Read Sweeter Than Wine Online

Authors: Michaela August

Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #General

Sweeter Than Wine (5 page)

"It means 'grandmother' in German, dear," Tati explained. "I always loved it
when you and Ernst called me that," she said to Siegfried.

"German? I thought you said he was Alsatian," Alice asked, suspiciously.

"He is," Tati answered hastily, shooting Siegfried a quick glance. "But Alsace
was occupied by Germany for many years, and they prohibited the teaching of
French. Poor Siegfried doesn't even know his native tongue."

"So should I call you Grandmére from now on? Or would you prefer

Alice thought Siegfried's tone was a bit sharp.

Tati hastily changed the subject. "Bill and Alice, when they married, bought
new acreage and expanded the vineyard. It's up to one hundred sixty-five acres
now. Alice, tell Siegfried about the grapes you planted."

So it was to be school recitations, was it? "We put in Grenache and some
more Pinot Noir. Bill thought they would do well." Alice's throat constricted, so she
took a sip of tea. "We had our first crop last year."

"How you must regret that he never got a chance to see it," Siegfried said

"The harvest was good. We averaged two and three-quarter tons per acre."
Alice did
want to discuss Bill with him.

"That's an excellent yield for young vines," Siegfried said, respecting her
change of topic. He wiped jam from his fingers with one of the stiffly starched linen

"We got a good price for the crop." The sale of the Pinot Noir grapes to
Inglenook in Napa Valley had saved Alice from ruin after the Traminer vintage

She noticed that Siegfried had cleaned off his plate to the last crumb and
passed him her untouched plate of
petit fours
. He thanked her with a self-
conscious smile. Alice, trying to divert the conversation away from herself, asked,
"And how was your journey from Europe? Did you take the transcontinental
railroad, Mr. R-Rodernwiller?" She stumbled again over the pronunciation of his

"Please call me Siegfried. It will be much easier," Siegfried said to Alice, as he
refilled his own cup and Tati's. "Actually, I traveled by steamer through the
Panama Canal. It was a very interesting journey."

"I'm sure it must have been." Alice nodded politely as she took a tiny nibble
from her cucumber sandwich. She hoped he wouldn't go into raptures about the
technical achievements of the new canal. She'd seen the model at the Pan Pacific
Exhibition in '15. "Did you have a chance to disembark anywhere?"

"Panama City, where I made the mistake of bringing on board a large bunch of
bananas, about so wide." He spread his hands two feet apart, grinning at her, and
his resemblance to Bill made Alice's heart leap. "I had read about them in Mr.
Haggard's African adventure books, and I was very eager to try one. I was
attempting to twist a banana from the main stalk when a tarantula crawled from the
bunch and ran across my hand. I am not sure which of us was the more startled:
the eight-legged stowaway, or I. The Captain was convinced that I was being set
upon by ruffians--" Siegfried used his napkin to pantomime his attempts to stalk
the spider around the steamer cabin with a rolled newspaper held carefully at
arms' length.

Alice laughed. "Did you ever get to eat any of your bananas?"

Siegfried nodded in dreamy recollection. "They were very good. Almost like a
custard pudding in texture but much sweeter."

"He has a sweet tooth, like his grandfather. I planted the plum trees behind the
house at Montclair years ago, because my William was so fond of jam," Tati
remarked, her gaze lingering on Siegfried.

Siegfried nodded at his grandmother, as if giving some sort of signal, and

Tati raised her eyebrows, looking both surprised and pleased. She smiled
fondly at Alice, put aside her napkin, and began to rise. "Would you join me,

Siegfried hastily stood and pulled back his grandmother's chair, an
unaccountably furious blush rising up from the celluloid collar pinching his

Alice, mystified, let Siegfried pull her chair out, too, then followed Tati into the
brocaded grandeur of the ladies' room. Their footsteps echoed on the marble
floors, and their figures reflected in the large gilt-framed mirror hung over the

Tati leaned forward to check her flawless complexion. She had once been one
of the most beautiful women in San Francisco, and even now, in her seventies, her
blue eyes were as luminous as ever, although the hair under her dashing hat had
transmuted from gold to silver. She turned from the mirror to Alice. "My dear," she
said earnestly, "I have an immense favor to ask of you."

