One: What the Hell?
The cold, misty window fogs with my warm breath. Staring outside at the fresh snow littering the ground serves as a reminder that the holiday season is really here. A time of the year filled with family and fun for most, but I’m missing the biggest piece of that: my dad. Thinking about him always makes me sad when I’m supposed to be cheery instead. His death just before Christmas wrecked this holiday for me. Partying isn’t really high on my list of priorities. Unlike my mother, who is currently leaning on the counter of the bar to drink yet another glass of our family’s wine. No one could tell her husband was gone.
I try desperately to hold in my disgust as the young pool boy, Rick, flounces down the stairs. He wraps a tanned arm around my mom’s waist, joining in on the drunken festivities. The way he eyes my mother—a woman twenty years older than him easily—makes me want to throw up in the nearest potted plant. I would if it meant poor Rosemary, the maid, didn’t have to clean it up afterward.
Some more family and friends are supposed to be coming to the house today for a little bit of holiday “fun”, but I don’t feel up to it. If everyone wouldn’t pitch a fit—I’d be upstairs in my room. Maybe with Mason showing up, this will all be tolerable. I’ve known that dork since we were kids and despite that...I still like him. A smile stretches across my face when I see him walk in with his parents. Being the generous person I am, I make my way to the other side of the room to save him from my mom and Rick.
“Hey! Long time no see, stranger.”
“Me? What about you? Barely gotten more than a text from you in months. They make these amazing things these days called jets and I hear your family owns one. Might want to try using it sometime.”
“Ha...ha. I’ve been busy. You know that.”
He mirrors my smile with a grin as he swoops in for one of his signature bear hugs. My arms are pinned to my sides while he lifts me off the ground. I try to pretend like this annoys me, but secretly I love them. He’s been doing it for years. Who am I to stop him?
Suddenly, it’s like no time has passed because Mason quickly cracks jokes as usual, then talks about what his plans are for the upcoming new year. His hotels are expanding into a new country along with his family’s spas. The Telfords are quite successful in these areas—so the news of expansion really isn’t a surprise. I’ve only been to one a few years back, but it was the best vacation I ever had.
I’m in the middle of telling him about my hopes for taking over the family wine empire when my aunt makes her grand entrance. Always the more dramatic, flashier of the two sisters, Aleta Cabrera never fails to draw all eyes to her. Not even bothering to acknowledge me, she instantly beelines for my younger brother. Cortez has been her favorite for as long as I can remember.
Her loud and abrasive voice triggers an early memory of her. Dad was still alive at the time. I woke up during a terrible thunderstorm, swearing I could hear my brother crying in his room next to me. Hurriedly scurrying out of the covers, I found Cortez clutching his stuffed rabbit and looking around for scary monsters. Once I comforted him the best I could, we both decided that a late-night snack was in order. Walking downstairs—angry whispers reach our ears.
What’s going on?
Around the next corner, my dad and aunt are arguing with each other. They haven’t noticed us yet, but when they do, aunt Aleta seemed seconds away from slapping dad. With a quick look in our direction—she storms off in a huff. Before I know it, we’re being picked up then carried back to our rooms. We never got our snack, and I never found out what they were fighting about.
Mason nudging me in the ribs pulls me out of my distant thoughts. He’s armed with two mugs full of cocoa. Marshmallows threaten to spill over the top, and it looks like there’s even espresso powder dusted on. Wow, he really went all out. I have to give him shit for it, though. It wouldn’t be the same if I didn’t.
“Hot chocolate? Really?”
“What? You know you love it.”
“Kind of a kiddie drink, isn’t it? We’re not twelve anymore.”
“Hey! I put a lot of work into that cocoa and, like thirty-six mini marshmallows. It’s good stuff.”
Totally not convinced, I narrowed my eyes at him.
“Fine, I guess I’ll just take it back then. More for me.”
“Over my dead body, Telford.”
“That’s what I thought. Besides...it looks like your mom is knocking back enough adult drinks for everyone.”
The chugging motion he makes after tossing his head back has me sighing in disappointment. Sadly, I have to agree with him.
“You’re not joking. I think that’s the second bottle of wine she’s gone through by herself. Of course, pool boy Rick is there to help her now.”
He snickers at me, then takes a sip of his cocoa. Mason’s blue eyes light up mischievously and I already know what he’s going to say. Before he can mutter something about my pervert mom and her boy toy, I’m shooing him toward the rest of the group. Everyone has gathered near the tree just outside the dining room. I guess we’re going to eat soon.
Both of us abandon our half-empty mugs on the side table as we filter into the brightly decorated space. Automatically—Mason grabs my hand, pulling me next to him. Cortez stands on the other side of me, which I’m immensely thankful for. Having to fake polite conversation with my aunt or mother would ruin my appetite. It’s bad enough I can still see Rick making googly eyes at her.
“Just get through this dinner and I’ll take you out for a drive later. We can forget about all of this crap together.”
Aww, isn’t Mason the sweetest?
I squeeze his hand I’m still holding while scanning the room. Everyone is pretty much here. Mom is still silent at the head of the table. What on Earth is she waiting for? As Gene and a few other people from the winery enter, a tinkling sound echos around us all. Rick dings a fork on a crystal glass, almost cracking it.
My mother clears her throat after wincing at the potential loss of fine stemware. I know she usually says a small something before we eat, but she’s really drawing this out. I’m not the only one who notices, because Cortez quirks his brow in her direction. A shrug is my only response to let him know I’m just as clueless as he is.
“Excuse me, everyone. If I could have your attention, please. I have something extra important to say this year before our annual holiday dinner.”
She exchanges a glance with Rick for a second and it gives me a gross feeling in the pit of my stomach. I swear on all that’s fuckable if she says he proposed...
“I know that this time of year is hard on all of us. Nicolas’ passing was tragic and came far too soon. It has been questioned who will take over Santino Wines in his place.”
Her pause amps up the anxiety climbing my spine. Has she been taking notes from aunt Aleta? Several pairs of eyes turn to me. This is the big news I have been waiting years for. All of that training with dad will finally pay off. Mason beams down at me, shaking our clasped hands. He knows how much I want this.
“I am pleased to announce that we have come to a decision...”
Oh, my god! Spit it out already!
“Effectively immediately—I will hold the position until my son Cortez is of age to take over his father’s cherished legacy.”
What?! Is... Is she kidding?
The blood drains from my face as other people start clapping. My brother seems shocked at her announcement too. At least he didn’t see it coming, either. Mason has dropped my hand to place his arm around me. If he hadn’t, I think I would’ve fallen forward. This can’t be happening. Glasses around the table are being lifted to toast Cortez.
“To the future CEO of Santino Wines!”
I feel sick. Never in my worst nightmares did I think my mother would ever do this. To push the knife further into my heart, mom simply smiles at Cortez. Her eyes are twinkling with pride, which swiftly falls once her gaze shifts to me.
What the hell?