The Marriage Merger

By: Jennifer Probst

Chapter Three


Julietta glanced up: 4:58 p.m.

The papers were spread neatly in front of her on the conference table. The room was quiet, and just the hum of low chatter and ringing phones drifted in waves. She had informed the board. Spoken with the lawyers. Made a call to Michael. Pounded out numbers nonstop through the night and refused to sleep. And came up with one decision.

She’d be crazy not to take the deal.

It would be her opportunity to do something on a global scale for the company. Though she’d been acting Ceo, it had only been a few years ago she’d been given full control.

Her brother had true intentions but still kept the reins on her leadership role until he married Maggie and saw the error of his ways. Finally, she had leapt forward and started making deals on her own. When Michael had begun infil-trating top hotels in the States, Julietta had burned with the desire to push the bakery chain to a new level in Italy. She’d already conquered the street market, but she wanted to go after the hotels. The big ones. The failure of her last deal with The Palazzo still stung. She’d been completely prepared, and every pore of her body had craved a final deal.

She hated the simmering knowledge that The Palazzo’s ex-ecutive team didn’t believe a woman could give them what they desired. oh, in bed, yes. But in business?

No. Instead, they gave the deal to her competitor who boasted no vision and an Italian patriarch grandfather.

Julietta realized too late The Palazzo wanted full control over her. once they’d realized the little woman had a strong voice, they’d dropped her contract without another word.

But now she faced a resurrection of her dream. Sawyer’s contract could launch La Dolce Famiglia into the world of luxurious hotels.

There were risks, though. With an exclusive contract, she’d be unable to install any other bakeries. She’d be locked up with Purity, and if Sawyer failed, so would she.

The gamble lay before her in all shades of gray. excitement pulsed through her. When was the last time she’d gotten fired up about a deal? She desperately needed a challenge to focus on to launch her out of the current self-pity tour she hosted every evening. There was nothing better than a shot of adrenaline on a new contract.

Five p.m.

The intercom buzzed. She hit the button. “yes?”

“Ms. Conte, Sawyer Wells is on the line. May I put him through?”

She shook her head and fought a smile. “yes, thank you.”

The connection hummed. His voice spilled like gravel and silk over the phone. “Have you made a decision?”

“Prompt, aren’t you?”

“Always.” He paused. “We can play another round and drag the discussion out over dinner. or I can persuade you in the manner you need. I’m quite good at persuasion.”

His arrogance was overwhelming and sexy as hell.

Damn, he’d be fun to work with. “No need. I’ve been wined and dined by the best. Never made a decision based on such techniques either.”

His dark laugh was like a subtle threat. “you’re not familiar with my moves.”

“I’ve found most male moves overrated.”

“Delightful. A challenge.”

Julietta gave a long-suffering sigh. Better to get the truth out over dinner. If Sawyer thought he’d get some extra side benefits while they worked together, he was quite mistaken. She hoped he wouldn’t get cranky and surly like the other rejects. “Trust me, it was simple truth and not meant to wave a red flag in front of you. My answer is yes.”

Silence fell between them. She waited him out. “yes?”

“Do I need to repeat myself? I’ll sign the contract. you can still meet me here at headquarters at seven so we can celebrate. A pleasure conversing with you, Mr. Wells.”

She clicked off her earpiece. Satisfaction surged. Her tiny rebellion with his name may have been childish, but well worth it. obviously, he was way too used to women jumping at his call and throwing off their clothes. Time he realized he couldn’t get anyone he wanted because the angels bestowed him the gift of hotness.

regret nudged her. What would it feel like just once to have a strong physical reaction to a man without worrying about freezing up? For it to be simple and clean. Just nakedness and orgasms and an early morning getaway.

Pathetic. If that was her only deficiency in life, she could call herself blessed. At least she had a juicy new deal ahead of her, with long hours of work and a deep satisfaction that called to her.

Success.

Completion.

Achievement.

It was enough.

She repeated the mantra to herself as she got back to work. The hours flew by. Julietta took her last two minutes to smooth back her hair, re-knot her scarf, and tuck her folders away. He arrived on time and in full male glory. Her gaze raked over him with a hint of crankiness. He stood in the doorway and refused to say a word. His quiet arrogance radiated in waves around his figure, and she fought the need to drop her head in recognition. Weirdness.

