I see a vehicle coming up the drive and assume it’s the fire inspector. Good. He’s early. I’m ready to be done with this so I can get back to Avalon. Back to Paige. “Okay. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
We end our call and I meet the inspector outside my office. He explains the evidence he’ll be collecting and how it’ll be used in the investigation. I follow him to the site and stay out of his way as he gathers the proof of someone trying to burn my vineyard.
Seeing the damage is painful, but I remind myself of how it could’ve been much worse if any of my people had been injured.
“I’m sending this evidence for testing because I have to, but I don’t need the results to tell you this was arson. There’s accelerant all over the scene, so you might want to be thinking about who your enemies are. They could try this again.”
I don’t have to think about it; I know who did this. “I’ll do that.”
I walk the investigator back to his car and then go into my office where Clyde is waiting to hear the verdict. He’s sitting in one of the chairs across from my desk, so I walk around and fall into an exhausted slump in my leather chair. “He said he didn’t need to see the results from the evidence to know it was arson.”
“Do you have any idea who would want to do something like that?”
We went back a long way, but I couldn’t tell Clyde about the knee-deep shit I’d gotten myself into, so I lie to the man I thought of as a second father. “No. You have any suspicions?”
“The only thing that pops into my head would be a competitor, but they wouldn’t have struck this early in the season or after a rain. That is amateur work.”
Or the work of a sociopath trying to get my attention.
During our girls’ day shopping spree, Addison and I visit a lingerie shop at a plaza of boutiques near Ben’s apartment. They have everything from naughty to nice, including a wide variety of sex toys.
Addison couldn’t be happier as she admires a Santa-themed bra with matching panties and garter belt complete with the red and white candy cane-striped thigh-highs. She stands in front of a mirror and holds it up to herself. “Damn, Zac would have a very merry Christmas if I were wearing this.”
“Speaking of Christmas, what are the plans? Are we cooking at the apartment?”
She twists so I can’t see her face and it’s my first clue that something is going on. “Umm, about that.”
There’s my second clue. When she stutters and stalls, it’s never good. “What exactly does ‘umm, about that’ mean?”
She has this please don’t be pissed off look on her face. So, what do I do? I get pissed off. “Don’t freak out, but Zac wants to take me home with him for Christmas so I can meet his family.”
Worst. Friend. Ever. “Addison! You’re not leaving me by myself with Ben. You know how he’s been with me since I met Lachlan.”
“I wouldn’t leave you alone with him. Both of you are invited to Zac’s.”
No freakin’ way. “You and Ben can go without me. I’d rather spend Christmas by myself than be uncomfortable around a bunch of people I don’t know.” She knows I hate feeling like I’m imposing. I can’t believe she’s asked me to do this.
“You don’t think Lachlan will invite you home with him?” This is Addison’s way of trying to feel better about ditching me.
That would be a negative. “Definitely not. We just met.”
She puts her hands on her hips as though I’ve offended her. “Why do you say it like that?”
Maybe because I don’t even know his real name—that would be my first reason. “We don’t know each other well enough to spend the holidays together.”
“I haven’t known Zac much longer than you’ve known Lachlan.”
Maybe not, but she’d been banging him since the day we arrived. Okay, it was day three. “You and Zac are different. You’ve spent almost every minute together since we got here. I’ve only been out with Lachlan on a couple of dates. It’s apples and oranges.”
She holds the sexy Santa lingerie out for me. “Wear this for him and I guarantee you’ll get an invite to his family’s for the holidays. Maybe even a marriage proposal.”
I’ve gotten all the proposals I need from Mr. Lachlan Henry. I’m still debating the one currently on the table. “I’m not looking to get an invite to his family’s house. Or a marriage proposal.” I take the red and white furry lingerie from her and admire it in the mirror. “He’s asked me to spend the next few days with him. And nights. Maybe I need this. What do you think?”
“You didn’t tell me you’d be staying over at his place. That sounds more serious than a couple of dates.”
