, Book Three
The cold was the first thing I registered. Icy fingers sliding over my skin. Pulling me forward. Drawing me into a darkness that would consume my soul for all eternity if I let it.
I jerked upright. Gasping, I struggling to breathe, struggled to see. But all around me, there was darkness. Darkness and that sinking feeling I was lost for good.
A cold sweat broke out across my skin when I realized I wasn’t alone. A shadowy figure stood still as stone beside me, staring down at me like a silent wraith.
My pulse roared in my ears. I quickly scanned the small dark room as much as I could without turning my head, searching for a way to escape. But I couldn’t see anyone else. The room was so dark, I couldn’t even see the door.
My hands shook. My body trembled. I didn’t know where I was. Didn’t remember anything but being alone in the main house on Marco and Felicity’s estate in Tuscany. Luc had left me earlier in the day to meet with his father to discuss the status of our marriage with the leaders of his House. Felicity had gone at dusk to take Dante, Luc’s youngest brother, to safety. And late in the evening, Marco had finally left the estate in an effort to help Luc.
Pain throbbed inside my skull. I racked my mind, trying to remember. Why had Marco needed to help Luc?
It hit me like a swift punch to the gut. Their House… The leaders of House Salvatici, one of the five remaining Houses in an Entente I’d recently learned ruled the world from the shadows, had called a gathering. They’d sanctioned our marriage, but they weren’t happy Luc, the heir to the Salvatici Dynasty, had broken one of their sacred rules by marrying me without permission.
Marco had left me alone at the estate to see what he could do for Luc. Because he’d feared the leaders were planning to somehow…
He’d feared the leaders were going to punish Luc.
I swallowed hard as the memories rushed back. I’d gone upstairs to wait for Luc to return to me. The balcony doors had been open. I’d crossed the dark room to close them. Turned. And…
My pulse raced as the memory flashed behind my eyes.
Four hooded figures in black, wearing stark white bauta masks, had stepped out of the shadows of my room. Had moved toward me.
Slowly, I looked up at the shadowed figure still standing quietly beside my bed, wondering if this was one of them. The one who’d thrown a black sack over my head? The one who’d injected some drug into my arm that had made me pass out. The one who’d abducted me and brought me here?
My throat closed all over again. I didn’t know where here was. I didn’t know what they planned to do with me. And Luc…
Terror wrapped icy arms around my chest and squeezed like a boa constrictor when I thought of Luc and what they could have already done to him.
Very carefully, I placed my hands at my sides and scooted back. Springs squeaked beneath me, and I realized I was on some kind of mattress. But I didn’t take my eyes off the figure standing still and silent at my side. And I didn’t open my mouth, too afraid of what would happen if I made a sound.
“There, there, now, dear,” the figure finally said in a clipped Italian accent. “You’re perfectly safe. There’s nothing to be frightened of.”
I froze because the voice was female, not male as I’d expected, and it was familiar in a way it shouldn’t be, especially in this place.
I squinted but still couldn’t make out anything more than a dark shape. But I knew that voice. I’d heard it in Tuscany, the first time Luc had brought me to Italy almost two months ago. “M-Mrs. Salvatici?”
“Yes, dear. It’s me.”
Fabric rustled, then the springs in the mattress squeaked as she sat on the side of the bed. I squinted harder, only to realize…I was right. This close, I could make out the whites of her eyes and the shape of her beside me. I also picked up the familiar scent of roses I remembered from my short visit to the Salvatici estate all those weeks ago.
“As soon as I heard what had happened,” Francesca Salvatici said, “I rushed right over.” Her hand covered mine on the mattress, but it wasn’t warm as I expected. It was cold. Cold and clammy. As cold as the fingers of death that had tried to draw me into the darkness before. “Now, there’s nothing to be frightened of, but you really do need to learn to be more docile. We’ve wasted precious time because you were so combative.”
I was having trouble following her, but I wasn’t sure if that was because I was still fuzzy from whatever drugs the men in black robes had given me, or if I was dreaming this entire conversation.
“Wh-what’s going on?” My voice shook even though I tried like hell to keep it steady. “Where’s Luc?”
“Do not worry your simple little head about Luciano. He is anxiously awaiting your arrival.” She squeezed my hand in a way that was anything but reassuring. “That’s why I’m here. To take you to him, of course.”
She was placating me. But I ignored her condescending words because the chill to her voice put me on instant alert. This woman wasn’t the innocent little wife she made herself out to be. I sensed she knew everything that happened in the Salvatici House. Knew and supported it. “What did you do to him?”
