She wants what’s hers…and the boss who stands in her way.
Marguerite Delacroix must regain possession of her family’s ancestral vineyards. When she’s caught red-handed sneaking into the winery, she comes face-to-face with the new owner — tech titan Evan Fletcher. But he doesn’t turn her in — he gives her a job! Now she’s waiting for her chance to turn the tables and claim her inheritance. But soon their off-the-charts chemistry threatens to throw her off track…and right into the deep end with her off-limits boss!
Breaking into the owner’s private wine cellar at St. Isadore Winery was easy. The side door at the rear of the house stuck a little from disuse, but it led directly to the service stairs and Marguerite Delacroix’s destination several flights below. Getting out, on the other hand…
Marguerite tried to lift the two full cases of wine at her feet and gave up, rubbing her aching arms as she considered the best way to make a quick exit. What had seemed like an excellent plan at 11:00 p.m. over a bottle—or two—of Carménère shared with her best friend, Aracely Contreras, turned out to have several flaws in its execution at one in the morning. To start, the bottles were heavy. Too heavy to carry up the stairs except a few at a time, which would take the rest of the night.
She held up her phone, with the flashlight app on, and did a slow, albeit unsteady, 360-degree pirouette, shining the light around the dark, chilly cellar with its dozens of wine racks lining the walls. But this just confirmed what she already knew. Her only other option was the elevator, but it was riskier.
She sighed. Of course, this wasn’t going to be simple. Things never were at St. Isadore.
Marguerite grew up on stories about the fabled exploits of her Delacroix ancestors, legendary for their winemaking prowess. She was descended from the branch of the family that immigrated to California during the gold rush, producing wine for the state’s fast-growing population. One vineyard turned into five and St. Isadore was established shortly after, built to resemble a Loire Valley castle. Now it was one of the few remaining original wineries in Napa.
The winery had survived the phylloxera virus, which had destroyed most of Napa’s grapevines by the turn of the last century, and sailed through Prohibition thanks to savvy packaging and not a little smuggling. However, St. Isadore had almost gone under when two brothers inherited the estate after World War II and fought bitterly over how to run the business. Eventually, one brother had kept control of the winery while the other took the vineyards to manage for himself.
The two branches of the family had remained at odds until Marguerite’s father, who had inherited the vineyards and then sold them ten years ago to the late Linus Chappell, who owned the winery. Marguerite had begged her parents to keep the land until she could take over its management, but neither of her parents had much interest in viticulture, and early retirement in Arizona had beckoned. She’d returned home after her junior year at UC Davis to find that the vineyards, for the first time in their history, no longer had an owner named Delacroix.
But even a reunited estate hadn’t restored St. Isadore to its former glory. The more Northern California’s wine country thrived off increased tourism and demand for its wines, the further St. Isadore seemed to fall behind.
New equipment did on occasion make its way into the winery, but the elevator in the cellar dated to the mid-1930s. It was as beautiful in its art deco detail as it was rickety and noisy. The engine room was underneath the owner’s living quarters and could be heard—and felt—through several floors and walls. The family liked it that way. It served as another control on who accessed their private stash of rare and experimental wines and when.
At least the elevator was reliable; Marguerite knew from long experience. Besides, who was around to hear her use it? Linus had died six months ago without a will, and his entire estate had gone to his closest relatives, two great-nephews who’d immediately put the winery and its vineyards on the market. The sale of St. Isadore to a Silicon Valley tech CEO had been completed last week, and according to local gossip, he hadn’t taken possession yet. And the local gossips would know. He was an object of intense interest, not the least because he was reputed to be ridiculously good-looking and single.
But the detail most important to Marguerite was when escrow closed, the security guards the great-nephews had installed disappeared. Which left her this one small window of opportunity.
She propped open the elevator’s wooden outer door with a nearby wedge, then pulled back the ornate steel security gate and began loading wine bottles into the small cab. This was probably the last time she would set foot in the cellar. St. Isadore was targeted to be torn down and turned into a luxury housing development, if the rumors were correct.
Her breath caught in renewed pain at the thought.
