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Authors: Lori Dillon

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Out of the Ashes (23 page)

BOOK: Out of the Ashes
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Turning back, they returned to the large theatre and climbed across the scaffolding erected where the old stage once had been. Dodging around broken columns and a crumbling wall, she led him across an open, grassy courtyard. Running down a colonnade, they ducked into one of the empty rooms. The wooden door was long gone, leaving only the stone walls and restored tile roof over their heads to hide them. She urged him back, pressing his body against the wall.

“Where are we?” he asked.

“In the gladiator barracks,” she whispered. “It’s where they trained between the games.”

“It looks more like a prison cell to me.”

Sera glanced around at the small, cramped room.

“This one was.”

* * *

 

Panic gripped David’s stomach. He felt like a hunted animal, trapped in this small, stone room. But there was something more. He couldn’t shake the sense that he’d been in a place like this before, and he had to fight back an unnatural urge to claw his way out, even though the real danger stood somewhere right outside the doorway.

Hearing approaching footsteps, he put a finger to his lips, and they shifted deeper into the shadows. He held his breath as the German soldiers walked past the doorway. They’d made a mistake by hiding in here. If the Germans found them, they’d be trapped. There was no way out of the cell.

“I know I saw them head down this way,” he heard Giovanni say.

Sera shook in his arms, and he wrapped them protectively around her. Her head pressed against his shoulder, and he could feel her warm, moist breath against his neck, felt her heart pounding in rhythm to his. He cursed himself for getting her mixed up in this. If they were found together, she would be considered as guilty as he was. She could be shot as a traitor.

He would not get her killed because of him.

He was ready to leave her there in the shadows and reveal himself when he heard
Heberto’s
familiar voice.

“Gentlemen, I have not been able to locate Signore Corbelli, but here are his papers. I found them in his pack at the site. I am no expert, but it appears that everything is in order.”

David was shocked. How had
Heberto
known where to find his papers? And would the forged documents be good enough to fool the Nazis?

“These must be fakes,” he heard Giovanni protest. David had to suppress a feral growl. He wanted nothing more than to tear Ragusa limb from limb. “Corbelli is an American, or at least spying for them. I’m sure of it.”

“Since when did you become an expert on official documents?”
Heberto
asked briskly.


Chiudere
su
,
il
vecchio
.” Shut up, old man.

The Germans’ voices were muffled, and papers rustled as they examined the documents.

“The papers seem to be in order, but we will return later to question Signore Corbelli. Just as a formality. We are very eager to know just where he got those American cigarettes.”

David heard them walk away, their voices fading in the distance. Hours seemed to pass before their heartbeats slowed, but he didn’t let Sera go. Finally, he felt her relax in his arms. He looked down, and her face was still pressed against his shoulder. He tilted her head up so that he could look into her eyes.

“It’s all right. They’re gone.”

Her pale face still showed alarm.

“For now. But you heard them. They’ll be back. What if they take you away?”

He smiled at the concern in her voice, and he repeated the words she’d spoken to him just days before.

“I thought you weren’t going to protect me if they came looking for me?”

She reached up and cupped his cheek, a touch so tender it took his breath away.

“I had to. I couldn’t bear it if something happened to you. If they found out about you, you would be shot. I…” She faltered, lowering her gaze to his chest. “I couldn’t let you die.”

Her admission stunned him. He wondered if she realized what she had just risked for him. Only this morning, he was contemplating the Army’s order to kill her, and now she was in his arms and telling him she couldn’t let him die.

The dutiful soldier and the honorable man waged a fierce battle inside him, tearing his emotions into tiny pieces. The honorable man won easily. The mission be damned. He wanted the woman he held in his arms, and it would take the German and American forces combined to stop him from having her.

David crushed Sera to him, his lips crashing down on hers, kissing her with a force akin to the new determination inside him. He would keep her safe at any cost.

