Chapter IX - Crossroads
Serena stared into her coffee in silence.
Well?" Daniel demanded, rather more sharply than he intended.
"I had to, Papa," she whispered.
A single tear broke away and trickled down her cheek.
"Wha?! No, Serena, please don't cry."
"I am sorry, Papa. I will try not to."
"Um, no That's not what I meant - not the way I intended it to sound..." Daniel floundered, feeling completely out of his depth. "Oh God, I don't know what I mean... Look, are you comfortable here? Would you rather go somewhere else? Somewhere a little more private? I really think we need to do some serious talking."
Serena swallowed and looked at him with troubled eyes.
"Take me to your home, Papa?"
"No! ...Ah no. I don't think that would be a good idea."
~ Because if Jack's suspicions are correct, taking you back to my apartment - alone - could land me in Big Trouble ~
Serena looked puzzled. Seeing her incomprehension, Daniel felt churlish for doubting her. How could he doubt her? She seemed so right. Felt like she belonged to him. And yet... Jack's warnings kept coming back. He could hear Jack's genius in his mind:
~ If it's a sting, she would seem genuine, Daniel - better than genuine. And what about Mrs. Dillamore? You accepted her part in this without question. Maybe she's the mastermind behind the sting? Or just another link in the chain to Mr. Big.~
~ Mr. Big? Sting? What sort of sting? Why, for Chrissakes? ~
~ You're very well paid, and don't get much chance to spend it. Then again, we've pissed off the N.I.D. often enough, and Kinsey would be more than happy to break up S.G.-1, and with it the S.G.C. Or it could be something entirely unconnected...? Just - be careful, Danny. ~
He really had to know for sure, didn't he? He considered his earlier plan. Maybe he could kill two birds with one stone here?
"I know where we'll go," he said, pulling out his cell 'phone, "then you can tell me all about it."
Daniel pulled up outside the white clapboarded house. He and Serena went up the steps to the veranda and the door was thrown open. Cassie must have been watching out for them.
"Coffee, Daniel, Serena?" Janet called through from the kitchen.
"Ur, yes please - make that two," Daniel called back after a subdued nod from Serena.
"Go through into the living room. I'll bring it along, hun."
The two visitors were sitting on opposite sides of the coffee table, and Cassie was talking Serena's ear off, by the time Janet came through with a tray.
"Are you two not having any?" Daniel asked.
"I've got some baking to do and Cassie was on her way out to Rachel's. Besides which, I think you two will get on better by yourselves right now. Just give me a shout when you need me. I hope you'll both stay for lunch, by the way?"
When they were on their own, an uneasy silence fell. Drinking coffee and eating Janet's home-made cookies acted as a displacement activity for a while. Daniel's eyes had their unfocussed look. Serena seemed to have found another interesting spot on the carpet to examine. Finally, Daniel cleared his throat and said:
"Um, how is R... ah, how is your mother?"
"She is very w... I mean Actually, she is not... She is - unwell."
"What's the matter?" Daniel asked, his heart suddenly taking up lodgings in his throat or so it seemed.
"She... she had cancer - a few months ago. They operated on it and - and it seemed to be successful, but she is still having... "
"Yes. I think. It makes her ill for a while afterwards. But the doctors are hopeful that she will make a full recovery."
"And you left her? When she needed you most?"
Serena's eyes flew to his face then.
"She insisted I try to find you," she said, her eyes filling again.
"I - I'm sorry. I didn't mean to sound cross. It's just... I'm having difficulty getting to grips with all of this."
"It is hard. I know, Papa."
"Ah, that's another thing. How do you know I'm your father?"
"What makes you think Signor Peruzzi isn't your father?"
"I was born before Mamma married him."
"Ah, I don't think that actually proves anything"
"And Nonno Vecelli called me 'bastarda americana'. Sometimes," Serena ended on a soft note of bitterness and helped herself to another of Janet's cookies.
