Venom, p.17

Venom, page 17

 part  #1 of  Secrets of the Eternal Rose Series

 

Venom
 



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  “Because it’s not perfect yet.” Innocent words, but he said them in a way that was soft and full of longing.

  Cass kept her face down, her eyes closed, afraid of what she’d see if she opened them.

  Falco brushed her hair back over her shoulders. He traced a finger around the edge of her lips. “But you are,” he breathed, low, right near her ear. And then, slowly, he touched his lips to her cheekbone and left them there.

  Cass felt torn in two, like the sky split by lightning. One side guilty. One side wanting. She froze, statue-still, as Falco’s lips brushed against her earlobe and then moved down and across her jawbone. His mouth hovered in the air, a parchment’s width away from hers. Eternities came and went.

  Slowly, Cass tilted her lips to meet his.

  And then Falco’s mouth was on hers, burning hot, but softer than she had imagined. And Cass felt her whole body tense up and then go weak. Blindly, she reached out for one of his hands, lacing their fingers together. She pressed her lips against him, her soul against him, and she felt truly warm for the first time. Like she’d been living her whole life in a block of ice and had finally escaped into the sun.

  Falco’s other hand moved up to cradle her face. Cass felt her heart beating against her rib cage like a bird trying to wing free. Their mouths moved against each other, and she couldn’t believe the heat they were creating. She couldn’t believe it was possible to feel the way she did, so completely intertwined with another human being. It felt like they were on a boat, the whole world swaying around them like waves.

  And then: a heavy rapping from outside. Instantly, Cass pulled back, her head throbbing a little. Falco swore under his breath. Both of them looked toward the door. A chorus of drunken voices broke through the quiet night.

  “Don’t move,” Falco said. “I’ll get rid of them.”

  Cass flipped her hair in front of her shoulders. She pulled the costume down over her legs, disoriented. “Who is it?”

  “Just some of the gang.” Falco brushed his lips across Cass’s forehead. He nodded toward the canvas. “Don’t peek either.”

  He slid out of the room, shutting the red door behind him, leaving Cass alone where guilt began tugging at her again.

  She was engaged to Luca. She was supposed to be looking for Livi’s body. What was she doing? With a shaking hand, she touched her lips. The pressure of Falco’s mouth on hers came flooding back. Had it really happened?

  Her brain felt foggy. Was it the kiss, or the liquor? She tried to push Livi and Luca and the kiss from her mind. She couldn’t think about it, wouldn’t think about it.

  A burst of laughter from outside caught her attention. She crept over and pressed her ear to the door, curious. She caught snatches of conversation.

  “…another pickup…well compensated for our troubles.”

  Pickup of what? Cass squeezed her eyes closed in concentration.

  “…plague…perhaps the next couple of nights…San Giuda…”

  “I’m sick of the smell of death…”

  The smell of death. That was Falco. She was sure of it. The words swirled in her head, along with the effects of the strange liquor.

  The knob rattled and Cass jumped back from the door, but no one came in. She wandered around the room, her heartbeat picking up speed. What did it mean? What secrets was Falco hiding? She nearly tripped when she came upon a full-length mirror leaning next to the armoire. A jagged line bifurcated the surface, slightly offsetting the left side of Cass’s reflection. She swayed from side to side, watching her body distort as it moved along the jagged crack. Whatever he’d given her to drink, it was making her light-headed, confused.

  One of the lamps burned out, startling Cass. She grabbed for the wall to steady herself, but the room rotated slightly and her palm landed on the cold surface of the mirror. Her reflection fragmented into pieces and re-formed, but it wasn’t her anymore—it was Livi.

  “No,” Cass whispered as the dizziness threatened to engulf her. “You are only a dream,” she slurred, feeling hot and panicked. Without thinking, she lashed out at the image with her hand. She gasped as pain ran through her palm and a series of lines spiderwebbed out from the initial crack in the mirror. Cass could swear the image was morphing now, divided by all the cracks: it was turning into an older version of herself. Her father appeared behind her, broken and misshapen in the glass fragments. The woman in the mirror was her mother. Blood seeped through the front of her gown. Cass felt a thick wave of nausea rise up inside her. Her mother bent forward, and Cass saw she had a ring of bruises around her neck and an X carved into her chest.

