Authors: Jennifer St George
Jennifer St George is the author of contemporary romance novels often set in exotic destinations. When she was 11, her family moved to South America, an adventure that gave Jennifer a lifetime love of travel and international locations.
Married with two children, Jennifer has a graduate business degree and completed an MBA where she was presented with the Rupert Murdoch Fellowship.
Jennifer spent the first 20 years of her career in corporate marketing and management consulting roles, but began writing romance when she moved with her family to Byron Bay in Northern NSW, seven years ago.
From her first-floor office window, Sienna De Luca stared out at the hotel’s circular drive, watching a young man from maintenance clear the soggy autumn leaves from the entrance. When he tripped over a crack in the stonework, she heard him curse aloud before he grudgingly got back to work. She wondered if he’d still have a job at the end of the day. She wouldn’t. Broken driveways, fraying upholstery, the dull paintwork and the ageing technology – they were all her responsibility. Her fault.
Once, the Plaza had been the jewel of Melbourne, one of Australia’s top hotels. Royalty, celebrities, the rich and famous all enjoyed the extravagant penthouse suites. After three years under her management, the hotel barely clung to its five-star rating.
Sienna shook her head but the shame remained. No matter which way she looked at it, she couldn’t understand why the hotel continued to lose money.
Sure, the place looked shabby so the wealthier clients preferred the newly opened Centro Hotel and the global financial crisis had hit hard, but that didn’t explain the extent of the losses. Her cost-cutting program was proving effective, but it wasn’t enough.
A flash of black drew her gaze back to the drive as a sleek limousine pulled to a halt. A moment later, the driver opened a back door and an imposing figure stepped from the car. The striking features, the olive glow and the aura of confidence were all unmistakable.
A cold sweat broke out across her neck despite the warm air flowing from the vent above her head.
As though drawn by an invisible force, Sienna leant against the cold glass to get a closer look at the man who graced the social pages almost daily. Even today he’d featured on the front page of
, having flown in from Italy for the premiere of his girlfriend’s latest blockbuster. That, and to take possession of the Plaza, the hotel that had been in her family for over a hundred years.
He looked every bit the suave, ruthless billionaire. Cropped dark hair framed his strong, clean-shaven face. His movie-star looks meant he could easily have co-starred with his girlfriend. Sienna was wary of good-looking men – they always seemed to have a sense of entitlement that annoyed her. She pressed her lips together. A man with Antonio’s features probably thought he was entitled to the world, the moon, the stars and anything yet to be discovered.
He reached into the car and pulled out a leather briefcase that would have cost thousands. What a waste. She could think of a hundred better ways to use the money.
As if he sensed her, Antonio glanced up at the window, straight at her. Even at this distance, his eyes glittered with steely determination.
Her heart seized in her chest and she leapt from sight. Her mouth felt dry. Had he seen her? She pressed a hand against her swooping stomach. Of course he had. Now he’d think she was an idiot as well as incompetent before she even opened negotiations. She closed her eyes, concentrating hard on bringing her breathing back to normal.
What was she doing? Going to pieces from one look? So he was good-looking and rich, and beautiful women fell at his feet. Her eyes flashed open. He wouldn’t have that effect on her. She knew behind the money and looks was a man who thought nothing of ripping the soul from a family business.
Today was her last stand. She must convince Antonio she needed more time to pay off the debt incurred by her father. How many times had she lain awake at night, tears stinging her eyes as she relived her mother’s slow, painful death? Her father had never left her mother’s side, so she’d been forced to assume the running of the hotel.
After her mother died, Sienna had thought it would be impossible to feel any worse, until she discovered her father had spent almost all of the Moretti loan. The loan that had been secured to restore The Plaza to its former glory. Her dad had been taken in by charlatans who’d convinced him he could speak to his dead wife. With the millions gone and no renovation, custom continued to decline.
The lift gave its telltale ping of arrival. Her head jerked towards the sound as the crawling fingers of dread inched around her heart. Without a thought, she grabbed the family photo from her desk. They’d been so happy then. Her mother healthy. Her father smiling. She quickly kissed her mother’s face and placed the photo gently in the desk’s top drawer and closed it. It might be only a photo, but she didn’t want her parents to witness the demise of the family’s legacy.
