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If ever there was a good time for Belinda Lyons to give herself a break from the repetitive toil of daily urban life, it was the occasion of her fortieth birthday.  That’s what Belinda told herself as she travelled to her job in the downtown office tower where she was the personal assistant to Maureen Silver, attorney.

 On the subway, crammed in amid the plethora of other public transit travellers, Belinda was aware that she stood out in the white world that surrounded her because of her dark chocolate complexion.  She had been making this five-day-a-week commute from her suburban condominium to Ms. Silver’s office for almost twenty years.  She had begun as one of many in the steno pool and gradually earned promotions until she was personal secretary, aide, and companion to Maureen Silver.

 Maureen had risen through the ranks as well, during the same two decades that Belinda was rising in the firm.  Starting out as a paralegal, Maureen Silver studied nights for her law degree, and was accepted as a partner after seven years.  She was elected president of the firm after nineteen years, and Belinda Lyons had been at her side through the entire evolution.   They were as close as could be, considering the differences in their background, education, and race. 

 The factors that bound them together were their equal intelligence levels, similar personal tragedies, and the loneliness of life for unmarried professional women.  Both had been married, were childless, and both had lost their spouses in tragic ways.  Doctor Joe Silver had died in a unique boating accident, and police in a case of mistaken identity had shot Donald Lyons.  They took him for a notorious drug dealer, when in fact he was a clean-living, successful aircraft engineer.  Belinda had been widowed when she was only twenty-three, after just eighteen months of happy, loving, successful marriage.  Maureen’s husband was a high-priced heart specialist whose hobby was five-five-metre sailboat racing.  He had been struck in the head by a broken boom during a club race and thrown overboard.  He drowned before a rescue boat could reach him.  Maureen was thirty-eight at that time, and they had been married for nine years when the accident happened.

 It was during that time that the professional relationship between Maureen, the lawyer/employer and Belinda, the assistant/employee became a warm friendship between a team of peers, each of whom had survived the violent death of a beloved spouse.  When Maureen was totally lost and alone, Belinda stayed with her at her home during her bereavement, and returned her life to stability.  Neither of them ever mentioned their brief time as lovers during those few weeks.  Each needed the comfort and sanctuary they found in each others arms.

 In appreciation of her friendship, Maureen wanted to give Belinda a fortieth birthday gift that would be meaningful for the rest of her life.  She gave it a lot of thought, and decided that a trip to a romantic destination would be just right.  Belinda could experience other cultures and their museums and theatres that she might never otherwise experience.  At the age of forty, Belinda was more than ready to spread her wings after so many years as a widow.

 At the small gathering of fellow staff members in the boardroom, Belinda’s birthday was recognised with cake, coffee, and a variety of alcoholic beverages.  At the climax of the festivities Maureen made a brief statement of admiration and appreciation before handing Belinda a gift-wrapped box.  In the box were round trip tickets to Rome, reservations at a small, luxurious hotel, and a money belt filled with millions of lire.  Belinda was overwhelmed.  She had not expected anything more than the staff party.  She had one week to bring her temporary replacement up to speed on assignments in progress, choose a traveling wardrobe, arrange for a neighbour to take care of her pets and plants, and off she went.

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