San Francisco, California
“Sign here, Miss Rosetta.” The attorney slid several typewritten documents across his immense oak desk. In his gnarled outstretched hand speckled with brown age-spots was a pointed mother-of-pearl fountain pen.
Seated across the desk, Caterina pressed her fingers against her damp collarbone. How can I do this? The writing instrument might as well have been a dagger for her heart.
Caterina fanned her face with a cherry blossom paper fan she’d bought in Chinatown. Where is the breeze off the San Francisco Bay? It was an unseasonably humid day in the city, a day so scorching it rendered her mind sluggish. Or was that only an excuse for evading the decision she could not bring herself to make?
Fumbling in her purse, she drew out a wrinkled monogrammed handkerchief embroidered by her own hand. The linen held the milky, sweet scent of her little girl, now a year old. Marisa. She dabbed her neckline and face, stalling the inevitable. She placed the handkerchief and fan on the lap of her light wool skirt and struggled to compose herself.
In the outer office, a typewriter’s staccato rhythm jangled her nerves, each strike an assault on her sanity.
“Miss Rosetta, we’ve been through this before. My clients are growing impatient.” Harold Exeter straightened his crooked frame and stood behind her. “I must have your signature today.”
This was her last day with her daughter. Tomorrow morning, Caterina would hug Marisa and kiss her good-bye forever. Her throat closed and her breath became shallow.
She swallowed the lump in her throat and fought to lift her leaden wrist, but she could not. To her horror, the lawyer clenched her hand, wrapped her trembling fingers around the pen, and positioned it over the contract. He clamped her shoulder with his other hand. All at once, the air in the office grew thick. She gasped for breath.
His bony grip on her hand tightened. “You have already agreed to their offer.”
Indeed she had. Nevertheless, she instinctively flung her hand from his grip, dropped the pen, and pushed the documents away as if they were contaminated. Dark ink smattered like wine across neat pages that threatened to extinguish the only pure joy she had in her life.
“Is it more money you want?” Mr. Exeter’s voice had an edge she hadn’t heard before.
Caterina snatched her purse, dug out the lawyer’s crumpled check, and flung it onto the desk. “I don’t even want the money you gave me,” she snapped. Distraught, she sank her face into her hands, her breath coming in short rasps.
“That was for your medical bills and rent.” The attorney shifted on his feet and waited for her to regain control. Once she did, he eased himself into a chair next to her. His demeanor softened. “Miss Rosetta, I’m a father and a grandfather. I know how difficult this is for you. But adoption is the best alternative. If you love your child, how can you subject her to a life of shame?”
Caterina’s eyes glistened, and a moan escaped her lips. There was nothing she wouldn’t do for Marisa. Yet the motherly instincts of her heart and the rational judgment of her head warred within her.
“Do you want her to suffer the brand of illegitimacy for life?” His voice dropped a notch. “Don’t make your child pay for your mistake. She needs a family.”
She agreed. And she’d tried to do just that, though she had failed. Faith, the kind woman who ran the small maternity home where she’d been living, had warned her. The longer she waited to give up her baby, the more gut-wrenching it would be.
But Caterina had to know, beyond any doubt, that this was the best decision for Marisa. She could bear nothing less. Clutching her handkerchief, she intercepted the tears that spilled from her lids. “I must meet them.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“The new . . . couple,” she managed to say, instead of parents. Caterina’s skin crawled with unease.
“I’m afraid that’s impossible.”
Caterina shoved the fan and handkerchief into her purse and sprang from the chair.
Immediately, Mr. Exeter placed a firm hand on her arm. “That is, it’s highly irregular.” He shook his graying head as if it were the worst imaginable deed. “But I can inquire.” He glanced at his wristwatch. “We hadn’t much time left. Will you sign the documents today?”
Caterina bit her lip. “If I like them.”
“My dear, they are the finest people. Your question should be, will they love and care for your daughter? I assure you, they will. However, I shall try to contact them with this unusual request. Nevertheless, in good faith, your signature will be required first.” He scooped up the documents. “If you’ll wait in the reception area, I’ll have this first page retyped.”
Caterina felt as if she were suffocating. “I need air. I’ll wait outside.”
