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WHEN Rachel saw a silver Maserati careen around the bend of the narrow road and head straight for her, she yanked the steering wheel to the right, praying to avoid a collision.
To her shock, the dark-haired, Italian-looking driver slowed down and waved, as if to thank her for getting out of his way.
"You lunatic!" she shouted at him, and received a white smile for her effort before he cruised on.
Craning her neck out the window, she cried, "Lunatic!" But he'd sped up again and was out of sight before she could get her rental car started again.
The incident had left her so weak, it took a minute before she felt composed enough to continue on.
Within five minutes she arrived in the little town of Thann, France, and found the hotel where she would be staying for the night.
Before she freshened up and went out again, she had an important call to make. But the fear of her twin sister's rejection always put a knot in her stomach.
Their estrangement had gone on for too many years. It was a tragic situation Rachel wanted to fix if she could find the courage. Maybe this phone call could be the first step.
Yesterday was the anniversary of their mother's death. Normally Rachel would have flown to New York to put flowers on the grave, but this year her work prevented it.
To her relief the sexton at the cemetery agreed to accept the florist's delivery and place the flowers against the headstone.
If Rebecca had been able to visit the cemetery, she could tell Rachel if she'd seen the flowers.After six rings she heard, "Rachel?"
So her sister was in New York... "Hello, Rebecca." She swallowed hard. "I wasn't sure if I would even be able to reach you."
"I've been in Wyoming, and only came here briefly on business. What is it?"
"H-how are you?"
"I'm okay." Was her twin's voice shaking too? Or had Rachel just imagined it. "And you?"
"I'm okay too." She bit her lip. This wasn't going well. It never went well. "By any chance did you notice some flowers on Mother's grave yesterday?"
"If you mean the potted rose tree, then yes."
After a tension-filled silence, "Is that all you wanted to know?" Rachel clutched the receiver tighter. No...it wasn't all, but she didn't know where to begin.
"Look, Rachel, I'm in kind of a hurry and have to go."
She nodded. "So do I."
"Where are you?" Rebecca asked at the last second.
"Then I guess I should say au revoir."
Tears stung her eyes. "Goodbye, Rebecca."
After her harrowing ordeal on the road a half-hour ago, this pain was all she needed.
Wiping her eyes, she got up to wash her face. Once she felt a little calmer, she went down to the front desk.
"Could you please tell me which vineyard is the best in the area?"
Without hesitation the concierge said, "That would be the Domaine Chartier et Fils, mademoiselle.
"If you take the road west from the town center and follow it three miles, you will come upon a fifteenth-century convent which has been owned by the Chartier family for generations. You can't miss it."
Rachel thanked him and went out to her car parked on one of the quaint side streets.
Thousands of tourists flocked to Alsace, the north-eastern province of France bordering Germany and Switzerland. Now that it was June, she'd had trouble finding a place to squeeze in.
After putting her black attaché case in the front passenger seat, she slid behind the wheel. But she wasn't quick enough to prevent a couple of guys from enjoying the view of her long, elegant legs. The skirt of her white business suit had ridden up her thighs.
Ignoring their interested gaze, she leaned over to close the door. The action caused her dark, glossy hair to swish against her shoulders. Quickly she started the car and pulled into the narrow street.
She'd passed through the town center a little while ago, having driven a portion of the village-studded wine route from Colmar, a city forty-five minutes from Thann.
Blessed with a good sense of direction, she soon found herself traveling to the outskirts past Hansel and Gretel houses whose window-boxes overflowed with geraniums and other summer flowers.
Instead of the rain she'd left in the UK just over a week ago, a glorious noonday sun shone down. The rays caused a dappled effect as they penetrated the lush green foliage of the manicured landscape.
If it hadn't been for that menace who'd run her off the road, the day would have been idyllic.
