Authors: Heatherly Bell
George’s face had turned all interesting shades of red. The man could be scary looking when he wanted to be. But Chelsea. Damn. Brooke felt a pinch of regret deep in her belly. Chelsea didn’t deserve this treatment any more than Brooke did. George was setting Chelsea up to fail, so that perhaps he could write off their honeymoon as a business trip. He of all people realized how unqualified Chelsea was to be his VP.
Eric walked up to the stage and took the mic out of her hand. “Time to go now.”
“Wow. I wasn’t really finished, but okay.” Brooke walked off the stage, the unnatural quiet of the room enveloping the night. The lead singer stared at her blankly, but before Brooke could tell him to play “The Bitch is Back”, a piercing squeal from the rear of the hall drew everyone’s attention.
It appeared Chelsea had slipped in some of the chocolate drippings on the floor. As she rose, she lost her balance and fell into the fountain, toppling it to the floor. Oozy melted-chocolate goodness now covered the tile. Chelsea slipped in the chocolate. When she tried to get up, she teetered on her three-inch Jimmy Choo heel, then slid again. Many of the patrons raced over to help, but George beat them to it. He bent down to pick her up, lost his footing and slid right into the chocolate mess. Both of them now appeared to be bathing in the stuff, chocolate smears in their hair, on their necks, on their faces. Clothes too, of course.
“This is a thousand-dollar suit,” George could be heard bellowing. “Brooke! Who ordered a damn chocolate fountain anyway?”
“There’s something you hate to see,” Brooke muttered. “All that chocolate, gone to waste.”
Eric slapped his forehead. “Oh man. It’s been good working with you, Brooke.”
Right. One more thing she had to say. She ran up to the stage again and grabbed the mic. “Before I call it a night, Georgie? I quit!”
With that she held the mic out to her side, raised it shoulder level, dropped it to the ground like she’d seen so many rappers do, and marched off the stage.
And she didn’t trip once.
Billy Turlock picked up the Chronicle at the 7-Eleven, along with a gallon of milk. While he waited in line, he opened up the sports section.
Pitcher or Winemaker?
Although the two wouldn’t appear to have a thing in common, Billy Turlock has been spotted in his hometown of Starlight Hill in Napa Valley. The word is he’s scouting a location to start a vineyard. The pitcher retired from the Oakland Sliders after a year of injuries and surgeries on his nearly shredded shoulder. But the fact is even though he’s not even thirty, the former darling of baseball had outlived his usefulness on the mound. So if wine making is in his future, we hope he can press grapes better than he can pitch a no-hitter. The last time he pitched a no-hitter…
Cockroaches. Vile filth. Billy set down the newspaper and grabbed a pack of beef jerky instead.
“No paper?” The checker said, ringing up the milk without even looking at Billy.
“I’ll find something else to line my bird cage,” he grunted.
That’s when the man glanced up. “Holy shit, Billy Turlock. In my store. Crap, hold up dude. Would you take a picture with me? Hey, Dad. Get out here, would you? Look at this.”
Damn, that was nice. He should stop reading the sports section, like his older brother Wallace suggested. People were so much better. Before long some of the customers had congregated to ask for autographs and a photo or two. Or three. Of course Billy posed for pictures but he insisted on paying for the purchases, even if the owner wanted to give them to him on the house. He might not have a million dollar contract to look forward to this year, or any other year again for that matter, but he wasn’t exactly in the poor house.
He wouldn’t be playing baseball anymore, but he’d find something to do with the rest of his life. He was almost sure of it.
Of course, this winemaking situation was a bit tenuous at best. But who was Billy to deny his grandfather’s dream? Hadn’t Pop been at every game since Little League? It was certainly time to come back to his hometown and reward their support by sinking some money into the economy. Why not a vineyard?
Some of the customers followed him outside. “Is it true you’re moving back?”
