~Prologue~

 

 

LUKE’S BROTHER had a newspaper clipping, sent to him years ago when Luke had finally crawled out from under the shadow of their mom’s death, that one shining summer he’d seemed sunnily optimistic about the future. The picture was from a small-town gazette, captioned with a few lines about a local winery being recognized for its excellence. It didn’t list Luke by name—he’d only been nineteen then and was just a hired hand for the summer—but he was there in the overexposed photo, grinning wide enough for the top of his head to fall off: “Malachi Kuijpers and the crew of Cerulean Estate Winery.”

Luke was parked under the arm of another man, older, though not old, kind-looking if somewhat careworn, holding up a beribboned bottle for the camera.

Val wasn’t particularly prone to collecting keepsakes, especially since he’d been struggling through his second year of medical school at the time, and the transience of college student housing. But he kept the clipping, almost by accident; from apartment to townhouse to his place in the hills, it ended up on his corkboard, propped up beside his computer monitor. Finally Julie found it when they were unpacking after the wedding, and put it up on the fridge.

The picture was almost ten years old, yellowed and fragile, before Val realized that he’d kept it because it was the last time he’d seen his brother smile like that.

 

 

LUKE WOULD have been lying if he said he hadn’t seen it coming. Hell, at least he’d been smart enough that he’d only reluctantly consented to a joint checking account, and he made sure never to put in much more than his share, to keep his savings account to himself. It wasn’t that he was a miser, he was just… cautious.

That, and he knew what a good judge of character he wasn’t.

At least that asshole hadn’t gotten his hands on Luke’s 401(k). Or his contingency fund. At least Luke had seen through him when he started asking for Luke’s share of the rent further and further in advance. At least he’d been smart enough to insist on condoms. To realize Zach wasn’t above cheating—above doing anything—to feed his gambling addiction.

The point was that it could’ve been worse. Sure, the asshole made off with most of Luke’s stuff—the majority of it was just things, but Luke would never be able to replace his mom’s vintage vinyl collection. Zach left Luke’s clothes. Luke would have preferred it the other way around. But he still had his savings, and Zach hadn’t been able to hock the car, since Luke had been driving it at the time.

It happened like this: Luke came home to the apartment and heard sounds coming from the bedroom. The door was open, so he saw Zach getting reamed by some balding fiftysomething with a beer gut, and wondered why the fuck he hadn’t left months ago if he wasn’t surprised. He waited until they were finished, didn’t miss the awkward exchange of funds. At least the tension meant, maybe, that the whoring thing was new.

The old guy left, nodding at Luke with a “He’s all yours.” Luke didn’t know when that had last been true. He went to the office to retrieve his suitcase, but of course it was gone too, so he took some garbage bags from the kitchen instead.

Zach was smoking a cigarette in bed when Luke came in. There was a ratty pile of used tissues next to his naked hip, and a guilty shadow in his eyes when he met Luke’s gaze.

“You didn’t tell me it was this bad.” Luke had had his suspicions, but Zach always put him off when he tried to broach the subject. He said he didn’t like to bother Luke with his problems, that he would work it out.

Now Zach swallowed. When he spoke, it was with a remorse that even sounded mostly genuine. “I didn’t know how to bring it up.”

Well, that was obviously a lie. And even if it weren’t, Zach thought this was a better option? Luke had to wonder if maybe Zach hadn’t hoped Luke would see how low he’d sunk and bail him out, but it wasn’t going to happen. He’d watched his mom struggle with his dad’s addictions until it killed her. He had no intention of being a martyr.

“I’m leaving,” he said. Then he turned to the closet and opened a bag, started shoving in everything that remained of his shattered life.

“I could get help,” Zach said, though his voice didn’t hold any hope.

“You think maybe you should’ve done that before whoring yourself out?” Luke said tersely. He didn’t feel terse, he felt numb, but he sounded terse anyway. “I’ll be gone in an hour. I never want to hear from you again.”

Those were the last words he ever said to him. Zach slinked into the shower after another few quiet minutes, and Luke was gone before he reemerged.

Back in the parking lot, he threw his things into the trunk of his Camaro, unlocked the driver’s-side door, and climbed in. The stupid dangling cherry-shaped air freshener Zach had bought him when he’d first leased the car swayed when Luke shut the door, and Luke stared at it blearily for a full minute before he realized he was crying. Then he wiped a hand across his eyes, took a shaky breath, and started the engine.

