The Marriage Merger

By: Jennifer Probst

Chapter Ten


Sawyer paced the unfinished lobby of Purity with the team. The roar of power tools filled the air, and the scent of wood, oil, and paint rose in his nostrils. The empty building of the popular Le Méridien had been abandoned for years: a lonely, sprawling piece of architecture that created a longing in the heart of the city. After years of working on buying the building, he’d finally won. He’d taken the first step in making his mark in the world and obtaining a slice of immortality. It was the best he could ever hope for.

The structure owned the old-world grace he needed to make his mark here. The marble winged horse in front led to an elegant building with a crumbling white facade amidst the bright red doors lending distinctive character. The full restaurant and lounge would be replaced by a modernized version of entertainment and the best of technology brought in for a media suite for business. Already furnished, each room needed to be made over and renovated while decisions of what furniture and structures should remain and what should be ripped out boggled his team of designers.

Pride surged as he led the team through the slowly de-veloped rooms. They chattered as Wolfe took notes and Sawyer guided them toward his vision, pointing out where each of their respective spaces would be housed. When he stopped in front of the bakery area of La Dolce Famiglia, he paused to direct his attention to Julietta.

She had cried for him.

The memory of her tears wrecked his concentration.

other than a few flashes of being held by his parents, he had no soft memories to hold on to. Touch usually meant punishment or something to avoid at all costs. He’d learned brutally early that tears were useless and looked upon as weakness. How many times had he been beaten bloody, starved, humiliated, or punished in various ways and not one person had given him a second glance? even his foster siblings were too busy looking after themselves, and any kindness to him was always severely punished.

Sawyer never blamed them. He would’ve done the same. But the moment he saw Julietta’s tears, a strange yawning emptiness rose up and tried to strangle him. She had actually cared. Kissed his scars. yelled at him for even mentioning she might want to leave. She’d demonstrated everything kind and good and he didn’t know what to do with it.

The endless women before her blurred into a line of nameless faces who’d only seemed interested in his scars to make sure he got them off. He’d never had a lover kiss him with such tenderness, let alone shed tears over something she didn’t know or understand. His heart squeezed with so much emotion he couldn’t process the flood. Sawyer refused to analyze the weakness. Much better to concentrate on her stinging anger and insults than on such an intimate gift. He might never recover.

A whole week had already passed, and he’d been swamped every evening with work. When he finally dropped into bed, slumber eluded him. only the image of her naked body and wet heat rose to his closed lids until sleep was impossible. He ached for another evening, but had decided earlier on to wait. Another night spent in her company might throw him off his game—and he needed to be in control in order to keep giving her the pleasure she deserved.

It was also good for his suddenly slipping emotions. When was the last time he’d actually gotten mushy over a woman?

Wondered how her day was going, or what she was eating for lunch, or what television show she watched before bed?

Never.

The answer was simple. Pull back for a bit, and then go in for another night once he was solid. And to think he’d been worried about her getting attached.

Sawyer cleared his throat. “Julietta, as we discussed, we’re preparing La Dolce Famiglia to take up this main space for foot traffic. you’ll need to pick your team carefully for this one since we won’t have the main equipment on the floor.”

She nodded and examined the empty store. Her severe black suit was his personal favorite. It was the most conservative, with a pencil-slim skirt and a double-breasted jacket that covered most of her delicious assets. With her hair twisted up tight and her proper white blouse, the urge to rip away her prim demeanor engulfed him. He always loved the naughty librarian fantasy. Maybe he’d make her keep the suit on. Hike the hem up her thighs, lay her back on the desk, and rip off her panties. He’d test her control by commanding her not to make a sound, then do everything with his tongue and teeth to make her scream.

His cock rose and he quickly switched his thoughts. All he needed was Tanya to think she turned him on and he bet he’d get a late night visit. Her designer skills were flawless, but she reminded him of a female predator. Sawyer shuddered at the thought.

Julietta spun on her heel. “I can make this work. Though I’d rather have the other space we discussed.”

His lip twitched. Damn, she had spunk. He’d assumed she’d pretend the erotic evening had never happened.

Instead, she’d switched into full business mode without a hitch. No heated glances across the conference table or blushes when their gazes met. She treated him with the detachment of a business partner, which drove him even crazier.

“Actually, I do remember the discussion. Since I was able to clearly demonstrate why that wasn’t a possibility, I’m surprised you brought it up.”

“Hmm, I guess I forgot.” She kept her voice bland.

“Perhaps the conversation should have been more memo-rable.”

He almost choked at her impertinence. Wolfe shot him a strange look, then went back to his notes. She also owned a wicked sense of humor. oh, she was going to pay for that remark. only his endless practice of hiding his emotions allowed him to press down his growing arousal. “Perhaps you’re right.” He pinned her with his gaze. “I’ll be sure to make myself clearer in the future.”

Her delighted smile ruffled his nerve endings. “Good.

Practice makes perfect,” she chirped. “Now, let’s check out the kitchen. I want to be sure the setup is what we agreed upon.”

Her heels clicked in front of him in a siren’s song. Her gracefully swaying ass lured him to follow, and Sawyer realized Julietta Conte had blossomed to her full power.

God help him.

They toured the site, tweaked plans, and finally finished in the late afternoon. He made sure he escorted the other members of the team out first. Would she follow his lead and allow him some alone time? Sure enough, Sawyer spotted her lingering with Wolfe. Was she just as desperate to touch him? Like a horny teen, he wanted his hands all over her, his full week of celibacy at the limit. He did a quick sweep of the room and tried to catalogue a safe place he could get her naked without giving the construction crew a thrill.

