The Marriage Merger

By: Jennifer Probst

Chapter Two


Julietta adjusted the knot in her sage green scarf, smoothed down her skirt, and opened the gilded double doors. She walked to the receptionist’s desk, where a matronly woman took her name and told her to have a seat. Hmm, surprising.

She’d expected a young starlet in killer heels who rocked her boss’s world at lunchtime. Shame on her for assuming.

Perhaps Sawyer Wells would be a pleasant surprise.

She shrugged out of her lime green trench coat and settled her briefcase on the floor. The ringing of phones drifted in the air as she took in the lush corporate surroundings of Wells enterprises. The giant logo of a scripted [email protected] hung in polished brass on the front wall, and the reception area had comfortable leather chairs and royal blue carpet. The massive main desk was of glass and boasted a variety of high-tech equipment along with assorted drawers and com-partments for organization.

Julietta had done her homework, but it hadn’t given her much. A quick call placed to her brother-in-law Max informed her Sawyer was a friend of his, true to his word, with razor-sharp business skills. His name was well-known in the hotel industry where luxury hotels courted him to run their establishments for certain lengths of time. Sawyer stepped in, turned the businesses around, and gracefully removed himself without another word. His main head-quarters was housed in New york, but ten months ago a brand-new satellite office appeared in Milan. Uneasiness rumbled through the business industry as rumors exploded.

She bet even the famous Hotel Principe di Savoia kept a close eye on the man. His record was impeccable, and he possessed the golden touch to change a crumbling resort into a treasure trove.

The mysterious phone call had taken her completely off guard. Why would the biggest hotel connoisseur request a meeting with her at nine-thirty on a Monday morning?

She’d tried to gain further information, but a curt voice had informed her there would only be only one opportunity to meet with Sawyer, and he’d explain the terms of the meeting in person.

Julietta despised secrets and business cloaked in mys-tery. She had agreed to the meeting, but had immediately begun digging. Funny that such a powerful man who traveled the world bailing out expensive hotels seemed to have no past. Almost as if he’d been a ghost until his mid-twenties. The last decade showed his steady rise in power, and other than the gleeful press regarding his colorful love life, nothing else interested her. An endless line of women was expected when it came to rich businessmen. She couldn’t care less who he slept with or when. She only cared about what he wanted with her company. Unfortunately, Max had only advised her to take the meeting, vowing he knew nothing about his friend’s intentions.

“you may go in now, Ms. Conte.”

Julietta smiled and grabbed her Pineider briefcase. She was led down a short hallway to a heavily carved cherry-wood door. She reached for the knob, but the door swung open without a sound. A shiver raced down her spine, and she hesitated. odd—she felt that if she crossed the threshold, her life would never be the same. Almost like being invited into a haunted house by the owner, who craved your soul.

“Come in.”

The husky drawl whispered against her ears. She took the necessary three steps in. The door swung closed sound-lessly behind her.

Her hands clenched around her briefcase. What was wrong with her? Usually she dominated a meeting from the first moment, but she stood rooted to the floor staring across the room at one of the most powerfully sexual men she’d ever seen in her life.

No wonder his receptionist was a grandmotherly type.

There wasn’t a woman alive who could work for him without getting tongue-tied and stumbling over herself in an effort to please him. His inner sanctum was decorated in dark wood, wine reds, and rich gold trims. Floor-to-ceiling bookshelves took up the wall behind him with endless leather spines amidst odd figures and sculptures in vari-ous materials. Smooth marble, gleaming silver, twisted copper. The left wall was painted red and displayed an assortment of art with an erotic flavor. She longed to study the artwork closer but tucked that information to the back of her mind for future reference. His sprawling cherry desk took up half the room in an effort to intimi-date. His chair must have been elevated for a dominating visual impression, because there was no way a man could be that tall. Perched on his red leather throne, he studied her with an assessing air that stripped her of niceties and social barriers, somehow leaving her bare. exposed. And a bit vulnerable.

