must go in alone, piccola," Sarina patted her shoulder
encouragingly. "He is expecting you. Have courage."
She began to walk away.
reached out to her before she could stop herself, clutching
desperately at the servant woman's dress. "Is he as they
whisper of him?"
is both terrible and kind," Sarina answered. "We are
used to his ways, to his appearance. Others are not. Be one
he can be kind to. He has not much patience, go in quickly.
You look beautiful and you have shown much courage." She
reached past Isabella and grasped the ornate door knob, the
great snarling lion, and twisted it.
had no choice. She entered the room slowly. Her heart was beating
so loud, she feared he might hear. She tried not to look intimidated,
or stiff with anger. She needed to be humble. Several times
she repeated it to herself. She had to be humble, not
speak her mind or allow her wayward tongue to run away with
her. She couldn't afford to be the wild girl-child breaking
every rule in her father's house, running wild in the mountains
when no one was looking. Playing tricks on her beloved brother
at every turn, continually earning her father's disapproving
frown and a shake of his head as he would turn away from her
in disappointment. As hard as she tried, she could not be the
demure woman who would have been an asset to him.
held tightly to her memories of Lucca. He had aided her in her
wild ways, her best friend and confidante despite their father
pleading she act the part of a lady. She knew she would have
been wed long before now, had her father had his way, sold to
some older Don to aid the war-chest. Lucca wouldn't hear
of it. Several times she had dressed as a boy and accompanied
him on hunting expeditions. He had taught her to wield a sword
and a stiletto, even to swim in the cold waters of the rivers
and lakes. She rode as well as a man, and she would never, ever
abandon Lucca in his hour of need. Long after their father had
died, her brother had protected her, loved her and watched over
her. Even when they were desperate for money he had never once
thought of selling her to one of the many suitors.
lifted her chin. Lucca had taught her courage and she wouldn't
fail him in her last, desperate attempt. She moved into the
darkened interior of the room. There was a fire going, but it
couldn't compete with the heavy draperies blocking out every
vestige of light from the windows. There were two high-backed
chairs placed in front of the fire, but the room was huge with
high vaulted ceilings and so many alcoves and archways an army
could have been hiding. Even with the large fireplace, the light
had no hope of shedding rays into the shadowy recesses.
For a moment she thought herself alone as the heavy door swung
closed, locking her in the room. Then she felt him. She knew
it was he. The Don. Mysterious. Aloof. She sensed him
there in the darkness, the weight of his stare. Intense.
Burning. Afraid to cross the wide expanse of marble floor to
one of the high-backed chairs Isabella shivered in spite of
her determination not to show her fear.
froze, standing perfectly still, her gaze riveted to the deepest
shadows, the darkened alcove where she could make out the large
shape of a man. He stood tall and unbending. On his forearm
was perched a falcon, a raptor with a wicked curved beak and
talons that could pierce and rend and shred delicate skin. The
round, beady eyes were fixed on her intently. The bird stirred
as if it might fly at her face, but the man spoke softly, the
voice so low she couldn't make out the words. He stroked a single
caress along the neck and down the back of the falcon and it
settled down, but never took its eyes from Isabella's face.
matter how hard she tried to pierce the darkness to see the
man, she could not. He appeared to have long hair, swept back
from his face and secured at the nape of his neck with a long
tie, yet it was still wild and shaggy so that it looked full,
a mane in disarray. She could make out the outline when he turned
slightly to touch the bird. The cloak of darkness shielded the
bulk of his body from her so that she couldn't tell what he
looked like at all. His face was completely hidden to her, so
she had no idea of his age or what he looked like. As she continued
to stare, the flames from the fireplace seemed to leap into
his eyes so that for a moment she could see the reflection shimmering
red and orange through the darkness.
gripped her and Isabella wanted to turn and run from the room.
The eyes glowed a fiery red and they were not human.
