Venom, p.5

Venom, page 5

 part  #1 of  Secrets of the Eternal Rose Series



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  “Signorina?” Siena was staring at her now.

  “I’m fine,” Cass said sharply. And then, with a tight smile: “A bad night’s sleep. That’s all.” She had to hold herself together until she had a chance to consider everything rationally. Again, she wished she had her journal. If she could list out everything that had happened, examine the facts coolly, then maybe the previous night’s events would make more sense. Maybe she’d see something that she had missed in the moment. If she blurted everything out to Siena, the maid would no doubt run to tell Agnese that she’d been gallivanting around the graveyard. No, Cass had to keep this a secret, at least until she knew more. She’d return to the graveyard tonight, she decided. She’d look for more clues. She’d look everywhere for signs of Livi’s stolen body.

  But for now, she had to forget about it, as Falco had counseled her to do. Desperate for any type of distraction, she raised the shade on the felze so that she and Siena could observe as the gondolier passed between the Giudecca and San Giorgio Maggiore Island.

  “Cass,” Siena protested, “you know how your aunt dislikes the whole world staring at you.”

  Cass pulled her hat off just long enough to shake out her thick wavy hair and then tuck it back under her bonnet. “They’re not staring at me, Siena. They’re too busy living.”

  Siena shook her head but didn’t say more. The two girls watched as the gondola neared the main island of Venice. As usual, and despite the sunshine, the Rialto was encased in mist; moisture clung to its buildings like a fine lacy veil. They passed by the docks that ran along the back of the Palazzo Ducale, home to the Doge of Venice. A pair of flat-bottomed peàtas were tied up here, and coarse-looking men walked up and down gangplanks, unloading crates and barrels. Cass blushed at the language they were using. She rarely heard such foul words, but then she had never paid much attention to commoners before. Maybe everyone in the working class spoke crudely. Falco had practically invited her to spend the night with him.

  She remembered the way his eyes had worked their way over her whole body, like he could see straight through her clothing. She felt her face growing hotter and turned quickly away from Siena. Cass was going to throw herself into the Grand Canal if the girl inquired about her health one more time.

  The brackish water below their gondola rolled back and forth, a yellow froth floating on the surface. She had almost jumped in the canals once, when she was nine. She and Liviana had been running through the streets ahead of their maidservants. Cass had crossed a rickety stone bridge by balancing on one of the handrails. She’d dared Liviana to do the same. The younger girl had gamely clambered up onto the railing with Cass’s help, but just then the servants looked up and started yelling. Poor Livi had toppled off the edge, right into the canal. When her head emerged from the water, she’d looked so distraught that Cass decided to jump in next to her as a show of solidarity. But Cass’s maidservant had seized her as she was slipping out of her shoes, leaving Liviana to bob in the muddy water by herself.

  Cass had never forgotten the lecture they had received. The canal water was dirty, filthy, foul, disgusting, filled with God knows what kind of sicknesses. Livi didn’t become ill until years later, but Cass still wondered sometimes if she was partially at fault for her friend’s failing health.

  She missed her.

  The gondolier hummed as he navigated the gondola into the Grand Canal. Cass focused on the commotion along the banks. Children ran in circles at the edges of the canal while peasant women in plain brown dresses scurried along alleyways, shouting to their neighbors or emptying chamber pots into the water. Cass wished she had thought to bring along a sachet of herbs. Though the sun was less intense here, the dense blocks of buildings trapped in the heat and magnified the stench of the canals.

  They drifted by palazzo after palazzo, each more magnificent than the one before. Cass admired the grand marble balconies and the gleaming golden façades of the Ca’ d’Oro, one of Venice’s most ornate palazzos, owned by the famous Contarini family. Several Venetian Doges had come from the Contarini bloodline. Down a side canal, Cass saw a group of boys clustered on the banks, feet dangling over the walls. Their heads were bowed over scraps of parchment. They had to be artists. Cass squinted but didn’t see Falco among them. He was probably still asleep after his late-night “business.”

