by Deborah Coonts
GENRE: Contemporary Romance
In Napa Valley, he who has the best grapes wins. And in the pursuit of perfection, dreams and hearts can be crushed.
Sophia Stone is a widow on the brink of an empty nest, stuck in an unsatisfying job managing the vineyard for a mediocre Napa vintner. Faced with an uncertain future she wonders how do you choose between making a living and making a life? Between protecting your heart and sharing it? Five years ago, after her husband was killed in an accident, Sophia put her heart and dreams on ice to care for those around her. Now her home, her dreams, and her family’s legacy grapes are threatened by the greed of the new money moving into the Valley. Sophia has a choice—give up and let them take what is hers, or risk everything fighting a battle everyone says she can’t win.
Nico Treviani has one goal in life: make brilliant wine. A woman would be an unwanted distraction. So, while recognized as one of Napa’s premier vintners, Nico finds himself alone… until his brother’s death drops not one, but two women into his life—his thirteen-year-old twin nieces. In an instant, Nico gains a family and loses his best friend and partner in the winemaking business. Struggling to care for his nieces, Nico accepts a job as head winemaker for Avery Specter, one of the new-money crowd. And he learns the hard way that new money doesn’t stick to the old rules.
When Sophia Stone gets caught in the middle of Nico’s struggle to remain true to himself or sacrifice his convictions to make stellar wine, both Sophia and Nico are faced with a choice they never imagined. A choice that might extinguish the hope of a future neither expected.
Nico Treviani’s mood stood in stark contrast to the collegial spirit of the throng gathered at the annual meeting of the Napa Valley Vintners Association. Housed in a LEED-certified, open and airy, steel-and-glass building near the library in St. Helena, the Vintners Association was Mecca to winemakers both experienced and novice—a repository of their collective knowledge and a gathering place to commiserate over the fickle affections of their shared mistress.
Had he had a choice, Nico would’ve done anything other than be a winemaker, but choice was not an option—he’d been born to it, a family heritage so strong that Nico suspected his blood was half Cabernet. As his father’s first-born, he was handed the reins to something that was less a business than a calling. On the other hand, his brother, Paolo, had been given the option, and, fool that he was, he chose wine. And the fool had died before he knew the brilliance of the last Cab vintage they’d crafted together. 100 points. Liquid perfection. Not many wines reached those lofty heights—not that it translated into much more than bragging rights, which were a damn poor substitute for food on the table. Without his own land, his own grapes, he was nothing more than the hired help. Oh, he could buy grapes and custom crush, but that wouldn’t be the same—he’d have no real control, and folks would take too keen an interest in watching him work his magic … assuming he had any left without his brother. No, he needed his own space far from prying eyes … and he needed very special grapes.
Their mother had always said while you’d be hard-pressed to make a good living out of winemaking, you could make a great life. Nico wasn’t sure he agreed. And now that he had Paolo’s, children to house, feed, clothe, chase down, and send to college, he was feeling the pinch. How his brother had done it, he didn’t know. Especially after his wife had fled to the city. Preferring a quiet, sophisticated life, she’d turned her back on her family, her children. Nico was sure that was one of the unforgivable sins, the kind that ensured an eternity roasting on a spit over the open fires of Hell. And if it wasn’t, when he got there he’d be sure to figure a way to make it so.
As he eased into the back of the large room and leaned against the wall, Nico thought about the price a life of wine exacted. He recognized the back of every head filling the rows in front of him as the speaker droned on. He knew their histories almost as well as they did. One guy was a recovering alcoholic—no longer able to risk tasting his wine, he still made it, slaving over every nuance of the process. One or two had hit a home run and now basked in the ability to make limited batch estate wines that sold for upward of a grand a bottle. Some scratched out an existence on the strength of their wine clubs. Most turned large fortunes into small, proving the old joke. And then there were a very few, like Nico, who had been born to winemaking or grape growing, selling their skills to those who could pay. Despite differing backgrounds, and differing futures, wine glued them together.
Except for Avery Specter, Nico’s current employer.
As if thought could conjure flesh, Avery materialized in front of Nico, his usual ruddy complexion flushed hotter than normal. With his eyes at half-mast, his comb-over falling the wrong way in wisps of misplaced hair, exposing his bald pate, he looked like exactly what he was: a self-important prick who’d made a fortune in manufacturing, or textiles, or running a hedge fund, or something, and had bought his way into the wine business.
Specter grabbed Nico by the arm and tugged him into the vestibule as he hissed, “Have you read this report?” Stopping in the center of the open area, Avery turned to face his winemaker and pressed a sheaf of papers into his chest. “And before we get started, you need to learn one thing, Treviani. You come when I call.”
