Read A Taste of Merlot Online

Authors: Heather Heyford

A Taste of Merlot

By Heather Heyford
 
 
A Taste of Merlot
 
A Taste of Chardonnay
A Taste of Merlot
Book Two of the Napa Wine Heiress Series
HEATHER HEYFORD
LYRICAL PRESS
Kensington Publishing Corp.
www.kensingtonbooks.com
All copyrighted material within is Attributor Protected.
A loving mom makes all the difference.
This book is dedicated to mine.
Acknowledgments
Sincere thanks go first and foremost to Esi Sogah, my insightful, unflappable editor at Kensington. Rebecca Cremonese, production editor, and the rest of the Kensington editorial staff, your professionalism has earned my greatest respect. To the delightful Sarah E. Younger at the Nancy Yost Literary Agency, I feel fortunate to have found an agent whose strengths balance my weaknesses. Michelle Mioff-Haring, genius and indie bookseller, thanks for believing in me from the very start.
I'm forever grateful for my devoted husband—who keeps life interesting, to say the least—and my warm-hearted daughter, off to chase her rainbow's end.
For all my friends, near and far. You know who you are.
Last but not least, to my readers. Thanks so much for your continuing support. Stay in touch at heatherheyford.com.
Chapter 1
G
rinning so hard her cheeks might burst, Merlot St. Pierre wove through the tightly packed crowd to the front of the art gallery, the jingling of her trademark stack of bracelets obscured by polite applause.
When she finally reached the podium, she clutched its clear acrylic edges and paused to commit the scene to memory, her gaze bouncing from face to familiar face. A rare sense of belonging washed over her, satisfying—if only for the moment—a cavernous emptiness inside.
Chardonnay and Sauvignon had even driven down from Napa for the annual exhibit—though not Papa, of course. He was perpetually busy, tied up in the never-ending cycle of planting, picking, and pressing grapes. Savvy smiled maternally, and Char brushed away a proud tear. Though they tried to blend in by hugging the wall at the back of the room, her sisters' expensive clothes and skyscraper heels elevated them to another class altogether. From a casual glance, nobody would've tagged Meri, in her scuffed flats and faded jeans, as their sister.
Just as well.
Meri waited for the clapping to taper off, then leaned into the mic. “To the Gates faculty, thank you from the bottom of my heart for this award. And to my fellow students, our shared appreciation for the craft I hope to spend the rest of my life perfecting fuses us together like one big, extended family.”
The kind Meri had always wanted
.
And in less time than it had taken to walk to the podium, her speech—and with it, the reception—was over.
Ten minutes later, still basking in the glow of her achievement, Meri excused herself from a small circle of well-wishers for a quick trip to the ladies' room. Hidden behind the stall door, she heard footsteps, followed by a voice.
“Did you see her up there?”
Meri's hand froze at the lock. She knew who that was. Her portfolio storage slot adjoined Meri's. They came in contact almost daily.
“The wine princess? I know. Made me want to gag. But you know how it is: ‘Them that has, gets.' ”
Chelsey.
Meri had known her since freshman year. “Still, it's not fair! She doesn't need the accolades. The rest of us are going to have to eke out a living, for real. How does
she
get the Purchase Prize?”
With shocked dismay, Meri flattened her palms against the door, cocked an ear, and held her breath, straining to hear through the sound of water running in the sink and paper towels being ripped from the dispenser. That first voice belonged to Rainn—like Meri, a jewelry major, except that she was a graduating senior and Meri still had another year to go.
“How do you think? Her old man donated a gazillion bucks to the college.”
“Hmph,” came another, mocking snort. “Should've guessed.”
“Art is her hobby,” said Rainn. It was the ultimate insider insult. “Everybody knows she'll never be a real jeweler. Just go back to Daddy's mansion and become a professional shopper.”
“Have you seen it?” Chelsey asked.
“The winery? Only in pictures.”
“She invited me up one time, over winter break. The pictures don't do it justice. Even if she does keep making jewelry after graduation, she'll never have to make a living at it. It
isn't
fair. She's taking up space here that could've been given to a real artist. No wonder she calls her line ‘Gilty.' ”
Derisive laughter rang off the lavatory tiles. Still hidden, Meri cringed and squeezed her eyes closed, desperate for it to be over.
“C'mon, you look fine. It's the last Thirsty Thursday at O'Brien's. Everyone'll be there.”
Everyone?
Meri had spent last Thursday night hunched over her bench hook, buffing her final project. She'd been invited to O'Brien's once—back in the fall, after her twenty-first birthday—about the same time she'd developed a fascination with the historical uses of gemstones. She'd declined the offer in order to do research. She'd never been invited again.
A door creaked, and blessedly, the voices receded.
In a fog, Meri sank slowly onto the toilet seat. The only sound now was a tsunami of dejection roaring in her head, taking her all the way back to the first time she'd ever felt completely and utterly alone.
 
