Her Venetian Beauty
Her Venetian Beauty
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Alexandra Craven has a secret dream to escape the trap of the genteel birth and earn her independent living as a writer. She thinks that accompanying her brother on the Grand Tour would provide her with enough material. However, when her brother falls ill in Venice, she is left without a guidance - and has to look to the timid daughter of their noble host, Veronica Zanotti, for help.
Veronica Zanotti, a young lady of more learning than charm, has no secret dreams at all. She is seemingly content to be left alone in her father's library while her sister enjoys the spotlight. However, when a ravishing Englishwoman asks for her assistance, she is plunged into a whirlpool of perilous adventures...
Intro Into Chapter 1
Intro Into Chapter 1
One really ought not to have been approaching the city
of Venice in such a state. It was all Sebastian’s fault, Alexandra decided,
looking at her brother. If he had not run out to look at that Paduan marvel – a
cabinet wrought wholly of crystal – with his hair still damp after the washing,
none of that would have happened.
He certainly would not have caught this thrice–dashed
chill; they would not have had to endure the visit to an apothecary that
consisted mostly of gesticulating; he would not be coughing right now; and they
would not be late to meet their hosts who would have been expecting them in the
Spring in Italy – at least, in northern Italy –
clearly did not resemble its equivalent in songs very closely. To Sebastian’s
credit, he behaved with honour, refused to let some meagre chill dampen their
moods, and vowed upon the name of their late father that he would never allow
such a petty complaint to ruin the sweetest part of his grand tour. These last
words flooded Alexandra’s chest with warmth, for she knew that he meant their grand tour.
‘Look, Alexandra,’ Sebastian called from behind her,
‘is that not San Marco?’
‘I wouldn’t know,’ she confessed, gazing at the
distant edifice in question. It rose black against the stars, reminding her a
little of the Mohammedan domes of the Ottoman lands that she saw on some
‘Let’s hope Signor Zanotti is going to recommend us a
good cicerone, then, shall we?’ Sebastian quipped. His tutors had been diligent
in their efforts, but whatever facts they’d tried to fill their charge’s head with
flowed over him as rosewater over a particularly cheerful duck. He was a man
who preferred hunting to Horace.
For which Alexandra could only be grateful to the Fates,
for she had the same vigour in her blood. Had her brother had the habits of a
studious clerk, there would have been no possibility of them clinging to each
other as closely as they did.
The water of the canals was lapping softly against the
buildings rising to either side of them. Alexandra turned her head eagerly,
wishing they arrived a little earlier, wishing she could have seen all this in
the full splendour of sunset behind it. If she had, then the vision would have
been retained in her head for her to later transcribe into words.
The palazzi rising to either side of the night-black
watery thoroughfare that must have been the Grand Canal took her breath away
nonetheless. Their colour was muted,
peeled and faded since the first centuries of magnificence, but their
outlines, fine as Burano lace rendered into stone, were still as elegant as the
travellers’ accounts claimed.
One of these accounts is soon going to be mine.
One of these palazzi was their destination. She
feared, not without a shred of annoyance, that manoeuvring the boat to the
stony shore in such moonless darkness was going to take some time. However, the
boatman brought it to the green slick steps descending to the canal with expert
ease. Sebastian stood up and doubled over, coughing. The boat rocked
dangerously beneath their feet.
Visions of horror assailed her – the boat capsizing
into the pitch-black, spring-cold canal, her sick brother getting cold water in
his ears, her own heavy skirts pulling her into the depths…
The boat steadied itself. Sebastian stepped onto the
shore, smiled apologetically, and offered his sister a hand. Alexandra took it,
her heart still pounding.
When they arrived at their destination, it took time
for someone to respond to his resolute pounding on the door. It was hardly a
surprise. They’d arrived past the hour when most people locked their doors
against the fiends of the world.
‘Good evening to you,’ Sebastian said nonchalantly. He
had a wonderful talent to sound as though the world was his drawing room. ‘I am
Lord Sebastian Craven, and this is my sister, Lady Alexandra. Signor Zanotti is
expecting us. We apologize for being late,’ he added in the same wonderfully
airy tone,as though they had been late to take chocolate with the master of the
Fortunately, the housemaid who opened the door – not a
footman, Alexandra could not help but note and wondered if Signor Zanotti had
fallen on hard times – nodded upon hearing this and let them through.
Even in the murk of the hall lit by scarce
candlelight. Alexandra could see she was a pretty creature. The housemaid worse
no cap, and her red hair was tumbling upon her shoulders in a display that was
both free of artifice – not a particle of powder upon them – and startlingly
immodest for a servant. Her hair was the colour of dark fire, snaking down her
shoulders and framing her face as if it were a painting, a portrait of a pearl-skinned
Madonna by some artist of the bygone centuries.
‘Father had been expecting you,’ the young woman said,
startlingly, in English, and Alexandra’s cheeks flushed with the realization of
her mistake. The embarrassment was followed by surprise: Had the household fallen
on such hard times that the daughter of the house was opening the door to
visitors instead of a servant? Or was it merely a question of her queer
‘Indeed!’ Sebastian brightened up. ‘I do apologize for
the delay. There was a – mishap in Padua.’
The woman nodded, a stray strand of red caressing her
cheek. For a second, Alexandra felt a sharp desire to see her turn, just to
glimpse whether this hair was truly hanging down right to her hips.
‘The dinner is going to be served soon. Father would
be glad if you were to join us. But, if you are tired after the road, of course,
we could have the meal sent up to you with a tray.’ She spoke with the soft
authority of a mistress of the household. Alexandra remembered that, in his
correspondence with the Zanottis, Sebastian mentioned the aging patrician
himself but said nothing of his wife. ‘I think there should still be a time for
you to enjoy a hot bath.’
‘You are a flower of hospitality,’ Sebastian
proclaimed grandly. ‘But, I am afraid, your father did not describe you well.
Which of Signor Zanotti’s two daughters are you?’
‘Ah.’ The lady of the house smiled. ‘It is so unusual
to hear. If you are here long enough, anyone would tell you how easy it is to
see the difference between me and Paolina,’
‘So, you must be Veronica.’
‘In that case, Lady Veronica, you are an angel upon
this earth. We are fiendishly tired and have barely avoided being toppled over
into the Grand Canal.’
She did not look like an angel, though, Alexandra
thought. Nor did Lady Veronica Zanotti resemble its shadowy counterpart, the
temptress. No, in her smooth gown of brown satin, with her equally brown eyes
dark and attentive, her lips set in a soft smile that did not quite illuminate
the whole of her expression, she was unmistakably earthly and human.