Authors: Michelle Kelly
Summoned to Rome for her skills as an apothecary, Bella has already had more than enough of the wickedly decadent papal court. Though protectedâfor nowâby the powerful Borgia family, she knows her very life depends on accomplishing the task she has been set. But perhaps the greatest danger Bella faces is her own desire for the darkly seductive Marco Corelli, better known as the Rogue Assassin. And when she is implicated in a deadly plot, can she trust her lover with her secretsâor her heart?
I'm delighted to bring you my first historical story set during the Italian Renaissance, and I hope you enjoy reading about it as much as I did writing it. Marco is one of my favorite heroes everâenigmatic, mysterious and more than a little dangerousâand heroine Bella more than meets her match with this particular rogue!
The Borgia court of Rome was a decadent, dangerous place, full of secrets and scandal, and matters of love and desire were also often matters of life and death. I can't think of a more apt setting for a passionate romantic affair!
For Ian Stringfellow, for never losing faith that I could do it, even under extreme provocation!
When Bella stepped into the ornate ballroom her breath
was momentarily stolen by the splendour that greeted her. The walls and ceiling
under the marble arches were adorned with frescoes featuring an intriguing mix
of blessed saints and erotic pagan images, and a water feature specifically made
for this event took pride of place in the centre of the room, the water
cascading from the jug of a bare-breasted nymph over the chest of a stone
Adonis. But as captivating as the scene was, her eyes were soon scanning the
room for the one man she simultaneously longed to see, yet knew she dare not
. The Rogue Assassin. When she had first set eyes on him two
weeks ago, upon arriving in Rome, the sight of him had been a like a lightning
bolt to her heartâand other, more secret places. With his dark, almost
blue-black hair, deep grey eyes and the strong muscular build of a soldier
poured into tight black leggings and tunic, he was quite simply the most
desirable man she had ever seen. Not that that was particularly difficult, as
she had spent the best part of her twenty-four years in Montagne, a little
village outside Rome where her uncle once did a good trade as an apothecary,
chemist and herbalist, before passing the business on to her. Such was his
reputation, and subsequently hers, that she had ended up here. Marvelling at the
splendour of the Borgia papal court and longing for a glimpse of the Rogue. So
called because no one knew quite who he was or even what he wasâassassin, spy or
simply trusted manservant to the notorious Cesare Borgia, son of the Popeâand
perhaps also because of his sensual yet thoroughly masculine looks.
Not that she had heard any rumours about his conduct with
women, far from it. By all accounts the Rogue kept to himself, a secretive and
dangerous man. Someone she should certainly keep away from. She was in enough
danger simply by having come to the attention of the notorious Borgia family.
Bella was no fool, and well aware that when she had accomplished the task she
had been set, her life might very well be forfeit. Her time would be better
spent planning her escape than swooning over a gorgeous yet inscrutable man like
Yet every time she had come across him she had hoped for a
smile, a glance, some acknowledgment at least, but there had been nothing. Bella
didn't count vanity among her sins, but she knew that men found her desirable;
she had spent the last fortnight fighting off the advances of nearly every man
in the palace, who no doubt found her status as a single and independent woman
both provocative and infuriating. But from him, nothing, not even a sideways
glance. Then two days later, as she had been tending the herb garden, she had
felt eyes upon her, and looked up to see him watching her from the shadows,
blending in so perfectly that for a moment she wondered if she was seeing
things. He had dropped his gaze and turned away, but not before she had seen the
flash of heat in his eyes and the way they roamed her body, lingering for a
second on the curve of her breasts where they swelled above her simple gown.
Then he had been gone, his movements swift and lithe, like a hunter pursuing his
prey, leaving her staring at the spot where he had stood.
Now her eyes found him again, leaning against a pillar,
watching the festivities around him with a cool eye. Though the other revellers
made much of the masquerade, the Pope himself currently dancing with a
blushingâand very marriedâlady-in-waiting, the Rogue merely observed, his
expression unreadable. Did he never relax? Bella wondered. Must he always be at
his post, alert for any sign of danger or intrigue? She thought it must be a
lonely way to live, always in the shadows, always apart from the crowd. For her
own part she had had quite enough of the decadent and dangerous Borgia court as
it was, and could only hope she would soon find the secrets she had been bidden
to discover, as well as a way to ensure her safe return home. A chill went
through her at the now familiar fear that she may never see her home again.
