10

Zach arrived at the Marcelli hacienda shortly before five. The house calls were killing his billable hours, but he willingly accepted that. After all, there was a greater good to consider. Besides, he could feel time ticking away. It had been six weeks since David and Mia had announced their engagement. Six weeks during which he’d made little progress toward breaking up the happy couple.

A recent spat between them had given him hope, but David had called to tell him they’d made up. Katie had yet to see the light, and he found himself spending as much time thinking about getting her into bed as getting her on his side.

Brenna was a potential ally, but she was too caught up in her own personal grief to be of much help. So despite a plan to find a fellow dissenter in the enemy camp, he was still on his own.

He parked and collected his paperwork, then walked to the front door of the hacienda. Brenna met him there, looking dark-eyed and tragic. Despite her olive complexion, she appeared pale. Shadows stained the skin under her eyes, and there were new lines by the corners of her mouth. Divorce did not agree with her.

“Thanks for coming,” she said as she stepped back to invite him into the house. “I know I really need to start driving down to L.A., but right now that seems like an impossible task.”

“You haven’t been back to the apartment to collect your belongings?”

She gave a strangled laugh. “What is there to collect? Some old clothes and costume jewelry?”

“Stereo, television, a clock radio, whatever was yours to begin with.”

She frowned slightly. “I hadn’t thought of it that way, but you have a point. I guess I should force myself to check out the place. I can’t imagine Jeff would do anything to my things, but then I never thought he’d want a divorce, either.”

He’d heard of a whole lot worse. “If you find anything missing, I’ll need a complete inventory of what’s not there. Wanting to end the marriage doesn’t give him the right to destroy your personal property.”

She nodded listlessly, as if the entire process would take more energy than she had, then pointed to the living room.

“Do you want to work in there?”

“Somewhere with a table would be better.”

He had plenty of papers for her to review and some news that wasn’t going to brighten her day. It would piss off the family, as well.

Brenna led the way into the kitchen. Zach was surprised to find it bustling with activity. The taller of the two grandmothers-Tessa, he thought-stirred something at the stove, while Mary-Margaret O’Shea kneaded bread dough. Neither woman noticed them.

Grammy M, as Katie called her, used her forearm to brush back a loose curl. “I’ll be needin’ the oven, Tessa. When I’ve finished with the bread, the sweet rolls will be wantin’ to bake.”

Grandma Tessa peered at the temperature setting. “It’s ready now.” She started to say something else, but spotted him and Brenna instead. “Zach, how good to see you.”

She abandoned her efforts at the stove and hurried toward him. Between his briefcase and the stack of files he carried, he didn’t have a free hand. Not that he would be able to ward off her enthusiastic greeting. He was summarily hugged, patted, and cheek-pinched. Grammy M-so tiny she barely came up to his chest-followed, although she only squeezed his arm instead of his cheek. They both spoke at once, one offering tea, the other Italian cookies, or maybe a nice dish of pasta. The combination of warm Italian staccato and lilting Irish brogue should have jarred his ears, but he’d grown used to the odd melody.

“Nothing for me, thanks. I’m fine,” he said, depositing his briefcase in a chair and his files on the table.

They both ignored his statement. Within a minute a steaming cup of tea had been set at the head of the table and right next to it was a plate piled high with cookies. A mug of tea was pressed into Brenna’s hands. She cradled it as she took a seat next to his. Zach settled into the chair obviously assigned to him and reached for his paperwork.

Grandma Tessa and Grammy M hovered by the table. He glanced at the bread dough now resting in a covered bowl, then at the stove. Nothing else appeared to be cooking. And whatever Grammy M had put in the oven was there to stay for a while. He hesitated, not used to conducting business with an audience, but Brenna didn’t seem to notice. Finally he glanced at his client.

“Will we be in the way here? Should we move to another room?”

Brenna roused herself enough to shake her head. “I like the emotional hand-holding. Besides, they’re going to find out everything anyway,” she said quietly. “Having the Grands here will mean two less tellings of the story. You’re lucky the whole family isn’t attending.” She glanced at her watch. “Katie’s not coming because she’s busy with work, but Francesca should be here any minute. Not that we have to wait for her. I didn’t tell Mia because she’s busy with finals this week and I didn’t want to upset her.”

He had a couple of socialite clients who brought their rat dogs to meetings, and a famous actor who traveled everywhere with a publicist, business manager, and assistant, but very few people had a familial entourage. Somehow he thought the Grands were going to be a whole lot more helpful to Brenna than a pet or a personal assistant.

Zach was about to begin when Colleen Marcelli walked into the kitchen.

“Have I missed anything?” she asked, moving first to her daughter, where she bent low and kissed her cheek, then to Zach. She lightly touched his shoulder and gave him a warm smile before taking the seat across from Brenna and settling in to listen.

