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Isabella Casali's cry was snatched right out of her mouth by the gust of wind that tore at her thick dark hair and slapped it back against her face. What a night she'd picked to go sneaking onto royal property. The moon had been riding a crest of silky clouds when she'd started out from the village. Now the sky had turned black and the moon was playing hide and seek, taking away her light just when she'd stepped on forbidden territory. Where had this sudden storm come from, anyway?
"Bad luck," she whispered to herself, squinting against another gust of wind. "I've got reams of it."
She knew she ought to turn and head for home, but she couldn't go back without finding what she'd come for—not after all she'd done to work up the nerve to come in the first place.
The grounds of the local prince's palazzo were famously said to be the stomping grounds for all sorts of supernatural creatures. She'd discounted it before, thought it was nothing but old wives' tales. But now that she'd come here and seen for herself, she was beginning to get the shivers just like everyone else. Every gust of wind, every snapping twig, every moan from the trees made her jump and turn to see what was behind her.
"You'd better hope the prince doesn't catch you."
Those words had made her smile when Susa, her restaurant's vintage pastry chef, had uttered them like an aging Cassandra just before Isabella had left for this adventure. Susa often had wise advice, but this time Isabella was sure she was off the beam. What had Susa said again?
"They say he patrols the grounds himself, looking for young women who stray into his woods…"
"Oh, Susa, please," she'd scoffed. "They've said the same thing about every prince who's lived in that old moldy castle for the last hundred years. The royal Rossi family has never been a very friendly bunch, from what I've heard. When you don't get out and mix with the citizens, you're bound to get a bad reputation."
She'd chuckled at the time, completely unconcerned, even though the royal grounds were the last place she wanted to venture onto anyway. Given a choice, she would have stayed home with a good book.
"But it's mostly because they're such a mystery," she continued, thinking it over. "I'll bet they're very nice people once you get to know them."
Susa raised her eyebrows and looked superior. "We'll see how nice you think he is when he has you locked up in his dungeon."
"Susa!" Isabella was reluctant enough to go on this mission without the older woman raising more reasons why she should just stay home.
"Besides, Papa has been sneaking in there to collect the Monta Rosa Basil we need for years and, as far as I know, he's never seen a royal person there yet. I don't believe a word of it."
Her father, Luca Casali, had discovered the almost magical properties of this fine herb years before and it had transformed his cuisine from average Italian fare into something so special people came from miles around just to get a bowl of exquisitely cooked pasta topped with the steaming tomato-based sauce Luca had come up with.
The special recipe and the herb were a closely held family secret. Only a few knew that the delicious flavor came from a plant that could be found only on a hillside located on the estate of the royal Rossi family in Monta Correnti.
For years, her father had gone once a month to collect the herb. Now he was ill and could no longer make the trip. It was up to Isabella to take up the mantle as herb-gatherer, reluctant as she might be. She'd decided she might have less risk of being caught at it if she went at night. She was a little nervous, but fairly confident. After all, her father had never had a problem. She told herself calmly that she would do just fine.
But that was before the storm came up, and the moon disappeared, and the wind began to whip at her. Right now, every scary rumor seemed highly plausible and she was definitely looking over her shoulder for marauding royalty.
Earlier, when the sun was still shining, she'd thought it might be interesting to meet the prince.
"What's he like, really?" she'd asked Susa. "When he's not enticing young women into his bedroom, at any rate."
Susa shrugged. "I don't know much about him. Only that his young wife died years ago and he's been sort of a recluse ever since."
"Oh." Isabella thought she'd heard something about that a long time ago, but she didn't remember any details. "How sad."
"They say she died under mysterious circumstances," the woman added ominously.
"Are there any other kind in your world?" Isabella shot back.
Susa gave her a superior look and turned away, but at the same time Isabella was remembering what Noni Braccini, the restaurant cook who had taught her most of what she knew about Italian cooking when she was a young girl, used to say.
"Nothing good could happen in a place like that." She would point a wrinkled finger toward where the old, crumbling palazzo stood and mutter, "Bats."
Isabella would look at her, nonplussed. "Bats?"
She would nod wisely. "Bats. You don't want bats in your hair."
Isabella would find herself smoothing down her own wild tresses and agreeing quickly, with a shudder. "No, no, indeed. I don't want bats in my hair."
And that was about all she knew about the prince in the castle. Of course, there was the fact that the essential herb grew on a hillside on castle grounds.
Noni had died long since, but Susa was still around to give dire warnings, and she'd said matter-of-factly as Isabella was going out the door, "When I was a girl, it was common knowledge that the Rossi prince was a vampire."
"What?" Isabella had laughed aloud at that one. "Susa, that's crazy!"
"He was the grandfather of this one." The older woman had shrugged. "We'll see, won't we?"
Isabella had laughed all the way to her car, but she wasn't laughing now. It wasn't just what Susa had said in warning. There were plenty of other old stories swirling in her head. Her childhood had been full of them—tales told in the dark at girlfriend sleepovers, stories of blackbeards who captured women and held them within the castle walls—vampires who roamed the night looking for beautiful victims with virgin throats—seducers with dark, glittering eyes, who lured innocent girls into their sumptuous bedrooms. Suddenly they all seemed too plausible. She was half regretting that she'd come to this frightening place at all, and half angry with herself for being such a wimp.
"Come on," she muttered to herself encouragingly. "Just a bit further and we'll get this done."
After all, how bad could it be? Even if she did run into the prince, he couldn't possibly be as wicked as Susa had painted him. In fact, she remembered seeing him once, years ago, when she was a teenager. She'd been visiting a hot springs resort area a few hours from the village and someone had pointed him out. She'd thought him incredibly handsome at the time—and incredibly arrogant-looking.
