Read Sweeter Than Wine Online

Authors: Michaela August

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

Sweeter Than Wine (7 page)

Chapter Three


Saturday, May 17

The door slammed into Alice, knocking her down to the sidewalk. Before she
could feel anything except disbelief, a man dressed in shabby field hand's clothes
sprawled next to her, a barstool flying loose from his hand to bounce into the
street. She locked startled gazes with him.

"Mrs. Roye?" he croaked.

Her disbelief vanished in horrified embarrassment. She knew this man! He had
been part of the crew who put in her new vines. Abruptly she realized that her
knees were exposed, and her bottom hurt. Abruptly, she shoved down her pleated
skirt. Her right arm awoke from numbness and began to throb with a dull pain.

Siegfried appeared in the doorway, a large reddened patch marring his cheek.
He gave her a quick assessing glance, then stared, astonished, as he recognized
her. "Ah-lees! Are you all right?"

"I'm fine," she said, hastily. How dare Siegfried make a spectacle of himself--
and me! As she tried to get back on her feet, Siegfried stepped toward her, hand
extended to help.

The workman next to her scuttled to his feet and interposed himself. "Don't
worry, Mrs. Roye," he declared, shoulders hunched menacingly. "I'll protect you
from that Hun."

"My wife needs no protection from you!" Siegfried growled.

"She ain't your wife," sneered the workman. "She's Corporal Bill Roye's
widow." He brought up his fisted hands, and held them waveringly at chest-level
like a woozy prizefighter.

"That's enough," said the man in the carpenter's apron as he stepped out of
the hotel, rolled-up sleeves revealing massive biceps. "You watch your manners
around the lady, George."

George took exception to the familiarity. "You stay out of this, Behrens." But
his fists lowered, and he took a step backwards.

Alice climbed shakily to her feet, disdaining Siegfried's outstretched hand. She
tried frantically to think of the proper response to being caught like this. Should she
flee, faint, or brazen it out? Damn Siegfried anyway for putting her in this
predicament! What sort of ruffian had Tati foisted on her?

"We dod't deed his kide aroud here." A second man, from his clothing
evidently George's companion, staggered out of the saloon. Fresh blood stained
the handkerchief he held against his nose. Alice groaned inwardly. More witnesses
to her humiliation!

"We don't need your kind around here!" Behrens interjected. "You'd better take
yourselves off before someone calls Sheriff Albertson!"

"But what about Mrs. Roye?" George protested, standing protectively near

"She is no longer Mrs. Roye. She is my wife now," Siegfried pronounced.

George and Joe looked to Alice for confirmation, disappointment and dismay
clear on their battered features, waiting for her to speak. "It's true--Mr. Roder--This
gentleman is my husband," Alice managed to choke out. "He's Montclair's new

There was a long pause punctuated by shuffling while George digested this

"And you will apologize to my wife for knocking her down," Siegfried

"Aw, hell," George mumbled, lowering his gaze. "Beggin' your pardon, ma'am.
We didn't realize that he was--that is--look, Joe, Mrs. Roye wouldn't marry a

"Appears we bade a bistake," Joe said, grudgingly. He examined his blotched
handkerchief, then looked sideways at Siegfried's implacable scowl.

"Sorry, ma'am." George chimed in, hastily, as Siegfried cleared his throat.
"C'mon, Joe." He pushed Joe back inside the bar, the lion-knocker door slamming
closed behind them.

"It is very kind of you to help a stranger," Siegfried said to Behrens, tugging his
jacket back into place. "I am Siegfried Rodernwiller."

The carpenter nodded politely. "Good afternoon, Mr. Rodernwiller." He
pronounced the name effortlessly, and offered a meaty hand to Siegfried. "I'm
Henry Behrens, from Glen Ellen."

"So pleased to meet you," Siegfried murmured, shaking Behren's hand
vigorously. "Thank you for your assistance."

Alice gave Behrens a stiff smile and a small nod, trying unobtrusively to pat the
dust from her long skirt, hoping it wasn't torn. She studied Siegfried. Had he been

Henry Behren's next comment allayed some of her fears. "Troublemakers," he
commented, hooking a thumb through his belt. "I thought I was going to have
make some extra repairs in there. It's a shame anti-German sentiments are still
running so high in the county. Those boys ought to know better."

