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Jason Bryant whipped the Ford Explorer into the parking lot of Aminatu's Daughters and parked right behind Sara Minton's cherry-red Mustang convertible, thereby blocking her exit. If there was one thing he knew about Sara, it was that she was a hard woman to pin down. This way, she wasn't going anywhere until he'd issued his invitation.
He climbed out of the SUV's cab, his long muscular legs flexing beneath a pair of Wrangler jeans. The heels of brown leather cowboy boots announced his arrival as he walked across the hardwood floor of the bookstore.
He noticed right away that there was another strange woman behind the counter in the coffeehouse section of the bookstore. Strange, in that she was new to him.
The rate of employee turnover at Aminatu's Daughters astounded him. He'd counted more than ten new employees within the past year. All of them had been women and all of them had been brown-skinned. They worked a few weeks, and then moved on.
He made a point of speaking to each and every one of them in order to prove his theory that none of them could claim English as their native tongue. The woman today was in her early twenties, had dusky brown skin, dark brown eyes and a very short afro.
Jason walked up to the counter. "Hi, how are you? I'm looking for Sara. She's here, isn't she?"
"We have wonderful mocha lattes," the woman said cheerfully. She turned to gesture to the coffee machine behind her.
"Thank you, no," said Jason. He smiled gently. He couldn't be sure, but he would wager that she was South African. She had the same lilting cadence to her voice as Nelson Mandela: a musical tone that was beautiful to the ear.
Upon hearing that he did not want amocha latte, her expression became so sad that he changed his mind. "Oh, okay, I'll take a small one."
She smiled broadly. "Miss Sara is working in her office," she said once the sale was under her belt.
Jason laughed softly. It was obvious she intended to earn her keep around there.
"Thank you. I'll be back for my coffee." He turned and walked across the bookstore section and into the hallway. The first door he came to was the storage room. The second was the employee lounge. Next, he came to Sara's office. The door was closed.
He knocked and waited. "Come in!" he heard Sara's distinctive husky voice call.
When he walked in Sara was sitting behind her desk, and Gary Pruitt was sitting on the corner of it looking right at home. He was wearing an expensive suit, as usual. Jason didn't think he'd ever seen the man in anything except a suit. But then Gary was the most successful attorney in town. He had to look professional. Jason, who used to work as an attorney himself, could recall how looking professional was a part of the job.
These days, as a gentleman farmer, his chosen title for his job as a vintner, he wore jeans or khakis and sturdy denim shirts. The last time he'd worn a suit it had been to his brother Franklyn's wedding, which had taken place over a year ago.
"Am I interrupting anything?" Jason asked lightly as he entered the room.
"No, no," Sara said quickly. She rose and Jason leaned over and gave her a peck on the cheek. Her smooth brown skin had a light flowery scent and, as always, Jason's heartbeat accelerated as a result of being near her.
Jason straightened and Sara gestured to the chair in front of her desk before she sat back down. "Have a seat. Gary was just telling me that he and Kat are having a dinner party next Saturday night and wanted to know if you and I could come."
Jason brightened. He knew he had no reason to be jealous of Gary. All indications were that he was happily married. He was a newlywed, in fact. But why did he have to spend so much time with Sara?
"If you can, I can," he told Sara. Oftentimes, her schedule was packed tighter than his. Unless there was some kind of an emergency at the winery like a wine press breaking down, he worked only from sunup to sunset. On the other hand it wasn't unusual for Sara to be called away at a moment's notice.
He never knew the life of a bookstore owner was so exciting. He had noticed, too, that practically every time she went out of town, either a new employee arrived or an old one departed. There had to be some connection there.
"Barring emergencies, I'm free," Sara said.
"See you at eight," Gary said, rising. "There'll be six of us and we're having seafood."
"I'll bring a few bottles of our best Chardonnay," Jason offered.
"I'm looking forward to it," Gary said with sincerity. The Bryant Chardonnay was among the most delicious in the wine world.
He and Jason shook hands, and Gary left.
Sara got up to go sit on Jason's lap. Wrapping her arms around his neck, she bent her head and kissed him on the cheek. Then lower, at the corner of his full, sensual mouth.
Jason regarded her suspiciously through slits. "Are you ever going to get down to business? Because I could be doing something fascinating like watching grapes grow."
"When I'm good and ready," Sara said, smiling. She enjoyed taking her time, kissing his face and neck before getting to his mouth. Anticipation was titillating to her.
She could feel Jason's state of arousal on her bottom. Patience wasn't his strong suit. But she'd known that about him before she'd taken him into her bed. She had known that sometime soon after they'd become intimate he would want a commitment from her.
Jason had made changes in the past year and a half. And those changes had not come easily for him.
Formerly a sought-after divorce attorney in Bakersfield, he'd moved back home to the quaint town of Glen Ellen to take over his family's winery. He'd made sacrifices to do it. Among them, a freewheeling life of revolving-door relationships in which the only thing that interested him about a woman was how attractive she was and how good she was in bed.
Surprisingly, he didn't miss the women. Perhaps if he'd made an effort to develop a genuine relationship with any of them, he would. But he'd avoided anything serious. You couldn't miss what you'd never had.
Now, though, he knew what he wanted. He wanted a good woman in his life. He wanted children with her and he wanted to leave behind a legacy, like his parents had done. Something lasting.
