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Northern Italy, Winter 1424
Carina bolted upright in her bed near the blackened hearth. Her heart racing, she shivered as she clutched her upper arms with numb fingers. Even the frightful cold couldn't obliterate the disturbing dream from her mind.
An old prince was dying. His family and royal subjects weeping. A young man, his handsome features lined with pain. An older woman, her hands curled into fists, her eyes narrowed into an icy glare.
What did it mean? Who were those people? Where were those people?
Edgy now, Carina left her bed of empty grain sacks stuffed with discarded fabric scraps from the mill. She checked on her mother, who lay near the brazier half-filled with lit coals. It was all they could afford to warm their one-room cottage. The landlord wouldn't allow them anything more.
Cara Gallo barely clung to life. Her face ashen, the look of death surrounded her. Carina knelt beside the bed of stacked quilts. She held her mother's frail hand while holding back tears. This woman was all Carina had left in the world. She still mourned the short time she'd had with her father, Virgo. And soon, her kind and gentle mother would be gone, too.
Leaning in close, Carina whispered, "Mamma? Can you hear me?"
Cara's eyelids drifted upward. "Sì, my beautiful daughter." Her voice had grown more distant.
"Are you in pain?"
"No, for I have your father guiding me. He has taken my hand to ease my journey."
"Sì, Mamma." Hiding her sadness, she smiled softly. "I had another vision, a new one. It was of royalty and an old, dying prince."
A shadow fell across Cara's deep brown eyes. "The time hascome for you to heed your visions."
"I already have, Mamma. What of those friends and strangers I have helped with my visions? Though we dared not reveal my source to them lest they cast me aside, or worse, condemn me a witch. I have helped many. Was it not you who told me to use my gift to help others?"
Her mother squeezed her hand weakly. "You are God's child in that respect. But there is more, figlia. Your father and I held our silence about your past for fear of your life."
"My past?" Carina's brows eased downward. "I do not understand."
Gently inhaling, Cara shuddered. "You were brought to us as an infant."
"That is not true!" Carina cried.
"It is, Carina. Your true sire feared his wife would take your life."
Cara captured her attention with honesty in her eyes. "No. Your mother and father were not married, though their love was true and deep I was told. When his wife learned of the affair, she threatened to bring harm to your mother and spread rumors that she was possessed by the devil. After you were born, your father bade his trusted soldiers to take you far away."
Shock rendered Carina immobile. Her throat constricted. How could this be? How could she not have known, especially that she'd been both blessed and cursed with the ability to see the past?
"You are not alone, Carina."
Looking into her mother's eyes, wishing they would show the falseness in her words, Carina knew deep down she spoke the truth.
"You have two sisters."
"No!" Carina jumped to her feet.
"Think, Carina. Your visions. The ones where you saw who you believed to be yourself, but it could not possibly be you."
Every word of it was true, Carina realized. She'd been confused by what she'd seen in those visions. Now she knew the reason. Stoically, she asked, "Where are my sisters?"
"All I know is one was taken to Andalusia and the other is near London."
Suspicion seeped into her bones. "How is it you came by this information?"
Her mother barely raised a hand and gestured for Carina to join her. But Carina's legs would not move. They felt leaden and her feet stuck in a mire of lies.
Cara sighed feebly. "Fetch the tin box buried in the earth beneath the carpet."
Gazing dubiously at the only carpet that lay near the hearth, Carina was skeptical about this charade. Yet in her heart, she knew her mother wouldn't lead her astray. Her mother loved her. They had looked after one another after her father had died suddenly, had nurtured each other through sickness and meager times.
Tossing back the old worn carpet, she found a wood hatch in the floor. She hadn't known it existed. On cleaning days, her mother had always insisted on sweeping. For good reason, Carina now understood. Cara never wanted her to discover the secret hiding place.
After pulling back the hatch and setting it aside, she reached in with trembling hands and lifted out the tin box. She sat back on her heels, staring at the plain metal container.
"Open it," Cara urged.
