Venom, p.16

Venom, page 16

 part  #1 of  Secrets of the Eternal Rose Series



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  “Let’s go,” she said. She told herself she was excited because of the opportunity to see the artist’s studio, and not because it would give her more time with Falco.

  “Follow me.” Falco sprinted across an open area, past the front of a crumbling chapel, and Cass wobbled after him. She paused in the rain to kick off her chopines. Her feet sank an inch down into the mud and mire. So her shoes would be ruined. So what? At this rate her whole outfit would be wrecked beyond repair.

  She and Falco crossed over an unfamiliar canal and ducked into a hidden alley. The buildings were so close together, Cass could reach out and touch the smooth walls on both sides of her. They offered some protection from the rainstorm, but not enough. Her dress had been heavy when it was completely dry. Now it felt like it was made of lead.

  She struggled to stay close to Falco as he navigated the tangled streets; she was afraid that if he disappeared from her sight, she’d be lost in the maze forever. The two started across another nameless bridge. Long spikes of rain stabbed circular wounds into the surface of the murky canal beneath them. Falco paused on the bridge to consider the view. “Water on water. Beautiful,” he said.

  Cass stopped just long enough to try to see things through Falco’s eyes, the artist’s perspective, but all she saw was rain. Rain that was seeping through her dress to soak her undergarments. She put her hands on Falco’s lower back and pushed. “Keep moving.”

  Falco ducked back onto a main path and disappeared through a wooden gate that swung open and closed in the breeze. Cass followed. Beyond the gate were a small courtyard and a winding marble staircase. Falco took the stairs two at a time. At the top, a pair of garishly painted Roman columns flanked a red wooden door.

  Cass flinched at the sight of the elaborate bronze door knocker. A gargoyle, but the features looked almost human, like the shrunken head of a screaming old woman. It made Cass think of her aunt. She hoped Agnese was enjoying herself in Abano.

  Falco pulled a key from the pocket of his cloak. “Here we are.”

  Cass was shivering, and her legs were beginning to itch from the layers of wet satin sticking to them. Falco pushed open the door, and Cass followed him inside into the warm, dark room. She heard Falco strike flint against a tinderbox, and a single steel lantern winked to life. Cass blinked, struggling to adjust her eyes to the gloom.

  Falco moved smoothly across the room, lighting a pair of oil lamps that sat on a ledge by a window. Gradually, the studio came into focus. She and Falco stood in a large open room with a high arched ceiling. Each wall was painted a different color: ivory, sky blue, soft gray, and the last a ghastly green color that looked like what the town boys spewed into the canals after a wild night of drinking. Cass ran a hand down the smooth stucco wall and was surprised to find that flecks of gray paint chipped off beneath her fingers. Surely Tommaso Vecellio, relative of Titian, could afford a place more majestic than this.

  Her eyes flicked around the rest of the room, taking in the sparse furnishings. The standard artist trappings were there: a stool, an easel (empty, she noted with dismay), and a plum-colored divan for posing. Beneath the window ledge, a long table filled with bowls of powder and mugs of paintbrushes ran the length of the studio. Blank canvases stretched over wooden struts were stacked beneath the table. The rest of the room was bare except for a three-panel privacy screen, a large tin basin, and an aging old trunk.

  Cass crossed the room and sat on the edge of the divan. She sighed with relief as the little couch absorbed the weight of her garments. She stroked the velvet cushion, no doubt luxurious at one time, but now wearing thin in places. “So Vecellio really works here?”

  “Yes. Just like I told you.” Falco had his head inside the ancient trunk, so his voice sounded muffled. “What’s the matter? Were you expecting something a little…racier?” He emerged from the trunk holding a scrap of cream-colored silk and lace against his chest.

  Cass lifted her hand to her mouth to stifle a giggle. “What is that?”

  “Model’s costume,” Falco said innocently. “You can’t stay in those wet clothes. You’ll end up like your aunt.”

  “I hardly think a damp dress is going to turn me into an invalid,” Cass scoffed. But the wet fabric was uncomfortable—she felt weighed down as though by stones.

