It took a moment for my eyes to adjust to the dim lighting. It was warm and reminded me of a bread factory—humid and with a yeasty smell hanging in the air. Big wooden vats and huge copper canisters bubbled with the fermented sugars from rye and corn.
Luke pointed things out to me as we made our way through. I didn’t know anything about whiskey or bourbon, but it was cool to hear him talk about something he was passionate about. And he was clearly passionate about whiskey, or maybe he was just emotional about his family business. When he spoke about the aging and bottling process, he became animated, using his hands to talk, and watched me with a smile to make sure I was keeping up.
“This place is great, Luke. I can see why you’re so proud of it.”
“Glad you approve, duchess.”
After passing through an aging room filled with oak barrels, Luke led me to what he called his tasting room. Chocolate-brown velvet armchairs and a rustic wooden table sat in the center of the room. A bottle of whiskey with a tray of rocks glasses was waiting for us. The room was tastefully decorated in rich, masculine colors. A black-and-white photograph of a Texas longhorn hung on one wall, and the other wall was filled with windows overlooking the pastures.
“Care for a taste?” Luke motioned for me to sit as he picked up the bottle.
I’d only just finished my coffee, and now we were going to drink whiskey? “Maybe just a sip. It’s early.”
He nodded and poured a splash into each of our glasses.
I sniffed at the liquor, watching him over the rim of my glass. I’d had Wilder whiskey last night, but that was after several cocktails. “What should I be looking for? Any tips?”
He lifted his glass, inspecting it. “Deep golden color. Intense aroma. Hints of smoky caramel with a sweet maple finish.” He downed the contents in one swallow, his full lips hovering seductively on the rim of the glass. “The charred oak barrels are used only once. Each one is a tiny bit unique, and they flavor the final product.”
I took a swallow, then licked my lips. “Smooth.”
He nodded. “It’s good for sipping.”
Setting my glass down, I turned to face Luke, my interest in this place piqued. “Do you offer tastings here?”
He shook his head. “We’re not open to the public.”
“You should really consider it, play up the local angle. You need to advertise that each bottle was handmade right here. People eat that stuff up.”
He opened his mouth like he wanted to argue some point with me, then thought better of it.
“Thought I heard voices.” Duke strolled into the tasting room and joined us. “Breaking your own rules, I see,” he said to Luke.
“Little brother.” Luke tipped his head toward Duke. “You need something?”
Duke shook his head and then reached for my hand, lifting it to his mouth for a quick kiss. “Shame to see you get mixed up with the riffraff.”
“I’ll be careful. I promise.”
Duke tugged his ball cap lower over his eyes and shot me a soul-filled look as he turned away. “I’ve got work to do. You two be good,” he called over his shoulder.
Once he was gone, I took another sip of my whiskey, watching Luke over the rim of my glass. “What did he mean about breaking your rules?”
He was quiet for a moment, and I thought he wasn’t going to tell me. It would have served me right because of the monumental secret I was keeping from him. A secret that was starting to knaw at me.
“We made a pact a long time ago. The tasting room is ‘no girls allowed.’”
“Oh.” I shifted in my seat, wondering why that rule was instituted and what it meant that I was sitting here.
“It was started to keep Molly out, but then it just became more. Like this was our place—a spot for Duke and me to talk business, and to get away from everything else.”
I nodded. I understood that. Growing up the way I did, I cherished my down time. It wasn’t uncommon for me to sneak out of an important family function at my father’s country club to go hang out in the kitchen or the coat room with the staff. They were always way more fun. It was often the only chance I got to let my hair down and relax.
“I don’t mean to pry, but you said something earlier about your dad leaving you this place.” Reading between the lines, I was assuming he meant his dad had passed.
“There’s not much to tell. After my mom took off, he had nothing left to live for and drank himself to an early death.”
I blinked, surprised by Luke’s brutal honesty. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be.” He shrugged. “It was a long time ago.”
“So, your mom is . . .”
“She left when I was seven, but to be honest, she was gone a long time before that, emotionally. It was no secret that she hated it here. When she couldn’t take it anymore, she took off for city life. Got remarried and had a whole other family, last I heard.”
I swallowed. That would have been tough for a little kid to handle. No wonder Luke was so hardened. His steely exterior was in place for a reason—most likely a defense mechanism so he couldn’t get too close to someone who might abandon him ever again.
“Well, for what it’s worth, thanks for bringing me here today.”
“I’m glad you got to see it. Do you think you can help?”
“I know I can.”
My mind was already buzzing with ideas. Opening to the public to offer tastings and food pairings and seasonal gifts was only the beginning. I could envision events like weddings and banquets under the gazebo by the pond. The excitement of building a brand like this from scratch was intoxicating.
Luke rose to his feet. “I’ve got some e-mails to catch up on and a conference call with a distributor, but maybe we can talk about your ideas later?”
“Absolutely. I just need a quiet place to work, and a pen and a pad. I’m going to draft up an entire marketing strategy for you.”
Luke’s eyes widened slightly. “If it’s too much trouble or too much to ask, I understand—”
I raised a hand, cutting him off. “Honestly, what else am I going to do? Sit around and stare at the phone, waiting for Wayne to call?”
“Fair enough. Come on. I’ll set you up at my favorite spot to brainstorm.”
I followed him back to the side-by-side. When we reached his house, Luke led me up the front steps of his wide front porch and stretched out his arms.
“This suit you okay?”
There were wooden armchairs with fluffy cream-colored cushions, and a potted fern on the outdoor coffee table.
“This is perfect.”
“Let me get you that pen and paper.”
Luke headed inside while I lowered myself into a chair to wait for him. When he returned, he handed me a pad of paper, a couple of pens, a glass of iced tea, and a blueberry muffin.
“Molly made those this morning.”
“Thanks. I should be all set.”
“I’ll check on you in a couple of hours. If you need something or want me to take you back to the inn, just text me.”
“I’ll be fine.”
Sitting inside the little hotel room at the inn held no appeal. I didn’t want to admit it to Luke, but I loved the thought of working here instead of a stuffy office. I could see myself doing some good work here. Making a real difference in their business.
The sweet, fresh air fragranced with lilacs and the warm breeze on my skin were a welcome treat. We didn’t have quiet, relaxing places like this back home. Although I’d missed all the conveniences of the city over the past few days, in this moment, there was no place I’d rather be.
The realization was like a freight train roaring through my chest. At first, all I’d wanted was to flee this small town, and now I suddenly found myself hoping for a few more days here.
• • •
A few hours later, I shifted in my seat. My stomach reminded me that I’d worked through lunch, and my bladder piped up to remind me of the iced tea I’d downed hours ago.
Rising to my feet, I stretched and contemplated what to do. Text Luke? Ask him to take me home? Sneaking inside to find a bathroom won out.