The Silk Merchant's Daughters
FIRST IN A NEW SERIES
Renaissance Florence comes to passionate life in a vivid new historical romance series by “legendary”* New York Times bestselling author Bertrice Small.
Florentine silk merchant Giovanni Pietro d’Angelo and his wife want nothing more than to marry their daughters to wealthy men of distinction. But when their son’s dangerous indiscretion implicates him in a tragic accident, it is their eldest daughter who must pay the price. Blackmailed by the powerful and debauched Sebastiano Rovere, the Pietro d’Angelos must give beautiful Bianca in marriage to Rovere to buy his silence.
With the aid of her mother, Bianca flees her dark, cruel union, seeking shelter in a seaside villa. It is the shocking murder of her husband that allows her to find the possibility of love at last. But Florentine society would never approve of the man she’s chosen: Prince Amir, grandson of Memhet the Conqueror.
Two passionate lovers...two different cultures...two worlds determined to keep them apart...
*Romance Reviews Today
The beggar was an optimist but not a fool. He shrank deep into the shadows of the doorway as he heard the footsteps coming down the nearby alley. Two men, well muffled in dark cloaks, emerged from the narrow passage carrying a wrapped bundle between them. Making their way down a narrow flight of stone steps to the muddy shore, they put their burden into a small boat, climbed in, and rowed out into the middle of the river that ran through the city of Florence.
The night was very dark. The thin sliver of waning moon cast no light whatsoever. The fog was beginning to thicken as the wet mist touched everything. The beggar could not see the little boat and its inhabitants now, but he heard the distinct splash of something being dumped into the Arno. A body, no doubt, he thought, and he crossed himself. Then the small vessel became visible once more as it emerged from the water to be pulled back up onto the muddy shore. The two men got out and, making their way to what passed for a street again, disappeared into the darkened alley.
The beggar never moved as with unseeing eyes they passed by a second time without noticing him. He didn’t even dare to breathe. He knew that if he was to see another day, no one must see him. The footsteps of the two men faded away. The beggar closed his eyes to doze, in relative safety for the moment.
She was the fairest virgin in Florence. Or so it was said of Bianca Maria Rosa Pietro d’Angelo. High praise considering that red-gold or blond hair was considered the height of beauty, and Bianca had ebony tresses. She also had flawless features, an ivory complexion, a heart-shaped face, and eyes that were a startling shade of aquamarine blue. As she crossed the Piazza San Anna from her home with her mother more and more, gentlemen came to catch a glimpse of what they could of her features, which were carefully and modestly concealed by a bowed head and a light veiling. An audible sigh of regret arose as mother and daughter entered the church for morning Mass.
“They will be waiting when we come out,” Bianca said to her mother.
“Sempliciottos! They are wasting their time,” her parent replied. “I do not mean to waste my daughters on Florentine marriages. I was sacrificed by Venice to this dark city. I will not allow my girls to be. Only my love for your father has kept me here.”
They found their way to the chairs set aside for their family and knelt in prayer on the embroidered red and gold kneelers. Mass began. They had music, which many smaller churches in the city did not—but San Anna Dolce was the family church of the Pietro d’Angelo family. It had been built by them a hundred years ago across from their large palazzo, which stood on the opposite side of the piazza. Upon its walls it had murals that depicted the life of San Anna, mother of the blessed Virgin. Besides the main altar, there were two other small altars. One to San Anna herself and the other to San Maria. The windows were stained glass. The floor, squares of black and white marble.
The Pietro d’Angelo wealth generously paid the livings of the three priests and the small choir that served it. The choir was a mixture of eunuchs and ungelded men with rich, deep voices. As long as they sang, they received a small stipend and were allowed to live in a dormitory attached to the church. The choir was a particularly excellent one, and much envied by its neighbors.
As their voices died, Orianna Pietro d’Angelo sighed softly with relief, Mass concluded. She had a busy day ahead of her and little patience for piety except where it benefited her. Father Bonamico was waiting for them at the door to the church. He was a chatty old man, and fond of the Pietro d’ Angelo children. “Bianca’s prospective suitors grow more each day,” he noted, nodding approvingly. “Word of her beauty spreads.”
