The Italian's Deal for I Do

By: Jennifer Hayward


“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.