Francesca knew she wasn’t in Kansas anymore when the restaurant’s valet parking cost more than a recent lunch at McDonald’s. She smiled brightly as the well-dressed, blond surfer valet looked disgustedly at her ten-year-old truck, then took the keys with a shake of his head. She could only imagine what the guy would have done if she’d still been pregnant and, well, ugly. No doubt he would have shown her to the back of the restaurant.
Francesca dismissed him from her mind and instead focused on the beauty of the evening. The sun hovered at the horizon, casting a golden glow over the courtyard entrance to the restaurant. She was about to have dinner with a very nice man who, if he played his cards right, would help her fulfill the commitment she’d made to her sisters.
Two months ago, after too much wine and way too many cookies, she’d promised Katie and Brenna she would do the wild thing with the first normal single man she met, thus ending a self-imposed three-year celibacy. Her willingness to do something so completely out of character had a whole lot more to do with the lack of romance and fun in her life than it did with the dare itself. Not that she wanted a commitment. Been there, done that. But a sexy man and warm summer night… that was another matter.
In the past sixty-three days she hadn’t come across one appropriate candidate, which said something about the state of her social life… or lack thereof.
Then Sam had appeared. He’d rescued her, made her pulse quicken, and asked her to dinner. She didn’t need her tea leaves read to recognize a sign when she saw one, she thought with a smile. As this one had been in all capital letters and italics, she couldn’t have missed it.
“What’s so funny?”
The smooth red-wine-and-chocolate voice came from behind her, causing her to jump. She turned and saw Sam standing next to a gleaming silver car. She couldn’t quite see the type of sedan, but she didn’t doubt that it was expensive.
“How do you do that?” she asked. “This is the second time you’ve been able to sneak up on me.”
His tawny gaze settled on her face… which gave her a distinctly unsettled feeling. He stood about six two or three. She was five nine and had put on two-inch heels, but still had to tilt her head slightly to study his face.
“I sneak by profession,” he said. “You look terrific.”
She glanced down at the black dress she’d pulled on. She’d bought it on impulse from a guy selling them out of the back of a truck on campus. With the designer label cut out and not a tag in sight, she’d had a feeling the merchandise hadn’t been exactly legal. But the price had been amazing and the dress made her feel elegant and sophisticated. Two things she knew she would need tonight.
She held out her arms, sucked in her stomach and turned slowly. “The miracles of modern medicine.”
“Did you have a boy or a girl?” he asked.
“It was more of a beanbag mound. Undetermined gender.”
As she came to stop in front of him, she flipped back her long hair, a gesture she’d perfected at age fourteen and hadn’t had reason to use in years.
This was fun. Maybe she’d been too hasty in settling in to her years of celibacy. There was something to be said for appreciation in a man’s eyes.
Sam took her hand and placed it in the crook of his arm.
“Shall we?” he asked, motioning to the open courtyard of the restaurant.
Why not? Well, for one thing, there was a growing knot of nerves in the pit of her stomach. Sam was smooth. The men of her acquaintance didn’t dress like GQ and act like James Bond. The guys in grad school were more jeans and Taco Bell.
Oh, well. She’d said she was going to get back in the swim of things and had decided throwing herself in the deep end was the quickest way. If her plan backfired, she would dog-paddle to the side and drag her wet butt out of the pool.
The visual metaphor made her smile.
As they walked into the restaurant, Francesca curled her fingers and felt the softness of Sam’s wool jacket and the hint of powerful muscle just beneath the fabric. Very masculine. Very not her life. Very something she might want to experiment with.
They reached the podium, where the hostess smiled at Sam. “Good evening, Mr. Reese. Your table is ready.”
“A man with his own table,” Francesca murmured. “Wow. If you come here often enough, do you get other pieces of furniture?”
“Sure. Last year they gave me a chair and a sideboard.”
She smiled. “I’m impressed you know what a sideboard is.”
“I’m an impressive guy.”
Sam placed his fingers over hers and squeezed slightly. The soft pressure, not to mention the heat of his touch, nearly made her stumble.
“So you’re confident,” she said as they were shown to a table tucked into an alcove. Several tall, potted plants gave the space a sense of privacy.
Sam released her hand and moved to hold out a chair. As she sat down, she tried to remember the last time anyone had done that for her, and came up with the answer.
He moved around the table and settled across from her. The hostess put menus on the table and left.
“What if you’re not sure? Do you fake it?”
