Inferno’s Kiss Excerpt
“I don’t understand why you didn’t tell me.”
Atia heard the angry confusion in her daughter’s voice and trembled at the wave of grief and fear welling up inside her. Never in her wildest dreams had she ever envisioned being backed into a corner so bleak and inescapable twice in a matter of hours. First Gabriel and now Cleo. She didn’t think she could bear losing both of her children in the same day.
Images from the Pantheon flashed through Atia’s head. The vivid memory of Gabriel attacking his father and Marcus being forced to kill their son still filled her with horror. The terrible moment had played over and over in her head ever since their return to the safe house.
Then there was Phaedra and her sacrifice. First she’d saved Marcus from certain death, only to save Lysander and lapse into a coma. She’d never seen Lysander so distraught, and with Ares’s help, he’d taken Phaedra to the Order’s private hospital in Genova. Outside the study window of the Rome installation, the city was starting to stir. But she wasn’t ready to face the new day. Nor was she ready to face the inevitable now.
“Tell me why, mother,” Cleo’s voice was soft, yet inflexible. “Why didn’t you tell me I had a brother?”
“Because it was too painful.” Atia knew the question was her chance to tell Cleo the truth, but her courage was wafer thin. “The Praetorians…”
She looked at Marcus as her voice trailed away to nothing. His features were rigid with his own grief and guilt. A guilt she wanted to tell him not to feel. He looked at her for a long moment before he turned to Cleo.
“The Collegium kidnapped Gabriel before you were born. He was two when they took him and trained him to hate the Sicari,” Marcus said with a quiet grief that tugged at her heart.
Atia could feel the anguish and sorrow vibrating off him, but didn’t know how to comfort him. Perhaps she never would. Yet despite all he’d been through tonight, there was a strength flowing from him that bolstered her for what was to come.
It reminded her why he was the reigning Sicari Lord. She wanted to reach out to him, but bowed her head instead with grief. The emotion battered every inch of as she struggled to retain her composure. The loss of Gabriel and all that might have been if she’d kept him safe consumed her with sorrow. She shuddered and an instant later, Cleo’s arms were wrapped around her.
“I’m sorry, mother.”
The simplicity of her daughter’s words and the warmth of her hug reminded Atia just how big her daughter’s heart was. Despite her tough exterior, Cleo had a soft side she didn’t display often. Now the heartfelt sympathy of her daughter’s embrace pushed tears against her eyelids, but Atia refused to cry. She needed all her wits about her for what was to come. Cleo released her and looked in Marcus’s direction.
“I’m sorry for your loss, Eminence, and the manner in which you lost your son.” Cleo’s gentle sympathy made Marcus flinch.
Atia drew in a sharp breath at the pinched look on his face. He’d been forced to kill their son, and it was her fault. She’d not done what she should have done all those years ago. As a result, her penance might very well be the death of her relationship with Cleo. And it was more than possible Cleo wouldn’t forgive her for hiding the truth.
“Cleo…I need.” Deus, she didn’t know how to do this. Telling Cleo that her father was alive was the hardest thing Atia had ever done. “There’s something else I have to tell you.”
“What?” Cleo turned toward her mother and the puzzlement on her beautiful face quickly became an expression of horror swept. “No. Please don’t tell me my father was a Praetorian.”
“No, carissima, no.” Atia reached out and caught Cleo’s hands in hers. “Your father isn’t a Praetorian.”
“Isn’t?” Cleo frowned. Atia tried to swallow the lump of fear closing her throat.
“Your father isn’t dead.”
“What?” Cleo’s voice was so soft, Atia almost wondered if her daughter had said anything at all.
“I know I should have told you, but—”
A dark silence filled the room as Atia studied her daughter’s stunned expression. With a slow movement, Cleo pulled her hands out of her mother’s, and Atia drew in a sharp breath. Fear speared its way through her as the shock on Cleo’s face slowly gave way to a cold, marble-like expression. Not even the sunlight streaming through the French doors eased the chill seeping its way through the study of the safe house. She’d expected outrage. Fury even, but not this icy silence.
Cleo was never at loss for words. Never. Even as a child, her daughter had openly expressed her enthusiasm or dislike for anything and everything. Not even when Cleo had been hurting so badly over Michael’s betrayal had she been like this. Silent and completely emotionless. Atia swallowed the bile rising in her throat and frantically tried to form a plan of action. Her daughter’s silence was the one thing she’d not expected.
Desperately, she tried to think of something that would force Cleo to break her silence. Deus, how she wished she’d done things differently. No. She’d done the right thing. Cleo’s safety had been the only thing she’d cared about. She would give her life for her daughter.
The mantle clock over the fireplace announced the morning hour with six melancholy chimes. The sound penetrated the room like a soft death knell. Beside her, Marcus assessed Cleo’s mood with a deliberate patience that was frighteningly familiar even after all the years they’d been apart.
The tendrils of his thoughts mixed with hers for an instant before she recoiled from the gentle, mental probe. He pulled his thoughts from hers with an unspoken apology. Fingers interlocked in a tight grip, Atia fought not to reach out and pull her daughter into her arms. She was certain doing so would only make things worse.
“Cleo, I wanted to tell—”
“Don’t.” The command was an angry hiss of fire on ice, and Atia flinched beneath Cleo’s harsh stare. “You lied to me.”
“No,” Atia exclaimed.
“Exactly what do you call it, mother?” The sneer in Cleo’s voice was a blade striking deep into Atia.
“I never said your father was dead. I simply allowed you to believe it. It was to protect you.” It was a pitiful defense, and she knew it.
“Protect me from what, exactly?” Cleo said coldly. “I have no abilities. Not even the fucking Praetorians would know what to do with me.”
“They could…you could have passed on your father’s abilities to a child.”
“Well those bastardi fixed that problem three years ago, didn’t they?”
Atia didn’t look at Marcus, but her body was so attuned to his that she could tell the instant he went rigid at their daughter’s words. She knew she should have explained things to him before now, but she’d been consumed with the fear of what would happen when she told Cleo the truth. She’d felt too fragile to deal with anything else. Now it made her look even more deceitful.
Her gaze shifted back to Cleo’s face, and she caught the brief flash of despair on her daughter’s face. Atia’s stomach lurch. Her beautiful daughter would never know the joy of motherhood. That had been snatched from Cleo’s hands the minute a Praetorian blade had killed Cleo’ unborn child and left her barren. But Cleo wouldn’t know the pain either. The pain that came from trying to protect your child. And Atia had done everything she could to protect Cleo.
Since those few short hours in Marcus’s arms at La Terrazzo del Ninfeomore than thirty years ago, everything she’d done for Cleo had been done out of love. She pushed through her grief to find the strength to reach out to her daughter once more. Her son was lost to her forever, and now she had to fight to keep her daughter.
Cleo hated it when anyone lied to her, and Atia had done that, albeit the sin of omission. She’d allowed her daughter to believe her father was dead. And it was a lie Cleo might never forgive her for. Marcus’s tall, imposing presence at her side only emphasized how much Cleo had to forgive.
“I did it to protect—”
“Who is he?”
It wasn’t a question, it was a command, and Atia’s voice died in her throat as she saw the contempt she saw on Cleo’s face. With a shake of her head, she fought to find her voice, and the seconds expanded into a long silence before Marcus cleared his throat.
The quiet authority in Marcus’s statement made Atia sag slightly as Cleo’s anger and contempt gave way to shock again. Surely she could make Cleo understand now that as the daughter of a Sicari Lord her safety had been Atia’s only thought. Hands trembling, she reached out to Cleo, but her arms fell to her side as Cleo took a step back from her. The silent move of rejection was like a poison that spread its way through her limbs leaving pain in its wake.
“Your father and I—”
“Don’t say that.” As if suddenly remembering her place, Cleo turned and bowed her head stiffly at the Sicari Lord. “Forgive me, il mio signore, I mean no disrespect.”
“We realize this is a shock, but I understand your mother’s motives,carissima.” Marcus’s voice was soft and level, but Atia heard the note of regret in his words.
He had nothing to be remorseful for. This was all her doing. Atia briefly closed her eyes against the painful thought. If only things had been different. She looked at Cleo again, and the stubborn gleam in her daughter’s violet eyes only heightened her fear. Atia didn’t want to lose her. She’d already lost one child tonight. To lose another would be unbearable. Somehow she had to make Cleo understand her reasons for hiding the truth.
“I didn’t tell anyone who your father was. Not even Ignacio. And I didn’t tell your…” She saw Cleo’s expression harden. “I didn’t even tell Marcus.”
“So you chose to let me grow up without a father.”
“I chose to keep you safe. And I’d do it again,” Atia snapped, her fear and frustration getting the better of her.
“Safe from what? Every goddamn member of the Order is always at risk, what makes me so special?”
“Because you are the daughter of a Sicari Lord.” Atia stepped forward to reach out to her daughter again. She tried to touch her cheek, but Cleo smacked it away.
“I still had the right to know,” Cleo said in a tight voice.
“And I had a duty to protect you,” Atia replied with determination.
“Duty or not, Madame Consul. You lied to me. You lied to me about my brother, you lied to me about who my father is, and you allowed me to believe he was dead.”
The formality of Cleo’s address made Atia sway slightly. An unseen hand settled on her shoulder to steady her. She waved her hand at Marcus to dismiss the touch. His offer of comfort wouldn’t ease her fears.
“I was terrified of something happening to you, carissima. The thought of the Praetorians taking you the way they took Gabriel…it was unbearable.” Atia’s quiet statement sent a flash of understanding across Cleo’s face before her expression hardened again. It was so reminiscent of her father’s.
“I can understand why you’d keep me in the dark when I was a child, but when I was older?” Cleo said fiercely.
“I wanted to tell you, but with each passing day it became harder to do so. I knew you’d see my silence as having lied to you, and I was afraid.”
“Afraid?” Cleo snorted with angry disbelief. “You’re fearless, mother. You take on Council members like a lioness does her prey. You chose not to tell me the truth because it was easier not to.”
