Snakes in the Garden --Available Now
Following in the footsteps of her late father, Annella Poley is an assassin for the Crown. She’s determined to avenge her father’s death, no matter what the cost. But then a brawny Highland captain crosses her path and helps her uncover secrets of her past that might save her future…unless she kills him first.
Marcus Grant would rather be anywhere other than the English court. But when his laird orders him to follow a mysterious woman who can fight as well as any man, he’s trapped in the last place he wants to be. Marcus knows Annella is not to be trusted, and he plans to expose what she’s been hiding—but that’s before he risks everything by falling in love.
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Venice, Italy, 1602
“It was a simple question that I asked of you, Annella. How can you not remember your name?”
“I’m sorry, Father. I can’t recall. Is it Catherine?”
Annella’s father sighed with exasperation and walked over to the window. As he gazed at the people ambling along the cobblestone street below, he spoke in a solemn tone. “Your name is Philippa. Catherine was your name in France. I know how difficult this is for you, but you cannot hesitate if someone asks your name. You have to be ready—always.”
“My apologies, Father. I know that I should be more attentive.” Although she was only twelve years old, Annella wanted to make her father proud.
Robert Poley was her sire’s real name, a fact he didn’t share with others. Only she and Uncle George knew her father’s true identity, and Uncle George wasn’t even her uncle. He was her father’s best friend, and for as long as she could remember, she’d always referred to the man as “uncle.” But at the moment, Annella was grateful she didn’t have to recall all the false names her father had used in the past on their travels. She had enough trouble trying to recollect her own name, for heaven’s sake.
Her father wore a doublet, slashed leather jerkin, and short, full breeches. A muscle currently ticked at his strong, square jaw, and his brown hair was graying at the temples. She moved to his side, wrapping her arms around his waist.
Of all the places they’d journeyed, she’d enjoyed the past year they’d spent in France the most. But here she was in yet another country, this time on a sandy island in the Adriatic. The sea protected them from any potential enemies on the mainland, and Annella and her father had a boat that could take them to the river mouths that led to the inland cities, which provided a quick means of escape. She supposed that’s why her father had chosen this remote location after they fled from France.
The sound of laughter drew her attention to the street below their town house. Three girls, who were not much older than Annella, giggled uncontrollably. All of them had long, dark hair as black as the night. Two of the girls wore blue day dresses with long ribbons that tied at the waist, and the other wore a lovely shade of green. Annella glanced down at her red curls and simple brown day dress and wondered if she’d ever feel like she had a place in the world where she belonged.
She stepped out of her father’s arms and pressed her hand against the frame of the window, longing for companionship she could never have. Warm fingers rested over hers and interrupted her woolgathering.
“I sometimes wonder if this was a mistake. You should be with girls your own age.”
“The work you do is important.” Annella wasn’t sure what her sire did for Queen Elizabeth, but she knew enough to recognize his assignments were essential to the success of the Crown. “As long as we’re together, that’s all that matters. You’re my family, and we shouldn’t be apart. I don’t think Mother would’ve wanted that for us.”
Her father briefly closed his eyes as if he was thinking of a time long ago. “You remind me of her more and more every day. Nevertheless, this is not the life I would have chosen for you.” He rubbed her shoulder in a tender gesture, and his green eyes twinkled. “My purpose as your father is to see you safe, in good health, and happy. There’s going to be—”
“I know you’ll always keep me safe and healthy, and as long as I’m with you, I couldn’t be happier.”
A warm smile crossed his face. “There’s going to be a masquerade this evening with dazzling fireworks. This will be your first time witnessing such an event. They’ll fill the night sky with every color you can imagine. There will be plenty of dancing and laughter, too. And did I mention there will be dresses? You know the kind of which I speak. Silk dresses that all the ladies wear, embroidered with lace and those fancy baubles.” When Annella’s face lit up, her father asked, “Philippa, would you do me the great honor of allowing me to be your escort?”
