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Excerpt: So Good

Excerpt: So Good

Ribbon Ridge: Love on the Vine, Book 1

Cameron Westcott frowned at the serpentine line stretching before them. To their left, a forty-foot long bed of hot coals roasted salmon that was speared on long, arched pikes. The heat wafted over the crowd of people waiting to go in to the dinner, making the already hot summer night even warmer.

But Cam didn’t care about the temperature. He wanted a good seat. The annual salmon bake at the International Pinot Noir Conference was a fun, casual event where the wine flowed freely, and the attendees came from all walks—wine connoisseurs, winemakers, wine critics, and, most importantly, wine lovers and buyers. It was the perfect place for Cam and his partners, his best friend, and two of his brothers to offer a sneak peek of their pinot noir.

Cam craned his neck to try to gauge how far back they were from the entrance. “We should’ve gotten here earlier.”

Cam’s younger-by-two-years brother Luke, nearly always the coolest head in the room, clapped his shoulder and gave it a quick, hard massage. “Relax. Hayden will save us a spot.”

Hayden Archer had been Cam’s best friend since first grade. He was also the winemaker at their winery, West Arch Estate. Cam was the business and sales manager, Luke managed the vineyard, and their youngest brother, Jamie—who stood just behind them looking at his phone—was the chief financial officer.

“Yeah, you’re right.” Cam forced himself to do exactly what Luke said—relax. He’d been working crazy hours the past few weeks as they geared up for their first fall season as an official winery. They’d purchased the vineyard two years ago, but this was the first year they would have everything in place: a facility with a tasting room and their inaugural vintage, albeit small, of pinot noir.

The line suddenly started to move more quickly. The closer they got to the entry, the more they could see the dozens of round tables with their battery-operated candles and three bottles of wine each, the center tent staffed by volunteers who would serve wine, and the long rectangular tables around the periphery that held the covered food. It was always a beautiful setting, a fairy-like dinner in an oak grove at the local college.

Their wine wouldn’t be poured at the center tent nor would it be set out on the tables, but Hayden had a cooler with their whites and a rolling tote with their fledgling pinot. Like many other winemakers, he’d whip the bottles out after dinner and share them with everyone at their table and anyone else who wandered by.

Cam’s phone vibrated in his pocket. He pulled it from his khaki shorts and looked at the screen.

Hayden: Running late, sorry.

Cam glanced at the tables that were rapidly filling. By the time they got inside, they’d be scrambling for a good spot. He typed a response into his phone.

Cam: We’re screwed for a decent table.

Hayden: Liam just nabbed two seats for me and Bex, but the rest of the table’s full. Sorry bro.

Liam was Hayden’s older brother and a master at networking.

Irritation curled along Cam’s spine, but he inhaled deeply, getting a nose full of salmon for his efforts. This was no big deal. So they weren’t sitting together. It would still be an amazing evening. Besides, once the dinner ended and people started milling about, they’d all end up in the same place.

He turned to his brothers. “Hayden’s running late, but he’s got two seats saved thanks to Liam. We’re on our own.”

“Damn lucky Archers.” Luke said this without heat, his dark eyes crinkling at the edges.

The Archers were the first family of Ribbon Ridge—literally, since their ancestor had settled the town—and most things they touched turned to gold. Cam wasn’t jealous, though, and neither were his brothers. Especially when they were in business with one of them, and their older half-brother was married to another.

Jamie sidled closer. He looked between Cam and Luke. “So what’s our plan? Split up and find something?”

“Just go for whatever’s closest to the center,” Cam said. “Ideally we’ll find a table close to Hayden, but that may not be possible.”

Luke nodded. “I’ll find Hayden and check the surrounding area.”

“And I’ll just look for anything center-ish,” Jamie said.

Cam edged closer toward the gate. “Sounds good.”

At last, they reached the entry. Cam handed over their three tickets, and they rushed inside.

Luke took off in one direction, while Jamie went in another. Cam scanned for empty seats and saw a few at a table near the edge but still relatively close to the center wine tent.

Just as Cam reached the table, a trio of women did the same. He set his hand on the back of a chair at the same moment one of them did.

The woman was probably a few years shy of thirty—a bit younger than him—and drop-dead gorgeous with long, golden blonde hair and sharp blue-green eyes. If Cam wasn’t so eager to claim the seats, he’d hit on her.

Hell, he’d probably hit on her anyway. After he took possession of the chairs.

She smiled at him, and she was even prettier. Yes, definitely hitting on her.

“We’re taking these three,” she said, glancing at the other two women—a petite brunette and a lean, athletic beauty with dark hair.

“I think I was here first,” Cam said, flashing his most disarming smile.

Her eyes darkened a shade, but then she batted her lashes. Her gaze raked him from head to toe, firing his blood. “I don’t think so, but anyway, a real gentleman would surrender.”

Surrender.

For some reason, that word evoked an incredibly erotic response in him. He pictured himself surrendering to her in every way and decided that would be just fine with him. Okay, not every way. He wanted this damn table. A quick look around showed that the only seats left were in the corners.

