An Inside Look at The Proof by Cheryl Colwell

As a member of the John 3:16 Marketing Network, a group for Christian writers, I have the privilege of taking part in this month's Suspense Book Launch.  Today I will be featuring an excerpt from Cheryl Colwell's book, The Proof.  I have personally read and can recommend Cheryl's book.  In fact, if you missed my review on The Proof, you can check it out here.  After that, scroll down to find out more about Cheryl and her book, to read an excerpt from her thrilling suspense novel, and to sign up for the chance to win a $100 Amazon gift card.


Part 9 of 10
The Proof by Cheryl Colwell

Siena, Italy

Only three days had passed, yet Gabe’s mind reeled. His grandfather had filled him with many stories about the family treasures housed in the 1,000-year-old structure.

Lingering after breakfast in the rectangular, windowless dining room, Louis now pressed for the details about Gabe’s late father, his family, and his life. Gabe fingered the crystal water glass that remained on the table. Translucent alabaster chandeliers provided soft illumination for a hard subject.

“And what about Angelica? What is your sister doing?”

Gabe glanced up in surprise. Surely, his father had notified him of her death. But no, Gabe could see the anticipation in his eyes. “I’m sorry, sir, Angelica has passed from us also.”

Louis sank back in the tall chair, his strong hands gripping the claws carved on the walnut arms. His face held such pain that Gabe trained his attention on the red and gold pattern of the carpet underfoot. He dreaded what would come next.

“How did she die?”

A simple question, but the answer held so much torment. “It was an accident. She was lost in a mudslide while we were hiking in the mountains.”

“How old was my granddaughter?”

“Twelve.”

An anguished gasp escaped the old man. “So long ago, but no one told me. Am I that much of a monster that my own son would stab my heart this way? Gabriel, am I?” His breathing accelerated and his hand pressed against his chest.

Gabe called for Rinaldo and rose to get help, but Louis motioned for him to sit. His grandfather waited for an answer. Meeting the old man’s anxious eyes, he said, “No, you are not a monster. This was a monstrous thing to be done to you.” Gabe’s own resentment seeped into his words. His father had been heartless, except where Angelica had been concerned.

Rinaldo appeared from his quarters opposite the kitchen, took one look at his employer, and reached for his medication from the sideboard.

When Louis had calmed down, he said, “I need to go to my room.” Rinaldo and Gabe helped the distressed man to his suite and helped him lie down on a black and tan upholstered chaise next to his bed.

Gabe left and pulled the door closed, wishing he could lock out the fear that hid in the shadows of his mind. Craving the growing bond with his grandfather had made him vulnerable. He had been close to revealing his darkest secret. But with truth came consequences. Shaken, he escaped to the ballroom where all the preparations to honor him were taking place.

Empty crates that had contained his paintings lay in neat stacks. As soon as he had accepted the invitation, Conte Dolcini had notified Serena Romano, a popular art dealer, to make it happen. And it was happening.

Strain tugged at Serena’s face. She carried a metal clipboard and ordered her crew to transform the ballroom of the Palazzo Dolcini into a grand salon to exhibit Gabe’s work. Thin and wiry, with her face pulled tight at the hand of a surgeon, she looked anything but serene. A string of emotionally charged Italian streamed out of her mouth, causing alarm in the eyes of the young men who were not moving fast enough after lunch. They had only four more days to finish the details.

When she explained the significance of the night to Gabe, her self-importance seemed to cause her head to rise to new heights. “Members of the old guard are anxious to see the Dolcini collections again. Their children have only heard tales about the palazzo. They are thrilled to be included on the guest list to see you, the famous American painter.” She flashed a wily smile. “Your Italian heritage only heightens the excitement.”

She was less forthcoming with other information, but Gabe was able to pull a few facts together. Although his grandfather carried on a vast array of business responsibilities, the Palazzo Dolcini had not opened its doors for an event in four decades, not since its mistress, Contessa Dolcini was murdered. Not since Gabe’s father left for America.

He glanced around the fabulous ballroom. His paintings rested on magnificent gilded easels placed with artistic precision around the massive space. The second story room was ablaze with light as Serena checked for shadows and glare that might hinder the viewing of his pieces.

“These are magnifico,” she complimented. Tilting her head to study him, she asked, “Are you aware of the rare gift you possess?”

He judged her comment as sincere rather than flattery. “It feels that way at times.”

