Authors: Jasinda Wilder
Copyright © 2014 by Jasinda Wilder
All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the author except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
Cover art by Sarah Hansen of Okay Creations. Cover art copyright © 2013 Sarah Hansen.
For Linda, who never woke up,
and for those who wait and watch and love.
the girl on the beach
I dove into the water, slicing neatly into the cold blue. Four long frog-kick strokes under the surface, and then I came up and took a deep breath. My muscles immediately settled into a steady crawl stroke, carrying me toward the peninsula mainland. I had a small waterproof scuba diving bag on my back, holding the essentials: wallet, keys, phone, a T-shirt, flip-flops. I kept a steady pace until I felt my feet brush the sandy bottom, and then I stood up, flinging my hair back and smoothing it down. I trudged ashore, breathing hard, muscles trembling.
This early in the morning my beach was empty. It wasn’t really technically
, since I didn’t own it, but I thought of it as mine all the same. Very few people came here, not this far north on the peninsula. It was a secluded spot, a good twenty-plus miles away from the bustle of downtown Traverse City, and it was out of the way even for the constant flow of winery traffic on the peninsula itself. It suited me. I could stock my truck with a towel and a change of clothes, lock it, leave it parked nearby at the post office, and swim out to the island that was my home. I had a boat, of course, but I preferred to swim when the weather allowed.
I scrubbed my hand over my wet hair, sluicing water down my chest and back, and then stretched, yawning and squeezing my eyes closed, rolling the tension out of my shoulders. When I came out of the stretch, I saw her.
Five-eight. Long blonde hair with dark roots. A body that made my mouth go dry. Curvy, solid, luxurious expanses of flesh. She wore a pair of cut-off jean shorts and an orange bikini top. God in heaven, who
she? I’d never seen her before. There was no way on earth I could ever forget seeing this girl. She was, without a doubt, the most gorgeous creature I’d ever seen.
I stood, frozen, thigh deep in the water. Staring. Blatantly. I needed to know her name. I needed to hear the sound of her voice. She’d have a voice like music, to match the symphony that was her body. The need to move closer was an automatic response. My feet carried me through the water, toward the girl.
She was sitting on the beach about thirty feet away from me. A towel was spread beneath her, and she had her nose buried in a book. I couldn’t make out the title, but it didn’t matter. My attention was on
. On the way her hair fell in a loose braid over her bare shoulder. On her arm, the way it flexed as she scratched her knee. She looked up from her book and saw me. Our eyes met for the briefest of instants. In that moment, something inside me shivered and burned. And then she looked back at her book. Almost too quickly. Too intently.
I walked straight past the girl. Why? Why couldn’t I get myself to talk? I couldn’t make my body stop. It had been almost a year now. I should be over what had happened. But I wasn’t. Obviously. I couldn’t even get a simple “hello” past my lips.
My feet carried me to my truck, and I didn’t look back. I wanted to look back. I
to. Her skin had been fair, flawless, looking satin-smooth and needing touch. My touch. I dug my keys from the dry-bag, unlocked my restored red-and-white two-tone 1968 Ford F-150. I toweled myself off and drove to the winery, thinking about her. About the expression on her face. It had been…tortured. Conflicted. As if the beach itself held as much pain as it did promise. That was a ridiculous, nonsensical thought. I couldn’t possibly know that about her. But it was what I’d seen when I looked at her. And it made me want to know her even more. What could have caused her such pain? How could a beach cause such conflicted emotion?
I needed to push her from my thoughts while I got to work and tended to the grapes. I couldn’t afford thoughts of a girl. Not now. This would be our best harvest yet, and we had to keep focused. My brothers and I had to get this winery turning a profit if we were going to make it up here.
Yet, as I worked in the vineyard, pruning and weeding and trimming and tying, my thoughts kept returning to the girl on the beach. To the heavy weight of her breasts held up by the orange fabric, which almost hadn’t been equal to the task. She’d almost spilled out of the top, and that overflow of flesh kept cropping up in my brain. As did her long legs, shining with sunscreen and flexing with thick muscle. Her eyes, god, I’d only gotten a fragmentary glimpse of her eyes, but I thought they might be green. Deep jade green. Those eyes had held, in that momentary meeting, so many things. Curiosity, intelligence. Vibrancy. Pain. God, such pain.