“I am back, and it’s good to be home again.” Billy threw the gallon of milk in the passenger seat of his convertible.
“You opening a sports bar?” One of the men asked.
“Not exactly, but you’re in the ball park.” Billy said, opening the door. Everyone got a kick out of that double entendre. “A vineyard.”
“Another vineyard?” Billy heard someone say. “Like we need more of those.”
“How’s that like a sports bar?” Someone else muttered.
Billy didn’t know the answer to that question, so he didn’t even try. He hopped in his car and ripped open the bag of jerky. Eventually everyone wandered back in the store or went about their business, waving goodbye.
He didn’t know the first thing about them, other than the fact he’d grown up in Starlight Hill. But Pop said a private label vineyard was the way to go. A family business. Even if Billy’s mother’s side of the family was proudly of Scottish descent, filled with men that had likely never even come close to the grape, Pop said he knew what he was doing. Billy believed him, even if he realized he’d probably be seeing a lot more articles like the one in the paper today. Retired pitchers were supposed to open sports bars and fade quietly into the background. Certainly not try to resuscitate an old vineyard.
His cellphone rang, and he could see by the caller ID it was Gigi, his publicist. Checking up on him again since it’d been all of thirty minutes since they’d last spoken. “What now?”
“Just checking up on my favorite ball player.”
“Right. Well, it’s been thirty minutes and no, I haven’t fathered an illegitimate child yet. The minute I do, you’ll be the first to know.” Billy punched her in on the speaker phone, and drove out of the parking lot.
“Don’t make fun of me because I try to protect you from those women.”
Gigi referred to
as baseball’s version of gold diggers, and by now Billy could recognize them as well. He didn’t need Gigi’s assistance, not that she would believe him. “I’m in my home town. Give my home girls a little credit.”
“Fine, but don’t come crying to me if an old classmate comes to you with a nine-year-year-old, claiming she gave birth to your love child,” Gigi said without taking a breath. “I’m kidding. Do come to me when that happens.”
“It’s not going to happen.” His teenage prowess had been greatly exaggerated, and he’d never been the man-whore the media liked to portray. If he had been, he wouldn’t have had time to play baseball. “You should stop worrying. I’m with family now, and they look out for me.”
“Believe me that single fact is why I haven’t come down to scope out the place ahead of time. Besides, I’m still fielding some of these endorsement offers. How do you feel about kitty litter?”
“No.” Was there anything more to say?
“I’m fielding offers, but nothing is quite right yet. I’ll keep looking. What’s wrong with you, anyway? You sound pissy.”
Billy crossed over Merlot Bridge, and felt a grin coming on despite his mood. The prettiest girl he’d ever known had bungee jumped off this bridge back in high school. Memories. “I just took a look at the Chronicle. Mistake.”
“What did it say? I’ll demand a retraction.”
“Never mind.” They were right, much as it hurt. He’d been on a losing streak ever since the last surgery. He only wished he’d quit while he was ahead. But quitting the game had turned out to be harder than he’d imagined. He wasn’t sure who he was without a mitt in his hand, but he was about to find out.
“Whatever they wrote, don’t listen to them. You have a bright future ahead of you.”
“Yeah.” Except that future wouldn’t involve baseball. No more surgeries. Time to retire, the doctor had pronounced. No more options.
“And you be careful with this vineyard venture. I’ve heard the business can be cut-throat.”
“Unlike baseball?” Billy laughed.
“Laugh all you want, but those vineyard owners are probably going to scoff at a retired ballplayer acting like he can be any kind of real competition to them. You’re not even part Italian.”
“Let them scoff. Don’t worry about me.” He was worried enough for all of them. The last thing he wanted right now was a failed business. He couldn’t afford another embarrassment, another failure.
As for competition, maybe it was time the old vineyard growers of Napa got some friendly competition.
A little something he did know about.
