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"They're ready, Brenna. I'll call Marco and tell him to have the crews here in the morning."
"It's too soon." Brenna double-checked the number on the refractometer in shock. No one else in Sonoma had grapes ripe this early; that was for sure. "We should have a couple of more weeks, at least."
"You doubt me?" Ted's affront was only partially feigned, and, though they'd been friends and cowork-ers for years, Brenna rushed to smooth the ruffled feathers of her viticulturist.
"Not at all. No one knows these vines better than you. I'm surprised, that's all."
Placated, Ted popped a grape into his mouth and chewed, a small, blissful smile crossing his face. "Obviously these grapes like our sunny summers and this drought. You just don't want to harvest in the heat."
"True." But that was only part of it. The new tanks had only arrived last week and were stacked haphazardly around the building. The main pump was still being temperamental, and there was so much paperwork left to do and and she needed those couple of extra weeks just to finish getting her head together. She wasn't ready to start the crush right now.
Brenna looked at the vines, all heavy with ripe fruitfruit that wasn't going to hold on while she adjusted to the new situation at a leisurely pace. Amante Verano Cellars was her responsibility now.
Ready or not, these grapes were coming in. She knew what to do; she'd been doing it her entire life. But she'd never done it alone. That responsibility weighed heavily on her shoulders.
"I just wish Max were here." The sigh in Ted's voice brought her back to reality with a jerk.
"I know. These vines were Max's ticket to wine-world dominationor at the very least a gold medal." She smiled weakly at Ted as her inspection of the grapes digressed to aimless fiddling. "He really should be here for this. It's not fair." She blinked back the tears threatening to escape again. She couldn't fall apart in front of Tedor anyone else. Max would expect her to solider on, and everyone at Amante Verano needed to believe she had this under control. "Call Marco. We'll have the first grapes in the tank by tomorrow night."
They walked up the hill together, stopping occasionally to test the sugars and make notes on the grapes on different acres. The other vines were being slightly more predictable in their timelines. Another two weeksgive or takeand they'd be ready. September would be high-gear time.
"Have you talked to Jack yet?" Ted asked the question too quietly, too casually.
Her heart thumped in her chest at the mention of his name. "Not since the funeral, and then only for a minute." And that had been awkward and difficult, not to mention painful on more levels than she cared to admit. She'd exchanged condolences, shaken his hand and left. End of story.
"Does he know?"
"Oh, I'm sure he does. Max's lawyer called me to explain the partnership and what it meant, and I have to assume Jack was the first to know."
"And?" Ted was the first to brave asking the question she knew was on everyone's mind.
"There is no 'and.' I'm sure Jack has his hands full with the hotels, and the lawsuit against the driver that hit Max's car, and everything else, so we've got to be pretty low on the priority list." Max's death had left them all scrambling these last few weeks, just trying to sort out the wide range of Max's businesses and projects. In a way it had helped her grieve as well; she hadn't been able to lose herself in her grief as she'd wanted to, and the pain seemed a little easier to deal with when she could concentrate on keeping Max's beloved winery running smoothly.
Ted didn't look relieved.
"After the crush I'll make an appointment with the lawyers and we'll get it all sorted out." She patted his shoulder fondly. "Go on home. We've got several very busy days ahead of us."
"In other words, I should see my daughter while I can?"
"Yep." The crush would give them all something to focus on. And when it was over she would have proved to everyone she was more than capable of shouldering the responsibility Max left her.
"Do you want to come to the house for dinner? You know you're always welcome, and Dianne will happily feed you."
It was tempting, very tempting, but she really needed to learn to cope on her own. Dianne had been mothering her way too much in the weeks since Max had died, and she needed to be strong now. She needed to be a grown-up. "Thanks, but no. Give my goddaughter a kiss for me, though, okay?"
"Will do." With a wave, Ted was gone, leaving her standing in the shadow of the main house alone, while his long legs covered the distance to the little house quickly. She could see the lights on upstairs in the apartment over the wine shop, which he shared with Dianne and baby Chloe.
She'd left a light on in the house as well, because she hadn't gotten used to coming home to a silent and dark house yet. She wondered if she ever would. Maybe after the craziness of the crush was over she'd get a puppy. It would keep her company, make the house feel less empty, and give her someone to talk to when she got home at night.
Her footsteps echoed in the hallway as habit directed her toward the officejust her office now, since Max was gonewhere the winery's paperwork waited for her. As always, the work gave her something to do, a way to fill the long evenings.
Pressing "play" on the stereo filled the room with music and chased the dreadful silence away. Max's huge desk dominated the space, and she turned her chair away from his empty one as she tried to focus on the invoices and orders that kept her inbox overflowing no matter how much time she spent on them.
But her usual focus wouldn't come. Ted's earlier question had brought everything she was trying so hard to repress right back to the forefront of her mind.
Amante Verano would make it to the top of Jack's to-do list eventually, and she had no idea how she'd handle that once it did. Avoidanceher time-honored and safe way of dealing with anything Jack-related wasn't going to work this time. She had to make this work, because she couldn't run a business if she couldn't talk to her business partner.
The thought of Jack brought up all kinds of feelings she didn't want to deal with. Their history was just too complicated to pretend it didn't exist. Max had been her mentor, her friend, her surrogate father, and she, Max, and her mom had been a happyif slightly oddly configuredfamily. Jack, not solely by his choice, had never been a part of that. Add in their private history, and the whole mess would put any soap opera plot to shame.
But she'd have to meet with Jack eventually. The thought kicked her heartbeat up a notch, and all the cleansing breaths in the world couldn't help calm it. She needed to be an adult about this. She needed to concentrate on the present and not let the past interfere.
