When Gabriel and Julia Emerson first lay eyes on their newborn daughter, Clare, they realize life as they know it will never be the same. Gabriel has vowed to be a good father when he suddenly receives an invitation to give a series of lectures in Edinburgh, Scotland--an opportunity of high prestige—but that would mean leaving his wife and child in Boston. Hesitant to bring it up, he keeps the opportunity from Julia as long as he can, not knowing she has a secret of her own.
When a frightening situation arises that threatens their new family, both parents must make sacrifices. With the family in danger, the looming question remains: Will Gabriel pursue his lectureship in Edinburgh, leaving Julia and Clare vulnerable in Boston, or will he abandon the chance of a lifetime in order to ensure his family's safety?
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Mount Auburn Hospital
Professor Gabriel O. Emerson cradled his newborn daughter to his chest. He was reclined in a chair next to his wife's hospital bed, where she lay sleeping. Despite the protestations of the nursing staff, he'd refused to place the baby in the nearby bassinet. She was safer in his arms, resting over his heart.
Clare Grace Hope Emerson was a miracle. He'd prayed for her in the crypt of St. Francis in Assisi, after he'd married his beloved Julianne. At the time, he'd been unable to father a child, the result of his own self-loathing. But with Julianne at his side, as his Beatrice and his wife, he had prayed. And God had answered his prayer.
The baby stirred and moved her head.
Gabriel held her securely, his large hand covering her back so he could feel the rhythm of her breath.
"We loved you since before you were born," he whispered. "We were so excited you were coming."
In this moment-this quiet, tender moment-Gabriel had everything he had ever wanted. If he had been Dante, he was Dante no longer, for Dante never knew the pleasure of marrying Beatrice or of welcoming a child born of their love.
The poet in him reflected on the strange course of events that had taken him from the depths of despair to the heights of blessedness.
"Apparuit iam beatitudo vestra," he quoted with sincerity, thanking God that he hadn't lost his wife and daughter, despite the complications during delivery.
The specter of his father intruded on his happiness, prompting a spontaneous promise. "I will never leave. I will be here with you both, my darling girls, for as long as I live."
In the darkness of the hospital room, Gabriel resolved to protect, love, and care for his wife and his daughter, no matter the cost.
One week later
Mount Auburn Hospital
It began with an email.
It was a small thing-the checking of email. Perhaps it was one of the smallest, most inconsequential of actions. One tapped the screen of one's phone and email messages appeared.
A wise Canadian once wrote, The medium is the message. And in this case, the email and its contents were incredibly important.
There had been whispers.
The community of Dante specialists was not particularly large, and Professor Gabriel O. Emerson was well known. He'd been the top student to graduate from his program at Harvard, and in a very short time he made a name for himself at the University of Toronto.
Then he'd been besieged by scandal-a scandal involving his beloved Julianne, who also happened to be his graduate student. There had been an investigation. A tribunal. A ruling. A resignation.
The university kept the matter quiet. Julianne graduated and began doctoral studies at Harvard. Gabriel accepted a position as full professor at Boston University. They'd married on January 21, 2011.
But still, there were whispers. Whispers from a former graduate student named Christa Peterson, who claimed Emerson was a predator and Julianne was a whore.
Although Gabriel had done his best to silence Christa and to combat the rumors, the whispers continued. Now, a few months away from their second wedding anniversary, Gabriel kept his own counsel, not wishing to give voice to his worries. But in truth, he feared he'd tainted Julianne's career. At this time, the academic community was far more forgiving of its male senior faculty than its young female graduate students.
Gabriel knew this. Which was why he stared for some time at the email message he'd received.
The message was from a group Gabriel had heard of but never met. He read the message and then once more, just to be sure he hadn't misunderstood.
A strange feeling washed over him. His skin prickled. Something momentous was about to happen. . . .
"Gabriel?" Julianne's voice interrupted his thoughts. "Do we have everything? Rachel took home the flowers and balloons."
Gabriel opened his mouth to tell his wife about the email he'd just received, but was interrupted by the sudden appearance of Dr. Rubio, their obstetrician. She had a habit of popping up, like gray-eyed Athena in Homer's Odyssey. Dr. Rubio appeared, made pronouncements, and vanished, sometimes leaving havoc in her wake.
"Good morning." She greeted the Emersons with a smile. "I need to go over a few things before Julia and Clare are discharged."
Gabriel returned his cell phone to his jacket pocket. He'd received the scare of his life a few days previous, when he mistakenly thought Julianne hadn't survived the delivery. Anxiety still clung to him, like a hangover he could not shake.