He came up behind them and caught a slight smile on Wolfe’s lips. Funny, he’d watched Wolfe interact with females and rarely saw him spare any interest. Something about Julietta allowed the boy to relax, and that was a miracle. “Thanks for your input today,” she said in her usual crisp tones. “I hope you’ll be able to take some downtime for yourself.”

Wolfe shrugged. “Don’t need much. I like the work.”

“I know the feeling.” She hesitated, and shifted her feet. “I want you to come to dinner Sunday. At my mother’s house.”

Sawyer drew back in surprise. Wolfe had the same reaction and seemed to stumble on his words. “Umm, thanks, but I’m busy.”

“What are you doing?”

He paused and ducked his head. “Working.”

Those cocoa brown eyes sharpened and focused on Sawyer. “I’m sure your boss will give you a Sunday afternoon off.”

“Not unless I’m invited, too.”

She pursed her lips in annoyance. “I invited Wolfe only.”

Sawyer shrugged. “We’re a package deal. I’m not miss-ing out on homemade pasta while he chows down.” He jerked his thumb. “Besides, he won’t even appreciate a good cooked meal. He eats crap.”

Wolfe glowered. “No, I don’t. If you’d actually shop for food instead of eating at your desk every night, maybe I’d cook.”

“yeah, like you clean, right?”

“And you’re from the Merry Maids service, huh? Next time work on your dunk shot. I saw the Big Mac wrappers on the floor.”

Julietta gasped. Sawyer glared and tried to change the subject. “Forget it, let’s just move on.”

“you went to McDonald’s?” Julietta whispered. “That’s disgusting.”

Ah, crap. He was going to kill Wolfe. “okay. I wanted a hamburger. A reminder of home.”

He struggled not to laugh at her obvious horror. “you could have eaten a real hamburger at roberto’s. He would have been happy to make one for you.”

How the hell could he describe the need for that awful sauce and endless salt he occasionally craved? Sawyer remembered the first time he’d tasted it—half of it in the wrapper on top of the garbage can. He’d never tasted anything so good in his life, and each time he ate one he was reminded of how far he’d come. of course, he’d never share such a story. And why was he suddenly cowering? He pulled himself to full height. “It’s not the same. Am I invited to Mama Conte’s, too?”

“Fine.”

“Umm, I’ll pass, Julietta. Thanks for the invite though.”

Sawyer watched in fascination as she crossed her arms in front of her chest and gave Wolfe a pointed stare. “you’re coming. Noon. No need to bring anything with you.”

Panic lit the boy’s eyes. “I, uh, made other plans. I can’t go.”

She never backed down. “I’m inviting you to dinner with my family, Wolfe. My mother loves to cook for guests, and this will give her pleasure.”

A twinge of sympathy coursed through Sawyer. Wolfe rarely mingled with anyone other than at work-related meetings. every time Sawyer tried to get him to join him for dinner or any type of social activity, he refused.

Wolfe lifted his head and stuck out his chin. “I don’t do well with mothers. They don’t like me.”

She smiled, reached out, and touched his hand. Wolfe didn’t even flinch. “you don’t know my mother. She’ll adore you. I am asking you to come as a favor to me. Mama’s been lonely without her children home, and you will make her happy.”

oh, she was good. Who could possibly refuse such a heartfelt invitation? He watched Wolfe crumble piece by piece in front of him.

“Fine. I’ll come.”

“Grazie.”

Wolfe made his exit. “I gotta go. See you at home.”

He rushed out without another word and finally left them alone.

The smile vanished. His ice queen reappeared and came out to play. “I see you’re a bully even outside the bedroom.”

He glanced at the construction crew and decided it was time to remind her who was boss. “Funny, seems like you stepped into the role perfectly. Poor Wolfe didn’t know what hit him. Now, follow me.”

He turned and started for the back room. raw mate-rials blocked most of the space, but he’d spotted a sturdy wooden table in the corner that would serve his purpose.

She trotted after him, caught up in the argument. “He needs to be included in something bigger. Being isolated for too long is harmful.”

“Wolfe learned early he could only trust himself. It’ll take him time to come around. Watch your step.”

She jumped over a cord and sidestepped a power saw.

“A good meal around a table with people he trusts is important. running to the McDonald’s drive-thru serves no purpose.”

He winced, grabbed her hand, and maneuvered her through the open frame. “I made a mistake, okay? Is that a good reason to try to keep me from Mama Conte’s cooking?”

“I thought we agreed you wouldn’t attend Sunday dinners.”

“I changed my mind. especially since Wolfe gets to go.

over here.”

The room was dark. He guided her deeper into the space until her back pressed against the table. Sawdust and pieces of wood were scattered over the surface. “He uses his appearance to keep people away. Mama will see right through it, and maybe he’ll realize not everyone will judge him. Where are we?”

“or he can freak out with bad memories of his own family dinners and backslide. I’m trying not to push him too hard.” He grabbed the rag near him and wiped off the table. “Sit up here for a moment.”

“replacing a good memory with a bad one is one way to heal. Believe me, I know. Why am I sitting on a construction table, Sawyer?”

Anticipation ripped through him. “Because I want to make you come.”

He watched the emotions ripple over her face. Shock.

Fascination. Fear.

And lust.

He stepped in between her legs and eased the hem of her skirt up. She offered no resistance, her mind evidently working into a steam of rational lectures on exactly why this wasn’t a good idea. He took advantage of the pause, widened her thighs, and pushed her back so she was off balance.

Her hands gripped his shoulders. The pulse beat madly at the base of her throat, and her scent rose to his nostrils.

Coconut and a hint of vanilla. rich coffee. He dipped his head to the naked curve of her neck and breathed deep.

She sucked in her breath and tried to push him away.

