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A Sip Before Dying - Chapter Two



The following morning I was up before dawn, walking Conchita, my house manager, and the three local day servers I'd hired for the event through the finer points of my Spanish Style Paella recipe at an improvised fireplace of loose bricks at the edge of the vineyard.

We had a private tasting slated for that afternoon, after which I'd be serving a Spanish meal, all cooked outdoors on wood fires, like the Valencians of the Orange Blossom Coast did at seaside picnics—or at least that was what I would be telling my guests in order to add a European flair to the evening. I planned to serve the meal family-style, outdoors on rustic-chic wooden tables under the trees, and paired with an ice-cold pitcher of sangria at each table made of our Zinfandel, club soda, a splash of brandy, and a pinch of sugar.

"I think we should prepare all the components of the paella in advance, before final assembly," I mused out loud to Conchita. "Brown the meats and have the sofrito bubbling away."

Conchita nodded, her salt-and-pepper hair bobbing up and down in the loose bun at the back of her plump neck. She'd been at the winery as long as I could remember, and I almost thought of her as a second mother. Though, with her envious dark tan and Hispanic heritage, she looked the polar opposite of my blue-eyed, bought-sunscreen-in-bulk self. Conchita was married to Hector Villarreal, our vineyard manager, who'd been a fixture at Oak Valley Vineyard since boyhood. I'd learned a lot about the vines from him growing up, and I'd even been the flower girl when he married Conchita. While some might refer to the couple as staff, to me they were family. Some days they almost felt like all the family I had left.

I ignored that downer, though, as Conchita and I worked side by side, adding a splash of oil to a hot pan, along with a finely chopped mixture of onion and seeded tomato, some sweet peppers, and a hint of crushed garlic and parsley. I seasoned it with salt and pepper and a few threads of fragrant saffron then fried it until the sofrito—or fry-up—began to form a paste.

"That smells amazing," Conchita told me.

I nodded. "From your mouth to our guests' ears."

She patted my back. "Don't worry. You know they are going to love this."

Love to eat? Yes. Love enough to book their next big event here? I could only hope.

I left the food in Conchita's capable hands and excused myself to get ready for the VIP guests I'd be meeting that day, including local influencers, bloggers, and reporters, as well as socialites, Silicon Valley billionaires, and wine enthusiasts.

No pressure there.

I showered and threw on my usual minimal-but-tasteful makeup routine. I prayed for a good hair day, as I attempted to de-frizz via copious hair products. Which was at least mildly successful. Then I slid on a flattering navy shift dress and a pair of red pumps with low heels, as a concession to the amount of walking I'd be doing on the grass that afternoon. I capped it off with Grammy Em's pearl drop earrings and stood back to assess my reflection. I took a deep breath, praying I could project confidence and not the bundle of nerves I could feel brewing in my stomach.

Fifteen minutes later, I was standing in the circular drive at the head of the estate, awaiting our first guest. Ava was by my side in a clinging forest green sheath, showing one of her own silver crescent moon pendants above a moderate-to-serious amount of cleavage. She squeezed my hand and gave me a fortifying smile as the sound of the first set of tires crunching up the gravel drive approached.

Vivienne Price-Pennington arrived precisely on time in a big white Rolls Royce. While I'd seen her name in the society pages of our local lifestyle magazine, this was the first time I'd encountered the software billionairess in person. Like many of Silicon Valley's elite, she had a second home here in wine country. The CEO of Price Digital was only a couple of inches taller than my own 5'5", but she seemed to take up a lot of space, her personality radiating from her as she stepped from the vehicle in tailored silk and signature red-soled Louboutins. She had a good fifteen to twenty years on me, and the tight fit of her dress over her hips, the extensions in her dyed auburn hair, and the predatory gleam in her eye all said cougar with a capital C. Which she could well afford to be, her first three companies having been bought out by Microsoft, Apple, and Intel.

She was accompanied by a young man with dark hair that fell rebelliously into his eyes as he surveyed the vineyard with a perma-scowl on his features. It was a look I'd seen often on the young, idle, and rich in the Bay Area. Beside him stood an older woman with a pinched smile. She wore her A-line skirt and blazer like a starched uniform, complete with hat and gloves, looking almost like a caricature of a society lady on a weekend picnic.

