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Sandro Botticelli, c. 1482.
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.
A lone figure stood high atop Brunelleschi’s dome, under the shade of the gold globe and cross. His black clothing faded into the encroaching darkness, rendering him invisible to the people below.
Not that they would have seen him.
From his vantage point, they looked like ants. And ants they were to him, an irritating, if necessary, presence in his city.
The city of Florence had been his for almost seven hundred years. When he was in residence, he spent the moments before sunset in the same place, surveying his kingdom with Lucifer-like pride. This was the work of his hands, the fruit of his labor, and he wielded his power without mercy.
His considerable strength was magnified by his intellect and his patience. Centuries had passed before his eyes, yet he remained constant. Time was a luxury he owned in abundance, and he was never hasty in his pursuit of revenge. Over a hundred years had come and gone since he’d been robbed of some of his most prized possessions. He’d waited for them to resurface and they had. On this night, he’d restored the illustrations to his personal collection, the sophisticated security of the Uffizi Gallery causing him only the most trifling of inconveniences.
So it was that he stood in triumph against the darkening sky, like a Medici prince, looking out over Florence. He smelled rain on the warm air as he contemplated the fate of those responsible for acquiring his stolen illustrations. He’d intended to kill them two years previous, but had been thwarted by a tiresome assassination attempt. The war that ensued between the underworlds of Florence and Venice had kept him occupied since then. He’d won the war, successfully annexing Venice and all its territories. And his prey had finally returned to the city. Now was the time to have his revenge.
He had time enough to plan the killings and so he stood, enjoying his success, as a warm, persistent rain began to fall. The ants below scattered, scurrying for shelter. Soon the streets emptied of human beings.
He clutched the case under his arm more closely, realizing that his illustrations were in need of a dry space. In the blink of an eye, he traveled down the red tiles to a lower half dome before leaping to the ground and sprinting across the square. Soon he was climbing to the roof of the Arciconfraternita della Misericordia, an adjacent, aged building.
There was a time when he would have served the Arciconfraternita, joining in their mission of mercy, rather than treating them as a hurdle. But he hadn’t been merciful since 1274. In his new form, the concept never entered his consciousness.
Some hours later, he flew across the tiled roofs at great speed, dodging raindrops and heading toward the Ponte Vecchio. The smell of blood filled his nostrils. There was more than one vintage, but the scent that attracted his attention was young and unaccountably sweet. It resurrected in him memories forgotten, images of love and loss.
Other monsters moved in the darkness, from all parts of the city, racing toward the place where innocent blood cried out from the ground.
He changed direction and increased his speed, moving toward the Ponte Santa Trinita. His black form blurred against the night sky as he leapt from rooftop to rooftop.
As he ran, the question uppermost in his mind was: Who will reach her first?
The streets of Florence were almost deserted at one thirty in the morning.
There were a few tourists and locals, groups of young people looking for entertainment, homeless people begging, and Raven Wood, limping slowly down the uneven street that led from the Uffizi Gallery to the Ponte Santa Trinita.
Raven had been at a party with colleagues from the gallery and foolishly declined a ride home. Her friend Patrick had offered, since her Vespa was in the shop, but she knew he didn’t want to leave Gina’s flat. He’d been nursing a secret crush on Gina for months. On this evening, he seemed to have succeeded in attracting her attention.
Raven didn’t have the heart to separate the prospective lovers. While she accepted that love was not for her, she took secret delight in the love lives of others, especially her friends. So she insisted on finding her own way home. That was how she found herself walking, with the assistance of her cane, toward her small flat in Santo Spirito, which was on the other side of the river.
Little did she realize that her decision to decline a ride home would have far-reaching consequences for herself and her friends.
Her colleagues wrongly assumed her limp was something she’d been born with, and so, out of politeness, they ignored it. She was grateful for their silence, since her limp held a dark secret she was unwilling to tell.
She didn’t think of herself as handicapped. She thought of herself as mildly disabled. Her right leg was somewhat shorter than the other and her foot turned outward slightly, at an unnatural angle. She couldn’t run and she knew it was painful to watch her walking. At least she tried to make her ever-present cane attractive, decorating it with whimsical designs drawn by her own artistic hand. She laughingly called it her boyfriend and dubbed him Henry.
Some women might have been worried about walking the streets of Florence late at night, but not Raven. She rarely attracted attention, apart from the rude stares at her leg. In fact, people often ran into or brushed past her as if she were invisible, making far too much body contact.
This was likely because of her appearance. The polite would have termed her figure Rubenesque, if they could have found it under her oversized clothes. To modern eyes she was overweight, her extra pounds compounded by baggy garments and well-worn sneakers that added little to her five-foot-seven height. Her hair was dark, almost as dark as a raven’s wing, and carelessly pulled into a ponytail that swept her shoulders. In comparison to the many attractive and well-dressed women who inhabited Florence, she was considered plain.
But her eyes were beautiful, large and deep and almost an absinthe green. Alas, no one ever took the time to notice her eyes, hidden as they were behind oversized black frames. Not that Raven would have been comfortable with the attention. She wore the glasses in order to distance herself from people, switching them for reading glasses that actually aided her eyesight, when necessary.
As she approached the Ponte Santa Trinita from the Lungarno degli Acciaiuoli, she cursed the fact that she hadn’t brought an umbrella. The rain was enough to clear the streets and bridge of pedestrians, but not enough to soak her. She elected not to seek shelter and simply continued, limping as she did everything else—with dogged determination.
She watched as a trio of rough-looking men approached the bridge ahead of her from Via de’ Tornabuoni. They were not deterred by the rain, their speech loud and raucous, their steps unsteady. The sight of drunks in the city center was not unusual, but Raven’s pace slowed. She knew too well the unpredictability of a drunk.
She clutched her old, worn knapsack more tightly as she continued toward the bridge. It was at that moment she saw Angelo.
Angelo was a homeless man who spent his days and nights begging for coins. Raven passed him on her way to and from the Uffizi. She always stopped to greet him and give him money or some food. She felt a kinship with him since they both walked with a cane. Angelo was developmentally disabled, which only increased her compassion.
As she walked, her gaze traveled from Angelo to the drunks and back again. A terrible feeling of dread passed over her.
“Good evening, friends!” Angelo’s Italian pierced the rainy darkness. “A few coins, please.”
The cheerful hope in his voice caused Raven’s stomach to churn. She knew the cruel fate of hope when it was misdirected.
She began limping faster, her eyes fixed on her friend, willing herself not to trip and fall. She was almost to the bridge when she saw Angelo lifting his hands and crying out.
The largest man was urinating on him. Angelo tried to move away, but the man followed. The other men cheered.
Raven was not shocked.
Angelo was homeless, dirty, crippled, and slow. Each of these features would kindle any latent cruelty in the Florentine men.
She felt shouts of protest bubble up in her throat. But she didn’t open her mouth.
She should intervene. She knew it. Evil flourished when good people walked by and said nothing.
Raven kept walking.