  The gondolier slowed to a stop in front of Madalena’s home, bumping against the stone shoreline. He tossed a loop of rope over a green and gold mooring post. Madalena lived in one of the bigger palazzos on the Rialto, right on the Grand Canal and within walking distance of the famous Piazza San Marco. The palazzo’s façade was made of intricately carved white marble. A series of crosses decorated the top of the building and a bas-relief of roses encircled each arched window. Giant yellow banners with the Rambaldo family crest—a black bear holding the leash of a green dragon—flanked both sides of the main entrance.

  Cass paid the man and let him help her and Siena from the boat. Then Cass knocked on the arched door. She was surprised when Madalena answered it herself.

  People often told Cass that she and Mada looked like sisters. They did have the same long dark hair and heart-shaped faces, though Cass’s hair was redder than Mada’s. Sometimes Cass could see the resemblance, but not today. Madalena wore a beautiful red silk dress with fine gray lace at the edges of the neck and sleeves. Her skin was luminous, hazel eyes shining; her smile radiated heat. Cass felt drab, like a shadow, next to her glowing friend.

  “Cass!” Madalena threw her arms around Cass’s neck as though it had been months since they’d seen each other instead of just a day. Cass breathed in the scent of Mada’s lilac perfume and instantly felt better. All of the dark thoughts and fantasies that had troubled her since last night seemed to dissipate.

  “Have you taken to answering your own door?” Cass teased. “Or have you given all your servants leave for the day?” She couldn’t help but stare at her friend’s scarlet gown. The fabric was a stunning contrast to her ivory skin and dark hair. Dye that red could have come only from the belly of the kermes beetle, which made it some of the most expensive fabric Venice had to offer.

  “I was looking for the butler to ask if you had sent a message saying you weren’t coming. But then I saw you through the window and just couldn’t wait another second,” Madalena announced with a laugh. “You’re so late! We’ve already eaten and everything.”

  “Sorry, I—I lost track of time,” Cass said, leaning against the grand marble entryway. If Cass confessed to sleeping this late, her friend would demand an explanation, and Cass wasn’t ready to tell her about Falco or the body they had found. Mada would worry, and a worried Mada was a talkative Mada.

  Madalena waved off the apology with a slender hand. Her fingernails were long and perfectly rounded at the tips. “I’ll forgive you only if you help me make my wedding absolutely perfect.”

  “Just the fact that you and Marco will be there practically attached lip to lip will make it perfect,” Cass teased. As Mada laughed, the remaining tension ebbed out of Cass. The whole day seemed brighter, the haze thinner, with Madalena around—or maybe lack of sleep had made Cass giddy.

  “Signorina,” Siena suddenly interrupted, “I’ll be heading to the market to get some things for your aunt. I’ll come back for you later?”

  “Sure, Siena.” Cass waved at her maid, more than a little relieved to see her go, and turned to follow Madalena up the stairs from the canal into the gorgeous house. Bowls of cut flowers sat on pedestals at the top of the stairs, perfuming the whole palazzo with the smell of lavender and roses.

  Cass loved coming to Mada’s house. The layout was almost exactly the same as the home where she’d grown up. She couldn’t resist running a hand across the back of a green velvet divan as they cut through the cavernous portego. She could almost see her mother sitting there, a medical book tucked between her hands, while her father paced back and forth in front of the fireplace, deep in thought. Cass trailed behind Madalena,
gazing at the vaulted ceilings, the intricately carved furniture, the oil paintings and enormous tapestries that covered each wall. She’d been in her friend’s palazzo probably a hundred times, and she always felt more at home here than she did at Agnese’s.

  A tall man with shoulder-length blond hair stood at the far side of the portego, just in front of a framed military uniform worn by one of Madalena’s ancestors. He swung a green and black velvet cloak with brilliant gold embroidery over his shoulders. “I’ll be back later, Signorina Rambaldo,” he said with a slight bow. His voice had a touch of an accent. Cass couldn’t quite place it.

  Madalena smiled sunnily. “Have a wonderful day, Cristian.” Almost as an afterthought she touched the man’s arm as he turned to leave. “This is my friend Cassandra Caravello. Cass, this is Cristian de Lambert. He’s been doing some work for my father. And he’s been a great help to me, as well. You know this wedding has been making me crazy.”

