Italian Rhapsody Ch. 02bykevklein©
Off the coast of north-central Sicily
Daniel had hoped for clouds to cover the stars and blacken the night sky. Instead, the moonlight seemed unusually bright and the stars twinkled mockingly overhead when the captain of the fishing boat dropped anchor a few miles off the coast of Sicily, north of Cefalù. This was an insane mission, one that might easily end in death for him and Roxie. He'd been a fool to let his emotions get in the way of his logic. He should have insisted on leaving her behind. But he knew what coming to Cefalù to rescue her nephew meant to her. He understood all too well feelings of guilt and remorse, the gut-wrenching wish that he could go back in time and do that one thing over again.
He checked his watch. He'd told his men that they would come ashore around eleven o'clock, to secure the perimeter for him. If anyone could arrange for them a safe beach landing, and a hideaway near Cefalù for the night, they could. His guys were the smartest, toughest men that he had ever known. His old comrades were both ex-gangsters, one an ex-Russian Mafia gangster and one an Italian Mafia gangster, with a violent past and no future, living always for the present.
"This is the last chance to change your mind," Daniel told Roxie. "Once we're in the water, there's no turning back."
"I understand," she said.
"You're going with me?"
He hadn't doubted her answer, but he had needed to give her that one last chance to change her mind. He already had enough blood of innocents on his hands without adding Roxie's. He hadn't been able to save her brother and sister-in-law, but by God, he was going to do everything in his power to keep her safe, to protect her, no matter what the cost to himself. He motioned for the captain to have the rubber raft lowered to the sea. Grabbing Roxie's arm, he led her to the ladder hanging over the side of the cruiser.
"I'll go first," he said, then climbed down into the raft and steadied it with his weight.
Roxie took a deep breath, willing herself to be strong and in control. She joined Daniel in the raft and took her place in front of him. She thanked the good Lord that she wasn't prone to motion sickness. If she had been, this mission would have been impossible for her. She was as physically and mentally prepared for this mission as she would ever be. But emotionally, she teetered precariously on the precipice of hell. When she had planned for this rescue, she had expected to risk her life to save Carlo. What she hadn't counted on was risking the principles by which she had always lived. She'd never considered the possibility that her heart and her morals could be in danger. But Daniel Fox posed a threat to her; the consequences of succumbing to him were as devastating as any other danger she would face in Cefalù.
He rowed the raft farther and farther from the fishing vessel. One mile. Two. Roxie didn't look behind her when Daniel issued orders. Obeying his every command, she remained silent as she focused straight ahead on the looming mountain peaks of Sicily. In the distance she could see the volcanic peak of Mount Etna, a more than 10,000-foot peak about 60 miles to the southeast.
Cefalù lay at the foot of a 1,233-foot promontory along the Tyrrhenian Sea, east of Palermo. It originated as the ancient Cephalaedium, which was founded as an outpost of the Greek city of Himera and first appeared in history about 395 BC as an ally of the Carthaginian leader Himilco. Valued for its strategic position on the height of the promontory, the ancient town was in turn conquered by the Syracusan tyrants Dionysius I the Elder and Agathocles and by the Carthaginians, from whom the Romans seized it in 254 BC. A new town was founded at the foot of the promontory by the Norman king Roger II in 1131 AD, the year in which construction to Cefalù's famous cathedral had started.
On her last visit over two years ago, Roxie remembered her one trip to Cefalù to visit Pierfrancesco, when she'd arrived for her year of missionary work. She had taken a tour of the ancient town with him and her sister-in-law, visiting the ancient cathedral. It's exterior had been well preserved, with massive four-story towers on each side of the façade. The interior had been considerably restored in the 16th and 17th centuries. The Byzantine-style mosaics in the apse, the projecting part of the building, and in the first spaces between the arches of the choir, the part occupied by the singers or by the clergy, were among the most beautiful in Sicily. Among the ancient remains in the area was the so-called temple of Diana, a pre-Hellenic sanctuary of megalithic construction from the 9th and 8th century BC on the promontory site of the ancient Cefalù, and portions of a megalithic wall dating from the 6th century BC.
On their return to her brother's home later in the day, they had been caught in a late afternoon drenching from a rainstorm.
