Chapter One

Eight years ago….

“I’M SORRY I’m late, sir.” Orson Digby wished he could vanish into a hole somewhere. Slinking away, never to be seen again, would be better than having to face his boss at the vineyard. It would also give him the time off he needed to recover from the backbreaking work of harvesting grapes at Parkville Winery. He’d only been at it for two weeks, but it felt more like months. The owners were determined to keep their setup as original as possible since it was one of the oldest commercial wineries in California. That meant no mechanized grape harvesters anywhere, no modern machinery when converting the grapes into wine or in the storage and bottling operations. The need for manual labor was good for employment in the area and Orson’s savings account, but he did occasionally wonder about his health.

“Don’t let it happen again.” The tall harvest overseer with his bushy eyebrows looked threatening even when he wasn’t angry. Upset like this, with a red face and one hand already fisted, the man in charge could have easily scared off a much stronger guy than Orson. “You know it’s critical we get those Merlot grapes in as quickly as possible, now that they’re ready. We can’t afford to let them become overripe and risk losing the harvest. Everyone in the team has to pull their weight.”

“Sorry, sir. My car broke down, but I’ll make sure it won’t happen again.” Orson ducked to make himself a smaller target, even though he knew that probably wouldn’t work.

The distraction of watching him rushing to work might be a better tactic to appease his boss. Orson quickly moved toward the next available row of vines and grabbed the old-fashioned basket sitting at the end of it. His picking shears for the day were already inside, waiting for him to put them to work. Just like he’d been taught a couple of weeks earlier, he made sure they were well oiled by opening and closing them a few times. Working with substandard equipment wasn’t acceptable, and neither was using ill-maintained tools.

Satisfied everything was in order, he marched into the next available marked-for-harvesting furrow between the grape plants, enjoying the feeling of soft clay soil under his feet. Even though this area of the field had been approved for harvesting by the vineyard’s cellar hand, he still made sure each cluster of grapes was the desired bluish shade. The bunches of large berries were quite easy to hold away from the vine for cutting. He left the required part of the stem attached as he cut each one loose before placing it into his basket.

It was hard, exhausting work, and at only seventeen, with a slim build and looking more like a nerd than a field worker, Orson was lucky to have gotten this summer job. Sonoma wasn’t exactly the center of the universe, and there weren’t all that many summer jobs around to begin with. The easy ones, working in an office or in retail, went to those whose families were well-known in the community or where parents had connections via family, friends, or colleagues. Unfortunately, what was left of his family was not part of that circle.

Orson sighed as he continued to work in the hot sunshine of late August, sweat running down his back as he cut vines and filled basket after basket with the dark red, almost blue grapes. A lot of the harvesting went on at night, but he had to work the dayshift because his aunt had not given permission for him to be gone when it was dark. Aunt Marian was a dear woman who had taken him in when his parents and older brothers died in the house fire two years ago. But she wasn’t getting any younger, wanted him safely at home in the evenings, and she certainly wasn’t part of the in crowd in town. He needed the money if he ever wanted to get his own place, so picking grapes was what he did.

The sweltering heat, dusty air, and monotonous movements soon combined into a haze that made Orson want to lie down in the shade of the apple trees just visible at the end of the field. It wasn’t going to happen anytime soon, but the thought of a cool breeze and a cold glass of water enjoyed in peace was about all that held him upright at this point. And it was only just before noon. He pulled his hat farther down to protect his eyes from the glaring sunshine as best he could and plodded on.

“Hey, you want we go for a drink after we finish?” Jose, one of the guys from high school who’d graduated and landed a job there, worked in the next row over. He was always up to no good. His eyes twinkled with mischief, and his cocky attitude spelled trouble. He was a year older and had a fake ID, but he knew full well Orson didn’t.

“Sorry, got to go home. My aunt is expecting me to work on the yard.” Orson cringed as he said it, safe in the knowledge most of his face remained hidden from Jose’s observation by the leaves between them. What a lame excuse, but no way was he going to risk getting caught drinking. He’d never live that down.

