Venom, p.18

Venom, page 18

 part  #1 of  Secrets of the Eternal Rose Series



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  Past the courtyard gate, smooth stucco walls rose three stories on either side of her. She couldn’t even see water. She followed the walls, choosing randomly when she came to a fork in the road. The system of alleys seemed to go on forever, growing smaller with each turn. Cass felt like a prisoner, trapped within the Minotaur’s labyrinth. Above her, faceless pairs of eyes peered down from random windows. Sweat began to form on the back of her neck. Her breathing accelerated. Just when she was about to lose hope, Cass saw a rickety bridge in the distance. Bridge meant canal, and canal meant it was only a matter of time before a gondolier came by.

  As Cass stood at the crest of the wooden bridge, a thick ribbon of clouds passed in front of the sun, tinting everything gray. She fidgeted in her soggy clothes. A cluster of peasant children pushed past her, giggling behind their dusty hands. An older woman in a gray woolen dress and a white bonnet shushed them and glanced coolly at Cass as she shuffled by on the narrow walkway. It was as if the woman knew what she’d done the night before.

  But Cass wasn’t even sure what she’d done. She and Falco had drunk Tommaso’s toxic liquor and kissed. That part wasn’t foggy at all. But then the weird hallucinations had started, and her memory after that was fragmented, like the mirror. She vaguely recalled lying on the divan, with Falco cleaning her hand, but she didn’t remember him curling up beside her. Had they kissed more? Had they done more than kissed? The image of the room at the brothel—the slick skin, the two bodies rocking together—flashed briefly into Cass’s mind.

  She shook the idea from her head as a sleek black gondola floated by in the water. No. She would remember if anything like that had happened. A wizened old gondolier in a colorful outfit nodded to her, and Cass signaled for him to pull over.

  “I need to go out to San Domenico Island,” Cass said.

  The old man started to protest. Cass pulled a shiny silver coin from a small suede pouch. The gondolier looked unimpressed. “I’ll pay the return fare too,” she added with a sigh, pulling out a second piece of silver.

  The man’s eyes came to life at the sight of the second coin. He allowed Cass to board and then turned the boat around with a few well-placed strokes of his oar. The gondola began to cruise smoothly through the water. Just as Cass curled up in the felze, a soft drizzle started to fall. That was Venice in spring: brilliant one minute, raining the next. The gondolier muttered something under his breath. Cass watched the streaks of rain cut through the misty air. She fiddled with the necklace Falco had given her as the boat left the Rialto and headed toward the Giudecca.

  As the gondola cut between the Giudecca and San Giorgio Maggiore, wind whistled through the slats of the felze, stinging Cass’s eyes and skin. She wasn’t cold, though. She might never be cold again. Touching her lips, she replayed Falco’s kiss in her head, one delicious second at a time. His lips hovering near her face before coming to rest on her cheekbone. The indecision, the terror that gripped her heart as she decided whether to give in. The way she had every reason to turn away and only one reason to turn toward him—because she wanted to, almost more than she had ever wanted anything in her life.

  What would have happened if they hadn’t been interrupted by the other artists? She reclined against the back of the felze, trying to imagine Falco’s weight on top of her, his mouth finding her neck, making its way down to her bare shoulder while she ran her fingers through his messy brown hair. She had no idea if it was all right for a woman to touch a man or if she was just supposed to let him touch her. She knew what Falco would say: Forget about what’s appropriate. Do what feels right.

  Cass closed her eyes. Kissing him had felt right. So right. But it shouldn’t happen again. Couldn’t. Luca would probably challenge Falco to a swordfight if he found out, even though neither boy struck her as the sort who had ever handled a weapon.

  And so what if she wasn’t thrilled at the idea of becoming Luca’s bride? That didn’t mean she wanted to be disavowed and turned out into the streets. And worse: see the same happen to Agnese and Siena. Even if he wanted to, there was little chance that Falco could take care of her, and no chance at all he could provide for her aunt and a maidservant.

