Across Time ~ Chapters 1-3

Plummeted through time from one dangerous world to another, a brave woman may hold the power to change history … but what if she fails?

It is 1794, and Countess Adrienne de Beaufort is smuggling French aristocrats to England to save them from the guillotine. In a moment of mortal danger, fate plunges her across time to 1499 Siena. Adrienne is stunned to find herself inhabiting the body of her ancestress Isabella, a woman for whom deceit and treachery are a way of life. And she is about to come face to face with Isabella’s new husband, Alessandro di Montefiore, the heir to the Dukedom of Siena, on their wedding night.

Alessandro expects duplicity and betrayal from his beautiful new wife. Why then is he seduced by the innocence in her eyes? Why then does he find himself prepared to take unimaginable risks because her spirit touches his heart?

As Adrienne navigates Isabella’s life, her mind and her soul remain her own. She fights to overcome the darkness of Isabella’s story, knowing that only she can prevent Alessandro’s betrayal and death. Fearlessly, she risks her heart, her soul, and her life to save the man she loves.

Chapter One

Normandy, France, March 1794

Although the March sun, which was beginning to burn through the morning mist, was warm on the back of Adrienne’s neck, she could not shake the chill a long, sleepless night had settled in her very bones. Her hands deep in the pockets of the ragged breeches one of the stable boys had left behind, she lingered along the path, loathe to return to the château, where the walls seemed to echo and close in on her now that the last servants had gone.

Her mission had gone well, but despite the relief, her nerves were still jangling. Every time she stood on the beach with the cold surf swirling around her feet and watched old Père Duroc’s fishing boat with its human cargo push out into the Channel, she waited for the fear for their safety that curled in the pit of her stomach to disappear, but it never did.

Rolling her shoulders against the band of tension, she haphazardly kicked at the gravel gathered in clumps from the rainstorm two days ago. Her generous mouth curved in a small, sad smile as she remembered how the path had looked when it had been tidily raked with that slightly wavy pattern her mother had insisted on. She allowed herself a small sigh at the memory, blinking her eyes furiously at the tears that threatened.

A faint sound had her head snapping up. Her dark eyes narrowed, she turned around slowly. But all she saw were the still bare bushes and trees in the overgrown, neglected park.

Then she heard the sound again. Even before her tired brain had consciously identified it as the whimper of a child, she began to run. Skidding to a stop near the jungle the rose garden had become, she called out softly, but there was no answer. Ignoring the thorny branches that caught at her shirt, she ducked under the broken trellis, moving quickly. So quickly that had not the child cried out again, she would have walked right past the spot.

Pivoting, Adrienne pushed aside the thick almost waist-high weeds that had withstood the winter. A young woman, her thin face streaked with dirt, crouched in the shelter of the high grass. With both arms, she pressed a small child to her chest.

“Please, don’t hurt my child,” she pleaded, but her eyes were fierce and determined. “You can do whatever you want with me, but don’t hurt my child.”

Adrienne dropped down to her knees so that she was eye to eye with the woman. “It’s all right,” she said softly. “No one will hurt you here.”

The woman’s eyes filled with tears and overflowed. The soft, gentle voice seemed to sap the remainder of her strength. “Aren’t you one of them?” she whispered, her eyes darting back and forth. “They saw me on the road. I’m sure they saw me.”

“Who saw you?”

“The men.” She swallowed convulsively. “The men who followed me from Paris.” The woman’s eyes blurred, and she stared past Adrienne’s shoulder. “The men who killed my husband.” She focused her gaze again, and her shoulders seemed to straighten a bit with a remainder of pride. “I am Charlotte de Lambert. Jean de Lambert was my husband.”

Adrienne recognized the name of the nobleman who had tried to steal the little Dauphin away from his jailers and had paid for his courage with his life. “I will help you.”

“Who are you?” she managed.

“I am Adrienne de Beaufort.”

Realizing that she was at the destination she had almost lost hope of reaching, the woman’s shoulders slumped, and she lowered her face to her child’s hair, the last of her energy gone.

Adrienne reached out to touch the woman’s shoulder. “Did someone send you to me?”

The woman raised her head and nodded, unable to speak through the tears that ran down her face.

The ache between her shoulders forgotten, Adrienne slid her arm around the woman and helped her rise. “Come on, let’s get the two of you to the château.”

They were almost there when Adrienne heard the baying of the dogs.

Her stomach knotted, but her hands were steady as she guided the woman toward the château, pulling her along to speed their steps. Once inside, she took the time to lock the heavy oaken door behind her.

Her ears trained on the sound of the dogs, she tried to gauge how far away they were. She would manage, she told herself. It would be close, but she would manage.

Quickly, softly, although there was no one to hear her, she spoke to the woman. “I shall hide you in a secret chamber. You’ll be safe there until I can come for you.”

The woman stopped. “Oh, God, please no. Don’t make me go into some dark, closed place.” Her fingers bit into Adrienne’s arm. “I couldn’t stand that.”

But Adrienne pulled her on. “There are candles there,” she soothed. “You’ll be all right.” She tried to smile, although the baying of the dogs was closer. “There’s food there, too, and water. You can rest. And I will come for you as soon as I can.”

The woman began to cry softly, and the child, too, began to whimper. Adrienne would have wanted to stop and comfort them, but she knew she could not spare even a moment.

Pulling them through the library, she slipped inside the adjacent small study. Letting the woman go, she rushed forward. Adrienne heard her slip to the floor, but she could not afford to stop, even when the child let out a wail.

Her breathing was uneven, but she forced her hands to be steady as she reached the painting that guarded the entry to the chamber. As always, she looked into the eyes of her ancestress, Isabella di Montefiore. They looked back at her, cool, distant, and imperious, but Adrienne felt the habitual jolt of intimacy. The cool eyes had never fooled her. Not even before she’d read Isabella’s journals and become privy to the passions and secrets Isabella had shared with no one.

She placed both hands against the inside edges of the ornate gilt frame and, although her racing heart tempted her to hurry, she carefully slid her hands toward the center of the portrait. When she felt first one barely detectible bump beneath the canvas and then the other, she pressed down and then stood back to let the painting spring away from the wall on its well-concealed hinges to reveal a small door.

She swiveled and gestured to the woman. “Come quickly. There is no time to lose.”

The woman shook her head wildly, her eyes huge and frightened.

Adrienne ran back to her, and although she hated herself for her roughness, she half pulled, half pushed the woman toward the chamber. Once inside, she took time she could ill afford to light a candle. Gripping the woman by the shoulders, she shook her gently. “You’ll be all right here. Do you understand?”

The woman’s crying had subsided a little, and she managed a shaky nod.

Adrienne smiled and laid her hand against the woman’s cheek. Her heart heavy, she slipped out of the chamber, closing the door behind her.

She ran back through the rooms. As she took the stairs two at a time, she was already pulling her shirt over her head.

Tossing shirt, breeches, and boots into an armoire, she slipped into a simple gown with more speed than elegance. She was still barefoot when she heard the pounding at the front door.

