The Devil To Pay by K. C. Bateman
Central Italy, June 1492.
Cara di Montessori was sick of people trying to kill her.
As a child she’d trailed her father through some of the most godforsaken places in Christendom, so it had been a rare week that hadn’t included a scimitar-wielding Saracen or bloodthirsty Moor trying to send her to the afterlife. But familiarity with the experience did not make it any more enjoyable. And besides, those instances had been impersonal, only to be expected of campaigning, whereas this attempt was personal in the extreme. ‘Uncle’ Lorenzo did not want her alive to dispute his seizure of Castelleon.
His men were proving annoyingly persistent. He must have offered a ransom to keep them on her tail, and though Cara doubted her life was worth a great deal, everyone had their price. In truth, she was staking her life on that very premise, about to make a pact with the Devil himself.
If she could reach him.
Alessandro del Sarto, ‘Il Diavolo,’ was the last person in Italy she would have chosen to ask for help, but engaging his dubious talents was her only hope of staying alive and regaining her home. He was condottiero. A killer for hire.
Cara wrinkled her nose in distaste. Mercenary described both del Sarto’s profession and his nature. Il Diavolo sold himself to the highest bidder. He didn’t care which side won or lost, or whether the cause was worth fighting for, only whether the victor could pay his exorbitant fees. Every monarch in Europe wanted him. And now she needed him, too.
‘Better to dance with the devil you know,’ Father used to say. Well, she hadn’t seen this particular devil in six long years, not since she was sixteen. He’d knocked her on her backside, then kissed her until she’d seen stars. She’d threatened to kill him in return. He’d haunted her dreams ever since.
Cara shivered. She hated being cold. At least if she ended up in hell for bartering her soul she’d be warm. She nudged her exhausted horse forward and wished—for perhaps the hundredth time—that she’d stolen a mount with a better saddle. The urge to slump over the animal’s scrawny neck was so strong. She hadn’t eaten for two days, hadn’t dared stop for more than an hour at most. Every jolt of the animal’s hooves reopened the wound at her ribs and brought a fresh wave of dizziness and pain. Perchance the quick slash of an assassin’s blade would be preferable to dying slowly of blood loss?
No. She would reach Il Diavolo. She had hundreds of things she wanted to do before leaving this world, and she’d hardly managed to achieve any of them. Quite apart from avenging her father’s death and regaining her home, she planned on dying a wrinkled old crone in a nice warm bed, surrounded by a huge and loving family. A young, heroic death was all very well in principle, but it looked extremely unappealing now it was a distinct possibility.
Whirling lights crowded her vision like fireflies and Cara shook her head. The stumbling horse crested a rise, and she let out a breathless prayer of thanks. There it was, outlined against the deepening twilight; Torre di San Rocco, the fortified city strongold of Italy’s most infamous son.
Cara kicked the horse into an exhausted trot. She would reach Il Diavolo, or die trying.
“You’ve got to choose one of them. What about Lucrezia Borgia?”
Alessandro del Sarto, ‘Il Diavolo’, drummed his fingers on the armrest of his chair and briefly considered strangling his second-in-command. Not enough to kill him, of course. Just enough to stop this infernal listing of prospective brides.
He’d spent all day scaring the wits out of people and his head ached as if he’d been hit with a battle-axe. First, he’d dealt with a line of petitioners who’d flocked to the castle to beg him to settle their petty disputes. He didn’t care who’d stolen whose goat. Then he’d spent a few hours thrashing the cockiness out of some raw recruits on the training field. That had been fun, admittedly, but now his shoulder hurt like the devil. Lastly, he’d overseen the flogging of a man convicted of assault. All that screaming and begging for mercy had made his ears ring.
Alessandro took a sip of wine and cast a simmering glance over the crowd milling before the dais. Even those brave enough to meet his eyes failed to hold his gaze for longer than a heartbeat. He smiled at a servant, baring his teeth in the merest hint of a snarl—and chuckled as the poor boy paled in fright and dropped his tray.
