The Fortemani Family, Book 2
Release Date:

Jun 11, 2024

ISBN:

978-1-962707-29-9

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The Wedding Crush

by

Mia Heintzelman

Stefano Fortemani is starting over. The eldest of four, he’s always led by example—business school, marriage, homeownership, and now… divorce. He spends his days managing the family’s vineyard, listening to self-help podcasts, and lamenting his gray hair. He should be moving on like his ex-wife. Unfortunately, he has no idea how.

Avery Ellis, event planner, widow, and single mom, has learned the hard way to find the flowers among the weeds. When her best friend taps Avery for wedding planner and maid of honor, she’s thrilled. Until she learns the best man is none other than the fiancé’s prickly, albeit sexy, silver fox of an older brother.

As the two work together to create a magical wedding day on the Fortemani vineyard, one-word spats, sweet wine, and unexpected fun lead to glimpses of shared passion, purpose, and old wounds. But, just as Stefano embraces the silver lining of his clouded past, Avery harbors a new secret that could change everything. Will these two guarded hearts open up to let love in again?

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CHAPTER ONE

Stefano

No one ever told me getting married meant getting used to gray hair.

One day, I was saying “I do,” and we were in love and ridiculously happy. Then suddenly everything that used to be funny and adorable set her off, and another gray strand appeared. But I wasn’t worried because I had my person, and we were growing old together.

Now, twelve years later, the ink isn’t even dry on my divorce decree, I’ve got the same face—plus or minus a few laugh lines—and a full head of salt-and-pepper curls that I can’t tell whether they make me look distinguished or just older.

I adjust the rearview mirror, leaning in to examine my hairline before I turn up the volume on the “Confidence and Cologne” podcast I’d been listening to on the drive here to the vineyard. This episode aptly is titled, “Grieving, Graying, and Getting Back Out There.”

At least it’s not thinning.

Johnny Timmons’s laugh filters through my speakers like he knows my secret.

“The thing is, after my divorce, I used to be hopeless with women. Like, so bad.” He chuckles. “If there was a Don’t Do XYZ or Risk Turning Off Every Woman in a 100-Mile Radius list, I would’ve been the poster child. Women didn’t want me because I was forthright about my faults to a fault…”

I deflate back against my headrest.

Good God.

I should probably table this episode for now.

Currently, I’m parked in the brush, off the steps of my family’s vineyard, not even five hundred feet away from the massive silk-lined tent on the main lawn. It’s teeming with my three siblings, friends, and most of Napa’s nobility.

They’re all here to celebrate the matriarch of our family.

Not that Mother does any event on a small scale. Today, though, we’re marking the occasion of Victoria Fortemani’s sixty-fifth spin around the sun, appropriately with an outrageously lavish high tea.

It’s more than chamomile and crustless cucumber sandwiches. There’ll be a full catering army ready to serve and tend to Mother’s every whim. A long, single fifty-seater table will be dressed in white linen with fine china, bustling purple peony centerpieces, and collectible teapots. There’ll be dessert and sandwich towers for guests to nibble on as they chat about every salacious piece of gossip they can get their hands on.

That’s what I’m worried about.

The Gossip Set loves nothing more than spilling tea about business, real estate, weddings, divorces, who’s dating who.

After my ex-wife Carina’s post this morning, they won’t want to talk about—or celebrate—anyone else.

Why waste time chatting up the belle of the ball over scones and jam? Why not speculate about her eldest son making his debut back into society as an unmarried man on the day that his ex posts a picture holding hands with a younger, more athletic, virile man without a gray strand in sight?

“Jesus, why do I even care?”

Because I failed our marriage, maybe? Because I failed her? Because she deserves happiness, even if I couldn’t give it to her?

“Goddammit. You had to post this today, Carina?”

Glancing at the time on my dashboard, a full-chested sigh works its way through me.

Just a few more minutes.

I scrape my hand through my graying curls then tune back in to Johnny.

“What I’m saying is, confidence isn’t just attractive to women,” Johnny says before he clarifies. “It’s the MOST attractive thing to women.”

Whether I want to listen to this guy’s “instant results with women” spiel or not, my ears perk up.

