The Marriage Merger

By: Jennifer Probst

Chapter Five


Sawyer stared at the current shithole, which used to be his pristinely kept kitchen, and tamped down his impa-tience.

Again.

Soda spilled on the counter. A bag of chips open and growing stale by the hour. His gleaming stainless steel stove smeared with some type of dark liquid and spots of burnt cheese. His boots crunched on the white marble floors as he shoved the chips back in the cabinet, recycled the soda bottles, and dragged a sponge over the stove.

Didn’t parents usually count to ten when they were about to explode? okay, he liked his place clean, but he was a guy, and even this was tough. ever since the kid moved in, his already thinning patience stretched to epic proportions.

The original plan to stay at a hotel didn’t make sense. He’d be in Milan for a while and needed to oversee each part of the construction of Purity, so he decided to rent an apartment close to headquarters. Back in New york, his new apprentice stayed in an adjoining suite at a five-star hotel, so they both had privacy but remained close enough so Sawyer could play guardian. of course, the benefits of a hotel included constant maid and room service, so he rarely worried about the state the kid kept the room or if he was properly fed.

When he got to Milan, he decided to rent the luxurious loft and move the boy in with him. After all, he was too young to trust alone, though he acted like a twist of an old bitter man and a young biker gone bad. And the space was pretty damn big, which should have meant plenty of room for both of them.

Wrong.

Sawyer threw the sponge back in the sink and wondered for the billionth time if he was nuts for getting a kid he didn’t know off the streets of New york City moved in with him, and involved in his business. After all, he had enough on his list of things to do without including helping a homeless teen with a sarcastic wit who challenged him at every turn. Maybe it was the angry, lost look in his eyes that dragged Sawyer back to his past and made him want to prove someone could give a shit in this world. That maybe he could help and make a difference. God knew his foster brother Danny had never gotten that chance.

Sawyer only planned to assist Wolfe for a few weeks and get him on his feet. Instead, eight months rolled by, and Sawyer made no move to get rid of him. of course, the teen proved to be wicked smart and a big help in getting Purity off the ground. Before long, Sawyer decided to hire him as a permanent fixture as his assistant and see what happened.

If they didn’t kill each other first.

Sawyer made his way past the living room—decorated in simple masculine tones of beige and brown and currently strewn with dirty underwear, jeans, and socks—and followed the smell to the back room. Silence greeted him, but he knew the iPod earbuds were stuffed in Wolfe’s ears, so he’d hear nothing anyway. Instead of knocking, Sawyer pushed open the door.

A pair of surly blue eyes stared back in rebellion.

Sawyer ignored the look and tapped his ear in a demand for the kid to take the earbuds out. Vincent, now named Wolfe, shifted on the bed and muttered a curse. ripping the bud from his right ear, above which his hair was shaved, he glared. “What?”

“How about cleaning up your mess?”

A snort. “you got a cleaning lady, so why do you care?”

“She only comes once a week, and it already smells.

ever hear of a hamper?”

“you leave your stuff out.”

Sawyer refused to sigh; it was so cliché. “yeah, but not clothes that are breeding. I’m letting you crash here so you don’t have to pay for a room. The least you can do is buy food once in a while.”

Wolfe’s response was a long sigh. “Sure. Sorry.”

“Why don’t you get out of this place for a while? Take a walk. Shop. Do something.”

The kid looked at him as if he’d won the dummy award of the year. The gold hoop in his brow and in his ear winked in mockery. Why did Sawyer suddenly feel like shuffling his feet? How could a nineteen-year-old boy intimidate the crap out of him? He reminded himself to be patient.

Patience and understanding would eventually allow him to win. The kid had been through a lot, and he was supposed to be helping. “Why? So I can wear those ridiculous clothes you bought me and parade myself around like I’m some kind of designer toy? or sip espresso and pretend I’ve got my shit together to score a supermodel? No, thanks. I’ll stay here.”

Sawyer glanced at his regular uniform that rarely changed. Faded jeans with a hole in the knee. Battered black boots. White T-shirt. The matching leather bomber jacket completed the look of bad-ass, young Johnny Depp wannabe in the current century. Not that he cared what the kid wore, as long as he cleaned it up a bit for the office. He tried to change the subject. “you don’t have to wear the clothes if you don’t like them. I thought you’d enjoy getting out to explore. your Italian is amazing—you picked it up faster than I ever did.”

