No, bella donna, indeed no. She is not married yet. Pretty little thing, isn’t she? Our Marco married Claudia, Teresa’s older sister. There’s a definite family resemblance.”
Emma’s heart sank. So it was true. She tested her reaction. After such a deliberate deception, no normal person would feel any compunction about breaking a promise. How did she feel now about making good her escape? If the opportunity arose, she probably would go. Yet her grandfather had always told her the sign of a gentleman was that he never broke his word under any circumstances, even when it was painful and difficult to stay true. When she was seven he’d made her give away her favorite puppy from a new litter because she had promised a neighbor’s child first choice. She frowned, vacillating.
“Don’t look so unhappy, bella donna. We Italian men take our pleasure where we find it.”
He put down the twig at last and leaned even closer. “I can see Marco has disappointed you, Catherine. I may call you Catherine?” Without waiting for a response, he continued in a low, seductive voice. “Come with me. I will take you to safety in Naples, to the police as you wanted. You owe Marco nothing. Let me look after you.”
She forced herself to smile at him, pretending to consider his proposal. “That sounds an interesting suggestion. But you are needed here. There is something important happening tonight.”
He gave a bark of laughter. “A big consignment of money and weapons will pass by tonight. The shipment includes papers that Marco needs to reestablish title to his lands.”
“So he will intercept it.”
“So he believes.”
“You know differently?”
He pulled his shoulders back, a smug smile on his face. “I do, Catherine. There will be another patrol, hidden. When this is over and Marco in prison, I shall be both rich and powerful. You would do well to stay with me.” The traitor stroked her face with his fingertips, making her stomach clench in revulsion. “Much better to be at my beck and call, rather than serve some spoiled, rich lady, wouldn’t you say?”
“You may be right.” Under pretense of shifting her position in the water, she moved her head away from his hand. She tried to sort the information he had given her, piecing together what Marco had told her with Giovanni’s boasting.
Her heartbeat thudded high in her throat. She was on dangerous ground. If Giovanni was telling her this, it meant he didn’t intend her to return to the cave. Whether she went willingly or not, he would take her with him, rape her if he wanted. Or kill her when he was done. He couldn’t risk her telling Marco of his treachery.
It was clear she had to find out more and then escape his clutches. Far from planning her own escape, she needed to plot how to warn Marco. And his people.
“You will not return to the caves?” she asked.
“With you? I think not.”
“What will happen to the people with Marco?”
He waved an airy hand. “We shall arrest most of them. They will receive a fair hearing. Some will stay in prison or be executed for treason.”
“I have a high rank in the garrison here. At the moment I am working undercover.”
“I see. Very clever. So you know exactly what will happen.”
“I am well informed about everything in the region. I have my contacts. The old boys’ network, don’t you call it?”
“Well, that’s not precisely what they mean by the expression, but I understand.” She moved her bottom on the rocks to lean further toward him, allowing him to see more of her breasts. “I like a decisive man.”
His eyes followed the movement of the water and he licked his parted lips. She let her eyelids droop a little and moistened her own lips, mirroring his movement. He drew in his breath.
She thought of Marco captured, imprisoned, ill-treated. He would be considered an enemy of the state. She had heard something about Italian prisons under the present fascist regime. The thought of his beautiful body tortured, beaten and starved caused her a stab of physical pain. She remembered his thumb cut off at the first joint. That had been a warning, he’d said, when she’d shown her shock. What would they do to him now? No matter what he had done to her, she could not deliberately send another human being to such a fate.
Giovanni’s eyes were on her face, watching the change of expression.
“Action always excites me,” she murmured. “Tell me more.”
He stroked the hair back from her face and held her chin between hard fingers, looking directly into her eyes. His expression hardened, and she had a sudden premonition that he was going to force her to her knees. She didn’t know what she’d do if he did. She simulated an expression of admiration and interest.
“I can promise you plenty of action, Catherine,” he said and kissed her, his tongue probing to enter her mouth.
She had to find another reason to speak, to pull away from his voracity. “Where will this ambush happen?” she whispered
“Do you remember the wide track halfway down the mountain towards the shore?”
“The same track curves around to the other side of the mountain. In fact, it is close to us, just over the ridge and down a short way.”
She thought furiously. “Will you take me with you? I should like to see Marco get his reward.”
“Perhaps. If you are good.”
“Maybe I should consider a change of situation,” she murmured. “If an employer proves unkind, we ladies’ maids have no compunction in finding a new position.”
“I knew you were a sensible girl.”
His hand fell on her shoulder, drawing her closer, then his mouth pressed hard on hers. She made herself relax, giving a tiny moan as his fingers moved to trace the curve of her breast. He was kneeling now, leaning over her, both arms securely around her. His jacket chafed her naked breasts.
She opened her mouth to his insistent tongue and felt his weight shift even more. She snaked her arms around his neck and stroked the hair on his nape. Compared with Marco’s lithe body, he felt heavy and clumsy in her arms. She forced herself not to think of what she was doing. It had nothing to do with Marco’s deception, and everything to do with her own survival and that of all the people in the cave.
Giovanni cupped her breast and squeezed the nipple hard between his fingers, making her yelp at the sudden pain. She felt his lips curve against hers in a smile. “I know you are a noisy lover,” he said against her mouth.
He had watched or listened to her making love with Marco. Anger rose inside her, forcing her to make her move with no more delay. She tugged him down farther toward her, sending him off balance, headfirst into the pool. As he fell, she stood, the water splashing up into her face as he hit the surface. Moving on instinct she seized a large stone and brought it crashing down on the back of his head. He lay still, almost submerged. She was sure she hadn’t hit him hard enough to kill him, but he would die if his face remained under water. Rotten as he was, she wanted no man’s life on her conscience. Mercifully, he had landed with his head only inches from the edge. Even so, it took a huge effort to lift his shoulders just enough to prop his head on a protruding ledge so he could breathe.
Panting from the exertion, she paused to look around. The water swirled around her waist, reminding her of her need for clothes.
Giovanni’s rifle lay a few feet away. She stepped out of the pool and picked it up, glancing back at the unconscious man. She checked the bolt. Let him try seducing the ladies’ maid now!
Water streamed from her breasts and thighs, cooling her skin. She shivered. Surely Teresa and Irena hadn’t taken all the clean clothing with them?
To her relief she caught sight of a pile of clothes on a large rock. Everything was there, including her own dirty garments. She put the rifle down within easy reach. With trembling fingers she rapidly dried herself as best she could on the sheet Teresa had held as a screen. Forcing down the wave of revulsion that rose in her throat at the thought of Giovanni’s hands on her she scrubbed at her breasts and her lips as if she could remove all trace of his caresses.
Then her eyes still on him, praying he wouldn’t move, she shook out a clean skirt and tunic and fumbled her way into them, all the time half expecting to see an enraged Giovanni emerge from the water. Feeling warmer, she picked up the rifle.
Giovanni hadn’t moved.
She’d done some hunting in Scotland and knew better than to take anything for granted, so she held her breath, remaining motionless to encourage him to stir if he thought she had gone. This time he would be seeking revenge for her playacting, and she was ready to shoot if he came after her.
A bird flew overhead with a mocking cackle.
She thought of the way he’d boasted about his police connections.
She judged she had waited about five minutes, thinking hard. Giovanni still lay motionless. It wasn’t really long enough to be sure, but she had little choice. She had the rifle. She was no more than twenty minutes away from the caves. If she could get back there quickly she could warn Marco there was a traitor in his midst. She paused. Why should she do that after what he had done to her? Because he had said his people were in danger. She might not care if he rescued his title deeds and the money, but she did care about him finishing up in a filthy prison somewhere. And his followers deserved a chance to get away. Despite their hostility toward her, she would never forgive herself if those women and children died, or were carried away to rot in jail.
Enough hesitation. It was as if the events of the past two days had piled up until they’d eaten away her capacity to make decisions. Her mind made up, she tucked the stock of the gun under one arm, took a last look around and moved toward the path that would lead her back to Marco.
Giovanni lay prone in the warm water, his eyes closed, barely breathing, cursing the woman for a lying, cock-teasing whore. The rock was hard under his cheek, and a dull ache throbbed from the spot on the back of his head where she’d hit him. She had led him on, humiliated him, and now she had the rifle. His rifle.
His straining ears caught the faint sounds of her movements as she dried herself and dressed. The temptation was great, but he daren’t look at her. He imagined her smooth legs as she stepped into the skirt, hiding her cunt, the cheeks of her perfect ass. When she raised her arms to put on the tunic, her breasts would lift and tremble. He stifled a groan as his cock hardened and swelled.
He tensed all his muscles to refrain from leaping up, bending her over one of the rocks, and thrusting inside her. Time yet to make her scream for mercy. All that talk of going with him had been a sham. Diablo! Marco had enjoyed her and he meant to have her too, if he had to beat her black and blue.
The sounds had stopped. Had she finished dressing, waiting for him to move, the rifle pointed at him? He could wait.
He had to hand it to her. She was hard to intimidate, and it looked as if she knew how to handle a gun. He damned his own carelessness for leaving the weapon on the ground, blinded by her wiles. The gun in her hands was the only thing stopping him from jumping on her now. He had to find a way to get it away from her, so he could make her his prisoner again. Tie her up, keep her somewhere she couldn’t escape until she understood there was no alternative but to stay with him. He licked his lips in anticipation.
He would have liked to see Marco beat her with the cane in front of all the people. Of course the capo had hesitated, as usual, until it was too late. Marco had agreed reluctantly to only two beatings since they’d been in the caves. One was a woman. She was too friendly with a man in one of the police patrols and although she protested her innocence, she received ten lashes on her bare back. She screamed and wept and begged them to stop. Giovanni felt the blood surge in his groin at the memory.
If he could be sure of one thing, it was that the Englishwoman’s pride wouldn’t let her go back to the cave. He’d told his story well and she’d believed it all. She wouldn’t go near Marco again and she would be easy to follow.
He thought of all the tracks that were visible from this vantage point, radiating out in different directions, all made by people over the decades. Some of the distances were great, but she would set off and eventually reach one of the villages. He knew the area well, and there were plenty of places where he could get ahead of her and lie in wait.
After a long silence he heard the sound of a rock bouncing down the slope on the other side of the pool and a muffled exclamation. Gravel crunched. She was on the move!
He hauled himself from the water in a swift movement and took cover behind a rock.
No sign of her.
His clothing dripped around him and began quickly to cool. Dio! Add that discomfort to the list of things for which he would make her pay.
He heard another cascade of stones from the path leading back to the caves. To make sure, he scrambled to the highest point above the pool and scanned the other trails. They were empty.
Inferno! She was on her way back to Marco! Once again she’d tricked him and caught him unawares. He had to stop her.
Even though his sodden clothes clung to him uncomfortably, he padded after her and soon had her in sight. She walked quickly, although limping slightly. She held the gun at the ready and she was nervous, darting glances around her, stopping once to look back. Of course she saw nothing except the empty track. It wasn’t hard to creep closer over the rocks as she picked her way down. He’d lived all his life amongst these mountains and could leap along the trails like a mountain goat.
Then she came to a more difficult section and had to keep her eyes on the ground. The right hand side of the track dropped off into a steep ravine, thick with bushes and underbrush. He narrowed the gap between them.
She stumbled on a loose rock, and the barrel of the gun dipped downward. He seized his chance, covering the space between them in two strides, clasping her in a bear hug from behind and clamping one hand over her mouth.
She fought and struggled like a mad thing, kicking and swearing. He lifted her off her feet, ready to throw her to the ground, but she managed to twist her head and sink her teeth into his ear. A red cloud of anger and pain misted his eyes and brain. He yelled in fury and, in instinctive reaction, hurled her away from him, over the edge of the cliff.
One hand over his torn ear, he watched her roll over into the gully, her arms flailing as she let go of the rifle and tried to clutch at bushes to slow her descent. Her body bounced against an outcrop of rock and he heard her cry out. Small stones slithered and clattered after her until she lay face down, almost at the bottom. He stood panting on the rim, flexing his shoulder muscles, letting the rage subside. It hadn’t been part of his plan to dispose of her so soon and he considered the wisdom of going down to finish her off, but knew he would waste precious time clambering back up the steep sides. Above the thick bushes they were covered with loose shale that slid underfoot at every step. The rifle had tumbled lower and was completely buried in the undergrowth. He knew this terrain. It would require a long and difficult search to locate the weapon, if it could be found. He had to take the risk that the woman was too badly hurt to make a search, even if she could get back on her feet.
Her coarse clothing in browns and grays camouflaged her from any casual glance. An overhanging bush screened her head from view. No one would find her until it was too late. In an agony of indecision, he waited, weighing the danger of her coming after him against the need to get to Marco and to be present at the ambush.
He waited a full minute and, when she didn’t stir, he brushed his hair back with both hands, straightened his shirt and set off to make his report to Marco and help him prepare to intercept the convoy.
He was wet and his clothes clung to him uncomfortably. Something else for which he would pay her back as he bounded down the slope despite the pain of his ear, the throb in his head and the slowly subsiding ache in his groin.
“So, dottore, the woman’s punishment will be discussed again after the ambush tonight,” the man said to the group around Marco. The speaker was the leader of an important group of the men, and his words carried weight.
Marco shook each of their hands in turn. “Thank you, my friends.”
It had taken all his skills to persuade them not to impose the beating, arguing with a tightness in his gut at the thought of bringing the lash down on her skin. They had not agreed to cancel it completely, but this was a victory of sorts. He could have sent her away, could have hidden her, but then he would have lost the trust and respect of his men. And he needed them to follow him tonight.
They had listened to him, reluctantly at first, then admitting he was right in insisting that they should not be distracted before such an important mission.
He tried to concentrate on the rest of the discussion about tactics for tonight, but his eyes and ears were alert for Emma returning from her bath. Granting her access to the water and clean clothes had been the only thing he could do for her. God knew he’d caused her enough discomfort. Now he would have the pleasure of telling her of the reprieve. He wanted her warm and pliant in his arms, grateful, passionate, giving-
He shifted impatiently on his stool. Surely Emma had been away longer than necessary? Ever since he’d first laid eyes on her he never wanted to let her out of his sight, wanted her within touching distance. When this was all over, he would take her to his estate and treat her like a queen. She would have a soft bed, fragrant linen, succulent fruits and wine. He would tend her, answer her every whim. His balls tightened at the thought of her silken limbs, of her warm, moist cunt, ready for him. And he would be in her bed, pleasuring her, loving her.
He caught himself. Loving her? Was that what this was, when you ached with longing every moment you were apart? When you prized her safety above all else?
A sudden noise at the opening to the cave startled him, pulling him from his reverie, and he looked up as someone burst into the cave at a full run. He sprang to his feet, a sudden premonition of disaster seizing his mind.
Giovanni pushed past the women at the entrance and came to a halt in front of Marco.
“Scusi, dottore,” he gasped. “Forgive me, forgive me.”
“What is it, man?” Marco snapped. “Are we under attack? Where is the Englishwoman?” A sick fear gripped him in his gut. “What has happened to her?”
Giovanni pushed back his hair, still trying to control his breathing. “If we hurry we may catch her. It was my fault.”
“Que dice? What are you talking about? Where is she?” For the first time he noticed Giovanni’s wet clothes and the torn ear. “Tell me what happened.”
