A romantic comedy set in Northern California’s wine country!
Book blurb: It’s Lila’s big debut as an event planner and the company holiday party is going to be her chance to shine. At a Tuscan-style vineyard near the Northern California coast in the perfect little black dress she’s sure to impress commitment-phobe Phillip. What could go wrong?
72 hours later with no job and no boyfriend, Lila finds herself with all kinds of answers to that question. Like mistaking the glowering Jake Endicott of Endicott Vineyards for the groundskeeper. Or a new video on YouTube featuring Lila pawing her way through drunken karaoke of “Hungry Like the Wolf.”
Solo on the romantic holiday getaway she’d booked for her and Phillip near the vineyard, Lila at least gets to visit with her old friend Annie who lives nearby in the coastal town of Redwood Cove. Drawn into the local bookstore with gleaming wooden floors and welcoming armchairs, Lila chats with the owner and impulsively accepts a job offer.
Sleepy, misty Redwood Cove is the perfect place for Lila to take a break from her horrible track record with guys. The only one she finds even remotely attractive knows her as the holiday party crazy lady. Ranked in Bay Area magazine’s 10 hottest bachelors, Jake Endicott is just the type Old Lila would have wasted years pining after.
Join Lila on her year of comedy, adventure and self-discovery on the Northern California coast, with all kinds of ups, downs and misadventures and a full cast of small-town wine country characters. Thankfully, even the greatest misunderstandings can all be worked out with a little Frank Sinatra and mistletoe.
CHAPTER TEASE, Chapter 1: Hungry Like the Cat
It was a mild and sunny December day that struck terror into the heart of young Lila.
She pulled into the first parking area she saw at the winery, wheels squealing, heart nearly leaping with anxiety out of the car before she had a chance to stand. It was already two thirty in the afternoon, thanks to a wrong turn she’d taken on the long and winding road that led from highway 101 through Southern Sonoma County to Endicott Vineyards.
Surveying the tall, stately cypress trees that lined the path toward the main property, Lila felt a cold kick of panic in her gut. Tonight was her company’s holiday party and she, somehow, found herself in charge of coordinating the event. She’d inherited the task just two weeks ago from another member of AdSale’s Client Relations team. Mariana, trusted with the firm’s toniest events, had been party planning for over a decade. Lila had never done it before. Whether it was a black tie VIP mixer at The Four Seasons or a backyard soiree for 200 of her closest family and friends, Mariana knew how to organize a party. Lila knew how to maintain a database.
Unfortunately, Mariana’s maternity leave, planned for January, had begun in early December. Apparently babies—even those born to famously Type A, triple-check-the-crossed-Ts-and-dotted-Is event planning veterans—operated on their own schedules. Mariana’s firm grip on the event’s reins had instantly gone slack as she’d turned her full attention to her healthy but three-week-early baby. “I set it all up,” she’d assured her in the one panicked call Lila had allowed herself to make. “Don’t worry. I put the wheels in motion. They’re pros at Endicott. They do parties all the time.”
Lila had still wanted to make the drive up last week to check on things, but she’d been guaranteed by the vineyard’s event staff that it wasn’t necessary; everything was going according to plan.
She should have made the trip up anyway.
Propelled as she was by anxiety along the path, she didn’t notice the soft rush of a gentle breeze gliding through the trees. Nor did she notice the playfully winding trail the ivy made along a low, stone wall. Instead, hand to her stomach, she felt the familiar ache of stress and nerves along with the additional pang of hunger. She hadn’t had time for breakfast, or lunch for that matter, but she couldn’t imagine eating a bite.
Wrapping her camelhair coat around herself more tightly, Lila was aware of the irony. When she’d first moved to Northern California from Massachusetts five years ago she’d scoffed at all of the bundling up at 50 degrees. Now she was one of them, tucking a scarf tightly around her neck to ward off the chill.
Passing through a latticework archway, Lila arrived at the vineyard’s expansive courtyard. Surrounded by cobblestone, a grey marble fountain rose in the center, water burbling down two tiers. No giant, naked cherubs, no lions or scenes from Greek mythology, Lila appreciated its smooth simplicity.
Behind it rose a long, large building in similarly grey stone. Softening the austerity, each window had a box filled with ivy and something that bore tiny white flowers—Lila was sure her Gram would know the name of it. The heavy, double wooden doors at its center were framed by large, hanging lanterns.
To the right, Lila recognized what the Endicott website referred to as “The Great Room.” Seating capacity 300, the building had French windows down its length. Tonight, it would hold 250 of AdSale’s senior executives, board members and representatives from their most valued clients, some of whom would be flying from international locations. High-end touring buses rented, Mariana had persuaded the higher-ups that a 75 minute drive up from San Francisco was worth it to experience Northern California’s wine country. There was a reason it was famous the world over. Far better than a hotel ballroom in the city, it would give guests a taste of laid-back luxury, essentially what AdSales pedaled: The Good Life.
