The Vintner's Vixen Sneak Peek

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CHAPTER ONE

You might think that after growing up with a mother who planned the family’s annual summer trip based on her astrologer’s divinations (excellent ones, to her credit), Noah Bradstone might have developed a healthy respect for the mystic and unknown. You could think that, but you’d be wrong. So when the universe, in its infinite wisdom, tried to tell him it was a bad idea to get out of bed that morning, he glibly ignored the signs.

The first sign was when Noah was yanked out of a perfectly marvelous dream involving himself, Joan Holloway from Mad Men, and a bottle of fine Kentucky bourbon by the caustic smell of diarrhea wafting into his bedroom. It turned out that Molly, his sweet brown Labrador retriever, had somehow eaten the entire box of donuts he’d planned to bring into the tasting room later that morning. It was the second time that month she’d eaten something she shouldn’t have, which also meant it was the second time he’d had to get down on his hands and knees to scrub runny shit stains out of his antique Turkish rug.

And the second sign? While he was knee deep in dog feces, his phone began ringing off the hook. Tossing his rubber gloves into a bucket of murky brown water, Noah checked to make sure his hands were clean before picking up the device. Seven missed calls—all before seven o’clock in the morning. Swiping his finger across the screen, he groaned when he saw who’d been frantically trying to reach him.

Noah loved his mother—truly, he did—but with his thirty-fifth birthday fast approaching and no sign whatsoever of a wife on the horizon (much less a girlfriend), Bernice Louise Winchester Bradstone, scion of San Francisco society, was becoming restless. With Noah’s two younger sisters, Nicole and Cecily, already married off to men the family matriarch had practically hand-picked for them, her focus was now firmly placed on achieving the same for her dawdling son. No matter that he’d told her repeatedly he didn’t want, or need, her help—in his love life or otherwise. But with the city’s famed Founders’ Ball mere weeks away, there was no doubt in Noah’s mind that was why she was calling.

Instead of returning his mother’s calls, Noah flicked the phone’s ringer to silent and made his way to the large walk-in shower in his master bedroom. His day might have started off shitty—pun absolutely intended—but he wasn’t about to let his dream date with the luscious Miss Holloway go to waste.

* * *

An hour later Noah was in his trusty, beat up Ford F-150, making his way down the long winding dirt drive that separated his property from his neighbor’s, when he saw a large plume of dust rising up in the distance. Pushing his sunglasses up, Noah craned his neck forward to get a better look out the windshield. He tried to make out where the disturbance originated, but it was too far away—he couldn’t quite tell if it was coming from his land or old Mrs. Winthrop’s. Either way, it was unexpected, since he hadn’t scheduled anyone to work in that particular field today and, as far as he knew, the estate was still vacant after his neighbor’s death a few months ago.

The closer Noah drove, the more pronounced the dirt cloud became, until he was less than five hundred feet from where a crew was digging up vines and tossing them in a large discard pile in the middle of the drive.

“Holy FUCK!” he exclaimed when he realized what he was seeing. He hit the gas, tires spinning in the dry dirt before finding purchase. A few short seconds later, Noah slammed his truck to a stop and, without stopping to turn off the ignition, leaped out of the cab and reached into the bed to pull out a tire iron. “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?!” He bore down on the work crew with the make-shift weapon fisted in his right hand and rage clouding his vision.

The wine industry was made up of all types of people. Some would give you the shirt off their backs if they thought it would help, while others would smile in your face and then stab you in the back the second you turned away. Still, in all the years his family had been in the business, he’d never heard of someone tearing out someone else’s vines.

An older, grizzled man stepped forward and crossed his large, beefy arms over his chest. “And you are?”

“I’m the owner of those vines!” Noah hollered, pointing at the increasingly large pile. “And you have about two seconds to explain what the fuck you’re doing on my land before I start bashing some skulls in.” Noah wasn’t a violent man. In fact, aside from a couple of schoolyard skirmishes from his days at prep school, he’d never been in a fight in his life. But at that moment, Noah didn’t care that it was essentially one against five and that each man in front of him had at least forty pounds on him. They’d just destroyed hundreds of thousands of dollars of award-winning pinot noir vines and he didn’t have the first clue why.

