An Intoxicating Crush: Chapter One

Read the full chapter (7600 words, 25 pages)

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Delectable Book 3

(series can be read in any order)

Published July 2013 by Dreamspinner Press

Buy e-book or in print from:

Dreamspinner, Amazon, All Romance, B&N, and other book distributors.

Simon Ford’s success is hard-won. He grew up in Napa and resents the rich people who have moved into the valley, changing the culture by opening boutique wineries and pricing the locals out of the market.

Austin Kelvin runs an award-winning winery his father started after making a fortune on Wall Street. He lives the posh lifestyle Simon resents but secretly longs to attain. However, Austin’s world isn’t as luxurious and privileged as it seems: he didn’t inherit his father’s business savvy, and his winery is going under.

When Simon’s boss sends him to covertly scope out Kelvin Cellars for a possible takeover bid, Simon sees it as a step toward attaining his financial dreams. Until he falls hard for Austin. The feeling is mutual, but when Austin learns the real reason for Simon’s initial interest, he suspects Simon’s seduction is merely a means to procure the winery at a bargain price. If there’s any hope of winning Austin’s heart, Simon will have to risk it all to prove Austin is more than just an intoxicating crush.

Like all Delectable novels, this book includes the recipes used in the story.

Chapter One

AUSTIN slammed the computer mouse against the desk and leaned back in his chair with a groan.

 

“That bad?” Penny asked. She moved up behind him and massaged the sore muscles at the base of his neck.

 

“Penny.” His warning voice didn’t stop her, and he pushed her hands away. Not wanting to talk about the topic further, he got up and walked out of the office. Out of the stuffy building and artificial light. He needed sunshine, fresh air, and moved with purpose past the main winery building and out into the first rows of vines.

 

He loved this time of year. Everything smelled fresh and green, with the fruit just starting to set. He moved farther down the line, between the vines, and reached out to weigh the clusters of grapes, each no larger than his smallest fingernail. The vines relaxed him.

 

He heard the pinwheel above his head moving in the slight breeze. Mylar ribbons attached to pinwheels situated around the vineyard kept birds away. They’d lose half the crop without the shiny streamers to protect the young clusters.

“Austin? You out here?” Penny was moving a few rows away. “I know you’re here. You can’t hide. We need to discuss this.”

 

He considered possible hiding places, then gave up. “Over here.” She’d find him soon enough.

 

He spotted her at the end of the row and let her walk toward him.

 

“You can’t avoid the subject by running away. How bad is it?”

 

“Not as bad as you think.” He hoped she couldn’t tell he was lying.

 

“Sit down. You need to relax.”

 

He followed orders, and she knelt behind him, going to work again on his aching neck muscles. Too much staring at a computer screen. Working on the vines never left him this sore. As much as he hated the office, with Logan rarely here lately it had become a necessary evil.

 

She kneaded the sore muscles of his shoulders. “I repeat, how bad is it? How many months can we go on? Can we make it through crush?”

 

Crush. It was usually his favorite time of year, but now Austin couldn’t begin to think so far ahead. Some days he wasn’t sure they’d make it another month, much less three or four. He looked at the vines surrounding them, the heavy canopy of leaves just starting to be weighed down with fruit. Crush, or harvest, was months off.

 

“With a few adjustments, definitely.”

 

“That’s good.” She eased the pressure to a comfortable level and massaged Austin’s neck and shoulders for a few minutes in silence.

 

He welcomed the reprieve.

 

“You’re not thinking of accepting, are you?”

 

Penny’s voice held the same sadness already tightening Austin’s chest.

 

Austin let out another sigh. He shook his head, but he pulled the folded envelope from his shirt pocket then put it back without looking at it. He didn’t have to. He had the contents memorized. “I don’t want to. I have one more idea if this weekend doesn’t work out as planned.”

 

“Austin, you just can’t sell the winery to Galaxy.”

 

“I’d counter their offer. It’s way too low. This place is worth far more than they’re offering.”

 

“I know that. Even if they paid ten times what they offered, don’t give in. You know they’ll ruin the place. Everything you’ve worked so hard for. It would all be destroyed.”

 

“I’m not so sure about that.” He didn’t feel as confident as his words suggested.

 

“Well, I am. No one who’s sold to Galaxy has been happy about it. Talk to some of the other winemakers who work for them before you make any final decisions.”

 

“Penny, I won’t decide anything without talking to you. And to Logan. He’s still part owner.”

 

“Can’t Logan help you out and cover some of the bills till the wine’s ready to sell? Or at least fund us through the crush.”

 

Logan, Austin’s older brother, was only a 25 percent owner. Austin had already bought out half Logan’s original share, and the payment was due on the remaining quarter-share by January 1. There were just so many expenses in the second half of the year, and not as much cash coming in. Vineyards didn’t operate on a calendar year, but Austin had made a promise to his older brother, and he wasn’t about to renege on it.