Which was why, upon hearing Dr. Rubio's lengthy list of admonitions and instructions, he promptly forgot about the very important email and the absolute necessity of revealing its contents to his wife.
What is she doing?" The Professor peered into the rearview mirror at his wife, who was seated behind him, next to Clare.
His handsome face was boyish and his blue eyes danced. He was finally bringing his family home from the hospital. He had difficulty containing his excitement.
"She's still sleeping." Julia bent over the baby carrier and lightly stroked the infant's cheek.
The baby's rosebud mouth pouted while she slept. Wisps of dark hair peeked out from beneath the purple knitted hat she'd received as a gift from the hospital auxiliary. She was a beautiful baby, with a button nose and pudgy cheeks. Her eyes were large and indigo blue, when she deigned to open them.
Julia's heart was full. Her baby was healthy and her husband was even more supportive than she'd imagined. It was almost too much happiness for one person.
"If she does something cute, let me know." Gabriel's tone was eager.
Julia laughed. "All right, Professor."
"I like to watch her sleep," Gabriel mused. He continued to drive the Volvo SUV at a snail's pace through the streets of Cambridge. "She's fascinating."
"You need to keep your eyes on the road, Daddy."
Gabriel flashed Julia a look.
"Since when do you drive so slowly?" she teased.
"Since everything I love is in this car." Gabriel's expression softened as he made eye contact with her through the mirror.
Julia's heart skipped a beat.
His enthusiasm for fatherhood had outstripped her expectations. She remembered the first night they'd spent in the hospital, after Clare was born. Gabriel held Clare all through the night and would not be parted from her.
Gabriel had said once that when he was an old man, he'd remember what Julianne looked like on the night they made love for the first time. She would remember the sight of her husband holding their baby on his chest for the rest of her life.
Tears filled her eyes and threatened to overflow. She bent over the baby in order to hide her reaction.
Gabriel turned the SUV onto their street-slowly, ever so slowly.
"What the hell?" His buoyant mood came to an abrupt end, rather like a ship hitting an iceberg.
"Language," Julia murmured. "Let's not teach the baby naughty words."
"If the baby were awake, she'd want to know what the hell was going on, too. Look at our lawn." Gabriel piloted the car toward the driveway, his eyes trained on the front of their property.
Julia followed his gaze.
In front of their elegant two-story house was a flamboyance of plastic pink flamingos. Plastic, shocking pink flamingos. A giant wooden flamingo stood next to the front door, holding a sign:
Congratulations Gabriel and Julia! It's a girl!
The smaller flamingos were so numerous Gabriel could barely see the blades of grass beneath them.
It was an infestation. An infestation of tacky, kitschy lawn ornaments, clearly chosen by a fiend with an extreme deficit of good taste.
"Holy shit!" exclaimed Julia.
"Language." Gabriel smirked. "I take it you weren't expecting this?"
"Of course not. I barely checked my email this week. Did you do it?"
"You think I did this?" The Professor was indignant. Surely Julianne knew his taste did not extend to plastic abominations of lawn ornaments.
But her comment reminded him of the email he'd received while they were still at the hospital. The contents of the message were urgent. He needed to speak to Julianne about them.
She distracted him by laughing. "Maybe the flamingos are from Leslie, next door? Or your colleagues at Boston University?"
"I doubt that. Surely they would have the good sense to send champagne. Or Scotch."
Once again, he prepared to tell Julianne about the email. But as he pulled into the driveway, the side door opened and Rachel, his sister, raced out.
She was smiling ear-to-ear and dressed casually in a white T-shirt, jeans, and sandals. Her long, straight blond hair spilled over her shoulders, and her gray eyes were alight.
"I guess we found the culprit of kitsch." Gabriel shook his head.
Julia touched his shoulder. "It was kind of her to do this. She's been going back and forth between here and the hospital, helping out."
Gabriel frowned. "I know."
"Even though you think the flamingos are tacky, you need to be appreciative."
He lifted his chin primly. "I can be appreciative."
"I mean appreciative in a believable way," Julia clarified.
When Gabriel's frown deepened, she unbuckled her seat belt and moved forward, pressing her lips to his cheek. "I love you. You're a wonderful husband and an incredible father."
Gabriel lowered his gaze and tapped his fingers against the steering wheel.
Julia tousled his dark hair. "Maybe we should keep a few of the flamingos? For the garden?"
Gabriel speared her with a glare.
"I'm kidding." She held up her hands in surrender. "Try to look happier than that, okay?"
"Fine." Gabriel exhaled beleagueredly. He turned off the car and climbed out.
"What took you so long?" Rachel gave her brother a perfunctory hug and opened the SUV's rear door. "We've been waiting all morning."