He leaned toward her. She smelled of vanilla and bergamot—he’d gotten pretty good at detecting fragrance over the past eight years shilling wine. “A lady wouldn’t resort to flirtation to steal seats.”

“It’s not stealing if I was here first.” She arched a slender, sculpted blonde brow. “Which I was.”

He met her brow arch with one of his own. “In your opinion.”

Luke walked toward them. “You find something?”

Cam kept his hand on the chair. “I did.”

The blonde glanced at Luke. “That is up for dispute.”

Luke dipped his gaze toward his phone. “Jamie found us seats. Come on.”

Cam didn’t want to give in so easily. And not just because he wanted this table. He wished there were enough seats for all of them. That way he could get to know this stunning woman.

She looked past him at Luke, and her smile became more radiant, if that were possible. “Thank you.”

Luke’s mouth curved up. “My pleasure.” He turned. “Let’s go, Cam.”

Cam reluctantly let go of the chair back. He took a small step toward her and lowered his voice. “You win this round.”

She flipped the long waves of her hair over her shoulder. “Oh, you think there’ll be another?”

He dipped his gaze over her. She wore a coral-colored sleeveless top with a pair of long, gold necklaces and white, cropped pants with strappy wedges. She had great style—precisely the type of woman that caught his eye. “Definitely,” he said.

She set her small clutch purse on the table and flashed him a saucy look. “Hold my chair for me?”

Damn, she was a flirt. He couldn’t stop a grin from stealing across his lips. He might be sitting in the nether regions of the grove, but he had the sense it was going to be a great night.

He held her chair out while she sat, then scooted her in. He dropped down and whispered close to her ear, “I’ll be back later.”

She looked at him over her shoulder. “I don’t see a need for that.”

What? Hadn’t she just given him all sorts of signs that she was interested? He opened his mouth to ask why, but his phone vibrated. He quickly read the screen. Both of his brothers were asking where the hell he was. They were having trouble defending his seat.

Resigned that he had to go, Cam settled for a parting shot. “I see plenty of need,” he said. “And I’ll show you later.”

As he pivoted to walk away, he nearly tripped. Had she just rolled her eyes? He looked back at her, but she’d turned toward the table so he couldn’t see her face anymore. His phone buzzed again.

Luke: STOP MANWHORING AND GET YOUR ASS OVER HERE.

Cam walked out to what felt like Siberia, to a table in the darkest corner of the grove. He surveyed the sad gathering—all guys. “Wow, great seats.”

Jamie reached for one of the open bottles of wine on the table and poured pinot blanc into their three glasses. “At least we’re together. It’s not like we’ll be here all night. We’ll move around after dinner.”

Luke set his phone next to his place setting. “You’ll have ample opportunity to get back to the hot blonde.”

Cam sat down between his brothers. “Maybe.”

Luke threw him an incredulous look. “Maybe? Where’s my manslut brother? She was totally flirting with you.”

“Yeah, I thought so too, but then she gave me the brush-off.”

Jamie shrugged. “Maybe she was just flirting to get the seats. You were arguing over them, right?”

“She said as much,” Luke said. He gave Cam a pitying look. “Can’t win ’em all, bro.”

Now it was Cam’s turn to roll his eyes. He was used to his little brothers giving him crap about his love life, which wasn’t really an accurate description since love never came anywhere near the vicinity of it. “Whatever. Plenty of dateable women here tonight.” Just not at their table.

Luke laughed. “Dateable? You’re going to actually date someone for the first time in, what, seven, eight years?”

“Yeah, since what’s-her-name.” Jamie snapped his fingers.

Even though Jamie hadn’t said her name, which Cam didn’t allow since she was his own personal Voldemort, the mere mention of her set Cam’s teeth on edge. “I date.”

Jamie looked unconvinced. “I guess, but is it really dating when you have no intention of seeing someone more than a handful of times?”

That wasn’t fair. Cam had seen plenty of women more than a handful of times. During the six years he’d worked for Blackthorn Cellars traveling around the country, he’d seen a couple of women regularly. Granted, neither of them had lived in Ribbon Ridge and the long-distance, casual nature of those relationships had suited all parties. “I’ve dated plenty of women.” Just not exclusively, and he’d always been up-front about it.

“Hear that, Luke? Plenty of women.” Jamie waggled his brows before dissolving into laughter.

Cam drummed his fingers on the table. “You can call me manwhore and manslut all you want, but how many women have I been with since we started the winery?” He’d thrown himself into this endeavor, and yeah, since he wasn’t traveling anymore, his options had narrowed. But he also didn’t miss that lifestyle.

Luke stroked his hand along his perpetually stubbled chin. “Good point. Guess we should find another derogatory nickname for you. How about asshat?”

Cam grinned. “That’s the best you can do?”

Jamie angled himself toward Cam and Luke and set his elbow on the table. “Speaking of the winery. I hope this pinot we’re launching is ready.”

