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Authors: Nina Harrington

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BOOK: Blame It on the Champagne
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He lifted one of Saskia's hands and kissed the back of the
knuckles. ‘I have even found the time to enjoy a vineyard wedding and a parapent
jump on the same day. Imagine that.'

‘Yes. Imagine. I was terrified this morning just watching you
jump off that cliff top! I was almost too scared to watch you land. All your
scars are testament to the adventures.'

Saskia turned back to the railing and gave a small shoulder
shrug. ‘I don't have that kind of courage, Rick, and I never will have. Yes, I
am probably too generous with my time and my energy when it comes to my friends.
But just the thought that there is a problem with my house makes me shake in my
boots.'

She held both of her arms straight out at him. ‘See. Shaking.
But it's all I have and I can't risk anything happening to it. That's why I
totally panicked when I heard that it was damaged in the storm.'

‘Why? Oh it's a lovely house and I was mega-impressed. But
there are plenty of people who would have sold the place and used the cash to do
what they wanted. Like go to university and study things that they are
passionate about, or travel and find out firsthand what the world has to offer.
Crazy things like that.'

Then he smiled. ‘Don't give me that look. You have a good brain
behind those pretty eyes and look hot in everything you wear. You could go
anywhere you want. Do anything you want. So what made you decide to stay and
rent out dining rooms in your house? What's keeping you in London?'

Saskia sniffed and dropped her head. ‘Thank you but I think you
already know the answer to that question, Rick. Let me give you a hint. Does the
infamous Hugo Mortimer investment scam ring any bells?'

‘Your dad made some really bad decisions and stole a lot of
money from a lot of people. But they were adults and nobody forced them to put
their money into bricks and cement. You were a child.'

‘Nice idea in theory.' She cleared her throat. ‘Shame it
doesn't work like that. He was impulsive and arrogant and delusional and the
rest of his family were simply supposed to go along with everything he wanted
without question.'

She slapped her hand down hard on the wooden rail in anger and
frustration. ‘Do you know the worst part? I still have nightmares about the day
he was arrested. The police came to our huge expensive house in three cars,
lights flashing and sirens blaring like some TV cop show, and literally dragged
my dad out of my mother's arms. I was about fourteen at the time and had no clue
what was going on or why they threw him to the floor and were putting handcuffs
on him...and I was screaming for them to stop. To leave my dad alone...'

Words became impossible because of the stinging in her throat
and the blinding tears which blocked out her vision.

All she could feel was Rick's strong arms, which wrapped around
her and held her tight against his chest with her head nestling into his
shoulder.

He didn't say a word but she could feel his strength seep out
from below his fine sweater and reach into her heart and quell her pain until
she could suck in deep breaths between her sobs. She tried to slip her arms out
but his grip only tightened in response.

‘Hey, you can stay right where you are,' he whispered into her
hair and snuggled in closer, his hands splayed out on her back. ‘Take five
minutes. Hell. Take as long as you like. No scars? You have plenty of scars,
gorgeous.'

He slid one arm up her side and pressed two fingers flat onto
her chest so they rested above her heart and she could feel the warm pressure of
his fingertips through the wool throw. ‘But they are not on the surface like
mine are. They are all in here. And they hurt just as bad. Because I think other
people pushed you beyond the limit of what you were ready to handle. But here is
the thing. From what I've seen, the only perfect and constant objects in this
world of ours are the sky, the oceans and the mountains. Everything else needs
work and is likely to change at a moment's notice. And that goes for every
single one of us.'

‘Then how do we cope with all of that chaos?' Saskia blinked.
‘My dad took everything my mother and I had, and more besides. We lost
everything. Savings. Home. Everything that could be sold was sold. Don't you
see? That's why I am struggling to make the leap into taking a risk on your new
business. All I have left is my credibility and reputation. If I lose that by
serving my guests anything but the best then I lose everything I have worked so
hard to build up. I am alone, Rick, and I have to take the decisions alone. It
is a huge gamble for me and I have learned the hard way that taking risks is a
fool's game.'