Taking a deep breath, ready for battle, she walked from her office. The reception area was deserted. No funds for admin staff now. Pulling herself tall, she forced a smile, praying she looked confident and not like some demented Cheshire cat.
From all the media coverage, she knew Antonio Moretti could have swapped professions – hotelier to action-movie hero – but nothing prepared her for meeting the man himself. His eyes raked her over as though he already possessed every secret she’d ever held. Her emotional armour was immediately penetrated. Those eyes stripped her bare. Her heart slammed against her ribcage. She struggled to hold out her hand as he came near, praying he couldn’t see it shaking.
‘Mr Moretti. I’m Sienna De Luca, Marco’s daughter.’ Her voice sounded thin and squeaky. She stiffened as she glimpsed a scar on his left cheek near his ear. Brutal. No photo had ever captured that. A thousand scenarios whizzed through her brain. A youthful fist-fight? Car accident? Motorbike? Whatever the cause, it diminished none of the man’s magnificence. But it was enough. That one flaw enabled her professional demeanour to snap back into place. The tremor disappeared from her fingers.
‘Please. Call me Antonio,’ he said, clasping her hand.
The moment he touched her, Sienna knew everything was lost. Every drop of blood turned to ice. Her ribs crushed the air from her body. His cool, self-assured touch and those piercing dark eyes said it all.
I always win.
Under different circumstances meeting Sienna De Luca would have been a pleasure. Antonio loved traditional Italian beauty. Her glossy brunette hair fell halfway down her back and her pretty oval face was accentuated by her full luscious lips.
So different to his recent ex, Amy. It would be hard to ignore that beguiling smile. But her gorgeous dark eyes couldn’t mask the fear. He’d caught the tremble of her hand. Nothing about today would be a pleasure.
But this was the reality of business. Marco De Luca’s ideas for the Plaza had been brilliant and Antonio had been happy to back him. It gave the Moretti chain a foot in the Australian market. But Marco had defaulted on his loan.
‘Where’s Marco?’ Antonio asked, looking about. ‘Is your father joining us?’
‘He’s not well. I’ll be handling things today,’ she said, leading him into her office.
Ah! The father sends his daughter to the slaughter. So the man’s a coward as well as an incompetent businessman. From what Antonio could gather, none of the work had been completed on the hotel and the loan money was all gone. It didn’t matter. Acquiring the Plaza was more than recompense. By the time he’d finished, it would be the premier hotel in the country.
‘Fine,’ he said. ‘Take a seat and let’s get down to business.’
She paused before turning. He felt the full impact of those dark, wide-set eyes.
‘Isn’t that my line?’ she said without a smile, pointing to the visitor’s chair.
The side of his mouth twitched despite himself as he sat down. Feisty and beautiful. He liked that. But he could read the distress in her eyes. Why wasn’t Marco here to face the music? Perhaps they’d concocted some ruse. Send the pretty daughter and he might capitulate. If that were the case they hadn’t done their homework. He pulled the loan documents and other legals from his briefcase.
‘As per the terms of the loan agreement undertaken by your father three years ago, the Plaza is now mine, due to failure to pay your loan commitments.’ He slid the documents across the desk then leant back in his chair. ‘I’ll give you a fair price for it, but as you know, in this market it will be substantially below the original valuation.’
‘Before we go down that road . . .’
Antonio watched her shift in her chair and draw a deep breath. She’s going to try to fight. What possible plan could she present that could have any influence on her situation? Originally he’d hoped to be in and out in five minutes and on his way to the airport. Now he relished the idea of a little feisty action with this dark-haired goddess.
‘I wanted to discuss a potential extension on the loan. I’ve been working on —’
‘I’m sorry, Sienna – may I call you that?’ Not waiting for a reply he continued, ‘We both know the time for negotiation is past. If you can’t pay now, how will you pay later?’
He tipped forward in his chair. ‘The global economy is at a standstill. I think you know as well as I do . . .’ Usually at this point in a doomed negotiation his prey would drop their gaze, but her eyes flared for a fight. He shoved his grudging admiration aside. ‘Things are more likely to get worse before they get better.’ As he moved closer, he noticed her beautiful eyes holding his with a strength of purpose that was clearly backed with an iron will.
