The Marriage Mistake Read online
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.
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.
“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?”
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. ”
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 st