Authors: Nina Harrington
To them, Rick Burgess would always be every bit the renegade who had walked away from a job with the family wine business to become a professional extreme sports personality. What did he know about the modern wine trade?
And they were right.
If Tom was still alive his business ambitions would have stayed in the world he knewâprofessional sports and adventure tourism. They had always been his passion and still were.
But Tom was dead. And there was nothing he could do to bring him back.
Just like he couldn't change that fact that his parents were both in their sixties and needed him to take Tom's place and work for Burgess Wine.
It had never been his decision or his choice. But as they said, there was nobody else. Burgess Wine was a family business and he had just been promoted to the son and heir whether he wanted the job or not.
He didn't like it. They didn't like it. And they still didn't completely trust him not to mess things up or run back to his old life.
Emotional blackmail only went so far.
This was probably why they'd set up this sales meeting with an important client he had never met. Of course they would deny it if he questioned them, but he had been long enough in the sports world to recognise a challenge when he was presented with one.
This sales pitch was just one more way they were asking him to prove that he could pull off his crazy idea to open a flagship wine store for Burgess Wine in London.
Which in his book was even more of a reason why he had to make the wine world take him seriously.
Even if he did detest every second of these types of business meetings.
The upbeat rhythm of a popular dance track sang out from the breast pocket of his jacket and Rick flipped open his smartphone.
âFinally! Were you actually planning to check your emails some time this morning, Rick?'
âAngie, sweetheart.' Rick chuckled. âHow delightful to hear your welcoming voice. I have just got off the plane and getting used to being back in London. Turns out I miss my chalet in France almost as much as I miss you.'
âSweet talker! Sometimes I don't know why I put up with you. Oh. I remember nowâyou pay me to sort out the boring stuff in your life. But forget sightseeing for the momentâI'll take you on a tour later. Right now I need you to take your head out of the latest extreme sports magazine and flip over to the message which I am sending...now. I have some news about the sales meeting this morning, but don't worry, it's all under control.'
Rick straightened his back and turned away from the river, suddenly very wide awake.
âGood news or bad news? Talk to me, Angie. I thought we locked down this meeting weeks ago.'
His personal assistant knew him well enough to immediately gush out, âWe did. But do you remember those two TV wine experts who we approached to help promote the new store in the build-up to the launch? The ones who were so terribly busy appearing on cookery shows to get involved with yet another wine merchant? Well, guess who emailed me late last night. Apparently they heard a rumour that Elwood House might be investing in the new generation wines and suddenly they might be interested after all.'
Angie laughed down the cellphone. âTurns out your mother was right. The Elwood Brothers connection has paid off.'
Rick exhaled slowly, pushed back his stiff shoulders and flicked through the research information on the people he was going to have to convince to take him seriously.
âGot it. I should be there in about ten minutes. And thanks for sorting out things at the London end, Angie.'
âNo problem. We have an hour before the presentation. Catch up with you soon.'
Rick closed down the phone and stared at it for a few seconds before popping back into his pocket with a snort.
So that was how the game was played.
The top wine experts he needed were only prepared to turn up and listen to what he had to say if he had the credibility of a famous name in the wine trade like Elwood Brothers behind him.
Yet another example of exactly the kind of old world narrow-minded network he detested. Instead of asking what he could bring to the business, all they were looking for was the validation of the old and worthy established family of wine merchants.
Rick exhaled slowly.
Was this how it was going to be from now on?
This was not his life! His life was base jumping and pushing his body to the limit under blue skies and cold air. Not walking into a conference room and selling the idea for Rick Burgess Wines to closed minded traditional hotel owners who had already made up their minds before they heard that he said.
He was about to take the biggest leap in his life and launch a flagship wine store in the centre of London. His name above the door. His future on the line.
Only this time it was not about him or his reputation as a daredevil sportsman. This time it was about passion. A passion for life, a passion for wine, and a new passion for championing small businesses.
Rick Burgess the mountaineer. Rick Burgess the champion paraglider. And now Rick Burgess the wine merchant. Same passion. Same determination to prove that he was up to the challenge he had set himself, even if it had been foisted onto him.
Frustration burned through his veins.
He inhaled slowly, pushed off from the railing and strode away over the bridge.
He needed this to work for the employees and winemakers who relied on him and for his parents who were still locked inside their grief.
