BO MARCHAND sipped the delicious wine provided by their host for the evening, Jeremy Aames, owner of Hill Top Wineries. It took all Bo’s self-control not to sigh just thinking about Jeremy.
Bo glanced quickly around the big restaurant and wine tasting area, which was packed with the members of the Central Coast Vintners’ Association, but there was no sign of their host. He was probably overseeing the kitchen. Hill Top was one of the few wineries that served a full menu, which made it popular for their vintners’ meetings. Still, Jeremy not being present might be good since the glorious Jeremy made Bo drool, and that could be damned bad for his illustrious image if his fellow winemakers caught on. He’d worked hard to be a leader in his industry despite his youth. No giving that away. He’d paid too high a price.
He made one more survey of the room from his seemingly relaxed position near the wall. No Jeremy, but quite another target for his attention. Standing next to the wine tasting bar, deep in conversation with two men Bo didn’t know, stood Ernest Ottersen, the central coast’s new golden boy—or he would have been if his hair wasn’t black as midnight. Same color as his heart, most people said. Bo took a sip of his cabernet franc and forced his eyes away from the snake.
Genevieve Renders separated herself from the boisterous crowd and sashayed to the corner where Bo had sequestered himself, all the better to gaze at the object of his affection without interference—if he could find him.
“Why are you being so antisocial? Come drink with us. The guys need your opinions.”
He pushed away from the wall. “Sorry, darlin’, I didn’t mean to be an outsider. After that spread Jeremy provided, I’m just full as a tick and needed a little lay-by.”
She snorted. “Where do you get those expressions?”
“Deep in the heart of Georgia, darlin’, you know that.”
“California’s gain, dear.” She took his arm and pulled him to the largest group of arguers, made up of her husband, Randy—a name which suited him; Ezra Hamilton, the deacon of the local born-again church and mighty proud to be it; his wife, Marybeth, maybe not quite as reborn as Ezra; and Fernando Puente, owner of one of the largest wineries in the Paso Robles area—and he never let you forget it.
Randy stuck out an arm and gathered Bo in closer. “Here’s the man. You gotta help us out here, Bo. Ezra and Ferdinand”—the name Randy insisted on calling Fernando—“had been saying that Ottersen’s bound to win top prizes for central coast wines this year. Hell, he’s aced half the contracts with Napa since he opened.” His words sounded slightly slurred. For a vintner, he couldn’t hold his alcohol, but at the same time, Ottersen made people so mad they could chew barbed wire and spit out a fence, so drinking too much went with the territory.
Bo smiled tightly. “I know no more than any of y’all and have just as much to lose. Sorry.” That wasn’t entirely true, since Bo’s growing methods separated him from the pack somewhat, but still. Ottersen threatened them all. Especially Jeremy Aames, it seemed.
Bo took a quick glance around, trying to spot Jeremy. Since he had two or three inches of height on even the tallest guys in the room, it gave him a decent vantage point, but no luck.
Ezra said stiffly, “I notice Ottersen is talking to strangers. He must be getting the message that none of the other vintners like him.”
Bo noticed movement near the far wall, glanced up, and had to control the slam of his heart as Jeremy Aames walked out of the kitchen with that easy grin of his, talking to a young guy who seemed to be his assistant.
Marybeth followed Bo’s eyes. “Not sure what Jeremy has to smile about. Hell, Ottersen’s taking the biggest toll on his profits.”
Bo’s lips turned up on their own. “Jeremy always smiles.”
A waiter hurried out of the kitchen, grabbed Jeremy’s arm, and he rushed back through the door with the assistant in tow.
Ezra raised an eyebrow. “All those gay boys smile a lot.”
Bo glared at him, but not much got in the way of Ezra’s righteousness.
Marybeth slapped his shoulder. “Ezra, when will you learn to be PC?”
“Never. PC’s for Democrats.” He raised his wineglass and drained it.
