Chapter 1

"Alba, hurry up. I will not wait for you." grumbled my sister as she strutted up the road ahead of me. I glared and shifted the heavy pack weighing on my shoulders. "Perhaps if you shared the load, I could walk faster." I said, my voice breathy from strain. She waved a manicured hand. "Nonsense! I go to meet my future husband! What will he think if I am sweaty or dirty?" My eyes narrowed and shot daggers into the back of my elder sister's head. She had been as usual, the root of all my problems on our journey from the small town we called home to our destination, the magnificent Roma.

"You know, Carmina," I called scathingly. "I would not have had to carry this in the first place if you had not sold our donkey!" She spun on me, angry. "You did not expect me to wear mother's hand-me-down wedding clothes did you? They're hardly flattering, and besides, they smell like straw. The ones I bought are so much more suitable, I needed them!" Her wide pale eyes flashed furiously at me and her upper lip twitched with contempt. "Sometimes you truly are simple Alba." With that she spun, her curls bouncing flawlessly across her shoulders. "Fannullona." I muttered under my breath, fixing the pack across my shoulders and proceeding to struggle up the hill after her.

It was a little after midday when we reached the outskirts of Roma. Carmina, unsurprisingly, showed no sign of the seven day journey, made longer by the lack of a donkey, we had just completed. I on the other hand appeared every inch the weary traveler. A guard stopped us as we wandered into the city, asking us what business we had in the city but truly only interested in talking to Carmina.

Carmina was indeed beautiful. Her hair was a very light brown, like the color of honey, and straight but she curled it to give it an attractive flip. Her large eyes, framed by thick, long lashes, were an even paler shade. Her build itself was extremely petite, but buxom with pixie-like features and a full, pouting, seductive mouth. The guard, clad in armor that nearly blinded me, leaned against a stone wall, eyeing her like a cat does a fish, twisting his scraggly mustache between two fingers.

"Ciao Signorinas." He said, but he only had eyes for Carmina. "What brings you to Roma?" Carmina blushed with false modesty and shifted a little so her dress revealed a little more cleavage. "We are visiting the Bianchetti family. Do you know them?" His eyes grew greedier the more skin she revealed and I began to get a little nervous. "Now what would a beautiful woman such as yourself want with the Bianchettis, Signorina-?" "De Luca." Carmina filled in, fluttering her eyelashes. "She's getting married." I said with a little steel to my tone while simultaneously taking Carmina's arm. She glared at me and the soldier frowned a little before chuckling.

"Ah, the babysitter speaks up at last." I met his gaze unwaveringly and the man backed down; intimidated. "Very well then, Signorina De Luca, Signorina." He stood to the side to let us pass. I nodded and then paused. "Signore, do you by chance know where the Casa de Bianchetti is?" "It is by the church." He said winking at Carmina. "It cannot be missed." "Grazie." I said, quickly pulling Carmina away, into the crowd. As soon as she was able Carmina yanked away from me, spinning and glaring.

"How dare you-" she began, but I cut her off. "Carmina, if you intend to be disloyal before you're even married that's your choice. That said: Not. On. My. Time." I bit out the last words threateningly, my eyes boring into hers. "Guastafesta!" she hissed at me and, for a moment, I thought she would spit. Sighing I spun on my heel and began to walk. The streets were large and crammed with people and vendors. Guards were common enough, marching around in tight formations with their highly polished armor. We came upon a large square of sorts in which a market was taking place. As a girl completely unused to big cities I found myself quickly lost and Carmina, as a girl completely unused to not being the center of attention, wandered off to god knows where to flirt.

Agitated, I spun in a circle, my dark hair tossing wildly. "Carmina!" I yelled, earning a few annoyed looks but no response. "Porca miseria." I cursed in frustration. Suddenly exhausted I located a bench in the shade and trudge over to it. Carelessly I tossed my bag on the bench and sank down beside it, allowing my eyes to close for a little while. A voice broke my peace.

