The Angel of Soriano: A Renaissance Romance

The Angel of Soriano

 

An Italian Romance

 

By Stella Marie Alden

Copyright (C) 2016 Stella Marie Alden

 

Cover design by Virginie Wernert – www.designedbyqueenninie.com

 

This book is a work of fiction based on actual events. However, names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author's imagination and are used fictitiously.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without the author's permission.

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Chapter 1

 

     Rome, late summer 1489

The sun lowered through the west window, bathing a corner in yellow light. Time stood still as a dazzling, ivory-skinned angel stepped out of the shadows with hair so blond, it could be white. Thick lashes lowered to the tops of pink cheeks and demure eyes stared at the floor.

Stunned by her beauty, every thought in Bernardo’s head vanished except for those in the little head below his navel.

The palest blue eyes he’d ever seen met his and he gasped, unwilling to move for fear the heavenly vision would disappear. A slight smile played upon her heart shaped lips below a pert nose.

He dared not blink, not even when his father, Dideco, shouted through the foggy haze for him to fetch his sword.

Then the merciless sun descended another notch in the upstairs chambers, leaving him bereft. She stepped back and melted into the dark shadows, a mere outline. Puffy slit sleeves and multiple silk skirts indicated she was no slave and yet a simple veil covered the top of her head.

Is she an unknown cousin from Spain?
For a moment he despaired.
No, no. Her coloring is much too light.

Still unconvinced that she wasn’t an apparition, he shot her his winning smile, the one that made ladies swoon and his bed warm at night. The light shifted back in his favor and she blushed a most delicious shade of pink.

Mio Dio. My God. She’s lovely. I must have her between my sheets.

He grabbed the belt that rested next to the unlit hearth, wrapped it around his father’s wide waist, and buckled. All the while, he tried to quell the blood rushing south.

Trying to be casual, he turned to the doctor. “May I inquire the name of the lovely lady hiding in the corner?”

The doctor motioned her forward with a wave of his hand. “That’s Aurelia, my daughter and most precious gem.”

Bernardo breathed in the name, as if in prayer. Never before had he seen a lovelier woman. It was if heaven had let go of one its own.

“Aurelia? Meet Don Bernardo Carvajal, son of the steward of Soriano, cousin of Bishop Carvajal. This is his family’s home.”

She curtsied from her corner with the grace of a princess and yet said nothing. Where in all of Christendom had she come from? Hair that light was unknown except perhaps in the most northern kingdoms.

The doctor sighed. “I apologize. She’s slow. Dim-witted.”

Her lips twitched into the slightest of frowns, no doubt uncomfortable with the labels.

Then Bernardo’s father grumbled loudly as he struggled to put on his boots, “Jesu! Just call her over, doctor. My son is all but drooling.”

Moaning at the crass comment, Bernardo longed at that moment to be the son of a gentler nobleman.

“Please. Come, Aurelia.” Nardini beckoned her with another impatient wave.

She crossed the room with dainty steps, modest and pure. Then a hint of lavender laced with womanly scent floated on the ether. His heart beat out of control and his lust swelled hard inside his hose.

When she curtsied again, he tucked a thumb under her chin and lifted her face to his. Intelligent, stormy eyes narrowed and her lips pursed.

No idiot, this girl.
They lied. But why? Then without warning, she nipped at his finger and twisted out of his grasp.

Bernardo stopped the rest of the vile curses on the tip of his tongue but only because his servant cleared his throat in the doorway. “Cardinal Borgia.”

Blast the devil!
He’d needed a bit more time with his father to explain the politics of Rome. The woman had distracted him.

The large red-robed man pushed past Bernardo’s servant, Fulvio, and waddled into the room with five priests trailing. He stretched out his arm, the elder Carvajal kissed his ring, and the cardinal wiped it clean. Then he put his lace handkerchief away with a flourish.

Borgia turned to Doctor Nardini. “I understood your patient was all but dead this morning and yet has miraculously recovered?”

Bird-like, the doctor’s head bobbed up and down as he picked up a small book and read aloud. “We’ve found that ice is necessary. But that alone is no cure.”

He stopped and stared, apparently to wait for an acknowledgment of some sort. When all in the room gave back blank looks, he continued as if instructing a classroom. “Signore Carvajal has had Roman Fever three times and yet always recovers. Most men die. Therefore we must conclude that he has an extra organ."

Borgia held out a pudgy hand, the parchment was given, and he studied in silence. “Bring all your research to The Vatican tomorrow. His Holiness wishes a book on the subject immediately.”

Bernardo fumed. So that’s why Borgia kept them waiting for over two weeks? To make certain that his father got sick and then miraculously healed? A favor for Pope Innocent? He sighed and took deep breaths until his temper waned. Despite another bout of Roman Fever, his father seemed none the worse for wear. Their lord Cardinal Borgia seemed happy with their services and thus for the time being, the Carvajal’s position was secure.

