Clarke woke with a groan. The grey sky barely illuminated her room, but the birds were already greeting the morning with zeal. She swung her feet over the edge of the low bed, narrowly missing a towel covered in damp brushes, and stepped across the room to the open window.
It only took one step. If she were feeling generous, she would describe her apartment here in Rome as cramped. Three other graduate students shared the tiny living room, two-burner stove, and stall shower, but it was hard to complain about the amenities when they were getting funded to work in one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Clarke was resting against the window frame, enjoying the almost-cool breeze despite the riotous birds, when she heard a tinny buzz echo through the apartment. She hesitated, hoping that Raven or Monty might be awake to get it— Jasper was a lost cause in the mornings— but it sounded again. More angrily, if possible.
Sighing, Clarke slipped her toes through the plastic flip-flops she wore around the apartment and padded down the stairs to the street. It was probably some mistaken Italian. Even Clarke’s phone alarm, set out of habit despite the enthusiastic birds, had yet to go off.
As she neared the bottom of the stairs, bumping her elbows on the narrow walls, the doorbell began to buzz again, but this time it didn’t stop. Clarke changed her mind. Anyone this rude had to be an American.
Propelled by her annoyance, she nearly fell out the door into the tall man leaning on the buzzer for her apartment. He pulled away from the wall to put his hands on his hips. “Clarke Griffin?”
His gaze swept down her body to her flimsy shoes and he frowned. “I know you’re just an art student, but is that really what you consider appropriate to wear for a dig?”
Clarke glanced down at her white tank and Van Gogh boxers just as she remembered checking her email the night before. “You’re the archaeologist Professor Kane emailed me about? Blake?”
She couldn’t miss his patronizing tone, nor the scornful wrinkle between his brows. Matching his posture, she tilted her head up to look directly into his dark eyes. “First of all, I’m a summer fellow in art and restoration with the American Academy, not just some art student. Second of all…”
“I told you in my email my team and I would pick you up ten minutes ago.” He crossed his arms, muscles pulling at the sleeves of his dusty tee shirt. “Kane said you were looking for experience with ancient frescos in situ. Can you do this, or do we need to find someone else?”
Maybe you could start by finding some manners, Clarke almost retorted, but she bit her tongue. Opportunities to help excavate ancient interiors were hardly common, and the findings her advisor had described in his email sounded promising. She took a deep breath and forced a tight smile.
“There’s a café around the corner two blocks down. Why don’t you get a cappuccino there with your team, and I’ll meet you as soon as I’m ready?”
“Fine,” he grunted, already retreating to the muddy silver car idling by the curb.
It was going to be a long day.
Dressed in running shoes and a pair of Raven’s hiking pants, cuffed twice, Clarke slipped inside the café twenty minutes later. Bellamy stood at the counter with two other men in dusty, faded clothes. He pushed a white mug and saucer in her direction.
“Hurry up, princess.”
Clarke had been about to accept the steaming beverage when his comment stopped her short. “Excuse me?”
He crossed his arms again. If she weren’t so annoyed, she might have been impressed. The man knew how to use his physicality. “You heard me. You’ve already kept us waiting on you twice.”
She glanced between the other members of his team. The shorter one sipped slowly on an espresso, eyes half closed in sleep or boredom. The other man slouched against the counter and scratched at the short stubble that covered his skull. Neither seemed in any hurry to get started, so she didn’t feel the least bit guilty about edging past their unbearable colleague to order a cornetto for the road.
Clarke introduced herself when she returned, cradling her sweet pastry in a napkin. Miller offered a firm handshake, while Murphy, eyes still hooded, merely grunted his name. Bellamy practically dragged her out the door as soon as she finished her cappuccino. To her surprise, he let Murphy take the wheel.
“Our fearless leader lets you two chauffeur him around?” she remarked to Miller, sitting beside her.
Murphy answered, his voice flat. “Bellamy has been banned from driving in Italy by two rental companies, our university department, and his younger sister.”
“What did you do? Hit a Vespa?” From Miller’s choked laugh, Clarke thought she wasn’t far off the mark.
Bellamy, for his part, ignored her needling. “The site is about 4 kilometers down the Appian way. When we get there, Miller and Murphy will keep working on the western wall and I’ll show you the plaster we’re about to expose.”
The rest of their drive was short and silent. Murphy parked under a Roman pine buzzing with cicadas, the heat of the morning already stirring them to song. Clarke fiddled with the hem of her tee while the men unpacked their gear from the trunk.
“Here.” Bellamy dropped a duffel at her feet and turned away, slinging his own bag over his shoulders. Clarke stumbled for a moment when she picked it up to follow him.
“Leave the heaviest bag for the new girl,” she grumbled to herself. Unfortunately, he overheard.
“So sorry, princess. Wouldn’t want you fainting on us,” he smirked, taking the bag from her and adding it to his own. He strode ahead, his broad shoulders taking on the extra load as if it were nothing.