Giovanni swallowed hard and looked Marco in the eye. “I will not lie to you, my friend. She tricked me. Just as she tricked you.”
Marco glanced around at the circle of listeners that had drifted close. He took his cousin’s arm in a tight grip and drew him to one side.
“What? For God’s sake, get it out.”
“She seemed to mean what she said. I couldn’t know-”
Marco shook his arm roughly. “Enough. Tell me.”
“Yes, dottore. I’m sorry.” Giovanni appeared to pull himself together with a visible effort. “I went to the pool to check everything was secure. After all, she did run once before. She was in the water and I had my gun. I thought the girls would be more use here, so I sent them back.”
Damn, he hadn’t seen them. Here was Giovanni taking matters into his own hands again, countermanding his orders. He controlled his anger. “And the guard?”
“I thought it best to send him with them. For protection.”
Idioto. “Go on.”
“She seduced me, dottore. I knew she was a loose woman because she let you-”
Marco clenched his jaw and resisted the temptation to bring his fist up under his cousin’s chin. Giovanni saw the tension in his face and hurried on. “-when she offered herself to me, I didn’t refuse as I should have done… Forgive me-”
Marco cut in. “So where is she? Did you take her?” A large, cold stone had settled on his heart, making it difficult to draw breath, squeezing his chest.
Giovanni nodded, his eyes downcast. “I knew she meant nothing to you, that you had just used her. So when she came out of the water and pressed herself on me… I… She was naked. Warm and wet…”
In pain, Marco closed his eyes for a moment, and his grip tightened even more on the other man’s arm. “Then what?”
“She made me think she wanted me, she lay down on her back and she let me inside her. When I leaned over her to suck her breast-” he paused and gave an eloquent shrug.
“Finish it, man.”
“She hit me on the head with a rock and pushed me in the pool. I could have drowned.” Giovanni fingered the cut on his head.
Marco chewed on the inside of his cheek to keep from lashing out at this idiot. “You didn’t drown.”
“No, no. Thanks be to God.”
“Where is your weapon?”
“She has it. Dottore, I wanted to get it back…”
“She fought you. Resisted you.” Marco gestured towards the blood seeping from his earlobe.
“No, dottore. She was willing.” Giovanni gave a smirk. “She can be wild, as you know-”
“So where is she?”
“I climbed an outcrop and caught a glimpse of her making towards the village of San Sebastian. Where the police unit is. I know she will betray us. I came back here to warn you.”
Giovanni glanced up as if expecting praise. Marco released his arm in an angry gesture and felt the rage boil up. He’d trusted her and this was how she repaid him.
“I’ll take the punishment,” she’d said. “I’ll help you maintain the respect of your people.” He clenched his fists to keep them from beating the messenger.
Giovanni was a young man with a young man’s blood. How could he blame his cousin for being taken in if Emma had truly wanted to seduce him? He had been just as much a fool faced with those eyes and that body. And he was older and more experienced.
“She let me inside her.”
Giovanni’s words echoed in his head, making him want to howl aloud at the searing pain that went through him.
When he’d first called her Bella Donna she’d looked at him and repeated the words in her English voice. “In my country,” she’d said, “it’s the name of a poisonous plant.”
Poisonous indeed. Deadly.
Should he believe Giovanni? They were close as brothers and he would have no reason to lie. If in truth she was going to San Sebastian, or any other village, they had to assume she’d bring the authorities down on them. They had maybe two hours before the local police got in touch with the security detachment that would be more than interested in knowing where Marco Antonioni was.
There was work to do, work that would dull the pain. He barked out orders to the men waiting behind him.
“Capo,” Giovanni protested when he heard what Marco wanted. “We can catch her. There is no need to move all the people. Let them stay where they have food and shelter.”
“My young friend,” Marco said curtly. “If we leave we may avoid a greater disaster. I need my lieutenants with me tonight. Then we will regroup back in our own homes in the village. There we can celebrate our victory.” He slapped Giovanni on the shoulder. “Come, boy, all is not lost. We’ll take the shipment tonight and even if the Blackshirts arrive here, they will find nothing. Nothing at all.”
After the men dispersed to follow his orders, he remained tense and immobile. He let out his breath with a conscious effort, trying to relax his shoulders and unclench his fists, but his muscles tightened anew as he recalled Giovanni’s story. And imagined the details he hadn’t mentioned.
She’d been wet. As she had been in Enrico’s house. With water droplets beading her arms. Her breasts heavy and lush, a small, dark mole on her upper back.
He saw her as clearly as if she’d appeared in front of him. The way the bones of her pelvis stretched the soft, white skin, the magnificent curve of her waist, the arc of her belly to the dark triangle between her legs. Another mole the size of a small coin on her thigh, and an even smaller one on her left breast, just above her glorious nipple. Not blemishes. Adornments.
No matter what Giovanni told him, lust still surged through him at the thought of her. Plus a wave of anger. Had he ever wanted a woman more? No. Never. And he still wanted her. He would go to his grave wanting her.
He grabbed a broom leaning nearby and flung it away. It landed softly on the dirt floor. In all the activity no one noticed. He would give his other fingers to learn that Giovanni’s story was untrue, but he had no time to waste.
Abruptly he swung back to the people in the cave, converting his shout of anger into an order to move more quickly.
The horse must have thrown her taking the jump over the stream on the far side of the four-acre wood. This time she must have made a mistake lining up the narrow opening between the hedges to make sure the hunter could clear the stile. It was tricky, but she’d done it lots of times. She remembered flying through the air, then a great thud, rattling her bones and driving the air from her lungs as she hit the ground.
A cold nose sniffed at her neck and she pushed it away. One of the hounds had stayed with her. The pack master would not be pleased at the breach of discipline.
Frowning, she tried to remember which horse she’d taken out. Thinking made her head hurt and her leg was twisted painfully under her. She moved it cautiously, then froze as she felt skirts around her calves. Why wasn’t she wearing her jodhpurs and boots?
She put a hand to her forehead to push back her hair and struggled on to one elbow, wincing as she put weight on a sore spot. Her mouth was full of coarse pine needles and bits of dried fern and she spat them out, wiping her lips with the hem of her tunic. She stared at the fabric as memory came flooding back.
Giovanni. Marco. Treachery.
No horse, no hunt in fresh English woods, but a stark Italian mountain and duplicity.
She was lying under thick bushes, wedged against a boulder and a tree stump. Peering through the branches up to the top of the gully, she saw no one. Had he left her, thinking she was too injured to escape and would die before someone found her, or was he intending to come back for her?
She scanned the slope where she had fallen. Not very high, but steep. No wonder her muscles and joints ached. She must have hit every stone as she bounced down.
A movement caught her eye and she swung her head, giving a little cry as the sore muscles protested. A large dog sat sphinx-like a few yards away, its tongue lolling and ears pricked. It was grey and hairy, some kind of sheepdog by the look of it. She’d had an Old English sheepdog as a child and used to ride it like a pony. This must be some kind of relative of the breed.
“Well, hello,” she whispered.
Its tail thumped the ferns, sending a small branch quivering.
“Shh, not too much noise.”
The dog wriggled its rear end in pleasure at her voice and inched closer.
“Okay, come on.” She held out her hand and after a moment’s hesitation, the animal stood and came near enough to sniff her fingers.
She rubbed behind his ears and he hung his great head in ecstasy. “Now, how are we going to get out of here?” she murmured. Finding the animal had cheered her. She didn’t feel so alone and abandoned. The dog’s dirty fur was matted with needles and dried leaves and she combed her fingers through it around his chest. “Someone hasn’t been looking after you. We’re in the same boat, we two. What’s your name?”
She held his head and considered. Her own dog had been called Mickey Wo-Wo in baby talk. She wasn’t a baby any more, but Mickey was still a good name. Besides, it gave her a smidgen of reassurance to make the connection with what she knew to be true and real.
“Well, Mickey,” she said, “let’s both stand up and see how far we get.”
The dog pressed against her as if he’d understood and she clambered to her feet, steadying herself on his strong back. His head easily reached her waist. Once on her feet she let go and tested her limbs. She’d twisted her ankle on the path down, before Giovanni’s attack, and it still pained her. But the swelling was slight. There didn’t seem to be anything broken, just cuts and bruises everywhere. Tomorrow she would be black and blue.
“Let’s go, Mickey.”
As soon as she left the vegetation at the bottom of the gully and started up the slope, she understood why Giovanni had left her. The scree slid under her feet and she soon struggled to prevent herself from slipping back faster than she climbed. Panting from the effort, she bent on all fours and began to inch her way up, trying to grasp at the stunted bushes.
After a few minutes her hands were sore from the sharp stones, and her shoulder sockets screamed in protest.
“This is hopeless,” she gasped. “It will take me all night.”
All through the ordeal with Giovanni she had remained dry-eyed, but now tears threatened, brought on by a mixture of self-pity, frustration and fear for Marco.
Mickey pushed past her, nearly throwing her off balance. “Hey, watch it, dog,” she said as she grabbed him to stop herself from toppling back. Her hands grasped the plume of his tail. Immediately he began to pull forward. “Go on, good boy,” she said as soon as she understood how he could help her.
The dog’s big paws were made for this kind of terrain, and Emma quickly developed a rhythm, moving in tandem with his long strides, holding his tail for balance. At the top at last, Mickey stopped to shake himself and lick her hand. She settled her skirts and looked around, patting his massive head. The path was deserted.
“We have to go to the caves,” she told the dog. “We have to let Marco know what’s going to happen. What that rat Giovanni has done.”
If she hadn’t suddenly felt foolish talking to a dog, she could have added that she wasn’t doing it because she cared what happened to Marco, just that she hated underhandedness and betrayal, and was concerned about the women and children. Plus she’d like to see Giovanni come to a bad end. But Mickey didn’t need to know all that.
Was it only two days ago she’d been complaining of boredom on the luxurious cruise ship? It felt like another lifetime.
She walked quickly along the path, ignoring the sting of her wounds and the throb in her ankle. The dog padded beside her, so close that his flank brushed her leg.
In a few minutes the flat area in front of the entrance came into sight. Emma halted the dog with a touch on his neck.
The choice was still open. She could turn her back, find her way to Naples and forget all about these incomprehensible feuds in the Italian mountains. Or she could continue, return to the caves and the primitive life within. One would restore her to the life she was used to. The other would enable her to prevent a disaster and bring her close to Marco.
She closed her eyes. The image of Marco, never far from her mind, formed against the darkness. The devastating combination of dark hair, black eyes and hard muscled body was always irresistible and made her heart beat faster. She told herself that his sexual appeal was of no significance. If she chose to go on it would be for the sake of his followers. She tried not to think about how he felt pressed against her, how the muscles in his arms and shoulders rippled when he moved, how her heart beat a tattoo when he looked at her.
The heat of desire surged through her.
She wanted his body. His body, her body, inseparable. She wanted the full length of his nakedness against her, skin to skin, limb to limb.
She wanted to feel his hands stroking, his hot mouth suckling her breasts until she lay helpless and quivering in his arms. Stop!
She would never get what she wanted again.
She shook off the wanton thoughts and brought her mind back to the all-too-real here and now. For the first time she took in how deathly quiet it was. She stood still, her hand on the dog’s neck, hardly daring to breathe. No sound of movement, no waft of simmering soup. Where were the guards? The muscles in her stomach tightened in a spasm of fear. Had Giovanni brought Marco’s enemies here already?
She quickly dismissed the thought. There was no way he could have fetched the Blackshirts in such a short time. Unless she’d been unconscious for hours rather than minutes. Surely not. She glanced at the sun. It had already started its afternoon path down toward the sea, but there were hours of daylight yet.
She crept up to the opening and stepped inside, peering into the gloom.
The vast space was empty. People, children, cooking fires and lights were all gone.
Her fingers rested on the dog’s head, and she felt as well as heard the low growl in his throat. A figure emerged from the back of the cave.
“Teresa!” Emma darted forward, the dog hard on her heels.
Teresa turned, still holding the cloth she’d been folding. Her face registered a look of surprise that would have been comical if the situation weren’t so serious.
Emma hurried up to her, and grasped her arm. “Where is Marco?” she demanded. “I have important information for him.”
Teresa shook her head. “He is not here. No one is here but for me and Irena.”
Teresa smiled. “The ambush will take place elsewhere and our men will be successful. Besides, Irena and I know the mountains since our childhood. We can move fast if need be.”
As if on cue Irena appeared in the entrance and immediately pointed an accusing finger, launching into a tirade of words.
Teresa cut in with a sharp command and the younger girl fell silent. “Forgive her,” she said. “She is young and impressionable. And she imagines she’s in love with Giovanni.”
Irena slumped against the wall and tears started down her cheeks. Emma had a good idea what had shattered Irena’s illusions, but there was no time to spend explaining that Giovanni was not worth a tinker’s cuss to any woman. She turned back to face Teresa. “Where has he gone?”
Teresa shook her head again. “I cannot-”
“Did Giovanni come back here?”
“What did he say?”
“I didn’t hear it all. But he said you-” she swallowed and a blush crept up her neck, “-had seduced him, then escaped again. He said you were on your way to report to the police.”
“Of course. His word against mine.” She took a step or two back and forth, the dog following her movements by turning his head. “Did you believe him?”
Teresa shot a glance at Irena. “No.”
Emma breathed a sigh of relief. At least he hadn’t poisoned everyone’s mind. “Did Marco believe him?”
Teresa looked down. “I cannot say.”
Emma didn’t press. Whether he’d believed the part about the seduction or not, he’d not been willing to take a chance on her betrayal and he’d cleared out every vestige of his people.
“How did they manage to leave so quickly?”
Teresa shrugged. “We were always ready to move out at a moment’s notice. Besides there were plans-”
Of course they hoped to leave permanently after they intercepted the shipment. “They’ve gone for the ambush, haven’t they?” Emma saw the look of indecision on Teresa’s face. “Don’t bother to answer if you promised not to. We have to warn Marco.”
“Warn?” Poor Teresa looked totally confused.
Emma drew her away from Irena and lowered her voice. “You have to believe me when I say the traitor here is Giovanni.” She raised a hand as Teresa drew a breath to speak. “Don’t ask me how I know. Marco is walking into a trap. I have to go after him.”
Teresa gave her a quick, searching look, then obviously made up her mind. She turned on her heel and snapped short, sharp directions at Irena. The girl started to protest, but Teresa pushed her toward the entrance, making shooing motions with her hands.
She turned back to Emma. “I have sent her to her aunt in another village. She is young and foolish about Giovanni. But she is loyal. She will say nothing.”
She took a quick step toward Emma, and the dog stood, a low rumble coming from its throat.
“Dio! The Hound of the Baskervilles!”
Emma put a hand on the dog’s neck. “Quiet, Mickey. It’s all right.”
He sat on his haunches, his head level with Emma’s ribs.
“Where did he come from?” Teresa asked.
“I have no idea. When all this is over, I’ll find his owner.” Emma looked around. “Is there anything left? Any bread? A shawl?”
Teresa moved away and picked up a basket. “Bread and water in here,” she said. She tucked her arm through the handle. Maybe she meant to keep it for herself. She must have instructions on where to go to wait for news.
Emma nodded. “Fine. I know the way to the ambush. I hope you can go back to the university soon. Goodbye.” She turned away.
