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"Let's go down the road and have a drink." Drake Wines Resort and Spa co-owner and executive, thirty-two-year-old Donovan Drake, eyed his prey with a serious expression, barely stopping himself from licking his lips and releasing a groan in anticipation of how the evening might end. That was if he had his way.
His target's eyes twinkled with humor as she contemplated the remark. "You're asking me to leave one of Southern California's most coveted resorts" she waved her hand around the room "featuring award-winning vineyards, to go somewhere else for a glass of wine?" Donovan smiled. The woman sitting across from him had a point. For the fifth year in a row, an assortment of Drake Wines had placed first in several categories at the Monterey Wine Festival, the California Beer and Wine Festival, the Vancouver Playhouse International Wine Festival and the Food and Wine Classic in Aspen, Colorado. The latter had led to an unprecedented six-page spread in the prestigious Food and Wine Magazine, a fact that had delighted his sister and director of PR, Diamond, whose wedding announcement and subsequent celebration had placed him near this dark-chocolate morsel.
"You're right, of course. There are no better wines than those in our vineyard. But when it comes to privacy, and particularly when it comes to not having the one-and-only Genevieve Drake, otherwise known as my mother, all up in my affairs, that is something else entirely."
"We're just talking. Why would you care if your mother sees that?"
"Because I'm male and you're female. That alone makes you immediately of interest where my mother is concerned." Marissa Hayes's look was a mix of mild confusion and skepticism. "She sees every woman her sons entertain, even in conversation, as potential marriage material. If we stay here it won't be long before she waltzes over to begin her informal interrogation."
"That is not how she appeared during the introductions," Marissa countered. "In fact, considering the force of the Drake name in the wine industry and beyond, and given Diamond's vivacious personality, I was surprised at how soft-spoken and laid-back she seems to be."
"Don't let those genteel manners and the velvet glove fool you. There's an iron fist shielded inside it and a shrewd, calculating mind behind that soft smile."
Marissa fiddled with one of her curly black locks as she took in the scenery, discreetly searching for the classy lady she'd learned was Donovan, Diamond and their younger brother Dexter's mom. While doing so, she also took in the well-appointed great room ensconced within the luxurious walls of the Drake estate; its soft ivory silk was a perfect backdrop to the velvet-covered chaises, brocade wingbacks and low-slung sectional clothed in antique damask. The ebony and ivory keys of the baby grand anchoring the other end of the room were being tickled by a very capable pianist. The nimble fingers of the young blonde who'd been introduced as a former prodigy effortlessly blended yesterday's sounds of Duke and Ella with today's George Benson, Kenny G and Esperanza Spalding. When she shifted her eyes from the piano player, they landed on Donovan's mother, a vision of sophistication in burgundy silk and silver accessories. She turned her head slightly toward Donovan and lifted her champagne flute. "I'm afraid you may be right, Mr. Drake. We're getting ready to have company."
Donovan didn't have to turn around to know who was approaching. Genevieve Drake had spotted them and was making the proverbial beeline for a closer examination of the woman who had held the attention of her son for longer than five minutes.
"Ah, there you are!" Genevieve Drake's carriage was one of pride and confidence as she reached her son and stepped in for a hug. A refined-looking lady with strong, vibrant features, long black hair streaked with gray and a slim, short frame, she exuded maternal comfort even as subtle hints of fire came through. "I think Keely did a fabulous job, don't you?"
"I do," Donovan said, looking around and raising his glass to Dexter, his perpetual-playboy brother holding court amid a circle of lovelies on the other side of the room. "But then again, we'd expect nothing less of Kathleen's daughter."
Kathleen Fitzpatrick was a longtime Drake employee whose fire was less like subtle flickers and more like a burning flame. She'd begun her employ more than twenty-five years ago, working in various capacities based on need. For the past several years she'd worked in the PR and marketing department as Donovan's sister Diamond's assistant. Fiercely loyal and all about family, she'd been delighted when Diamond decided to hire her up-and-coming party-planner daughter for the fete to celebrate her highly talked about engagement to construction mogul Jackson "Boss" Wright. With a nod to the month and the moment, Keely's theme had revolved around hearts, with the symbol showing up in unique and creative ways around the room: ice sculptures; ice cubes; floral centerpieces; and, Genevieve's favorite, the keepsake candles that would go home with each guest. The color palette boasted almost every shade of red imaginable and, paired with champagne, was at once elegant and festive.
