CHAPTER ONE

Gabriella DeLuca stood alone at dawn among the grapevines.  To her east, beyond a stand of towering oak and eucalyptus, the sun poked above Napa’s Howell Mountains, struggling to banish the fog that on this June morning hung heavy on the valley floor.  Within hours the sun would win the battle, bathing the earth in hot light and pushing the grapes, olives, prunes, and walnuts toward harvest.

She stared at the small blaze she’d carefully set beside the steepest hillside vineyard owned by her employer, Suncrest Vineyards.  In one hand she clutched a photo, in the other a bouquet of long-stemmed red roses Vittorio had given her, in another country, in another life.  The roses were dry now with age, and brittle to the touch.  Without allowing herself another thought – for already she had given this thought enough - she tossed the desiccated blooms into the fire.

Whoosh!  The flames shot high into the air as they greedily consumed their prize.  Gabby watched the last petals fall into ash.

“Vittorio Mantucci,” she whispered, “arrivederci …” and she closed her eyes, mentally saying goodbye to the only man she had ever loved.  Whom she’d also lost, unfortunately, meaning she had a grim record of oh for one in the amore department.  But this morning, one year to the day after Vittorio had pulled the heart out of her chest and stomped on it with his Gucci loafer, wasn’t about heartache or fury or regret.  The last three hundred sixty-four had been about those.  This morning was about ending it, for now and forever.

Gabby lowered her gaze to the glossy five-by-seven Kodachrome in her left hand.  It showed her and the former love of her life in brilliant Chianti sunshine, grinning idiotically, him dark and gorgeous, her blond and unbelievably happy, vineyards and olive trees and promise all around them.

She remembered that day clearly.  They had had a picnic.  They had sparred over the relative merits of Tuscany versus Lombardy, never agreeing whether his family province won out over her ancestral home.  They had made hasty but wonderful love on a gingham blanket, then thrown on their clothes so Vittorio could snap a photo, setting his self-timed camera on a tree stump before scampering back toward her to get in place on time.  

It took great force of will for Gabby to toss the photo on the conflagration.  But toss it she did, then she watched it disappear, edges first, till finally Vittorio’s face caved in onto itself and melted away.  She stared at the space where it had been for some time, then threw in a whole packet of photos.  Those took longer to be annihilated but eventually they were.  That seemed to prove something.

“How’s that for an Italian exorcism?” she murmured, then had to laugh, choking on her tears, both regretting the past and not regretting it, wondering if ever again she could think the name Vittorio Mantucci without a fresh gash in her heart.

So she’d traded Italy’s wine country for California’s.  Tuscany for Napa Valley.  Not such a bad deal, really.  It was home, she loved it, her whole family was nearby.  What did she have to complain about?  And she’d traded Vittorio for – who?  Someone wonderful, she told herself.  Someone American like her, who she’d understand through and through.  Someone who’d stick by her even if everybody in his family howled objections.

Or – and this poked a hole rather quickly in her romantic bravado - maybe she’d traded Vittorio for nobody.

Oh, and don’t forget.  She hadn’t traded Vittorio.  He’d traded her.

Gabby flopped down onto the vineyard dirt and eyed what remained of her exorcism stash.  All of it reminded her one way or another of her three years interning for the Mantucci family winery.  There was the one-pound box of fettuccine, Vittorio’s most admired noodle, and a box of wine.  Yes, a box of wine, because Gabby knew there was no greater insult to her former lover’s memory than wine so cheap it was packaged like fruit punch.

She was just feeding a fistful of fettuccine into the fire when she heard a shocked male voice call out behind her.

“Gabby, what in God’s name are you doing?”

It was Felix Rodriguez.  He walked toward her, a heavyset mustachioed man who’d been vineyard manager at Suncrest as long as her father had been winemaker, meaning ever since Gabby was five years old.  Like her, Felix wore jeans and work boots.  Unlike her, he sported a helmet similar to the kind coal miners wear, with a sort of flashlight mounted on the forehead.  Perfect for traipsing around vineyards while keeping one’s hands free.  To put out rogue fires, for example.