His wavy blond hair held so many shades of color, the light danced and played on the strands as if lighting up a halo. That halo brushed his shoulders and tempted a woman to twist her fingers in its length as he ravaged her.

She catalogued his features in an itemized list: Gracefully curved brows. High, defined cheekbones. Strong chin with a bit of a cleft. An angel or God himself must have given him those eyes, because they seemed almost pure gold, splinter-ing radiance and piercing past the surface straight to the core. As stunning as hidden treasure, those eyes saw things no woman wanted revealed. Julietta bet most females had little choice in the matter. This man took what he wanted and how he wanted without apology.

Then the angels shot screaming up to heaven and aban-doned him to hell.

His mouth was a carved, sensual feast with a wicked sneer that spoke of hot sex and no rules. A brutal scar took up the right side of his face, hooking from brow to chin. The line was clean. She imagined the slice of blade as it tore open skin, and she tried not to show any sympathy. This man didn’t need it.

The hard twist of good and bad played to women like the Pied Piper. A cold awareness rippled her nerve endings.

Good thing men didn’t affect her. She’d be burnt toast before they even negotiated on whatever the damn meeting was about. Julietta straightened her shoulders and met his gaze head-on. “Good morning, Mr. Wells. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

She closed the distance between them and stuck out her hand. He stood and grasped her hand in his. The hand-shake was impersonal while being too intimate. His skin was warm and rough to the touch, and he engulfed her hand as if claiming her body on his own terms.

Startled at her bizarre thoughts, she withdrew first and didn’t realize she’d been holding her breath. Those gorgeous lips curved upward in a half smile. She didn’t know if he was amused or pleased. either way pissed her off. Julietta immediately sensed the man was accustomed to winning.

Comfortable in his own skin. And entertained by mankind, as if humans on a stage put on a show in which he refused to partake. Hmm. She needed to go on the offense quickly.

Defense would bore him to tears and get her nowhere.

Julietta took a seat, crossed her legs, and settled back in the chair with a relaxed sense of camaraderie she didn’t feel.

“I see you like games.”

He cocked his head. The flare of surprise soothed her temper. “Depends on the game.”

She offered a cool smile. “Chess.” She pointed to the beautifully carved figures of a king and queen flanking a shelf of impressive leather books. The carved ivory and ebony pieces held exquisite detail and bespoke a man interested in mental challenges. “They’re quite beautiful.”

Sawyer rested his elbows on the polished surface and steepled his fingers. She refused to cower under his stare that threatened to shred the surface. When he finally spoke, his deep voice cloaked and stroked dark places she didn’t realize she owned. “Do you play?”

“No.”

“Why?”

She spoke in a clipped voice. “Games don’t interest me.

I prefer a straightforward exchange of information for mu-tual benefit.”

He quirked a golden brow. “yet you are the Ceo of a powerful company. Surely you must acknowledge there must always be a winner and a loser.”

Ah, yes, he loved to spar. A deep satisfaction hummed through her. How rare to be able to match wits with a man who was completely unafraid. Most cowered under her chilly words or blustered like idiots to get a point across. No, she preferred a subtle wit as fine and sharp as a samurai’s sword. She danced just out of his reach with her answer. “If you do your job well enough, your opponent won’t even realize he’s lost.”

“I disagree. If your opponent is worthy, he will always face the truth that one party tops another. The queen must be stolen in order to win all.”

She clicked open her briefcase as if bored now by the turn of conversation. The ruffle of papers cut through the pulsing silence, and she realized her palms were damp.

How odd. Not nerves. Something else she couldn’t quite pin down. “Queens may be sacrificed. She’s the power player, but it all rests on the king. With a smart enough backup plan, the queen doesn’t have to destroy the entire board.”

His eyes darkened. oh, yeah, no way could a woman work for this man. He should be the poster board image of what to avoid in teenage pregnancy. The balance between light and dark was just enough to tempt a female to jump over the edge of reason, no matter how hard the recovery from the fall. Fortunately, Julietta despised heights and avoided them at all costs. “I thought you didn’t play chess,”

he murmured.