 

 

WHEN LUKE showed up at his brother’s door with two garbage bags and a lost expression, Val didn’t need to ask what had happened. Because his mother had instilled in him a sense of timing, and because Julie had a way with these things and had informed him in no uncertain terms that he really didn’t, he left her in the living room with a monosyllabic Luke while he went upstairs to the guest room and hid the pastel paint samples and roll of teddy bear wallpaper. Julie had a family history of fertility problems, so they hadn’t told anyone they were trying to get pregnant. When she’d conceived they’d decided to keep that quiet too, just in case. But she was thirteen weeks now and everything looked good—

Only Val couldn’t tell Luke now. Not when his life was obviously such a mess. He wanted to—God, he felt like he was exploding with the need to tell his brother what it was like, the excitement and the love and the sheer terror of almost-fatherhood—but he couldn’t. So instead he put fresh sheets on the bed, hid the little toy bear they’d bought on a hopeful whim the day they decided to try, and went downstairs to tell Luke his room was ready, and that he should stay as long as he needed to.

 

 

~Interlude~

 

 

LUKE SLAMMED the door to his dusty old pickup truck and looked up at the rambling house. It wasn’t falling down, exactly—the construction was solid, and the shingles showed only a hint of discoloration. But the gutters were full of damp leaves, and the paint was peeling from the Tudor-style building, like whoever lived there didn’t care about appearances, or maybe didn’t have time to care.

Well, it didn’t matter what the place looked like. Luke needed the money if he wanted to go to school in the fall, and the more work there was to be done, the more money he could make. He had already waited two years to pursue his dream of becoming an architect, and if he put it off any longer, he’d never do it. Reaching into the bed of the truck for his bag, he squared his shoulders. Time to meet his employer.

He started the walk from the parking lot up the drive, gravel crunching under his feet. There was a massive square building off to one side of the complex; from what Luke could tell, it was in marginally better shape than the house and saw a good deal more use.

A man in tattered jeans and a filthy T-shirt was hosing down a piece of equipment Luke couldn’t identify. The wind coming through the vineyard pushed the spray from the hose back at him and had soaked his clothing. His shoes had escaped the barrage only because he wasn’t wearing any. Even the straw hat he wore drooped with the amount of water it had absorbed.

“Excuse me?” Luke said. “Do you know where I can find Mr. Kuijpers?”

No answer.

Luke wiped at the water droplets that were already beading across his nose. “Hey, man. I’m looking for—”

No reaction. With a sigh, Luke took another step forward, into the deflected spray from the power washer, and tapped the man on the shoulder. “Excuse me—”

The man turned, and so did the hose, blasting Luke’s jeans with high-pressure spray. Luke cursed and jumped back, nearly tripping over his own feet in his haste to get out of the way. He wound up half-sitting on one of the empty wooden planters that littered the area in front of the house.

The man with the hose fixed him with a bright-blue gaze but otherwise did not react, apart from what might have been a tiny twitch of his lips. He shut the water off and pulled the iPod buds out of his ears. “You must be the new guy,” he said in a surprisingly deep baritone.

“Yeah,” Luke said, struck a little dumb. It must be the eyes, he thought, the color so pure it seemed to go right through him. The eyes, or maybe the voice. He took a slightly shaky breath and cleared his throat. “Luke Scherer.” He stuck out his hand.

The man clasped it firmly and used it to pull him back to his feet. There was startling strength in the wiry arm. “You’re late. You get lost?”

Luke winced. He’d been hoping no one would notice. “Mr. Woodcombe said the place wasn’t easy to find. I didn’t realize I’d need a GPS and a divining rod.” Not to mention a lot of luck. He figured he’d used most of his luck getting the job in the first place. Not all of his high school teachers remembered him fondly. Fortunately his guidance counselor did, and happened to have some connections.

The man didn’t laugh—didn’t even blink. Great, no sense of humor to speak of. This was going to be a long summer.

“Am I going to be in trouble with Mr. Kuijpers?” Luke asked. Can I get your name? he didn’t say. The man would introduce himself eventually… probably.

