A Billionaire's Kiss by Natasha LeCroix by Natasha LeCroix - Read Online

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A Billionaire's Kiss - Natasha LeCroix

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Epilogue

Chapter One

I was on the worst date imaginable, and it wasn’t even mine.

Excusing myself for a third bathroom break in less than two hours, I left the wine library and wended my way out of the caves. They were laid out in a baffling maze within the hillside, each cool, identical tunnel lined with oak barrels under a claustrophobically low ceiling. Thankfully, some employee had hung paper arrows to guide wanderers back to the tank room. Otherwise, I’d be lost in no time.

The dozens of guests at the wine dinner were going to think I either had a bladder infection or was snorting coke in the toilets. I was so desperate to get away from Gage for a few minutes that I didn’t care what they thought about me. If it wouldn’t mean ditching Valentina, I’d skip the dessert course to sneak out to the parking lot and leave Pierce Winery in a cloud of dust.

The last arrow ferried me from the caves, and I walked beneath the towering metal tanks. The restrooms were through the doors to the tasting room. Letting myself in to the ladies’, I checked to see that the stalls were empty. Then I plopped down on the loveseat to kill time. The floor had been done in an elaborate, swirling mosaic of dark gray and pale blue chips, with a yellow sunburst in a corner. Sighing, I traced a ray of blue with the tip of my sandal.

What was I doing here? I was less than two months out of college and until a few hours ago, I hadn’t known much more about wine than it came in red and white. Most of the other guests were middle-aged doctors and lawyers, engineers and business tycoons; I was twenty-two and had a soul-sucking job pouring coffee at Hot Spot Diner in downtown Napa. They were trading stories about exotic vacations in Montenegro, Malta, and Nepal; the most exotic place I’d ever visited was Ashland, Oregon when my high school had a field trip there to attend the Shakespeare Festival. My clunky, dirty rattletrap was currently parked between sleek luxury cars.

My cell phone buzzed in my purse several minutes later. I pulled it out and read the message from Valentina. If you want to go, I totally understand. No hard feelings.

Oh God, did I want to go home to our shared apartment. But we had been friends since the first day of kindergarten, and it wasn’t right to leave her. No, I’ll stay. It’s almost over. What is he doing now?

I sat in the silent restroom and waited for her to reply. Valentina had met Gage on an online dating site just a week ago. He’d worked in various cellars around the valley and the tickets to the dinner came from him. At first it was nice to be included: he’d won the three tickets in a raffle and asked Valentina if she had a friend she wanted to invite. I hadn’t had any plans for the evening, so I accepted. Gage seemed like a good guy.

But I’d been underwhelmed with him from the moment we met up in the gorgeous organic garden outside the winery. All of the guests had been mingling out there while waiting to go in. The men were in suits, the women in pantsuits or dresses, and then there was Gage, in jeans with a baseball cap crushed onto his head. His beady, bloodshot eyes had oozed down to my chest while we shook hands, and he introduced himself with more than a hint of alcohol on his breath. So far he had been a pill all through dinner, drinking too much and too fast, scarfing down his food like a pig at a trough, laughing at full volume and interrupting conversations right and left to ramble about himself.

My phone rang. It was Valentina, who said in a hushed but hurried voice, He’s drunk as a skunk and arguing about politics now. Mostly with himself since everyone else is ignoring him. I told him I had to stretch my legs and walked out. Now I’m hiding in another passage of the caves. This was the only place I could find any reception.

Come on, Vallie, let’s blow this place, I said. Let that jackass find his own way home.

"I can’t. The servers are bringing in dessert on carts and there’s no room to push past them. Sara, I’m so sorry about this. I’ve never been more embarrassed in my entire life."

It’s not your fault, I said.

He wasn’t at all like this when we went out to lunch together.

I was sure he hadn’t acted like such a boor on their first date, but I’d also seen how Valentina tended to overlook red flags until they were practically hitting her in the nose. But, to her credit, she did see them then.

Yeah, he was a little forward at lunch, Valentina allowed. But that was it. He wasn’t drinking. He wasn’t copping peeks down my dress or sliding his hand up my thigh. He was charming. But tonight it’s like an alien has taken over his body.

Or this is just what he’s like when he’s hammered, I said. It stripped away his veneer of civility.

I shouldn’t even have let him into my car when I stopped at his place to pick him up! He couldn’t walk in a straight line to the driveway and I don’t know what’s up with the baseball cap other than maybe he just didn’t feel like washing his hair. And his shoes! Did you see his shoes?

