Winter has come to the Montgomery Estate Vineyard in Atoka, Virginia. Lucie Montgomery and winemaker Quinn Santori have decided to make champagne, a first for the vineyard.
But then Gino Tomassi, Quinn’s uncle, turns up on their doorstep one afternoon, demanding help in solving the mystery of what happened to Zara Tomassi, the first wife of his grandfather, who died in a San Francisco hotel in 1923 under suspicious circumstances. And it seems there’s no coincidence that her death came the day after President Warren Harding passed away in that same hotel. Gino needs answers before his blackmailer takes him for all he’s worth—or exposes an explosive family secret.
Lucie searches for what happened almost a hundred years ago as she delves into Prohibition-era Washington, D.C.—a town of bootlegging and duplicity, jazz clubs and speakeasies. But then the investigation turns deadly, threatening Lucie, her relationship with Quinn, and the vineyard, as they realize someone is still out there nearly a century later who will go to any lengths to keep the truth about Zara’s death a buried secret.
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The Champagne Conspiracy
A Wine Country Mystery
By Ellen Crosby
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2016 Ellen Crosby
All rights reserved.
It all started with the dress.
I lifted it out of the old steamer trunk and it took my breath away. A gossamer concoction of sea green chiffon, hundreds of copper, silver, and pale green glass beads in patterns like a stained-glass creation from Tiffany, with a sexy zigzag hem of silver fringe that glittered, even by the light of the yellowed bulb that barely lit this dim corner of the attic. I had never seen it — you don't forget a dazzling couture number like this — but it had been beautifully and lovingly preserved, as though one of my long-dead relatives expected to pluck it out of its hiding place and shimmy off to a madcap night of too much dancing and drinking and making out with some guy in the backseat of his roadster.
When I found it, I had been in one of my periodic bouts of overzealous cleaning, which usually happened when the stress piled up and I needed to do something to feel I could restore order and control to some part of my life. Somehow, sorting through boxes and trunks of the discarded detritus that had belonged to generations of ancestors usually did the trick.
Plus — and here is the more mundane reason — there was the coat drive in the middle of January. Francesca Merchant, who ran the day-today operations of my vineyard's tasting room and managed all our events, had shown up at work a few days earlier and announced that Veronica House, the local homeless shelter and food pantry, was collecting winter coats. Any jacket or coat donated in good condition would be given to the guests who came to the center, especially the ones who insisted on sleeping outside in spite of the dangerous temperatures in this record-shattering arctic cold winter.
Donations of men's coats were the most urgently needed, since the majority of people who used Veronica House's services were homeless men. So I scoured the attic, searching for whatever had been stored there and forgotten by family members. I also wrote Frankie a big check.
When I gave it to her, I told her about the dress I'd found during my attic foraging. That afternoon the two of us were sitting on one of the big leather sofas by the fireplace in the main room in the villa, the rambling ivy-covered building where we poured and sold wine and hosted our indoor events. Frankie had just placed another log on the fire and we both had our hands cupped around steaming mugs of coffee to keep warm on a day when the highest temperature would still be only a single-digit number.
"You've got to show it to me," she'd said, her eyes lighting up like a child at Christmas. "It sounds amazing. A real flapper dress. I bet it's drop-dead gorgeous.
"It is. I've never seen anything like it. It must have cost someone an absolute fortune."
"Let's go see it," she said. "I can't wait another minute. Does it fit you?"
"I have no idea." I set my cup on the heavy wooden coffee table.
"You mean you didn't try it on?" She grabbed my hand and pulled me up. "Come on, you have to. And you're giving me a great idea."
We took my Jeep over to the house. By then I'd brought the dress downstairs and hung it on the back of the door to my closet like a guilty secret, along with a shimmery silver satin slip that was obviously meant to be worn underneath, since the dress was completely sheer. Whoever the owner had been had also owned the matching beaded headband. All that was missing was a long roped strand of pearls and a little silver flask filled with illegal hooch, since the dress had to be straight out of the Prohibition era.
