Undressed: 1 (The Manhattanites), page 11
Lex’s gown cascaded to the floor as she walked. Beauty on high came at him at once. A transformation he didn’t expect. Blonde locks framed her face. How did I refuse such bellezza earlier?
His mouth felt dry. Jaw open. Tongue twisted. He didn’t—
“Lost your voice, did ya, prince?”
“Si, you are beautiful.” He tried to swallow, hoping his awe didn’t seem obvious.
Bowing his head as Lex stepped off the last step, he smiled with affection at her. She reached up and adjusted his bowtie. Her cheeks flushed from the compliment.
Massimo’s excitement grew as she touched his shoulders and gave him a kiss on each cheek.
“Thank you for escorting me tonight,” she whispered in his ear while she slipped her arm through his. He noticed she glanced back at his ass.
“Prego.” He grabbed the door. “My pleasure, principessa.”
Alfa Romeos, Ferraris and other European sports cars lined the streets leading up to The Fashion Ball. A short distance from the mansion, his driver dropped them off at the red carpet check in. They stood in line with the royal security guards behind them.
He walked her over to get their place in line and they stood behind Giorgio Armani, tan as ever, with his elegant niece Roberta. Eva Duringer stepped in behind them with her husband Roberto Cavalli as they made pleasantries. He caught Lex from his side view. Her head spun around from excessive people watching.
“Bella, keep your head still and try not to look like a tourist.”
“I can’t help it.” Lex turned and faced him. “Why are we doing the red carpet anyway?” Lex whispered in his ear, hoping the surrounding designers didn’t hear her.
“Did you forget? I am the prince from Isola di Girasoli.” he said with chagrin. “I have to do this. People expect it. Clients want it and our industry has asked me to be here. It will be buona pubblicità for Easton and Girasoli.”
“Good PR for Easton? I didn’t give media strategies much thought. Hmm. Well you are Easton’s fabric supplier.” She reached for his hand. “I’d hate for the tabloids to make it we’re anything more—you know,” she lowered her voice, “my stud.” Her hand grazed his ass.
A tap, tap, tap on his butt.
Massimo’s bodyguard laughed and stepped back, affording them privacy.
“Quit spanking me in public.” He gripped her hand to prevent her from taking another swat at him. He didn’t need an erection when they stepped up in front of the cameras.
She continued in his ear. “I also don’t want the press to start writing articles on Girasoli acquiring Easton—false, false and false.”
But I do, my bella. And soon you will too. Girasoli would be the number one fashion empire in the world within the year. “I do not know. I do not read the tabloids often.”
“Yeah, right, you’re the leading man in them nonstop.” She snickered. Lex covered her mouth as Massimo realized he’d been caught fibbing.
A security guard shouted out to the press box, and other personnel handed them a sheet with their names. “Presenting fashion designer Lex Easton from New York and Prince Massimo Tittoni of Isola di Girasoli.”
“Ah…um…as a rule I don’t get my picture taken. I let Easton speak for itself and—”
Massimo shushed her. Sad to capture fear in her eyes, he whispered reassuring compliments in her ear. Reminding Lex she’d be his responsibility tonight and to have fun. He enjoyed being in charge. Stepping ahead, he hoped she’d follow. He lowered his head to hear her when she caught up to him.
“I’ve read about The Fashion Ball for years. Studied the photos, but didn’t realize how many photographers there’d be.” She pointed to the press box from Korea, Singapore and Japan. “The world is watching.”
Flashbulbs snapped. A photographer whose press tags around his neck read “Berlin” shouted, “Prinz, over here.”
Lex waved as a photographer from Sydney shouted, “Over here, Miss Easton!” She hesitated.
Massimo didn’t anticipate the smart fashion designer to be camera shy. Regardless, Lex gained the media’s interest and she needed to work it. He placed his hand on the small of her back as they faced the press box from Russia, Kazakhstan and Mongolia. “Bella, these photos will propel your label. You wait and see.”
* * * * *
“Wow,” Lex glanced up at the Sistine Chapelesque ballroom ceilings. The two-tiered grand room with bi-level cocktail lounges was decorated with copper panels backed with bronze mirrors.