“Asshole.” This time she hoped he could hear her.
The team was excavating the side of a low grassy mound, set back about 100 yards from the ancient road. Murphy paused to tie a dark bandana over his long hair, and Miller slipped on a beanie, but Bellamy dropped his bags and jumped straight into a long trench. Clarke followed him, ignoring the hand he belatedly put out to steady her. They hugged the outer wall of the mound structure, passing rectangular stone blocks partially uncovered by previous digging, and turned left into a narrow entrance.
“During our first season, we focused on excavating down to the tops of the walls, so we could get a feel for the layout.” Bellamy waved a hand at the intersecting lines of rock and concrete exposed at different levels throughout the complex. “This summer, we chose to focus on the foundation trench of the ashlar wall- that’s what we just passed- and clearing two of these inner rooms. Then we found this.”
He stepped down into an area of deeper excavation between two bulwarks of grey dirt. This time, Clarke accepted his proffered hand. The air here was noticeably cooler than above, and the heavy earth muffled the sounds of Miller and Murphy dragging their wheelbarrows into place. Bellamy pulled a tool with a small triangular head from his belt loop and began to scrape away some of the dirt from the flat wall facing them. Then he blew on the cleared area, revealing the discovery Professor Kane had mentioned in his email.
“It’s definitely painted plaster.” Clarke leaned forward to get a better look at the black surface, still smooth after hundreds of years. “What is this place, then? A villa?”
Bellamy shook his head. “That’s the thing. The location, the outer wall, the entire layout we’ve discovered is consistent with a burial structure. Patrician families built mounds like this in imitation of the Etruscan funeral mounds further north. But plaster is usually a sign of an inhabited space. And look-“ He touched her elbow to guide her around the far bulwark. “We’ve uncovered a section of plaster stretching down at least 6 feet. It might cover the entire wall.”
The strip of black plaster stretching down to the base of the trench didn’t look that exciting, but Bellamy’s deep voice had turned hushed and passionate. Clarke turned to find him staring at her, awaiting her reaction. She shivered. “And now we’re going to find out?”
“And now we’re going to find out.”
It was easier said than done. Archaeology turned out to be 90% the logistics of transporting dirt, 9% sweat, and 1% peering hopefully at something you’ve uncovered, only to realize it was nothing. Bellamy positioned a wheelbarrow on top of the wall and cut a step into the bulwark on his side so he could lift out buckets of excavated soil and rock. Then he presented her with a spare trowel.
“Use the point to break up any hard matter, then scrape up what you’ve loosened with the flat side,” he explained. His demonstration uncovered another four inches of plaster and sent a shower of dust onto his heavy boots. “Find anything interesting- a coin, a sherd, bone- show it to me.”
He began to work in earnest, then, so Clarke turned to her own section of the wall and hit the top edge of the dirt with her trowel. Nothing happened. She tried changing the angle of her approach, using the tip like he’d shown her, to little avail. It didn’t help that she had to stand on tiptoes to reach while Bellamy, a full head taller, worked at eye level.
After he’d filled two buckets with debris and Clarke had managed barely half of one, she growled out in frustration. “Could you help me with the top of my section?”
Bellamy broke off his steady rhythm with a grin. “Why, princess, I thought you’d never ask. Step back.”
She tried not to admire the ease with which he cleared the upper foot of the wall. Just because he was stupidly tall, and had stupidly nice muscles, and really competent hands…
He flicked away a pebble with a flourish and stepped back. “Think you can manage now?”
“Mmph.” Clarke returned to the job with renewed vigor, and for a while she kept up a respectable pace. But her annoyance with the archaeologist at her side continued to grow. Their work space only stretched about six feet across, and the longer they picked and scraped, the more often they seemed to get in each other’s way. After one particularly enthusiastic and mostly accidental elbow landed on Bellamy’s ribs, he gritted his teeth.
“Alright, lefty, if you’re going to play that way, we’re switching sides.”
Their new positions eliminated the problem of flying elbows, but didn’t diminish their contact. The confining walls of the trench created a strange sense of intimacy; Bellamy rested a steadying hand on her shoulder every time he stepped behind her to empty their buckets, and his warm breath brushed her cheek when he leaned in to inspect a section of plaster. Clarke was almost glad for the sweltering heat of the Italian summer. At least her flushed face couldn’t be mistaken for a blush.
When he noticed her struggling with an especially rocky section, Bellamy dropped his trowel and wiped his hands on the outside of his thighs. “If you hold it at more of an angle, like this, you can get better leverage with the widest part of your trowel.” He reached around and covered her left hand with his, adjusting the action of her wrist. His palm was rough from a season of digging, but his sun-browned arm was soft and slick against hers. Clarke felt a bead of sweat drip across her collarbone and down between her breasts.