"Get ready." Daniel issued the command in a deep, dark whisper when they were less than a mile from shore. He drew in the paddles and waited. Moisture coated Roxie's palms. Her heartbeat drummed in her ears. She could just make out the shoreline in the moonlight.
A light flickered in the distance; a signal from Daniel's men that it was safe for them to come ashore. She waited for him to tell her when to dive into the water. The plan was for him to dispose of the raft and them to swim the last half-mile.
"Now," Daniel said.
Without question, Roxie slid over the side of the raft and into the cold water of the Tyrrhenian Sea. Gasping, she treaded water, waiting. Joining her quickly, Daniel eased up beside her. "Start swimming. Head right for the shore. No matter what, don't look back. Go directly to the beach. My men will be waiting."
"I'll be right behind you," he assured her.
She sliced through the dark water, pacing herself as Daniel had taught her during the weeks of fitness training and tutoring in survival techniques. She still couldn't believe that she had actually learned how to use a gun. She despised violence. She abhorred any and all kinds of weapons. But learning to handle a gun had been one of his requirements for bringing her along on this mission. She sensed him behind her, silently gliding his big body through the waves heading toward the shoreline. As she neared the shore, she saw that boulders edged a large section of the beach.
"We're going ashore on a small, isolated stretch of beach that's patrolled by your grandfather's men," Daniel told her. "One of my men said that there's usually only a lone soldier at this point, day or night."
He swam up beside Roxie as they neared land, guiding her away from the rocky shore, toward a smoother section where the heavy waves washed a sandy surface.
Side by side, they rose from the ocean and ran onto the beach. Rivulets of water dripped from their soaked bodies. Winded from the mile-long swim, Roxie dropped to her knees and gulped in huge swallows of recuperative air.
A cool breeze caused her to shiver.
Moonlight shimmered across the land, turning the towering cliffs flanked each side of the narrow beach, black.
Grasping Roxie under her armpits, Daniel swiftly lifted her to her feet. "You can't rest here." He draped his arm around her damp waist.
"Just for a minute," she pleaded.
"Not here!" he told her in a whispered growl.
He dragged her up the beach, and she tried to pull away from him.
"Will you stop manhandling me?" Defensively she added, "I couldn't see well enough to see where I'm going."
Daniel shoved her forward toward the thicket of trees that blanketed the land. The ground lifted upward directly behind the beach to form a knoll overlooking the sea.
Guiding Roxie, he rushed up the rise, toward the area from where he'd seen the all-clear signal. Once they were in the trees, he slowed their pace, then brought them to a standstill.
"Now what?" Roxie whispered.
Suddenly a rustling from the tangle of surrounding growth alerted Daniel and Roxie that they were not alone.
"Daniel Fox?" a heavily accented voice called out in the darkness.
"Giancarlo?" Daniel asked.
"Yes, sir." A muscular, dark-skinned man appeared before them, barely visible in the moonlight.
"Hurry, Daniel! You too, señora. Hurry! Hurry! Vladimir is waiting."
Giancarlo led them into the darkness of the mountainside, seemingly climbing forever upward, through the thick cover of trees and tangled greenery. Never getting out of Daniel's grasp, Roxie realized that someone, probably Giancarlo, had cut a path through the growth. She staggered along behind Daniel, her feet squishing inside her soaked socks and shoes. When she felt as if she couldn't climb another foot, they came to a clearing that opened onto a dirt road.
The moonlight flickered off the metal body of an old, battered jeep. Behind the wheel sat a mountain of a man, even bigger than Daniel, only his huge outline visible in the shadowy darkness. Giancarlo jumped into the front seat beside the driver, while Daniel assisted Roxie into the back seat, then got in beside her.
"You are crazy for coming back here," a heavily accented voice said from the front seat of the jeep. "And even bigger fool for bringing woman with you."
"We're in agreement on that," Daniel said.
The man, who Roxie assumed was Vladimir, laughed, the rumble from his chest like a roll of thunder. With the headlights off, the jeep lurched forward in the darkness. Roxie prayed that the driver could see the road better than she could.
"We'll drop you and lady off at small cabin for night, close to where you are to go in day or two," Vladimir said, his accent decidedly Russian. "There are blankets, fresh water and food waiting for you in cabin. Since Mafia all over Palermo and Cefalù, tourism not strong any more. You and lady be safe enough there overnight."
