10

Brenna sat on the edge of her desk while her grandfather paced the length of her small office.

“They’re high quality grapes,” she said, trying to sound calm when all she wanted to do was scream. “Those four acres have a reputation for producing some of the best Pinot Noir in the state. The buyer called to tell me he’s pulling out of the deal and wanted to let me know so I could buy them. No one knows about this yet. I could make a fabulous wine with those grapes.”

Grandpa Lorenzo paused in front of a map of the Marcelli property. He traced the line between their land and that of the Giovannis’.

“No.”

Just like that. No.

Anger burned inside of her. The request wasn’t unreasonable. What she really wanted was to buy the four acres, but she didn’t have the money, and her grandfather wouldn’t be interested. Not when he was talking about selling.

“Why?” she asked before she could stop herself. Arguing never changed his mind.

He stared at her, his dark eyes narrowed. “We don’t buy grapes from strangers. Marcelli Wines are grown on Marcelli land. Our name means something.”

“It’s not going to mean shit when you sell it.”

The words were out before she could stop herself, then she told herself she didn’t care. She was tired of him not listening.

Her grandfather stiffened, then muttered something in Italian. She didn’t understand what he was saying, which was probably for the best.

“We could start a new label,” she said. “The big companies do it all the time.”

“Too much work. No point.”

He dismissed her with a wave, then walked out of her office. Brenna picked up her Day Runner and threw it across the room. The binder snapped opened and pages went flying everywhere.

It wasn’t fair, she thought. Not that fair ever meant anything. She’d sealed her fate the day she’d decided to marry Jeff. Her other option-eloping with the enemy-would have made her entire family go ballistic, but at least then she would have been following her heart instead of her head. As it was, she had only herself to blame. Well, herself and a very stubborn grandfather.

Her phone rang.

“What?” she demanded.

“Hey, don’t snap at me,” Francesca said. “Whatever’s going on there isn’t my fault.”

Brenna sagged into her chair. “Sorry. I just had a run-in with the old man.”

“I’m guessing you weren’t victorious.”

“Am I ever?”

“Not with him.” Her sister sighed. “Want to talk about it?”

“No.”

“Okay, then I’m calling to invite you to join Katie and me for lunch. As she’s the one with the wildly successful business, she’s buying. Are you in?”

“Absolutely. I need to get away from this place.”

“You look mad enough to spit,” Francesca said when she walked into the caf? and saw Brenna already sitting at an outdoor table.

Her twin rose and hugged her, then collapsed back into her chair. “I had another go-round with our esteemed grandfather. He makes me insane.”

Francesca sat and put her purse on the stone floor. “About the Pinot grapes?”

Brenna sighed. “I know better. I’m not stupid. But I went ahead and asked, and of course he said no. What’s the point, right? I mean if he’s really selling.”

Francesca touched her arm. “You don’t know that.”

Brenna’s dark brown eyes clouded with sadness. “I doubt I’m going to like the outcome of any plan he has. I can’t believe I’ve finally figured out where I belong, only to learn it’s not going to exist anymore.”

“Okay, who died?” Katie asked as she walked over to the table.

“No one,” Brenna said as she rose. “Just any chance I had at happiness.”

Katie hugged her. “Okay, so we’re going to need wine and dessert at this lunch.”

Francesca smiled as she stood. “I’m thinking real dressing on our salads, too. None of that low-fat stuff.”

She kissed Katie’s cheek, then held her sister at arm’s length. Katie wore her long reddish-brown hair up. An elegant summer dress with a short-sleeved jacket made her look like the successful businesswoman she was. Katie had always been pretty, but since falling for Zach, she had positively bloomed.

“You look great,” Francesca told her as they sat.

“Thanks. It’s the whole ‘in love’ thing. All that happiness aerates my skin or something.”

“It’s the sex,” Brenna said. “Hot monkey sex on a regular basis is way better than any night cream.”

“Is this your professional opinion?” Katie asked.

“Sure. I’m writing up an article. You’ll be able to read it in the medical journals next month.”

Katie laughed. “Then I’ll be young forever.”

“You’re going to tire Zach out.”

“I think he’s man enough to keep up with me.” Katie’s humor faded. “So what’s the crisis?”

Francesca and Brenna looked at each other.

“No crisis,” Brenna said, then sighed. “Not yet. Grandpa Lorenzo might be selling the winery.”

Katie’s eyes widened. “That’s not possible. He’s obsessive about family.”

“He doesn’t have any male heirs.”

“What does that matter?” she demanded. “You love the winery. You know more than he does. Whenever he doesn’t listen to you, he’s eventually forced to admit he made a mistake. Brenna, this is crazy.”