Francesco Neroni shot him a disapproving glance. “Stop ignoring me. You haven’t lost your hearing as well as the use of your sword arm.”
Alessandro’s glower usually had the power to send brave men scurrying from the room. Sadly, it had no effect on the grizzled old soldier next to him.
“You look like a bulldog that’s swallowed a wasp,” Francesco continued calmly. “You forget, my lord, that I’m immune to your scowls.” He pushed forward a small portrait. “What’s wrong with the Borgia girl? She’s pretty enough. And she buried her first husband a year ago, so you won’t have to contend with a simpering virgin.”
“I don’t care if she speaks seventeen languages and plays the lute like an angel. I’m not marrying anyone, least of all Rodrigo Borgia’s bastard.”
“He is the Pope. No harm in getting on God’s good side.”
Alesandro snorted. “It’s a sad outlook for Christians everywhere if that whoring, murdering tyrant is the Almighty’s best representative on earth. And you’ve conveniently forgotten her brother. Cesare’s a madman.”
“Hardly the perfect brother-in-law, I’ll admit. Rumor has it he’s already killed one of his brothers.” Francesco drew a line through the name at the top of his list. “Pity. You need all the divine blessing you can get.”
“Your concern for my blackened soul is touching,” Alessandro said dryly. “But the answer is still no.”
“Fine. Forget an alliance with Rome. What about Naples? There’s the sister of the king of Navarre . . .” The next portrait showed a buxom girl with a huge ruby nestled in her mountainous cleavage. “Fantastic breasts,” Francesco coaxed. “It’s like she’s got two piglets wrestling in her bodice.”
Alessandro glanced over. “She looks like a horse.”
“You love horses.”
“True enough. If you can find me a woman as brave and loyal as Saraceno I’ll marry her on the spot, whatever she looks like.”
It was Francesco’s turn to snort. “Bollocks! You’ve an eye for beauty, Sandro, whether it’s horseflesh or women.” He sighed deeply. “I don’t know why you’re being so fussy. They’re all the same with the lights out. You don’t look at the fireplace when you’re poking the fire, do you?”
Alessandro rolled his eyes. “I bet the ladies just love that silver tongue of yours.”
“I do well enough, thank you,” Francesco sniffed.
“Not with the only one you truly want. How is Renata?”
A flush reddened Francesco’s neck at the mention of his unrequited love. “She’s fine.”
Alessandro shrugged. “You’re probably the only man in the whole keep who hasn’t had her. Just go to her room, slip her a few coins, and put yourself out of your misery.”
“I will not! She doesn’t do that sort of thing any more.”
Alessandro raised his hands in surrender. “Eh, I admire her. At least she and the other camp followers are honest in their dealings.” He nodded at Francesco’s paper. “Those high-born girls on your list are no different, though they pretend otherwise. They’re all willing to sell themselves. The only difference is the price.”
Francesco deleted another name. “No to Principessa d’Albret then.” He brushed the feathered end of his quill back and forth against his chin, where it caught against the short bristles of his beard. “You’re not making this easy. How hard can it be to choose a wife from scores of rich, beautiful women?”
“Ah, yes, it is wonderful to be me.” Alessandro spread his arms wide in a mocking, theatrical gesture that made the nearest candles flicker. “Behold, Il Diavolo,” he lowered his voice so only Francesco could hear. “I couldn’t even fight an old woman at the moment. Who wouldn’t want me as a husband?”
“Stop being so dramatic. Your shoulder will be fine in a few weeks.”
Alessandro growled. “We got back from Spain three months ago and it still hurts. Those same princes begging me to marry their daughters would all be challenging me to a fight if they knew I’d been injured.” He glared at the room in general. “God, I hate sitting around doing nothing. I’d give anything to be to be spurring Saraceno into battle.”
