Excerpt for In Vino Veritas by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

A NineStar Press Publication

Published by NineStar Press

P.O. Box 91792,

Albuquerque, New Mexico, 87199 USA.

www.ninestarpress.com

In Vino Veritas

Copyright © 2018 by Sydney Blackburn

Cover Art by Natasha Snow Copyright © 2018

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any material form, whether by printing, photocopying, scanning or otherwise without the written permission of the publisher. To request permission and all other inquiries, contact NineStar Press at the physical or web addresses above or at Contact@ninestarpress.com.

Printed in the USA

First Edition

August, 2018


eBook ISBN: 978-1-949340-42-6


Warning: This book contains sexually explicit content, which may only be suitable for mature readers.

In Vino Veritas

Sydney Blackburn

Table of Contents

Dedication

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

About the Author

Inspired by the small family wineries of Ontario’s Erie Shores region.

Special thanks to Lina, Mark, and Rebecca


One: Beretta Estate Winery

Anthony Beretta hovered in his office, listening to his cousin Katie extol the virtues of their Concord wine.

“It’s a heritage grape,” she was saying, “the kind they make grape juice from.”

Because wine that tasted like commercial grape juice was so popular. Still, there were customers to extol its dubious virtues to, and that was something. Didn’t mean he wanted to meet them, not over the Concord.

“It makes a great spritzer and is the perfect base for a sangria,” she continued. “Not too sweet, but with a full fruity flavour.”

He had to hand it to her. She knew how to sell it. Then again, Katie loved the winery almost as much as he did.

He moved away from his office door and sat behind his desk, looking once more at the open agenda. The winery hosted events, mostly weddings, and provincial regulations had recently changed. He had an appointment with his insurance broker in Bayham in little more than an hour. Which was why he was wearing his suit, instead of the jeans, T-shirt, and heavy cotton button-down he normally wore when he worked at the tasting room. He tugged at the lavender tie that felt like it was strangling him.

After checking the time on his phone once more, Anthony cleared his desk and locked the files away. No one else needed to know how shaky the winery’s finances were. He got to his feet and patted his jacket pocket for his car keys.

There was a mirror beside the door, so one could double-check one’s appearance before going to talk to customers. Anthony gave himself a critical look, pushing his glasses up his nose automatically. The mirror showed him what he was—a rail-thin man just shy of six feet tall, with hair that would never look anything other than dishevelled and dark-framed glasses. At least the glasses went some way towards disguising the shadows under his eyes. He looked like an upended mop, albeit a well-dressed mop.

He scowled. He’d much rather be in his jeans and work boots, out with his stubborn Foch vines. Three years ago, he’d put those bastards in, after his father had the gall to die of a heart attack.

His mouth tightened. He couldn’t think of his father without a sour mix of anger, grief, and guilt.

A discordant jangling let him know the customers had left, and he pushed his door open wider just as Katie rounded the corner. “Ant,” she said, “so glad I caught you. Could you pick up some of that jalapeño sauce from the Mexican store? It really shows off the Viognier. It’s a hard sell on its own.”

He refrained from scowling. Ant was a childhood nickname he’d long outgrown. His name was Anthony. She was right about the Viognier, though.

“Jalapeño sauce. Yes.”

“I don’t suppose you’ve thought about giving me Friday off,” she said, her tone rising at the end of the sentence, but not quite enough to make it a question.

He stifled a sigh. “And you’re not asking Leigh to switch with you because…?”

“Because it’s her wedding shower. Jesus, Ant, pull your head out of your ass once in a while.”

He ground his teeth as he bit back a sharp reply. “Fine. You have Friday off.” It wasn’t like he had anything better to do on a Friday. The tasting room closed at seven. He could catch up on the paperwork while he ate, and on Saturday, he could spend the day in the vineyard, trying to discover why the Foch vines were underproducing.

“You’re a prince,” Katie replied, but her snark had hardly any bite.

Happy employees were long-term employees, his father had always said. Katie really did care about the winery. She just had a social life. He shouldn’t be so hard on her.

And what about my happiness?

As the owner of the winery, there was no one around to see to his happiness. He didn’t even know what would make him happy anymore.

“Sorry, Katie.” He forced a smile. “Do you mind picking out a gift the estate can give her?”