He felt her initial resistance to his forceful onslaught as she pushed feebly against his shoulders. With one arm still around her waist, he moved his other hand to the back of her head, refusing to let her go.

As he gentled the kiss, she opened to him, tentatively exploring the interior of his mouth, finally matching his passion with her own. He heard her moan, felt it leave the back of her throat and fill his mouth. She relaxed in his hold, wrapping her arms around his neck, pulling him closer, drawing him into her.

David shifted their bodies so that her back was against the wall. Cupping her soft, round buttocks, he lifted her so that her head was level with his own, pressing her up against the stones, pinning her against the wall with his own body and kissing her with all that he had.

Sera wrapped her legs tightly around his hips, the center of her pressing against the hard erection straining between them. Now it was his turn to groan. He thought he might explode if he didn’t have her then and there.

Glancing to the side, he noticed a narrow stone slab along the far wall. It looked like it might have once been used as a bed for some poor soul. The thought occurred to him to lay her down on the slab and take her right there.

As much as he wanted to, the notion of making love to her in a filthy place used to hold trained killers was wrong. He couldn’t do that to her. She deserved more than that.

But that didn’t stop him from wanting just a taste of paradise. Reaching a hand between them, he pulled her shirt from the waistband of her pants. His hand skimmed the soft skin over her ribcage, inching higher and higher until he cupped her breast. He squeezed the soft mound through her bra, drawing a feline purr from her as she tore her lips away from his kiss.

“David,” she sighed, running her fingers through his hair and arching her back to press herself into his palm.

He trailed warm kisses down her neck, feeling the pulse of her heart in her throat. Working two fingers over the edge of her bra, he delved inside, finding the ridged tip of her nipple and rolling it between his fingers.

Sera jerked in his hold, but he only gripped her buttocks tighter with his other arm, continuing the relentless teasing of her body. He pumped his hips against her, grinding his shaft against her through their clothes. The air felt electric around them, charged with the heat of passion, the excitement of being alive, and something more that David couldn’t name.

Suddenly, there was a flash of light, like lightning from the sky, startling them both. A high, feminine giggle came from the doorway, and David instinctively spun their bodies around, setting Sera gently on her feet and shielding her body with his.


Pardoné
. I didn’t mean to interrupt,” a large woman said in broken Italian laced heavily with a Hungarian accent. She stood in the open doorway grinning at them, her camera with its cooling flashbulb held in front of her like a trophy.

She spoke in her native language to a tall, thin man standing behind her.

“Look,
drága
. I guess the Italians are great lovers. Now I have the picture to prove it.” She chuckled at her own joke, the large white polka dots of her pink dress bouncing as she laughed, like marshmallows on a bowl of strawberry Jell-o.

Her husband looked terribly embarrassed, his face flaming crimson as he pulled her away by her pudgy elbow.

“Stop staring,
Ilka
, and leave the young people alone.”

David watched the tourist couple leave, then turned to find Sera quietly tucking her shirt back into her trousers. She had an adorable, rumpled look about her.

“Are you all right?”

She nodded. Her lips had a swollen, just-been-kissed redness to them, and he felt a certain amount of male pride that he’d been the one to do that to her. He reached for her, eager to pick up where they’d left off before being so rudely interrupted.

Sera held up her hands and shook her head. “David, we can’t.”

Her words felt like a bucket of cold water had just been thrown on him. He dropped his arms to his sides, but made no effort to hide his disappointment.

She took a step forward, then stopped herself. “Things are too unpredictable right now. We don’t know which way this is going to go, how the war is going to end. If anything should happen…”

She covered her mouth with her fingers as if trying to hold back words too difficult to say. Turning her head away, she looked past him, out the door into the distance. The long silence between them stretched his patience to the breaking point. Finally, she looked back at him, a wealth of regret in her eyes.

“You and I, we’re a war apart. When this is all over, you’re going to go back to America, and my home is here. I just don’t want to be hurt again. I’m sorry.”