Francesco shrugged. “I’m not the only one who’s grateful for a roof over my head and hot food in my belly. The men are glad to be taking a break, though they’d never admit it. Maybe it’s a sign that you should think about settling down.”
Alessandro didn’t answer, so Francesco forged on. “You’ve rejected Florence, Naples, Rome, Milan, and Venice. There’s hardly anywhere left.” He pinched the bridge of his nose. “You haven’t had a woman since we got back, Sandro. It’s doing nothing to improve your temper, let me tell you.”
“None of those girls would have me if they knew they were being bound to a cripple.”
“Don’t exaggerate. It’s only temporary.” Francesco inhaled sharply as a new thought struck him. “God, you haven’t lost the use of that blade, have you?” He shot a meaningful glance at Alessandro’s crotch.
Alessandro chuckled at his horrified expression. “No.”
“Sure? Want me to send a girl up? Check everything’s in working order? We’ve just got a new kitchen maid from Bologna. She’s not a great looker, but I hear she’s very enthusiastic.”
“Not tonight. I’m in no mood for company.”
“Your loss.” Francesco studied his list again. “You know, you’re going to have to choose one of these girls eventually, just to keep the peace.”
Alessandro suppressed a howl of frustration. The scheming and machinations of court life bored him to tears. He hated the endless plotting and posturing, gossiping and backstabbing that would accompany his guests when they arrived in a week’s time. All those overdressed, slyly manipulating ladies with their not-so-subtle innuendoes and flirtations. Offers to grace his bed in return for a glittering trinket or a political favor.
It wasn’t in his nature to pander and fawn. In his mind, action was always better than diplomacy. Bad enough that he was considering a pact of non-aggression with his neighbors so they could unite against the French. But to marry one of their spoilt, whining daughters as well, to sweeten the deal? That was too much.
“They’ll never leave you alone until you’re married,” Francesco murmured.
“Don’t you ever give up?”
The commander shook his head.
On the battlefield Francesco’s refusal to admit defeat was a quality Alessandro truly appreciated. In this instance, however, it was just irritating. He stretched his hand forward with a resigned sigh. “Oh, give it here. I’ll look at it again, but not tonight. I’m going to bed.”
Cara clutched the hilt of her dagger and pressed back into the shadows. A guard passed her hiding place and she waited a few minutes to make sure he’d gone, then flexed her fingers on the grip of her dagger. Her palm was sweaty. She could practically hear her father’s chiding voice, echoing down the corridor.
A lady never mentions such things as sweaty palms, Cara.
Her heart twisted in her chest. Poor Father. He’d always wanted her to be a model of feminine respectability. Unfortunately, it seemed a little late to start now, at the ripe old age of twenty-two.
She inhaled a deep breath, crept forward, and pushed the heavy door inward. The room beyond was dark. Only a low fire glowed in the huge open fireplace and she could just make out the shape of a man slouched in a huge wing armchair. Her pulse pounded in her throat.
“Francesco sent you, didn’t he?”
The voice, the one she remembered so well, was a gravelly purr, deep and forbidding. When this man spoke, he was obeyed. Without question.
What on earth was he talking about?
Cara edged closer, keeping her dagger hidden in the folds of her cloak.
Alessandro lifted his head and scowled. He hadn’t bothered to light the candles; the gloom suited his mood. He could barely see the cloaked figure that had entered.
Francesco must have sent a girl up anyway, the disobedient swine. She lingered uncertainly by the door—afraid of him, he supposed. Who wasn’t? Still, for some reason her reluctance annoyed him. “Come forward.”
The girl took a tentative step. A hood shielded her face and a dark cloak concealed her body, but she looked slim, beneath the folds. What had Francesco said about that kitchen maid? Ugly, but skilled.
She took another step closer and the firelight offered a brief glimpse of smooth jaw and pink lips beneath the hood. Skin the color of honey and cream. An unexpected throb of desire shot to Alessandro’s groin. He usually preferred well-rounded, experienced females who knew how to play the game. Women who understood that this was nothing more than a straightforward exchange, money for brief mutual gratification.