She threw herself into her father’s strong arms. “Yes! I’d be delighted.” Then she pulled back with a look of concern. “But I don’t have anything proper to wear.”
“That does present quite a quandary, doesn’t it? Perhaps there’s something on your bed that you’ll find to your liking.”
Annella spun on her heel and ran down the hall to her bedchamber. Her eyes darted across the room, eager to find the present her father had left for her. Lying across the foot of the bed was an emerald dress that had tie-on sleeves adorned with green ribbons. The gown had a stiffened bodice, square neck, and full skirt. She traced her hands along the top and then down to the long embroidered skirt, letting out a sigh of contentment. Her father’s gift was the finest garment she’d ever seen.
“Do you like the dress?”
She glanced over her shoulder. “No.” When her father’s eyes lit up in surprise, she blurted out, “I love it!” Embracing him, she squeezed the poor man with all her might. “Thank you!”
He gestured for her to sit on the bed, and then he knelt before her. “I was waiting to give this to you when you were older, but I can’t think of a more perfect time.” Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a necklace. “This was your mother’s, and I know she’d want you to have it.” He brushed Annella’s hair to the side and stood to place the pearls around her neck.
She glanced down, studying the charm that hung on the center strand of white beads. “A thistle?”
Her father’s eyes held a touch of sadness. “That’s Scottish thistle from your mother’s home.”
“I wish I had known her.”
“She would’ve been very proud of the young woman you’ve become.”
Annella looked at him hopefully. “Do you think so?”
“I know so.” His eyes welled with tears. “The necklace looks very becoming on you, as it did your mother. I love you, Anne.”
Her heart pounded fiercely when she heard him speak her mother’s name. Annella was named after her mother, Anne, who had died in childbirth. Sometimes her father called her by that simple term of affection, and it brought a smile to her face every time. She didn’t hear it as often as she wanted since her name was always changing, but she was thankful to have a remembrance of her mother.
“Why don’t you get dressed? I’ll change my attire for this evening and have the carriage readied shortly.”
When the door closed, she donned the gown and found the matching silk slippers that her father had hidden under the dress. The material fit her body as if it had been tailored for her. She walked over to the window, and the extraordinary sight of the city spread below her. Feeling as if she were a speck of sand in a vast ocean, she took a deep breath, grasping her mother’s necklace for the courage to survive her newest adventure.
The cobblestone streets were wet from a brief rain that had passed through only moments ago, and now they glistened from the amber hues of the setting sun. Each structure in Venice had its own precise details and held its unique quality among the buildings in the city landscape. But what Annella favored the most was the slow drift of the gondolas that navigated the canals as if they rolled through wispy clouds.
Needing to clear the clouds from her own head, she made her way belowstairs to meet her father. Opening the door to the town house, she found him waiting next to the carriage and speaking with the coachman. As she approached, her father’s eyes beamed with approval.
“You look lovely.”
“Thank you, Father.” Annella walked around him, and with her gloved hand, she gave the dark horse a pat on the neck. The animal was broad and stood several hands tall. She’d had a black pony named Shadow when they lived in England, she remembered, the thought making her realize she’d lived several different lives in her short twelve years.
“Are you ready to take your leave, Philippa?” asked her father.
Annella hesitated, momentarily forgetting her false name—again. “Yes.”
Her father assisted her into the carriage, and when the door closed, he nestled into the seat across from her. “While we’re in Venice, I want you to experience all the city has to offer. We mustn’t forget the most important part of the masquerade.” He reached behind him and handed her a mask. “I had it made by the Mascareri, the city’s noted guild of mask makers. I hope you find it to your liking.”
As she studied the intricate clay design, Annella realized her disguise matched her gown. How her father accomplished such tasks was beyond her comprehension. “I love the mask. Will you be wearing one as well?”
