A Lot Like Love

Excerpt

The chime rang on the front door of the wine store. Jordan Rhodes came out of the back room, where she’d been sneaking a quick bite for lunch. She smiled at her customer. “You again.”

It was the guy from last week, the one who’d looked skeptical when she’d recommended a Cabernet from South Africa that—gasp—had a screw top.

“So? How’d you like the Excelsior?” she asked.

“Good memory,” he said, impressed. “You were right. It’s good. Particularly at that price point.”

“It’s good at any price point,” Jordan said. “The fact that it sells for less than ten dollars makes it a steal.”

The man’s blue eyes lit up as he grinned. He was dressed in a navy car coat and jeans, and wore expensive leather Italian loafers—probably too expensive for the six to eight inches of snow they were expected to get that evening. His light brown hair was mussed from the wind outside. “You’ve convinced me. Put me down for a case. I’m having a dinner party in a few weeks and the Excelsior will be perfect.” He pulled off his leather gloves and set them on the long ebony wood counter that doubled as a bar. “I’m thinking I’ll pair it with leg of lamb, maybe seasoned with black pepper and mustard seed. Rosemary potatoes.”

Jordan raised an eyebrow. The man knew his food. “Sounds delicious.” The Excelsior would certainly complement the menu, although she personally subscribed to the more relaxed “drink what you want” philosophy of wine rather than putting the emphasis on finding the perfect food pairing—a fact that constantly scandalized her assistant store manager, Martin. He was a certified level III sommelier, and thus had a certain view on things, while she, on the other hand, was the owner of the store and thus believed in making wine as approachable as possible to the customer. Sure, she loved the romance of wine—that was one of the main reasons she had opened her store, DeVine Cellars. But for her, it was also a business.

“I take it you cook,” she said to the man with the great smile. Great hair, too, she noted approvingly. Nicely styled, on the longer side. He wore a gray scarf wrapped loosely around his neck that gave him an air of casual sophistication. Not too fussy, but a man who appreciated the finer things in life.

He shrugged. “I know my way around food. It comes with the job.”

“Let me guess—you’re a chef,” Jordan said.

“Food critic. With the Tribune.”

Jordan cocked her head, suddenly realizing. “You’re Cal Kittredge.”

He seemed pleased by her recognition. “You read my reviews.”

Yes, she did, along with many others in Chicago. “Religiously. With so many restaurants in this city to choose from, it’s nice to have an expert’s opinion.”

Cal relaxed against the counter. “An expert, huh… I’m flattered, Jordan.”

So. He knew her name.

Unfortunately, a lot of people knew her name. Between her father’s wealth and her brother’s recent infamy, rare was the person, at least in Chicago, who wasn’t familiar with the Rhodes family.

Letting this sit for a moment, Jordan moved behind the counter and opened the laptop she kept there. “A case of the Excelsior, it is.” She pulled up her distributor’s delivery schedule. “I can have it in the store next week.”

“That’s plenty of time. Do I pay for it now, or when I pick it up?” Cal asked.

“Either one. I figure you’re good for it. And now I know where to find you if you try to skip out.”

Yes, she may have been flirting a little. Maybe more than a little. For the last few months her family had been living under an intense spotlight because of the mess with her brother, and, frankly, dating had been the last thing on her mind. But things were finally starting to settle down—as much as things could ever settle down when one’s twin brother was locked up in prison—and it felt good to be flirting. And if the object of said flirtation just so happened to have polished, refined good looks and was a first-class connoisseur of cuisine, well, all the better.

“Maybe I should skip out, just to make you come look for me,” Cal teased.

And maybe she wasn’t the only one flirting a little.

He stood opposite her with the counter between them. “Since you read my restaurant reviews, I take it you trust my opinions on restaurants?”

Jordan shot Cal a look over the top of her computer as she finished entering his wine order. “As much as I’d trust a complete stranger about anything, I suppose.”

“Good. Because there’s this Thai restaurant that just opened on Clark that’s fantastic.”

“Glad to hear it. I’ll have to check it out sometime.”

For the first time since entering her wine shop, Cal looked uncertain. “Oh. I meant that I thought you might want to go there with me.”

Jordan smiled. Yes, she’d caught that. But a little warning alarm had gone off in her head as she wondered how many other women Cal Kittredge had used his “Do you trust my opinions on restaurants?” line on. There was no doubt he was charming and smooth. The question was whether he was too smooth.

She straightened up from her computer and leaned one hip against the bar. “Let’s say this—when you come back to pick up the Excelsior, you can tell me more about this new restaurant then.”

