Byron carried Antonietta from deep within the healing soil back to the bed in the villa. He made certain there was no evidence of having spent the day in the ground as he laid her on the sheets and curled up beside her. His heart was pounding, and he actually tasted fear in his mouth. Framing her face with his hands, he kissed her mouth. "Wake for me, Antonietta. Wake and embrace your new life."
She stirred, her lush body moving beneath his, her breasts pushing into his chest, her hips providing a cradle for his. Antonietta stretched leisurely and opened her eyes.
She screamed and covered her eyes. "Something's wrong, Byron. This can't be right. Something went wrong."
Byron tried to read her mind, but panic was uppermost. "Let me see. I do not understand what is wrong, Antonietta. You just woke up, there should not be pain. Are you in pain?"
Her stomach churned. "I came awake all at once and could hear things outside the walls of the villa. I could feel you, your skin, your body, and I immediately wanted you. I was thinking of making love, how beautiful it would be and how wonderful it is to wake up in your arms. I opened my eyes, and everything went crazy."
Byron breathed for both of them, slow and steady until her wild heart was back in rhythm, and the chaos of her mind was under control. He examined the memories in her mind. The room tilting. His face shooting at her, distorted. Blurring. Light coming in from all directions. It was a dizzying kaleidoscope of images and color. Pain shot through his head, his stomach lurched.
"Can we fix it?" Antonietta wrapped her arms around Byron's neck and hung on, her eyes closed tightly. "That was scary."
He kissed the corner of her mouth, nibbled at her chin, his mind racing as he sought answers. "My friend Jacques has a lifemate, Shea, a doctor before her conversion, now a valued healer. Let me see if I can show him what is happening. She might be able to tell us what to do."
It was his continual display of affection, the little love bites, the way his lips feathered over her skin as absorbed as he was in the problem that provided her with reassurance. Antonietta relaxed completely under him, the tension draining out of her. The moment she did, she became aware of the way his body was hard and thick and ready for hers. Sliding her hands over his back, she allowed her mind to become fully engaged in the definition of his muscles. With her eyes tightly closed, shutting out the unknown, she could concentrate on what she knew best, the texture and feel of Byron's very masculine body.
Byron reached for Jacques.
I need help once again. Have you seen this before? Has Shea? Antonietta cannot open her eyes. He shared the dizzying vision with Jacques. Her conversion was difficult, and there were obvious signs of the Jaguar's presence. Her entire family has strange barriers, shields preventing scans. Is it possible her genes have in some way contributed to a vision problem?
There was a short silence while Jacques obviously conferred with Shea.
It is so good to know you have found your lifemate, Byron.
Shea's soft voice was in his mind.
She seems a remarkable woman, and we are anxious to meet her. Do you have plans of a traditional human wedding? I caught glimpses in her mind of staying with her family. She wants a wedding, and of course, we will have one. If Jacques can make it, I would want him to stand up for me. That goes without saying. I think the problem with her eyes is twofold. She hasn't seen in years. The connections to the brain aren't there and in proper working order. Time will fix that. She should try to rely on her other senses and give her eyes a break. Short practice without moving so she doesn't add to the chaos she experiences. The heat images are more than likely her Jaguar genetics. She is far closer to the species than we've ever encountered. Cats, like us, have a layer of reflecting tissue which reflects back all external light. They also have binocular vision. Without moving their heads, cats can detect motion over a visual field of two hundred and eight degrees. The things happening to her that you shared with Jacques during her conversion were not normal.
Byron's heart jumped.
You should have told me. It was too late to stop it. In truth, we have no idea what the conversion will do. Again, a guess would be the enhancement of her natural abilities. We know she is compatible. The eye problem is a drawback, Byron, but with time and practice, she should be able to reestablish connections. This is unknown territory. We thank you both.
Byron broke the connection, leaned down to kiss Antonietta's throat. "Your skin is amazingly soft. I love the way you feel. Did you get all that? We are breaking new territory."
"I just have to keep my eyes closed?"
Byron rolled over, bringing her on top of him. "That is the idea, although she said practice. Without movement. Maybe you should sit up there, just straddle me, and look around without moving."
She laughed softly. "You always make me feel beautiful, Byron. No matter what, around you, I feel happy." His hands cupped her breasts, his thumbs sending a shiver of excitement down her spine.