“It is ridiculous,” Orianna said irritably. “Have they nothing better to do than hang about like dogs after a young bitch? I must speak to Gio about seeing that the piazza is cleared when we cross to the church and back. Next they will be stomping and hooting at her. Her reputation will suffer then, though she be as innocent as a lamb.”
“They have too much respect for your husband to do that,” the priest responded.
“They are afraid of him, you mean,” Orianna answered drily.
Father Bonamico chuckled. “Perhaps that too, gracious lady. Young men will be young men. The lady Bianca is quite lovely. You cannot blame them for looking.”
A small smile touched the mother’s lips. “Well,” she allowed, “perhaps not.” Then she gracefully descended the church steps, her daughter behind her. “Walk next to me, Bianca,” Orianna instructed the girl as they reached the bottom of the stairs. She linked her arm with her daughter’s, and the two moved back across the square together towards the palazzo. They had almost gained their destination when a young man sprang in front of them holding out a small beribboned nosegay to Bianca.
“For you, madonna!” he said eagerly, smiling, his brown eyes shining.
Bianca looked up, startled, but her mother slapped the flowers away.
“Impudente! Buffone!” she said, scolding him sternly. “Where are your manners? We have not been introduced, but I know your mama. She shall hear of this breach of etiquette on your part. She did not raise you to accost respectable maidens in the public square, or to offend their parents, as you have now done.”
“Your pardon, signora, madonna,” the young man said, bowing shamefacedly.
The two men who guarded the palazzo’s main doors, finally remembering their duties, rushed forward and beat the young man away. He fled howling across the piazza while the others gathered and laughed at his retreat. Then they too began to disperse, hurrying after the daring one to learn what he had seen when Bianca briefly lifted her eyes to him.
“You should have come and escorted us from the church,” Orianna told the two servingmen furiously. “You saw that crowd of ruffians leering at the lady Bianca. If you do not do better in the future, I shall tell your master that you are dilatory in your duties and have you both dismissed.” She swept past, stopped, and then glared at them, waiting for the palazzo’s main portal to be opened so she might enter her home.
Bianca gave the two men a sympathetic look and hurried after her mother.
“A sweet maid,” one of the men said as he pulled the door closed behind his mistress and her daughter. “It will be a fortunate man who gains her to wife.”
“And a rich one,” the other man replied.
His companion shrugged, the motion conveying his thoughts as clearly as if he had spoken them. Of course the girl’s bridegroom would be a wealthy man. Her father was a wealthy and important man. Master Pietro d’Angelo was not likely to give any of his four daughters in marriage to a man lacking in distinction. The one who had just passed by would surely be matched soon. She was just fourteen, the second-eldest of her parents’ seven children. Her brother Marco had been born nine months to the day after their parents married. The lady Bianca had come thirteen months later, to be followed by Georgio, Francesca, the twins, Luca and Luciana, and finally the little bambina Giulia, who would be four soon. The signora had produced no more children after that.
Like a good wife, the lady Orianna had given her husband seven healthy children. She was content with her privileged status as the wife of the man who ruled the Arte di Por San Maria, the city’s silk merchants. Their guild was named for the street on which the city’s many silk warehouses were located. The lady was aware, as all rich wives were, that her husband had a mistress he visited discreetly at a house he owned in a section near the river. It was the custom of important men to keep a mistress. One who did not was considered either parsimonious or less than a man. The master respected his wife publicly and, it was said, privately. He never flaunted his mistress, though her identity was known. He set an excellent example for his sons. Giovanni Pietro d’Angelo was a good master.
The servingman drew the great door closed once the women had hurried through. The city was becoming alive around them, although Piazza San Anna was a quiet enclave. The church and its musicians’ dormitory took up a side and a half of the square. The family’s palazzo took up another two sides. There was only one way both in and out of the piazza, which took up the remaining angle of the square. There was also a small park that was open to any whose behavior was respectable. The greensward had a beautiful white marble fountain with a naked marble naiad seated at its center. She was brushing her long hair. The water nymph was surrounded by fat, winged cupids, several of whom held porphyry vases from which water poured into the fountain. There were lime trees and terra-cotta pots of peach-colored roses that the family gardeners kept in bloom most of the year but for the winter months. There were three white marble benches for visitors to rest upon, and white crushed-marble paths for strolling.