“It’s not in God’s name, Felix,” Gabby told him.  “It’s in Vittorio Mantucci’s.”

Felix’s eyes flew open hearing her mouth that accursed name, which all DeLucas, and Felix by extension, were banned from uttering.  Then they dropped to her stash and widened further.  “You’re barbecuing spaghetti?”

“It’s pasta, Felix, pasta.  And I’m not barbecuing it.  I’m just burning it.”  She sighed.  This was hard to explain to somebody who’d never had to go through this ritual.

No doubt Felix would lump in this lunacy with her other inexplicable behavior.  Like renting a house far up-valley and a difficult half-mile drive up an unlit, unpaved road.  It screamed isolation and she knew what everybody thought about that.  She wants to be alone because of that Italian boy who broke her heart.  The heads shook, the tongues clucked.  Sometimes it seemed that the old families like hers majored in grapes and minored in gossip.  She should have known he’d marry one of his own.

She sort of had known, but had ignored it.  And she rented the house not only because nobody lived nearby but because it allowed her to live right next to vineyards.  Which unlike Italian lovers had a certain predictable, soothing rhythm to them.

Felix harrumphed.  “You shouldn’t have come in so early today.  You should be home sleeping so you’re not tired for Mrs. Winsted’s party tonight.”

“God, Felix, don’t remind me!”  She tossed in the rest of the fettuccine, box and all.  “Why anyone would celebrate Max Winsted coming back to Napa Valley is beyond me.”

“She’s his mother.”

“All I can say is, Ava Winsted proves that a mother’s love is blind.”  It wasn’t often that Mrs. W drove Gabby crazy, but she was doing so now.  Hand over Suncrest to that nincompoop son of hers?  “What is she thinking, Felix?  He’s going to kill this place.  He’s going to come in here and run it in whatever asinine way he wants to and he’s going to kill it.”

Felix wouldn’t respond to that.  He would keep his mouth shut and his head down and not risk his job, which was probably what Gabby should do, too.

She shook her head.  That was the problem with working for a family-owned winery.  If the family ran out of sensible people to run the place, the winery got screwed.  And all the employees along with it.

“Maybe Max learned something in France,” Felix offered.

“All Max Winsted learned in France is how to say ‘Voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir’  in three different levels of politeness,” she shot back.  But apparently Felix hadn’t listened to as much retread disco as she had, because he didn’t seem to get the reference.

Gabby poked a stick at her fire.  It was all so frustrating.  And scary.  She’d come back to California to pick up the threads of her life, grow into the winemaker she knew she could be, maybe even recover enough to love again.  After losing Vittorio, all she wanted was the bulwark stability of her family and of Suncrest, both steady, unchanging, the Rocks of Gibraltar of her emotional landscape.  The DeLucas were fine, thank God, but the winery?  With Max Winsted taking over, all bets were off.

She’d known him since she was five years old and he was a newborn, and pretty much from the day he was out of diapers he was a jerk.  He got more smug and self-satisfied every year.  And the biggest irony of all was that even though he was born to Suncrest and the employees only worked there, sometimes she wondered if he loved it like they did.

He sure didn't act like it.

Gabby felt Felix’s eyes on her and forced a smile.  “I’m sorry, Felix, I shouldn’t be so negative.”  She knew she shouldn’t, since as assistant winemaker she was fairly high up the management ranks and should be rallying the other employees around their new boss.  “It’s just hard for me to imagine working for that … buffoon.”

He stifled a smile, then his face turned somber.  “I know you love this place, Gabby.”

She stared at him.  “You do, too, Felix.”

He sighed, his eyes skidding to the fire.  “We all do.”

A wind came through, riffling the flames.  Gabby shivered, half wishing the sun would halt its rise, the day would never dawn, the homecoming party would never happen.  But she’d learned the hard way that wishing didn’t always make things so.