"You are Isabella Vernaducci," he said from the dark
recesses of the alcove. "Please be seated. Sarina has brought
tea to steady your nerves." His voice was pleasant enough
but his words immediately pricked her pride.
swept across the room regally, a woman of stature, of great
importance, her head held high. "I do not recall that I
have nerves, Signore DeMarco. However if you feel nervous,
I shall certainly be happy to pour a cup for you. I trust the
tea is free of any herbs that might cause you to become
Isabella sat in the high-backed chair, taking her time to arrange
the long skirt primly over her legs and ankles. She cursed herself
silently. Her pride was going to lose her the hard won audience
with him. What was wrong with her that she bristled in his company?
What did it matter what he said, what he thought of her? Let
him think her nervous and weak if that was what he wanted. As
long as she got her way.
Don DeMarco allowed the silence between them to lengthen and grow.
She could feel the heavy weight of his disapproval, the weight
of his stare from the shadows.
to salvage the situation, Isabella looked down at her hands.
"Thank you for the garments. I had very little in the way
of proper clothing with me. The room is beautiful and the bed
comfortable. I could not have asked for better care. Signora Sincini took excellent care of me."
am happy to see the gowns fit you. Are you rested from your
"Yes, grazie," she said demurely.
was foolish of you, and if your Padre was alive, I would
see to it that you would be punished for such a folly. I am
inclined to take on the responsibility myself." His voice
was velvet soft, playing along her nerve-endings like the brush
of fingers. She felt it like a stroke, a caress, so that her
skin was warm and she was thankful for the heat of the fire
to cover the blush stealing into her face. He was chastising
her, yet his voice was nearly a physical caress and for some
reason, Isabella found herself very susceptible to it.
were warned repeatedly not to come to this place. What kind
of a woman are you that you would risk your reputation, your
life, in such a journey?"
fingers curled into two tight fists so that her fingernails
dug deeply into her palms. She had the feeling he was watching
her closely from the shadows, that his eyes caught that small
tell-tale rebellion. Surreptitiously she pushed her hands out
of sight beneath the skirts of her dress. "I am a desperate
woman," she admitted, trying unsuccessfully to peer into
the darkness. He looked a large, powerful being, not quite human.
The bird of prey perched on his arm staring at her with round,
beady eyes added to her nervousness. "I had to see you.
To plead for mio fratello's life. I sent messengers,
but they were unable to reach you. I know you can help him."
She swallowed the unexpected sob threatening to choke her. "He
is in the dungeons of Don Rivellio. He has been sentenced
to death. Mio fratello has been imprisoned for nearly
a year and the conditions are appalling. He is ill, very ill.
I have come here to plead with you for his life. I know you
have the power to have him pardoned. One word from you and Don Rivellio would release him. If you do not wish to openly ask
for such a favor, e possibile you would arrange for his
escape." She blurted the words out desperately, unable
to hold them back a moment longer. Isabella leaned forward,
toward the dark corner. "Please do this, Don DeMarco. Mio fratello is a good man, do not allow him to die."
was a long silence. Nothing moved in the room, not even the
falcon on his arm. Don DeMarco sighed softly. "What
is he charged with?"
hesitated, her stomach a tight knot. She should have known he
would ask. How could he not? "Treason. It is said he conspired
against the King." It was only fair to answer him truthfully.
he guilty? Did he conspire against the King?" There was
the softest of growls emerging from his throat.
heart jumped wildly. Her small teeth tugged at her lower lip
calling attention to the lush, sexy curve of it. "Yes,"
her voice was very low. "He believed we should overthrow
all other countries seeking to rule us, that no foreign government
would care about our people. But what harm can he do now? He
is ill. Our lands, our properties and everything we have has
been confiscated and given to Don Rivellio. The Don wishes him dead so that there is no question that he retain
our properties. In truth Don Rivellio had him arrested
for reasons of his own and he has profited greatly. It's to
his advantage to dishonor our name and dispose of mio fratello."