Not everyone regarded him as a useless retired pitcher with a shredded shoulder. None of the people he’d run into so far questioned whether he’d ever been worth all the millions he’d earned out over his career. They were loyal baseball fans, like no other.
Damn, it was good to be home.
It wasn’t the first time Brooke had been skydiving, and it certainly wouldn’t be the last. But today was especially fitting as diving out of plane at several thousand feet would be better than committing murder.
The murder of George Serrano would have made front page news. They would have found her standing over his body with the bloody knife in her hands. “He made me do it.” She would say to the cops.
Poor Ivey, her best friend, would be shocked. Mom would be ashamed. “I didn’t raise her that way. I taught her to love the environment. Heck, to worship it. This isn’t what I had in mind.”
Not that Brooke cared what Mom (who should be re-named Mother Earth) thought. But there was the whole prison thing. She could plead temporary insanity, but face it she’d get a good ten years even for a slimeball like George. And she’d never looked good in orange.
So skydiving it would be. Today she and her fellow skydivers flew over Napa where every other weekend hot air balloons filled the sky. Less often, a Cessna loaded with daredevils.
“Oh crap, I can’t believe we’re doing this.” Frat Boy Number One said to his pal.
“I’m betting you won’t at the last minute, Einstein.” Frat Boy Number Two said.
The two were practically indistinguishable to Brooke — same vacant party-look in their eyes, same Converse shoes. She’d bet a year of the salary she no longer had that they were the Stanford elite. Money to burn.
“What about you, babe? How many jumps under your belt? ’Cause you look like a pro.” Frat Boy Number One asked Brooke.
“Don’t call me ‘babe’, asswipe.” Twenty-four jumps to be exact and Joe the pilot knew it. But he was busy doing his job.
“Oooooh, you stepped in it.” Frat Boy Number Two said.
“How much longer, Joe?” Any time now would be good. Today she would jump harder than she’d ever jumped before. She would jump so hard today that the middle of the earth would hear it when she landed.
“I was just about to tell y’all to line up,” Joe said from the cockpit.
Now why couldn’t she fall for a guy like Joe? Beautiful blue eyes, sexy southern drawl. Retired Army, even. Served God and country. Willing to serve her, more than once if she recalled.
But since graduating from college, she’d had a definite type. Short-cropped hair, clean cut, not a stich of facial hair. Italian silk suited CEO. George.
Maybe it was high time to re-think her type.
“Brooke, we’ll have the rookies go first. What do you say?” Joe winked.
Damn he was good looking. “Sure.”
Frat Boy Number Two stood up first. “Let’s do this thing, dude.”
She had to sit through all the last minute instructions as Joe’s tandem jumpers went through them one by one. She’d heard it all more than a dozen times.
Let’s go, let’s go. Time to get this show on the road.
Frat Boy Number Two and his tandem partner hurled out of the plane, but not before the stupid kid shouted, “Ha-ooh!”
Joe rolled his eyes. “Next.”
“That would be you.” Brooke slapped Frat Boy Number One’s back. His tandem partner hooked them together.
“Dude, I don’t know about this. That’s a freakin’ long way down.” He stared at the ground beneath him as if he’d only now noticed it was there.
“What’s your name?” Brooke asked from behind him.
“Er, Terry. Why?”
“I’ve jumped about twenty-four times, Terry. And I’m still here to tell it. So go ahead and find your balls in there, and do this thing.”
Terry didn’t move. Joe talked to him, and so did the tandem partner. About how it would be okay to change his mind at this point. No harm, no foul. Nothing to be ashamed of. The usual.
“Don’t listen to them. If you don’t do this you’re going to feel like crap. Your buddy did it and he won’t let you live it down.” Brooke patted his back.
“Dude, good point. Ah, hell.” Still, he didn’t move.
“We’re going to need you to move if you’re not jumping,” Joe said. “We’re losing our window.”
In other words, she was losing her window. And she would jump today, one way or another. No one would take that from her, certainly not a spoiled rich kid.
