Excerpts for Count's Christmas Baby


"Pat? It's me."

"Where are you?"

"At the Grand Savoia eating lunch in my room. You were right. It's a lovely place with every amenity. Thanks for arranging everything for me."

"You're welcome. How my gorgeous baby nephew holding up?"

"He's taking another nap right now, thank heaven. That's giving me time to pick up where I left off last evening."

"Couldn't you have phoned me before you went to bed to tell me how things were going? Your text saying you'd arrived in Genoa was hardly informative. I waited all day yesterday expecting to hear more from you."

"I'm sorry. After I reached the hotel, I began my search. But the telephone directory didn't have the listing I was looking for. When I realized I wouldn't find the answer there, I talked to the clerk at the front desk. He hooked me up with one of the chief phone operators who speaks English who was more than happy to help me."

"Why?"

In spite of the seriousness of the situation, her suspicious sister made her laugh. "It's ashe, so you don't need to worry I'm being hit on. When I told her my dilemma, she couldn't have been nicer and tried to assist me any way she could. But by the time we got off the phone, I was too exhausted to call you."

"That's okay. So what's your plan now?"

"That operator suggested I should call the police station. She gave me the number for the traveler's assistance department. She said there'll be someone on duty who speaks English. They're used to getting calls from foreigners either stranded or in trouble and will help me. I'm going to do that as soon as I hang up from you."

"And what if you still don't have success?"

"Then I'll fly home in the morning as planned and never think about it again."

"I'm going to hold you to that. To be frank, I hope you've come to a dead end. Sometimes it's better not to know what you don't know. It could come back to bite you."

"What do you mean?"

"Just what I said. You might be walking into something you wish you could have avoided. Not all people are as nice and good as you are, Sami. I don't want to see you hurt."

"You're not by any chance having one of your premonitions, are you?"

"No, but I can't help my misgivings." Pat sounded convinced Sami had come to Italy on a fool's errand. Maybe she had.

"Tell you what. If he's not in Genoa, then I'll be on the next plane home."

"I'm going to hold you to that. Forgive me if I don't wish you luck. Before you go to bed tonight, call me. I don't care what time it is. Okay?"

"Okay. Love you."

"Love you, too."

Sami hung up, wondering if her sister was right. Maybe she shouldn't be searching for the grandfather of her baby. If she did find him, he might be so shocked to find out he was a grandfather, it could upset his world and make him ill. Possibly their meeting could turn so ugly, she'd wish she'd never left home.

That's what worried Pat.

If Sami were being honest, it worried her, too. But as long as she'd come this far, she might as well go all the way. Then maybe she could end this chapter of her life and move on.

She looked at the number she'd written down on her pad and made the phone call. The man who answered switched to English after she said hello. "Yes?"

His peremptory response took her back. "Is this the traveler's assistance department?"

"Yes?"

"I wonder if you could help me."

"What is it you want?"

Whoa. "I'm trying to find a man named Alberto Degenoli who's supposed to be living in Genoa, but he's not listed in the city phone directory. I've come from the United States looking for him. I was hoping y?"

But she stopped talking because the man, whom she'd thought was listening, was suddenly talking to another man in rapid Italian. Soon there was a third voice. Their conversation went on for at least a minute before the first man said, "Please spell the name for me."

When she did his bidding, more unintelligible Italian followed in the background. Finally, "You come to the station and ask for Chief Coretti."

Chief?

"You mean now?"

"Of course." The line went dead.

She blinked at his bizarre phone manners, but at least he hadn't turned her away. That had to account for something.

Next she phoned the front desk and asked them to send up the hotel's childminder. Sami had interviewed the qualified nurse yesterday and felt good about her. While she waited for her to come, she refreshed her makeup and slipped on her suit jacket.

Only four people knew the private cell phone number of Count Alberto Enrico Degenoli. When the phone rang, Ric assumed it was his fiancée, Eliana, calling again to dissuade him from leaving on a business trip in a few minutes. She was her father's puppet after all.