“No Mr. Kuijpers here,” the man said gruffly. He turned around, putting his side to Luke, and directed the hose back at the piece of equipment he’d been washing. Raising his voice to be heard over the water, he added, “It’s Mal.”

Luke blinked. This guy in his tattered, soaked clothing, with his dirty fingernails and bare feet and sunburnt nose—this guy was his boss? “Mal?”

“My name,” the man continued.

Right. Obviously. “I’m Luke,” he repeated.

“So you said.”

Luke looked really hard for any trace of a smile. Nothing. He would not have wanted to play poker with Mal. “Uh—”

“Inside the back door, stairs immediately to the right. The suite at the top of the stairs is yours for the duration of the summer. Go ahead and unpack. Change into some shorts if you want. We can start the tour after lunch.”

After that there wasn’t a lot to say, so Luke, off-kilter and feeling dismissed, did as he was told. He slung his bag over his shoulder again—he’d dropped it when he’d fallen in the flowerpot—and headed inside to check out his temporary home.

Directly inside the door was a tiny mudroom; to the left, a skinny hallway with old-fashioned sconces led to what Luke assumed was the main living area of the house. A rickety-looking staircase ran at a ninety-degree angle to the hall; the treads of the stairs were thick with dust Luke could already feel crawling up his nose.

To Luke’s relief, he found once he began climbing the stairs that they were sturdier than they looked—much, he could only hope, like everything else at the vineyard. At the top of the stairs was a suite of sorts. The bedroom area didn’t have a door. Instead, the stairs opened directly up on a large, high-ceilinged space dominated by an old bed with a cast-iron headboard and an even older antique desk, complete with antique sewing machine. A more modern television and stand completed the spartan decor. On the other side of the television was an open door, and Luke could just make out tiled walls and the beginning of what was probably a towel rack. Hopefully the bathroom was more modern than the bedroom.

With a huff, Luke sat down on the side of the mattress—lumpy—and pulled open his backpack. He didn’t have a lot of stuff worth unpacking from the truck, just a few sets of half-decent clothes and one or two nice things that he probably wouldn’t be wearing for the duration of the summer. Still, there was no point letting them collect wrinkles. He stood up and started unpacking them into the empty drawers of the desk, which they quickly filled. Then he peered into the bathroom.

All of the windows were open both in the bedroom and the bathroom, giving the place a transient feel, like the early summer could slip away at any moment and Luke with it. The bathroom was done in white tile. A baby-blue bath mat sat in front of a modern shower with one of those water-saving showerheads. The toilet was low flow as well, Luke noted with the experienced eye of someone who had worked a few summers in construction. It seemed at odds with the waste of the power washer, but then Luke didn’t really know what Mal had been doing.

Whatever. The tree-hugging tendencies of northern Californians were not his concern. Keeping this job so he could get an education and out from under his father’s thumb for good was. End of story.

 

 

~1~

 

 

LUKE STEPPED out of the Chevy and slammed the door, listening to the echo on the rolling California hills. The hot sun pounded down on him from high in the clear blue sky, causing sweat to bead on his forehead. He swiped at it with the back of his hand and squinted to take in his surroundings.

Nestled deep in the heart of wine country, the house Val had rented for him seemed like little more than four walls and a roof. It was nice enough from a construction standpoint: new windows, fresh paint on the stucco, a sturdy-looking porch that was almost as big as the house itself. It was… authentic. Simple. He could do with a little more simple in his life.

The scenery, though—the scenery was….

The house was situated three quarters of the way up a moderately sloped hill that was covered in neat lines of wine grapes. The plain dirt road that led up to the house had coated the Chevy in a thin layer of fine reddish dust, and the slight breeze had blown some up around Luke’s sweaty jeans, making them look even more worn than they were already. Paint-chipped wooden Adirondack chairs and hanging baskets filled with wilting annuals adorned the porch.

Best of all, there was no one in sight. No mollycoddling Val pressuring him to talk about his feelings. No string of no-good ex-boyfriends. No one but Luke and the specter of a dead father who was still doing his damnedest to fuck up Luke’s life.

He popped the trunk of the car and scooped out his duffel bag.

According to Val, the property had recently been sold and converted to a rental, but despite the lock box by the front door—Luke entered the imaginative combination 777 to retrieve his key—it didn’t feel transient.

