Christine Alexander needs to prove herself as a top-notch winemaker, and in Harmony Valley she's got a chance to build something legitimate, quality and lasting. What she doesn't need is part-owner Slade Jennings poking his nose in her cabernet.
Brooding, buttoned-up Slade Jennings won't be making things easy for his new hire. Someone has to worry about the bottom line. Forced into an uneasy partnership, the pair faces two challenges: create a spectacular award-winning vintage within months and figure out if their tenuous friendship can grow into something deeper and lasting.
About the Author
Melinda grew up on an isolated sheep ranch, where mountain lions had been seen and yet she roamed unaccompanied. Being a rather optimistic, clueless of danger, sort she took to playing "what if" games that led her to become an author. She spends days trying to figure out new ways to say "He made her heart pound." That might sound boring, but the challenge keeps her mentall ahead of her 3 kids and college sweetheart husband.
Read an Excerpt
Life was a numbers game.
Count the years, count the money, count the marriages, count the mistakes.
Slade Jennings was thirty-two years old, had millions in the bank, one failed marriage, and one horrendous mistake.
He knew what he looked like walking down the streetsuccess. Wrinkle-free khakis, wrinkle-free button down, Italian designer tie. Rolex. Titanium and onyx pinky ring. Dark-as-midnight hair, expensively cut. Eyes the color of money, always on the lookout for the next deal. Slade had come from humble beginnings and wasn't going back.
Except, he had. Gone back to his roots, that was, damaged though they may be.
That was what you did for friends who were also your business partners. You went with the flow, even if that meant returning to your hometown, to the house you'd grown up in, to the house where both your parents died, the scene of the horrendous mistake.
Harmony Valley's bridge club called the house at 1313 Harrison Street the Death and Divorce House. In Slade's lifetime there hadn't been any divorces. But there had been plenty of deaths. His mother gave in to melanoma in the master bedroom. His father hung himself six years later in the closet of the same room. It was the culmination of everything that was wrong with Slade's lifehe'd lost his career, his bank account, and then his family. That was eight years ago. The house on Harrison represented failure, which was why it was vital Slade present only success to the world.
While in Harmony Valley, Slade was living in the Death and Divorce House. To stay elsewhere seemed like a betrayal. But stay in the master bedroom? No. He slept in the bedroom of his youth.
He'd returned to town earlier that year with Will Jackson and Flynn Harris, his childhood friends and the two programming geniuses behind a successful farming app. Slade was their sidekick and the partnership's money-man, the one who managed the bottom line, watched their backs, and made sure they didn't get screwed in any negotiations.
So, why weren't they back in Silicon Valley leveraging their achievement?
Because Will and Flynn burned out designing their first app. They were all local boys, if not best friends when they were growing up, as close as brothers now. When they showed up to decompress after five years of sharing a cramped apartment with the thinnest walls on the planet, they'd been asked by the town council to start a business to help save their hometown.
An explosion fourteen years ago at the grain mill had wiped out Harmony Valley's main employer. The ripple effect forced those too young to retire to move closer to jobs and all but a handful of businesses to shut down. Located in the northernmost corner of Sonoma County, Harmony Valley was becoming a remote retirement village. The population had dwindled below eighty, with the average age of residents above seventy-five.
Given that Slade preferred Harmony Valley become a ghost town when all the old-timers died, he'd voted against the partnership starting a business here. Then he'd protested their choice of businessa winery. They were three guys who drank beer. What did they know about making wine? Outvoted, he'd still stood by his friends through arguments with blustery octogenarians, a mountain of legal and financial paperwork, and the ups and downs of construction.
Today, the shell of the winery was finally completed. The winemaker they'd hired, Christ ine Alexander, granddaughter of a town-council memberwould the nepotism never end?was due to start work today and provide Slade with her input on the guts of the winery. Juice presses, tanks, barrels, and whatever else she needed to make great wine. Really great wine people would drop a C-note to drink. Because if they were going to make wine, it'd be the best wine around.
Slade checked his Rolex. Christine was late.
He sat on the porch of the old farmhouse they'd converted into an office and tasting room, and loosened the knot of his tie.
Summer was in full swing. The air was hot and dry. Barely a breeze swayed the palm trees lining the hundred-yard newly graveled drive. The sixty-foot-tall eucalyptus trees that marched along the river were silent, as well. Occasionally, a cricket offered complaint.
Something shook the house, a slight tremor that had Slade leaping up.
The horse weathervane on top of the main winery building rocked, spun, then quieted. The ground settled and Slade drew a deep breath. As a native Californian, he was used to small, infrequent tremors. That didn't mean they didn't send his body humming with adrenaline faster than a shot of espresso.
