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Authors: Lori Dillon

Tags: #Romance

Out of the Ashes (8 page)

BOOK: Out of the Ashes
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“Don’t worry,
Sera
.” He deliberately drew out the shortening of her name. “Starting tomorrow, you won’t be able to get rid of me. In fact, I’ll stay so close, I’ll be like your second skin.”

Her eyes widened, and her mouth dropped open. She looked utterly appalled. Even though most of what she had said was true, it didn’t do his male ego any good to realize she would rather be anywhere but where he was.

She regained her composure quickly, and her eyes narrowed to slits filled with contempt.

“Just be here, Signore Corbelli. Unless you’d like to do me a favor and not come back at all, since apparently I can’t even get you fired—yet.” Serafina turned and began walking away from him again.

If the dressing down she’d just given him hadn’t riled him enough, the sight of her angry backside sashaying away from him did. David squeezed the rock she’d shoved in his hand so hard, he thought he might crush it.

He knew it was juvenile. He knew it was stupid. But he did it anyway.

He threw the rock at her, aiming to send it close enough to startle her, but not actually hit her. Of course, that was the precise moment she decided to turn around and yell at him again.

The rock whizzed by her head, missing her cheek by a few inches. Her quick reflexes had her sprawled on the ground, staring at him as if he’d just tried to shoot her.


Voi
asino
!
” You ass.

For the second time in less than ten minutes, he’d managed to knock her to the ground. It was quite obvious that Serafina’s already low opinion of him had now hit rock bottom.

David ran to her and dropped down on one knee by her side. He cupped her cheek and examined her face, worried that he might actually have hit her.

“Sera, are you hurt? I didn’t mean… I’m sorry…”

She stared up at him, and her expression surprised him. Where he expected pain or anger, he saw startled confusion and a vague awareness. What the hell did that look mean? Then her eyes narrowed, and the odd expression was gone as quickly as it had come. Rage took its place.

He couldn’t blame her. Since they’d met, he’d slammed her to the ground, held a knife to her throat, and nearly slugged her with a rock. She had every right to think he was some kind of madman.

“Don’t touch me.”

He instantly released his hold, but didn’t pull away.

“I said I was sorry.”

“Get. Away. From. Me.” She bit out the words through clenched teeth.

He sat back on his heels, giving her the space she needed.

“I swear it won’t happen again.”

She sprang to her feet, spun on her heel, and stalked away with the regal bearing of a queen. Only the dust coating her shapely backside diminished the total effect.

Without looking back at him, she shouted over her shoulder, “If it’s the last thing I do, Signore Corbelli, I’m getting you thrown off this dig site.”

As David watched her walk away, he knew he had his work cut out for him. And that work wouldn’t be spying on the Germans or digging in the rock hard dirt.

It would be getting Serafina Pisano to trust him.

* * *

 

The government had placed restrictions on everything since the war began, including the use of gas to heat water. Each apartment in Serafina’s building had a specific day when its residents could bathe or do laundry. Tonight was her night to take a bath, and she planned to relish every second of it.

Her building was actually an old town villa converted into small flats, but her landlady hadn’t gone so far as to install a bathroom in every apartment, so each floor had to share a common one. She donned her threadbare bathrobe and gathered up shampoo and soap from under the sink in her kitchenette. Throwing a towel over her shoulder, she prepared to indulge herself for a while.

As she headed to the door, an old black-and-white photo on the wall caught her attention. The woman in the portrait was breathtakingly beautiful. Young and carefree, she smiled with a naive girl’s innocence and love of life, eager to embrace all that the future held in store for her.

But that had been before she met the man who was to be Serafina’s father. After that, everything changed for the girl in the picture.

She adjusted the frame, running her finger over the glass as if she could caress the smooth cheek beneath. She still missed her mother terribly, even after all these years.

Taking in a deep breath, she tried to shake the melancholy feeling that came over her every time she thought of her mother and all that she had sacrificed for her only child. She could do nothing to change the past, and if her mother were still alive, she would tell Serafina that she wouldn’t want to, just as she had told her a thousand times while she was alive.

Serafina left her room and made her way to the bathroom at the end of the hall. Walking past the banister overlooking the stairs, she met her landlady as the woman came up from the first floor.

“Ah, Serafina. You’re home early. Is anything wrong?” the old lady asked.

Everything
. “No. It’s just been a very long day, and I could use a bath.”

“I can see that.” Maria Angelico touched the tight bun secured at the nape of her neck, no doubt making sure not a hair strayed from its rigid confinement. “There are not many young ladies who would enjoy getting as dirty as you.”

“I wouldn’t say I enjoy it. It’s just part of the job.”

“How does it go over at the ruins?”

