A second chance at love in the beautiful Ovens Valley – if he just has the courage to take it…
Matilda James never thought she’d ever return to Alpine Ridge, the small town she grew up in and couldn’t wait to leave. But when her desire to have children proves too great a strain on her childless marriage, she heads back home for a tree–change, determined to find a partner with the same life goals. Good luck and good timing lands her a dream marketing role on a breathtaking vineyard. The only hitch is her boss – her old high school flame. But Matilda is a professional, and that relationship is old news.
Mitch nearly lost everything when he lost his wife, and he’s worked hard ever since to support and protect the most important people in his life – his two brothers and his beautiful, miraculous daughter. When his high school sweetheart, Matilda, starts working on the vineyard, he still feels the attraction, but the pain of his past is too close and too constant to ever consider acting on it.
But soon the sparks between Matilda and Mitch grow so bright they can’t be ignored. Matilda is forced to question what she truly wants in life and how far she is willing to push to get what she deserves. And Mitch must learn that moving on is not a betrayal and find the courage to fight for a future he could never have imagined.
What a year. Those three words were all Matilda James could think about as she waited in a cupcake shop for her new client to finish with the last of her customers.
She was tucked away in a small room backing onto the sweet-scented kitchen at a chair opposite a lone desk. On the desk was stationery, a calculator, a laptop, and an adorable looking pink box.
Inside that box were two of the prettiest cupcakes Matilda had ever seen.
This particular variety, because of the romantic theme of reds and pinks and the big chocolate heart pierced by an arrow sitting on top, were Cupid cupcakes—the shop’s best seller.
What a year.
Matilda shook her head as a giggle moved up her throat wanting an outlet, but she only allowed herself a half-grin. She still couldn’t believe she was here.
It all started the moment Matilda wanted a baby. That one big splash created myriad ripples in her life. One of those ripples being her return to Alpine Ridge.
No big deal, right?
Except it was because less than twelve months ago she was married to a man who very much didn’t want children. And less than twelve months ago, she lived in San Francisco, USA, working in a sixty-hour-a-week marketing role, earning a six-figure salary.
Until it wasn’t.
Until these bizarre new desires bubbled up from their murky depths within her womb. They never used to exist—in the slightest. She was all gung-ho on her career, happy in her marriage, traipsing across the globe without anything more than a suitcase—no extra carry-on, nothing to worry about back home, not even a goldfish.
And then one morning she was in an Uber on her way to work and all she could see were mothers and fathers pushing sweet angel-faced babies in prams.
Every client that came through the door were parents and would happily open their phone to show Matilda pictures—lots of pictures—of their precious children.
A dissonance built up inside her, needling its way deep into her bones. At first, she thought she disliked parents and their children, no matter how ridiculously cute the little babes were.
But after a while, she realised the sensation wasn’t dislike but rather … jealousy. She was jealous of all these parents because she wanted to be the one wheeling a pram and showing others pictures of her own children.
Maybe it was an age thing—she had just turned thirty-three last January. Or maybe, and this was most likely the real reason, she had been living a big fat lie.
Yep, tough one to admit to.
It took a while.
But the moment she had crawled down from that massive high horse she had been riding for the last decade and a half and stood her two strong feet on the solid earth, there was no denying it.
Everything, all starting with the very first decision to up and leave her hometown of Alpine Ridge fifteen years ago, was a big fat sham. She may as well have shipped herself off to some bizarre cult for fifteen years with all the de-programming she now had to do to break away from the mindset she had adopted.
So here she was back in Alpine Ridge, working as a marketing and media consultant, very much single, and as Jane Austen would put it, ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.’
Except, of course, switch man for woman and wife for husband and throw in a baby or two or three.
Matilda checked the time on her iPhone—ten minutes to five.
Note to self: stop turning up so early to appointments.
She opened the taunting pale pink box that sat on the desk, and the rich chocolatey scent wafted around her.
Intoxicating. This entire shop was intoxicating. Providing marketing help to Amy, the owner of this shop, would be the easiest consulting job she had scored since arriving back in town.
