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'Can we have another turn? Please.'
The noise and colour of the carnival was all around them. Loud music, laughter, childish shrieks in wonderment of the merry-go-round, the Ferris wheel
so many sideshows to capture the attention of a young child.
There were striped tents providing exciting adventure for children, booths selling candyfloss, hot dogs, and stands offering a variety of stuffed toys as prizes for knock-em-down revolving ducks.
Beauty in miniature, Nicki's smile was to die for, her sunny nature a blessing, and Shannay caught her young daughter close in a loving, laughing hug.
Small arms wound round her neck. 'We're having fun, aren't we?'
Shannay felt the familiar pull on her heartstrings for the gift of an unconditional trusting love of a child, in all its innocence.
'One more time,' she agreed, and paid for another ride. 'Then we really need to leave.'
'I know,'Nicki capitulated sunnily. 'You have to go to work.'
'And you need a good night's sleep so you can be bright-eyed at kindergarten tomorrow.'
'So I can grow up and be clever like you.'
The music grew loud, the merry-go-round began to move, and Nicki clutched the reins attached to the brightly painted horse.
OK, so she'd graduated from university with a degree. But not so clever, Shannay mused reflectively, when it came to her personal life.
A broken marriage less than two years after vowing to love and cherish for a lifetime couldn't exactly be viewed as a plus, despite mitigating circumstances.
Water under the bridge and no regrets, she assured herself silently as the merry-go-round slowed and drew to an easy halt.
Shannay stepped down and lifted her daughter from the colourful horse.
Beautiful dark eyes sparkled with delicious laughter as she giggled and planted a smacking kiss on her mother's cheek.
Nicki's father's eyes, Shannay reflected, and tamped down the slight tension curling her stomach at the thought of the man she'd married in haste five years ago in another country.
Marcello Martinez, born in France to Spanish parents, raised and educated in Paris, and attended university in Madrid.
Multi-lingual, attractive, sensual, charming
he'd swept her off her feet and into a life far different from her own.
She had told herself she would adjust
and she did, successfully. Or so she'd thought. But not according to his family, who had made it plain she didn't match their élite social status.
An added complication had been the family's favoured choice of a suitable Martinez bride
Estella de Cordova. The stunning raven-haired, dark-eyed socialite possessed impeccable credentials, stellar lineage and obscene wealth.
Something the Martinez family and Estella never permitted Shannay to forget. Or the fact that Marcello and Estella had been lovers
a situation which continued soon after their marriage, if persistent rumour could be believed. Rumour actively fostered by some members of the Martinez family in a bid to diminish Shannay's defences.
Seemingly irrefutable proof of Marcello's infidelity just twenty months after their marriage was the ultimate betrayal, and following an explosive argument Shannay had moved into a hotel and taken the first available flight back to Australia.
Within a matter of weeks she'd obtained a good job in a local pharmacy in suburban Perth, leased an apartment, purchased a car
and become determinedly resolved to dispense Marcello where he belonged.
In her past.
Difficult, when his image had intruded during her daylight hours and haunted her dreams each night.
Impossible, when a persistent stomach upset had necessitated medical examination resulting in the discovery that she was several weeks pregnant.
It seemed incredibly ironic, given how desperately she'd hoped to gift Marcello a child, that confirmation of conception should occur when the marriage was already shattered, with legal dissolution a distinct probability.
The decision not to inform Marcello about his impending fatherhood continued through pregnancy, initially due to fear of a possible miscarriage, and afterwards Shannay had become so fiercely maternal, enlightening him just hadn't been a considered option.
As a precaution, she'd covered her tracks successfully, resorting to her late mother's maiden name and ensuring any mail directed to her arrived via a circuitous route.
Now, almost four years after fleeing Madrid, life was good. Ordered, she elaborated mentally. She owned an apartment in a modern, upscale building in suburban Applecross, and she worked the five-to-midnight shift as a registered pharmacist not far from her home. Ideal, for it enabled her to spend the days with Nicki, and for her to also pay Anna, a kindly widow in a neighbouring apartment, to sit with Nicki each evening.
'Can I take some candyfloss home to share with Anna?'
Nicki's earnest expression was pleadingly angelic.
'I promise I'll brush my teeth afterwards.'
Shannay opened her mouth to offer the diced organic cantaloupe melon she'd stored in a small container as a snack in her backpack, only to change her mind. 'OK.'And refrained from adding any caution. What was a visit to a carnival without sampling candyfloss?
Nicki's face lit up with delighted pleasure. 'Love you, Mummy. You're the best.'
Shannay hugged her daughter close. 'Love you, too, imp.' She laughed and bent low to kiss Nicki's cheek. 'Candyfloss it is. Then we hit the road for home.'
She lifted her head
and froze with shock as her gaze locked on two people she'd thought never to see again. Hoping no member of the Martinez family would ever cross her path.
What were the chances, when they resided on opposite sides of the world?
And why here, at a carnival camped on council park grounds in suburban Perth?
Did a heart stop beating? She was willing to swear hers did before it accelerated again into a maddened tattoo.