She walked away and, fool that he was, he let her go.

David leaned back against the cool stones of the wall and looked around the cell. Even though it was a very small space, it felt incredibly empty now that she was gone. A lonely melancholy invaded his senses, and the musty, damp odor of the place threatened to smother him. Feeling a panicked need to get out of the cell, he stepped out into the bright sunlight and breathed deeply in the fresh,
clear
air.

Sera was nowhere in sight, but he wasn’t surprised. She was right. As much as they might want it, now was not the time for them. But no matter which way the wind blew in this war, he was determined to do everything in his power to keep her safe.

Even if it meant from himself.

Chapter 23
 

The minute Hershel walked into the house he smelled smoke.

“Marsha!”

Panic filled him when he heard no answer. They weren’t angels anymore. Fire was not a good thing.

He raced to the back of the apartment, following the choking smell into the kitchen. Black smoke billowed from the cracks around the oven door. Grabbing the first thing he could find, he jerked open the door and pulled out a pan covered with small, blackened mounds. The hot metal pan burned through the thin dishrag, and he spun back and forth looking for a good place to drop it before it blistered his fingers.

Just then, Marsha walked in from the back courtyard with a load of laundry in her arms.

“Oh, heavens! My buns!”

She dropped the basket, spilling the freshly washed sheets on the floor as she rushed to the stove. Grabbing a potholder from a peg on the wall, she took the pan from Hershel before the charred bread ended up flung all over her clean floor.

“Give me that.”

Dumping the pan and the buns into the sink, Marsha tossed the potholder on the counter in disgust.

“Well, there goes the last of the flour. We’ll have to wait until next week before I can use our ration tickets to make more bread.”

Hershel eased himself into a kitchen chair before his shaking legs gave out from under him.

Marsha turned, her anger-pursed lips softening into a perplexed frown as she regarded him.

“What’s wrong with you?”

“What’s
wrong
with me? You nearly took a hundred years off my life, that’s what’s wrong. Great Saint Agatha, I thought the house was burning down.” Hershel dug in his pocket for a handkerchief and mopped at his sweating brow. “After the day I just had, I don’t need that kind of excitement when I first walk in the door.”

Comprehension dawned on Marsha’s face, and she sat down at the table across from him, the burned rolls already forgotten.

“That’s right. Today was the big test. How did it go?”

“Fine, fine.” Hershel nodded, folding his handkerchief into a tiny square and shoving it back in his pocket. “It was a little hairy there for a while, until I found David’s I.D. papers in his pack, but then everything went smoothly. I think the German officers believed they were real. But I’ll tell you, Giovanni was none too happy about it.”

Marsha scowled at the mention of his name.

“Drat that man. Why can’t he mind his own business? It was bad enough he broke Serafina’s heart when she was younger. Why does he have to meddle in her love life now?”

“I don’t know. Maybe it’s another part of the test.”


Hmmph
,” Marsha grumbled. “I don’t see why
Smithers
is putting Serafina and David through these tests, anyway. Haven’t they been through enough in all their lives together? Couldn’t they just once have it go easy for them?”

Hershel rubbed at his throbbing temples. He felt a headache coming on. A big one.

“You know how they work up there. Nothing good ever comes easy. Thank heavens
Smithers
gave us a little warning about this one so we were ready. I’d hate to think what could have happened.” He dropped his hands to the table and looked at Marsha. “You know, I think
Smithers
wants it to work out this time as much as we do.”

“I’m sure he does. After all, he has a boss to answer to, too.” Marsha leaned in toward Hershel. “So, how did Serafina do?”

“She did wonderfully. You would have been so proud. I made sure she was in the artifact villa at just the right time so she would be around when the Germans showed up. As soon as she heard they were looking for David, she rushed to get him out of the ruins. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the girl run that fast.” A tiny detail tickled at Hershel’s brain, and he rubbed at his chin as he pondered the meaning of it. “Lost track of them for a while there. I’m not really sure where they ended up, but they finally showed back up at the site.”

