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Authors: Nina Harrington

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BOOK: Blame It on the Champagne
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Rick exhaled slowly then sniffed, as though weighing up what to make of her question.

‘Challenge?' Rick's eyebrows crushed together and he frowned. ‘Is that what you think?'

But before Saskia could create some sort of answer he tilted his head to one side and gave a small shoulder shrug. ‘A challenge,' he repeated, nodding slowly. ‘Yeah. When I pitched the idea to my parents last Christmas, they used a few more colourful expressions to describe the notion. A challenge just about sums up the general response.'

‘I see,' she replied. ‘Wait. Did you say last Christmas? Surely you have seen your parents since then?'

Rick took tighter hold of her hand and started walking towards the house. ‘No need. Modern communications. I can work anywhere. They run the business out of Napa and right now the biggest wine festival in the world is about to kick off. They don't want to be involved in the new enterprise in London. Small beer.'

Saskia glanced back at him. She recognised that tiny change in his voice that was so familiar to her it seemed like an old friend. She knew what it was like to defend her parents and their decisions and their over the top lifestyle choices. Especially when those choices did not include her.

What was surprising was that Rick had the same problems she had. Real problems. Problems she recognised only too well. He was trying to keep the tone of his voice light and smiling but below that effortless charm was a well of sorrow.

‘You've reminded me that I need to arrange my mother's Christmas present. She's staying in New York with her latest beau this year and I'll be working in London, as always. Thank heavens for telephones.'

He chuckled somewhere deep down in his chest. ‘It seems that we have a few parental issues in common.'

‘Oh?' she replied in a calm, low voice. ‘Is your father in prison too?'

Rick burst out laughing at that and released her hand as he held open the door.

‘Touché. You win that one. Why don't we drink champagne and leave our families where they belong? Out of sight and out of our lives. Deal? Deal.'

* * *

‘More cheese, Rick? I tried to save you the last slice of the walnut bread but I was too late, Pierre got to it first.'

Anna gestured with the cheese knife towards her husband, Pierre Morel, the tenth generation owner of the Chateau Morel, who threw his hands up into the air in protest. ‘Can I help it if I have a healthy appetite? Anyway, you are one to talk. I only turned my back for two minutes to load the dishwasher and what was left of those excellent handmade chocolates Rick brought with him had done a magic disappearing act.'

Anna kissed the top of Pierre's head. ‘It's quite true,' she laughed and pressed one very dainty hand to her chest. ‘Sweet tooth and a total chocaholic. Now, that is a pretty deadly combination. And I feel totally guilty.'

Rick chuckled and sat back on the wide kitchen chair and patted his stomach. Things had certainly changed an awful lot since he had visited the estate with his parents and Tom as a teenager. The old
of the Chateau Morel had insisted on serving canapés and coffee in the huge echoing great hall with waiting staff glaring at every crumb which fell onto the thread-bare hand-woven and embroidered carpet. Before the
haughtily declared that he did not sell his prestigious wine to anyone less than premium outlets. He had made it only too clear that the list did not include an online wine retailer who specialised in affordable wine for barbecues and sharing over a plate of pizza.

Now their grandson Pierre and his charming Dutch-born wife Anna were wearing casual trousers and shirts and seemed genuinely delighted to welcome them into their warm, cosy kitchen and a delicious, simple family meal.

‘Please don't feel guilty.' Rick smiled. ‘It was incredibly kind of you to offer us lunch at such short notice, and I couldn't eat another thing.'

‘I could.' Saskia laughed. ‘This cheese is amazing.'

‘A local goat farmer makes it for us to a traditional recipe. It was one of the first things we stocked in our farm shop and it is always a best seller. I am glad you like it.'

‘Delicious,' Saskia replied and cut another wedge. ‘And thank you again for the tour. Especially just before harvest. Such an exciting time of year.'

‘We have been very lucky with the weather.' Pierre nodded. ‘But you're right; this is going to be an excellent vintage.'

