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Home > The Marriage Mistake (Marriage to a Billionaire #3)

The Marriage Mistake (Marriage to a Billionaire #3)
Author: Jennifer Probst

Prologue

Carina Conte stared into the flickering flame of her homemade campfire and reminded herself she wasn’t crazy.

She was just a woman in love.

Her hand trembled around the piece of paper. The violet fabric book of love spells nestled in the grass beside her feet. She glanced around and hoped to God her family didn’t wake. She’d promised her sister-in-law she’d never attempt to cast a spell, but Maggie didn’t need to know. Tucked toward the back of the property, the scents of crackling burnt wood and sweet crocus filled her nostrils, and she prayed the firelight wouldn’t reveal her location.

Carina glanced down at the page. Okay, time to summon Earth Mother. She hoped Father Richard wouldn’t get upset. She quickly recited the words to summon the powers of female earth to conjure her a man with all the qualities written on her list.

Then she threw the paper in the fire.

Lightness flowed through her and she let out a relieved sigh. Done. Now, all she had to do was be patient. She wondered how long Earth Mother usually waited to bestow her gift. Of course, she’d made the job quite easy for the entity. Instead of a long list of qualities, her list held the power of one single name. The name of the man she’d been in love with her whole life, the man who looked upon her as a little sister, the man who was worldly and sexy and dated some of the most beautiful women in the world, the man who left her tongue-tied during the day and wracked her body with hot-blooded need during the night.

Maximus Gray.

Carina waited until the entire paper turned to ash, then dumped the bucket of water onto the fire. She cleaned up with quick, efficient movements, scooped up the fabric book, and made her way back into the house.

The soft grass tickled her bare feet, and her white nightgown billowed around her like a ghost. A sense of excitement shivered down her spine as she snuck back to her room. She slid the book back into the drawer and crawled into bed.

Finally, it was done.

Chapter One

“I’ve hired a new associate. She’ll be under your direction, and you will be responsible for her training.”

Max cut his gaze to the man seated across the table. His nerve endings prickled at the announcement, but he remained silent. He stretched out his legs under the conference table, crossed his arms in front of his chest, and quirked a brow. He’d worked endless hours and sweat blood to get the family empire of La Dolce Maggie, the U.S. branch of Italian-based La Dolce Famiglia, off the ground, and damned if he’d step aside nicely. “Looking to replace me, boss?”

More like a brother than a boss, Michael Conte shot him a grin. “And deal with your mama coming after me to kick my ass? No such luck. You need help with the expansion.”

Max smirked. “Seems your mama is tougher than mine. Didn’t she instigate a shotgun wedding with your wife? Good thing you loved her, or you would’ve been screwed.”

“Funny, Gray. The wedding wasn’t the problem. It was your doubts about my wife that truly screwed us up.”

Max winced. “Sorry. Just trying to protect a friend from a money-hungry woman. Anyway, I love Maggie now. She’s strong enough to take your crap.”

“Yeah, now it’s like a mutual admiration club between you two.”

“Better than war. So, who’s the hotshot coming in?”

“Carina.”

Max snapped his mouth shut. “Excuse me? Carina, your baby sister? You’ve got to be kidding me—isn’t she still in school?”

Michael poured himself some water from the cooler and took a sip. “She graduated last May with her MBA from SDA Bocconi, and she’s been training at Dolce di Notte.”

“Our competitor?”

Michael smiled. “Hardly. They are not looking to conquer the world like us, my friend. But I can trust them to teach her basic skills in the bakery business. I wanted her to train with Julietta but she refuses to lag in her older sister’s shadow. She’s been begging me to come to America and her internship is up. It is time she now join the family company. Capisce?”

Ah, hell. Yeah, he understood. Max was being reassigned to babysitting duty for the youngest sister of the clan. Sure, he loved her like a sibling, but her tendency to burst into tears over emotional scenes did not go well with business. Max shuddered. What if he hurt her feelings and she crumbled? This was a bad idea all around.

“Um, Michael, maybe you should put her in accounting. You always said she’s capable with figures, and I don’t think management is a good fit. I’ve got a crazy schedule and I’m in delicate negotiations. Please give her to someone else.”

His friend shook his head. “Eventually, I will move her to CFO. But for now I want her with you. She needs to learn proper management and how La Dolce Maggie works. You’re the only one I trust to make sure she doesn’t get in trouble. You’re family.”

The simple words slammed the last nail into his vampire home. Family. Michael had always taken care of him, and he’d proven himself worthy. He’d also dreamed of a place carved out just for him. The peak of the food chain, so to speak. No one had ever questioned his job as CEO, but lately he wondered if missing the prized Conte blood in his veins hurt his position. Contracts were temporary, and his was renegotiated every three years. He craved a more permanent place in the empire he helped build, and the expansion of three more bakeries could be his crown jewels. If he did his job well, he’d secure himself at the top, right beside Michael—as a permanent partner instead of an appointed CEO. Worrying about a young girl fresh from business school would only distract him. Unless . . .

