by Tagan Shepard
For Madison Jones, there has always been her life in Denver. There has always been her girlfriend, Kacey. There has always been her best friend, her studio and her pottery. She has everything in her life exactly in place. But after the loss of her brother, Madison feels unsure about her own future. When Kacey is offered a new job in Oregon, Madison jumps at the opportunity to follow her.
While Kacey works to open a new restaurant at Minerva Hills Winery, Madison sets up her art studio on the property. But constantly in Madison’s path is the owner and winemaker, CS Freeburn. CS is as serious as they come and seems unlikely to warm to either Kacey or Madison.
Though their initial interactions are awkward—if not downright nerve-wracking—the more they cross paths and the more Madison gets to know CS, the more Madison craves those little moments with the standoffish winemaker.
How could she have known that those encounters would begin to threaten the carefully structured life that Madison has built?
|Publication Date||March 15, 2020|
|Cover Designer||Judith Fellows|
“These are beautiful,” Jada said, her long fingers tracing the curve of one of the vases on display. “Some of your best work yet.”
Madison smiled, relief working its way into her aching muscles. Jada Welch had enough years under her belt as a gallery owner and art dealer to know good work when she saw it, and she was not the type to sugarcoat a review. Still, Madison wasn’t entirely sure how she felt about the pieces she was showing her friend. She wasn’t so modest as to ignore that they were good, but she also knew she had the potential to do better. Even when she was throwing these pots, she wondered what her next project would be. It wasn’t exactly the mindset one had when making a masterpiece.
Jada moved to another table, this one holding an amphora-shaped vessel with diagonal slashes of color, all different shades of blue. It was larger than the vases she’d remarked on, standing on its own pedestal like it would be if it made its way into the Welch Gallery. Jada leaned over Madison’s favorite piece, her razor-sharp eyes examining the handle seam. She gave a quiet grunt and moved on.
“Not bad.” Jada stood and turned her focus back to Madison. “Not bad at all. I think I can find a place for them in the gallery. I have a buyer in mind, but he’s sticky. He prefers known artists, but he appreciates good work. I think I can work him around the corner.”
“Thanks Jada,” Madison said, managing one of the smiles that was all-too elusive for her these days.
“Well, I expect a return on the investment. Keep doing work like this and I might be able to set up a solo show for you.”
Madison skipped over to Jada, hugging her arm and placing a kiss on her cheek. “You’re so good to me. I don’t deserve you.”
“No one does, dear.” Jada pulled her into a one-armed hug, dropping a motherly kiss on the temple before taking a step back. “No offense, but this is Gucci and you’re covered in clay.”
It was an exaggeration, of course. She hadn’t even worked that long this afternoon before Jada arrived. Madison had spent the morning working at the coffee shop, so she hadn’t had time to get really dirty. She looked down at her clothes, a worn-out pair of jeans two sizes too big held up with a wide canvas belt, and a short-sleeve pale-yellow T-shirt that hung off one shoulder. They had a liberal streak of dried clay, sure, but nothing like she would have if she’d been working all day. Her feet were shoeless. She felt the pedal on her wheel better in bare feet and it saved her shoe budget. Gray blobs turning white at the edges dotted her feet like chickenpox.
“It’s not that bad.”
Jada dusted her arm with an exaggerated motion before nodding at the coffeepot in the corner. “Does that thing work or is it full of glaze?”
“Are you kidding?” Madison scooted off to fire the coffeemaker into life. “This machine is sacred. Have a seat and I’ll bring you a cup.”
Rather than sitting down, Jada wandered around the studio while Madison busied herself making coffee. As the machine started bubbling and burping, Madison looked around her studio. It was a small space—a single room with a high ceiling crisscrossed with exposed pipes and vents—and she knew it as well as she knew her own skin. The floors were concrete that had been stained, sealed, and stained again. The white cinderblock walls were splattered with paint in sharp lines and voids compliments of the previous tenant who fancied himself the new Jackson Pollock until his Pollockesque abuse of alcohol left him without rent money. Slim windows high on the wall were so encrusted with grime they let in very little light. The building was warehouse-chic without the chic.
Seconds before the coffeemaker beeped its readiness, Madison yanked the pot out and poured two cups. Both women took it black, lucky since there was no refrigerator in the studio and barely enough room for a single sugar packet. Luckily, Madison had inherited a relatively clean couch from the evicted splatter painter. She handed Jada her cup before flopping down on one of the plush, salmon-colored cushions.