Gabriel leaned over the open door, watching as Rachel climbed into the back seat. "They had to check Julianne and Clare before discharging them. And they inspected the baby's carrier and car seat before we left."
"Well, that's good," Rachel replied. "But it shouldn't have taken three hours. How slowly did you drive?"
Gabriel brushed imaginary lint from his sport coat. Then he took a closer look at the back seat.
"Just a minute, Rachel," he cautioned. "I need to unfasten the baby carrier from the base."
"Hurry up. But go over to Julia's side because I'm not moving." Rachel leaned over her sleeping niece and her grin widened. "Hi, Clare."
Julia reached across the baby to touch her friend's arm. "I love the flamingos."
"I knew you'd appreciate them." Rachel beamed. "Dad was hesitant, but I thought they were hilarious. Even Scott chipped in."
"We need to take a picture of Gabriel with the flamingos and send it to Scott."
Rachel laughed. "Absolutely. He'll blow it up into a poster and hang it on his wall."
Julia removed the baby's knitted cap to expose the shock of dark hair. She pointed to the pink barrette she'd carefully fastened. "Clare is wearing the gift you brought us yesterday."
"It matches her pink sleepers." Rachel gently touched the baby's head. Her expression shifted minutely.
Julia studied her friend. A trace of sadness was present in Rachel's eyes, but only for a moment.
Rachel smiled at her sleeping niece. "I bought a few more hair accessories last night. Since she has so much hair, we'll have to style it."
Julia nodded. "Gabriel will have to carry her. I'm not supposed to lift anything over nine pounds because of the stitches."
Rachel glanced at Julia's middle. "That bites."
"No biting." Gabriel winked at his sister before helping Julia out of the car. "I'm glad you're here."
"So am I." Rachel watched as he carefully removed the baby carrier and turned toward the house.
"Not so fast." She followed him. "I want to carry her."
With eyes twinkling, Gabriel handed over the carrier, but not before instructing her to be careful. He greeted Richard, their father, and the two men stood next to the door, holding it open.
Julia accompanied Rachel into the house. "Thanks for staying. I know it was a bit longer than you'd planned."
Rachel held the baby carrier with both hands as they approached the kitchen. "I wasn't going to leave before you came home. Aaron had to work, otherwise he'd be here, too."
"It means a lot. I know you've been fielding phone calls and deliveries and everything else."
Rachel shrugged. "That's what families do, Jules. They take care of each other. I'm just lucky I had some vacation days left. Rebecca has been spoiling us with her cooking. You should see what she made for lunch."
"Good. I'm starving." Julia's stomach was already rumbling. She stepped into the kitchen.
The kitchen table was set with the Emersons' best china, silverware, and crystal. Pink helium-filled balloons were tied to Julia's chair at the foot of the table, and a huge arrangement of pink and white roses formed a centerpiece. Almost every surface of the kitchen was covered with food, flowers, or brightly wrapped presents.
"Surprise!" An older woman with short white hair and gray-blue eyes stepped forward.
"Katherine?" Julia fanned a hand over her mouth.
"I thought you were in Oxford." Gabriel shook off his surprise and greeted his former colleague with a kiss on the cheek.
"I was. I came to Cambridge to meet my goddaughter." Professor Picton embraced Julia and stepped back, her eyes sparkling. "Can I hold her?"
"Of course." Gabriel removed Clare from her baby carrier, pressing a kiss to her head before transferring her to Katherine's arms.
Clare opened her big blue eyes.
Katherine smiled. "Hello, Clare. I'm your aunt Katherine."
The baby opened her tiny rosebud mouth and yawned.
"Clare is a beautiful name," Katherine continued, undeterred by the infant's sleepiness. "I thought your parents might have named you Beatrice. But I can see you look more like a Clare."
"There's only one Beatrice." Gabriel placed his arm around Julia's shoulders.
"Oh, what fun we'll have," Katherine whispered to the child. "I'll teach you Italian and all about Dante and Beatrice. When you're old enough, I'll take you to Florence and show you where Dante lived."
The baby seemed to stare at her aunt. Katherine bent closer and recited,
"'Donne ch'avete intelletto d'amore,
i' vo' con voi de la mia donna dire,
non perch'io creda sua laude finire,
ma ragionar per isfogar la mente.'"
Gabriel recognized the lines from Dante's La Vita Nuova, as Katherine quoted his praise for the lovely Beatrice.
Julia stood, frozen.
Then suddenly, like an unexpected cloudburst at a picnic, Julia began to cry.
The room grew very still.
Everyone looked at Julia, who clapped a hand over her mouth as she tried to suppress her sobs.