Greg Bennett had always hated Christmas.
He'd never believed in "goodwill toward men" and all that other sentimental garbage. Christmas in the cityany citywas the epitome of commercialism, and San Francisco was no exception. Here it was, barely December, and department-store windows had been filled with automated elves and tinsel-hung Christmas trees since before Thanksgiving!
Most annoying, in Greg's opinion, was the hustle and bustle of holiday shoppers, all of whom seemed to be unnaturally cheerful. That only made his own mood worse.
He wouldn't be in the city at all if he wasn't desperately in need of a bank loan. Without it, he'd be forced to lay off what remained of his crew by the end of the year. He'd have to close the winery's doors. His vinesand literally decades of workhad been wiped out by fan leaf disease, devastating the future of his vineyard and crippling him financially.
He'd spent the morning visiting one financial institution after another. Like a number of other growers, he'd applied at the small-town banks in the Napa Valley and been unsuccessful. His wasn't the only vineyard destroyed by the diseasealthough, for reasons no one really understood, certain vineyards had been spared the blight. For a while there'd been talk of low-interest loans from the federal government, but they hadn't materialized. Apparently the ruin hadn't been thorough enough to warrant financial assistance. For Greg that news definitely fell into the category of cold comfort.
It left him in a dilemma. No loanno replanted vines. Without the vines there would be no grapes, without the grapes, no wine, and without the winery, no Gregory Bennett.
What he needed after a morning such as this, he decided, was a good stiff drink and the company of a charming female companion, someone who could help him forget his current troubles. He walked into the St. Francis, the elegant San Francisco hotel, and found himself facing a twenty-foot Christmas tree decorated with huge gold balls and plush red velvet bows. Disgusted, he looked away and hurried toward the bar.
The bartender seemed to sense his urgency. "What can I get you?" he asked promptly. He wore a name tag that identified him as Don.
Greg sat down on a stool. "Get me a martini," he said. If it hadn't been so early in the day, he would have asked for a double, but it was barely noon and he still had to drive home. He didn't feel any compelling reason to return. The house, along with everything else in his life, was empty. Oh, the furniture was all thereTess hadn't taken thatbut he was alone, more alone than he could ever remember being.
Tess, his third and greediest wife, had left him six months earlier. The attorneys were fighting out the details of their divorce, and at three hundred dollars an hour, neither lawyer had much incentive to rush into court.
Nevertheless, Tess was gone. He silently toasted eliminating her from his life and vowed not to make the mistake of marrying again. Three wives was surely sufficient evidence that he wasn't the stay-married kind.
Yet he missed Tess, he mused with some regretand surprise. Well, maybe not Tess exactly, but a warm body in his bed. By his side. Even at the time, he'd known it was foolish to marry her. He certainly should have known, after the messy end of his second marriage. His first had lasted ten years, and he'd split with Jacquie over
Hell if he could remember. Something stupid. It'd always been something stupid.
"You out shopping?" Don the bartender asked as he delivered a bowl of peanuts.
Greg snorted. "Not on your life."
The younger man smiled knowingly. "Ah, you're one of those."
"You mean someone who's got common sense. What is it with people and Christmas? Normal, sane human beings become sentimental idiots." A year ago, when he and Tess had been married less than eighteen months, she'd made it clear she expected diamonds for Christmas. Lots of them. She'd wanted him to make her the envy of her friends. That was what he got for marrying a woman nineteen years his junior. A pretty blonde with a figure that could stop traffic. Next time around he'd simply move the woman into his house and send her packing when he grew bored with her. No more marriagesnot for him. He didn't need any more legal entanglements.
Just then a blond beauty entered the bar, and Greg did a double take. For half a heartbeat, he thought it was Tess. Thankfully he was wrong. Blond, beautiful and probably a bitch. The last part didn't bother him, thoughespecially now, when he could use a little distraction. He'd be sixty-one his next birthday, but he was trim and fit, and still had all his hairgone mostly gray, what people called "distinguished." In fact, he could easily pass for ten years younger. His good looks had taken him a long way in this world, and he'd worked hard to maintain a youthful appearance.
"Welcome," he greeted her, swerving around on his stool to give her his full attention.
Her answering smile told him she wasn't averse to his company. Yes, she might well provide a distraction. If everything worked out, he might stay in town overnight. Considering the morning he'd had, he deserved a little comfort. He wasn't interested in anything seriousjust a light flirtation to take his mind off his troubles, a dalliance to momentarily distract him.
