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'Be nice to him, Holly.'
Holly Purman smiled and put on her most innocent expression, the one she reserved for when her grandfather was asking something of her that she didn't want to give. The one that usually worked like a charm. 'When am I ever not nice to anyone?'
'I mean it,' Gus growled, refusing point-blank this time to be swayed. 'I know what you're like when you get a bee in your bonnet about something or somebody, and I reckon there's an entire hive buzzing around up there right now.'
'Nobody wears bonnets these days, Pop.' She stooped down to kiss her grandfather's creased forehead, adding with a grin, 'They're old hat.'
'This is no joking matter, Holly! I want you to take this visit from Franco Chatsfield seriously. It's a big deal, him coming all this way to talk to us, and the money he's talkingwell, it could set us up for life.'
Holly sighed, abandoning the plans she had to head out to the paddock to let the sheep into the vineyard. The sheep weren't going to starve in the next thirty minutes and the winter weeds would still be waiting for them in the rows between the vines. Besides, she was hardly going to convince her grandfather that a deal with Chatsfield wasn't going to be the deal of the century without having the conversation she'd been stewing over ever since Gus had taken the phone call agreeing to some representative from Chatsfield's visiting with an offer.
She pulled up a chair opposite her grandfather and sat down, putting her hand over his where it rested on the arm of his wheelchair. 'Okay, Pop, I'll be serious. We have interest from the Chatsfield Hotel Group. This isn't so surprising, surely? After winning gold or silver at nearly every wine show going, suddenly everyone wants a piece of Purman Wines. We've had loads of interest from potential buyers from all over Australia and from that big supermarket chain in the UK, and I thought you were happy with those. So why are you so excited about some guy coming from Chatsfield? What can hooking up with them give us that none of the others can?'
'Exposure, that's what! You know as well as I do that a deal with Chatsfield will give us a global exposure we won't get through any of our other offers! Chatsfield can take our wine to the world and give it a five-star tick of approval into the deal. You can't buy that kind of promotion!'
She rubbed her temple where a pulse beat insistently beneath, wishing she'd been in the office the day the call had come inthe call her grandfather had taken in her absence and been so excited about since. She wouldn't have been so quick to agree to the visit. In fact, she would most likely have told Franco Chatsfield or whatever his name was not to waste his time and effort.
But by the time she'd found out, he was already on his way. And her grandfather was right, she'd been fuming about it ever since. She patted his hand now, willing herself to calm down before she spoke.
'Sure, Pop, you're right. We'll get international exposure if we hook up with Chatsfield, nothing surer, but is it the sort of exposure Purman Wines really wants? Every week it seems there's another scandal involving that family. What with Lucca Chatsfield caught in a well, let's just say "compromising situation" Do we as a quality brand want the Purman name linked with theirs? We've both worked so hard to ensure its success, and I don't want to see the Purman name dragged through the mud.'
'Chatsfield is the most prestigious hotel chain in the world!'
'It used to be, Pop. Once upon a time it used to stand for something special. It still clings to its heritage every chance it gets, but these days the brand is more synonymous with scandal than style.'
His eyes squeezed shut as he shook his head. Emphatic. 'No, no, no! That's all in the past. Things are turning around. That's what he told me. There's a new CEO in charge and the entire chain is getting a makeover. Overhauling their menu and wine list is part of the deal. They're spending big dollars, Holly, to get the very best. They're offering the big bucks. Why shouldn't we cash in on it?'
Holly gave her grandfather a wan smile. 'We've met men with fat wallets who promised the world before, Pop, remember? I don't recall you being quite so excited then.'
Gus snorted and crooked an eyebrow, his eyes still a piercing blue and sharp as a needle, although the skin around them was creased and tanned from a lifetime of working outdoors. 'Is that what this is all about? Something that happened ten years ago?' His gaze grew more intent, his expression deadly serious. 'He was never good enough for you, Holly, and you know it!'
