Her mouth dropped open. “I haven’t signed your deal yet.”
“But you will, because you’re here.” He dropped a last sheaf of papers in the briefcase and snapped it shut.
She sank her hands into her hips, her sapphire eyes a vivid blue beam blazing into him. “That night in Navigli must have been an aberration. Is this how you really treat your women? Favor them with a wild night in bed so they’ll nip at your heels as required?”
He smiled at that. “Usually I have a bit more finesse, but in this case, it isn’t necessary. Make no mistake about it, Olivia, Navigli was about me finding out what kind of a woman you really are. That was all.”
Better she chew on that than the naked, unadulterated urge he felt to show her that wild ride in bed before he brought her to heel. Because this was a business arrangement. She had been Giovanni’s lover. And rule number one for this particular business arrangement was to keep his hands off his soon-to-be pretend fiancée.
She flashed him a defiant look. “Helpful, then, for our little charade that you are such a magnificent actor. You fooled me with that kiss. It almost felt as if you meant it.”
He lifted a brow, his gaze raking over her face. “As much as I’m loath to damage your ego heading into this very important assignment for both of us, I’m afraid my taste runs to sophisticated brunettes of a European bent. So you are quite safe, cara, from me.”
She flinched, a tiny, almost indiscernible retraction he would have missed had he not been studying her so intently. Bene. The more they ignored the undeniable attraction between them, the better.
Her long, gold-tipped lashes came down to veil her eyes. “Too bad you’re saddled with a very blonde, outspoken American fiancée for a year.”
He gave her a slow smile. “I can handle you, Olivia, and you know it.”
“You think you can because you are the epitome of arrogance.” Fire lit the blue gaze she trained on him. “How is this going to work, then? Your overactive libido is well documented. Do we act as a joyous engaged couple while you engage in a discreet liaison or two on the side?”
He shifted his weight to both feet, widening his stance, his laconic smile intensifying. “Who said I have an overactive libido? I would call it standard for a young, healthy male.”
She lifted a shoulder. “Your reputation speaks for itself.” Her gaze rested on him assessingly. “Giovanni thought it reflected a certain...emotional immaturity on your part. That you use it to avoid attachment.”
“Emotional immaturity?” His head jerked back. “He said that?”
She nodded. “He thought you and Alessandra suffered from not having a direct parental influence while growing up. He said he did the best he could, but it’s not the same as having your own parents to guide you.”
He stared speechlessly at her, absorbing the look of satisfaction on her face. He’d started this war of words, yes. But her telling him his grandfather’s innermost thoughts, thoughts that had apparently played a part in his decision to give Rocco a mere 50 percent stake in House of Mondelli? His fists itched to find the nearest wall and bury themselves in it. Giovanni had trusted his twenty-six-year-old lover enough to confide his thoughts in her, but not him?
He worked his jaw. Gathered his composure before he said something else to tip his cards. “What other confidences did Giovanni elect to illuminate you with?”
She gave him a wary look, as if realizing she might have gone too far. “He only made the odd comment here and there when we were talking about family. He was a private man, Rocco.”
Apparently not that private. He jammed his hands in his pockets and impaled her with his gaze. “To answer your question, there will be no liaisons for either of us. This is a five-million-dollar partnership, Olivia, plus what I had to pay Le Ciel to break the contract you reneged on. We don’t mess it up because we have to satisfy an urge. I can do that in the shower.”
Her cheeks flamed a rosy pink. “That discussion was more for your benefit than mine. I’m just trying to understand the ground rules.”
He picked up his briefcase and jacket. “They will become eminently clear as we discuss them over dinner. Shall we?”
She was silent as he drove them the short distance to the Mondelli penthouse, and he was glad for it, still steaming over the inside track she seemed to have on Giovanni’s thoughts.
His frustration had abated, somewhat, by the time they reached the Galleria Passarella area in the heart of Milan. He should be estatico. He had exactly what he wanted after all. The perfect jewel to dangle in front of the board to cement his control of the company he’d helped build. He was no longer sporting the shorter end of the stick in this power struggle, and it felt good. More than good.
The penthouse occupied the top three floors of a graceful, modern building with superb views of the city. Rocco had chosen it because of the uniqueness of its design, the hidden jewel it contained. With the living quarters located on the ninth floor, the architect had used the tenth and eleventh floors to create a garden paradise that overlooked the city, including a terrace big enough to entertain fifty and a rock-pool retreat.
They stopped on the ninth floor, where he requested a light meal for him and Olivia from his housekeeper, then he led the way up the stone staircase to the roof garden. He could tell from the wide-eyed wonder in her eyes Olivia loved it instantly.
“It’s hard to imagine this could exist up here.”
“Exactly why I bought it. The heaters I had built in keep it the perfect temperature year-round.” He opened his briefcase, pulled out her contract and tossed it on the soft-backed sofa near the pools. “Read through this while I get us a drink.”
She gave the contract a rueful look. “You were that sure of me?”
“A dream is a powerful thing,” he said simply. “So is desperation.”
She opened her mouth as if to say something, then shut it after a long moment. Bene. She was learning.
“What can I get you to drink?”
“A glass of wine, thank you.”
He pulled a bottle of rosé out of the wine fridge and tore off the foil.
“A toxicology screen?”
He had listed it as one of the up-front conditions. “Fairly standard, isn’t it?”
“For a model with a history of substance abuse.”
He worked the corkscrew into the bottle. “This is a five-million-dollar deal we’re negotiating, Olivia. When a formerly trustworthy top model starts showing up late for her shoots...reneges on obligations...blows off a three-million-dollar contract, there has to be a reason. I’m covering my investment.”
Her chin lifted at a defiant angle. “There was no substance abuse problem. Unless you call one dirty martini too many on the odd night out an issue.”
“Alcohol is a drug. If it interfered with your work, it was an issue.”
“It did not interfere with my work.”
“Then what did?” He poured two glasses of the rosé, put the bottle back in the fridge and carried the glasses over to her. “For all intents and purposes, you were a client’s dream until that last year. You did your work, you did it exceptionally well and you were conscientious. What happened to change all that? Why the out-of-control partying near the end?”
A stubborn look crossed her face. “Maybe I was getting my bad-girl genes out of my system. I am my mother’s daughter after all.”
“You were for the first part of your career, as well.” He handed her a glass and sat down beside her.
She lifted a shoulder. “Maybe the glow faded. Maybe it wasn’t enough to hold my attention anymore.”
And maybe she was lying through her teeth. A model didn’t just walk away from a three-million-dollar contract because she was bored. She fulfilled her obligations, left on good terms and used the contacts she had made to build her reputation as a designer.
It made no sense. It was a mystery he intended to unravel.
He pointed his glass at her. “Did you leave New York to get away from a man? Were there issues with a relationship?”
She gave him an even look. “There was only one relationship—a long-term one I had that ended on good terms before I left.”
“With Guillermo Villanueva...”
One of the world’s most sought-after photographers, Venezuelan-born Guillermo Villanueva was known for his ability to put a twist, a different angle, on a face or a landscape that had been shot a thousand times. He was equally known for his swarthy good looks, which had models flocking eagerly to his shoots, putting their best foot forward as he reduced them to fluttery, feminine creatures that bent to his will.
Had Olivia been like that with him, too?
“How long was the relationship?” he asked to distract himself from a question that didn’t matter.
She gave him a pointed look. “Does this really have relevance here?”