A smooth billionaire winemaker.
A compassionate bidder with a loving heart.
With just one sip, it all gets a little WICKED.
As head winemaker of the Los Caballeros winery, I like to keep it cool, collected, and smooth. Knowing my weakness, my sister sends in a secret weapon—Addison Reagan—to convince me to be in the bachelor auction. There’s no way I can turn her down. After all, she’s everything I’ve been missing. With her unassuming and kind nature, I am bowing down to her every need, and measuring every moment.
I have one mission: get Brix into the bachelor auction. Easier said than done. Brix is stubborn and distant. I’m beyond shocked when he agrees. Of course there’s a catch. There always is with a man like him. I have to be the winning bidder. Not a problem. After all, he’s sexy, charming, and irresistible. He sets me on fire. With Brix, things are about to heat up. And just when it does, my demons come barreling back. But can I count on a WICKED WINEMAKER to save me from the past?
The parking lot behind Stave was full, but I didn’t see the one car that would’ve made me turn around and leave. I had no desire to see my younger sister tonight. Not that I didn’t enjoy her company; Alex was fun, full of life, and smart. Sometimes too smart. Too observant. And I didn’t want to be observed.
I’d much rather sneak into the wine bar, find a place to sit on the periphery of the crowded place, and watch the woman who captivated me more each time I saw her.
She had worked for my sister long enough that she was promoted to manager. Since Alex had recently had a baby, she appreciated that Addy—as everyone but me called her—was willing to take on the new role.
No one who knew Addison well had been surprised that she was agreeable. I knew from Alex that Addison and her mom struggled financially—not that it had ever been my business.
Rather than walk in the back door used by employees, as I would’ve if Alex were there, I traipsed around to the front and across the bustling patio where firepits were lit to ward off the evening’s chill.
I pulled my ball cap lower and kept my head down when I recognized most of those present as friends, neighbors, and business associates from the wine industry. I would still be noticed. However, my body language would communicate I wasn’t interested in engaging in conversation. Something not at all unusual for me. I was known as a man of few words, especially when it came to small talk.
While I would’ve much preferred an out-of-the-way table indoors, the only open seat was at the bar. Coincidentally, my best friend, Noah Ridge, was on the stool beside it.
“I wondered if we’d see you tonight,” said Ridge, as everyone, including me, called him.
I nodded, pulled the stool out, and took my seat. Ridge reached behind the bar, grabbed a wineglass, and poured from the unmarked open bottle in front of him. I didn’t need to ask whose wine it was. One sniff, and the familiar nose of Ridge Winery’s Zinfandel made my mouth salivate. I swirled the deep-red liquid, paying close attention to the edge of the dark garnet-red wine when I tilted my glass. Even in the low light, I could see the tinge of orange indicating the wine’s age.
I took a sip, savoring the sweet oak, pungent red cherry, mountain bramble, and complex minerality. I closed my eyes and counted the beats of the long finish. “1991.”
Ridge smiled but didn’t comment. We knew one another’s wine well enough that guessing vintages was easy.
“They’re pouring a Cabernet flight from your winery tonight.”
I picked up the tasting menu and saw the wines they’d chosen were three of my favorite Los Caballeros vintages. I couldn’t help but wonder if it was Alex’s idea or Addison’s.
It seemed the same moment I thought about her, Addison appeared in front of me.
“Always is at the end of crush.”
It was the most hectic and most exhilarating time of the year in the vineyard and in the winery. The exact definition of crush varied from winemaker to winemaker. To some, it meant the entire harvest, from picking the grapes to the time the wine was bottled. To me and most of those I knew in the industry, it referred solely to when the grapes were picked and subsequently crushed.
Determining when to do that was what set winemakers apart. There was no magic to it and certainly no set schedule. When it felt right—coupled with a handful of lab tests—we picked.
Once that began, ordered chaos ensued. It sometimes meant several days in a row of round-the-clock work. Blowing off steam after the grapes were harvested was as big a part of the annual tradition as any other.
Addison eyed the glass in front of me and looked at Ridge. “By the way, help yourself to whatever you’d like behind the bar.” She winked and picked up the first of three bottles containing wine I’d made.
“Which is your favorite?” I asked as she poured.
“Which is yours?” she countered as she corked one bottle before opening another.
Addison knew damn well it was a question without an answer. Like with children—not that I had any—it would be impossible to choose a favorite. There were nuances I appreciated in all three of the wines.
I watched as she pulled a wineglass caddy from the shelf, slid it around the glasses, and walked from behind the bar to deliver it. And by watched, I meant every step.
My eyes met Ridge’s, and I caught his smirk when I spun my stool back around.
“Keep your comments to yourself,” I muttered.
“All I’m saying…”
I shook my head and shot him a glare before looking in Addison’s direction when she returned.
“Can I get you anything to eat?” While the question was directed at me, her gaze wasn’t. Instead, she perused the crowded room.
She sighed, and for the first time tonight, her eyes met mine. They were golden brown, the same color as aged tawny port when held up to the light, and framed by the rectangular red glasses I’d rarely seen her without.
“If you’re hungry—”
“Hey, Addy.” My sister appeared from the back and looked around the room. “Wow, you weren’t kidding when you said we were packed.”
“Sorry I had to call you in.”
“Are you kidding? I would’ve been pissed if you hadn’t.” Alex looked from me to Ridge. “Hey, guys. What’s left hangin’?” she asked while looking over the night’s tasting sheet.
I rolled my eyes, and he laughed.
“We have a few vineyards of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Sangiovese left to pick,” he responded. “You’re welcome to come and help tomorrow.”
“Right. Because I can be in three—wait, four—places at once.”
The first was at the vineyard estate she and her husband owned, Demetria. I guessed the second would be at Los Caballeros, not that Alex had helped us pick since she was in high school. The third had to be here at Stave. I had no idea what the fourth was and said so.
