He took another sip of the brandy. The spirit blazed an undeniable path of self-awareness through him. Had he wanted to think the worst of Olivia because of just how very much she got to him? How she’d managed to penetrate the ironclad exterior he’d adopted the day he’d realized his father as he’d known him was never coming back? When he’d decided no one would ever get to him emotionally again?
Sandro had only been twenty-seven when his wife of the same age had died giving birth to Alessandra. Suffering from severe preeclampsia, Letizia had delivered him a healthy baby girl, but stolen his one true love in the process. His father had fallen apart, descended into a grief so raw it had scared his two children witless and left them with no one but each other.
At first, Giovanni had been patient with his son. Had turned a blind eye to Sandro’s drinking, to his gambling, but after a time, when he’d decided enough was enough, that Sandro’s children needed a father and he needed his son back at Mondelli, Sandro had said he’d needed more time. Then more. Until it became clear he couldn’t mentally handle a return to the family business, until he’d gambled Rocco’s family home away and it had become apparent he wasn’t capable of taking care of his children, either. Of himself.
Rocco could remember the day vividly when Giovanni had arrived at their house, soon to be taken by creditors, and ordered him and Alessandra to gather their things. He’d only been seven and a half at the time, but he would never forget the anguish in his father’s eyes as his grandfather had scooped them up and took them home to Villa Mondelli, his disappointment in his son palpable in the older man’s demeanor.
Rocco had absorbed his father’s anguish, the hint of madness that losing his mother had instilled in him, and although he had been too young to understand it all, he had known one thing—love meant making yourself vulnerable. Love meant pain. And he would never do that to himself willingly.
He tipped his head back and took a long swallow of the brandy. The lights from the park cast an otherworldly glow over the high rises that soared behind it. It was as mystifying a view of New York as his behavior had been tonight. Because even if he had been wrong about Olivia, even if Giovanni had been mentoring her as a way to pay back what he owed to her mother, even if she was that vulnerable, frightened creature he’d witnessed tonight that his grandfather had elected to shelter and protect, it didn’t change anything. What he and Olivia had was a business deal. He was no white knight to ride in on a steed and save the day.
He finished off the brandy and set the glass down. Whatever crazy thing drew him to Olivia, whatever it had been between them from the start, was precisely what he needed to avoid. His only interest should be preserving his family legacy. In doing what had always been paramount for him. Allowing himself to care for anything beyond that had never been in the cards.
A WEEK INTO his and Olivia’s return to Milan, every aspect of Rocco’s plan seemed to be falling into perfect strategic place. The announcement of his fiancée as the new face of Mondelli was making waves across fashion circles, her sudden return to modeling an angle it seemed no media outlet could resist. And although some media chose to speculate on the reason behind Olivia’s disappearance from modeling, most were universally positive about the union , choosing, as Savanna had predicted, to focus on the glamorous engagement of two high-profile personalities and brands rather than speculate on a story for which they had no answers.
He glanced down at the front page of the weekly gossip magazine that typically featured royalty on the cover, but instead this week featured the kiss, as the press had dubbed it. The one he and Olivia had shared at the press conference.
He’d seen more of the vivid, easy smile on Olivia’s face the tabloid had featured in the after shot since they’d returned to Milan, his fiancée seeming to relax as soon as they’d cleared New York airspace. The staff at Villa Mondelli appeared to love her, and she seemed at peace roaming the beautiful grounds. It was only at night when they retired to the master suite that the tension ratcheted up between them. He’d taken to going to bed even later than he normally did, working in his office until he was sure Olivia was asleep. Because to do otherwise was asking for trouble.
He took the last sip of his espresso and pushed the cup away. His efforts to harness his potent attraction toward his pretend fiancée had been successful. If he didn’t see, touch or hear her, he was okay. And he intended to keep it that way. Particularly when he was now sure he’d been right. His grandfather would never have had a relationship with her. He must have been out of his head to think it possible.
The knowledge removed a barrier he instead needed to be ten times thicker.
Gabriella stuck her head in his office. “You need to leave now if you’re going to make it to your lunch.”
His mouth curved. “Even with my driving?”
“Even with your driving,” she acknowledged drily.
“On my way.”
His nemesis was seated at a prime table near the windows when Rocco entered the popular seafood restaurant, the chairman’s quick glance at his watch as he sat down indicating he was five minutes late. Rocco didn’t bother to acknowledge it. Rialto pointed at his glass. “I’ve ordered a bottle of merlot. I thought we could toast your very successful week.”
A satisfied rush blanketed him. “I thought it so.”
“Landing Olivia Fitzgerald as a face and a wife? I almost feel you’ve taken my advice to heart. Although I am surprised given your thoughts on the matter the last time we spoke.”
“I’ve reconsidered.” Rocco waited while the cameriera uncorked then served their wine, before fixing Renzo with an even look. “You wanted me to think about what is best for Mondelli. I have.”
“It’s the speed with which you have done so that worries me,” the chairman said drily. “This is not a chess match, Rocco. This is the future of the company your grandfather built. When we spoke last time about witnessing some long-term stability with you, I was asking for a true commitment, not smoke and mirrors.”
Rocco’s blood heated to a dangerous level. “You forget it was I who quadrupled the market value of Mondelli. I do have this company’s best interests at heart. Which is why I have executed a strategic merger that is pure brilliance.”
Renzo eyed him. “Olivia Fitzgerald is undeniably breathtaking, and I’m sure provides a wealth of distraction in the bedroom, but not necessarily what I intended when I suggested marriage. She is unpredictable given her recent past. A wild child.”
“It is a perfect union from every angle,” Rocco countered flatly. “A dynasty of two great brands.”
Renzo took a long, deliberate sip of his wine, set his glass down and sat back, arms folded across his chest. “You don’t see it, do you?”
“The Mondelli men’s weakness when it comes to women. Pensare con quello che hai in mezzo alle gambe al posto della testa...”
Thinking with what’s between your legs and not your head... Rocco ground his back teeth together. “That...”
Renzo waved a hand at him. “Giovanni made a fool out of himself over Tatum Fitzgerald. He forgot his priorities, let his head get swelled by having her even though he was a happily married man, and the company stuttered. Your father’s career imploded over the love of a woman.” He shook his head. “Make a smart decision, Rocco, not one in which you’re thumbing your nose at all of us.”
Blood thudded through his head in a deafening rush. He leaned forward, rested his elbows on the table and met the chairman’s gaze. “I am not my father, nor my grandfather, Renzo. I am the man who took a struggling company and raised it to a higher level. You need me. Don’t forget that important fact.”
“And you need me,” Renzo countered deliberately. “You have taken Mondelli to great heights, Rocco. No one can dispute that. I’m simply giving you some advice.”
Rocco sat back in his seat. “So you have. Are we done on this subject?”
“Set a date.”
Rocco frowned. “Mi scusi?”
“If you want to convince the board you are truly a changed man, set a wedding date.”
The blood thumping against his temples converged in a pool of disbelief. “You’re joking?”
Renzo’s mouth twisted. “It is my job to ensure control is turned over to you when you are well and truly ready. I am responsible to the shareholders, and in this day and age, perception is as important as reality. They think you are a question mark, Rocco—unpredictable at best. So if Olivia Fitzgerald is the choice, marry her. Show your intentions.”
Rocco thought he must be hallucinating. “Olivia and I are far too busy to plan a wedding right now.”