“It was not easier. From the moment you were born, I’ve lived in fear. If the Praetorians had known who your father was, they would have stopped at nothing to take you like they did Gabriel.”
“So why now? Why not three years ago?” Cleo bit out. “You couldn’t tell me the truth then? The Praetorians don’t have any use for women they can’t breed.”
“If I had told you then, would it have changed anything?”
“Yes. No. I don’t know, but you should have told me.” Cleo’s voice echoed with confusion, and Atia ached to reach out to her daughter and fold her into her arms as she had when Cleo was younger.
“Please, Cleo. I want us to—” She started to close the physical distance between them, but Cleo jumped back.
“No.” Cleo snapped. “Not another word, mother. Now, unless there’s someother dark secret you’d like to reveal, may I leave?”
Once again Atia leaned toward her daughter, but Marcus stepped forward to intercept her. The physical touch of his fingers digging into her arm silently ordered her not to continue.
“We understand you need time to adjust to everything your mother has shared with you this morning.” Marcus’s voice was one of serene calm, but she couldn’t tell if it had any effect on Cleo. His voice softened even more. “I know how difficult this must be for you, Cleopatra. It wasn’t easy for me when your mother told me about you. But if you’ll give me the opportunity, I’d like to get to know you. All I ask is that you think about it.”
Cleo acknowledged him with a sharp nod. She hesitated for a fraction of a second, and Atia thought she might say something, but Cleo simply wheeled about on one heel to stalk out of the study without a glance in Atia’s direction.
The moment the door closed behind her daughter, Atia jerked away from Marcus and slowly circled the corner of the desk to sink down into the leather office chair. She’d lost her. Cleo would never forgive her for not telling her the truth. Head bowed, she closed her eyes and tried to think, but couldn’t. For the first time in a very long time she didn’t have a plan. Didn’t have any sense of what direction to turn. It made her feel lost and alone.
“She’ll eventually see her way to forgive you.” At Marcus’s quiet statement, she lifted her head up to look at him.
“No. She won’t,” she said bitterly. “You don’t know her like I do.”
“You’re right, I don’t.” There was no accusation in his words. It was just a simple observation, but it filled her with guilt all the same.
“She hates being lied too. It started when she was a child. Her best friend fell three stories when the two of them were playing on the rampart of the east wing at the White Cloud estate. I told Cleo her friend would live. The child died. She’s demanded the truth ever since. She can be very unforgiving.”
“Then we’ll make her see you had no other choice.”
“And do you believe I had no other choice?” She met his gaze steadily, remembering how furious he’d been when he’d learned of Cleo’s existence.
“You did what I would have done. You protected our daughter,” he said quietly, but there was a flash of emotion in his vivid blue eyes that worried her. “I can’t fault you for not telling her truth.”
“You should have told me, Atia. I had a right to know that I had a daughter. I could have watched her grow up from a distance. You denied me that small joy.”
“If you want me to say I’m sorry, I can’t.” She shook her head. “I couldn’t risk you taking her from me.”
“And yet you risked her life in attempting to raise her alone thinking no one would discover your secret. I could have helped protect her.”
“Her life was at risk no matter what course of action I took,” she bristled with resentment. “I did what I thought best for my daughter. I won’t apologize for that.”
“Our daughter.” The fierce intensity of his words emphasized he was still angry that she’d hidden the truth from him. Like Cleo, he would have a hard time forgiving her. And the fact that she wanted his forgiveness frightened her. It showed how quickly he was becoming a part of her life again.
“Our daughter.” She nodded with resignation.
Eyes closed, her fingers rubbed at her temple. Another headache. They seemed to come so often anymore. A gentle, unseen touch stroked her forehead, and she sighed at the invisible caress.
“Why are you so certain, Cleo won’t forgive you?” At the quiet question, she raised her head to meet his puzzled gaze. “Her concern for you last night at the Pantheon demonstrated how much she loves you.”
“Cleo is like you. She has a stubborn streak. When she makes up her mind about something it’s difficult to convince her otherwise.”
“Then perhaps she’s met her match in me.”
Although his gaze was somber, there was just a hint of amusement curving his lips as he watched her. It stirred something deep inside her that helped ease some of the grief still assaulting her body. She closed her eyes at the memory of Gabriel’s death and how close Marcus had come to joining their son.
A tear squeezed its way out from under her eyelid, and a harsh oath escaped Marcus. Her eyes flew open in surprise at the sound, and she saw Marcus move quickly to pull her up out of the desk chair. The moment his arms wrapped around her, she burst into tears. A shudder went through him, and she knew she was shedding tears for both of them.
The grief she’d experienced the day the Praetorians had taken Gabriel from them had been different from the pain she was feeling now. Then she’d been filled with terror for Gabriel’s life and her own. She’d killed one Praetorian before the second one had dealt her what should have been a deathblow.
Until Cleo was born, she’d wished thousands of times that the Praetorianshad killed her that horrible day. It would be better than living with the fact that she’d failed Gabriel. Failed to do her duty. She’d not had the courage to take her son’s life that day. She’d allowed herself to hold onto the hope that she could defeat the bastardi that had surprised her and their bodyguards.
But she hadn’t. And the Praetorians had laughed at her as they’d dragged a crying Gabriel from her arms. Like her, they’d been certain she was as good as dead. They’d taunted her with departing words about how Gabriel would become one of them.
It was a memory that haunted her every day. The bastardi had deliberately left her to die knowing the last few minutes of her life would be spent agonizing over the fate of her child. She was the one to blame for Gabriel and the fact that she’d lived—if Marcus ever learned the truth, he’d never forgive her.
She’d lied to him. She’d told him she’d been unconscious when they’d taken Gabriel. Even if she’d had the strength to do so, she could not have killed their son just to keep the Praetorians from taking him. Suddenly, she wished she were far away from Rome.
She gently pulled out of his arms, grateful he’d not attempted to probe her thoughts. Her ability to keep her mental shield in place was sorely limited at this point. If he really wanted to know what she was thinking, he would have no difficulty breaking through her thoughts. The realization terrified her.
To face his condemnation so soon after Gabriel’s death heightened the deep-seated fear that had never left her since the day of their son’s kidnapping. Afraid her expression might reveal more than she cared for him to see, Atia turned away from Marcus and brushed away the wetness on her cheeks.
“What are you afraid of, mea kara?”
His voice was a soft caress on her senses. His beloved. The endearment enveloped her with warmth. It made her feel treasured. Safe. And it emphasized her vulnerability where Marcus was concerned. She had always wanted to tell him the truth, just as she had wanted to tell him about Cleo. She simply hadn’t ever found the courage to do so.
Her inability to explain her mistake only emphasized the fact that she’d never stopped loving him. She trembled as his hand caught her chin and he forced her to look at him. There was a frown of concern on his face as he studied her. She pulled away from his touch and shook her head.
“I’m not afraid, Eminence.” She winced at the dark cloud of irritation that swept over his features. “With your permission, I’ll take the Tyet of Isis back to White Cloud. It’s not safe here in Italy.”
“Agreed,” Marcus growled. “I need to speak with Dante before we leave.”
“We?” She hadn’t meant to sound so sharp.
“Yes. We,” he said in a firm voice. “I wish to examine the documents that are in the artifact.” The minute he mentioned the artifact, she stiffened. The thought of working closely with him in studying the antiquity was alarming. She swallowed the knot in her throat.
“The Order has several researchers, including me, who are extremely knowledgeable about the Tyet of Isis.”
“Perhaps, but I wish to examine the parchment as well. My memories of my past life as Tevy may prove useful.”
“No arguments, Atia. I’ll not be put off in this matter.” His mouth thinned slightly with determination. “I intend to study the parchment with you. But that’s not the only thing I plan on doing. I also intend to claim what is rightfully mine.”
“And I told you that I’m not your property.” A sharp hiss of air blew past her lips. “The blood bond is one of mutual agreement.”
“Which you agreed to thirty-six years ago next month, if memory serves me correct.” His words made her jump with surprise. He remembered the day of their blood bond. His eyes narrowed. “Did you think I would forget? We belong to each other, Atia. And I’ll go to Tartarus and back to make you see that.”
The intensity in his voice made her even more apprehensive. He was acting as if everything between them was settled. It wasn’t. And his arrogance in assuming so irritated her. Her gaze fell to the paperwork on her desk. Work. It had always been a sanctuary, it would be again. She sank down into her chair and brushed several papers aside to find a pen.
“Forgive me, Eminence. I have work to catch up on.” Her dispassionate comment pulled a sharp hiss of air from Marcus.
“You would try the patience of the Carpenter himself, Atia,” he said harshly. “You always found it easier to hide from your problems than face them. I see nothing’s changed.”
“I’m not hiding from anything. As Prima Consul I have responsibilities I cannot avoid, and unlike you, I don’t have someone waiting in the wings to help me perform those duties.”
She didn’t bother to look up at him as she spoke. A moment later, she felt him at her side as he came around the desk. The moment the palm of his hand cracked loudly on the desktop in front of her, she jumped. As he jerked her chair around with his other hand, she retreated deeper into the soft leather as he bent over her.
“I’m willing to give you time, carissima, but nothing has changed since the other morning when we watched the sun rise over the city at La Terrazzo del Ninfeo. I said you were mine, and I meant it.”
“Deus, but you are an arrogant son of a bitch,” she snapped as she violently pushed the chair and herself away from him to stand. “What makes you think you can walk back into my life and simply demand the right of blood bond? I’ve built a life without you, and as difficult as it might be to accept, I’ve been happy without you.”
That wasn’t exactly true. She’d learned to adapt and find what happiness where she could. She didn’t dare tell him how many nights she’d lain awake through the years wishing he were lying beside her. Something she’d been doing nightly since their initial meeting in the Santa Maria sopra Minerva.
