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A Sip Before Dying - Chapter Twenty-One



The next hour went by in a blur of police arriving, taking statement after statement, paramedics being called to check on my latest head wound, and the dazed driver of the pickup that had been my knight in rusted armor telling the police that I "Just came from nowhere. All crazed and such."

Alison Price was nowhere to be seen by then, but I was sure she couldn't go far. She was a Price. It wasn't like they just blended in.

I was giving my statement to another uniformed officer for the third time, when I spied a familiar face making his way through the growing crowd of law enforcement and emergency personnel.

Grant.

A lesser woman would have thrown herself into his strong arms the moment he was in sight. Me? I waited until he was standing right in front of me to collapse into his open embrace.

His broad shoulders pillowed my face as all those tears of fear, regret, anger, and pure exhaustion I'd been holding back poured out in the safety of his flannel shirt. In that moment, I felt as if his arms could hold me up against any storm—or crazy baby boomer with a gun. I never wanted him to let me go, but eventually he must have felt the wet spot I was making on his shoulder, and he leaned me back to look at my face.

"Are you okay?" he asked, his voice so soft it was almost a whisper. The enticing intimacy of it sent shivers down my spine.

I nodded, not sure I trusted my voice.

"I mean, really okay?" he pressed, his eyes intent.

I stopped nodding. And shook my head.

"Oh, Emmy." He pulled me in for another fierce hug.

A girl could get used to this.

"What happened?" he finally asked.

I pulled back, took a fortifying breath, and told him about the whole scary ordeal, from the bash on the head to the trunk to Alison's confessions. His face was hard and unreadable the entire time, giving away nothing of his emotion or any hint at how much of Alison's guilt he'd already known about.

When I finally finished the story with my trucker savior, Grant asked, "And you knew all along that she was behind Chas's death?"

"Not really," I confessed. "I mean, some of it I had worked out. Like the poker games and the embezzling. But I was as surprised as you were to find out she was Chas's killer."

He stared at me, his expression unreadable. And it dawned on me.

"You aren't surprised, are you?"

He let out a deep sigh. "Not entirely. We traced the attack on you the other night back to Brackston. Forensics was able to lift a partial latent fingerprint from the rock he used. We were questioning him during the memorial, and while he hadn't broken down yet, I had a feeling that someone in the Price-Pennington household had put him up to it."

"I thought it was David," I told him sheepishly.

"Truth?"

I nodded.

"I did too for awhile."

"So he really is innocent?"

Grant nodded. "At least of this. Cheating at poker? That might be another issue, but I'll leave that to vice if they want to pursue the illegal poker games."

"Will they?" I asked, feeling a bit stronger talking it all out with Grant.

"Doubtful. Too many powerful people were at those games. My best guess? It will all be swept under the rug."

I nodded. I supposed I shouldn't be surprised. And really, it paled in comparison with murder.

"Can I take you home?" Grant asked.

I sent him a smile, the first genuine one I'd felt in what seemed like forever. "I thought you'd never ask."


* * *


Grant dropped me off at my cottage, making sure I made it inside the door before being a gentleman and promising to check in on me the following day. I gratefully collapsed onto my bed, falling asleep fully clothed and not waking again until the sun was high above the horizon. I moved slowly, every limb in my body feeling sore and overexerted. I took the hottest shower known to woman, and dressed in a pair of comfortable pink sweats and an old T-shirt with a picture of Mickey Mouse on it. I checked my phone and saw I had two messages from Grant already. That put a little smile on my face as I made my way toward the scent of coffee in the kitchen.

I spent the rest of the morning simultaneously being fed, coddled, and interrogated by Conchita and Hector about the events of the previous evening. By noon, Ava got in on the action, pulling up in her convertible just as I was considering getting to work. Somehow she convinced me that a bottle of Australian Shiraz and a pint of mint chip were a better idea, and we spent the rest of the afternoon on my sofa, with Thelma, Louise, and Bridget Jones, being grateful for the little things like good wine, chocolate ice cream, and best friends.


* * *


It was the following Friday, and Gene Schulz was smiling as he stood in my office. I could hardly believe what he was telling me, and his seesaw hands were held dead level. Well, almost level. They still tilted a little in the downward direction, but as he beamed about the good press Alison Price's arrest had gotten and how happy his investors were to be backing the "Heroine of Wine Country" who had "single-handedly (at least according to Bradley Wu) caught a killer," his mega-white smile didn't falter a beat.