The foreman raised his eyebrow at Noah as if to ask, ‘You and what army?’ before turning around and grabbing a clipboard from one of his crew. “You don’t look like Angelica Travis.”

“Who?” Noah stared at the man. “I don’t know anyone by that name. My name’s Noah Bradstone and those—” he pointed at the pile “—are my motherfucking grapes, and you’re standing on my goddamn land!” What the fuck was wrong with these people?

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” the foreman drawled, flipping through page after page before reaching the one he wanted and passing the clipboard to Noah. “But I have a work order from Mrs. Calliope Winthrop’s estate to clear this plot of land up to the property line so that the new owner—that’d be Miz Travis—can widen the drive.”

Noah examined the diagram and then tossed the clipboard to the ground, exasperated. “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.” He kicked at the damn thing and missed.

“Now wait just a minute!” the foreman snapped, picking up his paperwork and dusting it off with one big, callused hand. Stepping closer, he pointed menacingly at Noah’s chest as the rest of the crew took two steps forward. “I don’t know what your goddamn problem is, but I will not have you strolling up and yelling at me and my crew. I was paid to do a job and that’s what I’m doing.”

Looking to the heavens, Noah counted to three in an attempt to bring his anger under control. He dropped his hands away and faced the other man. “Those schematics are laid out upside down.” Noah pointed to the opposite side of the drive. “Those are the grapes you were supposed to pull out.” And then he pointed at his land, his precious, marred vineyard. “That is my land. And what you just did cost me a couple hundred thousand dollars in lost revenue. Those vines in that pile? They produce the best fucking pinot noir in the country, and I’m not just saying that. The wine from last year’s vintage is going to be served in the goddamn White House, for Christ’s sake!”

Noah blew out a long breath and linked his fingers behind his head. Marching a couple of paces away, he tried to wrap his mind around what he should do next. Finally, he turned back toward the foreman. “Look, I know you were just doing your job, but I’m going to need your business card all the same.”

The man visibly bristled as his crew muttered behind him. “You can’t sue me!”

“Maybe not,” Noah answered. “But I sure as hell can sue Mrs. Winthrop’s idiot fucking grandkids and whoever drew up those plans. So ... like I said, I’m going to need your name.” Noah notched his chin. “And I’ll be taking that clipboard with me.”

“You’ll be doing no such thing!” the foreman responded indignantly, tossing it to a member of his crew.

Noah sighed. “Fine, have it your way.” He pulled his phone from his pocket and took a photo of the truck parked on the side of the drive—the one that had a large advertisement for Jesse’s Landscaping and Maintenance emblazoned on the driver’s side door. “I don’t know if you’re Jesse or if that’s your boss, but one of you should expect to hear from my lawyers. Now, if you don’t mind, I’ll ask you to kindly get the fuck off my property.” Noah bent down and picked up the tire iron before crossing his arms over his chest and staring the other man down.

“Fine.” The foreman nodded. “I’ve got no skin in this game. C’mon guys.” He motioned for his crew to follow and then they climbed into his large truck and pulled away.

Standing in a cloud of kicked up dirt, Noah looked over at his prized grapes and sighed. He didn’t have the first fucking clue what to do now. They hadn’t covered this sort of thing at UC Davis, and as far as he knew from family experience, nothing like this had ever occurred before. Sure, winegrowers ripped out vines all the time—ones that weren’t producing as well as they should be, or to make room for new grapes when one style fell out of favor—but never had Noah heard about grapes like his being ripped out. You just didn’t do that sort of thing. Not when a winemaker had everything riding on a certain crop from a particular vineyard. Like him.

Clearly the universe was trying to tell him something. Noah just wished he knew what the fuck it was. Because while today had started out terribly, he’d never expected it to get this bad. He didn’t think it could get any worse.

With another weighty sigh, Noah thumbed the screen and brought up his contacts list. Scrolling down, he came to the only name he could think of who could tell him what to do now. Noah hated making this call almost as much as he hated the idea of having to talk to his mother later on. Because if there were two people who knew how to push Noah’s buttons, it was his mom and his dad, the famous cult winemaker Carter Bradstone.

