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Authors: Ellen Crosby

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BOOK: The Riesling Retribution
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“I love her,” he said. “Even now. But she really is flipped out about being broke and on the verge of bankruptcy. I’m sure she’s in denial about a lot of stuff.”

“You mean denying she stole the card and bought those things?”

“Maybe.”

“Well, I guess it’s up to Frankie what she’s going to do about this,” I said.

“I thought you said she wasn’t going to report it to the sheriff’s office.”

“That was before nobody admitted responsibility. She’s mad, Eli.”

“I’ll call her,” he said. “Maybe I can persuade her to let this slide. It’s not like anything happened since she was able to cancel the order. No harm, no foul. Right?”

He stood up and unclipped his phone from his belt again.

It wasn’t right. But he’d already gone back inside to call Frankie. When he came back, he looked relieved as he waved a hand at me.

“All taken care of,” he said. “She’s cool with it.”

I got up to make dinner, but my stomach was churning. What had happened to Eli? He used to know the difference between right and wrong. Getting away with something didn’t make it right. It just meant he’d gotten away with it and Frankie was too decent to hold either of them accountable. So now the theft was compounded by lying. What was cool about that?

 

I didn’t recognize any of the workers who showed up with Chance when we picked the Riesling the next morning. Quinn left me on the crush pad to supervise getting the grapes weighed and moved to the refrigerator truck.

“I’m going out in the field with these guys. Wait until I get back before we put the grapes through the destemmer,” he said. “I don’t have a good feeling about this crew. Some of them look like they never set foot in a vineyard before. Watch ’em all cut themselves with their pruning shears first thing when they start picking. I hope no one takes off a finger.”

“What are we going to do?” I asked. “This is who we have. It’s them or nobody.”

“I told you yesterday what we should have done,” he said. “Savannah said she’d be here in an hour, so that’s one more person. But I bet we have to sort what these guys pick. Then we’re going to have
to go back out there and pick anything they missed. What a goddamn mess.”

I rubbed my temples. “I hope we can pull this off before it rains.”

He glared at me. “The good news is that, since we finally decided to make ice wine, we’re not picking everything. Maybe we’ll make more than we planned if these rubes leave a lot of fruit on the vines.”

“Maybe,” I said.

But later in the day as we began sorting the grapes, it began to look like the ice wine project was in jeopardy, too. Quinn set up a sorting table and both of us, along with Benny, Javier, and Tyler, began checking the grapes before putting them in the destemmer.

We worked for about ten minutes and it grew quieter and quieter.

“I don’t believe this,” Quinn said finally. “They picked everything. Unripe, ripe, overripe. We’re screwed. There’ll be nothing left to pick in the fall.”

“Maybe it’s only this batch,” I said. “Let’s keep going.”

But it wasn’t just one batch.

We worked outside through the afternoon as the sky grew darker and then the rains began. Benny and Javier moved everything under the overhang so we could keep going. Quinn had already started to press the first batch of grapes. We were barely speaking and I knew if he got his hands on Chance, who had driven the crew back to their camp, this time he’d kill him.

I saw Chance before Quinn did. Frankie called me when she was ready to lock up the villa for the evening and asked if I could drop by. Things had been awkward between us all day. I hoped she hadn’t decided to quit.

When I walked in she had two wineglasses set out.

“We need to talk,” she said. “Red or white?”

“Either.”

She gave me the choose-one look.

“How about white?” I said.

She poured from an opened bottle of Riesling.

“Brandi called me,” she said. “She wanted me to know she had
nothing to do with those purchases. Says she’s pretty sure Eli must have done it because he’s so distraught at losing her. She thinks he thought maybe he could win her back that way.”

We touched glasses.

“Eli says he didn’t do it,” I said. “I know he’s my brother, but I believe him before I believe her.”

“She sounded pretty believable herself.”

We drank in silence. Frankie seemed to have made up her mind. I couldn’t blame her for believing Brandi. Either way, though, it was an ugly situation involving theft, fraud, and deceit. Tough to put a good spin on that and find anything to salvage.

“I’d like to reimburse you,” I said.

Frankie shook her head. “For what? The transaction was canceled. I wanted to tell you that I plan to put this behind me.”

I had no doubt she meant it, especially because she was watching me with her usual clear-eyed candor, waiting for me to accept her offer of a truce. But I still felt shamed, like a parent called into the principal’s office after some altercation involving a child had been dealt with and cleared up. Punishment and forgiveness had been dispensed, but what was lost—at least to me—were honor and integrity. There would be whispers and doubts the next time something like this happened, and Eli would always be a suspect.

