Whoever this woman was, he wanted her.
Giovanni leScala cast an appraising eye over the dancing courtesan on the arm of a leering Cardinal Forzi. A slim, dark-haired beauty, she stood out among her companions, even for his jaded palate. Although her face was partly obscured by a feathered purple mask, her large eyes, a dark mossy green against the contrasting violet, and a full, kissable mouth colored with cosmetics, could still be seen.
The usual courtesans that flittered about the court, led by la Fiammetta, the mistress of Cesare Borgia himself, were painted peacocks in his eyes, their charms too obvious and brash for Gio’s tastes. However, this one seemed inexplicably different.
As he watched her delectable body dipping and swaying he realized the reason for the coil of lust that had begun to curl in the pit of his stomach when he had first lain eyes on her. There was something oddly familiar about her that tugged at memories Gio had long since buried.
Next to him, his fellow bodyguard Benito murmured in approval.
“His Holiness sent for the most beautiful concubines in Italy, not just from Rome,” Ben muttered into his ear, “no doubt soaping up the cardinals for some new outrage.” Discreetly gesturing toward a curvaceous blonde with an outrageously low-cut gown who was now leading some of the other courtesans in a masked dance with some of the cardinals and men of the court – the wives having conveniently retired – Ben continued, “That one’s from Venice; a famed beauty. The maids were gossiping that la Fiammetta was so worried about the competition she had Cesare buy her a new gown worth two thousand ducats.”
Gio suppressed a good-natured, if cynical, snort. “You shouldn’t spend so much time gossiping with the maids, Ben. Which one of them has caught your fancy now?”
“Maids know more than you think about what goes on this palace. It’s always prudent to have friends among the servants,” Ben replied amiably. “That air of mystery you insist on keeping around you can be a barrier, you know.”
Gio ignored his banter. His gaze concentrated on the dancers, but it was neither the Venetian beauty nor the gossiped about new gown that intrigued him. The dark-haired woman moved with a grace and sensuality that his eyes were drawn to follow.
As the music came to an end, the dancers bowed and curtsied to each other, swapping partners ready for the next dance, momentarily lowering their masks. Gio’s eyes remained fixed on the dark-haired beauty, but they were now wide with shock. Next to him, Ben had also stiffened with surprise as he whispered urgently to Gio,
“Yes.” Gio nodded grimly. The young courtesan who had danced so prettily for the pleasure of the pope and his leering hangers-on was none other than Katerina Cecchi.
His first – and only – love.
As Kat took the hand of a young noble – Forzi’s son, Gio noted with distaste, for the man was a known reprobate – Gio found himself crossing the floor toward the pair. Surely his eyes were deceiving him? But as he drew closer he saw that it was unmistakably Kat, but looking very different from how he remembered. Her breasts spilled provocatively over the top of her gown, and there was a coquettish smile on her face calculated to inflame any man’s desire. As shocked as he was, Gio couldn’t deny her obvious attractions.
He reached the couple just as the dance was about to begin, slipping in between them before they could join hands. The younger Forzi looked at him in outrage, then slunk away as Gio gave him a dark, warning stare. As the chief bodyguard to the Borgia pope and a famed swordsman, there were few men in the court that would dare to cross him. He turned to Kat with a grim smile, taking her hand and leading her through the initial steps while she gaped at him in shock before remembering her surroundings and resuming her flirtatious smile.
“Gio,” she said, a husky note to her voice that set off a throbbing pulse in his groin. “How nice to see you again.” She dipped into a low curtsy as the steps demanded, arching her neck so that he could see almost down the front of her gown to the valley between her breasts, and her hair tumbled in artful disarray around her shoulders. She gave a sly smile as she saw the direction of his eyes, and Gio swallowed down the initial spark of lust. She looked desirable, certainly, but that wasn’t the reason he had approached her. He had no idea what she thought she was doing, displaying herself like a prize for every leering drunkard here to say, but he didn’t like it. As much as he told himself he wished to protect her from the decadent revelry of the Borgia court, a decadence that all too easily turned to danger, the stab of jealousy in his gut was undeniable.