“Wait for me. I’m coming with you. What did you think I was going to do?”
She paused and smiled at Teresa. She was surprised at the feeling of relief that swept through her. A few hours ago she had been alone. Now she had two companions to help her. The dog with strength and loyalty and the girl with the Italian language. The odds were improving.
At the entrance they paused to look back as if with one accord. The walls of the houses were beginning to fade into the gloom. The floor was swept clean, only gray outlines tracing the site of the cooking fires.
“It looks as it did fifty years ago,” Teresa said.
“Has it been here that long?”
The girl nodded. “It was built during some feud, used and then forgotten when it was no longer needed.”
They set off in single file, the dog bounding ahead, then waiting for them to catch up, checking the rear and then outpacing them again.
They came to the pool and Teresa stooped to pick up the remaining pieces of clothing, forgotten after the incident with Giovanni. “Here is a shawl for you. We’ll take it all. Marco said to leave no trace.”
Emma nodded and absentmindedly folded the shawl over her shoulders, her thoughts on Giovanni’s story about Marco’s wife. She had believed it at the time, but Giovanni was a traitor. It was second nature for him to lie.
“Tell me about your sister, Marco’s wife,” she said.
Teresa gazed at her, her large dark eyes immediately brimming with tears. The look on her face was so grief-stricken that Emma at once felt a stab of guilt.
She put her hand on the girl’s arm. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I shouldn’t have asked.”
Teresa shook her head. “It’s still hard to talk about,” she whispered and caught her bottom lip between her teeth. “But I will tell you as we walk.”
Emma glanced at the sky. The mountains hovered above them, grim, hulking masses of shadow as the sun sank farther toward the far peaks. They should hurry if they wanted to arrive before complete darkness fell.
The path was wide enough to walk abreast and they stayed side by side, the dog still patrolling ahead and behind.
“My sister Claudia married Marco when she was nineteen,” Teresa began. “The marriage was expected, they had known each other since they were children.”
Emma moved at a measured pace, her eyes on the path ahead. She hardly dared breathe for fear of interrupting Teresa’s story.
“Both our families opposed Mussolini,” Teresa continued. “Things grew very difficult as the newspapers were shut down and the Blackshirts arrested anyone who spoke out. Marco’s father was put in prison and badly beaten.” She paused.
“What had he done?”
“He started a small underground newspaper. Marco helped him. After his father was arrested, the Blackshirts came to the house. They wanted Marco. Claudia was there alone.”
Teresa wiped her eyes with a corner of her shawl, but her steps didn’t falter. “She couldn’t tell them where Marco was, because she didn’t know.” Her voice grew steady, flat. “They raped her, then they tied her to a tree and poured castor oil down her throat. Then they stuffed a live toad in her mouth and made her chew it.”
Emma’s legs trembled and her heart thudded like a wild thing as she imagined the poor girl surrounded by black uniformed louts. “My God!” She wiped a tear from the corner of her eye with shaking fingers.
Teresa kept her eyes firmly on the path, but her voice shook with emotion. “It is a common punishment for those who do not cooperate. Very unpleasant and painful. They laughed when she vomited, and then of course, the castor oil took effect. They thought it great entertainment. But Claudia had never been strong. She had a heart murmur since she was a child. It was all too much for her. She died.”
The words hung in the mountain air against the faint sounds of the birds and the whisper of the breeze. Now Emma understood why Marco had been so afraid for her.
Marco and his band had met no one as they scrambled along the narrow, winding trails made by animals rather than humans. Darkness fell just after they had completed the trek from the caves and arrived at the point they had chosen to ambush the convoy. About an hour later having checked the terrain and positioned his men, he settled into the ditch by the side of the road. The latest information from the spies confirmed that the commander of the Blackshirt garrison was in place, ready to lead the convoy at first light.
They had about eight hours to wait.
Eight hours for him to think about Emma. Emma on his lap. Emma in his arms. Emma responding to his kisses. Emma on her back for Giovanni…
His breath whistled from between his teeth and he rose to his knees. The bustle of the departure from the caves had served to mask his pain for a few hours, keeping his mind and body fully active. But now there was nothing to do but wait. And remember.
A darker shape materialized against the velvety blackness of the moonless night.
Pietro slid into the space next to him. “All men in place,” he muttered.
“Where is my cousin?” Marco wasn’t sure why he asked the question.
He felt rather than saw Pietro’s shrug. “He told his unit he was going out to check on the guards further down the road. He’ll be back.”
Marco stood and stretched. Restlessness skittered through his nerves. “Maybe I’ll join him.”
Pietro reached up and pulled on his arm. “No, dottore,” he said. “We can only risk one man out at a time. That’s your own rule.”
“Of course,” Marco said again and stepped back into the shallow trench.
When he was hidden, Pietro rose and slid like a snake from the ditch. The two men clasped hands and then the lieutenant melted away into the blackness.
Marco made himself as comfortable as he could on the hard ground. His grandfather had fought in the trenches in the First War. The Great War, they called it. The War to end all wars. In the darkness he smiled bitterly. Another war was coming, what with the maniac Austrian ensconced in Germany and Mussolini leading Italy to battle with Ethiopia. God only knew where it would finish once it started.
He no more wanted to contemplate that prospect than he wanted to imagine Emma with Giovanni. He dragged his thoughts away and made himself go through the preparations for tonight once more.
The convoy would be moving guns and money to support the government crackdown on a small rebel movement on the east coast near Bari. So what Marco and his men did tonight would help those brave souls a few hundred kilometers away.
They would seize the armaments and the gold, and put them to good use, but more importantly they would take the strongbox of documents.
Marco’s gut clenched at the thought of the commandante who would have the box under his personal supervision. In it were the stolen title deeds to all the lands he had usurped from their rightful owners. There would be lists of farms, houses, fields and livestock. Plus reports of rebels interrogated. The bile rose in Marco’s throat. This was the man who had tortured and killed Claudia. Each of Marco’s men had some grudge against him. For some, it was the rape of a daughter or a sister. Others had lost their land and their farms. For a few, a son had disappeared into the interrogation rooms, never to be seen again. It had been a long wait until they could be sure of waylaying Il Comandante. It would give all of them great pleasure to deal with him as he deserved.
It was a cloudless night. A half moon and the stars lit the terrain with a luminous glow. There was enough light to see movement and to make out a man’s features. He would have preferred cloud and total darkness, but he hadn’t the luxury of choosing his battleground.
Pietro reappeared out of the darkness like a gray ghost. “The men are all in place,” he whispered.
“Has Giovanni returned?”
Despite Pietro’s previous reminder about the rules, Marco scrambled from the ditch. “I’ll go half a mile or so out,” he said. “Something is wrong. I’ll do my own patrol.”
Emma felt as if she had spent half her life walking in these hills rather than a mere two or three days.
The birds had fallen quiet as dusk crept over the peaks. Night fell quickly this far south with none of the lingering twilight of England in summertime.
Soon after they started out the sun had sunk low, sending long shadows across the rocks, then disappeared completely, taking with it warmth and light. But it wasn’t only the chill in the air that pierced Emma to the bone, making her draw her shawl tighter around her. Ever since the account of the torture and death of Claudia, both she and Teresa had fallen silent. She could not rid her mind of the image of the laughing, sadistic men and the helpless girl. How many times had Marco reminded her she was no longer in England? She’d scoffed at him. Italy boasted a civilization going back centuries. The Romans had been building centrally heated apartments when her own ancestors had still dressed in skins and painted themselves blue with woad.
What had gone wrong? Only the rise of a dictator who believed he knew best. Such men would always bring out the worst in men, and women too. She remembered Johnny Westmarland saying that.
At long last, she understood what Marco was fighting for.
Now they walked by the light of the moon and the stars. Under other circumstances it would have been magically beautiful, but she had little time or thought for beauty.
The tramp of their feet and the panting of the dog were the only sounds to break the mountain stillness. They set a fast pace and when they paused at the top of a slope to catch their breath Teresa tore a piece of bread from the loaf in her basket, handing it without a word to Emma. She nodded her thanks and ripped at it with her teeth as they continued walking.
The dog had resumed his patrol of the path on all sides of them. Just as they swallowed the last of the bread, he suddenly froze two paces ahead. He stood immobile, only his ears betraying him with a slight twitch every few seconds. Emma’s palms instantly turned sweaty, and her heart began to pound. She put out a hand to Teresa to halt the girl’s steps behind her.
Strange how silence could sometimes convey greater menace than the most violent noise. She peered into the gloom, trying to see what Mickey had seen, to hear what he had heard. Was it an animal that had set Mickey to quivering? Or the Blackshirts? Or Giovanni?
“Buona sera, signorine.”
The whisper came from behind and above. Emma twisted around so fast that she wrenched her sore ankle and grabbed at Teresa to stop herself from falling. She looked up slowly, the taste of fear metallic in her mouth, sapping logical thought. Perhaps if she’d had any mental capacity left, she would have felt astonished that he was here. As it was, his presence simply seemed inevitable.
Marco leaned against a large rock balanced above the path, feet crossed, a rifle dangling from one hand, the other hand shoved into his pocket, his long body dappled by the shadows cast by the starlight. A lingering ray from the sliver of moon highlighted several days’ worth of whiskers that darkened his face, emphasizing the strong planes and angles of his cheekbones and jaw. A straight lock of dark hair fell over his brow, hiding his eyes, making her want to push it away.
If it were not for the fact that the rifle pointed so steadily at them, he would have been the picture of careless indolence. But she didn’t make the mistake of confusing appearance with reality. He would never be careless around her again.
He was only a few feet away. He didn’t smile, wasn’t near enough to touch her, but she felt his presence in every cell of her body. Mickey growled in his throat and immediately the rifle shifted slightly to cover the animal. Emma moved to step in front of the dog, but sank to the ground at the stabbing pain in her ankle. She could not prevent a sob. The dog shoved a wet nose against her neck and she pushed him gently away.
Marco moved loosely down to a lower ledge. The rifle did not waver. He was close enough now that she looked directly into the black, malevolent hole of the barrel.
“A dog and two people who should not be here,” he said in a low murmur. He glanced at Teresa. “What is the meaning of this?”
Teresa moved forward and spoke in rapid Italian. Short, fast questions and answers fired between them, and Emma heard the name of Giovanni. Marco handed the gun to Teresa and turned back to Emma. He knelt down beside her and took her ankle in his warm, hard hands. The dog shifted nervously, but did not warn him off with a growl this time.
“It’s all right, Mickey,” she murmured. She looked up at Marco, tears blurring her eyes. They came from an equal mixture of relief at seeing him, and the pain in her throbbing ankle.
He held her gaze for a long moment. “Giovanni returned to us with his story,” he said simply. “He is on patrol.”
Her heart sank. She could imagine the pack of lies Giovanni had told. She shook her head. “He’s making his way to the Blackshirts to betray you.”
Quickly she told him what his cousin had said. His lips grew thin and tight, and the color drained from around his mouth. He shook his head in denial.
“If you don’t believe me,” Emma said, “find Giovanni. If you do, call him back from patrol and let me confront him.” She caught hold of his arm. “What did he tell you?” She scanned his face and let out her breath. “I can imagine what he said. Did he say I seduced him?”
“Yes.” His tone was flat, without emotion.
Anger sparked. “Not true. He meant to rape me. I was terrified for my life. I hit him before he could do more than kiss me.” She dropped her voice. “Even that was too much.”
“He tried to rape you?”
She saw the raw fury in his eyes and touched his shoulder. “He didn’t succeed. I swear it. I fought him. When he came after me, I nearly bit his ear off.”
She gazed at him anxiously, unable to tell what he was thinking from the expression on his face. The pain in her heart at the thought he might not believe her was greater than the pain in her twisted ankle.
She wanted to scream at him that he was supposed to trust her, that she had given him enough proof of her worthiness, but she knew he had to think his way through the news she had brought. Giovanni was his cousin, his own blood, who had worked with him for years.
By contrast she was a piece of flotsam thrown up by the sea, who had been only too willing to lie with a man she barely knew. How could she make him realize the danger he was in? What would it take for him to believe in her once more?
He lowered his eyes to her leg again and pressed the swelling flesh of her leg with expert hands. “Nothing broken,” he said. “Can you stand?”
“Of course I can.”
She pulled herself to her feet by holding his arms, but she never made it fully upright.
She remained still, clinging to him, not from choice, but because she knew she was incapable of taking a step. Her head spun from the pain, from weariness, from all the emotions she had lived through. Dizziness preempted any protest when his arms came around her, holding her.
Everything swirled around her, whirling faster and faster until her legs crumpled under her. Somehow she’d lost the ability to make them bear her weight. She needed the strength of his arms or she would topple over.
Marco felt her sag against him. With a word to Teresa to make sure she kept the gun at the ready, he swung Emma into his arms. She gave a tiny sigh as he settled her head on his chest. A combination of nervous exhaustion and pain had drained the last remaining dregs of color from her face, leaving her deathly pale. A faint blue tinge ringed her mouth and her eyes were closed. He felt the beat of his heart thudding against her cheek and knew she must feel it too. The intimacy was wonderfully familiar.
He wanted to believe her account of what had happened with Giovanni. Although he did not want his cousin to be proved a traitor, neither did he want to believe Emma could seduce another man. She owned such a large portion of his heart that he had been torn apart at the thought.
He’d tasted the black despair caused by her supposed faithlessness, but his reaction to Giovanni’s story had been the pure instinct of a wounded animal. Now there was another witness. Teresa had explained how Emma had walked back to the caves to find him. Her story made sense. The hours he had spent with his bella donna, the knowledge he had of her nature, assured him that she did not lie. Emma was still his. Despite what this meant about Giovanni, he wanted to throw his head back and crow his relief and delight into the dark night.
Unable to help himself, he brushed her forehead with his lips. Her eyelids fluttered and opened. Dio, but she had beautiful eyes. They drew him into their depths like a thirsty man seeking water. Every glance bewitched him and lured him more surely under her spell. For the past few hours she had never been far from his thoughts, although he’d tried to bury his feelings for her under layers of activity and anger. Confronted with the reality of her body in his arms, those layers were proving fragile and insubstantial.
She gave him a tremulous smile and her eyes closed again. He glanced at Teresa, who was watching them. It seemed to him that the girl gave a small nod of approval. He gathered Emma more closely and set off. The dog seemed to understand that Emma was safe and resumed his scouting position ahead of the small group, with Teresa bringing up the rear. Marco strode as fast as he could without jarring the precious burden in his arms.
He took her into a shepherd’s hut with a broken roof and crumbling walls and laid her gently in the deep shadows on the earthen floor. It was not far from the spot they had selected for the ambush, but he was so full of confidence he had no fear for her. Failure was impossible now that Emma had returned. Teresa followed them inside with the discarded clothing from the pool and between them, under the faint light of the stars that shone through the gaps in the grass roof, they cleared wooden debris from the floor and made a makeshift bed for Emma to lie on. Mickey lay down beside her, his head on his paws, only his eyes alert and moving.
Marco told Teresa to find her way to the rest of his men. “Tell Pietro to send for Giovanni,” he said. “I will be there shortly to talk to him.”
