The greatest lover of all time was at it again, smoothly seducing the artless country girl Zerlina, as Mozart's famed duet "La ci darem la mano"
filled the sumptuous theater with a graceful spire of twining voices, tenor and soprano making love to each other in exquisite song.
No one was paying attention. The wink of opera glasses and the rustling whispers betrayed that the glittering audience's fascination was fixed, not on the stage, but on the first and finest theater box on the mezzanine, stage right, perched over the orchestra. Cloyingly sculpted with cupids and urns and draped plasterwork ribbons, the box was permanently reserved for royalty.
He sat at the carved marble rail, half in shadow, unmoving, his suntanned face expressionless. Light from the stage gleamed on the signet ring on his finger, played over the patrician angles of his face, and gilded his long dark-gold hair, which was swept back in a queue.
The audience watched with bated breath as he moved for the first time since the performance had begun. Slowly he reached into the pocket of his extravagant waistcoat, took a peppermint from a flat metal tin, and placed it in his mouth.
Ladies watched him suck the candy and blushed, fluttering their fans.I am so bored
, he thought, his eyes glazing over. So, so very bored
The favored members of his entourage sat around him in the theater box, sullen, gilded young lords, gorgeously dressed. Behind their air of studied idleness, they had hard, hooded eyes, weapons concealed beneath their coats. With a few, the scent of opium smoke clung to their rich clothes. Some in his little flock went further than others, but everything was allowed.
"Your Highness?" came a whisper from his right.
Never taking his dull, heavy gaze off his beautiful mistress on the stage, Crown Prince Raffaele Giancarlo Ettore di Fiore flicked one jeweled hand, brushing off the proffered flask. He was in no humor for liquor, brooding in a cynical mood that Dante had had it all wrong.
The Inferno, with all its fire and brimstone, could not be worse than this echoless realm of Limbo where he was suspended in eternal waiting.
Being born the son of a great man was a hard thing; yet somehow Rafe had managed to get himself sired by one who was not only great but also evidently immortal. He did not by any means wish his father's demise, but in light of the fact that he would turn thirty tomorrow, he was besieged by a general sense of doom.
Time was flying past and he was getting nowhere. Had any aspect of his life changed significantly since he was, oh, eighteen? he wondered as the robust song from Don Giovanni
faded into the background of his awareness. He still had the same friends, played the same games, still languished in pointless luxury, a prisoner of his rank.
Unable to make a move in control of his own destiny, he was merely his father's puppet, nothing more. Every matter of consequence concerning his existence must first be debated over, voted on, and approved by the court, the newspapers, and the whole damned senate, and Lord, he was tired of it. He felt more like a prisoner than a prince, not a man but an overgrown adolescent.
He had given up arguing with Father to assign him some meaningful task worthy of his ability and education. It was futile. The old tyrant refused to part with an ounce of his power.
Ah, what was the point of caring? He fancied he might as well sleep the years away in a glass coffin behind some enchanted wall of thorns. They could wake him when it was time for his life to begin.
After an eternity or so, Don Giovanni was dragged off to Hell and the opera was finally done. He and his followers left the theater box while the audience was still applauding.
He stared straight ahead as they strode in a pack down the marbled hall, pretending that he did not see the people lined up, beaming eager smiles at him, all the nice people who wanted a bite of him, like the stout, vaguely familiar matron who attempted to stop him presently.
"Your Highness," she gushed, curtsying with her nose almost to the floor, "how marvelous to see you this evening! My dear husband and myself and our three lovely girls would be so honored if you would come to our soiree--"
"My regrets, madam, thank you and goodnight," he muttered harshly as he kept walking. God, save me from hopeful mothers-in-law
One of the dread journalists pushed his way to the fore. "Your Highness, did you really win fifty thousand lire in a wager last week and did your phaeton really break an axle in the race?"
"Get him out of here," he muttered to his boyhood friend Adriano di Tadzio.
Then Lord Someone-or-other stepped partly into his path with a dignified bow. "Your Highness, what a smashing performance by Miss Sinclair! Beg pardon, I have some people here who would love to meet you--"
He growled and moved past the bald man, then he and his entourage did not stop until they reached the backstage regions of the large, elegant theater.
