A Tale of Two Centuries
By Rachel Harris, Stacy Abrams, Alycia Tornetta
Entangled Publishing, LLC Copyright © 2013 Rachel Harris
All rights reserved.
I close my eyes against the gentle breeze and twirl, my green silk surcoat swishing around my ankles in glorious abandon. The warm sun seeps into my skin, and it is as if the very air I breathe is saturated with happiness. Fourteen years of grooming to become a wealthy merchant's wife, two years toiling to suppress my sinful desires, and it all culminates in this moment.
Pray let it be today!
Five long days ago, Matteo—as he allows me to call him in private—asked me to meet him here so we could discuss our future. A future I am eager to begin. Every prayer and every thought since has been spent in anticipation.
The scent of freshly cut flowers from a merchant's stand fills the air as Mama's wise words float in my mind: Nature is but a sign of Signore's provision, Alessandra. My eyes open to the vibrant blue of the iris petals, a certain premonition of good things to come, and a giggle springs from my throat.
"The sun's light holds not a candle to your radiance today, Less."
With a delighted smile, I turn to the sole person besides my beloved cousin Cat who refers to me by that peculiar name. "You and your flattering tongue are agreeably met, dear friend," I tell Lorenzo, maintaining one eye on the crowded piazza. "Care to keep me company while I await Signor Romanelli?"
My brother's best friend sets down his easel. "It would be my pleasure." He props his foot against the sandstone building behind us and rakes a paint-stained hand through his golden curls. "Last week you believed he had intentions of betrothal in mind. Have you seen each other since last we spoke?"
An inkling of disquiet blooms, but I whisk it away. "No, but it is my suspicion he has spent the time in preparation to meet Father when he returns."
Lorenzo nods, and we fall into a companionable silence, taking in the bustling life around us. The Mercato Vecchio is as noisy as ever, a cacophony of yelling, laughter, babies crying, and donkeys braying. A group of children races past, bumping into a nearby servant and jostling the basket she carries. A single red apple rolls to a stop by my feet.
A vision of our fairy-tale performance that day in the countryside plays before me, unbidden and poignant. The poisoned apple, the evil hag, the chance to shuck my dutiful daughter role and become someone wicked. I adore my cousin Cat for many reasons, but the gift of that afternoon most especially. Despite the church's strident opposition to female actresses, she gave me the opportunity to experience the rush of performance. To live the dream I once thought sinful.
Unfortunately, it was after my dear cousin departed that sadness adhered to the memory as well. When Cat returned to the future, she left three powerful words in her wake: passion, equality, and freedom. Maidens of the twenty-first century may hold these ideals dear, but they are most unacceptable in the sixteenth—as much as I wish it otherwise. As a result, I have spent the last two years in turmoil, battling between my expected duty of propriety and my newfound desire for passion.
Lorenzo kneels to pluck up the apple, and I meet his gaze.
He, too, is remembering.
As he returns the apple to the woman, mouth set in a tight-lipped smile, I marvel again at the impossibility of it all. For a reason neither of us has come to understand, fate left Lorenzo and me alone in the ability to perceive the noticeable differences between Cat, my future descendant, and Patience, my sixteenth-century cousin—the girl Cat temporarily took the place of. Of course, there are the similarities that come from being blood relations. Hair near the same shade, lips just a touch wide. But gone are all the unique qualities that made Cat so wonderfully vibrant. There is no denying that the true Patience is lovely in her own right, but who could ever compete with such a dynamic, time-defying person?
I have never explained all the details surrounding Cat's implausible tale, but then, I have never needed to. With the fiery passion that only a true artist can understand, Lorenzo just knows. Eventually, he discovered an outlet for his misery, using the pain of Cat's departure to fuel his art, studying under a variety of masters, earning public commendation and creating masterpiece after masterpiece.
I stuffed mine into reinvigorated attempts at marriage.
Lorenzo gazes over the bustling piazza, and his previously sad smile becomes genuine. "I believe your suitor has arrived."
Giddiness bubbles inside me as I follow his gaze.
He has yet to spot me, so I take the opportunity to drink in the sight of him. The broad line of his strong shoulders displayed in his dark doublet. The enticing tilt of his mouth I can see even from this distance. Absent are the lines of stress that far too often mar his handsome face, and I watch as he laughs with someone to his right. My heart hammers.
He is truly yummy, as my fair cousin would say.
At twenty-eight, Matteo is eleven years my senior. He is a bit young for marriage, but our families are old friends, and a union will bring increased prosperity. We will make a good match. Being with him will quiet the rage inside me, the need for more. It has to.
The crowd between us parts, and I spot a young woman beside him. I tilt my head and squint.