“I just wish— ” Terry began.
He didn’t finish the sentence because Brooke gave him a good shove. He pushed into his tandem partner who must have assumed that meant a go, and out they both went. “That someone would push you out?” She called out after him.
“Du….de!” he yelled as he plunged into the air.
“Shit, Brooke.” Joe said. He was nothing if not a stickler about rules. And it wasn’t cool to push someone out, even with a partner.
“Sorry,” Brooke said as she jumped.
Finally, the air rushed past her and she could fly. She stuck her arms out and welcomed the fall, so that she could at once be a part of the sky and a part of nothing at all. Drifting. Free.
The thrill of the ground as it rose to greet her. Closer and closer, but unable to touch her from this high up. Seconds passed, always feeling much more like years. Falling like this, sometimes, was better than sex. Better because she didn’t have to give up a part of herself. She only gave up her well-formed illusion of control.
She liked control, liked her lists, and liked knowing where she was headed. Being a daredevil wasn’t as crazy as some people thought. Every one of her risks was well thought out and planned ahead. And they forced her, for a few seconds, to let go.
To forget that, sometimes, she was scared. Not of the jumping, but of being alone for the rest of her life. Never finding that one person who felt like the missing piece of the puzzle. She told herself it was because nothing was missing— she happened to be full and complete on her own and if she never met the right man that would be okay too.
Yeah, and pigs could fly.
She hadn’t cried, and still hadn’t called Ivey. Ivey would bring ice cream and commiserate but what would be the point? It wouldn’t change anything. Only a time machine could do that. She’d get in one too, if someone would hurry up and invent it.
Yes, she could have settled for George at one time. But an old friend had once told her she shouldn’t settle for anything less than everything she wanted.
One of Joe’s instructors, who had jumped right after her, frantically signaled to her, trying to get her attention.
Oh dammit, she hadn’t pulled her cord yet. With seconds to spare, Brooke reached for it, and heard the familiar heartening flapping sound of the parachute slowing her roll. Whew. Joe and his crew would be pissed now, since they would be convinced she’d done it on purpose. She happened to hold the record for the closest amount of time to releasing, and Joe hated it. But this time, it hadn’t been intentional. Not that he’d believe her or anything.
So she was a little bit distracted, and who could blame her? She’d just thrown her entire career away. Most of the other vineyard owners had been at the party, and had witnessed firsthand her less than professional behavior.
She’d acted impulsively for possibly the second time in her life, and it might have worked about as well as the first time.
The worst part of the jump was meeting the ground. It always insisted on being part of the deal. She landed with too much velocity as usual, and spread her legs out to slow down. One of her ankles twisted, causing a roar of pain.
Great, not another visit to the ER. She probably didn’t have insurance any more. No way could she afford the Cobra payment. Anyway, she’d had enough twisted ankles in her lifetime to know how to treat one at home.
Frat Boy #2 had met up with Terry and in the distance she could see the two of them jumping in the air, high-fiving it, celebrating. Buddies.
And right then, Brooke wanted her best friend.
“Oh Brooke, what a jerk.” Brooke’s best friend, Ivey Garner, pressed the ice pack on Brooke’s sore ankle.
“That’s actually the nice word for him.” Brooke frowned at her foot, propped up on the edge of the couch. “Are you sure it’s not broken?”
“I work at the hospital, don’t I?”
“Ivey, you’re a midwife.”
Ivey grinned. “It’s not swelling. Just keep it elevated.”
Brooke and Ivey were in Brookes postage-stamp-sized studio apartment, a place with a corresponding sized rent payment. Not so much an apartment as a converted room in an old Victorian home. A place she should have long ago outgrown.
“Fine. It’s not like I can afford health insurance.”
Ivey met Brooke’s eyes. “I never did like him, by the way.”
“Neither did I after the first few exciting months. I was an idiot to go out with my boss. But I never thought he’d give the job I deserved to someone as green as Chelsea.”
