Excerpt: So Right
So Hot, Book 2
Luke Westcott descended the hillside, his gaze roving over the dark purple fruit hanging among the vines. The volunteer workers had made good progress today, but needed to be back at it again tomorrow. And probably the day after that, since their workforce would decrease dramatically. Today they had every Westcott and Archer in attendance, along with some random guests here and there, plus their hired help.
He could see one of those guests, Kelsey McDade, walking among the pumpkins he’d planted at the base of this slope. He’d met Kelsey on several occasions—she worked at the pub in town and was a friend of his brother’s girlfriend—and liked her. Curious as to what she was doing, he continued downward until the ground evened out a bit. “You lost?” he asked.
Her back was to him, and she jumped. Turning, she held her hand to her chest. “You scared me.”
He couldn’t see her eyes because she was wearing sunglasses. Pity, because he recalled that they were pale blue and quite expressive. “I didn’t mean to.”
He slipped his sunglasses off and blinked against the brightness of the brilliant sun. It was a picture-perfect fall day with a crisp, cloudless, blue sky and temperatures in the eighties. Sweat trickled down his back as if to remind him how hot it was.
She pushed her glasses up onto her head. She’d pulled her long, dark hair into two braids, which fell against her shoulders. “Am I in trouble? I should probably get back to work.”
He chuckled. “You’re perfectly entitled to take a break. I really appreciate you coming out today.”
“I was thrilled to be invited. I’m sure it sounds odd, but harvesting wine grapes is a cool thing to check off the bucket list.”
“That doesn’t sound odd to me at all, but then, I’m pretty much a wine grape freak.”
She tipped her head to the side. “And how’d that happen?”
“I worked at a local vineyard in high school, and, uh, I liked it a lot.” That was a bit of an understatement, but he wouldn’t go into boring detail about how he’d become obsessed with nurturing the vines as if they were pets.
She glanced up the hill toward the vineyard. “Well, you seem to be very good at it. Not that I have any idea what I’m talking about, but the fruit looks gorgeous, and I can attest to the wine being delicious.”
“You can thank Hayden for that.” Hayden Archer was the winemaker and one of the owners of their winery along with Luke and his two brothers, Cameron and Jamie.
“Sure, but he needs good grapes to start with, doesn’t he?”
Luke smiled. He wasn’t always very adept at accepting praise. “Yes. So what are you doing in the pumpkin patch?”
“Oh!” She looked around at the ripening fruit at her feet. “I love pumpkin patches. This is my absolute favorite time of the year. Apple cider, pumpkin spice everything, Halloween… It’s the best.”
He nodded, thinking he couldn’t agree more. “Who doesn’t love fall? Granted, it’s my busiest time of the year with the harvest, but that’s another reason I love it.”
“That’s so great you have a job that you love.” Her tone held a wistful quality that stirred him.
He took a step toward her. “You don’t?”
“I do, actually. At least part-time anyway.”
He recalled that she was also the librarian at the new library in town. “Damn, I still haven’t stopped in to check things out. My bad. In my defense, it really is my busiest time of the year.”
She smiled as she glanced down, her toe nudging a pumpkin vine. “It’s no big deal. Stop in whenever.”
“I will. I promise.” He turned and took a few steps. “I planted white pumpkins too, but they aren’t doing quite as well. I’m going to have to do some research.” If he wasn’t careful, he could see himself becoming as obsessed with the pumpkin vines as he was with the grape. “The goal is to have a pumpkin patch that will entice families to come out for a harvest festival experience—hayrides, pumpkins, and that apple cider you mentioned.”
“What, no wine?”
He laughed. “I forgot the most important thing! Yes, wine for the grown-ups. We reel them in with the kiddos and then get them to sign up for our wine club.”
She rested her hands on her hips, smiling at him. “Sounds like a foolproof marketing plan.”
“Credit Cameron. He’s the marketing guru.”
