She looked like hell, which suited her mood because she felt like hell. Whoever said change was good was either an idiot or had never been through a divorce. She alternated between blinding rage and numbing depression-not that she liked either state. She wanted to feel normal again.
She wanted not to be fighting with Katie.
She still felt badly about what had happened last week. While she didn’t agree with her sister’s stand, she understood
The truth was, she missed her sister, and now that Francesca had contacted Jeff and arranged to meet him, Brenna
Rather than dwell on the mess that was her life, Brenna raised her face toward the sun and breathed in the sweet spring air. It was May-a busy month at the vineyard. Training had begun a week ago in the southernmost fields.
Speaking of which…she squatted down to examine the vines more closely, then fingered the sturdy plant. Already green leaves covered all the new growth and much of the old. Tiny clusters of flowers danced in the afternoon breeze. Green tendrils found their way toward the sun.
“Not for long,” she said, tugging on one tendril, then pulling it free of the stem.
Training the vines was both an art and a science. Each plant produced an excess of leaves, flowers, and new growth. Skilled workers came through and stripped off what wasn’t needed, leaving the most healthy and strong growth to produce the best grapes. If too much was removed, the harvest would be small and disappointing. Not enough removed, and the grapes wouldn’t grow and ripen as well as they could. Sun and air needed to flow through the vineyard, rolling across like a wave from the sea.
Brenna straightened and arched her aching back. They were well into their first week of training, and she had the sore muscles to prove it. The ache was like an old friend-almost forgotten, but still a bit of a lingering memory. She knew that Grandpa Lorenzo had insisted on the manual labor to test her determination. Brenna wasn’t worried; she refused to fail.
She touched another leaf. Here in the southern part of central California, frost wasn’t an issue, but it could cause damage in their northern vineyards. Every day she spoke to the managers there as she slowly returned to the rhythm of the vineyards.
She headed toward the property line. For the past couple of weeks she walked a different portion of the land to refamiliarize herself with what had once been her entire world. When she allowed herself to consider all she’d lost by marrying Jeff, she wanted to raise her fists to the sky and demand justice. Unfortunately she had no one to blame but herself. She had chosen what seemed like the safe path because any other was out of the question. Unfortunately she’d chosen a selfish man who had taken advantage of her devotion and left her with nothing to show for giving away her very soul.
She reached the edge of the property and checked on the railings. The posts sat securely in the ground. She was about to return to the east fields when she saw someone walking toward her. Someone on the
She wanted to run for cover for a number of reasons, one of which being that she was dressed like a day hire, the second being the fact that she’d gained five pounds in the past six or seven weeks. The combination of self-pity and the Grands’ cooking had done nothing good for her hips and thighs.
The third and perhaps most important reason was that he was the last person on the planet she wanted to see when she wasn’t at her best.
But there was no way she could escape. Not without seeming like an idiot. Brenna figured she’d done enough of that in the past nine years without continuing the pattern. So she squared her shoulders, took a breath for luck, and turned to face the man her grandfather thought of as the devil incarnate.
Nicholas Giovanni. Nic to his friends.
At one time Brenna had known him well enough to call him Nic. She’d called him a lot of other things, too, depending on her mood and the circumstances. Sometimes he’d laughed, sometimes they’d fought, and sometimes they’d simply lost themselves in sensual lovemaking that had left them both breathless.
The sun was in her eyes, making it difficult to see details. She saw a tall, powerful silhouette walking toward her. The man from her past had always dominated the landscape. Too arrogant, too handsome, too many things. It was pathetic to think that at the ripe old age of twenty-seven there had only been two men in her life. She really needed to get out more.
She hadn’t seen Nic in nine years, and she didn’t doubt time had been kind to him. Sure enough, as he approached, she saw that he looked good enough to be served with marinara and some fresh focaccia bread.
The passing years had added a few lines around his dark brown eyes, which only made them more appealing when they crinkled as he smiled that easy smile that had once kept her up nights. Stubble darkened his jaw, making him look dangerous and incredibly sexy. His clothes were as worn as hers, but somehow they looked better on him. Wasn’t that always the way?
“I heard you were back,” he announced when he came to a stop by the fence that separated their property.