Bo wouldn’t have minded giving Ezra a fist to the jaw but had no right. He’d never declared himself out of the closet, partly because it might really give his mother the heart attack she was always claiming was imminent, to say nothing of the collapse of his sisters’ imagined social standing. He kept saying when he had a relationship, he’d come out, no matter what it cost him, but not coming out meant it was doubly hard to meet someone since gay men assumed he was straight. It also meant women still thought he was fair game—with a lot of encouragement from his mother. Vicious damned cycle for a twenty-six-year-old man, but in his family, gay men were still “confirmed bachelors who hadn’t met the right woman.”
Ezra glared at the spot where Jeremy had disappeared into the kitchen. “Ottersen’ll wipe that smile off Aames’s face soon. Apparently, he’s already reverse engineered Aames’s latest vintage and snapped up a big contract that Jeremy was counting on from Shields’ brokerage.”
Bo frowned. “He just unveiled that blend. No one could have reverse engineered it that fast.”
“Yeah, well, those are the facts.” Ezra’s smile was nasty.
Bo’s hand clenched into a fist, but Gen squeezed his arm, a little too close to her chest. “How’s the family, dear?”
He dragged his eyes away from Ezra before he laid him out. Ezra was an asshole, but he had a lot of power among the other vintners. No use getting Jeremy in more hot water. He forced a smile. “Well, thank you.” He gently extricated his limb on the excuse of checking his watch and sipping his wine.
“Your mother’s health?”
He wanted to say Way better than she thinks it is, but that wasn’t fair. “Mama’s doing fine, thank you, Gen.” He stepped back. “Excuse me, please. I’m seeking a rest stop.”
She flashed teeth. “You’re so cute.”
Ezra grabbed Bo’s arm. “You’re still heading the dry farming committee, right?”
“Yes.” He glanced at Ezra’s firm grip, but the man didn’t take hints easily.
“You’ve got to keep Ottersen and his cronies off that committee. He doesn’t need any additional advantages.”
Bo shrugged himself free. “I can’t do that, Ezra. If he applies for an open seat and is voted in, I can’t keep him off.” Bo smiled. “But we don’t happen to have an opening at the present moment in time.”
“Excellent.” He smiled big and nasty.
“Excuse me.” Bo walked away from the group and threaded his way through the crowd, trying to look focused on his goal since he knew most everyone in the room and they all had something to say to him. He walked down the hall toward the kitchen and peeked in. Controlled chaos reigned inside. Cooks and waiters loaded hors d’oeuvre plates to carry out to the picky guests.
Jeremy Aames had only come to the valley a little over a year before when he bought one of the smaller wineries from a retiring old-timer. Jeremy had made a name for himself not only by enhancing some of the winery’s blends right away, but by adding a very creative kitchen that gave his tasting room enough cachet to compete with full-scale restaurants, at least for lunch.
Since Bo’s winery was the only other in the area that served serious food, people had assumed they’d be vicious competitors, but so far Jeremy had coexisted with Bo quite comfortably, recommending Bo’s Marchand Wines almost as liberally as he promoted his own brand. As a result Bo returned the favor, and they sent business back and forth so patrons never got bored.
Bo glanced around the kitchen. Jeremy’s cute young assistant directed waiters around like a five-foot-six-inch general, but Bo didn’t see Jeremy. Bo sometimes wondered if the assistant was more than an assistant. That thought made his stomach clench. He stretched his neck to the side so he could peer into the corner of the kitchen. Come on, just one glance.
“Bo, is there something you need?”
The soft voice came from behind Bo, and he froze and then turned slowly. “Uh, hello there.” Dear god of wine, what a beauty. Jeremy would have been handsome no matter what—his beautiful bone structure and wide blue eyes assured that. But on top of nature’s gifts, Jeremy had chosen to grow his dark blond hair past his shoulders, where it hung in a thick curtain that made Bo want to sink his fingers into it. Like Brad Pitt in Legends of the Fall, the hair took a great-looking man and made him a myth.
A grin spread itself across Jeremy’s sweet face like maple syrup on pancakes. “Hi.” For an instant they just stared at each other, Jeremy looking up since, like most people, he was a few inches shorter than Bo. Then Jeremy took a breath. “Can I be of help?”