least you have it in you to tell the truth of his crime."
lifted her chin haughtily. "My name is an honored one."
was until your brother became too loud in his professions of
a secret society. Such a thing is supposed to be secret, not
talked of to everyone in a tavern."
hung her head, twisting her fingers together. Her father had
been adamant, the society was gaining ground, small pockets
of men growing in power. They refused to bow down to any government,
distrusting the foreigners. They swore omerta, an oath
to the death. Lucca never imbibed spirits yet he had gone to
the tavern and had drank until his tongue had loosened. Not
only was he charged with treason and sentenced to die, but those
in his secret circle might well assassinate him for his loose
mouth. Fortunately he had not incriminated any other and although
tortured repeatedly, had not given any names to Don Rivellio
to pass onto the King.
it occurred to you by coming here you may have placed yourself
in the same untenable position as your brother? I may be allied
with Don Rivellio. What is there to prevent me from turning
you over to him and repeating your treasonous words? It certainly
would be far easier and would gain me not only the Don's gratitude, but he would owe me a favor. The world of power
is played out with intrigue and favors." His voice had
dropped another octave, so that she shivered despite the warmth
of the fire. No one had ever conveyed such menace to her with
such a soft voice.
lifted her chin defiantly. "I 'm well aware of the risk
you?" The two words were low, almost a whisper of sound.
Ominous. Threatening. "In truth I do not think you have
any idea." The silence stretched between them until she
wanted to scream. The falcon on his arm stared at her with merciless
eyes. "What kind of man would send his sister to plead
for his life? He must have known you were risking your life
by coming here."
small teeth tugged at her lower lip. "He would be angry
with me if he knew. I felt I had no choice."
you plead so eloquently with Don Rivellio?" This
time his voice conveyed something else, something nameless but
it stirred a terrible dread in her heart. There was a flash
of his white teeth as if he snapped them at her with the mere
thought of such a thing.
wanted to give him whatever answere he needed to hear to encourage
him to help her, but she had no idea what he would prefer so
she settled on the truth. "No, I could not force myself
to do such a thing. Are you going to help me?" There was
an impatience in her voice she couldn't prevent.
are your intentions if I do not?"
least he hadn't dismissed her immediately. "I shall attempt
a rescue myself."
did stir then, white teeth gleaming at her from the darkness.
Mocking amusement. "I see. And if I do agree to aid you
in this plan to free your guilty fratello, what is in
it for me? You have no land to give me, you have no money. Your
loyalty toward your brother is commendable but I doubt whether
I would elicit the same from you. What did you plan to repay
me with or did you expect me to risk my life and the lives of
my people for nothing?"
course not," she was shocked that he would think such a
thing of her. "I'm a Vernaducci. We pay our debts. I have mia Madre's jewelry. It is worth a small fortune. And
my mount. She is well bred. And I'm a hard worker. You may not
believe I'll give you that same loyalty, but in exchange for mio fratello's life I'll work for you. I ran our home
so I'll have no trouble becoming a servile as I know
what is expected." She stared steadily into the shadows
of the alcove, digging her nails even deeper into her palms
while her heart beat out a loud tattoo.
do not wear jewelry and I have many horses. I also have many servile, all quite loyal and all very capable of doing
shoulders sagged, she hunched in the chair, struggling desperately
not to cry. She continued to stare into the darkened alcove,
not wanting to break contact with her only hope.
are you willing to do in exchange for the life of tuo fratello?"
The words were very soft. "Will you trade your life for
once her mouth went dry and her heart nearly stopped. She thought
of the unearthly scream of agony she had heard in the middle
of the night. The terrible roar of the beasts. Did he sacrifice
women to the lions for some pagan god? Or did he watch humans
being torn to pieces like the Christians of old simply for his
own perverted pleasure? She knew there were many in power who
committed terrible atrocities. "I think you know I would
do anything to save him," she answered, suddenly very afraid.
you give me your agreement, there will be no going back on your
word," he cautioned. "It will not be permitted."
will have him pardoned?" She tilted her chin, putting on
a show of bravery.
will trade your life for tuo fratello? I have your word
stood up, a quick movement because she could not stay still.