With a slow swagger, chin high, Rafe stepped inside the actresses' dressing room and instantly began to feel better, the tension easing marginally from him. There were scantily clad women everywhere and that was a sight to lift any man's spirits, however jaded. Women
. The warm, sweet smell of their flesh made him breathe easier. With a rather cool half-smile he glanced around slowly, surveying the selection.
"Look! He's here!"
A shrill chorus of feminine screams of delight filled the drafty, candlelit dressing room. They raced at him from every quarter."Raaaaafe!"
A pack of screaming, squealing girls swamped him. All talking at once, they pulled him down into a chair, three of the actresses sitting on his lap, giggling and stroking his chest, and two draped around his neck, covering his face in kisses.
"Ah," he sighed, smiling slightly for the first time that night as he leaned back lazily in the chair, closing his eyes and drowning pleasantly under the soft, scented, writhing mass of lovely limbs and unbound breasts and lace flounces and careful curls. "I love the theater."
He heard them giggling, felt them rummaging in his coat and waistcoat like pickpocket children searching for treats. Ah, well. He supposed he had spoiled them, rolling them a handful of jewels last time he'd been here, foxed as Pharaoh.
Soft lips alighted on his mouth, caressing lightly. After a judicious moment, he began kissing back, willing ennui away. Touching wherever he pleased, he sampled their kisses one by one, but the fun ended when Chloe arrived.
Rafe watched the English diva strutting toward him in her clinging silvery gown.
She had a perfect body and a gleaming smile, his latest toy. They had been lovers for four months now, a record for Rafe. He did not quite know how to tell her that he had begun losing interest. He was rather hoping she would figure it out for herself.
Chloe huffed to see her sister thespians all over her royal protector. She slid her feather boa off her creamy shoulders and pushed her way into their midst, catching Rafe around the neck with it. He glanced up with an unrepentant half-smile. Chloe gave him a disapproving look, but didn't dare reproach him.
Instead, she fluffed the feather boa on him. "Darling, how avant-garde."
"Ooo, it looks so pretty on him!" one of the girls exclaimed, fixing the pink feather boa over his shoulder like a scarf.
"Everything does," another sighed.
He stared dully at the chit, wondering if he had ever been that young and easily impressed.
"Look at this, Prince Rafie!" a buxom brunette said eagerly, climbing off his lap. Daringly, she lifted the hem of her chemise and bared the left cheek of her pretty, rounded bottom for him.
He lifted his eyebrows, admiring the R tattooed there. He traced the monogrammed letter with his fingertip lightly over the curve of tender flesh. "How sweet of you, my pet. What was your name again?"
"Begone, you little tramps, or I'll speak to the house manager and you'll all be out of a job!" Chloe snapped, shooing them off.
Rafe chuckled at his mistress's pique, saying nothing as the girls sadly drifted away, curls drooping. He smiled to himself, watching his friends intercept them, flirting, billfolds at the ready.
"Lovely, lovely little tarts." He glanced up at the haughty blond with a wicked gleam in his eyes. "And then there's you, madam witch."
She leaned over him, grasped both ends of the feather boa, and tugged. "That's right," she whispered, holding him in a sultry stare, "and you, my devil, are coming with me. I must punish you for sleeping through my aria. Don't think I didn't see you."
"I was awake ... but you can punish me as you see fit," he murmured softly as he stood, towering over her. As she laughed and led him by the gaudy feather boa, Chloe's hungry gaze teased him with pleasures yet to come. He pretended not to notice the sheer worship in her eyes, looking away to nod at his companions. "See you around two at the club," he said, holding the door for Chloe, who slid the feather boa off his shoulders.
"Ciao," said Adriano with a toss of his black forelock.
"Enjoy," Niccolo drawled with a smirk.
Just then, Rafe heard someone calling him.
"Your Highness! Your Highness! Sir!"
Halfway out the door, he turned around and saw a courier in royal livery bustling through the dressing room. Instantly every muscle in his body tensed with checked hostility.A message from the king.
As the courier hurried toward him, Rafe drew a deep breath and let it out slowly, for he was not a man who lost his temper. His father was the blustery hothead in the family; he prided himself on remaining coolly graceful at all times. He lifted both brows expectantly as the courier bowed.
my good father this night?" he asked, his tone soft but edged with the barest hint of irony.
The courier bowed apologetically. "His Majesty summons you, Your Highness."
