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Farrington Manor December 25, 1874
I must have been insane to agree to this." Eric finished buttoning his shirt, scowling at his own image in the looking glass.
"You didn't have a choice, darling." Brigitte lay her brush on the dressing table, her golden brown eyes soft with compassion—and clouded by more than a tinge of worry. "We both knew Noelle would ask, eventually."
"No, we both didn't know that." Eric abandoned his task, running a hand through his hair. He met his wife's pointed look and nodded resignedly. "Fine, maybe we did. Maybe I just prayed it would go away."
One slender brow rose. "When have Noelle's questions ever gone away?"
Eric's scowl deepened. "She's still a child, Brigitte. Do you know what she's doing right this moment; for that matter, what she's been doing since the first rays of dawn? Precisely what she's done on this day every year since she turned four: pacing about what used to be my bedchamber and is now our celebration room, waiting to open her birthday gifts before we leave for church."
"Perhaps this time what she's waiting for is the information you promised to give her on her eighteenth birthday," Brigitte amended softly. She crossed over and slipped her arms about her husband's waist. "I dread this discussion as much as you do, Eric. But Noelle is not a child, not anymore. We can't protect her from a truth that she herself requested. Further, we've never broken our word to her. We can't start now."
A muscle worked in Eric's jaw. "If only the details my investigators uncovered were a bit more uplifting. Better still, if only they'd uncovered nothing at all." He drew Brigitte to him, pressed his lips into her bright crown of chestnut hair, seeking a comfort only his wife could offer. "No matter how much Noelle insists otherwise, this information is going to be painful for her to hear. But you're right. I promised her the truth. And I'll give it to her, no matter how much I detest doing so."
"It's not her ability to cope with what she learns that worries me," Brigitte murmured, leaning back to meet Eric's gaze. "It's how she acts upon it."
"You believe she'll seek him out?"
"I think we both know the answer to that." Eric's lips thinned into a grim line. "Yes. Unfortunately, we do."
Noelle stopped pacing the instant she heard her parents' oncoming footsteps. Whipping about, she fairly flew to the doorway, watching their approach with an anticipatory expression on her face.
"Mama, Papa—Merry Christmas," she said fervently, hugging each of them in turn.
"Merry Christmas and happy birthday." Brigitte returned Noelle's embrace, feeling an incredible surge of pride and love. What she and Noelle shared was precious, a bond whose filaments had been forged fourteen years ago and had grown stronger each passing day.
"I can't believe you're eighteen," Eric added gruffly. He tousled his daughter's hair, trying to see her through objective eyes—and failing.
"Nor can I," Noelle admitted, giving him a dazzling smile that illuminated not only her face but the entire room.
"Where's your sister?" Eric inquired, glancing about for Chloe. Traditionally, his younger child would be perched alongside Noelle's pile of birthday gifts, ready to aid her sister in opening them—just as Noelle did for her each August when Chloe's birthday came.
"In her chambers," Noelle replied candidly, staring from one parent to the other. "She's agreed to give us some time alone together. She'll join us afterwards, when we open the gifts."
"Chloe knows what we're discussing?" Brigitte asked, not even pretending to misunderstand the purpose of this private chat.
"Yes. Chloe and I have no secrets, Mama. Especially when it comes to the subject of my parentage. After all, she's known the truth about my adoption since she was five—you, Papa, and I told her together. She also knows me, so there was never a doubt in her mind that I'd want to unearth every last detail about the man who sired me. As for the deal I struck with Papa, Chloe was aware of that from the start. In fact, she's the one who encouraged me to go to Papa with my questions."
Eric arched a disbelieving brow. "When have you ever required Chloe's urging to incite you to act?"
"Never." Noelle grinned. "But originally I intended to do my own investigating, venture forth to find my own answers. Chloe's the one who deterred me, persuaded me to go to you instead. Even at seven she was far more practical than I."
"Thank God for that," Eric retorted. "Chloe's inquisitive enough. Were she any more like you, I'd be locked away in an asylum by now."
Noelle bit back laughter. "Then I'm glad she and I offer you the diversity you require to stay sane." With that, she shut the door, leaning back against it and eyeing her parents intently.
Eric's jaw clenched and unclenched. He averted his gaze, staring fixedly out the window. "I don't want to have this conversation."
"But Noelle needs to have it, Eric," Brigitte reminded him gently.
Worry clouded Noelle's face. "Not if it means hurting either of you." She punctuated her statement with an earnest shake of her head. "Please be honest with me—both of you. Does my interest in learning about my sire cause you even a modicum of pain? Because if it does, tell me. Tell me and I'll forget the entire notion, dismiss your findings without ever hearing them, and never speak of this again. I love you both far too much to hurt you."
