The deeper he ventured into the familiar city, the more uncomfortable he felt. What if someone recognized him? He had grown a beard and he wore his hair long too. His shabby sailor’s clothes set him yet farther apart from the nobleman and captain he had been when he last tread these cobbles. And yet . . .
Wasn’t that part of why he was here? In the hope that, despite everything, she would still recognize him, still want him, still love him—even though she had been told he was dead?
He could not forget her, although God knows he’d tried. For her sake. He’d told himself he could not face her, ruined and empty-handed as he was. He’d told himself that he could not face her father and his recriminations, after he’d sent the old man’s wealth to the bottom of the Mediterranean. He’d told himself she was better off a widow, free to marry a wealthy man who could keep her in the luxury she had been raised in and deserved.
Yet he had never been able to convince himself that she would remarry. Whenever he pictured her, he saw her tear-filled eyes and trembling lips as she tried to be brave while waving good-bye from the quay. Or he remembered their passionate lovemaking. . . .
Even now the memory was enough to arouse his loins. How many whores had he known since? And yet every single time after the animal urge was satisfied and he came back to consciousness of himself, he felt self-loathing and depression. No woman in the world was like his sweet Cecilia. She had been so innocent, yet so eager to learn! She’d been a quick learner too. By the second night she was already teasing him with little experimental licks and tickles as she explored his body, her eyes wide and her cheeks flushed with delight at her discoveries. A whore could be a hundred times more certain and effective in what she did, but her touch remained mechanical.
His feet had led him to the corner of South Street and St. Joseph’s. Opposite was the Golden Lion apothecary. It was late afternoon, almost vespers, and the apprentices were removing the jars and boxes with the various products from the outside tables, preparing to close shop.
Maurizio’s eyes shifted to the Gabrieli spice shop that should have been doing the same, but there were no busy apprentices there. Indeed, there were no tables on the pavement, much less goods for sale. Not even the window shelves had been lowered; they were raised over the windows. The upstairs windows were also shuttered. Rubbish was collecting in the doorway. The entire house was lifeless. Abandoned.
A shudder ran down Maurizio’s spine as he stared at the house where he had married and bedded the sweetest bride on earth. This was the house where Cecilia had been born and raised. She had hardly set foot outside of it except to go to St. Anne’s convent school and to Mass at the nearby church of San Lorenzo. Where could she be, if not here?
A cruel, cold voice whispered in his ear: “She’s dead. She died of grief.” And a crueler voice said: “She has remarried, and lives joyously with her new husband surrounded by a litter of babies.”
Maurizio crossed the street and caught one of the apothecary apprentices by the arm. “Signor Gabrielli? What has become of him? Why is his shop closed?”
“When was the last time you were in Acre?” The apprentice scoffed back. “Gabrielli has been dead nearly three years! He dropped dead in his tracks when he learned he’d lost everything with the wreck of the Rose of Acre.”
“But what about his daughter?” Maurizio asked, too horrified to dissemble.
The apprentice didn’t answer but called to his companion, “Ah, Marco? Do you know what happened to Gabrielli’s daughter?”
“Didn’t she go live with Signor Sanuto?”
Maurizio’s hair stood up on the back of his neck. With Sanuto? The old goat! The old man had always leered at Cecilia, despite being a married man with children and grandchildren.
“For a short time, yes,” the apothecary himself stepped out of his shop, and cast Maurizio a suspicious and far too penetrating look. “But she then went to the Sisters of St. Anne,” he answered the question, adding, “And what is Gabrielli’s daughter to you, sailor?”
“Nothing. Nothing. I’d just heard tales of her beauty. I wanted to see for myself.” He tried to grin stupidly like an ignorant sailor.
“Must be very old tales, then,” the apothecary answered warily.
“A cousin was here the day of her wedding. He saw her go by in a litter and lost his heart to her. He said if I ever washed up in Acre, I should try to catch a glimpse of her.” Maurizio tried to explain his interest.
The apothecary did not look convinced and shooed him away with a gesture of his hand. “She’s not been seen here since the Templars foreclosed on the house and shop. Gabrielli mortgaged the entire property to them to pay for her wedding, and they gave him a year to pay them back. When Gabrielli’s son-in-law never returned, his creditors dragged the furnishings out right from underneath his daughter as she lay grieving for both her father and husband. Then the Templars threw her out into the street and took control of the house. Not that they use it, but you know the Templars. Greedier than the Jews, if you ask me. Now be on your way. We’re closed.”
It was ringing vespers by the time Maurizio reached the convent of St. Anne. He had imagined Cecilia dead—or happily married. He had forgotten that she, as a widow, might have joined a convent. Now that he thought about it, however, it seemed the most obvious thing in the world. His sweet Cecilia had loved him too much to marry another man. Naturally she would have sought solace in the arms of the Church. Why hadn’t he thought of that earlier? She had wanted lots of children, too. She had told him that several times to explain why they had to make love “just one more time” before he left. Here at the convent school, she would have lots of little girls around her, even if they were not her own.