 

“I don’t think we’re going to need it. I’m sure the barrel tasting weekend will generate enough cash to cover the major expenses, and there’s still some in the line of credit we can draw on. If not, I’ll talk to the bank, and I know they’ll extend us more. We won two gold medals at the Cal Vintners competition, and we’re making a name for ourselves.”

 

Penny gave Austin’s shoulders a squeeze. “You’re making a name for us. Those medals are all your doing.” She leaned down and gave him a kiss on the top of his head. His mother used to do that when he was little. Penny just meant it in a friendly, supportive way, but it made him wonder whether they’d be in this situation if his dad still ran the winery.

 

Probably worse, he reminded himself. His dad’s heart wasn’t in it the way Austin’s was. It had just been another business to Dad, which is why he’d easily given the business to his sons when he grew tired of it. But Austin loved the land and the grapes and the winery. He’d lived most of his life here, and he couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. He hoped he wouldn’t have to.

 

This weekend had to be a success.

 

“This weekend is going to be a success.” Repeating it would make it so. He sounded like one of those motivational speakers: Envision your success. See yourself where you want to be and you can make it happen.

 

“I know. I can’t wait. And speaking of which, I need to make some final arrangements or it won’t.”

 

“Final arrangements. It sounds like you’re planning a funeral.”

 

“Bite your tongue. It’s going to be a party the valley won’t soon forget.”

 

“I thought you were keeping an eye on Henry.” Austin let out a laugh that almost felt genuine.

 

“Oh, dear. Henry. I think I scheduled him for Saturday. I’m sorry. I’ll take care of him too. We can’t have him drinking the profits or scaring the paying customers.”

 

“Give him the whole weekend off.” The previous barrel tasting weekend had been memorable—infamous even—when Henry Parker, one of the part-time staff, had sampled too many barrels, gotten exceedingly drunk, and insisted on performing an impromptu rain dance—after attempting to disrobe. Luckily, this season had plenty of rainfall, and Henry’s pleas to the water gods were unnecessary. But neither Austin nor Penny could afford to take the chance.

 

“Will do. I can send him to the city, all expenses paid, if you really want to make sure.”

 

“No, Pen. I think the weekend off will be sufficient.”

 

She gave a mock salute and stood up. “Gotta get back to the office.”

 

Once he was sure Penny was gone, Austin pulled the letter out of the envelope and read it for what might have been the hundredth time.

 

Galaxy Inc., a large beverage conglomerate, was interested in acquiring the Kelvin Cellars winery and associated vineyards, and they had invited Austin to discuss the issue and valuation. Selling the winery to a publicly traded group that put profits ahead of the artistry of winemaking was the complete opposite of what Austin had tried to do here at Kelvin. He’d helped his dad from the time they’d moved here—when Austin was just eight. His dad had earned a fortune on Wall Street and moved his family out of Manhattan to the wide, open green spaces of beautiful Napa Valley. But Austin had taken his dad’s dream of running a winery to heart and had loved every minute of it. Logan, his older brother, was more about figures and strategy, and between the two of them, they’d made a good team, till Logan said it was time to grow up. He’d gotten married and was ready to start a family, but Kelvin Cellars wasn’t steady and secure enough for him, and he’d agreed to sell his stake to Austin. Logan had recently taken a job with a bank in San Francisco and moved down to the city, leaving Austin to run all aspects of Kelvin, whether he wanted to or not.

 

Now all Austin had to do was figure out how to cover mounting expenses and keep the promise he’d made to buy Logan’s share, now he and his wife, Carrie, were talking about having their first child.

 

This weekend will be a success. This weekend will be a success. Austin repeated his mantra as he folder the letter and stuffed it back into the envelope. He hoped he wouldn’t have to call the number in the letter and sell out his hopes and dreams.

 

This weekend will be a success.

* * * *

THE phone on Simon Ford’s desk buzzed softly, and he glanced at the caller ID. His boss, Marshal Tuchman, was calling, and Simon snatched the phone up quickly, wishing he hadn’t wasted the half a second.

 

“Yes, Mr. Tuchman?”

 

“Simon, come into my office, will you?”

 

“Yes, sir. On my way.” Simon put the phone down before realizing he should have waited to see if his boss wanted him to bring anything. He’d only worked for Tuchman for three months, and he was still feeling his way around Vintage Partners. He put a finger between his throat and shirt collar and tugged to give himself a little breathing room. Then he straightened his tie, grabbed a pad, and headed for Tuchman’s office.