"Novella d'Amico," I say, my voice barely above a whisper. Formerly Novella Montagna, daughter of one of the wealthiest families in Florence. Courted and desired by all the men of marriageable age last year, she married a Venetian nobleman and moved away that winter. I turn to Lorenzo, my ribs an iron vise around my lungs. "Why has she returned to Florence?"
He shakes his head, his eyebrows furrowed. "I am not sure. But I shall find out."
Lorenzo marches over to a band of women pretending to shop, obviously using the pleasant fall day as an excuse to prattle incessantly. As he approaches, Signora Benedicti, Signora Cacchioni, and Signora Stefani pause their chattering to gaze over his features as if he were an expensive piece of Venetian glass or a new onyx cameo. Completely undignified, but sadly, not uncharacteristic.
If gossip is desired, Lorenzo could not have chosen a better group.
I look away in disgust and fix my gaze on Matteo, willing him to glance my way. A few minutes later, I get my wish. My insides squeeze, but I force a smile, pushing every stolen moment and whispered promise into the gesture.
He does not return it.
Matteo reaches to clasp Novella's hand, his once-warm eyes now emotionless stones.
All excitement and hope drain away. Air ceases to be a necessity. Time stops, and cold dread washes over me. The market fades away as my gaze locks on their interlaced fingers.
From the corner of my eye I see Lorenzo turn away from the gossiping horde, his amiable face etched with pity. But I already know.
When he reaches me, he looks down and scowls. "Signora d'Amico returned home a widow last week, her full dowry intact." He inhales sharply, and I close my eyes, steeling myself for the truth to come. This is not how I envisioned this day unfolding.
"They met with the notary just yesterday."
Good leads to good. Somehow, the lesson from my childhood does not fit this new reality. I always do—have always done—the right thing, the proper thing. I do my duty. There should be a reward.
He is supposed to love me back.
Lorenzo clears his throat, and I know he is waiting for me to meet his gaze. With burning tears threatening to escape, I compel my eyes to open.
He places a gentle hand on my shoulder. "Alessandra, Matteo and Novella are married."
The click-clack of footsteps on the cobblestone road muffles my sobs. After pleading with Lorenzo not to follow, I make my faltering escape from the piazza, away from the prying eyes of Mama's friends and the smirk of triumph on Novella's contemptuous face. Tearing through the streets of my beloved city, my gaze blurred, I pray my feet will somehow find their way home. And as my eyes alight on the familiar four-story, tan stone building, my knees nearly buckle in gratitude. Fate may not have ruled in my favor in matters of the heart, but it appears to have taken pity on my sense of navigation.
My toe catches on the cracked stone floor, and I stagger through the arched opening of our courtyard. I set myself to rights and press on, the quiet solitude of the garden beckoning me onward, and sink to my knees in a corner covered in shadow. But today, the darkened retreat does not soothe. The scent of fragrant flowers and the melodic bubbling of the nearby fountain do nothing to ease the stabbing pain of Matteo's betrayal.
I still cannot bring myself to believe it. Months of secret assignations and declarations cannot end in such a way. Surely I must be in the midst of a nightmare. At any moment I will wake up, get ready again, and leave to meet Matteo, where he will whisper words of our future and how much he loves me.
I blink rapidly, but nothing changes.
With a trembling hand, I wipe at relentless tears. I cannot help but think that Cat would be stronger. In my place, she would have stormed across the crowded piazza, flung a cutting remark at Novella, and demanded an explanation from Matteo. Then she would have kicked him.
The image of my near betrothed's eyes popping out of his head eases my spirits a little, and I hiccup a laugh. Cat had been a storm of unquenchable strength, challenging the rest of us to either match her in vivacity or be left in the dust.
But alas, I am not my dear cousin.
In Cat's world, in the future, a girl is free to live with passion and blatant disregard for propriety. She can ignore the rules of etiquette and society and follow her dreams—even when they led her here, five hundred years into the past. Fate, mixed with a little gypsy magic, granted Cat the opportunity to experience the impossible. She glimpsed another way of life and, for a short while, was given rest from the worries of her own.
Crumpling to the ground, for once not caring if my surcoat gets soiled, I close my eyes and let fresh tears fall onto the damp earth beneath my cheek. "How I long for a gypsy adventure of my own."
As I lay there, unmoving, willing the world to end, a faint tinkling sound rings near my ear, yanking me from my despair.
A slow shiver creeps from the base of my spine. It quickly gains speed before bursting across the rest of my body. My eyes spring open to branches and petals dancing around me in a sudden breeze, a few snapping and fluttering away as the winds grow stronger. Ribbons of my auburn hair blow across my eyes. I clamber to my feet, fighting against the abrupt gust stealing my breath, and hold down the hem of my gown. The wind shoves me forward, and the storm swallows my shriek.