From inside the palazzo, you could see the park only from the windows at the very top of the building, for the marble edifice had no windows on its lower floors. It was a Florentine belief that only a foolish man encouraged robbers by putting windows where someone could peer in from the outside and view your possessions, thus tempting theft. The Pietro d’Angelo palazzo was built around a large garden.
As in all families of wealth and importance, respectable adult women did not leave their homes except on rare occasions, such as attending Mass or going to their villa in the countryside outside of Florence. Privileged daughters might accompany their mothers to church, as Bianca did, but their only other foray outside of their father’s homes would be when they were married or entered a convent. The garden served as a place for recreation and fresh air. It was there that Bianca now found her sister Francesca.
“Were there men again today waiting for you?” she eagerly asked. She was seated with her nursemaid, who was brushing her blond hair. Francesca’s golden tresses were a source of great pride to her. They were washed weekly and rinsed with fresh-squeezed lemon juice and warm water. And she always dried her hair in the bright sunlight while her nursemaid slowly brushed the long locks so they might gain the full advantage of the sun.
“Yes,” Bianca answered. “A larger crowd than before.”
“I heard that one accosted you,” Francesca said, her face turned to her sister’s. “I don’t know why our mother does not let me come to Mass with you.”
“How do you learn such things and I am barely back in the house?” Bianca asked.
Francesca giggled. “Whenever they know you are returning from church, a bunch of the housemaids run to the top of the house and windows overlooking the square to watch your passage back across the piazza. Ohh, I wish I could be with you. Did you keep your swain’s bouquet? Let me see it!”
“I would not take any kind of gift from a stranger, or any man for that matter, but our father and brothers,” Bianca replied primly. “Such a query tells me that you are far too young to be allowed out, Francesca. You have only just turned ten. I was not permitted to accompany our mother until I had celebrated my thirteenth birthday last year. Remember, you are the daughter of an important man of business from Florence and of a Venetian principessa, Francesca.”
“Oh pooh,” came the airy reply. “You have become so stuck-up of late. Well, you’ll be gone soon enough, for our father is even now arranging a marriage for you. By summer you will be wed, and mistress of your own house. Then our mother will take me across the piazza to Mass with her.”
“What do you mean our father negotiates a marriage for me? What have you heard, little ficcanaso?” She grasped a lock of her sister’s hair and yanked it hard. “Tell me at once! Who is it? Do you know? Is he handsome? Has he come with his father to negotiate with our father? Speak, or I will snatch you bald!”
“Ouch!” Francesca protested, retrieving her hair from Bianca’s grip. “I only overheard a little by chance. I was passing by our father’s library yesterday when I heard voices coming from the chamber, and the doors were closed.”
“Of course I did,” Francesca said. “How else would I learn anything that goes on in this house? I put my ear to the door and heard our papa say that our mama did not wish their daughters to marry within the Florentine community. That he agreed, and planned for our marriages to benefit the Pietro d’Angelo family to the maximum. Papa said he had all the influence he sought or needed in Florence.
“The man, his voice was hard, and he told Papa that a marriage to him would ensure the security of the Pietro d’ Angelo family. He reminded our father that a debt was owed to him. It would be paid in full when his marriage to you was celebrated. Father asked that he request anything else of him but such a union. The man laughed. Oh, Bianca, I did not like his laugh. It was cruel.” Francesca shivered with the memory.
“Madre di Dios,” the older girl whispered almost to herself. Then she said, “What else, Francesca? What else did you hear?”
“Nothing. I heard someone coming. I didn’t want anyone catching me. You know Papa would have whipped me for it. I didn’t dare stay,” was the regretful reply.
Bianca nodded. “I will speak with our mother,” she told her sister.
“Ohh, please don’t tell that I eavesdropped!” Francesca begged.
“I won’t,” Bianca promised. “I’ll say I heard the servants gossiping. Mama will tell me if any such arrangements for my future have been made. She will know.”