It wasn’t that Noah had a bad relationship with his father. In fact, by most standards you could say they were close. But when Noah had decided to strike out on his own, some harsh words had been said—from both sides. Noah loved his father and he loved the man’s wines too; they just weren’t the types of wine he wanted to make himself. And what’s more, he hadn’t wanted to wait years to take over as the head winemaker of Bradstone Family Vineyards, only to then be constantly compared to his legendary father. Noah knew he could never change the style of wines the vaunted family winery was famous for, so instead of taking his ‘rightful’ spot by his father’s side, when he’d turned twenty-five and came into his trust, Noah had cashed it in to buy his own vineyards and winery from a winemaker who was retiring and moving to Florida to be near his daughter. His father had been less than impressed with the idea.

Now, ten years later, Noah’s gamble had paid off, but his father still had a hard time treating him as an equal. Or, if not equal, then at least a major player in his own right. No matter what Noah did or what he managed to accomplish, it always felt like his dad would forever see him as an upstart who’d eschewed legacy and tradition to cash in on consumer whims. Noah knew in his heart that hadn’t been the case, and the awards and accolades he’d begun receiving the last couple of years validated his instincts, but where family and business was concerned, sometimes cooler heads couldn’t prevail.

Still, there was no one more seasoned than Carter Bradstone when it came to dealing with surprises. While his father had never experienced something quite like this, he’d seen his fair share of ruined crops in the thirty-plus years he’d been in business, so Noah knew he’d have some advice worth sharing. At this point, all was lost—there was nothing he could do to salvage the vines—so now he needed to think about what came next. With the runaway success of his last bottling of Prodigy Pinot Noir he’d built expectations around what he was capable of delivering. Now, except for the liquid that was already bottled and laying down, he had nothing left to deliver. He needed to form a game plan, and much to his chagrin, that meant he needed someone with more experience.

Bracing himself, Noah dialed his father’s number and waited for the man to answer. Taking a deep breath, he swallowed his pride and said, “Dad? It’s Noah. I need your help.”

* * *

With his destroyed vines hauled away, Noah shook Vincent Casilla’s hand and wished the man well. “Thanks for helping me out,” he said, walking the older man to his car. “I appreciate it.”

Vincent shook his head glumly. “Such a goddamn shame. Those vines were at least forty years old.”

“You’re telling me,” Noah agreed with a derisive snort. “Looks like my Prodigy Pinot was the last of its kind.”

“On the plus side, kid, this might propel remaining inventory into rarified air. Once word gets out that these grapes are gone, there’s going to be a run on what’s left. You know how the collectors get.”

Noah did know how the collectors got. So did Vincent, having been his father’s vineyard manager for the last twenty years. Next to his father, Noah trusted Vincent’s insight more than anyone else’s. He’d started out as a day laborer when he’d first come to the United States, but Carter had taken Vincent under his wing and taught the man everything he knew about growing grapes. Now the two acted as a well-oiled machine, producing the wine that graced virtually every table on the West Coast.

“Which would be all well and good if any of that money ever saw its way back to me.”

“True, but you’ve seen what happens once your wine gets added to one of those lists. You can’t keep up with the demand. And trust me, this is going to get out. By the way, your dad wanted me to offer you his press team to get ahead of the news.”

“Nah, that’s alright,” Noah said. “I’ll take care of it.”

That was another way he differed from his father. While every little thing Bradstone Family Vineyards did was announced via a press release complete with professional photo shoot, Noah relied on social media channels to talk directly to the people who cared most about his wines: the customers. Sure, a press release was good to put out when Robert Parker scored your wine a ninety-nine—but for everything else, he took to Facebook and Instagram. Lord knew he’d taken enough pictures of the day’s carnage for the insurance report (and potential lawsuit he was already considering) to write a whole tome about the demise of his beloved grapevines. Now he just needed to make sure he could post without using every expletive in his vocabulary to describe the negligent new owner of the old house next door and the assholes who were responsible.

“Thanks again, Vincent,” Noah added as his old friend climbed into the cab of his own truck.

“Anytime,” Vincent offered, his hand hanging out the window in a friendly wave as he drove down the drive, turning at the road in the direction of the neighboring valley and Bradstone Family Vineyards.

Alone with nothing but his thoughts and righteous anger, Noah huffed out a loud breath and ran his hands through his hair. This was not how he’d anticipated spending his morning and afternoon, and the day wasn’t quite over yet. Right before Vincent had pulled up, he’d made another phone call, this one to cancel a meeting he was very much looking forward to.

