Tess arrived at the office, standing in front of a plate glass window, fixing her hair while trying not to act as if she had spent the past ten minutes in a taxi, yelling at the driver that her life depended on getting to this meeting on time.
It was the Irish in her. A flair for drama came naturally to Tess. Yet in a sense, her urgent need was no exaggeration. Finally, she was about to reach for her dream, and this meeting was a critical step in the process. She couldn’t afford to be late or to be seen as a flake, or unreliable in any way.
The San Francisco fog had done a number on her hair, but the reflection looking back at her was acceptable, she supposed. Dark tights and a conservative skirt, cream-colored sweater under a gray jacket, charcoal gray pumps. She wore a tasteful necklace and earrings. They werevintage 1920s Cartier, a gold, crystal and onyx seton loan from the firm.
She shook back her hair, squared her shoulders and strode toward the entrance to the glassy high-rise that housed Sheffield Headquarters. Checking her watch, she saw that she was actually five minutes early, a huge bonus, since she couldn’t remember the last time she’d eaten. Oh, yeah, the olives from last night’s martini, the one that had preceded her elevator meltdown. Before heading inside, she stopped at a street cart to grab a coffee and a powdered donut, her favorite power breakfast. That way, she wouldn’t have to show up at the meeting with Mr. Sheffield on an empty stomach.
She wanted it to go well. This was the biggest thing that had ever happened to her in her career, opening before her like a magic door. It would go well. She anticipateda move to New York City, a significant raise and more of a role in the acquisitions process for the firm. The prospect of putting her student loans to rest and gaining complete independence gave her a fierce surge of accomplishment. Finally, after what felt like a very long slog, Tess felt as though she was truly on her way.
The only element missing was someone with whom to share her news—someone to grab her and give her a big hug, tell her “good job” and ask her how she wanted to celebrate. A nonissue, she told herself. The feeling of accomplishment alone was satisfying enough.
Clasping this thought close to her heart, she hurried into the building, juggling her briefcase with her breakfast-on-the-fly, and punched the elevator call button with her elbow. She shared the swift ride to the ninth floor with a young couple who kept squeezing each other’s hands and regarding each other in a conversation without words. They reminded her of Lydia and Nathan last night, moving to an inner rhythm only they could feel. She imagined herself having a boyfriend, calling him, bursting with her news. Okay, she thought. Maybe the universe was trying to tell her something. Maybe she was ready for a boyfriend, a real one, not just a date for the night.
Not today, though. Today was all about her.
She left the elevator and walked swiftly to the Sheffield offices. She shared space with a diverse group of buyers, brokers and experts for the firm. A competitive atmosphere pervaded the San Francisco branch like an airborne virus, and Tess was not immune.
As she pushed backward through the door, the paper cup of coffee in one hand, her overloaded bag in the other, the powdered donut clamped between her teeth, she fantasized about her upcoming meeting with Dane Sheffield, already feeling a dizzying confidence, even though they’d never met. He had grown the firm so that it was on a par with Christie’s and Sotheby’s, and she was now a key player. The two of them would be kindred spirits, both dedicated to preserving precious things, each aware of the delicate balance between art and commerce.
“Someone is here to see you,” Brooks announced from behind her, gesturing at a lone figure in the foyer.
Shoot, he was early.
Tess turned to look at her visitor. He stood backlit by a floor-to-ceiling window, his form outlined by the soft, foggy light from outside. His features were in shadow; she could only make out his silhouette—broad shoulders, a well-cut suit, imposing height, definitely over six feet.
He stepped into the light, and she caught her breath. He was that good-looking. Unfortunately, the startled gasp made her inhale the powdered sugar from the donut between her teeth, and an enormous sneeze erupted. The donut flew out of her mouth, dusting her clothes and the carpet at her feet with a sprinkling of white.
Both Brooks and Mr. Sheffield hurried to her aid, setting aside the hot coffee before it could do more damage, patting her on the back.
“She’ll be all right,” Brooks assured their visitor. “Unfortunately this is normal for Tess. She takes multitasking to the extreme, and as you can see, it’s not working out so well for her.”
“I’m fine,” she assured them, sending a warning glare at Brooks.
With an excess of fussiness, Brooks covered the donut with a paper towel as if it were a dead mouse, carefully scooped it up and deposited it in the trash. She tried to act as composed as possible as she faced the stranger. “My apologies,” she said with as much dignity as she could muster. “I’m Tess Delaney. How do you do, Mr. Sheffield?” He didn’t look anything like his profile picture on the company website. Not even close.
