Just a Taste, страница 1
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WINE COUNTRY COURIER
What’s Going On Behind Closed Doors?
Master builder Seth Bennedict has been contracted to renovate Louret Vineyards’ tasting room. The improvements are said to open up the space but maintain its rustic elegance, possibly to accommodate the vineyards’ growing popularity with vacationers and wine aficionados.
Several years ago, the Napa Valley was stunned when an accident left Louret Vineyards’ senior wine educator Jillian Ashton-Bennedict a young widow. But the real tragedy came later, when the accident report found that her husband, Jason Bennedict—Seth’s brother—had not died alone. His sister-in-law, Karen, had been with him in the car.
The rumors have been rampant ever since. Had Jason and Karen been having an affair? It had been a well-known fact that the Ashton-Bennedict marriage was in trouble. And now new rumors that a relationship between Jillian and her brother-in-law Seth Bennedict—Karen’s widowed husband—has been simmering the grapes over at Louret Vineyards. Looks like Seth and Jillian have blended work and pleasure. Only time will tell if it’s a successful vintage…
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JUST A TASTE
Special thanks and acknowledgment are given to Bronwyn Jameson for her contribution to the DYNASTIES: THE ASHTONS series.
To that pair of fabulous Desire authors
Kathie DeNosky and Kristi Gold—thanks for the inspiration,
the guidance and the laughs. Love your work, girlfriends!
Books by Bronwyn Jameson
In Bed with the Boss’s Daughter #1380
Addicted to Nick #1410
Zane: The Wild One #1452
Quade: The Irresistible One #1487
A Tempting Engagement #1571
Beyond Control #1596
Just a Taste #1645
spent much of her childhood with her head buried in a book. As a teenager, she discovered romance novels, and it was only a matter of time before she turned her love of reading them into a love of writing them. Bronwyn shares an idyllic piece of the Australian farming heartland with her husband and three sons, a thousand sheep, a dozen horses, assorted wildlife and one kelpie dog. She still chooses to spend her limited downtime with a good book. Bronwyn loves to hear from readers. Write to her at [email protected]
A s the first strident notes of the bridal march screeched through the Vegas chapel, Spencer Ashton didn’t bother hiding his wince. He closed his eyes to shut out the faux-marble columns and the ceiling painted—poorly—as a cloud-scattered sky.
Unfortunately, losing the faculty of sight only intensified his other senses. The recorded music sounded even tinnier. The sweet sickliness of massed flowers and candles clogged his lungs.
He didn’t deserve this. He’d earned his cathedral and pipe organ and choir. He wanted to turn and see the pews overflowing with business and society luminaries, to feel their handshakes and back-slapping congratulations as they welcomed him into their elite kinship of power and privilege. And more than any of that, he deserved to see his bride walking down the aisle on her father’s arm.
Oh, how he would have relished the moment when John Lattimer handed over his only child and answered the question of “Who gives this woman?”
That was the only “I do” that mattered to Spencer. The two little words that meant his boss and mentor for the past five years was handing him the final key, not just to his investment-banking megalith, but to the entire Lattimer wealth.
Self-satisfaction hurtled through Spencer’s blood, turning his earlier wince around. At his side, Caroline completely misinterpreted that smile. Her biting grip on his elbow fluttered into a soothing caress as she leaned close and whispered, “I know. I feel the same way.”
Spencer doubted it, but why not indulge her?
He wasn’t getting the ceremony he deserved but he was getting the result. He squeezed her trembling hand and smiled right into her eyes. “You make a beautiful bride, Caroline.”
Easy words, when he stood to gain so much. As easy as the romantic words he’d chosen to sweep her off her feet. As easy as the avowal of everlasting love that preceded his let’s-get-married-right-away, I-can’t-wait-darling proposal.
No, he hadn’t wanted this quickie wedding, but he couldn’t risk the publicity or the complications of a high-profile wedding preceded by an engagement party and all manner of but-you-must-have-family-to-invite occasions.
He had no family that he cared to acknowledge, but today he would join one of California’s finest. Soon he would sit at his father-in-law’s right hand in the boardroom of the Lattimer Corporation. In time, it would be the Ashton-Lattimer Corporation.
Oh, yes, that had a near-orgasmic ring to it, as rich and glorious as the cathedral bells that tolled in Spencer’s imagination, in the wedding he wasn’t having. The rich and glorious sound of his future. All he had to do was pretend he adored the mousy blonde who was about to become his wife.
The minister swept into the chapel, apologetic for his tardiness and obviously pressed for time since he launched into the ceremony without preliminaries. Spencer half listened. His eyes drifted down to the Lattimer pearls at Caroline’s throat.