***

Will Henley, Jr. was proud of himself.  He’d positively blasted through his morning ritual.  Once the alarm at his San Francisco bedside blared at the usual 4:30 A.M., he did a killer half-hour on the rowing machine - a holdover from his years as stroke for Dartmouth’s lightweight crew - then noted the workout’s intensity and duration on a chart.  He scarfed a few bowls of whole-grain cereal, showered, shaved, and selected a pinstripe suit and lightly starched French-cuff dress shirt from his custom collection.  Then he sped his silver BMW Z8 the two fog-bound miles from his Pacific Heights Victorian to his corner office in a refurbished redbrick warehouse on the Embarcadero.

That put him at his mahogany partner’s desk at 5:45 A.M., a ball-busting early arrival even by the Type-A standards of Will’s employer, the private-equity firm General Pacific Group, known among the business and financial cognoscenti as GPG.

Will settled in to sip the low-fat latte he’d had sent over from the building’s dining room, which opened for daily coddling when his alarm went off.  Strewn across his desk and file cabinets and handcrafted bookshelves were dozens of Lucite cubes, each representing a GPG deal he’d helped transact.  On the north wall hung a flat-panel screen flashing real-time stock quotes from Europe and the closing numbers from Asia.  Wall Street wouldn’t begin trading for nearly another hour.

But Will’s first task that morning had nothing to do with financial markets or private-equity transactions.  He lifted his phone and punched in a Denver number he knew by heart.  And even though a voicemail announcement came on saying Rocky Mountain Flowers wasn’t yet open for business, Will began speaking at the tone.

“Hey, Benny, pick up.”  He waited a beat.  “Pick up, Benny, I know you’re there.  It’s Will Henley in San …”

“Hello.”  The voice was slightly out of breath.

“Hey!  Thanks, guy.  Did I catch you sweeping?”

“First thing every a.m.”

“Sorry to interrupt.”

“No problem.”  Benny clattered around a bit.  “So what is it this time, big guy?  Anniversary?  Birthday?”

“Birthday.  Beth’s.”

“Roses or tulips?  Or I could do some sort of combo for you …”

“Do a combo.”  Will squinted, thinking.  “Pink and yellow, she’d like that.  And send it to the office, not the house.”

Benny laughed.  “So everybody can ooh and aah over it.  The usual message?”

“Please.”  Will smiled.  It was a good message.  It made her happy every year.

“You got it, sir.”

“Put ‘em in a vase rather than a box, please, Benny, and try to deliver them early in the day, okay?”  Will glanced up to see Simon LaRue, one of GPG’s general partners and hence a truly big dog, hovering at his door.  He waved him in.  “Very good,” he said into the phone.  “Thanks, my man.”

Will hung up while LaRue halted in front of his desk, six feet two inches of perfectly groomed American male in a three thousand dollar handmade suit.  Simon LaRue might be dark-haired but he was a Golden Boy, just like Will, just like all the partners at GPG.

He arched a brow.  “Sending some lucky lady flowers, Henley?  Anybody we should know about?”

Will laughed and tried to look enigmatic.  Given his perennial bachelor status, which at age thirty-four was rapidly becoming a point of fascination not only within his family but among his conservative colleagues, he didn’t want to admit the bouquet was for his sister.

Nor did he want to admit, even to himself, one tiny part of his motivation for the gift-giving.  It was residual guilt, even after all these years, for leaving Beth in Denver to run Henley Sand and Gravel while he traipsed off to chase his dreams.  As the elder child and only male, custom demanded that he follow his father at the helm of the family business.  But Will had wanted a bigger stage.  And by God, had he gotten it.

LaRue smiled.  “Ah, those were the days.  Bachelorhood with all its infinite pleasures and variety.”  His slim, manicured fingers lifted a Lucite cube from Will’s desk.  “So you gonna make lots of money for us in Napa Valley?”

Will settled back in his chair and linked his hands behind his head in a deliberate gesture of confidence, though that was hardly what he felt in this regard.  “Don’t I always?”

