The Marriage Merger

By: Jennifer Probst

Chapter Six


What had happened last night?

Julietta sat at the conference table with the other members of Sawyer’s team and tried to focus. He’d managed to outmaneuver her for a moment, but when she got back into control, something had changed between them. A certainty glimmered in his eyes that scared the crap out of her. Suddenly, he reminded her of a hungry predator ready to swallow her whole. The scary part was that the outcome didn’t seem so bad.

She thought she’d regained her footing, and then that other look had crossed his face. regret. And a hint of longing. He’d left so fast she’d known he’d been hurt in some way she couldn’t understand. The knowledge she could wound a man like Sawyer Wells kept her up all last night. Thinking about that kiss. For a few seconds, her body came alive and was ready to play hard. For a moment, she thought he’d cured her, and she would’ve gratefully climbed on his lap and impaled herself on him faster than he could imagine.

The idea of an orgasm thrilled her, beckoned like a shining beacon of light she never seemed to be able to reach. But, as with all the others, her mind finally clicked back on, and the desire drifted away.

It had only been a mirage.

The failure had mocked and burned as she tossed and turned in her tangled satin sheets. If Sawyer couldn’t get her to respond, no man would. She knew that in her gut.

He’d given off all signals of recovery. of course, at least she didn’t have to torture herself anymore about what-ifs. They could go back to business, and she wouldn’t be tempted any further. Sure, it was a bit embarrassing to think Sawyer pitied her, but maybe he just thought she wasn’t attracted to him like other women. Maybe he didn’t see her as deficient but as more of an exception to a rule. Hopefully.

She turned her attention back to the other suppliers who crowded around the table. Tanya, the interior designer and fabric expert, seemed a bit snobby but extremely tal-ented. Her short red bob, bright makeup, and tendency to wear all black told Julietta she had a keen sense of style and how to put things together. ricardo, head chef of Purity restaurants, exhibited an even temperament key to the hotel industry, and he fleshed out his ideas in businesslike fash-ion. evelyn, the spa expert, was extremely new agey, with blond hip-length hair and dressed completely in organic, breathable earth-tone fabrics. Her voice was low and me-lodic, with glowing, fresh skin and a lean body she trained with hours of yoga. each brought something new to the table, and thank goodness she felt as if they could all work well as a team, yet own their individual flair.

She watched Sawyer from under half-lidded eyes.

He was magnificent in action. Completely in charge, but with a relaxed ease that invited opinions and discussion.

ruthlessly organized and well spoken. He reminded her of Michael, but he vibrated on a lower key, as if skimming the surface but always retaining tight control. His slate gray suit molded to his muscled length in loving attention, and when he turned toward the PowerPoint presentation, her gaze fixed on the hard, tight ass her fingers longed to explore.

Amazing how badly she craved his touch from a distance.

Already her panties were damp, and that burning need throbbed between her legs. Too bad she froze once contact was initiated.

He turned and shot her a knowing look. She tried not to flinch and concentrated on not letting her face grow hot.

How embarrassing. Staring at his rear like a silly teenager crushing on her teacher.

The door opened and a young man walked in. He whispered something to Sawyer, nodded, and pulled up a chair to join the conference.

everyone stared in shocked silence.

Dressed in a tame navy blue suit and tie, he seemed the typical employee from the neck down. That’s where it ended. His hair was half shaved on the right side, re-vealing the gold loop and various piercings in his ear and brow. The left side of his hair was jet black, arranged in an array of spikes that stuck straight out like a hairstyle gone horribly wrong. Surly blue eyes stared back at each of the suppliers, as if challenging them to say a word about his appearance. A tattoo of some snake/serpent thing was etched around his neck like a permanent collar. Julietta pegged him as nineteen or twenty at the most. What was he doing here?

Sawyer cleared his throat and spoke up. “I’d like to in-troduce you to my assistant, Wolfe. He’s been interning with me, and I’m assigning him to helping you with whatever you need. I know you already have a full staff, but he will be your main contact person for daily issues that crop up.”

No one spoke.

A sneer twisted Wolfe’s lips. “Don’t all jump at once,”

he shot out. The warning look Sawyer cut him elicited a shrug; then the kid leaned back in his chair like he couldn’t give a damn.

Tanya spoke. “Sawyer, I don’t think a young boy still finding himself will work for me. My associates are well trained. I’ll take care of things on my end, but if there’s an issue, I’m going straight to you.”

ricardo nodded in agreement. evelyn looked at Wolfe with a curious stare, as if studying him for a project.

