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Authors: Nina Harrington

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Saskia lifted her chin slightly. She had to stay professional.
Even if he was totally inside her comfort zone and oozing enough testosterone to
make her forget her own name.

‘Just this.' He breathed low and hoarse, his head tilted
slightly to one side. ‘What would you say if I was prepared to sign a contract
committing Rick Burgess Wines to hold a lunch meeting at least every week right
here in Elwood House for the next two years?'

He paused and let the silence create the anticipation he was
looking for.

‘What would I say?' Saskia repeated, lifting her chin slightly
sideways so that she could smile up into his face without straining her back. ‘I
would say thank you very much and here is a piece of paper and a pen.'

‘I thought that you might. But there is a catch.'

‘Am I going to like it?'

‘Like it? I hope so. You see, my company specialises in
exciting wine made by a whole new wave of brilliant new winemakers from right
across Europe. I need customers like you to take a risk and invest in these
wines. But one short presentation is not nearly long enough. So...' his hips
shifted slightly, just in case she had not noticed how tight his jeans were,
stretched over his muscular thighs ‘...I was hoping that you might be available
to have dinner with me this evening. It would give me a chance to tell you more
about what I had to offer. If you were free.'

Free? She was free for dinner every
evening.

Rick was smiling at now, but she could see the muscles in his
lower arm move slightly as they adjusted to a shift in his position. Dark brown
hair curled onto broad muscular shoulders. Sinewy neck and jaw. Beyond rugged,
physical and potent.

Butterflies fluttered in the pit of her stomach under the
intensity of that gaze and she had the sudden urge to toss her hair back, stick
her chest out and flirt with him outrageously. His dark blue-grey eyes shone
bright in the low light she used in the cellars to protect the wine. There was a
certain slight unease around his lips as though he wanted to say something,
reveal something, but thought better of it and held back.

What he had to offer? Oh, she had a pretty good idea.
Dangerous.

Buying wine from him?
Oh no.
Fingers. Hot. Burnt.

Suddenly she felt a desperate urge to fill the silence with
chatter.

‘Building a reputation for excellence takes time. I only opened
up the house to guests a few months ago and I cannot afford to risk my
reputation by serving any else but the best.'

‘Absolutely.' He nodded. ‘This is why I think my business
proposition might just solve both of our problems rather neatly. My wonderful
wines. Your fine reputation. Perfect fit.'

She paused and licked her lips. ‘I don't want to seem rude, but
my clients expect the very best and it's my job to make sure that they are not
disappointed. But don't worry, Angie has given me her contact details and has
promised to be in touch about any future business meetings. I look forward to
seeing you again at Elwood House.'

Saskia stretched out her hand towards Rick and he glanced at it
for a second before moving back, chuckling and wrapping his fingers around
hers.

‘People don't usually turn me down,' he whispered, stepping
forward under the spotlight until he was far enough away for Saskia to see the
fine white scar lines that ran up one side of his face. ‘I'm curious. Are you
always so sceptical? What do you want to know? Ask me anything during our dinner
this evening and I'll promise that I will tell you the truth.'

Saskia was still reeling from his reply when Rick's cellphone
blared out a top ten music track and he glanced quickly at the caller ID,
breaking the intensity of the moment.

‘You seem very confident that you have something that I might
be interested in, Mr Burgess. Perhaps you could ask Angie to make an appointment
for later in the week.'

‘Nope. Has to be tonight. I'll pick you up at seven.'

Pick her up.
Oh no. This was not a
date. She had to take some control back!

‘I sometimes walk along the South Bank around half seven,' she
gushed before her brain had time to engage.

‘Got it. Later.'

Two fingers to the forehead in a quick salute and he turned on
his heel and strolled away to the stairs as if he owned the place, leaving a
Rick-sized space in her cellar.

He hadn't waited for her answer.

The strange thing was; she couldn't remember saying no.

* * *

Saskia peered at her reflection in the screen of her
smartphone, wiggled her head from side to side several times and pushed several
stands of hair behind her ear. Large ornate drop earrings in the shape of a leaf
swung freely in the late sunshine, reflecting back the light from the finely
worked Indian silver.

‘Thanks, Amber. Those earrings are just perfect. I love them.
You are a genius when it comes to style. What's that? Takes one to know one.
Well, thank you, kind lady. And don't forget to thank Kate for the loan of her
jacket. The colours work so well together.'