  The gondolier tapped his oar against the side of the gondola and Cass realized with surprise that they were pulling up to Agnese’s dock. Even more surprising was the fact that another boat was moored there, a wide blue vessel, with seating capacity for four or five people. Cass wondered who had come to the villa in such a luxurious watercraft. Maybe the boat belonged to someone visiting a tomb.

  The old man secured the gondola across from the blue boat and happily accepted the double fare. He pocketed the coins and then stared at Cass for a moment, his thin lips peeling back to reveal a mouthful of rotten teeth. Cass realized her cloak had fallen open, exposing her sagging bodice and disheveled dress. She pulled the cloak tight again, but the gondolier continued leering at her as he helped her from the gondola with one of his bony hands.

  “Grazie,” she said, wrenching her hand away from his quickly as she stepped gingerly from the boat. As she hit the edge of the dock, she froze. Giuseppe the gardener knelt on the manicured lawn, pruning the shrubbery that framed the front of the villa. Just because the old man never spoke to her didn’t mean he wouldn’t speak about her to her aunt. If Agnese ever found out she’d spent the night away from the villa, she was as good as dead. Being dishonored and turned into the streets would pale in comparison to the punishment that the old woman would inflict upon her.

  Cass’s heart began to race. For now, Giuseppe had his back to the dock, but eventually he would have to turn around to clip the other side of the bushes. When he did, he would see Cass immediately, regardless of the path she took. She had no way of making it all the way to the house without being discovered.

  There had to be someplace she could hide.

  Cass glanced at the blue boat. It bobbed in the water a few feet away from the dock. Staying low, Cass gave the rope a stern tug, but she wasn’t strong enough to pull the boat close. Cass lowered herself off the edge of the dock, her chopines landing on a diagonal plank of wood used to reinforce the structure. She wrapped her hands around one of the end pilings, cringing at the slick feel of algae. Just when her cramping fingers threatened to give out and plunge Cass to the water below, she peeped her head up and saw Giuseppe disappearing around the back of the villa.

  Heaving a sigh of relief, Cass pulled herself up from the water’s edge, struggling to keep her clothing from snagging on the dock’s splintered wood.

  She cut a wide path around the outside of the villa’s property. Half crouched, she sneaked around to the back of the house and rested her ear against the door leading into the kitchen. When she was convinced the room was empty, she slipped quietly inside, closing the door behind her.

  Just as Cass leaned against the door to catch her breath, Siena fluttered down the servants’ stairs, frantic. “Signorina Cass!” she said, her voice just above a whisper. “Your aunt returned early from Abano and has been asking for you all morning. I didn’t know what to tell her, so I said you had gone for a walk along the shore.” Siena paced back and forth next to the long countertop. “Of course she was furious at me for letting you go anywhere alone. I was afraid she was going to send me away, so I told her you insisted.”

  Agnese was back? This was bad. Very bad. Cass unclenched Siena’s hands, squeezing one of them gently. “It’s okay, Siena. I’ll handle my aunt.” She didn’t know exactly how she was going to accomplish this, but it felt like the right thing to say. “You did well.” Guilt surged deep within her. Not only was she lying, but she was forcing others to lie for her as well.

  Siena looked about five seconds away from bursting into tears. “When I woke up this morning and you weren’t back, I thought maybe something terrible had happened. I thought maybe your Falco was a kidnapper after all.”

  “He’s not a kidnapper.” Cass leaned up against the counter, securing her bodice to her sides with her arms. But who
was? Dubois? Angelo, the long-faced man? The stranger in the falcon mask? Were all the men of Venice dangerous? Even Falco might have lied to her. Certainly, he was keeping secrets. How quickly she had let that slip from her mind when they had ended up alone together. Cass bit her lip. She wanted to organize her thoughts in her journal, but first she needed to deal with her aunt, as promised. “Come on,” she said, dragging Siena behind her as she headed up the stairs to the dining room. “You’ve got to help me change before my aunt sees me.”

  “Signorina Cass, wait—” Siena stopped at the end of the long table. Her hand pulled free from Cass’s grip.

  But Cass couldn’t be stopped. Fueled by the excitement of her close call with the gardener, she stampeded through the dining room and into the portego. Too late, she realized her mistake. Her aunt was sitting in a high-backed chair sipping tea from her favorite gold-rimmed ceramic teacup. And she wasn’t alone.