She was tired after a long day of work and an evening at Gina’s. She was eager to return to her small, quiet flat on the Piazza Santo Spirito. All the same, she was conscious of Angelo’s cries and the laughter and cursing of the men.
The largest man finished urinating with a flourish, returning himself to the confines of his jeans. Without warning, he lifted a booted foot and kicked Angelo in the ribs. He cried out in pain, slumping to the ground.
The other men joined in, kicking and cursing Angelo without regard to his screams. Blood poured from his mouth as he writhed on the sidewalk.
“Stop!” The loud cry, in Italian, filled her ears. In an instant, she felt joy at the fact that someone, anyone, had come to Angelo’s rescue.
But her joy turned to horror when the men stopped and stared in her direction.
“Stop,” she repeated, in a much quieter tone.
The men exchanged glances and the largest one said something derisive to his companions. He stalked in her direction.
As he approached, Raven could see he was broad shouldered and tall, his head shaven, his eyes dark. She resisted the urge to retreat.
“Go.” The man waved at her dismissively.
Raven’s green eyes darted behind him, to where Angelo was lying, curled into a ball.
“Let me help him. He’s bleeding.”
The bald man looked over his shoulder to his companions. As if in defiance, one of them kicked Angelo in the stomach. Her friend’s cries filled her ears until finally and horribly, he fell silent.
With a predatory smile, the bald man turned back to her. He pointed in the direction from which she’d approached.
Raven contemplated an attempt to reach Angelo’s side, but decided against it. There was no possibility of crossing the bridge to get home, either. The bald man blocked her path.
She began to back away, her gait unsteady.
The man followed. He flailed his arms and dragged his right leg in an exaggerated impersonation of her walk. One of his companions shouted something about Quasimodo.
Resisting the urge to tell the men that they were the true monsters, she turned around, struggling to move quickly. The sounds of hurried footsteps echoed in her ears. The man’s companions had left Angelo and were pursuing her.
She heard one of them remark on how ugly she was—too ugly to fuck.
The others laughed.
One of them observed that she could be fucked from behind. Then they wouldn’t have to see her face.
Raven hobbled more quickly, searching in vain for a single pedestrian. The banks of the Arno appeared deserted.
“Not so fast!” One man’s sarcasm was treated with laughter as they walked behind her.
“Come, play with us,” another shouted.
“She acts like she wants it.”
Raven increased her pace, but they soon caught up with her, circling like wolves around an injured deer.
“Now what?” the shortest of the three men asked, eyeing the others.
“Now we play.” The bald man, who was evidently the ringleader, smiled at Raven. He pulled the cane out of her hand, throwing it into the street.
Someone else grabbed her knapsack, ripping it from her shoulder.
“Give it back!” she shouted, lunging toward him.
With glee, the man threw her knapsack to one of his companions, over her head.
She made a move to retrieve it, but it was quickly thrown over her once again. The men played keep-away for several minutes, taunting and teasing while she begged them to return her bag. They could not have known this, but her passport and other important documents were in the knapsack.
She couldn’t run. Her disability prevented her. She knew if she went for her cane, they would only pick it up and possibly throw it into the Arno. She turned and began limping away from them, back toward the Ponte Vecchio.
One of the men tossed her knapsack aside. “Grab her,” he said.
Raven tried to move faster, but she was already limping as quickly as she could. The man followed, closing in on her in three steps.
Frightened, she glanced over her shoulder. At that moment, her toe caught on a crack in the road and she stumbled. Pain lanced through her hands and arms as she tried to break her fall.
The bald man approached and grabbed her by the hair. She cried out as he ripped the elastic from her ponytail. Her long black hair fell around her shoulders.
He pulled her to her feet, grabbing her hair and wrapping it around his hand.
She scanned the area, trying to find a way of escape or someone to help her, but within seconds he was dragging her across the street and into an alley. The alley was so narrow she could almost span it with arms outstretched.
She went limp, pitching forward intentionally.
With a curse, he released her.
Raven whimpered as she fell to her knees a second time, her hands scraped and bleeding. A stench filled her nostrils. Someone had used the alley as a toilet.
She coughed, trying not to be sick.
The bald man grabbed her elbow and dragged her farther into the alley.
“Get up,” he demanded.
She tried to pull away, but he had hold of her elbow. She twisted, rolling to her side and kicking wildly. He cursed and she scrambled away, trying to get to her unsteady feet.
Suddenly he loomed over her, grasping her arm and pulling her to face him. Without warning he punched her with a closed fist, breaking her glasses and her nose. Blood spurted, falling in great, fat droplets to the ground.
She howled in pain, tearing the broken glasses from her face. Tears sprang from her eyes as she covered her face with her hand, fighting to breathe through her mouth.
The man yanked her to her feet. He pulled her by the hair and swung her against the wall.
Raven saw stars, pain shooting from her forehead.
The world spun and began to slow as two of the men pushed her chest against the wall, pinning her arms out to her sides. The ringleader stood behind her, his hands lifting her shirt.
Roughly, his fingers climbed her naked skin until they closed over her bra. He squeezed her breasts, making a crude joke. His companions seemed to encourage him, but Raven was no longer able to understand the words they were saying.
She felt as if she were underwater. Her head pounded and she gasped for air, trying not to choke on the blood that dripped down her throat.
The man unzipped his fly and pressed himself against her backside. His hand trailed to her waistband. With a flick of his fingers, he unbuttoned her jeans.
She struggled as his hand slid into her pants.
“Stop! Please. Please.”
A young woman’s cries, slurred and desperate, reached the Prince’s ears. In the distance, he could sense the approach of Lorenzo, his lieutenant, and Gregor, his assistant. Others of their kind were not far behind.
The Prince increased his pace, unwilling to share the source of the sweetest vintage he’d smelled in centuries. The scent seemed almost familiar, so much so that his already heightened desire was coupled with nostalgia. A nostalgia he had no wish to indulge.
His cunning and prudence had served him well, enabling him to survive while others had been dispatched to whatever afterlife abominations such as he deserved. He did not act without caution, which was why he stopped at the edge of a rooftop and peered into the alley below.
The narrow alley was lit by a single streetlamp. He could see a young woman who was being held by three men, one of whom was molesting her from behind, his fly open, his stiffened member rubbing against her. The other men cheered him on, pinning her against the wall like a crucifixion.
The imagery was not lost on him.
It would have been a simple thing for the Prince to steal the victim from her attackers and spirit her away, descending to another darkened alley in order to drain her of her prize.
He closed his eyes for a moment, inhaling deeply, and was seized by recollection: a half-naked woman lying at the foot of a stone wall, her body broken, her innocence taken, her blood crying out to him from the ground . . .
His appetite for food was swiftly replaced by a greater appetite, one that had been quietly fed over the centuries by anger and regret. The illustrations he’d taken great care to steal dropped from his hands unheeded as he leapt from the roof.
“What the—” The man was dead before he could finish his sentence, his head ripped from his body and casually tossed aside like a football.
The other men released the woman and attempted to run, but the Prince caught them handily, sending them to hell with a few swift movements.