“I’m still so embarrassed—”

She held up her hand. “Forget it. They’re both under a lot of strain. I don’t want this to come between us, Lucie. I have so much respect and admiration for you and what you’ve done to turn this vineyard around. You can’t take the weight of everyone else’s problems on your shoulders. Not even your own family.”

“First, Leland. Now Eli. I feel rotten.”

She squeezed my arm. “I know you do. That’s why you need to promise me we’re going to move past this.”

“I can’t have Eli working here anymore, can I?” I drained my glass.

“I wouldn’t put him in a situation where he’s handling money right now,” she said. “Would you?”

“No.”

That was the quid pro quo she wanted and, as usual, she had
finessed her request. We couldn’t afford another scandal. She was willing to sweep this one under the carpet. But next time…?

“Okay,” I said. “I’ll handle it. I’ll tell Eli we don’t need him helping here anymore. He’s not stupid. He’ll get the message.”

We finished our wine.

“Want another glass?” Frankie asked.

“I’d better not. I need to get back to the barrel room. I think we’re going to be here all night with the Riesling. I don’t know where Chance dug up that crew we had today, but they picked everything. Quinn wants him gone, too.”

“I heard,” she said. “Look, go on back. I’ll close up.”

I stood as Frankie began turning off lights. She paused to look out one of the windows.

“Speak of the devil. Chance is just getting out of the pickup.”

“Oh, God,” I said. “I need to get to him before Quinn does.”

We met just inside the courtyard archway. Bruja, who had been following her master, wagged her tail and came to me so I could pet her.

“I ran the crew back to the camp,” he said. “You guys done with getting the Riesling in the tanks already?”

“We haven’t even started,” I said. “Because we have to sort the grapes by hand. All of them.”

“What are you talking about?” he asked.

The rain had temporarily let up but the air still felt heavy and damp. I watched Chance and wondered if Quinn was right that he was completely incompetent. How could he not know what he’d done?

“Your crew picked
everything,
Chance. The only thing that could have been worse would be sawing off the vines and dragging those back, too. It’s like they’d never worked as pickers before. Of anything. Where’d you get them, anyway?”

“Same place I always get them. The camp in Winchester.”

“Where’d you really get them?”

“I told you. The camp in Winchester. Look, remember what I said before?” he asked. “Quinn works those men like dogs. If anyone complains he threatens to sic Homeland Security on them. Word gets around, Lucie. You’re lucky I got who I got.”

“I’ve never seen Quinn act like that.”

“You’re not out in the field every day. How would you know?”

“How come my other manager never told me about it?”

“I didn’t know your other manager, but maybe he closed his eyes. Or maybe he didn’t think of day laborers as anything other than one step up from a chain gang.”

“That’s not true!”

“What did you say about a chain gang?”

Quinn’s voice, behind me. I turned around. It was just the two of them and me. Quinn moved closer until he was standing about a foot away from Chance. I was not going to be able to stop this fight.

“I’m handling this, Quinn,” I said. “Let me settle it.”

“Tell this asshole to clear out. He’s through here.”

“Who’re you telling to leave, buddy? You don’t run the place.”

“I said, clear out.”

“That’s enough,” I said. “Quinn, don’t—”

Chance smirked. “Seems the boss doesn’t agree with you, Quinn. Go on, Lucie. You’re not going to let him bully you like he bullies everyone else—”

Quinn cut him off with a hard blow to his stomach. Chance doubled over and groaned.

“Stop it!” I said. “Quinn! Are you out of your mind? Don’t do this.”

“Get out of here,” he said to Chance. “You’re through.”

He turned his back on Chance and started to walk away. Chance raised his head, a look of cold fury on his face, and charged after him. I heard Quinn’s “ouf” as Chance tackled him and the sound of Quinn’s head hitting the ground. He looked dazed, as though the blow had knocked the wind out of him.

“Get up,” Chance said. “Get up and fight me, old guy.”

“Don’t do it! Chance, Quinn!”

“Get out of here, Lucie,” Chance said. “Get lost and let us finish this.”

As he spoke, Quinn got up. This time Chance was ready. He landed a precise flurry of hooks and jabs before Quinn could raise his fists to defend himself. Quinn staggered backward as blood poured from his nose. Chance went after him, punching him hard
in the gut, but when Quinn went down, he managed to take Chance with him. I heard their animal grunts as their fists connected with flesh and bone.

