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Whitney Foster was stuck in a traffic jam.
On a Thursday afternoon.
In the middle of nowhere.
She thought she'd left this particular problem in Chicago. But here she was, moving at a snail's pace on a two-lane country road. She sat fourth in line behind a monstrous green farm machine. The road was twisty, so attempting to pass risked a fate far worse than slowing down for a few miles.
At least the view was nice. Seneca Lake stretched out below her, narrow and brilliantly blue. Farmland and vineyards sloped down to the water, and on the other side, rose gently to the horizon. A glance at the GPS told Whitney she was only a few miles away from one of the happiest places she'd ever known as a child. A little traffic backup wouldn't spoil her anticipation.
The three-day drive from Chicago to upstate New York was the longest road trip her hybrid SUV had ever seen. It usually just took her to work and back on those rare days she didn't take the train. The fun-yet-practical bright red vehicle had been a rare impulse purchase last year after she'd received her bonus. It was great on gas. And she'd managed to pack a surprising amount of her life into the small cargo area. Her former life, that is.
No more bonuses now. No more job. And all because slow dancing at sunrise she'd trusted the wrong man. Wrong men. Silly her for assuming the senior partners would do the right thing when she found discrepancies in an audit done by the CEO's nephew. Instead, they'd patted her on the head and told her not to worry, then made her the scapegoat when it all blew up in their faces. They took her job and her reputation. Good times.
Brake lights flashed red in front of her as the agricultural machine slowed to a near stop, then mercifully pulled into a farm on the right, raising a cloud of dust as it rumbled up the driveway and past the blue, green and yellow farmhouse. As frustrated as she was by the delay, the scene made her smile. She'd been around too much pavement and cement the past few years. The increasing number of Victorian houses she passed, painted in bright rainbow colors, were a mainstay of Rendezvous Falls.
Aunt Helen had told her the story often. Some famous architect — Whitney drummed her fingers on the steering wheel trying to remember his name — came home to the town after the Civil War. Looking to forget the terrible things he'd seen, the architect started building houses decked out with fanciful gingerbread trim, painted in wild color combinations. People laughed at first. But it wasn't long before everyone wanted the most intricate, most incredible, most colorful house in town. These days, people traveled from all over to see the Crazy Victorian "Painted Ladies" of Rendezvous Falls. Naturally, an influx of visitors led to the meeting of many different worlds. And, as Aunt Helen used to say, the meeting of hearts. "People don't realize what they're missing until they find it," she would say with a wink.
Maybe that was why Whitney couldn't think of anywhere else to run to but the Finger Lakes. Just like when she came here as a little girl, she knew she was missing ... something. Whitney's mom had been trying to "make it" in Las Vegas back then, and rarely had time for actual parenting. Visiting her aunt and uncle here almost every summer gave Whitney the sense of home she'd needed. It was an escape to a magical place, as far removed from Vegas in atmosphere as it was in miles.
Route 14 grazed the edge of Rendezvous Falls. Whitney didn't take time to detour through the neighborhoods that led down to the water, but the town hadn't changed much. The houses stood out from the bucolic scenery as boldly as ever. American flags waved from old-fashioned lampposts lining the streets. It was still postcard pretty, and indeed, there was a sign proudly proclaiming Voted One of America's Prettiest Towns.
A large home sat on one corner with a for sale sign in front of it. It sported two round turrets, and was painted black, with bright orange-and-yellow trim. Whitney shook her head. It looked like an homage to candy corn. As a little girl, the eclectic paint schemes made her feel like she'd stepped into a fairy tale where anything was possible. As an adult, they seemed ... silly. Indulgent. Impractical. They were just houses now, not portals to a storybook wonderland. Because fairy tales weren't real.
Uncomfortable confronting her own cynicism, Whitney pulled her shoulders back and tried to loosen her death grip on the steering wheel. She wasn't here to believe in magic. She was here to regroup and figure out what to do next. She chewed on her lip, trying to ignore the roiling of her stomach. Everything would be fine. She just needed a plan.
Mind back on the matter at hand, she turned onto Falls Road and headed up the hill away from town, toward Falls Legend Winery. A smile played at her lips. Okay, there was one fairy tale she believed in. Uncle Tony had passed away almost two years ago, but until then, he and Aunt Helen had lived a charmed life together.
Whitney had heard that story many times, too, and she'd never tired of it. The scrappy son of an immigrant who fell for the most beautiful girl in town. Despite the odds, he won her heart. They bought a rundown farm with one of the earliest Victorian houses on it, and eventually turned it into a successful winery and party venue. Uncle Tony made the wine and built whatever was needed, and Aunt Helen was a Martha Stewart–level hostess — without that pesky trip to prison, of course. Tony and Helen's marriage had been a statistically rare perfect partnership.
