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Moon Shadow - A Gothic Historical Romance: Auriano Curse Series Book 2 by Patricia Barletta (1)

Chapter 1

Outside of Paris, 1797

Arrêtez!

The command to halt came out of the black night. Antonio Valerio Cesare D’Este, Duke of Auriano, roused from his doze as his coach came to a stop. The little door in the ceiling of the coach slid open, and Piero, his driver-valet-bodyguard, his Guide, murmured, “Highwaymen, Sior Tonio. Two of them in the middle of the road.”

Antonio sat up, immediately alert. “Do what they say, Piero,” he said. “Let them take what they want. No sense in anyone getting hurt over a few coins.”

He welcomed the disruption. The journey from Auriano to Paris had been long and dull. A confrontation by highwaymen would relieve the boredom. He straightened his cuffs, then checked the stiletto hidden up his sleeve. He would probably not use it, but always being prepared had kept him alive.

He heard some conversation between Piero and one of the thieves, then the clip-clop of horses approaching. Out the window in the hazy moonlight, he saw two horsemen. One of them dismounted and flung open the door to his coach. The fellow pointed a pistol at Antonio’s heart. With his other hand, the thief took a lantern from his comrade and hung it on the handle of the door. Pale light flooded the interior of the coach.

Bon soir, monsieur,” the thief said. “Your money, if you please.”

With a raised eyebrow and a wry twist to his lips, Antonio tossed a small pouch of coins to him. The thief caught it and passed it to his companion.

“You have more.” The robber posed it as a statement rather than a question.

Antonio coolly surveyed the highwayman. He was a slight fellow. If his larger companion did not have that pistol aimed at Piero, Antonio could have easily disarmed him and taken back his money. Rather than being entertained by the distraction of a simple robbery, he was annoyed by the fellow’s manner.

“You have all my coin,” Antonio said. “Now please allow me to continue on my journey.”

The thief stepped up into the coach and sat on the edge of the opposite seat. He wore a dark scarf tied across his face, exposing only his eyes, and they were shadowed by his hat. Even so, beneath the muffler, Antonio saw the outline of his chin, the plane of his cheek. Too soft for a full-grown man.

“You have more,” the thief said again. The pistol hovered inches from Antonio’s heart.

Antonio raised a disdainful brow. “If I did, I would have given it to you.”

The highwayman ignored Antonio’s statement. “Your thumb ring, monsieur, s’il vous plait.

“You are an obstinate little fellow, aren’t you?” Antonio was not about to hand over the gold band, engraved in a repeating pattern with the symbol of the House of Auriano. Inside was more engraving—his full name and title.

A dagger appeared in the thief’s other hand. He dragged the point lightly down Antonio’s cheek, then pushed it against the vulnerable pulse at his throat.

The move surprised a laugh out of Antonio. The fellow was feisty as well as obstinate.

“Are you laughing at me, monsieur?” The point of the dagger dug deeper, pricking skin, drawing a bead of blood.

Antonio did not like the thief’s aggression. With a flick of his wrist, the stiletto slipped into his hand, and in the same motion, he smoothly pressed it against the robber’s throat. “It seems,” he drawled, “we have a stalemate. I told you I have no other coin, and the ring does not leave my hand. Take what I gave you and go.”

The highwayman reared back from the deadly edge at his throat, but he huffed a breathy chuckle. “No stalemate, monsieur. I think I will have to teach you some manners.” He lowered the muzzle of the pistol and pressed it against Antonio’s genitals. “I believe I have you in checkmate. Drop your weapon, and give me the ring, monsieur. S’il vous plait.

Not wishing to spend the rest of his life as a eunuch, Antonio laid his knife on the seat beside him and slowly pulled the ring from his thumb. Instead of holding it out to the fellow, he let it drop to the floor of the coach. “Ah, scusi,” he said without the least bit of regret in his tone.

The thief bristled. “Do not move, monsieur. The trigger of my pistol is very sensitive.”

