Write Me A Romance
© Nina-Gai Till 2013
No reproduction without permission.
All rights reserved.
Cover art by Lily-Mae Benoit © 2013
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are a product of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual people either living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
“I’m never going to have sex again … ever, never, ever.”
Margot burst into great sobbing tears, gulping yet another glass of red wine as she mopped clumsily at her eyes with the corner of my linen tablecloth.
Gently removing the tablecloth from her hand, I substituted a tissue and topped up her glass.
“Margot, you’re forty-one, not ninety-one. You’re gorgeous, sexy, bright … any man would be thrilled to be with you. And you hooked up last week, may I remind you, while I haven’t had sex in…”
I stopped abruptly as my daughter came into the living room, undoubtedly on the prowl for more potato chips and any bit of adult information she could garner.
Lara was just on the brink of adolescence, avid for anything that might help her blaze past her teenage years, directly into womanhood, and I had no desire to fuel her ride with material from a night in with me and my tragic best friend.
Normally we saved the really rude stuff until we were sure our kids were asleep or entrenched in a film, but tonight was Margot’s forty-first birthday and – exceptional circumstances, of course – we were already two bottles of rather excellent burgundy down, with probably a few more to come, particularly given that Margot had refused categorically to go out and celebrate surviving another year. “I’d rather wear prêt-a-porter” was her horrified response when I’d suggested getting a babysitter and going out for drinks and dinner somewhere flashy, and so here we were on a slightly less than cheerful Saturday night, battened down with booze and bad attitudes.
I craftily hid my cigarette under the table, hoping my daughter would leave the room before it burnt down to my fingertips. In principle, I do not smoke, responsible mother that I am, but moments of duress have been known to induce an irresistible desire for nicotine and helping Margot to make it through the first moments of her undeniable forties was certainly going to count as stressful. Lara re-emerged from the kitchen with a giant yellow plastic bowl filled with potato chips, and a smart smirk on her angelic face.
“Mum, smoking gives you wrinkles. You’ll never find a man like that. You’re already old, and anyway, who wants to kiss an ashtray?”
She shook her lovely mane of golden hair dismissively and tossed off her final words of wisdom as she took her hoard back to the television room, where Margot’s daughter Maria was undoubtedly scouting the cable channels for something totally unsuitable to watch.
“No wonder you two are still single. Wrinkly, drunk and smelly!”
I poked my tongue out at my angel child’s departing back and smiled at Margot, who was looking at me through her miraculously still intact mascaraed lashes. She might be a mess but she still looked gorgeous.
“Now, as I was saying, I haven’t had sex, not even a kiss, for God’s sake, since Easter two years ago. And that doesn’t count, because it was a quickie with my cheating slime bag ex. You, on the other hand, have just had four days and, more importantly, three nights in a gloriously swish hotel with a sophisticated, elegant man, not even a scummy “it’s this or die” date but one of the wealthiest men in Europe, for heaven’s sake!”
“With a big dick,” she interjected.
“With a big dick,” I added, “only three days ago. And he’s been calling you a hundred times a day, every day since. He might not be the love of your life but at least you are out there, doing it…”
My choice of words set her off again.
“Doing it!” she blubbered. “That’s all I ever do. I do it, they do it, we do it…but it’s just sex. I want to be in love and I’m toooooo old…”
I held back the urge to bitch slap her out of her poor little me fit. We had a pact not to let each other sink into despair, so it was my duty to drag her kicking and screaming away from her blues, but somehow, I knew how she felt. It was all very well to operate on the premise that being alone was better than being with an unfaithful, untrustworthy somebody, but we both knew better. Once the general euphoria and panic of finding yourself single again has subsided – anywhere between the day you throw his belongings out with the trash, to the evening when you spend what would have been your ten year wedding anniversary doing double shifts to pay the mortgage – yes, after a certain period of struggling on alone, alone, always alone, you realize that while life with the devil might have been devastating, life solo was often worse.
In my darkest hours, those nights spent trying to get over the man who’d trampled every one of my beliefs about love and family and our future into the mud, I had dreamed of going on sexy dates with sophisticated, charming men. The conversation was always scintillating, I was thin and fabulous, and everyone had a wonderful time, ending with either wildly satisfying revenge sex or a melt in your mouth romantic kiss, depending on my emotional state at the time.
But the reality of it all was that when you decide to cede to true love, the one, happily ever after, you ditch all knowledge of dating. With a sense of relief, you sink into the safety net of unconditional love, and go bravely forth towards babies, mortgages, and do-it-yourself weekends spent juggling electric drills and screws while your husband stares with frustration at an Ikea diagram.
And for a while – as long as it lasts – it’s very relaxing. No more manic bathroom epics involving hot wax and magnifying mirrors, or squeezing yourself into your one size too small, lucky date dress, knowing that even if the guy was taking you to Cipriani, there was no way you’d be eating. No odd moments during first dates where no one says a word because you’ve both realized this is not going anywhere, but that you still have two hours to get through before you can politely make your excuses about an early morning start and take the first cab home.
When I got married, I really believed it was going to be for life. I knew the moment I laid eyes on my husband that he was going to be the father of my children. I happily ceded my career, body and pension plan to him, knowing that he’d take care of me and mine for the rest of our days. And even when I discovered that our ideas of forever after weren’t exactly the same – roughly at the same time that I discovered he’d cleaned out our bank accounts and set up house with a teenager – it still didn’t occur to me that at some point I’d have to sink back into the dating world.
In fact, since we’d split up, I’d ignored the romance problem completely, other than the occasional fantasy that remained in my head. Margot dated enough for both of us, and that was fine with me, even if I was as lonely as hell. The idea of going out with a stranger was abhorrent to me. Spending hours trying to find out if he was worthy of more attention seemed like a waste of time. I didn’t need any more friends, and I couldn’t see how dating could lead to the only thing I wanted which was my family back, so what was the point?