“What in God’s name,” he said in a low voice as he turned and caught her hands, stepping together and then away, so their bodies brushed together for a scarce moment, “are you doing here? Go home.”
His tone was of one who was used to always being obeyed, which immediately made Katerina visibly bristle.
“I am here for the summer ball, of course. Why are you here?”
Although her tone remained flirtatious, a fire glittered in her eyes behind the mask. Gio remembered that look, the fierce independence she had always cherished, unusual in a girl. Then, as now, it both intrigued and infuriated him in equal measure. “Since when,” he said through gritted teeth, ignoring her own question, “have you been a courtesan?”
“Since my family died of the plague and I have no one to support me,” she snapped back.
“Kat,” he said, using his old name for her even though he betrayed no softness in his tone, “I’m sorry. I heard about the fever that swept through the Romagna. I assumed it had taken you, too.” He pulled her toward him as the dance demanded, feeling her breath, hot and sweet against his cheek, and saw the pulse fluttering in her throat.
“As you can see,” she said sweetly, neatly sidestepping his brusque apology and the mention of her family, “I am very much alive.” Was it his imagination, or did she press herself against him a little harder than she needed to? Feeling his own pulse suddenly beating in the region of his groin, he pushed her away most definitely a little more roughly than the steps demanded.
“You should not be here, Kat; this is no place for a girl like yourself.” Did she have no idea how precarious the life of a courtesan could be, particularly at a court as full of intrigue and daggers in the night as that of the Borgia?
She stepped toward him again, and this time there was no mistaking the way she pressed against him, arching her back like a woman in the throes of passion. “But am I still a girl, Gio?” she teased, though underneath her coquettish words there was a hint of steel. The air between them seemed to grow heavy, dense and hot like the air over the River Tiber at midday.
He glared at her.
“If you think this is some kind of game,” he snapped, “then yes, you are, for all your womanly display.”
They stood still now as they stared at each other, the dance forgotten, and noticing others beginning to look curiously at them Gio took her arm and pulled her roughly to the edge of the dance area, behind one of the majestic stone pillars the palazzo was famed for. Thankfully the pope chose at that moment to call for a change in music and any interest in them quickly waned as some of the women began to cast off their gowns and dance only in their sheer shifts.
Gio looked as angry as she felt, and Kat wondered if she had imagined the desire in his eyes when he had first cut in to dance with her. “How dare you!” She tried to twist out of his grasp but could not. “I need to get back to the dance!” The first night of the summer festivities was the prime moment for her to secure a wealthy patron – one who could give her the means to get out of the hellhole that Rome had become and attempt to make something of herself. Now Gio was standing firmly in her way, having pushed her back against the pillar so the revelers were behind her.
“To that?” Gio waved a hand toward the dancers. “Are you planning on disrobing too?”
She fought the urge to stamp her foot in frustration and instead smiled at him, lifting a hand to the front of her gown and pulling at the laces as if she would strip herself then and there, in front of him. She allowed herself a slash of triumph as she saw his eyes go to the front of her gown. Although his face and body betrayed nothing she saw the muscle pulsing in his jaw and would wager it was as much from suppressed lust as anger at his discovery of her and her plans. He came toward her, reaching for the hand at her laces and she sucked in her breath sharply, wondering if perhaps teasing him had not been such a good idea. This was a darker, more dangerous Giovanni than the man she remembered.
“Stop this,” he ordered quietly. They were standing so close now that as he bent his head to speak to her their lips were but inches apart. Kat could hardly help but remember their last kiss: a stolen embrace in the gardens of St. Peter’s before he had left her for Florence. She remembered the passion with which he had held her, the fervent promises to return. All lost on the wind now, she thought with more than a touch of bitterness. She had learned the hard way that there would be no gallant savior for her. She looked into Gio’s at once familiar yet utterly strange face and tried her best to calm her suddenly thundering heart.