  “Horrible way to go, if you ask me. Your strength withering away over decades. I’d rather be strangled and carved up like Mariabella.” He held the silken garment out in Cass’s direction and nodded toward the paneled privacy screen. “Go on, then. I won’t watch.”

  She could feel a hot blush spreading on her cheeks as she accepted the costume. It was about one third the size of the outfit she had worn to the brothels. “But it’s so small. Surely there must be something”—she stopped herself from saying more appropriate and instead said—“warmer?”

  Falco gestured toward the trunk with an elaborate flourish. “Be my guest.”

  Cass dug through mounds of brightly colored silk and lace, tangles of straps and ribbons, but it looked like Falco had selected the least revealing dress of the bunch. She held up the cream-colored outfit. It had a plunging neckline and a row of buttons up the back that would pull the bodice tight to her chest, but the sleeves were long and flowing and the ruffled skirt would cover part of her legs at least. And it would feel good to be in something dry.

  “Fine,” she said, sliding behind the screen and attacking the laces of her bodice. “But if you tell anyone about this—”

  “I’m afraid it wouldn’t make for very interesting news in my crowd,” Falco said. “Many of us spend our days with unclothed women.”

  “Excuse me?” Cass had managed to free herself from her bodice. She unhooked her skirt and the farthingale beneath it, letting the wet gown and its underlying cage fall to the floor with a splat. Then she started working on the laces of her stays.

  “Tommaso loves to paint nudes.”

  Cass wondered if Falco had deliberately said the word nude just as she slid her damp stays over her head. But no. He couldn’t see her. She hurriedly slid the silken costume up over her legs and torso. “I can’t imagine how a woman could be comfortable just lying around naked while a bunch of boys gawked at her.”

  “You should try it. You might like it.” Falco’s teasing voice sounded very close, as if he were seconds from ducking behind the screen to see what was taking so long.

  “Almost finished,” she said quickly. She had her arms in the flowing sleeves, and her fingers were struggling to button up the back of the costume. It felt like there were a million little pearls that needed to hook inside a million little slippery silken loops. She managed to do enough to cover up her lower back and then had to quit. She simply couldn’t reach the top buttons by herself. “Promise not to laugh.”

  “I promise not to—” Falco’s eyes widened as she emerged from behind the screen, and he almost dropped one of the glasses of wine he was holding. He looked her up and down, murmured something under his breath that she couldn’t make out.

  The way he was looking at her made Cass feel like the costume was transparent. “Stop staring,” she demanded. She crossed her arms and pointed at the wine. “Is one of those for me?”

  “My apologies, Signorina.” He handed her a glass of crimson liquid without taking his eyes off her. “I always knew you were beautiful, but I think you may have the longest legs of any woman I’ve ever seen. And your skin—exquisite! Turn around.”

  Cass wanted to refuse, but felt herself spinning slowly in a circle so that Falco could look at her. She took a sip from her glass and struggled not to cough. The wine, or whatever it was, was bad.

  “Magnificent. Let me help with the buttons.” Falco set his glass down on the wooden stool. Before Cass could protest, he was behind her, his fingertips on the small of her back. Cass felt a pearl come loose.

  She whirled around, sloshing a bit of wine out of her glass as she slapped his hand. “You undid one,” she accused.

  Falco laughed.
I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it.” He reached for her but she leaned away. “Come on, I promise I’ll behave.”

  “Why should I trust you?”

  Falco moved to Cass’s back again and began sliding each pearl through its loop. He leaned in close so that the side of his face brushed against her neck. “Because you want to.”

  The wineglass trembled in Cass’s hand. She tightened her grip and took another drink. Every time Falco touched her, it got a little harder to breathe. She wasn’t sure if it was the outfit, or being so close to him. She sipped from her glass nervously. It was empty by the time he reached the last button.

  Falco slid the glass from her fingertips. “I’ll refill this, and then we’ll get you positioned.”

  “Positioned?” Cass fumbled over the word.

  Falco pulled her over to the divan, then left her standing beside it as he strode across the room to a tall armoire hidden in a shadowy corner. “I’m going to paint you, of course.”

  “Paint me?”