‘How do we cope?' he asked, his lips pressed against her
temple. ‘We do what our heart yearns to do or go to our graves full of regret
and pain and loss for all of the things we didn't get to do and the words we did
not say.'

‘I'm not sure that I am capable of doing that.'

He responded by slipping back just far enough so that he could
tip up her chin and tap her on the end of her nose.

‘I've been watching you, Saskia Elwood. You are going to be
astounded at what you are capable of. And if you don't succeed you learn from
your mistakes and do what you have to do to get back up and try again until you
can prove to yourself that you can do it. And then you keep on doing that over
and over again.'

‘No matter how many times you fall down and hurt yourself?'

‘You've got it. Your Aunt Margot would be proud if she could
see you now.'

Saskia turned her face and rested her cheek on his chest and
looked out towards the horizon, suddenly needing to get some distance, some air
between them. What he was describing was so hard, so difficult and so familiar.
He could never know how many times she had forced herself to smile after someone
let her down, or walked away without even thanking her after she had worked so
very hard to please them.

Saskia blinked back tears and shrugged deeper into the fleece
blanket while she fought to gain control of her voice. ‘Some of us lesser
mortals have been knocked down so many times that it is hard to bounce back up
again, Rick. Very hard.'

Tears pricked her eyes and she swallowed down the pain to get
the words out. ‘I loved working in my aunt's wine shop after school and at
weekends when my mother was away with her rich pals. But after my dad was
arrested I couldn't...' She took a few short breaths before going on. ‘I
couldn't work there a minute longer. They knew it was nothing to do with me, and
I was family, but...I just couldn't embarrass them like that. Do you
understand?'

Rick replied by wrapping his long arms around her body in a
warm embrace so tender that Saskia surrendered to a moment of joy and pressed
her head against his chest, inhaling his delicious scent as her body shared his
warmth.

His hands made lazy circles on her back in silence for a few
minutes until he spoke, the words reverberating inside his chest into her head.
‘Better than you can imagine. What did you do then?'

Saskia raised her head, laughed in a choked voice and then
pressed both hands against his chest as she replied with a broken smile. ‘I went
to school every day and kept my head down and stayed in the background with my
pals and made a life for myself with my Aunt Margot in Elwood House. What else
could I do? My mother had run away to kind friends in Los Angeles to escape the
press scrum and my aunt was the only one holding us all together. And I never
left.'

‘That was a long time ago, Saskia. What's holding you back now?
Today? This minute?'

He tilted his head sideways to look at Saskia as she moistened
her lips, her mouth a straight line.

‘Isn't it obvious?' she whispered after several long seconds.
‘Losing Aunt Margot hit me hard and I still haven't recovered from the shock.
I'm scared.'

‘Scared of what? Failure? Hell, girl, I've made so many
mistakes these past two years I must have been the laughing stock of the wine
business. Good thing I am able to laugh at myself and enjoy the journey.'

‘How did you do that? How did you pick yourself up after losing
your brother? Your parents must be so proud of what you have achieved.'

‘Oh, girl. If only that were true. My mum and dad have never
understood this compulsion I have to push my body and my mind through challenges
which need high mountains and ridiculous adventures. I don't blame them for
that. Far from it. Tom was always the academically gifted crown prince. The
quiet, hard-working golden boy who could do no wrong. But me?'

A long shuddering sigh echoed out from deep in his chest and
Saskia felt the wave of sad regret wash over her. ‘I was a mystery to them as a
teenager and I am still a mystery to them now. They know that I still resent
being called back into the family business. Once a black sheep, always a black
sheep. The problem is, I am the only black sheep they have left so they have to
give me a chance and put up with me doing things my way.'

Saskia gasped. ‘But you have worked so hard.'

‘I am slowly persuading them that there is more than one way to
get the job done.' Rick smiled, his face suddenly energised, the laughter lines
hard in the warm light flooding out from the living room. ‘And that includes
trusting my gut reaction to choose who I work with.'

Then he shrugged and tilted his head slightly to one side.
‘Here is an outrageous idea. I have already committed to moving my London office
into Elwood House. Let me take that further. You need financial backing with
someone you can trust. I need someone who can help promote the wine store. Why
don't we combine the two? Let me invest in your business the same way that you
are taking a risk and investing in mine.'

