Excerpt – Lori Wilde

The Billionaire's Secret Summer

At dawn on the first day of June, Wyatt DeSalme stood on the bow of the ferry watching the mist-shrouded island that lay just off the coast of northern California slide into view.

The churning engines vibrated up through the deck floor and he tasted salty sea air. Seagulls chattered like gossiping biddies and the excited voices of the young men and women surrounding him, nursing their gourmet coffees and noshing on free pastries, grew in tone and tempo as the mist parted.

Suddenly, the jagged, double barrel bluff known as Twin Hearts jutted straight up from the middle of the island, glistening in the jubilant glow of morning light.

This was it.

His destination.

The strangest feeling passed over him, a feeling that said, If you do this, you’ll never be the same.

An uneasy knot settled in the pit of his stomach.

I don’t wanna go.

How come? Normally, he loved role-playing. Secret agent man had been his favorite game as a kid, not cowboys and Indians like this brothers. Why the sudden impulse to stay rooted on the boat while everyone else disembarked?

What’s the matter? Chicken?

The taunt came from the back of his mind, but it was the voice of his oldest brother, Scott, issuing the chanting dare from childhood along with an excess of poultry noises; a dare Wyatt had never been able to resist.

It was why he’d broken a collarbone climbing a quince tree when he was ten, and why he’d fallen through the ice on a barely frozen pond when they’d visited their maternal grandparents in Kansas one Christmas.

The taunts, dares, bets and challenges had gone a long way toward forming his character. Always eager to prove himself to his older brothers, he had turned into a bold adventurer. Now here he was at thirty-one still trying to win their approval.

As a disguise, he wore dark-framed, non-prescription lenses and two days’ growth of prickly beard. Over the past few months he’d let his hair grow out, getting ready for this covert game, and it curled in waves to his collar. He hadn’t worn his hair this long since college and an errant strand kept flopping across his brow whenever he tilted his head forward.

He had on blue jeans with a hole in one knee, a gray knit cap and a gray hooded sweatshirt emblazoned with the Berkeley University logo, a school he had not attended, but wished he had. He’d gone instead to Princeton, as was family tradition, and had dropped out in his sophomore year. His sneakers—purchased at a thrift shop—boasted broken shoelaces and thin treads. His watch, also from the thrift store, was a cheap drugstore brand. He’d left the Rolex at his condo in Athens. No belt. No socks.

His goal?

Downplay his looks. Make himself as nondescript as possible. Fitting in with the opposite of his customary behavior. Normally, Wyatt adored wearing a tux to high-society parties, driving his Lamborghini on the autobahn, gambling in Monte Carlo and generally being the center of attention.

The dodge seemed to be working. He’d been on the boat for over an hour and not a single one of the hot coeds on board had shot him a second glance. Which was both reassuring and a bit of an ego-crusher.

“So,” said one of those gorgeous coeds to another as the engines stopped churning and the ferry glided toward the dock. “Do you think the legend of Idyll Island is true?”

Wyatt, eager to eavesdrop on their conversation, moved closer to the two young women who stood near the railing watching the ferry workers prep for landing. A good corporate spy kept his eyes and ears open.

“What’s that?” asked the second girl. The petite brunette looked barely legal, but he’d heard her say earlier that she was as an intern at Belle Notte Vineyards, so she had to be at least twenty-one. Still, she could pass for a high-school student.

You’re just getting old.

He quickly batted away that thought. He was thirty- one, in the prime of life, at the top of his game.

“Oh, you haven’t heard? It’s amazing. So romantic.” The first girl, a blonde with a pert ski-slope of a nose, dramatically clutched both hands to her heart. “Here’s how the story goes. Way back, a long, long time ago, when the founder of Bella Notte, Giovanni Romano, was our age, he fell in love with a girl from the mainland. One night in June, Giovanni took the first bottle of wine produced from his vineyard, along with his sweetheart, Maria, up to the top of Twin Hearts.” The blonde paused and gestured at the towering bluffs. “Did they do it up there?” The brunette giggled. Wyatt rolled his eyes, but sidled closer.

“I’m sure.” The blonde grinned slyly. “They shared the wine underneath the full moon, and then Giovanni asked Maria to marry him. She said yes. They were married in the vineyard the following June and lived happily ever after for sixty-four years.”

“Aww, that’s so sweet.”

“Giovanni and Maria’s three sons did the same thing with their girlfriends. And then their sons did too. No one in the Romano family has ever been divorced. Nor has anyone who has ever shared a bottle of wine with their true love on Twin Hearts during a full moon in June.” “No one?”

The blonde shook her head. “No one.”