“It’s a sissy language.”

Sawyer bit back a laugh. The kid was a pisser. “Fine. Stay here, but don’t steal my last bottles of Peretti—you’re still underage. And don’t use my house as a base to get women.

Did you contact the sales team for me on those issues I pointed out?”

“yeah, it’s done.”

“Thanks, Vincent.”

The name slipped from his lips before he remembered. Hot blue eyes narrowed with rage, and the boy’s fists clenched. Sawyer stood still, as the kid battled with his inner demons. Demons Sawyer knew way too much about.

“Don’t ever call me that again,” the kid hissed. “ever. My name is Wolfe.”

He threw his hands up. “Sorry. Still getting used to it.”

Sawyer turned on his heel and left the boy alone. Shit, talking to him was like crossing a viper pit. one wrong step and you lost a fucking leg. He must have been crazy to think he could make some sort of difference. even worse, he’d had a big enough ego to drag the kid from New york all the way to Italy to show him the business. They shared no blood. Didn’t owe him a thing. And the kid—Wolfe, as of now—had stolen from him, then spit in his face when he threatened his ass with jail time.

The legal court records stated his name was Vincent Soldano. Three months ago, the boy told him he would no longer answer to the name and requested to be called Wolfe.

The significance of his appeal burned deep and stirred bad memories that Sawyer still battled. Hell, he’d done the same exact thing. remade himself and taken a new name in an attempt to start fresh. Creating a new identity helped him let the old crap go. Still, he occasionally slipped and the old name Vincent escaped. He needed to try harder to remember.

A half smile tugged at his lips. But damn Wolfe had fire in the pit of his belly. Sawyer realized immediately fire like that took a person one of two ways: toward a life of crime where a sharp brain and some decent skills could score money to deaden enough of the pain. or to the high road.

Which usually sucked, wasn’t as profitable, and hurt a hell of a lot more.

He offered the high road. The kid took it. The rest was fucking history. And a dirty home.

His cell phone buzzed and cut off his thoughts. He didn’t recognize the number but punched the button anyway.

The familiar voice drifted across the line, and Sawyer froze. Memories shot past: a tangle of good, bad, and a turning point that he’d never forget. He switched to Italian and exchanged a few words of greeting. She spoke for a while and he listened until she fell silent, awaiting his answer. He closed his eyes and dragged in a breath. Tension squeezed the sides of his head, but he refused to take a stroll into the past, which reminded him of a jacked-up Tim Burton movie rather than Disney.

“yes. Thank you for the invitation. I’ll be there.”

He hung up the phone and went to change.



Julietta walked up the cobblestone pathway and began to truly relax for the first time in the past week. The muscles in her neck and shoulders eased with each tap of her heel, and the warmth of her family home embraced her in a comforting hug of familiarity.

The three-tiered terra-cotta villa held simple lines and soaring archways. Michael had urged Mama to leave so he could buy her a castle befitting the empire she built, but she laughed and announced she’d die in the home that Papa had lived in. Julietta didn’t blame her.

More than five acres of land sprawled in every direction and allowed an onlooker to gaze upon the sweeping beauty of the Alps. Bergamo was the perfect place for her family to grow up in, a combination of old and new world split into two tiers—Citta Bassa and Citta Alta—the lower and upper cities. This home boasted wrought-iron balco-nies, cooly shaded patios, and endless gardens of lemon and olive trees. Julietta opened the door and made her way toward the kitchen.

Heavily carved pine tables and chairs dominated the space that called for long family dinners and endless courses, and stood as a witness of time gone by. Hand-sewn rugs accessorized the wooden floors. The warm Tuscan colors of red, gold, and green swirled before her and tantalized all of her senses. The sharp tang of citrus and salty olives, sweet basil and rich red tomato. An endless length of granite countertop slashed down the right side of the kitchen and held various jars and baskets of fresh fruit. Steam wafted from pots of boiling water; platters contained rolled-up meats; and slices of Italian bread crowded the table. A smile curved her lips, and peace settled over her.

She was home.

“Mama?”

Mama Conte turned from her station in front of the stove. “oh, my goodness, I didn’t even hear you. Damn ears.

I used to catch the click of the window from miles away when your sister tried to sneak out to meet Dominick. Now I can’t even hear when my front door slams.”

