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“Listen, I’m about to walk into a meeting, uh…” I stutter into the phone as I enter the Fortemani office building, vaguely recalling the name of the woman currently lying in my bed at home. Lara, Farrah… Maybe, Tara?
It’s on the tip of my tongue.
“Dante,” she all but purrs as I enter the lobby. “Come back to bed. I’ll make it worth your while.”
These quarterly business meetings with my mother and siblings are an exhaustingly performative protocol. Instead of dressing up—well, they do—driving here, and wasting two hours, this could’ve easily been a conference call. But for my older brother Stefano, boy-genius turned silver-haired savant, it’s the pomp and ceremony he loves. He’s got my two younger siblings, Chiara and Marcello, hanging on his every word, and Mom sides with him on every family decision.
So, yeah, my ideas will be ignored. Any contribution I make will be downplayed in the face of his ego. I tend to relegate these meetings to catching up on emails and sports.
I could still climb back in bed with Maybe Tara…
Running my hand slowly over my scalp, I glance back at the door.
If I don’t show, though, Stefano will blow a gasket, and I’ll have to hear about it from Mom for the next however long…
Stef’s been ragging on me for months. Years, really. Get my head in the game. Show some respect for our late father and Nono. What would they think about me traipsing through life without a care in the world for anyone but myself?
Honestly, it’s not worth it.
“Babe,” I reply. “I’d love to come back. You’ve got no idea how much I really want to come back…”
Jesus, what is this woman’s name?
The Suggested Contacts option would be great right about now. Anyway, I’m about to ask Maybe Tara, I think it is, to stay put while I duck out of the meeting early but as I take easy strides through the lobby, I notice someone holding the elevator door for me.
And wow is she holding it…
“Baby, I need you,” Maybe Tara pleads in my ear.
Except, my attention is fully focused in front of me.
“I’ll uh, give you a call sometime soon, yeah?”
I end the call, despite her exaggerated groan, and rush toward the elevator.
“You’re a lifesaver,” I say, taking in the full picture of a stunning young Latina with a pleasant smile and a sleek purple dress molded to her break-neck curves.
By the time the doors open on the third floor in a plume of her sweet flowery perfume, I’ve got a dinner date for the evening with Alina the gymnast. She’s a certified baddie. So much so, that I slip my phone into my jeans pocket and watch approvingly as she saunters her tight little body down the hall.
Even after she’s gone, I’m feeling pumped.
Until I round the corner.
Here’s the thing about the Fortemani Enterprises conference room. It’s housed in a converted bank vault in a downtown Healdsburg office building located near Michelin-starred restaurants, shops, spas, and world-class wineries. It’s the sort of place where, usually, my forty-five-year-old momma’s boy brother gets caught up in the ritz and affluence of the area and skips brainstorming fresh ideas. Instead, he predictably recaps the family’s astronomical wealth and conglomerate of companies.
Today, though, as I enter and settle in my chair beside Mom at the head of the table? Nothing but pin-drop silence.
I flip my wrist to check the time.
How is it that I’m only twenty minutes late and they look like they’ve been settled in for an hour?
“Good morning, everyone,” I say, glancing around the table.
A round of obligatory greetings are tossed at me, but that’s it.
My younger brother Marcello’s expression is giving “you’ve done it this time” vibes. But even if I’m in trouble—and I can’t remember the last time I wasn’t on our older brother’s shit list—Chiara would’ve given me a heads-up.
Our business meetings are the last business day of the last month of the quarter. In December, though, she was off on vacation with her boyfriend, Lamar, and I spent time in Vegas. So, we rescheduled. With New Year’s falling on a Saturday, we opted for the first Tuesday.
By the looks of things, Chiara hasn’t been scolded yet, so travel isn’t the reason.
Racking my brain, I figure it’s got to be about business.
It’s always about business with Stef.