“Come on, it’ll be fun.” Jose frowned, as if that could compel Orson to want to do something risky like that. “Everyone is going, and you need to chill, seriously. You never have any fun. How do you stand your life?”

Orson shrugged, focusing on his work. Staying alive, finishing high school, and getting a safe job was all he wanted. There was no point in aiming for more; based on what he had experienced so far, some catastrophe would likely take it away from him. Without parents to pay for college and no money of his own, he couldn’t become a winemaker, which is what he really wanted to be. If he was very lucky, he’d find a permanent position as a vineyard operative and learn on the job. He might be able to make it to cellar hand eventually and report to a winemaker, but without a degree, that was highly unlikely. Getting arrested for underage drinking would not look good on his record, so he’d be damned if he’d give in to Jose’s continued wheedling.

“What’s wrong with you?” Jose sounded accusatory.

“Nothing.” Orson looked up, stretching to see over the vines. Jose was frowning. What is my presence or absence to him anyway? He wished he could ask that question but was afraid he’d be misunderstood. He wanted a quiet life and not to get into trouble—what was so difficult about understanding and accepting that?

“Have it your way!” Jose threw his arms up in the air and rolled his eyes dramatically. “But don’t blame me if you die of boredom or loneliness.”

Orson watched Jose stomp along the vines, suddenly feeling bereft. He still didn’t want to go out to some noisy bar to get drunk, but equally, spending another evening at home, having dinner with Aunt Marian, doing yard work followed by homework and maybe some reading, didn’t exactly fill him with enthusiasm. He wanted someone to hang out with as much as the next guy, he just had no clue how to find and make friends with the kind of people he’d get along with.

If only his parents and brothers were still alive. He’d have a normal family, wouldn’t have to live in Sonoma, California, with his elderly aunt, instead of Tacoma, Washington, where he belonged, and he’d certainly still be in touch with all his childhood buddies. It had been much easier to get close to other kids when he was younger than it was to befriend teenagers in a city where he still felt like a stranger. Of all of the friends he’d left behind, he still missed Geoff most. They’d met when he was in fourth grade, had instantly liked each other despite Geoff being two years older, and had gotten into more trouble together than was probably legal. They’d quickly become inseparable and had always stuck up for each other, no matter what happened. Losing his best friend on top of his family when his aunt had taken him in and moved him all the way to California had devastated him.

He just couldn’t seem to catch a break.

 

 

SIX YEARS after that backbreaking summer that had awakened a love for winemaking in Orson, he had not only finished high school, but had also completed a degree at Washington State and was ready to apply for a full-time job. He had carefully evaluated all his options, and Tayaris Winery seemed to have everything he wanted, plus they were looking for people to work in their cellar operations. Now that he was there and faced his somewhat aggressive interviewer, he was beginning to doubt the wisdom of that choice.

“What makes you think you’re qualified to work in our wine cellar, Mr. Digby? There’s nothing in your application that lets me believe you’re truly interested. All your previous experience has been out in the fields.” Peter Tayaris, the winery owner’s son and Orson’s potential future boss, shook his graying head as he looked up from his cluttered desk. Currently, a file with Orson’s details lay on top of the mess. How could the man work like this?

“Well, I did complete a four-week internship as part of my viniculture and enology major in integrated plant sciences at Washington State.” Orson took a deep breath to stop himself from asking if this man had even bothered to read all the paperwork Orson had sent them prior to this second interview. If he wasn’t so desperate to get this job so he could broaden his experience from harvesting to cellar operations, he would have gotten up and walked out after the first ten minutes of this—this inquisition.

“Internships are all well and good, but they don’t really give you the kind of experience you’ll need to be useful for us in the sensitive areas of filtration, bottling, and the sanitary requirements. I mean, Health and Safety alone will kill you if you’re not intimately familiar with the rules.” Peter Tayaris frowned, making him look even older than his graying temples alone. “I’m not sure I’m willing to take the risk.”

“So, start me at the very bottom of the operations.” Orson might as well forget about the advantages he’d thought his degree would give him.