Despite the misgivings that Jack had planted in his mind, Daniel's heart went out to her. How could he doubt that Rosa had told the truth about Serena's paternity. It would have been so much easier - so very much easier - for her to tell Aldo Vecelli that Serena's father was another Italian - to deny that she and he had ever made love. She could have named any of the other guys on the dig - Vito, Gino, Fabiano. Or Klaas the Dutchman, or Liam from Galway if the others were too close to home. He didn't think Rosa had been dating any other guys - certainly not at that time. If she had, what would she have had to gain by naming himself?
~ To protect the one she really loved from a beating? ~
"No!" Daniel gasped, shocked at the painful idea of being doubly betrayed.
"Ah sorry. Just - just thinking out loud."
Serena was still bemused.
"Don't worry about it," he smiled and got a diffident smile in return.
No. His self-esteem wasn't so low as to imagine himself totally unlovable, and he was sure Rosa wasn't the sort to stoop to such a despicable trick.
~ Unless she'd had a beating too? ~
His smile disappeared at the thought. Serena's disappeared along with it, replaced by an almost hunted look.
"How does he treat you? Signor Peruzzi?" he asked sharply.
A slight shiver ran through her as she jerked her eyes away from his face and fixed them back on the carpet. Daniel moved round to sit beside her, putting a supportive arm around her shoulder and giving her arm a soothing rub. It proved too much for Serena. She flung an arm around his neck, buried her head in his shoulder and sobbed.
Chapter X - Need
"Shushshushshushshush," Daniel murmured soothingly into Serena's silky dark hair. "It's all right, baby. You're quite safe now."
He waited patiently for her to cry herself out. There seemed nothing contrived about it. It was just the natural reaction of someone who'd been through a period of sustained stress to another person who showed signs of caring about it. Daniel knew about that. He'd been there. Judging by the red eyes and blotchy face when she eventually pulled a little away from him, crying wasn't something she would have done if she were merely bent on captivating him. At least he didn't think so.
"I am so sorry, Papa," she sniffed.
"Please don't apologize," Daniel said gently. "You've obviously been through quite a lot just lately."
Serena was fumbling in the pocket of her jacket for a tissue. It was an expensive-looking jacket, he noticed for the first time.
"Yes, Papa," she said wearily.
"I take it you've been - um - badly treated by - er - Stefano, wasn't it? Erm, would you find it easier to speak to Janet about it? She's - ah - she's a doctor."
Serena looked surprised.
"No, Papa. Oh. You don't think?"
His obvious embarrassment at the way the conversation was going answered her.
"Oh no, he doesn't do that," she continued swiftly. "I am too valuable as I am. No, he just beats me when I don't do as he wants me to, or when I disagree with him."
Well, that almost came as a relief, he supposed, but was horrified nevertheless. That sort of treatment was something he was familiar with, too, from one set of foster parents he'd been stuck with for a few months. Whether or not she was his daughter suddenly seemed less important than protecting her from further ill-treatment. Bit by bit, he pieced together her and Rosa's history.
Aldo Vecelli had been furious with his only daughter when he found out she'd been 'carrying on' with a 'stronzo americano'. Her pregnancy was a source of extreme embarrassment. Aldo's arts and antiques business was prospering and he was beginning to make a name for himself both in business circles and among Rome's 'alta società'. He was offered a helpful solution to the problem by an old friend, Enrico Peruzzi.
Enrico not only owed Aldo a favor but had been wanting a business merger with the stubborn art dealer for several years. Aiming to kill two birds with one stone, he arranged a marriage between Rosa and his younger brother, Stefano, whose first wife had died childless the previous year. Conveniently, Stefano was then looking after the Salerno branch of the Peruzzi family business, well away from Roman gossip-mongers.
Rosa was sent to live with an elderly aunt in Nocera near Salerno until all the arrangements could be finalized. Serena was born before Enrico managed to bring his younger brother to heel. After the quiet wedding, the little family remained in Salerno until 1987. Rosa was expecting their second child - not counting Serena of course - when Stefano demanded to return to Rome. By then, Rosa's 'indiscretion' had been forgotten.
