The Shadowed Heart ~ Chapters 1-3

The Shadowed Heart, my new historical romance with a touch of paranormal is now available on Amazon/Kindle Unlimited. Read the first three chapters of Book 3 in the Magic in Italy Historical Romance series, featuring a clairvoyant Gypsy in Casanova’s Venice.

Chapter One

 

Venice, October 1767

The first day of Carnival

 

Chiara’s hand stole toward the slim dagger concealed at her waist as the man who held her arm so tightly turned her away from the brightly lit Piazza San Marco. Her breath quickened as he steered her down a shadowy passageway, which was just wide enough for three people to walk abreast, but the handle of the weapon dug comfortingly into the palm of her hand and kept panic at bay.

If he noticed her apprehension, the man ignored it as he hurried her along. Finally, he stopped in front of a door, the wood faded and cracked with age and moisture. Raising his hand, he knocked twice with his fist.

“We’re here,” he announced, giving her a fleeting look.

“You told me you would take me to the house of a great lady.” Chiara wrenched her arm out of his grasp and shifted away, prepared to run or to use her dagger, whichever seemed more expedient. “I do not believe that a great lady would go near such a miserable place.”

The man looked down at the young Gypsy. The flickering light of the single lantern that hung above the door gave her skin a sallow cast, but he had seen it in daylight and knew that it had the golden color of a ripe apricot. The eyes of a startling blue were wary but held no fear.

She had spirit, he thought. He would keep her for a while, and she would make him a tidy sum. And when he was done with her, there were plenty of back-alley pimps who would take her off his hands. He felt a small flash of guilt, but it was easy to suppress it with the image of his daughter, who lay so still in her bed no matter what new and expensive treatments the doctor invented for her.

“It is as I told you. This is the casinò of Signora Giulietta Baldini, the widow of Ser Luigi Baldini.” He had no trouble injecting a smooth confidence into his voice, for—this time—he happened to be telling the truth.

“If you were from Venice,” he continued, “you would know that he was a very rich man. And you would know that Venetian ladies receive guests in their homes only on formal occasions. They have little houses like this one where their guests can enjoy themselves as they please in more intimate surroundings.” His fleshy mouth curved in a mocking grin. “But isn’t that something you should know? If you truly have the sight, that is?” He reached for her arm.

“I see what is given to me to see. Sometimes it is a great deal, and sometimes it is nothing at all.” Chiara evaded his grasp. “Having the sight does not make me all-knowing.”

The man laughed, the sound echoing a little between the high buildings. “You don’t have to be all-knowing, little one.”

In fact, he thought, it was better for her that she was not. He leaned down toward her, his movement distracting her from the hand that snaked out from beneath his voluminous black cloak to curl tightly around her arm.

“All you have to do is tell a few fortunes like you did in the piazza this afternoon.” She had wrapped a shabby black shawl tightly around her, but an expanse of pale skin remained visible above the ruffle of her dress, and his gaze skimmed approvingly over her. “And be pleasant to Donna Giulietta’s guests.”

The door opened with a creak, and Chiara turned to see a footman in costly green and gold livery holding a large candelabra.

“You are late, Manelli. Donna Giulietta is getting impatient.” The footman turned sharply and moved toward the narrow staircase.

Her fingers on the hilt of her dagger, Chiara allowed herself to be pulled into the small entry.

A small table with curved legs, chairs upholstered in rich wine-red velvet, and expensive candles in gilt sconces on the walls gave some small reassurance that this house was indeed that of a great lady. Laughter and the sound of a mandolin drifted down the stairs, together with the scent of coffee, perfume, and warm candlewax.

She thought of the coins she had earned today and tucked into the shabby purse she wore around her waist. She thought of the coins she had been promised for the evening’s work and how they would enable her to pay for her sister’s care at the small farm she had found near Padua. But, most of all, she thought of how it could bring her one step closer to finding her father and getting the revenge that had been the focus of her life for more than two years.

Chiara lifted her gaze to the florid face of the man the footman had called Manelli. “Let go of my arm,” she said softly. As a surge of power pulsed through her, she divined greed and an almost casual brutishness, but the anxiety she sensed in him was stronger than either one, so she looked at that more closely. An image rose of a young woman lying in a bed. She saw the woman sit up and hold out her hand to Manelli. “Babbo,” the woman said and smiled. “Daddy.”

As Manelli looked into the young Gypsy’s eyes, they lost all expression until they became as blank as glass. After a moment, he watched the strange light fade from her eyes. He felt an icy chill along his back and told himself that it was only the October wind blowing in from the still-open door.

Blinking, Chiara focused on Manelli’s face. He had grown a little pale beneath the ruddiness, and she gave a satisfied little nod. “Don’t worry. Your daughter will be healthy again.” He stared at her, and she saw a desperate hope seep into his eyes. “It is so,” she said. “I have seen it.”

Turning away, she moved to follow the footman up the stairs toward the blazing lights.

 

 

Irritated by Giulietta’s inane chatter, Luca Zeani turned away and slung one leg carelessly over the arm of his chair. Picking up a mandolin, he plucked its strings absently. He heard the jingle of coins in the next room and briefly considered joining one of the games. Perhaps a few hands of faro at high stakes would speed his pulse a bit and burn off the indolence that had crept into his blood since his return to Venice.

But the languor that seemed to infect all of Venice kept him in his chair, his long, slender fingers idly strumming the mandolin. His half-open eyes were fixed on a gilded stucco border near the ceiling, but what he saw was the sunlit blue of the open sea.

The ache of longing for the sharp, clean air of the sea drifted through him, but even that did not rouse him from the languidness. It was so easy to give oneself to pleasure in this city where no one seemed to think of anything else.

The atmosphere of temptation and sensuality took hold like a fever, he mused, making the pleasures it offered the only reality. More real than the fact that he was in Venice to speak to the Great Council in the name of Admiral Angelo Emo, demanding more men and ships to fight the Barbary pirates. More real than the masked man who had approached him to speak seductively of freedom and renewed vigor for the sickly Venetian Republic.

He felt Giulietta rise from her seat beside him and gave a small sigh of relief. She was very beautiful, and in bed, she was as accomplished as a high-priced courtesan, but otherwise, she was a tiresome woman. The showy necklace of rubies and diamonds that he had thought to give her as a parting gift had been in a cabinet in his apartments for weeks, but somehow it always seemed simpler to allow things to go on as they were.

When he felt a touch on his shoulder, Luca looked up in surprise, not having heard anyone approach. But there was no one beside him.

Sitting up straight, he looked around him to see who could have touched him. Across from him, an elderly man dozed in his chair. On his other side, a masked couple was engaged in such fervid flirtation that they seemed in imminent danger of forgetting that they were in public.

He looked across the room to where Giulietta stood speaking to a heavy-set man and a tall young woman, wearing a multi-colored skirt that molded to her hips—and again felt an impact. But this time he would have sworn that it was a woman’s hand that brushed against his skin just above his heart.

Putting the mandolin aside, he leaned forward, his hands propped on his ivory-colored silk breeches. Deliberately, he met the young woman’s gaze. She was staring at him with such undisguised animosity that he stiffened, his own eyes narrowing.

Intrigued, he rose and sauntered to where Giulietta stood, cupping his hand around her neck more by habit than desire.

“What have we here?” he asked, never taking his gaze away from the Gypsy’s eyes. In the blue depths that were the color of the Adriatic when the midday sun shone upon it glimmered hatred, colder and more relentless than he had ever encountered.

“A Gypsy fortune-teller. She will look into our guests’ future and then”—Giulietta paused and gave a malicious little laugh—“entertain them. An amusing little diversion, don’t you think, caro?” She looked up at Luca, while leaning back to press her neck still more firmly against his fingers.

Giulietta’s words passed by Luca unheard as he stared into the young Gypsy’s eyes. He had made his share of enemies in his twenty-seven years, but he had never seen such loathing, not even over the point of a sword.

For the first time in weeks, he felt the prickle of real excitement. A riddle to solve, he thought. A riddle involving a woman whose face would have done justice to one of Titian’s portraits. As he tore his gaze away from her eyes to allow it to drift over her, he felt an absurd pleasure in her lack of artifice.

The curls that fell beyond her shoulders in a tangled black mass had obviously never seen the creams and lotions Venetian women used to bleach their hair to a fashionable blond color. Her lips, the color of a ripe peach, needed no rouge. Her golden skin was untouched by powder, and instead of a beauty patch, there was a smudge of dirt on her cheek.

He felt his body tighten with that first, pure, sweet rush of arousal, untainted by skillful tricks or stimulants. His gaze returned to her eyes.

They were still trained on him, but they were strangely unfocused now as if she were looking far beyond his face. Baffled by the sudden change, he found his interest piqued still further. This was definitely a puzzle he wanted to solve.

 

 

It was him. Chiara stared over the lady’s shoulder, not quite believing what she was seeing. That hair, the color of ripe wheat, unpowdered and uncurled in defiance of fashion, merely tied back carelessly with a dark ribbon. That chiseled, perfect profile.

No, she thought, shaking her head to clear it. She must be mistaken. It could not possibly be him. She could not possibly have the good fortune to stumble by chance across the man she hated so fiercely. Perhaps even more than she hated her father.

Then he turned to face her, and she knew she was not mistaken. There could not be another mouth like that in the whole world, its sensuality promising both pleasure and cruelty. This is what Lucifer must have looked like, she thought. The fallen angel who had chosen to rule in hell rather than serve in heaven.

Despite the hatred within her that left a vile taste on her tongue, she found herself aware—much too aware—of the man’s beauty.

He stood in front of her, close enough that she could have reached out and touched him. Beneath the cover of her shawl, her hand moved to the dagger hidden in the folds of her clothes and touched the hilt. This dagger had spilled his blood once before, and it would spill his blood again.