Carina set the loose-fitting lid aside. Inside she found a piece of stone. Hesitantly taking it in her hand, she turned it over and over. It was made of slate and broken from a bigger piece, perhaps, and shaped similar to a triangle. At one end, a coil of black silk rope had been looped through a small hole.
"Your sisters each have a piece similar to yours. When the three pieces are fitted together, they form a three-sided symbol."
Carina gaped up at her mother.
"Place it around your neck."
She tilted her head and lowered the cord to her neck. As she peered down at the amulet, she wondered if it was truly the key that would unlock her past, or possibly a sign of an uncertain future.
She rose and walked over to her mother. Sitting beside her, Carina held her work-worn fingers, now cold as ice. "No matter the past, you will always be my mother, and Papa, my father."
Cara's smile quivered. "I am pleased, figlia. You were our precious baby girl. I could not have children, and from the moment you were brought to us, we thanked the Lord every day."
"Why did you not tell me sooner?"
"We were sworn to secrecy. Only upon certain death was I, or your father, free to reveal the truth. And if we were both suddenly taken from you, then your guardian angel..." She started to choke on her swift intake of breath.
"Mamma!" Carina gently shook her mother's frail shoulders.
"You must search for your sisters. The amulet..." Her eyes closed.
Tears trickled down Carina's cheeks. "Sì, Mamma. The amulet?"
"The amulet," Cara croaked, her voice no more than a ghostly whisper, "is your destiny."
Night descended quickly. It always did. Alone. Hungry. Tired. Cold. Carina remembered not the last decent meal she had eaten. Neither could she recall the last soft, warm bed she had slept in. Her body shivered and ached from lack of shelter in the freezing northern air.
Keeping to the buildings, she moved in shadows, careful to remain inconspicuous. As it had been for the last four months since her mother had passed on. The landlord had evicted her from her tiny cottage with only the clothes on her back, forcing her to take to the streets, naïve and frightened. Left to fend for herself.
Up ahead she spied the glow from Il Paradiso Tavern and Inn. Often she had passed it, inhaling the aromas from the kitchen wafting through the open air, pretending real morsels of food melted on her tongue. And as it had done many times before, the mouth-watering smells instigated her hunger pangs.
Rumors abounded about Count Ruggero, who owned the tavern and inn. At one time he had been a kind and generous man. But many in the small village along the Po River spoke of a man possessed, a man now unapproachable and mean. No one ever mentioned the reason he had turned. Some related how he'd nearly strangled a man with his fierce, bare hands, solely because the man had given him false information.
Carina shuddered. Was such a man possessed by the devil? Perhaps his eyes glowed. Or he sprouted fangs. Pray she never faced the monster whose name trembled on the lips of those unfortunate to cross his path.
Her hand lay flat against her stomach to quell the sick feeling inside. She moved toward the tavern and skirted its enormous stable, which she had heard accommodated a hundred horses. Glancing about, she slipped around to the back of the building. With luck, she might find scraps of discarded food.
Luciano Ruggero sat in the corner of his establishment, near the hearth where he lost himself in the fitful dance of the flames. Il Paradiso was crowded to capacity and roared with laughter. Yet he sat alone, brooding, feeling miserable and helpless.
Be damned, how he detested not knowing whether his younger brother was alive or dead. Two years had passed since Lodovico disappeared. He spent those years living in hell and searching endlessly, too often bearing sleepless nights and aimless days. And all for naught. Curling his fingers into a fist, he brought his hand down hard on the table, jarring his tankard of ale.
A man stepped in front of the hearth. Luciano slowly lifted his head, ready to flay the poor soul who dared intrude on his solitude. Alas, he held his tongue, for it was his one and only friend, Filippo Cardano.
"Think you to drown your sorrows in one mug of ale and another?" He lowered himself to a chair.
"Would that I could drown my sorrows, but they keep finding me. I fear I'll go insane should I not find Lodovico."
"Mayhap he does not want to be found."
