It had been painful and tougher than she’d expected. But she’d left New York with the feeling the city would no longer haunt her. That she could come back to visit. And maybe it had been the first step in repairing her relationship with her mother.
They had arrived in Italy early this morning. Even though her heart had known what it had wanted, her head had been engaged in a final desperate effort to protect itself. Rocco might hurt her. But was that worth a lifetime of wondering if she’d let the love of her life slip away?
She’d finally made up her mind and arrived here hours ago, only to find Rocco and Christian engaged in a wild-goose chase to find her. Guilt had set in. Then panic as Alessandra and the wedding planner had rushed her off to the neighbor’s villa to get dressed prior to her arrival at the ceremony by boat. She hadn’t intended to leave it this late. She needed to talk to Rocco. And no one was listening to her.
“Please,” she said one more time to the wedding planner ninety minutes later as the flustered-looking blonde announced the men were back. “I need five minutes with Rocco.”
“Not doable,” the planner replied. “There are dignitaries who have to leave as soon as the ceremony is over, the fireworks are scheduled and we’re already almost half an hour late.” Her mouth compressed. “I told this to the men’s camp, too. You have the rest of your lives to talk once this is done, so please, focus.”
Rocco wanted to talk to her, too? Olivia started to argue, but the planner cut her off with a tersely delivered request to get her shoes on. She slid them on, pulled in a breath as Alessandra slipped her veil into place and straightened her shoulders. She was going to marry Rocco. She’d spent her entire life thinking she couldn’t rely on anyone but herself, refusing to allow herself to love. But now she was going to take a leap of faith, because she knew with Rocco by her side she could do anything.
If he didn’t kill her first for doing this.
* * *
The spray of the water split to the left and the right of the covered speedboat they rode in as Olivia and Alessandra were spirited toward Villa Mondelli. The sight of hundreds of wedding guests seated in chairs on the lawn, many of them foreign dignitaries she had never met, had her heart slamming against her chest as they neared the ornate front steps of the villa where Rocco’s sea creatures had visited.
Her first priority as they docked was ensuring she had enough oxygen in her lungs to get through this without passing out. Second was getting out of the boat without tripping and falling flat on her face in the exquisite dress with the long flowing train Mario had made her.
Third was the man standing a hundred feet in front of her as she stepped out of the boat with the help of the waiting attendant. Flanked by the priest, Christian Markos, Zayed Al Afzal and Stefan Bianco, Rocco was so ridiculously handsome in his tux it stole what little breath she had left. Her gaze locked on his but he was too far away for her to read the emotion in his eyes. Her knees wavered. What if he didn’t love her?
The quartet started playing Pachelbel’s “Canon.” The tears she’d been holding back threatened. She blinked them away furiously, her hands clutching her bouquet of lilies. Alessandra started down the aisle, stunning in Mario’s silk lavender creation, followed by their three flower girls in matching lavender dresses. Olivia’s heartbeat accelerated in tandem with the further weakening of her knees. Her decision to give herself away seemed ill-advised now as her legs shook. She wished desperately she had something to hang on to. The aisle seemed a mile long and she couldn’t read his eyes.
The cue for her to move came and went. And suddenly she knew she had to know what he was feeling, see him, before she took another step.
* * *
The panic that plummeted through Rocco at the sight of Olivia frozen at the end of the red-carpeted aisle was of the all-consuming fashion.
A sheen of perspiration broke out on his brow. His feet felt heavy, weighted down, as he willed her to start moving. His heart didn’t seem to know how to beat. It hung in suspended animation for a long moment, then thudded heavily against his chest. Nothing. He kept his gaze on her as the music played on, ignoring the murmurs that swept the crowd. She looked so beautiful in the sleek gown Mario had designed for her. It was the one detail he hadn’t planned. The one surprise from today, other than the fact that she almost hadn’t shown up.
Done in off white, the sheer gossamer fabric clung to every curve, setting off Olivia’s honeyed skin to perfection. It fell to the ground in a tulip-shaped hem, her long beautiful hair left loose, floating around her shoulders.
She looked like a mermaid come to life. His mermaid emerging from the steps he’d sat on as a boy, a living, breathing piece of perfection who had come to save the man.
Stefan’s low curse pierced his haze. She wasn’t moving.
“Now might be a good time to do something,” Christian murmured. But Rocco was already moving, striding down the aisle toward Olivia. The murmurs came to a crashing halt, all eyes on him.
He kept his gaze on Olivia as he stopped in front of her and took her hands in his. They were ice-cold despite the warmth of the day. Her gaze fastened onto his, blue eyes wide and brilliant.
“You came,” he murmured.
“I did,” she said softly, her fingers tightening around his until she had a death grip on him. “I’m sorry to be so late. You look so very handsome.”
“And you,” he returned huskily, emotion overcoming him, “look like my very own mermaid come to life. Tell me you’re staying.”
She looked down at her dress with a tentative smile. “I don’t have any scales, and green wasn’t appropriate, but I do love you, Rocco. I’d like to help you slay your dragons if you’ll let me.”
He felt the world sway beneath his feet as everything became right with those few simple words from her. He absorbed them for a moment, savored them for the precious things they were, then blinked to clear his head and brought her hand to his mouth. “I didn’t think I was going to get a chance to tell you how I feel,” he murmured against her knuckles.
Her eyes remained glued to his. “Tell me. I need to hear it.”
He lowered their hands and brought his mouth to her ear. “Olivia Fitzgerald, I have been desperately in love with you since the night you walked off that stage in New York and into my arms. And if you’d walked into Guillermo Villanueva’s, I would have taken him apart. No one is supposed to have you but me.”
She melted into him. He kept talking, because he needed to get it out. “You were right. I have always put work first because I was afraid of turning into my father. Of being weak. Of getting hurt. But then you came into my life and I had no choice. You got to me in every way.”