“Could you reschedule for next week, same time?”
Gabriella nodded and disappeared.
He threw down his pen, furious with himself. The damn wedding was turning into a beast he couldn’t control. So was Olivia’s stress. He’d watched her push her way through her fears to walk in London Fashion Week. Watched her brave press speculation she wasn’t the model she had once been with rumors running rife about what had happened backstage in New York.
“She doesn’t have her usual swagger,” one commentator had pronounced. Panic Attacks Wreak Havoc on Top Model’s Career blared another tabloid that had apparently been able to find someone backstage that night in New York who would talk.
Olivia had transgressed it all with a determined focus on the end goal that said she’d let it kill her before she gave up. She wanted her line. She wanted her dream. But the stress was clearly taking its toll. She was looking gaunt, she wasn’t sleeping much and the tabloid viciousness was eating away at her like a slow-moving disease.
He stared vacantly at the original Monet on the wall opposite him, its magnificent colors and lighting a favorite of his. The light in Olivia was fading daily. And nothing he did seemed to help.
He ran his palms over his stinging eyes. It should make him happy his fiancée was keeping it together, because his future was just as intertwined with Olivia’s success as hers was. The board was thrilled with the rise in Mondelli’s stock price, business was booming with the brand’s newfound cool factor and Olivia was the hottest name in the industry.
It seemed the more miserable Liv was, the more speculation surrounding her, the more the brand skyrocketed. His chest tightened with that interminable, inescapable guilt he had been feeling for weeks. It was like a two-edged sword he was constantly being impaled on.
The only time Olivia was happy was when she was in the studio with Mario creating. And in bed with him. And since that was also a source of confusion between them, because it could never be more than sex for him, and he could see from her eyes when they were together that it was more for her, he felt like the biggest bastard alive.
The late-afternoon sun spilled into the room, blinding him momentarily. He dropped his gaze to the pile of research he’d intended to take to his meeting with Renzo this afternoon, ironclad evidence Mondelli was on an upswing in the American market. He had never, ever forgotten a meeting in his career. Certainly nothing of this magnitude.
Where was his head?
A glittering jewel he couldn’t resist... That was how Giovanni had described Tatum. And her daughter was that for him. His weakness.
It was what Renzo had been warning him about. About allowing his concentration to slip when he needed it most.
His mind took him back to that bottle of Scotch he and Giovanni had shared one summer evening at the villa as the sun set over the mountains. It had started out as a celebration of his new job as CEO, then devolved into a long, meandering discussion of life, one in which his grandfather had opened up like never before.
“Your father,” he had stated baldly, “had much of you in him. Same razor-sharp brain, same instinct for business... But he has a weak streak a mile wide, and he allowed himself to be ruled by it.”
Giovanni had turned his dark, wise gaze on Rocco, the younger man still shaking in his shoes at the responsibility he now carried. “He was my biggest shame, my biggest disappointment.”
And that had been the last Giovanni had ever spoken of his son’s failures. Rocco had gone on to be what his father hadn’t, but always with the latent fear buried deep inside of him he might carry his father’s flawed gene.
The antagonism that gripped him now was stark, clutched at his insides with insistent, grasping hands. Showing weakness like he did toward Olivia was a slippery slope down the path his father had traveled. Not only did she get to him like no other woman had, but her instability had the power to take him down with her.
He returned his gaze to the vibrant Monet. Somehow, some way, he had to stabilize the situation. Help Olivia help herself. And take back control with her while he was at it.
He picked up the tickets to the Fashion Week gala and headed for the studios. There would be more press there tonight. More opportunities for Olivia to go sideways. And frankly, he couldn’t put her through it. Couldn’t put himself through it watching her.
He found her in the studios with Mario and a group of young women seated around one of the large design tables. Ten sets of eyes planted on him in unison. The mentoring program. Olivia had mentioned to him on the drive in this morning it was starting today.
She caught his gaze and held up five fingers. He nodded and melted into the background, watching her from the sidelines. Her cheeks were flushed with an excitement he hadn’t seen in weeks. Her joie de vivre, that brilliant smile of hers when she was in her element like this, made his breath constrict in his throat.
This was what she should be doing. Not walking a runway or posing for a camera, although she was amazing at that, too. She should be waking up with that smile on her face every morning instead of dreading the day.
He turned away and walked to the window facing the courtyard. That kind of thinking was ludicrous. He couldn’t give Olivia what she needed on any level. Her name was turning Mondelli into a hot commodity, making the industry focus on her, and not the loss of Giovanni.
It was out of his control.
* * *
Olivia smiled and waved as the last of the women left the room, delaying the confrontation with her fiancé as long as she could. Brooding and unapproachable, he appeared to be in a filthy mood. Wonderful, since they had to spend the evening together making small talk.
Mario wandered off to talk to another designer. Rocco handed him something on the way out. Olivia studied his stormy gaze. “I can be dressed in five minutes. Where’s your tux?”
“We aren’t going.”
“Really?” She tried to temper the excitement in her voice.
“Because neither of us are up to it, and you need some sleep.”
“I can do it,” she protested. “I’m fine. Did something happen today?”
“Niente. I just think you need some rest. All anyone cares about is seeing you walk for Mondelli in Italy for the first time anyway, which will happen tomorrow. It’s not necessary.”
The familiar noose around her neck tightened. Never mind that her appearance in London had been flawless. The press were out for blood... How long could she keep running before she cracked?
She swallowed her nerves back. “You aren’t going to pepper me with wedding stuff, are you? The gala might be preferable.” They were marrying in three and a half weeks after Paris Fashion Week, the last event of the season. Half the world was attending, and ever-in-control Rocco had it all under his thumb along with that efficient wedding planner of his.
Rocco gave her an even look. “Have you worked out your dress with Mario?”
“Yes.” It was exquisite. The very dress she would have picked if she’d been marrying him for love. Which she was. But he didn’t love her and it wasn’t a real marriage, so more the fool for her for wasting her dream dress on a sham wedding.
“He’s got Alessandra’s dress under control, too.” She’d asked Alessandra to be her maid of honor, as they’d gotten close these past few weeks, and somehow it just felt right with Petra gone.
His mouth twisted in a half smile. “Then you’re free and clear. If you can put up with me for an evening.”
Her whole body lit up like a Christmas tree at the thought of spending a real evening with him. Which was insane, really. She’d been latching on to that look she’d seen in his eyes that night in New York, the look she saw every now and again when they were making love. He cared. She wanted to turn it into love. She was a fool.
They ate fresh perch and baby potatoes, accompanied by a light pinot grigio, on the patio overlooking Lake Como. Olivia felt herself falling more in love with her fiancé with every minute that passed. When he was like this, when he was relaxed and not obsessed with business, he was that man she’d met in Navigli. Utterly, overwhelmingly gorgeous and charismatic.
Her stomach in knots, she gave up trying to eat and put her fork down.
Rocco had pushed his plate away and was looking at her expectantly. She nodded. He stood up and held out his hand. “Bring your wine. I want to show you something.”
They walked down the stone steps that descended from the twelfth-century villa into the waters of Lake Como. Flanked by two exquisite marble statues, they were formal steps, meant for receiving company by boat. Rocco sat down on them with his wine and tugged Olivia down beside him. The view as the sun set on the lake and sheer mountain face on the unseasonably warm evening was so utterly exquisite neither of them spoke for a long while.
“I used to come here at night,” Rocco finally said. “When I couldn’t sleep. We scattered my mother’s ashes in this lake.”