Chapter 21

The drive from the church to her father's Chicago estate was painfully silent. Tessa spent the time wedged uncomfortably in the backseat of the limousine, listening to the purr of the engine. Stuffy air and tinted windows added to the oppressive atmosphere.

There was blood on her hands. Scott's probably; after all, he'd been standing in front of her taking that bullet from Ric's gun on her behalf. The red liquid was dry now, cracking uncomfortably beneath her fingernails. Rubbing the pads of her fingers together could not erase the scarlet tinge.

Her father wordlessly handed her a handkerchief. She started to shake as she passed the white cotton over her fingers—finding they left no discoloring mark.

The shivers did not subside. Her stomach rolled as the limo made the turn onto the long private driveway. "Pull over," she choked, knowing she wasn't going to make it into the dark confines of the garage next to the house.

Donatello knocked on the privacy glass, signaling the driver to comply with her command. The doors unlocked with a click and Tessa tumbled out onto the asphalt. Bent over, half kneeling on the pavement, she let her stomach empty. It took only a few seconds for the worst of it to be over. Gingerly, she wiped her lips with the handkerchief, and took a deep breath of the cool air.

Beside her, Donatello asked, "Feeling better?"

All her emotions were packaged in the look she gave him: fear, anger, betrayal. "How can you ask something like that? I just…" Breathing again, she forced out the words, "killed a man."

One Armani-suited shoulder lifted. He stood close enough to smell her fear and the bile on her breath, but he seemed unfazed by it and her words. "Get back in the car."

"I'll walk."

He closed the car door, and the limo crept forward as father and daughter moved together towards the glass and stone building 100 yards in the distance.

She took no comfort in his presence. "Why did you bring Luca? He could have stayed and..."

"And what? Told the police that you shot your cousin? Perhaps shared more secrets about our family? No, this is best." He cleared his throat, signaling his word was final. Donatello looked towards the limo. "I have some unfinished business to discuss with him. In private. I was in the middle of that when you and G.J. arrived."

"I wondered what he was doing up in the choir loft," she mumbled, as if it ever really mattered.

"None of that is of any consequence," he said. "All that have wronged us, have paid dearly. It was most unfortunate to have Ric show such…flawed logic for all to see."

"What exactly was he talking about?"

Donatello pursed his lips tighter. It appeared he'd swallowed a lemon, the words he held equally sour.

Tessa pushed, "Both you and Scott have talked about the Xenex Corporation, like something eating from the inside."

"Every family has limbs that are not true to the tree."

"And Dante?"

"We will not speak of your brother. The dead can no longer help you, nor hurt you."

She didn't look at him but stared straight ahead. The shadow of the building closed around her.

~***~

The automatic alarm echoed through the quiet room. The sole occupant did not stir; a half-dozen pillows kept her company in the scrollwork wrought-iron bed. With the blinds drawn tight, the early morning sun peeked through the slats, filling the room with a golden haze.

Beep. Beep.

The annoying chirp of the alarm continued until she could no longer ignore it. With a loud groan, she hoisted herself up and slapped at the clock, knocking it to the floor. Stretching to see over the edge of the bed, she viewed the pieces scattered around the bedside table much as she had done less than a week before.

"Dannazione," she cursed, "I go through more clocks."

For the moment she ignored the mess and shuffled to the kitchen to make coffee. Over the past few days, Dante's house was looking less and less like his, and was taking on a more streamlined, less cluttered feel. Gone was the old upright; in its place stood a polished ebony Steinway grand piano. Linens graced the dining room table.

With so many things changing, it only made sense to move into the empty house. After all, her apartment no longer felt secure after the break-in, and anyways, her days in Chicago would be numbered after the funeral. New York had a lure of its own.

Three cups of coffee and a hot shower later, Tessa was putting the finishing touches to her upswept hair when the front bell rang. She walked confidently to the door, no indication of a surprise visitor in her manner.

"It's rather early, Detective," she said, after disarming the alarm system and opening the door.

"Ms. Morgano," Detective Blaine responded with a nod. Without preamble, he blurted, "I've heard it said that in every set of twins, one is good and one is evil." He paused for only a heartbeat. "Do you think that's a fair analysis?"

Her warm greeting turned to a sly smile. "I've never given it any thought."

"Oh, I have."

She'd learned from the best; expression frozen, Tessa revealed nothing. "Detective, I don't wish to be rude, but I have many things to tend to today."

