3

Francesca told herself that a man with a plan was a good thing. She should applaud Sam’s sensible nature. Instead she suddenly felt awkward, nervous, clumsy, and just a little tingly. The odd combination of apprehension and anticipation did not sit well on her baked chicken entr?e.

The hand resting on the small of her back propelled her up the street. Sam drew her off the sidewalk, between her truck and his car. She had to admit it was private. And quiet. Very quiet. Voices from the restaurant seemed distant. Somewhere a radio played. The night was warm and clear. Everything was in place and pretty darned perfect-except for her sudden need to throw up.

What had seemed sensible, even funny, when she’d talked with her sisters about having sex with a stranger now seemed insane. What had she been thinking? If she threw herself into the deep end, she was going to end up wet, cold, and quite possible caught up in a riptide. Not that pools had riptides, but still. There were-

Sam took her face in his hands, then bent low and kissed her. Just like that. She was stuck holding her purse and her keys, which meant she had nothing for her hands to do but sort of twist there on the ends of her arms. Real attractive. If she was the least bit-

Long dormant nerves came back to life with a loud yippee. She went from intellectual awareness of what he was doing to actually feeling it in a nanosecond. Sam was kissing her. His warm firm mouth brushed against hers, moving slowly, discovering, touching. She could feel heat, from him and within herself. His long fingers stroked her cheeks, then he dropped his hands to her shoulders. She felt both limp and energized. Nothing could have compelled her to move. She wanted the kiss to go on forever.

He tilted his head and pressed a little harder. Tingling sensations shot through her, making her heart pound harder. For the first time in years she remembered that her breasts were exquisitely sensitive. Her skin tightened everywhere, anticipating the touch of his hands. Hunger filled her and she realized she’d been starving for this kind of intimacy for what felt like three lifetimes.

He stroked her lower lip with his tongue. A shiver rippled through her as delight overtook whatever common sense she might have once possessed. She raised one hand-the one holding the keys-and wrapped her arm around the back of his neck. He was just tall enough that she had to go on tiptoes. Sam responded by pulling her close so that they touched… everywhere.

Hard to her soft. She’d heard the words a thousand times, read them in books, but never before had they made so much sense. Every part of him was hard, solid, and unyielding. Her curves molded around him. She felt soft and feminine. She felt safe. When he licked her lower lip again, she parted to admit him.

At the first brush of his tongue against hers, she felt as if she could fly. At the second, fire consumed her, heating without burning, exciting her to the point of confusion. She couldn’t remember sensations like this. Not when she’d been kissed in the past. She must have been doing something wrong before-or something right this time.

She wanted more. She wanted all of it. She wanted him to kiss her until she couldn’t think, couldn’t breathe, couldn’t do anything but feel and want and need.

She tried to move closer. When that wasn’t possible, she started to kiss him back. Which was when he moved away, forcing her to pull her arm from around his neck.

“Street,” Sam said, stepping back a little.

Francesca stared at him. “Street?”

His gold-brown eyes seemed darker than they had before, and brighter. His lips were damp, making him look even more sexy and powerful. Desire swamped her.

One corner of his mouth turned up. “We’re standing on the street.”

Okay. And that mattered how?

Then reality sank in. The street. She glanced around and realized there were several houses nearby and cars. People out walking their dogs, patrons from the restaurant.

She swallowed. “You’re right. I guess-”

She stopped talking because she didn’t know what to say. A confession that she’d been overcome by passion would only be embarrassing. If not for him, then for her.

“Are you all right?” he asked.

All right? She was perfect. She was so good, she could have started singing opera.

She went for a cool, confident, I-do-this-sort-of-thing-all-the-time smile. “Absolutely.”

She turned toward her truck and headed for the driver’s door. Whatever sophistication she might have faked crumbled when she completely missed the door lock and nearly put the key through the side of her truck.

She felt herself blush. “Oops,” she muttered.

“Francesca?”

She glanced over her shoulder and saw him standing behind her.

“I’ll call you tomorrow afternoon and set up a time for tomorrow night. Will you be in?”

In? She would probably be curled up on the sofa, reliving the best kiss since Kelly McGillis and Tom Cruise did the tongue thing in Top Gun. “Sure. I have to work on my dissertation.”

“I’ll talk to you then.”

She nodded and climbed into the truck. Sam stepped close.

“Thank you for tonight,” he said and carefully closed her door.

She wanted to respond in kind, or say something clever. But her mind was still reeling from the kiss. So she settled on a wave, then she started her engine and pulled out onto the road.