Still bristling over his cavalier attitude, she eventually reached the edge of the town and rounded a curve where she discovered herself flanked on both sides by rows of tall grape vines. She followed the healthy-looking vineyard up the slope.
In the distance she spied a magnificent structure reigning over the checkerboard plots of vineyards the French called terroirs.
A gasp of wonder escaped her throat, prompting her to slow down so she could absorb her fairy-tale-like surroundings.
She marveled at the slightly pinkish cast to its stone walls. Any second now she expected to see Rapunzel at one of the arched windows, and the handsome prince below, begging her to let down her golden hair so he could climb up to her.
Since Rachel's early-morning flight from Bordeaux, located on the Atlantic seaboard, such fanciful thoughts seemed part of her experience.
She'd traveled to many beautiful places in Europe on restaurant business with her father and grandfather. But this was the first time she'd felt an instant bonding to a special spot of earth. Her feelings seemed to go far beyond the physical.
In her heart she thought, I could live here for ever.
She slowed down and pulled to a stop to snap a few pictures with her digital camera before moving on.
While she did business in Alsace, she would look into buying a little house with a tiny plot of vines she could use for a retreat. One day years from now she would retire here and write her own book on wines.
Bread might be the "staff of life", but to her mind the grape vine produced the "magic of life".
It wasn't just the final product to be consumed with or without a fine meal — Rachel loved the whole fascinating process, starting with the soil, whose amalgam of elements combined with the right amounts of sun and rain to produce a unique grape that could be turned into a superb wine.
Her sensations of delight mixed with reverence continued to grow even stronger as she followed the signs that led her to an exquisite rose garden growing in the middle of the old convent's courtyard.
She pulled into the section on the right designated for visitor parking and turned off the motor.
More signs on the door of a modern-looking building indicated the business office. It had been attached to the side of the convent, which she imagined was used these days to store the wine.
Rachel touched up her mouth with a coral frost lipstick, then alighted from the car with her briefcase.
It was a good thing she'd learned long ago to wear comfortable leather sandals while on business. Negotiating the cobblestones with some semblance of dignity was no small feat.
On her way inside she counted a dozen cars. That meant a busy Monday for the staff who'd opened their wine cellar to customers eager to sample everything from Riesling to Pinot Blanc.
Rachel imagined the tourist traffic was non-stop, even in the low season.
Once she stepped inside, the receptionist in the foyer looked up from the computer and smiled. "Bonjour, mademoiselle."
"Bonjour, madame," Rachel responded in kind.
But her accent must have given her away because the other woman said in excellent English, "The cave is through that door on your right."
"Thank you. However I've come on business, and would like to meet with the owner." She handed the other woman her business card.
"My name is Rachel Valentine. I'm the chief wine buyer for three restaurants in London, each called the Bella Lucia."
The receptionist eyed her with renewed interest. "Valentine, you say? I can't find your name on the computer. Was Monsieur Chartier expecting you?"
"No. In fact I didn't know of the Domaine Chartier until I arrived in Thann early today."
"When I asked the hotel concierge to direct me to the best vineyard in the region, he gave me directions to the convent."
"Monsieur Chartier will be happy to hear it."
"Naturally I realize he might be too busy to meet with me today, so I'd like to make an appointment for tomorrow if that's possible."
"We're closed tomorrow, but let me check with his secretary and find out his schedule. He has other vineyards in different villages, so he could be anywhere. Excuse me for a moment, please."
Rachel had studied enough French to speak and understand basic phrases, but the receptionist's volley of French spoken in a low rapid tone was much too fast for her to follow.
After the woman hung up she said, "If you'll let me know where you can be reached, Monsieur Chartier's secretary will give him the information."
"That would be fine. I'm staying at the Hotel du Roi."
"Très bien. Though I can't give you an exact time, you'll be contacted before the end of the day."
"Thank you for your help."
"Pas de quoi, mademoiselle."
Rachel went out to the car and returned to the hotel where she caught up on some paperwork.