But it changed nothing. What they’d had in the past had cost her dearly. And she was too tired—too old—too scared to start over. She tightened her jaw and glared up at him. His vivid blue eyes immediately narrowed as he studied her face. It was that assessing look that always managed to see more than what she wanted to show. But over the years she’d had lots of practice hiding her thoughts from others, even more so since becoming Prima Consul. With a vicious grunt of anger, he took a step toward her, and she immediately retreated. Something flashed in his eyes that made her want to reach out to him, but she forced herself to remain still.
“You said not to long ago that the past is always with you. It’s with me as well. It would serve you well to remember that,” he said harshly.
With one last hard look in her direction, he turned away and strode out of the study. Left behind, Atia watched as the door closed behind him. He intended to have his way, and she was suddenly of a mind to let him do exactly as he wanted. She closed her eyes at the thought.
Marcus could be persuasive when he wanted to be. In the few short years they were together, she’d invariably given in to him when they argued. Even when he’d become leader of the Absconditus, he’d never forced her to do anything despite the fact that his command was virtually law. He’d simply seduced her with words. And his touch.
The memory of the last time they’d made love caressed her thoughts. Cleo had been the result of that union. And now everything hung in the balance. Just as it had when Gabriel had been kidnapped. The heartache of that event had driven a wedge between her and Marcus. It was the only time Marcus had ever deserted her.
She’d needed him in those days and weeks after Gabriel had been taken from them. But he’d shut her out. He’d carried a burden of guilt that wasn’t his to carry. Perhaps she would have been able to tell him the truth if he’d not left her. She shuddered as the memories rushed at her with the fury of a raging Praetorian. Legs weak, she sank back into her chair.
Perhaps Cleo was right. Maybe she didn’t know how to tell the truth. But then the truth was never as easy to reveal as her daughter thought. Her fingers brushed across the papers on her desk. And she was anything but fearless. She was a coward. That was the real reason she didn’t want Marcus back in her life. She didn’t have the courage it would take to face him and the truth. Like Cleo, it was unlikely he would forgive her sin. She closed her eyes and leaned back in her chair trying desperately not to let the tears flow. She failed, and in the silence of her office, she sobbed for what might have been and for what could never be.
Cleo grunted as she took a hit to the back of her calf. It was like someone giving her an instant charley horse. She went down on one knee and waited for the pain to subside. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d allowed herself to take such a beating. That wasn’t true. Just a few days after a Praetorian blade ended her pregnancy and the doctors had told her that she could never have children, she’d gone looking for trouble. She’d found three different Sicari warriors at the White Cloud estate and deliberately insulted them.
It had been her attempt at cathartic exercise. It hadn’t worked then, and she doubted it was going to work now. Mario would have been just as happy listening to her rant as he was to spar with her. But she needed to do something, and she wasn’t ready to talk just yet. From the confusion on his face though, she was certain he was wishing he’d offered her a bottle of beer instead. She grimaced.
Despite the short time they’d known each other, Mario knew her pretty well. Not as well as Lysander and others she’d grown up with maybe. But she and Mario had confessed almost as many secrets between them as they had beers. She’d met the martial arts instructor several years ago when she’d visited Rome on assignment. They’d become fast friends and drinking buddies.
She should have realized he wouldn’t beat her into the hazy oblivion she was seeking. Christus, if she’d given it any thought, she should have gone out looking to spill Praetorian blood. She needed something to help her forget that her mother had been lying to her for years about her father. She was the daughter of a Sicari Lord. A fucking Sicari Lord.
How in Jupiter’s name was that possible? She didn’t have the tiniest bit of Sicari abilities. No healing powers like Phae, no sensitive abilities like other Sicari women, not even a small amount of telekinesis ability like her mother possessed. Okay, maybe a molecule of precognition, but that was so fleeting and unreliable, it didn’t count.
“Come on, Cleo. I think you’ve had enough.”
“No,” she exclaimed in a hoarse voice. “I decide when I’ve had enough, not you.”
“Damnit, Cleo. I don’t want to hurt you,” Mario snapped with frustration.
She wanted to numb the pain in her heart. Something workouts to the point of physical exhaustion had always accomplished in the past. She forced herself to block out the physical pain and got to her feet. Limping her way back across the training mat, she met Mario’s exasperated gaze. With a jerk of her head, she invited him to attack her again. This time she wasn’t going to let him past her defenses. The martial arts instructor shook his head in disgust as he reluctantly stepped forward.
With several quick hand strikes, she forced Mario into a defensive position. Deliberately ignoring the pain signals shooting up her injured leg, she kicked her good leg upward and landed a hard blow to the trainer’s solar plexus. He staggered back, and Cleo leaped forward to throw two more hard punches to first his chest then his side.
Mario landed flat on the hard rubber of the training floor. It should have made her feel good to drop him to the ground. It didn’t. Instead, her desire to kick someone’s ass was still pounding its way through her veins. Deus, where was a Praetorian when you needed one. An image of her dead brother flitted through her mind and the sound of her mother’s cry of pain. Her throat closed up at the memory. Swallowing hard, Cleo limped across the mat to stand over Mario.
“Again,” she said viciously. “And don’t hold back this time.”
“Christus, what the hell is the matter with you, Cleo?” her friend exclaimed fiercely. “If I really let loose on you, you’re gonna get hurt.”
“Again, you son of a bitch. Just because I don’t have any special abilities doesn’t mean I can’t beat you.”
The trainer arched his back then pushed himself to his feet in one fluid motion. “This is my training room, and I say you’re finished for the day.”
Something exploded inside her. Splinters of anguish, fear, and anger bombarded her heart in an almost physical pain that made her chest feel like it was on fire. She wasn’t ready to quit. The physical pain wasn’t bad enough to mask the hurt inside. She launched herself toward the trainer, her movements hard and fast as she tried to land one blow after another on Mario.
With a loud cry, she blocked his hand then with a twist of her body, she tried to pull his arm behind him. He blocked her attempt with a blow to her mid-section, which sent her flying backward until she crashed on the mat. Stunned, she slowly rolled over and came up on all fours. Her chest was still on fire, and she struggled to quiet her ragged breathing.
“That’s enough.” Ignacio’s deep voice made Cleo turn her head.
Her mentor stood at the edge of the training mat, a dark scowl on his face. He pointed his finger in her direction before he ordered her off the hard rubber mat with a jerk of his thumb.
“Hit the showers, Cleo.” His scowl grew darker when she started to protest. “Now.”
Something in Ignacio’s voice penetrated the turmoil she’d been engulfed in since early this morning when her mother had introduced her to a father Cleo had always believed was dead. She didn’t know what hurt worse the fact that she’d lost out having a father while she was growing up or the fact that her mother had lied to her about it. Lied to her for almost thirty-three years.
That fact alone cut deep. With a nod of her head she acknowledged Ignacio’s orders and limped her way toward the edge of the mat. When she reached Mario, the worry in his expression made her feel ashamed of the way she’d been using him as a human punching bag.
“I’m ass. I’m sorry,” she said huskily.
“You don’t need to apologize to me, carissima. Whatever’s wrong, I know you’re hurting,” he muttered as he pulled her into a tight bear hug his gruff voice muffled by her hair. “You don’t fight like this unless you’re trying to beat off some demon inside you. If it helps you let off a little steam, fine. But locking everything up inside you isn’t good, bambino. It’ll make you sloppy when you can least afford it.”
“How do you always manage to make me feel like I belong, when I feel like I’m on the outside looking in?” She swallowed hard and managed to fight back her tears at the affection in her friend’s voice as she hugged him back.
“Outside looking in? Jupiter’s Stone, bella. Is that what all this is about? You not having special abilities?” Mario exclaimed softly. “Christus, don’t you know how powerful you are? You’re the most beautiful woman in Rome. Men see you coming and their jaws drop. They can’t think straight when they see you. That’s one hell of a powerful ability if you ask me.”
“It’s not the same thing,” she murmured.
Although she’d never hesitated to use her looks to her advantage, her face was a poor substitute for a Sicari ability. Her lack of powers among the Sicari wasn’t a secret. With a mother who was such a prominent figure in the Order, it was natural that people talked. And now that she was barren, she had nothing to offer a Sicari warrior looking to ensure his family lineage continued, not to mention keeping the Sicari gene pool strong.
Michael had been her last chance of happiness, and even he’d deserted her at a time when she’d needed him the most. He’d left her to deal with the pain of her loss all alone. She swallowed the knot lodged in her throat as Mario frowned at her. It wasn’t something she could make her friend understand. She doubted there were any Sicari who could understand how she felt.
“Damnit, Cleo.” Mario gave her slight shake. “You’ve got incredible fighting skills, you’re intelligent, and you’re drop dead gorgeous. If you had anything else, you’d be a goddamn Sicari Lord.”
The words made her grow cold. Her expression must have revealed her pain because Mario frowned with puzzled concern. Not about to explain, she forced a smile to her lips.
“I’m too sweaty to be drop dead gorgeous,” she said. Her effort to sound cheerful fell short from the look on Mario’s face and she turned away. “I’ll talk to you later.”
“How about I take you to dinner at that little place we went to last month. The one with the ziti you liked.” His offer made her glance over her shoulder at him. The boyish grin on his face suddenly made her want to cry.
“You’re just not going to let me have a self-pity party, are you?” she asked with a watery smile.
“Nope.” Mario chuckled as he jerked he head toward the locker room. “Hit the showers like Ignacio said then meet me in the salon this evening at six.”
His gaze held hers for a moment before she nodded and made her way toward the showers. The ladies locker room was empty, and Cleo winced as she tugged off her sweat pants. Every one of her muscles ached from the brutal workout she’d put herself through since early this morning. She glanced at the clock over the entryway. Seven hours.
It had been little more than seven hours since her mother had revealed the truth about who her father was. As if it wasn’t bad enough to discover she had a brother, correction she had had a brother. What would things have been like if the Praetorians hadn’t taken Gabriel? Would she have been as close to him as she was to Lysander?
