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Cleo was almost sure she'd seen the woman before.
She didn't know when or where she might have seen her, or if the feeling was real or just imagined. But there was an odd sense of familiarity when she looked at her that refused to go away.
She shook her head rather impatiently. Sometimes she was far too sensitive for her own good. But there was no doubt that the woman had been staring at her ever since she'd joined the queue at the checkout, so perhaps that was why she looked familiar. Perhaps she resembled someone the woman used to know.
There was obviously a perfectly innocent explanation. Just because she didn't like being stared at didn't mean the woman meant her any harm. Paying for the milk that had sent her to the store in the first place, Cleo determinedly ignored the persistent scrutiny, and then nearly jumped out of her skin when the woman spoke to her.
'It's Ms Novak, isn't it?' she asked, blocking Cleo's way as she would have moved past her. 'I'm so pleased to meet you at last. Your friend said I might find you here.'
Cleo frowned. She could only mean Norah. Which meant the woman must have been to their apartment first. She sighed. What was Norah thinking of, offering her whereabouts to a complete stranger? With all the odd things that happened these days, Cleo would have expected her to have more sense.
'I'm sorry,' she said, albeit against her better judgement. 'Should I know you?'
The woman smiled and Cleo realised she was older than she'd appeared from a distance. Cleo had assumed she was in her forties, but now she saw she was at least fifty. The sleek bob of copper hair was deceiving, but the trim figure and slender legs were not.
She wasn't very tall. She had to tilt her head to meet Cleo's enquiring gaze. But her make-up was skilful, her clothes obviously expensive, and what she lacked in stature she more than made up for in presence.
'I apologise,' she said, her accent vaguely transatlantic, drawing Cleo out of the store by the simple method of continuing to talk to her. The cool air of an autumn evening swirled about them and the woman shivered as if it wasn't to her liking. 'Of course,' she went on, pausing on the forecourt. 'I should have introduced myself at once. We haven't met, my dear, but I'm Serena Montoya. Your father's sister.'
Of all the things she might have said, that had to be the least expected, thought Cleo incredulously. For a moment she could only stare at her in disbelief.
Then, recovering a little, she said with a mixture of shaky amusement and relief, 'My father didn't have a sister, Ms Montoya. I'm sorry.' She started to move away. 'I'm afraid you've made a mistake.'
'I don't think so.' Serena Montoyaif that really was her nameput out scarlet-tipped fingers and caught the sleeve of Cleo's woollen jacket. 'Please,' she pleaded. 'Listen to me for a moment.' She sighed and removed her fingers again when Cleo gave her a pointed look. 'Your father's name was Robert Montoya'
'and he was born on the island of San Clemente in the Caribbean in 1956.'
'That's not true.' Cleo stared at her impatiently. Then, with a sound of resignation, 'Well, yes, my father was born on San Clemente, but I'm not absolutely sure of the date, and his name was Henry Novak.'
'I'm afraid not.' Grasping Cleo's wrist, this time with a firmness that wouldn't be denied, Serena Montoya regarded her with determined eyes. 'I am not lying to you, Ms Novak. I know you've always thought that Lucille and Henry Novak were your parents, but they weren't.'
Cleo couldn't believe this was happening. 'Why are you doing this?' she demanded. 'Why are you insisting that this man, Robert Montoyayour brotheris my father?'
'Was,' Serena corrected her regretfully. 'Robert was your father. He died some years ago.'
Cleo's voice broke on a sob. 'It's a ridiculous assertion and you know it.'
'It's true.' Serena was inflexible. Resisting Cleo's efforts to pull away, she continued flatly, 'Believe me, Ms Novak, when my fatheryour grandfathertold me what had happened, I didn't want to believe it either.'
'Now, that I can believe,' said Cleo a little grimly. 'Well, don't worry, Ms Montoya. Obviously your father is suffering from delusions. Unfortunately my real parents were killed in a rail accident six months ago or they would have told you that themselves.'
