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One Way Out
By Wendy Rosnau
Harlequin Enterprises LimitedCopyright © 2003 Harlequin Enterprises Limited
All right reserved.
Chapter OneAt midnight Grace Palazzo suffered her second stroke of the year. Her struggle had been traumatic, but not fatal. It had sent the household into a panic and Rhea, along with Grace's daughter, into tears. But it wasn't the most significant drama to unfold on that stormy night on the third of November.
No, the real drama, at least for Rhea Williams, had come hours later when she had returned to her bedroom to find the silver cross glistening on her pillow.
She had scarcely been able to breathe as she backed out the door, then raced down the hall to Nicci's room. Only, she knew before she swung the door wide that her son was gone - that like a thief in the night, his father had breached the house and taken him.
She had prayed she was wrong, had prayed for mercy - a shred of compassion. But there was no mercy, no compassion, only an open window and an empty bed where her son had slept for the past two years.
A gust of wind lifted the curtain at her bedroom window, and in spite of the heat, Rhea shivered. Key West was warm, but after the sun went down, the wind could become as dangerous and unpredictable as a vengeful witch. Especially during hurricane season.
The smell of rain was heavy in the air, the pounding surf a constant roaring in her ears. The tropical storm the islanders had been preparing for was less than ten hours away. Rhea hated storms, but she would rather meet a hurricane head-on than return to Chicago and face Nicci's father.
In the beginning, all she had wanted was to go back, and for Joey to know about his son. But then the days had turned into months, the months into years, and slowly Santa Palazzo had become her home.
Oh God ... he knew they had created a child - a beautiful black-haired, brown-eyed baby boy.
"What will you do, Rhea?"
The voice was soft behind her, as soft as the touch on her shoulder. Rhea turned from her bedroom window to face Grace's twenty-four-year-old daughter. Elena stood hugging herself, her eyes red from crying. Tonight had been a nightmare for both of them.
"Rhea, did you hear me? How will you get Nicci back?" When Rhea didn't answer right away, Elena squeezed her shoulder. "You're scaring me, Rhea. There's a way to get him back, isn't there? You'll fight, right?"
Fight Joey ...
Elena had no idea how ridiculous that statement was. She had no idea what lay hidden behind all the closed doors to the past. She had no idea the complexity of the situation, or the danger. But then, why would she? She'd been carefully sheltered from the secrets by layers of lies - twenty-four years of lies.
"When I called to tell my father about Mom's stroke, we had no idea that Nicci had been kidnapped. But he's coming, Rhea. On his way right now. He'll be here in a few hours. We'll tell him what happened, and he'll know what to do. He loves Nicci. You know that."
Yes, she knew that. Frank thought the world of Nicci. That wasn't up for debate. What was, however, was how to defuse the time bomb that had started ticking the minute Joey had learned he had a son. And that's what would be foremost on Frank's mind when he learned Nicci had been taken by Joey.
But how could she tell Elena any of that, without explaining the rest? Without telling her that her father, Frank Palazzo, resident of Key West, Florida, was also Frank Masado, a member of the famiglia in the Chicago-Italian mafia. And if she went that far to disclose his double identity, she would have to tell Elena all of it. She would have to confess that Frank was Nicci's grandfather.
Elena believed she was an only child. She had no idea that she was the half sister to Joey and Tomas Masado. She had no idea that her father had been previously married, or that he'd been juggling two separate lives with well-crafted scenarios and tightly woven lies to keep them all safe.
When Frank had brought Rhea to Key West three years ago, he had told Elena that he'd hired a live-in nurse for Grace. And that's how Rhea had been disguised - how the household at Santa Palazzo had come to accept her.
Grace's health over the years had gradually gotten worse, and she needed constant care. Rhea had been a nurse in Chicago for seven years. The situation had worked on all levels.
"Talk to me, Rhea. What can I do to help?"
"I don't want your mother to know what's happened. She's too fragile. She needs bed rest and no excitement for at least forty-eight hours. And your father ... when he learns what happened tonight he'll know why I had to ..."
"Leave. You are, aren't you."
"I can't wait, Elena. I'll go crazy waiting for your father to get here."
Elena reached out and tugged Rhea to the bed. Pulling her down to sit next to her, she said, "Mother would have died tonight if you hadn't been here to help her. If you leave, she'll have no one."
Rhea pushed her long blond bangs out of her eyes. "You're wonderful with your mother, Elena. You are why your mother has survived all these years. You and your father. She'll be fine until Frank comes. He'll order a replacement nurse within twenty-four hours."
"Why can't we just call the police and tell them that Nicci's been kidnapped? Tell them that you know who did it, and -"
"I can't do that," Rhea said quickly. "Nicci's father is a powerful man in Chicago. When I left I didn't tell him I was pregnant. I didn't say where I was going, either. I just left. I had my reasons. Good reasons. But ..."
"I was always curious about Nicci's father," Elena admitted. "Is that where he gets his black hair and dark eyes? Does his father have black hair? You're so fair, and Nicci's so dark."
"Joey's Sicilian. His family ..." Rhea glanced at Elena's dark hair, then her earthy brown eyes, "they all have black hair and dark eyes."
"Did you run away because he hurt you, Rhea? Was it Nicci's father who gave you the scars?"
Rhea saw Elena focus on the thin white line on her lower lip, then on the one that slipped into the corner of her left eye - the scar that had made her wear an eye patch for months. The scar that had nearly blinded her.
"It wasn't like that. Joey never hurt me."
Elena frowned. "Then, I don't understand."
Excerpted from One Way Out by Wendy Rosnau Copyright © 2003 by Harlequin Enterprises Limited
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.