Siegfried shrugged. "I hope that they have now learned."

Alice noticed, irritated, that he stood a little straighter, squaring his shoulders.
At least Siegfried hadn't started the fight--not if she could believe the implications
of Mr. Behrens' words.

"I'd better finish up inside. Good day, Mrs. Rodernwiller." Mr. Behrens nodded
at her. "And--welcome to Sonoma, Mr. Rodernwiller. Call on me if you need help
with anything."

Siegfried smiled and sketched a salute.

"I'm so sorry I was late," Alice said when Behrens had gone. She was
simultaneously guilt-stricken and resentful. "I needed to buy some things for
dinner. If I hadn't been late--"

"It is nothing." Siegfried smiled although his lips were bloody.

"Your mouth!" Alice found her handkerchief in her skirt pocket. What if they
encountered someone she knew? She raised herself on tip-toes, and dabbed at
the blood beading from Siegfried's swollen lower lip. Siegfried closed his eyes but
didn't flinch from her ministrations.

"That's a little better." Giving up the battle against the drying blood on his chin
as futile without water, she tucked her stained handkerchief away. "Do you need a

"I have lived through worse without one," Siegfried said, firmly. His bruised
cheek flushed purple.

"But--" Alice protested.

"The touch of a pretty woman is better than any doctor," Siegfried opened his
eyes wide and winked at her.

"My automobile is in front of the station," Alice informed him. Her cheeks were
hot. The nerve of him!

Siegfried picked up his valise, took her arm, and together they walked across
the street to her truck.

Alice hurried to keep up with him, comparing him to Bill. To begin with, Bill
would never have fought in a common bar brawl. A quick flash of Siegfried poised
for combat in the hotel bar translated itself into an image of Bill with bayonet
raised. Had Bill's mouth bled? She would never know more than what had been
written in the brief, dry words of the telegram. Regret to inform you...missing in
action...ultimate sacrifice...St. Mihiel Salient.

"Allow me." Siegfried was holding open the truck's door for her.

Alice blinked and the moment of intense sadness dissipated. She started to
pull on her coat, and Siegfried helped her with that too.

She bore his courtesies and seated herself cautiously behind the wheel,
reminded anew of the indignities she had suffered. He stowed his valise in the
truck bed next to the groceries and man-handled the crank until the Ford grumbled
to life.

When he settled himself on the passenger's side, she thanked him without
looking at him and stepped on the left floor pedal. After putting the car in first gear,
she moved the gas lever on the steering column, and drove cautiously away from
the train station, through the neighborhood of pretty houses on the outskirts of

Fifteen miles an hour seemed too fast as the Model-T jounced, each pothole
and rut in the eucalyptus-lined road reminding Alice of her abused nether region.
As they passed the turn-off to the neglected Buena Vista winery, the truck
emerged from shade into a vista of gold-green pastures. Siegfried was silent,
staring at the landscape. Alice saw the beauty, too: the pinkish-white creeper
blossoms climbing over the wire fences and a scattering of shocking-orange
poppies left over from springtime's great flowering.

When they arrived at the entrance to Montclair, Siegfried jumped out,
unlatched the gate, opened it so she could drive through, and closed it again
afterward. He stood for a moment, looking upwards, before returning to the

Alice followed his gaze, remembering her own first sight of Montclair, and what
it had meant to her. The narrow graveled road leading through the main vineyard
rose gently towards a cluster of buildings perched halfway up the gentle hillside.
The centerpiece was a tall, square house trimmed in gingerbread with a
wraparound porch. A line of dark-green fruit trees nearly hid the modest foreman's
cottage and other outbuildings further up the hill behind the house. The
whitewashed stone winery was set at the top of the drive, just at the point where
the line of northerly hills curved around to the west.

"We're home," she said when he returned to the truck, unable to keep the note
of pride from her voice.

"It looks just the same," Siegfried said wonderingly.

* * *

"What are you doing?" Siegfried asked. He held on to the edge of the door to
stay in his seat because Alice performed a three-point turn, put the Model-T into
gear, and lurched--backward--up the hill.