Don’t sound like an idiot. “Just spying. Looking for insider tips.” Bo was told that his dimples were an unfair advantage, so he used them.
Jeremy laughed, just a ha or two. “I’m sure there’s not one thing I can teach you, Mr. Marchand.”
Oh, he’s so wrong.
Jeremy’s pretty face sobered. “But I sure understand. These days we all need every competitive advantage we can get.”
Bo frowned. “He’s takin’ a toll on your business, I hear.”
Jeremy nodded. “He’s copied every vintage and bought up vineyards near me so his blends taste as much like mine as possible.”
“Damn the bastard!”
Jeremy glanced up, startled. “Thank you.” He shook his head. “I’m told he’s installing a kitchen.”
Bo nodded. “I’ve heard tell.”
Jeremy smiled, but it still looked sad. “I’m glad your dry farming protects you. He can’t duplicate your unique flavors.”
“At least not this year.” Bo stared at the polished concrete floors. “Maybe we can do something to stop him, or at least slow him down.”
“Really?” Jeremy looked skeptical. “He seems to have an awfully big bankroll or backers with deep pockets.”
“Yes, but if we put our heads together, we just might find a plan.” The more the idea wormed into his brain, the better it sounded.
“Uh, are you talking about all the other owners, or, uh, just you and me?” He glanced up quickly, then away.
“Trying to get this whole herd of cats movin’ in the same direction would be harder than pickin’ fleas off a sheepdog. I think a smaller ship can turn more quickly, if you’ll forgive the mixing of metaphors.”
Jeremy stared at Bo for a long count, then started to laugh. “When would you like to plan trying to get this canine in the water?”
“I could give you my phone number. We could text.”
Jeremy held out his hand and wiggled his fingers. “Gimme.”
Bo tried to not look as excited as he was while he handed over his phone and watched Jeremy type in numbers. Jeremy handed it back. “Text me yours, okay?”
Since no words were coming out of his dry throat, Bo nodded as he took the phone and glanced at the number.
A crash sounded from inside the kitchen. Jeremy looked over his shoulder, wide-eyed. “I better get in there before they burn down the place.” He glanced back at Bo. “Can’t wait to hear from you.” He cleared his throat. “Uh, about your ideas for countering Ottersen.”
Bo watched him disappear through the swinging door.
Oh my heavens, did I just find a way to spend time with Jeremy Aames?
BARELY FEELING the chill of the February evening, Bo floated out of his car and through the kitchen door of his family home. Well, now it was the family home. When he’d left Georgia to start the winery, he’d been independent. Then everything changed. The ranch house Bo had bought for its open concept and huge bedrooms now groaned under the occupancy of his mother, two sisters, aunt, uncle, and grandfather. Their opinions took up as much space as their bodies. More. He released air between his teeth. But he loved them.
Trying to hold on to his elation, he walked quietly through the kitchen and into the long hall that bypassed the vaulted great room, open dining room, and kitchen, where whoever was still awake would likely be clustered.
Halfway down the hall, the floorboard squeaked—a move worthy of a murder mystery—and his mother’s voice called, “Bo, darlin’, is that you?”
Could he pretend he didn’t hear?
“Bo?” His sister Blanche’s head popped around the corner. “Hi, dear.”
“We’re just having a quick glass of wine before bedtime. Come join us, darlin’.”
Caught. “Sure. Coming.” Daydreaming about Jeremy had to wait. He followed Blanche back into the great room, a space he’d loved more before his mom tried to turn it into Tara. It had started out all slate and stone and distressed wood. Now the couch was covered with flowered chintz, white sheer curtains hung beneath velvet drapes, and ceramic angels decorated the end tables. “Evening, Mama.” He walked over to where his mother sat in her floral dressing gown—Mama did love flowers—rocking in her favorite chair, sipping her beloved white zinfandel, and kissed her on the cheek.