Once outside, her step faltered, and she leaned against the brick building, gulping air thickened with humidity. She watched steam waffle from the pavement in waves. This cloying summer heat was nearby Napa Valley weather—good for ripening grapes—but it was a temperature seldom seen in San Francisco.
Although she had a decent job in the city, she ached for the panoramic views from her mother’s high perched vineyard, the scent of soil rich enough to yield the finest wine, and the sound of birdsong on breeze-cooled evenings. She had grown up at the vineyard; it was an idyllic setting for a child.
And yet, she could not return with Marisa. Illegitimate. Why did society pin labels of hatred on innocent children? Why were families robbed of their precious children, all in the name of propriety?
Marisa. All at once, Caterina sensed an inexplicable draw toward her little girl. She brushed salty tears from her cheeks.
Her skin crawled with a sudden urgency. Marisa needs me. As if in a trance, she turned and began walking in the direction of her car.
In the logical recesses of her mind, she knew she should stay and sign the final adoption papers. “It’s the loving thing to do,” Faith had told her this morning before she’d left the house. Caterina had agreed. She was not a young woman prone to dereliction of her duties.
She had seen other young women at the maternity home give up their babies, some mere hours after giving birth. A few girls were heartbroken over lost lovers, while others bravely maintained they were glad to be rid of the product of rape or incest. Yet she had witnessed the tears and agony etched on each face after they’d handed their tiny offspring to a nurse, never to see their child again. Never to feel a heartbeat flutter against their chests in the small hours of the night. Never to see the first loving smile of recognition or hear the first cry of “Mama.”
Their inconsolable sobs still rang in her ears.
Something is dreadfully wrong. Her heart palpitating, Caterina quickened her step, brushing past people on the crowded sidewalk.
At first, she’d refused to give up Marisa, hoping to hear from her child’s father, the man she loved. Praying for a miracle. “You’ve waited too long,” Faith had told her months later. “You must make a decision for the good of the child.”
Caterina sniffed the air, detecting a trace scent of thundershowers. Clouds shadowed the sun.
“Excuse me.” Caterina pushed past a group of meandering students. She stepped off the curb and dodged a taxi pulling to the corner. Her chest tightened. Her car was parked in the next block down the hill. She shed her jacket and broke into a trot.
Breathing heavily, she increased her pace. She had to reach Marisa. Was it a mother’s instinct? Frantic now, Caterina ran down the hilly street, her purse knocking against her side, her high heels clattering on the sidewalk.
She reached her car and flung open the door of her turquoise Chevrolet Bel Air with pointed rear fender fins. Her mother had given her the car when she’d moved to San Francisco for college. She turned the key in the ignition and pumped the gas pedal. She had to reach Marisa as soon as possible. She didn’t know why, but she knew it was dire.
A fat raindrop splattered her windshield, and then another, and another. She flicked on her wipers and pushed the large sedan as fast as she dared on city streets. By the time she arrived at the maternity home, sheets of rain were battering her car.
She parked down the street and then raced through the downpour past old Victorian homes, which lined the way like pastel macarons. Turning in, she hurried up the steps and passed under a canopy of ornate fretwork freshly painted in lemon yellow, mint green, and cornflower blue. Panic rose in her throat. She pushed open the door and pounded up the stairs, leaving a trail of water in her path.
Caterina gripped the doorjamb of the children’s nursery in the old home overlooking the bay. Half a dozen playpens with babies lined the perimeter. Paintings of giraffes, monkeys, and elephants adorned the walls, mocking her with their cheerful countenances.
Marisa was pulling up on her railing, teetering on strong, developing legs. A well-dressed, middle-aged couple stood next to Marisa’s playpen, exclaiming over her.
“What are you doing?” Caterina demanded, brushing damp hair from her forehead. They’ve come too soon. Terror seized her. She wasn’t ready.
Faith O’Connell hurried to her side, embarrassment stamped on her reddened face. “This is Mr. and Mrs. Anderson. They wanted to visit today while you were out. You’re back early,” she added in an apologetic tone, fumbling with the top button on her green-checked housedress.
A woman with perfectly coiffed blond hair jerked her head around and glared at Faith. “You said she wouldn’t be here.” She turned a withering gaze on Caterina.
Mrs. Anderson’s lips twitched with disdain as she took in Caterina’s rain-stained shoes and wet hair.
