A Proposal From The Italian Count. Lucy Gordon
‘I DID WRONG. I didn’t mean to, but I couldn’t help it. All in a moment I found that I could be wicked.’
The old man lying on his deathbed spoke weakly, for his strength was fading fast. Vittorio, the young man sitting beside him, grasped his hand and spoke urgently. ‘Don’t say such things, Papà. You’re not wicked. You never could be.’
‘Try saying that to George Benton. He was the man I robbed of a million, whose life I ruined, although he never knew it.’
Vittorio rubbed a frantic hand over his eyes and said fiercely, ‘But that’s impossible. How could he not have known?’
His father’s eyes closed and he turned his head, as though too full of despair to say any more. Vittorio rose and went to the window, looking out onto the grounds. They were lavish, extensive, perfectly suited to the Counts of Martelli, their owners for five hundred years.
Franco, the present Count, lay still as his life slipped away. Vittorio knew that his father’s mind had often been confused recently. And surely this was merely another example. Yet there was a desperation in the dying man’s manner that warned him of something different; something fearful.
‘Don’t worry about it. Papà,’ Vittorio urged, sitting by the bed again. ‘It’s all in the past.’
‘It will never be in the past until it’s put right,’ the Count murmured. ‘We were friends. We’d met here, in Italy, when he came on holiday. We became friends, and when I went to England a few weeks later I visited him. He was younger than me, and that made him fun to be with. We enjoyed a good time, going out for the evening, having a drink, charming women. And we placed a bet. It was just innocent fun—until his gamble paid off! He didn’t know. He was too woozy with drink by then. So I cashed in his winnings, then supported him home and put him to bed.’
‘What did you do then?’ Vittorio asked quietly.
‘I’d had the bank draft made out in my name. I did intend to cash it, and pass the money over to George once he was sober, but I fled before he could wake up.’
‘And he never suspected?’
‘How could he? I never told him about winning. The next day I cashed the draft and returned home to Italy. I never meant to do wrong. I’d just succeeded to the title, but my pleasure was tempered by the discovery of the debt hanging on the estate. Now suddenly I could clear the debt. The world was bright again. It was wonderful to have people showing me respect, calling me Count Martelli.’ He managed a wry smile. ‘Vittorio—my son—you’ll soon know that feeling.’
‘Don’t, Papà,’ Vittorio said with soft violence. ‘I don’t want you to die.’
The elderly Count squeezed his hand. ‘You’re a good son. But my time has come.’
‘No,’ Vittorio said fervently. ‘You must stay with me a little longer.’
The thought of losing the father he loved was intolerable. His mother had died giving birth years ago. His father had raised him since then, and together they had been a team, each meaning more to the other than anyone else ever could. Now the man who was the centre of his life was to be snatched from him, and the pain was agonising.
‘Fight it, Papà,’ he pleaded. ‘Another day, another month, another year. I’m not ready to do without you.’
‘You won’t have to. I’ll always be there with you—in your mind, your heart, wherever you choose.’
‘I choose to keep you with me in every way,’ Vittorio whispered.
‘My son—my son—there’s just one thing I would ask of you.’
‘Whatever it is, I’ll do it.’
‘All these years I’ve got away with what I did, and now that the end is near—’ he shuddered ‘—I must seize my last chance to make amends—with your help. Promise me—swear.’
‘I’ll do anything I can. My word.’
‘Find Benton. Ask his forgiveness. If he needs money—’
‘I’ll give him whatever he needs. He’ll forgive you and you can rest in peace.’
‘Peace? I can no longer remember how that feels.’
‘But you will have it, Papà. Wherever you are. I promise.’
‘Thank you—thank you.’ Franco whispered the words over and over.
Vittorio rose quickly to pull the curtains across the window.
‘Don’t do that,’ his father begged. ‘You’ll shut out the light.’
‘I was afraid the sun was too dazzling for you.’
‘It won’t be for long.’ He gave a sigh. ‘Sunlight never lasts. You think it will. You think the light has come into your life for ever. But suddenly it’s gone and there’s only darkness.’
Vittorio sat down again, taking his father’s hands in his. ‘Darkness can be fought,’ he said. ‘I’m going to fight this for you.’
‘One day you’ll have your own darkness to fight. You can never tell when it will come, or what will cause it. You must always be ready for what you’ve never expected. Take care of yourself, my son. Take care—when I’m no longer with you...’
His voice faded.
‘But you will always be with me. You must be. Can you hear me? Can you hear me Papà? Papà!’
But there was no response. Franco’s eyes had finally closed and he lay still.
Vittorio dropped his head against his. ‘I promise,’ he whispered. ‘I gave my word and I’ll keep it. Wherever you are—hear me, believe me, and rest in peace.’
THE WORLD WAS full of light and glamour. Excitedly Jackie danced this way and that, rejoicing in the vision of her beautiful self that appeared in the mirror. Music played in the distance, inviting her into a universe in which she was the heroine.
But abruptly the dream ended. As she opened her eyes the real world fell back into place. The mirror’s reflection showed not the luscious beauty of her fantasy but Jackie Benton, a slender young woman with a face that was intelligent, but not beautiful.
She sighed, easing herself out of bed.
Surrounding her was the austere bedroom where she spent every night. By now she had hoped to leave it behind, move to a new home and a more exciting life. But fate had arranged things differently, confining her to Benton’s Market—the little shop where she lived and worked.
She’d spent most of her life in the tiny apartment over the shop that her father, George Benton, had started twenty years earlier. He had fought to make it a success, always struggling with money worries, and raising his daughter alone when his wife had left him.
In his last years Jackie had been forced to run the shop alone—something that had given her an unexpected satisfaction.
She was clever and hardworking, able to retain information about all the stock, and produce it at a moment’s notice. Something which had at first impressed her father.
‘You really remembered all that?’ he would exclaim. ‘Well done! You’re in the right business.’