"Are you meeting someone?" Greg asked.
"Not really," she said, her voice sultry and deep.
Greg noted the packages. "Been shopping, I see."
She nodded, and when the bartender walked over to her table, Greg said, "Put it on my tab."
"Thanks," she said in that same sultry voice. He was even more impressed when she asked for a glass of Bennett Wine. A pinot noir.
He slipped off the stool and approached her table. "I'm Greg."
He liked her name; it suited her. "Do you mind if I join you?"
"Go ahead. Why not?"
The day was already looking brighter. He pulled out a chair and sat down. They made small talk for a few minutes, exchanged pleasantries. He didn't mention his last name because he didn't want her to make the connection and have their conversation weighed down by the problems at Bennett Wines. However, it soon became clear that she was knowledgeable about wineand very flattering about his 1996 pinot noir. Tess had been an idiot on the subject, despite being married to the owner of a winery. She didn't know the difference between chablis and chardonnay. And she never did understand why he couldn't call his own sparkling wine champagne, no matter how many times he told her the name could only be used for sparkling wines from the Champagne region of France.
After another glass of wine for her and a second martini for him, Greg suggested lunch. Cherry hesitated and gazed down at her hands. "Sorry, but I've got a nail appointment."
"You could cancel it," Greg suggested, trying to hint that they could find more entertaining ways to occupy themselves. He didn't want her to think he was being pushy. Later, after lunch, he'd surprise her and announce who he really was. He was pleasedno, delightedby her interest in him, particularly because she didn't know he was the man responsible for the wine she'd described as "exquisite." He grinned; wait till he told her. Cherry's interest proved what he'd been telling himself ever since Tess had walked out on him. He was still young, still vital, still sexy.
That was when it happened.
The look that crossed Cherry's face conveyed her thoughts as clearly as if she'd said them aloud. She wasn't interested. Oh, sure, he was good for a few drinks, especially since he was buying. Good for an hour of conversation. But that was all.
"I really do have to go," Cherry said as she reached for her shopping bags. "My nails are a mess. Thanks for the, uh, company and the wine, though."
"Don't mention it," Greg muttered, watching her leave. He was still reeling from the blow to his pride.
Soon afterward, he left, too. He'd never been one to take rejection well, mainly because he'd had so little experience of it.
After two martinis he knew he wasn't in any condition to drive. So he left his car in the lot and started to walk. With no destination in mind, he wandered down the crowded street, trying to keep his distance from all those happy little shoppers. His stomach growled and his head hurt, but not nearly as much as his ego. Every time he thought about the look on Cherry's face, he cringed. Okay, okay, she'd been too young. At a guess he'd say she was no more than thirty.
However, Greg knew a dozen women her age who would leap at the opportunity to spend a day and a night with him. He was suave, sophisticated and rich. Not as rich as he'd once beenwould be again, as soon as he got this latest mess straightened out. If he got it straightened out. The truth was, he stood on the brink of losing everything.
Desperate to escape his dark thoughts, he began to walk at a brisker pace. He made an effort not to think, not to acknowledge his fears and worries, concentrating, instead, on the movement of his feet, the rhythm of his breath. He turned corner after corner and eventually found himself on a side street dominated by an imposing brick church.
He paused in front of it. A church. Now that was a laugh. He remembered how his mother had dragged him and his brother, Phil, to service every Sunday. He'd even attended services while he was in college. But he hadn't darkened the door of a church since
She'd been his sweetheart, his lover, during collegeuntil he'd broken it off. No, abandoned her. That was a more honest description of what he'd done. The years had numbed his guilt, and he rarely thought of her anymore. Funny how a relationship that had ended more than thirty-five years ago could suddenly rise up to haunt him. He'd been a senior the last time he'd seen Catherine. They'd been madly in love. Then she'd told him she was pregnant and Greg had panicked. About to graduate, about to start his life, he'd done what had seemed sensible at the time; he'd fled.
Unable to face her, he'd written Catherine a letter and told her he was leaving. She should do whatever she wanted about the baby. It'd been cowardly of him, but he was just a kid back then; he'd long since stopped berating himself over it. He'd never heard from her again. He didn't know what she'd done about the baby. Didn't want to know. Abortions hadn't been legal at the time, but there were ways of getting rid of an unwanted pregnancy even then. His mother hadn't ever learned why his relationship with Catherine had ended, but Phil knew. That was the beginning of the estrangement between Greg and his brother.