  Cristian’s dark brown eyes met Cass’s briefly. “Pleased to meet you,” he said, dipping into another bow. He seemed to linger for a moment, staring at Cass, as if wanting to say more.

  “Be careful,” Cass said with a smile. “Assisting Mada with her wedding might turn into a full-time job.”

  Cristian smiled slightly. “Yes. Well, it’s the least I can do, given her father’s generosity toward me.” He fiddled with one of the gold braided tassels that adorned his cloak. His face and arms were tan. Cass wondered what sort of work he did that required him to spend so much time outside. “I hope you two have a nice visit,” he said, crossing the long portego in what seemed like just a few strides. The tail of his cloak billowed behind him as he headed down the stairs to the street level.

  “So he works for your father? I’m surprised I’ve never met him before,” Cass said.

  “Cristian worked for one of Father’s friends, but he was injured and lost his position while he was convalescing,” Madalena said. “My father has given him some work to do here at the estate. Helping get the invoices for the business reconciled or some such.” She paused for a moment. “I believe he also does some work for Signor Dubois.”

  Signor Dubois was the Frenchman who had spirited away Cass’s former lady’s maid. Cass wondered if Cristian had ever met Feliciana. As a member of the merchant class, he was still well above interacting with servants, but if anyone could get a man’s attention, it was Siena’s beautiful older sister.

  Cass and Mada exited down a set of stairs and descended into a lush courtyard garden—open to the air, but surrounded by walls on all sides—and headed to a small table, protected from the sun by an overhanging marble ledge adorned with carved cherubs. Someone had draped the tabletop with a green and gold cloth. A leather-bound book sat open; the feathered edge of a quill protruded from a small pot of ink.

  Madalena gathered her dress around her before sitting down. Cass’s eyes lingered on the tight bodice and the wide farthingale Mada wore to support her skirts. They made her friend look slim and curvy at the same time.

  A servant dressed in the green and gold livery that designated Madalena’s estate brought goblets of red wine and a plate of bits of meat and bread left from dinner. She returned with a second platter containing flaky pastries drizzled with honey.

  Cass twirled the stem of her beautiful blown-glass goblet. Swirling mermaids twisted their way up the delicate stem. No doubt the piece was from nearby Murano, the glassblowing capital of the world. She felt a small pang of envy. Her friend was surrounded by glamour, by beauty. Life was so different here from how it was out on San Domenico.

  As Mada began prattling happily about her upcoming marriage to Marco, Cass couldn’t help thinking of her own wedding, which Aunt Agnese had already begun to speak of whenever she and Cass had a moment alone. If the old woman had her way, the ceremony would no doubt be as grim and proper as the funeral yesterday.

  “I meant what I said before, you know,” Cass said. “All you need is you and Marco.”

  Madalena laughed. “Me. Marco. Hundreds of guests. An unforgettable dress. A fantastic cake. Music. Flowers. Stunning jewelry.” She drummed her manicured nails on the table. “Speaking of which, I notice your neck is conspicuously bare today.”

  Cass thought back to the rush in which Siena had dressed her. Leave it to Madalena to notice everyone’s jewelry, or lack thereof. “Nothing caught my eye.”

  Mada nodded. “You should ask Agnese for some new pendants. Yours are all years old, aren’t they?” Without waiting for a response, she pulled the quill from the pot of ink and began adding to the list of things written in the book. “Let’s see. There’s the crystal wineglasses, and the water clock in the entrance hall. Oh, and I want the napkin set embroidered with dolphins. Mother made those.”

  “What are you doing?” Cass asked, her eyes following Madalena’s quill as it scratched its way across the page.

  “Selecting my trousseau. Father said I could take anything I wanted to Marco’s villa.”

  Madalena’s mother had passed away giving birth to Mada’s younger brother, who died weeks later from a series of fevers. Mada had been only around ten years old at the time. Ever since then, her father had prided himself on spoiling his only child.

  “I can’t believe you’re getting married in only a couple of weeks,” Cass said. She felt a quick flash of sorrow—now that Livi was gone, once Mada was busy tending to Marco, Cass really would be alone. But she managed to smile.