What it did feel was familiar. There was a large open-concept living, cooking, and eating area complete with raw wood timber and butcher-block countertops. Copper pots hung from a rack above a breakfast bar. Wine paraphernalia littered the décor—a barrel did second duty as an end table, bottle racks lined the space under the kitchen counter, and the wall behind the wood-burning fireplace was covered in corks that were serving time as a bulletin board. Blue checkered curtains fluttered in the breeze; the windows had been open in anticipation of his arrival. Luke was grateful for that, because the place didn’t have air-conditioning.

A quick glance at the television showed that there was no HBO either. He’d have to complain to Val about that.

After dropping his bag in the single bedroom, which housed a huge old-fashioned four-poster bed, some more rough-hewn furniture, and an en suite bathroom that almost reminded Luke of civilization, he returned to the kitchen to check whether the fridge was stocked. He could really use a beer.

The world’s most irritating song burst suddenly into the air just as Luke was reaching for the handle, and he pulled out his cell phone, cursing Val for programming the stupid thing to something so damn annoying. He’d probably only done it to get Luke to answer his phone, but still. “What do you want, Val?”

“I take it you’ve arrived in paradise,” Val’s voice came through cheerfully. “How’s your vacation?”

Luke opened the fridge. No beer. Damn. But if he was feeling desperate, there were ten different bottles of white wine in stock.

Maybe later.

“My life in exile, you mean?” Luke corrected. If Val was going to treat him like a kid, he was going to act the part. “It was going fine until you interrupted.”

“Sorry, did I catch you before happy hour?” Val bitched.

“If the contents of the fridge are anything to go by,” Luke observed, “every hour is happy hour.”

And it often was, with Luke, or at least, it had been in the past few weeks, until he’d realized how dangerously like his father he was becoming in that regard. When would Greg Scherer stop ruining his life? When Luke was dead?

“Ah, wine country,” Val said. “A bastion of civilization.”

Speaking of. “Now that you mention it, there’s no cable, Val. How am I supposed to watch NCIS marathons when there’s no cable?”

“Please, you’re not fooling anyone. It’s the porn you’ll really miss.”

Luke smiled at the snappy rejoinder, pleased Val was treating him like a human being again. “Asshole.”

Val ignored him. “Anyway, I’ll call you again in a couple of days, when you’ve had time to settle in.”

“Don’t wait up for me, Mother,” Luke said, and then he hung up and pulled a bottle of rosé from the fridge. Wine had never been Luke’s vice of choice, but there was a first time for everything.

There was a beautiful antique hutch filled with expensive-looking wineglasses against the inside wall of the kitchen, but Luke just shoved the bottle neck under the counter-mounted corkscrew, popped the top, and took a swig from the bottle. It was cool and refreshingly light. Driving across the state was thirsty work.

He took the bottle with him into the bedroom and set it at the foot of the bed, then unzipped his bag and started to unpack. Jeans, swim trunks, and a handful of T-shirts went into the drawers on the left. Socks, underwear, and a couple pair of worn pajama pants went on the right. He’d brought two wrinkled, faded old button-downs if he decided there was someone he wanted to impress, and a ragged, too-big sweatshirt he’d stolen from Val in case it got cold at night. The unmissed ties, pressed shirts, and respectable dress pants were all in storage at Val and Julie’s.

Somehow the bottle emptied at around the same time as the duffle bag. Luke frowned. He hadn’t realized he was that thirsty. Heading back to the kitchen for another bottle—water this time—Luke tried to remind himself to take it easy. He was too young and stubborn to end up like his father, getting shitfaced in the middle of the day.

It was lucky he hadn’t just gone for the next bottle. Not half an hour later, when he had his feet up on the deck railing and his ass parked in one of the surprisingly comfortable Adirondacks, he heard the rumble of tires on gravel and sand and reluctantly blinked open his eyes.

A tiny dark-haired girl hopped out of the cab of a pristinely refurbished old Chevy truck like the one Luke had driven, once upon a time, only without the rust. She reached into the back and pulled out a plastic bin filled with something—Luke couldn’t make it out for the glare on the rear window—and hefted it easily, despite the fact that it probably weighed twice as much as she did.

