The Knight's Kiss
San Rimini, November 1190
Two men he could defeat. Perhaps three, given the element of surprise.
But from his hiding place behind a tangle of low bushes, deep in the richly forested hill country of San Rimini’s western borderlands, Domenico of Bollazio counted five men in the glade. Turkish spies, he realized with alarm, noting they wore San Riminian garb yet spoke with heavy accents and carried Turkish short swords. They stood in a circle, kicking angrily at a whisper-thin youth of no more than fifteen years.
A fool’s mission, Domenico warned himself, reluctantly drawing his fingers away from the leather-padded grip of his own sheathed sword. Better to ignore his instinct to help the lad and return to his horse to complete his real mission.
Even so, he couldn’t help but watch as the youth on the ground cried out in Italian, begging for mercy. The infidels paid him no heed. They’d come for blood and no doubt they’d have it.
“Where is it?” one of the armed men demanded. His accent made him difficult to understand, but there was no mistaking the threat in his tone. “Make it easier on yourself and tell us now where you have hidden it.” He kicked the young man in the ribs for emphasis.
Domenico closed his eyes at the sickening sound of bones breaking. Cursing himself for stopping, for allowing himself to care, he eased away from the edge of the glade, careful not to rustle the thick coat of autumn leaves beneath him.
“I know nothing of this...this message!” The young man’s frightened cry carried to Domenico’s ears despite the knight’s determination to shut out the sound.
“Deny it if you wish. Our spies know the king’s messenger was to pass here this morn on his way to Messina.”
Domenico stilled, his heart turning to ice in his chest. Crouched low, he crept back to the glade, his attention riveted on the scene unfolding before him.
“Do not let him leave,” one of the infidels ordered the rest, keeping to Italian so the youth would understand his words. “If he continues to foolishly insist on his innocence, do with him as you please, then search the area. It’s likely in the woods nearby.”
Out of habit, Domenico’s hand rubbed the pommel of his sword. In his gut, however, he knew any rescue attempt would be futile. The young man rolled on the ground and attempted to gain his feet, but stopped when the tallest of the Turks drove a dagger into his leg.
Anger rose in Domenico’s chest, but he had no time to contemplate the innocent youth’s injury or his death, which would likely come soon. Afterward, the spies would discover what Domenico had, that the youth’s pack pony carried only a half day’s provisions. He hadn’t the means to convey a message to the other side of the peninsula over difficult terrain.
But if Domenico didn’t make his own escape now, the men would certainly find him, and perhaps even the message they sought, now safely tucked against his chest, sewn into the lining of his quilted gambeson.
King Bernardo had warned Domenico of the importance of the message, and that there were those who would give their life to see its contents. Less than two hours after he’d left the San Riminian king’s presence, the knight realized the truth of those parting words. He’d be lucky to reach Lionheart and his army, now camped with France’s Philip Augustus on the island of Sicily, alive.
Within minutes, Domenico located his horse, hidden amongst the trees a short distance from the glade. He guided the animal to the road, but before he could mount, a noise in the nearby bushes startled him. He spun around just in time to see a panicked woman with fiery red hair pick her way out of the brush.
“Please, my knight,” the woman begged, approaching without hesitation to grab his arm, “have you seen a young man about? Fourteen years of age, with hair the color of fresh straw?”
The youth. Domenico glanced over his shoulder, ensuring the woman’s voice hadn’t alerted the soldiers to his presence. When he was certain they hadn’t been heard, he turned his attention back to her. Judging from her age and the desperate look on her face, he suspected she might be the poor lad’s mother. Still, that wasn’t what set his nerve endings abuzz in warning. There was a familiarity to the woman, though Domenico knew he’d never laid eyes on her in his life.
Keeping his voice soft, he asked, “What is your name, madam? How do you come to be near the border? Do you not realize how dangerous—”
“They call me Rufina. Please, I know you have seen my Ignacio. Your eyes tell me so.”
Rufina the Witch?
No wonder she seemed familiar. He’d heard of the red-haired conjurer who lived in this area, a woman who’d been fortunate enough to flee the city before being tried for her crimes against the church.