He wore a charcoal-gray pin-striped suit with a purple tie. The ruthless severity of the suit contradicted with his surfer hair tied back in a short ponytail, setting off the hard lines of his cheekbones and the red scar. The combination of raw sex and power cloaked in masculine grace transfixed her for just a moment. Julietta mentally shook herself. No more drooling. Defenses up. Game on.

“you like being in charge, don’t you, Julietta?”

The stroke of her name was deliberate and effective.

She forced a pleasant smile. “Doesn’t every woman?”

“you won’t let me see your apartment. Not even your private office. I’ve been delegated to picking you up for dinner in your conference room.”

Julietta grabbed her red Fendi bag and closed the distance between them. His body pumped out heat, and she had to tilt her head back a few inches in order to meet his gaze. God, he smelled good. Like coffee and spices, rich and all male. Her height usually gave her an advantage. At almost six feet, she usually towered over her competition, but he topped her by several inches. She realized now the sheer breadth and size of his massive shoulders stretched in his proper suit jacket was another contradiction. He was a primitive wrapped up in civilization. The veneer scared her the most, but she wouldn’t let herself be in such an intimate position with him. She had to set boundaries immediately, or he’d swallow her whole. “I may have agreed to the contract, but I never invite anyone into my private space.”

Sawyer didn’t budge. “ever?” he asked softly.

“our working relationship doesn’t guarantee a friend-ship, Sawyer. you may have met my family, and we may be going to dinner, but I don’t know you well enough for anything more.”

He seemed to analyze her words. Nodded. “Fair enough.

I figured we’d walk to Piazza repubblica.”

“Perfect.”

He ushered her out of headquarters as if he were in charge. His hand rested on the curve of her elbow, his fingers strong but gentle as he guided her over the uneven cobblestone pathways as they walked toward the restaurant.

The familiar sights and scents of Milan rushed past her.

She breathed in the heavy, fogged air that made the city unique, and she settled into a comfortable silence. The bustle of cars and pedestrians crowding the streets and sidewalks lent a purposeful atmosphere that soothed her soul.

Motorbikes roared by. Beautifully clad women in designer suits and high-heeled shoes weaved in and out amidst the crowd with elegant grace, and sidewalk café tables spilled onto the sidewalk with the scents of espresso and baked goods.

She’d seen videos of New york City and always felt Milan must be a close second cousin except for the grayish mist that cloaked the city and made it seem almost muddy to a viewer’s eye. Instead of towering glass buildings, the ancient architecture of the Duomo reigned.

They finally reached the elegant archway of repubblica.

It was already crowded, but they were immediately ushered to a red booth in the corner, and Sawyer ordered a bottle of champagne. The simple clean lines of the restaurant pleased her—the crisp white linens, polished floors, high ceilings, and candles scattering throughout the dimly lit interior. She chatted with the waiter, ordered appetizers, and began to relax.

“No briefcase?” he noted. He lifted the delicate champagne glass to his lips and took a swallow. The imprint of his mouth made a strange shudder squeeze through her. The heat rushed through the vents to ward off the chilly winter evening. She unbuttoned her suit jacket and hung it on the chair.

“No need. I already memorized most of the figures.”

Sawyer grinned. “Bet you have. Did you have the support of the board?”

“enough to move forward. It’s a risk, but calculated.

you have an ambitious plan for opening. Will you be ready in six months?”

“yes.”

She tilted her head and reached for a piece of crusty bread. The warm dough broke open, and she drizzled fruity olive oil over the edges. “A dozen things could go wrong and delay your plans.”

He watched her with a fierce intensity she wasn’t used to. Most men never gave her such full attention. Julietta wondered if it was one of his trademark moves he used to seduce women. “I’ve planned for all contingencies,” he finally said. “There will be no mistakes.”

His words dug deep. He needed this as much as she.

The knowledge soothed her nerves, and she reached for her glass. Perhaps they were more similar than she’d originally thought. Sawyer wouldn’t lose his focus over a silly challenge to bed her. Women were definitely a low priority for him. She smiled with relief. “Good. Then we both have something to prove.”

“yes, it seems we do.” Golden eyes gleamed. “The question is why?”

Her fingers closed around the last chunk of bread. She hoped he didn’t spot her tremble. “Doesn’t everyone want to make a fortune in business? Take over the world? It’s the human condition.”

Sawyer refused to follow her lead. “Is that what you want, Julietta? To make your mark?” His eyes burned. “Tell me, why did the deal with The Palace fall through?”

She kept her gaze averted and focused on the bread.

