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Authors: Donna Alward

Breathe

BOOK: Breathe
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Dedication

I have wonderful memories of camping and touring the Shuswap Lake area of British Columbia, and now that I live thousands of kilometers away I think of it with warmth and affection. Beautiful lake, fresh Okanagan fruit and home of Granite Creek Estate Winery—and its owner, Gary, who took the time to answer my questions and gave me their last bottle of Syrah.

In the words of my wonderful husband: The most beautiful place on earth.

Chapter One

Anna ground the stick down another gear, hit the gas and wondered why in the world Jace would choose to live in such a place. Tall stands of trees thwarted any hope of seeing past the ditches on the sides of the road. She took a quick, frantic glimpse down at the directions she'd printed out, narrowly missed making a right-angle turn, and sighed heavily. Normally she enjoyed getting away, doing new things. But today her patience was at near zero and dwindling rapidly.

“Mama?”

Damn. Matteo was awake. A quick turn of her head and she saw him rubbing his eyes, his nearly black hair flattened on one side where it had pressed against the seat. She turned her attention back to the road. “Quietly, Matteo,” she whispered. “We're nearly there. Don't wake Aurelia, okay?”

“Mama, I'm
hungry
.”

“I know, sweetie.” Anna caught sight of a road sign that showed a bunch of grapes. Beneath it were the words “Two Willows Winery” and then “2 KM”, and she let out a breath. Thank God, it wasn't much farther. It had been a long day.

It had been a long few months, when it came right down to it.

She pasted on a bright smile and made her voice light, despite the unease swirling around in her stomach. “Just a few more minutes and we'll be at Jace's, I promise.” She'd be relieved to be at their destination…except that Jace had no idea they were coming. And she wasn't exactly sure how she was going to explain their sudden arrival, let alone ask for a place to stay. It was the height of presumption, thinking that Jace would welcome them with open arms.

The road snaked around another curve and inclined further. Anna kept both hands on the wheel to negotiate the turns. Uncle Jace indeed. Not that he'd been around more than a handful of times since Matteo had been born. He'd suddenly become so busy and important he didn't have time for the Morellis anymore. Not that she wasn't proud of his success…of course she was. But there had been times over the years she'd missed him terribly. She wondered why he'd kept away, and if it had anything to do with what had happened—and what hadn't—between them.

At the same time, a curl of dread spiraled through her stomach. She hadn't even given him any warning. Feeling trapped like a butterfly under glass, she'd needed to get away. Somewhere safe. In her head she knew that Jace's was the last place she should go. They had too much history. But her heart told her differently. Here she could hide for a little while. Ever since her husband's funeral she'd wanted to scream with the need to escape. And the only place she wanted to be was with Jace.

Which, of course, made absolutely no sense.

She braked and cranked the wheel around another sharp bend, cursing under her breath so that Matteo wouldn't hear. She wasn't familiar with the roads. The first hour of the drive had been quite pretty, route 97 as pleasant as she remembered. But climbing the narrow road to Jace's new winery was quite another matter. At home she knew the vineyard like the back of her hand. But she wasn't home any more. She was here and driving towards a new life. This was only the first step, a chance to regroup. A chance to get her feet beneath her once again.

Her old life was over. Stefano had seen to that, and playing the dutiful widow for appearances had taken its toll. Having to put on a false face of grief had exhausted her beyond anything she'd ever known. Because the truth of the matter was she'd been leaving him anyway, and knowing her remorse had little to do with his death caused more guilt and anguish than she could have anticipated.

Another small sign announced the entrance and she turned left, nervousness getting the best of her. She hadn't seen Jace in nearly a year, not since right after Aurelia had been born. She bit down on her lip as Matteo sighed from the backseat. Jace had brought Aurelia a stuffed lamb, fuzzy and white with a pink ribbon. And then he'd left again, without even visiting. She missed how they used to talk about old times, but for a very long time she'd felt he was putting a pleasant face on resentment. What she didn't understand was why. He'd been the one to walk away first, so where did all the resentment come from?

But it didn't matter. Right now, being a good mother to Matteo and Aurelia was her first priority. Coming to Jace's made sense on some level. She would be safe here for a while, hidden away until she could figure out what to do. Her father wasn't above strong-arming her to do what he wanted, but he would never follow her here. Jace's name wasn't even spoken in the Morelli household. Jace and Alex had remained friends, but Alex had branched out into the restaurant business on the lower mainland, out from under their father's thumb.

Anna envied him his independence.

Now she was ready to claim her own freedom. Surely Jace could put up with them for a few weeks. For all Jace's faults, he'd always said that if she needed anything, he'd be there. She'd never planned on taking him up on it. For a time she would have rather died than ask him for anything. But desperate times…

And it wasn't just for herself. The children would be away from the whispers and pitying looks of the household staff and their elitist circle of “friends”. No one knew her here. They might have some sense of normalcy. Meanwhile, she could stay under the radar until she decided what it was she wanted to do.

“Mama, are we there yet?”

She couldn't help but smile softly at the plaintive question. She slowed the car and peered over her shoulder at Matteo, strapped into a car seat and blinking his round eyes at her.

“Yes, we're here. Just a moment, and I promise you can get out and run around.”

She pulled out of the trees and into a small parking area that held one other vehicle. A shiny, silver Porsche 911 Carerra.

Jace's car.

Leave it to Jace to drive a two-seater bullet. She shouldn't be surprised. He'd always been one for toys. The flashier the better. It seemed nothing had changed. He had always been hungry for
things.
Briefly she wondered if all men thought of their value as the sum of their possessions. Certainly Stefano had. She remembered the sailboat he'd bought. In the end it had been his worst mistake. Anna knew better than most that things were just that. Material possessions. Certainly not enough to build a life on. She'd tried explaining that to Jace once, but he hadn't wanted to listen then either. The memory touched a hollow part within her.