Now that Ric was about to become the son-in-law of one of the wealthiest industrialists in Italy, her father expected to control every portion of Ric's life, too. But Ric had crucial private business on Cyprus no one knew about, and it had to be transacted before the wedding.

Love had no part of this marriage and Eliana knew it. The coming nuptials were all about money. However, once they exchanged vows, he planned to do his part to make the marriage work. But until Christmas Eve, his time and business were his own concern and his future father-in-law couldn't do anything to stop him.

When he glanced away from his office computer screen long enough to check the caller ID, he discovered it was his private secretary phoning from the palazzo.

He clicked on. "Mario?"

"Forgive the interruption, Excellency." The older man had been in the service of the Degenoli family as private secretary for thirty-five years. But he was old-fashioned and insisted on being more formal with Ric now that Ric held the title. "Chief of Police Coretti just called the palace requesting to speak to you. He says it's extremely urgent, but refused to tell me the details. You're to call him back on his private line."

That would have irked Mario, who'd been privy to virtually everything in Ric's life. In all honesty, the chief's secrecy alarmed even Ric, whose concern over the reason for the call could touch on more tragedy and sorrow for their family. They'd had enough for several lifetimes.

"Give me the number."

After writing it down, he thanked Mario, then clicked off and made the call. "Signor Coretti? It's Enrico Degenoli. What can I do for you?"

He hadn't talked to the chief since the funeral for his father, who'd died in an avalanche in January. The chief had been among the dignitaries in Genoa who'd met the plane carrying his father's body. The memories of what had happened that weekend in Austria would always haunt Ric and had changed the course of his life.

"Forgive me for interrupting you, but there's a very attractive American woman in my office just in from the States who's looking for an Alberto Degenoli from Genoa."

At first his heart leaped at the news, then as quickly fizzled. If this American woman had been looking for him, she would have told the police chief she was looking for a man named Ric Degenoli.

Ric and his father bore the same names, but his father had gone by Alberto, and Ric went by Enrico. Only his siblings ever called him Ric.And the woman who'd been caught with him in the avalanche.

"Does she know my father died?"

"If she does, she has said nothing. To be frank, it's my opinion she's here on a fishing expedition,if you know what I mean." He cleared his throat. "She's hoping I can find him for her because she says it's a matter of life and death," he added in a quiet voice.

What?

"Since she's being suspiciously secretive, I thought I should let you know before I told her anything."

The intimation that this could be something of a delicate nature alarmed Ric in a brand-new way. He shot out of his leather chair in reaction. Up to now he'd done everything possible to protect his family from scandal.

Unfortunately he hadn't been able to control his father's past actions. No matter that Ric was a Degenoli, he and his father had differed in such fundamental ways, including the looks he'd inherited from his mother, that the average person wouldn't have known they were father and son.

One of Ric's greatest fears was that his father's weakness for women would catch up with him in ways he didn't want to think about. With his own marriage coming up on New Year's Day, it was imperative nothing go wrong at this late date. Too much was riding on it.

His father had been dead less than a year. It wasn't a secret he'd been with several women since Ric's mother's sudden and unexpected death from pneumonia sixteen months ago. He recalled his mother once confiding to him that even if his father were penniless, he would always be attractive to women and she had overlooked his wandering eye.

Ric couldn't be that generous. If the woman in Coretti's office thought she could blackmail their family or insist she had some claim on his deceased father's legacy, then she hadn't met Ric and was deluding herself. "What's her name?"

"Christine Argyle."

The name meant nothing to him. "Is she married? Single?"

"I don't know. Her passport didn't indicate one way or the other, but she wasn't wearing a ring. She called the traveler's aid department and they turned it over to me. At first I thought this must be some sort of outlandish prank, but she's not backing down. Since this is about your father, I thought I'd better phone you and learn your wishes before I tell her I can't help her and order her off the premises."

"Thank you for handling this with diplomacy," Ric said in a level voice, but his anger boiled beneath the surface. To go straight to Genoa's chief of police to get his attention was a clever tactic on her part. She wouldn't have taken that kind of a risk unless she thought she had something on Ric's father that the family wouldn't like made public.How convenient and predictable.

