THE ELUSIVE EARL
She’s determined not to lose her heart to such an icy, infuriating man.
Brianna Penderley has a knack for getting into precarious situations, especially when it comes to her love for archaeology. In the heart of Naples, her terrible Italian has her accidentally becoming engaged to two men at the same time. Of course, Daniel Wolcott—the Earl of Thornton and the only man ever able to vex her—shows up to rescue her.
Daniel has spent the majority of his life exercising rigid control over his emotions, determined never to become the rake his father was. But when he goes to aid his mentor’s danger-prone niece once again, he finds himself struggling to control his attraction to a woman who is his complete opposite.
When their situation goes from bad to worse, Daniel and Brianna find themselves swept up into a perilous adventure, and they must work together to set things right. Now, if they can just avoid killing each other in the process.
Chapter One Excerpt:
THE ELUSIVE EARL
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.
“Your mamma interrupted my story, did she not, little one?” he cooed to the baby. “Now, where were we…? Ah yes, after King Aleric had sacked Rome and plundered its treasure, he led his army for miles, deep into the heart of Italy and through Naples. He was determined to continue to conquer each city his army swept through, but alas, when he stopped in the province of what is now known as Cosenza, he become ill with a fever and perished. His army, loyal to the very last, had workers in the region dig a burial chamber, and in it, they buried their king and all of the stolen treasures of Rome with him.”
He glanced up at Isabella. “That is the legend, yes?”
She nodded reluctantly.
“And what happens next?” he asked. “You must tell your daughter.”
Isabella fisted her hands by her side, an unholy rage beginning to consume her. If only she could get him away from the crib, she might be able to wrestle his knife away. “His army killed the workers who had built the burial chamber, so they would not be able to reveal the King’s secret resting place. Then, all but one of the soldiers, loyal to their much-beloved ruler to the very last, fell upon their own swords within their King’s tomb, determined to guard him in the afterlife. The last soldier, though, took a sacred oath to seal and protect the tomb, to ensure the King and his army would never be disturbed. Since then, the location has been forever lost, yet it is believed to be eternally protected by the ghosts of the King’s soldiers.”
His eyes glittered with greed before turning back to assess the baby. “Until your mamma and papà found it, that is.”
“We did not find it!”
“Stop lying,” he growled, his normally smooth veneer slipping for an instant. “You will tell me the location, or you will watch as your daughter dies.”
“I cannot tell you what I do not know,” Isabella tried to placate him.
He looked past her shoulder. “Take the child and drown it. We shall come and watch.”
Isabella spun around and saw one of Calogero’s burly henchman standing in the doorway behind her. “No, you cannot! Please, I beg you. She is only a baby!”
The big man slowly lumbered past her toward the crib.
“NO!” Isabella’s scream tore through the night as she lunged at Calogero.
The look of surprise on his face was suddenly replaced with frustration as she launched herself upon him. She clawed at his eyes and jerked her knee toward his midsection.
He roared in displeasure, then pushed her away. A hot, sharp pain lanced through her as something plunged deep into her stomach.
She stumbled back a step and looked down to see his dagger lodged in her abdomen. Suddenly, her legs wobbled, and her head felt light.
“No. No. No,” he cried, rushing toward her and catching her from falling to the floor. “Dannazione!” he swore in Italian. “This is not what I planned. You were not meant to die. Why did you do such a stupid thing?” He shook her. “You must tell me where the treasure is! Where is it? Where?” He shook her more vigorously. “You cannot let the find of the century be lost forever.”
Her eyelids fluttered, and she looked across to the crib, where Brianna was gripping the railing with her chubby fingers, a keen wail coming from the baby’s lungs. A tear slid down her cheek as she slowly lifted her hand toward her daughter. “I am sorry, my darling girl,” she whispered. “Mamma is so sorry.”
“Tell me where the treasure is!” Calogero shouted.
She felt a moment of satisfaction, seeing him lose control for the first time in all the years she’d known him. With all the strength she had left, she motioned him closer to her.
He leaned his ear in toward her mouth. “Where is it?”
“I would rather go to Hell than tell you anything.”
He slapped her hard. “You little bitch.”
She managed to smile weakly at him. “It is you, though, Calogero, who will be going to Hell for all you have done,” she took pleasure in telling him. “Il Diavolo will be coming for you. You cannot hide your true nature from God as you do everyone else.”