Rick pointed two fingers at her chest, folded his thumb into
his palm and fired off a single shot. ‘I choose you, Saskia Elwood. You are the
woman I want to work with in London and nobody else will do.'

TEN

Must-Do list

  • Damn, but Rick is a good salesman and apparently does
    know a few things about his customers after all. The wine I tried today
    would be perfect for Amber's new wedding menu. Buy some before it is all
    snapped up by other customers.
  • Last night in Chamonix and in the chalet. Perhaps take
    the rest of the night off. Need to be fresh and alert for journey back
    north tomorrow. Shame. I will miss this chalet.

Rick
stood in
silence, his gaze locked onto Saskia's shocked pale blue
eyes as she took in a few breaths of the cool night air.

What had he just done?
So much for playing it cool.

Rick inhaled very slowly and watched Saskia struggle with her
thoughts, her dilemma played out in the tension on her face.

She was as proud as anyone he had ever met. Including himself.
This was quite something.

And just like that, the connection he had sensed between them
from the moment he had laid eyes on her standing outside Elwood House kicked up
a couple of notches. And the longer he watched her, the stronger that connection
became until he almost felt that it was a practical thing. A wire. Pulling them
closer together.

And every warning bell in his body starting screaming
Danger
so loudly that in the end he could not ignore
it any longer. And this time he was the one who snapped the wire binding them
together and stepped back, away from her.

She shivered in the cool air, fracturing the moment, and he
stepped back and opened the patio doors and guided her back into the luxurious
warmth of the log fire and the living room.

‘Say that again,' Saskia stuttered. ‘I thought that you simply
wanted me to buy your wine?'

‘I do. This is extra.'

Saskia sucked in air, her shoulders heaving as her brain
struggled to catch up. Then she flung her head back and glared at him though
narrowed eyes.

‘Extra? Wait a minute. When did you come up with this
brainwave? Because the last thing I want is your pity just because I told my sad
little tale. No, Rick. I am independent for a reason. I make my own decisions.
Remember?'

His reply was to wrap both arms around her back and pull her to
him in a warm hug before sliding his arms out and smiling into her face.

‘I don't do pity. We have just been talking about taking risks
and going for business opportunities when we see them. And I see one in you. It
is as simple as that. I want to invest in you.'

‘Me? Right. I think I need to sit down now.'

‘We can do this,' Rick murmured as he stood behind her with his
arms wrapped tight around her waist. ‘And you know how much I like a
challenge.'

‘Is that what I am?' she asked and he could hear the smile in
her voice. ‘Another one of your challenges?'

‘Absolutely. I might have to use every bit of technical
know-how I have to pull it off and get back to ground in one piece, but you're
the girl I want to jump off the cliff with. Even if I have to strap you into
that harness myself. No more watching from the sidelines. Not any more.'

‘What?' She whirled around and looked him straight in the eyes
and gasped, until she saw his smile. Then she thumped him hard on the chest.
‘Oh, just for a second I thought you might be serious about the jump.'

‘It might happen,' he said, blinking.

‘No chance. I promised Amber and Kate when I left London that I
would take care of myself and not do anything dangerous.'

She pushed her lips out and shrugged. ‘Sometimes a girl has to
keep her promises.'

Rick took one step forward and, before Saskia realised what was
happening, he had wrapped his hand around the back of her neck, his fingers
working into her hair as he pressed his mouth against hers, pushing open her
full lips, moving back and forth, his breath fast and heavy on her face.

His mouth was tender, gentle but firm, as though he was holding
back the floodgates of a passion which was on the verge of breaking through and
overwhelming them both.

She felt that potential, she trembled at the thought of it, and
at that moment she knew that she wanted it as much as he did.

Her eyes closed as she wrapped her arms around his back and
leaned into the kiss, kissing him back, revelling in the sensual heat of Rick's
body as it pressed against hers. Closer, closer, until his arms were taking the
weight of her body, enclosing her in his loving, sweet embrace. The pure
physicality of the man was almost overpowering. The scent of his muscular body
pressed ever so gently against her combined with the heavenly scent that she
knew now was unique to him alone.

