Secrets of the Eternal Rose 2


Fiona Paul


Thanks for supporting me in all of my crazy endeavors.


“Fire is power. Blood is life.”


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 fiance 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.


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 fiance.

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 fiance’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

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