Julietta laughed and gave her a hug. After birthing four children, launching a successful bakery empire, and burying her husband, her mother still possessed a driving force built into her core. Her long gray hair was always twisted back in a bun, and her arthritis was serious enough to warrant a cane to help her walk. She’d had a few scares with her heart problems, but she’d held strong the past few years.

She wore her favorite apron—taken out each Sunday— marked with various stains from years gone by but always freshly laundered. The logo of La Dolce Famiglia was im-printed on it, and it had been given to her as a gift from Papa after their first bakery launched. For a little while, wrapped up in her childhood home with her mama at the stove, Julietta was happy. Safe.

She stowed her bag away, grabbed her apron, and settled herself at the table to chop tomatoes and peppers. “Is Uncle Brian coming over for dinner?” she asked, expertly dicing the vegetables.

“No, he’s taking the kids somewhere after church.”

“Is all this food just for me?” she teased. “Stop trying to fatten me up, Mama. I’ll have to buy a new wardrobe.”

Her mother paused, as if thinking about her next words.

“We shall have one guest for dinner.”

“Who?”

“you will see. For now, tell me what is going on at work.

Did you close the deal with The Palazzo as you had hoped?

I know you’ve been working on it for months.”

Julietta tried to fight off the disappointment of failure and squared her shoulders. “No, they made their decision a few weeks ago. I lost the deal.”

“I’m sorry, sweet girl. I know that meant a lot to you, but it is not needed. everything happens for a reason. A better deal will be presented.”

The truth of her mother’s words struck home. An image of Sawyer sprang before her eyes: those sculpted, devilish lips quirking in amusement, as if he knew she’d eventually end up in his bed. At least he had backed off and hadn’t tried to push. Still, she needed to be on guard at all times. She didn’t trust him to play by any rules. Julietta cleared her throat.

“Umm, actually, I’m signing a pretty big contract, Mama.

For a new hotel chain called Purity. We’ll be exclusive to the hotels, and the first one launches in Milan within the year.”

Pride etched out the lines of her mother’s face. “Well done. Why don’t we celebrate with some Moscato? I have a bottle chilling in the refrigerator, and we’ll open it at dinner.

Perhaps, now that this big deal has been signed, you will finally ease up the workload?”

Julietta’s confidence slipped a notch and she avoided her mother’s gaze. of course. Business was never enough when compared to marriage and love and babies. She swallowed back the ridiculous sting of tears, wondering if she was getting her period. What was up with her lately? She was so emotional and . . . girly. “Actually, I’ll need to work harder,” she said lightly. “But I enjoy every moment. I’m doing exactly what I always dreamed.”

Mama Conte sliced off a piece of fresh mozzarella and handed it to her with bread. The rich, creamy texture sank into the warm dough, and Julietta swallowed in pleasure. “I know you enjoy your career. Without you, I don’t know if La Dolce Famiglia would have succeeded, even with Michael at the helm. you have a gift. I just want you to share it with someone special.”

She lifted a shoulder in a half shrug. Typical motherly dream. Still, the comment bit hard, as if what Julietta had done with her life wasn’t enough. It wasn’t as if she could confess to her mother something was wrong with her, and she couldn’t connect with a man. She pushed the depression to the back of her mind and tried to concentrate on enjoy-ing her visit. “Perhaps one day,” she said brightly.

“Si. one day.”

A knock at the door saved her from further inquiry.

She wiped her hands on the towel and grinned. “Ah, our mysterious visitor. I bet it’s Father richard; he’s always happy to eat your cooking.” She moved to the front door and opened it.

Her mouth fell open.

Sawyer Wells stood in the entrance. His business suit had been replaced by a pair of comfortable khakis, a thick cableknit cream sweater, and Versace leather croc boots.

His hair swung free and touched his shoulders in a delicious mess of golden waves. He held a bouquet of freshly picked flowers and a bottle of red wine. “Hey.”

She stared.

He cocked his head and seemed to fight amusement.

“Umm, can I come in?”

She recovered her voice and lowered it to a hiss. “What are you doing here?”

one brow shot up. “I guess you didn’t realize I was invited to dinner.”

She blinked. “Huh?”

“real wordsmith out of the office, aren’t you? your mother invited me to dinner.”

Julietta jerked back. “Impossible.”