Rafe stared at him for a long moment, his slight, urbane smile pasted in place, his marble-green eyes snapping with anger. "Tell him I will call on him tomorrow around noon. After I have had my breakfast."
"Pardon, Your Highness," the man said with a gulp, bowing again, "the king insists you come anon."
"Is it an emergency?"
"I know not, sir," the man stammered. "His Majesty sent the carriage--"
"I have my own carriage," Rafe said pleasantly through gritted teeth, realizing that Father must have sent the gaudy state coach because, hang it all, he had probably heard about his drunken race, roaring across the countryside in the dead of night last Wednesday.
No doubt the reason for the summons was that his father wished to scald his ears again as usual with another recounting of his many failings as a future king, how the responsibility was going to crush him because he was just a dreamer, and how the courtiers were going to eat him alive, et cetera, et cetera.
He was really in no mood to hear it.
Meanwhile, his friends, his mistress, and his charming young devotees were all watching the exchange with worried looks, as though they expected him to explode any day now, any moment.
He saw he had a choice--the same choice as always. Either he could make a scene like a churl and stand on his pride, or, as usual, swallow the humiliation of having to jump whenever his father snapped his fingers and exit like the prince he was down to his fingertips.
His voice was velvet, his slight, cold smile angelic. "I will be pleased to attend His Majesty at once, but rest assured, I will take my own carriage."
The courier bobbed as though he might collapse with relief. "As Your Highness wishes." He backed away from Rafe, still bowing.
Rafe turned to his mistress, lifted her hand and kissed it in taut gallantry, his angry thoughts a million miles away. "Apologies, my sugar-sweet."
"It's all right, darling," she soothed, caressing his arm, then looked meaningfully into his eyes. "As long as I can still give you your birthday present tomorrow."
"I cannot wait to see what it is," he murmured with a knowing half-smile.
Then he walked out alone, still shaking his head to himself at the thought of his father's high handedness, though the same routine ought to come as no surprise by now.
Outside, the ornate gilded state coach which the king had insultingly sent to collect him was just pulling away. Waiting for him in front of the theater crouched the smart, new, exceedingly expensive landau with mahogany panels and elliptical springs that had been lent to him, gratis, by the city's finest carriage-maker, who was fixing his phaeton's broken axle.
The generous gesture had been a prudent move on the wheelwright's part, Rafe thought cynically, for now that model of equipage was selling like mad. Strange how the world at large disparaged him for his wild ways, yet their slavish mimicry of his every passing whim had made him the kingdom's arbiter of fashion. He could not boast of a stainless conscience, but at least he had excellent taste.
The street was crowded in front of the lavish theater, people still thronging the area since the opera had just let out. Vendors were selling them flavored ices. Since the grand opera hall in Belfort was being renovated, the ton had flocked to this smaller theater in the quaint coastal town a few miles down the hill. The cafés along the beach had become all the rage.
Walking out to his waiting coach, Rafe breathed the flowery, salt-laden air of his homeland and paused to stare up the hill at the great crooked bulk of the Italian island where his family had ruled for seven hundred years.
Under the moon, the port town before him was narrow and long, hugging the steep terraced hillside. The lampposts, frugally spaced along the quay to his right, cast a dim glow upon stout palm trees blowing in the night wind. He turned, the breeze caressing his clean-shaved cheeks as he stared at the lush purple mounds of oleander waving amid the dark boulders that abutted the beach.
He looked at the row of narrow shops with painted hanging signs. On the upper stories, small wrought-iron balconies overlooked the harbor and the rocky strand. Every doorway slumbered under thick cascades of white jasmine, whose sweet perfume softened the stink from the fish markets farther down the docks.Ascencion
, he whispered in his mind, as if savoring a lover's name. Fairer even than the isle of Capri, she
was his sacred heritage. For Ascencion, he would endure his cage and take whatever humiliations his father dealt him. Somehow, he would hold on, though he knew he was dying on the vine. The one thing that kept despair at bay was the promise that one day he would truly rule this peerless gem of the Mediterranean. The one desire he had not yet fulfilled was his longing to be a good king.
Everyone thought he would be a disaster, he knew. He would show them. One day.