"Mrs. Price-Pennington," I said, reaching to shake my first VIP's hand. "It's a pleasure to finally meet you."

She nodded, glancing behind me at the winery, as if assessing its worth. "Please, call me Vivienne. And it's a pleasure to be here. I've heard good things about your small run Petite Sirah."

"I'll be sure to set a case aside for you," I promised, knowing full well who she'd heard it from. While Gene "Seesaw" Shultz might have his doubts about our long-term solvency, he knew how to push an investment. He'd supplied many of the names on our guest list of the wine loving elite in Sonoma.

"This is my son, David," Vivienne said, gesturing to the younger man.

He nodded awkwardly, as if just "my son, David" was a label he was well used to wearing. I shook his hand, which was slightly sweaty despite the cool spring air.

"And this is my mother, Alison Price."

Alison gave me a gloved hand that had a surprisingly firm grip. Like her daughter, she was tall, though her hair was a duller brown shot with a generous amount of white. Her face looked naturally lined and Botox-free, though her spine was straight and strong. If I had to guess, I put the baby boomer around seventy, though there was nothing frail looking about the senior citizen.

"How do you do?" she asked, clearly not caring what the answer to that question was as she quickly turned her attention away from me and toward her grandson. "David, please get my bag from the trunk."

His scowl deepened, but he ducked back toward the car to obey.

I quickly introduced Ava to the women and told Vivienne, "Ava's on your table. If you need anything, she'll see to it."

Vivienne nodded. "I'm looking forward to this Spanish theme of yours. I've just been back from Europe, so I'm intrigued to see your take on it."

While it was phrased as a statement, it almost came off as a dare. One I planned to take on, guns blazing. "I'm sure you'll enjoy it." I shot her a smile that I hoped was a lot more confident than I felt.

If she noted any of the nerves coursing through me, she didn't mention them, instead gesturing back down the driveway the way she'd come. "My husband, Chas, was held up at work, so he'll be coming later in the Lamborghini. I'm sure he'll be here in time for the picnic, even if he happens to miss the tasting."

I nodded, mentally making a note to treat anyone arriving in a Lamborghini as Price-Pennington royalty. "We'll be sure to direct him to your table when he arrives."

Ava and I ushered the party into the tasting bar, where my bar manager and wine steward, Jean Luc, was preparing his stand-up enologist act. Though, as I'd learned when I'd hired him on last year, Jean Luc preferred the term sommelier to wine steward. In fact, I'd quickly learned that Jean Luc preferred the French term for anything to the English. While pretension practically dripped from his thick accent, customers ate it up with silver spoons, today being no exception as I saw Mrs. Price actually crack a genuine smile as he complimented her flower studded hat. My hired day help poured samples for the other guests, and Jean Luc laid on the charm, talking up the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay we had in glass to Vivienne.

I left Ava in the tasting bar to help Jean Luc and slipped outside to stand at the top end of the avenue and say a mental prayer for success, on the lookout for more cars. One by one they arrived, playing out much as the meeting with Vivienne had. Guests had never been here but were curious to see how the little winery with a growing reputation would pull it off today. The more people who arrived, the more I felt like I was on the job interview of a lifetime. This one meal could make or break our word of mouth.

I wasn't sure if all the guests had arrived, but I had run a rough car count, which came out to at least thirty influential people, all squeezed into the tasting bar, mingling and murmuring amongst themselves. The atmosphere in that little bar was heady, as if the very air had an alcohol content. The wine jargon flowed whenever the crowd of like-minded enthusiasts took a short break from sniffing and sipping. They pulled all the faces you'd expect to see at tastings—pouting and puffing their cheeks, breathing in through the nose over a mouthful of my Chardonnay, squeezed between tongue and palate. They gargled the contents of their glasses and talked about the "robe," the "nose," and the "legs."

I turned and walked back to the kitchen, where Conchita was busy organizing the covered plates of paella components and urging the staff on as they transferred the ingredients to a long table under the trees. Outside, I checked the fires in a line of six improvised brick barbecues. Chicken pieces were browning in the sizzling pans, and the rustic tables were all laid, complete with place cards, flowers, and a central board on each, to bear the heat of the pan.

