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Cristo Ravelli surveyed the family lawyer in disbelief. 'Is this an April fool joke falling out of season?' he enquired with a frown.
Robert Ludlow, senior partner of Ludlow and Ludlow, did not react with amusement. Cristo, a leading investment banker specialising in venture capital, and richer than Croesus, was not a man to be teased. Indeed, if he had a sense of humour Robert had yet to see it. Cristo, unlike his late and most probably un-lamented father, Gaetano Ravelli, took life very seriously.
Tm afraid it's not a joke,' Robert confirmed. 'Your father had five children with a woman in Ireland'
Cristo was stunned by the concept. 'You mean, all those years he went on his fishing trips to his Irish estate?'
'I'm afraid so. I believe the eldest child is fifteen years old'
''Fifteen? But that means
' Cristo compressed his wide sensual mouth, dark eyes flaring with anger, before he could make an indiscreet comment unsuited to the ears of anyone but his brothers. He wondered why he was even surprised by yet another revelation of his father's notorious womanising. After all, throughout his irresponsible life Gaetano had left a trail of distraught and angry ex-wives and three legitimate sons in his wake, so why shouldn't there have been a less regular relationship also embellished with children?
Cristo, of course, could not answer that question because he would never ever have risked having an illegitimate child and was shaken that his father could have done so five times over. Particularly when he had never bothered to take the slightest interest in the sons he already had. Cristo's adult brothers, Nik and Zarif, would be equally astonished and appalled, but Cristo knew that the problem would fall heaviest on his own shoulders. Nik's marriage breakdown had hit him hard and his own part in that debacle still gave Cristo sleepless nights. As for their youngest sibling, as the new ruler of a country in the Middle East Zarif scarcely deserved the huge public scandal that Gaetano's immoral doings could unleash if the easily shocked media there got hold of the story.
'Fifteen years old,' Cristo mused, reflecting that Zarif's mother had evidently been betrayed throughout her entire marriage to his father without even being aware of the fact. That was not a reality that Zarif would want put out on public parade. 'I apologise for my reaction, Robert. This development comes as a considerable shock. The mother of the childrenwhat do you know about her?'
Robert raised a greying brow. 'I contacted Daniel Petrie, the land agent of the Irish estate, and made enquiries. He said that as far as the village is concerned the woman, Mary Brophy, has long been seen as something of a disgrace and an embarrassment,' he framed almost apologetically.
'But if she was the local whore she would've been right down Gaetano's street,' Cristo breathed before he could bite back that injudicious opinion, his lean, darkly handsome face grim, but it was no secret to Gaetano's family that he had infinitely preferred bold and promiscuous women to clean-living ones. 'What provision did my father make for this horde of children?'
'That's why I decided to finally bring this matter to your attention.' Robert cleared his throat awkwardly. 'As you will be aware, Gaetano made no mention of either the woman or the children in his will.'
'Are you telling me that my father made no provision for these dependants?' Cristo prompted incredulously. 'He had five children with this
this woman over the course of many years and yet he settled no money on them?'
'Not so much as a penny piece on any of them
ever,' Robert confirmed uncomfortably. 'I thought he might have made some private arrangement to take care of them but apparently not as I have received an enquiry concerning school fees from the woman. As you know, your father always thought in terms of the present, not the future, and I imagine he assumed that he would be alive well into his eighties.'
'Instead of which he died at sixty-two years old, as foolish as ever, and tipped this mess into my lap,' Cristo ground out, losing all patience the more he learned of the situation. 'I'll have to look into this matter personally. I don't want the newspapers getting hold of the story'
'Naturally not,' Robert agreed. 'It's a given that the media enjoy telling tales about men with multiple wives and mistresses.'
Well aware of that fact, Cristo clenched his even white teeth, dark eyes flaming pure gold with rage at the prospect. His father had been enough of an embarrassment while alive. He was infuriated by the idea that Gaetano might prove even more of an embarrassment after his death.
'It will be my hope that the children can be put up for adoption and this whole distasteful business quietly buried,' Cristo confided smooth as glass.
