Not that anything could prepare her for returning to the life she’d left behind. Nothing ever could.
IT WAS A New York press frenzy at its finest, camera people crawling over one another to get a better position, journalists jockeying their way to the front of the room, extralarge coffee cups clutched in their hands. The buzz of a big story was in the air.
“No doubt way over the fire code,” Savanna Piers, Mondelli’s chic head of public relations, commented wryly, “but no one’s going anywhere.”
Olivia stood alongside Savanna and Rocco in the atrium of the hotel where the annual meeting of fashion designers was being held, the opening press conference about to begin. Standing beside them were spokespeople from the other represented manufacturers, but it was clear from the tone of the overheard conversations nobody wanted to talk to them. They all wanted to talk to her: Olivia Fitzgerald, the supermodel who had abandoned her career at its peak, defected on a three-million-dollar contract with a major French cosmetics company and disappeared from the face of the earth.
A sheen of perspiration blanketed her body. She felt a pool of it trickle down her back. Felt her breathing quicken as the oxygen in the room seemed to drain with every second...
The colors and movement around her faded into a detail-less swirling gray. It reached out for her then, the panic, beckoning her, dark and familiar. She pulled in a desperate breath and fought it. Tried to hold it at bay, but the room grew darker around her.
“I need some air.” She backed away and headed toward the hallway. Standing with her back against the wall in the corridor as catering staff bustled by her, she closed her eyes and made herself breathe in and out, deep long breaths like her therapist had taught her.
Eleven years she’d been having these panic attacks. Since she was fifteen. And they never got less terrifying. On the road in foreign countries with no support system in her emotionally unavailable parents and the stress of having to be the best every time she stepped onto a set, they’d started one night in Berlin. Debilitating, overwhelming, she’d been terrified of them. It had felt as though she was losing her mind.
Petra had finally made her see a doctor. Her therapist had helped her get the attacks somewhat under control, but when the pressure was high she couldn’t fight them. Like that night at the Lincoln Center. It had ended her career.
Rocco had joined her in the hallway. She opened her eyes to look at him, but the world kept swaying around her and she closed them again.
“There was no air in there.”
He took her hands in his and pulled her down into a squatting position. “Head between your knees.”
She pushed her head down and breathed. But it didn’t seem as if she could get enough air into her lungs... The blackness was calling to her. Comforting. Easier than being here.
Rocco’s hands tightened around hers. “No. Don’t do that. Breathe, Olivia. Deep breaths, in and out.”
His hands were tight around her ice cold ones. Insistent. She kept breathing, in and out. Deep, steadying pulls of air into her lungs. And slowly the blackness receded.
She brought herself upright. Rocco’s gaze was pinned on her, dark and concerned. “Better?”
He glanced at his watch. “We’re starting in five minutes. Are you okay to go back in?”
He brought her to her feet with a hand around her waist and kept a firm palm to her back as they walked back inside. Savanna led them to the side of the podium, her eagle-eyed gaze resting on Olivia’s face. “Focus on the feel-good story of you and Rocco and your partnership. No one’s going to choose mean over a picture-perfect story if they have any sense. You’re America’s sweetheart. Go with it.”
Was. She had been America’s sweetheart... Now she was afraid sensational was going to rule the day.
She straightened the hem of her dress as the president of this year’s conference took the stage and made his opening remarks. By the time Mondelli was summoned forward, Olivia’s knees were knocking against one another. Rocco captured her hand in his and started up the steps to the podium. The room blurred into a sea of faces and electronics as she climbed the steps, her clammy fingers clutching tighter to Rocco’s as they ascended.
“Relax,” he murmured out of the side of his mouth, giving her hand a squeeze. “I’m right here with you.”
Despite her ever-present antagonism toward him, she did feel better with him by her side. Rocco was like that tree in a storm you knew would never come down. Its roots were too secure, its foundation too solid, to ever be unearthed by a mere media scrum.
Reporters began yelling questions even before they reached the microphone. Rocco held up a hand to silence them. “If you’ll let me make my announcement, there will be plenty of time for questions.”
When the din finally cleared, Rocco tugged on her hand and drew her to the microphone. “I know you have all missed her, which is why I am thrilled to welcome Olivia Fitzgerald back to the modeling world as the new face of the House of Mondelli.”
The room broke out in a fevered pitch. Rocco held up a hand and silenced them. “Combining the talents of one of the world’s most famous faces with one of the globe’s most venerable fashion houses is an undeniably exciting occasion to mark. But,” he added, slipping an arm around Olivia’s waist and tucking her into his side, “as many of you have speculated, there is another union we are even more happy to announce, and that is the forthcoming marriage of Olivia and I.”
The noise in the room grew deafening. Savanna stepped forward and took control of the Q and A. “Francesca,” she called out, pointing to an older blond-haired fashion reporter from one of the networks.
“First of all,” Francesca began, “congratulations on your engagement and partnership.” Her gaze shifted to Olivia. “The mystery we’re all trying to unravel, Olivia, is why you disappeared at the peak of your career. Would you care to set the record straight?”
Olivia swallowed hard. Why couldn’t they just let the past lie?
“It’s very simple.” She forced the words through excessively dry lips. “I just needed some time away. I was working on a project I’m going to be very excited to tell you about shortly.”
The veteran reporter lifted a brow. “You reneged on a three-million-dollar contract with Le Ciel to take some personal time?”
Her heart dropped. Here we go.
“That contract has now been settled,” she said huskily. “For legal reasons, I have to leave it at that.”
“Word is,” Francesca continued, undaunted, “Le Ciel is furious. Do you think this will impact your career going forward?”
Olivia felt some of her old press savvy kick back in. “I was just named the face of Mondelli. Does it look like it?”
The veteran reporter inclined her head with a wry smile.
“Where were you hiding out?” The question came from the center of the room.
“I was in Milan.” She threw a smile at her fiancé. “Where I met Rocco.”
Savanna pointed to another veteran fashion reporter. “Dan.”
“When will we first see Olivia in your campaigns?”
“In the spring,” Rocco answered. “You’ll see her back in New York for Fashion Week next month.”
Savanna nodded at a redhead Olivia didn’t recognize, wearing very fashionable purple glasses. “Tara?”
“How is the House of Mondelli going to move forward without Giovanni’s genius at the helm? Some say Mario won’t be enough to keep things afloat.”
“We have half a dozen spectacular young designers Giovanni trained working with Mario,” Rocco said smoothly. “No company can be content to rest on its laurels. We had always intended these designers to carry the torch forward. Giovanni was seventy after all.”
“Olivia.” A notoriously bigmouthed gossip reporter waved from the front. “How does it feel to land one of the world’s most sought-after bachelors?”
Olivia relaxed back into Rocco’s arm and turned to smile up at him. “Very lucky.”
Eyes glittering with humor, Rocco lifted a hand to cup her jaw. “I am the lucky one to land, as you put it, Olivia.”
“Since you’ve managed to elude us for the past week,” the gossip reporter continued, “how about a kiss?”
Her fiancé let loose a good-natured smile. “I suppose that’s only fair.”
Her heartbeat picked up in a steady thrum as Rocco splayed his fingers wider around her jaw, leaned down and covered her lips with his own. Her lashes fluttered closed as he took her mouth in a thorough kiss that had the camera flashes going off madly like fireworks.
She was just off balance enough when he set her away from him to much applause from the scrum that the next question hit her from left field.