“We’re just starting,” Brenna said.

Colleen nodded. She was a well-dressed woman in her mid-forties, although she looked much younger. She’d inherited her mother’s blue eyes, along with Grammy M’s delicate build.

“I thought it best not to include your father,” she said, nodding when Grammy M offered tea. “You know how much he can yell. Marco and your grandfather are already talking about altering Jeff’s manhood-such as it is.” She sighed. “I didn’t think any of us needed to hear the details again.”

“I’d rather not,” Brenna said ruefully. “Everyone welcomed him into the family when I married him, but now all I hear is how you all had your suspicions.”

Colleen nodded sympathetically. She stretched her hand across the table to squeeze her daughter’s arm. Zach waited it all out. He was used to emotional clients-sobbing, even fits of rage weren’t uncommon in his line of work. Compared with that, a quiet, rational family looking on was no big deal.

He cleared his throat, but before he could speak, Grammy M put a cup of tea in front of her daughter, then took a seat at the table. Grandma Tessa did the same, but instead of liquid refreshment, she brought a basket with her. He eyed the container, wondering what on earth they could be planning-and then he knew.

Sure enough, lace flowers were passed around. Bowls of beads and seed pearls were set in the center of the table, and all the women, even Brenna, started sewing.

Light caught the tiny beads. Female fingers worked with a sure swiftness that came from hours of practice. Zach didn’t want to think about what the lace was for, so he returned his attention to the business at hand-namely Brenna’s divorce-and sorted through the files he’d brought.

He glanced at her. “Take a deep breath and relax,” he said gently. “Most of what we have to discuss is fairly standard. The only unusual issue to turn up so far is that Jeff is claiming half of your share of the winery.”

He braced himself as he spoke, knowing he’d just dropped a bomb on the entire family. As expected, conversation exploded around him. He didn’t bother to compete, instead letting them express their outrage. Grandma Tessa sprang to her feet and announced that her late father-inlaw (God rest his soul) had started the winery, breaking the ground with his own bare hands, and no lying, cheating-She began muttering in Italian. Grammy M’s eyes narrowed in an expression of fury that made Zach want to inch away. Colleen looked just as ready to skin Brenna’s soon-to-be ex-husband, while Brenna simply appeared stunned.

When the talk died down, he turned his attention to his client. “This is a ploy. Jeff and his lawyer want to distract us from the real issue-namely how long you supported Jeff through his medical training. Any inheritance you received wouldn’t be considered community property unless it was commingled in some kind of joint account, with joint funds.”

“That bastard,” Brenna snapped. “He never cared about the winery. I’m the one who has always loved it. I gave it up for him and this is my reward?”

“This is a divorce,” Zach told her. “Fair or right doesn’t enter into it. This is all about money. Unfortunately, fighting his claim is going to chew up a lot. Was there an inheritance?”

“Not a penny,” she said flatly. “Nothing has been turned over to me, and unless Grandpa Lorenzo has changed his will, nothing ever will be.” Her mouth twisted. “He’s giving up on a male grandson and holding out for a male great-grandson.”

Grammy M leaned close. “Darlin’ Brenna, don’t you worry about this. The little ferret won’t be gettin’ so much as a single grape from this place.”

Brenna nodded at her grandmother. “I know, but I can’t believe he’s doing this.”

“As I said, Jeff wants to divert our attention from the real issue. I’m not going to let that happen. I’ll let his attorney know there wasn’t any kind of inheritance. He’ll push back. Be prepared for that, but don’t worry about it. I’ll handle it. If that’s the best they’ve got, we’re in the clear.”

He picked up a second folder. “Our attention will be focused on the fact that you supported your husband through medical school, his internship and residency, as well as paying off debt he accumulated before the marriage. The precedence for you to receive compensation is very strong. We have some tables that show-”

The back door opened. A blond-haired woman in jeans walked into the kitchen. She was tall and slender, but that wasn’t what caught his attention. Instead it was the tattoos covering nearly every inch of exposed skin. There was even a small blue star by the corner of her right eye, just under the silver ring piercing her eyebrow.

The young woman laughed, then planted her hands on her hips. “Obviously it’s working. Hello! It’s me.”

The grandmothers laughed, while Colleen rose to embrace the young woman. Brenna set down her sewing and studied the visitor.

“I thought the fat suit was next,” she said.

“It was, but then I saw this guy with tattoos and it gave me an idea.”

Grandma Tessa sighed heavily and dug in her pocket for her rosary. “For this God gave you the face of an angel? Did you color your hair? Francesca, it was so beautiful.”

Zach blinked. Francesca? He tried to reconcile the tattooed woman in front of him with the sister he remembered. He supposed the shape of her face was familiar.