That was it-five words and a welcoming smile. As if he wasn’t angry. As if the past didn’t matter. And then she realized it probably didn’t. Based on Jeff’s treatment of her, she hadn’t made an impact on him, and they’d been married for years. Why would she have been more than an uninteresting blip on Nic’s radar screen?
“I’m working the vines,” she said, because saying
Her mind whirled around a couple more times before she decided to face things head on and blurted, “I’m getting a divorce.”
Nic’s steady gaze never left her face, which was a good thing, because she could feel every one of those additional five pounds clinging to her thighs like Francesca’s padding. Unfortunately her padding didn’t unzip and was probably there to stay.
“I heard. I’m sorry.”
“Are you?” she asked before she could stop herself.
“Sure. Why wouldn’t I be?”
Of course, she thought, wanting to smack herself in the head. After all this time, why would Nic give a damn?
“It’s going to be a good year,” he said. “We’re expecting our largest harvest ever.”
“Still in the volume business, Nic?” She mentally winced. Okay, she’d just turned into a bitch queen. Time to tone it down.
His dark eyes narrowed slightly. “We’re still in the
Her worry, depression, and ill-temper faded. No need to tone it down. Not if Nic was going to fight back.
“Elitist?” she repeated. “You’re proud of the
“In the end it will come down to economic survival. I’m confident of mine. What about you?”
“Oh, you’ll survive. Some people will even like what you produce. But you’ll never make anything special or significant. What you have is mass produced with so much mechanization that the grapes can go from bud to bottle without being touched by a single hand. Kind of like making a cola drink.”
He took a step toward her. Tension crackled in the air. “The Hendersons are throwing in the towel. I bought them out last week.”
She hadn’t known. Regret filled her. As much as she hated to admit it, Nic was right. The economic climate was changing. Small vineyards were being lost, or bought up.
“Like a circling vulture looking for carrion,” she said easily. “Are you going to keep the grapes or replant? You need the Cab Franc for blending,” she continued before he could speak. “Of course, their vineyards aren’t as tidy as yours. You might actually have to send people in to pick the grapes.” She gasped and pressed her hands to her chest. “Whatever will happen to that so important bottom line?”
His dark gaze never left her face. Brenna waited for the snappy comeback. Arguing with Nic left her feeling more energized than she had in weeks. Funny how despite the years they’d been apart, their ability to drive each other crazy hadn’t changed.
But instead of taking the bait, he simply shook his head. “I thought you might have mellowed.”
“Not even close. You haven’t, either.”
He shrugged. “Maybe not, but I’m a lot richer.”
She didn’t doubt that. In the past nine years Nic had taken Wild Sea into the stratosphere. In the same amount of time she’d worked at a series of tedious jobs and a bad marriage. How depressing.
“Rich enough to be a contender,” he added.
“All this.” He jerked his head toward the Marcelli Vineyards.
“You’re crazy. My grandfather would never sell to you.”
Nic shrugged. “Maybe not, but word on the street is, he’s going to sell to someone.”
Brenna stalked into the main offices of the winery and headed for her grandfather’s office. She found the old man sitting behind his desk, studying an order form.
“Nic Giovanni says you’re going to sell the winery,” she announced.
Her grandfather looked up slowly. “What are you doing talking with him?”
“I was walking the fence line, he was doing the same. We met, we talked, he said you were selling. Is it true?”
He had to tell her no, she thought desperately. The winery was the only thing left in her world that mattered. Okay, yes, there was family, but she was talking about work. About losing herself in something she’d always loved.
“You can’t,” she told him when he didn’t speak. “This is a part of all of us.”
He shook his head. “Don’t listen to everything you hear, Brenna. Nicholas Giovanni is our enemy. He only wants to hurt you.”
His phone rang and when he reached for the receiver, Brenna knew he’d said as much as he was going to. She turned and left.
She wanted to take his reassurances to heart. Marcelli Wines was her grandfather’s life. He would never abandon all that he’d worked for. And she supposed a case could be made that Nic was the enemy.
Except he’d never cared about the feud. They’d had that in common. And he’d never been vindictive-even when no one could have blamed him.
Nine years ago she’d promised to love him forever. Yet when he’d proposed she’d walked away from him. Within six months she’d been married to Jeff. Was that why Nic had said the winery was for sale?