The parking area was just below a large house, more like a lodge than a regular dwelling, built of reddish-stained logs.

As she pulled to a stop, Jace stepped out of a line of vines to her right. He halted and stared, his lips flattening with surprise at seeing her behind the wheel. No smile. No wave of greeting. And her stomach tumbled over itself.

She'd known him for so long she'd nearly forgotten how imposing he could be. His tall frame was lean and muscled, not overly large but exuding a confidence and power she'd always admired. But at this moment, the charming smile and manner she'd come to expect were absent. He almost looked angry now, mingled with surprise at her turning up so unexpectedly. She wrinkled her brow and glanced in the backseat. Matteo was already attempting to undo his seatbelt.

And with a stroke of perfect timing, Aurelia woke at the sudden lack of motion and started wailing at the top of her tiny lungs.

Anna unbuckled her seatbelt. She slid out of the car, avoiding Jace's severe gaze, opened the back door, scooped the crying baby from the seat and reached over and released Matteo from his own restraint.

She held her daughter close to her shoulder, her son by the hand and wished quite irrationally that she'd had time to do something about her hair before trying to convince Jace to take them all in.

“Anna.”

Jace strode over, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt that was dirty in several places. His boots were brown with dried mud and there was a smudge of something across one cheek.
His
hair, however, was perfect, slightly longer than it had been last time she'd seen him, the shaggy tips giving him a sexy, roguish look. She pursed her lips. She hated being at a disadvantage. She'd spent so many years exuding the perfect image it was difficult to allow herself to be anything less than perfect now.

“What on earth are you doing
here
?”

That was it for a greeting? No smile? No nothing? She rubbed Aurelia's back, trying to quiet her, but she knew what was wrong and standing around wasn't going to fix it.

“I know I should have called first…”

Jace frowned. “Called first? It's not like you live moments away. You've come all the way from the Island?”

Matteo had pulled his fingers away and Anna rested her hand on top of his head. Oh, the man made it sound like she was the dumbest woman in the world. Didn't he know about Stefano? Didn't he know what a shambles her life was? Was there really that much distance between them now? He made Vancouver Island sound like it was oceans away.

“I didn't have anywhere else to go. And you did say I was always welcome.”

As soon as she said the words, her eyes stung sharply and her breath caught, painful and thin in her lungs. All through the trip—packing, the flight, even the drive here—she'd been fine, but now it all caught up with her. It was hopeless. She was pathetic, running away from her problems. And knowing it, tears glimmered and slipped down her cheeks.

“Anna.” Jace's face softened, his eyes dark with concern. “Anna, what's happened? Don't cry. Please.”

He gripped her upper arms, the fingers strong around her biceps. Suddenly it was all clear. Stefano was gone. Her father was furious. Alex was wrapped up in Melissa and their first pregnancy. She was alone, and she'd made so many mistakes, ending with the latest—coming to Jace.

“I…I…”

“Mama?” Matteo stood firm beside her left thigh, and she let her fingers trail along his dark head, attempting to allay the worry she heard in his little voice. Aurelia's crying increased.

“What's wrong with her?”

Little Matteo stepped forward from beneath his mother's hand, brown eyes blazing. “My sister is hungry and needs to be changed.”

A smile twitched at the corners of Jace's mouth as he turned his attention to Matteo. He lifted his brows in a way that said he was clearly indulging the boy. “Is that right?”

Anna tried to smile, gathering herself together. Matteo was trying so hard. She hated how her son saw her sad more often than not these days. Jace was as infuriating as ever, though normally he wasn't mean about it. The friend she knew would have been teasing, or concerned. Instead he was sharp and annoyed. Maybe she'd overestimated the power of their past friendship. Jace didn't usually do things to be polite, but maybe he'd casually thrown out the offer thinking she'd never take him up on it. She hadn't thought things through. Again. Somehow she had to make it right, to convince him they should stay. “I don't want to inconvenience you, Jace. Perhaps you could point me to the guesthouse and we'll be out of the way.”

“The guesthouse isn't equipped for guests. You'll have to stay at the main house. With me.”

Anna was in no position to argue. Aurelia was at her limit and from the stubborn set of his chin, Matteo wasn't far behind. Right now she had to get them settled somewhere. She hadn't planned on taking over his home. The website Jace had set up for Two Willows had distinctly described the winery as having a main house and a guesthouse. It was on that basis she'd made the decision to come. Doubt flickered once more, but then Aurelia's wail pierced the air again and she knew she'd have to deal with the rest later.

“Mama, I have the bag.” Matteo had gone to the car and retrieved the diaper bag, hefting it on his slim shoulders. He glared up at Jace with as much of a withering look a boy of nearly four could muster. Anna's heart smiled. Her baby boy tried to look after her as much as she looked after him. After Stefano's funeral, her father had told Matteo to watch over his mama. And here he was, bless his heart, trying to make life easier in the only way a four-year-old knew how. But it wasn't his responsibility, and it grated that her father had put the responsibility of the family on a child's shoulders—even figuratively—when it belonged squarely on her own.

But then—when had her wishes counted?

Anna lifted her nose at Jace so that he wouldn't see the glimmer of tears again. She spun away, carrying Aurelia with as much dignity as she could, considering the wails that erupted from the tiny lungs. Matteo trailed slightly behind, tipped a little sideways as he lugged along the bag. “Come, Matteo. We'll go up to the house.”

BOOK: Breathe
13.36Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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