“I’m surprised you don’t know the details already. especially since you were researching La Dolce Famiglia for a while.”

“oh, I do know. I would like to hear your version of the events.”

Her temper nipped, but she answered with calm. “They decided I wasn’t the woman they originally believed I was.

The team had specific ideas and wanted no challenges. In other words, I wouldn’t have a say in my own company.”

“But you would have received prestige. Profits. Growth.”

A tiny frown marred his brow, and she had the uneasy feel-ing he was digging for something she couldn’t understand.

“Isn’t that a big enough payoff? Worth the sacrifice?”

“No. I haven’t gotten to this point to step back and let others take over.” She sipped her champagne to settle her nerves. “I’ll agree to be exclusive. But I won’t give up my rights of control. ever.”

A strange flare of lust heated his eyes, then disappeared so quickly she swore it was just a trick of the candlelight.

She wasn’t a woman to inspire such devotion, especially with such a primal force of man. “I don’t intend to partner with someone who has no opinion or spine, Julietta. Like I stated before, I need a leader who is my go-to person on all aspects. I will use every bit of intellect and talent you have.

By surrounding myself with such a team, I’ll be able to lead us, but be warned: Final approval will always be made by me.”

Her heart hammered, and she squeezed her thighs together as a jolt of arousal penetrated her core. Holy crap.

What was with this crazy reaction to his chauvinistic de-mands? She always hated men who thought they could command others just because they owned a penis. She ignored her body and pushed on. “Understood, as long as there is always a discussion with anything affecting La Dolce Famiglia.”

“of course. So, once we show The Palace what fools they were for letting you go, what next? Will this deal finally be enough?”

Her throat tightened. How dare he try to probe as if he had a right to know her thoughts? When she was finally able to gather her words, her voice was laced with ice. “Still invading personal space? My motivations are mine and not your business. How about you share yours? Will Purity finally be enough for you if it becomes a success?”

The emptiness in his eyes spoke volumes. Julietta clenched her hand in an effort not to reach across the table for contact, as if the feel of flesh on flesh could possibly soothe the gaping wound she knew nothing about. What demons rocked his past? Maybe it was better to never know. “God, I hope so,” he said. “But I won’t know until I get there.”

The waiter interrupted with a variety of steaming plates.

Crispy octopus paired with buffalo mozzarella and salty an-chovies and capers; bite-size beef ravioli in a creamy butter and thyme sauce; grilled eggplant and zucchini drizzled with oil and an array of salts. An odd intimacy buzzed around them, as if sharing secrets at the back of an Italian restaurant bonded them. What was going on? She’d gone on hundreds of business dinners to discuss contracts. Met many attractive, dynamic men who initially interested her.

The outcome always made her back away, but Sawyer challenged her at every turn and seemed to crave something more than the others. As if he not only wanted to strip her clothes off to view her naked body. Almost like he wanted to delve into her soul.

ridiculous.

She fought a shiver and bit into her eggplant. The toasty skin swirled with the pungent flavors of garlic and tomato sauce, soothing her temper. “Why did you pick Milan to un-veil your first hotels? Wouldn’t you be more comfortable back home?”

He waited to respond, obviously enjoying his food, which gave him extra points. Most Americans appreciated vast quantities with too much garnish and detail. She pre-ferred the simpler, richer ingredients in a meal that satisfied a deeper hunger in the body.

“I don’t have a home.”

His simple confession ripped past her ears. Her fork paused midair. “What do you mean? Max said you lived in Vegas and New york for a while.”

one broad shoulder lifted in a half shrug. “I live in whatever hotel I’m working on. It allows me freedom, a luxurious lifestyle, and expertise.” Shadows flickered over his face. “I stayed in Milan when I was young and learning the business. I’ve also spent a few years at the Carlton, so I’m quite comfortable in New york. I decided it would be poetic to begin here. I usually stay still for about a year.

Longer than that and I’m ready to bail.”

Her heart flinched. Family and home were part of her blood, and she couldn’t imagine not having a built-in support system. Her brother and sister might have fled to New york, but Julietta gained most of her strength from the crooked pavement under her feet and the vast Tuscan sky overhead. She had no desire to move anywhere else.

Sawyer’s casual reference to his wandering tendencies only confirmed a deeper loneliness he didn’t seem to care about.

There was no reason for her to care either. The man didn’t need any extra female support. He’d use any weak-ness to his advantage, including the possibility of her attraction. Julietta tamped down on an inner smirk. If only he knew such a road would lead him nowhere.