“I don’t want you to marry and leave us,” the younger girl admitted. “I didn’t mean it when I said I’d been glad to have you gone.”
“I know that, little ficcanaso,” Bianca assured her sibling with a small smile. Then she went off to find their mother and learn the truth of what her sister had heard.
“Your mother is closeted with the master,” Fabia, her mother’s servingwoman, told Bianca. Then she lowered her voice to speak in a more confidential tone. “It is something serious, for I heard your mother raising her voice, which is most unlike her.”
“I have heard rumors regarding a marriage for me,” Bianca said softly.
Suddenly the door to her mother’s privy chamber was flung open, and her father, his face dark with anger, strode out and past them, exiting Lady Orianna’s apartments.
“I will never forgive you for this, Gio!” her mother shouted after him. “Never!” Then, seeing Bianca, she burst into tears, turned, and slammed the door shut behind her.
“I must go to her,” Fabia said.
Bianca nodded, and left her mother’s rooms. Her mother had shouted. Orianna never shouted. And she had looked positively distraught. Orianna Rafaela Maria Theresa Venier, a principessa of the great Venetian Republic, never raised her voice, never allowed her emotions to show, and yet she had done both within hearing of not only her eldest daughter but a servant as well. Whatever was happening was not a good thing.
Francesca awaited Bianca in her elder sister’s bedchamber. “What did you learn?” she demanded.
Bianca told her of the scene that she and Fabia had just witnessed
Francesca’s blue-green eyes grew round. “Our mother never shouts like some common fishwife,” she said. “And to tell our father she would never forgive him . . . what has he done to incur such wrath from her?”
“I do not know,” Bianca said, “but I suspect if we are to learn it will be sooner than later.” A rap sounded on the closed bedchamber door. “Come!” Bianca called out.
The door opened to reveal their eldest brother, Marco. He stepped quickly into the room, closing the door behind him. “This is all my fault,” he said, taking her two hands in his own. “I must beg your forgiveness, Bianca.” He looked genuinely shamefaced and sorrowful at the same time.
Both of his sisters looked totally confused.
Finally Bianca said, “Why must you ask for my pardon, Marco? You have done nothing of which I am aware that would require it.”
“Sit down,” Marco invited. “Not you, Francesca. You must leave. What I have to say is for Bianca’s ears only, not yours, bambina. Go now.” He pointed to the door.
“I am not a baby. Giulia is the baby. I am ten going on eleven, Marco.”
He smiled, and gently tugged on the thick golden braid into which her hair was now fashioned. “Don’t listen at the door,” he cautioned her with a mischievous grin.
“Oh! You!” Francesca huffed as she left the bedchamber.
Marco watched her go down the wide corridor and around the corner. She turned to stick her tongue out at him before she disappeared, which caused him to chuckle as he turned back to Bianca and shut the door to the room firmly. “Come,” he said, taking her arm by the elbow. “By the window, where the little ficcanaso can’t hear us when she sneaks back to listen, which she will.” His face grew serious once again. He looked like a younger version of their father, with curly black hair and bright blue eyes.
Bianca smiled, amused. “Yes, she will.” They moved to the window, and Bianca said, “What disturbs you, Marco?”
“My actions have put your future in jeopardy, I fear.” Then he began to explain in low, measured tones. “I apologize for what I must tell you, for I know how sheltered you are, and a virgin of good family should not hear things like this, but I have no choice, Bianca. Several months ago my friend Stefano Rovere and I were visiting a certain lady known for her amorous skills, who willingly shares them with young men just beginning to explore such masculine delights,” Marco explained. He actually blushed as he spoke, for he was fifteen and did not discuss such things with respectable women.
“You visited a courtesan,” Bianca remarked calmly. “Our mother has mentioned such women to me. She and I pray for them. It is not an easy life, I am told.”
“The woman died as Stefano vigorously rode her,” Marco said bluntly, for he could not think of any way to put it more delicately.
“Madre di Dios!” Bianca exclaimed, crossing herself.