Genevieve turned to Marissa. "Hello, dear. I'm Donovan's mother, Genevieve Drake."
Marissa stuck out her hand. "Marissa Hayes. Mrs. Drake, it's a pleasure."
"The pleasure is mine." Genevieve reached for Ma-rissa's hand only to pull her in for a hug. "We hug where I'm from," she said with a smile.
"Oh? And where's that?"
"The South. Louisiana. What about you, dear. From where does your family hail? With that beautiful brown skin, those high cheekbones and almond-shaped eyes, I'd probably lean toward the islands. Would I be wrong?"
"We all landed stateside as far as I know. I was born and raised in San Diego, ma'am, where I still live." Ma-rissa suppressed a smile as she felt a subtle tug on her dress. She was sure it was Donovan's way of alerting her that Detective Genevieve's interrogation had begun.
"And your parents, they still live in San Diego as well?"
"No. My father is a minister who a few years ago was asked to become senior pastor of a prominent church in Chicago. They live just outside the Windy City in a suburb called Naperville."
Genevieve nodded. "I've heard of it, but have not been there. In fact, it's been years since I've visited the Midwest, including Chicago. I do love their deep-dish pizza. Donovan, what was the name of the restaurant we visited, what, ten years ago?"
"I don't remember, Mom. But speaking of food, Ma-rissa and I were"
"Oh, it doesn't matter," Genevieve went on. She did a surreptitious sweep of Marissa from head to toe. "Of course, with your stunning hourglass figure, you probably stay away from such calorie-laden treats."
"Probably not as much as I should."
"Hmm. I must say it is wonderful to talk with someone without having to look up continually. All of my children took after their father in that regard. What are you, five-three, four?"
"Okay, Mom. Let's not continue this round of twenty questions."
"How else does one get to know their guests?" Gen-evieve asked dryly with raised brow.
Marissa chuckled. "Really, Donovan. It's okay." Looking at Genevieve, she continued, "I understand completely. I'm five foot four and also the shortest one in my family, not counting my cousins or my nephew, who just turned two."
"Ha!" Genevieve's twinkling eyes signaled how much she was enjoying the conversation. "So you have siblings."
"A brother, who is older than me. He and his family live in Baltimore, Maryland, where his wife is from."
Donovan cleared his throat. Marissa hid another smile behind a sip of sparkling chardonnay, a Drake Wines favorite. Genevieve barreled on determinedly. "How do you know Diamond, dear?"
"I haven't had the pleasure of really getting to know her yet. I work for Boss Wright as his executive assistant."
"Really?" Genevieve didn't try to hide her surprise or heightened interest. "How long have you worked for him?"
"Okay, Mom. I think that's enough for one evening."
"I'm simply curious that someone as beautiful as this young lady didn't try and snap up one of the country's most eligible bachelors for herself." She turned still-sparkling eyes on Marissa and lowered her voice as if they were two longtime pals. "Or did you?" She winked, letting Marissa know that she was teasing, and continued talking, as if trying to get under her eldest son's skin.
It was working.
Donovan didn't think for one minute that his shrewd mother was joking. He believed he knew the questions his mother wasn't asking: Had Marissa ever been interested in Jackson Wright? Had Jackson ever been interested in Marissa? Had Jackson and Marissa ever slept together? If so, why? If not, why? Was Donovan interested in Marissa? And if so, how fast could Genevieve do a background check?
"You know what they say about curiosity," Donovan drawled, gently taking his mother's shoulders and steering her away from Marissa. "It killed the cat." He kissed her on the top of her head. "We're going to check out the dessert buffet," he offered, to keep his mother from feeling totally dismissed.
"Enjoy your evening," Genevieve said over her shoulder to Marissa. "We'll talk again."
After Donovan had deposited Genevieve into the safe and capable hands of his father, Donald, he returned to where Marissa still stood. "Now you understand why I want to sample another vineyard's wines."
"So what do you say? Inland Empire Winery, Ran-cho California Road, fifteen minutes?"
Marissa smiled, and gave a nod. "I'll meet you there."
Donovan watched Marissa wind her way through the crowd and over to where Jackson and Diamond stood. Later, he'd explain to his sis and brother-in-law-to-be why he didn't make his proper goodbyes. Diamond would understand. As with the brothers, she too had borne the brunt of Genevieve's desire to expand the clan and bounce grandchildren on her knee as soon as possible. One would think that with Diamond's wedding on the horizon the pressure would have lessened. Instead, her impending nuptials had created the opposite effect, especially where he was concerned.
