The Silk Merchant's Daughters
In this sweeping new series of Renaissance Italy, Bertrice Small does it again with all the passion and historical splendor that has captured the imagination of her legion of fans….
After her two elder sisters become the scandals of Florence, Lucianna Pietro d’Angelo is in the difficult position of finding a wealthy man who will have her for his wife. She has little choice but to accept the proposal of an aging bookseller—a not entirely disagreeable union in which Lucianna comforts the dear man in his final years. When he passes away, she inherits his shop and, with it, a sizable fortune.
Lucianna is content with comfortable widowhood—until Robert Minton, Earl of Lisle, visits her bookshop. The Englishman is not only dashing and handsome—he’s a trusted courtier of Henry VII.
The Pietro d’Angelos cannot deny the spark of attraction between their daughter and the earl, so they scheme to send her to London. There, Lucianna steps out of the shadow of her quiet Florentine life, pursuing a love of which she never dreamed and rising in London society all the way to court of the new Tudor king.
It was odd being without Alfredo, Lucianna thought, now that his funeral was over and his will read. She was alone for the first time in her life. Of course there was Balia, her serving woman. Balia did not come from her father’s house. She had been one of Alfredo’s servants. Lucianna didn’t want someone from her mother’s staff who would feel it her duty to report to Orianna.
Lucianna had asked her son-in-law, Norberto, if she might help in the shop, and he was happy to grant her request. His children were too young to help him, and his wife, Anna Maria, did not want her girls to be seen as shopkeepers. Their son was only six. Norberto did not like dealing with their clients, and he was happy to have Lucianna do so for him. People liked his stepmother, and her family’s prestige added luster to his business, he felt.
For Lucianna, it was something to do. She was not bored when she spent time in her late husband’s bookselling shop. She had always enjoyed Alfredo’s company there. He was an educated and clever man who had taught her a great deal in the brief course of their marriage. She did not enjoy Norberto. She could not tell what he did or did not know, for he spoke little, preferring to use his hands in the intricate and delicate art of bookbinding, which required all his attention. He excelled at working with the elegant leather. She also suspected he did not believe in women having too much knowledge. Still, he was pleasant enough. She had believed he was just a trifle in awe of her because of her family. She had always been polite and kind to Norberto as a result, which had pleased her husband.
“You are my angel,” Alfredo had frequently told her, and Lucianna would laugh.
“I am simply practical, and I do not believe in being unkind to frail creatures,” she once responded to him, and he laughed again.
“He is a bit of a frail fellow, isn’t he? His mother had far more to do with raising him than I did, and Maria Clara was a gentle woman. You are different, my young wife.”
“How so, Fredo?” she had asked, curious.
“You are strong like your mother, but kinder,” he told her. “You are intelligent as well. If your father had not lost so much gold to the Milan trade, you could have had a prince, and I am well aware of it. Yet you faced your situation without complaint and accepted an old man for your husband with good grace. I remember the stories of Francesca, your sister, who mocked her suitors until the Medici sent her away. But still, she did wed a duke.”
“The eldest of us made no complaint and did as she was bid,” Lucianna had reminded him.
“Rovere blackmailed your father with some indiscretion, I am certain,” Alfredo Allibatore had told his wife. “I cannot imagine for what, as your father is a discreet man. He would have never let his daughter go to that debauched monster otherwise.”
“Yet he did, but I did not know for several years after what Rovere’s spur had been, for I was too young for such talk,” she had told him. “By then Bianca had fled Rovere, and when he was murdered, she eloped with Prince Amir, much to my mother’s shame. We don’t even know if she lives today. I barely knew her. We are eight years apart in age. She has never really been a part of my life. I do not believe I should know her if we came face-to-face. It was said she was the most beautiful of us all, however.”
He had surprised her then by telling her, “Your elder sister lives in an Ottoman principality called El Dinut. I bind books now and again for her husband, Prince Amir. It is said she is the love of his life. I believe it to be so, judging from the book of his love poems I just bound for her. They have one child, a daughter.”
“Have you ever met him?” she asked, curious.