“Are you crazy?” she whispered. “you can’t say things like that. The construction team is here. This is a public building.

you may like acting out a porn movie in public, but this is not what turns me on.”

He growled and bit the tender flesh behind her ear. A shudder wracked her body. “I’m not into public displays, either. In fact, the idea of another man seeing you naked makes me want to beat the shit out of him.” Her fingers bit into his suit jacket and her legs trembled. God, he loved making a liar out of her. She loved the excitement of being told what to do, and though he’d never share, the bite of danger only added to the sizzle. “I gave you time to be nice, and all you did was torture me this week.”

A low moan rumbled from her throat. “I did nothing of the sort. I never even mentioned our night together.”

“exactly.” He ran one hand up her skirt and found warm skin with no stockings or pantyhose to block his path.

His finger traced the edge of her silk underwear and realized she was already wet. Frigid? This woman was hotter than Hades. “Did you dress like this for me? Did you hope I’d finally snap and do what I’ve dreamed about every day at that conference table?”

Her outrage only made his dick swell to full staff. “of course not.” Her breath hitched as he stroked a thumb over the delicate fabric. “I—I was waiting for you to mention it.

I refuse to be one of those women. Clingy and helpless and begging for a man.”

The knowledge she was just as off center as he was soothed him. He’d thought giving her time and space would help. Now he realized he should’ve yanked her in his arms and kissed her senseless the very next day. His fault. He intended to fix it now.

“Baby, you’d never be helpless. I’ve been dying to get my hands on you all week but wanted to give you time.”

She arched toward him for more. “That was polite of you.”

“Time’s up.”

He took her mouth like he’d been fantasizing. Claimed her lips, stroking long and deep with his tongue, inhaling her flavor like an alcoholic on a binge. He pressed his palm over her core and rubbed, and she wrapped her legs tight around his hips and hung on. She licked fire and need and lust, and his body tightened with an urgency that fogged his brain and drove him forward to take and take and take. . . .

“Hey, boss!”

His fingers paused an inch from her dripping channel.

He tore his mouth from hers and fought for sanity. Julietta stiffened, her eyes wide with worry, her wet lips slightly bruised from the kiss.

“yeah?”

“We’re gonna wrap up here for the day. you need anything else?”

He prayed his voice was steady. “Nope, I’m all set. See you tomorrow.”

The sound of equipment being dragged and mutters from the men drifted into the room. Slowly, he removed his hand from under her skirt and gently tugged it down. He smoothed the stray tendrils of hair back from her cheeks and placed a gentle kiss on her pale pink lips.

“Will you meet me at the hotel again?”

“yes.”

relief cut through him. He didn’t want to remind her she owed him another night. The admission of her own desire to be with him was a sweet gift. Sawyer helped her off the table, took her hand, and led her out. Before he let her go, he bent his head and whispered in her ear.

“you may not be helpless or clingy, but you will beg. I promise.”

He nipped her lobe, grinned, and took off. The curse word that drifted in the evening air was blistering, but well worth it.



“Julietta, are you feeling well?”

She paused chopping tomatoes and looked at her mother. A suspicious frown marred her brow, and her stare probed past the surface. Mio Dio, was it possible Mama knew she was having sex? Julietta dropped the knife and adjusted her sweater, hoping there weren’t any telltale bruises or bites evident. Her second encounter with Sawyer the other night had continued to blow away all images of normalcy. He pushed every boundary she erected and took pleasure in proving her wrong about who she imagined she was. Handcuffs. Shower sex. And now toys. She fought a shudder when she thought of all the delicious ways a vibrator could be used. Soon, she’d be into orgasms into the double digits. Who would’ve thought?

She swallowed and refocused on chopping. “Sure. Why do you ask?”

“your skin looks different. And you were humming.”

Horror flooded through her. She did not sing or hum.

This was getting bad. “Umm, no, I went to the spa the other day. Got a facial and massage. I feel better.”

“Hmm.”

The tomato rolled across the chopping board and she grabbed for it. Did sex actually make a woman glow? of course, she’d been majorly backed up for years, so maybe her body needed to catch up a bit before settling down again. Made sense. Time for a subject change. “Have you spoken to Michael or Carina lately?”

Her mom turned back to the stove. The scent of garlic, onion, and escarole filled the air. “yes, they want to come out for a visit.”

“All of them?”

“Si. They will bring all the bambinos. Alexa and Nick may also join them.”

Julietta smiled with pure joy. Her mother looked so happy and excited, she hoped it would happen. Imagine all of them together, with her nephews and siblings by her side.

Like the old times, but even better. “oh, Mama, that would be wonderful.”

A knock sounded on the door. Her mother wiped her hands on her apron and shooed her away. “Do not keep them waiting, Julietta. Answer the door.”

The two men stood side by side behind a cheerful bou-quet of blooms. Sawyer’s eyes darkened with erotic memories, and it took all of her control not to blush. Wolfe looked nervous, a thin figure beneath his bright blue button-down shirt and leather jacket. He shifted in his stiff, heeled shoes, and her heart broke when she realized he had actually dressed a bit conservatively for the occasion. She ushered them inside and toward the warm kitchen.

“Mama, this is Wolfe, Sawyer’s assistant. He’s been an amazing help in putting this deal together.”

Mama Conte gave Sawyer a noisy kiss, cooed over the flowers, and approached Wolfe. He looked terrified as he stood before her, just waiting for her comment. His earring winked, and his tattoo crept past the conservative collar of his shirt and spilled black ink onto his neck. Her mom took it all in, her sharp gaze assessing, and a welcoming smile curved her lips. “Welcome to my home, Wolfe. It is an honor you took the time from your busy schedule to keep an old woman company.”