Adrienne opened her window and leaned outside. “Who’s there?” she called loudly, although she knew full well that her uninvited, unwelcome visitor could only be Marcel Fabien. Her lips curled with contempt. Fabien. She had not forgotten that he had worn Beaufort livery. Just as she had not forgotten that her father had threatened to take a whip to him before he had thrown him out of the château for abusing one of the maids. And now Fabien preached the revolution, but he wore lace at his cuffs and had appropriated the Comte de Louvelle’s carriage and his hunting dogs after he had intrigued his way to becoming chairman of the Committee of Public Safety in Calais.

A large, thickset man whom Adrienne recognized as one of Fabien’s thugs appeared around the corner of the château. “Citizen Fabien has come to speak with you, Citizeness Beaufort,” he barked up at her, obviously displeased that he had to crane his neck upward.

“I shall be down in a moment.” Adrienne shut the window loudly.

Picking up a shawl, she went down the stairs as slowly as she dared. Perhaps it was petty, she thought, but that small gesture of defiance sweetened the bitterness of being at Fabien’s mercy.

When she opened the door, Fabien stood on the threshold, backed by several of his men loitering on the stairs. He greeted her with a charming smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes and a bow casual enough to be an insult. Even as his gaze took a leisurely trip over Adrienne’s body, he continued to tap his silver-topped cane against the granite doorstep.

Her mouth thinned as she fought the impulse to step back and shut the door in Fabien’s face. “Is there a particular reason you have come to call on me this early in the morning, Monsieur Fabien?”

His bright blue eyes narrowed. “I could have you arrested for that alone, you know. Or have you forgotten that our government has deemed that people of our republic no longer have titles but are all equal citizens and must be addressed as such?” He leaned closer. “Or perhaps since you refuse so stubbornly to address me as Citizen Fabien”—he reached out and drew a finger down her cheek—“you would prefer to call me by my first name?”

Adrienne felt an icy shiver travel down the length of her spine. This was not the first time that Fabien had come to harass her with his suggestive remarks, but he had never dared touch her before. Her nerves were jumping, and when she spoke, her tone was cooler than was wise. “It is not my habit to address strangers by their first name.”

Fabien placed a slender, well-cared-for hand against his chest and shook his head. “I’m hurt that you think of me as a stranger. I had hoped that you would come to think of me as a friend.”

“Indeed?” With a disdainful toss of her head, Adrienne flicked her thick black braid back over her shoulder.

Fabien’s hands tightened on his cane at the contempt so vividly audible in that single word. Smiling to disguise the rage that had begun to smolder within him, he asked, “May I come in?” His tone was deceptively light. “I would speak with you.”

Reluctantly, Adrienne stepped back from the door to let him pass. She pushed the door closed and preceded Fabien into the salon where cold, stale air greeted her.

Wrapping her shawl more closely around her shoulders, Adrienne strode to the window. Her hands stilled on the window latch when she saw Fabien’s henchmen on the path she had taken with Jean de Lambert’s widow and child just minutes ago. The hounds were whining and barking, pulling wildly against their leashes.

“They seem to have picked up an interesting scent.”

Caught off balance, Adrienne whirled around at the sound of Fabien’s voice right next to her ear and found herself flush up against the Jacobin.

“Is something wrong, Citizeness Beaufort?”

Adrienne fought down both the fear and the angry, direct words that rose to her lips. “Yes.” She moved to step past him, but he reached out to grip her shoulder.

Forcing herself to stand still, she met his eyes. “Yes, something is very wrong, Monsieur Fabien.”

He heard the slight emphasis on the last two words and understood well the insult that lay behind it. His hand on her shoulder tightened.

“I am not accustomed to being accosted and manhandled in my own home.”

Fabien heard the centuries of breeding in her icy tone, and for a moment, he needed all of his control not to throw her down onto the floor and take her on the spot. She needed badly to be shown who the master was these days. But there would be time for that, he thought. His mouth curved in a smile, and he released her. “My apologies.” He stepped back. “Perhaps you should accustom yourself to the manners of the day.”

Scathing words on her tongue, Adrienne suppressed them as she remembered the distraught woman in the secret chamber.

Although she would have liked to put more distance between them, she remained where she was and met Fabien’s eyes squarely. “Just what is it that you want from me?”

“You don’t know?”

The softly posed question sent a shiver down her back, but she managed a cool smile. “No.”

Fabien felt the fury close his throat. “I want you, Adrienne,” he rasped, all the subtlety, all the carefully rehearsed words forgotten. “I’ve always wanted you. And I’m going to have you.”

He reached for her again, but this time, she avoided his hand. “Don’t I have any say in the matter? Or are those rights so touted by your revolution only for the male of the species?”

“Don’t bring the revolution into this, Adrienne.” He lunged for her again. “This is between you and me.”

“No!” Adrienne felt the panic rise and lodge in her throat. She remembered the knife that was strapped to her calf and felt a flash of relief. But it was gone as soon as it had come. If she used it, she realized, Fabien would call out and one of his pet butchers out in the garden would be upon her in a minute. Then both she and the fugitives in the chamber would be lost.

Fabien gripped her shoulder and dragged her back to the window. The hounds, whining with excitement, were retracing the path back to the château. “Where are they?” She could feel his hot breath against the side of her face. “I know you’ve been harboring fugitives. I’ve known it for months.”

“There is nothing to know.” Adrienne fought to keep her voice even. “Besides, if you’d known anything, you would have arrested me long before this.”

“Ah, but Adrienne, what good would you do me in prison?” His hold on her gentled and became a caress as he turned her to face him. “Do you think that I wish to see that pretty head separated from that lovely body?” His hand slid down, molding the curve of her breast.

Nausea rose in her throat at his touch, and Adrienne instinctively struck his hand away. “I don’t know what you’re talking about!” she cried. “Where’s your proof?”

“Proof?” Fabien rubbed his wrist where Adrienne had struck him. She would pay for that, too, he thought almost gleefully. And he would enjoy extracting payment. “I don’t need proof, my dear. Whose word do you think the revolutionary tribunal would believe? Yours or mine?”

Adrienne felt her throat closing. Desperate, she played her last trump card, although she was more than a little unsure of the truth of her words. “My brother Charles might have something to say about that.”

Fabien laughed softly. “Your brother has other worries now.”

“What do you mean?”

“It seems that Charles has fallen out of favor with Citizen Robespierre.” He toyed with a ring that had once graced the hand of an aristocrat, but his eyes remained on hers. “A small matter of misappropriated funds. The incorruptible Citizen Robespierre was very grateful for the information.”

“You!” Her hands fisted, she moved forward. “How dare you?” She despised Charles for selling himself to the revolution in exchange for the safety of his aristocratic neck, but he was still her brother.

“Don’t do something you may have cause to regret later on, chérie.” His mouth smiled, but his eyes remained cold. “If you behave yourself, I may even be moved to do something for that hypocrite brother of yours.”

As all the implications sank into her brain, Adrienne stopped so suddenly that she almost over-balanced. Not only her own safety depended on her submission to Fabien’s desires, she realized, but Charles’s safety and the safety of the woman and child in the chamber behind Isabella’s portrait.

“So, you’re going to be sensible. Good.” Fabien rubbed his palms together slowly. “On the other hand, I wouldn’t have minded a little rough and tumble.”

He moved past her and unlatched the window. “Jacquot!”

