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Isabel Morrison was lost. She'd been driving around on dirt roads for hours looking for the Monte Verde Vineyards. There were no signs at all out here in the country. The small rented Fiat was not equipped with GPS or air conditioning and she was sweltering in the September heat. She'd known it would be hot in Sicily, but not this hot.
No wonder there was no one around to ask directions. Only mad dogs and Englishmen were out in the noonday sun. And one American looking for her piece of the American dream, far far from home. All she wanted, all she'd ever wanted, was a home of her own.
The home she was looking for, if she ever found it, would be a place to start over. A place to put down roots at last. A place where no one knew what mistakes she'd made in the past. A place to earn a living growing grapes in a vineyard she'd inherited from an uncle she'd never known.
As an orphan, she'd been left on the doorstep of the home for foundlings with nothing but a basket and a blanket and a note asking the good sisters to take care of her. Which they had done, as best they could. She'd known nothing of an uncle. Least of all what he was doing in Sicily and why he'd left her a vineyard. All that mattered was that someone cared enough to leave her an inheritanceand what an inheritance! A home of her own. Not only that, but vineyards too.
She'd done everything she could before she'd left home: read a dozen guide books, taken Italian lessons and a short course in viticulture. She believed in being prepared and self-reliant. Being naive and too trusting had gotten her heart broken. Never again.
Now if only she could find the old villathe Azienda and the supposedlyneglected vineyards on the Monte Verde Estate, she'd be in business. The business of settling in, growing grapes and producing the great little dessert wine, Amarado, that the place had once been known for.
According to the map the solicitor, Signore Delfino, had given her it should be right over there.
"I can have someone take you out there next week," he'd said.
"Thank you, but I can't wait until next week," she'd answered. Next week? She'd been waiting all her life for a place she could call her own and now she couldn't wait another day. She'd wondered if he was stalling. He'd tried to talk her into selling the place before she'd even seen it.
"I must advise you," he'd said, "the property is in some disrepair from neglect. If you want my advice " He cleared his throat. "You should sell it to a local family who are prepared to make you a generous offer. I can handle the details for you." The way he'd said it indicated she'd be crazy to turn the offer down.
"Please tell the family I appreciate their interest, but the property is not for sale." No matter how much they offered, she wouldn't sell, and she'd find it on her own, thank you very much.
On one side of the road was a rushing stream lined with eucalyptus trees, and on the other side, golden wheat fields lay next to vines heavy with fruit. The air was heavy with the spicy smell of the trees and the scent of wheat drying in the sun. But she couldn't figure out how to get to where she wanted to go.
Yes, it was hot and the air was dry. Yes, she was lost. But she was also nervous and scared at the prospect of actually turning grapes into wine that was good enough to sell in the upscale market. One thing at a time, she told herself. Maybe there would be a kindly old caretaker who would take her under his wing and show her how it's done. He'd say, Your uncle talked about leaving the place to you. How you'd carry on the family tradition Let me help you get started.
She smiled to herself, picturing the scene. One way she'd dealt with rejection in the past was to lose herself in an imaginary world, to the dismay of her teachers and foster parents who accused her of being a dreamer. It was her way of escaping the hard edges of reality.
As a graduate of the School of Hard Knocks, she'd learned early on in life to have an escape route when life's problems got too overwhelming. Another coping mechanism that had come in handy to was to act in a confident and self-assured manner, especially when feeling the opposite.
Just when she thought she'd have to turn around and go back to the little town of Villarmosa and get more directions, she spotted a man picking grapes. Exactly the kind of man she would need to hire to work in her fields. Even if there was a kindly mentor on the premises, she'd still need laborers. The man in sight was strong, tall and muscular and obviously used to hard work. Being a local, surely he'd know where her vineyard was.
She was so excited she slammed on the brakes, and skidded to an abrupt halt.
He looked up. She grabbed the map, got out of the car and walked toward the field where he stood staring at her as if he'd never seen a stranger here before. Which made her feel better about staring at him. She stared at his blunt nose that looked like it might have been broken a few times. She stared into his eyes, impossibly blue in a sun-tanned face.
Then her gaze moved down. He was shirtless, and his jeans rode low on his hips. Very sensible in this kind of weather. And very sexy too. She swallowed hard and tried to tear her eyes away from his broad chest covered with a light dusting of dark hair, but couldn't. Perspiration broke out on her forehead. She couldn't seem to take a deep breath. Maybe this was her property. Maybe he worked for her already and she'd be making wine this fall with his help. No, she couldn't get that lucky.
"Hello," she called when she finally caught her breath. "Ciao, signore. Per favore, dove e la Villa Monte Verde." A whole sentence. Maybe the grammar wasn't perfect, maybe her accent shouted out that she was a tourist, but she was proud of herself for trying. When she had tried to talk to the lawyer in Italian yesterday, he'd switched to English.
Not a chance with this rugged type. She wondered if all the hired hands were this gorgeous. It didn't matter. One reason she'd jumped at the chance to move to Sicily was for a fresh start and to avoid relationships, no matter how attractive the men were. In a new environment, with a brick wall around her heart and a system of warning bells in place, she was ready to take on a new challenge. She was willing to make mistakes along the way, just as long as they weren't the same mistakes she'd made in the past.
The man frowned and gave her a long scrutinizing look that made her pulse quicken and her heart race. From what she'd seen in the airport, Italian women were so chic, so effortlessly stylish, she must look positively shabby to him in her wrinkled shirt and the plain wash-and-wear skirt she'd pulled out of her suitcase. If he even noticed.