Let’s see, it’s mid-January, so, they’re either discussing year-end numbers, taxes, or new initiatives. Only, we’ve got until April to deal with taxes and Stefano’s Profit and Loss spreadsheets and graphs aren’t on the screen, so…
Reluctantly, I shift my attention from Mom, dressed in her signature bright pink tweed Chanel suit and hair laid smoothly against her warm brown skin, directly across the table to Stef in a crisp black-on-white suit, seated at her side. Very fitting, for her right hand, I think as he catches my gaze and holds it.
“Dante, we’re gearing up to delve into our next order of business, change initiatives. We want to take a strong stance this year to improve performance and achieve organizational objectives.”
Not even the slightest bit interested.
“And we’re certain we want to…” Chiara breaks off, her tone hardened as she glances at me. Then she shoots Stef a pointed look, redirecting. “You really think we should move forward with this?”
Apparently, we’re picking up where they left off before I arrived.
Stef’s expression tightens.
What is going on?
I turn to Mom.
She lifts the packet I’ve only now noticed in front of her. “Page three, darling,” she says sweetly, signaling for me to follow along.
As I oblige though, flipping the cover page of my brother’s Quarterly Business Plan, I’m not really looking at first. Until the bold, corporate-style words pop out at me. “Broader Goals,” “Hard metrics,” “Customer health index,” and “Benchmarking data with competitors.”
Then, I zero in on all the red on the quarterly trends report on page two. Trailing all the other businesses is Fortemani Vineyard & Winery.
“Last I checked, we don’t gamble on the things that matter…” Chiara adds.
There isn’t a self-conscious bone in my sister’s body. Growing up with three brothers, she’s got thick skin. She learned a whole hell of a lot of fighting skills—literally and figuratively. Chiara’s patient, but she levels with us because she knows how to hold her own and demands respect.
Hence, my confusion when she defers to Stef on any decision…
I shoot her a questioning glance.
If I were sitting anywhere else in the room, I might’ve missed it but the panic behind her hazel eyes gives me pause. Briefly, I shift my attention back to the packet, now curious and fully invested in this business review if it’s got my tough-as-nails sister shook.
“I’m sorry, what initiative is it that we’re moving forward with?” I look up as Mom and Stefano exchange a loaded glance.
In my periphery, Marcello sighs and winds his finger in circles, signaling for them to wrap up whatever this silent showdown is.
But my focus is on Stefano’s stiff posture as he runs a hand over the salt-and-pepper stubble dusted on his jaw.
I feel my face twist in annoyance.
“Goddammit, Stef, spit it out!”
“Look, it’s not an easy decision but we all agree that it’s the right one,” he says, still being purposely vague. He leans forward, flattening his large palms on the table before he shares another loaded look with Mom.
Stern-faced, she nods, and finally, my brother relents. But not without milking it for his own satisfaction.
“Quarter after quarter, you show up late wearing jeans and Timberlands, and pretend to listen to us discuss the family businesses. Like we don’t know you’re checking emails and Warriors game highlights. Lining up nightly bedwarmers…” Enough with the dramatics, already. “Meanwhile, while you were off galivanting on benders in Vegas and flirting with every skirt that crosses your path, the vineyard’s numbers have steadily dwindled right under your nose.”
A wave of guilt washes over me when I consider Maybe Tara, possibly lying in my bed, and my date tonight with the gymnast…Alyssa? Alana?
“The vineyard is fine,” I say, flopping back on my chair, visibly relieved. “It’ll bounce back. Always does.”
“Except it hasn’t.” Stef fixes his intense gaze on me. His tone takes on an impatient lilt as he scratches his temple. “Dante, you live on the family estate. Smack dab in the middle of acres of the best soils and vines in Napa County. Yet you can’t bring yourself to go out to the fields anymore…”
A fresh bout of annoyance stirs in my belly.
“Wow, good to know you’re concerned about my well-being.”
“That’s not fair.” Stefano releases a heavy sigh.
Of all people, he knows I can’t go out there.
