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A Sip Before Dying - Chapter Sixteen



I was standing at the top of the hill with my father. Only he wasn't sick and pale, like I'd last seen him, but standing tall and strong, surveying the vines with a small smile of satisfaction on his lips that said he was in his element. I opened my mouth to speak—to tell him just how much I'd missed this. Only no sound came out. All I could hear was the wind picking up behind the trees, rustling the leaves. I tried to call out to my dad, yell, scream, alert him to my presence, but he seemed in his own world, completely focused on the landscape, expressions serene and happy. I tried to yell again.

"Dad, it's me. Emmy! Emmy!"

But he didn't hear me. In fact the words didn't even sound like my voice. They felt disconnected, far away.

"Emmy! Emmy?"

They grew louder, and my dad, the vines, and the rustling leaves began to fade away, replaced with darkness. And pain. A searing, throbbing pain at my temple as I struggled to open my eyes.

"Emmy?"

I blinked, realizing the voice was not entirely in my dream. Detective Christopher Grant bent over me, the fleck in his hazel eyes dancing in a frenzy as his dark eyebrows drew over them in concern. "Emmy? Emmy, can you hear me?" he asked.

I blinked again, the movement taking great effort. "Yes," I croaked out and nodded. Ouch. Bad idea. The pain spread around my head like a wildfire.

"Don't move," Grant instructed. "I'll call an ambulance."

"No," I said, finding my voice. "No, I'm fine." Or I was pretty sure I would be. After a bottle of aspirin. I pushed myself into a semi-sitting position on the cold pavers of the pathway and took stock of my body. I wiggled toes, fingers, legs. Everything seemed to be in working order, even if my head did feel a little fuzzy, almost like it wasn't quite connected to my body. I spied a large rock lying on the stones near me and cringed as I noticed a drop of blood on it. I gingerly reached a finger up to my head, feeling a trickle of wet sticky substance, confirming the blood was mine.

"You're bleeding." Grant realized it too. "I'm calling an ambulance, and I'm not taking no for an answer." He pulled out his cell.

"Well no is the answer," I said. I covered his hand with one of my own, preventing him from dialing. "I don't have insurance," I admitted. What could I say? Mom's medical bills were high enough that there was little left over to cover the exorbitant cost of medical insurance in California. I figured I was young and healthy enough to wing it for a year. At least until the winery was in the black. "I'm fine," I said again, hoping that statement sounded more confident than I felt.

Grant paused, his eyes going to my hand covering his.

I awkwardly pulled it back.

"Let me help you inside," he offered, supporting me as I slowly got to my feet.

I'm proud to say I only swayed a little. I gave my keys to Grant, not trusting my hands to be steady enough to open the door. At least not while trying to maintain the appearance of being "fine."

"What happened?" he asked as he gingerly guided me to the sofa.

I sank down, never more grateful I'd opted for squishy, soft furniture rather than uncomfortably fashionable. "I-I don't know," I told him honestly.

Grant sat beside me, concern still etched on his face as he gave me an assessing once-over. "You've got a nasty bump on your head." His fingers went up to my temple, gently brushing my hair behind my ear to inspect it.

I shivered, more from the intimate gesture than the sting of pain there.

"I think someone hit me," I confessed.

"Who?" The word had a sharp edge to it. Almost a dare.

I shrugged. "I don't know. I didn't see anyone. But I heard a noise."

"What sort of noise?"

I bit my lip. "I don't know." Some great witness I was. "I-I thought I heard something near the cave when I was locking up."

"The cave?"

"The wine cellar," I explained. "Then I heard it again as I was approaching my cottage. But I blacked out before I could see what. Or who."

"Oh, Emmy." It came out on a sigh, as if exasperation was mixed with relief that a bump on the head was all I'd gotten. The hard angles of his face relaxed a little, giving him a hint of vulnerability that was way too tantalizing. His hand went to my head again, lingering just a little longer than was strictly necessary to inspect my wound.

For a moment it felt like we were just two humans, and not a cop and a struggling business owner keeping secrets and sneaking into places she shouldn't. Though, in my defense, the sneak that evening had been breaking into my winery.

"I think you should check out where David Allen was tonight," I said.

And just like that, the moment was over. Grant pulled his hand back, leaning into the sofa. "David Allen? You think he hit you?"

I moved to nod but thought better of it. "Possibly. He had motive to want Chas dead."

The hazel flecks stopped dancing in Grant's eyes, their depths going darker. "A lot of people had motive to want Pennington dead."