At first glance, Madison and Jada could not be more different. Where Jada was African-American with skin so deeply brown it could appear almost purple in certain light, Madison was almost luminescent white due to her limited access to sunlight. Jada was on the shorter end of the spectrum and carried slightly more weight than she would like. Both Madison’s height and weight were squarely centered on average. Madison’s auburn hair would fall below her shoulders if she took the time to straighten it, which she forced herself to do as often as she remembered, whereas Jada’s was cut a quarter inch off her perfectly shaped head.
The differences weren’t just physical. Their personalities were as different as they could be. Jada enjoyed referring to herself as a “married cougar,” embracing her middle age in a way that Madison had never seen—by combining her world experience with perennial sexiness. Madison had turned twenty-eight less than a month ago and lived in mortal dread of her thirtieth birthday when she imagined she would be sent to some sort of retirement home. Jada was ferociously loyal to the sort of clothing labels that cost as much as the average mortgage while Madison shopped exclusively at thrift stores. Jada once wore a pair of four-inch heels on a camping trip. Madison wore shoes as little as possible, and only snowstorms could force her out of her strappy sandals.
Despite all those differences, they had one thing in common, and it was the only thing that mattered: they both lived and breathed art. In the final year of her ceramics degree, Madison had met Jada, visiting the college pottery studio late one night looking for a professor. Everyone else had gone home hours before, but Madison was in her own world in front of her wheel. Jada had watched her throw long enough to determine that she had talent, then introduced herself. Madison had liked her immediately because she was as excited to talk about ceramics as Madison and because she was generous with the contents of the snakeskin-wrapped flask she carried in her two-thousand-dollar purse.
They’d been friends ever since. Jada stood next to Madison’s family at her graduation from Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design. She stood alone when Madison graduated with her master’s from University of Colorado at Boulder, long after Madison’s parents had lost interest in their children. With a level head she had helped Madison move back to Denver and helped her through her grief and shared in her happiness. She was like a second mother and best friend wrapped into one. In fact, Jada had found this studio, which, while small, had a reasonable rent for space in downtown Denver.
Madison pulled her knees up to her chest and cradled the steaming mug between her hands. She breathed in the aroma of good beans, roasted to perfection. Coffee was something of an obsession for Madison. The only reason she could stomach the need for a day job, apart from a pathological fear of facing the same fate as the former tenant, was that she loved good coffee nearly as much as she loved a well-made piece of art.
Jada sniffed her mug dubiously. “This isn’t from that god-awful Seattle chain, is it?”
Madison laughed and leaned back into the couch. “No, it’s not from Starbucks.”
Jada took a long sip, closing her eyes and groaning at the first taste. Jada was also a java devotee and her taste in coffee was nearly as good as her taste in art. The espresso she served in her gallery was imported from a specialty shop in Milan. This wasn’t quite the same standard, but it was a locally roasted coffee, better than the usual swill.
“I’ll try not to be offended by the insinuation.”
“You are a starving artist, Maddie.”
“I’m dating a chef. I may not be able to pay my rent or buy clothes, but the one thing I’m not is starving.”
“How is Kacey? I haven’t seen as much of her since she got back from her brush with fame.”
“She’s good,” Madison said with a smile. Talking about Kacey always made her smile. Thinking about Kacey made her smile. “Really good.”
Madison’s girlfriend, Kacey, had been a sous chef at an exclusive French restaurant in the heart of Denver until her “brush with fame” as Jada put it. Madison’s encouragement had reached nagging levels and Kacey finally took her advice to apply for Top Chef. Kacey pretended to be shocked when she had been accepted for the show, but Madison knew her confidence better than that. Even though being on television had separated them for the first significant time in their three years together, it turned out to be a great decision.
Kacey was a favorite on the show, her runway-model good looks and natural charisma made her a hit with the audience. Her skills made her popular with the judges. Her competitiveness, amplified by the nature of the show, made her less popular with the other contestants. She didn’t do anything to sabotage them, but she wasn’t the helpful, supportive person Madison was used to seeing. In the end, she didn’t win. She didn’t even make it halfway through thanks to a poorly executed group challenge where the fault lay equally between Kacey and another chef, Carter. Kacey ended up taking the fall, but she got her name out there in a big way and earned herself a legion of fans. Her career trajectory had never looked better than right now.
“Is she going back to the Palace Arms?”
“No, she had to give up her position for the show and she doesn’t want to go backward.”