She drew her hand away from the metal with an effort. Not today, she told herself. She would have her revenge, she swore, but not today.

As Chiara stared at him, the hatred inside her was suddenly pushed aside as if by an invisible hand, and she heard that voice within her. The voice of the spirit that sometimes called to her, telling her to dip down to that shadowy region of half-hidden perceptions and images and look inside the man who stood before her.

She saw light. A clear, pure light like the rays of the rising sun. She searched for the darkness, for the evil she was certain would be there. But all she saw was the light. And still she looked. Surely, this was some kind of trick, a clever ruse to blind her.

It was then that she saw it.

Behind the figure wreathed in light, she saw the dark apparition. She recognized his perfect features, his fine form. Recognized, too, the evil aura that surrounded the dark figure. The aura that was almost palpable.

So, he was versed in the secrets of the occult, she thought. He wanted to trick her, to blind her with his light so that she would not see his darkness. But he would not succeed, she thought triumphantly, for she had seen the evil.

Pulling herself from the world of images back to reality, she saw that he was still looking at her. There was more than curiosity in his expression. He was looking at her in the way that men looked at women.

But it was not the devilish, naked lust that she had seen that night in the Gypsy camp on the outskirts of a small town in Tuscany. The lust that had been glittering in his dark eyes even after he had slaked it on the unwilling body of her sister.

This time it appeared in a different guise. This time it was a desire that was far more subtle, far more seductive. For a fraction of a moment, it reached out to touch her before she was able to draw back and protect herself against it.

 

 

“Well, get on with it.”

Giulietta’s sharp voice intruded into Luca’s sensual reverie. He watched the odd glow fade from the young Gypsy’s eyes. For a fraction of a moment before the hatred returned, he saw a softening, as if he had touched a string within her that had resonated with a harmonious sound.

“But get rid of that ugly black shawl of hers.”

The petulant tone of his mistress’s voice had Luca looking at her with irritation. It occurred to him that this was the strongest emotion that he had felt toward her in days. Perhaps it really was time to finally give her the ruby necklace and send her on her way.

“You really could have cleaned her up a bit, Manelli.” The ivory sticks of her finely painted parchment fan clattered as she waved it in front of the Gypsy’s face. “But I suppose some might find that wild, crude look appealing.” She shrugged. “Oh, well, just make sure my guests are well pleased, Manelli. I’m counting on you.”

Obediently, Manelli plucked the shawl from Chiara’s shoulders and pulled her toward the first group of guests who were already tittering expectantly.

Giulietta hooked her hand through Luca’s arm to pull him away from the clutch of people who had drawn close together to hear what the young Gypsy had to say, but he resisted.

“You seem inordinately interested in her, caro.” Her rouged mouth pursed in a pout, she leaned close, inviting his caress.

“Wasn’t that what you wanted?” Luca raised an eyebrow. “To pique your guests’ interest?”

“But you’re not a guest, you are—”

He lifted a finger to her mouth to silence her and, extracting his arm from her grasp, shifted so that he could watch the young Gypsy’s face.

The guests crowded around her, thrusting their palms toward her, their voices raised in a babble of questions.

“I do not read palms.”

Luca straightened at the sound of her voice. It was low and husky for one so young. A voice that would go well with Gypsy fires.

“I cannot look at your whole life. You can ask me a question, and if I am allowed to see the answer, I will tell you.”

Murmurs greeted her statement that had been made in a clear voice that carried no apology.

“What a sham,” Giulietta hissed. “Manelli will not see a lira from me.”

Absently, Luca shushed her as someone wearing a bautta, a kind of domino that was the simplest and most popular Carnival disguise, stepped forward. The molded white mask covered the upper two thirds of the face and a black lace hood fell to the shoulders, making it impossible to say if the person beneath the disguise was a man or a woman.

The figure briefly lifted a black tricorn hat in a mocking salute and sketched a bow, revealing the dark silk breeches beneath the floor-length black cloak.

“Tell me, will the woman I love finally surrender?” The question was spoken in a scratchy whisper.

Luca watched the young Gypsy’s eyes again grow unfocused, glassy. She went completely still, so still that she did not even seem to be breathing.

Minutes passed. Then Luca saw her chest move with a deep breath, saw her eyes lose that odd, empty expression. She looked directly into the eyes visible through the slits of the mask.

“The woman you love will surrender many times,” she said. “But she will never surrender her heart.”

“Why not?” the masked figure asked in a scratchy whisper.

“Because her heart belongs only to herself.”

The figure made a gesture of disbelief with a gloved hand.

“No man will ever love you better than you love yourself, madonna.”

Gasps of surprise and flustered giggles greeted her words.

Manelli gripped her arm and leaned close to her ear. “In Venice, the mask is to be respected above all things.”

Chiara wrenched her arm away and stepped away from the man’s smell of onions and cheap wine. “Those who do not want to know the truth should not ask me questions.”

“Leave the poor girl alone,” the masked figure said, the voice undisguised now and obviously female. “She truly spoke only the truth.”

The woman laughed, reached into a pocket, and handed Chiara a gold coin. Then she turned sharply, her cloak belling out for a moment before it settled around her again and strode toward the door.

There was a moment of stillness, for everyone had recognized the voice, although no one was impolite enough to acknowledge that openly. It was the fabulously wealthy and eccentric Lucrezia Paradini. Lucrezia Paradini who had broken every rule in an already permissive society. Lucrezia Paradini who had outlived three husbands while half the patrician women in Venice took the veil for lack of marriage-minded men.

Everyone in the room seemed to start talking simultaneously at this sign of approval and began to press closer to her. Suddenly, everyone was eager to have the Gypsy answer their questions.

But Chiara pushed her way past the people milling around her. She had to talk to the woman in the mask. For the few moments she had looked inside this woman, she had felt the presence of her father. She had not envisioned him, but he had been there just the same. In some odd way, he had been there.

She had to discover if the woman knew him. Perhaps she was the key to finding her father. Perhaps she was the key to her revenge.

Madonna!” Chiara reached the door to see that the woman was already halfway down the stairs. “Wait, please.”

The woman turned, her mask ghostly in the dim light. “I must hasten to find that surrender you promised me.” She raised her hand in a wave. “Perhaps we will meet again.” She waved again and ran down the stairs, her cloak floating behind her.

“What do you think you’re doing? Are you mad?” Manelli rushed to her side and grabbed her, afraid that she would flee. He did not want Donna Giulietta even more displeased with him.

Chiara shook off his hands. She would find the woman, she swore to herself, and through her, she would find her father—after she had wrought the retribution that a kind fate had placed in her path. Her eyes searched out the blond man in the crowd.

Yes, she thought, as she returned to where the crowd stood waiting for her. Today had brought her good fortune and vengeance—more vengeance than she had ever hoped for—would be hers.

 

 

His arms folded across his chest, Luca leaned against a wall covered with leather stamped in a fine gold pattern. He had not taken his eyes off the young Gypsy for the past hour. He had watched as she seemed to descend time after time into some secret place, her eyes becoming unfocused and blank, her body growing as still as if she were dead. And when she moved again, she had every time said something that impressed the questioner with its accuracy.

He considered himself an enlightened, pragmatic man. A man who did not believe in the supernatural—not in Gypsy fortune-tellers, not in divine deities—so he was certain that this had to be some kind of trick. And he was determined to find out just what her trick was.

He was even more determined to find out why she looked at him with such hatred in her eyes. And perhaps—perhaps to change the hatred to something softer. He acknowledged the excitement she aroused in him. Acknowledged it and relished it. It had been a long time since he felt anything so strong, so real.

“No! That is untrue what you say there!” The man’s reedy voice rose hysterically over the hum of conversation. “I will have you turned over to the Inquisitors …”

Giulietta moved quickly toward the man shouting, her hooped skirts of oyster-shell colored satin making her look like a caravel in full sail.

“But my dear Savini, how can you get so agitated about the words of a silly little Gypsy?” She wound her arm around his and tugged him away, at the same time signaling Manelli with her eyes. “Would you expect her to speak gospel truth?” She smiled up at him. “Now, I have a little proposal for you on how we shall resolve this.” Leaning closer, she whispered in his ear.

Luca watched how Giulietta skillfully soothed the disturbance. Within moments, she had poor Savini under her spell. The guests had dispersed around the room and were drinking coffee and brandy again, gossiping desultorily as if nothing unusual had happened. And Manelli had bundled the young Gypsy off to one of the small side rooms.

He pushed away from the wall and followed them.

 

Chapter Two

 

“Are you mad?” Manelli shouted. “How can you speak of such things as alchemy?”

Luca stepped into the room and closed the door behind him so softly that neither Manelli nor the young woman heard him.

“I know nothing of al-alchemy.” Chiara stumbled over the unfamiliar word. “I only said what I saw. And I saw the man putting a black stone in a bowl of liquid, waiting for it to turn into gold.”

Dio, be silent.” Manelli pressed his hands to his ears. “Just listening to you would make me guilty in the eyes of the Inquisitors.”

“Why did you bring me here if you did not wish me to speak the truth?” Chiara demanded. She wanted to run, but something kept her standing there, as if her feet had been planted in the ground. “I want the coins you promised me.” She held out her hand.

Sei pazza! You’re mad!” Manelli tapped a finger against his forehead. “You may have called down the Inquisitors upon my head.” He began to pace. “The bravest man trembles at the mere thought of the dungeons in the Doge’s Palace. And now you”—he pointed a meaty finger at her—“you dare to ask for money?”

“You promised you would pay me to use the sight.” There was no petulance, no whining in her voice, only a resolute tenaciousness.

“Be grateful if all I do is not pay you.” He stopped in front of her, towering over her menacingly. “I could turn you over to the Holy Office to be tried for witchcraft.”

Chiara stared up at him. Rage had lived within her since she was a child, watching her father treat her mother worse than he would treat a servant. Now it sprang to life, just as a smoldering fire springs into flame at a breath of air. Her arm brushed against the dagger at her waist, but it did not even occur to her to reach for it. She had a better weapon for this toad of a man.