She might not match him in looks or ambition or character, but John Lattimer’s daughter was his ideal wife in other ways: demure and agreeable, quiet and giving, rich and ready to inherit.
He smiled and gazed into her moist and tremulous eyes as he repeated the same meaningless vows as last time. In his mind he added an extra vow. He promised to spend enough time in Caroline’s bed to breed the babies she wanted, children to keep her occupied and out of his hair, grandchildren to link the Ashton and Lattimer names and bind him more securely to all that would be his.
As the minister said the final words that joined them together as man and wife, euphoria rose again from Spencer’s gut, stronger this time, almost choking him with its intensity.
Spencer Ashton had traveled a long way from the farm-stench of Crawley, Nebraska, and finally he had arrived. He hadn’t gambled and gotten lucky. He’d succeeded because he was smart enough and shrewd enough and focused enough to turn ambition into reality.
Everything he had ever wanted, everything he deserved, everything that mattered would soon be his.
Napa Valley, California. Thirty-eight years later.
I n naive, lust-crazed, love-addled ignorance, Jillian Ashton wagered everything that mattered when she eloped to Vegas with Jason Bennedict. And when the marriage ended in a fiery late-night car wreck, she lost it all.
Her lying, cheating husband, her home, her savings, her job, and the last tattered shreds of her self-respect.
Poof, all gone.
Two years later Jillian had a home and a job in her family’s Napa Valley winery. As for that lost esteem…well, today she stood a chance of regaining a sizeable chunk. More literally she stood—in two-inch businesswoman heels—in the Louret Winery meeting room gaping at her brother. As Louret’s business manager, Cole controlled the purse strings. He did not, by virtue of his job and his personality, ever make things easy.
“Don’t get ahead of yourself, Jellie. I’m saying your idea has merit. Get some quotes.”
“But you haven’t seen the rest of my—”
“Pretty pictures?” Cole rocked back in his chair, looking more amused than impressed by the presentation she’d slaved over. “Save the rest for next Monday’s meeting. I’ve a ten o’clock appointment to get to.”
Jillian sucked in a breath and released it slowly. Sure, his casual use of her childhood nickname and the pretty-pictures dig rankled, but she should be used to her brother’s—to both her brothers’—patronizing indulgence.
As the youngest of four siblings, she’d endured such head-patting all her life.
In retrospect the flip-chart presentation had probably been a tad over the top for a family business meeting—especially since Cole and his dog were the only family members to show for said meeting—but she’d wanted to knock his socks off. For months she’d worked on her proposal to expand and remodel the winery’s tasting room.
This was important.
She needed the challenge, creatively and professionally and personally. She needed to prove herself to her family and, most importantly, to herself.
“What’s your time line on this project, Jellie?”
Jillian—aka Jillie, aka Jellie, aka Jellie-Belly—felt her shoulders tighten reflexively. Oh, yes, she definitely needed to prove herself more than the little sister. She might have failed at her marriage but she was a graduate in viticulture and enology. For the past eighteen months she’d successfully managed Louret’s tasting room.
And she was past thirty, for heaven’s sake!
Biting back her annoyance, she carefully packed away the last of her presentation materials before responding to Cole’s question. “Ten to fourteen days, depending on the selected contractor’s schedule.”
“You have a list of contractors?”
Jillian smiled sweetly and tapped her portfolio. “It was on my next pretty page. The one preceding my proposed time line. How many quotes would you like me to get?”
“Your call, as long as Seth Bennedict is one of them.” He paused to study her closely. “Will that be a problem?”
Yes. She swallowed a lump of imminent panic and met his eyes. “No.”
Cole nodded. “Good. If Seth’s your man, I know it’ll be done right.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
With the portfolio tucked under her arm, she calmly left the meeting room and closed the door at her back. For a brief moment, she indulged the tremor in her limbs by leaning against its solid timber strength.
But only for a brief moment. Irritation skated the edges of her nerves as she stalked to her own office, the smallest of half a dozen built atop the tasting room in Louret’s winery building.
If Seth’s your man, I know it’ll be done right.
So much for her brother’s confidence in her ability to manage this task. As it happened, she’d done her research. She’d talked to a stack of locals about their dealings with Napa building contractors. And, so okay, her brother was right about whose name kept popping up, but…
“Seth Bennedict is not my man,” she muttered as she sank into her chair, inordinately bothered by that wording. Oh, Seth Bennedict was a man all right. A big, dark, brooding mass of male with a disturbingly intent gaze and an equally disconcerting habit of taking charge.
He was also her brother-in-law and the only living soul who knew the most humiliating details of her disastrous marriage.
Even when she’d not wanted Seth’s help—especially when she’d not wanted it—he’d bulldozed over her objections. Sure, he’d untangled the financial mess that was Jason’s legacy, which meant he also knew how gullible and witless she had been in allowing their joint affairs to become so knotted.