“Yeah, give me a hundred dollars. It can be from the winery, you, Aunt Rosie, and me.”

“Take it from petty cash.”

“There’s no petty cash left, remember?”

He turned to hide his wince. “I’ll take some money from the account while I’m out.”

She hesitated. “The Wine and Song event will go on this year, right?”

“That’s why I’m going to town.”

“I know. It’s just… Is there anything I can do?”

His answering smile was forced. “Be careful what you volunteer for, cuz. Keep your fingers crossed the insurance hasn’t gone up too much.”



The meeting with the insurance company went as well as could be expected. It wasn’t something he could negotiate, and he knew another company wouldn’t be any better—Beretta Estate Winery had been with Rowlands Insurance for decades. As he drove back to the farm, he tried to feel relieved that the weekend concert event, Wine and Song, would go on again this year. Instead, worry gnawed at him that it might be the last year for the annual tradition. The event was only fifty percent sold, which would cover the insurance or the band, but not both. Wine and Song had never been a great revenue earner, but it had always paid for itself and resulted in greater visibility for the winery. Once he got final confirmation from the headline act, selling out shouldn’t be a problem.

It was too soon to worry about next year. He should just be relieved it was going ahead this year. Now he could concentrate on the upcoming charity book drive for World Literacy, which at least was something he wanted to worry about.

A deep, throaty engine roared over the sound of the radio, and he checked his rearview just in time to see a motorcycle pull out to overtake him. Anthony flipped his middle finger as the guy on the motorcycle whipped past on a solid double line. There was a stop sign less than thirty meters ahead—guy was racing to be first to the stop sign.

“Asshole,” he said under his breath.

The rider paid no attention, but as the bike leaned to move ahead of him, it suddenly leaned too far. Sparks and the screech of metal on asphalt accompanied the skidding tires.

Horrified, Anthony slammed on his brakes, burning rubber as the truck tried to go from eighty clicks to zero in the shortest distance possible. “Holy shit,” he muttered, heart in his throat.

The rider was already getting to his feet, and at least this one was smart enough to be wearing riding chaps and a leather jacket, in spite of the heat. Road rash would be hellish. Not that he knew, but his boyfriend—ex-boyfriend—Rene had told him.

You haven’t seen or heard from him in three years. How hard can it be to remember he’s not your boyfriend anymore?

Anthony got out of his truck, ignoring the wobble in his legs. “Are you okay?”

The rider tossed his helmet aside and fell back to his knees as he vomited. Rising slowly to his feet, he asked hoarsely, “Did I hit it?”

“Hit what?”

One leg of the man’s chaps had been shredded to almost nothing from being dragged across the rough asphalt, and the leather jacket was missing an elbow. Anthony didn’t see any blood, though.

“Rabbit.”

His focus snapped up to the other man’s face. “You nearly killed us both to save a rabbit?”

“Fuck, it’s so hot. Why am I shivering?” He rubbed his arms with trembling hands.

Probably shock,” Anthony said, vaguely familiar with the symptoms. He studied the man, who was about his height, but far broader through the shoulders. Then again, just about everyone was. Even Katie had broader shoulders… “Want me to call 911?”

“No, no, I’m fine.”

Anthony gave him a sceptical look. “You should come with me.”

The rider looked at him in confusion. “What? Why?”

“My place is just around the corner. I’ve got a first aid kit, give you a chance to—” Anthony paused, choosing his words carefully. “—get your bearings.”

“Don’t usually go home with strangers,” he said, slurring his words just slightly. “But I think maybe a drink of water would be…good. ’Sides, you’re not scary. Not as scary as me.” He gave Anthony a crooked smile.

With dark-blond or maybe light-brown hair plastered to his head with sweat and a somewhat unfocused look in his green eyes, he didn’t appear all that scary to Anthony. Just stupid. But his tact’o’meter wasn’t completely broken from the meeting, so he held his tongue.

“My bike…”

Anthony walked over to the motorcycle. It would need a new mirror, and the chrome was scratched to shit. He had no idea what else might be wrong with it. He leaned over, intent on hefting it upright.

“Hey! Don’t touch!”

Anthony glanced back and then straightened. “Fine. Whatever.”

The rider staggered over, favouring one leg, and struggled to right the bike.

“Sure you don’t want a hand?”