âAre you well, my lady?'
With a shock she realised the Rogue was in front of her, an
amused look on his face, his mouth curving in a cruel yet sensual half smile.
Realising she had been standing staring into space, she flushed and dropped a
Now he will think I'm some simpleton
cursed silently as she sank down, awkward in the fine new red dress she had
bought for the occasion. But he reached out and took her hand, lifting her to
She met his eyes boldly, although her heart was racing.
Standing so close to him, breathing in the scent of him, made her feel slightly
dizzy. Still, she would not swoon like some of the idiot serving girls at the
sight of him; or at least, she was determined not to let him see her do so.
âI am indeed well,
little overwhelmed. The Pope has certainly put on a show for his daughter. It is
truly a feast fit for royalty.'
His lips twisted in a contemptuous smile that Bella wasn't sure
was directed at her, the Pope, or his daughter, Lucrezia. It was the
innocent-faced Lucrezia, rumoured to be a murderess and poisoner, who had sought
Bella's skills, and Bella had learned enough during her stay here to know that
the rumours were no lie. This new path she had found herself on was a dangerous
one to tread, so what difference could a flirtation with this man make? If her
future was indeed in jeopardy, it occurred to Bella she should seize life with
both hands while she still had the opportunity to do so. Her heart pounded, fit
to burst through her chest as she looked at him boldly. She had no experience
with being at court, with these games of wit and the sweet talk of seduction,
and although Bella was sure her captivation with this man must be plain to see,
she found herself unwillingâunable evenâto drop her gaze from his. His eyes were
like inky pools, drawing her in, until she fancied she could drown in their
âYou're not dancing,' he said.
âNo.' She smiled at his statement of the obvious. âAnd neither
are you, sir.'
He shrugged, a graceful movement in spite of the raw power of
his body. Truly, Bella thought, he was like a beautiful wild animal, one of the
sleek big cats she had seen in pictures, perhaps, or a wolf. If she had any
sense, she would make her excuses and leave him, retreat back to her place with
the other women in Lucrezia's household. But she was intrigued by him. She knew
she was being a fool, yet also knew she would curse herself all night long if
she left his presence now. If she left the court without ever feeling his hands
on her body.
âI have little time for dancing. But you, my lady, surely there
are many men waiting for the pleasure?'
She felt ridiculously pleased at his words. He gave the
compliment seriously, as if he truly meant it and wasn't just trying to flatter.
Indeed, she doubted the Rogue ever went out of his way to flatter.
Bella wondered how much he knew about her role here. More than
she did, most likely; it was often said that nothing happened in the inner
circles of Rome without it reaching the Rogue's ears. The official story was
that she was here to find a cure for Lucrezia's frequent headaches, which no
doctor had succeeded in doing, and the rumour went that Bella was a mistress of
the art of poison, here to concoct a deadly new potion for an equally deadly
benefactor. The truth lay, as with most things, somewhere between the two, but
Bella had no idea how much the inscrutable Rogue knew. Still, his question was
easily enough answered.
âMaybe, but I don't care to dance. I have no idea of the steps.
Even the kitchen maids dance better than I.'
âThere are better things to do with such a fine body than
dance,' he said, and though his cool demeanour did not change, the eyes that met
hers were full of heat. The desire of a man used to taking what he wanted. Bella
felt her cheeks go hot and her mouth dry as his gaze roamed her slender form.
Her gown pushed her breasts up to their best advantage, then fell away to settle
becomingly over hips that flared out from her tiny waist, unmarked by
Bella was not a virgin. She had been betrothed once, and the
rumours and gossip that accompanied an overeducated woman with more knowledge of
herbs and potions than was good for her had frightened him away, after he had
taken her innocence, of course. She hadn't made love since. Indeed, had felt
little desire to. That first time, borne out of what she had taken for love, and
a girlish curiosity about the act, had left her with little urge to take another
lover. Until now. She swallowed, not sure how to respond to his words.
âDancing is out of the question then,' she said at last,
searching wildly for something to say. The Rogue raised an eyebrow at her.