It filled her senses with an intensity that she had never felt
in the embrace of any other man in her life. He was totally overwhelming.
Intoxicating. And totally, totally delicious.

And just when Saskia thought that there could be nothing more
pleasurable in this world, his kiss deepened. It was as though he wanted to take
everything that she was able to give him and without a second of doubt she
surrendered to the hot spice of the taste of his mouth and tongue. Wine and
coffee. And Rick.

This was the kind of kiss she had never known. The connection
between them was part of it, but this went beyond friendship and common
interests. This was a kiss to signal the start of something new. The kind of
kiss where each of them were opening up their most intimate secrets and deepest
feelings for the other person to see.

The heat, the intensity, the desire of this man was all there,
exposed for her to see when she eventually opened her eyes and broke the
connection. Shuddering. Trembling. Grateful that he was holding her up on her
wobbly legs.

Then he pulled away, the faint stubble on his chin grazing
across her mouth as he lifted his face to kiss her eyes, brow and temple.

It took a second for her to catch her breath before she felt
able to open her eyes, only to find Rick was still looking at her, his forehead
still pressed against hers. A smile warmed his face as he moved his hand down to
stroke her cheek.

He knew. He knew the effect that his kiss was having on her
body. Had to. Her face burned with the heat coming from the point of contact
between them. His heart was racing, just as hers was.

Saskia slowly, slowly slid out of his embrace and almost
slithered off the sofa. And by the time she was on her unsteady legs she was
already missing the warmth of those arms and the heat of the fire on her
face.

‘I think I've talked and been on my feet far too much for one
day. Now we really should get some sleep. Vineyard number three is expecting us
tomorrow and with the weather turning snowy it would probably be best to make an
early start and put snow chains on and...'

She knew that she was babbling but she had to do something to
fight the intensity of the magnetic attraction that she felt for Rick at that
moment. Logic screamed at her from the back of her mind. They were both single,
unattached, they were alone in the most romantic chalet that she had ever seen
in her life, and they wanted one another.

She had never had a one-night stand in her life. And if she was
going to do it, this was as good a place as any...except, of course, it would
never be casual sex. Not for her. And, she suspected, not for Rick either.

Working together would be impossible if they spent the night
together.

Wouldn't it?

Rick stood up in one smooth movement from the hips and
instantly stepped forward so that his hands encircled her waist. He gently drew
her back towards him so that their faces were only inches apart at the same
height.

His hand moved to her cheek, pushing her hair back over her
left ear, his thumb on her jaw as his eyes scanned her face, back and forth.

‘The snow chains are already on. Don't lock me out.
Please.'

His voice was low, steady. And, before she could answer, his
hand moved to cup her chin, lifting it so that she looked into his eyes as he
slowly, slowly moved his warm thumb over her soft lips. Side to side. No
pressure. Just heat.

She felt his breathing grow heavier, hotter and her eyes
started to close as she luxuriated in his touch.

‘Take a risk on me, Saskia. Can you do that? Trust me not to
let you down?'

Risk? He was asking her to take a risk?

Her eyes opened wide and she drank him in; all of him. The way
his hair curled dark and heavy around his ears and neck. The suntanned crease
lines on the sides of his mouth and eyes. And those eyes—those amazing grey eyes
which reflected back the flickering light from the log fire and burned bright as
they smiled at her.

She could look at that face all day and not get tired of it. In
fact, it was turning out to be her favourite occupation.

Rick the man was temptation personified. And all she had to do
was reach out and taste just how delicious that temptation truly was.

Did he know what effect he was having on her? How much he was
driving her wild?

Probably.

Shame that he had to go and ruin it all by asking the one
question she had feared. The one question which would decide which path she
would take in her life.

‘Are we talking about the car journey to Alsace?' she
whispered.

‘Maybe. Maybe not.' He smiled as his gaze found something
fascinating to focus on in her hair. ‘What do you think?' He winked.

