When business becomes pleasure
Winning is a way of life for Dante Morretti, and he's got the real estate empire to prove it. With custody of his four-year-old son, Matteo, at stake, Dante intends to win that, too. Marrying his best friend, Jordana Sharpe, is a vital step in his plan. But when the alluring actress takes Matteo and Dante sightseeing around Los Angeles, he's waking up to a world beyond boardrooms and billion-dollar deals.
Jordana is as committed to her acting as Dante is to his business. She doesn't envision feeling that passion for anything else, until her no-strings arrangement with the gorgeous Italian magnate takes a detour right into Dante's bed. Suddenly everything is at stakeher career, his custody fight and a fake marriage that could very well lead to the real family they both secretly crave
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The Bombardier Challenger 850 Learjet landed at Los Angeles International Airport with such ease and precision, Dante Morretti didn't realize it was on the ground until he opened his eyes and looked outside the window. The sky was free of clouds, cobalt blue and awash with radiant sunshine. It was another warm, spring day in the City of Angels, and Dante was glad to be home. Though born in Venice, Italy, he loved Los Angeles and would never live anywhere else. Everything he'd ever wanted was in LAfame, power, prestige. And he was there to stay. At twenty-eight, Dante had a life most men dreamed of, but it wasn't enough. He wanted greater success, more billionaire clients, and he wasn't afraid to work hard for it.
"I thought you might be thirsty, so I brought you some mineral water."
Turning away from the window, Dante regarded the stewardess. She had rosy cheeks and fiery-red hair, and she spoke with a Southern twang. Her black uniform revealed an obscene amount of cleavage, but she wore an innocent, good-girl smile.
"Is there anything else I can do for you?"
Dante dodged her lascivious gaze, instead pretending to stare at the flat-screen TV that was showing the local news. The stewardess had been throwing herself at him ever since he'd boarded his company's private jet fourteen hours earlier in Hong Kong. But Dante wasn't interested in joining the mile-high club. Did she read the article in LA Business magazine? Is that why she's throwing herself at me? Because she wants to sink her teeth into my millions?
As the jet crawled toward the terminal, his mind returned to the photo shoot he'd done three months earlier at his Beverly Hills bachelor pad. He'd given an exclusive sit-down interview to the magazine, and once the April issue had hit newsstands, Dante couldn't go anywhere without being recognized. Gold diggers propositioned him everywhereat the gym, on street corners, in restaurants and cafés. The more he resisted them the more aggressive they were. And the only thing Dante hated more than a provocative woman was a cheating one. Like his ex-wife.
Slamming the brakes on his thoughts, he gave his head a hard shake and considered the events of the past week. The magazine article had shined a bright spotlight on The Brokerage Group. Founded in 1998 by three UCLA graduates, the LA-based company specialized in the acquisition, development and construction management of all property types, including shopping malls, condominiums, luxury hotels and office buildings. For five years, Dante had been the chief investment officer of the Fortune 500 company, and in spite of his furious work schedule, he loved his job. His undergraduate degrees in business management and urban planning had given him the necessary tools to excel in the field. He'd led his company to record profits each year and made it look easy.
Pride filled him, turning his frown into a broad smile. Celebrities, politicians and savvy investors from all across the country were eager to do business with The Brokerage Group, and Dante was the reason why. His private company, Morretti Realty & Investments, was making money hand over fist. Thanks to his brothers Emilio and Immanuel, and his cousins Demetri, Nicco and Raphael, his firm had grown by leaps and bounds in the past six years.
"Would you like a back rub? I've been told I'm great with my hands." She leaned against his seat and twirled a lock of hair around her index finger. "Among other things."
I'm not surprised. I bet you've massaged every man you've ever met.
"No, thank you"
"You don't know what you're missing," she continued, in a singsong voice. Her eyes were glued to his crotch, and the expression on her face was pensive, as if she was cooking up mischief. "If you change your mind just give me a shout."
I won't, he thought. Trust me. I know trouble when I see it, and you're it.
The stewardess sashayed down the aisle, switched and swiveled her wide hips. Dante was glad to see her go. Women were a distraction he just didn't need, and even if he wanted female companywhich he didn'the wouldn't hook up with an aggressive redhead with dollar signs in her eyes. It would be someone elegant and classy, with a successful career and her own money. He was a real estate developer, not a bank. Dante was tired of women expecting gifts, jewelry and luxury cars from him. Why can't I meet someone normal like Jordana?
At the thought of the Midwest beauty, a smile filled his face. He'd met the Iowa native last year, when she was dating his college buddy Tavares Butler. He'd been impressed with how intelligent she was, how lively and vivacious.
The actress was a down-home girl with a big personality, and he'd liked her instantly. When Tavares relocated to Australia last summer for work, he'd asked Dante to look out for her, and he'd readily agreed. Three months later, they'd called it quits, but he suspected Jordana was still in love with her ex. She didn't date, shot down everyone who asked her out and wouldn't set foot inside the club. They were friends, but that didn't stop Dante from admiring her from afar.