“Come on, bella.” He held her hand while she walked into the main room.
The space was reminiscent of an event Taddy and Vive had dragged her to last year. The dance area featured a glass floor, expansive enough to accommodate a thousand couples. Tables seating eight to ten guests on the outskirts surrounded the dancing. A forty-piece orchestra played on a stage. Each musician, decked in a black tuxedo, attended to their sheet music.
“Are you ready to have fun tonight?” I need to blow off some fashion designer stress—let’s party. The music played classical. Errrr.
“Sì, with you. We are over there.” Massimo led her to their round table, marked with a framed place card inscribed “Tittoni” in calligraphy.
“Lex, this is my nonna, Queen Luciana.” Massimo motioned her in the direction to an elder.
The woman stuck out her hand for Lex to kiss it. She did as expected, pressing her lips against wrinkled, spotted skin. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Queen Luciana Tittoni.”
Her soft jowls moved as she mumbled, “Aren’t you pretty? Sit next to me, dear. My English is better than anyone in this room.” She patted the damask fabric cushion next to her. “My gems complement your beauty.” Queen Luciana didn’t glance at the jewelry. Instead she looked into Lex’s eyes. “I want to know more about you.”
When Lex sat next to Luciana as requested, patchouli and clove engulfed her. I’m gonna yak. She coughed to the side as the prince leaned over her shoulder.
“I should have warned you, nonna loves to layer on the profumo and the conversazione.” He squeezed her shoulder. “I am going to leave you here for a few. I must mingle with some colleagues. But I will be back to circulate you through the crowd.”
The queen mentioned the brilliance Lex wore was a gift from Constantino, a son to Sotirios Voulgaris from Bulgari Jewelry Empire, a bequest in celebration to honor the hundred year anniversary for the Via Condotti boutique. “It’s an estate necklace crafted in eighteen karat white gold embellished by over twelve hundred encircling diamonds. I haven’t seen it for years, but am happy it’s getting some use versus being locked up in Tittoni’s safe.”
She turned to get a fresh air inhale.
With a smile Jemma came up to her side.
Lex stood to extend her hand while whispering in Jemma’s ear, “I’m sorry about earlier today. I didn’t intend to spy on you. Please forgive me.”
Jemma nodded her head to say, okay. The queen’s presence made no room for ménage à trois chatter. “Darling, this is Europe. We kiss. No handshakes. Muah, Muah.” Jemma smooched Lex on both cheeks. “Massimo mentioned I’d work with you on our designs. I can’t wait.” Jemma sat between Luciana and her, pulling her back down to her chair with her hand to sit.
Surprised, Lex had expected Jemma to be mean to her or at least snide for the redesign. “You’re not upset we’re going to have to redo the garment samples?”
“Upset?” Jemma repeated. “Heavens, no. Girasoli is incomparable. We crave good designs. The prince intends for Girasoli Garment Company to be number one in the world for fashion textiles. If this collection doesn’t sell, we’ll miss our objectives.” She paused, stared at the queen, and then spoke in a low voice. “We can’t let competitors beat us, can we?”
“Jemma, tranquillo—bite your tongue,” Luciana shouted and slammed her fragile fist down next to the china, spilling the mineral water on the plush linens.
Startled, Lex tur
A server came over to wipe up the mess. Offering fresh glasses, he filled them with Prosecco.
Jemma continued, “The truth, Queen Luciana, is hard for us to swallow.” Jemma rolled her eyes, annoyed. “You and I both know we must get this new collection off the ground and beat them. They’re on to us, no?” Jemma lifted a bubble flute to her glossed lips and threw it back in two large gulps.
“Who are you speaking about—who’s they?” Lex asked.
“Donatella, my darlings, they are launching a competing line against yours.”
“What?” She sat back in her chair catching her breath. “Sorry,” she said, embarrassed she’d raised her voice. She was confident her eyebrows had flown off her face, landing on the table behind them. Did Lex hear right?
Luciana put her hand over Jemma’s arm. “My dear,” she whispered in a low voice, “China factories take Massimo’s clients. The private label and wholesale left in Milan is scooped up by Donatella. Massimo may acquire Donatella soon. He’ll do what’s right for Girasoli.”