Being treated like a dog to be trained was enough to kick up Nico’s simmer to a boil, so he wasn’t about to validate Specter’s contemptuous attitude by making excuses … although he did have a good one. He figured talking the sheriff out of turning his twin thirteen-year-old nieces over to the Juvenile authorities would earn him a get-out-of-jail-free card, but ego wouldn’t let him play it. The psychologist said the girls were just acting out and they’d get beyond it. Fine for him to say—he didn’t have to ride herd on the heathens. Who knew two pint-sized females could bring a grown man to the point of complete surrender? Nico snorted at his own weakness.
“You think this is funny?” Specter’s voice rose enough to turn heads as the meeting broke up and Nico’s friends filtered out of the meeting room. When Nico ignored the sheaf of papers, Specter pulled them back and began rolling them into a tube, his agitation poorly hidden.
“No, sir.” Nico avoided making eye contact as he fought to get his temper under control. “There’s a lot more to life than making wine, Mr. Specter.”
“Not while you’re on my payroll.”
Specter had no children of his own, and that thought alone reassured Nico that there was indeed a God. But it also made arguing with the man futile. So he argued with himself. He had sold out. Lowered his standards. And he couldn’t shake the feeling it was going to bite him in the ass.
“You wanted to talk to me about a report?” Nico asked even though he knew all about it. Avery Specter might need a report to learn what had been painfully obvious for years, but Nico didn’t. Hell, he could’ve written the damn thing himself—he’d been saying as much for a long time now to anyone who would listen. It didn’t take some government expert to know the baby boomers were transitioning to fixed incomes, their penchant for high-end wine taking a hit along with their lifestyle. The next generation, whatever they were referred to—the Millenials, the Me generation, the Y generation? Nico couldn’t remember, but whoever they were, they didn’t yet have the disposable incomes or the sophisticated palates to support the high-end wine industry at the current levels. Something had to give.
Wineries had to reposition themselves.
Keeping his eyes lowered, Nico managed to avoid the few stragglers just now leaving the meeting room. It was bad enough being called to heel by his boss, but having his colleagues witness it threw gasoline on the embers of his foul mood. A few greeted him, and he nodded but didn’t invite conversation so they didn’t stop. Out of the corner of his eye, Nico caught the looks many flashed at Avery: contempt, thinly veiled if they tried to hide it at all.
Avery wasn’t stupid … anything but. His barely contained frustration and worry pulsed from him like light from a dying star making his hands shake as he unrolled then re-rolled the sheaf of papers into a tighter tube. “Cult wines are coming under economic pressure and there’s nothing we can do about it.” His reedy voice screeched like notes played by a fourth-grade clarinetist.
Nico crossed his arms and glowered at his boss. Cocking an eyebrow he feigned interest.
Avery didn’t wilt when he ran headlong into Nico’s scowl. “They say that the number of Boomers, the population segment solely responsible for the record profit of the cult wine industry, is shrinking.”
“Age attrition. People die, Mr. Specter.” Nico’s voice was flat, hard.
Avery’s mouth pulled into a thin line. His backbone straightened. But at six feet he was still several inches shorter than Nico, so he leaned in closer and lowered his voice. “I like being talked down to about as much as I like tardiness. You’re property bought and paid for. You’d be wise not to jerk my chain.”
“And you’d be wise to show a bit more respect. You need me, Mr. Specter. Without a winemaker making wine’s damned difficult. And you want high-priced juice, so you need a man with my CV—and, to my knowledge, there is only one.”
Heels firmly dug in, both men stared at each other. Neither wavered.
Finally, Specter shrugged as his gaze slithered to the side, focusing over Nico’s shoulder. “I know what people think of me around here. You people think I haven’t paid my dues. I don’t have wine running in my veins, filling my soul.” His derision leaked from each word. “You think I’m the worst kind of blight since phylloxera—a businessman thinking he can buy his way into making great wine. And you know what?” He stepped back and slapped the rolled-up report into Nico’s chest. “That’s exactly what I am.” He shot Nico a grin. “Working pretty good so far, don’t you think?”
Nico grabbed the papers before they could unfurl like the white flag of surrender in the heat of battle. A tic worked in his cheek as he watched the bastard saunter away. Avery Specter didn’t deserve much, he thought. Perhaps a grisly, lingering, painful death and a pine box, but not much more than that.
Nico felt someone step in next to him, but, wearing the blinders of pride, he resisted looking to see who.
“He’s wrong, you know. To me he’s more like Pierce’s disease. Kill a vine in less than five years and no cure in sight. Phylloxera we got under control.” Billy Rodrigues clearly had been eavesdropping, a fact that would make Nico mad if Billy wasn’t his best friend.
