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It was just one "simple" mission--find out whether a winemaker in Argentina was a New York millionaire's long-lost son. But Susannah Clarke quickly learned Amado Alvarez played by his own rules. He'd give her the DNA sample she wanted--if she spent the night with him! And in a moment of madness, she'd given in, to his demand and to her own desire. Now she had to return to South America to face this compelling, sensuous man again--and to face ...
It was just one "simple" mission--find out whether a winemaker in Argentina was a New York millionaire's long-lost son. But Susannah Clarke quickly learned Amado Alvarez played by his own rules. He'd give her the DNA sample she wanted--if she spent the night with him! And in a moment of madness, she'd given in, to his demand and to her own desire. Now she had to return to South America to face this compelling, sensuous man again--and to face the consequences of that one unforgotten, unforgettable night in a stranger's bed....
Susannah Clarke's rental car was almost totally out of gas. She'd known the Tierra de Oro estancia was well outside Mendoza, Argentina, and had planned accordingly. But the car and its fuel tank were tiny, and everything else here was on a much grander scale than she'd imagined.
Including her own trepidation.
To her right, the sun glittered amongst the high, snow-dusted peaks of the Andes. Around her lay the fertile plain that supported some of the finest vineyards in the world.
As she turned off the highway, the needle on the fuel meter hovered below zero. Come on, just a little farther. She didn't want to run out of gas and have to walk the rest of the way to the house with her news. "Hey, I think you're my boss's illegitimate son—got a gallon of gas to spare?"
She swallowed hard as a building came into view.
She eased off the accelerator, anxious to stretch the last few drops of gas as far as they'd go. Rows of cypress trees now lined the drive, shading it from the bright sun. An elegant painted sign pointed to the right, where she could see a large brick structure against the backdrop of mountains. The Tierra de Oro Bodega, or winery.
She pressed on toward the house. For once she wasn't coming to talk to the chief viticulturist about which kinds of grapes thrived in the local soils or how many cases Hardcastle Enterprises wanted for its flagship restaurant.
The avenue of cypress widened into a lush garden, surrounding a lovely old house with a red-tiled roof and wide, arched windows.
This is it.
She pulled the stick-shift car to a jerky stop in front of the paneled wood doorway. Sheopened the car door and stepped out, her heart thudding.
Then she heard the barking. Loud, guttural and getting closer with every second. Two huge white dogs bounded around the side of the house and careened toward her across the gravel.
Susannah staggered back and struggled with the car door handle, her brain crowded with visions of being eaten alive on Amado Alvarez's doorstep.
It wouldn't open.
The worn door handle had apparently done enough work today.
"Help!" she finally cried, in Spanish, as the first giant animal leaped toward her, jaws wide.
It jumped on her, knocking her against the car as the other dog barked and growled from a few feet away. Pain shot through her elbow when it collided with the half-open window. "Help!"
The front door flew open and she heard a gruff male command. The dogs immediately backed away and sat, panting innocently. Susannah struggled to catch her breath, still flattened against the side of her tiny rental car.
A tall man came down the steps in a loping stride. "I apologize for my dogs' overenthusiastic greeting."
He spoke in Spanish. And why wouldn't he? He had no idea who she was.
His dark brown hair dipped seductively to almond-shaped eyes. The soft drape of his khakis and cream-colored shirt revealed broad shoulders, slim hips and long, powerful legs.
He was handsome.
And about thirty. The age of Tarrant Hardcastle's missing son.
Her heart, already pumping hard from the near-death encounter, beat faster.
She shoved out her hand. "At least you don't have to worry about burglars."
He smiled. A slightly lopsided grin. White teeth against suntanned skin. Susannah found her heart fluttering for reasons that had nothing to do with fear as he grasped her palm in a warm handshake.
Did she imagine it, or did he give her hand a suggestive squeeze? Mischief shimmered in those wicked brown eyes.
Susannah was good at reading people and she could tell this man was used to getting his way.
His features were aristocratic, elegant. His long, slightly aquiline nose tapering to tear-shaped nostrils. Everything about him telegraphed ease and comfort in his surroundings.
He snapped his fingers and the two giant hounds scampered to his feet and crouched there, tongues hanging, as they gazed adoringly up at him. "Apologize to the lady." He raised his hand in a gesture, and the dogs immediately turned. Then he snapped his fingers and they sprawled at her feet.
"Cástor and Pólux are usually well-behaved. I don't know why they got so worked up." He paused, and let his arrogant gaze drift over the front of her blue jacket to the loose flowered cotton of her skirt. "Then again, maybe I do." His eyes glittered with suggestion. "How may I help you?"
"Are you Amado Alvarez?"
