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.