His phone buzzed, announcing a text message from Flynn: Did you feel that?
His reply: Yes. Winery is fine.
A big black SUV turned into the driveway.
He'd thought Christine owned a small, newer-model Audi. At least, that was what she'd driven up in for her job interview last month. He shifted the tie-knot back into place and walked down the circular drive to meet her.
Only it wasn't Christine.
It was his ex-wife, Evangeline, a native New Yorker. Two shadows bobbed in the backseat, his twin ten year-old daughters, Faith and Grace. He was simultaneously overjoyed and overwhelmed. No one had told him they were coming. Not that it mattered. He practically flew down the drive to meet them.
Evangeline toggled down the window and gave him a scornful look. He hadn't seen her since Christmas, but she was as stylish as ever in a bold tiger-print blouse and chunky jewelry. Her black hair was short and blunt cut, framing her strikingly angular face, making her too-white smile seem fanglike. "I thought you'd be at the house. We saw Will in town and he told us you were here."
Slade was used to burying his emotions behind a facade of savvy sophistication. He hid them now, deep in his chest in a tight, burdensome lump.
Months ago, Evangeline had called andamid a rant about how she resented the revised visitation agreementhad told him she would abide by it and let the girls stay with him while she and her new husband, provider of the four-carat monstrosity on her slender finger, took a delayed honeymoon to the South of France.
Evangeline didn't like sharing the girls, which was why when Slade agreed to increase child support, he also brought down the judge's gavel on enforcing his newly expanded parental rights. Evy was always agreeing to drop them off, but never following through. If she was here, husband number three must be something. And that something was spontaneous, because they weren't due to visit for another two weeks.
With effort, Slade shifted into "polite conversation" mode. "Did you feel that earthquake just now? It wasn't very big." When Evy shook her head, he leaned farther in the window to greet the twins. "Hey, girls. Holy "
They looked like miniature, identical Gothic vampires. If his mother wasn't already dead, she'd have risen up and splashed them with holy water.
"Don't judge," Evangeline scolded sharply. "It's a phase. Today Goth. Tomorrow princesses."
He forced himself to smile. "Took me by surprise is all. Did you leave their things at my place?" The Death and Divorce House was dim and filled with bad memories. He slept there, but only because the past wouldn't let him bunk anywhere else. If he'd believed Evy would follow through this time and honor his visitation rights, he would have made other arrangements to stay in town or at the nearest hotel, thirty minutes away.
"Slade, we don't have a key. Not to that house." Derision dripped from every syllable, bringing back too many memories of the hot-tempered, entitled woman he'd divorced.
Aren't whirlwind college romances swell?
But her contempt goaded him into a decision he'd most likely regret laterto have the girls stay at the house with him. "We don't lock the doors here, Evy."
"You know I don't like it when you call me that."
He did. He winked at the girls.
They didn't smile or laugh or give any indication that they appreciated being included in his inside joke. That was probably his punishment for only seeing them twice a year. When they were older, they'd understand why their mother kept them away and why Slade didn't press as hard as he should for visitation.
Slade opened the back door so the twins could get out.
Up close, it was even worse. Black lipstick, black eyeliner, black lace blouses over yellow-and-black-plaid capris. He hoped to heaven the short blond hair with thin black streaks were wigs.
Two silent strangers slid out. A far cry from the plump, happy babies he used to rock to sleep. Or the grinning, sturdy two-year olds that he used to push on swings.
Good thing he'd been hanging out with Flynn and his seven-year-old nephew the past month or he wouldn't have a clue how to deal with them. He tousled Faith's hair. She was the twin with a dimple that rarely disappeared on her cheek, even when she frowned at him and straightened her wig. Grace came to stand next to her. They stared at him in wordless retribution.
Ten. Crap. He'd thought teenage angst started at thirteen.
"You'll be all right, won't you, girls?" Evangeline waited for their nods before she commanded, "Get their things, Slade."
Her attitude was starting to cinch his collar, but it didn't make sense to argue.
Their things included four huge suitcases, three Nordstrom shopping bags, two identical backpacks with angry manga characters, and one stuffed lion the size of a large dog.
Slade dutifully loaded it all into the bed of his new black truck, giving himself and the girls a pep talk. "We're going to have a good time, aren't we?"
No one answered.
Evangeline reeled each girl in with one hand for fierce hugs. "You be good like I told you and you'll be safe." She gave Slade a sharp look that could have cut metal. "I'm trusting you with my babies." She named the date she wanted them back in New York, as if his daughters were on loan.