She felt funny not mourning Gabriel like her mother was grieving. It was hard to be sorry he was dead when he’d been a Praetorian. Maybe not by birth, but in everything he’d done, Gabriel had been one of the enemy. For her mother it was clearly different. The Prima Consul mask was on, but Cleo had seen her mother’s sorrow underneath. And despite the way her mother had lied to her, Cleo didn’t like seeing her mother in pain. Then there was Marcus Vorenus. He’d been grieving too, but his grief was buried even deeper than her mother’s sorrow.
The image of the man fluttered through her head as she tugged off her shirt and stuffed it viciously into her gym bag. Here she was saddled with a father she’d thought was dead, and a dead brother she never knew. It was like she was living some twisted Shakespearean tragedy.
She grabbed soap and shampoo from her locker and limped her way into the shower. The hot spray went a long way to ease some of the tightness in her body, but the heat only alleviated the physical pain. It did nothing to ease the ache in her heart.
Her mother had lied to her. No, she’d simply not bothered to correct Cleo’s assumption that her father was dead. It was a lie of omission, and a betrayal of trust. Her mother had promised to always tell her the truth, no matter how much it might hurt.
Cleo had extracted that bargain from her mother as a child. She didn’t doubt it had been a childish promise to demand, but even then her mother had known her father was alive. How was she supposed to forgive something like this, let alone believe anything her mother said again? And what about Marcus? A Sicari Lord. Deus, the irony of it was almost hysterically funny. She was the daughter of a man who had the strongest abilities of any Sicari, and yet she had none. Zilch. Nada.
It only emphasized her feelings that she was an outsider among her own people. Not even Mario’s comment about her not needing special powers could ease the sensation that she didn’t fit in and never would. That feeling was something Michael had helped cement when he’d walked away from her three years ago. He’d wanted children, but not someone else’s. Something she couldn’t give him. She closed her eyes and willed the heartache to ease out of her. It didn’t work, so she buried it and focused her thoughts on her shower.
A little more than twenty minutes later, she walked into the changing room to see Violetta sitting on the bench centered between two sets of lockers. The first time they’d met had been when they’d both been assigned to the team searching for the Tyet of Isis. She liked Violetta, but she wasn’t someone Cleo felt close enough to confide in. She ignored the woman and went to her locker to dress. As Cleo pulled on a clean shirt, she heard Violetta clear her throat.
“Why don’t you let me take a look at that leg of yours?”
She didn’t look at Violetta as she pulled on a pair of jeans. Reaching for a comb, she viciously dragged it through her hair. When she’d finished, she gathered her long hair up in one hand and secured it in a ponytail with a scunchie.
“Mario’s worried you might have some nerve damage after the blow he gave your leg.”
“I don’t need the Curavi for sore muscles.” She knew healers sometimes saw things during the healing process. And even though healers swore to hold in confidence whatever they saw, Cleo didn’t want to risk Violetta seeing something. She just wasn’t ready yet for anyone to know that her long-lost father had shown up, and that he just happened to be a Sicari Lord.
“Then you’d better tell that to Mario. He’s convinced your leg is going to be permanently damaged if I don’t heal you.” There was a prickly tone to the woman’s voice, and Cleo realized she’d been to sharp with the healer.
“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have bitten your head off like that,” she said with regret. She turned her head in the healer’s direction. “Mario’s a worrywart. I don’t deny that my leg still hurts, but I’ll be fine.”
“Most people are irritable when they’re in pain. No apology needed.” Violetta offered her smile. “But I’ll be honest. The way you walked in here a few minutes ago, you sure looked like someone who could benefit from a healer’s touch.”
“I’ll be fine, but if the pain worsens, I promise I’ll come see you.”
“All right, but just so you know, Mario isn’t the only one worried about you,” Violetta said as she stood up. “Ignacio is waiting for you outside.”
“Fuck.” Cleo’s response made the healer laugh.
“I think that was his response when Mario explained how you got hurt. So be prepared to have him read you the riot act with you. And you know where to find me if you change your mind about that leg.”
Still laughing, Violetta turned and left the locker room, leaving Cleo to stew about Ignacio waiting outside the locker room. Damn, she didn’t want to deal with Ignacio’s fatherly concern at the moment. She frowned. How was he going to feel when he learned Marcus Vorenus was her real father?
Probably just as blown away as she was. With a sharp movement Cleo tossed her gear into her gym bag and slammed her locker shut. As she emerged from the locker room, she saw Ignacio leaning against the wall just outside the door.
“You should have put ice on that leg right away.”
“It’s sore muscles, not a sprain.” Her response made his mutter something under his breath.
“Come with me.”
It wasn’t a request, it was an order, and he didn’t bother to hide his angry frustration. With a sharp movement, he pushed himself away from the wood paneling outside the locker room and headed out of the gym. She followed him in silence, certain he was going to grill her as to why she’d spent seven hours in the gym working out to the point of exhaustion. And pain.
She probably should have let Violetta heal her. No, she wasn’t ready to deal with all the questions, the curiosity. Keeping up with Ignacio’s long stride wasn’t easy, but she just clamped her jaw tight and limped after him. She wasn’t going to protest. Complaining would have been pointless as far as Ignacio was concerned.
Her mentor wouldn’t feel sorry for her one bit. Not that she wanted his pity. They reached the library, and Ignacio gestured toward one of the room’s big, comfortable chairs.
The order was one she was happy to obey because her leg hurt like hell. She eyed her mentor carefully as he sank down into the chair opposite her. By the look on Ignacio’s face, she could tell she was in for a grilling or a lecture. One or the other, and she didn’t want either one. She tried to put off the inevitable.
“Is there any word about Phae?”
“Ares sent word that she’s stable, but the doctors don’t know when she’ll come too.” Ignacio leaned forward, his forearms resting on his thighs and stared at her for a long moment. “I didn’t order you in here to talk about Phaedra. Now, talkto me.”
“There’s nothing to talk about.”
“Don’t give me that crap. Do you really think after all this time you can fool me? I’ve known you since you were born,” Ignacio scolded. “I know something’s bugging you, and I’ve got a pretty good idea what it is.”
“How the fuck would you know what’s wrong.”
“Shall we rehash what happened a few hours ago in the Pantheon?” Ignacio eyed her with a stern look.
“What? My shock at finding out I have a Praetorian brother. No. Had a Praetorian brother. Something my mother never told me. Not exactly the kind of news you can swallow in just an hour or two.”
“Your brother’s situation is a terrible tragedy.”
“Yeah, I know.” She bobbed her head as she remembered her mother’s frantic cry last night in the Pantheon as they fought to keep the Praetorians from taking the Tyet of Isis. No matter how angry she might be with her mother, Cleo still hated to see her suffering.
“But that’s not what’s really wrong, is it?” Ignacio’s voice was firm and unflappable.
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
“I know you met with Atia and Marcus this morning.”
“So?” she bit out fiercely.
“She told you the truth, didn’t she?” His softly spoken question stunned her. He grimaced. “Don’t look at me like that.”
“My mother told you about Marcus? Before she told me?” Not only had the woman lied to her, she’d told Ignacio who Cleo’s real father was. She wasn’t sure what was worse, being lied to or that the man she thought of as a father had known the truth before she did.
“She didn’t tell me willingly.”
“So what, you twisted her arm? Give me a fucking break. You can do better than that.”
“No one has ever twisted your mother’s arm, bambino,” Ignacio said with a light snort of amusement before his expression grew somber. “The truth is she was backed into a corner.”
A sudden wave of anger swept over her at the thought of the Sicari Lord intimidating her mother. She might be angry at being deceived, but she didn’t like the idea of someone pushing her mother around. Her mentor shook his head slightly.
“I always thought he’d walked out on you and Atia. When I insulted him—” Ignacio rubbed his hand against his throat. “He wasn’t happy about it. Your mother convinced him that she’d not betray their blood bond with me, and she told me…the truth.”
“Right, she told you the truth, but not me, her daughter,” she bit out in a sharp voice.
“You judge her too harshly, Cleopatra.” He always used her full name when expressing his disapproval of something she’d done. That he continued to defend her mother irritated her and made her want to lash out at him.
“And you judge her too gently because you’re in love with her.” Her fierce words made Ignacio jerked upright in the chair as she released a harsh noise of disgust at her tactless observation.
“I see,” he murmured. “So I’m an object of amusement in the Order for loving a woman who has never given much thought to me, other than as her Celeris. Her bodyguard.”
“No.” She shook her head. “I’ve never heard anyone say anything about the two of you. Not even that worm Cato has suggested it, and if anyone were going to say something he’d be the one.”
The man she thought of as a father frowned as he nodded and leaned back in his chair to contemplate her words. Her heart ached for him. Not once had she ever seen her mother give Ignacio any indication that there might be hope for him. In fact, she wasn’t even sure her mother realized her Celeris was in love with her.
For as long as she could remember, Ignacio had been there for her and her mother. Ignacio was the one who’d taught her how to fight, how to stitch up a wound. He’d been there when she’d lost in the final round of the Invitavi, and he’d been there when the doctors had told her the baby was gone and she’d never have children. And it had been Ignacio who’d been there for her when Michael had walked away less than a month after her injury.
Ignacio had always been there when she needed him, and she loved him like a father. But he wasn’t her father. Marcus Vorenus, Sicari Lord, was. No,reigning Sicari Lord according to her mother. Fuck. He couldn’t just be a Sicari Lord? He had to be the goddamn commander-in-chief.
“Fuck.” She exploded out of her chair in a swift leap then collapsed back into her seat with a sharp cry of pain. Ignacio leaned forward with the obvious intent to examine her leg, but she dismissed him with a vicious wave of her hand.
“Goddamnit to hell. She should have told me the truth.”
“It couldn’t have been easy for her Cleo. Telling you the truth three years ago or today had to be a terrifying thought for her.”
“So she said, but I’m having a hard time buying it,” she said bitterly.
“When I brought her back here the morning your…your father found out about you, she was badly shaken up.” An odd expression crossed her mentor’s face. “Your father had demanded to meet you, and the thought of telling you the truth terrified her.”