  “Cassandra! Where have you been?” Agnese’s voice was a mixture of anger and concern. “The servants have been chattering about a kidnapper. I had begun to fear someone had spirited you away.”

  Cass barely heard her aunt’s reprimand. She was too busy staring at Agnese’s visitor. Sitting between a pair of manservants was an attractive middle-aged man wearing clothes sewn from cloth fine enough to suit the Doge. His dark hair was streaked with hints of silver, and he wore jeweled rings on three fingers. Cass recognized him at once.

  It was Joseph Dubois.

  “Personal garments are

  the greatest expression of one’s

  standing in society, but the body

  is the greatest expression of one’s soul.

  Both are temporary trappings.”



  Cass opened her mouth but couldn’t immediately respond. Dubois showed no signs of having spent the previous night dancing and drinking. It was like he’d sprung straight out of her thoughts and onto Agnese’s velvet portego chair.

  “Mi-mi dispiace, Aunt Agnese,” Cass finally stammered, inching away from Dubois toward the corridor that led to her room. “I…I went for a walk. I guess I lost track of time.” Maybe if she stayed far enough away, Agnese wouldn’t realize the state of disarray of her dress. Had Dubois somehow recognized her at the ball? Why else would he be here, on San Domenico, in her aunt’s portego?

  Agnese’s mouth dropped open, causing a second chin to form in the loose, doughy skin of her throat. “You speak of time as though it were an unruly canine. What you really lost track of, Cassandra, were your manners, and meanwhile the entire house has been turned upside down looking for you.” The old woman clucked her tongue. “You need always consider how your actions might affect others.” She shook her head as if Cass were beyond hope. “And speaking of manners, come and greet Signor Dubois. He’s one of the most influential men in all of Venice, you know.” Agnese turned a smile on Dubois.

  Reluctantly, Cass approached the Frenchman. His servants looked away as Dubois took her hand and kissed it. “My pleasure,” he said, his voice smooth as silk. His smile was dazzling, and his teeth were white and straight.

  Blushing, Cass dipped into a shallow curtsy, trying to hold her cloak around her soggy skirts. “It’s nice to see you, Signore.”

  Agnese squinted. Her gnarled fingers reached out to pluck a piece of lint from Cass’s top skirt. “Why do you look like a drowned chicken?” The old woman leaned in closer. “And what is that on your face? Is it blood?”

  Blood from her hand. Possibly paint. Who knew? Cass thought quickly. “I went out on the rocks by the shoreline and a burst of surf hit me. I slipped and fell. I guess I must have scratched my face.”

  Agnese frowned so deeply that her silver eyebrows met in the middle of her face. For a second, Cass could swear she saw something flash across Agnese’s face—anger? Concern? But just as quickly, it was gone.

  “Siena,” Agnese barked. The lady’s maid scampered out from the dining room, where she had no doubt been eavesdropping. She stood just inside the doorway, pale and wide eyed like a goat ready for slaughter. “See to my niece immediately,” Agnese said.

  “Yes, Signora.” Siena dipped into a low bow and then headed toward the back of the villa.

  Cass followed close behind her, stopping at the threshold of the portego to curtsy once more in Dubois’s general direction.

  Agnese pursed her lips into a hard line. This look was easy to determine: We’ll talk about your behavior later.

  As she slipped out of the room, she heard Dubois say, “You’re smart to take a firm hand with her. I remember too well what it was like to be a headstrong youth. Ah, the feeling of invincibility.”

  Agnese sighed. “Yes, she gets that from her parents, I’m afraid. They were both wandering spirits.”

  Cass paused, straining to hear Dubois’s response.

  She heard the clink of teacup on saucer. “A little wandering is good for the soul. It’s just the company one keeps that may be hazardous.”

  “Indeed,” Agnese answered. “Of course young women are like mules: the harder you pull, the harder they resist. No, I think I know just the thing that will help her…regain her focus.” Her voice faded away as Siena, terrified of getting caught eavesdropping, pulled Cass toward her room.