“How very unfortunate,” Antonio murmured, hoping to provoke the thief and gain the upper hand. “Your lover must find that quite frustrating.”

At the insult, the robber stilled. Pressing the pistol harder against Antonio’s groin, the outlaw used the point of his dagger to snag the ring from the floor, then neatly slipped it into his pocket. Once again, he placed the tip against Antonio’s throat. “Do not,” he said, “try any more tricks, monsieur, and do not move. I have little patience.” Using his dagger, he cut the buttons from Antonio’s waistcoat, then slid the dagger beneath his stock, sliced it apart, and slit his shirt down the front.

Antonio did not dare move with the pistol resting between his legs, but his annoyance had turned to fury. Besides the fact that the fellow had ruined a perfectly good shirt and stock, the thief had uncovered what Antonio wore on a silken cord around his neck.

Sacre bleu,” the highwayman whispered. “Not a myth.” Using the point of his dagger, he lifted the two moonstone pendants hanging on the cord. “Give these to me.”

Suspicious of the thief’s initial response to the stones, Antonio wanted to see what he knew of them. He shrugged indifferently. “Those stones are of little value.”

“Perhaps,” the thief said. “Perhaps I would like to see them decorating ma petite amie. Or perhaps their value has little to do with money.”

The thief could be lying, or he could be ignorant of the stones’ value. Either way, Antonio was not about to give them up easily. They were two parts of the moonstone that his new sister-in-law had worn when his brother first met her, the stone that had been broken into three by the sorceress Nulkana in the battle that had nearly ended his brother’s life.

The thief tipped his head, and the lantern light slanted beneath the brim of his hat. Antonio caught a glimpse of the fellow’s eyes. They were the color of turquoise, tilted up at the corners, with thick lashes. Beautiful. It was no wonder the fellow was so aggressive. With those eyes, he probably had been defending himself his whole life.

“What if I refuse to give you the stones?” Antonio wanted to see how brave the fellow really was.

The highwayman pressed the barrel of the pistol against Antonio’s testicles to the point of pain. “How much do you value these stones, monsieur?”

“You don’t have the stones to dare,” Antonio taunted.

Raising his head, staring Antonio in the eye, the thief said, “You have no idea what I would dare.” Despite their beauty, the youth’s eyes were cold.

Antonio wondered what life had done to this fellow to turn him so ruthless. He had no doubt the thief would pull the trigger on his pistol. Carefully, he took hold of the cord around his neck and pulled it over his head. Dangling the stones, he said, “If you take these, be assured I will come after you to take them back.”

The thief sheathed his dagger and wrapped his fingers around the stones. A smile touched his eyes. “You will have to find me first. Bon chance, monsieur. Enjoy the rest of your journey.”

In a flash, the thief was out of the coach. He grabbed the lantern and bounded back onto his horse. The lantern was extinguished, and Antonio heard the sound of retreating hoofbeats. Then silence.

Piero’s voice came through the little opening in the ceiling. “Excellency? Sior Tonio? Are you all right?”

Antonio breathed deeply to control his rage before he replied. “Si, Piero. I am unhurt. And yourself?”

Si.”

“How fast can you get us to Paris? I have a score to settle with this highwayman.” As he spoke, he yanked the ruined stock from about his neck and jerked his torn shirt closed.

Without answering, Piero slapped the reins and gave a shout to urge the horses into a gallop. Antonio braced himself against the side of the coach and stared out at the dark night. The gibbous moon looked swollen on one side and about to burst with something infectious. Only a few more days and the curse would take hold of him. He would turn to Shadow, when he would lose the sense of smell, taste, and touch. And on the other side of that—the ravages of the Hunger, when all his senses and appetites would demand to be fed.

The highwayman had stolen the one thing that would dissipate those wild, dark cravings of the Hunger. Two of the three pieces of the charmed moonstone. One of the stones was still with his twin brother, Alessandro; one was his; one he had been bringing to his sister. They would not break the curse, but they helped alleviate the worst of its manifestation. The blue stones themselves were unimpressive with a dull opalescence. Their gold filigree setting that he had commissioned for them was worth more than the stones to anyone who did not know what they were. But the highwayman seemed more interested in the stones than their settings and seemed to know something about them. That made Antonio suspicious.