“Wicked Winemakers’ Ball meeting tomorrow bright and early,” she answered, nudging Addison. “You’re in, right?”
I raised a brow at my sister when Addison left to deliver more wine.
I shook my head.
“No, you have something to say, Gabriel, say it.”
No one called me by my given name except my mother, and even that was rare. My sister was treading on thin ice with her high-handedness. Thus, I didn’t respond.
Alex huffed and walked down the hallway in the direction of the kitchen. In the same way my eyes had followed Addison, Ridge’s tracked my sister’s every step. Also in the same way I wasn’t interested in him being up in my business about the beguiling woman I couldn’t keep out of my thoughts, I wouldn’t serve commentary on the fact that Ridge considered my sister the one who got away.
“She’s happy, right?” he mumbled.
“Do you really want me to answer that?”
Ridge shook his head and swiveled so he was facing the opposite direction, toward the patio.
I was familiar with the haunted look in his eyes and wished he’d find someone to make him forget Alex. He’d asked if she was happy, but he knew the answer.
Alex and her husband, Maddox, had been secretly dating since she was in high school. I’d been one of the few who knew about their relationship and hadn’t interfered. As far as I was concerned, the feud started by our father and Maddox’s should’ve ended years ago. In fact, had they dated openly, I doubted anyone would’ve cared.
It was during a short break between Mad and her that she’d gone out with Ridge, although I was well aware he’d had a crush on her for years.
“Maybe we should socialize.” He motioned with his head toward the crowded patio.
“No, thanks.” I finished the wine in my glass and put my hand over it when he went to pour more. “I’m headed out.”
“I’ll walk with you.” He jammed the cork in the bottle, moved it behind the bar, and tucked a fifty under it.
Unlike when I came in, I opted to leave by the employees’ entrance. As I rounded the corner, I came face-to-face with Addison.
“You’re leaving?” she asked, her eyes meeting mine for the second time.
“Just stopped for a quick glass with Ridge.” It was utter bullshit. There was nothing quick about me driving thirty miles each way from my family’s ranch just to have a glass of wine with a man I saw almost daily. “I’m more tired than I thought I was.”
She nodded in understanding. I was sure she was tired as well. While she didn’t work for any of the local vineyards, her mother and stepfather owned a diner in town, where she waitressed from dawn to midafternoon before arriving at Stave and staying some nights until one in the morning. It was the reason I’d raised a brow at Alex. It was too much of her to ask for Addison’s help with the annual fundraiser. I hadn’t said it and wouldn’t. I’d already divulged too much by my reaction alone. The last thing I wanted was my sister in my business about her employee.
“We’re a pair,” said Ridge, walking me to my truck. “Sunday night, and we’re headed home to bed—empty beds—before eight o’clock. It’s pathetic.”
“You’re pathetic. I’m not in the mood for Al’s bullshit.”
He laughed. “She can be a dog with a bone.”
I opened my door. “See ya, Ridge.”
“You picking tomorrow?”
“Negative. Nothing else is ready.”
“Me either. Wanna ride?”
“You got it. Meet at Seahorse?” The ranch was one of the few places left with access to ride horses on the beach.
“I’ll call Press in the morning.”
Lavery “Press” Barrett owned Seahorse and was another friend I considered one of my best.
I waved Ridge off and was about to pull out of the parking lot when I saw Addison come out of the back door. I rolled down the window.
“Everything okay?” I asked as she studied something on her phone.
“Um, yeah. It’s fine.”
It was hard to tell, as dark as it was, but it looked like she might have been crying.
I pulled the truck close to the side of the building, cut the engine, and got out. As I stalked toward her, I caught her brushing a tear away.
“Anything I can help with?”
Addison shoved the phone in her back pocket and looked up at the night sky. “I just needed some air.”
“Oh, yeah?” I brushed away another tear she’d missed.
“You know Dennis.”
Actually, I didn’t know much about her stepfather. By design. The man had moved to the Central Coast shortly before he and Addison’s mother were married. Since it wasn’t any of my business, I’d stopped myself from digging into the man’s past. That he’d made Addison cry, though, had me wishing I had.
“What did he do?”
She let out a heavy sigh. “He and my mom fight a lot.”
I took one step closer, careful not to invade her personal space. “What was the message?”
“Nothing. I need to get back inside.” She rushed off before I could say anything else—even good night.
I waited near the bed of my truck for a few minutes, just to see if she’d come out if she thought I left. While I stood there, I sent a text to Ridge and Press.
What do you know about Dennis Murphy? I asked.
He’s bloody Irish, Press responded. Heard he’s got the temper to go along with it. Why? If it weren’t for his English accent, always more pronounced when he was either angry or drunk, I’d likely forget that while both Press and his brother, Beau, were born in the States, they’d spent the majority of their youth and teenage years in England.
Chat tomorrow, I replied.
Copy that, he responded.
While no one in our tight group of friends had ever served in the military, other than my uncle, Trystan, who was more of a mentor to us than a peer, we’d adopted much of the lingo.
I got in my truck for the second time when my cell pinged with another message. I figured it was from Ridge, but when I looked, I saw it was from Alex.
Are you still close by?
Parking lot. Why?
Need your help. Addy needs to leave.
Be right in.
“What’s going on?” I asked my sister as soon as I was inside, wishing I’d bumped into Addison first.
Alex’s brow was furrowed. “An ambulance is taking her mom to the hospital. I told Sam to drive her there.”
“I can take her.”
“She’ll be more comfortable with Samantha. Besides, they’re already gone. You pour and I’ll serve?”
“You got it.”
As much as I wanted to ask Alex what else she knew, I didn’t. I’d put Ridge on it, instead.