He always added a mental footnote to the gods of wine, Dionysus maybe, that he didn’t produce the white zin; they bought it at the supermarket.
He nodded at Bettina, his oldest sister, divorced and living back with Mama, which meant she lived with him. Her red hair contrasted with the brown of Blanche, him, and their mama. Bettina looked more like their dad, who’d passed on four years before, throwing care for the family onto Bo’s shoulders, though he’d only been twenty-two, one year out of college and nine months into his life’s dream of owning a winery. Boom, instant head of family. Both his sisters were older, but according to the gospel of his family, sisters weren’t in line for the honor of supporting everyone who shared a particle of your DNA. That was a man’s job.
Stepping to the sideboard, he poured himself a glass of real zinfandel, the red kind for which the central coast was known. He didn’t need more wine that evening, but they’d all rag him for being unsocial if he declined. He settled into the chair opposite his mom, resigned to be social. “So what did you all do this evening, darlin’s?”
Bettina got a funny expression. Kind of guilty. “We went to a gathering of the Junior League.”
“Ah, doing good for the community.” He took a sip.
Blanche giggled. “Oh yes, we did lots of good for our community.”
“What are you two up to?” He glanced back and forth between the sisters.
Bettina tossed back a drink. “Three, darlin’, make that three.”
He turned to his mother. “Mama, what are you planning?”
“Only my responsibilities, dear. A mother’s job never ends.”
Gripping the bridge of his nose, he sighed. “Who is she?”
Bettina snorted a very unladylike sound.
His mother seemed to be reading the dregs in her wineglass, had there been any. Bo turned to Blanche, his closest ally in the family, though not the world’s most functional human. “You’ll tell me.”
Blanche shared her sweet, slightly vacant smile. “Well, dear, she’s a lovely lady, although she is a Californian. You know how they are.”
She waved a hand. “Somewhat—liberal.”
His mother pressed a hand to her own chest. “Blanche, what a terrible thing to say. She’s a charming young woman of great accomplishment. A bit modern for my taste, but you don’t seem to like old-fashioned girls, so we believe Sage will be a perfect choice.”
“Yes, isn’t it unique?” His mother smiled.
Another snort from Bettina didn’t improve his mood. Bo said, “Where’d y’all dig this one up?”
His mother crossed her arms over her still decorative chest—at almost sixty his mother was still a beauty, if a very round one. “We do not ‘dig them up.’ Sage is new to the central coast.”
Blanche said, “She took a job doing PR for one of the wineries.”
Blanche shrugged. “I’m not sure she said. If she did, I didn’t hear it.”
Oh well. A couple of dates with some new woman would give him cover for another several months. Maybe by that time, he could get somewhere with Jeremy. Yes, and what in the Lord’s mercy will I do then? Good gods and little fishes, that made his stomach turn.
He wasn’t really a coward. Hell, he’d broken away from everything he knew to come to California and brave one of the toughest businesses around. He’d fully planned to come out and live his own life. His father’s death at fifty-six not only curtailed Bo’s youth, it dressed him in his father’s skin, and he’d been wearing it ever since—like a fucking zombie. Suddenly his “dream job” had become a frivolous pursuit that didn’t provide a lavish lifestyle for supporting his new dependents. Still, he did well enough to get by comfortably. On a long breath, he said, “I’ll look forward to meeting her.”
“Excellent. She’s coming to dinner day after tomorrow night.” His mother smiled beatifically.
Of course she is. Leaving his wineglass half-full, he stood. “I have some paperwork to complete, if you’ll excuse me.” He stepped over and kissed his mother’s cheek. “Good night, ladies.”
As he walked toward the hall that led to his bedroom—aka sanctuary—Bettina called after him.
“Oh, Bo, I remembered who Sage said she worked for. Ottersen. I recall because I love those little animals.”
Bo nodded and tried to keep his face neutral. Animal was right. But the less he worried his family with the problems of the winery, the more peace he had. Still, her place of employment could mean he was looking forward to meeting this woman called Sage even less—or maybe, even more.