“Can she move forward here in Denver?”
“Maybe, but if not, I’ll go anywhere she wants.”
“Anywhere?” Jada pronounced the word as though there was danger in it. “Is that a good idea? Following her anywhere?”
“Of course. I love her. I want to be wherever she is.”
Madison thought Jada would argue the point. The crease between her brows seemed to say she wanted to, but she changed the subject instead.
“So that’s what these…what did you call them? Audition meals? That’s what they’re all about.”
“Yeah.” Madison finished her coffee and wanted another, but she was too tired. Work this morning had been busy and it was delivery day. Then she had come here and moved around some of her larger pieces to show Jada. With all that lifting, her shoulders and back ached, so she wasn’t ready to give up her comfortable cushion yet. “I don’t know if that’s what it’s called, but it sounds like an audition to me. She has these restaurant owners coming in and she cooks them a meal to convince them to hire her as their executive chef. Like a sample menu, I guess.”
“How are they going?”
“Pretty good, I think. She had another one today. She’s had five or six this week with owners from around the country, as well as John Snow.”
“From Game of Thrones?”
“From Food and Wine magazine.”
“He’s the one who judged the challenge she won.”
“Yeah.” Madison decided she wanted that cup of coffee after all, and when she got up, Jada held out her empty cup. “He was very impressed with her. He’s been lining up the auditions.”
“Is that the way a chef gets a restaurant?” With a warm grin Jada took her refilled cup and continued, “I don’t know anything about restaurants apart from how to flirt with the host for a good table and which ones have the best martinis.”
“It isn’t the only way, but it’s really the only one we can swing at the moment. Kacey would love to open her own place but being owner and executive chef would be such a huge commitment of time and money, we just aren’t there yet.”
“You’re happy to have her back.”
It wasn’t a question. The knowing smile that came with the statement made Madison blush just a shade.
“She was gone a long time.”
Jada sighed and sat back. If anyone knew how hard those days apart were, it was Jada. She’d dried enough of Madison’s lonely tears.
“It was good for her.”
“Definitely. I’ve never seen her so happy and so confident.”
“I don’t recall confidence ever being a problem for Kacey.”
“Maybe not, but she’s like a new person now. I love seeing that sparkle in her eye.”
“I’m glad.” Jada put her cup down on the battered coffee table, then turned thoughtfully back to her friend. “How about you? How are you doing?”
Her vision blurred instantly, and Madison stared hard into the cooling dregs of her coffee, trying to will back the tears. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to cry in front of Jada—she had so many times over the years and she was never judged. In fact, there was no one in her life, not even Kacey, that she would rather talk to about what was going on in her heart. But she was tired of crying. Tired of the pain and the sadness. Tired of the sleepless nights and the emptiness in her chest. She had suffered so much with Kacey gone, now that she was back, Madison just wanted it to go away. She wanted to be happy again. She would be happy again if it was the last thing she did. Grabbing the chain around her neck, she toyed with the necklace until the ring of polished onyx fell out from her shirt collar.
“I’m okay,” Madison replied, and when the gumminess in her throat and the tears in her eyes threatened to show the depth of the lie, she added, “I’m finding a way to deal.”
Madison accidentally dropped her keys at the top of the stairs. She cursed quietly and bent at the waist to grab them. Days like this, when she spent the morning at her day job and her afternoon in her studio, were always bag days. Today she carried five—one with her neatly folded work uniform, another held her studio clothes, now covered in more drying clay than when Jada had visited, her purse, a plastic bag of groceries and finally her backpack containing a sketchbook, art magazines, and supply catalogs. Fortunately she hadn’t taught any pottery classes that morning or she’d have a sixth bag to contend with.
Things would be much easier if she didn’t have so many bags of clothes. She would love to come home in her studio clothes and clean up here, but Kacey didn’t like to wait while she washed up for them to spend time together. Madison understood. Even after three years, they had a hard time keeping their hands off one another long enough to even ask about each other’s day. Of course, it hadn’t been quite so hot since Kacey got back, but then she was frantic about finding a job.
They’d saved some cash before she left, and she did get a paycheck from Top Chef, but it wasn’t much of one. Kacey needed to get back to work, not just because she thrived in the fast-paced, constant pressure of the kitchen, but also because they had bills not covered by Madison working five mornings a week as a barista. Unfortunately, their shoebox apartment was in a high-rent hipster neighborhood.
