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The Cellar Hand (Workplace Encounters)

The Cellar Hand  (Workplace Encounters)
Release Date: 18 November 2015

Orson Digby is no stranger to loss. His family died in a house fire when he was fifteen, and he has never recovered from losing touch with his best friend, when he was made to stay with an aunt in a different state. Orson works hard to learn the art of winemaking, and finally starts a job as cellar hand at Clear Springs Vineyard—only to run into his long-lost best friend.

Geoff Robichaud, freshly out of the Marines, is in charge of security at the winery. The friendship between Orson and Geoff is familiar, but the intense physical attraction is new. As they explore their developing feelings, several acts of sabotage threaten to destroy their new employer's business and their newfound happiness. They need to rely on Orson’s knowledge of viniculture and Geoff’s understanding of security if they want to solve the mystery and build a future together.

Pages: 120
Words: 32,131
Heat Index:Heat Index
Cover Artist: L.C. Chase

Chapter One

Eight years ago….

“I’M SORRY I’m late, sir.” Orson Digby wished he could vanish into a hole somewhere. Slinking away, never to be seen again, would be better than having to face his boss at the vineyard. It would also give him the time off he needed to recover from the backbreaking work of harvesting grapes at Parkville Winery. He’d only been at it for two weeks, but it felt more like months. The owners were determined to keep their setup as original as possible since it was one of the oldest commercial wineries in California. That meant no mechanized grape harvesters anywhere, no modern machinery when converting the grapes into wine or in the storage and bottling operations. The need for manual labor was good for employment in the area and Orson’s savings account, but he did occasionally wonder about his health.

“Don’t let it happen again.” The tall harvest overseer with his bushy eyebrows looked threatening even when he wasn’t angry. Upset like this, with a red face and one hand already fisted, the man in charge could have easily scared off a much stronger guy than Orson. “You know it’s critical we get those Merlot grapes in as quickly as possible, now that they’re ready. We can’t afford to let them become overripe and risk losing the harvest. Everyone in the team has to pull their weight.”

“Sorry, sir. My car broke down, but I’ll make sure it won’t happen again.” Orson ducked to make himself a smaller target, even though he knew that probably wouldn’t work.

The distraction of watching him rushing to work might be a better tactic to appease his boss. Orson quickly moved toward the next available row of vines and grabbed the old-fashioned basket sitting at the end of it. His picking shears for the day were already inside, waiting for him to put them to work. Just like he’d been taught a couple of weeks earlier, he made sure they were well oiled by opening and closing them a few times. Working with substandard equipment wasn’t acceptable, and neither was using ill-maintained tools.

Satisfied everything was in order, he marched into the next available marked-for-harvesting furrow between the grape plants, enjoying the feeling of soft clay soil under his feet. Even though this area of the field had been approved for harvesting by the vineyard’s cellar hand, he still made sure each cluster of grapes was the desired bluish shade. The bunches of large berries were quite easy to hold away from the vine for cutting. He left the required part of the stem attached as he cut each one loose before placing it into his basket.

It was hard, exhausting work, and at only seventeen, with a slim build and looking more like a nerd than a field worker, Orson was lucky to have gotten this summer job. Sonoma wasn’t exactly the center of the universe, and there weren’t all that many summer jobs around to begin with. The easy ones, working in an office or in retail, went to those whose families were well-known in the community or where parents had connections via family, friends, or colleagues. Unfortunately, what was left of his family was not part of that circle.

Orson sighed as he continued to work in the hot sunshine of late August, sweat running down his back as he cut vines and filled basket after basket with the dark red, almost blue grapes. A lot of the harvesting went on at night, but he had to work the dayshift because his aunt had not given permission for him to be gone when it was dark. Aunt Marian was a dear woman who had taken him in when his parents and older brothers died in the house fire two years ago. But she wasn’t getting any younger, wanted him safely at home in the evenings, and she certainly wasn’t part of the in crowd in town. He needed the money if he ever wanted to get his own place, so picking grapes was what he did.

The sweltering heat, dusty air, and monotonous movements soon combined into a haze that made Orson want to lie down in the shade of the apple trees just visible at the end of the field. It wasn’t going to happen anytime soon, but the thought of a cool breeze and a cold glass of water enjoyed in peace was about all that held him upright at this point. And it was only just before noon. He pulled his hat farther down to protect his eyes from the glaring sunshine as best he could and plodded on.

“Hey, you want we go for a drink after we finish?” Jose, one of the guys from high school who’d graduated and landed a job there, worked in the next row over. He was always up to no good. His eyes twinkled with mischief, and his cocky attitude spelled trouble. He was a year older and had a fake ID, but he knew full well Orson didn’t.

