Friday, April 18, 2014

A Taste of Friday First Chapters with Cheryl Colwell and The Secrets of the Montebellis


The
Secrets
of the
Montebellis

  
Cheryl Colwell


 INSPIRED FICTION BOOKS
November 2013



Chapter 1

Tension permeated the elegant living room and solidified between them like a rock wall. Smoldering anger darkened Thomas’ expression. Heart pounding, Lisa Richards forced herself to ignore the familiar warning signs and lifted her chin. “Thomas, I need this. I need to do something that’s important to me.”

He rushed at her. She stumbled back, bumping against the wall. The scornful words he spat burned with intimidation. “I provide all of this.” He backhanded the air, just missing her face. “And this is how you repay me?”

She flinched. Repay you? She wanted to scream the words but his glare withered her courage. Dropping her tearing eyes to the plush carpet, she pretended acquiescence. Why? She wondered if her question was why he acted this way or why she put up with his threats.

A quick glance upward caught a smug smile tugging at his lips. He was enjoying this? Heat advanced up her neck and something snapped. She sensed a deep, internal shift in a place she rarely went. Enough. Her hands clenched in unspoken determination. Right or wrong, she would build her dreams. Secretly. Away from his scrutiny.

***

After six years, echoes of that encounter still gripped Lisa’s emotions. A power struggle polluted their life together, invisible as long as she complied. Or appeared to comply. Her fingers absently massaged the tightness behind her breastbone. Even now, this time in the mountain town of Mont Castello should be enjoyable to a married couple, but her heart harbored twenty-nine years of resentment.

She studied the architecture of the restaurant they were approaching as she and Thomas walked in silence. A thin smile of appreciation softened her lips, relaxing the relentless tension. Hand-chiseled stonework gave the building the authentic look of Italy. She climbed the stairs and touched one of the rough timbers that had supported the structure for a century of winters. Embedded in the earth, it claimed as much permanence as the surrounding fir trees, whose roots stretched deep into the rich, dark soil.

A crowd hovered on the porch. Thomas grabbed her hand, pushed in past the waiting customers, and jerked the heavy wooden door open. Avoiding the sea of indignant frowns, Lisa tried to focus on the massive tapestries of Italian street scenes that adorned the amber-toned plaster of the walls.

“I’m Dr. Richards,” Thomas announced, loud enough to turn heads. “I have a reservation. Now.” 

The distracted young hostess recoiled from his expression, checked her list, and rushed them through the dining room.

As she followed Thomas, an unexpected sight caught Lisa off-guard. Ahead of her sat an extraordinarily attractive man with dark hair and eyes. Intelligent lines distinguished his confident face. He set his glass down and turned to look in her direction. Embarrassed, she closed her mouth and flitted her eyes away.

The hostess seated them at a table situated three feet from the booth of the striking man. Thomas sat down in the chair on the far side, leaving Lisa with the intriguing stranger to her left. Suddenly self-conscious, she was glad when the waitress arrived at their table.

“Would you like to order a drink while you decide?” A lazy southern drawl tinged the woman’s voice.

Lisa opened her mouth to decline, but Thomas cut in. “Sweetheart, bring us a bottle of your best Merlot.”

After watching her husband’s attention follow the curvy waitress, Lisa’s lips tightened and she fixated on the menu. Only once had she expressed her anger at his wandering eyes. He’d twisted her words, leaving her humiliated for imagining he would be unfaithful. She refused to repeat her mistake.

***

Steven Taylor was waiting in a comfortable booth when a loud voice jerked his attention toward the front door of Varano’s restaurant. A pompous man announced himself as Dr. Richards and demanded his table. A lovely woman followed him, looking extremely uncomfortable. Her striking blue eyes caught Taylor’s and darted away. 