But not so with Aurelia Nardini. She eyed the cardinal, bit her lower lip, and inched backward toward the door. Borgia watched her and grinned, a wolf about to devour a lamb.

What would happen if Bernardo fought for the honor of the beautiful woman? Loyalties suddenly in conflict, Bernardo clenched his sword but he didn’t need to make that decision. The quick thinking doctor pushed his daughter through the arched opening, slammed the door shut, and stood in front to block the exit.

Bernardo exhaled the breath he’d been holding but Borgia, not to be outmaneuvered, shoved forward one of his priests. “Find her and bring her to my chambers.”

The woman’s father paled and stretched his arms out across the door. “B-b-but, your eminence, she’s the mind of a child, certainly of no interest to a man such as yourself.”

Calming his rapidly beating heart, Bernardo bowed with hand upon his sword. Never before had he felt such a compelling need to be so damn chivalrous. “Per favore. Please. Allow me to find her, Your Excellency.”

The cardinal’s deep frown and furrowed brows were worrisome. One wrong move with a man such as him and his family could lose everything, but the smaller head below his waist was still in control.

“Fulvio. Anon.” Bernardo tried to allay Doctor Nardini’s fears by shooting a confident look over his shoulder as he rushed out of the room.

Where did the woman go?
He jumped down the steps two at a time, sword banging against his side. On the bottom floor, he searched the space then raced into the kitchen where he called out in Spanish to the old cook pounding bread dough in the kitchen. “Which way did the Lady Aurelia run off?”

Suspicious dark eyes narrowed under gray brows and she shrugged.

He had no time for such games. A woman’s virtue was at stake. Grasping her arm, he hissed, “Quickly. I must save her from Borgia.”

“She ran that way.” A thin finger pointed out an ancient lintel at the back of the room.

He bent in half, ducked under the musty smelling stones, and bolted onto the street with Fulvio’s boots pounding closely behind.

Ahead, a nun raced down a narrow alley as if chased by the hounds of hell with her skirts gathered up to her knees. A long strand of golden hair flew out from under an oversized cowl.

Aurelia
.

His feet hammered upon the flagstones and his leg muscles screamed as Bernardo raced to catch up. The girl’s athletic nature was beyond astounding.

“Dammit. Get her.” Fulvio rasped and fell behind.

“By God, I’m trying.” Bernardo took a deep breath and full out sprinted but when he turned the next corner, she was gone.

He cursed the empty piazza and turned, trying to figure where she’d hidden. Each building appeared dark and locked, including a bakery, a shoe merchant, and a building with a wine and pasta sign.

All were closed on the Sabbath. A narrow archway that nested between the shops was the only logical place left for her to hide so he rushed toward it.

A church door creaked as he opened it ever-so-slowly.
Christo.
Just a few feet away, with her back to him, she gasped for breath. Then she lit a candle and moved toward a crouching statue of Saint Stephen. Light flickered on the marble arms, eternally protecting the martyr’s face from the stones that caused his death.

Bernardo inched forward.

Now that I’ve caught her, what should I do with her?

 

Chapter 2

 

Aurelia Nardini’s heart raced when a boot squeaked behind her on the church floor. Using the taper’s flame as a weapon, she turned and backed away slowly. “Stop right there or I scream.”

“A sure way into Borgia’s bed.” With a voice soft and firm, the son of Signore Carvajal gazed dark eyes into hers, then clamped strong fingers about her wrist. She dropped the candle and the blaze went out.

What was his name? Bertoni? Bartholomew?
Madonna
. So raptured by his Spanish good looks, her mind had gone blank during the introductions. Even now as she struggled to get free, his firm leg muscles caused her to have the most unchaste thoughts.

She chopped ineffectively at his hand with the side of hers. “Do you want a turn at me first? Is that it? Believe me when I say that Borgia will know and you
will
die badly. He likes his women virginal.”

His mouth gaped open and his eyebrows raised, no doubt unused to such plain talk. “I’m not going to rape you, Signorina. I’m trying to save you.”


Heavenly God above! Do you know how many times I’ve slipped away from Borgia’s boy priests? Twelve! Today would’ve been thirteen if you’d not stepped in to help.”

He continued to stare.

Is he deaf of just plain stupid?


Madonna!
Let go of me. Don’t you understand? Borgia enjoys the cat and mouse game. And now you’ve ruined everything.” She stamped her heel into the tops of his soft leather boot.

When he shouted, she slipped out of his grasp and pulled on the iron lever to the right side of Saint Stephen’s head. Gears screeched, the statue turned on its base, and the wall opened spewing forth a cloud of dust. Picking up her candle and lighting it with a votive, she tried to slip into the cave.

