“This is Venice beneath the mask: A dark and fascinating love story hiding in the shadows of the golden city.” —Marina Fiorato, bestselling author of The Glassblower of Murano
Set in eighteenth-century Venice and based on an actual account by Giacomo Casanova—here is a lush tale of desire and risk, offering a little known portrait of the writer as a young man.
Caterina Capreta was an innocent girl of fourteen when she caught the attention of the world’s most infamous chronicler of seduction: Giacomo Casanova. Intoxicated by a fierce love, she wed Casanova in secret. But his shocking betrayal inspired her to commit an act that would mark her forever . . .
Now twenty years later on the island of Murano, the woman in possession of Caterina’s most devastating secret has appeared with a request she cannot refuse: to take in a noble-born girl whose scandalous love affair resembles her own. But the girl’s presence stirs up unwelcome memories of Caterina’s turbulent past. Tested like never before, she reveals the story of the man she will never forget . . .
Bringing to life a fascinating chapter in the history of Venice, Casanova’s Secret Wife is a tour de force that charts one woman’s journey through love and loss to redemption.
“Seductive and unforgettable” —Harmony Verna, author of Daughter of Australia
“Breathtaking, beautiful . . . will mesmerize readers." —Rosanna Chiofalo, author of Stella Mia
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.10(d)|
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The Island of Murano in the Lagoon of Venice March of 1774
Caterina Capreta perched on a chair in the chilly room where it seemed no spring came. She forced herself to meet the frightening gaze of Abbess Marina Morosini, her old friend and rival, who sat behind an elaborate scroll-leg desk. Gilt bronze vines climbed up its shiny redwood legs, as if it were on fire.
The abbess gave a nod. "Caterina, I am pleased you have returned to visit us at the convent. How long has it been?"
Caterina couldn't help staring at Marina's ruined beauty. Her waxy skin pulled tight across her cheekbones. Her eyes, once blue-green, had lost their color. She was dressed in a black tunic, black veil, and white wimple that covered her ears, neck, and hair. All the forbidden vanities Marina had indulged in when she was young to the veil — the jeweled hairpins, long fingernails, even the rose perfume that had seemed to breathe from the very folds of her garments — were gone.
Caterina's mouth was dry, but she forced herself to speak. "I believe it is almost twenty years."
Marina sipped water from a goblet. "Twenty years ... yes ... such a long time. As I explained in my letter, a situation has arisen at the convent that brought you to mind."
"I'm flattered you still think of me," Caterina said. As if Marina could ever forget her. "But I can't imagine how I might be of any help — you are the abbess now, after all. And I know so little about spiritual matters." Caterina bowed her head, as if warding off a coming blow.
"I haven't asked you here to counsel me on spiritual matters," Marina said, barely hiding her irritation. "I have an unfortunate problem on my hands with a young boarder — sixteen years old. She was brought here by her father a month ago. The mother is dead. He offered me a sack of gold zecchini to take her in. How could I refuse?"
Caterina dared to look up but said nothing, knowing how these things went. The girls weren't so much left off at the convents for religious reasons, as for safekeeping.
"Only she is pregnant. He neglected to tell me that part." Marina's voice was mocking. "Instead, he sat in that chair showing me old coins and cameos he collects out of the ground. He called himself an antiquarian. He was on his way to Constantinople and said he couldn't possibly take his daughter there — given the depravity of the heathens. He pleaded for my help."
At the mention of a pregnancy, Caterina's gut had started to ache. But she remained silent, hoping she was wrong about where this was heading.
"I can't keep Leda at Santa Maria degli Angeli any longer," Marina announced, confirming her fears. "It would cause a scandal. Of course you understand."
Caterina nodded. Of course she did.
"I need to remove her from the convent until the thing is done. So I asked myself — who would be willing to take in a girl in Leda's situation — quietly, and with discretion? And then, I thought of you."
"Marina," Caterina begged. In her mind she was already grabbing for the thick oak door, running to the dock, and slipping into a boat for home. "You think too highly of me. I'm sure she would do better here."
Marina simply waited for the foolishness of Caterina's words to disappear like a bad smell. Then she smiled for the first time. Her teeth had a greenish cast, like the lagoon.
"My angel. May I call you that?"
Caterina felt the cruel jab hidden in Marina's words. Someone else, long ago, had first called her an "angel." And somewhere, far away, perhaps he still saw her that way.
"We share a long history, yes?" A glimmer of Marina's old spark had returned. "I remember when you were just fourteen. Such an innocent! Or so we all thought."
Caterina laughed nervously and stared at the floor to hide her hot face. Her heart began to pound in her head.
"I learned otherwise," Marina said, "and I've protected your secret all these years. Who knows why?" She sighed. "There was nothing to be gained by revenge; all was lost anyway. I let you be."
Caterina sat like a piece of marble in her chair. She could hear lagoon water outside the windows lapping at the mossy stones.
"Now, old friend," Marina pressed, "I ask you a favor. It is only for a short time — I would guess not more than six months. Remember that the girl is no more of a fool than you — we — once were."
Caterina looked up to meet her faded eyes, which looked softer now at the memory of long ago.
