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An extra loud baby cry had her shrugging off the memory of temperature-raising dark eyes. Once outside her room, she thought she could hear the distressed baby cries even more loudly, but then her experience of crying babies was not what anyone would call extensive.

Her niece probablydidcry, but whenever Maya saw her, which was too infrequently, little Sabina Ella, a deeply contented child, always seemed to be smiling or examining the world around her with big solemn enquiring eyes or giving the deep little belly chuckle that was impossible not to react to.

There was a wistful element to the small smile that played across the fullness of Maya’s soft mouth in response to the memories of her last visit to San Macizo. She was really glad her sister had found the happiness she deserved, and that she was finally reconciled with her husband, but she couldn’t help wishing that Beatrice had found all those elements a little closer to home.

Approaching the bedroom door, she paused and after a moment knocked, raising her voice to make herself heard above the distressed bawling inside.

‘Is there anything I can do or get for you, Violetta?’ she asked, directing her question to the closed door. She paused again and waited, head tipped to one side in a listening attitude, but the only thing she heard was Mattio.

Pitching her voice louder, she repeated her question and was not really surprised when there was still no response; she could barely hear herself above the crying. Tapping on the door again, she called out the other woman’s name several times to give her some warning as she pushed it slowly open.

‘Violetta?’ Maya scanned the room, empty but for the travel cot that held the baby, his wailing subsiding into a series of gulping, heartbreaking breathy sobs as he heard her voice.

Maya walked across to the cot and whispered a tentative, ‘Hello there.’ The baby’s face was red, his eyes puffy with prolonged crying, and when he saw Maya he didn’t quiet completely but he did stretch out his chubby little hands towards her.

Maya felt something tighten in her chest, the strangest sensation.

‘Oh...’ She swallowed, feeling the unexpected heat of tears pressing against her eyelids. That’s all we need, more tears, she told herself sternly as she blinked hard. ‘So where is your mummy?’ she asked, refusing to think about the significance of the undisturbed decorative pillows on the bed until she actually had to. ‘Violetta!’

The baby, clearly objecting to her raised voice, started crying in earnest again.

‘, don’t do that! I’m sorry, don’t...oh, God!’ Taking a deep breath, she leaned into the cot and lifted out the warm, damp baby. ‘Righto!’ she said, channelling slightly desperate cheer as she settled him awkwardly against her hip. ‘So, let’s go find your mummy, shall we?’

The knot of panic in her chest had expanded to the size of a heart-compressing boulder as, jiggling the baby in her arms, she walked through every room in the flat. It didn’t take long—there was nowhere a cat could hide, let alone a person—but she retraced her steps anyway.

‘This is not happening,’ she muttered. But it was, and she had to deal with it. ‘Don’t worry, it’ll be fine,’ she said to the baby, and saw that his little head was propped on her shoulder. He had fallen asleep, exhausted by his crying.

There had to be a perfectly logical explanation for this, she thought, and then spotted the note propped behind a framed photo of Beatrice with Dante, who was looking at his wife with an expression of total adoration. There was a name scrawled across the front of the envelope.

Not her own name, butMia.

Well,some people were just bad with names. Weren’t they?

She stared at the envelope with a sudden sick feeling of dread in the pit of her stomach. Probably, given the situation, it was totally justified.

Why prolong it, just do it! Better to know the worst.

Or was it, was it really? There were occasions when blissful ignorance had a definite appeal and Maya had always struggled with the ‘rip the plaster off and get the pain over with’ mindset.

One arm supporting the sleeping baby, she glanced down at his sweet, tear-stained face and wished she could copy him. She blew out a gusty breath and decided to put him back in his cot.

Baby settled, the next thing on her checklist—because this wasn’t about delaying, it was prioritising—was the formula sitting in the fridge to inspect. While the letter wasn’t going anywhere, when he woke Mattio would need feeding and, of course, changing. Locating the changing mat and nappies and clean clothes took another few minutes, but the letter was still sitting there and now she had run out of more important and less potentially explosive things to do.

With a hiss of exasperation, she snatched at it and ripped it open, but she had barely scanned the contents when the doorbell rang, making her jump.

Samuele lifted his hand off the doorbell and applied his clenched fist to the wooden panel, fighting the urge to batter his way through the last barrier between him and his nephew.

Instead, he took a deep breath and reminded himself that, while Violetta was a piece of work, selfish, cold and manipulative, she would not harm her own child. This small soothing piece of positivity didn’t lower his levels of frustration because, though it might be true, Samuele also knew that she would not hesitate to use Mattio to further her own agenda. This particular vengeful widow had never put anyone’s needs above her own self-interest and motherhood had not altered that aspect of her one iota.

Samuele’s hand lifted to the fading red line that ran down from his cheekbone to his jaw, glad that the one on the other side had already gone.Hewas the target of Violetta’s spite, not the baby, but that didn’t mean the innocent child could not be collateral damage. His gut tightened with guilt that he had not seen this, or something like it, coming.

He had promised Cristiano so easily that he would take care of his child. Pulling himself up to his full height, he fixed his steely gaze on the door. He would make good on that promise.

He heard the sound of a key in the lock and took a step back—waiting for...who?

The words of the note still echoing in her head, Maya’s unsteady hands were shaking so hard she struggled to get a good grasp on the key in the lock, not realising until a lot of fumbling later that it wasn’t locked, it couldn’t be locked, because Violetta had left it open when she left.

Just thinking of howdesperateVioletta must have felt to leave her own baby with a virtual stranger sent a fresh surge of emotion through her body. She’d said in the brief note that she would come back for Mattio...and shewould, Maya was sure of that. Perhaps she already had?

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