“I’m Dominic. Dominic Rossi.” He held out his hand.He had a slow smile, she noticed. Slow and devastating.
Tess had to regroupas she briefly took his hand. It felt as warm and strong as he looked. “I was expecting someone else.”
Brooks stepped in and wiped the remaining powdered sugar off her fingers before she shook the man’s hand. “Mr. Sheffield just called,” said Brooks. “He’s running late and pushed the meeting back an hour.”
“Nice to meet you, Mr. Rossi.” Tess tried to hide her sinking disappointment that this amazing-looking person was not her employer.
“Call me Dominic, please.” He had the kind of deep, sonorous voice that drew attention, even though he spoke in low tones. Tess could practically feel everyone within earshot tuning in to eavesdrop.
“All right then,” she said. “Dominic.” Of course his name would be Dominic. It meant “gift from God.”AKA a life-support system for an ego. Still, that didn’t mean he wasn’t fun to stare at. Dominic Rossi looked like a dream, the kind of dream no woman in her right mind would want to wake from.
She had always been susceptible to male beauty, ever since the age of ten, when her mother had taken her to see Michelangelo’s David in Florence. She recalled staring at that huge stone behemoth, all lithe muscles and gorgeous symmetry, indifferent about his nudity, his member inspiring a dozen questions her mother brushed aside.
Now, with utmost reluctance, she folded her arms across her chest, walling herself off fromthe charms of Mr. Tall, Dark and Devastating. “So…how can I help you?”
“Shall I send out for more coffee?” asked Brooks. “Or maybe just disaster clean-up?”
Oksana Androvna, an acquisitions expert, popped her head above the walls of her cubicle. She spotted the visitor, then ducked back down. The handsome stranger had probably already set off a storm of workplace gossip. He didn’t look like most Sheffield clients. “My office is through here,” she said, heading down the hallway. She led the way, wondering if he was checking her out from behind, then mad at herself for wondering as she unlocked the door and turned on the lights. When she turned to face him, his gaze held hers, but she had the uncanny feeling that he had been checking her out. She wasn’t offended. If she thought she could get away with it, she’d do the same to him.
As usual, her work area was a mass of clutter. It was organized clutter, to be sure, though she was the first to admit that this was not the same as neatness. “I’m a bit pressed for time this morning—”
“Sorry to arrive unannounced,” he said, striding forward into the cramped confines of her office. “I’m not sure I have a good number for you.”
“I never gave you my number,” she said.But I might have, if you’d asked me.
He held out a business card. “I’ve been looking for you.”
For no reason she could fathom, his words gave her a chill. In a swift beat of time, she tasted the intense sweetness of powdered sugar in the corners of her lips, felt the cool breath of the air conditioning through a ceiling vent, watched it ripple through some loose papers on her credenza.
“Miss Delaney?” He regarded her quizzically.
She studied the card—Dominic Rossi. Bay Bank Sonoma Trust.“You’re a bill collector?”
He smiled slightly. “No.”
She set aside the card and stepped back, considering him warily. He had the features and hair to match his physique and voice. The horn-rimmed glasses, rather than detracting from his looks, merely enhanced them, like a fine frame around a masterpiece. He stood just inside the door, seeming out of place in her space. “Yes, it’s a wreck,” she said, reading disapproval in the way he was looking at the various piles. “It drives Brooks crazy, but I have a system.”
He found an empty spot on the floor and set down his briefcase. She placed her coffee cup atop a stack of art history books. He extracted a folded handkerchief from his pocket. “Er, you might want to…” He gestured at her lapel.
“What’s the matter?”
“You’re covered in powdered sugar.”
She glanced down. The front of her blazer was sprinkled with the white stuff.
“Oh. Damn.” She took the handkerchief—white, crisp, monogrammed—and brushed at the mess.
“Your face, too,” he pointed out.
“My face?” she asked stupidly.
“You look like a cocaine addict gone wild,” he told her.
“Lovely. I don’t have a mirror.
He came around the desk to her. “May I?”
In spite of herself, she kind of wanted to say yes to this guy, no matter what he was asking. “Sure. Have at it.”
Very gently, he touched a finger under her chin, tilting her face toward his as he dabbed at the corners of her mouth.
Up close, he was even better looking than she’d originally thought. He smelled incredible and was perfectly groomed. The suit fit him gorgeously. It was probably a bespoke suit, made-to-measure. Because no normal man was built like this guy.Maybe she’d manifested him. Hadn’t she just been thinking about how nice it would be to have a boyfriend?