She ignored his don’t-touch aura, reached out, and placed a kiss on his cheek. Then turned and walked back to her station. “I hope you both brought your appetite.”

Wolfe blinked and glanced at Julietta. After a moment, his aura lightened and a smile curved his lips. His snarkiness was just a shell to hide a softer center he was probably scared to deal with. He only needed someone to push him a bit to get there. She grinned back and led him into the cozy kitchen.

Big wooden bowls of freshly made ravioli with sauce came out, along with crusty bread and bottles of red and white wine. Julietta urged them to take seats at the heavily carved pine table, and they fell into a comfortable rhythm of eating and small talk.

“Tell me more of this deal.” Mama Conte settled back and lingered with her usual precision and enjoyment over her plate. “I understand La Dolce Famiglia will be exclusive to Purity hotels. When is the opening?”

Julietta spoke up. “Sex months.”

Silence dropped. The three of them stared at her as if she’d sprouted horns, and suddenly, she realized what she said. Holy crap. Talk about a Freudian slip of epic propor-tions.

“Scusi?” Mama Conte squinted as if her eyes were failing instead of her ears.

Sawyer tightened his lips, but those amber eyes danced with delight.

She leaned over and raised her voice. “I said six months, Mama.”

“oh. Very ambitious.”

“yes, it was an ambitious undertaking.” Sawyer sipped his wine and dragged his thumb around the rim of the glass.

“But quite worth the effort.”

Her belly dropped. He got that same look on his face whenever he was intent on teasing her to orgasm. That talented thumb had done wicked things to her clit, her nipples, and her mouth that should have been illegal. Thank God it wasn’t. Heat crept under her skin and made her itch. She crossed her legs to try and relieve the ache. “Sawyer has a way of getting what he wants,” she offered. “He doesn’t take no for an answer when he has a certain vision in mind.”

“your papa was like that.” A soft smile ghosted Mama Conte’s lips. “He believed we would make a success of the bakery, even though we started so small. When he focused on a goal, he took down any obstacle in front of him.”

Julietta sighed. “I still remember being fascinated by the kitchen. I’d sit at the chair and watch Mama mix and knead dough for hours, hoping to get a taste of everything.

She was always covered in white powder. When papa would go to a meeting in his suit, he always complained everyone knew he was coming from the cloud of white dust he brought with him.”

Sawyer grinned. “Did he bake, too?”

Mama Conte nodded. “We all helped in the kitchen. My children learned early, but none of them had the passion for baking needed to be a chef. Venezia suffered through it, always more interested in clothes and heels and makeup.

Michael did it out of responsibility. Carina was too young at the time and always attracted to her art.” Her mother gazed at her from across the table with a proud glint in her eyes. “Julietta showed great talent, but she is most like her papa. They were very close and seemed to enjoy the business side of La Dolce Famiglia more than the creation of pastries.”

Julietta chewed the last of her ravioli and blotted her mouth. “Papa started taking me to work with him when he finally bought the headquarters building. He always fought with Michael. Used to tell me his last hope was me, and I needed to be the rational one in the family.”

“Did you start working after college?” Sawyer asked.

She shook her head. “oh, no, there wasn’t time for college. I graduated high school and went straight to work.

Papa showed me everything I needed to run a successful bakery. By that time we were expanding and he needed someone to trust.”

“Did you ever want to do something else?”

Julietta whipped her head around at Wolfe’s voice. The boy had finished his ravioli and asked the question with a curiosity that puzzled her. She blinked, thinking about the question. Did she? No, she was never given a choice to do anything else. How many people did she know who whined and groaned about their parents choosing their future? Sure, she sometimes wished for a more carefree youth—with college dorm parties and late-night drinking.

When she remembered her teenage years, most of them were taken up with learning how to cope in the big world of business. Making sure she exhibited confidence, dressed appropriately, and brought honor to her family name.

Instead of going on dates, she pored over spreadsheets because Papa counted on her. There was no room for error or to disappoint her father. Michael and Venezia had already broken his heart with their refusal to work at La Dolce Famiglia. She always knew she needed to step up and make him proud. A choice?

No, there had been no choices. But she refused to disrespect her papa’s memory by whining about something she never had. Her opportunities and upbringing were a gift— one that Sawyer and Wolfe never experienced.

The table quieted, and she realized her mother and Sawyer also waited for her answer. Was that a glint of regret in her mother’s eyes or a trick of the light? Julietta lifted her chin with pride and spoke. “I’ve never been happier with my decision. And I have no regrets.”

Her mother cleared her throat and rose. “I will serve secondo corso.”

Wolfe cranked his head around. “Huh? There’s more?”

Mama Conte cackled with delight. “Silly Americans.

Pasta is first course only. There are three more to go.”

Julietta winked at Wolfe and helped clear. As each plat-ter was bestowed on the table, the fine tension in the young boy relaxed, and Sawyer let down his guard even more.

roasted, tender lamb with a hint of mint, bowls of escarole soaked in garlic and oil, and creamy polenta was passed around as Mama Conte talked of her youth and the antics of her children.

“Sawyer, you may get a chance to see Maximus again.

He is planning a visit soon. Ah, how Carina and Julietta had such crushes on him!”

Julietta snorted. “only for a bit. Carina was mad about him for years. They were meant to be together.”

Sawyer turned his full attention toward her. “Is that so?” he drawled. “Seems my old friend Max was quite the ladies’ man.”

She rose to the challenge. “oh, you don’t seem too far behind. I heard Sawyer courted Carina himself in Vegas, Mama. Maybe there was even an old-fashioned duel over your poor daughter.”

Mama Conte looked up from her plate with interest.

“yes, I think Max mentioned this to me before the wedding.