Around five-thirty her stomach made noises it was time to eat. She decided to try the hotel's restaurant.
In case someone tried to reach her at the hotel rather than on her cell, she told the concierge she'd be in the dining room if a call from Domaine Chartier came through for her.
Whenever Rachel traveled, she always found it instructive to study the wine list and find out what local wines were served, especially in an area like this renowned for its white varietals — wine that came from one kind of grape only.
She wasn't surprised Domaine Chartier wines dominated the choices. The serveuse recommended the Tokay Pinot Gris to accompany the asparagus entrée, the hotel's plat du jour.
The moment the waitress returned with the wine, Rachel thanked her, examined the labeling and then opened the bottle herself. An aroma escaped from the golden liquid whose combination of flavors was pure revelation.
She poured some into the wineglass and took an experimental sip, letting it swirl on her tongue before swallowing.
More flavors came through: maple syrup, quince and...pineapple if she wasn't mistaken.
So soft to the palate, yet beautifully rich and elegant due to its fine ripe acid balance...
It had a long finish in which she could find no fault. Ah...perfection itself. "I take it the Pinot Gris pleases you." A deep male voice spoke to her in English with a heavy French accent.
Her eyelids fluttered open in surprise. But when she saw who it was, she nearly fell off her chair.
Across the small round table from her stood the man who'd come close to crashing into her earlier.
For a Frenchman he was tall and powerfully built. Probably in his mid-thirties. He wore his dark brown hair considerably longer than most men she knew.
With his heavily lashed brown eyes and olive complexion, she had to admit he was incredibly handsome.
That, plus the fact that he had the audacity to be holding her wine bottle in his hand, ignited her anger all over again.
"If you've followed me for any other reason than to offer sincere apologies for your reckless driving, I'll call the police to have you arrested for harassment."
The maddening smile she remembered flashed once more. "There are two versions to every story. The police are more likely to believe that you were all over the road because you're used to driving on the left and became confused."
"Considering they're French, they probably will," she countered. "Now that you've had your fun, please leave that wine bottle on the table and go away."
"I noticed you enjoying it."
He wasn't about to quit.
No doubt this man, who was too attractive by far and knew it, found it amusing to flirt with what he considered an available female. Particularly one drinking alone in public and enjoying it so much she'd been sitting there with her head tilted back, eyes closed, unaware of the people around her.
"Not that it's any of your business, but it happens to be the best white wine I've ever tasted." And that was saying a lot...
He seemed to ponder her comment before he said, "I'm glad to hear it, Ms Valentine. Nineteen ninety-eight produced an excellent vintage."
She blinked. "How do you know my name? Who are you?" He put the bottle back on the table. "Luc Chartier. I understand you wanted to make an appointment with me."
He was that Chartier?
Rachel sat up straighter in the chair. "I thought your secretary was going to phone. I had no idea you would take the trouble to come to the hotel this evening."
He gave an elegant shrug of his broad shoulders covered in a light gray silk suit. "Why not? I was in the area when I received a call from my secretary, Philippe.
"It's always a pleasure to meet a new wine buyer, especially one who has already sampled the goods with such uninhibited relish."
His lips twitched again, rekindling her anger. "Because of you, I almost missed the experience." He cocked his dark head. "What do you say we call a truce to the Hundred Years War and start over again? You've already admitted the Pinot Gris has no equal. I'd like to make up for the fright I caused you by giving you a personal tour of the domaine."
Rachel rolled her eyes. "In that rocket you call a car? No, thank you. I have little desire to end up as twisted wreckage around a bunch of grape vines."
"I'll make a concession and drive you in the estate Wagoneer," he inserted. "That way we can go off road. I swear I've never had an accident with any of my prospective buyers."
She believed him. Yet even if it weren't true, Rachel imagined his charisma got him what he wanted no matter how audacious he was. But not this time.
"I'm afraid I've changed my mind about making an appointment."
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