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"I'd expected jewel encrusted, not encased in a layer of dried blood." Almost cringing, I fingered the slim medieval dagger that felt heavier in my hands than its size suggested.
Tourists come to Venice, the city Petrarch called mundus alter, "another world," to take in the opulent beauty of the floating city's palaces, the soft colors and vibrant gold of St. Mark's Basilica, and the rich elegance of Titian's paintings. My trip, however, came without the prospect of such pleasant things. I was standing in a dark, musty palazzo with my childhood nemesis glowering over my shoulder as I inspected the knife an intruder had used to kill her father-in-law. An unpleasant sensation prickled up my neck as I stared down. Instruments of murder are not something with which a lady contends on a daily basis. Particularly not one still bearing evidence of its evil use.
"The police returned it to me in just that condition," Emma Callum said, wrinkling her nose. "I wasn't about to touch it. And the servants point-blank refused to clean it. I'd fire the lot of them if my Italian were better."
I liked to believe the majority of my fellow countrymen were excellent travelers abroad. Credits to the empire. An Englishman ought to conduct himself in a manner more likely to draw admiration than scorn, and should use his explorations of the world as an opportunity to expand his mind and improve his character. Emma showed no sign of such aspirations, a condition unusual in someone who has chosen to go beyond simple tourist and embrace the life of an expat. Then again, Emma had lived in Italy for three years without bothering even to learn the language.
My husband took the knife from my hand and studied it before laying it on a table. We'd been married just over two years, and Colin Hargreaves still took my breath away every time I looked at his preternaturally handsome face. Early on in our acquaintance (even before I'd abandoned my erroneous suspicion that he'd murdered my first husband—but that's another story altogether), I'd decided his perfectly chiseled features looked as if Praxiteles, my favorite ancient Greek artist, had sculpted them. His dark eyes and darker wavy hair lent him a romantic air that would set Mr. Darcy to permanent brooding and send Heathcliff stalking across the moors, never to return. No man, fictional or real, could compare.
Our hostess, however, was an entirely different matter. One might, perhaps, compare Emma to Miss Bingley or Mrs. Dashwood, but she did not quite reach the level of a great villain of literature. Still, nothing short of murder could have induced me to renew my acquaintance with Emma. We had never been close, and it was unlikely this would ever change. Put simply, she despised me, and I'm ashamed to admit I returned the feeling. When we were six years old, she destroyed my favorite doll, smashing its porcelain face with her boot. She scooped up the pitiful remains of the toy my father had specially brought for me from Paris and ran downstairs from the nursery to the conservatory where our mothers were having tea.
I will never forget the way the conservatory looked that day, the way the sunlight filtered through the leaves of my mother's precious lemon trees, and the scent of bright lilies, which forever after would seem to me heavy and cloying. Emma held out her bounty, her eyes wide with horror, and spoke, her voice trembling.
"Look at the terrible thing Emily has done," she said. From where she conjured her tears, I know not, but her voice grew even more pathetic as she continued. "I told her the dolly was pretty, but she insisted she wanted one with better curls. So she stepped on her. Crushed her head in with her foot and said now she knew she'd get a new one."
"Did she?" My mother's face was inscrutable, but I knew the trouble I was in for.
"It doesn't seem right," Emma said. "To destroy something only to be rewarded."
"I can assure you, Emma, that will not happen."
When I woke up the next morning, all my remaining dolls had disappeared from the nursery, and there was never another one seen in the house.
I knew better than to tattle and didn't even try to defend myself. Any attempt to do so would have been met with even more trouble. Emma and I continued to be thrown together throughout childhood due to our mothers' friendship, but I refused to engage in any but the most basic interaction with her. She did not improve with age. As a debutante, she barraged with attention any gentleman who showed even the slightest interest in me, culminating with a clumsy attempt to wrangle Philip, the Viscount Ashton and at the time my soon-to-be-fiancé, away from me.
It was unlikely our acquaintance would ever grow into a real friendship.
Now Emma needed me, and I was not about to walk away from her, despite our past. Her father-in-law had been murdered, and her husband had disappeared shortly thereafter, an act that, so far as the authorities were concerned, proved his guilt. She sent for me, begging for help. This, in itself, was proof of how desperate she was feeling.
