Ashes and Wine
by Taryn Elliott
Before Tessa met Royal Andreas, her bookstore was on the verge of sinking. And before Tessa met Royal Andreas, she didn’t mind being single. But Royal brings in business with monthly wine tastings featuring his family’s signature vintages–and brings Tessa’s heart to a standstill with intense gray eyes that look on her with nothing but cool indifference.
Yet one searing kiss between the stacks gives Tessa a glimpse of the passion smoldering beneath–and a secret pain further revealed when Royal fills in as the musician at a tasting event. Every note of Spanish guitar tells a story of family tragedy, loss, and ongoing suffering that’s made Royal afraid to lean on anyone…even if he needs Tessa’s sweet flavor more than the richest wine. Only her strength can save him when his world crumbles to ashes. But has Royal learned trust too late to claim Tessa as his own?
© 2012 Taryn Elliott
Tessa Winter buried her head in her arms. The smooth stretch of her checkout counter was blessedly cool against her forehead. Her store, As You Wish, was finally quiet after another successful wine-tasting event. She still had reports to run, vendor paperwork to finalize, and a cart full of books to re-shelve. But right now, she had a screaming backache and no energy to find her stash of Advil.
She snapped upright so fast she had to steady herself against the cubbyhole case behind the register. That voice, his voice, could drag her out of a damned coma.
Royal Andreas stepped into a halo of lamplight. For a moment the sharp angles of his cheekbones came into stark relief. “Are you okay?” he asked.
“I’m fine. It’s just been a long night.” She blew her bangs out of her eyes and willed the fine hairs on her arms to settle down. Royal always seemed so put together, while she was ready to fly out of her skin after a minute alone with him. Utterly unfair.
He rolled the winery order forms into a loose tube and tapped her counter. “I think our numbers will make up for it.”
“Yeah?” She turned on a small lamp next to the register, chasing away the last of the shadows. “Let’s see what we’ve got.”
He laid the papers on the counter and tugged the tie from his hair. The thick, shoulder-length mass swung forward. Tessa had to remind herself it was just hair, but all she could think about was getting her fingers into those dark waves.
“The last hour put us at an all-time high for sales.”
She leaned on the counter, taking the pressure off the balls of her sore feet. “And what was the big seller?”
His smile was a little tired, but the crinkles around his eyes warmed his far too serious face. “You know what it was.”
“The Tocai, by any chance?”
He gathered his hair back and retied the leather strap. One stubborn lock slid free, curving along his jaw. “Of course.”
His dry tone made her smile. “It’s all your fault I’m addicted to it.”
“I remember.” He broke eye contact, and a small tick tightened his jaw. Her belly flipped. Did he remember that summer day at the vineyard as she did? Or just the kind of wine they drank? Or—much more Royal’s style—he wanted to forget everything about their first meeting without making her feel like a jerk.
The clang of glassware and distant male laughter jerked her from those dangerous memories. Her brother, Blake, and the extra wait staff were out in the courtyard, loading the leftover wine and vineyard supplies back into Royal’s truck.
She cleared her throat. “How’d you get your brother to crack open one of those barrels? I thought you told me it needed another three months in the cellars.”
“This is from my private stock.”
She reached out and covered his hand. “You didn’t need to do that. The Ramato and Sauvignons sell great.”
“I know, but it was a gamble I was willing to take. And it paid off for both of us.” He stroked the side of her hand before withdrawing.
A fireball of confusion and want stirred in the pit of her stomach. The man usually went out of his way to avoid touching her. She gathered the receipts and hoped he didn’t notice how badly her fingers trembled. “Let’s see just how well we did.” It took a little more concentration than it should have, but the mental tally finally sunk in. “Did you sell all the Tocai?”
He nodded. “I had to do quite a few special orders.”
“That’s great.” Incredible, actually. She’d only managed a sip of the crisp, tangy wine. She stuffed down her disappointment. Every bottle sold was good for sales, but she was tired of missing out on everything for the good of her store.
“Tessa, are you sure everything’s okay?”
She smiled automatically. “Of course.”
“You seem distracted tonight.”
“I was just thinking about what I could do with the extra money.”
He tapped the heavy brass cuff on her wrist. “Something for yourself?”
She looked down at the tinted metal with its scrawling script. It was a passage from Pride and Prejudice. “Everything on me is for sale actually.” Royal’s eyebrow quirked, and she blushed. “The jewelry, I mean.” She slid off the cuff and handed it to him.
He had such amazing hands, elegant yet rough. He smoothed his thumb over the engraved letters. The echo of his touch burned where he’d stroked her hand.