Perhaps he’d just leave her be.

No such good fortune. He followed closely behind.

“Get out.” She pushed at his solid form and he didn’t budge. Instead, he loomed. What was it with this stubborn Spaniard?

A prayer formed on her lips to the patron saint of all lost causes.
Can’t you make him go?
Her favored saint must’ve been busy, for the man’s muscles, thighs and sword squeezed in beside her.

She shoved at him harder. He needed to leave her small hiding space before anyone found them. “I’ll be fine. Go. Why in heaven’s name are you trying to save me?”

“I didn’t care for the way Borgia looked at you.” His black eyes stared at her, unblinking.

She slapped her forehead. “Sangue di Cristo! You’ve doomed yourself, your family, and me as well.”

At that, the door of the church swung open and they both jumped. She blew out the taper and pulled on the lever. The wall closed and he squeezed his body too intimately against hers. With his arm wrapped about her waist and his scent of leather and sex, her knees went weak. She’d never stood this close to any man other than her father. Heart pounding, she peeked into the church through a small hole in the wall.

When she spied the intruder, she let go the breath she’d been holding. “It’s only your servant.”

The Spaniard’s man was dressed in black hose, black doublet, and black boots. Olive skin and handsome face rivaled the beauty of the man standing beside her. His sword flashed in the lights of the votive candles as he paused to peer into each small chapel’s enclave. At the altar, he turned and whistled through his teeth.

The Spaniard whispered into her ear, “Open the door.”

She hesitated.

With a frown, he pulled on the device, his elbow brushing over her overly sensitive chest. Gears groaned, masking her own. His touch had brought something within her to life and it was both frightening and wonderful.

Carvajal greeted his servant as friend with a slap to the back. “Did anyone see you?”

“Not yet.” He eyed them both with one raised brow, no doubt thinking the worst of her behavior.

Even though she’d done nothing impure, her thoughts made her blush. But now that she was caught, she’d need to surrender bravely.

Resigned, she pushed both their big bodies toward the door. “Mother of God. There’s nothing else to be done. Send your man to Borgia. Tell him you found me. I’ll come without a fuss.”

“What? You will not. I’ve saved you.” The Spaniard pulled her back by the neck of her dress.

Sighing heavily, she slapped him lightly on the side of his face until she was sure she had the full attention of those beautiful dark eyes. “I must let him bed me or I forfeit my father’s life and yours. Not to mention our small holdings. We’ll all die. I
will
not and
can
not have that on my conscience.”

She’d think of a way to get free before that happened, however. Hadn’t she always?

He shot her an insulted look. “I’ll give you my horse, my coin. Ride away, Signorina. I’ll explain. Leave this to the men to handle.”

She stared him down with hands on her hips. What kind of woman did he think she was?

“And what of my father? I let him face Borgia’s wrath without me?”

The son of Carvajal actually growled at her with eyes narrowed. “What was he thinking letting that lecherous spawn of hell see you? For even bringing you to Rome?”

Her face heated. “It’s a rather long story.”

With eyes lowered to the marble floor, she exhaled. In that respect, her would-be savior was quite right. Her father was oblivious to dangers that others easily recognized. If he only knew that she was the caretaker, and always had been, not the other way around.

The Spaniard, no doubt sensing her despair, grabbed her hand and kissed it. “Don’t fret. I’ll see you safely out of the city.”

At the touch of his lips on her hand, her heart raced, and her mouth went dry. He kissed her skin? She pulled her arm back but he shot her an impish grin and refused to let go.

His breath was still warming her fingertips when he turned to his man and said, “Tell Borgia and his minions that we saw her jump into the Tiber. That I now search for her body. When you have a moment tell her father the truth. I’ll accompany her someplace safe.”

The servant smirked with eyes glued to where the Spaniard held her hand captive. “And where might that be?”

“I’ve no idea.” Carvajal chuckled, squeezed her digits, and then finally let her go.

She surmised that her face had heated to a bright shade of crimson. Now they presumed that she’d barter sex for freedom? A twinge of longing shot to a private place between her legs.
Do I dare?

Then his man left, the church door slammed shut, and she was completely alone with the handsome Carvajal.

Mother of God, how long before he asks me to raise my skirts?

Pacing in front of a mural of the Virgin Mary, he seemed oblivious to her rising panic. “I’ve a cousin here in Rome, a newly ordained bishop, who’ll find us safe haven. But we’ll need to remain tucked away for a while. Borgia has eyes everywhere.”

He tilted his head. “Are you alright?”

She nodded, then shivered, trapped within his dark stare. Between her legs grew wet. What was he going to do to her?

“You’re not alright. You’re cold.” His warm cloak smelled wonderful as he flicked it out and covered her shoulders.

“Better?”

He tucked the material in the front, between her breasts and leaned in as if to kiss her. A tongue flicked over his lower lip and his nostrils flared.