“Thanks. I, uh, I think I’m going to get some more water.”
He smiled, slow and crooked. “Get more sunscreen, too. Your cheeks are looking pretty pink.”
If Miller or Murphy heard her muttering insults under her breath on the way back to the car, neither of them said a word.
They’d unveiled a section of plaster nearly three feet tall when a voice called down from beside the wheelbarrow. “I see you finally found a conservation expert. Don’t you think making her dig is pushing your luck?”
Clarke looked up into a smiling face hidden under a floppy straw hat.
“I swear you get here later and later every day,” Bellamy replied in greeting. He motioned for her to climb out of the trench. “Come on. Wick brings our lunch.”
The five of them piled into the dig’s lone trailer, breathing sigh of thanks for the window A/C unit. While Clarke scrubbed the dirt from under her fingernails, Bellamy made introductions.
“Besides acting as our lunch lady, Wick does computerized imaging and surveying for the dig. And Clarke’s here as a fellow of the Academy. Her advisor from undergrad put us in touch.”
His acknowledgement of her credentials didn’t mollify Clarke’s pride. “How long have you been looking for a conservator, exactly?”
Wick snorted. “Bellamy’s been cursing out the Italian Ministry of Culture and their conservation requirements for the past two weeks.”
“Probably due to his charming strategy of waking people up via their doorbell at the crack of dawn and insulting them.”
“It worked on you, princess,” he pointed out.
She raised an eyebrow, unimpressed, and pivoted towards the table of sandwiches and fruit. Wick followed her.
“So, what got you interested in digging out here? Besides Bellamy’s charm, of course.”
Clarke laughed. She liked the scruffy, easy-going man. “My work this summer is mostly in art conservation. I’m shadowing a man from the Vatican museum who oversees the restoration of their murals. But my own research focuses on the art of the Grand Tourists who visited Rome. I’m interested in the relationships between the Tourists, the artists that painted them, and the particular images they used to represent the artistic history of Italy.”
Wick’s eyes were beginning to glaze over. Bellamy, on the other hand, looked interested. “The eighteenth century perspective on the ancient world,” he mused as they sat around a folding table. “My mom had a book of Piranesi’s engravings of Rome. I used to spend hours looking at all the temples and tombs, memorizing the names of all the gods and goddesses. It’s what got me into archaeology.”
“Meanwhile, some of us just watched too much Indiana Jones,” Miller joked.
“Raiders of the Lost Ark," Wick sighed. “My halloween costume six years running.”
Murphy finished his sandwich and stood. “You guys are such nerds.”
“What made you decide to do archaeology?” Clarke asked.
He grabbed a bottle of water and headed for the door. “I like hitting things with a pick axe.”
Wick questioned Clarke about the other summer fellows on the way back to the work site. “I heard there’s a fellow in architecture doing amazing things with virtual modeling and digital analysis.”
“Um, that’s probably Raven,” she guessed. “To be honest, I don’t understand what she does, but it’s definitely something with computers and software.”
He laughed. “You sound like me when I talk about paintings. But seriously, I’d love to pick her brain sometime- digital archaeology is still sort of an infant field, and the more we can incorporate current technology, the better.”
“I’ll let her know she has a fan. Maybe you can come over for dinner sometime.”
Clarke noticed Bellamy watching her sideways. She held up her trowel. “Back to the trench?”
“I’m actually going to get you a brush,” he replied, digging through the duffle he’d carried for her. “Try to clean the surface of the plaster as much as you can while I help Wick take his measurements.”
Though they’d waited out the hottest part of the day inside the trailer, Clarke’s shirt was soaked through by the time Bellamy came to check on her work. He traced the thin golden lines she’d uncovered with care. “There’s definitely some ornamentation here.”
“Boscotrecase has rooms painted in a similar scheme. We’ll know more when we uncover the bottom part of the wall.”
He nodded. “I’m going to see how far I can extend that test section on the other side. That way we can make a plan before we remove any more material that’s keeping it protected.”
Clarke had to smile. At least the man knew his conservation protocols.
Her next job quickly wiped the smile off her face. “How did I get stuck on never-ending wheelbarrow duty?” she grumbled to herself, pushing another load of silt into the dumping pile. Miller and Murphy had a clear system- one picked, the other shoveled, and Clarke carried away wheelbarrows they filled. On Bellamy’s side, though, she had to hold the heavy container on an angle while he shoveled up his own debris from below.
And inevitably hit her with flying dirt. “Sorry, princess,” he called— gleefully— as another grey shower overshot the edge of the wheelbarrow and covered her arms in dust.
She let the front wheel slip further to the side, sending a generous shovelful over the edge to bury his feet. “Oops,” she countered, equally cheerful, “Looks like this one’s full!”
“Next time, I’ll empty it on your head,” she promised.
His accuracy showed remarkable improvement.