But she could save the wine. Her wine. Wine that she hoped would be the first step to restoring the Delacroix name to winemaking prominence. Most of it was locked up in the winery and inaccessible, but Linus had asked for a sample bottle from each batch to store in the owner’s cellar. Now these bottles were all she had left after eight years. Eight years of putting her whole heart into working for Linus because they had a handshake deal: he would pay her fifteen percent of her negotiated salary. The other eighty-five percent went toward buying back the original vineyard that started it all, with its grapes to be made into wine by her and sold by St. Isadore. She would not let the Delacroix name down.
And she had come so close! She’d finished paying off the vineyard on her last birthday, of all dates, and Linus had promised to transfer the deed. But then a stroke had suddenly taken his life. After his funeral the leather-bound ledger he’d used to record her steady progression toward ownership was nowhere to be found. When she’d tried to negotiate for the vineyard with Linus’s great-nephews, they’d laughed in her face before calling the sheriff to remove her from the property.
The wine she’d made was all she had left and she’d be damned if she let it rot in the owner’s cellar or worse, be destroyed. She gathered up the last bottle. Beads of sweat formed on her brow despite the cold of the cellar, and she brushed them away with a swipe of her arm, the scent of old, spilled wine and damp stone clinging to the sleeve of her loose T-shirt. Dust covered her hands, and she wiped them on her jeans before pushing the button for the ground floor. From there, it would be a short walk to the main entrance. Aracely was somewhere nearby, waiting for Marguerite’s call. Together they would load the wine into Aracely’s SUV and then make their getaway.
But to what? The only life Marguerite knew was here, at St. Isadore. All she’d ever wanted was to remain here. And she’d thought her agreement with Linus meant she would be able to stay forever.
Marguerite blinked back tears. No matter how much pain St. Isadore had caused her, it was home. And now the new tech-CEO owner would destroy it.
Evan Fletcher rubbed his closed eyes. It didn’t help. When he opened them again, the numbers on his laptop screen remained the same: dismal.
When he first authorized his business manager to buy St. Isadore lock, stock and multiple barrels of wine, he had been pleased to learn not only was the winery fully equipped but the owner’s residence came furnished. Then he arrived a few hours ago, finally able to inspect his purchase for himself, and learned that the photos so beautifully shot in the golden sunlight hid a myriad of imperfections and outright damage. But St. Isadore was still a working business and thus perfect for his needs. The rest was cosmetic.
“I’d love to say I told you so, but not only is it late, I want to keep you as a client,” said his business manager from the speaker on Evan’s phone, followed by an audible yawn.
“It’s okay, Pia. Rub it in all you want. It’s the least I deserve after calling at this hour. I thought I’d be leaving a voice mail.”
“I’ve learned if I don’t pick up the phone when I see your number, by the time I call back you’ve dug an even bigger hole—like making an offer on a winery sight unseen.”
“Next time I’ll call during business hours. This was the first quiet moment I had today, between getting things settled here and a new crisis erupting at work.”
“I thought things were calming down on that front.”
“Define calm.” Evan was the CEO and founder of Medevco, a fast-growing tech start-up in artificial intelligence-based medical devices that had hit a billion-dollar valuation a year ago, making it what Silicon Valley insiders liked to a call a “unicorn” because such companies were rare and exciting. But with growth came growing pains. Expensive ones. And lots of them.
He shook his head to clear it. One potential disaster at a time. Right now, the winery took precedence. “Thanks for going through the St. Isadore numbers with me. And tell me how to best apologize to Luisa for keeping you so late.”
Pia laughed. “Like time has any meaning since the baby arrived. And no need to apologize. She’ll thank you because I’ll be up for the two a.m. feeding and she can sleep. But if you truly feel bad, send us a case of Chardonnay…but maybe from another winery.”
“Ha ha,” Evan deadpanned. “You’ll see. By this time next year, you’ll be begging me for a case of St. Isadore’s finest.”
“This isn’t a tech company. It’s a completely different industry, and you purchased a small winery that didn’t produce up to its capacity even before the senior staff left. You can’t expect your usual Midas touch to kick in.”
“That sounds like a challenge.”
“Depends on how high your expectations are. And knowing you, they’re stratospheric.”
Evan scratched the back of his head but stayed silent. New mothers didn’t need additional stress.
“I heard that,” Pia said.
“The sound of you keeping something from me.”
“The Global Leader Summit is being held in Napa this summer.”