Surely he wouldn’t carry a grudge all this time. Why would her childish actions still matter? She didn’t doubt he was more than capable of making up a story about her grandfather selling, just to upset her, but only with good reason. And she couldn’t think of a single one.
So somebody was lying. Either Nic or her grandfather. Which left her with two questions: Which one? And why?
“Okay, but what about when the state gets involved, eliminating voters supposedly for legal reasons, but really to make sure the election goes the way the party in power wants?” Carol Rumstead asked. As she spoke, she flipped her long dark hair out of her eyes.
Mia exchanged a look of frustration with her friend Tina. Every time they discussed campaign reform, Carol brought up the exact same issues. It was so incredibly boring.
She was saved from having to make a response by a quick knock on her front door. She was halfway across the living room when the door opened and David stepped inside.
“Hey,” he said, crossing to her and giving her a kiss. “What’s going on?”
She accepted the kiss, but barely. “My poli sci study group is having a meeting. I told you.”
David frowned. “No, you didn’t.” He glanced at his watch and frowned. “It’s nearly seven. We talked about going to a movie tonight.”
“Did we? Gee, I guess I forgot.” She glanced over her shoulder at the small group sprawled across her sofa and love seat, then drew him into the kitchen.
“You never forget stuff like that,” David said as he leaned against the counter. “Mia, you’ve been acting strange lately. What’s up?”
“I don’t know. I guess I’m really busy. Why don’t you take someone else to the movies?”
“What? I don’t have anyone to go with.”
“Really?” Annoyance turned to anger. She folded her arms over her chest. “That’s not what I heard. Let me give you a word of advice, David. When you’re engaged, it’s a really stupid idea to take another girl to a club and then spend the entire night trying to suck out her tonsils. People talk. Word gets around. It gets back to me.”
David flushed but didn’t retreat. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. There’s no other girl.”
“So this Julie person is just a close friend?”
“We hang out.”
He was so lying, she couldn’t believe it. “Just get out of here. I don’t want to talk to you right now.”
His face paled. “Mia, no. We have to talk. I love you.”
She could feel the warm gold of her engagement ring. As she turned it and squeezed her hand closed, the small diamond cut into her palm.
“This isn’t my definition of love.”
He looked at her for a long time, then shook his head. “You’re wrong about me. I love you more than you’ll ever know.”
Nice words, she thought, trying to harden her heart to them. The problem was, even though he’d acted like an ass, she still cared about him. She wanted to forgive him. But wanting and being able to were two different things.
He walked out of the kitchen. Seconds later the front door opened, then closed. Mia dropped her head and told herself to let it go for now. She would take some time and think about what she wanted, then meet with David again. Together they would come to some rational, logical decision.
Which sounded good, but didn’t do a thing for the knot in her stomach and the ache in her heart. First Jeff had cheated on Brenna and now David had cheated on her. Were all men lying weasel dogs?
Fifty hours until show time, Katie thought as she walked through the main ballroom of the hotel. The tables were in place, but not set. The tents were up, as were the game booths. She had already toured the gardens, which were in perfect shape. The morning of the party, the gardeners would give the area a once-over, tidying any wayward bushes, sweeping the paths and raking the leaves.
She compared the table layout with the master diagram on her clipboard and carefully counted. Exactly right, she thought when she finished. The decorations were in place, the lighting had been fixed so that no one had to suffer with a spotlight in his or her eyes. The stage had been pushed into the corner and the various bands and musical groups had been confirmed. Check, check, and triple check.
She walked toward the kitchens to go over the food one more time. She pushed open one of the swinging double doors and found most of the kitchen staff gathered around three large workstations. All the head chefs were there, as were their assistants.
Jerome looked up and saw her. “Katie!” he said with delight. “Always compulsively thorough.” He pressed his hands to his chest. “Worry shortens the life.”
“I worry so my clients don’t have to. In my line of work,
He nodded to one of the other chefs and moved toward her. “All right. I’ll volunteer to go through the food with you before you even ask me,” he said, taking her arm. “How’s that?”
“Very nice of you. Most brilliant chefs are far more temperamental.”
“I know. My goodness is a curse. People take advantage of me.”