When they’d booked the vineyard back in May, Lila had accompanied Mariana on the site visit. Even the drive out had been stunning. Twenty minutes north of the city highway 101 turned bucolic; cows grazed along rolling hills which, that time of year, were still green. Workaholic Mariana had softened right up in the setting and suggested grabbing lunch twenty minutes further, up over the ridge and down Highway 1 to the coast and small, picturesque town of Redwood Cove.
It had almost felt as if arriving in a charming and slow-paced Brigadoon. The pounding of surf and caw of sea birds had serenaded them as they’d eaten their salads by the sea. Lila had felt some guilt over not phoning her college roommate, Annie, who lived there with her husband and one-year-old daughter. But she and Mariana were busy, the visit had been impromptu and she would call Annie when she got home.
What she did instead when she got home was book a romantic three day getaway for her and Phillip. She hadn’t planned to do it. Frankly, she’d shocked herself with her uncharacteristic boldness. It must have been the romance of Redwood Cove holding sway over her usual cautiousness. As she and Mariana had headed out of town and Lila gazed out the window awe-struck at the crashing surf, she’d spotted a ridiculously well-situated and picturesque B&B. The owners should have dispensed with formalities and called it Ideal Romantic Getaway.
She’d been seeing Phillip, a director at AdSales, for two years now. He’d been talking about how he needed a break. He didn’t see it happening anytime soon, not during the current campaign push, but maybe during the holidays. So Lila had booked them into the B&B during the downtime between Christmas and New Year’s.
It would be perfect—time for them to get away and relax, just the two of them. He’d been somewhat noncommittal when she’d excitedly told him about it, but she knew that was just the stress. He never thought he could take time off. That’s why Lila had to make the time for them both. He had a very stressful job, as he was always telling her. Not to mention the cloak-and-daggers they had to engage in to keep their romantic relationship undetected. Interoffice romances were strictly forbidden. That’s why they really needed this getaway.
Nearing the entrance to the Great Room, a man passed Lila wheeling in what looked to be a wagon pulled by a plastic donkey.
Distracted, Lila stumbled on the cobblestone and reached out to steady herself on what turned out to be a giant inflatable Saguaro cactus. Face up against the green plastic—which at least cushioned her fall against the side of the building—Lila wondered at it, and at the matching six foot tall cactus on the other side of the entrance. A strange contrast to the formal French doors and stately European feel of the grounds, Lila figured it must be some sort of vineyard quirk.
The long, well-lit room had eight or so people buzzing about, a veritable hive of activity. Nearest to the doors, a man chipped away at a block of ice. The emerging shape looked nothing like the swan she’d ordered.
“Hi.” Lila tried to adopt a calm, rational, in-charge tone. “I’m Lila, the event coordinator for AdSales. You are?” The man glanced at her with a clear look of annoyance.
“I am working.” He had a distinct French accent.
“Yes, I see that. On the ice sculpture. That I ordered.” She waited hopefully for him to grow more friendly but instead he turned his back and continued working.
“It’s a swan, right? A swan, lifting its wings as if ready to take flight?” Carefully chosen to symbolize the turn-around their company was about to make. The man gave a deep sigh, set down his chisel, took off his gloves and rested a hand on his hip.
“It is not a swan.” His tone suggested that the idea of a swan was a deep insult. “You do not want a swan.”
“Actually, yes,” Lila swallowed nervously. “I do want a swan.” A VP of something or other had stopped by her cubicle last week and told her, rather cryptically, that there should be something “uplifting” to welcome guests.
“You do not get a swan,” Both hands went up to his hips. “You get a giraffe.”
“It’s…that’s…” Lila gestured at the ice but lacked words to express how not like a swan that was.
“You are lucky I do not make the mistake of crafting what is not there. Girard looks at the block, the solid object. He knows what lies within, waiting to be released.” Lila looked around for Girard before realizing that Girard was none other than the ice sculptor talking about himself in the third person.
Searching for someone, anyone else, Lila spotted a woman in a cropped jacket and black slacks. She was holding a clipboard and appeared to be giving orders to three twentysomethings in white shirts and black pants. Lila waved at her with the calm of a shipwrecked man on a raft spotting a rescue copter. The woman held up a finger to signal she’d be there in a moment.
Lila tugged at her own jacket, wishing it lay flat and crisp like the woman’s. Ironic how at a size two she felt less comfortable in her clothes than when she’d been a size twelve. She also, somehow, felt less pretty.
