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A Sip Before Dying - Chapter Four



It was well past midnight by the time the forensics crew left the winery, and I spent a short, fitful night's sleep interrupted by dreams of dead men in my cellar. I awoke shortly after dawn, feeling the tension and physical exhaustion of the previous day in every bone in my body. I thought about working the kinks out with a short morning yoga routine, but I was feeling about as far from Zen as I could be. So I opted for a very hot shower instead, and added extra mascara and eyeliner to try to detract from the bags under my eyes.

I was just pulling on a pair of suede knee-high boots over my jeans and cream-colored silk T-shirt when I got a text from Ava.

At the door. Have coffee.

God, I loved that woman.

My cottage sat toward the back of the main buildings, away from the front drive and nestled among the oak trees. It was small by modern standards, built by my grandfather years before, but my parents had upgraded the plumbing and added AC, so it was comfortable. Plus, with a commercial kitchen just steps away, I never cooked in my own cottage, and it wasn't as if the two bedrooms weren't plenty for me, myself, and I. Even if I did yearn for a larger closet.

I crossed the hardwood floor of the small living room, my boots clacking, and found Ava on the other side of the door, a pair of paper coffee cups in hand.

"You are a goddess," I told her, ushering her inside.

"Tell me something I don't know," she answered with a grin. "Here. I figured you could use this today."

I took a grateful sip. "Have you seen the news today?" I asked.

"That the wine at Oak Valley Vineyard is poisoned? Yeah. I saw it."

I cringed. While I'd anticipated such a headline, I'd been too chicken to actually look. "So much for my put-us-on-the-map event."

"Oh, you're on it," Ava said. "Just for the wrong reasons." She shot me a sympathetic look and put a hand on my shoulder. "Sorry, hon. I know how much it meant to you."

I shook my head, unwilling to let any tears mar my makeup today. "It's okay. I'm sure as soon as the police get to the bottom of this, it will come out that my wine is fine and had nothing to do with Chas's death."

"Do the police have a suspect?"

I thought back to the conversation with Grant. "Unfortunately, I think they might suspect Jenny."

"No way!"

"Way." I told her how Grant had questioned me about when Jenny had left and how she stood to inherit. I'd tried calling Jenny last night, but it had gone straight to voicemail. I had no idea if she still had any family in the area to comfort her, but I could only imagine how hard she'd be taking news of her brother's death.

"How much was Chas worth?" Ava asked.

"Honestly? No idea. I know his wife is loaded, but I have no idea how much of that goes to his sister. If any," I added.

"Maybe we should find out."

I paused, my coffee halfway to my mouth. "What do you mean?"

Ava shrugged. "Just that someone killed Chas, and it would be good to find out who."

"I'm sure the police are handling it," I said, not entirely sure of anything. While Grant was right that I didn't know everything about Jenny, I knew her character well enough to know she wouldn't hurt a fly. If he was looking at her, he was barking up the wrong vine.

"You really haven't seen the headlines, have you?" Ava said, sympathy lacing her voice again.

The coffee suddenly tasted bitter in my mouth. "How bad are they?"

She pulled her phone from the back pocket of her white capris—paired today with a flowing, paisley printed, off-the-shoulder blouse that clung in all the right places. She swiped through a couple of screens, coming up with a piece by Bradley Wu.

Death in Wine Country read the headline.

I groaned out loud.

"Oh, it gets better," Ava warned, scrolling down as I read.

While the paella at the Spanish shindig on the hill was to die for, the main dish was actual death—served up by Oak Valley Vineyard's own Petite Sirah. Thank goodness they only make it in small batches! Forget the long kiss good night. Chas Pennington only enjoyed a sip before dying.

I closed my eyes. I counted to ten. I thought a really dirty word. "Please tell me this is the worst of it?" I squeaked out.

Ava shook her head, her eyebrows drawn down in sympathy again. "I could, but you know I'd never lie to you."

I sighed, feeling those tears threaten my mascara. "What am I going to do?" I asked, flopping back down onto my worn leather sofa. Desperation bubbled up in my throat.

"Well, first of all, you're not going to cry," Ava told me sternly. "The smoky eye thing looks too hot to ruin."

I sniffed and grinned at her. "Thanks. No crying. Check."

"Next," she went on, "we're going to find out exactly how that poison got in Chas Pennington's glass and make sure everyone knows it had nothing to do with your wine."

