Authors: Nina Harrington
She just couldn't do it. She couldn't take the risk. Not where
Elwood House was concerned.
âI'm not going to France with you, Rick. Don't take it
personally. I decided years ago that I wanted to stay independent. That way,
there are no compromises or surprises. And I certainly don't want to take orders
from someone else once I sign a contract.'
âI understand that.' His smile widened to the point where she
thought that she might fall into it and be swallowed up. âBut then I didn't
expect you to run Elwood House on your own. The hotel owners I know are
notoriously male, egotistical and stubborn. Or at least... That record stood
until today. You opened my eyes to what I have been missing.'
His gaze wrapped around her shoulders and neck and slowly,
slowly made its way up her face and into her hair, until she had to fight not to
squirm under the heat so she frowned at him instead. âOn the other hand, maybe
the stubborn bit still applies.'
She leant forwards across the table until her nose was only
inches from his.
âI would hate to thwart your expectations. You might never
recover from the shock.'
âI think I can handle anything you throw at me,' he replied,
his upper lip twitching.
âReally?' Saskia picked up her glass of excellent Italian red
and swirled it under her nose before taking a long sip. âThen come up with a
proposal that doesn't involve me selling out my reputation for excellence.'
âOkay. Final offer. If you don't like the wine I offer you then
you don't have to buy it. And I still pay your consultancy fee and use Elwood
House. Is that any better?'
Saskia tilted her glass until the last drop touched her lips.
âMove your company office into Elwood House. Long-term contract.'
âI can't guarantee that I will buy anything from you. You know
that, don't you?'
âOf course. Buy hey, with what I am going to show you, how
could you possibly resist? And can I order the Prosecco now?'
She inhaled slowly and then gave a small sharp nod.
And instantly regretted it because he immediately leapt out of
his chair, pulled her to her feet by grabbing both shoulders and kissed her hard
on the lips. Then he dropped her back down like a sack and rubbed the palms of
his hands together.
âBrilliant. What time can you be ready in the morning?'
âNo, Kate. No
I do not need eight pairs of gloves for a week in the French countryside, so please take at least some of them out of my case,' Saskia protested.
âSpoilsport,' Kate hissed and held up a plum-coloured satin slip. âAmber? What do you think of the seduction power of this one?'
âNot bad, actually,' Amber laughed and sidled over to Saskia, who was sitting on the bed with her head in her hands.
âWhy did I ask you two to help me pack?' Saskia whimpered as Amber gave her a shove. âI keep telling you. It's a business trip to three vineyards in Franceâthat's all. The Champagne region. Then the Alps and north to Alsace. I am talking muddy fields and icy-cold cellars, not salons fit for satin.'
âA business trip. Yes.' Kate nodded wisely. âOf course it is.' Then rolled her eyes. âOne week on the road and all alone with the hunk of the year. Believe me, that boy will see you in your lingerie one way or another before the week is out. And you might as well get used to the idea, even if you don't plan to show him your knickers.'
Saskia clutched the edges of her practical thick towelling bath robe tighter across her chest. âKatherine Lovat!'
Then she sniffed and peered into her suitcase and gave a small shoulder shrug. âGood thing I only have huge cotton granny pants. They should work as instant boy repellent in case he gets any ideas.'
âThat may not be entirely true.' Amber smiled and pulled out a bag from under the bed with the name of an exclusive lingerie shop on the side. âKate and I decided that we were being extremely selfish going shopping for fripperies today while you worked, so we splashed out on a little something to brighten your top drawer. I hope you like it.'
âOf course we would have bought a lot more if we had known that you were being wooed by Rick the Reckless, but hey, this should keep him interested and no, you are not allowed to open up your present until the occasion calls for it.'
Saskia smiled and gathered Amber and Kate for a hug on her bed. âThanks. I am not going to need it, whatever it is, but you are so kind to me and I promise to wear whatever pretty frilly you have chosen, even if it is to walk up and down freezing-cold wine cellars. I shall feel very special.'
âOf course you will,' Kate snorted. âBut don't forget to book Rick as your date for Amber's wedding. New Year is a busy time for boys and he ticks all the boxes for tall, dark and handsome.'
