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A Taste Of Chardonnay
The Napa Wine Heiresses
By Heather Heyford
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2014 Heather Heyford
All rights reserved.
Friday, June 13
"Are you my Realtor?"
Chardonnay St. Pierre tried to hide her wariness as she approached the man who'd just stepped out of his retro pickup truck. This wasn't the best section of Napa city.
Their vehicles sat skewed at odd angles in the lot of the concrete building with the AVAILABLE banner sagging along one side. Around the back, gorse and thistles grew waist-high through the cracks in the pavement.
A startlingly white grin spread below the man's aviators.
"Realtor? You waiting for one?"
For the past half hour. "He's late." Char went up on her tiptoes, craning her neck to peer down the street for the tenth time, but the avenue was still empty. She tsked under her breath. She should've taken time after her run to change out of her skimpy running shorts, she thought, reaching discreetly around to give the hems a yank down over her butt. And her Mercedes looked more than a little conspicuous in this neighborhood.
Where was he? She pulled her cell out of her bag to call the Realtor back. But something about the imposing stranger was distracting her, demanding another look. "Have we met?" She squinted, lowering her own shades an inch.
He turned sideways without answering and examined the nondescript building, and when he did, his profile gave him dead away.
Oh my god. Char's breath caught, but he didn't notice. His whole focus was on the real estate. She'd just seen that face smiling out from the People magazine at the market over on Solano when she'd picked up some last-minute items for tonight's party.
"What have you got planned for the place?" he asked, totally unselfconsciously.
Then she recovered. To the rest of the world, he was Hollywood's latest It Man. But to Char, he was just another actor. Who happened to have a really great dentist.
"I could ask you the same thing."
"I asked first."
Though she wasn't at all fond of actors, her shoulders relaxed a little. Obviously, she wasn't going to get raped out here in broad daylight by the star of First Responder. It was still in theaters, for heaven's sake. He couldn't afford the press.
Still. This building was perfect. And it'd been sitting here empty for the past three years. Just her luck that another party would be interested, right when Char was finally in a position to inquire about it. To Char's relief, a compact car with a real estate logo plastered from headlights to tailpipe pulled up and a guy in his early thirties bounded out with an abundance of nervous energy.
"This business is insane," he said by way of introduction. "Dude calls me from a drive-by and wants me to show it to him, like, now, right? So I drop everything, even though I'm swamped with this new development all the way over on Industrial Drive. And then he doesn't show up till quarter of—"
He caught himself, pasted on a proper smile, and extended his hand toward It Man.
"Bill Diamond. And you're Mister ...?"
"McBride." The actor shook his hand, then turned and sauntered back to the building with his hands on his hips and his eyes scrutinizing its roofline.
"Ryder McBride?" asked Diamond. "The Ryder McBride? Oh!" A smile overspread his face. "Cool! Very cool. Nice to meet you, man." He nodded once for emphasis.
Char stepped up, removing her sunglasses and slipping them over the deep V of her racer-back tee.
"Hi." She thrust out her arm. "I'm—"
The Realtor's eyes grew even wider, as his hand reached for hers.
"I know who you are ... Chardonnay St. Pierre, right?"
He was still holding on when Char's phone vibrated in her other palm. One glance at the screen and she sighed.
But Diamond didn't let go.
"I've got to take this," she repeated, pronouncing each syllable slow and clear. She gave a little tug, and he came to, his fingers relaxing. "It's my little sister."
She ducked her chin and pressed answer.
"Where are you?" Meri's voice sounded tense.
"You've got to come meet Savvy and me. Papa's in jail."
Bill Diamond was still gaping when Char dropped her phone into her shoulder bag.
"I'm so sorry. Something important's come up and I have to run."
Like a guy who'd come to expect disappointment at every turn, his face fell. "Oh."
Char felt a stab of empathy.
"Did you want to reschedule?" His brows shot up hopefully.
It was a given. But right now concern for her family eclipsed everything else. "I'll have to call you."
As she turned to go, Ryder spoke up.
"I'm staying. Mind showing me around?"
Char stopped in her tracks halfway to her car and glared back at him. She thought he'd barely noticed her. But she'd swear his broad grin was designed purely to tease.
"Excuse me? This is my Realtor."
"Ah, actually ..." Bill cleared his throat, looked at the ground, and then back up at her. "I work for the seller."
"But I'm the one who called you to meet me here," she insisted.
He looked from Char to Ryder and back as he juggled his options, then shrugged. "But you're leaving."
Char's thoughts raced. She hated to leave those two here together, to cook up some deal to steal the building out from under her, but she had no choice. "Fine. Bill, I'll be in touch," she called, climbing into her car, then pulling out of the lot a little too fast.