Though he did not believe in witchcraft himself, Domenico sensed brushing her aside would be a mistake. “I have seen him. Over yon, in the glade. But he is in trouble—”
Not bothering to ask what kind of trouble, the woman turned in the direction Domenico pointed. Before she could take two steps, he grabbed one of her bony elbows. “A group of infidels have captured him. If you enter the glade, they will likely kill you. Wait until they are gone and you will be able to treat the young man’s wounds. ’Tis your best hope.”
Rufina was known to be practiced in the healing arts, though the pious accused her of calling on the Devil himself for assistance. With her skills, the youth might have a fighting chance at life.
If he wasn’t dead already.
Rufina didn’t appear to find the advice helpful, however. She stared at Domenico, her eyes filled with a hate and blame as complete as that of any warrior he’d faced in battle. “My son is bodily injured, yet you do nothing? How dare you wear that sword and call yourself a knight of San Rimini!”
She raised her hand to strike him, but Domenico moved faster, corralling her thin wrist midswing. “I could not. I am on a mission from the king, and to assist your son would have jeopardized it.” He swore to himself and dropped her wrist. He shouldn’t have revealed so much. “Please understand, madam. Go now, do what’s best to help him—”
“Mission for the king,” she spat, showing no fear. “You possess a knight’s sword, yet you wear no crest of nobility. Is the king’s mission so pressing you cannot stop to help someone in need? A young man raised in a humble home, as you were? Or is it your ambition—ambition to gain your own lands and title by currying the king’s favor—that prevents you from taking even the slightest risk to help another?”
Domenico started in surprise. In only a few sentences, this woman—this witch—summed up his life better than he could himself. He didn’t care for her conclusions.
His horse shuffled beside him, reminding him of his purpose. “I must go. You would be well advised to—”
“Oh, I shall save him, never you fear. And your guilty conscience. But know this” —she shoved her hand deep into the folds of her dirty woolen tunic— “until you can abandon your ambition and sacrifice your own desires for the sake of another, you will know neither the true happiness of this world nor the peace of death. You value your life so much you refuse to risk it? Then life you shall have!”
She withdrew her hand from her tunic in a flash of motion. Domenico sidestepped, expecting her to brandish a dagger of the type unsavory women often wore for protection, but instead her palm held only a green powder, which she flung in his face. Annoying prickles of fire stung his cheeks as he swiped it away. Probably concocted of poison ivy or some such plant.
Voices rose in anger in the distance, distracting him from the conjurer’s efforts to cow him. This foolish woman would get him killed.
“Secrete yourself, madam!” he hissed, then swung his leg up and over his horse. Turning toward Venice and the long road to Sicily beyond, Domenico made a fervent wish to never again cross paths with Rufina.
With any luck, the beauty perched on the brass and leather chair in his lobby just might lead him to Rufina.
Nick Black studied the image on the closed-circuit television behind his desk, watching as San Rimini’s Princess Isabella diTalora discreetly checked her Rolex. She kept her back straight and a smile on her face, but he suspected even modern royalty didn’t appreciate being kept waiting.
Nick grinned inwardly. Her forebear, King Bernardo, wouldn’t have exhibited such patience. The whine of an ambulance siren echoed up to him, thirty-five floors above Boston’s financial district, then faded.
He tossed back two aspirin and chased them with a cool glass of water, then turned to face Anne Jones, his administrative assistant of nearly eight years. “I’d prefer not to meet with her personally.”
“She’s a princess, not some random art collector. She will expect an explanation.”Anne knew him well enough not to add, besides, you did agree to the appointment.
And true, he had, in a foolish moment. But if his collection manager, Roger Farris, could ferret out what the princess was after, all the better. The fewer people Nick dealt with in life—particularly high-profile people like the pampered Princess Isabella—the less his name would be spoken or his picture taken. That lengthened the amount of time he could stay in any one place, or use any one pseudonym, before people became suspicious of the fact he never seemed to age.
Modern technology would get him caught if he wasn’t careful, and that would spark an entirely different type of witch hunt than the one he currently pursued.