“Sorry, got to go home. My aunt is expecting me to work on the yard.” Orson cringed as he said it, safe in the knowledge most of his face remained hidden from Jose’s observation by the leaves between them. What a lame excuse, but no way was he going to risk getting caught drinking. He’d never live that down.

“Come on, it’ll be fun.” Jose frowned, as if that could compel Orson to want to do something risky like that. “Everyone is going, and you need to chill, seriously. You never have any fun. How do you stand your life?”

Orson shrugged, focusing on his work. Staying alive, finishing high school, and getting a safe job was all he wanted. There was no point in aiming for more; based on what he had experienced so far, some catastrophe would likely take it away from him. Without parents to pay for college and no money of his own, he couldn’t become a winemaker, which is what he really wanted to be. If he was very lucky, he’d find a permanent position as a vineyard operative and learn on the job. He might be able to make it to cellar hand eventually and report to a winemaker, but without a degree, that was highly unlikely. Getting arrested for underage drinking would not look good on his record, so he’d be damned if he’d give in to Jose’s continued wheedling.

“What’s wrong with you?” Jose sounded accusatory.

“Nothing.” Orson looked up, stretching to see over the vines. Jose was frowning. What is my presence or absence to him anyway? He wished he could ask that question but was afraid he’d be misunderstood. He wanted a quiet life and not to get into trouble—what was so difficult about understanding and accepting that?

“Have it your way!” Jose threw his arms up in the air and rolled his eyes dramatically. “But don’t blame me if you die of boredom or loneliness.”

Orson watched Jose stomp along the vines, suddenly feeling bereft. He still didn’t want to go out to some noisy bar to get drunk, but equally, spending another evening at home, having dinner with Aunt Marian, doing yard work followed by homework and maybe some reading, didn’t exactly fill him with enthusiasm. He wanted someone to hang out with as much as the next guy, he just had no clue how to find and make friends with the kind of people he’d get along with.

If only his parents and brothers were still alive. He’d have a normal family, wouldn’t have to live in Sonoma, California, with his elderly aunt, instead of Tacoma, Washington, where he belonged, and he’d certainly still be in touch with all his childhood buddies. It had been much easier to get close to other kids when he was younger than it was to befriend teenagers in a city where he still felt like a stranger. Of all of the friends he’d left behind, he still missed Geoff most. They’d met when he was in fourth grade, had instantly liked each other despite Geoff being two years older, and had gotten into more trouble together than was probably legal. They’d quickly become inseparable and had always stuck up for each other, no matter what happened. Losing his best friend on top of his family when his aunt had taken him in and moved him all the way to California had devastated him.

He just couldn’t seem to catch a break.



SIX YEARS after that backbreaking summer that had awakened a love for winemaking in Orson, he had not only finished high school, but had also completed a degree at Washington State and was ready to apply for a full-time job. He had carefully evaluated all his options, and Tayaris Winery seemed to have everything he wanted, plus they were looking for people to work in their cellar operations. Now that he was there and faced his somewhat aggressive interviewer, he was beginning to doubt the wisdom of that choice.

“What makes you think you’re qualified to work in our wine cellar, Mr. Digby? There’s nothing in your application that lets me believe you’re truly interested. All your previous experience has been out in the fields.” Peter Tayaris, the winery owner’s son and Orson’s potential future boss, shook his graying head as he looked up from his cluttered desk. Currently, a file with Orson’s details lay on top of the mess. How could the man work like this?

“Well, I did complete a four-week internship as part of my viniculture and enology major in integrated plant sciences at Washington State.” Orson took a deep breath to stop himself from asking if this man had even bothered to read all the paperwork Orson had sent them prior to this second interview. If he wasn’t so desperate to get this job so he could broaden his experience from harvesting to cellar operations, he would have gotten up and walked out after the first ten minutes of this—this inquisition.

“Internships are all well and good, but they don’t really give you the kind of experience you’ll need to be useful for us in the sensitive areas of filtration, bottling, and the sanitary requirements. I mean, Health and Safety alone will kill you if you’re not intimately familiar with the rules.” Peter Tayaris frowned, making him look even older than his graying temples alone. “I’m not sure I’m willing to take the risk.”

“So, start me at the very bottom of the operations.” Orson might as well forget about the advantages he’d thought his degree would give him.

The division, sometimes bordering on open animosity, between harvesting and cellar operations was much worse than he’d thought, and seemed especially bad at Tayaris Winery. Peter Tayaris, as the current cellar hand, was responsible for both areas, and that was where Orson wanted to get to within the next few years.

But the man in front of Orson was clearly convinced nobody else was qualified to hold such a position, and he was equally clearly not going to give anyone else the opportunity to learn the “other” side of the winemaking job. Or maybe he feared for his own job security? Orson had seen this before in many of the family run wineries. Professionals coming in from the outside were often more qualified to help the businesses grow or become more modern than family members who only had on-the-job experience on their side.

