Love on the Lake Series, Volume 2
Melanie Addario has a secret admirer, a second chance at love she never thought she’d have. She also has a new job at a local winery working for Rafael Delacruz, making her wonder if she’s finally capped out at certifiably crazy. Everyone in town still talks about Rafael and his arrival in Moon Lake years before under sketchy circumstances, and something about the way he looks right through Melanie gives her the willies.
Rafael knows he doesn’t belong in Moon Lake, wedged between the wealthy tourists and heirloom families with streets that match their last names, just like Melanie doesn’t belong working by his side in the hot sun at Crescent Moon, where he gets to talk to her but isn’t allowed to touch. And oh, how he’s wanted to touch that smooth, golden flesh, since long before that Army boyfriend of hers up and walked away. A man would have to be crazy to leave Melanie.
The past has a way of coming back home, and Melanie and Rafael each have a great deal to lose. When someone sabotages operations at the vineyard, Rafael’s plans for the business and his hopes for a relationship with Melanie are suddenly put in jeopardy. Can they find a way to be together when life would pull them apart?
Melanie Addario sat at the bar at the Moon Lake Bar & Grill, skimming through the classified ads. “I just want to work with plants. It shouldn’t be so hard to find something.”
“Yeah, maybe in the spring, but it’s fall, cupcake.” Brandy, the bartender, put Melanie’s beer down and reached for an olive, popping it in her own mouth. “What about something with animals? You’re always watching Animal Planet.”
“Here’s one.” Melanie cracked a smile. “Manure hauler.”
Brandy snorted. “Clearly, you’ve found your calling.” A man down the bar waved Brandy over. “Be right back.”
Part-time preschool teacher.
Winery tasting room server.
Melanie hummed once just as Brandy returned. “Crescent Moon’s looking for a tasting room server.”READ MORE
“I’d stay away from there. There’s something weird about that Rafael guy.” Brandy lifted her chin toward the man at the end of the bar.
“But if I got into the tasting room, maybe I could get a foot in the door at the vineyard come spring.”
“It’s a good idea. You could ask if any of the other wineries are hiring. What about Owl and Hawk, or that new one, Vertigo?”
Melanie’s eyes skated down the bar to where Rafael Delacruz sat, surprised to find him staring back at her, and turned away quickly. “I don’t think he’s that strange.”
Except for how he pretends we never met before.
She bit her lip.
“Seriously?” asked Brandy. “The guy’s a whack job. He comes in here every week, and he never says two words to anybody unless it’s to ask for a drink. Personally, I think he’s gay.”
If Rafael was gay, then Melanie was seriously attracted to the wrong kind of man.
Which would explain a lot.
Melanie shook her head. “No way.”
“Watch this,” said Brandy, a devilish grin on her perfectly made-up face. She flipped her red hair and headed for Rafael, then braced her arms on the bar in front of him in a pose that screamed willing female.
Melanie could barely hear what they were saying, but if Brandy’s body language was any indication, she was doing her best to bait him. Brandy leaned in close, resting her forearms on the bar. Rafael drank the rest of his beer down in one swig and handed it to her, using the glass to push her away.
Melanie bit down on a smile.
Brandy walked back to Melanie, her cheeks beginning to flame as she refilled Rafael’s beer. “See? I told you. He’s a whacko.”
Melanie tucked her hair behind her ear and turned again to look at Rafael, disappointed to see he was watching television now, his untouchable aura firmly back in place.
What else is new?
Maybe Brandy was right. There was something a little strange about that Rafael guy.
Brandy clucked her tongue. “You’re wearing earrings. You never wear earrings.”
“I wear earrings.”
“What’s the occasion?”
“Maybe I have a hot date. You never know.”
Brandy laughed. “Yeah, right.”
Melanie’s mouth opened.
“Oh, man. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that.” Brandy raked her hand through her hair, then picked up Rafael’s drink. “I’m an insensitive clod. I’ll be right back.”
Brandy had no filter, which was one of the reasons Melanie liked her. But not when the truth hurt like a kick in the gut.
Brandy walked back. “Look, I’m sorry I said that. But in all fairness, it’s not like you’ve dated anyone since Greg. Maybe it’s time to get back out there.”
“Or maybe it’s not.”
“But Mel, how long are you going to wait for a guy who walked out of your life without even saying goodbye?”
“Just because I don’t jump from one man to the next doesn’t mean I’m deliberately avoiding a relationship.”
“Like me, you mean.”
Melanie rolled her eyes. “Whatever gave you that idea?”
“Fine. Whatever. We won’t talk about men, we’ll just find you a job, okay?”