He tapped his finger against his lower lip. Perhaps Michael needed to be reminded of how critical his efforts were for the company. By throwing Carina certain challenges, he’d be sure to highlight her deficiencies and young age, all the while keeping her under his so-called protection. After the expansion, Max intended to approach Michael about partnership. Carina may be able to help his cause, especially if he mentored her and she depended on his feedback.

Yes, perhaps this was for the best.

“Okay, Michael, if this is what you want.”

“Good. She’ll be arriving in about an hour. Why don’t you come to dinner tonight? We’re having a small welcome celebration for her arrival.”

“Is Maggie cooking?”

Michael grinned. “Hell, no.”

“Then I’m in.”

“Smart man.” Michael crushed the paper cup, threw it in the trash, and closed the door behind him.

Max glanced at his watch. He had a ton of work to accomplish before she arrived.

• • •

Carina stared at the sleek wooden door with the shiny gold sign. She swallowed past the tightness in her throat and swiped her damp palms down her black skirt. This was ridiculous. She was grown up and well past the days of mooning over Max Gray.

After all, three years was a long time.

She smoothed back a strand of hair from her sleek topknot, straightened her shoulders, and knocked on the door.

“Come in.”

The sound of his husky voice drifted past her memory and grabbed her in a choke hold. It was rich and creamy smooth, hinting at naughty sex and mischief that only a nun could ignore. Maybe.

She opened the door and strode in with fake confidence. Carina knew it didn’t matter. The business world only observed what lay upon the surface. The knowledge soothed her—she had gotten very good at hiding her emotions during her training. It was simply a matter of survival.

“Hello, Max.”

The man behind the sprawling teak desk gazed at her with a strange mixture of warmth and surprise, almost as if he wasn’t expecting the woman who stood before him. Those piercing blue eyes sharpened and roved over her figure before his face smoothed out to a polite welcome. Her heart teetered, dropped, and held steady. For one moment, she allowed herself to drink in his appearance.

His body was lean and trim, and his impressive height always added an intimidating demeanor that was an edge with most of his deals. His face reflected the image of a demon and angel caught in a love affair. Sharp cheekbones, an elegant nose, and a graceful curved brow held hints of aristocracy. The sexy goatee hugged his jaw, accented the plump curve to his lips, and bespoke pure sex. Thick, coal black hair fell in untamed waves across his forehead and set off the rocketing blue of his eyes. As he moved toward her, he walked with an easy grace a tall man usually didn’t pull off, and the enticing scent of his cologne teased her senses. The odd combination of wood, spice, and lemon made her want to bury her face in the curve of his neck and breathe in.

Of course, she didn’t. Not even when he held her briefly in a welcome hug. Her fingers rested over broad shoulders barely contained in his custom-made navy suit. She’d long ago faced her own personal kryptonite and learned core lessons. Acknowledge her weakness. Accept it. Move on. The simple rules in business applied to all areas of her life now.

She smiled up at him. “It’s been a long time.”

“Too long, cara.” Unease flashed in his eyes, then disappeared. “I heard you graduated at the top of your class. Well done.”

She gave a brief nod. “Thank you. And you? Michael says you’re working hard on expanding La Dolce Maggie.”

His jaw clenched. “Yes. It seems you will be assisting me in this aspect. Have you spoken with your brother yet?”

Carina frowned. “No, I came straight to headquarters so I could put in a few hours first. I figured he’d give me the tour. What division is he starting me with? Accounts payable, budgeting, or operations?”

He studied her face for a while, his gaze an actual caress as he probed every feature. She held tight and submitted to the inspection. She needed to get used to his presence since she’d be bumping into him at work. Thank God she’d be buried in accounting. Her core concentration and skills with figures were solid, and Max would rarely need to peek in on her progress.

A smile curved those sensual lips and briefly distracted her. “Me.”

“Excuse me?”

“Your division. You’ll be working with me as my assistant. I’ll be training you.”

Horror flooded her. She took a step back as if he was the demon who requested she sign away her soul. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.” A crazy laugh escaped her lips. “I mean, I don’t want to get in the way. I’ll speak with Michael and convince him to start me somewhere else.”

“Do you not want to work with me?” He lifted his hands. “There’s nothing to worry about, Carina. I will take good care of you.”

An image of him slipping his fingers in her damp heat and stroking her to orgasm blazed before her vision. God knew he’d take care of a woman. In all ways. Color flooded her cheeks so she turned quickly as if studying his office. Ridiculous. She was losing her control within five minutes of their first meeting.

Her heels clicked on the wooden tile as she paced and feigned interest in the large photo of the waterfront opening. This was her ultimate test, and she refused to fail. Max was a silly crush from her youth, and she’d no longer live her life in an emotional prison. She’d come here for two main reasons: Prove her worth, and exorcise the ghost of Maximus Gray.

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