The Marcelli Bride

Page 9


D arcy had been on plenty of tours in her time. There had been the factory that made shipping boxes—a thrilling journey into the world of cardboard—and a company devoted to the production of thread. She’d seen cheese being made, tractors, tires, microchips, and mini-blinds. But never wine. Wine seemed a whole lot more interesting.

She dressed in black cargo pants and a black tank top, then carefully slathered on sunscreen. Somehow over the past couple of years she’d gotten incredibly pale. Unfortunately the lack of color only emphasized the dark circles under her eyes. Another couple of nights without sleep and even her concealer wouldn’t work.

It wasn’t that she didn’t want to sleep, it’s that the second she closed her eyes, she felt them grabbing her again. Her wrists throbbed as she remembered the rope. Fear tightened her throat and left her unable to breathe. Far better to give up sleep than face the demons in the dark.

After slipping on sandals, she hurried downstairs where she found Joe waiting in the kitchen. There were no other Marcellis around. Just Joe sitting at the kitchen table and a tempting pot of coffee on the counter.

He glanced up from the paper. “Morning.”

He looked neither friendly nor happy to see her, so she nodded a greeting and beelined for her morning jolt of caffeine. After adding the right amount of milk and sweetener, she joined him at the table and gingerly took the entertainment section of the paper.

“Not interested in what’s going on in the world?” he asked from behind the paper.

“I already did a half hour of CNN while I was getting ready,” she said. “That’s about as much current events as I can stand. Besides, if it’s really important, the White House sends me a briefing.”

He set down the paper and raised his eyebrows. He’d showered and shaved. His hair was military short, his skin tanned, and his shoulders broad enough to carry the weight of the world on them. He looked good. Capable.

A plate of Danish sat between them. Joe pushed it toward her. “You should eat something.”

The dull ache of acid in her stomach told her she should eat a lot, but she couldn’t. “I don’t remember hiring you as my personal nutritionist. Did we sign a contract?”

“You’re too skinny.” He reached for his mug. “It’s not healthy.”

“I’m not sure I care about your opinion. Let me think.” She sipped her coffee. “Nope. Don’t care.”

“Is this a chick thing? Do you want to look like a supermodel or something?”

“Why does it matter?”

“I’m curious.”

“And that impacts me how?”

He leaned back in his chair. “Is it because it’s morning, or are you naturally unpleasant all the time?”

“I’m naturally unpleasant.”

One corner of his mouth twitched in an almost smile. “Good to know. Why aren’t you eating?”

“Are you going to dog on me all day until you get an answer?” she asked, more intrigued than frustrated.

“Probably. I don’t have a lot to keep me busy. I could use the distraction.”

“Fine. I’m not a good stress eater. I wish I were. I understand it’s very comforting. But when I’m tense or upset, I can’t stand the thought of food.”

His gaze slipped to her too-skinny arms. “Been upset a lot lately?”

Darcy shrugged. She knew she’d lost weight in the past year or so. Too much weight. “I’ve had stuff on my mind.”

He returned his attention to the paper. “Brenna should be here in half an hour. Your Secret Service agents want me to come along on the tour, too.”

His flat tone told her all she had to know about his enthusiasm level. It annoyed her that once he’d gotten his answer, he’d dismissed her.

“Let me guess. You’re not dying with excitement at the thought of the winery tour.”

He raised his head. “Something like that. But it doesn’t matter. I’m here and I’m going to do my job. Never question the chain of command.” He pushed the plate of Danish toward her. “Eat one.”

“I’m not hun—”

His gaze narrowed. “Try.”

She sighed heavily, then picked up a cheese Danish. “Fine. I’ll try. Although Yoda said there is no try. There is do, or do not. Or was it do or not do? I can never remember.”

Joe’s expression didn’t change. Nor did he offer an opinion.

“Star Wars,” she mumbled as she took a bite and chewed. After swallowing she said, “The second one. The Empire Strikes Back. My personal favorite of the first three.”

He returned his attention to the paper.

“You’re not very friendly,” she said.

“Do you need me to be?”

“It wouldn’t kill you to make an attempt. Or should I apologize? Oh, Joe, I’m terribly sorry my kidnapping is interfering with your regular life. Silly me. I should have arranged it for a different month.”

“I heard you were a pain in the ass,” he said.

The words meant nothing, she told herself, even as she felt their sting.

“But you’re not a victim,” he added. “Good for you.”

Not sure what to say to that, she reached for another Danish and tore it in half.

“Did you fight them?” he asked.

It took her a second to figure out he meant the kidnappers. “Yes, but there were four of them, and I’m not exactly buff. I did get in a good head butt though.” And she hadn’t allowed the fear to control her. When it got bad at night, she reminded herself of that.

“You’re tougher than you look,” he said.

She wasn’t sure what that meant, or what it had to do with him being friendly.

“How was it?” he asked.

She glanced down and realized that she’d finished the second Danish. She pressed one hand to her stomach. The acid burn was gone.

“Delicious,” she said.

“Have another.”

“Don’t push me, sailor. I have connections.”

He chuckled. “I bet you do.”

A car pulled up out front.