“It would not go well for you to cheat me.” Her voice lowering, she shifted closer to him. “Do you know what Gypsies do to those who cheat them?”

Paling, Manelli retreated from her, making the horned sign against il malocchio, the evil eye, with forefinger and little finger of his right hand. “I-if you promise to do what you are told, I will pay you.” His gaze shifted away from her face.

Chiara’s eyes narrowed. If he thought to cheat her, she thought, she would …

“Leave us, Manelli. I wish to speak to the Gypsy.”

Like matching puppets, both whirled to face Luca.

“B-but, signore, Donna Giulietta—”

“Leave Donna Giulietta to me.” Although he was not aware of it, Luca’s chiseled features grew as cold as if they were carved from ice at the unaccustomed contradiction. “Out.” He looked at Manelli’s sweating face in disgust and tipped his head toward the door.

The door behind Luca opened, and he turned to see Giulietta with Savini in tow.

“Why are you here, Luca?” Giulietta demanded.

“I could ask you the same question, cara.” Even as he addressed her, his gaze skimmed over Savini. The man was staring at the young Gypsy with undisguised lecherousness, and Luca’s eyes narrowed as he returned his gaze to his mistress. “Or have you brought Savini here to take his pound of flesh from the girl for telling the truth?”

Chiara’s eyes widened as the terrible understanding of what was happening penetrated her mind. Why she had been brought to this room. She understood that this scarecrow of a man with his protuberant eyes intended to take her body. And all these people standing around her intended to allow him to do it.

She suppressed the cry of protest, of fear that rose in her throat. Like a wild animal circled by hunters, she remained perfectly still for one moment, her eyes darting from one to the other. Then she ran.

Luca had his back to the Gypsy, but by some instinct, he was aware of her intention before she ever moved. Spinning on his heel to face her, he blocked her way so that she slammed fully into his body. Capturing her in his arms, he held her relentlessly as she began to fight like a wild thing, twisting and turning within his harsh embrace.

Confident of his muscular body, toughened from years of seafaring life, Luca curbed his strength, not wishing to hurt her.

Grimly determined, Chiara fought on. He was a soft fop, she assured herself, with his silks and brocades and lace. He was evil and brutal, but he was a coward. He had run from her once before, after all.

Twisting her body, she raised her bent arm as high as she could and then drove it back, plowing her elbow into his middle.

Luca swore as she struck his midriff, but he only tightened his grip. Still, she fought him. Suddenly, she bent like a poplar sapling in the wind, and before he realized what she intended, she had sunk her teeth into his wrist.

Dropping all pretense of civility, he grabbed a handful of her hair and jerked her head back. “Be still, damn it,” he growled into her ear. “I mean you no harm.”

“No!” Her voice rose. The memory of how his eyes had glittered so demoniacally that night almost three years ago enabled her to fight on even though her strength was flagging. “Let me go!” She managed to free one hand and, forming her fingers into claws, gouged deep scratches into his neck and cheek before he captured her hand again.

His patience snapped. Unleashing his full power, Luca manacled her hands with his and twisted them behind her back, ignoring her cry of pain. Holding her wrists with one hand, he pressed his other arm against her throat, drawing her flush against him.

Suddenly he laughed, surprising himself and everyone else. “What a wildcat!”

As he pinned her against him, Chiara stilled, the strength flowing out of her abruptly, as if he had severed some lifeline by pressing her against his body. The light surrounded her again. And warmth. She shook her head in disbelief. Again, she looked for the dark apparition, but this time it eluded her.

As she surfaced from the vision, her head was pressed against his shoulder, the arm under her chin forcing her head upward. He had bent his head toward her so that she found herself staring directly into his eyes.

They were the color of the night sky at its darkest hour, but there were tiny specks of gold strewn throughout the blackness, like points of light. She waited for the malevolent glitter, but it did not come. Then she realized that his eyes were smiling at her.

“Well?” he asked, his voice reflecting the friendly curve of his lips. “Have you decided to surrender?”

Because life had taught her that it was sometimes wise to yield in order to fight another time, she lowered her eyes in a gesture that could be taken for assent.

“I do not surrender,” she said softly. “But I cannot fight against your strength.”

“A wise decision. Now, if I release you, will you remain still and not try to maim me?”

She gave a jerky nod.

“Look at me.”

Hesitating for a long moment, Chiara felt him push her chin upward with his arm. Reluctantly, she lifted her lids. As their eyes met and held, she felt the hatred within her pale. Panicking, she tried to hold it, but all she could see was the brilliance that rose from the recesses of her mind to surround the man who held her until he seemed enclosed in an orb of light.

Luca saw the panic in her eyes and felt something within himself soften.

“I won’t hurt you.” He lowered his arm slightly so that it lay just above her breasts. Cautiously, he loosened the fingers that shackled her wrists.

When Chiara immediately tried to move away from him, his hands tightened again.

“Stay close until I’m sure that you are not going to run.” His tone was mild, but the command there was unmistakable.

“You said you would release me.” Her voice was low, furious.

“And so I will.” He smiled. “Just humor me for a bit and stay close.” He lowered his arm. It brushed her breasts, and he felt his body stir. He curved his hand over her hip—to make certain that she did not run and because it pleased him to touch her.

“What a moving scene.” Giulietta raised her hands and tapped her fingers against one another in a parody of applause. “If I had known you had a taste for violence, caro, I would have obliged you earlier. Now”—she took her fan, which hung from her wrist by a jeweled ribbon, and struck it sharply against her palm—“I suggest that we return to business.”

“And I suggest that it is time for Signor Savini to retire,” Luca said smoothly. “I am told the Great Council meets early in the morning.”

“But you promised—” Savini began, his thin voice rising to a whine.

“No doubt you misunderstood.” Luca’s mouth curved in a smile that would not have looked out of place on a wolf. “Donna Giulietta surely meant that she shall endeavor that nothing that transpired here tonight shall become common knowledge.”

“The damage has been done, and people will talk. You know that. Gossip is the favorite pastime in Venice.” Savini’s voice rose. “The least you can do is to—”

Luca felt the young Gypsy stiffen, and he gave her a reassuring squeeze. “Buona notte, signore.”

Savini opened his mouth to speak, but then he closed it with a snap. With a glare in Luca’s direction, he whirled to leave. Giulietta reached out to stop him, but he shook off her hand and swept out of the room, slamming the door behind him.

“Now look at what you have done.” Giulietta turned on Luca, her dark eyes snapping with displeasure. “What kind of game are you playing?”

“I dislike seeing those who cannot defend themselves coerced.” Suddenly conscious of the warmth of her body beneath his hand, the irony of his words occurred to him, and he released her.

Chiara looked up sharply at him. What unspeakable gall, she thought, to say such words when he was so good at coercion himself. She remembered only too well how she had come upon him holding her sister’s hands pinned above her head much as he had held her own behind her back. And she remembered Donata’s terrified eyes. The memory brought a comforting return of the hatred just as she felt his hand lift away from her hip, the tips of his fingers lingering for just a moment before he released her completely.

“Apparently, you have been reading too many philosophical treatises from France, caro. You seem to have begun to believe all that tripe about the purity of the savage and the rights of humanity.” The melodiousness of Giulietta’s voice could not hide the vibration of anger. “Now, I suggest we let Manelli take her back to wherever it was he found her.”

Taking his cue, Manelli hurried forward. “Thank you.” He grabbed Chiara’s arm so violently that a seam tore, leaving one sleeve of her bodice barely hanging on by a few threads. “Come, now. Come.”

“Let me go.” She tried to escape his grip, but his meaty fingers dug into her flesh unmercifully.

As she twisted from side to side to escape him, her gaze met the blond man’s nighttime eyes. She hated him. Someday she would kill him. But he had been kind to her a few moments ago. He had touched her briefly with gentleness. All these thoughts came together in a twisted kind of logic. And her eyes asked for his help.

“Did you not hear what she said, Manelli?” Luca said. “Let her go.”

Manelli’s fleshy mouth fell open as he stared at Luca. “But, signore, she belongs to me.”

“Are you saying she is your slave?”

“No!” Chiara cried, horrified at the word. “I am no man’s slave.”

Manelli’s eyes darted to Donna Giulietta, who gave an almost imperceptible nod. “Yes, signore, my slave.”

Chiara struggled against Manelli’s hands. This could not be happening to her, she thought. Surely, she would wake up and discover it was all a bad dream.

“Good,” Luca said. “Then I will buy her from you.”

Chiara spun her head to look at him. Going still with shock and disbelief, she watched him dip his hand into a pocket of his brocade waistcoat.

“That would appear to be too little for a good female slave,” he said matter-of-factly, looking at the coins in his palm. “You will not deny me a loan, my dear, will you?”

“W-what?” Giulietta sputtered as he turned toward her.

As if she had graciously consented, he reached for the clasp of her necklace of large square-cut amethysts surrounded by pearls. He jiggled the necklace in his hand as if testing its weight and then, without warning, tossed it in Manelli’s direction.

Manelli let Chiara go and grabbed the necklace in both hands. Terror warred with greed in his eyes as his gaze swept around the room. Then, like a rat scurrying for cover when faced by two dangerous cats, he ran for the door.

 

 

For a long moment, all three remained perfectly still, as if they were part of a tableau vivant, a living portrayal of a painting. Then, while Luca remained still, the women moved, Giulietta sweeping forward, all unsheathed claws and fury, Chiara stepping back.

“How dare you insult me like that?” Giulietta’s voice was high and ill-tempered. “Just what are you doing, Luca?”

“I will never be your slave. Never.”

The Gypsy’s voice was low and throaty. Luca found it as arousing as a caress, but he ignored her as if she had not spoken and continued to look at his mistress.