"Gladly." She said the word defiantly, proudly, every
inch a Vernaducci. Her father would have been truly proud of
her in that moment.
I can trust the word of a woman?" The voice was very soft,
almost caressing even as he insulted her with his question.
Her eyes flashed at him, a small flare of temper. "My word
is not given lightly, Signore, I assure you, it is every
bit as good as yours."
it is done. You will remain here, in my palazzo, and
the moment we are wed, I shall secure his release." There
was a grim finality to his words.
gasped aloud, a soft protest. It was the last thing she had
expected. Her eyes widened, enormous and haunted as she tried
to peer into the darkened recess of the alcove. To see him,
to see his face. She had to see him. "I don't think
it is necessary to wed, I'm quite happy to remain a servile in your palazzo." She deliberately curtsied, a small,
half-hearted attempt. "I assure you, Signore, I
am very hard working."
have no need of another servile, I have great need of
a wife. You will wed. You have given me your word and
I will not release you." There was that strange, low growl
rumbling from deep within his throat and the bird on his arm
shook its wings restlessly as if suddenly nervous-or as if about
to attack. The round eyes stared at her as relentlessly as the
eyes in the shadows.
heart stuttered and she gripped the back of the chair to steady
herself but she stared intently, deliberately into the alcove,
refusing to be intimidated. "I did not ask to be released, Don DeMarco, I merely attempted to point out I was not
expecting you to marry me. I have no dowry, no land, nothing
to bring to the match." She should have been sagging with
relief, at least he wasn't feeding her to his lions, but instead,
she was more frightened than ever. "Mio fratello is ill. He will need care. He must be brought here so that I
can nurse him back to health."
will not tolerate interference from your brother. He would not
want you to trade your life for his. He must believe our match
is one of mutual affection."
relief was so tremendous after all she had been through, Isabella
was terrified she was going to collapse. She could feel the
tears clogging her throat, swimming in her eyes so that she
turned away from him to stare into the fireplace hoping he wouldn't
notice her weakness. She waited until she was certain she could
control her voice. "If you save mio fratello, I
will not have to feign affection for you, Don DeMarco,
it will be so. I have given you my word, please make the arrangements.
Every moment counts as his health is failing and Don Rivellio has ordered his death at the end of this moon's cycle."
She sank into the chair again, her only hope to keep from collapsing
into a pitiful heap on the floor.
would not make promises you cannot keep, Signorina Vernaducci,
you have not yet seen your bridegroom." There was a grimness
to his voice, a hard, implacable warning.
stirred then, she knew that he did, she felt him moving
rather than heard him but she didn't turn her gaze away from
she didn't want to see him, she wanted to be alone to give herself
time to regain her strength and courage, but her legs were far
too shaky to carry her from his quarters. He came into the edge
of her vision, tall and muscular, a powerful, fit male, reaching
to allow the falcon to settle onto a perch built into the recesses
of an alcove far from the fire. And then he was moving toward
her. As he approached she became aware of how silently he moved,
how quickly, fluidly.
hand moved into her sight as he reached for the small teapot
the servile had left on the table between the two chairs.
For one horrible moment she found herself staring at a huge
paw, that of a lion, dark and curved with spiked nails. Isabella
blinked and the paw was only his hand, was only an illusion
of her terrified imagination. She watched as he poured the liquid
into two cups. He handed her one.
this, you will feel better." His voice was gruff, almost
as if he regretted the small kindness.
closing her hands around the hot cup, she accidentally brushed
his skin with her fingertips. A whip of lightning leapt into
her bloodstream, arced and crackled, sizzling hot at the mere
contact. Shocked, she nearly jumped away from him, her startled
gaze flying upward to lock with his.