Authors: Danita Minnis
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #romance, #Fantasy & Futuristic, #historical, #Historical Romance, #Paranormal, #angels
Angelina held onto his belt buckle, needing to feel his warmth in the dampness of the catacombs.
At first, she listened as he talked into the speaker, but her legs had stiffened up running through the tunnels in the dainty red satin slippers and she was hungry. She tuned out his low tones and concentrated on keeping up with him.
They had not gone far when Armand tensed.
In the next moment, there was a deafening roar from the right passageway that shook the tunnels. Clumps of earth fell atop their heads.
Something is coming.
A barrage of gunfire followed, and then quick commands shouted in English before the screams began.
“Stay here,” Falcon dropped Ruggiero and started into the right passage.
“Don’t leave me!”
He turned back to Angelina who was running towards him. She fell over a body sprawled across the path. The team had silenced more of the brown robes.
Falcon reached her in two strides and held her up. “You’re going to be all right. Angel?” He waited until she lifted her eyes from the bodies scattered around them.
They could be the only ones left alive in this tunnel.
… he had to know.
The team had gone in the wrong direction. The lamps in this passage were lit.
had come this way. The brown robes had probably cut the team off from the only exit he knew of, leading them toward the fire dragon.
The screams had stopped, but the gunfire continued.
“Come. Stay behind me.”
Angelina grabbed his arm, and he lifted Ruggiero with the other.
Falcon let out a sharp whistle when there was a lull in gunfire. “Vin, this way out!”
There was no reply.
They waited at the intersection. He didn’t want to take her down that path. Those machine guns would have done some serious damage and she had witnessed too much tonight.
“Get out of here! Now!” Vin, the head of the unit called back. His voice sounded closer now as he shouted orders to the other team members.
Falcon had trained Vin and trusted the lead operative with his life. He still felt that a burden had been lifted from his shoulders knowing the team was safe this far into the catacombs.
“We need to move.” Vin’s dark skin was barely visible in the gloom as he jumped adeptly over the bodies in the passageway. Falcon didn’t need to see his features to know what was coming behind him. “What the hell is that thing?”
He didn’t have a chance to answer before Tariq and Gavin followed Vin into the intersection.
“It ate them. Just ate them.” Tariq walked in backwards, his high-powered rifle pointed into the darkness they’d come from.
“Not enough of them,” Gavin, the explosives specialist, filled in. His Scottish brogue clipped his words as he knelt and placed the case he carried on the ground.
Tariq ripped off his night vision lenses. His eyes met Falcon’s and he tapped Gavin on the shoulder. Gavin glanced at Angelina.
“What ate them?” Angelina asked.
Gavin said nothing more as he pressed a series of buttons and the case opened. Quickly, he checked the cylinders lining the case and then moved to the wall.
“Some of them got away, jumped down a black hole, running from that thing. I couldn’t get off a clean shot,” Tariq said.
“Don’t worry, we’ll get them,” Falcon said. He turned to Gavin. “It’s just a matter of … how much time now?”
“We’ve got fifteen minutes before detonation.” Gavin bit his bottom lip as he set a timer on the device attached to the rough-hewn rock wall.
Falcon had anticipated Granger would send the team in, so he had instructed Gavin to rig the place in the event they were discovered.
At least that would be the excuse if one were necessary. But Falcon, the dark one that wasn’t finished killing yet, knew better. He’d planned this from the start.
He dropped Ruggiero, and Tariq grabbed the old man by the collar.
Scooping Angel up in his arms, Falcon started forward. “Gentlemen, this is Angelina and I think she’s ready to go home.”
* * * *
Ten minutes later, Armand was pushing her up the steep entrance of the tunnel to Granger on the other side.
“Go! Go! Go!” Vin’s shouts came from behind Armand in the tunnel.
A chilling roar shook the earth.
Angelina lost her hold on the hard-packed soil and fell backwards into Armand’s arms. He lifted her up to Granger as the sound of machine guns came closer.
Tariq, by his side, dropped Ruggiero and ran back into the tunnel.
Armand picked up Ruggiero and hoisted him up the slope on his shoulders. “Take her to the truck.” He disappeared back into the tunnel, shouting over his shoulder, “Five minutes, Grange.”
