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Her Venetian Beauty

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A fiery beauty and a scholarly spinster... together, will they find the happy ending they deserve? Alexandra Craven has a secret dream to escape the trap of the genteel birth and earn her independent living as a writer. She thinks that accompanying her brother on the Grand Tour would provide her with enough material. However, when her brother falls ill in Venice, she is left without a guidance - and has to look to the timid daughter of their noble host, Veronica Zanotti, for help. Veronica Zanotti, a young lady of more learning than charm, has no secret dreams at all. She is seemingly content to be left alone in her father's library while her sister enjoys the spotlight. However, when a ravishing Englishwoman asks for her assistance, she is plunged into a whirlpool of perilous adventures...

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Chapter 1

One really ought not to have been approaching the city of Venice in such a state. It was all Sebastian’s fault, Alexandra decided, looking at her brother. If he had not run out to look at that Paduan marvel – a cabinet wrought wholly of crystal – with his hair still damp after the washing, none of that would have happened.

He certainly would not have caught this thrice–dashed chill; they would not have had to endure the visit to an apothecary that consisted mostly of gesticulating; he would not be coughing right now; and they would not be late to meet their hosts who would have been expecting them in the rosy morning.

Spring in Italy – at least, in northern Italy – clearly did not resemble its equivalent in songs very closely. To Sebastian’s credit, he behaved with honour, refused to let some chill dampen their moods, and vowed upon the name of their late father that he would never allow such a petty complaint to ruin the sweetest part of his grand tour. These last words flooded Alexandra’s chest with warmth, for she knew that he meant their grand tour.

‘Look, Alexandra,’ Sebastian called from behind her, ‘is that not San Marco?’

‘I wouldn’t know,’ she confessed, gazing at the distant edifice in question. It rose black against the stars, reminding her a little of the Mohammedan domes of the Ottoman lands that she saw on some engravings.

‘Let’s hope Signor Zanotti is going to recommend us a good cicerone, then, shall we?’ Sebastian quipped. His tutors been diligent in their efforts, but whatever facts they’d tried to fill their charge’s head with flowed over him as rosewater over a particularly cheerful duck. He was a man who preferred hunting to Horace.

For which Alexandra could only be grateful to the Fates, for she had the same vigour in her blood. Had her brother had the habits of a studious clerk, there would have been no possibility of them clinging to each other as closely as they did.

The water of the canals was lapping softly against the buildings rising to either side of them. Alexandra turned her head eagerly, wishing they arrived a little earlier, wishing she could have seen all this in the full splendour of sunset behind it.

The palazzi rising to either side of the night-black watery thoroughfare that must have been the Grand Canal took her breath away nonetheless. Their colour was muted, peeled and faded since the first centuries of magnificence, but their outlines, fine as Burano lace rendered into stone, were still as elegant as the accounts claimed.

One of these accounts is soon going to be mine.

One of these palazzi was their destination. She feared, not without a shred of annoyance, that manoeuvring the boat to the stony shore in such moonless darkness was going to take some time. However, the boatman brought it to the green slick steps descending to the canal with expert ease. Sebastian stood up and doubled over, coughing. The boat rocked dangerously beneath their feet.

Visions of horror assailed her – the boat capsizing into the pitch-black, spring-cold canal, her sick brother getting cold water in his ears, her own heavy skirts pulling her into the depths...

The boat steadied itself. Sebastian stepped onto the shore, smiled apologetically, and offered his sister a hand. Alexandra took it, her heart still pounding.

it took time for someone to respond to his resolute pounding on the door. It was hardly a surprise. They’d arrived past the hour when most people locked their doors against the fiends of the world.

‘Good evening to you,’ Sebastian said nonchalantly. He had a wonderful talent to sound as though the world was his drawing room. ‘I am Lord Sebastian Craven, and this is my sister, Lady Alexandra. Signor Zanotti is expecting us. We apologize for being late,’ he added in the same wonderfully airy tone,as though they had been late to take chocolate with the master of the house.

Fortunately, the housemaid who opened the door – not a footman, Alexandra could not help but note and wondered if Signor Zanotti had fallen on hard times – nodded upon hearing this and let them through.

the murk of the hall lit by scarce candlelight. Alexandra could see she was a pretty creature. The housemaid worse no cap, and her red hair was tumbling upon her shoulders in a display that was both free of artifice – not a particle of powder upon them – and startlingly immodest for a servant. Her hair was the colour of dark fire, snaking down her shoulders and framing her face as if it were a painting, a portrait of a pearl-skinned Madonna by some artist of the bygone centuries.

‘Father had been expecting you,’ the young woman said, startlingly, in English, and Alexandra’s cheeks flushed with the realization of her mistake. The embarrassment was followed by surprise: Had the household fallen on such hard times that the daughter of the house was opening the door to visitors instead of a servant? Or was it merely a question of her queer manners?

‘Indeed!’ Sebastian brightened up. ‘I do apologize for the delay. There was a – mishap in Padua.’

The woman nodded, a stray strand of red caressing her cheek. For a second, Alexandra felt a sharp desire to see her turn, just to glimpse whether this hair was truly hanging down right to her hips.

‘The dinner is going to be served soon. Father would be glad if you were to join us. But, if you are tired after the road, of course, we could have the meal sent up to you with a tray.’ She spoke with the soft authority of a mistress of the household. Alexandra remembered that, in his correspondence with the Zanottis, Sebastian mentioned the aging patrician himself but said nothing of his wife. ‘I think there should still be a time for you to enjoy a hot bath.’

‘You are a flower of hospitality,’ Sebastian proclaimed grandly. ‘But, I am afraid, your father did not describe you well. Which of Signor Zanotti’s two daughters are you?’

’Ah The lady of the house smiled. ‘It is so unusual to hear. If you are here long enough, anyone would tell you how easy it is to see the difference between me and Paolina,’

‘So, you must be Veronica.’

‘I am,’

‘In that case, Lady Veronica, you are an angel upon this earth. We are fiendishly tired and have barely avoided being toppled over into the Grand Canal.’

She did not look like an angel, though, Alexandra thought. Nor did Lady Veronica Zanotti resemble its shadowy counterpart, the temptress. No, in her smooth gown of brown satin, with her equally brown eyes dark and attentive, her lips set in a soft smile that did not quite illuminate the whole of her expression, she was unmistakably earthly and human.

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