In Vino Veritas
Sydney Blackburn © 2018
All Rights Reserved
One: Beretta Estate Winery
Anthony Beretta hovered in his office, listening to his cousin Katie extol the virtues of their Concord wine.
“It’s a heritage grape,” she was saying, “the kind they make grape juice from.”
Because wine that tasted like commercial grape juice was so popular. Still, there were customers to extol its dubious virtues to, and that was something. Didn’t mean he wanted to meet them, not over the Concord.
“It makes a great spritzer and is the perfect base for a sangria,” she continued. “Not too sweet, but with a full fruity flavour.”
He had to hand it to her. She knew how to sell it. Then again, Katie loved the winery almost as much as he did.
He moved away from his office door and sat behind his desk, looking once more at the open agenda. The winery hosted events, mostly weddings, and provincial regulations had recently changed. He had an appointment with his insurance broker in Bayham in little more than an hour. Which was why he was wearing his suit, instead of the jeans, T-shirt, and heavy cotton button-down he normally wore when he worked at the tasting room. He tugged at the lavender tie that felt like it was strangling him.
After checking the time on his phone once more, Anthony cleared his desk and locked the files away. No one else needed to know how shaky the winery’s finances were. He got to his feet and patted his jacket pocket for his car keys.
There was a mirror beside the door, so one could double-check one’s appearance before going to talk to customers. Anthony gave himself a critical look, pushing his glasses up his nose automatically. The mirror showed him what he was—a rail-thin man just shy of six feet tall, with hair that would never look anything other than dishevelled and dark-framed glasses. At least the glasses went some way towards disguising the shadows under his eyes. He looked like an upended mop, albeit a well-dressed mop.
He scowled. He’d much rather be in his jeans and work boots, out with his stubborn Foch vines. Three years ago, he’d put those bastards in, after his father had the gall to die of a heart attack.
His mouth tightened. He couldn’t think of his father without a sour mix of anger, grief, and guilt.
A discordant jangling let him know the customers had left, and he pushed his door open wider just as Katie rounded the corner. “Ant,” she said, “so glad I caught you. Could you pick up some of that jalapeño sauce from the Mexican store? It really shows off the Viognier. It’s a hard sell on its own.”
He refrained from scowling. Ant was a childhood nickname he’d long outgrown. His name was Anthony. She was right about the Viognier, though.
“Jalapeño sauce. Yes.”
“I don’t suppose you’ve thought about giving me Friday off,” she said, her tone rising at the end of the sentence, but not quite enough to make it a question.
He stifled a sigh. “And you’re not asking Leigh to switch with you because…?”
“Because it’s her wedding shower. Jesus, Ant, pull your head out of your ass once in a while.”
He ground his teeth as he bit back a sharp reply. “Fine. You have Friday off.” It wasn’t like he had anything better to do on a Friday. The tasting room closed at seven. He could catch up on the paperwork while he ate, and on Saturday, he could spend the day in the vineyard, trying to discover why the Foch vines were underproducing.
“You’re a prince,” Katie replied, but her snark had hardly any bite.
Happy employees were long-term employees, his father had always said. Katie really did care about the winery. She just had a social life. He shouldn’t be so hard on her.
And what about my happiness?
As the owner of the winery, there was no one around to see to his happiness. He didn’t even know what would make him happy anymore.
“Sorry, Katie.” He forced a smile. “Do you mind picking out a gift the estate can give her?”
“Yeah, give me a hundred dollars. It can be from the winery, you, Aunt Rosie, and me.”
“Take it from petty cash.”
“There’s no petty cash left, remember?”
He turned to hide his wince. “I’ll take some money from the account while I’m out.”
She hesitated. “The Wine and Song event will go on this year, right?”
“That’s why I’m going to town.”
“I know. It’s just… Is there anything I can do?”
His answering smile was forced. “Be careful what you volunteer for, cuz. Keep your fingers crossed the insurance hasn’t gone up too much.”
The meeting with the insurance company went as well as could be expected. It wasn’t something he could negotiate, and he knew another company wouldn’t be any better—Beretta Estate Winery had been with Rowlands Insurance for decades. As he drove back to the farm, he tried to feel relieved that the weekend concert event, Wine and Song, would go on again this year. Instead, worry gnawed at him that it might be the last year for the annual tradition. The event was only fifty percent sold, which would cover the insurance or the band, but not both. Wine and Song had never been a great revenue earner, but it had always paid for itself and resulted in greater visibility for the winery. Once he got final confirmation from the headline act, selling out shouldn’t be a problem.
It was too soon to worry about next year. He should just be relieved it was going ahead this year. Now he could concentrate on the upcoming charity book drive for World Literacy, which at least was something he wanted to worry about.
