I’m standing at the entrance to the social and professional event of the season, holding a bag packed with all the luxury clothing I specifically tailored for this weekend. Outside, it’s a gorgeous spring day at the mountaintop hotel and spa where we’re meeting. The bright sunlight highlights the rolling green lawns outside, up to the slopes of the still-snowcapped mountains and the glittering bright blue lake beyond, which is so still it’s the mirror image of the mountain above it. I’m holding a ticket for this exclusive, sold-out event, filled with everyone I’ve waited years to meet, to impress…
And I couldn’t be angrier.
Because across the sweeping stonework hotel lobby from me, standing at the VIP check-in counter like he owns the damn place, is Darius Bantham.
Of all the people I could have found here…
I don’t realize my fists are balled until someone steps up beside me and clears their throat. “I take it you’re as little a fan of the Banthams as I am?”
I startle out of my reverie and force a neutral smile onto my face. Dammit. The only thing less professional than allowing Darius Bantham’s presence to get under my skin right now is to let him get so far under my skin that other people notice. “I’m not sure what you mean,” I reply, my smile as wide as I can force it under the circumstances.
Beside me, a shorter man in a buttoned-up suit, his hair sprayed into a crisp wave, winks conspiratorially at me. “Of course not. There would be no reason whatsoever for Holly Spring to be glaring daggers at the son and heir apparent to the family who just took out a four-page magazine advertising campaign to smear her parents’ vineyard.”
My cheeks flush bright red, but I laugh, too. For all his forwardness, the guy is funny. “I’m afraid you have the advantage on me,” I reply. “You seem to know all my dirty laundry, and I don’t even know your name.”
He offers a hand and a dip of his head at the same time. “My apologies for the ambush. It’s Tony Chambers, Ms. Spring.”
I take his hand and shake, my smile widening. “Ah, now that I recognize. The local chef who’s been getting all those great write-ups lately. The camera-shy one.”
“That’s me.” He winks again as he releases my hand. I can’t help but notice the way he subtly removes a handkerchief from his pocket immediately afterward to wipe his palm, though. It feels like a dig, but I tell myself he’s probably just a germaphobe. “And I’m not camera-shy,” he continues. “I just didn’t think any of the candid angles the reporters from our local beat used suited me. Call me conceited, if you will.”
I shake my head. “Nothing wrong with wanting to look your best, especially when it’s running in print.”
“Glad you understand.” His gaze drifts back toward Darius Bantham. “Not all of us can be tall, dark and handsome over here.”
I snort under my breath, mostly to conceal the fact that my blush is spreading.
Because he’s not wrong. Whatever else Darius may be, Darius is smoldering hot. Like, half a head taller than me—and I’m a really tall lady—with cheekbones that could cut glass, a perfect dusting of stubble to accentuate the hollows beneath them, and the kind of lips that would be sexy as hell if they weren’t always twisted into a sneer of some kind.
But I’m not attracted to him—I can’t be. Not with the shark-like family he comes from, who would stop at nothing to advance themselves, even—or perhaps especially—if it means trampling on every other vintner in the region to get to the top. My family seems to have earned a special place in the Banthams’ hearts when it comes to such sabotage, though. Ever since my father was invited to present our wine at a special competition in Napa Valley nine years ago, where we placed second, a surprise upset since we overcame many, much more famous and older, more established vineyards to do so, the Banthams have had it out for us. They weren’t even invited to that competition, let alone able to claim second prize.
Our farms are only a few miles apart down in Paso Robles, California, the region everyone is hailing as the latest and greatest in winemaking. Until we came along, the Banthams held the undisputed title of best new winery in the region.
We threaten to upset all that, and that, apparently, is an unforgiveable sin. Ever since our Napa near-win, Darius’s father Martin Bantham has gone out of his way to bad-mouth us in the press, poach our workers out from under our noses by offering to pay them triple the salaries we do (and then usually reneging on his promises the moment they hand in their notice and quit our farm), even once going so far as to “accidentally” knock over an entire shelf of our wine at the local grocery store. He claims he tripped into it, but a couple of my father’s friends run that store, and they both swear they saw him checking the aisles for witnesses just a few minutes before the shelf came crashing down.
But all of that seem petty, just local concerns that shouldn’t be occupying my mind right now. Not when I’m here, on the brink of a weekend that could change everything for us.
Here at the SoCal Wine & Food Festival, held every 5 years for the whole region to attend, everyone who’s anyone in Wine Country is ready to put their best foot forward to the celebrity chefs and restaurateurs in town. There are enough famous multinational restaurant owners here that one good showing at this festival can put a winery on the map for good. All you need is for just one of these fine dining stars, like Alexander Microff for example, whose fifteen restaurants across North America, Europe and Asia have twelve Michelin stars between them, not to mention two of those fifteen have been regularly listed as the 8th and 9th best restaurants in the world for the past several years running.
