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Wednesday, August 24, 2011

("Time is on my side, yes it is. Oh, time is on my side, yes it is")…Rolling Stones

Anh yêu em Tuyet...
Tôi yêu con gái KaSandra & Katrina...
Tôi thương con trai của bố Luc…

Gabriel's Promise
a novel by nicholas sheridan stanton

Chapter Thirty-eight

Monte Carlo, Principality of Monaco, Saturday, August 30th, 2005…11am

It tickled Alma Donnelly something fierce to be referred to as Baroness, it just sounded so regal for a country girl from Fresno, California. This was her first visit to the small country of Monaco, or rather principality, and Alma had no idea what the difference was? Frankly she didn't give a fiddlers fig, the place was lovely and just being here made her smile. All she knew for certain was that this was where Grace Kelly, a favorite actress from her youth, had come here to marry into a real life fairytale when she agreed to wed Rainier Grimaldi III, an actual Prince, thus becoming Princess Grace in the process. So romantic thought Alma. From her perch outside the bridge of the huge ocean liner named for Her Royal Highness she gazed at sprawling hillsides dotted with quaint little cottages of ancient architecture existing side by side with palatial chateaus, opulent casinos, and street bazaars. It was typical of what one would expect to see in the south of France. However this wasn't just the south of France, this was Monaco, a living breathing fairytale right out of the pages of the Brothers Grimm.

The marine layer, typical for this time of year, had nearly burned off as the last cloud of any size drifted by the noonday sun and bathed the small hamlet with warm sunshine. The appearance of brilliant sunlight caused Alma to squint. She turned away and allowed her eyes to adjust as she surveyed the immensity of Sanford Peck's flagship ocean liner. Quite a legacy for the actress turned Princess she thought. The whole fairytale notion made her think of Arthur, God rest his soul. The big lug had been her Prince, Lord above, how she missed that man! Alma Donnelly looked at the modest gold wristwatch that Arthur had given her after their first vineyard harvest back in 1958. She frowned remembering how she had scolded him for his extravagance, the gift was more than they could afford back then as every nickel they had went into that first harvest and virgin vintage of Swallowtail Farms' award winning Chardonnay. It seemed like only yesterday and she allowed herself to daydream for a moment. Oh yes, how she missed her Arthur, the gentlest six foot five inch giant the good Lord ever created!

"Excuse me Baroness, but the Captain wishes to inform you that Messier Peck is waiting for you in the main salon on the Lido Deck. If you would be so kind as to follow me I am to escort you," explained a rather young purser. He was tall and lean, and in this light as well as her current state of mind, the boy reminded her of Arthur.

"Yes, of course young man, please, lead the way," she replied smiling warmly.

"Has Messier Rojier arrived yet?" she asked, taking the handsome young junior officer's arm.

"I'm afraid Messier Rojier sends his apologies. He will be unable to join you this morning but said to assure you that he will be in attendance at the Gala tonight," answered the ship's purser.

"Oh phooey," pouted Alma, patting the young man's forearm to let him know she was ready to proceed on to meet with the top dog himself, Sanford Peck.

Actually Alma was slightly miffed that Jean Luc would not be there to shield her from that awful man. She despised the over bearing rascal. And quite a rascal he was according to her people. Goodness she had heard some terrible stories and she hoped that they were just that, stories. In any event, she could handle herself well enough Arthur Donnelly had made sure of that. He had always involved her in their business affairs so she'd have the right skills to succeed in a man's world. She appreciated that about her husband, he was thoughtful that way, always putting her needs first, always.

They believed a strong marriage was built on openness and honesty, even when it was worrisome or even painful to tell the truth. While those words weren't part of the official vows, they were implied. The Lord was wise enough to understand that everyone is weak at sometime or another in a lifetime together. So He didn't require you pledge allegiance to an impossible feat. He did however require that you to pledge to work through all of the bumps along the marriage road, hence the vow "in sickness and in health" (there are ALL kinds of sickness and they don't always come with sniffles and coughs). The key was to have faith that ALL things are possible through Him. Alma believed that and so did Arthur, they got it.