Seeking our assistance was no rash act on Emma's part. My husband, an agent of the Crown, had a reputation for his ability to crack any investigation with his trademark discretion. And I, if I may be so bold as to give myself such a compliment, had proven my own mettle after successfully apprehending six notorious murderers. As a result, the day after reading her panicked wire, my husband and I traveled to Venice and, almost immediately upon our arrival, climbed into a boat and glided out of the slim canal that skimmed the side of the Hotel Danieli. The gondolier rowed us under a single bridge and into the lagoon before turning into the Grand Canal. Sunlight poured around us, its reflection dancing over the ornate facades of the buildings that rose, majestic, straight from the water. We passed the domed church of Santa Maria della Salute, built in the seventeenth century to give thanks for the end of the plague that had killed upwards of a hundred thousand people in the city, and we crossed under the Ponte della Carita, to my mind the ugliest bridge in the city. It was made from iron, did not have a graceful arching form like the famous stone bridges prevalent throughout Venice, and had been placed too low over the water, making it difficult for gondoliers during high tide. Around us, the canal was crowded with boats, the only method of transport in a place with no streets. I'd already decided I didn't miss them. I much preferred the sleek gondolas, with their singing boatmen, to the clatter of horse and carriage.
On both sides of us, glorious palazzi lined the water. Although built with precision, they had succumbed to centuries of shifting waters that left their facades with a pervasive asymmetry. This did not detract from their beauty. It only enhanced the feeling that one was gliding through something out of a dream.
As the elegant stone arches of the Rialto Bridge came into view, the gondolier steered us to the side of the canal and slowed to a stop in front of an imposing fourteenth-century palazzo, seat of the Barozzi family and Emma's marital home. I nearly lost my balance as I stepped out of the gondola onto the slippery marble pavement at the water entrance. My shaky legs told me I was nervous to meet my old rival.
A sinewy man opened a low wooden door and ushered us inside. "Signor Hargreaves?"
"Buongiorno. Signora Barozzi is expecting you."
Although Emma's husband bore the title conte even before his father's death (it was given as a courtesy to all of a count's sons), no one in Italy used the term in direct address. Emma, who had made much out of becoming a contessa—always using her title when signing letters and insisting that her parents' servants address her as such when she visited England—must be disappointed to be referred to as signora.
We walked along a dark corridor and up a flight of marble stairs into a dim room, the portego, which ran the entire length of the house. At one end was the Barozzi family restelliera, a display of swords, scimitars, spears, shields, and banners hanging on the wall, below which stood two suits of fifteenth-century armor. At the other, large trefoil windows looked onto the canal, the light pouring through them providing the only illumination in the room. Neither of the large lanterns hanging above us was lit. Portraits of the Barozzi ancestors, in dire need of restoration and cleaning, lined the remaining walls, staring down as if to assert the family's noble roots. The fresco covering the tall ceiling was showing signs of decay—the paint had started to peel—and the bits of terrazzo floor that peeked beyond the edges of a threadbare Oriental carpet had lost their shine. Eloping might not have served Emma quite so well as she had hoped.
Some years back, at the insistence of her parents, Emma had accepted the proposal of the younger son of a minor English nobleman. It had appeared, after several unsuccessful seasons, to be her only hope for marriage. She had resisted the gentleman's affection for months, and we'd all believed she'd done so because she harbored higher aspirations. Who could have guessed that all along the dashing Conte Barozzi had been wooing her from afar and that they had plotted their elopement almost from the time they'd met in a London ballroom?
After their secret marriage, Emma and her new husband fled to the conte's home in Venice, scandalizing the ton, everyone fashionable in society. Her family stood by her, and I'd heard rumors that her father, ever devoted to his difficult daughter, continued to offer her financial support. This gossip led in turn to stories about the conte's lack of fortune. But, as is often the case, trading cash for a title was not considered a bad bargain. Most people agreed the new contessa had done well for herself.
Emma rose from a seat near the windows and crossed the room to greet us. The bright yellow satin of her gown suggested time in Italy hadn't altered her taste in fashion. Garish had always been her signature. She was as skinny and angular as ever, all hard bones and frown lines. I pushed unkind thoughts out of my head, displeased that old habits had got the better of me. I was prepared to let go the troubles of the past. Emma and I were no longer sparring schoolgirls or rival debutantes. I was here to help her.
