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Abby Harper's eyes clung to the man who stood not twenty feet away, dressed in an expensive silk suit that glided over his broad chest and muscled arms like water over rock.
She frowned, watching the restaurant hostess sidle up a little closer than necessary, making sure Reece had a clear view down the deep V of her low-cut blouse.
Abby couldn't blame her, not really, taking in the impressive figure Reece made as he turned, noticing the way the tailored pants clung to a perfect masculine ass that had her fingers itching to reach out for a squeeze.
She knew just how it would feel. She'd been there, done that.
Once, a long, long time ago. How unfairor patheticwas it that she could remember the feel of one man's backside from eight years before?
To his credit, Reece barely seemed to notice the hostess, as he was deep in conversation with a small, hawkish man who stood beside him. Abby had heard Reece was home but hadn't seen him around, even though he lived next door.
That wasn't unusual. He'd come home a few times over the years since he'd left for life in Europe, but their paths had never intersected. She'd been off to school, or busy working at her parents' winery, and Reece had his life as a famous race car driver on the Formula One circuit. With the differences between their two lives, the half a mile between their homes might as well have been a thousand.
This was the first time she'd actually seen him anywhere but in a local newspaper or television sports report. Her heart beat a little too quickly for her liking. So she turned her attention away, though she wasn't really looking at the crowds milling around the Ithaca Commons, the artsy, outdoor shopping plaza in the heart of the small central New York city.
It was almost a month before Christmas, the Friday after Thanksgiving, which she had spent catching up on inventory. Abby and her friend Hannah were meeting here for lunch, something Abby had been looking forward to all week. Some downtime and a chance to forget about work for an hour or so.
Some light snow fell, blowing and circling around the booted feet of shoppers and local shopkeepers who were moving around the walkway. She hardly noticed. Her mind insisted on reminiscing about Reece.
She'd only kissed him once, on a crazy, wine-drenched evening one summer when he'd been home from college, the semester before he took off for Europe. They were both at the same lakeside party given by a mutual friend.
Even then, Reece ran with a crowd way out of Abby's league.
Abby had been seeing Josh Martin back then, a graduate student from Cornell Veterinary College who helped out at their vineyard, where they also hosted a small petting zoo with goats and sheep. Josh was a great guy. Cute.
Abby had been lying in wait by a dense hedgerow, intent on seducing her date. When she pulled the man she thought was Josh into the quiet, dark spot, she didn't give him a chance to say anything. She kissed him in clear invitation before he could say a word.
Abby discovered early on that she liked some kink with her sex, and Josh had a kind of quiet reserve that she took as a challenge. Sex outdoors at a party, with people right on the other side of the hedge, was an exciting thought for her, but she knew her mild-mannered date would have to be convinced.
She had pretty much made her way around second base heading for third when she told him how pleased she was with his sense of adventure and wondered what other experiments he might be up for.
Reece had chuckled softly and whispered in her ear that he would be happy to try anything she wanted to suggest.
She'd recognized his voice, and her mistake, immediately.
It had been so humiliating. Even now, her cheeks burned to think of it. She'd popped out from the hedges without even fixing her clothes, much to the amusement of some onlookers in the yard. Reece walked out, too, completely unapologetic with his shirt still unbuttoned, his eyes hot and the top button of his jeans undone. The button she had been undoing when he'd spoken up.
Worse, as furious as she was, she'd wanted to go back behind that hedge and finish what they'd started. Reece smiled and told her to lighten up, that he wouldn't have let it go too far. She imagined he and his buddies had a great laugh about it later.
Then he told her that Josh had received an emergency phone call and had to leave suddenly. Josh had asked Reece to find Abby and let her know. He'd started to say something else, but Abby had turned and left, and that was the last time she'd seen him, until now.
Reece had been her tormentor since childhood. The boy who always hid her lunchbox in the wrong locker, who tugged her pigtails and always, always rubbed it in that his parents' vineyards were bigger, more profitable and better than her family's smaller organic operation.