He would find this thief. He would teach the fellow what it meant to cross Antonio Valerio Cesare D’Este, Duke of Auriano, and then he would take back what belonged to him.

Solange Delacroix leaned over the neck of her horse as they plunged at a gallop down the narrow path through the woods. Behind her, she could hear the pounding of Gide’s horse and his occasional curse when a branch slapped across his face. She did not slow her headlong rush. She was anxious to see her treasures in bright lamplight. And, if she were truthful, she was anxious to be away from their victim. The man had been too arrogant, too practiced with that knife, too imperturbable. Too damned attractive. Even now, even as Solange raced to get as far away from him as she could, those golden eyes seemed to burn into her head.

The path opened into a clearing. Bursting out of the trees, she reined in her horse before the abandoned woodcutter’s hut. She swung to the ground, rushed inside, and lit the only lantern. Its flame illuminated the rustic, single room with a small stone hearth in one wall, a narrow bare cot against the opposite wall, and a rickety table in the center. As she dumped the contents of her pocket onto the table, she heard Gide dismount, heard his tread on the stone step, and then his bulk filled the doorway.

“What in blazes are you thinking, Solange?” His vehement tone revealed his concern. “You could have broken both our necks.”

Solange pulled the scarf from her face and stared at her brother with wide eyes. Sweeping her hand across the items on the table, she said, “Look, Gide. Look what we have.”

Her brother closed the space between them in three long strides. Gazing at the pieces gleaming in the lamplight, he nudged the two pendants with his finger. “Sacre bleu,” he whispered. “Could one of them be the stone of the myth?”

Solange knew the myth, that a stone existed with magical powers, that it could dissipate the ravages of a terrible curse. It would not revoke the curse, but be a balm to its devastation. Their father had told them the tale of the stone when she and Gide had been little. But that seemed very long ago when Mama and Papa were alive and there had been stories and family meals and happy times. She stared at the two blue moonstones, the pieces that might buy her freedom from this life she was forced to lead. They were uneven triangles, obviously broken from a single stone and set in gold filigree. They reflected an odd opalescence in the lamplight. They fascinated her. She swept up the cord from beneath her brother’s examination and dangled the stones in the lamplight. “They don’t appear to be special. But our victim threatened to come after me and take them back.”

“He threatened you?” Gide’s brows drew together in anger.

Solange smiled at her brother’s concern. “Calm down, little brother. I held a pistol to his balls, so he didn’t dare move. He has no idea who I am.” Her gaze dropped to the gold band lying on the table. “I wonder who he is. I didn’t recognize the coat of arms on his coach.”

“He is either very brave or stupid to ride in a coach in France bearing his coat of arms,” Gide said, referring to the angry prejudice of the peasants against the aristocracy since the Revolution. He picked up the ring and held it closer to the lamp. “It’s engraved with the same device as the coat of arms.” He looked closer. “There’s engraving on the inside. Antonio Valerio Cesare D’Este, Duke of Auriano. An Italian duke. No wonder he proclaims his nobility. He doesn’t know any better.” He placed the ring back on the table and shook his head. “I don’t like it. There’s only supposed to be one stone, not two. How did it get broken?”

Solange shrugged. “We don’t know the truth of the story. Maybe there have always been two stones.”

“The myth only tells of one. Myths come from truth. And if this is the stone of the myth, why would an Italian duke have it?”

At Gide’s dire expression, Solange laughed. “Why not an Italian duke?”

Gide scowled.

Solange gave him a playful push. “You worry too much.” She studied the stones once more. “Remember the rhyme? The one that Papa taught us?”