Something about a fight.”

“Did you lose?” she asked Sawyer. He lifted a shoulder in a half shrug, and Julietta clucked her tongue in mock sympathy. The knowledge Sawyer once lusted after her sibling and fought Max cut deeper than she thought. She tried to act disinterested and not embarrass herself. Now that their two nights were over, they hadn’t discussed another encounter. Perhaps it was even over between them. It wasn’t like they had a real relationship. Not the kind he had probably wanted with Carina. “Too bad. Though I’m sure you found a decent consolation prize in place of the real thing.”

His fork clattered to the plate. She lifted her gaze. His eyes snapped with male irritation and blazing heat. Her heart clamored while she fought to remain unaffected under the magnetized sexual tension pulling her in. The naughty part of her fantasized about crawling across the table, climbing onto his lap, and riding him hard.

Mama Conte clucked her tongue. “Julietta, what has come over you? That was a rude thing to say to our guest.”

She squirmed at the scolding. This man made her lose her temper in ways she’d never experienced. “Sorry,” she muttered.

“Accepted.” He pinned her with his merciless gaze. “But let me make something quite clear. I don’t settle for consolation prizes, Julietta,” he stated softly. “Understood?”

The hidden meaning behind his words soothed and aroused. Heat flooded her cheeks so she ducked her head and concentrated on her meal. Maybe this whole thing had been a bad idea. She’d only meant to invite Wolfe to a family meal, but now her complicated emotions regard-ing Sawyer were causing an undercurrent of tension. even her mother seemed to notice something off, her sharp gaze bouncing back and forth as if trying to figure it out.

Julietta stood and cleaned up, keeping herself engaged with the dishes and sorting the leftover food into contain-ers. Her mother chatted with Sawyer and Wolfe while she made the espresso and pulled out a variety of fruit, cheese, figs, and apple tarts.

What was wrong with her? Did she want a relationship with Sawyer Wells? The idea seemed impossible, but her body craved him on a regular basis. She’d never thought she’d be the type of woman to be comfortable with a purely sexual relationship, but then again, she’d never had a man able to give her an orgasm. And even if she was interested, Sawyer had clearly communicated his desire to avoid long-term commitments. It was probably best they end their whole affair now, before she got too pulled in. Julietta refused to allow herself to become one of those weak-willed women asking for affection. She had too much pride.

Getting addicted to him would be disastrous. And she was positive she’d last years on just those orgasms alone.

Julietta poured the espresso and set the cups on the table, then nibbled on a plump fig. “We should get going soon, Mama. We have a long week ahead.”

“of course. May I speak with you for a moment, Wolfe?”

The boy looked surprised. “yes, of course.”

“Alone, please. Would you mind waiting in the living room, Julietta? Sawyer?”

Julietta paused. But she trusted her mother, and if she had something to say to Wolfe, it was important. She nodded. “of course.”

“Grazie.”

She led Sawyer into the living room. The hand-braided colorful rug covered pine floors and mixed well with the comfortable earth-colored tones of the sofa, love seat, and ottoman. Delicate lace curtains covered the windows, and bunches of yarn littered the coffee table, a project in the making from her mother’s love of knitting. A fire crackled and warmed the room. She wrapped her arms around herself and paced, too unsettled to sit. “Don’t worry. Mama would never make him uncomfortable, I promise.”

“I’m not worried about Wolfe.” His body heat lashed from behind and pulled her in. The delicious scent of musk and spice surrounded her. Julietta walked faster to gain more space. “I’m more worried about what’s going through that mind of yours.”

She focused on straightening various knickknacks and photos on the antique chest until they were in a perfect line.

“Nothing we should discuss at the moment.”

“I disagree. Considering my dick was deep inside of you less than twelve hours ago, I think I deserve to know your thoughts.”

She stopped and whirled around. He’d moved in like a silent predator, and her body softened into a pool of goo.

She would’ve given money to be able to claim frigidity now.

Her ice queen status was officially trumped by a constant stream of horniness that annoyed the hell out of her. She clung to the annoyance and tried to ignore the hormones.

“Don’t say things like that,” Julietta hissed. “We’re in my mother’s house.”

“Who’s not about to overhear us at the moment. you’re trying to rationalize this thing between us, aren’t you?”

She hated his astuteness. Why did he have to look so hot all the time? Narrowly cut black pants showed off all his assets, and his taupe shirt accented the gold gleam in his eyes. His hair was perfectly tousled for that right-out-of-bed look and smelled freshly washed. Her fingers curled in rebellion. She ached to drag him close and feel that delicious mouth move over hers. Taste his scent that got her drunk. Instead, she needed to have a logical conversation about not sleeping with him again. “I don’t think we should continue seeing each other.”

“I disagree.”

Her mouth hung open. “I just told you this—this thing between us needs to end.”

His lips tightened. “And I said no.”

Frustration snapped her nerves. Why couldn’t he just go away like most men who got rejected? “Well, too bad. our verbal contract is over. you won. We need to concentrate on Purity and getting ready. Let’s agree it’s been a lovely experience, shake hands, and move on.”

He tipped his head back and laughed. Julietta glowered.

“oh, you’re good. Lovely experience, huh? Shake hands?”

He moved so fast she had no time to fight. He yanked her hard against him and devoured her mouth in a kiss so car-nal, so outrageous, her toes curled in her boots and her nipples stabbed into hard points and she moaned helplessly beneath the deep strokes of his tongue. Sawyer ripped his mouth away and breathed hard. “Who do you think I am— one of your lackeys? Do you really believe you can control this thing between us by declaring it over?” Lust and greed and want carved out the features of his face. Julietta stared back at him, fascinated by the raw emotions. “I say no. I’m not going to pretend to shake your hand when I’d rather push my fingers between your legs and make you come. I’m not smiling politely when I’d rather kiss you senseless and force you to confront the woman you are.”

