Venom, page 28part #1 of Secrets of the Eternal Rose Series
“I don’t hate him,” Cass said, lifting her arms so that Madalena could pull the laces tight. “I just don’t love him.”
“I see.” Madalena slipped the topaz dress over Cass’s head. “I saw him getting into a gondola the evening of your fitting. Marco and I were meeting Cristian for dinner. Old Luca has gotten quite handsome over the past three years, hasn’t he? Are you not attracted to him at all?”
“I—well, no. I do find him attractive…” Just saying that made her feel uncomfortable, but she wasn’t sure why. She adjusted her skirts around her slim hips. “Wait a minute. You saw him in the city? Over a week ago?”
“I tried to get his attention, but he seemed to be in a hurry,” Mada said.
Cass thought back to the day of her fitting. Siena had mentioned seeing Luca at the market, but Cass had assumed she was mistaken. Why would Luca lie about his arrival in Venice? It didn’t make sense. Unless he had busied himself preparing for the wedding…She cringed.
Madalena fussed with the bodice of Cass’s dress. “And the reason you are not interested is…?”
Cass stared at her reflection. The golden dress brought out the red in her hair. “The thing is—” She paused for a moment. Maybe she should just tell the truth, or an abridged version anyway. Mada would understand that she had fallen for someone else. It was very dramatic, and Mada lived for drama. Cass took a deep breath. “The thing is, I met a boy.”
Once Cass started talking, the whole story just poured out of her. Falco, running into him again, spending time with him on the Rialto and in Tommaso’s studio. The conflicting feelings of desire and guilt and hopelessness. She told Madalena about everything except the murders, and seeing Falco and his friends stealing bodies.
To Cass’s surprise, Madalena listened to her whole story without interrupting once or getting distracted by juicy details like what kind of outfit Cass wore to the masked ball or which direction Falco’s smile tilted. Cass let all of her hopes and heartbreak and guilt spew forth like a venom that had been killing her from the inside.
Afterward, Mada was silent for a moment. Then she took Cass’s hand in her own. Cass stared down at the beautiful golden rings Mada wore on her middle three fingers—one diamond, one sapphire, one emerald. “I’m surprised at you,” Mada said.
Cass lowered her head. Had she been foolish to think Mada might understand? “I figured you would be.”
Mada squeezed her hand. “No, silly. I’m surprised you let yourself fall for Falco in the first place.” She looked at Cass with wide, affectionate eyes. “It’s scary to give part of yourself to someone else. I know what it’s like to be terrified of pain. Of loss.”
“What do you mean?” Cass was startled; she was sure her friend was going to lecture her for her indiscretion.
“When my mother died, my father nearly went insane with grief.” Madalena toyed with the golden crucifix hanging from her belt. “And even though I was only ten years old, I couldn’t imagine ever letting myself love someone like that. Setting myself up for all that pain.”
“But Marco—” Cass started.
“I didn’t love him from the beginning,” Mada said. “He was kind and handsome, but I still found reasons not to like him. His hands were rough. He sometimes smelled of ship parts—of tallow and burning coal.” She shrugged. “But as you can see, he won me over.”
Cass bunched up her eyebrows. “So you’re saying I’ll grow to love Luca?”
Mada grinned. “I would. Did you see the muscles on that man? Toting all those heavy legal tomes around must be working in his favor.”
Cass smiled. She wasn’t sure if she believed Madalena, that loving Luca was just a matter of letting down her guard, but either way her friend had made her feel better.
“Anyway,” Mada added, a mischievous gleam in her eye. “Think of whatever happened with this artist boy as…practice.” She winked.
Cass blushed. “You’re shameless, you know that?”
Madalena ran her perfectly filed nails through Cass’s thick hair. Her hand snagged halfway through it. “And you’re a mess. Your hair looks like a bird’s nest. Let me fix it.”
“Fine,” Cass said, laughing. “Just for you.”
“And to keep Dottor Orsin away.” Mada smiled.
