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'"Thou grave, my bridal chamber! Dwelling-place hollowed in earth, the everlasting prison whither I bend my steps, to join the band of kindred, whose more numerous host already Persephone hath counted with the dead…"'
Clio Chase turned her spyglass toward the ruined amphitheatre, where her sister Thalia rehearsed the lines of Antigone. The crumbling stage was far from Clio's perch atop a rocky hill, yet she could glimpse Thalia's golden hair glinting in the morning sunlight, could hear the despairing words of Sophocles' princess as she was led to her death.
That eternal struggle of life and death, beauty and fate, seemed to belong to this bright day, this land. Ancient Sicily, where so many conquerors had overrun the rocky hills and dusty plains, yet none had ever fully possessed it. It belonged to old gods, far older than even the Greeks and Romans could have imagined. A wild place, slave to no master.
Clio turned her glass, purchased from their ship's captain on the voyage here from Naples, past her sister to the landscape beyond. No London stage director could have imagined such a glorious backdrop! Beyond the steps and stage of the amphitheatre were only mountains, a vast swathe of blue sky. The hills rolled on like a hazy sea, green and brown and purple, until they reached the flat, snow-dusted peak of Etna, cloaked in clouds.
Off in the other direction, just barely seen, were the calm, silvery waters of Lake Pergusa, where Hades had snatched Persephone away to his underworld kingdom.
Between were olive groves, orchards of lemons, limes and oranges, stands of wild fennel, the large prickly pears brought in by the Saracens. Carpets of flowers, yellow, white and dark purple, spread like bright blankets over the meadows, announcing that spring had truly arrived.
'"Enna—where Nature decks herself in all her varied hues, where the ground is beauteous, carpeted with flowers of many tints,"' Clio murmured, an Ovid quote she now truly understood. Enna had once been considered the heart of Sicily, the crossroads of the Trinacria, the three provinces, a sacred spot. The home of Demeter and her daughter.
And now it had been invaded by the Chase family, or part of the family anyway. Clio had come here with her father and two of her sisters, Thalia and Terpsichore, after they had seen their eldest sister Calliope off on her honeymoon. Sir Walter Chase had long heard of the archeological wonders to be found in Enna, just waiting to be discovered by a dedicated scholar like himself. His friend Lady Rushworth had followed, having equally heard of the excellent English society to be found in the town of Santa Lucia, high in the dramatic hills. Society of a most intellectual and stimulating sort, escapees from the endless shallow parties in Naples.
Clio lowered her glass, her eyes narrowed as she thought of Santa Lucia. It was certainly a pretty enough town, with its baroque cathedral and old palazzos, with the ruined medieval castle guarding its town walls. But so often when she was there, except for their Sicilian servants and the shopkeepers of the town, it felt as if she had never left England at all. Receiving callers at their rented house, going to card parties at Lady Rushworth's or dances at Viscountess Riverton's and the Elliotts'—it was all so London-like.
And she did not want to think about England. About what had happened there, what she had left behind.
Clio drew her knees up to her chest, hugging them close, her old brown muslin work dress like a protective tent around her. The warm breeze, scented with scrubby pine trees and fading almond blossoms, ruffled the auburn hair pinned loosely atop her head. She heard the echo of Thalia's voice as she went down to her lingering death, felt the hot sun against her skin.
This was where she belonged, in this wild, ancient spot, alone. Not really in Santa Lucia, definitely not in London. Not the Duke of Averton's castle, so full of its dark, twisting corridors, where secrets and dangers lurked in every corner. Just like the unhappy shades of Hades' kingdom…
Averton. Clio hugged her legs tighter, pressing her forehead to her knees. Could there ever be one day when she did not think of that blasted man? Did not remember what it felt like when he touched her? When he looked at her with those golden-green eyes and whispered her name. Clio…
'He is miles away,' she muttered. 'Eons! You will probably never see him again.'
Yet even as she tried to reassure herself, she knew, deep down inside, that was not true. He might be far away, hidden in his castle, the famously reclusive yet always much sought-after Duke of 'Avarice', but he was never entirely apart from her. The way he looked at her, as if she was yet another Greek vase or marble statue he wanted, needed, to possess.