She glanced quickly around the busy pavement to check that her
quiet smirk had gone unseen. ‘Amber! Stop that. You are making me blush. Those
earrings are staying on. This is not a hot date. I keep telling you. Business
meeting. Stop laughing. Business! And no, I don't want you to wait up for me.
Cheek! Now go and be creative with the wedding plan. Talk to you later if you
must. Later. Yes. Okay. I promise that I will have a nice time. Thank you.
Yes.'

Saskia chuckled out loud and flipped her phone closed. Kate and
Amber had just spent over an hour helping her come up with the perfect outfit
but, she had to admit, her style consultants had pulled together a smart but
casual look which created just the right impression.

Neat wraparound plain navy dress, smart designer jacket, which
Kate had run back to her studio to collect at the last minute, discreet
jewellery and medium heels which she knew that she could walk in, just in case
Rick turned up in his boots again and took off across London on foot.

She was determined to show Rick that she was a professional to
the core and not just another girl who he could order around on a whim.

This was meeting a client for drinks away from Elwood
House.

Not a date or meeting a friend. This was a business meeting
with a potentially large booking in the balance.

Just because she had agreed to go out for drinks did not mean
that she was saying yes. It was simply playing fair and giving him a chance to
discuss this mysterious business proposal.

Wasn't it?

Of course she was intrigued—how could she not be? What did he
think he could offer that the wonderful London wine merchants could not?

Nothing to do with that molten chocolate voice and dark
blue-grey eyes. Oh no. She was not going down that road.

The man was a maniac. A riveting, passionate, handsome charmer
of a maniac.

Who was clever enough to dangle something he knew that she
might be interested in, but hold it just beyond her reach.

How did he expect professionals to take him seriously if he
turned up in denims and leather and barely shaven? Did he really not care what
he looked like? Or was he simply playing a trick and acting out a persona
created by the company PR department?

Squaring her shoulders, Saskia pushed back from the railing and
glanced along the Thames Embankment in the fading September sunshine.

And froze. Because strolling towards her on the wide pavement
was Rick Burgess. No entourage, no team, just Rick. Wearing exactly the same
clothes that she had last seen him in.

His hips swung out with each stride, purposefully and in line
with the rock-solid body under those tight denims.

Every inch of his body screamed out confidence and self-belief.
He could fit in anywhere he went and, judging by the backwards glances from the
ladies he passed with each purposeful and determined step, it was a look which
guaranteed him an audience.

And, just like that, she got
it.

Rick truly did not care one bit what other people thought about
his appearance.

He dressed to please himself and if the rest of the world did
not like it—that was not his problem.

This was no act designed to provoke a reaction or a cheap media
gimmick to attract some extra press coverage because he was so deliberately
different from other wine merchants in the city.

He was Rick.

Take it or leave it. That was him.

No artifice, no pretence, no insincere gestures to placate his
audience.

He knew who he was and was totally happy inside his skin.

He was the real deal.

It blew her away. And terrified her so much that it was not
even vaguely funny.

Rick Burgess was exactly the kind of sex on legs man that she
had been avoiding since the day her dad was arrested. She knew the type and she
had tasted what it felt like to be consumed by the fire on the altar of their
all-powerful ego. And she never wanted to be burnt alive again.

The problem was, back in Elwood House she'd been surrounded by
the familiar rooms and furniture and high-tech presentation equipment and other
people.

They were her security screen.

But at that minute in this public street she felt as though
they might as well have been the only two people on the Embankment that evening,
with not even Aunt Margot's dining table between them.

Her gaze simply could not move away from that powerful dark
face as he strode towards her. It was as though he had a huge magnet which was
pulling them closer and closer together, making it impossible for her to break
the connection.

All of the carefully worded and highly professional refusals
and excuses she had planned in the kitchen when she was clearing away vanished
from her brain, wiped out by the stunningly relaxed and sexy-as-hell smile he
was giving her. The corner of one side of his mouth lifted as he strolled
closer, creating crease lines in his cheeks and the corners of his eyes.

Perhaps she should have looked Rick Burgess up on the Internet
instead of cleaning the house and polishing it back to perfection. It might have
given her some ammunition to fire at him and scare him away.

Which was what she wanted...wasn't it?

To politely turn him down while still keeping the bookings.

What other reason could there possibly be?

