Release date: December 28, 2021
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Print pages: 368
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Last Dance with a Cowboy
Strangulation by bow tie wasn’t August’s favorite way to spend an evening.
Usually, he endured at least a few hours wearing the fancy torture device, but tonight…well, tonight, this black silk bow tie that had likely cost his boss upward of five hundred dollars was going in the trash early. Even though he’d been attending black-tie galas in Napa for well over thirteen years, he would never get used to wearing a tux.
With a few flicks of his wrist, August unraveled the bow tie and tossed it nonchalantly into a stainless-steel trash can hidden behind the pavilion’s stone pillar.
“I hope that shirt is coming off next.”
August didn’t even have to turn his head to know who had spoken. Close to three hundred guests were attending the Kingston Family Vineyards’ annual wine club members’ gala on the patio overlooking the vineyard, but he would recognize Corrine Laurent’s voice anywhere. As the granddaughter of their wine club’s longest-standing members, Corrine got special attention at every event she attended, and this one was no different.
“Forrest doesn’t like it when I take off my shirt.” He approached Corrine and her friend—Nadia, if he wasn’t mistaken—giving both of their sparkling gowns exactly the right amount of attention before grinning. “He says it’s not professional.” Truthfully, Forrest Kingston would likely tell August to take off his shirt right now if it would make the woman happy, but thankfully his boss happened to be otherwise occupied with a group of investors near the tasting bar. So August was off the hook. For now, anyway.
“I like you better when you’re unprofessional.” Corrine’s blue eyes seemed to sparkle as much as the sequins on her gown. “There’s nothing better than seeing you ride your horse in the vineyards wearing jeans and a T-shirt, and your cowboy hat shading your eyes.” She gave a quick raise of her eyebrows.
Yeah, the woman seemed to spend a lot of time watching him when she visited the winery, but since she was barely out of college, he’d make sure watching was all she did.
“I could picture him riding a horse, looking all hot and cowboy like,” Nadia murmured as she appraised him.
“Trust me, I’d rather be wearing jeans and playing the cowboy role tonight.” Forrest could take the cowboy out of Colorado and make August manage his Napa vineyards, but he couldn’t take the Colorado out of the cowboy. He’d learned to adapt, to be what his boss wanted him to be. But he still hadn’t forgotten who he really was.
“Well…” Corrine leaned in with a conspiratorial smirk. “Since you’re all dressed up in your fancy suit, can you tell us more about the new cabernet sauvignon coming out this fall?”
“I can do more than tell you.” He held out an arm to each of them, easily settling into his role as head schmoozer. “I can give you a sample. As long as you promise to keep it our little secret.”
Sharing a look of intrigue, the women linked their arms through his, and he led them to the far end of the tasting bar where he’d stashed the bottle of the special new cab he’d overseen himself.
“Ladies…” He lowered his voice and made a show of glancing around as if afraid someone might overhear. “You two are going to be the first to sip this brand-new creation that’s the culmination of years of work.” He didn’t mention that the work had been mostly his and had happened in secret until he’d finally told Forrest about his labor of love. “We fully believe we have curated the perfect cab.” He reached under the bar and presented them with the bottle that had yet to even be labeled. “We selected only the darkest, ripest grapes for this one, which give it mocha notes and aromas. You’ll also notice a rich finish with fine-grained tannins, providing a nice backbone.”
“Mmm,” Corrine hummed. “Nothing sexier than a cowboy speaking wine.”
“Are you sure he’s still single?” Nadia asked as if he weren’t standing right there.
“Well, I’ve never heard him mention a significant other.” Corrine stared directly at August. “But maybe that’s because he doesn’t want to settle down.”
“Oh, I have a significant other, all right.” August pulled out two branded wine tumblers and filled each with a generous pour. “At about four hundred acres, she’s beautiful but she’s also more demanding than any woman ever could be.” He slid the glasses across the bar with a smirk.
Corrine took her tumbler with a roll of her eyes. “What will a vineyard ever give you that I couldn’t?”
