Read It Was Only a Kiss Online
Authors: Joss Wood
Tags: #Adult, #fullybook
‘The wines we produce are good,’ Owen Black said in his laid-back way.
Luke wasn’t fooled by his dozy, drawling voice. Owen was one of the hardest-working men he’d ever come across. As farm manager, responsible for the vines and the olives, the orchards and the dairy, he got up early and went to bed late. Just as he did.
‘You’ve won some top awards over the last few years, including Wine Maker of the Year,’ Owen continued.
‘It means nothing if we’re not selling the bottles,’ Luke retorted. ‘Our wines aren’t moving—not from the cellar here, and not from the wine shops.’
When both his friends didn’t reply, Luke twisted his lips and said what they were obviously thinking. ‘Because our marketing strategy sucks. It’s boring and old-fashioned and aimed at anyone standing in God’s waiting room.’ Luke leaned back and popped a cushion behind his head. ‘Why didn’t I see it before?’
Because a smart-mouthed girl once told me it was so and I was too full of offended pride to listen to her. And because I had so much else on my plate. I figured I could let it slide for a while...
Stupid, stupid, stupid.
The Savage tradition of ‘letting the wine speak for itself’ was being drowned out by the splashy campaigns and eye-catching labels of their competitors. But Luke hadn’t changed it because tradition was everything at St Sylve.
Hadn’t his grandfather and father drummed that into him? Excellence and tradition—that was what Savage men strove for, what St Sylve stood for.
He got the reference to excellence, but tradition was killing him. He had to change something and quickly. Of course, he knew that both his father and his grandfather and every other type of forefather he had would do a collective roll in their graves...but if he didn’t do something drastic to increase sales he’d either have to sell St Sylve or resign himself to using whatever profits he made on other deals to subsidise the estate. At some point he’d like to have a life, instead of working two full-time jobs.
Kendall had returned to the subject of the marketing strategy and Luke tuned in, idly remembering that somewhere he had a copy of the plan Miss Smarty Pants had tossed onto his desk so many years ago. He wondered what he’d done with it. It would be interesting to see what she had to say...
‘Remind me—who is attending?’ Luke asked Kendall.
His friend didn’t need to consult his computer and quickly ran through the names.
‘Not Jess Sherwood Concepts?’ Luke asked.
‘You specifically told me not to,’ Kendall protested.
Luke raised his hand. ‘Just checking.’
Kendall narrowed his eyes and shook his head. ‘Why, I have no idea. Despite being a young company, Jess Sherwood has had some impressive campaigns over the last couple of years.’
‘And you don’t want her?’ Owen asked Luke, puzzled. ‘What’s the problem? Why wouldn’t you invite her to the briefing session?’
Jess Sherwood. He could still recall her big brown eyes and those honey-blonde curls, that gangly body and smooth, creamy skin. The way she’d tasted...strawberry lip gloss and spearmint gum. He could barely remember what his ex-wife looked like, yet he could remember that Jess had three freckles in a triangular cluster just below her right ear.
He would rather eat nails than approach Jess for a new marketing strategy—as good as she was reputed to be. Call him proud, call him stubborn, but she was a sharp thorn in his memory...the hottest and yet strangest sexual encounter of his life.
And, despite being so young, she’d seen the writing on the wall. With all his degrees and experience, his ability to look into the heart of a business and pinpoint the bottlenecks and constraints, he’d been unable to do it for his own vineyard.
Talk about not being able to see the wood for the trees. Or, in his case, the grapes for the vines.
Owen placed his bottle on the coffee table and frowned. ‘What’s your beef with Jess Sherwood?’
‘Jess interned at St Sylve the summer I inherited this place. I was in the midst of getting divorced from Satan’s sister and I didn’t want to be here. I didn’t want the responsibility of the vineyard, I was working all hours, and I was...’
‘Miserable?’ Kendall supplied when he hesitated. ‘Depressed, angry, shirty, despondent?’