Her gaze took on a calculated interest—or so it seemed to him. “You don’t like to take credit for stuff, do you?” She’d figured him out pretty quick.
“Well, the marketing stuff is absolutely not my forte, but yeah, I guess you could say I like to linger in the background.” He didn’t mind telling her that. It wasn’t a secret or anything.
“I totally get that. The spotlight isn’t my thing either.”
It was always nice to find a kindred spirit. “So we’re two introverts hiding in the pumpkin patch.”
She laughed, and the sound seemed to go with the gorgeous day—bright and cheerful, and it made him feel good right down to his soul. “That sounds about right, at least for me.”
“Is that why you’re picking grapes alone?” he asked. “Most everyone else is with a partner or a group.”
“I was with a group earlier. Before lunch. I’d reached maximum companionship.” She shrugged. “What can I say, I enjoy my alone time.”
Wow. Now his interest was really piqued. One of the primary issues in his last relationship had been his ex’s need for constant togetherness. He’d loved her—he thought—but he needed his space. “Me too,” he murmured. “But I suppose that means I should leave you to it.” He was loath to move, however.
“No, I’m good.” A faint blush swathed the elegant sweep of her cheekbones. “Since you’re here, I’d like to ask you something.”
He edged toward her, suddenly eager. “Anything.” Anything?
“I’m working on a research project at the library. With Brooke and Crystal.”
Brooke was his brother Cameron’s girlfriend, although Luke was pretty certain an engagement was imminent. “I’ve heard Brooke talk about it—the brick we found here, right?”
When they’d demolished the house that had been inhabited by the former vineyard owner, they’d found an interesting brick near the foundation. The letters “BNR” and the year 1879 were engraved in it, and determining its meaning had become a quest for Brooke, Kelsey, and their friend Crystal Donovan.
“Yes. We think it came from the original homestead that was on this property—the initials stand for Bird’s Nest Ranch. It was built in 1879. We found a photograph of the house, including the couple who lived here. We’re trying to find out more about them. We’d love to find the actual house, or the remains of it, anyway.”
This all sounded vaguely familiar to Luke, but he admitted he hadn’t paid attention too closely. Because he was busy. Geez, maybe he was a little too focused on his job. He could think of plenty of people who would agree with him. Maybe everyone. “Forgive me, and I hope this doesn’t make me sound like an asshat, but why are you all so interested?”
She lifted one shoulder in a slight shrug. “Crystal’s a history buff, and I guess Brooke and I are just along for the ride. I think it’s fascinating. I’ve only lived here in Ribbon Ridge a couple of years, but the community is so close-knit and very hometown proud, I thought people would be excited to unearth some history.”
He definitely felt like an asshat, especially since those three women—Kelsey and her two pals—weren’t even from Ribbon Ridge, whereas he’d been born and raised here. As had his father. And his grandfather had moved here as a young man after graduating from Williver College, which was less than thirty minutes away. Yep, asshat status confirmed. “This sounds like a very cool project, and we’re lucky to have you all working on it.”
She brightened. “Thanks. I’m looking forward to including it in the historical section of the library.”
“Oh?” He didn’t have to feign interest, not when she talked about something that made her face light up like the Fourth of July.
“We have some space upstairs at the library that I’d like to use for exhibits. First on the schedule is a Ribbon Ridge retrospective. The county has been very supportive in helping us find documents and artifacts that will be of interest to the community. The Archer family has also been very helpful.”
Of course—they were Ribbon Ridge’s first family. “I’m surprised none of them are helping.”
“Well, they are. I mean, they’re providing documents and some of their own historical information and artifacts that belong to their family. Crystal’s best friend is Alaina Archer, and she’s as involved as she can be.”
Given that Alaina was both a famous movie star and expecting her second child, Luke imagined she had her hands full. “She’s not even an Archer by birth.”
Kelsey smiled. “True. But I have the feeling the family doesn’t care. They embrace everyone as if they’re part of the family. I’ve only spent a little bit of time with them, but they’ve made me feel more welcome and more comfortable than I ever have.”