Adrienne watched him beckon to the thickset man who had summoned her earlier.

“Leave me one of the horses and go back to town. And take the hounds with you.”

The man’s broad face seemed to split in half as he grinned broadly, showing more gaps than teeth. “Allez-y, mon ami. Go to it, my friend.” With a wave, he moved around the corner of the château.

Still staring out of the window, Adrienne didn’t even notice it when Fabien turned toward her. She was still seeing Jacquot’s face breaking into that lewd grin. No! Her mind spun as defiance churned within her. She could not, would not do it! Not for herself. Not for others. She still had the knife, after all. After she’d used it, she would think of something.

“Come along, my dear.” Fabien stepped closer so that they were separated by no more than the breadth of a hand. “I’ve wondered for years what it would be like to lie with you in that virginal bed of yours.” He slid a finger down her neck. “And now, I’m going to find out.”

She needed time, Adrienne thought, as fear edged toward terror. Just a few minutes until Jacquot was gone so that Fabien could not call for help. She raised her eyes to his face. “I need a moment. Please.” She let her eyes flutter closed and swayed.

“You disappoint me.” He sniffed. “I wouldn’t have thought you the type to simper and faint.” Gripping her arm, he pushed her down into a chair and paced away across the room.

Adrienne leaned back, her eyes closed, concentrating on the sounds outside. When she heard the crunch of gravel beneath the wheels of the carriage, all her muscles tightened in anticipation. She let a minute go by and then another. Then she carefully, surreptitiously reached under her skirt for the knife strapped to her calf. When it was hidden in the folds of her gown, she rose, telling herself that she would have the courage to use it.

Fabien stopped his pacing the moment Adrienne stood.

She stood very still, watching him walk toward her, his slow steps a menacing promise. The knife’s carved handle bit into her palm that was slick with sweat.

He was close now—less than an arm’s length away. And still, she did not move. Even when he raised his hands and reached out, she remained motionless. Then he smiled, and Adrienne struck out at him with the hand that was empty.

“No!” She fell back a step. “Don’t touch me!”

“Don’t make me come after you, Adrienne.”

He spoke so softly that she could barely hear him above the hammering of her heart and her ragged breathing.

“Come here.” Fabien stretched out his hand, palm upward toward her.

Adrienne shook her head.

He took a half step forward. Then his hand moved as quickly as a snake striking. Hooking his fingers into the neck of her gown, he pulled. The sound of the thin fabric tearing was like an explosion in her ears. Instinctively, she brought the knife up, aimed squarely at Fabien’s belly. But at the last moment, she found herself unable to make the lethal strike, and her hand veered aside, sending the blade through the flesh above his hip.

Barely registering his cry, Adrienne ran. The study! She had to reach the study! A vase tumbled to the floor and shattered as she jostled the table, but she did not hear it. Nor did she feel her shoulder collide with a doorjamb as she skidded into the library.

She detoured toward the French doors, hoping that if she opened them, Fabien would be fooled into thinking she had escaped onto the balcony. Clumsy with panic, her fingers fumbled with the stubborn rusted latch. In a burst of frustration, she struck the door with her fists, and her hand slipped and went through the glass. She saw the blood but felt no pain. She struck the door again. This time it sprang open, and she ran toward the study.

When she slammed the study door behind her, her breath was burning in her throat, and for a fraction of a moment, she leaned back against the door. A bizarre pattern of red and black swirled in front of her eyes blinding her for a moment. Then she was moving again.

Twisting the key in the lock, she dashed toward the portrait. Her fingers were sliding over the canvas when she heard Fabien’s fist against the door. She jerked, and her hands slid upward. Beginning again, she placed them on the edges of the painting. Something heavy crashed into the door behind her once and then again.

Adrienne froze at the sound of splintering wood, then her hands began to move again—feverishly, frantically. She knew she had to slow down, find the right place at the edge of the painting, and move inward, but she could not make her hands obey. Her palms raced over the canvas. Again and again.

There was another deafening crash behind her. Adrienne looked into Isabella’s eyes watching her from the canvas. “Help me.” Her lips formed the words, but no sound emerged. “Help me.”

Suddenly, Adrienne felt a jolt as if someone had struck her on the back. She hurtled into a void—completely black, completely silent. She wanted to struggle against it, but she could not move. She wanted to cry out, but she could not make a sound. Panic was clogging her throat until she thought she would suffocate with it.

Then, as suddenly as the void had sucked her in, it spewed her out, and she found herself staring at a painting she had never seen before. A painting depicting a naked, alluring Venus cavorting with an amorous, virile Mars.

Afraid to move, Adrienne shifted her gaze and saw elaborately carved posts and wine-red velvet curtains gathered by tasseled golden ropes. She was lying on a bed, she realized, and the voluptuous painting lined its canopy. Where was she? How had she come to be here? Had she fainted before she’d reached the secret chamber? Was she dreaming?

Sitting bolt upright, she saw she no longer wore the blue gown that Fabien had torn at the bodice. Unbelieving, she drew her hands down her body. She now wore a nightdress of the finest white linen covered by a wide-sleeved robe of a richly patterned brocade in scarlet and purple.

Disoriented, she looked around the room. Closing her eyes, she shook her head, wanting to clear it. Surely, she was in the midst of some mad, opulent dream. But every time she opened her eyes, she saw the same lavish bedchamber with dark and richly carved furniture and walls covered by tapestries and hangings of brocade and velvet.

Adrienne slid off the coverlet of purple silk and stood. Carefully, unsure that her legs would carry her, she began to wander around the room. A table loaded with decanters of ruby-red wine, platters of sweetmeats, each one a perfect, tiny sculpture, and bowls of fruit caught her attention. How strange, she thought. It was as if preparations had been made for guests.

She wandered farther. On a low oblong table, a large casket made of finely inlaid mother-of-pearl spilled its precious contents onto the polished wood as casually as children’s toys. Hesitantly, she reached out to touch, barely believing that what she saw was real. Golden chains, strings of sapphires and emeralds, a ruby as large as a pigeon’s egg, ropes of pearls—white, pink, gray, black—shone up at her. She dipped her hands into the jewels for a moment.

Then she looked up and found herself looking into a clever painting made to resemble a mirror. Lifting her hands to touch it, she saw the movement reflected in the glass. She shook her head, certain that it was some kind of trick. The movement of her head was reflected back at her. Disbelief gave way to panic.

Adrienne moved closer and ran her fingers over the features she saw reflected in front of her. Instead of the pert, heart-shaped face with its tip-tilted nose that she was accustomed to seeing, she saw elegant cheekbones and classic features. Instead of black, curly hair, she saw hair that was a rich auburn that curled gently over her shoulders and fell to her hips. She stared into the mirror, shock turning into recognition. She met the dark brown eyes that looked back at her. Eyes she knew well. A minute passed. And then another. Finally, the moment came when she could no longer deny that she, Adrienne de Beaufort, had—through some mysterious quirk of fate—slipped across time and into the body of Isabella di Montefiore.

Chapter Two

Siena, Tuscany, June 1499

Covering her face with her hands, Adrienne spun away from the mirror in terror. How could this happen? Was this a dream? A nightmare? Was she hallucinating? Had she gone mad? Opening her eyes again, she turned around in a circle, hoping against hope that she would see something familiar. That by some miracle, she would find herself in the surroundings she had known since childhood. That the next time she looked in the mirror, she would see her own features.