“My mother isn’t afraid of anything.”
“She’s definitely afraid of losing you.” Ignacio shook his head in sharp disagreement.
“Why do you keep defending her? Besides the obvious.” She glared at him. Ignacio sent her a patient look.
“Because I’ve known your mother for a very long time, and after last night, I understand her even better than I ever have before.” He leaned forward again, his hands spread in a cajoling gesture. “Atia isn’t invincible. None of us are, bambino. Your mother has lost a great deal in the last twenty-four hours. She’s pretty fragile right now, whether you want to believe it or not.”
Cleo leaned back in the chair to rest her head in the soft cushions. Eyes closed she released a harsh breath. “But she lied to me.”
“Yes, but you should be asking why she lied to you. The Praetorians took her son when he was barely old enough to know his own name. Then you came along. Can you imagine how terrified she must have been every time you were out of her sight? I can easily understand why she’d keep the identity of your father a secret. From everyone, including you.”
“Stop making it sound so goddamn logical.” She opened her eyes to meet his sympathetic gaze. “Okay, so she lied to protect me, but sweet Jupiter, she could have said something three years ago when those Praetorian bastardi…she could have told me then Nacio. She didn’t have wait until today to tell me my father is alive. And oh yeah, by the way, Cleo, he’s a fucking Sicari Lord.”
She saw him flinch slightly as she used her childhood nickname. Christus, was he thinking Vorenus would take his place? That she’d just forget about him and everything he’d been to her.
“Sicari Lord or not, he is your father, Cleopatra.” Again with the disapproval.
Leaning forward, she grabbed his hand and squeezed it hard. The hard edges of the ring he wore bit into her palm. She’d given him the jewelry for his birthday when she was just twelve. She’d earned money cleaning swords and other weapons over a period of several months so she could save enough to buy the ring.
When he’d read the inscription, from your daughter Cleo, it had made his eyes water. That moment was as vivid now as if it had just happened. Ignacio had always been there for her. She would never desert him.
“He’s not you, Nacio. He never could be,” she said fiercely. He patted her hand and there was a glitter of emotion in his eyes that sent the hair on the back of her neck dancing before she dismissed the sensation. Whatever it was she thought she’d seen it was gone as he sent her a tender smile.
“He might not be me, but he is your father, Cleo. He deserves your respect not just because he’s a Sicari Lord, but because he’s your father.”
Cleo didn’t answer him. She simply pulled her hand from his and got to her feet. The ache in her leg deepened to a sharp pain. “Sweet mother of Juno.”
“That does it,” Ignacio said in an authoritative tone as he came to his feet. “You’re going to let Violetta perform the Curavi on that leg if I have to hold you down myself.”
“I don’t need it. All I need is some heat to loosen up the muscles, a little liniment and I’ll be good as new in a couple of days. A good soak in the tub will do wonders.” She hobbled toward the door. “Besides a healing will put me out like a light, and I have a date with Mario and a bottle of wine in a few hours.”
“Va bene, but it will take at least two weeks for that leg to heal so I’ll send Emilio after Angotti next week instead of you.” His words made her stop where she was to turn her head toward him.
“Jupiter’s Stone, you mean they actually made a decision about that son of a bitch?” She stared at her mentor in surprise. Every territory in the Order had a Tribunal that reviewed the cases of targets designated for execution. The three judges in Rome’s Tribunal were notorious for their slow review process.
“All the evidence checks out, and the Tribunal issued its verdict this morning. Of course, since you’ll not be up to the task for at least…” Ignacio cocked his head to study her leg. “What? Two or three weeks? I’ll—”
“You’re not giving this assignment to anyone but me.”
“You realize your mother and…Vorenus will probably object. Rome has never been a safe place for a Sicari, but for you—it could be deadly.
“There isn’t any safe place for me,” she said with quiet exasperation. “As for my mother and Vorenus, you don’t have to tell them anything. I’ll deal with them, but Angotti’s mine. I’m the one who brought him to the attention of the tribunal a year ago when I was here on assignment.”
“I’m beginning to wonder if that’s a good idea,” Ignacio said as he studied her with quiet assessment. “You sound a little too involved for my liking.”
“I know not to make this personal,” she said in a level voice, but deep inside a tiny nugget of satisfaction warmed her. Finally, she was going to get a shot at freeing Marta.
“Do you? I’m not so sure. In the past three years, almost every one of your assignments has involved targets connected with children who’ve been harmed. It’s starting to look like you have a vendetta. ” Ignacio gave her a forbidding look. “You know the tribunal doesn’t take kindly to fighters breaking the Code. If anyone even thinks your targets suffered a slow or painful death, they’ll bring you up on charges. The Gauntlet isn’t an easy punishment to survive.”
“I haven’t broken the Code, Nacio, and I won’t. But if I can’t have kids, then the least I can do is protect other children from all the bastardi out there.”
“Then let’s get you to Violetta. It’ll take at least a week to plan the assassination, but I don’t want anyone questioning your fitness for duty.” Ignacio gestured to the door, and she limped her way out into the hall in the direction of her rooms.
Cleo was seated on her living room couch tugging her hair out of its braid when Violetta arrived. The woman didn’t comment on Cleo’s change of heart, but quickly performed the Curavi. When she finished, Violetta ordered her to rest and left. A healing was always a draining process for both the healer and the injured party, and Cleo’s eyes drooped as the door closed behind Violetta.
Despite her exhaustion, she struggled with the tangled mass of images shifting randomly in her head. The memory of her mother’s confession made her shift restlessly on the couch. Atia’s remorseful expression fluttered through Cleo’s head. She winced. Maybe Ignacio was right. Maybe she was being too hard on her mother.
A sigh parted her lips as she realized her mother had only been doing what any good mother would do. Atia have been protecting her. Would she have done any less if she were a mother? Her heart clenched painfully in her breast. She certainly hadn’t been thinking about her child’s welfare the night she’d gone out on assignment. She could have easily asked for reserve duty until after the baby was born. She hadn’t, and she’d paid the price. It was the last thought she remembered as she slipped into the darkness of sleep.
Shafts of moonlight streamed down through the girders of the abandoned bridge overhead as she quietly moved forward. A few feet away to her left, she could barely see Lysander’s tall form. That was a good thing. The longer they went undetected, the easier it would be to execute their target. Assassinations weren’t easy. Most of their targets had a tendency to shoot first and ask questions later.
“Just like we planned, okay.” Lysander’s command echoed quietly in her earpiece.
“I’m ready if you are.”
Her whisper seemed to echo all the way up to the train bridge above her head. It made her uneasy. The whole situation didn’t feel right. And that was saying a lot since she wasn’t like most Sicari females who could sense danger.
She put the sensation down to an over active imagination, and moved toward the black sedan that was parked at the opposite end of the bridge. She’d gotten halfway to the car when it roared to life and gravel sprayed everywhere as the car spun out from underneath the bridge and onto the nearby pavement.
“What the—Cleo we’ve got company.”
Lysander’s clipped words were followed by the sound of a sword hitting metal three times in rapid succession. Instinct made her pull her sword out of the sheath on her back and whirl around all in one fluid motion. Even as fast as she moved, she still failed to block the sword coming at her. The Praetorian’s finely honed blade sliced into her raised forearm as neatly as if he were slicing a piece of steak.
“Goddamnit. Son of a bitch.” A soft chuckle followed her cry, and her gaze met the menacing amusement in the man facing her.
“You’re quite right, Unmentionable,” the Praetorian murmured in a silky tone that was all the more unsettlingly because of its pleasant sound. “My mother was a bitch. A Sicari bitch who had the decency to die giving birth to me.”
The callousness of the statement made Cleo’s blood cold. This guy was more malicious in his hatred than most Praetorians she’d encountered. His sword headed toward her again, and she quickly shifted her weapon into her opposite hand to block and parry. The instant her blade cut into the man’s chest, she saw the surprise on his face. She managed a tight smile of satisfaction.
“Didn’t expect to meet a switch hitter with a sword, did you, you sorry ass bastardo.”
With a vicious oath, her opponent swung his sword in a furious round of strikes that had her stumbling backward. His skill was on the same level as hers, but it was the strength of his blows she couldn’t match. And the option of darting out of his reach wasn’t really a viable option when the guy was almost two times her size. The Praetorian’s sword sparked against hers as the two weapons slid downward against each other to lock at the hilt. The gleam of triumph in the man’s eye vanished as she kneed him in the groin. With a loud cry of pain, the Praetorian’s sword hit the ground’s mix of dirt and gravel as he dropped to his knees clutching his jewels. The tip of her sword immediately pressed into his chest ready to drive through the man’s heart.
“You fought well, Praetorian. I now ask for your forgiveness,” she said quietly. “Do you give it?”
“May your soul rot in hell, Unmentionable,” the man snarled and with a flash of speed that surprised her, his forearm came up to viciously slam into the edge of her blade.
The move knocked the sword away from his chest, but the price the Praetorian paid was her blade slicing deep into his arm until she struck the bone. With a fierce noise of anger, she grimaced as blood spurted its way onto her hand. In the next instant, an icy chill streaked across her skin as the Praetorian retrieved his sword and dragged it deep through the layer of skin beneath her belly button.
“Oh fuck,” she whispered as her brain reacted frantically to the injury and began to shut down everything but the most important organs necessary for survival. “Lysander…I’m sor…”
The Praetorian’s vicious laugh rang in her ears as her hand pressed against her wound. She heard the man’s laughter cut short just as she sank to her knees and tumbled to the ground.
Gasping for air, Cleo shot upright on the couch. Christus, she hadn’t dreamed about that terrible night in more than a year. She pushed her dark hair back off her face. Where the hell had that come from? Right. Feeling empathy for her mother. Cleo raked her fingers through her then shook her head and closed her eyes. She understood why her mother had kept her in the dark about her father. She just needed to process it. What she hated the most were the cruel things she’d said to her mother. They were all each other had.
