The CEO Takes a Wife (The Valente Series #1) : Chapter 1

One

“I presume you asked me in here for a reason, Dad?” Alex Valente said, his tone cool and collected as he sat in front of his father’s desk in the opulent tenth-floor office overlooking Sydney Harbour.

There was a moment’s pause. “Yes, there’s a reason,” Cesare Valente replied, leaning back in his leather chair.

Alex ignored the mixture of pride and regret in his father’s eyes. They’d never been close, despite working together all these years. Cesare Valente had come to Australia as a child and was the founder of the House of Valente. Alex was its CEO. The two of them had taken the Australian perfume dynasty and turned it into a national success.

But it wasn’t enough. It had never been enough—for either of them. There were more successes out there, more opportunities to seize, including their upcoming launch in the States of their newest and finest perfume yet—Valente’s Woman. Alex knew his father admired that same drive to conquer in himself. It was part of the reason he’d been tasked with the USA launch.

“And that is…” Alex prompted, leaving the sentence hanging.

“I’ve come to a decision…” Cesare’s pause was surely for effect. “You’re thirty-five years old. It’s time you married and produced an heir.”

Alex felt a brief moment of shock, then his eyes narrowed and his lips twisted. “I’ll take your wishes into consideration if I ever decide to marry.”

“You’re not taking me seriously, figlio mio,” Cesare said, lapsing into Italian to say son of mine.

Alex made a sound of derision. “There’s a reason for that.” He was a Valente, and Valentes didn’t like being ordered about. His father knew that.

“I’m very serious about this,” Cesare said quietly and firmly. “I’m getting older and I’ve recently had a…health scare.”

Something jolted inside Alex’s chest. “You didn’t tell me about that.”

“No, I didn’t.” Just for a moment Cesare’s eyes clouded over, then cleared. “I was having chest pains. They thought it was a heart attack, but I’m thankful it wasn’t. This time. It’s stress. I have to slow down, but I’m not going to hand over the reins of the business to you until I see you married with an heir on the way.”

Alex shot him a withering look. “You’re not asking much.”

“I’m not asking, Alex. I’m telling. You’ve got six months in which to find yourself a wife and start a family or…”

Alex’s brow winged upward in challenge. “Or?”

“I sell the House of Valente to one of our competitors and give the money to charity. And I promise neither you nor your two brothers will see a cent.”

Alex’s jaw clenched. “I could always declare you insane.”

Cesare gave a small smile. “You could try but I don’t think any judge will give you power of attorney. I’m as sane as you are and I intend to do what I like with my own company.”

Alex swore then pushed to his feet. “I don’t need your money, Dad, nor do I need to be CEO. I’ll survive without you.”

“But will your brothers?”

Alex’s shoulders stiffened. He took his status as eldest brother seriously. His own mother had died when he was three years old and Cesare had married again soon afterward. That marriage had lasted all of a year, just enough time for Nick to be born. Then his father had married Isabel, and had stayed married ever since. Matt at least had both his parents around.

“If you don’t do as I ask, then I’ll sell tomorrow. You and your brothers will be out on your own.”

Alex glared down at him. “We’re grown men. We’ll survive.”

“Oh, I have no doubt about that. But do you think it’s fair for them to lose their inheritance like this?”

“Don’t manipulate me,” Alex growled.

“This isn’t manipulation. It’s a guarantee,” Cesare said with quiet emphasis. “Alex, this is too important to me. It’s my legacy to my sons. One day you’ll realize this when you have a child of your own.”

“Go to hell.” Alex strode to the door and closed it behind him with controlled anger. He always wore his detachment like a second skin, but right now he was in danger of losing even that.

One week later

“And now,” a woman’s well-spoken voice said, “here is Anastasia stepping out for an evening of glamour in a beautiful gown that is sure to make a statement. The plunging neckline…”

Alex heard the female voice through the microphone as he strode along the corridor toward the hotel ballroom. Her tone intrigued him even before he saw the woman, her accent Australian with an American twist, its slightly husky quality entrancing him beyond the beat of the music.

“…and doesn’t this set a new style? The classic black is…”

His steps lengthened. He had to see this woman. Had to know if she looked as good as she sounded. He pushed open the door and stepped inside the room, the muted lighting allowing him full view down the well-lit center aisle to the tall, graceful blonde at the podium.

She’d been worth the rush.

Definitely.

Strikingly beautiful, with golden-blond hair pulled back in a sophisticated chignon, she carried an elegance that was as natural as breathing.

There was a round of applause as the model on the runway walked off, and he noticed his stepmother wave to him from the front row. He realized she must have been keeping an eye out for him. He hadn’t exactly been enamored of attending a fashion show, but his father had cried off sick at the last minute and Isabel had been persuasive.

He was never more glad he’d agreed to come, he mused, making his way around the edge of the room toward Isabel…toward this beauty on the stage who could have been one of the models herself.

“For our next outfit, Crystal is wearing a jewel of a gown that…”

Just as he reached his stepmother, he looked up at the podium and his eyes locked with those of the blonde. It was a moment out of time.

“Er…” She faltered just that little bit. “…this accents her perfect figure…”

Alex watched her recover and carry on with the commentary, vaguely aware of Isabel’s whisper chiding him for being late.

The blonde glanced at him again and he caught a flicker of disconcertion in her eyes before she angled her chin and looked away to continue talking.

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