“This is our family,” Brenna said. “He’s accusing me of not being loyal and not sticking around. By marrying Jeff and moving to L.A., I’ve proven I can’t be trusted.”

Katie shook her head. “We should all talk to him or something.”

“You know he’d never listen. Instead he’d get mad and throw us out of the family.”

“Something he likes to do on a regular basis,” Katie grumbled. “I’m sorry,” she told Brenna.

The waitress arrived. As this was a favorite place, the sisters all knew what they wanted. They ordered salads, extra bread, and diet soda.

When she’d left, Katie picked up the conversation. “I wish there was something we could do about this, Brenna. Have you talked to the folks?”

Brenna shrugged. “I’ve thought about it. I know Grandpa makes Dad crazy, too, but the thing is they work together. They live in the same house. I don’t want to make them choose. Plus, going to them would make me feel like I couldn’t handle things on my own.”

Francesca understood her sister’s reluctance to get her parents in the middle of a big fight. Brenna would consider this a fight she had to manage by herself, much as Francesca insisted on paying her own way through college and grad school.

“Are you sure you can’t buy the Pinot grapes yourself?” Francesca asked. “With the money you’re going to be getting from the settlement on your divorce, couldn’t you rent equipment?”

The waitress arrived with the wine. All three sisters clinked their glasses together.

“I’ve done the math,” Brenna said. “I wouldn’t have enough. Plus, it would be such a small production. However, it did get me thinking…” Her voice trailed off.

“About?” Katie prompted.

“Starting my own label.” She held up her hand before either sister could respond. “I don’t know. I’m in the ‘maybe’ stage. It’s a little scary to consider.”

Francesca couldn’t imagine the work involved. Or the money. She sucked in a breath. “Do I want to know what you’re looking at in start-up capital?”

Brenna grinned. “Somewhere in the neighborhood of a million dollars.”

Francesca nearly fell out of her chair. Katie gasped.

“Don’t look so shocked,” Brenna told them. “I would have to start big. Wine making is no longer a business for the gentleman farmer. Small wineries are failing left and right, or being bought by larger concerns. I would need to be big enough to survive.”

“A million dollars?” Francesca said, hardly able to comprehend that much money. “What would the loan payment be?”

“You don’t want to know.” Brenna took a piece of bread and tore it in half. “Actually I don’t want to know, either. Like I said, I haven’t decided what I’m doing. Right now it’s just a fantasy.”

Katie patted her arm. “If you decide to go for it, I’m good for a few thousand. Although when compared with a million, that doesn’t seem like much.”

“Keep your money,” Brenna told her. “You’re going to need it when you start popping out babies.”

Katie laughed. “We’re not even married yet.”

“I’ve heard women can get pregnant before marriage these days,” Francesca said. “Isn’t science wonderful?”

Katie threw a roll at her. “Very funny. Zach and I want to wait about a year before getting started on the whole family thing. We want to enjoy each other.”

Brenna looked at Francesca. “Sex. She’s talking about sex.”

“I know.” Francesca grinned. “Where are you going on your honeymoon?”

“Zach’s mentioned Tahiti.”

“One of those all-nude resorts?” Brenna asked.

“What is with you?” Katie shook her head. “I don’t want to spend my honeymoon naked.” She frowned. “Well, that came out wrong. Let me rephrase it. I don’t want to spend my honeymoon naked with anyone other than Zach.” She turned to Francesca. “And speaking of naked, what on earth is going on in your life?”

Francesca nearly choked on the bit of bread she’d just swallowed. She had a bad feeling she was blushing.

“I’m not naked.”

“Maybe not, but you brought a twelve-year-old girl to the house. From what the Grands told me, you’re dating the girl’s father. Is this true? Do I have to hear about that kind of gossip from my grandmothers rather than my sister herself?”

“You’ve been busy,” Francesca pointed out. “It’s not like you’ve been calling me every fifteen minutes.”

“You get crabby when I do that,” Katie said. “So start talking.”

The waitress arrived with their salads. Fajita chicken for Katie and Francesca, a Cobb for Brenna.

“Oh, please. Let me,” Brenna said with a grin. “I want to tell her.”

Francesca shrugged. “Feel free.”

Brenna leaned toward Katie and lowered her voice. “Remember a couple of months ago, when we all got drunk and admitted to wanting to sleep with Nic Giovanni?”

Katie held up a hand. “Excuse me, but we all agreed we wanted to sleep with him back in high school. Not today. There’s a difference.”

“Whatever,” Brenna said. “Anyway, we were both bugging Francesca about finding some guy and getting involved.”