An image of Marcus Vorenus flitted through her head. Not true. At least not at the moment. And the Sicari Lord didn’t act like he was going anywhere anytime soon. In a way, she wasn’t really surprised by it. The two of them were blood bonded. That wasn’t the sort of thing you walked away from.
Fuck, was he really trying to get back together with her mother? She winced. She wasn’t going there. The first thing she needed to do was deal with her mother then she could figure out how to deal with Marcus Vorenus’s return to their lives.
Deus, she wished Lysander was here. He was the closest thing to a brother she had, and if anyone could make her see the logic in the situation it was him. Thinking of her friend reminded her of Angotti and how the bastardo would tell her what she wanted to know. Information that would give her the chance to help a friend. Two actually.
Of course when Lysander heard what she’d done, he’d thank her, then kick her ass, then thank her again. As for Marta—who knew what her friend would do. Cleo swallowed hard. Marta might wish she were dead. Even worse, her friend might beg Cleo for the Nex Cassiopeia. She shuddered. No. Marta was stronger than that. Besides, killing her friend just wasn’t part of the plan.
A sliver of light from a window above the alleyway made the slimy cobblestones glisten. The rank smell of sewer made Cleo wrinkle her nose as she waited patiently in the dark. Like most old cities, Rome’s current drainage system had been in place for a very long time, and the smell reflected the fact. Even despite the amount of time she’d been standing here, she still wasn’t used to the stench.
The sooner she returned to the safe house for a good soak in the tub the better. For the past week, she’d been too busy planning Angotti’s execution that she’d not been able to take any time for one of her favorite activities. A bubble bath followed by a glass of Lambrusco, Italian opera and her one guilty pleasure—a romance book. The combination had a way of easing all the tension from her body.
At least her involvement with Angotti’s fate had enabled her to avoid her mother and Marcus Vorenus before they’d left for Chicago a week ago. It hadn’t surprised her that the Sicari Lord had gone with her mother. Although, the idea that her mother might renew her relationship with Marcus Vorenus was unsettling for some reason. A small part of her was feeling jealous that she’d have to share her mother all the time. It was selfish to feel that way, but for years it had been just the two of them. Now, Cleo was faced with having a father in her life when she’d gone so long without one. Focus. She didn’t need to be thinking about her mother’s confession. Angotti was her concern at the moment.
Her gaze focused on the door a short distance from where she stood. Hopefully the bastardo wouldn’t be long now. Angotti had gone into his mistress’s house a little more than two hours ago. More than enough time to fuck the woman two or three times. The Vigilavi police officer assigned to watch Tito Angotti had detailed the son of a bitch’s varied schedule for almost twelve months. It had taken the Tribunal almost that long before reaching a judgment.
Roberto, Isabella, Giovanni, Rosa, and Julius were the primary reason she’d insisted on this assignment. She remembered the pictures of five kids mixed in with the paperwork on Rinaldo Verdi’s precinct desk in Rome. The oldest one had been eight, but it was six-month-old Isabella that locked a vise around her heart. Five lives snuffed out by Angotti’s greed.
For once she was glad Rome’s three-man court had taken their usual lengthy process in debating Angotti’s fate. It had given the Vigilavi more time to continue their observation of Angotti. Time to turn up an unexpected present. Angotti was in bed with the Praetorians.
It was why she’d come alone tonight. She didn’t want another fighter questioning her actions with Angotti. Of course, when Ignacio found out she’d come without backup, he was going to put her on the bench for at least a month when he got a hold of her. Well, it couldn’t be helped. She wanted the information Angotti had, and she was going to get it before she executed the bastardo.
The sound of a door opening drew her up straight as her gaze narrowed on the short, stocky figure that turned around to speak to someone shielded in the darkened doorway. She heard a feminine laugh and grimaced. How in Juno’s name could the woman even allow the man to touch her. Cleo gritted her teeth. This was one target she wouldn’t feel any remorse over killing.
Deep in the back of her mind, she heard Ignacio’s warning to make sure Angotti’s death was a merciful one as the Sicari Code forbade revenge killings. She almost snorted with derision. This wasn’t revenge. It was justice. She ignored the small voice in her head that suggested maybe her motives were less than honorable. Dishonorable? There wasn’t a goddamn thing wrong with executing a baby killer.
As the man stepped away from the doorway, Cleo heard the door shut and she looked toward first one end of the alley and then the other. Angotti always traveled with a small entourage, but she’d entered the alleyway after his soldiers had scouted out the dark corners from both ends of the narrow back street.
Sometimes Praetorian tactics were a good thing, especially when it meant rappelling off a roof to escape detection. Of course, that sort of entrance made dressing for tonight a little more challenging. Angotti loved beautiful women, and looks she had in spades.
But she knew it was important to dress as seductively as possible to ensure the man allowed her to get close to him. She needed to be able to silence him quickly. The downside to everything had been the limits to what she could wear since she was jumping off a building.
So she’d had to settle for wearing a low cut red shirt with a pair of soft, black leather pants. While she had a couple of dresses, she was utilitarian by nature and her closet was mostly filled with serviceable outfits. Although she did have a secret weakness for slutty underwear and shoes. Even like the stylish boots she was wearing tonight.
When she’d seen the flat-heeled boots with their cuffed top and intricate pleating in a Rome storefront window, they’d appealed to both her utilitarian and feminine sides. The boots were perfect for a mission like this. Spiked boots made it virtually impossible to defend herself if she ran into any trouble.
Not to mention the noise spiked heels would have made on the side of the wall as she dropped three stories down into the alley. It was bad enough that the two long scarves around her neck kept fluttering up into her face as she’d rappelled off the roof. But she needed a gag and something to bind Angotti’s hands with. She snorted a whisper of disgust at her analysis of her attire. If the son of a bitch remained true to his profile, his eyes would be on her chest and her cleavage.
She pushed herself away from the side of building she’d been leaning against to quietly follow the man. The man was far more aware of his surroundings than she’d expected as she saw him turn around brandishing a weapon. The handgun had a silencer on it. Goddamnit.
“Please, signore. Please don’t hurt me.”
Lysander would have laughed at the way she feigned being a helpless female, but Angotti seemed to buy her act. The man peered at her closely in the dark, relaxing his posture slightly. He didn’t speak, but flicked his wrist and used his gun to order her out into the small stream of light she’d been avoiding. The man’s eyes widened as she came out of the shadows, and he smiled with more than a hint of lust.
Angotti’s reaction didn’t surprise her. His taste in beautiful women was going to be his downfall tonight. She’d dressed specifically for his benefit. A going away present for him of sorts. The amusing thought made her smile genuine as she stepped into the light for him to get a good look at her.
The leather pants she wore were skin tight, while the short, black leather jacket she wore over her dark red shirt emphasized her waist and full hips. The snug top she wore dipped low and would have been far more revealing if not for her brooch nestled in between her breast and the scarves fluttering around her neck. The man licked his lips as if she were a dessert on his plate. His expression made her skin crawl. Suddenly the scarves around her neck were well worth the hassle they’d given her while rappelling off the roof. At least the silk covered up most of the skin her low cut shirt revealed along with the ornate brooch nestled between her breasts that hid her weapon of choice.
“Bellissima.” Angotti said as he eyed her with a mixture of lust and suspicion. “How did you get past the men at the end of the alley?”
“What men?” She feigned puzzlement, although she’d seen Angotti’s men earlier before she’d gone up to the roof of the building behind her. “I saw two men sitting in a car near the entrance of the alleyway. Is that who you mean?”
Angotti muttered something fierce beneath his breath. Cleo bit back a smile. The man would never get a chance to rip his bodyguards a new one. His gaze still wary, he kept the gun trained on her for another long minute before his expression changed to show he’d made a decision. With a smile in her direction, he returned his gun to the holster under his coat. A mistake on his part.
“What are you doing out here alone without a man to protect you,carissima?
Another mistake. Never assume a woman wasn’t capable of protecting herself. She forced herself to send him a helpless look. “I didn’t think I’d be out so late.”
“A woman a beautiful as you should never be alone,” Angotti said. “Where do you live?”
“Another street over. I was in a hurry to get home, and I thought the alley was a good shortcut.” She drew abreast of him and offered him another smile.
“Dark alleys are never safe, cara, and you’re fortunate that it was me who found you and not someone less honorable.”
She almost laughed out loud at his words. The man knew nothing about honor. He’d murdered five innocents for money. He deserved a far more painful death than she was allowed to dish out. She forced a smile to her lips, barely keeping the bile in her throat from choking her.
“It was rather foolish of me I suppose.”
“A woman as beautiful as you can be forgiven such a mistake, but come. Let me see you home, bella. Then and you can invite me in for a drink so we can get better acquainted.” Angotti reached out to catch her hand in his and carried it to his wet lips. How she kept from throwing up, she’d never know.
“But we’ve only just met. That might be unwise of me,” Cleo deliberately made her voice a husky sound as she toyed with one of the loosely hanging silk scarves around her neck.
“Are you telling me you don’t recognize me?”
“Forgive me, signore,” she murmured. “I’m new to Rome.”
“Then you’re in need of someone who’s familiar with the city to help you find where things are.” Angotti bowed toward her slightly in a pitiful attempt to be gallant. His rotund body didn’t accommodate his efforts well. “I’m Tito Angotti. Businessman and entrepreneur.”
“Ah, yes, I’ve heard of you. An apartment building of yours burnt to the ground late last year, didn’t it?”
He started with surprise, his gaze narrowing as if aware that he might have made a mistake in relaxing in his guard. It didn’t matter. Tito Angotti was out of time. Tired of playing the helpless female, Cleo moved with blinding speed and viciously slammed the knife-edge of her hand into man’s neck. Over the years, she’d learned how to hit a certain pressure point on the side of the neck to incapacitate someone or possibly kill.
With Angotti, his extra weight meant she had to hit hard. She grunted as his stocky body fell into her before sinking downward. He wasn’t dead, but she needed him alive. At least for a few minutes. Aware that she didn’t have much time, she guided Angotti down to the ground where he sat on the wet cobblestone.