“Fascinating,” she whispered. “But I agree with Tanya; we only deal directly with the head of the project. If you disagree, I’m afraid we’ll have a problem.”

Wolfe shook his head. “I told you,” he said. “This wasn’t going to work. They only want you.”

“I assure you Wolfe is completely capable of helping and knows everything we need to achieve with Purity. I’ve been training him for months; don’t let his appearance throw you.”

“yeah, I can count without using my fingers,” Wolfe added.

Julietta bit her lip to tamp down a laugh. Damn, he was full of angst. She remembered Carina at that age; even with her sweetness, she was surly, miserable, and hated life. Why would Sawyer ever hire someone like him? The mystery fascinated her.

Tanya gave a brittle laugh. “No offense, Mr. Wolfe, but we refuse a middleman. Too many mistakes are made that way. Take it or leave it, Sawyer.”

“Agreed,” ricardo spoke up.

“I’ll work with him.” The three shut up and stared at Julietta with astonishment. The kid narrowed his eyes with suspicion. “That is, if Mr. Wolfe would like to work with me. I’d love someone on this end I can pass information through. Sawyer will be busy implementing all the puzzle pieces, so I appreciate the help.”

“It’s Wolfe. Not Mr. Wolfe.”

Julietta smiled. “Mi dispiace. Wolfe, I mean. Thank you for your assistance.”

He gave a nod, crossed his arms in front of his chest, and stared at the table. Pleasure and relief carved out the features of Sawyer’s face. Her heart lifted. How odd. He seemed to care about this boy more than a normal employee. She needed to dig and get the story.

They finished their meeting and broke for lunch. Julietta made her way over and stood beside Wolfe. “Thank you again for offering your services.” She stuck out her hand.

He hesitated, as if anticipating she’d jerk her hand away at the last minute and start laughing. Then he shook her hand with a firm grip, letting go so quick she wondered if her palm was sweaty.

“Welcome.”

“How long have you worked for Sawyer?”

He shifted his feet. “Why?”

She shrugged. “Just wondering. Purity means everything to him. If he trusts you to have a hand in it, he must believe you’re good.”

Wolfe looked over his shoulder at Sawyer speaking with Tanya. “I have a photographic memory,” he grudgingly admitted. “And a weird thing for figures. We met in New york and he asked me to come work for him.”

His jaw unclenched and blue eyes softened a shade.

Interesting. They cared about each other. Saving the rest of her questions for later, she nodded. “I’d love for you to come to La Dolce Famiglia and meet some of my team. I have a specified list of things to get moving, and someone who can add without his fingers would be a huge asset.”

His lip quirked. “Cool.”

“See you later.” She turned on her heel and headed toward the door when her name rang through the room. Her feet stuck to the carpet at the commanding tone, and her belly flipped and sank low. She turned her head. “yes?”

Sawyer pinned her with his hot gaze. “Stay, please. I need to discuss something with you.”

She opened her mouth to tell him no, but he’d already turned to finish his conversation with Tanya. Julietta was tempted to walk out, but she figured she’d let him win this round. He quickly dispersed the other conference members and Wolfe, shut the door, and pressed a button on his desk.

The door slid closed without a sound and locked them in.

oh, no. Not again.

Temper flowed hot and clean through her veins. How dare he do that intimidation thing with her? She wasn’t his lackey, and he had no right to order her around. She tilted her chin and marched toward him. “The magic lock thing is a nice touch, but it doesn’t work on me.” Who cares if she lied? “Next time ask me nicely to stay. I don’t take well to being bossed around.”

He smiled and shifted his hip so he was leaning against his desk. With a lazy, assessing air, he unbuttoned his suit jacket and shrugged out of it. The crisp white shirt pulled against his broad chest, and the red tie just made him look hotter. “Funny, I disagree. I think what you’ve been missing is a man who will tell you what to do. What he wants. And how he wants it.”

The air whooshed out of her lungs. The room tilted, then steadied as his meaning finally penetrated her ears.

Had he gone pazzo? “Have I just dropped into a badly directed porn movie? Listen, I’m not one of these repressed feminists who needs the right man to unlock her hidden desires. Been there. Done that. Now, unlock the door or I’ll spring a lawsuit on you so fast your head will explode.”

He shook his head and grinned. “This is completely separate from work and you know it. I thought you were braver than that, Julietta. Don’t try to hide behind our contract.”

She sputtered with outrage. “you’re pinning this on me? oh, that’s priceless. Let me try to be crystal clear. you kissed me last night. I allowed it. Fireworks didn’t explode, the earth didn’t tilt on its axis, and now we’re moving on.