‘You know, my Aunt Margot always adored Chateau Morel dry champagnes and refused to serve anything else. Although...I do seem to recall that your grandfather persuaded her to try a few magnums of pink champagne for special occasions now and then. It was her special treat on hot summer evenings. Are you planning to continue that tradition?'

Anna shrugged and looked across at Pierre before pouring the coffee. ‘We're not sure that there is enough demand to make it worth our while, but it is definitely something we will continue for the next couple of years at least.'

‘That's wonderful. I love it so much.'

Pierre nodded and then smiled gently across at Saskia as he rolled his coffee can between his fingers, but when he spoke there was some hesitancy in his voice. ‘I remember meeting your Aunt Margot. It must have been about fifteen years or so ago and I was a young apprentice winemaker. I can still remember walking through the doors of Elwood Brothers. Your aunt ran the best wine merchant in London and yet she took the trouble to welcome us as old family friends. She was a remarkable woman and a very loyal customer. I am only sorry that she never had an opportunity to visit us.'

Anna sat quietly sipping her coffee with her head down as Pierre squeezed her hand.

‘I am sorry too,' Saskia whispered. ‘I still miss her very much. Margot would have adored coming here.'

Saskia pressed the forefingers of her left hand to her mouth and sucked in a breath and just for a moment looked as though she was about to start crying.

Rick hadn't expected that!

A trembling flicker of connection started deep in his stomach. From what Saskia had told him, she was not close to her mother and he knew that her father was serving time for embezzlement. Her aunt must have been the only family she could rely on.

Saskia had come here with no clue that she was going to be emotionally ambushed by a stranger who had known the aunt she'd so clearly adored.

And now Margot Elwood was gone and she still hadn't got over it.

Well, he knew what that felt like.

Worse, Saskia was sitting in this kitchen because he had changed his mind overnight and picked her up in one of the team's cars and driven them here instead of flying to Strasbourg and going directly to the
in Alsace.

His decision. Flying by the seat of his pants. Changing the rules at the last minute. Stirring things up.

Well, that hadn't worked out so well. He had brought her here to this place where she was forced to relive her grief, just when she thought it was all behind her.

Only it was all over her face. Her beautiful, wrecked, tragic face.

She was feeling that grief and loss all over again.

A familiar pain hit Rick deep inside his heart but he shoved it down the way he always did when the memory of Tom came flooding back into his consciousness out of the blue. Perhaps it was this chateau? He had such clear memories of that day they had come here as a family.

Now Tom was gone. And he was left to pick up the pieces, just as Saskia was trying to do.
Life wasn't fair. On either of them.

He shuffled in his chair and picked up another slice of cheese and bread and casually looked up with a wave of his cheese knife.

Rick chuckled out loud, instantly cutting through the tense atmosphere.

‘That's why I'm working so hard to bring your champagne to customers like Saskia. The girl right here today has inherited the best qualities of the Elwood family and her clients expect the very best. Which is precisely what we are going to give them. Saskia and I are looking forward. Not backward. Aren't you?'

A faint glimmer of a smile flickered across Pierre's face and Anna's expression lightened.

‘I could not have put it better myself, Rick. Of course, that was a different generation and that is exactly what we want to do; move forward.'

‘Why else am I here?' Rick smiled and relaxed back in his chair. ‘And thank you for being so honest and generous, and for your time today so close to the harvest. Don't forget, next time you're in London I'll be delighted to return your hospitality and show you around our new showroom. In the meantime?' He raised his coffee cup. ‘I think a toast is required. To a successful harvest and many of them!'

* * *

‘Well,' Rick said with a low sigh, ‘that went well. Nice lunch. What did you think of the extra dry champagne? That is a winner in my book.'

‘A winner? Yes, the champagne was lovely and I will definitely order some. Out of guilt if nothing else,' Saskia said in a voice that was trembling with emotion. ‘That lovely couple gave us such a warm welcome and all I could do was fall apart. They must think that I am a complete idiot.'