Luke had parked his own car around the back, and it was obvious that she didn’t see him. She walked up to the steps without a word, and then suddenly she stopped, started, and smiled warmly. “So you did get here okay! The boss thought you might get lost. People often do.” She put the carton down—it was piled high with fresh produce, coffee, and a selection of bagels. Reaching out one tan hand, she introduced herself. “Jo Castillo.”

Once upon a time, she would’ve been Luke’s type to a tee, though she was far too young for him and her piercing blue eyes made him shiver. He stood and shook her hand instead of checking her out. “Luke Scherer.”

“Nice to meet ya. I come bearing gifts.” She gestured to the carton. “I meant to drop this stuff off earlier, but there was a minor crisis involving a snake.”

Luke shuddered inwardly. He hated snakes. “It’s no problem. I really just got here.”

“Well, since you’re here, would you mind getting the door?”

Luke did, then followed her into the kitchen. “So that’s breakfast?”

Jo smiled at him as she began unpacking, starting with the bagels and working her way toward the bottom of the carton, where there were heavier items like milk and cheese. “That’s breakfast. We get up pretty early over at the main house, and even if one of our guests did want to join us, we don’t have time to feed them properly. It’s easier to just prepare you for a morning of leisure.” Along with the bagels, she pulled out a package of precooked bacon, a carton of eggs, orange juice, and a box of oatmeal. “We like to cover all the bases.”

Luke had never been much of a breakfast man, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t change his mind. “So I see.”

“Lunch is over, but if you want to have dinner with us up at the main house, you’re always welcome. Just let me know so I can tell the cook. Otherwise, I can drop off some food for you later, or if you’d rather, I’ll give you directions into town. There’s a couple fancier restaurants and a really good pub.” As she spoke, she made quick work of the groceries: bagels in the breadbox, juice and dairy in the fridge, fruit in a bowl on the counter. She had obviously done this before.

“You deliver?” Luke asked, curious. “What’s for dinner?”

“Well, it’s your first day, so Mom’ll go easy on you tonight. My mom’s the chef,” Jo added at Luke’s raised eyebrow. “So homemade pizza and summer salad. Tomorrow she’ll do something fancier, like prime rib with mashed potatoes and corn on the cob.”

On second thought, exile was looking better by the minute. Maybe Luke should write Val a thank-you card. If the food was half as good as it sounded—hell, he was even willing to try the salad—then Luke was never going to leave.

“Uh. Delivery tonight, I guess? But definitely put me down for dinner tomorrow. That sounds like something I can’t miss.”

“Sure thing, sugar.” The carton collapsed to a flat piece of plastic under Jo’s expert hands, and she slid it off the counter. “What time?”

It was already pushing four, and Luke could tell by the way his mouth was watering that it wouldn’t be long before he was starving. “I don’t know—six? Is that too early?”

“It’s a date,” Jo said cheerfully.

No—no, it wasn’t. For one thing, the girl was total jailbait. For another, half the reason he’d come all the way up here was to get away from his stupid tendency to jump into relationships with people who were all wrong for him. Plus, for all intents and purposes, this girl was being paid to—

Which reminded him. Luke reached for his wallet, ready to give her a tip, but Jo rolled her eyes. “It’s not that kind of establishment, sweetie.” She went to the door, and he followed. He couldn’t get enough of the late afternoon sunshine. “I’ll see you around six.”

He was still sitting outside on the porch with his eyes closed when she returned. For an hour or so he’d toyed with the idea of taking a shower, but he wasn’t there to impress anyone, and frankly getting off his ass sounded too much like work. He was starting to realize, after an entire day of dozing on the sun-warmed porch, exactly how tired he was—tired of the routine of his job grinding away the parts he loved, tired of boyfriends who failed to meet even the lowest of expectations, tired of empty one-night stands with men and women whose names he couldn’t remember even when he tried, tired of being a burden on his older brother. God only knew what Val was paying for him to stay in this place, but ironically, this was probably the easiest he’d been on Val in years. Damn it, he was twenty-seven years old—he shouldn’t need a keeper.