Brenna leaned toward him. “I know it’s strange, but you’ll get used to it. Francesca is studying social psychology. Her doctorate explores how people react to appearance. She spends her day shocking people.”

Zach shook his head. “She’s good at it.”

Francesca finished assuring both her grandmothers that the blond hair was just a wig. She poured herself some coffee from a pot on the counter, then sat next to her mother and reached for a lace flower.

“So what’s up?” she asked.

“Jeff wants a share of the winery,” Brenna told her sister.

Francesca’s mouth dropped open. “That pissant, pinheaded, sleazeball.”

Grandma Tessa gave her granddaughter a warning glance. “God listens to everything you say.”

“Is he listening to Jeff’s lies, too?” Francesca slapped her hands against the table. “I can’t believe this!”

“Me, either,” Brenna said. “I shouldn’t have said no when you told me we should have him killed.” She shook her head at both her grandmothers. “Just kidding. Sort of.”

Zach waded into the fray. “Jeff is going to have to pay up, ladies. Let’s keep the big picture in mind. The best way to get his attention is through his wallet.”

He picked up the financial table he’d been holding and turned it toward Brenna. “This gives you an idea of how much of his income is up for grabs. You weren’t married long enough to cross the ten-year threshold. That’s the point at which you can petition for alimony for the rest of your life.”

“Not my style,” Brenna told him. “I want him to suffer, but I’m not going to sit on my butt.”

“Good. The court will see it the same way. You’re young and capable. They’ll expect you to want to make something of your life. Marrying a jerk doesn’t entitle you to a lifetime of support. However, the state believes that everything should be divided equally. And there is the matter of you supporting Jeff.” He laid the financial paper aside. “It would help if you had some kind of plan, Brenna.”

“Such as?”

“Goals for the future. A sense of what you want to do with your life. If you wanted to go to college or start a business, Jeff would most likely be required to ante up for some or all of that.”

She nodded. “I’ll come up with something.”

“I think you should. In the meantime, you need to get back into the apartment and collect your things. Make a list of everything that’s missing. Did you get the information on your checking account?”

“No.”

Colleen looked up, but didn’t say anything. Grammy M clucked sympathetically.

“Please check the current balance. Also, let me know what it was when you left. Oh, and would you get me a copy of your apartment lease?”

She nodded.

He handed her several papers he needed her to fill out.

“That’s about it,” he said. “Unless you have any questions?”

“Not really.”

“Then I’ll talk to you in a couple of days.”

He started to put his folders back in order.

Grandma Tessa rose instantly. “Are you hungry? We’ll be having dinner soon. You’ll stay, yes?”

“I have to get back to Los Angeles,” he said, a little surprised that he felt something close to regret. The idea of eating with the Marcellis, of spending the evening with them, wasn’t unpleasant.

If not for David wanting to marry Mia, Zach would be pleased to hang out with the Marcelli clan.

“Then at least stay long enough to eat some of the cookies,” Colleen said. “My mother will be crushed if you don’t.”

He nodded because it seemed easier to give in than fight. Grammy M rushed to get him more tea, while Francesca rose to check on the delicious-smelling baked goods in the oven.

Grandma Tessa continued her beadwork. “Katie called yesterday. She’s working very hard on that fund-raiser for your law firm.”

Zach shook his head. They were charming women, but not the least bit subtle. “She’s a hard worker.”

“Pretty, too,” Grammy M offered from her place by the stove.

“Very pretty.” Very sexy.

“Have you been seeing a lot of her?” Colleen asked.

He thought about the kiss in the garden. Not as much of her as he would like, but he wasn’t going to complain to her mother. “We had a business meeting last week.”

Colleen’s mouth settled in a straight line. “Just a business meeting? Nothing more…personal?”

“No. Sorry.”

He finished the cookie and rose to make his escape, before they started on a web for him. “Ladies, this has been terrific, but I have to head back to the city.”

It took at least ten minutes to make his way out of the house. After he’d stowed his files and briefcase, he settled behind the wheel and started the engine.

They were good, honest people who didn’t have a clue about how financially vulnerable they were. To them, life was a sitcom. Easy problems wrapped up in twenty-two minutes. If Brenna hadn’t inherited anything, then Jeff was out of luck. But what if she had? And what about the next Marcelli daughter who married? From where he was sitting he could see acres of vineyards stretching in every direction. Now the thick stalks were gray and wizened, but come spring…

He realized he didn’t know what they would look like, come spring, but he could imagine. Each vine heavy with grapes. Grapes later transformed into wine. The Marcelli Winery was world famous. The family’s wealth made David’s trust fund seem insignificant.

They were all so gung ho on the wedding, but no one thought about what could happen after. There hadn’t been a word of talk about a prenuptial agreement. They were too busy beading lace and spinning a web that could trap them all.

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