Conquer Your Love(Surrender Your Love 02)

By: J.C. Reed

Chapter 6





THE OLD MAN was sitting in a wheelchair near the high bay window overlooking the gardens, his head resting on a pillow, his veined hands, the color of parchment, were sitting atop a blanket. In the bright afternoon sun, the whiteness of his bones shimmered beneath the thin skin, building a strong contrast to the purplish hue of his lips. To his right stood a middle-aged woman in a pale green uniform, her black hair with silver-gray streaks was tied at the nape of her neck. A nurse, I thought, and yet her glance seemed far too protective—hostile, even. I knew instantly we wouldn’t be friends.

As the door clicked shut behind us, the old man moved his head, his light blue eyes as sharp as ice. I inched closer on shaky feet, stopping a few inches away from him, unsure whether to speak or let Clarkson take the lead. My tongue flicked nervously over my parched lips, and it wasn’t just because of my paranoia of hospitals. It was Alessandro Lucazzone who decided to address me.

“Seniorina Stewart. Brooke.” Despite his high age, his voice was still clear and strong—like that of a man half his age—and out of sorts with his aged body. He eyed me carefully and a genuine smile lit up his face, erasing my unease at meeting him.

“How are you, sir?” Bending down to him, I grabbed his outstretched fingers and let him kiss my hand. His grip felt cold and dry, but not unpleasant.

“My niece—so beautiful. Already I feel better,” he said in heavily accented English, releasing my hand. I smiled shyly. Even though his words were sparse, his tone was warm and welcoming. Not strange—just friendly, making me feel as though I was family. A feeling I hadn’t felt since Jenna and my father died. The sparkle of pride in his eyes conveyed just how much he meant his words. Alessandro had been gay, marrying my ancestor for money. Or maybe he had loved her, in his own way. I didn’t know and even if I did, it wasn’t my place to judge. All that mattered was that my presence made him feel better, because no one deserved to suffer.

“Thank you for inviting me.” I glanced from the nurse to Clarkson in the hope someone would translate. In the end, Alessandro made it clear he understood me perfectly.

“Alessia, bring us tea.” He waved decisively at the nurse and watched her usher out the door, then motioned Clarkson to step closer. The lawyer pressed his ear to the old man’s mouth but in the silence of the room I could hear his whisper. “Give me a few minutes with her.”

Clarkson nodded and peeked over his shoulder at me. I looked away hastily, even though I knew he had caught me listening.

“I’ll wait outside,” the lawyer said, before shutting the door behind him, leaving Alessandro and me alone.

“Please.” The old man’s accent was heavy as he patted the chair next to him, offering me a seat. “We don’t have much time. Alessia will return shortly and she won’t leave us alone again.”

I walked around him and sat down, unsure what to say.

“You remind me of my dear wife, Maria,” Alessandro began. “You look just like her. I wish you had met her. She would have adored you because she always wanted a daughter.” His eyes misted over, reminiscing as he traveled back in time. “She was so strong and kind. So beautiful on the inside and out.”

“I’m sorry for your loss,” I whispered past the sudden lump in my throat, but Alessandro didn’t seem to hear me. His eyes filled with moisture.

“She died ten years ago, but I remember her like it was yesterday. She loved this estate. Sometimes that’s the only thing I remember, yet I don’t tell anyone because if I do, all will be lost.” His gaze focused on me and for a moment his eyes sharpened. “You’re my only heir, Brooke. You mustn’t sell this estate and never to the wrong people.”

This was the time to assure him that I never would. The estate certainly didn’t hold the same emotional value for me that it did him, but I had enough respect to grant a dying man’s wishes as long as I lived. And yet, as much as my heart wanted to speak out to him, to ensure him of my good intentions, my mouth remained shut, unable to utter a word in the face of so much passion emanating from him.

Alessandro gripped my hand softly, holding it as his eyes locked with mine. “I promised my wife to keep the property within the family. My health is deteriorating by the day and I know one day, very soon, I won’t wake up again. It’s my greatest wish to see to my wife’s happiness even beyond the grave and respect her wish. Please promise me that you’ll take care of this property when I am gone and it will be yours.”

