ndrew Rossiter was on the cusp of reformation. He could taste it, sweet as the wine Giulietta had passed him at dessert from their picnic basket, bold as the wind that whipped the sails of their little yacht, tempting as the green coast of England would be at this moment. Alas, he was cruising the Mediterranean, the city of Savona in the distance, still steeped in sin, and he was rather bored with it. The only saving grace was the sight of his little son drowsing on a velvet tufted cushion, his small fist curled under a distinctive Rossiter chinâsquare, dimpled, and determined.
Of course Andrew could not claim the boy. He was Duca Alessandro di Maniero's heir, the product of a carefully orchestrated plot to bring continued glory to the di Maniero name. It would not do for the duca's true inclinations and shortcomings to be revealed to all the world. Andrew had been perfectly willing to assist the duca and the duchessa in their bedroom quest. The hardship was minimal. Giulietta was a lovely young woman, Alessandro bearable, and the price right, even absurdly generous. When they had invited him back to Italy to contribute further to their family, he had happily assented. The weather was perfect, and there had been pressing reasons for him to escape England and his troubled past.
He doubted anyone could rival him for trouble. Or past. Perhaps he was being too maudlin what with all the wine he had drunk this afternoon, but it seemed his luck was bad. Cursed, even. Andrew was blessed with the looks of an angel, which had attracted an earthly devil to snatch him off the streets and use him without conscience from the age of seven onward. Andrew had never been innocent, even as a child, but even his ramshackle upbringing had not prepared him for Donal Stewart. Eventually it was easier to succumb to sin than fight it. If he were honest, Andrew eventually derived some succor from his sexual escapades, but they had long since lost their luster.
That was itâhe'd lost his lust. He barked out a laugh and watched his child startle at the sound. The boy's face was quite pink and damp despite the awning over the deck.
“Giulietta, let me bring Marco below. The sun is strong today.”
Giulietta looked up from her book, a wide-brimmed straw bonnet shading her face. Even in shadow, she was exquisite, a delicate blonde Venetian beauty who could have married anyone. It was her misfortune to choose a man who was entirely immune to her sex. “
Andrew. That is perhaps wise.”
Andrew laughed again, softer this time. No one called him wise, or at least not often. He'd taken some pains lately to buff the tarnish from his reputation, but he very much feared the black would not ever be completely eradicated. He gathered up the boy, pillow and all, and, ducking his golden head, stepped down into the little cabin. He laid the sleeping child on the bunk and plunked down on the soft chair opposite to watch over him. Marco's favorite nursemaid had remained at the villa. Giulietta had confided that the woman became easily seasick, and wasn't it nice to be just
As the duke and his duchess were the closest thing Andrew had to family now, he had readily agreed. Any opportunity to get to know his little son was welcome. The sail had been blissful so far on a perfect late summer day. The food, the wine, the amenitiesâAlessandro's yacht had every comfort imaginable. Usually there was a small crew to sail the vessel through the turquoise and lapis watersâItaly's Rivieraâbut today Alessandro had dismissed them and was alone at the helm, chest puffed, chubby cheeks red with exertion, his few tufts of black hair waving maniacally in the wind. Andrew had done his share earlier with lines and sails and was now pleasantly fatigued, especially after the heavy lunch that had been prepared. If he wasn't careful, he'd wind up as fat as Alessandro, and then requests for his particular skills would dry up.
And would that be such a bad thing? Andrew thought not. There was plenty of money at his bank. Sin paid well, and his investments had been remarkably successfulâhe was not unlucky there. He might do something useful with his life, though he could hardly think what.
A lassitude crept over him as the boat rocked through the gentle sea swells. He closed his eyes and tried to picture himself back in England. Better yet, Scotland, the place of his birth. It was safe to go back now. His “uncle” Donal was long dead, a victim of his own excessive appetites. Everyone Andrew had loved was dead, save for Caroline, and she was married and quite above his touch despite his every effort.