The vineyard had given him a lot. Far more than he could ever repay. After his father had died, August had gotten lost, unable to face going home to Colorado. He’d dropped out of college, sunken into a dark depression, and had all but given up on life when he’d met Forrest Kingston at a bar in San Francisco. He wasn’t sure if the man had hired him out of pity or because he was a cheap labor prospect, but the reason didn’t matter. This vineyard had healed him. He’d done just about every job in this operation, working his way up to general manager, but spending time in the vineyard was still his favorite thing to do. That was where he’d found himself, in the hard work of tending the vines, babying them along, harvesting the fruits of his labor. August owed Kingston Family Vineyards his life.
But he didn’t talk about those kinds of things. Especially not with clients. So, he grinned again. “The vineyard gives me all the wine I can drink.” He found another glass and poured himself a taste before holding it up for a toast. “To sharing a glass of the best wine in the valley with two tempting, albeit off-limits, ladies.”
Corrine glared at him but smiled and clinked her glass against his. “À votre santé.”
“Santé,” Nadia chimed in.
Swirling the wine in his glass, August inhaled the robust scent. Even the smell was enough to intoxicate him. He sipped the burgundy liquid slowly, savoring it, letting the nuances of the wine come together on his palate.
“My God.” Corrine closed her eyes and took another delicate sip. “This cab is downright sensual.”
“Not as sensual as watching him drink it.” Nadia sent him a dazzling grin. “You really don’t date, huh?”
“I don’t need to date.” There were women, of course. None from the wine club members’ list, however. And none with any staying power. Every woman he saw—every woman he talked to or slept with—he compared to the one woman who had mattered. “I have the life I want.” True, he had fallen into this gig in Napa. It wasn’t what he’d pictured back when he’d thought he would marry Leila, but that dream had shattered. His life now suited him fine.
“Who said anything about life?” Corrine kept her eyes on him while she took another sip. “I’d be happy with one night.”
He laughed like he assumed she was joking, but instinct told him she wasn’t. “I assure you…one night with me wouldn’t be enough.” After years of entertaining the wealthy and elite, he played the part of a Casanova all too easily. That might be his biggest problem. He’d become an actor.
Corrine leaned over the bar. “I’d be happy to test that theory—”
“Darling, there you are!” Corrine’s grandmother rushed to the bar. Vivian Laurent was nearing eighty years old, but one would never know it with her styled blond hair and nearly flawless skin. “You absolutely must come and meet Mr. and Mrs. Deckers. I was telling them all about your trip to France. They’d love to hear the details.”
Corrine pouted as her grandmother dragged both her and her friend away. August simply waved a cheerful good-bye.
Phew. He poured himself another splash of the cab. Saved by the granny.
After stashing the bottle back under the bar, he took his glass and wandered to the edge of the stone terrace. This vantage point offered the best view of the vineyards that were nestled into the valley’s rolling hills. The sun hovered just over the western horizon, setting the lush green vines ablaze with a surreal glow.
Every once in a while, this place offered him glimpses of home. There were no mountains here, but back when he used to hike around his family’s Colorado ranch, he had a spot a lot like this one. A spot where he would climb up to get a view of the Valentino Bellas Vineyards—the much smaller, family-run operation back in Silverado Lake, Colorado. After he’d started dating Leila Valentino, they would hike up there together to watch the sunset while they drank a bottle of wine she’d snuck out of her grandparents’ cellar…
“It’s a little early to be losing articles of clothing.” Forrest joined him at the stacked stone wall that could double as another bar area. His boss’s gaze centered on the collar of August’s shirt where the missing bow tie should be. “I guess I should be glad the rest of your clothes are still on.”
“My shirt wouldn’t be, if Corrine had her way.” August sipped the wine, still staring out over the landscape. He’d learned to play whatever part Forrest wanted him to, but he always felt more like himself when he had his hands in the dirt and on the vines than at any other time.
Forrest chuckled, swirling his own glass of wine. “Thank you for charming Corrine to keep her grandparents happy. Not that you have to put any effort into charming young, beautiful women.”
“It’s part of the job description.” He faced his boss directly. In some ways, Forrest was a cowboy himself—about the same height as August, but broader across the shoulders. His face had been weathered from years of work in the sun, which often fooled unsuspecting business professionals into thinking the man was more of a farmer interested in curating the vineyards than a shark who’d taken over wineries all up and down the West Coast. “Corrine is easy to charm.”