But as her gaze skimmed over the glass, she saw the fall of auburn hair over her shoulders, glimpsed features of an imperious beauty. The room remained a luxurious bedchamber of a bygone era. But then her eyes settled on the far wall, and she saw something she had missed when she had first examined the room. There, almost within touching distance, hung the portrait she had grown up with. The portrait of Isabella di Montefiore that guarded the entry to the secret chamber in the Château de Beaufort.

She approached it slowly, step by step. Just as she raised her hand to touch it, the door burst open. Adrienne whirled around and watched a crowd of revelers led by a dwarf in the multi-colored clothes of a jester fill the room.

“There she is!” he cried and danced up to her. “Our blushing bride.” He cackled and brandished a puppet that was loosely stuck on a stick, making its bells jingle.

Her heart in her throat, Adrienne retreated a step. Hidden by the long, wide sleeves of her robe, her hands clenched and unclenched. Her gaze skimmed over the crowd attired in festive, rich clothes. But it was not the clothing of France in 1794. Although her mind was spinning with confusion, she recognized the ornate dress of the Renaissance she had read about.

Her eyes came to rest on the dwarf. Gianni. The realization that she knew his name struck her like a lightning bolt.

I had the dwarf, Gianni, whipped today but only with silken cords. Perhaps that will fire his imagination so that he can better amuse me.

She felt a strange lurch in her stomach as she remembered the offhand comment in Isabella’s journal. She had always wondered what the poor fellow had looked like. She shook her head. No, she thought, this couldn’t possibly be happening. This had to be a bizarre dream. Surely, she would wake up any moment and find herself in her own bed in the Beaufort château.

The dwarf pursued her, his oversize head bobbing as if his thin neck was too weak to support it properly. He jumped up on a tasseled hassock and leaned closer to her, so close that she could smell the spiced wine on his breath. When she retreated a step, he turned to his laughing audience with a grimace.

“Isabella la bella. Isabella the beautiful.” Gianni looked up at her again and something—surprise or perplexity—flickered in his sad clown’s eyes. “Why do you stand there like a cornered doe when you have a night of sport with our new master to look forward to?” He vaulted down from the hassock, hunching his shoulders and pulling in his head as if he were expecting her hand to strike him.

When the blow did not seem to be forthcoming, he straightened. “What’s this?” he demanded, capering out of reach of his mistress’s hands just in case. “Is this the Isabella we know?” Sending his audience an oblique look, he slowly moved his head from side to side. “The Isabella who can slay a man at twenty paces merely by raising an eyebrow?” He pressed his hands that seemed overlarge for his size against his chest and again shook his head.

The crowd laughed uproariously and proceeded to make their own ribald jests.

Adrienne watched the scene with disbelief, her mind insisting that it had to be some kind of illusion or dream. And yet in her heart, she knew that here, now, some supernatural power was at work. She understood what they were saying, she realized. It was the same melodious cadence of the archaic Italian she had painstakingly learned so that she could read Isabella’s journals.

But it couldn’t be, she thought desperately. It was impossible. Surely, if she repeated it often enough, it would be so.

But no matter how her mind, schooled in the logic of the Enlightenment, fought against the realization, in some inexplicable, mystical way, she knew that this was as real as anything in her life had ever been. The mind and soul of Adrienne de Beaufort had traveled back across time almost three centuries to enter the body of Isabella di Montefiore on her wedding night.

“She’s shaking her head,” the dwarf shrieked, hopping from one foot to the other. “Does that mean, Madonna Isabella, that you do not want a night of sport with our new master?” He rattled his puppet again.

A young woman in a dark blue gown rich with precious stones pushed through the crowd. “How could she not want it, my friends?”

Her voice was as high and melodious as the notes a musician coaxes from a flute, yet Adrienne shivered at the sound.

“A night with Alessandro di Montefiore, the most beautiful man in Siena.” She raised a goblet of the finest Venetian glass and drank deeply of the ruby-colored wine within. “The first of many nights,” she added, her mouth curved in a knowing smile.

With a practiced toss of her head, she sent a wealth of golden hair over her shoulder. Putting her goblet into someone’s hand, she fixed her gaze on the man who stood in the doorway, arms crossed in front of him, his expression as dark as his coloring.

“Come forward, Alessandro, and claim your bride.” She laughed. “We cannot wait to see if your prowess and your stamina are as great as those who extol you would have us believe.” Hooking an arm around Adrienne’s shoulders, she beckoned to Alessandro with the other.

Again, Adrienne felt the lightning bolt of recognition. Luisa. This was Luisa Barbiano, Isabella’s bosom friend, with whom she had shared so many secrets. Why then did she feel an icy shiver snake along her spine? Why did she feel an aura of malevolence that seemed to surround the beautiful young woman like a noxious cloud? She jerked away so that Luisa’s arm dropped from her shoulders.

She saw Luisa’s sky-blue eyes narrow, and she met the suddenly appraising gaze as resolutely as the terrible feeling in the pit of her stomach would allow. The smile on Luisa’s lips did not waver, but she did not try to touch her again.

Glancing at the colorful crowd and beyond, Adrienne’s gaze met the jet-black eyes of the man who stood in the doorway, his brows drawn together in a frown. His hair, the blue-black color of a raven’s wing, just brushed his shoulders, framing a face of such perfection that it might have been chiseled of Carrara marble by a master’s hand. Her eyes skimmed over him, and she could not help noticing how his doublet and legwear of white velvet slashed with gold and scarlet were a perfect foil for his dark beauty.

I saw Alessandro di Montefiore face to face for the first time yesterday when we signed the marriage contract in the great hall of the Palazzo Montefiore. I burned with hatred for him. Hatred instilled in me from childhood by my brothers. I burned with hatred, but from the moment I looked into his black eyes, I burned for night to fall. Burned for him to share my bed.

Her eyes widened as she stared at him, and her hand fluttered up to lie between her breasts as if it could still her heart that had begun to pound like a dozen horses galloping in a dead heat. So, this was Alessandro di Montefiore, Adrienne thought, as Isabella’s words spun around in her head. Alessandro, whom Isabella had hated, loved, and finally betrayed. Alessandro, whose death Isabella had atoned for with her own.

As her heart drummed against her hand, Adrienne looked beyond the frown on Alessandro’s beautiful face, beyond the arrogant challenge in the jet-black eyes and saw something she could not quite define. Intensity? Power? Passion? Violence? Yes, she thought. All of them. This was not a restful man. And yet there was something more there. Something softer. Something that made her want to reach out…

Before she could think further, the women in the crowd surged forward to pull her toward the bed. Giggling, chattering, tossing about bawdy remarks and speculation about the night to come, they tugged off Adrienne’s robe before she realized what was happening. But when hands reached for the laces of her nightdress, she pushed at them and tried to turn away. But there were more hands than she could fight off, and the laughter around her rose to a still higher pitch as the laces began to give.

