Read Belladonna Online

Authors: Fiona Paul

Tags: #love_sf

Belladonna

Annotation
In Renaissance Italy, love, lust, intrigue and secret societies converge to stunning results!
In the second in the stunning Secrets of the Eternal Rose series, Cassandra Caravello is trying to forget Falco, the wild artist who ran off with her heart, as she grows closer to her strong, steady fiancé, Luca. But Luca seems to have his own secrets. When he’s arrested by soldiers in the middle of the night, Cass’s life is once again thrown into chaos. She must save Luca, and that means finding the Book of the Eternal Rose—the only evidence that will prove he’s innocent.
So begins her journey to Florence, a city haunted by whispers of vampirism, secret soirees and clandestine meetings of the Order of the Eternal Rose. And home to Falco, who is working for the Order’s eerily stunning leader, the Belladonna herself.
Can Cass trust her heart to lead her to the truth this time?
Nothing is as it seems in this seductive thriller, where the truth may be the deadliest poison of all.
Belladonna
Secrets of the Eternal Rose 2
by
Fiona Paul
FOR MOM.
Thanks for supporting me in all of my crazy endeavors.
one
“Fire is power. Blood is life.”
—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. 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.
Starling,
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 Angelo 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.
Soldiers.
“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 a while 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 citrus and 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.

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