Another thing. George wasn’t stupid enough to let Chelsea bring down his business, which must have meant that the Vice President was nothing more than a figurehead position. And yet he’d dangled it in front of Brooke, and made her believe she could have that promotion. Made her believe she might finally be able to move out of this little place.
“Have you cried yet?” Ivey asked.
Cried over that man? Not even if he deserved it, which of course he didn’t. “I don’t cry. But I might, if I can’t find another job soon.”
“Do you have any other options?”
“I’m going to put some feelers out. There should be something. Even though a lot of my prospective employers were at the event. They probably think I’m a little wacky now.”
“You’ve forgotten that many of them don’t even like George. For all you know they’d be willing to give you a medal. But why not take some time and think about what you want to do as your next step?”
She could do that, but Brooke already knew what she wanted her next step to be. She just wasn’t entirely sure she had the stomach for it. She’d taken physical risks before, and plenty of them, but financial risks were different. She could risk death, but she sure as hell didn’t want to be poor.
Still, she couldn’t stop thinking about the Mirassu vineyard. For so long she’d had a crazy dream of owning a piece of land in the valley. For years she’d worked to make others a success, but maybe now it was finally her time.
“The old Mirassu winery got repossessed by the bank about a year ago. Maybe I might be able to get a good deal on it because it needs work.” Brooke wiggled her toes. No pain there, at least.
“Sad what happened there.” Ivey shook her head.
More like tragic the way family could turn on each other. The official word was that it had been a ‘family dispute’, another euphemism for a contentious divorce. Suing each other had taken so much of their money that they’d lost the one thing they’d been fighting over. Brooke knew a little about contentious divorces and how they could ruin people. All right, she could write a book with the knowledge she had.
“I say go for it. Sounds like perfect timing to me. Reach for your dreams. Why not?” Ivey asked.
Because the land might as well be gold bullion. “I don’t want to be poor, for one.”
“It might be a risky venture, but at least you know what you’re doing.”
“I’ve got some savings, but not enough. I’d need a loan.” She couldn’t ask Mom, who had lived on an organic farm since the divorce. Brooke’s father had left Mom almost penniless. Brooke still wasn’t speaking to the man.
“Then get a loan. You’re part of the community here, and I’m sure the bank would work with you.”
Brooke felt the first twinge of hope. “You think so? I’ll call the bank tomorrow.”
Maybe she could make an offer on the vineyard. It wouldn’t be much, but maybe with the lack of buyers in this recession they’d jump at the chance. Brooke had the experience and the know-how to turn things around. That alone should put her in the running, even if she wasn’t financially viable.
“This is exciting,” Ivey said. “It’s like when I first got the midwife job at the hospital. You deserve to have your dreams come true, too.”
For Brooke, what she might deserve and what she got were rarely one and the same. But today was a day for dreaming. “When I buy the vineyard, I’ll live right on the property as I get it ready to reopen. I’ve always wanted to live on a vineyard, and the Mirassu vineyard has that beautiful balcony that overlooks the land.”
“That’s the spirit. I like the way you said ‘when’ and not ‘if’.”
First she had to think the plan through all the way. Make a few pros and cons lists, then organize them point by point. She had to be smart about this. Draw up a business plan and get a few investors lined up in case she needed them. She’d start tomorrow.
On a cool early September morning, Billy stood at the curb with his grandfather and surveyed the dilapidated Mirassu winery. From the outside, the rambling stone mansion looked like an Italian villa manor from days of old, complete with a red tile roof. Ivy vines climbed up the side of one stone wall and overgrown weeds led from the house to the tree line. The place also needed a new paint job, and who knew what else?
He’d been assured that the grapes, however, had been salvaged. The bank understood their value.
But with these looks, no wonder the bank was desperate. He was beginning to think the bank should pay him to take it off their hands. The place had ‘fixer-upper’ written all over it.