Caterina flicked away errant strands plastered to her flushed cheeks. She shrugged free of Faith, but before she could reach Marisa, Mrs. Anderson picked up her baby. Caterina’s heart thudded.
“How are you, darling?” the woman cooed, kissing Marisa’s cheek. “Would you like to come home with us?”
Marisa’s lower lip began to tremble, and her eyes sought out Caterina.
“Get away from her. I’m her mother.” Fuming, Caterina crossed the room in long strides, intent on rescuing her beautiful dark-haired girl from the woman’s pale arms.
Mr. Anderson wore a charcoal suit and a grim expression. “We came here to adopt this little girl. We can give her a good home. Don’t you want to do what’s best for her?”
Caterina yanked her daughter from his wife and pressed Marisa’s trembling little body to her chest. She turned her back to the couple, shielding Marisa from their prying eyes. She couldn’t let her go. “I am doing what’s best for her.”
Her russet curls quivering with distress, Faith hurried to Caterina’s side. “A child needs a father and a mother, dear.”
“We wanted a little blond-haired girl, but we’ll take her,” Mrs. Anderson said. “She has such a pretty smile and the brightest blue eyes we’ve ever seen.”
“And a sweet nature,” her husband added. “We adopted a boy last year, and this girl is for my wife. It’s her birthday today.”
Caterina was livid. “You can’t pick out a baby like a birthday gift. And certainly not my child.”
“Mr. Exeter assured us we had an agreement.” Mr. Anderson jabbed a finger in the air. “You must be reasonable. How will you care for her?” He looked at her with contempt.
“I have a college education and a good job,” Caterina said with pride. “I’m a sommelier at the St. Francis Hotel.”
“Isn’t that like a bartender?” Mrs. Anderson narrowed her eyes and shrank back with disgust.
“Surely you’re exaggerating.” Her husband snorted. “No place would hire a woman as a sommelier.”
Caterina ignored his jibe. “I’m not giving her up, and that’s final.” Marisa began crying at her mother’s distress, and Caterina patted her back. “It’s okay, sweetheart. Mommy’s here.”
“Oh dear,” Faith said, wringing her hands. “You must understand that Miss Rosetta is distraught.”
“Rosetta? Well, she’s a hotheaded Italian. That explains everything.” The woman peered down her nose at Caterina. “Come, Fred, I don’t think we want this one after all. She’d probably grow up to be just as willful as her mother.”
“Get out,” Caterina said through clenched teeth.
The woman shifted her large leather purse on her arm and wedged past Caterina, her sharp heels clicking on the wooden floor, punctuating Marisa’s wails.
Her husband trailed behind her, glaring at Caterina. “You’ve spoiled her birthday, you know. And you’ll regret this decision.”
After the Andersons stormed out, tears welled in Caterina’s eyes. She rocked Marisa in her arms, soothing her.
Faith clucked her tongue. “My dear, you must think of Marisa’s welfare. It’s been a year now. If you wait any longer, it’s going to be very difficult for her to adjust to a new family. The Andersons were good people. They would have grown to love her.”
“But I love her. I’m enough for her.”
“You must face facts. Why, a lovely girl like you can start over and marry a nice boy. No man wants another man’s child.” Faith paused. “You never heard from the father?”
The father. Caterina shook her head, feeling as if her heart had surely sustained injury. For years they’d been the closest of childhood friends, delighted in each other, read each other’s mind, and only recently, as adults, had succumbed to a newfound passion. But now, Marisa was all that remained of their expression of desire. “My mother was widowed, and she raised me alone. I can do this.”
“There’s a vast difference in our society between a widow and a single woman with an illegitimate child. Think of the stigma she will suffer. Is that what you want for your child?”
Caterina looked at her little girl. Marisa’s tears had dried, and a smile crept onto her face. Caterina’s heart melted like sweet honey. Her little girl’s vivid blue eyes were round and innocent and perfect replicas of her father’s eyes. Caterina couldn’t let her go. Marisa was all she had of the man she would love forever. “She stays with me.”
“We only want what’s best for you.” Faith heaved a great sigh.
