Authors: Danita Minnis
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #romance, #Fantasy & Futuristic, #historical, #Historical Romance, #Paranormal, #angels
He shut the door on Massimo’s penetrating gaze. The coachman made another incomprehensible sound of mourning before alighting.
“Sì,” Carlo muttered, placing the obligatory bouquet of roses on the seat beside him in the dark coach.
He had been born seven years too early. His younger brother Nico and friends were carousing in the town’s most famous bordello where they would surely make new friends, while he was on his way to the Bareschi stronghold to declare himself for the sake of the Falco dynasty.
The coach rumbled out of the cobblestone courtyard of the
Falco at the base of Quirinal Hill, and he looked out the coach window at the palatial block of buildings.
Their home in Lazio would have been a veritable fortress for Margaux and her family. If only they had wed on his visit to France last year, Margaux would still be alive and here with him in this ancient sanctuary.
Instead, he’d left her there in the midst of her mother’s grand wedding plans and her father’s dangerous alliances.
When the coach passed the church of
, Carlo fished his grandmother’s ruby ring out of his pocket. The heavy heirloom would suit Rosa. It was dark, glittering, and cold.
The coach came to a halt and Carlo put the ruby away.
Massimo opened the coach door and waited in stoic profile, with all the formality of one who had once served in the Pope’s guard.
Count Maurizio Bareschi and his countess Silvia greeted Carlo with hugs and kisses. They were seated in an opulent salon with walls covered in dark satin when Rosa made her entrance in a gown of ivory pompadour silk. Its square neck would have been considered modest on any other young lady, but not Rosa.
His future wife’s eyes held a hunger that her parents seemed unaware of. She gave him a proprietary smile before curtsying.
Carlo brought her hand to his lips. “Signorina Bareschi, what a pleasure to see you again.” He handed her the bouquet. “For you.”
“Marchese Falco.” She took the blood-red roses from him. They were her favorite. She managed convincing virginal pleasure even though at eighteen years of age, her innocence had been gone for more than a year.
At least he would always please her. He knew so many things about her. They would have to be careful not to show such familiarity in front of the count and countess until much later.
They went into dinner where Count Maurizio steered the conversation to alliances. Polite yet intruding, the count had obviously spoken with his father about their neighboring vineyards.
The Bareschi cook had spared no expense in preparation for the six-course meal. A celebration dinner, and he had yet to make an offer.
They retired to the salon where Count Maurizio did not pretend surprise when Carlo finally proposed to Rosa.
Carlo put the ruby on Rosa’s ring finger, and Countess Silvia spoke as if he were already married to their daughter. He sat with them for an hour until the Countess had had enough champagne to slow her recital of plans. She’d lost her train of thought over a trip to visit relatives he had not yet met and finally, he rose.
“Marchese Falco, I will walk you out.” Rosa led him down the double balustrade stairs to the entrance hall.
Carlo was walking to the door when she took his hand and pulled him across the black and white tiles in the main foyer and through a curtained alcove.
“Your parents,” He glanced behind him. The only inhabitant of the vast hall was a huge flower arrangement, centered on an ornate table.
Rosa closed the cloakroom door behind them. She lit the wick on a lamp and her virginal dress glimmered golden as her skin. “They will give the newly engaged couple a few minutes alone.” She started untying his belt buckle.
Carlo backed her against the door. “No screaming, Rosa Gisela.”
She pulled on him, rubbing the tip of him between her thumb and forefinger. “Ahh-h, you like when I am bad, Marchese Falco.”
He lifted her silk skirts and stroked the curls between her legs. She was wet and swollen, and too damn beautiful for her own good. He braced her leg against his hip.
“What is this?” He fingered the unusual anklet she wore. An artfully crafted dragon hung from the delicate gold chain linked around her ankle. There was darker burnished gold on the wings and tail. The dragon’s eyes and fiery breath were inlaid rubies.
