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The heavy iron gate shuttered upward. A cloud of grayish dust blew into the yard, billowing as high as the surrounding walls as the ground thundered and shook beneath the score of soldiers riding into the safety of Castello DiSanto.
Mariella Rizzoli hid behind a pine tree and watched in awe. She pulled her cloak tighter, only her eyes and hands visible as she crouched out of sight and prayed the spectacle of Baron Alberto DiSanto's returning son shielded her presence. The summer sun beat down relentlessly, though in the distant sky clouds formed. No doubt a summer rain would move into the region by nightfall.
The cavaliere--as a knight was called--at the fore sat erect upon his dressed horse, a position bearing his noble birthright. She had heard stories about Romano DiSanto's bravery in battle and his kindness toward the less fortunate. The two sides of the man bit at Mariella's curiosity. Yet she would never forgive him for his sire's evilness. If not for the elder baron, her father would have died peacefully, knowing she would have a place to call home for the rest of her life. Still, she knew she must get to the baron, reason with him for the right to her father's keep.
As the last horse cleared the entrance, Mariella prayed she'd make it through before the gate lowered. She moved quickly, using the shadow of the wall as her safe haven. She cast a look through the men on horseback until she found the baron just as he removed his helmet. His sweat-dampened hair fell about his shoulders. When he turned his head slightly, she couldn't look away from his strong profile, even though his jaw and chin were covered with hair. The last time she saw Romano DiSanto was 12 years ago when she was a girl of ten and he was going off to war in his eighteenth year.
Attention remained on the newly arrived baron, giving her a blessed opportunity to charge forward. But in her moment's distraction, the gatekeeper had already begun lowering the gate. She glanced up, determined to beat the iron spears descending toward the dirt. She pulled her clothing taut around her and dove across the line where the gate would land. Unfortunately, she skidded into the hind leg of a horse. The animal pranced nervously. Fearing it would trample her, Mariella screamed.
Lingering dust choked her throat and settled in her lungs. She curled into a defensive ball, thinking she might survive the weight of the horse. Before she could impart with another scream, she felt herself lifted off the ground and cradled into the strong arms of a man.
"You are safe now," she heard the man say, his voice grating yet comforting.
She lifted her head to find the troubled features of the cavaliere who had sat at the helm of the small army. Baron Romano DiSanto, his gray eyes filled with concern.
Mariella shifted, moving her legs so he'd set her down. When her feet touched the ground, she felt her world whirl around her.
"Are you all right, girl?" he asked.
"Sí," she managed while fighting the dizziness that overcame her.
"Are you a servant here?"
"Servant?" She tilted her head back to better view him. He stood more than a head and shoulders taller and was as formidable as the castle behind them. "Sí, I am, Cavaliere DiSanto," she said with unstable confidence, praying he'd not see through her lie. To have him believe she worked in his castle was the only way she'd get close enough to him to save her father's keep. "I was returning from...the mercato."
His eyebrows rose slowly, and he glanced down at her empty hands.
"I did not find what I needed," she replied to his unspoken query.
He shifted his gaze above her head and called out orders to his soldiers. They dispersed toward the inner ward's stables, taking his horse along. "What are your duties to me?"
Mariella swallowed hard. She had no idea how many servants were retained after the elder baron died. "I am newly hired."
"Your duties?" he posed again.
"I...see to...your chamber."
At first his eyes widened, but then they turned cool, steely. He did not believe her.
"When it was learned the baron's son was returning, I helped ready your chamber."
It was difficult to tell if he accepted her falsehood. He held his features in the precise manner as before, wary yet curious. She peered into his eyes again, wondering what ran through his mind, searching for a clue to those thoughts. Would he toss her out of the inner ward? What then? How else would she convince him to sign over the keep? She touched the bodice of her dress, relieved the document still rested there in safety.
"Then my chambermaid you are," he said, startling her. "Follow me."
"To where?" The instant the words left her mouth she wanted to stuff them back in. Never did a servant question her superior, especially a baron. "Your pardon, sir."
"See that it never happens again, or you may find yourself turned out."
* * *
War was hell on the body and soul. And the spirit, too. Romano thought he'd seen enough battles to numb his senses. Truth be told, it made him sick, tired and frustrated. The line between right and wrong caused needless loss of lives and muddled a man's thoughts. But it made coming home all the more satisfying.