"Will you help her?"
"Of course." Caterina's defeat was complete, but she said it with strength, as if this was her wish.
"Good." Marina smiled green at her again. "Leda is waiting in her room, ready to go."
Within the hour, Caterina was back in a gondola heading home toward Venice, but this time she had company. The lagoon was choppy, stirred up by a late March wind. Caterina stayed warm inside the cabin, but Leda sat right on the planks of the boat. Her dress — rose-colored cotton and not nearly warm enough for the time of year — rippled in the wind. Caterina watched the girl stare out across the water, as though unaware of her or the two gondoliers who rowed them. She appeared to let herself go where the wind and tide took her.
Leda's hair was ratty brown. In the sunlight on the open water, it looked oddly purple — could she have dyed it? She wore a strange gold pendant at her neck, strung on a black velvet choker. It was a thick square, and carved with designs Caterina could not make out. She did not hold her back straight, and her belly was slightly swollen. But Caterina saw how the gondoliers stared at her as though she was a great beauty. It was her eyes — they were English or Irish blue, suggesting someplace deep, and far away.
Leda was noble-born, a member of the Strozzi family in Florence. Phillida was her real name — Marina had told her this as they walked the convent hallways to fetch the wayward girl. The Greek name had been chosen by her father. But "Leda" was all she could pronounce of it as a child, and the shorter name had stuck. Leda, Caterina mused as she watched the girl now in the boat. Zeus had desired mythological Leda so strongly he had mounted her in the guise of a curling swan.
About an hour later, they arrived at Caterina's house along the wide, sunny fondamenta that faced the island of Giudecca. The spell of the ride now over, the gondoliers rudely tossed Leda's satchels onto the pavement in front of the door and left. A trunk with the rest of her belongings would be arriving in another day or two.
Leda turned her back on the satchels and stood idle while Caterina got her key out. She trailed Caterina inside, and only then did Caterina realize that the bags remained on the pavement, forgotten.
"I have no servants, Leda. If you want your clothes, you will have to carry up your bags yourself."
Leda looked interested for the first time since they had met. "Why do you have no servants? The house looks rich enough. At home, we have fourteen, including my tutors."
Caterina sensed she didn't say this to insult her. Leda was simply being honest. So she responded in kind.
"No servants. I don't need an audience in my life."
Leda studied her, then went back out and took the lightest satchel in hand. Caterina gave her a few more things, then loaded herself up like a donkey.
Selfish girl. When would she be gone?
Caterina gave Leda supper but said she wasn't hungry herself. It was a lie; she was starving. Out of sight, she devoured a few spoonfuls of pasta and bean soup right from the pot and gobbled some hard bread like a peasant. Thick soup slid down her chin and dripped onto her chemise. She was ashamed of her gluttony, but she did not want to share a meal with this stranger. She told Leda she was going to sleep early.
Caterina decided to give Leda her bedroom, and moved into the small spare room down the hall. Her own bedroom was the most inviting in the house, with a Moorish-style, double-arched window that looked out to the Giudecca Canal. Sunlight filled this room every hour before dark, and Caterina had long enjoyed clocking her days as they passed with each slow sunset. There were two narrow beds whose headboards echoed the arches of the windows, each one painted green and brushed with gold.
Caterina moved out of her own bedroom partly to be kind. She did not want Leda to be miserable in the spare room with one tiny window. She also did not want Leda rummaging through the letters that she kept in the spare room. True, she could have simply moved the ivory box where she kept them locked up. But the small room had come to feel inhabited by their magic all these years. As if the box had released some of its secrets into the air. Tonight, more than ever, it felt this way. The visit to Santa Maria degli Angeli had stirred up unwelcome memories.
"Signora?" Caterina heard Leda whisper in the doorway of the small room. The shutters had been pulled tight, and everywhere was black. She realized she had fallen asleep but was awake now, and hungry.
"Signora?" A little louder now.
Caterina did not answer her.
The next morning was Sunday, and Caterina invited Leda to go to Mass with her at San Gregorio nearby. She had awakened in a more generous spirit.
"But who will you say I am?" Leda asked, placing a hand on her belly and taking a seat on the bed.
Caterina didn't have a ready answer. Oh, she had once been a quick-thinking girl, but that part of her was long gone.
Leda came up with an idea. "We can say I am your niece. Your niece from Florence who —"
"— no, not my niece. If you knew my brother, you'd know why. Any mention of him and we will stir up a hornets' nest of gossip."
"Then I will be myself," Leda said. "Leda Strozzi, abandoned first by my lover, then my father, and now by the abbess. You can say you are simply a link on a chain."
The naked honesty startled Caterina. "Come, Leda. We will say ... that are you are ... Bastiano's cousin, recently widowed. It's a dull story. No one will ask more."
"Who is Bastiano?"
"Oh —" Caterina turned away to fetch a pair of earrings from her table mirror drawer. "My husband." She wondered if Leda would be nosy, and ask more.
"You have a husband, Signora? But where is he? Is this his room?" She started to giggle. "Did I sleep in his bed?"
