by Patricia Barletta
GENRE: Historical Romance
Lady Sabrina Dunfield is desperate. Widowed and destitute, she must rely on the dubious benevolence of her secretive uncle, an art collector living in Venice. Determined to make her way and provide for her young son, Sabrina is forced to take on clandestine and dangerous errands for her tyrannical relative. But when a mysterious shadow man saves her from an assassin’s blade, she knows she must do everything in her power to keep her son safe.
Alessandro D’Este, Prince of Auriano, is cursed. Doomed to live a life half in shadow, he is determined to free himself and his family from the evil that stalks them. When Alessandro saves the English woman’s life, he is captivated by her beauty and shocked at her ability to touch him in his shadowy form.
When Sabrina meets Alessandro in his human form, heady attraction sparks between them. She has no idea he is her shadowy savior, and she wonders what her life might be like with this charismatic man. Alessandro has never met a woman who affects him this way. Although life has taught him to trust only family, Sabrina might be the key that could deliver him from the diabolical darkness.
Sabrina arrived safely at the casa where she lived. Scrambling out of the gondola, she rushed into the house through the water gate, the canal-side entrance. She did not bother to call any of the servants to take her cloak as she hurried across the rough tiles of the andron, the undecorated water-level entry hall. She ran up the stairs to the study. The room, lit brightly by the center wrought iron chandelier, seemed empty. She circled around the massive gum wood desk and went directly to the small table which held several decanters and glasses. Her hand trembled as she poured herself two fingers of brandy. She gulped it down, but even its burn did not stop her shivers. She turned to the fire and its warmth.
She jumped. Harold Dunfield, the uncle of her late husband, stared at her in shock from his chair before the blaze. His cool blue eyes pinned her. He was dressed to go out for an evening’s entertainment, impeccable in his burgundy velvet coat and yellow silk waistcoat, his silvery hair perfectly tied back with a black satin ribbon. He had obviously been waiting for her. She had not seen him sitting there.
“What is the meaning of this?” he demanded, indicating the empty glass in her hand.
Guiltily, she placed the glass on the mantle. “Someone just tried to kill me.” She choked out the words.
His brow furrowed, but he said nothing.
“You never warned me my life could be in danger.” Her voice shook, and she took a breath to steady herself.
“Really, Sabrina, I’m sure you are being overly dramatic.” Dunfield waved away her reproach.
Of course he would show no sympathy for her ordeal.
“A stiletto missed me by inches,” she said.
“You must have been mistaken for someone else. There’s no reason why anyone should wish you dead. I’m only selling artwork.” Dunfield took a casual sip of his own brandy.
Frustration at his callous reaction to her fright brought tears to her eyes. She blinked them away and tried to make him see the problem—again. “They are Italian masterpieces, and you are selling them to our English king. If the Venetians discover their art is leaving the city—”
“They won’t.” His gaze sharpened. “Did you get the message?”
Sabrina swallowed. She did not want to confess what had occurred in the chapel. She would never reveal to this man that a shadow had saved her life. He would think she had gone mad. Perhaps she had, and the apparition in the chapel had merely been a hallucination. Except she still felt the bruise where she had landed on the hard marble floor. How could she explain something she did not understand herself?
“I lost it.” Her admission came out small and quiet.
Anger turned his eyes to ice. “So you thought to cover up your incompetence with some fantasy about an attempt on your life?”
“Stop.” Dunfield gave her a hard stare. “If you cannot perform a simple chore for me, like retrieving a message, then you are of little use. I am disinclined to support a destitute widow with a son if you are unable to give me some recompense.”
Her chest muscles constricted, and she had to force air into her lungs. She and Evan had no place else to go. This man, sitting so comfortably before the fire, had been her only recourse when she discovered her late husband had run his estate into huge debt. She had asked—no, begged—Dunfield to take them in. He had readily agreed. So she had moved from England to settle in Venice, where Dunfield had gained some prominence in the English community. When she arrived, she discovered he had other plans for her—delivering his messages to the representative of the English king in return for a roof over their heads. Now, she was trapped in a situation of her own design.
She caught a motion at the window. A pair of molten golden eyes appeared to float in the dark night sky. She stiffened her knees so she wouldn’t collapse into a boneless puddle. Dunfield must not learn of her shadowy rescuer. She sidled a tiny step away from the window to keep his attention.
Swallowing her pride, she said, “I am also cataloging your art collection, Uncle. That should count for something.”
“Yes, yes.” He dismissed her argument with another wave of his hand.
“I’ll go back to the chapel now to try to find the note,” she said, dreading a return to the place. She cast another glance at the window. Those golden eyes had disappeared.
“It’s gone,” Dunfield said. “Don’t bother.” Thoughtfully, he tapped his fingers on the arm of the chair.
Relief flowed through her, but she suspected he was planning some equally odious task for her.
“Tomorrow,” he said, “you will take Evan on an outing to the Piazza San Marco, and leave the usual signal that indicates that I must communicate with King George’s representative.”
Sabrina’s insides clenched. Not only would she once again have to play Dunfield’s secret messenger, this time he was placing her son in danger. She knew no argument would change his mind.
His gaze pierced her. “The French army is sitting on the border of the Veneto. They’re busy with Austria at the moment, but if they turn their attention to Venice, they’ll plunder my collection. I need to get it out of the city before then.”
Sabrina wondered what the French would do to an English woman with a young son. The thought gave her chills.
“Do not bungle this errand, Sabrina.”
Bowing her head, she chafed at his reprimand.
Dunfield abruptly changed the subject. “Is your costume ready for our masquerade ball?”
“Yes, it’s ready.” Resignation made her sigh. She hated masquerade balls. At the last one, she had spent the evening trying to evade an obnoxious little man who was convinced she was his paramour.