Stepping into his chamber, familiarity embraced him in its welcoming arms. He paused to thoroughly inspect the contents. He had almost forgotten what his bed looked like, the four carved posts seeming smaller now. A basin of water sat on a tall table, and a trunk across the room bore his initials. The simplicity of it all didn't escape his notice, yet it was more comfort than he enjoyed these twelve years past.
He glanced back over his shoulder at the chambermaid standing in the hall. She seemed nervous, mayhap uncertain of her duties. She appeared young, and he wondered if she knew what her duties entailed. In truth, he was surprised to learn she was his personal servant. He had expected a boy to tend to him and do his biding. With her hair free from its hood, he was unable to turn away from the shocking red braid curved over her shoulder, the wispy tips resting at her waist.
Romano frowned away his sudden twinge of desire. "Have you a name, girl?"
Her eyes snapped up to his. "Mari--" Her head dipped.
"Mari? Is that it?"
She turned her eyes up to his once again. "Mariella."
Romano nodded. "Bring out the tub." Assuming it was still in the connecting storage room along with his armor and clothing and other items from his childhood. When he was younger, he'd hide in that room, his sanctuary from his overbearing father.
The girl hesitated.
"Know you where the tub is kept?" he posed, suddenly leery. He stepped toward her, and she hopped back in fright. "Bedamned, girl. Do you fear me?"
She shook her head. "As I have said, I am new here. I've not been told where your tub is located."
The sound of her sweet voice soothed his weary soul. He peered into her blue- green eyes, finding something there that told him he'd best mind his heart. He could lose himself in those eyes. Why he hadn't noticed them during their first encounter, he couldn't say. Perhaps it had been his concern for the girl's safety.
"Find Giorgio and send him up." His father's manservant was best suited to help him remove the traveling armor he wore and to help the girl drag the wood tub into his chamber.
* * *
With his armor removed, the baron looked no less impressive. He was solid and muscular. Mariella tried not to stare, but she simply could not look away. When he rotated his shoulders, no doubt to work out the stiffness from wearing heavy armor and sitting in one position atop a horse for long periods, she fixed her curiosity on his chest. The fabric of his tunic stretched to its limits, and she wondered if it would give, mayhap reveal his covered flesh.
A shiver raced down her spine. Never had she given free rein to thoughts of a man's body. The last six years she had cared for her ill father, making certain their keep was clean and habitable and that he was comfortable and free from bed sores. Only once did they discuss marriage. He worried she'd never find a man because she dedicated herself to caring for him. She wasn't concerned at all. Men, after all, didn't come courting her. Besides, she was much too old now to marry. What man wanted a woman years past marriageable age?
A little scream left her mouth. The baron knight frightened her, and his stance turned that fear into apprehension. She prayed he was not prone to disciplining his servants with beatings, as she had heard his father had done. Why hadn't she thought about that before impulsively putting her scheme into motion?
"Your pardon, cavaliere." A thought crossed her mind. "Would you prefer Baron?"
"I care not how you address me. However, I do care that my maidservant is already remiss in her duties." He jerked his head toward the connecting door. "Giorgio has gone for the tub. Fetch water. And make certain it is hot."
* * *
Thank the Lord Giorgio helped her carry buckets of heated water up the stairs. Although he had served the elder baron, clearly he had taken on the position for the younger baron as well. Portly and balding, Giorgio spoke little. She saw in his eyes he didn't trust her, although he never questioned how she came to be Baron DiSanto's maidservant.
As she carried the last buckets up the stairs, Mariella grimaced from the pain settling into her shoulders and back. Pausing for a moment, she took a deep breath to relieve the stinging in her muscles. It wasn't as if she had not executed this task before. She had done it countless times for her father. Three months had passed since he died and already her body turned soft, unprepared to carry wood pails laden with water.
"Best get to it else Baron DiSanto might turn me out. And I'll be no closer to retaining my father's keep. My keep, now."
"What are you mumbling about, girl?" Giorgio asked from the top of the stairs.
Mariella frowned but made certain she answered politely. "I am feeling the pain of carrying these buckets up the stairs. That is all."
"It is not your place to complain about such things. You are a servant, nothing more. Now, get on with it. The baron grows impatient."
Glaring at Giorgio's back when he turned toward the baron's door, she wished the man had left Castello DiSanto after the elder baron passed on. It would have made her quest easier. The manservant might be inclined to interfere should he discover her reason for wheedling her way into the baron's employ.