As she drove through the intersection, she began humming a peppy tune from Toscanini.

Francesca didn’t sleep much that night, and woke with the sun the following morning, so it took half of a second pot of coffee to get her brain functioning.

Once she was able to think in complete sentences, she cleared her tiny kitchen table of a stack of textbooks, grabbed a sheet of notebook paper and sat down to make a list.

There were the usual chores of laundry, grocery shopping-always a challenge with her budget-and vacuuming. Then there was the outline for her dissertation that had been due ten days ago and was yet to be started. Finally there was the thrill of doing her best not to think about Sam, their previous date, their future date, and the impending phone call.

She felt giddy. She felt wonderfully alive and in tune with the cosmos. She felt more than a little stirring low in her belly. Her heretofore silent female bits were currently line dancing in anticipation of rousing activity.

“You don’t actually know he’s going to want to have sex,” she told herself sternly as she poured a fourth cup of coffee. “One kiss does not a physical relationship make.”

True. But it had been an amazing kiss. One that deserved, if not its own national holiday, then at least a stamp.

The way Sam had pulled her close and taken charge. The feel of his mouth on hers. The taste of him, the heat that they’d-

A knock on the door interrupted her musings. Reluctantly Francesca banished her R-rated thoughts and crossed to the door. When she pulled it open, she found Mia, her baby sister, standing on the threshold.

“I came to say good-bye,” Mia said as she stepped into the small apartment. “Do you have coffee? Something for breakfast? I’m starved.”

Francesca laughed. “Anything else in your list of demands? How about money? You want a loan?”

Mia hugged her. “No way. You’re broke.”

On that cheerful note she led the way into the kitchen.

Francesca followed, then leaned against the door frame as Mia poured coffee and added a large splash of milk. She took a sip, then set the mug on the counter and opened the freezer door.

“Did Brenna leave any doughnuts in here?” she asked as she rummaged through a couple of frozen entr?es, ravioli sent over by Grandma Tessa, and an emergency pint of Ben & Jerry’s.

“I don’t think so,” Francesca said, then shook her head as Mia held up a foil-wrapped container.

“Don’t you check for stuff like this?” she asked. “Brenna lived with you for almost a month after she and Jeff split up. Didn’t it occur to you that she would have put doughnuts in the freezer?”

“Honestly, no.”

“For someone with a degree in psychology, you sure don’t know your twin.”

Francesca laughed. “I thought she’d take the doughnuts with her.”

“Uh-huh.”

Mia finished unwrapping the Krispy Kremes and slid them onto a paper towel. Then she set them in the microwave and punched in fifteen seconds.

The old machine whirred and shook slightly as it hummed to life. Mia frowned.

“Is this safe? Are we going to get radiation burns from this?”

“I don’t think microwaves use radiation.”

As if not willing to risk any potential danger, Mia took a step back. Francesca grinned.

When the timer beeped, Mia pulled out the paper towel and carried it to the table. “Come on,” she said. “I’ll share.”

“I should hope so. If Brenna left the food in the house, then it’s legally mine.”

Mia grabbed her coffee and pulled out a chair. Despite the relatively early hour on a Saturday, she looked alert and rested. Her big eyes were bright and clear. Her dark hair had been freshly streaked with blond highlights, and for once she wasn’t wearing enough makeup to make a Vegas showgirl proud.

Francesca settled across from her and took one of the steaming doughnuts.

“Where’s your face?” she asked.

Mia wrinkled her nose. “Mom begged me not to look slutty this summer while I’m in D.C. That was her exact word. Do I look slutty to you?”

Francesca studied the pretty features, the round cheeks and grinning mouth. “Not now.”

Mia balled up a napkin and threw it at her. “Katie’s always getting on me about my makeup, too. I think it’s because you’re all so old. You’re just jealous.”

“I’m sure that’s it.”

Mia finished her doughnut and reached for another. “My plane leaves early tomorrow. The folks are driving me into L.A. this afternoon, and I’m spending the night at an airport hotel. In-room movies and room service. Wanna come? It’s on them. And don’t say you don’t mooch. This is different.”

Francesca was more concerned with her date that night than sponging off her parents. “I know it’s different.”

Mia rolled her eyes. “You’re so stubborn. You know Mom and Dad would love to help you out financially. Why don’t you let them? I’m in college and they help me. Should I feel guilty?”

It was a familiar argument. “Of course not. Mia, you’re eighteen, you’re brilliant, and of course the folks want to pay for your school.”

