The Italian's Deal for I Do

By: Jennifer Hayward

CHAPTER ONE

  “HE WILL NOT make it through the night.”

  The grizzled old priest had served almost a century of Mondellis in the lakeside village of Varenna. He rested his gnarled, weathered hand on the ornately carved knob of the inches-thick, dark-stained door of Giovanni Mondelli’s bedroom and nodded toward the patriarch’s two grandchildren. “You must say your goodbyes. Leave nothing unsaid.”

  His gravelly tone was somber, weighted with the grief of an entire village. It cut through Rocco Mondelli like a knife, severing a lifeline, rendering him incapable of speech. Italian fashion icon Giovanni Mondelli, son of the Italian people, had been the father he’d never had. He’d been Rocco’s guiding influence when he’d taken his grandfather’s place as CEO of House of Mondelli and brought it kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century. Transformed it into a revered global couture powerhouse.

  He could not be losing him.

  Rocco’s heart sputtered to a stop, then came back to life in a brutal staccato that pounded against the walls of his chest. Giovanni was everything to him. Father, mentor, friend... He wasn’t ready to let him go. Not yet.

  His sister, Alessandra, grasped his arm, her knuckles white against the dark material of his suit. “I—I don’t think I can do this,” she stumbled huskily, her glossy brown hair tangled around her face, eyes wide. “It’s too sudden. I have too much to say.”

  Rocco ignored the desire to throw himself on the floor and cry out that it wasn’t fair, like he had at age seven when he’d stood on the deck of a boat outside this window on Lake Como in a miniature-size suit, his big, brown eyes trained on his papa as he tossed his mother’s ashes into the brilliant blue water. Life wasn’t fair. It had nothing to do with fair. It had given him Alessandra, but it had taken away his beloved mother. Never could that be considered a fair compromise.

  He turned and gripped his sister by the shoulders, breathing through the searing pain that gripped his chest. “We can and we will, because we have to, sorella.”

  Tears streamed down Alessandra’s face, negotiating the crevices of her stubborn mouth. “I can’t, Rocco. I won’t.”

  “You will.” He pulled her into his arms and rested his chin on her head. “Gather your thoughts. Think of what you need to say. There isn’t much time.”

  Alessandra soaked his shirt with silent tears. It had always been Rocco’s job as much as it had been Giovanni’s to hold this family together following the death of his mother and his father’s subsequent descent into gambling and drink. But he did not feel up to it now. He felt as though one of the breezes wafting in from the lake might fell him with a single, innocent, misplaced nudge. But giving in to weakness, into emotion, had never been an option for him.

  He set Alessandra away from him and slid an arm around her shoulders to support her slight weight. His gaze went to the short, balding doctor standing behind the priest. “Is he awake?”

  The doctor nodded. “Go now.”

  His strong, sometimes misguided, but always confident sister trembled underneath his fingers as he led her into Giovanni’s bedroom. If the saying was true you could smell death in the air, it was not the case here. He could feel the warmth, the vital energy Giovanni Mondelli had worn like a second skin. That he had infused into every single one of his designs. He could hear the caustic bite of his grandfather’s laughter before it turned rich and chiding and full of wisdom. Smell the spicy, sophisticated scent that clung to every piece of clothing he wore.

  It was Rocco’s eyes, however, that stripped him of any shred of hope. The sight of his all-powerful grandfather lost in a sea of white sheets, his vibrant olive skin devoid of color, snared his breath in his chest. This was not Giovanni.

  He swallowed past the fist in his throat. “Go,” he urged Alessandra, pushing her forward.

  Alessandra climbed onto the massive bed and wrapped her slim arms around her grandfather. The sight of Giovanni’s eyes watering was too much for Rocco to bear. He turned away, walked to the window and stared out at the lake.

  He and Alessandra had flown the fifty kilometers from the House of Mondelli headquarters in Milan via helicopter as soon as they had heard the news. But his stubborn grandfather had been ignoring pains in his chest all day, and by the time they’d got here, there was little the doctors could do.

