June 26th, 2010, 06:29 PM
Genre: LGBT Contemporary Romance
Length: Short Novel
Message in a bottle.
Somewhere in the cobwebbed cellar of the decrepit antebellum mansion known as Ballineen are the legendary Lee bottles -- and Austin Gillespie is there to find them. The last thing on his mind is hot and heavy romance with handsome bad boy Jeff Brady. But Jeff has other ideas and, after one intoxicating night, so does <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" /><st1:City>Austin</st1:City>.
The only problem is they have different ideas. Jeff doesn’t believe in love at first sight, and even if he did, he’s buried more deeply in the closet than those famous missing bottles of vintage Madeira. Popping a cork or two is one thing. Popping the question? No way. No how.
Unless <st1:City>Austin</st1:City> is ready to give up on another dream, he’s going to have to figure out how to make sure the lights go on -- and stay on -- in <st1:country-region>Georgia</st1:country-region>.
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The house was one of those old antebellum mansions—though more reminiscent of Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte than Gone with the Wind. Four fluted, peeling columns and short white railings lined the once-elegant facade. Faded green shutters framed the windows. There was a large moss-covered fountain in the front courtyard and an iron gazebo that looked like an inhospitable birdcage. The house was named Ballineen. They named houses here in the South. Then again, they also married their first cousins, so that was hardly a recommendation.
Austin caught his expression in the rearview mirror of his BMW 507.
"It can‟t be that bad," he muttered and slid out of the roadster, slamming the door briskly behind him.
It needed to not be that bad. He couldn‟t afford any problems with this cellar appraisal. Not with Whitney Martyn already hunting for a reason to get rid of him and replace him with Whitney‟s fiancée, Master Sommelier Theresa Bloch. Losing his position as auction director for one of the oldest wine shops in North America was a thought too painful to contemplate. Austin had worked too hard to get where he was. His family already thought his career was frivolous; being an unemployed master of wine would make him a bigger joke than he already was.
He turned at the rattling scrape of metal on stone. A young black man was raking dead leaves and twigs from a narrow walkway. He wore black jeans, a red leather jacket, and a purple do-rag. As he raked, he sang tunelessly along with an iPod.
Austin slung his laptop case over his shoulder and headed for the house. As he strolled past the fountain, it spat up a trickle of gray water. The whole place had an odd earthy scent—like an herb garden gone to rot. The petals of cherry blossoms littered the courtyard and steps to the front veranda like dirty pink confetti after the parade has passed.
Spring in Georgia was supposed to be very pretty, but this was March, the wettest month. The skies were slate, and an eerie light seemed to bounce off the dark stone urns with their dead vines.
As Austin reached the covered front porch, the door swung open, and a young woman dressed like the last of the Southern belles in a yellow satin ball gown leaned seductively against the frame and smiled at him.
"Why, hello," she drawled. She was probably in her early twenties, a bit younger than Austin, petite and very pretty with dark curls and dark eyes. "Y‟all must be Mr. Gillespie."
"That‟s right." Austin automatically shook the unexpectedly square, blunt-fingered hand she offered.
"I‟m Carson Cashel, the daughter of the house. Did you have any trouble finding us?"
"Uh, no." With five stepmothers and four stepsisters, Austin liked to think there wasn‟t much a woman could do to surprise him, but he couldn‟t help staring. Carson Cashel was wearing a hoop skirt, for crying out loud. "No, no trouble."
Just make a hard right after the end of the civilized world.
She smirked at him. "What do you think of my dress, Mr. Gillespie?"
Blushing, Austin tore his gaze from her bodice. Not that he was scoping her out—hardly—but her creamy, pert breasts were all but popping from that nest of lace and ribbon like a pair of doves about to take flight.
"It‟s very pretty."
"It is, isn‟t it? I thought you‟d look different. Older. Like one of those wine snobs."
Austin smiled lamely because what was he supposed to say to that? He was, probably by definition, a wine snob. Snobbery was part of the master of wine job description. He was paid to be a snob. An articulate, witty snob with a trained palate and a sensitive nose.
Carson burst into a peal of laughter. "I guess y‟all are wondering why I‟m dressed like it‟s Halloween."
"I‟m modeling my costume. For the annual Madison Masquerade Ball on Saturday." She turned away, throwing him a sassy look over her bare shoulder. "Well, come on! You‟ll want to see the cellar straightaway, I guess."
He wiped his feet on a grungy-looking mat and stepped over the threshold. "Thanks. I think I‟m supposed to meet with Mr. Roark Cashel."
"Oh, Daddy is…indisposed just now. He‟ll see y‟all later."
The bottom of Carson‟s gown swept along the parquet floor as she bustled along leading the way. Austin had a glimpse of her bare feet as the hoop skirt billowed lightly from side to side.
