The Proof Chapter Excerpt by Cheryl Colwell

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Name of Author: Cheryl Colwell

Name of Book: The Proof

Genre: Christian Contemporary Suspense

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Short blurb

Shrouded in mystery, a precious relic known as Il Testamento, or The Proof, circulated among the early Christians for centuries. Before their deaths, its guardians hid it from their adversaries, leaving only a crude map of its location. For centuries, it lay in darkness. Until now. Reports of its existence have resurfaced, inciting an ancient rivalry between a ruthless group that seeks to destroy it, and a secret association that lusts for its power. Summoned to Siena by a grandfather he has never met, Gabriel Dolcini is thrust into a dark maze of danger. And into his divine destiny.

Review

            Cheryl Colwell’s new novel, The Proof, did just about everything you could ever want a novel to do: Captivating characters who you came to care about and want to know more about; scene development that was so clear you could almost reach out and touch the walls; adventure (including swords), that kept the pages turning as fast as possible; plot turns and twists that were surprising, yet believable; historic and geographic settings that were like travel logs and time machines in their clarity; and gentle teachings about both truth and character. Did I leave anything out that you hope to find in adventure fiction?

            Oh! The writing! Cheryl is a seriously good writer. The book is primarily set in Italy, but the adventures take place over 20 centuries as a religious relic is fought over by good guys and thugs. The relic is believed to possess supernatural power, not just monetary value, setting up the ongoing tension.
If you like mystery, suspense, adventure, and intrigue in historic settings, you can’t possibly go wrong with The Proof.

Part 4 of 10

The Proof

Cheryl Colwell

Santa Barbara, California

In less than an hour, Gabe’s talent would be validated on a national level. After receiving the nomination for the coveted award earlier this year, photographs of Gabe’s work had appeared on the front of California’s most prestigious art magazines, along with lavish praise from respected critics. And the public. He smiled.

Inside sources had already sent their congratulations, assuring him that he faced only one serious contender. Although the man’s talent was indisputable, in their opinion his work did not measure up to Gabe’s quality. The proof waited in a simple silver plaque.

It was payback time for the immense effort Gabe had expended for over a decade. After he had completed his doctorate, he had advanced through a prominent art academy and several innovative workshops—working two jobs while doing it. He wanted the best, but the best had cost. A pang of guilt hit him. Unfortunately, his actions had put others at risk. His mother’s wealth consisted of her home.

Gabe grimaced, thinking of the thousands of dollars he had paid pompous masters to learn their guarded techniques, enduring oblique jabs from the wealthy dilettantes playing at being artists. One incident still burned. After unveiling his finished painting to one of his instructors, the man fell silent, then accused him of copying another master’s work. The piece was uniquely Gabe’s and the professor knew it, but it robbed the moment of its joy.

Gabe shook away the dark thoughts. He had obtained what he needed from them. After tonight, the path to national recognition spanned out before him. The voice of doubt could find a new victim.

Striding toward the ocean front hotel, he found his imagination piqued by its elegant palatial-style. What other grand events had it hosted during the years of its existence? He inhaled the pleasant sea breeze that infused the Santa Barbara coast with a magic it alone could conjure.

Glancing down, he frowned at the sleeves of his jacket. They were an inch too short. Howard would be the first to notice the ready-made replacement. Gabe inhaled deeply. The scent of jasmine helped clear his mind and dispel the residual disappointment. He straightened and quieted his heart as he grasped the stainless steel handle of the massive hotel door and entered the capricious world of art, critics, and glory.

Cut glass prisms, arranged in free-form chandeliers, dangled their brilliance from strategic points across the ceiling, their reflections glancing off the polished marble floors.

“Gabriel, dear,” Viola Hudson cooed when she spotted him. A wealthy heiress, she flaunted her advantage. Her glamorous heels clacked on the shining surface as she rushed to him and whispered, “Let me be the first to congratulate you.” She laid her hands on his shoulders and gave him a kiss-kiss on each cheek.

It felt phony when these bejeweled women mimicked that European custom. He took her hands in his, distancing her with a polite smile. She might have helped him with her connections, but he wouldn’t be made out to be one of her pet artists. He had worked hard to arrive at this pinnacle.

Assuming her trademark of self-importance, she spoke in a staged whisper, loud enough to be heard across the room. “They checked all my security this morning. After that devastating theft in Hollywood, who knows where the Kestral will strike next? My extensive collection is not a secret, you know. And you would be wise to keep your work under lock and key as well. After tonight, your values are certain to skyrocket.” Words poured nonstop from her lips and ran together like a recording on fast forward.

He put her on mute while his eyes swept over her shoulder. Planted in imaginative containers of marble and steel, an assortment of fringed palm trees partitioned the guests and clustered them into intimate spaces. In every corner, Gabe observed serious art devotees in animated discussions.

Tonight he was the star, but this crowd frequently proved fickle. As soon as they discovered another promising artist, they would stampede to be the first to claim the new sensation. A queasy feeling grabbed his stomach. That would not happen to him. He knew in his soul that his work was extraordinary. The stamp of just how extraordinary was up to the gatekeepers.

His breath caught unexpectedly. A young woman stood across the room, engaged in serious conversation with an art critic. A shoulder-length tress of her black hair lay tucked behind one ear, allowing the rest of the glossy strands to fall around her striking features. Ebony lashes and charcoal grey eyes made make-up a useless commodity—except for the transparent gloss applied to her ample lips. His gaze stayed locked on those lips.

She turned, watched him with Viola for a moment, and frowned. Twisting back, her hair flipped sharply, sending a dismissive signal.

Fascinating. Gabe stepped away from Viola and raked a stray curl off his forehead. “I have to see a client,” he said, in answer to the frown tugging at her mouth. Avoiding most of the guests who tried to get his attention, he spoke with others while maneuvering in the direction where he had last seen the woman.

