Book 3 The Marcelli Sisters of Pleasure Road Series
Borrowing a million dollars from the devil was one thing; picking a fight with him while doing it was something else.
Brenna Marcelli considered herself to be above average in intelligence. With her future on the line, there was absolutely no way she would be anything but perfectly pleasant during her conversation with Nicholas Giovanni. She would be confident, persuasive, even charming. She would not get crabby, beg or think about sex. Especially not sex. No matter how good it had been.
But it had been great, she thought as she paced the length of the waiting area in the executive offices of Wild Sea Vineyards. Better than good. One time they'd done it on the beach and that night on the news there'd been a report of an unexpectedly high tide. Brenna had always wondered if she and Nic were somehow to blame.
"History," she murmured as she clutched her portfolio more tightly to her chest. "Ancient history. This is a new decade-a new century even. I am empowered. I am impervious. I am really annoyed that he's keeping me waiting."
She turned and glared at the closed door leading to Nic's private office. When his assistant had asked her to wait and promised the man in charge would be with her shortly, Brenna had believed her. Now, nearly ten minutes later, the assistant had disappeared and there was still no sign of Nic.
"Just a power play," she told herself, then took a calming breath. "I'm not going to buy into it. He can keep me waiting as long as he wants."
Except her stomach was in knots, she had serious regrets about that fifth cup of coffee and she had a bad feeling that if she stopped moving for too long, she would find that her knees were shaking. Not exactly the picture of professional confidence she wanted to portray. She really needed to-
The office door opened and the devil himself walked into the room.
Okay, maybe calling Nic the devil was a bit strong, but he was dark, dangerous and at this point, she would sell him her soul to get what she wanted. A rose by any other name and all that.
"Brenna." Nic spoke her name with a smile. As if they met on a regular basis. "Good to see you."
If only, she thought. She hadn't set foot on Giovanni land in ten years. And with good reason.
He motioned toward his office and she stepped into the inner sanctum. The room hadn't changed a whole lot since she'd last seen it. Still massive, still dominated by a desk built in the eighteen century. The computer was new, as was the owner. Ten years ago Nic's grandfather had occupied the space. >From here he'd run all of Wild Sea Vineyards. Now the old man was gone and Nic was in charge.
In charge and going places, she thought as she crossed to the map on the wall opposite the opulent desk. She studied the shaded area that detailed the Giovanni holdings, noting how much expansion there'd been in the past seven years. Nic had always wanted to be the biggest and best. He'd achieved that in spades.
Of course, focusing on the map allowed her not to think about that damn desk. Unfortunately, she was going to have to turn around and stare at it sometime. It wouldn't be so bad if she and Nic hadn't, well, done it on that desk.
It had been about three a.m. on a Saturday morning. The night had been still, cool and incredibly romantic. Of course when she'd been seventeen and in love, watching paint dry had been romantic.
"You're welcome to sit down," he said, a trace of amusement in his voice.
Sure, she thought as she squared her shoulders and turned to face her past. Nic worked here every day. He'd probably forgotten what had happened on that carved slab of wood. But not her.
She made her way to an over- sized chair and sank onto the smooth leather surface. Nic walked around his desk and sat facing her.
"I was surprised to hear you'd made an appointment to see me," he said easily. "I hope everything is all right with your family."
"They're fine. Great, really. Francesca's engaged." More than engaged, but that conversation was for another time.
"That must make your grandfather happy."
She nodded and found her gaze settling on his face. Strong features, she thought, remembering the boy as she stared at the man. He'd always had strong features. Compelling eyes, a straight nose, a determined, maybe even stubborn chin and a mouth that had once been able to kiss her into another time zone.
Despite the warm August temperatures, he wore a long sleeve black shirt, dark slack. Not exactly the jeans and T-shirts she was used to seeing.
"You're dressed for success," she said.
"In honor of our meeting."
He smiled, a slow, sexy smile that made her remember other smiles. Like the one he'd used to convince her it was really okay to make love late at night in the vineyard. It had been their first time and she'd lost her virginity to the sound of crickets and-
Let's stop this right now, she told herself. Trips down memory lane were only going to get her into trouble. She was here on a mission that had nothing to do with sexy smiles or the heat flaring to life low in her belly.