Teresa nodded and slid silently from the hut. He remained standing, looking down at Emma. His night vision had always been good, and he could see clearly the pale oval of her face and the whiteness of her hands. The weight of her in his arms had produced exactly the same reaction as the first time he had carried her across Enrico’s farmyard. He found it strangely difficult to take a deep breath, and all his blood seemed to have drained to his heated groin. His fingers itched to tear the clothing and covers off her, expose her legs, her breasts-
“Did she take the gun?” Emma murmured.
He swallowed hard and bent to smooth her hair back from her face. His cock jumped in response to the contact with her skin, and he forced himself to speak calmly. “Yes, but don’t worry. I have another.” He pulled a pistol from his belt and laid it aside.
Emma gazed at him through half-closed eyes and placed her hand on his sleeve. “Armed to the teeth,” she said. “I had Giovanni’s rifle, but I lost it. It’s good to feel safe. And we have Mickey to look after us.”
Marco glanced at the dog. “As long as he knows who the enemy is. I don’t want him attacking me.”
“Why would he do that?”
He didn’t answer, and she pulled herself to a sitting position, using the wall as a support. He caught a glimpse of bare flesh as the movement opened her tunic at her throat. He had a flash memory of first seeing her tied in the stable, the torn material of her shift revealing the sweet curve of her naked breast.
“You aren’t my enemy, Marco.”
“No. Far from it.” He tucked a covering sheet around her, glad of the opportunity to do anything that gave him an excuse to put his hands on her. “In fact, what I want to do this very instant is to mount an attack on your body, to push you down on the floor and feel you under me. I want to hold you close and fuck you hard and fast.”
She caught his hand in hers and kissed his fingers. “No.” His heart missed a beat and he saw the gleam of her teeth as she smiled in the darkness. “Hard and fast is good, but I’d like it long and slow. Do we have the time?”
“We have the time.”
She placed his hand on her breast. He could feel the racing of her heart under his fingertips. “You believe me?” she said. “About Giovanni?”
“I believe you. For a short while I was mad with rage at the thought of you and he… Forgive me, bella donna. In my heart I knew that you wouldn’t betray me.”
She let out a long breath, then frowned. “Do you believe you’re in danger?”
“I mean to find out. But I have time.”
She stroked the back of his hand, sending unbearable sparks along his nerves to his groin. Her nipple hardened under his fingers, and he felt the tremble through her body. He put his free hand behind her head and gently drew her toward him, fitting his lips against hers. She groaned against his mouth, but she didn’t move away, and he gave in to the urge that had been building hard and fast for the past hours…
He had never known a kiss like hers, so trusting and yet so intensely arousing. Her lips were incredibly soft, and they opened for him at once, inviting him in, releasing a dam of emotion within him. He was desperate to invade her, possess her, claim her as his alone.
The dog growled and stood as he held her tighter. She released his mouth and waved a hand at the animal.
“Quiet, Mickey,” she said sternly and pushed his furry head with her free hand. “There’s nothing to worry about. Down.”
The dog obeyed her and retreated to a corner. She turned her face back to Marco and kissed him, but he broke away from her and tore the clothes from his body in feverish haste. Naked, he put his hands on hers and stopped her removing her own garments. His eyes on her face, he loosened her thin tunic and pushed it from her shoulders. She sat forward a little to allow him to undress her and then remained perfectly still, only a quiver betraying the effect of his hands on her. He loved to watch her mouth grow lax and soft, her lips swollen and bruised-looking as her arousal grew. Although the darkness hid so much, he allowed himself to imagine the mist of desire clouding her bewitching eyes, the color rising in her cheeks. Soon he would make love to her in sunlight and watch every fleeting expression as he made her experience a pleasure she had never known before.
He slipped the tunic down further. Slowly. His nerves screamed at him to hurry, to tear the garment from her, but he wanted to savor every moment, every inch of newly exposed skin. She freed her arms, but the fabric caught on the hard peaks of her breasts. She waited. He sat back on his heels, entranced by the way the fabric hid the beautiful mounds, yet hinted so clearly at their shape. His fingers curved instinctively as if already feeling their roundness, their weight. He met her gaze, seeing the shallow rise and fall of her breath as she grew ready for him. The shiver that rippled through him had nothing to do with the mountain air. It had everything to do with the longing in his flesh, his heart, his very soul.
Perhaps it was foolish to want a woman so much, yet want her he did. She took a long, deep breath, the movement freeing one taut nipple. He licked his lips and promised the throbbing in his loins there would soon be release. Her breath caught as he reached forward to free her other nipple from the clinging fabric.
His hand lingered, his fingers brushing her lightly, like a blind man learning about a precious object by touch alone. His thumb caressed her breast. She leaned forward from the waist to kiss him again. Her mouth was an oasis of freshness and delight in a thirsty land. He cupped both her breasts and molded them in his palms, intoxicated by the smoothness of her skin, by the valley where they rose from her ribs, by the slope from her throat.
At last she pulled back. “Wait,” she whispered.
In a few seconds he saw the glimmer of her naked limbs as she slid the rest of her clothing from her and moved lower to lie beside him. She stretched a hand to his waist. “Come,” she whispered. “Come to me.”
He wanted to touch every part of her, taste her.
He rose to his knees and swung around, across her shoulders. He rested on his palms and felt her hands cradle his balls, while he suckled her breasts. He drew each nipple in turn into his hungry mouth, circling it with his tongue, driven by her cries and moans.
He moved back, letting his engorged cock brush her mouth. Immediately her tongue licked him, trailing fire along the length of him from the weeping tip to the root. He threw his head back and groaned in ecstasy. Her fingers scraped across the hot skin of his belly, and skimmed his ribs to play with the pebbles of his hard nipples.
He lowered his head and saw her legs spread wide, the dark triangle hiding the creamy softness of her cunt.
He lowered his face and nipped at the soft flesh of her inner thigh, putting his mark on her where no one else would see. In response she pulled up her legs, and he hooked his arms around behind her knees, holding them apart, baring the sweet moistness of her lips. For a long moment he looked at her, completely open to him, and inhaled the perfume of her arousal. Then he bent downward, pinning her thighs against his shoulders. All the time he nuzzled her folds, sucking and nipping, tasting the cream that oozed from her, she kissed and licked his cock, giving tiny murmurs of delight.
He brushed his lips against her swollen clit, sucking it into his mouth and at the same instant, she drew his cock deep into her throat.
Emma lay a willing prisoner beneath him in the ghostly light of the stars. His hands held her legs apart so he could eat her. His cock was heavy within her mouth, pinning her down, the pale, gleaming mass of his body arched over her. Although she was naked her flesh was warm, pulsing with life in every inch, the blood pounding in her veins.
Others had said they wanted her. Some said “make love”; some said “go to bed”. Whatever words they used, all she had ever felt was a faint quiver of desire, with no thought of losing herself. When Marco told her the same thing, using words that resonated in her core, she was bowled over. Reason, self-preservation, common sense, they all dissolved in a hot rush of desire. And she melted, merging every part of herself with him.
She ran her hands up the muscles of his thighs as he straddled her and let her fingers skim the hard curve of his buttocks. All of him was taut steel, quivering with tense strength and power. It made her body soften even more, anticipating the powerful thrust of his cock into her velvet sheath. Her inner muscles throbbed and tightened.
Her mouth still full of his cock, her cunt still fluttering from the torment of his teeth and tongue, she lightly traced the line of the crack of his ass with her fingertips and felt him nip harder at her cunt in response, making her juices flow even more. Her hands parted his cheeks and she used her forefinger to stroke the skin in the valley, letting it rest on the round, tight hole.
He gave a groan as if in pain, but she kept her finger in place. He thrust his tongue further into her vagina and she rewarded him by circling the puckered opening. He tightened his cheek muscles and trapped her fingers, raising his head from his ministrations between her legs.
“God have mercy,” he said in a hoarse voice. “Do you know what you are doing to me?”
She made an “uh-huh” sound around his cock, then released it so she could speak. “Do you want me to stop?”
“Make up your mind.” She smiled in the darkness.
“This is what I want.” He bent his head again pushing her legs even wider apart if it were possible, his hands a vise around her ankles. “Come, come,” he said. “You are to come for me. Let me see it. Let me feel it.”
His beard scraped her soft, moist flesh, adding to the myriad sensations that assailed her. His tongue teased her, and when she gasped, he plunged it into her and withdrew, sucking her swollen clit before every thrust.
She was powerless to resist as he brought her to climax, the sensations ripping through her, making her cry out and clutch at him as the wave from within her washed upward, and took her out to a space where there was no feeling, no thought but the exquisite moment. Every inch of her cunt and her belly quivered, shot through with an aching delight, until she thought she might break apart.
As the storm subsided, she lay limp and stunned for a half-minute, her heart thudding, her body sensitive to every touch. Before she could come down completely from the sensual heights, he moved to straddle her face to face, spread her legs and drove his stake-hard cock into her. It filled her and stretched her, brushing against the mouth of her womb.
Astonished, she found herself trembling on the brink of another orgasm. Her hips arched off the floor to meet him, to drive him deeper still. She wanted to feel his hardness far inside.
She wound her arms around him and held him. He moved slowly, forcing her to wait, then increased the rhythm, making her gasp with every thrust. He brought her to the limit again, holding her poised on the brink before plunging into her one last time.
When she could think and breathe once more, he was still sheathed inside her, holding himself over her body. She moistened her lips. His cock was still big and firm. She squeezed her inner muscles and he started and moaned.
“You had none on me.”
With one hand he pushed her sweat-dampened hair out of her eyes and moved her head, compelling her to look at him. “Forgive me. I was under the impression that was what you wanted. Was I wrong?”
She had no desire to banter, to tease. What had happened between them was too profound, too intense.
“No,” she whispered. “You weren’t wrong at all.”
He pulled himself out of her and gave her a long, tender kiss. “I want to stay with you more than anything, but I must leave you, bella donna.”
She sighed. She knew he had to deal with Giovanni and had to conduct his long-planned ambush. She reached for him and trailed her fingers down his face, tracing the line of his lips. “Stay safe. Come back to me.”
With a final, tender kiss he rose to his feet and pulled on his discarded clothes. “If I know you are waiting, I’ll make sure it is swift and decisive.”
Within five minutes he was the bandit leader again, hard-faced, armed, resolute.
He cast a glance in the corner where the dog lay alert. “You’re on guard,” he said. “Look after her for me.”
He bent over her for a last, lingering kiss. “I will return for you, bella donna.”
Emma watched him move away from her. At the open wall of the hut he paused, outlined in starlight, then faded into the night.
Marco disappeared from her sight and left a cold emptiness by her side. Emma had never known anyone who could take all life and warmth with him, just by leaving her alone. But the imprint of his body remained, like the faint tenderness where his beard had rubbed her. The lines of his limbs were etched in memory and her hands longed to touch him again. He had branded her deep inside with the shape and heat of him, and she felt abandoned by the loss of him.
Suddenly, without his presence, the dark shadows in the corners of the hut became menacing. The stars still shone through the broken roof, but with a harder, more metallic sheen. The breeze chilled her skin and lifted a strand of hair from her cheek. She shivered and felt around for something to cover herself.
She heard Mickey move over against the wall and then saw the grey bulk of him edge toward her. He pushed his nose against her neck and, as if satisfied that she was still alive and breathing, lay down beside her with a satisfied grunt. She pulled some kind of fabric over her, whether it was her discarded skirt or the sheet she had used as a towel she couldn’t tell.
She turned on her side and put one arm over the dog. “You’re not much of a substitute for a lover,” she murmured. “But we’re stuck here together for a while.”
The dog licked her face. “Stop that,” she said, pushing his nose away. “You’re far too big and slobbery.” She wiped her face on the cloth that covered her breasts.
The cover and the dog’s body warmed her. She fully intended to stay awake, to listen for the sounds of the ambush, but her limbs were heavy and her eyes closed of their own accord. “I’ll rest for just a few minutes,” she whispered in Mickey’s ear.
It was the sudden movement of the dog that woke her. She had been dreaming she was adrift in a flimsy boat in cold water, huddling from a violent storm under a ripped tarpaulin. Each new blast of the wind ripped the sheet, leaving her increasingly terrified and exposed. When she opened her eyes she did not know where she was, surprised to feel solid earth beneath her. Then the rough walls of the hut brought memory back in a rush. The stars had faded, replaced by a pearly light that heralded the dawn. Mickey was on his feet, stock-still, a low growl rumbling in his chest. She must have been asleep for hours and the ambush was over, already decided for one side or the other.
In the cold light she searched for her clothes and pulled them on, leaning against the wall to spare her injured ankle.
Mickey’s ears flattened and his growl deepened. She thanked heaven that he had roused her, but how much good was this kind of dog as a protector? She hoped that the Italian variety was bred for more aggression than the Old English sheepdog that he resembled.
A faint movement came from outside, then the sound of heavy breathing. She sank to the floor and placed her hand on the dog’s neck, more for her own reassurance than to restrain him. Marco had said he would return for her. She hoped against hope that it was her lover approaching. Nevertheless, one of the discarded pieces of wood lay under her hand, and she took hold of it, waiting with bated breath.
A man appeared against the grey sky. He was as tall as Marco and her heart leaped in her chest, giving thanks that he had returned safely to her.
The figure leaned against the entrance as if tired or wounded. “Bella donna,” he said thickly. “Thank you for waiting for me.”
She scuttled backward at the sound of his voice, a cold terror in the pit of her stomach.
Giovanni raised a pistol in his right hand and pointed it at her. At the same moment, Mickey lurched forward with a loud bark and flew across the tiny space. Without hesitation Giovanni fired. The explosion was ear-shattering within the stone walls and Emma flinched instinctively, cowering against the wall, covering her head with her hands.
Mickey’s body thudded to the floor as the sound faded, and a well of despair opened in her heart. She scrambled toward the dog, unmindful of the threat of another shot. Big and arrogant, Giovanni took a step over the animal and placed a contemptuous foot on her shoulder, pushing her away. As she fell back she glimpsed a bloodstained bandage circling his thigh.
She landed on her side and struggled quickly to her knees. To her relief, Mickey lifted his head and whined. A dark stain oozed from his shoulder. Not dead, but hurt. How badly?
“Let me see him, you swine,” she spat. “You can shoot me if you want. Much good it will do you.”
“No, that is not my intention. I would rather shoot the dog.” He trained his gun on Mickey again. “You are worth much more to me as a hostage. The dog has no value.”
Suddenly it was all too much. She was tired of being a prisoner, tired of men who placed so little value on life and human dignity. Anger swelled inside her, stronger than she had ever known, clutching her throat, clouding her vision. Heedless of her swollen ankle, she launched herself from her crouching position, fingers crooked like claws. She would gouge his heart out with her bare hands if she had to.
Giovanni’s wounded leg worked in her favor because without it, he would have spun quickly and shot her in mid-flight. Instead, he stumbled slightly and Emma landed on him with all her force. She had seen enough rugby matches to know that you first knock the wind from an opponent, then you bring him down. She heard his head crack against the stone floor as he fell. He lay still, but she sat on him for good measure. Mickey thumped his tail on the ground and she bowed in his direction.
“Thank you for your recognition, kind sir,” she panted. “Very much appreciated. And now, for my next magical trick, I will truss our victim like a Christmas goose.”