"You know I would do anything for you, Grandmother Tati."
What could she

Tati smiled sweetly. "I'm so glad to hear you say that. It's about Siegfried."

"He'll be perfectly fine as my vintner."

Tati rubbed at the age spots on the back of her hand with her thumb. "It's
slightly more complicated than that."

Alice felt a velvet trap close around her, but she forced herself to stillness.

Tati said coolly, "I want you to marry him."

Chapter Two

San Francisco, California

Wednesday, May 14, 1919

Alice almost laughed at the joke, nearly as good as one of Bill's best. But then
she looked at Tati and realized the old woman was serious. It was like receiving
the news of her father's death--or Bill's--that instant of disbelief, and then the urge
to scream.

Tati waited patiently for her reply.

Alice stole a moment to think, tucking wisps of hair back into her chignon. She
recalled Hugh's recent offer to buy her out. Was this another attempt to dispossess
. After all Tati's kindness to her, she had to dismiss the ugly notion.
She straightened one eyebrow with her little finger. But stalling wasn't doing any
good. She couldn't think of anything else to say except: "Why on earth should I
marry him?"

"I know it's an imposition." Tati smoothed her bare fingers as if they were too-
tight gloves. "His father lost everything: his estate, their fortune, everything! in the
War. Then he killed himself. Siegfried almost starved to death."

A surge of compassion left Alice uncertain. She'd read the newspaper stories
about war-ravaged Europe, and Siegfried was gaunt enough, but--"Grandmother
Tati, this is absurd! I'm perfectly willing to hire Siegfried, but I can't marry him. I just
met him!"

"You didn't know Bill much better when you married
. And you were
happy together. Weren't you?" Tati's blue eyes were wide, searching for signs of
weakness, bringing to the surface things they had never spoken of before.

"I loved Bill--"

"And now you own Montclair," Tati said grimly. "I have
asked you
for a thing, Alice. I am asking you for this." She must have seen Alice wavering,
because she continued pitilessly, "You know I never believed you were in any way
like your mother, but it would be a shame if people--I think you know the ones I
mean--found out about your unfortunate connections, and came to the--shall I
say?--wrong conclusions..."

In a flash, Alice's thoughts crystallized. If Tati made public what she knew,
there would be no more friendly tea parties with the ladies from church, and no
altar wine license for a woman of low character. Without the license...Alice
clutched the edge of the marble counter and her reflection in the mirror stared
back, a scattering of freckles harshly distinct against bloodless cheeks.
Out on
the street where she belongs...

"All right. I'll do it. I'll marry him." Even though she would regret this moment
for the rest of her life.

Tatiana Roye opened and closed her pocketbook with a snap. She gave a
pleased smile that made Alice feel slightly nauseous. "I knew I could count on you,
dear. Let's go back now, shall we?"

At their return, Siegfried leapt to his feet, almost knocking over the table. At his
grandmother's satisfied smile and nod, he took Alice's hand, bowed over it, and
said all in a rush, "I-hope-you-will-do-me-the-honor-of-becoming-my-wife."

All that was visible of him was cornsilk hair and ears red as ripe tomatoes. She
said breathlessly, swallowing indignation, "I accept your proposal."
Tati left me
no choice

Siegfried stayed where he was. "Thank you."

Alice stole her hand back from his grasp, then Siegfried straightened. He had
the look of a man reprieved from a death sentence.

"You've made me very happy, children," Tati said, peering at the watch pinned
to her jacket. "Oh, dear. We have to be there in twenty minutes."

Alice turned to her, newly alarmed. "
do we have to be?"

"City Hall," Tati said, a shade too brightly. "Judge Reynolds, bless him,
promised to wait until four o'clock for us."

Alice gasped. "You arranged all of this in
?" She glared at
Siegfried, but he was gaping at Tati, seemingly as astonished as she.

The corners of Tati's mouth quirked as she patted her watch back into place.
"Only if you said 'yes.'"

* * *

The ostrich feather trimming Tati's elegant hat bobbed as she ascended the
shallow granite steps toward the huge, neo-Classical City Hall.