She forced herself to relax in the leather chair. She carefully crossed one leg over the other and tried for a faintly amused, possibly bored expression. Who knew if it really worked.
"All that trouble for me? I don't think so."
He chuckled. "All right. I have a meeting with several foreign distributors later this afternoon. I figured jeans would put them off."
Not if they were women, Brenna thought before she could stop herself.
"So you're expanding again," she said instead.
"Always. Be the biggest and the best."
"You're certainly going to win on volume."
"Don't they say size matters?"
"Only those who don't know how to use what they have." She remembered her vow not to argue with him about eighteen seconds too late.
"Sorry," she murmured.
He raised his eyebrows. "For disagreeing with me? There's a first. Now I'm even more intrigued." He grinned and leaned forward. "All right, Brenna. You're here, you're wearing a suit and you're carrying what looks like a thick stack of papers. Why don't you tell me what's going on?"
So they were going to get right to it. She cleared her throat and set her portfolio on his desk. At that moment her brain hiccupped and every single intelligent, logical, financially sound sentence she'd practiced flew out of her head.
"I'm one of the best in the business," she began, then hesitated, wondering if that sounded too arrogant.
At least he didn't break into hysterical laughter. "I'll admit that I wouldn't want to go head to head with you in competition," he admitted.
The compliment boosted her confidence and made her want to wiggle in her seat. She satisfied herself with a slight smile. "As my grandfather says, aside from him, I'm the only one in the family with a passion for wine. I've lived it most of my life."
He started to say something, but she rushed on. There was no way she was going to let him remind her of the ten years she'd spent away from Marcelli Wines. Ten years she'd spent being an idiot.
"My grandfather has put me in charge of the winery. I know what's needed to take our success to the next level."
"So you're not here for a job."
"No." She flipped open the portfolio. "I'm here for a loan."
Nic straightened. "Why? You don't have a cash flow problem."
"Marcelli Wines doesn't. Business has never been better. But I'm not them. I work for my grandfather. The company still belongs to him."
If only. The truth shouldn't still hurt, but it did. It hurt a lot. "My sisters and me inheriting has become less of a sure thing." She paused, knowing that there was no point in holding back. He was going to hear about it eventually.
"It seems my parents had a child out of wedlock, as they say. A son. They were both still in high school. Due to family pressure, they gave up the baby for adoption."
Nic was cool as always. Instead of letting any emotion show on his face, he leaned back in his chair. "That would change things," he admitted. "When did you find out?"
"At our big Fourth of July party. It was our version of fireworks, to say the least. The point is, the long lost baby is now a thirty year old man."
The Marcelli and Giovanni families might not have spoken in nearly three generations, but they had both grown up with the same traditional, Italian values. Feminism had yet to arrive at the shores of their respective vineyards. Nic got it right away.
"Your grandfather is old-fashioned enough to be more comfortable leaving the family business to a male heir. I'm guessing the long lost brother is interested?"
"It's a ton of money. Wouldn't you be?" she asked with a lightness she didn't feel. "All of which leaves me on the short end of the inheritance stick." Now came the tough part. "I've learned that the wine business is in my blood. I don't want to do anything else with my life."
"If you're right and your brother inherits, why wouldn't he keep you on to run things?"
"He might, but I'm not willing to wait around and see. Besides, I have my own ideas and plans. I want to start my own label."
He pointed at the portfolio in front of her. "Your proposal?"
She nodded. "I've detailed everything. What grapes I want to buy, the price of the inventory, barrels, storage. There's also some land I'm interested in."
"Starting a label doesn't come cheap."
His dark gaze never left her face. "Where else did you go for financing?"
"Everywhere short of a loan shark."
He nodded. "Let me guess. They want to know why you can't get the money from your grandfather."
"That's some of it. They were also concerned that I don't have any collateral. I've explained that the wine is collateral, but that doesn't seem to impress them." She shrugged. "You're a man who likes to take risks, but only when they pay off. I'm the closest to a sure thing you're going to find."
He raised his eyebrows. "Really?"