The jet stopped abruptly.
Dante stared out the window, but he didn't see what the holdup was. Thirsty, he picked up his glass and sipped some water. He needed something stronger. The bar was stocked with everything from Cristal to vodka, but he chose to grab a wine cooler. Designed with scrumptious Italian leather, designer fixtures and state-of-the art electronics, the jet had all the comforts of home, and everything Dante needed was at his fingertips.
Yawning, he rubbed the sleep from his eyes. His week-long business trip to Hong Kong had been taxing, filled with so many late nights and early mornings he felt both physically and mentally drained, though his time abroad had been productive, and he was excited about his latest business venture. The Brokerage Group wanted to build several commercial properties in Asia, and if everything went according to plan, the deal would go off without a hitch and he'd be lauded as a hero.
Ready to leave, Dante slipped on his aviator sunglasses. He'd been up since 5:00 a.m. and was looking forward to going home, putting up his feet and enjoying a cold beer. Or two. He deserved it. He worked fourteen-hour days, six days a week, and if not for the occasional brewand Matteohe'd probably be burned out.
Thoughts of his mischievous four-year-old son flooded Dante's mind. His smile couldn't be any wider, any brighter.
Matteo was his heart, his pride and joy, and his happiest moments were spent chasing him around the house, acting like a goofball to earn a laugh. The intercom came on.
"I apologize for the delay, Mr. Morretti, but the Boeing 747 in front of us seems to be having mechanical issues and is stuck on the tarmac," the first officer explained. "We'll get you to the terminal as soon as we can. Thank you for your patience and understanding."
Dante returned to his seat, took his iPad out of his briefcase and turned it on. Might as well get some work done while I wait, he decided, typing in his password. The satellite phone sitting on the side table rang, and Dante answered it. Only a handful of people had the number, so he knew the call was important. The moment he heard the voice on the line, his heart stopped. It was his son's preschool teacher, Ms. Papadopoulos. She sounded troubled, flustered. What was wrong? Did something happen at Beverly Hills Preschool Academy? Panic ballooned inside his chest. Was Matteo hurt? Had he fallen off the jungle gym again?
"Is everything okay?" he asked, despite the knot stuck in his throat.
"Have you heard from your ex-wife?"
Dante frowned, gripping the receiver. "No, I haven't. Why? Is there a problem?"
"She's thirty minutes late to pick up Matteo, and she isn't answering her cell phone."
Thirty minutes! Damn. How could Lourdes forget to pick up his son? His ex-wife was punctually challenged, but whenever he had spoken to her about being on time she'd shrugged off his concerns. Lourdes had no reason to be late. She didn't work, hadn't held a nine-to-five in years, and even though she had joked being beautiful was a full-time job, it wasn't.
Hanging his head, he raked a hand through his thick black hair. Because of his furious work schedule, he'd agreed to let Lourdes have custody of Matteo, but he wondered for the umpteenth time if he'd made a grave mistake. His ex-wife was petty, thought the world revolved around her and used their son as a pawn. Dante wished Lourdes was a better mother
Who are you to judge? his conscience interrupted. You see Matteo only once a week.
Dante felt helpless, as if his hands were tied. He wished there was something he could do, but he knew bad-mouthing his ex-wife to Ms. Papadopoulos was not the answer. He had always made a concerted effort to publicly support Lourdes, even when she was dead wrong, and he searched his mind for the right words to say. "I'm really sorry about this"
"This behavior is unacceptable and hurtful to your son, as well. Every day, Matteo is the last child to get picked up from school, and it breaks my heart to see him cry."
"Ms. Papadopoulos, this won't happen again. You have my word."
"I hope so, Mr. Morretti, because the next time your ex-wife is late to pick up Matteo, I'm contacting the Department of Children and Family Services."
His spirits sank even lower.
"As an educator, I'm legally and morally obligated to report all forms of abuse and neglect to DCFS. I won't shirk my responsibilities."
Stunned, Dante couldn't speak. Abuse? Neglect? The words rattled around his head, blaring like a police siren. His temperature rose and sweat drenched his blue polo shirt. He felt inept, as if he'd failed as a parent, and his heart throbbed in pain.
Peering out the window, Dante noticed the plane was still hundreds of yards from the terminal, and he willed it to move faster. Hurry up, dammit! I have to pick up my son! Dante opened his mouth to speak, to plead with Ms. Papadopoulos for understanding, but she interrupted him.
"The principal wants to speak to you and your wife about this matter, as well."
"Ms. Papadopoulos, I'm on my way."
"We'll be waiting in the office. Please hurry. Matteo is very upset."
Dropping the phone in the cradle, Dante checked the time on his gold wristwatch. Four fifteen. It was rush hour, bumper-to-bumper traffic on the I-10. It would probably take an houror longerto reach Matteo's preschool. Where is Lourdes? How could she do this? I love Matteo more than anything. Doesn't she?