It had crossed his mind, but he had dismissed the notion his brother had purposely estranged himself from the only family he had known. He'd been set to marry and had spoken incessantly of his happiness and love for Carmella.
"Mayhap you will never find him," Filippo pointed out. His candor cut like a knife in Luciano's gut. "Is it not time you start thinking of other matters?"
Luciano scoffed at the suggestion. "What woman would willingly come to me, to the man I have become?"
Filippo smiled knowingly. "A score of women would. None would let slip by the chance to become a countess."
He sighed with resignation laced with mild disgust. "So my title is all that appeals to a woman."
"Not so. Albeit, your disposition could use a change. But you are far more appealing than you believe."
Stretching his legs beneath the table, Luciano slouched in his chair and studied his loyal friend and overseer of his numerous business ventures. Filippo never complained, never once attempted to walk away. Indeed, the man stood beside him through his madness and unpleasant mood changes. Granted, Filippo had every right to leave. Luciano knew he had been a bastard of late.
"I believe my wealth and title are what women seek. What wench would not desire all I could offer her? I'd wager none could live with me."
Luciano regarded the slightly younger man. Women swooned at his feet, falling in love instantly with his blond hair and blue eyes. He was the better tempered between the two of them and light of heart, a feeling that had escaped Luciano far too long.
"I have more important things to consider than women," Luciano said.
"More important than your future?"
"Enough of this talk about women and my future. After I find my brother, only then will I think on my life."
A loud screech sounding like a startled hawk shot through the tavern. Luciano sprang to his feet, his hand on the dagger at his hip, and rushed toward the kitchen. Filippo quick on his heels, both men burst through the door. His head cook was wrestling with ... a boy? Perhaps a small man?
Another damn beggar, Luciano wagered.
A few long strides carried him to the heart of the commotion. Reaching down, gripping a hand full of the beggar's cloak where the hood attached, he hauled him up. Startled to find a frightened and sickly woman, he released his hold and regripped her by her bony wrist. Her clothes were torn and filthy. Her face smudged. Her hair appeared blonde, yet he couldn't be certain, given the flicker of muted candlelight and the scum matting the tangled strands.
She cowered back, her hazel eyes wide. In them he noticed black flecks, like glassy dark specks cast over the ocean at night. More than fear of being caught made her shrink away like a wilting flower. She studied him, as if she knew him yet was mortified to be in his presence.
"Were you stealing?" he asked, his voice reverberating over the quick tempo of her breaths. He glanced about, that one sweep scattering everyone back to their duties. Save but one--his head cook Gian.
"Your pardon, count. I found her sitting in the corner with a loaf of bread in one hand and her teeth sunk into a leg of mutton," the cook explained, his generous heart for the less fortunate obvious in his sorrowful tone.
Swinging his gaze back to the woman, if indeed she was old enough to be one, Luciano pulled his mouth taut at the greasy shine on her chin and lips, proof that his cook had spoken the God's honest truth. He raised a single brow. "What say you?"
She cleared her throat, but the first words came out in a croak. She cleared it again. "I was hungry."
The voice of an angel, he thought as he perused her for sincerity. However, it was plain to see she was indeed hungry. "Have you not eaten in days?"
"I have not eaten well in months, my lord."
Her eyes flicked to his hands, her fear escalating. She tried to pull out of his grip, and he almost lost her wrist. His hand appeared monstrous against her frail limb. Her eyes darted to his, and she stared into them as if searching for something. When he attempted to speak, she flinched then took a closer look at his teeth.
"Be damned, woman. What do you think you see?" he demanded.
"Naught, my lord." Yet she continued to stare through her fear, as if hoping to gain clues. Of what nature, he couldn't guess.
Shaking off her odd behavior, Luciano glimpsed her hand then snatched the other from behind her cloak. They were the hands of a laborer, the skin dry and broken. Her cheeks were sunken and dry as well, exposed to the elements for a lengthy time. The dark circles under her eyes cast a haunting look about her. He'd seen many a starving man and woman pass through the village, and he had purposely bade his cook to set out unused food for them to feast upon at night's end. What was different about this woman? What caused his heart to soften even though he had hardened it with the passage of time in his search for his brother?