“It’s lovely,” he said. “Jane Austen?” He tucked the lock of hair behind his ear with a rueful grin and handed the cuff back to her.
Her brows shot up. She took it, careful not to touch him. “Yes.”
He shrugged. “High school English.”
Most guys bought the Cliffs Notes and faked their way through Austen. Heck, that’s what she did, but these lines…they were special. She twisted the bracelet and read the passage aloud. “You have bewitched me body and soul, and I love, I love, I love you. And wish from this day forth never to be parted from you.”
His gaze met hers. “Romantic. You seem more the sensible type.”
She jerked back and dropped her gaze. Sensible. Of course he’d think that. She slid the cuff back onto her wrist. “I know what sells. A local artist makes these. They’re just unique enough that Mercy can sell them at a ridiculous price, and that makes me a tidy little profit.”
He rested his hip against the counter and folded his arms. His tailored navy dress shirt pulled tight over his shoulders. That thin veneer of sophistication and polish always seemed a little out of place on his rough-hewn body.
“So, what do you spend your hard won sales on, Tessa?”
She lifted her gaze to his again. “Everything goes back into the store.”
He frowned, his gray eyes direct and unflinching. “You don’t treat yourself to anything?”
The slam of the back door and scrape of the bolt lock saved her from any other questions.
Blake’s lanky form filled the doorway. A stained white dress shirt and rumpled slacks gave testament to their busy night. She met honey-gold eyes that matched her own. Both of them bore the Scottish stamp of light skin and red hair, inherited from their father, but Blake’s hair had darkened to a deep rust once he’d hit twenty. “Hey, sis. I put Marissa in her car and sent her home.”
“Good. She was dead on her feet.”
Blake snorted. “Yeah, and so are you.”
She opened her mouth to answer, but Royal chimed in. “You haven’t sat down once since I got here.”
“It was a busy night. It’s a good thing.”
Blake slung an arm around her shoulders. “I just wish you’d relax and enjoy yourself sometimes.”
“I do.” Well…maybe it had felt a little too much like work lately. That was just part of owning a business.
Blake sighed. “I keep trying to get her to have a life.”
She laid her cheek against his chest for a moment, then slipped away. “You and Marissa have enough of one for all of us.”
Blake gave her a saucy grin. At least someone was enjoying a social life. “I cleaned up the kitchen, so all you have to do is lock up. Then we get to do it all over again tomorrow night. Yay.”
“Yay.” She rolled her eyes, and they both laughed. She loved these event weekends—and they were a big help in monthly sales—but there was a reason she only did them once a month. It reminded her why she never wanted to turn her place into a café. The kitchen had been a selling point when she bought the store, but she rarely used it except on tasting nights. “Oh, speaking of which…” She turned to Royal. “Did you leave the—”
“There’s two cases each of Research Cab and Pinot Grigio. There are ballots in there for the Cab. The more feedback the better.”
She relaxed. “My customers love to try the new hybrids.”
“Most people appreciate free wine,” he said wryly.
Blake rubbed his hands together. “I know I do. Thanks for leaving that extra bottle.”
Royal shrugged. “It’s the least I can do for all your help.”
“Looks like you’re taking care of everyone tonight,” Tessa said.
Royal’s gray eyes went serious for a moment before a shadow of a smile pulled at the corners of his mouth. “I don’t mind.”
Blake shook Royal’s hand. “Pleasure as always, buddy.” He turned to Tessa. “I’m heading out, and I’m taking that bottle with me.”
Her shoulders relaxed. One step closer to a blissful fall into bed. “You deserve it. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Will do. Night, guys.”
Royal frowned at Blake’s retreating back. “He leaves you here alone?”
“Well, it’s not like I’m going to leave. I live upstairs.”
“Right.” His frown lines deepened.
She popped the register open and stacked checks and cash. “You’re usually gone before we close up.”
“After four hours, I’m done with people.”
Obviously he was done with her, as well. She wasn’t sure why Royal came to every tasting. He was polite and knowledgeable when it came to customers, but when they were alone there was always a wall between them. It usually came down a little during paperwork, but tonight everything was just…off. “I totally understand. These wine tastings are after hours for me too.”
“Why don’t I stay with you while you lock up?”
Her hand froze inside the night drop bag. “I—”
“It’ll make me feel better.”
“Can I do anything to help?”
“No, it’s okay. I just have to do a few things before morning.” She tucked the dailies into the small safe hidden in the floorboards and flipped the heavy cork mat back into place. She could feel his eyes on her as she pushed mismatched chairs into groupings at the end of every other aisle. Her usual routine felt stilted and awkward. Closings were usually her time to decompress and get things back in order.