I’m hiding in my car to spare Mother my drama and avoid answering questions about the state of my love life (spoiler: it’s in shambles), and Carina is moving on. She’s dating and holding hands with an oil-slicked Instagram fitness model, and I’m getting self-help advice from a motivational speaker wearing an inordinate amount of hair gel.

So, yeah, I’m a little insecure.

“Conversation skills are important.” Johnny’s voice weaves into my headspace. It’s like he’s talking directly to me, as if he all but whispers, Stefano Fortemani you’ve got to learn how to talk to women again.

Which just feels rude.

A voiceover sound effect punctuates his point with, I’m listening, honey, and Johnny’s groan bleeds into a laugh.

“All women want to do is talk. It’s how they show they care, which means you need to learn how to actively listen and hold an engaging conversation. Period,” he advises.

A pang of nostalgia settles in the pit of my stomach, remembering how Carina wanted to download about everything from the meals she ate to the man who cut her off on the freeway.

She’s probably telling everything to Mr. Instagram now.

“Yes, looks matter, too. No woman wants a guy who needs a relationship with a barber more than he needs one with her. Get some new threads and some cologne, too. This is permission to spend money on yourself.” I let my gaze drift over my pale gray, starched suit and burgundy tie, feeling vindicated about my tailored suit wardrobe before he clears his throat edging toward seriousness. “At the end of the day, though, it comes down to mental and emotional strength. It’s nonnegotiable. Your confidence has been knocked, but you’ve got a decision. Do you want to win her back or do you want to explore sexual and romantic relationships with—”

“Jesus Christ—”

The Lord’s name dies on my tongue as I swivel around to my window, blinking slowly.

It’s not my brothers, Dante or Marcello, rapping on the glass. Nor is it Mother or my sister, Chiara. Instead, they’ve sent Dante’s live-in girlfriend Morgan’s overprotective best friend, Avery Ellis, to summon me.

You can’t be serious.

“Hi there!” She beams, tossing me a small wave as the inflection in her voice rises cheerily, expectantly.

She’s waiting for me to return the greeting or at the least, acknowledge her. Which, now, I’m incapable of doing. I’m frozen, still clutching my chest, and futilely trying to make sense of a woman who is the human equivalent of a Rubik’s cube—colorful, marketed for youthful fun, but mind-boggling.

Why is she here?

I’m just about to ask why she’s snooping around the circular drive when the party is on the main lawn, right as Johnny doubles down.

“Don’t wait to get back out there. Date, have sex… Lots of sex.”

Panic streaks through me as I watch Avery’s sparkly brown eyes widen with amusement.

Heat swarms my skin as I jolt around, reaching for my phone to stop the podcast.

Except, when I tap the button to pause it, I hit it too many times and it repeats, impossibly loud like a commandment.

“Date, have sex… Loooottttssss of sexxxx!”

Embarrassment coils around. I feel like my ribs are closing in on my heart when I turn back in time to see her lips twitching.

“Uh…that was just, um…” I stammer, but Avery, the saint that she is, finishes my sentence.

“Some grade-A messaging you’ve got there.” She giggles, and the infectious sound… Dear sweet Lord, it’s like gasoline on fire, burning me up from the inside.

My skin tightens and flames singe my eyes and cheeks.

The thing about this woman is that she’s insufferable.

Oh, Avery “sunshine all the time” Ellis is nice. Too nice, as in Pollyanna, traipsing through the meadow to solve all the world’s problems. For her, life is literally a party. She’s an event planner. Weddings, anniversaries, quinceañeras, any excuse for a celebration. In fact, high tea is her brainchild, which she pulled off in less than three weeks after Mother canned her Bermuda trip.

Avery to the rescue!

Deep down, I know she’s one of those perky people who, at the end of an interview when asked about what she thinks her weaknesses are, gives a glaringly false negative. I’m too detail-oriented. I’ve got checklists for everything. I always forget when the workday is over.

Give me a break.

Miss punctual, professional, beautiful, gets along with everyone, and she’s fiercely loyal.

Which…that’s where we butted heads from the start.

When it comes to her Sister Circle—Seneca, Monica, Valerie, and Morgan, Dante’s girlfriend—Avery Ellis is a ruthless warrior. Much the way I am for my siblings, what she’ll do for them is limitless. Loyalty is the only thing we’ve got in common, which Avery learned firsthand over the last six months.