“Wow,” said the brunette. “Those are some crazy odds.” What a load of bull, Wyatt thought, but in spite of himself, he was charmed by the legend. He had to admit that the Romanos sure knew how to stir up a myth for publicity and he wondered how much of the boutique vineyard’s success was tied into that farfetched story.

“Well, I’m not here for romance,” the blonde said. “I’m here to learn winemaking from the best.”

“Couldn’t get an internship at DeSalme Vineyards, huh?”

“No,” the blonde admitted sheepishly. “But this is better.”

“How do you figure?”

“Belle Notte’s a small winery, run by a woman.”

“And there is that legend.”

“I told you I’m not interested in romance. Now hooking up with a hot guy... She cast a sidelong glance at the deckhands docking the boat. “Absolutely. I’m just not in the market for happily ever after.”

Me neither.

Wyatt slid an appraising glance over the blonde. Apart from her youthfuness, she was what his brothers would refer to as one of “Wyatt’s Lamborghini women”—fast, sleek and expensive to maintain. She possessed a smoking body, expensive haircut and designer clothes. Too bad he couldn’t afford the distraction.

“Not even if.. .you know.. .like you met somebody special, like, The One?” the brunette asked.

The blonde tossed her head. “I’m not ruling anything out, but yeah, I’m not interested in long-term. Not for years and years and years. I want to be like Kiara Romano, running my own winery by the time I’m thirty. You can’t achieve something like that if you let your heart rule your head.”

“It also helps to inherit a winery.”

“There is that.”

“Or marry into one.”

The blonde sniffed. “I want to be the one in the driver’s seat.”

“It’s not always pleasant behind the wheel. I heard Kiara never dates.” The brunette lowered her voice and said something he couldn’t hear.

Wyatt cocked his head, straining to listen, but it was too late. The women were moving away from him, heading to where everyone else was disembarking and climbing into the waiting vans whose doors wore mural wraps of Bella Notte Vineyards.

At this hour of the morning it seemed almost everyone on the ferry was a new intern headed for Bella Notte. Wyatt found himself in the same van with the chatty coeds. They ended up introducing themselves. The blonde’s name was Lauren; the brunette’s Bernadette.

As the caravan of four vehicles, each carrying six interns, drove up the hillside, the mist seemed to move with them, rolling away from the coast, rising up to cloak Twin Hearts. The landscape was arid earth on one side of the bluff, verdant valleys dotted with vineyards on the other. Idyll had the same grape-friendly climate as the Napa Valley region, the same easygoing feel.

The entrance to Bella Notte was as quaint as everything else on Idyll. A vine-covered stone wall flanked buildings reminiscent of Tuscan wineries. Beyond the buildings stretched rows of perfectly-manicured grapes. Wyatt had grown up in vineyards and honestly, they’d never interested him—too much hard work to be sure— but now, looking at this place, breathing in the scent of the rich loamy soil, his chest tightened and he felt oddly inspired.

His brothers would get a good laugh out of that. Why should he feel inspired by this tiny winery, while the big, sprawling corporate affair that was DeSalme Vineyards left him cold?

That reminded him of why he was here. To find out exactly what Belle Notte was doing that had caused this tiny boutique winery to take a surprising bite out of DeSalme’s market share. Their wines were supremely good. What were they doing differently? His brothers had paid to have the wine analyzed, but they’d been unable to detect why it was so special. They needed a corporate spy on the inside and he was it.

A tall, dark-haired man met the group and ushered them into one of the stone buildings. He moved with a dreamy, loose-limbed stride, as if walking on a bank of clouds. He wore his hair long, swept off his forehead and tied back with a leather strap. He had a cluster of purple grapes tattooed on his right forearm and he wore a shirt made from hemp.

A raven-haired woman, wearing a gauzy blue dress, ambled across the yard to join them. She nestled against the tall man and turned her face up to receive a long, soulful kiss from him. With genuine affection, the man patted her butt, and then gently tugged her along beside him.

It was cool inside and minimally furnished with a large, sturdy wooden table and a long row of matching chairs. It was obviously a tasting room set up for the tourists who paid extra for lessons on wine and food pairing.

The place smelled of grapes: sweet and robust and intoxicating. It was a familiar scent that never quite left Wyatt’s nostrils, no matter where in the world he sailed his yacht. But here in this austere room, he could not shake the aroma of home.

The back door opened, revealing a long corridor paneled in rich mahogany. Everyone turned in unison.

A woman about his own age entered the room, dressed in a style that Wyatt could only describe as “you’re not getting a gander at the goods, smart guy.” She wore round wire-framed granny glasses, a shapeless, floral dress that he associated with women over sixty and a burgundy-and-green Bella Notte chef’s apron.