“No,” Alfredo responded. “The prince sends his books to be bound from his home across the sea. I am paid by a small bank here in Milan. The books are returned to him via one of the prince’s vessels.”
It was the first and only time he ever surprised her. She had told her twin brother, Luca, who said even their mother knew Bianca lived. She simply chose not to discuss it with her other children. Lucianna had thought that was rather mean-spirited of their mother, but she said nothing more to her twin. They all knew that Bianca had been her mother’s favorite, and that by following her heart Bianca had disappointed her mother greatly.
So now Lucianna was alone, and she wondered if Prince Amir knew of her husband’s death, and whether he would still continue to send the Allibatores his books for binding. Only time would tell her the answer to that. If he did, perhaps she would send her sister a letter when the books were returned to him.
The months slipped by, and Lucianna’s life remained a quiet and uneventful one. The new year came and went. It was a chilly, rainy winter in Florence. Her little sister, Serena, came to visit one afternoon in the company of her ancient nursemaid. Serena was much too old to have a nursemaid, but, while realizing this youngest daughter of hers must marry soon, Orianna could not quite bring herself to settle upon a husband for Serena.
“I’m going to end up an old maid,” Serena complained. “She was quick enough to marry you and our other sisters, but cannot seem to find the right man for me. Grandfather has given up on her.”
“Is there anyone you particularly like?” Lucianna asked.
“Not really, but I simply must get out of that house. I am sixteen, and she treats me as if I were a babe of three. My opportunities to meet anyone are very limited. I go to church with Mama daily, but no one stands in the square waiting for me to pass by as they did with Bianca. Papa’s great fortune is mostly gone, and it is known my dower is small.”
“I would gladly supplement any dower our parents can now afford. Is it that bad, Serena?”
“I have heard Papa discussing letting Marco have the business, and retiring to the villa in Tuscany. He says he would rather grow grapes and make wine than try to make bargainers appreciate how much finer our silk is compared to Milan’s.”
“Oh dear!” Lucianna exclaimed. “I fear he is serious. Papa loves the silk trade and always has.”
“Worse,” Serena said. “He doesn’t want to return from the countryside when we go this summer! I will be wed to some grape grower or farmer’s son!”
“Not if our mother has anything to say about it,” Lucianna said, laughing. “Go to the country with the family this summer. If Father insists upon remaining, I will ask our mother to let you come and keep me company now that I am alone and widowed. Believe me, she will bring you herself rather than have you stuck in the country. And she will come often herself to visit us both while she tries to get Father to return to the city. Florence does not compare to her beloved Venice, but she is not about to spend the remainder of her life growing grapes.”
“I do not know what I would do without you, Lucianna,” Serena said gratefully.
“Matrigna, forgive the interruption, but we have a new customer arriving shortly. He is an Englishman recommended to us, and he is here in Florence to purchase silk cloth for his king. I apologize I did not tell you earlier,” Norberto said, coming from his workshop. “He seeks a book of poetry. Good afternoon Signorina Serena.”
“Good afternoon, Signore Allibatore,” Serena responded, curtsying politely to him.
“You do not wish to speak with such an important new customer?” Lucianna inquired, already knowing what the answer would be, but asking anyway.
“Oh no, no, no, matrigna. You are far better with those who seek books than I am. Papa always said so.”
“Then I shall give him our best service, and grazie, Norberto,” Lucianna responded as her stepson scurried back to his workshop.
“What a funny man,” Serena noted. “I have always thought so.”
“He is just shy, and quite awed by the name ‘Pietro d’Angelo,’ ” Lucianna explained. “He is actually very kind and a wonderful workman. Without him, Alfredo’s shop could not continue on.”
“How did you bear being married to such an old man?” Serena asked boldly.
“We were friends, never lovers, little sister. And by being his wife, I married as our parents dictated and escaped their palazzo, not to mention our mother,” the older girl explained.
“Do you mean you are still a virgin?” Serena dared to inquire.
“I am,” Lucianna replied.
“Does our mother know?” Serena asked.
“She never asked, and it was not something I chose to discuss with her, Serena. Now stop asking questions, or I shall not take you to live with me next autumn, though perhaps you would prefer a lovely winter in the countryside. Hmm?”