She half turned towards him in the passenger seat and grabbed hold of the dashboard to give her strength. ‘I cannot believe that I embarrassed myself like that. I had no idea that Pierre had met Aunt Margot and admired her, but I certainly don't normally react that way. I suppose it hit me out of the blue, but it was still so humiliating.'

‘Who for? Me?' Rick glanced once at Saskia before concentrating on driving down the narrow farm road. ‘Not at all. What is there to be embarrassed about? You cared for your aunt and she was clearly admired.'

His fingers tapped out a rhythm on the steering wheel. ‘How long has it been?'

‘Just over a year.' Saskia exhaled slowly and when she spoke her words were very calm and measured. ‘But it feels a lot longer.'

Rick said nothing but slowed the car on the narrow country road and pulled into the next tourist viewpoint on the brow of a hill.

Before Saskia knew what was happening, he was out of the car and had opened the passenger door for her.

‘Come on,' he said, and held out his hand towards her. ‘Let's get some air.'

‘Air?' she repeated disbelievingly. ‘I have had more than enough air at the Chateau, thank you. I can be just as miserable right here.'

‘Then have some more. I'm not driving another mile until we have this out.'

He stood there, looking at her with a smile on his face which reached his eyes and was impossible to resist. His fingers twitched, gesturing her to reach out and take his hand.

Resigned to the inevitable and too exhausted to complain further, Saskia slowly and carefully unclipped her seat belt, took his hand and stepped down onto the grass in her smart heels.

But, instead of releasing her hand, Rick wrapped his fingers firmly around hers and drew her away from the car and onto the brow of the hill, where they stood in silence looking out onto the golden leaves and autumn colours of the neat rows of grapevines. Side by side. So that when he broke the silence it was as if he was talking to the vines.

Rick rolled his shoulders. ‘I know what it is like to lose someone you love. And believe me when I say that a year is not nearly long enough to get over wanting to burst into tears just at the sound of that person's name. But nobody in the world will think less of you if you miss your aunt. Nobody.'

Then he sniffed and gazed out at the golden autumn colours.

‘Do you know what I'm thinking?' For several long minutes all Saskia could hear was the
tink, tink, tink
from the car as it cooled and birdsong from the fields stretched out in front of them.

‘That inside my business suit I'm a fraud?' she whispered.

He whipped around towards her and his blue-grey eyes turned into the colour of steel as they glared at her. Hard, demanding and not prepared to take any argument.

‘Wrong. And don't you ever let anyone make you feel that way. Ever. You are not a fraud. Okay, so you get emotional and blub over your silk blouse. Only to be expected. Just think how hard it is for us guys! We have to play the macho game and wait until we get home to let rip. So get that out of your head right now, gorgeous. Not a fraud. Are we clear?'

‘Okay.' She blinked and drew back a little. ‘Quite clear.'

‘Good. I don't want to hear it again. You are, however, the worst mind-reader I've ever met. Because actually—' and his voice lowered and seemed to warm in the sunshine ‘—I was thinking about how very lucky we are.'

He flung his right hand out towards the hills and his left hand clung on to Saskia even more tightly as though he was afraid she might run away.

‘Look at this view. The birds are singing and the sun is shining. No traffic noise. No buses, taxis, or email or a clamour of people demanding our attention. For the next few minutes this is all ours. And I happen to think it's special.'

He turned back to her with a smile, reached out and stroked her cheek with one finger so tenderly and gently, and she felt like crying for real. ‘Change of plan. I was thinking of staying overnight at this great hotel some friends of mine own, but you know what? It's time to go home. No. Not London, the chalet in the French Alps that I call home. I've done enough talking. Time for action. That way, we can take time out to enjoy ourselves tomorrow morning before the wedding.'

‘Wedding? What wedding?' Saskia asked.

‘You'll see.' Rick laughed and tapped the end of her nose with his finger. ‘You'll see.'


