Celeste Gabriele stood on the dusty street envying the fortunate souls boarding the ferry from Venice to the mainland. Her greatest desire was to join them and escape her wretched life. Fingering the weight of coins sewn into her skirt told her she had just enough for passage to freedom, but that was a hopeless dream. Her five brothers and sisters waiting inside the hovel they called home wouldn’t survive a week without her. As the ferry drifted out of sight, she turned to face the door but couldn’t persuade her hand to lift the latch.
"What are you doing there, girl?" a voice called from behind her.
Celeste turned to find her aunt glaring at her over the basket she carried. She wore a plum-colored cap with feathers and a gown embossed with preening birds. How fitting, Celeste thought as Aunt Portia pushed past her into the house without waiting for an answer. Her lady's maid and gondolier eyed Celeste arrogantly before joining their mistress inside. With all hope of escape gone, Celeste stood and reluctantly followed them.
Just as Portia thrust the basket at Celeste, her brother, Jacopo, knocked two-year-old Sandro down near the fireplace. Sandro landed only inches from the flames and let out a wail. Celeste dropped the basket and rushed to his aid. She dusted the soot from Sandro’s legs and carried him to Mamma's rocking chair as four pairs of frightened eyes followed her.
“Jacopo, you’ll kill poor Sandro one day,” she scolded. “He could have tumbled into the fire.”
Jacopo bowed his head and clasped his hands in front of his dirty tunic. "I'm sorry, sister."
Celeste frowned at him. "Are you? Mamma died bringing our precious Sandro into this world. We must honor her sacrifice by cherishing him."
Portia cleared her throat. "Very touching, but I'm not accustomed to being ignored. Celeste, I’m waiting for an answer."
Four-year-old Bianca glanced at Aunt Portia in terror, then ran to Celeste and buried her face in her skirts.
Still ignoring her aunt, Celeste wrapped an arm around Bianca and said, "Jacopo, fetch a bucket of water from the well. Veronica, help Bianca clean up this mess, and Marco, go scrounge more wood for the fire."
As the children scattered to carry out Celeste's orders, she turned to Portia and said, "To answer your question, I was contemplating how much food I could buy with our last handful of coins." Portia raised an eyebrow but didn't question Celeste's lie. "What are you doing here, Aunt? Do you bring news of Papa? We haven't seen him for days."
"I know nothing of my worthless brother's whereabouts. Nor do I care." Portia took Sandro from Celeste and squeezed him so tightly Celeste feared he would suffocate. "Shush you," Portia said when Sandro took up his wailing. "He's a perfect little miniature of your mother. It's a shame he'll never know her."
"Yes, a shame," Celeste said without emotion.
"There's enough food in that basket to last three or four days. It was all my brother Cesare would allow."
When Sandro reached for Celeste, she took him from Portia and fished a chunk of cheese from the basket. He grabbed it and hungrily stuffed it into his mouth.
"We haven't seen you once in the five years since Papa’s downfall, not even when Mamma died. I feared you'd forgotten us."
Portia blushed and turned away as she dabbed her forehead with a scented handkerchief. "That couldn’t be helped. I’m here to take you to work for my friend, Maria Foscari. You're to be her new nanny. Prepare a pot of soup and we'll go as soon as you've eaten. I can't have you fainting from hunger at Maria’s feet."
Celeste was tempted to drop her brother and run for the door before Portia changed her mind, but Sandro fidgeted in her lap and looked up with a slobbery grin.
She smiled and kissed his cheek. "How can I go? Yes, the wages I’d earn would buy food to fill our bellies, but the children are too young to fend for themselves. Mamma’s dying wish was that I care for them no matter what. I refuse to abandon them."
Portia raised her hand to silence Celeste's protests. "Do you imagine me to be a monster? I've arranged for another to take your place. Maria's last nanny got herself with child from the gondolier. She'll tend to your brothers and sisters for a roof, a bed, and food. You'll take her place as nanny at the Benetto palazzo. Maria is desperate for help."
Portia poked her head through the doorway and said, "Come in, Lorena. Meet your new charges."
A young woman of Celeste's age with long black braids and dark eyes walked in with her head bowed. The bump where her baby grew was visible beneath her apron.
