“Are you awake?”
Greg blinked and realized he was lying on the floor. Edward knelt beside him.
Their eyes met, and embarrassed, Greg glanced away. “What happened?” he asked, still in a daze.
“You passed out.”
“I did?” Abruptly Greg sat upright. He would have fled, but the room had started to swim in the most disturbing fashion.
“Take it slowly,” Edward advised, then helped him stand up. “I’ve asked one of the nurses to take your blood pressure. Tell me, when was the last time you had anything to eat?”
“I’m fine. I had breakfast this morning.” It was a lie. He wasn’t fine and he hadn’t eaten breakfast. “I just don’t happen to like needles.”
“Then it’s a brave thing you did, coming in here like this.”
“Brave?” Greg repeated with a short laugh. “I’m the biggest coward who ever lived.”
On Monday morning Greg recognized that he had no other options left to him. It wouldn’t be easy to apply for a loan at Pacific Union Bank, but he had nowhere else to go. He’d never been a person to beg. Never needed to beg until now, but if begging would help him hold on to Bennett Wines, he’d do that and more.
The worst of it was that he’d have to go begging to his own brother. Phil, who’d like nothing better than to call him a failure. He wouldn’t be far from wrong; Greg felt like a failure.
Despite his mood, Greg prepared carefully for the interview, wearing his best suit. He was about to head out the door when his phone rang. Caller ID told him it wasn’t a creditor.
“Hello,” he snapped.
It was Tess, his almost ex-wife. Ex-wife number three. “What’s the matter? Are you after another pound of flesh?” he sneered. The last thing he needed right now was to deal with spoiled selfish Tess.
“I heard about your money problems.”
“I’ll bet you’re gloating, too.”
He heard her intake of breath. “I don’t wish you ill, Greg.”
He didn’t believe her for a moment. “What do you want?” He was facing an unpleasant task that demanded all his attention, and he didn’t want to be waylaid by an even more unpleasant one.
“I called because I didn’t realize the extent of your money problems until now and, well…I’m sorry.”
He said nothing.
“I wish you’d told me earlier. If I’d known, perhaps—”
“Would it have made any difference?” Their troubles had started long before the fan leaf virus had destroyed his vines. Long before he’d been confronted with one financial crisis after another. He knew when he and Tess got married that they were probably making a mistake. Still, that hadn’t stopped him. He’d wanted her, and she’d wanted the prestige of being married to him. True, they looked good together, but at the moment it seemed that was all they’d had going for them.
He didn’t like living alone, but he figured he’d get used to it eventually.
She didn’t answer his probing question right away. “If I’d known about your troubles, I like to think it would have changed things.”
All women preferred to believe the best about themselves, he thought cynically. “Think what you like,” he muttered.
“Oh, Greg, do you hate me that much?”
Her words caught him up short. “I don’t hate you at all,” he said, and realized it was true. He was sorry to see the marriage end, but he hadn’t been surprised and, in fact, had anticipated their divorce long before Tess moved out.
“You don’t?” She sounded surprised, but recovered quickly. “Good, because I was thinking we should both do away with these attorneys and settle matters on our own. I can’t afford three-hundred dollars an hour, and neither can you.”
Greg wasn’t sure he should put too much faith in this sudden change of heart. “Do you mean it?”
“Of course I do.”
“All right, name a date and a time, and I’ll be there.” Greg hated the eagerness that crept into his voice, but he wanted the attorneys out of these divorce proceedings as much as Tess did. Without them—stirring up animosities, asking for unreasonable concessions—he and Tess had a chance of making this separation amicable.
“How about next Tuesday night?” she suggested.
Greg noted the time and place and, with a farewell that verged on friendly, they ended the call.
Well, well. Life was full of surprises, and not all of them unpleasant.
The drive into the city, however, could only be called unpleasant. Traffic was heavy and Greg soon lost his patience, particularly when it took him nearly an hour to find parking, and that wasn’t even close to the financial district. The cost of parking in San Francisco should be illegal, he grumbled to himself. This was his third trip into the city within ten days; he hadn’t been to San Francisco three times in the entire previous year. Greg preferred his role as lord of the manor—a role that was about to be permanently canceled if he couldn’t secure a loan.
The sidewalks were crowded, since it was almost lunchtime. A brisk wind blew off the bay and he hunched his shoulders against it, ignoring the expensive-looking decorations on the bank buildings and the tasteful Christmas music floating out from well-appointed lobbies as doors were opened.
He sincerely hoped he wouldn’t be forced to see Phil this early in the process, if at all. Knowing Phil as he did, Greg was keenly aware that his brother would take real pleasure in personally rejecting his application. Then again, he might exercise some modicum of mercy and leave it to someone else, a junior officer. But that wasn’t something Greg needed to worry about just yet. Today was only the first step—meeting with a loan officer and completing the lengthy application. Once he’d finished the paperwork, he could leave. Walk out the doors of yet another bank, wait for yet another rejection.