“You have eyes and ears, my dear. I would think it was perfectly obvious what I am doing.” His mouth curved in the glib smile of a man well-skilled in pacifying troublesome women. “I’ve just bought myself a slave.”

“Do what you wish in private, but how can you do this to my face?” Giulietta demanded.

“I have done nothing but purchase a slave.” He emphasized his shrug by raising his hands slightly palm-upward. “Do moderate your histrionics, my dear.”

“Are you saying you do not intend to take her to your bed?” Giulietta’s lips trembled. “You are my lover. How can you betray me thus?”

“Your lover, perhaps, but not your cavaliere servente, sworn to serve you in all ways.” Luca expelled a sharp breath, no longer trying to hide his irritation. “You were eager enough to welcome me to your bed without any promises. And—I would remind you—I have never made you any.”

Giulietta’s mouth thinned as she fought for composure. “We will speak later. I must see to my guests now.”

“We will speak another time, my dear.” It was definitely time to send Giulietta on her way, Luca thought. He would have a messenger bring her the rubies tomorrow. “I find that I am not in the mood for more conversation tonight.”

Giulietta looked from Luca to the Gypsy, then back to her lover. “I see.” Fisting her hands in the folds of her skirt, she managed to keep her tone light. “Amuse yourself well, caro. Just make sure you wash off her smell before you come to my bed again.”

Sending a glance that was both contemptuous and furious in Chiara’s direction, she flounced out of the room.

 

 

The room was so silent that all Chiara heard was her own breathing. The blond man stood perfectly still, looking at her, his eyes intent.

She concentrated, trying to see what was inside his mind. She knew there was evil within him. Why could she not see it? Why could she not even feel its presence? Yes, there was a darkness within him, but it was like the darkness of a shadow where there is much light.

“Come closer,” he said, giving her a friendly, encouraging smile.

“No.” She threw up her chin. “I am not your slave.”

“Come closer, I said.” A fine edge of steel crept into his mild voice. “If you knew me better, you would know that I do not have a reputation for patience.”

She could not feel his evil, but she felt his power. And still she defied him. It was her only chance.

“I am a free woman, and I have no wish to know you better.”

His face changed, so subtly that she could not have described it. Lucifer, she thought again, displeased with what he saw in his kingdom. Fear rose so suddenly that she had no time to control it before her breath seemed to congeal in her throat.

“I’m free,” she repeated. “You cannot force me to do anything.” Her voice sounded winded, and she took a moment to draw a deep breath. “Except by your superior strength.”

“But you’re wrong. I bought you from Manelli.” Tucking the tips of his fingers into the pockets of his waistcoat, he spoke as lightly as if it were a matter of a basket of fruit. “And slavery is still quite legal in Venice, you know.”

“I do not believe that it is legal to sell what you do not own.” The brave words did nothing to deter the sick feeling in her stomach. “Manelli did not own me.”

“No? Why should I believe you?” Even as he spoke the words, Luca asked himself if he had gone mad. Why was he tormenting her when it had been his intention to purchase her freedom and let her go? By all the saints, he had never owned a slave in his life. The thought alone was repugnant to him. Yet, within moments, the need to keep her nearby had become a compulsion, an obsession.

“I do not lie.” She straightened.

She was afraid. He could see the wild pulse fluttering at the base of her throat. But she stood there, defying him with a courage that few men would muster. He felt a flash of respect, but it was obscured by yet another flicker of arousal, stronger this time. More urgent.

“No? Are you not a woman?”

“A woman, yes. But you will hear no lies from my lips.”

He began to move slowly toward her, the high heels of his buckled shoes clicking on the terrazzo floor.

The closer he came, the faster her heart pounded. Chiara took a step back and found herself against the wall. Because she had no place to run, she met his eyes fully.

She was beautiful in an untamed, earthy way, Luca thought as he walked toward her. But there was more there besides her entrancing face, her seductive body. There was something about her—something heady, something powerful. He felt a pull and, had he been honest with himself, he might have correctly identified it as need.

He stopped an arm’s reach away from her, not because he did not want to frighten her further, but because he found himself wanting to touch her. And he knew just how dangerous it was to want anything so badly.

Crossing his arms across his chest, he leaned against the marble mantelpiece. “So,” he said, helpless to stop himself from continuing this game of cat and mouse, “you are a woman without lies.”

Chiara gave a choppy nod.

“What is your name?”

“Chiara.”

Luca’s tawny eyebrows rose. “How convenient.”

“What do you mean?”

“You claim to have the sight, to be a clairvoyant, and your name signifies ‘clear.’” He chuckled. “It’s just too perfect.”

“I cannot help the truth. And I cannot invent lies to please you.” She tossed her hair over her shoulder. “That is the name my mother gave me.”

“So, Chiara.” He drew the name out so that it rolled off his tongue like a caress. “What do I do with you now?” Unable to resist, he stepped away from the mantle and reached out to slide his hand down her cheek.

“Don’t touch me.” She pressed herself against the wall, as if she could make herself disappear into it. Just the thought of his hands on her had panic filling her. Panic so vast, so absolute that it left no space for anything else. Her mind went blank but for the terror of being touched by this man.

Sincerely baffled by her fear, Luca stilled, his hand hovering a palm’s breadth away from her face.

“I have no wish to hurt you.” His voice was gentle.

Chiara fought back the terror that was rising within her like black, noxious smoke, but still it came. And came. Until she was choking with it.

Wanting to soothe the unreasonable fear in her eyes, Luca cupped her cheek.

She cried out and spun away from his touch.

Something snapped within him at her strangled cry. At the new wave of abject terror in her eyes. At the way she recoiled from him as she might have recoiled from a man repulsive with the French pox. The dark violence he had worked so hard to control all his life burst forth as blood spurts from a deep wound.

Forgetting that he did not want to hurt or frighten her, forgetting everything but that he wanted her, a low sound of fury built in his throat.

Moving forward, he slapped his hands against the wall on either side of her head, effectively imprisoning her.

 

Chapter Three

 

Chiara shuddered as she heard the hideous slap of his palms against the wall on either side of her head.

For a moment, she almost gave in to the terror. Almost gave in to the desire to close her eyes, slide down the wall, and curl up like an animal playing dead. God, she prayed, don’t let him touch me. Please, don’t let him touch me.

A breath away from surrender, hatred and pride, those old twin friends that had been with her for so long, came to her aid, slowly, slowly pushing back the terror. She turned her head and met his eyes.

The soothing darkness of a star-studded night, which she had seen there before, had disappeared. Instead, the opaque blackness of a sky roiling with storm clouds stared back at her. But the very violence in his eyes gave her something to focus on, and she felt the terror recede a little.

Luca saw that fear was still lurking in the depths of her eyes, but the hatred he had seen there before was back in full force now. Hatred that, had it been a knife, would have been sharp enough to kill. Strangely enough it was that hatred, so real, so basic, that soothed the wild fury riding him to a controllable anger. When he spoke, his voice carried more puzzlement than anything else.

“Why do you hate me so?”

“You know,” she spat. “Or, if you do not, you should.”

Baffled, Luca stared at her, digging into the recesses of his mind. Had they had met before? Had he done something to cause her enmity? He shook his head. What could he have done to inspire hatred so deep? He could not imagine it. Besides, he knew that if he had ever seen this woman before, he would not have forgotten her.

“For a woman with the sight, you have remarkably poor judgment.”

She said nothing but only stared back at him, her eyes like blue flames, provoking him with their fire.

“Manelli would have sold your body to the first comer,” he snapped. “Don’t you understand that?”

She had known she was taking a risk, but she had thought herself able to protect herself. And she had needed the money to pay for her sister’s care.

“He did sell me to the first comer,” she said tonelessly. She let her head fall back to the side so that her cheek lay against the silky wallpaper and closed her eyes.

Luca’s fingers curled against the wall as he fought the need to touch her, to cup her head and make her look at him again.

“I paid him with every intention of letting you go.” He had the uncomfortable feeling that he was apologizing. “I have never owned a slave in my life.”

Slowly, she turned back to face him fully. “But now you lay claim to me,” she said. “And you have no intention of letting me go, do you?”

Some of the fire had returned to her low, smoky voice. The fire drew him, aroused him, and Luca shifted forward until his body was pressed against hers.

Chiara sucked in her breath as he thrust his body against her, pushing herself back further against the wall, but he moved closer still—so close it seemed as if their bodies were one. He was pressed against her so tightly that she could feel the rise of his aroused sex against her belly. He was crushing her. She wanted to cry out, but she knew there would be no help for her here. And she had never been one to waste her energy on useless gestures.

He would move any second now, she thought. Every muscle turned to ice as she stiffened in expectation of his rough touch. He would push up her skirt. He would penetrate her body with his.

But he did none of those things. Instead, he remained still, his eyes on hers, as if he sought to find her secrets there.

The dagger! How could she have forgotten it? Relief rushed through her. Chiara lifted her hand, but he had pushed himself so closely against her that she could not reach for it without alerting him. Her mind raced. Before he tried to violate her, he would have to step away from her to open his breeches. Then she would be able to reach the dagger, she thought. Then she would kill him.

She felt a little flicker of regret that she would have to do it quickly. That she would not be able to tell him why she was planting her knife in his heart. But perhaps it was better to do it swiftly. Before she had time to think about the light she had seen when she looked inside him. Before she had time to question why her sight was showing her what her eyes knew was false.

The decision made, a small part of the tension seeped out of her even as she braced for his attack.

Luca felt the slight relaxing of her body against his and smiled. She had been hurt by some rough, careless man, he thought. He would show her what passion could be like.

His hands still propped against the wall on either side of her, he lowered his head.

Chiara stilled when he touched his mouth to hers. Because she had been expecting a brutal assault, the light, gentle touch took her breath away. She found herself incapable of movement as he rubbed his mouth back and forth over hers. When he slid the tip of his tongue along the seam of her lips, she trembled, but she still could not move.

