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Footsteps were running lightly up the spiral stairs. Via drew in her breath. Him. She knew his step...
He paused halfway up, and Via heard his soft knock.
Forcing herself, Via strolled across the open tower room to the door. By the time she set her foot on the stair, he'd opened the bedroom door and peered inside.
"Looking for me?" she enquired, while her heart beat so fast it seemed to rock her whole body.
"Yes, come down."
Laughter caught in her throat. "So forceful," she mocked, brushing past him into the room. "Maybe I'm not available tonight, Giancarlo."
"I don't want you to be available," he said grimly, closing the door and leaning against it. "I want you to be careful."
"I'm ultra-careful--pill and condoms."
His head leaned back against the door, and she realized with a first stab of guilt that he was actually deathly tired. Fear twisted through her, silencing her unruly tongue.
"Can we stop the sexual games, Via? Just for a moment?"
"You started them." She couldn't resist that. "But I'm more than willing to give them up."
"Good." His gaze came back to her. "I'm going out now. I want you to lock the door when I've gone." Brushing past her, he reached up to close the window and snib it. Via watched him uncomprehendingly. The chill she associated with Marinuzzi began to climb once more.
"Why? Where are you going?" she demanded in panic. "What did Roberto tell you? Is Marinuzzi up to his tricks here?"
He hesitated. Then, turning to face her, he said, "Yes, I think so. Roberto is involved with some local Satanist cult. It started as kids on their own, trying, or pretending to try, toraise the Devil, but last year, Marinuzzi's boys joined in and it got a little more serious. Now they follow Marinuzzi Senior, animals are killed, people are hurt, their own people so far and none of it fatal. Silly girls being cut for ritual blood-letting and too frightened either to object, report it or get out. Roberto wants out. He asked my advice on how to do it, and to stop Marinuzzi at the same time.
"Tonight and tomorrow night there are meetings scheduled in their Unsacred Place. Marinuzzi summoned them earlier this evening because he'd found the perfect sacrifice."
Via's eyes widened. "Me?"
"I can only suppose so. I'm going to see what they're up to, but you'll be quite safe here. All the doors will be locked, and I've warned Mario and Fabio to stay up on watch till I come back."
Via swallowed, her thoughts and emotions in turmoil. "What if it's a trick?" she said suddenly, as Giancarlo reached behind him to open the door once more. His fingers stilled. She flitted toward him, the words spilling out. "What if Roberto was sent to lure you away? So that you can be killed and I can be captured?"
"No," Giancarlo said with certainty.
"Hell, will you at least consider the possibility?" Via exclaimed, and he smiled faintly.
"I have. But I know Roberto too well. He was quite genuine tonight."
Via bit her upper lip, sweeping one hand through her hair while she thought. Then, lifting her eyes to his once more, she drew a deep breath. "Let me come with you."
"Please, Giancarlo. We'd have two pairs of eyes to observe with."
"And if you got caught?"
"You can rescue me. And vice-versa," she added with a quick grin.
"This isn't a game."
"Christ, do you imagine I don't know that? I have a personal stake in this! And besides..."
"Besides what?" he demanded. Oddly, it was his impatience that gave her hope. She knew she was getting to him and he hated it.
She smiled lopsidedly. "Besides, for some reason, I feel safer when I'm with you. It doesn't matter where."
A second longer, his dark eyes stared into hers. Then his head fell back once more, knocking against the door with unnecessary force. "Get changed, then. Like that, you're just too..."
"Distracting?" she asked smugly.
"Sacrificial," he growled.
It was the first time she'd worn jeans since the night she'd met Giancarlo. Night was the only time denim was bearable in this country, but in this situation, crawling through undergrowth and sliding up and down hills, they were invaluable.
Giancarlo's car was parked miles away, or so it seemed to Via, scrambling up yet another wooded hill in search of this Unsacred Place that he claimed to know...
"Bull's-eye," Giancarlo said softly over his shoulder. Reaching down, he took her hand and hauled her up beside him to the ridge of the hill. Even through the denim, her knees felt grazed by the thousand tiny, sharp stones hidden in the wild, sun-scorched grass. Below, lit with car headlights as well as flaming torches, was a graveyard. Meandering between the flat and upright stones were familiar hooded figures that made Via feel suddenly sick.
Covering her discomfort, she demanded, "You mean we could have driven all the way here?"
"Oh, yes, if you wanted to join the party."
"Why is there a graveyard here anyway? There's no habitation for miles, is there?"
Giancarlo shrugged. "There used to be a church here, too--I suppose it's deconsecrated ground. The village will have disappeared centuries ago. If we go down the side of this hill, it should bring us close enough to see and hear what they're doing." He glanced at her. "We'll have to cut out the noise, though. Stop talking and mind your feet."
"Yes, boss," she muttered, dragging herself after him.
Fifteen slow and rather painful minutes later, they lay face down among the protective trees, still above the graveyard, but able to peer down into it more closely. It was the chanting that grated on Via. Too similar to what went on the night she'd been kidnapped, the sound of their voices chilled her blood, churned her whole being so she had considerable difficulty concentrating on the scene before her. Gradually, however, the large, calm presence of Giancarlo beside her soothed her fearful memories, and though the chanting accelerated in rhythm, Via's reaction did not. The black-robed dancing figures below, gyrating to the wild beat of their own voices, began to draw together in suggestive, even lewd poses, rubbing against each other till the chanting became more like moaning. From somewhere, some sort of rhythm seemed to be kept, but if there were any words involved now, even ancient or incomprehensible ones, Via couldn't hear them, just the guttural groans and grunts as hands groped and bodies twisted together.
Via saw a couple shimmy down to the ground, had a brief glimpse in the headlights of a white bottom already pumping up and down. Another pair had fallen back against a tree, both pulling up their robes in order to consummate their dance. As they thrust together, Via felt a stirring in her own loins. Half-ashamed, she tried to look away, but just then another hooded figure approached the couple by the tree and, without warning, pulled up his own robe to reveal a pale, stiff cock which he began to rub against the nearest person's ass. The recipient's head flew back in obvious startlement, but he or she--Via couldn't tell the sex of any but the third of the threesome--made no objection.
Via dragged her eyes away, her crotch pressing involuntarily into the hard ground. Shockingly, she was wet. She wanted to jump Giancarlo and to hell with the consequences of discovery.