Stakes & Stems (A Vamps in the Vineyard short)

Copyright 2022 by Amy Cissell (Broken World Publishing) All rights reserved.

This is a first, unedited draft. As such their may be errors in spelling & grammar. Please don’t tell me about them!

Charlie plastered on the most pleasant expression she could muster and walked out into the main room of her winery, Estaca Corazón, to greet the guests who were beginning to arrive. It was the first wine dinner she’d hosted in her new digs, and everything had to be perfect.

“Hi! Welcome to Estaca Corazón!” She greeted the first couple in line, glancing down at the reservation book. “It’s so good to see you again, Nicky! And this must be your girlfriend I’ve heard your mother gushing about?” 

The short, slender woman with pale skin and light brown hair held out a hand with a smile that lit up her otherwise unassuming face. “My name is Bethany, and it’s a pleasure to meet you. I’ve heard so much about you from Nick.” She directed a fond smile at the tall, dark-skinned man beside her. “And his mother, of course. I cannot wait to try your wines.”

Charlie shook Bethany’s hand, and found that the smile on her face was less forced now, teased out with the younger—much younger, if she was being honest with herself—woman’s infectious grin. “The wines are good, but the food you’re about to experience is to die for.” 

Charlie led Nicholas and Bethany to their table and left them in the capable hands of Sky Ballou—her irrepressible and slightly terrifying house manager. 

When the last of the guests waiting for the seven o’clock seating were at their tables, Charlie took a breath and pushed the long strands of silver hair away from her face. Every table had been reserved—it was all two tops tonight. Valentine’s Day wasn’t usually a holiday for groups larger than two. At least not publicly in a small town like Chelan. She was sure there were a variety of romantic arrangements, but equally positive that gossip would spread faster than wine spilled on a white linen tablecloth if any hint of that appeared on Valentine’s Day.

The vacant table was one nearest the window, and that meant it was a premium reservation. She hadn’t wanted to charge different prices based on location, but Sky had insisted, and since Charlie had hired Sky for her business sense, it seemed wise to listen. She shouldn’t have worried. Even though she hadn’t had anything other than a few tastings on site, word had spread and people were eager to pay to drink her wines and eat Stephanie’s food.

So where was the missing couple? Charlie took a deep steadying breath. Sure, the last time she’d had a large event here—a private wedding for the friend of an ex-girlfriend—things hadn’t gone off without a hitch, but this was different. 

This was Valentine’s Day, and she was almost positive there weren’t any necromancers here to wake the things that should be asleep. 

Charlie felt her pulse increase, and knew her pale skin—tanned as it was from years of working in the vineyard—would show her discomfort. She could blame it on one of her increasingly common hot flashes, but as much as she was comfortable growing older, she didn’t want to discuss her menopause with her guests. 

Another glance around the room showed that everything was working smoothly. The four servers she’d hired were more than competent, weaving in and out of tables and around each other with bottles of wine, glasses, and hors d’œuvres trays.  

Sky was visiting each table, discussing the wines, giving recommendations, and drawing comfortable laughter out of the guests who needed a confidence boost to express their wine preferences. 

Charlie’s gaze was drawn back to the empty table. A single candle burned in the center of the table, and the last light of dusk added a purplish orange glow to the empty wine glasses. 

“My apologies for our lateness.” 

Charlie jumped higher than she would’ve thought possible and landed about a foot to the right of where she’d been standing. As much as she wanted to believe she wouldn’t feel a twinge of that tomorrow, she knew better, and the old ache in her knee was already knocking at the door of her consciousness. 

“I am sorry.” The voice was smooth and regret and apology fairly dripped from the words. 

Charlie looked at the speaker, and it took every ounce of self-control she’d developed over the years—working in a cis white male dominated industry called for a lot of restraint—not to let her jaw drop. The man was… There weren’t words, actually. He was beautiful, but she’d seen beauty. Her ex was dating a demon, and she’d met a couple angels. 

But this man…this man was sex on a stick. She didn’t usually do much more than admire the male form from far, far away, but a spark she hadn’t thought existed ignited low in her core, and she caught herself licking her lips while staring at his. He laughed, and whatever had snagged her melted away.

“I am so sorry! I couldn’t figure out how to tie this thing—“ he waved his hand at the necktie around his neck “—and then I got lost. Is it too late?” 

Charlie shook herself and took a step back. What she’d thought was sensuous beauty had just been his ordinary attractiveness lit up by the last light in the sky. He was tall—but only a couple inches more than her five-eight. He had on a nice suit—not Men’s Warehouse but not Nieman Marcus, either, pale skin, sandy hair, and piercingly blue-gray eyes. Handsome and sexy, but not enough to flip her switch. 

I need to get laid, she thought as she composed herself and slowed her heartbeat. “Of course you’re not too late, Mr…” her voice trailed off, trying to remember the names on the remaining reservation.

“Call me Leo. Leo Peterson.” He turned to his companion and pushed him forward. “This is Cory.”

Cory mumbled what might have been a greeting, but didn’t make eye contact. He was even paler than Leo, something that Charlie hadn’t thought possible a moment before. 

“Follow me, please.” Professional mode was kicking in. Charlie turned and gestured towards the empty table. “Once you’re seated, Sky will bring your first wine, and a server will be around to discuss the menu with you.” 

Leo slipped his arm through Cory’s and followed her to the table. Once they were seated, Charlie started to walk away. She needed to get outside so she could regroup in time to make her rounds to discuss her wines with everyone and then get ready to do it all over again for the nine o’clock seating. 

A hand reached out and snagged her wrist. At her sharp intake of breath, Leo let her go, a flush staining his cheeks.

She felt her heart racing again, her pulse pounding in her neck, as she tried to quell the panic attack threatening to rise. 

Robbie’s eyes met hers, and his were wide in remorse—and something else she couldn’t quite put her finger on. “I didn’t mean to panic you. I was just hoping you could tell us a little about the wines we’re going to have tonight.” 

“Sky will be here in a moment, and she’ll tell you everything you want to know.” Charlie stepped back again, just missing his hand reaching out to grab her again. 

He looked down at her hand, just out of reach, and this time she recognized his expression. It was surprise. The look was gone in an instant, though, and his eyes returned to her face, wide and pleading. “I know she’ll be amazing, but it’s our first date and I want it to be special.” The look he shot at Cory was hungry. Leo definitely had plans for later. 

“I’ll be making my rounds in a little while to talk about the wines, my vision for the winery, and my processes, but there’s something in the kitchen that requires my attention.” Charlie backed away, keeping her eyes on his hands. She wouldn’t let him snare her again.

He fluttered his eyelashes at her again, and the same punch she’d felt when he first arrived hit her, quickening her breath and evoking a strong desire she couldn’t interpret. 

“Well, okay. But just the first wine.” Charlie flinched. She didn’t recognize the flirtatious tone in her voice. She wasn’t a particularly flirtatious person to begin with, and never, ever with men. 

“If that’s all you can spare me, I will count myself lucky.” He inclined his head and winked.

“I’ll be right back. Just…hold on. I’ll get the wine.” Charlie fled towards the back of the room, more flustered than she’d felt in decades. When she was halfway across the dining room, she figured out what that look in his eyes had been—the one accompanying the remorse—malice.

***

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