While on principle Noah hated canceling meetings, this particular one rankled even more. Naomi Klein wasn’t just the artist who designed his bottle labels, she was one of his closest friends. And a little more, sometimes. He and Naomi had been friends since they were kids forced to endure the ridiculous traditions and affectations that came with being a part of the San Francisco elite. 

If Noah had hated all the times he’d had to don a tuxedo, Naomi had gotten the worst of it, as her parents’ youngest child and only daughter. All of her mother’s hopes and dreams for social success had been pinned on Naomi—her debutante ball had been larger and more grandiose than any they’d seen before or since. That Noah had been her escort for that horrible affair had cemented their friendship forever. Here they were, almost twenty years later, still enjoying each other’s company. These days, though, they didn’t keep it quite as innocent as they had back when they’d been sixteen.

Not that he and Naomi were a couple—much to his mother’s chagrin. Aside from her “advancing age,” Naomi was exactly the type of woman his parents would love to see Noah settle down with. After all, she had the right name, pedigree, education, and family connections. But that wasn’t the type of relationship they enjoyed. The two were friends first and foremost; they just happened to enjoy each other’s bodies every now and again as well. That they’d been able to maintain such an unconventional friendship for all these years astounded the rest of their mutual friends, but it worked for them and he’d been looking forward to mixing a little business with pleasure with her this afternoon.

Unfortunately, now Noah had other business to attend to. Namely, driving up to the dilapidated home next door to see if the new owner, this Angelica Travis person, was around so he could give her a piece of his mind. With a groan, Noah hefted himself into his truck and turned the ignition. He definitely should have stayed in bed today.

CHAPTER TWO

“Angelica, that place is a dump.”

“It isn’t.” Angelica Travis turned her phone away from the building and stared into the exasperated brown eyes of her agent, Jai Carter. “It’s just… dilapidated. No, weatherworn.” That was a good word. Pleased, she smiled fondly at phone and new home alike.

The house nestled comfortingly at the end of a long, swooping gravel drive lined with grapevines. Its front porch was sagging, and the roof over it drooped a little, but the columns that supported it were strong. A pair of ancient oak trees flanked the sprawling two-story building, which had clearly been added to the structure at different periods in its long life. The main section was classic Colonial, with faded white shingle siding marching determinedly past green-shuttered windows. On the left, some former owner had gone Swiss: a stuccoed addition featured chalet-style timber framing and a wooden roof with decorative gables. Appropriate for her former home in one of L.A.’s more creative neighborhoods, maybe, but not so much here in wine country. The addition on the right side of the house was older, and whoever had put it up had at least made more of an effort for it to blend in. But Craftsman-style woodwork and harsh Frank Lloyd Wright angles didn’t give a wine country vibe any more than the chalet addition did. It was no wonder she’d gotten this place so cheap.

“It has bathrooms for every bedroom,” she told Jai. “And the property is surrounded by vineyards. You’ve got to come out here. It’s incredible.”

“You know what’s incredible? The view from my condo.”

“You don’t know what you’re missing.”

“Judging by what I just saw, a hell of a lot of work.” His voice softened, and she knew he was trying his best to stay positive—for her sake.

She and Jai had been friends for years, through her entire career really, or what there was of it. He’d signed her early on as a starving model fresh out of New York and helped her build a name for herself in romantic comedies as she’d gained confidence as an actress. And weight. Which was why all of her roles in the last few years had been relegated to “curvy best friend” status. Some sassy, some serious, although none of them lead material. But he’d gotten her great money for them, and he was the person she trusted most in the world.

“Are you sure about this, Angelica?”

She nodded. “I can do this.” She aimed the phone at her waist. “Look, I even have a tool belt.”

“It’s pink.”

“Tool belts can be pink.”

“Honey, anything can be pink. That doesn’t mean you know how to use it.”

“Jai, please try not to be a dick.”

“I’m not—”

“Remember my first place?” she asked quickly. When he nodded, she squinted into the phone. “Did I, or did I not, renovate it?”

“Angelica, you had the kitchen redone.”