Gide recited, “Feed the hunger; Feed the pain…”

…Wear the moonstone; Lose the shame.” As Solange finished, the stones glowed dully. She caught her breath, then stared at her brother, who stared back. “They are real,” she whispered. In a decisive move, she undid the clasp on the cord and slipped one of them off. “I think I’ll keep one of these.”

“Zut! You can’t!” Gide looked horrified.

“Why not?” She shrugged.

“Because Le Chacal wants them.” Her brother’s tone implied she was being dense.

“He only spoke of one moonstone, so I will give him one,” she said blithely. “He doesn’t need to know there were two.” She cast a warning glance at Gide. “And you won’t tell him.”

Gide’s gaze slid away from her. “Why would I tell him?”

“Gide. Promise me you won’t tell.” Solange placed a beseeching hand on her brother’s arm.

“Zut, Solange! What if he asks?”

Gide’s last statement pulled at her heart. They had both been broken by Le Chacal, the Jackal, the king of the thieves of Paris, who ruled the Paris underworld with no mercy. Only her bargain with him allowed them any sort of freedom, and kept her brother relatively safe, away from becoming one of les chauffeurs, those thieves who had few compunctions about torturing their victims, then murdering them when the outlaws had what they wanted. Years ago, when they were starving orphans wandering the streets of Paris, Le Chacal had caught them stealing a loaf of bread. He offered them sanctuary—food and a dry, warm place to sleep. Only later they learned what his price was; becoming thieves for him. And for Solange as she became older, the price was much, much higher. They’d had no choice. It was steal for Le Chacal or starve.

She looked him in the eye. “You won’t have to lie to him, Gide. He’ll never suspect there were two stones.”

Gide drew a breath. “I won’t let him hurt you either.”

Solange smiled and squeezed the muscular arm beneath her hand. Her brother was a man now, but she was still his older sister. She had raised him from the time when they were children, after their parents had been killed just before the Revolution. When she and Gide had been taken in by Le Chacal, she thought she had found a guardian angel. Instead, they had fallen into the hands of a devil.

Picking up the gold band, she slipped it back into her pocket. Perhaps, she would keep this, too. Its owner intrigued her.

“Come on, Gide,” she urged. “I have to get back to the city. Vernoux will be waiting for me.”

“How can you give yourself to him?” her brother demanded as he followed her out to their horses. “He hurts you.”

“Not always. And he visits much less than he used to. Sometimes he does nothing but watch me.” Solange clapped her hat on her head and swung up onto her horse. “Vernoux pays for the roof over our heads. Or would you prefer to sleep down in the Catacombs with the rats?”

Oui. I would if it meant you did not have to be his whore,” Gide said as he mounted his own horse.

She shook her head at the old argument. Being mistress to the Marquis de Vernoux meant that they lived comfortably, despite their ties to Le Chacal. Vernoux’s abuse was part of the price she paid for being stupid enough to fall for Le Chacal’s enticement and entrapment in the first place.

Steeling herself against thoughts of the pain the coming night might hold, she dug her heels into her horse’s flanks and called, “I’ll race you back to the city.”

Antonio stood in the receiving room of the Panthémont Convent and waited for the Mother Superior. It was near three o’clock in the morning, and the bell for the liturgical hour of Matins would soon ring. If it had been any other religious house, he would have honored the nuns’ privacy and waited until daybreak, but not here. This convent was renowned for both its education of France’s royal and noble daughters, as well as its scandal. Although most of the noble daughters and all of the royal ones were gone since the Revolution, scandal still hung like a dark veil over the place. It had been the perfect spot to hide his sister, Allegra. The veneer of propriety and morality covered the tolerance of impropriety beneath. While Allegra had been taught decorum, she needed the freedom that the curse on their family demanded. The Mother Superior was a very understanding and discreet woman—for a substantial donation.

Having arrived at his Paris house not long after midnight, he had felt the need to visit Allegra. He had no piece of the moonstone to bring her, but he needed to see her to assure himself that she was safe. The letter she had sent to him and Alessandro in Venice hinted at some threat, but she had treated it lightly. As soon as he had celebrated his brother’s marriage to the lovely Sabrina, he began his journey.