"Of course, then I'll get to why I'm here." Without being invited, the man took an aggressive step into the house, effectively forcing Tessa to step back or be stepped on. He glanced around the room and then looked directly at her. "Your brother Dante was a very good friend of mine."

"Benefactor, you mean."

"Label it as you will. Let me just say, he has one item on account. I can't repay that debt directly but I can't have it left on the books either."

He didn't have to explain what he meant. She understood all too well that karma had a funny way of making things even. The detective went on to say, "I'm going to venture a guess that this belongs to either you or Crawford," tossing a small recorder on the table.

The color draining from her cheeks must have said it all.

"Want to know what's on it?" he asked.

"Icanguess."

He shook his head. "Tempting," Detective Blaine said, "but what I don't know, can't kill me."

Reaching into an inside pocket of his jacket, he retrieved a lumpy beige bag. "Crawford had this in his hand when I found him at the church. Handed it to me personal before the ambulance arrived. I'll presume you'll return to him anything that is rightfully his."

"Whose side are you on?"

"Does it matter?"

"I won't pay you for this."

"That's fine." He didn't smile as he turned towards the door. "You can owe me."

Tessa was left staring at the recorder that sat accusingly on the counter; only the soft click of the door announced the detective leaving. Her gaze shifted to the pouch in her hand. Three thumb drives lined the bottom.

~***~

Tessa stared at the choppy waters of Lake Michigan. "Just a little more time, Luca, I have one more thing I need to do."

"Don't you be going to the hosp…" he tried to counter, but his words were cut off with the flip of her cell phone closing.

"I have to," she said softly to the closed phone.

Standing on the pier, Tessa felt the cool wind and shivered in response. She put the phone away, exchanging it for the beige bag. Without ceremony or hesitation, she lifted her left hand and allowed the thumb drives to fall free into the dark water before she turned on her heel and walked back to the Mustang idling nearby.

Tessa checked her watch; there was still more than enough time before her flight to New York. She took a moment to glance in the rear-view mirror; long gone were the shades of red that had graced her mane only a few days earlier. Her father had been right about one thing; nothing would be the same after what she'd done, and so with that, she found it fitting to reinvent who she'd become. It went beyond the barely recognizable makeup and designer clothes.

Within the hour, soft-soled runners padded her quietly through the corridors of the hospital and up to Scott's floor, within only a few steps of his room. She'd put in enough calls to the nurses' station requesting updates of his recovery to know that ICU Room 3 was her last scheduled stop.

A uniformed police officer, a dark-haired woman, and Dr. Frank Arezzo—an old family friend and coincidently enough Scott's doctor—were already in the room. Even with the woman's back to the door, it only took a second for Tessa to know that Marlayna Reed was the one sitting on Scott's bed, her hand protectively on his shoulder.

~***~

"Welcome to The Smith Stained Glass Museum and Heritage Fund."

The dream swirled around him, blurred around the edges with intravenous pain killers. The faceless voice poured out of the phone in his hand. It reminded him of someone, but he couldn't think who.

"Press 1 for our hours of operation."

He looked down. In slow motion, his index finger tried to press the "one" key, but never got there.

"Press 2 for directions."

Yes, directions would be good. Maybe he should try that, find out where he was and why there was this pain in his stomach.

Too slow…

"Press 3 for information on how to make a donation."

A donation? Hmm, no, money was tight. No, that wasn't true. It wasn't money he lacked but something else. Still, he didn't want to just give money away to a religious organization. All he could think about was a church, and yet, hadn't he just been on the phone with a museum? Something wasn't right. The lines blurred again. Scott's dream charged on without waiting for him to catch up.

"Press 4 to be connected to an operator."

Operator…operation…doctor. Yes, something medical had happened to him. Looking down, he could see his body clothed in a hospital gown—one of those annoying blue and white striped numbers that gaped in the back.

"Press 5 for Special Services."

Special services sounded good. He'd go for that—but something stopped him from pushing the button. The same voice spoke his name…

"Scott, can you hear me?"

He moaned and turned his head to the side, letting his cheek touch the soft pillow. Eyes still closed, he tried to ignore the summons.

"Scottie?"

His eyelids fluttered and his green-eyed gaze fastened on a brunette sitting on the bed beside him.

"Marlayna," Scott muttered. His voice was hoarse, his throat dry. He tried to push himself up to a sitting position, but a shooting pain stopped the movement, and he fell back on the pillow, placing one hand protectively on his stomach. There were probably worse places to be shot, but this was one of the most painful.

