A Secrets of the Eternal Rose Novel
An Imprint of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
—the book of the eternal rose
Cass leaned over the side of the Rialto Bridge, the wind lifting her auburn hair away from her face. Wispy clouds swirled low in the sky.
“Cass.” The word fluttered on the breeze.
She turned. Falco stood at her side, his square jaw backlit by the sun, his mouth curving into the lopsided smile she loved. “I thought you . . . ?” Cass couldn’t finish. Left. He had left her, weeks ago.
“I came back for you,” he said.
He stroked her face with his hands, one fingertip tracing the smattering of freckles across the bridge of her nose. She wobbled in her chopines and he reached out to steady her, his hand lingering on her arm. The platform overshoes made her taller than Falco, but he didn’t seem to notice. Tilting his head toward her, he pulled her body in close to his.
Cass trembled as he closed the gap between them. Their lips met. Hungry. Wanting. Falco’s hands wrapped around her waist, caressing her through the layered fabric of her dress. Her body went weak, and she gripped the stone railing of the bridge to keep from pitching over into the water. Her other hand found his hair. She twisted it around her fingers.
“Come with me,” he whispered.
Cass didn’t even ask where they were going. Falco took her hand and pulled her across the bridge, through the streets. Light became gray. Day became night. His grip tightened around her fingers. Too tight. Cass looked up at him. She gasped. He was falling away in pieces. His hair. His smile. His skin peeling back to reveal teeth and bone.
The street dissolved, and Cass wasn’t outside anymore. Dark hallways threaded out in all directions, weblike and impossibly long. She clawed at the damp walls, and the stone chipped away beneath her fingernails, leaving long gouges in the rock. She was being dragged forward, through an arched door. A lantern flickered to life. They were in the wine room. Cass and the man of bone.
Only now he wore a new face: Cristian, her fiancé Luca’s half brother. Cristian, the murderer. He started shouting at her, horrible black things about the women he had killed.
A droplet of water fell from above. Cass lay pinned to a low stone table. And Cristian was on top of her, his weight crushing her chest, an icy blade pressed against her throat. She felt death in that pinch of steel, but she was more afraid of the hand that wasn’t holding the dagger. The hand that was busy tearing away the fabric of her dress . . .
Cass sat up in bed, her heart banging in her chest, her eyes still shut against the monster from her nightmare. The fabric of her nightgown clung to her moist skin.
“Not real,” she murmured. She had the dream every couple of nights. Each time it was a little different, but it always ended the same way.
She opened her eyes. The candle on her washing table had burned down to its nub. Burning tallow all night was expensive, and dangerous, but Cass couldn’t bear the dark. Not since Cristian had attacked her. A thin shaft of silvery dawn sliced its way through a crack in her shutters. It was morning, and she was all right. Another night survived.
She tried to put the nightmare out of her mind. She hadn’t told anyone exactly what had happened to her the day of Madalena’s wedding. Even Luca didn’t know that his half brother had more than murder on his mind when he lured Cass down into the wine room.
Her insides twisted, like she was a sheet being wrung out to dry. Bile rose in her throat. Resting her head back on her pillow, Cass willed herself to be calm. Inhale. Exhale. Just breathe.
Something rough scratched against her cheek. A rolled parchment lay in her tangled bedsheets. The edges were crumbling and the ink was fading in places. It was Falco’s letter, the only one she had received since he left Venice. Cass had been reading it last night before she fell asleep. She’d read it a hundred times, knew each word by heart, but she unrolled it again anyway. The words were sweet and soothing. Even in his absence, Falco could make the nightmare fade.
I haven’t stopped thinking of you—I can’t. I know that you are engaged and want to do right by your family, but you and I belong together. Call it fate if you like. I prefer to think of it as the natural order of things. Just as mixing ochre and sapphire produces the most vibrant green, you and I, when combined, become more alive.
I’ve stopped doing business with de Gradi. I’ve left that life behind. I’m working as an artist-in-residence for a wealthy patron now. The work she has me do is a bit pedestrian, but perhaps it will lead to bigger projects. I meant what I said. One day I will paint whole chapels for you. I spend every waking minute becoming a better artist, a better man. One day I will offer you the life you deserve, the life we both desire.
One day I’ll be good enough, or I’ll die trying . . .
Cass glanced at the portrait of the Virgin Mary above her dressing table. She should have lowered the black veil attached to the frame before reviewing her love letter. It wasn’t proper to let the Virgin see her swooning over a man who was not her fiancé.
