The Elusive Earl (Saints & Scoundrels)By: Maddison Michaels
Mendicino, Calabria, Italy—1833
“It was the most glorious treasure the world had ever seen. Gold, silver, rubies, diamonds bigger than a man’s fist, priceless statues and urns, all carried on the backs of the loyal army of the great Visigoth king: plunders and spoils from King Aleric’s successful sacking of Rome.”
Isabella Maria Penderley stopped short with a start, hovering just outside the slightly ajar door of her baby daughter’s bedroom. A calm and melodic voice was recounting the tale of the fabled lost treasure. It was the voice of a man she had dreaded ever hearing again.
Slowly, she pushed open the door until the entirety of the room came into view. She exhaled a sharp breath and her chest constricted at the sight that greeted her.
Her husband Edward was lying deathly still in a pool of blood in the middle of the floor, the crimson of it trickling from a jagged gash across his throat.
A broken sob wrenched from her lips, but she couldn’t move; all she could do was drag her gaze up from his still form to the man sitting beside her daughter’s cot.
“Principessa Isabella, it is good to see you again, my dear.” His words were at odds with the steel in his eyes. “I am just regaling your daughter with the ancient tale of King Aleric and the great treasure he was buried with. The treasure you and your husband tried to cheat me of.”
“Calogero, please, I beg you,” Isabella said. “We did no—”
“Enough.” His voice was calm and even, though there was no mistaking the authority in his tone. “I believe I warned you what would happen if you and your husband double-crossed me, did I not?”
“Please, you must not do this,” she implored, stepping into the room.
“You’ve given me no choice.” He lifted his right hand. Clenched in his grip was a dagger, its blade dripping with blood. “Stay there, my dear. I don’t wish to use this on you, but I shall if I must.”
Isabella felt her heart lurch, but she kept her attention steadily fixed on Calogero. She could not let herself look back down again at Edward, or she would be lost.
Calogero glanced at the toddler, who, sitting in her cot, regarded him with innocent eyes. He turned back to Isabella and smiled, the smile that had always repulsed her with its merciless intent. “Clearly, she was destined to be a beauty like her mamma. A shame she will not grow old enough to do so. But do not fret. You shall have even more beautiful children with me.”
“No, please, Calogero. I beg you, leave her alone. She has nothing to do with this.”
“She has everything to do with this, Isabella.” His sharp gaze pierced into her own. “What is the little bastarda’s name?”
Isabella squared her shoulders and raised her chin. “She is no bastarda. She is Brianna Elizabeta Maria Penderley, born within the sanctity of marriage. And though her surname may be Penderley, she is still my daughter and therefore of the house of Bartelli, heir to the kingdom of Cosenza.”
The man gently laughed and casually stood. “Your father all but disowned you when you broke off your betrothal and ran off with this Englishman.” He took a step toward Edward’s still form and then kicked him in the ribs.
Edward did not move. Isabella’s body clenched, but she had to block out the pain. Her daughter’s life depended on it. “My father is quick to anger but will recognize his grand-daughter.”
The man shrugged. “I doubt it. But it won’t matter after you tell me the location of the final resting place of King Aleric and his riches. Then I will have no need of your father and his wealth.”
“I do not know,” she implored. “You must believe me. Edward and I were close to finding the location, but we were not successful.”
The man sighed and walked over to the crib. “It pains me to hear you lie straight to my face. I know you found the chamber, my dear. One of my spies heard you and that English husband of yours talking about it.”
Isabella slowly began moving toward them, but he held up his knife in warning.
“I will not warn you again, Principessa.”
She stopped and could only watch as he leaned into the crib and ran his free hand lightly through her daughter’s short, chestnut curls. If she’d had her pistol on her, she would have killed the fiend then and there.