Growing up, it was Mallory and Kelly. Kelly and Mallory. Nothing could come between them. That summer before college, bucket list in hand, they greeted every sunrise and chased every sunset. Tattoos—check. Sleeping under the stars—check.
But when Mallory met Sam, everything changed. Older, experienced and everything Mallory never knew she wanted, Sam was her first taste of love—and the one adventure Mallory didn’t want to share with Kelly. But Kelly had her own secrets, too, until the night tragedy struck and their perfect summer—and their friendship—unraveled.
Now, after ten years away, Mallory is home and determined to make amends. No more secrets, no more half-truths. As Kelly slowly lets her guard down, Mallory convinces her to complete their unfinished list of hopes and dreams. But Mallory’s not the only one back in town, and when Sam reappears, Mallory risks making all the same mistakes—and maybe a few new ones—to try to heal that which was broken.
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|Publisher:||Graydon House Books|
|Product dimensions:||5.00(w) x 7.80(h) x 1.20(d)|
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The summer before I left for college, I lost everything. I lost my best friend, I lost my heart, and I lost my grasp on all the plans I had for my future.
I lost who I was.
Some goodbyes were inevitable. Like leaving my parents to move to New York where I would attend Columbia University. That alone would have been difficult enough. Half my heart never left the family vineyard, with all the memories that were made there, all the people I loved. The other half of me was tentatively stepping out into the world on the wobbly legs of a fawn, ready to run.
There were also unexpected goodbyes. A lost love. My first. He walked into my life that summer, seemingly with the sole purpose to make me question everything I believed about life, relationships, and myself. By the time I got on the plane, I'd been shaken, broken down to the core, ready for a fresh start if there ever was one.
Then there was the devastating goodbye. After one too many bad decisions, my best friend — the person I considered a sister — walked away from our ten years of friendship with one final, ultimate blow: the declaration that she didn't know who I was anymore. The implication that she didn't want to. I couldn't blame her. That summer I did things I didn't know I was capable of, and I hurt her. But after everything we'd been through, I was sure there was nothing that could ever break us apart. I was wrong.
But despite the years that have passed and my many heartbreaks our small wine town has witnessed, it calls me back, pulling at my heartstrings. I sense it now — its unique gravity — at eleven minutes before midnight as I take the final right turn onto the dirt road that leads to The Wandering Vineyard.
I snap the radio off in the little four-door rental car and sit up straighter in my seat. With a knee on the steering wheel, I twist the elastic out of my thick hair and shake it out in preparation for the greeting I've looked forward to all day, and every day that's passed since my last visit. Then, so I don't disturb anyone, I switch off my headlights, drowning the car and the expansive property in darkness. The car continues to jostle down the long drive, the moonlight guiding my way, and I wait for the house to come into view. It's been almost ten years since I left Paso Robles and moved to New York but the scents, the sounds, the feeling that washes over me is the same. Home never changes.
That's what I love most about it, but also why I couldn't stay.
I roll down the windows to let in the warm spring night as I drive beneath the arching welcome sign, and past the refurbished barn-turned-tasting room, the paint still as fresh looking as the day I helped roll it on. Though the dozens of acres of land that surround me are shrouded in darkness, I can picture it in my minds' eye. The rolling hills, the trails I've tread a thousand times, the smell of the dry earth, the bitterness of unripened grapes on my tongue. I know the song every tree sings when the wind blows, calling me out into the hills ... farther, farther.
When I reach the top of the hill, the house finally appears — a dark ghost, looming in the distance. It's the house I grew up in, the porch light on like a beacon. Farther up, the outbuildings come into view. The stables. The guest house. I think of him, still.
I swallow back the memories and creep my way up the parking lot, dust and gravel betraying my arrival, and park next to my dad's new pickup. When I turn off the engine, it's deathly silent. So silent I feel the pressure on my eardrums. The kind of silence that doesn't exist in New York City.
I tiptoe down the path to the stables. The barn door clicks as I lift the hatch and pull it open. I leave the lights off. I can walk the path to Midnight's stall with my eyes closed, but enough moonlight shines through the high windows that I don't have to. It's a full moon. A sign, maybe.
"Midnight," I call into the open space. The only sound is the rustle of live animals.
I call again and when her nose pokes into the breezeway, I let loose a laugh, no longer caring about waking anyone. I close the space between us and open my palm to her silky lips.
"Hey, girl," I coo. "I've missed you so much."
Between earning my degree at Columbia, working the random, low-earning jobs to pay for it, and then landing my first position at a respected marketing firm, my visits home have been few and far between. The last time I was back here was two long years ago, and the love of my horse — that fierce, accepting, unwavering kind of love — is what I've missed the most. I rub my fingers over the length of her nose and rest my cheek against hers.
When she grows antsy, I grab Midnight's halter from the wall and lift the stall door latch. With the quick motion of a choreographed routine, I slide the halter over her muzzle and lead her out of the stall. Her dark color blends into the night, aside from her white haunches, which practically glow. Her coat shimmers with every subtle shift of her hooves.
"Want to go for a run, girl?" I ask.