Though Reece teased her, he was never really mean. When she was fourteen, in fact, he defended her when another boy had been needlessly cruel about her braces, making her cry. Reece had almost punched the other boy, she remembered. Abby hated to admit it, but a secret, nasty little crush on him developed in that moment.
And he knew it.
And she knew that he knew, even when they both emerged back out from behind the hedge and he'd smiled at her so knowingly.
"Hey, earth to Abby?" The voice finally broke through as Hannah Morgan, her best friend since high school, returned to the table, sliding back into her seat.
Abby shook her head clear and blinked the past away.
"Sorry, lost in thought."
"Yeah, I saw Reece at the door. From the roses blooming in your cheeks, I assume you did, too."
Abby grunted. "It's just warm in here."
Hannah grinned widely. "Warmer since Reece walked in," she said without shame, watching him where he sat across the room from them. "I guess he's home because of what happened with his dad."
"I'm kind of surprised to see him, really. He had a bad crash last spring and has been recovering ever sinceit was really serious," Abby said, shuddering as she remembered seeing the replay of the accident on the news. Reece had been on his way to superstardom, living a glamorous and high-profile life as a race car driver until the crash.
Hannah cocked an eyebrow. "I'd heard, but didn't realize you followed racing that closely."
"I just watch the news. And I might have read a few things online."
"Well, he looks healthy and hale to me," Hannah said with a playful leer.
Abby knew better than to look again, but did anyway, and sure enough, as soon as she peeked, Reece turned his head to look directly at her.
The shared look nearly sucked the breath out of her.
The years disappeared, and she was the crush-stricken teenager again. His eyes narrowed, and she knew that he recognized her, too, even though she was now twenty-five pounds lighter and her previously plain, boy-short brown hair was now long and layered, curling softly with honey-blond highlights, her one indulgence.
"Why does he have to be so hot?" Abby mumbled, deeply annoyed and digging in to the beautiful salad that a server set before her moments ago. Shoving a forkful of spinach and various greens, fresh pears, walnuts and blue cheese into her mouth, she barely tasted it. Reece's fault.
"Hey, I think he's coming over," Hannah whispered across the table, looking up with a big smile as Reece approached them.
"What?" Abby sputtered, swallowing a mouthful of greens, promptly choking on her food as she saw Hannah was right. Abby coughed, reaching for her water, but suddenly strong hands had her from behind, spanning her rib cage and pulling her back against a rock-solid chest.
"I'm okay, I'm okay!" she insisted. She could sense the heat from his hands on her skin in spite of the sweater she wore over her blouse. His hold released, and she took a few breaths, composing herself.
"Abby? " he said in a voice that was deeper than she remembered, his breath just brushing the back of her neck.
She didn't turn around, not yet. Picking up her water, she took a sip, using the moment to focus. Then, smoothing the front of her sweater, she faced him with a bright smile.
"Reece. How nice to see you," she said, and was yet again flung back to those hedges as his gray eyes sparkled with warm recognition. He was remembering it, too, she could tell. Damn it. "Thanks for the first aid, but I really was okay," she said.
"Glad to help," he said. "So, Abby Harper, all grown up. No more pigtails or braces," he said with a smile and a wink.
Her cheeks heated and she wanted to kick Hannah for grinning so broadly.
"I'm sorry to hear about your father. I hope he's doing well," Abby said, meaning it, determined to act like an adult.
She noticed a network of thin scars, recently healed, that ran along the side of his neck, and what looked like another behind his ear. "And you, too," she continued. "That was an awful accident they showed on the news. I'm so glad you're up and around. You look great," she said, proud of herself for sounding so mature, like an old friend who was happy to see him again.
Reece's expression became more serious. She thought he looked bigger now, more muscular than she remembered. She assumed that all race drivers kept to a rigorous fitness regimen and needed to be physically fit to withstand the physical and mental pressures of racing, but wow.