Two of his young female students ambushed him, halting his progress. He steeled himself for the charge. Cherie, a gorgeous California blond, did nothing to veil her flirtatious glances in the classroom. Sparkling blue eye shadow drew too much attention from the rest of her face. Jenn, on the other hand, a serious student and fanatical enthusiast of the outdoors, gloried in death-defying risks. He was not sure which girl unnerved him more.

Cherie smiled, linking her blue eyes with his. “Congratulations, Professor. Your paintings are even more moving than the slides you showed us in class. You should have invited us over to see them, personally.”

He was thinking up a suitable reply for the girl when Jenn changed the subject.

“I drove into town Sunday night and saw you on the climbing wall.”

Gabe’s head jerked backward. Who else had witnessed his feeble late-night endeavor?

Jenn continued to chat away. “If you want, I can show you some awesome climbs that hang you out over the ocean, then go vertical, straight up the cliff.” Her enthusiasm mounted. “There’s one spot where you can get almost horizontal. If an extra big wave breaks on the rocks below, the water can reach high enough to spray you. It’s so cool.”

Was she kidding? The image of crashing water below him made his head reel. In his latest attempt to conquer his fear of heights, he had regressed instead of moving forward. Jenn went on to describe, in considerable detail, a leap she had made—just catching her hold before she would have fallen into the waves below.

His palms grew clammy and his throat constricted. A waiter passed by and Gabe snatched a glass of champagne and gulped it down. He mumbled a polite excuse and left, ignoring their pouting faces.

Though he knew its origin, no amount of logic tamed the dragon of fear that could reduce him to a pile of ashes. Angry at his lack of control, he drifted through the room, reciting calming words in his mind while letting the air conditioning cool his face.

When his eyes picked out the dark beauty again, she stood next to an easel, studying Pacifica, one of his smaller, but highly praised paintings. His heart smiled. Though aware of the feminine glances directed his way, Gabe could count on one hand the few women who had ever appealed to him. Since Darla, this woman was the first. The strength of his attraction surprised him. Something about the serious way she considered the canvas pleased him. His shoulders relaxed and he eased forward.

She bent closer to the painting and a half smile lit her gorgeous Italian face. Stepping back, her attention flicked around the room. She started when she caught Gabe watching her. Their eyes connected, linking them for a heart-stopping moment. Confusion betrayed her attempt at disinterest. Lifting her glass to her lips, she turned and walked away.

Now, thoroughly enchanted, Gabe’s mind raced. He needed an introduction. Another art collector stepped over to congratulate him. Gabe thanked him, but his mind was elsewhere. Glancing in the direction the woman had gone, he spotted her listening to Howard Sutton. Gabe strode toward him, taking a chance on the man’s good manners in public.

“The man of the hour,” Howard said, “ready to make his fortune and leave our humble life of academia. Right Dolcini?”

Gabe forced a thin smile at the acerbic comment. “Perhaps.” He reached out to shake hands.

Howard ran his eyes over Gabe’s jacket, prompting a cocky smile. Gabe held his breath, but Howard let it go. He shook Gabe’s hand and introduced the circle of guests. Just beyond the group, the exotic woman leaned against a cream-colored column like a Roman empress in her palace. Shining from the ceiling, a spotlight danced over the crimson highlights in her hair.

Howard’s eyes followed. “Oh,” he smiled. “And may I introduce Livia Ambrogi.” He took a step and raised her hand to his lips. “She’s visiting us from Florence, where she has completed her degree in the history of Italian art and language. Livia, may I introduce an art teacher in my department, Gabriel Dolcini.”

Gabe ignored Howard’s intended slight. He stepped toward her and searched for another connection with her smoky eyes. Her fragrance—a mix of lavender and something exquisitely foreign—permeated his senses as he waited for her to extend her hand. Instead, she nodded and granted him the faintest of a polite smile.

His lips tightened. He gave her a curt nod and turned back to catch Howard’s smirk from the corner of his eye. Fighting frustration, Gabe smiled and answered questions about his work from the small cluster. He risked a glance in Livia’s direction, but she had moved away.

Across the room, he spotted one of the other finalists. Thomas Neilsen, a politically connected, wealthy art guru from Denmark, owned an expansive estate atop a hill overlooking San Francisco Bay. Neilsen glanced at him. Gabe nodded, but the artist turned his back. His prerogative. Though the art world proved highly competitive, Gabe attempted to keep his ego out of the equation. He grinned. Attempted.

Loud voices interrupted his musings. In the hallway toward the rear of the stage, Viola argued with two of tonight’s judges and a third man Gabe did not recognize. Her mouth uttered obscured, yet vicious-sounding words while she shook her fists at them. After four years of watching her drama, Gabe shrugged with indifference.

Disappointed at Livia Ambrogi’s disinterest, Gabe continued to circle around the room and greet guests. By the time he stepped forward with the other recipients, he had eased back into his sweet spot. Elevated on a small stage in this Five-Star hotel, he waited through the many lesser awards for the announcement.

A smile pasted on her lips, Viola stepped to him and spoke into the microphone. “Having mastered the masters, Gabriel Dolcini’s oil paintings have surpassed his predecessors—in our humble opinion,” she added, causing an enthusiastic round of applause throughout the large room. “With an unusual depth of color and subtly stylized design as his signature, his work is easily recognized by the best of critics—and we love him.”

He glanced over at the magnificent painting that had moved him into this echelon. His finest yet. In fact, he had felt infused with inspiration while painting it, more than on any other canvas. The subject was common enough—an Italian beauty reclined on a velvet sofa, an open letter lying in her lap. Flowers fell from her fingers and hung in midair, never to reach the intricately woven carpet waiting below them. The woman’s face held intense sadness, with grey eyes gazing to some distant place that Gabe could never go. He had named it, Il Viso, “The Face.”