Back in the tightly packed tasting bar, I asked Ava to keep an eye on the proceedings outside, as I threaded my way through the huddled guests, meeting and greeting. Hector had joined Jean Luc and was fielding questions like a pro. One man I recognized as a reporter for Sonoma Wine Life asked if the wine would have any taint from the ash and smoke of the previous year's monster wildfires, which had devastated enormous tracts of northern California.

Hector put the newspaperman's fears to rest by saying, "The wines on offer had gone into bottle long before the fires broke out. As for the crop yet to be harvested, time will tell, ladies and gentlemen. It will take a couple of years before we'll know if there's a taint. Let's cross that bridge when we come to it. Personally, I'm inclined to think that Mother Nature will shrug off the effects of the fires."

The reporter smiled, obviously pleased with the answer, and sipped from his glass. I let a moment of relief rush over me.

A short moment.

Ava appeared at my side and whispered, "More guests just arrived, in a sports car."

"Lamborghini?"

Ava shrugged. "Beats me. All I know is it was bright yellow and flashy, and the driver was positively yummy. If he'd arrived alone, you know I would be talking to him right now and not you." She winked at me.

I grinned back. "Down, girl."

She held her hands up in surrender. "Hey, I'm just saying." She paused, nodding toward the doorway. "That's him."

I had to admit, Ava was right. The man filling the doorframe was hot enough to start his own wildfires. Dark blond hair, just long enough on top to be stylish but short enough on the sides to feel GQ. His skin was tanned, jaw square, shoulders broad. He could have been a male model, complete with the perpetually bored look on his face as he surveyed the crowd.

But it was the short brunette at his side that caught my attention. She wore a simple sundress, low-heeled sandals, and was one of the only women in the room not carrying a purse sporting a designer logo. I recognized her instantly, though it had been a good decade since I'd seen her. Jennifer Pacheco had been a couple of years behind me in school, and we'd taken choir together my senior year. I remembered her as a shy, quiet kind of girl, though she'd had the voice of an angel.

"Jenny?" I asked, approaching.

She turned a pair of big blue eyes my way, recognition dawning on her side as well. "Emmy!" She gave me a quick hug. "So good to see you again."

"You too. How have you been?" My eyes must have flitted up to her companion, as she immediately introduced him.

"Oh, Emmy, this is my brother, Chas. Chas Pennington."

I blinked, trying to cover my surprise. Pennington, as in my VIP's husband. The cover model beside Jenny was at best a flirty thirty. Several years Vivienne's junior.

"Half brother," Chas corrected Jenny, sticking a hand out toward me. "Charmed."

"Nice to meet you," I said, trying to find the resemblance between the two.

"Is my wife here?" he asked, his eyes going to the crowd again.

"Yes, I, uh, believe she's with my wine steward, Jean Luc." I pointed to the bar.

Chas turned his bored look toward his half sister, and his eyes softened. "I'll catch up with you later?"

Jenny nodded. "Go. I know how Vivienne hates you being late."

Chas snorted but gave his sister a quick kiss on the cheek before heading toward my VIP.

"I didn't know you had a brother," I said as I watched him walk away. I had to admit, the rear view of his perfectly fitted slacks was not entirely a terrible one. Vivienne knew how to pick them.

Jenny nodded. "You wouldn't have. He lived with his mom in Fremont when we were in high school, so he wasn't at Sonoma Valley High. Plus, we have different last names, of course."

I nodded. "Did Chas take his mother's name?"

Jenny laughed. "No, Pennington was our landlord's name. Chas had his legally changed after high school. Thought it would get him farther in life than Pacheco." She paused, glancing across the room at her half brother, who was accepting a glass of wine from Jean Luc. "As usual, Chas was right."

"Well, you seem close now," I observed.

She smiled. "We are. After Mom and Dad moved to Scottsdale, Chas and Vivienne were a godsend." She paused. "Dad's health hasn't been great."

"Oh, I'm sorry to hear that." If I recalled correctly, Jenny had come from humble beginnings. Her mother had been a housekeeper at one of the local hotels, and her—and apparently Chas's—father had been a farmworker. I could well imagine years of hard labor in the California sun could take a toll on one's health.

