Roman Sunset – Merry Farmer

The first thing Lord Thomas McGovern, Earl of Landry, did when he stepped out of the Roma Termini train station and into the noisy, bustling city was get lost. The sun was already beginning to set over the mish-mash of ancient and modern buildings, casting orange and coral light over streets that had been there since antiquity. The echo of a dozen Italian dialects surrounded Thomas as he gripped his suitcase tightly in one hand, studied the slip of paper where Lord Beverly had written the address of the hotel where he would be staying in his other hand, and pushed forward. “Ehi, signore! Ho un centesimo?” a ragged child with a dirty face and a bright smile shouted at Thomas as he reached the corner and glanced around for street signs. Self-consciousness rushed through Thomas. He’d been in Italy with his family for weeks now, and still, he barely understood a word of Italian. But there was no mistaking the way the waif and half a dozen of his friends suddenly rushed toward him, their hands held out. “No,” Thomas said, inching away from the boys. “I’m sorry, I don’t have anything.” That wasn’t technically true. As the second son of the late Duke of Addlebury and the younger brother of the current duke, he had quite a bit. More than the simple but elegant suit he wore let on. He was an earl in his own right, with two estates in England to provide income. But money, like respect, was one of those things that had always slipped through Thomas’s fingers the moment he had any of it. Which was why Lord Beverly was a fool for entrusting him with a mission as important as locating his brother, Asher McGovern, and rescuing him from the criminals who had taken him hostage just days ago in Venice.

Lord Beverly had stayed behind in Venice for a few days, supposedly to organize the rest of the vast and unruly McGovern clan, but in truth, all that activity was a smokescreen to the true rescue efforts, which were Thomas’s responsibility. “Prego signore! Attendere prego!” the boys called after Thomas as he crossed the street and continued on his way. They kept their hands out and trailed him like he was their last chance for a meal before they would expire—which was blatantly untrue, considering how pink and healthy most of them looked. Thomas did his best to ignore them, but he could understand the desperation they must have felt. During the train ride from Venice to Rome, all he could think about was how mad Lord Beverly was to entrust him with such a vital mission. He’d never been to Rome before, and without speaking the language, he would have as much luck looking for Asher as the urchins trailing him were having begging for a few coins. The way the boys hounded him had Thomas wondering if he would end up going to the address the dark lady had left for them all at the masquerade ball in Venice to hound whoever lived there for his brother’s release. He paused at another street corner, searching once again for street signs that would point him to his hotel. Or the address where they were supposed to meet the dark lady to give her the ransom that had been demanded for Asher’s safe return. The preset time for that hand-off was only a few days away, and while Thomas didn’t believe any more than Lord Beverly did that the dark lady and the man she was working for—a mysterious man called The Jackal—would actually hand Asher over, chances were at least some of The Jackal’s agents would be at the hand-off spot at the appointed time.

Thomas’s mission was to rescue Asher before that time, though. He puffed out a breath and turned in a circle, still no idea where he was. “Mi scusi, signore, posso avere un soldo?” a particularly pathetic little boy from the pack asked Thomas, tugging at his shirtsleeve as he did. The lad’s eyes were as big as saucers, which went straight to Thomas’s heart. Something about the lad gave Thomas an idea. “Do you know where the Garibaldi Hotel is?” he asked the lad. The boy’s eyes lit up. “Sì, so dov’è! Come! Come!” Thomas was surprised that the lad knew a bit of English. He grabbed Thomas’s sleeve and wouldn’t let go as they started down the busy thoroughfare near the train station. The other boys called after the lad, as if he had won some contest.

The boy laughed merrily and turned to stick his tongue out at the others. The whole thing would have been a delightful show, if Thomas hadn’t felt utterly incompetent as a boy who couldn’t have been more than eight led him through the winding streets of Rome to the grand Garibaldi Hotel. He couldn’t even find his way to a hotel without help. How was he supposed to locate and rescue Asher? Only days ago, Thomas had learned that his brother was more than just the new Duke of Addlebury, he was a spy in Her Majesty’s Secret Service. According to the little Lord Beverly had told Thomas and his cousin, Lord Trent McGovern, Asher was part of a mission to keep a band of criminals from robbing a newly-discovered archeology site in Egypt that was reportedly a treasure trove just waiting to be uncovered. Not only would the antiquities there be worth a fortune, the site was important for maintaining healthy relations between the crown and the government of Egypt. It all seemed abstract to Thomas—except the idea of ancient treasures—but it didn’t matter what he thought, now that Asher was The Jackal’s prisoner. The most confusing aspect of the mission Lord Beverly had given him was to locate a fellow agent of the crown in Rome—someone Lord Beverly had called the English Columbine. Thomas didn’t have the first clue what that meant. All he knew was that a columbine was a type of flower.