 

His feet were silent on thick dark-green carpeting that made the hallway look like a path through the woods. Despite the comfortable furnishings, the offices of Vintage Partners were anything but bucolic. Simon spent long hours here, crunching numbers so the account execs could make business deals with the top men in Napa Valley. It was hard work, and stressful, but Simon knew it would put him on the path to his own plushly carpeted office one day. He just needed to make Tuchman happy and soak up information.

 

He knocked on Tuchman’s door.

 

“Come in, Ford.”

 

Simon turned the ornate knob and the door swung silently on well-oiled hinges. He glanced inside. Tuchman was alone, sitting behind a huge mahogany carved desk, with three bottles of wine and three glasses arrayed before him. Had he called Simon in to taste something? That was his dream: to be part of the deals, not just the paperwork behind them. But all things in their time, he always reminded himself. He’d gotten this far pretty quickly, and he needed to learn the ropes, no matter how tempting it was to imagine himself behind the beautiful desk.

 

“Take a seat, Ford.”

 

Simon sat down in one of the solid mahogany chairs and flipped open his notebook. “Yes, sir?”

 

“Stop with the ‘sir’.” Tuchman smiled, something Simon hadn’t been on the receiving end of many times. He tried not to get his hopes up for anything other than more of the same grunt work he’d been assigned so far. “And what’s with the suit and tie? This is business casual around here. We’re not on Wall Street.”

 

“I like to look my best. You never know who’s coming into the office.”

 

“You make the rest of us look like slobs, you know.”

 

“Oh, I am sorry.”

 

Tuchman let out a sound Simon eventually realized was laughter. He’d never heard the man laugh before.

 

Tuchman waved Simon’s comment away with his hand. “Nah, don’t change. It’s you, and it shows you’re serious about your work. I like it. Still makes me feel like a slob, but if you do your work as well as you dress, I’m happy.” He grinned at Simon and gave him what might have been a wink.

 

Simon wasn’t sure how to interpret his boss’s sudden casualness. He glanced at the glasses and noticed his boss had definitely been sampling. But there was the customary bucket on the other side of the desk where wine pros would spit rather than imbibe. He’d been to enough tastings to know after about five samples, one would be more tipsy than professional. Some of the events had dozens of wines, and it took both practice and built-up tolerance to make it through without getting falling-down drunk.

 

“What are you doing this weekend, Simon?”

 

Simon? Tuchman had never used his first name before. Now Simon wasn’t sure whether his boss was a little tipsy or whether this was some sort of come on. He didn’t think Tuchman was gay, but Simon’s gaydar didn’t always function properly. He tugged at his shirt collar again as he composed an answer.

 

“I don’t have any specific plans, sir. Did you need me to work?”

 

“You’re always thinking about work, aren’t you?”

 

“Not always.” Simon didn’t like where this was going.

 

“You know anything about Kelvin?” Tuchman segued and left Simon behind.

 

He glanced at the bottles and for the first time noticed the distinctive maroon labels of Kelvin Cellars. It wasn’t in the top echelon of the valley, but it was good stuff. Great, in fact, and just getting notice since winning several medals at Cal Vintners earlier this year. And out of Simon’s budget. “Of course I’ve heard of them, but I don’t think I’ve ever actually had any.”

 

“Well, if you’re free this weekend—” Tuchman paused and Simon’s stomach did a terrifying series of flips as he debated how to respond to a proposition. “—I’d like you to check out the Kelvin barrel tasting.”

 

Simon let out what he hoped was an inaudible sigh of relief. At least Tuchman wasn’t asking him out. “On my own?”

 

“You could bring a friend, I guess. But it’s business.”

 

That sounded good. Tuchman was sending him on a business trip? Sure, it was only a few miles away, but it sounded like it could be Simon’s chance for something besides paper pushing. “What do you want me to do when I’m there?”

 

“Taste some wine, of course.”

 

Simon nodded and waited. It wouldn’t do to ask another stupid question. He could see the expression in Tuchman’s eyes changing as if questioning whether Simon was the man for the job.

 

“Thing is, I’m considering making an offer for Kelvin, and I want to get some grassroots intel before I make a move.”

 

“Are they for sale?”

 

“I’m not sure. There’re rumors they’re in financial straits, and I happen to know that Galaxy is also sniffing around. I want to make sure they’re worth pursuing.”

 

“What should I look out for?”

 

“You visit a lot of wineries?”

 

“Yes, sir.”

 

“Which ones have you visited lately?”

 

Simon coughed and tugged at his collar again, feeling the temperature rising. Was this a test? What did Tuchman expect him to say? He didn’t want to blow it before he even got an assignment. “I-uh, lately I’ve been to Cakebread, Stag’s Leap, and Flora Springs.”

 

“You’re a cab man, then?”

 

“I enjoy cab, but also the Bordeaux blends.”

 

Tuchman asked him questions about wine for another ten minutes, but it was a subject Simon knew plenty about, and he relaxed once he realized it was a conversation and not an inquisition.