He leaned toward her. “I never have to fake it.”
“One could think all that bravado was covering up for something.”
“Then one would be wrong.”
She laughed. “Fair enough. Although I can see I’m going to have to be on my toes with you. I’m glad I have a background in psychology.”
“It’s not going to help.”
“You say that because you’re not the trained professional.”
“Sure I am.”
The waiter appeared with a wine list. Sam waited until the server left, then held up the list. “Do you have an interest?”
Francesca considered the question. “Not as much as my sister, but I’ll look.”
Sam watched Francesca slowly turn pages. Her long dark hair rippled with her every movement and caught the light. The rich brown color was a contrast to the mousy brown it had been earlier.
She’d discarded her glasses, the pregnancy belly, and the unflattering dress. In their place she wore a black dress that hugged slender curves and long, sexy legs. Her skin was clear, a pale olive color that appeared luminescent. Hazel eyes-more green than gold or blue-widened as she read an entry. She had the kind of mouth that got a man in trouble, and he found himself wanting to be first in line for whatever she might be offering.
On the way over he’d told himself he was an idiot for asking her to dinner. He’d first offered to help because she’d been in trouble and that’s what he did.
Then he’d looked closer and he’d seen… possibilities.
She closed the wine menu and passed it to him.
“You see anything you like?” he asked.
“I’m going to let you pick.”
“Is it a test?” he asked.
“Maybe.” She turned her attention to her menu. “What’s good here?”
“Do you already know what you want?”
He waited until she’d glanced up before answering. “I know exactly what I want.”
The words got the reaction he’d been hoping for. Her eyes widened and her take-me-I’m-yours mouth curved.
“One point for your side,” she murmured.
“Are we keeping score?”
“I think I have to.”
“What’s the prize for winning?”
“What do you want it to be?” As soon as she said the words, she held up a hand. “Pretend I didn’t say that.”
He chuckled. “Getting in over your head?”
“A little. I’m not going to ask if you are. I can already guess the answer.”
“Fair enough. What do you want for dinner?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Are you a vegetarian?”
She frowned. “No. Why would you think that?”
“Psychology major. It’s a touchy-feely fringe science. Attracts a lot of vegetarians.”
She delighted him by laughing. “As long as you haven’t allowed yourself to be swayed by ill-informed stereotypes.”
“Not my style.”
“I’m not about to ask what your style is.”
“I’d be happy to tell you.”
“I’ll bet. So what are you ordering?” she asked.
“That’s a little clich?d.”
“I can’t help myself.”
The waiter appeared and discussed the evening’s specials. Francesca chose a baked chicken dish, while he had his usual. He ordered a bottle of Wild Sea Vineyards Cabernet.
“Interesting choice,” Francesca said. “The wine I mean.”
“They’re local. Central California.”
“I know.” She tilted her head, her hazel eyes bright with emotions he couldn’t read. “So, Sam Reese, why did you invite me to dinner?”
“Easy question. You fooled me. That doesn’t happen very often. I was impressed.”
“By my disguise?”
“Sure. I should have been able to see through it and I didn’t. When you fainted, I was terrified we were going to be delivering a baby right there in the hallway.”
“It would have been a shame to spoil such nice carpeting.” She smiled. “I was pretty unattractive. I’m surprised you didn’t run in the opposite direction.”
Their waiter returned and showed Sam the bottle of wine. When Sam nodded, the young man opened it, then poured a small amount into Sam’s glass. He took a sip.
Francesca waited until the waiter had left before tasting her wine.
“Do you like it?” he asked.
“As you said, it’s very nice.”
There was something in her voice. Something he couldn’t place. Amusement? Annoyance? Both?
“Why did you accept my invitation to dinner?” he asked.
“Because I wanted to.”
Good answer, he thought as his gaze settled on her lush mouth.
“Tell me what you do,” she said. “I saw a very nice office with lots of room, but no clues.”
“I run Security International. We’re based here in Santa Barbara, although we operate all over the world.”
“What kind of security?”
“Personal. We provide bodyguards on a temporary or full-time basis. We have a security consulting division, and we will train other people’s bodyguards.”
She looked startled. “Like the movie?”
He knew which one she meant. “My people get fired for sleeping with a client.”
“That seems harsh.”
“They’re paid to stay alert, not get lucky.”
“Any famous clients?”
She waited expectantly, then laughed. “You’re not going to give me any names.”
“Not even a hint.”