The dress hem hit her at mid-calf and her feet were shod in battered tan hiking boots with thick rubber soles. A pair of simple gold studs lay nestled in her earlobes and her complexion was as sunkissed as field grapes and completely without the artifice of makeup. She’d pulled her dark auburn hair back in a haphazard ponytail, escaping strands poking out in every direction.

For some weird reason, the song, “Every Which Way but Loose” popped into his mind.

She raised her head and her stunning green eyes slammed into his and his heart just...stumbled.

A sudden memory flashed.

He was a child running through the grapevines, playing tag with his brothers and cousins during some outdoor event hosted by his family, the air rife with the smell of barbecue. He couldn’t have been more than four or five. He’d reached the end of the row and then... boom.

Out of nowhere a little auburn-haired, green-eyed girl appeared. Momentum had been against him and he’d knocked her flat on the ground. She’d lain there staring at him in exactly the same way this woman was staring at him now.

As if he was an ugly bug in her breakfast cereal.

She knows!

Uncustomary panic seized him.

This was more than a game, he realized suddenly. There was more than his pride at stake. He’d told his brothers he could do this, and Wyatt hated to fail.

Besides, he was ready for more responsibility. He was tired of being the butt of his older brothers’ jokes. He deserved to be a real part of the multibillion-dollar DeSalme legacy. If he could deliver Bella Notte’s secret, it would prove him worthy and they’d have to stop dismissing him as just their playboy kid brother.

To wriggle out of her glower, he did what he always did when he aimed to charm women. He grinned and winked wolfishly.

Hey, stupid, you’re not supposed to call attention to yourself.

The ploy worked. She glanced away quickly, pulled a corkscrew from her apron pocket and reached for a bottle of wine resting on the sideboard.

“Have a seat.” The tall man waved a hand at the twenty-four empty chairs.

Everyone sat.

The man grabbed for glasses hanging from the rack suspended over the table and started passing them out. Three glasses apiece—a wide-bodied one for the reds, more elongated for the whites, narrow flutes for the dessert wines.

The auburn-haired woman swiftly opened various bottles of wines. Next, she was slipping between the interns, tipping an ounce of each kind of wine into the waiting glasses in movements as choreographed as a dance. She’d done this many, many times before.

“I’m Maurice Romano,” the man said and moved to slide his hand around the black-haired woman’s waist. “This is my wife, Trudy. Besides looking after our four children, she runs the gift shop and she is in charge of guest services.”

Trudy Romano smiled. “Welcome, welcome. We want you to all feel part of the family.”

The door opened and four kids trouped in. Two boys and two girls.

“This is Mia,” Trudy said, putting her hands on the shoulders of the oldest girl. “She’s thirteen.”

Dark-haired Mia rolled her eyes. “Mom, they don’t care.”

Her mother ignored her. “This is Samuel. He’s ten.”

Samuel wore a Yankees baseball cap. He doffed it, bowed and grinned.

“Stop showing off.” Mia thumped her brother.

“Keep your hands to yourself.”

“Children, children,” Trudy chided. “This is Elliott and he’s seven.”

Elliott beamed, showing two missing front teeth.

“This is Juliet. She’s six.”

Bashful Juliet turned and buried her face in her mother’s skirt.

“I have to take them to school now, but we wanted to be here to greet you.” Then waving, Trudy herded her brood out the door.

“And this,” Maurice said, indicating the other woman, “is my cousin Kiara. Our great-grandparents started Bella Notte Vineyards in 1934 and it’s been in our family ever since.”

So this was the fabled Kiara Romano, supposedly so gifted she’d brought the struggling vineyard from the brink of bankruptcy to become one of the most promising boutique wineries in California. Wyatt straightened in his chair. He certainly wouldn’t have guessed that from looking at her.

She stood directly across the table from him, pouring a chilled white wine for Lauren, the blonde from the ferry. Kiara lifted her chin and their gazes met a second time. Her mouth pressed into a tight thin line and her emerald eyes narrowed.

What was this? Had she taken an instant dislike to him? That was strange. Most women liked him. That is, until they figured out he wasn’t the kind of man who believed in strings.

Kiara moved around the table, coming closer.

Wyatt’s body tensed. He didn’t hear what Maurice was saying because all his focus was concentrated on the woman pouring the wine.

She affected him on a visceral level, but he couldn’t say why. Maybe it was the graceful way she moved even in those heavy boots. Maybe it was the appealing contrast between her delicate bone structure and her all-business, no-nonsense attitude. Maybe it was just the romantic setting.