"Make me happy and give this a try."
She found his heavy erection, took her time settling over him, gasping as he filled her, her tight muscles giving way to allow him deep inside of her. "You think I can just sit here without moving?"
He laughed, lifting his head to lap at her nipple. "Just think of the rewards." He lay back and clasped her hands tightly in his. "Just look at the wall. It is dark in here, very little light can penetrate through the heavy curtains."
Antonietta deliberately wriggled, tightening her muscles around him, and lifted her hips to ease back over him in a slow, teasing slide. "You want me to hold still?" She lifted herself again, used her muscles to contract around him, slid back and squirmed.
She had the impression of white teeth bared. "Well, if you really insist." She tightened her fingers around his, trying not to be afraid. Very cautiously, she opened her eyes. The room lurched and spun. Images leapt at her from every side. She concentrated on the way Byron felt, filling her with his thickness, stretching her muscles. The heat and fiery friction that could be hers with a simple thrust of her hips. She allowed the images in her mind to wash over her and retreat. Feeling mattered. Byron mattered. His body, so masculine, so hard. His mind with such wicked, erotic ideas. Just the thought of his fantasies flooded her body with a need for instant relief. She deliberately picked one out of his head, a particularly graphic picture of her exploring his body, her mouth wrapped tightly around him.
Byron groaned aloud. "You cannot think about things like that. Concentrate on your vision."
She laughed, careful of moving. She didn't want to blink; too many images leapt at her. "You're the one with all those pictures in your mind. I had no idea you were so set on that. I would have been most happy to oblige. I think it would have been far more fun than staring at the wall."
"Are you able to see anything? If you do not, I swear I might explode." He had no idea it could be so erotic to lie perfectly still, connected together, surrounded by heat and fire. Her breasts were tempting, begging for his attention, but all he could do was lie passively while she stared at the opposite wall.
"I can't judge how far away it is, but I can bring the Jacuzzi into focus." There was excitement in her voice. "I am seeing it through my own eyes, aren't I?" She shifted, a slight, languorous movement that brought beads of sweat to his brow.
"Yes," he bit out between his teeth. Fire raced through his bloodstream. She was doing something with her muscles that wasn't fair. "You are not supposed to be moving."
Antonietta closed her eyes. "I wasn't moving." She leaned back slightly, her hair sliding over his thighs as she began to ride him. "This is moving. There's a big difference. And let me show you this." She sped up, hard, fast strokes designed to massage and caress. To drive him wild.
He reached up to capture her breasts, watching the sultry expression cross her face. She always gave herself completely to him, every bit as passionate or more than he. It only added to the dark intensity of his sexual hunger for her. His hands slipped lower to her waist, lifting her in time to his thrusting hips. He was close, so close. He caught her hair in his hand, dragged her to him as he half sat. "Take my blood, Antonietta. I feel your hunger beating at me." The idea of it excited him so that he swelled even more, so that he throbbed and burned.
He felt her body ripple with life at his husky plea. Her arms circled his neck. Her tongue lapped at the seam of his lips. Touched his throat. Found the spot on his chest. White-hot pain flashed through his body, whips of lightning broke over his skin. His hips thrust wildly, over and over, pumping into her, his body exploding with pleasure so intense it shook him, left him trembling with the force of their combined orgasm. Her mouth was a brand, claiming him, locking them together. The beauty of it took his breath away.
Byron wrapped his arms around her and simply cradled her to him. When her tongue closed the tiny pinpricks, he rocked her gently. "
Grazie, Antonietta, for your generosity. I cannot believe you are real at times. Years ago, I was captured by a vampire and given to humans so they could torture me and lure others of my kind into a trap. I tried to get past the pain by imagining what having a lifemate would be like. I did not even come close to the real woman."
She kissed him. She had no other way to answer him, to show him what he meant to her. She poured her feelings into her kiss, came up for air laughing. "I can't possibly keep my eyes closed all the time. What are we going to do about this? I'm kissing you, lift my head, and accidentally open my eyes. You have three heads, and one of them is whirling around on your neck. Another appears to have some sort of strange bonelike thing running through the middle of your forehead. You don't really look like that, do you? If so, you might have warned me that handsome man in the mirror you showed me was a complete figment of your imagination."
Laughing, he rolled over so she was flat on her back. "We have to have very dark glasses that do not allow you to see at all."