She'd probably met Alberto at a business party last fall when he'd decided he didn't want to be in mourning any longer. More often than not those dinners involved private gambling parties. Many of them were hosted for foreign VIPs on board one of the yachts anchored in the harbor where the police had no jurisdiction.

There'd be plenty of available women, including American starlets, to please every appetite. But it would be catastrophic if this last fling of his father's was the one that couldn't be hushed up and resulted in embarrassing the family morally and financially.

Not if Ric could help it!

Anything leaked to the press now could affect Ric's future plans in ways he didn't even want to think about. He saw red. Before the wedding, the negotiations in Cyprushad to go through as planned to safeguard his deceased mother's assets so Eliana's father couldn't get his hands on them. Ric refused to let anything get in the way.

"Per favore?keep her in your office until I get there. Don't use my title in front of her. Simply introduce me as Signor Alberto Degenoli and I'll go from there." This woman wouldn't have gotten involved with his father if he hadn't had a title, but Ric intended to play along with her ruse until he'd exposed her for a grasping opportunist.

"Understood. She went out for a while, but she'll be calling me in a few minutes. If you're coming now, I'll let her know you're on your way."

His thoughts were reeling. "Say nothing about this to anyone."

"Surely you don't question my loyalty to the House of Degenoli?"

"No," Ric muttered, furrowing his hair absently with his fingers. He stared blindly out the window of the Degenoli Shipping Lines office. For well on 150 years it had overlooked the port of Genoa, Italy's most important port city. "Forgive me, but when it comes to my family?"

"I understand. You know you can rely on my discretion."

"Grazie." Ric's voice grated before he hung up.

Whatever was going on, Ric didn't want wind of this to reach his siblings. Claudia and Vito lived with enough pain and didn't need to take on more, especially with Christmas only a week away. It was absolutely essential this be kept secret.

After he told his driver to meet him in the side alley, he rang security to follow them and left the office with his bodyguards. He needed to take care of this matter now, before he left for the airport.

For the second time today, Sami paid the taxi driver and got out in front of the main police station in Genoa with trepidation. The police chief had told her one of his staff had found the number of the man she was looking for and had contacted him.

It was a miracle! She couldn't have done it without the phone operator's help. After searching for Alberto Degenoli without success, she'd almost given up hope.

No telling what would happen at this meeting, but she had to go through with it for her baby's sake. His existence would come as a total surprise to Mr. Degenoli, but her son deserved to know about his father's side of the family.

Of course, the baby was too little to know anything yet. It was up to Sami to introduce them and lay a foundation for the future,if Mr. Degenoli wanted a relationship. If not, then she'd go back to Reno and raise him without feeling any attendant guilt that she hadn't done all she could do to unite them.

Once through the doors, she realized it was just as busy at four o'clock as it had been earlier. Besides people and staff, it was filled with cigarette smoke, irritating her eyes and nose. The nativity scene set up on a table in the foyer reminded her how close it was to Christmas and she'd done nothing to get ready for it yet. But she'd had something much more important on her mind before leaving Reno than the upcoming holidays.

Having been in the building earlier, she knew where to go. She'd just started to make her way down the hall when a man strode swiftly past her and rounded a corner at the end. He was a tall male, elegantly dressed in a tan suit and tie. Maybe he was in his mid-thirties. For want of a better word, he left an impression of power and importance that appeared unconscious and seemed to come as naturally to him as breathing.

Sami passed several men and policemen who eyed her in masculine appreciation before she turned the corner and entered the reception area of the police chief's office. With the exception of the uniformed male receptionist she'd met before, the room was empty. Where had the other man gone?

After she sat down, the receptionist picked up the phone, presumably to let the chief know she'd arrived. Once he'd hung up, he told her she could go in. After removing a few blond hairs from the sleeve of her navy blazer, Sami thanked him and opened the door to the inner office.

To her shock, the stranger who'd passed her in the hall moments ago was standing near the chief's desk talking to him. Obviously the chief of police was busy, so she didn't understand why his secretary had told her she could go in.

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