I hang up the Santa outfit and pull a naughty-elf set from the rack. “I don’t know. He asked, but I haven’t decided yet.” That’s another lie. I know I’m staying with him, but I don’t want to sound like a ho, so I pretend I’m unsure. And I pretend like I don’t know if I’ll buy this lingerie. But that’s a lie too.
I hear fear is a gift. In the event that it’s true, I’m very gifted today. I’m almost shaking as I wait for Lachlan to arrive.
My phone starts singing “Talk Dirty to Me,” so I answer and try to sound like I’m not a bundle of nerves. “Good morning.”
“Good morning to you. I’m almost at your place. Do I need to come to the door to challenge lover boy for your hand?”
That might be the case if Ben were here, but he’s not. Thank goodness. “I’m the only one here. I’m ready so I’ll come down and meet you.” I hang up and slip my Lachlan issued cell into my purse next to my own. I grab my floral duffle and lock up.
As I come out of the apartment building, Lachlan steps out of a fancy-ass convertible wearing faded jeans and a khaki button-up. It’s not dressy; it’s rugged, more like what I’d expect someone to wear in the outback. And I’ll be damned if he’s not wearing an Indiana Jones hat. Even out of a suit, he’s hotter than the devil’s ass.
This is going to be a great couple of days.
He meets me halfway on the sidewalk. “No suit today, I see.”
One promise kept. We’ll see if he keeps his other.
“I see you have a bag.” He grins and kisses my cheek as he reaches to take my bag from me.
“It doesn’t mean I’m staying.” That’s such a lie. I wonder if he can tell by looking at me.
He cocks his head. “An overnight bag doesn’t mean the same thing in the US as it does in Australia?”
“This one means I like to be prepared just in case.”
“It feels heavy to me, like you’re prepared to stay a couple of nights.” He reaches for my hand and holds it as we walk to the car. This is him getting an early start on ridding us of our stranger anxiety.
He pops the trunk and puts my things inside the sporty, and very expensive, black convertible. “I’ve never seen a car like this before. What kind is it?”
“I’ve never heard of that before. It’s … stunning.”
“I know.” He opens the door for me. I get in and watch his beautiful form walk around to the driver’s side. Let’s be honest. Who wouldn’t agree to a three-month fling with this man?
I know I’m going to agree. And he knows it too. He’s said as much, but I can’t let him think I’m giving in so easily.
He starts the car. It has a deep roar. “Top up or down?”
“Down, but let me grab a ponytail holder out of my purse.”
“There’s some in the glove compartment.”
It’s only a ponytail holder, but there’s no way I’m wearing anything belonging to number one through twelve. He reaches over to open it and notices my expression. “I didn’t ask you to wear another woman’s undies. My little sister has long hair and she likes to ride with the top down. She keeps a stash in there.”
I take the holder from him and pull my hair up, wondering if he’s bullshitting me about his sister. “Ready.”
The drive to the vineyard outside Wagga Wagga is beautiful. We pass mile after mile of grapes on the way to the house and as we get closer, I see a traditional old-world-style mansion in the distance. It looks Italian, not Australian, but then I’m not really sure what I think constitutes Australian architecture. “Miss Beckett, this is Avalon Vineyard.”
Wow. It’s incredible. “Your boss must think a lot of you if he puts you up in a place this nice.”
When we get out of the car, Lachlan walks around to the trunk. He lifts his brow as he asks, “Since you don’t know if you’re staying, does your bag go inside or remain in the trunk?”
He is dying to hear my confirmation, but I’m not finished having fun with this little game. “Umm … I think it’s fine to take it inside to one of the guest rooms.”
“I don’t know why you’re pretending you might say no.”
Because this is your game. These are your rules. I need to feel like I have control over some aspect of it, even if it’s only for a little while.
Our first stop is the kitchen. It’s beautiful and fitting for the house, like one of those grand Italian kitchens from a luxury home magazine. At least, that’s the only time I’ve ever seen anything like it.
There’s a basket of goodies on the counter, so I walk over and peek inside. It’s filled with an assortment of food, and of course, a bottle of wine. “Very nice.”
“I can’t take the credit. Mrs. Porcelli packed the lunch for us.”