Authors: Emily Jane Trent
After lunch with Daniela, and slipping into the back of the limo, Leah struggled with the issue of the mystery woman. Again, she wondered if she had imagined the interest in her. The woman could have been looking at anyone.
She might have been looking at someone behind Leah, and it just felt like the woman’s piercing eyes were on her. If only Daniela had seen her. Then maybe she would have recognized her. But even after Leah described the woman in as much detail as possible, Daniela said, “That description fits so many women in this city, especially in the fashion industry.” She shrugged. “I mean: tall, thin, shiny hair, designer suit. Isn’t there anything else you remember?”
Daniela believed that Leah was being watched. “I haven’t seen you rattled like this before. There’s definitely something going on.”
“Her eyes,” Leah said. “The way she looked at me. It was like…she knew me.”
“That is spooky. And why is she interested in you? What are you to her?”
“That’s what I can’t figure out,” Leah said. “I’m sure I don’t know her. I would remember. I know I would.”
Once back in the office, Leah intended to speak to Gianni, and hoped he would have an idea of who the woman was. Although why would he know? It made no sense. But the anxiety unsettled her. Leah didn’t want to deal with it alone.
She had nearly told Roston on the way back. But he might have overreacted. It would be better if Gianni knew first. But she couldn’t deliver her news right away. The secretary told her that Gianni was in a meeting with his operations manager.
Disappointed, Leah headed toward her desk to try to get herself together. Peeking inside Aida’s office, she noted that she was out. She was probably still at lunch. Too bad. Her assistant was pretty levelheaded, and might have had some good advice.
Since she would have to wait to speak with Gianni, it would be better to get some work done than to just sit and worry. Leah plopped into her chair and began scrolling through emails for anything important.
One subject line caught her attention, and she froze. Leaning on the desk, Leah read it again. It said:
I’m watching you
. She opened the email to read the text:
You won’t get away with it. I know what you are doing
Leah’s heart pounded. Now she was scared. The message was threatening, and the worst part was that she didn’t know what the sender referred to. Nor did she know who the threats came from.
Things were out of control. She had ruled out Vadim before, and she did again. It was too much of coincidence that the same day Leah had been under the scrutiny of the unknown woman, she received an email intended to intimidate her. It had to be connected.
Joshua Miller sat in front of Gianni, impeccably dressed as usual. But he looked concerned. “There’s something you need to hear.”
The operations manager wasn’t prone to exaggeration. So if he considered the matter important enough to have a private meeting, then it certainly warranted it. “Yes, go ahead, Joshua. I’ve put other business on hold. Take as long as you need.”
To others, Joshua’s young, trendy look might have seemed inconsistent with his competent management. But Gianni knew better. Although his operations manager could be relaxed and laid-back given the opportunity, he was all business when it came to GR Showroom.
“It’s about Ava Stewart.”
Gianni was surprised to hear his ex-girlfriend’s name mentioned, but made an effort not to show it. “What about her?”
Joshua leaned back in his chair and took a breath. “I’ll get to the point. She’s after you, Gianni.”
“How do you mean,
“I spoke to Edward Johnson.”
Gianni was lost on what Ed could have to do with Ava. “At Johnson Advertising?”
“Yes,” Joshua said. “And his call to me proved once again that he is an ally.”
Gianni was interested now. “How so?”
“It seems Ava has purchased an advertising campaign.”
“For her modeling agency?”
Joshua shook his head. “I wish. No, she has paid for billboards in Times Square.”
“That’s pricey, even for her.”
His operations manager looked worried. “It would appear that it is worth it to her.”
Gianni wanted to get to the bottom of this. “For what reason?”
“She intends to put pictures of you on two different billboards. Ed was kind enough to email the pictures to me. The photos are of you with Ava—looking very affectionate, I must say.”
Gianni took a moment to get his thoughts together.
Joshua crossed his legs. “I printed the photos so you can see.” He placed them on the desk and slid them closer.
Larger than life, Ava snuggled into Gianni’s arms. She wore a low-cut evening dress, and was indisputably glamorous. “That must have been some event we attended together,” he said. Then he looked at the other. It was a more casual shot.
