Dante stares at the gun on the seat beside him. A Ruger Mark IV Hunter, barrel threaded with a silencer. It’s next to a bag of Cheez-Its. His favorite.
The gun, not the Cheez-Its, though the Cheez-Its have grown on him. One of eight-dozen things he likes about America. Others, in no set order, include soft drink refills, treating pets as family, a cultural tolerance for pajamas in grocery stores, and those bizarre drug commercials listing every side effect for prescriptions he hopes never to need.
But back to the gun.
The job went smoother than expected. A last favor to the Duke of Dovlano, and a chance to rid the world of an exiled prince with a penchant for young boys. Dante might’ve refused, but there was the dog fighting ring. Once Dante neutralized the target, he waited to make sure his anonymous tip to a Seattle shelter got the animals to safety.
So. That’s that. He grabs some Cheez-Its and shoves them in his mouth, chewing as he studies a map of Oregon. Matteo gives him grief for using printed maps instead of GPS or a phone app like a normal guy.
But Matteo’s behind bars, and Dante’s hardly a normal guy, so printed map it is. Setting it aside, he grabs a last handful of crackers and cranks the engine on the battered Ford pickup. Beige and unremarkable, it gets lousy gas mileage but has a canopy to conceal anything he might wish to hide.
Also, there’s a bumper sticker that says “mean people suck.” It came with the truck and makes him smile.
Easing onto I-5, he aims the rig in a southerly direction and loses a few hours to the soothing swish of wet tires on asphalt. It rains more on this side of the mountains than in Central Oregon, but that’s fine by him. Gray skies with sunlight squiggling through like determined, golden worms. Fields of green with lots of bored looking cows, and tidy rows of grapevines dripping rainbow dew. It reminds him of home.
He’s a long fucking way from home.
Checking the map again, he takes a hard right on a chunky gravel road. It’s like Matteo described it. Red gate. Tree-lined ridge to the south. Rustic wood sign with curlicue letters declaring it the home of Bello-Devon Vineyards.
He parks beside the barn and looks around. It’ll be a quick visit. If he read Teo’s code right, there’ll be a shed behind the east barn. A shed containing something to help spring his pal from prison. Evidence of some sort?
He’s not sure, but today’s about reconnaissance. A chance to check things out, be sure his buddy’s kid sister is getting along okay. He scoped out the older sister last week. She’s faring fine, running a daycare across town, but the younger one…well, Matteo has concerns.
And Dante’s glad to help. That’s part of the code, honor among men and all that. Glancing at his reflection in the rearview mirror, he touches the four-inch scar near his temple. Considers a ball cap. No telling if Jen’s a lady who’s scared of scowling bald men.
He should do something about the scowl.
Tucking the Ruger in his chest holster, Dante settles a blue trucker cap on his hairless scalp. If Matteo’s right, the sister’s either in the tasting room or tending things in the barn. Either way, Dante knows to keep it light. Ask a few questions about wine, maybe buy a bottle while checking her over to be sure she’s safe. He knows the drill.
Popping the door open, he eases out of the cab. His boots are black and plain, but sturdy. A little leak of sun seeps through the clouds and pools on the shoulders of his black fleece jacket. It leaves him warm and oddly cheerful. His feet make no sound on the gravel. Years of training at work.
He’s halfway to the tasting room when he hears the shout.
“Hey! Are you Guy?”
He isn’t Guy, but he turns.
Turns and feels his heart stumble like a drunk toddler because good God, the most stunning woman he’s seen stands in the barn’s doorway. An angel, he’s positive, even if this angel grips a pitchfork.
“Jen?” He prays he’s kept his eyes from bugging out of his skull. “That is—Jennifer Bello?”
She frowns and glances at her watch. “You’re twenty minutes late. Not a great start to a job interview.”
Job interview? Dante stares, trying to find his voice. His voice and maybe some common sense. For God’s sake, she’s his best friend’s sister.
Stop fucking staring.
Dante clears his throat. “The name’s D—Dan, actually.” He starts to explain he’s not here for a job, then stops. This could be useful. “I apologize for the delay. Road construction.”
“That mess over on Amity-Dayton Highway?”
Her scowl softens. There’s still a steely edge to those pale green eyes, and she stands with shoulders squared and a gloved fist around the pitchfork handle. She’s small, but fierce. Hair the color of warm molasses twists into a braid she wears looped over one shoulder. Matteo called her smart and scrappy and sweet, but did he ever mention his younger sister was so—so—
“Your accent,” she says, jarring him back on track. “It’s familiar.”
Crap. He’s normally better at hiding it. Better at blending in, since he’s worked all over the globe and can pass for American if he needs to.
Right now, he needs damage control. “My mother’s from Europe.” True fact, and he hopes it’s enough as he nods at a shovel propped against the barn. “May I help?”
Jen frowns. “Like an audition for the job, or are you implying I don’t look like I’m managing on my own?”
A trick question, he’s pretty sure. Dante holds her gaze. “Thought you might want to talk. Interview me. A man thinks best when he’s working, so—”
“Right, yeah, sorry.” The softness slips back in her eyes as she tugs the end of her braid. “Sorry I’m being bitchy. Rough morning.”