Recognition was clearly apparent, and with it the indisputable knowledge there could be no escape. 'Shannay.' There was an imperceptible pause as Sandro Martinez marshalled his expression into polite civility.
Her chin lifted as she held Marcello's younger brother's intently speculative gaze as it shifted to Nicki and lingered over-long, before returning to fix on her own.
'Sandro.' Cool, polite
she could do both. 'Luisa,' she acknowledged the young woman at his side.
She had to get away. Now.
No. From the mouth of an innocent child came the one word which removed any element of doubt as to whom Nicki belonged.
Shannay saw Sandro's mouth tighten into an uncompromising line. 'Your daughter?'
Before she could offer a word, Nicki offered a solemnly voiced'My name is Nicki, and I'm three.'
Oh, sweetheart, she almost groaned aloud. Do you have any idea what you've just done?
The silent accusation in Sandro's dark eyes alarmed her, and she had no doubt had she been alone he'd have delivered a blistering no-holds-barred denunciation.
The Martinez familial ties were so strong Shannay knew there wasn't a snowflake's chance in hell that Sandro would remain silent.
She barely resisted the urge to gather Nicki into her arms and run, test the speed limit to the place she called home
and pack. Take a flight to the east coast and lose herself in another city.
'If you'll excuse me?' she managed coolly. 'We're already late.'
Shannay tightened her hold on Nicki's hand, then she turned away and forced herself to walk with controlled ease toward the exit, her back straight and her head held high.
Pride. She had it in spades. And she refused to take a backward glance as they were swallowed up by the crowd.
Could a stomach twist into a painful ball? It felt as if hers did, and the blood in her veins turned to ice as she clipped Nicki into her booster seat in the rear of her compact sedan.
'We forgot the candyfloss.'
Oh, hell. 'We'll get some on the way home.' The supermarket sold it in packets. She fired the engine and put the car in drive.
'It won't be the same,' Nicki offered without rancour.
No, it wouldn't. Oh, damn. Dammit, she cursed beneath her breath. If they hadn't taken another turn on the merry-go-round
But they had done.And it was too late for recriminations now. Shannay headed towards her suburban apartment and went into automatic pilot as she bathed and changed Nicki, readied herself for work, then she handed her daughter into Anna's care and drove to the pharmacy.
Somehow she managed to get through the evening, dispensing medications and offering advice to customers who sought it.
Concern, fear, dread
the palpable mix heightened her tension to almost breaking point, and by closing time she'd developed a doozy of a headache.
It was a relief to reach the sanctuary of her apartment, thank Anna, check on Nicki, then undress and slip into bed.
But not to sleep.
Estimating her estranged husband's reaction on discovering she had a child
his child, didn't bear thinking about.
Could she insist he wasn't Nicki's father?
A hollow laugh rose and died in her throat.
All Marcello had to do was insist on a DNA paternity test to shoot that one out of the water.
A slight shiver shook her slender form.
Marcello was a ruthless strategist, possessed of sufficient power and wealth to dispense with anyone or anything that might stand in his path.
Shannay was the exception.
She'd make sure of it.
No one would be permitted to come between her and Nicki.
A resolve which remained uppermost when she woke next morning, and strengthened with each passing hour. Together with an increasing degree of nervous tension.
It wasn't a matter of if, but when Marcello would make contact. Either in person, or via legal representation.
Marcello Martinez might not care about her. But a child, indisputably his child, would be another matter entirely.
Given Sandro could pinpoint her location, just how difficult would it be for someone of Marcello's calibre to discover where she lived and worked?
A piece of cake, a silent voice assured in taunting response. Knowledge which didn't sit well. She barely ate and every waking hour was spent attempting to predict any possible scenario Marcello might choose to present.
The necessity to ensure Anna take every precaution while Nicki was in her care resulted in only one query.
'Are you in trouble with the law?'
Oh, dear God. 'No
no, of course not,'Shannay reiterated. 'That's all I need to know.'
An apparently single mother and child
How difficult was it to do the maths and reach the conclusion of a looming custody battle? 'Thanks,' she expressed with genuine gratitude.
How long would it take Marcello to plan his strategy and put it into action?
A few days? A week?
Meantime, she needed to consult a lawyer to spell out her legal rights in fine detail. She was aware of the basics, and sufficiently astute to realise what appeared logical and rational didn't always hold true.
She also intended to file for divorce.
Given she could prove a separation of more than the legal requirement, it should only be a matter of time before she gained a dissolution of the marriage.
Whereupon the only issue that could arise would be custody. An icy chill invaded her body and settled in her bones. Marcello couldn't enforce custody of Nicki
surely? What rights would he possibly have?
Shannay wrapped her arms tightly over her midriff, and barely prevented her body from shaking with very real fear.
Her soon-to-be ex-husband possessed the wealth and the power to surmount any objective he set out to achieve.
A silent scream echoed inside her brain.
If he decided he wanted Nicki, then he'd move heaven and earth to get her.
Over my dead body, Shannay resolved.