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Belle Peterson left the cell phone store she managed, and took a bus to the law office of Mr. Earl Harmon in downtown Newburgh, New York. The secretary showed her into the conference room. She discovered her thirty-year-old, divorced sibling, Cliff, had already arrived and was sitting at the oval table with a mulish look on his face, daring her to speak to him. She hadn't seen him since their parents' funeral six months ago.
On the outside he was blond and quite good-looking, but his facade hid a troubled soul. He'd been angry enough after his wife had left him, but the deaths of their parents in a fatal car crash meant he was now on his own. Today Belle felt Cliff's antipathy more strongly than usual and chose a seat around the other side of the table without saying a word.
Now twenty-four and single, she had been adopted fourteen years ago. The children at the Newburgh Church Orphanage had liked her, as had the sisters. But out in the real world, Belle felt she was unlovable, and worked hard at her job to gain the respect of her peers. Her greatest pain was never to know the mother who'd given birth to her. To have no identity was an agony she'd had to live with every day of her life.
The sisters who ran the orphanage had told Belle that Mrs. Peterson had been able to have only one child. She'd finally prevailed on her husband to adopt the brunette girl, Belle, who had no last name. This was Belle's chance to have a mother, but no bonding ever took place. From the day she'd been taken home, Cliff had been cruel to her, making her life close to unbearable at times.
Belle was so deep in thought over the past, she didn't realize Mr. Harmon had come into the room. She shook his hand.
"I'm glad you two could arrange to meet here at the same time. I have some bad news and some good. Let's start with the bad first."
The familiar scowl on Cliff's face spoke volumes.
"As you know, there was no insurance, therefore the home you grew up in was sold to pay off the multitude of debts. The good news is you've each been given fifteen hundred dollars from the auction of the furnishings. I have checks for you." He passed them out.
Cliff shot to his feet. "That's it?" Belle heard panic beneath his anger. She knew he'd been waiting to come into some money, if only to make up delinquent alimony payments. She hadn't expected anything herself and rejoiced to receive this check, which she clutched in her hand before putting it in her purse.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Peterson, but everything went to pay off your father's debts and cover the burial costs. Please accept my sincere sympathy at the passing of your parents. I wish both of you the very best."
"Thank you, Mr. Harmon," Belle said, when Cliff continued to remain silent.
"If you ever need my help, feel free to call." The attorney smiled at her and left the room. The second he was gone, an explosion of venom escaped Cliff's lips. He shot her a furious glance.
"It's all your fault. If Mom hadn't nagged Dad for a daughter, there would have been more money and we wouldn't be in this mess. Why don't you go back to Italy where you belong?"
Her heart suddenly pounded with dizzying intensity. "What did you say?"
"You heard me. Dad never wanted you."
"You think I didn't know that?" She moved closer to her brother, holding her breath. "Are you saying I came from Italian parents?" All along she'd thought the sisters at the orphanage might have named her for the fairy-tale character, or else she came from French roots.
Her whole life she'd been praying to find out her true lineage, and she'd gone to the orphanage many times seeking information. But every time she did, she'd been told they couldn't help her. Nadine, her adoptive mother, had never revealed the truth to her, but Belle had heard Cliff's slip and refused to let it go.
He averted his eyes and wheeled around to leave, but she raced ahead of him and blocked the door. At twenty-four, Belle was no longer frightened of him. Before they left this office and parted ways forever, she had to ask the question that had been inscribed on her mind and heart from the time she knew she was an orphan. "What else do you know about my background?"
Cliff flashed her a mocking smile. "Now that Dad's no longer alive, how much money are you willing to pay me for the information?"
She could hardly swallow before she opened her purse and pulled out the check. In a trembling voice she said, "I'd give you this to learn anything that could help me know my roots." While he watched, she drew out a pen and endorsed it over to him.
For the first time since she'd known him, his eyes held a puzzled look rather than an angry one. "You'd give up that much money just to know about someone who didn't even want you?"