“There’s no such thing as always.”  LaRue toyed with the cube, his dark eyes focused on it as if mesmerized.  “There’s only your last deal.”

That was one of the machismo-laden truisms GPG partners bandied about.  There were others, even less clever, all of which basically boiled down to What have you done for me lately?

Will laughed again.  “Hey, my last deal made us ten times our money!”

“And is still in business.  These days that’s a stunning success.  But from you we’d expect no less.”  LaRue replaced the cube, next fingering a framed photo of Beth, posed in Aspen alongside her husband and twin sons and an assortment of skis and poles.  All four sported matching sweaters, Will’s own Scandinavian coloring, and the goggle-eyed sunburn produced by a Rocky Mountain ski vacation.  LaRue’s brow arched.  “You ever heli-skied, Henley?”

That was the sort of testosterone-driven extreme sport of which LaRue – and all right-minded GPG partners - would approve.  “Do you mean was I ever dropped from a chopper in a remote location to ski solo down a kick-ass pristine mountain with no one around to save me if I screw up?”

LaRue nodded.

“Nope.  But it sounds like good, old-fashioned fun.”

LaRue laughed out loud this time, the desired response.  He set down the photo, focused briefly on its mate – a fortieth anniversary shot of Will’s parents – then sauntered back toward Will’s door.  “Give my regards to the lovely Ava,” he threw over his shoulder, then he walked out.

Will sighed and unlinked his hands, then leaned forward to rest his elbows on his desk and sip his cooling latte.  The last thing Ava Winsted wanted from Will Henley – or from anybody else at GPG – was regards.  She’d much rather the entire firm disappear from her life and that Will Henley in particular stop making offers to buy her winery.  She’d told him no and apparently she’d meant it.

But that didn’t mean Will Henley would give up.  He hadn’t gotten where he was by caving.

He grimaced imagining the look on Ava Winsted's Hollywood-perfect features when he crashed her son’s homecoming party.  Not crash, exactly – he had finagled his way in as an invitee’s date – but barging in where he wasn’t wanted was not among Will’s favorite activities.

Still, he had to go.  As far as he could make out, Suncrest was his key to making money in Napa Valley.  And he had to make as much money as possible to satisfy GPG’s general partners and investors, whose lust for huge returns was unquenchable.

Will drained the last of his latte.  Yup, he’d gotten that bigger stage, all right.

***

Ever the actress, Ava Winsted forced herself to laugh – to sound positively gay – as she turned from the French doors in her casually elegant, light-filled living room to face Jean-Luc Boursault, the Paris-based screenwriter she hoped would pen a new, post-Suncrest chapter for her already storied life.

“I’m just thrilled to see Max take over,” she lied.  “He learned so much in France, he’ll bring an entirely new perspective to Suncrest.  Who knows?  He might even end up a better vintner than his father.”

Ava watched Jean-Luc decide – wisely, she thought – not to challenge that fantastic pronouncement.  From his perch on a cheerful blue and yellow Cottage Victorian armchair, he merely took another sip of his Suncrest Sauvignon Blanc, which Ava considered a delightful late morning libation.  Slight of build, with thick graying hair and eyebrows that threatened to run one into the other, Jean-Luc looked bohemian, affluent, and intellectual, much as he had when she’d met him fifteen years before.  “Porter Winsted,” he offered mildly, “is a difficult act to follow.”

Who knew that better than Ava?  Her late husband had been a man among men, the scion of a Newport, Rhode Island family who’d built two stunning careers – in commercial real estate and winemaking – yet remained to the end hard-working, self-effacing, and kind-hearted.

Ava’s eyes misted.  She turned her back on Jean-Luc to gaze out the French doors, the familiar panorama of vineyards, olive and eucalyptus trees blurring into indistinct masses of green and gold under the Valley’s unremitting midday sun.

She felt Jean-Luc’s hand soft on the small of her back.  “You miss him still.”