Her glib response to Ted was starting to sound pretty good: a meeting on neutral ground, with lawyers doing most of the talking so she wouldn't have to. This was business, not personal, and surely she could swallow all the competing emotions long enough to get through a business meeting.
Many years ago Jack had told her how important it was to keep her personal life from rolling over into her business dealings. "Don't ever let one affect the other," he'd said. It was a major point of pride with him, and it seemed to work well as he expanded Garrett Properties all down the west coast.
Jack would want to keep this strictly business. If she could do that, it would make things a lot easier. For everyone, but most especially for her and her sanity.
Brenna took a deep breath, feeling a little better after her self-therapy session. They could come to a workable situation. One that was business only and ignored all the messiness of the past.
The fact she'd been crazy enough to marry him once wouldn't be a problem at all.
Jack sincerely hoped insanity didn't run in the family. That Max's will was merely an act of early-onset senility caused by too much wine over the years, or even some kind of weird joke on Max's part. There had to be an explanation, and he'd love to have just five minutes with his father to find out what the punch line was supposed to be.
Otherwise, insanity was the only explanation he had for the fact he now owned half of a winery in Sonoma. Him personallynot the company.
And the other half belonged to Brenna Walsh.
Brenna should be a footnote in his dating history a cautionary tale about youthful infatuation and reckless decision-makingnot a recurring character in his life.
Bad decisions must go hand-in-hand with anything Brenna-related, because he spent most of the drive out to Sonoma questioning his decision to handle this in person. His attorney, Roger, had offered to take care of it, but for some unknown reason, he felt this was a discussion he and Brenna should have face-to-face. The closer he got to the vineyard and Brenna, though, the more he realized this probably wasn't the best idea he'd ever had. God knew he had enough work on his desk waiting for him, and his trip to New York to negotiate the expansion of Garrett Properties should be his main focus right now, but he'd decided to get this off his plate first.
He rolled his eyes. He should have waited, gotten through more important, more pressing issues first, instead of letting his desire to cut ties with this place override his common sense.
The vines almost covering the sign welcoming him to Amante Verano had matured in the five years since he'd been out here for Brenna's mother's funeral, and grapes hung heavily from the canopy. As he turned on to the property the acres of vines laid out in perfectly aligned rows, the white stucco house at the top of the hill, and the weathered wooden winery building created a picturesque scene straight out of a movie's stock footage file.
Change came slowly to Amante Veranoif it ever came at alland it looked much the same as it had when Max had bought the winery twelve years ago.
That had been before Max's hobby had turned into his obsession. Before he'd left San Francisco for good and moved out here full-time to play in his grapes. Before Jack had become the Garrett in charge of Garrett Properties and the responsibility had consumed his entire life.
He drove slowly past the little housethat was Brenna's free and clear now, even if Max had converted it into the winery's shop once Brenna and her mother had moved into the main houseand noted the gravel parking lot was empty. Well, it was still early in the day for the tourists on their trips to wine country.
Where to find Brenna? Her lab? The office? He just wanted this over and done with as quickly as possible, so he could get back to civilization and his life. This place hung like an albatross around his neck, and the sooner he could get Brenna's signature on the documents, the better.
He didn't even like wine, for God's sake.
As he crested the next low hill he could see a tractor lumbering its way in the direction of the winery, the trailer overflowing with grapes.
He had never learned the intricacies of grape-growing or wine-making, and what little he had picked up he'd tried hard to forget, but even he knew it was early for harvesting. A strange turn of events, but it answered his first question nicely.
Brenna would be somewhere in those damn vines.
He sighed. He could either trudge through the vineyard looking for her, or he could wait at the house until she was finished for the day.
"Let's just get this over with," he muttered to himself.
Cursing the entire ridiculous situation, Jack took his overnight case and laptop into the house, dropped them in what had used to be his room, and headed down the hill on foot to find his ex-wife.
"Brenna, they need you at the building. The pump's acting up again," Ted called from the end of the row she was working on. "Rick kicked it and nothing happened, so he asked me to get you."
Brenna sighed. The new pump was on backorder, and wouldn't be here until sometime in the next couple of weeks. Which would have been in plenty of time for the crush if Ted's grapes had kept to their usual timetable. "Did he kick it in the right place?"
Ted nodded. "Twice."
Straightening, she slid her clippers into her back pocket and pulled off her gloves, before wiping a hand across her sweaty forehead. "Great. Exactly what I didn't want to do today. Do you have this under control?"
"Of course. I didn't need you out here to begin with," he teased.
They didn't have time for this, and they would only get further behind if she had to take the whole pump apart again. Beads of sweat rolled down her spine, and she grimaced at the feeling. At least she'd be out of the heat sooner than planned. She'd call Dianne and get her to bring a clean shirt along with their lunches.
She pulled her cellphone out of her other pocket, replacing it with her gloves. Dialing Dianne as she walked, she didn't see the man who stepped into her path until she ran face-first into him. The force knocked her hat off her head, and the cellphone hit the dust at her feet.
"Sorry," she said, as strong hands closed around her arms to steady her. In the split second that followed her brain registered the fine cotton shirtfar too nice for any of her guys to be wearing while they workedthe strangely familiar feeling of the man's grasp, and the subtle spicy scent tickling her nostrils.
And then her brain shut down altogether as one thought crystallized: Jack.
"It's a bit early to be harvesting, isn't it, Brenna?"
His deep voice rumbled through her, causing her brain to misfire in shock, but the bite of sarcasm brought her world back into focus. Shrugging off his hands in what she hoped was a casual way, she tried to match his tone. "The grapes are ready when the grapes are ready. You should know that."