The cupcakes stared up at her, begging to be tasted. It would be prudent for her to sample the goods she had been contracted to offer marketing advice for—it only made sense really.
She reached in, pulled out the perfectly iced cupcake, peeled back the patty paper and took an enormous bite as though compelled to thrust as much into her mouth as absolutely possible.
‘Oh my god,’ she mumbled around her mouthful. She closed her eyes as she chewed and moaned. ‘Is this even real?’
Matilda had another big bite, chewed, moaned and exclaimed as to its ridiculous brilliance, then took another bite until there was no more cupcake.
By the time Amy met her in the back room, she had devoured the second cupcake too and was staring at the empty box, wondering what genius ingredient these little food items possessed that a grown self-possessed woman could so rapidly become their victim.
‘Love and Cupcakes is an inadequate name. Your shop should be called Cupcake Gluttony or I’ll Take you Down to Sweet Sweet Cupcake Hell,’ Matilda said when Amy walked in.
Amy rolled her head back and laughed. ‘Strangely, I’ve had similar suggestions from customers.’ Amy had blonde hair, which was tied back into a high ponytail. Her physique was slight, as was her height, and she had sparkling blue eyes that brightened more when she laughed.
Matilda had already had a phone conversation with Amy about what she wanted from her with respect to marketing advice and digital media avenues for Love and Cupcakes.
Other than the quick introduction earlier where Amy showed her around the shop and gave her two sample cakes, this was their first face to face meeting.
Amy sank into a chair beside her and sighed.
‘Busy day?’ Matilda asked, understanding the universally known translation of that kind of sigh at the end of a work day.
She nodded. ‘Hectic.’
‘After I’m done with our consultation and you implement my advice, it’s only going to get busier,’ Matilda said with an arched brow.
‘I’m ready for bigger. It just means I’ll have to hire some more casuals to help me out.’
‘Good. Well, how about we dive into this.’
Matilda reached into her own bag and pulled out her laptop. When she opened it, she searched for the Love and Cupcakes website. She pointed to the screen. ‘We’ll start here. Your website provides all the necessary information and is neat and professional, but it’s still lacking a landing page that pops. And you need a statement that will prompt your audience to make an online order or, better yet, come into the store. So I’m going to write one for you, which I guarantee will increase sales from website traffic by at least thirty per cent.’
Amy’s eyes widened. ‘Thirty per cent?’
Matilda nodded. ‘Guaranteed.’
No use mentioning that in her marketing role in San Francisco, the company she worked for charged clients one hundred thousand dollars for her to write such statements.
But that life was behind her, and this wasn’t the town, nor business, for that type of expense.
‘I’ll also play with your SEOs, so you’re appearing higher on web searches.’
A door clanged from within the store, followed by footsteps. ‘Where is my sexy fiancée?’ came a deep voice, followed by his head poking into the back room.
Matilda and Amy turned, so they could gaze upon the gorgeous man in the doorway.
‘Oh, sorry, I didn’t realise you had company,’ he said apologetically when noticing Matilda.
The familiarity of this man could not be ignored—his height, bulk and warm brown eyes—though he was older than when Matilda last saw him as a teenager. Matilda grinned as her recognition grew. ‘Tom Mathews?’
His lips parted until commandeered by a smile. ‘Matilda James. How are you? Long time no see. I heard through the grapevine you were heading back to town.’
‘Grapevine being my mother?’
He laughed. ‘Felicity may have mentioned it in passing.’
Tom was the younger brother of Mitch Mathews, the boy she dated for two years while a senior in high school.
‘Matilda is giving me some marketing advice,’ Amy said.
Tom winced. ‘Oh yes, you did mention that. Sorry to interrupt.’
Matilda shook her head as she waved his apology away. ‘No problem. It’s so good to see you again. How’s Mitch going?’
‘Really well. He has an adorable daughter now.’
‘Yes, I had heard that through the bush telegraph.’
‘Bush telegraph also being your mother?’ Tom asked.
