“Happy birthday to you . . .”
Giovanni sat at the head of the table on the rooftop terrace of their family home. The seat was normally reserved for his mother, but Mari happily gave up her seat for the occasion.
The D’Angelos loved a good party, but birthdays were for family. And Gio couldn’t have asked for more as his sang him “Happy Birthday.”
His niece, Franny, sat on his lap, something he ate up, knowing she was growing out of the lap-sitting age. Soon there would be another baby in their family. His older brother, Luca, and his wife, Brooke, were several weeks away from welcoming the newest D’Angelo into the world. And even though his sister, Chloe, and her husband, Dante, weren’t quite at the baby making stage, Giovanni knew it was only a matter of time.
In addition to his immediate family, Dante’s mother, Rosa, was there, as well as a close friend of the family, Salena.
The San Diego spring air had a snap of cold that lofted away with the heat lamps on the terrace. The noise from the busy streets of Little Italy rose four stories to where they celebrated. On the ground floor, the family restaurant ran like the well-oiled machine that it was.
“You’re getting old, m’friend.” Dante patted Giovanni on the back once Franny jumped off his lap to help his mother cut the cake.
“Wait for it . . . ,” Salena called from the other end of the table.
“You need to pick a wife!”
All eyes turned to the oldest D’Angelo, who didn’t even bother to look up from the task of cake cutting as she gave her orders.
Salena, who seemed to be holding her breath, now sighed with a smile. “There it is.” She winked at Gio. “How dare you be thirty and unmarried.”
“Shouldn’t that be ‘find a wife’?” Gio asked his mother.
“Find one, pick one.” Mari waved a hand in the air. “Call it whatever you want.”
Gio laughed, his head more than a little fuzzy from the wine they’d been drinking throughout dinner.
Salena laughed louder than all of them. “We can start setting Gio up on blind dates, Mrs. D’Angelo.”
“There isn’t anyone in Little Italy that Gio hasn’t dated,” Chloe pointed out.
“That’s not true,” Gio defended himself.
“You exaggerate, Chloe. The high school senior class is completely untouched,” Dante teased.
Gio motioned to Luca. “Help me out here.”
“There will be a whole mess of freshmen coming into the city by midsummer.” Luca leaned back, placed his hand over Brooke’s as everyone at the table took a jab at the birthday boy.
There was no point in taking offense to his family’s well-natured ribbing. He was the last of them to remain single, and now that Chloe and Dante’s formal wedding had passed, the focus fell on Gio.
“Whatever happened to all that talk about settling down and having a dozen kids?” Brooke asked, reminding him of a conversation he had with her when they first met.
“I’ve been busy playing best man to all of you.”
Luca and Dante exchanged glances with a shrug. “True.”
Mari sat to his side once the cake was served and patted his hand. “You’re a good son and generous brother.”
Luca grabbed an envelope that had been sitting in the center of the table throughout the meal and handed it to him. “This is from all of us.”
“Is it a mail-order bride?” he asked as he accepted the large envelope.
“No,” Chloe said. “But we do realize that you’ve put a lot of your plans on hold while we’ve been busy with weddings and baby showers.”
“Not to mention flying all the way to Positano to beat me up,” Dante added.
For a brief time, it wasn’t clear that Dante was the right person for Chloe, and since Gio didn’t approve of the match early on, he absolutely wanted to kick Dante’s ass for messing with his little sister. Hence the last-minute trip overseas for said ass-kicking.
“The pandemic put my life on hold,” Gio reminded them.
There was a collective groan at the table, followed by Luca saying, “And we kept it going.”
“This is our way of telling you to take some time for yourself.” Chloe smiled.
“And if you find a wife along the way . . . ,” Mari said with a hum.
Gio opened the envelope and pulled out the papers folded inside.
Tour of Tuscany was written in fancy lettering with the image of a vineyard and a bus.
“What is this?”
Luca started to explain. “A three-week tour through Tuscany. Family-owned wineries of all shapes and sizes. This looked like a great way to kick-start what we all know is the life you want here.”
