Venom, p.35

Venom, page 35

 part  #1 of  Secrets of the Eternal Rose Series

 

Venom
 



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  Luca’s cheeks colored slightly as he shifted in the gondola. “Mi dispiace, Signora Querini,” he said. “But you speak of your niece as if she’s a horse instead of a beautiful young woman.” Luca dared to flash Cass a quick half smile.

  She smiled back. Luca’s willingness to defend her to her aunt made her feel as warm, as comforted, as his heroics in the wine room.

  Agnese harrumphed. “If I speak of her as an animal, it is because her antics are positively uncivilized at times.” Then her voice softened. “Perhaps I am too hard on you, Cassandra. But please keep in mind that you are all that I have left.”

  Cass stared down at the bottom of the boat. She often thought about how Agnese was her only true family, but rarely stopped to think that the reverse was also true. “Mi dispiace,” Cass said, feeling a swell of relief as the distant shore of San Domenico came into view.

  Agnese reached out to squeeze her hand. “Let us just thank God that everything ended as it did.”

  Except that it wasn’t over, and Cass knew it.

  The next day, Cass and Luca took a stroll around the tiny island of San Domenico. Cass was surprised to discover that she liked the feel of Luca’s arm in hers, the way he guided her around puddles and cracks in the walkway. Women glanced at the two of them as they strolled by, likely envious of Cass. She saw Luca as they must see him: tall, handsome, affectionate. It felt good to be able to be out in public with a man, to be able to laugh and talk without having to worry about who was watching.

  They passed in front of Il Mar e la Spada, the little taverna that Falco and his friends liked to frequent. She thought about her nights with Falco: how intense and scary they had been, but how alive she had felt through it all. Would she feel that with Luca? She wasn’t sure.

  Over time, would she feel something even better? It would be different. Tempered. But maybe that was what Cass needed—someone to complement her impulsive nature, someone who would give her calm and stability.

  They made it past all of the buildings to the shoreline. Luca turned to Cass.

  “Have you heard of the Order of the Eternal Rose?” he asked, with a sudden urgency in his voice.

  Cass looked at him curiously. “No. I don’t know what that is.”

  Rather than explain himself, Luca let out a breath and shook his head. “Never mind. It’s nothing. I just…I don’t know where to start. My behavior since returning to Venice may have seemed strange to you,” he said. “I—I wanted the opportunity to explain. A few weeks ago, I received a letter from Cristian. I hadn’t heard from him in years. I confess I was hoping he had been killed in the war. He wrote that he had heard of my upcoming nuptials, but warned me that he would see to it that I never received my anticipated happiness.” Luca glanced away, squinting in the sunlight reflecting off the lagoon. “I had no doubt he was on the lookout for you. He had taken someone I loved before; he would not hesitate to do it again.”

  Cass’s heart began beating high in her throat. “What do you mean?”

  Luca was silent for a few moments, and Cass was worried he would refuse to say any more. But finally, he started speaking again. “My parents used to take my sister and me to Piazza San Marco quite often. Diana used to love the square. She could watch the jugglers and conjurers for hours. She never tired of looking through the jewelry and trinkets that the foreign merchants were hawking.”

  He exhaled slowly. Cass slipped her fingers inside of his. “My sister was only seven when she died—when Cristian killed her. Her body floated up in a canal; they called it an accident, but I knew better. Diana wouldn’t have drowned in a canal. She had learned to swim in a lake near our estate on the mainland. She was unusual. If she had lived, I think the two of you might have become quite good friends.”

  Cass felt guilt prickling inside of her. Poor Luca. He had endured such sadness. And there was so much about him that she didn’t know—that she had never cared to know.

  “When I got your aunt’s letter about planning the betrothal ceremony, it seemed like perfect timing,” Luca continued. “It would give me an excuse to return to Venice and find Cristian before he could find you. I was hoping he was just trying to scare me. When I caught that boy prowling around Agnese’s front lawn, I thought that Cristian had sent him as a spy.”