He had the presentation in his head. He had time to spare to calm down and clear his head before facing one of the greatest challenges in his life. Bring it on.
* * *
Ten minutes later Rick turned the corner towards the address that Angie had given him, his hands in the trouser pockets of his designer denims and the breeze at his back.
A flock of pigeons swooped down in front of him into the tall oak and London plane trees which filled the small residential square. Families and dog walkers flittered between ornamental flower beds and wooden benches in the broken sunshine. On the face of it, just another quiet city square.
But one thing was certain, in the crazy world that was his lifeâyou never knew what to expect.
Like now, for example.
It wasn't every day that you saw an executive secretary having a row with a delivery driver in the middle of a prestigious London street, but it certainly made a change from dodging tiny dogs on glittery leads. Even if the pretty girls on the other end of those leads had been trying to catch his eye.
Rick slowed his steps.
He needed to take some time out before facing an incredulous wine buyer around a conference table in some soulless, stuffy meeting room. Or the first person to mention the words âdead man's shoes' would end up being decked, which would be a seriously bad move in more ways than one.
This was a far more entertaining option.
His girl was standing with her pretty hands splayed out on both hips and she was definitely a secretary but an executive one.
She was wearing a slim-fitting skirt suit in that strange shade of grey which his mother liked, but had never clinched a tiny waist with a cream coloured sash. He could just make out the tiny band of cream fabric at the cuffs of the jacket. Her long, sleek sandy coloured hair was gathered into a low ponytail at the nape of her neck.
Her very lovely long, smooth neck.
Now that was a neck he could look at all day.
As he watched, the shorter older man in the overalls who she was talking to in a low, patient, but very assertive voice, which reminded him of his junior school headmistress, suddenly shrugged, gave her a ânothing to do with me' flick of both hands, jumped into a white delivery van and drove off, leaving the city girl standing on the pavement, watching the tail lights of the van disappear around the corner.
She stood frozen to the spot for a few seconds, her mouth slightly open, and then turned to glare at a pair of large shiny navy blue ceramic pots which were standing next to her on the pavement.
A five feet tall cone of what looked to Rick like a green cypress tree spilled out over the top of each planter then whirled upwards in some deformed mutant spiral shape which had nothing to do with nature and everything to do with so-called style.
Rick looked at the two plants and then back to the girl, who had started to pace up and down the pavement in platform high heeled slingback shoes, which most of the girls at his mother's office back in California seemed to wear.
Not exactly the best footwear for moving heavy pots.
But they certainly did the trick when it came the highlighting a pair of gorgeous legs with shapely ankles.
So what if he was a leg man and proud? And she had brightened up his morning.
He could make time for some excellent distraction activity.
âGood morning,' he said in a bright casual voice. âDo you need some help with those?'
Her feet kept walking up and down. âDo you have a trolley handy?'
He patted his pockets. âI'm afraid not.'
âThen thank you but no.' She nodded, then stopped and stared at the huge plants, with the fingers of one hand pressed against her forehead as though she was trying to come up with a solution.
âGood thing it's not raining.' He smiled. âIn fact it is turning out to be a lovely September morning.'
Her head slowly turned towards him and Rick was punched straight in the jaw by a pair of the most stunning pale blue eyes that he had ever seen. The colour of the sky over Mont Blanc at dawn. Wild cornflowers in an alpine meadow.
Dark eyelashes clashed against the creamy clear complexion and high elegant cheekbones. Full-blown lips were outlined in a delicious shade of blush lipstick, and as she gawped at him a faint white smile caught him by surprise.
âYes, I suppose it is.' She blinked. âBut, if you'll excuse me, I really do need to find some way of moving these plantsâ' she flung the flat edge of her hand towards the nearest plant and almost knocked it flying ââfrom the pavement into my porch and some time in the next ten minutes would be good.'
âThe delivery driver?' he asked casually.
She sniffed and closed her eyes, teeth gritted tight together, then lifted her chin and smiled. âBad back. Not part of his job description. Just delivery to the kerbside.' Her voice lifted into a slightly hysterical giggle. âApparently he was expecting a team of porters to be all ready and waiting. Porters! As if I could afford porters. Unbelievable.'
âAh. I understand completely,' Rick replied, nodding slowly and scratching his chin, which seemed rather stubblier than he had expected. âMay I make a suggestion?'