Desperation lending her strength, she swung her arms upward, striking the grasping hands away from her body. Wheeling away, she twisted herself out of the circle of women surrounding her, the carved bedpost a reassuring brace at her back. Realizing suddenly what a picture of disarray she presented, she snatched up the bed curtain, holding the wine-red velvet so that it covered her where her nightdress gaped over her lush breasts.

“No!” she cried. “Lasciatemi! Leave me be!” Her words echoed in her ears as she heard a voice that was not her own speak in a language she knew only in theory.

There was a moment of utter silence before the confusion of voices and laughter rose again, even louder than before. The women surged toward her like a wave, gowns billowing, hands outstretched.

“Stop!” The voice was mellow, but the unmistakable tone of command cut through the noise like a hot knife through butter. All sound, all movement ceased. “Leave her alone.”

As Alessandro moved forward, the crowd parted to let him pass. He strode toward his bride, stopping an arm’s length from her when he saw her dark brown eyes widen still further. What kind of game was she playing, he asked himself testily, a good portion of his irritation directed at himself for allowing her clever performance to touch him. Why was she playing the role of modest, shy virgin when rumor had it that she was not a virgin at all? He had seen her hand flutter helplessly to her heart when their eyes met across the crowd. He had seen the gamut of emotions on her face—shock, distress, bewilderment, fear, wariness. If she was really this good an actress, he cursed silently, she would lead him a merry chase.

His gaze swept over her again, taking in her expression, her stance. He saw the knuckles of her hands that clutched the velvet curtain whiten still further, and his eyes narrowed. This could not possibly be the woman who ordered a servant dealt twenty lashes as casually as she commanded a jester to divert her. The woman who whipped her horse until the beast bled. The woman who, it was whispered, had lain with more than one man.

The din behind him recommenced, and he began to turn around, stilling when he saw Isabella’s hand reach out to him, tremble, and return to clutch the velvet curtain.

“Please, send them away.” Her whisper was barely audible. “Send them all away.”

His dark eyebrows curved upward. She could not be unaware of the custom that a marriage like theirs was consummated before witnesses to ensure there would be no grounds for annulment later on. His gaze flicked over to the long table that was filled with refreshments for those who would spend the night here, making coarse jests and keeping a record of how many times he broke the lance. Despite himself, Alessandro felt his blood begin to heat at the thought of taking this woman.

“Please.”

He might have resisted the urgent whisper if he had not looked into her dark eyes. There was a plea there and confusion. But in their depths, a dauntless spirit glowed like a luminous beacon. He had seen less courage in eyes he had faced over the length of a rapier.

Even as he cursed himself for a fool, he turned around to face the crowd. “Leave us.” Silence fell, but only for a moment. Ignoring the agitated murmurs, Alessandro continued. “This marriage will be consummated in private.”

Two young men pushed through the crowd. “If you think we are going to let you get away with this, you are sadly mistaken.” The shorter of the two men spat the words at Alessandro. “You will have no reason, damn it, to repudiate our sister and ask the Pope for an annulment.”

Adrienne took half a step back as she recognized the same brown eyes, the same auburn hair she had seen in the mirror. Piero and Alfonso Gennaro, Isabella’s brothers.

“I would think you would be pleased.” Alessandro’s voice was dangerously soft. “Think of the rich dowry that would return to your hands.” His mouth curved in a chilly smile. “To say nothing of the beautiful sister to be sold again to the highest bidder.”

“What’s the matter?” the taller man taunted. “Afraid that your performance will fall short of your reputation?” His soft mouth curved in a derisive smile, but he did not move forward.

Alessandro let his eyes travel down Alfonso Gennaro’s body and then up again to his face, as much to give himself time to control his temper as to show his contempt. He placed his hand lightly on the jeweled hilt of the dagger at his waist. “Be grateful,” he said, keeping his voice low and light, “that you are guests in my father’s house.” His anger eased a little as he saw Alfonso swallow and take a step backward.

An older man strode forward, brushing the Gennaros aside with a muscular arm. He planted himself in front of Alessandro and glared past him at Adrienne. “Enough of this foolishness,” he growled. “Stop your simpering, madonna, and come forward.”

As the man with the gray, grizzled beard reached for her, Alessandro shifted to block his way.

The man’s eyes moved to Alessandro’s face, but the steely look in them did not soften. “Think well, my son, before you make this decision.”

Alessandro curbed the desire to look back over his shoulder at his bride. “It will be as I have said, Father.”

Francesco di Montefiore shrugged and shot another surly look at his daughter-in-law. If she brought peace to his troubled state, the marriage was worth it. If she caused any trouble—he shrugged again—there were ways of taking care of that … and her. He turned around and swept the crowd with his gaze. “Out.”

One of the Gennaros began to protest again, but Francesco silenced him with one look. He remained motionless until the chamber had emptied. Then he turned to face his son again. “The witnesses will examine your sheets in the morning.” His voice was crisp and matter of fact. “I would mislike it if you made a laughingstock of yourself—for whatever reason.”

Alessandro looked into his father’s face, so devoid of any deeper emotions. When he had been a small boy, he would have done anything to please his father. Anything to see his father’s eyes light up for him as they did when he looked upon the woman who was his wife. Now he did what he had to and for the rest, pleased himself. “Have I ever done less than my duty?”

“No, my son, and I have always been proud of you.” Francesco di Montefiore sighed, feeling older than his fifty years. “If your mother had been my wife and not my mistress, perhaps I could have given you more.” He clapped his son’s shoulder and turned away.

Adrienne watched the two men, but the words they exchanged were too softly spoken for her to understand them. When the door closed behind Francesco di Montefiore, she felt her stomach knot at the thought of what would come. She had gotten what she wanted, she thought. The people who had crowded the chamber were gone. But now she was alone with this beautiful stranger. The stranger who would in a few minutes take her as his wife.

She opened her mouth to speak but closed it just as quickly. What could she say to him? How could she make him understand that she was Isabella in body only? That she—the woman inside the body that was not her own—came from another time, another place? What words could she use and make him believe her? She could feel the fear pumping through her bloodstream and yet … and yet an odd certainty wove through the fear like a fine gold thread weaves through dark cloth. A certainty that it was here that she belonged. That in this time, this place she had things to do. Vital, important things.

Alessandro looked at his bride. He could have sworn that when they had stood face-to-face in the great hall to sign their marriage contract, her eyes had rested upon him with as much cool calculation as a slave trader’s. But now she looked so artless, so guileless with her eyes wide and full of questions. Had he simply refused to see it because he had grown to adulthood despising everyone who carried the Gennaro name?

Slowly, he reached toward her and, his eyes on hers, began to loosen the fingers that still clutched the bed curtain so tightly. One by one, he pried her fingers away from the velvet until it fell away. Only then did he allow his gaze to slide downward.

The laces hung undone, her linen nightdress falling open just far enough to hint at the curves of her lush breasts. As he stared at her, he saw the soft flesh quiver from her accelerated breathing, and he felt his own body tighten in response. He reached out again and, taking a lace into each hand, began to twine them around his fingers, pulling her toward him until they were separated by mere inches.

When she felt Alessandro’s hands begin to work her fingers away from the curtain that shielded her, Adrienne felt a quick flash of panic. As a protest rose to her lips, their eyes met.