At the sound of Billy’s voice, Nico felt himself relax. “Quatro, you do have a way with words. Let’s hope he and his friends don’t kill the wine business.” Nico called Billy “Quatro” as did many others, because he was William Xavier Rodrigues IV. His father was Tres, same logic. Nico called him “Sir.”
Through the years, he and Quatro had witnessed many of each other’s indignities; one more wouldn’t matter. “But there is another side to all of this. And maybe I’m justifying,” Nico said, his temper dissipating. “God, I hate to give the guy any credit, but without money it’s damn hard to make a truly great cult wine. When you and me scratched our way up the ranks, making wine was like voodoo, a bunch of wine drinkers relying on folklore and playing around with a kid’s chemistry set. And the growers were nothing more than hobby farmers. But now, with property values through the roof, international distribution agreements, hundreds of wineries in this valley alone, it’s big damn business. ” Nico shot his friend a serious look minus the scowl he’d used for Specter.
“I still can’t figure whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing.” Quatro was thick and solid, his hair and skin different shades of brown, his eyes black, and his smile pure mischief. He’d been working the fields so long his hands were a mass of callouses permanently stained from red dirt, and red grape skins, and scarred by the brutal work. As if remembering his manners too late, Quatro swept his sweat-stained broad-brimmed straw hat from his head then raked his fingers through his thick salt-and-pepper hair. When he was done, he set his hat back in place, low over his brow.
“Both. More money to go around, but long-time residents are being priced out of the game.” Nico stuck the tube of papers in his back pocket. “All of us are in this together, the whole Valley. If we don’t figure out how to distinguish ourselves, the economic contraction is going to squeeze us all back into oenophilic oblivion.”
“All your awards—”
“Couldn’t save the family vineyard or keep my brother from dying.” Nico snarled as his brows snapped into a frown. The emotional tempest dissipated as fast as it had arisen. He squeezed his friend’s shoulder. “Sorry. Got a lot on my mind.”
“You made a 100-point wine from Beckstoffer grapes. And we all know they are the best.”
“I made the wine. My employer makes the money.” Nico didn’t voice his fear that now, without his brother, his wine wouldn’t be as good. They’d been a team. Was half really as good as the whole? And, his worst fear, could he even make wine without his brother? “What I need is something new, something better than Beckstoffer.” Nico raised his hand before Quatro could get a word in. “Not better, that was the wrong term. Just different, but not too far a reach for the discerning but limited American palate. Something amazing that we can produce at a reasonable price point.”
“Amazing yet accessible. The Holy Grail. Well, if anybody can do it, you can. But God knows where you’re going to find those grapes. And I know you’re a Cab guy, but, if I were you, I’d be thinking about something white or rosé.”
“Yeah, short or no aging, quick to market. I got an MBA in the family who’s been singing that song for years. We just haven’t found the grapes.”
“I’m pretty sure if you start making wine on the side, Mr. Specter will have no problem dragging you into court. As I recall his lawyers spent a lot of time crafting your non-compete. He’s got you tied up pretty good.”
“Given time and conviction all knots can be loosened.”
AUTHOR Bio and Links:
My mother tells me I was born in Texas a very long time ago, but I’m not so sure—my mother can’t be trusted. She’ll also tell you I was a born storyteller. That I believe—I have the detention notices and bad-conduct reports to prove it. However, the path from minor hyperbolist, or as I prefer to think of my former self, Grand Master of the Art of Self-Prevarication, to the author of the New York Times Notable Crime Novel and double Rita ™ finalist, Wanna Get Lucky?, the book that launched the bestselling series, was a bit tortured.
Someone once told me I lived a peripatetic life—yes, I had to look it up. And he was right. I’ve been everything from a mom, business owner, accountant, wife, pilot, flight instructor, lawyer …worse, a tax lawyer… to a writer. The three personas I’ve kept suit me the best: mom, flight instructor, and writer. And the other personas I’ve tried on then shrugged out of and discarded like an itchy coat were great grist for the story mill.
Chasing stories keeps me busy and out of jail…for the most part. Researching in Vegas can be a bit… sketchy.
Prodded by the next adventure and the police, I keep moving. Right now I have a house in Texas, but that will change soon. I lived in Vegas for 15 years—the longest I’d stayed anywhere. And I get back there often. But other places, too, are calling.
Someone asked me the other day where I lived. The question stopped me cold. Finally I said, “On Southwest Airlines, third row, window seat, either side.” Always in search of a story. And the adventure would be perfect if they could just stock a split of nice Champagne.
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