She glanced up at him through her eyelashes as she pulled out a cellphone, and sighed out loud. âThank you again, but I can manage very well on my own and I am sure that you have some urgent business to attend to. Somewhere else. In the meantime, I need to call a burly bloke moving company. So good morning and have a nice day.'
Rick chuckled under his breath. It was not often that pretty girls gave him the brush-off and maybe a city girl had reasons to be cautious.
âDid your mother tell you not to talk to strangers? Relax. I can spare five minutes to help a lady in distress.'
Her fingers paused and she glared up at him, her eyebrows lifted in disbelief. âDistress?' There was just enough amusement in her voice to make him take one step forward, but she instantly held up a hand. âYou are mistaken. I am not in distress. I don't do distress. I have never done distress, and I have no intention of starting now. Look.' She popped her phone in her jacket pocket and gingerly wrapped her fingertips around the edge of a pot. And tried to lift it an inch closer.
The pot did not move and she threw a single glance up at him, daring him to say something, but he simply smiled, which seemed to infuriate her even more.
This time she squared her shoulders, gritted her teeth and bent slightly at the knees to go at it again. The pot wobbled slightly then shuddered back to the ground as she hissed in disbelief and stood back with a look on her face as though she wanted to kick the pot hard.
Rick had seen enough. He stepped forward and gently took her arm. âNo need for that. You have all the lifting power you need right here. It's a simple matter of leverage.'
âLeverage!' She laughed and nodded. âIn these shoes? I don't think so.'
âI could move those pots for you. No problem.'
Biting down on her lower lip, the suit looked up at him and he could feel her gaze take in his new Italian boots, denims and leather biker jacket, slowly inching its way up his body until their eyes locked.
And stayed locked.
He watched her expression change as she mentally jostled between necessity and asking for help, which was clearly something she didn't like to do.
Her tongue flicked out and moistened her lips before she lifted her chin and asked, âWhat exactly did you have in mind?'
It was the
long green twirly plants on sticks that were the problem.
Rick had worked out a way of lifting up the edge of the heavy planter using a wooden door wedge then tipping it forward just enough to use the pot as a lever, but the moment he started to roll the bottom rim of the china pot along on one edge, the plant started waving out of control in all directions across the pavement like some demented flagpole, causing mayhem with the pedestrians.
It was amazing how the street seemed to fill up with girls pushing baby buggies, dog walkers and children in the space of ten minutes, but after two narrow escapes where his secretary had to dodge out of the way or risk getting a tree branch in her eye, Rick had managed to roll one planter all the way from the pavement to the patio without causing serious injury to people or the china base.
âBrilliant,' she gushed, trying to catch her breath after waving away a dog with a full bladder. âOne small step and we're there!'
Rick scratched his chin. âTip and shuffle. I tip the pot back and then roll it slightly forward until the edge is on the step. But someone has to hold the greenery out of the way when it swings onto the step. Two man job. Are you up for it?'
He looked up into her face and his breath caught. Close up, he could see that her flawless creamy skin was not a product of pristine grooming and clever make-up but natural beauty which went beyond pretty without being in-your-face gorgeous. The splash of cream at her neck was a perfect contrast to her brown hair and eyebrows and seemed to make her pale blue eyes even more startling.
He had never seen eyes that colour on a girl before but everything about her screamed out that he was talking to a real English rose.
âAbsolutely,' she replied with a quick nod and reached for the bottom of the tree. âLet's do it. Ready? Yes? Go! Oh, ouch. It got me. Almost there. Done!'
Rick stood back, peered at the pot from several angles then leant forward and shifted it to the left slightly.
âBetter! It's fantastic. I don't know what I would have done if you hadn't come along. Thank you so much... Oh, I'm sorry, how rude of me. I don't even know your name...'
âJust call me Rick,' he replied with a wave of one hand. âAnd it was my pleasure, Miss...'
âRick! You found it.'
He half turned as Angie bounded up the pavement towards them, her huge shoulder bag bouncing over one shoulder and a bulging document folder stuffed under her arm and stretched out her hand towards his secretary.
âMiss Elwood, lovely to meet you. Angie Robertsâwe talked on the phone earlier. Thanks again for fitting us in at such short notice. What a fabulous house. And I can see that you have already met my boss.'