"In the meantime, shall I wrap my head like a mummy?"
"I doubt your family will find the humor in it. Tasha would think I had you wrapped up to ship off to Egypt. I think you better wear your own glasses until we can get others. They should help." He handed her the familiar pair.
Grazie, " she murmured and slipped them on.
He stood up. "Picture being completely clean and showered. See if you can build the image."
She stood up, stretched, her arms over her head. "I can't wait to see poor Celt. He must have been so lonely. Can he stay with us from now on? I know he didn't like being alone." Antonietta did her best to hold a picture of herself, fresh from the shower, uppermost in her mind. "What do you do for clothes when you shape-shift?"
"I will make certain you have clothes, cara. "
"Did you touch Paul this evening? Is he going to be all right?"
"Yes, he is weak and in pain, but he will heal. Tasha and Justine spent the night with him. At the moment he is resting. We will attend him when we reach the palazzo. We should go. We must tell Don Giovanni we are to be married immediately. I think it will be better if I ask him for your hand in marriage. While I am doing that, you can tell Tasha. I am certain she is bound to throw things, and it will be better if I am not present."
"Coward." The smile faded from her face. "Before we do anything else, we have to talk to Marita. I can't have her in the house, even if she is Franco's wife, if she's involved in some sort of theft ring." Antonietta shook her head, touching her dark glasses to make certain they wouldn't come off. "If she's involved in some way, the children and Franco are going to be devastated."
"Marita is easy enough to read, Antonietta. And it is time we push past some of these barriers to see just who has been adding poison to your meals. It has to be someone in the house. As much as I know you want the culprit to be someone other than your family, few outsiders have access to your food."
Antonietta turned away from him. She couldn't bear to think that a member of her family would try to kill her, let alone Don Giovanni. He could be stern and even at times seemed unforgiving, but she knew he was a loving, generous man whose life revolved around his family.
"Are you ready to try shape-shifting? Something easy. A bird, something familiar to you." Byron captured her hand, wanting to take her mind off her fears and give her something to anticipate.
"I've been ready since I woke up."
Byron bent his head to kiss her. "I knew you would say that."
It was all she could do not to jump up and down on the bed like an eager child. She knew exactly how Josef felt. "Tell me what to do."
He led her out to the verandah overlooking the sea, "Merge completely with me. I will hold the image of the owl in your mind. At first you will be caught up in the beauty of flying, but you have to work at remembering to hold that image yourself. It takes years of practice to perfect it. And the actual shifting feels strange. You are submerging yourself, the essence of who you are, into another creature, another form. You have to control that form and all of its urges."
"Do the other women who have been converted have help?"
"From what I understand they do, they just accept it without question. I am not certain they even realize the image and control is being held by their lifemate. We stay merged so much, can you always tell who has the first thought?"
She nodded. "Let's do it then."
The detail of the bird was amazing. She studied it carefully, paying attention to every curve, every feather. She caught the first shimmer of awareness in her mind. Her skin prickled. She kept her eyes closed tightly and let it happen, allowed her body to change while somewhere inside she felt the entire process. She stayed very still, afraid if she moved she might make a mistake. Afraid it wouldn't happen.
Try your wings.
Cautiously, she stretched the layers of feathers to their full length and fanned the air experimentally. Joy burst through her.
I'm an owl. Stay very close to me, Antonietta. Keep that image uppermost in your mind. You have to provide a map. If I try to open my eyes, I'm disoriented. Just stay close. When we get to the palazzo, we can practice shielding our physical bodies from the sight of others. Oh my gosh! Like an invisibility cloak. The invisible man. This is so fantastic. That is later. This is now. Really concentrate, Antonietta. You can get in trouble and fall from the sky. Hop up here to the banister, and we will launch out over the sea. So if I crash, I'll just fall into the sea and drown as opposed to hitting the ground at record speed and breaking every bone in my body. That will not happen. I can carry you again if you prefer.
Antonietta, deep inside the bird's body, sniffed her disdain of his idea and hopped up beside him on the wide railing. Before she could talk herself out of it, she leapt off the ledge, wings spread wide. The wind caught her, lifted her up, ruffled her feathers. The feeling of flying was even more intense when she was the one actually doing it. Antonietta forgot everything Byron told her. The sheer exhilaration of soaring in the heavens with the wind and the clouds filled her with joy.