She wrapped her arms around his neck. “From a little shop in some obscure town we passed through on the way home. Beautiful, no?”
Carlo lifted her by the waist and thrust himself between her succulent thighs. “More rubies.”
It was hard and fast. Her cries were muffled against his neck as he brought her down on him again and again. He covered her mouth with his when her legs tightened like a vise around him.
Rosa slumped over him and he pinned her to the door in his release.
Afterward, he saw to the stays of her gown and she to his shirt buttons.
Rosa left the cloakroom first. A few moments later, she returned to open the door wide. The flush of pleasure on her face could easily have been from her orgasm, but it was more likely due to the fact that they’d gotten away with their furious coupling right under her father’s nose.
Carlo walked across the expansive lawn until he reached the coach, which was in stygian shadows under the branches of an old Spanish moss.
“Home, Massimo.” Even in the dark, he could feel the coachman’s eyes on him.
“It is done?” More words from Massimo, who never asked questions. For some reason, it seemed the old man needed confirmation.
“Sì,” Carlo stared up at the coachman. “It is done.”
* * * *
“Mademoiselle Margaux, how have I never seen you at court before? Is this your coming out ball?”
“Oh no, monsieur, this is my second ball this year.” Her tiger’s eyes danced mischievously.
“Then you must be a woman full grown.”
Her husky laughter was seductive. His hand tightened around her waist.
“I am seventeen.” She was the proud debutante, fresh and ripe, like the fragrant oranges in his grandfather’s orchard.
She was sylph-like in bearing, but the white Gaulle gown with its wide yellow satin sash enhanced the most beautifully rounded breasts he had ever seen. The smooth column of her neck was pure alabaster. What would it taste like?
The silence lengthened and there was uncertainty in her gaze. She was innocent. He almost felt at fault for thinking such thoughts around her—almost. They both smiled then, in unspoken agreement of their newfound friendship.
“I shall ask the Comte’s permission to visit you, Mademoiselle Margaux. Perhaps you can show me your beautiful city of light?”
“Oui, Marchese Falco.” Sooty lashes came down as her gaze fell to his waistcoat, but not before he glimpsed rose-blushed cheeks.
“Please, call me Carlo.”
Something woke him. It wasn’t a sound, not really. It was Margaux settling in his mind as the old palazzo settled into the earth. He turned sharply at a movement just outside his line of vision.
Must have been a shadow against the bedroom wall.
Was it a cloud passing over the moon outside his balcony? There was no moon tonight.
“You are a foraging root clinging to my heart,” Carlo accused the dark room.
She came to him on this night of his engagement so that he would never forget, as if he could, or wanted to. He sighed.
Why did she not stay?
He left the bed and picked up the Colossus from the divan in the corner.
Margaux had taken over his being, certainly his soul, and obviously his music. She wanted him to play with her. He returned to the bedside where he began to play the
Brandenburg Concerto No. 4
on the Stradivarius.
In the darkened bedchamber, she accompanied him on her pianoforte.
The glittering ball at King Louis's court where he’d met her two years ago shimmered in the stars outside his balcony. That night, her laughter had beckoned him through the dancing aristocrats. This night, he followed her lilting music across Lazio’s verdant hills.
Carlo had his eyes on the ledger in which he was writing, but he was paying more attention to Signor Giuseppe Baldoni.
Many business owners in the surrounding areas came to his father for assistance. Although patrols were set on property boundaries, horse thieves still managed to deplete their stables. There was talk that in some remote areas women and children had gone missing.
Being the brother of the king of Sardinia, the duke had unlimited resources. Soldiers had established outposts to prevent the growing number of incidents. However, whatever had befallen the ancient towns in the hills was spreading.
Carlo glanced at Signor Giuseppe Baldoni. Lately the padrones were coming from as far away as Forlì.
There was something about Signor Baldoni.
The man’s features were a study of concern, but eyes as black as his embroidered vest slid left and right, searching the lavish interior for a weakness.