 

“You definitely know quality. And you’ve seen how a top-notch winery and tasting room should look. I need you to give a surface evaluation of Kelvin and let me know your impressions. Give me a report on Monday, and then I’ll see whether there’s more to the job and whether I might have a spot for you on the team.”

 

The team? Already? Simon couldn’t believe his ears. He was being given a huge opportunity if Tuchman wanted Kelvin. If not, well, Simon would be talking himself out of a spot. “Sure thing, sir.”

 

“I’ve got tickets to the barrel tasting and the dinner. How many do you want?”

 

“Just one.”

 

“Good man, Ford.” Tuchman nodded and pulled a small envelope out of a breast pocket. He handed it over to Simon. “Ten a.m. Monday. Report back.”

 

“Yes, sir.” Simon stood up, letting the notebook slide off his lap to the floor. He reached down to retrieve it, feeling heat at his cheeks. He didn’t want to look like an idiot in front of his boss, so he quickly turned and headed for the door.

 

“Simon?”

 

He stopped in his tracks, gut tensing. “Yes?” Tentatively he turned.

 

Tuchman stood up and jammed a cork into one of the bottles on his desk. “Take this. Enjoy it with dinner so you know what to expect this weekend.”

 

“Thank you.” Simon grabbed the bottle and smiled. It was nearly full. A 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon, the one that just got the gold medal. “I’m looking forward to it.”

 

“Don’t drink it at your desk, though.” Tuchman let out a burst of laughter and waved Simon away dismissively, his jovial mood retreating for the more cordial businesslike mien Simon was accustomed to.

 

He walked back to his desk with the bottle and settled into his chair with a sigh of relief.

 

Tuchman was sending him to scope out a possible buyout target. He was on top of the world.

SIMON left the office only about ten minutes early. He didn’t want Tuchman thinking he was taking advantage of the privilege. Of course, Tuchman and the other execs had already left by the time Simon ventured to leave, but he knew his colleagues were paying attention. As he wandered past their cubicles on the way out, he waved at the ones who watched him leave, carrying the recorked bottle of Kelvin Cellars Meritage in one hand and his briefcase in the other.

 

It was the same look he got from most of them, only more intense. They didn’t like how he wore suits and ties—even on Friday—while they wore business casual: button-down shirts which they didn’t even bother to iron on Friday when they paired them with jeans and pricey sports shoes instead of chinos and loafers.

 

At least, as far as he could tell, the looks were all about his work habits and not about his personal life. He wasn’t in the closet, but he didn’t announce his gayness beyond not worrying about what he did or said at work. If asked about what he did on the weekends, he’d say he spent it with another man, and so far no one had commented to his face or in his hearing. Napa Valley was more conservative than San Francisco and other Bay Area communities, but still far more open-minded than most other places in the state. One less thing to worry about.

 

No, it wasn’t his being gay that bugged the other accountants. It was the way he stayed late even when he had finished work. He’d go through files and reports on projects other accountants worked on, not to check their work, but to learn from them. He loved his job, loved playing with numbers. And he got restless in the evenings without something to work on. He’d done a part-time MBA while working at a big-name accounting firm as a low-level auditor and spent nearly every waking minute at the office or studying. Now, even though he had his evenings free, he still felt the need to fill them with something work related, to soak up knowledge like a sponge, ready for the day Tuchman would give him a project besides number crunching. And today was the day.

 

On the way home, he stopped at a gourmet shop with a fantastic prepared-food section. He loved their rotisserie chicken because they slipped rosemary and thyme under the skin with a little bit of crushed garlic. It wasn’t the perfect pairing for the wine, but it would last the weekend. He didn’t have the time or inclination to cook a roast, especially for himself, so he added half a roasted duck with prunes and apricots, and a tub of roasted root vegetables. It was more than he usually spent, but this was a little celebration. The start of something new for him, and hopefully, the beginning of the next phase in his life.

 

Usually, on Fridays, he went home to change into something more casual and had a beer at a bar he liked while he decided whether he wanted to spend the rest of the evening with someone he met there. If not, he had a couple of other places to scope out, or he could call one of his friends with benefits. But not tonight. He didn’t want to be distracted as he prepared for heading to Kelvin Cellars. He had some research to do first, and as much as he wouldn’t have minded a little bit of temporary company, he didn’t like to brush his partners off too quickly after sex.

 

The drive home took longer than he liked. He hated the traffic and the narrow roads. Too many people and too many cars, and like a typical Friday, weekend tourists clogged the already overloaded roads even further. They slowed down at every intersection, searching for street names. Their free-spending habits supported the local economy, but they were still a pain in the ass of most locals.