He was staring at her intently in a way that sent a surge of remembered desire through the very depths of her body. Her arms went around his neck almost of their own accord, her voice softening and sounding very far away to her as she looked from his eyes to those lips whose touch she now recalled as if it were yesterday.
“Stop what?” she whispered, not so much teasing him now as urging him on. He leaned forward so that their lips were all but touching and she half closed in her eyes, expecting his kiss.
Gio, however, had other ideas. His face suddenly cold, he gripped the hand that remained at her laces and pulled it, loosening the front of her gown. With one rough movement he pulled the front of her gown down over her shoulders, bringing her shift with it, so that the tops of her breasts were bared almost to the tips. Twisting away from him, she clutched the front of her dress, glaring at him.
“If you wish an assignation with me,” she said furiously, “you could at least have the manners to ask!”
Gio looked unmoved. His eyes traveled down the front of her body, lingering at the swell of her breasts, and Kat couldn’t stop the heat rushing to her cheeks.
“Is this not what you expected?” he asked her, his eyes narrowed. “Do you expect any better treatment from any other man here at court? You come here flaunting yourself, bartering with your body, then rush to cover yourself like a maiden? Admit it, Kat; this is not for you.”
How dare he! As if he knew anything about her now. In a rush of defiance Kat dropped her hands, allowing her dress to fall where it may, tossing her head proudly. Let him look, then.
In an instant Gio closed any remaining gap between them, spinning her roughly around and pushing her against the pillar, his hands at her hips and his breath hot on her neck as he all but growled into her ear.
“Is this what you want?”“
She could feel the length and hardness of his body pushing up against her, and in spite of her indignation, her body responded to the heat of his, her very core melting at his touch.
“This is what you came here for?” he mocked again, his voice low and taunting in her ear. He slipped a hand between the crush of their bodies, running it over her buttocks. Almost in spite of herself her body arched into his touch. Then his words took on a darker turn.
“Who will get the pleasures of your flesh tonight, Katerina? Cardinal Forzi perhaps? Would you enjoy him touching you like this?” His hand squeezed her buttocks almost to the point of pain and Kat writhed against him angrily.
“Get. Off,” she hissed, whirling round to face him as he finally stepped away. She felt almost dizzy with rage, and was surprised to feel hot tears stinging the corners of her eyes.
Gio stepped away, allowing her space. “Go then,” he said, nodding toward the festivities.
She didn’t move. “You have no right to touch me like that,” she countered, feeling both outraged yet uncomfortably aroused—or at least she had, until he had compared his touch with that of the fat old cardinal she had been pressured into dancing with all evening.
Gio raised an eyebrow, looking not in the least remorseful. “On the contrary,” he said calmly, “by the very nature of your chosen purpose here tonight, you have given every man here that right.”
Katerina shook her head furiously. “I still have the right of consent, my lord.” Her voice dripped sarcasm over the last two words. “One which I would have expected you to honor.”
Gio looked stung at that, as she had expected him to. Then he stepped toward her again, more slowly this time, and took her face in one strong hand.
“Say no to me then, Kat,” he murmured, an expression crossing his face that she could not name as he lowered his mouth to hers, “Say no.”
She found she could not.
Instead, she kissed him with a passion she had almost forgotten how to feel, losing herself in the taste and smell and feel of him, all of which became more familiar as she surrendered herself to him. His tongue darted into her mouth, tasting, taking her, and she felt the very core of her sex tighten in response. They had never consummated their youthful love affair other than in her own imagination and now she felt her whole body longing for him, yearning for him to claim all of her. She pressed herself into him and he buried one hand in her hair, tugging at her dark curls while the other gripped the material of her dress at her buttocks as though it were all he could manage not to rip it off her there and then.
Kat heard a soft moan of too long suppressed desire escape her lips and she kissed him harder, wantonly, without a care for the revelers around them. If the court of the Borgia was as decadent as all the stories she had heard, then an embrace with a lover behind one of the famed palazzo pillars would be most in keeping.