I think that was what Margot was getting at. Although she was beautiful and vivacious and interesting, and even though she met lots of supposedly eligible men, dated them, and often slept with them, at the end of the day, the dates were pointless reminders of all that she’d lost in her divorce.
Looking down at Margot, slumped on the floor next to my couch, I had to smile. For someone so close to emotional death, she looked as stunning as ever. If it had been anyone else, I would have hated her, but I’d got past my jealousy about an hour after I’d met her, a million years ago on my first day at university.
It was quite a memory. Margot had been sitting on a bench outside the library, looking bereft and beautiful with her lush body, just the right side of plump, her thick wavy auburn hair and dark Italian eyes. She was quite easily the best-dressed student I’d ever seen. When she saw me looking at her, she smiled through her tears and told me, with what I would come to know as her customary candor, that she’d just been to her grandmother’s funeral and that she was in no mood to listen to overweight men digress on the history of economics and did I think it was too early for a gin and tonic?
Over the years, we’d grown to become the closest of friends, despite the enormous differences in our backgrounds and personalities. Margot had been the first one to hold my daughter when she was born; I was chief bridesmaid at her terribly chic society wedding. She was the one I ran to when my husband left us, just as I’d helped her to pick up the pieces after her marriage imploded. And here we were still, twenty years after our first afternoon drinking cocktails in the university bar while the other students drank beer, still laughing each other out of the blues, knowing that no matter how bad things got, a hug and a glass of wine would see us through.
I rose unsteadily, topped up her glass again, turned and walked over to the iPod. Some serious music therapy was in order. I ran through the menu until I came to our anthem. I pushed up the dial and the Lady of Soul came belting through, the baseline shaking the flowers in the vase on the top of the speaker.
“What you want, baby I got it…”
I grabbed her arm and pulled her up. Margot clutched her glass, sloshing red wine in her cleavage, as we started in on our time-honored anti-blues moves.
“Ok, baby!” I shouted over the music. “Let’s hear what we got!”
Margot did a remarkably able bump and grind for someone so very drunk.
“We got it all!”
I danced over to the table to grab my wine, took a big sip for energy, and shouted out “Yeah” in my best American accent.
Margot was on a roll.
“We got love. We’re gorgeous. We’re sexy. We’re fabulous.”
She bumped again, this time missing my hip for the side of the couch, but the movement was there.
“We got it all…”
We sang it loud and proud, at least until a frowning pre-teen in the doorway informed us that it was late, for heaven’s sake, and could we keep it down, please? Honestly, kids these days…
When we had both slumped back into our usual posts, me on the floor next to the fire and Margot on the couch nearest the window, where she believed the light to be the most flattering, Margot smiled blearily at me and said “thanks”.
“Hey, that’s what friends are for, right?”
She sniffed and I leaned over and hugged her.
“I know, Margot. I know it’s hard. But at least you’re brave enough to be out there, meeting people and … living. I’m proud of you. And don’t forget, I count on you. Hell, I live vicariously through you. Don’t give up now.”
“Are you kidding? Life without sex? I’d rather jump. I don’t know how you do it. And don’t tell me that plastic counts!”
Margot often made fun of the very cute vibrating rabbit I’d bravely bought online, smirking that the only rabbit she wanted anything to do with was the one with which they’d lined her mink coat.
She drank down the last of her glass.
“Sorry about that. I guess it’s the birthday blues combined with yet another date that is destined to go nowhere.”
She looked at me seriously.
“It’s that leap from hotel suite to breakfast with me and my daughter at home that I just can’t do. All the men I date are eminently,” she stumbled slightly over the word, “fuckable. They are just not the kind of men you take home to meet the kids.”
I laughed, trying to lighten the atmosphere.
“It used to be our mothers we worried about, now it’s our daughters. How old do you have to be before you can date with no consequences?”
Three hours later, after I’d shuffled Margot into a cab, parked her daughter and mine in their beds, and cleaned up the bottles, pizza boxes and overflowing ashtray, I sat down on the terrace with my last, emergency ciggie and a medicinal brandy. The moon was low and bright over the Mediterranean and once again, I counted my blessings: my beautiful daughter was healthy and – mostly – happy, my house might be falling down but it was in one of the most beautiful places in the world. My job was dull for sure, but it was safe and paid most of the bills and let me collect my child everyday after school.
And I had good friends, the best of whom was Margot, my neighbor, partner-in-crime, occasional babysitter and a whole lot more. Life could definitely be worse.
The next morning, it was. The sun was shining sardonically at me through the open blinds as I cautiously opened my eyes. Green tea seemed urgent and so I dragged myself into the living room, blurry-eyed and generally unfocussed, when the doorbell blasted me into reality. A large, very serious looking Monaco policeman stood on my doorstep. Clearly, this was not going to be good news.
“Bonjour Madame. Are you the friend of Margot Bartolini?”
At once, my heart flew into my mouth. Margot! What had happened? Taxi accident? Worse? Moments later I shook my head at the complete and utter stupidity of it all. Who could believe it? Even the cop had the good grace to smile, slightly.
“Would you be willing to vouch for her? I don’t think he’s going to press charges and it’s probably wiser that she keep a low profile in case the press finds out. I’m sure her father would prefer this to remain … discrete.”
Later that afternoon, I sat and listened as Margot nodded meekly at the telephone, not daring to speak. Monaco was a very small, very rich world and Margot’s father was almost the top of it. Despite being in Venezuala surveying his real estate interests, his network of flunkies had managed to keep him up to date of his daughter’s follies, and Margot was once again being threatened with being cut off.
“Poor little rich girl,” I teased her, once she was off the line. “Now, are you going to tell me what really happened?”