Cass sat at her dressing table as Mada ripped through her snarled hair with a silver-plated hairbrush, then twisted Cass’s hair back into a painfully tight topknot and pinned it with a pearl hair ornament. She flipped open the top of the heart-shaped jewelry casket where Cass’s brooches, bracelets, and necklaces lay all jumbled together. She untangled a heart-shaped jade pendant from the snarled mass. She fastened it around Cass’s neck. “Perfect. Are you ready to show yourself?”
The jade pendant felt cold against Cass’s breastbone. “Is Luca here?”
“Gone, I promise,” Mada said. “Some mysterious errands. Probably buying you flowers and fancy jewelry.”
Cass cringed. The last thing she wanted was for Luca to try to win her affection with presents. “I hope not.”
Mada glanced at the tangled ball of necklaces and bracelets. “Like I said before, you could use some new pieces. Ask for pearls. A girl can never have too many strands of pearls.”
As usual, Madalena’s mere presence had brightened Cass’s mood. There was still an ache deep inside her when she thought of Falco, but it wasn’t the stabbing pain of the previous days. Maybe time would continue to dull the sharpness in her stomach, transform it into a smooth stone—heavy, but bearable.
For the first time in days, Cass let herself think about Luca. His shy smile, his light brown eyes, the warmth with which they regarded her. Could she be with him and not yearn for Falco? Cass didn’t think so, but she didn’t know everything. Maybe Mada was right. Maybe it was pointless to fight the natural order of things. Maybe she would learn to love Luca.
“If there be no obvious injury to
the body, the cause of death may be
difficult to determine. The internal
organs are so precisely attuned to
each other that even the slightest
damage to one may produce a general
disturbance that causes the entire
organism to cease functioning.”
—THE BOOK OF THE ETERNAL ROSE
Madalena stayed long enough to eat dinner and escort Cass on a walk around the grounds. After Mada left, Cass wandered through the middle of the garden aimlessly twirling a parasol, journal clutched under one arm, thinking about everything her friend had said. Agnese appeared to have relaxed the ban on Cass leaving the villa after the days she spent isolated in her room. In general, the whole villa just seemed happy to see her out of her room. Except for Luca—he was still gone on his mysterious errands.
The plants were arranged in semicircles: rosebushes in the very center, lilies and marigolds in the middle, and a ring of edible herbs on the outside. The arched trellis, providing partial shade for a pair of stone benches, stood at the back of the garden beyond all of the flowers. When the rosebushes grew heavy with blossoms, Giuseppe would take pride in stringing roses through the wooden slats.
The roses were just beginning to bud, but the marigolds were in full bloom: pale yellow, bright gold, fiery orange. Each plant blossomed bigger and bolder, trying to outdo the rest. An uprooted stem of the golden flowers lay among the mostly naked branches of Agnese’s rosebushes. These marigolds were drying out, withering away, as the rosebuds waited to be born. Life juxtaposed with death. One thing ending, another beginning.
It made Cass think of Falco and the way he had talked about how life and death were interconnected, how one could not exist without the other. The image of Falco cradling a corpse flashed in her head. Again and again, she had asked herself the same question: Could there be some reason he and his friends were stealing bodies? Some greater good that Cass didn’t understand?
No. Even if Falco didn’t believe in heaven, the people he had stolen from the
Cass wondered, not for the first time, if someone had buried her parents’ bodies. The thought of her mother and father being forbidden from entering heaven was almost unbearable. What happened to souls denied their afterlife? Did they wander the earth as spirits? Cass felt her throat clench. She wished her mother could be with her. She desperately needed her guidance. Cass closed her eyes and willed her mother to speak to her, to tell her what she should do.
But when Cass opened her eyes, no mystical signs glimmered before her. Only the sun hung low in the darkening sky. Her mother couldn’t help her.
Reaching down, she yanked the dying marigold from its spot among the roses, crushing the petals in her hand. She turned away from the trellis. The memory of her kiss with Falco hovered too close to the surface. She tried to lock it deep within her, to bury it. Mada had said it wasn’t about forgetting, just about accepting the way things had to be. Cass needed to forget, though. If she couldn’t have Falco, she wanted to forget that he ever existed.