The division, sometimes bordering on open animosity, between harvesting and cellar operations was much worse than he’d thought, and seemed especially bad at Tayaris Winery. Peter Tayaris, as the current cellar hand, was responsible for both areas, and that was where Orson wanted to get to within the next few years.

But the man in front of Orson was clearly convinced nobody else was qualified to hold such a position, and he was equally clearly not going to give anyone else the opportunity to learn the “other” side of the winemaking job. Or maybe he feared for his own job security? Orson had seen this before in many of the family run wineries. Professionals coming in from the outside were often more qualified to help the businesses grow or become more modern than family members who only had on-the-job experience on their side.

Maybe Orson would be better off with one of the other potential employers? The problem was that not too many in this area were large enough to be able to afford a trainee like him. Orson didn’t have the money to move closer to Tacoma, where he really wanted to live. At least he was back in Washington now. That had been a step in the right direction. He’d managed to use the money he inherited from Aunt Marian to pay for his college education and basic living expenses over the last four years, but most of that was gone now. He needed a job so he could build some reserves, then consider moving back to his roots.

“The very bottom, you say?” Peter Tayaris’s eyes shone with greed, and he sat up straight as his eyes widened.

“If that’s what it takes.” Orson inwardly shook his head. The man was greedy, pure and simple. He could see where this was going. He’d get the salary that reflected his job title as assistant bottler, or whatever equivalent his new boss could come up with, but he’d either be doing a much more difficult job, or he’d be the one ending up with all the shitty jobs like the lifting and carrying of barrels and equipment or cleaning. The good news was, he’d be learning, he’d have time to watch and figure things out and hopefully have more luck with his next application.

“Okay, I like that.” Peter Tayaris smiled for the first time.

I just bet you do!

“There’ll be more paperwork, which you can complete here or take home with you. We’ll need it back as soon as possible. When can you start?” Peter Tayaris leaned forward in his seat, suddenly keen.

“Next week?” Orson had no money left to take a vacation, and the sooner he joined the workforce, the better. It was already mid-July and the harvesting season was coming up. Even though he wasn’t going to be collecting grapes for once, there would be more than enough work at the cellar-end of things.

“Excellent.” Peter made a few notes, closed the file he’d been staring at, and leaned back in his squeaky office chair. “We’ll give you a tour, so you’ll know where everything is when you start on Monday.”

“Thank you.” Orson got up. His future boss was a strange man. He hadn’t even shared any details like job title or pay with him. It would hopefully be included in the additional paperwork he’d been promised.

“I’m sure we’ll work well together.” Peter Tayaris rose to shake hands. “Welcome aboard.”

Orson nodded and left the office. Should he be happy he got a job, or was he beyond pathetic to have accepted something so far beneath what he could have tried for? But none of the other interviews had led to any job offers, and at least with this one, he’d have some income. He sighed as he took the stack of papers the friendly older secretary handed him. If he were less risk-averse, he’d wait a little longer and hope one of the other offers came through. He wasn’t though. Never had been the one to be daring, so he’d take this and make it work.

“Mr. Digby?” The deep voice sounded like its owner was a chain smoker. Did those even exist anymore in this day and age?

“Yes?” Orson looked up, and the shock almost made him take a step back.

A huge man, muscled like there was no tomorrow and with a scowl on his face that clearly reflected how motivated he was to be there, stood and glared at Orson. He wore the winery’s security uniform, had some sort of walkie-talkie and a huge bunch of keys attached to his belt, and held a map in his beefy hands.

“I’m here to give you your tour.” Could he have sounded less happy? “I’m told you’re starting work here on Monday?”

“Yes, I—”

“Just make sure you’ve done the paperwork.” Security Guy leaned over and pulled a light blue sheet from the stack Orson was desperately trying to stop from fluttering apart at the sudden movement. “We’ll need this one completed before you leave today so we can do the background check before you start work.”

“No problem. Could you—”

“There’ll be time for questions later. If you still have any.” The man abruptly turned around and waved one hand impatiently. “Follow me.”

What the hell?