She tried to block him out by arranging a few books on the little table at the end of one of her favorite bookcases. Each one was a different size and style, to give As You Wish an intimate and eclectic feel.
She’d searched through estate sales and antique stores to find the perfect furniture and fixtures for the store over the years—but she’d had to cut down on her shopping lately. The way people shopped was changing. People didn’t buy books in bookstores anymore, and As You Wish was feeling the effects.
SoHo survived because people still loved to come in from all over to browse, but tight budgets had reduced local buying. More than once she caught people leafing through a book, then buying it on their phones or e-readers. How was she supposed to compete with Amazon and the other online giants?
“I love this place,” Royal said.
She smiled over her shoulder. “I was just thinking the same thing.”
He’d followed her lead and pushed a trio of club chairs next to the French doors. It would be great with the morning sun.
“Yeah?” He straightened. His pleased grin distracted her enough that her chair thunked into a bookcase.
Good thing it was too dark for him to see just how many shades of red she could turn. She dragged the squat green chair back where it belonged and dropped into it. “That’s it for me.”
“Ready to close up?” He was closer now, kicking her heart rate into overdrive.
“Definitely.” She pushed herself to her feet and hobbled to the counter to turn off the lamps. Wow. Sitting had been a mistake. She grabbed her purse and swore at the bright green text message light glowing in the dark. “Dammit.”
She swiped her phone awake to read the full message. Her heart sank. “I was set up for a musician tomorrow night and he just canceled. Food poisoning.”
He grunted. “That sucks.”
“Crap, crap, crap. I’ve got reservations lined up and an empty stage. Not to mention the wine we’re testing for you guys.” She scrolled through her contacts. Who the hell could she call at nearly eleven on a Friday night? Most of the musicians she used were scheduled well in advance.
“What kind of music?”
“Coffee house music. Will Hoge, Pete Yorn, Matt Nathanson, that kind of thing. My customers will be so disappointed.”
The light pop of knuckles was his only answer.
She looked up at him. “You don’t know anyone, do you?”
“I know your family hosts musicians at the winery sometimes. You have that gorgeous courtyard, with great acoustics.”
“Perfect acoustics,” he corrected, crossing his arms.
“You do know someone.” She dropped her phone back into her bag and stepped closer. His arms fell to his sides. “C’mon, Royal. The last time I was there, I heard the most beautiful Spanish guitar.”
“We use a guy,” he said evasively.
“Is it a secret?” Darkness and desperation made her bold. She took his hand, cupping it in both of hers. “You’re killing me here.” His low groan surprised her, but she didn’t have time to think about that. She drop kicked her pride out the French doors. “Please, Royal.”
“I’ll have him here tomorrow,” he said, voice husky.
“Just like that?”
He nodded. “What time?”
She rose onto her toes and threw her arms around his neck. “You’re a life saver.” She dropped back onto her heels and looked up at him, leaving her hands on his shoulders. “Two sessions, seven and nine thirty, plus whatever warm-up and setup time he needs.”
She’d have to shift the schedule to add a few more servers, just in case. Impulsively, she hugged him again—then realized he was still as stone against her. Crap. She’d obviously tucked her professionalism in with her closing receipts. What was going on with her tonight?
She was about to step back when his hand slid along her back, holding her in place. The earthy scent of grape leaves pushed away her plans, and her thoughts with them. He was so solid, warm and muscled under the fine linen. Breast to chest and thigh to thigh, they fit together like the pages of a book.
God, how long had it been since she’d been held? Months? Over a year? His wide palm slid up then back down her spine in a slow stroke. Her skin came alive under his hand. A delicious heat replaced her exhaustion and unfurled in her belly. She couldn’t think, not when his thumb kept tracing little circles at the small of her back. She took half a step back. The courtyard lights highlighted his cheekbone and the tiny silver hoop he wore in his left ear, but left his eyes deep in shadow. She couldn’t tell a damn thing about what he was thinking.
He cursed under his breath, then leaned in. His whiskers teased her cheek, and her breath stalled in her lungs. His mouth was so soft in comparison, almost hesitant, as he brushed his lips to hers and then covered her mouth completely. He dragged her closer until there was no mistaking what he wanted. His shirt bunched under her hand as she held on.
When he pressed her for a deeper kiss she opened willingly. The slow, sure slide of his tongue along hers went from tentative to flashpoint within half a breath.
She dragged the slip of leather out of his hair. The heavy layers wrapped around her wrist, anchoring her. She lost herself in the taste of him, in the surprisingly smooth curls that coiled around her fingers. Any fantasy she’d had paled in comparison to this. Her mouth sealed to his, and she leaned into him until, together, they stumbled into a book case. The quake of trinkets and books falling over was a distant nuisance.
