In 18th century Siena, Count Salvesto Masello returns home to find the family villa and his father’s estate deeply in debt. In order to save it, he sells valuable heirlooms, but he is running out of silverware. Somewhere in the villa, his deceased father has hidden the art treasures that will pay the debt—but Salvesto can’t find them anywhere.
Amadeo Neruccio has been on the run from the vicious pimp, thief, and pawnbroker Guelfetto, whose toughs finally catch him and bring him to the cellar where Count Masello is selling off his silver. When the count learns what fate Guelfetto has in store for Amadeo, he intervenes, and trades the last of his mother’s dowry for the young man’s freedom.
Salvesto left home over ten years ago to live the life of adventure he craved and leave his broken heart behind. When he rescues Amadeo, he does not expect to find love again—or the start of his next adventure.
The Commune of Siena
Salvesto: A Show of Strength
CONTE SALVESTO Masello passed through the Camollia gate into Siena and began the steep walk up Via Fonte Branda as it baked under a brutal sun. The white and green flags of the Goose contrada hanging from windows and strung across the narrow streets flapped in the breeze. Within its walls, Siena held a honeycomb of small city-states like the Goose, and the banners and flags of the districts were all rampant. A military tattoo competed with another drummer, echoing through the cobbled streets. The battles of the old year, lately hard fought and won, had given birth to the new. He regretted he had been too busy to attend any of the palio, the horse races that were the heart of the Sienese year.
When he reached his destination, Salvesto unwrapped the soggy linen cravat from around his neck and blotted his face with it. The clandestine nature of Guelfetto’s business forced him to work out of a wine cellar hidden deep in the contrada of the Goose. The young tough at the door nodded, let Salvesto through, and nodded again for him to go down the steps.
The cool, damp air of the wine cellar washed over his heated skin as he removed his cloak and three-cornered hat and tossed them over a barrel. His pulse beat hard in his neck and sweat crawled under his clothes as he dropped onto a stool. The servant, his mouth curled in a perpetual grimace, thumped a jug of wine and a terra-cotta cup down beside the spluttering lamp on the table.
“Grazie.” Salvesto thought a moment. “Anselmo.”
Surprise flickered in the servant’s dull eyes, and he gave a deferential nod, followed by a slight bob of a bow before leaving. Salvesto, alone with the damp and the scent of fermented grapes in ancient wooden barrels, poured the wine and tasted it gingerly, pleased to find a well-aged red as good as any from the Medici vineyards. Guelfetto fattening him up before the kill, perhaps. Salvesto had retained a few casks in his own dwindling wine cellar and wondered how soon he could bear to part with them. The time was coming when the last of his most cherished belongings and mementoes of his family’s former glory would make this journey to Guelfetto the pawnbroker, pimp, and thief.
Salvesto kicked the bag at his feet and a solid metallic clatter answered him. The silver plates, cups, and utensils had once been part of his mother’s dowry. He had carried the last of the set all the way from the villa today, and it felt twice as heavy as it should. The guilt weighed him down, not to mention the anger at his father for losing his grip on all the family lands, nearly everything except for the farm where the villa sat and its hidden treasures.
The gloom of the cellar suited his mood. The sun might be shining outside, polishing all the stones of Siena to a pale honeyed glow, but he had carried this dark moment with him through the winding streets. Salvesto tried to say a prayer now, but the oppression of his spirit only made him bow his head, his big hands at rest on his knees.
The condition of the villa ate at his funds like a sick kinsman. The leaking roof, the crumbling stonework, and the cracked fountains broke his heart daily. He’d come home from abroad the year before when he had received notice of his father’s death to find he had inherited the last family villa and massive debt. He had successfully negotiated monthly payments of the debt, but he had to stretch himself thin through the seasons to make them. If he missed a single payment, he forfeited the villa and the farmland around it to his creditors. The deal was one only a devil would make, but he had been desperate, and the devils knew it.
“Ah, my dear friend, Conte Masello!” Guelfetto appeared out of the gloom, grinning. His broken and rotten teeth made him appear to have been feasting in the graveyard; his clothing, once rich velvets and lace, had faded and now reeked of old dirt and sweat. “What have you brought me, my dear?”
Guelfetto’s false charm scraped at Salvesto and reminded him the sooner they completed business, the sooner he would be on his way home. He did not want to have to pay for a room at a traveler’s inn, not in Siena or on the road. Salvesto stood and hefted the bag into his arms as Guelfetto removed the wine and the cup. Anselmo shuffled in and took them away, and Salvesto dropped the sack on the table.