How about you tuck your ego back in your pants, and we put the episode behind us? Maybe you can target evelyn— she looks like she’s into that tantric thing, which might be a real hoot for you.”

A delighted laugh broke from his lips. The cool sophis-tication she prided herself on slipped under her scrambling fingertips and left her with a hot mix of emotions she didn’t know how to handle. “Damn, you’re perfect for me. okay, let’s get past the slow getting-to-know-you phase and get to the good stuff.” Suddenly, his relaxed demeanor changed.

As if a switch had been turned, he pushed away from the desk and focused his attention on her. His eyes gleamed with heat and a touch of menace.

She remembered watching a show on snow leopards.

The sleek grace of their bodies as they stalked their prey was a bit teasing at first, before they revved up the intensity to such a high level that the prey was unable to run and just stood there waiting to be eaten.

That’s how she felt. Julietta didn’t even realize she was retreating until her back slammed against the wall. The satisfied smirk on his lips told her he knew how he affected her, and he intended to do everything possible to prove his point. Slowly, he caged her in by pressing his palms flat against the wall beside her head. Her body lit up and begged to play. The lace of her bra scratched against her sensitive nipples, and a drugging heat pulsed through her body.

Furious at her weakness, she rallied. “Move any closer and you’ll regret it.”

one golden brow arched. “Like this?” With one grace-ful motion, he eased her legs apart and pressed his hips to hers. His heavy erection stole her breath.

“you’re a bastard.” She craved to slide her fingers into those thick waves and surrender. The knowledge that her body would eventually freeze up and torture her made her blink back furious tears. “Why are you doing this? Do you have to conquer a woman’s ‘no’ to feel like a man? Fine, get it over with. Let’s have a repeat of last night so I can prove to you we don’t have the right chemistry.”

His eyes softened a bit, and he stroked her cheek with tender motions. “My sweet, we have the perfect chemistry.

I have never wanted a woman as badly as I want you. How long has it been since you responded to a man?”

She pushed against his chest but he didn’t budge. “Last week.”

“Tell me the truth.”

Humiliation flooded her in waves. Mio Dio, she couldn’t do this any longer. Knowing her honesty would finally make him leave, she spat the words in his face. “Never! I can’t respond to any man, and I never have. Are you satisfied now?

Will you leave me alone and stop playing these games?”

He pressed his forehead to hers in a soothing gesture.

“Thank you, Julietta,” he whispered against her lips. “Thank you for telling me the truth.”

She kept her body stiff and waited for him to finally pull away. When he began pressing tiny kisses to her brow and down her cheeks, she bit back a sob. “Please let me go.”

“No. Not yet.” He tortured her with slow caresses over her hips, sliding his hands under her jacket and stroking the thin silk of her blouse. His touch was heated and strong as he kneaded her muscles. His mouth drifted near her ear and played with her lobe, licking, biting gently, until a slow burn simmered under her skin. “you’ve been screwed, baby, and not in a good way. Assholes have made you feel there’s something wrong with you. Tied you up in so many knots that your body is stuck.”

She took a deep breath, quickly twisted and brought her knee up. Unfortunately, he anticipated the move and kept her tightly pinned. His rock-hard erection pressed against her core, and a low animal moan escaped her lips. Where had that come from? His soft laugh stirred the strands by her temple, and unbelievably, she grew wetter. “I could show you things you’ve been missing,” he taunted. His tongue licked the inner shell of her ear and a stream of hot breath caused goose bumps to pepper her flesh. His hands continued to massage her hips and slide behind to cup her buttocks, forcing her to arch on tiptoes. “Things that can free your delicious body and let you surrender to pleasure.”

She panted. “Like sexual discrimination and harass-ment? oh, goody.”

“Let’s put that mouth to better use, shall we?”

His lips traveled across her cheek and took her mouth.

He nipped at her lower lip. The quick pain startled her and she allowed him full access. This time, he didn’t claim and possess. No, he teased and cajoled, his tongue playing and slipping in and out, pairing the invasion with little nibbles that kept her off balance. Automatically, she reached up to try and push him away, but he grabbed her wrists in one hand and dragged them over her head. His easy grip was unbreak-able. Her breasts strained against her blouse as she struggled for breath. She fought for equilibrium, but he held her legs open within the confines of her pencil skirt. The combination of pleasure and pain, restraint and control, swarmed within and around until her senses took over completely. Her brain scrambled for clarity, but she couldn’t seem to surface. His fingers plucked at her tight nipple, rolling the tips through the thin fabric and lace, but never enough to satisfy her. Her blood roared and her hips arched for more.