“So you’re old. That doesn’t mean they wouldn’t help.”

“I’m going to ignore the ‘old’ part,” Francesca told her. “I was married. I’ve been on my own. It was my choice to go to college after Todd died, and it’s important for me to pay my own way. I want to be independent-it’s one of the reasons I took back my maiden name.”

“You’d think that old poophead would have at least left you a few bucks,” Mia grumbled.

“You’d think,” Francesca agreed. “But he didn’t and I’m doing fine.”

Mia eyed the small dark kitchen. “If you say so.”

“I do. Now let’s talk about you. Are you excited to go to Washington?”

Mia shimmied in her chair. “D.C. is going to be so great. I still wish I was taking my language class in Japan, but this is nearly as good. I figure when I’m not studying, I’ll hang out by the Capitol and meet some cute congressional aides.” She sipped her coffee. “I mean, I am recovering from a broken heart.”

Francesca shook her head. Mia might have recently broken up with her fianc?, but there weren’t any broken hearts in sight.

“You seem to have moved from ‘recovering’ to ‘recovered,’ ” Francesca said.

“I guess. Which means it’s really good I didn’t marry David, huh? So what are you doing today?”

“The usual. Errands.” She motioned to the list she’d started.

Mia picked it up.

Exactly two seconds later Francesca realized her mistake. Mia got it about five seconds after that. Her baby sister’s mouth dropped open, she snorted, then gave a strangled gasp-laugh.

“Check your diaphragm? Somehow I know we’re not talking about breathing devices.”

Francesca refused to be embarrassed. She reached across the table to take back her list.

Mia held it out of reach. “Uh-uh. No way. First you talk. Then I return personal possessions.”

“Fine. It’s no big deal.” She picked up a doughnut and took a bite.

Mia stared at her. “Five words doesn’t count as talking. I want details. Start at the beginning and speak slowly.”

Francesca figured there was no point in putting off the inevitable. Mia had the same stubborn trait as all the Marcelli sisters. “When I was married to Todd, I had a bad reaction to being on the Pill, so I started using a diaphragm. In the years since, I’ve had occasion to dust it off once or twice, and I was curious if it was still around.”

Mia dropped the list and slapped her hands on the table. “You are such a liar.”

Francesca nodded. “I know. I was practicing to see if I was any better at it. What do you think?”

“You stink. Now spill your guts, woman.”

“After Brenna moved back home, she, Katie, and I were talking one afternoon. Actually we were drinking wine and eating too many cookies, but that’s a different story.”

Mia pouted. “Dammit, why do I always miss the fun stuff? You guys are always hanging out and not including me. I hate that. It’s because you and Brenna are twins and Katie’s only a year older. I’m the leftover kid.”

“I’m sorry, Mia. It wasn’t on purpose. And for the record, we all love you to pieces. You’re not the leftover kid.”

“Okay. Maybe. But that doesn’t make it any less annoying. So tell me what happened.”

Francesca drank more coffee. “We were talking about boys we’d liked in high school but hadn’t slept with. We talked about Jeff and Todd and Zach. They got on me about not dating.”

“Or having sex,” Mia added.

“That, too. Basically I agreed to sleep with the next normal, available guy I ran into.”

Mia’s eyes widened. “So you’re just going to cruise the neighborhood?”

“No. I met someone yesterday. I was working and-”

Mia groaned and leaned forward until her head was resting on the table. “Please. Not the tattooed biker chick. Tell me you weren’t her.”

“I wasn’t. I was pregnant.”

Mia straightened, then gagged. “That’s gross. He asked out a pregnant lady? What’s wrong with him?”

“From what I can tell, nothing. He helped me out. We went back to his office, where he guilted me into telling him the truth.”

“How did he do that?”

Francesca shrugged. “He was really nice.”

“Wow. Nice. That must have been painful. Tell me he’s at least good-looking.”

“He is. Really good-looking.” She reached for her purse and dug out his business card, then passed it to Mia.

Her sister took it and read. “President and CEO? Okay, I take back the gross comment.” She set the card on the table. “If you’re just now hunting for birth control, I’m guessing you didn’t do it last night.”

Francesca was shocked. “I do not have sex on the first date.”

Mia looked unimpressed. “You don’t actually know that. It would take you dating to find out.”

“Good point. Okay. No, we didn’t do it. We kissed.”

“And?”

“It was a religious experience.”

Mia chuckled. “Way to go, Sis.” She tilted her head. “Let me guess. He’s the reason you can’t join me in Los Angeles for a night of in-room movies and room service?”