There had never been any pretence of love between Stefano and Rosa, and Serena had been tolerated at best. Stefano lavished affection on her four younger half-siblings, and she herself had never been short of material possessions. The Peruzzi and Vecelli business ventures had been crowned with conspicuous success and Stefano had an image of wealth and prestige to maintain.
The one thing Serena most wanted was withheld. That was freedom. She hadn't realized it until after her first attempt to abscond when she was thirteen, but Stefano was protecting his 'investment'. Since then, she was never allowed to go anywhere without Guido, her bodyguard, nor was she allowed to carry any cash with her. That was Guido's responsibility.
By this time, Janet had prepared lunch for the four of them. Cassie had returned in time to catch the tale end of Serena's account of her life-style in Rome.
"So how did you manage to escape?" she demanded as they went through into the dining room.
"Oh, Mamma persuaded Stefano to let me sleep over at Emilia's last weekend. I am allowed to do that sometimes. Emilia's parents are valued customers of Fratelli Peruzzi, and they are quite strict too," Serena explained. "So Guido escorted me to their home to make sure I didn't run away again. Only we didn't tell Stefano that Emilia was coming to America to visit her Aunt Luisa. Mamma gave Signora Bartolini the money for my air ticket, so Emilia and I would have seats together, she said - and so I wouldn't be asked any - er - uncomfortable questions. Mamma is clever I think."
Everyone was far too busy tucking into Janet's excellent cajun cooking for any more talking during the meal. Afterwards, they all moved back into the living room for more coffee. Serena seemed quite at home with Daniel's friends present now. He re-opened the conversation.
"If you left Italy last Saturday, won't Stefano know you've - um - run away again?"
"I don't know. I have 'phoned home every day while he was at work and Mamma said she told him at first that the Bartolinis had asked me to stay a few days longer, then she had... chemotherapy - yes? - and told him she asked them to keep me for the rest of the week because she felt ill. We hoped that, by the weekend, I would have found you. And I did," she smiled happily.
Somehow, Daniel didn't feel quite as sanguine about the matter as Serena apparently did. She seemed to have supreme confidence in him, and he wondered what on earth Rosa could have said about him to engender this. Rosa must surely have felt that he'd let her down big time from what he'd heard of her life since he'd last seen her. Or perhaps it was merely that he lived in America, Land of the Free?
"What do you think he'll do when he does find out?" he asked.
A shadow seemed to pass across her face.
"I don't know," she said, "but he can't touch me now I'm here, can he?"
Daniel ran his hand through his hair, looking slightly harassed.
"I really have no idea," he replied. "I'll have to take legal advice about it tomorrow. I know we'll have to prove you're my daughter, but that's O.K. - Janet can take a blood sample for a D.N.A. test. That should remove any doubt..."
He watched her as he spoke in order to gauge her reaction, but she seemed quite happy about the prospect. He was glad he had the excuse about the law. It meant she need never know about the doubts Jack had set up in his mind.
"Ah, and that's another thing. You must need some money. We can't have you living at Mrs. Dillamore's expense."
"Oh I have plenty of money now," Serena smiled blithely.
Daniel gave her a worried look.
"How? What have you done? Robbed a bank?" he asked, hoping he was joking.
"No. I sold my engagement ring..."
Chapter XI - Window of Opportunity
"You did what?!" Daniel exclaimed.
He was beginning to think that Serena could, fairly accurately, be described as 'a bit of a handful.' Her vagaries had been keeping him on the hop since she'd first launched herself into his life. Was it really less than 24 hours ago? It seemed a whole lot longer!
"You're engaged?" Cassie was asking excitedly. "How romantic!"
Clearly she had fallen under Serena's spell. Daniel and Janet exchanged speaking looks.
"Romantic?" Serena said, wrinkling her nose - much like Daniel did, Janet thought. "Giancarlo is even older than Papa!"
Daniel choked as the mouthful of coffee he'd just taken went down the wrong way.