When he turned to claim his prize, he found she’d fallen to the ground, the sweet scent of her blood heavy in the air. She seemed unconscious, her eyes tightly shut, her face battered.
“Cassita vulneratus,” he whispered, crouching next to her.
She opened large green eyes and stared up at him through the raindrops.
“A girl. How disappointing.” A woman’s voice broke the silence. “From the scent of her I thought she was a child.”
The Prince turned to find four of his citizens standing nearby—Aoibhe, a tall woman with long red hair, and three men, Maximilian, Lorenzo, and Gregor. All had pale faces and all stared hungrily in Raven’s direction, but not before bowing to their prince.
“How did such a delicacy go unnoticed? If I’d smelled her in the street, I’d have taken her.” Aoibhe moved closer, her posture regal and elegant. “Come, then. She’s old enough and easily shared. I’ve not drunk a vintage that sweet since I fed on English children.”
“No.” The Prince’s voice was low. He moved almost imperceptibly, standing between the girl and the others, obscuring her from sight.
“Surely, Prince, you would not deny us.” Maximilian, the largest man, gestured in the direction of the various body parts of the three dead men. “The others are dead and reek of vice.”
“There’s an unspoiled corpse by the bridge. You can have it, with my compliments. But I have first rights to the girl.” The Prince’s voice was quiet, but it held an undercurrent of steel.
“Your prize is almost a corpse,” Aoibhe spat out. “I can hear her heart stuttering.”
In response to the woman’s words, the Prince turned in the girl’s direction. Her eyes were closed and her breathing was labored.
“What a mess!” one of the other men exclaimed, his Italian accented with Russian. He stepped forward, examining the bodies of her attackers, coming perilously near their victim.
A growl escaped the Prince’s throat.
The Russian stopped abruptly.
“Pardon, my lord.” He took a cautious step back. “I meant no disrespect.”
“See to the perimeter, Gregor. If no one wants the other corpse, remove it.”
The young assistant scurried off into the street.
“Not even a feral would want to drink from them.” Everyone turned to look at Maximilian, his focus on the mutilated men.
His eyes moved to his ruler and narrowed. “I thought the Prince didn’t kill for sport.”
“Cave, Maximilian.” The Prince’s voice was threatening.
“Are you challenging the kill?” Lorenzo, the Prince’s lieutenant, stepped forward.
A noticeable tension hung in the air at the sound of his words. Everyone stared at Maximilian, awaiting his response.
He glanced from the Prince to the bleeding girl and back again, his blue eyes calculating.
“If the Prince never kills for sport, why are these men dead? He could have stolen her easily.”
“Enough!” Aoibhe sounded impatient. “She’s dying and you’re wasting time.”
“The Prince is the one who enacted the laws against indiscriminate killing.” Maximilian stepped forward. His eyes flickered almost imperceptibly to Lorenzo’s, then fixed on the Prince.
Aoibhe stood in front of him, her tall form appearing slight in comparison to his great size. “You’d challenge the Prince of the city over this? Are you mad?”
Maximilian moved, as if to shove her aside.
In a flash, the redheaded woman caught hold of his left arm, wrenching it high behind his back and dislocating his shoulder with a sickening snap.
“Never lift your hand to me again. Or you’ll lose it.” She forced him to his knees, placing a velvet-clad foot to his lower back.
Maximilian gritted his teeth. “Would someone get this fork-tongued harpy off my back?”
“Aoibhe.” The Prince’s voice was low, but commanding.
“I just want to ensure this Prussian knight understands what I’m saying. His Italian is severely . . . lacking.”
“Get off, you miserable wench!” he snarled, trying to shake her off.
“With pleasure.” Aoibhe released her colleague with a string of Irish profanity and more than a few threats.
Max stood, popping his shoulder back into place with a groan and rotating his arm.
“Since I appear to be the only one interested in the laws of the city, I withdraw the challenge.” He paused, as if expecting someone else to speak.
All were silent.
“Finally.” Aoibhe turned her attention back to the Prince, who had moved closer to his prey, his back against the wall. “Your exceptional vintage is on her final breath. If she’s to be had, it must be now. Will you share?”
On impulse, the Prince pulled the girl into his arms and in one quick motion leapt to the roof, leaving his fellow citizens behind.
Raven awoke with a start.
She’d heard a strange voice whispering in her ear. Of course, there was no one else in her small bedroom. She couldn’t remember what the voice said or if it spoke to her in English or Italian. Something told her the language was neither, but it was a dream, after all. She’d been known to dream in Latin on occasion.
She blinked against the streaming sunlight. It was unusual for the shutters on her bedroom window to be open, but open they were. (Not that Raven focused on the anomaly.)
She’d had the strangest dream, but all she could remember was a vortex of swirling emotions and colors. As an artist, it was not surprising for her to think and dream in color. But it was strange that her memory, which was usually as sharp as a knife, was amorphous.
Yawning, she swung her legs over the side of the bed, its narrowness a testament to her single status, and walked to her laptop. She opened her music application and began playing her favorite Mumford and Sons album.
When she entered the bathroom, she didn’t bother looking in the mirror suspended over the vanity. The mirror was only large enough to show her best feature—her face. Even looking at that feature was something Raven avoided.
After her morning ablutions, she wandered into the tiny kitchen of her one-bedroom apartment and began making coffee.
It felt like a Saturday or Sunday, but she was pretty sure she needed to go to work. Seized by a sudden anxiety, she took a few steps to the left, peering into her bedroom. When she caught sight of her knapsack sitting next to the small table that she used as a desk, she breathed a sigh of relief.
She’d drink her coffee and check her e-mail, as was her custom, and figure out what day it was. According to the clock on the wall, it was seven in the morning.
She leaned against the counter. That was when she noticed something had changed.
The old-fashioned nightgown she was wearing should have attracted her attention, since it wasn’t hers. But it didn’t. Instead, she focused on what was visible beneath the hem of her gown. Her right foot, which was normally turned to the side, was symmetrical with the left, something it had not been for over a decade.
She froze. She shouldn’t have been able to walk from her bedroom to the bathroom and to the kitchen without her cane. She shouldn’t have been able to stand on both feet without pain. Yet that was exactly what she’d done.
Raven almost sank to the floor in shock, but she was too busy lifting her formerly injured foot, experimentally rotating the ankle. She repeated the movement with her left. Each foot moved with perfect ease and without discomfort.
She walked into the bedroom and back again. She held her breath and jumped.
Arms held wide, she ran in place, footfall after footfall a mad, enthusiastic triumph over what she knew to be impossible.
It was a miracle.
Raven didn’t believe in miracles, or in any deity or deities who could possibly produce them. She closed her eyes, trying to remember anything from the night before—anything that might serve as a clue for this sudden, momentous transformation. Apart from the whispered voice whose words she could not make out, there was nothing she could hold on to.
Maybe I’m still asleep.
As if to test her hypothesis, she stretched her lower limbs and positioned herself into a wobbly, amateurish arabesque. She held the position as long as she could, revelling in muscle memories long since forgotten. When she finally lost her balance and placed both feet on the floor, she almost wept. Her right foot and leg had done what she’d asked them to, finally. All the damage that had been done to her that terrible, terrible night had been healed.