Guelfetto pawed through it, grinning and nodding like a benevolent uncle. He did not fool Salvesto. Guelfetto was a greedy thief who, as he aged, paid other men to do the physical work of intimidation. Two such men lingered in the cellar behind Guelfetto and another at the top of the stairs, men built well like hardworking peasants but with dark hearts and a thirst for mayhem. Another reason to stop at the church and give thanks when he walked out of the wine cellar one more time. Yet it was likely not God or the Saints who kept him safe, but the things Guelfetto wanted from him.
Salvesto did not tell Guelfetto that this was the last of his mother’s silver. It would only provoke the man into pressuring him for the real treasures he suspected Salvesto still owned.
“Are you sure you want to give this up, my dear Conte Masello?” Guelfetto held out a silver piece in the gloom. “Perhaps for sentimental reasons?”
A baby’s delicate spoon, enameled with the family crest, dangled from the old man’s dirty fingers. The young toughs laughed, elbowing each other.
Salvesto shrugged, feigning indifference. His soul cried out to see the finely polished piece appearing to tarnish in the bandit’s hands. No matter what they thought, he had not led the gentle life of an aristocrat, and he worked hard now to keep what remained of his legacy. Yes, the nobles were parasites, what was left of them; they had used up the land and the people with their endless feuds and battles, and their bright stars had long been on the descent. Yet a parasite was a parasite, and whether it fed on aristocrats or peasants, their desperation was its nourishment.
“I have no room in my life for sentiment,” he reminded the old thief. “If I plant them, they will not grow more silver spoons, will they? And I cannot eat them or line my roof with them.”
“Now I have offended you, and that was not my intent. We are gentlemen, are we not?”
Anxiety clutched him. “Do you have the money, Guelfetto? I want what you paid me the last time—more, for this completes the set.” He had not intended to say that, but there it lay.
The old man’s eyes glinted in the murky light. “Well, my dear, it’s not that simple, but for you—”
Salvesto growled and made a fist, taking a step toward Guelfetto, who only smiled and inclined his head toward the toughs lurking in the doorway. A sharp whistle broke into Salvesto’s anger, and the violence behind it faded to a slow burn. Guelfetto waved at his men to answer the call, though one remained behind.
“What is it?” Guelfetto called out.
“They found that worm, Amadeo Neruccio!”
The scuffling of boots and sharp outcries tumbled down the cellar stairs from above.
“Hold him! Hold him!”
“Take that, you bastard!”
“He fights like the wolf he is—and he bites!”
Three of Guelfetto’s men, by the sound, took prisoner one Amadeo Neruccio. Salvesto knew the family name. The She-Wolf contrada had won the palio of August not a week before.
Caught up in his own problems of the past year, the July and August horse races had come and gone without him. He had loved attending them in a youth that seemed long past. He was thirty-five years old, and he felt the weight of the fading old dame, the villa, on his shoulders, aging him every day. He sighed as his duties pressed down on him.
“Go down before I throw you down,” one of the thugs growled to his captive.
Glancing at Guelfetto’s aged face, pinched with spite, Salvesto was half inclined to join in the fighting. At least to make things fair for the lone man against three, dragged fighting to the cellar steps built against the stone foundations. The man clutched at the stones as if they were his only allies.
“You should leave, my dear conte,” Guelfetto said.
“I will stay,” Salvesto replied.
“Don’t forget, you are not master here.”
“I do not forget,” Salvesto said. “You have my silver plates and cups, and you have yet to give me my money.” Payment on the villa was due soon, and the harvest near, but not near enough.
Amadeo tumbled down the last of the steps, bumped once against the stone foundation, and fell to his knees on the dirt floor. One of the toughs hauled him to standing by the shirtfront, shook him, and slapped him in the head.
“What has he done, Guelfetto?” Salvesto winced for the bloody scrape across the man’s forehead.
“A thief, nothing more than that.” Guelfetto waved his hand in a negligent way.
“Why do you handle so harshly a thief amongst thieves? Why not celebrate?”
The old man narrowed his eyes at Salvesto.
“I am not a thief!” Amadeo shouted.
“Take care of him, but mind his face,” Guelfetto said. “Though it’s not just his face his new masters are interested in!”
The toughs laughed, pushed Amadeo against the wall, and one of them held him as the other drew back to strike low. Amadeo twisted at the last moment and freed an arm. Taking advantage of their surprise and, by the sour fumes of their sweat and breath in Salvesto’s nose, their inebriation, Amadeo kicked and struck out until they grasped nothing but his tattered coat as he raced back up the stairs.
“Run!” Salvesto shouted.