“And then you threaten them with a deboning knife.” She glanced back at the crowd of kitchen workers. “What’s going on here? You haven’t booked another big event, have you? Jerome, there’s not room for-”
He plucked a perfect strawberry from a tray and pressed it between her lips.
“Eat,” he commanded. “And don’t worry. There are no other parties scheduled until Sunday afternoon, and by then you’ll be long gone. This tonight”-he motioned to the collection of people gathered around the work tables-“is our menu tasting. We’re working on developing some new dishes for the hotel’s fine dining room. I like to get opinions from all the staff before making the final decision.”
“More than okay. We’ll be so inspired by our tasting that for the next forty-eight hours, we’ll work feverishly to make your party brilliant.”
“It’s getting a little deep in here, Jerome, and I’m wearing open-toed shoes.”
He laughed, took her free hand in his, and kissed her fingers.
She followed him to the huge refrigerators. He opened several doors, showing her trays of meat waiting to be cut into the right size for grilling on skewers. Two more refrigerators contained the vegetables, as well as fruits for chocolate dipping. Against the far wall, seven-foot dollies held trays to deliver the various courses. In the pantry the chocolates from around the world were waiting to be cut into chunks suitable for melting, while several hundred fondue pots were stacked on more dollies.
“The wine has been pulled from the cellar,” he said. “The hard liquor will be delivered in the morning.” He cupped her chin, squeezed, then released her. “Fear not, bright angel. Nothing will go wrong. I promise to make your party perfect.”
“I appreciate that,” she told him. “I do my best to stay calm before big events, but this one is downright huge. I want to make it a success.”
“We both have a lot on the line. I won’t let you down, my darling girl.” He grinned. “Now, is there any way I can convince you to join us for the tasting? I promise you, the food is amazing.”
“No, thanks.” She tapped her clipboard. “I have four million lists to make.”
“Try to get some sleep in the next couple of days. You want to be beautiful for your client.”
“I’ll do my best. Thanks for everything.”
She closed the cover on her clipboard and waved goodbye as she headed back for the kitchen. She made her way to her car. There was nothing more to be done tonight. In the morning there was a whole new to-do list, phone calls, and the beginning of the countdown. In the morning it would be less than thirty-six hours until show time.
Francesca entered the popular West Side eatery shortly after seven in the evening. In honor of her meeting with Jeff, she’d pulled out one of the only two nice outfits she owned, a sleeveless summery linen dress with a matching short jacket. Forty-five minutes and a very interesting conversation with a man named Earl at a survivalist-spy store in the San Fernando Valley had steered her toward the lightweight personal recorder she’d tucked into her purse. She’d pinned the tiny, voice-activated remote microphone to the neck of her dress, where it was concealed by the edge of the jacket.
Earl had promised three hours of recording time, given her tips on increasing clarity, and offered to help her put on the microphone. She’d refused the latter.
Now, as she made her way through the crowded bar, she tried to convince herself that this was just another one of her psychology experiments. Her entire purpose was to see how someone responded to her, based on appearance. But instead of dressing in a fat suit, or like the great tattooed lady, she was a slightly vampy version of herself.
She’d suffered through an entire day of rollers to get her long hair to cascade in thick curls. Makeup accentuated her green eyes, lip liner made her mouth look bigger, and she’d enhanced her natural assets with a push-up bra.
All a disguise, she thought, trying not to feel sick to her stomach. What had seemed like a great idea at the time, was becoming more and more problematic. Had Katie been right? Should she and Brenna have thought this through more?
Before she could decide, she spotted Jeff at a table by the window. He saw her as well, stood and waved. She waved back and walked through the crowd.
She hadn’t seen her brother-in-law since Christmas. He was still pleasant-looking with sandy-colored hair and pale blue eyes. The mustache was new, as was the absence of a wedding band. Only a couple of inches taller than her own five feet nine, Jeff wasn’t a big guy. With her wearing heels, they were the same height.
“Francesca,” he said, sounding delighted. “I’m so pleased you called.”
She forced herself to take the hands he offered and squeeze them. When he leaned close, she did the same and let him kiss her cheek. The light contact made her skin crawl.
“It’s been way too long since I’ve seen you,” she said, sliding into the seat across from him and smiling. “Okay, you and Brenna are splitting up, but after having you as a part of the family for nine years, I didn’t want to let you walk away without saying something.”
