Authors: Nina Harrington
Rick slowed his
car to a stop on the brow of a hill and looked out through the windscreen as dawn broke over the valley stretched out in glorious autumn colours.
He had been driving for almost an hour and was already bored of his own company. Every music track on the radio or CD reminded him of Saskia and the echoing silence in the car as he sat there only made it worse.
The laughter and excitement of the previous evening seemed such a long time ago but he wanted to keep hold of that feeling of happiness when he'd held Saskia in his arms and capture it for ever to keep him warm in the cold winter months ahead.
Rick dropped his head back against the leather seat and closed his eyes.
He should be grateful and happy that his plans were coming together.
Instead of which, his mind was in turmoil and he had spent most of the night tossing and turning, trying to work through what it was he truly wanted.
The more he thought about it, the more he admired Saskia for having the strength to know what she wanted and make the sacrifice to create something remarkable from what she had been given. He was lucky to have met her. Know her. Care about her.
Start falling for her.
Oh yes. He was falling for Saskia Elwoodâand falling hard and fast.
And now he was driving away from the woman he wanted because he was scared of not being worthy of her. Or not being the man she needed in her life.
He was actually
that he would let her down.
Which made him the biggest fool in the world.
Sunshine flickered at the corner of his vision and he half opened his eyes with a smile and a snort. He had faced some amazing challenges in the sports world and only a week ago he would have shouted out that he was ready for anything life could throw at him.
Well, a pretty brunette had just shown him how wrong he could be. About a lot of things.
One thing he did know. Whenever he needed to prepare for a big sporting event, he called in a support team who would back him up at every stage. Maybe it was time to call in Team Burgess? The one team he had left behind to go solo for the past two years.
Rick flicked open his phone and dialled the number.
âMum? Great to hear your voice. Me? Been better. Fact is, Mum, I need your help. And this time it's not about grape varieties.'
* * *
Saskia stepped out of the side entrance at the
and her gaze scanned out across the lawn, which was edged with bright flower beds to the low hills that lay beyond.
Her breath condensed in the cold damp air into a moist pale mist in front of her face, as she opened the gate and strolled out onto the narrow path that wound its way through the vineyard. The glistening frost which covered the hard and apparently dead wood of the harvested grapevines was just visible in the early morning light.
She ran her fingers across one precious vine to the next, bracing herself with each step on the loose pebbles and stony ground of the slope beneath her feet. The earthy aroma of leaf mould, soil and sweet juice from crushed fruit wafted up as she slowly moved along the row, filling her senses in the damp air.
Some people loathed autumn, but she loved it. The chill damp of mornings like this one would open out into bright sunshine for a few precious hours later that day.
A shuffling noise and a cold wet nose pushing at her right hand broke the mood. âOkay, Coco. Yes, I know it's breakfast time.'
Saskia strode back towards the house as the chocolate Labrador sniffed along the path ahead of her, looking for the rabbits, real and imaginary, with whom she shared the hillside. Sometimes she missed having a dog around, but it would be impossible in central London and with the kind of work she had chosen and the life she led.
She loved Alsace, she loved the culture and she loved the old family
where she had spent a sleepless night tossing and turning, her mind reliving every second of the time she had spent with Rick over the past few days.
Saskia shook her head and sighed. Stupid girl. She was getting too old to have crushes on hunky sportsmen...because that was all it could be. A crush.
But, lying in bed last night, trying to get some sleep and failing, Rick's words kept rolling around inside her head and simply would not go away.
Could she sell Elwood House and move to France? Or work for a company like Burgess Wine and employ a manager to run the venue? It would mean accepting Rick's offer to invest but it could open up all kinds of options that she had not even considered before.
Time was so short. The Christmas bookings were already coming in and then there was Amber's wedding and then Valentine's Day, mixed in with business meetings every week. Soon her life would be back to one long blur of activity and a holiday would seem like a distant dream.
No. She would make it happen. She could make the time for regular breaks. She had come a long way from the schoolgirl who was so terrified of drawing attention to herself in case the teasing about her father started up again.
It was time to start living a little.
Kate and Amber would be delighted and probably very creative when it came to setting up her social calendar!
Saskia picked up a small stick and threw it out to the stone wall of the terrace, watching Coco bound ahead to fetch it as she walked slowly back to the dew-frosted cobbled patio which circled the
Smoke from wood-burning stoves rose white and thick from the chimneys of the traditional timbered houses built along the path of the river valley below her. There was no breeze this morning to break the heavy cloud cover and chilling mist. That would come later with the seriously cold weather forecast for the rest of the week.
Coco ran back and forth into the vines and it was a few seconds before Saskia raised her head as her knees bent slightly to take the steeper sections of the slippery mesh of stones, worn smooth by generations of wine growers and their carts.
A warm smile blossomed on her lips as she grew closer to the house but the silence of her stroll was interrupted by the musical chime from her cellphone and for a moment she thought about answering it, before turning it off and indulging in a precious few moments of tranquillity before heading back to the long list of tasks that she had set herself to do today.
Just this once she would break her habit and ignore the siren call of her phone. And she knew just who was responsible for that.
Rick had already gone back to California to be with his family and she wished him well. He certainly had a lot of bridges to build. But she missed him so much already she had to keep busy or be a misery all day. His car was not in the car park so she had better make a start on working on transport back to London.
Saskia called out to Coco and they jogged down the path together. She had barely time to slip off her jacket and pet Coco when a very familiar voice echoed out from the warm country kitchen.
It couldn't be.