She heard the Moka espresso maker humming and spitting on the stovetop and rushed to switch off the gas. Opening the small fridge, she withdrew a container of milk.
She glanced at the label, reading it easily. Her eyes widened. She turned the container in her hands, reading the fine print. She blinked, feeling on her face to see if she was wearing her reading glasses.
Without her reading glasses, she shouldn’t have been able to make out the words printed beneath the label. But they were clearly visible.
This can’t be happening. I’m delusional.
Raven put the milk on the counter and jogged to the bathroom.
In the mirror, she caught sight of a strange woman and shrieked.
The woman had long, shiny black hair. Her eyes were a sparkling green and she had a lovely oval face with high cheekbones. It was the kind of face, Raven thought, that deserved to be painted. In fact, the image reminded her of the actress Vivien Leigh.
She jumped back in fright.
So did the woman.
She moved to the right.
So did the woman.
It took a moment for her to realize the woman in the mirror was her reflection.
In amazement, she touched her face, her cheekbones, her mouth, with its full lower lip.
Raven knew how she was supposed to look—plain, overweight, and with a leg that didn’t work right. Yet her appearance was that of a beautiful young woman with two completely functional legs.
Was she hallucinating?
But my senses seem to be working. I can hear, touch, see, and smell.
Was her previous appearance and injury a nightmare? She stepped into the hall and peered into her bedroom, which was decorated with framed prints of Botticelli’s Primavera and the Birth of Venus, along with personal photographs. Pictures of herself and her sister, Carolyn, gazed at her from her bookcase, confirming her previous appearance.
She didn’t believe in miracles, the supernatural, or anything that couldn’t be investigated by science. She had to be hallucinating. There was no other scientific explanation.
She tried to remember what she’d done the day before. She recalled going to work, but she couldn’t remember anything afterward. What if she’d been drugged?
Perhaps if she returned to work, her friends could help her. If she was ill, they could take her to a doctor. And if she’d been drugged . . .
Raven pulled the nightgown over her head, pausing to examine the material. It appeared to be made of cotton that had once been white but was now yellowed. The neckline was trimmed with ornate lace and a faded pink ribbon. A row of antique pearl buttons dotted the front from neckline to waist. In short, not only was the nightgown a stranger to her, it appeared to be from the previous century.
Now she was naked, next to the mirror.
She retrieved a small footstool from the kitchen and stood on top of it.
Raven never looked at herself naked. That was a sight she studiously avoided. But this morning she cursed the fact that her only mirror was so small.
Her skin was creamy and perfect, its surface unblemished by scars or stretch marks. Her breasts were firmer, sitting high on her chest. Her figure was an hourglass, her waist tiny, her hips gently flaring out.
She contorted herself atop the stool so that she could get a better view of her hips and backside. Cellulite was noticeably absent from her thighs.
I don’t know what they gave me, but it must have been a very strong drug.
Worried she might have been assaulted, Raven examined her skin for any signs of trauma. She found nothing.
She cautiously parted her legs, slipping her hand between them in order to check for any tenderness. She breathed a sigh of relief when all seemed normal.
Of course, if I’m hallucinating my appearance, I could be hallucinating the absence of trauma.
Raven wondered if all victims of hallucination were so reasonable, and once again, she attributed both effects to the drug she’d no doubt been given.
She pulled on her bathrobe, though it dwarfed her now smaller size, and picked up her cell phone, quickly realizing that it was out of power. She moved to her desk with the intention of picking up the cord to charge her phone. A glance at her computer screen revealed that it was Monday morning. She didn’t know how she’d forgotten her entire weekend, but she needed to skip checking her e-mail and get moving if she was going to make it to her job at the Uffizi by eight o’clock.
She gulped her coffee and dressed, pulling on an old pair of yoga pants and a T-shirt because they were the only items in her limited wardrobe that wouldn’t be ridiculously oversized. Hurriedly, she brushed her hair and her teeth, switching off her music and tossing her cell phone and charger cord into her knapsack.
She tried to find her favorite sneakers, but gave up after a few moments, thrusting her feet into a pair of casual black shoes that had been carelessly tossed into her closet. She’d search for the sneakers under the bed later.
Consequently, she didn’t see the unfamiliar box that was hidden below where she slept, just out of sight.
As she locked the door to her flat and stepped onto the landing, she saw Dolcezza, her neighbor’s cat.
“Buongiorno, Dolcezza.” Raven smiled at the animal and reached out a hand to pet her.
The cat withdrew, hissing and arching its back.
“Dolcezza, what’s the matter?” Raven crouched, making another attempt to approach the cat, but it continued hissing, thrashing its tail wildly and lashing out with its paws.
At that moment, Signora Lidia DiFabio opened the door to her apartment and called for the cat, who raced past her legs as if a demon from hell were chasing it.
“Good morning.” Raven waved to her neighbor, wondering how she would react to her change in appearance.
“Good morning, my dear.” Lidia smiled.
“How are you this morning?”
Lidia rubbed at her temple. “Oh, a little tired. I just haven’t been feeling well these past few days.”
Raven came a few steps closer. “Can I help?”
“Oh, no. Bruno will be here later. I’m just going to go and lie down. Enjoy your day.”
Raven waved good-bye to her neighbor and clambered down the stairs. She was surprised that Lidia hadn’t seemed to notice her appearance or new, slimmer figure. Perhaps it was because Lidia wasn’t wearing her glasses.
Raven was even more surprised by the cat’s sudden change of temper. She’d always been on affectionate terms with Dolcezza and had frequently fed and cuddled the animal. Their relationship had never been anything but friendly.
Normally she descended the flight of stairs in her building like a turtle, moving slowly with the aid of her cane. On this morning, she ran.
It was liberating to be able to move without the burden of added weight or the pain she normally experienced. Without thinking much about it, she jogged all the way from her flat in Santo Spirito and across the Ponte Santa Trinita.
Then she stopped.
Angelo, the homeless man who was usually seated next to the bridge, was absent.
Raven took a moment to look for him, wondering if he’d merely changed location, but he was nowhere to be found. His belongings, which were normally placed next to the bridge in one favorite spot, were also gone.
She felt a prickly feeling on the back of her neck. In all the time she’d lived in Santo Spirito, Angelo was seated next to the bridge morning and evening.
She made a mental note to stop by the Franciscan mission, which he sometimes visited, in order to check on him.
Glancing at her watch and seeing she had mere moments before she was supposed to start work, Raven continued running to the Uffizi, a distance of one and a half kilometers. The sensation of her feet hitting the pavement, the jarring of her lower legs and knees—all these feelings were eagerly embraced.
A gentle breeze caressed her cheek and hair as it spilled over her shoulders and knapsack. She felt stronger, bolder, more confident. She felt as if she’d been given a new body and a new outlook.
With every step, she grew less and less concerned about what had caused such a dramatic reversal of her bad fortune.
Consequently, she was unaware of the mysterious figure who’d been shadowing her since she left her building.
