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Jaye stood on the upstairs balcony of the house her father had left to her and watched the silver convertible shoot up the paved road that led to Medallion's winery, tasting room and business offices. She caught a glimpse of sandy hair, ruddy cheeks and a cocky smile. The car's top was down despite the fact that the outside temperature was flirting with fifty.
If it were later in the day, she might wonder if the fool driving had already imbibed a bit too freely at one of the area's many other wineries. Since it was just past eight in the morning she doubted that was the case. Besides, she figured she knew exactly who was driving that fancy foreign number.
Even thinking his name had her lip curling. The man had pulled up stakes at his family's century-old Napa Valley vineyard and bought Medallion from Margaret before Jaye even had known a deal was in the works.
Jaye hadn't met Zack yet, although it looked like she was going to have the privilege today. She wasn't looking forward to it, even if she was anxious to get it over with and find out where things stood. Where she stood. She wanted Medallion back, and eventually she would have it. A man who would slough off his birthright surely could be talked into parting with this vineyard. In the meantime, she wanted to keep her job as head vintner.
Usually, Jaye wasn't one given to snap judgments, but she doubted she would find she liked Zack very much and not just because he owned what by right should have been hers. Having traveled in wine circles, she figured she knew his type. She'd met more than one pompous, pedigreed vineyard heir who considered sub-standard any American wine produced east of the West Coast, a couple of New England vintages excepted.
As a child, Jaye had led a comfortable life thanks to her father's keen knack for investment, but after college she'd earned her own way, putting in fifty hours or more each week at the vineyard to draw a paycheck. The Zack Hollands of the world didn't earn their way. Some of them never bothered to learn more about the making of wine than how to assess their family's finished product from pricy stemware.
She surveyed the acres of terraced grapevines that were spread out like the quaint pattern of a quilt on the surrounding hillsides. Cabernet, chardonnay, and pinot were among the varieties she'd helped her father graft and plant. In the distance beyond them, the maples and oaks were starting to change color, sprinkling the horizon with splashes of red and gold that heralded fall as surely as the crisp air that turned her breath white.
It was nearly harvest time and this year promised one of the best yields yet at Medallion. Jaye and her father had spent the past nine years toiling and sweating, first to establish the vineyard and then to earn recognition for their wines. Finally they were succeeding. She swallowed around the lump in her throat. All of that hard work, and her father hadn't lived to see the fruits of their labor.
She swiped at the tears that streaked her face, irritated to find them there. Again. She wasn't one to cry, although she'd done her fair share in recent months. She didn't like it. After all, what was the point of crying? What had railing against fate ever changed for her in the past? Her mother hadn't come back. Her father couldn't. The vineyard? Time would tell.
She returned inside, plaited her heavy hair into its usual no-nonsense braid and dressed for work. Unlessor untilthe new owner told her to clear out her desk and leave, she had a job to do.
Zack parked his car and got out. Then he stood, feet planted shoulder width apart, and grinned as wide as his wind-numbed face would allow. His previous visit to the vineyard hadn't prepared him for the beauty to come. Oh, the area had been pretty in late summer with all of those shades of blue and green, but decked out in the bold hues of autumn it simply dazzled.
He'd arrived in Michigan late the evening before, taking a suite of rooms at a hotel in nearby Traverse City. Until he found a permanent home, he would be living there. When he'd awakened this morning, he'd felt like a child on Christmas, too keyed up to choke down more than a couple bites of toast before he'd hopped in his car and followed the highway that bordered the aquamarine waters of Traverse Bay. Halfway to the vineyard, he'd stopped to put down the top on his Mercedes. He'd wanted an unrestricted view of his surroundings.
He rubbed his stiff fingers before stuffing his hands into the pockets of his jeans. He was paying for his impulsiveness now, but he didn't care. He felt more alive than he had in years. Anticipation hummed inside him as he entered the tasting room at Medallion. This winery was his and his alone. He would set its course, decide its future, and call all of the shots. He wouldn't have to run his ideas past anyone else for approval that ultimately would be denied. No. He was in charge.
He revised his opinion half an hour later when a woman stalked through the main doors of the tasting room. He pegged her age at about thirty and her mood as supremely agitated if the stiff set of her shoulders and grim line of her mouth were any indication.
She was tall, only a few inches shorter than his six-foot-two, and lean. What he could see of her figure beneath a bulky wool sweater and loose-fitting carpenter jeans might best be described as willowy. She certainly commanded attention, though. The workers stopped what they were doing, glancing around nervously. An unnatural silence fell, and even though no one moved, Zack got the distinct impression sides had been taken.
Hers had more.
"You must be Juliet Monroe." No introduction was necessary, but he made one anyway. He believed in confronting awkwardness head-on. And so he extended a hand as he crossed to where she stood. "I've heard a lot about you. I'm Zack Holland."
Up close he realized her eyes were green and that the hair she'd scraped back into an unflattering braid was the color of freshly ground cinnamon. Something about her tugged at him, although he couldn't figure out why. She wasn't beautiful, at least not in the classical sense, or even in the chic sense like his former fiancée, Mira, who had turned heads wherever they'd gone.
Given Jaye's prominent cheekbones, slightly flared nose and wide-set eyes, the best word to describe her would be striking.
Her mouth was on the broad side, too, and her lips might have been full, although at the moment it was hard to tell as they were compressed into a frown. They loosened slightly, but only so she could tell him, "I don't care to be called Juliet."
Zack managed to keep his smile in place despite her clipped tone. This meeting had to be difficult for her, and he didn't mind letting her save face in front of the workersas long as it didn't come at his expense. Everyone needed to understand and accept that he was in charge now, Juliet Monroe perhaps most of all.