"Thanks. He's doing better in the dry climate." She smiled through the obvious pain in her eyes. "And, of course, the cost of living is a lot lower in Arizona, so that's a plus."

I glanced at Chas, greeting his billionairess wife with air kisses—the scene so far removed from cost-of-living conscious farmworkers that it could have been a different planet.

She must have read my thoughts, as Jenny immediately jumped to Chas's defense. "Oh, Chas helps out whenever he can. In fact, he even got Vivienne to get me a job at Price Digital."

I gave her a reassuring smile. "That sounds very generous of him," I told her.

Jenny relaxed. "Yes, well, that's Chas."

I spied Conchita hailing me from the doorway to the kitchen.

"It was lovely to see you again, but if you'll excuse me, duty calls." I gave Jenny a quick hug and threaded my way through the growing crowd.

Outside, clouds of fragrant steam rose from the paelleras as they were transferred to the six tables, to rest under white cloths. The flamenco guitarist I'd hired began playing a soft, inviting song that lured more guests outside, and I trotted up and down beside the filling tables, handing out bowls of cut lemons and making sure everyone was served a generous portion of the meal.

At the Price-Pennington table, Ava sat between Jenny and Chas, who appeared in godlike sculptural profile, closely examining my best buddy's crescent moon pendant—or perhaps the bosom beneath it. David sat on the other side of Chas, scowling their direction, though whether it was directly in relation to his stepfather or at life in general, I couldn't tell. Alison was commenting on the bottle of Petite Sirah Jean Luc had pulled from our private reserve especially for Vivienne, and Jenny was looking distinctly uncomfortable in her surroundings. I wondered at her reasons for being in attendance—if it had been Vivienne's idea or Chas's.

I watched as Chas tossed back a glass of the Sirah like it was water, then reached for a refill. The pitcher of ice-cold sangria hadn't been touched. I made a mental note to ready another bottle from the cellar in case Chas flattened the first one before his wife could take a ladylike sip or two.

I worked the tables as the afternoon wore on, making sure my guests were happy. I heard plenty of compliments and was pleased to see that a few of my picnic invitees had taken photos of gorgeous paellas, hopefully to share on their social media pages and tag me as the creator.

As soon as I was sure the guests were satisfied, I snuck a glass of sangria and nibbled on a leg of chicken. The afternoon light was beginning to turn gold as the flan y fruta was served.

That was when Bradley Wu waddled up to embrace me. His tweed jacket always has a faint fragrance of Turkish tobacco. Brad was a syndicated food columnist with a large online following. The man had incredible taste buds and a vocabulary to match. He once described the history of wine country as, What began as a low-budget black and white spaghetti western, evolved into a technicolor widescreen blockbuster with an all-star cast and several self-indulgent musical numbers…

I could only hope he saw my current offerings as Oscar-worthy dramas and not B-movie musicals.

"Emmy, darling!" he hailed me, throwing air kisses at both my cheeks. "I gorged on your creation, and to compensate, I shall be counting calories all next week. But not all the guests have a full appreciation of your achievement. Would you believe, just a few minutes ago, a very ignorant lady referred to your paella as 'seafood rice.' What a philistine insult to a cultural monument! This paella is the culminating triumph of the baroque imagination, as expressed in the culinary arts." He sighed.

I couldn't help but smile. "I'm so pleased you enjoyed it," I said. "Have a sit down and a sip of my Petite Sirah—it'll tan your tongue into belt leather."

"That, I shall look forward to with great pleasure!" He kissed my hand and went back to his table under the trees.

I spent the rest of the afternoon mingling, chatting with guests, and making sure glasses were never empty. As the sun began to sink below the trees in a watercolor painting of pink, oranges, and delicate purples, guests started to trickle toward the driveway, making their way back to town or, in the case of those who had really enjoyed the tasting, calling cars to safely transport them home.

I watched Vivienne and her entourage readying to leave. Vivienne swayed unsteadily on her heels, Alison supporting her with one arm. I noted that Jenny was with them now, taking over the role as designated driver and slipping into the front of the car.

"I hope you enjoyed yourselves," I told Vivienne as I approached.

She nodded, her cheeks slightly flushed. "Quite. The winery is lovely, Emmy," she said, sweeping her arms toward the growing vines.