"Thank you for giving me this chance, madam. I don't know what would have become of me." She dropped to her knees and sobbed into her hands.
"Enough of that, girl," Portia said. "Get up. There's work to do."
Celeste helped Lorena to her feet and called for the children to meet their newest surrogate mother. They were shy with her at first, but Lorena soon had them crowded around, all talking at once. Celeste left them to get acquainted while she prepared the soup. She hadn't seen meat in months, and her stomach growled at the sight of the chicken and fish.
Portia brushed crumbs off a bench with her handkerchief and spread her voluminous skirts to sit. She was as out of place in the shabby room as a glorious peacock amongst dull gray gulls.
"It tears my heart to see your potential being wasted in this place. You were born a Gabriele, daughter of the greatest shipbuilding empire in Venice. Your mother and I had such hopes for you. Your father had nearly completed the marriage contract negotiations with Signore Bernardo when Cesare discovered your father's betrayal. Signore Bernardo was old for you, but you would have had a luxurious life. He had no need for an heir, so he would have left you alone in that regard. Then, my worthless brother, Giovanni, destroyed all our plans. When God called your sainted mother home, I blamed Giovanni for that, too. Five children were already more than he could afford. What did he need with one more?"
"Shame killed Mamma, not birthing Sandro, but why dig up memories of our long-dead hopes?"
"To remind you of your noble bloodline. Fortunes change. Futures change. Never forget who you are."
Celeste shrugged and continued chopping vegetables. The Gabriele name meant nothing to her. That life was as dead as her saintly mother. Her only concern was what awaited her at the Benetto palazzo.
"How many children will be in my care? Will my mistress allow me to return home for visits? What kind of mistress is Signora Foscari?"
"So many questions," Portia said and gave a backhanded wave. "Federigo will be your only responsibility. He's in his seventh year and is Maria's youngest. Her other children have outgrown the nursery. Their palazzo equals your Uncle Cesare’s, and Maria is proud but fair. She'll be a good mistress if you're obedient and don't disappoint her. Don’t expect visits home. Maria has many responsibilities and doesn’t expect to concern herself with Federigo."
"We can't expect the grand lady to care for her own child, now, can we?" Celeste said as she slammed her knife down on the chicken’s neck.
Portia thumped her palm on the table. "Watch your tongue, girl. You won't last long with that attitude. The Benetto family is one of the most powerful in Venice. You'll do well not to cross Maria."
Celeste curtsied and said, "Forgive me. I'm grateful, Aunt, and I promise not to bring more shame upon the Gabriele name.”
"I wouldn't be here otherwise. Gather your belongings while the soup boils."
Celeste did as she was told, then ate quickly before leaving Lorena instructions for the care of her siblings. She said a tearful goodbye to her brothers and sisters, promising to visit as soon as she could. God alone knew when that would be.
Celeste followed Portia into the waiting gondola and settled into the fur-trimmed cushions. She relished the feel of the sea breeze caressing her face and the sight of the ships bobbing in the harbor. Only the guilt of leaving her brothers and sisters spoiled her blissful moment. Even as a servant, her quality of life would be far grander than theirs, but at fourteen, Marco was the only one who remembered their former life. The rest wouldn't know to envy the luxuries she'd enjoy.
Turning to Portia, she said. “What will happen when Papa returns to find me gone? He'll take it out on Lorena. That poor girl has suffered enough.”
"You mean if your father returns, but don't fret, dear. I'll see to it Cesare deals with him. That poor girl, as you call her, brought this misfortune upon herself. I'm willing to help her, but don't follow in her ways. I won't be so forgiving of you."
Portia's words offended Celeste. She raised her chin and said, "Lorena has committed a grave sin, but I would never behave that way. I promised Mamma to be a virtuous, obedient girl, and I have honored that promise. She watches from heaven, and I wouldn’t do anything to sadden her.”
Portia squeezed her hand. "Yes, she was a virtuous woman, Celeste, especially for enduring marriage with my ruinous brother. This, I understand. Forgive me for doubting you."
Celeste nodded but remained quiet for the rest of the trip until Portia tapped her arm and said, "Here we are."