Having collected her keys, and accompanied by the deep tremor of bass from the nightclub across the street, Madison started toward her door, the last one in the long hall of the fourth floor. They had practically lived in that club a year ago. Kacey was still at Palace Arms then, so Madison had only worked three days a week. Now Madison came home tired a lot more and she didn’t have the stomach for the club. She would much rather sit on the couch with Kacey and the remote control. Hopefully that’s exactly what she would be doing in a few minutes.
Madison dropped the keys again trying to fit the right one into the lock. This time she swore a little louder and dropped the two bags of clothes unceremoniously to the floor rather than wrestle with them. An apple fell out of the grocery bag and tried to escape off down the hall. She grabbed it and shoved it into her mouth rather than back into the untrustworthy bag. When the juice trickled around her teeth and into her mouth, she realized she hadn’t eaten since noon and she was ravenous. She took a big bite of the apple and chewed while snatching up her keys. She wondered when Kacey would be home and if she had any money to grab takeout.
Fitting the apple back into her teeth to free up a hand, Madison shoved the key into the lock. She nearly tumbled into the apartment and cursed a third time because she had forgotten to leave lights on. The interior was dark and sticky-warm. She kicked the dropped bags through the door and dragged herself after.
It wasn’t until she reached for the light switch that she noticed the room wasn’t as dark as she thought. The coffee table was dotted with assorted candles from tea lights to tall pillars, all flickering in the draft from the overhead vents. With a loud click Madison closed the door. She dropped her bags and took a hesitant step into the room, removing the apple from her mouth again.
There was no answer to her summons, but her girlfriend did love to make a splash. No doubt she was waiting for the perfect moment to appear with her devilish grin and smoky-smooth voice.
Madison kicked off her sandals and padded barefoot into the living room. Since the room accounted for the entirety of their apartment apart from the postage stamp bedroom and surprisingly spacious bathroom, it was also their dining room. Her eyes were drawn to the tiny, two-seat dining table and she gasped. The table held only two candles, long, slim, bright white tapers placed on either side of a vase of blood-red roses. In front of the roses stood a sweating ice bucket, the neck of an open champagne bottle poking over the rim.
Madison snatched the apple from her mouth. Her stomach growled, but there was a pleasant anticipation flowing through her that had nothing to do with hunger. She and Kacey hadn’t talked about marriage, but this setup certainly screamed proposal. Closer to the table, Madison could see the two glasses of champagne bubbling away. She was about to reach for one when an arm wrapped around her from behind.
The combination of that seductive, lilting voice and the way her breath brushed against Madison’s exposed neck sent a shiver through Madison from the very center of her scalp down to the tips of her toes.
Kacey dropped a wet kiss on her shoulder with a barely audible chuckle. Madison stepped out of her grasp, the better to let her appreciative eyes paint over her girlfriend. Kacey was a year younger than Madison and at least a half-foot taller. She was a study of enigmas, nearly everything about her personality at odds with her looks. She was a butch in a femme’s body. She was in control of every room she entered, confident to the point of cockiness, aided by a supermodel’s body, which made her the object of interest for everyone with a pulse. Her height was mostly long, shapely legs with delicate feet. She had small, perky breasts that she loved to show off with plunging necklines and skintight shirts.
Her mouth was full and, as Madison knew so well, luscious to a fault. Her only physical imperfection was a weak chin, but she found a way to hide it with choppy, shoulder-length dark hair.
Her eyes and the way she carried herself were what had drawn Madison in, and Kacey knew all too well the power she could wield with a simple heavily lidded glance. She was using it now, and Madison responded as she always did, by flinging herself into Kacey’s arms. She wrapped her arms around Kacey’s neck, pulling her into a lingering kiss. It took everything in her not to blurt out her acceptance of the proposal that had yet to come.
Kacey’s lopsided grin showed one, glistening incisor. That smile left no doubt how the latter half of their evening would go, but for the moment it seemed she had other plans. She gently unwrapped Madison’s arms from around her neck, slipping the half-eaten apple from her grasp as she went.
“Is this your dinner?”
“I forgot to eat.”
“Then maybe you shouldn’t have any champagne. Don’t want you too drunk just yet.”
Madison put on her best pout, fluttering her eyelashes at Kacey and tugging at the hem of her low-cut T-shirt. The pout was never effective because Kacey had perfected the art of the pout long before she met Madison. It was one of the sharpest weapons in her kit, and she wasn’t vulnerable to her own sword. She laughed and tossed the apple over her shoulder as she walked toward the table.