“you never want more?” she asked. “A place to call yours?”

She immediately regretted the impulsive words. Heat flared and crackled with amber flames, hotter than the one-hundred-proof whiskey Papa used to sneak in when he thought Mama wasn’t looking. Sawyer’s lips twisted in a sensual sneer. “overrated. I’ve learned to appreciate the present in all aspects. Taste, texture, sight, smell. I revel in everything given to me, because there’s no guarantee it’ll be there tomorrow. My home is my current location— nothing more, nothing less.” raw passion flicked from across the table and singed her like droplets of burning water.

“except Purity. It’s the one thing I want to say is a constant.

everything else eventually withers.”

“even love?”

The words flew from her lips, and she almost gasped in horror. Her cheeks heated. Dio mio, what had she done?

She must be having some kind of midlife crisis. Her normal temperament and control slipped around this man in a way that terrified her. She waited for his fury at such an intimate question, but his fork paused midair, as if he was just as shocked as she was. “What did you say?”

Julietta forced a half laugh. “I’m sorry—please disregard that question. I don’t know what came over me.”

“I think I do.” His gaze stripped, probed, tore. It took all her strength not to buckle from the intensity. “I appreciate a woman who asks whatever is on her mind. There is more strength in honesty than in pretty words that never scratch the surface of what’s real.”

“There’s no need to—”

“But I will. No, Julietta, I do not believe in love. Never have. I believe in passion and lust, honesty and loyalty. I believe in hard work and sacrifice. I believe in enjoying the gifts of this world. But I do not believe in love.”

Her fingers trembled. She reached out and drained her glass, trying not to show him how his words affected her.

Had she ever met another man with such a powerful presence? As if no topic was off-limits, and he was willing to explore every dark hidden corner of her body and soul with a fierce pleasure? yet he calmly shared one of his secrets like a gift.

He did not believe in love.

Julietta waited for the rush of relief but only experienced an odd uneasiness. Why did his confession bother her? An answering grief rose in her gut to mourn for a man she did not know, a man who asserted he experienced no gentler emotions. She ached to know more, but the longing could only end badly. He watched her, unblinking, from across the table. And she made her decision.

Their relationship must be held strictly to business.

Nothing more.

It was time she laid out the ground rules.

She pushed her plate away and snapped back to attention. “Thank you for sharing, but my question was uncalled for, and I apologize. I think moving forward we should keep the topics of conversation to work.”

His lip quirked and just like that, his emotions shifted back to distant amusement. Damn him for confusing her.

Damn him for making her act like a fool. “Such politeness.

I’m sure I made you uncomfortable talking about things that are . . . messy.”

She managed not to flinch, but her temper rose. “This will be a long journey, and we need to work closely together. Distractions from either of us would be unwelcome at this point.”

“Such as sex?”

This time, she jerked. Her glass tipped, but she grabbed it in time and righted it. Naked humor carved out the lines of his face. “Do you like to shock women, Sawyer?” she mocked. “you won’t find me that easy to manage. I’ve been harassed, propositioned, and insulted, and I’ve dealt with an array of masculine temper tantrums. I’ve seen it all and can handle it. I prefer to keep our relationship mutually beneficial for all involved, but if you want to play hardball, that’s fine, too. Capisce?”



Sawyer studied the woman across the table. Her gorgeous brown eyes snapped with leashed anger and a banked sensuality she kept ruthlessly in check. It was official.

He was nuts about her.

Her mind alone brought him to ecstatic heights he’d missed. The thrust and parry of conversation engaged his intellect, while his body hummed with pleasure from her physical presence. She was his feminine equal in all forms except her refusal to admit she wanted him.

But she did.

every hitched breath she tried to mask played like Mozart to his ears. Her control was fierce, but he spotted breaks in her armor in ways she hadn’t counted on. The quick flare of interest in her eyes at the mention of the word sex. The slight tremble in her fingers as she gripped the fork.

Didn’t she know her proper white bra against a silk white blouse was a man’s private fantasy? The barest shadow of her nipples pushed against her bra and begged for freedom.

She had a delicious habit of running her tongue over her bottom lip that forced a man to imagine what she’d taste like. And that damn red scarf? He’d put it to much more practical uses then entwining it around her delicate neck for fashion purposes. Namely making sure she couldn’t move while he stripped her of that very proper blouse and bra and pleasured her breasts. Slowly. on his terms.

of course, the most intriguing part was her refusal to acknowledge any of it.