She had the audacity to gasp. “Why, I did nothing to my son. What kind of mother do you think I am?” Her cold fingers released mine, and she pushed to her feet. “Regardless of your distrust where this family is concerned, it has become obvious to Antonio and myself that Luciano cares for you greatly. As such, we decided it was past time we welcomed you into the family properly.” She nodded toward something at the foot of the bed. “Seeing as how you are not dressed appropriately, I brought you something to wear. I’ll step out while you change, then I’ll be back to take you to Luciano.”
Her heels clicked across the floor. Seconds later, she knocked against something solid. Hinges creaked, then a heavy door pushed inward, flooding the room with light that blinded me.
I lifted a hand to block the glare and tried to see past the opening. Luc’s mother, dressed in a fitted skirt and trim jacket, stepped out into the hallway and spoke in a low voice with another person I couldn’t quite make out. Seconds later, a light flipped on in the room, burning my retinas. I dropped my eyelids just as the heavy steel clanked shut.
It took several minutes for the spots to clear from my vision, and when they did I realized I was in some kind of cell. The walls and floor were cement. There were no windows, no furnishings beside a wrought iron bedframe and a dingy old mattress. And there was a drain in the middle of the floor that sent all kinds of horrible images through my mind.
I swallowed back the nausea and looked away from that drain, telling myself not to hyperventilate. But I had no concept of time. I didn’t know how long I’d been out or even what country I was in anymore. And as much as I wanted to believe Luc’s mother was telling the truth and that Luc was somewhere close waiting for me, I knew not to trust her. Not after she’d stood back and let the leaders of her House beat and imprison her youngest son, Dante. Not after I’d learned she hadn’t stopped those same leaders from murdering Dante’s pregnant wife.
My stomach revolted as that memory rushed clear and sudden through my mind. They’d killed Maricella because Dante had married her without approval. That was why Luc had gone to meet with his father. So his House wouldn’t come after me in the same way.
I pressed a shaky hand to my abdomen and looked around the dingy cell, my hope fading. Ultimately, they had come after me. Nothing Luc had done to try to stop them had worked. And if they planned to do to me what they’d done to Maricella…
Sickness surged up my throat. I breathed deeply, fighting to stay in control. I wasn’t going to be afraid of them. I’d made the choice to come back to Luc even knowing it might put my life in danger. But Luc… He’d snap if they hurt me. And if that happened, I was terrified of what it would do to him.
A knock echoed against the steel door. I jumped and twisted toward the sound. Seconds later, Luc’s mother called, “Natalie? Are you dressed?”
“I…” Heart pounding, I pushed to my feet, wobbling because I was light-headed from the drugs. “J-just a minute.”
Every instinct I had said not to cooperate with whatever these people had planned for me, but I needed to find Luc. I needed to make sure he was okay. And I wouldn’t give them any more reason to punish him.
I turned toward the foot of the bed, only for my stomach to revolt all over again. The garment she’d brought me was a lightweight, short, white cotton dress. One that was barely more than see-through. One I’d witnessed other women wearing once before. On a cold night in the woods in Tuscany, when I’d followed Luc and stumbled upon that depraved ritual among the trees and discovered the sick things his House was involved in.
I didn’t want to put that thing on, but I knew if I refused, someone would probably just come in and do it for me. Hands shaking, I tugged off my tank and pajama bottoms and pulled the dress over my head. It hit high on my thighs and felt like tissue paper, and I was sure if someone shone a light behind me, they could see every part of my body. But then that was the purpose, wasn’t it? To put me on display, to take away my dignity. They wanted to humiliate me and show me just where they thought I belonged.
I straightened my spine, determined not to let them win. No matter what they had planned for me, I wouldn’t show fear. I would not give them what they wanted.
Tugging the dress down as far as I could, I said, “I-I’m ready.”
The heavy door pushed open with a squeak of old hinges, then Luc’s mother stepped into the dank room again, looking completely out of place with her expensive pink suit, high heels, and perfectly made-up face. She stared at me as if I were a bug she couldn’t wait to grind into the dust.
“Well, now. It’s a little snug around the hips, isn’t it? Sadly, there’s nothing to be done for that, I’m afraid. Saddlebags on a woman are a sign of poor breeding. I supposed it will have to do.” She clucked her tongue, then turned away from me. “Come now. Luciano is waiting.”
All that fear inside me was replaced with a primal urge to shove my foot straight into the woman’s spine, to send her sailing face first into the wall. To hear her nose crack as she hit. No wonder Luc had been so cold and distant when we’d first met. I couldn’t imagine having this for a mother.