First she tucked the pistol into the waistband of her skirt and then began methodically to tear strips from the pieces of fabric that had made her bed. When she had tied his arms and legs, she crawled over to Mickey to check his wound. A thin trickle of blood still oozed, but the serious bleeding had stopped. He had sustained a deep gouge in the fleshy part of his shoulder, but with no damage to the bone.
She scratched him behind his ears. “You are a brave dog,” she said. “Who do you belong to, I wonder?”
Her ankle was aflame and she sat to stretch it in front of her.
“Now what, Mickey?” She massaged her calf. “What do we do with him now he’s our prisoner? I suppose we just have to hope it’s not the Blackshirts who come for him.”
The dog panted loudly in her ear. What the hell was she doing here, wrestling outlaws, dirty and far from home? Two days ago, all she had wanted was to find her way back to Naples and then to England. Instead she’d wandered into some fantasy like the adventure stories that appeal to twelve-year-old boys. The thought of taking tea with the proper ladies of the county society was like thinking of going to the moon.
“Well, of course, Lady Utterley, it was almost impossible to take a bath, since there always seemed to be some lusting Italian lurking nearby. But I do find that sex-starved Italians give a really good fuck, don’t you?”
She spluttered with laughter. She was getting lightheaded.
The dog’s ears pricked and he stared at the gaping hole in the wall that had once been a doorway. Sure enough, there were more noises from outside. This time it sounded like more than one person. Blackshirts? Marco’s men? At least she had a weapon, even if she was unable to stand.
She cocked the gun and held it steady.
In the half-light of dawn, Marco paused to wipe the sweat from his brow. During the ambush he’d received a saber gash on the head, and someone had wound a cloth around it to stop the bleeding. It was only a scalp wound, but like all such, it had gushed a fountain of blood. He rubbed the crust that had dried on his jaw.
He dismissed the last of the stretcher-bearers and wiped his hands for the hundredth time on a bloodstained towel. His people had acquitted themselves well. With the advantage of surprise and the warning Emma had brought, they had been ready for the force that had meant to fall on them unawares. Then they had overwhelmed the small convoy with no problem. The Blackshirts had been overconfident, believing they had terrorized the whole area into submission. Like all bullies, they were cowards at heart, and those who were not wounded had fled. The others would be cared for and a decision made what to do with them.
Marco removed his foot from the strongbox where it had rested ever since he had begun to tend the wounded. His thigh protested at the sudden relaxation, and he rubbed the muscles to send the blood coursing through his upper leg again. He had not dared let the box out of his sight or touch after the skirmish. For hours he had treated the wounds of his own men and some of the Blackshirts, but the Comandante had not passed through his hands.
He called to Pietro as he passed. “Are there any more?”
“What happened to the Comandante after he was taken?”
Pietro shrugged and a grin spread over his smoke-blackened features. “Who knows? The last I saw, some of the men from the village had him. He was wounded in the chest.”
Marco knew he was not the only one with a score to settle with the commandant.
“Best not to ask, dottore. They had the castor oil hidden close by.”
Marco sighed. He was bone weary and knew that in any case he would not find out what happened to the man. God forgive him, but he hoped the sadist died, because otherwise he and his people would never rest easy. If they killed the tyrant, the men would be sure to hide the body where it would never be found. Desperate measures for desperate times.
Pietro turned away, but Marco called to him again. “And Signor Giovanni?”
Pietro shook his head. “No sign of him, dottore.”
Marco swore under his breath. It was a bitter pill to swallow to accept that his cousin had been working against him all the time. He knew how many men had been tempted by the easy pickings and the facile political rhetoric of the government. There were those who too easily lost sight of what was right.
Before the convoy had appeared he had warned all his people of Giovanni’s treachery and every one had vowed not to help him. No one had reported sighting him. Marco hoped he had fled the area and would not be heard of again.
Marco sat on a log, pulled the strongbox toward him, and aimed his pistol at the lock, imagining it was the head of his enemy, the commandant. He had always thought of himself as a peaceful man, dedicated to healing, but in the last few years he had found a depth of righteous anger in his soul that made him deal coldly and harshly with those who oppressed and murdered for gain or sheer pleasure. There had been too many good men maimed, too many women raped, too many children left orphans.
The box was full to the brim with official documents, each with two numbered copies. In his arrogance, the commandant had not even left a duplicate in safe hands. A guilty conscience gave you very few trusted companions, and the commandant had been amongst the guiltiest. He was a man who liked having influence over people’s lives, because he made them fear him or because they wanted the largesse he could bestow. Either way, he owned them heart and soul. He loved having favor seekers pandering to him, loved seeing once-powerful landowners cringe at his vengeance.
Marco sorted through the pile. There were deeds to property, orders for arrests, outlines of charges to be brought. With all these papers restored to their rightful owners or destroyed, the community could sleep peacefully in their own beds for a while. Unfortunately, Marco suspected the reprieve might be short-lived. Another would step forward to take the Comandante’s place, but this time the people would not be so easily intimidated and scattered. The captured consignment of weapons would help strengthen the resistance.
As he looked through the documents, Marco cocked an eye to the trail leading up the hillside. It seemed he had spent most of the last few days watching for Emma, yearning to catch a glimpse of her. He had sent Teresa and a reliable man, Matteo, to fetch her. The small procession should appear soon.
No woman had ever filled his mind and soul as she did, not even his sweet, childlike wife. The thought of Emma tormented him and the memory of her haunted him. It had begun as overwhelming lust, but after two short days he knew lust alone was not the reason why he wanted to lose himself in her, to melt into her, with a yearning so powerful it produced a physical pain. He wanted her by his side with her beauty, her courage and her indomitable spirit. Years ago his desires had been powerful, but they were pale candle flames compared to the burst of incandescence that consumed him now. He not only wanted her, but he needed her. And he needed her because he loved her. He had to know if she felt the same about him.
He longed to take her to his house, to make love to her in the sunlight and under the moon. He wanted to bathe her lovely body in sweet scented water and dry her with soft towels.
A few paces away he saw the flicker of a small fire where the men had boiled water to cleanse the wounds of their comrades. Restless, he gathered together all the indictments, the lists of accusations, the statements of false witnesses and fed them to the flame.
He had almost finished when Pietro returned. “The Comandante did not survive his wounds,” he announced solemnly. “We shall say prayers for his black soul.”
Marco nodded gravely. “Bene.”
Pietro shuffled his feet. Marco looked at him sharply. “What is it?”
“Signor Giovanni was seen during the fight. “
Marco swore under his breath. “And?”
“He fled, dottore. He was seen climbing in that direction.” Pietro waved a grimy hand toward the slope leading to the shepherd’s hut where Emma waited.
Suddenly Marco’s weariness vanished as a surge of fear-produced adrenaline surged through him. She had not been able to walk, so he could not have brought her with him and he had prayed she would be safe with the big dog. What if Giovanni had come across her? If she had been harmed or taken, he would get her back, no matter what it cost him. Money. Blood. His life.
He entrusted the remaining contents of the strongbox to Pietro, gave a few more orders and set off up the trail leading to Emma.
The ambush site was still within view when he saw some figures on the track ahead. He peered intently into the gray light of dawn. Gradually he made out the shape of a dog and two people, one apparently carrying a burden. He waved and shouted and the smaller figure signaled back. Teresa! Deo gratia.
A half-hour before he would not have thought he could place one foot in front of the other, but now he leapt forward to meet the straggling procession.
As he drew closer he could see that Teresa walked beside Matteo. On Matteo’s broad back, Emma was draped like a cloak, her arms dangling limply over his neck, her head resting on his shoulder. He held her legs around his waist. Her head remained immobile and with a sickening dread Marco willed her to move.
Matteo halted as Marco drew level and hitched her more securely around him. She looked up at the sudden movement, blinking her eyes.
“One of the most comfortable rides I’ve had since I arrived,” she said with a sleepy smile when she saw Marco. “I am so very glad to see you.”
Marco seized her around the hips and took her weight as Matteo let her go. He held her in his arms and gazed at her, drinking in the fact that she was unharmed, that she had smiled at him.
“Emma,” he said. “Bella donna.” His voice broke, and he suddenly felt a tightness in his chest. He had not dared to think of her in Giovanni’s hands again, but now she was safe, the relief overwhelmed him. He laughed, a release of pure delight at all the events of the night.
“By the way,” she said. “There’s a package waiting for you at the hut, all nicely tied up.”
He bent his head to kiss her and she wound her arms around his neck. “This is a lovely welcome,” she murmured against his mouth, “and I’d love to continue, but my ankle is giving me billy-o. If someone doesn’t pick me up, I’ll fall down.”
With newfound strength he swept her up into his arms, gave orders to Matteo to bring Giovanni and started back down the path.
As they bumped their way down a long avenue of tall poplars Emma had to say the means of transportation had deteriorated over the past couple of hours. First, there was Matteo’s broad back, where she’d ridden like a sack of potatoes, then Marco’s arms for the last stretch down the hill, and lastly a wooden farm cart that lurched its way over the rutted path, drawn by a very big and slow carthorse.
Still, she said to herself, she shouldn’t complain. According to Marco, his house was around the next bend and he’d promised her hot water, clean sheets and cooked food. It sounded like heaven.
Not only that, but he’d whispered to her that tonight he would feed her figs and honey and sweet wine. Then he would take her to his bed and make wild, abandoned love to her until she drifted into sleep. In the morning he would be there, waiting, ready to pleasure her once more… When he’d found her on the way back from the shepherd’s hut his voice had grown husky and he’d lost the air of cool detachment that he liked to wear. She knew that underneath he was far from cool and detached. The muscles deep inside her tightened at the prospect.
The cart passed vineyards and orchards, interspersed with the silvery leaves of olive trees, then lumbered through a pair of iron gates. There were signs of neglect everywhere. Fences in disrepair, hedges overgrown with binding weeds, the roof of a shed that had fallen in. Nothing that couldn’t be repaired with some hard work. Mickey lay beside her, somnolent in the heat. Marco had dusted some powder into his wound after cleaning it, and the dog had jumped into the cart to ride beside Emma in style.
She reclined with her head on Marco’s coat and watched the play of muscles in his shoulders as he walked beside the cart. Every so often he stretched out a hand to touch her, as if still not quite believing she was there. Between the long shadows of the trees, the sunlight flickered over her legs, making dappled patterns. The scents of thyme and wild sage that marked their passing in the hills had transformed into wafts of lemon and ripening fruit, of fragrant blossoms and warm dust.
Now the crisis was over. Marco and his people had come down from the hills and were returning home. Every time they passed by a habitation, men came up to Marco in a continuous stream, slapping him on the back, laughing, swigging at bottles of wine and brandy that seemed to have appeared out of thin air. Their laughter grew louder, their words more hurried, their gestures wilder.
Home. All going home, save her.
She turned her head a couple of inches and buried her cheek in Marco’s coat. The same coat he’d given her when Enrico’s sons had fished her out of the water. Only three days ago. Together they had lived through emotional highs and lows she would never have believed possible. They had forged bonds like soldiers in a battle.
Marco called a command to the horse, and the cart creaked to a halt in front of a large white building. Mickey struggled to his feet beside her. Marco reached into the cart and took her hand.
“Benvenuto a la casa Antonioni,” he said with a flourish of his free arm. “My house is yours.”
She sat up. On both sides of a massive wooden door, thick shutters covered two rows of windows and a wide overhang cast deep shadows on the walls. Rows of red tiles formed the roof. A flowering vine with bright yellow blossoms crept up the side of the door and hung over the entrance. She inhaled aromas of heat, green growing things-and baking bread.
Her stomach growled. “It’s wonderful,” she said.
Marco laughed. She suddenly realized that she had never seen him laugh before today. It transformed his face, lighting his dark eyes, lifting the corners of his mobile mouth. She longed to kiss the tiny scar on his lip that sprang into prominence with his grin. Impulsively she pulled him toward her and placed her lips on the small, white mark. His arms came round her and he lifted her from the cart, his mouth still on hers, pressing, demanding, taking.
Lost in the depth of the kiss, she felt him begin to walk toward the great door. “Close your eyes,” he said, and she did so, letting him take her where he wanted, knowing his destination would be a bedroom.
She knew when they passed into the cool dimness of the interior by the lessening of the light perceived through her eyelids. Marco’s lips left hers, but he still held her close to his body and his footsteps echoed on stone or tile. She felt him begin to climb some stairs. Her arm brushed a wooden balustrade.
She hid her face against his shoulder and counted twenty steps up until he walked again along a flat surface. She played the game of remaining blind, not wanting to see her surroundings until she opened her eyes to find him beside her in bed.
He thrust open a door with his shoulder and the light grew brighter again. She smelled lavender and wax polish. Five paces into the room, he stopped and lowered her. She sank into a nest of coolness and starched linen.
“Open your eyes, bella donna,” he whispered. “Here is our room.”
She looked around and gasped in delight. It was a beautiful room. It was the room she would have described if she’d been asked to dream of it. White walls, lace curtains stirring in the breeze, dark furniture and gleaming silver. The wood shone with deep luster, nothing was out of place. Quite different from the approach to the house.
“How…what?” she asked.
Marco sat on the bed, sending a small wave through the soft pillows. “I sent Pietro on ahead,” he said. “I told them to make this one room fit for a queen.”
She looked toward the window. High clouds floated across the blue of the sky. She gave a deep sigh. “It’s magic. Which is real, the caves or this?”
“Both.” He took her hand and kissed the fingers. “Both are reality in this world.” For a moment a shadow flitted across his face, but then he smiled at her again. “A bath, food, bed,” he said. “I think the doctor prescribes them in that order.”
“I can’t walk,” she reminded him unnecessarily.
“I know.” His grin was wicked. “You are at my mercy.”
He poured her a crystal goblet of white wine from the carafe by the bed, handing it to her by the stem. She leaned on one elbow and inhaled the aroma of apricots and peaches.
“It is wine from our own grapes,” Marco said, pouring another glass. “We call it Bel Amore, beautiful love.” He touched her glass with his own. “We need a toast. Shall we drink to justice and love?”
She nodded. “And to home. May everyone reach there safely.” She raised her glass and placed her lips to the cool liquid. The first sip slid down her dusty throat like nectar. It tasted of honey and spice.
He nodded as he watched her savor the wine. “My father spent years perfecting it. Now we sell all over Italy and abroad. This wine was one reason the Comandante coveted our property.”
She drained her glass. “I can understand why. It’s like heaven. Is that all it took to get it back? Finding the documents?”
Marco took her empty goblet. “Maybe a little more than that, but the deeds are nine-tenths of the law. I know what I have to do. I am back in possession and the Comandante is gone.”
A dark expression she couldn’t quite read flickered across his face as he said the last words. He set the glasses down on the little table and turned to her again. The wine had sent tendrils of awareness coiling through her, and she felt at once drowsy and yet completely alive.
Her lethargy forbade her to move, but her nerve endings were alert, expecting his touch. She lay still, watching and waiting, anticipating the feel of his hand on her bare skin.
He ran his hand up her leg, under her skirt, and despite her anticipation, she jumped. Immediately she felt the wetness between her legs and her nipples began to ache.
“Bella donna.” His voice deepened as he stroked her thigh. “You’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.”