As the bike slipped from his grasp, the rider said, “Maybe. But be careful.”

“Yeah, wouldn’t want to scratch it.” He refrained from rolling his eyes as he hefted it up on its wheels with a grunt; it was heavier than he expected.

The rider took the handle grips from him. “Thanks, buddy.”

“Anthony.”

“Yeah. Oz.”

“Is that your name or where you’re from?” Anthony hid a wince at his words. Maybe his tact’o’meter was a little broken.

“Fuck, man. I can’t tell if you’re being funny or rude.”

Anthony sighed and decided to leave it ambiguous. The guy straddled his bike to try to start it. And attempted it again when the engine refused to catch. Anthony walked back to his truck and started it up.

The rumble of the diesel had the rider turning to look at him so sharply he lost the bike’s balance and it tipped over again, nearly taking its owner with it.

Anthony shook his head as he put the truck in gear and pulled ahead of the bike before backing slowly then slowly backed towards it. He threw on the four-ways and left the engine idling as he walked back to the bed and opened the tailgate on the side hinge. He dropped the ramp he used when he needed to move one of the ATVs at the vineyard.

“Thought you were ditching me.”

Anthony snorted, not sure how insulted he should be. “Come on, let's get that bike on.”

Together, they righted the bike and walked it up the ramp, the rider still favouring his scraped leg and now cradling his arm on the same side.

“Sorry I don’t have my tie-downs, but it should be okay until we get to my place.”

“I have a phone,” the rider said, as if the realization had just struck. He fumbled with his back pocket and withdrew a cracked and bent smartphone. “Shit.”

“Don’t worry about it. For now, let's get your scrapes looked at.”

“I’m fine.”

He didn’t look it. But Anthony let the guy fuss over the motorcycle while he collected the black helmet. The back featured a small decal that matched the patch on the rider’s jacket—BAR with stylized handlebars. He had no idea what BAR stood for. Bad Ass something or other, he guessed.

Why would a motorcycle rider risk body and bike to save a bunny? He looked up at the man in the bed of his truck. “You getting in the cab?”

“I’m fine.”

Anthony shrugged again. Stubborn ass wanted to ride in the bed of the truck, he could. Which meant Anthony took special care the rest of the way home, so the untethered bike didn’t slide into the much softer human.

He made a show of stopping at the stop sign before turning left. The farm was the next drive on the right, barely enough time to shift into fourth before he had to gear down. The wide gravel lane passed under the fancy cast-iron arch announcing Beretta Estate Winery. A narrow gated lane marked private veered off to the right. He pressed the remote on his sun visor and drummed his fingers impatiently on the steering wheel. Once the gate opened, he drove down and around to the back of the house, where the mudroom was, and got out of the truck.

“Nice place,” the rider said, sounding less disoriented.

Anthony glanced over his shoulder. The house was a two-and-half-story red Victorian, complete with turret and wraparound porch. The Berettas had acquired it in the ’20s. The multigenerational home had gradually become single family. Walls were torn out to make small rooms bigger, and now there was only Anthony and his mother left. Anthony would probably leave the estate to his cousin Katie’s family.

“Come inside.”

“I’m fine. Feeling better already. I just need to borrow your phone.”

Anthony tightened his mouth. “You should have some water.” He was going to mention the first aid kit again, but reconsidered. “You can borrow my phone inside.”

The rider struggled to his feet and limped to the end of the truck, where he hesitated. Anthony hid a smirk as he opened the tailgate and dropped the ramp. The guy warily took a step before he lost his balance and slid down the ramp on his ass. That had to hurt, but only a pained grunt was expelled as the scuffed motorcycle boots hit the gravel.

“Oh for fuck’s sake,” Anthony grumbled, grabbing the guy around the waist and helping him into the house.

“I’m fine.”

“You’re a liar. Good to know.” He was warm and smelled like sweat and dust, not an altogether unpleasant combination. Anthony let go of him in the mudroom. “Take off the jacket.”

He was surprised when the man did, and surprised again to see a T-shirt with the arms cut off, revealing full tattoo sleeves. And one scraped elbow. “Let me see.”

“I’m—”

“If you say you’re fine one more time, I’ll hit you myself.”

“Don’t wanna mess up your fancy clothes.”

