Reine Halverson was 100% city girl — shiny, polished, and put together. A branding specialist for a huge San Francisco firm, she’d built herself from the ground up, covering her country roots with the gleam and glamour of city life.
She might’ve been from somewhere else, but the city was her salvation. That life was behind her.
Will Starr was a cowboy, through and through. His mother had tried to make him something else, but a combat tour in Afghanistan has a way of making a man see what he’s made of. And Will knew he was made up of Northern California grapevines, a hundred-year old farmhouse, and cattle land that had been in his family for generations.
When Reine arrives at Starr Ranch Winery as part of the big city firm’s investment deal set up to save the family land, Will’s convinced she’s the last thing any of them need. But when she starts to find her way beneath his carefully built armor, he realizes there’s more at stake than the business.
Reine might just walk away with what little remains of his heart.
Chapter One: Will Starr
"It’s not much to look at," Cooper said, reining up beside me in a cloud of dust. My brother Cooper had a way of breaking a moment.
We stood on the crest of the hill, the wide sweeping vineyards marching out below us in tidy lines on one side, the herd of Angus cattle meandering around the pasture at its northern edge. The ranch sprawled at the far side of the vineyard, a series of red and white buildings flanking the main house, a white clapboard farmhouse built more than a hundred years ago by my great grandfather. The land around us had belonged to him, and now, to us. As far as the eye could see.
"Looks like home to me," I told Coop, taking a deep breath and closing my eyes to hold in the scent I'd dreamed about when I was as far from this place as I'd ever been. "Smells like it, too."
"Smells like cow shit, you mean." Coop was a master of vocabulary.READ MORE
"Smells like home," I told him again, and he kicked his heels into his horse’s sides to set him off at a canter down the side of the hill toward the house.
Arnold, my horse, chuffed with satisfaction as we remained atop the rise overlooking the land that held my past, present, and future in its brown rolling hills and green twining vines. The warm browns and greens of earth beneath hooves, the searing heat of the afternoon sun on my skin, and the distant scent of the salt on the breeze had filled my senses since I was a kid.
When I was small, lying down to sleep surrounded by sprawling vineyards and the distant lows and calls of cattle in the fields, my bedtime stories were about cowboys and farmers. They were my heroes. So it was no surprise that I had always seen myself becoming both.
The difference between my ideals as a kid and my reality as a man of twenty-six was that I knew now that the future wasn't something you were owed, something written in stone that just happened. It was something you scraped and etched into being, something you earned with every word you utter, every action you take. And for a long time, when I was far away, I didn't know if my future would include Starr Ranch.
But it had. It did.
And I was grateful for every dusty day I spent here now. Starr Ranch was my heritage and my history, my legacy and my dream. I'd do anything to keep this land beneath my feet, to keep these fields in my present and the wine they produce in my future.
Unfortunately, keeping the place meant doing a deal with the devil.
Back at the stable, I slid off my horse, giving his long face a few gentle rubs before turning him over to Joe and offering the man a nod in greeting. Cooper had been just outside and followed closely behind, handing his reins over and slapping his hands hard against the legs of his jeans.
"Fucking dust," he grumbled. "It's everywhere. All the time."
I shook my head at him. This dust was honest. God's dirt, my grandmother used to say. The same dirt our family had beaten out of rugs and clothes for a century, the dirt of California's agricultural valleys and rich productive wine country.
This dust was gold—it bore no resemblance to the grime I'd slept in just months before, when I'd been forward deployed outside of Bagram, Afghanistan. That brand of fine silt had coated my throat, invaded my nostrils, turned my eyes to squinted slits that had me constantly prying away crusty remnants of what once would have been moisture.
"You don't know dust," I muttered.
Coop shot me a look but said nothing for a minute as we walked back toward the house. "Glad to have you back, Will."
We stopped for a minute before going inside, both of us turning to look back out over the land. It was a habit of farmers and ranchers to constantly survey the land they worked. It was as if we knew how much was out of our control and how much could go wrong—the weather, a fungus or a blight, a fire or a sudden virus in the herd—and each glance outward was a silent prayer for reassurance that all was well. For now at least.
"Better get cleaned up," Coop said. "They're sending that rep out today."
My mood darkened immediately and I felt my hands ball into fists. "What's the point of that?" I asked.
"They want to see what they're getting for their money, big brother." Cooper looked amused, and his smile only made me feel more annoyed. "It's not a small amount of money, you know. We're partners now. They own fifty-one percent, so they get a say in everything."
I turned and spat into the dust beyond the front steps of the house, wishing there'd been another answer. "I hate this."
"Just get cleaned up and make yourself presentable. I'll do the talking," Coop promised.
I grunted a response and went inside. I'd clean up, but there wasn't much about me that could be deemed presentable. I was a rancher. Part of me was still a Marine. Small talk and discussions about branding and consumer appeal were about as enjoyable to me as being ordered to lead a convoy up a route I knew would be dotted with snipers and IEDs.
No thank you.
But I had no more choice now than I’d had in Afghanistan. I’d do what I was told.
* * *
I'd come home from eight months in Afghanistan with a new appreciation for the Marine Corps and the unflinching knowledge that I never wanted to leave my land again. The Corps had never been a long-term plan for me. It was just was something I had to do, something that had felt important, and was something I'd continue to do as a reservist until I'd served my eight years.
