AGNES CANESTRI

Sweet Romance For All Ages

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GGambling with the Billionaire

 

Chapter One

 

Bianca Biagi’s hands tightened on the wheel of her Mini Cooper. Today of all days she mustn’t arrive late to the restaurant. 

     She should’ve left the house earlier, but she’d stayed to clean up the mess her cat had made. 

     She pressed her foot on the gas. Her cabriolet gave a loud roar resembling the cry of a dying animal. Oh, no. She’d have to get a mechanic to look at that at some point. Her car might be old, but it had never made such funny noises in the past.

     Bianca changed gears and the engine got quieter. Her shoulders relaxed, and she sighed. Maybe it was just a false alarm. All the better. It wasn’t the best moment for investing in car repairs. 

     Who knew how this morning’s meeting would evolve? Her heart swelled and she swallowed. No, she shouldn’t think like this. The owner, Stefano, was going to back her. If not for his urgent need for cash, he would never have gotten into bed with Bright Future. He’d said so himself. Stefano loved Bianca’s vision.

     And why shouldn’t he? After all, Bianca had turned the small trattoria around into the nicest jazz restaurant in the region. Would the buyer see the great work she’d done with The Sapphire and decide to keep her on board?

     A cold shudder ran through Bianca’s back. And if not? Ryan O’Connor didn’t have a reputation for being a man who appreciated creativity. No, based on what Bianca’d heard, his main focus was profit. 

And The Sapphire didn’t have enough of that. At least, not yet.

     Bianca shook her head. This was all speculation. She needed to stop.

     She switched on the CD-player, and the rhythms of “Que Sera Sera” resounded in the air. Now that’s better. Music could always soothe Bianca’s nerves. And today she needed her calm. Without the right attitude, she didn’t stand a chance of convincing Mr. O’Connor. 

     Bianca took a right turn at the end of Reagan Street. The railway passage came into sight, and her heart dropped.

      Oh, shoot. The nine o’clock train. The bars were already closing. It was all her cat’s fault. Maybe if she took the shortcut to the back entrance after the road cleared? Yes, that might work. 

      She stopped in front of the rail crossing and retracted her roof. The morning sun shined on her cheeks with unexpected force. She turned the music up a notch. Songs are your safe haven, just like the ocean is for me. That’s what her brother used to tell her when they were younger. He was probably right. 

Doris Day’s sweet voice made Bianca’s neck muscles relax. A smile spread across her face. She closed her eyes and began to sing with the melody.

       “Hey. Hee-eee-y, lady!” 

      What was that? Bianca jerked back, and her eyelids sprang open. Was somebody calling her? She snapped her head to the side.

      A silver Tesla had rolled up to her right. She hadn’t even heard it. Incredible how quiet these new electric cars were. Nothing like her rusty-dusty.

      The driver was a man dressed in a grey suit. Bianca’s eyes widened, as they travelled to his face. Those strong eyebrows and straight nose…just like Dean Martin. 

      She needed to stop comparing everybody to her favorite singers. It wasn’t healthy. She studied the Tesla’s owner. He was definitely not an inhabitant of Rocky Harbor. He was probably lost and looking for directions. Yes, it would explain why he was waving at Bianca with those ample movements.

Bianca turned the radio down and smiled at the stranger. “How may I help you?”

     The man’s masculine jaw clenched, and his dark eyes narrowed. 

     Holy cow, even without the parallels to the fifties, this guy was more than handsome.

      “You already did,” said the man in a flat tone as he rolled up his window.

     Bianca’s brows arched up. What did he mean? She lifted her hand and twirled it in the air.

      The guy opened his window once more. “What now?”

      Bianca cleared her throat. “I’m not sure I followed. Were you lost? How could I help you when we didn’t even speak?”

     The man shook his head. “I was having an important conference call. The loud noise from your car disturbed me.”

     What noise? Bianca’s eyes flicked to her ignition. The key was turned off. The quiet murmur from the radio reached her ears. No, he couldn’t possibly mean…? 

      “Are you referring to my music as noise, by any chance?” She frowned at him.

     The man’s lips twitched. “Yes. I couldn’t hear my own voice because of it.”

Bianca’s nostrils flared. “Well, I guess you should return your fancy car to wherever you bought it from. Its sound isolation system seems to be pretty crappy.”

     His jaw dropped. 

     Bianca pressed her hands to her thighs. Why was she flipping out? It must be the jitters over her upcoming meeting. Maybe her radio had been a little too loud.

     The stranger scratched his chin, while a faint smile conquered his lower lip. “Be that as it may, please keep the volume of your music down. I need to get back to my call.”

     Her stomach tightened. No, this wasn’t just the jitters. It was his mocking undertone. 