So why did she find it so difficult to lift her chin and take
the few steps to close the distance between them?

‘Nice earrings.'

‘Nice boots.'

He smiled and replied with a small shoulder shrug. ‘My mother
told me that I should smarten myself up before the meeting today. And, like the
good boy that I am, I always do what my mother tells me.'

She replied by raising her eyebrows. A good boy? She doubted
that very much.

Her silent gesture must have hit home because he strolled
forward and startled her by nudging her ever so gently along one side of her
arm.

It was the touch of a friend, not someone she had just met.

How much more outrageous could he get?

Then that amazing wide mouth broadened into a smirk of a smile
and his grey eyes focused on the river.

‘Yeah, I concede that one. Maybe not a good boy all of the
time. But hey. It's nice to have something to aim for. As you know. But let's
not talk about business. Not yet, anyway. This is way too nice an evening.'

He sniffed and looked around. ‘You know, it's been years since
I was on the South Bank. But, as it happens, I know a family-run Tuscan
restaurant right on the river you might enjoy. Willing to risk it?'

Risk it? No, thank you.
She gave up
on risk a long time ago. Not when she had experienced first-hand the fallout
from other people taking risks they should not have.

On the other hand, there was no point arguing in public with a
company director who could put Elwood House into profit with one contract.

She could risk his choice of restaurant for a few hours, even
if it did turn out to be a kebab shop.

‘That sounds perfect. Do you need a map?'

‘Maps? Maps are for people who don't know where they are going.
Where is the fun in that? Oh no,' he said and, without asking permission, he
took hold of her hand and looped it over the crook of his arm, capturing her and
holding her tight. ‘Let's rock.'

FOUR

Must-Do list

  • This is NOT a date—simply drinks
    and dinner with a prospective client. Stay charming and professional at
    all times. Do NOT flirt with the handsome man who wants you to buy his
    wine. He probably has a lovely wife and family back home. Ignore any
    advice from Kate and Amber on dating techniques.
  • Do not panic or blurt out your
    life story if the conversation flags.
  • Keep your taxi money handy—you
    will be going home alone.

Twenty
minutes later
Saskia strolled out of the ladies' room at a wonderful
Italian restaurant she hadn't known existed until that evening, just in time to
see Rick being back-slapped by the rotund father of the family while Rick
chatted away in fluent Italian to the two sons who took care of the bar and
waiter service on a Monday evening.

He might have been part of their family.

How had he done that?

The other diners in the packed restaurant were certainly
enjoying whatever story he was regaling them with.

In fact they were almost disappointed when Rick broke off
mid-anecdote to go back to their window table and pull out a chair for her.

It was strange how the most delicious-smelling piping-hot
rosemary and olive foccacia suddenly appeared on the table with a bottle of the
best wine on the list, which the owner himself insisted on opening and checking
before pouring Saskia a generous glass and then he turned to Rick, who joined in
the joke. He swirled the glass with an over the top swagger, inhaled and then
guffawed with appreciation—which led to even more waving of arms and laughter
from the kitchen area.

Rick turned back to Saskia and raised his glass. ‘Your health,
lovely lady. This food smells good. Mind if I go first?'

‘Dive in. Okay, I am impressed. You speak excellent Italian for
an American wine merchant.'

‘Born in Scotland, moved to Napa aged twelve, but spend most of
my time in the French Alps close to the Italian border,' Rick replied between
bites of foccacia. ‘I might have picked up a few words. And this is great. Try
some.'

‘Thank you, I will,' she replied and sat back and looked around
the restaurant for a few seconds. The stress of the day, the week and the month
seemed to ease away in this cosy atmosphere. She felt her shoulders drop as she
relaxed and enjoyed the moment.

‘That must have been difficult,' she whispered.

‘Difficult?' Rick looked up.

‘Moving to another country when you were twelve must have meant
leaving your friends and relatives behind. Not easy for a young person.'

He opened his mouth, paused and then closed it again, his gaze
scanning her face. ‘No—' he shrugged after several minutes ‘—it wasn't easy at
all. But my parents and older brother helped me settle into a new life. Of
course, once I saw what the sports facilities were like I had a great time.'

‘Modest too. Well, it seems that you are full of surprises, Mr
Burgess.'

He chuckled and shook his head. ‘Mr Burgess is my dad. I only
answer to Rick. Okay? And I'm pleased that you like it.'