The young officer led her from the bridge down to the Lido Deck and the Grand Salon, reserved for Captain's Table social events, and, whenever he was aboard, the private use of Sanford Peck and his guests. As they arrived Alma gasped audibly at the beauty of the room she was entering. The Purser waived a key fob past a black square device mounted on the wall. The red light changed to green and the two large mahogany doors slid open quietly revealing the Grand Salon in its splendor. The first thing that caught Alma's eye was the high ceiling spanning at least two decks. At the center of the foyer where she stood in awe was a massive crystal chandelier hanging motionless high above her head. Directly ahead of her were twin staircases that swept up to an ornate second level Library. She could see floor to ceiling mahogany bookshelves with lattice ladders on rails at each end. Spaced at equal intervals and alternating between facing the railing and facing the Library shelves were several large Queen Anne chairs arranged for privacy to provide the reader with a personal comfort zone where they could lose themselves in whatever story they desired to escape into.

Beneath the Library was the Main Salon complete with a walk in stone fireplace which just floored Alma. How on earth can you have a huge wood burning fireplace on the high seas she wondered? The Salon was decorated in deep brown masculine tones with just a hint of feminine intervention noticeable courtesy the soft lighting, lace doilies, and colorful quilts covering the arms and backs of chairs large enough to support a linebacker. Apparently Sanford Peck didn't pull all the strings in his household. That surprised Alma a little but she didn't let it influence her impression of the man. He was a lout and a brute and she didn't like him. But she was a practical woman and paid heed to Jean-Luc's assessment that the G.A.W.D. Foundation needed Standard Pharmaceutical's support and cooperation in the good work they were doing for the kids. Small price to pay for such a large prize she thought.

"Alma dear, so wonderful to see you again, it's been too long," said Killeen Peck as she entered the room. The elegant woman dressed in a lavender sundress and sensible shoes walked up to Alma bussing her softly on each cheek, taking care not to leave a lip gloss smudge. She paused to look Alma over, holding her hand as she nodded approvingly.

"I just love your outfit, it is perfect for this time of year," Killeen said, sincerely complimenting Mrs. Donnelly on her wardrobe.

"Why, this old thing? I just threw this together before I left my stateroom," Alma replied, telling a little white lie. Actually she had agonized for better than an hour over what to wear to meet the Peck's on board their big fancy boat.

Alma Donnelly had money but she hadn't grown up with it like Killeen Peck had. Alma had to work for what she had. She and Arthur had done quite well for themselves over the years, but everything they had, they earned, and to be completely honest Alma was always a little embarrassed by their wealth. The world preaches wealth means health. So many people are only happy when seeking more, more of this, more of that. What's wrong with wanting more they ask? Alma wasn't one of the "more people" she was comfortable with having what she needed. Be that as it may she wasn't one to judge. Live and let live she always said. She smiled back at Killeen Peck and returned the compliment.

"I do declare Mrs. Peck you are just lovely. What is your secret for staying so young and vibrant?" Alma replied smiling broadly.

"Why thank you. Please, call me Killeen. We're friends now aren't we?" insisted Killeen Peck.

"Of course Killeen, of course we are," replied Alma Donnelly.

Mrs. Peck gestured toward a large overstuffed sofa and bade Alma to have a seat as she turned to address a lovely young lady in uniform, no doubt a member of the ship's company. She caught sight of her husband who was entering the Salon and Alma thought she saw her expression sour for a millisecond before she spoke to the young crew member.

"Jessica love, we'll have tea right here in the Salon. Please ask Caesar to prepare some refreshments as well, perhaps a light lunch. Would that be all right with you Alma?" Killeen asked turning to address her guest.

"That would be nice, thank you Killeen," Alma answered sweetly.

"It's settled then, thank you Jessica," Killeen declared, dismissing the young lady with a smile.

"Very good madam," Jessica said as she turned to leave the room.