Saskia was about to retort with a polite refusal when she made
the fatal mistake of looking into those eyes and was lost.

‘Is that the way you usually interview business partners?'
Saskia asked, trying to keep her voice casual and light. And failing.

He simply smiled a little wider in reply, one side of his mouth
turning up more than the other, before he answered in a low whisper. ‘I save it
for cold weather emergencies. And for when I need to know the answer to an
important question.'

‘Hmm?' He was nuzzling the side of her head now, his lips
moving over her brow and into her hair as she spoke. ‘Important question?'

Rick pulled back and looked at her, eye to eye. ‘I had to find
out if you were seeing anybody at the moment. And now I know the answer, I can
do something about it. So. Are you going to take the risk and jump into my car
for a drive to Alsace tomorrow?'

Saskia leant back against the sofa and took another breath
before grinning back at Rick. ‘Well, I might. If you smarten yourself up a
little.'

He bowed in her direction. ‘Any time.' He dropped his hand and
pushed it deep into the pocket of his denims. ‘Would you care to join me for
breakfast later this morning, Miss Elwood? No strings. Or do I have to use my
emergency procedure again?'

‘I might just risk your croissants.' She nodded. Then a warm
sweet smile lit up her face. ‘But, in the meantime, you can call your parents
and tell them the good news. Elwood House has agreed to be your first paying
customer. That should put a smile on their faces. Deal? Deal. Goodnight, Rick.
Goodnight.'

* * *

Rick leant against the wood-panelled wall at the front
of the dining room with a glass in his hand and enjoyed the view.

Saskia Elwood was on her third piece of Kugelhopf cake and
sweet dessert wine and savouring every mouthful, much to the delight of the
elderly great-grandmother of the Alsace winemaking family who had made both of
them.

They had spent a great day celebrating the grape harvest, which
had been collected in perfect weather just before the frost, ending in a family
party at the local
auberge.
And Saskia had been the
star of the show every step of the way, from the very first moment she'd started
chatting to the family in a perfect Alsace accent right through to her donning
an apron to help out in the kitchen when there was an unfortunate incident
involving their Labrador puppy, Coco, and some wild boar sausages.

They had eaten to bursting, danced until they couldn't stand
and laughed. Really laughed. Saskia had made herself part of the extended family
and dragged him along with her.

It had been a long time since Rick had felt so mellow and
connected to a group of people who shared a common bond through the love of life
and family.

Family. In the end, it all came down to that one common
bond.

And one person was at the centre of it all. Saskia. His
Saskia.

On the car journey from Chamonix to Alsace they had talked and
laughed for hours. Sharing tales about their favourite music, food, friends,
silly stories about their school days and people they had known. And yet they
still kept coming back to the families who loved and exasperated them in equal
measure.

Somehow Saskia had helped him to open up and talk about all of
those memories from the happy times he had spent with Tom and his parents in
Scotland and then California. Christmas parties and family weddings with all of
the aunts and uncles, cousins and neighbours he had not thought about for years.
Good times. Better times.

It was as though she had opened a window on another way of
looking at the turmoil of the past two years and put it into some sort of
perspective. This amazing woman he was looking at now had a father in prison and
her mother was a stranger living her own life in another city, while he had two
wonderful parents who were still grieving as much as he was.

Parents he was trying so hard to impress while all the time
perhaps they simply needed him to talk to them.

Rick flicked open his cellphone, licked his lips and scrolled
down to the number he had not called for days.

Now was as good a time as any.

‘Dad? Rick. How is the weather in Napa today? That's great. Did
Mum get those photos I emailed about Nicole and Jean Baptiste's wedding? Oh, of
course. Too busy getting ready for the wine festival. Yeah. Just calling with
two pieces of news. First—Chamonix has snow. I know, in September! But there's
more. Do you remember me telling you that I was meeting with Margot Elwood's
niece in London? Well, guess who is going to be my first serious customer for
the new store? I know. I'm pleased too. Saskia Elwood is someone I can work
with, I'm sure of it. Okay, I'm talking too much. Tell me about the festival. I
want to hear all about it.'

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