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Amabile: In Italian loveable.
Used to indicate a sweet wine.
At dawn on the first day of June, Wyatt DeSalme stood on the bow of the ferry watching the mist-shrouded island that lay just off the coast of northern California slide into view.
The churning engines vibrated up through the deck floor and he tasted salty sea air. Seagulls chattered like gossiping biddies and the excited voices of the young men and women surrounding him, nursing their gourmet coffees and noshing on free pastries, grew in tone and tempo as the mist parted.
Suddenly, the jagged, double-barrelled bluff known as Twin Hearts jutted straight up from the middle of the island, glistening in the jubilant glow of morning light.
This was it. His destination.
The strangest feeling passed over him, a feeling that said, If you do this, you 'll never be the same.
An uneasy knot settled in the pit of his stomach.
I don't wanna go.
How come? Normally, he loved role-playing. Secret agent man had been his favorite game as a kid, not cowboys and Indians like this brothers. Why the sudden impulse to stay rooted on the boat while everyone else disembarked?
What's the matter? Chicken?
The taunt came from the back of his mind, but it was the voice of his oldest brother, Scott, issuing the chanting dare from childhood along with an excess of poultry noises; a dare Wyatt had never been able to resist. It was why he'd broken a collarbone climbing a quince tree when he was ten, and why he'd fallen through the ice on a barely frozen pond when they'd visited their maternal grandparents in Kansas one Christmas. The taunts, dares, bets and challenges had gone a long way toward forming his character. Always eager to prove himself to his older brothers, he had turned into a bold adventurer. Now here he was at thirty-one still trying to win their approval.
As a disguise, he wore dark-framed, non-prescription lenses and two days' growth of prickly beard. Over the past few months he'd let his hair grow out, getting ready for this covert game, and it curled in waves to his collar. He hadn't worn his hair this long since college and an errant strand kept flopping across his brow whenever he tilted his head forward.
He had on blue jeans with a hole in one knee, a gray knit cap and a gray hooded sweatshirt emblazoned with the Berkeley University logo, a school he had not attended, but wished he had. He'd gone instead to Princeton, as was family tradition, and had dropped out in his sophomore year. His sneakerspurchased at a thrift shopboasted broken shoelaces and thin treads. His watch, also from the thrift store, was a cheap drugstore brand. He'd left the Rolex at his condo in Athens. No belt. No socks.
His goal? Downplay his looks. Make himself as nondescript as possible. Fit in with the opposite of his customary behavior. Normally, Wyatt adored wearing a tux to high-society parties, driving his Lamborghini on the autobahn, gambling in Monte Carlo and generally being the center of attention.
The dodge seemed to be working. He'd been on the boat for over an hour and not a single one of the hot coeds on board had shot him a second glance. Which was both reassuring and a bit of an ego-crusher.
"So," said one of those gorgeous coeds to another as the engines stopped churning and the ferry glided toward the dock. "Do you think the legend of Idyll Island is true?"
Wyatt, eager to eavesdrop on their conversation, moved closer to the two young women who stood near the railing watching the ferry workers prep for landing. A good corporate spy kept his eyes and ears open.
"What's that?" asked the second girl. The petite brunette looked barely legal, but he'd heard her say earlier that she was as an intern at Belle Notte Vineyards, so she had to be at least twenty-one. Still, she could pass for a high-school student.
You're just getting old.
He quickly batted away that thought. He was thirty-one, in the prime of life, at the top of his game.
"Oh, you haven't heard? It's amazing. So romantic." The first girl, a blonde with a pert ski-slope of a nose, dramatically clutched both hands to her heart. "Here's how the story goes. Way back, a long, long time ago, when the founder of Bella Notte, Giovanni Romano, was our age, he fell in love with a girl from the mainland. One night in June, Giovanni took the first bottle of wine produced from his vineyard, along with his sweetheart, Maria, up to the top of Twin Hearts." The blonde paused and gestured at the towering bluffs.
"Did they do it up there?" The brunette giggled.
Wyatt rolled his eyes, but sidled closer.
"I'm sure." The blonde grinned slyly. "They shared the wine underneath the full moon, and then Giovanni asked Maria to marry him. She said yes. They were married in the vineyard the following June and lived happily ever after for sixty-four years."
"Aww, that's so sweet."
