“Miss, you mustn’t! It’s dangerous. And your papa will be so angry if he finds out.”
“Well, he won’t find out, Hannah. Not as long as you do your part. Besides, it’s St. Stephen’s Eve. I’ve come all this way and I don’t intend to miss the first night of Carnevale in Venice. Now, come here and let me help you get dressed.”
Arabella pulled a pale blue silk evening frock out of the wardrobe and held it in front of her. “This is the one I planned to wear to Lady Thornton’s dinner party. Luckily we’re almost the same size. I’ll just pull your corset in a little tighter. The gown will hang nearly to the floor on you, but that’s less of a problem than if it were too short.”
Hannah stood frozen in place, a look of sheer panic on her face. “Oh, miss, I couldn’t possibly wear that! It’s far too grand.”
“Nonsense. It’s exactly what Lady Arabella Hays would wear to the home of a distant cousin who has been tasked with babysitting while her papa takes in the sights of Carnevale.” She waved a hand impatiently. “Come on. Strip down to your shift so I can get you into this gown. Then you can help me get ready.”
“But what will I say to her? And what if she finds out I’m not you?”
“That’s the beauty of it,” Arabella replied. “I haven’t seen Cousin Elizabeth since I was a little girl. She’ll never suspect the young lady who shows up at her door isn’t her relative. And you won’t have to say much.” She laughed as she helped Hannah adjust the corset over her shift and began pulling it tight. “From what I remember about her, you’ll be lucky to get a word in. Besides, if she does ask you a question, you know as much as I do about Papa’s travels or what I’ve been studying. After all, your mama was lady’s maid to my mama. You’ve been part of our family forever.”
Arabella gave a last tug to the corset strings, then tied them off and lifted the voluminous layered petticoat over her maid’s head. “Besides, you’ll probably be seated across from some equally uncomfortable young man at dinner. I’m guessing Cousin Elizabeth is like every other dowager whose dreary dinner parties I’ve been obliged to attend. They’re lonely and bored, so they add excitement to their lives by playing Cupid. Once she found out an unmarried young lady would be on the guest list, my dear cousin will have written to someone’s mama back in England insisting that her son simply must call upon her, an old family acquaintance, while he’s on the Grand Tour.”
Arabella gave her an impish grin. “If you do get into a conversation that makes you uncomfortable, just ask your reluctant dinner partner which Venetian painter was the best. Everyone at the table will jump in, clamoring to give his or her expert opinion. They’ll all argue passionately and you need only smile and nod and say ‘Really?’ and ‘Indeed!’ for the remainder of the meal.”
“Perfect! If you’re stuck for something to say,” Arabella counseled, “hold your fan in front of your face and give that a little titter. I’m willing to risk gaining a reputation as an empty-headed English miss in exchange for a whole night to explore Venice.”
Arabella helped her maid into the silk frock, nimbly fastening the long row of buttons down the back. She lifted an elaborate mask from its stand on the dressing table, set it over Hannah’s face, and pinned it to her upswept curls. In a faux baritone, she announced, “Presenting Lady Arabella Hays, daughter of Sir Thomas Hays of London,” and twirled the young woman to face the mirror.
Hannah gasped. “Oh, miss, I look…” She stopped, overcome with emotion.
“You look beautiful, Hannah,” Arabella finished softly. “Now go and have an enchanted evening. You’re not a servant tonight. You’re a fine lady and that young gentleman will be dazzled by your grace and charm. Arthur will escort you there and come to fetch you at the end of the evening.”
“Thank you, miss. It’s like a dream come true!” Hannah’s dark eyes sparkled behind the mask covering her face from forehead to just above her lips. “Before I leave, let me help you get into your costume.”
Arabella slipped into the cheap linen frock and Hannah helped her tighten its black laces across the bodice. Though rough, the fabric was a soft white color that set off her fair skin and dark hair. Cut low in front, it was much more revealing than anything Arabella had ever worn before. She blushed when she looked down at the curve of her breasts, swelling over the top of the tight bodice.
A delicious thrill poured through her as she realized her adventure was about to begin. She wasn’t the proper Lady Arabella Hays tonight. In masquerade, she’d be a brazen Venetian courtesan from the Renaissance, living her life with no rules or restrictions.
She’d been planning an evening like this ever since Papa told her they were going to Venice. She’d saved up her pocket money and ordered this inexpensive costume from a local seamstress as soon as they arrived, ready to seize the first opportunity that presented itself.
Papa was a dear man. Gentle and kind. But she was his only child and he kept her close, confined to their London flat and garden most of the time, always concerned for her safety. She had to beg for permission for an occasional outing in the streets to shop even though Hannah was always by her side. On those rare occasions, Papa’s most trusted manservant Arthur accompanied them. The women had to slow their pace to a crawl, since Arthur always lagged behind. She’d often wondered what use Papa thought his elderly servant would be if they really were set upon by hooligans.
Although she loved Papa, Arabella railed at the injustice. After all, she was twenty years old, certainly capable of going to the tea house or the market without getting lost. She longed to go out for a leisurely stroll all by herself, wandering along with no particular destination and no clock ticking away the minutes until she was expected home.