Still, perhaps he wasn’t as tired as he’d thought. Maybe Francesco was right. A night in the arms of a willing wench might relieve the dissatisfaction that had plagued him for so long.
Cara took an instinctive step back as Il Diavolo stood and straightened to his full, impressive height. Lord above, he was even larger than she remembered.
“You might as well come in, now you’re here. And take off the cloak. We’ll get to the rest later.” He beckoned her forward with an imperious wave of his hand. “Closer. I won’t bite.” White teeth flashed. “Not unless you want me to, of course.”
He must have seen her lips part in confusion because he shook his head and his low voice shimmered across the darkness. “No talking, sweeting. I’m not paying you for conversation.”
Cara’s brain took a few seconds to assimilate his words. And then her jaw dropped. A whore. He thought she was a whore! She almost laughed out loud. This was definitely the first time in her life anyone had made that mistake.
He cocked his head to one side, like a bird of prey eyeing its next meal. A log rolled down as the fire collapsed, sending up a flare of sparks, and the sudden orange glow showed his features in sharp relief. Flames danced over one high, angled cheekbone and a jaw faintly darkened with day-old beard. Cara forgot to breathe.
No wonder he’d been dubbed ‘Il Diavolo.’ He truly resembled a sulky, brooding demon. She suppressed a growl. There was no justice in the world. A heartless mercenary shouldn’t look like this. Years of remorseless killing should be etched upon his features, a visual map of his sins. He should be old and bloated, grotesque and jowled. He should look like the devil they called him.
She swallowed. Oh, he looked like the devil, all right. Tall and darkly beautiful. Languid and sulky—and unmistakably dangerous.
He’s a murderer. A killer for hire. Absolutely not the kind of man to be attracted to.
And yet a strange heat uncurled in the pit of her stomach, a reaction she always associated with him; fear laced with . . . anticipation?
She forced herself to take another step forward, glad of the blade in the folds of her cloak, and kept her eyes downcast rather than look him full in the face. She took a steadying breath—and immediately regretted it when she inhaled his scent; a disturbingly appealing combination of leather, wood-smoke and man.
Do not get distracted.
He caught her hip with his big hand and tugged her the last remaining inches into his chest. Cara forced herself to remain passive, fought the urge to pull back from the searing, intimate contact. Her skin felt too hot, too tight. He bent his head, obscuring the light, and pushed back the hood from her hair.
She ducked her chin, hiding her face against his shirt as he pressed his face into her hair then stroked the side of her neck. His breath warmed the sensitive skin behind her ear. Cara swayed, her senses reeling as she fought a fresh wave of dizziness.
She slid her hand up his ribcage, feigning a caress, and her blade found the spot under his armpit where the artery throbbed close beneath his loose white shirt. She leaned into him, trying to ignore the press of her breasts agianst his rock-hard chest, and increased the pressure. Sharpened steel pricked flesh.
Il Diavolo froze.
And then, to her astonishment, she felt him smile; the faintest curve of his lips tightening against her throat.
“Put that away, sweeting. It’s a little late to defend your virtue.”
“I’m not here to defend my virtue.”
His chuckle was soft against her skin. “Good thing, too. We both know it’s a distant memory.”
Cara pursed her lips. “You mistake my meaning. It’s your attention I want, not your kisses.”
“Believe me, my lady, you have my undivided attention.” There was mockery in his tone, but whether it was aimed at her, or himself, she couldn’t tell.
Cara pulled back, just a fraction, curiosity warring with pique. “Aren’t you afraid I might kill you?”
He pushed aside her cloak and dropped a leisurely kiss onto her collarbone, still not looking at her face. “Plenty have tried, but none have suceeded. Give it your best, though. If you prevail, at least I’ll die happy.”