It was meant as a flippant gesture and it was dramatic, but with annoyance Madison watched the apple splat against the floor, little wet, sticky bits flying in all directions. Kacey only kept one room clean, the kitchen, and so Madison would be doomed to clean up after this dramatic gesture. Still, that was a chore for another day, and her heart was racing with the thought of Kacey on one knee. Nervousness weighed on her chest, twining itself around her happiness. She was sure she’d say yes, wasn’t she? She’d been expecting this for a long time, but she thought she’d be happier on the day of the proposal. It was too late to worry about that now though, so she followed Kacey to the table, taking the offered champagne flute.
Madison fought to keep her voice even. She couldn’t look Kacey in the eye. “So what’s the occasion?”
“Don’t you want to take a sip first?” Kacey teased.
“No, I don’t want to take a sip first.” She felt herself blush, and her smile was so wide it hurt her cheeks. “If you don’t tell me what’s up, I’m going to explode.”
“We’ll save that for later,” Kacey said, her voice dropping an octave and her hand sliding up Madison’s side. She dropped it immediately, though, her nerves obviously getting the better of her. “Right now, say hello to America’s newest executive chef.”
“I got a job.”
“Baby, that’s fantastic!” Madison threw herself at Kacey again, careful not to spill either glass. She held on tight, probably too tight, but the news was so wonderful and unexpected that her chest was about to rip apart with conflicting emotions. Pride and disappointment fought inside her, and pride won out. “I knew you could do it.”
Kacey laughed into her ear. “Of course I could do it.”
“I’m so proud of you.”
They kissed again, this time Madison cradling Kacey’s perfect cheek in her hand. After a long moment, Kacey sat, pulling Madison down into her lap. The champagne and candles lay forgotten as Kacey explained.
“I had a few offers, but this one was by far the best.”
“What kind of restaurant is it?”
Kacey had been cooking French cuisine at Palace Arms, but her career had taken her all over the culinary spectrum. She had cooked Italian, Korean, and New American just since they’d been together, and she’d already been out of culinary school a while by then.
“It’s whatever I want it to be,” she replied with a smugness that showed itself more and more often these days. “A new restaurant on a winery. They’re doing this whole destination thing. It’s a working winery and they’ve added a hotel and cottages so people can stay and do the whole experience. Up until now, they’ve just had a simple hotel restaurant, but now they want to do more. A splash restaurant to bring in more business.”
“On a winery? That’s cool. So Napa Valley?”
Madison had decided as soon as Kacey got home from filming that she would move anywhere. She would let Kacey find a job somewhere, anywhere, and she would follow. Madison expected them to spend their lives together, she didn’t care where those lives were spent. Besides, there was nothing, apart from a few friends, keeping her in Denver anymore.
“No, not Napa. That’s old hat, no one looks to Napa anymore.”
Madison slid off Kacey’s lap and reached for the champagne, refilling their glasses.
“Okay, where then?”
“How do you feel about Oregon?”
“I don’t feel anything about Oregon. Is there anything there?”
“There is Minerva Hills Winery, with their award-winning pinot noir and their new restaurant run by a fabulously beautiful and talented executive chef, Kacey Willis.”
“Wait, you mean the Kacey Willis?” Madison’s joke spoiled only slightly when she cracked a small smile. “The one from Top Chef?”
“That’s the one.”
“You better believe it, baby.”
Madison set her glass down and slid back onto Kacey’s lap, straddling her legs, pressing their bodies close. Kacey’s hands went immediately to her butt, pulling their hips together. Madison rocked forward, dipping her lips to Kacey’s throat and kissing her way toward her neck.
“I haven’t told you the best part.”
Madison’s hand found the hem of Kacey’s shirt, pulling it up slowly.
“Better than the fact that my girlfriend has her own restaurant?”
Kacey groaned as Madison sunk her teeth into her ear lobe.
“Better than that. Room and board are covered.”
Madison’s hand faltered in the act of moving up Kacey’s bare side.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean,” Kacey said, pulling her head back enough so she could look into Madison’s eyes. The glint in them told her this was something special she’d been saving. “In addition to a ridiculously high salary, I also negotiated for us to live in one of the cottages on the vineyard. Rent free.”
“So no more slinging coffee or teaching at the local arts center for you.” Kacey’s eyes softened, and for a moment Madison saw the woman behind the bravado. “You can focus on your art fulltime. I made sure of it.”