“That really big guy back at the office. Jason. He’s one of your bodyguards?”
“He wouldn’t exactly blend in.”
“Sometimes that’s not what the client wants.”
He gave her a slow smile. “Especially me.”
She picked up her wine. “Even now?”
“Want to see?”
Francesca was willing to bet Sam hadn’t spent more than fifteen minutes without a woman circling in his orbit. Her specifications had been clear-she would throw herself at the first eligible, attractive guy she ran into. She’d thought the situation might be nerve-racking and awkward; she hadn’t considered she would be a bush-league rookie playing with the pros.
“I’m not sure you want to flash the staff,” she said. “This is an upscale restaurant, and they frown on that sort of thing.”
She sipped her wine, which actually wasn’t bad. Not that she would be telling her sister.
“Afraid?” he asked. “The safety’s on.”
As if they were talking about the gun. “I’m cautious and sensible. Not afraid.” She put the glass down. “How long have you been in the security business?”
“All my life. My grandfather founded the company.”
She knew all about family concerns. “Any siblings to share the responsibility?”
“No.” He shrugged. “My father died when I was a kid. My mom passed away a few years ago, though we were never close. Now there’s just my grandfather and myself.”
The waiter appeared and set their salads in front of them. Francesca stared at the artful arrangement of baby greens, apple slices, blue cheese, and walnuts. Her mind whirled with possibilities.
Married? No. That wasn’t an option. Her luck couldn’t be that bad. There was no way the first guy she’d been attracted to in the past three years could be-
“You’re not married, are you?” she blurted.
Sam paused in the act of bringing his fork to his mouth. He set the utensil down.
She braced herself for a joke or teasing, or something snide. Instead his expression turned serious. “I wouldn’t have asked you to dinner if I were married or involved.”
Relief blended with the flavor of the cheese. “Okay.”
“And you? Any current or former Mr. Marcellis floating around?”
“No. Actually, Marcelli is my maiden name. But I was married several years ago. He passed away.”
“I’m sorry,” Sam said. “You must have married young.”
“At eighteen. Right on time, according to my rather twisted family’s expectations.” She speared a slice of apple. “I come from an Irish-Italian family. Very large, very traditional. We’re supposed to marry young and procreate with abandon.”
She bit back a smile. “Not that I know about.”
He chuckled. “I had an ill-fated marriage. I was all of twenty-two, off in Europe, out of college, and on my own. We didn’t make it to our first anniversary.” He shrugged. “We were both too young. No kids, which is good. Divorce is tough on them.”
He picked up his wine. “Enough serious conversation. Do you plan to seduce me later?”
If Francesca had been drinking, she would have spit. All promises and plans made in the presence of her sisters aside, this was a first date. She might want to throw herself in the deep end, but not in the first hour.
She was reasonably certain Sam was teasing, but just in case there was a grain of truth to the question, she decided on the most sensible, mature course of action.
She ignored it.
“Has your company always been based in Santa Barbara?” she asked.
Sam chuckled. “Chicken.”
“Cluck cluck. Now graciously accept the change in subject, please.”
“Okay. My grandfather had a branch office in Los Angeles for a while, but the base of operations has always been here.”
They talked about the changes in the city in the past ten years, how celebrities both wanted and thwarted a bodyguard’s ability to protect, and the various experiments she’d set up to help her with her research.
Sam had nearly finished his steak when he glanced at her nearly full glass.
“Don’t you like your wine?”
She touched the stem. “It’s fine.”
“Francesca. What aren’t you telling me?”
“I’m not a big fan of Wild Sea Vineyards.”
“It’s a long story.”
“Do you have any other plans for tonight?”
Plans? With him? Now that he mentioned it-
She deliberately broke off in mid-thought. “Not really.”
“I can’t think of anywhere else I’d rather be,” he said. “So tell me a story.”
“All right.” At least this was a safe topic. No double entendres, not even a hint of sexual tension.
“In 1923 two friends, Antonio Marcelli and Salvatore Giovanni, came to America from Italy. They were both second sons with no hope of inheriting their families’ businesses. They vowed to show their respective families that they would be big successes. They settled in Central California and carefully tended the treasures they had brought with them.” She paused and smiled. “Grapevines.”
Sam leaned back in his chair. She was one surprise after the other. “Francesca Marcelli? As in Marcelli Wines?”
He motioned to the bottle on the table. “The Giovanni family, I presume.”