Although Signor Baldoni wore a respectful expression, he sat straight in the high-backed chair, still as a crow lying in wait, ready to attack should his prey let its guard down. His hands caressed the elaborate scrollwork of the mahogany armrests, as though he ruled here and was the benefactor about to grant his subject a kindness.
Signor Baldoni made all the appropriate responses to Carlo’s inquiries. But they didn’t sound genuine coming from his pale, stingy lips, which were too thin to support even the quiet countenance that he’d devised.
The study doors opened and his father entered. The steward Umberto Dell’Acqua closed the doors behind him.
Signor Baldoni rose and bowed to the duke, who took his chair behind a heavy mahogany desk in the corner of the study.
Carlo followed Umberto and Signor Baldoni to the chairs in front of the desk. He handed the record of the town of Forlì to his father and then sat at the escritoire to document the proceedings.
“Signor Baldoni, you have an issue of rights?” The duke asked.
“Sì, Duke Amadeo, regarding an establishment on your land in Forlì, which stands adjacent to my inn. We have grieved over the passing of our friend Signor Tarcisio, may he rest in peace.” Signor Baldoni paused, apparently overcome with grief. “I now seek possession of Signor Tarcisio’s hostel.”
“It has not been one full week since Signor Tarcisio’s passing,” the duke noted. “Are you not still in mourning in Forlì?”
“Sì, Duke Amadeo. A town in mourning is most vulnerable, and that is why I rode immediately to you.”
The duke and Umberto exchanged glances. “I was told Signor Tarcisio’s grandson has taken over the management of the establishment,” Umberto said.
“Yes, of course, but the people of Forlì look for guidance in these trying times. I fear the young man is not up to the task.”
“I see.” With one eyebrow raised, it was clear Umberto did not see at all.
Fascinated by the exchange, Carlo stopped writing.
“Vulnerable?” The duke’s gaze pierced Signor Baldoni.
Signor Baldoni nodded. “To false prophets, if you will allow me to speak plainly.”
“You have my undivided attention, Signor Baldoni. Please, continue,” the duke said.
“Well, I am sure you have heard the rumors of rivalry between us. Complete nonsense.” Signor Baldoni shook his head. “I believe they were created to drive a stake through the heart of Forlì.”
Carlo glanced up at Signor Baldoni’s odd choice of words to find the man staring at him. “Youth is so impressionable.”
It was uncharacteristic of Carlo to hate someone on sight, but it was so. The man had some nefarious purpose in mind. Carlo meant to find out exactly what it was Signor Baldoni wanted from his father.
His father sat forward and steepled his hands. “I am afraid you must speak plainer than that, Signor Baldoni. What is it you are accusing Signor Tarcisio of?”
Signor Baldoni shrugged. With his hands clasped in his lap, the gesture was reminiscent of a vulture hulking over a fresh kill. “Perhaps nothing more than attempting to make his mark on the world. I pray this is so. Sometimes what is done in the dark cannot so easily be brought to light.”
All eyes were on Signor Baldoni. The silence grew. When he said nothing more, the duke opened the record of Forlì. The bound pages hit the desk with an aggravated thump. After scanning several pages, he said,
“You are aware of Signor Tarcisio’s right to succeed his grandfather?”
“I believe my experience in the county takes precedence.”
“Your experience is much greater,” the duke confirmed, “and that is why I am certain you will recall the line of succession. After the untimely death of his father just months ago, and now the passing of his grandfather, it is fitting that Signor Tarcisio take over management. I grant Signor Tarcisio the inn in Forlì.”
Signor Baldoni’s smile never faltered. “Forgive me, Duke Amadeo. The hostel is mine by right. It has been in my family for years.”
“That was before your father massacred the entire family and fled the country, leaving you, a child, alone.” The duke stared at Signor Baldoni as he stroked his beard. “What a remarkable tale of survival.”