As though in response to her thoughts, Luca appeared from around the side of the villa. It was so like him not to use the servants’ door. Cass hadn’t seen her fiancé in days and had almost gone back to thinking of him as the awkward, bookish boy who left Venice to study in France. Now she was forced to acknowledge his transformation once again. Watching as the wind ruffled his thick blondish hair and blew his cloak back from his broad shoulders, Cass couldn’t deny that her fiancé had become incredibly handsome. The thought made her feel awkward and twisty inside, as if merely finding Luca attractive was a betrayal of Falco.
Falco. The boy she could never see again.
“Hello, Cass.” The words fell stiltedly from Luca’s lips. Cass had never heard him call her by her nickname before. He stopped several feet from her, probably waiting to see if she would bolt out of the garden and into the graveyard rather than be close to him. Cass smiled in response. She gathered her skirts and sat on one of two stone benches near the garden’s center.
Luca approached her. He walked stiffly, as if he were still getting accustomed to his long arms and legs. “Sometimes I think we use more water in a day for our gardens than peasant families use for a month’s worth of cooking and washing.”
Cass looked up at him. “Is there a water shortage I don’t know about?” She hoped he couldn’t tell she’d been crying.
“No.” Just the faintest French accent colored the single word. Luca reached out to examine the beginning bud of a ruby-colored rose. The bloom snapped off in his hand. He twisted it around in his fingers. “I remember when you were a child. You used to have a nickname for all the flowers. You called the marigolds ‘fireflies,’ I recall, and lilies were ‘ladies’ purses.’”
“I can’t believe you remember that,” Cass said. “You hardly even played out here with me.”
“Remember how I used to hide things for you?”
Cass remembered. Before they were engaged, Luca would bring her little treasures, things he found when he was out wandering around. Once it was a string of green ceramic beads. Another time he left her a smooth stone shaped like a heart. He used to mark the hiding places with lilies stolen from Agnese’s own plants. Cass had forgotten about the game until Luca mentioned it.
“I liked that game,” Cass said. “I was sad when you got older and stop playing it. You practically quit talking to me.”
“I got nervous around you after our arrangement became official,” Luca said. “I used to watch you sometimes, though.”
“That’s kind of creepy, don’t you think?” Cass raised an eyebrow, and couldn’t help but crack a small smile.
“You stopped being just a little girl.” A red flush crept across Luca’s high cheekbones. “I wasn’t very good at talking to women. I’m still not.”
His shyness surprised her. Luca, the man, was proving to be so different from the boy she remembered. She thought of what Mada had said about growing to love somebody. She looked down at her hands and said haltingly, “My behavior has been inexcusable these last few days, so I won’t try to excuse it. I can only imagine what you must think of me.”
Luca finally dared to sit on the bench across from Cass. “It’s all right,” he said, still twirling the rosebud in his big hands. “I guess your aunt sprang it on you, announcing our engagement so suddenly.” He smiled, but Cass could tell it was forced. Hurt still lingered in his eyes. “You know, most girls wouldn’t mind being Signora da Peraga.”
“I know,” Cass said. She could think of nothing else to say.
Luca said, this time with a warm smile, “But you are different from most girls, aren’t you, Cassandra?”
Her hands tightened around her journal. Somehow Luca managed to see something good in her, even where there was nothing good to see. And yet, his words reminded her of Falco’s.
“I’d prefer it if the idea of our engagement didn’t make you miserable,” Luca continued. “Does it?” he asked softly. “Make you miserable?”
A few days ago, all Cass had wanted was to escape from her obligation to marry, and now she felt Luca loosening the band around her neck, unlocking the door to her cage. But Cass couldn’t tell him the truth. She had already hurt Falco. She wouldn’t hurt Luca and Agnese too. Being with Luca made sense. Being with Falco was madness.
“I hate seeing you so sad,” Luca said after a pause. “I hate to think I may be the cause of your unhappiness.”