I wondered if I’d see her again. I hoped I would, feared I would.
After a long day in the vineyard, I finally trudged slowly into the office. I hated the office and only went in when I had to. I twisted the knob to Kirk’s office, pushed the door open, but it stuck, again. I kicked it free, and then swung it open and closed it a few times, realizing the door itself was warped and the frame was swollen. Unfortunately, my brother Kirk had several projects waiting for me.
“That damn door is a pain in my ass, Carter.” Kirk spoke without looking away from the screen of the computer. “Think you can fix it for me?” He glanced at me, assessing my reaction. I nodded. “Good. That’s project number one. Shouldn’t be too hard. Ready for number two?” Kirk, like me, was tall, with black hair and pale blue eyes, but with more aquiline features. He was thicker through the chest than I was, and a few inches shorter.
I lifted an eyebrow at him as I took a seat facing his desk.
“I was in Arizona last week, right? I toured some vineyards in the Sedona area, just to see how they do things. And they had these tables in their tasting room made from old barrels. They just fixed some glass tops to the empty barrels, and that was it, but it looked cool as hell. We’ve got at least a dozen old unusable casks left over from when we bought this place, and I was thinking you could make us some tables for our tasting room. What do you think?”
I sat back and pictured what he was describing. Wine barrels were made from oak, and after a batch of wine was transferred out of a barrel, the sugars and the tannins left stains behind. Most wineries toast the inside of the barrel and reuse it. Some will do this several times, but eventually the barrel becomes unusable. At that point, the barrels can be sold off for reclamation and recycling. Wine barrel furniture was a huge fad, especially in areas where wineries and vineyards were common. I could easily make the tables he wanted in an afternoon or two, but I’d need the glass tops first.
Kirk, Max, Tom, and I had bought this vineyard three years ago, as well as two plots to the south. There had been a working winery here at one point, but it had gone bankrupt and we’d had to replant thirty acres of Riesling grapes, in addition to the additional forty acres we’d planted from scratch. The last three years had been spent cultivating the grapes to the point where they could be used to make wine, replacing the out-of-date vintner equipment, and building a brand-new tasting room. We were working out of the sixty-year-old building that had come with the land until the new premises were complete, but the building felt every single minute of its age. Every door was warped. The floors were either faded and cracked laminate or buckling, scratched hardwoods. The roof leaked, the windows were drafty, and the bathrooms and kitchen were hopelessly out of date. We’d considered trying to remodel the place, but had decided it was futile. In the meantime, I was splitting my time between taking care of the vines and keeping the old office building from falling down around our ears. I was managing the construction of the new place as well, and whatever other projects needed doing. So far, I’d replaced most of the doors, half of the window frames, three rooms’ worth of flooring, and that was just what was needed to keep the place intact.
Of the four of us, I was the carpenter and handyman. I’d started out at fourteen working for my uncle’s house-building company, and had gotten my finish carpenter certification by the time I was nineteen. I’d spent the next four years working my way up in the company until, at twenty-three, I was Uncle Mike’s second-in-command. That was when Kirk and Max had come to me with their idea of buying a bank-owned winery. Max was the vintner in the family, and he’d learned the craft of wine-making in heart of wine country, Napa Valley.
Max was the oldest—four years my senior at thirty-one. Kirk, the second oldest, was the businessman and numbers guy. I was the builder and carpenter, third in line at twenty-seven. Tom was the youngest at twenty-five, and he didn’t have a specific skill-set yet, but he was energetic and personable, and would probably end up being the face of the company, the spokesman and marketer.
Kirk cleared his throat, reminding me that I’d been spacing out. I gave him a thumbs up, and he slapped the desk. “Great. Those tables are no rush, obviously, since we won’t have anywhere to pour wine for a few months yet, but make ’em look badass. The last thing is the bar. Max and I were thinking the bar itself should be the centerpiece of the whole tasting room. We want it to be sexy, right? Something big and masculine and handmade. You’re the carpenter, so I’ll leave the design to you, but I emailed you some ideas to start you off. Sound good?”
I nodded and stood up, pulling my phone from my pocket and bringing up Kirk’s email.