Almost without realizing it, Greg began to move up the church steps. He blamed it on the throng of shoppers crowding in around him. All he wanted was a few moments of peace and quiet. A chance to think.
He hesitated on the top step. He didn't belong in a church, not the way he'd lived. And yet
His life was empty and he was old enough to recognize that. But at sixty, it was a bit late. For most of his adult life, he'd followed the path of least resistance, put his own interests above those of other people. He'd believed that was the basis of prosperity, of success. Deserting Catherine was where it had started.
She'd been the first of his regrets. Matthias was the second. And then his mother.
Matthias Jamison was his father's cousin and an employee at the winery. Greg's parents had divorced when he was in high school, and he and Phil had spent summers with their father at the vineyard. Although the younger of the two, Greg was the one who'd been drawn to the family business. He'd spent hour after hour there, learning everything he could about wine and wine making.
Ten years his senior, Matthias had taken Greg under his wing. What John Bennett didn't teach Greg about wine making, Matthias did. His father had also insisted Greg get a business degree, and he'd been right. Several years later, when he died, Greg bought out Phil's half to become sole owner and worked with Matthias operating the winery.
The wine had always been good. What the business needed was an aggressive advertising campaign. People couldn't order the Bennett label if they'd never heard of it. The difficulty with Greg's ideas was the huge financial investment they demanded. Commissioning sophisticated full-page ads and placing them in upscale food magazines, attending wine expositions throughout the worldit had all cost money. He'd taken a gamble, which was just starting to pay off when Matthias came to him, needing a loan.
Mary, Matthias's wife of many years, had developed a rare form of blood cancer. The experimental drug that might save her life wasn't covered by their health insurance. The cost of the medication was threatening to bankrupt Matthias; his savings were gone and no bank would lend him money. He'd asked Greg for help. After everything the older man had done for him and for his family, Greg knew he owed Matthias that and more.
The decision had been agonizing. Bennett Wines was just beginning to gain recognition; sales had doubled and tripled.
But Greg's plans were bigger than that. He'd wanted to help Matthias, but there was no guarantee the treatment would be effective. So he'd turned Matthias down. Mary had died a few months later, when conventional treatments failed, and a bitter Matthias had left Bennett Wines and moved to Washington state.
Generally Greg didn't encourage friendships. He tended to believe that friends took advantage of you, that they resented your success. It was every man for himself, in Greg's view. Still, Matthias had been the best friend he'd ever had. Because of what happened, the two men hadn't spoken in fifteen years.
Greg could have used Matthias's expertise in dealing with the blight that had struck his vines, but he was too proud to give him the opportunity to slam the door in his face. To refuse him the way he'd refused Matthias all those years ago.
No, Greg definitely wasn't church material. Whatever had possessed him to think he should go into this place, seek solace here, he couldn't fathom.
He was about to turn away when he noticed that the church doors were wide open. Had they been open all this time? He supposed they must have been. It was almost as if he was being invited inside
. He shook his head, wondering where that ridiculous thought had come from. Nevertheless, he slowly walked in.
The interior was dim and his eyes took a moment to adjust. He saw that the sanctuary was huge, with two rows of pews facing a wide altar. Even the church was decorated for the holidays. Pots of red and white poinsettias were arranged on the altar, and a row of gaily decorated Christmas trees stood behind it. A large cross hung suspended from the ceiling.
An organ sat off to one side, along with a sectioned space for the choir. Greg hadn't stopped to notice which denomination this church was. Nor did he care.
Although his mother had been an ardent churchgoer, Greg had hated it, found it meaningless. But Phil seemed to eat this religious stuff up, just like their mother had.
"Okay," Greg said aloud. None of this whispering business for him. "The door was open. I came inside. You want me to tell you I made a mess of my life? Fine, I screwed up. I could've done better. Is that what you were waiting to hear? Is that what you wanted me to say? I said it. Are you happy now?"
His words reverberated, causing him to retreat a step.
And as he did, his life suddenly overwhelmed him. His failures, his shortcomings, his mistakes came roaring at him like an avalanche, jerking him off his feet. He seemed to tumble backward through the years. The force of it was too much and he slumped into a pew, the weight of his past impossible to bear. He leaned forward and buried his face in his hands.
"Can you forgive me, Mama?" he whispered brokenly. "Is there any way I can make up for what I didnot being there for you? When you needed me
He deserved every rotten thing that was happening to him. If he couldn't get a loan, if he lost the winery, it would be what he deserved. All of it.