A deep, throaty engine roared over the sound of the radio, and he checked his rearview just in time to see a motorcycle pull out to overtake him. Anthony flipped his middle finger as the guy on the motorcycle whipped past on a solid double line. There was a stop sign less than thirty meters ahead—guy was racing to be first to the stop sign.
“Asshole,” he said under his breath.
The rider paid no attention, but as the bike leaned to move ahead of him, it suddenly leaned too far. Sparks and the screech of metal on asphalt accompanied the skidding tires.
Horrified, Anthony slammed on his brakes, burning rubber as the truck tried to go from eighty clicks to zero in the shortest distance possible. “Holy shit,” he muttered, heart in his throat.
The rider was already getting to his feet, and at least this one was smart enough to be wearing riding chaps and a leather jacket, in spite of the heat. Road rash would be hellish. Not that he knew, but his boyfriend—ex-boyfriend—Rene had told him.
You haven’t seen or heard from him in three years. How hard can it be to remember he’s not your boyfriend anymore?
Anthony got out of his truck, ignoring the wobble in his legs. “Are you okay?”
The rider tossed his helmet aside and fell back to his knees as he vomited. Rising slowly to his feet, he asked hoarsely, “Did I hit it?”
One leg of the man’s chaps had been shredded to almost nothing from being dragged across the rough asphalt, and the leather jacket was missing an elbow. Anthony didn’t see any blood, though.
His focus snapped up to the other man’s face. “You nearly killed us both to save a rabbit?”
“Fuck, it’s so hot. Why am I shivering?” He rubbed his arms with trembling hands.
“Probably shock,” Anthony said, vaguely familiar with the symptoms. He studied the man, who was about his height, but far broader through the shoulders. Then again, just about everyone was. Even Katie had broader shoulders… “Want me to call 911?”
“No, no, I’m fine.”
Anthony gave him a sceptical look. “You should come with me.”
The rider looked at him in confusion. “What? Why?”
“My place is just around the corner. I’ve got a first aid kit, give you a chance to—” Anthony paused, choosing his words carefully. “—get your bearings.”
“Don’t usually go home with strangers,” he said, slurring his words just slightly. “But I think maybe a drink of water would be…good. ’Sides, you’re not scary. Not as scary as me.” He gave Anthony a crooked smile.
With dark-blond or maybe light-brown hair plastered to his head with sweat and a somewhat unfocused look in his green eyes, he didn’t appear all that scary to Anthony. Just stupid. But his tact’o’meter wasn’t completely broken from the meeting, so he held his tongue.
Anthony walked over to the motorcycle. It would need a new mirror, and the chrome was scratched to shit. He had no idea what else might be wrong with it. He leaned over, intent on hefting it upright.
“Hey! Don’t touch!”
Anthony glanced back and then straightened. “Fine. Whatever.”
The rider staggered over, favouring one leg, and struggled to right the bike.
“Sure you don’t want a hand?”
As the bike slipped from his grasp, the rider said, “Maybe. But be careful.”
“Yeah, wouldn’t want to scratch it.” He refrained from rolling his eyes as he hefted it up on its wheels with a grunt; it was heavier than he expected.
The rider took the handle grips from him. “Thanks, buddy.”
“Is that your name or where you’re from?” Anthony hid a wince at his words. Maybe his tact’o’meter was a little broken.
“Fuck, man. I can’t tell if you’re being funny or rude.”
Anthony sighed and decided to leave it ambiguous. The guy straddled his bike to try to start it. And attempted it again when the engine refused to catch. Anthony walked back to his truck and started it up.
The rumble of the diesel had the rider turning to look at him so sharply he lost the bike’s balance and it tipped over again, nearly taking its owner with it.
Anthony shook his head as he put the truck in gear and pulled ahead of the bike before backing slowly then slowly backed towards it. He threw on the four-ways and left the engine idling as he walked back to the bed and opened the tailgate on the side hinge. He dropped the ramp he used when he needed to move one of the ATVs at the vineyard.
“Thought you were ditching me.”
Anthony snorted, not sure how insulted he should be. “Come on, let’s get that bike on.”
Together, they righted the bike and walked it up the ramp, the rider still favouring his scraped leg and now cradling his arm on the same side.
“Sorry I don’t have my tie-downs, but it should be okay until we get to my place.”
“I have a phone,” the rider said, as if the realization had just struck. He fumbled with his back pocket and withdrew a cracked and bent smartphone. “Shit.”
“Don’t worry about it. For now, let’s get your scrapes looked at.”