Was he supposed to be looking for an Englishman wearing a sprig of columbine in his lapel? He was relieved when the urchin led him around a corner and the grand site of the Garibaldi Hotel loomed before him, splashed with the light of the setting sun. “Thank God,” he sighed, picking up his pace. “Thank you,” he told the lad, who didn’t seem to have any intention of leaving him. At least, not until they reached the hotel’s door and Thomas retrieved his wallet from his jacket. The lad’s eyes went wide as Thomas pulled out a bill. He had no idea what denomination the bill was, but considering how lost he had been, the boy deserved every penny of it. “Grazie, signore!” the boy gasped, clutching the bill to his chest. He turned and bolted down the street as if Thomas would realize he’d overpaid and demand his money back. The hotel’s doorman laughed and shook his head as he opened the door, but Thomas didn’t care. At last, he knew where he was, and with any luck, he could figure out all of the disjointed pieces of his mission and rescue Asher before it was too late.

“Reservation for McGovern,” he told the concierge at the hotel’s front desk with a sigh. Perhaps, before he rushed off into the city playing spy, he could get a bath and a good night’s rest. “Ah, yes. Lord Landry,” the concierge said with a smile. “We’ve been expecting you.” He nodded, then stepped away, into a back room. The hair on the back of Thomas’s neck stood up. The concierge knew exactly who he was, even though Lord Beverly said he’d put the reservation under “Thomas McGovern”. That could only mean that the man was in on whatever mystery Asher had been sucked into. Thomas couldn’t decide if that was a good thing.

When the concierge returned from the back room, he presented Thomas with a key and a sealed letter. “I trust you will enjoy your stay with us,” he said. “If there’s anything you need, please let us know.” Thomas nodded distractedly to the man, turning the envelope over with a frown. It had no markings other than the initials “TM” printed in the upper left-hand corner. Curiosity got the better of him, and he set the room key on the desk, then opened the letter. He leaned against the desk as he took the contents out and read. “Thomas,” the letter began. “If you are reading this, I trust you have made it safely to Rome. There is no need to tell you that time is of the essence.

Below is a list of known hideouts for The Jackal’s gang. While we cannot know if your brother is being held at any of them, investigating each one is the best place to start.” Thomas glanced down the page to a list of six addresses. His heart sank. If he couldn’t even find his way to the hotel from the train station, how was he supposed to investigate six random locations in Rome? He read on. “Your ally in Rome will contact you soon and provide you with an alibi to be in the city. I trust you will be able to play your part expertly.” That was it. Other than the initials “MC”—which Thomas was reasonably certain stood for “Matthew Clarence”, Lord Beverly’s given name, the letter said nothing else. Thomas read it a second time, then folded it with an irritated sigh and stuffed it back in its envelope.

Lord Beverly probably thought he was being helpful, but Thomas had no more of a clue what he was doing than he had when he stepped off the train. “You look like a gentleman who could use a word or two of comfort.” Thomas jerked his head up at the soft, seductive voice. He blinked as his eyes met those of the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen. She had a perfectly oval face, flawless skin, and thick, sable hair. She stared up at him with unflinching, blue eyes that danced with mischief. That look shot straight to his heart, and lower. “Hello,” he said, standing straighter—though given the reaction of his cock, that might not have been the wisest thing to do. He could only assume that the woman was a professional who made her way greeting exhausted men as they arrived at the hotel. But no, she was dressed too fashionably to be a prostitute.

There was too much life and health in her eyes. And a place like the Garibaldi Hotel certainly wouldn’t let a working woman loiter in their lobby. “I’m sorry,” he said, blinking fast and trying to recover from the obvious interest he’d thrown her way. Whoever she was, she didn’t deserve a randy traveler ogling her. “Have we met?” It was a poor excuse for a conversation starter, but it would give a decent woman the out she needed to excuse approaching a strange man in a hotel lobby. “No,” she laughed, looking even more fetching, if that were possible. “It’s just that I overheard you speaking English to the concierge. And while Englishmen are a dime a dozen in Italy these days, I always make a point of introducing myself to my fellow countrymen, especially when they seem as lost as you do.” Only then did Thomas realize the woman was English. He must have been tired if he was letting details like that slip past him.

