He inclined his head. “I agree that part isn’t easy. But it’s necessary.”
“Necessary for you.” She crossed her arms over her chest. “You are right about my dream, Rocco. I want it badly. Badly enough to marry you. With one condition.”
He lifted a brow.
“I want my own line. My own signature line at Mondelli. I want to control my destiny.”
He frowned. “Mario has to okay those decisions.”
“Then get him to. Or find yourself another fiancée.”
He studied her for a long moment. Read her determination. “All right,” he said quietly. “I’m sure we can come to some agreement. Anything else bothering you?”
Her mouth twisted wryly. “Alessandra told you I was a disaster.”
“Not a disaster. Just not yourself.”
She turned and looked out at the rooftops. “I’m afraid I’ve lost my touch. That I don’t have it anymore. It used to come so easily to me, and this morning was...a disaster.”
“Olivia.” He slid a hand around her waist and turned her to him. “Whatever happened to you a year ago, whatever it is you won’t talk about, is ancient history. Go in there and be the model you are. I guarantee you will be jaw-dropping.”
Her brilliant blue eyes darkened into a deep, azure blue. “What if I can’t?” she asked huskily. “What if I can’t get it back and you’ve wasted five million dollars on me?”
He shook his head. “You don’t lose that kind of talent. What you’re fighting is in your head.”
Doubt flickered in her eyes, her gaze dropping away from his. He slid his fingers under her chin and made her look up at him. “You know I’m right.”
“What would you know about it?” she asked tartly. “You’ve probably never had an unsure day in your life.”
“That’s where you’re wrong, cara. When I was young, when I first took over as CEO of Mondelli, I thought I had it all figured out. I spearheaded this big deal, overrode Giovanni’s protests that it wasn’t right for the company and brought us close to bankruptcy.”
Her eyes widened. “And you know what Giovanni said to me? He didn’t berate me. He didn’t say, ‘I told you so.’ He told me to learn from my mistake. To never make the same one again.” He shrugged, a wry smile twisting his mouth. “It rocked me, to be sure. For months I was wary, afraid to take any big steps, but eventually I learned to trust my judgment again. To trust my instincts. And so will you.”
She blinked. “You really almost bankrupted Mondelli?”
“Sì.” He gave her a reprimanding look. “So go back in there, relax and figure it out. You haven’t lost your talent, it’s just lying dormant.”
He thought he saw some level of understanding in her eyes. But she was too tense, too stiff, to ever make this work, and it had to work. Ignoring his better judgment, he slid his palms down over her hips to cup her derriere, pulling her flush against him. Her eyes flew wide. “What are you doing?”
“Solving this problem the only way I know how.”
She was midway through a reply when he claimed her lips. Their sweet softness under his sent all his good sense out the window. Turned what had been a deliberate quest to loosen her up into a seduction of himself instead. His body seemed to be programmed with a particular weakness for her. For the taste of her. For how she felt under his hands... And his thirst for her consumed him. He wanted what he couldn’t have so badly it was like a fever in his blood.
He slid his hands into the weight of her silky hair and took what he wanted. She responded this time, as if she couldn’t fight it any more than he could. An animal sense of satisfaction rumbled through him as he imprinted her with the need that had been consuming him for weeks. The soft contours of her body melted into his, invited him closer. He closed his fingers tighter around a mass of satiny hair and arched her head back to deepen the kiss. To stake complete ownership.
Her lips parted beneath his, an invitation he couldn’t ignore. He dipped his tongue into the heat of her. Her taste mingled with his, the absolute perfection of what they created together rocking him to his toes.
That night in Navigli hadn’t been an aberration. It had been a foregone conclusion.
He ran his hands down her back, sought out any remaining tension with the sweep of his fingers, kneaded a knot free with a press of his thumbs.
A discreet cough came from behind them. They whirled around in unison to find Alessandra had joined them on the terrace, an amused look plastered across her face. “Sorry, you two, but we need to get started.”
Olivia nodded jerkily, wiping her palm across her mouth. Alessandra went back inside.
“I can’t believe I just did that,” Olivia said, staring at the lipstick on her palm. “Which point were you trying to prove this time, Rocco? That you are irresistible now that the spoiled-goods sign has been lifted from me?”
Anger at himself, at her, welled up inside of him. “Actually, Liv,” he muttered, “I was trying to comfort you. To be there for you. Like it or not, we are in this together.”
Color bled into her cheeks. “A team? I seem to remember you proclaiming me a purchased asset.”
He raked a hand through his hair. “I might have been a bit overbearing. We are marrying now. It would be nice if we can be there for each other. Call a truce to this war of ours.”
She shook her head. “Forgive me if it’s not so easy for me to process your one-hundred-and-eighty-degree turns.”
The bustling movements of the crew moving around inside captured his attention. “They need you in there,” he advised roughly. “Go channel how much you hate me. You’ll do just fine.”
She studied him warily for a moment, then walked back inside. He stayed at the railing. What was wrong with him? He had to stay away from her. But something about Olivia, something about who she was inside, how vulnerable she was, seemed to waltz right past his defenses every time.
And wasn’t that insane? He felt like finding a mirror and double-checking this was still him. Because wasn’t it enough to know Tatum Fitzgerald had torn his steadfast, larger-than-life grandfather in two? Did he even have to question what allowing himself to feel emotion for Olivia would do to him?
He had told himself not to cross the line. Not to let himself feel. Yet he had just crossed so far over the line he couldn’t pretend not to be emotionally involved anymore.
He swore and pushed away from the railing. That absolutely, positively could not happen. Not when Renzo Rialto and the board wanted to eat him alive, and that was the only place his focus should be.
He strode back inside, avoiding the controlled chaos on the set as he headed toward the elevators. He was shutting this thing with Olivia down. Finding another strategy, because this one obviously wasn’t working.
* * *
Olivia watched Rocco disappear into the elevator, her equilibrium smashed to pieces. She had no idea what had just happened. Was Rocco just as confused about his feelings for her as she was of hers for him, or was he just using her again? She was tempted to think he really did care, that what she’d sensed that night in New York was real. But that was dangerous thinking for a woman about to marry him for show. For a woman he was clearly using to regain control of his company.
As for him suddenly asserting they were a team in this? She shook her head as she sank down in the makeup chair. That would be a foolish, foolish thing to believe.
But as she walked back onto the set after her makeup had been repaired, she couldn’t help but remember what Rocco had said. She had once been phenomenal at this. At creating an illusion. It was all in her head. She just had to bear down and do it.
She would never have admitted it, but when Alessandra tried again with that pose of her leaning against a fence with her baby finger in her mouth, the heat from Rocco’s kiss filled her head. And she wondered what would happen if she were ever stupid enough to let him take her to bed.
Complete and total annihilation.
When Alessandra finally put her camera down and announced them finished, Olivia gave her an apprehensive look. “Did you get everything you needed?”
Alessandra quirked a finger at her. “These five shots are worth the day.”
They were, of course, the photos of her leaning against the fence, her finger dangling innocently from her mouth, Rocco’s stamp written all over her. The look on her face stole the breath from her throat.
“Exactly,” Alessandra said with satisfaction. “You look utterly, delectably, madly in love.”
NEW YORK DURING Fashion Week was a frenetic exercise in seeing and being seen. Anyone who was anyone in the fashion world descended on the city like a swarm of locusts ready to make their mark. Press coverage was massive, celebrity sightings in an already star-encrusted city even more frequent and thousand-dollar bottles of Cristal ran like water in the dozens of warm-up parties held across the metropolis.