"I disapprove of beggars coming into my tavern and stealing from me. You'll be punished for your crime."
Her eyes widened, then shuttered closed, and she inhaled deeply. That gesture of bravado gained Luciano's astute attention to her breasts pushing against the poor material of her dress. No young girl was she.
"I shall wash dishes, if it pleases my lord," she offered.
"You'll do more than wash dishes." He snatched up a cloth and wiped the grease from her face, after which he dragged her through the back door into the night. She didn't protest. That was until he attempted to lift her up on his horse.
"I beg of you, my lord."
"Beg all you want. My mind is made. I do not need kitchen help at Il Paradiso. However,
I am in need of a womanservant at my estate."
Carina planted her feet to the earth and stiffened her body. It proved futile, though. The count swept her slight form up with ease and hoisted her atop his huge horse. Pray Lucifer had not infiltrated the count's soul. She had seen no fangs, no glowing eyes, although she had felt the power in his grip.
"Mayhap I will tend to another chore in the tavern," she tried, ever grateful to have work and shelter in exchange. "I shall see to the rooms above the tavern. Sì, that is what I will do to work off my thoughtless act."
Wordless, he glided up to sit behind her and lifted her legs over his. Sitting sideways on the horse forced her to lean into him. She was uncomfortable, but she'd not express her discontent. Not when he had every right to punish her for stealing.
Another man stepped from the back door of the tavern, worry etched into his handsome face. "This was not what I meant, Luciano. There are other, more willing maidens."
More willing maidens? Carina's eyes rounded on the count with dreadful comprehension. "My lord? What kind of womanservant did you have in mind?"
He frowned. "Fear not, maiden. I am loathed to carry you upon my horse, to have you touch me as you are, unwashed and ... foul-smelling. Trust me, I have no other purpose."
"Mayhap I should stay as such then."
The other man's deep chuckle tore an oath from the count's throat, which, she could see, vibrated from a muscle tick.
"Ho, Luciano, the girl has a tart tongue."
"Take care, Filippo, or I shall thrust her in your care to work off her debt."
"Then who will see to your lands?" Filippo laughed. Somber now, he said, "Truth be told, a young maiden working for a bachelor count would serve no purpose but to ruin her reputation."
"Mayhap she is a harlot."
"I take offense, my lord," indignation heavy in Carina's voice. "I am not a harlot."
The count glanced her way, his brows raised. "For certain I know of no man who would willingly lay with the likes of you."
"Think you I treasure the filth I have collected? It matters not what you think. I beg of you to allow me to work off my debt in the tavern."
He seemed to be thinking it over.
"Luciano, the girl speaks with reason."
"Reason or not, she will work at the manor."
The other man persisted on her behalf, for which Carina was grateful. "Then get the girl a horse of her own. Do not ride her upon yours for all to see."
"Worry not about her, Filippo. She has the cover of night to hide behind."
Carina sighed loudly. "Faith, the two of you sound like you're bartering for my services." Her eyes turned into large circles at her thoughtless remark.
The gentleman chuckled, but he did not leer. Perhaps her present state of filthiness was her savior.
"Sì, a tart tongue, Luciano." Filippo chuckled again as he reentered the tavern through the kitchen door.
No, do not leave, she'd have begged, but clearly the count owned the final word on her servitude and reputation. For now, she was at his mercy.
The count remained silent while they traveled along the road aligning the Po. Now and again Carina shivered when a slight wind picked up, or when her mind devised the many ways Count Ruggero might find to punish her. She hoped he'd not strike her, as often lords did to their servants, whether for punishment or amusement.
Bone weary and her mind numb, Carina slumped into the count, forgetting the improprieties of their proximity. At the moment she cared not if anyone saw them and dared call her a harlot. For once, she felt protected, his arms flanking her, holding her in place. Through her meager clothes, she felt the firmness of his stomach and chest. She glanced at his large hands holding the reins. Naught about him suggested a simple man.