She turned onto Lakeview Road, which hugged the hillside instead of climbing it, giving the car a welcome break. Whitney hadn't seen the house in almost four years. Her smile disappeared. She hadn't come to Tony's funeral. Her boss had made it clear at the time that leaving in the middle of the London audit for someone who "wasn't immediate family" would slow her progress to becoming partner. She didn't know how to explain that Uncle Tony was the only stable male role model in her life. That she loved him like a father, since she'd never known her own. Her boss wasn't interested in any of that.
Guilt poked at her before she pushed it away. Guilt was unproductive. Becoming the youngest female partner at one of the world's fastest-growing accounting firms required a pricey personal toll, and one of the first things she'd had to sacrifice was vacation time. Aunt Helen and Uncle Tony always assured her they understood when she couldn't visit, and they'd all stayed in touch with phone calls and video chats. But it wasn't the same, and she knew it.
Whitney recognized the rise in the road ahead, and her heart jumped a little. Right around that curve was the reason this was called Lakeview Road. She didn't bother stopping at the scenic overlook that jutted out alongside the road, knowing she was less than a mile from Aunt Helen's. Uncle Tony used to walk down here with her from the house, her soft little hand held in his huge, rough one. He'd tell her of the moonlit night he brought Aunt Helen to that very overlook to propose to her.
At the time, Whitney had hung on every word, staring into her uncle's warm, dark eyes and wishing she would grow up to live in a place just like this, with a love just like theirs. But she was an adult now, and she knew the odds of that happening were approximately a million to one. No, wait. Her brain spun through the numbers quickly. With six billion people on earth, a million to one chance actually meant something was likely to happen. That's not what she was going for. A billion to one was more accurate, although people rarely said that ...
She was so busy running the calculations, she almost missed the driveway. It didn't help that the grass was so high it nearly covered the faded wooden sign for Falls Legend Winery. A hand-lettered board had been nailed across the bottom, reading Open Saturdays Only.
Saturdays only? That was ... strange. Tony had always opened the wine-tasting room every day, because "You never know who might stop by, Whitney-girl. Maybe some nice person will drive through town on a Tuesday and buy five cases. You just never know."
The driveway was bumpier than she remembered. Whitney frowned. Tony had done most of the physical work around the place, but Helen told her they'd had some guy working for them who'd stayed on after Tony died. She vaguely remembered seeing a dark-haired teen following Tony around the vineyard when she'd come here as a girl. Obviously, Tony could never be replaced, but ... she still didn't expect to see this level of neglect. Maybe the hired man had left?
At the crest of the knoll, the driveway opened into a large level parking area. Thin weeds grew up through the gravel in spots. She parked her car in front of the carriage house to the right that functioned as a tasting room and wine shop. It had the same gingerbread trim and rounded turret as the main house, but in miniature. The only variance on the Victorian styling were the limestone porch pillars, a nod to Uncle Tony's beloved Italy. The paint, once bright and cheerful, was peeling. Sections of siding were missing. A pile of lumber was off to the side, showing the small promise of intended improvement.
Whitney exchanged her practical driving flats for her favorite navy pumps and got out of the car. Looking up at the main house across the lot, she swallowed hard, feeling like a stone was lodged in her throat. It was still a life-sized dollhouse, painted dark green with burgundy and ivory trim as Tony's way of honoring the Italian flag. But now it was ... tired. Forgotten. The paint wasn't peeling as badly as the carriage house, but there was no life to the place. The curtains were drawn tight on all the windows. Flower boxes still lined the porch railing, but they sat empty. The big rocking chairs that were always on the porch were gone. When she was little, this had been her own special Secret Garden, but even Aunt Helen's precious roses were an overgrown mess.
Why hadn't Helen told her things had fallen apart like this? She dug the toe of her shoe into the loose soil. Helen had been sad and withdrawn when they spoke recently, but that was normal for a woman who'd lost the love of her life, right? Whitney had, as usual, been busy and rushed on those calls. But she had asked how things were going at the winery. Helen always said things were fine. Whitney hadn't realized "I'm fine" was the age-old cry for help.
A movement caught her eye near the corner of the long fermentation barn farther up the hill. A man came out of the smaller door, a worn leather bag slung over his shoulder, and a brown dog trotting at his side. His head was down and his strides were long and sure — a man on a mission. She could see the shadow of a dark beard along a strong jawline. He ran his hand through his longish hair, then rubbed the back of his neck as he walked, as if trying to solve some complex equation. Cargo shorts hung low on his hips and a dark T-shirt clung to sweaty skin. Was he some super-hot vagrant just wandering through? Was he looking to rob the place? What had he been doing in Aunt Helen's barn?