 

Simon had grown up in the Valley. He’d been born and raised here, and despite the influx of Silicon Valley zillionaires and their boutique wineries, the weekly ebb and flow of ever-increasing tourism, and the traffic, he loved the place. Loved everything about it. When his head got full of numbers and smog, a short drive into the hills—past row after row of grapevines, through shady woods and around hairpin turns—and the sight and smell of the Valley’s beauty recharged his weary batteries and reminded him how lucky he was. Lucky to live here and lucky to be part of the most fascinating industry he could imagine: Napa Valley winemaking.

 

Once home he heated up the duck and the vegetables and poured half a glass of the wine Tuchman had given him. He knew it had just won a gold medal at the Cal Vintners competition. There were so many competitions, and most of them didn’t mean a damn thing, but this one actually did. It was run by winemakers, not wine journalists or magazines looking to sell ads or subscriptions. It took a lot to impress other winemakers in a blind tasting. He also knew the bottle he had in front of him went for about fifty dollars. Not a king’s ransom and certainly nowhere near the most expensive, but still far more than he spent for wine on a regular basis.

 

He rotated the base of the glass along the surface of the table, just enough to swirl the contents so he could see the color. Intense and vibrant, a magenta with a tinge of orange around the rim indicating a good mix of Merlot in with the Cabernet Sauvignon. He liked to test himself, rather than just relying on reading the label. He sniffed: berries, violets, and an undernote of spice—cinnamon and oak—caressed his nose. His mouth watered, and he couldn’t wait to taste it.

 

He took a mouthful and let the wine swirl around his tongue and teeth, feeling the firm tannins prick at the sides of his tongue, velvety smooth with a burst of black currant, licorice, chocolate, and spice. A little more Malbec than normally found in a Meritage. The wine morphed and wrapped itself around his tongue, tingles of acidic fruit, all incredibly smooth. Of course this vintage, only four years old, would age magnificently. It wasn’t perfect yet, but the medal it won was based on what the judges knew it would be in ten years. He didn’t think he had the patience to wait that long, but it was part of the wine business. Holding out for the peak of everything: the right moment to harvest the grapes, the right amount of time in the barrel, the right number of years to age the bottle. And for him personally, the patience to work his way up the ladder, starting with the most mundane of jobs, until he learned what he needed to get to the top.

 

He swallowed and took another sip of the ruby-colored ambrosia. He’d try to get a bottle of this over the weekend at the winery, assuming it hadn’t already sold out. At fifty dollars a pop, it was a steal. Wine collectors would buy it by the case, opening one bottle a year until they found the sweet spot for the wine and then drinking the rest of it while it was at its peak. It would be nice to buy wine a case or two at a time. For now, Simon bought one bottle of wine to cellar every month. Not that he had a cellar—not yet. He had a small wine storage unit holding twenty-four bottles at the optimum temperature. He’d gotten it as a reward from his previous employer when he’d finished his MBA. And a month later, he resigned after he got the offer from Vintage Partners. In the few months he’d been there, he’d found six exquisite bottles of wine, new releases he was able to buy only because he was making connections in the Valley and a friend of a friend secured a bottle for him.

 

After another glass, he realized he’d forgotten the duck in the microwave and had to reheat it. It complemented the wine better than he’d thought and he enjoyed his solitary meal more than the company of anyone he might have brought home. Too many local guys were in the wine business—and the ones who weren’t tended to bear some animosity for those who were.

 

When he’d finished eating and washed up the dishes, he brought the last glass of wine with him over to the computer on the desk that sat at one edge of the living room. It was a small one-bedroom apartment and the bedroom had room for little more than his bed, so all of his living happened out here.

 

He took a notebook out of his briefcase and rooted around for a pen to make notes. He liked writing on paper rather than taking notes on the computer. Something comforting about writing out his ideas made them feel so much more real and important. In school he’d always rewritten his notes after lectures, the repetition allowing the words and meanings to sink in. He rarely had to study his notes, since by writing everything twice he’d been able to commit it to memory. So far at work, it had helped him, though his co-workers’ penchant for handheld electronics made him feel like a dinosaur. He’d only had an old cell phone until his former employer gave him a fancy smart phone so they could keep in touch with him better. At least with Vintage Partners he wasn’t expected to text status reports every few hours to his boss. He’d given the smart phone back, and he didn’t care. But his new co-workers seemed to collect gadgets the way most people collected mail, always showing off and sharing apps. Just another way he must appear an alien being to them.

 

Well, time to check out Kelvin Cellars.

* * * *

AUSTIN didn’t sleep at all Thursday night, and it wasn’t just nerves. He barely spent any time in his bed and was out at dawn on Friday inspecting the preparations. There were so many things to take care of: making sure the tents were put in the correct places on the property, all the tables and plates and knives and forks had arrived, the rental glassware had shown up, and the chefs had all the electricity and propane they needed.