A voice from the hallway drifted to the open door.

“Julietta, stop torturing the man and let him in. He is correct.”

Sawyer grinned. “Told ya.”

He stepped around her and waltzed past. Her fingers clenched around the door in an effort to keep standing.

After a few deep breaths, she followed him in. “How beautiful,” Mama Conte crooned, inhaling the scent of roses and lilies. “Julietta, can you put these in the vase from the living room? Sawyer, can you open the bottle of Moscato? It’s in the refrigerator. I was just told Julietta closed a big deal, and we’re celebrating.”

Sawyer rocked on his heels, obviously amused at the whole scenario. “Big deal, huh? of course.”

“Mama, what’s going on? I didn’t know you and Sawyer were . . . close?”

Her mother’s head snapped around. “He is a friend of Max’s, and it is Sunday. of course, I would invite him to dine with us. My home is open to all, especially one known to my family. I am sure you agree with me, correct?”

Julietta licked her dry lips. ouch. Her mama’s anger was something to be reckoned with, and nothing pissed her off more than the idea of people not being welcome in her home. Mio Dio, why was this happening to her today? She only wanted some peace and quiet, and now the symbol of her distress would be breaking bread in her family home.

She forced the words out. “of course. Let me get the vase.”

She busied herself with the flowers as Sawyer uncorked the champagne and poured. Small talk fluttered back and forth between them, but her skin burned under the scorch-ing heat of his gaze. How did the man manage to shrink the room? He carried himself with a powerful dignity that stole all the air around her. Vulnerability shot through her. She wished suddenly for her business suit and high heels. Her current Sunday outfit consisted of jeans, a purple T-shirt under a zippered sweater, and black suede flats. Her hair was loose and a bit tangled from the breeze, and she rarely wore makeup when hanging with her mother. She pressed her lips together and swore not to let him make her feel uncomfortable. He was the outsider—not her.

“Both of you sit and relax. I have everything under control. Have some antipasto.” The tray of prosciutto, crackers, cheese, and pepperoni looked inviting. There was something intimate about eating in her mama’s kitchen. The heavy pine table was large, but the space evoked a cozy at-mosphere. The huge arched window over the sink allowed light to pour through and showed off the view of the rolling golden hills. The rich colors of burnt orange, scarlet, and gold shimmered in welcome from the pine floors to the colorful pasta bowls and trays hand painted in bright tones.

Hand-stitched linens and mats made a presentation for every plate served. The scents of gravy, steamed garlic, and lemon hung heavily in the air and wrapped them in warmth.

Julietta knew her mother wouldn’t let her help when there were guests here, so she filled her plate to bursting, sipped her champagne, and tossed her business partner a glare.

He didn’t seem intimidated. More like fascinated by her outfit, greedy appetite, and surliness.

“I’m so honored you invited me to dinner, Mama Conte.

I assume Julietta shared the good news about our deal?”

“No, we didn’t get to the details yet. My goodness, you mean you’re both working together?”

Sawyer grinned. “yes. I’m building a new chain of hotels called Purity, and La Dolce Famiglia will be my exclusive supplier. of course, Max will take care of the U.S. hotels but the big launch is Milan. Julietta will be key to helping make this a success.”

She tried hard not to make a face at him, which was extremely juvenile and beneath her. How dare he steal her thunder? As if he bestowed his contract as a gift without her having a say in the matter. Screw him. She jumped in.

“of course, negotiation was involved before I’d sign the contracts. Some of the clauses were unacceptable.”

“of course.” His ready agreement only pissed her off more. Why did he continuously annoy her?

“She makes this family proud. And you’ve done well for yourself, Sawyer. Tell me about this hotel chain.”

As he talked about Purity, she caught the glow of pleasure on his face. odd, she understood him in some basic ways. The need to succeed and prove oneself. The fierce satisfaction of building something of your own in a world where nothing was permanent. She rarely analyzed where the drive came from. She was too afraid to know the truth.

It had been a full week since the kiss. As if he had sensed she needed to retreat, he had allowed her the distance and stuck to a few phone calls and a short visit that focused entirely on business.

But the damage had been done.

She thought about the kiss all the time. The texture of his lips, the scent of his skin, and the promise of his mouth, open and hungry on hers. She had tossed and turned at night and had cursed him. How could such an innocent peck affect her so deeply? If she didn’t know her body, she would’ve thrown away her reserve and her principles and dragged him into bed.