She sucked in her breath as Hannah tied off the laces. This gown didn’t require the layers of undergarments she normally wore. The laced bodice took the place of a corset and there wasn’t a single petticoat over her shift. The gown had a tight waist, flaring out at her hips into a softly gathered skirt so short it barely reached the tops of her shoes. Over it, her maid helped her slip on a burgundy velvet coat, cut to be worn open in the front, highlighting the gown’s low neckline even more. Black Venetian lace edged the long sleeves. She picked up the burgundy and gold mask, which was trimmed in matching black lace, covered her face, and turned to the mirror.
This time it was Arabella who gasped.
She hardly recognized the striking woman staring back at her from behind the mask. Though she wore only a dusting of face powder and a bit of rouge on her cheeks back home, tonight she’d colored her lips a bold red with one of her new pomades. The vendor she bought it from at the Rialto Bridge market assured her they were all the rage on the continent.
Her mass of chestnut hair wasn’t in its usual neat coil at the back of her head. Instead, it fell in unruly waves to the middle of her back. A few tendrils had worked their way over her shoulders to graze the creamy white tops of her breasts. The cut and color of the coat emphasized the indecent swell of her half-bared bosom even more. If she made a careless move, the dark edge of her nipple might pop into view. Arabella nearly called off the whole charade. She hadn’t meant to look so much like a strumpet.
“Miss, are you certain you want to go out in public dressed like that?” Hannah had the worried expression back on her face.
The maid’s timid query stiffened her resolve. What kind of adventurer would she be if she quit at the first attack of nerves?
Arabella set aside her own misgivings and gave a careless laugh. “I’ve been told the streets will be filled with scantily clad frolickers of both sexes. No doubt my attire will seem modest in comparison. Now head downstairs. And remember—Arthur has grown hard of hearing as well as having poor eyesight. It’s doubtful he’d be able to tell us apart even if you weren’t wearing a mask. All you need do is act the way he’d expect me to. He’ll never guess the young lady he’s accompanying isn’t me if you give a dramatic sigh when you pass the first group of revelers. Say you wish you didn’t have to miss all the fun. Make sure you sound vexed. He’ll be too busy lecturing you about the dangers of being in a strange city full of all these foreigners to notice anything amiss—never acknowledging, in true British fashion, that we’re the foreigners here.”
Her maid dissolved into giggles again and Arabella joined her. The two women had a bond far removed from that of mistress and servant. As young girls barely into their teens, she and Hannah had grown close, grieving together and comforting each other when their mothers died less than a year apart. Though she never forgot her place as lady’s maid, in Arabella’s eyes Hannah was her best friend, the older sister she never had.
“Do you hear that?” Arabella dashed into the sitting room and threw open the shuttered window.
Someone was singing as he made his way through the crowd in the narrow street below. She didn’t recognize the tune but she knew enough Italian to make out most of the words. The singer’s rich baritone was joined by a chorus of male and female voices chiming in at the refrain. Apparently the song was a well-known bawdy drinking ballad. The shuttered window of a house down the lane flew open and its occupant leaned out, shouting a risqué remark that was greeted with a roar of laughter from the singers.
“It’s begun!” She flew across the room and gave Hannah a little push. “Go. Now. The sooner you and Arthur are out of the way, the sooner I can sneak out. I’ll be back before dawn and I’ll want to hear all about your evening—especially the part about the dashing young suitor Cousin Elizabeth will present to you.”
Her guess was that the gentleman in question would be one of those weak-chinned English lads terrified of displeasing his mama. She couldn’t imagine any other reason a young man would spend even a single evening of his Grand Tour with a roomful of elderly strangers when he could be partaking in the revelry of Carnevale going on outside. But Arabella kept her opinions of Hannah’s likely dinner companion to herself. No need to ruin her friend’s excitement at playing a fine lady.
She gave Hannah a quick hug and watched her descend the first of five flights of stairs. The quarters Papa had secured for their stay were luxurious by Venetian standards. They had a spacious two-story apartment at the top of a building lining one of the city’s many canals, high enough that the ocean breezes would carry away any unpleasant smells. She’d learned that the lowest floor on most of these buildings flooded on a regular basis and the next level was often filled with foul odors from chamber pots dumped from the windows into the water.
Easily three hundred years old, the apartment was a charming warren of rooms with high ceilings and walls covered with layer after layer of plaster, some chipped away to show faded bits of forgotten frescoes underneath.
She’d fallen in love with the suite of rooms at the very top, claiming it for her and Hannah. Two tiny bedrooms and a small sitting room tucked into the eaves, with the roof’s massive rafters exposed. Her window opened onto a view of the canal below, while the sitting room overlooked the narrow lane that passed for a Venetian street. Hannah’s bedroom had a window opening to the sitting room, which had once been a sweet little terrace at the top of the building. Someone years ago enclosed the terrace but left the window to the other room in place, shutters and all. To Arabella the little quirk added to the charm of their quarters.
Arabella had heard the warnings about pickpockets and thieves roaming the streets during Carnevale, so before she left she slipped Mama’s amethyst necklace off her neck for safekeeping. She tucked it into a niche she’d discovered hidden at the base of one of the wooden beams in her room.