Caterina tried to explain. "I do have a husband. He stays mostly on the floor below us. And — he often goes to Padua on business."
Leda stared at her: She was probably remembering the way her own lover touched her, wondering how a husband could bear to stay somewhere else. Caterina dropped her eyes.
"Signora —" Leda changed the subject, abruptly. "Will you help me dress my hair?" "Of course!" Caterina replied.
She wondered if Leda was attempting to be kind, to distract her from the facts that were accumulating about her life: a mostly absent husband, no servants. There was not even a songbird in the house. All was still, as if entombed.
Caterina placed Leda in a chair facing the water and began to brush that curious hair of hers. She might not have brushed it often, but it looked as though she had tried to cut it herself. And it was clearly dyed: with berry juice? She didn't ask. She was enjoying their anonymity from each other, Leda's back to her, each of them lost in her own separate world.
She realized she needed to switch to a comb if she ever hoped to get the knots out. She tugged at each clump carefully, holding the top part at the roots to lessen the pulling. Still, Leda's head jerked as she did her work.
Caterina's mind started to go places.
How long is this girl going to stay with me? Six months, as Marina promised? Or longer? What are Marina's promises worth, anyway?
Marina. Caterina pulled at the girl's hair harder.
Leda took out a handkerchief and blew her nose. Caterina launched into a fresh panic. Lord, is this girl going to make me sick? Is that Marina's real purpose? Like when the Florentines threw rotten donkey flesh and even their own excrement over the city walls of Siena to sicken everyone? She continued to comb furiously. Leda blew her nose again. Caterina felt repulsed.
She looked out to the water, suddenly longing for freedom. Only then did she notice Leda's shoulders heaving.
"Leda! Are you crying? Am I hurting you?" By instinct, she threw her arms around the girl from behind.
"It's alright, Signora," Leda said, clasping her hand. Tears came, but she managed a smile. "I'm sure it looks beautiful."
Ashamed of herself, Caterina gently swept back two thick pieces of the girl's hair, and held them in place with a stickpin she pulled out from her own thinning tresses. The pin had an enameled ball at its tip, and its vibrant colors, wrapped in a web of gold wire, matched the purple tint in Leda's hair. Caterina noticed that Leda never went to the mirror to see how she looked: She was without vanity, and more beautiful for it.
On their way to church, Leda linked her arm with hers, as she saw Venetian women do. Caterina let her.
"Leda," Caterina asked her a few nights later, "that morning when I made you cry. Was it because I had hurt you, or because you are sad?"
They were at supper together in the main room of Caterina's house. Leda mopped up the last of the spaghetti and anchovies with bread and stuffed sauce-soaked pieces into her mouth. Caterina was pleased to see, at least, she liked her cooking.
"Oh, Signora — I don't know what to say —"
"Are you missing ... the man ... who ...?" Caterina gestured at her own stomach because she couldn't find the right words.
Leda shook her head. But then she started to cry.
Caterina immediately regretted what she had unleashed. But Leda caught herself and wiped her cheeks roughly with a napkin. After, her face was covered with pink splotches and her eyes shone.
"I'm sorry," Leda said. "You would not understand."
"Of course I would!" Caterina fought for her place at the table of lovers.
"No, Signora." Leda flushed. "Your husband sleeps in another part of your house. You come and go as if he is not even here —"
"— but he is not here! I told you, he is in Padua."
"But, Signora, you never speak about him, never say his name just to say it, never smile just to hear it." She smiled now. She was clearly saying someone's name to herself.
"Leda," Caterina said, "Bastiano is nineteen years older than I am. But it's not only years. He's the kind of man who —" She looked at her favorite painting, the one hanging right over them. "If he was looking at that painting — the Virgin in a field at sunset, her hand on a rabbit, her Son reaching for it and showing His innocent tenderness — Bastiano would say to me, 'What's that frame made out of? Walnut?'"
Leda giggled and then cried a little more. Her emotions were everywhere tonight. Caterina couldn't help laughing a little, too. Even the most disappointing things in life could be comical, given enough time.
But she was ready to leave off talking about Bastiano.
"There was another man," she confided. "When I was even younger than you are."
Why was she doing this? It wasn't to help Leda; she didn't fool herself about that. No, it was for herself. She was greedy to revisit a place where the ground was still sweet.
She rose from the table and went into the small room that was now her bedroom. Her ivory box sat on the nightstand, its smooth surfaces reflecting the moonlight that slivered in from the window. The key she always kept strung around her waist. It was red-brown with rust, and so was the lock on the box. And for the first time in many years, she opened her box, twisting the key with a shaking hand.
There they were, stacked inside: all her dusty letters, filled with old love stories. Letters from her cousin. Letters from her lover. Letters that were not really letters, more journals she had written for herself. She fingered a few pages near the top, checking to see that the words were all still there. Strange how old possessions wait in time, wait for you to remember them.
She took just a few letters from the early days to Leda, to aid her memory. And she began to talk to the girl. But she knew just where to stop. She was careful to leave the darkest stories of her past safely locked up.
Excerpted from "Casanova's Secret Wife"
Copyright © 2017 Barbara Lynn-Davis.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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