Since they'd separated eight years ago, he'd wanted to spend more time with the twins than his twice-a-year visits. The new settlement had given him hope. He'd pictured happy vacations to amusement parks and sunny beaches. He'd imagined laughter and enthusiasm and emotional hugs. He'd dreamed of having them for a day, a weekend, a week.
And here was reality: his girls had misplaced fashion limits, stared at him mutely, and there were nearly thirty days looming ahead like a prison sentence.
Day One on the job and Christine Alexander was late.
That didn't mean she expected to show up for work and see a glamorous-looking woman doing the tiptoe run around a black SUV in skyscraper heels, or a pair of identical little Goth girls. Not this far away from civilization. Not outside an anime film. Not at her place of employment.
Christine had thought she was escaping the high-drama, high-fashion, high-ego circus that was Napa wine making.
The queen bee in high heels gunned the SUV around the circular driveway. A relief.
Although the Goth girls were still a caution.
Christine parked her old bucket with its deceased air conditioner next to the big black truck that remained, turned off the ignition, and received a very brutal, vibrating massage as the engine fought and coughed and hiccuped trying to stay alive. It wasn't until it wheezed its last breath that Christine risked getting out.
Her boss, Slade, did a double take. The well-worn car. Christine in her red Keds, faded blue jean shorts, and black Useless Snobbery band T-shirt. Never mind that wine making was a hands-on, messy job. Her new boss didn't seem to understand that.
The little optimistic light inside her that placed such high hopes on this positionfor loyalty, for legitimacy, and a nest egg for her futurefaded.
She tossed her long blond ponytail over a shoulder, wishing she'd at least taken the time to put it in a French braid. The fancier hairstyle made her look more serious and kept her hair off her neck, which was now hot and sweaty. It had to be ninety-five degrees today, if not pushing one hundred.
"Hey," she said to the two girls.
They didn't move or quit staring, which was kind of creepy. Goth mini-mannequins.
"Slade, good to see you again." Christine closed the distance between them and shook her boss's hand.
His handshake was perfectnot bone-crushing hard, not limp. Just the right amount of grip and shake. But then again, Slade was perfectly put together. He could have modeled for a living. He was tall and lean, with a hard chin, sculpted cheekbones, and black hair that was always tamed, always controlled. Seriously, the guy was so perfect, he almost didn't have a personality.
She wouldn't have fought for this job if she was only working for Slade. He was everything she was leaving behindname-brand posturing and excess. It had been Flynn, one of Slade's business partners, who convinced Christine to accept the job. He'd taken one look at her suit and high heels the day of the interview and said, "You look nice, but if we hire you, I don't ever want to see you in a suit again. We're beyond casual around here."
Such was the joy of working for two millionaires who'd made their fortunes in the tech world. Will and Flynn didn't stand on ceremony like those in the wine industry. They shunned hosting black-tie, sequined events. And then there was her third boss Slade.
"I'm sorry I didn't dress for the office." She gestured in the region of his fabulous tie. "I was trying to move the last of my things to town."
"That's all right." His accepting tone contradicted his disapproving expression. "Did you feel the earthquake a few minutes ago?"
"I'm assuming you're not talking about my car's unique way of shutting off." She gave him her best smile-and-laugh-with-me one-two combo, scoring a point when he smiled back, even though the Goth girls blanked her. "I may have felt something coming down Main. I thought it was bad gas knocking." Not hardly. She'd thought her old beater would suffice and had given up her lease on the Audi. She was in penny-pinching mode, living here with her grandmother, saving for a down payment on her own vineyard. She wouldn't have given up the Audi if she'd known her college car was in desperate need of a tune-up or a new engine or a trip to the scrapyard.
"It's a toss-up whether it was your car or the tremor," Slade deadpanned. He turned to the girls. "These are my daughters"
His? Get out of town!
"Grace" Slade gestured from one girl to the other "and Faith."
"So that was your wife leaving?"
"Ex," he said curtly.
Immediately, Christine wished she could take the question back. Slade probably thought she was digging for information to see if he was single. What she really wanted was reassurance that Slade was more interested in the substance of the wine she made than the image he presented to the outside world. The wine industry attracted almost as many grandstanders as Hollywood. She didn't care if Slade wore a parka in this heat, as long as their vision for their wine meshed.
Slade smoothed his tangerine-colored paisley tie. "After our tour, we'll head over to El Rosal for a cool drink. Or some ice cream." This latter part she assumed was an offer for the twins. Little did Slade know Christine liked ice cream almost as much as she liked wine.
He led them into the tasting room, the girls trailing behind Christine like silent wraiths. How their quirkiness must upset the balance in Slade's otherwise balanced life.