Someone had chipped away the plaster beneath the beam, creating a small hollow. Arabella decided a young lass from the Renaissance era had created the niche to hide love notes from a suitor her papa deemed unsuitable. The lovely signorina would have thrown open the shutters to listen to ballads sung by her lover as he came by gondola to woo her. In Arabella’s fantasy, each night would end with another note tossed through the window.
She’d never found any notes but when she first discovered the niche her fingers encountered some scraps of vellum deep inside it so fragile they crumbled when she tried to extract them. From there, her fertile imagination had conjured up the tale of unrequited love. There was something about Venice that brought out romantic fantasies, she mused. When she walked the narrow lanes, she could almost read the tales hidden inside the walls of a building as she ran her hands over its thick stones.
Silently, Arabella opened the carved wooden door to their apartment and hurried down the remaining flights of stairs. She stopped above the landing to each floor and waited to make certain none of the occupants of the lower units were about. Signora Capelli on the third floor seemed to think it her duty to keep an eye on the comings and goings of her fellow tenants. If she caught sight of Arabella, the woman would be compelled to mention her nocturnal outing to Papa.
Within moments, she was out in the street. The narrow lane was packed with bodies of all sizes, every one of them clad in a fanciful costume topped by a mask. Some comical, some beautiful, some a bit frightening. The winding passageways looked completely different at night, with the vendors’ stalls and shops shuttered up. Swept away in the crowd, Arabella was soon lost in the maze. She had a moment of panic, then recognized a basilica they passed and realized the throng was heading for the Piazza San Marco.
Now that she had her bearings, Arabella relaxed and began marveling at her surroundings. The passageways were lit with flickering lanterns set in intervals along the walls and above the doorways, shedding just enough light to make the costumes even more magical. Black-robed figures, their faces covered with the grotesque hooked beaks worn by doctors during the Black Plague, jostled with masked doges clad head to toe in silk and velvet. Fine Renaissance damsels were everywhere, as were scandalously dressed prostitutes.
Arabella could scarcely tell the real harlots from those merely pretending to be such. Surely those only playacting wouldn’t wear gowns with cut-out, lace-trimmed openings for their bare nipples to protrude, like the woman she’d just passed lingering in an open doorway. The woman caught her staring and gave her a wink. Shocked and embarrassed, she backed away, with the harlot’s bawdy laugh ringing in her ears.
“You mustn’t stare so long. Everyone will guess it’s your first time at Carnevale.”
She whirled around, searching the crowd to see if the words delivered in that deep voice had really been directed at her.
“Yes, cara, I’m speaking to you.”
The remark came from a tall figure lounging against the shuttered door of the print shop across the lane. He wore a wide black hat sporting a single gold feather. The matching black cape tossed over his broad shoulders was in stark contrast to his embroidered silk waistcoat and pantaloons, both the startling color of a ripe peach. The skin-tight trousers stopped just below his knees. A pair of white stockings covered the lower part of his legs. Shiny black leather shoes with a stacked heel and wide brass buckles completed his costume. He’d covered his face with white paint but it didn’t hide his classic Roman profile with its chiseled cheekbones and strong jawline. Tinted with a pomade as red as hers, his lips were curved into a slight smile.
He’d chosen to forgo the elaborate masks worn by many of his fellow revelers, wearing only a small black one. She guessed him to be a few years older than she, perhaps in his mid-twenties. Despite the fact that the bright color of his suit was one she’d expect to see on a lass or a young child, his attitude was confident, even a bit arrogant, defying any onlooker to doubt his masculinity.
He gave her a lazy grin. “You’re staring again.”
“I… I’m sorry,” she stammered in Italian.
He raised an eyebrow. “You’re English.”
Slightly offended that he’d been able to tell so quickly, she lifted her chin and replied in his language. She’d devoted herself to studying Italian diligently since the day Papa announced their trip. “Why do you assume I’m English, signore?”
“If you were Venetian, you’d be in the company of friends tonight instead of braving the streets alone. A French mademoiselle would not have displayed such shock at seeing that woman. And an Italian signorina would have told me off just now instead of apologizing. Besides, you speak Italian with a charming English accent.”
It was totally inappropriate for a gentleman she didn’t know to be addressing her in such a familiar manner. Arabella tried to hold on to her annoyance, but she found the rich tone of his voice surprisingly seductive.
He swept off his hat and gave a low bow. “Antonio Borgia at your service, signorina. For tonight, I am the youngest, most spoiled, and I might add, completely fictional son of the infamous Lucrezia Borgia. A newcomer to Venice, as are you.”
She laughed in spite of herself. Though he was quite forward and completely improper, speaking freely with a handsome stranger fell in the realm of the adventure she longed for. And it was the first night of Carnevale, a time to toss aside all the rules. She curtsied, then extended a hand, entering into the fantasy.
“I am pleased to make your acquaintance, my Lord. However, for tonight, I am no foreigner.” She went on, improvising on the spur of the moment. “I am Donatella Venutti, favored companion of the chief advisor to Il Doge, the Duke of Venice himself.”