âMy date? This is Rick Burgess you are talking about. He never takes anything seriously. It's as though life is a great joke to be enjoyed at someone else's expense. He's obviously coasting and filling in time before he can slip off to the nearest ski slope or some yacht. Well, I know his type only too well. My dad was exactly the same. Well-off, handsome and super-confident. And a complete disaster when it came to managing his finances and relationships. As far as I'm concerned Rick might as well be standing there waving a red warning sign with the words “Danger. Keep away” written in large black letters.'
Saskia shivered in dramatic horror and then paused and narrowed her eyes as she whizzed around to face Kate. âWait a minute. How did you know what he looks like? Oh no. You looked him up on the Internet, didn't you?'
âThat was me.' Amber giggled. âYour Richard is quite the professional sportsman. Very fit. You are a lucky girl.'
âI give up,' Saskia groaned. âYou two are quite incorrigible.'
âThat's why you need us,' Kate replied, fluttering her eyelashes. âAnd don't worry for a second about this place. Amber is house-sitting and answering the phone and I promise to pop over every evening and gobble up all of the treats in your freezer and drink your wine.'
She paused and waved both arms in the air with a flourish. âWe've got it covered. All you have to do is smile and charm your way through the week with your usual flair. Piece of cake!'
* * *
Saskia stood silently on the golden stone patio of the Chateau Morel in the September sunshine and looked out over the rows and rows of neatly trained vines that were destined to create the greatest sparkling wine in the world; champagne.
And thought seriously about dumping Rick and catching the first train back to London.
Piece of cake,
Kate had said.
Well, there was nothing sweet about how Saskia would describe the past few hours.
Rick had changed his mind and decided that it would be easier to drive them to the first of the three independent vineyards himself. Which meant that she had been strapped into the passenger seat of the macho four-by-four that Rick had borrowed from one of his team for what had seemed like an eternity.
All the while trapped within arm-touching distance of Rick Burgess on the drive down through the flat countryside of northern France, which she'd thought would never end.
Rick had an incredibly annoying ability to look completely calm and unstressed no matter what delay hit them on the way. The traffic jams on the motorway to the coastâno problem. Dodging in and out of the traffic chaos of the French road works madness as a lorry veered in front of them? It only made him smile that certain smile which turned the corners of his mouth a little higher.
While she was clutching onto the roof straps of the car with both hands in terror.
It was totally infuriating.
The problem was, the more unruffled and calm Rick appeared, the more she wanted to take hold of his shoulders and give him a violent shake and scream out that it was time to wake up and get to work. He could be laid-back any time he wanted, but not now. Not when she had work to do back in London.
Take now, for example. They had been right on schedule arriving in Reims and she was all ready to get started on the details when Rick decided that he needed to take a look at the vines. Leaving her behind in the cellar.
That was two hours ago.
The heels of her high-heeled designer shoes dug into the loose gravel chippings as she tried to walk calmly across the patio and back towards the chateau. She refused to look down and check the damage. Rick would get far too much satisfaction from that. He had taken one look at her footwear that morning and snorted with a dismissive shake of his head. His smart flat leather boots were, of course, perfect for strolling down between the rows of vines and across the rough stone flagstones.
To make matters worse, her cellphone had never stopped ringing from the moment she'd got into Rick's car that morning and, after two hours of terrible mobile reception and her increasing frustration, he had barely given her time to research a few new suppliers of kitchenware before declaring that his car was an Internet-free zone and laptops were not allowed.
She needed to confirm these new bookings for the spring, not make conversation about soil type and climate and all the things that came together to make this small estate unique in over three hundred of the champagne houses in the Reims area of France.
The cheek of the man. She was supposed to be helping him out! What did he expect her to do? Just forget about Elwood House and treat this trip as some sort of holiday?
Not going to happen.
Even if he was paying her and the setting was absolutely glorious.
The Chateau Morel looked like a white fairy tale castle which had been dropped gently from the sky into the fields of vines.
While the wine? Okay, she had to confess that the champagne that these grapes produced was special. Rare and expensive. In fact, it was precisely the kind of wine that Rick needed to boost the status of his flagship store, after all, there was not a wine shop in the world which did not stock champagne. Elwood Brothers had been famous for their range and quality for decades.
What was even more infuriating was that Rick kept reminding her that she should be excited to see the grapes before harvest! But the truth was she felt too preoccupied and anxious about her work to enjoy the moment.
Saskia rolled her shoulders back with the warm sun on her face as she watched Rick and their host, the Comte de Morel, stroll towards the chateau between the vines, pausing only now and then to taste the grapes. The sound of their gentle chatter rolled towards her.