This is utterly ridiculous. I've agreed to marry a man I met less than three
hours ago. What in God's green earth am I doing?
Alice wobbled dangerously
as she fought the impulse to dash down the stairs and hail a taxi back to the Ferry

"Are you all right...Alice?" Siegfried's hand gently cupped her elbow,
supporting her, cutting off her retreat.

"I'm--I'm fine," she murmured. She allowed Siegfried to tuck her arm in his,
and escort her up the steps and into the building, but her heart pounded, and her
stomach fluttered with hysterical laughter.
This can't be happening to

Judge Reynolds was a bald, rather rotund contemporary of Tati's, and, as his
greeting made obvious, an admirer of hers as well. He welcomed them into his
book-lined chambers. Quiet dignity was provided by a patterned Turkish carpet,
brass lamps, and massive mahogany furniture.

Alice scarcely blinked when Tati, with terrifying efficiency, produced a marriage
license from her handbag. The only detail lacking was a wedding ring, but Alice
still wore Bill's ring, and they all politely agreed that it would serve.

They recruited a second witness for the marriage when a clerk rapped on the
door to inquire if the judge needed anything. Then, all of the simple arrangements
completed, Alice and Siegfried stood side-by-side as the judge spoke: "William
Roye was a fine man, and I was privileged to call him my friend. Now, I'm equally
honored to be able to preside over the wedding of his grandson." He paused as
Tati smiled at Siegfried, her eyes shiny.

Alice turned her head to observe the man who had taken Bill's place,
measuring him against Bill's memory, as Judge Reynolds continued: "Siegfried
Heinrich Wilhelm Rodernwiller, do you take this woman to be your lawfully wedded
wife, to love and to honor, in sickness and in health, for better and for worse, until
death do you part?"

A fresh wave of scarlet tinted Siegfried's fair skin. "I--" He coughed, and
cleared his throat, as nervous as if this were a real wedding, and not a hastily-
arranged ceremony of convenience. "I do."

The judge addressed her, but she only heard: "Alice Mary O'Reilly Roye...until
death do you part?"

"I do." Alice lied, amazed at her own assumed tranquillity. She wondered what
Bill must feel, if he were indeed watching them from Heaven. He had known
everything there was to know about her, and still loved her. What was Siegfried

"By the authority vested in me by the City and County of San Francisco, I
declare you man and wife." Judge Reynolds beamed at them. "Congratulations!
Mr. Rodernwiller, you may kiss the new Mrs. Rodernwiller."

It was an ugly, unpronounceable,
Mrs. Siegfried Rodernwiller
. How awful that sounded!

Siegfried captured her hand in his cold fingers, and bent towards her. There
was an awkward pause as both of them hesitated, then Alice turned her face
slightly. His lips were gentle as they pressed against her cheek. "Thank you, dear
Alice," he whispered.

"You'd better be a
vintner!" she whispered back.

* * *

"No, Tati, I'm sorry, I should have left hours ago," Alice said, hands shaking so
badly her hatpin grazed scalp along with hair. She winced. The hat stayed

"You are not dining with us?" Siegfried's expression turned thunderous as he
shifted his attention to Tati as if to say,
Can't you change her mind?

"It's your wedding supper, dear," Tati coaxed, but Alice was in no mood to
listen to her. She wanted to go home so badly she almost missed Tati's next

"Siegfried won't be joining you until this weekend. I had hoped you would use
this time to get to know one another better."

"He's not coming with me?" Alice blinked in astonishment. All this trouble for

"He must sign some papers," Tati said, carefully avoiding Siegfried's gaze.
"But my friend in the Immigration Department said there shouldn't be any

"Well, perhaps that's for the best. I'm very tired and I need time to think. This
has been
a day." She darted a glance in Siegfried's direction. He
remained focused on Tati.

"I know you have a long journey back to Sonoma, dear. But I wish--" Tati
pressed her lips together. "I cannot tell you how grateful I am to you for helping

"That means a great deal to me."
A very great deal
. She'd traded her
freedom for Tati's goodwill and silence. Alice bent and kissed the proffered cheek.
"How long before he does arrive?"

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