“Uh-huh. The virgin soil, the windswept hills, the temperate climate were all perfect for growing grapes. Antonio and Salvatore bought land next to each other. They shared labor, celebrated victories, and together toasted their first harvest. In time they returned to Italy to ma rry, then came back to California and settled down to have happy lives. Wild Sea Vineyard and Marcelli Wines were born. Antonio and Salvatore each had one son and two daughters.”
She paused to take a drink of water. He leaned forward. “You grew up listening to that story.”
“I’ve heard it a thousand times.”
“Your voice changes when you talk about the family history.” More than her voice. Her eyes stared past him to focus on a long-ago place.
“My grandmother talks about the old days. I guess I’m repeating what she says.”
She drew in a breath and continued. “Events in Europe in the late 1930s worried the friends. With the German occupation of France and threats to Italy during the Second World War, there was great concern for the state of the vineyards. Would generations of healthy stock be destroyed? Antonio and Salvatore went to Europe, where friends offered cuttings. They traveled, collecting more and more cuttings from the most famous vineyards in France and Italy. Then they returned home to graft their legacy to their strongest vines. Whatever happened in Europe, the traditions would continue in America.”
“I’ve noticed a more European flavor to Wild Sea wines,” he said, “but I wouldn’t say the same about Marcelli wines.”
“I know.” She shrugged. “No one knows exactly what happened or why. At first both sets of cuttings did well, but over time those planted on Marcelli lands began to die. Antonio accused Salvatore of cursing his lands or poisoning his grapes. The two men had a falling out, as did the families. Friendships ended, engagements were broken. To this day, Marcelli Wines and Wild Sea Vineyards are mortal enemies.”
He liked the story, but then he found that he liked everything Francesca had to say.
“Any spilt blood?” he asked.
“Not our style,” she said with a smile. “We’re more the heated conversation types. Actually my grandfather, Antonio’s son, is the one most interested in carrying on the feud. My parents have never been that enthusiastic about old fights, and my sisters and I don’t really have the invested emotions.”
“Who runs Wild Sea now?”
“Salvatore’s great-grandson, Nicholas.” She rested her fingertips on the bottle. “They flourished with their new European cuttings. While we’re a successful enterprise, they are an international conglomerate.”
“You study psychology, not wine. Why?”
“Grandpa Lorenzo says the vines must be a passion. They never were for me. My sister, Brenna, has them in her blood.”
Their waiter took away the plates. Francesca shook off an offer of dessert. Sam handed him a credit card.
“Thank you for dinner,” she said when they were alone again. “I’ve enjoyed this evening.”
“Me, too.” Sam smiled. “I’d like to see you again.”
Heat sparked to life inside her midsection. “Me, too.”
“Tomorrow night? Unless you already have plans.”
She supposed she should play hard to get. That’s what Mia, her baby sister, was always saying. Francesca had never been very good at following directions.
“Tomorrow is fine.”
Sam pulled a business card from his jacket pocket and wrote on the back. “My home number,” he said when he passed it to her. He drew out another card. “Yours?”
As she told him the number, he wrote it down. When he was finished, she glanced at his business card. She scanned the information, then visually stumbled when she read the title under the name.
President and CEO.
“You run the company,” she said, trying not to panic. Of course he did. Why would that change anything?
“For a few years now.”
She raised her gaze to his face. “How old are you?”
The waiter interrupted them when he handed Sam his credit card and a receipt to sign.
When Sam had finished, he glanced at her. “Have I converted you to Wild Sea wines?”
She chuckled. “Unlikely. I’m not sure I’ve had Wild Sea Cab before. It was actually pretty good. Not that I’ll tell my grandfather.”
“He would probably want to cut you out of his will.”
“That or throw me out of the family.”
Sam tucked the receipt into his jacket pocket, rose, and moved behind her. As she stood, he pulled the chair away, then settled a hand on the small of her back.
She felt the heat of his palm and fingers all the way through to her skin, and found herself fighting the instinctive urge to step closer.
Surfer valet met them by the courtyard. He gave Sam a quick salute and pointed down the street. Francesca followed the direction and saw her truck parked behind a gleaming silver sedan. Sam held out his free hand, and the valet dropped two set of keys into them.
“He’s not going to get the cars?” she asked, confused by the circumstances.
Sam handed her the truck’s keys and slipped the others into his jacket pocket.
“I arranged for our cars to be brought around and parked down there.”
“It’s more private. It’s not as if I want an audience when I kiss you good night.”