Although, as she sank deeper into his arms, the sounds and sense of the court fading into the background of her awareness, in her mind she saw again their last embrace, felt again the unbridled passion and innocent love of her youth. She could almost smell the night air, heavy with the scent of jasmine from the gardens, and hear the screech of the peacocks. Could feel again that delicious excitement of being young and in love, tinged with the fear of loss.
A fear that became a stab of rejection as he suddenly stepped back from her, letting her go and smoothing down his doublet, face impassive. Kat looked around, wondering if they had been interrupted – after all, Gio was not simply another reveler but on hand to protect His Holiness the Pope in case of trouble. Yet there was no one watching them. Feeling self-conscious, Katerina immediately became angry once again. Replacing the pins in her hair where he had tugged at them just minutes before, Katerina glared at him.
“Have I displeased you?”
He gave her a slight bow, and she wondered furiously if he meant to mock her. “Not at all, but to embrace like this in public is most unseemly.”
Kat glanced around the pillar. Although most in the room were dancing, other men and women had partnered off and sat drinking and talking, or entwined in embraces no less amorous than theirs had been. Most of the women were in various states of undress. The pope himself had his hand down his mistress’s bodice. Although shocked and even a little repulsed, Katerina fought not to show it. She had expected nothing less, after all.
“Unseemly?” she echoed, motioning toward the crowd. “You yourself were just doing your utmost to show me the ways of the court.”
Gio didn’t look, but simply gave a graceful shrug, though his eyes were like chips of ice. The gaze that had filled her with heat just moments before now chilled her very skin.
“Perhaps not for you, given your present…occupation,” he stressed the word, making his dislike of her new role suddenly and abundantly clear, “but for me, yes. However, I have made my point. You are no courtesan.”
Katerina gasped. Was she so undesirable then? Had he pulled away from her because he no longer found her attractive? After all, he was part of the papal court now and beauties surrounded him every day.
“What makes you say so?” she snapped, again using anger to cover her feelings of humiliation. “I assure you, many men have looked on me with desire tonight.”
His face remained stoic with just a hint of scorn as he looked her slowly up and down, taking in her tonged hair, heavy rouge and kohl, and low-cut gown that she now fumbled to retie, now acutely aware of the amount of skin on display.
“I’m sure,” he said, “and that is what you set out to achieve, is it not? You look…”
“Exactly like you are trying to look.”
Katerina felt her face drain of color.
“You mean, like a whore,” she stated flatly.
“I would not have used so ugly a word, but yes, you have achieved that appearance most admirably.”
“Then why,” she challenged, “do you say I am no courtesan?”
“Because looking and being are two different things. You proved that by kissing me.”
Her stomach twisted further, for now surely he was implying he had only kissed her to prove his point. A mere continuance of his little “demonstration” against the pillar. He went on. “A true courtesan would only give her favors to the highest bidder, not to the first man who took her fancy.”
“Who takes my fancy?” she repeated incredulously. The arrogance of him! “I assure you, it was a moment’s folly, due to our youthful passion for one another. Or have you so easily forgotten?”
She thought she saw some emotion flicker in his eyes then, but it was quickly gone. He turned away from her, dismissing her.
“You think me naive,” she said, her voice flat.
“No,” he said. “There was nothing naive in that kiss. But I do not believe you have the stomach for this.” He waved his hand around the hall, taking in the nearby card tables where quite a crowd was gathering.
Kat remembered one of the women had mentioned this; the men would play Primero and the courtesans would volunteer themselves as prizes. Primero could not be played for money in the presence of His Holiness, but women, it seemed, were fair game. The men taking their places at the tables were mostly noblemen and some of the younger cardinals, and the women were flocking around. An idea formed and she stepped forward, tossing her curls and giving Gio a challenging glare over her shoulder. Then, before he could attempt to stop her, she had pushed her way through to the card tables.
“I will be a prize, gentlemen,” she purred, then added, looking over at Gio and raising her voice so he could hear, “for the highest bidder.”
A flurry of ribald comments came from the men at the card table as Kat took her seat, acutely aware of Gio’s eyes boring into her from behind.