'Yes, we know about the accident.' Serena was full of surprises. 'That's when my father first learned where you were living.' She paused. 'And he is not delusional. Please, Cleo, come and have a drink with me and let me explain'
Cleo fell back a step and this time the woman let her go. 'How do you know my name?'
'How do you think?' Serena sounded as if she was getting bored now. 'It's Cleopatra, isn't it?' And, seeing the unwilling confirmation on Cleo's face, she added, 'It was your maternal grandmother's name, too. She was called Cleopatra Dubois and her daughter, Celeste, was your mother. Celeste Dubois was one of the most beautiful women on the island.' She gave Cleo a considering look. 'I hesitate to say it, but you look a lot like her.'
Cleo's lips tightened. 'Was she black?'
Serena frowned. 'Does that matter?'
Cleo shook her head. 'Only a white person would ask such a question.' Her lips curled. 'Yes, it matters.'
'OK.' Serena considered. 'Well, yes, I suppose she wasblack. Her skin wasumcoffee coloured. Not black, exactly, but not white either.'
That was enough. Cleo refused to listen to any more. If the description of her so-called 'mother' had been meant to disarm her, it had failed abysmally. She was used to vapid flattery. Usually from men, it was true. But she'd had to deal with it all her life.
'Look, I have to go,' she said, assuring herself that if there had been any truth in what the woman was saying, she'd have heard about it by now. Her parents had not been liars, whatever Serena Montoya said. And Cleo had loved them far too much to even countenance such a suggestion.
Besides which, she'd been the sole executor of her parents' estate. And she'd found nothing among their papers to arouse any kind of suspicion in her mind.
Except that photograph, she remembered now, half unwillingly. At the time, she'd thought little of it. It was a picture of her mother with another woman, a woman who she'd realised looked a lot like her. But there'd been nothing on the back of the picture, nothing to say who the woman might be. And Cleo had put it down to her own imagination. There were probably hundreds of people in the world that she bore a resemblance to.
Like Serena Montoya
But no, she banished that thought, and to her surprise the other woman didn't try to detain her any longer.
'All right,' she said evenly. 'I realise this has been as much of a shock to you as it was to me.'
You got that right, thought Cleo savagely, but she didn't voice the thought. Nor was she foolish enough to believe that this was the end of the matter.
'You need time to assimilate what I've told you,' Serena went on, almost conversationally, drawing velvet-soft leather gloves over her ringed fingers as she spoke. 'But don't take too long, will you, my dear? Your grandfather is dying. Are you going to deny him a last chance to meet his only granddaughter?'
Cleo arrived back at the apartment she shared with Norah Jacobs some thirty minutes later.
Actually, it was normally only a five-minute walk from the supermarket to Minster Court, where the apartment was situated. But Cleo had taken a detour through the park to give herself time to think.
At any other time, nothing would have persuaded her to enter the park alone and after dark, but right now she wasn't thinking very coherently. She'd just been told that her mother and fatherthe two people in the world she'd always thought she could depend onhad lied about her identity. That far from being alone now, as she'd believed, she had an aunt and a grandfatherand who knew what else?who werewell, white.
She didn't want to believe it. She wanted things to go back to the way they were before she'd decided she couldn't do without milk on her cornflakes in the morning.
If she hadn't gone to the supermarket
But that was silly. Sooner or later, the Montoya woman would have caught up with her. And things weren't going to change any time soon. Not unless Serena Montoya was playing the biggest hoax Cleo had ever heard of.
And why would she do that? What did she have to gain by it? She hadn't struck Cleo as being the kind of woman who'd put herself out for a complete stranger. Not unless her own father was dying, of course. And he had another agenda she had yet to reveal.
Norah was waiting for her in the rather cramped living room of the apartment. The whole place was pushed for space, but rents in this part of London were prohibitive, and Cleo had jumped at the chance to share expenses with the other girl.
Norah was blonde and pretty and inclined to plumpness. The exact opposite of Cleo in so many ways. But the two girls had been friends since their schooldays and, despite the limitations of their surroundings, they generally got along very well.
