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NINA stared at her twin sister in shock. "You surely don't mean to go through with it?"
Nadia gave her a defiant look from beneath lashes heavy with thick black mascara. "I can't cope with a baby. Besides, I never really wanted her in the first place."
"But Georgia is so young!" Nina protested. "How can you possibly think of giving her away?"
"It's easy." Nadia pouted. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. If I don't take it with both hands it might never come again."
"But she's only four months old!" Nina cried. "Surely you owe it to Andre's memory to raise her."
"I owe him nothing!" Nadia spat. "You seem to be forgetting that he refused to acknowledge her as his child. He wouldn't even agree to a paternity test, no doubt because he didn't want to upset that cow of a fiancée of his." She paced the room angrily. "I should've known he wasn't to be trusted. The Marcello males are known for their playboy lifestyle; you have only to look at yesterday's paper to realise that."
Nina was well aware of the photograph of Marc Marcello, Andre's older brother, in the Sydney weekend broadsheet. It was rare for a week to go past without some reference to his billionaire fast-paced fast-women lifestyle. His dark good looks had been the first thing she'd noticed when she'd opened the paper.
"Does Marc Marcello know about your intention to give his niece up for adoption?" she asked her sister.
Nadia turned back to face her. "I wrote to his father in Italy a few weeks ago but he flatly refused to acknowledge Georgia as his granddaughter. So this time I sent a photo of her. That should set the cat among the pigeons, when he sees howlike Andre she is. I felt the need to twist the knife since it's his precious son's fault my life has been stuffed up."
Nadia gave her a bristling look. "As far as I'm concerned, I want nothing more to do with the Marcello family. I gave them a chance to claim Georgia but they brushed me off. That's why I'm leaving now to get on with Plan B."
"Leaving?" Nina stared at her in consternation. "Leaving to go where?"
"America." 'But what about Georgia?" she gasped, her heart tripping in alarm. "You're surely not thinking of..." She couldn't even frame the rest of the words.
Nadia gave a dismissive shrug of one shoulder. "You can look after her for a month or two--you do most of the time anyway. Besides, it's clear she loves you more than me, so I don't see why I shouldn't hand her over to you temporarily. You can take care of her until someone adopts her."
Nina's stomach rolled over painfully. It was hard for her to imagine her sister having so little regard for the tiny infant who lay sleeping in the pram near the window. How could she be so unfeeling as to walk away from her own baby?
"Look--" she tried to reason with her '--I know you're upset; it's only been a few months since Andre...went."
Nadia turned on her furiously. "What's with the euphemism? Andre didn't go somewhere--he died."
Nina swallowed. "I--I know." 'I'm just glad he took his stupid fiancée with him," Nadia added in a surly tone.
"You surely don't mean that?" Nadia's features twisted in bitterness. "Of course I mean it. I hate the Marcello family and anyone connected to them." She tossed her mane of blonde hair over one shoulder and looked back at her sister. "I have a chance at a new life with Bryce Falkirk in America. He loves me and has promised me a part in one of his films. This will be my chance at the big screen. I'd be a fool to let it slip out of my hands. And if I play my cards right he might even ask me to marry him." 'Have you told him about Georgia?"
Nadia rolled her eyes. "Are you nuts? Of course I didn't tell him. He thinks Georgia is your child."
Nina stared at her in alarm. "How can you even consider the possibility of marrying the man without telling him of your past?"
Nadia gave her sister a cutting look. "Bryce wouldn't have considered being involved with me at all if I'd told him anything like that. He thinks the sun shines from my "childlike innocent" eyes, and I'm going to make sure he keeps thinking that way, even if I have to lie through my teeth every day to ensure he does."
"But surely if he really loves you--" 'Look, Nina, I don't want to have the sort of life our mother had, flitting from one bad man to another and shunting kids off into horrible foster homes whenever things got tough. I want to have money and stability and I can't have that with a kid hanging off my hip."
"But surely you could--" 'No!" Nadia cut her off impatiently. "You don't get it, do you? I don't want that child; I never did." She dumped Georgia's changing bag next to the pram, the soft thump as it hit the floor striking a chord of disquiet in Nina's chest. "You were the one who talked me out of getting rid of the pregnancy, so I think it's only fair you get to look after her now until I can find a private adoption candidate."