Was it possible for a woman to melt under a man’s gaze? And then what? Already she was under his spell.

“Um, we should hide, no?” She backed away and pointed to the hole in the wall behind Saint Stephen.

His strong arm slipped around her waist, leading her, guiding her. Would he do the same as he introduced her to the ways of sin?

“Wait.” She quickly lit the candle, not ready to be alone in the dark with this man.

Once inside the small cave behind Saint Stephen, she pulled the handle until the door slammed shut. Then she found the courage to ask, “Why? Why risk your life for me?”

“You truly don’t know?” He sat down between the two walls and patted his lap, as if she might dare sit there.

Am I ready to give up my virginity to him?

Her guardian angel cautioned.
Don’t go near him. Stand right here and lean against the holy church wall.
This time she ignored the little voice in her head because after tonight, she’d never be allowed to step foot inside Rome. Probably never outside some fortress. And she’d never again see this brave, albeit foolhardy, Spaniard.

He stretched out his long legs with hands behind his head. His elbows opened wide, tips touching the walls on either side. “Is there any other exit from here? Are we safe?”

Safe? From him? Not hardly.

Pointing into the wide overhead chimney, she held the candle high. “That’s the only other way out. It leads to the roof. If you jump to the next one, it’s only a small climb down to an alley behind the bakery.”

“You know this, how?” His mouth dropped open.

“I’ve done it.”

He skewed his face as if he didn’t believe her and crossed his arms over his chest. “Tell me. How did you find out about this place?”

Her face heated at the memory. “Quite by accident, I assure you. The first time I hid here, I stood behind the altar. Then I saw a priest pull on the lever, enter with a woman and then come out again, not long after.”

There were no words to explain how the woman’s lips were swollen and her look of ecstasy as the priest fondled her breasts.

“I see.” Carvajal smiled, no doubt understanding what she’d left unsaid.

She gasped. No matter what the conversation, it seemed to lead to sex.

His kind smile, however, showed little indication he was about to take advantage. “Sit and talk to me. Who are you? Why did your father say you’re dim-witted when obviously you’re not?”

She shrugged and stared at the flickering shadows on the walls. It’d take all night to explain the complexity. “It’s the safest way to help my father, the doctor.”

Her answer made his mouth purse down and his tone changed to incredulous. “Surely he can manage without your aide? You’re way too beautiful to be let out into the world with men like Borgia waiting and wanting to...Well waiting. Why does your mother allow it?”

The lie came easily after all these years. In truth, the woman
was
dead to her, or rather the other way around. “She’s long gone.”

“Ah.
Scuse.
My apologies.” He shook his head, with a bit of pity in his eyes that made a few tears well up in her own.

“It’s nothing.”

But the man’s interrogation knew no end. “So how do you come to be in Rome? Your speech is learned and you’re obviously of noble birth.”

“When Cardinal Nardini died, my family fell out of favor in Naples and my father and I came north.”

She rested the side of her face against the stones and the wall cooled her heated cheeks. Would that she could go back in time before that fateful day. As always, she took a silent moment to curse her great-uncle to rot in hell for eternity.

Carvajal tilted his head and raised his eyebrows in another question, albeit unasked.

“You truly are meddlesome, signore. Fine. I will tell you more. The great and pious man was my great uncle and he left everything he owned to holy mother church. My father was forced to find work or we would starve. Thank goodness he was a learned doctor.”

“But he can’t find a male assistant?”

“I wish.” She sighed, wondering how much she should unburden but after today, what did it matter? Because of Borgia’s lusting, her father would need to entomb her in the country. This might be her only chance to tell someone the whole truth.

As delicately as possible, she tucked her nun’s habit and sat down across his upper thighs. Then folded her hands and placed them in her lap.

He smiled fully and wrapped his arms around her waist, obviously pleased she’d given in.

She leaned in toward his ear. “You can’t tell a soul. Understand?”

Nodding, his nostrils flared and a calloused finger tucked a curl behind her ear causing chills to run up and down her spine.

“My father is not all that clever with medicines. I am, in truth, the doctor. The one who can heal.”

He stared dubiously for a moment, then laughed so hard his legs jerked, bouncing her up and down.

When he finally noted she was quite serious, he wiped a tear of mirth from one eye. “But surely he went to university. That much is true?”

“Si. Si. But his heart lies with philosophy. I’m afraid all other learning does not stick. It’s as if his mind has only enough room for one area of study. All other knowledge leaks out as if poured through a sieve.”

When he looked as if he might burst into merriment again, her palms shot out to cup both of his rough cheeks. “I tell you. I
am
the doctor. As a child, my only friends were books. My tutors, well-educated nuns. Due to my fair skin and light hair, my mother locked me away from all men. She said I was a temptation.”

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