Luke could understand and agree with that. He’d known them his whole life. His older brother, Cameron, had been tight with Hayden since grade school. And his older half brother, Dylan, was married to Sara Archer.
He studied Kelsey, picking up on what she said. “More than you ever have? That makes me curious.”
She looked off to the side then, and he had the sense this was a topic she preferred to avoid. As a fellow introvert, he understood. And would help her out of the awkward corner he’d inadvertently steered her into. “So this research project—what’s next?”
When she turned her head toward him again, there was a glint of gratitude in her gaze. Or maybe he just imagined it because that was how he would’ve felt. “We’re searching for the location of the house, starting with looking at maps at the historical society. Then we may hire an archaeological crew to find the actual house. Rather, the foundation.”
“So you know the house was here?” He didn’t like the idea of anyone digging around his vineyard. These vines were over twenty years old. No way would he let anyone kill them.
At her nod, he continued. “I, uh, I hope you don’t plan to tear my vineyard apart.”
Her eyes widened in horror. “Oh no, of course not! We wouldn’t want to harm your grapes. We don’t even know for sure where the house was located. Maybe it isn’t even in the vineyard.”
That was a possibility—one that he’d cling to. “Even if it is, there may not be much—or anything—to find. When they planted the vines in the early nineties, it’s likely they disrupted any archaeological evidence.”
Her expression turned to disappointment. “That would be a shame. I’m going to hope that the homestead wasn’t in the vineyard.”
“Or where any of our buildings are standing,” he said, thinking this project could be a real headache. He watched as consternation wrinkled her brow and felt bad for raising doubt and being difficult. He took a step toward her. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to put a damper on your enthusiasm.” Perhaps asshat didn’t adequately describe him in this instance. He might’ve gone full jackass.
“It’s okay,” she said. “All valid points.”
“Sure, but did I really need to be the bearer of bad news? I mean, what the hell do I know about any of this?”
“You’re concerned about your vineyard. As you should be.” She reached out and briefly touched his sleeve. He wished the contact had been firmer and lasted longer. “I’ll keep you posted on everything.”
That relieved him, but also ignited a spark. He had a reason to keep in touch with her. Beyond just dropping in on her at the library. He smiled, pleased with this turn of events.
Wait, was he thinking of dating her? He’d been focused on the vineyard since breaking up with Amanda. He didn’t miss dating, and he wasn’t looking for a romantic entanglement of any kind.
Whoa, boy, he cautioned. You’re just having a nice conversation with an attractive woman.
His gaze dipped to the tattered hem of her jean shorts and the long shapely legs that descended to her scuffed hiking boots. It was ridiculous, but he found that small detail incredibly alluring. A woman who enjoyed being outside was a woman he wanted to get to know.
He had to amend his earlier assessment—she was a really attractive woman.
She cocked her head to the side and narrowed her eyes at him. “What will you do if the foundation is right here in your pumpkin patch?”
He was pretty sure she was teasing him. He blew out a breath as he stuck his fingers in his pockets. “I’m afraid I can’t let you dig these vines up either. They’re special, you see. These pumpkins are magic.”
“As in Cinderella’s coach?”
He nodded. “Yep, but listen, you can’t tell anyone.” He lowered his voice to a whisper. “Those white ones turn into unicorns.”
She giggled then. “You’re a dork.”
He grinned at her, thinking how pretty she was with her pink cheeks and sparkling pale blue eyes that were probably the color of Cinderella’s gown. “Guilty.”
“Hey, Luke!” The call came down the hillside.
Luke turned his head, recognizing his brother Jamie’s voice.
“I’ll let you go,” Kelsey said. “I need to get back to work anyway—before the boss fires me.”
Luke fixed her with a steady stare. “He wouldn’t dare.”
She gave him a saucy smile as she slid her sunglasses back into place and turned. “Good to know.”