“To a new adventure,” Blake said, joining the wedding guests in a toast. He tipped back the champagne and applauded the happy couple.
Smiles were the order of the day, though none matched that of his cousin Mary, the newly wedded bride on the arm of her husband. A smile like that—so warm and true—was infectious. Blake noticed, for the first time in a long a time, he was wearing a natural smile. As opposed to the one he had to force while playing his part in growing his father’s career.
Blake stood back from the crowd as the new couple cut the cake. He tugged at his tie, wanting to yank it off. The reception was comfortably cool inside the upscale restaurant in downtown Portland, a stark contrast to the warmth outside, but still Blake felt stifled by the cinch around his neck.
“Great wedding, don’t you think?” one of the pink dressed bridesmaids asked him, a plate of white cake in her hand.
“It is,” he replied with a nod as she inched her body closer to his.
“You know, I’ve never been with the son of a senator before,” she said soft and husky, looking up at him through half-drawn eyelashes.
Oh boy. Blake shoved his hands deep in his pockets. Not only did this girl need a civics lesson, but some personal space guidelines would be good, too.
“Prrrrrr.” The sound rolled off her tongue, revving up her motor as she reached for his tie. Her fingers tugged on the silk as she let it slide through her hand and the cinch grew tighter. Looking around he eyed Jeffrey, the security detail his father insisted accompany his family to the wedding. The man in his blue suit blended into the crowd, making sure the Anderson family’s politics didn’t overshadow his cousin’s wedding celebration. A visual sweep showed no signs of cameras anywhere, other than the one hired to follow the happy couple.
Ever since Blake’s face was plastered on the front page two weeks ago he’d been a target for girls just like this one and his father’s staff was taking no chances at a repeat performance.
It was a moment that never should have been captured. Looking back, Blake realized he was set up. The phone call from an old college friend asking for a ride home lured him to that strip club.
Some friend, taking advantage of an opportunity to make a little cash on the side. Setting Blake up to be pounced by a half-dressed stripper, her arms and legs wrapped around his body—one fully exposed breast popping out as the camera flashed. The wild, bug-eyed look in his eye drew further speculation about his involvement with illegal drugs—which was nonexistent, but according to the presses he’d had a relapse. It seemed the idea that the son of Oregon’s governor was a drug abusing, strip club frequenting playboy made for entertaining news. And they were running with it, taking his family along for the ride.
The picture hit every paper, even some of the national ones, now that his father, Adam Anderson, was being heavily recruited by the Republican Party to throw his hat into the race for presidency.
“We can’t afford this negative publicity. Not now,” his father had shouted at him, throwing the paper down in front of him on the long cherry table inside the dining room of the governor’s mansion. Tracking his fingers through his blonde hair, his blue eyes were steeped in anger. “People are looking to me. Counting on us to represent them and this doesn’t build trust.”
Blake had spent his whole life trying to be the perfect son of a politician. Keeping his nose clean, going to the college his father prescribed, and pursuing the right degree. Everything…he’d done everything he was supposed to do, yet trouble always seemed to find him. But this one ill-timed stupid prank was a chart topper. Overnight he’d turned into his father’s worst political nightmare.
He didn’t know what this bridesmaid’s agenda was, but he wasn’t biting. No more reputation-busting front page news stories for him. Jeffrey was on his feet, ready to intervene just as Blake’s sister, Amelia, approached.
A predatory glare came over Blake’s new acquaintance as Amelia, wearing a strapless silver body-hugging dress, handed him a plate of chocolate cake. Her blue eyes flashed in question as she smiled.
“Thanks,” he said, taking the plate.
“Ooooh, chocolate,” the bridesmaid said as she backed off for a millisecond and tracked her finger through the mousse filling of Blake’s piece.
Ooooh gross, he thought, stilling his fork in the air above the cake. Amelia’s eyebrows shot up; even his outspoken sister couldn’t seem to find the words for this girl.
As Miss-Pretty-in-Pink seductively twisted her finger in her mouth and pulled it out another bridesmaid wrapped in bubblegum pink approached. Her flowing skirt swished as she came to a halt and laced her arm through Blake’s attention-lavishing companion. “Brandi, it’s time for the first dance,” she said.
Blake recognized her as the maid of honor and sister of the groom. He didn’t know much about her, but judging by that deep scowl she’d been wearing all day he didn’t think he wanted to. “Don’t embarrass me,” she hissed at Brandi with unquestionable authority.
Brandi gave Blake a conspiratorial wink and grin as she handed him her plate. “I’ll be back,” she promised, giving Amelia the drop-dead look before following the bossy maid of honor to the floor. She paired up with a tall groomsman who looked like he would give anything to be somewhere other than in the grips of the bridesmaid named Brandi.
Amelia tucked a strand of her long blonde hair behind her ear. “That girl is something else,” she said, shaking her head. “You’ve got such a knack for finding the good ones.” She winked at Blake and laughed as he rolled his eyes. His track record with women was nothing to brag about.