September 11th had shaped my teenage years, shifted the narrative that ran through my mind as I grew. The things I saw inside my head had once been confined to the wide-open spaces of my grandfather's ranch and the small tight apartment my mother had dragged us to just outside San Francisco, but after 9/11 my mental landscape featured images of sprawling foreign deserts, fighter jets, and faceless enemies hell bent on taking away everything I loved.
When I'd watched those towers fall on television, my mother had gasped and cried as if it someone she knew might be standing at the edge of that gaping hole eighty floors up, thinking of jumping. She had been inconsolable for weeks afterward, an at-home embodiment of our nation's shock at the fact that someone could reach out for us here, take something we loved and smash it to the ground in a rain of fire and blood.
I’d watched my mother process her grief and horror, and in my own head, in my young body, I'd processed it too. I'd changed my plans over the month that followed, and I'd spent my teenage years knowing two things: I'd take over my family's ranch one day, and I'd put on a uniform and serve my country however I could.
Both of those things had come to pass, though I don't know how much good I did my country during my time overseas. I'd slept on the ground, lived in fear, and been closer to real death than ever before. But my service had been as routine as a tour in Afghanistan gets. My company had lost one man to an IED, and one to a sniper's bullet. Otherwise, we'd gotten dirty and angry, and some of us had been hurt, but most of us had come home in one piece. I'd hung up my tags and returned to the ranch where my younger brother had continued the work I intended to spend my life on—raising cattle, making wine, and keeping Starr Ranch viable and productive.
I went to Afghanistan prepared for a battle. I hadn't expected one when I got home. But when I returned from war, everything at home had changed.
"It's okay, bro," Cooper had said, trying to laugh off the financial disaster he'd revealed to me as soon as I'd gotten settled. "Grandpa kept the place going, so will we!" Cooper had a tendency to understate things, to try to laugh everything off.
"This isn't a little hiccup, Coop." We sat across the kitchen table from one another, sorting through the paperwork he'd requested from the bank at my direction. "Grandpa borrowed more than he'd ever have been able to pay back. He had to have known that." I rubbed a hand down my jaw, over my throat. My grandfather had been an incredible rancher and a good winemaker. He'd taught Cooper and I everything he knew on that end of things. But financially? He'd been a disaster. And as it turned out, he’d been pretty fucking good at keeping a secret, too.
"Do you think this is why Dad didn't want it? You think he knew?"
I shook my head and stood, moving to brace my hands on the edge of the sink and stare out over the land that had seemed so full of promise when I'd arrived home. "Dad never got the choice," I said.
It was hard to keep the bitterness out of my voice. Our father had been undone by his love for our mother. And Mom wanted nothing to do with cows and grapes. She wanted a life full of taxis, restaurants, and jewelry, and she did everything in her power to get it. Or rather, to get our father to give it to her. He returned to graduate school and spent his too-short life working for an investment bank. The upside was that he made the money she thought she needed. The downside was that he worked ridiculous hours that drove him into a heart attack and an early grave.
"Why didn't Grandpa tell me?" Coop looked genuinely mystified, and in many ways I envied his innocence, his ability to trust.
"He knew what the place meant to us," I said, trying to sort it out for myself. "Maybe he didn't want to taint our idea of what it would be by handing us all the details up front. He must have known we'd figure it out."
"Didn't take long," Cooper said, his voice more bitter than I'd ever heard it. "The phone started ringing with collectors the minute he was gone," he said. "Bastard." The last word was a curse, uttered under his breath.
"Don't do that," I warned, sitting back down. "Look, Cooper. There's the ranch, and then there's the money. They're connected, but they're two separate things, and Grandpa knew that. He felt about this place—this land—the same way we do. And he didn't want to ruin that for us." I thought hard for a minute, things clearing in my mind. "He gave us the land we love. And yeah, there are some financial issues to be worked out, but that's a whole other thing."
"I don't think so..." Cooper was shaking his head, one eyebrow raised as he considered my words.
"We'll figure out the finances," I said. I found myself being uncharacteristically optimistic and figured it was a knee-jerk reaction to the fact that my brother was suddenly taking my usual position—that of devil's advocate. "Just work the land. You handle the cattle, and I'll keep the vines."
He whistled low, processing my words. "If you say so, bro..."
"We can handle this."
His head had hung when I'd said that, and he'd looked up at me from under his hat, as if he wasn't sure he should say the words on his lips. "And about the other thing...about her..."
I shook my head, hoping he'd just drop it. Lots of things hadn't looked the way I'd expected when I'd gotten back. Things I'd counted on...well, things had changed. But I could handle that, and together Cooper and I could handle the finances at the ranch.
And we had. Just not in the way I would have liked. The collectors started growing bolder, showing up in shiny cars and issuing ultimatums. Eventually we had reached the conclusion that we'd have to sell at least part of the ranch to keep it afloat. Just when things looked darkest, we had gotten a call from a company called KeltCorp, a group that invested in wineries around the world. They weren't really aligned with our interests—ours were boutique high-end wines that we sold mostly to local restaurants. This company produced fancy commercial brands, popular with soccer moms in Connecticut and New York who had money to burn and cared more about the label than the wine. But they had made an offer we couldn't refuse, and it was the only one that would allow us to stay in possession of the land with an option to buy it all back one day. Our main concession—besides a controlling share—was that they'd revamp our brand, take what we were already doing and market it differently. I didn't like it, but I knew we had no choice.
Two weeks after the deal had passed through all the lawyers on both sides, Starr Ranch was back in the black, and KeltCorp called to tell us they were sending a consultant.COLLAPSE