For some reason, he noted that Robert looked a little disconcerted by that idea and then the older man swiftly composed his face into blandness. 'You think the mother will agree to that?'
'If she's the usual type of woman my father favoured, she'll be glad to do as I ask for the right
compensation.' Cristo selected the word with suggestive cool.
Robert understood his meaning and tried and failed to imagine a scenario in which for the right price a woman would be willing to surrender her children for adoption. He had no doubt that Cristo had cause to know exactly what he was talking about and he was suddenly grateful not to be living a life that had made him that cynical about human nature and greed. But then, having handled Gaetano's financial dealings for years, he knew that Cristo came from a dysfunctional background and would be challenged to recognise the depth of love and loyalty that many adults cherished for their offspring.
Cristo, already stressed from his recent business trip to Switzerland, squared his broad shoulders and lifted his phone to tell his PA, Emily, to book him on a flight to Dublin. He would get this repugnant business sorted out straight away and then get straight back to work.
'I hate them!' Belle vented in a helpless outburst, her lovely face full of angry passion. 'I hate every Ra-velli alive!'
'Then you would also have to hate your own brothers and sisters,' her grandmother reminded her wryly. 'And you know that's not how you feel'
With difficulty, Belle mastered her hot temper and studied her grandmother apologetically. Isa was a small supple woman with iron-grey hair and level green eyes the same shade as Belle's. 'That wretched lawyer hasn't even replied to Mum's letter about the school fees yet. I hate the whole lot of them for making us beg for what should be the children's by right!'
'It's unpleasant,' Isa Kelly conceded ruefully. 'But what we have to remember is that the person responsible for this whole horrible situation is Gaetano Ravelli'
'I'm never going to forget that!' her granddaughter swore vehemently, leaping upright in frustration to pace over to the window that overlooked the tiny back garden.
And that was certainly the truth. Belle had been remorselessly bullied at school because of her mother's relationship with Gaetano Ravelli and the children she had had with him. A lot of people had taken exception to the spectacle of a woman carrying on a long-running, fertile affair with a married man. Her mother, Mary, had been labelled a slut and, as a sensitive adolescent, Belle had been forced to carry the shadow of that humiliating label alongside her parent.
'He's gone now,' Isa reminded her unnecessarily. 'And so, more sadly, is your mother.'
A familiar ache stirred below Belle's breastbone for the loss of that warm, loving presence in her family home and her angry face softened in expression. It was only a month since her mother had died from a heart attack and Belle was still not over the shock of her sudden passing. Mary had been a smiling, laughing woman in her early forties, who had rarely been ill. Yet she'd had a weak heart, and had apparently been warned by the doctor not to risk another pregnancy after the twins' difficult birth. But when had Mary Brophy ever listened to common sense? Belle asked herself painfully. Mary had gone her own sweet way regardless of the costs, choosing passion over commitment and the birth of a sixth child triumphing over what might have been years of quiet cautious living.
Whatever anyone had said about Mary Brophyand there had been all too many local people with a moral axe to grind about her long-term affair with GaetanoMary had been a hardworking, kind person, who had never had a bad word to say about anyone and had always been the first to offer help when a neighbour was in trouble. Over the years some of her mother's most vociferous critics had ended up becoming her friends when they finally appreciated her gentle nature. But Belle had never been like the mother she had seen as oppressed: she had loved her mother and hated Gaetano Ravelli for his lying, manipulative selfishness and tight-fisted ways.
As if sensing the tension in the air, Tag whined at her feet and she stretched down a hand to soothe the family dog, a small black and white Jack Russell whose big brown adoring eyes were pinned to her. Straightening again, her colourful hair spilling across her slim shoulders, Belle pushed a straying corkscrew curl from her Titian mane out of her strained eyes and wondered when she would find the time to get it trimmed and how on earth she would ever pay for it when money was required for far more basic necessities.
At least the Lodge at the foot of the drive winding up to Mayhill House was theirs, signed over by Gaetano years earlier to give her mother a false sense of security. But how much use was a roof over their heads when Belle still couldn't pay the bills? Even so, homelessness would have been far worse, she acknowledged ruefully, her generous mouth softening. In any case, in all likelihood she would have to sell the Lodge and find them somewhere cheaper and smaller to live. Unfortunately she was going to have to fight and fight hard for the children to receive what was rightfully theirs. Illegitimate or not, her siblings had a legal claim to a share of their late father's estate and it was her job to take on that battle for them.