If the man had been capable of protest, he would no doubt have bemoaned the fact that his pristine, cream-colored suit was ruined. She tugged one of her scarves off her neck to bind Angotti’s hands behind his back. Certain he couldn’t break free of the restraint, she smacked the back of his neck and rubbed hard to stimulate the man’s nervous system. As the man slowly recovered from the pressure point blow and started to mumble, she jerked the remaining scarf off her neck and gagged him.
A raw fury lashed through her as she pulled the stiletto from the scabbard nestled between her breasts. She wanted to slit the man’s throat right then and there for his responsibility in the deaths of five innocent children. Her blade pushed into the fleshy meat of Angotti’s neck as she threaded her fingers through his thinning hair and jerked his head back so she could stare down into his eyes.
The man uttered a quiet cry of rage behind the scarf. Although his eyes were wide with fury, there was a glint of fear there as well. Good, the son of bitch ought to be scared. In fact, if he knew what was going to happen in a few minutes he be sobbing like a baby. An image of Isabella’s tiny little body made her draw in a sharp hiss of air. Angotti’s greed had killed Isabella and the other children.
The bastardo had paid Luigi Romano to torch one of his apartment buildings rather than making the upgrades necessary to meet the fire code. Worse, Angotti had known the building was a death trap, and he’d not bothered to evict the tenants before he sent Romano in to set the place on fire.
Her stomach lurched at the thought of how those five kids had died. Romano had gone to jail for his crime, but Angotti had walked away. Until tonight. A shudder whipped through her, but it wasn’t one of fear. It was a desire to break every rule she’d ever sworn to obey. And it was going to take every ounce of resolve she possessed not to eviscerate the man before she slit his throat. She bent over Angotti so her mouth was close to his ear.
“I’m going to ask you some questions,” she whispered. “And you’re going to tell me what I want to know, capisci?”
The man muttered something behind the gag and jerked his head in a nod. He still hadn’t lost his arrogance. It angered her, and she forced herself to draw in a deep breath. Control. She needed to remain in control. Killing this son of a bitch would give her a lot more pleasure than she should be feeling. She needed to let her anger go. She wasn’t supposed to enjoy the kill. And despite her fury, she didn’t want to betray the basic tenants of the Order that said every execution was one of justice. Nothing more. She drew in another sharp breath.
“I’m going to remove your gag. If you try to call for help, I’ll slit your throat before you get one syllable out.”
She increased the pressure of her stiletto against the man’s throat. The man nodded again. Keeping the point of her blade against his jugular vein, she quickly undid the scarf. The man drew in a deep breath as if about to scream, and she pressed her blade into his skin until she drew blood.
“You fucking bitch, you don’t know who you’re messing with,” Angotti snarled.
“Oh, I know who you are. I know all about you.” Perhaps it was the quiet, detached note in her voice that made the man lose some of his arrogance.
“Who are you?”
“I’d say your worst nightmare, but then I’m not into clichés.”
“What do want from me? Money? I can pay you well.”
“The only thing I want from you is information.
“You’re familiar with the Convent of the Sacred Mother on the coast at Atrani west of Salerno?”
“The convent?” The first real sign of fear threaded its way through Angotti’s voice. An echo of terror that indicated some things terrified the man a lot more than the knife at his neck. She grimaced.
“I know you work for the Praetorians, you fat pig. Tell me about the convent.”
“Sicari. You’re Sicari.” Something other than fear entered his voice. Perhaps a fascination. She hissed with frustration.
“The convent. I want to know everything about it.”
“I’ve only been inside it once, and not for very long.” Angotti’s voice was hesitant as if he was stalling for time. Why? She frowned, but proceeded with her interrogation.
“Where’s the security control room?”
“I don’t—” He stopped as she pressed the sharp point of her blade deeper into his neck. This time fear replaced his swaggering manner. “Sweet Mother of God, they’ll kill me if I tell you.”
“They’re not here, and I’m your biggest worry right now. Now, tell me. Where is the security control room?”
“Down the main hall.” He drew in a hiss of air as she drew the tip of the stiletto across his skin in a small cut. “The first hallway on the right and a couple doors down.”
“Number of Praetorians on duty.”
“One, maybe—” She pressed the stiletto into the man’s neck harder.
“Don’t try my patience, you sorry fuck.”
“Ten.” Angotti whimpered. “Always ten brothers on duty.”
“Is that inside or out?”
“Outside,” the man choked out. “There are at least five or six more inside.”
“How many others at a given time?” Her mouth tightened as she envisioned what those other Praetorians were doing when they weren’t guarding the convent.
“I don’t know.” The man gasped as the knife at his throat drew another drop of blood from his skin. “Ten. Fifteen. I don’t know. I never counted them.”
At Angotti’s answer she suppressed a groan. She was going to need a lot more help if she moved ahead with her plans. Pasquale would take some convincing, but he’d eventually come around. She’d like to wait for Lysander, but Phae was still in a coma, and Cleo wasn’t about to ask him to leave Phae’s side. Ares would come the minute she mentioned Marta’s name, and Violetta would come because her sister had died in a Praetorian breeding facility.
She could always ask Mario or Ignacio, she grunted with a sense of wry amusement. Both men were just as likely to deck her for even daring to suggest an assault on the convent. She bit down on her lower lip. Maybe with a little luck she could convince a couple of other fighters to come along. The problem was keeping the whole deal quiet so her mother couldn’t nix the idea. She smiled grimly. Maybe keeping secrets ran in the family after all. She was wasting time and immediately turned her attention back to the matter at hand.
“Deliveries. Who does their deliveries?”
“I don’t know,” Angotti sobbed. “Please, I’ve told you everything. Please let me go.”
Her target squirmed slightly on the cobblestones. Somewhere nearby she heard a soft sound. She couldn’t place it, but it raised the hair on the back of her neck. She was taking too long. She tugged Angotti’s head back and exposed his neck.
“Tito Angotti, you’ve been tried and found guilty of the murder of five children.”
“Whaa…No. I haven’t killed anyone.”
“Yes you did, and you know it. You hired Luigi Romano to burn down an apartment building you owned. Five children died in that fire. Remember?”
A sickening feeling clutched at her gut as images of those happy faces danced through her head. Her throat tightened as the image of Isabella fluttered in front of her. Deus, she’d been a tiny little thing. So small and beautiful—no, she wasn’t going to do this. Not now.
“I was acquitted,” the man gasped. “I did nothing wrong.”
“You were acquitted because of missing evidence.”
As the precinct’s chief arson investigator, Rinaldo had been the first officer called to the scene of the fire. He’d found evidence linking Angotti to the crime, but the Praetorians weren’t about to let one of their biggest henchmen go down. They’d helped the slimy bastardo wiggle his way out of a conviction by stealing evidence. As a member of the Vigilavi, Rinaldo had informed the Order of the man’s acquittal and asked for justice. Her friend was going to get his wish.
With the tip of her blade ready to puncture Angotti’s neck, she reached into the pocket of her leather jacket. Her hand gripped the plastic sleeve containing two black and white photographs and a slip of paper. Cleo dropped the plastic-encased evidence down on the ground in front of the man.
“See those? That’s you in those pictures. You and Romano,” Cleo said as a deadly calm settled over her. “The man cut a deal and pointed you out in the trial, but it was his word against yours without these pictures.”
“The photos are fake. You can do anything with software these days.” Panic echoed in the man’s voice.
“You’re right. The photos are fake. But the information on that piece of paper is the real deal.”
“There are two transactions detailed on that piece of paper. One is the money in Romano’s bank account that the police couldn’t trace back to its source. The other transaction details are for a wire transfer from your bank account in the Cayman Islands directly into Romano’s account. The monies match up exactly and are dated the day after the fire.”
“How did you…you can’t trace that sort of thing.”
“But I did.”
“All right, I paid Romano to burn the building. But I didn’t tell him to do it when there were people inside, the stupid prick,” Angotti snapped. His cockiness was back. She glanced toward the first one end of the alley and then the other. Nothing moved in the shadows.
“Five innocent children died in that fire,” Cleo tugged the man’s head back so he could look up at her. “You have children, don’t you Angotti.”
“Yes.” The man’s eyes widened with horror. “My God, don’t hurt them. Don’t hurt my bambinos.”
“Don’t insult me, you bastardo.” Cleo released a harsh breath of disgust.Deus, she so didn’t want to ask the Rogare Donavi of this sorry son of a bitch. “Now, unfortunately, I must now ask your forgiveness.”
“I don’t understand.” His fear was back.
“You are to be executed for the murders of five innocent children. As your executioner, I seek your forgiveness.”
“You can’t,” Angotti’s voice grew louder as he screamed in terror.
“I didn’t think you’d forgive me,” Cleo said harshly.
The man’s scream ended on an abrupt high note as she slit his throat. The second Angotti slumped to the ground she heard a grunt behind her. She whirled around to see first one and then another man drop from the roof of the three-story building she’d rappelled from earlier. Praetorians. Didn’t these guys ever go off-duty? Behind her, the sound of running feet said Angotti’s bodyguards were heading toward her. Damnit, even if she’d been a coward and wanted to run, there wasn’t anywhere to go.
“Do you really think we’re going to let you run, Unmentionable,” one of the Praetorians sneered.
The comment infuriated her, but she quickly suppressed her anger as she remembered Mario’s words of wisdom last week. She could kick these bastardi to Tartarus and back as long as she kept her cool. She could feel the Praetorians’ thoughts pounding against the mental shield she’d erected as she watched the two of them slowly advancing toward her. At least they weren’t as big as some she’d fought in the past.
Behind her, the racing footsteps slowed, and she darted a quick glance over her shoulder in time to see a burly arm reaching out to grab her shoulder. In a move that was second nature to her, she turned and caught the man’s arm under hers and drove her stiletto into the back of his neck. The man went rigid and didn’t make a sound as she pulled her blade out of his neck. The minute she released him, he dropped to the filthy street like a large sack of flour.