Hayden had acknowledged it was going to be close. This was a small batch from the grapes they’d harvested almost two years ago—their first yield from the vineyard. Most of the fruit had gone to contractual obligations held by the former vineyard owner, but they’d had enough left over to produce just under sixty cases. It was meant to be a teaser for what would come next year—their haul from the entire vineyard, which was currently sitting in oak barrels in their new winemaking facility.

“It’s ready,” Luke said firmly. Before coming back to Ribbon Ridge two years ago, he’d worked for a few vineyards in Sonoma. Between him and Hayden, West Arch had the best winemaker/vineyard manager duo in the entire Willamette Valley. At least in Cam’s opinion, and he was pretty sure he knew enough about wine in this region to make that call.

“I’m stoked to see what people think. That’s why I’m bummed we aren’t at his table.” Or even close to it. On his way to the back of beyond, he’d seen Hayden and Bex setting up a few tables away from the seats he’d given to the unthankful blonde.

Actually, she had been thankful. To Luke, he recalled. To Cam she’d been cool—after obtaining her victory.

The buffet tables opened up, and they stood to get their dinner. As they waited in line, they chatted with people they knew and made new acquaintances, all the while talking up West Arch. The three of them lived and breathed their start-up, and Cam was thrilled to be doing this with his brothers and his best friend.

Well, most of his brothers. They had an older half-brother who was married to Hayden’s sister. Dylan was a contractor with a very successful business of his own. In fact, he’d built their winery, the bones of which had been completed just before last fall’s harvest. Dylan would’ve been here tonight to support them, but he and Sara were doing what they did most Saturday nights the past four months—doting on their new daughter.

Just as they headed back to their table with their loaded-up plates, Hayden intercepted them, grimacing. “Hey, sorry about the table situation.”

“No worries, man,” Luke said, smiling. “We like our secluded, all-male table. Later on when we’re shitfaced, we can act like complete assholes, and no one will care.”

This provoked laughter from everyone. “Cool,” Hayden said. “Liam schmoozed his way into our four seats.”

Cam snorted. “Of course he did.” Liam Archer worked a room better than anyone Cam had ever met. As a kid out of college, Cam had studied him and employed many of his same techniques when he’d started out selling wine.

Hayden glanced at their plates. “Hurry up and eat so you can come join us. That is, if you can tear yourself away from your new man club.” His mouth tugged into a half smile.

“Very funny.” Cam inclined his head toward his best friend. “Let’s call him asshat instead.”

Hayden blinked. “Who are you calling asshat?”

Luke jabbed a thumb toward Cam. “Him. It seems we can’t rightfully call him manwhore anymore.”

Hayden laughed. “Why, because he’s calmed down a little since we started up West Arch? Nah, I think we can still call him a manwhore.” He gave Cam’s arm a slap before taking himself back to his rockstar table.

“Asshat,” Cam muttered.

Luke and Jamie started back toward the outer limits, and Cam made to follow them. Instead, he collided with someone and had to clutch his plate with both hands, lest he lose his dinner to the ground.

“Hey, watch it!” He looked over at the person who’d run into him, and couldn’t keep his jaw from briefly dropping. “You.”

“You.” The blonde dipped her fiery gaze to the dirt and grass beneath their feet. “You made me drop my focaccia bread. I’ve been looking forward to those carbs all day.”

“I made you drop it? Are you hell bent on casting me as a villain tonight?”

She cocked her head to the side. “If the label fits…”

He narrowed his eyes at her. “You’re a piece of work. First, you flirt with me to steal my seats, and instead of being gracious in victory, you give me the cold shoulder. And now you’re trying to steal—or at least ruin—my dinner too.”

Her eyes widened, and she sucked in a breath. “Like I ran into you on purpose!”

Satisfaction burned through him. “Ha! You admit you ran into me.”

She let out a groan, and damn, it should not have been sexy. But it was.

She glared at him. “You’re a menace.”

Something about the way she said it made him slightly uncomfortable. It was as if she actually meant it, and how could she? They didn’t even know each other. He wanted to change that. Because, holy hell, he was attracted to her.

“I’m not really. If you’ll let me—” He’d been about to say buy you a drink, but you didn’t have to buy any of the wine at this dinner. “I’d be happy to pour a great wine for you later.”

“Thanks, but no thanks. I need to get back to my friends.” She pulled her plate in close. “You go first.”

He didn’t want to take no for an answer, but he had a rule—three strikes, and he was out. That gave him one more chance with her. He’d save it for later. “By all means, ladies first. My feet are rooted to the ground until you move.” He gave her a bow, something a gentleman would do.

Her gaze turned skeptical, but she ultimately moved. As she passed by, she gave him a bemused look. He watched her until she sat down at her table. A moment later, she turned her head, registered that he hadn’t budged, then quickly turned back. But not before he’d caught a blush in her cheeks. Or maybe that was just his wishful thinking at this distance. Either way, he looked forward to trying that third time and just hoped he didn’t strike out.