Autumn in the Vineyard
St. Helena Vineyard - 3
For Rocco, my own personal hero. Thank you for loving me even when I didn’t know how to love myself.
It had taken three years, some tricky negotiating, her entire life savings, and a lot of ball busting—but Francesca Baudouin was finally a vineyard owner. Well, she was the owner of ten acres of prime St. Helena appellation soil, which would take another five years of sweat and, quite possibly, selling off a few of her vital organs before it fully became a quality producing vineyard.
But Sorrento Ranch, the most sought after property in the valley, and all of its belongings, was hers. She bought it right out from under the DeLucas’ noses. In part because the owner, Mrs. Sorrento, had played darts with Frankie and Frankie’s great aunt every Friday night for the past fifteen years, so her loyalties were clear, but mostly because Mrs. Sorrento knew that selling the land to either family involved in the great DeLuca-Baudouin feud would piss off her ex-husband.
“One more inch and I’ll shoot,” Frankie said to the alpaca in front of her, a four-legged garbage disposal whose mouth was currently wrapped around the plastic casing of the water tank. She stomped her ball-busting, steeled-toed combat boot in his direction for added emphasis.
The alpaca’s beady eyes narrowed and dropped to her feet. Extending its lips in her direction, it made a loud raspberry sound, stomped an aggressive hoof and then went back to nibbling. Yeah, ball-buster or not, hooves beat boots.
But Frankie wasn’t about to let some hardheaded alpaca with shaggy hair and buck teeth stick it to her on her first week in business. As the youngest of four, and the only girl, Frankie was a pro at dealing with stubborn males who excelled at ignoring her completely, while messing with her life wholeheartedly.
She cocked her rifle.
“The only thing separating you from becoming a pair of next season’s mittens is my trigger finger, Camel Boy.” Because the only thing separating them from ten-thousand gallons of well water was the thin plastic seam-binding on the water tank, which “Mittens” had managed to chew loose. She didn’t want to deal with the cleanup and couldn’t afford a new irrigation tank. “I mean it, one more bite and the only identifying male trait you’ll have left is stupidity.”
That got his attention. In fact, the animal straightened and fluffed out the fur around his face, making him look like a cross between a camel, a koala, and Clifford the Big Red Dog. When he wasn’t destroying her property, he was kind of cute. In a big, dumb, oafy kind of way.
Mittens was the sole remaining alpaca from Mrs. Sorrento’s farm. The rest of his hooved brethren were living it up at Alberta’s Paradise Alpaca Farm and Pet Sanctuary. Mittens hadn’t even set one hoof in the back of the moving truck when the rest of the heard gathered their spit and took aim. Poor Mittens had been kicked out of his own family and before Frankie or Alberta had been able to catch him, his fluffy butt disappeared, and Alberta had left instructions to call when Frankie secured the runaway. That had been four days, two patio chairs, and a motorcycle tire ago.
“See?” Frankie lowered her rifle to the ground, picking up the cushion from Mr. Sorrento’s old recliner in one hand and a rope in the other. “That wasn’t so bad. Now just come over here and I’ll give you a treat.”
Eyes glued to the nubby avocado-green cushion, the alpaca took a tentative step forward.
“Then you can go to your new house.” Another step. “Where they feed you gourmet hay and mud tires, and there are kids around all the time to play with you.” Step. “And you’ll get to see your family.”
The alpaca stopped, squared its body, and let out an ear-piercing bleat, which sounded like a cross between wark and Chewbacca screaming, right before he sank his teeth into the plastic casing and pulled. Hard.
The tank split at the seam and before either of them could move, a wall of water came crashing out with enough force to topple Mittens into Frankie and send the two of them skidding back several feet.
When Frankie stopped moving and the water had receded into a pool of mud, she shoved the hair out of her eyes and took stock. She was flat on her back, with a stick poking into her right butt cheek and a drenched Mittens sprawled out over the top of her.
“Move.” She shoved at the animal.
“I warned you! But did you listen?”
Mittens let out an apologetic nicker and dropped his head to Frankie’s chest, his big brown eyes looking up at her through long lashes.
“You could be halfway to Paradise right now,” she said, giving him a little rub behind the ears. “Just think, in a few months it will be grooming season and all the ladies will be prancing around in nothing but sheared skin. Plus, you’ll have your family.”