Sighing, he stepped up into the coach. A groom briskly shut the door. He rapped boredly on the inside and his unmarked vehicle slid into motion, passing quickly through the little port town to turn onto the King's Road, which wound up the hillside to the great capital, Belfort.
He suddenly remembered he'd forgotten to let the royal bodyguards know he was leaving. Ah well, they'll figure it out and catch up soon enough
. He didn't need them anyway. Being trailed constantly by six hulking thugs in uniform was just one more reminder that until he came to power, he was naught but a coddled, glorified prisoner.
In the dark cab of the coach, he rested his elbow on the edge of the window and leaned his cheek on his hand. He stared out pensively at the landscape. Silver and indigo in the moonlight, his kingdom rolled out along the road, like his life passing him by.
Devil take birthdays, he thought. When he was king, he would outlaw them.
The King's Road was a blue ribbon in the moonlight. They watched in tense silence from the woods, wondering if their night's vigil was done. A short while ago, they had watched the gilded royal state coach pass. Now a sleek vehicle of gleaming black and mahogany was barreling up the road, pulled by a team of four galloping matched bays.
"Looks promising," Mateo whispered, even as his youngest brother signaled the owl's hoot from the distance, calling them to alert.
The Masked Rider nodded and gestured the others into position.
Stealthily, they maneuvered their horses among the trees, assuming their posts on the high embankments over the road. They waited....
The coach hit a rut in the road and bounced violently on its newfangled springs. Rafe winced in annoyance and drew breath to shout an imperious rebuke at the driver to have a care--he didn't want to have to buy the damned thing--when suddenly he heard shouts outside.
A horse whinnied frantically and the coach began to slow. A gunshot ripped through the night.
His eyes narrowed in the gloom. Instantly alert, he crept forward and stole a glance from behind the window's shade and stared, feeling a rush in his thrill-seeker's soul.Well, I'll be damned. The Masked Rider
. His expression broke into an extremely devilish grin. At last we meet.
He saw he was considerably outnumbered, but according to the reports, none of the famed highwayman's robberies had been accompanied by bloodshed, so he was more intrigued than alarmed. Nevertheless, his own safety was a national priority. Leaning down, he opened the compartment beneath the opposite seat, reached into the little storage space, and smoothly took out the pair of pistols that he kept there, ready and loaded. Tucking one into his waistcoat, he cocked the other and thought with a narrow smile, Impudent little bastard, you're in for a surprise
He had been following the bold lad's career with some interest, as tales of the so-called Masked Rider appeared side by side in the same gazettes that recounted his own wicked deeds. He had laughed every time the young highwayman robbed yet another of his friends--though they hadn't found it amusing.
Not even his father's authorities could catch the Masked Rider and his gang. The common folk of Ascencion adored the young highwayman, whose identity remained a mystery, and who, it seemed, truly robbed from the rich and gave to the poor.
Rafe rather thought the kid had style. Still, it would not do to have this mysterious Robin Hood out there somewhere bragging about robbing him, making a mock of his name. He had problems enough with the public's disapproval of his occasional, admittedly wild excesses. His people merely didn't know that a bit of hell-raising was merely his one solution to avoid going mad.
Well aware that his half-dozen Royal Guardsmen would not be far behind, a narrow, crafty smile curved his lips. He raised his gun and laid hold of the door latch, gathering himself for his counterattack.
Meanwhile, out on the road, the Masked Rider was shouting at the coachman, "Halt! Halt!"
Astride a leggy gelding whose true color was obscured by the cinders rubbed into its coat, the Masked Rider urged the horse alongside the galloping team and reached out a black-gauntleted hand for the leader's traces. The coachman was waving a pistol, but the Masked Rider ignored him--such men never used their weapons. The thought was barely finished when the moving coach's door swung open and a large male figure leaned out from the inside, firing a pistol into the air.
"Stand down!" a commanding voice bellowed.
The Masked Rider ignored the warning shot, riding low over the horse's neck, trying again unsteadily to grab the leather strap--
A thunderous crack rent the air with a flash of orange.
The Masked Rider gasped out a cry and was jolted forward over the horse's neck."Dan!"
Mateo shouted, aghast.
The gelding veered away from the coach's team with a scream, rearing at the smell of the blood spattered on his sooty coat.
"Turn back! Turn back!" Alvi shouted at the others.
