A MERGER BY MARRIAGE
It takes two tycoons to tango...
With JT Stone's birthright hanging in the balance, Violet Fontaine comes up with the perfect solution. The Vegas hotel heiress decides to give her sexy business rival a hand - so he can put a ring on it and seal a business deal. The one condition is that they keep their boardroom marriage out of the bedroom.
Fat chance! JT isn't letting Violet deprive him of one of the sweetest perks of wedlock. But will giving in to passion expose the one thing that's always kept him from commitment? Now JT could lose everything, including the woman he can't live without.
With his arm stretched across the back of the black leather couch, JT Stone sipped one of Rick's signature cocktails and brooded over a woman.
Tonight Violet Fontaine wore a black, skin-tight mini with long sleeves and a neckline that concealed her delicate collarbones. Despite the snug fit, the dress looked modest when viewed from the front. But the back of the dress. Oh, the back. A wide V bared an expanse of golden skin, crisscrossed by spaghetti thin straps from her nape to the indent of her waist. As he suspected the design intended, his gaze was drawn to the curve of her tight, round backside.
His fingers twitched as he imagined holding those luscious curves in his hands. Before he'd met Violet six years ago he'd been a diehard breast and thigh man. These days he was on a mission to find a butt better than hers. To date he hadn't found one. Good thing she had no idea what she did to him or he might lose something more irreplaceable than his favorite bartender.
The resident mixologist of Fontaine Chic's lobby bar Baccarat, Rick was a genius when it came to creating unique cocktails. Tonight JT was having Rick's version of a dirty martini in the lounge. His excuse for showing up six nights a week was that he was wooing Rick back to Titanium where he belonged.
JT finished the last of his drink. Who was he kidding? In the year since Rick had switched employers, JT was here most nights because Violet swung through on her rounds at exactly eleven-fifteen and lingered to chat with the clientele. As the proprietor of the Fontaine Chic, she was very hands-on.
"Another drink, JT?" The waitress cocked her head and smiled warmly at him.
"Sure." Why not? He nodded toward Violet. "And whatever she's drinking."
Charlene followed his gaze. "You know she doesn't drink when she's working."
"Maybe tonight she'll make an exception for me."
"Maybe." But Charlene's tone said something completely different.
"Would you send her over?"
The nightly ritual made the waitress's lips curve in wry humor. "Sure."
Violet herself brought his drink over, setting it before him with practiced ease. "Rick said this is what you're drinking tonight."
"Will you join me?"
When she shook her head, the diamond drops dangling from her earlobes swayed seductively. "I'm working."
"And I'm your best customer."
"You're a fan of Rick's, not Fontaine Chic."
"I'm a fan of you," he murmured and her eyes widened briefly as if startled by his admission. Was it possible she was oblivious to his interest? Not one of the waitresses thought he came here every night just to drink.
It did no good to remind himself that he liked his women curvy, blonde and agreeable. That with her long lean frame inherited from her showgirl mother and her father's wavy brown hair, she was not his type. Or that her strong-willed personality had been cultivated by his estranged uncle, Tiberius Stone, her surrogate father. A man who blamed JT's father for orchestrating his disinheritance.
"You can take a couple minutes," he said, gesturing to the empty space beside him.
Her eyebrow arched at his implied command, but she settled sideways on the couch and crossed her long legs. She'd fastened her waist-length hair into a high, sleek ponytail. The look was both modern and retro and showed off her large brown eyes and bold cheekbones to great advantage.
With the toe of her black stiletto a mere inch from his pant leg, she propped her elbow on the back of the couch, rested her cheek on her palm and waited for him to speak. Quick to smile, she was the most upbeat, optimistic person he'd ever met. She was sunlight to his shadow. Forever close, always untouchable.
He sipped his drink and surveyed her over the rim. The dark circles beneath her eyes told him she was working harder than ever since Tiberius had been murdered several weeks ago.
"You should take some time off," he said, aware that what she did was none of his business.
"And do what? Sit around and grieve?" She must have heard the edge in her tone because after a long sigh, she continued on a milder note. "I know it's what most people do when they lose a parent, but I can't think of a better way to honor Tiberius's memory than to work."
JT nodded in understanding. "I'm sure he'd approve."