Well, he still had the Alabaster Goddess, that glorious figure of Artemis stolen from Delos, locked away in his castle. He would never do the same to her! Not even if she had to hide here in the wilds of Sicily for the rest of her days. The Duke was gone, he was past. Just like the Lily Thief.
For yes, once even she, Clio, had held her secrets. Had been the notorious Lily Thief for a few glorious months.
Clio unfolded her legs and stood up, stretching her limbs in the sunlight. How lovely it was to be alone, to be herself with no one to watch her, judge her. To just be Clio, not one of the 'Chase Muses'. Now that Calliope was wed, everyone looked to her to be next. To marry as well as her sister had—an earl!—and to start her own family, her own conventional life as chatelaine of a household, as a society hostess; to take her place in her family's scholarly, aristocratic world.
But Calliope loved her new husband, was happy in the life she had chosen. Clio had certainly never found anyone she could esteem as Cal did her earl. Clio did not belong in such a life. Maybe she didn't belong anywhere at all. Except here.
She lifted her spyglass again, training it on the valley below her rocky perch, the stretch of land between her and Thalia's theatre. It was really this valley that had brought them to Enna in the first place, an ancient Graeco-Roman site buried in a twelfth-century mudslide and only recently uncovered. Much of the site was still hidden beneath hazelnut orchards, but her father and his friends were working hard at exploring what was revealed: the theatre; part of the agora, or marketplace; some crumbling walls delineating shops and small houses; a great villa with almost intact mosaic floors in the atrium, which was Sir Walter's pet project; and a small, roofless temple, probably devoted to Demeter, with its bothros, or well-altar, still ready to accept sacrifices even if the grand silver altar set was long gone.
She could see them through the oval of her glass, her father sweeping off more of the mosaic floor as her fourteen-year-old sister Terpsichore—Cory—sketched the tile scenes of tritons and mermaids. Lady Rushworth, shielded by a giant straw hat, examined some newly found pottery fragments, sorting them into baskets. Other friends and servants scurried around like busy ants. They would not miss her when she crept away. They never did.
Clio snapped the glass shut and tucked it inside her knapsack. Slipping the strap over her shoulder, she turned and made her way up the steep stairs cut into the stony hillside.
When she reached a fork in the steps, with one way leading to Santa Lucia, she glanced up, raising her hand to shield her spectacles from the glare of the sun. The crumbling crenel-lations of the medieval castle's tower stood starkly against the bright sky, eternally vigilant as it stared out over the valley. She was again reminded of the Duke, of his Yorkshire castle that matched his strangely archaic, handsome appearance, his long red-gold hair, his strong hands that gripped her own so tightly, holding her prisoner to that intense light in his beautiful green eyes.
Clio frowned at the memory, unconsciously flexing her wrists. He could so easily have been one of the crusaders who had built that tower, standing between the crenellations, surveying his conquered land while his banners whipped in the wind behind him. Secure in the knowledge that his money, his exalted title, his fine looks would always gain him anything he wanted. The world was his.
But not her. Never her.
Clio turned away from the castle, from the safety of Santa Lucia and its old walls, and hurried up a second, even steeper set of stairs. They wound up and around the hill, and she soon left the noise and bustle of the valley behind. Even the sun grew dimmer here, the shadows longer, deeper, colder.
On the other side of the hill, the stairs suddenly switched back, taking her downwards again. Unlike the sunny valley where her family worked, this place still slumbered. It was a meadow, covered with a blanket of white clover, seemingly undisturbed except for the hum of bees, the distant tinkle of goats' bells in the hills.
She knew people must come here. There was rich fodder for those herds of goats, and wild fennel and oregano for the cooking pots. But she never saw anyone at all. The cook at their hired house, Rosa, had told her this was a sacred spot, a spot where once there had been an altar to Demeter. A crude sheaf of wheat carved into the trunk of a towering hawthorn tree, where offerings of flowers and fruit were often left at its base, seemed to confirm that. As did mysterious holes she found in the ground when she had first arrived, which seemed to indicate previous, illegal excavations.