“Right. We made her promise to sleep with the next normal, single man that she-” Katie’s mouth dropped open. “You didn’t actually do that, did you?”

Francesca popped a piece of chicken in her mouth and chewed.

Katie turned to Brenna. “She did?”

“Apparently. She met this guy while on one of her experiments.”

Katie winced. “Not the tattooed biker chick.”

“No. It’s worse. She was pregnant. They talked, she came clean about her disguise, and then they had sex.”

Francesca swallowed. “We went out to dinner, and I did not sleep with him on the first date.”

Both her sisters looked at her. She sighed. “It was the second date, okay?”

Kate and Brenna laughed.

“Well, then,” Brenna said. “It’s perfectly fine. The second date.”

Francesca refused to be embarrassed or apologize. “It just happened. I didn’t mean it to, but I can’t regret it. Sam is really great.”

Katie looked surprised. “Miss ‘I never want to be married again’ isn’t changing her mind, is she?”

“Absolutely not. Sam is in complete agreement with me on that, too. We’re both looking for a monogamous relationship with no risk of too much emotional involvement. He doesn’t want to get married again any more than I do.”

“They’re basically talking about cheap, easy sex and idle chitchat,” Brenna said. “Honest to God, it sounds perfect.”

“I don’t think so,” Katie said. “Where’s the romance in that?”

Francesca looked at her twin. “Ever the soft-hearted one.”

“Not soft-hearted,” Katie protested. “Practical. Do you really think you can have a physically intimate relationship with a man without falling for him?”

“Absolutely,” Francesca said. “I’ve been married. Todd wasn’t the devil, at least not on purpose, but there was very little I liked about being married. And look what Brenna gave up for Jeff.” She touched Brenna’s arm. “No offense.”

“None taken,” Brenna said. “You’re right. I’ve been beating myself up about it ever since he walked out on me. Katie, you were the smart one. You waited to get married until you found the right guy. You fell for Zach and I think it’s great. But neither Francesca nor I is interested in a walk down the aisle again.”

Katie didn’t look convinced. “I’m not sure it’s possible to avoid emotional bonding. What happens if you fall for him? It could get complicated. Especially with him having a daughter. You’ve always wanted kids. And you love to rescue people.”

“Sam is not in need of rescuing,” Francesca said firmly. “And I’ll admit that the kid thing could be a problem, but I will just make sure I don’t bond with either of them. Sam and I want to keep this completely uncomplicated.”

“Life doesn’t always let you choose,” Katie reminded her. “Be careful.”

Francesca laughed. “We’re using condoms. How much safer could we be?”

Teen-zilla had returned, Sam thought on Monday morning. There had been nearly ten days during which he’d thought having a kid around wasn’t such a bad thing. But he’d been wrong.

“She smells,” Kelly hissed. “And she’s weird-looking.”

Sam stood in front of the bathroom mirror and tucked his tie under his shirt collar.

“She doesn’t smell,” he told his daughter, although he’d noticed some sort of decaying plant smell whenever he was around Doreen. As for her not looking normal, Sam thought she was fine. Okay, her glasses were a little thick, and there was something strange about her mouth, but he wasn’t interested in her appearance, just her skills.

“She’s been working with children for twenty years,” he told Kelly as he looped around the narrow end of his tie. “She has a clean driving record, no tickets in three years, she’s bonded and highly recommended. If you want to get to ballet class, she’s your ride.”

“I put up with her for all of last week. I gave her a chance. She’s horrible. She doesn’t talk at all. She has no sense of humor, and she never takes me anywhere but class and home. I asked about going to the movies or the mall, and she just said no.”

Sam didn’t like the sound of that. “You’re allowed to go places after class,” he said. “I never meant to keep you locked up.” Not really. “I’ll talk to her when I go downstairs. I’m sure once she understands that it’s all right, you can start doing more fun things in the afternoon.”

“I’d rather be alone than with her.”

Kelly glared at him in the mirror. She was already dressed for her dance class, in a black leotard, tights, and a short skirt. Her feet were turned out in the classic “ballerina” position-heels together, toes pointing away from the body. It ma de his back hurt just to look at them.

“And I’m too old for a baby-sitter,” she said, her voice low but filled with fury. “Just get me a driver and a car and I’ll be fine. Any car. A Town Car, even. I don’t need a limo.”

He adjusted the tie one last time and reached for his jacket. “Good to know that you’re so flexible, but I’m not getting you a car.”

“You don’t have to buy it, you could just rent it or something.”

“No.”

“I don’t want Doreen around here. She’s creepy.”