“No, thank you! And now my lips are sealed.”
The shop bell rang and a tall gentleman entered.
“Go back to my apartment quickly,” Lucianna ordered the young girl. She wanted no one believing Serena was a shopgirl. “Good afternoon, signore. Is there something in particular you are seeking?”
“Si, signorina,” he responded.
“It is signora. I am the widow of Alfredo Allibatore, signore.”
His Italian was rough. “Poetry,” he told her.
“In Italian or English?” she inquired politely.
“You have both?” He sounded surprised.
“We are a bookshop, signore. We keep books in all languages,” Lucianna explained to him. “Might you be more comfortable if we spoke in English?” And she smiled at the look of surprise on his face.
“God, yes!” he answered gratefully.
“Then let us do so. I am quite conversant in your language.” “How . . .” he began. “I am considered highly educated for a woman,” Luci
anna told him. “I speak my own tongue, English, and French.” She led him to a shelf of exquisitely bound books. “Poetry in several languages. Please feel free to browse, and if you have any questions, I shall be glad to answer them, signore.” Lucianna turned back to her counter.
She couldn’t help but notice him. He was not what she would call handsome, but he was very attractive in a serious sort of way. His face was long, with a dimpled chin. His hair was black, not simply dark, or even the deepest brown. Black. When they had spoken at the counter, she saw he had light gray eyes, and his skin was fair rather than ruddy or dark. His cheekbones were high and his nose long and very straight. He had the most fascinating thick black eyebrows, and thick black eyelashes. It was a serious face. She liked it because it was different from any other face she had ever known or seen.
“I understand you have come to Florence seeking silk. We have the finest,” Lucianna said, daringly opening a conversation.
“Aye,” he said. “The stuff in Milan isn’t of a quality I would want for the queen and her female relations.”
“You are a seller of silk, then,” she said.
He laughed. “Nay, Signora Allibatore, I am Robert Minton, the Earl of Lisle, the king’s friend. I volunteered for this particular duty because I have never been to Italy before and wished to see it. I have no interest in political office, as so many others surrounding our young King Henry do. The king’s treasury is not particularly full at this moment, but he is very fond of and generous to his bride. She wished Italian silk, and so here I am.”
“I hope, then, that you will visit my father’s establishment,” Lucianna said. “He is Giovanni Pietro d’Angelo, and the premier silk merchant in Florence, if not all of Italy.”
“Ah, yes, he has been most highly recommended,” Robert Minton told her.
“You need no one else if you purchase your silk from the Pietro d’Angelos,” she told him.
“How did a successful silk merchant’s daughter end up married to an ordinary bookseller? Did your parents permit you a love match?” he boldly asked her.
Lucianna laughed. “Nay,” she said. “It is a long story, and you are not really interested in it, I am certain. Have you found your book?”
He didn’t need to know that the failure of the Medici bank had caused her father to lose a great deal of his monies, and that she didn’t have a respectable enough dower to attract a better name.
Interesting, the earl thought. But then they had just met, and he was not really entitled to know such personal information. “Yes, I have found a book, but I should like it rebound in a richer leather with gold,” he explained to her.
“I will call my stepson, who does the binding. If you tell him exactly what you desire, he will see it done properly. Norberto, please come and speak with our new customer about rebinding his purchase.”
Robert Minton was very surprised to see a middle-aged man hurry from a side room. Obviously the fair Lucianna’s husband had been a much older man. What a waste, he thought, and then turned to the bookbinder. “I wish it bound in the softest, finest, deep green leather. You will decorate it with gold about the edges discreetly. The cover will be inscribed as follows in gold lettering: To Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth of England.” Then he realized he had been speaking in English, and he looked to Lucianna.
She quickly translated to her stepson, who nodded and said something that Lucianna translated back to Robert Minton. “Norberto said he understood exactly what you require, and he is honored to be chosen to do this work for you. The book will be ready for you in three days, my lord.”
“Grazie,” he said to the bookbinder, who nodded and then, taking the book, scampered back into his workshop.
