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Zoe Waters drove up the long, rutted drive and noted that the pale green farmhouse ahead of her desperately needed a new paint job. But then, it had needed one for as long as she could remember. Only these daysmore than ten years since she'd last been hereit was beginning to seem as if the flakes of paint were what was holding the crumbling weatherboards together.
Zoe wasn't sure whether she should feel comforted that so little had changed or disgusted by the neglect.
She pulled into the yard behind the house and climbed out of the rental car, stepping carefully to avoid the soft, squelching mud threatening her inappropriately delicate shoes.
The signs of dereliction were even more obvious here.
A strange, melancholy sense of deja vu settled over her as she looked around. Now that she surveyed things closer up, it was clear that not only did little appear to have changedpretty much nothing had. Everything had just decayed a touch more. The scattered car bodies near the back fence had rusted a little redder and sunk a little deeper into the overgrown grass. The door to the shed that held the tractor and her grandfather's other old-fashioned and outdated farm equipment was crooked, the top hinge clearly broken.
Zoe sighed heavily and leaned against the car, warm from the two-hour drive from Melbourne.
The task ahead of her seemed to grow exponentially as she surveyed the ruins of Waterford Estate.
The only building that still looked in reasonable condition was the tin shed and converted refrigerated shipping container that housed the winery. Well, what passed for a winery on the Waterford estate. She wondered if all those rich people in Sydney, California and France on the Waterford mailing list who so eagerly awaited her grandfather's vintage Shiraz each year would feel quite the same way if they could see where it came from.
She sighed again and ran a hand through her hair as the wind whipped the long strands into her eyes. Wrapping her light jacket more tightly around herself, Zoe shudderedshe'd forgotten the icy chill of the wind out here and how it could leach into your bones. Too much time in California. Too used to the endless sunshine and warm breezes, unlike the capricious weather of this part of the valleystinking hot in summer, subject to grapeendangering frosts seemingly out of nowhere in spring. Right nowwinterthe weather was at least somewhat predictable. Cold. With a side of rain and wind.
She mentally surveyed the contents of the suitcase still sitting in the boot of the car. She was going to have to buy some new clothes.
A trip into town. Yippee.
The thought sent a different kind of shiver through her.
Turning away from her survey of the ruined outbuildings, Zoe shielded her eyes from the weak sun. The Waterford vines stretched out in long, bare lines to the north and east of the house, dormant for the winter yet still visibly neglected. It was a tragic state for any viticulturist to seesome of the oldest vines in the valley, planted by Zoe's great-great-grandfather and tended by a member of the Waters family for more than a hundred years. Until now.
To her left, the well-tended vines of the neighboring Lawson Estateher family's rivals for her whole lifegrew just a few feet from the property line. Zoe made an effort not to look, to pretend that across the post-and-wire fence there was just a big, empty nothing. Just as she'd always doneat least when her grandfather was watching.
The only way she could get through these next few days was to pretend Lawson Estate didn't exist, the township of Tangawarra wasn't there and Waterford had a protective force field around it. She snorted at the fanciful idea at the same time she wished it could be true.
Zoe pushed her sunglasses to the top of her head as the sky clouded over. Heavy, slate-gray clouds waited on the horizon. Rain was definitely on the way. More rain from the looks of the sodden ground. She shivered again. Maybe even a storm.
At least that would give her a break. A few hours to sit and catch up with everything that had happened in the past few days. Perhaps even the chance to turn her brain to the task of working out what to do next.
The very thought started a headache throbbing at the back of her neck.
Just as she made a move to dig out her belongings and find her house keys, the sound of a vehicle reached her. A white utility truck bumped along the corrugated dirt track that led from the unsurfaced road. It had prominent signage along the sideelegant black script, a flowing red ribbonunmistakably the Law-son Estate logo.
She swore under her breath.
She couldn't have had a day or soa few hours maybeto get her bearings before facing reality? It seemed the universe wasn't going to extend even that small kindness to her.
Zoe stepped toward the ute as it pulled up beside her own bland white rental car. The driver's face was hidden in the shadow of a straw, American-style cowboy hat. It struck her as oddmost men in the valley preferred the very Australian Akubra or a simple cap, most often embroidered with the logo of their winery.
The driver cut the engine and climbed out. Time slowed somehow, and Zoe was conscious of every moment. The scuffed R. M. Williams boots that hit the ground first. The tight-fitting jeans, worn almost white around the knees and crotch. The chambray shirt that had once been crisply ironed, but was now creased and loosened by a day's work. The stubbled jawnot quite bearded, but wearing more than a five-o'clock shadowthat gave his familiar face a hard, almost savage edge. And lastbut never leastthose blue eyes, shocking, tormenting blue. The blue eyes she'd dreamed of for ten years; the blue eyes that had been her ruin.