“Then you’re not going to ballet class, and you’re going to spend the day in my office because I’m not leaving you home by yourself.”

Kelly’s green eyes practically spit fire. “I knew you were going to say that,” she told him. “You’re so difficult. You never think about what’s right for me.”

If only, he thought grimly. “I think about that all the time. Unfortunately our definitions are different. If Doreen is abusive in any way, then I’ll not only fire her butt, I’ll have her arrested. Until then, you’re stuck, kid.”

“Why can’t Francesca take care of me? She’s totally cool.”

He thought so, too. Unfortunately between Kelly, his workload, and Francesca’s need to finish the outline for her dissertation, he’d only been able to see her a couple of times in the past week, and both of those had been at a dinner chaperoned by his daughter. Not exactly the romantic, sexy, sensual relationship he’d envisioned.

“Francesca has her own life. She’s given you more than enough of her time. I’m not going to ask her to cart you around.”

Kelly folded her arms over her chest. “This isn’t making me like you.”

He figured the fact that she hadn’t called him a bastard and run out of the room meant they were making progress.

“You’re not supposed to like me,” he said. “I’m your parent, not your friend.”

Her gaze narrowed. “You’ve been reading stuff, haven’t you. You didn’t come up with that sentence on your own.”

He was saved from answering by the sound of the doorbell. Doreen was downstairs and would probably answer it, but even so he walked through his bedroom into the hallway. He didn’t usually have visitors at nine in the morning.

Kelly pushed past him and raced down the stairs. She ran to the foyer and spoke to Doreen, who retreated to the kitchen. Francesca entered the house.

Sam’s initial reaction of pleasure turned to curiosity when he saw Kelly hug Francesca.

“You came,” his daughter said as he approached. “You have to save me.” She lowered her voice. “Doreen is awful!”

Curiosity turned to annoyance when he figured out his daughter had called in her version of the cavalry.

Francesca pulled one of Kelly’s red curls. “You barely know the woman.”

“She smells funny,” Kelly whispered.

The corner of Francesca’s mouth twitched. She glanced at Sam. “Ah, the executive look. The power suit is very flattering.”

“Unfortunately I don’t have much power in my own home.” He narrowed his gaze. “Kelly, did you call Francesca and ask her to take you to class?”

Teen-zilla rolled her eyes. “Well, duh. I can’t face a whole summer with her-” She pointed toward the kitchen. “I had to do something. I just knew you weren’t going to get me my own car.”

Francesca looked surprised. “You’re giving away cars? Can I put in my order? I’ve always wanted something flashy. In red or silver.”

“A convertible?” he asked.

“Oh, that would be nice.”

Kelly stamped her foot. “Would you two please pay attention to me. This is important.”

Sam ignored her and took Francesca’s arm. “Have you had coffee?”

“Yes, but I can always use more. I’m not really a morning person.”

“What are you doing?” Kelly asked in a shriek.

“Ignoring you until you can act like a civilized person,” Sam said.

“I’m civilized!” Kelly yelled. “I’m polite and well mannered and you’re just a stupid butthead.”

Sam turned back to Kelly. She stood with her hand over her mouth. At least she looked shocked.

“I guess you’re not going to have class today, huh?” he said quietly.

She dropped her hand, opened her mouth, closed it, then burst into tears. Seconds later she was running up the stairs, sobbing as if her heart would break.

Sam sighed. “I know you said to be patient, but nothing about this is easy.”

Francesca squeezed his arm. “I’m sorry. Things were going so well last week.”

“Probably because Kelly was getting her way. She’s one determined kid.”

They walked into the kitchen. Doreen sat at the table, reading the paper. She looked up at them and smiled.

“Good morning, Mr. Reese.”

“Doreen. This is my friend, Francesca.”

The nanny nodded pleasantly. “Is Kelly about ready to leave? I know she doesn’t like to be late for her class.”

“She won’t be going today. She needs to learn to control her temper.”

Doreen nodded. “She’s at that age, Mr. Reese. They get human again in a few years.”

Sam wondered if he would survive. He poured two mugs of coffee.

“I would like Kelly to stay around the house today so she can think about what went wrong this morning. Tomorrow she’ll be heading back to class. As those are only in the morning, feel free to take her shopping or to the movies in the afternoon.”

Doreen nodded. “Certainly.”

She spoke pleasantly enough, but Sam had the idea that hanging out with a twelve-year-old at the mall wasn’t Doreen’s idea of a good time.

He and Francesca took their coffee onto the deck. Sam was careful to shut the French doors behind them.

“I don’t think Doreen likes children that much,” he said.