     “Sure, no problem. You do that. But you know what they say? A man who can’t appreciate the greatness of music is poor in his soul.”

     The man drew his brows together. Now he truly looked like Dean Martin, dang it.

     “Did you just insult me, by chance?” he asked.

     “Of course I didn’t. I just pointed out that appreciation of music isn’t a skill we all have.” She plastered on an innocent smile

     He pointed at his chest. “As it just so happens, I love music. Just not oldies. And not when it interrupts a crucial phone call.”

     Fine, he had a point. Not everybody likes to indulge in the past. Bianca’s throat thickened. Let’s hope Mr. O’Connor doesn’t share this stranger’s taste, otherwise her hopes of keeping the restaurant’s design intact were going to shatter. 

     Bianca shrugged. “Very well, suit yourself.” 

     She waved her hands to indicate the conversation was over.

     He flashed a cocky smirk and rolled up his window.

     From the corner of her eye, Bianca observed how he positioned his headset on his left ear. She snorted.         Hopefully, he was happy to get back to his crucial phone call. She switched off the radio. She wasn’t going to get scolded for disturbing him again. 

     No, the train could take care of that. A mischievous smile spread on her face.

     As if to underline her thought, a shrill beep echoed through the air, followed by the earsplitting rattling of the nine o’clock intercity. 

    She glimpsed at the man, who was pulling down his head set. His nose was pulled into an angry frown, and his left hand hit the steering wheel. 

    Bianca’s grin widened. Take that, Mr. I-hate-your-music.

     The man turned to the side, and their glances met. 

     Bianca’s heart stuttered. Oh gosh, why did her body always react to men who were jerks? She was as good at matching her loved ones with people worthy of their affection as she was terrible at making her own relationship choices.

     The last railcar passed without her realizing. She kept staring into the man’s eyes.

     His lips moved into a smile.

     Okay, at least he wasn’t a sore loser. That was a plus for him.

     Slowly, the surrounding quiet reached Bianca’s brain and she blinked. The bars were already lifted. Quick, she needed to get going. 

    She turned back to the road and switched on the engine. She set the gear and rolled toward a sandy path.       The road’s condition was far from ideal but it was the shortest way.  She could save at least five minutes if her car cooperated. 

     She peeked into the rearview mirror to check on the Tesla’s owner. The silver car was riding toward the highway.

     Good. The guy was leaving town, just as she thought he would. She wasn’t going to see that man ever again. It was better to forget that cocky smile and those high cheekbones. 

Right now all her focus needed to be on saving The Sapphire from that shark, O’Connor. 

 

 

 

Chapter Two

 

Ryan O’Connor shook his head, as he steered his car toward the highway. It’d been the most interesting railway pause he’d ever experienced. The memory of the red car’s owner made his heart beat faster. Yes, the woman had a disputable taste in music, but somehow the fifties-flair fit her. Probably because of those large, dreamy green eyes she had.

     His phone beeped. 

     This must be Helga wanting to fill him in on the rest of the conference call he’d hung up on. 

      Ryan grabbed his headset and pressed the reply button. “Yes, Helga.”

     “Mr. O’Connor, did you get through that bothersome railway block?” his secretary asked.

      Bothersome? No, despite his best will, Ryan couldn’t define the past five minutes as such. Even if he had missed the Lewis case’s closing. The curly-haired stranger popped into his mind again. What a smile she had. Would he ever see that spirited woman again?

      “Sir, you still there? This line must have—”

      “No, I’m here, Helga.”

     Ryan rubbed his neck and glanced at his GPS. Great, he was going to arrive late for his meeting.

     He changed lanes. “Sorry, I’ve just missed my exit. I won’t make it to The Sapphire on time.”

     A rustling of paper sounded in the line then Helga said, “You want me to call and let the owner know?”

      “No, that’s not necessary. By the time you do, I might even be there. Rather, tell me, how did the negotiation end?”

       “All as expected, Mr. O’Connor. Jeremy made a nice wrap-up speech, and the deal went through as you anticipated.”

      Ryan let out a breath. It’d been a great call to take Jeremy on board. The man had potential, even if he’d just gotten out of college. Experience couldn’t make up for the sheer enthusiasm of youth. Ryan’s stomach warmed. After all, isn’t that how he’d built his own empire?

      “I’m glad. Maybe next time I’ll send Jeremy to Rocky Harbor,” Ryan answered.

      A silence on the phone, then a noise that resembled a snort.

      “Helga?”

      “I’m sorry, Mr. O’Connor. I just doubt you’d ever do that. You could’ve picked any other, even more seasoned, manager to take this case. But you wanted to do it yourself. It’s understandable, of course.”

      Ryan's brows rose. What was Helga getting at? He’d only come personally because this meeting coincided with the regular visit with his dad. He didn’t have any special interest in this restaurant. 