Matilda laughed. ‘Exactly.’
She wasn’t going to mention that she had also heard that Mitch’s wife had died recently. Tom wasn’t declaring that either, obviously, but it was strange how simply thinking about it charged the air around them.
Tom thumbed in the direction of the kitchen. ‘I’ll sit out here until you’re finished.’
‘Thanks,’ Amy said. Then when Tom had left the room, ‘He’s taking me out for dinner tonight. He obviously forgot I told him to pick me up a little later.’
‘That’s fine.’ Matilda turned to the laptop screen again and pointed. ‘So how are you at blogging?’
Amy winced and shook her head. ‘Not great.’
‘You understand how to add content to your website, though?’
‘Good. I can show you the format for the rest. I want you to start blogging. The more people we get re-blogging your content like on Pinterest or their own blogsite, the more your website is quoted on other websites, thereby moving your web address to the top of search engine results. Now, you don’t have to spend a lot of time on this—just one a month should do it.’
Matilda took out a sheet she had prepared earlier with a sample blog post and handed it to Amy. ‘I will show you how to take the photographs—the more the better. People these days are much more visual, mostly due to their time-poor lifestyles.’
For the next half hour, Matilda ran through all the social media sites Amy needed to be seen on.
‘I believe Instagram will be your best friend. It’s completely visual and with the way your cupcakes look, they will be a hit. I’ll help set up your bio with punchy phrases to entice people to your website. How do you feel about making videos—cooking demonstrations and the like?’
‘I’m sorry to interrupt,’ came Tom again from the doorway.
Matilda looked up at him.
‘I’ve been listening in,’ he admitted with a modest smile. ‘But only because you caught my attention. What are your plans in Alpine Ridge, Matilda? To continue consulting?’
She nodded. So far it had been the only option compatible with her skills. There weren’t a lot of great marketing roles in a town this size.
‘From what I’ve heard so far, you know what you’re talking about.’
‘I’ve earned a lot of experience.’ Where was he going with this?
‘We’re looking for someone exactly like you for the vineyard. We’re expanding with a new line that requires major marketing decisions. We’ve interviewed a dozen people, but no-one has the experience. And then the one person we did like was from Melbourne and wasn’t willing to move here … anyway, long story short, would working for a big local business be something you’d be interested in?’
Matilda shrugged, lips gently parted in surprise. ‘Sure, I guess, if the position and salary are right.’
‘Why don’t you come to the vineyard tomorrow and have a chat with me and my brothers …’ he trailed off, probably because she reactively had frowned.
‘You don’t think it would be weird considering Mitch and I have a … history?’
Matilda could feel Amy’s renewed attention, but she didn’t look at her.
Tom shook his head. ‘Not at all. It was a long time ago and so much has happened since then. As long as you’d be comfortable—’
‘Sure, yeah, I’d be fine with it.’ Maybe. ‘After all, I’m a professional, as I’m sure you all are when it comes to running your business.’
‘Absolutely. And it’s such an exciting time because we have a new line we’re on the cusp of launching.’
‘I’d be happy to pop in.’
‘How about nine am tomorrow. Just for a chat. Maybe show you around. If you’re interested, fantastic, if not, nothing lost.’
She nodded. ‘Sounds great.’
Amy pointed out to the kitchen as she looked at Tom. ‘Now can you please leave us be.’
Tom laughed. ‘Sure.’ And strode out of the room.
Amy arched a brow when her blue eyes met Matilda’s. ‘You and Mitch were a couple?’
Matilda waved her hand as if to say ‘no big deal’.
Except it was—he was her first boyfriend, her first love, the boy whom she had lost her virginity to, and the first boy’s heart she had ever broken.
‘We dated for two years while in our senior years of high school.’
Amy’s smile shared a hint of curiosity. ‘Well isn’t that interesting.’
‘Old water under the bridge,’ Matilda said. ‘So, back to this. Videos? You interested in making those?’
‘Headless, really? But you’re gorgeous …’
Amy shook her head. ‘I have an adversary in Melbourne that destroyed a previous business I owned and almost my life. I won’t risk him finding me out here.’