She pushed at his chest, but he didn’t budge. “I know exactly who I am,” she whispered furiously. “A grown woman who makes her own decisions based on logic. A few orgasms between us isn’t enough to risk this deal or my sanity.”

“Tough shit,” he sneered. “I’m not going anywhere, and I don’t play by the rules. you want to sleep chaste and alone in your own bed, fine. But I’ll be flanking your side every day, reminding you of what I can give. I don’t walk away from something because it’s messy and real, baby.”

“oh, yeah? Then what else are you willing to give, Sawyer?” She raised herself on tiptoes and got in his face.

“When the vibrators and the handcuffs and the blindfolds are done, what do you have left to give me? you already said there’s no long-term relationship possible. So don’t give me this crap about you getting messy and real. Baby.”

He released her and staggered back a step in shock.

Julietta pressed her knuckles to her mouth. Had she challenged him to make this a real relationship? Was that what she really wanted?

She had no time to analyze. A noise interrupted the shattering silence.

Mama Conte stood in the doorway with Wolfe. “We are all set now.”

Julietta pulled herself together and pasted on a bright smile. “Great. Let me grab the coats and my purse and we’ll head out.” Sawyer didn’t speak, but followed her lead as they got their belongings and said good-bye. She hugged her mother tight, taking strength from the firm arms around her, and breathed in the comforting scent of home.

“Take care, sweet girl.” Mama Conte stroked her cheek, her gaze sweeping over her face as if trying to find out what troubled her.

“Love you, Mama.”

Wolfe stopped in front of her mother with a strange look on his face. With slow, hesitant motions, he reached out and gave her a half hug, before jerking back with an awkward motion. With a dignity way past his years, he spoke. “Thank you for inviting me into your home, Mama Conte. Thank you—for everything.”

Julietta bit her lip as a tide of emotion overtook her.

Her mother smiled and stroked the boy’s cheek. “you are welcome. you come every Sunday now with Sawyer.”

Wolfe nodded. Julietta stumbled out the door and gave a quick wave to Sawyer and Wolfe before starting her car. Like the demons pitched fiery forks at her heels, she gripped the wheel, imagined her bike, and stamped on the accelerator.

She refused to analyze the complete mess of the evening. Tomorrow she’d wake up stronger and ready to face the day. Julietta snapped the radio to a local station, cranked up the volume, and headed home.



Sawyer sat in the dark and tried to figure out what was wrong with him.

The whole way home he hadn’t spoken. Wolfe seemed to be on the same level and contented himself with staring out the window. Something had changed tonight, and he wasn’t sure what to do.

The moment Julietta had tried to push him away, he’d gone nuts. Her cool demeanor had challenged him to prove their connection and caused a deep-seated panic he’d never experienced before. He only knew he wasn’t ready to give her up. Not yet.

Sawyer figured she’d gotten spooked. Unfortunately, he hadn’t helped matters much by acting all caveman, and she’d tossed out the relationship card. Did she want something more permanent between them? Was sex getting mixed up with real feelings?

He had nothing to base it on. He’d never wanted a woman longer than a few nights. Never craved to go deeper than the physical needs of the evening. He enjoyed being in control and bestowing pleasure. But something was different with Julietta, and he didn’t know what to do.

He stared at the painting on the wall. A couple entwined on a bed. The man’s foot snaked between her open legs, his bare back blocking the onlookers’ full view. Shadow darkened the room and highlighted parts of her anatomy.

The curve of hip. The stiff peak of her nipple. The spill of dark hair over her shoulders. The woman’s face filled with a naked longing as she stared at her lover. In its complete stripping down of complex emotions to only lust and need, Sawyer touched peace. He’d always loved erotic art. For a little while, when he stared at a good piece, he was trans-ported to a place he could actually imagine and touch something real. Something he rarely felt in a good sense.

Watching Julietta in her home with her mother soothed his soul. His meals consisted of eating alone at formal restaurants, drive-thrus, or his desk. Sharing a meal forged an intimacy between them that fascinated him.

But, of course, it could never work.

He remembered the night he’d first met Mama Conte.

God, he’d been so young and green, full of raw fury and ambition he’d barely been able to restrain himself. He’d fought viciously for the opportunity of an internship to work at the Plaza hotel in New york, and his boss was the biggest asshole on the planet. reminded him of his foster father—a bunch of mean dressed in a fancy suit with money to protect him. robin had hated Sawyer on sight and made his days as hellish as possible, blaming him for things that went wrong and taking credit for everything right. Still, when he got to accompany robin to Milan on a deal, he felt as if he hit the big time. Boarding a plane, learning Italian, and getting an official passport made him feel alive. Not a ghost in society, but a man who had possibilities. Until that night.

Sawyer had made an impression on the client. His big mistake had been giving out his card in hopes of working with the guy in the future. robin didn’t seem to relish the idea of his apprentice getting ahead of him. When they both hit the bar for a celebratory drink, robin began verbally abusing him. As his voice and fury rose, Sawyer snapped, then fought back.

And got fired.

Sawyer squeezed his eyes shut as the memory cut deep.

The terror at being stranded in Italy, jobless, and having to start over. The humiliation of having everyone in the lounge stare at him, shaking their heads with pity for the poor kid.

Sawyer was dragged back to his past.

Robin stayed at the bar drinking heavily. The plan took root as Sawyer watched him make a pass at an exquisitely dressed woman beside him. Sawyer knew she was a prosti-tute, and as his former boss became louder and more aggressive, he made a decision.