The back of his neck prickles. “Something’s wrong?”
“It’s fine, it’s just—” She sighs. “A crisis with weed killer. Slaughtered a row of my best Pinot grapes, so I’m regrouping this morning. I didn’t mean to take it out on you.”
“Not a problem.” Dante files away the information. He’s not sure what job he’s here to interview for or if Guy—whoever he is—will show up and blow this.
But something tells him this is a rare opportunity, so he thinks fast. “I’ve got experience with weed killer, if you want me to take a look.”
Jen stares at him. Dante declines to add that his experience is limited to building explosives. He’s happy to look at her grapes, or anything else she wants to show him.
She seems to decide something. “I’ve got it handled.” Hesitating, she grabs the shovel and offers it to him. “But dealing with that set me back on chores, so I could use a hand this morning.”
“I can do that.” Dante takes the tool, fingers buzzing as they brush hers. Even with them both wearing gloves, the contact disarms him.
He nods toward the barn. “Lead the way.” He clears his throat, adding as an afterthought, “Ma’am.”
Jen makes a face. “Please. Just Jen is fine. You said your name’s Dan?”
“Huh. I could’ve sworn your Craigslist reply said Guy. Is that your middle name or something?”
He considers the best way to answer. Is still considering when he’s saved by a blow to the testicles.
Make it an almost blow. Reflexes trigger, and he turns at the last second to face his attacker. His attacker stares with odd, slanted eyes. Bleats once and drags a hoof through the dirt.
“Scape!” Jen grabs the goat by its red harness with apology in her eyes. “I’m so sorry. He’s supposed to be tethered outside Maple’s stall. He must’ve chewed through again.”
Dante darts a glance to where half a frayed tether lies limp beside a horse stall. A lean, cocoa-colored thoroughbred sticks its head out and whinnies.
He looks back at Jen. “You have a goat named Scape and a horse named Maple?”
Like he wasn’t already half in love with her.
Jen’s cheeks pinken like he’s spoken out loud. “Scape Goat and Maple Stirrup, yes.” Her chin tips up. “Pony Soprano’s on loan to a kids’ petting zoo this week.”
It’s official. She’s his dream girl.
But that’s not a thing, so Dante kicks himself in the crotch—figuratively speaking—and nods. “You’ve got a lot of animals.”
“This is barely the tip of the iceberg.” She lets go of the goat’s harness. “Be good,” she chides as Scape trots toward him.
Dante’s not sure who she’s addressing.
But he holds out a hand, and this time, Scape lowers his ears for scratching. “Nice goat,” he murmurs as he rubs the spot behind the animal’s nubby horns. “American Lamancha, right?”
Surprise brightens Jen’s eyes. “That’s right. I—you mentioned you didn’t have tons of experience with goats?”
He did? Or rather, Guy did. He may need to tap Matteo to hack his sister’s email and find out what’s been said. Not that he’s considering a job here. Even the word job means something different in his world.
“Had dairy goats growing up,” he says, since he still hasn’t answered her question. “It’s been a while, but I know which end to feed hay to.”
She laughs, and Dante finds himself smiling. Smiling, for God’s sake.
“Oh, good.” Jen shoves a lock of hair off her forehead. “What about castration? You have experience there, I assume?”
More than he liked to admit. “Some.”
“Because we follow strictly humane practices here. Banding—no scalpels—and my vet helps with pain management.”
Dante nods, because how else should he respond? “I can do that.”
“Good.” She eyes him like she’s waiting for more information, but this is a place he’d prefer not to dwell. “I’ll need help with the spring lambs.”
“Of course.” He’ll happily castrate anyone or anything she asks him to. Glancing at Scape, he scratches the goat’s ear some more. “I can be gentle.”
Not something he includes on his resumé, but it’s true. When he looks up, Jen’s watching him with an expression he can’t read. Watching his hand, which seems odd.
Her mouth opens, then closes. “You have—really large hands.”
“Yes.” He draws back in case he’s scaring her. “I have gloves custom made.”
It’s a silly thing to say but makes her smile for some reason.
“Oh. Good.” She licks her lips. “That’s—great.”
He hefts his shovel. “How deep do you want the hole?”
Jen blinks. “What?”
He said hole and not grave, right? English isn’t his first language, but he thought he’d mastered it well enough.
“Oh, you mean the chores?” She hoists her pitchfork, making his heart pound with the dainty dusting of freckles across her nose. “We’re mucking stalls. Come on, we’ll start in the east barn.”
He’ll follow her anywhere, even if it involves manure. He’d shovel it with bare hands to spend an hour with her.
As he trails her to the next barn, he catches sight of a charred heap. Burnt wood, twisted metal. Concrete footing the size of a small shed. “What happened there?”
Jen looks where he’s pointing. “Electrical fire.” Her chin tips up again. “I hired an electrician to rewire the overhead light and something went wrong. Don’t worry—I used a different guy to wire the bunkhouse.”
That’s not why he’s worried. “Was anyone hurt?”