Anthony looked down at himself. He’d almost forgotten he was wearing a dress shirt and tie, though his jacket was left in the truck. “Thoughtful of you.”

He pulled out the first aid kit and a washcloth and tended to the scrape, running his fingers gently over the skin to make sure nothing was embedded beneath it before taping layers of gauze to it.

He then ran his hands over the rest of the arm, saying, “Does this hurt? What about this? I saw you cradling your arm.”

“It’s just the road rash. You a doctor?”

“As if.”

“Dating a doctor?”

“What?” He stared at—Oz, hadn’t he said?

“You’re sliding your hands over me,” he said with a wink, “like a doctor.”

Anthony shook his head. “A farm in the middle of nowhere, first aid is a necessary skill.”

“Right. Thanks.”

“How’s your leg? You’re limping.”

“We don’t know each other well enough for me to take my jeans off.”

Anthony arched his brow. “Excuse me?” But instead of waiting for an answer, he shook his head and tossed the guy his phone. “I’ll be right back,” he mumbled and pushed open the door to the kitchen. He went through and up the stairs to change. He felt constricted in these clothes. His bed looked inviting as he unbuttoned his shirt and threw it in the hamper. He pulled off the dress pants and sat down to change his socks into something that would stand up to tromping through the fields. He lay back on the bed. Adrenaline crash, that’s why I want to lie down. A minute rest, I’ll be fine.



It was dark when he woke up. The bedside clock said it was ten. He flicked the lamp switch and stared groggily at the black socks on his feet. Why would he go to bed with his socks on? His suit pants hadn’t been hung up, and he imagined his jacket in the truck didn’t look all that much better. He reached for his phone, and it wasn’t there.

Memory came back in a rush. Shit, he’d fallen asleep with a stranger in his house, a tattooed biker. A rather sexy, flirty, tattooed biker, but… Oh shut up. The guy was probably concussed.

He walked through the house, still in his socks and underwear. Small nightlights lit the hallway, a concession to his mother’s terrible night vision. The mudroom was empty. The first aid kit had been packed up, and his phone sat on the counter. Five missed calls.

Outside, in the dim yellow glow of the security lights, he could see the bike was gone from his truck. He sighed with relief. One less problem to deal with.

Two: Meet Oscar Kennett

It was four thirty when Oz Kennett collapsed on his sofa. He had been more than a little surprised when his taciturn host had vanished with a mumbled “be right back,” never to return. It seemed rude, given the prissy man had insisted he come back with him in the first place. Maybe he felt obligated for some reason. Whatever. He appreciated the gesture, he guessed, but being unable to open the security gate made it hard for his friend Rick to get him.

His leg ached like a son of a bitch, and while it would be fine in the morning, he’d had to walk his bike down the drive. Thank god Rick had come prepared with his own ramps. It was only as they drove away that he realized he didn’t have his helmet. He was sure Fancy Pants had picked it up. Good thing he’d programmed his number into his rescuer’s phone. He’d also found the phone’s number and written it on his palm with a marker he’d found in the mudroom.

Rick had dropped him and his bike off at Mike’s Garage, and while Mikey and his boys worked out what was wrong and how much it was going to cost him, Oz crossed the street to replace his phone. His sim card had survived, thankfully.

He wasn’t sure he wanted Fancy Pants to call him or not. He wasn’t Oz’s usual type, a little too thin and bookish. But those crazy curls of dark hair and serious glasses were kind of sexy combined with the purple tie and charcoal suit pants. He liked his men lean but fit—a play of muscles under the skin was his personal catnip. He doubted Fancy Pants had a lot of muscle going for him. Although…he’d lifted his bike upright. Hadn’t he? The events right after he’d swerved to avoid the rabbit were a bit fuzzy.

Even so, the guy had just left him there. In his house. It was rude, but also oddly trusting. He might not even be gay. There was that. Oz could usually tell, but this guy—whose name he couldn’t remember—was too tightly wound to give away much of anything.

Now that he had a minute to himself, he couldn’t decide if he should call for delivery or just swallow a bunch of aspirin and go to bed. Ugh, he couldn’t take aspirin without something in his stomach. He called the pizza joint down the block. Oz usually picked up his order, but not tonight. Then he called his insurance company and told them what had happened. Finally, he stared at the smudged number on his hand. If he didn’t call now, it would soon be indecipherable.