Jillian’s fingers curled into the cushioned arms of her chair. Success with the tasting-room redesign was her chance to drag herself beyond the crippling grip of her past. If that meant working with Seth Bennedict and his indissoluble links to those dark years, then so be it.
It wouldn’t be any fun, but she would deal with it.
And she would start dealing today. Right now. Before she chickened out.
She grabbed her purse and car keys from her desk drawer, then shook her head ruefully. The way her life had panned out, she wouldn’t recognize fun anyway, even if it came tap-dancing across her desk wearing a Team Fun sweatshirt.
Seth Bennedict recognized fun. A bosom buddy of hard physical labor and on-the-job satisfaction, it screamed through his muscles with each swing of the ten-pound hammer then settled damp with sweat on his skin.
Man, he didn’t get to do this often enough.
The downside of success as a building contractor was too much business and planning and consulting, not nearly enough hands-on. He couldn’t think of a more gratifying way to spend his thirty-eighth birthday than pounding down walls.
Well, okay, so he could think of one.
He’d woken that morning thinking about it, with the remnant shreds of a broken dream hard in his body and hot in his mind.
But then his phone had rung—Lou, foreman on this job, calling in sick—and before he could replace the receiver his daughter had propelled herself onto his bed, bouncing and gabbing with it’s-your-birthday-Daddy excitement.
His phone rang again. Then his housekeeper Rosa appeared, looking for Rachel and breakfast orders. And that was reality.
A thriving business, a phone that never quit, and a three-year-old daughter who owned him heart and soul. No time to indulge his body in anything more than a stray early-morning fantasy—forget the real deal!—which left the only other physical release he was getting any time soon.
Seth squinted through the dust of demolition, fixed his gaze on the target wall and lifted his hammer.
He turned to find one of his younger laborers standing in what remained of the doorway.
“You have a…uh…visitor.” Tony thumbed over his shoulder and shuffled his feet in a way that invoked ghosts of birthdays past.
Seth released his breath on a sigh. He was too old for this—for whatever this turned out to be. Reluctantly, he downed tools, removed his dust mask and goggles, and schooled his expression to take in good humor whatever strip-o-gram surprise came sashaying through the door.
Please, just let her keep her hands off of me.
But when he looked up, genuine surprise wiped all expression from his face and a good amount of cognitive function from his brain. Possibly because every early-morning fantasy of the last year exploded through his blood.
He did notice that Jillian Ashton-Bennedict was overdressed…for both his fantasies and for the reality of a building site. She wore a dress the color of sandstone, a slender column of material that ended just shy of her knees. She wasn’t sashaying. Instead she picked her graceful way through the rubble, all long legs and high heels and cool female elegance.
No one did cool elegance like Jillian Ashton-Bennedict.
And nothing turned Seth on quicker or hotter than her particular brand of femininity.
With one hand she smoothed her hair—shorter than last time he’d seen her, curling around the elegant length of her throat in soft ash-brown layers—and he caught the glint of gold on her ring finger. Then she looked up and her eyes met his across the pile of century-old bricks and timber that separated them.
Debris of the past. How appropriate.
It never changed, this first stilted moment born of their shared history. The hurt to her pride because he’d witnessed her lowest point. His forced restraint, hiding the fact that she turned him on just by walking into a room.
And underlying both, the knowledge of what bound them together—the accident that had killed both their spouses.
“Stay there,” he said,
“I told him I wouldn’t be long.”
“Which doesn’t change a blessed thing. He knows the rules.”
“Don’t blame Tony,” she said quickly. “I sort of lied.”
Seth peeled off his gloves as he started toward her. After five years with Jason, he knew how highly she valued honesty. Knew her bending of the truth would barely register on any fib-o-meter. He stopped in front of her. Waited for her explanation.
“I said you were expecting me.”
Which, while no whopper, did qualify as extremely untrue. He hadn’t seen her since a few days before Christmas, and on that occasion only by chance. She’d brought a present for Rachel and hadn’t expected to find him home.
Seth stopped in front of her. “I haven’t seen you in over three months. I was starting to think you were avoiding me.”
“No.” She shook her head in denial, but her eyes didn’t quite meet his.
“I’m surprised Tony believed you. Since you’re such a lousy liar.”
The whisper of a sigh escaped her lips. “You’re right, I am, and I suspect Tony thought the same. He said he was only letting me in here because it’s your birthday.”
“Did he think you might have brought me some sort of birthday surprise?”
She met his gaze then, a momentary connection before she blinked and looked away. Seth didn’t blame her, since he imagined his eyes burned with all kinds of erotic birthday surprises.
Most of them included her. Naked and gift-wrapped.