Did stealing Easton’s shapewear brand concept become the right thing? If so, Lex didn’t blame him. The high stakes fashion industry remained cutthroat. Heck, Massimo assumed Lex was a “Mr.” until yesterday. She didn’t take it to heart but realized there’d be three on the market. First Easton followed by Girasoli and now Donatella spoke market saturation.
Lex thought back to Massimo’s offer to acquire Easton. Was this the right time to sell? “I’m excited to work with you tomorrow on the revisions, Jemma.” She glanced down at the dress. “And I hope you don’t mind what I did to your gown.”
“Mind? No. Valentino might, though. This is Eighties vintage created for socialite Nati Abascal.”
“I thought it felt couture,” she joked.
“It’s yours to keep now, my darling. I bought it at a charity auction thinking it’d show my cleavage. It didn’t. I love what you did with the train.”
“Sì, never occurred to make a cape, pretty regal, darling, no? You have a vision. Lots to learn from your American flare.” Luciana and Jemma both smiled with a sincere appreciation for Lex.
Guilt flooded her nerves over not telling the prince about the additional fabric treatment in Asia. She questioned if she should. If she gave in, she’d be handing him her entire empire.
A warm voice sounded in her ear. “Bella, you ready to do a walkabout?”
She stood, happy to be heading toward non-fragrant air. “Ladies, it’s been a pleasure,” she said, taking Massimo’s arm. The room had become packed with many more well dressed couples arriving in the short time she’d been sitting.
* * * * *
Lex held his hand. “I’m not great with names, mind going slow with introductions?”
“Sì, we will start in the back working our way to the front,” he directed. The room broke up into several design houses. To the right Massimo introduced the French, English and Italians.
Massimo switched from Italian to French. “Bonjour, I present Mademoiselle Lex Easton,” he announced, walking up to the first group. “Lex, this is Monsieur Christian Lacroix.” He then introduced her to the Germans, Russians and Turks. The pecking order was French at the top, followed by the Brits and so forth.
Seeing this many designers in one room reminded her of when her father took her and Taddy to The Grammys as kids. Amazed to see her favorite musicians in one room, tonight was like The Grammys for fashion.
From America, she shook hands with Diane Von Furstenberg and confessed, “I’ve been your number one fan, Miss Von Furstenberg, since I was a young girl.”
Michael Kors kept the group in good cheer with jokes. “Have fun with your Massimo tonight, Miss Lex—he’s quite the keeper.” Michael tapped Massimo’s butt as they walked over to the next group.
“I’m not the only one who deems your ass irresistible,” she said in Massimo’s ear as they approached another group.
From the UK, Massimo introduced her to Stella McCartney. They discussed their plans for a mid fall season get together while in London.
To think of Easton Essentials being up there with the fashion elite one day blew her mind. She wanted to succeed as a fashion designer more than anything. Since starting Easton Essentials, it’d cost her a personal life. Was Easton worth it? She hoped so.
Lex shook hands with close to one hundred guests, and by the end, her jaw tensed from smile overdose. Her lips felt dry. She wanted to take her gown off. Being pretty, she realized, was afflictive. But the industry contacts she’d made—those might prove invaluable. “Massimo, do you mind if I sit for a bit? I’m overwhelmed.” My feet are killing me in these Cinderella shoes. She was convinced Jemma had given them to her as revenge for suggesting they do redesigns on the Girasoli line.
“Sure, principessa. I will mingle and join you at table. Dinner is soon.”
A tall lanky man about her age grabbed her arm. “You’re the Manhattanite, Lex Easton?” His provocative smile came off as fake and calculated.
“Sure am.” She extended her hand.
He ignored her gesture and kissed both cheeks.
She hated euro greetings. “They greet your way in Beverly Hills.”
“Allow me to introduce myself—I’m Vincent Donatella. We have a meeting tomorrow.” He placed his hands around her waist. “Care to dance?”
“Eh? I… um no, no.”
Vincent moved her onto the glass dance floor.