Other images and symbols had floated into his imagination while he had worked. He painted them with equal obscurity—a fact that caused a great sensation in the art world. Layers of obliquely identifiable impressions entwined between foreground and background, as in dreams and waking. The paint flew off his brushes, and he had completed the large canvas in less than a month. It felt as if a gift had settled upon him and poured through to the canvas.

A break in Viola’s voice brought his wandering thoughts back to the celebration. “It is my honor to announce Gabriel Dolcini as the second place award winner in the American Oil Painters Excellence Award.”

The crowd gasped. Murmurs of disbelief filled the room.

Viola gave him a kiss-kiss on his cheeks, avoiding his eyes while she handed him a ribbon.

His face thought to smile and nod and did what anyone should do when winning something. Underneath his impassive expression, a claw gripped his heart in an effort to rip it from his chest. Faces in the crowd watched him and he blanched under the hot lights. An exultant smirk from Howard drove the message home: they were not going to let him in. Gabe glanced at the judges standing next to him, their lips tight with disdain.

Had he been mistaken about the quality of his work? No. His supporters looked just as shocked as he felt. He knew his value. Had studied his competition. What was left? Was the competition fixed? He watched through a dark tunnel as Viola presented the first place award to Thomas Neilsen. The man’s proud chin lifted. The crowd applauded, but the night’s sparkle had flatlined. Many, heads shaking, turned to leave.

Following Viola’s presentation, city officials and high-ranking members of the artistic community stepped forward to congratulate the winner. Gabe stepped off the stage as soon as he could. People he knew nodded to him as he made his escape through the crowd and past the expansive windows. Outside, the setting sun painted the clouds in golden tones to reflect what should have been his highest accomplishment. He chanced a quick glance around, then ducked out, glad that Livia Ambrogi had left the room.

##

Gabe sat in his car on Monday morning. He had parked in the far corner of the faculty parking lot in case his resolve failed. How could he face his colleagues? But it would not be any easier tomorrow. He closed his eyes and took a slow breath, in and out, then stopped thinking and opened the door.

Entering the building, he looked straight ahead and focused on getting to his classroom. He shut out the awkward expressions as he contended with the gauntlet of the, “I’m so sorry,” comments and, worse, the congratulations from his peers in the long hallway. Relieved, Gabe realized Howard’s duties must have detained him elsewhere.

He stepped into his classroom and shut the door behind him, cringing at his smug attitude over the last week. His students immediately surrounded him, expressing their outrage. Their loyalty and courage to speak what others would not, eased his bad temper and helped to soothe his wounded spirit.

“You were robbed,” Judy ranted.

He was cheated. But it was over. “Enough,” Gabe hushed their angry outbursts. “All judges maintain their own criteria. Sometimes it doesn’t fall in our favor. So, back to work.”

They drifted back to their canvases, but Judy stayed near his desk. “I won’t be a part of this. I’ll paint what I want and thumb my nose at whoever thinks they have the right to judge it.” Her eyes watered and she swiped at an angry tear before it trickled down her silky black cheek.

Gabe took her hand in his. “It’s okay, really. Just a disappointment.” No one could possibly know how deep this cut. The world was cruel, ripping small, relentless gashes in tender hearts and tentative hopes. Judy walked to her canvas, but did not pick up her brush.

He stared through the window at nothing. Second place did not count for anything in the art world. Or in life. Even after Angelica died, their father made certain Gabe knew he would never move into first place. It became unbearable to be the single focus of the man’s loathing. Gabe blinked away the past and darted his eyes from student to student. Every one of them had a story. He needed to buck up.

##

After three days, the sting of disappointment failed to lessen. With the summer term ending soon, and nothing to look forward to, Gabe dreaded the boredom headed his way. He hadn’t touched his current painting since losing the award.

Even his students seemed frustrated with their projects this afternoon. He frowned at his waning willingness to help. One of them dawdled with his paintbrush. Gabe grabbed it and smashed it into a dab of red paint on the student’s palette. “If you’re gonna paint, paint.”

The startled student jerked awake. “Yes, Sir.” He took the brush back and created bold strokes that instantly improved his composition.

“Good.” Gabe grimaced at his outburst and patted the young man on the shoulder. He walked to his desk when his cell phone vibrated. “Hello.”

There was a hesitant pause on the other end. “Uh, Gabe, Carl here.” Carl was the Dean of Faculty at the university.

“Hi Carl, how are you?” He hoped it was not another obligatory congratulations call.

“I’m fine, but something disturbing has come to my attention. I need you to come in today and answer some questions before this goes any further.”

The tension in Carl’s voice, mixed with the foreboding message, pinned Gabe to the spot. “May I ask what this is about?”

“Yes. A complaint has just been filed against you for misconduct involving a minor. Sonia Sanchez.”

Gabe turned away from his students, his hand clenching the back of his chair. He whispered, “Don’t believe a word of it, Carl. Sonia has lived with my mother since she was emancipated by the state.”

“Do you live there also?”

Heat blasted through him. “No. And it wouldn’t matter if I did. I don’t get involved with children. You of all people should know that.”

Carl would not yield. “It’s my job to investigate complaints regarding faculty. Come in, and I’ll take your statement.”

Furious, Gabe resisted slamming his phone on the desk and stuffed it into his pocket instead. Who would make a complaint like this? His jaw clenched. Howard. It would not be the first time he pulled a stunt against a fellow professor, and it would be just like his daughter to embellish what happened at the restaurant.

An hour later, Gabe paced in Carl’s office while the Dean explained. “Apparently, someone saw you kiss Sonia in front of the restaurant where she works and drive away with her.”