Maybe Orson would be better off with one of the other potential employers? The problem was that not too many in this area were large enough to be able to afford a trainee like him. Orson didn’t have the money to move closer to Tacoma, where he really wanted to live. At least he was back in Washington now. That had been a step in the right direction. He’d managed to use the money he inherited from Aunt Marian to pay for his college education and basic living expenses over the last four years, but most of that was gone now. He needed a job so he could build some reserves, then consider moving back to his roots.

“The very bottom, you say?” Peter Tayaris’s eyes shone with greed, and he sat up straight as his eyes widened.

“If that’s what it takes.” Orson inwardly shook his head. The man was greedy, pure and simple. He could see where this was going. He’d get the salary that reflected his job title as assistant bottler, or whatever equivalent his new boss could come up with, but he’d either be doing a much more difficult job, or he’d be the one ending up with all the shitty jobs like the lifting and carrying of barrels and equipment or cleaning. The good news was, he’d be learning, he’d have time to watch and figure things out and hopefully have more luck with his next application.

“Okay, I like that.” Peter Tayaris smiled for the first time.

I just bet you do!

“There’ll be more paperwork, which you can complete here or take home with you. We’ll need it back as soon as possible. When can you start?” Peter Tayaris leaned forward in his seat, suddenly keen.

“Next week?” Orson had no money left to take a vacation, and the sooner he joined the workforce, the better. It was already mid-July and the harvesting season was coming up. Even though he wasn’t going to be collecting grapes for once, there would be more than enough work at the cellar-end of things.

“Excellent.” Peter made a few notes, closed the file he’d been staring at, and leaned back in his squeaky office chair. “We’ll give you a tour, so you’ll know where everything is when you start on Monday.”

“Thank you.” Orson got up. His future boss was a strange man. He hadn’t even shared any details like job title or pay with him. It would hopefully be included in the additional paperwork he’d been promised.

“I’m sure we’ll work well together.” Peter Tayaris rose to shake hands. “Welcome aboard.”

Orson nodded and left the office. Should he be happy he got a job, or was he beyond pathetic to have accepted something so far beneath what he could have tried for? But none of the other interviews had led to any job offers, and at least with this one, he’d have some income. He sighed as he took the stack of papers the friendly older secretary handed him. If he were less risk-averse, he’d wait a little longer and hope one of the other offers came through. He wasn’t though. Never had been the one to be daring, so he’d take this and make it work.

“Mr. Digby?” The deep voice sounded like its owner was a chain smoker. Did those even exist anymore in this day and age?

“Yes?” Orson looked up, and the shock almost made him take a step back.

A huge man, muscled like there was no tomorrow and with a scowl on his face that clearly reflected how motivated he was to be there, stood and glared at Orson. He wore the winery’s security uniform, had some sort of walkie-talkie and a huge bunch of keys attached to his belt, and held a map in his beefy hands.

“I’m here to give you your tour.” Could he have sounded less happy? “I’m told you’re starting work here on Monday?”

“Yes, I—”

“Just make sure you’ve done the paperwork.” Security Guy leaned over and pulled a light blue sheet from the stack Orson was desperately trying to stop from fluttering apart at the sudden movement. “We’ll need this one completed before you leave today so we can do the background check before you start work.”

“No problem. Could you—”

“There’ll be time for questions later. If you still have any.” The man abruptly turned around and waved one hand impatiently. “Follow me.”

What the hell?

“Excuse me?” Short sentences were probably best. The guy hadn’t let him get in more than a few words so far.

“What now? I thought I made myself clear.” Security Guy turned around, putting his previous frown and impatience to shame.

“My name is Orson Digby. And who are you?” Maybe not the most intelligent way to get information out of this giant of a man, but he didn’t plan to take shit like this from his coworkers. And that was his most urgent question.

“I’m Max Wakefield. Chief of security.” Max drew himself up to stand even taller. “And I don’t have to answer to you or anyone else, except the old Mr. Tayaris, so you better look out.”

“For what?” Orson was truly confused. “I just wanted to know who I’m dealing with.”

“Humph.” Max sneered and turned away from Orson.

Orson could only hope Max’s ability to do his job was better than his manners. He quickly followed his new guide outside the office building, trying to take in the layout so he’d know where to go on Monday and how to find his way around in case he got sent on any errands. The winery was at the lower end of medium size, only producing about 60,000 cases, but the vineyard to their left was well maintained and large enough to keep more than a few wine operatives, or harvesters, busy when the time came. The main production buildings to their right were quite old but looked to be in good shape. The cellar was in good condition, very clean and with well-labeled supplies and vats in neat rows.

Orson couldn’t wait to get started.

©Serena Yates, 2015
All Rights Reserved

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