Indulging—ever so briefly—in his touch, his very focused attention, she fantasized about what it would be like to have a boyfriend like this—attentive, patient, wildly attractive. Though she had no idea who he was, she already knew he was going to make her wish she had better luck at keeping guys around. When he finished his ministrations, she hoped she wasn’t blushing. But being a redhead, she couldn’t stop herself.
“Better?” she asked.
He put the handkerchief back in his pocket. “I just thought you’d be more comfortable…”
“Not looking like a cocaine addict,” she filled in for him. She forced herself to quit gaping.
For the first time, he cracked a smile. “Believe me, you’re better off sticking with donuts.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.” She did her best to ignore the pulse of attraction inspired by that smile. She flushed again, remembering her imminent meeting. “You’ll have to excuse me, but I’ve got something on the schedule that can’t wait.”
“Just…hear me out.” Somber again, he moved a stack of paraphernalia off a chair and took a seat. “That’s all I ask.”
“What can I do for you?”
He paused, a somber look haunting his whiskey-brown eyes. Oh, boy, she thought. He’d probably tracked her down for a valuation. People like this always seemed to find her. If he was like so many others, he wanted to know what he could get for his grandmother’s rhinestone jewelry or Uncle Bubba’s squirrel shooter. She often heard from people who came across junk while cleaning out some lovedone’s basement, and were convinced they had discovered El Dorado.
She shifted her weight, feeling a nudge of anxiety about the upcoming meeting. She was going to need all her focus, and Mr. Dominic Rossi was definitely not so good for her focus. “Listen, I might need to refer you to one of my associates in the firm. Like I said, I’m a bit pressed for time today—”
“This is about a family matter,” he said.
She almost laughed at the irony of it. She didn’t have a family. She had a mother who didn’t return her calls. “What in the world would you know about my family?”
“The bank I work for is located in Archangel, in Sonoma County.”
“Archangel.” She tilted her head to one side. “Is that supposed to mean something to me?”
“I’ve been to Archangel, Russia. I’ve been to lots of places, traveling for work. But never to Archangel, California. What does it have to do with me?”
His expression didn’t change, but she detected a flash of something in his eyes. “You have family there.”
Her stomach twisted. “This is either a joke, or a mistake.”
“I’m not joking, and it’s not a mistake. I’m here on behalf of your grandfather, Magnus Johansen.”
The name meant nothing to Tess. Her grandfather. She didn’t have a grandfather in any standard sense of the word. There was one unknown man who had abandoned Nana, and another who had fathered Shannon Delaney’s one-night stand. All her mother had ever told her about that night was that she’d had too much to drink and made a mistake while in graduate school at Berkeley. So the word “father” was a bit of a misnomer. The guy had never done anything for Tess except supply a single cell containing an X chromosome. Her mother wasn’t even sure of his name. “Eric,” Shannon had explained when Tess asked. “Or maybe it was Erik with a k. I never got his last name.”
On her birth certificate, the space was filled in with a single word: “UNKNOWN.”
Now here was this stranger, telling her things about herself she didn’t know. She suppressed a shiver. “I’ve never heard of…what’s the guy’s name?”
“And you say he’s my grandfather.” She felt strangely light-headed.
“I don’t know him,” she said.“I’ve never known him.” The words held a world of pain and confusion. She wondered if this guy—this Dominic—could tell. She felt completely bewildered.To hide her feelings, she glared at him through narrowed eyes. “I think you should get to the point.”
He studied her from behind the conservative banker’s glasses. The way he looked at her made her heart skip a beat and made it harder to hide the unsettled panic that was starting to climb up her throat. “I’m very sorry to tell you that Magnus has had an accident. He’s in the ICU at Sonoma Valley Regional Hospital.”
The words passed through her like a chilly breeze. “Oh. I see. I’m…” She really had no idea what to say. “I’m sorry, too. I mean, he’s your friend. What happened?”
“He fell off a ladder in his orchard, and he’s in a coma.”
Tess winced, flashing on a poor old man falling from a ladder. She laced her fingers together into a knot of tension, mingled with excitement. Her grandfather…her family. He had an orchard. She’d never really thought of anyone having an orchard, let alone someone she was related to. “I guess…I appreciate your coming to deliver the news in person,” she said. She wondered how much, if anything, he knew about the reason she didn’t know Magnus, or anyone on that side of the family. “I just don’t get what this has to do with me. I assume he’s got other family memberswho can deal with the situation.”
She flashed on another conversation she’d had with her mother, long ago, when she’d been a bewildered and lonely little girl. “I want you to tell me about my father,” she’d said, stubbornly crossing her arms.
“He’s gone, sweetheart. I’ve told you before, he was in a car accident before you were born, and he was killed.”