“Brenna,” Joe said as he stood. “I’ll alert the security team.”

Darcy finished her cup of coffee and carried it to the sink. She rinsed it and set it in the dishwasher as the back door burst open and Brenna stepped inside.

“Oh my God, I’ve gained three pounds in the past week,” she announced as she entered. “Is that fair? Is it right? I hate being pregnant more than I can tell you. It seriously sucks. I’m huge. Oh, no. Danish. No, no. I can’t. The sugar will give me heartburn.” She turned to Darcy. “Did you eat one? Was it fabulous? Let me live vicariously through you, I beg you.”

Darcy laughed. “It wasn’t bad.”

“I knew it. And you’re so damn skinny. Look at you.” She stopped and covered her mouth with her finger. “Oh, can I say damn in front of you? Have I broken the law?”

“You can say anything you want. I’ll say damn, too, if it makes you feel better.”

“It does. Okay, let’s go. I hear the Danish calling my name, and if I stay here, I’ll give in.”

Darcy followed her outside, where she was greeted by a large golden retriever.

“This is Max,” Brenna said as the huge dog sniffed and licked and wagged his tail so hard his whole back end shook. “He likes everybody.”

“I guess.” Darcy bent down to hug him and received a quick doggie kiss for her efforts. “Are you a handsome boy?”

Max yelped in agreement.

“This is going to be a modified tour,” Brenna said as she patted her belly. “We’ll take carts, which limits where we can go. But you’ll get a feel for things. Plus, if you’re interested, you can go exploring on your own.”

Just then two golf carts came around the house. Joe drove one, while Alex piloted the other. Paige sat beside him.

“Or not,” Brenna said. “Will they let you go out on your own?”

“Not anytime soon.” Darcy hated that protection was necessary, and even worse, that she wanted it. She hated being afraid.

“Ready?” Joe asked as he stopped beside Brenna.

“Yes, but I’m driving,” she said. “If you argue, I’ll take you down.”

He grinned. “You can drive.”

“Men like it when we take charge,” Brenna said. “I don’t know why, but I accept it as a secret of the universe.”

Darcy appreciated the advice, but she was more intrigued by her Secret Service agents. She’d only ever seen them in suits—black, navy, dark gray. But today both Paige and Alex were in jeans and T-shirts. Paige looked great, but Alex seemed awkward, as if he wasn’t comfortable in his own skin.

“Wow, casual,” she said, strolling over to their cart. “What gives?”

“We’re blending in,” Paige said.

Darcy turned to Alex. “You need to relax a little. You’re not blending.”

“We haven’t completed our reconnaissance of the property. There are areas that aren’t secured.”

“Don’t worry,” Brenna said as she slid behind the wheel of the other cart. “We won’t go anywhere unsecured.”

“You don’t know where that is,” Alex said between clenched teeth. “I haven’t told you.”

Brenna patted the seat next to her. “Come on, Darcy. Let’s get a move on.”

Five minutes later they were bouncing along the edge of a massive vineyard. Max trotted ahead, then turned back and barked, as if urging them to keep up. Joe sat in the rear of their cart, while Paige and Alex came up behind.

“So these are chardonnay grapes,” Brenna said. “Note the pale color. They’re nearly ripe and will be picked first. The cabs are last to ripen.”


“Cabernet sauvignon. Our pride and joy. Red wines are the gift of the gods. Whites are nice, too, but honestly, not my favorite.”

“Katie only drinks white wine,” Joe said.

Brenna glared at him. “He’s making trouble. Can you believe it? He disappears for weeks at a time, and when he returns, he makes trouble.”

“Just sharing. You women like that.”

“Slap him for me,” Brenna said. “Slap him really, really hard.”

Darcy laughed. The morning was perfect—the coolness of the night had faded, but it wasn’t hot yet. The sky was clear, the company enjoyable.

“We grow different kinds of grapes here,” Brenna said. “Chardonnay, merlot, cabs, some voigner for blending. We also have vineyards up in Northern California. The grapes are brought down here, and everything is blended together. I hope you’re here when we start picking. It’s very exciting. The grapes are pressed on the property and put into huge barrels for fermenting.”

“I’d like to see that,” Darcy said.

Brenna continued to talk about grapes and winemaking, but Darcy found herself focusing more on the family than their wine.

What a wonderful place to grow up, she thought. So much space, so much love and acceptance. Except Joe hadn’t known about any of this. What would it be like to find out he had this whole other family who wanted nothing more than to make him one of them? Was he angry about what he’d missed? Hurt his parents had given him up?

They turned around and headed for the barrel rooms.

“Running two different wineries is tough,” Brenna was saying. “Mine—Four Sisters—is pretty small, but it still takes a lot of time. Plus, working here has the added thrill of dealing with my grandfather. In theory, I’m in charge. In reality, he argues with me about everything. What wine should be used for the reserve and what should be blended. How long to ferment, whether or not to use oak barrels or stainless steel. Don’t even get me started on labels. I’ve been trying to get him to approve new ones for over three years. But does he? No. We’re using the same old crappy labels. He makes me insane. Truly he does.”

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