With infinite patience, he traced her lips again and again. When they parted, his mouth curved against hers.

Si,” he murmured, “così. Yes, like this.” Desire coursed urgently through his blood, but even now he did not take what she offered. Instead, he leisurely dipped his tongue inside.

Chiara could see them together. They lay on a couch, surrounded by bright-colored cushions. Her shoulders were bare and pale against the coverlet of crimson silk. Somewhere there was the sound of water lapping against wood. The smell of sweet incense drifted through the room and mingled with the scent of arousal—his and hers. Then he moved over her so that she could see only her eyes—wide-open, smiling with welcome.

“No.” The single word was directed at the vision in her mind, not at the kiss.

Luca withdrew far enough so that he could see her face. “No?” He smiled, his anger forgotten in the sensual pleasure of the moment. “Are you sure? That certainly felt like a ‘yes.’” Without giving her time to reply, he took her mouth again.

Chiara wanted to fight him, but she found herself unable to move, as if her bones had suddenly turned to water. He filled her mouth with his tongue slowly, gently, as if he were sampling her flavor.

There was an answering heat within her, but she told herself that it was the heat of hatred. Desperate, she tried to hold on to that, but the heat merged and melded with the light that had spread enfolding him like an aura, blinding her as if she were standing in full sunlight.

His taste filled her—coffee and brandy and something spicy and seductive that she did not recognize. In a reflexive curiosity, she touched her tongue to his.

Luca felt that first tentative caress blaze through him as if it were a bolt of lightning. Grasping her head, he gave in to the consuming need to plunder.

As he plunged into her mouth, possessing her with all the fever of a virile man’s passion, Chiara jolted, as if shaken awake from a dream. Rational thought returned, reminding her of just who this man was. She began to struggle—against his hands that cradled her head, against his mouth that was melded to her lips, against his body crowding hers, against that unfamiliar ache in her belly.

Luca felt her move against him. Pleased, he slid his hands into her hair and delved more deeply into the pleasures of her mouth. Only gradually did he realize that her movements had nothing to do with passion.

He pulled back, trying to ignore the desire making his blood race, his body throb.

Chiara struggled to free herself from his voracious kiss. His hands were fisted in her hair, making every single one of her movements painful. His body was pressed so firmly against her that every single one of her movements brought her still closer to his aroused sex. The moment he freed her mouth, she went still.

Realizing that he had twisted his hands in her hair, Luca loosened his fingers and began to rub her scalp lightly.

“I did not mean to hurt you.” He let his hands drift down slowly, caressingly until they lay on her shoulders. “Don’t worry. I know that you deserve better than to be taken standing up against the wall.” He brushed his mouth against hers and felt her stiffen.

“What’s the matter?” Leaving his hands on her shoulders, he took a step back.

She waited for the malevolence to come into his eyes, but it did not. Traces of passion were there, and questions, but none of the evil she had been waiting to see there ever since she first laid eyes on him an hour ago. How long could he pretend? How long could he keep up this facade? Where did he get his power? Why could she not see? It was that last question that terrified her most of all.

“Did I frighten you?” He slid his thumbs beyond the neckline of her coarse linen bodice to stroke her skin. “Was I too rough?”

“I am not easily frightened.” She swallowed and fought—unsuccessfully—to suppress the involuntary shiver of pleasure.

“Perhaps not.” He smiled—both at her evasive answer and the shudder of response that went through her. “Have you ever lain with a man before?”

His words reminded her of who he was. Reminded her of what she needed to do.

“What difference does it make to you?” As she spoke, her hand crept upward, then across her middle. Her fingers closed around the hilt of the dagger. Slid it out of the sheath.

Strike! Strike! The command thundered through her head, but her hand remained still, as if she could not force it to do her bidding.

“None.” He laughed softly. “None at all.” His fingers continued to stroke her skin. “I want you. That is all that matters.”

The soft, lightly mocking laughter struck a chord in her memory, and she lifted her hand and plunged the dagger down toward his heart.

Ensnared in his arousal, Luca did not give heed to her movement. Even when he saw that she held something in her hand, he did not move. By the time the realization that what she held was a weapon had reached his brain and he had flung his hand upward to ward off the blow, the momentum of her downward stroke was too strong, too fast to stop completely.

He felt—and ignored—the hot flash of pain as the tip of the dagger pierced his skin and sliced through his flesh a moment before he struck her hand.

The dagger clattered to the floor. His hands captured hers. For a moment, they remained still, as if frozen in a dance of violent beauty.

Luca’s fury exploded like a volcano spewing forth hot lava. His fingers tightened around her wrists, and he bore her back so violently that her head snapped against the wall with a sharp crack.

“Damn you. I have killed men for less.”

“I’m not afraid to die.”

“Perhaps not.” He ground his hips against hers. “But you are afraid of this. You are afraid of the wanton need heating your blood. Don’t deny it. I can taste it on your lips.”

Chiara felt the cry growing in her throat, but she battled the weakness, clamping her mouth shut until her teeth ground against each other.

Luca saw her fear, saw how she fought it, saw how she still defied him. And her desperate courage seemed to feed his fury.

“Why did you try to kill me?” he demanded. “Is it such a terrible fate to lie with me?” He gave a short laugh. “Some women might even envy you.”

Chiara thought of her sister’s blank eyes. She thought of the pitiful whimpering sounds Donata sometimes made in her sleep and felt the panic recede before the hatred of this man.

“I hate you. And I despise you.”

“Why?”

“I told you. If you do not know the reason, you should.”

“My patience with your riddles is at an end,” he snarled. “Tell me.”

For a moment, Chiara was tempted to tell him who she was. But only for a moment. He would find a way to use that knowledge against her. The less he knew about her the better it was. Oh, she would tell him someday. She would bide her time and someday she would tell him—right before she killed him.

She shook her head.

“Tell me.” He tightened his grip on her wrist.

“No,” she whispered.

“Do you know how easy it is to make someone talk?” The wildness roiled within him like a storm-swept sea. Luca grappled for control, but it slipped away like water. “With just a small movement I could snap your wrist.”

She felt his hot breath on her face. “What good would a slave with a broken wrist be?”

His mouth curved in a hard smile. “You don’t need your hands for what I want from you.”

“And you will take what you want no matter what I do or say.”

“Perhaps.” He shifted his fingers a fraction of an inch to increase the pressure on her wrist. “Try me.”

Chiara understood then that she had exhausted all her possibilities.

“You are a Venetian patrician,” she said, trying desperately to keep her voice steady. “Is that not enough reason to hate you?”

It was surprise more than anything else that had Luca easing his hold on her wrist. The wildness within him eased as well, as if it had been a seizure that was now passing.

“Why?”

She hesitated, but feeling his hand tighten again, she decided to give him part of the truth. “Because my father is one.”

“Your father?” His eyes narrowed, but he did not dismiss her words. “What is his name?”

“I don’t know,” she lied. “I came to Venice to find out.”

Luca caught the tiny flicker in her eyes that told him she was lying, but he kept the knowledge to himself. “So…” Something like humor came into his eyes. “Did you come here planning to kill all Venetian aristocrats?”

Chiara gave a shake of her head. Understanding that the greatest danger had passed for the moment, she allowed disdain to color her words. “Only those who try to violate me.”

“I never intended to harm you.” He did not release her hands, but he moved a step back. “You don’t believe me, I see.”

Chiara flinched at his movement and despised herself for it. When she saw that he was stepping back, relief and a new wave of bravado flowed through her.

“I have no reason to lie,” he said.

“And I have no reason to believe you.”

He stared at her for a moment. Then he laughed richly. “It’s a pity that you’re not a man. With audacity like yours, we could whip the Barbary pirates in a few weeks.” He paused. “And then again”—his gaze drifted down to her breasts—“I’m very glad that you are not a man.”

A whisper of hope drifted through her. “If it is true that you do not intend to force yourself on me, will you let me go?”

His smile died, and his gaze returned to her face. “No.”

Her hope grew cold. “Why not?”

“I want you. But then I told you that, didn’t I?”

The accusation returned to her eyes, stronger than before. “So, ravishment after all.”

“No, I will not force myself upon you.” His grip loosened, and his thumbs began to rub the inside of her wrists. “I have confidence in my powers of persuasion.” He felt her pulse accelerate and smiled.

“Persuade a slave?” She made a sound that might have been a harsh laugh. “Do you really expect me to believe that?

“Believe what you wish. But you can believe me when I tell you that I do not find the thought of assault arousing. I, for my part, have always preferred enticement.”

Chiara eyes narrowed at his lie, yet just the fact that he had gone to the trouble to tell it had her relaxing a little.

“And when you have persuaded me, enticed me,” she asked, “will you let me go then?”

“Let you go?” He shrugged. “I don’t know. I think that is a question for another day.” He lifted her wrist, where her pulse was still fluttering. “Look. Your body wants to be tempted, even if you do not. Think of that.”

Chiara was used to taking risks. After all, she had been living on the edge for so long that she had almost forgotten what it was like to know what the next hour would bring. Perhaps, she calculated quickly, perhaps it would be worth it to give him her body. He would be careless in the throes of passion and then she would—

“Enough talk now.” He released one of her hands but, keeping the other firmly in his, he turned. “Come.”

“Where are you taking me?”

“Home.” He moved toward the door.

Tears, unexpected, unwanted, shot into Chiara’s eyes as the single word struck a long-forgotten chord deep within her soul. Once, long ago, she had thought to have a home. She almost lost her balance as he pulled her along. Swallowing the tears, she stumbled after him.

Get your copy on Amazon/KU to keep reading: https://geni.us/TSH_AznALL

 

Twice Upon Time ~ Chapters 1-3

This month, I am excited to introduce my time travel/time slip romance Twice Upon Time on Amazon/Kindle Unlimited. Read the first three chapters of this time-slip historical romance set in Florence, Italy.