She flashed a quick smile. “Conte Dolcini will love these. He is so proud of you.”

He is for now. An ache in Gabe’s chest limited his response to an appreciative nod with a murmured, “Grazie.” He left the residence by the rear exit to escape the commotion—and the unsolicited childhood memories.
##
While the inner soul of the palazzo flaunted the masters’ paintings, the gardens outside boasted their own treasures. Trees and vines shaded and caressed the master sculptors’ marble and bronze figures. Today, however, Gabe’s mind was too preoccupied to let the garden’s glory entice him. Today, he longed for sanctuary. He needed to center—to remind himself of all he had accomplished through diligence and hard work. Why could one memory strip him bare so easily?

As he meandered along a wide path that circled the large lawn, the beauty of the symmetry was nearly lost on him. Overhead, the tips of the ancient olive trees intermingled, providing a welcome respite from the unusual September heat. Statues of Roman women holding fruit or vegetables seemed to pause along the path. He had already bypassed most of them when the extended hand of a magnificent bronze reached out to him.

A bearded Greek warrior stood elevated on a round pedestal. The sculptor had wrought the realistic musculature of the chest and body in great detail. Gabe studied the rounded skull, certain it was once crowned with a helmet. He had seen two such statues on the cover of an art magazine in Louis’ library. Divers had discovered them off the coast of Riace, a village near the toe of Italy’s boot-shaped landmass.

“The Riace Warriors,” he said aloud and shook his head in amazement. What were the chances his grandfather had purchased a third warrior, clandestinely rescued from the shallow water?

“Hey, man.”

Gabe’s head swung around to meet the wide grin of a red-haired man who looked vaguely familiar. “Do I know you?”

“You forgot your cousin, did you?”

Gabe’s jaw dropped. “Ralph Witte?” He scanned the bizarre, silver-studded black jeans that clung to the man’s long, skinny legs. “I haven’t seen you since I was ten and you spent the summer with us.” Raised without a father, or discipline, Ralph had proved to be a challenge for Gabe’s parents. A one-sided smile dimpled Gabe’s cheek. He had enjoyed the distraction and his father’s frustration with someone other than himself. Where Gabe refused to take part in adventures, Ralph created one spectacular event after another. He even stole their neighbor’s car and took out the trashcans instead of making the turn. A shadow crossed over Gabe’s memory. His father had been less than gentle on Ralph’s backside.

“Yeah, that was a good year, as I remember it.” Ralph’s dull green eyes darkened below the stiff spikes of natural red hair. “So, you still a good little chump?”

Gabe colored. Ralph had thrown that insult at him all that summer. But he was thirty-four now. All grown up. Ignoring the dig, he asked, “Do you still live in London?”

Ralph straightened. “Yeah mate, still in London. I’m a rock star now, you know.”

Gabe looked at the wild hair and clothes and grinned. “You look like a rock star.” A hard-life rock star. “What instrument do you play?”

“A mean guitar, but not the lead. Not like you, turnin’ out to be a great painter an’ all.” His whitened teeth, too perfect to be real, sparkled from a narrow jaw. But Gabe could hardly call it a smile.

“What brings you to Italy?” Gabe asked.

“Got a gig. Then I finds out my cuz is here to get all glorified. The ol’ man finally gets to hold up his legitimate grandson for the world t’ see. It’s all he’s ever wanted.”

Gabe recoiled. “I’ve just met him—I had no idea.”

“That’s the sorry part, ain’t it? My mom and your dad, ignoring the ol’ guy, but me growing up without nothin’. She wouldn’t let me near him. And he wouldn’t have nothin’ to do with us, just because she self-medicated. Don’t quite seem right, does it?”

“I’m sorry to hear that. My father cut us off from all of this.”

 Ralph eyed him. “Not your fault.” He shook Gabe’s hand. “I’m glad for you, with all this fuss and all. You turned out good, in spite of Angelica’s accident.”

Gabe’s smile faded.

“You ain’t past that?” Ralph smirked at the revelation. “Does Louis know yet?”Working to hide the sting, Gabe changed the subject. “Are you staying here while you’re in town?”

“Right. My mum died and the ol’ man let me stay here for awhile. Then kicked me out over a little misunderstandin’.”

Gabe was silent. What could he say?

Ralph cocked his chin up. “Hey, just wanted to stop by before the big event. I ain’t invited, but I’ll see you around.” He started to leave but turned back. “He hasn’t been feedin’ you any of that Templar lunacy has he?”

