Sophia Stone knew life held few absolutes: good wine is art, good Italian cooking is passion, a good child is a gift, and good news never comes in a certified letter.
“You sure this is for me, Tito?” she asked the postman who thrust an envelope toward her. When she tilted her head she could read the word “Certified,” stamped in red like a guilty verdict across the front.
A heavy-set man, Tito had a ready smile and an easy, engaging manner. Each day while delivering mail, he also traversed the valley searching for tidbits of gossip with the zeal of an Army battalion scouring the countryside for insurgents. St. Helena was a small community where the denizens believed mining each other’s business was an inalienable right granted on the theory that without the titillation everyone would fall over dead from boredom. “Yeah, looks like it’s from Charlie. Certified, too.” Tito didn’t have the decency to hide his interest as he mopped his face with a dirty handkerchief then stuffed it back into his rear pocket. The wiping didn’t help—a sheen of sweat still covered his ruddy cheeks. August had been hot with no break in sight.
Sophia eyed him. She wouldn’t put it past him to have already steamed open the letter, a thought that made her a bit nauseous. Why had she thought a small town in Napa Valley would be a good place to hide?
“From Charlie, you say?” Keeping her hands in her pockets, Sophia tilted her head further and tried to double-check the sender’s address. Then she looked him in the eye. “Any idea what it’s about?”
Tito looked like a bully when his bluff was called. He shrugged—an exaggerated movement that seemed like the shifting of a mountain—but a noncommittal answer, leaving Sophia certain whatever was in that letter would be spread around the valley and germinating in imaginations as rapidly as seeds on a spring wind.
At an impasse, Sophia and Tito stood there, the letter between them, Sophia delaying the inevitable. Unfortunately, with a dinner to cook and a cake in the oven, Sophia didn’t have time to see if she could outlast him. So, with a sour downturn to her mouth and a knot in her stomach, Sophia took the letter.
Tito motioned for her to flip the envelope over. “There on the back, that green card? You need to sign that.” Handing her a pen, he waited for her to sign, then tore off the return receipt, pocketing it.
Confirming the return address, Sophia gave him a distracted wave as he climbed back into his truck. “Thanks, Tito.” A perfunctory nicety.
“Sure thing, Ms. Stone.” In a shower of gravel, he gunned the mail truck back through the vineyard down the winding driveway leading to the valley floor. Sophia glanced up as the trees enveloped him and her normal quiet smothered the sound, wiping away all vestiges of his presence.
Except for the letter.
From her landlord.
At least the return address was his—and Sophia was certain he hadn’t moved from the corner lot at the bottom of her hill. She could probably throw a bottle and hit his roof, with a little help from the wind.
Charlie had owned this patch of five acres on the top of Howell Mountain since his parents had died in a small plane heading up from L.A. over thirty years ago. Sophia had lived here for fifteen of those years and, through feast and famine, the ups and downs of the wine industry, she’d never received a certified letter from Charlie. In fact, she couldn’t remember having received any letter from Charlie. Their business dealings were usually hammered out at the kitchen table over a bottle of wine and sealed with a handshake. Napa Valley was a handshake kind of place.
Sophia reached up and rubbed the worn piece of iron Daniel had nailed to one of the porch supports. Tocco Ferro. Her family had been steeped in the ways of the Old Country; her husband had become a believer. Touch iron to ward off bad luck. Being a bit too pragmatic, Sophia didn’t necessarily believe, but it couldn’t hurt. God knew she’d had enough rough patches. With a finger, she traced the initials the four of them had carved in the porch support. Time had whittled their number to one … almost.
Tapping the white legal-sized envelope on her open palm, she squinted against the sun as she looked out over her small patch of heaven. A rolling hillside with a couple of acres under vine, grapes from the Old Country, grafts of her grandfather’s original vines. A small garden flanked the house. Her own private retreat sheltered from prying eyes by a ring of trees.
The farmhouse had been billed as a “fixer-upper.” She and Daniel had packed up the kids, moving up valley from the Bay Area, and spent the next several years making the remnants of a house into a home. They’d bribed the kids into helping by letting them paint their own rooms. Dani had picked pink, hot pink. As if the view from his window wasn’t enough, Trey had chosen wood paneling and a bucolic scene of vineyards on one wall. When he’d moved away for college, Sophia hadn’t had the heart to change it. Perhaps she’d harbored the hope that he would come home someday. He hadn’t. Now Dani was poised to fly.