She gave in to exhaustion. Of a sudden, tears flooded her eyes and coursed down her cheeks. Quietly sobbing, she felt embarrassed by the dreadful display.
"What's this?" the count questioned with concern.
"It is naught, my lord. Just a moment of weakness."
"Have you many moments as such?"
Carina shook her head. She hadn't cried since her mother had passed. Alone and turned out of her home, she hadn't allowed herself the viable need to release the emotions wrapping her in sorrow and fear. She had thought when the time came, she'd cry for days, but she discovered relief lasted briefly.
Once her tears subsided, she quickly overcame her new anxieties, choosing to deal with her newfound position at the count's estate later. Her momentary respite ended abruptly when her stomach lurched and bile rose swiftly to her throat. Swallowing repeatedly, she fought to keep it back. Miserably, naught helped. She leaned forward and heaved until her body shook with strong tremors and her head pounded insufferably.
Luciano sprang from his horse, taking the woman with him. He embraced her in his arms to instill warmth from his body to hers. She trembled fiercely, and he feared she'd fall unconscious from the severity of it. Minutes passed like the slow hand of a clock. He waited patiently, wondering where the devil his compassion came from. He hadn't felt this protective of anyone nigh two years now.
Trying not to react to her smell, Luciano smoothed back her matted hair as best he could. He couldn't fathom how she had lived. She was so frail. He feared he'd break her bones if he held her too tightly. "You are all right?"
She nodded weakly against his chest. Her embarrassment carried in her soft voice. "I know not from where that came. I am not prone to retching."
Gently gripping her narrow shoulders, he held her at arm's length and studied her pale features. He asked directly, "Are you with child?"
"My lord!" she gasped and pulled out of his grasp. Her body crumbled before his eyes. He scooped her up, assailed by the unpleasantness of her unwashed body. Yet he held her securely, perhaps inducing her into a false sense of security. At least she'd know she wasn't alone in her time of need.
"Are you with child?" he repeated.
She lowered her head. "It is not an appropriate question, my lord. However, I shall tell you that I am not with child."
"Then I believe God has seen fit to punish you for your crime."
Her chin angled up, her eyes searching his.
"Because you have not eaten well in months," he explained, "your gluttony on stolen food was more than your stomach could manage."
He swore he saw a thought race across her features. "It seems I have paid my debt, and I am free to go."
Luciano understood the logic in her assumption. Her logic. Not his. "In God's eyes, mayhap. But I am not so lenient. You must work off the crime you committed against me until I am satisfied you've learned from the error of your ways."
"Surely you have a heart for the less fortunate. I was starving. Can you not forgive me for losing my head when the inviting aromas from your tavern beckoned me?"
The wench had a reason for everything. Not about to compromise, he swung her up onto his horse's back and smoothly lifted up after her. He was amazed that neither her clothing nor his suffered from her vomiting. She had even missed the horse.
"Have you never gone hungry, my lord?" Her desperation invaded his heart.
Without answering, he set his knees to his horse. A short while later, they arrived at his vast farmlands and the grand manor his great-grandfather had built. Save for his missing brother, Luciano was the last member of the Ruggero family. The only one left to carry on the family name.
Deep in thought, he dismounted and yanked the woman down. Given her slight structure, his careless move might have caused her great harm. Realizing what he'd done, he released her with a muttered apology.
"Follow me," he ordered.
Thankfully, he didn't have to forcibly make her follow. His normally strong stomach roiled uncomfortably from holding her close to his body. As it was, he'd have to hand his clothes over to the laundress and bathe himself to be rid of the clinging odor.
"How will I work off my debt?" she asked, admirably keeping up with his swift strides. She wasn't short, but his much longer legs took giant bites from the ground. Even Filippo, very near Luciano's six-foot-two, often had trouble keeping up.
"As I said, you will be my womanservant."
"In what capacity? Will I tend to your meals? Mayhap tidy your chamber? Scrub your clothes?"
