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Domenico didn't usually involve himself with tourists. They were not, as a rule, vitally concerned with the wine industry except as it applied to their drinking habits. That morning, though, he happened to be crossing the yard to his office at the rear of the main building just as the latest batch of visitors filed from the vineyard toward the public section at the front. All but one headed straight for the tasting room. She remained outside, earnestly questioning his uncle Bruno who, at almost sixty, had forgotten more about viticulture than Domenico himself ever hoped to learn.
Although professional enough not to dismiss any question, regardless of how trivial it might be, Bruno was not one to suffer fools gladly. That he appeared as engrossed in the conversation as this visitor, was unusual enough for Domenico to stop and observe.
Tall, slender and rather plain, the woman looked to be in her mid-twenties. And, he surmised, noting the slightly pink tint to her fair skin, newly arrived in Sardinia and not yet acclimatized to the sun. Unless she wanted to spend the rest of her holiday in bed with sunstroke, she should be wearing a hat. Tying up her hair in a careless ponytail that left her nape exposed was asking for trouble.
His uncle must have thought so, too, because he guided her to a bench set in the shade of a nearby oleander. More curious by the second, Domenico lingered just within earshot.
Catching sight of him, Bruno waved him over. "This is the man you talk with," he told the woman. "My nephew, first he speaks the good English to make better sense for you. More important, what he does not know about growing grapes and turning them into fine wine, it is not worth knowing."
"And my uncle never exaggerates," Domenico said, smiling at the woman. "Allow me to introduce myself, signorina."
She looked up and, for a moment, his usual urbanity deserted him. Suddenly bereft of speech, he found himself staring like a goatherd.
She was not beautiful, no. At least, not in the conventional sense. Her clothes were modest: a denim knee-length skirt, white short-sleeved cotton blouse and flat-heeled sandals. Her hair, though shiny as glass, was a nondescript brown, her hips narrow as a boy's, her breasts small. Nothing like the annoyingly persistent Ortensia Costanza, with her vibrantly dramatic good looks and ripe curves. If Ortensia exemplified blatant female sexuality at its most hungry, this delicate creature fell at the other end of the spectrum and almost shied away from him.
She was, he decided, the kind of woman a man could easily overlookuntil he gazed into her large, lovely eyes, and found himself drowning in their luminous gray depths.
Recovering himself, he continued, "I'm Domenico Silvaggio d'Avalos. How may I help you?"
She rose from the bench with lithe grace, and offered her hand. Small and fine-boned, it was almost swallowed up by his. "Arlene Russell," she replied, her voice pleasantly modulated. "And if you can spare me half an hour, I'd love to pick your brain."
"You're interested in the wine industry?"
"More than interested." She allowed herself a quick, almost rueful smile. "I recently came into possession of a vineyard, you see, but it's in rather sad shape, and I need some advice on how to go about restoring it."
Smiling himself, he said, "You surely don't think that is something that can be dealt with in a few words, signorina?"
"Not in the least. But I'm committed to doing whatever I have to, to make a success of it, and since I have to start somewhere, what better place than here, where even a novice like me can recognize expertise when she sees it?"
"Spend an hour with the girl," his uncle muttered, reverting to Sardu, the language most often spoken on the island.
"She is thirsty as a sponge for information, unlike those others whose only thirst is for the wine tastings they're now enjoying at our expense."
"I can't spare the time."
"Yes, you can spare the time! Invite her to lunch."
Her glance flitted between the two men. Although clearly not understanding their exchange, she correctly identified the irritation Domenico now showed on his face.
Her own mirroring utter disappointment, she murmured, "Please forgive me, Signor Silvaggio d'Avalos. I'm afraid I'm being very thoughtless and asking far too much of you." Then turning to his uncle, she rallied another smile. "Thank you for taking the time to speak with me, signor. You've been very kind."
As opposed to me, who's behaving like a world-class boor, Domenico thought, an unwelcome shaft of sympathy at her obvious dejection piercing his annoyance. "As it happens," he heard himself saying before he could change his mind, "I can spare you an hour or so before my afternoon appointments. I won't promise to address all your concerns in that time, but at least I can direct you to someone who will."
She wasn't deceived by his belated gallantry. Picking up the camera and notebook she'd left on the bench, she replied, "That's quite all right, signor. You've made it plain you have better things to do."
"I have to eat," he said, sizing up her too-slender length, "and from the looks of it, so do you. I suggest we make the most of the opportunity to kill two birds with one stone."
Although her pride struggled to fling his invitation back in his face, practicality overcame it. "Then I thank you again," she said stiffly. "I'm most grateful."
