A Sip Before Dying - Chapter One

My best friend was waiting for me outside Silver Girl, her jewelry boutique in downtown Sonoma, when I pulled up in my Jeep. Ava Barnett: blonde, bubbly, and as perpetually optimistic as a woman who worked the tourist trade could be. She was dressed today in a flowy floral dress that just skirted her perfectly tanned ankles above boho-style sandals and pink painted toenails. We were both about a size eight, though Ava was on the lithe, athletic side of eight, and I was on the generous, enjoys-her-chocolate side of eight. She floated into my passenger seat on a cloud of peachy lotion and patchouli incense, and I instantly felt my spirits lift as I tried to downplay how rotten that Friday had turned out for me.

"How's things?" she asked, chucking her overnight bag into the back seat of the Wrangler.

I shrugged, tucking some of my flyaways back into my ponytail. While Ava's hair shone, humidity or cloudless sky, my own blonde locks were a fickle bunch. I had my good days, but depending on the weather, they could kink up like Shirley Temple or frizz like Bozo the Clown. Today they were somewhere at a half-Bozo, hence the ponytail to rein them in. "Things are fine," I answered, determined to put on a happy face.

She grinned at me, showing off a row of white teeth with an endearingly chic gap between the front two. "Liar."

I couldn't help the corners of my mouth turning up as well. Joined at the hip since high school, we were more like sisters than best friends. Ava knew me well enough to see through any attempt at downplay.

"Okay, honestly? Things kinda sucked today," I told her.

"Really?" Her big brown eyes turned sympathetic.

I nodded. "Like a Hoover."

"Is it your mom?" she asked.

I bit my lip, feeling a whole new wave of suckatude wash over me at the mention of my mother. But I shut off that emotional faucet before it could completely ruin our planned girls' night. I shook my head. "No, today it was Gene. He was pulling his seesaw act again."

Ava had already heard on multiple occasions how Gene Schulz, my financial consultant, played seesaw with his left and right hands, swinging them up and down alternately as he pictured my winery's financial health. The left hand represented debt, and it always ended up at the highest point when the seesaw gesture stopped. Today's game had ended with the right hand falling even lower than in the past. That was the hand that represented assets—in other words, Oak Valley Vineyard and everything I held dear in this world. All I had inherited after my father passed and Mom's beautiful personality had begun to disintegrate.

The assets in question amounted to just over ten acres of vines and a majestic oak-lined driveway that led to a cluster of low Spanish-style buildings that comprised our winery, my own small cottage, and "the cave," as my namesake, Grandma Emmeline, used to call the wine cellar. Down there in the cool dark was my barreled and bottled stock in trade: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Zinfandel, and a few cases of a small run Petite Sirah.

According to Gene, the whole shebang was worth about half a million dollars less than the outstanding debt. We were hanging on by a fraying thread, and I knew only too well that a couple of sexy big commercial wineries were hovering like vultures, waiting to get Oak Valley Vineyard for a song when it went belly-up. Which they fully expected it to do.

Truth be told, sometimes I thought Gene did too.

In my darkest moments after my mom's diagnosis, I'll admit, I had half expected that as well. While I'd excelled at culinary school and spent several years as a personal chef in Los Angeles, the knowledge I had about running a winery could fit in a fortune cookie. Like generations before me, I'd grown up on the land and had a fair understanding of the crops. But I'd been a teenager when I'd left to strike out my own path. Little did I know that at age twenty-nine, that path would end up leading me right back to Sonoma—only now it was up to me to preserve what my family had worked so hard for.

And as long as I was at the helm, belly-up was not an option.

"So what did Seesaw Gene have to say?" Ava asked.

"He said we'll be lucky to break even this year." I tried to keep my eyes on the road as I pulled out. "We're servicing the debt, and we've never defaulted, knock on wood"—I rapped my knuckles on the faux wood center console—"but we're just scraping by."

"Hey, you're getting by! That's not a bad thing."

I shot her a grin. What did I tell you—Miss Optimism, right?

"Unfortunately, getting by will only last so long." I paused, digging deep for a little enthusiasm. "So, we need to kick it up a notch."

Ava arched one delicate blonde eyebrow at me. "Which is where I come in?"

I nodded. "This weekend, you are my social wheel greaser, mood lifter, and all around hostess with the mostest." I sent her a sympathetic glance. "Sorry, you'll be run ragged, girl."

If she dreaded it, she didn't show it, just giving me another breezy smile. "What are friends for?"

"Have I mentioned lately how much I love you?"

Ave laughed. "Say it with a bottle of your 2012 Blanc, and I'm yours."

"Done," I promised.

The following day was the first event in my grand plan to revive Oak Valley Vineyard, our unofficial re-launch. My aim was to show the local enthusiasts that, while we put out wine to rival any of the big boys in town, we were also a charming venue for parties, weddings, and retreats. And the food wasn't half bad either.

"So, what's on the agenda tonight?" Ava asked.

"Well, I think we should start with that 2012 bottle."

"I concur!"

"And then I'm thinking it's a Thelma & Louise night."

"Wow, we're at T&L level?" Ava patted my shoulder. "Must have been a really bad meeting with Gene."

I nodded. "We're gonna need comfort food too." Friday night was no time to count calories.

Ava raised her eyebrow my way again. "Pizza?"

I laughed. "I was thinking more like bacon wrapped scallops. With bacon Brussels. And chocolate dipped bacon." I did mention I was on the generous side of a size 8.

Ava shrugged. "Okay, you're the boss."

"Tomorrow I'm the boss," I corrected her. "Tonight all I want is some Geena Davis and a girl's night."

"That," Ava said, "I can do."

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