Wow. Okay, that wasn’t what she expected to hear from Amy, but, sadly, it wasn’t the first time Matilda had encountered this in her career. ‘Headless will be fine. I can show you some incredible examples of videos where not a single face is shown.’
For the next forty-five minutes, Matilda explained to Amy all the avenues she had, marketing-wise, to grow her business online—there was a world of opportunity for additional income streams for someone with Amy’s talent—and in-house.
She did demonstrations on lighting and photography using equipment she brought with her.
Tom looked on and it felt a little like this consultation was the first part of her job interview. She caught him, at times, deep in thought, as though putting what she was telling Amy about the cupcake shop into action on the vineyard.
And she had to admit, she was doing that herself—already the wheels were in motion.
A decade—more—had passed since she’d even stepped foot on the Mathews Family Vineyard, but her recollection of that property was still vivid. Excitement twinged in her belly for the opportunity that could lay ahead of her.
A big local business that was in the process of expanding was exactly where her skills could be used to their potential. A role like that would assure her long-term position in this town too.
The only drawback was Mitch. Not Mitch in and of himself. The boy she remembered was loyal, tender, kind. The drawback was herself and where she now stood with Mitch.
All in all, it was her who had ended their two year relationship and taken off to Melbourne for university thinking this town was too small, only to realise fifteen years later that she may have been wrong.
And now she was possibly going to be employed by him. Would that even work?
But like Tom said, so much living had taken place between when she was here last and now. Mitch had been married, had a child, and been widowed. Surely Matilda was but a distant memory and whatever history they had together was … insignificant. Surmountable.
Not at all a potential problem.
Cleaning vomit off the carpet wasn’t what Mitch preferred to be doing on a Tuesday morning. Any day of the week really. But Georgia, the nanny, had an early morning appointment and, of course, his nineteen-month-old daughter, Sophie, decided that was the appropriate time to vomit—repetitively.
And now he was late for work on a morning when his schedule was blocked out for an interview with a potential marketing manager. He couldn’t remember booking out that time on his schedule, so maybe one of his brothers had and forgot to tell him about it.
He didn’t hold too much hope for filling the position. It was getting more and more likely that they were going to have to outsource their marketing to a firm in Melbourne, but he really didn’t want to do that. He wanted someone on board at the vineyard, seeing firsthand the day to day activities, living among the family culture, and being personally involved.
So far, that was the one thing missing from every candidate they interviewed—heart.
This vineyard was where Mitch’s heart was, and he needed that translated and communicated effectively on every bottle of wine that was grown, fermented, bottled and shipped out of here.
He pulled up outside the administration building where all the permanent employees—mostly sales staff, administrators and graphic designers worked. Beside the admin building was the barrelling shed where last season’s vintage was fermenting away.
On his way up to the admin building, he sniffed the front of his shirt. Did he smell like vomit? Or was the scent of it permanently burned into his nostrils? Either was likely. His throat squeezed thinking about it. Milk vomits from babies—he could deal with that any day of the week. But from a toddler on a diverse diet—he’d reached his limit.
He raced back to the car, grabbed a tin of deodorant from the glove box and sprayed a little extra on just in case. The last thing he needed was to be presented with a fantastic candidate only for them to turn the job down because their boss smelled like spew.
Sam and Tom were waiting in the boardroom when he strode in.
‘Don’t ask,’ he said when his brothers’ eyes met his.
‘Fall into some aftershave this morning?’ Sam asked with a cocky grin. Sam was the biggest of his siblings—half a head taller and his breadth from shoulder to shoulder correspondingly wide.
He felt in his pockets for something to throw. Lucky for Sam, there wasn’t anything. ‘Sophie spewed everywhere. I’ve spent the last twenty minutes trying to get bits of carrot and corn out of the carpet.’
They both groaned—the kind of brotherly sympathy that comes with a big dose of ‘glad it’s you and not me’.