"The old royalty are all like that," her friend had said. "They think they're better than the rest of us. It's best to stay out of their way."
And she had, all these years. Now she was rambling around on royal grounds. The quicker she got this over with, the better.
Just a little further and she would find the hillside where the special basil grew, pick enough to fill the canvas bag she'd brought along, and head for home. Of course, it would help if she could see more than three feet in front of her with this stupid flashlight that kept blinking off.
Her foot slipped and she almost tumbled down the hill. At least the problem with the flashlight was solved. It did tumble down the hill, and over a ledge, and into the river. Even above the noise of the wind, she could hear the splash.
Isabella wasn't one to swear, but she was working up to it tonight. What a disaster. What had she been thinking when she'd decided to come here all alone in the middle of the night? She'd known she was just asking for trouble.
"I just wasn't made for this cloak-and-dagger stuff," she muttered to herself as she tried to climb higher on the hill. All she wanted was to find the herbs and get out of here. She hated doing this. She dreaded getting caught by guards…or the prince. Or attacked by vampires—whichever came first.
The wind slashed through the tops of the trees, howling like a banshee. Lightning flashed, and in that same moment she looked up and saw a figure all in black atop a huge horse, racing down on her.
Time stopped. Fear clutched at her heart like a vise. This was too much. The dark, the wind, the sight of danger crashing toward her—had she taken a wrong turn somewhere? Suddenly, everything was upside down and she was terrified. Without a pause, she screamed at the top of her lungs. The sounds echoed through the valley, louder and louder, as lightning cracked and thunder rolled.
That lifetime of scary stories had set her up to think the worst. Every story flashed through her soul in an instant. She was shaking now, panic taking over, and she turned to run.
She heard him shout. Her heart was in her throat. She was dashing off blindly, startled as a cornered deer, and she heard him coming up behind her. The hoofbeats sounded like thunder striking stone, and his shout was angry.
She was in big trouble. He was going to catch her. She couldn't let that happen! She had to run faster…faster…
She couldn't run fast enough and she couldn't get her breath. Her foot slipped, wrenching her balance out from under her. She started to slide down the steep hill. Crying out, she reached to catch herself on a bush, but it pulled right out of the ground. Suddenly, she was tumbling toward the river.
She hit the water with a splash that sent a spray in all directions. She gasped as the icy water took her in. Now she was going to drown!
But she barely had time to reach for the surface before the strong arms of the man in black had caught hold of her and she was pulled instantly from the racing water.
He had her. Stunned by the cold, shocked by what was happening, she couldn't find her bearings. Disoriented in the moment, she realized dimly that she was being carried toward the horse, but she was a bystander, watching helplessly, as though from afar. For now, it seemed there was nothing she could do to resist.
Later, she was mortified as she remembered this scene. How could she have succumbed so quickly to the overwhelming sense of his strength like that? She'd just suffered a shock, of course, and that had pretty much knocked her silly, but still…As she remembered just how much the feel of his strong, muscular arms seemed to paralyze her reactions, she could do nothing but groan aloud in frustration. How could she have been such a ninny?
But in the moment, she was spellbound. The moon came out from behind the clouds, turning the landscape silver. Trying to look up at his face, all she could see was his strong chin, and the smooth, tight cords of his sculptured neck. And still, she couldn't seem to make a move.
This was crazy. He was just a man. Nothing supernatural at all. Just a man. A man who had no right to carry her this way. She had to assert herself, had to let him know what he was dealing with. But before she could get a word out, she found herself thrown up onto the horse and the creature who'd captured her was rising to mount behind her.
And finally, with a lot of effort, she found her voice.
"Hey, wait a minute!" she cried. "You can't do this. Let me go!"
Maybe he didn't hear her. The wind was making a riot in the tops of the trees. At any rate, he didn't answer, and in seconds the horse was galloping toward the ancient, forbidding structure looming at the top of the hill, and she was going along for the ride. She hung on for dear life. She could hardly breathe. She heard the hoofs clattering on the cobblestones as they neared the entrance. Huge lanterns lit the entryway. And then they came to a halt and he had dismounted and pulled her down as well.
She swayed. For a moment, she was confused and couldn't find her footing. His hands gripped her shoulders from behind, holding her steady. She turned, wanting to see his face, but he kept it from her.
"This way," he said, taking her by the hand and leading her up to the huge wooden door.
"No," she said, but her voice was weak and she found herself following along where he led, even though her soggy running suit was sticking to her legs, the heavy jacket flapping against her torso, the running shoes sloshing with every step. She was a mess. She hated to think what her hair looked like.
Somewhere on the grounds, a pair of dogs began to howl. Or was it wolves? Her heart was thumping so hard she could hardly tell. The roll of distant thunder added to the menace in the air. The lanterns made eerie shadows and her gaze rose to take in the sinister spikes at the top of the castle wall.
She shuddered. Was she dreaming? Or had she ventured by mistake into one of this area's old-fashioned legends? Was she on her way to the dungeon, as Susa had warned?
And if this was a story, was this man who'd scared her and then saved her the hero or the villain?
"Both," said a little voice inside her.
She shook her head. It didn't matter right now. She needed him. She had no one else to turn to.
The front door creaked open as they approached. She caught a glimpse of a man as old and craggy as the walls, his features exaggerated by the lighting. A wizard? She shrank back against her companion, automatically turning to him for protection despite everything. He hesitated for a moment, then put his arm around her shoulders and let her curl herself up against him. After a second or two, his arm actually tightened around her.