After half a dozen rings, it went to voice mail. “This is Anthony, leave a message.” Anthony, huh? Even his voice mail was terse. Maybe Fancy Pants didn’t take calls from names he didn’t recognize. Had he programmed himself in as Oz or Oscar? For that matter, had he even introduced himself at all? Shit.



Anthony felt guilty for sleeping away all of Friday afternoon and night, but he had to admit when he awoke Saturday morning, he felt better than he had in a while. He threw on a pair of jeans and a grey T-shirt, and headed out to the vineyard before the sun grew too warm. By noon, he was sweaty and hungry and returned to the house for lunch. A note from his mother said she’d gone to St. Albans and had left him sandwiches—like he couldn’t make his own lunch.

He checked his phone to find four missed calls. Who the hell was Oscar Kennett and why did he keep calling?

He racked his brain, trying to recall meeting anyone named Oscar—it wasn’t exactly a common moniker—let alone programming the name into his phone. He might have chalked it up to a drunken night at Inclusive except he hadn’t been there in weeks and he remembered very clearly leaving sober…and alone.

Whoever Oscar Kennett was, he didn’t like to leave voice messages. The closest was a muffled fuck.

He took a shower in preparation for another meeting in Bayham. He was almost done when his phone rang again, the generic ringtone letting him know it wasn’t the winery or a friend. By the time he’d dried off and given up on making his unruly hair look like he hadn’t just climbed out of bed, he’d forgotten about it.

His mother had ironed his suit pants for him, which made him feel like a child. It wasn’t that he couldn’t use a clothes iron. He’d just forgotten. His suit was getting a lot of play this summer, but he was the owner of Beretta Estate Wines and had to look the part.

He hated suits, which was why he only owned the one. He had ties in a variety of colours to break up the monotony, but otherwise, he was business casual or jeans. The far reaches of his closet did hide one splendidly tailored tuxedo, acquired at his father’s insistence. “Never underestimate the power of appearances,” he’d said.

Anthony winced. God damn the bastard for dying so young.

The bulk of his wardrobe, what he was most comfortable wearing, consisted of jeans and T-shirts and heavy cotton button-downs. In a just world, his father would be alive, doing all the stuff that required dressing up, while Anthony was in the wine room performing the alchemy of winemaking.

He chose a light, polished cotton dress shirt in a gold colour and spun the tie hanger around to find a good match. There, the olive-green and golden-brown patterned one would work.

He studied his appearance in the mirror. He cleaned his glasses and set them back on his face. The suit and glasses were serious business enough to counteract the dark curls that never, ever looked tidy.

Beretta Estate Winery wasn’t in the best position to do a lot of charity work, but they certainly had resources other than cash to offer. While Anthony had been studying in the Rhone Valley, he’d been astonished to discover how widespread illiteracy was, even in the so-called civilized west. Reading had been his solace, his escape, when he was a kid, and although it had just contributed to his troubles, it was also his greatest gift. Being unable to read was, in his eyes, horrifying. Though he well understood literacy had far more reaching effects than a good escapist read, he couldn’t help but think that was almost as important.

This meeting was with Mayor Madeline Currie of Bayham and the representatives of whomever else had volunteered to organize this year’s ride, sorting out who was responsible for what. He thought it would be himself and at least two others, maybe more, which would make up for the fact that he had no idea what he was doing. He parked in the municipal lot, half a block from Bayham Town Hall, and walked into the meeting in the mayor’s office, exactly on time.

“Mr. Beretta, thank you for coming.” Mayor Currie, an older woman dressed in a navy pantsuit with an ivory blouse, extended her hand. “I believe you know Bonnie Gaites?”

“Garden Gaites Fruit Wines,” Anthony said, releasing the mayor’s hand to shake that of a familiar-looking woman. “We met at the London Food and Wine show, yes?”

She nodded, a pleased smile on her face. A thick knot of white hair was pinned on top of her head, and she also wore a suit, though hers included a black pencil skirt and lacked the strangling necktie. Garden Gaites was in Copenhagen, not much more than a crossroads with a variety store-slash-post-office, and about as far south of Bayham as he was west of town. The estate sometimes bought fruit juice from them for their blended wines. They both strove to produce quality beverages from local produce, but they weren’t in any way competition.