“I don’t.” She raised her chin. “But that doesn’t mean I don’t study the rules. Just in case.”

His low laugh slid through the room and stroked between her legs. She acknowledged her body’s physical reaction even as her mind remained detached. “you are a fascinating woman, Julietta Conte.” His tongue rolled over her name and gave it a whole new meaning. Normally she cringed in the boardroom at the mention of her birth name.

Too many men used romance and intimacy to demean women in business. But Sawyer combined respect with a leashed sensuality, keeping her off-balance. “I’m glad I followed my instincts to give you the first opportunity to work for me.”

She closed her briefcase and settled it back on the floor, then thumbed through the file in a deliberate power play.

“While I appreciate being first in line, I would have preferred knowing the details of the offer. I do hate wasting my morning on a deal not worthy of my time. I’m sure you understand, Mr. Wells.”

“Sawyer.” He rested his chin on his fingers. “After all, I already met most of your family. Am good friends with your brother-in-law. The least we can do is be on a first-name basis.”

“Fine.”

“Say it.”

She looked up. “excuse me?”

An odd tension stretched between them, as if a pre-liminary game was being played, and she didn’t know the stakes. “My name,” he instructed softly. “Say it.”

Julietta blinked. Warmth flooded her body and made her skin itch. Her tummy dropped, then settled. She didn’t want to and opened her mouth to gloss over the whole weird exchange, but found herself responding to his command. “Sawyer.”

His name stumbled across her lips and she cursed herself for the move. Satisfaction and something deeper flickered over his face, but he only nodded in approval. “Thank you.”

She cleared her throat and refocused on the file. “Now that we’re properly acquainted, I’d appreciate moving forward. It seems your reputation precedes you.”

“In a good way, I hope,” he drawled.

“Mostly.”

Another short laugh. “you are quite different from any-one else in your family.”

She ignored the throbbing wound and managed a tight smile. “In a good way I hope.”

He frowned and leaned a bit closer. “Did that comment bother you? I only meant your focus proved an asset for Michael. your sisters weren’t meant to take over the family business. everyone is lucky to have you.”

The wound softened to a slight bruise. Why did he seem so concerned about upsetting her? As if he held the ability to poke at her secret insecurities without the drive to expose and hurt? As if he just wanted to know.

“of course I’m not bothered. I consider myself lucky to run La Dolce Famiglia. I don’t think I realized you had met most of my family.”

The harsh lines of his face softened into affection. “Max and I ran in the same circles and we became close. He’s told me about Venezia, and I was lucky enough to meet Carina in Vegas last year. I attended their wedding.”

The memory of her sister’s quick nuptials flickered past.

She hadn’t had the time to fly in and had always regret-ted not being there. Mama was the only one in the family able to witness the exchange, but the idea of Sawyer seeing such an intimate ceremony bothered her. “Interesting,” she murmured. “And my mother?”

All expression smoothed out to a blank canvas. “I had the pleasure of meeting your mother many years ago. I respect her greatly.”

There was a story behind his words, but she figured he was a master at secrets. Julietta motioned to the manila folder in her lap. “It seems you have the advantage. My research began when you started taking over hotels and transforming them into profitable entities. There’s no mention of family, birthplace, or anything else. Almost as if your life before twenty-three never existed.”

The darkness flared and swallowed up the light in his whiskey eyes. Her breath hitched at the rage and raw pain she saw, and just as quickly the emotions were gone from his face. “It didn’t,” he said. “That will have to be enough for you.”

Julietta respected his demons. After all, she hid her own.

Slowly, she nodded. “That’s enough for me.”

He smiled. His teeth were dazzling white but crooked slightly in the front, which kept him from looking pretty.

“Good. Let’s talk business. I have a proposition for you. A merger of sorts.”

She crossed her arms in front of her chest and didn’t respond. He seemed intrigued with her control and pa-tience. Julietta wondered what type of women he was used to dealing with in his world. “I’m about to unveil a chain of my own signature luxury hotels. For the past few years, I’ve bought property in prime locations in main cities throughout europe and the United States. The plan is ambitious and begins with hotels opening up in Milan, rome, Venice, and Florence. I’ll move into england with three locations including London. Then the United States, where I’ll build in New york, LA, and Chicago.”