He studied her. The summer sun had darkened her olive skin, creating a contrast to the white and orange flowers of her sleeveless blouse. Soft black hair, cut short, accentuated the brightness of her lips. He watched the hostess lead them to a near table. After years of covering news stories and writing investigative reports, Taylor possessed an uncanny insight for reading people. These two seemed at opposite ends of the spectrum.

From his seat, he observed the woman’s profile and the couple’s peculiar interactions. Their waitress asked for a drink order. The woman was about to reply, but the doctor interrupted. Her lips closed without protest and she worked to cover a frown as he gawked at the waitress.

Was this her husband? They appeared to be of similar age—fiftyish. He was clean-cut with salt and pepper hair and an angular jaw. From his sleeveless bicycle jersey, it was obvious he was in town for the three-day bike ride. His small, lean stature and muscled thighs resembled the European riders in the Tour de France.

The doctor downed his first glass of wine and became talkative. He refilled his glass and raised it, “To a great day, Lisa.” She gave him a thin smile, clinked his glass, and sat hers down. Untouched.

So, her name is Lisa and she doesn’t like Merlot, Taylor mused. The name, smart and feminine, fit her looks. The doctor started to describe his ride earlier that day. She nodded at all the right times, but her eyes wandered elsewhere and her delicate fingers toyed with the condensation fogging the outside of her water glass. Taylor shook his head. Relationships were trouble. It was a mystery why people endured them in the first place.

He glanced at a text message on his phone. “First story is where???” His new owner/editor couldn’t resist the opportunity to needle him. They had tangled on the man’s first day, when he ranted for twenty minutes that Taylor was late for their meeting. By two minutes.

Taking another drink, Taylor lowered his glass and swirled the liquid, replicating the circular motion of bicycle tires. He frowned. Sportswriting for USA Cycle Magazine was his dream job, but with the change in ownership he wasn’t certain what the future held. So far, his manager took the brunt of the insults, encouraging their team of writers that things would eventually settle down. It would be a shame to see the magazine deteriorate.

Since the fiasco with his ex-wife, his job had afforded the diversion he needed, providing great backdrops of cities and towns from which to compose his articles. His first assignment had been the New York Tour. It had been fascinating to watch the cyclists fly past landmark buildings, through streets that were normally jammed with cars.

There had also been trips to the New England countryside when autumn brandished its fiery foliage, and far to the northwest for the Portland Bridge Ride in Oregon. He always took a photographer from the magazine to capture the zest of the events. The portraits of the colorful cyclists crossing the bridges in Portland were extraordinary.

He bit into a piece of garlic bread and glimpsed the pine trees through the front window. Holed up here for the last two days had given him time to explore Mont Castello. He knew that the photographs taken of this area would be even more dramatic.

“No, no, no!” A stern female voice caught Taylor’s attention. By the front door, two red-faced cyclists worked to remove their clipped shoes. Holding onto each other’s shoulders for support, they laughed and swayed precariously until they accomplished their task and walked in socks through the restaurant on the oak floor.

“Hope you have better balance in the saddle,” a friend shouted and slapped one man’s hand with a high five. Laughter rose again while they seated themselves.

Taylor began a draft of his article while he waited at his table:
The Summit Challenge comprises three steep ascents, climbing a total of 22,000 feet. The cyclists will reach heights packed with snow, even in August.

He thumped his pen and recounted the day’s ride, then scribbled:
On day one, riders streaked down, reaching speeds above 40 miles per hour as they navigated the curving road on their descent to the verdant valley below. The sharp, majestic crags rising above the trees were breathtaking, while wide spans of concrete bridges lunged out over whitewater rapids in the giant rivers. The green of the pine forest and red bark of the madrone trees hung behind the circus of colors emblazoned on the rider’s jerseys.

Rereading his notes, he grinned. Not bad.

Varano’s Italian Restaurant was packed. Taylor watched the hungry cyclists devouring pasta, salad, bread—anything to help replace the 3,000 or so calories burned since 5:30 this morning.