His eyes were as black as his hair—without a trace of any other color. And yet they were filled with light. It was that light that beckoned to her and made her fingers pliant, allowing him to ease them away from the curtain until it fell with a soft rustle.

Her eyes still caught in his, she felt the first tug as he pulled her toward him by the laces of her nightdress. She felt her heart begin to hammer, propelled by the fear that rose within her. But it was not fear alone that had her heart beating like the wings of a songbird caught in a cage. A strange sensation she had never felt before reshaped the fear, both blunting and sharpening it. A sensation that had her body tingling in response.

She had to strike away those slender, dark hands that were pulling her ever closer, she told herself. She had to find words to explain that she was not Isabella. But she could do none of these things, caught as she was in the changeable light of his eyes. She saw and acknowledged the flicker of challenge and the flare she recognized as desire. But it was the glow of something more gentle that held her captive.

Lifting her hands, she laid them against his chest. “Alessandro, ti prego …”

“What?” he asked softly. “What do you beg me?”

But whatever words she had wanted to speak left her, and she could only shake her head helplessly.

Suddenly, he jerked the laces he still held toward him, bringing her flush against his body, imprisoning her hands between them. “What kind of game are you playing?” he demanded. “Just who do you think you are”?

Adrienne opened her mouth to tell him the truth, but the words died in her throat before they could reach her lips. If fate or magic or the divine had sent her here, to this man, to this moment, was it not her destiny to play out the role assigned her? Even before her mind answered her question, she had tilted her chin up at the man who was scowling down at her.

“I am Isabella di Montefiore.” Her voice was firm. “Your wife.”

Chapter Three

“Yes. My wife.” Alessandro felt his body spring to life at the thought that this woman belonged to him. He would guard his mind and heart and guard them well, he vowed, for no child of the Gennaros could be trusted. But he would take her body and bring himself pleasure. Bring them both pleasure. He released the laces and slid his hands onto her shoulders.

Even before Adrienne realized that he was no longer restraining her, his hands were on her shoulders, sliding over the thin linen of her nightdress, sliding onto the sensitive skin of her neck, sliding upward until he cupped her head. As his face came closer, she felt that quick jolt of fear she was already familiar with, followed by that sharp-sweet sensation that made her body throb in the oddest places.

As Alessandro lowered his head toward Isabella, his last rational thought was that this must be what selling one’s soul to the devil was like. Then he was lost in the honeyed taste of her mouth.

The taste of wine and candied almonds was on his tongue as he filled her mouth. But there was another taste there that Adrienne recognized with some instinct she had not known she possessed. The taste of passion lay on his tongue. Passion just a step away from violence. She made a small sound of protest and pushed against him, although her hands were still trapped between them and gave her no leverage.

Alessandro felt rather than heard the soft sound of protest that she made and reacting automatically, his mouth gentled. He sipped where he had drunk greedily. He soothed where he had unsettled. Where he had taken before, he began to give.

He traced the curve of her cheek with his lips, then retraced it with his tongue. The softness, the fragrance of her skin reminded him of the roses in his mother’s garden. His mouth found a pulse below her ear that beat frantically. He teased the pulse with his tongue, the scent of roses rising to intoxicate him like wine.

She was pliant against him, her lush curves molded against his aroused body, her hands resting lightly on his hips. As Alessandro raised his head to look at her, she opened her eyes that were a little glazed, a little unfocused with incipient passion. He smiled. This he could be sure of, he thought. He had seen enough women in all stages of passion to be a competent judge.

Sliding his hands down until they lay between the curve of her breasts and her collarbone, he began to push her shirt aside. All the laces hung open, and the soft linen slid down her shoulders without impediment.

The cool air on her shoulders and breasts barely penetrated the sensual haze that surrounded Adrienne. Before she realized what he was doing, Alessandro had shifted her hands away from his hips to allow the shift to slip down to the floor. Her eyes flew open as she felt the fabric slither down her body, but before she could even begin to tense, he had lifted her in his arms and laid her in the center of the bed that the women had turned down.

She lay there unmoving, her mind still hazy, her body still languid with the desire Alessandro had aroused. She watched him move around the chamber with the careless grace of a large cat. He tossed the heavy gold medallion and chain he wore onto the table to lie next to the jewelry that spilled out of the inlaid box. Undoing the ruby buttons of his doublet with one hand, he walked to the table and filled a goblet with wine. But then, he left it untouched and picked up an apple instead.

Without so much as a glance in her direction, he dispatched his clothing quickly. Perhaps it was that casual neglect more than his lack of modesty that made Adrienne suddenly aware that she was lying naked on a bed and that within minutes, a stranger would invade her body. Desperate, a flush heating her skin, she sat bolt upright and snatched up the coverlet of purple silk to shield her nakedness.

When Alessandro turned to face her, her breath caught in her throat at the sheer physical beauty of his aroused body. Although the impulse to look away was strong, Adrienne met his eyes. She watched him pick up the apple in one hand and his jeweled dagger in the other and move toward the bed.

As he approached, her heart pumped against her hands that clutched the coverlet over her breasts. A few feet away from the bed he stopped. Taking a leisurely bite from the apple he held, he ran his gaze over her with a cool insolence that had anger pushing aside all the other confusing emotions within Adrienne.

Then, without warning, he tossed the apple toward her. Automatically, she held out her hands to catch it, realizing too late what his intention had been when the coverlet slid down into her lap. Again, anger surged within her at his trick and without thinking, she hurled the fruit back at him, just barely missing his shoulder.

He threw back his head and laughed, the warm, rich sound filling the chamber. “Thank God. I was beginning to think I had married a mouse.” Still smiling, he came forward and sat down on the bed.

“How dare you …” Adrienne began, the words dying away when she felt the cold tip of the dagger sheath press lightly against her left breast.

“I dare anything I please.” He smiled again, but this time the smile did not reach his eyes. “It would behoove you to remember that, cara. Your duty is to warm my bed and bear my children.” Pulling the dagger back, he flipped it once. Catching it easily, he threw the jeweled sheath aside and bent forward to slide the dagger under a pillow.

“Are you threatening me?” she demanded.

“Threaten?” His black brows curved upward like the wings of a bird of prey. “Do you take me for a barbarian?” He reached out and cupped her chin in his left hand. “No, madonna. Not a threat. Just a friendly warning.”

Forgetting that she was not Isabella, forgetting that she had been set down in the midst of someone else’s life, Adrienne again felt anger slice through her. Operating purely on instinct, she brought her arm up and slapped his hand away from her face. Before she could draw a breath, his fingers had encircled her wrist and were imprisoning it as securely as an iron manacle.

Alessandro stared at her, fury and admiration balancing each other out. What a mass of contradictions this woman was. She apparently possessed more courage than wisdom. Even now, as he held her wrist hard enough to leave marks on her skin, anger was winning the battle against fear in her eyes. Why then did she act the naïve girl, afraid of the rituals of the marriage bed?

Even though he did not release her hand, his fingers gentled, and his thumb began to rub the soft inner skin of her wrist. “Easy,” he whispered, much as he would to a skittish mare about to be mated. Leaning forward, he brought her hand to his mouth and keeping his eyes on hers, replaced his thumb with his lips.