“I wonder where they went?”

“Who knows?” Hershel shrugged, then he leaned across the small table toward Marsha until they almost touched foreheads. “But I’ll tell you one thing. Something definitely happened between those two while they were hiding. I could see it in their eyes.”

“Really? I wonder what.”

“I don’t know.” Hershel winked at his wife, and she blinked in surprise. “But I think they both thoroughly enjoyed it.”

* * *

 

“I can’t do it, Frank.”

“You mean you can’t or you won’t?”

David paced up and down the small dirt path cutting through a field of tall grasses. He’d dreaded this meeting with Frank all week, knowing he was going to have to tell him he hadn’t followed through with the order to eliminate Sera.

“Look, even if I wanted to take her out, I can’t do it now. We aren’t alone in our area anymore. There’s always another archeologist or two coming by since we discovered the body cavity. Hell, it’s hard enough for me to sneak away to spy on the Germans. I can’t very well arrange an ‘accident’ when there are other people around.” The words sounded so casual to his ears, like they were talking about a car or the weather, instead of taking Sera’s life.

“Body? What body?” Frank picked up on that one stray word out of everything David had just said.

“Don’t panic. It’s a two-thousand-year-old body.” At Frank’s perplexed look, David spoke slowly, as if to a child. “Remember? My cover? I’m supposed to be digging up artifacts and bones and shit? The body has nothing to do with the mission.”

“Oh, right.” Frank nodded and took another drag off his cigarette.

Watching the smoke curl like small white snakes out of Frank’s nostrils, David held his breath against the sharp smell of tobacco lingering in the air. He’d decided to forgo the smokes today, the memory of how Giovanni had placed that small piece in the puzzle still fresh in his mind. He looked down at their feet where several of Frank’s crushed cigarettes littered the path.

“Don’t forget to pick up those butts. No sense leaving a calling card around.”

Frank glanced down and shrugged. “Sure, whatever.”

When his gaze returned to David, he brought the conversation back on track. “But Sera does affect the mission. You can’t just pretend you didn’t get the order.”

“Damn it, Frank. Whose side are you on?”

Concern for David showed in Frank’s heavy-lidded eyes.

“I’m on your side. But you can’t disobey a direct order. You could get court-martialed.”

He stabbed his fingers through his hair and stomped up the path away from Frank. Stopping, he spun around and faced his friend.

“What do they expect me to do? I’m not an assassin.”

“No, but you are a soldier. It’s your job to protect the mission and see that it’s carried out.”

“By murdering an innocent woman?”

“She’s not innocent. Not now that she knows you’re an American.”

“Look, Sera is not a risk to the mission.”

“How can you be so sure?”

David looked out over the field, the tall grasses waving in the breeze like an exotic harem dancer. The memory of Sera hiding him in the gladiator barracks passed through his mind, followed closely by the feel of her, passionate and willing in his arms, the taste of her kissing him in the dark shadows of the cell. The memory was enough to get him heated up all over again.

Clearing his throat, he couldn’t quite look Frank in the eye.

“Let’s just say she had the perfect opportunity to turn me in, and she didn’t. In fact, she went out of her way, and possibly risked her own life, to protect my identity from the Germans.”

David wasn’t about to let Frank in on how close he’d actually come to getting caught because of Giovanni. If anyone needed to be taken out, it was that bastard.

Frank stared at him for a moment, studying David with an intense scrutiny that made him uneasy. Slowly, a sly, perceptive grin spread across his pudgy face.

“You’re sleeping with her, aren’t you?”

The question took David by surprise.

“No!” he denied, probably a little too harshly.
But I wish I was
.

Frank’s grin disappeared, and his eyes widened as he blurted out another wayward thought.

“Christ, you’re not in love with her, are you?”