It was the happiest morning of her life.
The Prince climbed the stairs to his bedroom in the Palazzo Riccardi, an old Medici palace. He’d returned the wounded lark to her world. Now he returned to his.
And what a world it was—dark, violent, destructive.
As he entered the room, he caught sight of his reflection and pushed a few wayward strands of blond hair from his forehead. He never spent long looking at himself, despite the fact that his body was far more attractive now than it had been in life.
Favor is deceitful, and beauty is vain.
Funny how he could still quote Scripture. Funny how he, who had once been a servant of God, was now counted among the Church’s enemies.
He frowned, thinking of a beautiful face with green eyes.
He pushed her image aside. He’d recklessly interfered in human affairs because of a centuries-old memory. Because of another beautiful face with haunting eyes . . .
He scrubbed his face with both hands. His body never tired but his mind needed rest. On this morning, he wanted nothing other than to spend hours in quiet meditation. But that would not be possible. He’d scented Aoibhe the moment he’d entered the palace, and she was behind him.
“You’ve been hiding.” She spoke to her erstwhile lover in English, rolling to her side on the large bed and absolutely neglecting to cover her naked body.
(She had few virtues. Modesty was not among them.)
Dawn was just peeking over the horizon. In a few hours the lark, no longer wounded, would awake in her apartment. But at this moment, the Prince forced himself to forget her and gazed hungrily at Aoibhe’s naked form, her firm, full breasts and long, tempting red hair.
He licked his lips. “Good morning to you, too. How did you know I’d be here?”
“I guessed. You’ve been in that impenetrable fortress of yours for days. I knew you’d have to feed eventually. Then you’d come here.”
“I thought I changed the locks.” He pulled the blackout shades over the windows. The action was for her comfort, not his.
Unbeknownst to the others, he could brave the sunlight.
Aoibhe rested her head on an upturned hand, looking remarkably like a Renaissance painting.
“You did. I wandered into the museum and persuaded one of the servants to allow me upstairs. I would have come to you at the fortress, but as you know, I can’t pass through the gates.”
The Prince ignored her pout, his gray eyes narrowing. “Is the servant dead?”
“Of course not. Merely—indisposed.” She lifted a pillow and threw it at him. “I wouldn’t kill one of your humans. At least, not without asking.”
He cursed, batting the pillow aside. His memory was drawn to the green-eyed girl, cowering in an alley while Aoibhe begged him to share the “exceptional vintage.” The memory, like the feelings that accompanied it, made him uneasy.
He turned his back. “Servants are easily replaced, but it’s inconvenient to do so every time a guest gets hungry.”
Aoibhe paused, for she’d seen the discomfort that flitted across his face a moment before. “You never used to care about them. I can recall when you executed your entire staff on a whim.”
Her comment hung in the air as he crossed over to the aged wardrobe opposite the bed.
“I don’t have whims, Aoibhe. I executed them for good reason, I assure you. Servants are like clothes. As long as they remain useful, I’ll keep them. When they outlive their usefulness, I dispose of them. Perhaps it’s more correct to say that I mourn the departure of a nice garment. A servant? Not so much.”
The Prince removed his black jacket and hung it up before retreating to a chair and attending to his boots.
Aoibhe continued to watch him. “This is what I find so curious about you. You’re the most human of any of us in some ways, but the least human in others.”
“I’m sure there’s a compliment in there somewhere,” he said wryly.
“You’re our prince, but no one knows how you keep your fortress secure or who your maker was.” She lowered her voice. “Not even I know when you were brought across, although I surmise it was a few hundred years before me.”
“Is there a question?” His tone was gruff as he placed his boots next to the wardrobe, avoiding her probing gaze.
She lowered her voice to a soft, seductive whisper. “We’re lovers. Tell me your secrets.”
He gave her a pointed look. “We aren’t lovers, Aoibhe. We simply fornicate on occasion.” As if to emphasize the point, he stood and removed his shirt.
She closed her eyes and inhaled as his scent swirled in the room. “You killed a human this evening, but fed on another. I smell someone’s blood on you and a different one in you.”
“A fool surprised me while I was feeding.”
She opened her eyes. “Then why not enjoy dessert?”
“You’re losing your sense of smell. I don’t have a taste for rapists.” He removed a man’s silver Baume et Mercier watch from his pocket and tossed it to her.
She caught it and admired its elegant simplicity in the lamplight before dropping it on the nightstand. “A pity you were the one to end him, since you’re so indifferent to human affairs. I would have made him suffer.”
“He suffered well enough.” The Prince’s gray eyes twinkled. “You would have enjoyed it. He begged for his life, confessing his most secret sins. He even soiled himself.” The Prince smiled, exposing white and perfect teeth. “He said his name was Professor Pacciani.”
“The Paccianis produced a professor? I can hardly believe it.”
(The name Pacciani was shared by a famous serial killer who had haunted Florence for decades. Of course, the humans didn’t know that a number of the killer’s alleged victims had been contributed by Aoibhe herself, and the others of her kind.)
“You killed a rapist. You ended three men last week in order to feed on that girl. This is strange behavior. Why the sudden interest in humans? You let the serial killer prey on the city for years.”
He busied himself with his socks. “I interfere when it’s in my interest.”
Aoibhe rolled onto her stomach, exposing her beautiful back and backside. She tossed her hair over her shoulder.
“It wasn’t in your interest to dismember the men in an alley and leave the pieces to rot.”
The Prince’s gaze flew to hers. “Gregor disposed of the corpses.”
“You could have frightened them away or used mind control.” She gazed at him curiously. “Max isn’t the only one who found your actions peculiar. There’s been talk among the Consilium members.”
He leveled cold eyes on her, his expression menacing. “If Maximilian wishes to talk, he knows where to find me. He won’t like how that conversation ends.”
She shivered and looked away. “I spoke in your favor, of course. I would have done whatever it took to secure the girl, even if it meant dispatching the men. She was exquisite. And they were going to waste it.”
The Prince said nothing but stood, removing his leather belt with a resounding snap.
Aoibhe toyed with the sheet, watching him. “How did it taste?”
He coiled the belt in his hand before placing it carefully on the wardrobe shelf. “My appetite is never quenched.”
Once again, Aoibhe laughed. “You need to take a lover—a human pet to fulfill your needs, day and night. There are beautiful women and men at Teatro. You’d have your choice.”
He hid his grimace by closing the wardrobe door.
The muscles of his naked chest and arms rippled with every movement, and Aoibhe admired them, wetting her lips with her tongue.
“In all the years I’ve known you, you’ve never had a woman for an extended period of time. Why?”
He turned his head minutely, spearing her with his gaze. “Humans aren’t meant to be enjoyed for an extended period. They lack resilience. Besides, I had you.”
“Our coupling has not been frequent.”
The Prince pressed a fist to the wardrobe door and clenched his teeth. “You took a new human lover less than a month ago. Where is he this morning? Dusting your palace on his knees, naked?”
She rolled to her back, breasts exposed, staring up at the ornate canopy overhead. “Human lovers lack stamina. I nearly killed him within a week. And he has to sleep, on occasion.”