Now, however, Norah looked positively anxious. 'Here you are!' she exclaimed in relief, as soon as Cleo opened the door. 'I've been worried sick. Where have you been?' Then, her brows drawing together as Cleo moved into the light of the living room, 'What's wrong? You look as if you've seen a ghost.'
Cleo shook her head without saying anything. Walking past her friend, she rounded the breakfast bar that separated the tiny kitchen from the rest of the living space and stowed the milk in the fridge.
Then, straightening, she said, 'Why on earth would you tell a complete stranger where I was?'
'Oh ' The colour in Norah's cheeks deepened. 'So she found you.'
'If you mean Serena Montoya, then yes, she did.'
'Serena Montoya? Is that her name?' Norah tried to lighten the conversation, but she could tell Cleo wasn't distracted by her efforts. 'Well, she said she was your aunt,' she offered lamely. 'What was I supposed to say? She didn't look like a con artist to me.'
'Like you would know,' said Cleo drily. Norah's many unsuccessful attempts to find herself a decent man were legendary. Coming back into the living room, Cleo flung herself onto the sofa, regarding her friend moodily. 'Honestly, Norah, I thought you had more sense.'
'So she's not your aunt?'
'No, she's not my aunt,' stated Cleo with more force than conviction. 'I mean, didn't anything about her give you a clue? Be honest, Norah. Do I look like Serena Montoya's niece?'
'You could be.' Norah wasn't prepared to back down. 'In fact, although you're taller than she is, you do have similar features.' She paused. 'Montoya. That's a Spanish name, isn't it?'
'I don't know. I believe she lives in the Caribbean, so it could be.' Cleo was impatient. 'But my parents were black, Norah. Not Spanish. You know that.'
She hunched her shoulders, reluctant now to remember the rare occasions when she'd questioned her identity herself. She hadn't looked a lot like her parents, and she had wondered if one or both of them might have Latin blood.
But those questions had aroused such animosity that she'd kept any further doubts to herself. And she refused to believe they'd been lying to her. She'd loved them too much for that.
'Oh, well ' Norah was philosophical. 'So what else did she say? There must be some sort of connection to bring her here.'
'There is no connect ion.' Cleo was exasperated. Then, seeing Norah's indignation, she went on, 'All right. She said that Mom and Dad weren't my real parents. That my biological father's name was actually Robert Montoya.' She paused. 'Her brother.'
'Oh, my God!'
'Yeah, right.' Cleo felt a sudden sense of apprehension at the sudden possibility that it might be true. 'That's why I looked a bitspaced-out when I came in, I suppose. It's not every day someone tells you you're not who you'd always thought you were.'
Norah bit her lip. 'But you think she's lying?'
'Damn right!' Cleo stared at her emotively. 'Of course she's lying. How can you ask such a thing? You knew my parents. Did they strike you as the kind of people who'd keep a secret like that?'
'Well, no.' Norah sighed. 'All the same, I have sometimes thought that you didn't look a lot like them, Cleo. I mean, OK, your skin is darker than mine, but you're not a blonde, are you? And you've got that gorgeous straight black hair.'
'Don't go there, Norah.'
Getting to her feet again, Cleo turned abruptly away, heading for the small bedroom that Norah had had decorated for her when she moved in.
She didn't want to consider that there might be even a grain of truth in what Serena Montoya had said. To do so would tear the whole fabric of her life up to this time apart.
She should have asked more questions, she acknowledged. She should have asked the woman outright what proof she had to substantiate her claim.
Instead, all she'd done was keep on denying something that she now saw in retrospect had to have some meaning. Maybe not the meaning Serena Montoya had put upon it, but a reason why she'd contacted her.
Dominic Montoya was standing staring out of the hotel's fourteenth-floor windows when Serena strode into the suite. The lights of the capital were spread out below him, a teeming, noisy metropolis, much different from his family's estate back home.
The door's automatic closing mechanism prevented Serena from slamming it, but the oath she uttered caused her nephew to turn and regard her with mocking green eyes.
