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“That is the coolest, scariest piece of equipment I’ve ever seen,” Robin said.

I had to agree. We both stared at the monstrous excavation machine that was parked at the mouth of the storage cave, waiting to roll into action. They called it a roadheader, and it was huge, weighing more than sixty tons (I’d overheard Dad gushing about its weight to Derek while they were standing around having a manly conversation about heavy equipment) and was as large as the biggest bulldozer I’d ever seen.

Extending at least fifteen feet out in front of its tanklike body was a medieval-looking articulated arm, or boom, at the tip of which was a large steel ball covered in clawlike spikes. As the machine rumbled forward, the ball rotated fast enough to tear its way through hard rock, slowly creating a tunnel. That was the theory, anyway. It hadn’t started working yet. When it did, there would be dust and noise and, possibly, earthquakelike shaking. It would all be worth it when the tasting cave was completed. I could barely wait for that day.

It had always made sense to use caves for wine-barrel storage. Sonoma tended to get hot in the summer, and underground storage was the cheapest and most efficient way to maintain a constant temperature, which was vital to the health of the wine.

But over the past few years, many of the local wineries had expanded on the idea and had brought the actual wine-tasting experience into the caves. I’d done a tour of some of the tasting caves in the area, and they were beautiful, unique spaces. Some were rustic; others were elegant. One low-ceilinged, tunnel-like cave I’d visited in Napa had been excavated by hand during the days of the gold rush. You could still see the uneven spike marks on the dark stone walls made by the workers’ hammers and pickaxes.

Several wineries in the area had built luxurious private dining rooms within their caves. Another offered a complete spa experience. There were waterfalls and unusual lighting and nooks and crannies to explore. One local tasting cave featured an underground library. And there was always wine.

And finally, wine-cave tasting was coming to Dharma. We already had a number of storage caves on the property, but none was big enough to use as a fully functioning tasting room. The most spacious of the storage caves was located on the opposite side of the parking lot from the current tasting room. Once the cave excavation was completed, the current tasting room would be redesigned to use for private dinners and special events.

The wide double doors at the entryway to the storage cave were made of thick wood and arched to fit the cavelike opening. With the doors opened, the passageway was broad enough to allow a truck or a forklift to drive through. The interior was dark and cool and roomy enough to hold the hundreds of oak barrels that stored the wine until it was bottled.

The barrels had been moved into the fermentation barn and to other parts of the winery to avoid possible damage from the heavy equipment that would be used to expand the cave. Geologists had already tested the hard ground above the existing cave and had approved the digging.

A crowd was beginning to gather as Robin and I planted our folding chairs on the blacktop a safe distance from the storage cave entrance. We were drinking coffee and sharing cookies and snacks with at least fifty other commune members who were also here to watch the show.

I spied my father standing with Derek next to a massive piece of equipment. My two brothers and a couple of others were there, too, deep in conversation. They all wore hard hats and looked very manly while kibitzing with the excavation company’s owner, a tall, good-looking, gray-haired man named Stan.

We had been warned that there would be a tremendous amount of dust flying and the noise would be impossible to endure without earplugs or, better yet, headphones that covered our ears completely. A while ago, Stan and his men had walked through the crowd, passing out headphones and protective goggles to anyone who wanted them.

The crowd’s chatter subsided abruptly, and that was when I noticed Guru Bob walking toward the group of men. Guru Bob, otherwise known as Robson Benedict, was the avatar, the spiritual leader of the commune. My parents considered him a highly evolved conscious being, and, having known him for most of my life, I couldn’t disagree. He was the reason my parents had gathered up their six small children and moved us all to Sonoma so many years ago when Guru Bob summoned them. Back in the day, he had purchased sixteen hundred acres of rich Sonoma farmland and had chosen this spot to establish his Fellowship for Spiritual Enlightenment and Higher Artistic Consciousness.

The commune members began growing grapes that first year, and, ten years later, with the winery thriving and lots of members’ shops, restaurants, and B and Bs doing well, Guru Bob decided to incorporate our little community. He suggested we call the new town Dharma, which means “law” in Eastern philosophy.

But the word meant much more than that, according to some philosophies. When the world was first created, it was said to have emerged from chaos. As the gods stabilized the mountains and separated earth from sky, they created harmony and stability—Dharma. In Buddhism, the word referred to cosmic law and order. Other disciplines translated it to mean “to live in harmony with the law.”

Guru Bob chose to interpret the word as the Sikhs and others had: “To follow the Path of Righteousness.” That idea appealed to his followers as well, and the town of Dharma was born.

Oh, and while Guru Bob was a fun name we kids liked to use, I would never have called him that to his face. It would have been disrespectful. Funny thing, though—I’d always had the feeling he knew we called him Guru Bob and didn’t mind at all.

After five minutes of serious discussion, Guru Bob waved to the rest of us and walked away, heading off toward the center of town. I knew the reason he left wasn’t that he didn’t have an interest in what was going on. It was more that he’d put reliable people in charge of the job and he didn’t want them to think he was watching over their shoulders or micromanaging. He would show up later to see how things turned out, trusting that everything had gone according to plan.

The buzz of voices rose once again.

“I’m getting excited,” Robin said.

“So am I.”

She gave me a look. “You sound surprised.”

“I guess I was trying to be blase about it, but this is really fun.”

“It is. And I already told you how psyched Austin is to get started.”

“My Dad is, too.”

She laughed. “He’s been talking about building this tasting cave since before I moved back up here. At least a year ago.”