I stared at him, not seeing him but the fact that he was dying and he knew it. It pained me because I didn’t want it to happen. I wished for him to live for many more years to come, to enjoy the estate and everything he ever missed out on. The face I saw in front of me would someday cease to exist, belonging to a past that would be forgotten. While it wasn’t in my power to change time or fate, I could at least carry on his legacy.

“Family blood is the strongest of all,” Alessandro whispered, sensing my thoughts. “We don’t have much time to get to know each other, but you’re part of this family and you’ll always be—” his fingers gently touched my chest where my heart was located “—in here.”

“I promise,” I whispered, meaning every word and more. “I won’t let you down.”

He smiled and leaned back in his wheelchair. A few moments later Alessia returned with our tea and sat down near the window, not leaving us out of her sight, just like Alessandro predicted.

Alessandro and I talked for about an hour, during which he wanted to hear everything about my life. I told him how I grew up, leaving out the part with my sister and my father, because I didn’t think it mattered. Besides, I didn’t want to depress him. I tried to ask questions, but I could sense his reluctance at talking about more than his upbringing. He mentioned his son who died at birth and Maria’s miscarriage a few years later. He told me of his wife’s battle with cancer and how she lost it ten years ago, making me aware how lonely he must have been in the years after her passing. At some point, Alessia refilled our teacups, like a shadow slipping into my view and out of it, but never leaving the old man out of her sight. Alessandro and I talked some more until another nurse entered to remind him that it was time for his medication and therapy. Before he left, his shaky fingers pointed at an envelope on the table, bearing the conditions of his final will and photos he wanted to share with me.

“Thank you, Alessandro,” I said.

He smiled and his shaky fingers touched my cheek gently. “Thank you, Brooke. Now that you’re here I can finally rest.”

His words hung heavy in the air as Alessia wheeled him out of the room. With a heavy heart and moisture in my eyes I watched him leave, vowing to keep my word to him no matter what. We had barely skimmed the surface of our lives, and yet I felt as though we were interconnected, our paths intertwined by fate, even if for a brief time. I felt as though I knew him on a deeper level, and that knowledge made it even harder to accept just how little time we had.

Call me na?ve because I liked to believe in the good in people, but I knew that Jett’s claims about Alessandro Lucazzone couldn’t be true. I could feel it. I could see it in the old man’s eyes. He wasn’t flawless; like everyone else, he had made mistakes. He married my ancestor for money rather than live the life he was born to live—with a man. Or maybe he had loved her, in his own way. I didn’t know and even if I did, it wasn’t my place to judge. But he was no murderer. Whatever Jett’s private detective thought Maria Lucazzone had written in her diary, I knew it couldn’t be true and I would prove it.

Opening the window, I stared out onto the beautifully landscaped park-like garden as I took a long, deep breath to regain my composure, and then returned to Clarkson and Sylvie.



***



I found Sylvie on a bench on the veranda, sitting near the rosebushes and sipping lemonade. The sun was hiding behind light gray clouds, and a soft breeze coming from the lake ruffled the leaves and green grass, promising a light rain shower. The fragrant air was still warm though, as if not even the lack of sunrays could cool down the earth beneath our feet.

She frowned when I arrived, but if she caught my shaky emotional state she didn’t dwell on it. “You’ve been in there forever. How was the meeting?”

“Great.” I managed a half-hearted smile that wouldn’t have fooled anyone. “It went really well.” I sat down next to her and she pushed her lemonade glass toward me, silently welcoming me to take a sip. My fingers tightened around the glass but I couldn’t bring myself to lift it to my lips. I didn’t want to risk shattering it.

“Brooke,” Sylvie said slowly. Sensing something in her tone, I looked up to meet her stare. A shadow clouded her blue eyes and a soft line formed between her delicate brows.

“What?” I said warily.

She took a deep breath before replying and let it out slowly. I could tell she was preparing her words carefully, or maybe she was hesitant to share with me whatever was bothering her. “I’m sure I’m just blowing it out of proportions and it’s probably nothing.”