  “No,” Cass repeated, stumbling backward from the mirror, and her father reached out his arms to catch her. Only now he was Falco.

  As Cass watched, Falco’s reflection reached up toward the chain of stones around her neck. Cass knew somehow that if he managed to touch the necklace, he would pull it tight. He would twist it again and again until she fell to the studio floor lifeless, another broken doll.

  She wrenched away from him. Air. She needed air.

  She stumbled toward the door. But Falco got there first, grabbing her hand before she could undo the lock. He backed her up against the red wood, holding her there easily with one forearm pressed across her collarbones.

  “Let me go,” she insisted, her voice coming out high and small.

  Falco traced his fingertips down the side of Cass’s face. “But you can’t leave now.”

  His arm pinned her even tighter against the door. It slipped off her clavicles and onto the soft flesh of her neck, causing the smooth stones of the necklace to press against her windpipe. She struggled to breathe.

  “You’re hurting me,” she whispered as the spinning room started to dissolve before her eyes.

  “An open wound, if left untreated,

  will grow inflamed and exude

  a pustulant fluid that carries with

  it the odor of the grave.”

  —THE BOOK OF THE ETERNAL ROSE

  thirteen

  When Cass awoke, everything was blurry. She sat up slowly, waving one hand in front of her face to dissipate a strange, sharp odor. She was back on the divan, the coverlet pulled just to her waist.

  Falco leaned over her, a small jar of white crystals in one hand. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you,” he said. He looked at her with a mixture of curiosity and concern.

  Cass stared at the jar. “What is that?”

  “Smelling salts.” Falco replaced the stopper and set the jar on the floor of the studio. “You fainted.”

  “Fainted?” Cass struggled to remember what had happened. It came back to her in pieces: the visions in the mirror, trying to escape the studio, Falco pressing her hard against the back of the door.

  Cass fought to stand up in the still-spinning room. “I need to go.” She didn’t know if she’d feel safe back in the villa until her aunt returned, but anything seemed better than being trapped in the studio. At least Siena was back home. And Slipper. Cass felt like she was floating in the open ocean, and only by clinging to something familiar could she possibly save herself from drowning.

  “It’s safe here.” Falco’s voice sounded soft, but Cass couldn’t shake the menacing image she had seen in the mirror or the harsh way he had pinned her to the wall. “It’s my fault,” he continued. “I forgot how Tommaso’s alcohol affects people not used to drinking it.” He rested one hand on her lower back to support her. “You were seeing things, weren’t you?”

  Cass’s throat seized; she was suddenly worried she would begin to cry. “Liviana. My parents. They were in the mirror.” It sounded crazy, but she kept talking. “And you. You were going to strangle me.” She felt the necklace, cold and heavy, around her throat.

  Falco reached slowly toward her. She tried to shrink away from him, but she was too weak. Her heart thudded erratically. He brushed a lock of hair away from her eyes and tucked it behind her ear. “I would never hurt you, Cassandra,” he said. “And
you can’t go out alone in your current condition, in the rain, especially not in that outfit.”

  Cass looked down at her exposed skin and blushed. She’d forgotten that she was practically naked. A spot of blood on the cream-colored ruffles swam before her eyes.

  Falco followed her gaze. “You’re bleeding,” he said. He opened the fingers of her right hand and rotated it to see her knuckles. Blood encrusted two of them, and her fingers were starting to swell. “Here, let me clean that.”

  He left her to fetch something from the armoire. She contemplated making a run for it. She could probably make it to the door before him, but she was beginning to calm down, and he was right that going anywhere in her condition wasn’t practical or safe. Her head started to pound. She rubbed her temples. Maybe it was just the alcohol that had made her see those horrible things.

  Falco returned with a brown glass bottle and a bowl of water from the tin basin. Holding her hand over the bowl, he poured some reddish-brown fluid across her broken skin. Tears formed in her eyes. Her hand was on fire. She looked down, not wanting him to see her if she cried. She focused on one of his shirt’s metallic buttons.