Gabe raked his hair off his forehead and clarified the situation. He studied Carl’s unyielding face and shook his head. So much for good deeds.

“I’ve asked Miss Sanchez to come in this afternoon. I’m sure you realize this could have serious consequences. I’ll be in touch.” He hesitated. “And Gabe, you should know this was why you lost the award.”

“WHAT?” Gabe could not believe he heard right.

“The judges couldn’t risk the bad press if their winner became embroiled in a sexual misconduct controversy.”

“How dare they!” Gabe seethed. “No one asked me. No one said a word.”

“Apparently they were made aware of it just before the presentation. You would have been disqualified altogether except for Viola Hudson’s rage. She convinced them that second place never makes headlines. And she threatened some kind of lawsuit if they were wrong.”

Too many thoughts bombarded Gabe’s confused mind to find coherent words to speak.

“Until we get to the bottom of this, I have to suspend you. There are only a few days left in the summer term. I’ll get a substitute.”

Gabe stormed out, livid. And scared. This injustice would not be easily reversed.

Arriving home, he threw open the door and watched it bounce off the wall. He closed his eyes, shaking his head at his outburst. Throwing a tantrum was not going to fix his career, his finances, or this attack on his character.

He slammed into his office chair and opened the drawer to throw in his keys. His grandfather’s letter lay on top of an art brochure. Rubbing his forehead, Gabe sighed in resignation. The only option left was to respond to his grandfather’s invitation to show his work in Italy. Unless he wanted to stand on the sidewalk and hawk his paintings to passing tourists.

It had been two months since he had received the correspondence. He had never replied. Would the old man still want him? He pulled out the letter and dialed the phone number, almost hoping there would be no answer.

Someone answered the call on the second ring. “Dolcini residence.”

##

Two weeks later, Gabe felt resolute when he stepped into his mother’s house to face her fury. After the awards debacle, desperation had swamped him, but now he had a direction. His grandfather’s eagerness for his visit provided the one bright spot in Gabe’s dismal prospects. The timing proved uncanny.

He leaned against the kitchen counter in the house where he grew up. It was a muggy Saturday morning, and the eastern light shone dimly through a streaked aluminum-framed window. He caught a glimpse of the ocean down the hillside, too far away to see its tide ebbing and flowing.

Under the window, outdated turquoise tiles did their best to be cheerful in a house with a history of bitterness and loss. Studying his mother’s face, he traced the ravages of sadness that tugged her features downward. Deep frown lines obliterated the sweet dimples that once graced her cheeks. Year after year, his father’s venom had poisoned her. Gabe felt thankful death had taken the brute first.

Spoken in her native Italian, his mother’s protective warning made him smile. “Do not do this, Gabriel.”

He waited for her to finish her tirade while he sipped coffee from an old cracked cup. His father had smashed it in one of his fits. Gabe wondered why she had glued it back together after retrieving the broken pieces from the scarred wooden floor. Why keep a reminder? He had never understood the complexity of his parents’ relationship. Now he didn’t need to.

“We have nothing to do with Conte Dolcini,” she continued. “Your grandfather is a lunatic, trouble. He marked your grandmother for death by his fascination with tales of lost treasure—without any regard of how he attracts crazies to our family.” She ended on a shrill note, “He is not safe.”

Gabe set the mug down. He took her hands and leaned to kiss her on the forehead. Her four-foot, ten-inch frame stood a foot below him. She had always made him feel taller than he was. Around his father, he had always felt he was trying to break the forty-eight-inch mark.

“Mama, this is the next step in my career. Conte Dolcini knows the best families in Siena, and they are anxious to meet me and see my work. It’s perfect timing for him to invite me.”

“You speak Italian like an Americano. You will embarrass yourself.”

He laughed. Her attempt to dissuade him was futile. “True, I understand better than I speak, but I managed just fine the last time I traveled in Italy.” Besides, he had no choice but to go. Though there had been considerable interest in his work after the award presentation, his agent had only managed to sell two paintings.

So far, his mother was not aware of the impending threat to her home. He turned away as the accusations in his mind screamed, Fesso. And selfish. That’s what his father would say about him. And he was right.

Gabe sucked in a quick breath and let it out. So far, no publicity had surfaced regarding the false accusation. That was all he needed—to scare off the important collectors he had met before the ceremony. He hoped they still planned to contact him, but his ever-present inner critic relentlessly spewed its noxious toxins. People never come through. His constant schoolmaster since childhood, it reminded him not to stand on the shifting sand of trust.

He squared his shoulders. He had done the work. Now all he needed was someone to open the door. He gave his mother a peck on the cheek. “In three weeks, I will be in Italy.” His voice was silky while he worked to calm her, keeping his own doubts at bay.

Worry wrinkled her face. “Please listen. There are reasons we never allowed you to meet this man.”

He glanced toward the ocean’s vague horizon. Even when he had visited Siena for his studies a decade ago, he had obeyed his father’s vehement demands and made excuses to turn down his grandfather’s frequent invitations. Now, however, the time was right. Louis Dolcini’s letter lay folded in his desk drawer at home. His grandfather, a count no less, wanted to help his career. At least someone wanted to.

Though no resolution had been reached regarding the charges against him, the administrators at the university seemed glad to distance themselves. When Gabe requested leave for the fall term, they agreed that he should go. Without pay. The plane ticket to Siena used the last of his available credit on his card. This had to work.

Chapter 4

Rome, Italy

Abbot Porta barely contained his exhilaration as he reported to the Primo Consul. “I sent one of our associates to Seborga. He overheard the prayers of the priest, Tito, at the orphanage near the Church of San Bernardo. Tito prayed for a man named Dolcini and the swift return of Saint Bernardo’s great secret.”