'It must have gone well,' he remarked, as Serena charged across the room to where a tray of drinks resided on a bureau. He watched as she splashed vodka and ice into a glass and raised it to her lips before adding, 'I assume you found her.'
Serena swallowed half her drink before replying. Then, her lips tightening, she said, 'Yes, I found her.' Her blue eyes sparkled coldly. 'But you can go and see her yourself next time.'
Dominic pushed his thumbs into the back pockets of his jeans and rocked back on the heels of his leather boots. 'So there is to be a next time,' he remarked casually. 'Have you made that arrangement?'
'No.' Serena was stubborn. 'But one of us will have to bite the bullet, won't we?' She shook her head. 'Your grandfather's going to have a hissy fit.'
Dominic's dark brows drew together enquiringly, and Serena thought, not for the first time, what a damnably attract ive man he was. A small core of resentment uncurled inside her. Whatever happened, her father would never blame him.
Ever since her brother, Robert, had found the infant, Dominic, wandering the streets of Miami when he was barely three years old, it had always been that way. Dominic was that most fortunate of beings: the favoured grandchild.
The only grandchild until now, Serena reflected irritably. Although her brother had married when he was in his early twenties, she never had. She'd had offers, of course, when she was younger. But their mother's premature death when Serena was in her teens had persuaded her that her father needed her as his hostess, and she'd never looked back.
Now, discovering her brother had had an adulterous affair with Celeste Dubois had really thrown her. She'd always thought they were close. She'd been shattered when he died. But recently, her father had revealed the circumstances of the affair, how heand he alonehad helped Robert keep the child's existence a secret.
She shook her head and Dominic thought he could guess what she was thinking. He knew she'd never forgive Robert for deceiving her and Dominic's adoptive mother, Lily. It was the fact that Lily couldn't have children that had made his own adoption so much easier.
And he knew how lucky he'd been to find such loving, caring parents. His own biological mother had never wanted him, and she'd been only too happy for someone else to take responsibility for him.
He had once tried to find his mother, when he was a teenager and curious about his roots. But he'd discovered she'd died of an overdose, just weeks after he'd been adopted, and he'd realised again how fortunate he was that Robert had found him.
Perhaps that was why he viewed the present situation with much less anguish than Serena. OK, it had been a shock to all of them, particularly his mother, who, like Serena, had trusted her husband completely.
And it was going to be hard for her. The old manhis grandfatherhad a lot to answer for, bringing the girl to their attention all these years after Robert's death. He must have had an attack of conscience, Dominic decided, brought on by the sudden discovery of prostate cancer earlier in the year.
'So why is my grandfather going to have awhat was it you saida hissy fit?' Dominic questioned now, and Serena turned resentful eyes in his direction.
'Because she's the image of her mother,' she retorted shortly. 'Or the way she used to look before she died.' She shook her head. 'You know, I knew Celeste had had a baby, but I never dreamt it might be Robert's child.'
'Obviously, no one did. Except perhaps my grandfather.'
'Oh, yes, he knew.' Serena was bitter. 'But how could Robert do that to Lily? I thought he loved her.'
'I know he did.' Dominic's tone was mild. 'This womanCelestewas probably just a momentary madness.'
'A momentary sexual madness.' Serena wasn't prepared to compromise. 'Or maybe to prove he wasn't impotent, hmm?' She flopped down into one of the tapestry-covered armchairs that flanked the pseudo-marble fireplace. 'How could he, Dom? Would you do that to a woman you professed to love?'
'Uhno.' Dominic was indignant. 'But we're not talking about me, Serena. And your brother's dead. Someone has to defend him. He wasn't a bad man, for God's sake. Can't you cut him a little slack?'
Serena sighed. 'It's not easy.'
'Anyway, I doubt if Robert would approve of what your father's doing, if he were alive.' Dominic was persuasive. 'And I dare say at the time he thought what he was doing was right.'
'Getting rid of the evidence, you mean?'
'Oh, 'Rena ' Dominic came to squat on his haunches beside her chair. 'I'm sure he had the child's best interests at heart.