Pia’s exhale was audible through the speaker. “Please don’t tell me what you’re about to tell me.”
“The organizers heard I was purchasing a winery and asked if I would be interested in hosting the kickoff social event. Of course, I said yes.”
Pia groaned. “Evan, those are some of the world’s most important business leaders—”
“It’ll be fine.”
“This has nothing to do with Angus Horne blowing off your phone calls, does it? He always attends the summit. And he’s quite the wine connoisseur.”
Evan laughed. “Would I buy an entire winery and the corresponding estate simply to corner an investor for Medevco?”
Pia scoffed, “You’d buy the moon if you thought it would give you quality face time with Horne to work your magic. You forget, I watch over your accounts when you refuse to. Bottom line is this, Evan. With so much of your capital tied up in Medevco, the winery purchase put a strain on your liquid assets.”
“The winery is revenue producing.”
He heard her fingers tapping on her keyboard. “Revenue but not necessarily profit. And you’ll need to make several capital investments in the property. You can run it at a loss for a year without giving me gray hairs.”
“I’ll do my best.” He’d hired Pia as his business manager for her cautious approach. But he hadn’t sold three companies before the age of thirty, then founded and become CEO of Medevco, without having the utmost confidence in his judgment and skills. Pia might call it his Midas touch, but he preferred to think of it as creative risk-taking combined with a ruthless ability to cut his losses. “Thanks again. And hey, try to get a nap in before the kid wakes up.”
He disconnected the call and leaned back in his chair. At least the place was clean, the shower had plenty of hot water—his hair was still slightly damp from the one he’d taken before calling Pia back—and the new beds had been delivered that evening and made up with fresh linens.
He rose and stretched, intending to discover if the mattress was as comfortable as it looked, and a low rumbling shook the scuffed parquet floor under his feet. “What the—?”
His gaze whipped around the room. Years of living in California with the ever-present possibility of earthquakes had taught him how to seek the safest spot to wait out the tremors. But the rumbling didn’t get worse, nor did it stop. It stayed a steady hum. A machine-generated hum.
Of course. The elevator. The one that led to the private cellars built deep underground. His pulse rate fell.
Then it sped up again. He was the only person awake in the house. The other occupant had gone to bed several hours ago.
He didn’t believe in ghosts, despite the furniture in the residence resembling rejects from Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion. But the elevator dated well into the last century. It was probably malfunctioning.
He sighed. Better check it out. The last thing he needed was a fire caused by faulty wiring.
He passed by the arched entrance to the kitchen on his way to investigate. Through the doorway, he spotted a heavy cast-iron frying pan sitting on top of the ancient stove. He grabbed it.
Just in case he was wrong about ghosts. And they came armed.
The elevator ground to a halt. Marguerite hit the stop button and pulled back the steel gate. Bending down, she picked up and cradled three bottles in her arms, then used her back to push open the wooden door. Mission accomplished. And no one would ever know she’d been there. She straightened up and turned around—
—and came face-to-face with a half-dressed man, his chest as bare as his feet, the cast-iron skillet in his hands aimed squarely at her head.
She screamed. Two of the bottles slid out of her arms. They landed with a thud on the elevator cab’s worn linoleum floor. Pure instinct took over, her mind swallowed by a cloud of fear and panic. She grasped the third bottle by the neck, then pulled it back over her right shoulder like an extremely short baseball bat.
The man brought the pan up to cover his face. The bottle met the heavy cast iron. The air rang with the cracking of glass.
The cool liquid cascading over Marguerite’s hands caused her brain to come back online. She blinked in rapid succession, her adrenaline still surging. “Oh, no. Oh, no no no.”
What was she doing? All her hard work, her last connection to St. Isadore, was now a spreading stain on the floor. She immediately brought the bottle to a vertical position, the cork end pointed at the floor. It was hard to tell in the darkened foyer, but it looked like she had lost a third of the wine.
She could save the rest. Maybe. Her mind raced, seeking options.
The man lowered the cast-iron skillet, letting it fall to his side. She had been so focused on the bottle, she’d almost forgotten she wasn’t alone.