‘Is she okay?’ Tom asked. He was the youngest brother in the family, though he was a touch taller than Mitch. They all shared similar colouring—brown hair, brown eyes.
‘She seems to be. Maybe she just caught a twenty-four-hour gastro bug. Georgia will ring me if she gets worse.’
‘That sucks. Poor little girl,’ Sam said. ‘Hope it’s not going around. I’d hate for Livvy to pick it up.’
Livvy was Sam’s seven-year-old daughter who had lived with her mother until six months ago. Not even Sam had known of her existence until her grandparents brought her out to the vineyard to meet Sam after Livvy’s mother, Sam’s ex, committed suicide.
‘I’m sure she’ll be fine,’ Mitch reassured. He took a seat opposite his brothers at the long rectangle table. They equally owned Mathews Family Vineyard and branching entities, but Mitch took on more of the burden of responsibility in ensuring the business remained successful.
Maybe because he was the eldest. Maybe because he knew nothing else. Sam had done three years at university after he finished high school. Tom had got an apprenticeship and worked for a couple of years in a mine. Mitch only ever had eyes for the vineyard.
He leant back in his chair and crossed an ankle over the opposite knee. ‘So, who are we interviewing this morning? I don’t remember hearing about it.’
Tom rested both his elbows on the table. ‘I only set it up yesterday afternoon.’
‘They must be eager.’
Tom looked away, then back to Mitch.
Mitch narrowed his gaze at his brother. What is he up to? ‘Spill it.’
‘Amy hired a marketing consultant for Love and Cupcakes. I got to listen to the meeting. This consultant was obviously very skilled. So I asked if she was interested in a local position on a vineyard.’
Mitch uncrossed his leg and leant forward. ‘Okay, so who is it? A local?’
Tom exhaled noisily through his nose. ‘Matilda James.’
Mitch’s eyes widened. ‘My … Matilda James?’
Tom nodded. ‘Yes.’
‘I see.’ He blew out a long breath. ‘Now that’s a face I haven’t seen for a while.’ Fifteen years to be exact. It had taken him a long time to get over Matilda. As an eighteen-year-old, he was devastated when she decided to leave him behind.
He thought heartbreak couldn’t get any worse. How wrong he was—since the moment his wife Rachel died, he barely had a functioning heart left, and, as it was, he was quite certain his heart would never work properly again. ‘I do recall Felicity saying Matilda had studied marketing. Did she say why she was back in town?’
Tom shook his head. ‘We didn’t get that far.’
‘So her husband is here too?’
Tom shrugged. ‘Not sure. I’d say so.’
‘Okay. And she was okay with … me being here?’ He closed his eyes briefly, hearing how much of an egocentric arse he sounded. As if after fifteen years he would even be an issue. Of course she was a professional now, as was he.
Tom nodded slowly. ‘The topic did come up, and she said it was perfectly fine.’
‘Those exact words?’ He wanted to groan the moment that question had tumbled from his mouth.
‘Probably not those exact words, but it was something to that effect.’
‘Why didn’t you tell me earlier?’ Mitch asked.
Tom shrugged. ‘Honestly, I thought it would be no big deal. Is it a big deal, Mitch?’
Mitch shook his head quickly and strained a smile. ‘Of course not. I was just … wondering. That’s all.’
Sam was looking at him with a mocking grin. A grin that said ‘you’re doing a shit job at hiding how this is really making you feel’.
‘Got something you want to say, Sam?’
Sam held his hands up and laughed. ‘Not at all. Proceed. Convince me more how the fact that we’re about to interview your ex-girlfriend isn’t bothering you.’
It wasn’t so much that Matilda was his ex that was bothering him. It was more the fact that he once held intense emotions for this girl—he had loved her—and that had entwined itself now with his unending bereavement in a way he couldn’t decipher.
He restrained again at throwing something at Sam on account of there not being any object in reaching distance. ‘How about we shut up and get Matilda in here.’ He stood, adjusted his pants on his waist and discreetly smelled his shirt. ‘It will be lovely to see her again after all these years.’
