“Undoubtedly.” Renzo’s gaze narrowed on him. “But I suggest you do it. The sooner you prove to the board you can run Mondelli with the measured, mature perspective of a man who’s sown his wild oats, the quicker we will be to hand over control.”
Rocco absorbed the unyielding glint in the chairman’s eyes. “You are actually telling me to speed up my wedding date to pacify shareholder perception?”
The older man’s eyes glittered back at him with something like unmediated glee. “We all sacrifice things, Rocco. I don’t love my wife. I married her because she was the perfect partner for a CEO. Power comes with sacrifice, and if you don’t realize that by now, you will learn.”
He bit back the response that rose in his throat. He didn’t have to explain to Renzo he’d known sacrifice since he was a teenager bringing up his baby sister. Since he’d been fresh out of school, deep in over his head, running a company so vast he’d lain awake at night in the early days, his mind reeling on how to corral it. How to fix it.
He picked up his wine and took a long sip. It was a bitter pill to swallow, but Renzo was right. At the end of the day what mattered was what the analysts said about him. And they thought he was a maverick.
He’d never intended on marrying for love—so why not marry Olivia? It didn’t do anything but cement the plan he’d already put into place.
His hand tightened around the glass as he set it down. Renzo was also right about Olivia. He might think he was in control, but she was a danger to him. He had thought and acted with what was between his legs and not his head. Just like Giovanni had done.
He would not repeat history. He would not be that weak.
* * *
Olivia was chatting over some designs with a gregarious Mario Masini when her fiancé deigned to make an appearance in the design studios. He had pretty much disappeared since they’d returned home from New York, thrown himself into his ridiculous fourteen-hour days and communicated with the short verbiage of a man too busy to converse when they eventually sat down at the dinner table together at the villa.
She was aware he was deliberately putting space between them after their close encounters in New York, and she got it. She was glad for it. So why did she feel barefoot and rejected? Because for one second there, a voice in her head jibed, she’d thought he actually cared. Some delusional part of her brain had conjured that up. When what she really was was an asset to be managed. That was all.
Mario moved to embrace Rocco, his lined old face softening. Her fiancé was drool worthy again today in a silver gray suit and blue tie that never seemed to wrinkle. Elegant and earthy all at the same time, he was a man with so much sex appeal he was drowning in it.
“Ciao,” she murmured as casually as she could, waving a hand to the designs spread out on the table. “Mario and I were just chatting over fabrics. Is it that time already?”
His mouth curved. “Thirty minutes past. It isn’t a problem. We’re eating in tonight. Take your time.”
She almost wished they were staying at Villa Mondelli, where she could put a literal and figurative distance between them at the formal dining room table. Instead, they were staying at the apartment so she could make her 7:00 a.m. photo shoot with Alessandra tomorrow without getting up obscenely early.
Mario pointed at the designs on the table. “She is brilliant, this woman of yours. It’s as if she brings the light inside with her.”
Rocco nodded. “That’s a very apt description.”
Mario smiled broadly. “We are going to make her a star of the design world.”
Olivia’s heart swelled. Instead of accepting her warily into the fold, Mario had seemed incredibly enthusiastic over her designs, as if he, too, welcomed the infusion of creativity as Giovanni had.
She couldn’t help the smile that stretched her lips. It was happening. Her dream was actually happening.
Rocco flicked a look at her. “Do what you need to do. I’ll answer some emails.”
But he didn’t. She tried to concentrate on her conversation with Mario, but with Rocco roaming the room, pulling her pieces off the rack, flicking sketches apart and staring at them with that trademark intensity of his, she was hopelessly distracted. A few minutes later, Mario made an amused comment about her attention span and “young lovers” and announced they were done for the day.
Rocco waited until the older man had left the studio before his gaze slid over her face. “Either your acting skills have kicked in, or my presence is making you nervous.”