Cal seemed surprised by her non-acceptance, but not necessarily put off. “Okay. It’s a date.”

“I’d call it more. . . a continuation.”

“Are you always this tough on your customers?” he asked.

“Only the ones who want to take me to new Thai restaurants.”

“Next time, then, I’ll suggest Italian.” With a wink, Cal grabbed his gloves off the counter and left the store.

Jordan watched as he walked past the front windows of the store and noticed that snow had begun to fall outside. Not for the first time, she was glad she lived only a five-minute walk from the shop. And that she had a good pair of snow boots.

“My god, I thought he’d never leave,” said a voice from behind her.

Jordan turned and saw her assistant, Martin, standing a few feet away, near the back hallway. He walked over, carrying a case of Zinfandel that he’d brought up from the cellar. He set the box on the counter and brushed away a few unruly reddish-brown curls that had fallen into his eyes. “Whew. I’ve been standing back there, holding that thing forever. Figured I’d give you two some privacy. I thought he was checking you out when he came in last week. Guess I was right.”

“How much did you hear?” Jordan asked as she began to help him unpack the bottles.

“I heard that he’s Cal Kittredge.”

Of course Martin had focused on that. He was twenty-seven years old, more well read than anyone she knew, and made no attempt to hide the fact that he was a major food and wine snob. But he knew everything about wine, and he’d grown on her. Jordan couldn’t imagine running the shop without him.

“He asked me to go to some new Thai restaurant on Clark,” she said.

Martin was instantly impressed. “I’ve been trying to get reservations there for two weeks.” He lined the remaining bottles on the bar and tossed the empty box onto the floor. “Lucky you. If you start dating Cal Kittredge, you’ll be able to get into all the best restaurants. For free.”

Jordan modestly remained silent as she grabbed two bottles of the Zin and carried them to a bin near the front of the store.

“Oh, right,” Martin said. “I always forget that you have a billion dollars. I’m guessing you don’t need any help getting into restaurants.”

She threw him an eye as she grabbed two more bottles. “I don’t have a billion dollars.” It was the same routine virtually every time the subject of money came up. Because she liked Martin, she put up with it. But with the exception of him and a small circle of her closest friends, she generally avoided discussing finances with others.

It wasn’t exactly a secret, however: her father was rich. Okay, extremely rich. She hadn’t grown up with money; it was something her family had stumbled into. Her father, basically a computer geek like her brother, was one of those success stories Forbes and Newsweek loved to put on their covers: after graduating from the University of Illinois with a masters degree in computer science, Grey Rhodes went onto Northwestern University’s Kellogg business school. He then started his own company in Chicago where he developed an anti-viral protection program that exploded worldwide. Within two years of its release to the public, Rhodes anti-virus protected one in every three computers in America. (A statistic her father made sure to include in every interview.) And then came the money. A lot of it.

One might have certain impressions about her lifestyle, Jordan knew, given her father’s financial success. Some of these impressions would be accurate, others would not. Her father had set up guidelines from the moment he’d made his first million, the most fundamental being that Jordan and her brother, Kyle, earn their own way—just as he had. As adults, they were wholly financially independent from their father, and Jordan and Kyle wouldn’t have it any other way. On the other hand, their father was known to be extravagant with gifts, particularly after their mother died nine years ago. Take, for example, the Maserati Quattroporte Jordan had sitting in her garage. Probably not the typical present one received for graduating business school.

“We’ve had this conversation before, Martin. That’s my father’s money, not mine.” Jordan wiped her hands on a towel they kept under the counter, brushing off the dust from the wine bottles. She gestured to the store. “This is mine.” There was obvious pride in her voice. She was the sole owner of DeVine Cellars and business was good. Really good, in fact—certainly better than she’d ever projected at this point in her ten-year plan. Of course, she didn’t make anywhere near the 1.2 billion her father may or may not have been worth (she never confirmed specifics about his money), but she did very well for herself on her own merit. She made enough to pay for a four thousand-plus square foot house in the upscale Lincoln Park neighborhood, to treat herself to fine hotels when she traveled, and she still had plenty of money left over for great shoes. A woman couldn’t ask for much more.

“Maybe. But you still get into any restaurant you want,” Martin pointed out.

“This is generally true. Although I do have to pay, if that makes you feel any better.”

Martin sniffed. “A little. So are you going to say yes?”

“Am I going to say yes to what?” Jordan asked.

“To Cal Kittredge.”