The house had clearly seen better days. The carpet was a patched and faded blue laurel-wreath pattern; the wallpaper was coming loose in places and had discolored through time and trouble to an uneasy butterscotch hue. There was a lot of furniture, some of it good, a lot of it rubbish. The rooms smelled of rain and disinfectant and…burned bacon. It was at times like these that having a highly trained nose was a liability.
As they passed open double doors leading into a room that appeared to be some kind of back parlor, a woman‟s thin voice called out, "Carson, honey, is that him?"
"Yes, ma‟am!" Carson called back. She paused a few feet down the hall and whirled to face Austin. The full skirt of her gown nearly knocked over a small table. A red vase that looked a lot like Ming rocked wildly. Not that Austin was really an expert, but Rebecca, Stepmother #3, collected Ming ceramics.
"That‟s Auntie Eudie," Carson whispered. "You don‟t want to talk to her right now."
"Okay," Austin said. It was true enough.
"Not unless you want to spend all afternoon confabulating your family tree."
"My family tree?" Proof of Austin‟s own prejudices, he thought she must be implying something social or even racial. He had inherited his mother‟s wide, rather exotic hazel eyes and her honey-colored complexion—courtesy of Eurasian ancestry—but in most respects he was as WASPish as a man could get and still make his living buying, writing, and consulting on wine. He was certainly as WASPish as one would expect of any of Harrison Gillespie‟s offspring.
"Genealogy. Six degrees of reparation, Cormac calls it."
"Cormac?" He was starting to lose track. How many people lived in this mausoleum?
"My little brother." Carson whirled away again and narrowly avoided crashing into the man who had appeared soundlessly behind her.
"Why, Jeff, you startled me!" Carson‟s Georgia drawl suddenly seemed to go still-slower and stickier. Austin could practically see the peach juice dripping from every vowel. "I thought you were still in bed."
Jeff certainly looked like he had just crawled out of bed. He was wearing a snug pair of faded jeans low on his tanned hips and nothing else. His blond hair was appealingly tousled. His light eyes met Austin‟s over Carson‟s curly head. He winked.
"Why, honey chile, what would be the point without you?"
"You!" She smacked his muscular brown arm. Austin expected to hear a fiddledeedee! at the least, but no. She settled for the love tap. "Mr. Gillespie, this is Jeff Brady. He‟s a…friend."
In a perfectly normal—well, for a Southerner—tone Jeff said, "Hi, Mr. Gillespie. Nice to meet you."
"Hi," Austin replied.
"You‟re here to catalog the wine cellar?"
"That‟s right." Austin smiled politely in answer to Jeff‟s white smile. Jeff Brady was just too good-looking. Austin didn‟t trust anyone that handsome. Jeff looked like he should be selling toothpaste or seducing a congressional page.
"You‟ve got a job ahead of you."
"He does, doesn‟t he? That cellar‟s one thousand square feet if it‟s an inch." Carson smiled at Austin too. "Well, come on. Time‟s a wasting." She turned, her gown swirling like churned butter around her.
"Nice dress," Jeff said as she passed him. He smiled at Austin again, and Austin smelled the scent of his shampoo: green apples.
As they started down a long staircase, Carson inquired, "Are you married, Mr. Gillespie?"
"Goody!" Carson threw him another of those friendly, flirtatious glances. It was probably second nature to her, but it made Austin self-conscious.
They turned down another hallway. The decor seemed to consist of dark wainscoting and a couple of chandeliers that looked ready to fall out of the ceiling.
Carson chattered blithely as they made their way down the murky corridor. "It was such a shock Granddaddy going like that. I don‟t mean in the arms of Miz Landy, because we all knew about that peccadillo. I mean his heart giving out. We all thought the doctors had removed it with his appendix years ago. I guess it‟s a blessing, really."
"A blessing? Really?" Austin offered, since she clearly expected some comment from him. He was concentrating on not walking under the sagging light fixtures in case they tore loose and crashed down.
"Oh yeah. What do they call that medical condition when people start stockpiling lots of useless junk?"
"Collecting baseball cards?"
Carson laughed. "You! Naw, hoarding. That was Granddaddy. He was always buying and hoarding wine. Whatever money was left, it‟s all gone now. Or at least it‟s down in the cellar."
She chattered cheerfully all the way down the narrow stairs that led to a scratched, dark wood door. A key stuck out of the tarnished faceplate.
"It‟s not locked?" Austin asked, shocked. This wasn‟t merely tantamount to leaving a liquor store standing open; given the fortune in wine reputedly stored in the cellar, it was equivalent to leaving a bank unlocked.
Carson opened the door. "It‟s never been locked."
On the other side of the door was an even more rickety staircase. They went down it, Austin taking pains not to step on the hem of Carson‟s dress and send them both plummeting to their deaths.