"Thank you," I told her sincerely. "I hope you keep us in mind for your next event."

She nodded. "Oh, be sure that I will," she said as David held the passenger door open for her. "Hector tells me the Sirah is in limited supply?"

I nodded. "Yes, but Hector's been growing more of that varietal, so we'll be making more limited batches."

She nodded. "Good to know."

It wasn't exactly an order, but I took it as interest.

She got into her seat, slightly less than graciously, and I watched David get into the back seat without so much as a look my direction. If I had to guess, he'd long ago hit his limit of small talk with his mother's crowd.

I waved goodbye to Jenny as I watched the car slide away down the avenue into the gathering dusk.

I found Ava in the kitchen, her heels on the floor beside her as she nibbled bits of leftover flan.

"They gone yet?" she asked.

I nodded. "The lingerers are leaving now. I think Vivienne might have been the last holdout. But," I added hopefully, "she seemed to have enjoyed herself."

Ava held her hand up to slap me a high five. "Nicely done!"

"I couldn't have done it without you," I told her.

"That's true." Ava nodded. "I'm exhausted. How do you think it went?"

I crossed my fingers. "So far so good. I guess we'll really know when booking orders start coming in."

"I saw Bradley scarfing paella like it was going out of style," she said, scooping a bit of caramel up with her index finger. "I hope that means he's planning a good review."

"Ditto." I peeked into the almost empty pan and dipped a finger full of caramel myself. "How did things go at the Price-Pennington table?"

"Now there's a stoic bunch." Ava rolled her eyes. "Lots of pleasantries and small talk. Tennis, bridge, the latest gossip from the club, repeat."

"Any of it about the Sirah?"

Ava nodded. "Chas certainly seemed to like it. I think he was getting a bit tipsy as he told me about his golf handicap," she added.

"The wine wasn't the only thing he seemed to like." I shot her a grin.

"He's a married man, Emmy."

"Who had a healthy appreciation for your cleavage."

"He was admiring my pendant," Ava protested.

"Sure."

Ava gave me a friendly punch in the shoulder. "Please. You know I'm not into the country club set. He's not my type."

I raised an eyebrow her way. "That's not what you said when he pulled up in the sports car."

"Okay, okay. I'll admit, he's hot."

"Even I would admit that," I said, ignoring how long it had been since I'd been with a hot guy.

"But he's so pretentious. Every other word was a name drop. I swear the conversation was specifically designed to make me feel intimidated by his enormous…"

My other eyebrow rose.

"…ego," she finished with a sweet smile.

I laughed. "Well, as long as his wife had a good time—"

"And books her next corporate event here," Ava cut in.

"—and buys a few cases of Sirah, that's all that matters."

"I'm sure she did, and I hope she will," Ava told me, licking her finger.

I left Ava in the kitchen and made my way to the tasting bar, where I helped Jean Luc with the remains of the party. An hour later, we had the big cleanup done, and the day caterers had been paid, thanked, and tipped for their hard work. Conchita had put away the last of the heavy cast-iron pans, and Hector had doused the outside fires.

I made my rounds, locking doors, turning out lights, and shutting the main buildings down for the evening. I bid Jean Luc good night and closed the tasting room, then made my way to the cave to secure the cellar.

I was just about to throw the big toggle switch that controlled all the lights, when something caught my eye. A broken wineglass sat on the red clay tiles across the room, where rows of oak barrels stood under sandstone arches. I frowned. No one was supposed to be drinking down here. I crossed the room, my heels clacking on the floor as I passed the foot of an old vertical hundred-gallon barrel once used for aging Zinfandel.

Just on the other side, I spied the guilty party. Slumped on the floor sat the drunken blond godling, Chas Pennington. I swallowed down annoyance at the idea Chas thought he could help himself to our private reserves. Especially after guzzling the Petite Sirah as he had.

"Mr. Pennington?" I called. "We need to get you up now."

No response.

"Mr. Pennington?" I said louder. I leaned forward and jostled his shoulder, causing his head to loll backward.

I stifled a gasp as his face turned toward mine. His eyes were wide open, staring at the ceiling in an unseeing gaze, his lips blue, his skin ice cold.

Chas Pennington wasn't dead drunk…he was just dead.



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