 

“Austin, what’s the point of hiring a staff if you’re going to try and do everything yourself?” Penny pulled him away from the dinner tent where he was helping the catering staff set the tables.

 

“I want to make sure it’s perfect. It has to be perfect.”

 

“It’ll be fine. You have more important things to do than get in their way.” She glanced around at the woman who was busily—and very competently—setting the next table. “Besides, the restaurant is supposed to take care of everything to do with the food.”

 

Austin shrugged. He glanced around the tent. Everything did look perfect. The tables were gleaming under the bright lights, and all that really needed to be done was put out the place settings of fresh flowers, which wouldn’t happen until the following afternoon. Penny was right. He was stressing out for no reason. But the winemaker dinner was supposed to show off his wines to their club members. He wanted to impress the people who kept buying their wines and kept them in business.

 

“If you need to micromanage something, Austin, why not check the tractors, make sure they’re gassed up, or help the musicians tune their instruments.” There was supposed to be a string quartet to play during the meal, the highlight of the event.

 

“Now you’re just being ridiculous.” He glared at her, hands on his hips. He took in a deep breath and let it out forcefully, and loudly enough to make her turn around.

 

“No. You’re the one who’s ridiculous. You aren’t supposed to worry about the tasting room or that we have enough extra toilet paper. You don’t need to help the guys with the porta potties.”

 

“We have porta potties?” He’d forgotten to put those on his list. He dug in his back pocket for a long, much-folded piece of paper with everything he’d done in preparation for the weekend. Even he couldn’t read his scribbles.

 

“I ordered them. That’s what I do. Remember, I handle the day-to-day so you can focus on the big picture stuff, on the winemaking. You’re supposed to delegate things like porta potties and silverware to me. She raked her hands through her dark hair, clearly frustrated. “Go worry about the cellars and the barrels.”

 

“That stuff’s done. I did it days ago.” He’d sampled a dozen barrels and chosen the ones he’d use for the tastings, and he already had them arranged next to the ancient, long wooden table in the old cellar, the picturesque one where they held all their barrel tastings and similar events. Visitors loved it. It was over 150 years old, built when the main house was, providing an old-world atmosphere, just the thing tourists loved.

 

“Then just relax.”

 

“Okay.” But he couldn’t relax, squeezing his hands into fists so he wouldn’t lean over and move that knife just a few millimeters closer to the plate.

 

“Let’s get out of here.” Penny grabbed his arm with a firm grip on the bicep and tugged him in the direction of the tent flap. Austin tried to pull out of her grasp and failed, nearly tripping over his own feet as he tried to keep up with her hurried pace. She was the only person who moved more quickly than he did. It was part of why he’d hired her in the first place.

 

“Now when’s Logan coming?”

 

“Logan? Logan’s coming up for this?” He stopped in his tracks just a few feet outside the tent, and Penny’s forward progress ground to a halt.

 

“He told me he was, sent me an e-mail the other day. I thought you two had talked.”

 

“No.” Austin frowned and tried to control his emotion. Why was Logan coming? Because this was fun, and not real work.

 

“Oh, you know he loves these things. I guess he wants to put in an appearance.”

 

Austin wasn’t sure how to react. Why hadn’t his brother told him directly? This couldn’t be good. He wished he could be more enthusiastic about Logan’s visit, but things had changed so much between them. They’d never been particularly close, with the four-year age difference, but until about a year ago, they’d been a decent team running Kelvin Cellars.

 

“I hope I haven’t ruined any kind of surprise. It’s not your birthday, right?”

 

“No.”

 

“Forget about it. Just enjoy his company. Carrie’s not coming along, so he should have plenty of time to help with everything.”

 

Austin relaxed at the news, but then felt a pang of guilt at taking joy his brother’s wife wasn’t joining him. He liked Carrie, really he did. But seeing them together reminded him how badly he’d failed to preserve the value of the winery and land. How every day they got a little deeper in debt, and if something big didn’t happen soon, Logan’s—and Carrie’s—share would be worth even less. Austin knew how he’d handle that, too. All he had to was to make sure Logan didn’t go poking around the books.

 

“I need to take care of something in the office, Penny. Can you keep an eye on everything else?”

 

“Gladly.”

 

Austin tried not to run toward the back entrance to the tasting rooms, the entrance to their private offices, located in a building halfway between the old farmhouse and the main winery building where the large fermenting tanks were located. Once he was out of Penny’s sight, he did run the last few hundred yards, sliding to a halt outside the door and unlocking it.

 

But inside the light was on. It should have been off. He’d been adamant about conserving energy, and they had motion sensors. Someone was in the office. He rushed into the inner room to see Logan swiveling around in Austin’s chair, the envelope from Galaxy in his hand.

