“Olivia. Can you tell us what happened that night at the Lincoln Center? What caused your meltdown?”
She froze, her face suspended midsmile. Frederic, the producer of the show that night at the Lincoln Center, an old personal friend of hers, had swiftly replaced her when she’d faltered and hadn’t been able to take the stage. He’d forbidden any talk of what had happened afterward on pain of his influential wrath. But apparently someone had talked.
How much did they know?
The room started to sway dangerously around her, perspiration sliding down her back in rivulets now. Air got harder to pull in, but she sucked it in desperately, the question echoing over and over in her head. Scenes from that night flashed through her brain—ugly, paralyzing, stomach churning...
“Olivia?” Rocco set a supporting palm to the small of her back. The touch sent words tumbling out of her mouth.
“It was very hot backstage that evening,” she rasped. “I was not feeling well.”
Rocco started proactively detailing some of the key campaign elements they would see from Mondelli in the spring/summer. She managed to plaster a smile on her face as their time ran out and Rocco thanked the media. But it wasn’t over. It was never going to be over.
* * *
Three hours and an excruciatingly boring reception later, Rocco shoved a glass of brandy into the hand of a still blank-faced Olivia in the quiet stillness of their apartment salon, and tried to contain his growing frustration. Neither he nor Savanna had been able to get his fiancée to talk after the press conference, despite their repeated attempts to discover what she was hiding. No one thought it was going to end there, and preempting whatever was to come was the best strategy. Unfortunately, his fiancée wasn’t talking.
Can you tell us what happened that night at the Lincoln Center, Olivia? What made you have a meltdown?
The reporter’s question rang in his head. No doubt Olivia hadn’t been the most reliable model in the final couple of years she’d worked, but she’d never been billed a prima donna. So what had the reporter meant? What had happened that night?
He had a feeling it was the key to everything, the key to Olivia, yet no one was talking, not even Frederic Beaumont, the man who had produced the show that night, deflecting Rocco’s inquiry at tonight’s reception with a lifted brow. “As your fiancée said, it was extremely hot backstage. A lot of the models were struggling.”
Closing ranks. He didn’t believe him for one minute.
He glanced at his mute fiancée, grabbed his own tumbler and paced the room. “I can’t help you if you won’t talk to me.”
Olivia pushed the brandy aside, her face white and pinched as she sat curled up in his favorite reading chair. “I don’t want your help. It’s ancient history.”
“In case you hadn’t noticed,” he disputed heatedly, “it came back to life today. You are a very expensive asset of mine, Olivia. You think they’re going to let whatever it is lie? Tell me what it is and we’ll deal with it together.”
She gave him another one of those blank looks. “You heard what I said. I wasn’t feeling well. End of story.”
He eyed her with growing ire. “The reporter referred to it as a meltdown.”
“Reporters like to make things dramatic that aren’t.”
He muttered an oath beneath his breath. “And the reason you fell apart when the question was asked?”
She pressed her lips together. “I am frustrated. I just wish people would leave it alone and stop prying into my personal life when it’s none of their business.”
His free hand fisted at his side, his five-million-dollar investment pounding in his head. He counted to three, forced out a long breath and went to kneel by her chair. “I want to help you, Olivia. Give me something. It can’t just have been the heat that night.”
She pushed her spine back into the chair, recoiling away from him. “You want to protect an asset. Rest assured, Rocco, I will not renege on our deal, and I will perform the duties of my contract to the letter.”
“This isn’t just about you being an asset. You are struggling... I can help.”
Her sapphire eyes heated to a dark blue flame. “Like you wanted to help me when you seduced me that night in Navigli to find out what kind of a woman I was? Like you wanted to help me when you coerced me into a return to modeling you knew I didn’t want? Better we both do our jobs, Rocco, and refrain from pretending we care when we don’t.”
He almost would have bought her bravado had it not been for the wounded, vulnerable glint in her eyes. The pallor in her skin. The look she’d had all day that a slight breeze might knock her over. Her fiery gaze spoke of fear and pain and, most of all, a bone-deep sadness that got to him despite his efforts to remain detached.