Serafina leaned her back against the wall, settling in for the long chat that inevitably came when speaking with Signora Angelico.

“I’ve had better weeks.”

“Is that so?”

She smiled down at the old woman. Small and frail, Maria was old enough to be her grandmother. Maybe that’s why Serafina found it so easy to confide in her. Behind the tiny stature and wrinkled skin hid a giant wall of strength that she had leaned on more than once.

“Giovanni and I had a bit of a disagreement over the dig site we were working on together.”

“Really?” The old woman’s face lit up, eager to hear any gossip, no matter the source. “What about?”

“He seemed to think he had the right to claim an artifact I found.” The incident still had her grinding her teeth.

“Oh, my. That wasn’t very nice of him.” Maria frowned and cocked her gray head to the side. “What did you do?”

“I argued with him about it in front of Signore
Moretti
.” She groaned inwardly at the memory of the spectacle she’d made of herself.

“Oh, Serafina, you didn’t! What did he do?”

“He gave Giovanni the credit, and I got reassigned to another location in the ruins.”

“Oh, you poor dear. That doesn’t seem fair.”

Serafina sighed. Since when had anything in her life been fair? It seemed as if it was always one thing or another, the latest being her banishment to the far regions of the ruins. At least that’s how it felt.

“It’s not that bad.”
Yes, Serafina, say it enough, and you might start believing it.
“The new area I’ve been assigned has hardly been touched. Who knows what might be discovered there?”

“That sounds exciting.” The old woman actually clapped for her.

“I suppose so.” She nodded, trying to see Maria’s excited view of things. “And since I’m in charge of the new site, there can be no ‘misunderstandings’ about who discovers any artifacts there.”

“Well, it seems like it could be a wonderful opportunity for you.”

It could be, if I didn’t have David Corbelli there to irritate me constantly
.

“They even gave me my own assistant.”

“Really? An assistant?” Maria’s eyes widened. “Now that sounds impressive.”

It did sound impressive, and she knew she should feel a certain amount of pride, since up until now she’d always been someone else’s subordinate. She should be happy, because getting her own assistant validated her standing as a serious archeologist, if only just a little. She should be ecstatic that she was put in charge of her own area of the dig.

So why wasn’t she?

“He’s not an archeologist. He’s really just there to help me with the heavy work.”

Maria nodded in understanding. “The big, dumb, strong type, eh?”

Serafina thought of David lifting shovel after shovel of dirt, the muscles of his arms and back shifting beneath his sweat-soaked shirt. His deep brown eyes came to her mind. Shadowed under his hat, they seemed to be constantly surveying the area around him. It hadn’t taken her long to figure out that he wasn’t an average laborer.



, he’s strong, but I wouldn’t say he’s dumb.”

Something was definitely different about him. He had an awareness, an intelligence—one that he almost seemed determined to hide. And that made her uneasy. People hid secrets for many different reasons—she should know—and usually those reasons weren’t good, and the secrets behind them were even worse.

Maria reached out and patted her on the hand.

“Well, perhaps you will get on better with this new young man than you did with Giovanni.”

Serafina thought about how they’d clashed from the moment they’d met. He seemed determined to challenge her at every turn.

“Somehow, I doubt it.”

Shoving herself away from the wall, she made her way to the bathroom, wondering if David Corbelli might turn out to be a bigger problem for her than Giovanni ever was.

Chapter 8
 

David left his rented basement flat at quarter of ten and walked through the dark streets to the heart of modern
Pompei
.

The
piazza
was an open area bordered by small cafés and shops, usually packed with local farmers selling produce and women shopping for fresh vegetables for the day’s meals. But in these times of war, the farmers were seldom there. Most of the produce they grew went to feed the soldiers. Very little was available to the Italian citizens, and what was left was severely rationed. Often times the farmers sold what they could on the black market at outrageous prices. War rations didn’t buy much for the honest citizen nowadays.

Though the market stalls had closed up for the evening, the
piazza
was still bustling with activity. Men and women sat in small groups, sharing wine and smoking cigarettes. David wove around clusters of people who’d stopped in the middle of the street to chat with friends and acquaintances. They had no worry about cars careening down the narrow streets. Gas was reserved strictly for military use, and, of course, for the wealthy who could afford to pay the black market price.

He wandered down the street, feigning interest in a shop window here, a war propaganda poster there.


Ha
ottenuto
una
luce
?
” A deep voice from behind asked if he had a light.

He winced at Frank Sullivan’s mangled use of the Italian language. The guy wouldn’t last five minutes among true Italians before they realized he was an American.

“Come on,” David replied in a low voice, turning Frank away with a nod of his head. “Let’s go somewhere where we can talk.”

He led Frank to an empty alley where they could speak English without the risk of being overheard. Once safely out of earshot, Frank pulled a rumpled pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket and offered one to David.