Puzzled, Gabe responded, “Haven’t heard a thing.”

With that, Ralph nodded, slipped through the iron gate, and vanished from sight.

Gabe stared after him. Strange guy. A moment later, Rinaldo emerged from around a precisely carved hedge. “Sir, would you give your grandfather a moment of your time?” He stepped back inside through the solarium door.

Why did it always come back to Angelica? Gabe was not interested in continuing the conversation. He strolled the perimeter walk, stretching out the time and keeping a lookout for more Greek bronzes. None showed themselves.

Arriving at a stone railing, he peered over and was astonished. Below lay a large seating area arranged like a small Roman amphitheater. A strong breeze blew up from the half-circle stage below and teased his black curls away from his eyes. He followed its direction and glanced back at the palazzo where his grandfather waited.

What would his life have been like without that fateful day?

The wind shifted. It was impossible to tell from which direction it came or to where it journeyed. Could it be that simple to change the direction of his life?

It was time. He trudged up the broad steps to the side entrance. Inside, the house was quiet. Rinaldo led him to the open door of a small chapel and left. Standing at the entrance, Gabe realized it had been ages since he had entered a chapel. The peculiar atmosphere here was different from anything he had experienced before.

The aesthetics of the narrow room were impressive. Its vaulted ceiling highlighted a magnificent glass centerpiece set high on one of its stone walls. Sun filtered through the five-foot rose window that displayed stained glass of every color. The soft light danced its rainbow illumination over seven rows of benches in the otherwise dusky room.

Gabe stood still. A gentle presence and distant singing filled him, causing a slow swell in his heart. He listened harder, but the song was not audible.

A movement in the front of the chapel startled him. Louis changed his weight on the altar where he knelt, head in hands. Gabe eased forward and heard his grandfather praying.

“Lord, my only son renounced me and is dead. And now, Angelica. Only You know the depth of my agony.” Louis wiped the tears that dripped into his beard. “I cannot undo my willful actions, but please, deliver me from these spiteful accusations fettered to my soul.” He pulled out a handkerchief and blew his nose, then rose from where he knelt on the padded altar and sat on the first bench.
Gabe grimaced at the grief his father’s actions had caused this gentle man. He stepped forward and laid a hand on Louis’ shoulder.

Startled, Louis turned. His face solemn, he patted the bench. “Come sit. Tell me about Angelica." His eyes probed for truth.

Gabe rubbed his forehead. The peace vanished. He hid a nervous swallow and sat on the other end of the smooth wooden bench, hesitating before beginning the story. “We were hiking in the Sierras, close to King’s Canyon in California. The terrain was rough and wild, but Angelica was a gazelle, skipping from rock to rock, until a storm moved in without warning. Our father rushed us down the mountain in the torrent that followed.” He looked down, unable to meet his grandfather’s eyes and cleared his throat.

“I was able to wade across a place where the waterfall pooled, but when I looked back toward Angelica, a mudslide hit the place where she clung to the mountain.” He sighed. “We never found her.”

Gabe tried to shield himself from the loss and pain the memory caused—the part where she had always defended him from his father’s brutal ranting. And from his schoolmate’s taunts of pretty girl because of his beautiful features. He had returned her loyalty with treachery.

Shutting his eyes against the image, Gabe straightened. “He never spoke more than a dozen civil words to me after that.”

“Your father was always full of blame,” Louis moaned, apparently lost in his recollections. “I can see this was hard for you, but thank you for telling me. I need to rest now.”

Back in his room, Gabe fell into the blue overstuffed chair. He snatched his wallet from the end table and fished through the dark pockets until his fingers touched the slick edge of the small photo. It had been a long time since he brought Angelica’s sixth-grade picture into the light.

As he studied her confidant face, a new sensation grew inside his gut. Anger seized him, pushing out the guilt. If she hadn’t been showing off—if she’d stayed with them… Her decisions ruined his life.
Condemnation rushed back. Nice try. Would he now blame her? He shrugged. No. There had been enough blame. He refused to step into his father’s shoes.

Staring at nothing, he fought against the certainty that if the courageous Conte Louis Dolcini—master horseman and proud patron of his family—knew the rest of the story, he would cancel the art exhibit and send him packing. Gabe would have no way of paying his bills. His mother would be left homeless. His stomach knotted against the threat that hovered just out of his control.