She’s completely blown it out of proportion now, but in January, after my family realized we were losing Dante to grief, I helped Mother orchestrate a diabolical family hoax, threatening to sell the vineyard.

Now, I know that sounds horrible.

Who goes to those extreme lengths to prank their brother who’s already struggling with the loss of his father and grandfather?

Only loved ones who know they’ve got to do something drastic to light a fire under him to pull him out of said grief, that’s who.

It was out of love, and there was nothing he wouldn’t do to save our two-hundred-plus-year-old vineyard and winery, so we took our shot, and it paid off.

Big time.

At Dante’s first event meant to draw crowds, he met and ended up contracting Morgan’s business consultant firm. They fell deeply in love in the process and the rest is history.

Except, Avery still harbors resentment toward me since her best friend’s relationship could’ve been the collateral damage of our risky gamble.

It wasn’t, but it could have been, she reminds me every time we see each other.

Now, this woman who I’ve clashed with from the second we met, is snooping outside my window in the sweltering midday heat, right when the word “sex” is broadcast to the hilltops?

I’m mortified.

But also, cautiously curious why she’s here.

I flit a quick glance at my phone to ensure the podcast app is closed before I straighten and clear my throat.

“How can I help you, Avery?”

Who better to practice that nonnegotiable confidence on than a woman intent on questioning me?

She steps closer and I get my first good look at our sparkly-eyed sunshine warrior, fittingly wearing a bold yellow-and-white polka dot sundress with her sleek blonde lace-front swept over her sun-kissed shoulders. It’s perfect for high tea on a bright, summer afternoon.

No surprise there.

Avery Ellis is perfect in every way, right?

Call me cynical, but I’ve found most people aren’t trustworthy. Generally, they’re not bad but no one is nice or selfless all the time. Not without ulterior motives. And there’s always, always a catch.

“Hi, Stefano.” Avery’s tone is upbeat and clear as she bounces on her heels. “I didn’t mean to interrupt your self-help podcast, or anything…” You’re thoroughly enjoying this, aren’t you? “But everyone was looking for you inside the tent, so I volunteered to look around, and bring you back if I found you.”

I cut the engine and step out onto the gravel.

“Looks like you did. Great job.”

That was a bit harsh.

I stand to my full height, and shut the door behind me, taking my time to press my hands over the wrinkles in my pants.

As Avery glances over her shoulder toward the path that leads to the main lawn, though, my focus zeros in on the thin laugh lines, crinkling around her full, sweeping eyelashes. I watch as they slowly smooth, and she lowers her gaze. I catalogue how her delicate bronze shoulders curl over her chest, and I immediately hate that my default response with Avery is always on the defensive side.

“So, how’s the party going?” I ask, hoping to put her love of talking to use while we walk toward the main lawn since my conversation skills clearly need work.

I’m fishing.

Are they drinking tea or spilling it? Both? Is it about me and Carina? Am I blowing this whole Instagram post out of proportion? How’s my confidence? Do women even notice me anymore?

Wait, what?

“Oh, my goodness, it’s like a dream in there. It’s elegant and charming, and the food and the English tea sandwiches…” Avery moans, clearly unaffected by me or my fishing bait. “And Victoria is having a ball.”

So, maybe no one has seen the post yet.

Cool relief rushes through me and my stride quickens. Suddenly, the tension in my shoulders loosens and I feel lighter, giddy. I’m impressed. The corners of my mouth tug downward, lower lip protruding. I’m nodding to myself as the larger-than-life white tent beams into the path before us.

Yes, this is good.

“Now, English tea sandwiches, you say? Are those the ones with the smoked salmon—”

I toss her a sidelong glance just as she stumbles over a clump of grass. She tips forward, and I grab her elbow, steadying her on her feet.

We’re stopped just short of the tent’s entrance.

Her chest rises and falls like she’s self-soothing.

“You all right, there?” I ask, inspecting her dress, making sure she’s okay before we join the party. “Still perfect.”

Her bright brown eyes snap to mine.

But then, slowly, she squares her shoulders to me, and closes the distance between us.

Our proximity hits me head-on, and I’m frozen.

“Thank you,” she says, quietly.

Before I know what’s happening, she reaches up and straightens my tie, and I’m blindsided.