He waited for a comment. She remained silent.

“The hotel chain will be called Purity. I’ve been working on the concept for years—a dream, so to speak—and have a team ready to move fast. I’ve decided to begin in Italy for a variety of reasons. The statistics are quite high for travelers in those areas and the need for something extra, especially for many Americans. I’ll be combining a line of exclusive spas and catering. I prefer to work with specific vendors who can sign an exclusive contract to my line. My intention is for the people I do business with to work for some of the most sought-after companies in the world.

Travelers will beg to experience the uniqueness of Purity’s assets. I’ll launch this in three main components: one, the linens will be handmade and exclusive to Purity. Luxurious robes, slippers, towels, beds, and sheets. Similar to Frette, but we’ve been able to create a new line that Armani can’t boast of. There won’t be one thing a customer touches that he doesn’t crave to curl into. Component two is the spa and restaurants. I’ve already signed contracts to incorporate the finest dining and best relaxation methods in the world.

The two chefs I stole turned down television deals to come with me. The third component is delicacies: shops with fine gold, customized jewelry, designer fashion, and of course, desserts.”

Julietta leaned slightly forward. Her heart hammered as she hung on his next words.

“I want to sign a chain of bakeries to provide exclusive catering at all Purity hotels. This will encompass catering events of all kinds, including weddings. I need an exclusive, high-quality bakery that can provide product to all restaurants, room service, and a pedestrian shop for impulse buys.”

Her mind sifted through the possibilities. The plan was risky. Almost crazy in the current economy. yet, the sim-plicity of exclusiveness and the locations screamed genius.

If the components worked together, Sawyer could launch one of the most successful brand names in the world. She pursed her lips in thought. “Do the chefs you contracted understand the terms? Most want total control of all food, including the desserts.”

“They all know the rules. I don’t want some great cooks who can bake good desserts, or one pastry chef. I need a well-oiled chain that can give anything my clients want in a variety of outlets. And I want the best. La Dolce Famiglia is the best.”

Pleasure cut deep, but she ignored it. The man was a genius, but she’d learned early there were always hidden clauses in the deal of a lifetime. “I’m impressed. of course I’ll need to see your development plans, timetables, and locations to get a better feel if this would be right for us.”

“of course.”

“estimated profit margins are key.”

“yes.”

“There’s just one word that’s bothering me in your proposal.”

“What’s that?”

“exclusive.”

His gaze dropped to her mouth. The hungry predator look surprised her. She wasn’t a woman who normally in-spired lust. Challenge, yes. But in a business meeting, she was always able to detach the feminine part of her, so attraction never became a problem. For the first time, a matching need flared deep in her belly in an attempt to claw free.

What would it be like to be on the receiving end of all that pent-up male attention? He stroked his chin in contempla-tion while he studied her. Those tapered fingers skimmed lightly over a clean-shaven jaw and right under his plump lower lip. Was his skin as golden toasty brown everywhere under that black Gucci suit? Would his fingers play a woman’s body and coax a delicious river of need from between her thighs?

She pushed down a sigh. Just a fantasy. The moment he kissed her and found she wasn’t the normal weak-kneed female he preferred, he’d lose interest. They all did. And Julietta didn’t blame them. Dio, what was she doing thinking about him naked anyway? Had she gone pazzo?

“you have a problem with being exclusive?” With a lean, masculine grace he pushed back in his chair and hooked his ankle over his knee. The casual gesture contradicted the steely question wrapped in fuzzy cotton. Her mouth dried up. Why did it suddenly seem they were talk-ing about a whole different meaning of the word?

Julietta gave a delicate shrug. “Sometimes. Multiple partners even out the risk.”

A wolfish grin spread over his mouth. “exactly. The risk of failure. Making a commitment to the right partner pushes the percentage of success to a higher level.”

“or the attachment can equal bankruptcy.” The blood pounded and rushed through her veins as they thrust and parried in round two of their mental game. “It’s happened too many times.”