Apparently, on the way home to her apartment on the port, Margot had asked her father’s driver to stop at the Palace hotel so she could run in and get cigarettes from the bar – her father owned the hotel – and that was when she’d seen her recent date exchanging saliva with a very young, and according to Margot, very slutty-looking eastern European girl. The many bottles of wine consumed with me had give her the superhuman strength required to pick up the heavy silver ice bucket from the bar and hurl it at them both. Fortunately it struck the window of the cocktail bar, embellishing the view of Monaco’s harbor with a delicate filigree of broken glass. No one was hurt and while the director of the hotel – Margot’s godfather – had persuaded the gentleman in question that it would be better for everyone if no charges were laid, Margot was taken off, still hurling invectives in Italian, to the dry out suite in the commissariat.
“It’s not like I even really liked him or anything, it’s just that he reminded me of every other cheating bastard we’ve ever known, and I simply couldn’t take it anymore.”
She looked up at me seriously from under her messy fringe, her smudged eye makeup only illuminating her startling dark eyes.
“I did it for us, you know. I did it on purpose. I didn’t lose my mind or anything, I’m just sick of men getting away with everything…”
Much later, after many consoling coffees, we agreed to meet up for lunch the following day, and Margot left, both children in tow. Normally I would have absolved her from child-minding activities, but I had a telephone conference with a software development platform in Boston that would last for hours and I knew that a house full of noisy pre-teen girls was not conducive to understanding technical specifications, let alone convincing the client to let me do my job properly.
As luck would have it, a system crash wiped out the platform for the afternoon and no one knew how long it would take to fix, so I was footloose and fancy free, at least until the techies needed me again. Suddenly, I felt the urge to write something. This was noteworthy: I hadn’t felt much of anything except numb since my ex had left us for his nineteen year old bimbette, just over two years ago. Once the shock and hurt and anger had dissipated, all my energies had gone into survival: finding a job, taking care of the kids, moving from Paris to Monaco and buying a home, just generally keeping my head above water. And while I wrote every day, lots of frightfully dull documents about the components of mobile telephone networks, I hadn’t had the urge to let my soul soar and write from the heart. My great novel – half finished – languished on my desktop, and no matter how many post-its I stuck in the middle of the screen, urging me to WRITE!, I never seemed to have the time, or more to the point, the inclination.
Margot never tired of hassling me about my failure to write a best-selling novel – she knew it was my lifelong dream to publish something I’d written for me. Not user manuals or installation and troubleshooting guides but stories, in my voice. But I hadn’t written a word, not even a short story or a poem, let alone a single sentence in the novel I’d started when I was married, since my ex had left.
I harked back to a manic conversation from the night before, when, before the maudlin bug took us, we had been laughing hysterically about our attempts to define our perfect men.
After reviewing all potential males, past and present, and failing to find even one reasonable possibility, we’d been obliged to move onto celebrities. Margot liked George Clooney, but only in Ocean’s 11 and 13 – apparently in 12, he’d lost a few points for a nascent potbelly, which reminded me that he kept a pig in the house, yet another reason to cross him off my list. Men were pigs, why would I want a man and a pig? We both had a slight leaning towards John Cusack, but only as the quirky romantic in Serendipity, and neither of us gave Brad Pitt a look-in, simply because who wanted to date a man prettier than us?
When midnight rolled around, we were lying on the floor with a bottle of brandy and two loopy Barbie straws, bemoaning the imminent lack of cigarettes and gazing at a photo of Jules Lorre because, as Margot so charmingly put it, he gave great seduction. I had to agree, especially as she and I had spent a recent evening drooling over the character he played during one of our chick flick movie nights. It was him or Colin Firth but Margot vetoed my vote for the safe but utterly unoriginal Mister Darcy on the grounds that he only played characters that didn’t have sex on screen, so he didn’t count.
“You can’t put up someone you can’t sleep with,” she’d said.
“Oh right, like I could sleep with any of these men. And may I remind you that I’ve given up men anyway. I actually like being alone. I don’t want anyone else in here, messing Lara and me up. I think that for now I consider the Evil Dog to be my ideal male companion.”
I hugged my long-suffering golden retriever to me, and he farted unenthusiastically and scratched his nether regions in response. Just like a real husband.
Margot looked at me indulgently.
“I know you think you’re safe but one of these days, some guy is going to come along and sweep you away. You could date, you know, but you resist and they run. I wish you’d just find yourself a lovely man and have some fun.”
She looked fierce and not a little drunk.
“Meanwhile, WRITE SOMETHING! Poem, short story, your version of War and Peace … I don’t care, but as long as you aren’t writing, your ex is winning. You let him keep the house, the car, and your wedding silver. He got the best years of your life. Don’t let him take your passion away from you too.”
I looked up and saw that she was totally serious.
“Really babe, I’ve watched you pick up the pieces over the last couple of years. I know how hard it’s been. Hell, I know how hard it still is. And you’re doing great. Lara’s doing great. You’re almost back but it’s like there’s a part of you that’s missing. Remember how happy you used to be when you wrote? Don’t you want that feeling back?”
I couldn’t tell her that that part of me was gone for good. Apparently I lost my ability to write in the divorce. I hadn’t even tried recently, because I knew that whatever I wrote would be crap. It was as if I’d lost my voice.
I poked her and said laughingly, “Yes ma’am, I’ll get to it” and segued onto something else; thankfully she let me. I knew she meant well but it hurt me more than I could say that my one great passion had gone, disappeared, along with my husband and ten years of married life.
Today, with my hangover easing and the luxury of child-free time in front of me, I sat down at my trusty little Mac and stared at my blank screen and thought about what Margot had said the day before, about how I’d let my ex strip me of everything that I was.
I sat down at my computer and gazed blankly at the screen. Margot had said to write, and so I would. She’d also said to find myself a gorgeous man and have some fun. Well, given that I had to write something, anything really, as a warm-up activity for my brain, and given that she wanted to me find a man, which was out of the question, I figured I would write myself a romance.