"It's perfect for you," Frankie said the moment she laid eyes on it. "With your dark hair and fair coloring, you'll look stunning in it."
I was sitting on the old wedding ring quilt in the middle of my bed, watching her run a hand over the elaborate beading like a professional appraiser assessing its value, her head cocked as if trying to discern its provenance.
"I don't think so, Frankie," I said. "Look at that slip. It's satin and it's as fitted as a glove. No room to wiggle around in. It's for someone who is really slim."
Frankie spun around, hands on her hips, and gave me an admonishing Idare-you look. "Like you."
I shook my head. "It's not a dress to wear anymore; it's something to look at, like a work of art —"
But she had already taken the dress off its hanger and was holding the short silver slip with its spaghetti straps up against me. "Size looks just about perfect, if you ask me."
"I don't think —"
"I'll leave the room, so you can try it on."
I glared at her. "My bra is going to show under those itty-bitty slip straps. I'm wearing a red racer-back bra. It'll look terrible with the green chiffon."
"Enough with the lame excuses. So take off your bra. Come on, it was the Roaring Twenties. Women parked their corsets in someone's bedroom when they went to parties, so they could be ... available." She gave me a roguish look. "Who needs underwear?"
"I ... uh ..."
"Come on," she said again. "What are you scared of?"
"Nothing." Just unnerved at how the dress seemed to have bewitched us both. "All right, give me a minute."
She left and I got undressed. A few minutes later I said, "Okay. Just don't come too near me. She must have smoked like a chimney. Now that I'm wearing it, the fabric reeks of stale cigarettes."
The door opened and Frankie walked in, her hands flying to her mouth, which was open in a big round O.
Finally she said, "You perfect little jazz baby, you. Lucie, you look fabulous. I swear, that dress was made for you. Wait until Quinn —"
I held up my hand. "Hold it right there. What did you have in mind? Wear it the next time we're bottling wine? Or maybe out in the vineyard spraying for powdery mildew?"
She wagged a finger at me. "No, no, no ... I'll tell you when you're going to wear it. At our Valentine's Day party next month. We'll make it a Roaring Twenties dinner dance. Girls come dressed like flappers with rouged knees and beaded headbands and guys with pomaded hair and gangster suits with wide ties or knickerbockers and two-toned shoes."
"What Valentine's Day —"
She wasn't listening. "And because I know you won't turn me down, because you have a heart of gold that's as big as all outdoors, we'll make it a fund-raiser for Veronica House. We'll do the villa up like a party out of The Great Gatsby, call it our 'Anything Goes' evening." Her eyes had a dreamy, faraway look and I knew she had already mentally planned the entire evening, right down to the gin rickeys we'd drink and the Charleston we'd dance to. "It'll be such fun, something to break up the winter doldrums. Everyone's going to want to come."
"It's a good idea, Frankie," I said, "but I'm not wearing this dress. It's probably been in that trunk in the attic for nearly a century and, like I said, it smells like it."
She came out of her reverie and snapped her fingers, a quick syncopated beat like jazz. "Not a problem. My tailor knows someone who specializes in cleaning vintage clothing. Leave it with me."
"It's too low-cut."
"It is not. You always wear jeans and T-shirts or those long, flowing dresses that cover up everything. About time you showed off what a great figure you've got."
"It's so short."
"You can see my foot."
As well as she knew me, it was the one subject I couldn't talk about without betraying how self-conscious I still felt about my twisted, deformed left foot, the one remaining injury I still dealt with after a car accident eight years ago.
Frankie was silent for a long moment, and when she spoke, her voice was gentle. "And what of it, Lucie? It's part of who you are. Let me tell you, in that dress the last thing anyone's going to be looking at is your foot. You need to stop being so self-conscious. No one else gives it a second thought."
"I don't know —"
"Wear it," she said. "I mean it. We'll keep it a secret from everyone, and when you walk into the room, you'll wow 'em all." She pressed her hands together as if she were praying and threw me a pleading look. "You need to move on. Do it in this dress. And, for the record, you've got great legs."
