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 facade. 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.