 

“Austin, what’s this?” Logan flapped the envelope a few times.

 

Austin gulped air and stepped into the office.

* * * *

SIMON liked the Kelvin Cellars web site. It had a beautiful photograph of an old farmhouse, built in an almost California mission style like many of the replica buildings popular with the faux old wineries dotting both Napa and Sonoma counties. There were castles and chateaux and all manner of ridiculous monstrosities. But he could tell this one was real, built maybe a hundred years ago. The image on-screen morphed into a photograph of the winemakers, Austin and Logan Kelvin, featured in the foreground, flanked by two women, Carrie Tyler-Kelvin, Logan’s wife, and Penelope Clarke, who stood next to Austin Kelvin. The two brothers looked enough alike to be twins, though on closer inspection—and Simon admitted he gave them close inspection—he could see the differences indicating Logan was probably older: slightly heavier build and a bit more hair peeking through the open neck of his button-down shirt.

 

Austin, however, was the one with the serious look on his face, the one who seemed to take the weight of the business on his shoulders, while his brother Logan and his bride had clear, bright smiles of joy, indicating they were here to have fun. Austin was titled “Winemaker” on the web site, and he was the one who created those amazing flavors Simon was still sipping. Austin certainly could create magic in a bottle, and the Cal Vintners medal he’d won shouted it to the wine industry. It was more than getting over 90 points from Robert Parker or any of the other now-celebrity wine reviewers. It was proof Austin’s peers took him seriously. But that photo must have been taken before the award, because Austin Kelvin didn’t look like he got much joy out of life.

 

The next photo morphed to one of the two brothers out in the vineyard. Logan had that same casual, charming smile aimed directly at the camera. He wore a similar crisp, button-down shirt and neatly creased chinos. His face was lightly tanned, his hair smooth. He looked like he owned the place—because he did. Simon wanted someday to be in that situation. To stand in his vineyard and smile for the camera, proud of what he’d accomplished. Outside of those recent medals, the Kelvin brothers hadn’t really accomplished anything in Simon’s opinion, except looking damn fine while standing around for a photographer. They hadn’t worked to get the winery, they’d literally been born into it. Plenty of wealthy winemakers made good wine.

 

In contrast to Logan’s happy-go-lucky mien, Austin’s focus was completely on the grapes, full and heavy on the vines, and he seemed oblivious to the presence of anyone around him. The sun played off his light brown hair, giving it a golden hue, and he squinted. He wore faded, worn jeans like a comfortable second skin. Not tight, but fitted enough to show off a very appealing physique. His T-shirt from a local high school, also worn, showed off tanned, muscular arms. The kind of arms a man got from working the fields. Very nice arms. Simon enjoyed looking at them. Too bad about Penelope Clarke.

 

The T-shirt was from a pricey private high school, not the one Simon himself had graduated from, and seeing the logo made Simon frown almost as much as thinking of Penelope wrapped in Austin’s sinewy arms. Simon had gone to a public high school, with large classes and lots of kids who needed help with English. It wasn’t a bad school, but he realized how much it set him apart from the Kelvins, who while of a similar age—late twenties, early thirties—grew up in a world alien to him, while still representing Simon’s own dreams and aspirations.

 

He took another sip of smooth Kelvin Cellars wine, savoring the interplay of fruit and tannin, then clicked to the “About the Winery” section to read up on Kelvin family history.

 

The family story confirmed what he’d suspected. Being local, he knew about these rich kids—children of the wealthy newcomers—around his age, even if he didn’t know them personally. People talked and stories spread. The Kelvins weren’t drastically different from most of the influx of new “winemakers” during the ’90s. Locals used the quotation marks frequently, finding few newcomers who didn’t deserve them. These were people who had made money while fairly young and retired early to their dreams of becoming winemakers, or at least of owning wineries because the two were vastly different. They trickled into the valley and changed the landscape—for good or ill—forever. Land prices skyrocketed, soon to be followed by grape prices, but they added a pioneering spirit to winemaking, trying some crazy new things the more traditional wineries would never consider.

 

Steven D. Kelvin, father of Logan and Austin, had amassed his own fortune on Wall Street. He’d been one of the pioneers of derivatives and hedge fund trading who made a packet using new techniques that were at first incredibly profitable. Having achieved before age thirty-five what men of an earlier generation need forty years to accomplish, Steven took his family, wife and two sons, and headed west, where he indulged in his own dream of buying a vineyard and winery. Austin was eight and Logan twelve at the time. After raising his sons on the winery property, he let them take over the reins of the family business and moved off to Arizona for a second retirement, which seemed to revolve around golf.

 

Austin had gone to Stanford—no surprise to Simon—then earned a Masters in Enology at UC Davis. Logan had an MBA from Columbia University.