The tip of his tongue flicked along the roof of her mouth before sliding along hers possessively. The chain reaction of shivers, followed by a bone-deep burn, only made her want more. She pushed him against the wall. His grunt almost stopped her, but the hardness digging into her belly gave her courage.
He broke away for a breath and cupped her face before diving back in for more. He kissed her like he’d never get enough of her. Deeper, darker, and with an overwhelming intimacy that left her trembling. The hard crush of his chest trapped her hands between them. Her fingertips dug into whatever she could reach, but it wasn’t enough. She wanted to explore the crinkle of hair beneath his shirt, wanted to feel his skin under the pads of her fingers. She wanted everything.
His moan echoed hers. She tore her mouth away, chest heaving. It was too dark to read his eyes.
“Royal,” she gasped. “I—”
His grip moved to the nape of her neck. He dragged her head back, baring her throat to his searing kiss—the sensitive skin behind her ear, the column of her throat, the pulse that seemed to roar in her head.
“God, you taste amazing,” he growled. “I knew you would.” He trailed a path up and over her chin to find her mouth again.
He’d thought about this before, but hadn’t touched her? Her questions slipped away under the deluge of pleasure. She took advantage of the tiny space between them and worked two of his buttons free. His coarse chest hair teased her palm, but before she could explore, he swung them around so her shoulder blades pressed into the wall.
Frustrated, she pushed at him. Her skirt limited movement and she needed—no, had to get closer. “I can’t—stupid frigging—”
His fingertips coasted down her thigh, found the slit in her skirt, and pulled it up. He hooked her knee over his hip. She rolled her hips against him, but that still wasn’t enough.
She covered his hand and guided him under the skirt, to her thigh. The heat of his fingertips was a brand on her skin. His guttural moan echoed hers. Then his mouth was gone and his forehead thunked against the wall beside her. His glorious hair slipped around her neck and shoulder. He took several deep breaths.
She froze. “Why are you stopping?” she gasped.
“Just give me a second.”
“Oh, God. You—” He wasn’t single. Of course he wasn’t single. That’s why he was stopping. Stupid, Tessa. Stupid.
Royal Andreas was far too delicious to be single, and she’d never been brave enough to ask. She dropped her leg, but he still had her pinned. He felt amazing against her—and she needed to push him away.
“You have a girlfriend, don’t you?”
“What?” He jerked back. “God, no. I just need a minute to calm down. I don’t take women against a wall, for Christ’s sake. Especially not you.”
“No, I don’t.” Was that regret she heard in his voice? “I just need a second.”
He brushed his lips against her temple and stepped back. She closed her eyes, letting her hands slide away from his chest.
Her heart pounded in her ears. She couldn’t think around the chaos of tingling skin and burning need. She curled her trembling fingers into her palms as if she could hold onto the warmth and rightness of Royal’s touch.
When he didn’t say anything else, she edged past him.
The past was repeating itself. This time she’d tasted more than wine, and that made it worse. She’d first met Royal during a regional wine tour. The guide had been explaining the fermenting process, but the moment she and Royal had seen each other, that was it. Just before the group had moved on to the vineyard, Royal had set a bottle of Tocai on one of the oak barrel tables, a teasing dare in his eyes.
She’d missed the rest of the tour, and the bus to the next winery. In fact, she’d spent the entire day with him. She’d thought it was the first step toward something with him, yet he hadn’t made a move on her since.
There had to be a reason, right?
“I have to go,” he said.
“Right. Of course. You have a long drive ahead of you.” He was going to walk away. Dammit, how did this man keep getting to her? She shook her hair back and blinked away the quick prickle of tears. She grabbed her purse, determined not to break down in the middle of her own store.
“Tessa.” He caught her wrist. “It’s not you. It’s…complicated.”
Crap. Not even a good excuse. “Just a moment of weakness, right? All these late nights were just begging us to do something crazy.” The lump in her throat ruined her breezy tone.
Do not break down, dammit. Not here, not now, and not in front of this man.
“If I could do something crazy,” Royal said, “it would be with you.”
Before she could respond, he turned and strode out to the courtyard.
“Dammit,” she muttered, and followed him out. Pride wanted to let him go, but she had her store to worry about.
She stumbled to a halt, gasping for breath. “Wait! I can still count on your musician friend tomorrow night, right?”
He stopped at the bumper of the truck, indecision plain in the set of his shoulders. He wouldn’t look at her, but finally he ground a single word through his teeth. “Yes.”
Then he climbed into the truck and, before she could ask him the musician’s name, drove away.