And been robbed. He would not leave Paris without taking back what was his and punishing the thief. Something about the fellow nagged at Antonio, but he couldn’t quite grasp what it was. Yet, discovering the identity of a highwayman with distinctive turquoise eyes should not be too difficult.

He heard the scrape of a shoe against the stone floor, and then the Mother Superior entered. She was a middle-aged woman, and in deference to the laws of the Revolution, instead of a nun’s habit, she wore a simple gown and a small, light veil, revealing her dark, gray-flecked hair. In spite of her age, she was still a handsome woman. Bowing respectfully, he murmured, “Ma donna.”

She approached him with a smile and outstretched hand. “Bon soir, mon seigneur.” After he had taken her hand and bowed over it, she said, “You honor us with this visit, but I am afraid your sister is not here.”

Antonio stiffened. “Not here? Where is she? Has something happened to her?”

She waved him to a pair of simple wooden chairs near the hearth, where a small fire burned. When they had both been seated, she said, “The last time I saw her she was in perfect health.”

“Then?” Antonio prompted. Having dealt with the woman before, he knew she was circumspect to the point of exasperation.

The Mother Superior sighed. “I tried to convince her not to go, that she would be safe here.” A tiny frown appeared between her brows. “Your sister can be quite headstrong.” She turned to gaze at the flames.

Out of respect, Antonio bit down on the curse that sprang to his lips. He did not need to be reminded of Allegra’s faults. Instead, he asked, “Where did she go, ma donna?”

The nun turned back to him. “That I cannot tell you.” Pulling a folded parchment from her pocket, she held it out to him. “But she asked me to give this to you.”

As Antonio took the letter, the bell for Matins began to ring.

“I must go,” the Mother Superior said, rising. “We miss your sister. I hope when you find her, she will be well.”

Antonio waited until she was gone, then he broke the seal on the letter. Opening it, he read:

My Dearest Brothers,

If you are reading this, then I have left France. Information has come to me concerning the object we seek. The others who also seek it have begun to gather here in Paris. I have felt a sense of danger for several months, and have decided to hide between the Waters and the Stones. Luisa and Ernesto are with me, so you need not fear that I am alone. Once I have established myself, I will write to tell you of my situation. Keep me in your thoughts, as I will keep you in mine.

Your Loving Sister,

Allegra

Crumpling the note in his hand, Antonio could not decide between relief that Allegra was safe, or annoyance that she did not wait for either him or Alessandro to come to her. She was between the Waters and the Stones. That meant she was in England, somewhere between the city of Bath and Stonehenge, both places of tremendous power and a logical destination. She would be safe there, and her Guide, Luisa, was with her along with Luisa’s husband. They would not be difficult to find.

Yet, the other part of her note disturbed him. She had information about the object they sought, the magical Sphere of Astarte, that could bestow immortality, wealth, and power on anyone who possessed it. More importantly, it was the one thing that could break the curse on their family, so they would never again have to live part of every month as Shadow with no sense of taste, smell, or touch. So they would never again have to endure the ravages of the Hunger as they transformed back to human. He wondered why she had not shared that information. And then anxiety speared through him as he wondered if she could be in more danger than she’d let on.

He read the letter again. No, she would have used their code word for danger: incendio—fire, that referred back to the conflagration in their castello in Auriano that had sent them to live in Venice when they were young.

Those others she mentioned who were gathering in Paris had to be the diabolical Legion of Baal, a group of men who sought to return the Sphere to ancient Phoenicia in order to tap its magic. If they possessed the Sphere, the balance of power in the world would shift drastically—and not for the better.

As he strode out through the gate of the convent, he decided he would write to Alessandro to inform him of these recent events. Luisa and Ernesto would protect Allegra with their lives, so she was safe. As for himself, he would remain in Paris for a while to discover exactly what the Legion of Baal was plotting. At the same time, he would seek the highwayman and teach the thief a lesson in humility.

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