“What?” I repeated. “Just spit it out.”

“Okay. While you were in there, the old man asked to speak with Clarkson. Alone.” She raised her brows meaningfully. “I found it a little strange and followed them to a room down the hall.” Nothing strange about a client wanting to talk with his lawyer in private, but I didn’t argue with Sylvie. She wasn’t usually one to notice any sort of activity that didn’t concern her so, naturally, my suspicion was roused.

“What did they talk about?” I asked.

Sylvie inched closer and peered over her shoulder as though to make sure no one was listening. “The old man asked Clarkson to make sure no one knows you’re here. He also said he wanted to spend as much time as possible with you before—and I quote—the vultures descend upon their prey. I don’t even know what that means. At least he didn’t speak in Italian.”

“He said that to Clarkson?”

Sylvie nodded. “I swear I was around the corner. They didn’t know I was listening.” She faked a shudder. “Seriously, old people give me the creeps. They’re so weird. My grandfather was like that. He was so paranoid of children, kept saying he could see them and hear their laughter when no one was around. I guess it comes with age.”

I grimaced. The poor guy. I could only hope Sylvie’s relatives were accepting of his quirks. But she was right. Paranoia was a scary disorder of the mind and not easy to deal with.

“So where’s Clarkson?” I asked, changing the subject.

“Don’t know. I guess still with him. What did you talk about?”

I pulled out the envelope and held it out to her so she could peek inside. “Nothing big really. We talked about his life and the conditions of my inheritance. He made me promise not to sell the estate. Actually, he was pretty specific about that. He doesn’t want me to alter it either. He also wanted to—” I saw Clarkson standing in the doorway to the backyard and dipped my head toward him, deciding now wasn’t the right time to talk “—I’ll show you later.” I sat up and waved at Clarkson to get his attention.

“It’s lovely here, isn’t it?” Clarkson said.

I nodded. “I’m glad Alessandro is taken care of in such a nice place.”



***



Clarkson explained he had some business to tend to. After a short talk we agreed that he’d be calling me with updates. Alessandro Lucazzone hoped to see me again in the next days and I was happy to oblige, not just as his heir but also as the last family member he had.

Anxious, I kept glancing at my watch. With every second that passed, I was moving closer and closer to 11.45 a.m. Jett and I had agreed to meet at noon and I couldn’t wait. My only problem now was getting rid of Sylvie. She wasn’t his biggest fan, so there was no way I could tell her about my lunch arrangement. If she found out, she’d only end up thinking I was still into him—which was true—and she’d try to talk me out of it. Not only did I promise Jett that I wouldn’t back off, but his over-protectiveness had managed to spark my interest. My sole intention was to listen to his reasons and clarify what exactly he thought put me in danger. Maybe even discover a way to heal my heart, like parting on good terms rather than in anger and pain. Only the truth can set the heart free. With knowledge I could move on, learn from my mistakes. If I was lucky, his sincere apology would be enough to make amends and help me move on. Although it wouldn’t stop the pain, I was sure it could heal some of my bruised ego.

By keeping our meeting short and to the point, there was no need for my best friend to know about it. I’d tell her eventually when I could deal with her angry outburst, but right now I sure wasn’t going to listen to her ranting for the next hour.

So how best to distract her? Three things always managed to help Sylvie forget the world around her: fashion, men, and parties.

Considering it was late morning, the clubs were closed and Sylvie had no date, taking her shopping was my best bet, even if she probably had more clothes than Carrie Bradshaw from Sex And The City. But could I convince her to go on a shopping spree without me?

Probably not.

Throughout the first years of our friendship, Sylvie had always joked about how clingy she was. Turned out, it wasn’t really that much of a joke. This left me with one other option: treat her to a spa visit.

Sixty minutes of sighing under the expert hands of a massage therapist should provide enough distraction so I could meet with Jett. I had another problem: Alessandro was stationed at a private hospital in a secluded area far away from the city center. According to Clarkson, the bus station was a half hour walk away.