Really, it was a great idea. All I had to do was write myself the perfect man. It’d be good practice to get some words down on paper and it was an amusing idea to try to create the world’s most perfect love affair. Who needed reality when there was imagination?
First of all, I needed a main character. I glanced up at the computer screen and caught myself looking into Jules Lorre’s smiling cerulean eyes. Ah, yes: at one point between bottle numbers three and four, we’d Googled for photos of our fantasy actor men. Hysterical when you’re drunk, a little sad in the light of day.
“I’ll take it as a sign,” I said out loud, and settled down to work on an outline. “Jules Lorre, welcome to my world.”
An hour later, I had half a page of notes before me, and apparently the first page of what was clearly developing into a story. A completely unrealistic, delightfully captivating love story involving a boring hausfrau not unlike myself, and a gorgeous, sexy movie star.
I showed the first chapter to Margot when she dropped the girls off later that afternoon. She did a little dance of joy, hugged me, and then sat down to read while I made coffee.
“Bravo, bravo, bravo!” Margot sang as she waved my pages around while I put the tray with the coffee down. “This is great! What happens next? Don’t stop, this is really cool…”
I rescued my pages and put them down on my desk, under another picture of Jules Lorre that I’d printed out earlier that afternoon.
“I don’t know. It’s just a practice run. I don’t know if it will go anywhere. I’ve never written a love story before.”
I grinned at her.
“Those who can, do. Those who can’t, write.”
Margot took a delicate sip of her coffee and shuddered. Clearly, her hangover was of the tenacious kind.
“Listen, I’m dying to read the next chapter, and you know me, I don’t even like to read.”
It was true. Margot’s idea of reading stopped at perusing Women’s Wear Daily in order to check that she had ordered or already owned whatever was hot that season.
“Anyway. The only thing that matters is that you are writing. The story is cute. You look happy. So keep writing. Don’t stop. Keep writing.”
It was true. I was happy. I had spent the afternoon letting the words flow through me onto the page, and I was like the proverbial pig in mud. I hadn’t felt that sense of connection to anything or anyone in the longest time. I needed to write like I needed to breath. I’d been writing in one way or another since I could first hold a pen. My favorite subject at school was literature, I’d done a liberal arts degree, and proceeded to earn my living as a copywriter, journalist, and now technical writer, ever since. But what I loved most was story telling, and I’d been more than halfway through my first novel when my ex had left.
When Margot had gone and my darling daughter was sound asleep, I returned to my screen and smiled at my muse, now rather unceremoniously tacked to the wall with a pin that said “Bite Me”. “Ready to inspire me, Mister Lorre?” I asked, as I settled down to write. And write I did, all night and seemingly despite myself, until Lara came stumbling in, grumbling about being late for school. Truly, writing about falling in love was not unlike the real thing, and I was anxious to get to the next page as if it were a series of dates with the most certain of outcomes, with the heroine and hero holding hands as they unite for life on a sunset beach.
Two weeks later, Margot and I were sitting at a VIP table at Sass Café, Monaco’s version of Studio 54. The pounding beat of house music was deafening but at least we were no longer dancing on the banquettes whilst swigging vodka. It was gone three in the morning but I was too hyped to care. Our girls were away at theatre camp and we were crazy and carefree for the weekend, a rare and unusual occurrence. Not only that, we were celebrating because, on a dare from Margot, I’d sent a couple of chapters and a synopsis of my little novel in progress off to an agent, and miracle of miracles, he’d sold it. Not for a fortune – the advance would barely keep the Evil Dog in food for a month, but still, someone had bought something I’d written. We’d been drinking since ten that morning – a press junket for some reality TV star’s jewelry launch that a friend of Margot’s had organized – and I was on my second wind. I was still burbling away when I saw Margot’s eyes widen as she looked behind me.
“There’s your man,” she whispered loudly. “That’s him, that’s the object of your fantasies. Your inspiration …”
I turned around and followed her gaze to a group of loud Brits being ushered through the doorway. A couple of very large men in black with earpieces hovered over them as the club manager guided the group towards the VIP section where we were sitting. As they drew closer, I saw him. Tallish, lovely chiseled features enhanced by a three-day beard that looked great but would be hell to kiss. A dandy, judging from the clothes, and clearly adoring being the center of attraction. A gorgeous baby blonde rushed up to him, waving a pen, and I watched incredulously as he signed her breast with a flourish and then bent down to kiss her pert young boob. As he straightened, his eyes swept towards our corner and caught mine staring at him. He blew me a kiss and turned back to his friends.
“Gorgeous but God save us from celebrities, they’re so … nouveau …” Margot’s adorable baby brother Carlo said from his perch just above me.
“You only say that because you want him all for yourself,” smirked his current boy toy, Rupert. “Now, pour me another shot and if you’re good, you’ll get me instead.”
Another hour or so later, we were just drunk enough to realize it was time to go. Standing outside in the chill night air while we waited for a taxi, Margot suddenly realized she’d left her fur inside. Or her mother’s fur, because although Margot refused to buy fur, she had absolutely no objection to wearing it, claiming that she’d rather be a warm, chic hypocrite than a cold, poorly dressed eco-warrior. Five minutes later she came staggering out, clutching her beast.
“What, still no taxi? This is why I don’t do public transport!” she complained, until her brother reminded her that they’d given the driver the night off so there was less chance of her father getting a report of how they’d spent the evening. After the ice-bucket incident, she was still on fragile ground with her very correct Italian father.
The doorman reminded us that, thanks to a major rock concert just across the road in the Grimaldi center, there were practically no taxis to be had and that we might be waiting a while for a taxi to arrive from Nice. Margot and Carlo and Rupert were all for going back inside the club, but I was tired and yearned for my bed, so I assured them that I would be fine waiting with the doormen and amidst joking reminders about life after forty and party pooper noises, I sent them back inside for more silliness. As I stood at the rank, waiting, I wished fervently that a taxi would arrive and take me home to my cozy bedroom, my lovely soft sheets and the pillow that was the closest thing I had to a lover.