Once upon a time, I'd been a runner. Cross-country in high school and college. I'd been good.
I gave her a lopsided smile. "Well, at least one great leg."
She burst out laughing, and just like that I knew I was going to wear the dress at our Valentine's Day Roaring Twenties Great Gatsby "Anything Goes" Veronica House dinner dance, like Cinderella going to the ball.
But I did draw the line at glass slippers.
* * *
THAT EVENING, I ASKED my brother, Eli, who was older by two years, if he knew whom the dress had belonged to. We had just put Hope, my sweet niece and his three-and-a-half-year-old daughter, to bed and I had asked him to come into my bedroom because I wanted to show him something.
I took it out of the closet and held it up. "Any ideas?"
Eli gave me one of those looks men give women when they think you're asking a trick question and they need to get the answer right. Then he stared at the dress, studying the sheer sea green fabric with its intricate beading, as if the answer might be spelled out in code in the beads. Finally he looked up and said, "Probably some woman who was related to us, if you found it in the attic."
"Why, thank you, Sherlock. Aren't you helpful? Which relative?"
"A skinny one." He grinned and ducked as I threw a balled pair of socks at him. "Jeez, Luce, how should I know? Me and clothes? Come on. Ever since Brandi walked out on me, I have two requirements for what Hopie and I wear. No visible stains and it doesn't look like someone slept in it."
But the dress had worked its magic on my brother as well, because a short while later I heard him in the sunroom sliding effortlessly from one jazz number into the next on the Bösendorfer concert grand piano that had been our great-grandfather's wedding present to our great-grandmother. The music of Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Gershwin — swingy, upbeat tunes that the wearer of that dress would have danced to, doing the Charleston, or the Black Bottom, or the Lindy hop. I held up the dress against me one more time and, in the privacy of my bedroom, I hummed along to Eli's songs and pretended to dance, imagining myself wearing that sexy, beguiling dress as I wondered what life had been like in the hedonistic, let-the-good-times-roll decade that had roared.CHAPTER 2
When you run a vineyard, you never know who is going to walk through your front door and ask to try your wine, maybe stick around for a couple of drinks. We get all denominations: friends, lovers, families, the rare single guest who sits alone. They arrive in varied states of sobriety or inebriation, especially if they've been touring the local vineyards all day, to drown sorrows, celebrate victories, find a new love, get over an old one, or maybe just to kick back and relax. Thankfully, what we don't usually get are troublemakers looking to pick a fight.
To begin with, we were closed. Then there was this guy's attitude, the way he barged into the barrel room — the place where we perform the alchemy of turning grapes into wine — like a gunslinger bursting into the saloon through a pair of swinging doors. I looked up from helping Quinn Santori, my winemaker, who was filtering wine into bottles with a glass thief, as the man's eyes connected with mine across the room. I knew then that even a KEEP OUT: EXPLOSIVES sign on the door wouldn't have been a deterrent.
But what surprised me more was that I knew him. Not personally, but I would have recognized Gino Tomassi anywhere. He was California winemaking royalty, the grandson of Johnny Tomassi, one of the pioneering winemakers who had emigrated from Italy to California in the early 1900s and planted some of the first grapevines in the Napa Valley. Later, after Prohibition ended, Johnny, along with Louis M. Martini, Cesare Mondavi, and a few other iconic names transformed the region into a winemaking empire some called "the American Eden."
What I didn't know was what Gino Tomassi was doing in my winery at ten-thirty on an early-February morning. But before either he or I could say anything, Quinn cleared his throat and set the thief down on top of a wine barrel.
"Well, well, well," he said in a deadpan voice, "look what the cat dragged in. What are you doing here, Cousin Gino?"
I was used to Quinn's secretiveness about his past life in California — he seemed not to have one — so the idea that he was related to the Tomassi wine dynasty was about as likely as, say, discovering he was also a long-lost member of the British royal family and potential heir to the throne. Quinn almost never spoke about his family, except for his mother, who had passed away nine months ago, and once, with bitterness, about a father who had abandoned him and his mother shortly after he was born.