The melting sensation in the pit of her stomach made it difficult to catch her breath. She had a flash of memory of her fears of pregnancy, but that was all it was-a flash that came and went in an instant. Right now she ached for him, yearned to pull him inside her.
He placed one hand flat on her breast. The nipple stood to attention, and the dart of fire streaked down between her legs. “Just thinking about your body excites me,” he murmured. “I want us to make love again. I want it very badly, right now. Anywhere and anyhow. Up against the wall, on the floor, in the bed-” The other hand rose higher on her leg, and he touched the dampness on her inner thighs. He gave a deep sigh. “I promised myself I would wait-”
“There is no need to wait.”
She hitched her skirts up around her waist, exposing herself to him. Whether it was the wine, the relief of tension, the sensual feel of the room, or a combination of all three, she wanted it as much as he did. Wanted it hard and fast this time.
He nodded. They understood each other perfectly. Her fingers found the damp folds of her cunt and she pulled them apart, giving him a glimpse of the petals waiting for him. She stroked her clitoris with one exploring finger, encouraging it to swell, relishing the sensations that pulsed through her.
His eyes on her caressing fingers, he opened his trousers to free his cock. It stood ready for her, too thick to encircle with her curved fingers, too long to slip easily into her expectant sheath. She shivered a little at the thought of how he would have to ram it into her to fit inside. He stroked her slowly, kissing her, drawing the tension taut, bringing her need to a peak until she trembled beneath him. He slid his mouth down her body, throat and breasts and belly, dipping his head briefly, firing her with tormenting flickers of his tongue, coming back to skim her lips.
“Now,” she pleaded against his mouth. “Now, please.”
“Soon,” he said. “No need to hurry.”
He took one of the big pillows and placed it under her hips. Then he grasped the hem of her tunic in both hands and ripped it in two, spreading the two halves to bare her breasts. For a long moment he gazed at her naked torso and her waiting cunt, and his breathing grew more shallow. His cock quivered and rose higher, seeking its destination.
Before he mounted her he climbed with slow deliberation onto the bed and opened her legs wider. He took hold of her hands and removed them from between her legs and spread her arms at her sides. A pearly drop of liquid fell like a tear from the tip of his penis onto her thigh. Her nerves were so exquisitely on edge that the light touch made her quiver. As if this tiny movement broke his control he descended onto her, impaling her with his rock-hard cock, driving it deep, making her cry out. The tilt of her hips on the thick pillow forced him up against the far wall of her vagina, nudging the mouth of her womb, caressing a secret spot that spurted in rhythm with his thrusts.
She wound her legs around his waist and clasped him to her. It was hard and it was fast. She felt his teeth on her shoulder as the wave began inside her. Their cry of release came at the same instant.
When Emma woke, Marco’s arms were still around her, his leg draped over hers. The sun had dropped lower, creating lavender shadows in the room. The light from outside was more golden, as if filtered through silk. She stirred and Marco was immediately alert. He sat up and looked around, then relaxed.
“It will take a while to forget the habits of the cave,” he said. He rolled off her and bent his head to take her nipple between his teeth. He teased it with his tongue and she murmured, stretching her heavy limbs. He looked at her with his dark eyes, a flicker of laughter mingled with desire in their depths.
Bedroom eyes, they said in the magazines. His look told her he could make her come anywhere, anytime, and she couldn’t do a thing about it. He was absolutely right.
“Just looking at you makes me hard,” he said, “but I must remember my promise.”
He stood in a lithe movement and adjusted his clothing.
“You will have your bath,” he said. “But I have one wish.”
“What?” She didn’t care what his wish was. She would dance naked on the tabletop if he asked. And if her ankle would hold.
“I want to see you naked when I return.” He kissed her lips. “Will you do that?”
“That’s easy.” She pulled his head to her mouth again.
Marco tore himself away from her with a groan and opened the door. He called out something in the hallway and she heard a woman’s answering voice. She supposed there had to be servants in the house. Someone had prepared this lovely room. Marco’s footsteps faded and she began to remove her tunic and skirt.
She lay naked, drowsing against the soft bedding, waiting for her lover, watching the shadows lengthen and the outline of the furniture grow blurred. She let her hands drift over her body. She had never felt like this, as sensitive as a bare nerve, as sensuous as a cat. Her body had grown conditioned to respond to the slightest touch, to react to every lustful thought. At last she heard his footsteps outside. He came back into the room and her heartbeat notched up a fraction as it did every time she saw him.
He closed the door behind him and stood looking at her, taking in her nakedness. She wanted to stretch under the caress of his hot eyes, displaying her body for his approval. He nodded in satisfaction, moistened his lips and began to tug his shirt over his head. His eyes returned to her as he undid his trousers and let them fall, and she felt the familiar shiver start between her legs and creep to her belly, her breasts.
He took two strides to the bed and she rolled toward him, taking his cock gently in one hand. She touched her lips to it, delighting in the soft velvet of the skin, tracing the large, pulsing vein with the very tip of her tongue. It hardened and rose under her mouth and she smiled. She had power over him too. He groaned and pressed her head to his groin. “Oh, I want, I want,” he muttered. “But wait, bella donna. Wait a short while.”
He scooped her into his arms and settled her against his warm, naked chest. She rubbed her cheek against him, feeling the soft hair against her skin, and twined one arm around his neck. Her other hand traced around his nipple, making it peak. When he moved, his erection brushed against the cheeks of her ass. He carried her through a doorway.
The deep porcelain tub with high sides sat in the center of its own small room. A window was open to the gardens and the branch of a sweet-smelling bush nodded outside. Soft tendrils of steam rose lazily into the air from the surface of the water. Candles stood ready on the windowsill, and a fresh bottle of wine stood uncorked beside two sparkling glasses.
Marco held her, wreathed in scented steam, and let her dip a toe into the water. The temperature was perfect. She kissed along the line of his jaw and stroked her fingers down his cheek, the strong column of his neck and to the lovely hollow of his throat.
He lowered her gently, until her arms could steady her and she slid into the perfumed depths. He quickly stepped into the water behind her, settling her on his lap. She leaned back against him to let the water lap her breasts. His erection was hard and firm under her bottom, nudging at the cheeks of her ass. She remembered last night when she had teased him in the same spot. Her clit began to throb.
Marco took the bottle of wine and poured a measure into each glass. Reaching over her shoulder he put a goblet to her mouth. She sipped at the fragrant liquid, letting it slip down her throat like molten gold, sending little rivulets of warmth to her nipples, to her lips, to her clit. A soft torpor invaded her whole body and she lay back, her eyes half closed. A bird began to trill outside the window.
Three baths in as many days, all so different. She would never step into a tub again without remembering Enrico’s hovel, the threat from Giovanni, or the sheer delight of luxuriating with Marco.
When she had drunk some wine, Marco replaced the glass and took a large sponge from the side of the bath. Dipping it in the water, he lathered it with a creamy bar of soap and began to skim it over her shoulders. He lightly traced up the side of her neck, over the pulsing artery in her throat and down to her collarbone. At the same time the fingers of his other hand crept between her legs and slid over her clit, seeking and stroking. She tried to turn to face him, but he held her in a vise. When she gasped and threw her head back against his shoulder he removed his hand and seized her leg, lifting it out of the water to wash. He massaged her foot and she groaned. No matter where he put his hands, it increased her arousal. His stiff cock slid between her legs and she rubbed against him, letting it nudge the soft opening of her vagina. If he didn’t give her release, she knew she would scream out in longing and frustration.
He kissed her temple. “I love the way you are always so ready for me.”
“Oh God,” she said. “I can’t believe I’m begging for it again.”
“Begging is good. I like it.”
“I can tell.”
She reached between her legs and took hold of him. “Two can play that game.” She slid her hand up and down the shaft, teasing the tip with her thumb. He dropped the sponge, put his arms round her and grasped her breasts. He groaned and she felt his body tense against her back.
“Who’s begging now?” she whispered.
“Dio mio, bella donna.”
“I can’t see you. Tell me.”
“I shall explode if you don’t let me inside you.”
“I’ll take pity on you.” The truth was that she was barely containing her own explosion. Still with her back to him, she slowly raised her hips and guided his cock into her. Moving with a deliberate lack of haste despite the growing urge in her belly, she eased him inside her and settled between his thighs. His hands squeezed and molded her breasts, his chest shielded her back, his muscled legs supported her ass, his spike-hard cock was deep inside her.
Every inch of her where he caressed sparked with fire.
He moved one hand from her breast and began again to finger her clit. She squeezed her inner muscles in response and felt him swell even more. The delicious warmth began as a buzz between her legs, creeping over her belly, sinking inside her until she saw nothing, heard nothing, her whole being focused on where their bodies joined. At last she stiffened against him and let the wave carry her.
“Now,” she cried. “Oh God, now!”
No more than a heartbeat later, he let out a guttural roar and she felt the hot spurt of his semen against her womb, his thrusts prolonging and enhancing her own orgasm.
They lay together, barely breathing, recovering from the onslaught until the water began to cool. Marco kissed the nape of her neck, wrapped her in a large towel and carried her back to the bedroom. On a side table someone had placed cheese and grapes, bread and wine. The bed had been remade with fresh linen.
He laid her down on the bed and she sat up, pulling the folds of the bath sheet around her shoulders. “Who did all this?” she asked. “It’s as if you have invisible retainers, like a fairy castle.”
Marco laughed and strode naked to the table. She admired the tautness of the muscles in his legs and his ass, the lovely taper of his back, the strength of his shoulders.
“There is a housekeeper and her husband,” he said, cutting a slice of the cheese. “They have been with my family since my father was a boy. They were also in hiding, but they returned. The rest of the house will not be like this room. It needs much work.”
He came back to her and began to feed her the moist, creamy cheese.
She took some between her teeth, savoring it on her tongue. “Delicious.”
“There’s a French painting,” she said, “called the Picnic. It’s of naked people eating on the grass. I always thought it was pretty fanciful until now.”
Marco nodded. “I’ve seen it. The women aren’t half as beautiful as you. Hair like jet, eyes with the promise of midnight, breasts that drive a man wild.” He bent his head to kiss each of them in turn.
She stroked his hair and ran her hand over his shoulder and down his back, feeling the ripple of the muscles under her fingers as he moved.
“Would you like more wine?” he murmured against the swell of her breast.
“No, thank you.” She sighed. “I could love this life after what happened in the last few days.”
“Whatever gives you pleasure is yours.”
“I know.” He had thought of her during all the events of the last few hours, making sure that he brought her somewhere clean and beautiful. The realization touched her deeply. He was stern when he had to be, and determined in pursuing what was right, but it was the underlying softness in him that left her without defenses. When she was with him and he treated her gently and lovingly, the needs she had suppressed for too long came to the surface and washed over her like a tidal wave. They destroyed her defenses, and left her confronted with the naked truth of her feelings for him.
“Tomorrow we could picnic outside,” he said. “There’s a beautiful grove-”
The word “tomorrow” hung like the sound of a bell in the air. He felt her stiffen and looked up at her. She swallowed the last of cheese.
“Tomorrow I’ll try to walk. I must telephone,” she said. “Marco-” She pushed the dark lock of hair back from his brow. “-you know I must let my father know I’m alive. I have already delayed too long.”
He took her hand and kissed her fingertips. He was silent for so long that she began to search for more words to explain why she couldn’t stay.
Before she could speak, he sighed, his eyes still on their joined hands. “Your father loves you very much.”
“Yes, he does.”
“You love him.”
“You have a home in England.”
He looked her full in the eyes. “Go to him, but remember I love you too. I could make a home for you here.”
Her heart thudded against the wall of her chest. “I love you, too.” Every fiber of her being urged her to agree, to say she would live with him, would sleep in his bed, share his food, help him rebuild his life. But she couldn’t be sure. The intensity of their relationship, the atmosphere of danger and rampant passion had perhaps led them to believe that what they felt was love, when it was lust, burning clear and beautiful, but lust just the same. She longed to throw caution to the winds, to go with her heart, but she was her father’s daughter and she had her own past that warned her to be cautious, like a stern grandmother wagging her finger at a wayward girl. She needed time and space to consider before she agreed. When she agreed-if she agreed-it would be because she was absolutely sure of her own feelings as well as his.
She swallowed against the constriction in her throat. “Marco, I know about your wife. I know what happened to her. You and I-” she let her hand linger on his shoulder “-we have known each other three days.”
He looked up at her face. His eyes were hooded, his lips set in a thin line. She placed a finger on his lips. “Let me have some time, Marco. Let me go home. In a short while, if I still feel the same way as I do now, I will come back to you.” She smiled at him. “We have a few more hours together. Pour me some more of that delicious wine after all and tell me about your family, about this house.”
He filled their glasses again. “My family has owned the land around here for four hundred years,” he began. “The ancestors of most of the people who work for us tilled the soil and built the terraces…” He went on to tell her about the crops, the vines and the olives, and about all the intricate relationships, the intermarriages, the sense of belonging.
She sat cross-legged on the bed, listening to him talk, occasionally massaging and flexing her sore ankle. She understood completely. Her own family had been landowners for centuries too, ever since one of them had made a fortune sailing with Sir Francis Drake.
Dusk fell and Marco lit candles. The flickering flames sent shadows dancing in the room as he gestured, and emphasized the planes and hollows of his face, making his eyes glitter. She watched him, drinking in the lines of his body, the passion in his voice.
“What about Giovanni?” she asked at last.
Marco’s lips twisted in a bitter grimace. “My mother’s sister’s boy,” he said. “Two years younger than I, but we were inseparable growing up. His father died when he was just a baby and my father took him in like a son. Everything I had, he had too. Education, money, opportunity-” He sighed. “I don’t understand it.”
“Jealousy,” Emma said. “Easy enough to understand really. The younger boy always wanting to be as big, as strong, as clever as his older cousin. Never quite able to make it. Rebellious, plus resentment at being the poor relation, being beholden. Then an opportunity comes to follow a different path, to be successful in a totally opposite way, and it’s too tempting to resist.”
Marco stared at her. “Do you think so?”
“I know so. Seen it lots of times. You don’t make friends by heaping them with material things. I know your family’s intentions were good, but the grateful orphan only exists in novels.”
“You’ve a hard heart.”
“No, just a practical one.” She touched his hand. “But I also understand how it hurts when someone is ungrateful.”
He raised her hand to his lips and kissed her fingers. “Are you speaking from experience?”
Some of the juice from the grapes had clung to her hands and he placed each finger in his mouth, sucking the sweetness. She tried to ignore the desire tugging at her and gently withdrew her fingers.
“Yes. I know someone just like that.” She pulled a cover around her. “They leave poison behind them.”
He looked at her. The weight of his unspoken question hung between them. He reached up and tucked a strand of her hair behind her ear. “After all we’ve shared, I would like you to tell me who hurt you,” he said, his husky voice betraying the depth of his feeling. “We’ll have no chance together unless we’re honest with each other.”
He was right. This was the moment of truth. She had known in her heart that it would come as soon as he’d said, “I love you”. This was the revelation she had thought she might not have to make if she had been able to leave tomorrow with no questions. The last few days were not a case of “Thank you for a wonderful experience Signor Marco. If ever you’re in England look me up.” This hadn’t been a simple fling, nights and days of wonderful sex. Oh, the sex had been extraordinary, but there was more. They both knew they were on the brink of something life-changing, and the realization had already dawned that she’d moved too close to the edge to avoid disaster.