Ava was caught in a rare moment of youthful happiness, and Gianni held her hand tightly. The image made him slightly ill. “This is a personal photo. Something she shouldn’t be sharing.”
Joshua was silent.
Gianni shoved the pictures aside. “And what can be gained by posting pictures of us in Times Square?”
“I think the captions will explain.”
Gianni took the email copy that Joshua handed to him. In bold print, there were two messages, one for each picture.
The first one read:
Someone You Trust Could Be Capable Of Abuse. I trusted you, Gianni
And the second:
I Forgive You. I Will Always Love You, Gianni
Stunned, Gianni stared at the print as though it might vanish, confirming that it was all an illusion. Ava couldn’t do this. She wouldn’t. “Why now? I haven’t spoken to her in months.”
Joshua looked sympathetic. “Yes, I know. But since Leah began working for GR, there have been photos of you two everywhere. It’s all the buzz that you are together, especially now that she works for your company. There’s speculation about where the relationship is going.”
“It’s none of their business.”
“I couldn’t agree more. But you are
a very eligible, desirable bachelor who has chosen a woman beneath your wealthy status
, if I may quote the words currently going viral. Romance wrapped up in a rags-to-riches story is not likely to be overlooked by the media.”
Gianni shook his head.
“And my guess,” Joshua went on, “is that seeing Leah on your arm does not sit well with Ava.”
Gianni raised his hands. “But that relationship is over.”
“It’s apparent she doesn’t see it that way.”
“I didn’t think she would be vindictive.” It saddened him to think of it.
Joshua’s lips thinned into a smile, but there was no joy in it. “A woman scorned…” He continued, “I’ve taken the liberty of suppressing the ads. At least temporarily. Ed can only hold them so long. We will need to get a court order.”
“I’ll schedule a meeting with my attorney right away,” Gianni said, “and I’d like you to attend.”
“Certainly.” Joshua hesitated.
“On the legal side of things…”
Gianni had a bad feeling.
“She intimated to Ed that she is pursuing legal action against you,” Joshua said. “But she wasn’t specific.”
Gianni clenched his jaw. “She has no grounds for a lawsuit.”
“None that I know of, but that won’t stop her from trying.”
“She has lost her mind.”
Joshua made no comment.
Gianni sighed heavily and raked both hands through his hair. His phone buzzed and he stabbed at the button. “I thought I said to hold all calls.”
“I know, but Leah is on her way in.” Before the statement was fully uttered, Leah opened the door.
She looked pale, and as distressed as Gianni felt. “I’m sorry to interrupt. I have to see you, Gianni.” Leah glanced at Joshua. “It can’t wait.”
Joshua stood. “I think we have covered all we can for the moment.”
“Yes, thank you, Joshua.”
Leah nodded at the operations manager as he passed her on his way out. “Gianni,” she said, walking toward the desk. Then her mouth opened in amazement. She came around to Gianni’s side and stared at the photos.
Disheartened by Ava’s attack, and knowing Leah might be affected, he put his arm around her. “I’ll explain.”
Leah looked at him with wide eyes. “Where did you get these pictures?”
“Joshua printed them.”
“But how did he get them? How does he know her?” Leah looked at Gianni intently. “Do you know who she is?”
“Ava Stewart, the woman I told you about.”
Leah stepped back. “Oh my God, Gianni. She has been following me.”
Anger surged in Gianni’s veins. It was one thing to attack him, but to go after Leah was despicable. “You saw her?”
“Yes, today at the event.”
“Did she talk to you?”
Leah shook her head. “No, she was too far away. But it was her. I pointed her out to Daniela, but she left too quickly.”
Gianni frowned. “Daniela would have recognized her.”
Leah put her hand over her eyes. “I can’t believe this.”
Pulling her into his arms, Gianni held her for a moment. “Did she frighten you?”
“Not so much that. But I couldn’t figure out why she was staring at me.” Leah paused. “She knows who I am, doesn’t she? Ava has seen pictures of me with you.”
Leah pointed to the computer. “Check your email.”