"But I could see David doing it." Which was the truth. Both the murder and my head bashing. David seemed to fit the lurking-in-the-dark profile to a tee.

"That's hardly evidence. Unless you did see him."

"I told you, I didn't see anything. But I did find out that Chas owed David Allen a lot of money."

Grant frowned at me. "He owed a lot of people money."

"But what if Chas threatened to tell Vivienne that David was shaking him down? David could have lost his cushy lifestyle. And according to Trask, Chas owed David Allen half a million. That's plenty to kill over."

"Trask? Joe Trask?" Grant's jaw clenched, his eyes flashing.

Oops. Had I let that slip out? "Um, yes?" It came out more as a question.

"When did you talk to Joe Trask?" he demanded.

"Uh…I went to his shop earlier today?"

"In person?!"

"Umm…"

Grant let out a string of curse words that would have made my grandmother blush. "Emmy, this is not a game! You don't mess with people like Joe Trask. You could have been killed."

I raised an eyebrow at him. "Wait, are you saying that being hit on the head is my fault?"

He sighed and ran a hand through his hair. "What I'm saying is curiosity killed the cat."

I rolled my eyes. "Oh please. You're better than clichés, Grant."

He grinned, breaking through the tension. "Okay, how about this: there's a murderer on the loose, and you seem to be in their sights. Why, I'm not sure."

I had a guess. I was getting too close, asking too many questions. As cliché as it was, he was right—I was digging into something that someone wanted to keep under wraps. And unlike my feline counterparts, I only had one life. And I wanted to keep it, thank you very much.

"I'll be careful," I promised, meaning it.

"Thank you," he said, his voice missing that dangerous edge it usually held.

It was enough to melt a weaker woman at the knees.

"But don't you think that the fact someone hit me means I might be onto something?" I watched his reaction. His jaw squared again, the tension back. I tamped down a twinge of disappointment.

"Emmy…"

"No, listen. If Jenny killed her brother, why would anyone attack me? She's in jail."

"She made bail a couple of hours ago. She's staying with her parents, who just got into town. That's what I came to tell you."

"Oh." While I was glad she was home safe and sound, the timing wasn't ideal. "You could have told me that over the phone," I said.

He shrugged. "Where would the fun be in that?"

I paused. Was he flirting with me? I shook that thought out of my fuzzy head. My mind was playing tricks on me. Concussions did that.

"Okay, well, what reason would she have to attack me?" I countered.

"What makes you think these two events are connected?" he asked, his eyes intent on me.

I willed myself not to crack under his stare. "You think it's just coincidence?"

He sighed and shook his head. "No. I don't. But just because you poked your nose into someone's business that they'd rather keep private, that doesn't mean they killed Chas. It just means they don't much like you."

"Ouch." But he was right. I had no proof the two were connected. What I did have was a pounding headache, a dry mouth, and a sudden exhaustion that I could feel all the way to the tips of my toes.

It must have shown on my face, as the concern tugged at his eyebrows again. "You're going to have a hell of a bruise in the morning," he said softly. "I don't think you should be alone tonight."

Oh boy. I licked my dry lips, cursing my traitorous body for heating up in places that would also make my grandmother blush. "You don't?" I breathed out.

He shook his head slowly. "Do you have someone you can call?"

I cleared my throat. "Uh, yeah. Sure. I-I can call Ava."

He nodded. "I think that's best."

I tore myself away from his dancing eyes, giving my traitorous body a down, girl as I pulled out my cell and dialed Ava's number. I gave her the CliffsNotes version of the evening, and she promised she'd be there in ten minutes.

Nine minutes later she arrived in a flurry of ohmigod's and are-you-okay's. I gave her the detailed version of events, all the while watching Grant's concern fade back into his stoic cop demeanor. By the time I was finished and he was satisfied I wasn't in dire need of medical attention, he gave us both a curt nod goodbye and said he'd call in the morning.

As soon as he left, that exhaustion that had been dogging me all evening won over, and I collapsed into bed.


* * *


I awoke feeling like I'd been hit by a truck. Or maybe just a large rock. Either way, my head pounded, my mouth felt like a desert, and as I looked in the mirror, a purple bump sat on my temple and a large dark circle had blossomed around my right eye where I'd hit the ground. I gingerly blinked, wondering if I had enough concealer to cover it. After a shower, a blow dry, and a couple pounds of makeup, I decided I didn't. I opted for a pair of very large, very dark sunglasses instead, the lenses black and round, like Mickey Mouse's ears, which covered my black eye even if they did feel a tad dramatic.