She would have liked him to believe she had no past, that she had come to him like Venus rising from the waves, all pure and unsullied. On the other hand, he knew for a fact she wasn’t a virgin, must have understood that there had been lovers.
She took a deep breath.
“When I was eighteen I was in love. You have to understand that where I come from a girl’s whole life is a preamble to getting married to the right man, living in the right house, and in the right county, like something out of a Jane Austen novel. He was a poor relation, but we’d grown up together, and he’d been treated like a son. Daddy liked him. I thought I loved him.
“A huge wedding was planned, my grandmother’s tiara came out of the vault for a clean and a polish, the invitations were ready. I was to wear my mother’s lace veil.” She swallowed, blinking back tears that she still couldn’t hold back. “Then he ditched me. Wrote me a twenty word note and took off for some job in India, left the country. He didn’t even have the guts to tell me to my face. I still don’t know if he planned it or if was an unconscious revolt against everything my family stood for, but I was devastated. Imagine the humiliation-eighteen years old and jilted by someone I’d known forever. I vowed I’d never put myself in that position again. I swore I would marry if and when I had to, but only to secure my inheritance, never for love. Love makes you too vulnerable.”
Marco handed her some more wine and she took a deep draught. He made as if to speak but she held up a hand. “No, let me finish. Almost out of revenge, I set out to break hearts. I was what is known as a ‘goer’. If there was a riotous party I’d be there. I was choosy about my partners, but there were more than I care to admit. Men fell for me, declared their love, but I soon tired of them. When it was finished I never answered their letters or their pleading. I enjoyed the power. I associated with people who didn’t want any commitment and I found myself turning from a jilted, eighteen-year-old deb with a broken heart into a worldly wise woman of twenty-seven.”
She continued to look down, not daring to lift her eyes to see his reaction.
“Is that how you thought of me? An instrument of revenge?” His voice seemed to come from far away.
“Oh God, no! You were so different.” She felt his fingers on her face, wiping away the tears. He gathered her into his arms and rocked her as she cried.
“Now you can take back what you said,” she murmured against his chest. “I understand if you want nothing more to do with me.”
“Cara, bellissima,” he whispered. “I don’t care what men you’ve tortured in the past. Just tell me it’s over.”
“Yes, it’s over. It’s been over for a while, until I met you.” She lifted her face for his kiss.
Soon after, Marco snuffed the candles and lay beside her in the big, soft bed. The sweetly scented night air wafted in through the open windows, stirring the pale curtains.
They lay quietly for a while, with his arms around her. And then he found her mouth and kissed her, not just with his lips but with his whole being, surrounding her and engulfing her in a consuming embrace. She resisted the call of his body for no more than a heartbeat before pressing herself against him and returning his kiss with all the heat and depth of feeling that she knew now had been missing from her life.
Somewhere in the distance frogs croaked and a dog barked. Emma drifted to sleep in Marco’s arms.
The next morning, Marco found her some clothes and a strong walking stick, and she hobbled downstairs to an early breakfast. As soon as she had finished, he brought a couple of horses and they rode into the nearest village. It seemed as if every inhabitant was outside, going about some urgent business. She supposed they were catching up on their lives, bringing back old habits and order after the long interruption.
There was one telephone in the village and it was working. She breathed a sigh of relief as the operator motioned her to pick up the receiver.
“How will I pay for this?” she whispered to Marco as she waited for the connection.
The static on the line surged and crackled and she closed her eyes, willing the call to go through. It was ten o’clock and her father would have finished his paperwork for the estate, ready for a cup of coffee before he began his rounds.
Suddenly the line cleared, and she heard the voice of the butler.
“Matthews? Is that you? Let me speak to my father. Yes, yes, it’s me, Lady Emma.” She should have thought more carefully about how she would introduce herself. Poor Matthews had sounded as if he’d heard a ghost, which he had, in a way.
At home the telephone was in a poky little cubbyhole under the stairs because her father refused to have it in his office and she waited, tapping her foot, until she heard her father’s steps echoing on the flagstones of the big hall.
“Who is this?” He sounded angry, upset. “Is this some kind of joke?’
“Daddy? Daddy, it’s me, Emma. I’m alive…Yes, really…no, I’m not hurt. It was Catherine, my maid…” Through the blur of her tears she saw Marco move to stand a short distance away, giving her some privacy.
It took three days for money to come through in a wire, and for the British Ambassador in Rome to issue her travel documents. During the three days, Marco took her around the estate, letting her meet his workers, explaining the techniques of wine making, storing and shipping. She’d always had a good head for the business side of things and enjoyed comparing how things were done here with the traditions of her father’s estates.
They found the owner of the dog. Mickey’s real name turned out to be Grande, unoriginal but eloquent. His owner had been in the caves with Marco. They figured the dog must have seen Emma and recognized her when he found her trying to climb the slope. He’d learned the trick with his tail with small children.
Emma bent down and rubbed the animal’s ears. “You’ll always be Mickey to me,” she whispered. “There’s always a big bone for you at my house.”
The days took on a rhythm. They rode out each morning under the sun, with Emma clad in trousers, a loose shirt and a floppy hat. They stopped to eat in a cottage somewhere and to sample the local wine. In the afternoon they returned, hot and dusty, and bathed together, never tiring of exploring their bodies, talking about their morning, always ending in making love on the soft bed with curtains drawn across the windows to create an early dusk. Then they slept until the air cooled.
After dinner in the evening they talked more about the estate, about how Marco would solve the problems that had accumulated while he was away, about marketing his wine. Emma told him about the big house in the Cotswolds, the crops they grew, her father’s dedication to the land.
When it grew dark then they would walk up the stairs, arms entwined around each other’s waist and fall into bed, sated with food and wine and sunshine. Their lovemaking was sometimes slow and easy, sometimes fraught with a raw need, always satisfying, touching the depth of their soul.
The money and the government papers arrived by messenger as they sipped an aperitif on the terrace in the late afternoon of the third day. The man propped his bicycle against a tree and handed them the buff envelope with “On His Majesty’s Service” printed in black across one corner.
Marco signed for the letter and gave the man a tip. Well content, the messenger pedaled away, the wheels scrunching on the freshly raked gravel.
Emma took out the papers and looked at Marco with tears in her eyes.
“I have to go.”
He thrust his hands in his pockets. “I know.”
“I’ll write to you.”
That night she lay naked in bed with her eyes half closed while he snuffed the candles. The fear settled in her belly, like a living organism, cold and voracious. What if she found she no longer cared for him once she was back in her familiar home? What if he forgot her as soon as she was out of sight? Her head told her that the test would be a good one, but she also knew the physical pain around her heart that had started at the thought of saying goodbye would never go away if she lost him. With icy certainty she understood that if she didn’t return to Marco, even if she had to marry, she would never find anyone who could touch her spirit and make her body sing in the same way.
Darkness took over the room as the last candle guttered and died. She felt the bed move as her lover lay down beside her. For a long moment he remained silent, then his hand found hers.
“Bella donna,” he whispered, his lips brushing her hair. “Always remember that I’m waiting for you. That I love you.”
She couldn’t find her voice to reply. Her throat grew tight as she fought to hold back the sob that threatened to shatter her tenuous control. Instead she took a giddy delight in touching him, clinging to him, feeling his arms around her.
She said nothing, not even when he gently moved her legs apart and slid into her, but she tightened her hold on him, trying to etch every precious moment into memory.
Words were meaningless as he brought her to the inevitable conclusion.
The Channel between Calais and Dover was rough and choppy as usual. Emma stayed on deck, huddled in a canvas chair tucked into a corner out of the wind. As they approached the berth she pressed up to the rail and she spotted her father immediately. When she stepped off the gangway, he swept her into a wordless embrace, unmindful of the other passengers swirling around them. He kissed her forehead and she felt the dampness of tears on his cheek.
“I’m fine, Daddy,” she said. “I’m fine.”
He released her at last and mopped his eyes with a large, white handkerchief. “Come, come,” he said, as if she had been the one causing the delay. “The car is waiting.”
He’d brought the Rolls and a driver, so he could sit in the back with Emma, holding her hand and asking her endless questions.
After she’d given a few short answers he patted her hand. “Quite understand, my dear,” he said. “Bad experience. Not ready to talk about it yet. Take your time, take your time. It’s enough to have you back safe and sound.”
They fell silent as the car whisked them west toward the Cotswolds. Emma knew her father would never ask her another question until she was ready to talk. Although he might long to know every detail, he would allow her the time she needed and while he waited he would quietly watch over her, looking after her comfort.
Home. Home where she could relax, where she knew what to expect, where she would be welcomed and cherished. Home that had lost most of its power to delight, because it held no trace of Marco.
It began to rain, a soft, gray drizzle that sucked the color out of the surroundings. The suburbs of London were drab, the streets a sea of umbrellas, and the country towns were virtually deserted. The grey stone of the houses blurred through the rain-streaked windows and the roofs shone black like the tarmac of the road. She held her father’s hand and made small talk, blocking her mind to the contrasting memory of the bustle and vivid colors of Marco’s country.
Her father might have decided to wait for more answers, but in the next few days everyone else had questions for her. Her friends, and of course the authorities, were hard to satisfy.
The parents of Catherine Hall, her maid, had to be informed that their daughter was dead, not missing. Emma spent a dreadful few hours with them in their grief, knowing all the time the question they wanted to ask was, Why her? Why not you? The same question had echoed for days in her own head.
Catherine’s body, identified as Lady Emma Houndsdale, was to be shipped from Naples the same day Emma had left, and her father had been preparing to receive it when she had telephoned him. He still seemed bewildered by the sudden change in circumstances and she often found him staring at her when he thought she wasn’t looking, as if unable to believe she was there. As she passed him, or sat close in the evening, he sometimes reached out to touch her, a light, gentle stroke, as if to reassure himself that he wasn’t dreaming.
The cook prepared all her favorite recipes and she took long walks or rode across the fields with the dogs.
But after a few days she grew restless. It was wonderful to be home, to see the happiness in her father’s eyes, to be pampered and spoiled again, but her thoughts continually returned to Marco. Too frequently she found herself gazing blankly at a picture she didn’t see, or staring out of a window where there was no view. What was he doing right now? Was he thinking about her? Was he wondering if she would come back, or had he put her out of his mind? Her bed felt cold and empty and she found it hard to settle back into any of her old routines. At last she decided to travel up to town to fill a day with some shopping and have lunch with Gillian Westmarland.
Gillian had been at the last episode of the Game, before she met Johnny Westmarland and helped save his life. There was talk, too, that she had brought off some clever coup that was important to the country’s security, but the details had remained hush-hush and vague.
Whatever the truth of the story, Gillian had married Johnny as soon as he recovered from his wounds, the Game had been shut down, and a lot of the people who had joined in had discreetly retired from society. Including Emma herself.
She found Gillian waiting for her in the lobby of the Savoy. A silver tray sat on a low table with two cups and a silver coffee service.
As soon as she caught sight of Emma, Gillian sprang to her feet and gave her a hug and a kiss. “Thank God you’re alive,” she said. “We heard such terrible things about the fire on the ship.” She stepped back to look her up and down. “Are you all right? You look pale.”
“It’s nothing. Just a little tired still.” Emma returned Gillian’s penetrating scan, taking in the loose-fitting and most unfashionable frock. “My God,” she said as she plumped into a large armchair. “Don’t tell me you’re-”
Gillian nodded excitedly and stroked the small bulge in her abdomen. “Just in time for Christmas,” she said. “Isn’t it marvelous?”
“Wonderful. Congratulations. This calls for something stronger than coffee-” Emma looked around for a waiter.
“No, no, thank you. This is quite strong enough for me.” Gillian stroked her belly again and gave it a little pat as if communicating reassurance to the baby. “But if you want…”
Emma caught the eye of a waiter at last. “Do you have a bottle of Bel Amore?” naming the glorious white vintage from Marco’s estate.
“No, madame, that wine is not available to restaurants. It’s sold only to a select private list. I’m sorry. May I suggest something else? Or would you like to see the wine list?”
“No, no thank you. I’ll stick to coffee.”
She glanced across and saw Gillian watching her, a thoughtful look on her face. “Is that a special wine you found in Italy?”
“Yes. It’s rather nice, and I thought I’d like to try it here. Away from the sunshine and the hills, you know, it often tastes quite different.”
“Special memories, then?”
“In a way.” Emma took a sip of coffee, then looked at her nails, newly manicured and polished, and changed the subject. “Marriage seems to agree with you.”
Gillian gave a long sigh and stirred her full cup of coffee. “I’m quite sickening about it, actually. I keep telling all my friends they shouldn’t be afraid to do it.” She stirred her coffee yet again.
“Look, are you going to drink that, or just stir it to death?”
Gillian put the spoon down. “Sorry, I ordered it by habit. To tell the truth, it tastes horrible. Ever since I knew I was pregnant, my taste buds have gone haywire.”
“Have a glass of milk or something. Isn’t that supposed to be good for you?”
“Yes, but I’m starting to loathe the sight of milk. Johnny keeps bringing it to me.”
“Johnny? Gentleman Johnny in MI5, the swashbuckling hero?”
Gillian bristled. “He’s not like that at all. He’s very sweet and understanding-”
Emma reached out to touch Gillian’s knee. “I know, darling. He’s gorgeous and wonderful and I shouldn’t be teasing you. He adores you, I could see that.”
Emma finished her coffee, and they went in to lunch. She asked for a glass of Soave. It was nice enough, but not a patch on Marco’s wine.
“Tell me what happened in Italy,” Gillian demanded as they were served.
“Nothing to tell, really. I don’t remember all that much about the shipwreck, just that I was washed ashore and some Italian peasants found me. There was a doctor who helped me find my way back to Naples.”
“Hmm. That’s it?’
Gillian picked up the last lettuce leaf and sat back. “So, are you going to tell me about him?”
“The man who gave you the wine.” She placed her elbows on the table and propped her chin on her hands. “Was it the mysterious doctor? I know there’s more. I want every detail.” She dropped her voice. “Or at least every detail that’s fit to print, as Sam Parfitt used to say.”
Emma laughed. “You don’t miss the newspaper, do you?”
“God, no. Sometimes I do some office work for Johnny. Typing and stuff.” Her face grew serious. “There’s a lot going on in Europe, you know, Emma. In Germany and in Italy…”
Reminded that Gillian and Johnny were associated with the British secret services, Emma launched into a modified account of the village hidden in the caves and Marco’s struggle with the government forces. She still wasn’t ready to share too much and refrained from giving details of the torture and death of Claudia. She only mentioned Marco in passing as the leader of the outlawed group.
Gillian listened wide eyed. “This is all so useful,” she said. “Would you talk to Johnny about some of this?”
“I suppose so.”
“So keep the political details for him and tell me more about this Doctor Marco.”
Emma smiled as she sipped her wine. “There’s not much more to tell.”
“Of course there is. I can see it in your face every time you mention his name. What does he look like?”
She had never realized how good Gillian was at worming information out of someone. She tried to describe Marco without making him sound like a Hollywood star.
Gillian sighed again. “He sounds dreamy. What was he like in bed?”
Emma choked on her last sip of wine. “Gilly!”
“You can tell me. I’m a married woman. How often, where?”