The tears flowed down Madison’s cheeks before she could stop them. “Oh, baby… Thank you so much.”
“You deserve it.”
She didn’t really. She’d done little to earn it, but there was nothing in the world that she wanted more and she would work to earn it now that she had it. Her excitement surprised her. Even with the prospect of being a fulltime artist, she wanted to be out of Denver. She hadn’t realized how much until this moment when it was a reality. She needed to leave. There were too many ghosts here.
“I love you.”
Kacey couldn’t respond because Madison threw herself so hard into their next kiss that the chair toppled over with both of them in it. They giggled at the ridiculousness of it, but that didn’t stop them for long. All the candles had burned themselves out before they stumbled off to bed.
“This whole thing has been a goddamn nightmare!”
Madison tried not to get annoyed with her girlfriend, but the headache arcing its way across her temples made it difficult. She gritted her teeth and looked out the window of their rented SUV, watching the ethereal green landscape whip by. Except the scenery wasn’t exactly whipping by, hence Kacey’s annoyance. They were currently creeping along in the wake of a massive piece of farming equipment that spanned the width of both lanes. Oncoming traffic was all but running into the ditch to avoid the enormous tires and deadly looking appendages. Unfortunately, the machine appeared to have a top speed of about ten miles an hour. They’d been stuck behind it, acquiring a growing tail of traffic behind them, for what seemed like hours.
It wasn’t just their speed making Kacey scream. She’d been yelling since breakfast, a meal they’d had to grab on the run because the alarm they’d set on Kacey’s phone hadn’t gone off and they nearly missed their flight. When they’d arrived at the Denver airport, they discovered they needn’t have assaulted their taste buds with soggy airport croissants, because their flight was delayed three hours. When they finally arrived at the Portland airport, they discovered their rental car had been given away when they didn’t arrive at the scheduled time. Kacey wasn’t thrilled when Madison pointed out that she had suggested they call. And to top it all off, their baggage was the last onto the carousel.
All in all, Kacey had been in a rage for so long that Madison wanted nothing more than to be as far away from her as possible. They’d been on the road for over an hour already and they had a ways to go.
The saving grace, at least as far as Madison was concerned, was the shocking beauty of the landscape. It was almost enough to whisk her headache away and block out her girlfriend’s constant complaining. Everywhere she looked were rolling green fields and perfect lines of grapes. Madison hadn’t realized that there were so many vineyards in this area. She hadn’t realized there were so many vineyards in the whole state. They seemed to cover every inch of the landscape. The symmetry of the vines, their perfect spacing and their lushness were hypnotic.
Madison had never been to a winery before and she had no idea what to expect. Wine had never really been her thing. She drank it, of course, but she didn’t know good wine from bad. Liquor had always been more up her alley, and even then she went for what she could afford rather than what tasted good. After the first drink, it didn’t really matter, and there had always been many more after the first one. At least that was how she used to live her life. If this is what they looked like from afar, Madison knew living on a winery would be like a dream.
“Thank the fucking Lord.”
Kacey’s shout cut through the pleasant lull into which Madison had fallen. The tractor was pulling off onto a side road, and Kacey swerved around the tail end of it, gunning the engine and causing the SUV to hitch and nearly stall out.
“Kacey, calm down!”
Madison grabbed the handle over the door, her heart pounding. Kacey did not slow down, she took a wide curve far too fast, nearly fading off into the ditch before catching the angle and blasting out onto a straightaway.
“Seriously, please slow down.” Still she ignored Madison’s pleas. “You’re scaring me!”
Perhaps it was the palpable fear in her voice that caught Kacey’s attention. She backed off the gas, but only barely. They still rocketed down the scenic mountain road much faster than advisable. Kacey didn’t apologize or even look over, but she reached out and put a hand on Madison’s knee. The gesture felt more possessive than apologetic.
The robotic, British-accented voice of their GPS announced that their turn was in half a mile. Kacey slowed the car in anticipation. She looked around at the mountains and hills. Far from the awe that Madison felt when looking at them, Kacey sneered in disgust at the green hills and wide, blue sky.
Madison was a city girl, growing up in Denver and only leaving it for graduate school and the occasional weekend in Vegas. Kacey had spent most of her youth in Oakland with her mother, moving to San Diego with her father at the age of fifteen. She constantly criticized Colorado as the backwoods, even when they were in Denver, so this was going to be a massive change for her. When Madison started looking into their new home with some basic Internet research, she was surprised that Kacey had taken the job. Although, when Madison saw the contract and the salary, things came into slightly better focus.