“I’m thinking about it.” True, there was the slight excess of smoothness to think about. But on the upside, he was into food and wine, and he cooked. Practically a Renaissance man.

“I think you should string Kittredge along for awhile,” Martin mused aloud. “Keep him coming back so he’ll buy a few more cases before you commit.”

“Great idea. Maybe we could even start handing out punch cards,” Jordan suggested. “Get a date with the owner after six purchases, that kind of thing.”

“I detect some sarcasm,” Martin said. “Which is too bad, because that punch card idea is not half-bad.”

“We could always pimp you out as a prize.”

Martin sighed as he leaned his slender frame against the bar. His bow tie of choice that day was red, which Jordan thought complemented nicely with his dark brown tweed jacket.

“Sadly, I’m underappreciated,” he said, sounding resigned to his fate. “A light-bodied pinot unnoticed in a world dominated by big, bold cabs.”

Jordan rested her hand on his shoulder sympathetically. “Maybe you just haven’t hit your drink-now date. Perhaps you’re still sitting on the shelf, waiting to age to your fullest potential.”

Martin considered this. “So what you’re saying is… I’m like the Pahlmeyer Sonoma Coast Pinot.”

Sure, exactly what she’d been thinking. “Yep. That’s you.”

“They’re expecting great things from the Pahlmeyer, you know.”

Jordan smiled. “Then we all better look out.”

The thought seemed to perk Martin up. In good spirits once again, he headed off to the cellar for another case of the Zinfandel while Jordan returned to the backroom to finish her lunch. It was after three o’clock, which meant that if she didn’t eat now she wouldn’t get another chance until the store closed at nine. Soon enough, they would have a steady stream of customers.

Wine was hot, one of the few industries continuing to do well despite the economic downturn. But Jordan liked to think her store’s success was based on more than just a trend. She’d searched for months for the perfect space: on a major street, where there would be plenty of foot traffic, and large enough to fit several tables and chairs in addition to the display space they would need for the wine. With its warm tones and exposed brick walls, the store had an intimate feel that drew customers in and invited them to stay awhile.

By far the smartest business decision she’d made had been to apply for an on-premise liquor license, which allowed them to pour and serve wine in the store. She’d set up highboy tables and chairs along the front windows and tucked a few additional tables into cozy nooks between the wine bins. Starting around five o’clock on virtually every night they were open, the place was hopping with customers buying wines by the glass and taking note of the bottles they planned to purchase when leaving.

Today, however, was not one of those days.

Outside, the snow continued to fall steadily. By seven o’clock the weathermen amended their predictions and were now calling for a whopping eight to ten inches. In anticipation of the storm, people were staying inside. Jordan had an event booked at the store that evening, a wine tasting, but the party called to reschedule. Martin had a longer commute than she did, so she sent him home early. At 7:30, she began closing the store, thinking it highly unlikely she’d get any customers.

When finished up front, she went into the backroom to turn off the sound system. The store felt eerily quiet and empty without the eclectic mix of Billie Holiday, The Shins, and Norah Jones she’d put together for the day’s soundtrack. She grabbed her snow boots from behind the door and had just sat down at her desk to replace the black leather boots she wore, when the chime rang against the front door.

A customer. Surprising.

Jordan stood up and stepped out of the backroom, thinking somebody had to be awfully desperate to come out for wine in this weather. “You’re in luck. I was just about to close for the. . .”

Her words trailed off as she stopped at the sight of the two men standing near the front of the store. For some reason, she felt tingles at the back of her neck. Perhaps it had something to do with the man closer to the door. Her eyes immediately fell upon him—he didn’t look like her typical customer. He had chestnut brown hair, and scruff along his angular jaw that gave him a dark, bad boy-ish look. He was tall, and wore a black wool coat over what appeared to be a well-built physique.

This was no Italian loafer-wearer. Unlike Cal Kittredge, this man was good-looking in a rugged, masculine way. There was something a bit. . . rougher about him. Except for his eyes. Green as emeralds, they stood out brilliantly against his dark hair and five o’clock shadow as he watched her intently.

He took a step forward.

Jordan took a step back.

A slight grin played at the edges of his lips, as if he found this amusing. Jordan wondered how fast she could make it to the emergency panic button underneath the bar.

The blond man, the one wearing glasses and a camel-colored trench coat, cleared his throat. “Are you Jordan Rhodes?”

She debated whether to answer this. But the blond man seemed safer than the tall, dark one. “I am.”