  Paolo. So Luca had no idea Cass had been running around with Falco. The guilty feelings poked her a little harder. Luca would never know of her affair—as long as her journal remained missing. Cass wondered if Cristian had taken it with him. If he would bide his time and then send the incriminating pages one by one in the days that led up to her wedding. Pain seized her at the thought. She stopped. Breathed. Waited for the sensation to pass.

  Luca wrapped an arm around her protectively. Cass inhaled the scent of pine and citrus from his skin and clothing. “Would you like to rest?” he asked. “I know all of this must come as a shock to you.”

  “No, go on,” Cass said, swallowing back the feeling that she might cry. She didn’t deserve Luca. He was too good for her.

  “When I heard about the murdered servant, I was more convinced than ever that my half brother was in Venice. I was terrified he would approach you, that he would try to—” Luca shuddered.

  Cass remembered how Cristian had approached her at the brothel, how he had pretended to buy her for the evening. What might have happened if Falco hadn’t intervened?

  “It wasn’t until the art exhibition that I knew for certain. Cristian’s signature was in the guest book above your own. One of his paintings reminded me of a woman who occasionally called upon my father. I believe it may have been Cristian’s own mother.” Luca shook his head. He added, more gently, “I’m sorry if I was ever harsh with you. I wanted to protect you. I should have told you about Cristian. But I thought you might be safer if you remained ignorant. And I also felt—” He stopped abruptly.

  “What?” she prompted him. Was that who R was—the final Fallen Ones portrait? Cass was reeling from the thought of Cristian killing his own mother, but she remembered the hateful way he had called her a whore. Maybe Cristian had seen his mother with a man when he was younger, and something inside of him had snapped.

  Luca rubbed his forehead. “Cristian is only my half brother,” he said. “He will never have any piece of my estate. That’s partly why he hates me. Even so…I was worried that if you knew about him, you’d be afraid to marry me.”

  “Luca.” Cass squeezed his hand softly. “I have no right to judge you.”

  “Well, it isn’t like you’ve seemed too keen on our betrothal anyway,” Luca said, staring off into the distance.

  Cass stopped. She looked out over the lagoon. The sun was just beginning to set, painting the sky a mix of reds and oranges. Cass remembered wishing she could escape San Domenico. Now the warm colors weaved around her like a blanket. For once, she didn’t want to swim away into the sea. “It isn’t that,” she said slowly. “It just took me by surprise. I wasn’t ready.”

  Luca turned toward her. “What about now, Cassandra?” he asked, touching his hand to her left cheek, his other hand coming to rest on her slender waist. “Are you ready now? I must return to France to study. Come back with me. I can protect you. I will protect you. And I will try—I will do everything I can to make you happy.”

  Cass didn’t know what to say. She stared into Luca’s eyes—patient, warm, kind. He would be an excellent husband. An almost-perfect husband. But would he be the perfect husband for her? Cass didn’t know.

  Just then, something moved in the shadows. Instinctively, Cass tensed up. Her head whipped around as a figure emerged from the taverna behind them.

  It was Falco, holding a canvas sack over his shoulder. He froze, watching her and Luca, and Cass saw them as he must: standing close like lovers, their arms intertwined. He was still at a distance, but his stare radiated heat. Not anger, just his own peculiar energy.

  Luca did not appear to notice her attention had been distracted. “Will you go with me?” he prompted. “
As my wife?”

  “I—” Cass looked up into Luca’s face. Her fiancé would love her and protect her. He understood pain and loyalty. He would die to keep her safe.

  Falco was moving now, walking toward the shoreline. Cass’s heart rose into her throat. Her first love. Falco understood her desire to be free from expectations. The man who would support her in living the life she wanted to live.

  But what life was that?

  Cass stood frozen, unable to decide. Luca was still staring at her expectantly. Falco reached the two of them, raising his blue eyes just long enough to give her a single soft look as he passed by.

  As Falco waved an arm to signal a passing fisherman, the sun dipped completely below the horizon. And with the darkness came clarity. The answer had been in front of her the whole time. Cass knew what she must do.