I checked the urge only because I knew it wouldn’t help me find Luc, and followed her out into the hall. A chill radiated up through the cold cement and into my bare feet. I shivered, wishing they’d brought me shoes, but knew it was useless to wish for anything from these people.
The hall was nothing more than cement walls and bare bulbs illuminating the dark corridor every ten feet. A figure in a black cape wearing the same frightening white bauta mask stared at me as I exited the cell, the icy eyes behind the mask sending a shiver down my spine that brought all that fear rushing back. Luc’s mother spoke to the figure in Italian, then he turned and headed down the long hall into the darkness, his cape swooshing ominously around him. With a muttered “Keep up” to me, Luc’s mother followed, the click of her heels like doomed drumbeats in my ears.
My stomach pitched, but I followed silently, scanning each door we passed, searching for any sign of Luc. The hallway was as silent as my room had been, though, and there was nothing that made me think Luc was anywhere close. When we reached an old arched iron door at the end of the long corridor, I held my breath and waited, praying that whatever I saw on the other side of that door wouldn’t terrorize me for life.
Instead of some twisted sex dungeon—as I half expected to be led into—the door opened to a fancy sitting room. Plush leather furnishings filled the space. A thick red carpet that warmed my cold feet covered the floor. The walls were lined with bookshelves, and intricate dark wood moldings framed the doorways and ceiling. There was even a wide curved staircase with an impressive banister at the back of the room, making me think I was in some kind of mansion.
The steel door snapped closed with a heavy clack, then Luc’s mother motioned me forward, away from the door, and I turned and watched as the hooded figure swung a large bookshelf in front of the door, hiding it from view. When the secret door was closed, he stood in front of the bookshelf and stared at me with that same icy stare he’d leveled on me before.
I swallowed hard, wondering who he was. It was clear from the way he looked at me that he didn’t like me. I just wasn’t sure if that was because he knew me personally, or if it was because he was simply evil.
“Natalie,” Luc’s mother hissed.
I swung around to see that she was already at the base of the staircase, motioning for me to catch up.
Heart in my throat, I picked up my pace and reached her. No part of me was happy with where she was leading me, but I couldn’t deny that I was relieved to be away from that figure in black.
“Now, listen carefully,” Luc’s mother said to me as she climbed the curved staircase and I followed closely at her heels. “We’re late thanks to your delay in waking. When you see Luciano, be sure to let him know you’ve arrived. And don’t fret if he’s distracted. As a Salvatici wife, you must become tolerant to distractions of all kinds.”
I had no idea what she meant, but I wasn’t stupid enough to ask because she was clearly belittling me again. Clenching my jaw, I followed her to the second level and down another long hallway, this one immaculately decorated with tall marble columns, intricate paintings hanging on the walls, and expensive sconce lighting.
We took a right, and a left, and another right, and then she stopped at a heavy wood door and rapped once with her knuckles. The door pushed open, and she moved into the dark space.
My heart pounded hard as I stepped into the room. The space wasn’t big, and I had the impression of heavy velvet drapes on both sides of me. Ahead was a light, and shadowed figures in chairs. As I moved into the space, I realized there was a banister, and that this was some kind of balcony, overlooking a vast space.
The door clanged shut at my back. I startled at the sound and whipped around. Two more hooded black figures in white masks stood on each side of the door, blocking my exit. My adrenaline spiked. I scrambled back, only to realize I was on some kind of step.
“Natalie.” Luc’s mother hissed.
A shiver racked my body as I looked back at Luc’s mother. She was already three steps below me, near the chairs and the railing that overlooked I didn’t know what.
“This way.” She motioned me forward with a curt wave of her hand. “Stop dawdling.”
My pulse thundered in my ears. Slowly, I stepped forward. Sounds echoed from below that railing. Chants. Chains rattling. And a low moan I vaguely recognized.
My feet drew to a stop on the bottom step. The sounds increased in intensity. My arms began to shake as I stood there, not wanting to see what was beyond that railing. Wrapping them around my waist, I held on and slowly rocked from side to side, telling myself everything was going to be okay. That she was just trying to scare me. Luc wasn’t down there. They wouldn’t hurt him.
Cold fingers wrapped around my wrist, and Luc’s mother jerked me forward, right to the edge of the railing.
“I told you Luciano was waiting, dear girl. See for yourself.”
I gasped at the tight grip she had on my wrist, but when I saw into the room below, my eyes flew wide and the blood drained from my face.