Christine Feehan, New York Times Bestselling Author
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~THE SCARLETTI CURSE~
Last Updated: April 18, 2012 00:52:25

The Scarletti CurseThe raven winged its way along the edge of the cliffs. Below, the waves crashed and foamed against the rocks, each one rising higher and higher, reaching almost angrily toward the black bird. The raven changed course, circling inland across the fields of flowers, above the bare slopes, flying higher and higher until it reached the timberline. It appeared to be meandering, slowly gliding across the sky, the waning rays of sunlight glistening off of its back. Patches of clouds began to drift across the horizon, almost in its wake, as if the bird was drawing a gray shadow across the land far below it.

Once in the thick stands of trees, the bird changed speed, swooped quickly, maneuvering through leafy branches, and around thick tree trunks, as if racing the setting sun. It flew as straight as possible, up the side of the hills into the grove of trees on the far slope of the mountain. It made its way unerringly to a thick, twisted branch. Settling there, it folded its wings rather majestically, round shiny eyes fixed intently on the small woman below.

Nicoletta carefully packed the rich soil around the small fern she had recently moved. The earth was more fertile and would enable her much needed and rarer shrubs to grow here. She used the extracts from the plants as medicine for the people in the surrounding villaggi and farms . What had started as a small garden had grown into an enormous undertaking, transplanting all of the herbs and plants that could be used for various medicines and experiments. Her bare hands were buried deep within the soil, the rich fragrances of the plants enveloping her. A riot of color from the vegetation and flowers she had sown into the earth were scattered all around her.

She shivered suddenly as a the gray shadows caught up with her, obscuring the last warming rays of the sun and leaving an ominous portent of disaster firmly entrenched in her mind. Very slowly Nicoletta stood up, dusting the damp soil from, first her hands, and then her long, wide skirt before she tilted her head to look up at the bird sitting so still above her in the tree.

"So you have come to summon me," she said aloud, her voice soft and husky in the silence of the grove. "You never bring me good news, but I forgive you."

The bird stared at her, not breaking eye contact, the small round eyes shiny and bright as it looked at her. A last sunbeam lit the feathers on its back almost into iridescence, before the graying clouds obscured the sun completely.

Nicoletta sighed and shoved at the wild mass of long tangled hair flowing like a waterfall down her back to hang well below her small waist. Small twigs were caught in the silken strands. She looked like a mysterious, mystical creature, wild and untamed with her bare feet and her delicate features. A young, beautiful witch, perhaps, weaving spells amidst her lavish, exotic garden.

The bird opened its beak, emitted a loud squawk, the note jarring in the hushed silence of the grove. For a moment the insects ceased their incessant humming so that the earth seemed to be holding its breath.

"I am going, I am going," Nicoletta said, catching up a thin leather pouch. She raised her head to the sky above her, turned in a slow circle, facing in each of the four directions, north, south, east and west, for a few seconds each way, her arms outstretched. The wind tugged at her clothing, whipped her hair around her like a living cloak. Hastily she began gathering leaves and seeds from various plants. It took only a few minutes to drag crushed, dried powders and leaves and berries from a small wooden box she kept for storage at the base of the tree.

Nicoletta began to run at a steady pace along a well-worn path leading down the hillside. Bushes caught at her full skirt, the wind tugged at her hair, but she made her way easily through the brambles and thick growth of vegetation. Not once did her small feet touch a stone or sharp twig lying in wait on the ground. As she approached a stream, she simply lifted her long skirt to reveal flashes of shapely bare legs as she raced across smooth stones, occasionally kicking up a spray of water so that droplets fell back into the rushing stream like a shower of glistening diamonds.

Timber gave way to meadows and barren rock as she neared the ocean side. She could hear the sea thundering against the cliffs, continually seeking to erode the massive peaks. She paused then to look down upon the great palazzo that sat beside the raging sea. It was large and beautiful, yet dark and foreboding rising out of the shadows with its towers and terraces. It was whispered the great halls held secrets and the passageways could empty into the seas should there be need.

The palazzo was huge, with gables and towers, turrets and enormous walk ways. The tracery facing the cliff was a slender intersecting stone bar which formed a geometrical pattern. It was very intricate, a distinctive pattern, not simply dividing the crown of the large window, it was on the highest gable overlooking the cliffside. Something about the pattern always caught her attention, made her feel as if she was being watched. There were at least two stories with the towers and turrets rising above that. Sculpted into the eaves, the gables, even on the towers were silent sentinels, the gargoyles, watching the surrounding countryside with hollow, staring eyes and outstretched wings.