A bare bulb threw muddy light against the dingy walls. The cellar smelled of damp and mold and even-less-pleasant things. At the bottom of the staircase, an elderly black man in a dark suit was spraying a can of Raid as though it were air freshener. He turned at the pound of their feet on the wooden steps.
"Faulkner, Mr. Gillespie is here to catalog Granddaddy‟s wine," Carson announced. To Austin, she said, "Faulkner is what I guess you‟d call our faithful family retainer."
"Uh…" Austin had grown up with full-time domestic staff, but he couldn‟t imagine referring to anyone as a faithful family retainer.
"Suh," Faulkner said. The exaggerated, deferential tone was at odds with the shrewd dark gaze that met Austin‟s. Faulkner was probably in his late sixties, his lined skin still supple looking, though his gray hair and mustache were grizzled.
Carson hitched up her dress and frowned at a black-soled foot. "When we used to be rich, Faulkner was our butler. He was a better butler than he is housekeeper."
"You shouldn‟t be running barefoot in this cellar, Miz Carson."
Miz Carson ignored that. "Oh good. Everything is already set up for you." She gazed at the card table and folding chair beneath the gently swinging lightbulb. "If you need anything else, just ask Faulkner. He‟ll be pleased to give you any help you need."
"Thanks, I should be all right." Austin held up his laptop case. "I‟ve got your grandfather‟s—"
She interrupted blithely, "Oh, I wouldn‟t put too much stock in Granddaddy‟s record keeping, Mr. Gillespie. He was never one for figures, especially at the end. Well, not the arithmetical kind!" She threw the former butler a sly look. Faulkner remained as impassive as one of the battered statues lining the front drive.
Gazing about himself, Austin feared Carson was probably right. But if even half the bottles Dermot Cashel had claimed were in his cellar existed, this cobwebbed dungeon would prove a treasure trove.
"I‟ve set up a table and chair for you over here, sir," Faulkner said, as though Austin could possibly have missed the effort at creating a work space—positioned as it was beneath a giant spiderweb. "I‟m afraid there‟s no electrical extension."
There was barely electricity, if the pallid light from overhead was anything to go by.
Austin thanked him and moved to the table, setting down his laptop case.
"I guess I‟ll leave you to it," Carson said after a moment as he removed his laptop. "Will you join us for lunch?"
Austin, his attention caught by the nearest rack, bottles blanketed in velvety dust, barely registered that. "Yes, thank you," he said automatically.
"We‟ll see you at one o‟clock," Carson called, grabbing her full skirt in two fists and trotting up the staircase. The stairs shook beneath the energetic pound of her feet. Faulkner unhurriedly followed. The door slammed shut behind them with the finality of the last nail in a coffin lid.
Austin turned his attention to the wine racks. He lifted a bottle from the nearest shelf and gingerly wiped the dust away to study the label. His heart jumped.
A 1970 Château La Gaffelière. The La Gaffelière was a Bordeaux that generally aged well. The 1970 should still be powerful with a good tannin structure. This was a very promising start. Austin returned the bottle to its cradle and looked around for something to wipe the dust off his hands. He should have worn jeans and a sweatshirt, that was obvious, but he preferred to introduce himself to the client looking as professional as possible. He wasn‟t afraid to get his hands dirty, but that came later.
Gingerly wiping his hands on an oil-stained rag, he moved along the tall racks, looking but not touching.
Cheval Blanc, Gruaud-Larose, DRC, Lafitte, Mouton… Oh yes. This was most definitely worth the trip from DC. Austin could admit now he‟d had his doubts when he‟d learned Martyn, North, & Compeau had been hired to catalog and evaluate the late Dermot Cashel‟s extensive wine cellar. He‟d even suspected Whitney might be trying to get him out of town in order to further his own plans for bringing his girlfriend on board.
But this was the real thing. Even without the Holy Grail of the legendary Lee bottles, this was an appraisal Austin wouldn‟t have trusted to anyone else.
And if the Lee bottles really did exist?
If they did exist, it was going to be fun trying to find them. As far as Austin could tell, there was no rhyme or reason to the way the shelves had been organized. Bottles of whites and reds were mixed—as were years and vineyards.
He reined in his impatience to delve and returned to the card table, where he switched on his laptop and watched the screen for a wireless connection. No signal. Not even the promise of a signal. Austin sighed. Annoying not to be able to access his e-mail, but he could do that at the hotel this evening. He clicked on the document file he‟d saved to his hard drive, and glanced over his notes.
The spreadsheet before him was his own rough effort at estimating the contents of the Ballineen cellar based on the crinkled, purple, ruled sheets of notepaper he‟d received from Whitney. He‟d deliberately underestimated. The purple stationery and nearly illegible writing did not induce confidence. But even underestimating—and not counting in the Lee bottles—the Ballineen cellar added up to a treasury.
