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English Convent, Bruges, April 1666
"What do you mean—she's not here?" the Duke of Kilverdale's voice rose in angry disbelief.
"Exactly what I said, your Grace,'the Abbess replied. "I am afraid your cousin is no longer here at the convent."
The Duke's black eyebrows snapped together. "For the past seven years my mother has made generous contributions to your order," he said. "With the clear understanding that Athena would be free to live here peacefully under your protection. Why did you send her away?"
"I did not send her away," the Abbess replied. "She chose to leave on an errand of mercy."
"To go where?" 'Venice—" "What!"Kilverdale leapt to his feet. At six feet tall he towered over the seated Abbess. He was dressed in the height of fashion in silk brocade and a magnificent black periwig, but his costly garments could not disguise the underlying power in his lean body. Nor could the profusion of black curls, which framed his face and tumbled about his shoulders, soften the somewhat predatory appearance of his hawkish features. The Abbess considered him a dangerous man and a far from suitable visitor to her convent, but in the circumstances she could hardly refuse to speak with him.
The Duke's mother and Athena's mother were sisters. Seven years ago the widowed Duchess of Kilverdale and her son had been living in exile in France. When Athena ran away from Samuel, she had made the perilous journey to France to beg for her aunt's protection. In early 1659 the Duchess had brought her niece to Bruges, to live as a guest within the English convent. A year later Charles II regained his throne. The Kilverdales had returned to England, but the Duchess had continued to give generous donations to the convent and the Duke had come to Bruges at irregular intervals to meet with his cousin.
"Kindly allow me to finish," the Abbess said, before Kilverdale could say any more. She disliked his obvious intention to intimidate her in her own quarters. "Mrs Quenell left here of her own free will as, indeed, she first arrived here."
Kilverdale raised a sardonic eyebrow, clearly unimpressed. The Abbess strove for patience and continued. "Several weeks ago the wife of one of the undersecretaries to the English Ambassador in Venice arrived in Bruges. The young woman was brought to us in great distress. We discovered she was urgently seeking to join her husband in Venice—apparently she had not been kindly treated by her husband's kinfolk in his absence. Mrs Quenell was much moved by her plight and offered to accompany her to Venice as her companion and guide—"
"Guide?" Kilverdale exploded. "You allowed my cousin, who has not been outside the security of these walls for seven years, to go gallivanting across Europe with only a foolish wench for company—and you say she's a guide! Where were your wits, madam?"
"They are accompanied by the manservant the young woman brought with her from England and Mrs Quenell's own maid. In addition, they are being escorted by a local gentleman of good family who is on his way to study at the university of Padua,'the Abbess snapped, out of all patience with her noble visitor.
The Duke's muttered response was barely audible, but supremely uncomplimentary.
"Your cousin is a woman of great resource and common sense and I have every confidence she will reach her destination unharmed and without difficulty," the Abbess retorted. "Don't forget she managed to make her way safely all the way from England to find your mother in France when she was only seventeen."
"She cut off her hair, dyed it brown, and pretended to be a boy!"
"A sensible precaution for a woman travelling alone. She came to no harm. She has often entertained me with the story of her journey."
"Entertaining!" Kilverdale snorted scathingly. "Yes, and it is very entertaining for me to come to Flanders to tell her that her husband is dead and it's now possible for me to escort her back to England—only to find she isn't here!"
"She knows her husband is dead. She received a letter from your mother just before she left for Venice."
"She knows? Well, why the devil didn't she wait for me to come and fetch her back?"
"It is weeks since she heard the news,'the Abbess said drily. Kilverdale scowled. "I was preoccupied with other business," he said. "I'm here now."
"So you are." The Abbess watched as he took a couple of glowering circuits around the room.
He stopped and drew in a deep, annoyed breath. "I'll just have to follow her to Venice and fetch her back from there," he announced. "Damned troublesome females!"
He strode over to the door and left without a backward glance. The Abbess allowed herself to relax a little. The mercurial Duke could be a most unsettling visitor. Less than thirty seconds later she heard his decisive footsteps once more approaching her room.
He stepped over the threshold and looked straight at the Abbess. For a few moments his penetrating gaze focused entirely upon her with disconcerting intensity.
"It seems this is the last time we shall meet, madam," he said. "I thank you for offering your protection and hospitality to my cousin these past seven years."
He swept her a deep bow, his every movement filled with proud masculine grace. Then he turned once more on his heel and departed without waiting for her to respond.
Venice, May 1666
"Our bargain is complete, illustrissimo." Filippo Correr sat back and smiled with satisfaction. "The glass will look beautiful in your new house."
Gabriel smiled at Correr, just as pleased as the Venetian merchant with the outcome of their bargaining. The two men had first met twelve years ago when they were apprentices in Livorno. They'd both worked hard to learn their respective trades, but they'd enjoyed themselves as well. Gabriel had many happy memories of his youthful exploits in Filippo's company—but neither man had allowed sentiment to interfere with their afternoon of hard bargaining over Gabriel's purchase of Murano glass.
"I am sure it will," he said. "When you next visit London you must be my guest so that you can see it in place."
"I will be honoured," said Correr. "Is the house finished?" 'The construction work should be completed by the time I return home," said Gabriel, stretching out his legs. Now that the business part of the meeting had been concluded, he relaxed as he discussed his newest project with his old friend. "The interior will still need furnishing and decorating. I have some ideas in mind, but I decided not to make any final decisions until I could walk through the rooms."
"Ah." Correr nodded, and then gave a sly smile. "You need a wife," he said. "Women enjoy that kind of thing."
Gabriel laughed. "I don't think so," he replied easily. "If I need assistance—which, after fifteen years in the silk trade, I don't believe I do—I'll consult an expert."