They stared at each other for a heartbeat, their chests rising and falling almost in unison. So this was the ridiculously handsome new owner. She recognized the square jaw with the perpetual five-o’clock shadow, the thick dark brows set atop a piercing gaze from news stories on the internet. But neither the photos nor the gossip had conveyed the breadth of his shoulders, the way he exuded power and strength, despite being clad in only low-slung sweatpants that draped off narrow hips.
And she was the interloper here, not him. “Are you going to use that thing?” she croaked, pointing at the pan.
He shook his head, his mouth working for a few beats. “What the hell?” exploded from his lips. “Who the—?”
“I can explain.” He was furious. Deservedly so. But she had a bigger concern at the moment. “Right now, I need a new bottle. A container. Something.” She started to push past him, the bottle cradled against her.
He caught her arm with his left hand. His grip was solid and warm after the chill of the cellar. Wine splashed on her shirt, and her breath caught. She wouldn’t be able to break free. Not without losing what wine remained—and leaving behind all her other bottles.
“No, you don’t,” he growled. “Explain now.”
“Let me go and I will.”
His eyebrows shot toward his hairline. “Let you—Lady, you tried to clobber me!”
“You threatened me first!” With her chin, she indicated the frying pan in his right hand. “And you’re right. I’m sorry. But you scared me.”
“You’re breaking into my house!”
“Technically, I’m about to leave your house. Which I’m still happy to do. But please. I need something to hold the wine.” She met his gaze for the first time. His eyes glittered in the dim light. She took in a gulp of air. “Please.”
His frown deepened, but his hold on her sleeve loosened enough for her to twist and feint right before dodging around him to the left, to find the door—wallpapered to blend in with the rest of the wall—that led to the service corridor, and beyond it, the kitchen. There had to be something she could use in there.
The heat of his fingers continued to linger on her skin.
Evan blinked. Did the thief…disappear into the wall? What the hell?
He glanced at the bottles still in the elevator. They didn’t have labels. Instead, it looked like someone had scrawled notes on the glass with a paint pen.
That made no sense at all. The owner’s cellar contained rare and very valuable wine. A thief out to make a profit would have gone for the bottles most likely to fetch a high price on the market. What was his intruder up to?
He explored the area of the wall where she had disappeared and discovered the door, left slightly ajar. A vague memory surfaced of the agent who had represented the estate talking enthusiastically about secret passageways. Evan thought it had been real estate hype, an attempt to upsell a back stairway or an attic crawl space. But no. The house did indeed come with hidden entrances and hallways. And his late-night guest knew about them.
He paused to listen, then followed the faint sound of rustling to another door. Pushing it open, he discovered he was back in the kitchen, a cavernous space with appliances that would be right at home in a 1950s sitcom. Two cabinets had their doors flung open, while a wine bottle sat propped upside down in the dish rack next to the stainless steel sink.
The thief was rummaging through a third cabinet. She threw him a glance over her shoulder. “Where are the carafes?” she asked. “Linus kept them here. Did you move them?”
Evan patted the pockets of his sweatpants for his phone, intending to call the authorities and hold her there until they arrived. However, his pockets were empty. He must have left his phone in the other room. “Talk. Who are you? What are you doing here?”
She turned to face him. He had his first good look at her in the bright glare of the overhead lights. Dark hair, more raven than chestnut, had been twisted into a bun at the top of her head, but several locks had escaped, the wavy tendrils sticking out every which way. Her skin was pale, almost translucent in contrast to the black T-shirt and dark skinny jeans she wore. Those jeans outlined long, slender legs that led to gently curved hips, but her loose-fitting top concealed the rest of her curves. He dragged his gaze back up to her face. The freezing glare he received informed him he had been caught looking. “Carafes?” she repeated.
“You don’t seem to understand who I am or how much trouble you’re in. I ask the questions.”
Her mouth twisted. “Oh, I understand. You’re St. Isadore’s new owner. The tech guy. The entire valley has been wondering when you would arrive, although obviously, I didn’t think you’d moved in yet. In fact, I would’ve put money down that you wouldn’t move in at all. So, carafes. Are they in the butler’s pantry?”
He shook his head, confused, but he’d puzzle her words out later. “I didn’t put anything anywhere. I’ve barely set foot in this room.” She glanced at the iron skillet still loosely held in his right hand and raised an eyebrow. He put the pan back on the blackened burner on top of the antique stove. He didn’t get the feeling from her he would require it. “Except to get this. You, however, seem to know the place well. Who are you?”