I threw on a pair of skinny jeans, a dark shirt, and a warm caramel sweater that complemented my knee-high suede boots, and made my way to the living room, where the remnants of our impromptu sleepover lay in a rumpled heap on my couch. A Post-it told me Ava had gone to the main kitchen in search of coffee. I thought that was a fabulous idea.

I followed the heavenly smell of brewing French roast and cinnamon rolls toward the kitchen, and found Ava and Conchita deep in conversation, Ava regaling her with the tale of the attack the night before. Adding in just a few of her own embellishments. I could only imagine how the story would grow once Jean Luc added his dramatic flair to it. By noon I feared I'd be fighting off three ninjas and have a full body cast.

"Ay, Emmy," Conchita said when she spied me, enveloping me in a big hug.

"I'm fine," I told her. Though it came out more like "I've fibe," with my face mushed against her shoulder.

"Ay, mija!" she said, reverting to Spanish in the emotion of the moment as she lifted my sunglasses.

"It will heal," I told her.

She tsked her tongue, letting out a few more phrases in her native language as she fluttered over me and fussed, assessing every inch of me herself.

"I'm fine, really," I told her, sounding much more confident than my pounding head felt.

"Bacon," Conchita decided. "You need bacon."

Despite the pain, I felt a smile tug at the corners of my mouth. "You know me so well." And she was right. Bacon certainly wouldn't make the situation worse.

As she moved to the stove, I filled in the blanks Ava hadn't given her and set the record straight on a few of the exaggerations, finishing with my visit from Grant and his admission that, in this crime at least, Jenny seemed the innocent party.

"I don't buy it for a second that this isn't connected to Chas's murder," Ava said hotly.

I nodded. "I agree. Nothing was taken, nothing else disturbed. I think this was a warning."

Conchita gasped and made the sign of the cross.

"A warning I'll heed," I assured her.

Ava shot me a look. "Are you saying you're dropping the whole thing? Emmy Oak, that's not like you."

I shook my head, only mildly regretting it as a dull ache wrapped around my brain. "No, I'm saying I plan to be more careful. No more being alone outside after dark."

"I bet it was Trask," Ava said, shoving a bite of sugary glazed cinnamon roll into her mouth.

"I think that was Grant's fear too," I said.

"But why would he want that Chas dead?" Conchita asked. "I thought you said he was making a lot of money from him."

Ava shook her head. "I've been thinking about that. And, yes, he could have made a lot of money off him, if Chas had been paying him back. Which, he'd yet to do. Maybe Chas refused. Maybe Trask decided he'd have a better shot at convincing Vivienne to pay."

"But he didn't need to kill Chas for that," I pointed out. "He could have approached Vivienne anytime."

Ava chewed thoughtfully. "Okay, so what if Chas had something on Trask."

That was a new angle. "I'm listening," I told her.

"Well, maybe Chas told Trask he wasn't going to pay and threatened to go to the police if Trask didn't forgive the debt. Trask has been brought up on usury charges before."

"What is usury?" Conchita asked, scrunching up her nose.

"Loan sharking," I supplied, liking this new theory. "Your average desperate gambler might not have enough clout to get the authorities' attention. But if Chas Pennington somehow came to them with evidence of Trask's business, they might take note."

Ava nodded. "So, Trask offs Chas and tells Viv she has to cover the debt. It's a win-win for him."

"Just one problem," Conchita cut in.

We both turned to her.

"This loan shark wasn't at the Spanish party."

My hopes fell. "That's right."

"So maybe Trask didn't give Chas the drugs himself," Ava said, undeterred. "But he could have paid someone to do it. Maybe even one of the other guests? Who knows, maybe one of them owed Trask money, and this was his way of forgiving their debt?"

It was all very possible. And I could well see the seedy Trask braining me on the head without his lazy conscience blinking an eye. The thought of him slinking around the winery in the dark made me shiver, even in the cozy warmth of the kitchen, surrounded by scents of cinnamon, lattes, and bacon.

"I'd like to talk to Vivienne again," I decided.

Ava paused midbite. "Why?"

"I'd like to know just how much of Chas's extracurricular activities she knew about before he died." I sipped my coffee. "I feel like it's the key to everyone's motive."

"You think she'll see us again?"

I nodded. "I do. Because yesterday her mother asked me to cater the memorial." I paused to sip again as I thought through the plan. "We could say we need to go over the menu." Which, if I really was going to cater the event, was not a lie. Of course, I'd yet to be formally hired, but I could kill two birds with one stone.

Ouch. Poor choice of words. My hand went to my aching temple. I did not want to be the bird getting hit with the stone ever again.

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