He took her elbow and turned her toward the Jeep parked next to the winery's huge rear double doors through which, soon, the harvested grapes would be brought for crushing. If she was nervous about hopping into a vehicle with a stranger, she hid it well, asking only, "Where are we going?"
"To my house, which lies a good five kilometers farther along the coast from here."
"Well, now I really feel I'm imposing! I assumed we'd eat in the winery's bistro."
"That is for the tourists."
"Which is what I am." He put the Jeep in gear and started off along the paved road leading to his estate. "No, signorina. Today, you are my guest."
He was a master of understatement, Arlene decided.
She'd learned from the tourist brochures she'd collected that Vigna Silvaggio d'Avalos, a family-owned vineyard and winery going back three generations, was one of the best in Sardinia and that it boasted a prime location on the coast at the northern tip of the island, just west of Santa Teresa Gallura.
The elaborate coat of arms adorning the wrought-iron gates at the estate's entrance hadn't really surprised her. It, as well as the building whose handsome facade housed a state-of-theart winery, tasting room, shop and garden bistro, were more or less what she expected of an operation touted as producing "internationally acclaimed wines of impeccable quality."
But when he drove through a second set of wrought-iron gates, and followed a long, winding driveway past what appeared to be private residences set in spacious grounds, to a pale stucco building perched above the beach, she was hard-pressed not to behave like the gauche tourist he undoubtedly took her to be, and stare open-mouthed. What he so casually referred to merely as his "house" struck her as being nothing less than palatial.
Screened from the others in the compound by an acre or more of gardens planted with lush, flowering vegetation, it rose from the landscape in a series of elegant angles and curves designed to take full advantage of the view. To the one side lay the breathtaking Smerelda Coast; to the other, acres of vineyards climbed up the hillside.
Escorting her through the main entrance hall to a wide covered veranda below which the sea shone green as the emerald for which it was so aptly named, he indicated a group of wicker armchairs upholstered with deep, comfortable cushions. "Have a seat and excuse me a moment while I take care of lunch."
"Please don't go to a lot of trouble," she protested, well aware that she'd already put him out enough for one day.
He smiled and retrieved a remote phone from its cradle on a side table. "It is no trouble. I'll order something to be brought down from the main house."
Well, of course he will, idiot! she reproached herself, reeling a little from the impact of that smile. Had she really imagined he'd disappear into the kitchen, don an apron and whip up something delectable with his own two hands? And did he have to be so unapologetically gorgeous that she could hardly think straight? Tall and dark, she might have expected and managed to deal with, but his startlingly blue eyes lent added allure to a face already blessed with more masculine beauty than any one man deserved.
After a brief conversation, he replaced the phone and busied himself at a built-in bar. "There, it is done. What would you like to drink?"
"Something long and cool, please," she said, fanning herself against a heat which wasn't altogether the fault of the weather.
He dropped ice into two tall crystal goblets, half-filled them with white wine he took from the bar refrigerator, and topped them off with a squirt of soda. "Vermentino made from our own grapes," he remarked, taking a seat beside her and clinking the rim of his glass gently against hers. "Refreshing and not too potent. So, Signorina Russell, how did you come by this vineyard you speak of?"
"I inherited it."
"Just ten days ago."
"And it is here, on the island?"
"No. It's in CanadaI'm Canadian."
But he obviously didn't. He quite plainly wondered what she was doing in Sardinia when her interests lay on the other side of the world.
"The thing is," she hastened to explain, before he decided she was just another dilettante not worth his time, "I'd already paid for my holiday here, and because this inheritance landed in my lap so unexpectedly, I thought it best not to rush into anything until I'd talked to a few experts of which, it turns out, there are many here in Sardinia. I've never been the rash, impulsive type, and now didn't seem a good time to start."
"You have no experience at all in viticulture, then?"
"None. I'm a legal secretary and live in Toronto. And to tell the truth, I'm still reeling from the news that I now own a house and several acres of vineyards in British Columbiathat's Canada's most western province, in case you don't know."
"I'm familiar with B.C.," he informed her tersely, as if even an infant still in diapers would have a thorough geographical knowledge of the world's second largest country. "Have you seen this place for yourself, or are you relying on secondhand information about its condition?"
"I spent a couple of days there last week."
"And what else did you learn, as a result?"
"Nothing except that it's very run-downoh, and that an elderly manager-cum-overseer and two rescued greyhounds are part of my legacy."
He rolled his altogether gorgeous eyes, as if to say, Why me,ohLord? "May I ask what you propose to do about them?"