Must-Do list

  • Be sure to buy Alpine red and white fabric to make
    Christmas soft furnishings and decorations. Take photos of the window
    displays for ideas.
  • The wine and cuisine from this part of France is very
    interesting and delicious. Pick up some recipe books and
  • Never forget that Rick is a salesman and try not to
    weaken in this gorgeous chalet with its amazing views.

can't begin
to describe how gorgeous this chalet is,' Saskia
whispered with a long sigh. ‘Think tourist postcards of the Alps. All golden
wood and snow-capped mountain views with ancient wooden skis stacked in the
hall. And window boxes. Rick has window boxes with real red balcony geraniums
hanging out of them. I didn't expect that.'

Just like I didn't expect him to back me
up yesterday after the Chateau Morel.

‘The fiend,' Kate sniffed, and Saskia could tell that her
friend had the phone jammed in the corner between her chin and her shoulder.
‘Log cabins and mountain views? I think you should call the authorities
immediately. The next thing you know, he will be opening doors for you and
helping you on with your coat. I can see it now. All part of his ruthless plan
to lower your resistance and make you like him!'

‘Well, it's working. Coat. Tick. Doors. Tick. He even brought
my suitcase inside and insisted on taking me out to dinner last night. Which was
amazing. I had no idea that Savoyard food was so delicious. And of course he
knows everyone. So they immediately thought that I was, and I quote—“his new
squeeze”. Hah! As if.'

‘You tell them,' Kate replied. ‘Your standards are much higher.
Sort of. Well, they would be if you ever actually dated, but you know what I
mean. Higher. Who wants a tall, dark and handsome hunk on her arm anyhow? Oh no.
Or should that be yes?'

‘Well, thanks. You are a lot of help.'

‘You don't need help. You have never needed help,' Kate
laughed. ‘So, just for once, go with the flow and see where it takes you! How
about that for an idea? Oh—must go. My client has arrived and this jacket is
still missing a pocket. Bye!'

‘Bye,' Saskia replied, but Kate had already gone. Busy as
always. Which was great. Kate had worked hard to make her fashion design
business a success. But it didn't stop her from worrying about Elwood House, no
matter how wonderful the diversion.

Saskia sat back in her comfy bedroom chair and stared out of
the square wooden window at the stunning view of Mont Blanc set against a bright
blue sky. It was so perfect that it could have been a framed photograph instead
of a real, huge, snow-covered mountain.

When they'd driven into Chamonix the previous evening the sun
was starting to set behind Mont Blanc and the whole peak and the glacier that
streamed down into their valley had been touched with a strange pink glow which
she had never seen before. It was almost as if the mountains were blushing.

Well, she knew all about that. She hadn't been joking about the
good-natured teasing Rick had received from the locals and restaurant staff
about his new lady friend—her! Introducing her as a business colleague had made
them laugh even louder. If she picked up the accent correctly, it was very rare
for Rick to bring anyone but fellow professional sportsmen to his chalet, and
never a woman, so she was a definite first.

In Chamonix, Rick was very much a man's man.

Perhaps that was why he was so keen to say goodnight as soon as
they'd got back to the chalet?

Not that she was complaining. Far from it. She had been treated
to a delicious meal with local wine and was feeling a lot mellower when she
walked through the door into the warm and cosy log cabin.

It simply would have been nice to talk about his plans for his
programme of vineyard visits without an audience within earshot of everything
that they were saying. She had so many questions. And so few answers.

Starting with the wedding she had been invited to today.

It was a lovely idea, but they didn't have time to go to his
friends' wedding. She needed to get back to work on her plans for Elwood House
and go through the vineyard production forecasts Rick had promised he would
provide, rather than wedding plans. But he had refused to take no for an

All Rick would say was that it was one of the ten couples whose
wine they would be selling, and that was it! No details at all.

Rick Burgess seriously needed to work on his communication

Time to help him with that. Starting right now!