“I think now would be a good time for me to leave.” He set the cake plates on the tray of the passing waitress. With his new playboy status, his past had become a media magnet as every tiny indiscretion of his since the first grade was unveiled. But there was one possible skeleton he wanted to get to before they did. And he was starting his search today.
“You’re not giving up on the crack whore, are you?” Amelia asked before taking a bite of cake.
“Don’t call her that,” he said.
She shrugged. “I’m entitled to my own opinion.”
Blake shook his head. Amelia was full of opinions he didn’t share, but that had never kept them from being close.
“Don’t leave without saying goodbye to Mom,” she added, pointing at Adele Anderson with her fork. Their mother was across the room stationed next to her teary-eyed sister, the mother of the bride. The only thing tying the two together as sisters was their matching golden hair. Adele’s was pulled back into a sleek and sophisticated knot while her sister’s strayed from its earlier braided design, probably a good six glasses of champagne ago.
Blake hugged Amelia. “Do you want me to call you when I find the crack whore?” His lips quirked up, teasing, and she tried to look annoyed.
“You’re not going to find her,” she said in that all-knowing voice she tried to pull off since they were kids, like she was the older and wiser one. “But if you do,” she sighed, “then yes, let me know. Especially if she is a crack whore. We’ll need to get damage control rolling right away. We don’t want anything ruining Dad’s chance at the White House. Transparency. That’s how you win the favor of the people.”
Blake smiled. Amelia was born to be the daughter of a politician. While Blake would rather steer clear of the whole scene, she loved and craved the strategies it required.
She took her role seriously, buying their father ties and planning his attire for every event, explaining that a polo shirt would be better suited for a ground-breaking at the new library where people wanted to see him get his hands dirty rather than daintily taking a scoop of dirt with a shovel in a starched white shirt.
Blake used to think it was all such a waste of time. Creating an image; a candidate should be voted in for his stance on the issues, not because he held a handful of the community’s soil for a photo op. But, unfortunately, he was all too aware of how quickly and easily a public image could be formed by one click of the camera.
He’d done his best to stay out of the political light, only appearing when necessary and pretending he was in complete agreement with every tax cut and pro-business growth platform his father supported. Blake was tired of this play-acting and he wanted some time to be anonymous. To be himself—whoever that was.
“Have a good drive back.” Blake leaned forward to kiss Amelia on the top of her head. He towered over her, even though she was in heels. He wouldn’t join his mother and sister as they drove back to Mahonia Hall, the ten-thousand square foot Tudor-style mansion his parents moved into after Adam had been elected. It was the house Blake came home to on breaks from college, but it never felt like home. Not like the restored Victorian in the heart of Central Valley where he’d been raised.
Love Me Tender played from the speakers behind him as he made his way to his mother’s side. Adele passed her sister another tissue, then turned, her blue eyes smiling at the sight of him.
“I’m going to go,” he said, wrapping her in a goodbye hug.
“Okay.” She pulled back and put a hand to her throat, her signature move. Anytime she gave a speech rallying support for her favorite causes—funding for research to fight childhood cancers, ending childhood hunger, tougher laws for convicted sex offenders, and obliterating child abuse in the state of Oregon—a trained eye could see that touch of nervousness. Following her closing slogan, “anything to make the world a better place for our children and our children’s children,” her hand would press to her throat as applause swept through the audience. It was the only identifying mark of her underlying insecurities. Her outer shell, crisp and conservative, painted the perfect picture of a congressman’s wife. And now a governor’s wife. And possibly a president’s wife. Throw in a couple of adopted blonde-haired, blue-eyed kids who could pass as the couple’s biological offspring any day of the week, and Adam Anderson had created the perfect family of four to run a solid campaign with.
“Are you sure you don’t want some cake before you go?” Adele asked, placing a hand on his cheek. Her blue eyes threatened to turn to liquid as she tried to stall his exit. The woman single-handedly raised Blake and Amelia while managing all of Adam’s ambitions from afar as he served as a state legislator, a congressman, and the governor. She never complained. She was the glue that held this family together and she was the only one who could change Blake’s mind. All she had to do was say the words and he would leave the past alone. She knew the power she had, Blake was sure of it, and that’s why she never asked him to reconsider, unlike his father and sister. She knew him and she knew what he needed, even if it led him to heartbreak. She was letting him go because she loved him—this he never doubted.
“I already had some,” he said, pulling her hand from his face and grasping it with both of his. He glanced over his shoulder to see Brandi searching the crowd for him. When she found him, her eyes squinted flirtatiously with her smile. It was time to get out of there. “I’ll call you tomorrow, okay?” he quickly added, giving his mother a smile and squeezing her hand.
Adele nodded, her free hand gently touching her throat again before she hugged Blake one more time. The first dance was coming to an end and Blake released his mother before turning for the door.
“Can I get your car for you?” Jeffrey asked, intercepting him.
Blake looked over his shoulder again. “I think I’ll be safer out there than in here.” He gave Jeffrey, who’d been part of his family’s detail since his father became governor, a manly pat on the arm. “Cover me,” he said as Brandi started to make her way to him, like a hungry tigress on the prowl.