But if it was Bella Notte that had captured his imagination, then why was it Kiara who captivated him and not one of the interns?

Wyatt had no time to ponder this because Kiara had reached his side.

She leaned over to fill his glass and her fascinating scent went straight to his head. She smelled honest, clean—like wildflowers and sunshine and oatmeal. She’d had oatmeal for breakfast.

Wyatt had been born with a heightened olfactory sense. For years his family had thought that with his talent for identifying the fine layers of scents, for sure he’d go into the wine business. But Wyatt was a bit of a rebel. He never did what was expected of him. Besides, there was a whole world out there to explore. Why confine oneself to a single profession?

He flattened his palms against the table.

His sense of that moment unfolded vividly and slowly as he clocked everything—the brush of her hand against his shoulder, the warmth of her body turning to slip between the two chairs, the sound of her breathing so quiet and even. He didn’t see her so much as feel her.

A thought, unexpected and shocking, embedded in his brain.

This woman. She’s the one.

And then she was gone, moving away, leaving him feeling bereft and adrift as she made her way back to the other side of the table where she’d started.

Alarmed, Wyatt shook his head, tried to empty her from his thoughts. What the hell was this? He wasn’t the kind of guy who put claims on a woman. Everyone knew that. Wyatt DeSalme was footloose and fancy- free and...

He could not stop staring at Kiara Romano. Forcefully, he pried his gaze from her, made himself listen to Maurice, who had launched into the history and traditions of Bella Notte and how important interns were in the production of their wines.

Wyatt read between the lines. While under Kiara’s management, Bella Notte’s wines might be making a splash, but the small vineyard was still cash-strapped to the point where they depended on the free labor of interns to make ends meet. His brothers would gleefully rub their hands together at this bit of information. Bella

Notte was vulnerable financially, just as Scott and Eric had suspected, and he was here to deliver the crippling blow.

But that thought, which had excited him this morning because his brothers were finally taking him seriously, was bothersome, and he had no idea why. The Romanos were nothing to him except DeSalme competition. This was just business, a little underhanded espionage to expose the enemy’s weakness. It was perfectly legal— as long as certain lines weren’t crossed—and was done every single day of the week in corporate America.

So why did Wyatt feel the need to take a long, hot, soapy shower and scrub his soul clean?

After the wines were poured, Maurice passed out index cards and pens. Kiara stood beside the sideboard, assessing the assembled interns. Wyatt could feel the heat of her gaze on him.

He glanced up. A frown creased her lips.

“You are about to taste the three top wines produced by Bella Notte. Taste the white wine first,” Maurice said, “and then write your impression on the card. Do not compare notes.”

Wyatt thought it was odd to have the interns in for a wine tasting at eight in the morning, but what the hell? He cradled the wine glass in his hand, swirling it around and inhaled the fruity aroma.

Not the usual chardonnay, which gladdened his heart. Chardonnay was so overdone in California. Instead, Bella Notte’s riesling delighted him—light, fresh and bright as a summer day.

One sip had him thinking of swimming pools and fireworks and homemade ice cream. The wine was a carousel ride, the taste intensifying as it rolled over his tongue and then ending humbly but sweetly on a gentle note.

He used the twenty-point Davis wine-ranking scale he’d been introduced to as a child. The riesling was a solid sixteen. No defects.

“Now for the cabernet,” Maurice directed.

Wyatt closed his eyes and let his nose do the assessment first, identifying the individual notes—peppery, oaken without the obligatory smokiness and, just underneath, he caught a whiff of cherry, muted, but it was there.

He lifted the glass to his lips. The liquid slid smoothly over his tongue, then rushed up to greet his palate. It was a simple cab, yet noble and pristine. Purer than anything DeSalme produced. More intimate too.

The interns around him scribbled madly on their index cards, but Wyatt took his time, allowing the wine to resonate on the back of his tongue before finishing his assessment.

It was hauntingly delicate. A quality he’d never associated with a cab, but he couldn’t decide whether it was indeed a quality that he wanted in a heavy red wine.

Everyone was making appreciative noises and Maurice had to remind them not to compare notes. Was he testing their abilities to describe wine? Or was he looking for a particular discernment of the taste buds?

Wyatt slid another glance over at Kiara. She was still staring at him. He held her gaze this time, refusing to look away. If she knew who he was, then she was going to have to call him out. Right here in front of everyone.

“And now,” Maurice said, “for the wine that’s going to take first place at the annual Sonoma Wine Festival next month...” He trailed off, paused dramatically.

Okay, nothing humble about that boast.

“I give you Bella Notte’s premium dessert wine.” He raised his hand like a stop sign. “But hold up a second. You must eat it with the chocolate lava cake baked by my Grandmother Romano to truly appreciate the joy that is Decadent Midnight.”