"Not even gonna say hi first, are you?" a rough voice responds.
I start, my hair whipping over my shoulder as I look behind me. The light in the stable office f licks on, and my dad stands in the doorway. He leans against the frame with his hands in the pockets of his jeans, holes in the knees, because all his jeans have holes in the knees. But his jaw is smooth and his plaid button-down is one of the two he saves for holidays. He dressed up for my homecoming.
"Dad," I say, breathless. I run to him and throw my arms around his neck, allow myself to be enveloped in his earthy scent, his subtle strength, and his love.
"You are in big trouble, Mallory Victoria," he says, his voice watery. "You are not allowed to leave your room for the next twenty years. No, make that thirty."
"I missed you, too," I whisper in his ear, grinning.
"Could've fooled me." He gives a gruff laugh and nods toward Midnight.
I shrug, unabashed. Anyone who knows me would expect nothing less.
Dad takes my shoulders and holds me at a distance. He looks me over and shakes his head, tears brimming in his eyes. "How did you get so grown up?" he asks. "You were still a little girl when you left."
"I saw you last Christmas," I laugh.
"Is that what you call handing each other gifts over the salt and pepper shakers at a restaurant I can't even remember the name of ?"
"Sorry, Dad. But any apartment this girl can afford isn't big enough for houseguests. I don't even have a full set of dishes." I laugh. "I appreciated you coming, though. And I love the necklace."
I dig the pendant out from beneath my shirt — an abstract outline of a horse, its mane blowing in the wind of my breath.
Dad rubs his calloused thumb across the white gold surface and his smile saddens.
"Hey, none of that," I say, nudging his shoulder. "Save that for when I leave."
"You just got here and you're already talking about leaving?" He groans and feigns stabbing himself in the heart.
I have a f light booked for a week from now, the day after the planting party I've returned home for. At least that's the excuse I've given my boss and myself. Subconsciously, I rub the dark symbol inside my right wrist. When I catch myself, I drop my hands.
"Dad, don't be dramatic."
"Oh, go on," he says, shooing me toward Midnight.
"Are you sure?" I ask, even as I'm stepping toward her.
I smile, plant a kiss on Dad's cheek, then grab hold of Midnight's mane. I throw my leg over her bare back, send one last glance toward the only man I could ever really depend on, and then with the quick hitch of my heel, Midnight trots out of the stables into the night.
When I wake in the morning, the sun is high in the sky, lighting up my childhood room in a soft orange glow. Just behind my eyelids are memories of the night before — the pounding of Midnight's hooves against the earth, my hair in the wind, the moon chasing after us. The images f lash in my mind like the highlights of a lover's tryst. I tried to find a substitute for this feeling in New York but nothing else has come close — not praise from my boss, not presenting a successful pitch, not a first kiss, not getting lost on an endless beach. The closest I get are these dreams. But when I open my eyes this time, I'm actually here.
Not all of my reasons for coming home are so sweet, though. And if the good memories come back so easily, the bad ones can't be far behind. I groan and pull a pillow over my eyes.
Half an hour later, I finally drag myself out of bed and rummage through my suitcase for running clothes, the only casual attire I own. I catch a glimpse of my old riding boots sitting in the corner of my room where I left them, worn in and dusty. I pause, reminiscing on a time when they were practically part of my body, and then lace up my tennis shoes.
Outside, the weather is cool but with the undercurrent of warmth that seeps up from the dry ground, promising that summer is finally here. I never have gotten used to the penetratingly cold New York winters, and the sun on my skin warms me to the core. There's a hint of moisture in the air, which we only get in southern California when the heavens are smiling down on us. I send a prayer to the sky — the new vines we'll be sowing at the planting party will need a healthy amount of water to acclimate to the new soil.
When I reach the stables, Tiramisu's stall is open and I hear the clanking of a bucket on the horse feeder. I already know who it is. I stop at the entrance and say, "Hey, cowboy."
The bucket clatters to the ground and I cover my ears with my hands, laughing. When Tyler peers around the corner, his eyes light up and his jaw hangs open.
"No way," he says. I laugh as he jogs toward me, wraps his arms around my waist and spins me. "Your dad told me you were coming back and I didn't believe him. But shit, you're actually here."
His mouth is still slack as he looks me over, gauging how much I've changed. I haven't seen him since my last summer here after which, according to Dad, Tyler also went in search of greener pastures. And yet, here we both are again.
"Look at you," he says. "You're, like, a woman." He stumbles on the last word like it's explicit. Tyler and I have always had a sibling-like relationship, especially since neither one of us have any of our own. But we haven't seen each other since I was eighteen and he was twenty-two. I am a woman now.
"Look at you," I counter. He's changed, too. His face isn't as soft as it used to be, having grown into its angles. His cheeks are scruffy with strawberry stubble where it was once as smooth as a freshly polished saddle. He's still got the stocky muscle of a working man, though.
I swipe his baseball cap and run my fingers through his cropped red hair. It's darker. "You've grown up yourself."
"And still no cowboy hat," he says, snatching his cap back from me and pulling it onto his head.