A massive stone-and-brick sign appeared on the left side of the road, announcing the entrance to Minerva Hills Winery. The turnoff was only paved for a few feet, then changed to gravel. When she didn’t adjust her speed accordingly, Kacey bounced the car and spun the tires, kicking up stones behind them.
“Damn country bullshit,” she barked, finally slowing and scanning the lot. “How are we supposed to get in?”
The gravel road let off immediately into a massive parking lot, full of cars of every make and model. There had to be at least a hundred vehicles lined up here even though the vineyard was nowhere in sight.
“Head toward the gate.”
Madison indicated the tall brick pillars with a wrought-iron spiked fence between. They stretched into the trees on one side, and off to a slope in the land to the other, ending only when the precipitous angle of the ground made the barrier unnecessary. Madison studied the structure as they grew closer. It was grand in a breathtaking sense. The brick pillars were capped with creamy beige stone and vessels like the Roman amphorae she adored. They were spaced every five or six feet, gradually increasing in height, with an undulating wave of metal fencing between. Now that they were closer, Madison saw the vineyards beyond and, with an artist’s eye, noticed the sloping curve of the fence and the parallel lines of each spike mimicking the rolling hills behind them. The central pillars abandoned the graceful increase in favor of a dramatic explosion of height.
Those pillars were easily twenty feet high and the gate between them was the same fence of wrought iron. Set into the massive gate was a pair of smaller, door-sized gates. Each had a flat metal decoration set in the center, an ancient Greek battle helm with a flat nose piece and oval eye slits inside a flaring, bullet-shaped helmet that, Madison knew from her brief time on the winery’s website, was the company’s logo.
“How the hell am I supposed to get in?” Kacey barked, throwing the car into park in front of the gates and leaping out. “Who’s gonna open the damn gates?”
Madison sighed, unbuckling her seat belt and steeling herself for the inevitable renewed anger. She got out of the car and joined Kacey.
“The gates don’t open,” Madison said, indicating the two doors in the fence that were the only openings. “The winery doesn’t allow cars onto the property.”
Madison winced at the shrill scream, her headache throbbing. “They don’t want car exhaust around the grapes. It’s supposed to be this whole clean air thing. The grapes are alive and they don’t want to poison the air they breathe.”
“How can they possibly run a business like that?”
Madison pointed up the packed dirt path on the other side of the gates. A horse-drawn carriage with polished painted wooden seats and high sides crested the hill and rattled toward them.
“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.”
Madison turned to her, annoyance beginning to seep into her own voice to match Kacey’s. “How could you not know that? Didn’t you learn anything about this place? We’re going to be living here.”
Kacey turned on her, eyes full of withering disapproval. “All I needed to know was that I had free rein with my restaurant, a huge salary, and a free place for you to live and make your pottery.”
The rebuke was well-aimed, if ungraciously expressed, and Madison dropped her eyes to the gravel. She looked up when she heard the bell-like chime of the horses’ approach. They were beautiful animals, one with a milk-chocolate coat and a bright white slash down its nose and the other pure, unblemished black.
The cart made a wide circle on the other side of the gate, the horses facing back toward the vineyard and coming to a stop after a gentle command from the driver. He jumped down and tied the reins to a hitching post near a small gatehouse, then went to the back of the carriage to help the passengers down.
“I didn’t realize it applied to people who live and work here as well as the guests,” Madison admitted.
Kacey accepted her admission with less grace than Madison had hoped. “Apparently it applies to everyone.”
The carriage driver opened the door in the gates, letting out a flow of happy guests. Madison watched him as he ushered everyone through with a charming smile and an occasional handshake. He was devilishly charming and the female guests, especially the older ones, lingered over their goodbyes. Kacey rolled her eyes and crossed her arms over her chest, but Madison couldn’t help but smile as she watched him.
He was younger than them, probably around twenty-five, but he had a jovial, boyish face that made him look like a teenager. He wore a dingy cowboy hat, which, paired with his red-brown skin and short, raven-black hair, made him look like a ranch hand in some cheesy chick flick. It was obvious from the way he applied his charm liberally and indiscriminately that this was an image cultivated purposefully.
When all the departing guests had spread themselves out through the parking lot, he turned to Madison. “You must be our new chef.”