"And how do we do that?"

Ava smiled, the mischievous grin reaching all the way to her big brown eyes. "What do you say we pay the widow Price-Pennington a visit?"


* * *


While Ava's idea had harebrained scheme written all over it, I decided it wasn't entirely a bad idea to visit Vivienne Price-Pennington, if nothing else at least to pay our respects. I had little hope of ever doing business with her now, but maintaining a good rapport was a small step toward repairing my crumbling reputation. And, it wouldn't hurt to at least ask how much money Jenny might stand to inherit now.

We finished our coffee, jumped in my Jeep, and headed west toward the Price-Pennington estate. Fifteen minutes later, I pulled up to the heavy wrought iron gates, standing open, and followed the winding private road up to the big house. I parked under a shade tree in the large drive, and stepped out, my boots' high heels catching on the rough pavers.

"Nice place," Ava said beside me.

"Not bad for a second home," I added as I took in the impressive structure. While it was clearly built with a modern hand, the architecture seemed to be a hodgepodge of previous centuries' styles, with nods to Victorian designs in the roofline, a large Craftsman-style porch, and several sprawling towers and turrets cropping up from the roofline like a miniature castle.

A tall butler in formal-looking attire answered the door, adding to the regal air of the place.

"May I help you?" he asked in a voice that was deep and monotone. The pallor of his skin coupled with the dark circles under his eyes reminded me of Lurch from The Addams Family.

"We're here to see Vivienne Price-Pennington," I told him.

He looked me up and down, the only indication that I didn't live up to his standards a slight curl of his upper lip. "Is she expecting you?"

"No," I admitted. "But we'd like to offer our condolences."

He made a noncommittal grunt on the back of his throat but stood aside to allow us entry. "Follow me," he said—a command and not an offer.

We did, Ava and I trailing after him down a series of corridors, our heels echoing in the quiet mansion, until we reached a beautifully furnished lounge where a broad picture window framed a vista of distant mountains, seen across a lush green valley.

"May I offer you a drink while you wait?" the butler asked.

I shook my head, Ava doing the same. "Thanks. We're fine."

"I'll alert Mrs. Price-Pennington to your presence," he said, almost making it sound like a threat more than a promise as he ducked out of the room.

Thankfully, we didn't have to wait long as Vivienne appeared a moment later. It looked as if she'd aged a decade in the few hours since I'd seen her last. If my eyes had bags, hers were carrying steamer trunks, the puffy red skin impervious to makeup. She'd made an attempt at looking presentable, but the coiffed hair and deep red lipstick somehow just served to amplify the grief I could see etched in the noticeable lines on her face today.

"I'm so sorry for your loss," I started, reaching a hand out to her.

She took it, shaking limply. "Thank you. Good of you to come."

"Of course," I told her. "I can't imagine what could have happened to Chas."

Vivienne let out a humorless laugh. "He was drunk, that's what. As usual." She ended the thought with a hitch in her voice, digging into the pocket of her rumpled slacks for a tissue, which she pressed to her nose as she sank into the armchair opposite us.

"I'm so sorry," I said again, sitting on the sofa. I felt Ava shift beside me. "Is there anything I can do?"

Vivienne shook her head. "There's nothing any of us can do for him now. My poor Chas dug his own grave."

Ava shot me a look. "What do you mean?"

Vivienne sniffed again. "Just that he lived hard, looked pretty, and died young." She broke down, a sob escaping her.

"The police were at the winery," I said softly, laying a hand on hers. "They said it looked like Chas was poisoned."

"Lies!" Vivienne's head snapped up. "All lies. Who would ever want to hurt Chas? The man was a living god."

Who lived hard and was poisoned young. Clearly grief was clouding her opinion.

"Did Chas have any arguments with anyone? Any disagreements lately?" I asked.

Vivienne shook her head, shoulders slumping back into her seat. "Just the usual."

"Usual?" Ava asked, jumping on the word.

She sniffed and said, "My family wasn't the biggest fan of my marriage to Chas, and I doubt anyone in this house is shedding tears over him besides me. He was, well, truth be told, a bit younger than I am."

"Oh? I hadn't noticed." I'm proud to report I said that with a straight face.

Vivienne gave me a smile. "It was a small point of contention in the family."

"Your son?"

