Excerpt: The Secret by Heather Slade
Butler Ranch Book 3
Naughton, the dark and broody Butler brother, has always been the loner of the family. Like his oldest brother, Kade, Naughton keeps his feelings to himself. He doesn’t talk unless he has something he deems important enough to say—until he meets the new kick-ass, hotter-than-all-get-out, winemaker who just landed on the Central Coast. When Naughton meets Bradley St. John, he’s expecting a man—and she is anything but.
The Secret is the third book in the series set at Butler Ranch in the hills of California wine country—where winemaking, lovemaking and mischief-making abound.
EXCERPT: Chapter One
“Who are you?” Naughton asked the woman he found wandering through the winery at Butler Ranch. “Sign says staff only.”
He looked her up and down, taking in the way the snug, sleeveless dress hugged her tight, curvy body and the way it fell just above the knees of her longer-than-shit legs, which were neatly tucked into suede ankle boots.
“You must be Naughton.” The woman approached and held out her hand to shake his.
Naughton folded his arms instead. “I asked you a question. Who are you?”
She dropped her hand and scowled. “I’m your three o’clock appointment.” She looked at her watch. “And you’re twenty minutes late.”
Naughton felt the tension building in his chest. He clenched his fists against the imminent growl forming in his throat.
The stare he leveled didn’t appear to faze her. Her hazel eyes, which had the same green hues as the grape leaves in his own vineyards and were dusted with golden specks the color of the Paso Robles’ hillside, didn’t blink.
“Got a name, sweetheart?”
Mirroring his pose, she folded her arms. “Bradley Saint John, and you were expecting me.”
Naughton could swear he heard “asshole” at the end of her sentence, even though she hadn’t said it.
“Very funny. You his girlfriend or somethin’?” Who brought their girlfriend on an interview? This guy didn’t have a chance in hell of getting the job.
“You must be hard of hearing. I’m Bradley Saint John. Me. The woman standing in front of you.”
There it was again. She hadn’t said it, but Naughton definitely heard “asshole” at the end of that sentence too.
“Oh, yeah?” he smirked. This was gonna be good. He envied this Bradley guy. Not only was his woman crazy-ass pretty, with the kind of body his fourteen-year-old self had spent many nights dreaming about, she was funny too. “Come on, tell me. Where’s he hiding?”
Instead of answering, the woman turned on the heel of her boots and walked out the winery door. Naughton watched her leave, willing his feet to stay firmly planted where they were, so he didn’t do something stupid, like follow her outside.
“Wait!” Naughton heard his brother Maddox shout as he followed whoever she was outside. “Where are you going?”
Naughton stood next to Mad and watched as the woman he’d been talking to climbed into what appeared to be a completely restored, early-seventies, Ford F100 Ranger.
“What did you say to her?” Maddox asked as they watched the tail end of the green and white truck speed down the ranch’s main road.
“I asked where her boyfriend was hiding.”
“What kind of interview question is that?”
“The kind someone asks when they’re lookin’ for the person they’re supposed to be interviewing. Where the hell is he anyway?”
“Where is who?”
“Jesus, Maddox, follow along. Bradley Saint John!”
“That was Bradley Saint John, asshole.”
Naughton may have imagined the woman Maddox insisted was a guy named Bradley call him an asshole, but he didn’t imagine his brother calling him one.
“I’m serious, Naught. That was Bradley.”
“That woman was Bradley?” Naughton smirked.
Maddox walked away.
“Where are you goin’?”
“To chase her down and beg her to come back. You just pissed off the hottest up-and-coming winemaker on the central coast of California. One we’d be damn lucky to have work for us. She learned to make wine at the knee of her uncle, who just so happens to be Charlie Jenson.”
Mad was right about one thing—that woman was hot. Whether she could make wine or not remained to be seen. But that she was Jenson’s niece meant something. He was a legend in Paso Robles.
“Come on,” Maddox shouted at him.
“You’re goin’ with me, dickhead, and you’re gonna get on your hands and knees and beg her forgiveness if it comes to that.”
“There’s no way I’m apologizing to her.”