“Seeing the excitement on your face, I almost forgot.” Her father removed a large, black mask that was concealed under his cloak. For his disguise, there were two white fallen tears below the eyeholes.
He pounded the roof of the carriage for the driver to depart, and Annella gazed out the window at the dimly lit streets. She was eager to attend the masquerade and had a difficult time sitting still.
Without warning, a loud crack shot through the air, and she jumped.
“You’re all right. Look out the window into the sky.”
A streak of light flew through the air and then burst into a cloud of vermillion. To her surprise, colors of gold, green, and yellow followed the grand display. The sky crackled, and the bright colors danced over the canals.
“The fireworks are remarkable. Are they not?” asked her father. “There will be more later this evening.”
“I’m in awe. Who makes such creations? They are certainly sky artists.”
The carriage stopped, and her father stepped out. “Sky artists... I suppose you’re right.” He donned his mask and then held out his hand to assist Annella. But when she exited the coach, her eyes widened. Her father’s handsome appearance was replaced by an eerie face.
“You certainly don’t look like yourself.”
“It’s only a disguise, Philippa. Many people will be wearing them. Turn around, and I’ll help you with your mask.”
He secured the ribbons, and when Annella spun around to face him, he brought her gloved hand to his lips. “You look beautiful. And you do not look like a twelve-year-old girl. Make sure you stay close because you’re too young to have a suitor, and I don’t want to have to dissuade any men from pursuing you.”
“I don’t think we need to fret quite yet, Father.”
The street was filled with men and women in disguise. Torchlight guided her way as she walked among people dressed in mysterious ways. A few women had feathers sticking out of their masks, and others displayed fancy baubles. The men’s masks were as daring as the ladies’. Some were painted half black and half white, and others had smiles and tears like her father’s. No one knew the identity of any passerby, which was part of the excitement. For the first time, Annella was the same as everyone else around her.
Music filled the air, echoing through the streets. She loved the sound of the violins and flutes. Although she had no musical ability, she was content to listen, leaving the enchanting melodies to the musicians. There were people dancing in the square, and the women looked as if they were floating. Annella studied their feet to make certain they touched the ground.
Her father leaned in close. “I can see the determination in your eyes. Would you do me the great honor of gracing me with a dance?”
“You’ve read my mind.”
Escorting her by the elbow, he led her into the middle of the square. When he bowed, Annella curtsied in return. His hand touched hers in the air, and they turned in a circle.
“I bet you never imagined anything like this,” said her father.
“No. You know how much I adored Paris, but I’m starting to favor Venice.”
When they switched hands, her father chuckled. For once, Annella permitted herself to lower her guard and be that twelve-year-old girl she sometimes missed. She moved freely to the rhythm of the music and was ebullient with what she was experiencing at the moment.
The sky hissed above with more colorful fireworks, and she dropped her father’s hand to watch them. She lifted her face, extending her arms to her sides. Her red curls bounced as she twirled through a group of people to the melody. When she awakened from her trance, the faces around her looked the same. Dresses and dark cloaks swayed in the crowd, but she’d lost sight of her father. As time passed, her mind started to fill with dread.
Annella frantically searched through the sea of people, afraid she was about to drown. Then relief washed over her when she met her father’s gaze and made her way back to him. But as she stepped closer, all pleasure left her. A crimson liquid pooled over the fingers that he held to his throat.
“Anne,” he choked out.
Her father fell to the ground before her, lifeless. Sheer fright swept through her, and she felt as if a hand had closed around her throat. She froze, mind and body benumbed.
A tall figure loomed over her father’s body.
The man wore a dark cape that was trimmed with lace and a white mask that had an unusual pointed beak. On his head was a black hat that had three corners and a feather sticking up on the side. He wiped blood from his dagger’s blade onto his robes, and then his gaze met Annella’s. He brought one finger to his lips to silence her, paused, and then his broad back disappeared through the crowd.
A piercing scream traveled through the streets of Venice.