The manicured hand that came to rest on his arm wasn't comforting. Looking around the room, Scott tried to piece together how he got there, and why his former boss was hovering.

There was a cop in the room. Scott decided to focus on him.

"Mr. Crawford. Good to see you conscious."

Scott glanced at the window. It was daylight, but that didn't mean it was the same day. He had a suspicion he'd missed more than the time change. Smiling weakly, he asked, "What can I do for you, officer?"

Marlayna interrupted, "I really don't think my fiancé should be answering any questions right now." Something in Marlayna's steely gaze dared him to deny the situation.

Defiantly, he asked a question of his own, "Where is Tessa?"

"If you mean Contessa Morgano," he replied, "Most likely making funeral arrangements."

"Funeral?" For a second Scott forgot about the few minutes leading up to the shooting, particular the announcement that Dante was dead but the officer was kind enough to fill in the details—though he shouldn't have been completely surprised.

"Family member – cousin I think." The officer said. "Actually, that why I'm here. We need your statement on the shooting at St. Joseph's."

The smile on his face faded. He'd missed a lot and didn't doubt that even more had happened while he lay bleeding on the floor. Things that would be difficult to explain. "I really don't feel well," Scott said, admitting the truth. "Can all of you come back in an hour or two?"

"You heard him," Dr Arezzo interrupted, "I'll have to ask the two of you to leave." The man dressed in white wasted no time in ushering the officer out of the room. "Mr. Crawford needs rest."

Marlayna was not so quick in leaving. Leaning close to the prone man, she whispered, "Scott darling, did Ric find anything in Dante's car?"

All Scott could do was moan a truthful, "No."

The doctor pressed, "Miss, I'm going to have to insist," motioning for Marlayna to follow. Her loving concern disappeared about as quickly as she did.

Tessa was sure to keep her back to the pair as they entered the corridor. She wasn't completely surprised to see Marlayna; the woman had shown up in stranger places as of late, and yet…

She caught Dr. Arezzo's attention as he turned back down the hall, having escorted the others around the corner. Intercepting her, he said, "You'd better hold off going in there. At least give his fiancée and the cop a few minutes to leave the hospital."

"Fiancée?" Tessa blurted, while turning to stare at the doctor.

"Well, that's who she's been claiming to be since yesterday," he added, his tone softening when he saw her reaction. "Have you changed your mind about going in?"

For almost a full minute she stood, staring down the hall where the other woman had disappeared. "No," Tessa finally answered, "I won't be long."

With self-confidence somewhat faded, Tessa held her breath and stepped inside the room. Scott looked so pale lying amongst the countless tubes and wires. Propped up by pillows, eyes closed, he appeared to be resting comfortably and yet that didn't make her feel any better. Jaw tight, the feisty Italian bit back the curse words that threatened to erupt and instead took the steps needed to stand next to the bed.

Somewhere between their petty fights and the almost candlelight dinners, she'd fallen in love. But those words would never cross her lips. She cared too much to complicate his life any more than it already was. Scott Crawford, investigative reporter, was not for her.

~***~

He must have been having another dream. Somewhere on the edge of his subconscious he felt her presence among all the noise. Her fragrance was comforting. Inhaling deeply, Scott tried to vanquish the emotional turmoil, the press of deadlines and the confusion of priorities. She wasn't really there.

Beyond his closed eyes, Tessa reached into her pocket and produced the mini recorder she'd used at the church. For a long moment, she stared at Scott, then, with an exaggerated blink of her ice-blue eyes, she pressed the little black gadget into his palm. "It's up to you what happens now," she whispered.

To Scott, senses fuzzy, his dream took solid form as she touched him. His fingers instinctively latched onto the lifeline, ignoring the vital exchange of information and focusing on touch. It felt so long since he'd connected with her—although it was less than 48 hours—and the cold metal on his palm was not what he wanted to feel.

It's up to you what happens now.

Was it really? He'd never felt much in control. Moving more than a dozen times in childhood and dealing with the underworld, it was difficult to understand who he was, what motivated him, or even begin to build a framework for decisions. Combine that with a need to run from adversity and you had a mixed bag that abhorred control and covered anxiety with attitude.

Look at Marlayna. She could treat him like a puppet because he'd never told her no—never contradicted her. And he would hurt Tess with his own weakness even as he saw how to prevent the damage.

It's up to you what happens now.

Scott didn't want the responsibility. He didn't want to save the world alone. The fingers held under his grasp, tugged to escape. He held on harder—a desperate man clinging to a lifeline, grasping at the side of the pool before going under one last time.