Forrest laughed again, this time shaking his head. “All women love you, August. I’m just glad you don’t love any of them back.”
August steered his gaze out over the vines, remembering the one woman he had loved. The woman he’d walked away from but had never forgotten. “Maybe I could love one of them back. Eventually.”
This time, Forrest laughed loudly enough to draw the attention of two women who were speaking in hushed tones nearby. “You’re too much like me.” He clapped a hand on August’s shoulder. “Married to the job. Why do you think you’ve come so far since I first hired you?”
Because this job had first become his lifeline and then it had become his life. He inhaled the wine’s aroma again, letting it fill his senses before he drank.
“If I had ever been naive enough to fall for a woman, I wouldn’t be where I am now.” Forrest glanced over his shoulder as though admiring the upscale crowd mingling behind them. “And neither would you.”
That was likely true. If he’d married the woman he’d fallen for like he’d promised, his life would look very different. He wouldn’t be here pretending and charming clients. He decided not to let himself picture where he might be instead. No use in revisiting the past.
“Speaking of where you are now, I have a new assignment for you.” Forrest prodded him out of earshot as though he didn’t want any of their guests to overhear.
Well, this ought to be good. “Where are you sending me this time?” He’d spent most of the last six months revamping an operation they’d bought up in Oregon, and before that, he’d been in western Nevada.
“I’m sending you home.” Forrest set his wineglass on the stone wall and adjusted his cufflinks. “To Silverado Lake.”
August nearly choked on his wine. “Colorado?” Not this again. Last summer, Forrest had sent him out there to talk to the Valentinos—Leila’s family—about purchasing their winery, but the family had clearly told him they were not interested in selling out to a big corporation.
“Leila Valentino contacted me. She found out we’d done a scouting mission last summer and she wanted to talk about a partnership.”
“Leila?” He hadn’t sipped more wine, but he still felt like he was choking. “She hasn’t had anything to do with the winery for years.” When he’d visited her grandparents last summer, he’d learned she’d gotten married three years before and was living in Denver.
“She’s the one in charge out there now, apparently.” Forrest signaled a passing server and exchanged his empty glass for a full one, giving August a few seconds to reel in his shock. Leila was home? With her husband?
“Anyway, the woman proposed a partnership. I told her I’d rather just take the property off her hands, but she went on and on about a family legacy, yada, yada, yada.” A roll of his eyes made it clear what he thought about deeply rooted family connections. “The fact is, their operation is in trouble, and she needs a bailout.”
It didn’t surprise him that Valentino Bellas might be in financial peril. It was a small, family-run business with virtually no distribution channels. Which begged the question…why would Forrest even be interested? “I’m not sure it’s worth the investment.” Might as well be honest with the man. The Valentinos’ vineyard was a beautiful place but, compared to the other Kingston vineyards and wineries, it was not at all profitable. “They only have about twenty acres, and the vines are still young. They maybe produce three thousand bottles of wine a year.” That would not amount to a profit sufficient for Kingston.
“I’m well aware.” Forrest always got testy when anyone pushed back on his ideas. “But there is room for expansion if we can acquire more land, and their acreage right now is low yielding. I have no doubt you can turn things around.”
“Me?” The choking sensation returned. “You want me to go take over Valentino Bellas?” So, he would become Leila’s new boss? “That’s a bad idea. The woman hates me.” She had every right to hate him. Before he’d left for college, he’d given her a ring and a promise, and then he’d never gone back home to make good on either.
“I don’t care if she hates you,” Forrest shot back. “We’ve done everything we can on the West Coast. I want a new challenge. Colorado is starting to make a name for itself in the wine world, and I want to be on the front end of it.”
Right. This wasn’t about money for once. Forrest wanted notoriety. He wanted to conquer new territory.
“Besides…” His boss’s amused grin turned sly. “This is a huge opportunity for you too. It’s no secret you’ve been working your way up around here. You make this project a success, and I’ll add executive vp to your title.”