She lifted her chin. “You’re looking at my designs properly for the first time. My future rests in your hands... Wouldn’t you expect me to be heart in mouth?”
His mouth twisted. “I thought that was just the general effect I had on you, bella.”
She rested her hands on her hips. “I’m not the one working until 1:00 a.m. to avoid being in a bedroom together. Are your control-freak tendencies on red alert?”
His ebony gaze darkened. “As a matter of fact, they are. Your little stunt in New York wasn’t exactly a cure for a man practicing abstinence. Nor is the provocative way you sleep splayed across my bed.” He shrugged an elegant shoulder. “I keep thinking maybe it’s just easier to get it over with. How simple it would be to slide a hand under the small of your back, tempt you with what I know you’ve been dying to have, then take you long and hard until all you’d be doing is begging me to come to bed. Then maybe we could snuff this out.”
Her insides dissolved into a river of fire, his taunt sending the intimate flesh at the heart of her into an excited, heated pull. She could not believe he’d just said that.
A hard glitter entered his eyes. “But of course, that will never happen.”
She sank her teeth into her bottom lip as her brain crashed rapidly back to earth. Turning, she stacked the designs on the table into neat piles, anger pulsing through her. “Oh, I get it, Rocco. You won’t put a hand on me because you think I was your grandfather’s lover, that I am soiled goods. But you want to, so you use your shock value to send me running.” She straightened the last pile, leaned back against the table and looked up at him. “Have I got it right?”
The in-your-face arrogance faded from his face. “I owe you an apology.”
That caught her off guard. “For what?”
“For assuming things that were not true. I was angry and I made accusations I shouldn’t have about your and Giovanni’s relationship. But the facts were staring me in the face.”
Antagonism replaced her confusion. “What facts? The fact he’d loaned me an apartment?”
“Bought it for you. The fact that he was writing you checks for large sums of money. That he never mentioned you at all. It was not normal behavior for Giovanni. Even your neighbors thought you were lovers.”
“Because he would come visit me at night to work?” She sank her hands deeper into her hips and glared at him. “You assumed a great deal of things, Rocco, and you were dead wrong on all of them.”
He inclined his head. “I was angry. Grieving. To accept that the Giovanni I knew would have cheated on Rosa, that he could be anything but the intensely loyal man I knew him to be, was exceedingly difficult.”
Undoubtedly. Her mouth flattened. “It still didn’t give you the right to treat me like you did.”
His face tightened. “I am apologizing.”
She’d bet he rarely, if ever, did it. It probably made him want to choke. But the relief flaring through her was undeniable. That finally he believed her. It had been like a palpable force between them, stirring mistrust on every level.
She eyed the conflicting emotions shimmering in his eyes. He needed to understand.
She crossed her arms over her chest and held his gaze. “Giovanni told me Rosa was his first love. That he couldn’t imagine ever being with anyone else. Then he met my mother and he was blindsided. She did one of his breakthrough shows in New York. He was on a high from his success, higher than he’d ever been, and my mother was the glittering jewel he couldn’t resist.”
“He should have,” Rocco growled.
“He knew that. He said being with her was like some inescapable force he couldn’t resist. And he wondered if he’d married too early.”
“Rosa was pregnant with my father at eighteen. They had no choice but to marry.”
She nodded. “It was a very different kind of love he had with Rosa—the inviolate pureness of it. What he felt for my mother was passionate, intense. And he was torn.”
“Because he was married,” he ground out, eyes flashing. “Because my grandmother lived for him.”
Her heart constricted. “Giovanni seemed like some mystical force, but he was human, just like we all are. I get how you feel, I do. I watched my father fall apart because his wife was in love with someone else. I lived through it. I hated my mother for my entire teenage years for doing that to us. I still hate her a bit for it. And I wanted to hate Giovanni, too... But when he explained how it was between them, I finally got it. It was never about them deliberately trying to hurt other people. It was about feelings beyond their control.”