He pulled a badge out of his jacket. “I’m Agent Seth Huxley, this is Agent Nick McCall. We’re with the Federal Bureau of Investigation.”

This caught her off guard. The FBI? The last time she’d seen anyone from the FBI had been at Kyle’s arraignment.

“We’d like to discuss a matter concerning your brother,” the blond man continued. He seemed very serious about whatever it was he needed to tell her.

Jordan’s stomach twisted in a knot. But she forced herself not to panic. Yet.

“Has Kyle been hurt?” she asked. In the four months her brother had been in prison, there already had been several altercations. Apparently, some of the other inmates at Metropolitan Correctional Center figured a wealthy computer geek would be an easy mark. Kyle assured her that he could hold his own whenever she asked about the fights during her visits. But every day since he’d begun serving his sentence, she’d worried about getting that phone call that said he’d been wrong. And if the FBI had sent two agents to her store during a blizzard, whatever they had to tell her couldn’t be good.

The dark-haired man spoke for the first time. His voice was low, yet smoother than Jordan had expected.

“Your brother is fine. As far as we know, anyway.”

Jordan cocked her head. That was an odd thing to say. “As far as you know? You make it sound like he’s missing or something.” She paused before folding her arms across her chest. Oh… no. “Don’t tell me he’s escaped.”

Kyle wouldn’t be so stupid. Well, okay, once he’d been that stupid, actions which had landed him in prison in the first place, but he wouldn’t be that stupid again. That was why he’d pled guilty instead of going to trial. He’d wanted to own up to his mistakes and accept the consequences.

She knew her brother better than anyone. True, he was a technology genius, and assuming there was a computer anywhere within reach of the inmates, he could probably upload some code or virus or whatever that would spring open the cell doors and release all the prisoners in a mad stampede. But Kyle wouldn’t do that. She hoped.

“Escaped? That’s an interesting thing to say.” Agent McCall looked her over. “Is there something you’d like to share with us, Ms. Rhodes?”

Something about this special agent rubbed Jordan the wrong way. She felt as though she was facing off against an opponent holding a royal flush in a game of poker she didn’t realize she’d been playing. And she wasn’t in the mood to play games with the FBI right then. Or ever. They’d charged her brother to the fullest extent of the law, locked him up at MCC and treated him like a menace to society for what, in her admittedly biased opinion, was simply a really bad mistake. By someone with no criminal record, she noted. It wasn’t like Kyle had killed anyone, for heaven’s sake, he’d just caused a bit of panic and mayhem. For about fifty million people.

“You said this is about my brother. How can I help you, Agent McCall?” she asked coolly.

“Unfortunately, I’m not at liberty to fill you in on all the details here. Agent Huxley and I would prefer to continue this conversation in private. At the FBI office.”

And she would prefer to say nothing at all to the FBI, if they weren’t dangling this bit about Kyle over her head. She gestured to the empty wine shop. “I’m sure whatever it is you have to say, the Chardonnays will keep it confidential.”

“I never trust a Chardonnay,” Agent McCall said.

“And I don’t trust the FBI.”

The words hung in the air between them. A standstill. Agent Huxley intervened. “I understand your hesitancy, Ms. Rhodes, but as Agent McCall indicated, this is a confidential matter. We have a car waiting out front and would very much appreciate it if you came with us to the FBI office. We’d be happy to explain everything there.”

She considered this. “Fine. I’ll call my lawyer and have him meet us there.”

Agent McCall shook his head. “No lawyers, Ms. Rhodes. Just you.”

Jordan kept her face impassive, but inwardly, her frustration increased. Aside from her general dislike of the FBI because of the way they’d treated her brother, there was an element of pride here. They had come into her store, and this Nick McCall person seemed to think she should jump just because he said so.

So instead, she held her ground. “You’re going to have to do better than that, Agent McCall. You sought me out in the middle of a blizzard, which means you want something from me. Without giving me more, you’re not going to get it.”

He appeared to consider his options. Jordan got the distinct impression that one of those options involved throwing her over his shoulder and hauling her ass right out of the store. He seemed the type.

Instead, he pushed away from the bar and stepped closer to her, then closer again. He peered down at her, his brilliant green-eyed gaze unwavering. “How would you like to see your brother released from prison, Ms. Rhodes?”

Stunned by the offer, Jordan searched his eyes cautiously. She looked for any signs of deceit or trickery, although she suspected she wouldn’t see anything in Nick McCall’s eyes that he didn’t want her to.

A leap of faith. She debated whether to believe him.

“I’ll grab my coat.”