She nodded. "And my mother. They both thought Chas was after my money." She laughed again, the sound coming out on a hacking cough. "I ask you, what were they really concerned about? My happiness?" She didn't wait for an answer before continuing with, "No. They were worried about their share of the pie. Hypocrites."

"How much of a share did Chas end up getting?" Ava asked.

Vivienne's head shot up. "I'm not an idiot. We had separate bank accounts. Chas had a generous allowance, but that's it."

I thought of the Lamborghini Chas had driven to the vineyard that, incidentally, was still parked in our lot. The allowance must have been pretty generous indeed. A thought that must have showed on my face, as Vivienne continued.

"Look, you didn't know Chas. I gave him gifts from time to time, yes. The car, the gold watch, the Armani suits. But Chas wasn't after my money. He loved me. In fact, it was his idea to have a prenup. He didn't marry me for my money. I don't expect you to understand it, but what we had was love. Not business." Then she relapsed into a bout of tearing sobs.

I patted Vivienne's hand awkwardly again and glanced to Ava. This wasn't getting us anywhere, and I had a bad feeling that instead of comforting Vivienne, we were just upsetting her more.

"Did Chas have any close friends? Other family?" Ava asked.

Vivienne shrugged. "He has friends at the golf club. But I don't believe he was particularly close with anyone."

"What about colleagues?" Ava pressed. "Chas worked with you at Price Digital, right?"

Vivienne nodded. "Yes. I got him a managing consultant position after we married."

I was no MBA, but I had a feeling that title was code for sit in an office and look pretty.

"How was Chas's relationship with his sister?" Ava asked.

Vivienne looked up, putting her tissue to her nose. "Fine. I don't know. I didn't really know her."

"But you got her a job at your firm too," I pressed.

She sighed and shook her head. "That was one thing I should have denied Chas."

"Why is that?" I asked, suddenly fearing this interview might be casting more ill light on Jenny than less.

"That girl is a disaster. No head for numbers. Sadie had to fire her last week."

I felt my heart jump into my throat. Jenny had talked about her job as if it were current. She hadn't mentioned being fired. "How did Jenny take that?"

Vivienne chuckled. "Not well. I caught her begging Chas for money. Again. Of course, Chas was too kind to say no, but I told him he was going to have to cut her off eventually."

I cringed. I could almost see Grant's stoic face making a note of that. Maybe she killed him before he could cut her off. I shoved that thought aside. Someone else maybe. But not the Jenny I knew.

"You mentioned a Sadie?" Ava jumped in.

"Sadie Evans. Yes, she works for me." She paused. "Well, did. I guess she's more of a partner now." The way she said it told me there was some history there, but before I could pursue it, Vivienne continued, "Of course, Sadie never wanted to hire the girl in the first place."

"Why was that?" I asked.

She paused. "I don't know. Sadie wasn't Chas's biggest fan."

It was starting to look like his fan club consisted of one—his wife.

Another thought occurred to me as I remembered the way Chas had been eyeing Ava's "pendant" over lunch. "Is there any chance that Chas may have had…a bit of a wandering eye?"

Vivienne stopped her sniffling and frowned. "Oh no. He didn't hit on you, did he?"

I felt my cheeks color. "Me? No."

Ava wisely stayed silent beside me.

Vivienne shook her head. "Yes, it's true Chas had a healthy appreciation of the female form. What can I say? The man was very virile. One of the things I loved about him. But yes, from time to time, his drive may have gotten ahead of his good sense."

I tried to read between the lines. "You mean Chas was unfaithful to you?"

She waved the comment off. "Not intentionally. But we all make mistakes. I forgave him. He may have gotten caught up in the moment once or twice, but I knew he loved me."

"Anyone he may have gotten caught up with recently?" I asked, liking this new angle.

"Of course not," Vivienne snapped.

But the way her eyes suddenly hit the floor afterward told me she wasn't as sure as she sounded. I filed that tidbit of info away for later.

"I saw that Jenny drove you home last night," I said. "Was she with you before that?"

Vivienne shook her head. "No. I don't know where she was. I had a business call I had to take, so I went out to my car for some privacy."

"Alone?" Ava asked.

Vivienne turned to her. "Yes. That's what private means."

Which meant Vivienne couldn't provide an alibi for Jenny.

Though, as I watched her sniffle into her tissue again, I noted it also meant one other thing.

Vivienne Price-Pennington didn't have an alibi for the time of her husband's death.

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