  “Just as roses grow

  from the decomposed,

  so may new life

  spring from death.”

  —THE BOOK OF THE ETERNAL ROSE

  thirty-four

  Cass sat at Agnese’s bedside, the two of them sharing a late supper together, while Luca was attending to business at his family palazzo.

  “I daresay you’ve had a more exciting week than Signorina Rambaldo’s,” Agnese commented. She raised a forkful of vegetables to her lips.

  Cass smiled, pleased at how smoothly her aunt manipulated the utensil. Maybe Agnese was getting stronger. “Too exciting,” she said. “I’m looking forward to lazing about the villa for a few days. Would you believe me if I said I was even looking forward to next week’s studies?” Agnese had arranged for Cass’s literature tutor to present a few more lessons.

  Agnese’s gray eyes sparkled. “No, I would not.” She fidgeted beneath her velvet coverlet. “Would you call one of the servants to help lift me up in the bed a bit?”

  “I can do it,” Cass said. Before her aunt could protest, Cass stood from her chair. She wrapped her hands under her aunt’s arms and helped readjust her position. She felt a brief pang as she realized how light her aunt was—like a bird, all hollow bones. Their faces touched briefly, and Cass caught a whiff of rosewater perfume. It reminded her of her mother.

  “How’s that?” she asked brightly.

  “Lovely, dear,” her aunt said. “I’m only just beginning to realize how strong you are.” She pointed at a white box on her dressing table. “Would you bring me that parcel, please?”

  Cass fetched the package from across the room. It was a medium-sized box with a lilac ribbon tied around it. As she went to place it in her aunt’s hands, Agnese shook her head with a smile. “It’s for you.”

  “Me? Why?”

  Agnese’s thin lips curved up into a smile. “I meant it for your birthday, but after the week you’ve had, I thought you deserved a little present.”

  Cass untied the lilac ribbon, slipping it into her pocket. Slipper would enjoy playing with it later. She lifted the lid off the box. Nestled beneath the cover was a thick book, bound in soft black leather. Cass folded back the cover. The pages were blank.

  “It’s a new journal,” Agnese said. “As much as you’ve had to write about lately, I figured you might have run out of pages.”

  Cass cradled the leather-bound book to her chest. It was the perfect gift. Her aunt didn’t even know her old journal had disappeared, yet somehow she had figured out exactly what Cass needed. Maybe that was the magic of family. Maybe the invisible threads that connected Cass to her aunt weren’t as frail as she had always imagined. Maybe they were giant ropes that would hold the two of them together in the stormy republic of Venice.

  For the first time, Cass didn’t think being bound to her aunt would be such a bad thing. She had more to learn from Agnese, about life, love, and the world.

  “Thank you,” she whispered, surprised to feel tears pressing behind her eyes. “It’s perfect.” She excused herself quickly and headed back to her bedchamber.

  Cass pushed into the room and took a seat at her dressing table. She pulled a quill from her drawer. She lit her oil lamp, letting her fingers trace the flower patterns in the smooth surface. For a moment she sat, staring into space, thinking about all that had happened in just a few short weeks.

  There were still so many questions Cass wanted answered: first and foremost, where was Feliciana? If Cristian hadn’t harmed her, where was she? Poor Siena wouldn’t be whole until her sister returned safely.

  And was Feliciana’s disappearance connected to the murders? What was the significance of the flower inside the circle? Could it be connected to the Order of the Eternal Rose that Luca had asked her about? She’d seen the symbol on rings worn by Cristian and Donna Domacetti, and on the outside of Angelo de Gradi’s gore-filled workshop. Were the three of them involved in something sinister? And if so, how did Joseph Dubois fit in? Cass was certain Dubois was the key to linking everything else together. And what had Luca meant when he implied that the murders were part of something larger?

  She sighed, and pushed thoughts of Cristian and conspiracy out of her mind. She felt older, much older, than she had only a month ago. She had done some things in the past few weeks that could be viewed as wrong, hurtful even. But she had lived, and loved, and made the right decision for herself in the end.