Without looking back Blake darted for the door, breathing a sigh of relief as he stepped outside, happy to have made his escape, even if it was into the heat of the late afternoon sun. He loosened the knot in his tie, pulled it from around his neck, and stuffed it in his pocket. Then he opened the top button of his shirt, but it still wasn’t enough to combat the summer sun’s heat. Undoing the buttons of his sleeves he rolled them as he scanned the streets for lurking photographers.
He didn’t see any. The day had been surprisingly free of flashing cameras. It probably had something to do with the rumors that he was in rehab. His father’s staff refused to comment on the lie started by the press, because it really gave them what they wanted and inadvertently took the focus off of them looking for Blake right under their noses.
Crossing the street in a mass of people, he peeled away and descended into the muggy parking garage.
Boxed into his glass booth, the attendant nodded, his gray flecked hair catching in the sunlight. Blake returned the nod as he fished keys from his pocket and unlocked his car. He rolled down the windows, pulled the dark gray BMW sedan out of its space, and drove to the exit.
“It’s gonna be a hot Augus’ nigh’ tonigh’,” the attendant said as Blake handed over his parking stub and credit card. “You got somewhere cool to hang?” The credit card and receipt were held captive in front of the man’s chest as he waited for Blake to speak.
“I sure do, man.” Blake slid his sunglasses into place and put on a relaxed smile, playing it up like he was a cool guy with swagger. The kind of guy who could handle a little front page news coverage. Instead of the quiet non-spotlight seeking person that he was.
“Right on, my man,” the attendant said, boldly flashing his yellowish teeth against the deep ebony of his skin and handed over the receipt. “Stay cool,” he added with a mock salute.
Blake took off out of the garage with no idea where he’d be tonight and hoping his drive to the fertile land of Oregon’s Columbia Valley would not be a mistake.
Ninety minutes later Blake pulled onto the gravel shoulder of a two-lane road in River’s Edge, Oregon. Across from him, the stucco and iron gates of Ramirez Vines sat wide open with a driveway illuminated by lanterns inviting him to pull in. But the colorful balloons and lights shining from a building up on the hill kept him on the outside. Someone was having a party and he wasn’t invited. This would not be the end of the road for him tonight.
The thin thread of information the private detective he hired had found in connection to his birth mother led him here…to this vineyard. The possibility that someone beyond those gates held a clue to his origin burned in his heart. At eighteen, his request to solicit information about the woman who’d given him up came back with nothing, but that still didn’t stop his desire to know who she was. He’d waited years to discover where he’d come from, to understand what made him so different from the family that raised him.
Sitting here in the falling night with the possibility of an answer so close tickled his toes with anticipation. But one thing he learned growing up was that there was a time and a place for everything and this was not the moment to drive onto the vineyard and start asking questions.
He glanced up and down the country road wondering if the silhouetted features were familiar to the woman who gave him life or if this place would be as strange to her as it was to him. It was the same feeling he had growing up when he went to the library or the grocery store in Central Valley where he was adopted and raised. Had she been here? Sat in this chair? Walked down this aisle?
He let those questions rally in his brain as he remembered looking into the faces of strange women, wondering if one of them was the woman who gave him life. Through his adolescence it haunted him, but not Amelia. She said she never wanted to know the woman who gave her up. All she needed to know about the woman who donated her womb to grow her for someone else was listed on the family medical history form their parents received at the hospital.
He felt differently.
Scanning the road from east to west one more time, he decided it was time to move on. The sun was about to disappear completely. He needed to find his way into town and a place to rest his head for the night.
Blake picked up his cell phone and waited for it to respond, so he could locate the nearest hotel. Nothing but a slashed-out circle blinked back at him.
Headlights slipped down the driveway of Ramirez Vines and stopped outside the gates. A man jumped from the truck and jogged across the road to Blake’s car.
Blake rolled down his window.
The man, not much older than Blake, bent over and rested his hands on his knees. “You okay out here?” he asked from beneath the brim of a ball cap that sported the same vine entwined R and V logo posted at the gates.
“Yeah,” he said, returning the guy’s smile. “I’m trying to figure out how to get to town from here, but my phone won’t pick up a signal.”
“Service is pretty spotty out here. You’ve got to make it to higher ground for a signal.” The man glanced back over his shoulder, looking up at the lighted building on the hill. Blake’s stomach butterflied as he anticipated an invitation. The man turned back; “You’ll want to turn around and head back that way.” He pointed behind the car. “When the road comes to a T, turn right. Six or seven miles up the road, before you hit the highway, will be a sign for town. Take that left and it will bring you right onto Main Street.”
“Sounds easy enough,” Blake said, mild disappointment creeping in. “Thank you. I really appreciate it.” He set his phone down as the man backed away.
“No, problem,” he called before turning back toward his truck.
Blake raised the window of his sedan and waved as the man climbed into his truck. He pulled back onto the two-lane road heading away from town, hoping to find a place to turn around soon.
It didn’t take long. Up ahead on the left was a driveway and Blake signaled to turn in.
When the car tires hit gravel the headlights gleamed over a sign that looked like it had been there for years. Black painted letters, splintered by flaking chips read, Help Wanted.