“A month ago. We’ve been staying out of the limelight, but now with your return to the modeling world, we’re making our engagement public.”
She chewed on the fingernail. That would have to stop, but he wasn’t about to antagonize her further tonight. “Is there anyone you need to tell about the engagement?”
“My parents, eventually. I can do that in New York.”
“You don’t want to give them a heads-up?”
“We’re not close,” she said flatly. “It can wait.”
“Siblings? Close friends? Anyone we should invite out the night we see Stefan?”
A shadow made its way across her face, intensifying the dark bags under her eyes. “No siblings,” she said quietly. “And there are just the friends I’ve made here in Milan.”
He nodded. “Any other details I should know?”
“No.” She took a sip of her wine and lifted her gaze to his. “What else should I know about my fiancé other than the fact he is cynical and arrogant?”
“I work. A lot. Christian Markos and Zayed Al Afzal are my other two close friends I went to Columbia with. Christian is a financial genius based in Athens. Zayed has recently gone home to take the throne in his home country of Gazbiyaa.”
“He’s a king?”
“A sheikh. Gazbiyaa is in the heart of the Arabian desert.”
“Okaaay.” She rubbed a palm against her temple. “And Stefan? What does he do?”
“He’s in high-end real estate. As in the deals that make the Wall Street Journal... He doesn’t touch anything under ten million.”
She shook her head. “Quite the group of underachievers.”
He lifted a shoulder. “We are all driven. But very different. More like brothers than friends. We even argue that way.”
She smiled, and, Dio, when she did, it made the night sky light up. He’d have to make sure she didn’t do that often. “You should know we run a charity together. It’s a big thing for us. The Knights of Columbia was created to help disadvantaged youth overcome their backgrounds and succeed in business. It’s based in New York, but we all do work in our home countries and funnel the kids through to various business programs in Manhattan.” He took a sip of his wine. “We also personally mentor some of the kids.”
Her eyes brightened. “It sounds amazing. Whose idea was it?”
“It arose out of work Christian was doing. He grew up on the streets of Athens, the child of a single mother. He never knew his father, had to fight his way out of poverty to take care of himself and his mother. It has defined him as a man, and he wanted to give back. We all loved what he was doing and wanted to be a part of it. Thus, the Knights of Columbia was born.”
“I did charity work when I worked for Le Ciel,” she murmured. “I miss it.”
“We have a charity for young female designers who have suffered at the hands of men and have been forced to resort to shelters. It would be a great thing for you to get involved with if you have time.”
“I would love to.” She pressed her fingers against her mouth, her gaze uncertain. “You are so close to these men. How ever are we going to convince them this is real?”
An image of her plastered against the door of her apartment begging for more of him flashed through his head. His lip curled. “Act like you did that night in Navigli—act as if you want to devour me, as if you can’t wait to get your hands on me. It doesn’t get any more convincing than that.”
A flush filled her cheeks. “That might be difficult,” she drawled in response, “now that I know what kind of a man you are.”
The insult bounced off him like the most ineffective of feints. “Fortunately, cara, pheromones aren’t ruled by the brain. I’m sure you’ll do just fine.”
Her fingers tightened around the glass. He could tell she wanted to slap them across his face and tell him what to do with his deal. But she restrained herself because they both knew how important this was. For him, it was his chance to solidify control of House of Mondelli. For Olivia, her chance to take hold of her dream.
He only hoped he hadn’t taken too big a risk on an asset that was a complete unknown. Because Olivia Fitzgerald was undoubtedly a wild card. She would either be the most brilliant play he’d ever orchestrated, or the one that would bring him down.
OLIVIA TRIED TO maintain an air of enforced Zen as she and Rocco winged their way toward Manhattan in the Mondelli jet the following Sunday night, but with each mile the speedy little plane ate up toward the past she’d vowed to leave behind, her self-imposed calm faded further.
Her huge, square-cut, white-diamond engagement ring sat on her finger with an almost oppressive weight. It had already been pictured in tabloids and newspapers around the globe after she and Rocco had been spotted leaving an exclusive Via della Spiga boutique earlier that week. The taste of the media circus their engagement was about to become had already gone a long way toward ridding her of the ten pounds she needed to shed.
Technically, she was ready to face it. Her new wardrobe, courtesy of Mario Masini, was expertly packed in her suitcase stowed at the back of the jet. Her hair had been trimmed of its split ends, a shine added, her thoughts equally whipped into line by the Mondelli PR people, who’d key messaged her to within an inch of her life.
Outwardly she was perfect. Internally she was a mess.
She glanced over at her complex, stunning fiancé for a smidge of reassurance, but he had his head down working. Had been since they’d taken off seven hours ago.
She took advantage of the moment to study him. He may not be attracted to her, but she was to him, and he knew it. The way his tall, lithe body was too big for the streamlined airplane seat, the hard olive-skinned muscle visible where his shirtsleeves were rolled up to his elbows, the serious, intensely male lines of his face that always seemed to be furrowed in concentration, made her feel distinctly weak at the knees.
Pathetic, really, when he hadn’t exercised any of those attributes on her since that kiss against her door, except for a few possessive touches during the dinner with Alessandra. She’d been sadly responsive to him, while he’d remained unaffected.
He also hated her. Let’s not forget that. Reason number one to ignore him. He was an arrogant son of a bitch who thought she was a sycophant who’d bedded his seventy-year-old grandfather. She needed to get over him. Now.
She sighed and tapped her fingers on the glossy pages of the magazine lying on her lap. At least the massive amount of media coverage had negated the need to inform her parents of her engagement. Her mother had called her within minutes of reading the first tabloid piece, salivating over Rocco’s money. Olivia had wanted to tell her she’d never see a penny of it, but Rocco had forbade her from revealing the truth to anyone. Which left her with exactly no one to confide in.
And God forbid she confide her feelings to her fiancé. Alessandra Mondelli, who’d been clearly fascinated with her brother’s sudden engagement, clearly shocked to find Olivia hiding out in Milan and clearly determined to know all the details, had given her the lowdown on the man who seemed about as open as an ice cream shop on a bitterly cold February day.
“He’s a driven perfectionist who’s been forced his whole life to take charge,” Alessandra had told her when Rocco had left their table in the busy Milanese restaurant to chat with a business acquaintance. “Of us when our father left, and of the company when Giovanni went running wild with his creative pursuits and left the business side of things in disarray.” Alessandra had shaken her head. “He’s hurting badly about Giovanni, but in typical Rocco fashion, he’s internalized it all.”
Alessandra’s comments should have made Rocco seem more human, more approachable, but had instead only increased her insecurities. Yes, she was a world-famous beauty, but she was not her fiancé’s type. He’d told her so.
That was supposed to help her heading into tonight’s dinner with the formidable Stefan Bianco, who apparently had had his heart broken by a woman after his money?
She squirmed in her seat. Rocco glanced over at her, a sigh escaping his lips. “Are you always this distracted? You’re like a six-year-old in need of toys...”
She rolled her eyes at how badly he read her. How completely inaccurately he’d judged her. To Rocco she was Mata Hari reincarnate.
“The paparazzi are going to be out in force looking for us,” she murmured. “I’m anxious.”
“Aren’t you used to it by now?”
“Doesn’t mean I have to like it.” She pushed her hair out of her face. “I would have preferred an evening to acclimatize before I have to face it. It’s intimidating enough having to convince one of your best friends we’re mad about each other. Having a camera shoved in my face, I could do without.”