“Hey, pretty lady, want a ride?”
I ignored the slurred voice and continued to dream of flannel pajamas and my goose down quilt.
“Hey,” the voice called more impatiently. “D’you want a ride home? Or I’ve got a better idea. Let’s go have another drink at my home.”
I turned to face the voice and saw the object of my fantasies, somewhat worse the wear, hanging out the window of a town car, only feet from me. The gorgeous hunk from the picture next to my computer was gone; in his place was a thirty-something guy who might have been good looking were he not so disheveled, the once penetrating eyes now bleary and red, his face puffy with booze.
I considered a cutting reply but decided that he was probably too drunk or dumb to bother, so I just shook my head and turned away. Celebrities. Too much money, not enough reality. Of course, if Margot were here, she’d have kicked me for turning down an experience, but somehow, sleeping with a drunk celluloid character was far less tempting than my own sweet bed. Happily, he seemed to have a short attention span and the car pulled away, and even more happily, my taxi finally turned up.
I gazed at the woman behind the check-in desk with all of the venom I could muster and hissed “If you don’t get me a seat on this plane, I will create the biggest scandal Heathrow has ever seen … and I don’t care if there is a baggage handlers’ strike or my plane’s been cancelled or if the damn thing’s wings have fallen off, I have to get back to my daughter’s school play TONIGHT!”
I knew I was fighting a losing battle but my heart was beating fast and I knew that any moment I was going to lose it completely. Lara had been rehearsing for months – this was her first lead role ever and I had to, had to, had to be there for her. I would never have even come on this trip if my biggest client hadn’t insisted. I hated traveling without my daughter – London was as far as I could bring myself to go without her and even that was too far. The check-in clerk shook her head and I knew it was no good, the plane was full, and I had been bumped. I felt the tears welling up in my eyes as I stepped away from the counter. It was just so unfair. No matter how hard I tried to be a good mother, the kind of mother who could keep her child’s father around, life kept getting in the way. My daughter would never forgive me for missing her performance, and I would never forgive myself.
“Excuse me, Miss?”
I looked up to see the check-in employee looking at me in awe.
“It seems that there’s a spare seat in first class. I’ve upgraded you but you’ll have to run because they are boarding immediately.”
I grabbed the boarding pass she brandished at me and thanked her over my shoulder as I ran toward the gate.
“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome aboard this British Airways flight to Nice, Côte d’Azur. We’ll be taking off a little late today as we’re waiting for some last minute passengers so meanwhile I would ask you to sit back and relax…”
My heart was still pounding from the sprint to the gate, and as I glanced at the empty seat next to me, I prayed that the other passengers would hurry. It was going to be a close call to get to the theatre on time.
“Hi, may I just squeeze past you?”
I nodded without looking up, and moved my legs so that the passenger could get into his window seat.
“Well, aren’t you going to thank me?”
Great, a talker. It never failed. No matter where I flew, I always ended up with a talker. Almost always men, too, enough to make me wonder if the notion of the mile high club was as ingrained as the need to cheat.
“I mean, you could at least say thanks to me for persuading my agent to give up his seat. I’ll owe him for this and trust me, you never want to owe an agent anything.”
Determined to put a polite stop to all the chat that was preventing me from dwelling on the injustices of life, I prepared my most evil glare and got ready to freeze him out. But when I turned to face my chatty fellow traveler, I was the one that froze. For sitting right there next to me, a wide smile on his handsome face, was the object of many a fantasy, including mine. Jules Lorre.
I studied him for a moment, while I gathered my thoughts. He was certainly better looking today than the last time I’d seen him, hanging out of a limousine window, but somehow less pretty than the photo perfect image on my computer.
“Actually, I owed you. I wanted to thank you for saving me from myself in Monaco…”
Suddenly it dawned on me that he meant he was responsible for my seat, but before I could speak, he continued.
“Isn’t it funny the way life works out? I was soooo drunk that night – something I seem to be fairly often these days – and all I really wanted to do was get laid. But you see, I always wake up the next morning with the strangest people beside me … and they always want to stay. Why is that, do you think?”
I was still stuck on the agent business.
“What do you mean? This was your agent’s seat?”
“Yes, and now it’s yours. I was listening when you were yelling at the check-in hostess. You seemed so worried about getting back for your kid. I’ve been there too.”
He smiled so disarmingly, I almost smiled back.
“Once I flew all night from Toronto, spent the morning with my daughter for her birthday, and then flew back to the set. Twenty-four hours non-stop but it was worth it. So anyway, I asked my manager, Bernie, if he’d mind giving up his seat, and here we are.”
“Why didn’t you give up yours?”
He leaned back on the headrest and looked down at me.
“I was curious about you. You seemed so … grown-up. I saw you, you know, in that bar in Monaco. And outside.”
He smirked at me.
“You looked like my mother when you frowned at me.”
It came back to me. When he’d been kissing the girl’s boob.
“I could have had her, you know, that girl. She offered … well, you don’t want to know what she offered. Her, her sister, probably her mother, for all I know.”
A cloud passed over his face and it occurred to me that he was much more attractive up close and serious than in all the charming, big smile, photo-op snaps that graced the glossy pages of the celebrity magazines.
“Just because I’m famous. That’s the only reason she wanted me. Just so she could tell her friends that she’d slept with Jules Lorre … anyway.”
He drew the word out.
“You were my conscience that night. I saw you frowning at me in the corner. You reminded me of my mother, she would have been disgusted with me too …”
“Jules Lorre! You’re Jules Lorre, aren’t you?”
A plump head with a brash New York accent appeared over the top of the seat behind us.
“Wow, I can’t believe you’re sitting right here. Are you going to Nice, too? Gosh, you’re not as tall as you are in that movie …”
By now, the woman was leaning over the seat, inserting herself between her target and me with an agility that belied her size.