“Exactly. We have a date.”

“I’m proud of you.” Mia rose and stretched. “So let’s find that diaphragm of yours. I want to see what it looks like and you need to practice. It sounds to me like someone might be getting lucky.”

Francesca followed her into the bedroom. “I thought guys got lucky and girls put out.”

“Whatever.” Mia flopped down on the bed. “So start looking.”

Francesca walked to her dresser but didn’t pull out any drawers. She’d added the diaphragm to her to-do list on impulse. She wasn’t actually expecting to get naked with Sam, was she? She’d been a virgin when she married Todd, and after his death she’d never been all that sexually active. There was an assortment of reasons, most of which could be the subject of their own psych term paper.

Yes, she’d promised her sisters, and yes, keeping that promise was the only way she was going to enter the mainstreaming dating world, but still. Sex with a stranger? She reminded herself that simple sex beat a complicated relationship any day.

Mia groaned. “I can hear you talking yourself out of it from here. Francesca, come on. It’ll be fun.”

“You don’t actually know that.”

“Yeah, I do.” Mia flipped onto her stomach. “Trust me. Life with sex is pretty thrilling.”

“I can’t believe my eighteen-year-old sister is offering me advice on this.”

“I can’t believe my twenty-seven-year-old sister needs it. Now, start looking.”

Francesca didn’t have to look. She knew exactly where the device in question was parked. She opened the top drawer and moved a pile of socks. The slim blue case sat in the corner.

When she pulled it out of the drawer, Mia sat up. “How does this thing work?”

“It provides a barrier against invading sperm,” Francesca told her. “You put a gel on first, then fold the diaphragm in half and insert it.”

Mia looked doubtful.

Francesca opened the case and took out the birth-control device. Mia peered at it.

“Are you sure you can’t go on the Pill?” she asked.

“I don’t know. Like I said, I had a bad reaction last time. The problem is, even if I could, I have to wait until I can get to a doctor for a prescription.”

“Yeah, and then you have to wait for your period to start. Bummer.” She poked at the diaphragm. “I guess this could work, but I gotta tell you that putting it in will really break the mood.”

Francesca hadn’t thought that part through. “Good point. I guess I can put it in before I leave, although that seems so sleazy. Like I’m expecting something to happen.”

So many issues to work through, she thought as she walked into the small bathroom and took the diaphragm from its case. She turned on the water and rinsed it.

Mia followed. “Aren’t you?”

Francesca laughed. “Not so I want to admit.” She liked Sam. They’d had a good time the previous evening. And the kiss, well, she’d already spent plenty of time reliving that. Was she ready to take things to the next level? Did she-

“That can’t be good,” Mia said.

Francesca glanced down at the diaphragm. She’d filled it with water, and now the liquid dripped out the bottom. Panic swept through her.

“No,” she muttered. “It can’t have a leak.”

“How old is that thing?”

“I got it the first year I was married.”

Mia shook her head. “I don’t think they’re supposed to last nine years, kiddo.”

Francesca dumped out the water and held the diaphragm up to the light. Sure enough, there were three tiny holes. “Just perfect. I finally decide to do the wild thing, and this is what happens.”

“It’s no big deal,” her sister told her. “The guy’s supposed to wear a hat, anyway. Just make sure he does. Or make him wear two.”

Francesca tossed the birth control into the sink, then sank onto the edge of the tub. “This is so unfair.”

Mia crouched next to her. “It’s no big deal. Really. Condoms are perfectly safe. Or if you’re really worried, then don’t have sex with him. That solves the problem, too. On Monday head over to the health clinic on campus and talk to someone there. Maybe you can try something slightly more modern in the birth-control department.”

Francesca brightened. “Good point. I don’t have to do it with Sam. I can just say no.”

“Not yet,” Grandpa Lorenzo said as they walked through the rows of Cabernet Sauvignon. Not yet, meaning they hadn’t started to ripen.

Brenna Marcelli barely saw the clusters of pea-size green grapes. Instead a gently sloping track of land filled her mind. One that sat in the way of a cool ocean breeze, tucked between hills that blocked out early-morning and late-afternoon sunlight. A place shrouded by morning fog. Perfect conditions for the high quality Pinot Noir growing there. Perfect and possibly up for sale.

She’d already driven by twice, but she hadn’t had the nerve to stop. Not when she knew that seeing the land would cause her to dream of four perfect acres that she would never own. She didn’t have the money herself and knew the futility of trying to talk her grandfather into purchasing the acreage.

