Seasons of Wine and Love
She’s a transplant. He’s native-born. Both call the Northern California wine-producing valley home. His huge family has owned vineyards for generations. She has no family except for her dog Churchill and her two birds. She’s focused on growing her business; so is he. She has the talents he needs to build his “brand.” He’s the account to break her out of the “red.” Will they succeed at their second chances? Or will their pasts keep them mired in their pasts?
Churchill nodded his head as if agreeing and sympathizing. His ears perked up at some sound distinguishable only to him. He growled; then he barked and rushed to the door. She followed.
The dog snarled and barked again. Then he rose up on his haunches and scratched at the door. Loud noises came from the driveway. No intruder would make such a ruckus. Once again Churchill sprang up against the door, lunging to get out. An engine cut off and she peeked out the closed drapes. A tall man eased from a Jeep, glanced around, hesitated, and then headed for the house. Inside, Churchill spun in circles, barking and scratching at the door. She grabbed at his collar, trying to hold him.
“Hush, Churchill.” She patted his head and spoke to gentle him. “It’s a friend. He won’t hurt us.” She eased open the door, straining to hold her dog back. With a mind of his own, Churchill dashed away and cornered Tony. His foot hit the first step when he spotted the dog. Halting, he lowered his hand for Churchill’s sniff.
“Hello, big guy. You do a mighty fine job of protecting your mistress. Good boy.” The dog immediately dropped to his knees, sniffed until satisfied, and began nuzzling Tony’s jean-clad legs. He reached behind the dog’s flat ears for a get-to-know-you scratch. Churchill, the watch dog, surrendered faster than ice cubes in August.
“Some guard dog. At first scratch he gives up the battle.” Astonished, Gabrielle smothered a smile at the photo-op. “He never accepts strangers.”
“I like dogs, but he got the go-ahead from you, Gabrielle. You didn’t show fear when you saw me.” Tony continued scratching Churchill’s ears. “Now that I see how isolated you are out here, I’m glad you have a big dog for protection. Intruders would think twice before stopping here.”
“You didn’t.” She didn’t bother hiding the nip in her voice.
“I’m on an errand of mercy. You going to invite me in?”
She stepped aside and both males slipped through her front door.
He pointed to the brown bag which had survived Churchill’s onslaught. “I ate at The Diner tonight. Had a hunch you might be dying for a strawberry milkshake. I brought mine to join you.” He handed her the milkshake and a straw. Sniffing the empty brown bag, Churchill nosed it looking for treats.
“I don’t know what to say.” She peeled the paper from her straw.
“Thanks would be a good start.” He raised a foot and settled his outer calf against his knee.
“Thanks. But home visits and milkshakes aren’t part of our business arrangement.” She sipped her shake and sunk into the pleasure of its strawberry taste.
“By your definition. I also stopped by to see how the project’s coming along.” He slurped milkshake through his straw.
“I have an office and a phone.”
“You’re there during the day. Unless it rains, I’m busy during the day. No time for calls.” With a skeptical eyebrow raised, she gazed at him over the rim of her covered container.
“Right…so how did you find me?” She sucked on the straw but a strawberry bit clogged the shake’s progress. She ignored the disgusting slurping sound and swigged again.
“Now, that wasn’t easy, especially without an address.” He attacked his shake again, keeping his eyes glued to the embers in the fireplace.
“I didn’t give you one.”
“I figured that was an oversight. But it made finding you more challenging. However, I persevered. And deserve a reward, don’t you think?”
“Ingenuity? Innate tracking skills. I don’t know.” He finally looked at her. “Don’t you worry about being alone and so far away from everything?”
“A little, but the rent’s cheap and the view’s great. Besides, I like to be alone.”
“This place used to attract some pretty unsavory characters because it’s so isolated.”
“You’re the first person who’s ever just shown up here. Besides I have Churchill for protection and he, Rosie and Bianca keep me company.” His concern triggered her defenses so she sipped the shake. That was something nice he’d done.
“You really like being alone? Away from people?” From his astonished look, that concept didn’t set well with him.
“I see people during the day…”
“Business. So do I. What about personal?”
“You’re business and you’re here…And you live away from the city and people.”
“Not the same. I have people who live out there with me. I seek people out as friends, like tonight. Plus, I have family who somehow or other are always involved in my life.” He slurped like a kid and acted as obnoxious.
“Then this visit isn’t business. We agreed we’d meet on business terms.”
“That business idea was your idea. I never agreed,” he answered in a raised voice. Churchill’s head sprung up, he growled and moved away from Tony’s feet where he had plopped. From the kitchen Rosie and Bianca chattered nervous warnings to each other.
“Damn, this place is a zoo!” He ran his fingers through his bronze and silver hair, dislodging a wave onto his forehead. “Isn’t it ever quiet?”
“Usually, Mr. Riccini. But unusual things are happening. My pets don’t understand. And they aren’t used to loud voices.” She rose from the floor in front of the fireplace. Holding his milkshake cup, Tony pushed off the couch, his height unfolding like a Slinky doing stairs. Once up, he towered over her.
“Look, I’m sorry, Gabrielle. I only wanted to see you, though Lord knows why. You’re the prickliest damn woman.” He finished the dregs of his shake.
“Which is why I prefer to keep relationships on the business level. Then my ‘prickliness’ doesn’t bother my clients.” Her last slurp outdid his, and she set aside her empty cup.
His belly laugh broke the tension. “We’re having our first argument. Spitting and slurping, that’s what we’ve been doing. Well, I’ll be…” Setting his empty cup next to hers, he stuffed his hands into his pockets. “You having fun yet?”
Perplexed, her jaw dropped. He ignored her challenge and looked like he had no intentions of getting angry so she could tell him to leave. “Spitting and slurping?” The picture tickled her and she giggled. “I never spat!”
“Did so. Maybe not literally, but like an arch-backed, fur-raised cat, hissing and spitting to get someone to back off.” He took one of her hands. “I’m not backing off, Gabrielle. And you’re seeing humor here. No matter how hard you fight it. Those gorgeous eyes don’t look angry and those lips? Well, they’re twitching to smile and that milkshake moustache makes the cutest picture. Not exactly businesslike.”
“No one’s ever accused me of being cute.” Despite Tony’s words, he hadn’t moved closer. She eased her stance and the starch left her spine.
“Drop-dead gorgeous might be accurate, but with that moustache? Cute, definitely.”
“You’re getting away from business again.” She pulled her hand away and shoved it behind her back.
“We should talk.”
“If you insist. Have you finished the project?”
“Not quite. I would’ve told you that if you called. Anything else you want to talk about?”
Tony scrubbed his chin. “Yeah…let’s talk about you, Churchill, wine…us.”
“Conversation isn’t my forte.” Sensing no danger, Churchill settled back at Tony’s feet. She peered down at him and scowled. “Traitor. Where’s my protector when I need you?”
“He knows he’s not needed. Come on, let’s talk. How many women wouldn’t love to hear a guy say that?”