As his lips and tongue and teeth traced sensuously over her wrist, he hooked his other arm around her waist and pulled her closer, closer until her breasts brushed his chest. Even as he felt the tremor that went through her at the contact, he lowered his face into the curve of her neck that was fragrant with the scent of roses.

He leaned forward, nudging her down to the soft mattress with his body. When she lay on her back, his hands, his mouth began to drift over her—discovering the lush curves, the rose petal skin. His blood began to swim with desire and quickly, more quickly than he would have wanted, the demands of his body grew insistent.

Pulling back, Alessandro propped himself on an elbow, thinking to cool the heat that was driving through him. But as his gaze traveled over Isabella—over her thighs that hid the solace he craved so badly, her breasts that quivered with her quick breathing, her lips that were slightly parted and seemed to invite his kiss—he knew that his patience was stretched as tightly as his body.

As her senses began to whirl, Adrienne found herself forgetting Alessandro’s arrogant words. Forgetting the casual assessment in his eyes. Forgetting even the cold tip of the dagger’s sheath he had held at her breast.

She trembled as he pulled her close so that they were skin to skin, but it was not with fear. Then he began to touch her. As his hands, his mouth glided over her, she began to float in a languorous bubble of sensation.

When she felt a chill, Adrienne opened her eyes to find Alessandro looking down at her. His eyes glowed like live coals with the reflection of his desire. The nostrils of his straight nose quivered lightly with barely suppressed passion. His bronzed skin, sheened with moisture, rippled over muscles stretched tightly. Despite her innocence, she understood just how badly this man wanted her. Understood that he was a breath away from taking her.

Suddenly, panic speared through her again. Even if this body was not hers, how could she allow it to be invaded by a stranger? And although he had kissed her, touched her, made her tremble with pleasure, this man was still a stranger despite all the details she knew about him from Isabella’s journals. Lifting her hand, she placed it against his chest.

“Alessandro?”

He curved his fingers around her hand and lowered his head to brush her fingertips with his mouth. “What is it?”

“Please, will you wait?”

Alessandro frowned. “Wait? Wait for what?”

Adrienne took a deep breath and spoke the words quickly before she lost the courage to say them at all. “Wait to make love to me until we are no longer strangers.”

Unmoving, he gazed at her for a long time before he spoke again. “You mean it,” he said slowly. “You’re actually serious.”

She said nothing, but her gaze did not waver from his.

Alessandro felt a surge of anger, fueled by his arousal, fueled by the impossibility of her request, fueled by his absurd impulse to yield to the plea in her dark eyes.

“Don’t you understand?” he burst out. “Don’t you understand that our marriage should have been consummated before witnesses?”

Adrienne stared at him as she remembered the words in Isabella’s journals.

Alessandro came to me over and over in the night, and I cared not that prurient, envious eyes watched us. I saw the desire in his eyes, and I will make him a willing slave of my body.

Her lips parted in a mute gasp as she suddenly understood. If this was not an insane dream, if she was truly here, now, then she, Adrienne de Beaufort, had already, in one small way, changed the history that Isabella di Montefiore had lived.

“And this? What of this?”

Jolted back by the hiss of Alessandro’s voice, she watched him jerk her hand downward and press it against his aroused flesh. Felt it surge against her palm. Her body throbbed with an answering flash of heat. She tried to wrest her hand away from him, but he held it fast.

“And what of the witnesses who will examine our sheets in the morning?” He flung her hand away. “Don’t you think their eyes will be especially sharp after that little performance of yours?” His hands flexed as he fought for control. “Do you think I will allow myself to be made a fool of by you when they find neither a trace of your blood nor my seed?”

His eyes narrowed to obsidian slits. “Or are you just trying to find a way to disguise the fact that your virginal blood was spilled long ago?” Wrapping his hand in her hair, he pulled her closer. “Are you?”

There was suspicion in his eyes when Alessandro plunged his body into mine the first time. Suspicion that did not fade until he saw my blood running red on his own flesh. Then I knew just how clever I had been to guard my maidenhead during all the pleasurable games I had played.

Adrienne understood now the full import of Isabella’s words.

“You’re hurting me.”

Instead of releasing her, his grip on her hair tightened. “Answer me.”

“Will you believe me if I tell you that I have lain with no man?” Her heart gave a jolt as she spoke the words that were both the truth and a lie.

“Do you swear it?”

“Yes.” Her gaze did not waver from his eyes. “Upon my immortal soul, may I be struck dead this moment if this is not the truth.”

Alessandro released her then and bending his leg, rested his arms on his knee. Propping his chin on his arms, he studied the woman who was his wife.

He must be mad to even consider it, he cursed himself. If he gave in, he would be opening himself to mockery, to shame, to blackmail. He should have bid her to hold her tongue and taken her quickly. Before she had had the chance to worm her way into his soul with her soft eyes the color of a sable pelt. Even as he told himself all this, he knew she had won. After all, it was a personal point of pride that he had never taken an unwilling woman.

Adrienne watched him as he wordlessly reached for the unsheathed dagger he had put under the pillow. His hand steady, he flicked the tip of the blade across his wrist and calmly watched his scarlet blood trickle onto the white bedsheet and spread into a bright stain.

Her stomach knotting with agitation and gratitude and guilt, Adrienne raised herself onto her knees. Reaching for the robe that lay at the foot of the bed with hands that were as tremulous as Alessandro’s had been steady, she took a handkerchief from its pocket and wrapped it around his wrist. There was blood on her hands when she finished—his blood—and she felt irrevocably bound to him.

Sitting back on her haunches, she looked at Alessandro for a long, silent moment. “Thank you,” she said softly. “You will not regret it. I promise.”

Even as the words left her mouth, a sense of foreboding shivered over her skin. How could she make such a rash promise? This night had to be a fluke, a trick played by a spirit, by angel or demon, and it would be over as quickly, as suddenly as it had begun. How could she make promises to this man she would not be here to keep?

Alessandro saw the doubts, the anxiety flicker through her eyes, but he was too weary, his nerves and his body stretched too tightly to examine them more closely. “For your sake, I hope so,” he said brusquely, keeping his eyes on her face. “Now cover yourself before I change my mind.”

Adrienne lay down, pulling the coverlet up over her breasts. Alessandro turned his back to her and slid down onto the soft mattress. She watched the subtle rippling of muscles beneath his bronzed skin. Although she knew she was playing with fire, she reached out, needing somehow to reassure herself one more time that this was not a dream. When she placed her hand against the warm skin of his back, she felt him stiffen, but he did not shift away.

“Sandro?”

“No one calls me that.”

“Good.” Adrienne smiled. “Then I will.” Her fingers spread in a reflexive little caress. “Good night.”

He glanced over his shoulder. “Don’t touch me again, Isabella, unless you’re issuing an invitation.”

She tucked her hand under her cheek. “Another threat?”

He heard the smile in her voice. Admiration and amusement warred with his ill temper and won. When he spoke, there was an answering smile in his. “No, Isabella. Just another friendly warning.”

Alessandro lay there for a long time, eyes open, body tense. He listened to Isabella’s soft breathing gradually even out into sleep. He turned over and looked at her. She lay there like a child, her cheek pillowed on her hand. Against the rich purple silk of the coverlet, her skin gleamed like alabaster.