Nicoletta shook her head, not daring to linger any longer. There was in urgency in her, the need must be great. She turned her back on the palazzo and began to walk quickly along the path winding away from the sea back toward the interior of the hills. The first houses came into sight, small, neat, scattered around the hills, tiny little farms and single dwellings. She loved the sight of those homes. She loved the people.

An elderly woman met her as she entered the main square. "Nicoletta! Look at you! Where are your shoes? Hurry, piccolo, you must hurry!" The woman sounded scolding, but she was gently pulling the twigs and leaves from Nicoletta's long hair. "Quickly, piccola, your shoes. You must fix your hair as we go."

Nicoletta smiled and leaned into the woman to press a kiss on her lined cheek. "Maria Pia, you are the light of my life. I have no idea where I left my sandals." She didn't either. Somewhere on the trail, perhaps by the stream.

Maria Pia sighed softly. "Bambina, you will be the death of all of us." Nicoletta was the joy of the villaggio, their lifeblood, their secret. She was impossible to tame, like trying to hold water or the wind in their hands. The older woman lifted her arm and waved toward the nearest hut. At once there was the sound of laughter and a small child raced out carrying thin leather sandals, the leather thongs dragging on the ground.

Giggling, the dark-haired little girl thrust the shoes at Nicoletta. "We knew you would lose them," she said.

Nicoletta laughed, the sound soft and melodious like the clear running of water in the streams. "Little imp, skip along now and stop tormenting me."

Maria Pia was already starting down the narrow path back toward the cliffs. "Come quickly, Nicoletta, and plait your hair. A scarf, bambina, you must cover your head. And take my shawl. You cannot draw attention to yourself." She was clucking the orders over her shoulder as she walked briskly. She was old, but she moved as one still young, as one well used to traveling the steep hillsides.

Nicoletta easily kept pace, the sandals slung around her neck by the thongs while she deftly bound her hair into a long thick braid. She wound it carefully into a tight knot and covered her head with a thin scarf. "We are going to the Palazzo Della Morte."

Maria Pia swung around, scowling fiercely, emitting a slow hiss of disapproval. "Do not say such a thing, piccola, it is bad luck."

Nicoletta laughed softly. "You think everything is bad luck." She wrapped the tattered black shawl around her shoulders to cover her bare arms.

"Everything is bad luck," Maria Pia scolded. "You cannot say such things. If He should hear of it…."

"It isn't bad luck," Nicoletta insisted, "and who is going to tell him what I said? It isn't bad luck that kills the women who go to work in that place. It is something else."

Maria Pia crossed herself as she looked around carefully. "Take care, Nicoletta, the hills have ears. Everything gets back to him, and without his good will our people would be homeless and without protection."

"So we must deal with the Il Demonio and pray the price isn't too high." For the first time Nicoletta sounded bitter.

Maria Pia paused for a moment, reaching out to take the young woman's arm. "Do not harbor such thoughts, piccola, it is said he can read minds," she cautioned it very gently, lovingly, sorrow and pity in her eyes.

"How many more of our women and children will that place swallow before it is done?" Nicoletta demanded, her black eyes flashing with anger like a bright flame. "Must we pay our debts with our lives?"

"Hush," Maria Pia insisted. "You go back to the villaggio, you should not accompany me."

Nicoletta marched past the older woman, her back stiff, her slender shoulders square, outrage in her every step. "As if I would leave you to face Signore Morte alone. You cannot save this one without me, I feel it, Maria Pia, I must go if she is to live." Nicoletta ignored the outraged gasp at her admitting to having knowledge of something not yet revealed to them. She tried not to smile as Maria Pia solemnly made the sign of the cross, first on herself and then over Nicoletta.

Mist was swirling up from the foaming sea, curling around their ankles and clinging to their bodies, fine sifted droplets of salt water. The wind was savage now, rising up off the ocean waves to slam into their small frames as if trying to drive them back. They were forced to slow their pace and choose their way carefully over the little used path to the hulking palazzo. As they rounded the narrow steep cliff jutting up from the sea and the palazzo came into sight, the sun slipped into the water plunging the sky into a blood red stain.