Luciano stopped abruptly. "I shall decide on the morrow. For now, we must see to your cleanliness. Pray I don't get an earful from the servants because of your stench." He flinched and immediately felt like a horse's backside over his thoughtless remark, even if it was the damned truth.
"I've been living on the streets for four months. Think you I have had the luxury of a bath? I slipped into the river fully dressed when no one was looking. Not an easy cleansing."
Filippo had been right about her. How did one so young learn to speak with cultured abandon?
He pushed open the heavy wood door, carved with the Ruggero crest--a heraldic coronet of gold surmounted by pearls. Familiar herbal scents used by his staff for cleaning embraced his senses with a thankful respite. For the woman, he realized, the comfort of his home was a Godsend. He knew not the meaning of going hungry or cold. In that he couldn't sympathize without experiencing it first hand. He'd been fortunate, his family holding noble positions and land for centuries. He took pity on the human being she was, perhaps innocent, but obviously unaccustomed to life's pleasures and rewards.
He glanced at her face. Her eyes were closed, her features--save for the smudges--expressed relief to be safely indoors. Surrounded by warmth, she hugged her arms about her. The serene look he saw caused him to ponder the reason she was alone, without a man--father, brother, betrothed, or lord--to care for her.
No, he refused to entangle himself in whatever was in her past that turned her into a homeless wench. For all he knew, she could be a thief. He doubted she was a harlot, for none roamed his small village. He'd made certain women of that ilk stayed away from the mostly good folks who inhabited what his family had built along the Po, a rest stop for travelers between Torino and Piacenza.
"Come," he repeated.
Carina frowned at the count's gruff directives. Apparently he was accustomed to giving orders and seeing them obeyed. A man of his position was rarely denied. The same was true for her previous landlords, the Baldovini, who could not boast of noble blood, but their wealth commanded respect as if they were indeed titled.
She followed diligently across the huge entry, the size of two cottages like the one she had lived in. As they climbed the stairs, wall sconces lighting their way, she noticed the beauty of the marbled floor below. Images from the candles danced over the expensive inlaid work, capturing Carina's attention. A face appeared, an obscure image, yet defined enough for her to recognize a man with dark hair and eyes. His features strong, perhaps he was once a happy man but now seemed saddened. Leaning over the railing to get a closer look, she was crudely yanked back and startled by the weight of the count's hand on her shoulder.
"Have you a wish to take your life?" Count Ruggero reproved harshly.
The monstrous hand lay like heavy stone balanced upon her shoulder. His tawny eyes stared at her, wild with fear. Glancing at the railing, then the floor below, Carina knew not the reason the count would think she desired to take her life.
"I was admiring the design on the floor below," she replied, half the truth better than none.
"Would not admiring it at a closer distance be better? Take care the next time you choose to appreciate something. Come along. Do not dawdle."
Carina slid one more glance at the marble, the image she'd seen gone now. At the top of the stairs, the count turned down the left corridor. At the end, she noticed closed doors on either side. He entered the second at his left and held the door open for her.
She surveyed the room, a library of sorts with cases of books, a desk, several chairs and small tables. And a bed? Reluctantly, she looked up at the count.
"You will reside here. My bedchamber is through that connecting door." He nodded in the direction he mentioned.
"It is inappropriate, my lord."
"Rest easy, maiden. I am not of a mind to ease myself in any woman. I've more on my mind than a romp in bed."
She detected sincerity and, oddly, sorrow. "I'll hold you to those words."
His lips tightened for a brief moment. "I will fetch Sandra. She is in charge of the upper level. After a bath and a proper night's sleep, I will address your chores." He turned to leave.
"Wait." Carina lowered her gaze. Her instinct about the count not physically harming her held true. Yet she continued to worry about sharing an adjoining room with him, more to the point, the chamber where he slept. "I have only the clothes I am wearing."
"Sandra will find suitable clothing," he replied hurriedly before making haste from the room.