"Well, I'm not about to abandon them, if that's what you're suggesting."
"I'm suggesting nothing of the sort, Signorina Russell. I'm merely trying to establish the extent of, for want of a better word, your 'undertaking.' For example, exactly how many acres of land do you now own?"
"And the kind of grapes grown there?"
"I don't know." Then, before he could throw up his hands in disgust and tell her to go bother someone else because she'd tried his patience far enough for one day, she added, "Signor Silvaggio d'Avalos, I realize this might be difficult for you to understand, growing up as you have, so surrounded by the business of cultivating grapes and turning them into wine that you probably started assimilating knowledge from the cradle, but I am a complete novice and although I'm willing to learn, I have to start somewhere, which is why I'm here with you, now."
He listened, his expression impassive. "And you're very sure you have the stamina required to fulfill your ambitions, are you?" he inquired, when at last she stopped to draw breath.
He regarded her, his gaze unnervingly intent. "Then if what you have told me is correct, I must warn you that even if you were an expert, you would be undertaking a project of massive proportion whose success is by no means guaranteed. And by your own admission, you are anything but expert."
"Well, I didn't expect it would be easy," she floundered, so mesmerized by his brilliantly blue eyes that it was all she could do to string two words together. "But I meant what I said. Succeeding in this venture is very important to me for all kinds of reasons, not the least of which is that there are others whose welfare depends on it. I am determined to go through with it, regardless of the difficulties it entails."
"Very well." He leaned one elbow on the arm of his chair and cradled his jaw in his hand. "In that case, take out your pen and let's get started on what you need to know at the outset."
In the half hour before their lunch arrivedcold Mediterranean lobster in a creamy wine sauce, avocado and tomato slices, and bread warm from the oven, followed by a fruit and cheese plattershe wrote rapidly, stopping every now and then to ask a question and trying hard to focus on the subject at hand.
Despite her best efforts, though, her mind wandered repeatedly. The questions he fielded from her were not those she most wished to ask. Whether or not she might have to rip out all her old vines and start over from scratch, which varietals she should plant in their place, how much it would cost and how long before she could expect to recoup her losses and make a profit, didn't seem nearly as engrossing as how he'd come by his very remarkable eyes, where he'd learned to speak such excellent English, how old he was, or if there was a special woman in his life.
Although she made copious notes of every critical scrap of information he tossed her way, her rebellious gaze repeatedly returned to his face. To the slight cleft in his chin, and the high slash of his cheekbones which seemed more Spanish than Italian. To the tawny sheen of his skin and his glossy black hair. To the dark sweeping elegance of his brows and the way his long, dense lashes so perfectly framed his vivid blue eyes.
"So, I have not managed to discourage you?" he inquired, as they sat down to the meal.
"You've made me aware of pitfalls I might not otherwise have recognized," she told him, choosing her words carefully, "but no, you have not discouraged me. If anything, I'm more determined than ever to bring my vineyard back to life."
He considered that for a moment, then said, "Tell me more about this great-uncle of yours. Why, for example, did he allow his vines to fail so drastically?"
"I suppose because he was too old to look after them properly. He was eighty-four when he died."
"You suppose? Were you not close to him during his lifetime?"
"No. I didn't even know of his existence until his lawyer contacted me regarding his estate."
"He had no other relatives? None better equipped than you to rescue his property from ruination?"
"I don't know."
She stared at him, frustrated. I'm supposed to be the one asking the questions, not you! she felt like telling him. "Because he was from my father's side of the family."
"You did not care for your father and his kin?"
Kin. An old-fashioned word which, coupled with his charming accent, gave one of the few indications that English wasn't his mother tongue. "I barely knew my father," she said, wrenching her mind back to the matter at hand. "He died when I was seven."
He raised a lofty brow. "I remember many relatives and events from when I was that age."
"Probably because, unlike mine, your family stayed together."
"Your parents were divorced?"
"Oh, yes, and the war between them never ended," she said, remembering all too well her mother's vitriolic outpourings to Arlene's hesitant requests to visit her father or speak to him by phone. "I was four at the time, and my mother made sure I lived too far away from my father to see him often."
Domenico Silvaggio d'Avalos shook his head disapprovingly. "I cannot imagine such a thing. When a man and a woman have created a child together, his or her welfare comes before any thought of the parents' personal happiness."
"A fine philosophy in theory, signor, but not so easy to live by, I suspect, if the couple in question find themselves irreconcilably opposed to one another's wishes and needs."
"All the more reason to choose wisely in the first place then, wouldn't you say?"
She laughed. "You're obviously not married!"