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Passionately Ever After
By Metsy Hingle
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2003 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneHer luck had just run out.
Steven had found her.
Maria Barone didn't know how she knew that the strange black SUV parked in front of the Calderones' place belonged to Steven. She only knew that she did. Easing her car around the bend in the road, she barely noticed the snow-dusted Ponderosa pines or the darkening December sky. All her thoughts, all her energy, were focused on the impending confrontation. Because she had no doubts whatsoever that there would be a confrontation.
Ever since her cousin Karen had phoned a few days ago to warn her that Steven was searching for her, she'd known it would only be a matter of time before he stumbled onto her hiding place in Silver Valley, Montana. Perhaps that was why from the moment she'd awakened that morning, she'd been plagued by a fluttering in her belly that had nothing to do with the baby growing inside her and everything to do with some sixth sense warning her that her days of eluding Steven Conti were about to come to an end.
Pulling her compact to a stop alongside the empty SUV, Maria sat behind the wheel of her car for several moments. For the space of a heartbeat, she considered turning the vehicle around and leaving to avoid what was bound to be a messy, emotional scene. Just as quickly, she dismissed the idea. She wasn't a coward, she reminded herself firmly. And until recently she'd never run away from a thing in her life. Besides, in another two and a half months Steven and everyone else would know her secret. Determinedly she switched off the car's engine.
All right. Time to face the music.
Mustering her courage, Maria exited the vehicle. After gathering her packages from the back seat, she made her way up the shoveled walkway. When she reached the front door, she drew in a deep breath, filling her lungs with the cool, crisp air in an effort to steady her nerves. She'd known for months now that this day would come - the day when she would have to tell Steven about the baby and lay out her plan for their child's future. Yet she was no closer now to figuring out what that plan entailed than she had been when she'd left Boston more than two months ago. All she knew was that she loved Steven, and she loved her family. And no matter what she decided, someone she loved was going to be hurt. Worse, in choosing, she was going to lose either Steven or her family. Or possibly both.
Maria swallowed hard at that thought. And not for the first time, she wondered why the powers that be had played such a cruel trick on her.
Fate, the voice inside her head whispered. Perhaps it was fate, she thought. How else could she explain that the man she'd fallen in love with was a Conti - the one man in the world with whom she couldn't possibly share a future? Maria sighed at the futility of her situation. No matter how much she might wish for things to be different, the past could not be changed. The Contis and the Barones were sworn enemies, had been enemies long before either she or Steven had been born. And the feud between their families that had begun when Marco Barone had eloped with her grandmother instead of marrying Steven's Aunt Lucia was just as strong now as it had been nearly seventy years ago. In truth, the bad blood was probably even stronger now, Maria conceded, as she recalled all the misfortunes that had befallen the Barone family as a result of the Conti curse.
The Conti curse.
Maria shuddered at the thought of that horrid curse that had plagued her family for nearly seven decades. Even now, she still could recall sitting at her grandmother's knee as a young girl and listening to the story of the Conti curse. She could almost hear her grandmother's voice explaining....
"Lucia was so angry, so bitter, when Marco and I told them we were married," Angelica Barone said as she related the tale of their elopement and how they had gone to the Contis and pleaded with them to understand.
"Understand?" a furious Lucia countered. "I understand that you have betrayed me, my brother and our family."
"We love each other," Marco Barone had told her.
"I never meant to hurt you, Lucia."
"Well, you have hurt me. You have hurt all of the Contis."
"Perhaps someday when you are older, you will understand and be able to forgive us and wish us happiness," Angelica offered.
"I shall never forgive you," Lucia spat out. "And I shall never wish you any happiness. In fact, I curse you. You got married on Valentine's Day, so from this day forward, I wish you and all of your descendants a lifetime of miserable Valentine's Days - just like the miserable one you gave me."
Then exactly one year later on the first anniversary of their wedding, Angelica Barone had miscarried the child she had been carrying. Maria shuddered again at the memory of her grandmother and the sadness that crept into her eyes when she had told her about losing her first child.
Smoothing a protective hand over her stomach, Maria couldn't help worrying again how that curse might affect the baby growing inside her - a baby due on Valentine's Day. Despite Steven's claim that the tragedies her family had suffered were coincidences and that the Conti curse was nothing more than superstition fueled by overactive imaginations, Maria knew he was wrong. She had only to look at this past year for proof that the curse was real and the unhappiness that Lucia Conti had called down upon all Barones was continuing to wreak havoc.
Biting her lower lip, Maria considered the disasters that had plagued her family during the past year - disasters that all commenced shortly after she'd become involved with Steven. She winced at the memory of the sabotage of the new passionfruit gelato on Valentine's Day and the turmoil of bad press and lost revenue that had resulted. Then there had been the fire at the plant and her cousin Emily's amnesia. And worst and most frightening of all had been the recent kidnapping of both Steven's sister, Bianca, and her cousin Derrick.
Perhaps Steven could dismiss the curse, but she couldn't, Maria admitted. Besides, even if she were able to get past her fears of the curse, how would she ever be able to get past the loss of her family? How would Steven get past losing his family? Because she had no doubts that both families would disown them were she and Steven to declare that they wanted to share their lives together.
Excerpted from Passionately Ever After by Metsy Hingle Copyright © 2003 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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