Brigitte answered for them both. "Darling, this isn't about our hurt, it's about yours. We don't doubt your love for us, any more than you doubt ours for you. But it's that very love that makes us want to shelter you, to spare you even a drop of anguish. So, no, we're not disturbed by your curiosity—in truth, we expected it. We're just trying to shield you."
"In that case, I'm ready to hear whatever Papa has to say."
"Papa?" Noelle prompted, staring at his hard profile.
Eric swallowed, meeting her gaze once again. "In case you haven't figured it out yet, you won't like what you hear."
"I assumed as much. But you did promise you'd tell me."
"I also promised I'd protect you—a vow I made much longer ago and with a great deal more conviction than I afforded the one you're holding me to."
Noelle lay a gentle hand on his forearm. "There's no need to protect me. Not in this case. He can't hurt me, Papa. I'm too strong—we're too strong—for that. But I need to know. I've contemplated the possibilities for years. I might have cousins, aunts, or uncles whose existence I know nothing about."
"You don't," Eric bit out. "The son of a bitch had no siblings. And he was childless—with the exception of you. My investigators confirmed that fact after an extensive search."
"I see," Noelle replied after the barest of pauses. "Still, I need to know everything. Then I can let it go. Papa ... please."
With a terse nod, Eric pivoted, striding over to the writing desk and unlocking the bottom drawer. He extracted a thin folder, turning it over in his hands several times. Then he opened it, staring blindly at the pages within, not really needing to read them given the fact that he'd long since memorized every word.
"His name is Franco Baricci," he began, his gaze still fixed on the papers he held. "He's fifty-four years old. He has residences in Italy, France, Spain, and England—and an alias to go with each one. He makes a career out of courting wealthy, naive young women until he's seduced away their innocence and their fortunes—fortunes that, incidentally, paid for his four homes. He then abandons these women, leaving them stripped of dignity and funds, and goes on to his next victim. Liza met him at the height of his career. She proved to be a complication in more ways than one. Not only was she sadly lacking in wealth—if you recall, she met him during my temporary business reversal—but she had the supreme audacity to conceive his child and to confront him with that fact. Needless to say, he abandoned any plans of waiting while her brother recouped his fortune. The day she told him about the child was the last time she saw him."
Noelle's eyes had grown wide with astonishment; "But Liza told you he left her for his wife and family...."
"There was no wife and family. He invented the existence of both in order to disentangle himself from the ties of impending fatherhood." Eric tossed the file onto the table. "You're welcome to read my investigators' findings firsthand. It's a good thing you and I agreed upon a five-and-a-half-year time frame. It took nearly that long to uncover all the sordid details of Baricci's life. He certainly keeps himself busy."
Eyeing but not touching the file, Noelle asked, "Where is he now?"
A heartbeat of silence, Eric's reluctance a tangible entity that swelled to fill the room.
His reply, when it came, was stiff. "In England. He owns an art gallery in London. Evidently, he spends several months a year there."
"Including this month." Now Noelle stooped, gathered up the file, and perused it thoughtfully. "He really was a snake, wasn't he?"
"Is," Eric corrected. "He is a snake. He's not dead, Noelle. He's alive. Alive and as unscrupulous as they come." A meaningful glare. "And I want you to stay away from him."
Noelle's head came up at her father's unusually harsh tone.
"I mean it, Noelle," Eric reiterated. "I don't want you attempting any contact with Baricci. He's the worst kind of blackguard, polished veneer or not. Further, he forfeited any right to you the day he cast Liza aside. Not that he appears to regret that choice. He hasn't made a single attempt to contact you these past eighteen years—a task, I might add, that would have been far easier to accomplish than the one we took on when we decided to locate him." Eric broke off and walked over to gently lift Noelle's chin. "I'm not trying to hurt you. I'd rather hurt myself. But I can't emphasize enough how unprincipled this man is. Promise me you won't seek him out."
Noelle wet her lips with the tip of her tongue, contemplating her father's request, weighing it against the curiosity fanning inside her like a brushfire that refused to be extinguished. Slowly her gaze drifted down to the file, then raised back to meet her father's, a reluctant decision flickering in the sapphire depths. "I promise, Papa. I won't seek him out."
"Call it what you will. In Papa's mind, it will still mean seeking him out. And Papa's going to be furious."
Chloe tucked a strand of velvet brown hair behind her ear, her delicate thirteen-year-old features tight with worry as she perched at the edge of her sister's bed. "Noelle, if he learns what you have in mind ..."
"He won't. Not if you help me." Noelle fingered the edge of her nightgown, sitting up in bed to glance out the window, to ensure it was still dark. "Chloe, please. I'm not breaking my promise to Papa. Not really. You know I'd never do that."
"No. You're just twisting his words to suit your purpose."