  Cass thumbed through the pages of the journal, surprised when her finger caught midway through. A loose piece of parchment fell out of the middle of the book. Cass could hardly believe it. It was Falco’s sketch—the faceless nude girl he had given to Cass weeks ago. Agnese must have been the one who found the cloak thrown over the side table. The old woman had known about the drawing the whole time.

  What if Agnese thought that Cass had posed for the sketch? Her cheeks burned. She stood, preparing to rush back to her aunt’s bedchamber and account for the drawing.

  But then she stopped. Obviously, Agnese wasn’t upset, or she’d have confronted Cass when she first discovered the drawing. She recalled the conversation from Palazzo Domacetti, how the women at tea had insinuated that Agnese hadn’t always been stodgy and strict. Cass struggled with the idea of her aunt ever being young and impulsive, but many people had surprised her lately. It only made sense that there was more to Agnese as well.

  Cass smiled down at the sketch as she remembered the way Falco had teased her about being embarrassed of her own body. He had seemed so crass back then, before she fell in love with him. Cass touched the drawing to her heart, just for a second. Then she hid it deep within the journal’s empty pages. This was one story she would keep to herself. Not everything needed to be explained.

  The thought reminded her of something Liviana had said to her once. Before Livi got sick, she and Cass had been playing in Agnese’s garden when a funeral party brought a body to be interred in the cemetery. The girls has snuck through the gate and hidden themselves behind a monument, watching as the shrouded body was carried inside a tomb by men wearing black.

  “But if they lock the door,” Cass had said, “how will his soul get out so it can go to heaven?”

  “I don’t know,” the younger girl had answered. “Maybe souls can walk through walls, like ghosts.”

  “And will he float up through the sky?” Cass asked. “Or will angels come down and carry him away?”

  Liviana had shrugged, but her face remained serene, as if these were questions that simply didn’t bother her.

  “But don’t you want to know how it happens?” Cass persisted, thinking of her own parents, who had died just a few months earlier. Were their bodies trapped somewhere, their spirits unable to ascend?

  “Not everything is simple,” Liviana had said. “Sometimes things are better off left as mysteries, don’t you think?”

  Cass didn’t think so at the time. Now she wasn’t as sure. Maybe she should forget about flowers inscribed in circles and missing bodies and corruption that ran so deep that men got away with murder. Maybe she should focus on enjoying what time she had left with her aunt. Cass didn’t know if she could do that, b
ut she knew what she could do.

  She ripped a single blank page from her new journal.

  Dear Luca,

  Thank you for understanding, and for being patient. Please know that I care about you, very much. But I cannot give my life to you yet. I am still learning how to live. I am still figuring out who I am.

  She looked up from her letter and crumpled it. She tore another page from the book.

  Dear Falco,

  You changed my life, and you will always be a part of it. But I can’t run away with you and abandon the only family I have left. I have learned the hard way that you must take care of the people closest to you, those who need you the most.

  Cass sighed. She set that letter aside too. She’d never be able to send it anyway. Falco was gone. She might never see him again.

  Cass dipped her quill into the ink and touched it to the first page of the journal. She wrote:

  You may study the bodies of the living and the dead for clues about the mechanism of the muscles, the bones, and even the brain, but you can never unravel the mystery of the human heart…

  Acknowledgments

  Extra-special thanks to Lexa Hillyer and Lauren Oliver for supporting and believing in me even when I had doubts. This has been a Cinderella-like experience, and I’m hoping the clock doesn’t strike midnight for a very long time. Also to Jill Santopolo, Julia Johnson, and everyone at Philomel who helped mold this book into something truly deserving of the Philomel brand. Beth Scorzato and Eleanor Herman, thank you for your awesome pitches and your tireless commitment to historical accuracy. Stephen Barbara and the people at Foundry Literary + Media, thanks for your part in making dreams come true and for getting the word out internationally. This book is going to be published in more languages than I will ever know how to speak. How cool is that?

 

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