"Giovanni and Maria's three sons did the same thing with their girlfriends. And then their sons did too. No one in the Romano family has ever been divorced. Nor has anyone who has ever shared a bottle of wine with their true love on Twin Hearts during a full moon in June."
The blonde shook her head. "No one."
"Wow," said the brunette. "Those are some crazy odds."
What a load of bull, Wyatt thought, but in spite of himself, he was charmed by the legend. He had to admit that the Romanos sure knew how to stir up a myth for publicity and he wondered how much of the boutique vineyard's success was tied into that farfetched story.
"Well, I'm not here for romance," the blonde said. "I'm here to learn winemaking from the best."
"Couldn't get an internship at DeSalme Vineyards, huh?"
"No," the blonde admitted sheepishly. "But this is better."
"How do you figure?"
"Belle Notte's a small winery, run by a woman."
"And there is that legend."
"I told you I'm not interested in romance. Now hooking up with a hot guy She cast a sidelong glance at the deckhands docking the boat. "Absolutely. I'm just not in the market for happily ever after."
Wyatt slid an appraising glance over the blonde. Apart from her youthfuness, she was what his brothers would refer to as one of "Wyatt's Lamborghini women"fast, sleek and expensive to maintain. She possessed a smoking body, expensive haircut and designer clothes. Too bad he couldn't afford the distraction.
"Not even if you know like you met somebody special, like, The One?" the brunette asked.
The blonde tossed her head. "I'm not ruling anything out, but yeah, I'm not interested in long-term. Not for years and years and years. I want to be like Kiara Romano, running my own winery by the time I'm thirty. You can't achieve something like that if you let your heart rule your head."
"It also helps to inherit a winery."
"There is that."
"Or marry into one."
The blonde sniffed. "I want to be the one in the driver's seat."
"It's not always pleasant behind the wheel. I heard Kiara never dates." The brunette lowered her voice and said something he couldn't hear.
Wyatt cocked his head, straining to listen, but it was too late. The women were moving away from him, heading to where everyone else was disembarking and climbing into the waiting vans whose doors wore mural wraps of Bella Notte Vineyards.
At this hour of the morning it seemed almost everyone on the ferry was a new intern headed for Bella Notte. Wyatt found himself in the same van with the chatty coeds. They ended up introducing themselves. The blonde's name was Lauren; the brunette's Bernadette.
As the caravan of four vehicles, each carrying six interns, drove up the hillside, the mist seemed to move with them, rolling away from the coast, rising up to cloak Twin Hearts. The landscape was arid earth on one side of the bluff, verdant valleys dotted with vineyards on the other. Idyll had the same grape-friendly climate as the Napa Valley region, the same easygoing feel.
The entrance to Bella Notte was as quaint as everything else on Idyll. A vine-covered stone wall flanked buildings reminiscent of Tuscan wineries. Beyond the buildings stretched rows of perfectly-manicured grapes. Wyatt had grown up in vineyards and honestly, they'd never interested himtoo much hard work to be surebut now, looking at this place, breathing in the scent of the rich loamy soil, his chest tightened and he felt oddly inspired.
His brothers would get a good laugh out of that. Why should he feel inspired by this tiny winery, while the big, sprawling corporate affair that was DeSalme Vineyards left him cold?
That reminded him of why he was here. To find out exactly what Belle Notte was doing that had caused this tiny boutique winery to take a surprising bite out of DeSalme's market share. Their wines were supremely good. What were they doing differently? His brothers had paid to have the wine analyzed, but they'd been unable to detect why it was so special. They needed a corporate spy on the inside and he was it.
A tall, dark-haired man met the group and ushered them into one of the stone buildings. He moved with a dreamy, loose-limbed stride, as if walking on a bank of clouds. He wore his hair long, swept off his forehead and tied back with a leather strap. He had a cluster of purple grapes tattooed on his right forearm and he wore a shirt made from hemp. The artsy look made Wyatt think of the skinny, ponytailed guy on the cover of the Fleetwood Mac Rumours album.
A raven-haired woman, wearing a gauzy blue dress, ambled across the yard to join them. She nestled against the tall man and turned her face up to receive a long, soulful kiss from him. With genuine affection, the man patted her butt, and then gently tugged her along beside him.