His eyes followed Signora Varano, the owner of the restaurant. She stood like an anchor amid the teaming bustle and clanging of heavy china and glass. She had dark but graying hair, thick and wiry. Her straight back exuded authority, but her graciousness extended to her guests. Even now, a frown on her lips deepened while her ebony eyes watched the youthful hostess ignoring new customers and rushing others in an attempt to get her job done.

“Maria,” the signora whispered at the frantic girl. “Slow down. Smile. Be courteous.”

The young woman halted and exhaled. “Thank you, Grand Anna.” Then she moved toward the new guests at a slower pace. Giving them a welcoming smile, she invited them to follow her past Taylor’s table to the back of the room. He recognized the pride in the woman’s eyes as she watched her granddaughter learn the ways of the family.

“Taylor.” An auburn-haired beauty waved a hand in front of his face in an attempt to capture his attention. He spun his head back around and focused on the young woman’s perfectly formed features.

A broad grin covered his face and he stood to embrace his most precious treasure. He covered her hands with his. “Asia, you look beautiful.” He continued to hold her hand as she sat opposite him in the red leather booth. “When did you get in?”

“My plane landed on time, but there was a wait at the car-rental agency.” She leaned over the table and kissed him on the cheek. “It’s so good to see you.” She smiled and sat back, tucking a strand of her long, dark hair behind her ear.

Taylor gazed at her. Asia was 26, beautiful and brilliant. She had achieved her master’s degree in architecture and worked for a major architectural firm in Portland. “Who would have thought our careers would land us in the same area,” he said.

“I know. You are usually on the other side of the world. Now we get to spend a few days together.” She grinned with pleasure.

“What are you working on?” he asked.

“An urban renewal program. It’s a great career boost.”

***

Lisa followed her husband’s stare to the attractive young woman who had just arrived and now spoke with the equally arresting man standing to greet her. She called him Taylor.

A quick glance upward revealed that he was a massive man, nearing 6'4", with silver-streaked dark hair and a vibrant grin. Glimpsing their affectionate embrace, Lisa’s heart caught in her throat. Why should that bother me? The answer pierced her. Life was a constant reminder that Thomas’ interest had faded years ago, along with any tenderness he might have had. Pleasing him was impossible.

Stifling a sigh, she grasped for gratitude. Her dreams were coming true, her vision taking shape. Yet, every inch of forward movement had cost her. For years, she had endured heated disputes with Thomas to let her take a part-time job. Only his vanity allowed her to succeed. After a colleague remarked about his control problem, Thomas began to flaunt her, “freedom do whatever she pleases.”

Working as a receptionist at the Verina Fields Real Estate Agency had given her a start. Soon, an opportunity had presented itself, allowing her to participate in a much grander scheme than she could have imagined. However, it was a high-risk proposition and the businessman she dealt with caused her stomach to twist in knots. Hoping for the best, she continued to ignore the red flags. 

She gulped her water, eyes darting toward Thomas. Like a mother bear hiding her cub from its murderous father, she remained vigilant in keeping her activities concealed. He monitored her time, scrutinized her comments. Across the table, his eyes studied her. She hid a nervous swallow and smiled at the waitress heading their way.

Their server placed Varano’s famous pasta in front of her, creating the diversion she needed to push away her dark thoughts. She dipped into the lasagna, bringing the hot, stringy cheese to her mouth. The scent of warm garlic butter wafted up from the breadbasket and filled the air.

While Thomas recapped his day, Lisa caught glimpses of Taylor holding the hand of the beautiful woman. Thomas’ voice hindered Lisa from hearing the whole of the conversation drifting from the next table, but her heart quickened when she heard fragments of Asia talking about the work she was doing. This young professional enjoyed the liberty to share her inspiring work with no pretense. Envy gripped Lisa.

So what? I’m doing what I want. Still, frustration tugged at her lips. She acted behind the scenes, away from the opportunity for others to know her mind and talents. Through the years, Thomas had painted a demeaning portrait of her with their friends. His comments chipped at her self-confidence, but she was proving her worth, week by week.