Involuntary manslaughter…was that what they called it when someone died in a fight? This had to stop.

I pulled out my phone and called Benny.

“You and Javier, come quick to the courtyard! They’re killing each other!”

By the time the two of them pulled Quinn and Chance apart, I wanted to call an ambulance. No one would let me.

“You’ll get the sheriff involved.” Quinn’s words were slurred. “Don’t need to do that. Everything’s fine.”

Tyler showed up then, wild-eyed.

“Get the first aid kit,” I said, and he fled.

Quinn had gotten the worst of it, or at least there was more blood on his face and clothes. Benny stood by Chance, who was still doubled over holding his ribs. Quinn lay on the ground as Javier tended to him. I heard him mumble to Javier that he was fine, nothing broken.

“That guy is crazy.” Chance straightened up. He was breathing hard as he pointed at Quinn. “And so are you, Lucie, if you let him work here.”

Quinn groaned and sat up. One eye was swollen and his face looked like a piece of raw meat.

“Get rid of him,” Quinn said and coughed. “He’s trouble.”

“So what’ll it be, Lucie?” Chance’s laugh was harsh and challenging. “You can’t keep both of us around. You know that.”

“No.” My voice sounded far away. “I can’t.”

“You’re not thinking…” Quinn watched me, incredulous. “Come on, Lucie. He’s just messing with your head.”

Chance smiled and winked at me. My eyes traveled from him to Quinn. How had it come to this? Was I really contemplating choosing between them? It was Quinn’s fault for forcing this showdown, wasn’t it? In spite of my feelings for him, I needed to be objective, do what was best for the vineyard, the crew…

“You know, Chance, I really like you.” My voice wavered.

“Aw, Lucie…” Quinn’s eyes were anguished. “I don’t believe this.”

I cleared my throat. “As I was saying, I really like you, Chance. You’ve charmed our customers and the crew likes you, too.”

Chance was grinning now, his eyes holding mine in triumph.

“But I guess I’m just crazy,” I continued, “because ever since you joined us, there has never been so much ill will and so many screwups and mistakes as there have been these last few months. And because you laid it down as he goes or I go, I’m firing you. I want you gone now, Chance. Get your stuff and get out of here.”

CHAPTER 18

Chance’s smile didn’t fade, but something in his eyes went dead as they flickered down to my cane and my deformed foot, before settling on my face.

“If that’s your decision.”

“It is.”

Quinn got up with Javier’s help. “Get out of here. You heard her. You’re fired.”

“Quinn,” I said, “he’s going.”

“Pretty cruel turning me out on the street like this.” Chance stared hard at me. “Especially after your winemaker tried to kill me. That’s not your style, Lucie. You’ve got more class than that, don’t you?”

“I’ll give you two weeks’ severance pay.”

“Make it three. And I’ll overlook the assault charge.”

“Forget it,” Quinn said. “Don’t do it, Lucie.”

Chance shrugged. “Up to you. You know he started it. What I did was only in self-defense.”

“Three weeks,” I said. “I’ve got to write a check and the checkbook’s in my office. Chance, you come with me. Everyone else get back to work.”

Quinn started to protest but I silenced him with a look.

“I can handle this.”

Neither Chance nor I spoke as we walked to the villa. I asked
him to wait in the tasting room while I wrote the check. When I came back, he had a bottle of wine in his hand.

“Okay if I take this as a souvenir?”

It was a bottle of Riesling.

“What if I said no?”

“I’d take it anyway.”

He flashed a shadow of the heart-stopping smile and I looked away as I handed him the check. He folded it and put it in his pocket without looking at it.

“You’re making a mistake,” he said, and pulled me into his arms.

Before I could protest his mouth came down hard on mine as he drew me closer in a viselike embrace.

“Chance—”

He loosened his grip on my waist, but it was only to put a finger under my chin and tilt my face to his for another long, bruising kiss. I felt the wine bottle press hard into the small of my back. It hurt. He was making me dizzy, breathless.

“Don’t! You can’t do this.” I put my hands on his chest, gasping, as I tried to push him away.

He laughed and released me. “I just did. I’ll be around for a few days. Then I’m probably leaving town. You could change your mind. We could finish this. I’ve seen the way you look at me, Lucie. I’ve known for a while that you want me.”

He traced his finger down my cheek and my throat. When it moved between my breasts, I caught his hand.

“Stop it, please.”