Maddox shook his head and opened the door of his truck. “Yeah, you are. What’s more, you better pray she accepts your apology and comes back to the ranch with us.”
Naughton shrugged his shoulders.
“In about a month, you’re gonna rethink your crappy attitude, Naught. Then you’ll wish to hell you hadn’t pissed Bradley off, because at that point, you’re gonna be all on your own for harvest.”
Naughton rolled his eyes, something that didn’t go unnoticed by Maddox.
“I swear, Naught, we either hire her, or we hire no one. No one else has come close to good enough, and she far exceeds it. God, you’re such an asshole.”
That name was rolling off his brother’s tongue a little too easily today, and it was beginning to piss him off.
Maddox had warned her that Naughton could be abrasive. He hadn’t warned her, however, that he was an arrogant, sexist asshole.
Bradley was used to people being surprised by her name but not having someone insist she was lying about it.
“What are you doing back so soon?” her uncle asked.
“Naughton Butler is a…jerk.” There were about a hundred other things she could call him, but her Aunt Jean and Uncle Charlie had always been good to her. She wouldn’t disrespect them just because Naughton was pond scum.
Her uncle laughed. “You got that right.”
“What happened, honey?” her aunt asked.
“He asked where I was hiding my boyfriend.”
“What an odd thing for him to ask.”
“He refused to believe I was Bradley Saint John. Evidently, the last thing he expected was a woman applying for a job as winery manager.”
Her uncle was chuckling and pointing to the road. “Here comes Maddox now, and it doesn’t look like he’s alone.”
“I’ll be inside.”
That was all it took—her Aunt Jean saying her name in that way that reminded Bradley of her mom. “Okay,” she murmured and stayed where she was.
Naughton was the first to get out of the truck. He nodded at her aunt and uncle, and approached her, holding out his hand. Instead of shaking it, Bradley folded her arms in front of her.
“Why are you here?” she asked.
“Evidently, I owe you an apology,” he said, quietly enough that only she could hear him.
Bradley took a step back. Naughton was a little too heart-stoppingly good-looking to be standing so close to her. “Nice apology. Wait, you didn’t actually apologize, did you?” she smirked.
“I’m sorry, Bradley,” he whispered, taking another step forward.
God, his voice. It wasn’t just his rockin’ hard body, but his gravelly voice was sexier than all get-out too.
Bradley hadn’t moved, but Naughton had. The step forward he took brought him close enough that she could smell the vineyard on him. She breathed in and instinctively closed her eyes. The vines had a certain smell that lingered on the clothes of someone who spent their day in them. It was like the smell of a campfire to those who loved to camp.
“Bradley, I asked you a question.” It came out almost like a growl, but a damn sexy one.
“Yeah,” she muttered. Why had the fight she had in her only moments ago abandoned her?
“Can we begin again?”
She nodded, still unable to find her voice.
“Good. How about we walk?”
Instead of turning around, Naughton went forward, and Bradley followed.
“Mad says you’re the new rock star.”
“Is that what he said?”
“No, but I thought you might take it the wrong way if I told you he said you were gonna be the hottest new winemaker on the Central Coast.”
Bradley smiled. At least he was trying to be nice, however misguided his attempt might be. “I give credit for whatever I know to my uncle.”
“Where’d you go to school?”
Naughton raised his eyebrows.
“My father lives on the East Coast.”
He nodded. “And your mother?”
“My mother passed away when I was twelve.”
“I see. I’m sorry I asked.”
“Jean is my mom’s sister.”
“Why’d she name you Bradley?”
Interesting that Naughton asked why her mother had named her Bradley, instead of her father or both her parents.
“It was her maiden name.”
“I like it.”
“What? My name?”
They walked in silence through her uncle’s vineyards, the ones she’d walked every summer of her life since she was five years old.
“What do you think of Butler Ranch wines?”
“But not as good as your uncle’s.”
Bradley smiled again. It was the second time he saw her smile after they’d started walking.
