She stared at her mother. At the fragility she’d never seen in her eyes. And finally she understood why she was the way she was. To lose that kind of love did that to a person.
“If you could go back,” she asked, “would you do it differently?”
Her mother shook her head. “This isn’t me we’re talking about, Olivia. Giovanni and I made our decisions. It’s you and your inability to let yourself be vulnerable that is at issue here. And yes, I realize much of the blame for that stems from me. I wasn’t there for you and I abused your trust. But,” she said, “I can tell you one thing. I saw how you looked at Guillermo when you were with him and I see how you look at Rocco, and there is no comparison. You love him. And he is marrying you. So what’s the problem?”
It wasn’t a real marriage; that was the problem. But even as she said it she knew that wasn’t true on so many levels. Everything on the surface between her and Rocco had ostensibly been about their deal, but none of it ever had, really. The raw emotion and passion between them was real. The naked emotion on his face when she’d boarded that jet for Paris had been real. The walls that had come down in New York that night had been real.
It is the most perfect thing I have ever encountered. You and me, Olivia. How we taste together. How we fit together.
Her stomach contracted in a long, insistent pull. He loved her. She knew he did. He just didn’t know how to say it. He was too busy slaying her dragons, slaying everyone else’s dragons, to figure it out.
Maybe he just needed an adult version of his yellow-eyed sea creature to come and rescue him. Maybe the unanswered calls on her cell phone from him weren’t about him tracking down an asset, but him needing her as much as she needed him.
Hot liquid burned the backs of her eyes, blurring her vision. She needed to talk to him. To see him. But there was one more thing she needed to do first.
She looked at her mother. “Will you take a drive with me?”
Her mother blinked. “You’re getting married in two days, Olivia.”
* * *
Rocco stood on the runway in the blazing Milanese sunshine, a bouquet of calla lilies in his hand. He knew they were Olivia’s favorite from what little input she’d given on her wedding bouquet. What he didn’t know exactly was what he was doing here with them in his hands.
His eyes picked up the blue-and-white Mondelli jet banking its way through the clouds, his heartbeat increasing in anticipation along with it. Why he’d ever let Olivia go to Paris alone he didn’t know. He’d watched that Fashion Report piece sitting in the den at the villa while Olivia prepared to walk in Paris and he’d physically hated himself in that moment. He had glossed over her anxiety, told her to be tougher when he could have shut her down completely in his zealousness to see Mondelli fly.
What did that say about him? That Olivia was right? That he put business above everything else in his life? That he was a machine programmed to do only one thing?
He rubbed a hand over his face as the jet turned and made its final approach, a fatigue it seemed he’d had his whole life making his limbs feel heavy and sluggish. The past few weeks had been hell. He had buried himself in work, told himself it was better this way with distance between him and Olivia, when all he’d really wanted to do was bury himself in her. And not just in a sexual way. She brightened everything about his life every minute she was in it, and he’d been numb without her. Witness the morning he’d just spent in board meetings going over insanely good financials that should have left him pumped and victorious, but instead had made his eyes glaze over. What did any of it matter if he didn’t have anyone to share it with? And not just any woman, but the woman who had come to mean everything to him.
He had made work his entire life. It had been necessary to ensure his family business thrived. He’d sacrificed his own happiness willingly because, he could admit now, he had been too frightened to admit he had needs. That he had the ability to love like everyone else. Because doing so would have made him have to face his choices. Would have made him vulnerable. And it was the one emotion he could not tolerate.
The jet’s nose pointed down as it swooped toward the asphalt. His stomach went right along with it. He’d told himself giving Olivia space would allow her perspective. Perspective about what? About the words he couldn’t say? About the lies he’d been telling himself again and again?
His shame sank deeper. He had branded Olivia a coward when she had been the one courageous enough to tell him how she felt. Because he did love her. The only reason he’d agreed to this marriage was because, deep down, he did want to marry her. He wanted to have her. Protect her. Be that heroic figure she needed.
The jet touched down on the tarmac and taxied to the terminal. He waited at the bottom of the steps while the crew secured the plane and opened the doors. The two Mondelli designers who’d accompanied Olivia to Paris disembarked. He greeted them, then rested his elbow on the railing of the steps as he waited for Olivia to emerge. The designers gave him a funny look as they walked toward the terminal. Chris, his pilot, appeared in the doorway, gave the flowers in his hand a glance and came down a couple of steps. “I, um...” He raked a hand through his hair. “Did Olivia not tell you she was taking another flight?”
The pilot’s face reddened. “She’s not with us, Rocco. She said she was taking a break before heading home. I thought you knew.”
His heart went into free fall. He’d thought she’d already had a break. That she was coming home to talk this over...
He had given her too much time. He had given himself too much time.
He narrowed his gaze on his pilot. “Tell me exactly what she said.”
Chris handed him an envelope. “She asked me to give this to you.”
His heart pounded as he tore open the envelope. It took no time to read the short message in Olivia’s handwriting because it was only three sentences.
I have some things I need to do in New York. I need time to think, Rocco. Give it to me.
Disbelief blanketed him. They were marrying in front of five hundred people in two days, and she was in New York?
Was she even coming back?
He left, shoving the bouquet of lilies at a bewildered terminal attendant as he exited the building. He hadn’t known much about what he was going to say to Olivia, but he had known he was going to be honest about his feelings. And he was going to release her from her contract. Set her free.
Poor, unsuspecting Adamo was the first person to see him upon his return to the Mondelli offices. “What?” Rocco bit out, dropping his briefcase on the floor.
Adamo set an envelope on his desk. “The prenuptial agreement is finalized.”
Perfetto. The bitter irony of it hit him like a block to the head. The bride was missing and a document that was now not worth the paper it was printed on was ready. He picked it up and tossed it in the shredding bin. If he was marrying Olivia, there would be none of that between them, only her and him.
Adamo gave him a long look. “I also have something else for you.”
Rocco’s gaze swung to him. “I would suggest later is a better time.”
Adamo laid a smaller envelope on his desk. It had an ornate G inscribed on the upper right-hand corner. Giovanni’s personal stationery. Rocco stared at it. Now he was haunting him from the dead...
He lifted his gaze to the lawyer. “Where did that come from?”
“Giovanni told me to give it to you before your wedding day.”
Maybe he should give it back given that wasn’t likely to happen.
He gave Adamo a curt thanks and waved him out of his office. The envelope beckoned from the desk. It was sealed. He wasn’t actually sure he could take its contents right now, but his curiosity overcame him and he sliced it open.
My dearest grandson Rocco,
When you receive this letter I will have passed from this world to the other side. You of all people will know that this is actually a blessing for me, because I get to be with my Rosa again. There has been an ache in my heart ever since she left me, and now I will be whole again.
By this time you will also have discovered the story of Tatum and myself through Olivia. It was never my intention to disrespect the love of my life. I know you will find this a particularly difficult pill to swallow, Rocco, as honor is the code you live your life by. However, I hope you will get to experience what it feels like to love like this someday and come to understand my actions. I never thought I could love two people with the depth that I have. None of my actions were taken easily, and I hope in resolving this as I did, any heartbreak I caused was minimized.
I know you will be questioning why I did not leave you control of Mondelli, and it was not, as I suspect you will think, because I do not trust you. You have more strength than your father and me combined—you always have. I wanted to give you the time to explore yourself. To learn that to love is not a weakness, but a strength. You have it in your heart, nipote, I have no doubt. We Mondellis love big and wholeheartedly. And you will, too.