Petra. But Petra was dead...
The bottle of water she held slipped from her fingers and fell to the floor.
Guillermo picked it up. “It’s Natasha,” he murmured quietly. “Petra’s sister.”
The image of Petra’s vibrant young sister, an almost identical younger version of her friend, giggling with the other models, collided with Olivia’s last memory of her best friend. Petra had been lying prone across her living room sofa, her face chalk white, her expressive eyes vacant. Olivia’s fingers had stumbled over the keys of her phone, desperately dialing 9-1-1. But it had been too late.
She wasn’t aware the wounded, animallike sound had come from her until Guillermo reached for her arm, an alarmed expression on his face. “Liv...”
“No.” She shook him off and started walking. Anywhere but here, looking at that. She was dimly aware of Frederic announcing it was ten minutes to showtime. She kept walking past him. His eyes widened and he followed her.
“Liv.” He tugged on her arm. “What the hell are you doing? You’re starting the show.”
She broke free and kept walking. “I’m sorry. I can’t. I just...can’t.”
In the back of the wings, she sat down in a chair and put her head between her legs. The frantic sounds of a show about to happen filled her ears. Haunted her with her biggest failure... She put her fingers to her temples as the world swirled around her, darker and darker. Beckoned her with its beguiling promise of escape. She’d thought she was strong enough to do this. But she wasn’t.
“Liv.” Rocco’s voice penetrated the darkness. “What’s wrong?”
She shook her head. Shook him away.
He knelt down in front of her and captured her jaw in his hands. “Look at me.”
She shook him off. “Go away.”
“Nessuno.” He captured her jaw again, this time tighter, his fingers digging into her flesh. “I will not allow you to destroy yourself like this. Tell me what’s wrong.”
She wrenched herself free. “I can’t do this. My best friend overdosed after she walked off this stage, Rocco. Because she couldn’t handle the pressure anymore. It’s why I left. I can’t do it.”
His eyes widened. “I’m so sorry. I had no idea.”
A lone tear broke through the wall she had built around herself. “I loved her. She was my rock. She was the strong one. And I allowed that to happen to her.”
“You didn’t allow anything,” he countered roughly. “She was suffering, Olivia. That type of suffering requires professional attention. You couldn’t have stopped it.”
She squeezed her eyes shut. “I can’t go out there. Tell Frederic to replace me.”
“Yes, you can. Look at me, damn you.” She kept her eyes squeezed tightly shut. He took hold of her shoulders and shook her. “Look at me.”
She opened her eyes. His gaze held hers. “All that is out there is a walk, Liv. A walk down a runway. It doesn’t define you. Your extraordinary talent does. And if you don’t go out there tonight, if you turn your back on all those people, you are alienating everyone who matters. Everyone who will decide whether those beautiful designs you and Giovanni created together will touch the world.” His expression softened, dark and sure. “And they will touch the world because they are genius, cara. You are a genius. But you have to let them see it.”
Another tear burned a hot track down her cheek. “You don’t have to say that.”
“Do I ever say anything I don’t mean?” He pressed his forehead against hers. “Make this the night you leave the darkness behind. Because you are light, Olivia. Everything about you is radiant. Don’t let them win.”
The tears fell harder. She wanted to. She wanted to let them win. She had already done that when she’d left the first time. But her dream hadn’t been on the line then...
The pounding music and the MC’s voice as he opened the show made her blood turn to ice. She drew back and stared blindly at Rocco. “I can’t.”
“Yes, you can.” The quiet conviction in his eyes held her, wound its way around her insides. “Just you walking down a runway, Liv. That’s all this is. Nothing more. You’ve done it hundreds of times. Let’s do it together.”
She swallowed hard. Felt his words penetrate the numbness. If she walked now, she was giving up everything. Everything she had created with Giovanni. Her reputation could only take so many knocks.
“Four passes,” Rocco promised. “Four passes down that catwalk and you’re done. Put it on automatic pilot and go.”
She had to. She had to do it, she realized. For Giovanni. For herself.