“Please, have a seat,” Mayor Currie invited, as she did just that in a plush leather chair. “Your third should be here momentarily.”

Anthony held a chair for Ms. Gaites but stayed on his feet as the mayor continued, “Normally we get the fire department to help with the book run, but this year, we’ve had another group, a motorcycle club, ask to help. I’m not sure if you’ve heard of the Bayham Area Riders, but they do a lot of toy drives and other children’s charity rides, both in and out of the township.” She smiled at them both. “Some of the members have even fulfilled wishes for the Make a Wish Foundation.”

Anthony shrugged. He vaguely recalled images of bearded bikers in leather and denim with toys in bags on the front page of some newspaper or other. If they wanted to help out, he had no problem with that.

There was a knock at the door. “That must be Mr. Kennett now,” the mayor said. “Would you mind, Mr. Beretta?”

He nodded with a smile and opened the door, standing aside automatically. Kennett, now why did that name sound— He stared at the man entering the room.

Oscar Kennett glared. “For fuck’s sake, Tony, don’t you ever answer your goddamn phone?”

Anthony felt his eyebrows climb as he said, “Ex-cuse me?”

The man was dressed in faded jeans with one knee about to blow and a too-tight T-shirt under a frayed denim vest, and talked exactly how Anthony expected a guy with sleeve tattoos to talk.

“Your phone. You have my helmet. I was trying to get a hold of you to get it back.”

“You two know each other?” Bonnie Gaites asked, her eyebrows raised as well.

“No,” Anthony said at the same time Oscar Kennett said, “Yeah.”

Anthony scowled at him. “Why didn’t you leave a message then?”

The biker had no answer for that and just scowled right back. Anthony turned to see both Bonnie Gaites and Mayor Currie grinning.

“I can see you two are going to have fun working together,” Mayor Currie said.

“What?” they both said, nearly simultaneously.

Still grinning, Mayor Currie introduced everyone formally, and Oscar Kennett took Bonnie Gaites’s hand in both of his and said, “I apologize for the language.”

Ms. Gaites only smiled all the more broadly.

“The three of us are the entire organizing committee?” Anthony asked, hoping for at least one more person.

“Yes and no,” Ms. Gaites said. “I’m afraid I have to ask you to handle my end of things, Mr. Beretta. Garden Gaites is making up for my lack of time with more tangible donations, including beverages to the riders, storage space for the books, and holding a tasting tour to raise money for the postage. That’s all I can do this year due to personal issues.”

“You’ll be the public face of Bayham Township’s two wineries, Mr. Beretta,” added the mayor, which resulted in a snort from Oscar Kennett.

Anthony turned to glare at Mr. Kennett, who stared back before dropping his gaze and muttering, “Tough job.”

He didn’t know if he meant it wouldn’t be tough at all or what, but it seemed unflattering at the least, and likely insulting. His jaw tensed, but Anthony had three years practice at hiding his feelings. He forced the muscles of his face to relax.

“I—very well,” he said to the mayor, unable to say anything else.

“So here are the packets, mostly legal and insurance requirements.” Currie handed each man a thick manila envelope. “The town and township are covering the expenses, but read over their requirements. There are release forms and—well, you’ll see. When you’ve had a chance to go over those, preferably together, let me know and we’ll move on to the next phase.” She gave Anthony an encouraging smile. “I know this is your first time as a drive organizer, but Mr. Kennett has done similar events. I’m sure he’ll be happy to help you if you have any problems. Let’s have a great book drive, gentlemen.”

Oscar held open the door and gave an exaggerated bow that looked particularly mocking given his attire, and said, “After you, Tony.”

“My name is Anthony.”

“Yeah, well, my name is Oscar. But my friends call me Oz.”

My friends call me Anthony,” he emphasized as he walked out into the hallway.

“Yeah, whatever. So about my helmet.”

“You can come out to the winery today,” Anthony said, although the helmet was still in his truck, right outside the building. If Oscar Kennett was a Bayham resident, then it was out of the way. If he was from St. Albans, it was just a slight detour for him on his way home. Part of him hoped it would be out of his way, but he didn’t ask.

“Like a business meeting, right?”

Anthony flicked his gaze over the other man’s clothes, returning the earlier slight. He didn’t say anything before striding down the hall to the front doors.