“That’s it,” he murmured. “Strong women like you need a way to turn off their thoughts. Surrender completely to me and I’ll make it so good for you, you’ll beg for more.”

She stiffened. Surrender? What was he talking about?

She wasn’t weak, she was— “Ah, back to thinking, are we? My mistake, I let you wander.” He deftly unbuttoned the top three buttons of her blouse and slid his hand inside to cup her breast. Those warm fingers hit her skin and she held back a gasp. His thumb swiped her aching nipple against the lace, forcing a shudder. She craved more pressure, but he wouldn’t give it to her, wouldn’t give her the full-body contact she needed to feel satisfied. Back and forth, over and over, until she gritted her teeth and wiggled in his grasp, trying to get loose.

He only tightened his hold, and the erotic torture made her hotter. That sexy laugh again, as if he knew exactly what she wanted and refused to give in. “you like that, huh? But you’re not ready for more. you have to learn to ask for what you want, baby. Ask nicely.”

Her eyes widened. “What?”

“you heard me.” His gaze drilled into hers until she was caught up in hot golden flames. “you know what I want?

I want to push up your skirt, pull down your panties, and slide my fingers into your wet heat. I want my mouth on your nipple, your thighs wide apart, and your honey flowing over my fingers. I want to watch your face when you come so hard you scream, and then I want to strip off your clothes and do it all over.”

Her heart thundered in fear and lust. How could he say these things? So raw and lurid and . . . carnal. No one had ever dared to speak with her in such a way. It wasn’t proper.

“Don’t say things like that.” Her voice came out hoarse and ragged.

“Why?” he murmured, coaxing her nipple tighter. He watched every motion until she felt stripped naked and vulnerable. “Because it’s not proper? you’ve done proper already, and it hasn’t worked. It’s time you do dirty.”

“No, it won’t work, it will—oh!” He bit down hard on her neck, then licked the tender flesh at the same time he squeezed her nipple. Shudders wracked her body and her thoughts spun out of control.

“you’re wet, aren’t you? Wouldn’t it feel so good if I slipped my fingers between your legs? rubbed your clit until all that tension just exploded?” His outrageous words should have embarrassed her, but social niceties took a nosedive under the sudden crazed demand of her body. She panted and twisted for one final desperate attempt at sanity.

“I can’t have an orgasm, okay? Let me go.”

“No.” The shock of a man not listening to her commands threw her off. “For the next few minutes, your body is under my control.” Butterscotch eyes burned with clear direction and blistering heat. “you have no say over what I do. you can’t touch me or worry about what comes next.” His hand left her breasts and slowly tugged up the edges of her skirt so it bunched around her upper thighs. She couldn’t move, completely transfixed by his words and voice and demand.

“you are not allowed to think about the business deal, your schedule, or what you’re cooking for dinner.” He nudged his knee up behind hers so her left leg was lifted and open to his touch. “Now let’s see how hot and wet this little episode got you.”

She gasped at his crudeness but he crashed his mouth over hers.

He invaded her mind and body at once. His tongue pushed through the seam of her lips and dove deep, while his fingers found the edge of her panties, slipped under, and found home. A strange noise broke from her but he only swallowed the sound with an expertise that robbed her breath. Talented fingers parted her swollen flesh and dove into her drenched core. Confused, Julietta could only respond to a variety of demands, as her nipples begged for the lash of his tongue, and his delicious taste of coffee, spice, and male hunger urged her mouth to open wider for more.

She clenched around the push-pull of his pumping fingers until the unbelievable sensations of a looming orgasm hit every muscle. She reached, trying to hold on to it with her mind. Her fingers curled into his, and his thumb pressed over her throbbing clitoris, the nerves screaming for re-lease. He ripped his mouth from hers as she teetered on the edge, caught between the hazy place where logic was dead and physical need trumped every lesson she’d ever learned.

His gaze drilled into hers and demanded surrender. Yes.

yes, she would do anything right now. The slightest bit of pressure would throw her over. Just a little more and— He was gone.

Julietta blinked, panting hard as her brain tried to make sense of what had occurred. The few inches of space that separated them brought a sudden chill to her overheated flesh. Her body ached from raw need, and she stared at him with growing horror as the scene crystallized before her.

No, this couldn’t have happened. He only meant to torture her, show her a horrible lesson, then leave her stranded so he could laugh and make fun of her. With clumsy fingers, she pushed down her skirt and straightened her clothes.

Humiliated tears stung the back of her lids, but she gritted her teeth and fought through the emotion, going back to her safe, cold place where nothing could hurt her.