Brandy ignored a customer trying to get her attention and continued talking to Melanie. “So, Crescent Moon is out.”
“Why is Crescent Moon out? Because you couldn’t get the manager to stare at your cleavage?” Melanie lifted her glass. “That doesn’t mean he’s gay, you know. Maybe it’s just a sign of good character.”
Brandy acted as though she hadn’t heard. “How about Casa Verde?”
Melanie crossed her arms. “How about Crescent Moon? Tori’s family owns it. I don’t know what your problem is with Rafael.”
Brandy’s eyes shifted to the other end of the bar. “Seriously?”
“It’s not just my problem. Everyone thinks he’s strange.”
“Shh… keep your voice down.” Melanie shook her head. “Because he’s not one of us.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“You didn’t have to.” Melanie stood up and walked over to Rafael, fueled by her indignation. She remembered the first time she set eyes on him, the blazing intensity of his stare and the tangible anxiety coming off him. They’d been young—just teenagers—but she hadn’t felt young at all when her eyes locked with his.
She’d felt like a full-grown woman.
The fact that he never acknowledged they knew each other when he came back to town was a wedge that prevented any further conversation.
Not that she was interested.
More than anything, she was nosey. She wanted to understand the circumstances that made him leave Moon Lake, and how he ended up back here. Or at least that’s what she told herself as she approached him. Stopping next to his barstool, she ignored the rapid beating in her chest.
Rafael turned his head, leveling his stare on her.
“Hey.” Her lip quivered. “I see Crescent Moon’s looking for someone to work in the tasting room.”
Rafael’s impassive face was clean-shaven, the color of sweet honey. He didn’t answer, and for a minute Melanie was afraid he was going to tell her the job was already gone.
She slipped her hands into her back pockets to keep from fidgeting. “It just so happens I used to pretend I worked in that tasting room when I was a kid, so I have a lot of experience,” she laughed.
Rafael just stared.
“Uh…” Melanie began to sway back and forth. “I’m good friends with the owner’s daughter, Tori, see.” Her eyes opened wide. “Which doesn’t mean you have to hire me. I didn’t mean that. I just meant that I’d …”
“What happened to your job at the jewelry shop?”
She tilted her head.
He knows where I worked.
“And now you want to work at a winery?”
“Actually, I want to work with plants. I’ve taken some horticulture classes online. But I thought maybe if I worked in the tasting room for now, I could work with the plants in the spring.”
“So, you don’t even want the job I’m advertising for.”
“Not exactly, no. But I could do that job, until maybe you had a different job.” She shifted her weight. “That I would like.”
She wished she could disappear in a puff of smoke like some crappy magician’s assistant, but no, she was really standing here talking to the one man she—as a rule—never talked to, kind-of-sort-of interviewing for a position she didn’t even want.
I am a moron.
At least they were talking, instead of what usually happened when she saw Rafael. They’d make eye contact and she would think this might be the time he was finally going to say something, then he would look right through her like she didn’t even exist.
He folded his arms across his chest, the movement stretching the fabric of his t-shirt across his biceps. She swallowed.
“The job’s yours if you want it,” he said.
She narrowed her eyes. “Why does that sound like a threat?”
I have no filter, either.
Oh, man, this was a bad idea.
What had seemed like the perfect opportunity from ten paces away she now saw was an asinine proposition. The way he was looking at her was unnerving, and she could already feel herself getting flustered.
She smiled. “Just kidding.”
He didn’t smile back.
She suddenly wanted to tell him to take his job offer and shove it, but she was well aware of Brandy’s eyes upon her. If she backed out now, Brandy would insist she was right and no one in their right mind would work for Rafael Delacruz.
Melanie held out her hand and shook his.
In for a penny, in for a pound.
“When do I start?”
* * *
Melanie pulled her jacket tighter around her midsection. The wind blew through the trees, rustling their leaves, and the moon hung low in the sky.
What the hell was I thinking?
Just because Brandy was an idiot, didn’t mean she had to be one, too. What had possessed her to ask Rafael for a job? She was only a couple of blocks from the bar. She could turn right around and go tell him she changed her mind.
I decided I thought you were strange, too.
She sighed. She certainly couldn’t say that to him, even if it was kind of true. Not that there was anything wrong with Rafael, he just kept to himself.
Like, really kept to himself.
She remembered clearly the one conversation they’d had years before, but since his head-turning return to Moon Lake, she couldn’t think of one word on her part or his. He was always there in the background, minding his own business.
Which was enough to creep her extrovert self right out of her skin.
She’d just have to tell him she’d had a change of heart (lie), or that the winery was too far away to walk (lie), or that a job she’d previously inquired about had come through (lie, lie, lie).
