His smile flashed white in the muted confines of the jet. “Worried you won’t be able to control yourself?”
“From clawing your eyes out?” she came back tartly. “Yes.”
The grooves on either side of his mouth deepened. “You know, I actually think we might pull this off. We argue like an old married couple.”
She made a face. “Luckily this madness will end before that happens.”
A curious gleam entered his eyes. “Do you ever intend to marry?”
“It isn’t high on my list. I think I’ll rely on my career as a designer instead.”
His brow arched. “You don’t want a big poufy dress and a veil? A lifetime commitment?”
“I’m not sure I’m capable of that kind of love.”
Wow. She hadn’t even realized she’d thought that until she’d said it.
He reclined back in his chair and fixed her with a speculative look. “That’s an honest statement. One I can identify with.”
“You don’t think you are, either?”
His lips curled. “I don’t think I’m not, I know I’m not. It’s what makes this engagement of convenience just so very easy for me.”
She wondered what had brought him to that conclusion. What was behind the cynicism Giovanni had spoken of when it came to his grandson... Despite his transgressions, Giovanni and his son had been madly in love with their wives. The Mondelli men clearly fell hard. So what had happened to Rocco? Had a woman burned him badly?
Their conversation was cut off as they made their final descent into Manhattan. The elegant little jet set down on the runway, they disembarked into the chill of a winter Manhattan night and were quickly ushered into a car operated by Rocco’s driver and spirited to the Mondelli apartment in the heart of the city.
The insistent, pulsing energy of New York wrapped itself around her like a particularly deadly python with the ability to steal her breath. Her nerves began to shred as they navigated its busy streets and honking horns.
She had once adored this city, thrived on it as if it were her lifeblood. Later, she had grown to hate it for what it had done to her, to the people she loved. Now her dominant emotion was fear. Fear of a debilitating variety.
Her chest as she stepped out of the limo in front of the Mondellis’ exclusive Central Park West apartment building was so tight she felt as though they were on a smog alert times a million. She pressed a hand to the cool metal exterior of the car to steady herself. Rocco was by her side in a nanosecond, cupping her elbow.
“Are you all right?”
No, she wasn’t all right. She’d never be all right again in this city.
But now was the time to pull herself together if she were to survive. She sucked in a deep breath, forced herself to nod and step away from the car. If she didn’t think about Petra, if she didn’t think about that last show at the Lincoln Center and how she’d disintegrated in front of her peers, she might just pull this off.
Rocco kept his hand under her elbow as he guided her into the limestone-faced building, notorious for its wealthiest-of-the-wealthy residents and the deal makers who anchored it with their vast fortunes. The doorman let them out on the twentieth floor, referring to Rocco by name as he wished them a good evening.
The apartment was beautifully decorated in muted caramels and greens, complementing the exquisite, original finish work the renovators had restored to a gleaming mahogany. Olivia headed straight for the long, narrow terrace that overlooked the park, braced her hands on the iron railing and sucked in big breaths, the chill in the air filling her lungs.
Rocco joined her, his jacket discarded, tie loosened. “What is it?” he asked quietly, throwing her a sideways glance. “What is it that upsets you so much about this city you were so triumphant in?”
The genuine concern on his face, the unusual softness in his voice, almost made her believe he cared. But letting her guard down around the man who held all the cards in this deal of theirs would be stupidity.
“It has some bad memories for me. I’m not the naive young girl making tons of money who couldn’t see beyond the bright lights and the rush anymore.”
His gaze rested on her face with that unnerving intensity he brought to everything. “Everyone has bad memories, Olivia. You can’t let them control you.”
“I’m not,” she said brightly. “We’re having dinner at an outrageously good restaurant, I get to meet the illustrious Stefan Bianco and I’m about to become a household name again. Who could ask for more?”
She spun on her heel and strode inside. The first thing she noticed upon further investigation of the luxury apartment was that there was only one bedroom in the suite.
They were sharing a bed.
Oh, Lord. She glanced around desperately. Maybe there was a pullout sofa.
“Only one bed,” Rocco qualified, coming to a halt behind her. “Sorry, princessa. This apartment wasn’t meant for entertaining.”
Compartmentalize, she told herself. She needed to compartmentalize this problem and focus on the big one at the moment: getting ready for this dinner she so heartily didn’t want to attend. She glanced at the grandfather clock ticking loudly in the lounge, and her queasiness dissolved into panic. They had to leave in fifteen minutes.
She hightailed it into the bathroom. Luckily she was adept at putting on her face in just under seven minutes. Her hair, a bit wild from the travel, would have to be put up in a quick chignon. And her dress...
She kicked off her jeans and top and raced into the dressing room. The breath was knocked from her lungs when she ran headfirst into a brick wall, otherwise known as Rocco searching for a tie. His hands closed automatically around her waist to steady her. Winded, she put a palm to his chest and caught her breath. The feel of warm, muscled male beneath her fingertips upped her pulse a point or two. Damn.
She unpeeled herself from him and put some space between them. “So sorry,” she murmured with a self-conscious smile. “I’m working on eight minutes.”
He nodded and stood back to give her space. The heightened color in his high cheekbones was a rare enough sight that she stopped and stared for a moment. What’s wrong with him?
She followed his gaze like a detective searching for clues. Down over her chest it went, past her hips, down her legs. And it struck her then. She was wearing lingerie. Skimpy lingerie. It was so second nature for her to run around half-naked given her former profession—current profession, she corrected—that she hadn’t given it a second thought.
The color darkening his olive skin deepened. Her brain mind-numbingly processed the facts in front of her. That was lust on his face. Unmistakable. He had been lying to her.
Her mind reeled with the realization. He didn’t want to admit he wanted her because he didn’t want to want her. And wasn’t she an idiot for ignoring her instincts? She had known that night in Navigli the heat hadn’t been one-sided. And yet he’d cruelly let her think he found her lacking in the face of his Italian brunettes!
“You...” She bit her lip before she tore a strip off him, her rational brain kicking in. Having one up on the man who held all the cards could be a good thing.
“Could you help me with my dress?” she asked sweetly instead, turning her back to him as she rustled through her suitcase for one of Mario’s dresses that eluded wrinkles. “That would speed things up.”
* * *
Rocco stood utterly still as Olivia bent over in front of him and rustled through the case. The lingerie she had on were not the skimpiest he had ever seen, but on his blonde bombshell of a fiancée they looked indescribable. Her rounded, toned behind made his head feel as tight as his groin. Her legs went on forever, ending in slim perfect ankles he could so clearly imagine wrapped around himself he almost groaned.
She spun around, holding up a silver-blue dress victoriously. “Just need you to do the hook at the back.”
Or he could hang himself right now. That was a definite option. Better than seeing her perfect nipples outlined against the fine lace of her bra. Better than wondering how soft the skin was between those delectable thighs, showcased perfectly by the revealing cut of her panties...
“Rocco?” She waggled a brow at him. “Are you okay?”
“Perfetto.” He waved a hand at her. “Put the damn dress on so I can do it up. The driver’s waiting outside.”
Mercifully, she slipped the dress over her head. It didn’t get any easier, though, as she backed up against him and held her hair out of the way for him to do up the clasp. “That top tiny one please.”
He found the tiny hook, his big hands fumbling over the minute closure. She squeezed closer to him, the silk of her dress swishing against his thighs, sending his blood pressure into dangerous territory.
“You smell good.” She sighed. “What are you wearing?”
With her bottom perilously close to his raging erection, her lush body lining the length of his, there was only one thought in his head and it wasn’t the name of the cologne he was wearing.