"Here is the last of the hot water," she said as she entered his chamber. "As soon as I--" Lord have mercy! The baron, settled into the tub, lounged back with his eyes closed, his broad shoulders stuffed between the wooden sides. Now what was she to do? How did she get around seeing him naked as she emptied the last two buckets?
"Approach, Mariella," the baron commanded, opening one eye to watch her.
"Your pardon, baron knight. I--"
"I find your virginal reaction charming. However, the longer you stand rooted to the stone, the faster the water will turn cold."
"Rest easy, girl. Look to the window as you pour the water."
Rest easy? She had never seen a man in all his naked splendor. Not even her father when she had bathed him. Lorenza, their widowed and only servant, had tended to such private matters.
I can do this, she said to herself. I must, in the name of my father's keep.
One foot in front of the other. Closer.
Mariella drew in a shaky breath as she stared at the window slit. Beside the tub, she set one bucket down, all the while studying the top curve of the window, the thickness of the walls, the color of the stone. She tipped the bucket.
"If you cannot look at me, how do you plan to bathe my body."
Startled, Mariella emptied the water over the baron's head, dousing the floor as well as his face. He spit the water out with a curse.
"Blast it, girl! Have you never attended to anyone in your life?"
"Sí, cavaliere. But never a...a naked man."
Her heart pounded heavily in her chest, thundering up to her ears. She knew not what to do. When the baron knight yanked on her hand and brought her down to her knees, she held back a sudden spate of tears. He squeezed her chin between his wet fingers and forced her to look into his bemused eyes. Drenched hair clustered about his face, tentacles gripping his beard and mustache. His lips pinched tightly, turning white. She must diffuse the situation before his ire grew irrevocably.
"Your pardon, baron knight. I will not displease you again."
He held onto her longer, studying her features before he relaxed his hold and finally let go. "I doubt that."
"Then empty the last bucket and fetch the cloth to wash my back."
"Sí, cavaliere. Uh, baron knight."
He heaved a sigh. "Must you extend my titles? Since you are my personal servant, you may refer to me as my lord baron knight."
A small quirk at the corner of his mouth caught her notice. Was he mocking her? Or was he serious? Mariella nodded. "As you wish, my lord baron knight."
His burst of laughter distressed her. She knew not what to make of his temperament, which seemed unstable. Without another word, she looked across the room while she emptied the last bucket into the tub. After retrieving the cloth and soap Giorgio had placed on the stool next to the tub, Mariella drew up all her courage. She would need every ounce of it to bathe this man. He wasn't helpless by any means, but he was having himself a bit of entertainment at her expense. She'd wager her life on it.
* * *
Romano clenched his teeth as the girl wiped the cloth across his back. He felt her eyes bore into his flesh, heating him more than the warm water. What manner of idiot was he? There had been no shortage of women during his absence from Castello DiSanto. But none had he allowed to bathe him. So why did he request it of Mariella when he was more than capable of doing it for himself?
Forcing his thoughts away from the girl, he turned insightful, feeling as if he'd taken God's gifts for granted. He returned to the castello solely because of his father's death. Not because he came home to grieve. His sire did naught to deserve a son's grief. There was more to accomplish, a sense of belonging, mayhap to settle down permanently and find a wife.
Romano chided himself in silence. What did he know about marriage and family? His mother died not long after his birth, and his father blamed him. Alberto DiSanto did not immediately take another wife. He preferred to wallow in his loss, to take out his grief on his only child. And when Alberto discovered Romano's secret, the elder baron beat him until blood covered Romano's young body.
"My lord baron knight?"
The soft voice calling to him should have relieved his revived tension on the subject of his sire. It didn't, but Romano did release the thoughts provoking his seldom lost ire. It was his generally calm nature that won battles...and respect among his men and the sovereigns he'd fought for and against.
"Are you ill?" she inquired. "Should I fetch Giorgio?"
The genuine concern in her voice baffled Romano. After all, they were virtually strangers. "I am not ill." He turned his upper body to look at her. "I think my back is quite clean. If you scrub it any further, I fear you'll scrub the flesh off." He curled his fingers around her upper arm and moved her to the side of the tub. "There are other parts of me that need a good cleansing."
His mind included.
Romano chuckled as he studied her features. Her nose was straight yet suited to her face and softened the high set of her cheekbones. Her abundance of hair appeared destined to flee the constraints of the braid. What would it do to him to see that beautiful red fanned out over his pillows?
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