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From the time Tony Carlino was six years old, he'd been infatuated with cars, speed and danger. Back then, the hills of Napa that create award-winning merlot and pinot had been his playing field. Racing his dinged up scooter down the embankment, he'd hit the dirt falling headfirst into a patch of fescue grass a hundred times over. But Tony never gave up when he wanted something. He hadn't been satisfied until he'd mastered that hill with his scooter, his bicycle and finally his motorcycle. He'd graduated to stock car racing and had become a champion.
Newly retired from racing, his present fascination had nothing to do with cars and speed and everything to do with a different kind of danger.
Rena Fairfield Montgomery.
He glimpsed the blue-eyed widow from across the gravesite where dozens were gathered. Valley winds blew strands of raven hair from her face, revealing her heartbroken expression and ruffling her solemn black dress.
She hated him.
With good reason.
Soon he'd walk into a land mine of emotion and nothing posed more danger to Tony than that. Especially when it came to Rena and all she represented.
Tony glanced beyond the gravesite to those hills and Carlino land, an abundance of crimson hues reflecting off foil covering the vines, keeping grape-eating birds from destroying the crop. The land he once resented, the vines that had fed his family for generations was his responsibility now. His father had passed on just months ago, leaving the Carlino brothers in charge of the huge empire.
Once again, Tony glanced at Rena and a face devoid of emotion, her tears spent. She walked up to the bronze coffin, staring blankly, as if to say she couldn't believe this. She couldn't believe that her beloved husband, David, was gone.
Tony winced. He held back tears of his own. David had been his best friend since those scooter days. He'd been there for Tony through thick and thin. They'd kept their friendship ongoing, despite a bitter family rivalry.
Despite the fact that Rena had loved Tony first.
Rena held back a sob and bravely reached out to the blanket of fresh flowers draped along the coffin. She pulled her hand back just as her fingertip touched a rose petal. At that moment, she glanced at Tony, her sad eyes so round and blue that a piece of him unraveled.
He knew her secret.
But Tony didn't give that away. He stared at her, and for that one small moment, sympathy and the pain of losing David temporarily bonded them.
She blinked then turned around, stepping away from the gravesite, her legs weak as all eyes watched the beautiful grieving widow say her final farewell to her husband.
Nick and Joe, Tony's younger brothers, stood by his side. Joe draped an arm around him. "We're all going to miss him."
"He was as good as they come," Nick added.
Tony nodded and stared at the car as Rena drove away from the cemetery.
"Rena's all alone now," Joe said, once Nick bid them farewell. "It'll be even more of a struggle for her to keep Purple Fields going."
Tony drew a deep breath, contemplating his next move. They'd been rivals in business for years, but her winery had been failing and was barely holding on. "She won't have to."
Joe stiffened. "Why, are you planning on buying her out? She won't sell, bro. You know she's stubborn. She's had offers before."
"Not like this one, Joe."
Joe turned his head to look him in the eye. "What, you're making her an offer she can't refuse?"
"Something like that. I'm going to marry her."
Rena got into her car alone, refusing her friends' and neighbors' well-meaning gestures to drive her home, to sit with her, to memorialize David Montgomery. She never understood why people gathered after a funeral, had food catered in and specialty wines flowing. They filled their plates, chattered and laughed and most times forgot the real reason they had come. She couldn't do that to David. No, he was too young to die. Too vital. He'd been a good man, an excellent and loving husband. She couldn't celebrate his life; he'd had so much more to live. So she spoke the words with sincerity to the guests at the funeral site, "I hope you understand that I need to be alone right now," and had driven off.
She rode the lanes and narrow streets of the valley as numbness settled over her. She knew this land so well, had traveled every road, had grown up in Napa and had married here.
She wept silently. Tears that she thought were all dried up spilled down her cheeks. She found herself slowing her old Camry as she passed the Carlino estate, the vibrant vineyards sweeping across acres and acres.
She knew why she'd come here. Why she parked the car just outside the estate gates. She blamed Tony Carlino for David's death. She wanted to scream it from the hilltops and shout out the unfairness of it all.
A flashy silver sports car pulled up behind her, and she knew she'd made a mistake coming here. From the rearview mirror, she watched him step out of the car, his long legs making quick strides to the driver's side of her car.
"Oh, no." She grasped the steering wheel and rested her forehead there. Biting her lip, she took back her wish to scream out injustices. She didn't have the energy. Not here. Not now.
The deep rich timbre of Tony's voice came through the window of the car. He'd been her friend once. He'd been her world after that. But now all she saw was a drop-dead handsome stranger who should have never come back to the valley. "I'm fine, Tony," she said, lifting her head from the steering wheel.
"You're not fine."
"I just buried my husband." She peered straight ahead, refusing to look at him.
Tony opened the car door, and she glimpsed his hand reaching out to her. "Talk to me."
"No…I can't," she said with a shake of her head.
"Then let's take a walk."
When she continued to stare at his hand, he added, "You came here for a reason."
She closed her eyes holding back everything in her heart, but her mind wouldn't let go of how David died. Spurred by renewed anger, she ignored Tony's outstretched hand and bounded out of the car. She strode past him and walked along the narrow road lush with greenery. From atop the hill, the valley spread out before her, abundant with vines and homes, both big and small, a hollow of land where many families worked side by side to ensure a healthy crop.
She had promised David she'd hold on to Purple Fields, an odd request from his deathbed, yet one she couldn't refuse. She loved Purple Fields. It had been her parent's legacy, and now it was her home, her sanity and her refuge.
She marched purposely ahead of Tony, which was an accomplishment in itself, since he'd always been quick on his feet. His footsteps slowed. Then he let go an exasperated sigh. "Damn it, Rena. David was my friend. I loved him, too."
