The Sicilian's Bride. Carol Grace
surprised by her determination. He hadn’t seen anything yet. She’d been criticized for years for being strong-willed after she left the orphanage.
“Isabel’s a very headstrong girl,” the social-service workers had agreed. She’d been moved from house to house, from foster family to foster family. No wonder no one wanted her with her bright-red hair and her stubborn disposition. No wonder she was passed over for younger, sweeter, more obedient little children. No one wanted to adopt a child with “inflexible” or “rigid” written on her reports.
It hurt to be overlooked, standing there, tall and gawky, enduring being examined and finally rejected time after time. But she got over it. Even when she was officially declared unadoptable because of her age, it had just made her more eager to grow up and set out on her own. This was her chance. She’d show them.
“Do you know anything about growing grapes?” he asked.
“Some, but I know I need to learn more,” she admitted.
“Do you know how to prime a pump, irrigate fields, fight off frost? Do you know how hard it is to fertilize volcanic soil, are you prepared to wait for years to harvest your grapes?” he demanded. He was almost enjoying this inquisition, she realized. She could tell by the way he looked at her, the way he raised his voice to be sure she caught every word.
What really annoyed her was the way he assumed she was far over her head and had no business even trying to break into his field.
“Or are you in love with the idea of growing grapes,” he continued, “and of bottling your own wine?”
She bounced out of her seat as they hit a dip in the road. “Years?” she said. “I can’t wait years. I need to make wine and make a living from it. Surely it’s possible. I’ll hire help. If it’s so hard to produce wine on the property, why do you want to buy it?”
“It is hard, even for us. But we have experience. Historically, it’s our land. Has been for centuries. For hundreds of years most Sicilian wine was shipped off the island, to be blended into other wines. But now we’re getting the attention from the world markets we deserve. Twenty-six generations of Montessoris grew grapes there before we were forced to sell it to your uncle a few years ago.”
“It’s a long story and it doesn’t concern you. We had a sales slump, followed by financial problems which induced us to give it up, but we’ve recovered and now we want the land back where it belongs. To us. What difference does it make to you? You’ve never seen it, you’ve never lived on it or farmed it. You didn’t have picnics there, eat the grapes off the vines or swim in the pond. It means nothing to you.”
A pond? She had a pond? She’d stock it with fish, swim in it and watch the birds drink from it. Now she was sure she’d never give it up. She sat up straight in the leather bucket seat. “You’re wrong. It means a lot to me. A chance for me to do something different, to earn a living from the land my uncle left me.”
“Your uncle never grew a single grape there.”
“That doesn’t mean I can’t. I haven’t seen the property, but it’s mine and I plan to live there and make it my home. It’s my right to settle there, my chance to make a fresh start. Surely everyone deserves that.”
He shook his head as if she was naive and stupid. She’d been called worse. “I don’t know what you’ve been doing,” he said, “but if you want a fresh start, why don’t you buy a hotel, start a newspaper or open a café? All of those would be easier for a newcomer than making wine. Take my word for it. Viticulture takes time and patience and a feeling for the land.”
“I appreciate your advice,” she said with all the manners she could muster in the face of his blatant cynicism. “But you have to believe me when I say I’m prepared to do whatever it takes to succeed.”
He continued to steamroll over her plans for the future as if she hadn’t spoken. “Want some more advice?”
Before she could politely say no, he went on. “Get a job. It’s an easier way to make a living than making wine. Make someplace else your home. You know I could be taking you to a totally different property and you wouldn’t know the difference.”
Startled, she asked, “Are you?”
He turned to look at her as if she’d accused him of cold-blooded murder. Wordlessly he pointed to a crooked hand-carved wooden sign on the side of the road, and said “Azienda Spendora.”
She let out a sigh of relief. He wasn’t kidnapping her. He wasn’t trying to fool her by taking her to another property. She was here. This was all hers. It was a dream come true. Or a nightmare. As soon as they pulled up in front of the house she saw what he meant.
There were tiles missing from the roof and cracks in the stained cement walls. She got out of the car and stifled a wave of disappointment. Whatever she felt, she couldn’t let him see her frustration at the house’s failings. He’d interpret it as a sign of weakness and just renew his futile efforts to buy it from her.
“You don’t have to stay,” she said. “I’ll just look around and catch a ride back.”
“Catch a ride?” he asked incredulously. “This is a private road. No one’s been on it for months, not since your uncle died.”
“Was there a funeral?”
“Of course. What do you take us for, savages? The whole town was there.”
The implication was that she was the only one missing. Obviously he thought she had no sense of family obligation. Maybe he thought she was a savage.
“I didn’t know he existed until I got a letter from the lawyer.” She took a deep breath. “Don’t worry about me. I’ll walk back.”
He skimmed her body with a cool, disdainful assessing gaze as if wondering whether to believe she hadn’t known her uncle. He took in her short skirt, her white shirt and the strappy sandals she’d thought perfect for a hot Sicilian summer day, but which were hardly sturdy enough to walk miles down that rutted dirt road. Okay, so she was dressed all wrong. She wasn’t Italian and she was out of her element. Why couldn’t he give her a break, cut her some slack?
“I’ll stick around,” he said. “It won’t take you long to realize this is not the place for you.”
The man was maddening with his dark pessimism. She wished he’d leave. She’d rather walk barefoot over hot coals than know he was waiting for her to cave in and give up her inheritance.
She turned to look at him. Puzzled, she said, “Stick around? Where did you learn English?”
“From a tutor,” he said in his incredibly sexily accented English. “Being in the wine business, my father had all six of us learn English, the universal language of trade. Bernard taught us all the slang and swear words he knew. They’ve been quite useful.”
“I can imagine,” she murmured, surprised that he’d deigned to favor her with such a long response. How long would it take her to learn Italian with all the slang and the swear words she’d need to live here? The difference between his privileged background with tutors and a large family and the way she’d been brought up was mind-boggling. She wondered if he knew how lucky he was. He probably took his family for granted. Most people did.
Instead of waiting, he followed her onto the veranda, stepping carefully over rotten boards and through the front door that swung open and creaked on rusty hinges. When a giant spiderweb brushed against her face, she stifled a scream and lurched back so fast she bumped into him. He put his large hands on her shoulders to steady her or more likely to keep her at a distance, and she fought off the temptation to let him prop her up for a moment while she caught her breath. But Isabel Morrison would never rely on anyone but herself again. Not even for a moment. Instead she straightened her shoulders and forged ahead.
“It was just a spider,” she said, more to herself than to him. If she didn’t talk