'You must let me take charge of the children now,' Isa told her eldest granddaughter firmly. 'Mary was my daughter and she made mistakes. I don't want to stand by watching you pay the price for them'
'The kids would be too much for you,' Belle protested, for her grandmother might be hale and hearty but she was seventy years old and Belle thought it would be very wrong to allow her to take on such a burden.
'You attended a university miles from here to escape the situation your mother had created and you planned to go to London to work as soon as you graduated,' Isa reminded her stubbornly.
'That's the thing about life
it changes without warning you,' Belle fielded wryly. 'The children have lost both parents in the space of two months and they're very insecure. The last thing they need right now is for me to vanish as well.'
'Bruno and Donetta both go to boarding school, so they're out of the equation aside of holiday time,' the older woman reasoned, reluctant to cede the argument. 'The twins are at primary school. Only Franco is at home and he's two so he'll soon be off to school as well'
Shortly after her mother's death, Belle had thought much along the same lines and had felt horribly guilty to admit, even to herself, that she felt trapped by the existence of her little brothers and sisters and their need for constant loving care. Her grandmother, Isa, had made her generous offer and Belle had kept it in reserve in the back of her mind, believing that it could be a real possibility. But that was before she got into the daily grind of seeing to her siblings' needs and finally appreciated the amount of sheer hard graft required and that any prospect of her grandmother taking charge was a selfish fantasy. It would be too big a burden for Isa to take on when some days it was even too much for Belle at the age of twenty-three.
Someone rapped loudly on the back door, making both women jump in surprise. Frowning, Belle opened the door and then relaxed when she saw an old friend waiting on the step. Mark Petrie and Belle had gone to school together where Mark had been one of her few true friends.
'Come in,' she invited the slimly built dark-haired man clad in casual jeans. 'Have a seat. Coffee?'
'How are you doing, Mark?' Isa asked with a welcoming smile.
'I'm doing great. It's Belle I'm worried about,' Mark admitted heavily, throwing Isa's granddaughter a look of unvarnished male admiration. 'Look, I'll just spit it right out. I heard my father talking on the phone this morning and he must've been talking to someone from Gaetano Ravelli's family. I think it was the eldest one, Cristo'
Tensing at the sound of that familiar name, Belle settled a mug of coffee down on the table for Mark. 'Why do you think that?'
'Cristo is the executor of Gaetano's estate and my father was being asked about your mother and, of course, he doesn't even know Mary's dead yet. Nobody's bothered to tell him that she passed while he and Mum were staying with my uncle in Australia'
'Well, your father and my mother weren't exactly bosom pals,' Belle reminded Mark bluntly. There had been a lot of bad blood over the years between the land agent, Daniel Petrie, and Mayhill's housekeeper, Mary Brophy. 'So why would anyone mention it to him?'
Cristo Ravelli, Belle was thinking resentfully. The stuffed-shirt banker and outrageously good-looking eldest son, who never ever smiled. Over the years she had often researched Gaetano's tangled love life on the Internet, initially out of curiosity but then more often to learn the answers to the questions that her poor trusting mother had never dared to ask. She knew about the wives, the sons and the scandalous affairs and had soon recognised that Gaetano was a deceitful, destructive Svengali with the female sex, who left nothing but wreckage and regrets in his wake. Furthermore, as Gaetano had only ever married rich women, her poor misguided mother had never had a prayer of getting him to the altar.
'The point is, evidently Ravelli's family have decided they want Gaetano's children with Mary to be adopted'
'Adopted?' Belle interrupted, openly astonished by that suggestion coming at her out of nowhere.
'Obviously the man's family want the whole affair hushed up,' Mark opined with a grimace. 'And what better way to stage a cover-up? It would keep the story out of the papers and tidy up all the loose ends'
'But they're not loose endsthey're children with a family and a home!' Belle argued in dismay. 'For goodness' sake, they belong together!'