Chapter One

London

February 1888

Sarah Longford slept in her cold, shabby room above a Covent Garden cookshop and dreamt of hot, sunny Italy.

***

The azure sea, so calm that it seemed like a painting, stretched alongside the flat, sandy beach. Then two riders burst from the stand of umbrella pines at a wild gallop, shattering the stillness.

Bianca, her unbound black hair streaming behind her like a banner, her scarlet dress a dazzling contrast to her mount’s white coat, glanced over her shoulder at Alessio with a smile. His face dark with annoyance and the promise of passion, she saw him spur his horse forward, narrowing the gap between them.

Vexed that she was going to lose the race, Bianca decided to change the game. She sharply reined in her mount and slipped down to the sand. She watched Alessio veer around toward her, his black clothing blending with the glossy black hide of his stallion so that the two together looked like one pagan, fabulously virile animal.

He laughed as he sprang down even before his mount had stopped. “What now, madonna? I would not think that you would give up the race so easily.”

Hiding her annoyance at his words, she curved her lips in a smile perfectly calculated to provoke, to arouse. “Who says that I have given up?“

Alessio reached for her, his hands greedy, his eyes turbulent. “Strega. You are a witch, Bianca.” His hands slid up from her shoulders and into her hair. As they fisted in the wind-tossed strands, he lowered his mouth to hers.

Despite the sultry invitation in her gaze, she turned her head aside. “No.”

“Why so coy today, madonna?” he demanded.

“Let me go, Alessio.” His ruthless touch was just short of painful—and yet she found that it aroused her. Aroused her so much that she needed distance lest she take what he offered too quickly. With no compunctions, she fired off her most powerful weapon. “Do you forget that I belong to your brother?”

“No.” His eyes flashed. “You are betrothed to my brother. But you belong to me.”

“Indeed?”

Alessio felt his fury, which Bianca seemed to provoke so effortlessly, rise another notch. There was no love lost between Ugo and himself, but did a man dishonor his own flesh and blood for a woman, no matter how desirable?

“You know as well as I that you belonged to me long before I touched you for the first time.” He paused. “Do you remember?” he asked softly.

Her mouth sullen, Bianca remained silent. Because her pride demanded it, she kept her gaze steady on his.

“Do you remember how you looked at me from the tribunal after the tournament.” His blood heated at the memory. “You looked at me, and we both knew that you were mine as if we were already lovers.”

He cupped her head and tilted her face toward his. “Open for me now, Bianca,” he murmured, “and let me kiss you.”

His hands were gentle where they had been rough before. Drawing in a deep breath, his scent—horseflesh and leather and aroused male—flowed into her, and her senses began to swim. Before she lost herself to the moment and surrendered to his strength, she seized control and took Alessio’s mouth.

She kept her eyes open and on his as she teased his tongue with erotic invitation. He remained still, but his eyes were as keen as those of a hunter who is watching his prey, waiting for the moment to strike. Then she retreated and, in a final siren’s call, brushed her open mouth against his. When she let her head fall back in ostensible surrender, triumph was in her eyes.

Slowly, Alessio lowered his mouth to hers, half-inch by half-inch. His lips hovered over hers then descended until they were separated by no more than a breath. And still, he did not take. Instead, he slid his hands down, down and filled them with her breasts.

For a moment, Bianca stopped breathing with the sheer pleasure of his touch that she felt as acutely as if she were naked beneath it. Because she could not speak, she moaned.

Then, knowing that now they were both the vanquished, both the victors, their lips met, and they feasted on each other until they were drunk with the pleasure of it. When they pulled apart, their breath was ragged, their nerves humming.

“And you dare to say that you do not belong to me?”

His breath was hot on her face, and Bianca leaned back, grasping for control of her overriding need to reach for Alessio again. And to take. To take everything. And give it.

“Answer me, damn you.”

She felt his aroused body press against her, and she was hungry for him. She found herself wanting him so badly that her body ached with the wanting. It would be so easy to give in to his demands, and she shifted her hips, pressing against him more fully.

His hands slipped down to lift her up against him, and he nipped at her ear. “Now, Bianca.” His hands pulled up her gown, crushing the satin.

“No!” Raising both hands, she shoved him back. Yes, she wanted him, but even more, she wanted the wealth and power that marriage to Ugo was offering her.

“No.” She forced herself to meet his eyes. “I cannot do this.”

“You dare to deny it?”

“What would you have me do? Break a betrothal signed and sealed?”

“A betrothal you should never have agreed to.” His voice carried both anger and pain. “You knew that we belonged together.” He gripped her shoulders and pulled her against him. “You knew.”

“I had no choice. If I had not signed, my father would have placed the quill in my hand and forced me.”

Alessio looked into her eyes for a long time before he spoke. “Even if you had had a choice, you would have agreed to this marriage.”

Bianca stared back at him in stubborn silence.

“Would you not?” he shouted. He let her go so suddenly, that she stumbled.

Her eyes on his, she tilted up her chin in response.

“So.” Alessio’s beautiful mouth curled in contempt. “For wealth and power, you are willing to let yourself be ridden by a man deformed in body and spirit?”

“You speak so of your brother?” She tossed her hair over her shoulder, hiding her shiver.

“I speak the truth whether I speak of my brother or a stranger.” His eyes, the color of the sea behind him, turned dull and gray as they rested on her. “And you will marry him.”

“Yes, I will marry him.”

He looked away, but she reached up and, cupping his chin in her hand, moved his head until their eyes met again. “The first night will be his, but then—” She stretched upward to brush her mouth over his.

“Damn you! Do you think I will be satisfied with my brother’s leavings?” He shoved her away, his eyes hot. “Come, madonna. It is time we went back.”

Bianca lowered her gaze as they returned to their mounts. But not because she felt shame. No, she was triumphant. She had seen the heat in his eyes, and she knew he would be back. He would be hers. And then she would have everything she wanted.

***

Sarah sat up with a cry. She had dreamt this dream so many times. This dream and many others. She had experienced the dreams from afar as one experiences a painting in a museum. But tonight, she had been there. The breeze had brushed over her skin. The smell of the sea had teased her nostrils. She had felt all their emotions, his and hers. It was as if she was Bianca.

These dreams had been part of her life for so long; no, she corrected, they had been her life. She did not know why they came to her—these fantastic, erotic dreams full of heat and color that were everything her life was not. But she needed to discover what bound her to these two people so tightly. She needed to know.

The cold in the dingy, little room had her shivering. With the generous bequest she had received from old Mrs. Sheridan, whose companion she had been for so many years, she could have afforded better lodgings. But she had all her money set aside for the trip to Italy she had longed for her entire life. Sarah lay down again and pulled the covers up to her chin. Tomorrow, she reminded herself, as excitement fluttered through her. Tomorrow, she would begin her journey to find out the story behind her dreams. Tomorrow, she would be on the way to Florence. Perhaps there was an answer waiting for her there.

Closing her eyes against the drabness around her, Sarah willed herself back to sleep, hoping that perchance she would dream.

Chapter Two

Florence, Italy

February 1888

Sarah had not dreamt since she had come to Florence. For as long as she could remember, she had lived for the dreams of this city and her unhappy lovers who visited her night upon night. Now that she was here, they eluded her.

By day, too, the Florence of her dreams evaded her.

With increasing desperation, she tried to find it behind the curtain of fog and rain. Where was the Florence of a sunlight so bright it hurt your eyes? Where was the Florence of a scorching heat that made the blood run quick and ready for passion?

She shivered in the early twilight as the rain trickled off the straight brim of her dark brown hat and down the collar of her coat. Of course, she had known—in her mind—that winter in Florence could be as miserable as any foggy, chill day in London. But in a corner of her heart, she had expected—and hungered for—the Florence of her dreams.

She had seen nothing of the churches, the museums, the historical places she had marked in the margins of her frayed guidebook with her careful handwriting. Instead, she wandered the damp, cold streets searching, searching.

Because her sensible, frugal nature needed an excuse, she had told herself that it was her heritage she was searching for. The heritage of the feckless, handsome musician who had seduced her mother and who had appeared at odd times throughout her childhood, just long enough to make a shy, serious child adore him for the brief flash of color he brought to a dull, gray life.

But deep inside, she knew that the dreams had brought her here. No, not merely brought, compelled. Why else would she have spent a good portion of the small inheritance she had unexpectedly received to come here when she could have used the money to live a modest life at home? The compulsion to journey to Italy had been so strong that she had not even been able to wait until spring.

Looking around her, she saw that she had strayed farther than planned from the small, shabby pensione just around the corner from the church where Dante had watched and worshiped his Beatrice. Now, she realized with a start, she was lost in the rabbit warren of streets and alleyways close to the Arno River.

Quickening her steps, Sarah turned down another narrow street and then another. But all she found at the end was yet another dark bylane lit only by the meager light that spilled out of the open door of some artisan’s studio.

Sporadically, she heard voices from behind doors and shuttered windows, but instead of reassuring her, the muffled sounds made the deserted street even more eerie. A burst of laughter somewhere behind her echoed the stone walls. A shiver that had nothing to do with the cold slithered up her spine but refusing to give in to the sudden blind desire to run, she kept to her brisk, even pace.

The austere houses, black with dampness, rose like the sheer walls of a canyon on either side of her. Ribbons of fog drifted down between them, blurring the contours, cloaking the uneven cobblestones. She gasped when the toe of her boot struck something metallic and sent it clattering. An answering screech had her stopping so suddenly that her feet almost slipped out from under her. Her hand pressed against her racing heart, she watched a cat’s black tail swish once and then disappear into the mist.

She wanted to scoff at herself, but the sound that emerged from her throat was more a sob than laughter. Her heartbeat was just starting to slow when the creak of a door opening behind her sent it galloping again. Annoyance with her own fear had her turning toward the rectangle of yellowish light, as she reminded herself that she was a sensible, independent Englishwoman who ran neither from black cats nor creaking doors.