Byron flew close to her, holding the image in her mind, shifting to place his body slightly below hers to keep her from falling when she became too exuberant. He didn't reprimand her. Her joy flooded him with memories of his first experiences. They approached the palazzo from the seaside, dropping down in the cover of the maze.
Antonietta landed hard on her bare bottom, was shocked when Byron thrust clothes into her hand. "I'm not going to ask." She was trying hard not to laugh, rubbing her posterior. "Was that the very worst landing you've ever seen?"
He framed her face with his hands and fastened his mouth to hers. "You are a miracle, Antonietta, and you do not even realize it." He watched her pull the soft moss-green trousers over bare skin and shimmy into the matching silk blouse.
Leaves rustled, a twig snapped. The soft murmur of voices in the distance alerted Byron and Antonietta to the others walking in the maze. They could also hear Don Giovanni singing softly under his breath as he puttered around the courtyard, checking his beloved flowers.
The voices were hushed but angry. "That's Christopher Demonesini," Antonietta said. She shoved the dark glasses onto her nose, so upset she didn't ask where Byron got them. "How dare that man show his face in our home? Franco should have thrown him out immediately."
Byron put a restraining hand on her arm. "Let me give you the rules of invisibility, Warrior Princess. You do not get to go wielding your broadsword and driving the enemy from your property. You are invisible. You gather information, and the most important of all things is not to react to what you hear. No reaction. That is the key." He pulled her closer to him as the footsteps continued to approach and the voices became louder.
Wrapped in Byron's restraining arms, Antonietta did her best to simply listen when every instinct she possessed told her to confront Christopher.
"I don't care who you are or what power your family has, Demonesini. You can fill the Scarletti palazzo with a million roses. It won't make up for what you did." Diego's voice was a whip of contempt.
"This is none of your business," Christopher contradicted. "Natasha is my fiancee, and what happens is between us."
"Not anymore. She broke the engagement, and she asked you very politely to stay away from her. Your calls and flowers aren't wanted."
"I don't think you know who you're talking to. I can have you dismissed from your job. You might remember that the next time you decide to stick your nose in my business. Get the hell away from me and stay away from Natasha." Christopher laughed. "You probably think she'll look at you next, but a woman like Natasha Scarletti would never stoop so low."
"I don't think you quite understand what I'm saying to you." Diego stopped walking and turned toward Christopher only feet from where Antonietta and Byron were standing. Antonietta could easily see the images in Byron's mind. Diego's hand shot out and caught Christopher by the throat. "Your money doesn't impress me. You can threaten me with dismissal from my job, but it won't stop me. Leave her alone." His fingers threatened to crush Demonesini's larynx. "She doesn't want to see you again. She doesn't want to hear your voice. Stay away from her, because if you don't, you'll be looking over your shoulder for the rest of your life. Have I made myself perfectly clear?"
Diego let go of Christopher, who staggered and coughed, massaging his throat. The captain walked away, disappearing behind the tall hedges.
Can you read his mind? I thought you did not approve of reading minds. Maybe he's the jaguar. He's always been a smug little brat, even when we were kids. He hasn't improved with age. I should have known he was capable of beating a woman. His father certainly is.
He has the same barrier all of you have, so the Jaguar genetics run deep in him. Byron materialized in front of Christopher Demonesini, waving his hand for silence and staring deep into the man's eyes. Antonietta, merged so deeply with Byron, received the flow of information as Byron extracted it.
Christopher Demonesini lived with a monster. His father was ruthless with his fists and ruled his household as a dictator. There was no memory of a jaguar or killing people, but his father had ordered him to marry Natasha Scarletti-Fontaine. It seemed to be part of a plan for a merger of the two shipping businesses. Christopher was afraid of his father and would go to any lengths to prove himself to the man.
Byron moved some distance away, veiling Christopher's sight and removing all traces of his memory of sharing his thoughts. Christopher shook his head repeatedly, cursed as he rubbed his throat, and hurried back through the maze, retracing his steps.
Antonietta leaned against Byron. "How awful to grow up like that. I'm ashamed of myself for disliking him so intensely. He had little chance to be anything but like his father."