“Ah, yes. Humans have to sleep.” The Prince removed his black trousers and tossed them over the chair. “So you’ve enjoyed his body for the evening and now arrive to enjoy mine for the day. How flattering.”
She turned her face toward him. “Nothing compares to our kind. And you’ve always been . . . attentive.” Her dark eyes lingered on his muscled, lean frame before resting on the firmness of his backside. “I’m sure you were never in want of female company when you were human. There must have been a legion of sweet young virgins outside your home, begging to be seduced.”
The Prince turned so quickly the movement was a blur, his eyes darkening and almost pinning her to the bed. “Cave, Aoibhe,” he growled.
She lifted her hands in apology. “I beg pardon. I forgot you were a priest.”
“I was no priest,” he spat out. He crossed the room, planting his fists on the mattress and leaning over her. “I was a novice. Do you intend to talk all day or did you plant yourself in my bed for some other purpose?”
She reached out a hand and wrapped it around his wrist, her touch soft and sensuous. “You’ve been in Florence so much longer than the rest of us and you’ve guarded your past securely. Can you blame me for a lapse in memory? I know so little about you.”
He gave her a heated look. “You know enough, it would seem, in order to bed me. You’ve entered my home, you’ve taken off your clothes, and you’ve deposited yourself between my sheets. Shall we get on with it?”
“Just a moment, my prince.” She gave him a patient smile. “You served the Church. You lived in an age in which women were supposed to remain virgins until they married. Perhaps that’s all you can countenance. Tell me, is that why you haven’t chosen a consort?”
The Prince disentangled himself from her grasp.
“Precious few of our kind survive the change with virginity intact.”
“I was a virgin once.” Her tone was almost wistful. “Before my father insulted one of the English lords. My maker had a surprise when he took me. He favored virgins, too, but misread my scent.”
“I’m sure you had other virtues that more than made up for it.”
Aoibhe squinted, trying to read his expression. She shook her head.
“No human lover, no assignations at Teatro, and no consort. Of course you’re angry and in need of release. Man cannot live by blood alone.”
“If you’re so concerned about my sexual needs, then you’d best do something about them.” He spoke sharply. “I’m going to put something in your mouth to silence you if you don’t stop talking.”
“I’m trying to help. We are friends, are we not? After so many years?” She smiled prettily, sliding over so there was room beside her.
He stood naked and proud, his erection straining toward her. His hands clasped into fists at his sides and the tendons in his arms rippled.
“Friends? No. But you’ve certainly been a welcome ally.” His gaze traveled the length of her body and up again, resting on her breasts.
She sighed and rolled her eyes heavenward. “I suppose that’s the most I can hope for from an Englishman. It’s a good thing I gave up killing your countrymen in the nineteenth century.”
“Enough.” He moved quickly, stretching his body over hers.
“Finally,” she whispered, pressing her red lips to his neck.
His hands moved up and down her sides, digging into her perfect skin.
She purred like a cat at his touch and lifted her right breast to his open and eager mouth.
He licked it, encircling the nipple several times before drawing it between his teeth. She arched off the bed at the sensation, lifting her other breast for his attention.
He repeated the movement before closing his mouth and sucking.
Aoibhe moaned, thrashing her head from side to side. He raised her thigh, pulling her leg around his hip before entering her. She groaned heavily as he began to move.
Their coupling was active and frenetic, as was typical of their kind. The Prince’s strength was such that he could hold himself over her with one arm, while he drove into her again and again.
Aoibhe lifted her hips to meet his thrusts before rolling him and climbing on top. With a triumphal cry, she rode him vigorously, head thrown back.
His hands explored her bouncing breasts before he sat up and replaced his hands with his mouth.
Aoibhe groaned her pleasure, trying to capture his mouth in a kiss, but he lifted her bodily and sprang out of bed, pressing her back against the wall.
She tried to kiss him again, but again he spurned her, whispering his lips up and down the column of her throat.
He felt her begin to orgasm and thrust into her more deeply. As was the case with their kind, her orgasm lasted several minutes.
When she had finished, she dragged him back to the bed and climbed atop him again, moving so quickly her body shimmered in the air.
With a cry, he thrust up his hips, emptying himself in her.
Aoibhe growled and bared her teeth, bending to sink them into his neck.
In an instant, he pushed her to her back, pinning her arms over her head. His body continued to shudder with his orgasm, his breathing almost labored.
“No,” he snarled, his gray eyes flashing with anger.
She had no choice but to nod as he continued moving within her. They were almost matched in height and in size, but he was older and far more powerful. He could end her handily and take her body out of the city to burn it beyond recognition. No one would ever be the wiser.
She stared up with wide, panicked eyes, holding her breath.
When he was spent, he hung his head, a few locks of his hair skimming her breasts.
“Let me be your consort,” she whispered, as her womb fluttered from the aftershocks, the pleasure continuing to flow through her. “We’ll rule Florence together. Drink from me and I’ll drink from you.”
She exposed her neck and what lay below the surface of her skin.
The Prince opened his eyes slowly, like a gray-eyed dragon, and growled.
“Please,” she begged.
He dislodged himself from her and walked naked toward the wardrobe.
She sat up, fanning a shaking hand over her throat.
“What are you afraid of, my love? The connection that comes from the exchange of blood?”
He glared. “Don’t use appellations you don’t mean. Your honesty is one of the few things I’ve always admired about you.”
She pressed her lips together, but said nothing.
The Prince retrieved a clean set of black clothes from the wardrobe and approached the bed. “The palace is at your disposal until sundown. I’ll instruct the servants. See to it you leave me with the full complement.”
She studied him, her hair a riot of red curls around her lovely oval face.
“I thought we’d progressed a little over the past centuries. I was mistaken.”
He clenched his jaw. “Don’t lie to me. Everything you do is calculated.”
“I don’t deny it, but in this case I’m doing you a favor. We won the war with the Venetians, but how long will the peace last? And what about the attempt on your life? We still haven’t discovered who helped the Venetians breach our borders. You must take a consort, if only to strengthen and protect your position. I’m one of your oldest friends. I’m the obvious choice.”
He regarded her, studying her face and expression with restrained hostility.
She threw back the bedclothes and stood before him.
“You have to be thinking of the future. How old are you? Who knows how long you have before the—”
“Enough,” he interrupted. “Our coupling has not been frequent, as you mentioned, but it has been fair. Until today.”
He took a moment to admire her body, the creamy cast of her skin, her gentle curves and long legs. He shook his head.
“Your performance was unnecessary. I would have given you the same answer had you approached me in the street. We’re allies, Aoibhe, not lovers. And from now on, that is all we shall be. Don’t come here again.”
And with that, he swept from the room.
When Raven approached the Uffizi Gallery, she was stunned to find it cordoned off.
Several officers from the local police stood watch at the barricades, while carabinieri in their signature dark blue uniforms roamed the U-shaped courtyard.