All I knew about his mother was that she was Spanish and that when she died last spring, Quinn had returned to the Bay Area for several months to take care of her estate, pack up her things, and sell her house in San Jose. If he was related to Gino, it was on his father's side.
Gino gave Quinn a grim smile, like the two of them shared a secret they wished they didn't know. "What else would I be doing here? Come to see you, Quinn. Introduce me to the pretty lady, why don't you?" His eyes roved over me.
Gino's nickname in the wine business was "the Silver Fox," as much because of his luxuriant silver hair as his shrewd — some would even say predatory — business acumen building the Tomassi Family Vineyard from a prominent California winery into a nationally known brand. I'd also heard a darker story about ties to the Mafia, thanks to an old childhood friend who was now the biggest mob boss on the West Coast. So far, it was all just rumor and unsubstantiated claims; Gino claimed it was a personal relationship and nothing more. But as the saying goes, when you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas.
He was standing there watching us, like a stage director casting a critical eye over actors who have just fumbled their lines. In person, he was shorter than I'd expected and stockier, but maybe that was because his flamboyant personality projected an image of someone tall and commanding. He wore an expensive-looking cashmere camel overcoat over a double-breasted navy pinstriped suit and had a white silk scarf draped around his neck. Quinn and I had on faded jeans, old wine-stained sweatshirts, fingerless mittens, and down vests to ward off the damp chill of the room. I wondered how long it had been since Gino had gotten his hands dirty in the barrel room like we did. Just now he seemed miles out of our league.
But he had baited Quinn, using me as the pawn, and I resented it. "I'm Lucie Montgomery, Mr. Tomassi. I own this winery." I glanced at Quinn. "You didn't tell me you had family." I paused and gave him my sweetest smile. "In town."
Quinn's mouth twitched, but he turned to Gino and said with contempt, "That's because the last time we spoke was — what, Gino, twenty years ago?" Before Gino could reply, he added, "How'd you find me?"
Though I think what he really wanted to know was why.
Gino looked around the room. By California standards, certainly compared to the vast empire he owned, which sprawled across Napa and Sonoma on either side of the Mayacamas Mountains, my entire operation in the charming, bucolic village of Atoka, Virginia — population sixty — must have seemed like very small potatoes to him. Thirty acres of vines planted on a five-hundred-acre farm given to one of my ancestors in appreciation for service during the French and Indian War, Highland Farm sat at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains in a region better known for raising thoroughbreds, hunting foxes, and playing polo than for making wine.
"I've always known where you were," he said to Quinn. "You didn't think I wouldn't keep track of you, did you? I offered you your first job, remember? Tried to give you a hand up. Bring you back into the family business."
Quinn snorted. "You've got a hell of a nerve, Gino. It stopped being my family's business after your father screwed my grandmother out of her share of it. You couldn't have paid me enough to work for you. Not then, not ever."