She loved Papa. Truly, she did. But at times like these, she'd give anything for an ordinary, run-of-the-mill dad, in place of the notorious Xavier St. Pierre.CHAPTER 2
The St. Pierre sisters tumbled into the Napa County jail, stopping short at the transparent barrier in front of the reception desk. Char vaguely recalled the floor plan from her last visit. From a holding cell in the rear, they could hear Papa bellowing in his unmistakable Franglais.
"I am American citizen! I have gun license! Wait until my daughter gets here. She is lawyer! I will sue your—"
Papa had always had a flair for the dramatic.
Following an interminable wait during which the incessant click of her older sister's pacing echoed off the tile walls, they were let into a processing area and a young officer holding a clipboard came out to meet them.
"Which one of you is"—he raised the clipboard to eye level and squinted—"Sauvignon?" he said with the audible equivalent of an eye roll.
This guy must be new to the force. The St. Pierres weren't accustomed to going many places in the valley without being recognized.
Savvy stepped forward. "I am."
Thank heavens Savvy was an attorney. Well, almost. She'd recently graduated law school but had yet to take the bar.
"And these are my sisters, Chardonnay and Merlot."
The cop stared.
Was it their fault Papa had named his daughters for grape varietals?
He started to smile, furrowed his brow, and then hitched up his pants with his free hand.
With a half chuckle, he said, "Cheese-oh-man. You can't make this stuff up. Wait till I tell the folks back in Ohio."
"What are the charges, officer?" demanded Savvy—as usual, the designated spokesman. The three women were equally anxious to get past this latest ordeal.
"Well now, let's see here." The cop ticked off the items on his list with maddening slowness. "Discharging a firearm within one hundred yards of a residence. Resisting arrest. Threatening an endangered species was dropped. He's lucky. That would've meant federal charges."
He let the clipboard drop to his side and rocked back on his heels, analyzing the women one by one. His holier-than-thou gaze held a touch of salaciousness. Despite her impatience, Char couldn't help but imagine how they appeared from his perspective.
There was Savvy, whose earlobes sparkled with the full carat diamond studs the girls had received for their sixteenth birthdays. As usual, she wore her auburn hair scraped back into a low, loose knot to show them off. She was dressed tastefully in black from head to toe, as if she'd had a premonition when she got up this morning that she'd be downtown at the police station later that afternoon.
Meri's rich mahogany locks had some new lavender streaks that matched both her T-shirt and sky-high suede wedges. The sound of gunfire must have torn her away from her studio in a state of panic. She hadn't changed out of her paint-flecked shirt.
Last, the cop's gaze scraped over Char's racer back and short shorts, coming to rest on her bare legs. Why did she suddenly feel naked? Dirty?
"Sarge says this isn't the first time your old man's been caught shooting at poachers in his koi pond."
Savvy ignored that comment in the interest of expediency. The policeman disappeared, and after another delay, returned, leading their father. Papa was looking disheveled but still chic in his Italian loafers.
"You can go now, Mr. St. Pierre, until your court date. Meantime, no more shooting at bald eagles. They've recently been taken off the endangered list in California, but you'll find some people around here are fond of them."
Amid a fresh tirade of muttered curses, Char took Papa's elbow, Meri guarded his other flank, and Savvy went ahead.
Char scanned the parking lot.
"Clear," she said, and the four stepped out into the bright sunshine, making a beeline for Char's Mercedes.
But they'd only gone a dozen steps when a guy wielding a long-lensed camera appeared from out of nowhere.
"Xavier! Over here!" he yelled.
"Dégage! Get out of here!" Papa lashed out.
"Char! Meri!" the stranger cried out. "What'd he do this time?"
The women averted their eyes and picked up the pace.
"Papa and I will ride with Char," called Savvy to Meri, just before they ducked into the car, taking refuge behind tinted windows.
"Damn police scanners," said Savvy as Char pulled out of the lot. "God's gift to the paparazzi."
Fifteen minutes later, Char pulled into the long white gravel drive of Domaine St. Pierre, just in time for everyone to dress for Papa's big party. It was the first fete of the summer, and Char had been waiting for this particular summer for five long years. Now it was here. Tonight was the night she would give her hometown a taste of a brand-new Chardonnay.CHAPTER 3
"Do I seriously have to go to this thing?" Ryder had better things to do than spend his Friday night with a bunch of ritzy people he didn't even know and would probably never meet again. He'd just got off the plane from LAX yesterday to find his mom's gutters needed cleaning and the lawn mowing, and he was anxious to get started on it. And then there was the favor he'd been asked to do by the Firefighters' Relief Fund. But going to the right parties was part of promoting his acting career and arranging the invitations was Amy's job. And he had to admit, one she was damn good at.