The dog saw her first, and let out a sharp bark. The man looked up and spotted her car parked by the carriage house. He came to such an abrupt halt the canvas bag swung forward and smacked him in the elbow. He slow dancing at sunrise 16 grimaced in its direction, his scowl deepening when he spotted her. Whitney returned the expression, plus tax.
"We're closed." He lobbed the words at her from across the parking lot. Didn't even bother walking toward her. We're closed. We?
"And who," she asked, crisply, "might 'we' be?"
The man cocked his head toward the Falls Legend Winery sign above the door.
"We," he replied, as if speaking to a small child, "are the proprietors of this winery, and we are not currently accepting customers." Whitney couldn't help wondering how many customers showed up here wearing Armani, with a car full of luggage. He glanced at her car, then back at her, towing his eyes up and down her body. "No wine for sale here today. No drinks to be had. That is what 'we' mean by 'closed.'"
Her fingers twitched. Whitney had dealt with men like this for years. Coasters. Lurking losers who stayed under the radar and collected a paycheck for basically just showing up. They acted as though their lack of accomplishment somehow meant they were smarter than the rest of the world. As if the fact they were pulling one over on their bosses made them more worthy.
Whitney propped one hand on her hip and gestured around the property with her other.
"Yes, I can see how you may be put off by unexpected visitors. Are you actually expecting any customers, at any point in the near future?" She said, matching his condescending tone.
"Excuse me?" He let the battered leather bag slide off his shoulder, catching the strap in his hand at the last second. The dog, with white and tan trim on its face and legs, sat at his side, watching them curiously. "Look, I don't know what your issue is, but you're going to want to take your Random Thursday Day Drinking somewhere else. This is a family-owned place, and I've got things to do."
At the mention of family, Whitney bristled, breaking her own 'stay cool' rule.
"Wow, that is ... quite the customer service approach." She started across the parking lot, struggling to walk on heels that weren't meant for crushed stone. "Fortunately for the actual proprietor, I'm not here to buy wine. But I can't help wondering how many customers you've chased away with that attitude."
As she got closer, his jawline hardened. Already square beneath the scruffy beard, it was now set firmly in anger. If she had to guess, she'd say he was only a few years older than her. His dark hair was long enough to show thick, sweat-soaked curls. His skin was tanned and ruddy from the sun, and the layer of grime on his neck almost made her recoil in disgust. But she didn't stop walking until she heard a low growl coming from the dog at his side.
"Molly, hush." His voice was low and even, at odds with the muscle she could see ticking dangerously in his cheek. "This 'lady' isn't a threat."
He set the bag on the ground with a heavy thud. Metal clanked against metal ... and a memory surfaced. That was Uncle Tony's old tool bag. She'd often watched Tony trudge between the house and wine barn with that same bag, always fixing something. He'd taken the time to explain what each tool was for and what he was doing. As a little girl craving attention, having someone talk to her like a grown-up was beyond special. Handed down through generations of Russos, those tools had built half the structures on this property.
What was this man doing, handling something so precious with so little regard? Was this ... was this jerk stealing from Helen as well as taking advantage of her? Whitney's fingers curled into fists.
Ignoring her started objection, he continued, "Look, if you're not here for wine, you'll have to go. We're not buying whatever you might be selling. If you're looking for Mrs. Russo, she's not home." He stared hard at her to make sure she got his point. "And she's not buying anything, either."
At that, he reached down to lift the tool bag, dismissing her.
Before the thought had even fully formed in her mind, Whitney was reaching for the strap on the tool bag. As the man went to throw it back over his shoulder, she pulled, setting the weight off balance, which caused him to let go. The bag was much heavier than she anticipated, and as it came swinging toward her hip, she braced herself. This was going to leave one hell of a bruise. But at the last second, the bag jerked, tools clanking loudly as it jostled between them. He'd caught it just in time, but Whitney didn't feel grateful. And he clearly wasn't feeling chivalrous.
"What the hell are you doing, lady?" Anger turned to incredulity, his brown eyes widening in surprise, before quickly morphing back to anger. "Are you insane? Let go of my tool bag!"
"It's not your bag," Whitney corrected him, still clutching the strap. "And I don't appreciate you acting like you have the authority to tell me — or anyone, for that matter — who can or cannot do business with this company. As you said, it's family-owned, and I happen —"
Before Whitney could continue her lecture, which wasn't at all as articulate as she wanted, the crunch of gravel stole the attention of them both.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Slow Dancing at Sunrise"
Copyright © 2019 Jo McNally.
Excerpted by permission of Harlequin Enterprises Limited.
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