“No, but the shed’s a total loss.” She shrugs. “Luckily, there wasn’t much in there.”
Just Matteo’s chance at freedom. He’ll have to find another way to help his pal. As Jen leads him to the east barn, he hears Teo’s voice in his head.
“My youngest sister, she’s had a hard time.” A pause. “She’s…fragile. I need you to watch out for her.”
Watching out for her does not involve watching the sway of her hips as she moves, so Dante doesn’t do that. Much. Also doesn’t notice there’s another sweet spray of freckles on the back of her neck. Would they taste like cinnamon if he kissed her there?
He’s not thinking that, of course. He’s here to help a friend, nothing more.
They set to work in companionable silence. Jen’s raking, Dante’s shoveling heaps of dung into a battered black trailer. He tries to think of something to say. Something besides, I should probably tell you that I know your brother—
“So where are you from, Dan?”
He swallows back his earlier thought. “I’ve lived all over the place.”
She waits for him to offer more, which he should probably do if this is a job interview. “Spent some time in Central Oregon.”
“Yeah?” She stops moving and looks at him. “At a ranch or something?”
He needs to tread carefully. “Most recently, at Ponderosa Luxury Ranch Resort.”
There, that’s good. The truth, more or less. No need to say he went on official palace business, keeping watch over a reluctant duchess and the thug sent to eliminate her. Lady Isabella wound up marrying an American doctor, while the thug takes a long nap at the bottom of a mountain lake.
Jen’s still stuck on Ponderosa Resort. “That’s right, they have stables there.” She uses her pitchfork to drag a fragrant heap closer, and Dante scoops it with his shovel. “I mean, I’ve never been,” she says. “A little too rich for my blood.”
He flings another heap of dung into the trailer, choosing his words with caution. “Money’s tight, I take it?”
She snorts in response. “I can pay your salary, if that’s what you’re asking.” Frowning, she shakes her head. “Sorry, that’s not what you asked. I’m touchy today.”
“About money?” An American thing, he’s learned. Probably rude to bring it up, but she did first.
Jen stops raking and looks at him. After a pause, she sighs. “I suppose, you’ll hear it anyway if I hire you.”
He watches her gloved hand grip the pitchfork tighter and gauges how fast she could swing it. To be safe, he takes a step back.
“Johnny Devon—as in Bello-Devon Vineyards?” She frowns. “We broke up a while ago. It’s awkward and weird and I feel really stupid having his name on the sign, but I own this place fair and square. The land belonged to my grandmother, and it’s mine, okay?”
“Okay.” He’s not sure he follows, but hair prickles on his arms. “He’s causing you problems?”
“Johnny? No, not really.” She rolls her eyes. “It’s complicated, financially, since we were never married. I handled farming, he handled wine. I had to hire a new winemaker and I’m working on a plan to pay Johnny off for some equipment. For his portion of the business. But I’m looking at loans and I’ve got plans for expanding growing operations and livestock and all of that is why you’re here, right?”
“Right.” He answers automatically, even though none of that’s why he’s here.
Why is he here again?
“Tell me about the weed killer.”
Jen blinks in surprise. “What do you want to know?”
“How did it happen?”
She shrugs. “Over-zealous neighbor, I’m guessing. Happens sometimes. Our properties are close.”
He studies her face. “I could talk to him.”
“The neighbor?” She laughs. “Thanks, but no. I’m good.”
She looks good. Wait, no. She looks…concerned. Her mask is a brave one, but it wouldn’t take much to peel it back.
“So, you’re hiring a farmhand.”
“That’s the plan.” She shifts the pitchfork from one hand to the other. “I’ve been handling things on my own for a while but expanding requires more manpower.” A pause. “Or woman power. I don’t discriminate.”
“You’ve got family here to help?”
It’s the wrong question. He sees it in her eyes, and orders himself not to react. To stand here and catalogue what he’s learned.
“No.” She presses her lips together. “My grandma’s gone. She passed last year.”
“I’m sorry.” He sees in her eyes how much this Grandmother meant to her. Knows a bit more from Matteo. “My condolences.”
“Thank you.” Jen takes a breath. “I’ve got a sister, but she’s not the farming type.” Her lips move like she’s got more to say, but she clamps them closed instead.
“So it’s just you.” He watches her face, not pushing. Just needing to see what she looks like when she doesn’t quite tell the truth.
He sees more than she realizes. The tiniest twitch beside her right eye. How she blinks fast when skirting the real story. A tightening of her grip on the pitchfork handle. The swell of small but perfect breasts beneath the red flannel shirt.
That last one’s not a tell. It’s a clinical observation, nothing more.
Jen stares at him a long time. “I need to check your references.”
He makes a mental note to fabricate some. Also, to punch himself in the throat, because what is he thinking?
“Let me send you an updated resumé tonight.” He blurts this against his better judgment. “One with a reference list.”
“Thank you.” Her green eyes search his, like she’s looking for something she hasn’t quite found.
He’s probably imagining that.
But he’s not imagining the faint softening in her eyes, the way her tongue darts out to lick her lips. “How soon could you start?”