“Please forgive me,” he said, offering his hand. “Thomas McGovern, Lord Landry, at your service.” “Oh?” The woman’s face lit up with amusement. “A lord. How delightful.” Her smile grew, doing wicked things to Thomas’s insides. “Miss Violetta Roan,” she said, shaking his hand. “Miss Roan.” Thomas nodded respectfully to her, even though his thoughts were as far from respectful as could be. Especially when his gaze dropped to her ample and expertly displayed breasts.

The woman might not have been a prostitute, but she was aware of herself in the most tempting way. “It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance.” “Likewise, Lord Landry.” She let his hand go, but continued to stand close, grinning up at him with her dazzling eyes. “What brings you to Rome, my lord?” “I—” Thomas scrambled for an explanation. Lord Beverly’s letter hinted that his ally in Rome—whoever the hell that was—would provide him with an alibi. That ally needed to make himself known as quickly as possible. He was terrible at subterfuge. “Sight-seeing,” he blurted at last, feeling his face go red-hot. “How fun,” she said, looking genuinely pleased.

“You must see all of the standard sites, of course. The ruins of Rome are truly awe-inspiring, even though some of them need quite a bit of care to be restored to their former glory. If you find yourself in need of a companion to see the sites, I would be happy to show you around.” Thomas’s blood raced to all the most inappropriate places as she looked him up and down. Perhaps she was a professional after all. “Are you holidaying as well?” he asked. She laughed. It was the most beautiful sound he’d ever heard, like treacle being poured over rich ginger cake. “I live here, my lord,” she said, glancing up at him through her lashes as if making carnal suggestions. “I have for quite some time.

” It was everything Thomas could do to stop himself from asking if she’d start showing him around by escorting him up to his room. He’d wasted the better part of his twenties so far inviting ladies far less intriguing to do the same. Miss Roan topped them all in beauty and poise, and he could barely resist slipping back into his old ways. “Then you would make the very best tour guide I could find.” He inched closer to her, flickering one eyebrow and giving her a frank and appreciative stare. Any woman who was game for a good time would know exactly what he truly wanted from her. He practically held his breath as he waited for her answer to his unspoken question. She laughed again, warmer and even more alluring than before. “I think we will be good friends, Lord Landry.” She stepped forward to adjust his tie, resting her hands on his lapels for a moment before backing away.

“Very good friends indeed.” Thomas could only stand there and gape at her, his trousers so tight that he wasn’t sure he’d be able to walk normally, as she turned and sashayed away. She sent him one final look over her shoulder before bursting into the most charming smile he’d ever seen as she swept out the door. Thomas sucked in a breath and grabbed his key from the desk. He needed to get to his room as quickly as possible so that he could relieve the tension she’d sparked in him while imagining how delicious it would be to undress the woman. He was stopped from running to the nearby elevator by the concierge’s laughter. “Is something wrong?” Thomas asked. “Only that Singorina Roan seems to have taken a fancy to you,” the concierge said. Thomas frowned at the door, then at the concierge. “Do you know her?” “Know her?” The man laughed harder.

“My lord, Signorina Roan is very famous here in Rome. She is an actress.” Thomas’s brow shot up. Once again, he stared at the door, as if Miss Roan would sweep back through for a curtain call. A smile spread across his face. “Do you know what theater she’s performing in right now? Perhaps I could secure tickets to her latest show.” The concierge shook his head with a chuckle. “She does not perform in a theater, my lord. She is one of Rome’s best commedia dell’arte performers.” Thomas turned toward the concierge, confused.

“I thought commedia dell’arte was Venetian,” he said. “And that it died out a hundred years ago.” “True, true.” The concierge nodded, ceding the point. “But with all the tourists passing through Rome these days, particularly British tourists, such as yourself, there is a troupe that has revived it. They give performances in English. Though if you ask me, the great Signora Violante and her compagnie must be rolling over in their graves to know of it.” Thomas could only assume the man was talking about a great commedia dell’arte troupe of the past. “No,” the concierge sighed as he went on, staring at the door the same way Thomas was, “Signorina Roan and her compangie have become quite famous. They say that Signorina Roan is the best Colombina to grace the stages of the plazas of Rome since Caterina Biancolelli herself.

They say she has the grace and humor of a goddess, in spite of being English.” Thomas jerked to full attention, his mouth dropping open. “Did you say Columbine?” “Eh, Columbine, Colombina.” The concierge shrugged in true Italian fashion. “It is all the same, no?” Thomas’s heart raced. He took a few steps toward the door before coming to his senses. Miss Roan was likely long gone by now. But the concierge had confirmed the impossible for him in a way that nearly made Thomas laugh. Miss Violetta Roan was the English Columbine. His ally in Rome had already made contact with him.


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