  “Are you going to repeat everything I say?” He returned to her and placed a full glass of cloudy brown liquid in her hand. “Sorry. That was the last of the wine. All I’ve got left is Tommaso’s special brew.”

  Cass made a face, but accepted the glass. “I’d like to see some of your paintings,” she said, in an attempt to stall. Part of her had been hoping that Falco would want her to sit for him ever since she met him, but now that it was happening, she felt horribly self-conscious.

  Falco smiled. “You want to see if I’m any good before you become my latest victim?”

  “No, I just—”

  “I’m joking.” Falco removed a stack of canvases from underneath the long table. He held them up one at a time. The first one was easily recognizable—Andriana, in an outfit very much like the one Cass was wearing.

  Falco hadn’t painted her exactly as Cass remembered her, though. She looked older, more worn. Her lips were full of fine lines, making her smile seem forced.

  “She looks broken,” Cass said.

  He ran a hand through his floppy brown hair. “Yes. That’s exactly the feeling I got when I first met her. A broken doll masquerading as a favorite toy. It would be easy to paint her as beautiful, what people see from a distance, but I’m trying to capture the most accurate image possible.”

  Cass nodded, avoiding the intensity of Falco’s eyes. She struggled with the same thing in her writing, the idea of describing the world as it truly was. Falco held up a second canvas, an older woman, Agnese’s age. But whereas Andriana was hollow, this woman seemed buoyant, joyous. Falco hadn’t misportrayed her age; her face and arms ran deep with wrinkles. Her eyelids sagged, and the skin on her neck hung in thin translucent folds. But there was something about the light in her eyes, her posture, that made this woman more beautiful than the blonde prostitute.

  “Who is she?” Cass marveled at the contours of the old woman’s body, the outline of blood vessels lingering beneath the skin. She thought again of her aunt and felt a pang of loneliness. She hoped Agnese would return from Abano in high spirits as usual. Despite the fact that Cass often wished she was free of Aunt Agnese’s influence over her, the villa was starting to feel empty without her.

  “I don’t know. A Gypsy. She used to sell rugs at the Sunday market.” Falco traced one finger along Cass’s exposed collarbone. “Amazing, isn’t it? The human body, so frail—yet so efficiently put together. A study in contradictions.”

  “Yes—amazing,” Cass said. She was a little afraid to admit to Falco she’d been trying to express the very same thing in her journal. She didn’t want him to tease her about her writing, as Luca had when they were little. “I feel the same way about the whole world sometimes. People seem simultaneously weak and resilient. Life can be cruel—and yet it is full of hope too.”

  Falco avoided her eyes as he stacked the canvases. “I’ve seen my share of cruelty,” he said. “Much of it at the hands of the so-called righteous. What is it about religion that leads people to unspeakable violence? Wars, executions…” His voice trailed off, and Cass felt certain he was somewhere far away in that moment. But like a curtain lowering and lifting, the darkness in him vanished as quickly as it came.

  “Now then,” Falco started as he tucked the canvases back beneath the long table. “Have I proven myself, Signorina Cassandra? May I paint you?”

  Cass looked down at her long legs protruding from the ruffled skirt. She willed back the images of Aunt Agnese and Luca that threatened to overwhelm her. “You’re not going to display it, are you?” she asked.

  “I thought I’d hang it by the entrance to the Grand Canal. Call it Signorina Cassandra Caravello in Her Undergarments. What do you think?”

  “Very funny.”

  “I thought so.” Falco dragged the wooden stool and easel to the center of the room. He gestured for Cass to take her place on the divan. “Please.” He pulled a pair of lamps close, murmuring something about the insufficient lighting.

  “Under normal circumstances,” Falco said, “I would ask you to sit during the daytime. It’s the only way to get a clear picture. But it isn’t often I have the place to myself.” He grinned. “And you are certainly not a normal circumstance.”

  Cass felt herself blushing; she was sure he would have to paint her complexion a mottled red.

  “Make yourself comfortable,” he said. “Right now it looks as though you’re sitting on a pincushion.”

