by Patricia Barletta
GENRE: Historical Romance
Lady Sabrina Dunfield is desperate. Widowed and destitute, she must rely on the dubious benevolence of her secretive uncle, an art collector living in Venice. Determined to make her way and provide for her young son, Sabrina is forced to take on clandestine and dangerous errands for her tyrannical relative. But when a mysterious shadow man saves her from an assassin’s blade, she knows she must do everything in her power to keep her son safe.
Alessandro D’Este, Prince of Auriano, is cursed. Doomed to live a life half in shadow, he is determined to free himself and his family from the evil that stalks them. When Alessandro saves the English woman’s life, he is captivated by her beauty and shocked at her ability to touch him in his shadowy form.
When Sabrina meets Alessandro in his human form, heady attraction sparks between them. She has no idea he is her shadowy savior, and she wonders what her life might be like with this charismatic man. Alessandro has never met a woman who affects him this way. Although life has taught him to trust only family, Sabrina might be the key that could deliver him from the diabolical darkness.
Someone—something—was following her.
Lady Sabrina Barclay hurried between the close-set houses of the humble sestiere of Santa Croce. She caught movement from the corner of her eye—down that narrow alley to the right, another to the left, even across the slippery tile rooftops. The motion was too quick, too nimble for a human. A shuddery twinge tiptoed down her back.
The alley opened into the Campo di Rigali, ringed by the plain stucco walls and dark windows of the houses. She halted in the shadows. Her destination was the chapel across the tiny square. Anxiety gripped her as she thought about crossing the open space to get there.
She peered into the deepening twilight. Nothing moved in the dusk. A line of laundry strung between two windows hung motionless. She could see no one lurking in the shadows. Of course she was alone. Everyone was out on the canals or celebrating in the Piazza San Marco. This was the time of the spring Carnevale.
Sabrina picked up her satin skirts and hurried across the cobbles, past the carved stone well. At the chapel’s wooden door, she glanced over her shoulder. As she did, her half mask caught on the hood of her black wool cape. She wanted to pull off the frippery of green velvet and yellow feathers, but instead, she pushed her hood back. No one went unmasked during Carnevale, and she had been told to remain anonymous. If anyone learned her identity or discovered the purpose of her errand, her son’s safety, her entire world, would be in peril.
Something skittered in a dark corner. Her hand tightened on the door pull of the chapel, the decorative ridges digging into her palm. She peered into the shadows. Only a rat. She grimaced in distaste.
An olive oil lamp flickered on in one of the small windows. Its pale light cast the animal carvings on the stone well into relief and threw the well’s shadow across the paving stones. She pressed back against the door and hoped no one could see her. With a click, shutters closed over the light. Stillness. Gloom. Yet she sensed eyes watching. Not from the windows. From somewhere else. She glanced up to the roofline of the houses but saw no silhouette against the dark, ethereal blue of the Venetian sky. An owl winged silently away into the night. The distant snap of a Carnevale firecracker startled her, prompting her to move.
Uneasy, she slipped into the chapel and leaned against the plain wood of the closed door. The sense of watching eyes receded, and she forced a breath into her lungs.
The chapel was small and dim and appeared to be deserted. The backless benches marched in formation to the sanctuary, where the carved white marble altar and the altarpiece behind it seemed to be waiting in holy repose. The sanctuary light glowed like a benevolent red eye. But she felt no sense of peace.
Gathering her courage, she pulled up her hood and hastened to a bench halfway down the aisle. Her soft dancing slippers made no noise on the marble floor. The muted swish of her satin skirt and petticoat sounded loud in the quiet. She had dressed as if she were attending a ball. Instead, she was here in this dark chapel on an errand that she had to complete.
The scent of incense and beeswax hung heavy in the air, still chilly despite the warming days of early summer. She shivered and hugged her woolen cloak closer as she sat. Pulling off her gloves, she folded her hands in her lap, bowed her head, and pretended to pray.
Her errand was to be conducted in secret. If someone followed her . . . No, she would not think of that. She must focus on what she had to do: Retrieve the note. Deliver it.
But first she needed to be sure she was alone. She listened for a footstep, a whisper, a breath—anything that would indicate another’s presence in the shadows. She heard nothing.
Sabrina glanced around in the dim light. The chapel was tucked into a quiet, working-class corner of Venice. No songs of gondoliers, no greetings of acquaintances passing on the canals, no shouts of Carnevale merrymakers reached her here. The silence was unnerving, but it assured her of solitude. A bank of votive candles cast a soft glow to the left of the altar. Shadows flickered along the frescoed walls and made the saintly figures portrayed there appear to dance. The stained glass windows, which would have sparkled like jewels during the day, were dull and dark, foreboding. Instead of safety and refuge, the dim chapel held an air of menace.