“My feelings exactly.”
The waitress appeared. Francesca ordered white wine. When they were alone, she smiled at Jeff. “How’s business?”
“Great. Frantic, but I’m learning more every day. There are amazing advances in cardiac medicine. The practice is one of the biggest on the West Side. All those lawyers and movie producers. Excellent insurance.”
“It’s important to get paid,” she agreed.
His pale eyebrows rose slightly. “Was that a crack?”
No, but she wouldn’t mind thwacking him over the head with a heavy book. “What? Oh, sorry.” She smiled. “No. Of course not. You know me-I can’t ever be subtle. Besides, I’m still a struggling grad student. I’m impressed by those who can make the big bucks.” She leaned toward him. “You worked hard, Jeff. All those years of study and the long hours. You deserve your success.”
He relaxed and patted her hand. “Thanks. I’m glad you understand. I figured the entire family would be talking about hiring someone to rub me out.”
“My grandfather maybe, but the rest of us understand.”
“Sure. I mean, I really love my sister, but she’s not the easiest person in the world to get along with.” Francesca gave a laugh. “I shared a room with her for eighteen years. I know what I’m talking about.”
The waitress appeared with her wine, which was really lucky because Francesca was close to gagging. She’d always liked Jeff, but those feelings had faded. Now she thought he was smarmy and self-important.
She sipped her wine, then stared deeply into his eyes. “Are you doing okay?”
“No. I mean…really. I’ve been worried about you.”
Jeff’s pale eyes brightened. “So you haven’t written me off?”
“Of course not. We’ve always had a special relationship.” She swallowed hard. “Like brother and sister.”
She carefully put her hand back on the table, palm down. Jeff covered it with his. She managed not to jerk away.
“More than that,” he said.
She wanted to gag. She wanted to throw her drink in his face. Instead she sighed softly.
“So how’s your love life?” he asked.
“Pathetic.” At least that much was true. “Between school and teaching and studying, I don’t get out much. That’s why I’m really excited you wanted to see me tonight.”
His thumb moved across the back of her hand. “You should come down to L.A. more often. We could hang out.”
“I wouldn’t want to get in the way.”
“You could never do that.” He stared at her. “Francesca, you’re so beautiful. I might have been married to Brenna, but that didn’t stop me from looking.”
Oh, man. She could feel his slime oozing across the table. Blech. This was disgusting. She swallowed the need to spit, and smiled instead. “At me? But I’m so skinny and awkward. Brenna was always the Earth Mother. Those damn curves of hers. I wanted what she had.”
Francesca wished she could fake a blush, but she didn’t know how. Instead she straightened and pulled her hand free. “Jeff, I heard you’re seeing someone. I’m not the kind of woman who gets involved with taken guys.”
“I’m not taken,” he said easily.
“But Brenna said there was someone else.”
He shrugged. “I date. There’s no one special in my life.”
She happened to know he was living with the bimbo, but she wasn’t about to let him know.
“Oh. Wow. That’s…interesting.”
She heard the hook snap as he took the bait. “Jeff, come on. Of course it’s interesting. After nine years of watching you with my sister, this is exactly what I wanted to hear. You’re my fantasy.”
For a second she thought she might have gone too far, but after sucking in a breath, Jeff grinned. The idiot.
“You’re my fantasy, too,” he admitted. “I’ve been waiting for years for you to tell me you wanted me, too. Come on. Let’s go get a hotel room. I want to fuck your brains out for the next three days.”
Bingo. Francesca shook her head. “No, thanks. Amazingly enough, I’m going to have to turn down that very romantic offer.” She picked up her purse and started to slide out of the booth.
Jeff looked confused. “What are you doing?”
“Leaving. I have what I came for.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Yes, I know.” Careful not to disturb the tape recorder in her purse, she pulled a second one out of her pocket. Earl had suggested the duplicate. They had made her feel twice as secure.
She punched the rewind button for a couple of seconds, then shifted to Play. Jeff’s voice was tinny but clearly audible.
“I date. There’s no one special in my life.”
“The woman you live with will probably find that really fascinating,” Francesca said. “Although I’m guessing the ‘fuck your brains out’ remark is going to be the real kicker.”
Jeff turned pale. “What the hell are you doing?”
