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In naive, lust-crazed, love-addled ignorance, Jillian Ashton wagered everything that mattered when she eloped to Vegas with Jason Bennedict. And when the marriage ended in a fiery late-night car wreck, she lost it all.
Her lying, cheating husband, her home, her savings, her job, and the last tattered shreds of her self-respect.
Poof, all gone.
Two years later Jillian had a home and a job in her family's Napa Valley winery. As for that lost esteem ... well, today she stood a chance of regaining a sizeable chunk. More literally she stood - in two-inch businesswoman heels - in the Louret Winery meeting room gaping at her brother. As Louret's business manager, Cole controlled the purse strings. He did not, by virtue of his job and his personality, ever make things easy.
And yet ...
"Everything?" Jillian asked on a rising note of suspicion. April Fool's Day wasn't until Friday, surely. She waved a hand at the flip chart by her side. "You're agreeing to all these changes?"
"Don't get ahead of yourself, Jellie. I'm saying your idea has merit. Get some quotes."
"But you haven't seen the rest of my -"
"Pretty pictures?" Cole rocked back in his chair, looking more amused than impressed by the presentation she'd slaved over. "Save the rest for next Monday's meeting. I've a ten o'clock appointment to get to."
Jillian sucked in a breath and released it slowly. Sure, his casual use of her childhood nickname and the pretty-pictures dig rankled, but she should be used to her brother's - to both her brothers' - patronizing indulgence.
As the youngest of four siblings, she'd endured such head-patting all her life.
In retrospect the flip-chart presentation had probably been a tad over the top for a family business meeting - especially since Cole and his dog were the only family members to show for said meeting - but she'd wanted to knock his socks off. For months she'd worked on her proposal to expand and remodel the winery's tasting room.
This was important.
She needed the challenge, creatively and professionally and personally. She needed to prove herself to her family and, most importantly, to herself.
"What's your time line on this project, Jellie?"
Jillian - aka Jillie, aka Jellie, aka Jellie-Belly - felt her shoulders tighten reflexively. Oh, yes, she definitely needed to prove herself more than the little sister. She might have failed at her marriage but she was a graduate in viticulture and enology. For the past eighteen months she'd successfully managed Louret's tasting room.
And she was past thirty, for heaven's sake!
Biting back her annoyance, she carefully packed away the last of her presentation materials before responding to Cole's question. "Ten to fourteen days, depending on the selected contractor's schedule."
"You have a list of contractors?"
Jillian smiled sweetly and tapped her portfolio. "It was on my next pretty page. The one preceding my proposed time line. How many quotes would you like me to get?"
"Your call, as long as Seth Bennedict is one of them." He paused to study her closely. "Will that be a problem?"
Yes. She swallowed a lump of imminent panic and met his eyes. "No."
Cole nodded. "Good. If Seth's your man, I know it'll be done right."
"I'll keep that in mind."
With the portfolio tucked under her arm, she calmly left the meeting room and closed the door at her back. For a brief moment, she indulged the tremor in her limbs by leaning against its solid timber strength.
But only for a brief moment. Irritation skated the edges of her nerves as she stalked to her own office, the smallest of half a dozen built atop the tasting room in Louret's winery building.
If Seth's your man, I know it'll be done right.
So much for her brother's confidence in her ability to manage this task. As it happened, she'd done her research. She'd talked to a stack of locals about their dealings with Napa building contractors. And, so okay, her brother was right about whose name kept popping up, but ...
"Seth Bennedict is not my man," she muttered as she sank into her chair, inordinately bothered by that wording.
Oh, Seth Bennedict was a man all right. A big, dark, brooding mass of male with a disturbingly intent gaze and an equally disconcerting habit of taking charge.
He was also her brother-in-law and the only living soul who knew the most humiliating details of her disastrous marriage.
Even when she'd not wanted Seth's help - especially when she'd not wanted it - he'd bulldozed over her objections. Sure, he'd untangled the financial mess that was Jason's legacy, which meant he also knew how gullible and witless she had been in allowing their joint affairs to become so knotted.
Jillian's fingers curled into the cushioned arms of her chair. Success with the tasting-room redesign was her chance to drag herself beyond the crippling grip of her past. If that meant working with Seth Bennedict and his indis-soluble links to those dark years, then so be it.
It wouldn't be any fun, but she would deal with it.
And she would start dealing today. Right now. Before she chickened out.
She grabbed her purse and car keys from her desk drawer, then shook her head ruefully. The way her life had panned out, she wouldn't recognize fun anyway, even if it came tap-dancing across her desk wearing a Team Fun sweatshirt.
Seth Bennedict recognized fun. A bosom buddy of hard physical labor and on-the-job satisfaction, it screamed through his muscles with each swing of the ten-pound hammer then settled damp with sweat on his skin.
Man, he didn't get to do this often enough.
The downside of success as a building contractor was too much business and planning and consulting, not nearly enough hands-on. He couldn't think of a more gratifying way to spend his thirty-eighth birthday than pounding down walls.
Well, okay, so he could think of one.
He'd woken that morning thinking about it, with the remnant shreds of a broken dream hard in his body and hot in his mind.
But then his phone had rung - Lou, foreman on this job, calling in sick - and before he could replace the receiver his daughter had propelled herself onto his bed, bouncing and gabbing with it's-your-birthday-Daddy excitement.
His phone rang again. Then his housekeeper Rosa appeared, looking for Rachel and breakfast orders. And that was reality.
A thriving business, a phone that never quit, and a three-year-old daughter who owned him heart and soul. No time to indulge his body in anything more than a stray early-morning fantasy - forget the real deal! - which left the only other physical release he was getting any time soon.
Seth squinted through the dust of demolition, fixed his gaze on the target wall and lifted his hammer.
He turned to find one of his younger laborers standing in what remained of the doorway.
Excerpted from Just A Taste by Bronwyn Jameson Copyright © 2005 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd. . Excerpted by permission.
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