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Reading Josh Lanyon's A Vintage Affair was like being dropped into a skewed version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams and the 1944 film Arsenic and Old Lace. If you have a thing for wine or the old south, you'll love this story.

A Top Pick, Night Owl Reviews
Message in a bottle…
Somewhere in the cobwebbed cellar of the decrepit antebellum mansion known as Ballineen are the legendary Lee bottles — and Austin Gillespie is there to find them. The last thing on his mind is hot and heavy romance with handsome bad boy Jeff Brady. But Jeff has other ideas and, after one intoxicating night, so does Austin.

Austin turned his attention to the wine racks. He lifted a bottle from the nearest shelf and gingerly wiped the dust away to study the label. His heart jumped.

A 1970 Chateau La Gaffelière. The La Gaffelière was a Bordeaux that generally aged well. The 1970 should still be powerful with a good tannin structure. This was a very promising start. Austin returned the bottle to its cradle and looked around for something to wipe the dust off his hands. He should have worn jeans and a sweatshirt, that was obvious, but he preferred to introduce himself to the client looking as professional as possible. He wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty, but that came later.

Gingerly wiping his hands on an oil-stained rag, he moved along the tall racks, looking but not touching.

Cheval Blanc, Gruaud-Larose, DRC, Lafitte, Mouton. Oh yes. This was most definitely worth the trip from DC. Austin could admit now he’d had his doubts when he’d learned Martyn, North & Compeau had been hired to catalog and evaluate the late Dermot Cashel’s extensive wine cellar. He’d even suspected Whitney might be trying to get him out of town in order to further his own plans for bringing his girlfriend onboard.

But this was the real thing. Even without the Holy Grail of the legendary Lee bottles, this was an appraisal Austin wouldn’t have trusted to anyone else.

And if the Lee bottles really did exist?

If they did exist it was going to be fun trying to find them. As far as Austin could tell, there was no rhyme or reason to the way the shelves had been organized. Bottles of whites and reds were mixed — as were years and vineyards.

He reined in his impatience to delve and returned to the card table, where he switched on his laptop and watched the screen for a wireless connection. No signal. Not even the promise of a signal. Austin sighed. Annoying not to be able to access his e-mail, but he could do that at the hotel this evening. He clicked on the document file he’d saved to his hard drive and glanced over his notes.

The spreadsheet before him was his own rough effort at estimating the contents of the Ballineen cellar based on the crinkled, purple ruled sheets of notepaper he’d received from Whitney. He’d deliberately underestimated. The purple stationery and nearly illegible writing did not induce confidence. But even underestimating — and not counting in the Lee bottles — the Ballineen cellar added up to a treasury.

If by some miracle the Lee bottles were here, the chances of their being the real thing were slim. Who could forget the drama of the Jefferson bottles in the 1980s? The greatest wine hoax ever? The very thought of another Jefferson’s bottles was enough to raise the hair on the back of his neck. Not many careers could have withstood that hit. His own would have hit the reef for sure. Fortunately, in 1985 Austin had been four years old and rarely drank anything stronger than Yoohoo.

But had the Jefferson bottles been the real thing? That was the seduction, wasn’t it? The allure. Because wine wasn’t merely a beverage. Wine was history and art and romance and civility and culture…and maybe a bit of magic.

Austin moved his cursor down the spreadsheet noting quantities and then glanced at the towering shelves around him. It was probably going to be easier to take it shelf by shelf, listing the contents and location and then matching it against the inventory sheets.

Especially since the cellar wasn’t kept locked. For all he knew the family had been enjoying the Lee bottles with their fried chicken dinners over the four weeks since Dermot Cashel’s death. It was a sickening thought, but it had to be faced. Austin was pretty sure from what he’d seen of the self-titled “daughter of the house,” she wouldn’t know a bottle of Montrachet from a bottle of Asti Spumante. There was no reason to hope the rest of the clan were any more savvy.

Not that there was anything wrong with drinking what you liked to drink — or not drinking at all, for that matter. Austin really wasn’t that much of a wine snob, and growing up in Harrison Gillespie’s house had been all about learning restraint. Moderation in all things was one of his father’s guiding principles — except when it came to marriage.

As a matter of fact, good old Robert E. Lee himself hadn’t been much of a drinker. Lee had put his thoughts about the use of liquor in writing: “My experience through life has convinced me that, while moderation and temperance in all things are commendable and beneficial, abstinence from spirituous liquors is the best safeguard of morals and health.”

Austin pulled a legal pad and pen out of his laptop case. He mapped the cellar floor plan and layout, sketched the shelving units, and labeled each one: A, B, C, and so on. He numbered the individual shelves.

At least the thick stone walls of the cellar ensured that the temperature remained cool and stable.

Shrugging out of his jacket, he hung it over the back of the folding chair, rolled his sleeves up, and loosened his tie. He picked up the pad and pen and moved to the first shelf.

Forty minutes later his hair, shirt and shoes were covered in dust, and the palms of his hands were black. He had never worked on quite so cruddy a site. It was bad enough that he considered going back to his hotel and changing then and there, but it was a thirty-minute drive back to the town of Madison.

The smell of insecticide was fading, only to be replaced by something worse. Far worse. What was that?

It smelled like something had died down here.

Austin continued to work — he was on the bottom row of the first shelf — but he began to feel queasy. The smell was truly awful. Did they keep the garbage bins down here? Or were the canned goods going bad?

He put down the pad and pen, and wandered back through the maze of tall shelves and racks. The light dimmed the further he moved into the recess of the cellar. He was going to need a flashlight when he worked back here. The back portion was nearly in darkness. The shelves and broken furniture threw bizarre geometric shadows against the dingy walls.

Austin’s sense of unease, of disquiet, mounted. At the end of the furthest aisle, he stopped and peered more closely at the floor. It was hard to tell in the poor light, but it looked like.

What was that?

He took a hesitant step forward.

Something white and waxen rested in the aisle. It sort of looked like a hand stretching out from behind the very last shelf.

Austin stopped.

Yes, it looked like a hand: palm up, fingers outstretched.

He moved warily, reluctantly, forward another step.

It was a hand. A man’s hand. Not just a hand, because it was attached to a wrist and what the wrist might be attached to was concealed by the tall shelving.

“Hello?”

His voice sounded nervous in the cavernous chill of the cellar.

He took another unhappy step forward. He could now make out gray fingernails and dark hair on the back of curled fingers. He could see every detail it seemed, every freckle, every hangnail — not that there were any hangnails for this man’s hand was manicured. He could see the glint of a gold watch too. It was as though Austin had suddenly developed bionic vision. Time seemed to slow as he took another dragging step forward.

“Are you all right?” he asked.

He already knew the answer to that. No one who was all right had gray fingernails and skin the color of wax. No one who was all right was that motionless.

The toe of his shoe stopped a couple of centimeters from the lax fingers. Austin closed his eyes, opened them, and made himself look around the corner of the shelf.

The man lay on his back. He was middle-aged. Maybe older. His clothes — expensive clothes — were rumpled and dirty. He needed a shave. His mouth was slack and open, his lips blue-gray. His black hair was mussed and had fallen in his dull, sunken eyes. He stared sightlessly up at Austin.