“I just forwarded an email I received today. You need to read it.”
He punched a key and brought the screen to life. He read the threat. “It has to be her.”
“Now that I’ve seen these pictures, I’m sure of it. Who else could it be?” Leah bit her lip. “She’s after me, Gianni. She wants me out of the way.”
“To say the least.”
Leah frowned. “I should have told you sooner, but I’ve had the feeling for weeks that someone is watching me.”
“You should have said something right away.”
She nodded. “I know that now. But I thought I was just seeing things that weren’t there, so I brushed it aside. I didn’t dream that something like this would happen.”
“We need to talk,” Gianni said. “Let’s get out of here.”
In a dark cocktail lounge, Leah sat close to Gianni, and fortified her nerves with a double martini. “So, fill me in,” she said.
Gianni recounted all that he had learned from Joshua. There was no way to soft-pedal it. He just told Leah in a matter-of-fact tone. She listened intently and refrained from interrupting. Even as he relayed the details, Gianni couldn’t believe that Ava was back in his life. The situation was distasteful.
Leah held Gianni’s hand. “Even if she doesn’t win a case against you, Ava will get a lot of media coverage. Suing a wealthy entrepreneur would be newsworthy any time. But add to it her accusation of abuse, and all that entails…it is going to be messy.”
“I just don’t want you involved.”
“There is no way to avoid that. I’m the reason she is coming after you.”
Gianni rubbed his temple.
“Don’t you see? She couldn’t have you. You dumped her,” Leah said. “Of course, she would know you wouldn’t be celibate. But to
you with me. To have to deal with photos of us everywhere she turns…that would make her furious.”
“You seem pretty sure of that.”
“I am a woman, Gianni.” She squeezed his hand. “I would feel the same way.”
He tried to imagine it.
“But I wouldn’t do what she is doing,” Leah said. “I love you too much. Without you, I would be as crushed as Ava is. But if she ever loved you, Gianni, she doesn’t now.” Leah touched his cheek. “If she loved you, Ava would place your happiness above her own.”
A chill ran down his spine. Gianni was in over his head. The strength of Leah’s love was more than he deserved. And now she might be dragged through a lawsuit right along with him. He cringed to think of the field day the press would have.
Gianni kissed Leah’s hand. “I don’t know what to say.”
“There is nothing to say. She won’t win.” Leah looked into his eyes. “Ava won’t win.”
Gianni learned from his attorney that Ava might have a case. If she was the victim of his negligent actions that caused emotional distress, she could recover damages. The amount of damage she suffered would need to be assessed.
In a case of infliction of emotional distress, it had to be a result of a physical injury. Gianni assured his attorney that he had not harmed Ava at any time. Surely she wouldn’t deny that the sexual relationship they had was consensual.
But his attorney suspected she might try to stretch the facts, claiming that her attempted suicide led to the emotional distress. And that the suicide attempt was a direct result of Gianni’s abuse. So far, no paperwork had been received. Thus it was unknown exactly what Ava’s allegations were.
Ava had hired a smart, persuasive lawyer, which increased the odds of her getting the damages she sought. It was extremely difficult to succeed on such a claim as hers, and that was in Gianni’s favor. Plus, a key element would be difficult to prove: damages.
The attorney had explained, “This is because Ava will have to show that the emotional abuse was severe, meaning more than a reasonable person could be expected to endure. It would have to be something that the entire community would be willing to say is so outrageous and abnormal that she has been wronged.”
A letter from Ava’s high-priced attorney was received after a call had been made to GR Showroom, and Joshua provided the name of Gianni’s attorney. Most of the correspondence was standard language, but there was one section that stood out.
At the time of the breakup, Gianni had given Ava a substantial amount of money. His intention had been to see that she was okay, and would be taken care of. However, there had been nothing in writing. Now Ava claimed that Gianni had been aware of his wrong, and had given the money as an attempt to settle early.
She was adamant that the amount of the settlement was insufficient, considering the damage he had caused, and that he had used his power of persuasion to obtain her agreement to disappear from his life in exchange for the money.