"At your service." He lowered his head in a mock bow. "Your name?"
"Susannah Clarke." Susannah took a deep breath. "I I have a private matter to discuss with you."
His elegant brow crinkled slightly. "How intriguing. Do come in." He indicated the wide stone steps in front of the open door.
He stood to one side as she climbed past him, her elbow still smarting from where his dog had smashed her against the car.
Of course, the news she brought might leave Amado Alvarez with far more than a bruised elbow.
He ushered her into a large living room with comfortable sofas arranged around a grand fireplace. The patter of massive dog feet followed them over the tiled floors.
"A private matter, you say?" He indicated for her to sit on one of the leather sofas. He sat next to her, but with enough distance to be polite. The dogs sprawled on a patterned rug in front of the unlit fireplace.
"Yes." She knitted her fingers together. "Have you ever heard of Tarrant Hardcastle?"
Blood pounded in Susannah's brain as he contemplated the question.
He shrugged. "No, should I have?"
"Well—" She twisted her fingers. If she blew this she could lose her job. "I'm not really sure how to say this, but he believes he's your father and he'd like very much to meet with you."
Amado's eyes narrowed and his mouth widened into that crooked smile. "Is this some kind of joke? Who put you up to this? Tomás?"
She inhaled. "I'm afraid it's not a joke. Tarrant believes he had an affair with your mother in Manhattan, back in the late 1970s, and that you are the result of that union."
Amado's face creased with amusement. "Manhattan? In New York?"
"Yes. She was there studying art. At least, that's how Tarrant remembers it."
Amado looked at her as if she'd just sprouted a third eye. "My mother was studying art in New York City?" He let out a guffaw.
He turned his head. "Mamá!" His voice rang across the room. Susannah cringed as he called for his mother. A woman probably now in her fifties and living a respectable life, about to be confronted with a single indiscretion from many years ago that could upturn all of their lives.
She shrank into the sofa.
"What is it, sweetheart?" called a soft voice. Susannah rose to her feet as his mother entered the room. A short, rotund woman with fluffy gray hair, thick-framed glasses and navy orthopedic shoes.
Susannah blinked. Mrs. Alvarez was a stark contrast to Tarrant's ex-beauty-queen, third wife.
Amado rose and kissed her. "Mamá, you're going to love this. First, let me introduce you. Susannah Clarke, this is my mother, Clara Alvarez."
"Delighted to meet you." Clara shook Susannah's hand gently. Her skin was soft, like her voice. Her pale blue eyes sparkled with warmth. "Have you traveled far?"
Susannah swallowed hard. "From New York."
"Mamá, have you ever been to New York?"
Susannah could swear the older woman—and she looked to be close to seventy—suddenly changed. Her bearing stiffened, and her expression hardened. "Never."
"Susannah seems to think you were studying art there in the 1970s."
Clara Alvarez laughed. Not a natural laugh, though. A sharp, forced one. "What nonsense. I've never been farther than Buenos Aires. Why would she think such a crazy thing?"
Her eyes gleamed with suspicion—and reproof—as she glared at Susannah over the rims of her glasses.
Susannah hesitated. It was impossible to imagine Tar-rant having an affair with this little old lady. Even thirty years ago, she'd have been middle-aged. Tarrant's current wife was half his age, if that.
"Excuse me, I have a pot on the stove." Clara excused herself and bustled away.
"See what I mean?" Amado raised an eyebrow. "It pains me to say this, but I think you have the wrong Amado Alvarez."
Susannah frowned. Alvarez was a common name . Could the researcher have made a mistake?
Tierra de Oro was the right place, though. And she'd been ordered not to return to Hardcastle Enterprises without a sample of this Amado Alvarez's DNA.
Time was of the essence. Tarrant Hardcastle had already outlived his doctor's projections, and if he was to meet his missing son before it was too late
"The matter could be cleared up with a simple test. If you'd be so kind as to give me a DNA sample, I could get it processed immediately and we'd know the truth one way or the other."
Amado's eyes widened. "DNA? You want my blood?"
"It doesn't have to be blood. In fact, a scraping from inside your mouth would be ideal."
He clapped a large hand against one side of his face as if someone might attempt to gouge into it. "No."
Clara reappeared, tugging a silver-haired man who stared at Susannah. Clara whispered so rapidly that Susannah couldn't make out the words.
The dogs rose to their feet, sniffing tension in the air.
The older man strode up to Susannah and nodded a brusque greeting. "Young lady, I am Ignacio Alvarez and Amado is my son. Your business here is concluded. Allow me to escort you to your car."
This man had brown eyes, like Amado, whereas Tarrant had blue. If Tarrant and Clara had an affair, surely Amado would have blue eyes?
