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These Tangled Vines
Author: Julianne MacLean

 

CHAPTER 1

FIONA

Florida, 2017

The telephone rang and woke me from a dream. I must have been deep in the REM cycle, because I was cognizant of the ringing, but I believed it was part of the dream, so I chose to ignore it. It was not until at least the fourth ring that I finally opened my eyes.

Rolling to my side, I flung an arm across the bedside table, picked up the telephone, and pressed the talk button.

“Hello?”

A woman with a thick Italian accent replied, “Buongiorno. I am looking for Fiona Bell. Is this the correct number?”

Blinking a few times into the murky dawn light, I sat up to lean on an elbow and squinted at the clock. It was not yet 7:00 a.m. “Yes. This is Fiona.”

“Ah, bene,” the woman replied. “My name is Serena Moretti, and I’m calling from Florence, Italy. I have news for you, Fiona, but I am afraid it’s not good.”

Inching up against the headboard, I pressed my palm to my forehead and squeezed my eyes shut. If this woman was calling from Italy, it could mean only one thing. This was about my father. My real father. The one I’d never met.

“What is it?” I asked, still groggy from sleep and struggling to rouse my bleary brain.

There was a long pause on the other end of the line. “I’m so sorry. I just realized what time it must be there. I think I miscalculated the time difference. Did I wake you?”

Heavy raindrops battered the window of my house on the Florida Panhandle, and palm fronds slapped repeatedly against the glass. “Yes, but it’s fine. I should be up by now anyway. What’s this about?”

The woman cleared her throat. “I regret to tell you this, but your father, Anton Clark, passed away last night.”

Her words lodged in my ear, and I couldn’t seem to process them, nor could I figure out how to respond.

“I’m so sorry,” the woman said, speaking as if it were common knowledge, as if everyone knew that a stranger who lived in Italy was my biological father, when in fact no one knew. At least no one on this side of the Atlantic. There was not a single soul in North America who knew the reality of the situation. Not even my dad. The secret about my true parentage was my mother’s parting gift to me in the hours before her death from a brain aneurysm, and I don’t think I’ve ever quite forgiven her for that.

I sat up a little straighter and searched my mind for the proper response. I wanted to say the right thing, but it wasn’t easy, because my emotions were whirling around inside me like a tornado. Of course, it was terrible for someone to die—I felt bad about that—but this man was a complete stranger to me. I knew nothing about him except that he had impregnated my mother when she and my dad spent that terrible, tragic summer in Tuscany thirty-one years ago.

I had no idea what happened between my mother and this man because Mom was heavily medicated and unable—or perhaps unwilling—to go into detail when she dropped that bomb on me. She was close to death, and she must have known it.

“Don’t ever tell your father,” she had said. “He thinks you’re his, and the truth would kill him.”

So there it was. Mom had told me nothing about my real father except his name and nationality, and she had forced me into a vow of silence when I was eighteen and convinced me that if I ever asked questions about the circumstances of my conception or let something slip, I would be responsible for my father’s demise.

For the past twelve years, I had been keeping her secret because I believed her—that the truth would indeed kill my father. I still believed it, because with Dad’s health issues, every day was a challenge as well as a blessing. That’s why I had buried my mother’s secret deep in the darkest hollows of my consciousness. I had forced myself to forget what she had told me. I’d purged it from my brain. Pretended it wasn’t true, that it was just part of a nightmare.

But now, a woman was calling from Italy, and she knew things.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said. “What happened?”

“It was a sudden, massive heart attack,” the woman explained. “He was gone before the paramedics even arrived, and there was nothing they could do. I hope it will give you some comfort to know that he went quickly. He was in his own home. He wasn’t alone.”

I swallowed uneasily. “I see.” His own home. That made him seem real to me suddenly—an actual physical person who had existed all my life, but now, he was gone. Just like that. He was no longer alive on this planet. He would be lowered into the ground. Buried. And not just figuratively in my consciousness. I would never lay eyes on him.

“Well . . . that’s a blessing, at least . . . that he didn’t suffer.”

An awkward silence ensued, and I felt ashamed of the absence of grief in me, but what could I do? All I felt was confusion and a somewhat morbid curiosity, as I wondered if it truly was too late to see him. I didn’t even know what he looked like. Would there be a wake?

Then it dawned on me—that my real father had known about my existence and had deemed me important enough to be informed of his passing. I had always assumed my mother had kept it secret from him too.

“I’m sorry,” I said, desperate to fill the silence. “What’s your connection to my . . .” I could barely get the word out. “How do you know my father?”

“I apologize again,” she said. “I should have explained myself. I work for the legal offices of Donatello and Costa. We were your father’s legal team in Italy, which is why I’m calling.”

I sat up straighter against the pillows, feeling more awake now.

“Your father named you as a beneficiary in his will,” she explained, “and we’re going to need you to sign some papers.”

“Wait a second . . . he what?” My heart seemed to plummet into the pit of my belly.

“The funeral is on Monday, and there will be an official reading of the will with family members on Tuesday. I realize it’s short notice, Fiona, but could you arrange a flight?”

I felt a sudden, rapid rush of heat to all my extremities at the prospect of traveling to Europe on my own to meet the family of a man I’d never wanted—or expected—to know. Whatever he left to me, I didn’t want it, because this man had caused my mother discomfort and shame on the day she died. I’d recognized it when she told me the truth. As she lay on her deathbed, she could barely speak of it. Whatever happened between them was not a pleasant memory for her.

Besides that, how would I ever explain it to Dad? To the loving father who raised me? I couldn’t possibly confess to more than a decade of dishonesty. It would break his heart to know that I wasn’t really his and that I had kept such a monumental secret from him. And he had been through enough. Suffered more than enough loss.

I shifted uncomfortably on the mattress. “Um . . . this is a lot to take in. I’m not sure . . .” I swallowed hard. “Is it really necessary for me to be there in person? I mean, it’s a long way to travel, and I’ll be honest—I wasn’t close to . . .” Again, the word father got stuck in my throat, so I managed a quick pivot. “I’m not sure how much you know about the situation, Ms. Moretti, but I’ve never even met Mr. Clark. I always assumed he didn’t know about me. He certainly never made any attempts to contact me, which is why this comes as a surprise. I don’t know his family at all, so it might be awkward for me to be there. And I don’t like to be away from my father. He needs me here. Is there any way we can do this through email or fax?”

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