“Did this Tito say what it was?”

“No, he was very guarded when my associate inquired about it.”

“Hmm. What action have you taken?”

“None since my associate returned. I wanted to know your orders first.” If Porta had learned anything about dealing with the Primo Consul, it was never to make a move without his knowledge.

“Then use any means to get the information.”

Porta immediately made a second call, and within the hour, his contact arrived.

“Ah, Niccolo, come in.”

“You have an order for me?” Niccolo’s deep voice matched his massive strength. He was the perfect emissary to retrieve the information.

Si. I want you to take Arturo with you to Seborga. There is an insignificant priest there with a vital secret. Get it out of him.”

Niccolo nodded and left.

After the door closed, Porta sprang to his feet and paced rapidly. He was so close. Too many intriguing scenarios raced through his mind. This was no day for ordinary work. Instead, he headed for his favorite restaurant to celebrate his certain advancement.

##

A jarring touchdown threw Gabe back in his seat. It rattled his nerves and the loose objects around him as the Air France flight from Los Angeles landed in Paris. An unshakeable apprehension gripped him after he deplaned from the crowded coach section and headed for customs.

He arched his back to stretch out the kinks while waiting in line. The official glanced at him, then stopped what he was doing and took another long look. When Gabe stepped to the front of the line, the official took Gabe’s passport and compared it against a piece of paper poorly concealed by the stainless steel countertop. He gave Gabe a stiff nod and handed back his passport.

Gabe followed the official’s eyes as they darted past him to a solemn man who leaned against a far wall. A thin, David Niven mustache accented a wiry frame. Although the man’s attention focused in another direction, the hair on Gabe’s forearms rose, as it did whenever someone was watching him. He shook it off and hurried to board the plane for the last leg of his journey to Florence.

##

After the eighteen-hour trip from California, Gabe felt relieved to see his name on a placard held high by a stocky chauffeur in a tailored black jacket. Below the man’s black cap, straight brown hair revealed a precision cut.

Buon giorno. I am Rinaldo Paravati, Conte Dolcini’s chauffeur.” Gabe enjoyed the sound of his ancestral language, but it had been awhile since he had immersed himself in it. Rinaldo had to repeat a few of the words until Gabe nodded that he understood.

Rinaldo’s strong hands clenched Gabe’s scuffed silver and black designer bags. He led the way through the small terminal on the edge of Florence, threading them through the huge crowd that filled every corner. All the faces looked expectantly in one direction as they jockeyed for closer positions.

“What are they looking at?” Gabe asked.

The butler’s face remained impassive. “The Vicar General of Rome, Cardinal Vincenzo Bergesio, will arrive soon on his way to America as a peacemaker.”

Gabe chuckled. “Are we at war?”

Rinaldo did not share his mirth. “Si, the worst kind—religious. The Cardinal is hoping to bring a common sense agreement between a contingent of churches and the American Religious Cultural Center.”

“What’s that?” Before Rinaldo could answer, two enthusiastic men shoved Gabe to one side as they rushed toward the arriving limo. He recovered his balance and asked, “Why is he so popular?”

A smirk twisted Rinaldo’s thin lips. “As Vicar General, he is the second most powerful man in Rome. And he exudes a personal charisma that makes him well respected.”

They reached a sleek black limousine, and Rinaldo opened the door. Gabe slid into the cloud-soft leather seat and they drove to Siena, the city that held the Dolcini ancestral home.

For years, he had heard comments about the Palazzo Dolcini and had secretly dreamed of visiting it. Now it was time. His father had done everything possible to break the ties—married a woman from a competing Sienese neighborhood, moved his family to the United States, and refused to have anything to do with the Conte. Gabe thought it was time to put an end to a lot of unnecessary drama.

A little over an hour later, Rinaldo opened the limo door and led Gabe to the entrance. Stepping across the wooden threshold into the foyer of the magnificent residence, Gabe realized that nothing had prepared him for the opulence that greeted him. He felt as though he had traveled back in time—the same way he had felt when entering the duomo in Siena years ago. The palazzo beckoned, luring him to explore within its grand walls.

High gilded ceilings, frescoed in luxurious hues, pulled his eyes upward. Scanning across the stuccoed walls that displayed centuries-old oil paintings, his breath caught. He stepped nearer. It couldn’t be. At first glance, it appeared that his grandfather had Anotello da Messina’s Salting Madonna hanging above an ornate chest—but that piece was hanging in the National Gallery in London! “The lost Madonna with Child?” he whispered reverently.

“My collection impresses you, si?”

The melodic voice of his grandfather, the Conte Louis Dolcini, rang in Gabe’s ears for the first time. Gabe turned and was pleased to see a vibrant, silver-haired gentleman, sporting a distinguished white beard and mustache. Years past, Louis Dolcini probably stood at Gabe’s height, but now Gabe looked down an inch into warm eyes and a trembling smile.

“Gabriel Russo Dolcini. I have dreamed of this meeting for thirty-four years—my grandson, in my home.” He reached for Gabe’s hands and kissed him on each cheek.

This was the real deal. When tears came to his grandfather’s eyes, Gabe blinked back the moisture stinging his as well.

Louis cleared his throat, his emotion transparent, “Come.” He favored one leg as he escorted Gabe into the huge library filled with plush Windsor blue and gold sofas and chairs. The faint aroma of expensive cigars conjured up scenes from an historical novel. More magnificent oil paintings filled the walls. One in particular, of a humble dwelling atop a verdant hill, had been executed so brilliantly that instant envy and appreciation ran through Gabe’s veins. This was heaven.

