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Feeling cooped up in her apartment, Ariel went to Villa Ada for a run. The municipal park was located a few streets over from her building complex in Trieste Neighborhood, and it was her favorite spot when she needed to blowing off steam.
Two hours later, sweat drenched her cotton shirt, and her legs screamed, but she didn’t slow her pace. Instead, she punished her body because she couldn’t shut her mind. Her shoes thumped rhythmically against the gravel paths as she stared ahead at the never-ending shrubbery edges and pine trees bordering the trails. Hydrangeas were still in bloom, forming a colorful, pleasant contrast against the various shades of green reigning over the landscape. Nobody was around. She liked it that way and usually took the less frequented trails in the park to be alone with her thoughts.
But she was never alone for long. A runner passed her. Ariel wouldn’t have noticed the man if it weren’t for the fact that he didn’t wear running clothes. Taller than her by several centimeters–and she was tall—the dark-haired man wore the distinctive leather jacket with the red R of the Reds; the bikers’ gang that ruled over Rome’s lowlife, and that now threatened Ariel’s life. Her already fast heartrate sped to a million beats per second. She turned in the opposite direction and started running, trying to reach a more crowded portion of the park.
Heavy steps approached. A large hand closed around her elbow before she could clear the corner. Only a few steps ahead, the path joined a larger area that hosted one of the gazebos disseminated throughout Villa Ada. She could hear voices coming from the structure.
A second hand clamped over mouth, silencing her scream for help.
“Shut up, bitch,” a coarse voice commanded her.
A moment later, the man pushed her against an oak tree; its trunk was large enough to cover her and her assailant. The man flattened her face against the rough bark, then pressed his body against her back.
“Tancredi wants to be sure that you remember the terms of your agreement,” the man said.
The flat edge of a knife caressed Ariel’s cheek. She started shaking. The man laughed.
“I still have a week to deliver the money,” she said, trying to still her trembling.
Ariel was used to danger; in her line of work—in her former line of work—she had dealt with hazardous situations, but violent threats had been minimal.
“That’s right, and don’t forget that we have people in prison too, in case you think that coming clean with the police is an option,” her attacker said, shoving her to the ground.
Her already sad life had become a nightmare, in which she would be forever paying for the sins of her deceased father.
Atreides loved visiting Santa Marinella because of its quaint small-city-by-the-sea vibe. Sitting on the rocky cliff, he breathed in the salty breeze wafting over and basked in the sight of the lights reflecting in the harbor.
The thrum of basses coming from the open-air discos disseminated along the ragged coast resonated through the night. A full Moon illuminated the severe structure of the castle overlooking the small port. Lazy waves cradled the boats anchored at the marina. A sweet smell of jasmine filled the air.
Closing his eyes, Atreides felt the Tide calling him back into the warm waters of the Mediterranean Sea.
He stood and walked toward the water’s edge. The sole of his leather shoes skidded on the slick pebbles of the beach. Atreides inhaled the salty sprays, filling his lungs with the familiar scent that sent him back in time. When he was a child, he used to swim with the dolphins populating the coast. Pollution and global warming had changed the marine landscape, robbing the wild seabed of its rich ecosystem, but its beauty was still undeniable.
Atreides kicked one shoe off, then the other. His naked feet touched the smooth rocks that composed the bed of the beach. Foamy water lapped at his skin. One brief glance around confirmed him he was alone.
At three o’clock in the morning, no other swimmer had made his way down the path that hugged the medieval castle of Santa Marinella. It was a fortuitous coincidence Atreides had every intention to exploit. Tourists had fled the heat of Rome and took refuge in the city, but the ones who weren’t sleeping were dancing the night away. That worked just fine. Atreides felt he was too old to gyrate at the rhythm of music resembling industrial noise and had lost any familiarity with the lyrical sonatas it had stemmed from.
His suit trousers followed the way of the shoes, discarded on the rocky shore, alongside his button-down shirt, his silk tie, and suit jacket. Finally naked, Atreides raised his head and looked at the Moon. His skin tingled in anticipation as he waded into the water. Pleasure akin to sexual relief engulfed him when a solitary wave covered his loins in a liquid embrace. Salty and cold, the water reached his chest, and a soft moan escaped his lips. His latest couplings hadn’t evoked such bliss.
The pull from the Tide was impossible to ignore.
Although Atreides believed in denying pleasure to sharpen the senses, he could not postpone his shifting any longer. Under the blanket of the dark waters, his legs were already changing, leaving behind his human effigies for a more elegant shape. An iridescent tail formed where his feet had been a moment earlier. Atreides waited for the protective film to cover his eyes and for the gills to open on his throat, then slowly submerged his head under the surface and gulped a mouthful of water. Mediterranean saltiness replaced the air in his lungs. A set of fins protruded from both sides of his torso. The change was almost complete. He commanded his tail to push against the incoming wave, his head bobbing above the surface as he gave one last look at the marina.
The sound of steps started Atreides, forcing him to turn and face the dark walls of the castle.
“Who’s there?” he called, forcing his tail down into the water.
Nobody answered, but a shadow moved along the stony structure, right at the corner where the only restaurant in the port was. A zealous waiter who had remained to clean past the business hours?
Atreides swore under his breath. He was sure whoever was prowling the castle’s grounds could not have seen anything, but it would have been beyond stupid not to double check.
The shadow jumped down from the parapet above the restaurant and flattened against the wall closest to its entrance. Not a waiter. Over the wooden doors, a striped awning provided a safe recess for the mysterious wanderer. Whoever it was, the intruder had just ruined the night for Atreides. With another curse, he shifted back into full human form and emerged from the waters.