The needs were still driving through him, and the temptation to forget the unspoken promise he had made and take what was his was so keen that his body leapt at the thought of sinking into her. Again, he cursed himself for a fool. But he had made a promise, sealed with his own blood, and—although it was not something he would have cared to admit in public—for his personal sense of honor, a promise made to a woman was no different than allegiance pledged to a suzerain.

His gaze resting on Isabella, he touched himself to complete the fraud of a marriage consummated.

 

Adrienne emerged from sleep, her heart pumping from the onslaught of unfamiliar sensations. She lay half-pinned under a man’s body. A hand was splayed possessively on her midriff, the fingertips grazing the undercurve of her breast. His leg had been slung over hers, bringing his body into intimate contact with her thigh. Dazed, but ready to fight, she half raised herself—and suddenly remembered.

Sandro’s head lay on her pillow, his long black hair partly concealing his face. She fell back onto the pillow and closed her eyes. So, it had not been a dream after all. The past night came to life in her memory—vivid, with all its tastes and scents and textures intact. She had lived it. She had truly lived it.

But what was she going to do? The question thrummed through her head like an insistent drumbeat. She didn’t know by what power she had come here, but she could not stay, she thought desperately. She had to find a way back to her own life. In the thin, early light that filtered through the windowpanes, she remembered all the things that had drained out of her mind in the heated, sensuous atmosphere of the bedchamber last night.

There were people depending on her. Jean de Lambert’s widow and child were in the secret chamber where they would die of hunger and thirst if she did not go back to free them. And more people would come after them. People who would fall into the hands of Fabien and his ilk unless she was there to help them.

She began to struggle, trying to twist herself out from under Sandro’s limbs, but he murmured something, and his hand moved upward to mold her breast. Twin streaks of heat and weakness shot through her, and she lay still, her head turned to face him.

Sandro. She tasted the name on her tongue. This was not some nameless man that a fluke of fate had thrown her together with. This was a man she knew. This was a man who had treated her with surprising kindness when it would have been his right to take her in front of a boisterous audience.

His face was relaxed now in sleep with none of the tension that had been there last night. She lifted her hand to touch him, his beauty tempting her as strongly as the serpent’s apple had tempted Eve. Then she remembered what he had said about touching him and issuing invitations, and her hand fell away.

Still, she continued to watch him. Did he know? she asked herself sadly. Did he know in some secret part of his being that he would never see children born of his loins? That none of the plans, the dreams that he cherished would ever be fulfilled? That he would go to a terrible death, betrayed by his wife?

Forcing herself to look away from him, her gaze wandered around the room. If only she could find some clue to how she had come to be here, perhaps that would help her find her way home. Her eyes passed over the portrait of Isabella that she knew so well then returned to it. The longer she stared at it, the more a strange, agitated restlessness built within her until her body seemed to hum with it. As the restlessness built, so did the assurance.

This was a visible connection between her life and Isabella’s. Perhaps it was a clue, a sign. If the portrait existed in both lives, both times, perhaps, by some secret means, it had been her vehicle to this room. If that was so, it could be the vehicle back into her own life.

Moving more urgently than before, she managed to disentangle herself from Sandro. He murmured something again but did not wake. Sliding from the bed, she tugged the bed curtain closed. She was already moving toward the portrait when she stopped. It was insane, but she needed to look at him again.

Retracing her steps, she leaned against the bedpost and gazed down at him—young and beautiful and doomed. Her heart was heavy, as if she were already grieving for him.

“Isabella.”

Horrified, Adrienne heard his sleep-blurred voice. She wanted so badly to stay. To stay while he woke. To stay and be the wife he deserved. But she knew she could not. Begging him silently for his forgiveness, she dropped the curtain and ran toward the portrait.

She began to run her hands over the canvas, registering vaguely that the texture was smooth, without the cracks in the paint that three centuries had wrought. But nothing happened. Her hands moved ever faster as the panic within her rose.

“Isabella? Where are you?”

His voice was husky, and it beckoned to her. Beckoned so strongly that she almost pushed away from the painting and returned to the bed.

“Please,” she whispered to whatever power had brought her here. “Please bring me back home.” Her palms slid over the canvas.

“Isabella?” The voice was stronger now and held a note of irritation.

Adrienne heard movement behind the curtain, and another jolt of panic flashed through her. She had already started to turn around when she was catapulted into the blackness.

 

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‘Tapestry of Dreams’ Excerpt


“I suppose that’s one way of putting it.” He traced light circles on her palms with his thumbs. “Weren’t you the one who assured me I would never take what you did not choose to give me?”

The thought was wicked, but the words were tumbling out before she could hold them back. “Then I could ask you for a kiss, and it would not—” her breath caught “—not be more?”

“Yes.” Theo found himself wanting to give her anything, everything she asked for. He hoped he could. “Are you asking me for a kiss, Julie?”

“If I were a coquette, I could say I am only giving you the kiss you wanted this morning.”

There was a trace of a smile in her voice, but her eyes were huge and serious.

“You could. But you are not, are you?”

“No,” she whispered. “Kiss me, Theo. Kiss me now before the sun goes down.”

He was still holding her hands in his. Lifting them again, he brushed his lips over her fingertips, once, twice. Then he laid her hands flat against his chest.

Cupping her face as gently as if she were made of glass, he tilted it up to his.

Julie forgot to breathe as she waited for the touch of his mouth on hers, but instead, his lips began a leisurely journey over her face. She sighed as he traced the curve of her cheek. Her sigh became a moan as he dipped to taste the skin warmed by the pulse that beat beneath her ear.

When his mouth found its way to hers, she was already melting. He brushed his lips over hers, teasing, provoking them both. Even when her lips parted in invitation, he continued to tease.

Julie dug her fingers into his waistcoat, sure that if she did not find purchase, she would collapse at his feet. Sure that if he did not kiss her, truly kiss her, she would go mad. But he only skimmed his mouth over hers, watching her, always watching her.

Impatience became longing. Longing became need. Need became hunger. Desperate, she whispered his name.

Something eased within him as Theo realized that this was what he had been waiting for—this knowledge that it was his kiss she wanted. His kiss and no other. Then he deepened the kiss.

Julie thought she had remembered his kiss—the taste, the texture, the sensations that it sent spinning through her. But as Theo took her mouth fully, she realized that her memories had been to reality as a single candle is to a blazing fire. As their tongues tangled, the heat arrowed through her. Here again was the power she had felt earlier, but this time, it did not frighten her. Perhaps because she knew it was too late for fear.

Theo felt Julie’s pulse racing beneath his fingers. Even her skin seemed to quiver with the rush of her blood. He felt his own body stir. It was tempting, so very tempting. Another kiss, a touch, a caress, and she would be his. His body hardened at the thought. But, he reminded himself, he had promised he would not seduce her.

Slowly, he ended the kiss. But, unable to sever the link completely, he allowed his mouth to linger on hers.

Julie felt the rush of her blood subside. The whirlwind within her waned degree by slow degree, but still, it remained a small, spinning ball in her belly, sending out heat throughout her body. It was no longer the frantic, violent heat that consumed everything in its path, but a solid, banked heat that would last through the night.

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