Probably just as well, she thought grimly. Why buy more when there were rumors that her grandfather was going to sell Marcelli Wines? Persistent rumors that didn’t go away.

“When does the bottling start?” he asked, crouching in front of a cluster of young grapes that had yet to begin ripening. The Cabs always came in last.

“Middle of the week,” she said. “That’s when we’ve booked the crew.”

“Are you ready?”

Brenna thought about the intense process of bottling wine. The various machines were linked together by conveyor belts that wound around like a noisy snake doing the rumba. Bottles clinked and jerked along the line, being blown clean, filled, corked, labeled in a mechanical dance that made her long for the time and manpower to lovingly fill each bottle by hand.

She hated bottling-knew how the wine could be bruised or aerated or traumatized by the rapid and brutal journey from quiet barrels to jostling bottles. A thousand and one things could go wrong with the equipment. She would check in a few times a day but otherwise planned to avoid the process.

“The Chardonnay is ready,” she said. “We’ll get it all done in time.”

The bright sun made her pull her baseball cap over her forehead and squint to see, the vineyard stretching out for what felt like miles in every direction. The smell of earth mingled with the fragrance of grapes. The scent wasn’t rich as it would be at harvest, when simply walking through the vineyard could be intoxicating. But it held promise of a good crop and a great wine.

This was her home, she thought contentedly. This land, these vines all existed within the confines of the only world she had ever loved. It had taken coming back to discover that.

She knew now she should never have left. That taking what had seemed to be the safe choice had been a mistake she’d paid for over and over again during the past nine years. Now it appeared she would be paying the ultimate price when her grandfather sold the winery. If he sold the winery.

Brenna couldn’t get confirmation of the rumors, but there were so many of them, she couldn’t help believing them true.

“People are talking,” she began slowly. “About the winery. I’ve heard them say you’re considering selling.”

Her grandfather picked up a handful of dirt and let it run through his fingers. He rubbed a few leaves, then straightened and glanced up at the sun.

“A good day,” he said. “A good season.”

She didn’t say anything. Her heart seemed to have frozen solid in her chest. Despite the heat of the afternoon, every part of her was cold.

Finally he turned to look at her. “You asked me before. I told you. I’m not selling.”

She studied his weathered face. He was a stern man who ruled his family with outdated laws and discipline, but he didn’t lie.

Relief poured through her, hot and welcome. Her heart began to beat again. She sucked in a breath, then another. As long as she had the winery, she had a reason for living. It didn’t matter that her personal life was in the toilet and that she was twenty-seven and had just moved back home. The grapes were everything. They-

“Not yet,” he said. “Maybe soon.”

Brenna stared at him. “No,” she breathed. Sell? Marcelli Wines? Her chest ached as if someone had stabbed her. “You can’t. This land has been in the family for over seventy years. Why would you turn all we’ve worked for over to a stranger?”

“I’m an old man.”

“I’m not. I’m here and working hard.”

His dark eyes narrowed. “For now. But then what?”

They’d had this conversation before. The unfairness of it burned like a brand. All her life she’d been told her duty was to get married as soon as she turned eighteen. Which she had done. That relationship had taken her away from the vineyard she loved.

She turned and walked away. Her body ached, but that pain was nothing when compared with the emptiness of her soul.

Her grandfather blamed her for leaving. After all those years of telling her to get married, he now punished her for listening to him. Worse, Brenna almost couldn’t argue his point. She couldn’t figure out why she’d given up the vineyards to marry her ass of an ex-husband who was knee-deep in preparations for his wedding to wife number two.

Her eyes burned, but she didn’t cry. Not over Jeff. Not anymore. She’d moved past hate, regret, and revenge. Now she simply wanted that chapter of her life over. Let him get married again. Let him get married a dozen more times. As long as she had the grapes…

She crested a rise and turned to look back at the land. She’d been born and bred to work the vines, and she had walked away from them all. If only-

The bright sunlight made her squint. In the distance, on neighboring Giovanni lands, she saw movement. Was it Nic? She was too far away to tell.

If only what? If only she’d listened to her heart instead of taking the easy way out and marrying Jeff? Things would not have turned out much better with her grandfather. There were no if onlys. There was now and the fact that she’d finally found everything she wanted only to lose it again if her grandfather sold.

She’d learned her lesson. Unfortunately the education had come too late. What did it matter now if she never again trusted her heart and soul to a man? Without Marcelli Wines she was nothing.

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