“Okay.” She swiped the tears from her cheeks. “Okay.”
Frederic materialized. She stood, legs wobbly, Rocco’s arm firm around her waist. The urge to hang on to him and never let go consumed her. He nodded at her, a smile curving his lips. “I’ll be right here waiting for you.”
Frederic swept her to the front of the line of models, but her cue had just come and went as the music pounded to life and general pandemonium ensued. She gave him a panicked look. “Forget it,” he muttered, “go on the next line.”
She focused on the long, light-encrusted runway rather than the crowd, sitting dozens of rows deep. The glare of the lights hit her as she walked onto the catwalk. She’d forgotten how hot they were, how long that thirty-six feet seemed when you were like a star in the sky...when all the attention was focused on you. The loud, pulsing beat of the music propelled her forward. Her walk wasn’t her trademark cocky swagger, but it was steady and purposeful into the blinding light. She made it to the end of the runway, paused, stuck her hand into her hip and let the camera flashes reign down on her. Showed the dress off to its full advantage. The applause was deafening, but she blocked it out.
Just walking down a runway. That was all she was doing.
The three changes that came after, the brilliant showing that Mondelli and its new designers put in that night, it was all a blur. It wasn’t until she did the final walk down the runway with the designers that she realized how weak her knees were. How close to collapsing she was. She shifted her weight, stood back, clapped for the designers and told herself to hold on for sixty more seconds.
After several standing ovations, they led the designers off the stage, Olivia willing herself through the curtain.
* * *
Rocco congratulated the designers as they came off the runway. The auditorium was abuzz, the evening triumphant, returning a resounding yes to the question many had posed as to whether Mondelli could survive without Giovanni. But his attention wasn’t on the buzz; his eyes were locked on the curtain for Olivia.
She appeared, the rest of the models spilling through after her. The way her body slumped the minute she was through sent alarm slicing through him. She blinked to adjust to the light after the glare of the catwalk and scanned the wings. Searching for something. Someone.
A wave of protectiveness flashed through him. A smile curved his lips, his heart throbbing at her bravery. He was so proud of her, so damn proud.
Guillermo Villanueva stepped in front of him. He held his arms out to Olivia, and when she walked toward him, Rocco’s heart stopped in his chest. Her name sprang to his lips, but he savagely stuffed it back in. His body tightened as he braced himself to watch Olivia walk into her former lover’s arms. Then he realized she wasn’t looking at Villanueva, she was looking past him. At him. Their gazes collided, the way Olivia’s face fell apart as they did destroying something inside of him.
Villanueva turned around, focused on Rocco. A grimace twisted his lips as his arms fell to his sides. Rocco ignored him and moved toward Olivia. Her last shaky steps carried her into his arms. Her delicate floral scent enveloped him as he folded her against his chest.
“Sei stata magnifica,” he murmured. “You were magnificent.”
She stayed buried in his embrace for a long time. He was partially holding her up, but as the moments passed he felt the strength move back into her. When she finally pushed her palms against his chest and moved back, a tremulous smile curved her lips. “Just a walk down a runway,” she whispered. “That’s all it was.”
He smiled. “That’s all it was.”
There were interviews to do, a reception to attend. Dinner he’d promised her mother. Olivia did the interviews with remarkable composure, following Savanna’s instructions to gloss over any questions about missing her cue and put it down to backstage madness.
The desire not to leave her side, to anchor her, was unlike anything Rocco had ever felt before. It evoked a restless, uncomfortable feeling inside of him. As if for the first time in his life he had no idea what he was doing.
He smothered it, moved it aside. It had no place here. Not now.
Everyone at the reception, it seemed, wanted a piece of the return of Olivia Fitzgerald. And why wouldn’t they? She was spectacular in the midnight blue gown that hugged every curve of her body and made her eyes glitter like the ocean on a particularly haunting night. Her hair plunged down her back in a swath of golden silk. But most powerful was the current that ran between them as he played guard dog and spirited Olivia through the necessary rounds. It stretched like a live force between them, cementing something both of them had known for weeks.