  “Sorry. I know it hurts,” Falco said. Pieces of brown hair fell forward in front of his eyes as he bent to dip her hand into the bowl of water. The cool temperature partly extinguished the pain.

  She could only watch in silence as Falco lifted her hand from the fluid and blotted each of her fingers with the untucked tail of his white linen shirt. “It’s going to be sore tomorrow, but it should be clean. With any luck you won’t end up with a fever.”

  Cass nodded. The motion felt strange to her. She closed and opened her hand a few times. She felt like a marionette, as if all of her joints were operating independently of the others. She let her head fall back onto a circular pillow. “I’m so tired,” she said. The words seemed to take a long time to move from her brain to her mouth.

  Falco’s response also sounded distorted, his syllables breaking up and fading into the warm air of the studio. Cass felt her legs lifting up and then coming to rest on the soft velvet of the divan. A thin coverlet landed on her, its silky coolness a welcome contrast against her warm skin. She balled the fabric up in her good hand and curled onto her side. Cass knew she should throw the covers off, get dressed, and go home, but she couldn’t move. As she succumbed to her fatigue, Cass thought she felt Falco’s lips press against her cheek.

  A numbness in her arm roused her from sleep. She tried to shake it to get the blood flowing, but it was trapped under something heavy. She yanked hard and her arm pulled free. Falco groaned. Falco! Cass sat up on the divan. Falco pulled the coverlet over his eyes to block out the light.

  The sun was streaming through a high window she hadn’t noticed the night before. She bounded off the divan and almost landed on the floor. Mannaggia. Why did her head feel like it had been used as a battering ram? “What time is it?” she hissed.

  “Judging from the oppressive amount of light, I’d say late morning,” Falco mumbled, burying his face in a pillow.

  Cass rushed behind the wooden dressing screen and tugged at the neck of the model’s costume she had fallen asleep in. “Why didn’t you wake me?” she asked. She was shaking too hard to undo all of the tiny buttons. She gave the garment a hard yank, and a handful of pearl buttons hit the floor of the studio. She wriggled the costume down over her hips.

  “Probably because I was also asleep,” Falco answered, his voice still heavy with fatigue.

  Cass grabbed her clothes, slipping her cotton chemise over her head. She skipped her stays altogether, because the only way she was going to get those cinched properly was with help, and she wasn’t about to ask Falco. “You slept next to me all night?” She couldn’t keep the accusing tone out of her voice.

  “Yes. Is that a problem?” Falco asked.

  Cass didn’t answer. She stepped into her farthingale and pulled her heavy layered skirts up to her waist. They were still damp from last night’s rain. She slid her arms into her bodice, twisting her neck as far as possible to try to thread the ribbons that would secure the garment around her chest. She gave up quickly. She’d have to hide her disarray beneath her cloak.

  She was furious with herself. She was an engaged woman, and even if she weren’t, what she had done was inexcusable. It didn’t matter what had or had not happened. Women who were not courtesans did not go spending the night with men. What if people found out? Agnese would never forgive her. Luca would surely leave her. No other man would want her. She’d end up alone, her only choice to enter a convent or become a courtesan herself. What would Matteo think? If Cass disgraced the family name, her aunt’s nephew might toss both her and Agnese out into the streets. Even the servants might be released to fend for themselves.

  But she couldn’t explain that to Falco. If he found out about Luca, he’d want nothing to do with her anymore. Cass was certain of it. And if she admitted to being worried about how others viewed her, he’d scoff and call her a caged bird again, tell her she would be better off without the heavy chains of nobility weighing her down. She couldn’t win.

  She headed over to the mirror and stopped short at the network of cracks and fissures radiating out in a spiderweb pattern from where she’d struck the mirror with her fist. She looked down at her swollen hand. Cass had had no idea she was capable of inflicting such damage. Slipping the collar of her fur-lined cloak around her neck, she fumbled with the clasp. Her bodice slipped down around her waist.

  Falco sat on the divan, watching her with amusement. “Need help?” he asked.

