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Livia Blake consulted her list again and surveyed the small, neatly packed and nondescript suitcase on her bed. No Louis Vuittons for this little trip to Napa Valley, no, siree; if you didn't have to make a grand entrance to impress the loitering paparazzi, you didn't need the expensive luggage. Nor did you need twenty bags crammed with false eyelashes, hairpieces, stilettos and tiny little black dresses that showed off your freshly waxed legs, so she hadn't packed them.
This getaway was, for once, solely for pleasure. No business. At. All.
For the next several days, she couldand wouldeat and drink whatever the hell she wanted without worrying about fittings and disapproving remarks regarding the amount of junk in her trunk or her buoyant cleavage (all natural, thank you very much) refusing to be strapped into a postage-stamp-sized bathing suit top. There would be no swaggering runway walks for her, no fake smooches with egomaniacal designers and no over-the-top parties filled with airhead celebrities, socialites or steroid-puffed professional athletes trying to get into her panties.
That's right. She wasn't traveling to the Chambers Winery as Livia Blake, Supermodel. Until she had to report to Mexico for the photo shoot at the end of the month, she was plain old Livia Blake, civilian. Hallelujah.
But the question was: Had she packed everything?
Back to the list.
Hiking boots? Check. Bug spray? Check. Sweaters for those cool northern-California nights? Check. Also in her bag? A satisfyingly thick wine-tasting book, because she didn't want to look like an idiot in wine country; her jogging shoes, because, although she wanted to eat and drink while on vacation, she didn't want to gain thirty pounds while doing so; and her Jackie Robinson biography, which she was finally going to finish. She did love her some baseball.
Did she need thicker socks, though? And should she throw in one nice dress just in case?
The muffled bleat of her cell phone came from somewhere in the room.
Uh-oh. Where was it?
Scrambling for the remote, she hit Pause on the DVR (she'd been watching The Dog Wrangler in the background and wanted to hear what he had to say about the neurotic poodle with stress incontinence) and listened again. Aha. Nightstand. Unearthing it from beneath a pile of rejected scarves, she saw that it was her friend Rachel Wellesleyprobably calling about her flight time and when she'd meet Livia at the wineryand clicked it on.
"What's up, girl?" Livia said.
There was no reciprocal greeting. Just a direct launch into the purpose of the call. "We might have a problem," Rachel told her.
It always made Livia nervous when Rachel used that easy-breezy tone. "Problem as in you broke a fingernail or problem with the trip?"
During the long pause that followed, Livia saw all of her vacation hopesthe walks along the river to enjoy the fall foliage, the five-star accommodations, the wine tastingsgo up in a spectacular plume of black smoke.
After a good two or three beats, Rachel cleared her throat, an additional stall tactic that didn't fool Livia for a second. "Possibly with the trip."
Oh, no. No, no, no. NOOOOOO. No one was going to rain on her parade and spoil the first official vacation she'd had in years. "Spit it out, Rach."
"We can't come," said Rachel.
"Not yet, but"
"we want you to go ahead anyway. We'll meet you there when filming's finished."
"Filming was supposed to be finished today."
"Trust me, I know. But what can we do? And like I said, you go on ahead. Start without us."
Wow. She had a comedian on her hands. "Will you kindly explain how I'm supposed to start without you when the whole purpose of this little trip is for you to see your fiancé's family winery and decide if you want to get married there? Do you want me to try on wedding dresses for you while I'm at it?"
"Someone woke up on the wrong side of crabby today, didn't they?"
Livia had to snort at that. Staring at her suitcase, she thought about her options.
Option 1: she could sit here on her butt and wonder if she should have her walls repainted.
Option 2: she could take herself to Napa, sightsee, eat and drink to her heart's content and wait for her friends to arrive in a few days. Then they could all eat and drink together.
Okay. Decision made.
"Fine," Livia said ungraciously. "I'll go by myself, but I'm not going to like it."
"Please forgive me."
"No," Livia said, smiling.
"Look at it this way," Rachel said with all the nauseating smugness of a happily engaged woman who could look forward to an orgasm or two that night when she went to bed with her sexy man, "maybe you'll meet someone nice while you're there."
Livia balanced the phone on her shoulder and went back to searching for socks, which was hard to do since she'd rolled her eyes to the top of her head. Meet someone nice? Puh-lease. Nice men were rarer than white tigers on the moon.
"Right. And maybe Donatella Versace will feature a plain white cotton dress with flat shoes during fashion week."
They both got a kick out of that unlikely image.
Napa Valley was, in a word, spectacular.
Having traveled all over the world, Livia didn't use the word lightly, but it applied here. Whereas Las Vegas was spectacular in a tacky, glittery sort of way, and the Great Wall of China was spectacular in a humbling, majestic sort of way, Napa was spectacular in a quietly peaceful way. The gentle mountains, the waves of green trees now speckled with fall orange and the acres of lush vinesrow after row, some red (red grapes, she'd read), some gold (white grapes), marching as far as her eye could see and seemingly past the horizonall touched something deep in her spirit. This was a place that felt like it'd been transplanted from a previous century, and she wouldn't be surprised if its lazy grace made the hands on her watch move a little more slowly than they did in New York or L.A.
This was, in short, a place she could love.
Once she got checked in to the guesthouse, that was.
She parked her rental behind the main bed-and-breakfast, which was wedged into a hillside and larger than she'd expected, and popped the trunk for her luggage. The charming redbrick building had several gables and chimneys andoooh, she liked those!pretty little flower boxes at every window, all of which were filled with cheerful red blooms. Several guesthouses, one of which she assumed was hers, were scattered nearby, and there was a
Oh, wait. Was that a little girl?