Saskia stood up and checked her side and front view in the
mirror. The wedding was not until that afternoon so she could be smart casual
for a few hours. Fitted three-quarter length black trousers and black medium
heels. High-neck ivory silk shirt. Hair sleeked back. Discreet make-up. Simple
jewellery. Yes. That would do for any impromptu business meetings he might have
set up to surprise her.

Because, one way or another, she needed to get this business
trip back on track and focused on the work. Even if she was enjoying herself far
more than she was prepared to admit.

She lifted her chin and saluted her reflection with a grin. All
present and correct. Ready to face the world.

She marched over and flung open the bedroom door. And stood
there. Frozen.

Because Rick was standing next to the dining room table,
surrounded by what looked to her like the entire contents of a camping store.
With extras. He was wearing black ski wear which clung to the bands of muscles
across his chest and abdomen. And hot did not come close to describing how fit
he looked.

‘Dare I ask?' she muttered.

He looked up and smiled in a totally casual and relaxed
fashion. ‘Morning. Hope you slept well.'

‘Very well, thank you. And please explain.'

He gestured with his head towards the table. ‘Help yourself to
breakfast and I'll do my best. We're setting off in about an hour.'

Saskia made her way carefully across the floor by standing on
tiptoe to avoid treading on the equipment. Laid on the table was a wonderful
platter of continental cooked meats, cheese and Danish pastries and croissants.
Fresh butter and jams. Fruit. ‘You must have been up early. But why are you
dressed like that? I thought we had a business meeting today and an hour doesn't
seem long enough.'

Rick nodded and adjusted something which had the word
‘Altimeter' on the side before setting it down next to his plate. ‘Small town.
Baker and supermarket are right next to each other. Makes it easy.'

He pointed with the end of a hand-held radio to a ceramic pot
covered with a red and white checked fabric circle. ‘Try the wild blueberry jam.
My neighbour collected the berries this week high on the mountain; it's pretty
good. And relax, I haven't forgotten what we are here for.'

Saskia sat down and broke up a croissant and piled it with the
jam. He was right, it was amazing. Almost as good as the view of her host, who
was standing right in front of a large glass-panelled door which led out onto a
wooden veranda. There was a perfect backdrop of green forest, blue sky and the
snow-white mountain Mont Blanc behind his head and a professional stylist could
not have created a better composition in a million years.

And, just like that, something flipped deep inside Saskia's
stomach and she slowed down to appreciate every mouthful of her breakfast, and
every eyeful.

Rick really was spectacular.

Also a mind-reader because, just as she was ogling his chest,
Rick glanced around at her and caught her in the act and grinned that knowing
kind of grin which made it ten times worse. Saskia knew that her neck was
flaming red as she blushed, especially wearing a pale shirt, but there was
nothing she could do about it. So she loaded up her plate from the platter

‘You were about to tell me where we are off to,' she said in a
calm, controlled voice, knowing all the while that it wasn't fooling him in the

‘A treat for you.' He smiled and strolled over with a pot of
the most delicious-smelling coffee and poured her a cup. ‘After weeks on the
road, I needed to step away from the business and get back to my life. But
today? Today, I think it's time for you to meet one of our ten growers.'

‘Good idea.' She nodded. ‘Is the vineyard very far? I need ten
minutes to charge my laptop and camera and I'll be ready to take minutes.'

‘Just in the next valley, but that's not where we're going. Oh
no. Jean Baptiste has a passion for flying as well as grapes. Time to show you
just how much fun you can have if you team up with me.'

The buttered slice of baguette halted halfway to her lips.
‘Flying?' she whimpered.

‘Of course. We. Are going paragliding. Saskia? Are you okay?
You are looking a little pale.'

She just managed to put her breakfast down without dropping

' she whispered,
feeling that her throat was full of breadcrumbs.

‘Sure,' Rick replied, stuffing all kinds of helmets and
equipment into a huge backpack. ‘Burgess Wine sponsors the local paragliding
club and I won a few championships a couple of years ago and like to keep up the
practice. Have you ever tried it yourself?'

