Million-Dollar Marriage Merger - By Charlene Sands


From the time Tony Carlino was six years old, he’d been infatuated with cars, speed and danger. Back then, the hills of Napa that create award-winning merlot and pinot had been his playing field. Racing his dinged up scooter down the embankment, he’d hit the dirt falling headfirst into a patch of fescue grass a hundred times over. But Tony never gave up when he wanted something. He hadn’t been satisfied until he’d mastered that hill with his scooter, his bicycle and finally his motorcycle. He’d graduated to stock car racing and had become a champion.

Newly retired from racing, his present fascination had nothing to do with cars and speed and everything to do with a different kind of danger.

Rena Fairfield Montgomery.

He glimpsed the blue-eyed widow from across the gravesite where dozens were gathered. Valley winds blew strands of raven hair from her face, revealing her heartbroken expression and ruffling her solemn black dress.

She hated him.

With good reason.

Soon he’d walk into a land mine of emotion and nothing posed more danger to Tony than that. Especially when it came to Rena and all she represented.

Tony glanced beyond the gravesite to those hills and Carlino land, an abundance of crimson hues reflecting off foil covering the vines, keeping grape-eating birds from destroying the crop. The land he once resented, the vines that had fed his family for generations was his responsibility now. His father had passed on just months ago, leaving the Carlino brothers in charge of the huge empire.

Once again, Tony glanced at Rena and a face devoid of emotion, her tears spent. She walked up to the bronze coffin, staring blankly, as if to say she couldn’t believe this. She couldn’t believe that her beloved husband, David, was gone.

Tony winced. He held back tears of his own. David had been his best friend since those scooter days. He’d been there for Tony through thick and thin. They’d kept their friendship ongoing, despite a bitter family rivalry.

Despite the fact that Rena had loved Tony first.

Rena held back a sob and bravely reached out to the blanket of fresh flowers draped along the coffin. She pulled her hand back just as her fingertip touched a rose petal. At that moment, she glanced at Tony, her sad eyes so round and blue that a piece of him unraveled.

He knew her secret.

But Tony didn’t give that away. He stared at her, and for that one small moment, sympathy and the pain of losing David temporarily bonded them.

She blinked then turned around, stepping away from the gravesite, her legs weak as all eyes watched the beautiful grieving widow say her final farewell to her husband.

Nick and Joe, Tony’s younger brothers, stood by his side. Joe draped an arm around him. “We’re all going to miss him.”

“He was as good as they come,” Nick added.

Tony nodded and stared at the car as Rena drove away from the cemetery.

“Rena’s all alone now,” Joe said, once Nick bid them farewell. “It’ll be even more of a struggle for her to keep Purple Fields going.”

Tony drew a deep breath, contemplating his next move. They’d been rivals in business for years, but her winery had been failing and was barely holding on. “She won’t have to.”

Joe stiffened. “Why, are you planning on buying her out? She won’t sell, bro. You know she’s stubborn. She’s had offers before.”

“Not like this one, Joe.”

Joe turned his head to look him in the eye. “What, you’re making her an offer she can’t refuse?”

“Something like that. I’m going to marry her.”

Rena got into her car alone, refusing her friends’ and neighbors’ well-meaning gestures to drive her home, to sit with her, to memorialize David Montgomery. She never understood why people gathered after a funeral, had food catered in and specialty wines flowing. They filled their plates, chattered and laughed and most times forgot the real reason they had come. She couldn’t do that to David. No, he was too young to die. Too vital. He’d been a good man, an excellent and loving husband. She couldn’t celebrate his life; he’d had so much more to live. So she spoke the words with sincerity to the guests at the funeral site, “I hope you understand that I need to be alone right now,” and had driven off.

She rode the lanes and narrow streets of the valley as numbness settled over her. She knew this land so well, had traveled every road, had grown up in Napa and had married here.

She wept silently. Tears that she thought