"I'll get you one for your birthday." "You wouldn't dare."
I shrug. "Part of being a woman. I'm more stubborn than ever."
"As if that's possible."
I smack him on the arm playfully and he laughs. Something foreign stirs inside me at the exchange. I clear my throat.
"Want to go for a ride?" he asks. "I was just about to saddle up Rocket."
"Like you have to ask."
A few minutes later, as we ride out between the vines, Tyler says, "Ten years, Mal. Geez."
He draws out the words as he sits atop Rocket, a large American Warmblood who stands two hands above Midnight and me. Rocket's coat is a splotched dark-brown-and-white, like chocolate milk not fully mixed together. He is technically Dad's horse, though my parents rarely ride, trusting Tyler to manage the vineyard trail rides. Rocket's affection for Tyler is obvious and understandable, being the only person who can handle his unruly nature.
Midnight and Rocket saunter side by side through the rows of grapevines that spread as far as the eye can see. Looking out to the east, I see the plot of land that has been prepared for the new vines, the trellises currently standing empty, waiting. Having been gone for so long, I appreciate its growth anew. Dad moved us here twenty-one years ago when the Paso Robles wine country was just up, not so much coming.
"Has it gotten quieter since I was here last?" I ask.
Tyler laughs. "No. You just have a lower tolerance for it." "I couldn't even sleep last night. I swear, I could feel it pressing in on me."
"You went and turned into a city girl on us, didn't you?" I narrow my eyes at him, assaulting him with a long glare.
He laughs. "When was the last time you even rode a horse?"
I hesitate. "Yesterday? Well, how many stables do you think there are in New York City?"
"Fair enough," he says.
Tyler and I point the horses up the trail that leads to the top of the hill overlooking the vineyard. Tyler lets me lead, and I breathe in the fresh air. Midnight rocks side to side beneath me with every step and the sensation is so familiar, I could be a teenager again, full of hope and confusion ... love and a broken heart.
"So your boss finally let you take a vacation?" he asks.
"Something like that," I say.
"What's it actually like?"
I smile. Tyler hasn't changed at all — always a straight-to- the-point kind of guy — and I adore that more than I prob- ably should. People are supposed to change. Life is supposed to march on. But it's been nice to imagine that home has been frozen in time, here waiting for me when I was ready to come back. With Tyler, at least, that seems to have proven true.
"I'm up for promotion," I say. "Which isn't necessarily the best time for a vacation but once I get it, I'll be even busier. I don't know when I'll get another chance. My boss can be pretty demanding — it's just the norm in the marketing in- dustry. She really didn't want to let me come but ... I had to."
Tyler nods but doesn't push. "Assistant marketing manager, your dad said? What exactly does an assistant marketing manager do?" Tyler asks, unabashed by his own ignorance. He has little interest in the corporate world and makes no apologies for it.
"I would be working more directly with clients of the firm and helping oversee the project teams. Coming up with strategies to promote client products and services. Basically, we make sure their messaging is clear, concise, and catchy." When Tyler gives me a blank stare, I add, "You know, product names, slogans, web content, ad content ..."
I trail off when Tyler shows no signs of catching on. A nervous laugh slips my lips. I assumed coming home would be awkward, but it's as if I'm speaking a different language.
"I'm sure you're very good at it," he offers.
I shrug. "I suppose. My boss kind of took me under her wing during my internship there. I'm not entirely sure what she saw in me, but I'm glad she did."
"I know what she saw," Tyler says, a twinkle in his eye. I glance away, uncomfortable with his f lattery.
"Well, I learned my diligence from the best."
I learned from Kelly.
At the thought of my best friend — I refuse to think of our friendship in the past tense — my smile falters.
We climb the final incline, focusing on avoiding the sharp, dry tree limbs overhead. I used to be able to maneuver around every branch that jutted out, thirsty for blood. Now there are too many, the path less trodden.
We reach the top and Tyler brings Rocket to a trot next to me. We lead the horses to the break in the trees, stopping at the edge where we can see the entire property. Straight ahead is the house, on top of the bare hill, the other buildings snuggled around it. The grapevines spray out in every direction like the sun's rays. I used to sit here and memorize the horizon for hours.
"Why did you have to come home?"
Tyler asks the question I've asked myself a thousand times over the last few weeks.
"Why now? Really?"
I take a deep breath, letting it out slowly. Why now, indeed? I'm building a life in New York. I have an amazing job at a top marketing firm. I have an apartment that isn't much, but it's mine. I've been there for a decade, which seems impossible. And yet, it never quite feels like home. There's something here I can't let go of.
Not something. Someone.
I hoped that if I could talk to my best friend, explain why I made the choices I did our last summer together, she might forgive me and I could stop carrying around the guilt for the mistakes I made. I could stop holding onto the past and fully step into my future.
The problem is, she hasn't spoken a word to me since I left.
"When I take this promotion," I finally say, "I want to feel settled. I want to be all in."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Midnight At The Wandering Vineyard"
Copyright © 2019 Jamie Raintree.
Excerpted by permission of Harlequin Enterprises Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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