"stunning suspense" for March

As part of March’s book launch for a writing group in which I take part, I am happy to present an excerpt from the newest novel by Cheryl Colwell, The Proof. It’s your chance to read a bit of the book, as well as enter to win some fun prizes. Enjoy!
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.
 Part 6 of 10

The Proof
Cheryl Colwell
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.

Read part 7 tomorrow over at Carol Brown’s

Bio:
   Cheryl Colwell began writing fiction in 2007. True to her tagline, “Stunning Suspense,” her characters visit stunning locations while they pursue adventurous quests peppered with mystery, suspense, and romance.
   Passionate about all things creative, Cheryl finds inspiration in the countryside of Ashland, Oregon – the perfect venue for her interests in writing, gardening, and art.
   John, her husband, best friend, and chiropractor, keeps her in shape for gardening and writing long into the night. They are delighted to have four unique and talented children and three grandchildren. A smart and playful English Shepherd makes their empty nest a happy place.

Books:
The Proof, published 2014 by Inspired Fiction Books
The Secrets of the Montebellis, published 2013 by Inspired Fiction Books
A story of healing in, “I Believe in Healing” by Cecil Murphey, published 2013 by Regal.

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