A number of men in dark suits stood in a small group, talking to one another near the entrance to the gallery. Journalists from around the world gathered around the perimeter, shouting questions to the carabinieri in English and Italian. Their questions were ignored, but not by Raven.
Something terrible had happened.
The famed Botticelli illustrations—copies of Botticelli’s drawings of Dante’s Divine Comedy—were missing.
Raven covered her mouth, a sick feeling ascending from her stomach to her throat.
“Permesso.” A masculine voice sounded in Raven’s ear as someone tried to squeeze past her.
She turned and recognized Patrick Wong, one of her friends from the gallery.
“Patrick.” She touched his arm.
His dark, almond-shaped eyes examined her face. “Do I know you?”
She switched to English. “It’s me.”
He looked at her in puzzlement and she remembered that her appearance was greatly altered.
Patrick shook his arm from her grasp and glared. “What do you know about Raven?”
“It’s me, I swear.” She retrieved her Uffizi identification card from her knapsack and held it out to him.
He snatched it from her hand, bringing his face next to hers.
“How did you get this?” he hissed. “Where is she?”
“Patrick, it’s me. We work together, remember? I’m part of Professor Urbano’s restoration team.”
He curled his fingers around her identification card. “Everyone knows Professor Urbano’s team. That doesn’t mean anything.”
She glanced around helplessly, trying to figure out how to prove her identity. Her gaze alighted on the edge of the Loggia dei Lanzi and its roof, which was barely visible.
“Remember we had lunch on the terrace? You told me about growing up with your grandmother in Richmond Hill and how she owned a restaurant. You told me you had a dog named Magnus, but he was hit by a car when you were ten.”
Patrick’s eyes widened. “Who told you those things?”
“You did. You’re lactose intolerant, you were born in Toronto, and you have a crush on Gina. It’s me, Patrick. I promise.” She held out her arm. “Look at my watch.”
He looked at her wrist, on which she wore an old, battered Swatch that he easily recognized.
His eyes met hers. “How do I know you didn’t kidnap Raven and steal her watch?”
She rolled her eyes. “Listen to yourself. I’m not important. Who would want to kidnap me?”
“That isn’t true.” His expression grew fierce. “Raven is someone to me. She’s important to me.”
She paused, tamping down her emotions so she could focus on finding something that would prove her identity.
“Remember when you lost the copies of the radiographs of Primavera? And Dottor Vitali kept asking for them? I’m the one who put them in the bottom drawer of your desk.”
Patrick shook his head. “I didn’t lose the radiographs.”
She smiled gently. “Yes, you did. You left them in the archives’ reading room. I found them and put them in your desk so you wouldn’t get in trouble.”
Patrick stared, a look of incredulous fascination on his face.
“I didn’t tell anyone about that.”
His expression slowly morphed from shock into concern.
“Raven?” he whispered, staring at her intently.
He lifted a hand to her face. “What did you do to yourself?”
She blinked and turned away, unable to meet his gaze.
Patrick dropped his hand quickly and looked around, noticing they had attracted the attention of one of the carabinieri, who was watching them from behind dark sunglasses.
“We need to get out of here.” He grabbed Raven’s arm. “Where’s your cane?”
“I don’t need it anymore.”
“That’s not funny.” Patrick gave her a furious look.
Raven lifted her now uninjured leg and quickly demonstrated her range of movement.
“Fuck,” he said under his breath, his eyebrows lifting. “What the hell is going on?”
Before Raven had time to venture an answer, the Carabinieri officer began walking toward them. Patrick pulled her around the corner and out of sight.
When they were several feet away, Raven planted her feet. “What about work? We’re going to be late.”
Patrick handed back her identification card. “I’m late every day because of the police. We have to go through a special security check before they let us in.”
“Are the police here because of the illustrations?”
He looked at her suspiciously. “Of course.”
“When were they stolen?”
When she didn’t say anything further, he rubbed his eyes. “Holy shit.”
He exhaled loudly. “If you were in trouble, you’d tell me, right?”
“I’m not in any trouble.”
“Are you kidding? I’m one of your best friends and I didn’t recognize you.” He cursed. “You don’t need your cane. And you disappeared right after the biggest robbery in Uffizi history.”
“What?” Raven practically shrieked, dropping her knapsack in surprise.
“Sssh!” Patrick gave her a furious look. “Do you want a half dozen carabinieri and God knows how many Interpol agents over here? Keep your voice down.”
He quickly stepped away, looking in the direction of the Uffizi, before dragging her and her knapsack closer to the Ponte Vecchio.
“When did the robbery happen?” Raven asked, her mind almost numb with shock.
“The night of Gina’s party.”
Raven pressed her hand to her forehead. She remembered Gina’s party. She remembered talking to Patrick about a ride home. After that, the evening was a blur.
She squinted in the sunlight. “How did the thieves get past the security systems?”
“No one knows. None of the alarms were tripped. They didn’t find so much as a fingerprint. The special agents think it must have been an inside job, which is why they’ve been interrogating us. I’ve been interviewed three times.”
“But who would do such a thing? Everyone we work with has a clean record.”
Patrick’s expression grew guarded.
“Raven, they’ve been looking for you. You’ve been gone over a week and no one knew where you were.”
“A week?” she squeaked, eyes wide.
“Gina’s party was the seventeenth. Today is the twenty-seventh. You didn’t come to work last week at all. We thought you were sick. I texted you and sent e-mails, and Professor Urbano called your cell phone, but you didn’t answer. I was pretty worried so Gina and I stopped by last Wednesday. One of your neighbors said he hadn’t seen you in days. We reported you missing to the police and the American consulate.”
Before Raven could respond, the Carabinieri officer suddenly appeared, flanked by two others.
“Do you work at the museum?” He addressed Patrick sternly.
Patrick’s gaze flickered to Raven’s. “Yes.”
“Identification, please.” The officer held out his hand expectantly.
Patrick gave him his Uffizi identification card. The man examined it carefully before returning it.
His attention shifted to Raven.
She nodded and handed him her identification.
The officer looked at the photograph and then he looked at Raven. He removed his sunglasses, folding them and placing them in one of the pockets of his uniform.
His eyes bored into hers. “You don’t look like the photograph.”
Raven shrugged. “That’s me.”
The officer peered at her thoughtfully before turning his gaze on Patrick. Patrick shifted his weight from foot to foot.
“You know this woman?” The officer gestured to Raven.
Patrick hesitated and Raven’s heart began to pound.
He moved to stand closer to her. “Yes, we work together.”
Raven tried not to melt with relief at Patrick’s show of support.
The officer’s attention snapped back to her. “Your identification says that you work for the Opificio delle Pietre Dure.”
“I do. But I’ve been seconded to the Uffizi and that’s stated on the card as well.” She pointed to the identification he was still holding.
“Dottoressa Wood, come with me.”
“She’s an American.” Patrick stepped forward. “You can’t just take her.”
The officer measured Patrick for a moment.
“We aren’t taking her. We’re accompanying her to the police station so we can interview her, just as we interviewed the other Uffizi employees.”
Patrick grabbed Raven’s arm, stopping her. “You interviewed the other employees at the gallery, not the police station. She isn’t going anywhere with you.”