Gio had been studying the art of wine making almost as much as he’d studied to earn his level one sommelier. He’d even considered increasing his certificate to the next level but wasn’t sure that would get him any closer to his ultimate goal of growing his own grapes.
“The tour starts in Florence and ends there. You can visit Nonno[PR2] before the tour leaves and stay later if you want. The return ticket is flexible.”
Gio flipped through the pages of the itinerary, saw the tickets for the flight. “This is a week away.”
Dante patted him on the back. “Better get packing.”
The smile on Gio’s face started to spread as excitement warmed up his spine. He hadn’t visited Florence in years. “I don’t know what to say?”
“Grazie mille,” Franny told him.
Everyone laughed as Gio stood and hugged his family, one member at a time.
The click of Emma’s high heels echoed in the rotunda of the Napa offices of R&R Wineries as she walked through. Awards filled the display cases that splashed against the walls of the room, offering an exclamation point to her family’s success.
There was a time she meandered through this building with an absolute sense of belonging. A sense of hope that one day she’d sit right beside her father and help make all the important decisions about their wine.
And even though she’d been asked to join the executive board meeting on this day, she held little hope that the time had come for her to move from Temecula to Napa.
Still, Emma kept her shoulders back and her chin high . . . while her cell phone was pressed to her ear.
“I’ll be back in time for dinner.”
Nicole, her best friend and dinner date for the evening, complained on the other end of the line. “It’s your birthday. You shouldn’t have to work on your birthday.”
“It’s a meeting.”
“So . . . Zoom in like the rest of the world.”
“My father doesn’t ask for my presence very often. I’m not about to say no.”
“Does he even realize it’s your birthday?”
That . . . was a very good question. “Fifty-fifty chance.”
“Our reservation is at seven. My flight gets in at three thirty. I have plenty of time.” Emma explained her plan.
“Call me if there’s a delay and I’ll meet you in San Diego and we can have dinner there.”
“It won’t be necessary. Trust me, I’ve done this trip a zillion times.” Emma started up the stairs and ended the conversation. “I’ll call you when I land.”
Emma slid her phone into her purse and pasted on a smile as she walked through the open double doors of the main offices. Unlike the Temecula arm, Napa had full-time, everyday employees filling the space.
Her father, Robert Rutledge, and Emma’s older brother, Richard, were the top-two executives, with a dozen other employees that kept the office running. There were remote arms of R&R, the second to Napa was in Temecula, where Emma lived. Her parents had homes in both places, both sat on the edge of the vineyards that produced the grapes. Both had large operations on-site to produce and bottle the wine. This expanded the employee count a few times over. But the foremen and people that worked the land almost never stepped foot in the Napa office. And then there was Emma’s position. Retail. Which arguably a trained monkey could probably pull off. Her dual degree in business and agriculture hadn’t been exercised since the ink dried on the paperwork.
Emma helped find homes for their label. She headed up a small staff of sellers around the Southwest region of the United States. A position once held by her ex-husband . . . Kyle.
The fact that Kyle still worked for her father rubbed her all kinds of wrong ways and said a lot about her father’s loyalty to her.
“Hello, Ms. Rutledge.”
Emma was greeted by the office’s main secretary.
“Good morning, Georgia.” Emma looked around the relatively quiet office space. “Where is everybody?”
“They’re already gathered in the conference room.”
Emma looked at her watch. “I was told nine o’clock.” It was eight fifteen.
“Mr. Rutledge wanted to start early.”
Emma’s heart skipped. “Great.”
Georgia offered a smile. “I’m sure you can just sneak in.”
The urge to roll her eyes was a physical pain to hold back. Why mandate she show for a meeting and then give her the wrong time?
Forty-five minutes early was plenty of time for coffee and gossip to try and arm herself for what the topic of discussion was going to be.
Emma headed toward the conference room, dropped her purse on one of the desks outside the door, and let herself in.
Only “sneaking” wasn’t something she was going to do.
She opened the door wide and walked in.