Carlo had heard the story. For some reason, Baldoni’s father had spared his firstborn. The boy was found sitting in a house of corpses, covered in the blood of his mother and six brothers and sisters. A family in the mysterious hills outside of Forlì had taken Baldoni in. Years later, he had returned to the city and quickly established himself.
“A man will work hard to clear his father’s good name. I intend to prove that old enemies set upon my family and that my father was himself a victim that night. Duke Amadeo, my wish is that a murderous family does not prevail in Forlì. For all of our sakes.”
“Are you suggesting that our old friend Signor Tarcisio had something to do with your family’s murder all those years ago?”
Signor Baldoni spread his hands wide. “Our hostel has always enjoyed the most success in Forlì.”
The duke put down the record of Forlì and folded his hands across it. “Be careful what you say, Signor Baldoni. Words have a way of coming back to haunt you. I have decided.”
Signor Baldoni bowed his head. “Very well. I defer to your wishes and I thank you for meeting with me on such short notice.” When he looked up, his smile widened despite the duke’s ruling against him. He stood and walked out of the study.
The duke exchanged a look with Umberto Dell’Acqua. “That man is trouble.”
“Signor Tarcisio will be sorely missed in a city with such strife,” Umberto murmured.
“I grow tired of the long-standing feud among the villagers.” The duke turned to him. “Carlo, I have a mission for you.”
“The young Tarcisio has written to me of four girls who have disappeared within the last month. He claims the devil has come to Forli. I am sure it is nothing more than this feud among the villagers. I would like you to travel with Umberto to the city and see what you can find out.”
Carlo stood. “It is done, Father.”
“Carlo.” His father held up a hand. “Tell no one of this. And you are not Marchese Falco in Forli.”
He raised an eyebrow and his father chuckled. “So, you have your wish for a few days at least, eh?”
Carlo remained silent. He would not deny nor apologize for it. He stared at his father, watching brown eyes darken in anger.
“I don’t want the villagers prepared for your visit. Do you understand?”
“Take this with you.” His father placed a ring in the palm of Carlo’s hand.
Carlo turned the ring over. There was no inscription, nothing to identify its owner.
“Is something wrong, Carlo?” His father asked.
“No. What does this symbol represent?”
Umberto gave him a grim nod. “That is what we must find out. Young Tarcisio found this in a field where one of the girls had been working before she disappeared.” Umberto rose from his chair slowly.
Carlo stopped himself before helping him up. Umberto had been steward before his father had become the duke. The old man walked out, still straight as an arrow.
But Carlo didn’t want to take care of an old man in a hostile city where they would have to watch their backs.
“Father, Forlì is an arduous four-day journey. Perhaps Umberto should stay here.”
“He will protect you. Godspeed,” his father said, and then turned away.
Carlo stared at his father’s back.
The steward was his father’s right-hand man and brother to another old friend, coachman Massimo. Both men had the duke’s complete trust in all things. Of course, there was Umberto’s pride to consider, but at the cost of his life?
Carlo nodded, understanding for the first time the origin of his stubbornness. He understood his father better, too. The man summed up one word. Loyalty. To status, to the land, and to family. It was a loyalty that had built their dynasty. At times, it was too strong and threatened to end it.
Carlo closed the study door behind him. Walking past his mother’s salon, he went through a curtained alcove into his small office.
He placed the signet ring on his desk and sat back in his chair. It was a work of art. Not the kind of ring one would find in a little shop in an obscure town. There was a more detailed engraving of the stylized dragon on the face of the heavy gold ring, and the rubies in the eyes and fiery breath were larger than the jewels on Rosa’s anklet. However, the design was a perfect match.
Where did she get the anklet?
He had not paid much attention to Rosa when she’d told him of the trip and now wished he could remember where the Bareschis had gone on vacation. Rosa was a reminder of the hell he had created for himself, and he had only been relieved she was not in Lazio at the time. They must have been gone several weeks visiting relatives.
