“Sì, Olivia, it does. We’re about to be in the spotlight as a newly engaged couple. I need to know your personal history.”
She sighed. “Three years. We were together three years.”
He blinked. An eternity as far as he was concerned... For him, a two-month stint with a woman was an accomplishment. He wondered if Villanueva had been unfaithful to her. It wouldn’t be surprising given the opportunities the photographer would have had working with beautiful women day in, day out.
“Was Villanueva the reason for the partying?” he asked.
A glimmer of emotion flashed in her brilliant blue eyes. “Guillermo was the most steadying influence I had in my life.”
“Then why leave him?”
She was silent for a long moment, her gaze resting on the cascading pools of water. “I fell out of love with him,” she said finally. “I wasn’t with him for the right reasons.”
Her quiet, level voice held a poignancy that made him look at her hard. It was a pattern, it seemed, that she was with men for the wrong reasons. With Giovanni, it had been money, a mentor. With Villanueva? Maybe a mentor, also. A stepping-stone to bigger and better jobs?
His rancor stirred anew. He was suddenly very sorry for Guillermo Villanueva. He had likely never seen it coming, so blinded with the radiance that was Olivia. She, on the other hand, had been done with him, ready to take those last steps to stardom. And Villanueva had been left in the dust.
Rocco had seen it happen to his brilliant Sicilian friend Stefan with a woman he’d sacrificed everything for, only to find out she’d been more interested in his bank account than him. A more trusting man than the rest of the Columbia Four initially, Stefan had subsequently become ten times harder than all of them.
He grimaced, taking a healthy swallow of his wine. Love was like that. It was never equally distributed between two people. And the poor fool who didn’t recognize that got his heart torn out eventually.
“Finish reading the contract,” he instructed. “We have much to discuss.”
She picked it up and scanned it. He wasn’t expecting her to have issues with it. It was a straightforward, clean contract. Olivia’s face and body would be exclusive to the House of Mondelli for the next twelve months in a five-million-dollar endorsement deal, after which the second part of the contract, a design partnership agreement, would kick in.
After a few moments, she tossed the contract on the coffee table. “It’s fine. Minus the tox screen.”
“No.” Her voice was harsh. “You need to trust me. This is a two-way street.”
He trusted her as much as his rogue stallion on his best-behaved day. About a centimeter leeway on the reins... But he needed to get this deal done.
“Bene.” He inclined his head. “But one sign that I need to and I will do it, regardless of your objections.” He flicked a hand at the contract. “Can your lawyer look at it tomorrow?”
“Yes. That shouldn’t be a problem.”
“I’ve also had the paperwork drawn up to release you from your Le Ciel contract. You can show him that, too. It will clear you of any remaining obligations.”
She drew her bottom lip between her teeth. “Thank you. That’s a big weight off my shoulders.”
The vulnerability glittering in her eyes caught him off guard. It was there when you peeled back the layers. When she forgot to hide it. He studied her for a long moment, then told himself he’d be a fool to overanalyze it. To buy in to it.
“See that you don’t let me down,” he advised tersely. “The eyes of the world are going to be on us. Millions of dollars are at stake. Screw up once, miss one shoot by ten minutes, blow off an appearance, however insignificant, fail to show up to any job with less than one-hundred-percent enthusiasm and I will make you rue the day you put pen to paper.”
An emotion he couldn’t read flashed in her eyes. Intimidation? Fear? Antagonism?
Her gaze tangled with his. “I will execute this contract to the best of my ability. You have my word on it. See that you keep yours.”
“I intend to do so.” He rose to his feet, walked over to the bar, procured the wine bottle and refilled their glasses. “How does working alongside Mario Masini sound?”
Her eyes widened. “You’re serious?”
He sat down and stretched his long legs out in front of him. “I never say anything I don’t mean.”
“Wow.” She looked dumbstruck. And rightly so. Mondelli’s head designer was a legend in the fashion industry. He had joined the company to partner with Giovanni when the two men were in their early twenties. His classic yet inspired designs were the mainstay of high-profile personalities worldwide who wanted a streamlined vision that took its cues from beautiful materials and perfect cuts.
He allowed an inner smile as his plan came to brilliant, vivid life. “So now we talk details. We have one year. I want to move fast on this.”
She nodded, looking a little overwhelmed.
“There is a design conference in New York next week the House of Mondelli is represented at. You will come with me and we will announce you as the new face of Mondelli at the press conference on the opening day.”
Her face went gray. “That’s very fast.”
“It’s the perfect opportunity. The eyes of the design world will be there.”
She pushed her hair out of her face in what he was coming to recognize as a nervous tick. “And the engagement? When do we announce that?”
“My plan is to let the gossip hounds do it. We go ring shopping tomorrow, we show up in New York together with a massive rock on your hand and let the buzz take care of the rest.”
The gray cast to her skin deepened. “And your family? When will we tell them?”
“We’ll have dinner with Alessandra tomorrow night and tell her. You have met her, sì?”
She nodded. “We worked together on a shoot a few years ago.”
“Bene. I am not intending on telling her the truth about us. She is too chatty, too apt to say the wrong thing to the wrong person. It’s better she takes it for what it is.”
She frowned. “Is our engagement really worth all this subterfuge? Wouldn’t it be easier to simply announce me as the new face of Mondelli? It will generate a huge amount of buzz in its own right.”
His gaze speared hers. “This is more than a publicity stunt, Olivia. This is the joining of two of the world’s great brands. The creation of a dynasty, so to say. It will be a far more powerful story than you simply becoming the face of Mondelli.”
“And when we end our engagement?”
“That will only increase the buzz. Everyone loves a heartsick, broken couple. It’s great photography.”
She looked at him as if he had an answer for everything. He did, in fact.
“I will have your belongings transferred to Villa Mondelli this week. I spend most of my time there commuting back and forth so it makes sense you are there with me. But we’ll delay your actual move date until after we get back from New York. I have meetings in London later this week, and you likely won’t want to spend your first days in the villa alone.”
Her face lost the remainder of its color. “We’re to live together?”
His mouth curved. “We’re madly in love, Olivia. Of course we’re living together.”
“Yes, but—” she waved a hand at him “—we could position it as we’re both so busy, I’m going to be traveling a ton, it just makes sense to keep it separate until we marry. I mean, living apart doesn’t preclude...”
“A wild night in bed?” He shook his head. “Sorry to disappoint you, bella, but I’m not sleeping on your sofa to make this look real. You will move into Villa Mondelli when we get back.”
She gave him an agitated look. “The apartment...”
He shrugged. “It’s a good investment. If you can manage not to blow your money this time, maybe I’ll allow you to buy it back.”
Her mouth tightened. He plunged on relentlessly, “We have a lot of work to do before New York. Alessandra will be all about the big eyes for each other, but my Sicilian friend Stefan, who will undoubtedly want to toast us in New York, will be tougher. We’ll need to know each other inside out.”
She scrunched her face up. “What do you mean by tough?”
A wry smile twisted his mouth. “I went to Columbia with three other men I became very close with. We are all confirmed bachelors. For me to announce my engagement, to make such a quick, one-hundred-and-eighty-degree turn, we’re going to have to make our feelings for each other convincing.”
She slid a perfectly manicured nail in her mouth. “What will our story be, then?”
“I think we should say we met in a café and it was love at first sight.”
She arched a brow at him, the humor of it all lost on her apparently. “And this was when?”