Rena halted. Jamming her eyes closed momentarily, she whirled around. "You loved him? How can you say that? He's gone because of you!" Rena's anger flowed like the rush of a river. "You should never have come home. David was happy until you showed up."
Lips pursed, Tony jutted his jaw out. Oh, how she remembered that stubborn look. "I'm not responsible for his death, Rena."
"He wouldn't have gotten behind the wheel of that race car if you hadn't come home. When you showed up, that's all David talked about. Don't you see? You represented everything David wanted. You ran away from the vineyards. You raced. You won. You became a champion."
Tony shook his head. "It was a freakish accident. That's all, Rena."
"Your return here brought it all back to him," she said solemnly.
"My father died two months ago. I came home to run the company."
Rena glared at him. "Your father," she muttered. Santo Carlino had been a harsh, domineering man who'd wanted to build his empire no matter the cost. He'd tried to buy out every small winery in the area. And when the owners refused, he'd managed to ruin their business somehow. Purple Fields had seen the brunt of the Carlino wrath for years. Yet her parents had fought him tooth and nail, keeping their small patch of life out of Carlino hands. "I'll not speak ill of the dead, but…"
"I know you despised him," Tony stated.
Rena stuck to her promise and held her tongue about Santo Carlino, but she couldn't help how she felt and made no apologies for those feelings. "Go away, Tony."
Tony's lips curved up, a sinful, sexy curl of the mouth that at one time had knocked her senseless. "This is my land."
She slumped her shoulders. "Right."
Rena inhaled sharply, mentally chastising herself for driving up here—a bonehead move, as David would say. She was even more remorseful that she'd taken this short walk with Tony.
With hasty steps she brushed by him, but his reach was long and painfully tender when he caught her arm. "Let me help."
A lump formed in her throat. He didn't know what he was asking. She'd never accept his help. She glanced into dark, piercing, patient eyes. That was something for the record books—a patient Tony Carlino. He hadn't become a national stock car champion from his ability to wait.
She shook her head briskly. "Please don't touch me."
Tony glanced at his hand lying gently on her arm, then stroked the length of it, sliding his hand freely up and down. "I mean it, Rena. You need me."
"No, I'll never need you." She jerked her arm free. "You just want to ease your guilty conscience."
Tony's eyes grew hard and sharp.
She didn't need his help or his pity. She'd done without him for twelve years and didn't need anything he had to offer. All she wanted was to curl up in her bed and dream about the day when she'd hold her precious baby in her arms.
Tony rubbed his aching shoulder and stretched out his legs, closing the Carlino books for the day. His racing injuries had a way of coming back to haunt him whenever he sat at his father's desk. Maybe it was because Santo never wanted him to leave Napa. He'd chosen racing over the family business and had left it all behind twelve years ago.
He'd wanted more than grapes and vines and worrying about the weather, crops and competition. Of course, Santo Carlino hadn't taken it lightly. He'd cursed and complained and refused to speak to Tony when he'd left.
Tony pursued his dream despite his father's tirades. Being the oldest of three sons Tony was expected to take over the business one day with his brothers by his side. But as it turned out none of the three sons had stayed home to run the Carlino empire.
Now with Santo gone, Tony had no choice but to return. His father's last will and testament made sure that each of his sons spent some time together running the company. He'd stipulated that in order for any of them to claim their inheritance, the land, the company, the Carlino empire, one of them had to agree to become the new CEO within six months.
It was just another way for his father to manipulate them. But Tony hadn't come back to Napa for the money. He had plenty of his own. He'd come back to lay his father to rest and to let his weary body recover from injuries garnered in a wreck at Bristol Raceway just months before.
He'd called his younger brothers home. Joe, the real brain in the family, had been living in New York, trying to develop the latest software phenomenon. And Nick, the youngest, had been creating havoc in Europe, earning a reputation as a gambler and ladies' man.
Tony smiled at that. Little Nick had a wild streak that could lay shame to a young and virile Santo Carlino in his bachelor days. But if one thing could be said about his old man, it was that he was a loving and faithful husband. Tony's mother, Josephina, had tempered him with love and adoration. Many thought her a saint for putting up with Santo, but only the family knew that Santo would have died for her.
"So when's the wedding?" Joe entered the office at Carlino Wines with his hands on his hips, his studious dark brown eyes visible behind a pair of glasses.
When Tony glanced at him in question, Joe continued, "You told me you were getting married."
Tony shoved the ledger books away and leaned back in his chair. "You need a willing bride for a wedding."
"Wanna tell me why you chose Rena? Is it Purple Fields you're after? Or something else?"
A sigh emerged from deep in Tony's chest. He rubbed tension from his forehead. "Maybe I want it all."
"Want or need?"
Tony narrowed his eyes and gave his brother a look.
Joe shrugged in an offhanded way. "You've never spoken of marriage before. And the last thing I thought I'd hear at David's funeral was that you intended to marry his widow. Even if it is Rena. We all know she's not exactly your biggest fan."
Tony scoffed. How well he knew. "Hardly that."
"So, what is it? Do you love her?"
Tony's face crinkled up, despite his efforts to keep a blank expression. The truth was he had loved Rena when they'd been younger but he'd loved racing more. He wound up breaking her heart by leaving her behind to pursue his dreams.
Now he had a chance to make it up to her and honor the pledge he'd made David. At the time he'd made that vow it was a no-brainer. David was on his last breaths, and he'd implored Tony to take care of Rena and the child he'd suspected she carried. Tony hadn't flinched when he'd made that promise.
Did Tony want to marry Rena and raise a child that wasn't his? He simply didn't know. But it was what he planned to do.
"No, I don't love her." He stood and looked his brother straight in the eyes, lowering his voice. "This goes no further."
Posted November 8, 2010
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Posted June 10, 2011
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