“He could be a criminal,” Olivia muttered. “I’ll only leave.”
“A criminal who wears a twenty-five-thousand-euro Rolex,” Violetta whispered in her ear. “I don’t think so. Enjoy yourself, Liv. Call with the juicy details.”
Olivia had no intention of offering up any details, because she wasn’t staying. The only reason she was out tonight was to take her mind off Giovanni and how much she missed him. She felt completely adrift without the one person who had been her anchor in this new life, where she was truly alone. Without the mentor who had spent the past year working on her fashion line with her, teaching her. And now that the girls had lifted her spirits a bit, it was time to go.
Violetta and Sophia ambled off in the direction of the metro. Olivia fumbled in her bag for money, the meager amount in there reminding her how desperate her situation was. Her job at the café paid for her spending money, but it would never be enough to afford her own place, let alone the stunning apartment Giovanni had lent her.
Biting her lip, she dug around her change purse for coins. She would figure it out. She always did.
A shadow fell over the table. She registered the rich gleam of the handsome stranger’s impeccably shone shoes on the pavement before she lifted her head to take him in.
He was even better looking up close, his deep brown eyes laced with a rich amber the candlelight picked up and caressed. Big. Six foot two or three, she’d venture with her model’s eye. Well built—with more hard-packed muscle than the average Italian she’d seen on the streets. Heavenly.
“May I sit down?” he asked in perfectly accented English, taking advantage of her apparent inability to speak.
“Actually,” she muttered, “I was just on my way home.”
“Surely you can stay for one more drink?” He flashed a bright, perfectly white smile that drew her attention back to his amazing lips. “I stopped to enjoy the lights and a drink and found myself staring at you instead. A far worthier pursuit, I would say.”
Her chest heated, the flush that started there traveling slowly up to her cheeks. It was a line, to be sure, but the best she’d ever been handed. And somehow in her vulnerable state, because he was just that attractive, it was difficult to say the words she knew she should.
She forced herself. “I really should go... It’s getting late.”
“You really should stay,” he murmured, his sultry brown eyes holding hers. “Nine o’clock is early in Italy. One drink, that’s all.”
Perhaps it was the way he stayed on his feet and gave her the space to say no. Or maybe it was the fact she just so very much wanted to say yes, but she found herself nodding slowly and gesturing toward the seat across from her.
He sat, lowering his tall frame into the rather frail-looking chair. The waitress fluttered to his side the minute he crooked a finger, as if sent from above. He ordered two glasses of Chianti for them in rapid-fire Italian accompanied by one of those wide smiles, and the waitress almost fell over herself in her haste to do his bidding.
“Are you a regular here?” Olivia asked, amused, his behavior oddly relaxing, as if that type of confidence simply had to be obeyed and she might as well go with it.
“The café belongs to an old family friend of mine.” The words rolled off his tongue, smooth as silk as he leaned forward and held out his hand. “Tony.”
“Liv.” She allowed her fingers to curl around his. The fact that he had not recognized her sent a warm current of relief through her. Or perhaps that was more a by-product of the heated, somewhat electric energy he imparted through his strong grip.
“Liv.” He repeated the word as if trying it on for size and sat back, crossing his arms over his chest. “Your friends left rather suddenly. I hope I didn’t chase them away.”
A smile curved her lips. “You meant to chase them away.”
He spread his hand wide. “Caught in the act. I so appreciate that about you Americans. So direct. It’s refreshing.”
“The New York accent is that obvious?”
“Unmistakable. I lived there for four years doing my business degree at Columbia.”
The reason his English was so perfect... She gave him a long look. “If we’re being direct, I’d ask you what you’re doing here alone without a beautiful woman on your arm. Asking a complete stranger to have a drink with you.”
His gaze darkened with a hint of something she couldn’t read. He flicked a wrist toward the lights glimmering on the water. “I was looking for a little peace. Some answers to a question I had.”
That intrigued her. “Did you find them?”
His mouth quirked. “Maybe.”
She felt the inquisitive probe of his gaze right down to the lower layers of her dermis, the indolent way he looked at her suggesting he had all the time in the world to know her. “So what do you do, then, beautiful Liv, when you aren’t sitting here?”
She couldn’t help but feel like she was being led somewhere he wanted her to go, but the casually issued compliment had a much more potent effect than it should have.
“I’m a designer.” She called herself that for the first time since she’d come to Milan a year ago to pursue her dream, somehow tonight needing to assert it as fact in the wake of her mentor’s demise. “I’m working on my debut line.”
Which hopefully would still see the light of day with Giovanni gone.
He lifted a brow. “You will partner with one of the design houses here?”
“That is the plan, yes.”
“Did you study fashion in school?”
“Yes, at Pratt in New York.”
His gaze turned inquisitive. “Why not stay there and start your career where you have roots?”
Because she was running from a life she never intended to return to.
“I needed a change...a fresh start.”
“Milan is certainly the place to do that if you are a designer.” He smiled at the waitress as she arrived with their drinks, then waited until she’d left before raising his glass. “To new...friendships.”
Her pulse skittered across her skin like hot oil in a pan. She lifted her glass and pointed it at him. “And to you finding answers.”
A slow, easy smile twisted his lips. “I think maybe meeting you was exactly what I needed.”
That turned her insides completely upside down. She took a sip of her Chianti, discovered it was a significantly nicer vintage than the one she’d ordered and took some extra fortifying sips.
He crossed muscular arms over each other and sat back in the chair. “Have you had success with any of the design houses here?”
“I had made some inroads, yes, until something beyond my control happened. Now I’m not so sure it’s going to work out.”
“Why is that?”
She lifted her chin, fought the burn of emotion at the back of her eyes. “Life.”
He was silent for a moment, then dipped his head. “I am sure you will find alternate avenues.”
She nodded determinedly. “I intend to. You do what it takes, right? To make your dreams come true?”
His mouth twisted, a strange light filling his dark eyes. “You do indeed.”
It was like a coldness had enveloped the warm Navigli night, the way the warmth drained from his expression. Olivia shifted in her seat, wondering when the breeze had kicked up. Wondering what she’d said or done to bring the mood change about—because everyone had dreams, didn’t they? They were good things, not bad.
She took another sip of her wine. “So,” she murmured in an attempt to lighten the mood, “you know what I do. Your turn to spill.”
He arched a brow at her. “Spill?”
“Confess. Tell me your secrets... At least, what you do for a living.”
“Aah.” His mouth tilted. “I push money around. Make things profitable. Ensure the creatives don’t bring the ship down.”
She gave him a look of mock offense. “Where would the civilized world be without us?”
“True.” His half smile sent a frisson of awareness through her. Made her hot all over again. She had a feeling he did that easily. Ran hot and cold. Turned it on and off like a switch.
His gaze probed hers. “What?”
“You do that easily.”
“Do what easily?”
“Run hot and cold.”
An amused, slightly dangerous glint filled his eyes. He set his wineglass down with a deliberate movement, his gaze on hers. “Possibly very true. Out of curiosity, Liv, which would you like me to be?”
Her heart skipped a beat. “I think I’ll abstain from answering that.”
“Forever or just for now?” he jibed.
“For now,” she said firmly. She focused on the inch of ruby-red liquid left in her glass. She hadn’t flirted with a man since the beginning of her unspectacular, long-term relationship with Guillermo Villanueva, a photographer she’d met on a job and eventually lived with. They had been finished for over a year now, and she was sorely out of practice when it came to flirting.