He’s also the star of a new Food Network show, Cooks in the Kitchen, where he trains other up-and-coming chefs around the globe, giving them the kind of hardnosed, blunt advise that makes for an entertaining show, but also really does improve the owners’ restaurants too.
“What I would give for even half as sharp a jawline as that,” Tony Chambers is saying, still ogling Darius across the room.
I realize I am too, but only when Darius glances our way. Even across the expanse of the stone-tiled, high-ceilinged lobby, I can feel the heat of that stare. He’s always had that way of looking at people—like he’s a mind reader, seeing right through your skin to peer into your skull.
Well, if he’s reading my mind right now, he’s not going to like what he finds. I narrow my eyes and draw them away from him, peering around the room to make it pointedly clear that I’d rather look anywhere but back at him.
Still, I can feel his gaze lingering on me, long after I force my eyes away. “I don’t know,” I hear myself saying aloud to Tony. “I’ve never been into the pretentious types.”
“Not even to look at?” Tony counters, one eyebrow raised in a way that makes me laugh and shake my head.
“Okay, maybe to steal a peek or two. But nothing more. Otherwise, I’ll stick to the reliable-and-hardworking types when it comes to making new work alliances, thank you very much.”
“Well, just your luck then, because reliable and hardworking are my favorite words.” Tony grins. “And I’m in the market for a vintner to team up with. I need some wine pairings to really ensure my food stands out this weekend.”
“Funny, I’m in the market for some restaurateurs to team up with to impress the chefs in town.”
“I’ve got my sights on Microff,” Tony says, as if reading my mind. “He’s got the clout, not to mention the celebrity, to put anyone in here on the map. Presuming they deserve to be on said map, of course,” he adds, not without another sly glance in Darius Bantham’s direction.
My smirk widens. “We’ll definitely have to talk more soon,” I say. “You’re a man of a similar mind.”
We exchange cards, and I’m just bidding him farewell when Tony glances over my shoulder and lowers his voice. “Don’t look now but you’ve attracted some unwanted attention.”
At the same instant, I feel a warm hand come to rest on my shoulder, in an all-too-familiar way. “Hope I’m not interrupting,” comes a smooth, deep baritone voice.
My stomach sinks, but at the same time, I can’t deny a spark igniting in the pit of my belly at the warm sensation of his skin against my bare shoulder, his hands calloused, no doubt from working on the vineyard with his parents. I know I’ve got similar rough spots on my own hands, ever since my father’s knee injury earlier this year forced me to take more of a hands-on approach at the farm than I have in the past.
That’s why I’m here today, in fact, rather than him or my mother. They felt it was time for me to step up into the role I’ve been training to fill my entire life, the role of heir to the Spring Valley Vineyard. This weekend is a test for me, just like the Napa competition a few years ago was a test for my father. If I perform well here, if I give us a good name and increase visibility for our brand, that will reassure my parents that I’m ready.
Since they’re creeping ever closer to retirement age, it’s important for me to reassure them as often and as well as I can, that things will be all right once they step down to relax, the way they deserve to.
Belatedly, I shrug my shoulder to dislodge his hand. “As a matter of fact,” I say, “You were—”
“Not interrupting at all,” Tony interrupts quickly, a broad grin plastered on his face. “Holly and I were just finishing our chat. Holly, catch you soon?” He flashes me one last trademark wink of his, then saunters away toward the general mill near the elevators, as people head up to their rooms to finish checking in.
“Good to see you out and about,” Darius says, undeterred by the cold sideways glance I shoot him. “It’s been a while.”
“Not long enough,” I mutter under my breath.
He must not hear me, though, because he doesn’t reply except to ask, “Can I help you with that?” Darius bends to pick up the weekender suitcase I’ve been standing next to before I can move a muscle, or refuse. “Which way are you headed?” he adds, peering over my shoulder at the keycard I’ve got clutched in one fist.
I sigh and relent, figuring there’s no avoiding this now. “302,” I reply. “But I could carry that myself, you know.”
“I’m well aware you could,” he replies, but leads me toward the elevators anyway, my bag over his shoulder, his own over the other shoulder. It looks like he packed even more than I did, just for one weekend here. “I’m glad to see you here, Holly,” he says as we walk, me trailing behind him. But walking behind him only affords me an even better look at his backside, which in turn is distracting me because wow, he chose some slim-fitting suit pants, and it is very obvious that his ass is tight as hell. It also raises some questions about what other new muscles might be lurking beneath the suit of this man, who looks so very different from the scrawny teenager I used to chase away from our farm on the back of my bike (on my father’s orders of course). “I was expecting to see your father instead.”
“Don’t worry,” I tell Darius’s back, eyes now fixed firmly much higher than his ass, just in case he turns around and mistakes this for me checking him out. “I plan to give you just as much hell as my father would if he were here.”