Brenna could have cheerfully thrown herself in front of a moving delivery truck. She could feel the heat on her face, but with her olive coloring, the blush wouldn't show. It was a small consolation, but one she clung to like a life preserver.
"You know I can do this," she said as if she hadn't caught the embarrassing word play.
"Maybe," he said. "But why would I want to add to my competition?"
For the first time since driving onto the property, Brenna relaxed. "Oh, please. If I'm lucky I'll be able to match ten percent of your production in five years. I don't think you're going to sweat me putting you out of business."
"Fair enough. Why did you come to me?"
"You're the only person I know with extra cash."
"Your parents would have helped you out."
"Possibly. But I didn't want to make them choose between me and my grandfather. You're a neutral party."
"I'm a Giovanni. Doesn't that make me second cousin to the devil?"
Gee, just what she'd been thinking earlier, only in her eyes, the relationship had been a little closer.
Coming to Nic was her last hope, but also a calculated risk. The Marcelli and Giovanni families had been feuding for years. Her grandfather might find out about the loan if she'd secured it through traditional sources such as a bank, but he would never know if Nic funded her. Grandpa Lorenzo would cheerfully rip out his tongue rather than speak to a Giovanni.
Brenna and her sisters had never been all that interested in the feud. Nic hadn't been either, which he'd proved the first time she'd met him. But to her grandparents-hostilities were alive and well.
"There's a certain irony to this conversation," she admitted. "I would think that appealed to you."
He studied her. Brenna would like to know what he saw, but on second thought-maybe not. She was still recovering from a disastrous, impulsive hair cut. Several months at the family hacienda eating her grandmothers' cooking had added seven pounds to her already plentiful curves. She thought the suit she'd chosen looked pretty good on her, but was that enough? She'd come a long way from the seventeen year old who had promised to love Nic with her whole heart; but the question was, would he consider the changes good or bad?
"Rumor has it I'm a ruthless bastard," he said casually.
"I've heard. Should I be scared?"
"You tell me"
She could remember everything about being with Nic-the way he touched her, the way he kissed, the scent of his skin. She knew the boy he had been, but not the man. What was the same and what had changed? Or did it matter?
Ruthless bastard or not, she wanted the money.
"I don't scare easily these days." She pushed the proposal toward him. "Look it over and tell me what you think."
He rested his hand on the leather cover but didn't open it. "How much?"
The butterflies appeared in her stomach and began to fly in formation. She thought they might be practicing touch and go landings. Her mouth got dry, her palms got wet and the room lurched once for good measure.
"A million dollars."
Nic didn't react in any way-at least not on the outside. He didn't blink, didn't shift in his seat, he didn't even smile. But on the inside, his mild amusement and intrigue turned to impressed amazement. Brenna had gone and got herself some balls.
He pulled his wallet from his back pocket and fingered the bills. "You want that in twenties?"
"I'm not in a position to be picky. Twenties are fine."
"I don't think I have that much with me today."
She watched him, her big eyes betraying her nervousness. She was at the end of the line and they both knew it. If he turned her down, she wouldn't get her loan. Any dreams of starting her own label would be squashed. Oh sure, she could buy a few tons of grapes on the open market, borrow equipment and set up few dozen cheap barrels in a garage somewhere. She might get a loyal following, a little notice, maybe a write up in Wine Spectator. But without an infusion of cash, she would never have the chance to make it big.
Not that he gave a damn about that. What mattered to him were his goals. How did her request fit into the big picture?
He rose and circled around the desk until he stood in front of her, then he leaned against the surface, his arms folded over his chest. It was a position designed to intimidate. To challenge.
Brenna reacted by uncrossing, then recrossing her legs. In the silence of the office the sound of her silk stockings brushing and shifting grated against his ears. He found himself watching the movement, staring at the hem of her skirt, picturing her thighs underneath. And above her thighs?
Paradise. At least that's what her body had been ten years ago. Dark, slick, secret-the road to redemption. Instead she'd steered him right to hell. Because of her, he'd been sent away from his home. He'd been exiled, abandoned and written off for dead.
Unfortunately, the reminder didn't do a damn thing for the unexpected tension crawling through him. He tore his gaze away before he distracted himself with the wrong kind of memories.