The same way he secured this office space because he “couldn’t work” from the estate after we lost Dad, I can’t work in the fields. While Stef, at twelve, was hanging around Dad’s office with a briefcase and tie, pretending to run numbers, I was half his age, out there in the fields with Nono. Always, by his side, working the soil and roots, learning the tradition of winemaking. The traditions of generations of our family.
I still feel them out there.
“Look, I’ll level with you. We know you’re hurting. We all are. Have been for the three years we’ve been without them.” He clears his throat, having, in that one sentence, filled his vulnerability quota for the year. “You’ve got to start moving on in a real way—a healthy way. If you can stop bedding every twenty-something woman you meet long enough to focus on the business—”
“Great advice, you really dug down deep for that one.” Sarcasm drips from my tone.
“And no more avoiding your feelings.” He ignores me, staying the course of concerned older brother who, somehow, I only hear from when he’s confirming my attendance at these quarterly meetings. “You can’t focus on the rearview and embrace the future.”
The thing about Stefano, he’s got a half-dozen years on me, so he thinks he knows me. Sure, over the years, he begrudgingly dragged me along to a few parties and had my back on the playground. But he’s also the same guy who broke my toys and stole my girlfriend. Twice. So, would anyone messing with him have to deal with me? Absolutely. Do I also, on a quarterly basis, want to pull him into a headlock for being a stubborn ass who always thinks he knows best? That’d be a hard yes.
“So, what are you saying, you’re getting rid of the vineyard?” I bark out a laugh, up to here with my brother’s superiority complex.
The humor seems to escape everyone else, though.
We stare at each other for a beat, and I look away first. Back to the packet. Back to…
As I flip the page, zeroing in on the words restructure and sell, Mom presses a hand to her heart.
“Darling, we received an offer on the vineyard, and we’re strongly considering it.” Her tone is soft, careful. Evidently, for my sake.
Panic surges through me as I scrutinize their faces. That’s what this whole production’s been about. Breaking the news to me.
“You all can’t be fucking serious.” I laugh but Mom reaches out and rests her hand on mine.
The comforting gesture should anchor me, but the room spins. The walls close in on me, and I’m dizzy. In a matter of seconds, all the air in my chest vacuums out of me. I feel nothing and everything. Numb, betrayed, shocked. Above all, I’m fighting mad.
I slap my hands on the desk, needing the cool wood to steady me.
God, I want to throat-punch Stef.
He’s older, but I can take him.
“Tell me again, how concerned you are about the future of the family business, Stef. Because I’m listening. I’m sure Dad and Nono are, too.”
He scoffs, resorting to his usual cocky smile and steepled hands on the table. Heaven forbid Perfect Stefano Fortemani break a sweat or humor me when it comes to staking a fucking “For Sale” sign on our goddamned legacy.
“Chiara, you’re on board with this, too? Marcello?”
Heat creeps up from my neck to my cheeks.
I’m met with more silence.
“Got it.” I nod, fuming. “The entire family is A-okay with tossing out our legacy.”
How did we get this far removed from the roots of our businesses? We’ve got a family-owned two-hundred-plus-year-old vineyard that’s spawned a successful conglomerate of restaurants, delis, and a winery. At its core, Fortemani Enterprises is about generations who labored for our legacy and so people could celebrate with great wine. Yet, my brother, and apparently everyone else at this table, is fixed on quarterly trends.
It always comes down to the almighty dollar, right Stef?
I’m halfway off my chair when I remember something my buddy Marco said, trying to convince me to wear a suit a couple meetings ago. Stef needs to know you mean business. Nine-to-five guys like him can’t comprehend anything beyond the desk.
No matter how pissed I am at them, I can’t walk away.
As the firstborn, Stefano has always been the overachieving leader of the pack. First to college, marriage, homeownership. After we lost Dad, he’d already learned the ropes of the vineyard’s ownership and management, so naturally, he stepped up to help our grandfather. Then, Nono passed, too. Stefano became the self-appointed “man of the family”—a role which, somehow, Marcello and I must’ve missed in the memos attached to the obituaries.
I get it, though.
