Ravelli's Defiant Bride(5)

By: Lynne Graham

Uncomfortable in receipt of that emotional outburst, Mark cleared his throat. ‘Are you the children’s legal guardian?’

‘Well, who else is there?’ Belle asked defensively.

‘But it’s not down legally on paper anywhere that you’re their guardian, is it?’ Mark prompted ruefully as her clear green eyes lifted to his in sudden dismay. ‘I didn’t think so. You should go and see a solicitor about your situation as soon as you can and get your claim to the children recognised with all the red tape available...otherwise you might discover that Gaetano’s family have more legal say on the subject of what happens to them than you do.’

‘But that would be ridiculous!’ Belle objected. ‘Gaetano had nothing to do with the kids even when he was here.’

‘Not according to the law. He paid the older children’s school fees, signed the Lodge over to your mother,’ Mark reminded her with all the devotion to detail inherent in his law-student studies. ‘He may have been a lousy father in the flesh but he did take care of the necessities, which could conceivably give Gaetano’s sons a bigger say than you have in what happens to the children now.’

‘But Gaetano left all five of them out of his will,’ Belle pointed out, tilting her chin in challenge.

‘That doesn’t matter. The law is the law,’ Mark fielded. ‘Nobody can take their birthright away from them.’

‘Adoption...’ Eyes still stunned by that proposition, Belle sank heavily back down into her chair. ‘That’s a crazy idea. They couldn’t have tried this nonsense on if my mother were still alive!’ she exclaimed bitterly. ‘Nobody could have said their mother didn’t have the right to say what should happen to them.’

‘If only Mary had lived long enough to deal with all this,’ Isa sighed in pained agreement. ‘But maybe, as the children’s granny, I’ll have a say?’

‘I doubt it,’ Mark interposed. ‘Until you moved in here after Mary’s death, the children had never lived with you.’

‘I could pretend to be Mum...’ Belle breathed abruptly.

‘Pretend?’ Isa’s head swivelled round to the younger woman in disbelief. ‘Don’t be silly, Belle.’

‘How am I being silly? Cristo Ravelli doesn’t know Mum is dead and if he thinks she’s still alive, he’s very unlikely to try and interfere in their living arrangements.’ Belle lifted her head high, convinced she was correct on that score.

‘There’s no way you could pretend to be a woman in her forties!’ Mark protested with an embarrassed laugh at the idea.

Belle was thinking hard. ‘But I don’t need to look like I’m in my forties...I only need to look old enough to have a fifteen-year-old son and, at the age women are having children these days, I could easily only be in my early thirties,’ she reasoned.

‘It would be insane to try and pull off a deception like that,’ her grandmother told her quellingly. ‘Cristo Ravelli would be sure to find out the truth.’

‘How? Who’s going to tell him? He’s a Ravelli—he’s not going to be wandering round asking the locals nosy questions. He would have no reason to question my identity. I’ll put my hair up, use a lot of make-up...that’ll help—’

‘Belle...I know you’re game for anything but it would be a massive deception to try and pull off,’ Mark said drily. ‘Think about what you’re saying.’

The kitchen door opened and a thumb-sucking toddler with a mop of black curls stumbled in. He steadied himself against Belle’s denim-clad thigh and then clambered up clumsily into his sister’s lap, taking his welcome for granted. ‘Sleepy,’ he told her, the words slurring. ‘Hug...’

Belle cradled her youngest half-sibling gently. Franco was very affectionate and he was quick to curve his warm, solid little body into hers. ‘I’ll take him upstairs for a nap,’ she whispered, rising upright again with difficulty because he was a heavy child.

Belle tucked Franco into his cot beside her bed and for a moment stood looking out of the rear window, which provided a picturesque view of Mayhill House, a gracious grey Georgian mansion set in acres of parkland against the backdrop of the ancient oak woods. Her mother had been a widow and Belle only eight years old when Mary had first started work as Gaetano Ravelli’s housekeeper.

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