     No, The Sapphire had to go. Anyways, what a weird name for an Italian restaurant. It would be much better to call it “At Gianni” or “Da Luigi” or something.

     “I’m not sure I follow your reasoning, Helga,” Ryan said.

      Helga coughed. “It’s just…well, it’s your soil, your roots, Mr. O’Connor. It’s the first time Bright Future is expanding so closely to the area of your home.”

      Ryan’s neck stiffened. No, Helga was wrong. It had nothing to do with Ryan’s personal history or emotional ties.

       “Investing in Rocky Harbor is purely a business decision. The Welles Brothers’d been tormenting me to find a suitable property for their chain. That’s all.” His voice held a tiny bit too much emotion. Would Helga pick up on it? After all, she had been his assistant for many years.

      “I understand, sir. But surely, you want to ponder the decision of dismantling a local restaurant and turning it into an anonymous fast-food more thoroughly, since it’s only a few blocks from your father’s house?” 

      No, Ryan didn’t want that. He just wanted to close the deal fast. And the best way to do that was to handle everything himself. None of his employees were able to get through the negotiations he expected to have in one day. And why must Helga try and play on his conscience? 

     “My father doesn’t eat out, so I doubt it’ll make any difference to him,” he said.

       Helga clicked her tongue. “Of course, it wouldn’t. But maybe for the town? I’m sure Rocky Harbor has changed a lot since you’ve last seen it.”

     The image of the woman at the railway block returned. “Yes, it’s possible,” he murmured. 

     His stomach stirred a little. Well, yes, the town had more to offer than he remembered. But, still, it wasn’t a good argument for becoming soft. One couldn’t be successful without following the voice of reason. That was the only good companion in life. 

     Emotions led to poor financial choices and that, in the long run, could cause tragedies. Ryan’s heart squeezed, and a bitter taste invaded his mouth. He knew that better than anyone, didn’t he?

      Helga cleared her voice. “Well, I’m sure you’ll make the right choice. Did you arrive already?”

      Ryan checked his GPS. “According to my navigator, I should be there in two minutes.”

      “Good, then I have just enough time to tell you Miss Jenna called. She wants to know whether she can expect you to attend her debut?”

       Helga’s tone grew cold as always when she spoke about Ryan’s girlfriend. It wasn’t good that Helga disliked Jenna. Helga was the closest person to a mother figure he had, since…yes, since his mother had passed. 

     “What did you tell Jenna?” he asked.

     “What I always do when you are on business trips. That you’ll try your best.”

     “Good. I’ll drop by Dad’s this weekend, but I aim to travel home on Sunday. Can you arrange a bouquet of flowers and some jewelry for Jenna? It’s her big day.”

    Another stifled snort echoed in the line. “Sure, sir. But may I say that Miss Jenna is only going to appear for two minutes in the entire play? Are you sure jewelry is needed for this magnificent performance?”

     “Yes, get her a bracelet or a watch. That will make her happy.”

     “Sure it will.” The sarcasm in Helga’s voice slapped Ryan in the face.

     So Helga thought the same as his father. That the girl he was seeing was a gold digger. Were they right? Was Jenna really just after his money? 

     No, probably not. It was normal that she wished for occasional gifts and required his full support for her career. After all, wasn’t money there to provide for your loved ones? 

     “Helga, I’m going to hang up now. I’m almost there. Get all set up for Sunday. I’ll call you when I know my exact arrival time.”

     “Very well, sir. Have a good meeting, and greetings to your father.”

     The line went dead. 

     Ryan followed the instructions on his screen, and after a turn to the right, The Sapphire appeared in front of him. 

     Wow, this looked much neater than in the pictures. The surrounding giant birch trees and the large outdoor patio covered with grape tendrils lent the building a cozy but romantic atmosphere.

     The image of the Welles Brothers’ squared design came to mind. That would change the scenery. He shrugged. This wasn’t his concern. The Welles Brothers were savvy businessmen. They’d bring lots of traffic and money into this area of town. Ultimately, it was going to be a win-win for everybody. Especially for      Stefano Celli, the owner of The Sapphire.

     A confident grin spread on Ryan’s face. Yes, this was going to be one of his leading arguments.

     He drove into the parking lot and turned off the engine.

     He stepped out of his Tesla, and his eyes fell on the car beside him.

     His mouth popped open and he gasped. What the heck…? 

     A red Mini Cooper sat beside his silver car. 

     Ryan’s pulse quickened. Could it be? Was it the same? Well, how many old-timer convertibles were there in this town in the shade of ripe cherries?

     Ryan adjusted his suit and inhaled. 

     This was going to be a very interesting meeting.

This was going to be a very interesting meeting.

Curious to see how this sweet opposites-attract billionaire romance enfolds?

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