August studied the man’s expression. Forrest was serious. This offer was everything he’d been working for. It was the next step—a huge step in his career. And yet…Valentino Bellas? How could he even show his face there?
“You’re aware of the challenges with growing grapes in Colorado, aren’t you?” He couldn’t resist trying to argue his way out of this predicament. Leila would likely refuse to work with him, and he didn’t want to work with her either. They had too much history. How was he supposed to undo years of silence? “The temperature swings alone make the whole thing a gamble.”
“And yet people are finding success there.” Forrest’s tone had moved beyond subtle annoyance. “Besides, I only agreed to a provisional partnership. If the winery doesn’t increase its profit margin by thirty percent by the end of the fall, Kingston takes over completely.”
August recognized that gleam in Forrest’s eyes. This was all about the man’s ego. “So you can basically fire her and send her family packing. She agreed to that?”
Forrest grinned. “I stipulated. Those were my terms, and she agreed to them.”
Why? Why would Leila put her family’s business in jeopardy? “Does she know I’m coming?” Because he wouldn’t be shocked at all if she left town before he got there.
“No, I thought we would surprise them by sending in some reinforcements.”
That would go over well. “I can assure you, she won’t be happy to see me.”
“Well then, it’s a good thing you don’t have feelings.” Forrest clapped him on the shoulder again and started to walk away. “Whether she’s happy to see you or not, this is your one shot. I know you won’t screw it up.”
Leila gulped down another sip of coffee and struggled to keep her expression neutral as she stared at the screen in front of her. One wrong move—one raise of an eyebrow, one frown, one twitch in her cheek—and her nonna, who was sitting only a few feet away, would ask her what was wrong.
And Leila couldn’t answer.
These numbers. God. She didn’t dare squeeze her eyes shut to ward off a headache the way she wanted to. She’d known the winery was in trouble—her brother had kept her updated on the early freezes that had decimated the crop a few years back—but she hadn’t realized things were this bad. Her eyes moved over the spreadsheet’s lines while the partnership she’d made with Kingston sat like a rock in her gut. Her recently earned MBA wouldn’t be enough to help them dig out of this hole.
“Do you have any questions, mimma?” Nonna asked, peering over her red-rimmed bifocals.
“Um, no.” She understood everything. She simply wasn’t sure what to do about their dire financial projections. “Our inventory is going to be very low next year.”
“Yes, yes.” Her grandmother waved off the statement. “That happens from time to time. We can’t control the weather, you know, but we’ve always managed.” She rose inelegantly from her chair, still stiff from the double mastectomy she’d endured three months ago. “Don’t look so worried. Valentino Bellas has been here for twenty-three years and it will be here for twenty-three more.”
Leila couldn’t look at her and risk giving away her doubts. She’d never been skilled at hiding her emotions, and she didn’t want her grandmother to know what she had done. With the breast cancer treatments Nonna had been going through, Leila hadn’t had the heart to trouble her grandparents with the financial woes they faced. That was why she’d contacted Forrest Kingston. But the man had driven a hard bargain. While the partnership would be enough to keep them afloat for the next several months, she had no doubt he’d completely take over her grandparents’ legacy and kick out both her and her brother if she didn’t prove she could make this place profitable.
Noticing her grandmother’s curious stare in her direction, Leila pushed out a smile. “I’m not worried.” She didn’t have the time or the mental capacity to worry. She simply had to get things done around here. Worry was a distraction she couldn’t afford. “But we’re going to have to make some changes—”
Their barn cat interrupted with a loud meow and crawled out from the open desk drawer where she’d been napping. Regina hopped up onto the desk and stretched regally before marching right across the laptop keys.
“Hey!” Leila shooed the cat down. “I thought Regina was supposed to be an outdoor cat. To take care of the mice in the barn?”
“She does,” Nonna insisted, pulling the gray-and-white mottled cat into her arms and cradling her like an infant. “She takes care of the mice and she runs the place too.” Her grandmother rubbed noses with the cat, and Leila could hear the purring from where she sat. If the cat really ran the place, maybe they wouldn’t be in this precarious situation right now. Regina was a stickler for routine and punctuality. Her grandparents on the other hand…they didn’t worry. They didn’t stick to a schedule. They rarely balanced the budget. They were both free-spirited and believed everything would work out.