Sara knew all of that about him because he'd told her. Oh, the late-night talks they would have after making love! They would talk about anything and everything.
First loves. The first time they'd ever made love. Their favorite books, movies, foods. The people who had helped shape them into the people they were today. They even talked about those painful high-school episodes in which Sara had been ridiculed and Jason had stood by and said nothing to prevent it.
She didn't blame him. However, he blamed himself. She knew how hard it had been for him to fit in at Santa Rosa High. And the bus ride between Santa Rosa High and Glen Ellen, during which she and he had been the only black students, had sometimes been pure hell.
He sat up front with the rest of the football players, laughing and cracking jokes.
She sat in the back, hunkered down, her nose in a textbook, hoping all the while that no one would say anything to her. Please, God, just make me invisible!
It didn't help that she was overweight, wore glasses, and had skipped a grade. The kids regarded her as a freak of nature. But she had hoped, the entire two years that she rode the bus with Jason Bryant, that he would say something nice to her. He never did. He simply looked at her with sympathy in his eyes. She hated him for that. He could deride her like the rest of them, but she didn't want his pity. She was glad when he'd graduated. The next two years, she was the only black student on the bus between Santa Rosa High and Glen Ellen, and that suited her fine. She grew tough. They made her grow a thick skin. They made her turn inward and realize what a strong, competent person she could become if she wanted to. It was trial by fire, and she had passed.
Now, as she embraced the man who had once been the boy she'd hated, she found that she only wanted to love him. Her present life, however, made that impossible.
She needed to make some changes of her own. Finally, she kissed him full on the mouth. His response was immediate and passionate. He pulled her closer and she lost herself in the feel of his mouth as he patiently and thoroughly made love to her with his tongue. She moaned softly. Desire engulfed her, and he feasted on her mouth as though it was the most pleasurable act in the world. Now, at this moment, nothing else mattered to him except her complete and utter enjoyment of his mouth on hers, her breath mingling with his and her body ripening under his sensual assault.
He had a one-track mind when it came to giving her pleasure, and she thought that a good characteristic for a lover to have.
They came up for air, and gazed lovingly into each other's eyes. His were the color of brandy, hers were a more mellow shade of brown, almost like caramel.
His hands caressed the back of her head, her braids between his fingers. Hers pressed against his chest. "Will you go riding with me tonight?" he asked softly.
Her full lips turned up in a smile. "Love to. There's a full moon."
"Good, we can watch it come out. Can you be there by seven?"
"I'll be there."
"Afterward, I'll cook for you."
"Mmm," she moaned. "Too many sensual pleasures, and I just might give in to you and become the mistress of the Hacienda, after all."
She immediately knew she'd made a miscalculation. She'd joked about his asking her to marry him much too soon after the fact. It was still a sore point between them. One that wasn't going to go away without some serious negotiations.
His eyes grew distant in an instant. He attempted a smile in order to cover up the hurt she had unconsciously inflicted but it wasn't much of a smile. Instead of responding to her comment, he said, "Look, you're busy. I should go."
She reluctantly stood up. After which he also rose. She could have stood aside and let him go, but it wasn't her way to let things slide. Smoothing her skirt, she said, "Jason, I didn't mean to sound flip. I realize how much it took for you to ask me to marry you. And I'm truly honored that you want to."
His gaze relentlessly held hers. "But not enough to accept."
"One day I'm going to make you understand why I had to turn you down for now."
"One fine day," he said quietly. He smiled ruefully.
"Remember that song? It was about unrequited love, too."
"That's not what's going on between us," she denied.
"You say you love me but you won't marry me." It was a statement, not an accusation. He was past the blaming stage or feeling as if something was wrong with him because she had turned him down. He sensed that she loved him. Sometimes he could feel the love she had for him so powerfully, it left him breathless.
That's why he had been completely stupefied when she'd said no to his proposal.
"I adore you, Jason, you know that."
"I know that you desire me," he allowed. "I know that sometimes what you feel for me is so overpowering that it scares you. What I don't know is, Why does it scare you? Why aren't you free to let yourself go?"
Once again, her answer was, "Soon, soon. I'm working on it."
He bent and kissed her forehead. "All right. You work on it. In the meantime, I'll accept whatever you have to offer. I'm easy."
He smiled gently.
Tears sat in her eyes. "Don't cry, mystery girl," he said. "I'm a lawyer, I know all about confidentiality. You'll tell all when you're able to. I'll be waiting with bated breath."
He kissed her cheek, tasting her tears.
She watched him go, and wiped her tearstained cheeks with the pad of her thumb.
Some people made their lives needlessly complicated. She wasn't one of those people. What she did in secret was for a good cause, and her being careful to keep it secret was of the utmost importance. Innocent lives depended on her discretion.
She had to make a choice. Her secret life, or Jason. The way her heart felt torn at this moment, she knew that she wanted the latter.
She had never known anyone to leave the organization. There were only two reasons the organization allowed anyone to leave it. One was death.
She sat down in front of the computer and entered her password. Earlier, she'd logged on to the organization's Web site. There were two messages waiting for her. One was from their leader, the highest-ranking woman in the United States government.
Congratulations on your last assignment. Your present charge is very important to the people of South Africa. We are certain that those who seek her would never think that she's been spirited away to a tiny hamlet in Sonoma Valley, but we encourage you to be extremely careful. We're working very hard to expedite her safe passage to her final destination. With respect…