Demeter never disturbed Clio when she was there. Nor did Persephone and her dark husband. They seemed to know Clio was one of them, that she did their work to bring them back to life.
She passed the tree, giving it a respectful nod. There were fresh lemons piled in a basket in its shade. There was a wide road nearby, a way for horses to get to the village, but she ignored it. Along another path, barely marked in the clover, she hurried her steps until she found what she sought. Her own perfect place.
While her father worked on the villa, once the dwelling place of rich men, and Thalia revived Antigone in the theatre, Clio looked for less exalted remains. Her explorations had brought her here, to this quiet little meadow, where she had found her farmhouse.
She paused at the edge of the site, as she always did when she arrived, drinking in the peaceful, quiet vision. It was not the ancient holiday house of a wealthy family, as the villa was. The people here had been prosperous, but they also worked for their coin. Lived off the fruit of their labour and their land. Once, this clover-covered valley had been fields of wheat and barley, with fruit orchards and groves of olives.
Until it all came to an end, one violent day in the second century BC. Now there were just some waist-high walls of small, uneven pieces of tan-coloured limestone, weather-beaten and crumbling, to mark where their house once stood. But Clio intended to find more. Much more.
She hurried to the walls, pulling out her stash of tools wrapped in oilcloth and tucked into a sheltered niche. The wooden handle of the small spade fit perfectly into her hand, as a soldier's sword hilt would in battle. Maybe she did not belong in London, not really, but she did belong here. When she worked, she forgot the world outside. She even forgot Averton—for a time.
All the passion she had once poured into the Lily Thief was now given to her farmhouse. To finding the voices of the people who once lived here.
She went to work.
'Is it quite satisfactory, your Grace?' the agent asked, his voice quivering slightly. 'Truly, it is the finest palazzo to be had in all of Santa Lucia. The views are most exquisite, and it is quite near the cathedral and the village square. And there is a hunting cottage, too, in the hills, if you require it. The baroness is usually very reluctant to leave her furnishings for the tenants, but for you, of course, she is only too happy…'
Only too happy to have an English ducal arse touch her couches? Edward Radcliffe, the Duke of Averton, examined the flaking, worn gilt of the apricot velvet chairs with some amusement. They looked as if the slightest touch would reduce them to a pile of splinters and shredded upholstery. The baroque flourishes of the place, plaster cherubs peering down from the ceilings and faded apricot-coloured silk wallpaper, seemed no better. Chipped and crumbling away, like an abandoned wedding cake.
It could certainly use a thorough cleaning, as well, for the scuffed marble floor was covered with a fine layer of silvery dust. Cobwebs spun from the elaborate frames of old portraits, where the baroness's exalted Sicilian forebears gazed down at him in disapproval.
Well, they were not the only ones who disapproved, to be sure. Old Italian barons and their long-nosed wives had nothing on one Englishwoman's contempt-filled emerald eyes.
Edward turned away from them, away from that cool green gaze that haunted him everywhere he went. He leaned his palms on a chipped marble windowsill, peering down at the scene below. The baroness's palazzo perched at the edge of the hilltop where the village of Santa Lucia gazed out over the valley. The tall, narrow windows, curtained in dusty gold satin and tarnished tassels, stared right at Etna in the distance, to Lake Pergusa and eventually even to the sea.
The palazzo's small garden, wild and overgrown, seemed to drop off into sheer space. As if an eagle could launch itself into space and go wheeling out over the amphitheatre and into the mist beyond, right from this garden.
The front of the palazzo, on the other hand, sported a much more respectable-looking courtyard, paved and neatly planted with myrtle trees, with tall limestone walls and wrought-iron gates that opened to the narrow street beyond. Its cobblestone length was silent, and seemed rather little travelled, but it did lead right to the village square with its shops and cathedral, its view of the whole village and everyone in it.
'Tell me,' Edward said, not turning his gaze from the theatre, 'where is the house the Chase family rents?'