Hell, he’d been entitled to lick his wounds. He’d always wanted to be part of a family, and had thought that Mercia was what he needed to realise that dream. And she’d promised exactly what he’d wanted to hear...family, roots, stability... What was important to him had seemed to be what was important to her. She’d done an excellent job of camouflaging her true agenda until they were hitched, and when he’d woken up three months later he’d found himself legally bound to a freedom-seeking, greedy, money-guzzling shrew. Over the next two years he’d come to the dawning realisation that he’d been well and truly screwed.
Again. And not in a good way. It still burned that he’d been stupid enough to be so comprehensively manipulated.
As a result he’d made the decision never to get involved in a serious relationship or to allow a woman to clean him out financially and emotionally again. While he’d been grateful to see the back of her, watching his lifelong dream of being part of a family fade had stung. A lot.
Luke narrowed his eyes at Kendall. ‘Do you want to hear about Jess Sherwood or not?’ he demanded. ‘She was as gorgeous as all hell and she knew it. Entitled, privileged, unbelievably annoying. I had barely been introduced to her and had only seen her around a time or two. Then she just barged into my office and proceeded to lecture me on my marketing department. She called them a herd of dinosaurs and threw all those marketing terms at my head. Told me what I was doing wrong and how to fix it.’
‘So you kicked her off the premises?’ Kendall grinned at Luke’s nod.
Owen grinned too. ‘She sounds like a pistol.’
‘Jess Sherwood is such a madam that she’ll gloat about being right, rub my face in the fact that St Sylve needs her—I need her. I just don’t want to have to cope with her.’
Especially if she’s still as sexy as she was.
Luke didn’t tell them that he’d kissed her stupid and been kissed back.
‘So I don’t want to deal with her. Big personality clash.’
‘It was a long time ago,’ Owen pointed out. ‘You should at least have asked her to the briefing session to see what she says.’
‘No. I can’t work with her. So what’s the point of her quoting?’ Luke stated, knowing that he said it because if she was still anywhere as hot as she’d been when she was younger he’d have a hard time keeping his tongue from hitting the floor every time she walked into the room. His attraction to her memory was still, crazily,
It wasn’t like him. He had a calm, satisfying...arrangement with the owner of a wine store in the city. When either of them needed company, or sex, or a date to a function, the other was their ‘go-to’ person. No fuss, no expectation, no emotion—no imagining wild sex on his office desk in the afternoon sunlight...
Luke leaned forward and sent his friends a serious look. ‘Look, this isn’t about a business I’ve picked up and intend to flog. It’s about St Sylve—about getting it back to where it was as the premier vineyard in the country. It’s hard enough dealing with the situation my father left me, let alone her.’
Over the years he’d tried to distance himself emotionally from the estate and the winery, but he still couldn’t manage to treat the multi-generational enterprise he’d inherited like any other arbitrary business.
It was his birthright—both his joy and his burden. His pleasure and his pain. A source of pride and an even bigger source of resentment. He loved and hated it with equal fervour.
‘I think you’re making a big mistake,’ Kendall insisted. ‘She’s a professional...’
‘End of discussion,’ Luke said genially, but he made sure that his friends heard the finality in his voice. He valued their opinions, but the decision rested with him. Jess Sherwood was the type of woman who upset apple carts, turned things on their heads, inside out. While he reluctantly accepted that she was probably exactly what St Sylve the business needed, it would be detrimental to
, to his calm and ordered life.
Just this once he was putting himself first...surely at thirty-six he was entitled to do that once in a while?
Jess, with Ally
side, walked into the tasting room adjoining the St Sylve cellars, looked at the chairs set up in two perfectly aligned rows and sighed in relief when she didn’t see Luke Savage. Kendall De Villers, Luke’s right-hand man, looked very surprised when she introduced herself, and she saw a momentary flash of panic flick over his face before he smiled slowly.
‘Well, this is going to be interesting,’ he told her, with a wicked glint in his fantastic brown-black eyes.
‘Did he honestly think I wouldn’t hear about this or doesn’t he care?’ Jess bluntly asked.
Jess waved her question away. ‘Anywhere I can hide where he won’t see me? At least until he’s finished the briefing?’