Unfortunately, she knew what would happen. The burst of flame and lust. The promise of satisfaction. And eventually, the withering of heat as her body pruned up and chilled under a man’s hand. Sawyer would be no different, and she didn’t intend to have him figure out her secret.

She just needed to get over it.

Julietta focused on conversation. “How did you meet Sawyer, Mama?” She made sure her direct question completely cut out his answer. He stiffened. A whirling array of emotions flickered in those tiger eyes, but they cleared so fast she wondered if it was her imagination.

A short silence fell over the kitchen. She knew then there was a story here—and waited for her mother to tell it.

Finally, she’d get a piece of the missing puzzle that made up this mysterious man and maybe gain some leverage.

“I was having a drink with Max’s mother at the Prospect Hotel. Sawyer was at the bar with his boss. My goodness, it was so long ago I barely remember, but I think there were harsh words exchanged. His boss was being quite abusive.

How old were you? Twenty-two?”

“yes.”

His tone was flat, and his face held no expression.

“Anyway, his boss left, and I couldn’t get the bartender’s attention. Sawyer bought me a drink, and we began chat-ting. He reminded me so much of Max: young, ambitious, ready to conquer the world.”

Julietta waited. Silence fell. “That’s it?”

Mama Conte glanced at her with surprise. “yes. Why, how did you think we met?”

Her gaze locked with Sawyer’s. Heat crawled up her body, scratched under her skin, and dampened between her legs. This weird sexual power he commanded was too much for her, but damned if she’d let him win this staring match.

“Sawyer was quite mysterious about your meeting. I just thought there was more to the story.”

“Not that I recall. Did anything else happen, Sawyer?”

He paused only a moment. Her gut screamed something big had occurred in that bar with her mother, but she was letting him hold the reins. Finally, he gave a tight-lipped smile. “No. That was it.”

Her shoulders slumped in defeat. Damn, she needed some ammunition. No matter how hard she dug, his past was a blank canvas before he stormed into the business world. She hated the idea that he knew more about her.

What was worse?

He realized it.

Mama kept talking. “It’s amazing how life works. you met Maximus on a business venture, and now you will be a permanent part of our bakery with Julietta. Almost as if you were meant to be with our family.”

Alarm bells rang in her head. Hell, no. She refused to share her quiet Sunday dinners with a man who only wanted to press her sex buttons. Their relationship had to stay firmly in the office, where it belonged. She cleared her throat. “Umm, Sawyer probably likes to keep his work life clearly separated. We need to respect that.”

Mama Conte snorted and cut her hand in the air.

“Nonsense. As I tell you all the time, you need more outlets besides work. Dinner with friends and family are necessary in this lifetime. Money and success are not everything.

Happiness is.”

Julietta crammed another cracker stacked high with pepperoni in her mouth to keep herself from screaming.

Sawyer steepled his fingers and watched. Humor danced in his eyes. “I agree,” he said slowly. “In fact, I told Julietta I’d love to spend more time with her on a personal basis. I don’t know too many people in Milan.”

She swallowed the dry crumbs and barely fought off a choking fit.

“A wonderful idea. From now on, you will join us for dinner on Sundays. I’m sure Julietta will make time from her busy schedule to introduce you to some of her friends.”

“Thank you.”

Her eyes widened. Mama placed heaping bowls of man-icotti and fresh salad in front of them and beamed. “Isn’t this wonderful? Now both of you. Manga.”

Sawyer winked and picked up his fork.



“Why are you bothering me?”

They sat on the back terrace with cups of cappuccino and a plate of freshly baked honey almond biscotti. open and airy, with a view of the lagoon-type pool and lush gardens, the wrought-iron furniture added to the old-world appeal of Mama Conte’s villa. Terra-cotta pots lined the colorful cobblestones and burst with various herbs and fruit plants, just waiting to sprout at the first sign of spring. The last sting of winter hung fiercely on, but the bite in the air cleared Sawyer’s lungs and sharpened his instincts. The mountains shimmered in the distance, and the sound of bubbling water from the sculptured marble angel soothed his ears. He propped up his legs on the opposite chair and dipped the cookie into his coffee. “I’m not. your mother likes me.”

She rolled her eyes. “My mother likes everyone. She’d invite a serial killer to supper.”