Tom got up from his seat too. ‘I’ll go collect her from admin.’
Mitch nodded. ‘Good idea.’
He didn’t look at Sam as he waited. Within a few moments, the door to the boardroom opened again. Tom stood to the side to allow Matilda to walk through first.
She met Mitch’s gaze, and it was like he was eighteen again. Those eyes, pale hazel, were as familiar as Mitch’s breath, and fifteen years between now and the last time he was only inches from those eyes as he kissed her, bled off into the atmosphere.
Her auburn hair was lighter and sat in big bouncy curls around her shoulders.
Sure, she was a little older, he was too, but she was more beautiful as though she needed time to grow into her features.
‘Hi, Mitch,’ she said in that husky tone that always had the effect of heating him from the inside out. ‘Fancy seeing you here.’ A genuinely happy smile spread across her lips and it eased the tension that had tightened his body.
‘Good to see you again, Matilda.’
She paused for the slightest time but long enough for him to see that she was assessing the validity of his statement. He realised then, she was worried if he still held a grudge.
He walked around the table towards her, his heart slightly accelerated because he didn’t know what the appropriate action should be—did he shake her hand (after all, this was a job interview) or did he hug her (she was his best friend and lover for years)?
They met in the middle near the big windows that looked out over the car park and entrance road. Her hazel eyes were firmly on his, that full smile was friendly, and the floral scent of her perfume enticed him.
He got a whiff of his own deodorant, which brought forth horrible memories of vomit. Lots and lots of vomit. And he most likely stunk.
He thrust his hand out before he could change his mind about a hug. ‘Lovely to have you here with us today, Matilda.’ Absolutely professional and for some reason that made him feel like the world’s biggest dickhead.
Her smile faltered a little. ‘Yes. Hopefully.’
Tom interjected. ‘I told Matilda yesterday that this morning would be about her getting an understanding of what we needed here on the vineyard and if Matilda felt that would be something she might be interested in.’
Mitch released his hand and nodded. ‘Great. Well, let’s get started.’ He gestured towards the chair to the right of him. ‘Please, take a seat.’
She slid into the chair and crossed her legs. She wore a knee-length but fitted cream coloured skirt and a pale pink sheer blouse with soft frills around the collar. Her curves were highlighted.
‘You remember Sam?’ Mitch asked as Sam took a seat opposite, next to Tom.
She peered at Sam with a smile. ‘I do. Good to see you again.’
‘Matilda, I was so impressed with what I saw yesterday with Amy,’ Tom said.
‘I thought we would tell you about the role and the vineyard and then if you think it’s a position you’d be interested in, we can then delve into your work history and qualifications,’ Tom said.
Mitch leant back in his chair and placed his ankle on his knee. ‘Remember the cellar we have here on the property?’
‘It’s stocked floor to ceiling with vintages from every year for the last thirty years. We are going to release over the next six years, five years’ vintages starting with the earliest as limited editions.’
‘We’ve signed up with In the Spirit liquor stores to be our stockists,’ Tom said.
Sam leant forward, forearms resting on the table. ‘The first line, our first ever vintage from 1984 will be rolling out just in time for Christmas. So far we’ve received some fantastic critiques from blind tastings as well as a brilliant score on the 100-point system. We anticipate that this will raise our brand recognition from table wine to top-notch and have a knock-on effect with our annual vintages.’
‘And that’s where we need a marketing manager who will take control of all the branding, advertising, promotional materials and absolutely send this into the stratosphere,’ Mitch added.
Matilda leant back in her chair facing Mitch and his brothers, a picture of ease in this room. She was obviously used to this type of meeting.
‘Okay. So you want someone for just this new line—’
Mitch shook his head. ‘We have never had in-house marketing other than our graphic designers who also update our social media from time to time. We outsource most promotions to an agency in Melbourne. But I don’t think they’re hitting our brand just right. And maybe that’s because we may be unclear of that ourselves. That’s why we want someone here on the vineyard, living the culture and seeing how we operate day to day. We want someone who will take over the marketing, promotion and digital media for every aspect of this vineyard.’