Hitting a huge pothole in the road, the jeep bounced, tumbling its passengers. Roxie cried out, and Daniel draped his arm around her shoulders and drew her close to his side.
"It's all right," he told her. "Despite what you think, Vladimir Trakirov will get us to safety in one piece."
"I'm beginning to wonder," she said. "How can he see where he's going without the headlights on?"
"The moon is pretty bright tonight. Besides, knowing Vlad, he's sniffing his way. Anyone who knows him thinks that he's part animal." He squeezed Roxie's shoulder and leaned closer, whispering in her ear. Vladimir used to be involved with the Russian Mafia. Just sit tight, close your eyes and relax."
Relax? Was he kidding? She couldn't relax, but she did close her eyes and pray. God only knew that someone needed to pray for Mr. Trakirov. Pray he wouldn't drive them into the ocean or off the road and plummet down a ravine. The dirt road turned into an even narrower one that eventually led to a small cabin.
The ancient town of Cefalù slept peacefully for the night. Only dim lights, hidden behind the shutters of homes in the distance, advised them that anyone was still awake.
Daniel helped Roxie out of the Jeep. Giancarlo tossed Daniel a canvas bag that he caught in midair.
"Go in." Vladimir shone a flashlight toward a wooden door. "Go straight to bedroom. There's kerosene lamp you can light. I placed it on floor, right beside bed. There are no windows in room, so light can't be seen from outside."
Roxie was glad that Vladimir held the flashlight beam on the door until she and Daniel had scurried inside. The resonant throbbing of the jeep's engine quickly disappeared as it left.
"I can't see a darn thing," Roxie whispered.
He shoved her behind him. "Hang on to my shirt."
She followed his slow, cautious movement into the pitch-black room. When he stopped abruptly, she rammed into his back, her breasts flattening against him for a brief instant.
He mumbled a curse as he felt the softness of womanly flesh against his back.
"I'm sorry," she said. "You could have warned me."
When Daniel turned the knob, the door creaked loudly. Shoving it wide open, he extended his foot inward before taking the first step. With cautious precision, he led Roxie into the room. When they reached the bed, he halted.
"Stay right here. Don't move an inch until I light the lamp," he said.
"I promise I'm not going anywhere," she told him.
He grappled around in the darkness for several minutes until the toe of his boot encountered the lamp. Dropping the canvas bag to the floor, he rummaged inside until he found a box of matches. Bending down on one knee, he lifted the globe off the lamp, struck a match and lit the wick. A muted yellow-white glow illuminated the dreary bedroom. Glancing around, Daniel spotted a pile of blankets in the corner of the room. On top of the blankets lay an assortment of local fruit.
Roxie gasped. Daniel's gaze followed her line of vision. A large cockroach scurried across the wooden floor.
When he saw Roxie crinkle her nose and frown in disgust, he grinned, thinking that he would probably get to be very close to her this night.
"I thought I wanted to be out of the darkness." Roxie made her way toward him. "But now that I've seen this place, I'm not so sure I wouldn't prefer to be in the dark again."
"Come on. We need to get out of our wet clothes. We'll lay them out and hope they'll dry by morning." Daniel picked up the lamp and handed it to Roxie. When he lifted the partially open canvas bag from the floor, she glanced inside and saw two handguns.
"One for you and one for me?" she asked.
"You knew in advance that I'd expect you to carry a weapon. It would be suicidal for us to go into Cefalù tomorrow unarmed."
Roxie walked across the room, placed the lamp on a wooden table and glanced down at the pile of blankets. She picked up the oranges and bananas and laid them beside the lamp, then lifted one of the blankets. She frowned. The small blanket looked clean enough. She tossed the blanket to Daniel, who caught it up against his chest.
"You go outside the room to undress," she told him. "And don't come in until I tell you that it's all right."
He chuckled. "Lady, before this little adventure of ours is over, you and I are going to become so intimately familiar with each other's bodies that your show of modesty right now will seem ludicrous."
"Well, we will not get intimately familiar tonight, so go change clothes outside the room!"