"Tasha is not like her father. We all have choices, Antonietta. At some point we have to take responsibility for our own lives. Christopher is capable of becoming a monster every bit as ugly as his father. Diego will have to watch himself in his career. Christopher will never forget what happened here today. Still, as much as I wish to have found it, I could see no trace of the jaguar in him, although the genetics are clearly present as they are in you. How strong, I do not know. We cannot rule him out as the animal, but I detected no conspiracy for murder or even for theft."
"His father is a horrible man. I can remember him coming to visit when I was a teenager. Our families travel in the same social circles, so he was often at parties and charity events. He always touched me. Brushing his hands accidentally against my breasts. Standing behind me and pushing against me, rubbing his body against mine. He made me ill. If I said anything, he always acted as if I were a child, misinterpreting what happened. Accidents, you know, and I was blind and couldn't see what happened. Then he actually tried to court me. I had such an aversion to him, I wouldn't even stay in the same room alone with him. I made poor Tasha stay right by my side every second. Tasha never let me down. Not once. The don would do his best to get her out of the room, but she stuck like glue." A shudder ran through her body. "I always know when he comes in a room. Every hair on my body stands up, and I get that strange itching under my skin I always associate with the jaguar wanting to come out."
Byron smiled. She had the instant impression of teeth bared. "I look forward to meeting Christopher's father. He should meet a real monster and learn the rules of the jungle."
Antonietta wrapped her arms around Byron's neck. "I don't want you to do anything at all. I have you, and his family can't hurt us. They're desperate for a way to save their business, but it won't be through a Scarletti."
His kiss was tender, loving. "I want to speak to your grandfather and arrange our wedding immediately."
"He'll ask you to sign a prenuptial agreement."
"I am a gem-caller, Antonietta. I find rare gems. I do not need nor want the Scarletti fortune. You do not need it either. What I have is yours. I will be more than happy to sign whatever agreement your grandfather deems necessary, as long as he has it drawn up immediately." He took her hand as they made their way through the twists and turns of the maze.
In the courtyard, Josef stood before an easel gazing up at the battlements. He wore his beret at a jaunty angle and a bright kerchief tied around his neck. Splashes of paint dotted his face and were smeared on his smocklike shirt. He is clearly in his painter period. Byron was sarcastic. He seems to go through stages like no other child in history.
Antonietta studied the painting.
Actually, he's not bad. He has talent. Of course he has talent. Eleanor raised him. She would make certain he had every opportunity to develop whatever gift he had. He is just such a... Boy?
Antonietta laughed softly in Byron's mind.
Isn't he supposed to be one?
Josef put down his paintbrush and went over to the side of the palazzo, studying the smooth walls, the wealth of sculptures and stained glass. For a moment his form shimmered, wavered, then he was crouched on the side of the palazzo, clinging with hands and feet, a human spider dressed in black with a webbed mask over his face.
What in the world is he doing?
Byron scanned his nephew's mind and sighed loudly. Vincente and Margurite shared an American comic book with him. He is Spiderman, racing up the side of the building to rescue the maiden in distress.
What maiden? Tasha. She just does not know she is the figment of his boyish dreams. It is not dark enough for him to be trying such a stunt, and he is not able to do more than one thing at a time, so he cannot cloak himself from human eyes. Your grandfather is in the courtyard looking at his flowers. All he has to do is look up, and he would see Josef.
Antonietta studied the images in Byron's mind. Josef moved up the side of the second story, much like Dracula in the movies. His form shimmered, shifted, went from webbed mask to startled horror. He slid down the sheer wall, bumped a window ledge, and plummeted to the courtyard below.
Swearing, Byron bounced airwaves, cushioning the boy's fall. Josef landed hard enough to knock the wind out of him but obviously wasn't seriously hurt. Don Giovanni heard the impact as Josef crashed through a low shrub, breaking several branches.
"What happened, young Josef? Did you trip? Are you hurt?"
Josef climbed gingerly to his feet, rubbing his posterior as he did so. "Just my pride. I can't seem to get anything right these days."
"I had a good look at your painting a few minutes ago, and it seemed quite good to me. I don't know all that much about art, but Tasha does. She'll have to take a look at it for you."
Josef followed the older man over to his easel and picked up a brush. "Do you really think she'll like it?" He splashed more paint on the canvas, choosing a bright, vivid red for droplets that ran over the entire painting.
Don Giovanni frowned and studied the work from various angles. "The picture was very authentic until you did that. What is the reasoning behind the red?"
