Sneak Peek of Chapter One from An Armored Heart...
Daniella "Ella" Marchetti
I can do this. I can do this. I can do this.
There’s a reason I’m giving myself a mental pep talk here on the sidewalk outside the entrance to Solaris Land Development. A hugely important reason.
I need to convince Steele Cunningham, CEO and owner of Solaris, that demolishing my restaurant and putting high-rise condos in its place is a terrible judgment call.
Catching sight of my reflection in the opaque glass windows, I make the quick decision to tug my hair from its messy bun. Once freed, it spills well past my shoulders and down my back in loose black waves.
It can’t hurt to play up my attributes. After all, if he doesn’t soften up to a woman who can cook well, he might have a weakness for women with long hair.
It’s at least worth a shot.
Tucking my hair tie in the back pocket of my black slacks, I smooth a hand down my matching tank top. I hike the straps of my bag more firmly over my shoulder and tug open the door.
At my approach, the young woman at the front desk raises her head. Exuding an I’m new here vibe—which totally works in my favor—she greets me with a polite smile that screams of nervousness.
Gesturing to my bag adorned with my restaurant’s name, I offer a bright smile. “I have a food delivery for Mr. Cunningham.”
Her expression goes from welcoming to wide-eyed, deer-in-the-headlights mode.
“I wasn’t aware that Mr. Cunningham placed a lunch order.” She scans the computer screen in front of her before hurriedly sifting through Post-it note reminders adorning her desk. A lot of them.
She mutters, her panic so potent it pollutes the air. “Did I write it down and forget?”
“He placed the order in advance.” The words spill out in a rush, and good grief, I fear this poor woman will go into nervous convulsions at any second. “I can just take it to him personally.”
Her body goes rigid, resembling a soldier snapping to attention before she casts a petrified glance down the hallway perpendicular to us. “Oh, no. Only approved individuals are permitted to enter Mr. Cunningham’s office.”
Well…shit. “Okay.” Think, Ella. Think! “Could you—”
The phone rings at this moment, and she holds up a finger at me. “One moment, please.”
She answers with a cheery, “Solaris Land Development, this is Melena. How can I help you?” A moment later, she lowers her head to sift frantically through a notebook filled with sheet-protected papers.
I retreat a step, edging toward the particular hallway she’d glanced at earlier. I’m betting that’s where I’ll find Steele Cunningham’s office.
I’m technically verging into trespassing territory, but there’s too much at stake to not give it a shot.
Nonchalantly, I move closer to the hallway, step by tiny step. When the receptionist’s head lifts, she does a double take upon noticing I’ve moved.
Panic paints her features a second later, leading me to believe whoever’s on the other end of the call must be intense. Her distressed expression increases as she flips through her bible of a binder and sputters, “Uh, yes, sir. I can get that information for you.”
This is when I make a run for it. Surging down the hall as rapidly as possible without disrupting the food in my bag, I stop at the last office door. A shiny placard adorns the wall to the right of it. Its frame clarifies whose office it is.
CEO and Owner
When his door swings open abruptly, I step aside, and it’s a good thing I do.
An attractive woman emerges with a pen and notepad in one hand and a cell phone in the other. The latter holds her attention as she nearly plows me over.
She skids to a halt. “Oh! I’m sorry!”
Her brows draw together in surprise, which transitions to dismayed horror when she spots the insulated bag I’m carrying, the restaurant name and logo prominent.
Voice muted, her eyes widen with panic. “Ohgod. Did I forget about Mr. Cunningham’s lunch order?”
“Uh, no,” I offer quickly. “He already scheduled it.”
She lets out a massive sigh of relief. “Oh, thank goodness.” A brief flicker of uncertainty crosses her features. “Usually, our receptionist accepts deliveries, but—”
“I insisted.” I smile before lowering my voice. “Melena seems a little overwhelmed, so I offered to bring it directly to Mr. Cunningham.”
Her features relax, and she tosses a glance behind her before whispering conspiratorially, “As a heads-up, you might want to tiptoe in, drop it off, and hurry back out. He’s in one of those moods today.”