Figuratively pushing against the water that surrounded him, Scott opened his eyes. He lacked the energy to smile, finding only his heart aching with a sigh, "I'm sorry, Tess."

He could see in her eyes her own need to escape. The rest of the words fell off with a simple plea, "Please, don't go."

~***~

Tessa looked down at her fingers tangled in his. His touch was warm and the hold was comfortable; she let them linger just a little longer.

If it were a late-night movie, she might have tenderly held a finger to his lips, hushing his fears. However, the truth of the matter was, she wasn't ready to let go just yet. The time would come soon enough. "You may think differently after you hear what's on this tape."

She thought she felt his grip weaken, she couldn't be sure. But not taking the chance of feeling the sting of rejection, Tessa pulled away first. "I shouldn't stay long," she uttered, the strain of the moment evident in her voice and most likely in her eyes. Sleep had not come easy since the night of the shooting. "You have a life you need to get on with, and…"

"You've changed your hair."

"Put it back the way it was."

"I remember. Dante showed me a picture—long time ago." He closed his eyes, but his grip on her hand didn't weaken even though she tried to pull away. "So, what happened?"

She could say many things. Recount her journey from what she wanted to be, back to the pressure of family. She could explain why Tessa Morgan no longer existed. But instead, she explained everything away with, "Ric shot you."

Scott shifted his gaze, as though trying to see through and beyond. He tried to sit up, but couldn't against the pull of the tubes and the tape. "That's not really what I'm asking about."

"Oh, no," a low voice of concern interrupted from near the door.

Turning towards the startling intrusion, Tessa saw a quickly advancing Luca, his traditional priestly garb replaced with dark denims and a button-down shirt. Are you daft, little sister?" he shook his head in sympathy. "When I say, stay away, it doesn't mean run to his side…I told you I was keeping an eye on him. That should have been enough."

The revealed kinship should have surprised Scott, but it only served to set another piece into the puzzle. Ric had mentioned something about Dante, Tessa and the priest having their own secret code; it wasn't to keep secrets from the "family" as he had suggested, but rather from their father.

Every Italian Mama wants a priest in the family.

And that memory placed another piece; that was the reason for the Bible quote on the stained glass window given to the church. Donatello was aware of their childhood game; the gist of the quotation now made sense: "I called my son."

"No wonder he sent the window to you," Scott muttered to Luca. "He was telling you he knew the game—and that it was over."

Luca shrugged a shoulder. "It wasn't a game. Dante understood that a corporation can do much a syndicate can. And no one has to go to jail."

Tessa whispered, "No one has to die."

Her older brother added, "Unfortunately, the people Dante chose to take with him, were not all on the same page."

"What a fool I've been." Normally he was a good judge of character, reading people, his livelihood. But for one moment, doubt pierced his heart. "You knew all along what Dante was up to."

"Not all along. Though, I'm surprised he didn't tell you." She couldn't help the jibe, "You were close enough to know about his car, and what info he carried back and forth."

"Data you gave him," Scott said, "and here I thought Ric was the one in the know. Should have just changed my sources."

Her voice shook with continued self-doubt, "Didn't you?"

Luca took a step forward, offering a glare to meet Scott's. "Don't look at her like that. The only thing she's guilty of is keeping both of you alive."

"I hope you can understand."

Could he? Could he really? He'd spent half a year trying to figure out the scandal. One foot in. One foot out. He'd wasted his time, people were dead, and he could never share what he knew. If he did, Tessa might wind up in jail for obstructing justice – or worse.

Tessa stated the obvious, "You can never really leave family. There are just different shades of respectable."

He couldn't look at her. His thumb sat on the play button of the recorder, but he didn't press it. "What's on here?"

"The ending to your story."

Palm up, he waited for her to take the recorder from his hand—half hoping that she wouldn't take it back. When she stayed where she was, he forced himself to ask, "Why are you giving me this?"

"Your prints will be on a certain gun. More than one shot was fired. This might keep you out of jail."

"And send you instead? You're not one of them Tessa."

"Contessa." Looking down on him with a cold sort of sadness that he'd seen only once before, she uttered, "I'm sorry, Scott. Really, I am. I wish…"

"You'd better go." He couldn't look at the woman she had become. He wasn't sure he could ever look at her again. She wasn't Contessa—but she wasn't Tessa, either. His Tessa was gone.

And he had only himself to blame as he said, "Goodbye."