"The truck has a gravity fuel feed." Alice craned her head out the window to
see behind the vehicle.

"So?" The truck jounced and he held on tighter.

"The first time I drove it straight up the hill, it stalled well before I reached the
house. Peter had to help me turn it around."

"Peter Verdacchia?"

"Yes." She glanced at Siegfried for an instant before returning to her driving.
"He's never let me live it down."

Siegfried was relieved that she seemed willing to talk with him again. He had
been so angry with himself--and those rowdies--for offering her an injury. How
protective of her he felt, even on such short acquaintance. And now at the mention
of Peter's scolding her, he felt that way again. "He has not changed at all!"

"He's been an excellent foreman. I don't know what I would have done without
him these last few months," Alice said, twisting the steering wheel for the last turn.
"He mentioned that you had been friends."

He seized the opportunity to remind her that he was not a complete stranger to
Montclair. "When we were boys, he and Bill and Ernst and I played forts and
castles in the wine caves. We used to get into terrible trouble together. Once, Opa
Roye forbade us to eat any of his ripe pears--he wanted them for schnaps--so
Peter suggested that we climb the tree and take a single bite out of each hanging
fruit. We would have gotten away with it, but Ernst fell and broke his collarbone, so
we were discovered. Peter never forgave Ernst for the whipping we older boys

"Ernst? Grandmother Tati mentioned him, too."

"My younger brother. He died at the beginning of the War." The five
intervening years had burned away the rage, and he had locked away the grief so
that he could remember happier times.

"I'm sorry." Alice parked the truck in the level area in front of the house, setting
the parking brake with a determined yank. Her look was filled with sympathy and
the shadow of losses of her own.

"It is all in the past now." Siegfried, said, sorry he had brought the subject of
the War to her attention. He needed a distraction. "As for Peter, I would keep an
eye on your pears," he forced himself to joke.

"If I notice any bite marks this visit, I'll know who to blame." Alice rejoined with
a smile that flashed, then vanished.

Siegfried smiled his own appreciation, then, irresistibly, the house captured his
attention. He gazed beyond the two Fortune Palm trees standing like giant sentries
by the opening in the short picket fence. Sunlight sparkled from the curved panes
in the north-corner oriel and illuminated the bunches of fat amethyst grapes and
emerald vines in the stained glass above the front door. He had never seen
anything so beautiful.

The clicking sound of the driver's side door opening woke him up. Where were
his manners? He scrambled quickly around the truck to help Alice down.

"Thank you." The curve of her lips emerged from the shadow cast by the broad
brim of her hat. She took off her driving coat, folded it neatly, and laid it on the
driver's seat. Then she picked up a large parcel from the back of the truck and
passed between the palm trees, walking across the short flagstone walkway and
up the four painted wooden steps to open the unlocked front door.

She turned, waiting by the open door. "It's okay. You can come on in," she

Siegfried roused himself to shoulder a ten-pound sack he found in the truck
bed. The aroma of coffee beans--real coffee--surrounded him like incense. How
often had he choked down the thin dandelion-root substitute at the Front? Not
often enough to forget the taste of the real thing.

At the doorway he asked, "Shall I put this in the pantry?"

Alice turned, amazed, from where she was unpinning her hat in front of a
mahogany-framed foyer mirror.

Had she expected him to leave her to unload the truck alone? The thought
fired Siegfried with impatience to prove himself, to win her admiration--and her

After a brief hesitation, Alice hung her straw boater with its wide dark-blue silk
ribbon on the brass hat rack. "Yes, thank you. The kitchen is through the last door
on the left and the pantry is to your right."

Siegfried nodded. "I know." The bag rested against his cheek like a pillow filled
with frankincense and myrrh. Eyes half-closed in blissful anticipation, his feet
remembered the way down the hall bisecting the house. Rooms opened up on
either side: a small study behind the first door on his left; the parlor on his right;
then an oak-banistered stairway leading upstairs to the left. The family rooms
opposite the kitchen and dining room had been shut up after Opa Roye's death,
when Oma Tati had found it too painful to remain at Montclair.

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