Byron groaned and covered his face.
Do you mind very much if I strangle the kid and stuff him in the laundry chute?
Antonietta did her best not to laugh. Practicing to maintain invisibility and then giving the entire thing away by laughing wouldn't earn her too many points.
You said the key was not reacting to anything. That was the rule before Josef came into the world. Now it's kill or be killed, the way of the jungle.
"It's blood, of course. See up here, looming over the palazzo, the eyes of a predator? That's the vampire cloaked in darkness. He's made his kill up on the battlements."
Don Giovanni struggled to keep his face blank. "Very imaginative. I have seen few villas with vampires on the battlements."
Josef shrugged his shoulders. "The hunters do a fairly good job of keeping the numbers down. I would make a great hunter, but my mother won't hear of it." For a moment he stared deliberately at Don Giovanni, his eyes glowing red, his face contorting into a mask of evil.
Don Giovanni took a step back, blinked to bring Josef back in focus, and saw only a grinning, boyish face.
Byron waved his hand to veil Don Giovanni's mind, holding him still within a thrall. Positioning himself in front of his nephew, he shifted the shape of his head.
Don't do it.
Antoinetta cautioned, pressing a hand to her mouth to keep from laughing.
It's so undignified to stoop to his level.
Josef reached up with his paintbrush to add a finishing touch to one of the droplets. The muzzle of a wolf came at his face, bared teeth, dripping with saliva, snapped, eyes red and wicked, glowing in the dusk. Josef stumbled backward, stabbing at the wolf's head with his paintbrush as he did so, tripped over his own feet, and fell to the lawn screaming, crab-walking backward.
In the blink of an eye, Byron disappeared, and Don Giovanni was staring down at Josef with a strange expression. "You need to get off the drugs boy, no good comes of using that stuff. You have a good family. You don't want to bring them sorrow."
Josef looked around himself cautiously. "Has my family been here? My father or my uncle?" He dusted off his clothes meticulously.
"Not yet, but they'll probably come soon. You should think about what I said, Josef. Take it from an old man who has lived a long time. Drugs tear apart families."
"Yes, sir." Josef said politely, "you're absolutely right."
Byron and Antonietta strolled out of the maze, hand in hand. "Good evening, Don Giovanni, Josef." Byron's white teeth flashed. "How is Paul this evening?"
"He woke only a short time ago. He slept all day and is still refusing to have us call a doctor. He said he would wait for you and Antonietta. He looked pale to me, but he isn't running a temperature, thank the good Dio." Don Giovanni took Antonietta's hand and drew her to him. "You look lovely, my dear. Byron is good for you."
"I would like to speak to you about my feelings for Antonietta," Byron said. "Would you mind walking with us?"
The older Scarletti lifted a hand toward Josef even as he retained possession of Antonietta. "You're thinking of stealing my granddaughter from me."
"Never that, old friend. She would be far too unhappy away from you. I can do my work here as well as in my homeland. Short trips away only. I would like your permission to marry her. More than anything, we would want your blessing."
Don Giovanni tucked Antonietta's hand into the crook of his elbow. "This is what you want? You're certain?"
"Absolutely, Nonno. We're good together. I trust him completely, and I'm very much in love with him."
"Where would you live?"
"I've asked Byron to live here at the palazzo, and he agreed."
"We can maintain more than one residence. I will have to make trips to my homeland, but the palazzo can be our main residence. I would prefer and would insist on a ground-floor suite of rooms. And we hope to marry as soon as it can be arranged."
"The lawyers will demand a standard prenuptial agreement, stating everything belongs to Antonietta."
"I expected no less. I will not ask one of Antoinetta in return. What is mine, I share with her. We have no need of her money, but she will want it for the children." In his mind Antonietta gasped. Byron grinned boyishly. "Should there be any."
"I had hoped you two would fall in love." Don Giovanni hugged Byron, kissed him on either cheek. "I will arrange it. I'm grateful you aren't taking her away from me. I hope to live out my years with her close."
"I'll always be close," Antonietta assured him.
"That dog of yours has been pacing for the last couple of hours. He was fine with Vincente and Margurite, keeping them company, and then just about sunset he seemed agitated. Even Marita seems to like that dog. She didn't say a single word when the dog showed up in their rooms and stayed close to the children."
