“I have no self-control around you.”
Now they’re the talk of Texas…
Melinda Perry has always been the well-behaved twin—until Slade Bartelli. Rumor has it that this billionaire has ties to the mob. All Melinda knows is that his touch is hotter than fire…and now she’s expecting his baby. A fake engagement might protect them from tabloid gossip. But will Melinda’s reputation—and heart—be safe given Slade’s dangerous past?
September 1, 2019
Melinda Perry glanced at her phone as she put the last hot roller in her hair. She was trying to ween herself off her social media addiction. While she loved knowing exactly what her favs were doing, she had learned she functioned better with far less FOMO if she started her day with a mug of… She wanted to say hot lemon water, but she’d never been able to make herself acquire a taste for it. No matter how unhealthy it was, she always started her day with coffee, a teaspoon of hot cocoa mix and non-fat half-and-half.
She glanced at the clock on her vanity mirror; she was running ahead of schedule. “Okay, Jeeves, give me the latest society news from the Houston Chronicle,” she said. She’d programmed her electronic assistant to answer to Jeeves because she thought it was funny to pretend she had a proper British butler and because it had been going off whenever the commercial for it had come on prior to that.
“Good morning, Mels. Here’s today’s headline: ‘Heiress and philanthropist Melinda Perry is going hot and heavy with notorious playboy Slade Bartelli. Photos available on Houston Chronicle dot com.’”
“Okay, Jeeves, stop,” she said, fumbling for her phone and opening the Houston Chronicle app. Oh, no. She didn’t want to be on the society pages. She didn’t want the world to know about her love affair with Slade.
Her family had been a hot mess for the last year and she had struggled to remain above it. Going about her business and acting as if everything were okay. Her father had been accused of running a Ponzi scheme, arrested and released from jail. Her sister was having a scandalous relationship with one of her father’s most hated business rivals. And of course, she had started a romance with the son of notorious mobster Carlo Bartelli.
To be fair, Slade wasn’t part of his father’s crime syndicate and she had met him at a charitable committee meeting. He was an upstanding citizen but the media never seemed to care about that.
As soon as she opened the app, she saw a photo of herself and Slade embracing…okay, kissing. Hot and heavy kissing in one of the alcoves of the Houston Symphony at Jones Hall.
She felt panic rise inside of her and her pulse raced. She was hot and bothered not only from being exposed but from remembering that kiss. She had to end this. It was getting out of control. She was behaving in a way that didn’t suit her at all. Sure, she was thirty-nine and, as her twin had pointed out, not getting any younger.
If not now, then when? That’s what Angela had said when Melinda had shyly mentioned she was seeing someone different from her usual type of guy.
But this wasn’t what Melinda had had in mind. She liked her charity work, her quiet life. Also, Angela had been very plain in her disapproval of Slade as a lover for Melinda. Not that she needed her twin’s approval of the man she dated.
She heard the sound of Pixie, her miniature dachshund, barking and then her bedroom door opened and her sister Angela walked into the room. They lived in the same building and always nipped into each other's places. The design of the apartment was an open concept on the main living level and then an upper level type loft that was the master bedroom, bathroom and a living/sitting room that Melinda used as a workout space.
“I thought you weren’t sure that Slade was the right man for you. Didn’t you say you wanted to be a mom? He’s a legendary playboy, you know that, right?”
“No need to ask how you found out,” she said. “I just didn’t know if we were serious or not and I didn’t want to make a big deal.”
“That photo looked pretty serious to me,” Angela said. She sat down on the tufted bench at the end of Melinda’s bed.
Her sister had a thermal mug in her hand and looked fashionable as always. No matter how hard Melinda tried, she always felt like the serious, preppy twin. She knew that no one else would ever call her that, but she was the quieter twin, in fashion and in personality. If anyone should have been dating Slade, it was Angela.
“That picture… I had no idea anyone would see us, or I never would have kissed him like that,” Melinda admitted.
“You’re blushing! We’re thirty-nine, Mels. It’s time for you to stop blushing when you talk about sex.”
“I wasn’t talking about sex! Slade just makes me hot. It’s not embarrassment, it’s—oh, never mind. What am I going to do?” she asked her sister.
“Do you like him?” Angela asked.
She hadn’t thought about it that way. He was so intense. She knew about his family’s rumored mob connections but when she was with him, he focused on her. He made her feel…like she was the only woman in the world. And the most passionate person he’d ever met. But honestly, she knew that was only because of him. Donald, her ex-boyfriend of eight years, always complained that she hadn’t brought any va-va-voom, but with Slade that wasn’t an issue.
“I know you don’t approve of him. You’ve made that very clear and I’m not sure how I feel about him. He’s on the art council, which is how we met.”
“He’s on the art council? I thought his family were all mobsters—which, by the way, concerns me.”
“He’d not a mobster, Angela. He is also the only grandson of Philomena Conti. So he’s representing the family. I think Mrs. Conti had a hip replacement earlier this year, which is why he filled in at the meeting. We just hit it off. He likes art as much as I do. It was my description of a van Dyke that made him notice me.”