The gondolier eased the boat to the landing and offered his hand to help them out. Celeste stopped at the foot of the stairs leading to the grand entryway, unsure what to do.
Portia hooked her arm in Celeste's. "You may enter through this door today, but from then on, you'll use the servants' entrance. Do you understand me?"
"Yes, Aunt," she said, humbled by the reminder of her place and why she was there.
A maid greeted them and led the way to Signora Foscari in the sala. Celeste glanced at the glistening tile floors that mocked the dust on her tattered shoes. She tucked her trembling hands into her apron and waited for her new mistress to speak.
The signora leaned back in her chair and rested her hands on the intricately carved wooden arms. Her smugness permeated the room, and Celeste silently cursed her father for forcing her to grovel before this woman. If not for his ruin, she would have been visiting Signora Foscari as an equal, not a groveling servant.
Signora Foscari gestured for Portia to take the chair next to her, but Celeste remained standing. Turning to Portia, she said, "The girl is small and seems frail. Is she strong enough to handle the work?"
Celeste incensed that the signora had called her frail. If she had glimpsed the drudgery and toil of Celeste’s life, she wouldn't have needed to ask.
"She's more than capable, Maria," Portia said. "She's been a gem since Angela's death. Heaven knows what would have happened to those children without her."
"True. Such a tragedy." Signora Foscari crossed herself and bowed her head in a show of what Celeste judged as false piety. "She’s too pretty," the signora continued. "I was hoping for a plain girl after the scandalous behavior of my last nanny. We’ll need to hide those unruly curls, and where does that shameful auburn coloring come from? Those pale eyes of hers will mean trouble, too. They're too bewitching. The houseboys won't be able to resist her.”
Celeste felt the blood rise in her cheeks. She couldn't help the color of her hair or eyes, but that didn't mean she was evil, as Papa often accused her of being.
"Don't concern yourself on that account. Celeste's a shy and pious girl. She understands her family's survival is at stake," Portia said. "I wouldn't have recommended her otherwise. Trust me, Maria, my niece will be an asset to you."
Signora Foscari turned her gaze back to Celeste. "You're here on a trial basis only. I'm considering you as a favor to your aunt and in the memory of your mother, who was once my dear friend,"
"Yes, madam," Celeste said without raising her eyes. She wondered why, if Mamma had been such a dear friend, Signora Foscari had deserted her in a time of need?
"Just because your father nearly destroyed the Gabriele name doesn't mean you should suffer. I trust you will make the most of this invaluable opportunity."
Celeste choked back her humiliation. "We are deeply indebted to you, madam. My family would be destitute without your kindness. It comforts me to know my brothers and sisters will have full bellies instead of going to bed hungry."
"Yes, very well," she said. "My housekeeper, Pia, will show you to your room and introduce you to my dearest Federigo."
As if by magic, Pia appeared out of the shadows and motioned for Celeste to follow. Celeste made a quick curtsy and nodded to her aunt, wishing she could hug her and thank her. Pia led her down a long hallway to the nursery, then through a small door to a room no bigger than a closet. Nannies usually shared the nursery with their charges, so Celeste was grateful to have private quarters, no matter how small.
"Stow your belongings and wait in the nursery for me to bring Federigo from the garden,” Pia said. “I'll explain your duties then.”
Celeste nodded and smiled. Pia looked to be roughly thirty, with red, doughy cheeks and a plump belly. Celeste wouldn't have called her jolly, but she didn’t appear stern or unfriendly. As head housekeeper, Pia had significant responsibilities in such a large household, but Celeste hoped to have her guidance.
Once Pia had left her alone to get settled, Celeste went to the small window overlooking the canal. Venice and the sea were in the Gabriele blood. As long as she was within sight of the water, she'd be content.
She turned from her window and surveyed the rest of her room. There was a straw mattress on a wooden platform and two shelves holding covered baskets. She dropped her bundle on the bed and unwrapped her few belongings before placing them in the baskets. With that finished, she spread the blanket on the mattress and laid down to reflect on her unforgettable day. Her head spun from the transformation her life had taken in a matter of hours. Moments later, she heard sounds in the nursery and left her precious new sanctuary to meet Federigo and begin her new adventure.