Although my "Hearts in Autumn" romances are about older heroes and heroines falling in love, even "autumn" heroines were young once. Here's a sneak peek at the opening chapter of Loving Lucianna, where we get to meet Lucianna as a young girl. I hope you enjoy it!
Convento di Santa Caterina, Venice ~ 1147
She could not work with so much wailing in her ears! Lucianna hooked her small bone needle in the cloth. She had been forbidden the long, graceful needles of bronze the nuns used until her hands grew larger. They said in their scolding voices that she must be patient for that should be a very long time, for she was only nine years old. She exuded a huff. She did not like being patient. And she did not like the girl who had been thrust into the dormitory she shared with Sister Maria Angela in the almonry. Elisabetta, they called her. She had done nothing but weep from the day she had arrived.
The wailings drifted through the dormitory window, assaulting Lucianna’s ears where she sat on a bench outside beneath one of the many olive trees the nuns harvested for oil. How could one stitch a decent flower with so much racket in one’s brain? Lucianna folded the linen very neatly, as she had been taught to do, set it reverently in the small workbasket at her feet, rose from the bench, smoothed the creases from the skirts of her humble russet gown, bade farewell to the lovely spring morning she had been enjoying, and went inside to do the duty that had been assigned to her.
She had been asked by the abbess to comfort the frightened, lonely girl. Lucianna had been lonely, too, the only child in the convent, though Sister Maria Angela said there had been oblates before her and would certainly be oblates donated to the abbey again. But none had come in Lucianna’s nine years, until a fortnight ago. She had thought, perhaps, she and Elisabetta might become friends but the endless laments had finally exhausted her patience.
“Why do you weep like this?” she said crossly to the girl sprawled sobbing on the narrow bed beside her own. “If I behaved so unseemly, Sister Maria Angela would take her switch to me. But you are coddled and given warm blankets and allowed to wear those pretty gowns your father sent with you.” She dared not confess her envy of the gowns, especially that green one that would have matched her eyes. “And one day you shall go back home to the father who loves you. So why do you cry and cry and cry?”
Elisabetta sat up. Her dark hair with the reddish highlights that peeped out when she sat in the sun now fell tangled over her tear stained face. “I hate it here!” she said. “I miss my own wide bed and the gingerbread from our kitchens and my father’s pretty rose garden—”
“You are spoiled.”
“And most of all I miss my father, for he would never let you speak to me that way!”
Lucianna shrugged. Sister Maria Angela would switch her if she saw it, but the nun was working in the herb garden. Sometimes they made Lucianna work there as well, but her gift for embroidering delicate designs had so pleased the abbess, that most days she was allowed to sit on the bench outside the dormitory window and practice her stitching instead. One day, when her talent had matured, her work would be sold and the money given as alms to the poor.
“Do you think if you cry enough your father will take you away sooner?” Lucianna asked, barely concealing her scorn. Or perhaps it was jealousy. No one would ever come to take her away, no matter how hard she wished it.
Elisabetta dried her eyes with a soft silken sleeve woven with yellow birds, and shook her head.
“Then what good does it do you to weep like this?” Lucianna sat down on her own bed. She wondered what silk would feel like against her skin. As long as she could remember, the nuns had dressed her in rough woven russet. She ran her fingers over her skirts as she waited for an answer.
“I cannot help it,” Elisabetta said. “I try to be brave, but it is so horrid here. Do you not hate it, too?”
“I have never known any place but this. My parents died when I was a baby and left me to the nuns.”
Elisabetta’s dark brown eyes went wide. “Oh, but that is sad!”
Lucianna knew better than to indulge in pity for herself. It changed nothing and only brought down Sister Maria Angela’s condemnation upon her head.
“My father’s name was Panfilo,” Lucianna said. “My mother—I do not know. I call her Rosaria, but I do not know if that was her name. I think it is pretty, though.”
She plucked at a loose thread on her skirts. It would make a hole if she tugged at it, but she pulled it anyway. Sister Maria Angela would make her mend the rent it caused. Anything was better than working in the herb garden where the thorns pricked her fingers. The last time they had done so, she had not been able to embroider for days.
“You are lucky,” she said, wiggling a finger through the hole she had made in her gown.
“Lucky?” Elisabetta stared as though Lucianna had stood too long beneath the moon. “To sleep in a cold bed at night and eat dried beans and crumbling cheese and black bread instead of gingerbread? To be made to sit for hours in silence while they read psalms at you or kneel until your knees are raw from prayer?”
“They excuse us from the night office because we are young. And it is much colder in the winter than it is now in the spring. You will not be here forever and ever, like I will. And you have a warm blanket to sleep in at night.” And a gown that would make my eyes shine like the emerald clasp on the mantle of the lady who stayed with her servants one night in the guest house last year. Lucianna’s parents had left her a red brooch in a silver setting, but the nuns would not let her wear it for fear she should become vain. She tried not to mind. Besides, it went ill with her auburn hair.
“It is not as quiet now as it was before you came.” Lucianna pulled at another thread. The hole in her skirt grew wider. “Before, the nuns only spoke when they read the psalms or prayed and when they scolded me because I do not like to clean or cook or work in the herb garden, and I do not like to sit still, unless I am stitching a pattern. But now you wail and wail and they never scold you. They speak meekly and caressingly to you, then tell me I must comfort you when your tears do not cease.”