It was cool inside and minimally furnished with a large, sturdy wooden table and a long row of matching chairs. It was obviously a tasting room set up for the tourists who paid extra for lessons on wine- and food-pairing.
The place smelled of grapes: sweet and robust and intoxicating. It was a familiar scent that never quite left Wyatt's nostrils, no matter where in the world he sailed his yacht. But here in this austere room, he could not shake the aroma of home.
The back door opened, revealing a long corridor paneled in rich mahogany. Everyone turned in unison.
A woman about his own age entered the room, dressed in a style that Wyatt could only describe as "you're not getting a gander at the goods, smart guy." She wore round wire-framed granny glasses, a shapeless, floral dress that he associated with women over sixty and a burgundy-and-green Bella Notte chef's apron.
The dress hem hit her at mid-calf and her feet were shod in battered tan hiking boots with thick rubber soles. A pair of simple gold studs lay nestled in her earlobes and her complexion was as sunkissed as field grapes and completely without the artifice of makeup. She'd pulled her dark auburn hair back in a haphazard ponytail, escaping strands poking out in every direction.
For some weird reason, the song, "Every Which Way but Loose" popped into his mind.
She raised her head and her stunning green eyes slammed into his and his heart just stumbled.
A sudden memory flashed.
He was a child running through the grapevines, playing tag with his brothers and cousins during some outdoor event hosted by his family, the air rife with the smell of barbecue. He couldn't have been more than four or five. He'd reached the end of the row and then boom.
Out of nowhere a little auburn-haired, green-eyed girl appeared. Momentum had been against him and he'd knocked her flat on the ground. She'd lain there staring at him in exactly the same way this woman was staring at him now.
As if he was an ugly bug in her breakfast cereal.
Uncustomary panic seized him. This was more than a game, he realized suddenly. There was more than his pride at stake. He'd told his brothers he could do this and Wyatt hated to fail. Besides, he was ready for more responsibility. He was tired of being the butt of his older brothers' jokes. He deserved to be a real part of the DeSalme legacy. If he could deliver Bella Notte's secret, it would prove him worthy and they'd have to stop dismissing him as just their playboy kid brother.
To wriggle out of her glower, he did what he always did when he aimed to charm women. He grinned and winked wolfishly.
Hey, stupid, you're not supposed to call attention to yourself.
The ploy worked. She glanced away quickly, pulled a corkscrew from her apron pocket and reached for a bottle of wine resting on the sideboard.
"Have a seat." The tall man waved a hand at the twenty-four empty chairs.
The man grabbed for glasses hanging from the rack suspended over the table and started passing them out. Three glasses apiecea wide-bodied one for the reds, more elongated for the whites, narrow flutes for the dessert wines.
The auburn-haired woman swiftly opened various bottles of wines. Next, she was slipping between the interns, tipping an ounce of each kind of wine into the waiting glasses in movements as choreographed as a dance. She'd done this many, many times before.
"I'm Maurice Romano," the man said and moved to slide his hand around the black-haired woman's waist. "This is my wife, Trudy. Besides looking after our four children, she runs the gift shop and she is in charge of guest services."
Trudy Romano smiled. "Welcome, welcome. We want you to all feel part of the family."
The door opened and four kids trouped in. Two boys and two girls.
"This is Mia," Trudy said, putting her hands on the shoulders of the oldest girl. "She's thirteen."
Dark-haired Mia rolled her eyes. "Mom, they don't care."
Her mother ignored her. "This is Samuel. He's ten."
Samuel wore a Yankees baseball cap. He doffed it, bowed and grinned.
"Stop showing off." Mia thumped her brother.
"Keep your hands to yourself."
"Children, children," Trudy chided. "This is Elliott and he's seven."
Elliott beamed, showing two missing front teeth.
"This is Juliet. She's six."
Bashful Juliet turned and buried her face in her mother's skirt.
"I have to take them to school now, but we wanted to be here to greet you." Then waving, Trudy herded her brood out the door.
"And this," Maurice said, indicating the other woman, "is my cousin Kiara. Our great-grandparents started Bella Notte Vineyards in 1934 and it's been in our family ever since."
So this was the fabled Kiara Romano, supposedly so gifted she'd brought the struggling vineyard from the brink of bankruptcy to become one of the most promising boutique wineries in California. Wyatt straightened in his chair. He certainly wouldn't have guessed that from looking at her.