Maria Pia cried out, halting as the vivid color swept across the sky, a portent of disaster and death. She moaned softly, her body trembling as she rocked back and forth clutching at the cross she wore around her neck. "We go to our doom."

Nicoletta put her arm protectively around the older woman's shoulders, her young face passionate, fierce. "No we do not. I will not lose you, Maria Pia, I will not. He cannot swallow you like he has the others! I am too strong for him and his terrible curses."

The wind howled and tore at their clothes, raging against her challenge. "Do not say such things, bambina, it is dangerous to speak of such things aloud." Maria Pia straightened her shoulders. "I am an old woman, better that I go alone. I have lived my life, Nicoletta, and yours is just beginning."

"The Palazzo Della Morte, has taken mia Madre and mia Zia, it will not swallow you too. I will not allow it!" Nicoletta vowed it fiercely, hurtling the words back at the wild wind, refusing to bow down before its savage intensity. "I am going with you as always, and He can go to hell!"

Maria Pia gasped her shock and blessed Nicoletta three times before proceeding along the path. The wind shrieked its outrage of Nicoletta's defiance, roaring through the pass. Small pebbles trickled down from above them, dislodging larger rocks so that they picked up speed, pelting the two women as they went through the narrow pass between the two cliffs. Nicoletta, circled the older woman's head protectively with her arms, trying to shelter her from the shower of stones cascading down around them as they ran.

"Does he command the very mountains?" Maria Pia cried. Her words were whipped away from her and taken out to sea by the fury of the wind.

"Are you hurt?" Nicoletta demanded, running her hands over the older woman, looking for injuries, anger and defiance swirling together like the mist. She was very gentle, her touch light and soothing despite the emotions seething deep within her.

"No, not at all," Maria Pia assured, "what about you?"

Nicoletta shrugged. Her left arm felt numb, but the rock that had hit her hadn't been particularly large and she felt lucky to have escaped with only a bruise. They were on the palazzo grounds now and overhead the clouds darkened until they roiled, spinning black threads that boiled like a great witches cauldron. Long dark shadows were everywhere, shading every bush and tree, every bench as the house loomed up before them. It rose right out of the cliff like a glistening castle. Enormous, towers and turrets rising toward the heavens, heavy gables and intricate windows. There were sculptures everywhere, huge, heavy ones and small delicate ones. The grounds had great stones carved into impressive guards scattered around the maze and the gardens. Two huge marble fountains gilded with brass rose up in the centers of the rounded courts, heavily laced with winged sculptures and deities of every kind.

They made their way up the immaculate path with the great hulking statues glaring at them and the wind battering them continually. The door was massive, a great heavy thing intricately carved. Nicoletta studied the etchings for a moment while Maria Pia fussed over her, making certain she was properly covered. "Your shoes, bambina," she hissed suddenly.

They were both shivering in the unrelenting wind. It was dark and very gloomy with the great hulk of the door staring unpleasantly at them. Nicoletta thought the carvings were lost souls shrieking in flames, but her imagination was always getting the better of her when she was near this place. Maria Pia took hold of the heavy knocker and allowed it to drop so that it boomed cavernously, the sound hollow and mournful in the bands of fog and gathering darkness.

Hastily Nicoletta slipped on the offending sandals, tying the thongs quickly around her ankles as the door swung silently open. Rows of tapered candles burned in the entrance hall, flickering and dancing along the high walls, shrouding the long corridor and vaulted ceilings in grotesque shadows. The man standing in the doorway was tall and thin with gaunt cheeks and silver-peppered hair. His dark eyes moved over the two women with a hint of disdain, but his face remained expressionless. "This way."

For one moment neither woman moved. Nicoletta stepped into the house first. At once the earth shifted, the slightest of tremors, barely felt, but it was enough that the candles in the hall swayed and wax splattered onto the wall. The flames leapt high as if in warning. Maria Pia and Nicoletta looked at one another. Hastily the older woman made the sign of the cross toward the interior of the house and then back behind them into the darkness and the howling wind.

The manservant turned back to look at the women uneasily. At once, Maria Pia followed him, her entire demeanor changed. She looked taller, confident, a quiet dignity clinging to her. Nicoletta was just the opposite. She slunk along the great hall, casting nervous glances this way and that, her head bowed low, her eyes on the floor. She scooted along the edges of the wall so that she seemed to blend into the shadows, a slight nondescript figure, barely noticeable, her features almost blurred. She made no sound as she walked along the square tiled floor not drawing attention to herself at all.

