Orlando Landucci knows all too well what darkness lies beneath Florence's dazzling splendor. And when his beloved sister is torn from him, he will stop at nothing to avenge her death.
only a kiss can light up the darkness
But from the moment he lays eyes on innocent Isabella Spinola, something inside him shifts. She is the kin of his sworn enemy, yet he feels compelled to protect her. With every forbidden kiss Orlando's sense of betrayal deepens, so when the time for vengeance comes, will their bond be enough to banish the shadows forever?
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The Tuscan countrysidespring 1478
My Most Illustrious Lords: My brother Giuliano has just been killed and my government is in the greatest danger. Now is the time, my lords, to help your servant Lorenzo. Send all the troops you can with all speed, so that they may be the shield and safety of my state, just as they have always been. Your servitor, Lorenzo de'Medici.
Letter to the Lords of Milan, April 26, 1478
In a short time passes every great rain; and the warmth makes disappear the snows and ice that make the rivers look so proud; nor was the sky ever covered by so thick a cloud that, meeting the fury of the winds, it did not flee from the hills and the valleys.'
The girl's voice, reading from the volume of Petrarch, flowed low and sweet on the warm breeze. It mingled with the hum of bees, seeking the most luscious of the early summer flowers, with the twitter and chatter of birds. The wind whistled through the gnarled branches of the heavy-laden olive trees and the tall cypresses. It was the slowest, most lazy of days. Steps grew heavy in the sunlight, laughter rich. Work was only an afterthought.
Perfect for Isabella's own task. There were few tasks for her to undertake at her father's villa. Meals were lighter, the rich curtains and carpets of winter folded away and replaced by thin, airy linens. The servants gossiped by the open windows, peeling vegetables for a light pottage as the chickens, their feathery lives spared for the moment, scratched in the dirt of the back courtyard. No, she would not be expected at home until sundown, when her father stirred from his books and began wondering where his supper was.
Isabella leaned over her sketchbook, easing the side of her thumb to smudge a harsh charcoal line. 'The fury of the winds ' The girl's voice faltered.
Isabella glanced up to find that Veronica, their neighbour's young daughter, still sat in her spot of sun, the book she was reading from open on her lap. She was a perfect model, with her pale golden curls limned by the sun into a halo, her oval face lightly touched with the bronze of summer. Her pink-striped skirts spread around her on the grass like the ruffled petals of a rose against leaves. But, by St Catherine, the girl would not sit still!
'What is it, Veronica?' she asked.
'May I see the drawing yet, madonna?' the child said, eagerness hidden low in her gentle voice. 'We have been sitting here for ever so long!'
Long? Isabella glanced at the azure sky above them to see that the slant of the light had changed subtly, its rays shifting to a deep caramel. The sfumato of morning, that silvery-grey haze so peculiar to hot Tuscan days, had long ago burned off. Yet to Isabella, so absorbed in capturing the girl's face on parchment, infusing the cold, black lines with Veronica's sweet, innocent spirit, it seemed only moments had passed.
'All the better to practise your reading, Veronica,' she said, placing her charcoal back in its specially slotted box and flexing her fingers. Her skin and nails were stained deep grey, so engrained that surely she could not scrub it clean before her father saw. Ah, well. After all these years of living alone together, he was accustomed to her doings, as she was to his.
'You read that poem so beautifully,' she continued. 'Your parents will be very proud.'
Veronica closed the precious, green leather-bound book and held it tightly to her stomach, a shy smile touching her rosebud lips. 'Do you think so, madonna? They say I must go to my aunt's house in Florence once the summer is over, to learn to be a true lady and find a suitable betrothal.' She glanced uncertainly down at the book. 'I shouldn't like to shame myself there.'
Ah, Florence. Isabella repressed a flash of envy, of longing. Surely it was foolish to be jealous of a child, when she herself was a great, grown lady of nineteen! But to see the treasures of Florence, the art of Bellini, Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, the glorious churches and galleries and palazziit must be great indeed. A glory of unsurpassed beauty, of vast sophistication. A world completely unlike their quiet country existence.
It was a world she knew only from her cousin Ca-terina's letters and likely to remain that way for as long as her widowed father needed her. After he had lost her mother so many years before, he'd retreated into his own world of books and was likely to stay there, grieving over his wife. Isabella never wanted to face that herself.
'Then we shall gift them with this drawing before you leave,' Isabella told Veronica. 'But you cannot see it just yet! Not until it is finished.'
Veronica sighed deeply with disappointment and Isabella laughed at her pout. Surely the child had a long distance to go before she found that betrothal and set to running her own household! Much like Isabella, who was long past the age to marry, but who couldn't imagine being a wife. She liked being herself far too much to submit to the will of a husband.
And she had watched what had happened to her father when her beautiful mother died all those years ago. The way he had retreated into himself, giving into the grief of losing his wife so completely he even forgot he had a daughter for a time. She could not bear to feel thus herself. Her art took all her emotion.
'Run along now, little bird,' Isabella said. 'Your mama will be looking for you.'
Veronica stood up, shaking out her skirts, the book tucked beneath her arm. 'Shall we meet again tomorrow, madonna?'
'Of course, if it does not rain. We want to finish this before you go, no?'
Veronica gave her one last giggle, then spun around and dashed out of the sunny grove, her gown a pink blur until she disappeared down a slope towards her parents' villa.
Isabella slid a thin piece of paper over the sketch to keep it from smudging before carefully closing the book. The pages were almost full now, the pristine whiteness covered with black-and-grey images of flowers, trees, houses, people, imaginary scenes. Anything that caught her eye and challenged her to capture its essence in lines and planes.