Not knowing what Rosa’s connection was to this symbol in his hand shifted his anger from Baldoni to that beautiful, thorny rose he’d soon be shackled to for life.
Was she aware of the connection between her anklet and the ring?
He had not planned on it, but now he would have to pay her a visit before he left for Forlì.
Carlo started gathering his things. During the meeting in his father’s study, he’d sat next to Baldoni and noticed the clenching of the man’s fingers that turned his knuckles white. Baldoni had been enraged at the duke’s decision even as he spoke peaceful words.
Carlo wanted to go after Baldoni now, but was not prepared for the journey. In his present state of mind, he was tolerant of little more than a beggar pilfering bread from the markets of St. Peter’s Square. Part of him wanted to extinguish any iniquity, the smallest transgression he witnessed.
That was Margaux’s legacy, a result of the injustice of her death. He had not been there to save her from the fire, but he would root out what evil he could in the world now.
* * * *
“I must go away for a few days,” Carlo said.
Rosa got up from her chair. “But, Carlo, we have accepted the king’s invitation for this weekend. Can you not postpone your trip?”
He walked to her and took her hand. “That is not possible.”
“But where are you going?”
“Out of town.”
Rosa crossed the salon in a whirl of brown silk. Closing the double doors, she leaned back against them. “You will not even tell me where you are going?”
“I’m afraid I cannot.”
She came to stand in front of him. Her crestfallen look was genuine. “I hate you.” She put her arms around him. “This sounds serious.”
Carlo wrapped his arms around her. “It is business, but nothing to worry over. King Vittorio will understand.” He led her to a sofa in front of the picture window.
“I haven’t given you an engagement present. I will surprise you when I return.”
Rosa remained silent and stared out at the golden mountains in the distance.
“Maybe I will pass the shop in which you purchased your anklet.” Carlo lifted her skirts just enough to see the glinting rubies. “What is the name of it?”
She swatted his hand away, her eyelids lowered demurely. “Marchese Falco, someone will come in.”
“You were not so concerned about interruptions that night in the cloakroom,” he murmured close to her ear.
Rosa shifted away from him on the sofa. “That was before I knew you were leaving me.”
He sat back and sighed. “The name, Rosa.”
“Name? Oh, I don’t remember. We stopped in so many places.”
“Does the dragon have any particular meaning?”
Rosa smoothed her skirts down. “Of course not. It’s just a pretty thing that I bought myself because my fiancé refused to come with me.”
Carlo chuckled. “I was not your fiancé then.” He cupped her chin. “You knew I could not leave the vineyards when we are so busy.”
“And yet you leave now.” Rosa shot him a glance, her dark brown eyes filled with a new light. “You are on a mission for your father,” she deduced with relish. “That is why King Vittorio will understand, isn’t it?”
“I know you’ve told me this before, but which relatives did you visit?”
She rolled her eyes. “My mother’s family in Bologna.”
Carlo nodded, sorry he had not taken notice of her extended family before this. He was tempted, but he could not very well impose on her relatives in Bologna for a visit when he did not know them. And he could not take Rosa with him. However, Bologna was not very far from Forlì … he would think of something.
“When I come back, why don’t we plan a visit?”
“They are coming here to Lazio,” Rosa said slowly as if talking to the town fool. “You were not listening to Mama the other night,” she accused.
“Forgive me.” He flipped a trailing fiery tendril hanging down from her topknot, and pulled her up for a kiss. “I will return soon.”
When he returned home, Carlo stopped in his tracks to see Massimo smiling in the stables.
“Are you feeling well?” He gave the old man a slow scrutiny that started at the well-worn, but carefully polished boots and ended at the shiny bald spot on his graying head.
The coachman chuckled and Carlo narrowed his eyes.
Massimo handed him the horses’ reins. He had already outfitted Arturo and Rafi for the trip. “Godspeed, Marchese Carlo.”