“Don’t you dare,” he ripped out. “you will not demean yourself anymore in my presence. Look at me. Look at how badly I want to take you against that wall like an animal.”

His erection seemed huge and looming from the tight fabric of his pants. “you think this was a goddamn lesson for my ego? I needed to show you what it could be like between us. I can take you further, all the way, but you have to make that decision.”

Frustration ripped through her. “I’m not some sort of project for you, Sawyer. you wanted to show the poor frigid spinster you can get her off once? Congratulations—close enough. Thanks for the sampler platter, but I’ll pass on the meal. Now leave me the hell alone.”

She headed toward the door, but he blocked her so fast it reminded her of the Twilight movies where edward whizzed in front of Bella with vampire grace. “Not before you listen to me, or I’ll push you back against that wall and damn the consequences.” Her thighs trembled at the threat.

What the hell was wrong with her? She was sick to be so turned on by his caveman tactics.

“you’re not sick,” he said gently.

His ability to read her thoughts only enraged her more.

She crossed her arms in front of her chest and lifted her chin. “Talk. you have two minutes, and then I’m leaving this room. I swear if you try to stop me again, I’ll scream the building down.”

“Fair enough. Simply put, you respond to a more dominating sexual manner than other women. your mind is so strong and in charge, your body doesn’t get a shot. you’ll probably get more excited by restraints or a lover who you can surrender control to in the bedroom.”

“And how do you know all this?”

His face tightened, as if remembering painful memories. “I had some issues to work out, and I learned a bit about domination and submission.”

She rolled her eyes. “I don’t need to submit to any man.”

“Not submit. you couldn’t be any man’s plaything or slave, baby. Though in traditional roles, the one who submits is the one who always holds the power. No, I’m talking about simple surrender. Giving up control in order to get sexually excited and stay there.” He took a step toward her and his scent rose in her nostrils. She fought the urge to close her eyes and drag in a deep breath. Just his closeness turned her on like no other man ever had. “I want to show you that world. Give you pleasure. Since I met you, I’ve imagined you in my bed with your legs wrapped around my hips while I thrust inside you. your face when you come.

But I need you to trust me on some level first. Give me a chance.”

The fight sagged out of her body, and she was left with the bruising knowledge she didn’t believe him. Sure, he was able to get her close to orgasm, but she hadn’t managed to finish. She was probably caught up in the moment. Another planned encounter would never work.

“one night, Julietta.” His voice stroked and probed every dark corner like crushed velvet. “I want you, and I’ll do anything to get you. If I can’t give you an orgasm in one night, I’ll leave you alone. In fact, I’ll give you an incentive.”

A humorless laugh escaped her lips. “An orgasm and an incentive? How much better can it get?”

“I’ll put you in charge of the entire operation.”

She stilled. “What?”

“I said you had free access but I was the one with the final decisions. If you spend the night with me and you’re not satisfied, I’ll give you final approval over anything to do with La Dolce Famiglia.”

The consequences of full control when it came to her bakery flooded her with adrenaline. She had so many ideas that he might fight her on. This way, anything she wanted to try would be all hers. If she disagreed with his actions, she’d be able to overstep his command. It was almost a guarantee of success, because there was no way to lose—she’d never have to depend on his approval.

Sawyer laughed. “Ah, I knew you would like that. Think about it.”

“What do you get out of it? you’d lose one of the most important aspects in this deal—the ability to veto any decision.”

“I get you.”

His gaze locked with hers. Julietta was unable to keep her body from trembling or to mask the raw lust for more of him. To have him naked and demanding in her bed, pushing her to places she’d only dreamed about. Mio Dio, what was she going to do?

“only for one night.” Her quick words reeked of defeat.

He remained silent and studied her. Julietta shifted her weight onto her other high heel and tried to think. “What if I lose?”

His lip lifted. “Then we both win, don’t we?”

The intercom buzzed and interrupted the electricity zinging in the air. “Mr. Wells, your one o’clock is here.”

He never moved or answered. She envied his control over the situation, even as she realized he was still fully aroused. Time to retreat and get herself together. The man oozed pheromones that fried her brain. “I’ll think about it.”

Sawyer nodded, as if they discussed a business arrange-ment rather than a night of sex. “Very well. I’ll wait until you give me an answer.”

Julietta veered around him and gave up a small victory.

No matter. She’d have time to regroup, but right now his nearness needed to be avoided. His low chuckle confirmed he noticed, and she cursed under her breath as she scurried out the door in full cowardly retreat.

Damn him.

What the hell was she going to do?



The demons were back.