‘A complete re-brand?’ she asked with a brow arched.
‘Not exactly,’ Sam said, rubbing a hand over his chin.
‘We already have a logo we’re happy with,’ Tom said. ‘And I think we have strong brand recognition with that already, so we don’t want to change it too much.’
Mitch added, ‘But we are willing for a modernisation.’
‘I see,’ Matilda said, eyes looking off to the right as though she was in deep contemplation. ‘I will need a full tour of the vineyard—covering every aspect of operations. I will need to do surveys of existing customers to see how they perceive the company already—see what works, see what doesn’t. I will have to design and test a revised logo and brand slogan. The website will have to be totally overhauled—I’ve already looked at it and it’s completely inadequate, as are your social media sites. We’ll need media releases written. Functions before the release date to build excitement. Television and radio advertising. Well-targeted on-message social media content. And I would do a complete retraining of your sales team. There’s a lot to do and little time left to do it.’
A small smile fluttered at the corners of Mitch’s mouth as he met the gaze of his brothers. ‘You see our conundrum,’ he said when looking at Matilda again.
‘I’m not cheap.’
Again that flutter—he was enjoying this confidence of hers. ‘We can negotiate a fair salary.’
She reached into her leather bag and pulled out three bound folders and handed one to each of them.
Her resùme. Mitch flicked it open.
‘I hold a Bachelor of Marketing from Monash University. I studied my Masters in Digital Media and Advertising while abroad and finished top five per cent in my class. I was scouted upon graduation by Blade and Jensen where I interned for three months before being employed by them for the next four years. I represented many big brands as you can see listed on my resùme …’
In the fifteen years since she had left Alpine Ridge, she had become a powerhouse. It suited her. She was always so smart and determined—qualities Mitch had loved about her and judging by his crinkled-eyed smile, still admired in her.
‘So you are staying in Alpine Ridge permanently?’ Sam asked.
Tom threaded his fingers together as his hands rested on the table. ‘May I ask why you came back here, Matilda? You obviously had a lot of professional success in the US?’
She lowered her gaze to the tabletop—the first and only sign of vulnerability Mitch had noticed since the meeting started. ‘Personal reasons.’
Sam lifted his hands up. ‘That’s fine. We won’t intrude.’
‘Thank you. But since we have a little history, it might be best to explain. I realised while I was overseas that I missed a slower, more family-oriented lifestyle. I missed home. That doesn’t mean I’m not invested in my career because I still very much am, but I have new goals. A position here on this vineyard, a family business where the private owners have a stake and hands-on role, is the direction I want to head in. It’s much more intimate …’ Her gaze met Mitch’s for the briefest of moments and his stomach flipped. ‘I would feel as though I’m an integral part of something, not just a hired overseer.’
She was certainly saying what Mitch had wanted to hear. She was more than qualified. Quite frankly, they would be stupid not to hire her.
‘And there’s no chance you’ll get restless back here?’ Tom asked.
She shook her head quickly. ‘I might, but I can’t see that I’ll change my mind about being here. I didn’t take the decision to move back lightly. I left a huge salary behind in San Francisco and divorced my husband. I know I don’t have to tell you that sort of personal information, but you’ll find out soon enough anyway. I’m amazed Mum hasn’t blabbered it around town yet.’
Tom and Sam chuckled.
Mitch stared at Matilda, curiosity tingling beneath the surface of his skin. She had left a big salary and her husband to move back here. Why?
They spoke a little more about the role and how Matilda’s skills could fit. Then they negotiated a fair salary that reflected the increase in sales she predicted she might bring to the operation.
Tom linked his fingers together and rested his hands on his stomach. ‘I know you’ve got some consulting clients still to attend to, Matilda, but what would be the earliest time you could commence here?’
Tom smiled. ‘Okay, great. Thank you so much for coming today. I know it was last minute, but we really appreciate it.’
‘Absolutely,’ said Sam.
Mitched nodded in agreement. ‘We’ll have a think about what we discussed today and get in touch with you soon.’
