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She was coming. From his office overlooking the sea, Count Alessandro Alonso Leopold Volta watched the launch approach the island that was home to Castello di Volta and the seat of the Volta family for more than five hundred years.
The boat hadn't even docked and already the bitter taste of bile hovered menacingly at the back of his throat.
He growled. He hated visitors, hated the way they brought the smell of the outside world with them, as if clinging to their very clothes. He hated their wide-eyed stares and their looks of horror when they first saw his scars, horror that bleached their faces white and sent their eyes skidding away to the floor or to the nearest work of art. Anywhere, it seemed, that wasn't his face.
But most of all he hated their pity, for the horror always gave way to pity.
He preferred the horror.
His hands curled into fists at his side. He didn't want anyone's pity.
He didn't want anyone. Period.
The launch slowed, rocking sideways on the bumpy water as it neared the dock and its wash caught up with it. He ground his teeth together and turned away, knowing that this time he had no choice. The package found tucked away in the caves deep beneath the castle had seen to that.
Why here? he asked himself again. Why, of all the places in the world, of all the places that would welcome the attention such a discovery would bring, why had what could be the lost pages from the fabled Salus Totus, the legendary Book of Wholeness, had to turn up here? When had fate taken to wearing a clown's mask?
He grunted his displeasure and dropped into the chair behind his desk. One week Professor Rousseau had promised him the job would take. No longer than one week to examine and document the pages, to determine whether they were genuine, and if so to stabilise their condition until they could be taken away and prepared for display. One short yet no doubt interminable week, with a stranger clattering around the castle, asking questions and expecting answers, and probably expecting him to be civil in the process.
He looked down at the file he'd been reviewing before the onshore wind had carried with it the thumping beat of an approaching engine, but his skin pulled achingly tight over his jaw and the words before him danced and spun and could have been printed in a different language for all the sense they made.
It could be worse, he rationalised, clamping down on the rising black cloud of his resentment, forcing himself to focus on the resume in his hands. He flipped the page, turning to the photograph of the woman he was expecting. Reputedly one of the best conservators in the business, Professor Rousseau boasted more than forty years' experience in the industry. And with short grey hair cut helmet-style around features that looked as if they'd been sculpted from parchment rather than skin, she looked the kind of person who enjoyed books more than people. If he had to put up with a visitor to his island, he could do much worse than this shrivelled-up scientist.
Maybe. And yet still this heavy sense of foreboding persisted in his gut; still the jagged line of his scar burned and stung, as if someone had dragged their nails down his face and chest and sliced open his wound.
One week, he thought, touching fingers to his burning cheek, half surprised when they didn't come away wet and sticky with blood. One week with a stranger poking around his castle, asking questions, getting under his feet. And whoever she was, and however she looked, it would be one week too long.