Minutes later, a wash of candlelight glided into the room, attached to the hand of a woman who appeared twice Carina's age. Sandra, she assumed. Her wooly light brown hair hung to her waist. They were close to the same height, but the woman was not as thin. When she stepped closer, she startled at the sight of Carina's appearance. Her hand flew to her boyish chest.
"Count Ruggero said you needed a bath. I should say so, poor dear. What happened to you?"
Before Carina could answer, the womanservant hurried into the hallway and a short while later returned with a very tall, gaunt looking man who kept pushing his spectacles up his narrow nose. When his eyes rested upon her, he didn't react. Lord, he didn't look alive!
"Fetch a bath, Marcello. And make it hot. It will take a good scrubbing to get the girl clean."
Carina didn't object to Sandra's remark. Instead, she prayed the filth wasn't permanently embedded in her skin. Before the man left, he coughed and cleared his throat. At first she thought his actions conveyed her awful smell reached his nose. But then he coughed all the way down the hall.
"Pay no mind to Marcello," Sandra said. "He has taken ill but refuses to rest abed to get well. Now, you poor child." Sandra clicked her tongue and shook her head with empathy as she set the candleplate on a nearby table. "Count Ruggero did you a favorable service by bringing you here."
Carina balked when the woman tried to undress her. Unaccustomed to another fussing over her as if she were a noble, she felt awkward, unworthy. And self-conscious, for her bones protruded in many places on her body. She must look frightful.
"No need to be shy, girl. Come now, let me help you out of those dreadful clothes. I promise, I'll not look."
Reticent, Carina slipped off her cloak. Her simple tunic followed. The cool air nipped at her naked flesh. She shivered and hugged herself to ward off the chill.
While Sandra heaped the filthy garments out in the hall, then hurried to set the logs aflame in the unobtrusive hearth, Carina kicked off her tattered slippers, glad to be out of them. The carpet beneath her bare feet felt as soft as how she imagined a cloud would feel. Enthralled in her new sensation, she didn't notice the womanservant had turned away from the budding fire until her loud gasp tingled in Carina's ears. Startled into humiliation, she tried in desperation to cover herself with her arms. Alas, they were too meager to cover any part of her bone-thin body. So she stood motionless, heating from head to toe without the help of the growing fire in the hearth.
The womanservant crossed herself ... twice. Perched to cry, sorrow overshadowed her features and her voice. "Goodness, girl. You are all bones. When last have you eaten?"
"It is that which saw me here, I fear. I brazenly stole from the count's kitchen."
"At the tavern?"
Carina nodded, ashamed she had resorted to thievery just to survive.
Grabbing a blanket from the bed, Sandra wrapped it around Carina and closed it over her breasts. "Marcello will be in soon with your bath. Then we will get some soup in your belly. Not too much, mind you, else you'll retch like the devil was trying to come out through your mouth."
Carina colored hotter than before. Once was enough of that particular malady.
A cloud of pale silk fused with muted red-tones obscured the woman's face from Luciano's view. Sound asleep, her breathing steady, she was covered up to her chin, with one slender foot lying atop the woolen blanket.
Leaning back against the wall near the open door between his bedchamber and reading room, he studied the huddled figure on the narrow bed he'd had constructed special for his mother during her last months of a lengthy illness. He contemplated the reason he brought the beggar and thief into his home. True, he did desire another servant to assist Sandra. But a young man might have been better suited for the job.
During the passing night, he had thought about this wench and how best to utilize her while she paid off her debt--albeit a small debt. He awoke at dawn with an extraordinary headache. An early morning ride through his farmlands eased the pain, yet it did little to sort out the confusion in his mind. How long should he commit her to work? Her crime, in the eyes of most, would have warranted a reprimand and sending away. After all, she resorted to thievery to fill her starvation. Why he took it upon himself to make more of her stealing than was necessary, he'd probably never know. In the light of day, he deplored his hasty decision. With his brother plaguing his mind, added to the running of his farmlands and the tavern and inn, he certainly didn't need an undernourished wench to nurse back to health.