His laugh was low and seductive. He bit my neck and I stifled a cry at the unexpectedness of the sharp little pain.

“I know what you want, too, baby. And I’m good. I’d undress you nice and slow—”

“That’s enough!”

He laughed again. Then he walked over to the front door and opened it. I thought he’d look back, but he didn’t. I stood there, numb.

How could I have let him do that? Was he right? Had I asked for that kiss?

The door opened again and Benny walked in. How long had I been standing here?

“Jesus, you scared me, Benny!”

“You okay, Lucie? Queen sent me to check on you. Make sure nothing happened.”

My face was scarlet. I moved my hand to my neck to the place Chance had bitten me and pretended to rub it. Had he left a mark?

Benny’s expression was bland.

“Nothing happened,” I said.

He stared at me. “Good.”

We both knew that was a lie.

 

By the time Benny and I got back to the crush pad, Quinn had cleaned up, changing his bloodstained T-shirt to a clean one. His face looked puffy and he was going to have a hell of a shiner. He moved and looked like a dog that had just dragged itself home from a losing fight.

“Maybe you should go back to your place and get some rest,” I said. “You look like hell.”

“And lose all these grapes? No way.” He glanced up at me and went back to sorting fruit. “I’m sorry I took a swing at him. But he was asking for it.”

He kept concentrating on the grapes, but I could see his Adam’s apple move in his throat. I’d never seen him this uncomfortable before.

“Can I talk to you in private for a minute?” I said.

Benny and Javier glanced up.

“We can take a break, Queen,” Javier said, pulling cigarettes out of his pocket. He looked at Benny.
“Vámonos.”

I picked up a bunch of grapes. “I have to ask you something.”

“What is it?”

“Have you ever threatened to turn any of the day laborers over to the Department of Homeland Security if they didn’t do something you asked them to do?”

“Have I
what?
What the hell are you talking about? Where’d you get an idea…
Chance?”
He looked stunned. “He told you that and you believed him?”

“If I believed him he’d still be working here,” I said. “It’s not true, is it?”

“Do you even need to ask?”

“Quinn, don’t make this difficult for me. Yes or no?”

He shook his finger at me. “I have never, never threatened anyone.”

“What would you call that little smackdown, then?”

He shook his head. “Aw, come on. Okay, so I slugged Chance. He had it coming. But you know me. You really think I’d physically abuse the men? Or threaten to turn someone over to DHS? They’d be deported so fast it would make your head spin. Tell me you never took that jerk seriously.”

I threw the grapes in the destemmer and avoided his eyes.

“You did believe him.” His voice was hard. “Jesus, Lucie. Look, if you want my resignation, too, you can have it.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. I just needed to ask, is all.”

“Why didn’t you tell me as soon as he made that accusation? Why did you wait?”

“Because I was afraid you’d do what you did today, that’s why. Between Bobby telling me my father is guilty of murder and everything with Eli, I didn’t need more heartache. Back off, please, okay?”

He was angry, but that was too damn bad. Some of this was his fault, too.

I picked up more grapes. “Let’s get back to work.”

“Sure, boss,” he said. “Whatever you say.”

 

We barely spoke to each other for the rest of the night. Around midnight, Savannah showed up. Quinn told her he’d walked into the press when she asked about his eye. She looked like she knew she’d been asked to swallow a whopper but didn’t bring up the subject again, at least in my presence.

Someone turned on loud rock music and Quinn brought out a couple of cold six-packs. While he and Savannah were busy filling one of the tanks with juice, I asked Benny if we could talk.

“Sure,” he said. “Want a beer?”

“No, thanks.”

He pulled a bottle out of the cooler for himself and opened it
with his knife. We walked into one of the cool, dark bays and stood next to a row of barrels of Pinot Noir. The tangy odor of fermenting wine filled my head.

“Chance told me those guys he hired as pickers today came from the camp in Winchester,” I said.

“They aren’t from Winchester,” he said.

“How do you know?”

“I heard one of them talking. I think they’re from Herndon.”

“What’s in Herndon?”

“A lot of places where ten guys live in two-bedroom apartments. The guys who came today just got here from Salvador.” He pronounced the name of the country in his rich accent.

“Meaning what?” I asked.

He shrugged and took a pull on his beer. “They’ll do anything. Work
más barato
than guys who’ve been here awhile. Cheaper.”

“I paid the wages of an experienced crew,” I said. “The same as we always do.”