Lex was many things, but a good dancer did not top her list. I can fist pump. I take Zumba. I have spirit fingers. I don’t waltz to classical music. With zero intent to touch him, she’d suck it up. Placing her hand on his shoulder, she swayed hips as his groin pressed into her. Errrrr.
Vincent appeared attractive with light brown hair and hazel eyes. But he was no Massimo.
She moved back to avoid pelvis contact.
“You two an item?” Vince twirled her closer to the center.
“Pardon?” Lex pulled back from his unwelcome embrace. “Is who an item?” Her frustrations were growing.
“The prince. I noticed you came with him.” His grip tightened as they turned again.
“An item? No.” She wished otherwise. “Girasoli is my supplier. We do business together. You know, I must get back to my table.”
He pulled her in closer. “Soon, you’ll be with Donatella. We have a great presentation planned. We’ve flown in our Paris investors.”
“About tomorrow—” Lex didn’t intend on meeting with him, but he kept cutting her off. She had no clue how she’d free herself. If she’d been at a New York bar, she’d walk away. But this was business. She wanted to be professional. Looking around for Massimo, she didn’t see him anywhere. Why does this shit always happen to me?
Giuseppe Verdi's Woman is Fickle
From a distance, far enough not to be seen but close enough to observe, Massimo watched Lex dance with Vincent. Their slow waltzing to Giuseppe Verdi's La donna è mobile—aka Woman is Fickle—made his blood boil. Arms crossed, fists tensing, he tried to determine his increased unease. Was it because his arch nemesis courted his top client? Would Vincent steal Easton Essentials away from Girasoli? Did it matter? Hours ago he’d cast the Easton account out to the Atlantic Ocean. He’d realized the commodity Easton offered. And Lex and success became synonymous with one another.
Or was he upset because his feelings for Lex increased each time he saw her? Watching her on someone else’s arm put a hard lump in his stomach. Whichever it was, it wasn’t something he’d overcome.
His heartbeat accelerated.
The people around him blurred as he stepped closer. He debated on leaving them alone until he witnessed Lex trying to step back and Vinnie drawing his groin into her tummy. Gross. Lex stepped away, bracing her arms for distance, or maybe to try to w
He needed to get her away from Vincent. As he parted the crowd, he heard Lex’s voice. Her tone was disdainful and cold, confirming his assumption she wanted an out.
“I’m cancelling tomorrow,” Lex informed. “I’m happy with Girasoli. They’re going to remain my supplier. I also wasn’t aware of your plans to come into my category.”
Vincent pulled Lex in closer.
Damn, Vinnie, such a culo—what the hell is he doing?
“You’re making a mistake,” Vincent argued. “Girasoli’s too large for Easton. You’ll be lost. Donatella can provide better service at lower cost. We could dominate the entire category together.”
Massimo hated confrontation, thinking back to what his mother always taught him. But he’d remain calm. Vincent’s cordial skill remained, as always, a test. He stepped around the dancers to make himself known. “Ciao, Vinnie, may I cut in?” Get lost, Vinnie
Lex turned in apparent surprise, pleased to see him. She stepped forward to free herself from her suitor’s capture.
“We’re dancing.” Vincent moved to retain her.
“Excuse me?” Lex pulled back.
Vincent’s face disenchante, he grumbled, “Massimo, what do you think you’re doing? I’m dancing with my future client.”
“Leave us be, Vincent.” He didn’t want to fight.
Last summer in Venice, Vincent downed enough liquor to fill the canals. He’d made several snide remarks to Massimo over Girasoli spearheading his legal team to acquire Donatella. But Vincent’s mother, Frida Donatella, wouldn’t budge on the merger. Massimo walked away as he always did, with his pride. Vincent went to jail for disorderly conduct.
“Or what? Will House of Tittoni’s royal guards remove me? You’re an egomaniac, Massimo. I’ll secure Lex’s business.”
“Let’s sit and enjoy our dinners,” Lex offered. She didn’t find this amusing.
Marc Jacobs and Domenico Dolce stood behind them and watched.
Here we go, another crowd drawing fashion night from Vinnie deck ‘em Donatella. I hate this man. Massimo crossed his arms in disapproval.