Louis motioned for him to sit by the fireplace in one of two high-backed chairs. The rich leather accentuated the ornately carved wood of the arms and legs. Wine glasses and a porcelain plate filled with prosciutto, pecorino cheese, and green olives sat on the intricate pietre dure, a stone-painted table that stood between them. After a few moments, Rinaldo appeared in a black vest, now serving as the butler, and poured the wine.

Louis raised his glass. “I bottled this Brunello from my vineyard in Montalcino the year you were born. I swore I would drink it with you when you were old enough.” He smiled, partially concealing a pained grimace. “It waited in my cellar perhaps longer than I planned, but let us taste it and see what we think.”

Gabe swirled the red liquid in the crystal glass. He could detect the bouquet long before he tilted the glass to breathe in the aroma. He smiled at his grandfather, as they tasted the wine together. Year thirty-four proved to be a magic number for the celebratory bottle. Though smooth as silk, the liquid burst with flavor in his mouth.

Magnifico,” his grandfather whispered. He gazed at Gabe. “It was worth the wait.”

##

Two days later, Gabe met Louis as he was descending the stairs to the grand foyer. “Where are we going today?”

“To introduce you to some of your family. Though quite distant as relatives go, Marcus is my best friend. I consider him a brother.”

Gabe loved the warmth that pervaded Louis’ voice whenever he spoke of friends and family. His own excitement grew more with each passing day. Life was rich here, and not just the money. If he could conjure up the perfect character for a grandfather, Louis fit the image.

“What are you grinning about?” Louis asked.

“Just happy.” Gabe reached an arm around Louis’ shoulder and hugged him.

“Let us be off,” his grandfather said. His eyes misted again—a frequent happening since Gabe had arrived.

Entering the Chianti region, Gabe marveled at the vineyards that stretched over every hill and valley. Soon, a road sign announced the town of Radda. Rinaldo slowed to accommodate the massive number of shopping tourists. Gabe grinned as he studied the varied architecture of the mansions set close to the tree-lined streets. Charm exuded from every building and iron fence. They turned into the driveway of a once impressive home, ancient compared to its neighbors. Struggling vines and grass seemed at home with fallen roof tiles and the stone balustrades lying on their sides. Piles of stones sat abandoned next to a new section of house that gaped open through a partially framed wall.

Louis studied the signs of decay and sighed. He glanced at Gabe. “Marcus was in a severe auto accident some years ago. His wife died, and he was left in a wheelchair with four young daughters to care for. He tells me all is well and will not accept my help. But look at this, Gabriel.” He pointed and shook his head.

After tapping the knocker on the eight-foot metal-clad door, Gabe heard a female voice inside call out, “They are here.” Then a charming Italian girl pulled the door open. Louis introduced her as Signorina Gemma. She blushed at Gabe and extended a graceful hand.

Buon giorno,” he greeted and shook it.

Buon giorno, Louis,” a hearty welcome greeted from the next room. “Please come in.” Gemma escorted them to a library with a wooden floor and wide window. Though impressive, it wasn’t a quarter the size of Louis’ massive library at the palazzo.

With great import, Louis said, “Marcus, may I introduce my grandson and heir, Gabriel Russo Dolcini.”

Gabe did a double take. That was the first time his grandfather had mentioned his inheritance.

Marcus reached out and gave Gabe a hearty shake with a strong hand. “You are the very image of Louis when he was younger. Welcome to my home.”

They sat down, and Louis wasted no time. “You are a stubborn man, Marcus. When will you let me help with this restoration?”

The remark made Gabe uncomfortable, but Marcus seemed to take no offense. Instead, he shook his head. “We are managing, my friend. But let us talk about your grandson, here, eh?”

That was all the encouragement Louis needed to expound upon Gabe’s many attributes. Gabe blushed at the praise, but it fed his soul. “My grandfather is a bit partial, I think.”

Marcus studied him. “I think not.”

Before Gabe had time to evaluate his comment, Gemma brought in a tray of espresso and biscotti. Again, she blushed as she sat it down in front of Gabe and left the men to talk.

Marcus nodded his head toward the door through which she had disappeared. “I worry about her. Her only purpose is taking care of me. How will she meet a husband if she does nothing more than buy groceries and clean this old villa?”

Louis patted him on the back. “She is only nineteen, and beautiful. I do not think you have to worry about that one.” Their eyes met in a knowing way that made Gabe wonder about the others. Louis took a sip of his coffee. “Scuzi, I need to speak to Gemma.” He disappeared through the door to the kitchen.

“Do your other daughters live nearby?” Gabe asked.

Marcus smiled. “They all live here, although I rarely see them. I suppose they take after me, relentless in their business interests around the country. At least that is how I used to be.” Marcus’ body slumped unconsciously in his wheelchair. “We have owned land and companies for centuries. Each needs leadership, but my health tethers me to this chair. My eldest daughter has taken the burden upon herself and is especially driven beyond what is good for her.”

Louis stepped back through the door and sat down again, his face stern. “Gemma tells me you are not participating in the harvest festivities this year. This is not good for the community or for you.”
“If I choose to stay in my home and not attend community functions, that is my choice. And you can tell Gemma to quit spreading my business around town.”

Louis grinned at Marcus’ agitation. “She only told me, and she has your best interest in mind.”

For over an hour, Gabe witnessed the ongoing controversies the two men obviously enjoyed rehashing. They argued about the harvest and local politics until Gabe eventually stifled a yawn.

“I believe we have not been fair to your grandson, Louis.” Marcus changed the subject and turned to Gabe. “You are an artist. Perhaps you would like to see the plans I created for the renovation here, eh?” Gabe nodded and Marcus directed him to a large table next to the window that faced the street. “My daughter says work should start in a month or so.”

Gabe examined the plans. “Are you an architect?”

“Not anymore. That is, I work for myself now.” His lips tightened with a hint of bitterness.