"Well, if it isn't Zoe Waters," he drawled.
Zoe's knees turned to jelly, and as her vision began to blacken at the periphery she realized she'd stopped breathing. Through pure force of will she took in a deep lungful of air and strengthened her wobbly legs. Fainting now would be an unacceptable humiliation. From somewhere deep inside, from the core of steel that had been honed over a lifetime and never before failed her, she managed to paste a tight, unwelcoming smile on her face. She'd show him how little she cared, even if it killed her.
"Hugh Lawson, well, well," she managed to say, pleased that her voice conveyed exactly the right tone of distaste.
"So the old man finally let you come back." Hugh was smiling, but his eyes were cold. There was no hint of the warmth or humor she remembered from so long ago.
Was he angry with her? What on earth for? She was the one who had lost everything her family, her reputation, the only real home she'd ever known.
She managed another grim smile. "The old man died yesterday."
He hesitated and his cool look faded as concern creased his brow. She felt an odd satisfaction at the knowledge she'd unsettled him, but she clasped her hands tightly to hide their sudden tremor. It had been ten years, for heaven's sake! She'd moved halfway around the world to escape from her past. She was over it. The mistakes she'd made as an infatuated sixteen-year-old little girl were not going to taint her whole life. She'd made sure of that.
"I'm I'm sorry to hear that," Hugh said. His eyes lost their hard edge for a moment and Zoe remembered how easy it had been to fall for him, how easy to think herself in love and to be fooled into thinking he might love her in return.
Hugh took a step forward and reached out a hand. For a moment, she thought he was going to hug her and a mess of emotion washed over her. Mostly, though, she was filled with horror at the idea that she looked as if she needed comforting. She stiffened and took a step back.
Hugh's hand immediately dropped. Whatever he'd been thinking, whatever sympathetic gesture he'd been about to make was now hidden behind that impenetrable blue gaze.
"Yes, well " Zoe flicked out her hands in a helpless gesture. Apart from anything else, she had no idea what to do with sympathy; it had been the same when the nurse at the hospital had expressed her condolences. Her grandfather's death still wasn't real. Even when it did eventually sink inassuming that happenedshe wasn't sure how she should feel about it. Sad? Relieved? Indifferent?
She straightened her shoulders. "Why are you here?"
That laconic smile was back, warmer this time, more like the Hugh she remembered, erasing the years from his face and making him look just as he had when they'd snuck away to be together. "Neighbors look out for each other around here, Zoe, don't you remember that?"
Irritation flared inside her at his veiled reminder. Just where had he been when she'd needed looking after?
And she was over this. Over him.
She couldn't help raising her eyebrows in disbelief at his comment. "Neighbors might. But you know as well as I do that that never applied to the Lawson and Waters families."
Hugh ignored her. "One of our groundskeepers saw the car," Hugh continued, gesturing to her white sedan. "We knew Mack was in the hospital, so I thought I'd check it out in case you were up to no good." He grinned slyly.
Zoe swallowed her storm of emotions somewhat unsuccessfully, frustrated with herself for feeling them in the first place. The only way to deal with this was to appear as unaffected by their reunion as he seemed to be. As unaffected as she wanted to be. "Thank you so much for your concern," she said, putting on a sarcastically polite tone. "But there's no need. You can leave now."
"Ah, Zoe. Still the angry little firecracker, I see." He shook his head, then his expression softened. "Are you okay, though, really?"
His condescension made her emotions burn brighter. The fact that he could still see through her, that he remembered anger was her default defense mechanism, was the final straw. "You can leave," she repeated. "Now." Zoe dug her fingernails into her palms as she struggled to rein in her response. She must surely be drawing blood.
His gaze swept over her, a lingering glance that created an entirely different kind of heat. When his eyes met hers again, they were subdued, a little clouded. She'd have given anything to know what he was thinking.
"It's good to see you again, Zoe. To see you looking so well."
Well? What was that supposed to mean? Before she could ask, he turned on his heel and climbed back into the ute. With a short, salutelike wave against the brim of his hat, he was gone. Zoe let out a long, relieved breath and refused to think about the disappointment that washed over her as she watched the car disappear down the track.
At least that was over. Seeing Hugh Lawson again was the thing she'd been dreading most. Now she was just left facing a small town that had always hated the sight of her, dealing with her grandfather's funeral and his estate, and single-handedly producing the last-ever Waterford Estate vintage. Compared to facing the love of her life who'd abandoned her when she'd needed him most, all that should be easy.
Pushing those thoughts away, Zoe headed toward the house, intent on getting started with the seemingly impossible tasks in front of her.