He left the bar. It was easy to buy the video camera. Even easier to make a deal with the hooker for the footage necessary to blackmail and ruin his boss. Sawyer watched the scene play out from the sidelines as Robin staggered and the woman took out her room key, leading him away. She nodded at Sawyer and held up a hand.

Five minutes.

He got up to nurse his beer at the bar while he waited.

And heard the voice.

“He probably deserves it, you know.”

His head swiveled. The woman beside him was dressed in pewter slacks and a charcoal cardigan, and had beautiful, long gray hair twisted up in a bun. The lines of her face were full of humor and grace, and her dark eyes were kind as she stared back at him.

“Scusi?”

The woman smiled and ordered a glass of Chardonnay from the bartender. “I was eating with my friend and over-heard the scene. He is your boss, no?”

Sawyer drummed his fingers on the wood top and glanced at his watch. Four minutes. “He was my boss. Got fired.”

She sighed. “Many people use power for the wrong things. What business are you in?”

“Hotels. We were meeting a client here, but I guess I was a bit too successful.” The hate and bitterness twisted inside him and made him nauseous. Sawyer pushed his beer away.

“Not sure why I thought it would be different,” he murmured to himself. “I was stupid to play by the rules.”

“No. You were brave. Believing in something good is the only thing that can hold us together.”

He paused and studied her. She smelled of sugar and cakes and sweetness. What was her game? His fingers slipped to the small bag that held the camera. He gripped it more firmly and took a swig of beer. Three minutes. “Trust me, I don’t live in the world of the fantastic. You need to protect yourself by using any means necessary. Only the strong survive.”

Suddenly, her hand grasped his wrist. His first reaction was to jerk away—he couldn’t stand anyone touching him without warning—but her skin was warm and her gaze steady as she looked at him. Not just on the surface, but down deep using those brown eyes, so Sawyer sensed she saw every one of his writhing, twisted demons. “Life is more than surviving, don’t you think? Life is about choices. Hard ones. There is something bigger than us out there, something called karma.

Every good deed goes back into the universe, and every bad one reaps retribution. Maybe not here on Earth, but later.”

He shook from a sudden onslaught of emotion. Sawyer sneered in mockery from the slight softening. “Bullshit, lady.

There is no hereafter, and happiness here means money, power, and taking what you want.”

Her smile was gentle and full of so much wisdom he sucked in his breath. “You’re wrong. I know what you want to do, and I don’t blame you. No one could. An eye for an eye seems appropriate. But you’ll only wake up emptier and needing more hate to fill you.” Her fingers tightened around his sudden hammering pulse. “I’m asking you to choose different. Today. Choose to walk away from this, and everything may change.”

Fear shook him like a teething puppy with a new bone.

“Who are you? You don’t know me, or him. You don’t know anything.”

“I know I see something in you that’s so much more than this.” Her grip eased, and she drew some euros from her purse and pushed them across the bar. Then carefully placed a business card next to him. “I’d like to help you. I know someone who runs a well-known hotel, and I think you’d fit in nicely. But you need to decide what you want more.”

Sawyer scoffed at the card that held the name La Dolce Famiglia with a delicate cake sketched on the front. A fucking bakery? A crazy laugh strangled his chest. He was ready to film a porno with a hooker and blackmail his boss. He lived in the garbage because that was what he knew was true.

Any attempt for anything real or clean would only disappoint him. And Sawyer had learned his lesson well.

Hope was deadly.

“Sure, lady. Whatever.” He tucked her card into his suit jacket to get rid of her. “Thanks for the offer.”

She closed her eyes briefly, as if he was her son and had let her down. When she opened them, her brown eyes gleamed clear and bright and sharp as the edge of a broken bottle. “I know you don’t believe me. I probably wouldn’t either. Still, the Lord gives us choices every day, and each tiny one makes up the framework of our life. This doesn’t guarantee terrible things don’t happen to good people. Innocent people.” A sadness clung to her like a cloud of perfume. “Your future can be changed by one decision. One good thing can offset a mountain of bad. But you need to choose.”

She picked up her wine and nodded her head with a grace that made him long for something beautiful in his life.

“Thank you for listening.”

The woman disappeared out of the bar as if she had been conjured up by some weird sorcerer from Harry fucking Potter. Sawyer glanced at his watch and pushed the strange encounter from his mind.

Showtime.

He drained his beer, paid, and took the elevator up to the eleventh floor. The key card to room 117 burned in his grip. He checked the hall and made sure all was quiet. No maid or foot traffic yet. Saywer hefted the camera and fiddled with the buttons, making sure he was ready to film the movie of his life. Finally. His first step of vengeance, even sweeter than beating the shit out of the boys who tried to jump him in the alley he called home or stealing from rich pricks who spent their endless amounts of money on coffee and designer clothes and fancy women.

He slid the key in the door and waited for the click.

The light blinked. Sawyer paused.

The image of Danny ripped past his vision. Of a little boy who looked up to him, who believed he was strong enough to protect him from the demons and keep him safe. His failure rose up to mock him, and years of bullshit and pain raged within his gut. His fingers trembled and he choked on nausea.

This would be his life. A life of no rules, no limits, just an endless spiral of emptiness. Panic reared, and he shook as if in a fever, his breath lodged in his icy chest.

The faint sounds of laughter drifted from behind the door.

A slurred insult. The sound of spanking and a low moan.

Sawyer knew he’d open the door to a scene from porn heaven.

He’d get his job back, get Robin fired, and never look back.

His past blurred into the present, the future. The woman’s words seared his brain until a bright light exploded in his vision.

One choice stood before him, clear and true, with precise consequences.