“Maybe if you examined the kitchen as thoroughly as you check out women’s bodies, you’d know where things are.” Her tone was light as she continued searching the cabinet, but she held her head as if she were a monarch giving the annual address to the kingdom’s subjects.
“Just ensuring I can give the authorities an accurate description of who broke into my home.”
“I didn’t break in. I have a key.” She opened another door. “Most people change the locks when they move into a new place, you know.”
She had a key? He added that piece of information to his mental catalog of surprising things he’d learned about his thief. “You don’t have an invitation. That makes it a break-in.”
“In California, I believe that makes it trespassing.” She took out a small plastic water pitcher, scratched and discolored from years of use. “May I borrow this, please?”
He narrowed his gaze. “I’m not a lawyer, but if Law and Order reruns have taught me anything, it’s only trespassing—which is still a misdemeanor—if you don’t intend to commit a crime. The wine stacked in my elevator says otherwise.”
She crossed the kitchen and started to pull out cabinet drawers, one after the other. Have you seen—aha!” She pulled out a corkscrew. “I’m not committing a crime. Well, okay, I’ll agree I am trespassing. But not stealing.” Her voice trailed off as she lifted the upside-down wine bottle from where it rested in the dish rack to inspect it. “At least it was a clean crack, which is weird because I doubt I hit the pan hard enough to cause one.” She poured the contents into the pitcher and then sighed, her shoulders falling. “There. I wish the wine could age more, but at least I can taste it.”
Then she turned to face him. “Thank you for not calling the sheriff. And for your patience. I owe you an explanation—”
Blue-and-red revolving lights appeared, shining through the kitchen window to cast multicolored shadows. The sound of slamming car doors accompanied them. She raised her eyebrows. “I guess you did call them.”
Evan shook his head. What the hell? “I don’t have my phone on me.” He pointed at her. “Stay here. I want your story.”
He made his way to the front entrance, flicked on the lights and opened one of the heavy wooden doors. The chilled January night air rushed in, but his focus was on the sheriff’s car parked in the circular gravel driveway with its lights still flashing. Two men stood by the car, speaking to each other. “Evening,” Evan called out, although it was more like early morning. “What’s the trouble, deputies?”
The taller and stockier of the two men straightened up. “No trouble. Sorry to disturb you.”
The shorter, leaner man strode toward the door. As he came closer, Evan could make out his face. His heart sank past his stomach.
His younger brother pushed past him without a word. Evan turned to the sheriff. “What did he do?”
“Who, Nico? Oh, he’s not in trouble. But he was a passenger in a car pulled over because the driver was under the influence. Now, your brother is sober, but he doesn’t have a valid driver’s license and therefore couldn’t take over the operation of the vehicle. I was finished with my shift, so I offered to give him a ride here.”
“With flashing lights?” Adrenaline still thumped in Evan’s veins. The night just kept getting more surreal.
The sheriff ignored his question and waved instead. “Hey, Marguerite.”
“Hello, Deputy Franks.”
Evan turned to see the thief standing behind him, lit by the ornate wrought iron chandelier hanging in the foyer.
“Didn’t think you still lived here,” the sheriff said.
The thief—Marguerite, Evan mentally corrected himself—shot Evan a glance. When he didn’t speak, she took a deep breath. “I don’t.”
The sheriff’s gaze ping-ponged between Evan and Marguerite, and Evan remembered for the first time since finding his thief that he was wearing only a pair of sweatpants. Then the sheriff nodded. “All right. Well. I should get going.”
“Thanks for bringing Nico home.” Evan shut the front door and turned to Marguerite. “I still want your story. First I have to find my brother.”
“He’s in the kitchen,” she said. “He seems angry. That’s why I came to find you.”
“Nico is always angry,” Evan muttered.
“Why didn’t you tell the sheriff you caught me trespassing?” She cocked her head. More dark locks fell from her messy bun to frame her high cheekbones.
Evan didn’t answer. He wasn’t sure if he had an answer. “My brother, then you,” he repeated and motioned for her to lead the way.