She turned from those unsettling walls and windows to the altar and the crucifix hanging there as if she were beseeching the Almighty, but no prayer formed on her lips. She waited, forcing herself to be patient, her fingers curling into her skirt. She just wanted to be done with her errand. Furtively, she glanced left and right. She saw no one.
She ran her fingers beneath the rough wood of the bench until she touched a small piece of folded parchment affixed to the underside. Prying the small square from the wax, she rolled it into the palm of her hand. Her errand was almost complete. She released a silent breath.
About to bow her head again, she saw the candle flames jump from a draft. The hair on the back of her neck prickled. Someone else was here. She sensed a presence that curled icy tentacles around her heart. A presence that triggered a frail wraith of memory: Evil.
Run. The word exploded in her brain.
She gasped, snapped her head to the right. A shadowy black figure stood beside her. Before she could move or think, it lunged and shoved her off the bench. She cried out as she landed with a teeth-jarring thud on the marble floor. The breath in her lungs whooshed away.
A stiletto skimmed past her ear and thunked into the bench before her. It quivered in the wood, mere inches from her nose. The metal blade gleamed black and menacing. She scuttled back, only to be blocked by the bench behind her.
The dark figure had moved to the aisle and seemed to hover inches above the floor. It was a human-shaped shadow, but more—denser, blacker, canceling all light within its outline. Its eyes glowed like molten gold. They stared directly at her, and for a moment, she could not move. Could not breathe. Those eyes were frightening. Beautiful. Hypnotic.
She tried to suck in enough air to scream. Only a whimper emerged from her throat.
The figure pointed to the door. Run. There is danger here. The words growled loudly inside her head.
With a leap, the figure rose into the darkness of the vaulted ceiling and disappeared.
Sabrina gaped up and blinked. Shock froze her. She tried to gather her wits, blinked again. That shadow thing had pushed her aside, saving her from the deadly blade and certain death. Her blood went cold.
Run. The shadow’s voice jabbed through her head again.
As she scrambled up, she realized she had dropped the message. Frantically, she searched for the little white square. She had to retrieve it. She shook out her skirts, skimmed her shaking fingers beneath the bench, over the cold marble of the floor.
Nothing. The note was gone.
Abandoning her search, she picked up her skirts and fled to the door. Behind her, she heard a strangled cry and a sickening thud, like a body hitting the floor from a great height. Then silence. The sense of evil snuffed out.
She escaped into the deep twilight of Venice. The sky still glowed cobalt, but the city was dark. The sliver of moon shed little light. Shadows were deeper, blacker. Sabrina rushed back across the square and entered an alley so narrow that the stucco walls of the houses were barely far enough apart to allow two people to pass each other. She checked over her shoulder. Someone could easily trap her. She hurried on, wanting only to reach her gondola.
In this modest part of the city there was little Carnevale celebration, so no one strolled the alleys, no old men sat outside to chat. She was alone. The solitary patter of her footsteps seemed much too loud as she hastened to the canal where her gondolier waited. The relative safety felt very far away.
Somehow, someone had learned of her errand. The errand that was to be performed in secret—to collect the note and deliver it to the uncle of her late husband. She had failed him. He would be displeased. Sabrina didn’t want to imagine what form that displeasure might take, but she would do everything she could to protect her son from him, the man who allowed her to live beneath his roof.
And she would protect her son from the person—the evil—who had tried to kill her.
But someone—something—had saved her life. A shadow with eyes of molten gold who could speak to her inside her head. The creature intrigued her, awed her, captivated her. Frightened her with its strangeness.
Her stomach lurched. Fear from what was behind her overcame her apprehension of the scalding reprimand that lay ahead. Damning her voluminous skirt and petticoats, she raced the rest of the way to her gondola.
AUTHOR Bio and Links:
Patricia Barletta always wanted to be a writer. That was right after she realized that becoming a fairy ballerina or a princess wasn’t going to happen. But being a writer meant she could go places in her head and be other people as much as she wanted. She could even be a fairy ballerina or a princess!
As a native of the Boston area, Patricia has been inspired by its history, which influenced her stories, and probably had an impact on her decision to become a high school British Literature teacher so she could pay the bills. She received a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing degree at the fabulous Stonecoast program in Maine. And now she’s an author writing about dark heroes, feisty heroines, magic, and other fantastical things.
Find out more about Patricia Barletta and her books on her website: www.patriciabarletta.com.
Connect with Patricia Barletta on facebook: Patricia Barletta on facebook: https://www.facebook.com/patricia.barletta.3?ref=br_rs
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