The man leading the way took so many twists and turns along various passageways and halls, through several large rooms, moving so quickly Maria Pia had no time to notice any landmarks. She looked serene despite the circumstances, relying on Nicoletta as she had so many times in the past to know their way back. The palazzo was a work of art. The double thick walls were made of smooth pink and white marble. The ceilings were high, vaulted, with impressive domes and arches. The floors were marble tiles, large blocks, smooth beneath their feet. Sculptures and artwork were everywhere, huge winged creatures guarding the devil's lair. Alcoves and portals were embedded with intricately carved angels and demons. Horses and mythical creatures abounded above the archways and along the walls. Great columns rose upwards, ribbed doorways, each room larger and more ornate than the last. The tapers lent a certain animation to the silent sculptures as they stared down with flat eyes upon the women as they hurried along the wide corridors.

The sounds of wailing could be heard echoing through the halls. As they rounded a corner, two women came into view. They were clinging to one another, the younger sobbing hysterically, the older one, crying softly. A young man stood rather helplessly beside them, obviously grief-stricken, one hand covering his face. A quick glimpse told Nicoletta they were of class, their clothes lavish, their hair perfect in spite of the circumstances. For some reason that detail stuck in her mind. She knew of the two women, of course, they came often with their servants to the villaggio demanding new material for their dressmakers. The older woman was beautiful, cool and aloof, no more than thirty-five and probably younger. Portia Scarletti and her daughter Margerita. Portia was a widow, a distant relative who had lived in the palazzo most of her life. Her daughter was about fifteen or sixteen and extremely haughty around the girls in the villaggio. Nicoletta knew the young man was Vincente Scarletti, youngest brother to the Don. She averted her eyes quickly and shrank further into the gloom of the corridor.

The servant escorting them stopped at a door. "The bambina is in here. She is very ill." The gloomy tone of his voice indicated they had taken too long to get there. He pushed open the door and stepped back, not going into the room, but rather moving quickly out of the way, one hand discreetly covering his mouth and nose. A blast of heat and a foul odor exploded out of the bedroom. The stench was overpowering.

The child had been sick repeatedly. The coverlet was wet and stained with the aftermath of her body attempting to rid itself of poisons. Nicoletta had to tamp down the swift surge of fury that the adults would leave the child to suffer alone because they were so afraid of catching her illness. She repressed the need to gag at the unholy stench. Cautiously she approached the bed. Behind her the door swung shut with a loud thud. Despite the thickness of the marble walls, it didn't drown out the useless annoying wailing coming from the hall. The fireplace was roaring, generating a tremendous heat so that the room seemed to glow from the orange flames.

The child looked tiny in comparison to the heavy wooden bed. She was young, perhaps seven, her dark hair in tangles, her clothes soaked and stained. Her face was beaded with sweat and twisted in agony. Nicoletta approached her without hesitation, moving to the bed, her large black eyes mirroring her compassion. She slipped her hand around the child's tiny wrist, her heart in her throat. "Why did they wait so long to summon us?" She whispered softly.

Something large and menacing stirred in the deeper shadows of the room, hidden in the recessed alcove near the large window. Maria Pia cried out and leapt backwards toward the door crossing herself. Nicoletta stepped between the shadows and the child protectively, prepared to defend her from the specter of death. A man's large frame blurred with the dark, slowly emerging until they could see him. He was tall, powerfully built, his black hair long and damp with sweat. He swayed unsteadily for a moment, one hand pressed to his stomach. There was pain etched deeply into the lines of his face.

Nicoletta moved swiftly toward him but he shook his head, his black eyes at once commanding. "Do not come near me." His voice was faint, but held an unmistakable command. He indicated the child with a gesture. "Is it the Black Death?" His gaze was on Maria Pia's lined face.

Both women froze in place for a moment. It was the Don Scarletti himself. Even ill as he was, wracked with fever and sickness, he looked powerful and entirely capable of easily disposing of two peasant women. Much to Nicoletta's disgust, Maria Pia crossed herself a second time.

"Dio! Woman! Answer me." He issued the command, his white teeth snapping together like a hungry wolf. "Donna Sigmora, do we have the plague?"