The other loomed ahead, fogged in mystery, ready to knock him back on his ass for taking a chance.

“oh, yes, baby, just like that, oh, feels good!”

Sawyer staggered back from the door and fought for breath. In a drunken stupor, he moved down the hallway and shot down the stairs, running faster and faster away from the demons. He burst through the doors, into the lobby, and out to the sidewalk, dragging in clean air, losing himself in the crowd of people busily shuffling past him with the goal of work, pleasure, family, food, life.

He didn’t know how long or how far he walked. Minutes.

Hours. Finally, he took out the card and studied the address.

He took a taxi, then the funicular into Bergamo, and finally reached the house. His hand shook as he raised it to knock.

The door swung open, and the woman from the bar looked at him.

“I didn’t do it.” His breath rushed out of his lungs. A strange sob rose to his lips. “I didn’t do it.”

The woman’s voice was wrapped in a loving strength promising safe haven. Promising something Sawyer didn’t believe existed. “I am so proud of you. What is your name?”

“Sawyer Wells.”

“Come inside, Sawyer Wells. We will talk. It will all be all right.”

He stepped inside and his life changed.

The memory shimmered and disappeared like wisps of smoke. He was betraying a woman he loved. If Julietta had any feelings for him other than sexual, he’d destroy her and hurt Mama Conte. Julietta was a woman with character, strength, purpose. She was loyal to her family and walked in the light. Deep down, he’d never be enough for her, and the longer they spent together, the more dangerous the outcome. Better to allow Julietta the distance she desperately craved. She deserved a man who was whole and could give her the kind of life she deserved.

Marriage. Babies. A full heart. Not someone who had nothing else to offer her other than good intentions and endless nights of sex.

No, he needed to end it now. Go back to the standard working relationship and be happy with memories.

His gut burned like acid.

“What are you doing?”

Sawyer jerked his head around. Wolfe stood in the doorway in a long-sleeved Nike shirt and boxers. His crazy hair stood straight up at wacky angles. “Nothing.” Sawyer’s voice was empty, as devoid of emotion as his own pathetic soul. “Go back to bed.” He was about to turn away when he caught the look in the boy’s eyes.

Haunted.

Ah, yes. The monsters always came at night, when you needed sleep and peace desperately. When you were most vulnerable. Sawyer motioned toward the chair next to him.

“Actually, do me a favor. Sit down for a minute. I’m in a pissy mood and don’t feel like being alone.”

The boy moved into the living area, sat on the silver cushions, and pushed away a fancy blue striped pillow.

Sawyer recognized the sheen of sweat on his forehead, the wrinkled shirt from twisting back and forth in the sheets, and the hollow cheeks. The boy finally spoke. “What’s up? I thought you had a good night.”

“I thought so, too.” A short silence fell. Usually he dis-liked anyone in his personal space, but Wolfe’s presence comforted him. “Had a nightmare. you get them?”

Wolfe shifted on the cushion. “yeah.” He paused.

“What was it about?”

Sawyer studied the boy on his couch and realized how similar to Danny he was. young. Strong. Mouthy. Smart as hell. But with his bare feet and his crazy hair, he seemed so damn vulnerable. So easy to . . . disappoint. Again. He cleared his throat. “Bad stuff. Getting beaten, trying to survive. you?”

Wolfe’s blue eyes turned flat. “Same.”

Sawyer reached for normal conversation, not wanting to torture the kid with a minefield of feelings he still tried to process. “I have to be at the site early in the morning.

Can you sort through the inventory records so I’m set for delivery?”

“yep.”

“Dinner was good, huh?”

“I liked the pasta. Better than any meal in some of those fancy restaurants you go to.”

“yeah, Mama Conte doesn’t fool around when it comes to a meal. How was your conversation?”

He ducked his head. “She was so nice to me.”

“She saved my ass when I was a little older than you.

She’s good people.”

“yeah.”

“The whole family is amazing. And have you tasted any of their desserts? Un-frikkin’-believable.”

“Does it ever go away?”

The question shot through the room like a cannon mis-fire. Sawyer quickly covered his surprise and gazed back at the boy. Lips tight, chin up, something wobbling in his eyes, a gleam of desperation for normalcy, a need to hear the words that it would all go away and he’d be happy for the rest of his life.

A connection fused between them. His chest tightened, and a soul-deep need to take away the boy’s pain blistered inside. God, he wanted to lie. But he knew truth was more important.

“No.” The devastation on Wolfe’s face choked him.

“But it gets better. I swear to you, there will be nights with no nightmares or memories. you’re able to handle more normal stuff. Work helps. Maybe therapy.”

Wolfe sneered. “Did that. No, thanks.”

“Depends on the shrink. Some are decent. I bailed, too.

But we can look around and try again.”

Wolfe nodded. “okay. At least you were honest.”

An image of his brother dead in an alleyway like a piece of garbage rose up and taunted him. Sawyer dragged in a breath. “I’ll always tell you the truth. And I’ll help in any way I can. Day by day. And I know I’m not the touchy-feely type either, but you can talk to me. About anything.”

Wolfe gave a jerky nod. Some of the muscles in his body loosened. “Thanks, Sawyer.”

Sawyer made a fast decision. The hell with it. There’d be no sleep for them anyway tonight. He stood up and motioned to Wolfe. “Let’s go.”

“Where?”

“My kind of therapy. The gym. Meet you back here in five. Deal?”

“Deal.”

Sawyer trudged to his room to change, preparing for a few rounds at the bag, some on the mat, and a vicious weight competition. His spirits lightened as he looked forward to a few hours of sweat, the blessed emptiness of mind and soul, and the company of a boy for whom he was beginning to deeply care. He grabbed his duffel and headed out.

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