The accusation sent a jolt through David, stealing all power from his brain. He found it difficult to form a controlled response, much less get his mouth to speak coherent words.

“We’re friends, nothing more.”

“Yeah, right.” Frank cocked a disbelieving look at him. Obviously, he had taken too long to answer to Frank’s satisfaction.

David bent down to pick up the cigarette butts and regain what he could of his composure. Damn Frank. He was too observant by far.

“Listen.” David spoke quickly in an effort to steer Frank away from a topic he didn’t want to examine too closely himself. “Just tell the Colonel that I’ll do what I have to do, if and when the need arises. But right now, I don’t have the means or the opportunity to take care of the ‘problem’ without drawing attention to myself or the mission, which is the truth.”

“All right.” Frank took the butts from David and shoved them in his pocket. “If she means that much to you, I’ll cover for you. It’s your neck.”

“Right.” But as David turned to go, he realized his heart just might have a small stake in it, too.

* * *

 

Never one for an audience, Sera certainly had one now. It was as if all the archeologists at the ruins had shown up at the site this morning to witness the most critical stage of the excavation.

After another week of painstaking work, they’d finally finished removing all the ash, dirt, and bones that they could reach inside the mound, and today they were going to pump liquid plaster into the hollow cavity to make the cast.

The week had been pure torture. For the first time in her life, she found it hard to concentrate on her work. After what happened between her and David in the gladiator barracks, she found it difficult to remain the detached professional and not jump over the mound and ravish him in front of the other workers.

But he’d accepted her decision not to get romantically involved. Still, a tiny part of her wished he had come after her that day—that he had grabbed her, dragged her back into the barracks, and made mad, passionate love to her. Now all they did was exchange furtive glances over the mound when no one was looking, telling each other without words that in another time, another place, things might have been different between them.

The strain of not knowing if the Germans would come looking for him again was also taking its toll. They hadn’t been back. But Sera was still a nervous wreck, glancing over her shoulder every time someone approached, wondering if they were coming for him.

But the Nazis were busy elsewhere, still fighting vigorously to hold Sicily against the Allies, especially since the Italian forces on the island had pretty much surrendered without a fight. Without their help, the Germans didn’t have time to bother with David right now. But that didn’t mean they wouldn’t be back eventually.

Looking at him standing among the Italian archeologists and workers who came to witness the event, no one would know he was a man living on borrowed time. But she did. And she wanted to spend as much of that time with him as she could before he had to go.

At some point, he’d left her and moved to stand on the side with the other spectators to watch. With Professor
Moretti
,
Heberto
, Olympia, and several others there to help her, she guessed he assumed she didn’t need him. But she did want him there.

“David, come here. I’m going to need your help,” she called to him.

He left the crowd and came over to her.

“Are you sure? This is your big moment. I don’t want to be in the way.”

“This is
our
big moment. If it wasn’t for you, it wouldn’t be happening.”

He grinned at her. “That’s not true. You would have found the cavity eventually. My bad temper just sped things up a little.”

The mention of the fight they’d had that day brought Giovanni to mind. He hadn’t been seen again since he brought the Germans to the ruins looking for David. But he was still around. Sera could sense it, like the ever-present stale odor of sweat that permeated her clothes even after they’d been washed.

Sera grabbed David’s hand and pulled him down to kneel on the ground beside her.

“You’ve done all the hard work with me up until now. You should be a part of this, too.”

She didn’t miss the look of understanding shining in his warm, brown eyes. Though they might still be wartime enemies, she was making David her equal today.

“Let’s get started, shall we?”
Moretti
announced to the group. The archeologists assigned to help with the casting process went to work, while the onlookers closed in to watch.

A trough of wet plaster sat on the ground between David and Sera. Grabbing a large plastic funnel, she attached a thick hose to it and threaded the tube into one of the holes in the mound as far as it would go.

BOOK: Out of the Ashes
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