She felt her strength start to leave her, but then she looked up to the ceiling and saw the most beautiful golden light beckoning to her. And there in the distance was her beloved Edward, smiling and holding out his hand to her. She reached for it and was at peace.
“Damn it, Fabrizio, silence that infernal baby,” Calogero barked out to his servant. “I cannot think with her wailing. They must have left something here. Some clue as to the whereabouts of the treasure. It cannot simply slip through my grasp again.”
Fabrizio watched his master stalk around the room, pulling out cupboards and clothing, frantically searching for any hint of the fabled treasure. This behavior was going far beyond what Fabrizio was used to normally dealing with. His master was always calm and methodical, to the point where most thought the man had ice in his veins. That was until last week, when they’d received word that the Principessa and her husband had found the treasure. Since then, Calogero had been like a man possessed.
He’d been having mad rants and tantrums, which were so at odds with his normally cold and exacting nature, all in this crazed obsession of his to find this lost treasure. To the point of murder. A sense of shame was filling Fabrizio to have even played a small part in such a thing.
Abruptly, Calogero stopped and walked to where the woman’s lifeless body lay. He bent down and tenderly brushed the chestnut hair from her face. “I knew you would be trouble the very first time I laid eyes on you,” Calogero crooned to the dead woman. “But you were the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.”
The baby let out a loud screech.
“I told you to silence her!” Calogero whirled around to face Fabrizio. “I am saying goodbye to Isabella.”
“What do you want me to do with her?” Fabrizio asked slowly as he began treading over to the cot. He stopped at the railing and glanced down at the little one. She had the biggest blue eyes he’d seen, with brown ringlets framing a heart-shaped face. Tears streamed down her chubby cheeks, and her face was red from the exertion of her fervent cries. She was a beautiful child and couldn’t have been any older than his bambini, Bella.
“I told you to drown her, didn’t I?” Calogero’s voice was harsh. “Her death will herald an end to the Bartelli family line. Probably the only good thing to come from this disaster. Not that the Prince would have claimed her. No, Isabella ensured that when she ran off and married her untitled Englishman.”
Fabrizio leaned down into the crib and picked up the child, who was clutching a rag doll tightly to her chest. Her cries ceased abruptly, and she regarded him for a moment before a smile slowly spread across her face, little dimples appearing under the apples of her cheeks.
He snuck a quick look over at his master, who was placing a kiss on the woman’s forehead. There was something terribly wrong with Calogero, Fabrizio knew. But not until now did he realize how truly insane his master was. Certainly, in the past, his master had cared little for others, often ordering his men to evict villagers from their farms if they were even so much as a day late with their rent. Yes, Calogero had always been ruthless when it came to money and promises not being kept. But as far as Fabrizio knew, he’d never gone beyond the bounds of the law of the land. Although, Fabrizio had sometimes wondered over the last few years if that was, in fact, the case or not.
Calogero rose and strode over to a chest of drawers, beginning to rummage inside. “They must have left some notes about the location of the treasure. Something we can use to find it.”
“I doubt it would be hidden in the baby’s room. Not something that important,” Fabrizio mused aloud. Calogero stopped his foraging, his eyes narrowing dangerously upon Fabrizio before he gave a reluctant nod. “Get rid of that.” His head motioned to the baby. “And then you can finish searching this room. I will explore their study.”
And just as Fabrizio hoped, his master turned on his heel, stepped over the two bodies lying silent on the floor, and strode through the door, the clip of his boots growing softer as he made his way down the corridor.
“There, there, now,” Fabrizio crooned to the baby as he surveyed the room. Spotting an empty leather satchel in the corner, he scooped it up with his free hand and draped it across his spare shoulder. He quickly gathered up some rags for her bottom, picked up the quilt she had been sitting on, and stuffed them into the bag.
He noticed that some leather-bound books had been hidden under the quilt. He lifted one and awkwardly shifted the baby more firmly across his hip, whilst thumbing through the pages. They looked to be journals of some sort, penned in a feminine hand. Probably her mother’s.
Fabrizio peeked down beside him at the lady lying dead on the floor. She had been beautiful, and even in death, she looked like an angel. He quickly twisted the baby around, so she couldn’t see the sight.
Poor tiny thing. No parents to help her now. With a nod to himself, he snatched up the journals and put them in the satchel, too. Everyone deserved to know their parents, and unfortunately, the journals were probably going to be the girl’s only way to do so.