“Playing dirty. Back off on the winery, or the bimbo gets a copy of the tape. Clear enough?”
Jeff swore, then lunged for her. Francesca might have only made it to a green belt, but she knew enough to sidestep him and turn gracefully while he tumbled to the ground. In the process he bumped several patrons who were trying to balance their drinks in the crowded bar area. There were cries of “Watch out!” and “What the hell are you doing?”
While a tall, burly guy who looked very unhappy and very wet grabbed Jeff by his shirt, Francesca made her way to the exit.
She’d given the valet an extra twenty to keep her truck handy. Now she climbed into the cab and headed for the freeway. Ten minutes later she was driving north, back for home. Mission accomplished. The winery was safe, Brenna could go after Jeff for repayment of her effort to put him through school, and Francesca had done her good deed for the week. She was thrilled…and fighting the need to throw up.
“I’m sorry,” David said miserably.
Mia paced the length of her living room. It was late-after midnight-and they’d been at this for hours.
“It didn’t mean anything,” he told her for the hundredth time.
Forty-eight hours after denying his relationship with Julie, David had showed up on Mia’s doorstep and come clean. Claiming it was little more than prewedding jitters, he’d confessed to hanging out with her, some kissing, and nothing else. Mia had yet to decide if she believed him.
“It meant something to me,” Mia told him. “You didn’t just cheat, you were sloppy, you publicly humiliated me, and then you lied. In the face of all that, ’I’m sorry’ seems feeble.”
She continued to pace. As she walked past him, he reached out and grabbed her. “Mia, you’ve got to forgive me.”
“Why?” She glared at him. “Give me one good reason.”
“Because you still love me.”
She did-because she was a fool. She still loved him and wanted to marry him. She wanted to move to Washington and explore the city with him. She wanted to get her graduate degree, a great job with the State Department, and have David in her life. She had a plan, and he was as much a part of it as anything else.
“Why would I ever trust you again?” she asked.
He hung his head. “I don’t know. How do I earn that back?”
How did he? Was it possible? Could something broken and shattered be put whole again?
He stepped close and gathered her against him. “Don’t send me away,” he begged. “I’m sorry. I love you. I’ll do anything.”
She believed him. At that moment he would do anything. But what about in a few weeks, or a year? What about the next time things got difficult? Would he work it out or would he run?
“Are you really sure you want to marry me?” she asked.
He stared deeply into her eyes. “I’ve never been so sure of anything in my life. You’re my world, Mia. Only you.”
He picked her up and she let him…mostly because being in David’s arms was where she belonged. Because she loved him. Because it seemed that Marcelli women were destined to make fools of themselves over the men they cared about.
The phone rang shortly before nine the next morning. Katie munched on toast while she reviewed her to-do list. There were exactly twenty-seven items, which should take her about six hours. That left plenty of time for last-minute things she might have forgotten. She had already had a forty-minute conversation with one of her staff, and a conference call with three others.
“Hello,” she said, her attention mostly on her list.
She froze. There was something horrible about the voice. Familiar, but horrible. Apprehension crawled up her spine, leaving her suddenly very, very cold.
“Yes, this is Katie Marcelli.”
Her throat closed. “Jerome? What’s wrong? You sound awful.”
In the background she could hear voices, then a low groan.
“Katie, I’m so sorry.” Jerome sucked in a breath. “I don’t know, maybe it was the fish. Something.”
Her tight throat made it difficult to talk. “What are you saying?”
He swore softly. “We’re all sick. The entire kitchen staff has food poisoning. They’ve just admitted me into the hospital. All the chefs are here. They’re going to keep us at least a couple of days. There’s some concern that we’ve ingested parasites. We should all be fine, but we won’t be back to work for nearly a week.”
The panic grew and her hands began to sweat. Fish? There wasn’t any fish on her menu. “What are you talking about?”
“We had the tasting dinner last night,” he said weakly. “Remember? For the new restaurant menu. I’m sorry, Katie. There’s no kitchen staff. At least not at the hotel. They’re all here, or at other hospitals.”
He continued talking, but she wasn’t listening. No kitchen staff? None? She had a party to put on in less than thirty-six hours. Over two thousand really well-dressed people were going to be expecting a fancy meal and fine service and what the hell was she going to do?