It was, about twenty feet away, peering around a tree at her. She was brown-skinned and cute, about five or six, with a head full of dark twists, a white T-shirt with blue shorts and a red bandage on one knee. Could she be any cuter?
"Hello!" Livia smiled and waved. She was never quite sure about greeting strange children because she knew they'd all been taught not to talk to strangers. Hopefully she didn't look too threatening. "Hello," she called again. "My name is"
The girl scampered off, disappearing around the corner of the big house. Livia watched her go, trying not to get her feelings hurt. Well. So much for new friends, eh?
Yeah , she thought as she bent to grab her suitcase. She loved it here.
Something moved right behind her and smacked her in the butt. She shrieked, jumped, whirled and found herself face-to-face with a pony-sized creature who'd made himself at home sniffing her private parts.
Another shriek welled in her throat, gathering steam, and her frantic brain was wondering how many of her four limbs he could rip off and devour before help arrived, when something weird happened. The thing backed up a couple of steps, cocked his head and studied her with benign interest. Probably not typical predator behavior, true, but that was no reason not to scream. She opened her mouth nice and wide and
Hold up. That wasn't a pony. It was a dog. The world's biggest and possibly goofiest dog.
Snapping her jaws shut, she stared at the animal, who stared back. The darn thing's head was well past her waist, which was quite impressive since she qualified for Amazon status at five feet eleven inches. He had big brown eyes, floppy ears, knobbly knees and gangly legs that made him look like the canine equivalent of a high school geek. His fur was the kind of brown with black slashes that the Dog Wrangler calledwhat was it?a brindle pattern.
A Great Dane. That's what he was. So. Was he going to eat her or not?
Apparently not. He had his big black nose working already, sniffing her, and she knew he'd like what he smelled because her signature fragrance was a light and lovely honeysuckle. Deciding to risk it, she reached out past his broad snout and scratched his ears. They were surprisingly silky, and the dog all but grinned at her in gratitude.
What a sweetie! He wasn't so bad
Without warning, the dog began barking at her, and each bark was the rough equivalent of a kibble-smelling cannon blast right in her face.
Bark! Bark-bark! BARK!
This pissed her off. One second ago they'd been new BFFs and now he wanted to take her head off for absolutely no reason? Uh-uh.
Calling on the thousands of hours of The Dog Wrangler that she'd watched over the years, she stood her ground, arched her fingers into a claw and gave the dog a quick jabbing zap right on his hindquarters. Just like thatzap!
This startled the dog, thank God, and he shut up mid-bark. Better than that, he yelped, backed away, dropped to his belly, rested his snout on his front paws and eyed her with newfound respect, almost as though he was waiting for her next command.
Nodding with grim satisfaction, she put her hands on her hips and stared down at him, daring him to try anything funny with her ever again.
That's right, pooch. Don't you mess with me.
"Hey!" Running feet came up behind her, crunching on the gravel. "What'd you do to my dog?"
What? Was this clown for real? She's almost mauled by a schizophrenic Great Dane and then she gets blamed for making the dog behave? Againuh-uh. Not gonna happen.
"Excuse me," she said, turning and letting the sarcasm fly, "but maybe you didn't notice that Marmaduke here is a menace to society andoh."
Whatever else she'd been about to say disappeared in a tiny little poof! when she locked gazes with the owner of that booming voice and those feet, who was clearly an asshole at heart hiding behind the body and face of a god.
The first thing she noticed was his height. He was tallertaller!than she was, which was an event so rare in the non-NBA population that it might have been a full solar eclipse during a leap year. But he wasn't a beanpole, which she could clearly see because he filled out his Chambers Winery powder-blue polo shirt and khakis in spectacular fashion, with squared shoulders, heavy biceps, a flat belly and narrow hips that told her, quite plainly, that he spent a little time lifting weights when he wasn't honing his skills at being a world-class jerk.
He was brown-skinned and clean-shaven, with skull-trimmed black hair and eyes that blazed copper fire at her in the late morning sun. Unsmiling, he shifted his accusatory gaze between her and the dog at her feet. She had the nagging feeling that he was sorry the dog hadn't finished her off and planned to do the job himself.
Okay, Livie. Put your eyes back in your head and get a grip.
"That dog" she pointed to the offender lest there was any confusion about the dog in question "needs to be on a leash."
Mr. Personality, apparently deciding not to waste any unnecessary words on her, responded by raising one heavy eyebrow and holding up a black leash for her to see.
"Great." Mollified but still irritated, she matched him glare for glare. "Are you planning to use it anytime soon?"
"If you don't mind."
His exaggerated politeness scraped across her nerves like tree bark. Still glowering, she stepped aside, gave him a be-my-guest flick of her hand and watched to see if he had any dog skills.
He didn't. Inching closer with a wariness that was an open invitation to the dog to cull this weak member from the pack, he reached out with the leash, ready to clip it on the dog's collar.
The dog's head came up. One side of his black-lipped mouth pulled back just far enough to reveal a white incisor that looked sharp enough to mince walrus hide, and the beast emitted a rumbling growl. The man froze, arm outstretched. Livia froze, too, and the dog wasn't even looking at her; she'd heard less fearsome growls coming from the lionesses on Animal Planet shows as they ripped hapless wildebeests to shreds.
The man, his cheeks coloring with either blind terror or embarrassment, shot a glance at Livia and took a minute to regroup. Then he cleared his throat, licked his lips and tried another tactic.
"Nice doggy," he began. "I've got a cookie for you, you big monster, if you let me"