  In her bathroom, Siena brought Cass a bucket of steaming water, and then helped her get out of her damp clothes. Cass ran a soapy cloth over her skin reluctantly. Even though the warm water felt good, she couldn’t bring herself to scrub too thoroughly. She could still smell traces of paint and minty soap on her. Falco. She didn’t want to wash him away.

  After helping Cass into her dressing gown, Siena grabbed a silver-plated hairbrush from the dressing table and began to brush Cass’s hair so furiously that it made Cass’s eyes water.

  “Not so hard,” she grumbled. “No need to punish me. I’m sure my aunt has something terrible planned already. Perhaps I’ll have to embroider an entire bedcover, or worse, she’ll make me start taking violin lessons again.” Cass had endured two years of harp and violin lessons with a tutor from the Rialto, but eventually Agnese had realized that her niece was just not musically gifted.

  “Now that would be a punishment for us all, Signorina,” Siena said with a delicate smile.

  Cass would have been offended if the remark weren’t so true. Even the house cats used to run and hide when they saw Cass with her violin case.

  “Why did she come back early, Siena? Do you know?” Cass asked.

  “Something about a storm approaching, I think.” Siena tugged the brush through Cass’s hair. “I wouldn’t worry too much about punishment. She did come home in excellent spirits as usual—and of course, she doesn’t know you spent the whole night on the Rialto.”

  “You won’t tell her, will you?” Cass looked pleadingly at Siena in the mirror.

  “I won’t—if you promise it won’t happen again. I don’t like lying, and I’m not very good at it.” Siena’s eyes met hers. “And I worry about you, even when you are with your lover.”

  “He’s not my lover,” Cass said quickly. She didn’t understand why Siena seemed determined to believe there was something romantic going on between her and Falco. Just because Falco had kissed her didn’t mean he would do it again. It was the alcohol. Neither of them had been thinking clearly. Cass attempted to change the subject. “What is Signor Dubois doing here?”

  Siena shrugged. “Personal business with your aunt, I imagine.” She lifted her chin daintily. “I am not privy to Signora Querini’s affairs.”

  Cass elbowed Siena in the ribs. “I am not privy to Signora Querini’s affairs,” she mimicked. “Come on, Siena. I know those ears hear everything.”

  Siena dropped her glance to the floor and Cass immediately felt guilty. She hadn’t meant to imply that the girl’s ears were too big, only that the servants always seemed to be hovering just out of sight. Siena put the silver hairbrush back on the dressing table and picked up a hair ornamen
t carved from sea coral and adorned with pearls. She began to twist Cass’s hair into a tight bun. “If I heard anything, it was purely accidental,” she said, shooting Cass’s reflection a warning look. “And only as a result of the normal course of my duties.”

  Cass winked at Siena in the mirror, amazed at the sleek topknot the girl had created. “Fine. What did you accidentally hear while you were responsibly completing your duties?”

  Siena pinned the pearl ornament around Cass’s hair and pursed her lips. She liberated a couple of strands from the bun and nodded as they curled naturally around Cass’s face. “I may have heard Dubois say he saw you in unsavory company at his masquerade ball last evening.”

  Cass’s heart stopped. So he had recognized her at the ball, after Agnese had expressly forbidden her from attending. Had he seen her with Falco? Angelo? The man in the falcon mask? “Did he say whom he meant?” Cass slipped her arms into her stays and tried not to flinch as Siena pulled them tight.

  Siena selected one of Cass’s favorite dresses from the armoire, a gorgeous topaz gown with a lace neckline and cream-colored sleeves. “If he did, I didn’t hear it.”

  “Did he say anything else?” Cass’s voice sounded muffled as Siena slid the heavy dress over her head.

  “He mentioned the matter of Sophia going missing. He told Agnese not to worry—that there’s no snatcher on the loose. Dubois believes she ran off with a traveling minstrel or magician,” Siena said. “According to him, she was quite taken with a performer at one of his parties.”

  Cass frowned. It was certainly possible—but was it true? If so, perhaps Mariabella and Sophia’s disappearances were unconnected. The thought made Cass feel slightly better. Mariabella might have been strangled by a jealous patron, but that was easier to stomach than a killer on the loose.

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