“So what now?” Sylvie asked as we stepped out of the hospital. She sounded so bored already, and I hadn’t even shared my plan with her. I scanned the area. The residential street was almost empty. Apart from a busy café at the corner and some parked cars, there was nothing that could possibly be of interest to Sylvie or help my quest. Until my glance fell on a parked taxi on the other side of the road.

“Let’s drive back to the city,” I suggested, interloping my arm with hers so I could use bodily force to push her in the right direction, if need be.

She eyed me carefully. “Why? What’s there to see?”

“I want to treat you to a spa visit. I’ve heard nothing but amazing things about Italian spas, and I think you should try one. Come on.”

Dashing for the taxi before she could object, or the driver could decide to take off, I pulled her after me. Sylvie opened the door and we both slumped onto the backseat. I instructed the driver to take us to the hotel Jett booked me in during my first trip to Italy. As he drove off I sat back in my seat.

“New city, new scene, and you’re already forgetting Jett. My work’s almost done,” Sylvie said.

“Yeah.” I cringed inwardly at hearing his name. She couldn’t be farther from the truth. If only she knew. It was impossible to forget him, not least because he was here.

By taxi we reached the city in less than ten minutes. As it turned out the driver would have made a great sightseeing guide. Speaking half English and half Italian, he recalled everything he knew about Bellagio’s history and ancient buildings. It wasn’t exactly Rome, but I listened nonetheless and even Sylvie seemed fascinated. As we cruised down the busy main street, the driver pointed out the designer shops and even recommended the best places to get a bargain. Not that Sylvie needed to save cash. She had always been loaded—courtesy of her rich family whom she actually despised. But what woman is immune to the prospect of a mid-summer sale?

Eventually the taxi stopped on a bus lane. I paid quickly and we got out in front of the large sign advertising the spa hotel I had stayed at on my first trip to Bellagio.

“Not bad,” Sylvie said, looking up at the impressive building.

“Good choice, huh?” I beamed at her and dragged her through the glass doors into the marble floor reception area. The spa center took in the entire basement. I paid for a full body and facial treatment package, and the receptionist handed Sylvie a white bathrobe and towel with instructions where to get changed.

“Aren’t you coming?” Sylvie asked.

“Sorry, can’t.” Sylvie could always look right through my lies so I averted my gaze, hoping she wouldn’t catch whatever gave me away. “I’m supposed to do something for Alessandro. Can’t explain now because I’m running late, but I’ll pick you up when you’re done, okay?”

I pecked her cheek and headed for the door before she could start her interrogation.

“Don’t be late,” Sylvie called after me.

“Have fun,” I called back. My guilt at lying to her flared up again. It was nasty, self-focused, and certainly not what real friendship stands for. I hated doing it but she wouldn’t understand. I had to find out what Jett had to say.

Outside the hotel I glanced at my watch. It was 12.30 p.m. I was running half an hour late. I fished my phone out of my bag and switched it on with trepidation at the outlook of calling him to pick me up. The screen came to life with the usual swirls of colors. Three bars loaded together with a welcome message from an Italian service provider. I scrolled through my contact list when the text messages and call notifications began to come in one after another.

Holy.

Cow.

Ninety-eight messages. And all from Jett.

And then the phone started to vibrate and the display showed his caller ID.

I pressed the response button and held the earpiece to my ear.

“What did I tell you about switching on your goddamn phone, Brooke?” His deep voice thundered down the line. I gasped at just how amazingly sexy he sounded. He seemed slightly annoyed, but I could sense a hint of amusement in his tone. “Have you forgotten about our meeting?”

The idea that he still thought he was entitled to treat me like he was my boss annoyed me. If he could play this game, so could I.

“Sorry, is it noon already?” I faked a surprised pause, making sure I sounded sarcastic. “I didn’t realize. It’s been such a busy day.”

“Really?” His voice changed, became softer. Did I detect a hint of jealousy?

“Where are you? You were supposed to be at the bus station in front of the club.”

I communicated my location.

“Okay, wait there. I’ll have you picked up. The driver will be there in five.”

And with that he disconnected, leaving me more nervous than before. Was it really such a good idea to meet with him? Probably not but, damn, I wasn’t going to back off now.

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