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?”