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.
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.”
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.
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.
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, sì?”
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.
“Sì.” 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.
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?”
“Sì. 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.
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.
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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