“Nice.”

“What really happened between you and Mama? It feels like there’s something else you both aren’t telling me.”

oh, there was. Not that he’d confess such a big piece of his past. Mama Conte had saved his life and put him on a new path that changed everything. The memory of their most recent encounter flickered before him.

She’d come to see him when he scored his first big coup with La Principe Hotel. Proud of what he had accomplished with her help, drunk on the victory of leading a life he only dreamed about, he’d treated her to lunch, and then he’d taken her in his arms for a gentle hug. He spoke in Italian to her and made a vow—a sacred promise from his very gut and soul—and whispered in her ear.

“La devo un grande debito. Se lei mai ha bisogno di me, farò che lei chiede.”

“I owe you a great debt. If you ever need me, I will do whatever you ask.”

He intended to honor that promise if the opportunity to do so ever came. Sawyer stuffed back the memory. “Let’s just say I knew immediately she was an extraordinary woman. Must run in the family.”

“Look, I don’t want our relationship blurring from business to personal. I’ve told you over and over, though you seem not to listen. I’m not interested.”

“So you did.” He swung his head around and studied her. He loved the slight vulnerability she showed today. In her casual clothes, with her hair blowing loose and sexy, she looked approachable. young. Her bare feet were tucked under her legs, which seemed tiny for such a tall woman.

The ice queen image was packed away for a bit, and he wondered at the raw need rising in his gut. He ached to tug her onto his lap, clasp the back of her head, and feast on those pale pink lips. Thrust deep until moans were ripped from her throat and she begged for more.

The woman was a mass of contradictions. Savvy busi-nesswoman. Bad-ass motorcycle rider. Sweet and domes-tic in her mama’s kitchen. When she had shrugged off her sweater during dinner, he had spotted a purple lace strap beneath that conservative T-shirt, and he’d gone hard in-stantly. Holy crap, the woman wore sexy underwear.

Somewhere, underneath all that proper restraint, lay a hidden temptress dying to escape. He bet she wore thongs.

Probably a matching violet. Would she be bare and shaven?

or hidden by a silky triangle of dark hair, trying to mask her secrets?

“Hello? earth to Sawyer?” She snapped and scowled in his direction. “Why do you have that weird look on your face?” The woman shifted and he caught a flash of cherry red toenails. Not clear gloss or conservative peach. Fire-engine red. yep, he was a complete goner.

“Just thinking.” He reached out and caught a section of her hair. It rippled and clung to his fingers like a lover.

Strands of fiery wine threaded through the brown and played a sexy game of peekaboo. “your hair is beautiful. So long and silky.” He loosened his grip and allowed the locks to drift softly back to their position. His fingers brushed her cheek. “And your skin is flawless. Golden and smooth. If I ran my tongue over you, would you taste like chocolate and coconut?”

Her breath hitched, but she never surrendered. “Here we go. Are my eyes like dark pools of desire, awaiting you to drown in them?”

Sawyer shook his head. Damn, she was sharp. “Not bad.

I was sticking with the chocolate reference, so I was going to go with cocoa.”

Her lip twitched. “overdone.”

“Maybe. I’ve been thinking about your breasts a lot, too.”

“Hmm, let me try. Milky globes of flesh?”

“Awful, just awful. No, they’re high, firm, with long, sen-sitive nipples that push against your bra. I’ve been dream-ing of the color, though. Pale pink like cotton candy? or ruby red like a delicious strawberry?” Her eyes dilated, and he took advantage by trailing his finger along the line of her lips, pressing against the pouty curve with his thumb. Like a doe caught in the middle of a grassy field, she held perfectly still and waited, as if sensing danger. “I imagine they’ll swell and tighten when I take them between my teeth. I’d enjoy biting your nipples, Julietta. Sometimes the edge of pain blurs into pleasure and takes you higher. I’d like to explore that edge with you.”

“Stop—”

“Why?” He lowered his voice to a whisper and leaned in. His breath rushed over her moist mouth, and the blood rushed to his dick in cranky demand. “Hasn’t a man ever told you what he wants to do with you? Verbal foreplay is key in getting a woman ready. The brain is the greatest sexual tool, and many don’t use it to its potential.” His other hand dropped to her jeans-clad leg and stroked over her knee. “your legs were made to wrap around a man’s hips as he thrusts deep. Long and muscled, with those pretty red toenails. except I may ask you to keep on those high heels you love so much. I think I’d enjoy the sting of your heel in my thigh as you demand your pleasure.”