Sanford Peck nodded at Jessica as she passed by him. The girl didn't even look up to acknowledge him and seemed to hurry on past the man. His reputation may not be exaggerated after all thought Alma as the fifth wealthiest man in the world strolled into the room to join her and Killeen. Sanford Peck wasn't a particularly large man nor a physically imposing figure by any means. However he did have an air about him, a presence that made him appear larger than life. Alma had read all about him on the flight from New York to Paris and again on the train from Paris to Monte Carlo. Like she and her husband Sanford Peck had not been born into money, he also earned it, an impressive fortune. Of course he did have a head start on the Donnelly's as he married into wealth by wedding Killeen Gateway. Actually, that was one aspect of the man that Alma admired. Apparently the seed money his wife's dowry provided was repaid with interest as fast as Sanford earned his first twenty million dollars, which according to Forbes was pretty darn fast.

Say what you want about the man, as evil as he probably was, he seemed to possess at least a few scruples. Alma doubted that would save him from the hellfire he was headed for though. Even the face of evil was able to smile convincingly. On the surface that responsible gesture seemed like an admirable quality but there was something lurking between the lines on the pages she'd read about the man. There were unwritten words that appeared on Killeen Peck's face when she noticed her husband enter the room. The same words were expressed in the stiffness of the young crew member as she passed him only a moment ago. Alma couldn't put her finger on it, but there were volumes missing from those pages she'd read, she sensed that deeply.

"Ladies, I see you're getting reacquainted. How are you Mrs. Donnelly? I trust your stateroom is satisfactory?" asked Sanford Peck as he took a seat in a very large leather chair across from the sofa the two women were seated upon.

"The room is lovely Mr. Peck, and so unnecessary, it is much too large for just little old me," Alma answered humbly.

"Nonsense, you're our guest, we can't have a lady of your stature in anything less. And please, call me Sanford," he replied staring right through her.

"Alright, if you insist, thank you," Alma said returning his gaze with equal intensity.

"I understand that your Foundation partner, Messier Rojier, is unable to join us this morning," Sanford said as a waiter appeared as if on cue with a thick tumbler filled with a generous amount of what was probably 50 year old scotch.

"Yes, I only just received word of it myself a moment before coming down to meet with you," Alma explained.

"Pity, I was looking forward to chatting with him at length without the distraction of the Gala this evening," Sanford said as he sipped his drink and dismissed the server.

"I'm sorry, I am sure that Jean-Luc has a good reason for his absence," Alma said defending her partner. She didn't like his tone and sensed a message in it?

"Is there something I can help with, there are no secrets between Jean-Luc and myself," Alma added, in a cool, calm voice, subtly challenging Peck to reveal his intentions or his hidden meaning.

Sanford Peck laughed out loud at her statement, amused by her naïveté, "Hahahaha, Mrs. Donnelly, you are delightful. Madam, everyone keeps a secret or two, I dare say even you my dear. I know that I do, that Killeen does. Why else do we clothe ourselves or deal playing cards face down or cast our votes behind a curtain? Deception is a part of every business, a part of every life!"

Alma grinned at the arrogant bastard but held her tongue, partly because she loathed his pompous banter, and partly because he was right. She had been a righteous woman all of her life, but she understood the simple truth that everyone holds something back. There are just some things between you and God, no matter how open one thinks they are. She and Arthur believed that trusting your mate with the truth was a true measure of pure love. She also knew that the truth wasn't always revealed in words. She knew that sometimes truth came in a sorrowful look that didn't need words to express the pain behind it. Those precious moments when a man and a woman surrendered their unspoken secrets with tears and whimpers that said in deafening silence "I trust you my love with my vulnerability while I protect you from my pain."

Arthur had been in the war. He had seen things he didn't want her to see, and done things he wanted to protect her innocent heart from. It was fair and just that he suffer memories of ghosts and deeds that he alone would have to answer for. In those private moments he allowed her to see inside his soul, his far away stares always ending with her holding his face in her tiny hands until quiet tears came to wash away his guilty pain. It always made her heart swell with love so powerful that her chest ached knowing she was the one person on Earth who would ever witness his silent confessions. She didn't need to hear the details, it was enough to know he loved her enough to be weak in her presence and allow her to be strong for him.