Back in the size twelve years, her loyal college roommate Annie had sworn she looked like Kate Middleton. The assertion might have held up better had the princess spent a few weeks in a donut shop, favored men’s overalls and had an astigmatism that required a thick eyeglass lens. Comparisons to Princess Kate didn’t work any better now, five years out of college, as Lila had having dropped nearly forty pounds and bleached and straightened her hair within an inch of its life. Leaving behind her “awkward phase” as her Gram put it, she’d had LASIK surgery once she’d learned doctors gave you valium. She’d also splurged on a new wardrobe—big city advertising firm chic—featuring narrow heels, slim-cut skirts and even slimmer-fitting blouses.
Marching over with efficiency, the woman in charge gazed down at her clipboard and said, “How may I help you,” in a flat, clipped monotone.
“Lillian Clark,” she introduced herself, trying unsuccessfully to make eye contact. Almost everyone called her Lila and she didn’t mind that, but in times of great need she pulled out the Lillian. “I’m from AdSales,” she continued, “I’m…in charge of things tonight.”
The woman looked up, obviously surprised. “Not Mariana?”
“No, she had her baby so she’s out on maternity leave and, thankfully, everything’s OK, 5 pounds 8 ounces, a baby boy—”
Cutting off Lila’s stream of nervous babble before she had a chance to tell her they’d named him Mauricio and decorated the nursery with monkeys, the woman asked, “So, you’re in charge?”
“Yes.” Lila straightened herself, wishing she felt none of the doubt expressed in Boots’ tone.
“Well, we have everything all set for tonight.” Looking over at the end of the room where a couple of stairs led to a small stage and a man was now climbing a ladder, the woman excused herself for a moment.
Waiting, Lila wondered where were the little white lights? In all her Phillip Declaring His Love Holiday Party daydreams there had always been little white lights, the twinkly kind that formed the ideal backdrop for true romance.
She planned to have her hair up in a sleek chignon. She wasn’t exactly sure what a chignon was, but she knew Phillip would love it. She’d been practicing pinning her hair back into a twist in hopes it would suffice. Together with her perfect little black dress and—gasp—red stiletto slingbacks she’d bought on impulse yesterday deciding she needed more va-va-voom in her outfit, she knew tonight had to be the night. She’d be standing to the side looking impossibly slim and sophisticated, holding a glass of champagne. Phillip would be drawn to her like a moth to a flame and she’d turn, casually, with an “Oh, hello,” smiling at his wonderment as he realized that this lustrous pearl was none other than the girl he’d been seeing for the past three years without any public recognition whatsoever. Struck, as if by lightening, he would loudly and proudly make the announcement to the firm—consequences be damned, so he was a director and she a lowly client relations associate—he was in love with this gorgeous creature and he wanted the world to know it!
“OK, let’s review the list.” The woman was back. Ticking her way through items on her clipboard, she started reading: “Nacho cheese dipping station, served in sombrero. Piñata. Karaoke machine.”
“It’s…” A mix of true bafflement and horror rendered Lila almost completely dumb. To her right, an eight-foot Mexican flag unfurled with a snap from the top of the rafters. Below it, two more giant, inflatable cacti stood tall and bright green.
Elegant. Tasteful. Refined. Something to wow our top clients and board. These were the expectations for the event. “Nacho cheese dipping station?” she tried, hoping for a laugh from the woman and the reassurance that, all appearance to the contrary, she was quite the practical joker.
“Come with me.” She led Lila around the room, orienting her to the stations in various states of assembly. “It was not easy to find this,” she remarked, pointing to a giant baby-shaped piñata. Swaddled in a diaper, it had a halo over its head.
“Is that the baby Jesus?” Lila asked.
“Yes, the baby Jesus piñata you requested. Had to special order that one.”
“So…the guests take turns whacking the baby Jesus?”
“It’s got all sorts of candy inside,” she reassured Lila.
“Um, wait…” With the distinct impression she’d found her way into the wrong movie, Lila decided the best way out was simply to stop, shake her head, and will it all not to be so. “This is not right. This is for the AdSales holiday party, right?”
“I have to admit, we were surprised by some of your requests. But Mariana was so specific. And we’ve done so many parties with her before. She’s always on top of things.”
Taking the clipboard offered her, Lila read off the printed list. It included four six-foot inflatable saguaro cacti.
“For example, you only requested beer and margaritas,” She pointed to the bullet-pointed beverage list: all caps CERVEZAS! “Yet you do understand we are a winery.”
Looking at it, Lila realized “pregnancy brain” wasn’t just a cute myth. The indefatigable Mariana had clearly taken the list of supplies for her infamous, annual backyard Cinco do Mayo party and sent it to the Endicott Vineyard’s party coordinator. For AdSales’ VIP holiday party.