"You're the oldest," Genevieve had chided the morning after Jackson proposed to Diamond. "I never thought I'd see the day where your sister beat you at anything." Despite their competitive nature, this was one race Donovan had gladly lost to a sibling. He'd happily get beaten by Dexter, too, though hell would have probably frozen over and Armageddon made itself known before baby brother ended his Don Juan ways. In an attempt to throw off an undoubtedly still curious Genevieve from his trail, Donovan walked in the opposite direction as Marissa, joining his brother and the circle of female admirers that surrounded him. After another minute or two, he slipped out a side door, doubled back through the garden, around the infinity pool and into the parking lot. Bypassing his Mercedesbecause if she noticed his car missing Detective Gen-evieve would undoubtedly ask what type of car Marissa ownedhe walked the cobblestoned path to the company garage and settled into a company car. After retrieving the car keys that were always stowed in the overhead visor, he eased the Lexus hybrid out of the garage and was on his way.
The night was cool and the stars bright and vibrant as he made his way down the private winding road of the Drake Resort before turning left onto Rancho California Road and the short drive to his destination. He reached the neighboring winery, with which the Drakes maintained a friendly rivalry; parked near the front; and, bypassing the restaurant, opted for the less formal tasting bar. On this, the Saturday before Valentine's Day, it was only moderately crowded. The bartender greeted Donovan by name, served up a deep-bodied cabernet franc and placed a bowl of salty nuts and pretzels within easy reach. After allowing a moment for the wine to breathe, Donovan picked up the glass, swirled its contents and thought of Marissa Hayes.
He'd noticed her the moment she'd arrived at the party. He'd seen the delicious smile she gave the valet as she exited her car and received her ticket. Donovan had been standing near the door, having just returned from escorting his great-grandfatherthe family patriarchfrom the north wing of the ten-thousand-square-foot home to where the festivities were being held. David Drake, Sr., a ninety-nine-year-young fountain of ever-spouting wisdom, whom everyone fondly called Papa Dee, had noticed her, too. His surprisingly clear eyes had gleamed with mischief when he said, "That's a fine filly there, Donovan. An old man won't fault you for abandoning me in favor of taking that youngling for a ride." Donovan had laughed off the comment, but the short, stacked, brown bombshell rocking the forest-green, velvety-looking dress and stiletto heels had not only captured his attention, but she maintained it throughout the course of the evening.
He knew who she was, had remembered her from a few months earlier and the gala that celebrated the official opening of Drake Wines Resort and Spa. That's how Diamond had become acquainted with Jackson, when his construction company, Boss Construction, won the bid to transform the twenty-five-year-old facility. It had been totally renovated and expanded to include a boutique hotel with a separate honeymoon house on the hill, a standalone gift shop and wine store and a world-class spa offering everything from massages to mud baths along with a full-service salon. All of this sat on more than five hundred acres of rolling hills and sterling grapevines. It was set against the mountainous backdrop of Temecula, a perfect place for weddings and the site for his sister's upcoming nuptials.
His interest had been piqued that first time he'd seen Marissa, and he recalled the way his heart had clenched at the sight of her while something decidedly lower had also bobbed its amen. He remembered the way she'd offered a coy smile before glancing away from his intense gaze and how a jolt of electricity had accompanied their handshake. Most important he remembered the way that no matter how hard he tried all evening, he seemed to not be able to corner her; less than an hour into the party he'd found out she'd already left. Something about an upset stomach, Jackson had said. Upon finding out that she was gone, he'd shrugged off the attraction, hadn't given her a second thought. Until tonight. But ever since he'd seen her tonight, he knew that her slipping through his fingers again was not an option. Not the way she was swinging that hair and wearing that dress, with a body so vivacious it should have come with a warning sign. Dangerous Curves Ahead.
Donovan looked at his Rolex and then watched as the brother who was also at the bar finished his drink and passed a business card to the blonde seated between them before he walked out the door. The blonde turned to Donovan.
"What a jerk," she said as she tore the business card in half before offering him a flirty look. Donovan gave her an understanding smile before turning his chair to face the bar's liquor-covered shelves. He was sympathetic but not interested. Not tonight anyway. It had now been twenty minutes since Marissa had promised to meet him in fifteen. Leaning back in the comfy bar chair, he took another slow, deliberate sip of wine. His mother had taught him that anything worth having was worth waiting for. Donovan Drake was nothing if not a patient man.