Her father stopped midsentence from the head of the table while the rest of the testosterone took in her presence.
“Good morning,” she offered.
“Emma.” Saying her name was her dad’s greeting.
Richard sat on her father’s right, and gave her a smile.
Immediately next to her brother was Kyle.[PR3]
He was the only one at the table who avoided looking her way.
“Good thing I arrived early, or I might have missed this meeting altogether,” she said as she walked farther into the room. The chairs surrounding the conference table were completely filled. Chairs pushed to the side were sprinkled with her father’s personal secretary and a couple of faces she didn’t know.
Her father didn’t offer an apology or an explanation. He simply tilted his head to the side and returned his attention to the men at the table. “As I was saying . . .”
Emma gave him half an ear as she moved toward the coffee station and poured herself a cup of wake the hell up juice.
“Lionel’s resignation was a surprise to us all, but it’s presented an opportunity to restructure a few things.”
Lionel had been with R&R since before Emma had graduated from college. Even though the man could run circles around Richard, he wasn’t the favorite son and had been passed over as the second in command when Richard took priority. To the man’s credit, he stayed on for several years with no possible room for promotion. While the official word was he’d taken a job in a Washington State winery and there weren’t any bridges burned, there was watercooler talk of raised voices and slammed doors right before everyone had been informed of Lionel’s resignation.
Emma moved to the far end of the table, placed [PR4] her cup of coffee down, and deliberately pulled a chair that sat against the wall to the table’s edge. The men she squeezed between gave her room and a smile.
“We’ve hired a dedicated accountant for the sole purpose of bringing Richard up to speed on the chief financial officer duties.”
Emma saw through Richard’s forced smile.
Her brother might be good at numbers, but Emma knew he didn’t like working with them. Besides, he was already president of operations.
“While he has committed to learning this, I am appointing a vice president of operations to share the workload, which will likely be a permanent position, considering our growth.”
Emma opened the window of hope with the possibility of a promotion. After all, she could easily do Richard’s job if only given the chance.
“Kyle.” That dream was blown up with one word.
All eyes turned to her ex.
His gaze met hers, briefly, a slight glint in his eye.
Emma kept her hands on her coffee and acted unaffected.
Inside, her stomach twisted.
“And who will be replacing Kyle?” Emma asked, surprised her voice didn’t waver.
“We’re interviewing now,” Kyle told her.
“You knew about this?”
Emma wanted to smack the smugness off Kyle’s face but knew a catfight was all her father would need to throw at her and give him a reason to keep her at the bottom of the ladder.
“I’m sure there won’t be any problem with you and your team reporting to Kyle while Richard is brought up to speed,” Robert said directly to Emma.
Since she’d reported to Lionel, and on rare occasion Kyle, when she first took her position, this wasn’t a complete shock.
But that didn’t make it acceptable.
Emma channeled her father’s behavior and said nothing as he continued.
Thirty painstaking minutes passed while her father went on about the boom of their sales and how their name opened more doors than they could solicit, the underlying message suggesting that Emma’s role in the company was devalued as a result.
She half expected the meeting to end with a pink slip in her hand.
By the time her stomach had settled enough to pick up her cup of coffee, the brew had turned cold and the meeting came to an end.
Ten minutes from the time it was supposed to start.
The team dispersed, each of them laying congratulations out at Kyle’s feet as if they were an offering, complete with flowers and incense.
“Perfect man for the job.”
“I look forward to working with you.”
Emma wanted to vomit.
Two sets of eyes skirted past her before heading out of the room.
She followed her father and raised a hand at her brother in a silent request that he not join her.
Robert looked over his shoulder, said nothing, and escaped behind the mahogany doors of his office.
Emma closed the door to prevent anyone from hearing what she had to say. “Why did you ask me to be here?” she asked before her dad could take a seat behind his desk.
“I didn’t want you to hear about Kyle’s promotion through an email.” He lifted a paper from the stack on his desk, not sparing a look in her direction.