This time the nicker was almost sad. Ignoring the alpaca’s wet dog smell, Frankie called a temporary truce and dug both hands in his thick fur to scratch his cheeks. “Yeah, I get it. Family sucks, but I can’t let you stay here. Come spring, I’ll start planting my vines and you’d eat them.”
Mittens huffed, a burst of hot air hitting Frankie in the face.
“Liar.” She worked her fingers around his temples and behind his ears. The animal’s eyes slid closed in ecstasy. “You already cost me a water tank, which I can’t afford to replace by the way.”
His only response was to nuzzle Frankie’s chest and hum loudly.
“So, there is no way I have the budget to keep replacing everything you decide to sink your teeth into.”
Hum. Hum. Hum.
“I hope he bought you dinner first,” a voice said.
With a groan, Frankie turned her head and, wishing she were standing so she could glare at him without having to shield her eyes, swore. Upside down or not, there was no mistaking the man who was currently towering over her—or the way her stomach gave a lame little flutter when he lifted his mirrored glasses and delivered a heart-stopping wink.
“Afternoon, Francesca,” he said with enough practiced swagger that it made not rolling her eyes impossible.
Nathaniel DeLuca was six-plus feet of solid muscle, smug-male yumminess, and he smelled like sex. He was also extremely Italian, annoying as hell, and, for whatever reason, every time he entered Frankie’s space she felt all dainty and feminine. Which pissed her off even more because at one time she’d trusted Nate with her heart and a promise of keeping her deepest secret.
And he’d broken them both.
Thank God she had on her ball-buster boots today. Too bad they were currently covered in mud, alpaca fur, and pointing at the sky.
“Go away, Nathaniel,” she said by way of greeting.
Mittens hummed louder, arching into her hand as Frankie scratched down his spine.
“And leave a lady in need?” Nate asked, coming forward and squatting down to pluck a maple leaf off of Frankie’s forehead. “Nonna ChiChi would have my ass.”
“I know you’re used to your women poised and proper. But I’ve got this handled.”
“I didn’t know you paid that much attention to my women, but now that you mentioned the difference…” He plucked a branch from her hair and flashed his perfectly straight teeth in her face. His smile, like his personality, was lethal and his entitled attitude was one-hundred percent DeLuca. “That’s great,” he continued, “because I won’t have to worry that you’ll cry when I tell you to stop exciting my alpaca and get the hell off my property.”
He plucked off another branch, this time from her shirt, his fingers leaving a heated trail and stirring up all kinds of fire—and not the good kind. The last time she remembered being this close to killing him had been at the Summer Wine Showdown three months ago. He’d hard-balled her into sitting on the Tasting Tribunal, they argued over the winner, then he’d kissed her—right as her grandpa, a tsunami of irate old man, showed up.
No one had forced her to sit on that tasting tribunal, or to run her hands up his hard chest and into his hair when she’d kissed him back, but she blamed Nate anyway.
Frankie looked up at Nate and pinned him with her best bring-it glare. This land was hers. Her dream. Her fresh start. Her everything. And no one, especially not a DeLuca, was going to mess with that.
“Last time you threatened me, I think I promised to rip your face off,” Francesca said, her voice eerily calm.
The calm before the storm, Nate thought, standing up and taking a large step back.
“With. My. Teeth.”
One minute she was on the ground under a pile of wet alpaca, the next she was standing with her torn hip-huggers and black tank top plastered to her body, leaves stuck to her shapely butt, and enough curves and pissed off female vibes to level a guy. She was also clutching a shotgun, making her armed, sexy, and untouchable as ever.
It was no secret that Frankie hated Nate. Or that they argued all the time. She tried to fight with him about winemaking—which only continued the stupid-ass feud that had divided their families for over six decades—while all he fought was the idiotic urge to kiss her until she shut up.
Not that he’d give into the urge again. Even if hot-headed ball-busters with something to prove were his type—which they definitely were not—Nate didn’t fight with people. Ever. It was a gigantic, ineffective energy suck. He was more the mild-mannered arbitrator. Always had been. And he was damn easy to get along with, even-tempered too—until he was nose to nose with Frankie.