If by some miracle the Lee bottles were here, the chances of their being the real thing were slim. Who could forget the drama of the Jefferson bottles in the 1980s? The greatest wine hoax ever? The very thought of another Jefferson‟s bottles scandal was enough to raise the hair on the back of his neck. Not many careers could have withstood that hit. His would have hit the reef for sure. Fortunately, in 1985 Austin had been four years old and rarely drunk anything stronger than Yoo-hoo.
But had the Jefferson bottles been the real thing? That was the seduction, wasn‟t it? The allure. Because wine wasn‟t merely a beverage. Wine was history and art and romance and civility and culture…and maybe a bit of magic.
Austin moved his cursor down the spreadsheet, noting quantities, and then glanced at the towering shelves around him. It was probably going to be easier to take it shelf by shelf, listing the contents and location and then matching it against the inventory sheets.
Especially since the cellar wasn‟t kept locked. For all he knew the family had been enjoying the Lee bottles with their fried-chicken dinners over the four weeks since Dermot Cashel‟s death. It was a sickening thought, but it had to be faced. Austin was pretty sure from what he‟d seen of the self-titled "daughter of the house," she wouldn‟t know a bottle of Montrachet from a bottle of Asti Spumante. There was no reason to hope the rest of the clan was any more savvy.
Not that there was anything wrong with drinking what you liked to drink—or not drinking at all, for that matter. Austin really wasn‟t that much of a wine snob, and growing up in Harrison Gillespie‟s house had been all about learning restraint.
Moderation in all things was one of his father‟s guiding principles—except when it came to marriage.
As a matter of fact, good old Robert E. Lee himself hadn‟t been much of a drinker. Lee had put his thoughts about the use of liquor in writing: "My experience through life has convinced me that, while moderation and temperance in all things are commendable and beneficial, abstinence from spirituous liquors is the best safeguard of morals and health."
Austin pulled a legal pad and pen out of his laptop case. He mapped the cellar floor plan and layout, sketched the shelving units, and labeled each one: A, B, C, and so on. He numbered the individual shelves.
At least the thick stone walls of the cellar ensured that the temperature remained cool and stable.
Shrugging out of his jacket, he hung it over the back of the folding chair, rolled his sleeves up, and loosened his tie. He picked up the pad and pen and moved to the first shelf.
Forty minutes later his hair, shirt, and shoes were covered in dust, and the palms of his hands were black. He had never worked on quite so cruddy a site. It was bad enough that he considered going back to his hotel and changing then and there, but it was a thirty-minute drive back to the town of Madison.
The smell of insecticide was fading, only to be replaced by something worse. Far worse. What was that?
It smelled like something had died down here.
Austin continued to work—he was on the bottom row of the first shelf—but he began to feel queasy. The smell was truly awful. Did they keep the garbage bins down here? Or were the canned goods going bad?
He put down the pad and pen and wandered back through the maze of tall shelves and racks. The light dimmed the farther he moved into the recess of the
cellar. He was going to need a flashlight when he worked back here. The back portion was nearly in darkness. The shelves and broken furniture threw bizarre geometric shadows against the dingy walls.
Austin‟s sense of unease, of disquiet, mounted. At the end of the farthest aisle, he stopped and peered more closely at the floor. It was hard to tell in the poor light, but it looked like…
What was that?
He took a hesitant step forward.
Something white and waxen rested in the aisle. It sort of looked like a hand stretching out from behind the very last shelf.
Yes, it looked like a hand: palm up, fingers outstretched…
He moved warily, reluctantly, forward another step.
It was a hand. A man‟s hand. Not just a hand, because it was attached to a wrist, and what the wrist might be attached to…was concealed by the tall shelving.
His voice sounded nervous in the cavernous chill of the cellar.
He took another unhappy step forward. He could now make out gray fingernails and dark hair on the backs of curled fingers. He could see every detail, it seemed, every freckle, every hangnail—not that there were any hangnails, for this man‟s hand was manicured. He could see the glint of a gold watch too. It was as though Austin had suddenly developed bionic vision. Time seemed to slow as he took another dragging step forward.
"Are you all right?" he asked.
He already knew the answer to that. No one who was all right had gray fingernails and skin the color of wax. No one who was all right was that motionless.
The toe of his shoe stopped a couple of centimeters from the lax fingers. Austin closed his eyes, opened them, and made himself look around the corner of the shelf.
The man lay on his back. He was middle-aged. Maybe older. His clothes—expensive clothes—were rumpled and dirty. He needed a shave. His mouth was slack and open, his lips blue-gray. His black hair was mussed and had fallen in his dull, sunken eyes. He stared sightlessly up at Austin.
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