Cass hovered on the brink of tears again. “It’s not you. I’ve just been feeling…alone.” She swallowed. “Contessa Liviana’s death got me thinking a lot about my parents.” This was not a complete lie.
Luca leaned forward on his elbows. “I understand,” he said softly. “It’s been years, but I still feel my father’s death as if it happened yesterday. And I never told you this, but I lost a younger sister back when I was just a child myself. Diana. I think about her every day.” He ducked his head, like the memory was physically weighing him down. “There’s no crime in still grieving your parents. You don’t ever have to get over them.”
Sympathy bloomed inside Cass. Even though she was grieving Falco more than she was her parents, it was comforting that Luca understood her for once. “I didn’t even know you had a sister.”
Luca looked up. His pale eyes darkened. “She’s—she would be a year younger than you. She died the summer before our parents introduced us. My mother can’t even bring herself to speak of her.”
“I’m so sorry,” Cass said. She reached out to squeeze Luca’s hand. “Was it fevers? Or the plague?” The Black Death, as Venetians often called the plague, had decimated the population.
“They called it a drowning,” Luca said abruptly.
Called it? Cass started. “But you think otherwise?”
“Let’s just say my family is riddled with bad luck. Between Diana dying young and my father succumbing to the plague, my mother has gone half mad with grief.” Luca blinked, as though the sun were too bright for his eyes. “I wish I could do more for her,” he said, slipping his hand from Cass’s. He rubbed at a small scuff on one of his leather boots.
As he stood, a single red petal fell from his black velvet cloak. “I’m glad you came out of your room. I hope to see you at supper.” Luca unfastened the cloak from around his neck and handed it to her. “Here. It’s getting dark. You might get cold.”
Cass accepted the cloak and draped it across her front like a blanket. A square of white cotton fell out of the pocket and she reached down and picked it up. Luca’s handkerchief. Her fingers stroked the embroidered initials—LdP. She thought back to her conversation with Madalena about dropping handkerchiefs. It seemed like the exchange had happened in another lifetime. She tucked the square of fabric back into the pocket of his cloak.
Luca smiled. “Thanks,” he said. “I manage to lose more of
The air turned cool as the stars came out, but Luca’s cloak kept Cass surprisingly warm. A blurry face appeared at one of the windows. Cass recognized Agnese’s favorite white cap. Cass gave her aunt a hesitant wave and the face vanished. Cass wondered if everyone had been worrying about her. She remembered the cautious way Luca had approached her, as if she were a wild horse that might spook and run off.
She ripped a blank page from her journal and started a letter to Falco.
I was wrong about who you are; I cannot possibly love a man such as you, nor can I see you again. It is not fair to either of us. Please do not try to see me or communicate with me in any way.
Cass knew that if she had the letter delivered to Falco, he would honor her wishes. Sighing, she tucked the piece of parchment inside the back cover of her journal. She couldn’t send it. Not yet, anyway.
Cass slipped inside the back door, where the cook was busy assembling cream-filled pastries in an otherwise empty kitchen. He wiped his hands on his apron and bowed in Cass’s direction. “Tell me the truth. It was my chicken broth that cured you, right?”
Cass laughed. “It must have been. Both Slipper and I enjoyed it.”
The cook gave her a severe look. “That little beast should be eating scraps.” But then he winked to show Cass he was joking.
When Cass entered the dining area, Agnese and Luca both beamed so brightly that for once the drafty, cavelike room seemed filled with heat and light. A pair of dinner servants stood at the far end of the table in their blue and silver uniforms.
“I’ll be right back,” Cass said. She hung Luca’s cloak over the back of a chair in the portego and then went to her room to put her journal away.
When she returned to the dining room, one of the servants pulled out Cass’s chair for her and the other placed an embroidered napkin in her lap. The boys stepped back from the table and stood against the wall, waiting to fetch empty plates or refill wineglasses as needed. Cass smiled hesitantly at her aunt, wondering if a lecture on manners would be forthcoming.
FIONA PAUL SERIES:
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