Bah. He'd come to Italy to run from his past. He closed his eyes and gave himself over to sleep, a sleep not as innocent as his son's but restful nonetheless.
A series of sharp cracking sounds above awakened him, then Giulietta's high-pitched scream. A torrent of Italian followed in voices he didn't recognize. What the devil? His knowledge of the language was limited to directions in the bedroom, and sex was a language without words anyway. He checked on his son. Marco still slept, undisturbed by the noise. He pushed the cabin door open an inch and looked up the polished stairs. Beneath the bright blue sky, two men had surrounded Giulietta. Before Andrew could open his mouth, one untied the ribbon to her pretty hat and tossed it into the wind. Then he held the muzzle of a gun to her ear and shot her.
Holy Mother of God.
She slumped to the deck with an ungainly thud, which would have mortified her had she still been alive. She'd been all grace and good breeding, the perfect duchess apart from her rather insatiable behavior in the bedroom. The shooter bent over her and tore the rings from her fingers, the ear-bobs from her ears. The boat pitched to one side, and the men fought for balance. It was clear no one was at the helm.
Alessandro must be dead, too.
Andrew stood paralyzed. Any second they would clatter down the stairs and come for more booty. Come for Marco. There was no way he and his son could escape. No way out.
If he could hide Marco, persuade the child not to speakâbut he was just a baby, not yet three. Anything Andrew might say would be gibberish to him anyway. He was an English-speaking stranger, no matter that he'd been in the di Manieros' household a few weeks.
He looked around the teak-paneled cabin. The gleam of a brass drawer-pull caught his eye. Andrew gingerly slid the drawer open under the bunk where Marco slept. Inside were folded linens, scented with lavender. How odd that he would note the fragrance over the stench of his own fear. He shoved them aside and lifted his son from the bed. Marco was heavy and hot in his arms. Miraculously, he did not wake as Andrew entombed him in the drawer.
Andrew didn't pray. Hadn't since he was a child of seven, when his mother deserted him and Donal Rossiter found him in an alley in Edinburgh. He prayed now with what might be his last clear thoughts.
To go above or stay where he was? The choice seemed simple. He needed to lead the men away from Marco. He smoothed down his disheveled curls, pulled the knife from his boot, put a smile on his face, and climbed up on deck, shutting the door quietly behind him.
“Good afternoon, gentlemen.”
Two pairs of dark eyes turned to him. One face was familiarâAlessandro's cousin, a cherubic-looking young man who bore a strong resemblance to his relative and was obviously keeping very bad company. “I say, Gianni, what have you done?”
Gianni tossed a dueling pistol to his partner.
“Bastardo! Uccidere l'inglese.”
Andrew only understood the first word but imagined he got the gist of the next. It was hard to miss the significance of the gun. He flipped the knife casually at the throat of the man who advanced upon him. The man who had murdered Giulietta and stolen her jewelry as Gianni stood by. Andrew had been good with rocks as a child and was pleased to note that in the intervening years he had not lost his aim. The fellow landed at his feet, but not before the gun discharged.
“Your mamma will be disappointed in you, Gianni.”
Gianni's face was crimson in fury. “Shut up,” he said in English. “I will be the duca now. I have men at the villa to get the boy. No one has been fooled by that pervert or you. The child is yours. Everyone knows it.”
Andrew sent silent thanks up to a puffy white cloud. There was still a chanceâGianni didn't know Marco was on the boat. “What do you mean to do now?”
“I will set the boat on fire.” Gianni pointed to the liquid-filled bottles that had been placed along the railing. “This has been a very unhappy accident. All aboard are dead. Even you.”
Perhaps his thanks had been premature. Andrew smiled. “Go on then. I suppose I deserve to roast nowâit will give me a little taste of hell before I get there.”