Oz stared at Don’t-Call-Me-Tony’s back as he walked away. The jacket of his suit was just too long to tell what kind of an ass he had, but damn those curls were cute. And those glasses. He looked like a GQ cover model, too tall and willowy to be on Men’s Fitness, and too young to be in charge of a winery. He’d known going in that Beretta Wines was involved, but he’d expected to be dealing with Tony’s father. Which was silly really, since organizing a charity event would probably be delegated. Tony had such a spoiled-rich-kid vibe going on, Oz wondered if this was strictly duty for him. Hard to imagine he cared anything about literacy.

He caught movement from the corner of his eye. Bonnie Gaites and Mayor Currie were leaving the office together.

“I apologize for my…” He gestured, but he meant more than his clothes. He’d just been so surprised to see Tony Beretta, his mouth had engaged automatically. “I had a prior engagement at the Boys and Girls Club in London and didn’t have time to change.”

“It’s Saturday, Mr. Kennett. I’m surprised anyone dressed up,” Mayor Currie replied with an easy smile. “Thank you again for volunteering. You, too, Ms. Gaites.” She turned down a corridor and disappeared through another door, leaving Oz and Ms. Gaites at the big antique doors of the town hall.

“So what’s up with Tony Beretta?” he asked her, wondering if he’d always had a stick up his ass.

“Your guess is as good as mine. I’ve only met him a few times since he inherited the winery. He can, with an effort, be charming, but he has a reputation for being something of a cold fish, as you’ve discovered. Not for the first time, obviously.”

Long story,” he said in answer the curious note in her voice. The word inherited set in his mind like a fishhook. “His father…?”

“Heart attack, three years ago. As I understand, Anthony was in France at the time.”

“Ouch. So he didn’t want to run the winery?”

She frowned. “I don’t think that’s it. I think he just didn’t expect to have to take over so soon. He was only twenty-four at the time, and it’s a lot to take on, when…” She didn’t finish the thought. Instead, she gave him a sidelong look with an impish smile. “Anyway, I think the two of you will do a fine job with the run this year.” She held the door for him, and he followed her into the afternoon sun. He slowed his pace and then continued behind her to the municipal parking lot.

Oz silently hmpf’d. If he could work successfully with Don’t-Call-Me-Tony, that in itself would be an accomplishment. So why was he wondering once more if Tony Beretta was gay or straight? The tight-ass vibe suggested that if he was gay, he probably pretended to be straight for the sake of appearances. Tony Beretta seemed to set a great deal by appearances.

He got in his car, wondering if right now was a good time to go to the winery. No, he’d better read over the contents of the envelope the mayor had given him first. He had a fair idea what was in it—he’d organized charity drives before. But there were always unusual t’s to cross and i’s to dot.

He hadn’t had time to change before the meeting—although he’d planned to—but he could go to St. Albans and do that now. The winery was actually closer to St. Albans than Bayham. He scowled, remembering Don’t-Call-Me-Tony’s dismissive look, and decided he’d be damned if he would.

He drove to Tim Horton’s, took an iced cap to a corner table, and started reading. An hour later, he was taking his almost-junker car over the gravel road indicated by the winery signs posted on the country highway.

When he got to the gate, annoyed that he’d forgotten about it, he reluctantly called Tony. “I’m at the gate.”

“Oh, I wish you’d called ahead. I’m in the pavilion. You should have come down the event lane.”

“I might have, but you don’t answer your goddamned phone. Where the fuck is the event lane?”

He was in reverse before he ended the call. The event lane was a gravel drive between cornfields on the other side of the house. He had no idea what to expect, and the neat parking lot set out with white painted boards took him by surprise. Why did a winery need this, in the middle of nowhere?

Oz grabbed his envelope and the box of assorted Timbits he’d bought, half certain someone as arrogant as Anthony Beretta would turn up his nose at Tim Horton’s. He was probably a Starbucks mocha-frappa-latte whatever at six bucks a cup, with a gluten-free organically sourced muffin type.

Oz followed the flagstone path around a corner and stopped short. To his right was a white roofed pavilion, screen sides tied back against the breeze. Behind it was a low, rustic barn, sided in grey weathered wood. To his left were rows upon rows of grape vines, marching downhill between packed gravel paths and short-clipped grass. And directly in front of him was a garden that climbed a curved wall and surrounded a fountain. An older woman worked in happy unconcern, weeding one of the numerous flowerbeds.