“And I did a damn good job of it.” She’d sold that place for nearly twice what she’d paid for it, and the new owners had scored a feature in some architectural magazine later.

“Your contractors did.”

“I did some of it.”

He sighed. “I’m not saying you didn’t. I'm just staying you don’t have a lot of experience with…” he waved his hand. “Structural stuff.”

She looked back at her newest investment. It did look somewhat… unstructured. She felt her chin firming in determination. “I can do this.”

“Can I at least send you the name of the guy Greg used to take out that wall in the condo?”

“Jai, what good is an LA contractor going to do me in Sonoma County?”

“I don’t know, honey, I don’t know anything about contractors.”

“You should probably leave the hard work to me, then.” She paused, distracted by a distant rumbling. “What is that?”

“What’s what? Hey! Stop spinning the phone! You know I get seasick.”

“Yes, it’s too bad,” she said absently. “That yacht in Cannes last year was pretty epic.”

“Sure, rub it in.”

Was that a truck? It was. A beat-up Ford was barreling down her beautiful new-old driveway, spraying gravel as it went. More vindication that she’d been right to ask the sellers to clear space to widen the drive so it could be paved, she thought. She’d gotten a call this morning from their real estate agent saying the company they’d hired was finally getting it done. She loved grapevines, but it wasn’t like the ones on her property were producing anything like the ones next door. Clearing a few wasn’t going to hurt her aesthetic values.

The truck slid to a stop and she smiled as she saw the cheerful tongue of a brown lab peeking out the passenger side window. Maybe this was a local contractor who’d heard she’d bought the place and wanted to be first in line to try to sell her his services. Well, all right. She probably was going to need some help, at least with the porch and the roof. And maybe covering the stucco.

And then the driver got out, and her mouth went utterly dry. The single most beautiful man she’d ever met, including four years modeling and ten in Hollywood, had just come straight to her new home. And he was pissed.

“Who the hell are you?” His gaze traveled from her face down to her waist, where it stopped on her pink tool belt. His heavy brows drew even further down. “Oh, you have got to be kidding me.”

Well, that was enough to break the spell. Angelica scowled. “Excuse me?”

“Please tell me you’re not the new owner,” he said.

She shoved her phone in her pocket and put her hands on her hips. “And if I am?”

“If you are, you and I have a problem.” The dog scratched at the window of the truck, and the man made a sharp motion with his hand. “Not now, Molly.”

“A problem?” Angelica glanced at the dog. She could hear pitiful whining. “You should let her out.”

“You should mind your own damn business,” he snapped. “And get a handle on your fucking contractors.”

She hoped the dog peed on his seats. “I don’t have any contractors.” She stepped forward, ignoring the fact that he had a good foot on her. “You want to tell me what you’re doing on my property, mister?” She’d had enough of dickheads talking down to her during years of casting couch interviews. No way in hell was some asshole with a cute dog going to come to her house and start making demands.

He pressed his fingers to the bridge of his nose. It was a nice nose, she noted. Sort of elegant and patrician. Too bad it was on a psychopath’s face. “You do have contractors,” he said. “Some landscaping company. I took a picture.” He pulled his phone out of his pocket and swiped a few times. “Here. Jesse, or somebody he knows.” He held out the phone.

She peered at a picture of a van she’d never seen before. “I don’t know who that is,” she said.

“Well, they think you do,” he snapped. “And they just pulled out more than a quarter million dollars’ worth of vines about half a mile that way.” He pointed back down the driveway.

Angelica frowned. “Wait, this is about pulling out the vines?” His exaggerated sigh annoyed her further. “Those vines are on my property, you moron.”

“No, they aren’t. They’re on mine. And don’t call me a moron.” He loomed over her and she found herself staring at a nicely muscled chest that wasn’t much hidden by his t-shirt.

Unimpressed, she poked him. “Step away.”

“Ow!”

She smirked. She’d had her nails done yesterday, wanting to look extra nice for her first day of ownership. They matched the tool belt, of course. “I don’t know who you are, but you’ve got it wrong.”

“I’m Noah Bradstone. Your neighbor. And no, I don’t.” He flipped through his phone again and aimed the screen accusingly at her. “See?”

“They tore out the vines so that the driveway could be widened and paved,” she explained patiently. “The sellers arranged it as part of the contract. I’m turning this place into a B&B.”