I didn’t notice them.

They’ve got an inch of dust on them that apparently he couldn’t be bothered to wipe off. And then when he got into my car, the first thing he said was that I’m wearing a trophy wife dress. I don’t even know what that means. Like it’s slutty? Do you think this is a slutty dress?

It’s not a slutty dress, I said soothingly. It was a deep purple color and flattering against her tanned skin and dark hair. It dipped low in front but not scandalously so, the skirt fell to mid-thigh, and she had the body to rock it.

I can’t believe I missed my brother’s birthday party for this! She paused as someone spoke on her end. There’s another speaker about to start, so I’ll go back in. Gage tones it down for them.

I’ll be there soon. Well, if I can wedge myself around the carts.

Pole vault over them if you have to and save my ass from being alone with him at dessert. In despair, Valentina added, I’m taking the rest of the year off from dating. I need a break. I’m done. And if he squeezes my thigh under the table or asks if Italian women are hot in bed one more time, I’m going to throw my glass of water in his face. You want to see a hot Italian, little man? I’ll show you one. And I promise you’re not going to like it.

We hung up and I put my phone away. Prying myself off the comfortable loveseat, I went to the mirror to check on my hair. It was doing its own thing, as always, semi-tamed with a multitude of wooden butterfly clips in colors that went well with my brunette tresses. My father’s hair was curly and my mother’s was straight. My hair split the difference between them, straight at the roots and curling from halfway down to the ends. I spent my life fighting the impulse to comb it, but using a comb was basically the equivalent of lighting black candles on an inverted pentagram to summon The Frizz Demon. My hair looked better when I just left it alone.

Freshening my lipstick, I straightened my simple sundress and gave myself one last once-over in the mirror. I wished I had a body more like Valentina’s; I looked so unfinished next to her. She had the extra cup sizes that made men’s eyes pop, a narrow waist and flared hips; I was the girl next door, sweet but forgettable. My mouth was a little too wide, my hair a little too crazy, and my hazel eyes a curious mixture that slipped between green and brown with the light. And I burned something fierce in the sunlight, my skin turning various shades of lobster red while Valentina only tanned to a darker and more beautiful burnish.

But there was nothing I could do about that. I adjusted the chain of my carnelian necklace, the latched part always sneakily slipping over my shoulder until it butted up against the stone. Then, bracing myself, I started back through the tasting room to the tanks.

I hadn’t dated at all in high school, too determined to get the grades that would carry me out of tiny Towicket and into the greater world of college. I didn’t spend even one evening at a dance or on a date. Pretty much everyone under the age of eighteen wanted to get out of that nowhere town, which was so small and inconsequential in central California that nobody had ever heard of it. I hadn’t dated much at North Bay State either, too frantic to finish in four years and save myself from taking out more loans.

Now I had a little time for guys, but the few first dates I’d gone on since graduating hadn’t led to second dates. There was no chemistry whatsoever between us. Mute Stan who communicated only in grunts and one- to two-word sentences over coffee, Soccer Sam who talked plenty but only about things that interested him, Teakettle Bradley who had the oddest and most unpleasant whistle to his nasal voice . . .

Was I being too critical? I didn’t know. They just hadn’t made my blood race. But none of them had made me want to sink into the earth from humiliation either.

I let the arrows guide me towards the library. Though the caves were rather plain, nothing else in this place was. The castle-like Pierce Winery loomed atop a hill, an opulent and intimidating masterpiece of tall columns, Italian marble, and gold leaf. Every inch of it had been designed with care, and more money than I would see in my lifetime. Or the next ten lifetimes all added together.

It was beautiful, and the meal had been exquisite. John and Greta Pierce owned several wineries, from their high-end namesake here to the colossal Bretton Ridge that supplied two-buck chuck to stores across the nation. Though both had planned to attend this dinner, their flight from overseas had been cancelled due to weather. The winemaker Amos Dovray had spoken in their stead, as had Lena Sutton the vineyard manager. I didn’t know who was left to talk, but I hoped he or she didn’t take long.

Squashing between the barrels and carts, I returned to the library. Valentina gave me a miserable nod of thanks from Gage’s side as I entered. Every head in the room was turned to a guy standing up at the far end of the long table.

My heart skipped a beat.