  His mouth twisted. If he knew his grandfather, he’d probably decided this was the cleanest way to go. Giovanni Mondelli was not beyond manipulating the world to his advantage. What better way to go out then in a blaze of glory on the eve of Mondelli’s greatest fall line ever?

  But then again, Rocco conceded, Giovanni had been ready to join his beloved wife, Rosa, in the sweet afterlife, as he called it, for almost twenty years. He had lived life to the fullest, refused to fade after her passing, but there had been a part of him that yearned for her with every waking breath.

  He would have her back, he’d promised.

  Alessandra let out a sob and rushed from the room. Rocco strode to the bed, his gaze settling on his grandfather’s pale face. “You’ve broken her heart.”

  “Sandro did that a long time ago,” his grandfather said wearily, referring to Rocco’s father, who Alessandra had been named for. His eyes fluttered as he patted the bed beside him. “Sit.”

  Rocco sat, swallowed hard. “Nonno, I need to tell you...”

  His grandfather laid his wrinkled, elegant, long-fingered hand over his. “I know. Ti amo, mio figlio. You have become a great man. Everything I knew you could be.”

  The lump in Rocco’s throat grew too large for him to forge past.

  His grandfather fixed his dark eyes on him, staring hard in an act of will to keep them open. “Trust yourself, Rocco. Trust the man you’ve become. Understand why I’ve done the things I’ve done.”

  His eyes fluttered closed. Rocco’s heart slammed against his chest. “Giovanni, it is not your time.”

  His grandfather’s eyes slitted open. “Promise me you will take care of Olivia.”

  “Olivia?” Rocco frowned in confusion.

  His grandfather’s eyes fluttered closed. Stayed closed this time. A fist reached inside Rocco’s chest and clamped down hard on his heart. He took his grandfather’s shoulders in his hands and shook them hard. Come back. Do not leave me. But Giovanni’s eyes remained shut.

  The spirit of the House of Mondelli, the flame that had burned passion into brilliant, groundbreaking collections for fifty years, into his own heart, was extinguished.

  Rocco let out a primal roar and rested his forehead against his grandfather’s lined brow.

  “No,” he whispered over and over again. It was too soon.

  * * *

  The emotion he had exhibited upon the death of his grandfather was nowhere to be seen in the week following as Rocco negotiated the mind-numbing details of organizing Giovanni’s funeral, now reaching state-like proportions, and the settlement of his estate. The Mondelli holdings were vast, with properties and business interests spanning the globe. Even with his own intimate knowledge of the company and its entities, it would take time.

  Alessandra helped him plan the funeral. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to come—public and government figures, heads of state and celebrities Giovanni had dressed over his forty-five years in the business. Weeding them out was their challenge.

  And, of course, the remainder of the Columbia Four were coming: the three men Rocco had met and bonded with during their first week at Columbia University. Not a mean feat given the intense, grueling schedules of Christian Markos, Stefan Bianco and Zayed Al Afzal. Athens-born Christian was a financial whiz kid and deal maker who divided his time between Greece and Hong Kong. The inscrutable Sicilian, Stefan Bianco, preferred to make his millions masterminding the world’s biggest real-estate deals on his private jet rather than in his hometown of Manhattan, but then again everyone knew Stefan had commitment issues. The final member of the group, Sheikh Zayed Al Afzal, would have the longest to travel from his home in the heart of the Arabian desert—a tiny country named Gazbiyaa.

  It comforted him as he sat down with the Mondelli family’s longtime lawyer, Adamo Donati, to review Giovanni’s will, to know the men he considered more brothers than friends would be by his side. The bond he shared with those men was inviolate. Impenetrable. Built from years of knowing one another’s inner thoughts. And although his life was not the only one that was tumultuous at the moment, his friends would not miss such an important event, including Zayed, whose country was embroiled in rising tensions with a neighboring kingdom and teetering on the verge of war.

  Memento vivere was the Columbia Four’s code. Remember to live. Which meant living big, risking big and always having one another’s back.

  “Shall we begin?”

  Adamo, Giovanni’s sage sixty-five-year-old longtime friend, who was not only a brilliant lawyer but a formidable business brain, tilted his chin at him in an expectant look. Rocco nodded and focused his attention on the lawyer. “Go ahead.”

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