The back door opened again and a wizened woman appeared carrying a tray of twenty-four teacup-size lava cakes, fresh from the oven, still steaming-hot. The smell of fine chocolate mingled with the aroma of wine.

This then, was the wine DeSalme had been hearing rumors about, the wine that was allegedly going to dethrone them as the reigning kings of Sonoma’s Best of the Best Award. The wine that had caused his brothers to call him up in Greece and beg him to go undercover as an intern at Bella Notte.

Wyatt couldn’t wait to drink it. He might not officially be in the family wine business, but he was an expert on luxury. Good food, good wine, good times were the tenets he lived by.

Grandma Romano settled a lava cake in front of him and a current of excitement ran around the table. Everyone was waiting for a cue from Maurice to begin.

But it was Kiara who picked up a narrow glass of the dark-purple dessert wine and raised it in the air. “Salut.” The group raised their glasses and echoed, “Salut.” The interns exchanged glances and grins, and then inhaled the intoxicating bouquet. It smelled like plums ripening in the sun. Wyatt thought immediately of Portugal and their port wines. But this was not a fortified wine.

Wyatt closed his eyes again. He heard forks clinking against china, the accompanying moans of pleasure, but he blocked all that out to focus exclusively on his own experience.

A late-harvest muscat. But this was more than a simple muscat. This wine was richer, truer. Not a false note anywhere.

First he tasted the concentrated melancholy sweetness, immediately followed by a kick of tingling warmth so surprising, his breath came out in a sharp, quick exhalation. Then the supreme flavor of pecan tiptoed in.

He opened his eyes and there was Kiara Romano, her stare cutting through him like a laser drill. To hide his guilt and his pleasure, he forked in a bite of hot gooey lava cake.

And that’s when magic exploded inside his mouth.

Had he died and gone to epicurean heaven? His brain searched for a word respectful enough to describe the sensation but there simply were none.

Time hung suspended, a precious moment he’d never have again—the first time he tasted the true flavor of decadence.

Seconds? Minutes? An hour?

The pleasure was so barbarically beautiful he didn’t ever want it to end. It tasted like the most sublime sin, and to think that the frumpily dressed woman with the smart green eyes was responsible for this.. .this.. .thing of sheer perfection.

His tongue slipped through the comingling of wine and chocolate—sweet and wet and hot. The combination of lava cake and Decadent Midnight rivaled great sex. He found the comparison surprising, but apt. It was all pure, thick, oozy pleasure. He’d never felt so giddy over a wine.

With every sip, as the indulgent notes tumbled and rolled over his taste buds, his appreciation grew. A symphony. There was a virtual symphony in his mouth. It tasted like Vivaldi’s “Autumn”—eager, crisp and rapturous, but underneath a haunting melancholia for things that could not last. Figs and apricots and musky late-autumn piqued his tongue. The wine’s dark flesh caressed his throat. In that moment he was one-hundred- percent fully alive.

It was jaw-dropping, heart-stopping extraordinary wine of profound and complex character. A well- deserved twenty on the Davis scale. Wyatt’s eyes flew open and he grabbed his pen and began to write, his hand barely able to keep up with his thoughts. It was almost as if he was channeling Bacchus, spewing his impressions on the index card in the pell-mell hurry reserved for people rushing to catch a flight just as the airplane doors were closing.

His brothers were right to be worried about the competition from Bella Notte Vineyards, and unless they could find Kiara Romano’s Achilles’ heel and get her to drop out of the contest, Decadent Midnight was going to thrash not only DeSalme in the Best of the Best Award—but every other wine in its category.

Happiness lingered on his tongue. A sweet skin of unforgettable sensation. He felt as if he’d just lost his virginity and couldn’t wait to go back for more.

The beautiful wine had what the French called ter- roir: taste with a true sense of place. It tasted like where it was grown. Idyllic.

A hedonist’s wet dream.

Everyone else had finished writing, but Wyatt couldn’t seem to stop. Words fell, rain on the page, rushing to express his appreciation for Kiara’s wine.

When he’d finally filled the entire note card, front to back, he set down his pen and looked around.

At some point during his purge of words, the blonde intern had gotten up and Kiara Romano had taken her seat. She studied him from across the table. Her eyes bright, shoulders thrust forward, chin quivering.

He smiled at her.

She blinked, a glazed, blissed-out expression shading her eyes. A smile identical to his own just-made- love grin curled at her lips.

With one swift motion, she pushed back her chair, then stood up and held out her hand.

 “You,” she commanded. “You come with me.”

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