Elisabetta drew up her knees on the bed and wrapped her arms around them. “You have not tried to comfort me at all!”
“Well, it is hard when you are so ungrateful. No one asks you to cook or clean or garden, but to learn how to read and to write and to count and speak French. Why does your father wish you to learn all those things?”
Another tear rolled down Elisabetta’s cheek, but this time silently. Again she wiped it away with her sleeve. “After my mother died, my father said he had not time to take care of me. I think it was because it made him too sad to think of Mamma. He said one day I should make a very great marriage, because he said I should have great beauty when I am older and he will provide me with a dowry to tempt a great lord. But if the lords should spurn me and I marry a merchant like himself instead, then it will be a help to my husband for me to read and write and count.”
“And the French?” Lucianna wrinkled her nose. Why should any woman of Venice need to speak French?
“My father trades with men of many lands and some of them are French. So he wishes me to learn, that I might help my husband, should my husband be a merchant. But if he is a lord, then I need only know how to be pretty and embroider. I hate embroidery.”
Lucianna glowered, as though an insult had been hurled at her. How could anyone hate the brightly colored skeins of silk, or the smooth flow of the threads as one drew them through the cloth? It was the only time Lucianna felt quiet inside.
“I cannot comfort someone as silly as you,” she declared and bounced up from her bed.
“Wait!” Elisabetta called as Lucianna started down the long line of empty beds towards the door.
Lucianna had no choice as Sister Maria Angela came in just then. Dirt stained the nun’s habit and as always, her nails were blackened with soil from the garden. Lucianna hid her own hands behind her back. She could not bear filthy nails and was always picking at her own to keep them clean. Sister Maria Angela had switched her for it more than once, calling Lucianna prideful. Impatience and pride were sins the abbess agreed must be stripped from Lucianna before she grew old enough to take her vows.
But now Sister Maria Angela beamed a smile. Lucianna had not known the nun knew how to smile before Elisabetta came. As always, the pleasant expression was turned on the dark haired girl whom the nuns always called their “guest.”
“You are not crying.” Approval rang in Sister Maria Angela’s voice. “Then we will resume your French instruction. Come with me to the chapel.”
Elisabetta’s dark eyes widened and Lucianna saw something in them she had never seen before, perhaps because they were usually buried against the bolster in tears. Fear. Lucianna was not sure how she knew it, but something whispered to her, See! It is what you feel when Sister Maria Angela brings out her switch. Surely the nun had never taken her slender birch rod to the back of Elisabetta’s legs? No, but Elisabetta has seen Sister Maria Angela switch me here in the dormitory. And sometimes the switch struck higher than Lucianna’s legs. Was that why Elisabetta did not wish to be alone while the nun instructed her? Is that why she wept and wept and wept?
Lucianna started as Sister Maria Angela laid her hand atop Lucianna’s head. She tried not to cringe from the soil-crusted fingers.
“Well done, my child. I knew you would not fail us.”
She did not smile at Lucianna, but approval rang in her tones. Did she think Lucianna had finally found a way to quiet Elisabetta’s tears?
Elisabetta slid slowly from the bed, eying the nun with dread as she trailed her slowly towards the door. But when she came abreast of Lucianna, she suddenly slid their hands together, tightly lacing their fingers.
“May she come with me,” Elisabetta said in a trembling voice, “and sit with me while you teach me?”
Sister Maria Angela’s mouth turned sternly downward. “Lucianna came to this house with no dowry save for a single brooch. We will sell it when she comes of age for her vows. Then she will pray and sing when the bells are rung, she will take her turn in the kitchen and garden, she will spin cloth, and because she has a gift, she will embroider. But she is not to be among our number who learns to read and she will never have use for numbers, still less to ever speak French.”
To Lucianna’s surprise, Elisabetta tossed her dark head and jutted her chin into the air with a stubbornness that for the first time hinted of a kindred spirit. “Then I shall stay here and weep for my father and my home. I do not want to sit alone with you. It is dull and you will switch me if I misspeak a word.”
“Of course I will not,” Sister Maria Angela said indignantly. “Your father paid us generously to treat you well.”
Lucianna set her lips close to Elisabetta’s ear and hissed, “I do not wish to speak French.”
Elisabetta whispered back, “I will let you teach me to embroider if you come, and I will not weep anymore. I promise.” Then she repeated very loudly, “I will only come if Lucianna may come, too.”
No more sobbing through the night? No more wailings to disturb Lucianna with her needle? It would be worth enduring all the pointless lessons if it made Elisabetta quiet. And Lucianna imagined she might enjoy instructing the other girl in the embroidery she so loved.
Sister Maria Angela heaved a loud, exasperated sigh. “Very well, Lucianna may sit with you. But she may not speak, write, or count numbers. Do you understand?”
Lucianna breathed a breath of relief at this promise. Her mind filled with blissful visions of teaching Elisabetta how to stitch, she nodded with the other girl, then hands still locked together, they followed the nun out of the dormitory.