His gaze moved to her rental car across the road. She was close enough, just across an old wooden fence, to see a hostile look appear in those incredible blue eyes. She'd imagined people would be friendly here. Maybe she was wrong.
He didn't say a word. Hadn't he understood her Italian? Or did the place go by another name? "La Azienda Agricola Spendora?" she said hopefully.
"You must be the American who arrived yesterday," he said in almost perfect English. His deep voice with a slightly seductive accent sent shivers up her spine. A simple laborer he was not.
She let out a breath she didn't even know she was holding. "How did you guess?" she said lightly. "I suppose my Italian needs some more practice."
He shrugged as if he really didn't care if she was an alien from another universe or if she spoke grammatically perfect Italian. "What can I do for you, miss?" The words were polite, but his tone was cool, with a sardonic edge.
Never mind. She didn't have to make friends with everyone she met. For all she knew he was overworked and underpaid despite his ease in speaking English, and probably tired and thirsty. It was still possible she could hire him, even if he had a chip on his shoulder. She could use someone who spoke English and was a hard worker.
"My name is Isabel Morrison and I'm looking for my vineyard, the Azienda Spendora." She couldn't help the note of pride that crept into her voice. The words my vineyard had such a nice ring to them.
"I'll give you a ride. You'll never find it on your own," he said. He reached for a shirt hanging from the branch of a tree and put it on before she could protest. How many times had it been drummed into her not to take rides from strangers? This was the kind of stranger who set off flashing detour lights in front of her. Too well-spoken, too sure of himself, too eager to take her heaven knew where.
"Really, it's okay, I can find it. I've got a map," she said, hating the hint of nervousness in her voice.
"Are you afraid of me?" he asked, looming over her with all his six-feet-something and broad shoulders, shirt half-unbuttoned, blue eyes challenging her either to admit or forget her fears.
"No," she said a little too quickly. While a voice inside her murmured, Well, maybe just a little.
"I'm Dario Montessori and I live nearby. In fact, these are my vines." He waved an arm in the direction of the fields behind him. "I know everyone for miles around and everyone knows me. Come along. You might meet some neighbors."
"Why not? Nussun tempo gradisce il presente, as we say in Italian. Wait here. I'll bring my car and pick you up."
This was an order there was no resisting. Besides, she did want to meet her new neighbors. It would be silly to pass up an opportunity like this. After all, she wanted to fit into the local village life. What better way than to be taken around by a native? So she waited there until he pulled up in a red-and-black convertible with leather seats. No ordinary farmhand could touch this car with under a hundred thousand. Who was he really? Why was he going out of his way for her?
"If you're planning to kidnap me," she said with a touch of bravado, "Don't bother, because I don't have any rich relatives you could hit up for the ransom."
He slanted a glance in her direction. The look on his face told her she'd just spouted the most absurd thing he'd ever heard. "I've lived here all my life and I don't believe there's been a kidnapping around here in one hundred years. Relax, you're in Sicily now. As for the Azienda, I'm warning you, when you see it and the condition it's in, I am certain you'll be willing to sell it to me."
"It's funny," she said thoughtfully, "you're the second person I've heard of who wants to buy it from me. Just yesterday "
"That was also me," he said, turning up a bumpy, dirt road. "Your solicitor was representing my family."
"The family that owns most of the land around here? The family that makes prize-winning Marsala and exports Cabernet all over the world?"
"Then you already know I'm not going to sell it."
"You haven't seen it," he said flatly.
"I saw a picture of it on-line. It looks charming."
"Hah," he said and shook his head at her ignorance.
So he too was trying to discourage her. In the photograph the house appeared to be small, and it was located on rugged terrain at a fourteen-hundred-foot elevation. But it looked snug and was situated in a picturesque grove of olive trees and grape vines.
"That picture was taken some years ago when our family owned it. Antonio let it fall apart."
Isabel bristled at the criticism of her uncle, although he might have deserved it. As a family member she was surely entitled to criticize him for allowing the place to disintegrate, but this man was not. At least not in front of her. "Perhaps he had reason," she suggested.
Dario gave her a steely look that told her more than words that there was no good reason.
"Did you know him well?" she asked.
"He kept to himself. But it's a small town. Everyone knows everyone."
"I see," she said. But she didn't see. What was her uncle doing in Italy?
"He left the place in a mess," Dario said.
"I'll clean it up," she insisted. "I don't mind hard work. I know how to paint and make repairs. I've done it before." She'd even done it in her San Francisco rental unit when her landlord had refused to pitch in. Here she'd have the incentive of improving her own property.
He raised his eyebrows, probably surprised by her determination. He hadn't seen anything yet. She'd been criticized for years for being strong-willed after she left the orphanage.
"Isabel's a very headstrong girl," the social-service workers had agreed. She'd been moved from house to house, from foster family to foster family. No wonder no one wanted her with her bright-red hair and her stubborn disposition. No wonder she was passed over for younger, sweeter, more obedient little children. No one wanted to adopt a child with "inflexible" or "rigid" written on her reports.
It hurt to be overlooked, standing there, tall and gawky, enduring being examined and finally rejected time after time. But she got over it. Even when she was officially declared unadoptable because of her age, it had just made her more eager to grow up and set out on her own. This was her chance. She'd show them.
"Do you know anything about growing grapes?" he asked.
"Some, but I know I need to learn more," she admitted.
"Do you know how to prime a pump, irrigate fields, fight off frost? Do you know how hard it is to fertilize volcanic soil, are you prepared to wait for years to harvest your grapes?" he demanded. He was almost enjoying this inquisition, she realized. She could tell by the way he looked at her, the way he raised his voice to be sure she caught every word.