Noelle couldn't dispute the truth of her sister's statement. Broodingly, she stared down at the bedcovers. "I wish it didn't have to be this way. I wish I could just ask Papa outright if he'd take me to London, let me catch a glimpse of Baricci. But if I did, he'd explode. As it is, he and Mama have kept a watchful eye on me every waking moment since last week when they told me the facts." She raised her chin. "Chloe, I need to do this. I can't explain why, except to say that it's my way of making peace with the past. I won't talk to him. I won't even give him my name. I just want to see him, to put a face to those unpleasant descriptions. And today is the only day I can do it, the only day Mama and Papa will be away from Farrington long enough for me to accomplish my goal."
Chloe frowned. "And that's only if we can manage to convince Mama you're sick. If not, you'll be traveling to the village with us, listening to Great-Grandfather's sermon and giving out food to the needy families in his parish."
Regret slashed across Noelle's face. "That's the part that makes me feel most guilty. Not only lying to Mama about being ill, but not being there to help Great-Grandfather. He's so stubborn about doing everything himself. But he's getting older now and—"
"I'll be there to help him," Chloe inserted, her dark eyes—the same fiery obsidian chips as their father's—determined. "Besides, you've already done more than your share this holiday season. You gave out all the sweets and three-quarters of the gifts on Christmas day. I could scarcely keep up with you. Consider today to be my turn. As for Great-Grandfather, he's stronger than most men half his age. He says the Lord keeps him that way so he's able to help the Lord help others. I believe him."
"So do I." Noelle smiled faintly, recalling the wonderful times she'd spent with their great-grandfather, who was not only a splendid vicar but an expert puppeteer. How many of her birthdays had culminated in one of his entertaining puppet shows? More than she could count. "I'm letting him down, aren't I?" she said softly. "Misleading Mama and Papa, abandoning my responsibilities to satisfy a need I can hardly explain?"
"No. You're not," Chloe disputed with quiet wisdom. "Great-Grandfather would be the first to understand. Do you know what I think he'd say? He'd say, 'Noelle, the Lord can spare you for a day. Especially knowing that by doing so He'll be ensuring you find the peace that will enable you to serve Him better.'"
With a quavering breath, Noelle eyed her sister. "How did you ever become so smart?"
"I had an extraordinary teacher—you." With an impish grin, Chloe jumped to her feet. "The towels must be ready now. Lie back. I'll fetch them." Scurrying into the bathroom, she carried out a basin that had three steaming cloths soaking in it. "Put these on your face, neck, and forehead. Leave them there for a few minutes—or for as long as you can withstand the heat. After that, I'll fetch Mama. One glance at you, one brush of her fingertips, and she's bound to think you have a fever."
"Chloe—" Noelle caught her sister's hand. "I feel dreadful making you lie for me."
Her sister's expression was the epitome of innocence. "Who said anything about lying? I'll simply tell Mama that you claim not to feel well, that you look flushed, and that you feel warm to the touch." She placed one cloth gingerly on Noelle's forehead. "Which, after I'm through, won't be a lie."
"Thank you," Noelle whispered.
"Just be careful. Don't do anything foolish. And be back before we are."
"I will. I won't. And I will." Noelle's mind was already racing. "I've devised the perfect plan to convince Grace to accompany me."
"Grace?" Chloe's brows shot up at the mention of Noelle's stout, fiercely protective, ever-militant maid. "Why on earth would you want to take her along?"
"I need a chaperon. It's the only way I can board the railroad without arousing suspicion."
"She'll never agree to it."
"Oh, yes, she will. I'll win her over the same way I always do—by telling her I'm doing this for Papa." Noelle winced as Chloe placed the second hot cloth on her face, draping it from one cheek to the other.
"I can't wait to hear the details." Chloe peered out the window, seeing the first rays of dawn trickle in. "But they'll have to wait until later. We're running out of time. Mama and Papa will be up any minute, preparing to go. We'll talk tonight, after they're asleep."
Noelle nodded, holding her breath as she pressed the third towel to her neck. "I think I've caught fire."
"Not quite." Chloe lay a palm against Noelle's cheek, smiling with satisfaction as she headed toward the door. "Hold the towels against your skin until you hear my voice coming down the hall. Then stuff the cloths and the basin under your bed."
"I'll probably be numb with pain by then."
"No," Chloe assured her, easing open the door. "But you will be if Papa finds out what you've done."
The railway station at Poole was crowded with people awaiting the morning train to London. The January day was grey and cold, inspiring many passengers—especially those with small children—to stay inside the musty one-story building after purchasing their tickets rather than going out to brave the chilly winter air.
Noelle wasn't one of those people.
Excerpted from The Theft by Andrea Kane. Copyright © 1998 Andrea Kane. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Posted September 14, 2014
Posted December 7, 2002
This is one of the greatest books I have ever read! It has a great ending and her relationship with the "handsome painter" is thrilling. IT is well written. A great book overall!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.