Stunned, Saskia wandered into the kitchen and stood frozen at the door.
Rick was wearing his smart casual denims and good shirt and his favourite boots, looking not only rested and handsome, but annoyingly chirpy.
How dared he stand there chatting to the breakfast cook? He must have driven to Chamonix and back again but he looked fresh and ready to take on the world. While she had tossed and turned half the night.
âGood morning, sweetheart,' Rick said. He picked up her hand and kissed it before winking at her. âLook at you. Gorgeous as ever. You don't mind if I call you sweetheart, darling, do you? Excellent. That's my girl. Nowâwhere can I find my breakfast?'
He pretended to look around, which was a joke since the breakfast buffet table had already been laid out a few feet away in the dining room.
His girl? Gorgeous?
Saskia glanced down at her outfit and then narrowed her eyes at Rick.
She was wearing casual trousers which had picked up a thick layer of mud on the hems, her jacket was covered in dog hair from Coco and her hair was damp and limp around her shoulders. He couldn't have waited ten minutes until she had her shower?
âOh, forget the breakfast. We can eat on the way.'
And then he launched himself at her.
Grabbing her around the waist, Rick pulled her to him as though she was water in the desert and kissed her so hard on the mouth that all sensible thought was wiped out.
There was nothing she could do except open her arms wide.
She didn't have any other choice. She was carrying Kate's gloves in one hand and a dog lead in the other. She couldn't even fight him off.
But then the kiss softened, one of his hands moved further up her back and his head tilted slightly so that he could lean in even closer.
This was it. This was the real thing.
This was Rick and it was everything that she had been hoping for.
As her eyes closed and she fell deeper and deeper into a hot kiss with each snatched breath, she was vaguely aware that the gloves and lead must have hit the floor because her hand slid up inside Rick's leather jacket and she returned the kiss.
His hands splayed out on her back as she poured into her kiss all of the passion and devotion, the fear and the doubts that came with giving your heart away to another human being.
It was total mind-numbing bliss.
And felt so right it was crazy.
This was what she had been missing.
This was what she had been longing for since the moment he had said goodnight.
He was back and that was all that mattered.
Wait a minute!
He was back.
âDid they cancel your flight?' she whispered into the corner of his mouth.
Rick replied by bending his legs, grabbing her behind both knees and hoisting her over his right shoulder as though she weighed nothing at all.
âNo time for that. I'll explain on the drive.'
âPut me down! Drive? What drive?' Saskia cried, clutching onto his jacket for dear life as her head bobbed up and down.
âThe drive back to London, of course. It's time for you to meet my folks. They vet all of my girlfriends these days but they're fairly busy with a wine show this week so I am taking you to Napa to get some sun.'
âWait! I haven't even packed my bagâand what do you meanâgirlfriend? I thought you said that I was too set in my ways. Too much of a stay in one place kind of girl for an adventure junkie like you. Well, I have news for youâthat hasn't changed. I'm still a home girl and I have no intention of changing that fact.'
âGreat! Just what I need,' he replied and strode out down the hallway, much to the amusement of the family, who suddenly appeared out of nowhere as though they had been hiding. Even Coco wagged her tailâtraitor!
âWhat? How can it be great? And can you please put me down so that I can see your face when I am fighting with you?'
âNope. From now on it's me and you against the world, gorgeous. I am not letting you out of my sight.'
Saskia looked up just as the
owner appeared at the door. âHelp! I'm being kidnapped.'
He replied by shaking his head slowly from side to side with a huge grin on his face before turning back inside.
âThis is not funny,' Saskia called out in vain.
âYes it is,' Rick replied and grinned around at her. âTime to get you home, my sweet. We have a lot to do.'
âWait a minute! I need my suitcase! And what do you mean, a lot to do?' Saskia replied as Rick bounced along the car park.
His feet slowed and she could see the back bumper of his four-by-four.
âI've had a busy morning. Apparently my parents are amazingly proud of what I have achieved so far. What's more, and you are going to like this, they are totally delighted that I am flying my new girlfriend out to meet them. That's you, by the way.'
âGirlfriend? Oh, Rick,' Saskia replied with way too much of a quiver in her voice. âYou told them that I am your girlfriend?'
âAbsolutely. Because, incredible as it seems, I have come across a new extreme sport. It's all packaged in the shape of a girl called Saskia Elwood Mortimer. Dangerous? Hell, yes. But I am willing to take the risk.'
Rick stopped moving and took firm hold of her legs but when he spoke his voice was low and warm. âSo. This is the way it is going to be, Saskia. I am going to put you down, you are going to go inside and get packed. Then we are going to enjoy some excellent breakfast and drive to London together, before catching that flight. That's right. I'm not letting you go. From now on I will be staying in one place. And that is where you are. No more running around the world. I am done with that. The Burgess and Elwood Show has come to town. Or...'
All she could hear was the birdsong in the pine trees either side of the road and the sound of Rick's breathing and the fast beat of his heart.
He was nervous. And she was heavy. Or both.
âOr...' she repeated with a quiver in her voice.
âOr you tell me that you don't want to be with me and I drive away and leave you here and I don't see you again.'
His hands slid up her legs and gently, gently, gripped her around the waist and physically lifted her forward so that he was holding her under her bottom, taking her weight. And all the time his eyes were locked onto hers.
Then, and only then, did his grip relax so that she could slide down against the front of his shirt and jacket.
She didn't care that the front of her top had ridden up and was showing her pasty white midriff and back to the world on a cold frosty morning.