He rose, sat on the edge of the chair and caught her chin in his fingers to turn her gaze to his. “Tell me.”
He was surprised at the tenderness in his voice. At an empathy he hadn’t known he possessed. She blinked and stared at him. Dio, this woman did something to him. It didn’t matter she had been his grandfather’s, that Giovanni’s body wasn’t even cold in his grave and still he wanted to comfort her. Touch her. He wanted to carry her to bed and make love to her and banish those demons from her eyes.
Madness. Pure madness.
The far too perceptive Stefan Bianco had had it right. Olivia did have his number. She had always had his number, right from that first night in Navigli.
Her gaze connected with his and read what lay there. Confusion darkened her vibrant blue orbs.
Her husky, hesitant tone prompted the return of his sanity. She had never been, nor would she ever be, his. Impossible.
He stood up with an abrupt movement. “Drink the brandy,” he muttered roughly. “I will order us dinner.”
When he’d finally sent an exhausted Olivia to bed and sat on the terrace with a final brandy in his hand, he was glad for the city that never slept. The honking horns and peeling ambulances kept him company, floodlit Central Park a feast for the senses as he tipped his head back and drank it in.
The silence, the solitude, grounded him as it always did. Made his present situation crystallize like the stars emerging from the silvery haze in the cloudy night sky above.
The more distance he kept from the woman inside who was driving him mad, the better. It had taken him hours last night to wrestle his body into an acceptable enough state to get into bed, after which the scent of her had driven him half-crazy. He’d been out of bed at 5:00 a.m. out of the pure need, not to look at his sultry fiancée splayed across his bed, glorious hair everywhere.
But it was more than that. This restlessness in him came from a place he was loath to face. He was bitterly afraid he had been wrong about Olivia. Very wrong.
She had clearly been lying just now, as she had during the press conference. The shut-down, blank look on her face had said it all. Which pointed out an uncomfortable fact. He’d never seen that look on her face before. Not when she’d denied Giovanni was her lover that night in Milan after he’d seduced her. Not through this past trying week when he’d plied her with a million questions to get their stories and backstory straight. She had always told him the truth, however painful, or she hadn’t said anything at all.
Until tonight. Until today at the press conference. He could tell the difference. He could read her now.
Do you really know your grandfather so little you think he would have been having an affair with a woman young enough to be his granddaughter?
He ran his palm over the stubble on his jaw, a jolt of unease slicing through him. Giovanni not giving him sole control of Mondelli had shaken him, made him question how well he knew the man who had raised him, who had been his heart and soul. But Giovanni was also a complex man with many layers. Perhaps there were facets of him he hadn’t known. Perhaps he had had an affair with Tatum Fitzgerald.
Tonight when he’d had that chat with Frederic Beaumont, the wily old Frenchman had congratulated him on capturing the “most enchanting creature he’d ever worked with” in Olivia, and made a veiled comment about Mondelli men having a thing for Fitzgerald women. When Rocco had lifted a brow at the comment, Frederic had only said sagely that Tatum Fitzgerald had been one of Giovanni’s great muses, but his eyes had said much more.
He took a swig of the brandy, closing his eyes as its warmth heated his insides. If his grandfather had engaged in an out-of-character affair with Tatum Fitzgerald, that was one thing. But to have an affair with her daughter, as well? It didn’t sit right in his chest. Maybe it never had. He’d been so angry at his grandfather’s death when he’d confronted Olivia, he’d wanted to lash out, and she had been the most convenient target. Brand her a gold digger and make himself feel better by solving the problem.
The uneasy feeling inside him intensified. Propelled him out of his chair and to the railing, Manhattan glistening below in all its finery. What if he’d been wrong? What if he’d branded the woman sleeping in his bed an opportunist when she had really been Giovanni’s inspiration in the most innocent sense? When perhaps she had been the one to reinvigorate a creativity that had begun to fail the aging genius? He had seen it in those designs...