According to the latest article in the Sonoma Index-Tribune, the police had caught up to Alison at the airport, as she'd tried to charter a private plane to Oaxaca, Mexico. Luckily Alison had still been driving Conchita's car, which was thankfully returned to her unharmed. While Alison had vehemently denied any wrongdoing at first, the papers were reporting that they expected her lawyer to put in an insanity plea. I had to agree—that woman was off her rocker.

Vivienne Price-Pennington had declined any comments to the press about the entire affair, quickly leaving the country for Belize, ostensibly to spread Chas's ashes. But I'd heard from Ava, who'd heard it from her father's cleaning lady, that the Price-Pennington estate had been closed up indefinitely. Valuables had been sent to storage, the furniture covered in thick, white sheets, and the staff let go. It didn't appear as if Vivienne had any intention of returning. I didn't blame her. The hodgepodge style mansion on the hill probably held too many bad memories.

According to Schultz, despite her mother's guilt, Vivienne was still the one footing the bill for Alison's very expensive defense attorney. I could only imagine how conflicted Vivienne's feelings must be toward the woman who doted on her, being that she'd also been the one to kill the love of her life. I had no idea if she'd spoken to Alison, but she was fulfilling her daughterly duty from afar.

Vivienne had scarcely been gone a day before Sadie had assumed the role of CEO at Price Digital. Apparently unaffected by the entire situation, Sadie had made lemon-tinis out of lemons, promising to restructure the entire accounting procedures and seemingly covering any misdeeds by Chas in the process—either knowingly or unknowingly. While Sadie might not be shedding a tear of grief over Chas's demise, it looked as though she knew as well as Vivienne that a scandal would only hurt the company—which she still had eyes on taking over.

After being officially cleared of any wrongdoing and having all charges against her dropped, Jenny had decided to move back to Arizona with her parents for a fresh start. As it turned out, Chas's estate had consisted mostly of the jewelry and gifts he'd accumulated from Vivienne, all of his liquid assets having previously gone to pay off his debts. The last of which Jenny took care of by handing the keys to Chas's bright yellow Lamborghini over to Fast Money Trask. She said Trask was so delighted at having the debt repaid, he even gave Jenny a good deal on selling Chas's Rolex, along with some other jewelry and valuables, in his pawn shop. At least good enough that Jenny said she had enough to build a new life for herself in Arizona, where she could be close to her remaining family.

The only member of the Price-Pennington family who'd stayed out of the media was the brooding artist David Allen. Though, Ava and I had both attended his show at the Salavence Gallery, where he'd sold several pieces. Turned out the Sonoma art lovers were more into dark and angtsy than I'd expected. At the opening, he'd told us he intended to stick around Sonoma for a bit longer, despite his family's tainted reputation. Whether that was a promise, threat, or just casual conversation, I still wasn't sure. While David's poker skills and financial demands on his stepfather had certainly contributed to Chas's demise, I was still adjusting to thinking of him as innocent.

"So, let's talk real numbers, Emmy," Schultz prompted when he'd finished regaling me with media's glowing new take on our winery. "Tell me the bookings have started rolling back in."

I bit my lip. "Do you want me to lie?"

His smile faltered for a second, but it was quickly back as he waved his hands in the air. "Never mind. I'm sure they're on their way. The court of public opinion has proven you innocent, and that's all that matters. You'll soon be in the pink."

I'd be happy just to be in the black. "So you think we'll be able to secure financing for the harvest this year?"

Schultz nodded vigorously. "Sure, sure. Those sales forecasts are about to turn up. I'm positive that by the time you need funding, they'll look healthy enough to woo investors."

I liked his optimism. Even if I knew it was my hard work in the meantime that would make or break that forecast.

As soon as Schultz left, still with a smile and a little spring in his step, I got to work planning a new event—the re-re-launch of the Oak Valley Vineyards. This time it would be a small tasting and dessert to follow. I wanted to let the wine shine through and let the guests enjoy the elegant simplicity of our gorgeous venue. No large meal. No over-the-top preparations. And most importantly, no dead VIPs.