“Yeah, I figured as much.” Granger shook his head. Grabbing Ruggiero and the briefcase, he started across the field.
Angelina didn’t move, and Granger turned. “Don’t worry; he knows what he’s doing. Come on, this place is going to blow.”
She got on her knees to make her way down the sloped entrance of the tunnel but Granger pulled her up by the waist. “They’ll be killed!”
“I doubt it. But he will kill
if anything happens to you, and I like my life.”
“But something is down there!”
“That’s why you’re staying here.” Granger motioned for her to go ahead of him and he followed her to the truck.
It was no use trying to slip away from him. Granger was watching her even when he wasn’t watching her.
Angelina jumped into the truck. There was a loud thud as Granger dumped Ruggiero in the back, and locked him in.
She heard another latch click. Granger had locked her in the truck’s cab.
“Hey!” She scooted up front to the first cab and saw Granger running back to the tunnel entrance.
“Let’s go!” Granger shouted down into the tunnel. He grabbed a hand that was emerging from the hole in the ground.
Tariq held his arm as he ran towards the truck.
Gavin came out of the tunnel next.
Angelina stared at the entrance, but no one else emerged.
Granger ran back to the truck and jumped in on the driver’s side.
Tariq slowed down and Gavin went back to drag him in. Tariq sat back heavily in the second cab, his dark eyes glassy with pain. He’d been shot.
“The brown robes have guns? Where is Armand?” She screamed at Granger.
Granger said nothing, but kept his eyes on the tunnel entrance. With lips set in a grim line, he started the engine. The truck turned around towards the road.
There was a rumbling underfoot. The ground was shaking, but this time, there was no roar. The explosives in the catacombs had started to detonate.
“Wait!” Angelina shouted, looking back at the tunnel entrance. “Wait for them!”
But Granger plowed the truck across the now rumbling field.
Angelina stared at the entrance to the catacombs.
Please, don’t take him from me.
The tunnel entrance was a black void. Armand and Vin were not coming out.
She couldn’t breathe.
Leaning over from the front cab, Gavin pushed her head down between her legs. It forced her to take a breath, and then another. When she could breathe again, she started wailing.
Gavin touched her shoulder. “Don’t waste your tears on that one.”
Angelina looked up into his laughing blue eyes and followed his gaze out the window.
Vin was climbing out of the hole in the ground. Armand was right behind him.
“They’re coming! Granger, slow down!” She tried to stand up in the cab but fell back down in the seat when the truck danced over the shaking ground.
Vin sprinted toward the moving truck.
A roar of triumph came from the tunnel entrance.
Reddish orange smoke billowed up, spreading out in a mushroom cloud around Armand as he climbed over the edge.
The smoke dissipated and a fire appeared behind Armand. It rose over him in the shape of a dragon, opening its fiery maw, and swallowed him whole.
“No-ooo-o!” She fell forward as the truck stopped abruptly. Beside her, Tariq pulled himself back up into the seat, gritting his teeth.
“Gav!” Granger jumped out. Gavin took his place at the wheel.
Granger ran across the field, almost alongside Vin, who had turned back toward the fire.
Vin reached the fire first. He plowed right into Armand, who sprinted out of it.
Granger and Vin each grabbed one of Armand’s arms.
Angelina cried as they ran towards the truck.
Vin pushed Armand into the truck, and then jumped in after him.
Granger hung onto the guardrails as Gavin put the truck in gear, and then pushed the pedal down.
Angelina held onto the cab’s side rail as they sped across the field. She came down on her knees where Armand lay on the floor in his smoking fatigues.
Vin was already pulling the fatigues off. She tried to help, but jerked her hand away. They were too hot to touch.
Finally, Armand lay in his underwear, eyes closed.
Vin’s hands stilled.
Angelina stared at Armand’s red chest as it rose and fell. Red, as in glowing.
It wasn’t the fatigues that had been smoking. It was Armand’s skin.
She and Vin stared at each other as another roar shook the truck.
With an ear-splitting roar, the fire dragon slid over the ground towards them as the tunnel entrance collapsed with a deafening boom.