"Signorina?" My eyes flew open to find the source of the disturbance. Confused to find the street in front of me empty, I swiveled my head to the left and found myself face to face with a man. He smiled a little, the skin around his eyes crinkling. "Ciao." I stared at him for a few seconds, too stunned to speak, until my brain slowly registered my pack resting heavily on the man's lap. I hadn't notice him and then I had dumped an extremely heavy bag on the stranger's coglioni.

With a small shriek I leapt to my feet and freed him from the immense weight of the bag. "Scusi! Oh, scusi, Signore!" I blurted quickly before the weight of the pack forced me backward and I fell flat on my back with an audible thud. I groaned in pain, and then groaned again when I thought of the bruises I would have in the morning. My eyes closed and blood rushed to my face as I lay there, embarrassment filling my entire being. To my surprise in only a moment the bag was lifted off of me and a large, warm hand had taken my own and pulled me to my feet.

"Are you alright?" the man asked, concerned. "S-si Signore. Grazie." Turning me around, he brushed off my back and shoulders. "That was quite a fall." I nodded, blushing even more. "The bag is a little heavy for me." I conceded. Then I blushed again. "I'm so sorry for earlier. I wasn't paying attention, I didn't see-" Again he laughed, a husky sound, and shook his head. "No harm Signorina. It keeps a man on his toes to have things thrown at him." I blinked. "So you have things thrown at you often then, do you?" His full lips split into a wide, friendly, white-toothed grin. "You could say that."

The man's intense, dark gaze scanned my face and his brow crinkled a little. "You look exhausted Signorina, please have a seat." I allowed him to support me back to the bench where he sat close enough that our thighs brushed, my bag resting between his leather boots. "What are you called, Signorina, if I may ask?" He was so near my nose was filled with the rich scent of his cologne. "Alba, Alba de Luca. And you Signore?"

"Ezio Auditore de Firenze. It is pleasure to make your acquaintance, Signorina Alba." I smiled a little in spite of myself, he certainly was charming. "As it is yours Signore Auditore." We drifted into comfortable silence which gave me a moment to study my companion. I estimated him to be at least ten years my elder, putting him in his early thirties. He was handsome with creamy coffee colored skin marked only by a small scar on the right side of his upper lip. His dark facial hair was extremely neat as a result of a recent trim and his eyebrows, while not plucked, arched evenly in sleek, black strokes. My gaze flitted to his eyes, a deep green so dark they appeared black. He had very pretty eyes.

His attention returned abruptly to me and I quickly looked away, blushing. He grinned again and patted my bag. "Well then, what exactly brings you to Roma, Signorina Alba?" "A wedding." I answered simply, attempting to calm down. He frowned a little. "Not yours I hope." My cheeks grew redder. "No Signore, my sister's." The mention of Carmina brought back all of my stress from before and my tentative smile was wiped clean off of my face. "What's wrong?" he asked.

"My sister." I answered tersely, anger flavoring my tone. "Do you wish to talk?" He asked. It was clear he wanted to listen. "Carmina, she's so…. infuriating." I said after a while, attempting unsuccessfully to keep my temper in check. "Ever since we were was little she has gotten everything she's wanted because she's manipulative and pretty but she's only about as useful as a pile of rocks, lazy as she is, and she always treats me like I'm as dumb as one." I glanced back at Ezio whose face revealed nothing but attentiveness.

"She harassed Papi until he agreed to find her a fiancée in a big city so she could satisfy her stupid pride and then got upset when he was only the son of a restaurant owner, but by then she was engaged. Papi has to work, as do my brothers, because it's harvest time and Ami is much too frail to travel so I ended up stuck as her escort, and the entire trip all she did was complain. Oh! And then without consulting me she sold the donkey just so she could buy wedding clothes, when she already had Mami's, so I ended up having to carry that stupid pack all by myself for miles, and now were in the city, days late, supposed to go meet her betrothed's family and I have absolutely no idea where she is!"