“But you knew to have an ice sculpture?” Lila grasped at a straw.
“You called and requested that last week.”
Back at the entrance once again for air, Lila wobbled her way out onto the cobblestone. “You know, maybe we just need to focus on this.” Lila gestured at the uneven stones she’d stumbled upon earlier. Exercising the terribly faulty judgment of one in the throes of panic, Lila ignored the inflatable cacti and arriving mariachi band in favor of the unfixable. “We need to deal with this safety issue.”
“The cobblestone. It’s so dangerous.” Near hyperventilation, Lila swallowed and found her throat strangely constricted or swollen. Maybe she was having an allergic reaction? They stood together, the elder event planner studying Lila, the younger scrutinizing the courtyard, biting her nails and envisioning all manner of hideous accidents.
Across the way a tall man in a bulky fisherman knit sweater strolled toward the main building of the estate. Head down, hands in the pockets of his corduroys, he moved slowly, lost in thought. He looked perfectly steady on the stones. Then again, he had on work boots.
A waiter darted up. “Are we going with the 10-foot ovals or the eight-foot? Because last time—”
“One sec.” The event manager directed traffic, raising her left index finger to ask the staff to wait while raising her right hand to wave over the man in the sweater. Calling out “Jake!” she signaled, “Over here.” He looked up, slowly and not particularly thrilled about the interruption. “A question.” Pointing at Lila she then hustled with the waiter back into the room.
As Jake ambled over Lila fought the impatient urge to run toward him. He must be the groundskeeper. He had a kind-of a slow and steady way about him and looked to be about Lila’s age or a bit older, perhaps in his early 30s.
“You have a question?” he asked as he reached her.
“Yes,” she began. “It’s the cobblestone.” He stood with his arms crossed against his chest. “It’s dangerous.” He kept looking at her, but now with a slight tilt to his head. Suffused with the enormity of the impending calamity, Lila continued in a rush, “In about half an hour we’re going to have 250 people—maybe even more if they didn’t RSVP and that’s so likely because we sent out invitations with the reply card in the mail but who even reads their mail anymore—”
“I read my mail.”
“OK, but what I’m trying to say is there’s going to be hundreds of people showing up for this party and how are they even going to get inside without breaking their necks?” Though she detested the shrill note her voice reached and the inexplicable flail her hand made, anxiety triumphed over embarrassment. “It’s a disaster!”
Jake looked from Lila to the courtyard and back again. Not so much alarmed as puzzled with a hint of annoyance.
“Well?” Lila nearly shrieked. “What are you going to do about it?”
Raking a hand through his dark, unruly hair Jake exhaled, “Do about it?”
“How are you going make sure everyone’s safe? Because, I don’t see safe here.” Lila gestured around her wildly. “I see broken wrists. I see trips to the ER.”
“You want me to do something about the cobblestone?” he asked, seeming to just register her request. “This cobblestone cemented into the ground?”
“Yes, whatever.” Lila dismissed the irrelevant details. “This dangerous, uneven surface.”
“This is a replica of a fountain in Tuscany.” Drawing up to his full height, Jake made the statement as if it explained everything.
“I don’t care what it’s replicating!” Lila’s panic rose in direct proportion to the degree to which it was ignored. “People will fall on the way from the parking lot!”
“What, exactly, do you propose we do about it?”
“I don’t know! That’s your job!” Her hands flew up once again in exasperation. “Put some bubble wrap down over it!” Immediately hearing a popping soundtrack accompanying the imaginary scene of chaos, Lila revised, “No, throw a tarp over it! Yes, that’s it! A nice tarp.” She looked out over the courtyard, wondering what exactly a nice tarp would look like. Black? Could they find one with some shimmer?
“You want me to put a tarp down over the cobblestone?” he repeated, incredulous. “Or, I’ve got it!” He snapped his fingers and Lila looked up for a moment in hope. “I could carry the guests. I could be a shuttle. They could hop on my back and I could run them into the ballroom.” Lila’s mouth opened in shock at the rudeness.
Then, to her complete disbelief, he turned and simply walked away. Not in a hurry, no angry huff, the same nonchalant pace he’d assumed prior to learning about the crisis. Appalled, she watched him in stunned silence as he headed down a paved path along the side of the building. It was a flat, safe, handicapped accessible path that she’d somehow missed before, leading directly to an adjacent parking lot.
As a hot flush of embarrassment flooded her cheeks, Endicott’s event coordinator appeared once again at her side. “Now about the margarita maker. It’s in a wagon being pulled by a plastic donkey.”
Looking inside the French doors, Lila found herself locked in a gaze with a large and unrepentant ice giraffe.
**Click HERE to read an interview and guest post by the author, Addison Westlake