She did not meet my eyes but focused on Colin instead. My heartbeat quickened as I wondered if she would launch straight into her usual flirtatious ways or if marriage had tempered her.
"Darling Hargreaves," she said, holding a hand out to him. "It's so good of you to come. Both of you." She made a point of looking away from me. "I know I do not deserve your kindness."
"Think nothing of it," I said, feeling an unfamiliar warmth towards her. "It's time we move beyond our differences. We're not children anymore."
"Thank you, Emily," she said. "I simply had no one else to turn to. I suppose that ought not surprise me. After all, what lady of my rank would associate with persons who investigate crimes? That I know even one is astonishing. Two, if we count your charming husband."
She winked at him.
I pressed my lips together hard. "Emma, we need to know exactly what happened the night of your father-in-law's death." Exchanging social niceties with Emma was far less pleasant than thinking about murder.
"I had no idea anything out of the ordinary had occurred until the following morning," she said. "I'd seen Signor Barozzi before I retired to my room and he was in perfect health. The next morning, our steward informed us that he was dead. I know you'd much prefer it if I could give you some sort of juicy clue as to what happened, but I can't. I do hope having the murder weapon helps."
I took the slim dagger back into my hands. Its blade was eight inches long, and precious stones—diamonds, emeralds, rubies, and sapphires—encrusted its hilt.
"It belonged to my husband's mother," Emma said. "She kept it next to her bed."
"For protection, or just because she liked the way it looked?" I asked.
"Protection. It's an old family habit," Emma said. "You know how these Italians can be. Very passionate and very dramatic. Not at all like we English. It's quite alarming."
"Was anything else in her room disturbed?" I asked.
"I can't really say." Emma clasped her hands and looked down. "My father-in-law hasn't let anyone into her room since she died more than a dozen years ago."
"No one was allowed in the room?" Colin asked. "Not even servants to keep it clean?"
"No," Emma said. "He couldn't bear to have anyone touch her things. He dusted them himself and even went so far as to wash the floors."
"Have you gone into her room since the night he died?" I asked.
"I did, just to see it," Emma said. "Perhaps it sounds callous after having lost a family member, but I admit I was curious."
"If no one has been in the room for so many years, how can you be certain the knife came from there?" Colin asked.
"Paolo—my husband—recognized it."
"May we see the room?" I asked.
"If you wish," Emma said, "but you won't find anything of interest."
We followed her into an ornately decorated room where the frescoes on the ceiling were in slightly better condition than those I'd seen in the rest of the house. The furniture, some of which could have been original to the palazzo, was fashioned from heavy, dark wood. The bed was enormous, with a canopy high above it and long velvet drapes pulled to enclose it on three sides. Through the fourth side, where the curtain had been drawn, we could see the bedclothes of fine linen, still rumpled as if the bed's occupant were in the next room taking breakfast. There was still a slight depression on the pillow where Signora Barozzi's head had rested on the night of her death. My skin prickled at the sight.
A quick search of the room yielded nothing of interest to our current case. Colin checked each of the windows and then asked Emma to show us where her father-in-law's body had been found.
"It was here." She had taken us back to the portego and pointed to a spot on the floor. "We believe his assailant entered the room through the window just above."
"Is it generally kept open at night?" I asked.
"No, but it was open when the servants found him. It had been shut the night before."
"It's possible the conte opened it himself," I said, pulling a notebook out of my reticule and starting to scribble in it. "Of course, that doesn't preclude the possibility someone else did."
Colin peered out the window. "It's a long way down," he said. "Someone climbing up from canal level surely would have been noticed, either by neighbors or boaters."
"The police looked into that," Emma said. "No one came forward to say they'd seen anything unusual, and it would be impossible to know who had been passing by at just the right moment. A hopeless business, really."
"You said in your wire there was a ring found with the body," I said.
"Yes." She pointed to a table on which sat a heavy gold band with a deep red corundum ruby set high in its center. "He was clutching it in his hand."
I took it from her. "It's medieval," I said. "Probably fourteenth or fifteenth century." I moved closer to the window, where the light was brighter, to read the inscription on the band.