The truck door slammed, and a few seconds later Jo appeared on the porch. It took some effort on Luke’s part not to raise an eyebrow at the large picnic basket she had slung over one arm, but he managed. “I’m back,” Jo said brightly. “And I brought friends.” Taking the Adirondack chair next to Luke’s, she put the basket on the ground and started unpacking the pizza. “Roasted red pepper and chicken with feta, bacon with mushroom and swiss, and spinach with sun-dried tomatoes and goat cheese.” She took out three large Tupperware containers, each with a perforated lid, and opened them, letting the aromas waft out. Then she handed him a paper plate and said, “Dig in.”

Luke wasn’t much of one for clean living, but he could definitely go for homemade pizza over takeout for the rest of his life if that tasted half as good as it smelled. Provided there was someone to cook it for him, of course.

The pizza was even better than it smelled, and they made short work of it before polishing it off with a salad topped with nuts and berries. Healthy eating had never tasted so decadent.

“That’s a nice truck,” Luke commented when the silence had stretched out too long to be comfortable. “I used to have one just like it. Is it yours?”

“Nah, it belongs to the boss. It’s his baby.” Jo started packing the Tupperware back into the basket. “He lets me drive it when I’m on vineyard business.”

“It’s in great condition,” Luke said, impressed that something so old was still running.

Jo smiled as she flipped the cover down on one side of the basket. “It is now. The first time I saw it, it was a rusted-out hulk sitting in the yard. On a good day, the engine might turn over. I swear the boss sweat motor oil for a solid year fixing that up. He had no idea how to go about restoring cars; I don’t know why he was so determined to do it himself.”

“You make it sound like this was a long time ago, but you’re not old enough to have been working here that long.”

“The boss is my uncle,” she explained. “Mom and I have been helping him out for years.”

Luke smiled. “Family business, huh?”

“Something like that. Ooh, he doesn’t have any kids; maybe I’ll inherit.”

Luke chuckled, but before he could help himself, it turned into a yawn. “Sorry. Apparently sitting around doing nothing all day really takes it out of me.”

“We’ll keep the nightcap to one, then,” she told him, taking a bottle of wine that was wet with condensation from the still-open half of the basket. Then she drew out two plastic glasses.

The girl had moves, Luke would give her that, but she was fishing in the wrong pond. “Are you even old enough to drink that?” he blurted tactlessly before he could think of something else to say.

With a melodic thunk, Jo dislodged the bottle’s cork and started pouring. When she had finished the first glass, she pointed out, “I grew up at a vineyard.”

Right. Luke accepted the glass and touched it against hers before taking a sip. The crisp, dry flavor danced across his tongue. “That’s pretty good stuff.”

“House wine,” Jo said with a smirk.

“I figured.” Luke took another deep swallow, trying to figure out the most tactful way to tell her “thanks, but no thanks” when there was nothing officially on the table.

But Jo beat him to the punch with that too. She watched him for a quiet minute, set down her glass, and tucked a stray strand of midnight hair behind one ear before shaking her head ruefully. “No chance, huh?”

Luke felt his mouth drop open. “Believe me, it’s better off this way.”

“Saving me from myself?” She picked up the bottle and topped up his wineglass.

“Doing us both a favor.” Luke stared at the golden liquid and drew a sudden comparison that shocked him into snorting. “What the drink was to my father, that’s what relationships are to me. Can’t just have a sip, have to be drowning in it. He destroyed his liver….” He trailed off. And I got my heart broken. A lot. There was no need to say it aloud.

“Damaged goods, huh?” Jo said softly. “Yeah, we get a lot of that around here. You’ll fit right in at Twelve Grapes.”

“Your boss have a thing for strays?” Luke wondered. Damaged goods. Was that what he was?

Jo laughed a little. “He is the stray.” She looked at her watch and stood up. “It’s getting late. I’d better get back up to the house. Some of us have to be up early.”

Luke tipped his glass at her. “Thanks for the company,” he said, surprised to find that he genuinely meant it, even if nothing was ever going to happen. Especially if nothing was ever going to happen.

“The pleasure was all yours,” Jo assured him. “Pick you up at five thirty for dinner tomorrow.”

“Don’t be late!” Luke called. He did not want to miss a meal like the one he’d been promised.

Jo waved, then hopped in the cab of the truck and pulled away.

Dusk settled over the vineyard, and then the stars came out, one by one, peeking through the velvet curtain of sky until the world was filled with them. Luke looked up at them for a long time, and then the memories got too loud. He brought t