“Excuse me, but I was talking to my friend. Would you mind?”
He spoke calmly but his words were clipped. The woman glared at me and then returned to her seat, but not before saying, in a very loud voice, that “he’s much cuter in the movies than in real life.” Astonishing, how rude people could be. For a moment I considered telling her that even a full studio makeup team couldn’t help her but then I figured he was probably used to it.
“I’m sorry, where was I?”
“You were saying that I reminded you of your mother…”
He had the good grace to look embarrassed.
“Oh no, what I meant was that you looked somehow disapproving, you know, when I kissed that girl’s breast. It’s not something I normally do, you know…I mean, I do kiss them, but not in public…”
He caught my skeptical glance and smiled sheepishly.
“Well, not that often. That’s what I meant when I said you saved me. I’ve been falling through to the dark side lately. Everything – and everyone – is so easy. It’s whatever I want, whomever I want, all the time. Between that and the paparazzi, life has been a bit complicated. And I let myself be drawn in. But I’m trying to stop. I don’t want to wake up with another anonymous blonde. So when you frowned at me and that girl and her … chest, it reminded me that I was trying to stop …”
The flight attendant drew close and paused beside us.
“Mister Lorre, welcome aboard. What can I serve you?”
She simpered so much when she spoke that I half expected her to say “coffee, tea or me”.
He turned to me and touched me gently on the arm, and I shivered, despite myself. I saw the flight attendant’s smile slip for an instant. Jules asked me, “What would you like? Coffee, tea or me?” I was about to offer a sarcastic reply when he winked at me. Clearly, the flight attendant’s devotion had not escaped his notice.
Once we’d been served, and the flight attendant returned reluctantly to her service, I thanked him politely for helping me get back to Nice, and sensing that I was a little embarrassed by his candor, he moved the conversation along by asking me about my daughter. I told him about the play she was doing at school, and how excited she was to be on stage. I didn’t tell him that it was more than just a play, but the very first time that my daughter had been engaged in any activity that made her truly happy since her father had left.
We chatted lightly about our children, their schools, their mutual obsession with horses and such throughout the rest of the flight. Perhaps we could have discussed other things – he was a talker and an interesting one at that – but the interruptions were legion. From the economy class escapee who demanded a kiss to the coterie of male and female flight attendants requesting autographs, thankfully not on body parts, to the Japanese businessman who made Jules’ name sound like a car, it never stopped. It reminded me of trying to have a conversation in the middle of a squash court. There was always something coming towards us.
Finally – and not a minute too soon, as I was getting worried about arriving at the theatre in time – the Capitan announced our imminent arrival. I started to gather my things, ready to bolt.
“Listen, I know you’re in a rush, but I’m in town for a week, working with a friend on a new script, and I’d really like to see you. This is the nicest conversation I’ve had in ages. Actually, it’s the only real conversation I’ve had in months.”
I considered it for a moment. Talk about being careful what you wish for. Here was I, writing the perfect romance, when lo and behold, the main protagonist appears magically in my life. But while he seemed nice enough in person, I knew that I would more than likely be just another conquest in the life of a man desired by half of the sentient planet. Better to leave him on paper, where he couldn’t behave badly unless I decided so.
“Thank you so much for getting me back to Nice. And thank your manager too. I hope he wasn’t too inconvenienced. I am really grateful, but I suspect I’m going to be very busy this week, and …”
Before I could finish, the chief stewardess interrupted.
“Mister Lorre? Ground control has asked me to inform you that there is a very large group of photographers and journalists waiting for you. Would it be more convenient for you if we took you out via an alternative exit? Your driver will be informed …”
While they worked out an escape route, I quickly grabbed my handbag and computer and rushed out of the plane. If I hurried, I could get to the school theatre before the curtain went up.
Later that night, when I had put my starlet to bed, exhausted but triumphant, I sat down with a glass of wine and contemplated my day. How very odd, to have my muse, as it were, just appear. Synchronicity or else a very bad joke. In any case, it had been an experience. I wondered briefly what it all meant. Who knew? Granted, he was extremely attractive, more than I would have imagined. He was smart and charming and clearly kind. The type of man you could just sit down and be comfortable with, once you got past the celebrity factor. And what was that flash of feeling that had hit me when he’d touched my arm? I put it down to a particularly insistent case of abstinence, and tried to put him out of my mind. A man like that – famous and probably in love with his own press, out of touch with the reality of being a single parent to a troubled pre-teen daughter, too gorgeous for his own good and at least five years too young for me – had no place in my life other than on paper. In any case, at least it gave my character research a bit of a boost.
I had to admit – if only to myself – that there were worse ways to spend a hour and half’s flight than talking to an attractive, erudite man that half the world fancied. And for the first time in a long time, I went to bed and dreamed of passionate kisses and lingering touches and a certain green-eyed movie star my subconscious chose not to name.
The next evening, when we arrived at the theatre for the second performance, there was even more bustle than the night before, the only difference being a number of large, black-suited men with ear pieces scattered about the place looking foreboding. As we wound our way through the crowded auditorium towards the dressing room, we bumped into the school principal, Mrs. Spencer, a rather formidable woman who never failed to remind me of Mary Poppins crossed with Fidel Castro.
“Ah Lara, we’re expecting an exceptional performance tonight from you. And I should tell you that we’re going to have a rather special guest in the audience this evening. I can’t say who for the moment,” here she most uncharacteristically blushed, “but it’s a marvelous opportunity to show off our school. Now break a leg!”
My over-excited daughter scanned the auditorium, trying to spot Monaco’s crown prince or the latest teenage sex symbol.
“Maybe it’s Prince Albert, Mummy. Or Troy from High School Musical? He likes acting and school…”
Her train of thought was interrupted by Madame Augier, her drama teacher, surrounded by a number of fifth and sixth graders incongruously clad in varying states of early eighteenth century costume, clapping her hands loudly and calling for everyone’s attention.