“It was then that Stefano and I did a foolish thing,” Marco continued. “The woman’s house was empty of servants the night we visited. I wanted to call the authorities and report the woman’s death, but Stefano did not wish to do it. He feared the scandal, should we be accused of killing her. He feared his father’s anger over such a disgraceful situation, that his father should be forced to pay a bribe to keep the watch silent. He feared that someone connected with the woman would know it was Stefano Rovere, son of Florence’s most famed lawyer, and Marco Pietro d’Angelo, son of the head of the Arte di por San Maria who had been the last to be with this courtesan.”
“What did you do?” Bianca asked almost fearfully.
“We wrapped her naked body in a Turkish carpet, weighed it with several heavy stones, bound it, and then carried it to the river,” Marco said. “We rowed the body into the center of the Arno near the Ponte Vecchio and dumped it into the water. The stones assured that it sank to the bottom.”
“God have mercy on the poor woman’s soul,” Bianca murmured. She was pale with shock over her brother’s confession. “But why should this unfortunate courtesan’s death affect what will happen to me, Brother?”
“My tale is not yet completed,” he responded. Then he continued. “Stefano then decided we should go to his father and tell him what had happened. He said his father was always accusing him of being an idiot. He wanted to show his father that he had been able to extricate himself from a nasty situation without his help. I did not think it wise. I thought, having disposed of the body, we should keep silent. No one would have known, as there were no witnesses to the deed.”
“And was Master Rovere pleased with Stefano?” Bianca asked quietly. How did a father react to a son who had just disposed of the dead body of a courtesan in secret?
“Stefano’s father is a hard man. He listened. Then he hit his son a blow that bloodied his nose and sent him to his knees. Master Rovere went on to explain in that cold, calm voice of his that the sudden disappearance of such a woman of certain reputation as well known as this one was would surely be questioned. He explained that it would now be necessary to fabricate a story to cover up what had happened, and protect our reputations. Then he sent me to fetch our father, Bianca.
“When Father came I stood and listened as Master Rovere explained to him what had happened with us earlier; that he had already sent his people to see that the house showed no signs of any sort of a disturbance. Several of the woman’s gowns and other clothing, along with her jewelry box, were removed so that it appeared that she had gone on a sudden journey. When the courtesan’s servants, such as they were, arrived in the morning, one of Master Rovere’s own servants would be waiting to explain to them that their mistress had been called away suddenly and did not know when she would return. Her affairs in Florence were now in the hands of her lawyer. The servants would be paid off generously and the house shut up. Thus would the scandal be avoided.
“Our father thanked Master Rovere, who smiled at him and said that Father would now owe him a debt that must be repaid whenever Master Rovere required it of him. Father agreed, saying that the Pietro d’Angelo family always paid their debts, and returned a favor twofold. Whatever was required to eventually cancel out the debt would be done.” Marco then grew silent, looking with pained eyes at his beautiful sister.
And then she knew. Bianca Pietro d’Angelo might be sheltered, but she was not unintelligent. “I am the payment Master Rovere has required of our father,” she said quietly. “He is a widower and seeks another wife.”
“I should rather see you in a cloistered convent, or even dead, than married to that man!” Marco burst out bitterly. “This is all my fault!”
Bianca was silent for several long minutes. Finally she spoke. “Papa has agreed? Of course he would have agreed, for our mother told him she would never forgive him. Why did he agree, Marco? Would Master Rovere take nothing else in payment? And several months after the fact, would the scandal be so great? His son was involved as well. After all, you did not kill the woman. She simply died while entertaining a pair of young men. Yes, it was wrong to dispose of her body in such a fashion, but you and Stefano are guilty of nothing more than being fools.”
“Father offered him money, even a ten percent share of his warehouses, anything else, but Master Rovere was adamant. He will have you as his wife. Nothing else will satisfy the debt Father owes him. It has now become a matter of honor for our parent, Bianca,” Marco explained to his sister. “Our father cannot be seen to eschew the debt simply because he now finds he does not like the payment asked of him. After all, he agreed to pay whatever the price, and did not question the cost at the time.”
“Yes, I understand,” his sister replied. “Has a date been set for my marriage?”
“Papa and Mama will tell you of your fate tonight. I don’t know what they have decided. If I know our mother, she will attempt to delay the inevitable as long as she can.”
“Yes,” Bianca agreed, “she will.”