The bells drowned out the rapping of his knuckles on the wooden door. It took several minutes before a novice in a starched white wimple opened the sliding wooden panel covering a small rectangular window in the door.
Maurizio gave his best bow, a remnant from his past, when he was still a nobleman and a captain. “Signorina, forgive the intrusion, but I am here to inquire about the widow Cecilia di Domenico.”
The novice shook her head vigorously. “There is no one here by that name.” She shut the slide with a firm, sharp clack.
Maurizio was left snapping for air. Then he realized that as a nun, Cecilia would have taken a different name. A young novice would not necessarily know that one of the nuns had been married and gone by a different name before she entered the convent. He knocked again, more forcefully this time, and called through the door. “I wish to speak to the Abbess!”
“Who are you?” The novice asked from the other side of the door.
“Fabrizio di Domenico. I’m a cousin of Maurizio di Domenico. I am trying to find out what happened to his widow after he went down with his ship.”
“I’ll see what the lady Abbess says,” the novice promised, and silence fell as the bells stopped ringing.
It seemed to take a very long time for the novice to find the Abbess. Maurizio paced back and forth before the portal to the convent as he waited. As the time dragged by, he became convinced the passersby were casting him ever more suspicious glances. But what did that matter? Any minute he might see Cecilia again!
He imagined her uncertainty. She would recognize him at once. He was sure of that, despite his beard and sailor’s clothes. She would recognize him, but then say, “that cannot be.” She would tell herself it was only a strong “family resemblance.” She would want him to tell her everything he knew about her beloved Maurizio. They would go somewhere to talk and. . . . Then what? If she had taken vows to the church, they could not be undone. Maybe it would be better not to reveal himself? He had nothing to offer her (apart from five pieces of silver). Yes, he kept telling himself, it was for the best that she was here and safe and would never embrace another man. She would remain his forever. He could come and visit her, pretending always to be Maurizio’s cousin. . . .
“Signore di Domenico?” The voice was older and cooler. A nun stood in the door that was now cracked open.
He was escorted along the tiled corridor that led beside a lovely cloister. From a large room on the far side he could hear a chorus of children’s voices reciting something in Latin. When the nun stopped before a tall, elegantly carved door, Maurizio’s heart started pounding so loudly he wasn’t sure if the nun had knocked or not. Then she opened the door and bowed her head slightly as she gestured for him to enter.
He was so eagerly looking for Cecilia that he tripped off the step down from the walkway and fell more than stepped into the chamber. What a fool he was making of himself! Yet as he recovered and looked around, he saw only an elderly woman in the habit of the sisters. “Signore di Domenico?”
“Yes, yes,” he answered.
She indicated an armed chair before her desk with an elegant gesture of her hand. He eased himself into it warily. Was Cecilia watching from behind a screen or curtain?
“I understand you are a cousin of the late Captain di Domenico?”
“Yes,” Maurizio’s throat was cramping.
“And you wish to know more about what happened to his widow?”
“Exactly. He loved her so dearly. . . . ”
“Then perhaps he should have made better provision for her in the event of his death,” the Abbess noted with slightly raised eyebrows.
“How—what—I’m not sure I understand.”
“Your cousin left his widow completely destitute. He went down with his ship, and she was left a pauper. She had to sell her wedding gown to pay for her father’s grave and would have had to walk the streets a beggar, or worse, had we not been able to secure her honorable employment.”
“Employment? You mean she is not—not a member of this house?” The surprises just didn’t stop coming.
“How could she join this house without a dowry?” the Abbess asked back as if she thought the question disingenuous.
Maurizio drew a breath, but then shook his head and stammered, “but, but, surely she had something? Her father had a large shop and house and he had his wares. Surely. . . . ” His voice trailed off in face of the Abbess’ slowly shaking head.
“Her father was heavily in debt, and he had mortgaged his house and shop. Perhaps, had he lived, he might have managed to refinance his debt, but he died when he learned the Rose of Acre was wrecked. His daughter had no understanding of business matters. Regrettably, men—particularly men of business and trade—are predatory. When they smell weakness, they strike. Your cousin’s widow was all too obviously out of her depth: ignorant of business and grieving for her father and husband at the same time. Members of the Genoese community, who will remain unnamed, were less then honorable in their dealings with your cousin’s widow.” She paused to let this sink in before adding, “Fortunately, as I said, we were able to secure honorable employment for her.”
“Employment?” Maurizio echoed. He couldn’t image his sweet Cecilia working at anything. She was too delicate, too pretty, and too lighthearted for work.
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