Or I could just not show up.
It started to rain, cold droplets of water aiming right for her face, and she began to jog. She rounded the corner and her house came into view.
“You know you’re going to have to face him,” she said out loud. “Tell him you’d rather sling slushies at the gas ’n’ sip than work for him, even if he’s a hell of a lot better looking than Derek at the gas station.”
She laughed at the direction her thoughts had taken. There was no denying Rafael was attractive, that was for sure. It was just his horrible personality that drove people away.
Not horrible. Just intimidating as all get out.
Climbing up the stairs to the front porch, she sat down on the top step with a thud as it began to pour buckets from the sky.
She was just going to have to show up like a big girl and tell him she wasn’t interested in a job after all. That’s all there was to it.
* * *
Melanie’s mother walked into the kitchen in a long nightgown and stockinged feet. “I want grandchildren.”
“And I want an all-expense paid trip to the Bahamas,” said Melanie, cracking an egg on the side of a pan.
“Linda Valentino’s daughter is pregnant with another one. I can’t believe that woman found anyone to marry her in the first place, and now Linda will have three grandchildren. Three!”
Melanie poured her mother a cup of coffee. “Yes, but they all look like Linda.”
“I want grandchildren before I’m too old to enjoy them, or just plain dead.”
“Oh, I’m sure you’ve got a few good years left, Barb.” She smiled at her mother’s irritated face.
“Smart aleck. Just like your father. You’re not getting any younger, either. I was reading in Vogue about old eggs not being so good for making babies. You don’t want your eggs to get old, do you?”
The yellow fluffy eggs in the pan looked suddenly unappetizing. Melanie scraped them onto a plate and put them on the table. “Your breakfast, madam.”
“I need my Tabasco if I’m going to eat scrambled eggs for breakfast.”
“Tabasco gives you indigestion.”
“Your father always made them with Tabasco.”
Well, Dad’s dead and I’m all you’ve got left.
She didn’t say that, though. Some days her mother was well aware, but others…well, others she was not.
Picking up the frying pan, Melanie took it to the sink and filled it with water, steam rising with a hiss. “Loretta’s coming in a few minutes. I have to go out.”
“Loretta smells like old shoes.”
“You thought the last one smelled like boiled vegetables.”
“She did smell like boiled vegetables. How many vegetables do you think a person has to eat before the smell permeates their skin like that?”
Melanie kissed her mother’s head, inhaling the familiar scent of her shampoo. “Bye, Ma.”
“Where are you going?”
She hesitated. “I’m going to work. I got a job at Crescent Moon.”
“That’s good. You sure as hell weren’t going to find a husband at that jewelry store you were working at. The only men in jewelry stores are shopping for their wives or girlfriends.”
Melanie walked to the door, shaking her head. What had possessed her to tell her mother about the job? She’d just have to tell her she turned it down when she returned home within the hour.
She opened the door and her mouth dropped open. A small silver package with a bright red bow sat on the welcome mat.
A VW bug pulled into the driveway and a fifty-something woman with bleached blond hair got out.
“Morning, doll face.”
Melanie quickly tucked the package into her purse, just as Loretta climbed the steps and touched her arm. “I had a dream last night that the sky over Moon Lake was filled with rainbows. Can you believe that? It must be a good omen!”
Melanie nodded, despite her belief that today would be anything but wonderful. “Well, you were right about the heavy snow this winter.”
“And I was right about Marcie Littman having twins.”
“Clearly, you have a gift.”
“Runs in my family. Just like blond hair.”
Melanie glanced at Loretta’s dark roots. “Right.”
“You have yourself a good day, now,” said Loretta.
Melanie walked two houses down before she stopped to open the package, sighing on an “Aww,” when she saw what was nestled inside—a brass cuff bracelet in the shape of a twisting vine. She pulled it onto her wrist and cinched it closed, her finger tracing the careful metalwork.
It was perfect, exactly her style, and the motif couldn’t have been more appropriate. Her eyes stung just knowing someone—anyone—was thinking of her.
How long had it been since that happened?
Still, she was a little beside herself. Who was sending her presents? First the earrings, now this. It was a little frightening to think someone had been on her front porch sometime after she got home from the Grill. Had they been watching the house, waiting for her to return?
Maybe they were even watching when I sat on the steps last night.
Melanie shook her shoulders. That was too creepy to think about.
She started walking again and began to think of possible suspects, deliberately distracting herself from the more frightening aspects of having a secret admirer/stalker. There was Benjamin Thompson down at the service station. Sometimes she thought he was sweet on her, but he was forever in an on-again off-again relationship with Susan Dean.
Man, I hope it’s not him.