"I'm not saying no," he told her.
She sprang to her feet, which put her less than a foot in front of him. Close enough for him to see the various shades of gold and brown that made up her irises, and the tiny scar by the corner of her mouth. Close enough for her perfume to invade his personal space. The scent was different; his reaction to it was not. Long forgotten heat awoke, stretched and went searching for sustenance.
He ignored the temperature and the hunger. This was not the right time nor the place and she was sure as hell not the right woman.
The thing was, he had a plan. Over the years he'd learned that a well thought out plan ensured that he always won. When the goal was revenge, it paid to be patient.
His instincts told him that Brenna's loan request was as unexpected as homerun off the first pitch. All he had to do was toss down his bat and circle the bases. But he wanted to be sure.
"It's a lot of money," he said.
She nodded as her mouth curved in a smile. "I know. I've detailed every penny. It's all going into the wine. I'm not taking a salary. Oh, Nic, the land I want to buy is just perfect for Pinot Noir. There's a sweet valley at the base of a hill that gets just the right amount of midday sun. That, combined with the fog and the salt from the ocean create perfect grapes. You'll see."
Her enthusiasm was as tangible as the hand she put on his arm. He acknowledged the contact-and his reaction to it-by sliding away and picking up her portfolio.
"I'll look this over in the next couple of days and get back to you." He raised his eyebrows. "How exactly do I do that?"
Brenna chuckled. "I suppose a phone call to the hacienda would cause problems for both of us. My cell number is on the proposal. If you don't get me, you can leave a message and I'll call you back."
She clutched her hands together. "Nic, I know it's a lot of money and that this is a risk for you, but I can do this. If you take a chance, you won't be sorry."
"I won't do it if there's a chance I will be."
Her excitement didn't flicker. "You're going to be impressed. I promise."
He had a feeling she was right. Besides, one of his rules in life was to take advantage of every unexpected opportunity. If he agreed, he would insist on keeping close tabs on what she was doing, which was the same as keeping close tabs on Brenna herself. Being close to her had only ever led to one thing.
So money wasn't the only risk. Was that good or bad?
He didn't have an answer, but he knew time spent with Brenna wouldn't be boring. Once again, they could be entering dangerous territory. The difference was this time he would be the one calling the shots.
Brenna drove back to the Marcelli winery, taking the long way round so she drove past the ocean. She rolled down the windows of her ancient Camry and let the warm salty air brush over her skin. Her suit jacket and high heels lay where she'd tossed them on the passenger seat. She had the radio cranked up and sang along with an old Beach Boys tune, delighting in the fact that although they'd been years and years before her time, she knew all the words.
At this moment in time she felt free and wild and happy and so excited, she probably could have taken flight, if not for the seatbelt anchoring her. She leaned her head back and laughed out loud at the sheer pleasure pumping through her.
She'd done it. She'd done it!
Oh, sure, Nic hadn't said yes, not yet. But somehow down in her gut she just knew he was going to. He'd been willing to listen, something no one else had done, and listening was all she needed. Her carefully thought out proposal was going to blow his socks off. Maybe even his pants.
"I hope I'm around when that happens," she murmured, then grinned at the thought of a bottomless Nicholas Giovanni.
Until this past spring, she hadn't seen him in nearly ten years. He could have gotten wrinkled and paunchy, but instead he still had the power to make her entire body go up in flames. And maybe, just maybe, she'd seen a flicker of appreciation in his beautiful sex-god eyes.
After several years of a crappy marriage, abandonment by a creep of a husband and nine months and seventeen days since her last sexual encounter, male admiration-especially that coming from Nic-was a balm to her battered and horny soul.
Not that anything would happen, she reminded herself. If Nic agreed, make that when Nic agreed, they were going to be business partners. There was no way she was going to be foolish enough to mix business and pleasure. Not with a million dollars and her future on the line. No one was that good in bed.
She turned into the entrance to the Marcelli Winery and sighed. Okay, from what she recalled, making love with Nic had been spectacular. Incredible. Life altering. But not worth a million dollars.