Signora?”

Sarah looked at the tall man silhouetted in the doorway of what was—judging from the smell of varnish and rosin and the melancholy sound of a bow being drawn across strings—apparently a violin-maker’s shop. The man’s face was half in shadow, but the chiseled features and the eyes of a blue so bright, so startling that even the somber light could not mask it, looked so familiar that she found herself taking a step closer toward him.

She should continue on her way, she told herself. She knew better than to speak to strange men on a dark street. But instead of turning away, Sarah stood there, her breath uneven, barely aware of the wetness seeping into her boots.

Through the mist that rose like whitish smoke, she peered at the perfect profile, the sensual mouth. It was the face, she thought, as her heart took off on another race. The face that night for night sought her out in her dreams. No. She shook her head. That had to be an illusion. Or if it was not, then perhaps she was dreaming now.

“May I help you, signora?” The man moved forward, his mouth tilting in a charming smile that was echoed in his eyes. “Are you lost?”

Sarah opened her mouth to tell him that she did not need his help, that she was not lost, but then he stepped to the side, making room for her to enter the shop.

Prego.” His hand tracing a gesture of welcome, he bowed. “Come in.”

His graceful bow seemed meant for her personally with nothing of the obsequiousness of a tradesman seeking custom and, her natural wariness forgotten, Sarah found herself following his invitation.

Even though the warmth of the stove that stood in a corner of the small, high-ceilinged room beckoned, she remained standing near the door. Now, in the light, she could see the man clearly. No, she thought with something akin to disappointment. It was not the same face that haunted her dreams. But because it was a beautiful face nevertheless, she found herself unable to take her eyes away from it.

“Are you English?”

There was laughter in his eyes and, embarrassed that she had been caught staring, Sarah looked away and concentrated on brushing the raindrops off her coat, suddenly, painfully aware of how threadbare the fabric was. Just as she was aware that the man in front of her looked like a young god, and she was a plain, thirty-five-year-old spinster.

“Yes, I’m English,” she answered in the slow, careful Italian she had learned in the stolen hours over the years. “How did you know?”

The sound of his laughter, as melodic as a song, rippled over her skin.

“Only the English come to Firenze in the winter.”

“Who—who are you?” she stammered, caught in his eyes the color of the sunlit sea.

“Guido Mercurio.” He bowed again. “At your service.”

“Like Mercury, the messenger of the gods?”

“Exactly.” He smiled. “Come. Sit down and tell me your name.”

She found herself moving toward a sofa as if something were propelling her and lowered herself onto the worn velvet. “Sarah Longford,” she managed. “My name is Sarah Longford.”

Benvenuta, Sarah Longford.” On his lips, her prosaic name seemed to acquire a number of extra vowels, making it sound like poetry or music.

“Here, drink this.” He pressed a silver cup filled with wine into her hands and sat down opposite her in a straight-backed chair. “Drink.”

She wanted to tell him that she could not possibly drink this. She was already dizzy. And, besides, proper Englishwomen did not drink wine with strangers who reminded them of their dreams. But then she found herself taking a swallow of the rich red wine. It tasted of the sun, and she drank again.

“Now tell me, Sarah Longford, where were you going?” He touched a matching silver cup to hers and drank as well. “You were looking for something.”

The matter-of-fact statement had no inflection of a question, and her eyebrows lifted in surprise. “Why do you say that?”

“I can see it in your eyes.” He sent her an oddly sweet smile. “I will help you find it.” Reaching out, he covered her hand with his. “I will show you.”

Sarah felt a small flash of excitement. As she looked down at his olive-skinned, elegant hand on her pale one, she allowed herself, for a moment, to take pleasure in the feeling of his fingers on her skin.

Was this how her father had seduced her mother? With wine and Italian words that were like music?

“I have to go.” She started to rise because she had felt the passion that slumbered inside her stir, like the first, barely audible rumbling of a volcano about to erupt.

“Stay and drink your wine, ?”

His melodious voice had Sarah sitting down again and taking a swallow of wine and then another. Leaning back against the worn red velvet, she sipped her wine, and let her gaze wander around the small, windowless shop, crammed full of string instruments in various stages of disrepair. It was then that she saw the lute.

It was obviously an old instrument, the red and blue decorations painted on its pear-shaped body faded to just a hint of color. It hung from the wall on a braided leather strap cracked with time.

Sarah rose and went toward it. “May I touch it?” Even before she heard his affirmative answer, she was running her fingers along the smooth wood. Her fingertips tingled as she stroked the catgut strings. Raising her head, she smiled across the room. “My father brought me a lute once. He put it into my hands, and I began to play it.” She laughed softly as she remembered. “I closed my eyes and saw myself wearing a rich amber-colored gown and sitting on a window ledge, playing my lute. It was like a miracle.”

When she had hung the lute back on the wall, she returned to the sofa but did not sit down. “I have to go now.” She linked her fingers tightly.

.” Guido stood and ran his knuckles lightly over her fingers. “I will accompany you.”

“Please, do not inconvenience yourself,” Sarah protested.

He opened the door and a wisp of mist swirled in, dissipating in the warmth of the room. It was a symbol, Sarah thought. A symbol for an hour she had spent. For a precious gift she had been given. She smiled, and together, they stepped outside.

It had grown completely dark while she had been in the shop, but the rain had stopped. They did not speak as they walked through the narrow streets, but it was an easy, comfortable silence.

They turned down a street barely wider than an alleyway and found their way blocked by a large wagon piled high with goods. A thin, tall man called out instructions as the sailcloth covering was thrown back to reveal a jumble of furniture, paintings, and crates.

In the light of torches, which had been placed in round metal holders on the walls of a building, several burly men silently began unloading the wagon. The only sound was the sharp, raspy voice of the gaunt, sallow man as he moved from one side to the other, giving orders.

The flames of the torches created stunning contrasts of brightness and shadow, making an ordinary scene look like a Caravaggio painting. How different the scene would have been, Sarah mused, viewed by the pale, demure light of London gas lanterns.

Intrigued, Sarah approached the wagon, her hand outstretched to touch. Then she stopped like a well-behaved child and looked over her shoulder at her companion.

“Go ahead.” Guido smiled and gave her a nod of encouragement.

Excitement gripping her, Sarah took a step forward and then another.

Buona fortuna,” Guido whispered. “Good luck.” He watched her for a moment longer before he stepped back into the mist.

A corner of a marble-faced cabinet, its surface inlaid with lapis lazuli, jasper, and malachite in a wondrous pattern of flowers and birds, peeked over the backboard of the wagon. Sarah tugged off her glove and reached out to run her fingers over it.

The cold surface seemed to warm beneath her touch. Then, as if the cabinet’s surface had become a window, she saw it standing in a large, high-ceilinged room. A woman in a dress of emerald-colored velvet bent over it, and as she reached for one of its many drawers, Sarah found that she knew exactly which one she would reach for. The woman’s long black hair spilled forward to hide her face. Bianca, Sarah realized. This was Bianca.

Buona sera, signora.”

The vision disappeared at the sound of the gravelly voice. Disoriented, Sarah focused her gaze on the man who was scrutinizing her. He inclined his head and smiled, revealing a set of large teeth that reminded Sarah of yellowed piano keys.

Buona sera.” She looked back at the cabinet, half-expecting to see the vision again. But all she saw was the marble surface with its lovely pattern. “You have some very beautiful things here.”

Sì, sì. Look at what you will.” He rubbed his hands together eagerly. “In a few moments, everything will be unloaded, and you can look at your leisure.” He gestured toward the shop. “I make a good price for you. An excellent price.”

“Oh, I do not want to buy anything.” Regretfully, Sarah retreated a step although she longed to touch the cabinet again and see if she could summon the vision back.

“They all say that.” He laughed and raised his bony shoulders in a shrug. “Then they look, and they buy.”

Wanting to share her discovery with Guido, Sarah turned, but all she saw was swirling mist made luminous by the flames of the torches.

“Mercurio?” she called. “Guido Mercurio, where are you?” She turned around in a circle, once and then again, but he was nowhere to be seen.

Signore,” she called out to the owner of the shop. “Did you see where the man who was with me went?”

“Man?” He gave her a curious look. “I saw no man.”

Sarah saw the odd look the shop owner gave her. Had the encounter with the man called Guido Mercurio been a figment of her imagination? Or a vision, like the image she had seen when she touched the cabinet?

Was she going mad? Was all this a dream? Would she wake up and find herself back in London in the wretched little room above a cookshop?

She looked over her shoulder, but all she saw was the incandescent mist enveloping her, closing in on her. Unnerved, she turned to run, but then she looked back one last time. The dull gleam of metal distracted her, and she made a sound of delight at the sight of a small wooden chest—a casket with a vaulted lid and a pattern of metal scrollwork over faded red velvet. As they carried it inside, she wondered if it was a treasure coffer that had once contained strings of pearls or precious stones or gold florins.

The wagon emptied, and she felt an agitation grip her. There was something there, something she could not define, something important. But it was slipping away from her. If she did not reach out for it, it would be gone.

Her breathing uneven, her nerves vibrated like taut strings plucked by a rough hand as she watched the empty wagon move down the alleyway and be swallowed by the mist. She could go now, she thought. She could find her way back to her pensione where the fire in the common room would be burning brightly. Where she could have some civilized, boring conversation with the vicar from Blackpool and his wife.

The owner of the shop stood in the door, watching her. This time he said nothing but merely stepped back until he stood in the shadows of the dim interior.

Without knowing how or why, Sarah understood that she was being given a choice. Slowly, she moved toward the shop. Then she felt the power. Something was there, waiting for her inside the shadowy shop.

For the second time that evening, she stepped over a threshold.