“Excuse me?” Short sentences were probably best. The guy hadn’t let him get in more than a few words so far.

“What now? I thought I made myself clear.” Security Guy turned around, putting his previous frown and impatience to shame.

“My name is Orson Digby. And who are you?” Maybe not the most intelligent way to get information out of this giant of a man, but he didn’t plan to take shit like this from his coworkers. And that was his most urgent question.

“I’m Max Wakefield. Chief of security.” Max drew himself up to stand even taller. “And I don’t have to answer to you or anyone else, except the old Mr. Tayaris, so you better look out.”

“For what?” Orson was truly confused. “I just wanted to know who I’m dealing with.”

“Humph.” Max sneered and turned away from Orson.

Orson could only hope Max’s ability to do his job was better than his manners. He quickly followed his new guide outside the office building, trying to take in the layout so he’d know where to go on Monday and how to find his way around in case he got sent on any errands. The winery was at the lower end of medium size, only producing about 60,000 cases, but the vineyard to their left was well maintained and large enough to keep more than a few wine operatives, or harvesters, busy when the time came. The main production buildings to their right were quite old but looked to be in good shape. The cellar was in good condition, very clean and with well-labeled supplies and vats in neat rows.

Orson couldn’t wait to get started.

 

 

 

Chapter Two

Present day….

GEOFF ROBICHAUD stared at his computer screen, the results of his search finally displaying what he’d hoped for. Maybe it was all a dream? He couldn’t even pinch himself to check. The sudden fear that the information would vanish the second he diverted his attention even just a little kept him rooted to the spot. His mouth hung open, and his heartbeat accelerated to just-finished-running levels in seconds. He held on to his desk with white-knuckled force, certain that he’d slide off his chair if he didn’t find something to keep him anchored to reality.

“Shit!” He blinked. But the results of his LinkedIn search didn’t change.

“What’s wrong?” Abe glanced up from the paperwork he’d been doing at the desk facing Geoff’s. His colleague and close friend looked disheveled as usual, wire-rimmed glasses askew on his pert nose and his light blond hair in complete disarray. It wasn’t long, but the days of the buzz cut were most definitely behind them as far as Abe was concerned.

“God!” Geoff really didn’t want to divert his attention away from the screen for too long in case the name he’d been looking for ever since he’d left the military just over three years ago changed. He dared a short glance to check Abe’s facial expression, but he was glued back to the screen in under a second.

“Geoff?” Abe raised his eyebrows, making him look like a mildly annoyed teacher as he peered across the top of his reading glasses. “What’s going on? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

“I do?” The statement was so close to the truth it managed to break Geoff’s concentration. He looked up and met Abe’s gaze. His emotional turmoil must have shown on his face, because Abe’s eyes widened.

“Oh my God, you finally found him, didn’t you?” Abe jumped up from his seat and walked around their desks. It was a tight fit since their shared office at Secure & Safe was tiny, but being in security, mostly working as personal guards, they weren’t in there often enough to warrant a bigger space.

“How did you guess?” Geoff smiled. He’d certainly pestered Abe with the story of his vanished best childhood friend often enough.

“Like that was difficult.” Abe grinned and turned his attention to Geoff’s computer screen. “Wow, he’s in winemaking? Interested in job offers and networking. It says here that he’s looking for work anywhere in Washington State, preferably close to Tacoma.”

“I can’t believe it.” Geoff leaned back and rubbed his temples. “After all this time, I find him practically on our doorstep.”

Well, that wasn’t totally true; he still didn’t know where Orson actually lived. But if he was looking for work around Tacoma, he couldn’t be far. Or at the very least he was planning to move there. Why did Orson plan to come back to the place his parents and two older brothers had died? What had happened to him after he’d moved to California? Was he okay? Did he have a family? Geoff hoped Orson was happy.

He’d love to be back in Orson’s life, rekindle their friendship somehow, and find out if what he’d begun to feel just before they got separated by fate was real. At the same time, even if Geoff didn’t want to admit it, he knew that his hopes were irrational. The boy who’d been two years behind him in school, the one who’d always needed rescuing from bullies and who’d become his best friend back then, had grown into a man who might not even remember Geoff.