Well. That certainly doesn’t give me warm fuzzies.
“I appreciate the warning.”
Her cell phone rings, and she flashes me an apologetic look before answering and hustling down the hallway.
Huh. One of those moods. Do people walk on eggshells around this man?
I slip inside his office undetected and push the door so it hovers at the halfway-closed mark.
“I said no more interruptions, Julia.” Steele Cunningham practically growls from behind an enormous desk while he studies a stack of paperwork.
Floor-to-ceiling windows span an entire side of the office overlooking the waterfront, but it’s the man who holds my attention.
Even encased in a frosty air of confidence, he’s incredibly attractive. His dark-brown hair is short on the sides while the lengthier top section is artfully styled. A short-trimmed beard frames lips that possess a soft fullness I wouldn’t expect on such a stern face.
Sleeves of a pristine white button-down shirt stretch around muscled biceps and fail to disguise a set of broad shoulders. Adding to his debonaire look is the dark-gray suit vest buttoned over the top of it, while his suit jacket lays draped over the back of his desk chair.
His head snaps up and his eyes narrow on me, two icy pinpricks in a startling shade of blue. “You’re not Julia.”
“No, I’m not.” I march toward him and ease around the side of his desk. Setting my bag near the empty, far corner, I offer my winning smile. “I’m the owner of La Dolce Vita.”
“Not interested.” He dismisses me without another look, his attention returned to his task.
Wow. Rude much? My smile turns a shade brittle, but I force myself to continue because I’m certainly not a quitter. After all, my livelihood depends on this.
My grandmother, Nonna Pia, used to say that Sicilian blood gave her and my mother their spitfire temperament and skipped over me.
Now, however, I’m not so sure about that. This man’s blatant arrogance ignites a bolder feistiness deep within me that’s rapidly rising to the surface.
I rush to unpack the food from the insulated bag, setting everything out to allow the delicious aromas to permeate the air while my words emerge hastily.
“As I said, I’m the owner of La Dolce Vita, and I’m here to convince you that your plans to demolish my building are not in your favor.
“My restaurant’s been in that building for four decades, and we’re a large part of the community. We donate meals to those in need throughout the San Marco area, and we’ve received numerous awards for the quality of our food.”
Once I finally take a breath, he sits back in his chair, steepling his fingers in front of him.
Ice-blue eyes flick to the opened container of pasta before centering on me. His frigid expression threatens to chill my blood, making me instinctively want to shrink back, but I forge on. “If you taste what’s one of our customers’ favorite dishes, you’ll see that—”
“I don’t eat carbs.”
I frown before letting out a disbelieving laugh. “You don’t eat carbs?”
His gaze narrows on me, and when he repeats himself, he pushes each word from between his gritted teeth. “I don’t. Eat. Carbs.”
“That explains a lot.” The words slip out before I realize it.
His tone is flat but razor sharp, and he doesn’t inflect a question, but poses it as a forceful command. “How so.”
“Maybe that’s what’s contributing to your joyless demeanor.”
The hefty dose of disapproval and trace of sarcasm in my words are not overlooked. That much is evident when his mouth flattens into a thin line. “Do you always insult people you need something from?”
I inhale deeply, and my tone is weary when I confess, “No, actually. You’re the first to bring out this side of me.” My shoulders slump. “Believe it or not, I’m not normally like this.”
One brow rises a fraction higher than the other. “You’re right. I don’t believe it.”
I force a smile and hastily unwrap the plasticware, diving the fork into a meatball and offering it to him.
He rises from his chair, straightening to his full height, and whoa. I need to tip my head back to meet his eyes.
“It’s time for you to go.” The unmistakable command is there, but I ignore it. I’m bound and determined to convince him—there’s too much on the line to give up now.
“But this isn’t carbs. It’s meat. Protein.” I kick my smile up a notch. “Deliciousness.”
His jaw clenches tighter, which means there’s no chance of me popping a piece of meatball into his mouth. I raise the fork higher with a hopeful look. “Just one little taste.”
His hand darts out, gripping my wrist so lightning fast, it startles me. The portion of meatball drops from the fork, bounces off the edge of his desk, and plops onto his shiny black shoe before rolling to the floor.