   Maria Pia glanced very briefly at Nicoletta who shook her head slightly and moved once more to the child, quickly resuming the demeanor of a frightened servant girl. She was well versed in the role, using it often. She didn't look again at the man, rather focusing her attention on the little girl. It would be a fight, the child was nearly gone. She stripped the coverlet and bedding, taking great pleasure in opening the door and hurtling the contents out into the hall right onto the manservant lurking at the other side.

"We need hot water," she said without lifting her eyes to him. "Lots of hot water and clean rags. Clean bedding at once. And send two servants to help clean this room immediately. The healer must have them now if the bambina is to live." Her voice was thin and reedy, well practiced. Scurrying back inside she ignored the man leaning against the wall and threw open the window. The wind howled into the room, so that the curtains danced macabrely and the fire leaped and roared. The cold sea air immediately rushed through the large room so that temperature dropped almost instantly and the mist pushed out the terrible odor.

The child was shivering, beads of sweat running down her body. Nicoletta stripped her of the soiled clothing, smoothing back her hair. Maria Pia leaned in close that they might consult. "Are you certain it is not the Black Death? He is ill also." The older woman whispered the words into Nicoletta's ear.

"I need to know what food they shared." The words were barely discernable, Nicoletta's lips didn't even move. Her hands were gentle on the child's distended abdomen.

"Good sir," Maria Pia said, "did you and the child share a meal together? I must know if you two shared something to eat or drink."

The man was shivering almost uncontrollably. He clenched his teeth together to keep them from chattering. "You are certain of what you are doing?"

"We must bring the fever down quickly. Both of you are far too hot. And the room reeks of sickness. It is not good. Come, come, girl, hurry now." Maria Pia did not like the way those black piercing eyes took in Nicoletta's graceful soothing hands as they moved over the child. Deliberately she shoved her body in front of the younger girl, briskly examining the patient. "We must hurry."

"We shared a bowl of soup. Sophie did not wish to finish it. I helped her." The words revealed far more of the man than he might have thought.

Nicoletta glanced at him, she couldn't help herself. He was the devil, his family under a terrible curse. He was arrogant and aloof, cold and unyielding, his neighbors were terrified of crossing him, yet he had finished a bowl of soup for a child, most likely to prevent her from being punished. It was the first nice thing she had ever heard about him. Their dictator, the man who held the power of life and death over her people.

Maria Pia coughed to get her attention. Nicoletta blurred herself further, hunching as she closed the window and straightened the curtains. Two servants peeked in timidly with buckets of hot water and armloads of rags. The taller male servant behind them had coverlets folded in his arms. None of them entered the room, but rather lingered out in the hall. Nicoletta had little patience with them and took the water and rags rather abruptly, setting them down before whisking the coverlets out of the manservant's hands. With her foot she rather forcefully slammed the door closed on him hoping it hit him right in the nose.

Maria Pia hissed softly at her, scowling fiercely to remind her the Don was watching. Nicoletta and Maria Pia went to work. While Maria Pia bathed the child to bring down her fever and clean her, Nicoletta scrubbed the room and the bed. Maria Pia consulted with her 'assistant'. The two women conferred briefly in whispers quite often. Under the older woman's watchful eyes, Nicoletta combined various potions, insuring the medicines were mixed properly. It was Nicoletta who assisted the child, pulling the small body into her arms, rocking her gently, while she fed her tiny sips, coaxing and soothing with whispers of encouragement while all the time the devil in the corner watched them with a steady, relentless black stare.

Only when the child made a feeble attempt to drink on her own did he finally stir, sagging against the wall as if his legs could no longer support his weight. Maria Pia went to him at once, helping to ease the large, muscular frame into a sitting position. "He is burning up," she said with a nervous glance at Nicoletta.

Nicoletta lay the child carefully onto the bed, drawing up the coverlet. The blanket caught her attention. Neat little stitches, beautiful workmanship, the pattern so dear and familiar. For a moment she could hardly breathe, her throat clogged with painful memories. She traded places with Maria Pia, as if the older woman needed to examine the child while her assistant took care of the basic needs of the second patient.

Nicoletta used the excuse of bringing down the Don's fever to run her hands over his hot skin, to examine him and 'feel' his illness. Don Scarletti was all roped, sinewy muscle, as hard as the tree trunks beneath her gentle, exploring fingers. She skimmed over him lightly, soothing him with her touch so that he circled her wrist like a vice, holding her still while he examined her hand. He stared down at it curiously.