Sawyer dropped his voice. Sticky honey and hot oil mixed and slid together in a delight to her ears and the pulsing center between her legs. “you chose wrong before and got screwed. But that won’t happen with me.”

Her skin prickled and her breasts ached behind her proper white bra. Julietta had the sudden urge to rip off her clothes and offer herself to him on his desk. Spread her thighs and bend to his will. Horror mingled with surprise at the primitive reaction he coaxed. Thank God she’d learned early to control her breath to calm her nerves in public situations. She forced a small smile. “Confident, are we? Good, I look for that in a partner. I assume you have a formal proposal I can go over?”

He pushed the black leather binder across the desk. She scooped it up, gave it a cursory glance, and tucked it away in her briefcase. “I’ll get back to you this week.”

“No. Tomorrow.”

Julietta frowned. “Impossible. I need lawyers to look it over. I have to bring it to the board members. Talk with Michael.”

He cut his hand through the air. “Michael runs La Dolce Maggie, and I intend to give him the same deal with my local operations in New york. If this is going to work, I need to know you’re my point person for everything. you make the decisions. Democracy is good, but sometimes a monarchy gets better results.” Something flashed in his eyes—deep and sexual and wicked. “I’ll have to prove that to you soon.”

Julietta refused to clear her throat or act timid. “you run the risk of me saying no to the whole thing.”

“yes. But I still need an answer tomorrow. I’ll take you to dinner.”

She shook her head. “No need, Mr. Wells, I—”

“Sawyer.”

Her belly dropped at his commanding tone. “Sawyer.

I’ll need till five p.m.”

“Perfect. Whatever your decision is, we’ll celebrate over wine and pasta. I’ll pick you up at seven.”

The situation tilted, and she grabbed for footing. “I don’t think that’s necessary.”

“I do. Whether or not we do business, I’ve spent time with most of your family and would like to share one meal with you. Talk about Max. your sister. Is that too much to ask?”

She felt like an idiot. How did she fight such a rea-sonable request without looking like a total bitch? But something told her she didn’t want to be alone with him, especially in her apartment. Inviting him in seemed deadly.

Her tongue stumbled over the words. “Fine. you can pick me up at the office; I’ll be working.”

He bowed his head as if it had been her idea the entire time. “Very good. I’ll be looking forward to your decision.”

She rose from the chair and decided to avert the whole handshaking thing again. Her cowardly move caused his lip to quirk in a half smile, but he stayed behind his desk and watched her leave. once again, the door swung silently open, as if finally allowing her escape. Did he have a re-mote under his desk so he could screw with his clients? The whole meeting rattled her usually calm nerves.

Juliettta dug deep, straightened her shoulders, and marched out of the office without a glance back.



He wanted her.

Sawyer stared at the closed door and tried to make sense of his rioting emotions. Her scent lingered in the air.

He dragged in a breath and tried to capture her essence.

The sweetness of vanilla. The exotic kick of coconut. A heady contradiction like the woman herself.

Shit. This was going to be more complicated than he thought.

He rose and paced. Wondered if he should withdraw the offer. He expected certain things from the oldest sister of the Conte family. A reserved demeanor. A sharp mind.

A ruthless sense of organization and leadership. Assets he admired and needed in a business partner long term. His conversations with Max and Michael had convinced him La Dolce Famiglia would be the perfect fit, and that Julietta was fully capable of making all the decisions.

He’d never expected to be attracted to her.

Sawyer knew he possessed an uncanny ability with women. Part gift, part training. every nuance of expression was analyzed. Body language, words, gestures. especially the eyes, which he believed were the window to the soul.

except his. The inviting golden color was a trick of the light meant to throw an enemy off guard. once someone dove in, all she’d discover was a black pit of hell.

He shook off the gloomy thought and yanked himself back to the problem. The moment she walked in and greeted him in her cool, possessed tone, he wanted to claim her. Her surface image screamed look, but don’t touch. Glance, but don’t study. Question, but don’t ponder.