Her spindly legs dangled from the toilet, small hands clutching the sides. It was the afternoon of her first day of third form—the lowest grade offered by Lindenwood School for Girls. But Meri wasn't
't
in the bathroom out of any bodily necessity. All she wanted was a private place to think. And maybe to cry. Twelve-year-old Savvy had just been enrolled in her own prep academy and Char, ten, was at a middle school. Before they'd left Napa, her eldest sister had drawn three dots on a map of the United States, so that Meri could see where their new schools sat in relation to one another. When Meri connected the dots, the resulting triangle crossed the borders of Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island
.
Somehow, Meri had gotten through the misery of an endless round of sitting still in hushed offices while grown-ups talked about her as if she weren't there, and then squirming in her hard classroom seat throughout the remainder of the morning, wondering how long her teacher's monologue would drag on.
Being the new girl was awful, she decided. No one had even thought to tell her what time to expect lunch. When the bell finally rang, she felt invisible as she was jostled by chattering groups of girls through winding hallways toward the smell of food that made her stomach lurch, even though she hadn't touched her breakfast. Then it was on through the unfamiliar procedures and smells of the cafeteria line to the entrance of the dining room, her thin forearms straining with the heavy tray of food, eyes combing the round tables already filled with laughing, mostly older students. In the end, she'd had no choice but to take the last seat next to kids who were already deep in conversation about their classes and boys and teachers she didn't know. If that weren't bad enough, she'd neglected to get her silverware, so she had to get up in front of everyone a second time.
Finally she'd found refuge in the lav, the only place where she could sit and sob quietly for
Maman
and her sisters and the vineyards where they'd spent endless hours playing hide-and-seek among the neat rows of vines, picking handfuls of wilted yellow mustard flowers to give to their au pairs.
 
Now, twelve years later, in a lav in San Francisco, Meri stared down at her cracked, work-stained fingertips until they all blurred together in her tears.
Chapter 2
I
t was Mark Newman's idea to troll end-of-year student shows for fresh blood. While his boss at Harrington's was at least willing to humor him, if she'd had her druthers he'd be sticking with the stale, tried-and-true vendors.
After finding a parking spot, he walked all the way across the Gates College of Art and Design campus, only to find he was at the wrong building and had to cut back. He'd probably miss the speeches, but that was of no consequence. Receptions were for friends, family, and colleagues. Mark was there solely to see the work.
He'd scouted art schools in Chicago, Miami, and New York that spring, and so far, nothing had grabbed him. Where was all the new talent? Maybe Gloria was right, these excursions weren't worth the trouble.
He browsed through the two-dimensional art, the video installations, the ceramics and sculpture, saving the best for last. A leisurely, methodical sweep of the gallery was his way of pinpointing the location of the jewelry display cases, and as usual, he made a game out of it, letting the anticipation build, deciding which case he'd examine first and which he'd save for last.
When he finally got to the fixture in the center of the room, his roving eye came to an abrupt halt at five strands of flat braid connected by a perpendicular clasp. The alternating metals—yellow, white, and rose gold—lent fresh appeal to the simple design. Next to it, a royal-blue card with the words P
URCHASE
P
RIZE
sat slightly askew, a last-minute addition to the carefully arranged display. The piece begged to be touched, stroked—always a sign of good art. No wonder Gates had elected to buy it for its permanent collection over all the other projects created that year.
Mark looked up, his enthusiasm building by the second. Only a few people remained in the gallery, congregating quietly on the opposite side of the room. Deftly, he tried slipping his fingers into the crack between the lid and the side of the case. Locked
,
of course. Pulling out his jeweler's magnifying loupe, he bent close, straining to examine the piece as best he could through the layer of glass, to read the name on the hand-drawn tag attached by a silken cord.
GILTY. That was aggravating. He wanted a
real
name. On the other hand, the craftsmanship was
outstanding.
He'd never get over what could be achieved with simple tools in talented hands. Retail was his business, but design was his passion. Design, food, and football, in that order.
He let his loupe fall from the black leather thong around his neck and draped his hands possessively around the corners of the wide case, pulse quickening with the thrill of discovery. There had to be someone in authority here, someone with a key.
The reception was really winding down now; there was a growing trickle toward the exit. Mark didn't see anyone wearing a name tag. He went up behind two women who might be students.
“Excuse me.” His voice sounded surprisingly calm, given how hard his heart thrummed. “Quick question.”
The young women half-turned, their blank faces sizing him up with mild annoyance. Simultaneously, their eyes widened as they turned fully and broke out in cat-like smiles.
“Anything,” the shorter, sultry-looking one purred, giving Mark a glimpse of the shiny barbell puncturing the center of her tongue.
Down, girl
. Damn. He'd have to wear this old shirt more often.
“There's a mixed-metal bracelet over there with a tag that says ‘Gilty.' The Purchase Prize winner. Know whose work it is?”
Their smiles went sour. The one with blue hair and a sleeve tattoo opened her mouth to speak but was interrupted by Barbell Girl.
“No idea,” she interjected, eyeing Mark's loupe. “But hey, do you have a card or something? I can ask around. . . .”
“I'd appreciate it,” he said, reaching into his back pocket.
“I'm Rainn, and this is Chelsey.” Rainn lowered her lids while she drew a lengthy lock of raven-colored hair through stubby fingers, then tossed it back.
“Mark Newman.” He peeled off a few cards and held them out.
“Harrington's?” Her smile morphed from merely seductive to blatantly opportunistic, displaying beautiful, white teeth. Individually they were perfect little pearls, but strung together they formed a wolfish grin that was downright unsettling.
“Nice meeting you. If you run into Gilty, have her—or him—give me a call.”
He returned to the case, snapped some photos through the glass, and left the building.
He'd already forgotten the two students when he noticed them again across the street from the gallery, heads still bowed over his card like it was the key to the Grail.
He couldn't help smiling to himself. For an aspiring jeweler,
it was.
As he walked back to his car, he pulled out his phone and scrolled for Gilty online, but nothing showed up.
So he'd call the school, first thing tomorrow morning.
He brightened with anticipation. Purchase Prize? He'd show them a purchase prize.

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