Soon Sophia would be alone, the house emptied of youthful buoyancy. The prospect filled her with dread. Stripped of purpose, she half-feared she would grow brittle like the old vines until the weight of loneliness shattered her into bits and pieces of who she used to be. When Daniel had been killed, she’d had the kids. Now the false friend of sadness stayed ever near, her house echoing with memories. But memories didn’t make a life any more than the past made a future. However, the past was her tether. Without it, Sophia felt she would float away like a balloon loosed to the sky, growing ever smaller until vanishing from sight.
While the house cradled her past, the rows of vines just reaching their peak marching down the hill across her two acres held her dreams. Her grapes, started from grafts from her grandfather’s stock back in Italy, each juice-filled orb bursting with hope, with promise. Her life’s work hanging on the verge of a promise.
Through the screen door, the aroma of a cake on the verge of disaster wafted into Sophia’s consciousness, and she turned and bolted for the kitchen, the screen clattering shut behind her. With a dishrag to protect her hand, she opened the oven. The smell of chocolate carried on billows of steam engulfed her. She waved it away, squinting through the heat. She deposited the cake pan on the stainless steel countertop. Pressing her thumb lightly on the cake, she let out her breath in a long rush. Just in time.
Her mother loved chocolate cake. Sophia planned to visit her this afternoon. Perhaps a peace offering would soften her harsh moods of late.
Sophia spied the letter, pristine white and accusing, laying casually on the sideboard where she had tossed it in her haste. Without further thought, she stuffed it in the old cookie jar on the countertop and crammed on the lid. That cookie jar held a lifetime of happiness and heartache—her marriage license, the kids’ birth certificates, Daniel’s death certificate and obituary—it could handle the letter as well. Whatever problem lurked inside that envelope, it could wait.
Leaving the cake to cool, Sophia strode through the door to the porch, pushing through the screen and down the steps. The grapes, fragrant in the midday sun, neared perfection—harvest a few days away, at best. Sophia had plans for those grapes, unique varietals that would make unusual yet palatable wine … if she could just figure out the last piece. She was close, though, closer than ever before. Grapes—creating them, growing them, cajoling them to trust her—were her true passion. Unfortunately dreams didn’t pay the bills, as her mother never missed a chance to bludgeon her with that little bit or ironic reality. So Sophia had to sell her skills to pay the bills and now found her days consumed with tending to grapes owned by Pinkman Vineyards, one of the vast commercial operations in the valley, which turned her carefully nurtured grapes into mediocre table wine.
She walked the rows testing the scent once more … the perfume of near perfection as her grandfather called the sweetness of grapes. Memories filtered through the shadows of time like wraiths, translucent, elusive … fleeting. When she quieted, stilled her mind and opened her heart, Sophia could hear his voice, rich and deep, his laugh, and smell the scent of earth and sun that clung to him, the wine on his breath. But, she couldn’t see him anymore. Like sun on paper, time had weathered and faded her mental pictures until only shadows remained, as if the present was slowly erasing the past.
Worry dogged her, the letter and its unknown message on her mind as she tended to each vine, brushing back the canopy, weighing the clusters. This far along in the season not much remained to do; nature would run her course. This year Sophia had planted wildflowers and grasses under the vines to entice the bugs and keep them off the fruit. The plan had worked well, as had her choice to prune more aggressively than normal this past winter. Under her care, her grandfather’s grapes flourished, and just now they were beginning to trust her, to give her their best.
This year’s wine had the potential to be the stuff of dreams.
At the far end of her property movement across the fence caught Sophia’s attention. Shading her eyes with one hand, she still had to squint against the assault of the sun. Her next-door neighbors had sold their property recently to Specter Wines, a new player with new money. Scuttlebutt had it the owner had made a mint somewhere back east. Sophia shook her head as she watched heavy equipment struggle to tame the hillside, prepare it for planting. These days it seemed just about every rich guy wanted a piece of Napa to cultivate his own grapes, make a signature vintage that would rock the world.
As if it was that easy.