Caterina peppered Marisa with kisses, relieved that she’d gotten there in time. Faith and Patrick O’Connell were fair with the unwed mothers who came to them, and Caterina knew they wouldn’t have allowed the Andersons to take Marisa without her permission—unlike some of the other oppressive maternity homes she’d visited—but the mere thought of strangers fawning over Marisa curdled her stomach.
Caterina vowed never to let anyone try to take Marisa from her again. She would do whatever it took to keep her child, and as far as she was concerned, society and its snotty judgments could go straight to hell.
“It’s not that we don’t love you and Marisa.” Faith’s expression was earnest. “But you must know you’re running out of options, dear.”
Caterina squeezed her eyes against Faith’s stinging words. Faith had once been a nun, and her mission in life was to be of service to others. But Caterina found it difficult to face her dilemma.
Instead, she closed her eyes and savored the warmth and pressure of Marisa’s body against her own. Her sweet, powdery scent always brought a rush of joy to Caterina, but today her emotions were in tatters. A swath of wavy dark hair soft as duckling’s down lay against Marisa’s smooth, olive-toned cheek. Caterina stroked her baby’s skin in a feathery caress. “My precious girl,” she murmured. Marisa closed her eyes, snuggling against her bosom. Caterina stroked her hair, stifling a cry. How could I have thought to let her go?
Faith put a hand on Caterina’s shoulder. “If you won’t consider adoption, can you go home to the vineyard in Napa? Perhaps your mother will relent if she meets Marisa.”
Caterina shook her head vehemently. “Going home to Mille Étoiles would be disastrous. My mother will never forgive me.” Years ago, when Caterina had crossed the threshold into womanhood, her mother had warned her against the mistakes a girl might make. Sex before marriage, pregnancy, illegitimate children. Utterly unforgivable.
Her mother’s words rang in her ears. She’d heard her reproaches a thousand times. “I’d disown you if you ever made such a mistake. Only common trash behaves that way. Those girls should give their babies up for adoption; it’s the only decent thing to do. There’s nothing worse than being forced into marriage.”
Faith ran her hand over Marisa’s hair and kissed her forehead. “If only your mother could see these happy eyes gazing up at her. I think she’d love her immediately, don’t you?”
“You can’t imagine the wrath of Ava Rosetta.” Caterina frowned. Faith seemed to be driving at something, but before Caterina could ask, Marisa turned her eyes up to her, and her heart lurched. Once Caterina had seen her baby’s bright blue eyes—his eyes—blinking back at her, trusting her, needing her, she couldn’t bear to part with her. When she’d finally agreed to “do the sensible thing,” as Faith had implored, it had felt as if she were halving her very soul.
Adopting their babies out might have been the right decision for some girls who selflessly gave their children to those who could provide for them, but it was not for her. Maybe those girls were stronger than she was, or maybe they were in more desperate situations. Caterina would sooner take a knife and carve out her own heart—that’s what it had felt like when she’d been asked to sign the adoption papers.
Faith rested a hand on her arm. “Aren’t you going to Napa this weekend?”
Caterina nodded. Her mother had asked her to help choose wines for a wine-tasting competition. Ava Rosetta was a respected winemaker who had standards so lofty that Caterina had often wondered if she could ever match her mother’s stature in the industry—or in life.
“Why don’t you take Marisa with you? It is your home.”
Why not, indeed? Guilt prickled her neck. Each day that Caterina concealed the truth of her mistake, her lies by necessity grew larger and more complex. She squirreled away cash and constructed elaborate excuses for her whereabouts. She couldn’t continue her charade much longer. Her stories had swirled into a vortex of lies that was sucking her spirit from her.
More than that, she wasn’t being fair to Marisa. There had been no doubt in her mind that the day would come when she would have to choose between the love of her mother and the love for her child. The bleak thought tore at Caterina’s soul.
Faith’s reddish curls framed a freckled face drawn with concern. “I must tell you that we have a new girl coming in two weeks. We’re going to need your room.”
Caterina blinked back hot tears. “I’ll tell her this weekend.” She’d been in denial; now it was time to accept the consequences of her actions. She’d have to ask her mother if she could live at home with Marisa, at least until her sublet apartment was available again. She clutched Marisa in her arms.
Whatever her mother had to share with her this weekend surely paled in comparison to the truth Caterina planned to reveal.
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