But she could ask for forgiveness later. Cradling the parchment against her chest, she thought about the last time she’d seen Falco. She had been strolling the streets of San Domenico with Luca when she saw Falco flagging down a fisherman for passage. Cass knew he was going away, but she didn’t know where. Part of her had wanted to drop her fiancé’s hand and run to Falco’s side, to escape the tiny island with him.
But she had stayed put, her arm entwined with Luca’s, watching Falco’s back fade into the setting sun. Following him would have meant abandoning her aunt Agnese and dishonoring the memory of her parents, and Cass just couldn’t do it. Besides, she wasn’t completely convinced she could trust Falco. Their whole relationship was based on secrets and lies. Even if Falco had stopped stealing dead bodies and selling them to Angelo de Gradi, did that mean he wouldn’t turn to crime again the next time he needed more than his art could provide? She didn’t know.
But she did know Luca might never be enough for her. Cass’s heart fluttered in her chest. She felt Falco’s lips on hers as if he were there in the room. She remembered their first kiss, in the studio where he apprenticed, the way she felt as if she had lived her whole life inside a frozen shell, melting for the first time at his touch.
She sighed. Luca had been so patient with her the past few weeks, content to enjoy her company at mealtimes and during an occasional stroll along the beach. Just last week he had given her a gift, a gorgeous lily pendant. Cass felt its pressure in the hollow of her throat, the lily’s diamond center moving in and out with each of her breaths. Luca would make the perfect husband. He was handsome and kind and smart, a good man, from a well-established Venetian family. And he loved her. He loved her so much, he would die for her; he had proven that already. But Falco was . . . Falco. Just the taste of his name on her lips made Cass a little dizzy.
Her situation was hopeless: betrothed to one man, wildly in love with another.
Heavy footsteps outside her room shattered the reverie. Quickly, Cass slipped the letter under her pillow. She tucked an unruly shock of hair back under her sleeping cap as she hurried to her armoire and grabbed a dressing gown from inside. Securing the belt around her waist, she opened her chamber door a crack and peeked out into the hallway. It was dark, but the corridor was full of strange men dressed in scarlet and gold. Men with swords and clubs tucked into leather sheaths.
“What’s going on here?” Cass asked.
The soldiers turned as one, quickly averting their eyes at her state of undress. “We’ve orders to search Signor da Peraga’s chambers,” one of them said stiffly. He wore a gold medallion pinned to his doublet. Cass assumed he was the man in charge.
“Search his chambers?” she repeated, incredulous. “For what?”
“Best you step aside, Signorina.” The soldier waved her out of the way with one of his filthy leather gloves. “These orders come straight from the Senate.”
Cass’s handmaid, Siena, appeared at her side, dressed but still half drunk with sleep, her blonde hair stuffed loosely under her bonnet. “Signorina Cass,” she whispered. “What’s happening?”
“I don’t know.” Cass followed the soldiers to the room where Luca had been staying. Siena trailed behind her. The two girls stood in the doorway as the men converged upon the bed, tearing the pillows and sheets from it and tossing them to the floor. Finding nothing of interest in the linens, they moved to the worn leather trunk that sat against the wall. Horrified, Cass watched as one of the soldiers flung armfuls of books and clothing over his shoulder.
“Where is Luca?” she asked, her voice rising in pitch. “You’ve no right to go through his belongings without him present.”
“I suggest you go speak to Signor da Peraga yourself,” the nearest soldier said. “He’s in the portego with the rest of the brigade.”
Rest of the brigade? Pulling Siena behind her, Cass stormed down the hallway and pushed into the main room of the villa. The shutters were still closed, but the cavernous portego was aglow with torchlight. Agnese’s harp, and the angel statues that stood on either side of it, were casting deformed, wavering shadows across the marble floor. Luca stood near a velvet divan talking to another group of soldiers. Cass counted seven of them. They smelled of sweat and ale and ashes. Scarlet and gold blurred before her eyes as the soldiers circled her fiancé, like lions preparing to pounce.
“Luca! What’s happening?” She pushed her way through the sea of red to Luca’s side, her forward momentum almost throwing her into his arms. It had been awhile since she had been this close to him, close enough to see how his brown eyes faded to honey at the edges, close enough to smell a hint of cinnamon on his clothing.
“I’m being arrested,” he said calmly.
Cass felt as though the ground had opened beneath her feet. “On what charges? Under whose authority?” For a moment, she pressed her face against his broad chest, hiding her skin from the dancing flames of the nearest soldier’s torch. The silk of Luca’s doublet felt cool against her scorched cheek.
