The third book in the Marcelli Sisters of Pleasure Road series, 2003
To Maureen Child, an extraordinary writer who listened, encouraged, fumed on my behalf, and generally made me feel brilliant. May we always feel that glorious wind.
Here’s to wild success and friendship.
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 eighteenth 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 oversize 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-sleeved black shirt, dark slacks. 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 I 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 wordplay.
“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 haircut. 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 a 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 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?