Still.  Two years only he’d been gone.  Two years already he’d been gone.  Sometimes when she awoke, Ava forgot Porter was dead, and reached out across the cold, cold sheets only to remember.  The stab of pain that followed was astonishingly raw, every time.  But it happened less and less often now, which in its own way saddened her.  She was growing used to him being gone.

“I will always miss him,” she told Jean-Luc.  But I’m only fifty-five and I still feel alive, most days anyway.  She turned her head to meet her friend’s eyes.  They crinkled with a smile and she was reminded again that Jean-Luc was in love with her, and had been for some time, and would wait however long it took for her to be ready for him.

Which might not be that long anymore.

“Will you miss running the winery when Max takes over?” he asked her.

At that, Ava had to laugh, but didn’t have to lie.  “Not in the least.  You know me, Jean-Luc.  I am many things but a businesswoman is not among them.”  She turned from the view to wipe nonexistent dust from a round glass-topped table crowded with art books and photo frames.  “I had to run Suncrest after Porter died.  And I think I managed it reasonably well.”

“Better than that, Ava.”

She shook her head.  “My heart was never really in it, not the way Porter’s was.”  She cast her mind back to those long-ago years when she’d resented Porter’s passion for Suncrest.  Perhaps obsession was a better word.  No woman could be as demanding a mistress as a fledgling winery and it had caused their young marriage real distress.  But they had emerged intact and the winery prospered beyond anything they'd imagined.  “Porter loved Suncrest, Jean-Luc.  It is his legacy.”

But it is not mine.  Hers was as an actress.

Hollywood would have no room for her, Ava knew.  She might have assiduously protected her blond, Breck-girl looks, and no one could deny that she had some impressive credits to her name, but she was still a fifty-something has-been.  Fortunately Europe was more willing to embrace women d’un certain age who still knew how to light up a screen.  Screenwriters like Jean-Luc Boursault even wrote parts for them.

Ava’s mouth pursed in wry humor.  Imagine that.

Jean-Luc returned to his armchair, his wine glass refreshed.  “And you are certain Max can manage as well as you?”

“Oh, of course.”  On went Ava’s megawatt smile, for even with a friend as dear as Jean-Luc she felt compelled to maintain the fiction that she had complete confidence in her son.  What she’d learned in Hollywood was as true in Napa Valley: image was everything.  She would not derail what chance of success Max had by appearing to doubt him from the start.  “He grew up in the wine business.  And now he’s had this apprenticeship in France.  He’s far more knowledgeable than I ever was.”

And far more reckless.  And far less disciplined.  And so stunningly oblivious to his own limitations.

Ava sipped from her wineglass, thinking back to those painful weeks before Max had decamped to France.  The whole episode was so unseemly, and embarrassing, and she hated even to think of it.  Such a classic tale: a young lady, the daughter of a small Sonoma vintner, who, the morning after, regretted what she had done.  Started to think it hadn’t been her choice at all.  Ugly accusations flew from her father, and veiled threats, and Ava hastily cobbled together a face-saving solution.  She wrote a massive check to charity in the family’s name and packed Max off to the Haut-Medoc, claiming a long-planned apprenticeship.

She shut her eyes.  Why was there so little of the father in the son?  Where was Porter’s caution, his thoughtfulness, his good sense?  True, Max had many natural gifts.  He was intelligent and nice-looking and didn’t lack for confidence or charm.  But there was a wildness to him that frightened Ava, and made her worry for the future.

And now of course there was the problem of Suncrest.  She knew that the most prudent course would be for her to continue to run the winery.  Yet, though it made her feel horribly guilty to admit it, she was done with it - done.  She’d had enough of marketing strategies and distribution agreements and P&L statements.  She could play the vintner no longer.  It was a role she was handed against her will and she’d hated it from the moment she walked onstage.

Of course, the other option was to sell it to Will Henley and GPG.  Suncrest would survive if she did, though probably not in a form of which Porter would have approved.  Those buyout firms changed businesses – she was a savvy enough businesswoman to understand that.  But sometimes it was hard to believe Suncrest would fare any better in Max’s hands. 