Excerpted from The Champagne Conspiracy by Ellen Crosby. Copyright © 2016 Ellen Crosby. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Never having read this series before, I was curious to see if this book would work on its own, and whether information would be presented in a way to keep the major players in the story identifiable. The relationship with Lucie and Quinn did take some adjustment to understand their dynamic, but the characterizations are so present that it wasn’t long before that dynamic was presented. Plenty of other secondary characters, sure to be familiar with those who have read the series, presented themselves, and understanding everyone’s roles and relationships to the plot and one another did take much (if not all) of the book, and unfolded in ways that made sense. The villain in this story was wonderfully complex with his fingers in many different subplots, all coming clear at the very end. Intermixing history and the politics of the Harding era was a nice touch that helped to set both the reasons and a depth to the feud that made sense, and had me continually engaged. Not over-dramatized or laced with red herrings to increase readers’ tension, the story was reasonable in pacing and never had moments of “oh get on with it” that interrupted the flow. Truly intriguing with plenty of characters that I am curious about and would like to see more of (Hope being a particular favorite) I’ve added earlier titles in this series to be read during my leisure time. I received an eArc copy of the title from the publisher via NetGalley for purpose of honest review. I was not compensated for this review: all conclusions are my own responsibility
Title: The Champagne Conspiracy -Wine Country Mystery Book 7 Author: Ellen Cosby Published: 11-1-2016 Publisher: Minotaur Books/St. Martin's Press Pages: 368 Genre: Mystery; Thrillers & Suspense Sub Genre: Amateur Sleuths; Cozy Mystery ISBN: 13: 9781250076557 ASIN: B01EFIFDJU Reviewer: DelAnne Reviewed For: NetGalley Rating: 4.25 Stars . I received a copy of The Champagne Conspiracy from NetGalley and the Publishers in exchange for my honest review. Description From Publisher: Winter has come to the Montgomery Estate Vineyard in Atoka, Virginia. Lucie Montgomery and winemaker Quinn Santori have decided to make champagne, a first for the vineyard. But then Gino Tomassi, Quinn’s uncle, turns up on their doorstep one afternoon, demanding help in solving the mystery of what happened to Zara Tomassi, the first wife of his grandfather, who died in a San Francisco hotel in 1923 under suspicious circumstances. And it seems there’s no coincidence that her death came the day after President Warren Harding passed away in that same hotel. Gino needs answers before his blackmailer takes him for all he’s worth—or exposes an explosive family secret. Lucie searches for what happened almost a hundred years ago as she delves into Prohibition-era Washington, D.C.—a town of bootlegging and duplicity, jazz clubs and speakeasies. But then the investigation turns deadly, threatening Lucie, her relationship with Quinn, and the vineyard, as they realize someone is still out there nearly a century later who will go to any lengths to keep the truth about Zara’s death a buried secret My Review: A mystery from the past brings more than a few in the present. With the intertwining of the the mysteries and continuation between some of the characters the reader is caught up in the story from the first word to the last. Cosby has built strong characters and a story line that moves quickly to keep readers entertained. There is suspense, both intense and humorous that keep you on your toes as you try to figure out truth from fiction from the various clues dropped though out the story. My rating for The Champagne Conspiracy is 4.25 out of 5 stars.
as fine a mystery as the wines Quinn creates for the Montgomery Estate Vineyard THE CHAMPAGNE CONSPIRACY by Ellen Crosby The Seventh Wine Country Mystery It's a wintry February and the Montgomery Estate Vineyard is working on its upcoming Valentine's celebration as well as creating their first sparkling wine. Lucie and Quinn still haven't moved in together and their relationship may best be described as complicated-and things are about to get even more complicated! A surprise walks in in the guise of Gino Tomassi-a major California wine mogul who is also Quinn's cousin-a fact Quinn kept from Lucie. There's no love lost between the cousins and relations get even worse when Lucie discovers some of their family history that may have serious ramifications. A past which includes a possible murder, a president's indiscretions, and more than one case of "who's the father" serve to create new chaos and a serious threat to Lucie. There's more than one puzzle from the past to be solved here. Will Lucie be able to unravel history's threads to discover the true tapestry of the past? Winston Churchill once said, "A single glass of champagne imparts a feeling of exhilaration. The nerves are braced, the imagination is agreeably stirred, the wits become more nimble." The same can be said for THE CHAMPAGNE CONSPIRACY. This fast paced mystery makes the heart race as threats come from everywhere from several possible suspects. My imagination was definitely stirred as more and more secrets from the past became exposed. My wits certainly became more nimble as I attempted to keep up with Lucie as she discovered more and more; the present threats seemingly hinged in the past. Ellen Crosby has crafted as fine a mystery as the wines Quinn creates for the Montgomery Estate Vineyard. Well developed flawed characters and intricately layered storylines form this complex multidimensional mystery. I appreciate the way Crosby blends secrets from the past with threats in the present to create a richly nuanced story. I raise my glass of sparkling wine and toast Ellen Crosby as I eagerly await the next installment to this wonderful series. FTC Disclosure – The publisher sent me a digital ARC provided through NetGalley, in the hopes I would review it.