"Private adoption?" Nina instantly stiffened. Nadia gave her sister a streetwise look. "There are people out there who will pay big money for a cute little baby. I want to make sure I get the best deal I can. With my connections with Bryce I might even be able to find a Hollywood actor who will want Georgia. Think of the money they would be prepared to pay."
Nina's eyes flared in shock and her heart began to thump unevenly behind her ribcage. "How can you do this to your own child?"
"It's none of your business what I do," Nadia said. "She's my child, not yours."
"Let me adopt her," Nina begged. "I can do it. I'm a blood relative, which would make it so much easier, surely?"
Nadia shook her head. "No. I'm going to use this opportunity to its fullest extent." Her eyes glinted with unmistakable avarice. "It's like a lucky windfall when you think about it. It's my chance to free myself of Andre's child and make a whole heap of money in the process."
"You're so mercenary." 'Not mercenary--realistic," Nadia insisted. "We might be identical twins but I'm not like you, Nina, and it's high time you accepted it. I want to travel and I want the comfort of wealth and privilege around me. You can keep your long hours in a boring old library--I want a life."
Nina straightened her shoulders, her chin lifting in pride. "I enjoy my work."
"Yeah, well, I enjoy shopping and dining out and partying. And I'm going to do a hell of a lot of it when I get to Bryce's mansion in Los Angeles. I can't wait."
"I can't believe you're simply going to walk away from your responsibilities. Georgia isn't some sort of toy you can push to one side. She's a baby, for God's sake. Doesn't that mean anything to you at all?"
"No." Nadia's cold grey eyes clashed with hers. "It means absolutely nothing to me. I told you--I don't want her." She scooped up her bag and, rummaging in it, handed her sister a document folder. "Here is her birth certificate and passport; keep them safe for when it's time to hand her over.'She hoisted her handbag back on to her shoulder and turned for the door.
"Nadia, wait!" Nina cried, glancing at the pram in desperation. "Aren't you even going to say goodbye to her?"
Nadia opened the door and, with one last determined look, closed it firmly behind her.
Nina knew it would be hopeless running after her to implore her to come back. For most of her twenty-four years she'd been pleading with Nadia to stop and think about her actions, but to no avail. Her wayward and wilful twin had gone from one disaster to another, causing immeasurable hurt in the process and showing little remorse. But this was surely the worst so far.
There was a soft whimper from inside the pram and, moving across the small room, she reached inside to pick up the tiny pink bundle. "Hey, precious," she said as she cradled the infant close to her chest, marvelling yet again at the minute perfection of her features. "Are you hungry, little one?"
The baby began to nuzzle against her and Nina felt a wave of overwhelming love wash through her. She couldn't bear the thought of her niece being handed over to someone else to rear. What if things didn't work out and Georgia's childhood ended up like hers and Nadia's? Nina remembered it all too well--the regular stints in foster care, some of the placements a whole lot less desirable than the neglect she and her twin had received at home. How could she stand by and watch the same thing happen to Georgia?
Nina knew how the legal adoption system worked but this private process made her feel very uneasy. What if someone totally unsuitable offered her sister a huge amount of money? What sort of screening process would the prospective parents go through, if any?
She became aware of the seeping wetness of Georgia's clothing and, carrying her through to her room, laid her on the bed and gently undressed her as she'd done countless times before. She got down to the last layer, a tiny yellowed vest that was frayed at the edges. She peeled it over the tiny child's head, cooing to her niece as she did so until the soft nonsense of her words dried up in her throat as she encountered what the vest had hidden from view. Her eyes widened in shock at the purple welt of bruises along Georgia's ribcage, bruises that exactly matched the length and width of her own fingers as if she'd done the damage herself.
"Oh, Nadia, how could you?" she gulped, fighting back tears for how she hadn't been able to prevent her niece from suffering what had been commonplace in her own childhood and that of her twin.
Nina determined then and there that she would do whatever she could to keep Georgia herself. Surely there was a way to convince Nadia to give the baby to her permanently.
She had to find one!
Other single mothers coped, so too would she--somehow.
She chewed the ragged edge of one nail as she considered her options. It wouldn't be easy for her--she could hardly afford childcare on her present salary at the library.
She looked down at the sleeping infant, her chest squeezing painfully at the thought of never seeing her tiny niece again.
No. She would simply not allow her sister to go through with it.
She would be Georgia's mother and if anyone thought differently, too bad.
No one was going to take her niece away from her. No one.