“Several times, wherever we could, and that’s all you’re getting out of me, Mrs. Gillian Westmarland.”
“So are you going to marry him?”
“Oh, Gillian, I don’t know.”
“Of course you know. I knew I was going to marry Johnny as soon as I met him, although I had horrible doubts at times. Did he ask you?”
“Well, not in so many words, but he wanted me to stay with him.”
“Hmm. Do you care about getting married?”
“I should, but I’d take him under any conditions.” Suddenly that truth was as clear as daylight to her. “I’m so torn. My father-”
“Your father,” Gillian said decisively, “would let you marry the local ratcatcher if that’s what you wanted. And he’d book St. Margaret’s, Westminster, for it.”
“Marco’s been on the run and could be again. I’ve been reading a bit about Mussolini since I came back. I’m worried about him.”
“You have reason to be worried,” Gillian broke in. “Rule of iron, but not as brutal as in Germany, although not far off. The Blackshirts enforce authority, those who disagree and speak out can be murdered. A lot of people have left, rather than face death or the prisons on remote islands. I quote from the revered leader, ‘ Italy wants peace and quiet, work and calm. I will give these things with love if possible and with force if necessary.’”
Emma felt a tiny, cold shiver snake through her. “You know a lot.”
“It’s Johnny’s job to know, and I help him now. In 1927 they launched the Battle for Births. They want every family to have at least five children. Next it will be land, then currency, then crops. It’s in their manifesto. They’ll ride roughshod over anyone who dissents.”
Emma thought of the newspaper started by Marco’s father.
Gillian leaned forward. “Sorry to give you a current affairs lecture, but if you love this man, he will soon need you by his side. You need to decide where you want to be. And where he should be. Ask yourself what your real dilemma is… If you marry an Italian at this time you will have to make difficult choices. Think back, Emma. We both know what kind of life you led. Do you still want that?”
Emma shook her head. “The things that came easily to me turned out to be not worth having. I could care less about my social position, although it’s important to my father and I can’t hurt him.”
“Think about the things worth having that are harder to attain. The things you would fight and die for are precious and few, aren’t they?”
Emma took a gulp of water. “Very precious and very few.”
On the way home in the train from London, Emma did a lot of thinking. Talking to Gillian had made her put her feelings into words. To her surprise she’d heard herself say she would take Marco under any conditions. Did she really mean that?
Yes, she did.
In the empty railway carriage she summoned up his face, imagined him sitting opposite her in his loose shirt, one leg propped on the other knee. If he were really here he would sit back and flash her that wicked grin that told her he was undressing her in his mind, taking her to bed-
She came to with a start and felt herself blush as if the ticket collector could read her thoughts. The burly man gave her a swift glance as he punched her ticket. “Next stop is yours, miss,” he said.
“Yes, thank you.” She stood and collected her thoughts. She knew what she had to do.
That evening when dinner was over and coffee served, she took her father his daily cigar. He’d taught her how to select one from the sweet-smelling box that was imported from Cuba, how to cut the end and hold the match just so to light it evenly.
When it was drawing to his satisfaction, she took her place on a padded stool.
“What do you want to tell me?” he asked from behind a spiral of smoke.
“What makes you think I have something to tell?”
He tapped the ash carefully into an ashtray. “My girl, I haven’t watched you grow up without knowing most of what goes through your head. Sometimes I lost track, but when your mother died I promised myself I would never be a distant father.”
She got up and sat on the arm of his big, leather chair. “You’ve been a wonderful father,” she said, placing a kiss on the bald spot on his head.
“And you know how to twist me ‘round your little finger.” He sounded grumpy, but she knew he was pleased.
She leaned her cheek on his head. “You never married again.”
“No.” He tapped the end of his cigar again. “I always felt what your mother and I had couldn’t be duplicated. Then I was busy with the House of Lords, the estate…” He sighed. “Time slips by very fast, Emmy.”
“How did you know you loved my mother?”
“Goodness, child, what brought this on?” He cleared his throat. “Bit embarrassing, really. I couldn’t get her out of my head. Couldn’t imagine living without her, I suppose.”
“So you asked her to marry you. Had you known each other long?”
“Three weeks, actually. Raised a few eyebrows, I can tell you.”
“What did you say when you asked her to marry you?”
He cleared his throat again. “We were standing by the water jump at a cross-country meet. I had a new horse I was trying out, and she came with me. She had on a very pretty frock, I remember, and a big hat-”
“What did you say?”
“I think we waited for the horses to go by and I looked at her, held her hand you know, and said, ‘I suppose you wouldn’t care to marry me, would you, old girl?’”
Emma burst out laughing. “Oh, Daddy. You are so unromantic.”
“Well it worked. She said yes. We had ten years together and I had you. Ten years is more than many people ever get.”
Emma stood up and went to the window.
“So do you want to marry him?” her father asked.
She whirled around. “Who said anything about marrying anyone?”
“No one, but you’ve been wandering around the house like a lost soul since you came back. A good fellow is he, this Italian?”
She ran to him and hugged him. “A very good fellow.”
“Wants to marry you, does he?”
“That’s what I mean to find out.”
Marco was surprised to find his hand was shaking. He was afraid. This mattered too much to him. He stared unseeing out of the window of the train, his body tense, his hands flexed around an unread newspaper. Smoke from the puffing engine drifted past the window and the wheels clacked rhythmically, sounding out her name with their clickety-clack.
The man opposite moved his leg and Marco shifted to give him room. He’d forgotten how cramped these English railway compartments were. Five or so to a side, two doors at each end, luggage rack overhead. Locked into an unwelcome proximity between stations. No corridor, no way to stretch your legs, no view of other travelers save those in your compartment. In a way, it was a good thing to be a prisoner. Once committed to the journey, there was little opportunity to turn back.
Emma had no idea he was coming. He wondered if the days had dragged as interminably for her as for him. He could have cabled, or telephoned when the ferry docked, but the same fear had made him hesitate. Suppose she told him to go away, that she didn’t want to see him? Now she was safely back in her tidy English woods, with her tidy English life, maybe the whole delirious time spent with him was a bad dream.
Did it matter to her that they had known each other only a matter of days? He remembered his literature teacher explaining how the classical playwrights had compressed everything into a span of twenty-four hours. Well, he was right about how much you could cram into little more than a day and a night. The three unities, of place, time and theme. Wasn’t that what had happened between him and Emma? Tragedy, fear, ecstasy, danger had tumbled over themselves to insinuate themselves into the scenario being played out.
The man across the narrow aisle folded his newspaper and reached above his head for a briefcase. The cadence of the wheels changed as the train began to slow. A miniature railway station like a child’s toy came into view and the train came to a halt with a loud hiss of steam.
A porter hurried by, shouting the name of the station.
His fellow traveler stepped to the door and lowered the window by its strap to reach out for the door handle. As the door swung open, he turned to Marco. “I think this is your stop, sir. Couldn’t help hearing you mention it to the collector.”
He gave a brusque nod as if embarrassed that he’d broken the code of silence and stepped down to the platform. Marco gathered his portmanteau and his coat and followed him out into the fresh, cool air of the English summer evening.
He found a car to take him through the narrow lanes to Lord Bicester’s estate. The driver wore a flat, tweed cap and muddy Wellington boots. He smelled of hay and animals and had a country burr to his speech.
“They must have forgot to send the car for you, sir,” he said. “Did you change your train?”
“No,” Marco answered. “I wasn’t able to give them an exact date for my arrival. They know I can find my way.”
“Ah.” The man’s voice was noncommittal. “Foreign, aren’t you, sir? Been here before?”
“I’ve lived in England, but I don’t know this part of the country.”
“Ah. Friend of the family, sir?”
Marco suppressed a smile. Everyone always wanted to know all about a stranger. His own village was exactly the same. “Not of the family, no. I’m a friend of Lady Emma.”
“Ah.” The driver braked for a blind spot on a corner and tooted the horn. “Lovely young lady that. You’re not the first young man to come to see ‘er.” He gave a belly laugh.
Marco found it hard to join in the mirth. “I suppose not,” he said with a weak smile. “Er, I don’t suppose there are other guests right now?” Why hadn’t he thought of the possibility that Emma had resumed her lifestyle, including suitors and a social whirl?
“No, sir, I don’t believe there are. Real quiet it’s been since Lady Emma came home.” His voice dropped. “They say she was kidnapped and tortured, poor lady. Them foreigners treated her very badly.”
Was that the story Emma was telling? His heart sank.
Just then the house came into view, a huge pile with turrets and hundreds of windows glinting in the setting sun. Deer grazed in the park, and sculpted lawns stretched into the distance.
The driver slowed to a crawl and drew to a halt in front of the steps leading to the main door. Marco got out and took a deep breath. He had faced guns and treachery without fear, but the thought of seeing Emma again was enough to make him want to get back into the car and drive away. How could one small woman terrify him to this extent?
He dug in his pocket for some money and turned toward the house. At that instant Emma herself appeared from around the corner, her arms full of cut flowers.
“Mr. Goodfellow,” she called, “I thought I heard the car. Who-” She stood stock still when she saw Marco, then cast the flowers to the ground. She came at him on a run and he caught her in his arms, smothering her with kisses.
“Why didn’t you let me know?” She laughed, yet tears moistened her cheeks.
He breathed in her essence, her own special perfume. “I didn’t know what to say. Are you pleased to see me?”
“Pleased?” She held him away from her. “I’ve missed you so much. I was planning to come back to Italy. Come.” She kissed him hard and deep, then tucked his hand under her elbow and picked up his bag. “Come and meet Daddy. I’ve told him a lot about you.”
They had put his bag in a room at the end of a long corridor and he’d been resigned to spending a lonely night until Emma had whispered a promise in his ear before dinner. True to her word, she’d appeared like a ghost in a robe of white muslin when the house was dark and silent.
She found him waiting for her, hoping for her. She slid into the bed beside him and they held each other without speaking, savoring the feel of their limbs, inhaling the long lost scent of their skin. The room was in total darkness and they could feel, touch and breathe in the heady scent of their bodies, but see nothing.
“Daddy liked you.” Emma snuggled against him in the darkness.
“How could you tell?” Lord Bicester had subjected him to a barrage of questions about his family, his property, his political views. He’d escaped to his room after dinner feeling battered and convinced that he would be on the next train back to London after breakfast.
“Lots of ways.” She stroked his chest. “He asked you lots of questions-”
“That was good?”
“Oh, yes. If he hadn’t liked you he would have eaten without saying a word. Then he offered you a glass of his best port.”
“I see I have a lot to learn about English fathers.” As he spoke, he lightly traced the tip of his finger down the side of her neck, over the pulsing artery and down to her collarbone, finding the sensitive hollow at the base of her throat. He felt the movement of her jaw under his fingers as she swallowed.
“Concentrate on the daughters first,” she said.
Like a blind man, he let his fingers wander over her curves and hollows, sensing her by touch alone. Slowly he slid the muslin from her shoulders, imagining every inch of soft, pearly flesh. It nearly killed him to wait, but wait he did, listening to her breathing, until her breasts were free of any covering. He cupped a lovely globe in each hand and brought the pebbly nipple to his mouth as if tasting a glass of fine wine. Her nipples were hard and erect, and he took each one between his lips in turn, circling it with his tongue, sucking it into his mouth.
“I’ve dreamed of this,” she said. “Every night since I’ve been home, I’ve imagined you in my bed.”
“Don’t talk,” he said. “Just let me touch you, let my hands learn you.”
She lay still as he pulled her nightdress over her hips. In the velvety blackness he touched gently between her legs, feeling her creamy wetness. He brought his fingertips close to his face and inhaled deeply. “The scent of Emma.”
Her fingers rested lightly on his hip and he felt them begin to explore his thigh, his belly, until they seized upon his cock.
“You’ve had me on a horse, on the ground, on your lap, in a shepherd’s hut, and in your bed,” she said. “Which did you like best?”
“Wicked woman. You’re trying to trick me. Whatever I say, you’ll wonder why the other wasn’t my favorite.”
Her fingers traced the line of his cheek, touching his lips and the sensitive nerves jumped.
“Then don’t tell me. Just fuck me however you want.”
His eyes were adapting to the darkness and he began to make out the pale gleam of her body and the glitter of her eyes.
He kissed her mouth and put his hands on her hips. Gently but forcefully he turned her until she lay prone. He ran his hands down her back and over the curve of her ass. Her hips twitched in response. His fingers dipped between her thighs from behind and he cupped her cunt in his hand, lifting so that she rose to her knees, her face pressed against the pillow.
He played with her in this position, one hand stroking her, his fingers dipping into her, first one, then two. As he thrust inside her she moaned and tensed, pushing against his hand. He let his other hand snake around to cup a dangling breast.
His cock quivered against the cheeks of her ass, begging for a way in to relieve the ache in his balls. He withdrew his hand from between her legs and spread her thighs. His teeth nipped at the smooth, round cheek as he held apart the folds of her cunt with both hands. He positioned his cock and slid deep inside her warm softness. Her muscles spasmed around him, squeezing him until he cried out. She gasped and tensed against him, driving him deeper.
Firmly embedded inside her, he felt for her clit with one hand and caressed her breast with the other. He thrust inside her rhythmically as she moaned and tensed, writhing as he tormented her clit and her nipple. She could move only back and forth, massaging his bursting cock with every tremor and tiny motion. He held her prisoner, utterly at his mercy. He nuzzled the nape of her neck.
“Now?” he said. “Are you ready to come when I tell you?”
“Then now.” He clasped her to him and thrust deep inside until he felt the far wall of her vagina. She cried out and he felt the waves through her whole body, squeezing his cock, making every inch of her tremble.
She lay in his arms in the soft darkness, knowing she wanted to spend the rest of her life in his embrace.
He spoke very softly. “It isn’t over, is it? It’s the same here as in Italy?”‘
A part of her stood to one side, watching herself take the irrevocable step. “It isn’t over.”
He kissed her again with passion and an underlying tenderness. Passion is fleeting and possible to resist. Tenderness promised permanence and left her defenseless. Needs she had suppressed for too long rose up and swept over her like a tidal wave, destroying her carefully constructed defenses like a child’s castle in the sand, and revealing the truth of her feelings for him.
“I love you, Emma, my bella donna. I think I loved you from the moment I saw you in Enrico’s stable.”
She felt tears shimmer on the ends of her lashes and he brushed them away as he showered kisses on her face.
She said the words she had never spoken to anyone else. “I love you, too. I think I loved you from the instant you found me.”
In the hills of Italy he had been able to arouse her with a single kiss, and the time apart had changed nothing. She resisted the touch of his lips for all of ten seconds before pressing her body against his and returning his kiss with all the heat and passion that had been missing from her life for the past years. It was more than a kiss, it was a consuming ecstasy, brushed with soft magic
It was a very long time before they broke apart.
Margrett Dawson has been a nomad most of her life, and has lived in six different countries. She is settled for a while with her own romance hero on Vancouver Island on Canada 's Pacific Coast, where she loves to craft sexy stories about people who fall in love. She will move on again (this time to Africa for a few months) but will continue to spin tales, especially about people who find romance when they least expect it.
Margrett welcomes mail from readers. You can write to her c/o Ellora’s Cave Publishing at P.O. Box 787, Hudson, Ohio 44236-0787.