Chapter 1: An Open Door

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Tara's shoulder slammed into the passenger door as the big old pickup flew around a bend. She wanted to tell Roberto to slow down and speed up at the same time, so she clenched her jaws to prevent herself from biting her tongue as the truck bounced on the rough dirt road.

The air in the truck was thick with heat and smoke. Tara tasted ash in her throat. To the west on the left, Tara could see blue sky through the windshield above the scrub-covered, brown slopes. But on her side, east, grey clouds that faded to black at the horizon blocked the sky. A slope fell away beyond the road's narrow shoulder, smoke obscuring the vineyards she knew grew there. Opening a window would only let in the smoke, and it was already hard to breathe.

Tara clutched the door handle as the truck fishtailed. She heard the crunch of tires on the narrow gravel shoulder. Roberto wrestled the wheel, bringing the truck back on course.

Tara risked a glance at him. His brows drew together in a frown and he pressed his normally full lips into a tight, thin line. But there was determination in his brown eyes.

Roberto's hands were tight on the wheel as he negotiated a sharp bend. The truck didn't fishtail this time, but the turn made Tara slide across the seat and the seat belt dug into her side. Her hands flew up to the dash just in time to brace herself as Roberto braked hard, then turned sharply to the right onto a paved road.

"Is this-" she said, regretting it as her mouth filled with the taste of smoke.

"The road to the main gate. We got past the road blocks," Roberto answered without looking at her. He pressed the pedal down and the truck's engine roared. Tara kept one hand braced on the dash, the other holding the door handle to keep herself from sliding across the seat as they rounded the last curve. She knew there was a gate a quarter-mile ahead, but she could barely see a slightly darker tone to the smoke across the road, let alone the brass plate that read "Rocky Creek Wines."

"Think the gate's open?" she asked, moving her left hand to brace against the roof.

"Sure hope so." Roberto coughed, and Tara answered with her own cough, but it did nothing to ease the heat in her throat. Her eyes burned, but there were no more tears to cut through the ash on her cheeks.

Roberto slowed the truck, and Tara moved her left hand to the dash again. The low stone wall, decorative more than functional, slowly materialized behind the billowing smoke.

Seeing it brought a vivid memory to mind, and she saw the wall on a clear late-summer day, the first time she had seen it, with the ornate wrought-iron gates, both wide open. Beyond the wall on a small rise stood a Spanish-style mansion whose terra cotta roof tiles seemed to glow in the California sunlight. She had parked her old Civic in the last place at the far end of the visitor's parking lot.

She remembered how she had checked her face in the rear-view mirror before opening the door, hoping she had not put on too much makeup. She had seen a question in her green eyes-was she really going to apply for a job in a restaurant?

She got out of the car, recoiling from the heat rising from the pavement. She straightened her jacket, pulled the strap of her briefcase higher on her shoulder and flipped her brown hair back as she strode up the front steps with all the confidence she could fake. Even that slipped away when a young, African-American man in a uniform put his hand on her shoulder to direct her back onto the porch of the mansion that had been transformed into a restaurant. He pointed past the manicured lawn and customer parking lot, toward a simple barn-like building at the back of the estate. Tara swallowed, pulled her strap up again and strode toward it.

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