"I I," Susannah groped for the right thing to say. If she went home without the DNA, Tarrant would be furious.
He'd probably fire her.
Or send her right back here.
"Papá, I'm shocked at you." Amado frowned and stepped between his father and Susannah. "This young woman may be mistaken in her quest, but she's traveled all the way from New York and we've not even offered her refreshments."
Susannah glanced from one man to the other. Amado was tall, over six foot—like Tarrant—whereas Ignacio was probably only five-eight or so. Still
"Son, I really think that—"
Amado held up his hand. "Allow me to offer you a snack and some coffee. Or would you prefer wine?"
Susannah drew in a breath. "I'm a wine buyer for Hard-castle Enterprises." Perhaps she could try to turn this into a business trip and come back to the more personal part later. "I'd love to sample your wines with a view to purchasing them for our restaurants."
"Excellent. Mamá, please ask Rosa to prepare a bite for our guest. And a glass of the 2004 Malbec, to start."
Susannah turned to find Ignacio staring at her, brows lowered. She jerked her gaze away. No surprise he was upset that she'd suggested his son wasn't his.
Clara had vanished, possibly to slip poison into a glass of 2004 Malbec.
"Which varietals do you grow here at Tierra de Oro?" She put on a brave professional smile.
"Mostly Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec, but we're fortunate to have a variety of elevations and microclimates, so we experiment constantly with new vines." Amado's expression had smoothed. He looked comfortable again. "Why don't we go outside and I'll show you?"
He led her across the living room, past the glaring Ignacio, and out onto a stone patio with a view over the southern portion of the estate. Row upon row of leafy vines traced the gentle contours of the land, rising into the foothills of the majestic Andes. The lush growth gave no hint of the effort needed to tease productive plants from the relatively arid soil of the area.
"It's a special place."
The words drifted out of Susannah's mouth without her really meaning to say them. The light had a strange quality that rather dazzled her. Bright but somehow soft.
Harsh, yet loving.
Maybe all those hours of travel had addled her brain.
Amado stared across the rolling terrain. "Yes. It is a special place." A frown gathered on his proud brow. "I can't imagine living anywhere else."
Susannah froze. It occurred to her that if Amado was not Ignacio's son, he might lose his right to run the estate.
Suddenly the afternoon sunlight seemed blinding.
"How long has your family been here?"
"Forever." He smiled. "Well, that's how it feels. The first Alvarez came here in 1868 from Cádiz and married a local girl. We've been here ever since."
"I can see why. It's beautiful."
The sun glinted off the snowcapped mountains. Vast and solid, they stretched almost to the end of the earth.
Susannah had never lived in one place for more than three years. She couldn't even blame her missionary parents anymore. She'd moved about on her own as an adult.
"It's changed a lot since then, of course, but we do our best to protect and care for the land."
"Have you always grown grapes here?" She was careful to imply he was part of the Alvarez family.
"There've always been a few hundred vines, mostly for family consumption. Most of these—" he swept his arm across the acres and acres of rows "—have been planted in the last ten to fifteen years since I convinced my father to switch from beef to viniculture."
The door behind them opened and a tiny, ancient woman, who made Clara look positively youthful by comparison, emerged carrying a tray with two glasses of wine and a plate with some pastries.
"Thank you, Rosa." Amado took the tray and placed it on the stone wall that ringed the patio. Susannah smiled at Rosa—who returned her gesture with a flinty stare.
"The 2004 Malbec is one of our bestsellers. It's won several awards and brought us international attention. See what you think." He held out the glass. His dark eyes shone with anticipation that revealed his pride in his wine.
Susannah took it and admired the dark ruby color of the liquid against the white peaks and pale blue of the sky. She sniffed the bouquet—young, fruity—perhaps too much so for her taste. Then she sipped. A tiny taste, just enough to test the mouth-feel and waken her taste buds to the experience.
Amado hovered over her in silent expectation.
"Delicious." No lie. It was bold and wonderful.
His lopsided grin revealed those even, white teeth as he raised his glass and sipped. "I agree. It's okay to be proud of one's own child, don't you think?"
"Absolutely." She couldn't help smiling. And sipping again. Enjoying the rich warm flavor of the sunbaked soil and the well-irrigated grapes grown in this stunning landscape. "How many cases do you have available for purchase?"
He threw back his head and laughed, giving her a lingering vision of his bronzed neck, muscles flexed, under the creamy-white collar of his shirt. "Getting down to business so soon? I've heard that you Americans don't like to waste time. They weren't kidding."
Susannah blinked. Was her professional interest in the wine somehow inappropriate under the circumstances?
Posted May 1, 2010
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