Chapter Three

The shop smelled of petroleum oil and old dust. It must have already been full before the wagon had been unloaded, Sarah thought. Now, crates and boxes were heaped one on top of the other, tables stood on cabinets, chests were piled upon chests, leaving passageways between the stacks just wide enough to squeeze through.

Her heart pumping as if she had run a race, she moved forward, drawn into the labyrinth of furniture and bric-a-brac like a hapless wanderer being sucked into quicksand.

“All this once belonged to the Cornaro family.”

“What?” Sarah jumped at the man’s words, her reflexive movement jarring a pile of furniture making it wobble dangerously. “Cornaro?” she whispered. “Did you say Cornaro?”

. Some distant relation in France ordered everything sold after the last of the Cornaros threw himself from the top floor of his palazzo.” He smiled grimly. “The Cornaro curse. Now it is finally over.”

“Curse?” Sarah felt her mouth go dry.

“For centuries, violent death has afflicted every generation. They were rich and powerful, but the curse was in their blood and drove them to be vicious to others and to themselves.”

The man’s lugubrious voice grew animated, as if the bloodthirsty tale gave him pleasure. “The curse began long ago when two brothers wanted the same woman and spilled blood over her.”

Two brothers and one woman! Sarah opened her mouth to ask if their names had been Alessio and Ugo. If they had loved a woman named Bianca. But no sound emerged.

No, she thought wildly, it could not be. It was beyond all reason that the dreams that had visited her all her life had a basis in fact. Terror flashed through her like lightning.

And if it was indeed so? Was this why she had been compelled to come to Florence? Was this why she had been led here, to this street, to this shop, at this very hour?

The questions careened through her mind like stampeding horses, making her dizzy. The world around her spun faster and faster until it was only a blur. But in her mind was a perfectly clear image of the lovers whose passionate lives she knew better than her own—perhaps because she had but a ghost of a life herself.

“The beautiful Bianca Merisi sowed strife between two Cornaro brothers.”

The man’s voice snapped her out of the vertigo as effectively as if he had slapped her.

“She married Ugo, but she took his brother Alessio as her lover. Ugo found them together—”

“No!” Sarah raised her hands to block her ears although she knew the words that were coming.

“—and butchered them with Alessio’s own dagger.”

Too late. Hearing the words spoken so baldly in the shabby shop was proof that her dreams were based in reality. The knowledge settled around her heart like a lead weight.

“Are you all right?” The man bent down to her and peered into her face. “Here, sit down.”

He shoved a half-open crate that stood on the lid of a chest to the side and helped Sarah sit. “I will get you something to drink.”

Still stunned, she rubbed the heel of her hand against her chest, as if she could ease the weight there of what she had heard. But had she not known that? Had she not seen it in her dreams? Her eyes filled and, as the tears spilled down her cheeks, she rocked back and forth and mourned.

Time passed—she could not tell if it was minutes or hours. When the tears were spent, she leaned, exhausted, against the crate that stood next to her.

Its top was partially pried open and, among the pile of small objects wrapped in newspapers and rags, a twinkle of color caught her eye. Reaching inside the crate, she picked up a bellied jar made of cobalt-blue Venetian glass, its stopper shaped like an open fan, and held it in the palm of her hand. Who had held it as she was holding it now? What had it contained? Perfume? A love potion? Poison?

Even as the questions formed in her mind, her own reflection on the dark blue surface dimmed and reformed into the image of another woman, her lovely face framed by a cloud of dark curls, lifting away the fan-shaped stopper and pouring a liquid into a bowl. As the image faded, Sarah smelled the sweet fragrance of jasmine.

Her fingers trembled lightly as she fingered the stopper. She tried to remove it, but the years had glued it fast. Curiosity driving her, Sarah plucked a pin from her hat. Carefully, she scratched at the stopper until it loosened, and she was able to work it out. Resolutely, she brought the open jar to her nose and took a deep breath.

When she breathed in the faint scent of jasmine, she cried out softly, and her fingers slackened. The jar tipped over and rolled off her hand. Horrified, she watched helplessly as it fell to the floor and shattered.

Signora?”

Her head snapped up as she heard the steps of the owner returning. Oh, God, she thought, as panic rushed through her. What had she done? She would never be able to pay for a piece like this that was surely priceless. Her fingers trembling, she tore off her hat and swept the shards into it with the hem of her coat.

She would hide, she thought. Hide until the man was gone, and then she would slip away. Slip away and pretend this whole evening had been an illusion. Perhaps with time, she would come to believe it.

Even as the thoughts tumbled chaotically through her brain, she grabbed the oil lamp and rushed blindly toward the back of the shop.

Signora?

Just as she heard him call out again, she saw a half-open door. Pushing it open, she slipped inside the room and pressed her back against the wall.

The owner called out again. There was a crash, followed by pungent swearing and a stream of invective about foreign women who acted like lunatics when they heard an interesting story.

Then she heard a door slam, the grate of a key turning in a lock, and she knew that she was alone. Counting the minutes, she waited. When she was sure he would not return, she took the lamp and crept back through the passageway.

The door was locked. Sarah suppressed a shiver as she began to search for a spare key. She found a key and then another and another, but none of them fit the rusty old lock on the door. When she finally capitulated, she brushed aside the fear that was jarring her nerves.

Her gaze fell on the unusual casket with its metal scrollwork and fabric, and her resignation gave way to a flurry of excitement. She ran a cautious finger over the ruby-colored velvet. It had once been richly patterned, but the years had thinned the nap of the fabric so that it was almost bald in places.

Because no image rushed at her, she bravely tilted up the vaulted lid. Telling herself that she had no right to be disappointed that the casket was empty, she dipped her hands inside and ran her fingers over the red velvet lining.

Her fingers began to tingle and, alarm rippling through her, she stared down at her thin, chapped hands. The image blurred and focused again on hands that were soft and white and scented with jasmine. Hands that were plunged into a fabulous profusion of jewels.

A chain of square-cut sapphires was carelessly tossed aside. A collar of rubies and diamonds followed. Nimble, capricious fingers plucked out a long rope of milky pearls the size of mulberries. Again, the image shifted, and Sarah saw a figure in a fine white nightdress. The pearls dripping from one hand like oversized drops of water, the woman turned toward a man who stood in the shadows.

The image receded, and Sarah found herself staring down at her own hands again. She was going mad, she thought, as the memory of a dream that could only be the continuation of the image she had just seen played before her closed eyes. Bianca taking Alessio’s hand and leading him from the shadows to the bed with its crimson canopy and curtains. Bianca twisting the rope of pearls around his hands like a manacle before they tumbled onto the bed.

She opened her eyes, unsure of what she would see. Where she would find herself. When she saw that she was in the grimy antique shop filled to the eaves with the rubble of generations of Cornaros, she was not sure whether to be relieved or terrified.

Gingerly, she snapped the lid of the casket shut. Then, drained of all energy, she propped her hands against the desk. Her knees were starting to buckle, and she gripped the outer edges of the desk to steady herself.

A soft click and the light scrape of wood sliding against wood had her heart racing again. Looking down, she saw that a shallow compartment above the center drawer had sprung open. A thin portfolio lay there, the leather cracked with age, its once rich color bleached to the faded green of winter grass.

Instinctively, she reached out for it but pulled her hand back at the last moment, afraid of what new image would lie in store for her. Still, her fingers itched to touch it.

Then carefully, with only the very tips of her fingers, she picked it up and undid the crumbling ribbon. The top sheet of thick vellum was yellowed with age, but the black ink was still dark and legible. She bent closer and began to read.

Bianca, vita della mia vita, cuore del mio cuore. Bianca, life of my life, heart of my heart.

Sarah closed her eyes as the words struck a chord within her that reverberated like a sweet melody she had heard before. Cautiously holding the portfolio, she picked up the lamp and returned to the back room. She had been blinded by fear when she had hidden there before. Now she saw that most of the room was taken up by a large bed, its canopy awry, the curtains of crimson velvet missing on one side, the horsehair stuffing spilling out of the vandalized mattress.

Horror wound through her, and Sarah retreated a step and then another and another until she collided with the door. She wanted to close her eyes, to look away, but she could not.

This was the bed she had seen so many times in her dreams. The bed where Bianca had given her virginity to the husband who repulsed her with his malformed body and his cruelty. The bed where she had sought and found solace and passion with her husband’s brother. The bed where … the slashes in the mattress had come from Alessio’s dagger wielded by Ugo in his rage fueled by hatred and vengeance.

Her initial reaction was to flee. But stubbornness and pride kept her where she stood. No, she thought, she would not run. Perhaps this bed was the key to all the bewildering, enigmatic things that had happened to her tonight. The key and the ultimate test of her courage.

As if she were performing a ritual, she placed portfolio and lamp on a heavy carved chair and pushed it next to the bed. Then, surrendering herself to whatever lay in store for her, she sat down on the mattress and waited for her heart to begin to race, for her breath to grow ragged, for a bombardment of images.

But there were none of it. Instead, she felt odd vibrations that transferred themselves to her nerve endings, to her heartstrings. Yes, she felt the violence. Yes, she felt the passion. But, most overwhelmingly, she felt the love.

Reaching for the portfolio, she turned up the wick of the lamp and began to read the letters and poems of a man who had loved beyond all measure, beyond all reason.

The lamp was beginning to flicker by the time she was done. Her cheeks damp with tears, she closed the portfolio and set it aside. When Alessio had loved her so ardently, so profoundly, how could Bianca not have responded in kind? How could she have craved wealth and power more? How could she not have loved enough? Sarah felt Bianca’s tangled web of emotions stirring restlessly in her own heart.

The flame of the lamp shot up one more time and sputtered out, but Sarah felt no fear. No, she welcomed the darkness. Unspeakably weary, she lay down on the bed. Her eyes closed, and she drifted into sleep.

And for the first time since she had been in Florence, she dreamt.

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