'I know that,' she said, sucking in air at that old familiar stab of hurt, dulled now with the passage of time, but still lurking. Still hurting if she let it. And sometimes she did, just to remind herself never to be so naive again. 'But that's not what I meant. Because I recall what happened after you'd sent him packingwhen he did his best to drag the Purman name through the mud. Don't you remember all those poisonous articles in the papers he wrote where he called us "Poorman Wines"? And all those calls from clients cancelling orders, worrying we couldn't deliver? Don't you remember all those phone calls from reporters believing we wouldn't be in business twelve months down the line? Do we really want to bring that kind of exposure on us again?'
'But this will be different. The money alone'
'Money isn't the only consideration. This is about protecting our brand! If Chatsfield is trying to improve its public image, bully for them, but I don't see why we should lend our name and our success and risk losing everything we've worked to build up, just to make them look good.'
Pop shook his head, the leathery skin between his brows more creased than ever. 'It's not just about the money, I know. Just talk to him, Holly. He'll be here soon. Listen to what he has to say. Give the man a chance. Give Chats-field a chance.'
The thought of doing a deal with them and risking what had happened before gave her the shudders. 'Why don't you talk to him if you're so keen?'
'I will. But since I'm reduced to this useless device' he slammed the palm of one hand against the wheel 'it will be you showing him around the vineyard and the winery. It will be you explaining your vintages, that's as it should be. Because it's you everyone wants to meetthe wine whisperer. Dionysus's handmaiden, the woman who turns the humble grape into nectar of the gods.' His eyes misted over. 'My Holly.'
She sighed and squeezed his hand. 'Those wine writers talk such rubbish.'
'No, it's true. All true. You have a gift, my girl, a God-given gift for the grapes and the wine. I'm so proud of you.'
She smiled, a soft smile she hoped told him just how much she loved him, before leaning over to add a kiss to his leathery cheek for good measure. 'If it is true, it's only because you taught me everything I know.'
He caught her hand within the iron grip of his bony fingers, blinking to clear watery eyes as he turned his impassioned expression up to hers. 'Don't you see, Holly? This Chatsfield deal could be the opportunity of a lifetime.'
She could see how he'd think it so. The dollars alone were enough to make anyone's eyes water. But it could also turn out to be the biggest blunder of all time, given the parlous state of the Chatsfield family and its hotel chain.
But she didn't say so, not when her grandfather seemed so set on making a deal with them. 'I'll talk to him, Pop,' she said simply and even honestly with a smile for the man who had been the centre of her existence for so long she didn't remember a time when he hadn't been there for her. 'I'll give him a chance and I'll listen to what he has to say.'
And then I'll tell him to go to hell.
Franco Chatsfield didn't appreciate having a gun held to his head, especially not by Christos Giatrakosthe man his father had hired in to bring his siblings into line . Him into line.
He tossed away the business magazine he'd been attempting to read on the descent into Adelaide Airport, giving up all pretence of being able to focus on the words. Because the closer he got to landing, the more resentful he grew.
In normal circumstances he wouldn't have given someone like Giatrakos five minutes of his time.
In normal circumstances he would have told Giatrakos where to well and truly get off.
Except that Giatrakos's last email had stopped him in his tracks.
From: Christos.Giatrakos@TheChatsfield com
To: Franco.Chatsfield@TheChatsfield com
Subject: CONDITIONS OF TRUST CONTINUATION Despite numerous attempts to make you see sense, be aware that failure to seal the deal with Purman Wines will leave me no choice but to use the power your father has given me and lock down your access to your trust funds.
This is your last warning. C.G.
Jeopardising the income stream from the Chatsfield Family Trust was the one thing Franco couldn't let happen.
So he'd play the game by Giatrakos's rules. He'd even let Giatrakos think he'd won the day if it was that important to him. Because he'd spoken to Angus Purman and it was clear from his enthusiastic response to his offer that getting his signature was practically a done deal. No wonder, really, given he'd had one hell of a budget to play with and he'd teased Purman with that knowledge.
Getting the paperwork should be a mere formality, in which case, he'd be back in Milan with this deal sorted and signed and on that jerk CEO's desk before the ink was even dry on the contract.