“I had to tell you, Bianca,” her older sibling said. “I know Papa will not tell you why you are to marry this man. It is too shameful that you must be sacrificed for my sins. I did not want it to come as a complete shock to you. You should have a French duke or a princeling of Venice for your husband, not this man! His reputation is vile, for all his skills in the courts.”
Bianca was frightened and heart-sore by what Marco had told her, but he was her beloved brother. She was closer to him by virtue of the thirteen months that separated them in birth order than to any of the others. She would do whatever her family requested of her to protect him, to protect their good name. “It will be all right, Marco,” she assured him. “I must marry eventually, and I am of an age to do so now. Our mother has raised me to be a good wife and chatelaine. I will have children to comfort me, and he, like all wealthy and important men, will have a mistress to entertain him. When the novelty of having a young wife has worn off, he will leave me in peace. Yes, I had hoped to wed out of Florence, but if it is not to be, then it is not. There is no use weeping over what cannot be changed.” She patted his velvet-clad arm. “Leave me to absorb this so I am able to behave with some decorum when our father speaks to me. I do not want our parents to be ashamed of their eldest daughter when I am informed of my fate. Nor do I wish to cause a further breach between them. Rather, by accepting what I must with obedience, I pray I will heal that chasm that has opened to separate them.”
He nodded and kissing her on the forehead, left her bedchamber. In the corridor outside he found, as he had anticipated, Francesca lurking and eager to know what had transpired between her elders. “Nay, ficcanaso, you may not go in and badger Bianca. What we have spoken about will remain between us. She is resting now.”
“Marco!” Francesca gave him her prettiest pout and a little smile.
“No,” he said, taking her by the arm. “One of the house cats has just birthed a new litter of kittens,” he said, cleverly distracting her. “I’m surprised you didn’t know about it. It’s the red, white and black one we call Tre. Let’s go and see what she has spawned.”
“Aren’t you too sophisticated to look at litters of kittens?” Francesca demanded.
“Not when it’s with my little sister,” Marco replied, taking her around the corner and off to the kitchens, where the cat was certain to be found. The cook loved cats, for they kept the rodent population down and her stores in the storeroom safe.
Bianca had heard Francesca’s voice outside her chamber. She was grateful that Marco kept the younger girl from the room. She wanted to be alone to consider what was about to happen to her life. She had met Stefano Rovere several times, for he was Marco’s best friend and was often invited to eat at their table. He was a serious boy. It would not be so bad if she were betrothed to him. At least he was young. But to marry his father? Bianca shuddered. And there was a younger brother. Could she tell her parents that she had heard a sudden calling from God and wanted to become a nun? It was doubtful they would believe her, even if she insisted it was true.
The morning ended and the afternoon passed slowly until it was time for the main meal of the day. Her parents were unusually quiet during the meal, although the younger children were so lively it was not likely that anyone noticed. The family and their servants crowded about the table in the sala da pranzo eating the pasta and meats the cook had prepared for them. There was a large bowl filled with grapes and oranges. Neither Bianca nor Marco could eat a great deal, something their mother noted to herself. Francesca had told Orianna that the two had been closeted for a brief time in late morning.
“Bianca.” Their father spoke.
“How may I serve you, signore?” the girl replied.
“You will leave the table and go to my library. Your mother and I would speak with you shortly,” Giovanni Pietro d’Angelo said. Then he picked up his silver goblet and drank deeply. That he looked troubled was not reassuring.
“At once, signore,” Bianca responded. She did not look at any of them about the table but rose and hurried from the room. Entering the library, she stood awaiting the arrival of her parents. They did not keep her long.
Her parents seated themselves in two high-backed chairs and beckoned Bianca to stand before them. Her father’s face was serious and pained. Her mother looked as if she had been crying. There were actual tears in her eyes now.
“You are to be married,” her father began. “Your bridegroom is a man of both wealth and importance here in Florence. You are a most fortunate girl, Bianca, to have attracted such a husband.”
“May I know the name of this illustrious gentleman, signore?” Bianca asked in a quietly measured voice. She was amazed by her tone, for her legs were slightly shaking.