She drew herself erect. ‘I’ve developed a marketing plan that will attract —’
‘No marketing plan is going to save you. The next time this hotel is rated, you’ll be lucky to pull three stars. The terms of the deal are clear.’ He tapped the legal documents in front of her. ‘Now, you’ll want your lawyer to look these over, but I think you will find everything is in order.’
She pushed the documents back to his side of the table.
‘Sienna.’ He held up his hand to ensure she didn’t try a new line of attack. ‘I’ll arrange for the documents to be picked up this afternoon.’
His phone vibrated and he pulled it from his pocket – Brad Hindmarsh, his acquisitions manager. His eyes narrowed. The news had better be good.
‘Sorry, I need to take this.’ He indicated that she leave and give him some privacy. He flicked open his phone. ‘Brad.’
Sienna stood, placed her hands squarely on the desk and leant forward. A breath of spicy perfume teased his senses as her face came close to his. Brad’s voice faded away as a pair of black eyes ringed with gold pinned his own with lethal purpose.
‘This is my office, until these papers are signed. If you want privacy you can have the whole floor to yourself.’ She pointed to the spacious area outside her office.
In his ear his acquisitions manager gave a long, low whistle.
‘Hold on, Brad,’ Antonio said, lowering his phone.
Time for some good old-fashioned intimidation. He held her gaze. She didn’t falter. He couldn’t remember the last time someone had stood up to him.
‘No point in delaying the inevitable,’ he said, relaxing back in his chair. ‘This time tomorrow, this office will be mine.’
He watched with satisfaction as she walked to the office door. Her ill-fitting suit couldn’t hide her long, lean legs and the curve of her bottom. Feisty and hot . . . very hot.
She turned. He smiled. They always capitulated in the end.
‘So hang up and come back tomorrow,’ she said.
He swung in his seat to give her his full attention. Sexy and gutsy. This woman was doing all sorts things to his libido.
‘Whenever you’re ready,’ she continued, sweeping her hand towards the door. He wondered what she would do if he swept her into his arms and kissed those words from her lovely lips.
‘As you wish,’ he said standing and walking slowly from the room. If eyes could hurl daggers, he’d be in mortal danger. He heard the door click shut behind him. It didn’t matter. He’d enjoy opening that door again for another round of vigorous banter.
‘Antonio.’ A muted voice called his name. Sienna’s spirited defiance and sparkling eyes had wiped the phone call from his mind.
‘Brad,’ he said, returning the phone to his ear. ‘What were you saying?’
‘Who’s the firecracker?’ Brad asked, clearly amused.
Antonio smiled. Brad was about the only person in the world who wasn’t afraid to give things to him straight.
‘Sienna De Luca. Marco’s daughter.’
‘I like the sound of her. I’d like to meet any woman who’s game enough to stand up to you.’
Antonio glanced back through the glass wall of Sienna’s office. She had her head down, reading the legal documents. Her hair obscured most of her face, but those seductive lips were in full view. Her teeth continually grazed her bottom lip. Obviously a stress reflex. Mesmerising. He couldn’t wait to get back in that room and start sparring again.
He dragged his thoughts to business. ‘What’s happening?’
‘That photo of you and Amy locking lips hasn’t helped.’
Damn. So the shots of the two of them had reached the other side of the world already. Of course his aunt and uncle would loathe the sexy, brash Amy West. The paparazzi pictures of them in his hotels featured everywhere. He paced the floor.
Dating a movie star had been good for business, but the woman had become needy. He’d misjudged her. He’d thought she’d wanted the same as he did – fun with no thought of a future. When he’d ended things last night after the film premiere, it had proved very messy. The fact that he’d made it clear from the beginning that he lived by a no-commitment creed seemed to have slipped Amy’s mind. If he’d broken an engagement he didn’t think she could have been more upset.
‘Don’t worry, it’s over with Amy. She was getting very . . . possessive.’
‘Sounds spooky.’ Antonio enjoyed Brad’s way of expressing things. Being American, Brad didn’t beat about the bush. ‘Your aunt and uncle won’t talk to me either now,’ Brad announced.
‘They asked me to tell you that your playboy ways have irrevocably destroyed the Moretti name and they can hardly hold their heads up in public. They used the word “shame” a lot.’
His aunt and uncle’s life revolved around their boutique Lake Como hotel. Childless, they focused all their attention on him and nothing he did pleased them. ‘So they definitely won’t sell to me?’