Her body was in lockdown. How sweet to imagine breaking her out of that prison and being the one who reaped the benefit? He wondered what asshole convinced her to ignore her physical need. Why else would a vibrant, sophisticated woman hide behind work?

He’d pushed during dinner because he needed a full analysis. She was right, though. He’d never risk the contract to scratch an itch, and he bet she dealt with a lot of men who treated her like crap. Perhaps it was time to tell her a bit more of his truth so she clearly knew his motivations.

For now, she deserved an answer.

“I never meant to offend you, Julietta.” Her name melted over his tongue like a Godiva truffle. Sweet and dark and rich. “Let’s get something straight. I have no need to threaten or bully a woman into bed. I enjoy sex and giving pleasure. I find you fascinating, complex, and hot as hell.

I also think you may be the only woman I’ve met in the past few years who made me crave to break a few rules just to put my hands on her. In her. over her. But if you go screaming foul play and harassment, I’ll politely back away and leave you alone. Capisce? Now breathe.”

At his command, the air let loose from her lungs in a rush. She sat frozen in her chair, eyes wide with a combination of shock, confusion, and a touch of fear. The fear mixed with a flash of pure longing. yes, she wanted him, too. Interesting. Why wouldn’t she act on it? Why did a man showing interest freak her out so much?

The waiter glided by, cleared their plates, and asked if they wanted dessert.

“No,” she said firmly.

“Tiramisu, please,” he countered. “Two espressos with sambuca.”

She tossed him a dirty look, and he struggled with the instinct to kiss it right off her. How could a woman who used no lipstick have such a succulent mouth? All pouty and pale pink. “I hope this isn’t going to be a precursor of your need to run things,” she said. “Though I appreciate your forthrightness regarding the initial attraction to me, I assure you it will fade. I have no time to engage in affairs.”

Her prim tone made a surge of lust hit his gut and spread. He shifted in his chair and adjusted the napkin.

“Why do you think it will fade?”

Her gaze shifted. She threw back her shoulders, but he caught the tension in each fine bone of her body. “It always does.”

“Do you want me?”

This time, she couldn’t hold back a gasp. “We just met yesterday. I don’t go jumping into bed with strange men or make decisions regarding my attraction after one dinner.”

“Sometimes that’s the best time to trust your instincts.

The moment we rationalize chemistry, we risk losing it for-ever.”

His words seemed to strike a chord. regret dimmed the light in her eyes. Protectiveness surged through him and rattled his calm. He ached to pull her into his arms and hold her, rock her, soothe the sadness lurking beneath the cool surface. But she didn’t belong to him, so he had no rights.

yet.

Dessert arrived, and she chose to keep her silence. They nibbled on the cocoa biscuit and savored the rich cream of soaked ladyfingers and cinnamon. The sting of liquor in the dark espresso brew hit Sawyer’s belly hard and heated his veins. He watched as Julietta’s thoughts scrambled, evident in the slight frown marring her brow and the concentration stamped on her face. The bill came and he paid, sparing her a quick warning glance when she opened her mouth to protest. When the dessert plate was scraped clean and the cups emptied, she patted her lips with the napkin and met his gaze.

“I think we’re going to make a great team,” she said slowly. “But I’m not interested in bringing this into the bedroom. I have my reasons, and I appreciate your can-dor. you’re an attractive man, and in other circumstances, I would jump at the chance to engage in a hot affair. Please respect my decision, and don’t push me any further. Just . . .

don’t.”

Her voice broke slightly on the last word. His heart squeezed with a need he didn’t recognize, but he knew the rules. Created the rules. Both parties must be willing in order to move forward. An element of trust proved key to keeping the relationship burning at a high flame without blazing. The alpha wolf in him howled with lust and challenge to change her mind and make her beg for torturing him. Sawyer waited for the mess of emotions to finish rac-ing through him before he wrested control and blanked out his thoughts.

A smile curved his lips. “As you wish,” he murmured.

Her body loosened. Her tongue flicked across her lower lip again, and she smiled. “Grazie.”

He nodded, and she rose. Shrugged on her jacket.

Grabbed her purse. Sawyer guided her out of the restaurant with a hand at her elbow and tried to calm the rush of adrenaline tightening his muscles and strangling his breath.

His last thought flashed like a mantra over and over again.

Let the challenge begin.

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