“You know we will be entertaining all of the noble families of Venice. And the Prince of Auriano will be attending.” A smug note crept into Dunfield’s voice.
“Yes, I know.” She clenched her teeth so she wouldn’t say anything inadvisable. Getting Auriano to attend the ball was a social coup, but that was not why Dunfield was reminding her. He was putting yet another possible suitor in her path, one more man who would reject her because she was too independent, or too cold, or too intelligent, or too outspoken, or too English. The rejections were embarrassing, despite her relief. When—if—she married again, it would be to someone of her own choosing, someone who would have a care for her, but also for her son.
“He is wealthy and powerful, Sabrina. I wish you to be at your most charming.” Dunfield’s cool words belied the underlying threat. If she did not perform as he expected, he would be furious.
She tried to find some excuse to avoid the prince. “He is a rogue and a gambler.”
Dunfield’s blue gaze impaled her. “Auriano wields a great deal of influence. I could use the connection.”
That was his true reason for dangling Auriano before her. If she caught the prince, Dunfield would be accepted everywhere in Venetian society, and would not be merely tolerated as an amusing Englishman. The House of Auriano was very old and still possessed their ancestral castello in the north. The family was allowed to use the title of “Prince” when no other family in Venice could. None of this swayed Sabrina.
She tried another argument. “He is a rake, Uncle. He has a new lover every week. I refuse to expose Evan to such scandal.”
A disapproving frown creased Dunfield’s brow. “Your son lives in Venice now, not England. You can’t shelter him forever. If you are fortunate enough to catch Auriano’s eye, he will set you up in your own rooms.”
Sabrina gasped. “Are you saying that I should become his mistress?”
“I am saying to do whatever it takes to get him interested,” he snapped. “You may be able to lead him to the altar.”
“I’ve heard tales that he’s had men murdered.” Her fist clenched in rebellion.
He brushed aside her objection. “What powerful man in Venice is not connected with such idle talk?”
“His family is rumored to be cursed.” An absurd argument, but she would try anything to dissuade Dunfield.
He laughed coldly. “Really, Sabrina. The family has more gold than the Vatican. Do you call that being cursed?”
“I’m not looking for a husband, Uncle,” she said, and desperately used her last excuse. “I’m still grieving over the death of Richard.” Her words were well rehearsed, often repeated.
Dunfield frowned. “Two years is long enough to be in mourning. Your son needs a father. You need a husband. I cannot keep supporting you and Evan. His tutor is expensive and the boy should be sent to school in England.”
“But the sale of the art to King George—”
“—is not enough to sustain all of us forever. When I agreed to take you and Evan into my home, I did not foresee your spending the rest of your life under my roof.”
Neither did she, but she refrained from commenting. She wanted more for Evan than being the poor relation of this man. Her husband had been merely a knight, and so her son would never inherit a title. That did not matter. She wanted Evan to grow into a kind, honest person who could hold his head up with self-respect. But for now, living with Dunfield was her only option.
His expression softened. “You should not go through life alone, Sabrina. You need to find a mate, someone to protect you.”
Nodding obediently, Sabrina endured another lecture on her duties as a widow with a child to raise. She silently berated herself again for the naiveté that brought her under this man’s roof. Dunfield’s concern for her was only another form of manipulation. She was not anxious to wed again, despite having to live with this overbearing, hard-hearted man. Although she had been fond of her late husband, he had given more attention to his artifacts and moldy manuscripts than he had to her. With his sudden death, she felt a guilty sense of relief and freedom in taking charge of her life. Somehow, she would keep that freedom and make her own decisions. She just had to figure out how to do that and take care of her son as well.
Evan would be sleeping now, put to bed by his nurse. Sabrina wanted to go to him, check to be sure he was safe. But she could not escape until Dunfield dismissed her. He took great delight in lecturing her. She reminded herself again that she was under his control in order to keep Evan secure, but the situation still chafed.
As Dunfield droned on about the advantages to a connection with Auriano, she wandered closer to the window. Perhaps she could catch another glimpse of that shadow creature. Staring out into the night, she saw nothing unusual. The breeze stirred the shadows, but no eerie figure appeared. She wondered where it had come from.
Shivering, she rubbed her arms as she gazed down to the canal. She thought she saw something move. No, nothing was there. She was seeing specters where none existed.
Abruptly, the shadow creature appeared before her, just beyond the glass. It balanced lightly on the narrow balustrade that guarded the long window. Sabrina swallowed a gasp and blinked. She shifted to block Dunfield’s view. He would call the servants, rouse the authorities to chase it down. It had saved her. She would protect it.
Blacker than the black night, its outline was human. Male. Naked. Perfectly proportioned. Its eyes glowed golden, and its gaze swept her from head to toe.
She felt its scrutiny as if it were palpable. The tiny hairs on her arms lifted. A shiver ran through her. She felt a bit faint. Gripping the window frame to keep herself upright, she stared.
Then, just as quickly as it appeared, the figure was gone, stepping back into the night air, dissolving once more into the dark.
“Sabrina, are you listening?” Dunfield’s irritated voice dragged her attention back into the room.
AUTHOR Bio and Links:
Patricia Barletta always wanted to be a writer. That was right after she realized that becoming a fairy ballerina or a princess wasn’t going to happen. But being a writer meant she could go places in her head and be other people as much as she wanted. She could even be a fairy ballerina or a princess!
As a native of the Boston area, Patricia has been inspired by its history, which influenced her stories, and probably had an impact on her decision to become a high school British Literature teacher so she could pay the bills. She received a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing degree at the fabulous Stonecoast program in Maine. And now she’s an author writing about dark heroes, feisty heroines, magic, and other fantastical things.
Find out more about Patricia Barletta and her books on her website: www.patriciabarletta.com.
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