Sawyer rubbed the nape of his neck and pushed away from his computer. Hours of work usually focused him, keeping him primed and targeted toward his main goal. But after his encounter with Julietta, and trying to balance too many requests with the looming opening of his Purity, his nerves were shot.

He couldn’t get her out of his head. How long had it been since a woman had crawled under his skin and stayed there? Sure, he’d gone after particular females who interested him before, but he’d never experienced the intensity that encompassed not just his body, but his mind and emotions. The gorgeous flushed look on her face haunted him. Sawyer lifted his hand and pressed his fingers against his mouth. God, he still smelled her. Musky—with hints of vanilla and coconut swirled together. He remembered her soft lips relaxed, hips arching for more, completely in the moment with him and surrendering to her body.

He’d realized immediately after their first kiss she needed a man to control her in the bedroom. No wonder she had trouble responding. A woman so fiercely independent and in charge of a huge empire would loathe the idea of surrendering her body, and he bet her past lovers didn’t own steel balls.

Hell, that was what it’d take to challenge her, and most men had fragile egos. Coaxing a lukewarm response from a lover usually added to frustration for both parties. He bet she tried to lose her inhibitions and only received humiliation for trying. A woman like Julietta would cut her losses and move on, accepting full responsibility for her failure in the bedroom.

Assholes. They took everything passionate within her and forced her to believe she was frigid. Instead, she was a fucking dormant volcano ready to explode, all hot, creamy lava and lusty noises. The way she bit her lip hard to control her cries and tightened her muscles told him enough. She’d give him everything she got and more if she let herself go.

A smile tugged at his lips at the memory of her inner battle. He loved how she challenged him on every level and made him work for it. Sawyer had learned early that many of the aspects of BDSM called to him, and he’d dived into the experience once he had enough money to indulge his eclectic tastes. With his midthirties approaching, he now admitted he liked aspects of the push-pull of dom/sub, but it wasn’t a lifestyle he wanted to commit to. His normal play in private and some exclusive clubs tamed the beast for a while, but work began to feed his insatiable appetite in a more soothing manner. So far, women had been a tempo-rary enjoyment.

Until Julietta came on the scene.

He liked control. Needed it at all times in order to ne-gotiate his life now. But for just a moment, he almost lost it, unbuckled his pants, and slid into her wet heat without a thought. And that, as he learned, was dangerous. How many years had it taken him to finally curb the violence and anger? The frustration of being dependent on people whose only goal was to let him down? only two people in his world ever gave him a glimpse of something more.

Jerry White.

And Mama Conte.

The familiar twinge in his gut drove him to his feet and toward the back of his office. Toward the hidden door behind the mass of bookcases where a slice of peace and sanity were close enough to yank him from the abyss.

Fuck, he hated such weakness.

Sawyer stepped into the room. He took in the surround-ings made for physical torture—soundproof so no grunts of pain were ever heard. The mats were thick beneath his feet, and the various instruments were there for one single purpose.

Sweat.

He toed off his shoes, stripped off his clothes, and changed into a pair of shorts and a T-shirt. He tied his hair back with a rubber band, shoved his feet into the sneakers, and donned the gloves. He started with the bag first, warm-ing up with some jabs and letting his brain empty out into his body, ready to ease out the poison.

one. Two. Three.

The memory flickered.

“You’re a fucking pussy, you know that.” It was Christmas Eve, but there was no tree, no lights, and no warmth in the hellhole. His foster father drank from a rapidly declining bottle of Clan MacGregor and the smell drifted sickly sweet and sharp to his nostrils, making him gag. He kept quiet, knowing the trick of the game was to say as little as possible.

He was chained to a chair in the dirty kitchen. The cheap yellow linoleum held an array of scratches and stains. He let his mind go and focused on the tiny circle by the broken chair leg. Round and round his gaze followed the pattern and his mind began to drift. The other kids were asleep in the basement. He’d locked the door behind him so Asshole couldn’t get in, knowing the holidays were one of his favorite times to play. It was easier to piss him off and get him to go after him than sacrificing the rest of the crew for a group party.

Unfortunately, it worked better than he planned.

Sawyer tamped down the trickle of panic. His feet were still free, and the more Scotch that disappeared, the worse Asshole’s reflexes. No problem.

The burning sting of the cigarette pressed into his fore-arm made him jerk, but he kept his gaze down, on the circle, round and round.

The laugh was pure mean. “You like to play the hero, don’t you, boy? Always thought you were better than us. Time to teach you some life lessons and take you down a peg.”

He ignored the taunts. The first punch cracked him hard and he knew it would be a long night. . . .