âThank you, Angie, and welcome to Elwood House. If you would like to come inside and...' She paused, opened her mouth, closed it again, inhaled slowly and turned back to face him. âYour boss?'
Rick pushed his shoulders back and glanced sideways at the high gloss painted door of the house whose porch he was standing in. The words âElwood House' were engraved in a curvy elegant font on a small brass plaque attached to the stone portico.
It would appear that he had arrived at his destination.
And his English rose was one of the Elwood dynasty.
A low chuckle rumbled in his chest. So this was the hardened old wine merchant he was going to be making his sales pitch to! Well, that showed him. How wrong could he be?
âRick Burgess.' He grinned into his secretary's stunned face. âApparently you are expecting us.'
* * *
Rick braced his shoulder on the ornate white marble fireplace in what had been the elegant, huge formal dining room of Elwood House and held the colour brochure for Rick Burgess Wines in one hand as he watched Saskia Elwood glide effortlessly around the sunlit room.
The back split in her slender, elegant pencil skirt fanned open just enough to give him a tantalising glimpse of a pair of very long slender legs above shapely ankles. Not immodest. Oh no. Demure and classy, but tantalising all the same. Just enough to fire up his imagination.
She was impressive.
Every one of his sales team she spoke to looked away from the press release and winemaker portfolios that Angie had passed around to smile up at Saskia and spend a few minutes chatting before going back to their work with that smile still on their lips.
The men and women in the room knew talent when they saw it. Not everyone was able to put a guest instantly at ease. They had expected Saskia to treat them as sales people who were worthy of a cup of instant coffee and a plain biscuit. Well, she had confounded their expectations by treating every one of his four-person team as a guest and potential client in her private meeting venue. Their coffee and tea had been served from silverware with the most delicious homemade pastries and canapÃ©s.
He liked clever.
Even if it was obvious to him what she was doing.
His sales people were going to be working with clients from the finest hotels and private homes around London, and Saskia had already worked that out. She might be hosting a sales meeting, but there was no reason why
could not sell them the benefits of Elwood House at the same time.
Their hostess was elegant, warm, unpretentious and genuinely interested in her clients. Attentive to their needs, but not intrusive or overfamiliar.
It was precisely what the hospitality industry was all about. And Saskia Elwood had it in spades. He loved watching experts at work. He always had. And the lovely lady of the house was at that moment giving him a master class in exactly the type of customer service he was going to expect in the flagship London face of Burgess Wine.
He glanced back down at his phone. Ten more emails. All from his mother. All wanting urgent updates.
Rick exhaled slowly. A well buried part of his brain knew that she was concerned about him, while the upfront and only too blatant part screamed out a message loud and clear:
They don't think you can pull this off. After two years of hard work you are still the black sheep who is never going to be taken seriously. So you might as well give up now and go back to the sports where you are the best!
No. Not going to happen. He had made a commitment and he was going to see it through, no matter what it took. Rick Burgess had not risen to the top of his sport by being a quitter.
Strange how his gaze shifted automatically up from the screen towards the slim woman in the pale grey suit, refilling an elegant coffee pot.
Her light brown straight hair was tied loosely back in a shell clip at the base of her neck, which on any other woman would look too casual, but somehow looked exactly right. She knew exactly what she looked like and had taken time to perfect her appearance. Subtle day time make-up, but with skin that clear she didn't need anything but a slick of colour on her lips. This woman knew that her eyes were her best feature and made the best of them. Her eyes were totally riveting. Those eyes captured your attention and held it tight.
Just as they were doing right now as she looked across and flashed him a glance.
Rick slid into a comfortable dining chair and instantly refocused on the business proposal, making notes on the points still to be resolved as he scanned down the snag list. But all the while his left hand tapped out a beat on the fine table and curiosity pricked his skin.
Maybe that was her secret? That hot body that every man in the room had probably already visualised, which lay under that surface layer of clothing. Tempting the men and impressing the women. She could turn on the heat for the men and the friendly girl power for the ladies.
A clever girl with a hot body wrapped in a teasing and intriguing package.
A frisson of excitement and anticipation sparked across Rick's mind.
It would be quite a coup if he could sign up Margot Elwood's niece to stock his wines and serve them to her guests before the store even opened.