"Yes," she whispered, fighting tears. "It's not important if they didn't want me. I just need to know who I am and where I came from. If you know anything, I beg you to tell me." Taking a leap of faith, she handed him the check.
He took it from her and studied it for a moment. "You always were pathetic," he muttered.
"So you don't know anything and were just teasing me with your cruelty? That doesn't really surprise me. Go on. Keep it. I never thought we'd get that much money from the auction, anyway. You're one of the lucky people who grew up knowing your parents. Too bad they're gone and you're all alone now. Knowing how it feels, I wouldn't wish that on anyone, not even you."
Belle opened the door, and had started to leave when she heard him say, "The old man said your last name was the same as the redheaded smart-mouth he hated in high school."
Her heart thundered. She spun around.
"Who was that?"
"Yeah. One day I heard Mom and Dad arguing about you. That's when it came out. He said he wished they'd never adopted that Italian girl's brat. After he left for work, I told Mom she ought to send you back to where you came from, because you weren't wanted. She said that would be impossible because it was someplace in Italy."
What? "Where in Italy?" Belle demanded.
"I don't know. It sounded something like Remenee."
"How did he find out? The sisters told me it was a closed adoption."
"How the hell do I know?"
It didn't matter, because joy lit up Belle's insides. Her leap of faith had paid off! Without conscious thought she reached out and hugged him so hard she almost knocked him over. "Thank you! I know you hate me, but I love you for this and forgive every mean thing you ever said or did to me. Goodbye, Cliff."
She rushed out of the law office to the bus stop and rode back to work. After nodding to the sales reps, she disappeared into the back room and looked for a map of Italy on the computer. She was trembling so violently she could hardly work the keyboard.
As she scrolled down the list of cities and towns that popped up, the name Rimini appeared, most closely matching "Remenee." The blood pounded in her ears when she looked it up and discovered it was a town of a hundred forty thousand along the Adriatic. It was in the province of Rimini.
Quickly, she scanned the month's schedule of vacations for the employees. They all had one week off in summer and one in winter. Belle was on summer break from college, where she went to night school. Her vacation would be coming up the third week of June, ten days away.
Without hesitation she booked a flight from New York City to Rimini, Italy, and made arrangements for a rental car. She chose the cheapest flight, with two stopovers, and made a reservation at a pension that charged only twenty-eight dollars a day. No phone, no TV. The coed bathroom was down the hall. Sounded like the orphanage. That was fine with her. A bed was all she needed.
Since she'd been saving her money, and roomed with two other girls, she'd managed to put away a modest nest egg. All these years she'd been guarding it for something important, never dreaming the money would ever help her to find her mother.
She lifted her head and smiled politely at her colleague. "Yes, Mac?"
"How about going for pizza after we lock up tonight?"
"I'm sorry, but I have other plans."
"You always say that. How can someone so gorgeous turn me down? Come on. How about it?"
Her new assistant manager, transferred in from another store, was good-looking and a real barracuda in sales, but he irritated her by continually trying to get her to go out with him.
"Mac? I've told you already that I'm not interested."
"Some of the guys call you the Ice Queen." He never gave up.
"Really. Anything else you want to say to me before you finish the inventory?"
She heard a smothered imprecation before the door closed. Good. Maybe she was an ice queen. Fine! So far she hadn't seen examples of love in her personal life and didn't expect to.
Her birth parents had given her away. Her adoptive parents had suffered through an unhappy marriage. Her adoptive brother was already divorced, and angry. He'd used her pretty mercilessly as an emotional punching bag. Belle always felt she was on the outside looking in, but never being part of a whole.
She thought about the single girls at the store, who all struggled to find good dates and were usually miserable with the ones they landed. Two of the four guys were married. One of them was having an affair. The other was considering divorce. The other two were players. Both spent their money on clothes and cars.
Her own roommates were still single and terrified they would end up alone. It was all they talked about when the three of them went running in the mornings.
Belle didn't worry about being alone. That had been her state from the moment she was born. The few dates she'd accepted here and there outside the workplace had fizzled. It was probably her fault, because she didn't feel very lovable and wasn't as confident as she needed to be. Marriage wasn't an option for her.