Those beautiful, thick-lashed eyes were the same, as were the sharp cheekbones and full lips. She'd always loved how his pin-straight, raven-black hair had fallen in his eyes, a little long in the front, but now he kept it cropped short, which only accented his features all the more.
"Thank you. Dad's recovering well. Doctors are very optimistic."
He obviously didn't want to discuss his own near miss, and she couldn't say she blamed him. Regardless of his celebrity status, it couldn't be fun to have your private life and health problems made into entertainment news.
Abby nodded. "Is he still at the hospital? I imagine he'd probably be happy to be back to work when he can."
Reece frowned. "Actually, he won't. The surgery was remarkably fastthey can do amazing things these days. He and Mom were only home for a few days, but they're down with Ben now, in South Carolina. The doctors advised it, so that he'd be in an easier climate, closer to hospitals. They'll live with Ben and his family for a while, which will make it easier on Mom. Then they plan to find a new place down there."
"Oh," she said, her reaction part surprise and part regret. She liked the Winstons and would have liked to have seen them before they left. They'd been good neighbors. "Who's taking over the vineyards? You?"
It was what she'd done when her parents retired. They were off catching up on all of the travel they had put off all those years. Abby was happy for them and she loved the updates they sent her and posted on their Facebook pages. Her parentsworld adventurers.
"Not exactly," Reece said, looking cautious. "We've decided selling is the best option. I'm taking care of the details, though, and I have some buyers interested, but"
"You're selling?" she interrupted, in shock. "Yes, I'm afraid so."
"But, I thought.now that you're not racing." Her misstep was reflected in the tightening of his expression.
"I want to be back to racing next year," he said shortly.
"As soon as possible, really. So there's no choice but to sell. Which reminds me," he said, glancing over at his table, "I have to get back to my meeting. I just wanted to say hello."
"Oh," was all Abby managed to say.
Reece's expression shifted from cool to friendly again. Maybe a little too smoothly, in Abby's estimation.
"It's good to see you, though. Maybe we'll get a chance to have a drink together over the holiday, catch up on old times. I should be home for the month, to see the sale through and finish things up here," he said.
"Yeah, sure," she responded, but he'd already turned to walk away. This time, she did notice a slight hitch in his gait and wondered about his injuries. Things might be happening behind the scenes that the public didn't know about still, she'd thought from what had been reported in the news and online that he was out of the sport.
"Wow, I can't believe he's selling," Abby said again, her mind returning to that bombshell. There were some new start-ups along the lake, and some of the vineyards had closed over the years, but Maple Hills and Winston Vineyards were the two oldest in the area. "All the news said he was out of racing. His accident left him with injuries that simply won't allow him back in."
"He seems to think differently," Hannah said absently.
Abby watched Reece sit down at his table and then turned to see Hannah worriedly chewing her lip. "What?"
"I hope he hasn't been talking with the Keller Corp. rep. The same guy who bought out Stevens and Harvest vineyards last year."
Abby put her fork back down, her hands turning cold.
"It's a possibility."
"He can't. He can't sell to them. It would ruin Maple Hills!" As if selling wasn't bad enough, selling to Keller would be a disaster.
Keller was a housing developer that had been buying up lakeside property and building cookie-cutter housing developments that ruined the area's natural appeal. They didn't care about the watershed or about the long tradition of wineries in the area. They didn't care about anything, except for making money.
The runoff from pavement, lawn chemicals and the potential for septic leaks and so forth, would be awful for her business, ruining her land. Not to mention scarring the beautiful view of the lake.
"Every wedding couple we book wants to be married out on the vineyard, with the view of the lake. We'd lose them all if the backdrop is a bunch of prefab houses," she said, shaking her head.
Even in the economic hard times, people still got married, and these days many of them decided to do so locally to save money. Her wedding bookings were up considerably, and that helped when wine sales were down. In fact, she was preparing for a wedding reception that was scheduled for two days before Christmas. Weddings and other special events had become a big part of her bottom line.