"Is Marita home, Nonno
"Yes. She seems different. Sad. She went to the small chapel right after dinner was served and remains there. I haven't heard her speak a single word all day. The police captain has been here asking more questions. Alfredo took to his bed, and that young man in the kitchen had to try his hand at cooking. What's his name? He prepared a very passable meal, although with Paul so ill, no one felt like eating."
"Esteben. He's related to Helena. She's always good in a crisis, so he must get it from her. I'll have to thank her for recommending him."
"The house is filled with flowers from Christopher. He's been calling for hours and begging to come over to speak with Tasha. I hope she has better sense than to take him back. She threw the first six bouquets away, but after that she gave up getting rid of them. The palazzo smells like a garden."
"At least the man has good taste in flowers," Antonietta said. "I need to speak to Marita. Would you mind telling Tasha I'll be in a little later?"
"Tasha will want to hear your news right away. She's been anxious about you. Between her and that dog, I haven't had a moments' peace."
Antonietta kissed Don Giovanni's cheek. "I'll be right in, I promise."
Shadows filled the chapel. The only light came from the flickering candles in a small alcove. The dancing light washed over the sculpted face of the Madonna recessed into the wall above the rows of candles. Marita was seated in a pew in front of the life-sized sculpture, weeping softly, a rosary wrapped around her hands. Tears poured down her face. Byron thought she looked haunted.
Byron and Antonietta slipped into the pew beside her. She kept her head down. "I knew you would come today. I knew you would have to come." Her voice was very low. "I was going to leave this morning, but I knew I owed you an explanation."
"Marita, this is your home. No one has asked you to leave." Antonietta searched carefully to find the right words. "We're family. Whatever is wrong, tell us and let us help you fix it."
"It can never be fixed. Never. I can't undo what happened, and no matter what, Franco will never forgive me."
Antonietta reached for Mania's hand. In the dark of the chapel, through the dark glasses Byron had given her, she could see the tear-ravaged face of her sister-in-law. Lights burst around her and made her stomach lurch, but she concentrated on Marita, willing herself to get past the dizzy shapes coming at her and see only her cousin's wife. "Let me help you, Marita. I'm asking you, one sister to another. I love Franco and the children. They need you. Going away isn't your answer, and I think you know that."
"Margurite is not Franco's child." The confession burst from Marita, horror she could no longer contain. She erupted into another storm of weeping, burying her face in her hands, sobbing as if her heart were breaking.
Antonietta tried not to show her shock. It was the last thing she expected from Marita. "That can't be. It's not possible."
"Years ago at a party at the Demonesini palazzo, Don Demonesini raped me. I was thrilled to be invited." Marita shook her head. "I don't know how it happened. I don't remember much at all. Don Demonesini paid me so much attention. He gave me drinks. I wasn't drinking alcohol, so I don't even have that excuse. I remember him taking me to a room. I tried to say no, I tried to push him away, but I couldn't stop him. I couldn't move. He did horrible things to me. There was someone in the room with us, someone taking pictures. It was a nightmare that will never go away."
"Why didn't you tell us?" Rage swept through Antonietta, a violent swirl of emotions. She couldn't tell if it was her feelings or Byron's, but a demon lifted its head and roared for release. For retribution.
"How could I tell anyone? I was so ashamed. My head hurt for days afterward, and I was sick to my stomach. And a month later I was late with my period. I didn't make love to Franco for a couple of weeks after the party, I couldn't bear him to touch me. I felt filthy. How could Margurite be his? He loves her so much. He was so happy when I was pregnant with her. I couldn't tell him. I couldn't break his heart."
"Marita, it wasn't your fault," Antonietta said. "There are tests to determine paternity."
"No! I won't do that to her. Margurite loves Franco, and Don Demonesini is a monster. I will never, never let her know she is his."
"I do not think she is Demonesini's child," Byron said.
Margurite's thought patterns are the same as yours and that of your cousins. Christopher's barriers were a bit different as are some of your servants. Helena's thought patterns are closer than Christopher's. I do not think it is possible Margurite is a Demonesini.
"Does Demonesini know you suspect Margurite is his child?" Antonietta asked.