Perhaps that would be the proof he needed to convince his parents that their reckless and, in their eyes, feckless second son would not let them down after all?
Now all he had to do was talk her into it.
Rick glanced around the table. Everyone was seated. They had their promotional material and Saskia was already scanning each page.
The game was on!
* * *
âI have just spent the last two years tracking down the finest wine from the new wave of young winemakers all over Europe and persuading them to supply it exclusively to my new flagship wine store right here in central London. Every wine on our list has been personally chosen and vetted.'
âYou can say the same thing about every family run wine shop in London, Mr Burgess,' the girl he now knew as Saskia Elwood replied in a light soft voice as her pen tapped onto the cover of his glossy brochure. âStandards are high.'
âYes, I know. You heard it all before. But this is new. This is a direct personal connection between the winemaker and the consumer.'
âHow confident are you that these new cellars will deliver?' she asked. âA new prestigious wine store in the centre of London is one thing, but what assurances can you give me that these winemakers will come back to you year after year? I need to know that I can rely on a guaranteed supply of any wine I add to my list.'
Rick caught her sideways sigh and downward glance but, instead of stomping on her, he grinned and saluted. Her question had not been asked in an angry or accusatory tone. Far from it. She genuinely wanted to hear his answer.
âGreat point. What can I give you? My energy and my commitment. I took the time to travel to the vineyards and meet these winemakers. It was not always easy to persuade them to work exclusively with Burgess Wine, but there's one thing I know from my work as a sportsman. Passion recognises passion. These young winemakers have invested everything they have because they are obsessive about creating the most amazing wines using modern and traditional techniques. I see that in them. That's why I want to champion these ten small family estates because that is the only way I can guarantee that there will never be such a thing as a boring wine ever again.'
He walked around the table slowly, gesturing to the impressive brochure his parents' marketing team had spent weeks perfecting.
âRight now there's a team of marketing experts back in the Californian headquarters for Burgess Wine working on websites for each of the individual growers. When you buy a bottle from this store you will have access to everything you need to know about the wine and the passion of the person who made it. I think that's special.'
âSometimes passion is not enough, Mr Burgess. You need to have the experience and expertise to create a remarkable wine. And these new winemakers are still learning the trade. Not everybody is as...adventurous as you are.'
Rick wrapped his hands around the back of the solid antique dining chair and nodded down the table, making sure that he could capture the attention of Saskia and the three new members of his sales team.
âThey don't have to be. The ten growers I've chosen are all part of a mentoring scheme I've created with well-established major winemakers who have been supplying Burgess Wine customers for years. My parents are happy to invest in the wines we select.'
âDon't you mean the wines you select?' Saskia asked with a touch of surprise in her voice. From where he was standing, Rick could see that her gaze was locked onto the back cover of the brochure, which carried an impressive colour photograph of Rick in full climbing gear on a snowy mountain. âIf I am reading this correctly,' she whispered, âyou already have a career as a professional sportsman, Mr Burgess. Does this new store mean that you have turned your back on adventure sports?'
And there it was.
Just when he thought he might leave his past behind for a couple of hours and be taken seriously.
Rick pressed the fingers of one hand tight into his palm and fought back his anger. He had to stay frosty.
âLet's just say that I'm focusing on the less hazardous aspects. I haven't broken anything important in years and I have every intention of staying around for a lot longer. So much wine, so little time!'
A ripple of laughter ran around the room but he could almost hear the unspoken question in the air which even his sales team were not prepared to ask out loud but were obviously thinking.
What would happen to this store if Rick Burgess jumped off some mountain with a parachute strapped to his back and the wind caught him and sent him crashing against the rocks before he could regain control?
It could happen. In fact it had already happened. One accident only a few months after Tom died.
How could he forget that day? It had been his first trip to the mountains since the funeral and he'd needed it as badly as any other addict needed that cigarette or fix of their choice.
The oppressive atmosphere of the family home and the overwhelming grief had finally become too much to bear and there was only one way he knew to try and get some balance and peace back into his life. Not trapped in a house all day staring at the four walls until he wanted to hit a wall. And go on hitting it until the pain subsided.
He needed to climb a high mountain with a specialised parachute strapped to his back. He needed to feel the rush of adrenalin as the wind caught in the parachute and he felt the power of the air lift him into the sky.