An incriminating mark of sauce is left on the desk and along the edge of his shoe, while a red trail leads from his shoe across the white-tiled floor to where the meatball now sits.
Holding my wrist firmly beside my head, he raises his other hand to pluck the fork from my fingers. With surprising skillfulness, he flings the plastic utensil onto the container’s lid.
His hostile gaze remains locked on me, and when I attempt to tug my wrist free of his hold, resistance and a sharp lance of pain at my scalp have me freezing with a wince.
“What the hell?”
We echo this simultaneously, then promptly regard one another with matching suspicion before his fingers release their grip on my wrist.
I drop my hand to my side. When he doesn’t move his away, I raise my brows pointedly. “You can move your hand now.”
His nostrils flare angrily, tense lines bracketing his mouth as he lifts his eyes to the ceiling. Each word is curt and enunciated with a caustic edge. “I would, but it seems your hair is caught in my cufflink.”
“What?” I panic and reach for his wrist but end up inadvertently moving my head.
“Stop moving,” he grits out, “and it won’t hurt.”
“Wow.” I glare at him. “Thank you for those words of wisdom, Mr. Cunningham.”
When he steps closer, his scowl intensifies as he tries to free my hair. He smells good—fresh and clean and unmistakably male—and altogether far too nice for a man with his disposition.
With his head bent, bringing his face close to mine, I’m granted an up-close-and-personal view of his lips. They appear soft, his bottom one more lush than I’d expect for a man, but the effect is diminished by those very lips being continuously pinched in such a pissy expression.
It figures that all that outer handsomeness would be wasted on a crotchety personality.
With a sigh, I vie for a calm tone. “Look, I apologize for barging in on you like this. It might not be important to you, but it is to me.
“This is about my business. A family business. Our building is more than just a location for our restaurant. It’s filled with memories.”
His gaze cuts briefly to mine, his tone cool and dispassionate. “Business is important to me, too.”
Suddenly frowning, he lets out an aggravated breath, his finger brushing against the gold encircling the side of my ear.
“What is this thing on your ear? And how much hair do you even have?” He mutters this disgustedly, further reinforcing my less-than-impressive assessment of him.
“It’s called an ear cuff. And news flash, now is not the time to insult me.” I glare up at him. “Need I remind you I’m still within reach of food that could stain your pristine-white shirt?”
His eyes cut to me sharply as he stills for a moment. “Don’t.” That’s all he says. One word of warning.
My mouth curves into a smile filled with mischievous glee. “Agree to leave my restaurant building as is and build your condos elsewhere.”
He raises his brows, his expression filled with displeasure intermixed with disbelief. “You’re threatening me?” A harsh laugh rumbles up his throat. “You have some nerve.”
His features turn more frigid. “I hope you don’t handle your business with this kind of impetuousness.”
I adopt an expression of mock surprise. “Oh, my. You’re using such big, impressive words. How on earth will I manage to comprehend them?”
His mouth flattens. His jaw works while his dark brows draw together as he concentrates on untangling my hair. “You’re awfully mouthy for someone who needs something from me.”
I smile up at him prettily. “My grandmother always claimed hot temperament came from Sicilian blood.”
A beat passes, and I sober before attempting another plea. “Look, Mr. Cunningham, we make everything by hand and with love in my restaurant. My grandmother said it’s the difference between us and the other places—especially those chain knockoffs.
“By demolishing our restaurant to put up those high-rise condos, you’re not only destroying a building—you’re destroying what we’ve built over decades. You’re destroying my career.”
I swallow hard and wet my lips. His eyes drop to track the movement before abruptly returning their focus on untangling my hair.
“People line up before we’ve opened just to get a table. They come back because we treat them like family and give them an excellent meal.
“And our employees appreciate working somewhere that offers people food prepared with the same love and care we’d offer to our loved ones.”
If I thought my words might have had any impact on him, my hope dwindles at his unchanged expression. “Emotion has no place in business.”
Don’t give up. Okay, so I need to try a different angle.