David held up his hand to decline. “No, thanks.”

“Take it,” Frank prodded. “If there’s one thing I’ve noticed, the Italians smoke like chimneys. It might look better if someone passes by and looks this way. Otherwise, they may think we’re up to no good, sneaking down here like this.”

“Either that, or they’ll think we’re two lovers looking for a place to do some hanky-panky.”

Frank looked mortified, his whole body physically shivering from his cap-topped head down to his toes.

“Christ, I hope not.”

David chuckled and took the cigarette, an Army-issue Lucky Strike.

“Heaven forbid there’s any doubt of your sexual preferences, even to strangers.”

“You better believe it, buddy.” Frank lit David’s cigarette after firing up his own. He took a long, hard drag and blew the white smoke into the air between them. “So, what have you got for me?”

David took a pull on his own cigarette and had to smother a cough as the burning tobacco seared a trail down his throat. The
filterless
cig left a bitter taste in his mouth, along with a few stray bits of tobacco, making him wonder why anyone would want to smoke in the first place. He hadn’t smoked since he was a teenager, and that brief habit had quickly ended when his father caught him and beat the shit out of him.

“Everything has gone as planned,” he answered when he finally caught his breath. “I signed on at the dig site and even got my work location reassigned to an area close to the German encampment.”

“That’s great. What have you been able to observe?”

“Plenty.” David went on to describe the German camp, their movements, and practice sessions.

Frank’s Italian might be atrocious, but he had a mind like a steel trap. Anything David told him would be committed to memory and relayed verbatim back to headquarters. He had been assigned as David’s counterpart for just that reason. Written notes on the Germans would be an instant death sentence if found on either of them.

Frank was tan, just like David, helping him blend in with the locals. The short cut on what was left of his hair hid the fact that he was once a blond surfer-boy from California. A little boot polish and a dark gray cap covered the rest. If he appeared to be a little better fed around the middle than most Italians, no one seemed to notice.

“… and that’s about it,” David finished, dropping his half-smoked cigarette with its three inches of ash on the cobblestones and crushing it beneath his heel.

“Any sign of stashed munitions?”

“None that I’ve seen, but I haven’t had a chance to search all the ruins yet. It’s a bigger place than I thought, with lots of out-of-the-way places to hide guns and artillery.”

“Well, the informant swears they’re hiding them in the ruins somewhere. You need to find out where, and soon.”

“I know. I know.”

A long silence hung between them. Both men had learned early on that a friend made today could be shipped home in a pine box draped with the stars and stripes tomorrow. But that hadn’t prevented the two of them from becoming as close as brothers.

“So, what’s the problem?” Frank finally asked, taking a last drag on his cigarette before he sent the butt flying down the alley with a flick of his fingers.

“Nothing. Like I said, everything is going as planned. It’s been almost too easy.”

“Almost?”

Damn Frank, he was always observant, and after their two years in the service together, he knew David too well.

“Well, there might be one small problem.”

“What is it?”

“Her name is Serafina Pisano.”

Frank’s expression changed from one of concern to one of sly interest. “Oh, a woman. That figures.”

“No, no. You got it wrong. She’s my partner at the dig site. Well, actually, she’s my boss.”

Frank’s smile crinkled his face in a dozen creases, evidence of his years spent in the sun. “Now, this
is
getting interesting.”

“She’s one of the archeologists. She’s young, but she seems to know her stuff.”

“So, what’s the problem? I wouldn’t mind working next to a beautiful
signorina
every day instead of a bunch of smelly guys who’ve been wallowing in the trenches.”

“I doubt that.” He rubbed at his shoulder, the muscles clenched in a constant bunch of knots. “She has me digging holes and hauling dirt from sun up ‘til sun down. I haven’t done this much hard labor since I spent summers baling hay on my uncle’s farm.”

“You break my heart,” Frank laughed, obviously not believing David’s tale of woe. “So, whose side is she on?”

“Definitely not ours.”

“Well, that just means you need to stay on your toes.”

“You got that right. One slip, and she’ll have me trussed up and handed over to the Germans before I know what’s hit me.”

“Wow, is she that hard-assed?” Frank pulled out another cigarette and lit it.

“You better believe it.” He declined Frank’s offer of a second cigarette. He still had an incredible urge to brush his teeth after the first one. “She’s already tried to have me fired once. I’m just glad there’s an old guy working there who seems to have taken a liking to me. He wouldn’t let her do it.”

“Sounds like he should be your new best friend.”

David chuckled. “He is a neat old guy. Sera, on the other hand. One minute she seems to be pissed off at the whole world, and the next she’s…”

Frank leaned in and prodded him to continue. “She’s what?”