“I know.” I sipped my coffee. “So it’s about time we did it. It seems like every winery in the county has a tasting cave now.”

She smirked. “And we must keep up with the trends.”

I nodded, although I knew that keeping trendy wasn’t the only reason the winery had finally chosen to carve out a larger space for the tasting rooms and additional barrel storage. The plain fact was that underground storage saved money. Temperatures in our existing caves didn’t vary much from the recommended sixty-two degrees, which was ideal for making and storing wine. Dad had mentioned that they planned to build an interior waterfall to add to the natural humidity. Solar panels installed on the hillside above the caves would collect energy to be used for lighting the cave space and for pumping out excess moisture.

There was only one small tunnel built under the vineyards that led from one storage cave to another. More would be added, and they would be upgraded, widened, and modernized with better drainage in the floors and a thicker layer of shotcrete added to the walls for improved insulation. Shotcrete was a concretelike material applied using high-velocity hoses so that it dried quickly and covered every inch of the cave wall.

It was amazing how much cool information you could pick up from hanging around my father for a few hours. I’d learned that the winery committee had also approved plans to build a freshwater lake on the other side of Ridge Road that would eventually provide irrigation for the entire vineyard and winery. The plan was for Dharma to become self-sustaining and energy independent within five years.

A few of the men began walking toward us, away from the cave entrance where the heavy roadheader was ready to spring into action. Derek grinned as he approached, and my stomach did a little twist. There was something about a gorgeous man smiling at me that gave a boost to my day. Especially when that man was Derek Stone. The hard hat was an added treat.

“Having fun?” I asked.

“I’m having a fantastic time,” he said, his British accent sounding even sexier than usual. Maybe it was the worn jeans or the heavy work boots he was wearing. Then again, he sounded sexy in a business suit, too.

I handed him my coffee mug. He took a sip and handed it back to me. “Thanks, love.” Then he moved behind my chair so he wouldn’t block my view, and we all waited for the show to begin.

A few seconds later, the sound of a loud, powerful engine erupted, and anyone who wasn’t wearing a headset immediately fumbled to get one on. A cloud of thick dust erupted from the cave doorway and filled the air. I adjusted my goggles to watch the roadheader extend its claw arm deeper into the storage cave where I imagined it clawing its way through the thick stone. A Dumpster-sized vessel rolled out on a track, carrying a pile of broken-down gravel that was dumped off to the side. I figured that pile would be massive by the time the job was done.

On the drive over, Robin had explained that the initial excavation would take several long weeks, possibly a few months. It all depended on the thickness and resistance of the stone.

But barely five minutes after the digging began, the earsplitting noise suddenly stopped. One of Stan’s men, the one who was spotting for the driver, came running out of the storage cave.

“We’ve broken through some sort of wall,” he explained loudly to my father and the other men. He didn’t sound happy about it.

I looked up at Derek and saw him frowning. The experts had determined that most of the ground under the hillside was solid rock and heavily compressed soil. What did he mean, We’ve broken through? Was the dirt and stone beneath the vineyards less solid than the geologists had thought?

Dad, Derek, Austin, Jackson, and a few others went running toward the cave where the roadheader had come to a complete stop. I glanced at Robin and without saying a word, we both jumped up and went running after them. No way were the boys going to have all the fun.

Eighteen narrow inches separated the massive roadheader from the sides of the storage-cave door, so we were able to slide past and enter the cool, dark space.

The dust was just clearing as Robin and I joined Derek and the others at the far end of the room where they stared at a jagged, gaping hole in what had been a solid stone wall a few minutes ago.

It looked broken, like an egg that was dropped and cracked open. Fissure lines radiated out from the large gash in the middle of the wall.

“We don’t know how stable the walls are,” Austin said to the small crowd, “so I’d like everyone to leave the cave for their own safety.”

The commune members walked away, whispering quietly to one another. No one knew what this new development would mean to the tasting room plans, never mind the structural viability of the underground space.

I was too curious to leave. I noticed Robin wasn’t going anywhere, either. But I sort of wished we’d both been given hard hats to wear. In lieu of that, I stuck my hand in my pocket to make sure my mom’s little herb packet was still there. It was probably silly, but I felt better carrying it.

Derek flicked on a small flashlight and studied the open gash. About two feet wide and about four feet off the floor, it was just low enough that I could climb up and through it if I were brave enough. Was there some space back there? A tunnel, maybe? There had to be something.

Thanks to the beams from Derek’s flashlight, I could see that the wall itself was at least four inches thick.

I moved closer and touched the grainy surface. “Is this concrete?”

“Looks like it,” Derek said, exchanging a look with me. A wall of concrete meant that it was manmade. The excavation crew must have thought the concrete had been applied to the surface of the storage cave walls and figured that behind the concrete were natural rock and packed earth.

“Can you see inside the hole?” I asked.

“Barely,” he said, aiming the light directly into the hole in the wall. He leaned his head inside to take a look.

I held my breath. What if some wild creature was living in there? I shoved my hand back into my pocket and touched that small bag of herbs again. It gave me the oddest sense of well-being.

“Idiot,” I whispered under my breath. “It’s just some weeds in a bag.” But I continued to rub the thin muslin packet anyway, hedging my bets while briefly considering slipping it into Derek’s pocket.

Derek pulled his head back and handed the flashlight to Austin, who leaned in to take a look. “Holy Mother.”

“What is it?” Robin demanded.

“You’ve got to see it for yourself.”

© Kate Carlisle