"Are you kidding me?" Amy asked, incredulous. "Look, Ryder, I busted my butt finagling this invite. An actor—even a lucky one like you—has to network. You might be a rising star, but a ticket to one of the St. Pierre winery parties is envied up and down the whole north coast. You might meet anyone there, producers to politicians. Of course, they always blend a few mere mortals into the mix. But you have to be on your toes. Tomorrow you could read that the stranger you chatted up during cocktails was a Pulitzer Prize winner, a federal judge, or some rapper on the brink of gold. So hell yes, you have to go. No amount of my hard work will have an effect unless you do your part."
With a sigh, Ryder let himself out of the limo while his driver held the door for Amy, his publicist.
Grimacing as he ran a finger along the inside of his stiff collar, he tipped his head back to take in the sprawling Palladian mansion, surrounded by the manicured gardens of Domaine St. Pierre. A tower of water tumbled down onto itself from a fountain surrounded by an island of flowers that formed a traffic circle in the middle of the driveway.
The uniformed driver got back in the car, and impulsively Ryder turned back and rapped on the tinted glass. When the window slid noiselessly down, he propped a forearm on its edge in a careless stance.
"Thanks for the lift. Stay close in case I decide to bail early."
"Bail early? Hell, if I had the chance to step foot inside St. Pierre's palace, they'd have to pry me out. They say it's all of twenty thousand square feet. Besides that, ol' Xavier knows how to grow 'em. And I don't mean grapes."
"Yeah? I don't know. Any girls who live like this must be pretty stuck on themselves." He lowered his voice even more so his publicist wouldn't hear him over the gurgling fountain and smiled wryly. "The most I'm hoping to get out of this extravaganza is a decent meal." He patted his flat abs. "Amy claims they put out quite a spread."
"Snag me some dessert if you get the chance. I'm partial to cheesecake." The driver grinned, the window slid up again, and Ryder smacked the side of the car as it glided away, forming a slow-moving shadow across the gravel in the glow of the Napa Valley sunset.
Amy waited impatiently, wobbling on sky-high heels. Taking her arm as they navigated the path to the mansion, he tried to recall the briefing she'd given him earlier.
A rising star.
Since that evening when Amy had slipped him her business card as he'd knelt praying in little Saint Joan of Arc, Ryder's life had changed completely. A picture of the interior of the little adobe church flashed through his mind. He could still smell the thick, acrid odor of incense.
It was right after the third annual memorial mass for his dad. Had that been only three years ago? Six in all, since the fire that took his dad's life? It felt like another lifetime.
Mom and the twins had already lit their votives, uttered their closing prayers, and gone, but Ryder couldn't drag himself away. Back then, he had too many problems.
He'd recited the rosary, passing the wooden beads rubbed smooth by his dad's fingers through his own. He d said the Lord's Prayer. And still he bowed his head, eyes screwed shut, hands now clenched around the beads. Silently pouring out his heart, first to his deceased earthly father and then to his heavenly one. Ryder tried not to think about those days. Why torture himself? But sometimes the memory was too strong....
His head swam with the burden of responsibility. For his mother, trying to make her secretary s salary stretch across mortgage payment, groceries, and utility bills. His brothers, with their bottomless twin appetites for cereal and hamburgers and chips and milk by the gallon. And little Bridget. There were probably lots of things she needed. Girly things, like dresses and shoes and other things that he couldn't even fathom.
He had to do something. But what? He already put in thirty hours a week tending bar. Though that usually made him late to his morning classes, it covered the rent on his dive apartment, and he ate for free.
He could quit college, move home, and tend bar full time. Finishing school would improve his income in the long run, but he was only a junior. His family needed help now.
Then, in the hushed stillness came the sound of high heels on stone. The slow, methodical clicking grew louder, reverberating around the stark adobe walls until, head still downcast, he opened one eye and his sight landed on a well-heeled, feminine foot.
A low voice broke the silence.
"I've been waiting for you in the vestibule, but I can't stay any longer. I have a flight to catch.
"Take your time here. But when you 're finished ... tonight, tomorrow, one day soon ... I want to talk to you."
Only then did his eyes travel up to her face, but too late—the stranger had already turned away, the click of her shoes receding until the heavy wooden door whooshed closed and he was left truly alone with the smell of frankincense and the weight of his worries.
He looked down at her card. "Amy Smart. Gould Entertainment. Los Angeles, California."
Amy. But not the savvy Hollywood-agent Amy he'd come to know. This was off-duty Amy. The wine-country-tourist-who-had-a-thing-for-old-churches Amy.
Ryder had barely begun flexing his acting chops when a big studio looking for fresh blood had signed him over all the Daniels, Roberts, and Zacs for the lead in a film about firefighters.
Excerpted from A Taste Of Chardonnay by Heather Heyford. Copyright © 2014 Heather Heyford. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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