When Orson left, Geoff had tried to find out his address, and his parents had tried, but they had told him the “aunt in California,” Orson’s only living relative, had refused to give them her contact details. She’d wanted Orson to make a fresh start, not hang on to old memories. But Geoff had missed him over the years. He just wanted to find him and make sure Orson was all right. Maybe he’d finally be able to get on with his life once he was sure Orson was okay. Ha, like that was going to happen!

He looked back at the screen. There were no further hints about an address, nor any contact details in Orson’s profile. Geoff could send him a message via the system, but what if Orson didn’t remember him and ignored the contact attempt? Or, even worse, what if he did remember him and ignored the message? Geoff wasn’t ready to face that possibility. He needed a plan, and it better be a good one. Defeat was not an option.

“Uh-oh.” Abe sounded half-amused, half-worried.

“What?” He tried to look innocent.

“Not working.” Abe shook his head and pointed at Geoff. “You have that look.”

“What look?” Geoff tried to wipe whatever look it was off his face. They’d served in Afghanistan together, survived a lot of shit. There wasn’t much he could hide from Abe, and usually he didn’t need to. They’d cooperated well in the military and joined Secure & Safe together. They were successful as a team because each knew what to expect from the other.

This though? This thing with Orson? That was way bigger than him and Abe, never mind how good of a team they were. Whatever it was about Orson that had Geoff by the balls, so to speak, went to the core of who he was. Even though he’d been only seventeen at the time, all the years of separation hadn’t changed his need to be around Orson, and it had driven him crazy. Now that he’d found a trace of the man he’d missed for far too long, he wasn’t going to let go again. Not until he knew for sure what had happened to him and, yes, if there was still some sort of spark between them. Somehow, in his head and very active imagination, their very real friendship had grown into more over the years. But that didn’t mean anything, except maybe that he was curious to explore what might be there. He wanted to know if the feelings he’d begun to have would have grown into more. But most of all, Geoff wanted reality, not just endless fantasies of what might have happened once they got older.

“Oh, I don’t know. The look that tells me you’re planning something.” Abe sat on the edge of Geoff’s desk. “I just hope you’re finally going to tell me what’s so important about finding this guy. You’ve only been looking for him ever since we left the service three years ago, and I’d bet my Christmas bonus that you were thinking about him even long before that. Oh, and while we’re at it, I want to know your plans, so I can help.”

“Okay.” That was the longest speech his friend had made in years.

“Just like that?” Abe tilted his head, looking incredulous.

“Just like that.” Geoff smiled, having realized he’d need all the help he could get. First with making sure Orson didn’t slip through his fingers. Then with the emotional stuff that wasn’t exactly his forte. He couldn’t be sure, but it was where he hoped this was heading. “No torture required.”

“Wow. You must really like this guy a lot.” Abe settled back and made a give-me motion with his fingers. “Let’s have it.”

“It isn’t really a complicated story.” Geoff shrugged. “Orson was two years behind me in school when my family first moved here when I was twelve. He was a scrawny little kid and always seemed to get himself in trouble, wanting to protect others from being bullied. Problem was, he got in the big bullies’ way, and they tried to take it out on him.”

“So you, of course, stepped in.” Abe nodded.

“Yeah, you know me.” There wasn’t an underdog on the planet he didn’t feel for, and Abe was well aware of that. “We ended up becoming fast friends, despite the age difference. His family sort of took me in, and I loved spending time at their house. My parents were both working, and while I didn’t mind staying home alone, doing homework was more fun with other people around.”

“What happened?” Abe leaned forward.

“One night, while he was on a school trip, his parents’ house burned down. They all died, and the only family Orson had left was an elderly aunt in California. So he moved away.” Geoff swallowed heavily. The remembered pain of the sudden separation, their inability to stay in touch, and the pure unfairness of it all almost brought tears to his eyes.

“And you missed him?”

