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The Grotto
by Evelyn Rogers
Love Spell, 2002

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Chapter One

Il conte è morto.

Contessa Caterina Donati whispered the words as her hired carriage rumbled past the scattered huts marking the seaside village of Belmare. She whispered them again in English. No matter how many times she said them, in either language, out loud or to herself, they seemed no more real than they had on that gloomy morning a month ago when her husband's sodden, lifeless body was delivered unceremoniously to the family palazzo.

But they were real enough to the rest of the world. Her present situation provided bitter proof. Her shoulders slanted from side to side as the poorly-sprung gig jounced through the narrow, twisting streets, the buildings clustered closer now as she entered the heart of the village she had once thought might be her home. The thought had been fleeting. It lasted two nights.

With a sense of foreboding, she looked through the carriage window at the occasional villagers. Without exception they stared back with dark, angry eyes, watching from the roadside as she slowly rode by, their numbers increasing as she rode deeper into town.

Her breath grew shallow. More than five years had passed since a Donati visited this small, poor village that clung to a narrow stretch of jagged Tuscan coast. Five long years, but the hate of the people remained. It drifted into the carriage like the hot summer wind coming off the dark sea. She felt it more now than when she had come here as a bride.

Il conte è morto.

But the harm he had wreaked lived on. His death had not been enough to ease their hate. It festered in their eyes.

A thick twist of yellow hair lay heavily against the back of her neck, sending rivulets of perspiration down her spine, and the black silk mourning gown clung to her sweat-slick skin. Her lips cracked from lack of moisture. How comforting it would be to order the carriage to a halt, to step into the street, and ask for a cup of water. She would gladly part with one of the few coins in her purse for such a respite.

More, she would tell the villagers she knew the suffering that had resulted when Pietro closed Donati fields to them, departed the villa, left the servants and farmers with nothing but the meager living they could scratch from the sea. She could go further and tell them that all yet might be well.

But such reassurance might prove to be a lie. Compelling her even more to silence, the eyes of the villagers, roughly-clad men and women, and children, too, standing in open windows, drifting from between the hovels to view her passing, told her not to dare.

Without warning, the carriage lurched to a stop, and she was flung forward, one shoulder striking sharply against the hard wall in front of her. She righted herself, gingerly flexed the muscles of her injured shoulder, and pressed gloved fingers to the perspiration on her forehead. What now? She could not venture to guess.

"Contessa Donati?"

She stared at the scowling face in the window. It belonged to a young man, coarse-featured and thick of body, his unruly black hair cut short beneath a narrow cap that marked officialdom. She recognized him right away, not by name but by his station in life. He was what passed for authority in the village.

Over the past few weeks she had learned to recognize authority very well, no matter the form it took.

"Si, constable," she said, forcing herself into the Italian of her late husband's people, the language that now and evermore would be hers. "Is there anything wrong?"

He viewed her with a mixture of arrogance and curiosity, neither of which he would have openly revealed when she was rich.

"In the name of Grand Duke Leopold, I wish only to learn if your journey has been a safe one."

He dared lower his eyes to take in the length of her neck, the sloping shoulders, the black silk sculpted by sweat against the curve of her breasts.

"The road between here and Florence can be a hazardous one for a woman traveling alone," he added, his voice thick with mock concern.

Kate almost laughed. He spoke as if thieves were her worst worry. The hired gig showed no sign its lone occupant would offer much in the way of booty. Not once had she been threatened, even when she traveled in the dark of night.

Kate's eyes, normally far too large in her too-thin face, narrowed in a rush of anger, but she kept her voice modulated. Anger was an emotion she was too poor to afford.

"Per favore, inform the Grand Duke that the journey went well and that I am grateful to return to the duchy over which he so honorably rules."

She could scarcely keep the sarcasm from her voice. Leopold was no more tyrant than any of the other dukes in this loosely-allied collection of states known as Italy. But he was in authority. And he was a man. It was, she knew far too well, an unfortunate combination of traits.

With a glance over his shoulder at his audience, the constable raised his voice.

"The Grand Duke worries also about the villa you have chosen as your home." Another lie.

"And why is that?" she asked. Did not Leopold know it was the only home left to her, the Venetian palazzo and apartments in Milan having gone to creditors? Of course he knew. And so did everyone staring at her in the shabby hired gig. Anywhere in the world, in Boston as well as in Tuscany, bad news, especially the kind involving an enemy, traveled fast.

"La maledetta," he said, putting all the operatic drama he could in the word. "The curse of the falcon."

"I do not believe in curses," she said. She, too, spoke loud enough for all to hear.

A sneer rippled across the constable's coarse features. "I forget you are Americana."

"My birthplace has little to do with my beliefs." But of course it did. Had not the conte reminded her more than once she came from a land of barbarians?

In the stillness that followed her pronouncement, she looked beyond the young man to the villagers gathered at the edge of the road. Above all else, she wanted to smile, to nod, to let them know she was not a foolish foreigner who chose to ignore their ways. Nor was she a scornful aristocrat who viewed lesser mortals as beneath contempt.

In Belmare she was the lesser mortal. Not one day of her life had been spent in anything close to hard labor, while their days had known little else.

But the smile would not come. She lacked the strength. And from the time she learned to walk and talk she had understood the necessity of keeping her feelings to herself.

Weariness washed over her, and a desire to be done with this interminable journey. She was about to sit back and wait for the gig to resume its lurching progress when she saw him, a tall figure standing behind the other villagers, hatless in the noonday sun, his long black hair catching the ruthless rays like polished obsidian.

He stood unmoving, still as a Michelangelo sculpture, but there was nothing of cold marble in the gilded skin that stretched over prominent cheekbones, high forehead, and strong, square jaw, no coldness in the midnight eyes that studied her like a bird of prey.

Like others around him, he wore a thickly-woven work shirt the color of Tuscan dust, but in the way he held himself it rested on his broad shoulders more grandly than any silken cloak Pietro had ever owned. He throbbed with life. A peasant, no doubt, a villager. His clothing, his place in the crowd said it was so, though he stood apart from them, unremarked for all his distinctive appearance, like a ghost only she could see.

But he was no ghost, not with such vibrancy rising off him like heat waves from the land itself. He was also the most handsome man she had ever seen.

She shrank into the shadow of the carriage, her own throbbing caught in her throat. A whip cracked in the hot, still air and the carriage jerked into motion once again.

Scarcely aware of the jostling, she knew only the burn of shame flushing her cheeks, for in the instant before she retreated, their eyes had met and he had read her interest. He had shown it in a barely perceptible nod, a movement meant only for her.

Her shame was foolish, uncalled for, the interest sprung from nothing more wanton than a curiosity about the people who would be her neighbors. He had stood out, not because of his height or physical power, or even his good looks, but because his had been the only eyes not burning with hate.

One lingering thought would not go away, the idea that she had seen him before, that he came to her on this momentous day from out of her past. The thought was absurd. She had never seen anyone like him in her life. But she knew she would see him again.

Excerpted from The Grotto by Evelyn Rogers. Copyright © 2002 by Evelyn Rogers. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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