  Cass imagined Falco methodically threading the satin laces through each eyelet, his hands repeatedly brushing across her back as he worked. “I’m fine,” she said curtly, pressing her arms tight to her sides to hold up her bodice.

  “I can see that.” Falco’s brown hair was sticking up in clumps. Cass had to resist the urge to return to the divan to run her fingers through it. She considered her reflection in an unbroken section of the mirror. Her skirts were wrinkled and her bodice twisted crookedly to one side. She looked like a six-year-old who had tried to dress herself. The strand of amethyst stones still hung around her neck. She started to remove it.

  “Keep it for now,” Falco said, yawning. He leaned back on the divan like he wished he could fall back to sleep. “It looks good on you.”

  Cass stroked the necklace with her good hand. She flung her velvet cloak over her shoulders and wrapped it around her whole body. There. She looked almost civilized. She’d just have to hide behind her cloak until she got home.

  “Do you remember what happened last night?” Falco asked.

  “Some of it,” Cass admitted. “I remember seeing things that weren’t there.” The weird flashes in the mirror stayed with her. Hallucinations, maybe, but for some reason they felt like warnings, like pushing them from her mind completely would be a very bad idea. Then a terrible thought hit her. Maybe she had imagined everything, even the kiss. She lifted a hand to her mouth. Her lips pulsed with their own heartbeat. “Did you actually…I mean, we didn’t really…?”

  Falco seemed to read her mind. He grinned. “No, that part really happened.”

  Cass’s cheeks flushed with warmth. He was looking at her as if he wanted to kiss her again, like he’d be content to spend the whole day snuggled on the divan with his arms around her. Again, she fought the urge to tame his unruly hair with her fingers.

  “I have to go,” she said, heading toward the door. “If the servants realize I’m missing, they’ll be frantic.” And they’ll tattle on me.

  Falco stretched and rose from the divan. “I can come with you if you like. If you think you’ll get lonely on the journey home.” His blue eyes glimmered with mischief.

  Cass imagined nestling beside Falco beneath the felze while a gondolier rowed them back to San Domenico. It was unlikely she would be able to resist his advances, and her own desires, during the ride across the lagoon. And she couldn’t go kissing him during th
e day. Anyone might see. She shouldn’t be kissing him at all. She was risking her whole future for this boy she barely knew. She needed to refocus on what was important—Livi. Mariabella. Keeping herself safe.

  “I have a better idea,” she said. “Why don’t you go talk to the mask makers? See if you can find out the identity of the man in the falcon mask. And ask around a bit at the markets—see if you can find out anything about Angelo de Gradi, too.”

  Falco’s relaxed demeanor seemed to cloud over for just a second, but then he smiled lazily and gave her a mock salute. “As you command, Signorina Avogadore. I’ll come by the villa later tonight and let you know what I found out.”

  “How about we meet someplace on San Domenico,” Cass said. It wasn’t smart to have Falco strolling the grounds of Agnese’s estate. Just because Siena was going to keep her secret didn’t mean the rest of the staff would be as discreet.

  Falco didn’t question her. “Come by Il Mar e la Spada. I’ll even buy you a mug of their finest swill.”

  “Deal,” she said as he leaned in to give her a kiss on the cheek. Her eyes focused on the scar beneath his right eye. “What happened?” she asked, running one finger over the slightly raised edges.

  “A friend dared me to dive into the canals when I first came to town. I had no idea how shallow they were.” He rubbed at the scar. “Obviously.”

  Cass smiled. It sounded like something she might have done as a child. She pressed her lips to Falco’s just for a second, and then slipped quietly out the door.

  The day was uncharacteristically bright, forcing Cass to squint as she made her way down the marble staircase. She wished she had brought along a parasol the previous evening. She could almost feel new freckles sprouting on her cheeks. By the time she got home she’d look like a speckled goose egg.

  When she hit the courtyard, she remembered how she had struggled to keep up the night before as they navigated the twisted network of alleyways. She had no idea how to get back to the Grand Canal. She looked up. The sun hovered almost directly above her, useless for determining which direction to travel.

 

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