After a decade abroad, international playboy Immanuel Morretti is ready to reunite with his family and share the good life with that one special woman. When he rescues Dionne Fontaine from a dangerous attacker, he knows in his heart that he's found her. Despite the desire igniting between them, the self-made Southern beauty refuses to take their sizzling affair to the next level.
With her life-coaching center taking off, Dionne is poised for game-changing success. Then this dashing, sensuous man comes into her life and his tenderness and passion tempt her to believe in happy endings. From Atlanta to Seattle to Venice, Immanuel showers her with romantic dinners and intimate nights beyond her wildest dreams. But explosive secrets from their pasts could sabotage their thrilling vision of love and a future together
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"Surely you can't be that dumb." Dionne Fontaine heard the scathing retort leave her mouth and wished she could cram the words back down her throat. Not because she felt guilty for losing her temper, but because the novice life coach with the Dolly Parton-like cleavage had burst into tears.
Her vice president and friend, Sharleen Nichols, glared at her as if she were the problem, and Dionne wondered if she'd been too harsh. Considering all of the facts, Dionne determined her next move. Sharleen and Annabelle Clark had arrived at her office ten minutes earlier, during her morning meditation time, and although she'd been annoyed by the interruption, Dionne had given them her undivided attention. She was the CEO of Pathways Center, the head woman in charge, and she prided herself on being accessible to her employees. Even starstruck life coaches who put themselves in compromising situations with male clients.
"Annabelle did nothing wrong," Sharleen insisted, her tone matter-of-fact. "It's not her fault Ryder Knoxx propositioned her during their free consultation yesterday. She shouldn't be blamed for his poor judgment."
Feeling contrite, Dionne spoke in a sympathetic tone. "Entertainers are notorious womanizers with no conscience. Since it's obvious Mr. Knoxx has a crush on you, I'll assign you to another client and pass the aging rock star on to a more seasoned life coach."
Panic flickered across her face. "No. Don't. I like him, and we have a lot in common."
"This isn't about you, Annabelle. This is about doing what's best for our clients."
Her shoulders drooped, and she slid down in her chair, as if she were trying to disappear into the plush, soft fabric. "But we clicked," she whined. "Ryder thinks we're kindred spirits."
Of course he does. He's trying to get into your pants, and you're too stupid to realize it.
Dionne struggled to control her temper. It was a challenge, especially in light of everything that had happened at the center in recent months, but she maintained her cool. "Your goal as a life coach is to encourage and support clients through their problems and issues, not become their BFFs."
Annabelle started to speak to argue her point, but Di-onne silenced her with a look. Her Southern drawl was charming, but she was a pain in the ass and she wanted to get rid of her. "Life coaching is about helping people improve the quality of their lives without expecting anything in return," she continued. "It's imperative you act professional at all times, and don't, under any circumstances, accept money, gifts or favors from clients."
"Does that mean I can't attend the world music awards with Ryder next month?"
"That's exactly what it means."
"But nothing," Dionne snapped, finally losing her patience. The more time she spent with Annabelle, the less she liked her, and she suspected the only reason the university graduate had applied to Pathways was to hook up with a celebrity. "You've only been working here for three months, and since you started it's been one problem after another "
Sharleen tried to interrupt her, but Dionne was on a roll. She didn't believe in biting her tongue or sugarcoating the truth. She always spoke her mind. "I'm all for a woman using her physical assets to get ahead, but you need a make-under. Tone down the eyeliner, lay off the hair spray and, for goodness' sake, cover your tits. This is a place of business."
Sniffling, Annabelle cleaned her plump, tearstained cheeks with the back of her hands. "You're right, Mrs. Fontaine. I'm sorry. I'll do better, I promise."
"You better, or you're fired."
Sharleen winced as if she were in pain, but Dionne pretended not to notice.
"Pathways is my life, and I won't let you or anyone else destroy my agency."
Nodding, Annabelle rose to her feet and straightened her low-cut, belted dress. "I better head back to my office. My next session starts at ten, and I need time to prepare."
Annabelle hustled through the open door and closed it behind her.
Dionne was glad to see her leave. "You never should have hired her," she said, reaching for her oversize mug and raising it to her lips. "She's young and immature, and so damn gullible. It's hard to believe she's twenty-seven years old."
"Annabelle's a good life coach."
"That remains to be seen."
Sharleen released a deep breath. With her flawless complexion and delicate features, she'd always been a pretty girl, but since meeting race-car driver Emilio Mor-retti, she'd stepped up her fashion game. No longer self-conscious about the scars on her arms and legs she'd suffered in a tragic house fire, she'd traded in her dark suits for vibrant designer outfits. The oversize bow on the neckline of her red A-line dress was eye-catching, and her pearl accessories enhanced the femininity of her look.
"You're being too hard on her," Sharleen said.
"And you're being too nice."