Amor vincit omnia
"Love conquers all," I said. "A common phrase on poesy rings of the period. Is it a family piece?"
"No," Emma said. "I'm afraid there's not much family jewelry left. The house is expensive to run, and old fortunes … well, they don't often last. We don't know where it came from. Paolo didn't recognize it."
"Was anything tampered with in the rest of the house?" Colin asked.
"Nothing was taken," Emma said. "Nothing was disturbed. We all slept through without so much as noticing." Blotchy red streaks colored her face, and I felt a surge of compassion for her.
"Don't blame yourself," I said. "Whoever did this was careful not to wake any of you. We will do everything we can to identify the guilty party and bring him to justice."
"And Paolo?" she asked, her voice small. "He'll come back to me once he's exonerated. I know he will. He's innocent, Emily. He would never have raised a hand to harm his father."
"I believe you." I smiled in as reassuring a manner as possible. I hoped she was right. Her husband had disappeared mere hours after a maid had found his father's body. Why had he fled, without so much as a word to his much-adored wife? Would an innocent man have assumed he'd be implicated in the murder? I surveyed the room and shuddered, feeling suddenly cold, as if an oppressive evil were closing in around me. What secrets did this once-beautiful house hold?
Un Libro d'Amore1489
Besina Barozzi always knew she was not among the fortunate—or unfortunate, depending upon one's perspective—who could rely on beauty. She didn't possess it. It was her mind, not her too-long nose or thin lips, that would have to set her apart from the profusion of stunning girls for which Venice was famous. She might not be strictly any cleverer than her friends, the daughters of other noble families, but her brother, Lorenzo, had made her different, and for that she valued him above all others. He had taught her how to analyze art, how to paint, how to read poetry, and appreciate fine literature. And though she did not know it, he had also schooled her to have a wit as quick as the finest courtesan's.
The other girls around her had no interest in such things. They made lace and did needlework. They were pious. They did not aspire to be more than beautiful decorations that adorned their beloved city.
Lorenzo had ruined his sister for such simple pursuits.
As children, they were inseparable. Their indulgent nurse, half blind and generally good-natured, did not object when they pushed furniture together to form the walls of Constantinople and fought their way over with wooden swords, or when they donned carnivale masks to act out elaborate pantomimes. Even later, when Lorenzo fell under the tutelage of a series of stern scholars, he managed to furtively slip each book he studied to Besina when he'd finished. His mother nearly caught him once, but he offered her reassurance by telling her the book was not poetry but psalms. As she could not read, she could not argue.
So, because of Lorenzo's influence, Besina Barozzi was in possession of an intellect unlike that of any of her peers on the night Nicolò Vendelino first saw her, at the Palazzo Ducale, in the midst of a party the doge was throwing to mark the wedding of his favorite granddaughter.
Besina was convinced she saw Nicolò first. He was dancing with a girl prettier than anyone else in the room, and Besina might have been jealous had she noticed, but she could see nothing but Nicolò's eyes, their blue brighter than the sky and framed by impossibly long lashes. His eyes locked onto hers as he continued to dance, ignoring his partner. He never missed a step and bowed when the music finished, but he did not divert his gaze from Besina to so much as glance at the beauty before him.
Besina did not know that Nicolò had already seen her, long before she had watched him dance. He had been standing nearby when she entered the room with her parents, and in that moment fell in love with her. It was her eyes, he said later, full of life and intelligence and curiosity, that won his heart, just as his eyes had won hers. As soon as she had passed from his line of vision, he had rushed from the glittering reception to the doge's chapel of San Marco, where he fell to his knees in front of the altar built to house the sacred body of the saint, raised his eyes to the glittering mosaics on the ceiling, and prayed she would love him as fervently as he already loved her. He didn't care that the Barozzis were his family's enemies, the feud going so far back that no one bothered any longer to discuss its initial cause. All that mattered now was to know that Vendelinos hated Barozzis and always would, but Nicolò was young enough to think this wouldn't matter. His parents had indulged him, their long-awaited son, almost from the moment of his birth. And Nicolò knew one other thing. The Barozzis were rich.
Money, Nicolò believed, had the power to eradicate any feud.
Copyright © 2012 by Tasha Alexander