One down, three to go. A laugh from one of the Praetorians behind her made her roll her eyes. Fine, let them think she couldn’t take them out. She quickly deflected the second bodyguard’s punch and slammed her hand into his throat, crushing his trachea. The man crashed to the ground clutching at his throat as his air supply slowly vanished. Cleo ignored him and slowly turned to face the Praetorians.
“Okay, boys. How do you want to do this?” Cleo glared at the two men facing her.
“You do realize, Unmentionable that we’re not going to kill you.” Just the way the Praetorian said the words made Cleo stiffen.
“Then you’d be a fool not to, because you can’t breed me.”
“But think of the pleasure you’ll bring the Praetorian who tries.”
“No you stupid asshole, I can’t have children.” Saying the words out loud made her body hurt as though she’d been sliced open again. Without realizing it, her hand reached for the spot where a Praetorian blade had skewered her three years ago. The Praetorian closest to her chuckled.
“Then I’ll finish what one of my brothers failed to do the night he sliced you open.”
The man’s amusement made Cleo clench her teeth with fury. She’d let her mental shield slip allowing the bastardo to know what she was thinking. She couldn’t afford that kind of mistake or she’d wind up dead. Rolling her shoulders in an effort to loosen up her suddenly tight muscles, she sent the gloating Praetorian a cold look.
“For someone who keeps telling me what you’re going to do, I don’t see you doing much of anything,” she drawled with more than a hint of sarcasm.
With a dark look of anger on his face, the Praetorian drew his sword in a flash of movement and lunged toward her. His friend followed close behind. Cleo visualized a defensive move to use on the Praetorian, which made him laugh.
“Your mind is easy to read, bitch.” The Praetorian’s confident laughter died away as Cleo used her palm to push the man’s sword arm upward while driving her fist into the fighter’s groin.
“It’s always easy to read my mind when I want someone to, you dumb son of a bitch.” As the Praetorian sank to his knees, she jerked her own knee upward into his face. “They really need to train you assholes better. That was a rookie move.”
Despite his obvious pain, the Praetorian’s large hand suddenly wrapped around her calf and jerked her off her feet. She hit the ground hard, the air sailing out of her lungs as her back slammed into the cobblestone pavement. Christus, that move had come from out of nowhere. The sooner she dealt with this asshole, the better.
Her gaze met the Praetorian’s who was still on his knees beside her. The fighter’s expression was one of cold calculation, and she saw him raise his sword upward in preparation to drive it through her. She didn’t think. She simply reacted. Shooting upright, she slammed her forearm into the side of the Praetorian’s face. The man’s cheekbone snapped loudly beneath the blow.
Nerve endings in her forearm triggered pain sensors in her head from the blow she’d landed on the Praetorian’s cheek and as his grip on her leg eased up, she jerked free of his hold. A shadow billowed over her, and she saw the second Praetorian with his sword poised to plummet its way down into her chest.
She immediately rolled away and heard the sword clang against stone where she’d been just seconds ago. She was on her feet in a second, and as the Praetorian rushed her, she planted a hard kick into her attacker’s knee. A loud pop echoed in the alley as the man staggered to one side. The first Praetorian was staggering to his feet, and she in two quick steps she was standing behind him with the tip of her blade against the back of the man’s neck.
“I ask your forgiveness, Praetorian,” she said.
She wasn’t really sure why she asked. The Order didn’t require the Rogare Donavi when killing a Praetorian. The fighter growled, but she didn’t hesitate before she jammed the stiletto into the man’s neck. The death rattle in his throat said he’d be dead in seconds, which left only one left. She tugged her blade free of the Praetorian and turned to face her last opponent.
The remaining fighter was limping, but definitely still in the game. The Praetorian feinted to the right, and she easily countered as his sword came at her from the left. As his blade followed through and swung back again, she didn’t see the fighter’s foot kicking outward. The blow to her knee threw her off balance, and she stumbled. Although her recovery was quick, her slight hesitation was enough for the Praetorian to strike. As the blade sliced into the back of her calf, she fell to the ground with a sharp cry.
“Fuck. Sweet Vesta. Mother of Juno,” she rasped at the pain knifing through her leg.
“That, Unmentionable, was for my brother.”
Fire streaked its way up Cleo’s side as she struggled to her feet. She needed to be standing to fight this bastardo. Knuckles scraping against the rough stone alleyway, she grunted with pain as she stood upright with all of her weight on her good leg. The movement only increased the amount of nausea washing over her.
Deus, she hurt. The Praetorian’s lips curled back in a feral smile of triumph as he moved toward her. Christus, the son of a bitch was already planning her demise. And if she didn’t do something quick, the man would succeed. The problem was, all she wanted to do was sit down and put her head between her legs, if only to make the nausea go away. Not a good idea with a Praetorian ready to take her out.
Cleo’s hand tightened on the hilt of her stiletto. All she had to do was get in close. She hopped to one side dragging her injured leg with her in an effort to prepare herself for his attack. The Praetorian charged her, his sword straight out in front of him with the clear intent to run her through. At the last second, she twisted her hips sharply and arched her back so her upper body was parallel with the Praetorian’s sword.
Despite her defensive move, the blade still managed to cut through her shirt and into the flesh of one breast. Once more fire seared her skin, but it didn’t stop her from trying to slash the man’s throat. She missed, and her stiletto cut into the Praetorian’s shoulder instead.
The snarl of pain the man made didn’t make her feel any better. He was still alive. Cleo hopped around to face her attacker only to see the Praetorian’s blade flashing her way. Self-preservation forced her to launch herself backward to avoid the sword. She stumbled in the process and found herself on the ground one more time.
“I’m going to enjoy killing you, whore.” A cruel smile curving his lips, the Praetorian moved forward to viciously cut into the flesh of her upper arm.
Cleo cried out in pain. Her vision blurred for a moment as the nausea she’d barely had under control renewed its harsh assault. She was out of options. Focus. If she wanted to live, she needed to focus. She forced herself to shut out everything but her determination to kill the man in front of her. He chuckled as she envisioned hitting his brachia and crushing it.
The image she projected didn’t prepare him for the stiletto that whistled through the air and slammed into his throat. The Praetorian stood there for several seconds before he toppled forward in slow motion. Cleo didn’t wait for him to land on top of her. She forced herself to ignore the nausea and pain as she rolled away from the spot where the Praetorian eventually landed.
She laid still for a long moment, staring up at the sky. With all the city lights illuminating the night sky, it was impossible to see anything but the brightest stars. Suddenly she longed to be in a lounge chair looking out at the sea at Palazzo al Mare, the Order’s stronghold just south of Genova. She closed her eyes, trying hard to muster up the strength to get to her feet.
Violetta. She needed to get to Violetta. The woman’s abilities weren’t very strong, but Violetta could at least heal her leg wound. The cuts on her breast and arm could be stitched up. Cleo threw herself up into a sitting position with an anguished grunt. Jupiter’s Stone, she hadn’t hurt this bad in a long time. This is what she got for going out without a partner. She dismissed the thought.
The risk had been worth it. When she added the information Angotti had given her to the other info she had on the convent, it reinforced her belief that she could rescue Marta. There were still a few pieces of the puzzle missing, but a year’s worth of investigative work had just paid off in a big way. Well worth her injuries tonight. An alarm suddenly went off in her head breaking through her self-congratulatory thoughts.
It wasn’t a noise that threw her senses on alert, it was something else. A powerful frisson that scraped across her neck with unbelievable speed. Without thought, she launched herself toward the dead Praetorian in an effort to reach her stiletto. She wasn’t fast enough.
The dark shadow that brushed past her tugged a cry of surprise from her lips, and she watched as the large figure knelt to pull her blade from the dead man’s throat. Goddamnit. After all that effort, her life was forfeit. There wasn’t anywhere to run, and she didn’t have the strength to do so.
Resigned to her fate, Cleo clenched her jaw. She didn’t like to admit it, but she was afraid. She particularly didn’t like the way this stranger was toying with her. Praetorians were never silent. They liked to taunt their prey. This silence was making her damned uncomfortable. She watched as a gloved hand used the Praetorian’s shirt to wipe the blood off the stiletto.
“Well, what the fuck are you waiting for? Just get it over with.”
“I believe this is yours.”
The deep richness of his voice had an immediate impact on her senses. It made her body tighten with awareness, which exacerbated the stress on her wounds, and she drew in a sharp breath as her nerve endings pounded a new message to her brain.
The stiletto clean, the shadowy figure flipped it so the hilt pointed in her direction and offered it to her. She didn’t hesitate to take the weapon and kept it pointed in the stranger’s direction. He didn’t move from the side of the Praetorian she’d killed moments ago. Although she couldn’t see his face behind the darkness of the hooded cloak he wore, she was certain he was studying her. She eyed him warily.
He was dressed in the same manner as the Sicari Lord and the Praetorian Dominus who’d fought each other in the Pantheon just a few days ago when Lysander had led them to the Tyet of Isis. The long flowing hooded cape he wore so reminiscent of assassins from medieval times. The problem was Sicari Lord and Praetorian Dominus all looked the same to her.
And just because he’d not killed her yet wasn’t necessarily something bet on at this point. Although his returning her the stiletto was a good sign, but then thebastardo hadn’t said he was Sicari either. Praetorians enjoyed their work. They’d find it amusing to make their prey think they had a chance. She waited for that odd sensation of someone probing her mind, but nothing happened.
“Who are you?” she rasped, almost afraid to hear his answer.
He didn’t respond. Instead, he moved to examine the men lying dead all around her. There was a lethal, masculine elegance in his movements that sent a tingling vibration across her skin unlike anything she’d ever experienced before. She didn’t want to enjoy the sensation, but she did. She liked it a lot. Fuck, what in Jupiter’s name was wrong with her?
But when he reached Angotti’s body, the quiet sound of fury he released made her uneasy enough to forget her nausea. He didn’t move, he just stood there staring down at the dead man and for the second time that night she experienced fear.