Her voice reminded him of tinkling ice squeezed in the heady warmth of an Italian accent. She wore her hair pulled back from her face with only a few strands allowed to escape and cradle her cheeks. When she turned her head, the light caught the glimmer of dark red wine strands glisten-ing like rubies in the midst of proper conservative pearls.

Those dark eyes were large and dominated her face, but a swirl of actual gold around the irises gleamed with a hidden depth he bet most men never caught. A strong nose, chin, and defined cheekbones set off a mouth so soft and plump he wanted to spend hours just sucking and licking. The fact that she didn’t even accentuate them with lipstick made her mouth even more tempting.

She wore her clothes with the command of a woman who liked classic, expensive fashion and knew how to carry it off. Her long, lithe frame had set off the Vera Wang cream suit: the pencil skirt skimming her hips and hitting midcalf.

She had walked across the room with purpose in her bone leather pumps, as if her body were only along for the ride, and almost a separate entity. As if her mind and body were completely disconnected in a dueling battle. The thrust of her small, high breasts under her suit jacket and the smooth peek of warm brown skin as she crossed her legs revved his body to immediate attention. Full staff. Thank God the desk was high, because wouldn’t that have been an embarrassing moment. He couldn’t remember the last time a woman turned him on by just walking into a room. Not since Carina.

The memory of Julietta’s younger sister flashed before him. Before his friend Max made his claim, he’d been fascinated by the earthy need and innocence Carina exuded in Vegas, but he realized immediately she was in love with Max. Never one to settle for second place, he’d let her go because she wasn’t meant for him. Not long term. Perhaps a brief affair, but she’d never look at him the way she did his friend. Sawyer was glad they were happily married after such a long journey. But even his reaction to Carina was a slight buzz compared to the roaring in his dick when Julietta entered the room.

Her fingers were strong, smooth, and trembled ever so slightly in his grip. She dominated the challenging conversation that most men wouldn’t have been able to follow, and she never lost her footing. yet when he’d made his comment about her being different from her family, she’d stiffened and pain had flared in her cocoa eyes.

Beneath that tight, buttoned-up demeanor was a tangle of passion, emotion, and mess. The best decision lay before him. Cancel the dinner. Back away from the deal. Move on.

A woman like Julietta had the power to wreck his concen-tration, screw with his business, and make his life miserable.

yet something pulled him to her. Twisted his insides with a raw need to strip her surface bare and make her face who she really was. The way she responded to his demand that she say his name spoke volumes. She had natural submissive tendencies, which intrigued his dominant side.

What would she be like in bed? Her mind was so bent on constant control, he bet she had a hard time focusing on the pleasures of her body.

He could teach her.

His blood pounded and heated through his veins. She wouldn’t be an easy match, though. She’d be one major pain in the ass. Did he have time for this now? His long-held dream of building his own hotel empire lay right before him. Tying her up in his business could prove risky. But damn, tying her up in any way, shape, or form was too fucking tempting.

Sawyer realized the past few years he’d been skimming the edges with women. He played at relationships to a point he wouldn’t know a real connection if it was advertised in blinding neon. Work had been his driving force for the past decade, and it remained his sole demanding mistress. His forays into pleasure were set ahead of time with ironclad rules. But many women slipped into clinginess and emotion he couldn’t handle, forcing him to end the relationship quickly. Julietta might be able to offer him a bit more depth, with the ability to keep business separate from pleasure.

Most women couldn’t handle the limitations.

He bet Julietta Conte handled any challenge thrown at her.

Sawyer tapped his finger against his lips and analyzed all the options. Such a delicate line to walk between business and pleasure. Snakes twisted in a pit beneath him, ready for even one misstep. She’d need to be handled with kid gloves at first, before he switched to the delicious sting of the whip. He needed to learn what drove her, what she hid, and how best to yank away years of barriers. Was it too risky, especially when he was about to unveil his dream and his only reason for survival all these years?

The answer coursed through him with a bone-deep knowledge he never questioned.

And he made the decision he’d wanted to from the moment he met her.

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