Kendall lifted his eyebrows. ‘In that outfit? Not a chance in hell.’
Jess didn’t bother to look down. She was wearing a black, body-hugging wraparound dress, black suede heels that made her calves look fabulous and a long string of fake pearls. With her bright blonde hair and bold lipstick, she was as inconspicuous as a house on fire.
‘Where is he?’ Jess asked, looking around the room.
‘Probably doing something farmy...’ Kendall pushed back the sleeve on his immaculately tailored suit and glanced at his watch. ‘Take a seat. We should be starting soon.’
‘Rescue me if it looks like he’s about to kill me?’ she asked, only half joking.
Kendall grinned. ‘I’m not that brave. Sorry, sister, but you’re on your own.’
Jess took her seat next to the wall of the cellar, behind the broad shoulders of the creative director of Cooper & Co, and hoped Luke wouldn’t recognise her.
She leaned her shoulder into Ally’s and spoke in a low voice. ‘Have I lost my marbles?’
‘It’s a question that keeps me awake at night,’ Ally responded. ‘Why?’
‘We’re across the country, in a briefing session we haven’t been invited to, to listen to a briefing by a man who, I suspect, doesn’t forgive and doesn’t forget.’
What was she thinking?
‘Mmm, if one of your staff did this you’d drop-kick them off a cliff.’
She loved Ally, but frequently wished she could be a little less honest, not quite so forthright.
‘Why are we here, then?’
‘Because this is still my campaign!’ Jess hissed. It had been her campaign eight years ago and nobody else was going to get their grubby little hands on it.
She just had one little problem: convincing Luke to see it her way.
And there he was, striding in from a side door to the podium, tucking his cap into the back pocket of his jeans. Such an attractive man, she thought, in a hunter-green long-sleeved T-shirt that skimmed his broad shoulders and wide chest and fell untucked over the waist of over-laundered faded jeans. His dark brown hair brushed his collar and fell in shaggy waves over his ears; he desperately needed a haircut, and he could do with a shave... There was designer stubble and there was three-day-old beard.
And then there was that spectacular butt, hugged by the thin fabric of his jeans as he turned his back on his audience to talk to Kendall. Jess caught Kendall’s wince at his lack of formal attire and thought that only Luke would walk into a room full of Italian suits and designer ties in his farm clothes and not give a damn. Jess leaned forward. Was that a greasy palm print on the pocket of his jeans? Then Luke crouched to tie the lace in his boot and his shirt rode up his back. She could see the line between his tanned back and his white hips above the soft leather belt. Jess swallowed the saliva that pooled in her mouth and wondered how warm that strip of skin would feel, how it would taste...
Ally let out a low whistle. ‘Oh, my giddy aunt.’
‘Gorgeous, isn’t he?’ Jess asked. This would be so much easier if he’d picked up a beer gut, lost his hair...
‘Not him! Well, he is—but the redhead! I wouldn’t mind it if he parked his shoes under my bed!’ Ally muttered back, waving her hand in front of her face. ‘Yum!’
He did have attractive friends, Jess admitted, but for her they were missing that X factor. The one that screamed power and control and sheer masculine presence. Some would say it was testosterone, some supreme self-confidence, but it was more than that. Whatever the mystery ingredient that made Luke more of a man, he’d been given an overdose of it at birth...
It was a good thing she was sitting down because seeing him, so tall and strong, cut her legs out from under her. He was all chemistry and potency and lust and pheromones and... Why was he still the only man she’d ever met who had the ability to vacuum every thought from her brain? Who was able to send her blood to pool in her womb, flush her face and body with pleasure, with nothing more than a look from those fabulous eyes?
Good grief, she thought as their eyes connected and held, if he kept looking at her like that—with barely concealed heat and open hostility—she would dissolve into a puddle on the floor.
‘He’s clocked you,’ Ally told her, very unnecessarily.
‘Yeah, I noticed.’
‘You’re in trouble,’ Ally sang,
. ‘He looks like he wants to gobble you up in one big bite.’