Whoever he was, he was a highly attractive man. In his mid to late twenties, his deep blue eyes were intense beneath his thick brown hair. Well muscled and dressed in a fine gray suit, he swiveled to include everyone in his speech just as I pulled back my chair. It scraped noisily on the floor. Blood rushed to my cheeks as all of those heads turned to me.

Sorry, I whispered, sitting down quickly. I lowered my gaze and hoped they would stop looking.

As I was saying, this is another way to keep birds from eating the grapes, the speaker continued. More blood came to my cheeks at how I’d interrupted him. The closer we get to harvest, the higher the sugar content rises in the grapes, and the more attractive they become to starlings and house finches.

I glanced up. Everyone had thankfully forgotten about me. Who is he? I mouthed to Valentina, but I couldn’t understand the word she mouthed back.

"People have tried all sorts of ways to keep birds out of the vineyards. Pyro, once upon a time, but there’s too much risk of starting a real fire with those. Shooting at them with shotguns. Poisons, but that can affect much more of the food chain than the birds you’re going for. Today many people cover the individual rows in netting, but that’s a costly preventative and you end up catching non-target species. Also, they use Zon cannons to scare them off with timed blasts. The neighbors love that." He paused as the guests tittered with laughter, the women especially enraptured with him.

His eyes alighted on me, and my breath caught in my throat.

There was something electric about him. Commanding. Assured. This was a man wholly at ease with himself, and at being the focus of attention in this room though he was much younger than the majority of the guests. He knew where he stood in this world.

A sharp tingle went through me. Then his gaze moved elsewhere.

He was just a man. An incredibly handsome man. As I remembered at last to breathe, I castigated myself for reacting like a silly teenage girl.

When the laughter died away, he went on. The problem with a Zon cannon is that the birds don’t understand what the noise is. It chases them off in the short term, yet then they come right back. Especially starlings. They’re smart. Too smart for their own good. But when they see one of my falcons . . .

Now I understood what word Valentina had been trying to tell me. He was the winery’s falconer. Bringing up an enlarged picture of a falcon flying after a smaller bird over a vineyard, the man shifted it so everyone got a look. "They understand what that means. A bigger predator has claimed the area, and they’ve got to move on or get eaten. So early in the morning is when I start, loading up a raptor in my truck, driving to one of the Pierce vineyards, and letting the bird out to do its patrol. They’ve got very keen eyesight and can spot a starling up to half a mile away."

While he answered questions from the fascinated guests, servers came in to deliver a peach tart and pour a dessert wine. I took a bite and almost moaned from pleasure at the flavors bursting in my mouth. This was a far cry from my sofa and usual pint of cheap chocolate ice cream.

Giving a sly glance across the table, I saw that the falconer had taken a seat to converse with the people over there. Then I made the mistake of letting my eyes skim over Gage as I returned to my dessert. Having engulfed his tart, he looked at me in bleary discontent and said loudly, I’ve had better at Mickey D’s.

The servers and the winemaker looked over to us in surprise. Everyone else in the room was savoring the truly exquisite dessert. Utterly mortified, Valentina hissed, "Gage, please! just as I snapped in a low voice, Stop being so rude!"

He reeled back in his seat at our tones, his thin lips growing even thinner and his too-small eyes flaring with anger. In his profile picture, he had been a decent looking guy. But all I could see him for in person were his flaws.

Then he came forward and pointed at me aggressively over the table. I’m not rude, I’m honest. That’s just who I am. I tell the truth! Deal with it. And the truth is, I’ve had better for three ninety-nine, piping hot and pushed out of a drive-thru window. Then he settled back in satisfaction that he had put me in my place. Taking off his cap, he ran a hand through his greasy hair and put it back on.

Every other conversation in the wine library had died down as he roared at me. Valentina and I exchanged a short but meaningful glance.

After sixteen years of knowing each other, we didn’t need to say a word. This had gone too far already. Pushing back our chairs at the same instant, I nodded to the others at the table. Please excuse us. This has been a truly lovely evening, but we have to leave. I died a little inside at how many of the guests looked visibly relieved to see us going. It was going to be a long time before I worked up the courage to visit this winery again. If I ever did.

It didn’t seem like Gage was going to get up, but once Valentina and I started for the door, he wobbled to his feet and lumbered after us. Most of the dessert carts had been removed, so it was easier to walk through the passage.

I want to die, Valentina whispered to me. Or kill him.

He’s not worth it, I replied, impressed with how well she was keeping her temper in this aggravating situation. I knew why she