The blond waitress refilled their water glasses while Thomas related the vivid details of a crash. “We were streaking down the mountain, hit a hairpin turn and, bang, right in front of us lay a downed rider. The guy must have skidded on the gravel. He was in a world of hurt. Our whole group braked, slid our tails back and dodged any way we could.”

Lisa’s head jerked upward as Taylor stepped to their table. “Please excuse my interruption. I’m Steven Taylor from USA Cycle Magazine.” He held out his hand to Thomas.

Lisa studied the face of the stranger. He was attractive—not pretty like a GQ guy, but strong and solid. His manner suggested sophistication, yet he was casual and disarming. Dark lashes highlighted his deep brown eyes, while his large bone structure accentuated his broad nose and ample lips. He glanced at her and she concealed her eyes with a tilt of her head.

Taylor continued. “I overheard your reference to the crash today and am very interested in interviewing you. Could we set up a time to talk?”

Thomas was exuberant as he shook the big man’s hand. “I am Dr. Thomas Richard. I’ll be riding during the day, but we’ll be back here tomorrow night for dinner. Will that work for you?”

“Tomorrow night would be great, if it’s not too imposing on your company.” Taylor’s eyes moved to Lisa.
Her mouth opened to respond, but Thomas cut in. “Not at all. This is my wife, she’ll be fine with it.”

Taylor didn’t acknowledge him. Realizing he was waiting for her response, Lisa answered with a hasty smile, “I’d be pleased to have you and your guest join us.” She glanced over at Asia.

“I’m sorry,” Asia spoke to the group, “but tomorrow I have business to manage, so he’s on his own.”

Thomas looked back at Taylor, “Well then, does 6:00 suit you, Steven?”

“I’ll be here and, please, call me Taylor.” He sat back down with Asia and continued their conversation.
Thomas finished his meal and headed outside to recount the day’s events with his friend and two flirtatious women riders. Lisa glared at him and finished eating alone.

Twenty minutes later, the server brought the check to the table. Lisa glanced out the front window, took out her credit card, and paid the bill. Catching Taylor’s stare, her face reddened. None of this had missed his notice. His eyes searched her face, threatening to expose the mixture of emotions lodged there.

She bristled. What was he looking for? She didn’t need anyone exploring the complexities of her life. Jerking her eyes downward, she left the restaurant, but could feel his gaze follow her. Instantly, she regretted tomorrow’s dinner arrangements.

She drove their tan truck the twenty miles down to the valley with Thomas’ expensive road bike anchored in the back. His animated talk died down as the effects of an eighty-mile ride at altitude drained his body of its last bit of energy.

The curving mountain road soothed her tension. In the distance beyond Bella Vista, she recognized the small cluster of lights that belonged to the town of Tangle Grove. Her heart lifted.

Her thoughts were her own now and she reflected on how far her dream had come. Her family had helped settle this area and played a major part in the history of Tangle Grove. She wanted to be a part of the town’s development into the charming place that befitted its heritage. Thanks to the involvement of the Montebelli Corporation, she could participate in an important way—if the corporation lived up to its promises.

Thomas snorted in his sleep and she jumped. Resentment swelled. He hated anything to do with her family heritage or Tangle Grove. “Just wait,” she whispered under her breath. Tomorrow would be a landmark day in her career. At 9:00 a.m., she would see a miniature model of her dreams—the embodiment of six years of hard work.


Through careful plotting, secrecy, and, unfortunately, lies, she had succeeded in concealing her involvement from Thomas. She gripped the wheel tighter. Even thinking about her ventures this close to him felt precarious. This project was all she had. At any moment, his discovery could lead to her emotional, and financial, sabotage.

About the Author:
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. Cheryl likes to think of her stories as "cozy" suspense - less thriller and more relational.

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

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