She didn't trust any relationship to last, and cut it off early. Belle hadn't met a man she'd cared enough about to imagine going to bed with. No doubt her mother had experimented, and gotten caught with no resources but the church orphanage to help her. Belle refused to get into that circumstance.
What she could depend on was her career, which gave her the stability she craved after being dependent on the orphanage and her adoptive parents. She was a free agent now. Her store had been number one in the region for two years. Soon she hoped to be promoted to upper-level management in the company.
But first she would take her precious vacation time to try to find her mother. If Cliff had gotten it wrong or misunderstood, then maybe the trip would be for nothing, but Belle had to think positive thoughts. Romantic Italy, the world of Michelangelo, gondolas and the famous tenor Pavarotti, had always sounded as delightful and as faraway as the moon. Incredible to believe she'd actually be flying there in ten days.
Tomorrow she'd see about equipping herself with a company GSM phone and SIM card, the kind with a quad-band. Once in Rimini, she'd find a local library and work from the latest city phone directory to do her research.
She was in the midst of making a mental list of things she'd need when Rod, one of the reps, suddenly burst in on her. "Hey, boss? Can you come out in front? An angry client just threw his cell phone at Sheila and is demanding satisfaction. He said it broke after he bought it."
She smiled. "If it wasn't broken, it is now. No problem." No problem at all on the first red-letter day of her life. "I'll be right there."
It was seven in the morning when thirty-three-year-old Leonardo Rovere di Ma-latesta, the elder son of Count Sullisto Malatesta of Rimini, finally got his little six-month-old Concetta to sleep. The doctor said she'd caught a bug, and he'd prescribed medicine to bring down her temperature. It was now two degrees lower than it had been at midnight, and she hadn't thrown up again, grazie a Dio!
After he'd walked the floor with her all night in an attempt to comfort her, he was exhausted. The dog ought to be exhausted, too. Rufo was a brown roan Spinone, a wedding gift from his wife's father.
Rufo had been devoted to Benedetta and had transferred his allegiance to Concetta when Leon had returned from the hospital without his wife. Since that moment, their dog had never let the baby out of his sight. Leon was deeply moved by such a show of love, and patted the animal's head.
There was no way he'd be going in to the bank today. Talia and Rufo would watch over his daughter while he slept. The forty-year-old nanny had been with him since Benedetta had died in childbirth, and was devoted to his precious child. If the baby's fever spiked again, he could count on her to waken him immediately.
He kissed Concetta's head with its fine, dark blond hair, and laid her in the crib on her back, out of habit. She never stayed in that position for long. Her lids hid brown eyes dark as poppy throats. She had Bene-detta's coloring and facial features. Leon loved this child in a way he hadn't thought possible. Her presence and demanding needs filled the aching loneliness in his heart for the wife he'd lost.
After tiptoeing out of the nursery, he told Talia he was going to bed, then went to find his housekeeper, who'd always worked for his mother's family. She and Talia were cousins, and he trusted them implicitly.
"Simona? I've turned off my cell phone. If someone needs me, knock on my door."
The older woman nodded before Leon headed for his bedroom. He was so exhausted he didn't remember his head touching the pillow. The relief of knowing the baby's fever had broken helped him to fall into a deep sleep.
When he heard a tap on his door later, he checked his watch. He'd slept seven hours and couldn't believe it was already mid-afternoon! He came awake immediately, fearing something was wrong.
"Simona? Is Concetta worse?" he called out.
"No, no. She has recovered. Talia is feeding her." Relief swamped him a second time. "Your assistant at the bank asked if you would phone him at your convenience."
"Grazie." Leon levered himself off the bed and headed for the shower, surprised that Berto would call the villa. Normally he would leave a message on Leon's cell. Maybe he had.
After he'd shaved and dressed, Leon reached for his phone. There was a message from his father asking him to join the family for dinner.
Another message came from his friend Vito, in Rome. Leon would phone him before he went to bed.
Nothing from Berto.