“This isn’t an interrogation or an arrest, it’s simply an interview. I’m sure Dottoressa Wood wants to help the investigation.” The officer gave Raven a pointed look.
She blinked, not knowing what to say.
Patrick held his ground, still holding Raven’s arm.
The man cursed and removed something from underneath his jacket, flashing it under Patrick’s nose.
“I am Sergio Batelli, the ispettore from the Carabinieri. She does not have a diplomatic passport and her name is on the list of Uffizi employees. Under Italian civil code, I can acquire information from her at the police station without notifying anyone, especially the Americans. Capisce?
“Perhaps you’d like to be interviewed with her, Signor Wong. Are you lovers? How long have you known one another?”
Patrick cursed and took a step forward, but Raven intervened, placing her hand over his.
“It will be all right. I’ll just go and answer their questions. But please, tell Professor Urbano what’s happening. He’ll be expecting me in the restoration lab.”
Patrick fixed the officer with a look of defiance. “I’ll be notifying Dottor Vitali, the director of the Uffizi, and the American consulate. And I’ll be naming names, Ispettor Batelli.”
The officer shrugged.
“Dottoressa Wood.” He gestured to the street, where a police car had just pulled up to the curb, lights flashing.
Patrick squeezed Raven’s hand before sprinting in the direction of the Uffizi.
“This way.” Batelli’s voice was gruff as he and the other men led Raven to the car.
“For your information, I should state that this is not an interrogation. You are not under arrest. We are interviewing you in connection with the theft of art from the Uffizi because you work at the gallery. This conversation is being video recorded.
“Dottoressa Wood, where were you on Friday, May seventeenth?”
Batelli sat across from her in a small interrogation room in the Florence police station, his dark eyes keen and peering.
He had files in front of him, but they were closed. He wasn’t even taking notes. He was simply watching her.
Another man, wearing a dark suit, stood behind him and to his left. He’d been introduced as Alessandro Savola, an Interpol agent from Rome. He, too, was watching Raven, arms crossed, eyes alert.
She felt as if she were a sample being examined under a microscope.
She contemplated her options for a moment, staring back at the agents and wondering about her predicament.
She loved her work. She loved the Uffizi. She was willing to do anything to help the police find whoever had stolen the illustrations. That included answering the officer’s very uncomfortable, potentially hazardous questions.
“I came to work in the restoration lab. At the end of the day, a group of us went to a friend’s party.”
“Gina Molinari. She works in the archives.”
“Where did you go after the party?”
Raven focused on a spot on the wall, over his shoulder, willing herself to remember.
“I went home.”
Ispettor Batelli leaned forward in his chair.
“What time was that?”
Her eyes met his.
“I don’t remember, but the party was still going on. I said good-bye to Patrick and to Gina and walked home.”
“Do you live with anyone? Did anyone see you when you arrived home?”
“I live alone and no, no one saw me.”
“Do you have a lover? A boyfriend or girlfriend?”
“No.” She crossed her arms over her chest.
“When did you first hear about the robbery?” The inspector’s voice was casual. Too casual.
“This morning, when I came to work.”
The agent’s eyes narrowed. “What about newspapers? Radio? Television?”
“I don’t take the newspaper and I don’t have a television. Sometimes I listen to the BBC in the morning but I woke up late for work and didn’t bother.”
“Why are you carrying your passport and other important documents? Aren’t you afraid of thieves?” Batelli gestured to the items, which were sitting on the desk next to her identification card.
“My old passport was going to expire. I picked this one up at the consulate the other day, but I had to present the paperwork that showed I was working in Italy legally. I must have forgotten to take everything out of my knapsack.”
“The name on your documents doesn’t match the name on your identification card.”
She clenched her teeth. “My name is Raven.”
“That’s not the name in your passport.”
That’s because the name in my passport is dead, she thought.
She tried to appear relaxed, folding her hands in her lap. “In America, it’s common for people to have nicknames.”
“What part of America are you from?”
“Your employee file states that you attended Barry University and New York University.”
“How long have you been in Florence?”
“I spent a year here while I was finishing my master’s degree from NYU. Then I returned three years ago while I was writing my dissertation. When I graduated last year, Professor Urbano hired me to work for him at the Opificio.”
Batelli’s eyes narrowed. “I thought Professor Urbano worked at the Uffizi.”
“He does, but only on contract. He runs a lab at the Opificio, which is a world-renowned restoration institute. He was hired by the Uffizi, along with his team, to work on a single project. I’m part of that team.”
“So you have a Ph.D. in art history and conservation?”
She squirmed. “And restoration. I was trained in both, but focused on restoration for my dissertation.”
“Interesting,” he said. “How is this restoration work done?”
“We begin by doing scientific research on the artwork. There’s a lab in the Fortezza da Basso where we use microscopes, spectrophotometry, and X-ray machines. Sometimes we use ultraviolet rays or infrared photography. We also do archival work, comparing previous restoration and conservation attempts with current scientific findings.”
The inspector stared. “You do all these things?”
“I help where needed, but on this project I spent most of my time removing layers of varnish from the painting so we could get at the paint beneath. Then, someone more accomplished than me fixed the cracks and flaking in the original paint. This week, we’re supposed to start applying a transparent varnish to the artwork in order to protect it. Because of the size of the piece and its age, this process could take months.”
“Professor Urbano says you were absent from work all week and that you didn’t call in. Where were you?”
“At home, I guess.”
“You guess? You don’t know?” The officer’s tone was no longer casual.
She didn’t answer, for truthfully, she didn’t know what to say.
“Is it common for you to disappear from work for a week and not remember where you were?”
“No.” Unconsciously, her fingernails began digging into the palms of her hands.
“Where were you?”
“I don’t remember.”
Batelli exchanged a look with Agent Savola.
“Where were you yesterday?”
“I don’t know.”
“But you remember going home after the party?”
Raven closed her eyes, sifting through her memories. “I remember saying good-bye to Patrick and leaving Gina’s party. I remember starting to walk home.”
She opened her eyes. “That’s it.”
“Tell me, Dottoressa Wood, do you drink?”
She shrugged. “I’ll have a glass of wine when out with friends. But no, I don’t really drink.”
“What about drugs?”
“Drugs?” she repeated, her body growing noticeably tense.
“Do you take drugs or medication?”
“Sometimes I take pain pills for my leg, but I have a prescription for them.”
Batelli’s gaze dropped to her leg. “Do you ever take too many pills?”
“No.” She clasped her hands together, trying not to twist them in her lap.
“What about other drugs—cocaine, marijuana, ecstasy?”
“I don’t do drugs.”
What People are Saying About This
"The Raven was a fabulous Gothic treat of a book filled with ancient vampires, dark vendettas, and star-crossed love."—Deb Harkness, New York Times bestselling author of The Book of Life
Praise for the Gabriel Trilogy
“I found myself enraptured by Sylvain Reynard’s flawless writing.”—The Autumn Review
“Emotionally intense and lyrical.”—Totally Booked Blog