"He's mentioned her age numerous times and says she has Christopher's eyes. I lied and said I went to a doctor and made certain there was no baby, but I didn't. I didn't." She pressed a trembling hand to her mouth. "He had the pictures of me. He threatened to sell them to a tabloid. It would ruin Franco. You know it would. And the children would see - "
"So he told you to talk Franco into giving him the information he wanted to underbid us on the contract with the Drange Company five years ago," Antonietta guessed.
"Franco would never have given them the information. Never, ever in a million years. He lied to protect me. I went to his office and I found the papers Demonesini told me would be there, I copied them and took them to him." She slumped back in the pew. "He knew, when it all came out, Franco knew I had to have done it. He lied to the family, and I let him. I let you all think he was a traitor to his own family. You should have seen his face when he found out, the way he looked at me." She covered her face with her hands again. "I broke his heart."
Antonietta shook her head. "What reason did you give Franco for doing such a thing?"
"I was hysterical when he confronted me. I was certain he would find out about the rape, and Demonesini would sell the photographs. I think he was afraid he would have to put me in a hospital. Franco just stopped questioning me and told me not to say anything no matter what happened."
"And the Handel score?"
"I thought if I could give Demonesini something worth a lot of money, he would give me the pictures."
"Did you take anything else from the palazzo to give him, Marita?" Antonietta's tone was very gentle, but Byron could hear the compulsion already buried deep within her voice.
Marita shook her head. "No, I don't know why I thought of the Handel score. I heard you working on it with Justine, and the idea suddenly came to me. I just waited until I had the opportunity to visit Don Giovanni and I asked him to put my necklace in his safe. He opened the safe with me standing right there. Trusting me." She pressed her hand to her temple. "I'm glad you caught me. I'm glad you found out the truth. When I leave, you can tell Franco about the pictures. Don't tell him about Margurite. It would break both their hearts, and if Don Demonesini insisted on his rights, poor little Margurite would be in his hands."
She is telling the truth. She is not part of a theft ring, she knows nothing about it.
"Demonesini will never get near Margurite. You have to tell Franco about the photographs. You're a strong woman, Marita. You're a Scarletti, and we don't back away from trouble or even scandal. If he wants to incriminate himself by selling those pictures to a tabloid, let him try. Franco will see him not only ruined but jailed. You don't know Franco if you think he will let Demonesini get away with this. Trust him. Tell what happened. Tell him everything. Let him decide if he wants or needs a paternity test. Once you tell Franco, Demonesini has lost his hold on you."
"I'm so afraid," Marita said.
"If you tell him, there's a chance he will accept everything and work with you to find a way out of this mess. If you sneak away and leave him and the children, all of you will be miserable, and you'll never know what his reaction really would have been."
Marita squeezed Antonietta's hand in gratitude. "
Grazie, Antonietta, for making me feel like I'm truly family."
Antonietta hugged her hard. "You are family, Marita. Go make peace with Franco so you can dance at my wedding."
Marita cried out. "You are really getting married? Nonno has given his blessing?"
"Yes, he's happy for us. We're going to tell Tasha and Paul."
"Paul's not well, Antonietta, but he still refuses a doctor. He's been sleeping most of the day, so much so Justine was alarmed, but he woke around sunset."
Antonietta stood up. "Go to Franco, Marita. Go somewhere quiet and pull the teeth from Demonesini. If Franco becomes enraged, and he will, it will be at that horrible monster, not at you."
"The pictures are graphic."
Marita nodded and slipped away. Antonietta sat for a long moment in silence. The flickering candles set bizarre shapes dancing in front of her eyes. "How sad that she didn't tell her husband immediately." She leaned her head against Byron's shoulder. "Why is it I keep getting glimpses of Don Demonesini lying dead on the floor and you standing over him with sharp teeth and demonic eyes? Surely you aren't thinking of harming him in any way."
"You are not?"
"Not quite in the same way. You seem a bit violent and earthy. I prefer sophistication. Taking apart his empire and exposing him for the monster he is."
"That still leaves him to prey on other women. He drugged her. You know that. He drugged her, raped her, and blackmailed her."
She heard the bite to his voice. This time she knew the demon roaring for release was in him. She felt the slow unfurling of claws, the lengthening of fangs, the snarl of rage at a monster of a man who could torment a woman in an attempt to ruin her family life. Byron.
You can be a very scary man. Never to you, cara. He leaned down and kissed her on her mouth before taking her inside the palazzo.