Tess winced. “Did it hurt?”
“I don’t know.”
“You sure don’t know a lot, Mom.”
“Well, it’s true. Were you sad when he died?”
“I...of course. Everyone who knew him was sad.”
“All his friends and family.”
“But who? What were their names?”
“I only knew Erik for a short time. I really didn’t know his friends and family.” Her eyes shifted, and that was how Tess knew she was holding back.
She didn’t even really know what her father looked like, or how his voice sounded, or the touch of his hand. She had only one thing to go by– an old photo print. The square Instamatic picture was kept in the bottom drawer of her mom’s bureau. The colors were fading. In the background was a big bridge stretching like a spider web across the water. In the center of the photo stood a man. He wasn’t smiling but he looked nice. He had crinkles fanning his eyes and hair that was light brown or dark blond, cut in a feathery old-fashioned style. “Very eighties,” her mother had once explained.
“I still wish I had a dad,” she said, thinking of her friends who had actual families– mom, dad, brothers and sisters. Sometimes she fantasized about a handsome Prince Charming, swooping in to marry her pretty mother and settling down with them in a nice house, painted pink.
Now she regarded Dominic Rossi, who had appeared as if out of a dream, telling her things that only raised more questions. He studied her with a stranger’s eyes, yet she thought she recognized compassion. Or was it pity? Suddenly she found herself resenting his handsomeness, his patrician features, the calm intelligence in his eyes. He was…a banker? Probably some over-educated grad with a degree in finance from some fancy institution. Which was no reason to resent him, but she did so just the same.
“I’ve never had anything to do with Magnus Johansen,” she said, deeply discomfited by this conversation. “And like I said, I’ve got a busy day ahead of me.”
“Miss Delaney. Theresa—”
“Tess,” she said. “No one calls me Theresa.”
“Sorry. That’s how you’re named in the will.”
Her jaw dropped. “What will? This is the first I’ve heard of any will. And why are you telling me this now? Did he die in from the fall?”
“No. But…there’s, uh, some discussion about continuing life support. Everyone’s praying Magnus will recover, but…it doesn’t look good for your grandfather. There are decisions that need to be made….” Dominic Rossi’s voice sounded low and quiet with emotion.
The crazy heart rush started again. “It’s sad to hear, and it sounds like you’re…like you feel bad about it. But I have no idea what this has to do with me.”
He studied her for a moment. “Whether he survives this or not, your grandfather intends to leave you half his estate.”
It took a few seconds for the words to sink in. Despite her experience in provenance, she was fundamentally unfamiliar with the concepts of grandfathers and estates. “Let me get this straight. A grandfather I’ve never known wants to give me half of everything.”
“Not only do I not know the man, I also don’t know what ‘everything’ means.”
“He has property in Sonoma County. Bella Vista—that’s the name of the estate—is a hundred-acre working orchard, with house, grounds and outbuildings.”
An estate. Her grandfather owned an estate. She’d never known anyone who owned an estate; that was something she saw on Masterpiece Theatre, not in real life.
“Bella Vista,” she said. The name tasted like sugar on her tongue. “And it’s…in Archangel? In Sonoma County?” Sonoma was where people went for Sunday drives or weekend escapes. It simply didn’t seem like a place where people owned estates. Certainly not a hundred acres…“And why do I not get to find all this out until he falls off a ladder and goes into a coma?”
“I can’t answer that.”
“And you’re telling me now because of…oh, God.” She couldn’t say it. Couldn’t get her head around the idea of being someone’s next of kin. Finally she felt something, an unfamiliar surge—uncomfortable, yet impossible to deny. The thought crossed her mind that this…this possible legacy called Bella Vista might be a blessing in disguise. On the heels of that thought came a wave of guilt. She didn’t know Magnus Johansen, but she didn’t wish him ill just to get her hands on his money.
“Half of everything,” she murmured. “A stranger is leaving me half of everything. It’s like a storyline in those dreadful English children’s novels I used to read as a kid, about an orphan saved at the last minute by a rich relative.”
“Not familiar with them,” he said.
“Trust me, they’re dreadful. But just so you know, I’m not an orphan and I don’t need saving.”
An appealing glimmer flashed in his eyes. “Point taken.”
“Who sent you to find me?” she asked. “And by the way, how didyou find me?”
“Like I said, you’re named in his will and…he’s an old man and it’s not looking good for him. I found you the way everybody finds people these days—the internet. It wasn’t a stretch. Good job on the Polish necklace, by the way.”
“Rosary,” she corrected him. “So what’s your role? How are you involved in this situation?”
“Magnus redrafted his will recentl