"I am sorry, Papa," Serena said, looking a little conscience-stricken. As a palliative she added, "I think you are very good-looking."
"For my age...?" Daniel muttered drily.
Janet smothered a grin.
"If he's so distasteful to you, why did you get engaged?" she asked.
"I knew I would need the money."
"Oh, obviously. How stupid of me not to realize that," Daniel said trenchantly. "Now could you fill in the details, please? Like who is Giancarlo? Why would he wish to marry you if you don't like him? Did you - um - did you... lead him on? Give him encouragement? I mean, excuse me, I don't want to sound critical here, but isn't that a little - er - wrong?"
Serena looked hurt. Daniel felt as if he'd been wrong-footed. Again.
"It was not like that, Papa."
"Then tell us what it was like," he said, more gently.
"Stefano wants to join the Fratelli Peruzzi business with the Compagnia Genovese..."
"The Genovese Company? So Giancarlo is Giancarlo Genovese? Right?"
"Surely you don't have to marry Giancarlo for that to happen?" Janet asked with some concern.
"Giancarlo has wanted me for a long time. He likes younger women. If I agreed to marry him, it would unite the two families. That would make the... the merger? ...much more ...favorable for Stefano."
"I still don't see why you would agree to it," Cassie put in, unable to believe that anyone could possibly be coerced into such an alliance.
"Stefano wants to be a part of the Gambino family..."
"Excuse me? The Gambino family?" Daniel asked.
"Yes. Giancarlo is a grandson of Salvatore Gambino. Salvatore died a long time ago and Riccardo Gambino, Giancarlo's uncle, is - um - head of the family now. It is a big family - very powerful. So if I did not... co-operate... Stefano would be very, ve-ery angry."
Serena's voice had trailed away to a whisper. Her hand had a faint tremor as she reached for her coffee mug. Daniel's expression hardened.
"So you went along with it..."
"Well, no, not straight away. It would make Stefano sus... sus... sospettoso."
"Yes, Papa," Serena smiled, "so I said I would not marry Giancarlo at first then, little by little, I let him think I might..."
"You are a minx, Serena," Daniel said appreciatively, "but I can see now why you ran away."
"I tried to come to you a long time ago, Papa, but it was too difficult because I was too young, and I was always caught."
"But I thought you only found out where I was after Dr. Jordan died?"
"Yes, that is true. It was very good... timing." She gave a reminiscent smile. "I think I was a little ingenua - er, naïve? - before."
Daniel rolled his eyes. Yes, definitely a handful.
"Once Mamma and I had a plan that would work, I said I would marry Giancarlo. He kept showing me the ring, as if I was stupid enough to sell my freedom for diamonds! Budiùlo! Figlio di puttana!" Serena exclaimed, anger flaming in her eyes. Like Daniel on occasions, Janet thought.
"Hey, steady young lady!" he chided gently.
Serena blushed, and Cassie looked as if she was committing the expressions to memory for future use.
"Don't even think about," Janet warned. "Go on, Serena."
"Hmph, well Stefano was very pleased. He thought his plans were going well, so it made it easier for me to persuade him to let me stay with Emilia. We had a big family party to celebrate our engagement on the Saturday before I came to America. Giancarlo put the ring on my finger and - and kissed me. Bleugh!"
She shook her head, dragging her hand across her mouth as if to wipe away the memory.
"So how much did you get for the ring?" Cassie demanded.
"Twelve thousand dollars."
"How much?!" came in unison from the other three.
"Twelve thousand dollars. It was probably worth more."
"H-how did you manage to sell such a valuable ring?" Daniel asked.
"Oh, I had the G.I.A. certificate, and proof of identity and everything. It wasn't a problem."
Daniel blinked. Several times.
"Ah, you aren't carrying all this money about with you, by any chance?"
"Yes Papa, but it is quite safe. I sewed a hidden pocket into the lining of my skirt before I came to America."
"Serena, you take my breath away, you really do..."