“Get him, you useless louts!” Guelfetto screamed. To Salvesto, he said, “Five silver ducats say he will not escape, Conte Masello.”
“The bet is he will not escape you, and I say he will. Make it ten,” Salvesto replied as the man reached the top of the stairs and the half-open door. He glanced down once at Salvesto. Amadeo’s dark eyes were sharp with freedom so near, as if he could feel the touch of the sun on his face. Salvesto willed him through the door, saying not a word more with his fists clenched behind him.
The toughs boiled up the stairway after Amadeo, and the first reached the fugitive just as he made a movement to slip through the door. They fought him back down the steps, anger likely burning away the effects of too much grappa in their blood now. Amadeo would not take them by surprise again.
“Now make him pay, make him bleed!” Guelfetto cried out, so overtaken by bloodlust, spittle flew from his mouth, some of it landing on Salvesto’s sleeve. The toughs fell on Amadeo with flying fists and kicking feet.
Salvesto endured the beating for as long as he could before pity made him speak. “Stop. Enough. He’s done.”
“You are not master here, Conte Masello. You are a worm like all the worms that come begging to Guelfetto’s cellar.”
“Padrone!” Amadeo cried out. His dark eyes caught and held Salvesto’s. “Padrone, please!”
“That’s more like it, Neruccio,” Guelfetto crooned. “And you thought you could get no lower than the bathhouse in Florence, eh? Come to me, Neruccio. Crawl.”
The toughs stepped back, dropping Amadeo on all fours. Head hanging, black hair smeared with sweat and blood, their captive crawled across the dirt floor with excruciating slowness. The rough men jeered and barked like dogs, mocking his contrada of the She-Wolf.
Amadeo halted when he came to Salvesto. He wrapped his arms around Salvesto’s knees and cried out, “Padrone! Have mercy on me!”
Salvesto, shocked, reached down and put his hand on the man’s head, the urge to protect, to answer that call, pushing everything else aside. Amadeo looked up at him with eyes as black as ripe olives and said through bloody lips, “I hate the Florentines,” and fainted.
Salvesto and the toughs looked to Guelfetto. For a moment, Salvesto reflected on the likelihood that Guelfetto’s ancestors and his own had stood thus, perhaps on a stark byroad in the Chianti hills, negotiating the ransom of a beloved son or uncle under a glowering gunmetal sky. He blinked, and the moment was gone.
Salvesto said, “Tell me what he has done—tell me he is not a rapist or murderer.”
“Worse. He is a traitor to his contrada,” one of the toughs replied.
The broken man at his feet roused himself. “The palio.”
“Ugo, fetch another stool for the conte and send Anselmo in with the wine,” Guelfetto directed. When all had been done as he ordered, he waved Salvesto to a seat, poured, and handed him the full cup. “Young Amadeo has a gambling problem. Every game of chance is the opportunity to win back what he has lost in the game before it. You see how it happens? He’s very much like his father in that, aren’t you, maggot?”
Amadeo, conscious again and huddled on the floor, tightened his grip on Salvesto’s boot.
“My ears tell me everything. How Amadeo had amassed a debt that he cannot pay. How Amadeo was to race in the last palio of August, and that he was favored to win this year. That his winnings would not cover his debts, even if he could pry the prize money from his father’s hand.”
Amadeo grunted in agreement, pulling himself to a sitting position. He leaned against Salvesto with a questioning glance, and Salvesto put his hand to the wounded man’s shoulder in assent. When Guelfetto poured more wine, Salvesto handed Amadeo his cup, despite Guelfetto’s warning growl.
“The condemned man, eh?” Guelfetto shrugged. “I paid young Amadeo quite a bit of money to lose the race. As an added incentive, I bought off his gambling debts, in case he decided to cross me. And then what did he do?” Guelfetto reached across and struck Amadeo a glancing blow to the back of his head. “Won the race!”
Salvesto caught the quick grin Amadeo tried to hide.
Guelfetto named an amount that took Salvesto’s breath away. Amadeo lowered himself to the dirt again with a groan.
“I’ll get it all back from his bond to the bathhouse. Every soldo.”
“You’d sell a fellow Sienese to the disgusting Florentines?” came Amadeo’s muffled cry.
“I’d sell my dear mother and sister if they were worth it,” Guelfetto said. “But they are both as ugly as Anselmo, and it is more likely I’d have to pay someone to take them away. And you should be glad I don’t make you serve me and my friends for the rest of your miserable life.” He made to kick Amadeo, but Salvesto struck his foot away with his own. Guelfetto glared at him, but leaned over to prod Amadeo with stiff fingers. “If I remove you from your home, you will not be so eager to escape. You have no friends in Florence and no place to hide.”
