Christine Feehan, New York Times Bestselling Author
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Last Updated: March 06, 2015 11:14:48

Lair of the Lion"You must go in alone, piccola," Sarina patted her shoulder encouragingly. "He is expecting you. Have courage." She began to walk away.

Isabella reached out to her before she could stop herself, clutching desperately at the servant woman's dress. "Is he as they whisper of him?"

"He 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.

Isabella 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.

She 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.

Isabella 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.

Calculating. 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.

Isabella 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.

No 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.

Cold 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.

She 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…er…drowsy." 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.

Trying 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."

"I am happy to see the gowns fit you. Are you rested from your journey?"

"Yes, grazie," she said demurely.

"It 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.

"You 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?"

Her 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."

There 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?"

She 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.

"Is he guilty? Did he conspire against the King?" There was the softest of growls emerging from his throat.

Her 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."

"At least you have it in you to tell the truth of his crime."

She lifted her chin haughtily. "My name is an honored one."

"It 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."

Isabella 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.

"Has 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.

She lifted her chin defiantly. "I 'm well aware of the risk I'm taking."

"Are 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."

Her small teeth tugged at her lower lip. "He would be angry with me if he knew. I felt I had no choice."

"Did 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.

She 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.

"What are your intentions if I do not?"

At least he hadn't dismissed her immediately. "I shall attempt a rescue myself."

He 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?"

"Of 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.

"I do not wear jewelry and I have many horses. I also have many servile, all quite loyal and all very capable of doing their jobs."

Her 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.

"What are you willing to do in exchange for the life of tuo fratello?" The words were very soft. "Will you trade your life for his?"

At 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.

"Once you give me your agreement, there will be no going back on your word," he cautioned. "It will not be permitted."

"You will have him pardoned?" She tilted her chin, putting on a show of bravery.

"You will trade your life for tuo fratello? I have your word of honor?"

She 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.

"And 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."

"Then 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.

She 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."

"I 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.

Isabella's 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."

"I 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."

The 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.

"I 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.

He stirred then, she knew that he did, she felt him moving rather than heard him but she didn't turn her gaze away from the fire.

Suddenly 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.

His 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.

"Drink this, you will feel better." His voice was gruff, almost as if he regretted the small kindness.

Gratefully 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.


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