His lip curled. “A lovely reiteration of a modern-day Romeo and Juliet story, Liv. Believe me, I do get it—the idea of temptation, how that temptation, that depth of love, can destroy everything around you. It is my father’s life. It’s why I go to such lengths to never let it rule me. It’s a weak man’s poison.”
She frowned. “Giovanni was not weak.”
“I don’t know what he was anymore.” The admission was torn from him in a low, gravelly tone. “But I know he couldn’t have been your lover. That was me projecting my anger onto you.”
She expelled a long breath.
“Who ended it, then?” he asked abruptly. “How did he choose?”
“Rosa. She found out about the affair, told Giovanni he had to choose and, when he did, forbade him ever to see my mother again.”
“It was never in his head to go back to your mother once Rosa died?”
A poignant smile twisted her mouth. “I asked him that. He said once you travel through some doors, you can never go back.”
He was quiet for a long time. Then he walked over to the racks where her designs hung and pulled a couple out. “Mario is right. You are insanely talented.”
For a moment she actually didn’t know what to say. “Thank you,” she said finally.
He came back to lean against the table beside her. “There is a change we have to make in the deal.”
Her heart stuttered. Being so close to her dream and having it be plucked away from her would kill her.
“I met with the chairman of the board today. There is a general sentiment among the board and shareholders that I am a wild card in the wake of Giovanni’s death. My tendency to want to do things my way ruffles feathers. My bachelor persona fails to keep those invested in the company tucked securely in their beds at night with sweet dreams of dollar figures running through their heads. They want to see me stable. Married.”
A flicker of unease slanted through her. This made the reasons for their engagement clear. Given the Columbia Four’s rather wild reputation, she could understand why the board might be uneasy with such a young, strong-minded CEO.
“We just announced our engagement,” she said haltingly. “How much more could they want?”
A cynical smile twisted his lips. “They want a date. A marriage.”
Her knees went weak. “As in us walking down the aisle?”
“Exactly like that, cara.” She didn’t like the premeditated look that stretched his olive-skinned face as he turned the full force of his will on her. “Nothing changes, except we tie the knot in six weeks. Our one-year agreement is still in place and Mondelli brings your designs to market just as we said.”
“Six weeks?” The words came out as a high-pitched squeak.
He shrugged. “You told me yourself you never planned to get married. A quick, uncontested divorce with all the terms outlined will be painless.”
Painless? Her fingers caught the side of the table in a death grip. So this was why he’d been softening her up. Complimenting her designs...
She shook her head. “Oh, no. You are not bullying me into this, Rocco. I am not walking down the aisle with you, lying to the world in six weeks. It’s too much.”
“Ah, but you are, sweet Liv.” The smile that curved his lips was far from reassuring. “It’s inconvenient, I agree. The last thing either of us needs to be doing right now is planning a wedding. But it is what it is. And we both continue to get what we want.”
The media circus of last week’s press conference flashed through her head. The horrible, paralyzing, naked feeling of being in the spotlight again. Her stomach swirled with nausea at the thought of it—ten times worse.
“You are out of your mind,” she breathed. “Tell the board I won’t hurry my wedding for them. Tell them whatever you like. But this is not happening.”
This time he wasn’t getting his way.
FASHION PHOTOGRAPHERS WEREN’T known to be the most subtle of breeds. The ones Olivia had worked with in the past had ranged from sophisticated persuaders, like her former lover Guillermo, to the completely indifferent, to full-out beasts who yelled at you and told you you had half the talent the last model had.
In this regard, Alessandra was a breed apart. She was incredibly patient, encouraging and had an amazing eye for the composition of a great shot. Unfortunately for the talented young photographer, Olivia hadn’t given her anything to work with over the morning, and they both knew it. She was stiff, awkward and without her usual grace, struggling to find her groove.
Close to lunchtime, Alessandra finally pulled her camera over her head and set it on a table. “Let’s take a break,” she suggested. “We’ll start again in fifteen.”
Come back when you’re able to give me something to work with. Alessandra didn’t say it, but her eyes did. Olivia’s shoulders sagged. The shot Alessandra wanted for the fall/winter catalog was one of her leaning on a fence in a fabulous crepe dress, reeking of dreamy impatience as she waited for her lover to pick her up.
The mood just wouldn’t come. Maybe because the last kiss she and Rocco had shared was that almost one in the New York apartment when she’d nearly made a fool out of herself over him. Again.
“I’m assuming my brother has something to do with the shadows under your eyes,” Alessandra guessed mischievously. “For any number of reasons.”
True, but not when it came to the wild romps in the sack Alessandra was undoubtedly referring to. Rocco’s outrageous suggestion they get married had kept her awake until the early hours of the morning.
She frowned. “Is he always such a browbeating autocrat?”
Alessandra laughed. “A well-meaning one, yes. He gets what he wants.”
“He wants us to get married in six weeks.”
“Six weeks?” Alessandra looked horrified. “Why so soon?”
“The board is asking us to speed up our wedding. They want to see Rocco married before they put their full confidence behind him.”
Rocco’s sister pursed her lips. “I guess it makes sense given Giovanni didn’t leave him a controlling stake in Mondelli. Rocco’s bachelor behavior has always antagonized the board, but without a controlling stake, they can dictate what they like and tie his hands.” Her gaze turned sympathetic. “Not that you should have to speed up your wedding because of it.”
Olivia’s mouth dropped open. “Mondelli is your family’s business. How could Giovanni not have left Rocco a controlling stake?”
“Giovanni put Renzo Rialto, the chairman of the board, in charge of the controlling ten percent of Mondelli to give Rocco some time to find his feet without him. My brother is brilliant and responsible for building Mondelli into a global powerhouse, but Giovanni was always there to keep him in check.”
Olivia rocked back on her heels. It all made sense now. Why Rocco hadn’t told the board to go to hell with its demands. Because he couldn’t.
She shook the haze out of her head. “I think I’ll get that air.”
* * *
Rocco told himself he wasn’t checking up on Olivia, but he knew he was. She’d been so tight-lipped and unapproachable this morning, he actually wondered if she was going to refuse to marry him. And since that couldn’t happen, since Mondelli’s fall/winter Vivo campaign for which Alessandra was shooting today was worth ten million dollars, here he was at her shoot when he should be going over the monthly numbers with the CFO.
Alessandra gave him a warm hug. “Couldn’t stay away?”
“You could put it that way. How is she doing?”
“She’s been a bit of a stiff mess.” She frowned up at him. “That isn’t the same woman I shot two years ago, Rocco. What happened to her?”
He lifted a shoulder. “She won’t talk about it. To anyone. I have tried, believe me.”
“Can you go talk to her? Nothing we’ve taken this morning is going to work. If this continues, it’s going to be a total waste of a day.”
He nodded and made his way out onto the terrace, where Olivia was standing at the railing staring down at the courtyard below. She looked like an exotic bird perched for flight.
The guilt inside him ratcheted a layer deeper. Per l’amor di Dio. He did not need to be walking around with a living, breathing case of remorse. They were both getting what they needed out of this.
He joined her at the railing. Surprise wrote its way across her beautiful face. “I thought you had a packed day.”
“I wanted to check on you. You seemed off this morning.”
She turned to face him, blue eyes flashing. “You are railroading me into marrying you. You are asking me to stand in front of a priest and lie about my feelings for you. Forgive me if I think this is taking things a bit far.”