Jess kicked her ankle to get her to shut up.
‘If I’m really, really lucky,’ Jess countered as those green eyes swept over her again, ‘he’ll just ignore me.’
She heard Ally’s sarcastic snort. ‘And maybe pigs will grow glittery fairy wings and fly.’
* * *
‘You could, at the very least, have changed into a clean pair of pants!’ Kendall muttered, looking exceptionally irritated.
‘I intended to but I ran out of time,’ Luke countered, jamming his hands into his pockets. On good days he never had time to spare, and even in July, the heart of winter in the Cape, there was work to be done. He and Owen were overseeing the pruning of the vines, and in the winery the wines needed to be analysed for pH, acidity, alcohol content and a handful of other tests that needed to be done.
‘If you’d let me hand this marketing stuff over to you then you wouldn’t have to nag me about my clothes. And you can nag for Africa, Ken.’
‘Get stuffed,’ Kendall retorted. ‘And they want to see the Savage of St Sylve.’
‘This isn’t an estate in England! The Savage of St Sylve, my ass!’ Luke grumbled.
‘It’s as close as it gets. Now, will you please get on with it?’
Kendall nodded to the podium and Luke sighed. The Savage of St Sylve? Today he would happily be anyone else, he thought as he turned to face his audience. His gaze skimmed over the self-satisfied suits to a slim, streaky-haired blonde sitting behind a wide-shouldered man in a grey suit.
He’d felt this a couple of times over the years—the tilt of a head, a sway of hips and his heart would stumble. When he took a second look he was always disappointed that it wasn’t her.
Out of the corner of his eye Luke caught the movement of a slim hand sliding into bright hair, and the moisture in his mouth suddenly disappeared. He remembered those slim fingers, and his heart bashed against his ribcage as his eyes flew back to her hair, that wide mouth, the long, slim body under a deceptively simple but figure-revealing black dress. God, she looked good. Slimmer, sophisticated, with a tousled shoulder-length hairstyle that was hugely sexy. It accentuated her high cheekbones, her round dark eyes, that amazing mouth.
Luke hoped his poker face was in place... She couldn’t—mustn’t—suspect that she’d sent his pulse rocketing, his mind into overdrive and his libido into orbit. Luke gripped the podium as he waited for his knees to lock. He couldn’t stop his eyes from tracking back to hers, and when they connected, volcanoes erupted. Jess’s eyes, if you looked carefully enough, were the windows to her soul. Beneath the heat of their glances he knew that she was rattled.
Good. It went some way to making up for the uncomfortable and unwelcome fact that he still wanted her...which was such a foolish description for what he wanted to do to her,
Luke blew out a heavy sigh. He knew why she was here. He wasn’t a fool. Word was out that he was looking for a marketing strategy and she’d heard...and, being Jess, she was probably annoyed that he hadn’t asked her.
Jess, again being Jess, didn’t make appointments or pick up the phone to discuss it like a normal person. No, she rocked up here looking hot and sexy and very, very determined.
He wasn’t sure whether to admire her cheek or be annoyed at her pushiness.
Luke cleared his throat and thought that he’d better get on with the business at hand.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, this is probably going to be the shortest briefing in the history of the world. I want something new—something fresh that sells an enormous amount of wine. I want an overall marketing strategy, and then I want it broken down into website, social media, print and TV campaigns. All integrated. That’s it. After your tour of the St Sylve cellars, Kendall de Villiers will take you through the market research report, and apparently there’s a finger lunch and wine-tasting after that.’
Short and sweet. What else was there to say? He could have waffled on, but he was way more interested in having a very serious discussion with a certain brown-eyed blonde.
* * *
Jess slipped out of the tasting room after arranging for Ally to continue with the tour and get a lift back to the airport with Joel. She needed to slip away before she ran into Luke and was told that he wanted nothing to do with her. As she walked out she slipped on her knee-length black coat and pulled a thin silk scarf from its pocket. There was an icy wind blowing off the towering greeny-purple mountains that surrounded the estate. Jess walked down a path that snaked through the now denuded rose gardens, past the manor house and towards the long driveway where she’d parked her rental car.