"Leave everything to me. I'll mentor her and show her how to be a great life coach."
Dionne admired her optimism. Appointing Sharleen as her VP was the smartest thing she'd ever done. She hoped they'd be friends and partners for many years to come.
Not if Emilio Morretti has his way, whispered her inner voice.
The sports legend had proposed to Sharleen on her twenty-eighth birthday, and three weeks later she was still floating on air. Standing on the podium after winning the World Series All-Star Race, Emilio had stunned her friendand the 1.5 million viewers watching worldwideby popping the question on live TV. The happy couple were planning to exchange vows in Venice, Italy. Although Dionne had tried talking Sharleen out of getting married in December, her friend was determined to tie the knot in just three months' time. She was convinced Emilio was "the one," and she was so anxious to jump the broom, it was all she could talk about. Dionne only hoped Sharleen wouldn't one day regret her decision
Like me, she thought sadly, swallowing hard. If I had known then what I know now, I never would have married Jules after dating for only six months.
"Annabelle has the requisite skills," Sharleen continued. " She just needs to put what she's learned in the classroom into practice, and I'm confident she can"
"Well, I'm not. I think she's a liability, and I want her gone." Taking a sip of her green tea, she kicked off her Gucci pumps and reclined comfortably in her zebra-print chair. Dionne loved her office. It was bright, welcoming and feminine, just like her. She'd spent a fortune decorating it, and was thrilled her interior designer had brought her vision to life. Star-shaped chandeliers hung from the ceilings, teal walls evoked feelings of calm, her Versace furniture reeked of glamour, and the burgundy carpet was pillow-soft.
"Give Annabelle another chance. This is her first coaching job, and she's still finding her footing," Sharleen explained. "I believe in her, and you should, too."
Dionne drank her tea, gave some thought to what Sharleen said. "I liked you better when you were single," she teased, hoping to lighten the mood with a joke. "You used to be tough and tenacious, but now that you're in love you're a total softy."
A smile brightened Sharleen's face. It was obvious she was thinking about her fiancé. It took everything in Dionne not to roll her eyes to the ceiling when her friend sighed dreamily and gazed longingly at her engagement ring. It was the size of a golf ball, encrusted with diamonds, and it was the most beautiful piece of jewelry Di-onne had ever seen.
"I can't help it," Sharleen said with a giggle. "I'm so freakin' happy, I feel like dancing in the streets. I want to share my happiness with everyone I know."
"I'm thrilled for you, but your romance is bad for business."
"Bad for business?" she repeated, arching an eyebrow. "In what way?"
"Because of you, our female life coaches are secretly hoping to make a love connection with every wealthy client, and as a result are breaking the employee conduct rules."
"My feelings for Emilio have nothing to do with him being famous, and everything to do with who he is as a person. He makes me feel special, as if I'm all that matters "
They all do in the beginning, but it doesn't last. Trust me, I know what I'm talking about. I've been married twice.
"If Emilio lost everything tomorrow, it wouldn't change how I feel about him. I'd live with him in a cardboard box if I had to." Happiness warmed her face, and she laughed heartily. "But enough about me and my amazing fiancé. How are you doing?"
Dionne finished her tea and put down her mug. "Great, fantastic, couldn't be better."
"I know the last few weeks have been tough on you, what with your in-laws bad-mouthing you to the press and the construction delays at the Seattle and LA offices, but I'm here for you, Dionne. You don't have to deal with those issues alone."
"Thanks, Sharleen, but I'm fine, really."
"I don't believe you "
What do you want me to say? "My whole world is falling apart, and if I didn't have Pathways to keep me going, I'd probably have a nervous breakdown"?
"It isn't healthy to keep things bottled up." Sharleen sounded wise, like a therapist counseling a distraught client. Her expression was filled with concern. "We're a team, and I have your back. No matter what. You can count on me."
Dionne shifted around on her chair and fiddled with the diamond tennis bracelet on her wrist. Every day, without fail, Sharleen asked how she was feeling, and every day, without fail, Dionne lied through her teeth. She didn't want to talk about Jules or their contentious divorce proceedings. Not with Sharleen. Not with anyone. Working helped Dionne forget her hurt, her failures, and she'd rather suffer in silence than pour out her heart. She admired Shar-leen and thought she was an exceptional life coach, but a woman desperately and madly in love wasn't the right person to confide in. Neither were her two older sisters, Mel and Lorna, who both just didn't understand what she was going through.
No one doesthat's why I keep my feelings to myself. Her gaze strayed to the window, and she peered outside. Pathways Center was in an attractive plaza filled with glitzy boutiques, cafés and beauty salons, but what Dionne loved most about the location was the hustle and bustle of Peachtree Street. Growing up in a large family, she'd always thrived in chaos, and having her business in a high-traffic area fueled her creative juices.