Sawyer moved, ducked an imaginary opponent, and slammed his fists over and over into the bag. Lightning swift, he fought the memories gouged in his head until the sweat poured off his skin and a sliver of light shone from the grunge of his past.

oh, Asshole had made him pay that Christmas eve.

The broken rib was taped up later, and the burns left scars he didn’t give a crap about. What he gained that night was more important.

Hope.

He was growing bigger and more dangerous. of course, if he didn’t take it, the younger ones suffered, and he’d rather have physical bruises than an ache in his gut that’d eat him alive. No, it was easier to take the punches, but time was running out. He’d be free in nine months, five days, and four hours. eighteen years old meant freedom. escape.

Maybe he’d be able to go to social services then about the others. Maybe . . .

The raw fury choked him, so he punched harder, kicked higher, and fell to the brutality of the streets, where winning was so much more than a competition: It was a matter of survival. So stupid to think he’d be able to outrun his past.

The last shred of innocence ripped from his soul when the knowledge he’d failed almost killed him. Almost. Instead, he accepted that he’d killed his foster brother Danny out of his own greedy need to escape. Forced the acceptance into the dark closet and locked the door. Then decided to live.

“Sawyer?”

He spun around and crouched, still only half in the present. Breathing hard, he recognized Wolfe standing by the doorway. The kid was rarely surprised by anything, but it seemed discovering Sawyer knocking the shit out of the bag in his private chamber threw him off. Sawyer straightened and walked to the bar. “How’d you get in here?”

The kid thrust out his chin. “Door wasn’t completely closed. Found a weird notch in the bookcase, so I checked it out. I wasn’t spying.”

“I know.” He guzzled a half bottle of cold water, then wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “This is private space—no one else knows about it.”

A strange expression crossed the kid’s face. Hurt?

“Like I give a crap. I won’t gossip at the next tea party. Just wanted to tell you I’m heading over to La Dolce Famiglia for a few hours before dinner.” He turned halfway. “What is this anyway? your secret Batcave?”

Sawyer swallowed a laugh and grabbed a towel. “Kind of. you work out?”

Wolfe studied the walls of free weights, punching bags, and bars around the room. A bad-ass sound system was wired to an array of hard metal that Sawyer loved. A flash lit those blue eyes, almost like longing. “Nah, not into it.”

Sawyer wiped off his forehead and studied the boy.

He’d been with him almost eight months now and still knew relatively little about his past. of course, he knew enough.

The abuse was evident, like a beaten dog that cowers at loud noises and growls to warn off strangers. Wolfe’s tattoos, shaved head, and piercings showed he searched for his own sliver of peace and probably hadn’t found it yet.

Sawyer only meant to give him an opportunity in the business world and get him off the streets. Instead, he became his mentor, dragged him to Italy, and put him in charge of his biggest operation. He even lived with him, for God’s sake.

The memory flashed before his vision and played out in slow motion.

He’d been staying at the Waldorf hotel in Manhattan— an elegant queen set amidst the class of Park Avenue in midtown. The exquisite richness of service and class New Yorkers demanded from a top-class hotel was achieved with marble floors, antique furniture, rich tapestries, and golden, dripping crystal chandeliers. He’d been consult-ing on a project and was walking down the hallway to his next meeting. An employee passed by with his head down, and though he was distracted, Sawyer immediately realized when his wallet was lifted from his suit pocket.

Quick as a snake, he reached out and grabbed the man’s hand. Someone else probably wouldn’t have noticed—the guy was good—but living on the streets had given Sawyer an edge most didn’t own. The quick indrawn breath and frantic tug made Sawyer squeeze harder, until a pair of blazing blue eyes lifted and locked on his.

A kid. Maybe eighteen—dressed in the hotel uniform.

Before he had a moment to process the information, the kid shoved him hard and he fell back. The kid raced toward the end of the hall with his prize. And slammed right into one of the hotel managers.

The next few hours blurred as they discovered he’d been living in the janitorial quarters, stealing uniforms, and basi-cally living off the guests. Taking food from the room service trays. Washing in various bathrooms around the hotel. As the story came full blown, the memories of his own childhood choked him mercilessly. Trying to find a safe place to sleep and knowing the shelters were the most dangerous places to hole up. Finally getting smart enough to target one of the big hotels and learning the ins and outs of the system. My God, if Jerry had never taken him under his protection, he’d be in jail, too. And now, years later, he looked upon another teen in the same position. He’d be endless trouble and a huge complication Sawyer didn’t need. Better to walk away from the whole mess and not look back. He’d get the hotel to drop the charges and make the whole thing go away. Then wish him luck.