  Cass tried a new pose and Falco laughed. “Let me,” he said, and, reaching out, set about readjusting her. He gently eased her onto her left hip, letting the right leg fall forward in front of her. He pulled part of her hair over her shoulder so it twisted and curled around her neck. Cass sipped her drink nervously, hoping the alcohol might relax her. Each of Falco’s touches generated a tiny bolt of lightning inside her. The charge was starting to build up to dangerous levels.

  “Are your legs cold?” Falco asked.

  Cass managed to choke out a no. Her whole body was racing with heat, and she felt about two touches away from spontaneous combustion. She was seized by a fleeting impulse to run away; at the same time, she wished he would touch her forever. The costume, the posing, the mysterious alcohol that was dissolving her inhibitions. Cass felt wild and alive, even more so than she had the night they went to the brothels. That night she had been someone else, but tonight she was posing as herself, and she loved it.

  Falco stepped back to consider his work. “Almost perfect.”

  “Almost?” Cass pretended to pout.

  “I know.” Falco rooted around in the armoire and returned with something folded inside his hand. He held it up for Cass to see—a necklace made of shining amethyst. It reminded her of something, but she wasn’t sure what. Probably one of Mada’s thousand necklaces. That girl had more jewelry than the Doge’s entire family.

  Cass shivered as Falco clasped the necklace around her throat. The stones felt like ice against her neck.

  “All right. How about a demure look? A stretch for you, I know.”

  Cass widened her eyes and pursed her lips, just slightly. She tilted her head to the left.

  Falco shook his head. “You look like you’ve swallowed a bee. Forget shy. Let’s try something that comes a little more naturally. How about disdain?”

  Her eyebrows instantly went up. “I am not disdainful!”

  “Perfect.” He downed the rest of his muddy liquor. His brush began to flow across the canvas.

  Cass felt a charge of excitement, but tried her best not to smile. As she held her position, Falco painted in frantic bursts, pausing occasionally to move the lamps or adjust ringlets of her damp hair. Each time he stopped, she would beg to see the progress and he would shake his head and tell her she had to wait.

  As time passed, Cass’s muscles started to ache and the liquor began to make her sleepy. She fidgeted on the divan. “What do you think happened to Liviana?” she mused. She shook her head, stifling a yawn. “Where could her body have gone?” A se
nse of guilt and sadness pulsed through her.

  Falco dipped a thin brush into a brilliant red spot on his palette. “You seem to have an unhealthy obsession with that girl’s corpse, Cass. Why is it so important to you?”

  She twisted the delicate stem of her empty glass back and forth in one hand. “She was my friend. Why wouldn’t it be important to me?”

  She thought about the other missing bodies in her past—those of her parents. Even in death, she was still somehow robbed of those closest to her. Not knowing what had happened to the bodies—it gave her a sense of unease. Of unfinishedness. How do you move on when you have nowhere to direct your grief?

  “Merely an observation.” He held his paintbrush up in mock surrender. “I wish tonight had been more productive.”

  “And you didn’t see the man that danced with me? Dressed all in black?” Cass was a little disappointed that Falco had not been paying more attention to her. “There was something about him…” She shivered. “Even his mask was different. Predatory, almost.”

  “I didn’t see him, but there are only a few craftsmen in town who produce masks of noble quality. Maybe we could go into town tomorrow and ask some questions.”

  Cass remembered the feather floating down from the second floor on Dubois’s palazzo to land on her hand. If only she had kept it instead of flinging it to the ground. “Maybe we can ask some questions about Dottor de Gradi too. Find out what sort of medicine he practices.”

  The paintbrush slipped from Falco’s fingers, falling to the floor and leaving a splotch of red on the gray stone. Falco bent down to retrieve it. “Maybe,” he said. “You look tired. Do you need a break?”

  “Yes.” Cass sat up on the divan, rolling her head around in a circle. “Can I see?”

  Falco refilled her glass and then came to sit beside her. “Not yet,” he said, rubbing her neck gently.

  “Why not?” Closing her eyes, she tilted her head down to make more room for Falco’s hands. Again, something deep inside of her whispered that she should run away while she still could. And again, Cass ignored it.


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