Jess found a path between the manor house and the guest house. It led onto the driveway and Jess immediately saw Luke, sitting on the top length of the pole fence that separated a winter-brown paddock from the driveway. Behind the paddock the vineyard started, and she could see his workers pruning the vines.
Jess stopped in the shadows of the house and just watched him.
He still fascinated her, Jess admitted. Oh, he was smoking hot, and he set her nerve-endings alight, but there was something beneath that attraction—something about him that engaged her internally as well. She knew he was smart, and she suspected that he could be ruthless, but it went deeper than simple pheromones and lust. Deep enough to have her mentally cocking her head.
One hundred percent alpha male and more than a match for her. The unwelcome thought popped into her head and settled. Jess stumbled, stopped and took a deep breath, and reminded herself that she was an alpha female and very able to deal with Luke Savage. She was an independent, successful, strong woman...
She was such a liar. Right now she felt as if she had all the inner strength of a marshmallow. She shouldn’t be here at St Sylve, shouldn’t be taking this project on. She really didn’t need his business...
She especially didn’t need the way he made her feel. Tingly, excited, a little unsure, a lot less confident.
Jess placed her hands on her waist and scowled at the ground.
Get a grip, Sherwood. You survived a childhood as the youngest girl with four older brothers, you run a successful business, you are independent, ambitious and in charge of this situation.
You will not let him get under your skin...
Jess took a deep breath and stepped out of the shadows onto the driveway. Luke’s head shot up. He jumped off the fence and pushed the sleeves of his T-shirt up his forearms as he scowled at her.
‘Now, why aren’t I surprised to see you here?’ Luke asked in a very even tone.
Jess wasn’t fooled. His green eyes were spitting spiders.
‘Good to know you haven’t lost any of your cheek.’
Sarcasm. He was still good at it.
Jess’s rental car was parked closest to the fence and she dropped her laptop bag on the front seat, slammed the door shut and placed her bottom on the bonnet. She pushed her sunglasses into her hair and looked around.
As much as she wanted to, she would not get drawn into an argument right off the bat. Mostly because she wasn’t sure she’d win it.
‘I’d forgotten how beautiful this place is,’ she commented idly, ignoring his opening volley. ‘The air is so sweet, so pure. Cold, but sweet.’
Luke folded his arms as he loomed over her. ‘What are you doing here, Jessica?’
Jess ignored his intimidation tactics and sent him a smile. ‘I’m going to give you a marketing campaign that is going to blow your socks off, Luke.’
‘Why? So you can say “I told you so”? To rub my face in the fact that I’ve failed? To push home the point that you, despite being so ridiculously young, were right?’
‘No!’ Jess put her hands on her hips and scowled at him. ‘Why didn’t you call me? Dammit, Luke. I know St Sylve. I know—’
Luke rubbed the back of his neck. He felt embarrassed and stupid and wished that she’d just leave him alone to try to fix the mess he’d made. Unfortunately his business brain also kept whispering that he’d be an idiot if he just sent her on her way without listening to her proposal.
There was a reason why she was reputed to be one of the best in the business...but why did she have to look even sexier than before?
The knowledge that he was still so attracted to her caused his temper to spike. ‘You know
! You spent three months here eight years ago and you didn’t know much then.’
‘I want to help you...’
Luke shook his head. ‘No, you don’t. You want to make some money off me, do a deal, get the most sought-after contract around. You want to be proved right. You want to say “I told you so”. You want to show me how clever you are.’
Jess shook her head. ‘No, I— Come on, Luke, give me a break! I’m not the same cocky, over-zealous child I was eight years ago. I’m good at my job, and campaigns like yours are what I do best.’
Luke watched the heat of temper appear on her cheekbones, noticed the patches of red forming on her chest and neck. ‘I don’t need to watch you gloat. I have representatives of at least five other companies touring St Sylve right now, so they can—’ Luke bent his fingers to emphasise the phrase ‘—“help” me.’