"We'll get through this together. You have my word." Sharleen reached across the desk and touched Dionne's hand, giving it a light squeeze. "If you need anything, just ask. I'm here for you, and so is the rest of the Pathways family. You've built a fantastic team, and any one of our colleagues would be glad to listen if you need to talk. We're a hundred percent behind you, Boss."
Dionne opened her mouth to thank Sharleen for her support, but she couldn't find her voice. She wasn't one to cry, but her friend's words made her eyes tear, and the room swam out of focus. Good God, what's wrong with me? I'm an emotional wreck, and it's only ten o'clock.
"How did your meeting go yesterday with Jules and his attorney?" Sharleen asked. "Are you any closer to finalizing the terms of your divorce? Have you finally reached an agreement you're both satisfied with?"
I wish, but he's determined to screw me over. Dionne's gaze fell across the picture frame on her desk. The photograph had been taken Labor Day weekend at her childhood home, and every time Dionne looked at the picture of her loved ones, her heart ached. In her culture divorce was frowned upon, something her deeply religious Somali father was vehemently against, and Dionne felt horrible about the pain she'd caused her family. Her parents adored Jules; so did her siblings, and every day her mother implored her to kiss and make up with her estranged husband.
No way, no how, she thought. Her Prince Charming had turned out to be a frog, and she was sick of playing the role of the dutiful wife. They were finished, over for good, and there was nothing Jules could say to convince her to reconcile. Their marriage had been stained with insults, name-calling and lies, and Dionne was ready for a clean break.
"Nothing's changed. Jules is still as stubborn as ever and."
Dionne suddenly closed her mouth, stopping herself from saying any more. Even though she knew the divorce was for the best, discussing the demise of her marriage always made her emotional. Scared her emotions would get the best of her, and she'd end up bawling all over her Escada pantsuit, Dionne turned toward her computer monitor and typed in her password. "I have to finish my speech for the Seattle Leadership Conference, so let's touch base later."
"It's Thursday, remember? I'm off at noon."
"Hot date?" Dionne teased, playfully wiggling her eyebrows.
"You know it." Sharleen cheered and danced around in her chair. "Emilio's taking me to Fiji for the weekend."
"Again? But you guys were there Labor Day weekend."
"What can I say? My fiancé likes spoiling me, and I'd be a fool to stop him."
Enjoy it while it lasts, because things will change. They always do, and not for the better.
"I'll be back on Sunday, but call if you need me."
"Why bother? You never answer your phone after hours."
Her eyes twinkled, and a smirk curled the corners of her glossy lips. "You wouldn't either if you had a man to wine you and dine you."
"It's a shame Emilio doesn't have a twin," Dionne joked, laughing.
"He doesn't have a twin, but he does have five very single, very handsome brothers. Want me to hook you up?"
"Hell no!" she shrieked, fervently shaking her head. "The last thing I need is another lying, cheating man in my life. I'm better off alone."
"Not all men are dogs, you know."
You're right, they're not, but the good ones are rare and harder to find than the exit at a corn maze. Dionne hadn't dated anyone since leaving Jules and moving out of their marital home, and she had no intention of putting herself out there anytime soon. Her focus was on building her business and spending time with her family. They wouldn't hurt her, wouldn't betray her trust
"You and Jules have been separated for almost a year," she pointed out. "Wouldn't you like to do something besides work? You're a great catch, Dionne, and there are plenty of eligible, successful men who'd love to date you."
"I'm not interested. I like my life just the way it is, thank you very much. I have my business, my family and my friends, and that's more than enough."
"Well, if you change your mind just let me know."
I won't, so don't hold your breath. Unconditional love is a myth, and the notion of living happily ever after is a fairly tale.
The phone sounded, and Dionne sighed in relief. She was tired of talking about men, namely her good-for-nothing ex, and wanted to get back to doing what she did best: running her business. Dionne hoped it was her divorce attorney calling with good news, and placed her hand on the receiver to signal the end of their conversation.
Thankfully, Sharleen took the hint and rose from her chair. "Have a good weekend," she said, marching towards the door. "Don't work too hard."
Back in CEO mode, Dionne sat up tall and cleared her throat. Even though her marriage was in shambles, she looked forward to coming to work every day and enjoyed connecting with clients. "Dionne Fontaine speaking," she said brightly, turning away from her computer screen. "How can I help you?"
"You can start by returning the money you stole from me."
Her eyes narrowed, filled with hate. Damn. It was Jules. Again. How many times did she have to tell her assistant not to put his calls through? Her ex could be persuasive, charming even, but still Lily worked for her, not Jules, and now because her assistant was a softy, she was stuck talking to her estranged husband. The man who'd made her life a living hell for the past year. Her first impulse was to hang up the phone, which is what she usually did when he called, but this time she didn't. "I have nothing to say to you. Quit calling me at work. I'm busy."
"Return my money. You stole from me, and I want every cent back."