“Like you wouldn’t believe.” This next bit was going to be the hard part. He’d never told anyone about the feelings he had for Orson, one-sided as they probably were, and he had no idea how Abe would take it. Not that his friend was homophobic or anything, but you just never knew. “We may have been ‘only’ friends, and back then I didn’t realize it, but I think we would have become more had we been given the time.”

“I think that Orson already is more for you.” Abe smiled.

“Are you serious?” Doesn’t sound like he minds.

“I’m not blind.” Abe leaned back and settled in for the duration. “I can see how your face lights up every time you talk about him. I’ve seen you doggedly search for him, never giving up, always coming back to it whenever our assignments allowed. It’s quite clear to me that he means a lot more to you than a lost friend, and I can only hope he returns your feelings when you find him. Or that he learns to return them.”

“And you don’t mind?” Geoff couldn’t believe his luck.

“Why would I? We’ve never talked about it, not even since we left Afghanistan and could have been more open about personal preferences, but—have you ever seen me with a girlfriend?”

“No.” His eyes widened. “Are you saying what I think you’re saying?”

“That I’m gay? Yes.” Abe winked. “Same as you.”

“I don’t think I am.” Geoff shook his head.

Abe just raised his eyebrows.

“No, what I mean is, I don’t really know. I’ve only ever been attracted to Orson.” Did that make him gay?

“So you never looked at a man and thought what a cute ass he had? Never wondered what it would be like to kiss a guy with a set of particularly tempting lips? Never wanted to run your hands along his strong pecs?” Abe waggled his eyebrows. “Never wondered what it would feel like to have another man jack you off?”

“Well… I guess I have. The magazines I used to check out, the ones my father discovered me reading before he kicked me out, should probably have been my first clue. But they always made me think of Orson.” It was Orson who starred in his fantasies, a grown-up version of him of course. Now that he’d finally seen an updated picture on LinkedIn, he realized how close to the truth his imagination had been.

“That just means you’re a monogamously inclined gay man.” Abe laughed.

“Okay. I can live with that.” He grinned back.

“I would hope so.” Abe suddenly looked serious.

“At least I know who to come to for advice.” As uncomfortable as that might be, it was better than floundering around, which he was sure he was going to do enough of anyway.

“I don’t think you’ll need much advice. Just remember, Orson is a guy too. That tends to make things a lot easier than if he were a woman.” Abe put a hand on Geoff’s shoulder and squeezed. “You’ll be fine once we figure out a plan. Ideally one where you don’t scare the presumably unknowing Orson to death or end up arrested for stalking.”

“Yeah, that would be good.” Heaven knew how he’d pull that one off, but he was going to do his damnedest. He looked back at the screen, where Orson’s professionally taken picture was still on display. His blond hair was much shorter than it had been all those years ago, none of the unruly curls visible anymore. His piercing blue eyes spoke of a maturity that made him even more attractive. With the classically straight nose and high forehead, he looked very distinguished even though he was only twenty-five. Geoff could have stared at the picture forever.

“Hello?” Abe’s voice sounded amused.

“Yes?” He looked up, straight into the grinning face of his friend.

“We were going to make a plan?” Abe slid off Geoff’s desk and started pacing. “And I don’t know about you, but I’m glad we’re in security already. Wineries need security, right?”

“Are you suggesting I go and get myself hired at the same winery Orson ends up at?” That idea wasn’t half-bad. At least he’d be closer to his “target,” and should Orson not recognize him, he’d have time to come up with an alternative idea.

“It’s as good a place as any to start.” Abe turned around and walked back to Geoff’s desk, tilting his head in thought.

“There’s only one disadvantage.” He sighed. It was a big one for him. “I’ll have to wait until he finds a job, then hope they’re hiring security people as well.”

“It’ll give you time to wrap things up here though.” Abe put his hands onto the desk and leaned forward. “I know you want to go and talk to him right this minute, now that you’ve found him, but actually thinking things through is going to be much better. Once the shock has worn off for you, you’ll be able to be more rational. And I suspect that may come in handy.”

“You’re right, of course.” Geoff took a deep breath and forced h