Oz whistled under his breath at the unexpected tranquility and beauty. Suddenly “event lane” and the need for a parking lot made sense.

Shaking his head, he strode into the pavilion. Tony was sitting at one end of a long cloth-covered table. He had lost his jacket somewhere, and his tie was loosened. His shirt sleeves were rolled up almost to the elbows. He stood up as he heard Oz’s footsteps in the gravel. That hair, dear god. He looked like he’d just gotten out of bed, and bed was exactly where Oz wanted to take him for an unguarded instant.

Until he remembered that Don’t-Call-Me-Tony didn’t like him, and vice versa.

Tony’s dark eyebrows climbed above the rim of his glasses. “Something wrong?”

“Nope, just didn’t know all this was out here. You guys do a lot of weddings, huh?”

“Yes, there are two this weekend. We need the—thankfully, my mother still does most of the work for that side of things. Have a seat. Spritzer?” He indicated a pitcher three-quarters full of straw-coloured liquid, condensation beading the outer surface. Half a dozen wineglasses stood upside down on a small tray beside it.

Oz was surprised they’d managed a civilized exchange. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have hesitated to pretend he didn’t know what a spritzer was. Tony was already pouring him one.

As he accepted the glass, he said, “Thanks. I brought Timbits.” He dropped the box on the table.

“What kind?” Tony actually sounded interested.

“Assorted. Didn’t know what you liked.” It was something, to see Fancy Pants paw through the box like a kid.

“Ah!” Tony pulled out a plain cake doughnut hole.

“I would never have guessed.” Oz hadn’t meant to sound sarcastic, but Tony didn’t seem to hear it, thankfully.

“My grandmother used to make these. Cake doughnuts, I mean. They’re almost impossible to find anymore.”

Oz blinked as he made a mental note. Why the fuck am I making notes about Don’t-Call-Me-Tony’s doughnut preferences? He smoothed out a scowl that for once wasn’t directly caused by Tony and took a sip of his spritzer. It was dryer than he expected with a floral scent and a taste that was citrusy, yet tart. Like grapefruit.

He was going to withhold his opinion, but they were actually talking like adults, so he said, “This is really good.”

Tony gave him an immediate look, sharp and intense.

Oz braced himself for some sort of judgmental remark, but all Tony said was, “You like it? Would you buy it, in a four-pack of wine coolers?”

The intensity with which he asked the question made Oz uncomfortable. “I’m probably not the best person to ask,” he hedged.

Tony looked like he might argue, but instead looked away. “So your helmet, it’s in the truck.”

The sudden change of subject had Oz scrambling to keep up. “My helmet. Right. But I thought we were going to discuss the information in these envelopes. I already read it.”

“I thought we were supposed to go over it together. I’ve never been involved in organizing a charity event at this level before.” Tony’s voice was cool, but his eyes sparked. He had lovely eyes, the sweet, golden-brown colour of caramel.

“It’s pretty easy,” Oz said. He took a seat and opened his envelope. “We’re basically corralling all the other volunteers. You’ve also got receipt books, liability slips, information like value per book donated.” He spread each item as he pulled it out. “Although we’re working with World Literacy, they don’t have charitable status in Canada. We’ve been granted temporary charitable status for as long as this project continues, but that is also dependent on our volunteers collecting the right information from donors. This”—he tapped the next piece of paper he pulled out—“is a cheat sheet of what we’re supposed to tell them. We should probably photocopy it and give each volunteer a copy. Like get them all together in a meeting somewhere and tell them, but then give them a copy. We’re allowed a three percent margin of error, or all this becomes really expensive.”

Tony looked at the all the papers and heaved a deep sigh. “I hadn’t realized how involved this would be.”

“Yeah, I wasn’t expecting this much responsibility either. But I was under the impression this whole thing was, um…your idea?” He’d thought it was Tony’s father idea, but if Tony was the owner of the farm, then it had to be his.

“I pitched the idea to Mayor Currie last year. It’s still incredible to me to realize how widespread illiteracy is. But I thought my participation would be limited to using my truck for picking up books and shipping boxes. I’ve never done anything like this before.”


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