Balance of Power, 67

One moment he was there in the doorway, the next the aging senator was nowhere to be seen.

Sabrina maneuvered her way through the crowd until she stood just beside the platform where the newly reunited rock-n-rollers were performing. After having done a couple of up-tempo numbers, they were in the middle of a slow set - as much to catch their breaths as anything. It was the perfect vantage point to look for Roy Hartley. Sabrina's position eliminated the need to watch over her shoulder, leaving her free to scan the entire room before her. Now that the dancers weren't moving about the dance floor quite so much, she could eye the assemblage with ease.

There was no sign of Senator Roy Hartley. There was also no sign of Tom, Sonny or her father. Connie and Vincent didn't appear concerned at their absence, so Sabrina grudgingly took her cue from them. Still, she remained on guard where she was. Sooner or later the senator would resurface. She'd really rather not have him just pop up beside her.

After twenty minutes or so of watching, Sabrina spotted the senator as he slipped back into the ballroom. He began to chat animatedly with several other Republican lawmakers in attendance but every few minutes his head swiveled from one side of the room to the other. Instinctively Sabrina knew that the Senator was searching for her. Oh, she knew that she was safe in public from the old man's advances, but Sabrina did not discount the possibility of Roy Hartley finding and engaging her in conversation simply for the opportunity to witness the discomfort on her face.

Just as Sabrina suspected, it wasn't long before the popular senator with the grandfatherly image began a methodical trek to the spot where she stood poised for flight. One by one he shook hands with his male constituents and bestowed paternal smiles upon their female counterparts. The sight made Sabrina's skin crawl.

"The evening has gone well." Sabrina started at the sound of his voice. She had been so intent upon tracking Senator Hartley that she neither heard nor noticed her father's quiet approach. "Sabrina?" Michael Corleone's dark eyes considered his daughter carefully. "Is there a problem?"

Reluctantly the young woman tore her eyes from the smiling senator. "No, Papa," she murmured softly, her eyes darting back to the side of the room where Hartley stood. Sabrina pasted on a tremulous smile. The last thing she wanted was her father's interest into her current state of distress. "I was merely watching the crowd," she lied. "They seem to be enjoying themselves. The evening has gone well." Sabrina's voice caught slightly on the last word. Senator Roy Hartley had abandoned all pretense of mingling and was now headed directly for the place where she stood with her father. In seconds the senator would stop before her, reach out his hand and address Sabrina in that falsely paternal tone he had publicly perfected. There was no way she would allow him to touch her, Sabrina thought. Revulsion gripped her as her mind raced for ways to prevent such an occurrence without arousing Michael Corleone's curiosity. Father or no, Sabrina was not prepared to discuss that chapter of her life with him.

Two steps before Roy Hartley reached them, her uncle Sonny stepped smoothly into the senator's path. Stonefaced, Santino murmured something Sabrina could not decipher in the old man's ear. She frowned and watched the two men head back to the other side of the room. "Come," Michael Corleone commanded, gently taking his daughter's arm and guiding her toward the door that led to the building's business office. He paid no attention to the panicked expression upon her face. "It is time that we talked, you and I." His tone brooked no argument. Sabrina sighed deeply and followed without reply.

"Your uncle Santino noticed your discomfort with the senator," Michael opened the dialogue as soon as they stepped into the office. He guided Sabrina into one of the seats. "What is your history with Roy Hartley?"

"He was my mother's … friend."

Michael's dark gaze searched hers. "Did he make advances toward you?"

"He tried." Maintaining eye contact with her father was the hardest thing Sabrina had done. "I met him when I was thirteen. He brought me some birthday presents. And when he gave them to me, he held me too tightly… and stuck his tongue in my ear. Cassandra ended their relationship that same day." That wasn't quite how it had happened, but as difficult as her relationship with her mother had been, Sabrina was still fiercely loyal to Cassandra. Her father didn't need to know that Cassandra had really ended the relationship because she hadn't been able to wrestle Roy Hartley's attention back to her.

Sabrina shuddered. She had never told her mother about the second time she'd encountered a young Roy Hartley. He'd been waiting in a car just past Sabrina's school a week after the birthday encounter. Hartley had tried to entice Sabrina into his car with a beautiful little kitten, but even at that young age she was streetwise enough to know better.

She hadn't told Cassandra about her third encounter with Roy Hartley, when she'd found him standing outside their house – almost completely hidden by the shrubs that grew beneath her bedroom window. But she'd told the neighborhood drug dealer, Bobby Texador, what had occurred. For some reason, Bobby always looked out for her. He'd listened solemnly, told Sabrina not to worry and then disappeared for an hour. When he returned, he walked Sabrina home and told her she never had to worry about anyone hanging around her house again.

"Cassandra had her flaws but she loved me." Sabrina's thoughts returned to the present. "She put me first."

"As she should," was Michael's only reply.

Sabrina was thrown by her father's simple response. She'd steeled herself for some cutting remark on her mother's parenting skills. "Did you-," Sabrina began softly, "Did you know about me back then?"