And if his fatherhis famous father, who hadn't given him two minutes of consideration since he'd been bornhad thought for a moment that he would be cowed by the prospect of sorting out a new wine contract for Chats-field's prestige hotel chain, he had another think coming.
He might have dropped out of school at sixteen and fled the Chatsfield media circus before it could consume him, but he'd still managed to learn a thing or two along the way. Maybe his father might finally realise that?
Not that he cared either way.
The plane bumped through clouds on its descent and he looked out the window, searching for his first glimpse of Adelaide, but there was still no sign of anything approaching a city. Instead below him spread an undulating carpet of green dotted with tiny towns connected by winding ribbons of bitumen. There were forests of pine and the dull grey of eucalypts, interspersed with open fields, and vineyards too, marching in regimented lines across the hillsides. Somewhere down there, he figured, must be Purman's cool-climate pinot-chardonnay block that provided the fruit for their award-winning sparkling wine.
A burst of rain spattered against his window, obliterating the view, and Franco reclined back in his seat as the plane bumped its descent over the hills. Not that he had to know where exactly, because as soon as the plane landed and he cleared customs, he was heading straight to Purman's Coonawarra head office, one more short flight away. He didn't want or need to see anything else. His job was to fill in a few final details on the contract he had ready and get a signature. It wasn't like he was here to have a holiday. In fact, the sooner he'd put Giatrakosthe jerkback in his box and ensured the funds from the Chatsfield Family Trust kept flowing where he wanted them to, the better.
Right now, that was all he cared about.
It might be winter but the weather was worse than wintry, it was foul, and Holly had come in from the vineyard to escape it while she made them both a sandwich for lunch. Above the pounding of the rain on the roof she barely registered the noise at first. Even when she did make out the distinctive whump-whump of chopper blades, she didn't pay it much attention. They weren't that far from the airfield after all, and there was a steady trade in sightseer flights, although admittedly more common in the warmer months.
But the noise grew progressively louder and closer and Holly stopped slicing cheese as a shiver of premonition zipped down her spine. Could it be him?
She grabbed a tea towel to wipe her hands as she crossed to the glass doors that looked out over acres of vines, now mostly bare and stripped of their leaves, to see a helicopter hovering above the lawns that doubled as a rudimentary helipad when occasion demanded.
Her grandfather wheeled alongside her as the chopper descended slowly to the ground.
'You reckon it's him?'
'Who else could it be? Clearly it's somebody who likes to make an entrance. It figures it'd be a Chatsfield.' 'You don't know that, Holly.' Her hackles did. Her bones did.
'It's him,' she said, before balling the tea towel in her hands and unceremoniously flinging it across the room to land in the sink with the same unerring certainty. She slid open the door to air that was so cold and crisp it might snap, the rain squalls moved on for now, and from the edge of the verandah they waited as the chopper's motor wound down, the blades' revolutions slowing.
And even though it was near-freezing outside, her blood simmered with resentment. Did he honestly imagine they'd be impressed at such a grand entrance?
The passenger door popped open and their visitor jumped out and Holly's skin prickled.
Tall, she registered. Around six foot if she wasn't mistaken, though it was hard to tell given how far he had to duck his head under the rotating blades. And then he straightened and she could see his face and he could be nothing other than a Chatsfield, with his chiselled good looks and the tendrils of his bad-boy hair flicking like serpents in the down draft from the blades.
The prickling under her skin intensified and spread until even her breasts tingled and peaked. The cold, she told herself as she clutched her arms over her chest and pressed her fingernails tight into her flesh. Damn this cold and damn this man who was smiling as if he was welcome here.
As if he imagined he was going to get a slice of Pur-man Wine action.
Not on her watch.
'Angus Purman?' he said, extending a hand to her grandfather. 'Franco Chatsfield. It's good to meet you.'
'Gus will do just fine,' the older man said with a nod, and Franco felt his hand enveloped by a weatherbeaten paw that housed a grip of steel. 'And this here's my granddaughter, Holly. She's the real boss of the show.'