Those pain-filled eyes saw far too much. Nicoletta tugged hard to get her hand back, her heart slamming uncomfortably loud. She jerked away from him, moving out of range, back into the shadows, drawing the shawl tighter around her. There was much danger in his close scrutiny. Maria Pia and Nicoletta had perfected their illusions, the role reversals that insured Nicoletta's safety and guarded her differences successfully.

Maria Pia clucked her sympathy as she bustled around looking very busy. She conferred with her assistant, watched carefully to assure the younger woman mixed her droughts and powders correctly and insisted on helping the Don swallow the liquid herself. "You must rest now," Maria Pia ordered. "We will see to the child through the night, hopefully we did not arrive too late."

Nicoletta signed with her hand discreetly as she once more went back to persuading the child to drink small sips of the medicine.

"I must know if others are ill? Did others share the soup?" Maria Pia asked reluctantly at Nicoletta's insistence.

The man shook his head, ignored the older woman's nervous gasp as he staggered across the room to a large padded chair. "I will stay." He said it firmly, closing his eyes and turning his head away from them.

Maria Pia looked helplessly at Nicoletta who shrugged. The room was as clean as they could make it in so short a time. The child's fever was down slightly, although she was still quite ill, but it was a good sign she was attempting to take the potion Nicoletta had concocted. Her stomach was not rejecting it. The Don was not nearly as sick as the child. He was much larger and probably had not eaten as much as the child.

Maria Pia took several candles from her bag and placed them around the room. Nicoletta had made them herself out of various plants and aromatic herbs. The scent of the candles at once filled the room dispelling the last remnants of the foul sick odor. The fragrance was peaceful and soothing, aiding in further calming the little girl.

"Mio fratello awaits news of his bambina." It was another clear order, delivered by a man well used to being obeyed.

Nicoletta was outraged that the child's father was outside the room, leaving his daughter to the care of strangers. She bit down hard on her lip to keep from making a single sound. She would neverstand under the aristocratici. Never.

Maria Pia opened the door and delivered the news that the Don was going to live and that they would continue to battle for the child's life throughout the night. It was not the dreaded disease the household had thought and that the Don wished them to retire.

Nicoletta wished they would all just go away and stop the useless wailing. The racket was getting on her nerves. What good did wailing and sobbing do? None of them had come near the child, afraid they might catch her illness. Poor little girl, to matter so little that her own people refused to see to her! Nicoletta's heart went out to the child.

As a hush fell onto the household, Nicoletta settled down close to young Sophie. She desperately needed more medicine in her to counteract the effects of the poisoning. Had it been accidental? Or deliberate? She tried not to think about that as she settled against the strangely carved headboard, quietly removing her sandals. Nicoletta rested her head against the board and drew up her knees, tucking her bare legs carefully beneath the long skirt. With the firelight from the stoked fire and the flickering flames of the candles, she had enough light to observe the room.

It was too big and monstrous for a child. Nicoletta couldn't understand why anyone would put a small child in such a room. It was far too large and the carvings etched into the walls were demonic. Long coiled snakes with forked tongues and strange cats with wicked teeth and claws decorated the walls between the enormous windows. The clay and marble sculptures seemed almost alive, almost as if they had the ability to move. There was a particularly wicked looking gargoyle. The eyes were sunken and staring and the wings were widespread as if the creature was prepared to leap on someone. Even the curtains were heavy and dark, covering the flowing patterns at the windows. The ceiling was far too high and carved with a plethora of winged animals with curved sharp beaks and talons. Nicoletta couldn't imagine a child of seven attempting to fall asleep with the creatures surrounding her in the darkness.

Eventually, Maria Pia fell asleep slumped in a small chair beside the fire. Nicoletta covered her with the spare coverlet and reluctantly checked on the Don. He was very quiet, his breathing shallow enough that she could tell he continued to be in pain, but was refusing to acknowledge it. She laid a cooling hand on his forehead, almost afraid to touch the man. There seemed to be a strange current running between the two of them. She could feel it arcing and crackling beneath her skin, beneath his, and it made her distinctly uneasy. His fever was down, but not entirely gone. With a little sigh, Nicoletta held the cup of liquid to his mouth. She didn't want to wake him, but he needed the medicine. It was the only way to insure he continued to get better.