He dragged his feet back to the shore as he tried to cool down. His body always ran hot, but shifting back and forth burned energy. In addition to feeling like he had a fever, his stomach reminded him he hadn’t eaten anything for dinner. Thinking of it, he might have skipped lunch as well. The former day was a blur. Before the full Moon, his creative juices flowed freely, and he painted until the ideas in his mind took form on the canvas.
“Who’s there?” he repeated his question as he strode toward the dark corner from where the feeble sound had come.
“You are naked,” a feminine voice uttered, stirring the alpha in him to act.
Ariel pressed her hand over her mouth. She shook and couldn’t convince her body to relax. It felt like being trapped in a vivid dream, and yet there was a familiarity about the whole situation that left her perplexed.
The most handsome man she had ever seen was walking toward her, and he didn’t wear a stitch over his perfect body. Even as she flattened against the wooden panel of the restaurant’s door, she couldn’t peel her eyes from his chiseled abs and powerful thighs. The stranger was smoking hot. Literally. Steam emanated from his wet skin. She couldn’t help but notice the thatch of dark curls between his legs.
The two or three neurons left in her addled brain screamed for Ariel to run away. After all, as a runner who trained every day, she was fast on her feet. Given the distance between them, she would have rounded the castle’s corner before he would reach her.
“Move, Ariel,” she whispered. “What are you doing?”
This man is no thug. It’s just a coincidence he’s here. Naked. Because he went for a swim and didn’t have his swimsuit. He’s harmless. Well, he could do some serious harm with that thing between his legs. For the love of all that’s holy, what am I thinking? Gods, it’s big—
“Are you okay?” the man asked. His voice was deep and gentle, and it carried a hint of worry.
She didn’t answer. “Move,” she repeated to herself. Yet, she didn’t even attempt to raise one foot.
“Do you always talk to yourself?” The naked sculpture laughed, and he had the most beautiful laugh.
The silvery sound solicited the strangest reaction in Ariel. Her body warmed up, and she closed her legs as she gasped again.
Why am I not scared? He’s no thug, though. Yes, but he’s probably a pervert. A flasher. It’s not his fault if he’s sick that way. Although, he could be paid to strip. Maybe he’s an exotic dancer. He must be used to walking around with that monstrosity dangling like that. Stop looking at it. Am I going daft? I must be.
“Have I frightened you?” the man gently asked.
The more she listened to his voice, the more she felt ensnared in its musicality. Although her ongoing inner monologue made her doubt her sanity, Ariel was usually a good judge of character. She had learned how to be one early in life. “No,” she muttered low.
“Good.” He smiled.
“Good?” she asked, confusion further mucking up her ability to think.
“Have we met before?” he asked, frowning.
“I—” I am sure I would remember if we’d met. It doesn’t happen every day to witness perfection on earth. Even with that thing between his legs, I would still think about it. Think about what? You can’t be thinking about that. Now is not the time. Am I talking out loud?
The man stepped forward, coming close to her. He didn’t stop at a polite distance but kept walking until Ariel could see the light-brown freckles on his shoulders. After her encounter with the biker earlier today, she should have been frightened. But not only she wasn’t scared, the sensation building up deep inside her was thrilling and liberating, filling her with want; a sentiment she hadn’t experienced in a long time and that made her feel alive.
Then he was touching her, leaning closer as his arms snuck around her back, then traveled up to her neck where he tangled his hands in her long hair, his fingers pressing against her skull, pulling her face up to meet his stare. Big, aquamarine eyes studied her.
What is happening? Are those contact lenses he’s wearing? Shouldn’t I be kicking him in the nuts? But as she was asking herself those questions, the stranger’s mouth descended on hers, and she lost all sense of reasoning and propriety.
He pushed his tongue against the barrier of her closed lips, and Ariel wantonly parted them, welcoming his invasion with a deep moan that originated in her throat. One of his hands kept her head in place, but the other seemed to be everywhere at once. The stranger splayed his fingers on the small of her back and pushed her against him so that they were flush, pressing his considerable hardness against her belly. Ariel’s body acted by its own volition, rubbing against the stranger, who grunted his appreciation. At the deep, male sound, Ariel finally regained part of her senses, and with a display of will she thought she had lost, she pressed her hands on the naked god’s sculpted chest and shoved him away.
Whoever that Greek divinity was, Ariel couldn’t let a moment of insanity ruin her plans. Even if the attraction she felt for the stranger was electrifying and delicious, and so, so unbearably naughty—something she had only read in her romance novels.
Gathering her wits, she sprinted toward the path hugging the castle walls and leading to the beach. There was enough shadow to cover her hasty retreat, and she refused to look back, but kept running until she reached the end of the path. Instead of descending toward the shore, she hiked the rocky formation that cut the beach in two, creating the intimate cove usually frequented by young lovers. Fortunately, nobody was bathing in the shallow waters. Ariel climbed the rock wall, then vaulted over the fence of one of the villas that shared that portion of the maritime coast with Odescalchi Castle.
Pumping her legs as if her life depended on it, Ariel cleared the villa’s garden, then jumped over the gate and kept running through the cobblestone road that bordered the most prestigious villas in Santa Marinella. She passed the parish church and didn’t stop until Piazza Civitavecchia came into sight. Less than an hour ago, she had parked her Ducati in the small piazza with the centennial Mediterranean pine trees. Her Sleeping Beauty was where she had left her, and Ariel sighed in relief. It would have been just her luck—or the most ironic twist of fate—if someone had stolen her bike while she was doing some thieving of her own.
Pressing her hand against her leather jacket, Ariel made sure she hadn’t lost her precious cargo while she was mad dashing through Santa Marinella. Then she mounted Sleeping Beauty and let the engine roar loud into the night.
The thrill she felt as she sped through the Aurelian Way had nothing to do with a job well done, but with the memory of a kiss that would last her a lifetime…
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