"Don't you dare turn back! Never mind me! Get the loot!" the Masked Rider roared back at him in boyish tones, fighting the horse.
Then the gelding bolted.
"Stop, whoa! You miserable nag!" A stream of oaths she had never learned in convent school followed from Lady Daniela Chiaramonte's lips as her horse careened through the brake.
All the while her shoulder and arm burned as though they were on fire. He shot me!
she thought, her astonishment equal to her pain. She couldn't believe it. Certainly in all her adventures she had never been shot before.
She felt hot blood streaming down her right arm as her panicked horse crashed up over the wooded embankment. Heart pounding, she brought the animal under control, reeling him around in small circles.
When at last the horse stood heaving for breath, she suppressed the angry urge to punch the animal for his skittishness, and peered down anxiously at her wounded right arm. It was bleeding and it hurt like hell. She felt light-headed at the horrid sight of her own torn flesh, but when she carefully probed her bleeding arm with her fingers, she concluded in relief that it was only a flesh wound.
"That blackguard shot me," she panted in lingering amazement. Then her gaze zipped back to the road, and she saw that the Gabbiano brothers--her men, such as they were--had brought the coach to a standstill and extinguished the carriage lantern, working by moonlight.
The driver was sprawled on his arse on the ground, Alvi holding him at sword point. She scowled indignantly at the coachman's pitiful display, babbling for mercy. Did the man think them common cutthroats? Everyone knew
the Masked Rider and company never killed anybody. Occasionally they left some popinjay in an embarrassing predicament, naked and tied to a tree, perhaps, but they never drew blood.Better get down there before we have a change of policy
, she thought as she saw Mateo and Rocco, still astride their mounts, holding the big lean passenger at bay with their swords before the open coach door. Even from a distance, their prisoner looked more than able to fend for himself.
Fortunately, her men had disarmed him, she saw. His hands were up and his two pistols lay in the dusty road. Her gang would not attack an unarmed man; still, Mateo was a hothead likely to start a brawl at any insult, while the giant Rocco didn't know his own strength. Both were as protective of her as if she were their own sister. She didn't want anyone getting hurt.
Dani passed her forearm over her brow, then adjusted the hoodlike black mask over her face and hair to make sure her identity was still neatly concealed after her horse's mad dash. Satisfied, she urged her horse aboutface and back down onto the road, highly curious to see which of the idle citified peacocks she had snared this time and what it would profit her.
Hopefully enough to pay the crippling new taxes on her estate and to feed her people in spite of the drought.
She drew her light, quick rapier as she guided her horse toward the tense trio of men. Mateo and Rocco parted to admit her between them.
"You all right?" Mateo, her oldest childhood friend, muttered to her.
She shook off her momentary awe at the sight of her tall, powerfully built captive and seized upon her bravado, forcing herself forward in a show of fearlessness, though her heart beat rapidly. "I'm just ... dandy," she drawled, urging her horse closer. She stopped when the tip of her rapier floated gracefully under her captive's square jaw, which was clenched. "Well, what have we here?" she mused aloud, using the tip of her sword to force him to lift his chin.
It was too dark to see much, but the silvery moonlight picked out gilded threads in his hair, which appeared to be of a tawny gold shade, quite long, but pulled back in a queue off his broad, straight forehead. He had an imperious nose and a hard, angry mouth. Head high, his narrowed eyes glittered, fixed on her. It was too dark to make out their color.
"You shot me," she said in reproach, leaning toward him from the saddle. She knew she mustn't let him see her fear. "Lucky for you, you merely grazed my arm."
"If I had wanted you dead, then dead you would be," he said in a soft, murderous purr that fell like silk on her skin.
"Ha! Some excuse! You are a poor marksman," she taunted him. "It doesn't even hurt."
"And you, boy, are a poor liar."
Dani sat up straight again in the saddle, considering him. A worthy opponent, she had to admit. As her gaze traveled over the length of his warriorlike physique, her simple feminine admiration mingled with a growing sense of inner warning. Her captive was over six feet tall and appeared to be built of pure muscle, so why wasn't he putting up more of a fight? True, his weapons lay beyond his reach, but there was a gleam of treachery in his eyes that made her wonder what he had up his sleeve.