“Allez, time for the show, mes enfants. Does everyone have his or her makeup on?”
I gave my little angel a huge hug and pushed her gently towards her peers.
“Go act your heart out, my sweet girl. I’m so proud of you.”
I left her to her own devices with a little prayer and made my way to my seat at the front of the theatre. The rows were filling up quickly as the teenage ushers showed the audience to their seats. Finally, ensconced between Pauline’s fat mother and Ella’s skinny mother, I watched in awe as my beautiful daughter emoted her way across the stage, my heart soaring when she sang and my gut clenching when she fumbled her lines again, the same place as the night before.
When the lights came up, I pushed my way through the crowd towards the dressing room. As I came up to the stage door, Mrs. Spencer intercepted me, towing Lara by the arm.
In a voice hushed with amazement, she said, “Our special guest would like to meet your daughter. He’s waiting in my office, he’d like to remain discrete, the press, you know…”
“Mummy, I think it’s someone really famous,” whispered Lara, “but I really need to pee first. And wash my face. This stuff itches.”
Once she was out of costume and miraculously my clean-faced princess again, we made our way through the milling parents and students to Mrs. Spencer’s office.
“Mister Lorre, may I present our young star, Miss Lara Tabberer?”
My jaw dropped in surprise. The telephone rang and Mrs. Spencer answered it brusquely, and then reluctantly hurried away to deal with another student catastrophe, leaving the three of us standing there, in the midst of our own little drama. I couldn’t believe he had remembered the name of my darling daughter’s school, let alone that he’d actually invited himself along. Before I could speak – and believe me, there were many choice words racing through my head – my daughter spoke up.
“Hello. I’m Lara. Who are you? You don’t look very famous to me.”
He smiled at me first, his grin fading ever so slightly when he caught my scowl.
“Hello Lara. My name is Jules and you’re right, I’m not very famous. But I am an actor and I just wanted to tell you that you did a great job tonight. Really good acting. Do you want to be an actress when you grow up?”
My daughter made a rude noise.
“Oh no, that’s not a job. I’m an actress now for school because if I do drama I don’t have to take science. But I really want to be a horse doctor. Or have a ranch. In the wild west. With lots of horses.”
He seemed nonplussed.
“OK. Fair enough. And you’re right, acting is not really a job for grownups.”
He thought for a minute.
“Listen. You did really well tonight…”
She interrupted, “Except for the part when my character’s got to cry. I keep forgetting my lines because I can’t cry… that part’s really hard.”
He smiled sympathetically, and my anger subsided slightly. He really was kind, even if he was a spoiled celebrity.
“That’s easy, just think of the saddest thing you’ve ever seen.”
He glanced at me, and then turned back to her.
“Are you hungry?”
Stupid question to ask a pre-teen. Lara was always hungry.
“What about we go and get you something to eat and maybe I can give you some more tips. I don’t know much about horses but I do know something about acting…”
They both turned to me, and I nodded, despite myself. At least then I would have an opportunity to berate him for stalking me … although somewhere deep inside I couldn’t help but feel flattered. And annoyed with myself for caring.
We made arrangements to meet in the restaurant at his hotel in Monaco, and he even had the good grace to look embarrassed when Lara informed him that a burger was out of the question because eating animals was disgusting.
As Lara and I walked out of the theatre to our car, a sudden surge of anger hit me like a rock on a windscreen. Who the hell was this guy to just turn up like that, at my daughter’s school, no less? How dare he insinuate himself into my family life – I didn’t even know him! Really, take a normal man with a genetically programmed sense of entitlement and add a dash of celebrity “whatever I want, I get”, and you’ve got a surefire recipe for disaster. My sense of indignation grew until I felt positively vehement. Pretexting a sudden headache, I convinced Lara that we really ought to go home and rest up for the following evening’s final performance, and fortunately she was tired enough to agree without any of her usual probing questions.
The night’s events had really thrown me. This was exactly, exactly, why I stayed away from men in general. After about five minutes with any of them, they messed with my head. I really didn’t know why I was so perturbed until I remembered that the reason my marriage broke up was more than just dick wanderlust, although that was bad enough.
It had taken me a while to realize but at the end of it all, it wasn’t so much the infidelity as the fact that my ex-husband had done exactly what he’d wanted to do, as always.
From buying a new car to restructuring our business to designing our home, he’d always done exactly what he’d felt, regardless of my feelings. And when it came to leaving us, his wife and child, for someone else, he did exactly as he wanted, with no thought as to the impact his actions might have on others.
As I felt myself getting more and more wound up, I took a deep breath and tried to relax. There was no sense in getting mad – men would be men, and this one was no different to the others, despite being so delicious to look at, my traitorous hormones muttered. And he’d be out of our lives, quick enough. Men like him had short attention spans, and his frequent presence in the trashy magazines, linked to a mad variety of starlets, seemed to indicate that he would soon have forgotten all about us.
By the time we got home, I’d just about talked him out of my mind, and for once, I was in no mood to write. It was almost as if I was giving him more space than he merited, and I hated him even more for taking away my story. Dreaming about him on paper as a two dimensional character was one thing; real life was entirely another.
I tucked my lovely little girl into my bed as a compensatory treat and promised to come along shortly, but she was almost asleep as soon as her head hit the pillow, murmuring only something about Jules being a nice man. Which only served to make me hate him even more, for making my daughter like him when she’d likely never see him again.
The following evening when we arrived early at the school for the final performance, it was nearly impossible to park. There seemed to be people massed everywhere, the car park was full, and there were even press vans complete with satellite transmitters. I knew they were recording the performance for posterity, but despite the resources of our fancy international school, I couldn’t believe that all of this kit was necessary to record a middle school performance.
“Can you believe this mess?”