That wasn't the meaning in Sanford Peck's words, there was another message there, but she no idea what it was, nor did she care. Jean-Luc could deal with the man. She was content to stay in the back seat and let her partner drive the machine that was the G.A.W.D. Foundation.

Sanford Peck cleared his throat noisily, "Ahem, I hope I didn't offend you with my open candor," Sanford said studying Alma's face.

"Heavens no, I was just remembering how my late husband used to say something quite similar," Alma said as Jessica returned with tea.

"Splendid! Why don't you enjoy lunch and then I'll have Captain Illoken give you and my lovely wife a tour of this vessel. I am quite proud of this ship, it is not only the largest sailing vessel in our fleet but in the entire world," Sanford boasted as his wife filled cups with tea.

Not just any tea mind you, but with Tieguanyin tea, reportedly the most expensive tea in the world and roughly $1300.00 a pound. It was a green tea from China, in the central Fujian province. Named for a Buddhist Saint, Guan Yin which literally translates to Iron Goddess of Mercy, it was a beverage with supposed magical medicinal powers to ward off everything from cancer to cavities. Alma wasn't impressed, she wasn't planning to live forever, and the stuff tasted like crap! She smiled at her hosts and sipped more of the foul green poison. She glanced at her watch once more and wondered what had kept Jean-Luc from being here? She would call him just as soon as she could. For now she would allow herself to be impressed by Sanford's prideful braggadocios.

"Won't you be joining us Sanford?" Alma asked her host.

"I'm afraid not dear; something has come up at the office. Duty calls you know," Sanford replied with a look that made Alma shiver as if she were seated on a bag of ice.

"I'm sorry to hear that, we'll miss your company," lied Alma sweetly.

"Yes, well. If you ladies will excuse me I really must attend to business. Alma it was a pleasure, I will look forward to seeing you later tonight. And we can visit longer once we sail tomorrow as Killeen and I will be joining the cruise as far as Lisbon before we need to fly home to San Francisco," Sanford explained as he rose to leave the two women to their brunch. He gently shook his guest's hand and then kissed his wife coolly on the forehead before taking his leave.

Alma watched him walk away and saw a short, square shouldered man waiting for him at the sliding mahogany doors. Sanford stopped to speak to him, his body keeping Alma from getting a good look at the mysterious stranger. She studied the two men while Killeen blathered on about her role in designing the ships décor. There was something sinister about the way the two men conducted their business and it caused her to feel threatened, not personally, but for whomever they were talking about. She couldn't explain it, but she knew that their business was unpleasant, and that it was about someone. Those two were planning something awful together; she felt it in her bones. She shuddered and broke free from her obsession with their unknown conversation and turned her attention to her own with Killeen Peck. She would make two calls when she got back to her stateroom. The first call would be to Jean-Luc to hear his explanation for his absence and to share her woman's intuition about Sanford Peck. The second would be to Linda Bradley at LA General to talk about Katie Tate. The poor child was beyond G.A.W.D.'s help now; she was in the hands of the Almighty. Perhaps it was time to consider an option of last resort?

Mandelieu Marina…France, Saturday, Saturday 30th, 2005…12:00 noon

His eyes were swollen nearly shut and what he could see was blurred by tears and blood. Wesley Allendale was at death's door and he knew it. He'd been beaten and drugged for days but had revealed nothing. He knew his captors were convening nearby to discuss their options. If they continued with their current methodology Wesley would be dead in an hour or less, and they would have gained nothing. If they delayed and allowed him time to heal enough to endure yet another round of interrogation he might be able to hold out long enough for the crew to hit The Princess Grace and beat it out of the Med and up to Odessa and the Black Sea to plan the next job. Either way he would give his life for the cause, Wesley had already made a pact with himself where that was concerned. He would do his part to keep Gabriel's Promise. That's what they'd all swore to do. Aussie's keep their bleeding word, always!

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