“Nothing.” David shook his head. “She’s hard to figure out. Sometimes, I think she might suspect me. Every now and then, I’ve caught her looking at me in a weird way, like she’s trying to figure me out or something.”

Frank elbowed him in the ribs and winked. “Maybe she just wants to get to know you a little better, if you know what I mean.”

Thinking of Sera, he recalled the strange way she’d looked at him after he nearly hit her with the rock.

“No, I don’t think so. It’s something else.”

It was almost as if she already knew him, in more ways than he wanted her to.

* * *

 

If David Corbelli thought Serafina’s mood would improve with a good night’s sleep, he had another thing coming.

She hadn’t slept much at all as the events of the past two days kept replaying through her mind. First, losing her first significant artifact, then losing her excavation site on the whim of a dirt digger who didn’t know the first thing about archeology. The very idea still irritated her.

The rising sun had already warmed the early morning air as she pedaled her bicycle toward the ruins, wondering about him. There was something strange about Corbelli, and she couldn’t put her finger on it.

His tendency toward violence unnerved her. She could overlook the incident with the knife —almost. After all, she had intentionally snuck up on him, and in these uncertain times of war, you never knew who was friend or foe. Some people tended to be jumpier than most, some less likely to trust a stranger. Heaven knew, she didn’t trust him.

His constant wandering off from the dig site was what bothered her most. Was he lazy and trying to avoid doing the work? Or was there something more nefarious behind his frequent disappearances?

Serafina’s imagination began churning out a dire scenario.

Were his forays around the city for criminal reasons? Was he scouting artifacts already unearthed in order to steal them later? She shuddered at the possibility.

Pompeii had been plundered and her treasures stolen for nearly two hundred years since her rediscovery. Precious artifacts were often sold on the black market to unscrupulous collectors for tiny fortunes. Anger at the rape of history made her blood boil. Thieves had no respect for the history of Pompeii. They’d even gone so far as to hack precious frescos off the villa walls on several occasions.

Unfortunately, the Archeological Society had no money to hire guards for the site, and the Italian government had to deal with the small issue of a war. That left the archeologists to protect Pompeii and her artifacts—and her to keep an eye on that scoundrel, David.

By the time she reached the east entrance just after dawn, she had all but convinced herself that he was a thief.

Serafina often came to the site early before the others arrived. Besides being the coolest time of the day to work, it was also the quietest. She liked working alone with just the ancient stones for company. Sometimes she could swear she heard them speak to her, telling her stories of a time long ago.

Feeling better as the familiar ruins surrounded her, she walked quickly to the new dig site, eager to get some work done before she had to deal with David Corbelli again.

And that’s where she found him.

David had beaten her to the site. He was already pulling up clumps of grass and tossing rocks and stones into the wheelbarrow. From the sweat stains under his arms and down the V of his shirt, she could tell he’d been working hard for quite some time.

She walked up to him slowly, careful this time to make sufficient noise so that he knew she was coming. He looked up as she neared, resting one arm on the handle of his shovel and wiping the sweat from his brow with the other.

“You’re late, Sera.”

“No, you’re early. And I told you to stop calling me that.”

“Why?”

“Because I don’t like it.”

He sent her a cocky smile. “Well, in that case, consider ‘Sera’ my pet name for you from now on.”

She scowled at him. Was he deliberately trying to make her hate him?

His smile broadened.

“Your dirt piles await. Shall we get to work…
Sera
?”

Yes, apparently, he was.

He nodded in the direction of her tent, folded and leaning against the stone wall.

“I forgot exactly where the rock landed yesterday, so I haven’t set up the tent yet.”

A vision of her lying on the ground with David hovering above her, his warm brown eyes filled with concern, instantly came to mind. But instead of the rush of anger she felt yesterday, an unsettling feeling pooled in her belly.

Where had that come from?
She was supposed to be angry at the man, not harboring intimate fantasies about him. Serafina ducked her head to hide her face behind the wide brim of her straw hat, hopeful it would conceal any hint of the conflicting emotions plaguing her.

Finally, she looked up. Clearing her throat, she pointed to a spot near where they fell yesterday.

“I think it was somewhere around there.”

David looked surprised that she was actually going to let him choose the spot. Either that, or he was shocked that she had a sense of humor—enough of one to call him on what had transpired yesterday.

“I was just kidding. I figured you would know the best spot to start.”

She nodded at his deferral and walked around, getting a feel for the area. Before, her superiors had always told her where to dig. But she knew the signs and knew what to look for.

Previous excavations in this area had only gone a fraction of the way down through the earth and volcanic ash before the digging stopped. The area had been virtually untouched in over eighty years, ever since serious archeologists had taken over where the treasure hunters left off.

BOOK: Out of the Ashes
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