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He was going home.
Not to stay, Matt assured himself as he steered the four-wheeled ATV down a row between thick, leafy vines in the eastern section of Queen's Valley's vineyards. He shut off the ignition. Never to stay.
The worst part about going back to Jewell? This wouldn't be the first time. No, he'd visited his hometown plenty of times since making his impassioned vow never to return ten years ago. He smiled ruefully. That was the problem with making dramatic, heartfelt declarations. They were hard to stick to. Especially ones made in the heat of anger.
Which was why he rarely made promises. They were too hard to keep.
Shaking his hair back, he got off the ATV and unhooked the bungee cords holding his equipment bag to the rack behind the seat. He took out his refractometer and slid it into the front pocket of his loose cargo shorts before grabbing a heavy plastic bag. Going down the row, he picked samplings of the Chardonnay grapes, tossing them into the bag.
Queen's Valley was forty acres of vineyards nestled along the Murray River in South Australia. The grapes thrived in the warm, temperate climate. All around him the vines reached well above his head with heavy clusters of healthy grapes and a well-maintained canopy, the leaves lush and green. He'd worked at wineries in Napa, France and Italy and could honestly say Queen's Valley was one of the best vineyards he'd seen.
And for the next three years, it was all his.
But first he had to return to where he'd begun. Oh, he'd tried to keep the vow he'd made graduation night. The next day he'd flown out of Virginia and told himself he'd never look back. For over a year he'd kept his distance from his family, the only contact with them an occasional email from one of his brothers, a weekly phone call to his mother. During that time he'd worked two jobs while going to school. Though it'd been a struggle, he'd managed to juggle everything and had put himself through college.
He'd figured out how to take care of himself. And as much as he hated to admit it, his father had been right about one thing. He'd had to grow up. He'd also discovered that he liked being on his own. That he didn't need his family.
Knowing that made it a lot easier to rip up the checks his mother sent like clockwork at the beginning of each month. It also let him swallow his pride and go home for Christmas during his sophomore year. Three days where, for his mother's sake, he'd tried his best to act as if everything was all right. As if all was forgiven.
But during his stay, he remembered his graduation night. His hurt and anger and resentment that his father couldn't appreciate him for who he was. Couldn't support him in what he wanted for himself.
Then, less than a year after that awkward, tension-filled Christmas, the unthinkable happened. Tom Sheppard, the man who was larger than life, had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Six months later, he was dead.
And he and Matt had never discussed that night or the many issues between them, never came to terms with each other. There were no apologies. No heart-to-heart talks. No closure.
Matt gave his head one sharp shake. That was in the past now. All in the past. He was more interested, more vested in the future. And his future was right here in Queen's Valley. Continuing to pick grapes, he walked down the row, taking samples from different vines and tasting an occasional grape.
For over twenty-five years, Queen's Valley had provided top quality fruit to local wineries. Now the owner, Joan Campbell, had decided to branch out and start making the vineyard's own wines. She'd spared no expense building a state-of-the-art facility and she'd hired Matt to run it all. He had final say in every decision from the variety of grapes to what type of oak barrels to purchase to the shape of the wine bottles. And everyone, save Joan and her daughter, Suzanne, were to report to him.
Whistling, he repeated his picking process on the other side of the row. It was like a dream come true. He got to work for a winery that had everything at its disposal to produce the finest wines. A chance to build on his growing reputation, to be known as the man who put Queen's Valley on the map as one of the finest wineries in Australia.
The best part? It was halfway across the world from Jewell, Virginia.
As he made his way back to where he'd started, he heard the sound of another ATV approaching. A moment later, Joan came into view, her chubby body leaning over the handlebars. Her straw hat, tied around her throat with a string, sailed behind her as she sped down the row at twice the speed Matt would consider safe.
She came closer, and closer still. There was no room for her to get by his ATV without plowing through the trellised vines, but she showed no signs of slowing. Matt's heart thumped heavily in his chest. Instead of running him over, she stopped quickly, her rear wheels sliding. Clumps of grass and dirt shot out from the spinning tires and Matt jumped back to avoid getting sideswiped.
He wiped the back of his free hand over his forehead. Knew the sweat there wasn't just from the heat. "You are hell on wheels," he muttered when Joan shut off the vehicle.
"I'll take that as a compliment."
"Believe me. It wasn't meant as one."
"Now, Matthew, is that any way to speak to your employer?" Her words were like machine-gun fireshort, choppy bursts that came at a man fast and furiously. Combined with her raspy, smoker's voice and heavy Australian accent, he hadn't understood half of what she said the entire first month he'd worked for her.
And no matter how many times he'd asked her to call him Matt, she still insisted on using his full name.
Joan combed both hands through her windblown gray hair before putting her hat on. She tipped her head up so she could see him from under the wide brim. "I thought you had a plane to catch."
"Not for a few hours." He squeezed the grapes through the bag, crushing them and releasing their juice. "I wanted to check these one last time before I leave."
Chardonnay, along with Pinot Noir, were early ripening grapes. He wanted to make sure they weren't set to ripen while he was gone, since it would be impossible for him to decide they needed harvesting when he was on the other side of the world.
"Suzanne was just asking about you. Why don't you stop by and tell her goodbye?" Joan climbed off the ATV, her shrewd gaze on him. "I'm sure she'd appreciate it."
The nape of his neck tingled. "I'll be sure to do that," he lied.
He ducked his head and pretended dipping the slide of his refractometer into the juice took all of his concentration. At the previous wineries where he'd worked, he'd had to deal with long hours, early frosts, drought, blight but never a matchmaking boss.
Not that he had anything against the pretty Suzanne. In fact, if the situation was different, he'd have done his best to charm her into his bed. But he preferred to keep his personal life separate from his career. No mixing business with pleasure. No ties. No commitments to hold him to a place other than a legal contract. And when that contract was fulfilled? He was free to go. No hard feelings. No repercussions.