“Your plan is to remove a local business. To displace a female entrepreneur. That’s not a good look. I’m certain there are a ton of other possible sites where you could build your high-rise condos.”
I continue with my plea. “I brought this food with me so you could taste what we have to offer. So you’ll see we’re more than just a restaurant. That we’re worth saving. That we’re worth not being forced out of our building.”
Those tense lines on either side of his mouth deepen while his jaw bunches. “You’re testing my patience.”
I fire back, “Likewise, Mr. Cunningham.”
His eyes grow squinty with disapproval, and I muster a semblance of calm before executing my last-ditch effort.
The puppy-dog eyes.
It works on my friends and has even gotten me out of a parking ticket once or twice—okay, maybe six times—so it could be the haymaker here.
“Please, Mr. Cunningham.” When his assessing eyes land on me, he stills his attempts at freeing my hair. “Please consider building your condos somewhere else and—”
“You think flashing your big, brown eyes will sway me?” Three horizontal lines crease his forehead. Irritated skepticism colors his tone. “Really?”
An exasperated breath rushes out of me. “Would it kill you to have a heart and reconsider?”
His jaw tightens while his gaze grows colder. “I don’t—”
“Have a heart,” I snap. “I get that now. You’re like the Tin Man. No heart. No emotions. All armored up.”
I jab a finger at him and regret the movement when it causes my hair to pull where we’re currently snagged. “I feel sorry for you, Steele Cunningham. You’re obviously living an unhappy life, and I’m pretty sure fifty percent of the reason is because you don’t eat carbs.”
I’m certain my eyes are spitting flames at him, but he doesn’t appear the least bit affected when I continue.
“But the other half of your unhappiness is because you’re empty inside, all cold and heartless.” To punctuate this, I shake my head at him, clearly forgetting our predicament. The sharp tug on my hair has me wincing in pain once again.
His lips thin even more, his jaw so tight I fear it’ll shatter at any moment.
He curls the fingers of his other hand around the back of my head, and his words are muttered darkly. “Stop moving. You’re hurting yourself.”
I gape at him because that sounded almost like concern for me, but…no. That couldn’t have been it.
“I’ve almost gotten your hair untangled, and every time you move, you’re making it worse.” He murmurs this absently before his voice drops even lower. “Your hair’s very soft.”
His remark startles me, and my eyes fly to his. Although his attention is still trained on untangling us, he casts a quick glance at me, his gaze heavy with dismay.
I get the impression he hadn’t meant to admit that aloud. His lips press flat, and even with that scowl, an odd warmth stirs inside me.
Eww. There’s no way I should be having that kind of reaction to this jerk. I try to edge away from him because it must be his closeness that’s frying my brain cells.
A handsome man in a well-tailored suit who’s closed-off and obviously unhappy—undoubtedly due to the lack of carbs in his life—must have ignited my nurturing instincts or something.
Those suckers need to be turned off, stat.
“Stop moving.” His scowl deepens while his other hand continues to cradle my head.
Abject concentration creases his brow as he lowers his face even closer to mine and mutters, “If you tip your head a little to the right, I should be able to—”
His office door bursts open the rest of the way, and a flurry of people trail inside.
First is Melena, the receptionist. “Mr. Cunningham, I apologize, but I—”
“Hey, Steele, I need to show you— Whoa.” This comes from an attractive dark-haired man.
Then comes the woman I’d seen leaving this very office earlier. “Mr. Cunningham, I have the files you—”
They all stop dead in their tracks with matching stunned expressions while I stand frozen in panicked dismay.
Another well-dressed woman strides into the office, her attention on the iPad in her hands.
“Steele, I need to go over some budget details for…” She trails off upon noticing the others gaping in our direction.
Once her eyes land on Steele and me, her features flicker with a myriad of emotions. First is surprise, then shock which gives way to angry suspicion.
She looks familiar, but I can’t quite place where I’ve seen her before. I mentally cycle through whether she’s come into the restaurant recently when it suddenly dawns on me.
I’ve seen her on one of the local gossip websites my best friend Tessa obsesses over. She’s Steele’s ex-girlfriend and evidently works for him, too.