He didn’t look it. But Anthony let the guy fuss over the motorcycle while he collected the black helmet. The back featured a small decal that matched the patch on the rider’s jacket—BAR with stylized handlebars. He had no idea what BAR stood for. Bad Ass something or other, he guessed.
Why would a motorcycle rider risk body and bike to save a bunny? He looked up at the man in the bed of his truck. “You getting in the cab?”
Anthony shrugged again. Stubborn ass wanted to ride in the bed of the truck, he could. Which meant Anthony took special care the rest of the way home, so the untethered bike didn’t slide into the much softer human.
He made a show of stopping at the stop sign before turning left. The farm was the next drive on the right, barely enough time to shift into fourth before he had to gear down. The wide gravel lane passed under the fancy cast-iron arch announcing Beretta Estate Winery. A narrow gated lane marked private veered off to the right. He pressed the remote on his sun visor and drummed his fingers impatiently on the steering wheel. Once the gate opened, he drove down and around to the back of the house, where the mudroom was, and got out of the truck.
“Nice place,” the rider said, sounding less disoriented.
Anthony glanced over his shoulder. The house was a two-and-half-story red Victorian, complete with turret and wraparound porch. The Berettas had acquired it in the ’20s. The multigenerational home had gradually become single family. Walls were torn out to make small rooms bigger, and now there was only Anthony and his mother left. Anthony would probably leave the estate to his cousin Katie’s family.
“I’m fine. Feeling better already. I just need to borrow your phone.”
Anthony tightened his mouth. “You should have some water.” He was going to mention the first aid kit again, but reconsidered. “You can borrow my phone inside.”
The rider struggled to his feet and limped to the end of the truck, where he hesitated. Anthony hid a smirk as he opened the tailgate and dropped the ramp. The guy warily took a step before he lost his balance and slid down the ramp on his ass. That had to hurt, but only a pained grunt was expelled as the scuffed motorcycle boots hit the gravel.
“Oh for fuck’s sake,” Anthony grumbled, grabbing the guy around the waist and helping him into the house.
“You’re a liar. Good to know.” He was warm and smelled like sweat and dust, not an altogether unpleasant combination. Anthony let go of him in the mudroom. “Take off the jacket.”
He was surprised when the man did, and surprised again to see a T-shirt with the arms cut off, revealing full tattoo sleeves. And one scraped elbow. “Let me see.”
“If you say you’re fine one more time, I’ll hit you myself.”
“Don’t wanna mess up your fancy clothes.”
Anthony looked down at himself. He’d almost forgotten he was wearing a dress shirt and tie, though his jacket was left in the truck. “Thoughtful of you.”
He pulled out the first aid kit and a washcloth and tended to the scrape, running his fingers gently over the skin to make sure nothing was embedded beneath it before taping layers of gauze to it.
He then ran his hands over the rest of the arm, saying, “Does this hurt? What about this? I saw you cradling your arm.”
“It’s just the road rash. You a doctor?”
“Dating a doctor?”
“What?” He stared at—Oz, hadn’t he said?
“You’re sliding your hands over me,” he said with a wink, “like a doctor.”
Anthony shook his head. “A farm in the middle of nowhere, first aid is a necessary skill.”
“How’s your leg? You’re limping.”
“We don’t know each other well enough for me to take my jeans off.”
Anthony arched his brow. “Excuse me?” But instead of waiting for an answer, he shook his head and tossed the guy his phone. “I’ll be right back,” he mumbled and pushed open the door to the kitchen. He went through and up the stairs to change. He felt constricted in these clothes. His bed looked inviting as he unbuttoned his shirt and threw it in the hamper. He pulled off the dress pants and sat down to change his socks into something that would stand up to tromping through the fields. He lay back on the bed. Adrenaline crash, that’s why I want to lie down. A minute rest, I’ll be fine.
It was dark when he woke up. The bedside clock said it was ten. He flicked the lamp switch and stared groggily at the black socks on his feet. Why would he go to bed with his socks on? His suit pants hadn’t been hung up, and he imagined his jacket in the truck didn’t look all that much better. He reached for his phone, and it wasn’t there.
Memory came back in a rush. Shit, he’d fallen asleep with a stranger in his house, a tattooed biker. A rather sexy, flirty, tattooed biker, but… Oh shut up. The guy was probably concussed.
He walked through the house, still in his socks and underwear. Small nightlights lit the hallway, a concession to his mother’s terrible night vision. The mudroom was empty. The first aid kit had been packed up, and his phone sat on the counter. Five missed calls.
Outside, in the dim yellow glow of the security lights, he could see the bike was gone from his truck. He sighed with relief. One less problem to deal with.