“These are amazing ideas,” Gabe said. He realized that the stones piled in the front yard would cover a new portico that wrapped around the front of the villa. The portico supported a second story patio that would provide a view across the street and overlook the vineyards and mountains beyond. “If I ever need a designer, I will call on you.”

Marcus sat taller in his wheelchair. “That would be my pleasure.”

It was obvious to Gabe that Marcus had been a powerful force before his accident. The man’s inner strength defied his disability. Handsome and confident, it would have been out of character for this man to ask for help prior to his injury. But what about now? He obviously needed Louis’ help.

Louis cleared his throat. “These are good plans, my friend.” He patted Marcus’ shoulder with his left hand. “We must leave now. I will see you on Saturday evening, eh?”

Marcus shrugged his shoulders. “We will see.”

Louis shook Marcus’ hand in both of his. “Ciao.”

Outside, Rinaldo sprang out of the waiting limo and opened the door for them. Gabe turned back and imagined the renovation plans from the outside. “This will be impressive when it’s finished.”

Louis eased in and frowned. “Those plans are ten years old. Marcus and his wife worked on them together until she died.” As they drove, Louis’ attention drifted to the passing grapevines and he grew quiet. When they were almost home, he rolled down the center window and spoke to Rinaldo. “After you return me to the palazzo, escort Gabriel downtown. I wanted to have him fitted for his tuxedo today, but my body refuses to cooperate.” Rinaldo nodded.

“Sir, that’s not necessary,” Gabe argued.

“Certainly not necessary, but very enjoyable for me to give, eh?” A wide smile broke across his face, creating a dimple in his cheek. Gabe grinned back, aware of his matching indentation, and basked in the connection.

Chapter 5

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.

Chapter 6

Siena, Italy

When would his past stay in the past? Though a blazing fire added ambiance to the dining room, none of its warmth reached Gabe while he waited at the table for dinner. He glanced through the large carved arch and listened. Louis spoke on the phone in the library, giving Gabe time to collect himself from the distressing afternoon.

Rinaldo set another platter on the table. When the call was finished, Louis entered the room and commenced with dinner. He seemed at peace compared to his anguish in the chapel this afternoon.

At least one of them was. In spite of the nervous twinges in his stomach, Gabe managed to consume a good portion of each course. Having overheard Louis’ prayer, he realized he still knew very little about his grandfather. After taking a long drink, he asked, “How did you injure your leg?”

Louis shrugged his shoulders and grinned. “As a young man, I had no common sense and thought I was indestructible. I took it upon myself to break my own horses until one of them broke me.” He bit into a crust of bread, chewed, and swallowed. “My pride suffered more than my leg.”

The simple explanation caught Gabe off-guard. This man embodied everything his father was not. He took failure in stride. Did not cast blame.

Rinaldo cleared their dishes and left the room. Gabe met the old man’s anxious eyes. Louis spoke in a low tone. “I know your father tried to poison your opinion of me. Nevertheless, I let you tell your story, now will you let me tell mine?”

Gabe nodded. He wanted to know what his grandfather had done that was so horrific his father had shut him out of their lives. Ralph had been mute on the subject when he had visited. As far as Gabe could see, Louis was kind and generous. Do I really want to know? His gut tightened. The truth could ruin everything.

Louis cleared his throat and began. “There is a hill south of Siena called Montisiepi. In 1185, the Pope ordered a chapel built on its crest around a miracle—the authentic sword in the stone.” He must have caught Gabe’s smirk, for he was quick to add, “You do not have to take my word for it. You could drive there tomorrow.”

After letting that settle, Gabe asked, “When you say stone, you mean it was cemented into the ground?”

“No. The stone is solid and the story is of the purely miraculous variety—unless some scientist can explain how the solid rock melted in that one specific place just in time for Galgano Guidotti to stick his blade into it—then immediately became solid again. So far, no assertions of that kind have been made.”

The confidence with which he spoke silenced Gabe’s logical retort.

“Through the centuries, people have gone to Montesiepi to try to pull the sword out. The legend was added to the King Arthur tales—a year ‘after’ Galgano’s miracle. A few years ago, vandals used a sledgehammer and broke off the hilt. However, they were caught, and the sword studied. Scientists verified it as twelfth century and reattached it to the blade. It is now protected with a transparent cover and iron bars.”

Banking on a scientific explanation, Gabe let it go. “That’s fascinating. I never considered the legend beginning anywhere besides the British Isles—or that the idea could have come from some historical…story.”

“Of course, there is still a measure of disagreement on that issue.” Louis’ eyes twinkled. “However, that is only the starting place of my story.”

Hmm. With the beginning this eccentric, Gabe braced himself for the rest and downed the last of his hot tea.

“As the patron of the family, all of these treasures have passed into my care.” He gestured at the paintings and fine antiques. “Along with the tangible things, there are also the intangible. These are what matter most. The history of every family member—along with their deeds, good or bad—has contributed to who we are.”

He peered at Gabe. “Your father was headstrong, as you well know. He wanted nothing to do with his heritage, nothing to do with fulfilling his responsibility and passing these glorious stories to you and to your children’s children. Gabriel Russo Dolcini, it is vital that you know these things.”

The conte looked so intent, that Gabe nodded his head. He let out the breath he had been holding and leaned forward. “Tell me.”

With evident relief, Louis smiled, easing years off his tired face. Clapping his hands together with anticipation, he rose to his feet. “Come with me.”

Gabe followed the straight-backed man through an arched entry. Steps led downward, disappearing into the shadows. His grandfather flipped a switch that lit the sconces lining the stairwell. A host of carved brass snakes coiled around metal torches that illuminated the steps. With care, Louis grabbed an iron rail that was hammered into an elegant twist, and ambled down two sets of stairs. Gabe readied himself to steady the older man should he falter, but he never did. Soon, they were in a subterranean part of the palazzo that he had not yet explored.