“He is shy, which is why I manage the shop,” Lucianna explained. “Alfredo taught me so that when he no longer could, I could.”
“Would you attend Mass with me tomorrow, signora, and then perhaps afterwards walk with me?” he boldly asked her.
“I cannot, signore,” Lucianna said. My husband is not dead a full year yet, and I yet mourn him.”
“When will he be dead a full year?” he asked her.
“The fifth of next month,” she replied.
“Then I must wait until then to escort you to Mass,” the Earl of Lisle said, with a small smile that Lucianna couldn’t help but return.
She wondered a moment if her mother would approve, but then she realized it was not necessary to ask Orianna. “I shall look forward to it, my lord,” she told him. He was attractive and well-spoken. She wanted to know him better, and going to Mass with this Englishman could hardly be considered scandalous.
He bowed a small bow, and then said, “I shall return in three days for my book, signora.” Then he was gone through the bookshop door.
Lucianna found herself disappointed to see him go. She would have liked him to remain and speak with her longer. There were no more customers that afternoon. She found her sister upstairs waiting for her. She had been embroidering.
“He was handsome, the Englishman,” Serena said.
“I thought him attractive, but hardly handsome,” Lucianna replied. “Where is old Esta?”
Serena nodded her head. “Snoozing. It’s all she does anymore.”
“I shall suggest to our mother that you have a proper serving woman,” Lucianna. “I saw the family litter waiting outside from the window when I came up. It is time for you and Esta to go before it gets dark. Awaken the old lady. I will fetch your cloaks.”
When Esta was full-awake and in her cloak, Lucianna said to her, “I think it is time my sister had her own serving woman, don’t you, Esta?”
“Bless you, signora, if you could but convince your mama,” the old nursemaid said. “Your papa has promised me I may live out my life at the villa, which would please me, as that is where I was born and raised until your mother chose me to look after my young mistress. I will be happy to go home and not have to return again to this dirty city,” she said frankly.
“Good, then you will support me when I approach Mama. I shall do so before you go to Tuscany in a few weeks,” Lucianna promised. Then she escorted Serena and Esta to their waiting litter, and watched as the litter made its way down her street.
“Bless you!” Serena said as she climbed into the vehicle.
Lucianna smiled. Orianna was really trying to keep her youngest child—the baby—as Serena had always been known. But her three older sisters were wed, though two were widowed. Her oldest brother, Marco, was a husband and a father. Her second brother, Giorgio, was a priest of some importance, now stationed in Rome. And Lucianna’s own twin, Luca, debated between marriage and the military.
He was at their grandfather’s in Venice right now, inspecting the available young heiresses. Luca far preferred Venice to Florence, which pleased his elderly grandparent, who was a prince. Luca was an outrageously handsome young man, and his charm made him very popular with both mothers and their daughters. From what her mother said, Lucianna suspected her twin brother would find a wife in Venice and settle down there in Grandfather’s palazzo.
Despite being the youngest son in his immediate family, Luca was likely to be given his grandfather’s title when the old man died, and he would inherit his palazzo. That would not please Mama’s sisters, but then, they only seemed to spawn daughters. Her Venetian aunts had given the Pietro d’Angelo children fourteen female cousins.
Lucianna wondered if the English earl would visit Venice. One could not come to Italy without seeing Venice. Of course he would go to Venice eventually before he returned to his northern clime. He simply had to go. She sighed. She had never met a man except Alfredo that she really liked. But she did like Robert Minton. She wished she hadn’t had to refuse his invitation to attend Mass, but she could not be seen with him right now without causing a scandal. And when he left Florence, would other men consider her being with him an indication that the widow Allibatore was now accepting callers?
She didn’t want to be importuned by men seeking a rich wife, or a mistress. Why was there no simple way for a woman to speak with gentlemen without becoming involved or suggesting a scandal? Wasn’t there a way for women and men to be just friends?
Being seen with a man would encourage her mother to go looking for a suitable second husband for her, especially now that Lucianna had her own wealth. Whatever happened, she wanted to control her own life.
Her bed beckoned. It had been a long day. Lucianna called to her serving woman, and she was shortly abed. She fell asleep quickly.
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