âPerhaps we should explore our other options?' he said,
stepping towards her slightly. Like a wolf who knew his prey was cornered.
Bella felt herself flush as scarlet as her dress, and the man
laughed, a real laugh rather than that mocking smile. Even in her embarrassment
she couldn't fail to notice how handsome he was.
âForgive me,' he said, bowing slightly, amusement still tugging
at the corners of his deliciously full mouth, âI should not tease you. But I
think that perhaps, like me, you find all this â' he jerked his head at their
surroundings ââ tedious.'
Bella looked around.
hardly the word she would use to describe the party the Pope had thrown in
celebration of his daughter's new betrothal. The Palazzo Santa Maria was the
most beautiful building she had ever seen, in Bella's view eclipsing even the
nearby Vatican, and she had never seen such a wealth of colour and luxury as
were within its walls tonight. Still, she understood the Rogue's complaint. Even
after two weeks she was beginning to find the endless bowing and scraping and
intricacies of court etiquette a burden, and was already longing to return to
her simpler life, to her business and her herbs. She had to admit to herself
that it was only the possibility of catching a glimpse of the Rogue that had
stopped her from slipping away from the main hall to continue her work in the
distillery. She turned back to him, and her next words came out of her mouth as
if at someone else's bidding.
âPerhaps some fresh air then?'
He looked at her and nodded, as if he approved of her
forthrightness. He held an arm out to her with an expression almost of challenge
in his eyes, and she took it, feeling the tautness of his biceps. As he began to
lead her across the floor she let out a breath she hadn't been aware of
He moved smoothly through the crowds, and she could hardly fail
to be aware of the proximity of his body as he kept her close to his side, as
though to prevent her running away. An impossibility, as her body seemed to have
a mind of its own, more than happy to follow where he led. Bella half expected
someone to stop them, or one of the women to come after her, but most of the
revellers were far too busy having a good time to take any notice, although a
few pairs of curious eyes followed them. No doubt surprised to see the solitary
leading a woman out onto one of the
Once outside, the humid air did little to cool her, and when he
turned and looked at her, his eyes hot with desire, she felt as if her very skin
caught flame. She stepped back, a moment's clarity making her cautious. Was the
decadence of the Borgia court seeping into her bones already? Had the Spanish
wine and the sense of imminent danger gone to her head? They were a stone's
throw away from the others, but even so, she was a young woman, alone on a
balcony with one of the most whispered about men in Rome.
Yet she didn't feel afraid. Not of him. Whatever other tales
were told about him, it was also whispered that he was a man of some honour, and
had never been known to hurt or forcibly take a woman.
But she had no protection from her own desire. When he stepped
towards her and took her chin between his thumb and forefinger to tilt her mouth
to his, it wasn't fear that made her shiver, but lust. When his lips descended
on hers she hesitated for only a second before responding hungrily, crushing her
mouth to his. The Rogue made a noise deep in his throat, and as one hand slid to
the small of her back, the other buried itself in the looped coils of her hair,
which had taken her maid, Susanna, hours to arrange.
He pushed Bella up against a stone wall, out of sight of the
hall, and she felt the cold against her back in stark contrast to the heat of
him in front of her. His hips pressed into the folds of her skirt and she could
feel his hardness as his tongue explored her mouth. There was no coolness to him
now; she could feel the need in his body, the way his hands gripped her, and she
responded with a passion to match, a part of her hardly able to believe this was
happening. His mouth moved away from hers only to leave a burning trail of
kisses down her neck, over her collarbone and across the tops of her breasts
where they swelled above the low neckline of her gown. She gasped as she felt
her nipples stiffen under the thin material, wanting his mouth and hands around
them. Need grew in the depths of her body, chasing away any thoughts of caution.
She was not Bella any longer, spending her days poring over her books or making
up tinctures or bartering with merchants; she was a woman at the court of the
Borgia, where pleasure was as important as duty. Where, indeed, pleasure
âYou're wearing far too many clothes,' he all but growled into
her ear as he raised his lips to her neck again, the hand that had been at her
back coming round to inch up her skirts. When his strong hands squeezed her
thigh, she gasped, torn between the inclination to clamp her legs shut and the
lust that made her want to open to his touch.