She wondered which one he was, exactly, of the useless Prince Rafe the Rake's self-indulgent flunkies. She certainly would have remembered seeing him before. Her better sense whispered to clear out immediately, but she needed the money and was frankly too intrigued to abort the robbery, which was moving along efficiently.
Mateo had relieved his brother at the task of holding the coachman at sword point. The prisoner's gaze, hard and brilliant as a diamond, followed Alvi as the wiry youth hopped into the coach with an empty sack. While her prisoner watched Alvi pass, Dani eyed him in mingled attraction and scorn.
Oh, she despised his type, haughty and carelessly elegant in his formal evening wear, down to his creamy white breeches and shiny black shoes. His smartly cut, dark green tailcoat alone probably cost as much as her past six months' taxes. She glanced at his no doubt excellently manicured hands, which he lowered slowly to his sides, as though he had decided she was not much of a threat.
"Your ring," she ordered. "Hand it over."
His large and capable fist clenched beside his hip. "No," he growled.
"Why not? Is it your wedding ring?" she asked sarcastically.
The way his eyes narrowed on her in the dark, she thought he would have happily torn her beating heart out of her body if he got the chance.
"You will regret your audacity, boy," he said, his voice soft and deep and dangerous. It rang with an air of command. "You have no idea with whom you are dealing."
Oh, he was not taking his humbling well. Smiling at his ire behind her mask, Dani laid her rapier gently on his cheek. "Shut up, peacock."
"Your youth will not save you from the hangman."
"They'll have to catch me first."
"Fine boasts. Your father ought to thrash your hide."
"My father is dead."
"Then I will thrash you for him one day. That's a promise."
In reply, she traced her rapier ever-so-tenderly under his chin, forcing him to tilt his proud head higher or feel the prick of her sword point. His lordship clenched his handsome jaw. "You don't seem to understand your position," she said sweetly.
Holding her gaze, he smiled chillingly. "I will have you drawn and quartered," he answered in a pleasant tone.
Under her mask, Dani blanched in spite of herself. He was trying to shake her up! "I want your shiny ring, milord. Hand it over!"
"You will have to kill me for it, boy," the prisoner said with the white, defiant gleam of a smile.
Was he mad? Standing there in blue moonlight and black shadow, he was huge, powerful, and not lifting a finger to stop them. Maybe he didn't know how to fight, she suggested anxiously to herself. These rich fellows never dirtied their hands. But one summary glance over the lean, classically proportioned length of him made her scoff at her own suggestion.
Something was definitely wrong.
"Not losing your courage, are you, boy?" he taunted softly.
"Be quiet!" she ordered, faltering and feeling herself inexplicably losing control of the situation somehow to her vexing prisoner. Absurd! Posturing males would never intimidate her.
Rocco, her tame giant, looked over at her in worry.
"Get the ponies loaded," she ordered him in a suddenly testy mood, scowling under her mask. Obviously, her prisoner had somehow called her bluff and sensed she wasn't going to kill him, though God knew he vastly deserved it. Her arm hurt like the blazes. She ducked her head to peer into the coach, wishing Alvi would hurry up. "How's it going in there?"
"He's rich!" Alvi hollered, tossing out one full sack. "Filthy rich! Give me another sack!"
As Mateo hurried to fetch another sack from his horse's saddlebag, Dani saw the prisoner cast an almost imperceptible glance down the road.
"Expecting someone?" she demanded.
Slowly, he shook his head, and she found herself gazing at his enticing mouth, where a half-smile of pure deviltry tugged.
Suddenly a high-pitched voice pealed through the night from some distance down the road. "Run!" The littlest of the Gabbiano brothers, Gianni, age ten, was running toward them, arms churning. "Soldiers! They're coming! Run!"
With a gasp, Dani stared at her prisoner. He smirked coolly at her, pleased with himself.
"You bastard," she hissed. "You were stalling us here!"
"Move out, move out!" Mateo was yelling at the others.
Gianni kept shouting. "Go! They'll be here any second!"
Dani's gaze snapped down the road again. She knew her horse was the fastest. Every womanly instinct in her blood screamed for her to go scoop the little boy up into the saddle with her before the soldiers were upon them. The child had no place here--it was her fault. A dozen times they had forbidden Gianni from following them, but he never listened, until finally she had given in and assigned him the relatively safe job of signaler.
