His Merciless Marriage Bargain

By: Jane Porter

CHAPTER ONE

RACHEL BERN STOOD outside the imposing doors of the Palazzo Marcello shivering, the wind grabbing at her black coat and ponytail, sending both flying.

Overhead, thick gray clouds blanketed the sky and the rising tides sent water surging over the banks of the lagoon, wetting the streets of Venice, but the stormy weather wasn’t so different from her weather in Seattle. She’d grown up with rain and damp. This morning she wasn’t shivering from cold, but nerves.

This could go so very wrong. It could blow up in her face, leaving her and Michael in an even worse situation, but she was at her wit’s end. If this didn’t get Giovanni Marcello’s attention, nothing would. She’d tried everything else, tried every other form of communication, but every attempt resulted in silence and the silence was destructive. Crushing. She was taking a huge risk, but what else could she do?

Giovanni Marcello, an Italian billionaire, was also one of the most reclusive businessmen in Italy. He rarely socialized. He had no direct email or phone, and when Rachel finally reached Signor Marcello’s front office management, they were noncommittal about relaying messages to the CEO of the holding company, Marcello SpA. And so she was here, at the Palazzo Marcello in Venice, the family’s home for the past two hundred years. Until the turn of the twentieth century, the Marcellos had been a shrewd, successful manufacturing family that had earned its place in society through hard work and wealth, but in the past forty years, the family had expanded from manufacturing and construction into real estate and, under the helm of Giovanni Marcello, investing in world markets. The Marcello fortune had quadrupled through Giovanni’s management, and they had become one of the most powerful and influential families in Italy.

Thirty-eight-year-old Giovanni continued to head up the holding company based in Rome, but she’d just discovered through her hired investigator that he rarely put in an appearance at the office, choosing instead to work from Venice. Which was why she was now here on his doorstep, exhausted and jet-lagged from traveling with a six-month-old baby, but determined. He couldn’t ignore her any longer. There would be no more shutting her out, or more importantly, Michael.

Heart aching, eyes stinging, she glanced down at the bundle in her arms, the baby thankfully finally sleeping, and silently apologized for what she was about to do. “It’s for your sake,” she whispered, bringing him close to her chest and giving a light squeeze. “And I’m not going far, I promise.”

Even in his sleep, the baby wriggled in protest. She smiled ruefully, easing her hold, but she couldn’t ease the guilt. She hadn’t slept since they left Seattle, but then, she hadn’t slept in months, not since she’d become his full-time caregiver. At six months he should be ready to sleep through the night, but maybe he felt how unsettled she was, or maybe he was missing his mother…

Rachel’s eyes stung and her heart smarted. If only she’d done more for Juliet after Michael’s birth, if only she’d understood how distraught she had been…

But Rachel couldn’t turn back time, and so she was here, about to hand him over to his father’s family. Not forever, of course, just for a few minutes, but to make a point. They needed help. She was broke and about to lose her job, and it wasn’t right, not when his father’s family could, and should, help.

Swallowing, she raised her hand and knocked firmly on the door, and then, in case the knock couldn’t be heard inside, she pressed the button for the doorbell mounted on the wall. Did the bell even work, she wondered? Had anyone heard her?

Between the wind and the lapping of water and the voices of tourists and travelers on the lagoon, she wasn’t sure if anyone was stirring within the palazzo. She knew she was being watched, though, and not from within the building, but from the photographers stationed outside. There was one across the lagoon and another on a balcony of an adjacent building, as well as another parked in a tethered gondola. She’d seen the cameras as she stepped off the water taxi and was glad to see them as she’d been the one to tip them off, teasing the various media outlets that something significant was happening today, something to do with a Marcello baby.

It was easy enough to accomplish when one’s job hinged on publicity, marketing and customer relations for AeroDynamics, one of the largest airline manufacturers in the world. Normally her PR efforts were to attract new, affluent customers—sheikhs, tycoons, sports figures, celebrities—by showcasing AeroDynamics sleek jet designs and luxurious interiors, but today she needed the media because they could apply pressure for her. Their photos would draw attention, and subsequent public scrutiny, and Giovanni Marcello would not like it. He valued his privacy and would take immediate steps to curtail the attention. But before he did that, she needed to make sure that she got the right action and the proper results. She didn’t want to shame the Marcellos, or alienate them. She needed them on her side—correction, on Michael’s side—but her actions now might do the opposite and push them further away—

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