A woman who isn’t my wife—ex-wife—is touching me.

I don’t know how to respond, or if I should.

But my body does.

On an instinctual level, every inch of my body reacts. I’m unnerved by the intimacy of Avery’s touch, and she’s only adjusting my tie. I’m zeroed in on the ease with which she moves. How comfortable she is as she smooths her hands along the lapels and shoulders of my suit jacket as if she’s done this a million times. As if each slow drag of delicate fingers over the invisible wrinkles doesn’t set my skin ablaze through the taut fabric.

My breathing shallows, coming in tiny staccato gasps as I scrutinize the soft curves of her face.

I didn’t make any hard and fast vows to “never date another woman again.” Honestly, I’m still coming to terms with the fact that my marriage failed. My confidence is knocked. I’ve been out of the dating game so long. Do I even remember how to approach women? Will they want me when my divorce is so recent? What if I get rejected? What if I don’t have the stamina? Jesus, what if gray hair is an instant deal-breaker?

I don’t have all the answers yet, but I know I don’t want to spend the rest of my life pretending it doesn’t feel good to have a beautiful woman’s hands on me.

“Listen, Stefano.” Avery steps back, her gaze softening, searching. “I know you’ve got a lot going on personally….”

“Let me guess, you saw the post.” Avery hums her agreement and I shrug it off because of course she has. Of course everyone has. “Well, I guess we know what’s going to happen when I walk in there…”

Dammit.

“Healing from a divorce while your ex is moving on can’t be easy, Stefano, but…”

My neck and jaw stiffen.

I’m dying to know what comes after that but. I’m waiting with bated breath to hear what sunny silver lining she’ll tack on the end of that bruised sentence to make my life all better.

But then she surprises me.

“Today can’t be about you, though,” she says.

The mild irritation I felt seconds ago grows to full-blown annoyance.

“You think I don’t know it’s my mother’s birthday? I’m just curious, why do you think I was sitting in my car while my siblings help celebrate her big day?” I tap my fingers to my temples and explode them.

But Avery doesn’t respond to my gesture.

“That was a lot of words from you all at once,” she quips. “Are you sure you’re feeling okay?”

Just in case I need to spell it out for her, I lower my voice, my tone hard.

“Not that I owe you an explanation, but I was trying to spare her my mess. I figured if I stayed away long enough, maybe those vultures in there”—I fan my hand toward the Gossip Set in the tent—“would find something else to talk about other than my divorce or who the hell they can fix me up with now that my ex-wife apparently found herself a replacement.” I step back, fuming and needing air to breathe.

Why am I telling her all of this?

“That’s not what I meant,” she reasons, quietly.

I don’t know if it’s her soft tone or the fact that she seems so unaffected while I’m agitated, but it grates on my nerves.

“Well, what did you mean because obviously, I’m aware today can’t be about me.”

Like she senses I’m done, determination darkens Avery’s stare, and she erases the distance between us.

“I’m sure you look at me and think I’m some pushover you can control, Stefano Fortemani. But what you don’t know about me, is I don’t take shit. Not from anyone.” She stabs her bright pink fingernail into my chest, pausing for a beat. “Because you seem to have missed it, I was being empathetic to your situation, but I think you should be aware. The whole brooding, edgy silver-fox thing you’ve got going on, it comes off as cold and antisocial. Something else you might want to work on during your self-improvement journey along with all the sex and dating.” She snickers.

Thanks for that, Johnny.

My cheeks heat but I swallow, determined to hear her out.

“Now, what I meant was, they’ve all been waiting for your arrival to get started. And while this is your mother’s tea, it’s my event, representing a business that supports my livelihood, and people I care about. I won’t have you ruin this.”

Everything around me muffles, and I feel like I’m wearing earplugs. We stare blankly, silently at an impasse, per usual, assessing each other.

“We’re in full agreement,” I finally say.

“Great. Then, do yourself a favor and smile, because your brother needs you.”

Then, just like that, she flashes me a tight smile and storms away, and I’m left standing on the outside with my head still spinning.

What was that? What did she mean, my brother needs me? Which brother, and what in the National Geographic is a silver fox?

End of Excerpt

The Wedding Crush is currently available in digital format only:

ISBN: 978-1-962707-29-9

June 11, 2024

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