No one trying to guilt him into staying.
Looking through the refractometer, he noted the grapes' sugar contenttwenty-four and a half Brix. The higher the Brix in the grapes, the higher the alcohol content in the wine. But the best winemakers didn't go just by the numbers. They took into account everything from the color of the skins and seeds to the taste of the fruit and the health of the vines and leaves.
He picked a plump, green grape and tossed it into his mouth. The sun rose over majestic, copper-colored limestone cliffs. It was the middle of February and he was sweating, his shirt sticking to his back. Even his scalp was burning. The breeze brought with it the scent of the river.
God, he loved it here. For now. And when his time at Queen's Valley was up, he'd be more than ready to move on to the next place. To the next challenge.
"You going to tell me your verdict," Joan groused, "or stand there and eat all of my fruit?"
"Skin's thick," he said, still chewing. "They're fairly sweet and fruity but still acidic." He swallowed. "They need more time on the vine."
She narrowed her eyes until they practically disappeared in her round face. "You sure you're not just saying that, not delaying our harvest so your plans don't get interrupted?"
He didn't bat an eye at her accusation. He'd quickly learned over the past few months that if he took offense at every brusque, argumentative word Joan said, he'd be pissed off all the time. Besides, he'd had tough bosses before. The most demanding being his father.
And the most important lesson he'd ever learned from Tom Sheppard? Never let them see you sweat.
"You hired me because you wanted someone knowledgeable," he told her, handing her the refractometer and the mashed grapes. "But if you don't believe me, see for yourself."
"Cutting it close," she said after checking the sugar content. "What if they turn while you're gone?"
"They won't. The next few weeks will be cool in the mornings. We have time."
Ripe wine grapes were at their best for only a few days, which made the decision of when to harvest important, but also risky. Matt wasn't worried, though. They'd had a colder than average summer and were experiencing a late harvest year. And the cool, foggy mornings would ensure the grapes finished ripening slowly.
Too bad Joan didn't seem convinced.
"Look," he said, "if they were ready or if there was the slightest chance at all that they could ripen during the next eight days, I'd stay."
"You'd miss your own brother's wedding?"
Miss a chance to spend over twenty-four hours of travelmost of them on planesfollowed by a week of living in his family's pockets? Of dealing with his brothers. Trying not to feel guilty because he rarely came home, and when he did, couldn't wait to be gone again.
"It wouldn't be the first wedding I've missed," he admitted, dumping the mashed grapes onto the ground and wiping the refractometer on the bottom of his shirt before putting it back into his equipment bag. "I was in France when my eldest brother got hitched. Couldn't make it home in time for the ceremony."
Not that he considered that a great loss. Especially since he and Aidan had a personality conflict. Matt had a personality while Aidan was a humorless robot. Besides, the marriage hadn't lasted.
Joan crossed her arms. "So if we get a heat wave and the grapes are ready before you're due back "
"I'll get on the first flight out of the country." He checked his watch. Saw his cushion of two hours before he had to leave for the airport was now down to an hour and a half. And he still had to pack. "Don't worry," he told her as he sat on the ATV and turned the key. "I'll be back before the harvest. You can count on that."
Over sixty hours later, Matt stood in his brother's cramped kitchen trying to make something edible out of eggs approaching their expiration date and half a loaf of slightly stale, presliced white bread.
He was in hell. Or, as everyone else called it, Jewell, Virginia.
Luckily, it was easy to keep his usual good cheer, thanks to the fact that his time in Jewell would be briefsix days, four hours and fifty-three minutes. Give or take a second or two.
Whistling along with the classic Jackson Browne song playing on the radio, he transferred a soggy slice of bread from the egg and milk mixture in a large bowl to the hot skillet. It sizzled in the greased pan, the scent of cinnamon mingling with that of melted butter. He added a second slice to the pan and took a drink of coffee as a movement to his right caught his attention.
Sporting a seriously bad case of bedhead and wearing a pair of flannel pants with characters from Family Guy on them, Brady stood in the open doorway separating the kitchen from the hall.
Matt saluted his brother with his coffee cup. "Morning, Sparky. Nice pj's."
"I'm going to kill you," Brady said in a sleep-roughened voice. His scowl shifted into a thoughtful frown as he sniffed the air. "I'm going to kill you," he repeated, "right after I've had some coffee."
Eloquent as usual, Brady grunted and headed toward the coffeemaker, his limp less pronounced than it'd been two months ago when Matt had been home for Christmas.
He flipped the French toast with a fork. "You have any syrup? I didn't see any in the fridge." When he didn't get an answer, he turned to find Brady staring into his coffee cup, his eyes glazed. "If I'm not mistakenand let's face it, I'm never mistakenthat's the look of a man who recently got lucky. And based on the monkey sounds coming from your room when I got here, I'd say it happened.oh.about twenty minutes ago."
Brady pulled out a chair and sat at the table. "What's the rule about my sex life?"
"It's boring and pathetic?"
"It's not up for discussion."
"Who's discussing it? I was making a simple observation. It's not like I need a play-by-play of whatever it was J.C. did that put that sappy grin on your face."
Brady gave one of his patented I was a Marine and yes, I will rip your head off and shove that fork down your throat if you say another word looks.
"Fine." Matt glanced down the hallway to Brady's closed bedroom door. "Uh you were with J.C., weren't you?" Hey, it was a good question considering that at one time, Brady had been engaged to J.C.'s older sister, Liz.
Brady pinched the bridge of his nose. "Why are you here?"
"Aidan left a message on my cell phone yesterday about a top secret Sheppard brother meeting at eight."
"That's thirty minutes from now. And you're never on time anyway. Especially in the morning."