Nico sat at the wide oak table that occupied one end of the kitchen. He had a loaf of bread and a mammoth jar of peanut butter by one elbow, and he was chugging from—
“Oh, no,” Marguerite exclaimed. She extricated the pitcher from Nico’s grasp. Only a few drops remained. If Nico wasn’t drunk when he got here, he was now doing his best to remedy that.
That was the last straw for a night that contained more straw than a haystack. Evan slammed his palms down on the table. Nico and Marguerite both raised startled gazes to meet his. “Start talking.” He pointed at Nico. “You first. You went to bed hours ago.”
“I changed my mind,” Nico said, his tone as flat as the piece of bread he was spreading with peanut butter. A shock of light brown hair fell across his forehead and hid his eyes, but Evan knew Nico’s gaze would be just as expressionless. “A girl I met earlier called and said she and her friends were going out and she’d come get me. You were in the shower.”
“You need to tell me.”
“I know you forget, but I’m twenty-one years old. So, no, I don’t.” Nico bit into his sandwich. “But I texted you when the sheriff pulled us over. Thanks for picking me up, by the way. Having the sheriff drive me back here wasn’t at all humiliating.”
“I—” Damn it. His phone was in the living room. And he hadn’t looked at his messages since he first sat down to go through paperwork four hours ago. It felt like a century had passed. “We’re not talking about me,” he finally said. “We’re talking about you.”
Nico’s response was to take another bite out of his sandwich. “Who’s she?” he asked, jerking a thumb at Marguerite.
“Oh, no,” Marguerite said again, with an entirely different intonation. She clutched the water pitcher to her chest. “I’m not a part of this. I’ll grab my things and go.”
“Do ‘your things’ include the multiple bottles of wine you’re stealing?” Evan asked.
“More wine?” Nico perked up. “If it’s what I was drinking, it’s excellent.”
“Really?” Marguerite smiled, the first real smile Evan had seen from her. And it was…amazing. He’d noted she had expressive eyes, the dark blue of an evening sky. But when she smiled, they glowed, making her appear lit from within. “That bottle was pretty young.”
“Tasted great to me.” Nico carried his plate to the sink.
“Thanks.” Marguerite sniffed what remained in the water pitcher. “But a wine expert would say—”
“Too much tannin, so yeah, it would benefit from more aging. But the flavors were nicely balanced. Anyway, good night.” Nico left the kitchen without a backward glance.
“Hey, we’re not done—” Evan called after him, but Marguerite’s hand on his arm caused the rest of his words to die in his throat. He glanced down at where her slender fingers rested on his bare bicep.
Pink colored her cheeks. She took her hand away and stepped to the sink where she washed out the water pitcher. “Let him go. He was spoiling for a fight, but now he’s thrilled he scored a point off me. Allow him his victory.”
Evan still felt the pressure of her touch. “You’re not only a thief, you’re a psychologist? Multitalented.”
Her color deepened and she held her chin up. “I’m neither. I’m a winemaker. And I was once his age.” Her tone implied that Evan must not remember what it was like to be a young adult.
She was right. He didn’t. Because when he was Nico’s age, he was running his first company. Nor did he need to be reminded by a thief of the chasm between Nico and him, no matter how intriguing he found her. “My brother isn’t your concern.”
She raised her eyebrows. “Okay. So, like I said, let me get my things—”
“You still owe me your story. Let me guess—you say you’re a winemaker, so you made the wine you’re steal—”
“Liberating, then.” He made air quotes with his fingers. “But I don’t remember a Marguerite listed among St. Isadore’s key staff. I thought the head winemaker was a Calvin or a Cassian or a—”
“Casper. Casper Vos. He’s at Dellavina Cellars now.” Steel shutters slammed down behind her eyes, turning her gaze opaque.
Evan regarded her. “You don’t seem to like him.”
“Most of St. Isadore’s staff is now gone,” she said, ignoring his comment.
“I see that for myself.”
“They started to leave even before Linus had his stroke. Might not be a bad thing to have to start over. Loyalty wasn’t their strong suit.” A bitter breeze danced through her words.
He leaned against the table. “Except for you, I take it. What was your role at St. Isadore?”
She sighed. “That’s a complicated question.”
He waved his hand at the dark windows. “There are a few hours left before sunrise.”
She opened her mouth—
The lights overhead winked and went out. The room plunged into darkness.