“He is Sebastiano Rovere, Stefano’s sire,” her father replied.
“Stefano is only older by several months than my brother Marco,” Bianca heard herself saying. She had no choice in this matter, but suddenly she was angry at her father for not fighting harder to protect her; for the bitter and hopeless tears her mother had shed this day, and would continue to shed. “You are giving me in marriage to a man old enough to be my father? How could you, Papa? How could you?” She hadn’t meant to lose her temper, but the situation facing her was intolerable.
“A young wife needs the firm hand of an older husband,” her father answered sharply. Her words had stung him. “You must learn to curb your temper, Bianca.”
“I am told this man’s reputation is less than respectable,” Bianca persisted. Did the gossips not hint that he had murdered his first two wives?
“Who has told you such things?” her father demanded angrily. “It is not your place, daughter, to speak disparagingly of a man you have not yet met. Sebastiano Rovere is the most skilled attorney in all of Florence. He is respected and he is rich. No maiden of good family could ask for more than that.”
“The servants will gossip,” Bianca responded pertly. “They say that while he is rich and clever at his craft, he is wicked and godless. And this is the man you have chosen for me, Papa? Have I been so wretched a daughter then that you are willing and eager to entertain the first offer for my hand that is brought to you?”
“You should not be listening to the idle chatter of menials,” her father responded through gritted teeth. In his mind, she was correct, but it was not her place to criticize him. She did not know of the circumstances that had brought about this catastrophe. He had no other choice. Marco was his heir, and his reputation for honesty would surely suffer if the truth came out about that night. It was the sort of thing that was never forgotten, and it would reflect on the family’s silk business. It could not be permitted to happen.
“Why must I marry this old man?” Bianca asked him. “Could you not have found me a younger husband? A noble husband?”
“How dare you question my decision, daughter? You have never before done so,” her father replied, defending himself. She was his daughter. It was her duty to obey his every wish whether she approved of it or not. “I have never before beaten you, but I will, Bianca, should you defy me in this matter. It is not your place to say whether you will or you won’t wed the gentleman I have chosen for you. I have accepted Sebastiano Rovere’s proposal of marriage in your name, and you will wed him as soon as the date is fixed. That is the end of the matter. Now there is another matter that must be settled. Your fidanzato has heard of the spectacle you have been causing in the piazza when you go to Mass with your mother each morning. He does not wish his future wife to be the center of such foolishness. You will again join your younger siblings when Father Aldo says Mass in the house chapel every day.”
“But I am not responsible for the behavior of those young men,” Bianca protested. “I like going to Mass with my mother. I like Father Bonamico.”
“Your reputation must be preserved, Bianca. Sebastiano Rovere is the most sought-after and respected lawyer in all of Tuscany. His bride cannot be said to be anything less than pure and untouched. She cannot be like a common woman of the streets, whistled at and shouted after by strangers. The matter is settled.”
Bianca opened her mouth to challenge her father again, but Orianna finally spoke.
“It is little enough to ask, Bianca,” she said in her quiet voice. “Father Bonamico will come to the palazzo to hear your confession each week. You should find it flattering that your fidanzato is already jealous of you.”
Bianca pressed her lips together and bowed her head in submission. “Yes, Madre,” she said. “I hope I will have the time I feel I need to grow used to this marriage that you have planned for me.”
“Of course, cara mia,” her mother reassured her quietly. “It will not, cannot, be for several months at least. Your trousseau and your bridal gown must be made. This is not something that can be easily or properly done if it is done too quickly. Do not think about it, cara. Now run along and share this exciting news with your sisters and brothers.”
Bianca curtsied to her parents, and turning, hurried from the library. She did not find the announcement that she was to marry exciting. She was horrified that her father could not have found another way to satisfy his debt to Sebastiano Rovere. How old was the man? Stefano was at least seventeen, and there was another, younger brother who might be the same age as her second brother, Georgio.
She shuddered. It was disgusting that an old man should want a young wife. She was hardly pleased that his hold over her had already been put in place, and she was now forbidden to cross the piazza with her mother so she might attend Mass. How dare this old man impugn her honor? Did he think she would encourage the men who waited to catch a glimpse of her? It was unbearable!
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