Not only was it a blatant lie, the funds Gianni had provided were likely more than any court would award for a case such as Ava was presenting. But there was more to be concerned about. In discussing what the legal process would look like, Gianni became more alarmed.
Normally, Ava’s case would be rough to prove, and the attorney she retained probably wouldn’t have bothered with it. But Gianni was a billionaire, and such deep pockets were attractive. Plus, he was a handsome, eligible bachelor, and the media had already latched on to his story.
“What does my private life have to do with what happened with Ava?” he had asked, suspecting he already knew the answer. But he wanted to hear the attorney’s version.
“I’m afraid it has everything to do with it. You can afford to pay damages, and that makes you very attractive, legally.”
What came next, Gianni didn’t want to hear. But he knew it was true, and feared the worst. In discussing what physical harm Ava could claim, Gianni told his attorney about her preference for pain in sex play. Although she would have been willing, Gianni swore he had not inflicted physical injury.
Allegations were merely claims. And as it stood, Ava could
anything she wanted. Yet who was to say it didn’t happen behind the locks doors of a playroom, specifically designed for rough play? That was what the consensus would be. And Ava was going to fight dirty. That much was clear.
A week later, there was an informal meeting at the office of Ava’s attorney. It was a preliminary discussion to see if things could be worked out between the parties without litigation. Gianni didn’t trust Ava, and held little hope that she would be reasonable.
Still he attended the meeting. The two attorneys talked about several of the issues while they waited for Ava to arrive. After making them wait for twenty minutes, the secretary ushered her into the conference room. “Miss Stewart is here.”
In four-inch heels, Ava walked gracefully into the room. Her attorney pulled out her chair, and everyone greeted her. Everyone except Gianni. He assessed her appearance. Ava was a beautiful woman, but looking at her then, Gianni wondered what he had seen in her.
She wore a tight wool dress of cranberry-colored fabric. It was low-cut and accented her full breasts. Ava was in full makeup, as if ready for a photo shoot. Her long, dark hair was in loose curls, and gleamed under the fluorescent lights. Flashy turquoise earrings swished each time she moved.
Gianni wondered if she had done something to her lips. They were fuller than he recalled. And her cheekbones were higher. Possibly a trick with makeup. Ava’s perfume wafted across the table, and he recognized it as one she knew he liked. But the thing that struck him was the look in her sky-blue eyes.
There was no softness there. Her look was cold. When she looked over at Gianni, it was as though she didn’t know him. The woman he had known so well looked vacant. And he knew before they started that the conference had been a bad idea.
The attorneys talked, but Gianni barely heard them. It was all legalese, and meant nothing unless Ava’s mood changed. And that didn’t appear likely. She sat stiffly in her chair, putting on her best imitation of melancholy.
It was an advantage that Gianni had been with her for two years. He knew her, and could read her. Even with her falsely demure attitude, he could see how anxious she was. She couldn’t wait to dig into him. But it wasn’t going to be as easy as she thought.
Her sassy attitude wasn’t new. It was only that no one put her in her place. Gianni had issues with her in the very beginning. Yet that hadn’t lasted long. Ava needed a firm hand, and appropriate punishment, if called for. Nothing he couldn’t handle.
Gianni had her on her knees with speed. And she had behaved. Most of the time. Now he had no relationship with her. If he had, it wouldn’t have been beyond him to punish her in front of all present. She certainly deserved it. And needed it.
“Gianni,” she said. “I thought we could talk about all of this.” Apparently her attorney had given her permission to speak. If it were Gianni’s decision, Ava wouldn’t speak until he permitted it. And he wasn’t inclined that way anytime soon.
Gianni looked at her with penetrating eyes. He didn’t need to say anything. His look was enough. It always had been. Ava fidgeted with a paper she held, and glanced away. Her attorney came to the rescue. “I think you should hear what she has to say. To be honest, I’d rather she didn’t talk to you directly. I’d prefer to get on with the case. But Ava was adamant that you be given a chance.”
That was a lie, and he knew it. Gianni merely nodded at the attorney. He looked sternly at Ava, and she squirmed in her chair. Still he didn’t say a word. Ava brushed a long strand of hair over her shoulder. “He’s intimidating me,” she said.