Instead, he made a bargain. Got the charges dropped.

Then offered the kid a job where he could keep an eye on him.

Sawyer never thought it would work. After all, this kid was surly as hell and full of scars. He was a minefield ready to explode or implode. He traced the paperwork to a boy named Vincent Soldano who had been linked to numerous foster homes and a list of complaints. At eighteen, he was now on his own with nowhere to go. Sawyer got him a room at the hotel he stayed in and offered to train him as his assistant. Hell, he figured the kid could at least learn to file, copy things, and be a general errand boy. With his full black hair, blue eyes, and classic features, he’d polish up nice in a suit and tie.

Sawyer shook his head at the memory.

Oh, yeah, he remembered that polite conversation all right. Vincent had nodded and told him he’d give him his answer in twenty-four hours. When he returned the next day, he had a gold ring piercing in his brow, a snake tattoo around his neck, and he had shaved off half of his hair. He confronted Sawyer with a snarl and a comment that changed Sawyer forever. “This is what you’re really getting. I’m fucked up now inside and outside. Do you still want me now?”

Sawyer realized it was both a challenge and a plea. His gut lurched as he glanced at the kid’s freakish appearance and admired his stubborn spirit.. “You can never touch drugs or I throw you out. And no stealing. That’s nonnegotiable.”

“I’m not a user. And I won’t steal from you.”

The truth gleamed in those blue eyes. And Sawyer gave him his answer. “Yes, I still want you. We need to buy you some clothes. You start tomorrow.”

Sawyer figured he’d get him on his feet and the kid would move on. eight months later, they were still together, with a fucked-up relationship both of them were afraid to probe.

He had tried setting him up with a shrink, but the kid almost bailed on him, so Sawyer decided just to keep him close and see what happened. Looking at his homemade gym, he realized he might be able to show Wolfe another way of slaying the monsters. He chugged the rest of his water and slammed it back on the bar. “Come with me; I need a spotter.”

The gold bar in Wolfe’s eyebrow caught the light as he arched it. “No, thanks.”

“Don’t think you can pull your own weight?”

His lips twisted in a snarl. “I could take you any time, old man.”

Sawyer grinned and tossed him a pair of shorts and a tank. “Prove it. you may wear some pretty jewelry, but I don’t think you can lift.”

His taunt worked. The kid disappeared to change, then trudged to the bench press. Sawyer noticed he didn’t wear the tank, but had replaced it with a long-sleeved tee that covered his arms. Wolfe loaded on the weight, lay back on the bench, and put his gloved hands elbow width apart.

“Count it down.”

He did a full set, rested, then did another. They switched on and off, while the sounds of classic Guns N’ roses blared around them and drowned out any attempt at conversation.

They worked the circuit together, pushing, pulling, grunt-ing, and sweating, until Sawyer’s mind was clear and his body exhausted. He threw Wolfe a bottle of water, and they guzzled it down with sheer greed. “you did good,” Sawyer said. “Those skinny arms surprised me.”

Unbelievably, the kid half smiled. Sawyer realized he’d rarely, if ever, seen any type of emotion cross Wolfe’s face.

especially a hint of laughter or happiness. Sawyer’s heart did a weird little flip that almost embarrassed him. “I’m surprised a man your age can still box.”

Sawyer snorted. “I studied boxing for years. It’s more than just punching a lousy bag. It’s about balance, flexibility, controlled power.” He remembered sparring in that hole of a gym. He did the shittiest jobs so the men would keep him around. Cleaning bathrooms, washing disgusting towels, taking punches as a sparring partner, all in the hope of a few hours of staying in a place that made him feel safe.

Practicing for hours in order to make sure he survived on the streets. “I’ll teach you.”

The kid’s head swung around. Suspicion gleamed from his eyes. “Why?”

Because he needed something to help him empty out the pain. Because he had to start living and stop just existing. Because Sawyer didn’t know what else to do to reach him.

He shrugged. “Because I get bored by myself. I’m here by five a.m., then I go back to shower and change for work.”

“Five fucking a.m.?”

“you like your beauty sleep, huh? No wonder you’re a bit soft.”

The snarl was back, but this time it came with a spark.

“you wish. Fine. I’ll join you, but just because you need a challenge, old man.”

Sawyer grinned and tamped down the impulse to squeeze the boy’s shoulder. He’d learned a few months ago touching was off-limits to the kid. “Welcome to the Jungle”

pounded through the room. Sawyer threw the bottle across the room and made a perfect dunk shot into the garbage.

“Let’s get back to work.”

They left the gym together.

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