Saskia blinked at him and tried to form a sensible reply but
gave up. ‘Is that where you tie a parachute to your back and jump off a cliff
and hope the chute slows you down before you hit the ground?'

‘Not quite, but you have the general idea about controlling the
descent with a canopy.'

She inhaled slowly and decided to break the bad news all at

‘I am really sorry, especially since you stuck your neck out
for me yesterday, but I have vertigo on a stepladder and have to pay people to
climb up and clean my bedroom windows because I can't lean out and do it

She shook her head slowly from side to side. ‘I don't do

His hands stilled and he looked at her, eyebrows high.

‘Seriously.' She nodded very slowly, up and down. Twice.

‘Oh—' he sniffed ‘—not a problem. You can jump onto my harness
and I can fly you down in tandem. I do it all the time and you don't weigh a
thing. Wait and see, you'll enjoy it. But er...' His gaze scanned her from head
to toe and then back up again and there was just enough of a cheeky grin on his
face to make her want to cover her chest with a cushion. ‘You might want to
change your clothes. Have you brought any ski wear?'

She narrowed her eyes and tilted her head slightly to one side
before replying. ‘Strange. As a matter of fact, I have not. You see, I packed
for a business trip. Fancy that!'

* * *

An hour later, Saskia had changed into cold weather
layers, survived being driven by Rick to a ski lift at breakneck speed and then
a hair-raising trip trapped inside a glass-sided gondola which took twenty
minutes to climb up the side of the valley wall.

The good news was that Rick had kept her talking and focused on
him for the whole journey and she had not lost her breakfast as the gondola slid
up the loose cable, juddering along every pole before coming to a gentle swaying
halt at the top.

It was almost worth it for the views. Stepping out from the ski
station, Saskia was hit square between the eyes by a panorama of the
snow-covered mountains on each side of the valley that was so breathtakingly
lovely that she forgot that she was supposed to be scared for all of five
minutes—before she turned around and saw Rick talking to another man carrying
another huge backpack.

‘Saskia, come and meet Jean Baptiste Fayel. Jean is one of my
winemakers I was telling you about who we are going to showcase in the London

A handsome fair-haired young man stepped forward. If Saskia
thought that Rick had a firm handshake then Jean Baptiste was trying to do a
fine job of shaking her arm out of its socket.

‘Great to meet you, Miss Elwood.' He grinned, still shaking her
hand. ‘Rick has told us all about the fantastic plans you have to serve our
wine. We're really excited.'

‘Leave the poor girl alone.' Rick laughed and shook Jean by the
shoulders before turning to Saskia. ‘Jean is getting married this afternoon so
we thought that it would do us good to escape away from the mayhem back at his
house and get into the air for a few hours.'

This was the bridegroom?

Saskia turned back to Jean with a smile. ‘Congratulations. How

He blushed slightly, which was very charming. ‘Thank you, and
of course you're invited to the wedding. Nicole and I would love to see you
there. Rick has given us a lifeline to a great opportunity. And that is
something to celebrate.'

Saskia flashed a glance at Rick, who nodded slowly.

She had been ambushed! Any chance of doing
work was now completely out of the window!

‘I'm looking forward to it,' Saskia replied with a smile.
‘Thank you.'

‘Excellent,' he replied and then nodded towards the cliff and
checked his chronometer. ‘If you'll excuse me, my future bride has a house full
of guests who cannot start the eating and drinking until I get back. See you at
the landing strip. But you go first. I'll follow on.'

Rick came up and stood next to Saskia and they watched Jean
Baptiste stroll casually over to the edge of the cliff, sit down as though there
was not a huge drop only feet in front of him and unpack the same type of huge
sack that Rick had brought.

It was like a magical toy box with an invisible bottom.
Helmets, ropes, gloves and clothing, instruments like the ones she had seen in
the kitchen that morning and then finally a tightly folded huge blue and red
piece of canopy fabric emerged from one single bag. It was unbelievable! And

BOOK: Blame It on the Champagne
13.96Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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