Screaming, Angelina dropped to the floor of the cab next to Armand. But she couldn’t stay down. She had to look out the window as the hole in the ground imploded, turning the field behind them into a huge crater.
In the distance, the disturbed earth shot up towards the sky as if fleeing the explosion, and then fell back down in a black shower.
Red, fiery eyes in the center of the fire shaped like a dragon’s head disappeared into the ground. The angry roar sounded far away, until she could no longer hear it. But she knew it continued, all the way to Hell.
Swirling dust, no longer red, accompanied the blaze of the uncovered sacrificial pit, which was just a fire now, snaking through crevices in the earth.
It was a scene of destruction better suited for broadcast coverage of war on television, not the sleepy old town of Forlì.
When they reached Rome, Armand took her to the hospital for an examination straightaway.
Angelina hadn’t seen him in hours and thought he’d been admitted himself.
But his smoking skin had cooled and he hadn’t even been burned by the fire.
How could that be?
Vin had seen Armand’s smoking skin, she was sure of it. Vin had stared her down in the truck.
Don’t say anything
, his eyes had warned. He and the others never once mentioned the fire that had consumed Armand. It was as if it had never happened.
Even stranger was that she was part of this extraordinary allegiance that made her doubt her sanity.
They had all seen the fire engulf Armand and yet she was the one in the hospital.
The doctor returned.
Armand appeared behind him, with healthy, olive-toned skin.
“I am fine,” she felt obligated to say during the examination, and then couldn’t stop herself from asking Armand, “Are you all right?” She touched his arm.
“I am. I’m fine,” he said, winking at her.
“Unharmed.” Angelina took his arm and drew him closer. There were no burns, just warm, irresistible skin as always. “Unscarred. Perfect.”
The doctor had stopped writing in the chart. Both the doctor and Armand were staring at her.
She dropped Armand’s arm.
Two days in the devil’s cavern with no food, a trek through the death tunnels and the terrible destruction Gavin’s explosives had brought on the town of Forlì. Maybe her old nightmares of the burning mansion had morphed into the fire dragon eating Armand.
The doctor confirmed her health save for being dehydrated from her ordeal, and left them.
Armand sat on the edge of the hospital bed and stared at her.
“I am fine, Armand.”
“You are, cara. You are.” She wanted to believe him. “Angel, do you remember … anything?”
“You mean the fire?”
His green eyes bored into hers.
She wanted to go home today. She would not have him think her a loon. Angelina lowered her head. “It was a terrible blaze.”
Armand gave a slow nod.
He pushed her bangs out of her face. “Yes, it was.”
In the silence that followed, she fingered the wristband on her arm, which read
So many lies
He caught her hand. “What happened in there?”
She didn’t want to relive Luciano Biagi’s attack, but if she didn’t talk to Armand about it the wall of lies between them would thicken. She covered his hand with hers. What if she’d told too many lies already and he couldn’t forgive her? “Talk to me,” he said as if he read her thoughts.
Searching for a way out of her lies, she looked around the hospital room. She couldn’t bring herself to say the words.
Armand zeroed in, as always. “You didn’t want me to touch you.”
She remembered their kisses in the tunnels and shook her head. “Not you,”
Armand’s eyes darkened. “Luciano Biagi. Tell me.”
The name brought back the face, and the sights and sounds of the cavern. “He didn’t…”
“I know. But he did something,”
She nodded, and he cursed.
“He said you were dead. He said he would protect me if I…”
Armand pulled her onto his lap. “Cara,”
“He was so heavy, I could not breathe. I tried to stop him, Armand, but there was only the nightgown, and his hands were everywhere.” She turned her face into his neck. “He pulled my nightgown up. He touched me. I tried to stop him.”
Armand cupped her cheeks and held her face close to his. “I know you did, Angel. I know you did.”
“I couldn’t get to the knife until Jacopo came for him. I was going to kill him.”
“It’s over now.” Armand carried her down with him to the pillows and tucked her into his chest. “Go to sleep now.”
* * * *
“Leave us alone, will you?” Falcon said to the guard at headquarters.
“Have you come for answers, Marchese Falco?” Alfonso Ruggiero chuckled.