There was no way, try as we might, that we could find enough workers with green cards who were willing to pick grapes or work in the fields. As a result, we kept a lot of cash on hand because that’s how we paid the crews. I didn’t always feel good about hiring illegals, but don’t-ask-don’t-tell was the way it was. And we paid a fair wage—always.

Benny gave me a shrewd look and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.

“Chance paid the guys. You paid Chance.”

A small shock went through me. And the memory of that fierce kiss. “He pocketed some of the money that was supposed to go to the men?”

“People are greedy. I’ve seen worse.
Ilegales?
Especially new guys. They got no rights. What are they gonna do?” he said.

“That’s despicable.”

“¿Cómo?”

“Awful. Disgusting.”



. In Spanish we say something about his mother.” He smiled and showed two silver teeth.

“Is there any way you can locate one or two of these men
and find out if Chance underpaid them?” I asked. “And let me know?”

“I’ll see what I can do,” he said. “I could even make Chance sorry about what he did.”

“Let’s take it one step at a time.”

More vigilante violence over labor problems was the last thing I needed.

 

By the time we finished getting the juice out of the press and into tanks it was three in the morning. Quinn said he planned to sleep in the barrel room to keep an eye on things and Savannah showed no sign of being ready to leave.

Tyler had downed a couple of beers during the evening and I worried about him driving home, even though his parents’ bed-and-breakfast was just up the road.

“I’ll drive you,” I said. “I didn’t drink.”

“What’ll I tell my folks if I don’t show up with the car?”

“That you behaved like a responsible adult who turned the keys over to someone else.”

It was a five-minute drive to the Fox & Hound on a deserted road. Tyler yawned and moved restlessly in his seat.

“This is hard work,” he said. “And these are killer hours.”

“Surely you stayed up this late in college?”

“That was for fun stuff.”

“Looks like your folks have a full house,” I said, pulling into his driveway.

“A lot of people coming for the reenactment.”

The sweep of my headlights caught a vanity license plate on a burgundy Mercedes. “CHASTAIN.”

“I suppose this is a stupid question, but are Annabel and Sumner Chastain staying here?”

“They showed up a few days ago. Mom says they’re sticking around awhile longer because Mr. Chastain wants to look at a horse he might buy.”

“Have you met them?”

“Sure. They’ve had breakfast in the dining room a couple of times when they’re not having it in their cottage.”

“Which cottage is that?”

“Devon.” He eyed me. “You going to talk to them or something?”

“Uh, well, maybe. I didn’t realize they were still in town,” I said. “Nor that they were staying here.”

“It seemed like a good idea not to mention it to you.” He sounded wary as he opened the car door. “Thanks for the ride. Can I come in late tomorrow?”

“Of course. Get some sleep.”

Tyler got out and I waited so he could see his way to the front door in the wash of my headlights. He swayed a little as he walked and I was glad I’d driven him.

On my way home I thought about calling on the Chastains.

In fact, as soon as possible.

 

I slept for a few hours and finally got up around eight. My eyes felt like I’d rubbed sandpaper in them. Quinn and I had agreed to finish pressing the last of the Riesling later this morning after yesterday’s marathon session. Working around heavy equipment—the forklift, the destemmer, the press—when we were all exhausted was hazardous. I didn’t want any more accidents.

I called the Fox & Hound as I stood in front of kitchen windows drinking my morning coffee. The cloud-covered sky gave everything a closed-in melancholy look that suggested a long spell of inclement weather to come. At least it wasn’t raining.

Jordy Jordan, Tyler’s father, answered the phone. He didn’t sound happy when I asked whether the Chastains were in their cottage and if I could speak to them.

He came back on the line a minute later, his voice dry as autumn leaves. “I’ll put you through.”

Sumner Chastain took my call. “Ms. Montgomery. This is a surprise.”

He spoke with the self-assurance of someone who held all the cards and knew it. Though he could have asked Jordy to tell me to get lost, I thought it was interesting he agreed to talk to me. Maybe it wasn’t such a surprise that I called, after all. Perhaps he’d been expecting it.

“I was wondering if I might come by to speak with your wife, Mr. Chastain.”

A pause, then, “I don’t see any purpose in that. Or any value.”

“I’m sure you know the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office now considers the murder investigation closed,” I said, “largely based on evidence your wife provided to Detective Noland that apparently proved my father murdered Beau Kinkaid. There would be great purpose and value to my family and me if Mrs. Chastain could explain what happened all those years ago. She’s the only person who can answer our questions.”

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