She shifted uncomfortably. All this reminiscing about sex was getting to her. If she'd been a cat, she would have been rubbing herself against the nearest doorframe. Not only was she going to have to avoid any sexual contact with Nic, she was going to have stop thinking about him as anything but her loan officer. Nothing personal. Not again.
Fortunately her resolution coincided with her arrival at the family hacienda. Judging from the number of cars crowding around the rear entrance, the entire family was home.
The three story Spanish style home had been built in the late 1920s. Her great grandfather had found plans for a house designed in the late eighteen hundreds by a Spanish nobleman with ten children, which made for lots of bedrooms. Good thing, she thought as she came to a stop in the shade of an old oak tree and turned off the engine. Currently the permanent residents of the hacienda included her paternal grandparents, her maternal grandmother, her parents and herself.
"Humiliating but true," Brenna said as she slipped on her pumps and grabbed her suit jacket. "Twenty-seven years old and living at home."
Actually she'd moved back the previous February when her jerk of a husband-a newly licensed cardiologist without a speck of gratitude or decency-had left her for a younger woman who happened to be a former cheerleader. He was poised to marry the bimbo the instant the computer print was dry on the divorce decree.
Brenna had no desire to have her soon-to-be ex back in her life, but she wouldn't mind a little justice. Her current favorite fantasy was some kind of genital infection that left him unable to enjoy the wedding night. Ever.
All revenge aside, one of these days she was going to take the time to find a place of her own. For now, it was nice to be where a houseful of people loved her.
She made her way up the rear steps and into the kitchen. As usual, the entire female contingent of the family collected there. Her two grandmothers held court over the food, with Grammy M stirring something on the stove and Grandma Tessa chopping vegetables. Her mother sat at the kitchen table, a box of wedding invitation samples open in front of her. Katie, Brenna's older sister, and Francesca, Brenna's fraternal twin, stood in front of their mother.
Their defiant posture made them look like five year olds who had just been caught spray painting the dog.
"What?" Brenna asked as she draped her suit jacket over her arm. "I was gone two hours. What happened? "
"Nothin' terrible," Grammy M-aka Mary-Margaret O'Shea-said from her place at the stove. "Francesca has the most wonderful news."
Brenna's mother didn't look all that excited. "But we'd already picked a date and were about to order the invitations."
First baby sister Mia had come within weeks of marching down the aisle, only to call the whole thing off. Then Katie had gone and gotten herself engaged to Mia's ex-fiancé's father. Twisted, but so California. Francesca had fallen for the handsome CEO of a security company who found out within days of their meeting that he had a twelve year old daughter he'd never known about. A few weeks after that, Francesca had turned up pregnant.
Only Brenna had managed to escape love's sticky snare and the on-going soap opera that was the Marcelli family. Her current plan was to avoid romance and focus on work. She might be open to a little meaningless sex, but a relationship? She didn't have the time or the energy.
She crossed to the kitchen table, grabbing an iced cookie on her way. After six months of her grandmothers' cooking, she didn't want to think about what her cholesterol level must be.
"Tell me everything," she said, stopping next to Francesca and eyeing her very beautiful, very thin twin.
Nearly two months pregnant and was Francesca showing? Not even close. Brenna knew that if she was ever to play host to a marauding sperm, she would plump up overnight and look as if she was giving birth to a watermelon by week nine.
Francesca shrugged. "I know we all talked about waiting, what with the baby and all, but Sam and I have changed our minds. And Katie and I want to have a double wedding. It could be a triple one if you wanted to get married again."
Groans erupted from the grandmothers. Brenna's mother simply settled her elbows on the table and rested her head in her hands. "I'm getting too old for this," she murmured.
"A double wedding?" Brenna considered the possibility, while ignoring the comment about her getting married again. That was never going to happen. "It will be a cost savings," she reminded her mother as she draped her suit jacket over a chair. "You'll only have to feed the guests once instead of twice."
"What about the wedding gown?" Grandma Tessa looked up from her chopping. "We barely have time to make a dress for Katie and now this? Are you sure you want to go down the aisle in your condition? Not that we're not happy for you, Francesca. A pretty girl like you needs a husband."
"Yeah, ugly girls live to be single," Brenna whispered.