His hand moved up to trap hers around the cup as he drank, making it impossible for her to let go. He was enormously strong for a man so ill. When he had drained the contents, he lowered the cup, but retained possession of her hand. "How does the healer know which medicine will work? I have heard of her skills often. She is spoken of with great respect."

Nicoletta stiffened, her heart thundering loudly in her ears. She tugged, a not so subtle reminder to release her, but this time he tightened his grip, not allowing her to escape back into the shadows. There was danger here, she sensed it, a threat to her. "I-I do not know, Signore Scarletti. Her secrets are hers alone." Deliberately she stammered and hung her head, shrinking into herself like a not-so-bright servant.

The Don continued to hold her still, regarding her through half-closed eyes. In the firelight he looked a dark and dangerous devil, far too sensuous and powerful to be trifled with. Nicoletta didn't waver beneath the scrutiny, although she wanted to tear her hand free and run for her life. He was so much more dangerous to her than she had first thought. She felt it, as she did everything. Resolutely she stared at the floor.

The Don retained possession a few moments longer, than abruptly let her go, his eyes closing, clearly dismissing her. Nicoletta prevented the sigh of relief from escaping and moved swiftly to put a safe distance between them, curling up on the bed beside the child once more. She breathed slowly, calmly, watching the rise and fall of his chest until she was certain he had gone back to sleep and she could once more relax.

Several times she attended the child, washing her to keep the fever down, prompting her often to drink fluids and the medicine. The child seemed to be breathing much easier and each time Nicoletta rested her hand on the distended little abdomen, it seemed to be twisting less, the pain easing.

She was drifting off to sleep when movement near the far side of the chamber caught her eye. A bell pull seemed to sway when there was no breeze. She shifted her gaze to the wall, watching intently. For a moment the smooth seamless piece seemed to almost waver, as if her eyes were out of focus. She sat up, staring intently. The wall was marble, a beautiful pink and white, yet it seemed to move in the flickering fire light. Shadows danced and stretched and the flames leapt along with the curtains as if a draft had entered the room. She shivered, as two of the candles suddenly went out.

For one awful moment she thought she saw the sheen of eyes staring at her malevolently from the darkened shadows, but then the child moved restlessly, a small moan escaping, breaking the spell. Instantly Nicoletta protectively gathered her close, her gaze once more straying to the wall. It was as smooth as a sea-carved stone. The little girl began to cry in her sleep, a soft pathetic sound.

Nicoletta rocked her gently, began to hum softly at first, then sang a soothing lullaby, the whispered melody only for the child. The little girl began to relax in Nicoletta's arms, clinging to her tightly as if she might never let go. The words were long forgotten, yet they emerged naturally, a ballad Nicoletta's mother often sang to her when she was young. Nicoletta's heart went out to the lonely child. She had no one who cared enough to hold her in the middle of the night when the nightmares came.

Nicoletta looked around the cavernous room, taking in the heavy curtains and the hideous carvings. It was enough to make anyone have nightmares. She rocked the little girl until the child snuggled close to her. They drifted to sleep together, neither noticing the man sitting in the chair observing Nicoletta through half-closed eyes.




CHRISTINE FEEHAN, #1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLING AUTHOR

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CF

christine@christinefeehan.com
© Copyright 1999-2014 Christine Feehan



 
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~COMING SOON~
Coming soon is Viper Game. Look for it in stores January 27, 2015 or pre-order it today.

Viper Game

Pre-Order Viper Game:
Amazon.com
BarnesAndNoble.com


~JUST RELEASED~
My latest release is titled Dark Blood. Look for it in stores now or order it online. To read the first chapter click here.

Dark Blood

Order Dark Blood:
Amazon.com
BarnesAndNoble.com
Walmart.com


~RECENT RELEASE~
Another recent release is a paperback reissue of Dark Wolf. Look for it in stores or order it online. To read the first chapter click here.

Dark Wolf

Dark Wolf:
Amazon.com
Barnes & Noble
Walmart.com


~2014 RELEASES ~
NEW BOOKS: Dark Wolf, Air Bound, & Dark Blood
RE-ISSUES: Dark Lycan (paperback)



 
 
               
Special Formats Coming Soon Single Titles Christmas Stories Leopard Series Drake Sisters Ghostwalkers Dark Series