Her attorney raised his brows. “I’m sorry, Miss Stewart. No one is here to intimidate you. This is just an informal discussion.” He looked over at Gianni. “And so far, Mr. Rinaldi has not said a word.”
Ava huffed and took a sip of water. Smoothing her skirt, she started again. This time she didn’t look at Gianni. He knew she didn’t dare. If her gaze locked with his again, he would have her begging. Ava had gotten out of control without his guidance.
But he no longer wished to offer it. Gianni was not the least bit interested in Ava. He hadn’t been for some time. He wasn’t enamored with the prospects of a lawsuit. And if he could coerce her into submission with the only tools he had right then—his demeanor and his piercing glare—then he certainly would.
Staring at the paper in front of her, Ava began to speak. “I don’t want to do this Gianni. I really don’t. Despite how you’ve treated me, I want to work it out.” She paused. The room was silent. “I won’t say this outside this room, but I don’t really want your money.”
Gianni didn’t move a muscle.
Ava risked a glance at him, and then began to cry. A tear rolled down her perfect makeup, and her attorney patted her hand. It was revolting. “We parted on bad terms, Gianni.” Through watery eyes, she bravely looked over at him. “I never stopped loving you.”
That was the one thing Gianni hadn’t expected her to say.
She clasped her hands together, and her attorney put his hand on her back in a supportive manner. “I only want us to be together. That’s all I want.”
Gianni exploded. “What is wrong with you, Ava? You know it has been over between us for a long time.”
“Why can’t we discuss this?”
Shooting her a furious look, Gianni said, “Ava, if you wanted to talk, you should have done it sooner. I hadn’t refused to speak with you, had I? But instigating a suit against me does not put me a frame of mind to talk with you. You need to stop this now. You know it. And I know it.”
She was silent for a moment, but the look in her eyes changed. Gianni wondered what kind of medication she was on. Ava was emotional. He knew that about her. But her behavior was strange, even for her.
Wiping a tear with the back of her hand, Ava looked up. She lifted her chin defiantly. “I know you, Gianni. I know your tastes.” She took a breath. “Certainly you can’t want to stay with
The way Ava referred to Leah as
pissed him off. Gianni gritted his teeth. He didn’t want to talk about Leah. He didn’t want her involved in this travesty at all.
Ava grimaced. “She’s just so…
. She’s ordinary. Surely she can’t satisfy you. Not like I did.”
Gianni stood, and his chair went back so fast it nearly fell over. He glared at Ava, and she flinched. “This meeting is over.” He exited the conference room in long strides, and slammed the door behind him. On his way out, he noticed Ava’s dazed look.
That Ava would proceed to attack full force, he had no doubt. So be it. Gianni would have relished the fight, and gladly paid for the legal battle. It was time to put Ava in her place. For so long he had felt guilty for pushing her to suicide.
But he had not predicted that Ava would be vindictive. That changed things. Yet Gianni’s hands were tied. If he were the only one involved, he wouldn’t be as concerned. So what if the press raked him over the coals?
It wouldn’t be the first time. Gianni had survived worse. But he had Leah to consider. He struggled for a way to keep her out of it. Yet he couldn’t think of one. Leah was right. She was the whole reason Ava was doing this.
Jealousy was a powerful motivator. Maybe all along Ava thought Gianni would take her back. Although he had not given her reason to think so. Possibly she had misinterpreted his actions of paying her medical fees, and the cost of therapy.
But then, why wait so long?
It was what Joshua had said. Lately, pictures of Leah by his side had surfaced everywhere. He couldn’t access social media without seeing yet another photo of them together. Gianni was a favorite with the press. And they endlessly wrote about his lifestyle, his wealth, and his women.
Now, if Ava had her way, they would be writing about his sexual preferences. And worse, bantering about whether he abused women or not. It wasn’t worth his attention. Except for one thing: all the implications would affect Leah’s reputation as much as his. That was what worried him. Even a financial settlement wouldn’t shut this up. Ava had made it clear that money wasn’t her motive. He believed her.