Roxie crossed her arms over her chest and stamped her foot on the floor. He grinned wickedly, then turned and walked across the room and out the door. Undressing hurriedly, she removed her boots, soggy socks and damp khaki pants. After taking off her cotton shirt, she laid the articles of clothing out across a couple of wooden chairs. She hesitated before unhooking her wet bra, and when she tried to remove her moist panties, they stuck to her skin. But she peeled off the lacy underwear, then reached down, grabbed a blanket and wrapped it around her body. She doubled the blanket around her, overlapping the ends securely above her right breast. The hem of the makeshift garment hit her just below her knees. Due to the width of her hips, the blanket didn't quite double around her lower body, leaving a gap that revealed a glimpse of her right thigh. Despite the cotton cover, she felt naked and vulnerable. Spearing her fingers through the sides of her hair, then running her hand down the long braid that hung to her waist, she tested for dampness. Apparently the windy jeep ride had partially dried her hair, as it had most of her clothes.
"Aren't you ravaging in that outfit," Daniel said.
Gasping silently, Roxie jumped at the sound of his voice, then turned to face him. He stood a few feet away from her, halfway between the door and the bed. He had draped his blanket around his hips, leaving his chest bare. Trying to avoid looking directly into his face, she glanced downward and the sight of his muscular chest took her breath away. She swallowed hard.
"You look pretty cute yourself." She forced the playful words from her mouth. Taking inventory of Daniel proved to be a visual delight. His broad shoulders and big arms bulged with sleek, fine-toned muscles. His skin gleamed a pale copper in the lamplight. While she stared at him, he snapped the band that held his ponytail in place, then bent over and shook loose the vibrant black strands of his long hair. Roxie glanced away, unable to continue her perusal without melting into a pool of pure erotic lust. Warning herself once again about the dangers a man like Daniel presented to a woman like her, she busied herself by turning away and picking up the other blankets.
She stood with her back to him, setting the pillows on each side of the bed.
"Don't you want to eat before you make our bed?" he asked teasingly.
"What?" She whirled around, her mouth gaping, her eyes growing round.
"Aren't you hungry? Those oranges look delicious. If you'd like, I can peal one for you."
"You go ahead and eat," she said. "I'm really not very hungry. I'm just tired. I think I'll make my bed for the night."
"I'm sleeping beside you, and don't give me any arguments. It's cold here and it'll get even colder toward morning. We'll appreciate each other's body heat."
She glared at him, but didn't say a word as she prepared the bed.
Daniel knew she was deliberately ignoring him, pretending that she'd forgotten his threat to claim her body as part of their bargain. Of course, it was possible that she had actually believed him when he'd later told her that he wouldn't touch her if she was the last woman on earth. His guess was that she was uncertain about his intentions. He thought she deserved to worry about if and when he would take her. Her stubbornness and determination had put him in a position he didn't like. He had allowed his feelings to cloud his judgment; he'd brought a woman along on a deadly mission. In his peripheral vision, he saw her lie down and lift one side of the blanket up and over her. Let her lie there and squirm, he thought. Let her wonder if tonight is the night I'll ask for the use of her body.
Retrieving a knife from the canvas bag Vladimir had supplied for him, Daniel sliced one of the oranges and ate it with gusto. The juice ran down the corners of his mouth and dribbled over his chin.
"Sure you don't want some?" He held up the other half of the ripe fruit. When he was finished with the orange, he took a shaddock. A shaddock was something like a cross between an orange and a lemon, and shaped like a pear.
"No, thank you. In the morning I'll eat something." She turned over, facing away from him.
He finished off two oranges, a shaddock, then peeled a banana. Wiping his sticky hands on the blanket, he glanced around the small room. A safe little hideaway. Maybe the last one they would have until they left Sicily. He flung the knife blade into the tabletop. Morning would come too soon. He needed rest as much as Roxie did. There might be nights ahead of them without the comfort and safety of a hotel. When he stood over her, gazing down at her still form, Daniel removed the blanket from around his waist and dropped down on his knees behind her.
The moment he lifted her long, damp braid, she stiffened. "What are you doing?"
With nimble fingers, he began unbraiding her hair. "You shouldn't sleep with your wet hair braided."
"Oh." She lay perfectly still, her back to him, and allowed him to unbraid her hair. Was that all he intended to do? she wondered. If he tried to force himself on her, how would she react? She should have made it perfectly clear to him that she had no intention of having sex with him. To her, sex was not some bodily function for releasing tension and deriving physical pleasure. When she made love with a man, it would be because she was married to him, and she loved him with all her heart and soul.