Dante dialed Lourdes's cell number. He drummed his fingers on the table. Her voice mail came on, but her mailbox was full so he couldn't leave a message. Dante struck the armrest with his fist. Anger burned inside him, surging through his veins. It took everything in him not to punch the wall, every ounce of his self-control.
Expelling a deep breath, Dante considered his next move. He had to find someone to pick up Matteo before Ms. Papadopoulos made good on her threat and called the Department of Child and Family Services. Women's names and faces flashed in his mind, but since he'd never introduced any of his past lovers to his son, he didn't feel comfortable asking any of them to help out. Dante considered calling his brother, but he knew it was a waste of time. Markos was either in court, or on the golf course wooing potential clients. A divorce attorney to the stars, who was also a partner at a prestigious law firm, Markos was the most sought-after and esteemed lawyer in the city. He was dating three very different womena surgeon, an engineer and a drama teacherand often joked there was more than enough of him to go around.
"Jordana!" The name burst out of his mouth and ricocheted around the cabin. A week ago, she'd left abruptly for her hometown, and after numerous text messages he had learned her mom was sick. To cheer up Ms. Sharpe, he'd sent her a lavish flower bouquet and a gift basket. He'd never met Jordana's mother, but he hoped to one day, and planned to tell her she'd raised one hell of a woman. Was she back in town, or still taking care of her mom?
There was only one way to find out.
Dante punched in her cell number. Images of her scrolled through his mind, warming his heart. Jordana, with her bright smile and fun-loving personality, reminded him of his kid sister, Francesca. "Hello?"
Happy to hear her voice, he sighed in relief. "I need a favor."
"Hi, Dante! I'm fine. Thanks for asking. How are you?"
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to be rude," he said, feeling contrite.
Jordana laughed. "Relax, buddy. I'm just kidding."
"How was your trip?" Dante asked. He didn't have time to shoot the breeze, but he was curious to know how her mother was doing. Based on past conversations they'd had, he knew Jordana adored her mom, and he hoped Ms. Sharpe was doing better.
"Good, but it's great to be back in LA. There's no place like home."
"You grew up in Des Moines, remember?"
Jordana groaned. "Ugh, don't remind me."
"How's your mom feeling? All better and on the mend?"
Silence infected the line. Several seconds passed before Jordana spoke.
"She's coming along," she said quietly, her tone losing its warmth. "Thanks for sending her flowers. I don't think I've ever seen Helene so excited."
"It was my pleasure. I'm glad she liked them."
"You said you needed a favor. What is it?"
"Matteo's school just called," he explained, glancing out the window. He couldn't see anything, but Dante felt the plane moving and knew that was a good sign. "Lourdes was supposed to pick him up at three twenty-five, but she's missing in action, and I'm stuck at LAX."
"Oh, no, that's terrible. I hope she's okay"
"Screw her," he snapped. "Lourdes doesn't deserve your pity. She's probably at home screwing the gardener in the house I paid millions for, and forgot all about my son."
"Dante, Matteo's her son, too, and I find it hard to believe she'd deliberately hurt him. I know you guys have had your problems in the past, but give Lourdes the benefit of the doubt "
A bitter taste filled his mouth. Dante was pissed. Mad at himself for marrying Lourdes Faison four years ago. If he could turn back the hands of time, he never would've hooked up with the buxom hairstylist on New Year's Eve. They'd met at an upscale martini bar and had spent a wild, drunken night at his swank bachelor pad. Two months later, Dante learned he was going to be a father. It took weeks for him to come to terms with the news, then he'd done what any stand-up guy would dohe'd popped the question.
Dante scowled. He didn't have a choice; her father had threatened to kick his ass if he didn't. His heart wasn't in it, but since it was the right thing to do, he'd played the role of the devoted fiancé. But just days after their lavish, three-hundred-guest wedding in Palm Springs, Dante had realized he'd made a huge mistake. Lourdes complained incessantly, spent money recklessly and treated his staff like crap. In spite of her diva behavior, he remained committed to their relationship. Coming home from work and seeing his infant son was the highlight of his day. It was what gave him the strength to endure a loveless marriage.
His thoughts wandered, returning to the worst day of his life. One week after their two-year anniversary, Lourdes left their estate with Matteo and filed for divorce. Dante never saw it coming, was blindsided by her deception and betrayal. She went on to publicly humiliate him, telling sensational stories to the newspapers that tarnished his reputation. He'd never forgive her for vilifying him in the press.
"Do you want me to pick up Matteo? I can go get him right now."
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This brother has a different attitude than the other brothers/cousins, controlling guy. Loved him and how he changed and grew. Looking forward to Matteo's story.
Liked this book, really got into it. The ending left me wanting more, as if the story wasn't finished.
I really enjoyed this story. Looking forward to future books in this series