Just when she thought that he couldn't spring any more surprises on her, Rick had turned the tables. The man she was looking at now was asking exactly the type of intelligent and knowledgeable questions that any grower would expect from another professional.
That was itâprofessional. Right down to the smart jacket and expensive wristwatch and cufflinks. The denim and boots were just the same. The designer stubble and tousled hair hadn't changed, but his whole attitude and mood had transformed once they'd hit the open road.
If this was Rick trying to impress her and convince her to buy the wine, he was making a fine effort. And, so far, he had not embarrassed her once.
This was not the Rick she had met in London. This was Rick Burgess, the working wine merchant and negotiating charmer. His laughter rang out and suddenly her confidence faltered and she felt out of her depth.
This was so ridiculous.
She was Saskia the calm. Saskia the girl who was always in control. Saskia the girl who knew exactly what she was doing at all times.
It was just that it had been such a long time since she had stepped away from Elwood House and given herself over to someone else to make decisions and take the lead that she was finding it hard to adjust to Rick being in the driving seat.
Excitement combined with anxiety meant that she had barely slept the night before, after the girls had left, with promises to keep them informed on how a little trip with Rick the Reckless, as Kate called him, was going.
If she had come here alone, or with Aunt Margot, she would be able to relax and take the time to learn from the best. Building her knowledge and experience.
But she was way too much on edge to relax for even a second.
Plus, Rick was expecting her to pay attention and make a decision whether to buy this wine, not take time out on holiday. And there was one thing she had learned and promised herself over the years. Once she made a commitment to do something then she would see it through. No false promises. No tricks.
She had promised Rick that she would visit the vineyard and she had. Now came the hard part. Making sure that the Elwood connection was not pulled into whatever Rick was trying to prove here. For better or for worse!
Time to get to work. Because here he was, casually walking towards her as though they had all the time in the world.
âYou are looking a bit fierce standing there with your conference folder and pen,' he quipped. âAll ready to stomp into a business meeting and start taking notes.' Then he gestured towards the house. âI think you scared Pierre off.'
âThat is what we are here for, after all. Business. And does the Comte de Morel normally answer to the name Pierre?'
His gaze slid onto her face. By way of her cleavage and neck. Which, of course, made her neck flare up, adding to the embarrassment.
âWhy not? That is his name. And I keep telling you, this is the new generation. Pierre prefers guests to be informal.'
Saskia lifted her chin and tugged down on the hem of her smart suit jacket. âNot sure I can do that. Too many years of training.'
Rick's cellphone rang out with the first beats of a popular dance track and he glanced at a few screens and winced before replying. âYou can put your folder away. Don't worry about the production figures.' He tapped his smartphone with two fingers. âPierre has just copied me with the latest costings and projections so we can talk them through when we're back on the road. Now, don't look so surprised. I can do business planning when needed.'
âSurprised?' Saskia cleared her throat, hating that she had been so obvious. âNot at all, Mr Burgess.'
âIt's Rick,' he groaned. âWe are trying to keep things informal. Remember?'
âIs that why you decided to drive yourself?' she asked, teasing him. âI'm sure that a big company like Burgess Wine could afford to provide a limo with a driver. Your parents must be pleased that you are taking such interest in the wine business. Quite the entrepreneur, in fact,' she chuckled, looking out over the fields of vines.
âThere are okay with it,' he replied, hooking her arm around his elbow and stepping closer so that their bodies were side by side and it was impossible for her to move away. âResults shout louder than promises. Or something.'
âOkay.' She hesitated, and her feet slowed a little even in the gravel. âDo they know that we are here today, talking to growers? I don't want to get involved in some family dispute.'
Rick came to a dead stop and whirled around to face Saskia. His gaze locked onto her face. And those grey eyes were suddenly not so warm in the September sunshine, but more like granite. Fierce, commanding but intelligent. For the first time Saskia had a glimpse of some of that inner steel that drove men like Rick to become professional sportsmen. It was the kind of look that had no place in a nice, safe office job.
âFamily dispute? What gave you that idea?'
Saskia tensed and licked her lips before replying. âWhat I meant to say was that I thought the Burgess Wine empire is based in California. Opening a London branch is a complete departure. It makes me wonder if the company is splitting into separate divisions. That's quite a challenge.'