I tuck my hands into my pockets and slide a glance at Penny. She traps her bottom lip between her teeth as she surveys the room, her gaze lingering on the stool I was sitting on the other night. “Come on, there’s something I want to show you.” There’s no point making her any more uncomfortable about the elephant in the room.
Her shoulders slump in relief, and I lead the way to the main foyer. To the left of the glass entry doors, is a room full of memorabilia dedicated to the history of Autumn River’s vineyard, including Gran’s contribution.
Penny shakes her head as she steps over to one of the framed photographs on the wall. “I feel so silly. Like I should be the one showing you around. Like I should know all about this place. I mean, I grew up here.”
“We can live somewhere our entire lives and not realize what’s in front of us.” I tuck my hands into my pockets and step over to the next photograph, an image of rows and rows of vines in blossom.
“That’s so true,” she murmurs.
We walk in silence around the room, and my attention is more focused on observing Penny taking everything in than looking at the memorabilia. Unless people are die-hard wine enthusiasts, most people skim over the information in areas like this. But Penny is soaking in every detail. Reading every plaque. She stops in front of one and her lips move as she silently reads the caption. A lop-sided grin forms as she turns to face me.
“Clarissa?” She points at the young woman in the photograph standing barefoot in a bin full of grapes.
I nod, pride welling in my chest at the sight of Gran, pure joy lighting up her face. “It’s becoming a lost art.”
“It looks like so much fun. All those grapes squishing between your toes. It would make you feel like a kid again.”
I chuckle. She’s right. Gran was, and still is, an inspiration. The way she embraces life in all its glory is something I yearn to do. If only I could transfer her zest for life over to my writing.
Penny pulls a notebook from her purse and jots down some notes. “Amazing. To think that she was part of the team that developed the Wine Aroma Wheel.”
“Yeah. She’s done a lot of cool stuff in her life.”
“Well, she certainly puts me to shame.” Penny tucks her notebook away and we fall into step as we leave the room.
“I don’t know about that. I’d bet that you’ve come across some interesting opportunities in your career.” More than what I’ve experienced, anyway. I’ve had a lot of requests for public appearances, book signings, and writing conferences, but for obvious reasons, always decline.
“There are some things I’d much rather forget,” Penny mumbles as we reach the car.
I raise an eyebrow, but she offers nothing more as she slides into her seat and fastens her seatbelt.
Dusk has settled over the day by the time I return home to an empty house. Gran’s out for the evening at a community meeting and left dinner warming in the oven. After a quick bite to eat, I settle at my desk in the corner of the living room.
My thoughts drift to Penny and our “research” outing. We both knew it was a thinly veiled excuse of Gran’s to throw us together. And as I drove Penny home, it was hard to not think our day at the vineyard was a first date. A contented silence filled the car, and it was all I could do not to reach out and hold her hand. The entire car ride, I had to keep reminding myself that it wasn’t a date. We were just two adults enjoying each other’s company. No more. No less. And, she’s still someone I need to be wary of.
That’s the thing with being an author. Any situation can be skewed to be something different. A simple trip to the store can inspire a meet-cute setting. An afternoon in the park can easily become the setting for a lover’s tryst. When my brain is switched on and I’m in the flow of writing, it’s hard to discern reality from fiction.
But I can’t allow that to happen with Penny. Our afternoon together revealed that she was only there to fulfill Gran’s wish by playing tourist. If it had been any other woman, perhaps I would’ve concluded our day with a kiss. Asked her to go out for dinner. But I’m not about to make the moves on a woman Gran’s entrusted with her story, no matter how gorgeous she might be. It’s obvious Penny’s moved on from that night at the bar, but a tiny spark of creativity ignites and for the first time in months, words come easily.
As night falls, I don’t know whether to thank Gran or Penny for the inspiration, but suddenly, writing again feels like a breath of fresh air after being suffocated by the weight of writer’s block for so long.
Lunch with my family is always a rowdy affair. With three brothers, it can’t be helped. It’s almost as if they try to outdo each other with their volume and their stories. But one thing’s for sure, there’s never a shortage of conversation, good-natured teasing, or laughter. For so long, it’s been me and Mia against the three men, but Jenna’s evened up the numbers and fits right in. I invited Emily along tonight, but she’s teaching an art class. Although, it’s the first I’ve known her to teach on a Sunday evening.
Blake and Zane are over by the grill, talking about a football game. Aaron sits with one arm loosely draped across the back of Jenna’s chair, his fingers lazily drift across her shoulder. A pang of envy at the simple, yet romantic gesture catches me by surprise. I’m so happy that Aaron’s found love again, and I guess I’m jealous that I’ve never experienced that easy, authentic way to be with someone. That was never me and Tripp.
Now that I’m no longer blinded by his charm, it’s easy to recognize the red flags and how stupid I was to ignore them. No physical touching in public. No opportunities to be photographed together. We avoided meeting at well-known locations where the chances of running into other celebrities or the media were high. How was I so blind?
My thoughts drift to Linc. He doesn’t seem to be the type of man who would cheat. Or lie. Or be so in love with himself that he doesn’t care who he hurts. If we were dating, which we’re not, I’m sure it would be the complete opposite experience of my time with Tripp. For starters, there would be no clandestine meetings. No secretive rendezvous. And I’m sure if we were dating, Linc wouldn’t hold back on the physical affection. Or perhaps that’s wishful thinking on my behalf. Because I bet that guy can kiss.
Since our vineyard outing, we’ve seen each other a few more times. At Clarissa’s insistence, of course. She wanted us to visit a restaurant in Freedom Falls—a frequent haunt ‘back in her day’, because they served the best clam chowder and apple pie. I was sceptical at first, because I’ve been to some Michelin-rated restaurants in LA. But I was surprised. The food was divine. I’m just not sure our evening in Freedom Falls was a necessary part of her story. Will people really care about her favorite restaurant? Or is she toying with me? The jury’s out on that one.
I stopped by Clarissa’s yesterday afternoon to ask a few more questions, but after a half hour, she said she was tired. The jury’s out on that one, too, because in the next breath, she asked Linc to show me the “special” lookout. I’m not sure what’s so special about it—that’s for discovering on another day.
“Sooo.” Jenna leans toward me. “Tell me all about the handsome stranger you met at our wedding.”
That snaps me out of my daydream. My eyebrows lift as I slowly turn my head toward my sister-in-law. I could pretend I don’t know what she’s talking about—it seems so long ago now—but that would just prolong the inevitable.