Her heart turned over in her chest.
“Everything seemed so big and vast at seven without two parents. I was trying to make sense of something that didn’t make sense in my father’s defection and my mother’s death. To control the chaos around me. So I made up sea creatures, sea friends, to keep me company. My nanny found me asleep down here one morning. They were all panicked looking for me.”
An ache in her throat joined the one in her chest. “You were doing your best to cope.”
She swallowed. “I bet they were pretty amazing sea creatures. What did they look like?”
His mouth twisted. “Big, green scary-looking things with scales and long tails. But they had great smiles. That used to make them okay.”
She slid her hand into his free one, feeling its warmth engulf her, soothe her as it always did. “You’re telling me this because you want me to slay my dragons.”
He turned his head, his dark gaze sinking into hers. “You’ve already slayed half of them, Olivia. Now slay the rest.”
She thought about that long and hard, because she was doing her best. She had been for weeks. She wasn’t as strong as him. He was a rock, and she was not.
He stood up and insisted she go to bed.
Standing there, in her mere wisp of a nightie in their bedroom with its magnificent view of the glistening lake, she thought he might leave her then to go to work.
His gaze fused with hers in that electric connection they shared, the one he couldn’t control even though he wanted to. He reached for her, tugging the wisp of silk over her head and bringing the heat of their bodies together.
He desired her, wanted her desperately; she could feel it in the intensity of his lovemaking as he deposited her on the bed and staked claim to every inch of her. But there was more. She saw that naked emotion on his face again now when he took her, their bodies fitting together perfectly.
Her heart stopped in her chest as she waited for him to say it. Willed him to say it. But then he turned his head away from her and buried his lips in her throat. Switched it off like he always did when she got too close.
Her heart stuttered back to life. Went back to where it should have been. If he hadn’t said it now, that he loved her, he never would. It was time for her to start accepting that. Protecting herself against the inevitable. Because it was coming. The day he shut her out completely.
MILAN’S PIAZZA DUOMO, the city’s central square, and home to the massive, silver-spired, Gothic Duomo Di Milano cathedral, was the site of Mondelli’s opening night Fashion Week show. Lit with eclectic green-and-blue lighting that cast an otherworldly glow over the square, the buzz in the crowd was palpable as Rocco negotiated the crowds, heading for the tent that housed the models and his fiancée, who would open the show. The cobblestones reverberated beneath his feet, the air around him sizzling with an electric energy as Italy’s revered fashion brand made its triumphant return to Fashion Week with its fall/winter Vivo collection.
Renzo Rialto waved him over, his wife by his side in the front row. Beautiful even in her sixties and perfectly coiffured, Veronique Rialto was the epitome of elegance with her short-cropped silver hair and black cocktail dress. Rocco bent and kissed her on each cheek, wondering what it was like to spend your life in a loveless marriage. He’d always thought if he did marry, it would be just that. But for some reason lately, he thought he’d be better off on his own when Olivia left.
Did Veronique know Rialto didn’t love her? he wondered. That she had been used for her status... Did she care?
Veronique gave his arm a warm squeeze as she pulled back. “You are a magician, Rocco. Mondelli is all anyone can talk about these days. But then again—” she teased with a smile “—your lovely fiancée is doing all the work, it seems. I can’t wait to see her wearing Mario tonight.”
The guilt that had been eating away at him took another large bite of his insides. He needed to find Olivia and make sure she was okay. She’d been her usual mess this morning with the show looming.
He nodded to the couple. “Will you excuse me? I was just on my way to find her.”
He wound his way around the rows of seats back to the tent that held the models and designers. It was filled with the usual preshow frenzied activity, bodies scurrying in all directions.
“Have you seen Olivia?” he asked one of the models.
“Bathroom,” she said, stretching an elegant, slim arm toward the portable toilets. He strode toward them only to walk straight into his fiancée, who was so chalk white in the face his heart rate quadrupled. “Va tutto bene?” he asked her in Italian. Are you all right?
She nodded and started to walk past him. “I’m fine. The show’s about to start.”
“Olivia,” he growled, catching her arm. “What’s wrong?”
“I just puked my guts out,” she rasped, shaking off his hand. “That’s what’s wrong.”
The pounding music increased in volume. She started walking. “I need to go.”
He watched her join the floor director at the front of the tent, her shoulders set back. Savanna stopped beside him. “I didn’t know the reporter from Fashion Report had been given a backstage pass. She was all over Olivia before I got to them.”
Great. He felt his internal temperature grow to dangerous proportions. “We need to watch these things more carefully.”
Savanna nodded. “I know. I’m sorry, Rocco. The publicist should have warned me.”
He took his seat for the show. Fury at that damn reporter who’d been hounding Olivia every waking minute burned through him. Fury at himself for not stopping it all. He might command a multibillion-dollar fashion empire, but he had never felt so helpless in his entire life.
A spotlight bathed the stage in Mondelli blue. Olivia posed motionless beneath it. Camera flashes popped from every direction, adding to her otherworldly appearance. Resplendent in a lime-green evening gown that left her entire back bare, her incredible hair cascading down her back in a curtain of gold, her eyes glittering like blue fire, she almost didn’t seem real. Every curve of her beautiful body he coveted, every dip he ached to possess—but every night he had her, his desire for her only got worse. Because he could not have her truly—not when he was breaking her soul.
He could see it in her eyes as she got closer and trained her gaze on him. The fire in her was a message for him. She was done.
The end of the show came; the interviews happened. When the party started, he didn’t even ask if they were attending, just bundled Olivia in the car and drove to the apartment.
Olivia headed straight for the heated gardens—her place of peace. He followed and found her sitting, staring into the rock pools. “What happened?”
She turned to face him. “Fashion Report is going to run a feature on me next week. They plan to interview several other models who have suffered from anxiety disorders to round the piece out, since I won’t talk.”
He brought his back teeth together. “I’ll get an injunction. I won’t let them run it.”
A resigned expression twisted her face. “You were the one who told me I can’t keep running. Let it go, Rocco. It needs to happen. Then maybe they’ll stop.”
She was right; he knew it. He sat down beside her and rested his elbows on his knees.
“You of all people know the positive effect the dirt on me is having on Mondelli.” Her tone was resolute. “People can’t get enough. The only thing that can stop this for me is you releasing me from my contract. And since I know you won’t do that, there’s no point in having this discussion.”
Frustration seared through him. “It’s not a question of what I want—I can’t do it, Olivia. You know that as well as I do. You were brilliant tonight. Why can’t you just focus? Do exactly what you did tonight and, after Paris next week, this will all be over.”
Her mouth twisted. “And then there’s the spring/summer shows. It will never stop until I’m out.”
“You agreed to do this,” he pointed out harshly. “You know you have to wrestle these demons of yours. Me pulling you from this campaign, making me the bad guy, won’t help you do that. It will only make you feel like a failure. And that will hurt you more than those reporters ever could.”
Her eyes flashed that blue fire they’d spit at him onstage. “I am not you. I am not some impenetrable force that can cut off my emotions at will, who puts work above everything else.”
He rocked back on his heels, her accusations hitting him like a blow to the chest. “I do not put business above everything else. I have been by your side every minute these past few weeks when you needed me, Olivia. I have been there for my family my entire life. So do not say I don’t care.”