He’s reliable, structured, and cautious. He’s also tunnel-visioned in his approach to business.
His idea of success centers around money, prestige, and lofty outlooks.
I don’t need tailored sports coats and slacks to dig my hands in the soil or work the vines. Even if lately I’ve only been overseeing the fields and not in them. Everything I stand for is about our family, our roots. That’s our legacy.
If we’re gambling with our history, might as well go all in.
“What if I come up with a proposal to revitalize the vineyard? Get the place back in the black…”
Under the table, Chiara knocks her knee into mine.
It’s watered down, since she left me in the hot seat to battle Stef, but as the two middle children, we’ve had to constantly lobby to be heard.
“Dante, it’s not that—”
“Then what is it?” I search his eyes. “Because it’s not high on your priority list, you want to see hundreds of years of work go down the drain? You can’t bear to transfer money from one bank account to another? I’ll do it. I’m the one who lives on the land, making sure it’s here for the next generation.”
He winces, and I know it’s not about money or me moving past Nono.
My chest rises and falls but I bite my tongue. Stefano and his wife Carina have been trying for years to get pregnant. There may not be another generation to pass the vineyard to…
The thought locks me in a vice grip, my heart racing as I scrutinize his graying curls. The hardened jaw. His pursed lips.
Is that what this is about?
“Look, Stef… If you’re worried about the future of the vin—”
“I’m not worried,” he bites out.
“All right, now let’s all calm down before we say something we can’t take back,” Mom reasons.
But I don’t care.
If we—and I say we because there are five of us at this table—sit here and say nothing while we lose this vineyard that represents everything our family is down to its core, there’ll be nothing left to say.
Then Mom centers her gaze on me.
“What did you expect?” Her tone is low and sympathetic, which makes her words sting that much more. “Darling, we’ve got nine other profitable businesses. Are we supposed to let this one bleed us dry for sentimental value? It simply doesn’t make good business sense.”
“Right, business is all it ever was to you.”
As soon as I say the words, I wish I could take them back. Mom deserves better. My mother, a Black woman who married into an Italian family and upcycled a small vineyard into a conglomerate of thriving companies. To date, we’re in the best position, financially, that we’ve ever been. Even through the loss of both Nono three years ago, and seven years ago the love of her life, her best friend, she keeps the family name alive.
It’s unfair to discount any of that.
“I’m sorry, Mom. I’m just confused. You’ll put time, effort, and money into the other businesses but not the one that started it all? We’ve got to give it a fighting chance.”
“Darling, it’s going to take more than small fix-ups to make the vineyard what it was. Even more than that to save it. You asked for this project. You own this project”—project—“What have you done with it?”
“I hear what you’re saying, and I’m telling you—”
Mom rifles through the packet, flipping pages, and shaking her head. “What is it that you’re asking for, so once and for all we can get this off the table?”
“Mother…” The muscles at the sides of Stefano’s jaw jut out as we watch her stop on a page halfway down the stack and slowly drag her finger over a bold section. “It’s already been decided. We confirmed the listing appointment with the Realtor.”
My phone trembles over the table, and four sets of eyes snap to it before they eye me expectantly.
It’s probably a call from Maybe Tara or the gymnast, or some other woman I’d usually be texting during these meetings. But how can I focus on going back to bed after this or dinner tonight when this moment feels like it’s all that matters?
Pressing the side button to silence the vibration, I meet Mom’s stare again.
She lifts her chin.
“I’m not asking for much.” I sidestep my brother’s comment, hanging on to this tiny seed of hope. “A hundred and fifty thousand, a hundred—”
“Fifty,” she says. “You’ve got until the next quarterly meeting to present us with your proposal. Then, we’ll take another vote.”
And that’s it.
Victoria Fortemani has spoken.
I’m bolstered, though only slightly vindicated. I’ve got two and a half months and limited funds to find a way to reintroduce Fortemani Vineyard & Winery to the world, and I’ve got no clue how I’m going to do it.
End of Excerpt