He hated his own pessimistic attitude, but nothing had happened in the past week to give him any hope. His brother hated him—it was that simple—and Phil wasn’t the kind of man to put their argument behind him. If he hadn’t forgiven Greg in ten years, he wasn’t likely to do it now.
Phil had always been somewhat jealous of him, Greg knew, something he’d never really understood. Greg supposed his greatest sin was the fact that he’d been born last. That, and sharing a passion for wine making with his father. Despite what Phil believed, Greg had loved their mother. Her death, although expected, had hit him hard.
He’d had no way of knowing how critical her condition was. They’d spoken briefly the night before, and while she’d sounded weak, she’d encouraged him to take care of his own business, to keep his appointment at court. So he’d felt there was still plenty of time. She hadn’t seemed that close to death.
His fight with Phil after the funeral had been the lowest point in his life. The truth was, Phil hadn’t called him any name he hadn’t called himself in the years since.
When Greg had finished with the loan application at Pacific Union, he walked back to the parking lot and paid the attendant what amounted to a ransom. But instead of heading for the St. Francis for a good stiff drink as was his custom, Greg drove to Viewcrest, the cemetery where his mother was buried.
He spent more than an hour wandering down long grassy rows in the biting wind before he located his mother’s grave. He stood there, gazing down at the marker. Lydia Smith Bennett, 1930-1989 Beloved Mother. Phil had arranged for that stone. Phil had made all the arrangements.
This was Greg’s first visit since they’d buried her. He shook his head, brushing away tears, overwhelmed by all the things he’d left unsaid. I loved you, Mom. I did. I do. I’m sorry…
Eventually he squatted down, touched his fingers to his lips and pressed them to the marble gravestone. A long moment passed before he stood up again, shoulders bent, head bowed, and silently walked away.
“Has anyone got a tissue?” Mercy wailed, and when no one responded, she threw herself against Goodness, wiping her face on her friend’s soft sleeve.
“Would you kindly stop?”
But Goodness sounded suspiciously tearful. Shirley, too, was having a hard time holding back her emotions. Seeing Greg like this, broken and defeated, was painful. She barely recognized him anymore. She didn’t know when it had happened or how, but she’d started to care about this man. Obviously Goodness and Mercy had also revised their feelings toward him.
“We’ve got to do something to help Greg!”
“We’re trying,” Shirley said.
“But he’s in bad shape.”
“I have a feeling it’s going to get worse,” Shirley whispered, fearing the future.
“Say it isn’t so.” Mercy wailed all the louder.
“His brother’s going to reject the loan, isn’t he?”
Shirley couldn’t imagine Phil making any other decision and said as much.
“Not if I have anything to say about it,” Goodness cried. “I think it’s time I got ready for choir practice again, don’t you?”
“I don’t care if Gabriel sends me back to singing with the heavenly host or even gate-keeping. Phil Bennett is about to get a piece of my mind.”
“Goodness,” Mercy gasped.
“Goodness,” Shirley began. “You—”
“I’m going, too.” Mercy glanced at Shirley.
Shirley could see she had no choice. “Oh, all right, but we can’t all three join the choir.”
“Why not?” Mercy asked, rushing to catch up with Goodness.
Shirley shook her head in wonder, sure they’d be facing the wrath of Gabriel once again. She just hoped the sacrifice they were prepared to make on Greg Bennett’s behalf would turn out to be worth it.
“Phil, I swear you haven’t heard a word I’ve said all evening.”
Phil lowered the evening newspaper and looked at his wife. “What gives you that impression?”
Sandy threw back her head with a frustrated groan and returned to the kitchen.
Reluctantly Phil followed her. He should have known better than to try bluffing his way out of this. After all these years of marriage, there wasn’t much he could hide from Sandy. He was preoccupied, true. It had to do with his brother. His shiftless irresponsible no-good brother who’d once been everyone’s golden boy. Well, not anymore.
“Greg was in the bank this afternoon,” Phil told Sandy in a nonchalant voice, pouring himself a cup of coffee.
He had Sandy’s full attention now. “Did you talk to him?” She knew as well as he did that they hadn’t spoken since their mother’s funeral.
“No-o-o.” He shrugged and tried to look regretful. “Dave Hilaire was the one who dealt with him.”
“Greg’s applying for a loan?”
Phil replied with a somber nod, but he felt like jumping up and clicking his heels.
“I’ve been reading for weeks about the problems the wineries have been experiencing,” Sandy said thoughtfully. “It must be terrible to have some virus wipe out generations of work. From what I read, some vineyards were more badly hurt than others.”
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