Heat tinged her cheeks. Aware that she was completely under his spell—for a few seconds anyway—he inserted his thumb between her lips, looking for entry. She paused only a moment. Then opened her mouth.

His finger slid in and her wet tongue lashed out. He sucked in his own breath.

“But I’d make you wait,” he murmured. “Because I imagine you’ve tortured me for far too long. I’d slide my fingers into your tight, slick pussy, tease your clit, and make you beg.”

Her teeth bit down on the fleshy pad of his thumb.

Arousal exploded inside of him. “Fuck this,” he growled.

He removed his finger, grabbed her head, and slammed his mouth down on hers.

He devoured and took her the way he wanted to since the moment he met her. This was no game of tease-and-seek, no gentle touch of lip to lip. Sawyer followed his gut and pushed hard in sheer demand, for everything.

She tasted of sugar and honey as his tongue dove deep and possessed every dark, silky crevice. He swallowed her moan and sank into female heat. For one moment, she gave it all back to him—thrusting her tongue against his, her nails digging into his shoulders. For one moment, she burned bright and true and so hot he almost decided to rip off her jeans and take her right here in Mama Conte’s back-yard.

And then she changed.

He felt the shift immediately. The slight coolness of her flesh, the rigid tenseness of muscles that had been soft and giving a minute ago. He eased the pressure of his mouth as she changed from willing participant to reserved recipi-ent. The fire blew away, leaving a trail of smoke, ashes, and dying heat.

He lifted his mouth from hers and gazed into her eyes.

Loathing.

Not at him. Not for the kiss. More of a disappointment and self-loathing. The rip of pure feeling was immediately locked up and shoved somewhere else deep inside. An icy reserve coated her, and it was as if he looked upon a dis-tant stranger and not the woman who burned up in his arms.

And then Sawyer knew.

The knowledge slammed through him, but he had no time to process it. She pushed him away with a quiet dignity and lifted her chin. “Please don’t do that again,” she said cooly. “I’m sure you needed that experiment, but as I told you before, I’m not interested in a physical relationship with you.”

He allowed the retreat because he needed time to sift through this new information. “I apologize. All that talking of food and body parts spun me out of control.”

She gave a tight smile, obviously desperate to push past the awkwardness of the encounter. “Apology accepted.

This won’t work, Sawyer. I want you to beg off dinner on Sunday. It’s the only time I get to relax during the week and spend quality time with my mother. Surely you can respect that.”

“I like seeing you this way,” he murmured. “Softer, more approachable. I liked the way you helped your mom in the kitchen, and the way you gorged on dinner without a care, and the way you looked at her with such love and respect.”

His thoughts slid into the past. He had always wished for a family to love. A family to love him. It was such a mysterious concept he couldn’t understand, and watching the close relationship with Julietta and Mama Conte set off a fire of emotion and longing he rarely let escape. He remembered when he had come home from school with a black eye from a bully on the playground. When his foster father had asked who won, and he’d told the truth, he got a slap that almost knocked his teeth out. He wasn’t allowed to eat for two days, because losers deserved nothing.

What was he doing?

He wanted to seduce Julietta Conte and take her past her comfort zone. He wanted her savvy business skills to make Purity the best. He did not need to be immersed in her family or be reminded of gentler feelings he had no place or time for. They existed for her, but he knew better. They weren’t meant for him. Thinking about what he couldn’t have wouldn’t help.

He had to get out of here.

She drew back in surprise when he stood up from the chair. “you’re right, of course. I won’t bother you at dinner any longer. I’m going to say good-bye to your mother, and I’ll see you at the office tomorrow. I’ll need you to meet the other suppliers for Purity and go over some initial plans.”

“yes, yes, of course.”

“Very well. Buona sera, Julietta.”

He left her on the terrace and tried not to run like evil zombies were on his tail. She was right about one thing: Dinner was a mistake.

But not the kiss. Definitely not the kiss. He knew now what she needed, craved, and how to get her there. No way was he giving up the opportunity to show her what she’d been missing and initiate her into the dark world of erotic pleasures.

Sawyer tightened his lips and his resolve and went to find Mama Conte to say good-bye.

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