The woman stirred, pulling Luciano out of his mired thoughts. She moaned, a mewling babe sound, and stretched her thin arms above her head. Her legs stiffened, and her toes pointed upward.
On her back, she brushed aside the hair laced across her face and stared up at the ceiling, unaware of his presence. He was too fascinated by the transformation in her appearance to make himself known.
Far from the beggar of the night before, her clean hair shone like a radiant sunset. Her skin was the color of rich cream, her nose attractively rounded. The frailty of her limbs disturbed him though. He felt a stab of pity when he noticed her bare forearms. What she must have endured during the months of wandering the streets gave him a shuddering chill.
She sighed. "Have you stood there long, Count Ruggero?"
Luciano startled. She hadn't acknowledged his presence, so he figured she wasn't aware he watched her. Did she have that innate sense women were rumored to have? Without answering, he moved to the hearth to stir the logs. Despite the spring season, the nights and mornings held onto a winter-like chill.
"Have you naught to say?" she asked.
He stooped and jabbed a poker at the logs, rekindling the flames. "You should learn your place, madam."
Carina smiled to herself and rolled onto her stomach. Her outspokenness was her undoing. Yet she couldn't stop from speaking what lay on her mind. At the moment, it was the count, who looked splendid in a heavy silk, gold and blue tunic, belted at his waist. His hair glistened blue-black in the firelight, and its wavy strands fell to his shoulders. She recalled the women who worked for the Baldovini speaking about the count's handsomeness and lusty physical appearance. Were she not at his mercy, she might enjoy his company. But she knew naught about him. He was an honorable man, she sensed, yet she knew how vile a man could turn when angered.
"I fear I have not known my place most of my life," she said.
He unraveled to stand. She noticed then he wore deep gold hose and tall black riding boots, the tops almost meeting the hem of his tunic. He cut a dashing figure. His strong jaw not quite squared, his lean features hinted at his young age. And his extraordinary tawny eyes were more beautiful in the morning light. Marring his near perfection was the ripple of lines above his brows, speaking of his worries.
"Have you lost your words this morn, my lord?"
"It appears you have words aplenty for the both of us." He couldn't take his eyes away from her. Cleaned up, and despite she was frightfully thin, she was a beauty. From her high forehead to the small cleft in her chin, she reminded him of the angels painted by artists. Her cheekbones rode high, her full lips enticed. Be damned! His long dormant lust suddenly stirred. Striding across the room toward his chamber, Luciano tried to control the harsh quality in his voice. "Get dressed. I'll return shortly."
"I beg your pardon, count."
He stopped abruptly, deciding if he should turn around or hear her out with his back a dividing wall. He turned. She swept aside the blanket and swung her legs over the edge of the bed. Her gown rode up, exposing her calves and knees. Luciano shuddered. The extent of her starvation was painfully apparent. Before her debt was paid, he'd see that she grew meat on her bones.
"I have no other clothes to wear. Sandra said she would burn mine."
It was then he noticed the familiarity of the fine linen cream chemise she had worn to sleep in. "Where did you get that?" he demanded.
She glanced down at herself. "Sandra gave it to me."
"Take it off."
Taken aback, she stared wide-eyed at him. "I'll not!"
His determined strides carried him halfway to the bed, but then he came to his senses and halted as if he'd run into an unforgiving tree trunk. He spun around, snatched open the door, and marched out into the hall.
His bellow brought the servant to him in scant seconds. "Count?"
"She is wearing my mother's night garment."
"There was naught else for her to wear," the servant explained. "The girl has no means to keep herself warm. Should I have allowed her to catch a chill wearing naught but her meager flesh?"
He thought over the validity of another wearing his beloved mother's clothes. After the countess had died five years past, he couldn't bring himself to cast off her trunks of clothing and had bidden them stored in the cellar.
Sandra continued. "I was soon to seek you out on the matter of the girl's garments. Hers could not be salvaged."
He knew he was being unreasonable. What other use had the expensive garments than for charity? He nodded tersely. "After she is dressed and fed, send her to me. I'll be in the solar."