Although he'd been given the middle name, Tiberius, after his mother's younger brother, until the last few months JT had never had the chance to know his uncle by anything other than reputation. JT had been raised in Miami where Stone Properties had their headquarters. Tiberius rarely left Vegas. And the bad blood between Tiberius and his brother-in-law and JT's father, Preston Rhodes, made any chance of a relationship between JT and his uncle impossible.
The hard feelings between Tiberius and Preston went back twenty-five years. According to what JT had gleaned from family friends, Preston had accused Tiberius of embezzling from Stone Properties and had convinced James Stone to fire his son. Then, five years later, James had died and JT's father had used his influence over his wife, Fiona Stonebowing to pressure from her father, she'd never taken her husband's last nameto get the board of directors to vote in favor of making him chairman and CEO.
"Thanks for coming to the memorial service this morning," Violet said. "I know you and Tiberius weren't close, but lately he'd talked a lot about how he regretted all the years he kept you out of his life and how he wished he'd gotten to know you."
Regret tightened in his chest. "I had no idea Tiberius felt that way." JT sucked in a deep breath and let it out slowly.
When he'd arrived in Las Vegas to run the local family operations, his opinion of his uncle had been formed by what he knew about Tiberius from his father and grandfather. Although relations between him and his uncle stayed tense for many years, after seeing how much Violet admired Tiberius, plus all the positive things said about his uncle by other Las Vegas businessmen, JT had begun to suspect that if Tiberius had done what his father had accused him of, there'd been a good reason.
"When it came to your family, he could be hard-headed," Violet said with a faint smile. "And he really hated your dad."
"The feeling was definitely mutual."
Violet remained lost in thought for a moment. "Lately he'd mentioned quite a few times that he thought you'd do a terrific job running Stone Properties."
The compliment landed a direct hit in his gut. He wished he'd had a chance to get to know his uncle the way Violet did. Now it was too late. "I'm leaving the company."
JT heard himself say the words and wondered at his impromptu disclosure. He hadn't divulged his inner thoughts to anyone. Not even his cousin, Brent, and they were as close as brothers. JT peered into his drink. Had Rick infused some sort of truth serum into the cocktail? JT set the glass down. When he looked up, he caught Violet staring at him in surprise.
"Why would you do that?"
"When I turned thirty two months ago, I gained control of my trust fund and the thirty percent of Stone Properties shares my mother left to me when she died. This enabled me to dig into the finances and see what my father has been doing lately."
"The properties are overleveraged. My father's been borrowing too much trying to expand and with each property that gets built, our resources are stretched closer to their breaking point." In his gut was a ball of frustration that had been growing steadily these last sixty days.
"I had no idea." Sympathy made her voice soft. She felt sorry for him and he hated it. "Have you shared your concerns with your father?"
It wasn't like him to disclose his difficulties to anyone, least of all someone as tightly connected to the competition as Violet. But then, she wasn't just anyone. She was special. Through her he was linked to a part of his family he'd never known and just being around her made him feel less alone.
JT picked up his drink once more. "He won't listen and since he controls the majority of the shares, I don't have leverage to affect current policy."
"If you leave Stone Properties, what are you planning to do?"
He'd never been one to show his cards, but Violet's at-tentiveness made her easy to confide in. She acted as if she had all the time in the world to listen to what ailed him and offer sensible feedback. He'd be a fool not to listen to her opinion as a businesswoman. But it was her friendship he craved. And if he was honest with himself, her body he longed to devour.
"I've been cultivating some investors," he said. "I'm going out on my own. My uncle didn't need the family business to be successful and neither do I."
"Are you sure that's the best idea? Tiberius let your father drive him out of the business and never stopped regretting it."
"No one drove him out," JT corrected her. "Tiberius was caught stealing from the company and was fired."
Her disappointment in him was like clouds passing in front of the sun. "He was framed." She truly believed that. "By your father."
JT sat perfectly still beneath the weight of her accusation while his thought raced. A normal person would rush to defend their father against such slander, but JT had seen the company's financials for himself and knew his father was not telling the stockholders everything. That made him a liar in JT's books. Nor would he ever champion his father after the way Preston had treated JT's mother.