For the most part, things had worked out in the past. They hadn’t made a lot of extra money, but they’d made enough to be comfortable. They’d never had this much debt either.
And life had proven to Leila a long time ago that everything didn’t always work out.
Once more, she thought about simply selling, paying off their debts, and making sure Nonna and Poppa would have enough for a comfortable retirement. That would be simpler. They would be taken care of, and she could find a job somewhere else, put her MBA to use.
Leila peeked at her grandmother, who was still fawning all over the cat. “You know, there’s a buyer who’s pretty interested in purchasing the winery.” She anticipated the way her grandmother’s face would fall at the prospect of selling, but she had to try. “Out in California. They’ve approached us before and—”
“No.” Nonna set Regina back on the desk, and Leila quickly shut the laptop before the cat damaged her spreadsheets for good. “Absolutely not.” Her grandmother wheeled her office chair to the other side of the desk and sat across from Leila. “This land belongs to us. To our family. Your poppa and I have poured our entire lives into it so you and your brother would always have a place. So we’d all have a place together.” Her dark eyes got all glossy and sad, and Leila couldn’t keep looking into them. “This land is our heart and soul. We can’t sell. We both want to live the rest of our lives right here.”
“Then I want that for you too.” But she had no idea how to make it happen. “I just think we have to be practical about—”
An obnoxious ding from her computer announced she had a new e-mail. Leila lowered her eyes to the screen, ready to cling to any distraction that would save her from having to break her grandmother’s heart.
From: August Harding
Everything around her dimmed as she stared at his name. Auggie. A fault line opened dead center in her chest, breaking her in half. He had sent her an e-mail?
“What’s the matter?” Nonna started to lean gingerly over the desk, but Leila snapped her laptop shut before she could see the screen.
“Nothing.” She blinked her grandmother back into focus and held her breath to ward off the stabbing pain.
“Something’s wrong.” Her grandmother’s right eyebrow peaked. “When you looked at that e-mail, your whole face went white.”
Yes, because at the sight of August Harding’s name, all the blood in her body rushed straight to her still-fragile heart. God, her arms and legs felt like dead weight. Easing in a stabilizing breath, Leila forced a smile. “It’s nothing to worry about, Nonna.” The lie formed a lump in her throat. There was plenty to worry about. She hadn’t even read the e-mail, but she already knew that much. August had to be contacting her on Forrest Kingston’s behalf.
“I need to run out for a bit.” She stood abruptly, snatching her laptop into her arms before wobbling her way across the room. “I forgot I had some errands to run.”
“Are you sure everything’s all right?” Her grandmother met her at the door. “You seem upset.”
“No, no. I’m not upset.” She forced a hollow laugh and slipped outside. “Just have a lot to do. But I’ll be home in time for lunch!” Without a glance back, she dug her keys out of her pocket and hoofed it across the parking lot to her Jeep.
Once she was safely settled in the driver’s seat, she opened her laptop again, her fingers shaking as she typed in her password. There was his name again, glowing on the screen. She shouldn’t be surprised, but Forrest had mentioned that August had been busy with some other project in Oregon, so she had assumed she wouldn’t have to interact with him at all.
Leila glanced around quickly to make sure the parking lot was deserted before clicking on the man’s name. A short, to-the-point e-mail popped up.
Hey, I wanted to give you a heads up that I’m in town. Forrest sent me out to oversee things at the winery. I didn’t want to show up without warning you first. I know this isn’t the ideal situation, but I didn’t have a choice. I’m staying at the ranch. Let me know when there’s a good time for me to come up there so we can talk things through.
A good time? Not the ideal situation? August had clearly become the king of minimization in the years they’d been apart. There was no good time for August to come to Valentino Bellas. The minute he showed up, Nonna and Poppa would find out they were in trouble. She refused to let that happen.
Leila slammed her laptop shut and set it on the passenger’s seat before jamming her key into the ignition to rev up the engine.