"What do you care to be called?"
"Jaye. I go by Jaye." Her grip was firm to the point of being painful when she finally shook his hand. He half expected her to challenge him to a thumb war.
"Jaye." He nodded once. The short, boyish name fit her, since there was little about her that seemed soft or overtly feminine, except maybe the long hair. What would it look like ? He tamped down his curiosity.
"It's nice to meet you."
She nodded but didn't actually return the sentiment. Instead she got right down to business. "I'd like to know what your plans are for Medallion." She spread her hand out to encompass the room's wide-eyed occupants. "And for its workers, of course."
Around them people shuffled their feet and murmured. Zack cleared his throat. He hadn't expected to be put on the spot. Nor was he used to being challenged by an employee.
"I'm going to hold a staff meeting at the end of the week to go over the particulars, once I've had a good look around. I have some changes in mind," he said, being purposefully vague.
The woman was tenacious; he'd give her that. Under other circumstances, he might have admired the quality. At the moment, though, he found it insolent and annoying.
"They'll keep. But if you've got a minute, I'd like to talk to you."
He was well aware that everyone was watching them and cataloging Zack and Jaye's every word, glance and gesture.
"I'm at your disposal," she drawled.
Right, he thought. When she made no effort to move, he added, "Why don't we go to my office?"
Jaye let Zack lead the way, even though she knew every step by heart. The business offices were located up a flight of stairs just off the tasting room. The biggest one was at the end of the hall. It made sense that it would be the one he'd claim as his own. Still, when the door closed behind them, Jaye felt her heart squeeze. The office, with its grand, panoramic view of the vineyard, had been her father's.
Nothing of Frank Monroe's belongings remained. She'd cleared out every last note card and paperclip after her stepmother announced the vineyard's sale. But she could still feel him here. She could smell the tangy tobacco he'd smoked in his pipe, and it took no effort at all to envision his bulky frame sitting behind a cluttered desk wearing his usual uniform of wrinkled khaki trousers, a Greek fisherman's cap and a navy button-down shirt, the breast pocket of which bulged from his glasses case and assorted other personal effects. Jaye swore her father carried more things in his pockets than most women did in their purses.
"Everything okay?" Zack asked.
The image dissolved. She glanced over to find Medallion's new owner standing beside her. She'd forgotten all about him for a moment as she'd stared at the empty desk and remembered mourned. Her father had been gone nearly six months, but the ache had not lessened. If anything, it seemed to grow worse as the reality of never seeing him again set in and festered like an infected sore.
She felt too raw, too exposed, to answer Zack's question, so she asked one of her own. "What did you want to see me about?"
Zack leaned one hip on the edge of the desk. "I thought that would be obvious."
She swallowed as a lead weight settled in her stomach. "You're letting me go."
"No," he said slowly, hardly sounding decisive.
Jaye crossed her arms. "You mean, not yet."
He ran a hand over the back of his neck and chuckled, but he sounded more frustrated than amused when he said, "You don't like to make things easy, do you?"
She'd lost her father, their vineyard, and now her livelihood was on the line. "In my experience, nothing worth having comes easily."
She meant Medallion, recalling the backbreaking hours she and her father had spent grafting vines to root stock, fixing trellises, warding off pests and praying for just the right mix of sunshine and rain to produce a good crop.
To her surprise, Zack nodded, as if he understood completely. But what could have been difficult for Mr. Silver Spoon to attain?
"I'd appreciate your cooperation, Jaye. This transition is difficult for everyone, perhaps you most of all, but it won't become any easier if Medallion's workers feel they have to choose between us."
"I'm not asking them to choose."
"No?" His brows rose.
"I care about them," she insisted. "They're good workers, good people. They have families to feed. I don't want to see them strung along."
"I won't string anyone along. But I didn't appreciate being put on the spot down there." He waved a hand in the direction of the door.
"I'm sorry." She tried to sound sincere, but she couldn't resist adding, "If you felt that's what I was doing."
Zack inhaled deeply, but apparently decided to drop the matter because he changed the subject. "I'm impressed with the operation here. It's well run, and the finished product shows incredible potential. I understand from the workers that you're largely responsible for making this a first-class facility."
She wasn't comfortable with the compliment. "I played a small role. It was my father's doing. He loved Medallion and liked nothing better than seeing it succeed against bigger and supposedly better wineries both here and around the world."
"I'm sorry for your loss. I understand that he died this past spring."
"Yes." The pain of hearing those words still surprised her, but she managed a polite nod. "Thank you."
"I met your father once."
This news had her full attention. "You did? When was that?"
"A few years back at a wine competition in San Diego. It must have been the first year Medallion entered. Your chardonnay did well as I recall."
Jaye wrinkled her nose. "Honorable mention. I thought it had a shot at silver. Bronze at the very least."
"It was pretty good," he said, as if he really remembered.
"Holland Farms took the gold."
"Yes." She thought he might gloat over his family's win, but he didn't. Instead he said, "I liked your father. We had dinner one night. Frank Monroe listened to some ideas I had." His expression turned thoughtful. "He was a really good listener."
Her throat ached too much to speak, so she merely nodded. She and her father had spent many afternoons in this very room, talking, and not all of their conversations had centered on wine.
"I don't recall seeing you there," Zack said.
Jaye wasn't one to get dolled up, let alone mix and mingle. She was more comfortable in casual pants and loafers than in cocktail dresses and high heels. What's more she'd never understood the point of making small talk with strangers or chatting about the weatherunless, of course, the local forecast was calling for something that might harm the grapes.