Katie's full mouth twitched as she tried not to laugh. "We're willing to put the wedding date back to give us all time to get everything done."
"You could have the weddings at Thanksgiving," Brenna said as she nibbled on her cookie. "We all know everyone in this family will be doing the happy dance to see two sisters married. For years everyone has despaired ever getting us all hitched. Now we're halfway there. That gives us so much more to be thankful for."
Grandma Tessa muttered something Brenna couldn't hear. She half expected to see the older woman whip out her rosary for a quick trip around the beads. Fortunately Grandma Tessa contented herself with a couple of dark looks.
"Turkey day weekend works for me," Katie said. "We could have the wedding that Saturday."
Francesca shrugged. "Sam doesn't care about the date. As for a dress, I'll pick something simple and flowing."
"Don't bother," Brenna told her. "You'll be nine months pregnant and still not showing."
Their mother raised her head. "I don't know. As it is, we'll be sewing day and night."
Family tradition dictated that any Marcelli bride have a wedding gown handmade by the women in the family. A great idea in theory, but beading lace took forever. Brenna wasn't worried about the additional sewing duties. She had a winery to run and therefore was excused from most of the needlework.
Their mother pulled out a pad of paper. "If we're going to have a double wedding, we need to start making lists."
The three sisters looked at each other and shook their heads. When Mom started making lists an entire afternoon could fly by. Better to escape now.
"I'll get the drinks," Brenna said, heading for a rack on the far wall.
"I'll get chocolate," Francesca said.
Katie walked to the cupboard. "Cheese and crackers or cookies?"
"Cookies," Francesca and Brenna said together.
Their mother shook her head. "You girls aren't going anywhere. We have two weddings to plan."
Katie snaked a plate of cookies from the counter, kissed both Grammy M and Grandma Tessa and hurried out of the room.
"Love you, Mom," she called over her shoulder.
Francesca quickly followed.
Brenna collected a bottle of wine, an opener and two wine glasses, then opened the refrigerator. As expected, there was a bottle of chocolate milk sitting on the top shelf. It was the Grands contribution to Francesca's need to increase her calcium.
"You guys think of everything," she said as she shut the door.
Her mother glared at her. "We need to plan."
"We'll deal with it later," Brenna promised. "Don't worry. Everything will get done in time."
"I can't believe you girls are having wine. It's the middle of the day."
"We have things to celebrate," Brenna said.
Her mother's eyes narrowed slightly. "You seem exceptionally happy today. Why is that?"
Brenna wasn't about to spill the beans about her potential deal with Nic. Not to her parents. While she knew they would understand her need to stand on her own, the information would put them in an awkward position. Her paternal grandfather was still the head of the family and he wouldn't approve. Rather than make her parents take sides, she would keep her mouth shut.
She smiled and started backing out of the room. "Two of my sisters are marrying wonderful men. Isn't that enough to put a spring in my step?"
"Not by a long shot. What are you up to, Brenna?"
"Absolutely nothing. Cross my heart."
Grandma Tessa looked up. "You go to hell for lying, same as stealing, young lady. The good Lord knows all."
"Words to live by," Brenna said with a laugh as she turned and raced up the stairs.
The Marcelli Family - Book 3
November 2003/Reissued April 2010
The final novel of Mallery's Marcelli Sisters trilogy features Brenna, the only sister who dreams of running the family's California winery--and she's about to get her chance. But taking the helm at Marcelli Winery is tougher than she bargained for -- especially when she butts heads with her grandfather, whose Old World ways dictate that a male should inherit the business.
In need of some fast capital in order to prove her grandfather wrong, Brenna turns to Nic Giovanni, her family's nemesis....Years ago, she ended her secret relationship with Nic, choosing loyalty to her family over the hot passion they shared. But now he's back in her life, he's loaned her a million dollars, and their feelings for each other are stronger than ever. Brenna must find out for herself: is Nic the love of her life? Or the schemer who could topple the Marcelli dynasty -- and break her heart?
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SUSAN MALLERY IS A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLING AUTHOR OF CONTEMPORARY WOMEN'S FICTION AND ROMANCE NOVELS.