She waved one hand daintily in the air and tore off a piece of
bread and popped it into her mouth.

And the explosion of flavour hit her hard.

Wow.

She looked over Rick's shoulder at the patron, who winked at
her from the bar.

Winked.

‘Do you know,' she managed, between more bites, ‘I have been
eating in Italian restaurants all over London with my aunt since I was ten years
old and this is the best foccacia that I have eaten, and the wine...' she picked
up the bottle and peered at the label ‘...is from a tiny estate just north of
Florence. I have been trying to persuade them to supply me for months. It's
fantastic.'

‘Wait until you taste the fresh pasta with anchovy and tomato
sauce. Mario's mother is in there making it herself, just for us.'

‘How? Why? Or do you normally have this effect on complete
strangers?'

He smiled and rested his elbows on the table so that he could
lean forward into her space.

‘The recommendation came from Mario's nephew and his new young
wife. Yesterday morning I was putting together a business plan for their
fledgling winemaking operation a few miles closer to the sea from where this
wine was made. It's going to mean a lot of hard work but the vines are old and
run deep in the poor soil. They are going to go places. And the family are right
behind them.'

Then he leant back. ‘They are just one of ten young winemakers
who will have their work showcased by RB Wines. They're excited, I'm excited.
You see, I am buying all of their wine. Every last bottle. I am their only
customer and I have signed a contract to say that their wine will only be
available from one shop. The flagship store I am opening in the spring.'

‘But Burgess Wine is a huge online operation. Doesn't it make
more sense to sell their wine around the world?'

‘You're right.' Rick shrugged. ‘My family have worked hard to
expand the online wine business to cover most of the West Coast of America. But
not Europe. Plus these growers are only making a few hundred cases every year at
most, which is not nearly enough for the online trade. Different style.
Different market. Different customers. They are taking a risk, of course. If I
can't sell their wine in London...' He flipped his hands into the air in a very
Mediterranean style.

‘You go broke and so do they.' Saskia sighed out loud and took
another long sip of wine. ‘You are asking prospective customers like me to spend
money on an unknown winemaker based solely on your recommendation and hoping we
are happy with the results. That is one brave marketing plan.'

‘I suppose that is what it comes down to in the end, yes.'

‘I see,' she whispered and focused her complete attention on
the crumbs left in the bread basket, her lips pressed tight together.

A roar of laughter rang out from the man across the table and
she sprang back and looked up into Rick's face. His whole body was shaking and
he had to wipe away the tears from his eyes before shaking his head and grinning
at her.

‘Please promise me that you will never take up a career as a
poker player. Oh dear, the look on your face was priceless.'

‘I am delighted to have provided you with such amusement,' she
sniffed.

His response was to reach across the table, pick up her hand
and kiss her knuckles before lowering it back to the table.

‘I'm not laughing at you—' he smiled ‘—just your reaction. It
was the perfect confirmation of what I already suspected. Did you really think
that I picked these winemakers out of the phone book by closing my eyes and
sticking a pin at random on the pages?'

He narrowed his eyes and shook his head slowly from side to
side. ‘It has taken me two years of tracking down a shortlist of growers based
on word of mouth recommendation from people I trust in the business. Then I
spent my time and money sending in a team of experts who can pull together a
complex combination of geology and climate and do all of the background checks
before we went to the vineyard and met them in person. These are not ten random
growers. They are the future stars of the winemaking world. And I got there
first.'

He tilted his head to one side. ‘But you don't see that when
you look at me. Do you? You don't see the work and the long hours that go on
behind the scenes. You see Rick the maverick sportsman.'

He held up his hands as she tried to bluster a response. ‘Well,
do you know what? A few years ago you would have been right. I didn't come into
the wine trade by choice. But once I make a commitment to do something, I stick
to it.'

Rick tipped his head towards her. ‘I do things my way. I don't
stick to the rules and dance to someone else's tune. I know who I am and I know
what I want. And sometimes people have a hard time coming to terms with
that.'

He switched on that killer smile that left no doubt at all in
her mind that he was used to getting precisely what he wanted, from any female
of any age in a hundred yard radius.

‘Now, I am talking too much about myself. It took me a few
minutes to make the connection between Elwood House and the Elwood Brothers wine
merchants. I only went there once—' Rick saluted with his bread ‘—and it was an
education. Shame it closed. Professional curiosity. Where do you buy the wine
for those cellars you showed me today? Not from Burgess Wine—I checked.'