An hour later I was working my way through the guest list, and mentally planning the menu of sweet treats, when a knock sounded at my office door.

"Come in," I answered automatically, halfway hoping it was Conchita with an early dinner delivery.

But the frame that filled the doorway was not that of my pleasantly plump mother figure, but the broad shoulders of Detective Christopher Grant.

"Detective Grant." Caught off guard, I stood up, bumping my knee on the desk in the process. I cringed, resisting the urge to fix my hair as his assessing eyes slid over me.

"You okay?" He gestured to my knee.

"Yes. Fine. Good. Great, even." I cleared the nerves out of my throat.

His eyes crinkled a little at the corners. "Good. I'm glad you're settling back in after everything."

I spread my hands to encompass the mess of spreadsheets, menus, and hastily scrawled lists of VIP names. "Super settled."

"Good." He paused. "Unfortunately, this isn't a social call. I, uh, just stopped by because I wanted to tell you personally before you heard from anyone else. Brackston has accepted a plea deal."

I felt a frown pulling at my forehead. Brackston, the Lurch look-alike butler who'd been arrested for assault and conspiracy. "What sort of deal?"

"He's agreed to flip on Alison Price in exchange for a lesser sentence."

My frown deepened. "How much lesser?"

Grant's turn to clear his throat. In fact, he looked even more uncomfortable than his sudden appearance in my office had made me a moment ago. "A lot lesser. Community service and probation on the assault charges."

"So he's going to walk free for bashing me over the head?" I asked, hearing my voice rise in both volume and pitch.

Grant nodded, his eyes softer as they searched mine. "I'm afraid so."

I breathed in deeply, trying not to freak out as I took mental stock of my feelings on the subject. Let's just say, they weren't warm and fuzzy. The idea of Lurch running around free to bash again left me angry, unsatisfied, and just a little frightened. On the other hand, Alison had committed a far worse sin. I could only imagine what kind of leverage she'd used against Lurch to convince him to do her dirty work. So, while I wasn't thrilled with the outcome, it could have been far worse. At least Alison Price would be locked away, likely for the rest of her life.

"I guess that's okay," I finally decided.

Grant's right eyebrow rose in mild surprise. "It is?"

I shrugged. "I'm not dancing a jig over it, but if that's the best we can do, it could be worse. I mean, I'm alive, right?" And the bruising was even going down to minimally noticeable at this point.

Grant's lips lifted in a smile. "You are." He took a step forward. "And you can be sure I won't let Brackston within a hot mile of the winery again."

The protective note in his voice sent warmth spreading through my belly. "Thanks. I appreciate that."

"You're welcome." He paused again. "But you know what I'd appreciate?" he asked, taking another step closer. So close I could almost reach out and touch him.

I licked my lips. "Yes?"

"A glass of that Petite Sirah I've heard so much about." He punctuated the request with a wink.

Was Grant flirting with me? The little gold flecks in his amber eyes moved in a mischievous dance, his smile curved in a wicked tilt, and he was still standing close enough to me that I could smell the faint aroma of his aftershave—something woodsy and fresh. I tried not to inhale too deeply, lest I lose my hold on long dormant hormones that were suddenly waking with a vengeance.

"You mean, you'd dare to try my 'killer wine'?" I teased back.

His eyes twinkled at me. "What can I say? I like to live dangerously."

"I'll say. Drinking on duty?"

"I'm actually off duty today."

I raised one eyebrow his way. "Really? So this is a social call?"

He chuckled, the sound a warm rumble that I swore I could almost feel vibrating through my belly. "I suppose it is," he replied. "Do you mind?"

Mind? My head was suddenly racing with all sorts of implications in that one statement. Most of them ending completely scandalously. "I don't think I do mind," I told him truthfully.

"Then lead the way, Ms. Oak." He stepped back to allow me to pass by him, his hand going ever so lightly to the small of my back as I did.

I stifled a shiver.

"Just one thing though, Detective Grant," I told him as we headed toward the tasting room.

"Yes?"

"If we're going to be on social terms, call me Emmy."

He came up beside me. Close beside me. His eyes were dark, his voice low and intimate. "With pleasure," he promised.

My stomach instantly turned to jelly. That was it. Grant was definitely trouble with a capital T.

And the worst thing about it?

I kinda liked it.

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