“I’d expect nothing less from a Spring,” Darius replies, shooting me a grin over his shoulder, and the kind of wink that’s so much more arresting than Tony’s. Tony winks like a kid letting you in on a secret. Darius winks like a man who knows you have something he wants, and he’s intent on claiming it from you. “But I’ve a feeling being given hell by you will be a far more pleasant experience.”
My belly tightens, and I catch myself breathing a little faster. Especially when the elevator doors open and we squeeze in side-by-side, the press of people around us enough to force us into close quarters. His side presses against mine, and even through his suit I can feel the warmth of his body, the hard steel of his muscles. “I’m just here to do my job, Darius,” I tell him, my voice lower due to the crowd around us.
He dips closer, until I can feel his breath against my cheek. “Who says you can’t mix a little pleasure with your business?”
“Who says I’d be interested in that?” I shoot back, eyes narrowed.
“Well, it was difficult to miss you checking me out in the lobby just now,” he replies, voice dipping even softer, so I catch myself raising up on tiptoes and tilting closer to him just to hear his reply.
I force myself to stand back on my flat feet and lean away from him. “I was not checking you out.”
“My mistake. So you weren’t staring at my ass either, just now, I take it.”
My cheeks flare red-hot. “I was not staring—”
“Too bad,” he says, with a lingering glance down the curves of my body. “Though I must confess, I certainly was. That skirt is extremely flattering on you, I must say. The way it hugs your assets…” His hand brushes my waist, and the heat in my belly travels lower now. I can practically feel the muscles in my pussy tightening in anticipation, even as my mind tells it to cool the hell off.
I twist around to plant my backside against the elevator door, even as it dings open. A few people press up against us to scoot around. More than one shoots a disapproving glance in our direction, mouths downturned as they exit. I have no doubt they overheard what we were saying. Or at least, what Darius was.
I elbow him as the door closes once more, leaving us alone. “This is a professional event, Darius. I’m here to work, and to make a good impression on people.”
“Well, you certainly do the latter. I don’t see why me stating that fact out loud makes a difference.”
“Because,” I hiss, frustrated, “I don’t want people eying me like I’m just some skirt to chase. I came here to make a name for my family’s vineyard. I came here to win this competition.”
“Well, I came to win something else.” His gaze drifts down my body again. “I have to admit, you’re a more appealing prize than anything else on offer this weekend.”
Just then the elevator dings open on my floor. I practically leap out of it, grateful for the reprieve. But at the same time, his words confuse me. “Don’t you care about Bantham’s reputation?” I ask, one eyebrow lifted.
He shrugs one shoulder. “Our wines speak for themselves. They need little help from me along the way.”
That doesn’t sound like the Banthams I know. Not like his father, anyway. “So why did you even bother coming, then?” I ask, a little more coldly than I intended.
His gaze catches mine, and holds it. “I heard an old friend was going to be here, and I couldn’t resist the chance for a weekend alone with her. No parental chaperones in tow.”
My cheeks are practically on fire now. “You did not come here for me, Darius. I don’t believe that for a second.”
He lifts one shoulder, lets it fall. “Believe what you want. It’s the truth.”
I stride up to my door and extend a hand for my bag. He hands it over, and I plant one hand on my hip, as I twirl my hotel card with the other. “Well, if you did, then I have bad news for you, Mr. Bantham. Because I don’t view us as friends, old or new. The last thing I want right now is to deal with you trying to distract me. So I’d suggest you take a hint and stay out of my way this weekend. I’m here to make sure my family’s vineyard gets the notice it deserves; to make sure we crush our competition. Your family included. Actually, no. Your family especially.” I narrow my eyes. “So goodbye.”
With that, I yank open my door and step into my hotel room.
But my triumph doesn’t last long. Because as soon as I cross the threshold to slam the door behind me, I hear the lock of a neighboring door turning. A second later, there’s a knock on the small door that connects my bedroom to the next one along.
A pit forms in my stomach, along with a sinking suspicion. But I cross the room and open the connecting door anyway, as the knocking continues.
Sure enough, Darius is standing in the hotel room beside mine, smirking. “Seems like fate is on my side, this time. At least when it comes to room assignments. I apologize, but it’s looking like it will be difficult to obey your command to stay away from you this weekend, given where I live. But if you’d like, I’d be happy to cater to any other desires you may have…”
“Fate can shove it,” I reply, glaring at him. “You stay in your room and I’ll stay in mine.” With that, I slam the door in his face, my blood boiling.
But at the same time, and somehow worse, I can still feel the tightness in my stomach, the tension below my waist. God dammit, when I press my legs together, my traitor panties even feel a little bit damp, just from those few seconds when Darius had his hand around my waist.
I am not giving into him, I tell myself. But even so, as I set about unpacking, ignoring the overly loud crashing sounds Darius is making next door as he no doubt does the same thing, I can’t help thinking about the look on his face when I opened the door connecting our rooms. The piercing, knowing gaze of his. The way he seemed to drink me in from head to toe, like he could never get enough of staring at me.
Ignore him, I tell myself. But I wonder how long I’ll be able to do that…