“And yet you started the meeting before I was scheduled to arrive.”
“Best of intentions,” he said without apology. “But now you know.”
“You’ve made my ex-husband my boss.”
That brought Robert’s eyes to hers. He pointed using the paper in his hand. “You decided to divorce him. A mistake as far as I’m concerned.”
“No less true today. Kyle is the right man for the job.”
Emma dropped her purse on an empty chair. “What about the right woman for the job? Did it ever occur to you to consider me?”
He laughed. A huffed drop of air that said, Don’t be ridiculous. As if she was suggesting a hostile takeover was in order. “You haven’t proven you’re capable.”
“You haven’t given me the opportunity. My only responsibility with R&R is finding buyers and keeping tabs on a few employees in the southern region, which you just told everyone is a financial waste of time.”
“Be happy you’re employed.”
The hair on her neck stood on end as she kept the words she wanted to say inside. “For how long? Until Kyle decides I’m no longer needed?”
“That won’t happen.”
Emma wasn’t convinced. “Give me Kyle’s job, then. The one you’re taking résumés for.”
“That would require you relocating up here. And before you tell me you will, let me add that walking through the tension of this office when both you and Kyle are here is not something I’m willing to endure.”
She turned to face the window looking out over Napa Valley. “There it is. The bottom line to why I’ll never be more for R&R.”
“You have a trust fund. Working here is an option.”
“Did it ever occur to you that I want to earn my keep?”
“Not at the expense of the peace in this office. Be content with the place you have in Temecula.”
Be happy with a go-nowhere job with absolutely no room for advancement.
This wasn’t going to change. Her marriage to Kyle had been the only time her father had given her any room at R&R. He would have gifted her a portion of one of the vineyards complete with a house . . . his direct words when she told him of her impending divorce.
Instead, she made the paycheck from R&R work with a rented condo in Temecula without touching her trust fund. Wasn’t that secretly done to prove herself to her father? The transient living arrangement put in place in the hope that one day Daddy would ask her to relocate to Napa.
“I’m never going to be able to prove myself to you,” she said under her breath.
Her father was already shuffling papers on his desk. Oblivious to her words.
“Maybe I need to do this on my own,” she said a little louder.
She turned. “On my own. Maybe I use that trust fund to find my own chunk of earth . . . here in Napa, Temecula.”
“Not to me,” she said with absolute certainty. “Unless you plan on holding the purse strings to my trust fund to only be used for ‘father approved’ purchases. Maybe I’m tired of living in a condo. Maybe Napa is ready for a second Rutledge label?”
Her father didn’t rattle, but Emma could tell her words were weighing on him.
“I bet I can find a dozen wineries for sale right now in this valley,” she said.
“Your trust fund won’t support that kind of money.”
His eyes narrowed. “You’ll end up blowing every dime I’ve given you.”
“In light of the fact that I haven’t touched one of them, I doubt that. But that would take care of everything for you . . . wouldn’t it? No worries about Kyle and I having words in the office. I won’t be in here asking you for any position that’s available that you have no intention of considering me for. You won’t have to fire me because the job you have me in isn’t cost-effective. Just think, Dad. You can tell all your friends that I’m off trying to make a name for myself even though you warned me. Blame it on my willfulness . . . or even the red hair,” she said, touching the end of said hair. “That would be a lot more pleasant of a conversation for you than the truth. ‘Emma quit because I made her ex-husband her boss.’ That can’t be easy for people to swallow.”
“I don’t care what anyone thinks.”
She laughed. Appearances were at the top of Robert Rutledge’s list.
Her father’s list was suddenly placed on the bottom of hers.
She reached for her purse. “I haven’t taken a vacation in three years. I’m sure the golden boy won’t mind taking over my meaningless job for the next six weeks while I consider my options.”
“Or fire me. You have options, too . . . Dad.” With that, Emma turned on her heel and opened the door, her entire body shaking. “Oh . . .” She turned a half circle. “Thanks for the birthday wishes.” She placed a hand on her chest. “They were so heartfelt.”