“Actually,” Kacey said, pushing herself straight and putting on her own thick layer of charm. “That would be me. Kacey Willis.”
He shook her proffered hand but turned immediately back to Madison. “So then you’re the artist girlfriend?”
“Yeah.” She smiled and shrugged, trying not to let Kacey’s grumpiness dim the pride she felt in that job title. His hand nearly swallowed hers when she shook it, but was softer than she expected. “Madison Jones.”
“CS said you’d be here today. We expected you earlier. Was your flight delayed?”
“We’ve had every delay there is.” Madison laughed. “What’s CS?”
“Who’s CS is the question,” he replied. “She’s the owner and winemaker here at Minerva Hills. Sorry, I thought you’d met her.”
“I did. Madison didn’t get the chance.” Kacey growled, forcing herself back into the conversation. “So how do we move in if there’s no way to get to our cottage?”
“I’ll take you and your things in the carriage. We take all deliveries here at the gate and lug them inside. How do you think I got so strong and manly?”
“Steroids, I expect.”
He laughed at Kacey’s joke, but Madison cut her an admonishing glance since she suspected it wasn’t that much of a joke.
“My name’s Javier Escobado. People around here just call me Boots. Pleasure to meet you both and welcome to Minerva Hills.”
Kacey did not return his smile as she asked, “Why do they call you Boots?”
With her back turned, Kacey didn’t notice the glimmer of mischief in his eye, but Madison did. She hid her smile as he said, “That’s pretty obvious, isn’t it?”
“No,” Kacey snarled.
With that, he disappeared around the back of their car, pulling open the trunk and grabbing a pair of bags in his large hands. Kacey scowled at him, her anger not dissipating.
For Madison’s part, she laughed at his odd humor and puckish demeanor. It seemed obvious he was teasing Kacey, and she thought quite well of him for it. Her girlfriend had a habit of bullying people, both in the kitchen and in life, and Madison appreciated anyone who wouldn’t let her get away with it. She decided on the spot that she was going to like Boots.
“Hey,” he said, ducking back around the side of the SUV, handling his burden as if it weighed nothing. “I tell ya what. When you figure it out I’ll give you a nickname too. Anyone ever give you a nickname before, Kacey?”
Kacey yanked a suitcase from the trunk, struggling under its weight. The venom was still present in her voice when she answered, “Not if they intend to live through the conversation.”
Boots winked at Madison as he passed. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
They finished loading the assorted suitcases onto the cart and Boots pointed Kacey in the direction of the gatehouse where someone would call the rental agency to arrange collection of the car. While they waited for Kacey, Boots told her about the pair of vehicles the winery kept at the gate in case the workers needed to go into town.
Boots busied himself with the horses and securing their cargo, so Madison looked around her new home. A sharp incline blocked nearly everything from view, but she did see that grapevines, bright green with new leaves and neatly twisted around wooden trellises, ran all the way up to the gate. There was even a short row running parallel to the fencing. Whoever this CS was, she didn’t waste a single inch of space.
Kacey came striding back through the gate, giving the carriage a curled-lipped glare of disapproval. Once she was inside and seated next to Madison, Boots came around and closed the door, latching it on the outside. She’d been right when she noticed the carriages were more than just your standard hayride fare. They sat on polished, cherry-stained seats that could have accommodated twenty people. The sides of the carriage were tall, the smooth top brushing against Madison’s shoulder blades, and providing a surprisingly comfortable backrest. Their luggage fit neatly into the open space at their feet, but Madison assumed there must be a more utilitarian cart for deliveries of goods rather than people.
“How the hell am I supposed to get fresh ingredients like this?”
Boots shouted an answer to Kacey’s rhetorical question over his shoulder as he drove. “We get deliveries several times a day. Most of our produce comes from local farms and they deliver it right to us. The cottages are supplied with groceries weekly. Just send a list down to the gatehouse and we’ll hook you up.”
Kacey shrugged, acquiescing without returning his smile. “That’s good at least.”
They turned off onto a side track on the right. It was narrower than the main road and sloped down, the rising vines blocking the view of the rest of the grounds.
Madison leaned close, speaking low so only Kacey could hear. “Would you relax? We’re here now. This is going to be great.”
She didn’t say anything to agree, but at least she didn’t rant and rave, so there was improvement. Instead, Kacey grunted and slipped her hand into Madison’s, entwining their fingers as she looked at their new home with an expression somewhere between a scowl and a grin.