Matilda’s smile was broad as she stood, prompting all three of them to stand too. ‘Sure. You have all my details in your resùme packs.’
‘Here, let me walk you out,’ Mitch said, gesturing towards the door.
Matilda strode off a few paces ahead, and he followed close behind until she waited at the boardroom door for him to open it. When out at reception, she stood before him with a generous smile on her lips.
‘Thanks, Mitch,’ she said, her husky voice a little softer.
‘No, thank you.’
She took a step closer and lifted both hands until they rested on his shoulders. She eased up onto her tiptoes, leant in to him, and her lips pressed against his cheek as his lips met her soft, powder-scented face. ‘It’s so good to see you again after all these years.’
His breath paused for half a second as her warm touch moved within him. Hard to believe, but her sweet femininity ignited remembrances from long ago. How could she still, after all these years, be ingrained in his memories?
Shifting back, he looked into her eyes. Was it the same for her? His gaze fell to her lips, broad and full and painted with a soft glossy pink. ‘Good to see you, Matilda. A surprise, sure, but a good surprise.’
Her ear tilted towards her shoulder as she smiled. ‘I’ll hear from you soon.’
He cleared his throat, nodded. ‘You will.’
‘See ya,’ she said with a small wave, then headed out the front door.
He stood there, watching through the window as she strode down to her car. An incredible body and her outfit was doing nothing to hide it. Small fluttering tugs shifted in his stomach. Tingles of heat moved through his limbs.
He stood upright, shook his head as soon as he realised what those sensations were: desire and arousal.
No, no, no, no, no. He couldn’t do this.
Rachel’s face popped into his head and he wanted to groan.
Desire dissipated and he was one of the vines out in the yard being pulled and yanked as tight wire wrapped around his limbs, tying him to a trellis.
And what was this anxiety for exactly? He didn’t want the answer to find him, but it did, reminding him with abrasive wire around his heart that he had lusted after someone other than Rachel.
A better man wouldn’t have betrayed his wife so soon.
But the scent of Matilda, the lush warm press of her hands as he touched her shoulders, the tender sensation of her soft lips at his cheek, the closeness, the memories, the long length of time since he had felt a woman’s hands on him, cracked through his resistance and allowed something different to seep through.
He closed his eyes, squeezed the bridge of his nose as he drew in a few deep breaths.
When slightly recovered, he returned to the boardroom. His brothers were grinning as he sank down in to his seat.
‘Matilda is perfect. Exactly what we’ve been looking for,’ Sam said.
‘She’s amazing,’ Tom agreed, his hands moving in big excited gestures. ‘I could tell just from the few things she discussed that she has a good head for this job. Exactly what we need.’
Mitch remained silent for a moment, afraid his voice would betray his unease.
‘You’ve got to agree?’ Sam asked and waited for Mitch to reply.
Of course he agreed. For this business, for their future success, Matilda was perfect.
For himself, judging by the emotions that stirred from a simple kiss to his cheek, it wasn’t the best idea. He was still so tangled up from Rachel’s death, he couldn’t deal with this hint of an attraction to Matilda on top of it.
Give him anything else and he’d handle it—his daughter, the vineyard—but not this biological desire and aching for intimacy and connection. That was too big of a mind-fuck. He still had so much to work through and to move on from.
But it was his responsibility to ensure that this vineyard remained a success. To deny the business of Matilda’s obvious expertise would be professional suicide.
‘Have a letter of offer drawn up and sent to her. If she agrees, she can start Monday.’
Available 4th December 2018
Jacquie resides in sunny Brisbane with her husband and two sons. Numbers and practicality are a way of life for Jacquie as she works as an accountant by day. So it’s no wonder, for sanity’s sake, she balances this banality with words, characters and imagination in all other possible moments. Jacquie is an author of a number of novels and writes contemporary women’s fiction that is emotionally driven and possesses unique themes beyond the constraints of the physical universe. She strives to offer romance, but with complexity; spirituality, without the religion. Her novels express a purpose and offer subtle messages…