He turned his head toward the rhythmic banging of a small boat at the yacht's side. Gianni and his late friend must have boarded while Andrew and Marco slept. Would it have made a difference if Andrew had been on deck? Probably not. No doubt he would have been killed as well.
He had to get Gianni back into that boat before Marco awoke. “It will be difficult for you to row back to Savona without your thug here. And it's a pity to destroy such a fine yacht. Part of your inheritance. Are you sure you don't want to take me along to help you sail her?”
His offer was rewarded by a torrent of curses. Stepping back, Andrew watched as Gianni lit the rags. Though his hand trembled a bit, he was too successful.
“Tell the devil hello for me, Rossiter,” Gianni said, a feral smile on his face. He hopped overboard and tugged at the towline.
The first of the explosions startled them both. A lick of flame caught the sailcloth on the deck. Gianni pushed off, rowing madly to get free of the
“Bloody hell.” Andrew looked down at his arm. The sleeve of his white woolen jacket was soaked in bright red blood, although he really couldn't feel a thing. No time to stare and wonder. He had to get Marco off the yacht before all hell really did break loose.
The next hour was a blur of shrieking child, toxic smoke, and wet exhaustion. He couldn't think about Giulietta, her sky-blue eyes forever fixed on their match above. Nor poor Alessandro, slumped over the tiller, staining the deck with his blood, fire encroaching on his expensive leather boots. He'd covered Marco's face with a handkerchief as they slipped into the water, but surely the boy knew that something terrible had happened. His little fists and feet windmilled as Andrew struggled to keep hold of him with one arm, the child crying and blubbering until Andrew wondered if he should just let go. If Gianni discovered he'd been unsuccessfulâand he would, since Marco had not been in the villa to snatch and snuffâthey were in mortal danger anyway. A drowning death for both of them would be relatively painless, or so he'd heard. Who knew what happened at the end of life? The dead told no tales.
But perhaps Gianni would believe Marco had died aboard the
The seasick nursemaid would reveal the child's whereabouts. The yacht still burned behind him, flames shooting into the air. Surely no one, least of all an infant, could survive such a conflagration. He gripped the child harder, earning a piercing screech to his eardrum. They floated and flailed for what seemed like hours until they were saved from almost welcome death by a fisherman, who hauled them aboard his humble vessel as though they were the lightly grilled catch of the day. For once Andrew was glad he spoke little Italian, for he couldn't answer any questions.
The three weeks of recuperation spent in the fisherman's white-washed cottage had nearly driven Andrew mad, but at least Marco's babbling was understood. Andrew had a fever and some festering of his wound, which the fisherman's wife had tended to with herbs from her little walled garden. Andrew hoped he'd bought the silence of his saviors through a combination of very fractured Italian and clever little drawings he'd managed left-handed. Donal had seen him educated at a second-rate school, but at last bits and pieces of his Latin had come in handy.
It was imperative that he and Marco disappear as quickly as possible, although how he had managed to make a stealthy exit from the region with a useless arm and a crying child had been another miracle. Retrieving his belongings at the villa was out of the question, but fortunately he had more than a few coins and treasure on him when he plunged into the water.
He always carried insurance. He'd known extreme poverty as a child and vowed he would never be caught short again. Andrew gave his rescuer his watch fobs, the simple stick pin that Caroline had given him one Christmas and the rather vulgar diamond ring he bought himself for his twenty-fifth birthday to sell in Savona. His gold watch, alas, was water logged, but went for its pretty etched case.
Andrew had no idea if the fisherman cheated him when he returned with a clinking purse, but would not have minded anyway if he had. The man had saved his son's life and deserved more than Andrew could ever pay him. Andrew himself had been doctored and drugged. Lay for hours as the fisherman's wife picked the ball and splintered bone out of his arm. Fed
zuppa di pesce
. Given the fisherman's own well-washed clothes. His wife had cut off his and his son's yellow curls and rubbed some dark muck on their heads to disguise them as best she could.