“She’s probably more into babies,” Francesca said. “Plus, Kelly can be a handful.”

“She swears she’s being pleasant to Doreen, and when I’ve asked, there haven’t been any complaints. I don’t know.” He sipped his coffee.

Francesca leaned close. “I know you’re going to hate me for siding with your daughter, but, Sam, the woman smells.”

He groaned. “Great. So I have to find someone else.”

“That’s your call.” She leaned back in the wooden chair. “It’s just too bad Kelly can’t get into some summer programs and meet kids her own age. Has she made any friends at her dance class?”

“A couple. She went home with one Friday afternoon. I guess it went well. The mother wasn’t screaming when I picked Kelly up.”

“That’s something.”

“My daughter can be pleasant when she chooses to be, but the rest of the time, she’s a complete…”

Francesca looked at him. “Are you editing?”

“Yes. You’d be shocked if you knew what I was thinking.”

Francesca grinned. “I doubt that. For what it’s worth, I think you’re doing a terrific job.”

“Thanks. It means a lot.”

He smiled at her, taking in her long thick hair, and the tank top and shorts. She was sexy, pretty, intelligent, and caring. Talk about a tempting package. He’d met a lot of lying, cheating, using women in his life, and she was nothing like them.

“I have my grandfather to thank for you,” he said. “All those years he pounded good manners into me. They finally paid off.”

She raised her eyebrows. “What are you talking about?”

“If I hadn’t stopped to help you that day you were in the building, we never would have met.”

“You could try telling Kelly that story,” she said. “Maybe it would convince her manners have merit.”

“I doubt it.” He brushed his fingers against her bare arm. “I’ve missed you.”

“Me, too.”

“Want to have a sleepover?”

“More than you know, but what about Kelly?”

“Are you interested in sneaking around?”

One corner of her mouth twitched. “I’ve never done it before. Is it fun?”

“I’ve heard it’s exciting and erotic.”

She laughed. “You wouldn’t happen to know this from personal experience, would you?”

“Me?” He pretended shock. “I don’t do that sort of thing. I’m an upfront guy.” He leaned toward her and brushed her mouth with his. “Kelly’s usually in bed by ten.”

“I’ll be at your front door at eleven,” Francesca said.

His blood surged at the thought. “I can’t wait.”

“You can’t,” Sam said sometime close to two in the morning.

Francesca stretched out next to him, her bare leg brushing against his. “Of course I can. I want to. There’s no way you’re going to get anyone new for a couple of weeks. Tell Kelly she only has to deal with Doreen full time this week. The Fourth is Friday and that’s a holiday. Next week I’ll take her Tuesday and Thursday. I’m sure Doreen will appreciate the break, as will your daughter.”

He rose on one elbow and stared into Francesca’s green eyes. “What do you get out of it?”

“I like Kelly. She’s fun.” She pressed her lips together. “When she’s not being a pain.”

“What about your dissertation?”

She ran her hand along his back. “You are looking at the author of a completed outline. So there!”

He was torn between offering her money and telling her she didn’t owe him anything.

“I want to,” she told him. “Just be gracious and say yes. Or better yet, show your gratitude in a more carnal way. Be inventive. Startle me with-”

She shrieked as he suddenly flipped her onto her stomach. “What are you doing?” she asked, her voice muffled by the pillow.

He nipped at her backside. “Being inventive.”

* * *

Francesca hummed through her morning. She’d been up most of the night, her insides felt mushy and sore, and she couldn’t be happier. Sam Reese was a man who knew his way around a woman’s body. Contentment didn’t begin to describe the feeling of well-being that swept through her.

She pulled her date book out of her purse and flipped through the pages. If she was going to take Kelly for a couple of days for the next week or so, she needed to schedule writing time on her dissertation. An outline was one thing, but actually getting all the information together and processing it was something else.

She penciled in several blocks of time, then flipped back to check the dates of her experiments. The one in Sam’s building had been just over three weeks ago, and the one before had been five weeks ago and-

Francesca frowned as she stared at the small three-dimensional box she’d drawn by the date two days after the experiment at the old mission. She’d been in a wheelchair that time, tormenting tourists. And two days later she’d gotten her period.

She flipped back a month. There was the little box indicating her start date, then she flipped forward. No box. Not even the hint of a box. She slammed the date book shut.

No way, she thought, trying to avoid panic. Not possible. They’d used a condom. Every single time. She knew. She’d been there.

Three hours later she stared at the plus sign on the slender stick. Her mind was blank. She couldn’t think, couldn’t breathe, couldn’t believe.

This wasn’t happening, she told herself. It couldn’t be. She absolutely could not be pregnant.

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