He gave Anne a shrug. “Roger can handle it. I suspect Her Highness wants to acquire some of my paintings or artifacts for San Rimini’s national museum. I’ve heard she’s one of their strongest supporters. If so, Roger knows I expect something in return. Preferably an exchange of pieces. Or manuscripts.” Manuscripts that could give him a clue as to what happened to Rufina and help him break his curse.
“Of course. I’ll be sure Roger gives her special attention.” Anne smoothed her gray-streaked red hair into place and ran her tongue over her teeth before ducking back into the hallway and another interaction with the famous princess.
He thanked his lucky stars—what few he had—that Anne was so efficient and that she didn’t ask a lot of questions. He would hate losing her when it came time to switch identities again.
Nick angled his black leather office chair so he once more faced the small television screen. A moment later, he watched as the princess stood and turned toward the elevator. Roger came into view, his hair neat, his posture refined, and dressed as always in a well-tailored navy suit with shoes polished to a high shine.
Roger gave a slight bow, then extended his hand. “Princess Isabella. It’s an honor.”
The lean brunette accepted his handshake, then flashed him the smile the paparazzi loved to capture on film. “I’m pleased to meet you, Mr. Black. As you know, I’ve been trying to schedule a personal meeting for some time.”
Her voice glided over Nick like a warm shower after a frigid winter’s day. He’d seen pictures and television coverage of the princess before, but never actually heard her speak. She didn’t have a trace of the San Riminian accent he’d expected. Her years at Harvard obviously helped her master American English. Still, there was a regal quality to her tone, making it obvious she was anything but an average woman.
She was the kind of woman he’d watched men die for.
Her voice obviously had the same effect on Roger. Even through closed-circuit television, Nick could see the muscles of Roger’s jaw working, could sense his nervousness at meeting the popular princess.
“I apologize for the confusion, Your Highness,” Roger finally managed. “I’m Roger Farris. I handle Mr. Black’s art collection, the San Riminian pieces in particular.”
She raised a perfectly sculpted eyebrow as Nick guided the camera to zoom in. “Please forgive my error. I assumed Mr. Black would come to the lobby to greet me himself.”
Roger offered a weak smile in an attempt to hide his anxiety, but said nothing, instead gesturing to the conference room just off the small lobby to indicate that she should lead the way.
Once they passed through the glass door, Nick had only to push a button on his console to switch the view and audio to pick up the conference room.
The princess turned to face Roger when she noticed only two bottles of water and notepads on the granite conference table. “He isn’t planning to join us, is he?”
Nick couldn’t help but laugh aloud. Quick catch, Princess.
“I’m afraid not. I apologize if his assistant gave you that impression. Mr. Black is an exceedingly private man and rarely holds face-to-face meetings. He primarily uses this room to spread out his research materials.” Roger pulled out one of the chairs. “Why don’t you have a seat? If you’d prefer coffee—”
“No, thank you.” Ignoring the chair, she strode to the window. Nick could just picture what she saw—her hired Mercedes limousine waiting at the curb down on Federal Street, VIP parking pass in the window, with her security guard standing at attention beside the passenger door.
“As I said,” the combination of her rich voice and stately presence sent a quick wave of lust through Nick, “I went to considerable effort to schedule a meeting with Mr. Black. A private meeting. I flew all the way from San Rimini, leaving my family at a time of great turmoil, and even instructed my security to remain downstairs as Mr. Black requested, out of respect for his wish to maintain ‘privacy in his offices.’”
She parroted the phrase Anne used daily to deflect those trying to enter Nick’s office—everyone from the UPS man to the Architectural Digest-caliber interior decorators hoping to convince the reclusive collector to part with some of his pieces for their show homes.
Crossing her arms, the princess spun to face Roger. “I realize that you handle his collection, and I thank you for your time, but it’s Mr. Black who is the expert on San Rimini’s art history. He is who I wish to see. This is quite important to me.”
“I understand, Your Highness, but I can assure you, I have extensive knowledge about—”
“I’m staying at the Copley Plaza. You may contact me there if Mr. Black wishes to see me today.” She withdrew an ivory business card from her purse and scribbled a number on the reverse, then placed it on the granite tabletop with a tap of her fingernail for emphasis. “I plan to fly home tomorrow.”
She looped her stylish purse more securely over her shoulder, nodded to Roger, then headed for the door.
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