“Can’t—breathe,” she managed to whisper hoarsely, twisting and squirming.
He loosened his hold but still held her aloft.
She gulped the air, her mind frantically assessing her predicament. She was not light, even in her new form. Still, he held her five-foot-seven-inch frame above the floor as if she were a doll. And he didn’t seem to be exerting very much effort.
“I came here to help you,” he whispered. “This is how you repay me?”
“You broke into my apartment. You’re holding me against my will!” She scratched at his arms, but her fingernails met the fabric of what felt like a suit jacket.
“The others would have killed you, except they would have played with you first.”
“How do you know so much about them?”
“Because I am one of them.”
Her heart skipped a beat and began to thump loudly in her chest. She wondered if he was going to kill her.
With a curse, the intruder deposited her roughly on another chair, which he then slid across the floor to the wall.
He leaned over her, his voice dropping to a menacing whisper.
“Whether you believe me or not, I am your ally. Now sit still, be quiet, or I’ll leave you to them. Do you understand?”
She nodded, trying to catch her breath once again.
It occurred to her at that moment he must have seen her move, despite the lack of light.
“Do you have night-vision glasses?”
“I am the darkness made visible.”
She heard the intruder begin to pace across her kitchen floor.
“Even if you avoid the others, you still aren’t safe. The Carabinieri will be looking for a scapegoat in their investigation and you’re the obvious choice.”
She wrapped her arms around her middle. “I didn’t take the illustrations. I don’t know what happened to me last week. I think someone is trying to frame me.”
The intruder stopped. “I can provide you with enough money to get home. Leave the city by train and travel south. Take a ship to Greece. Immigration at the Piraeus near Athens is very lax. From there you can get a flight back to America. You must leave Florence before two weeks have expired. In the interim, you’re safe in this flat but I’d avoid venturing out at night.”
She sat very still. “Why?”
“Partly because you’re a terrible sleuth. Someone followed you to the palazzo and now he’s sitting across the piazza, watching. Partly because the others will notice you. You don’t want their attention.”
Raven didn’t respond, for leaving was the one thing she didn’t want to do.
She heard him rattle something and take a few steps toward her. “I can see you’re stubborn, if nothing else.”
He placed something metallic and cool around her neck, from which was suspended something heavy. She reached up and felt a metal crucifix resting below her breasts.
“It’s a relic. From now on, you must always wear this. Never take it off.”
“I thought I was safe so long as I left Florence.”
“There are others in America, too.”
Raven dropped the crucifix and it crashed against her chest. “How can some silly superstition protect me from the Mafia?”
A growl emerged from the intruder’s chest and he grabbed the chain.
“Stupid humans don’t deserve to live. I’ll take back my gift and trouble you no more.”
Panicked, her hand closed over his. “No, please. I want it.”
He tightened his hold on the chain until it pulled against her neck.
“Perhaps when you have time to reflect on your situation, you’ll assume a posture of gratitude.”
“Thank you,” she offered quickly.
“This relic offers protection from those who would kill you. Or worse.”
“Will it protect me from you?”
She wished she could snatch back the words as soon as they left her mouth.
He dropped the chain.
“The relic has no effect on me. Best keep that in mind if you’re tempted to speak to the Carabinieri about the palazzo or our conversation.” His tone grew very sharp. “You don’t want me as an enemy.”
She clenched her teeth. “I won’t tell them anything. I promise.”
“You have two weeks. At the end of that time, if you’re still here, you’ll answer to me.”
He grunted once again and much of his anger seemed to cool.
“I shall regret this. But it’s far too late.”
Out of the darkness, she felt his hand cup her face. His touch was light and surprisingly gentle.
“Beauty is vain. It appears and, like the wind, it’s gone. Remember that.” His thumb traced the curve of her cheek. “Good-bye, Jane.”
Before Raven could react to the sound of her legal name coming from his lips, he’d withdrawn. His steps echoed in the apartment and she heard the sound of a window opening.
A few seconds later, the lights came on.
The Prince stood on a terrace at the Gallery Hotel Art, disturbed and angry. His evening had not gone as planned. Instead, he’d had to revisit one of his most recent, and serious, mistakes. She’d proved to be an even more attractive mistake than he’d remembered.
Now the wounded lark had been healed and he was the vulnerable one. He’d heard truth in her voice when she promised to keep secrets, but he knew how easily human beings could be tricked. Her mind was too strong to control without making her drink from him. And he was unwilling to make her his slave.
If Maximilian or Aoibhe came upon her . . .
Jane’s scent was masked by what he’d fed her to save her life. Soon her true vintage would be detectable. He’d gifted her with one of his prized possessions, but he knew it would likely attract attention as well as repel it. He’d have to play guardian angel until she left the city, but from a distance.
Once again, a vision of a woman bloodied and abused burned before his eyes. And once again he resolved to stave off that outcome.
Whatever his commitment to Cassita, there remained the problem of the Emersons and Vitali. Emerson had received property stolen years before from the Prince’s home and made the collection public, insulting him and drawing international attention to the illustrations. Vitali was complicit in the installation of the collection in the Prince’s own city.