Tirade complete I felt relieved but fatigued. My bones and muscles ached, I felt dirty, and my only consolation was that an attractive stranger found my misery entertaining. "That is… difficult." said Ezio after a while. I nodded glumly and sighed, straightening my simple blue linen dress, worn grayish over time. "How long has your sister been missing Signorina?" I frowned. "A little under an hour, why?" He chose his words carefully. "Well, in a city like Roma, there's a chance, and a good chance, she didn't wander off of her own free will."

My blood froze to ice in my veins and genuine panic flashed through me. "Dios mia, no!" I gasped, standing abruptly. I scanned the crowd desperately and would have gone tearing off after Carmina if Ezio had not placed a hand on my shoulder. "Calm. You are new to this city and would only be gobbled up as fast as she was. Describe her for me. I will find her for you." I nearly cried at his generosity. Quickly I told him of her hair, her eyes, her smallness, her beauty. He absorbed every detail and then set me back down on the bench. "Rest, Alba de Luca. I will find your sister, do not worry." He turned to go, his warm hand pulling from mine, his strong back facing me.

"Grazie Signore." I said softly. Amazingly he heard me and offered me a parting smile before he disappeared off into the crowd. Nervous but fatigued I fiddled idly with the strap of the pack, fighting not to cry. This was a disaster. How did I know Ezio was trustworthy? He could just want to have a good time with Carmina like everyone else. A single tear rolled down my face before I brushed it roughly away. Everything would be fine, it had to be.

My relief was immense when I saw Ezio's tall figure approaching from across the market. I stood to greet him and took in the flailing form of my sister, who was being carried over his shoulder. "Get your filthy hands off of me, Bastardo!" she shrieked, beating him with her tiny manicured hands. I was mortified. "Stop it Carmina! Basta!" She glanced up sharply at the sound of my voice and her mouth twisted into a sneer. "So you're behind this are you? How dare you! I am my own woman, and you my stupid little sister! You have no right to dictate what I do! I-"

My anger boiled over and I wanted to scream at her until my face was a red as Carmina's dress. I imagined how Carmina's pale eyes would widen in shock as if I had slapped her, gleaning pure satisfaction from the image but maintaining composure. "Calm, Carmina. The sooner we meet your fiancée the sooner you can try out those new cosmetics you bought." She blinked rapidly, startled that I had noticed her secret purchase, but pleased with the idea of making her beautiful face even more beautiful.

Ezio, who was still holding her, raised his eyebrows at me over her head, the set of his mouth telling me he had been exposed to the full extent of Carmina's shallow nature. With that he dumped Carmina, who landed with a thud, too stunned to speak. "It was as you said, I found her in a tavern flirting with some guards. She was quite reluctant to leave." I blushed, embarrassed with the knowledge that her reluctance had probably manifested in some sort of obnoxious spectacle. "Grazie, Signore Auditore. I am in your debt, but now we must hurry. Carmina's fiancée is expecting us."

He nodded instantly. "Of course Signorina." But rather than leave he hovered, as if reluctant to do so. "Come Carmina." I said, taking her hand in my own and firmly pulling her towards the crowd. "Alba!" Ezio called abruptly. "With whom will you be staying?" I stopped and turned. "de Familia Bianchetti, Signore." His eyes lit up a little. "Ah, Restaurante Bianchetti, I know the place well. Perhaps we will meet again Signorina." My body felt suddenly warm. "Perhaps Signore Auditore. Arrivederci!" He raised a hand and then disappeared into the masses of people.

I quickly asked a vendor for directions and set off in the direction of the church in question, which turned out to be Santa Maria Maggiore. Carmina was still sulking and dragged her heels every inch of the way, making my task all the more difficult. She only let up when the restaurant was in sight, and then she walked faster than me, as if it was she who had been the one leading the way. Restaurante Bianchetti was breathtaking. The name was displayed in bold, golden letters on a mahogany plaque hanging above the doorway, which was wide enough for three men of Ezio's size to pass through comfortably. Outside dozens of small wire tables and chairs were scattered, most of them occupied, and the pleasant sound of chatter filled the air.

I glanced through the wide glass windows, covered over with iron latticework, and saw through the warped surface an equally crowded room. There was no doubt, then, that the Bianchettis were wealthy, much more so than I had imagined.