 

Well, it seemed they split their job duties according to their interests, one handling the operations and the other the business side of things, fairly typical for family-run wineries around here, Simon thought. He skimmed the rest of the bios, where he found Penelope Clarke listed as Tasting Room and Facilities Manager. Code indicating she did everything except for winemaking and accounting. Odd for Austin to list his girlfriend while brother Logan didn’t give his wife any official title or duties, at least not as far as the public web site was concerned.

 

Simon skipped reading the press releases—he’d save that for the office, on Tuchman’s time—and moved on to the list of Kelvin Cellars’ wines.

* * * *

“WHAT’S this, Austin?” Logan repeated as Austin stood over him near the desk.

 

“Nothing.” He grabbed the envelope, but Logan snatched it back. His older brother was always faster, especially at meals.

 

“It’s not nothing. Are you thinking of selling?”

 

“No.”

 

“So they’re just fishing, sending you this letter?” Logan didn’t look convinced.

 

“Right. They probably send them to everyone still independent, hoping to get some response.”

 

“And you tried to hide it why?” Logan’s gaze pierced through Austin’s ruse like the knife through the shower curtain in Psycho.

 

“I’m not hiding anything.”

 

“You were never good at lying. It was so hard to blame you for anything as a kid. Dad never believed you when you said it wasn’t me.”

 

Austin chuckled. It had been ages since he’d thought about that. Logan would get in trouble and force Austin to take the blame for one thing or another, but their parents always figured out the truth. Austin tried hard to protect his older brother—whom he’d idolized, despite the typical pounding he’d taken. Though Logan really had been his hero when he’d started beating up the kids who called Austin a fag at school. Logan never thought twice about sticking up for him. That’s why Austin’s financial mess was so much harder to sort out. He owed Logan.

 

“You okay?” Logan reached out for Austin’s hand and tugged. “What’s up, kiddo?”

 

“Nothing.”

 

“Everything’s fine?” Logan’s tone indicated disbelief.

 

“How’s Carrie? Why didn’t she come up?”

 

“Don’t change the subject.” Logan shook his head. “She’s fine. She’s having a girls’ day at some spa with her friends today, but she’ll be here tomorrow. She doesn’t like the crowds that much, but she wouldn’t miss the big weekend. Even without the lure of a gourmet meal, she wanted to see you anyway.”

 

“I hope there’ll be crowds this weekend.” As soon as the words were out, Austin realized he’d just stepped right into it.

 

“You just won the gold at Cal Vintners. Of course the place will be packed. Why wouldn’t it be?”

 

“No reason.”

 

“Okay, Oz, something is wrong and you’re going to tell me what.”

 

“Look, I’m just tired. I’ve been running around planning shit all week. I’ve barely had a chance to get out to the vineyards.”

 

“I know. I’m sorry I couldn’t get up here any sooner. I had meetings today. I skipped out early on one, actually. I should have been here helping you.”

 

“No, you shouldn’t. That was our deal. You quit and left everything to me. Your life is in the city—at the bank and with Carrie. I’ve got everything under control here.” Austin hoped he sounded more convincing than he felt, but it meant a lot that Logan acknowledged he’d left Austin running everything.

 

“Fuck the deal, Oz. You need help, you let me know. This was supposed to be a partnership, after Dad got bored and headed for the golf courses in Arizona—”

 

“You know that’s not exactly what happened.” Austin preferred not to remember, but then again, Logan had been conveniently in New York for the worst of it, and Dad had kept him in the dark and Austin suffered the brunt of the fallout.

 

“Right. You’re right. I can’t blame it all on Dad. But we’re in this together, so keep me in the loop.”

 

“I will, Lo, thanks.” Austin’s gut rumbled a little at how badly his brother’s trust was misplaced. Well, if things worked out this weekend and the next couple of months went smoothly, maybe Logan would never know how close to the edge they were right now. Hopefully, he’d be busy enough this weekend he wouldn’t take time to look at the books. Logan was the one with the financial background. He would spot the trouble in two seconds flat, even if he didn’t understand how it had gotten this bad.

 

“Why don’t you go to bed and let me poke around in here, catch myself up on everything.”

 

“No way.” Austin clapped a hand on Logan’s shoulder. “Come on up to the house with me. We both need a good night’s sleep.”

 

“You’re right.” Logan started to get up from the desk. Thankfully, he hadn’t turned the computer monitor on. Austin always left the computer running but left the monitor off. He’d been poring over spreadsheets before he’d gone out to wander the grounds and check on the preparations. If Logan had seen anything worrying, he would have said, right?

 

Austin figured he had some time to clean up the mess, and Logan wouldn’t have to know a thing.

 * * * * * *

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2 thoughts on “An Intoxicating Crush: Chapter One

  1. Pingback: Big & Long: A delicious free sample from "An Intoxicating Crush"

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