“What is the meaning of all this?”
Cass pulled away at the sound of Narissa’s shrill voice. Narissa was Agnese’s personal handmaid and the unofficial second-in-command of the villa. The stout, gray-haired woman surveyed the scene with a mix of shock and anger.
A crowd was beginning to gather at the edge of the portego. Siena stood just inside the doorway, her body leaning heavily against the wall as if she might collapse at any moment. She gestured wildly as she murmured to Narissa, but Cass couldn’t make out what the women were saying. She felt as though she hadn’t yet woken from her dream. Everything was strange and disjointed. Bortolo, Agnese’s elderly blind butler, stood behind the handmaids, his grizzled face twisted in confusion. In the other doorway, a trio of serving girls huddled silently together, taking in the scene with wide, frightened eyes.
A large thud made Cass jump. It sounded as if the soldiers were hacking Luca’s belongings to pieces with their clubs. With all the noise, Agnese was almost certainly awake now. Cass knew she should go to her aunt’s bedside, but she couldn’t bring herself to leave Luca.
As Cass watched, Narissa broke away from Siena and strode purposefully toward Luca’s chambers, undoubtedly to make sure the soldiers weren’t stealing anything or destroying the furniture. Cass knew Agnese would be hobbling her way into the chaos the instant she heard of the transpiring events. Ideally Narissa could control the soldiers and her aunt, who was too weak to deal with something like this. Agnese’s latest bout with imbalanced humors had required a large bloodletting, and the doctor had recommended bed rest for a few days.
“On what charges do you arrest my fiancé?” Cass asked again, directing her words to the group. When no one answered, she focused on the nearest soldier. His beard was flecked with gray, and several medallions glimmered on the breast of his doublet. Perhaps he, not the man leading the ransackers, was the leader. “You. Answer me.” The soldier looked pityingly at Cass but said nothing.
Cass turned to Luca. “This is madness!”
“They can’t tell us the charges.” Luca pressed his hands to Cass’s shoulders, steadying her. “They probably don’t even know. They’re just following orders.” He touched his lips to her cheek, then angled his mouth toward her ear. “Be strong,” he murmured. “And stay away from Signor Dubois.”
“Does he have something to do with this?” Cass knew that Luca had been to see Joseph Dubois only yesterday, and every shady dealing in Venice seemed to lead back to the Frenchman. A few weeks ago, he’d ordered Luca’s half brother, Cristian, to “dispose” of a maid from his estate. The girl’s mutilated body had surfaced in the Grand Canal, and now Siena’s sister, Feliciana, another servant at Palazzo Dubois, was missing. Cass prayed to Saint Anthony every night for Feliciana’s safe return, but privately she feared the worst.
Luca didn’t respond. The remaining soldiers filed into the portego, having apparently completed their search. Between the two groups there must have been close to twenty men. Did the Senate really think it would take so many soldiers to subdue a single man?
“Did you find anything?” The soldier with the graying beard lifted his torch so that the faces of his companions were illuminated.
“Nothing,” one of the soldiers barked in reply.
The brigade surrounded Luca and Cass, separating them from the rest of the household. The heat from their torches made the room go blurry. Cass blinked hard, but golden spots floated in the air, melding with the ocean of scarlet fabric, reflecting off medallions and sword hilts. She braced herself with one hand against Luca, trying to keep her knees from folding beneath her.
“Signor da Peraga must come with us now,” a soldier said. He detached a coil of rope from his belt and looped it around Luca’s wrists, cinching his hands behind his back.
“No!” Cass threw her hands around Luca’s neck, pulling him close. She fought back a sob, but a tear escaped, trickling down her cheek before she could brush it away.
“Everything is going to be fine, Cass,” Luca said. He leaned down to brush his lips against the tear. “Don’t cry.”
One of the men took Cass by the shoulders and wrenched her away. She stumbled backward, unmoored. Siena materialized at her side, reaching out, helping her regain her balance. The soldiers engulfed Luca and dragged him toward the stairs.
The front door of the villa slammed, and Cass ran to the window. The sky had gone from silver to blue. The soldiers doused their torches in the water as they forced Luca aboard the sturdy wooden ship. White sails snapped in the breeze as the boat pulled away from the dock. The waxing daylight wasn’t enough to see clearly by, but Cass swore Luca turned to look back at her as the ship bobbed out of sight. She touched one hand to the window, her breath condensing on the glass.
Luca was gone.