The guard, who had just vacated his chair by the door, paused.
Falcon glanced at the guard over his shoulder. “I don’t want to be disturbed.”
The guard nodded and shut the door behind him.
Falcon took a seat on the opposite side of the table, across from Ruggiero and Luciano Biagi.
Luciano was smirking.
“You haven’t changed at all,” Falcon murmured.
Luciano’s smirk disappeared. He looked at Ruggiero. “He remembers.”
“I remember you went down in flames, begging me to save your wretched life.”
Luciano shot up from the chair, but with his ankle shackled to it, he could go no further. “How can he remember? He is not
For the first time since Falcon had seen Ruggiero, the man seemed surprised. Grudging admiration nearly cracked the confidence of his features, but he remained silent.
Falcon came around to Luciano’s side of the table and leaned his hip against it. “And I remember you can’t get a woman of your own, so you have to borrow. How does it feel to know that you are still not enough?”
Luciano’s handcuffed fist came up. Armand grabbed it and twisted it at an angle. Luciano wailed in pain.
“Unfortunately, we need you alive, otherwise you know I would have killed you by now. But I want you to know that when this is over, when you are forgotten in some pisshole prison camp in the desert, I will come for you.” Falcon dropped Luciano’s wrist and walked back to his chair.
“Did you hear that? He said he’s going to kill me,” Luciano shouted to no one in particular, holding his wrist against his chest.
“Shut up,” Ruggiero said. “They can’t hear you. Do not worry.
never forgets.” Ruggiero turned a slow smile on Falcon. “You were shot dead. A bullet through the heart. Did you know that?”
Falcon did not show his shock. At least he thought he had not.
Ruggiero chuckled. “Oh, not by one of us, you see. She protected you from us. The farmhands, they were so poor. They would do anything for money. They did.”
How can I not remember that? Was I young or old when I was murdered on my own land?
“You can die.” Ruggiero nodded. “And you will, again. The Stradivarius goes to the victorious.”
Ruggiero’s words in the cavern came back to him. ’The Colossus is mine, I have earned it. It belongs here with
A reward for having me killed over two hundred years ago?
“Did you know that
foundation crumbled into the catacombs below, leaving only one wall erect?” Falcon asked. “The explosion buried your brown robes under tons of limestone, to rest forever among the displaced bones of their ancestors.”
Ruggiero’s face paled.
Luciano tried to lunge at him. “You think this is over. It will never be over!”
“For you, it is over.” Falcon glanced at Luciano and then returned his gaze to Ruggiero. “But your long memory will serve you well, Ruggiero. Live in the past. Where you are going, that’s all the living you’ll be able to do.”
Ruggiero folded his shaking, handcuffed hands on the table. It took a moment before those hands stilled. His arrogance no less evident in the plain prison uniform he wore.
“I will leave you something to consider as well, Marchese Falco. You have taken from us. Now
will not stop until they have taken what is most dear to you.”
* * * *
Angelina smiled in her sleep, stretching luxuriously under the satin comforter. Flexing her toes, she ran her hands along the cool sheets. The bed was so comfortable that she’d slept through the morning. She was a little disoriented from the deep slumber of one who is mentally and physically exhausted. She sighed, feeling so much better now that she’d slept like the dead.
On that thought, her eyes flew open.
Red, fiery eyes stared down at her.
She felt the fire. She was the fire.
Angelina sat up on the bed, looking anxiously up at the ceiling. The Florentine curlicues were not red eyes. They were artful depictions of Italian history. Even the walls told a story in this master suite.
She wasn’t in Forlì in the devil’s boudoir anymore with its catacombs and cadavers.
The fire dragon is no more.
Armand and his team had seen to that.
Angelina relaxed back onto the pillows with a sigh. She was in the heart of Rome in a historic hotel on the
Armand had never mentioned having an apartment in Rome, and one this lavish was worth mentioning.
But he had not mentioned many things.
Armand was treating her like a newborn. He had bathed her in a huge sunken tub in a bathroom of ceramic tile and gold-veined marble. He’d checked her for bruises and any other signs of mistreatment by the hands of the brown robes.