She was not about to let August Harding waltz in here to take over her family’s legacy. By all the accounts she’d read, that was what he did. He took control of an operation and made it comply with the Kingston brand. Well, that wouldn’t happen to Valentino Bellas on her watch.
Anger pulsed through her temples as she drove what had once been such a well-traveled route. When she used to turn onto the Harding Ranch’s driveway, a sense of anticipation would always leave her breathless, but right now her lungs were as heaving mad as the rest of her.
Every part of this place still seemed so familiar to her—the aspens lining both sides of the road, the grand log lodge sitting at the center of the property in front of the twinkling blue lake. The sights dredged up the memories she’d managed to suppress with grad school and a failed marriage.
She pulled into the main parking lot in a spray of gravel and dirt, refusing to give in to the nostalgia that enveloped her senses. Back when she and August were dating, she had loved being here. She’d loved sitting around the massive stone fireplace inside with Auggie and his family, or lying out in the sun on the lake’s beautiful beach. But now, those memories were steeped in pain.
No. She wouldn’t let him bring her more pain. She had to hold on to the anger now. Anger would make her stronger.
Climbing out of the Jeep made her stomach turn, but she marched herself toward the lodge’s grand entrance anyway. Before she could reach the main door, she heard the distinct clomp of hooves beating the ground somewhere nearby.
Leila spun just in time to watch August and his brother Wes tear out of the woods and across the parking lot on two Appaloosas at a breakneck speed.
“Told you I could still kick your ass!” August yelled over his shoulder.
Wes ignored his brother as he slowed his horse to a trot and turned in Leila’s direction. When he was few feet away, he slid out of the saddle “Leila, I thought that was you.”
She didn’t blame him for the shocked expression. She hadn’t exactly visited the ranch since it had become apparent August wasn’t coming back. In fact, she’d stayed as far away as possible. “Hey, Wes.” She squared her jaw, hopefully serving up an unaffected smile. “Good to see you.” She could not, however, say the same to his brother.
“Good to see you too.” Wes gazed at her with open curiosity. “It’s been a while. How are you?”
“I’m great.” The small earthquakes in her joints begged to differ. Before she lost the nerve, she looked directly at August and found herself staring into the same blue eyes that had once held such power over her.
He’d finally come home.
At first, relief flooded her—every nook and cranny—but then a wave of sorrow crashed in and brought with it a renewed surge of anger. “We need to talk.” Somehow, she managed to speak the words with authority.
“Yeah, I suspect we do.” He dismounted and handed the horse’s reins to Wes.
Unable to stand still, Leila wandered to the sidewalk that led around to the backside of the lodge, all too aware of August right behind her. Once she’d turned the corner where the lake came into view, she stopped and faced him.
August had come back, but he wasn’t the same boy who’d walked away from her. That she could see. His face had filled out more—jaw broader and structured like stone. His dark hair looked different too—sun streaked and longer than he’d worn it in high school. Crinkles hemmed in the corners of his eyes, giving them a wise tint.
He looked good, but that didn’t mean it was good to see him.
“What are you doing here?” Don’t look away. She couldn’t look away, or he’d know his very presence had gotten to her.
“Forrest sent me. I didn’t have a choice in the matter.” There’d been a time she could read this man’s face with a simple glance, but now she couldn’t detect what hid beneath his indifferent expression.
“Well, you have to go back to California,” she informed him. “Nonna and Poppa can’t know. They can’t know about the partnership or that we might lose this place. It would kill them.” He had no idea what they’d been through the last few months. The treatments her grandmother had endured, the sickness from the chemo. Not that she wanted to cry on his shoulder.
“I have to come to the winery.” A familiar stubbornness reinforced his jaw. “My job is on the line here. Forrest has a stake in Valentino Bellas and he wants Kingston representation out here. Like it or not, I’m going to be involved in the winery’s operations.”
His tone gentled on that last sentence, and only irked her more. He did not get to look at her like some fragile girl he’d left behind. “Fine.” She stared him down, unwilling to let go of control. If he had to stay, this arrangement would be on her terms. “But we’re going to have to come up with a cover story for why you’re here, because I refuse to tell my grandparents about Kingston.” When their finances were more stable an
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