  Madalena pouted. “If it weren’t for Father’s business dealings, we’d have been married months ago. It took him forever to recoup his losses from the wars.”

  Cass didn’t know much about the seemingly never-ending wars with the Ottomans. It was all over land much farther down the coast, mostly out in the Mediterranean Sea. Maybe it wasn’t so bad to live on insignificant San Domenico, a little piece of property no other country seemed intent on taking over. Why would they?

  Madalena’s mouth quirked into a half smile. “Did I tell you about what happened last week with Marco?”

  Cass shook her head.

  “Well,” Mada began coyly, leaning in close to Cass and speaking quietly, “Father was out of town, you know, on business. But still, I can’t just have Marco over to the house, because one of the servants will tattle on me, guaranteed.”

  “So what did you do?” Cass played with a strand of hair that had escaped from her bonnet.

  Madalena lowered her voice even more. “I didn’t do anything. It was all Marco. He climbed the ivy vines from the canal to my window. I’m lucky he didn’t fall and drown.” She smiled dreamily. “I woke up in the middle of the night. I don’t know why. I just did. And Marco was sitting next to my bed, watching me sleep.” Madalena giggled. “At first I was mad at him for scaring me.”

  Cass couldn’t keep her jaw from dropping a little. She tried to imagine a boy sneaking into her own room to watch her sleep. Immediately, it was the face of the artist Falco she saw. Bright blue eyes. Crooked smile. She struggled to push his image from her mind. “And then?”

  Mada paused just long enough to allow the suspense to build. “And then he sat down next to me and took me in his arms. And we kissed until sunrise.”

  “Madalena Rambaldo! In your father’s house?” Cass made a pretend-scandalized face.

  Madalena giggled again. “Marco snuck back out—through the house, thankfully—just before first light, when the servants begin to go about their chores. A few minutes later and he might have gotten caught.”

  At that moment, the gardener, a stern-faced old man, appeared around a column in the courtyard with a large pot of water in his arms. Ignoring the girls, he began to water the rosebushes, which were still awaiting their first buds. Madalena and Cass bent their heads close together and laughed.

  “Let’s just say last week’s confession was interesting,” Madalena finished. “I think I made the priest blush.”

  Cass took a sip of her wine, savoring its sweetness. She wondered what it would feel like to ki
ss someone all night. Falco’s face materialized in her head again and she felt her cheeks redden.

  Cass had the sudden urge to tell Madalena everything, right now—the body, the artist, the killer lurking somewhere in the darkness. How the fear, and the thrill of it, and the something-else-she-couldn’t-quite-say all jumbled together in her chest. The secret was too big. She was going to burst if she didn’t share it with someone.

  But just then Madalena said, “On my wedding day…you’ll be there all day, to make sure everything goes as planned, won’t you?”

  If Cass hadn’t known better, she would’ve sworn her friend was nervous. “Of course. Anything you need.”

  Madalena leapt up and kissed Cass on the cheek. “You’re the best. Of all my friends, you’re the most reliable, you know? It’s no wonder your parents paired you up with Luca da Peraga. You two are perfect for each other.”

  “You mean because we’re both boring?” Cass asked, getting up from her chair and wandering over to the Venus fountain in the center of the garden. As Cass dipped her hand beneath the cool spray, her eyes were drawn toward the goddess’s full breasts, covered only by locks of long, flowing hair. Around the edge of the fountain, other Greek figures were depicted, frolicking in various state of undress.

  Madalena followed her. She ran one of her hands along the fountain’s edge. Then she laughed and splashed a handful of water at Cass. “Because you both always do the right thing.”

  Cass dodged the flying droplets and looked away from her friend. She didn’t know why the words made her defensive, like a child being humored by a parent. If only Madalena knew what Cass had been doing. Running around the graveyard with a peasant. Not reporting a dead body. Not reporting the disappearance of their friend’s body! Oblivious to the tension in Cass’s face, Madalena grabbed Cass’s hand. “You seem even quieter than usual today,” she commented. “Are you upset about Livi?”


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