And there was the guy who worked at the college who used to come into Tori’s Treasures every week or so and make conversation. He always said he was picking out a gift for this or that occasion, but all totaled, there were an awful lot of occasions for just one man. He was old and skinny, and Melanie really hoped it wasn’t him.
Who did that leave?
She’d heard Robbie Dansforth and his wife were separated, but that seemed a little too soon, so she hoped it wasn’t Robbie.
Maybe it’s Greg.
Her heart skipped a beat as it often did when she thought of her ex-boyfriend. Even all this time later, the mention of the man she loved was enough to pull her out of the present and drag her back to the past, like a boulder dragging a mermaid into the depths of the sea.
She shook her head as she walked. “No. It is not Greg. Greg is gone and he’s not coming back and he’s certainly not leaving you presents on your doorstep. Get a grip, Melanie.”
Already she could feel her good spirits beginning to wane from the direction her thoughts had taken, and she forced her attention back to the beautiful day, the bracelet on her wrist, and the promise of a new and exciting job.
What, are you going to keep it?
“If he weren’t so creepy, I’d keep it.”
She was nearly at Crescent Moon already, the long rock wall that lined the property now running alongside her footpath. A sick feeling of dread began to build up in her stomach, her mind once again whirling with what she might say.
You don’t have to lie. Just tell him the truth. You don’t want to work here. End of story.
The sound of her footsteps on the pavement was like a drum, ticking away the seconds until she faced him. Maybe he wouldn’t even be there. Maybe she’d have the relative luxury of resigning to some minor staff member who could simply pass along the message to Rafael.
She rounded a corner and began to walk up Crescent Moon’s long driveway.
What kind of name was Rafael?
Rafael was an angel. And there was a famous painter named Rafael, if she had her art history correct. But it wasn’t a name for a regular man who never talked to anyone and made her nervous just to be around him.
A car was coming behind her, and she moved to the side of the road.
Rafael pulled up beside her in his truck. “Hey, glad to see you made it. Hop in.”
She hesitated, words perched on her tongue.
I don’t want to work for you.
She reached for the door handle. “Thanks.”
He started driving again. “So, I was thinking after we talked last night,” he said. “There’s no reason you couldn’t stay on and work with the grapevines after the fall rush is over.”
“Sure. We can always use someone with a green thumb around the vineyard, though you might have to do some odd jobs here and there.”
“But most of the time you’ll work with me. I’m the vineyard manager, so the vines are my responsibility. Peter Galbraith is the winery manager, so he’s in charge of everything once the grapes are crushed into juice. Do you know Peter?”
She was staring at him while he talked. She was going to quit because she thought Rafael was aloof and scary, but the man sitting next to her was downright friendly.
And a handsome piece of man candy, to boot.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
“Do you know Peter?”
She shook her head to clear it. “No.”
“He lives over on Keuka. Good guy. You’ll like him. But right now we need you in the tasting room. Do you know anything about wine?”
“Do you drink wine?”
“Not since a particularly sketchy evening with a box of white zinfandel.”
He laughed. “Now that’s a story I’d like to hear sometime. You’ll have to learn the basics. Doris can teach you what you need to know.”
“Her daughter Gloria used to babysit me.”
The road crested the first of several small hills, a large, pale yellow barn with a wide white deck coming into view.
“I’ll never get over how small this town is. Everyone knows everyone, and everyone’s business,” he said.
“Except for yours.” She cringed at her own words.
He parked the truck next to the barn and turned to her, his gaze intense. “Except for mine?”
She could feel herself blushing. “Well, you keep to yourself so much, I don’t think you’ve given any of us a chance to get to know you, is all.”
“Anyone who wants to know me just has to talk to me. I’m at the Grill every week, and your friend the bartender is the only person who’s ever spoken to me. I could hear you two talking Friday night. I know what you were saying.”
Melanie was blushing furiously now. “That was Brandy. That wasn’t me.”
“It sounded like both of you to me.”
Oh, man. This guy had really good ears. “Rafael, I’m so sorry…”
He held up his hand. “I didn’t tell you that to make you feel bad. I just want you to see that maybe this town isn’t as friendly to me as it is to you. Now let’s go inside. Doris is waiting for you, and I need to get to work.”
Melanie walked a half-step behind him toward the barn, her eyes catching on a hand-painted sign that read “Tasting Room”. If she quit now, he’d either think she was ashamed of herself for the things she said at the Grill, or that she didn’t want to work for him because he was strange and their relationship was thirty-two degrees beyond awkward.
Both of which were completely true.
She raised her chin and forced herself to walk alongside him. It would be a cold day in hell before she’d willingly confirm either of those things to Rafael.COLLAPSE