She was almost afraid to ask what it was.
“I want to create huge buzz around our partnership. Therefore, if you accept my offer to be the face of Mondelli, we would also announce our engagement to the world at the same time. The marriage of two great brands.”
Her mouth fell open, a dizzy feeling sweeping through her. He was joking. He had to be joking, except there wasn’t one bit of humor on his beautiful face.
“That idea is preposterous.”
“It’s genius. A master publicity stunt.”
She shook her head. “We hate each other. How would we possibly convince the world we are in love?”
A cynical smile twisted his lips. “Chemistry, Liv. We may hate each other, but neither of us would be being honest if we didn’t admit that was one hell of a kiss against that door, bella.”
“And this engagement...” she ventured weakly. “Would it be real or pretend?”
“Real?” His gaze moved scathingly over her. “You think I would take the gold digger who used my grandfather for his money as a fiancée in the true sense of the word?”
Fury singed her veins, fisting her hands at her sides. “For the last time, I didn’t use him.”
“It doesn’t matter.” He waved a hand at her. “All of that is inconsequential now. I’m offering you a way out of your situation. Our engagement would cover the period of your contract with Mondelli. Once you’ve fulfilled it, we go our separate ways—uncouple, as it’s fashionably put these days. You will have your line with Mondelli and my promise to support you every step of the way.”
This time she was speechless. He wanted her to act as his fiancée? She’d had to acquire the skills of an actress to model, but this was way, way beyond her skill set.
“Absolutely not,” she said firmly. “I will never return to modeling. If that’s the only form your proposal will take, I’ll have to decline.”
He shrugged. “It’s your decision. You have a week to come to me. After that the offer is off the table, this apartment is no longer yours and you, Olivia, better have a backup plan.”
She watched as he turned on his heel and left, apparently not that interested in the espresso this time around, either. The sound of the door thudding shut made her wince. She had no backup plan. She had no plan at all. All she had was a beautiful apartment she desperately didn’t want to leave, a life she’d built here she loved and an almost complete fall line that would make all her dreams come true if the House of Mondelli put its name behind it.
Everywhere she looked, she was out of options. Out of time. And that bastard knew it. He damn well knew it.
OLIVIA SPENT THE REST of the week scouring Milan for apartments that would accommodate her work. She grew more dismayed with each visit. None of them were big enough, even if she did take on a roommate to afford one. The luxury apartment Giovanni had given her use of was palatial in comparison.
The end of her shift at the café at hand, she pulled her apron over her head, drew herself an espresso from the machine and sat down at one of the tables outside. She had to be out of the apartment tomorrow. The only thing she could do was pack up her designs, move into Violetta’s already overcrowded house and pound doors to see if a local designer would take her on—which was unlikely, given how ultracompetitive the marketplace was.
Or she could go home, tail between her legs, and try to work some of her New York contacts. But New York wasn’t going to be an easier nut to crack, and the thought of answering the inevitable questions when doors did open made her stomach knot. She wasn’t ready to go back.
Panic rose up inside of her, her fingers curling tight around the handle of her cup. If she’d been more on top of her career, her finances, she wouldn’t be in this situation. She never would have let her mother take control and fritter the money away. A lot of money. But preoccupied with pressure-packed million-dollar assignments and endorsements, traveling out of a suitcase more often than not, barely knowing what time zone she was in, let alone keeping her head above water, she’d had put her trust in the one person she’d thought she could.
Her mother had never been able to hold a real job when her career had fizzled out, and Olivia’s father, Deacon Fitzgerald, had left when she was eight. A B-list photographer, her father had abandoned his career and started over with a new family and a new job at the transit company in a bid to erase the woman who had broken his heart. Olivia and her mother had sputtered along with whatever money her father could provide and her mother’s spotty, on-again, off-again jobs until Olivia’s career had taken off and Tatum had put the only skills she had, managing her, to work making her daughter a household name. But the more money Olivia had made, the faster it had gone, and the vicious, never-ending cycle was cemented.
The discovery she was broke on the heels of her best friend Petra Danes’s overdose had sent her on a tailspin she’d never recovered from. The money had been her way out, and when that door was closed she’d quite literally self-destructed that last night in New York.
She took a sip of the coffee, the acrid brew harsh on her tongue. She’d come to Milan because she couldn’t do it anymore. She was not healed; she needed time. That hadn’t changed.
She watched as one exquisitely dressed Italian after another strolled by, the women in designer dresses even for a trip to the market. Turning to her father in her darkest time, for emotional support if not financial, hadn’t been an option. She’d been so young when he’d left she’d hardly known him. And though they’d met regularly for a while until she was a teenager, each time she’d seen him it had grown more awkward and painful, as if her father had wanted to put as much distance between him and his old life as he could. So Olivia had stopped trying to see him, and he’d stopped calling except on big occasions like her birthday. And that was the way it had been ever since.
She bit her lip, refusing to get emotional over a parent lottery she’d lost a long time ago. A resigned clarity fell over her. She had only two choices: give up or accept Rocco Mondelli’s offer. And since giving up her dream wasn’t on the table, it left her only with the option to return to a career she’d vowed she never would. To an industry that had almost eaten her alive.
Her lashes fluttered down. Something Giovanni had said to her in those early dark days filled her head. Passion is what makes life worth living, ragazza mia. If you don’t have it in your soul, it dies a day at a time. Stop thinking of what you must do and start thinking of what will save you.
And that was how she finally made her decision.
* * *
Olivia Fitzgerald showed up at his office forty-eight hours after Rocco had predicted she would. He instructed his assistant, Gabriella, to show her in. Gabriella appeared seconds later with Olivia at her side, an expectant look on his assistant’s face.
“Go home,” he instructed his PA. “I’m on my way out, as well. Buona serata.”
Gabriella echoed his farewell and disappeared. Olivia stood just inside the doorway, her carefully controlled expression veiling whatever thoughts were going on in her beautiful head. The tap of her toe on the marble was the only indicator she was apprehensive about what she’d come to do, and he liked that there was at least one outward sign filling him in on the inside picture.
The outside view was undeniably compelling. Her dark jeans made the most of her long legs, the cut of her clingy jersey shirt emphasizing her cool blonde beauty. Her hair was caught up in a ponytail once again, big dark sunglasses perched on her head as if to say she wasn’t coming out of hiding until absolutely forced to.
He felt his nerve receptors react to her with that same layers-deep effect she’d had on him that night in Navigli. Even without makeup, she was still the most arresting woman he’d ever laid eyes on.
She lifted her chin as he brought his gaze slowly back up to her face. “If you’re on your way out, we can do this another time.”
“I’m on my way home.” He got to his feet and reached for his briefcase. “I’m staying at my apartment in Milan tonight. We can talk there.”
“This won’t take long,” she supplied hastily. “No need for that.”
His mouth twisted. “I’m assuming you’ve come to take me up on my offer?”
Her lips pressed together. “Yes.”
“Then we have lots to talk about. We can do it over dinner.” He tossed the file he’d been working on into his briefcase, along with another pile of documents.
“I don’t want to intrude on your evening. Why don’t we...”
“Olivia.” He lifted his head and pinned his gaze on hers. “Let’s get something straight right off the top. In this relationship, I talk and you listen. I make the rules. You follow them. In no way is this going to be an equal, democratic partnership. Not for the money I’m paying you.”