“Yes, I know.”

“So there’s no problem.” She smiled up at him, the kind of smile that usually made men remember it came from somebody with killer curves.

He seemed unmoved. “There is a problem. They tore out the wrong vines.”

She blinked. “What?”

His face might have been carved of stone for all it moved. Really handsome stone. Handsome, angry stone. “They. Tore. Out. The. Wrong. Vines.”

Shit. “Where? Can you show me?” The glow was starting to come off of her sparkling first day here.

He nodded. “Pictures, or in person?” He held up the phone.

“How far?”

“The end of your drive,” he said. “Where it splits off from my back road.”

She sighed. “Let me get my car.”

“Just hop in.” He gestured toward the truck.

She raised her eyebrows at him, and he actually reddened a little. “I’ll let her out.” He crossed over to the passenger door and opened it. The brown dog leapt down and wiggled her way around him in a happy circle. Angelica hid a smirk as he surreptitiously patted the seat down before ordering the dog to go pee in the bushes.

The dog—Molly—ignored him and came straight for Angelica, who knelt to greet her. “Well, hello, beautiful,” she said, scratching a pair of floppy ears and dodging an enthusiastic tongue. “You can come hang out with me anytime you like.”

Molly’s owner snorted. “Yeah, right.”

Angelica straightened and scowled at him again. “Let’s get this over with.”

He nodded, then gestured Molly into the back of the truck with a whistle. The dog gave Angelica’s hand one last lick and trotted over to him. Angelica followed and was surprised when he opened the passenger door for her after giving Molly’s scrabbling back legs a quick boost.

“Thanks,” Angelica said automatically as she seated herself.

“You’re welcome,” he murmured absently as he frowned at her house. “Here you go.” He shut the door as she clicked her seatbelt on, and she frowned. Rough and ready farm types didn’t usually open doors for women, did they? Not that she was complaining.

The truck rumbled to life underneath her, and she stole a few glances at him as they sat in awkward silence for the five minutes it took to drive to the end of her lane. He had dark hair and dark eyes in a tanned face, some of which was hidden by facial hair that she couldn’t quite determine the intent of. Was it a short beard? Or was he just scruffy? Either way, she could feel herself warming as she looked him over. Not good. No time for that, she told herself sternly. Especially not with somebody who might sue you.

“Here,” he said, pulling to a stop.

She looked out the window. It looked … like landscapers had been there. She frowned. “Wait—”

“Have you figured it out?” His voice was snide. She shot him a frown as she opened the door and got out of the truck. Her feet crunched on the gravel and she put a hand onto the side of the truck’s bed for balance. No need for a twisted ankle today, thank you. A sudden wetness made her look up to see Molly’s cheerful face, tongue bathing her hand. “Gee, thanks, Molly.” She pulled her hand away and went to investigate the carnage. Specifically, the carnage on the left side of the drive. Not the right. Which was what she’d asked for, since the property line ran pretty closely alongside the driveway on the left.

Somehow, somebody had screwed up. And judging by Noah Bradstone’s expression, the buck stopped with her.

“They were supposed to clear that side.” She pointed.

“Yes, I know. The foreman had a diagram that was clearly wrong,” Noah said.

“How much—” she gulped. “How much damage is it?”

He pressed his hand to his forehead again. “It’s a lot.”

She closed her eyes. “Can you give me some time to come up with a solution?”

“What the hell kind of solution can you possibly come up with? These vines are irreplaceable!” His voice was rising again.

“Well, I wasn’t offering to replace them,” she snapped. “There’s been a mistake, but I had nothing to do with making it. I’m trying to help you, here.”

“Some help.”

“Forget it.” She stormed back to the truck and slammed the open passenger door shut. No way she was riding back with him. “I’ll call the sellers’ agent and find out how this happened, and then I’ll call the contractors and figure out who’s liable. In the meantime, you can get the hell off of my property.”

“With pleasure,” he said. “And you can stay off of mine. Rest assured, you’ll be hearing from my lawyer.” He got back into the truck and fired up the engine.

“You and your lawyer can bite me!” Her shout didn’t have much impact on the dust cloud his tires kicked up as he drove away. She looked back up the driveway. It was half a mile back to the house, at least. “Fuck.