“I’ll throw myself on the mercy of the river Arno,” Amadeo whispered. “You won’t get satisfaction, you devil.”
“I’ll pay it,” Salvesto said.
Guelfetto turned a shocked expression on him. It was worth the churning in his guts the impetuous decision had sparked. Amadeo pushed himself up quickly, cried out in pain, and clutched his side. The shock on Guelfetto’s face turned to calculation, swift as a hawk on a hare.
“Mother of Mercy,” Amadeo whispered. “It’s a trick. Be careful, padrone.”
“The silver dishes cover his debt,” Salvesto said.
Guelfetto plucked at his upper lip and frowned as he considered. His toughs assumed casual stances, leaning against the wall with thumbs tucked into the waistbands of their breeches. Amadeo sat completely still, his black-eyed gaze on Salvesto never wavering.
“Agreed,” Guelfetto finally said. “But there’s a problem.” He poured wine for them both. “Amadeo’s destiny in Florence is well-known in Siena—how else can I get my fellow Sienese to respect me? Moreover, that old business at the monastery when you and your companion were—compromised. There will be talk, perhaps that I sold him to you for the same purpose as had been intended for the Florentines…? Amadeo, if you spit on this floor, I will cut out your tongue. I have only just trained these louts not to spit whenever someone mentions our enemies to the north. I cannot conduct business through all that hawking and spitting.”
Blood, marrow, and tears on the floor, yes, but not spittle, apparently. A “gentleman” like Guelfetto had to have one scruple, at least.
“No one remembers all that,” Salvesto said, hoping it was true. “I bought his bond so he can work with my horses.” Perhaps this agreement would go a long way toward keeping up the appearance that he was not a mere hair’s breadth away from total dissolution. That was what truly mattered because where was he going to find the money to pay this month’s installment now? He looked toward Amadeo, whose eyes had filled appealingly with hope, much improved from the despair and defeat of a few moments before. Salvesto stood. “Our business is done for the day.” He motioned to Amadeo to stand. The man stumbled to his feet, and Salvesto hauled him upward by one arm. “You must walk out on your own, Amadeo,” he whispered. “Lift your head up.”
Guelfetto made a hissing noise, much like an irate goose. “You will bring me a gift for my largesse.”
“The chestnut honey is splendid this year. I will be sure to send you—”
“Something from your father’s inventory. The bronzes. One of the Riccios perhaps?”
The bloodied young man began to droop and waver, one hand pushed against his ribs, saving Salvesto from falling into a string of spluttering denials Guelfetto would be sure to see through.
“Amadeo, take this.” Salvesto twisted the gold signet ring from his finger and handed it to Neruccio. “Go to the church on the corner and wait inside. If anyone questions you, show them this.”
“Padrone, don’t trust him.”
“Go, and I will meet you there.”
They watched him shuffle across the cellar floor to the stairs and then the slow climb upward; Amadeo leaned heavily on the wall to rest twice before he reached the top. He pushed open the door, and the sun entered the cellar more fully, however briefly, as Amadeo slipped through the door and closed it behind him.
“You’ll never see that one again.” Guelfetto smirked. “Now, the Riccio bronze—”
“I’ve told you before; the things on that list are long gone. My father sold them himself.” Salvesto lied, but he was good at it. The sheer theater of keeping up the appearance of wealth and title challenged him daily. There were obligations, and the bloodline may eventually die with him, but the people who depended on him now appreciated his efforts.
Guelfetto was not getting his bloody hands on Amadeo Neruccio or the bronzes by the Venetian sculptor Riccio. Or anything else on that list.
He surprised Salvesto with a shrug. “The honey, then. My wife’s family likes it, the greedy pig-dogs. You have a generous heart, Conte Masello. May you choke on it.”
Salvesto scowled and held out his hand. Amadeo had escaped Guelfetto after all, with a little help. “And you owe me ten ducats.”
Don't you love it when a book grabs you at the beginning and does let go until the last word, and even then you sit there like " Wow"? If you love that feeling like I do then grab this book! Heloise West takes us on an adventure of epic proportions with two men you will fall in love with!
Salvesto comes home to find his legacy in trouble and he has to sell family heirlooms to save it. While doing this he finds something priceless in Amadeo, who has had a past full of pain and misfortune, and could do with a run of good luck, has he found it in Salvesto?
Amadeo and Salvesto quickly find out there is chemistry between them, but the reason Salvesto left home a decade earlier was because of a broken heart, has he found a love to last this time? Or will someone else decide the lovers fate for them?
Grab this book friends, it is so good, and you don't want to miss it!
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