"The hell with you, peacock," she muttered, abandoning her prisoner. She tugged on her gelding's reins, reeling the horse away, while Rocco lumbered up onto his slow draft horse. Alvi and Mateo each took one of the coin-laden bags and swung up onto their ponies' backs.
The little boy was running desperately toward them. But as she turned, out of the corner of her eye she saw the big man dive for his second pistol in the dust and roll on his shoulder, taking aim at Mateo.
"Mateo!" She reeled her horse around, lurching him straight at the prisoner. The gun went off, shooting skyward.
The prisoner leaped up onto his feet with astonishing agility for a man his size. Then he seized her, trying to pull her bodily off her horse. She punched and kicked at him. Mateo drove his pony toward them to help her.
She shot him a fiery glare. "I can take care of myself! Get your brother!"
The thunder of the soldiers' approach was growing louder.
"Go!" she roared as she kicked the prisoner in his broad chest. The big man fell back a step, holding his ribs protectively with a curse.
Seeing this, Mateo whirled his pony to go fetch the little boy.
His lordship charged her again the moment Mateo galloped away.
As she and the prisoner grappled in the road, her horse reared with a frightened whinny. She clung to the reins, fighting to keep her balance, but she felt herself being slowly overpowered by the man's sheer physical strength.
Suddenly he pulled her down out of the saddle. Freed of its rider, her thankless gelding bolted at once.
She let out a wordless cry of fury and found herself standing in the road, clutched in her erstwhile prisoner's grasp. He towered over her. His eyes were like lanterns and he was grasping her hard by her arms, and he was ever so much taller now than when she'd been on horseback. Strands of his hair had fallen free from the queue; he looked ferocious and huge, barbaric in his elegant clothes.
"You little shit," he snarled in her face.
"Let me go!" She fought him. He gripped her harder, and she shouted in pain when he jerked her hurt arm. "Ow! Damn it!"
He gave her a shake. "You're caught! You understand?"
She hauled back and punched him across the face with all her strength, tore out of his arms, and fled up the embankment. He was but two steps behind her.
Her heart beating wildly, she scrambled up through the dust and slippery dried leaves. With a frantic glance down the road, she saw Mateo lift Gianni into the saddle with him and crest the far embankment, riding hard toward home.
Her relief was short-lived, however, for then the prisoner tackled her at the top of the embankment, hooking rock-hard arms around her hips.
He smashed her under him as they fell to the ground, snaking his forearm around her throat.
I hate men, she thought, closing her eyes in distress.
"Hold still," he growled, panting hard, his body like heated iron around her.
Dani rested for half a second, then did the opposite, kicking and squirming, thrashing and punching and scrabbling with her leather-gauntleted fingers in the dust.
"Let me go!"
"Stop squirming! You're caught, damn it! Give in!"
Dodging the boy's blows, Rafe held the slim body pinned beneath his own, glad that wrestling was one of the chief sports at which he had excelled as a youth. He never would have thought it would come in handy. The boy bucked and thrashed, fighting him furiously.
"Yield," he ordered through gritted teeth,
"Go to hell!" The pitch of the young voice climbed higher, shrill with fright.
Panting with exertion, he drove his full muscular weight more firmly down to still the little hellion's writhing. "Hold still!" He jerked a look over his shoulder toward the road and his approaching men. "Over here!"
At his movement, the bloodthirsty little bandit somehow flopped over onto his back, still trapped by Rafe's arms.
"I told you you would hang," he growled.
"No, you said I would be drawn and quartered--"
Rafe caught a flying fist in his hand. "Be still, for God's sake!"
Suddenly the boy froze and drew in his breath, staring at his signet ring.
"You ... !" the boy croaked in a hoarse gasp.
Scowling toward his men, Rafe glanced down and narrowed his eyes in satisfaction. "Aha, brat. Finally catching on, are you?"
The light-colored eyes behind the mask never blinked, staring at him, looking horror-stricken.
Rafe's laugh was throaty and smug, then he stopped abruptly. What the devil
? He furrowed his brow as he caught a whiff of a scent his instincts knew, but recognition danced just beyond his mind's reach.
"What is your name, you miserable urchin
Excerpted from Prince Charming by Gaelen Foley. Copyright © 2000 by Gaelen Foley. Excerpted by permission of Ivy Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.