Angela stood up and walked over to her, putting her hands on Melinda’s shoulders and making her face the mirror. She met her sister’s gaze, avoiding looking at herself. She had the big rollers in because it made doing her hair easier and she hadn’t put on any makeup yet so her freckles were visible.
“Look at yourself,” Angela said.
She glanced up at her own reflection. She always smiled at herself because that helped her start the day in a good mood. Angela smiled back at her as well.
“That man noticed you because of you,” she said. “And it’s about time that you found a man who can make you forget yourself at the opera.”
Melinda sighed. She knew her sister was right. No matter what Slade made her feel, at the end of the day their lives simply didn’t fit together. He was more Cristal champagne and parties at his penthouse and jetting off to Dubai than local artist openings.
“I know. Not the danger part—he’s really not a bad man, Angela. But he’s not for me either. Honestly, I sort of thought after we slept together, he’d move on to someone else,” Melinda said. “But he hasn’t. There’s something between us that makes it hard to keep our hands off each other.”
“Passion, Mels. Finally, you’ve found a guy who brings out the fire in you,” Angela said. “But not a Bartelli. Find someone else.”
Melinda shook her head. She didn’t want the fire… Well, not all the time. Fire was dangerous. She knew that had led to trouble in her parents’ relationship and she’d always striven to keep her life on an even keel.
But now she wasn’t on an even keel. She was already really overdue for her period and she’d always been regular. Maybe she was having perimenopause. She had read an article that some women started to experience symptoms at her age.
She met her sister’s eyes in the mirror and knew better than to bring up that subject again unless she'd taken a pregnancy. As close as she and Angela were, there were some things that they both just kept to themselves and this was going to be one of them.
“If it were that easy, I would have done it a long time ago,” she said at last. “I’m not sure where things are going with Slade, but we both know it’s not going to last.”
“Good,” Angela said, giving her a breezy one-armed hug. “Are you okay?”
She wanted to nod but the hot rollers made her head feel heavy and awkward. “Of course. I’m always okay.”
“Except I know that you’re not. You said you wanted to be a mom… and suspected you were pregnant. Are you? Is he the father?” Angela asked.
She wasn’t ready to talk about pregnancy. She hadn’t even been to her doctor yet, even though she had taken more than a few over-the-counter tests. She might want to be a mom, but she had in her mind the way it should happen. She was a traditional kind of gal. She wanted Slade to fall in love with her—desperately in love—and propose marriage, to have a huge society wedding—where her father, sister and family weren’t in the midst of a scandal—and then have a baby.
“I don’t know if I’m pregnant,” she said, dropping her gaze from Angela’s in the mirror. She wasn’t a big fan of lying to anyone, but she wasn’t ready to deal with being pregnant while the Chronicle was running a photo of her and Slade kissing. “I mean, Slade Bartelli doesn’t sound like the right kind of man for me, does he?”
Angela propped her hip on the edge of the vanity and looked pensively at Melinda’s bedroom. For the first time, Melinda realized that her sister might be hiding something of her own. “Are you okay? How are your wedding plans coming along?” Angela had just announced her engagement to Ryder Currin.
“Yeah, I’m fine. Nice try, but we are talking about you,” Angela said. “I don’t know what to tell you. If you say Slade’s a good guy… Well, I’m on your side. Just make sure you know what you’re doing. While fire is good and I have always thought that’s what you needed to shake you out of your routines and lists, it can also burn you. I don’t want to see you hurt.”
Melinda turned and hugged her sister, resting her head against her stomach. “I don’t want you hurt either. Men are…way more complicated than they look on the surface.”
Her sister laughed as she started taking out the hot rollers in Melinda’s hair. “They are. Why can’t they just be hot, right?”
“Yes. And sophisticated and like the things we like and then go away when we need to get back to real life.”
Her sister laughed again. “If only we were in charge of the world.”
“Someday,” she said.
“Someday,” Angela repeated quietly.
Angela left a few minutes later and Pixie came trotting into the room and plopped herself on her bed. Melinda leaned into the mirror to finish putting on her makeup and fixing her hair and then she got dressed for the day.
She took extra care to make sure her A-line skirt was straight, and her blouse tucked in properly; she didn’t like it when it was too loose around the waist. She tied the pussy bow at the neckline and then switched the contents of her handbag to the purse that perfectly matched her magenta skirt.
She put her sunglasses on the top of her head, patted Pixie’s head as she walked out the front door, then took the elevator down to the lobby of her building. She had a lot of work to do at her foundation and meetings this morning. Where she was met by a barrage of flash bulbs.
Panicked, she ducked back onto the elevator. She went back to her apartment, texted her assistant she'd be out this morning and then hit the treadmill. Walking always helped her figure things out. Things were definitely getting too complicated and now she knew she had to end things with Slade. No one had ever noticed when she kissed Donald.