Then, as suddenly as it began, everything stops.
When I find my voice, I ask the stillness, "What, in Signore's name, was that?"
Unsurprisingly, the now calm and quiet courtyard does not reply.
Glancing down, I brush away the debris clinging to my surcoat—but the sharp crack of a twig behind me causes me to freeze.
"Buna ziua, Alessandra."
I spin around, and my gaze lands on a girl near my age. Her long raven hair is unruly and tousled, her costume one of bright-colored skirts and sheer veils. Her arms are bare, as is a slice of bronzed skin around her midsection. I avert my eyes as a whisper of a memory taunts the edges of my mind.
How does she know my name?
A small smile, unnatural and amiss on an otherwise somber face, plays upon the girl's mouth as she says, "The stars have heard your plea."
The whispered name passes my lips as recognition slams into me. I shake my head, unable to comprehend what my eyes are seeing. For months after Cat's return to the future, I imagined the young gypsy appearing before me. I held tight to the belief that one day she would come back, perchance with a message or sign from the future. A clue as to how my fun-loving cousin is doing or, selfishly, to grant me a magical adventure of my own. And now she is here. Standing a mere foot away, no longer in the drab servant frock she wore during her stay but looking just as she did that brief moment I last saw her, when Cat followed her into a mysterious green tent and disappeared from my life.
Reyna's magnetic gaze twinkles as she takes a step back and waves her arm in the air, sending the dozen bracelets wrapped around her slender wrist clanking in unison. Poised like one of Michelangelo's statues, she hitches a pointed sable brow heavenward as if waiting for a response to an unasked question. Confused, I shift my gaze beyond her ... and my breath seizes.
There stands that same green tent—the portal that sent Cat home.
I jerk my gaze back to my cousin's gypsy girl, a wild stirring of hope building in my veins. She nods, and her feigned smile turns devious. Then she disappears inside and crooks a finger through the open flap for me to follow.
My previously halted breath escapes in an audible whoosh.
All of the servants are upstairs. Mama is traveling as companion to Patience on her journey to London, and Father is returning from visiting my uncle in Venice. My brother Cipriano, the one person who could truly dissuade me from such a course, is in Milan, having left a few short months after my cousin. There is no one here to stop me. I am depressingly alone, even more so now than this morning.
The chance to be as audacious as my fearless cousin, even if it is just for a moment, propels me forward. I fly across the cracked stone ground, throw back the folds, and boldly enter the darkened space.
But once the canvas doors seal closed behind me, apprehension dawns. Darkness is everywhere.
I lift my palm an inch from my nose and cannot see it. The only thing I can see is a curved path of sporadic candlelight, seemingly with no end. The reassuring fountain from the courtyard no longer bubbles, and the harsh sound of my labored breathing escalates to fill the void.
A word my cousin taught me from the future springs to mind: creeptastic.
Taking a trembling step, I tentatively call out, "Reyna?"
I squint, then widen my eyes, lean forward then back away, hoping to see the space before me better. But my efforts do nothing to illuminate my surroundings. Or to comfort me. I take another step, and a cool hand closes around my wrist.
"Chavaia." The low, rough hiss in my ear sends my already galloping heart into my throat. "First you must remove your slippers."
My slippers? Pressing a palm against my chest, I glance down at my feet.
It is not right for a lady to walk barefoot—a suitor could see her ankles. Since Reyna masqueraded as a servant in my home during Cat's stay, she would know the rules of propriety, but a glance at her shadowed yet stern expression confirms she does not care.
I yank my bottom lip between my teeth and gnaw like a rabbit. My head rocks back and forth, the vexing tug of war beginning again between what I want to do and what I know I should do.
No gentlemen are present, I tell myself, even as a voice sounding suspiciously like Mama's whispers, A lady must always follow society's expectations.
But Reyna and I are alone. No one would ever have to know.
I stare at my slippers again, and a new, more daring voice joins the festivities in my crowded head. Just think of it as a simple experiment, Less.
And that decides it.
Smiling, I lift my chin in the air the way I imagine my cousin would, kick off my slippers, and wiggle my toes on the cool, gritty stone. The sensation is scandalously splendid. And deliciously wicked. I wiggle them again and giggle.
Reyna's snort of amusement snaps me back, reminding me where I am. She bends to place my slippers on the bottom shelf of an elaborate wooden structure, dusts her hands twice, then gives a curt nod. "Come." (Continues...)
Excerpted from A Tale of Two Centuries by Rachel Harris, Stacy Abrams, Alycia Tornetta. Copyright © 2013 Rachel Harris. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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