‘From the growers, mostly. Aunt Margot was quite a character
and there was a time when Elwood House was a sort of unofficial bed and
breakfast hotel for any passing winemaker who was in town. She had an address
book other wine merchants could only dream of.'

‘Add me to that list. That must have been an amazing
experience.'

‘Oh, it was—I was sent to bed early on many occasions when
things were getting a little too jolly in the kitchen, if you know what I mean.
There are some real eccentrics in the wine business. Luckily for me, they kept
in touch after she passed and they're still willing to ship me their best
vintages at market prices. The clients certainly appreciate the quality.'

‘I can vouch for that. Do you still talk to the Elwood side of
your family?'

‘I am sorry to say that I am the last of the line and my mother
has her own life.' Saskia looked up from her glass. ‘What about your parents?
Burgess Wine is based in California now, isn't it?'

‘Aha. So I am not the only one who hit the Internet today. No
need to blush. You already know the office is in the Napa Valley. A long way
from central Scotland where they started, but it's where the wine producers are
based so it makes perfect sense. And the climate is slightly better.'

‘Just a bit,' Saskia replied, feeling a lot more relaxed when
he was talking about his family and not hers. ‘Oh, my goodness. Look at
that!'

* * *

Rick sat back in his chair opposite Saskia and watched
her inhale the aroma of the huge bowl of the most delicious pasta, then turn to
the chef with a grin and chatter away in perfect Italian, much to Mama's
delight, who couldn't wait to share the recipe.

Apparently, adding a ladle of the pasta water to the sauce made
all the difference!

It was worth letting his cheese melt just to look at her.

He had half expected Saskia to wear her business suit and a
body armour type of corset, but instead he was enjoying dinner with a girl who
could have been poured into a wrap dress which clung to all of the right places
and gave a man just enough of a tantalising glimpse of what lay beneath to click
the right buttons.

Combine that with a brain and an attitude which made him stay
awake and pay attention and he was more than interested in Saskia Elwood the
woman as well as the heir to the Elwood name.

At Elwood House she was the body in a suit which he couldn't
resist. But here? Here, she was a knockout.

Not that he would ever admit it, of course, but it had thrown
him when Saskia had asked about his move to California as a boy.

How could he possibly explain to this girl just how tough it
had been? Anger at the injustice of being dragged away from everything he knew
and having no say at all in the decision was the one common emotion he
remembered only too well from those terrible first few years. It hadn't helped
that his elder brother Tom had been the seventeen-year-old genius who'd excelled
in every academic subject he'd turned to at their new high school in
California.

Not that he blamed Tom for being the academic son in the
family. That was who he was. But the brighter Tom's star had shone, the more the
young Rick Burgess had become a damp firework. And the more the teachers and
other pupils had compared him to Tom, the angrier he had become at the injustice
and ridicule he had to endure.

Pity that his parents had been too busy working every hour of
the day to build a new online wine business to notice that their second son was
desperately unhappy.

But he had been honest with Saskia about the sports. Without a
physical outlet for his suppressed anger and resentment, he could have turned
that energy into something far more damaging.

Saskia waved at Mario and Rick joined in the laughter for a
moment before tucking into his food.

Perhaps it was not so surprising that Saskia had picked up on
that part of his life?

Angie had come up with so much background material on the
Elwood family that he had barely had time to skim-read the essentials when
they'd got back to the London office. But one thing was clear. Saskia Elwood
Mortimer had become Saskia Elwood for a very good reason.
Her father.

It had taken him all of five minutes to work out that Hugo
Mortimer would not be winning any prizes as a father and a husband and as a
property developer he was a disaster. Dropping the Mortimer name made sense for
a teenage girl who was the daughter of a man whose embezzlement scandal hit the
headlines around the world. Worse, it was an investment scam that had finally
taken him to the law courts and a long prison sentence in an American jail.

Saskia Elwood had every reason to be cautious around men with
big ideas and bigger promises.

He got that. Better than she might imagine. He was not Tom. But
he shared Tom's drive and determination to do what he had to in order to achieve
his goals. He always had.

It was time to get creative and do something nobody expected
him to do.

He had spent most of his life pushing the boundaries and asking
forgiveness later; much to his parents' despair.

BOOK: Blame It on the Champagne
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