He knew what she meant by “good.” The wines Maddox made were very good, albeit very traditional. Charlie Jenson, on the other hand, was on the cutting edge of winemaking, always trying new varietals or different spins on old blends or techniques. Naughton envied that kind of freedom. It was exactly what he and Maddox planned to do at Demetria.
When she got a few steps ahead of him, Naughton stopped and watched. Her hand trailed as she walked through the rows of vines, barely touching the leaves and berries, yet if you looked closely—and he did—you would see her fingertips slide across the surface of both, like they were absorbing the information the vines held. She got lost then, in the Sauvignon Blanc grapes.
“Close,” she murmured.
“Three weeks out at least,” he answered.
It was her turn to raise her eyebrows. “Two. Tops.”
“When Uncle Charlie will harvest?”
“Sure. What’s the bet?”
“What do you want, Bradley?”
She smiled and looked away but not before he saw the pink flush in her cheeks. “Let me get back to you on that.”
“How old are you?”
She turned back then. “You’re not supposed to ask me that.”
“Because it’s illegal.”
“I’m not the one hiring you.”
“Then why did I have an interview scheduled with you?”
“To see if I liked you.”
She smiled again but didn’t ask whether he did or not.
“When did you graduate?”
She kept walking. “When did you graduate?”
“A long time ago. Years before you did, I’d guess.”
“May,” she answered.
“Dual. Enology and vit.”
Naughton was stunned. Even Maddox hadn’t gone that far. Mad’s master’s was in enology, the science of winemaking. Naught had a master’s in viticulture, the science of grape growing. Bradley had both.
“Where have you worked?”
“A couple of the Finger Lake wineries, and for my uncle, obviously.”
“Why do you want to leave?”
“I don’t, or I didn’t. Maddox came to me and asked if I’d consider taking the job.”
Interesting. She must be a damn good winemaker, then. Maddox wouldn’t have gone after her if she wasn’t.
“When do you start?”
Naughton’s turn to smile. “Mad already offered you the job.”
They walked almost to the edge of the vineyard, not far from Adelaida Trail, the road that separated Jenson Vineyards from the outer edges of Butler Ranch.
“It’s beautiful,” she murmured.
He liked to think so.
“Where are you going?” she asked when he threw his leg over the split-rail fence.
“Home. I’ll see you next week, Bradley Saint John.”
The farther he walked from her, the more rounded his shoulders looked. He put both hands in his pockets and didn’t look back.
There were a lot of rumors swirling around about the Butler family. The oldest brother, Kade, had been killed in action in Afghanistan, and since, it sounded as though the family was in turmoil.
The youngest brother got involved with the woman Kade had been dating before he was killed. That brother—Brodie, she thought his name was—was almost killed himself in a plane crash in Argentina. Naughton and Maddox were the ones who found the crash site and brought their brother home. She’d also heard the woman was pregnant and that she and Brodie were getting married.
When Maddox had come by Jenson Vineyards the other day, Bradley thought he was there to meet with her uncle. Instead, he wanted to talk to her.
He explained that Kade had given him and Naughton property on Old Creek Road. It had been part of the Hess estate, and they were in the midst of replanting the vineyards. Given he planned to live there as well as make a first label on the estate, Maddox was looking for an assistant at Butler Ranch.
His offer intrigued her, not only because of the salary the job paid but because of the other carrot he’d dangled in front of her. If she took the job, she’d be head winemaker at Butler Ranch within three years. After that, he’d also make her second label winemaker at what he and Naughton had named Demetria Estate.
She’d worked hard to get where she was, between getting her graduate degrees and learning as much from her uncle as she could, but it was still an extraordinary opportunity.
“Naughton can be difficult,” he’d said. “Once he recognizes your abilities, he’ll back off.”
The burning question now was, would she want him to?
My books are filled with things that bring me joy: music, wine, skiing, families, artists, and cowboys. Not always in that order.
I’m an Amazon best-selling author, and a PAN member of Romance Writers of America. I speak, teach, blog, am an executive sommelier, and all-around entrepreneur.
I grew up an east coast girl, and then spent half my life on the west coast. Now my husband, our two boys, and I happily call Colorado home.