Michael shook his head. "No. I did not know I had a daughter until after your mother's passing."


Balance of Power, 68

"I did not know I had a daughter until after your mother's passing. Or rather, I became aware of your existence because of your mother's death." Michael pulled up a chair and placed it opposite his daughter. He reached out and took one of her hands and held it between his own. "At my request, your uncle Tom was conducting research on the newly elected Senator and his associates."

"Uncle Tom," Sabrina repeated, "was in the middle of research on the senator and his friends." She raised a skeptical brow. "To use as leverage?"

Michael offered his daughter a rare genuine smile. "As persuasion ," he gently corrected. "Tom became curious when the Senator paid a large sum of money to arrange a private late night visitation to a funeral home in a neighboring state. He wondered who was important enough to Senator Hartley for him to travel across state lines in the middle of the night, but dangerous enough to his reputation that he did not wish to be seen doing so. Prudently he looked further into the situation and then gave the information to me. "

"I was quite surprised, as I read, to discover that your mother was the deceased party." Michael squeezed Sabrina's hand in a silent gesture of comfort. "I was even more surprised to read about the young daughter she left behind," he continued. "Your DNA was acquired and tests proved conclusively that you were mine."

"My DNA?" Sabrina gaped. "You got a hold of my DNA? How did you do that?"

Michael shook his head. "That is not important. What is important is that I knew you existed and you were mine. I also knew that some day I would be in your life."

Sabrina was speechless. Even if she'd had the power of speech, she wouldn't have known what to say just then; too many thoughts were swirling about in her head. She settled for simplicity. "Thank you for telling me all of this."

"You are welcome."

"May I ask you something else?" The request for permission was a formality. Sabrina had already decided to pose the question; she just hoped her father would continue to be so open. "How did you meet my mother?"

"We met in a restaurant in Provence," Michael answered readily. "It was shortly after my graduation from Dartmouth. I was dining in the restaurant alone when she walked in."

"She was beautiful, wasn't she?"

Michael dipped his head in assent. "She was easily the most beautiful woman there. Your mother drew the attention of everyone in the restaurant, a fact of which she was aware."

That explained it, Sabrina thought. Cassandra rarely spoke about Michael Corleone or how they met. When she did, however, the older woman never failed to remind her daughter that she was conceived during a weekend encounter that was purely physical on both parts. Not that she'd had to, Sabrina thought. Experience had taught her that Cassandra did not allow herself anything more with the opposite sex.

She wasn't naïve. Sabrina knew from experience that men all over the world saw beautiful exotic women of color as opportunities for bragging rights. She herself had been propositioned more times than she could recall. So her father's attraction to Cassandra made sense. He was a man. It was that simple. What had never made sense to Sabrina was Cassandra choosing to be with her father. Michael Corleone was staggeringly different from any of the pliable men her mother had chosen to involve herself with. The minute any one of those men dared to try and wrestle the reins of control from Cassandra DuMonde, he was quickly and unceremoniously dumped. How in the world had she chosen the man seated opposite her?

"I saw a picture of you in the study at home." Sabrina tilted her head to one side and peered intently at her father. "You were wearing a winter coat and scarf. Was that how you looked when you met my mother?"

"Yes." Michael's dark gaze questioned the purpose of his daughter's question. "The picture you speak of would have been taken during that period of my life," he slowly replied.

Sabrina was powerless to prevent the wry grin that turned up the corner of her mouth upon hearing her father's response. After weeks of wondering how on earth her parents had come together, Sabrina finally believed she had an answer. Cassandra had been lulled into a false sense of control by young Michael Corleone's baby face. A part of her wanted to dance around triumphantly. It gave her a perverse sense of pleasure to know that for one moment in her life Cassandra had been totally upended by a man she'd grossly misjudged. Oh, to have seen her mother's face when that realization dawned!

"Everything okay?" Tom asked quietly from the doorway. Santino stood beside him, his dark gaze fixed on Sabrina.

Michael looked at his daughter. "Everything is fine," Sabrina replied.

"Then let us return to the party."

Santino hung back a bit, allowing Michael and Tom to return to the party ahead of them. Thanks to a silent communication system honed over years of use, the other men easily read Sonny's desire for a quiet moment alone with his new niece. "You okay?"

Sabrina looked up at him, complete trust shining in her eyes. It had been so long since anyone in Sonny's limited circle had been privy to such untainted faith. The 'life' pretty much guaranteed that Sabrina's innocence would end; Sonny was determined to preserve it for as long as he could. "I'm okay, Uncle Sonny. I'm too stupid to be anything else, remember?" Sonny did not smile at Sabrina's attempt to lighten the moment by repeating his frequent comment about her. It hadn't taken her long to realize that the gruff words were proof of Sonny's growing affection for her.

"What is my job?"

"To protect the family," Sabrina readily supplied.

"And I'm good at it." Sonny reached out and cupped his niece's chin. His blunt fingers were surprisingly gentle. "Enjoy the party and don't worry about him. He left." Sonny's lips curved into an angelic smile. "He suddenly remembered somewhere else it was safer to be."