They reached a massive oak door somewhere below ground, and Louis unlocked the ancient deadbolt with a brass key. Short of breath, he turned. “I must ask you something of gravest importance.” He studied Gabe’s eyes. “Before I expound upon the mission entrusted only to our family as the Custodi, the Keepers, you must promise to hold secret all that I show you. Will you keep this vow of silence?”

Though it seemed a bit cryptic, Gabe saw nothing particularly sinister about the request. He had never been a gossip. “Certainly.”

His grandfather nodded, and his broad shoulders relaxed. They entered a cold room furnished with dark antique furniture. Natural stone tables had serpent-like beasts carved on their wooden legs, creating the creepy sense of something slithering up one’s shins.

Louis stopped at one end of the room in front of a huge mirror that covered a six-by-ten-foot section of wall. The frame sported gilded birds of prey, their talons and beaks aimed toward their unsuspecting quarry. Gabe shivered as a chill passed through the room and into his body.

Sliding the leather toe of his expensive Italian shoe under a section of the mirror’s frame, Louis pressed upward, initiating a series of clicking noises. “Just like in the movies,” he grinned, then pressed the place again. He moved aside while the mirrored wall swung outward, allowing them to step over the threshold and pass into a large hidden room. Once inside, he switched on an electric candelabrum and closed the door with a lever.

In the ample glow, the nearly empty, castle-like room seemed to swallow them. A desk, two chairs, and a large globe, floating in its iron support, huddled together in one spot. On one wall, tall wooden shelves stood empty except for a few dozen books, stacks of paper, and small art objects.

All the architectural elements in the room—the floors, walls, and arches that held up the domed ceiling—were made of icy stone. The room retained a constant chill, and Gabe imagined he had landed in the middle ages. It was sinister. And fabulous. “What is this place?”

“This is where I keep those valuables I was speaking of—our family ancestry, ancient legal documents, and histories of objects we have acquired…or protect.” I added this outer wall for safekeeping some years ago. He touched a thick leather book on a near shelf. “Our military records are here, with all their history.”

Gabe leaned his head to one side for clarification.

Pride beamed from Louis’ face. “One of our ancestors served as a Templar Knight.”

“You approve of the Knights? Weren’t they responsible for the wars, greed, and heresy of the medieval period?”

A shadow of disapproval passed over the older man. “There was much envy leveled against the Templars. And it is true that some deviated sharply from their vows. Later, when they became rich and powerful, there existed even more self-interest and corruption. But who of us has not wrestled with that?”

Gabe cleared his throat. “Yes, but I don’t go around killing, pillaging, and dealing in the occult.”

Louis’ eyes held Gabe’s with firm conviction. “The heresy charges were invented by evil men to discredit the Templars and steal their fortunes.”

Gabe masked a shrug of disbelief. No sense arguing, as neither of them had been there.

Continuing his story, Louis said, “The majority of the Templars, in contrast to the crusaders, were pious and humble. They were pure in their motives to protect Christ’s people from bandits on their pilgrimage to the Holy Land. And to guard articles pertaining to Christianity.”

Again, Gabe felt perplexed that Louis held such a biased opinion. “Where does our family fit into all of this?”

Louis leaned his forearms on the back of a chair and clasped his fingers. “Like other noblemen of the day, your ancestor, Antonio Dolcini, left his family to join the Knights Templar. Beginning in 1177, he spent two years defending the Holy Land, but was appalled at the violence he found there. To add to his grief, charges of heresy and pagan worship had been directed at the Templars. He wrote to his wife about the moral decay in Jerusalem.

Louis’ eyes closed while he quoted one of Antonio’s letters. “We guard a solemn secret. That which has touched our Lord fills us with the hope that our broken bodies shall also be caught up in the resurrection. Yet the very object we protect with our lives and secrecy brings these charges upon us.”

“You’re speaking of the Holy Grail or lost Templar treasure?” Doubt laced Gabe’s words.

“Possibly.”

Gabe parried. “My studies of ancient myths show that the Holy Grail—just an ordinary cup really—was tracked to Spain, long before the time you are speaking of. It was then moved to Valencia in the fourteenth century.” He cocked his head. “Where it still resides.”

His grandfather donned a patient expression. “Please, sit down.” He motioned toward one of the burgundy and gold brocade-covered chairs. A screech reverberated off the walls as Gabe dragged the chair over the rough, mottled stone.

The conte sat down in the opposing chair and continued. “Many stories exist. The first Templers spent years digging under the Temple Mount in the bowels of the mountain. They were guided to the exact locations where many important items were hidden.”

“You don’t really believe they found the authentic Holy Grail?”

“I am saying that Antonio brought back from Jerusalem what he described as, ‘the desire of every Templar.’” His grandfather held his head high.

Gabe turned his gaze toward the enormous stones, cut to fit precisely together in the walls of the bleak cellar. He considered the conversation. In the faculty room, he had listened to Howard’s scorn when teaching classes on ancient religious art and relics. Gabe remembered pitying the excitable freshmen.

Howard had mocked, “I can’t comprehend that there are still those who believe in the possibility of the Grail’s existence—or God’s existence for that matter.” Howard described his delight in dashing his student’s hopes and ridiculing their faith with the historical facts at hand. “You’d think we still lived in the age of superstition and idol worship.”

Gabe agreed with Howard, but this was his grandfather, and a man who held his artistic career in his hands. He decided to use logic and questions to bring the deluded man around to reason. “When you said they were guided, what did you mean?”

A smile seeped out from under the corner of Louis’ short, white mustache. “They had a map.”

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