There was, however, no partying going on at the Mondelli suite at Fifteen Central Park West on the afternoon of the Italian fashion house’s show, Olivia’s first appearance on a runway in over twelve months. The show, combined with the details of planning the society wedding of the year, had Olivia hurtling close to the edge. She was wearing the face of Medusa. Rocco was afraid if he touched her, she would snap in half.

She stood, hands on jean-clad hips, in the salon, blue eyes shooting fire at him. “I told you I don’t care,” she muttered in response to his question about the wedding color scheme. “Maybe we should make it a black-and-white theme—the light and the darkness.”

“Perfetto,” he murmured. “You would be the darkness and I would be the light.”

“As if.” She shoved the guest list back at him. “I told you. Violetta, Sophia, my mother and my father. That’s it. And my father is not walking me down the aisle.”

“Why?”

“Because he has his own family now, and who knows if he’ll be able to take the time off work. He works long hours for the transit company.”

Rocco frowned. “So I’ll send him some money to cover the week. Maybe he and his family can even make a vacation out of it.”

“You will not.” Heat flared in her eyes. “He hasn’t wanted anything to do with my mother and me for years. Leave him alone.”

“Let’s talk about your mother, then. If you’ve forgiven Giovanni and her for the affair, why the animosity?”

“Forgiving her for the affair has nothing to do with my general feelings for my mother.”

“Which are?” He lifted a brow. “I’m going to be meeting her tonight. Maybe you should give me a heads-up as to what I’m walking into.”

“Like you did with Stefan?” She shook her still-damp hair back over her shoulders. “All she cares about is status. Keeping up with the Joneses.”

He frowned. “It must have been hard for her when her career fell apart. When she lost Giovanni and your father.”

“She brought it on herself. And then she made everyone pay.” Olivia got down on her hands and knees and peered under the coffee table. “Have you seen my sneakers? We have to be out of here in five minutes.”

He shook his head and shrugged on his jacket. “What do you mean ‘made everyone pay’?”

“Dammit, I need those sneakers.” She crawled over and looked under the sofa. “They’re my lucky ones. Are you sure you haven’t seen them?”

Rocco walked to the door, found her sneakers jammed under a pair of his dress shoes and fished them out. He carried them over to her but held them out of reach.

“Tell me.”

She got to her feet and grabbed the running shoes out of his hands. “When I began to have success with modeling, my mother latched on to me as if I was her saving grace. Her career was done, and she had a hard time holding a normal job. So she spent my money like it was cheap wine. Went on living her life like she had in the good old days. The more she spent, the more I had to work to pay the bills. I was exhausted, in a different city every week. But it never stopped. It was an endless vicious cycle of wanting to cut back and not being able to.”

His brows came together. “Are you saying she spent all your money?”

She sat down and tugged a shoe on. “I’m saying that when I returned home from a trip to Europe where my credit card was declined, the bank manager told me I was broke. As in zero dollars in the bank. She had spent it all.”

His stomach lurched. “On what? What could she have spent that much money on?”

She yanked the other shoe on. “An apartment, a car, trips to visit her friends in the south of France. I was so busy working I had no idea.”

“And you trusted her,” he concluded grimly.

“Who would you trust more with your life than your mother?”

Or your father. The uneasy feeling in his stomach intensified. The way he had read this woman wrong from the very beginning on every point shamed him to his core. She hadn’t been out partying away her money. She had been attempting to support her family, just as he had had to.

“Mi dispiace,” he said quietly as she stood there, a vulnerability emanating from her he now knew to be utterly authentic. “I have judged you completely wrong from the beginning, Olivia. I owe you an apology.”

She stared back at him for a long moment, surprise etching its way across her face. Self-disgust kicked in his gut. He had really been a first-class ass this entire time.

Her gaze fell away from his. “We should go. I need to be backstage in half an hour.”

* * *

Olivia tried to ignore the seismic shift that seemed to have occurred in her and Rocco’s relationship as they walked the short distance to the Lincoln Center. It had been there ever since that kiss during the photo shoot. Ever since he’d told her he believed her about her and Giovanni’s relationship. He may have been avoiding her even more the past couple of weeks, but he was different with her. His respect for her showed. He’d stopped treating her like a high-priced show horse he’d purchased, his to bend to his will.

Rocco came backstage with her to greet the designers and models. Frederic, who was producing the show, gave her a hug and a kiss on the cheek. “Put that face away,” he scolded. “You are going to shine tonight. They can’t wait to see you.”

That made her stomach squeeze into an even tighter ball.

“By the way,” Frederic said quietly as models and crew members flowed past them, “Guillermo is shooting backstage tonight.”

“Oh.” She caught her lip between her teeth and considered that. She hadn’t seen Guillermo since the night she had walked out on him, her own heart broken in two. “Thanks for the heads-up,” she said huskily. “How is he?”

“Fine. Single. Here any minute.” He gave her an affectionate push toward the makeup room. “They’re ready for you.”

She was made up, desperately trying to distract herself from the way the mood had shifted backstage from one of industrious, purposeful action to an electric, anticipatory tension that sizzled in her veins, when a familiar voice rang out. She turned around and saw her designer-clad mother making her way toward her with Rocco in tow. Great.

She rose and gave her an awkward hug. “I thought we were going to meet at the reception afterward?”

“And wait to meet your delicious fiancé?” Her mother wrinkled her nose. “You’re on the runway again, sweetie. It’s so fabulous. I wanted to come and wish you good luck.”

“That’s very sweet of you. But would you mind giving me some space before the show?”

Her mother peered at her. “Are you okay, hon? You look nervous.”

She was nervous. She wanted to throw up. She wanted to put her clothes back on, run out of here and never come back.

Rocco curved a hand around her mother’s shoulder. “Why don’t I show you to the seat beside mine and we can all catch up after the show?”

Her mother beamed. “That sounds wonderful.”

Olivia almost loved him in that moment. Almost.

Tanya, one of the designers, appeared with her first outfit, an ultrachic emerald-green cocktail dress. Olivia shrugged out of her robe and slid it over her head, every movement mechanical, born of years of practice. Tanya fussed around her for a few minutes, making sure the dress fell perfectly, then pronounced her ready.

She walked out into the wings, joining the other models clustered there, her pounding heart a raging contrast to the ice in her limbs. You can do this, she told herself. You can.

“Livvie.” Guillermo materialized in front of her, two cameras slung around his neck. He was as dark and devilishly handsome as ever, his swarthy skin a perfect foil for his amazing green eyes. He drank her in, gaze full of affection. “You look incredible.”

“Gui.” She stepped forward and pressed a kiss to both his cheeks. “It’s so good to see you. How have you been?”

His smile was wry. “Since I’ve recovered from your heart smashing and disappearance? I was worried about you, Liv. You could at least have let me know you were okay.”

She bit her lip. “I thought maybe a clean break was better for us.”

A flicker of something she knew she had put there glimmered in his eyes. “Maybe so.” He frowned. “Do you think we could talk afterward? I know you’re engaged to Mondelli, it’s not that. I just want to make sure you’re okay.”

Her teeth sank deeper into her lip. She was starting to realize what it was like to be hopelessly besotted with someone and not have those feelings returned. “Gui...”

A flash of platinum blond flew past her. She turned and stared at the model joining the line, her wildly excited expression marking her new in the business. Something contracted deep inside of Olivia at the sight of the young girl’s pert nose and ridiculously high cheekbones.

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