She packed the precious volume carefully in a basket, along with her charcoal box and the remains of a long-consumed picnic meal. She would have to leave soon, as well, and abandon this secret, enchanted grove for the prosaic real world of the villa.
Her father would be emerging from his library, looking about for her in his absent way.
Not just yet, though. Isabella lay back in the warm grass, staring up at the sky through the long, lacy pattern of the olive branches. The bright blue of afternoon had faded to a paler, rose-tinged hue, but the air still hung heavy, not yet cooled by the onrush of evening. She smelled the green freshness of the grass, the sulphur-tinged sweetness of wild jasmine. It was a beautiful time of day, her favourite, when it seemed she was all alone in the world, that nothing could touch her, hurt her, change her. There were no responsibilities, no demands. No wild longings.
Isabella closed her eyes, feeling the soft caress of the wind across her cheeks, through the fall of her loose, thick black hair. The song of the birds was muted now, as if they were far away. What would it be like to fly free as they did, to feel the breeze bearing her up, up, up? To soar above the earth.
She imagined a painting in her mind, a canvas washed with an expanse of clear, priceless sky-blue, dotted with grey-tipped white clouds. At the very bottom of the scene, a string of buildings, villas, farms, the dome of a church. Perhaps the tiny dots of people going about their daily business. And above, hovering in the heady, thin air of perfect freedom, Icarus. A handsome young man, naked but for the pointed wings arcing above his head. A single moment of untainted glory. But high above, at the top edge of the canvas, the hot, waiting rays of the harsh sun. The fall that lurked for all men who dared fly too high.
Isabella opened her eyes and for an instant she fancied she saw a tiny figure soaring towards the sunset. His face was indistinct, she couldn't yet envision it, though she dreamed of just such a man. Somewhere out there, waiting for her.
She laughed wryly. That was hardly likely. Their home here was beautiful, safe, tucked far away from the dangerous doings of the great men in Florence. The men of her Strozzi cousins' circle. There were no dangerous suns here. But neither were there wax wings to bear a soul to freedom.
The sky was streaked with vivid orange and gold now, a paint palette that signalled the close of one more day. She had stayed here too long.
Isabella pushed herself up, rising slowly to her feet. Her legs were stiff from sitting too long, from balancing the sketchbook on her knees. Her dark blue skirts were streaked with ochre-coloured dust and grass blades, but she had no time to worry about that now. She had to get home, to make sure supper was waiting for her father.
The farm was slowly coming to life for the evening, after the long siesta of the sleepy afternoon. Outside the cottages, tables were being set up beneath the trees, candles lit against the gathering darkness. Children raced around, energized by the cool breeze that crept over the dusty land, banishing the heat of the day. Laughter, the barking of dogs, the fresh song of awakening night birds followed Isabella as she hurried down the pathway, dirt billowing around her sandal-clad feet, the hem of her gown.
'Buona notte!' people called after her and she answered with quick waves, smiles. At last she came to the top of the slope that led to her father's villa.
It was quieter there, the ebb and flow of life in the rough stone cottages muffled by a ring of scrubby olive trees, and by something else, something intangible yet ever-present. The barrier of being different. Her father's family had lived on this estate for decades, had overseen the fields, the orchards, the grapevines. Isabella had known all those people since she was in swaddling clothes, the poor little bambina with no mother who thus became the child of all. Or none.
But truly they were different. She and her father. The scholar, the man so wrapped in his dusty books, his ancient world, his memories of her mother, that he never walked the fields as his own father had. He cared little for the things that absorbed the days of others, the mundane work of feeding families, worshipping God, living life. And she, his daughter, his only child, was worse. A woman who would rather scribble strange images on parchment than marry and raise children.
Isabella absently twisted her untidy black hair up into a knot, thinking of the whispers people thought she couldn't hear. This was her home, the only one she had ever known. Yet she didn't belong here. She thought again of Icarus, soaring free on his fatal wings. What she would not give for just a taste of that freedom! Yet it was impossible. She was a woman, she had her duties, her destinies. Wings could not be hers.
But there was one choice she could make, a gift of her father's hazy unworldliness, his carelessness. She could choose not to marry some country lordling and lose her youth and vitality in endless tasks, endless childbearing. Even if it meant she stayed frozen for ever.
Isabella secured her hair with a comb from her pocket, brushed off her skirts and tugged the ruffled cuffs of her chemise down to cover the worst of the charcoal smudges. She was as tidy as she could make herself, so she continued on her way down the shadowed slope towards the villa.
Their house had once been the grandest in the neighbourhood, back in her grandfather's youth, when it was newly built. The latest design, with all the most modern conveniences, the most luxurious furnishings. Her grandmother was a great beauty, a daughter of the Strozzi family, and she gave banquets and dances that were talked of even in Florence.
That was a long time ago.
Isabella's grandparents had been gone for many years and under her father's stewardship the villa had fallen silent. Isabella heard tell that her mother, another Strozzi, had also given banquets, had danced under the moonlight with all her stylish Florentine friends. But she'd died at Isabella's birth and that sparkling life ended for all of them. Her father detested dancing without his wife, was indifferent to food and feasting. Oh, they did sometimes have guests to be sure, other scholars who came to debate with her father over the philosophies of the ancient Greeks, the concepts of higher mathematics, the nature of man's highest vocation.
They did not care for dancing, either. Or even for the art that was Isabella's life-sustaining joy. And her mother's relatives had no use for a connection who was only a scholar, no use in a battle or at forming new alliances.