The Marriage Trap

By: Jennifer Probst

Chapter One

Maggie Ryan tilted the margarita glass to her lips and took a long swallow. Tartness collided with the salt, exploded on her tongue, and burned through her blood. Unfortunately, not fast enough. She still had a shred of sanity left to question her actions.

The violet fabric-covered book beckoned and mocked. She picked it up again, leafed through the pages, and threw it back on the contemporary glass table. Ridiculous. Love spells, for God’s sake. She refused to stoop to such a low. Of course, when her best friend, Alexa, cast her own spell, she’d been supportive and cheered her actions to find her soul mate.

But this was completely different.

Maggie cursed under her breath and stared out the window. A sliver of moonlight leaked through the cracks of the organic bamboo blinds. Another evening gone. Another disastrous date. The demons threatened, and there was no one here to fight them back until dawn.

Why did she never feel a connection? This last one had been charming, intelligent, and easygoing. She expected a sexual buzz when they finally touched—or at least a lousy shiver of promise. Instead, she got zilch. Zippo. Numb from the waist down. Just a dull ache of emptiness and a longing for . . . more.

Despair toppled over her like a cresting wave. The familiar edge of panic clawed her gut, but she fought back and managed to surface. Screw this. She refused to have an attack on her own turf. Maggie grabbed the raw irritation like a life vest and breathed deeply and evenly.

Stupid attacks. She hated pills and refused to take them, positive the episodes would go away by her own sheer force of will. Probably an early midlife crisis. After all, her life was almost perfect.

She had everything most people dreamed about. She photographed gorgeous male models in underwear and traveled the world. She adored her trendy condo with no upkeep. The kitchen boasted stainless steel appliances and gleaming ceramic tile. The modern espresso maker and margarita machine confirmed her fun, Sex and the City status. Plush white carpets and matching leather furniture boasted no children and bespoke sheer style. She did what she wanted, when she wanted, and made no damn apologies to anyone. She was attractive, financially comfortable, and healthy, aside from the occasional panic attacks. And yet, the question nibbled on the edge of her brain with an irritating persistence, growing a bit more with each passing day.

Is this it?

Maggie stood and yanked on a silky red robe, then stuffed her feet into her matching fuzzy slippers with devil horns sprouting from the top of the foot. She was drunk enough, and no one would ever know. Maybe the exercise would calm her nerves.

She grabbed the piece of ledger paper and made a list of all the qualities she craved in a man.

Built the small fire.

Recited the mantra.

Gleeful cackles echoed in her brain at the act of insanity, but she shoved them back with another sip of tequila and watched the paper burn.

After all, she had nothing left to lose.

• • •

The sun looked pissed off.

Michael Conte stood outside by the waterfront property and watched the perfect disc struggle to top the mountain peaks. A fiery mingling of burnt orange and scarlet red rose, emanating sparks of fury, killing the remaining dark. He watched the king of the morning proudly celebrate the temporary win and for a brief moment wondered if he’d ever feel like that again.

Alive.

He shook his head and mocked his own thoughts. He had nothing to complain about. His life was just about perfect. The waterfront project neared completion, and the launch of his family’s first U.S. bakery would seize the place by storm. He hoped.

Michael gazed out over the water and took note of the renovations. Once a broken-down, crime-ridden marina, the Hudson Valley property revealed a Cinderella transformation, and he’d been a part of it. Between himself and the other two investors, they’d sunk a lot of money into the dream and Michael believed in the team’s success. Paved-stone pathways now snaked around rosebushes and the boats finally returned—majestic schooners and the famed ferryboat that gave children rides.

Next to his bakery, a spa and Japanese restaurant courted an eclectic set of customers. Opening day was only a few weeks away after a long year of construction and sweat and blood.

And La Dolce Famiglia would finally take her home in New York.

Satisfaction rippled through him, along with a strange emptiness. What was wrong with him lately? He slept less, and the occasional woman he allowed himself to enjoy only left him feeling more restless when morning rose. On the surface, he had everything a man dreamed of. Wealth. A career he loved. Family, friends, and decent health. And pretty much his pick of any woman he craved. The Italian in his soul cried out for something deeper than sex, but he didn’t know if it truly existed.

At least, not for him. As if something deep inside was broken.

Disgusted with his inner whining, he turned and strode down the sidewalk. His cell phone beeped, and he slid it out of his cashmere coat, glancing at the number.

Crap.

He paused for a moment. Then with a sigh of resignation, he punched the button.

“Yes, Venezia? What is it this time?”

“Michael, I’m in trouble.” Rapid-fire Italian attacked his ears.

Michael concentrated on her tirade of words, desperate to make sense between gulps of sobbing breaths. “Did you say you’re getting married?”

“Weren’t you listening, Michael?” She quickly switched to English. “You must help me!”

“Go slowly. Deep breaths, then tell me the whole story.”

“Mama won’t let me get married!” she burst out. “And it’s all your fault. You know Dominick and I have been together for years, and I’ve been hoping and praying he’d pop the question and he finally did. Oh, Michael, he brought me to the Piazza Vecchia and got down on his knee and the ring is beautiful, just beautiful! Of course, I said yes, and then we rushed to Mama to tell the whole family, and—”

“Wait a minute. Dominick never called me to ask permission for your hand in marriage.” Irritation pricked at him. “Why didn’t I know of this?”

His sister gave a long sigh. “You have got to be kidding me! That custom is ancient, and you’re not even here, and everyone knows we were getting married; it was just a matter of time. Anyway, none of this matters because I’m going to be an old maid and I’ll lose Dominick forever. He’ll never wait for me and it’s all your fault!”

His head throbbed in time to Venezia’s whines. “How is this my fault?”

“Mama told me I can’t get married until you’re married. Remember that ridiculous tradition Papa believed in?”

Dread slithered up his spine and coiled in his gut. Impossible. The old family tradition had no place in today’s society. Sure, the legacy of the oldest son marrying first was prominent in Bergamo, and as the senior count he was looked upon as the leader, but they were long past the days of a required marriage. “I’m sure there was a miscommunication,” he said smoothly. “I’ll straighten this out.”

“She told Dominick I can wear the ring, but there will be no wedding until you marry. Then Dominick got upset and said he doesn’t know how long he can wait before he starts his life with me, and Mama got mad and called him disrespectful, and we had a big fight and now my life is over, all over! How can she do this to me?”

Gasping sobs broke out over the receiver.

Michael closed his eyes. The dull throb in his temples grew to monstrous proportions.

He slashed through Venezia’s wails with an impatience he didn’t try to hide. “Calm down,” he ordered. She immediately quieted, used to his authority in the household. “Everyone knows you and Dominick are meant to be together. I don’t want you to worry. I will talk to Mama today.”

His sister gulped. “What if you can’t? What if she disowns me if I marry Dominick without her approval? I’ll lose everything. But how can I give up the man I love?”

His heart stopped, then sped up. For God’s sake, that was a snake pit he refused to jump in. An intense family drama would force him to fly back home, and with his mother’s heart problems, he worried about her health. His two other sisters, Julietta and Carina, may not be able to handle Venezia’s distress on their own. First, he needed to get his sister under control. He clenched his fingers around the phone. “You will not do anything until I speak with her. Do you understand, Venezia? I will take care of it. Just tell Dominick to hold on until I get this settled.”

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