Talk about awkward.
“I apologize.” Voice tight, his ex-girlfriend’s smile is devoid of even an ounce of sincerity. “I didn’t realize you were in a meeting.”
The attractive man in the suit lets out a derisive sound as a broad, amused grin stretches his mouth. “Is that what we’re calling it these days?”
“Melena.” Steele levels the poor receptionist with a harsh glare. “I expect you not to leave the front desk unattended.”
“Y-yes, sir.” She spins around, practically creating a whirl of dust from her rapid departure.
The ex-girlfriend hugs the iPad to her chest and fixes Steele with an expectant look. “Steele. Why don’t you introduce us to your…guest?”
The way she says that last word makes me feel dirty and inappropriate.
Awkward silence blankets the office for what feels like an eternity. The other man’s eyes volley between Steele and me with avid curiosity.
His astute gaze lingers on Steele’s hand, which cradles my face by default due to our unfortunate “attachment,” while the other cups my nape. “I don’t know about you, but I’ve never seen Steele get close and put his hands on beautiful guests before.”
Steele doesn’t make any attempt to remove his free hand. “She just stopped by and was about to leave.”
“Doesn’t look like she was about to leave.” The man remarks this while his expression resembles a kid on Christmas morning. “In fact, it looks more like you two were about to kiss.” His brows rise, full of lascivious suggestion. “Maybe even again.”
“Lucas.” There’s no mistaking the warning in Steele’s tone.
A beep suddenly sounds before a voice comes over the phone’s intercom sitting on his desk. “Um, Mr. Cunningham? I’m sorry to bother you, but your father’s on line two.”
My eyes jerk to Steele’s jaw, so punishingly stiff. I swear, I even detect the sound of him grinding his molars. Yikes. Good thing he’s rich and can afford quality dentistry.
He murmurs for my ears only, “Reach over and hit the intercom button.”
Ah. Because using his actual free hand would make our predicament far too obvious. God forbid.
With a sunny smile, I hiss quietly through my grin, “Say please.”
His eyes grow squinty. “Now.”
Asshole. At this rate, I’ll soon be joining him in a molar-grinding competition.
With trepidation clinging to her every word, the receptionist’s voice rings out through the phone’s intercom. “He said he’s scheduled a tee time…”
Steele’s eyes flare at me, silently yelling for me to press the intercom button, but I like holding a little power over him. It’s kind of fun.
Melena goes on to say, “…for you and Iris to join him and your mother, and he expects you to—”
I press the intercom button, and Steele doesn’t hesitate in rattling off his curt response. “Tell him my answer’s the same as it’s been every other time.” Silence descends over the room like some sort of dangerous, toxic cloud. “No.”
“Y-yes, Mr. Cunningham.” Melena disconnects with a click.
“Steele? Julia can see your guest to the door if you like.” His ex-girlfriend’s eyes rake over me in a way that leaves me with the feeling she’d like to toss me out the door herself.
She continues edging toward us. “I ordered us lunch, and it’ll be delivered shortly, so we can eat while we go over the budget for—”
“Stop.” His curt tone pauses her forward progress. “Now’s not the time, Iris.”
His eyes veer to me, and when his mouth curves into a calculated smirk, my stomach curdles while my fight-or-flight instincts flicker to life.
It only gets worse, because the palm of his free hand still cradling my head begins stroking my hair, and certifiably insane words fall from his mouth.
“I wasn’t finished saying goodbye to my girlfriend.”
Four months. That's how long I’ll need to pretend to be Steele Cunningham's doting girlfriend.
I agreed to this insanity only to save my restaurant. He's doing it because he needs someone outside his “social circle” to stick it to his meddling parents and clingy ex.
Ruthless and emotionless in both his personal life and his career, Steele’s ego rivals his net worth.
Operating on joy and positivity—and a healthy bit of feistiness—I challenge him at every step.
He’s a tin man—heartless and cold. Falling for him would be a colossal mistake, because there’s no chance he’ll ever love me.
After all, he’s the man with an armored heart.
Release date: May 23, 2023
Amazon: *coming soon!*