Ava abruptly set down her glass.  “Shall we have lunch?” she asked, and swept toward the sun-drenched terrace beyond the French doors without waiting for Jean-Luc's answer.  “I’ve asked Mrs. Finchley to lay a table for us in the pergola.”

Jean-Luc looked confused.  “Didn’t Max’s flight land two hours ago?  Shouldn’t we wait for him to get here to eat?”

“Oh no, let’s not.”  For Ava knew her son well enough to know it was unwise to wait for him for anything.

***

Ninety miles south of his mother’s intimate lunch with Jean-Luc Boursault, Maximilian Winsted was doing some entertaining of his own.  He stood at the foot of a San Francisco Airport Marriott queen-size bed, puffing on a Gaulois cigarette and eyeing Ariane, Air France flight attendant, First Class.  Her bodacious Parisian self was draped across the bed, the top half of her uniform strewn all over the industrial-strength blue carpet alongside her bra and pumps and pantyhose.  She was giggling so much she kept spilling her champagne on her breasts, where it ran across her nipples and only made her laugh harder.  At this rate Max didn’t think it’d be a huge challenge getting off the bottom half of her uniform, too.

Vive la France!

He chuckled, took a last gulp of his own bubbly and stubbed out his cigarette.  Bet Rory never got a stewardess into bed, or Bucky either, that tool.  They didn’t have anywhere near his charm.  Sure, he’d had to spend most of the ten-hour flight from Paris standing at the rear of the cabin flirting and telling stories, but now he was going to get his reward: Ariane’s full roster of private First-Class favors.

I can still top them, he told himself.  So what if Rory was graduating from Yale Law and Bucky was in med school?  Max Winsted was still the biggest stud from Napa High, class of ’97, and was about to get even bigger.

“Viens!”  The arm holding the champagne glass motioned him to come closer.  Her bright red lipsticked mouth smiled, her big dark eyes teased.  “Viens jouer, Max!”

“Let me just shut the drapes.”  After eighteen months of French food and French pastries and French wine, Max suspected he’d look better in the dark.

Since his shirt was already off, he sucked in his stomach before he walked to the windows, double-thick to keep out the roar of the 101 freeway six stories below.  He was surprised to see how much traffic there was even at noon.  He had plenty of time, though, since the party didn’t start till seven and from here the drive home took only an hour and a half.

Besides, he’d get there when he got there.  The party was more for his mother than for him, anyway.  The important business started the next day, when he got down to running Suncrest.

He tugged on the drape cord to shut out the view.  “Your winery is how big?”  Ariane was behind him all of a sudden, pushing her boobs into his back and reaching around his belly.

“Big.”  Max turned to face her.  “More than a hundred thousand cases a year.”  At least that would be true once he was in charge.

Ariane grabbed him lower, holding his gaze.  Her eyes sparkled.  “C’est tres, tres grand.”

He harrumphed.  “No kidding.”

“You’re very rich?”  She pronounced it “reech” but he got the point.

“Tres,” he told her.  And just wait to see how much richer I’ll be this time next year.

Oh, he had plans.  Big plans.  Suncrest would really be on the map once Max Winsted was at the helm.  No more treading water like it had been under his mother’s management.  Of course, what else could you expect from her?  She didn’t have a practical bone in her body.  And while his father had been an excellent businessman in his day, he’d been old-style.  Too cautious.  Too plodding.

“What types of wine …” - Ariane was kissing his neck now, her left hand still working its magic south of the equator - “do you make?”

“You know what?”  He wasn’t interested in wine talk at the moment.  “Let’s go over there.”

He pushed her back toward the bed, where she didn’t need one single s’il vous plait, mademoiselle to whip off her skirt and lean back giggling against the pillows, five feet six inches of living, breathing, willing French female.  Who, thanks to Max Winsted, was about to have the best time of her entire life.



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