There was magic in his strong hands that had deftly loosened her tightened calf muscles. He had wrapped her in a thick terry cloth robe off the towel warmer and brushed out her hair, soothing her with gentle strokes.
He’d fed her every morsel of the chicken al fresco from the restaurant on the
. By the time he’d removed the trays to the kitchen, she was fast asleep.
Angelina didn’t know anything else until she woke the next afternoon. There was a note from Armand attached to a catalog from a boutique on the
. She was to order whatever she needed in the way of clothing and charge it to his account.
He left specific instructions to order lunch, and eat it. She would eat for him, but she had no appetite. Her nerves were frazzled. She had too many things on her mind, ranging from why he had an account with the women’s pricey designer store to what was happening at headquarters.
But she did not disturb him. They were still questioning Ruggiero and Luciano Biagi. She was relieved that she didn’t have to be there. Armand had insisted headquarters would have to wait to question her. He’d been almost as quiet as she was the last few days, and she knew he was thinking of her in the catacombs.
She’d been thinking about him as well. The Organization was still a mystery to her. It seemed to be some type of enforcement agency, but that is all she could make of what little information she had been given.
Armand was being very selective in what he told her about his work. He still had some explaining to do about the aliases she’d found in his apartment.
Last night, he’d told her only that Giovanni Natale had been a wanted man, and that the Organization had been looking for the Stradivarius for years. After that, she had curled up on him in bed, wanting him to make sweet, soothing love to her. He’d just held her, the ordeal with Luciano Biagi lying between them.
Now, Angelina realized it had been for the best. Armand always knew what she needed. She had slept like a baby, and missed him again this morning.
Armand had promised to tell her everything soon and she vowed to get the story from him. Today it was her turn to be questioned at headquarters.
Angelina took a quick shower. Delivery brought up lunch, which she ate in front of the big picture window in the living room. She was enjoying the view of the busy piazza six stories below with a magnificent fountain in the square when Granger arrived.
“Did you eat?”
“Only just.” She smiled. “You can report back to Armand that I had a delicious spinach pie.”
“Great. Let’s be on our way.”
“I’ll just grab my bag.” She was suddenly apprehensive, wondering how far the investigation would probe into her life, a life Armand knew nothing about. “Granger, what exactly is the Organization?” She closed the apartment door.
Granger held the elevator doors open. “Oh, don’t get nervous, this’ll be a piece of cake for you. We’re just putting the bad guys away, remember?”
Granger was uncharacteristically reserved in speech and probably didn’t want to get in the middle of things. His behavior only enforced the nagging suspicion that there were things between herself and Armand that needed clarification.
The Organization’s headquarters on the
Piazza del Quirinale
was somewhat of a surprise. She had envisioned an agency’s smoke-filled, cramped quarters with uncomfortable straight-back chairs facing each other across a metal table, interrogation style.
The foyer Granger led her into looked more like the reception hall of her father’s private club. There were tasteful mahogany furnishings and a huge aquarium on one wall was filled with colorful fish she never knew existed. She and Granger moved across a plush carpet to an intricately carved walnut door.
She put a hand on Granger’s arm before he could turn the brass doorknob. “Granger, what … what happened out there?”
Granger let go of the doorknob and held her shoulders. “Nothing. Absolutely nothing.” He opened the door and walked down a hall into darkness, leaving her to wonder if the fire dragon existed only in her mind.
Armand took her hand and led her into the room. He kissed her before pulling out a leather-padded chair. “How are you feeling?”
“Fine.” Her gaze was on the man standing in a corner by a large bay window overlooking the
Piazza del Quirinale
. He was slight of build and pale, as if he never went out in the sun. The man was dressed in casual slacks but his manner suggested he would be more at home in a suit. He looked like a barrister summoned to trial on his day off.
Armand leaned back in the chair next to hers, his long legs stretched out in front of him. “Angelina, this is Darien Verdi.”
“Angelina Natale?” The man queried. He did not shake her hand but held it briefly until she answered. She almost told him the truth.
“It is a pleasure to meet you.” His tone of quiet confidence was reassuring.
She realized she had been sitting with her shoulders hunched, ready to ward off a blow. But his warm, brown eyes put her at ease. She sat back in the chair.