"But your "expert" won't give you sons," Correr gestured expansively. "Children are a joy—"
"Your children are,'said Gabriel. "Not all men are so blessed." 'If you raise them right...they are like little seedlings," said Correr. "They lift their heads to the sun and grow straight and strong."
Gabriel grinned. Filippo's children were the only chink in the hard-headed merchant's armour.
"You think I am foolish and sentimental,'said Correr cheerfully. "Just wait, my friend. The first time you hold your son in your arms you will feel exactly the same."
"Perhaps," said Gabriel, cautiously conceding the point. To his knowledge, he had no children, but he was certainly fond of his various nieces and nephews.
"But first you need a wife,'said Correr. "I know a sweet and modest maid—"
Gabriel threw up a hand. "I don't need you to act as my marriage broker," he said. "And I've no wish to marry a Venetian."
"This lady is Florentine," said Correr, unperturbed by Gabriel's objection. "The gracious sister-in-law of my cousin Marco Grimani. Very quiet. Very gentle and modest. Most skilled at housekeeping."
"No dowry?" Gabriel raised an eyebrow as he noted his friend's emphasis on the lady's personal qualities.
Correr shrugged. "You do not need a wealthy woman," he pointed out. "You need a wife to make you a comfortable home and give you heirs. Giulietta Orio could do that."
"I certainly need heirs," said Gabriel, "but, with all due respect to the gracious sister-in-law of your cousin Marco, I'll marry an Englishwoman."
"I tried," said Correr philosophically. "I will tell Marco I tried. Giulietta Orio is a charming lady but, on reflection, she might be a little too timid to begin a new life in London. We will have to look elsewhere for her husband." He glanced out of the window.
Gabriel followed the direction of Correr's gaze. He saw that twilight was falling on the city, cloaking the canals and buildings in mystery.
"It's getting late," said Correr. "Let's go and find my wife and the children. Will you eat with us?"
"It will be my pleasure," Gabriel replied, and meant it. Gabriel had always appreciated Filippo's friendship, even though he was less appreciative of the Venetian's matchmaking tendencies. Gabriel knew he needed a wife, especially in view of the unexpected course his life had taken. He'd been very busy since the death of his brother, but when he returned to England this time he would seek out a suitable bride. A modest, well-bred lady who would understand the duties expected of his wife. He certainly wouldn't repeat his youthful mistake of thinking himself in love with the woman. He would treat the marriage contract as he would any other business contract, and make sure his prospective wife understood the terms of their union.
"Oh God, I hope he's pleased to see me!" Rachel Beresford muttered. She stared straight ahead, showing no interest in the extraordinary city that rose around her from the waters of the lagoon. "Of course he will be," Athena said reassuringly. She took one of Rachel's cold hands between both of hers. "He may be a little surprised at first, but I'm sure he will be pleased to have you with him," she said.
"I don't know how I would have managed without you,'Rachel said jerkily. "I am so grateful... Oh God! I'm so nervous!" She pressed her free hand to her mouth.
"It won't be long now. Soon you'll be safely together again." Athena devoutly hoped Edward Beresford would be pleased to see his young wife. If he wasn't, she might find herself in the middle of a very difficult situation, but she didn't regret her decision to travel with Rachel.
As soon as she'd heard the young woman's story, Athena's compassion had been stirred. She remembered all too clearly what it was like to be alone, far from home, and unsure of receiving a warm welcome. She'd offered to accompany Rachel for the rest of the journey because she understood and sympathised with Rachel's obvious anxiety. But Athena was honest enough to admit to herself that she'd been growing restless within the confines of the convent—especially after she'd received the news of Samuel's death. Rachel's need for support had given her a legitimate excuse to leave. Unlike her companion, Athena had enjoyed their trip across Europe.
They had arrived in Venice just as twilight was falling. Despite her concerns on Rachel's behalf, Athena was enthralled by her first glimpse of the city. She turned her head left and right in an effort not to miss anything as the gondola slid through the waters of the grand canal. She was almost sorry when they came to rest at the watergate of the Ambassador's palazzo.
Rachel didn't share her companion's curiosity about their surroundings. Her hands felt icy cold as Athena helped her climb out of the gondola. It was clear she was thinking only of her imminent reunion with her husband.
A member of the Ambassador's staff appeared before them on the steps. Pieter Breydel, the gentleman who had escorted them from Bruges, spoke to the servant, explaining who Rachel was and that she had come to join her husband. Athena checked that the rest of her little party was complete, and that their luggage was being attended to. Then she took Rachel's hand. They followed Pieter Breydel and the embassy servant into the palazzo. Her maid and Rachel's manservant trailed behind them.
They entered a large hall, which appeared to stretch all the way from the front to the back of the building. It was paved with alternating squares of diagonally laid white and red stone. It was a dark and forbidding place, especially since the lanterns had not yet been lit. There were doors on either side, but the page ignored them. He led the party straight through the palazzo and out into the courtyard behind the building.
Athena looked around, fascinated by her introduction to Venetian architecture. She was even more intrigued when she realised that to reach the Ambassador's quarters on the first floor, they must climb an external staircase located in the courtyard itself.
They were ushered into a grand chamber which stretched the full length of the palazzo from the courtyard at the back to the grand canal at the front. Large windows overlooking the canal admitted what little daylight remained. Several men were present, standing with their backs to the windows, their faces in shadow.
Athena saw one shadowy man step apart from the others, heard his sudden, disbelieving, but welcoming cry of, "Rachel!"
Rachel released her convulsive grip on Athena's hand and rushed forward to throw herself into her husband's arms.
Athena didn't need to see Edward Beresford's face to know that he was overjoyed at his wife's arrival. The way his arms closed around her as if he never intended to let her go, the way his head bent over hers, and his husky, urgent questions all told their own story.