But he wasn't ready to jump on the bash-Preston bandwagon either. As conflicted as JT was about his father, he put a high value on loyalty.
"If that's true," he said, his tone neutral, "all the more reason to break with the company and my father."
Determination flared in her eyes. "Or you could stay and fight for what's yours."
While JT appreciated her spirited defense of his inheritance, he'd been contemplating the wisdom of staying with Stone Properties for a couple years. It was worse now that he had seen the company's financials.
"I hate being powerless to stop him from taking apart all that my grandfather built."
"I can understand that." Without warning her gaze sharpened. "These plans of yours, do they mean you're leaving Las Vegas?"
Was she hoping he wouldn't? The thought of not seeing her every day made him grim. Did it bother her as well?
JT searched her eyes for answers, but saw only curiosity. With Violet, what you saw was what you got. Her openness fascinated him. She never seemed to worry about guarding herself against hurt or disappointment.
It was a major factor in why he'd never pursued her.
Not long after he'd arrived in Las Vegas, he'd run into his uncle and Violet at a charity event. Despite his instant attraction to the twenty-three-year-old, he knew better than to act on his interest. The bad blood between her adopted father and his biological one was a significant barrier. So was JT's playboy lifestyle.
Before he'd moved to Las Vegas, JT had made quite a name for himself in Miami's social scene. Going at life at a reckless pace whether it was fast boats, expensive cars or unavailable women, he hadn't cared whom he hurt as long as he displeased his father.
He liked Violet too much to subject her to his unhealthy family dynamic. Besides, she wasn't a good choice for him. Unlike the women he usually pursued, she would expect things from him. Things he couldn't give her. Openness. Joy. Trust. In order to be with her he'd have to surrender the defenses that muffled his emotions and protected him from pain and disillusionment. She'd lure him out of his comfortable dark cave and require him to find happiness.
How was he supposed to do that when his childhood hadn't given him the tools?
His father believed anything that got in the way of business was bad. As a kid, JT had had that philosophy hammered into his head. His mother had been weakened by her hunger for love. Being ignored by the domineering husband she adored had made her life hell, and she'd started retreating into drugs and alcohol around the time that Tiberius left town. By the time he turned twelve, JT was used to being ignored by his parents, forgotten by his grandfather and alienated from his uncle. Nor was there any family on his father's side. The only person who'd showed any interest in him was his grandmother and she split her time between Miami, Virginia and Kentucky.
Traditional family. Love. JT had never grown up with these things.
Being around Violet gave him a glimpse of what a normal personal life could be. The love she had for her sisters, her mother and Tiberius made him long to be included in her circle. But he couldn't take the steps needed to put himself there. Nor could he leave well enough alone either. The need to connect remained. A tantalizing temptation. One of his deep, dark secrets.
So he visited Fontaine Chic night after night and sat in the bar. He craved a relationship with Violet, but had no idea how to go about having one. In casino terms, he was betting the minimum. He'd never win big, but he wasn't going to lose everything either. Playing without risk was not how he lived. He got a rush from flinging his body into danger, but gambling with his heart was something else entirely.
"I don't know what the future holds," he responded at last. "Will you miss me if I go?"
The question caught her off guard. Her eyes widened and her lips parted, but no words came out. Usually their exchanges hovered on the verge of personal without either of them crossing that line. Tonight, he'd changed the game by giving her a glimpse into what was bothering him, by trusting her with his plans for the future.
"I'll miss your business," she retorted with a wry smile that didn't quite reach her eyes. She uncrossed her legs, signaling their conversation was at an end.
"Violet." He caught her hand before she could rise. The casual contact created a complex chain reaction in JT's gut. He wanted her. That had never been in doubt. But what lay below the lust was dangerous beyond belief. "I'm really sorry about Tiberius."
He gave her hand a gentle squeeze and released her. It rattled him how hard it was to relax his fingers and set her free. What he wanted to do was draw her into his arms and let her soak the shoulder of his suit coat with her tears. He knew it was impossible. They didn't share that level of intimacy. The fact both relieved and frustrated him.
"Thank you." Two polite words, but her tone carried a wealth of emotion. She dabbed at the corner of her eye, catching teardrops on her knuckles. "I'm such a mess."
"I think you're beautiful."