Margot greeted me at the entrance to the auditorium with a scowl.
“I had to park halfway down the damn road and walk.”
She pronounced the word as if she’d been obliged to skin rabbits with her teeth.
“And carry the bloody costume. I’ve practically ruined my Louboutins!”
“What’s it all about?” I asked, as I watched our little starlets rush off to join their troupe.
“Apparently, there’s some celebrity or another coming to assist at tonight’s performance. It can’t be Albert, he’s in Gstaad because my brother saw him this morning…ouf, whoever it is owes me a pair of new shoes!”
Most uncharacteristically, I hadn’t mentioned my encounters with England’s answer to Hollywood. Normally, we shared everything – there wasn’t a thing Margot didn’t know about my life, and vice versa. There was no real reason not to mention him – indeed, in terms of girlie gossip, this was good stuff. But if something had held me back before, now the sinking feeling in my stomach indicated that it was time to spill.
After checking that our girls were costumed and ready to go, I dragged Margot over to the stand selling mulled wine and as we held the warm goblets, I told her how I had seen my fetish actor again that night when I was waiting for a taxi in Monaco, and then related the airport story and watched her eyes widen as I shared the previous evening’s encounter.
At first she said nothing – most unusual for Margot – and I worried that she might have been upset with me for holding out. When she finally spoke, I had to strain to hear her over the noise of the other parents.
“Maybe he’s the one.”
She raised her dark eyes to mine and smiled. I started to tell her that she was completely lunatic when she stopped me with a look.
“That’s a lot of synchronicity. Don’t you think it’s pretty funny that he just turns up, immediately after you start writing about him? Maybe he’s the one. The one who’ll fix your heart and love you and take care of you for ever.”
I carefully removed the cup from her hands.
“Sweetheart, that’s enough gluevein for you. He’s not the one. There is no ‘one’. I had that once and it didn’t work out so well and anyway, he’s a spoiled brat of a movie star. He lives by the light of the paparazzi, not homework and orthodontists and a houseful of twelve year olds. He’s younger than me. We have nothing in common. And worst of all, he’s a MAN. It’s not synchronicity or fate, just a bit of very dumb luck.”
She shook her head and looked me straight in the eye.
“Do you fancy him? Tell me honestly, do you fancy him?”
Clearly, she was losing her mind.
“No, I do not fancy him. I don’t even know the guy. I don’t particularly want to either. So problem solved. Jules Lorre stays on celluloid, and on paper, where he belongs.”
As I spoke, the hum of activity behind me rose to a roar and I heard the photographers shout “he’s here, he’s here! Over here Jules! Jules, a smile”. A crowd of parents surged forward to see the celebrity accomplish the miracle of stepping out of his town car.
I dragged Margot back behind the canteen, away from the madness. Crowds freaked me out at the best of times – Christmas shopping was always done months in advance so as not to have to deal with the crushes of people the season demanded – and a mass of rabid fans and photographers that were practically foaming at the mouth was enough to give me nightmares for a month.
Margot burst out laughing.
“Famous last words. It looks to me like he doesn’t intend to stay on paper.”
I frowned at her.
“Let’s watch the show from behind the scenes,” I suggested but Margot vetoed the idea immediately and I had to admit she was right. If my daughter looked out and didn’t see me, it would throw her for a loop, and in any case, I didn’t see why I should be inconvenienced by some guy’s whim, if indeed that’s why he was here.
The show was half an hour late in starting and the audience spent more time looking over their shoulders, trying to get a glimpse of the celebrity actor, than watching our children on the stage. The show went wonderfully and this time, my darling angel didn’t fluff a line and even cried like a Madeline on cue – a miracle if ever I saw one.
After the show, we made our way through the crush of over-excited parents to the changing rooms. It was absolute madness, and when I finally got through, I found my daughter deep in conversation with the cause for all the commotion, while her drama teacher looked on, star struck.
“Mummy, Mummy, did you see me?”
My daughter shrieked when she saw Margot and me.
“I cried! Did you see me, I cried, just like Jules told me, and it worked!”
She looked a little shamefaced.
“I imagined the saddest thing I could think of – when daddy left – and I cried. It worked!”
Jules turned to me and grinned. For some reason, I wanted to hit him, even though he’d really done nothing but help. I bit my tongue, as Margot nudged me.
“Thank you, Mister Lorre,” I said as calmly as I could. “You’re very kind and clearly, you’ve been a great help. But you’ll have to excuse us now, I need to take Lara home.”
Lara shook her head.
“No, Mummy. Jules wants to take us out to dinner, seeing as though we didn’t go last night. Can we go? I’m too excited to sleep anyway. And I’m hungry. Please?”
I was about to demur when Margot stepped forward and hugged Lara.
“Darling, you were wonderful tonight. I’m so proud of you! I need to go find Maria, but I know your mum would love to go out.” She smirked at me and said rather obviously, “And you know how she hates to cook.”
She turned to Jules.
“Free food is always good. Take them somewhere nice!”
With that, she whirled off, leaving me stuck with a pleading daughter and a movie star who could barely restrain his mirth.
Twenty minutes later, we were ensconced in my car, having snuck out the backstage door to avoid the mad crush of paparazzi waiting for their ultimate photo opportunity in front of the theatre. But when we arrived at his hotel, there were even more photographers waiting. Jules turned to me and had the good grace to look annoyed. It took me a moment to realize that he was genuinely upset.
“I’m so sorry about this. It’s a real pain. They actually wait outside my house in London to get photos of me with my daughter. It’s not part of the job description, you know, to be hunted like this.”
He looked mutinous for a moment.
“I know it’s a little untoward, but how about if we go to your house? They won’t find us there. I’ll spring for pizzas?”
Lara whooped with delight.
“Marco’s makes the BEST pizzas. He’s a real pizzarello, from Italy. It won’t take long, you’ll see.”
I silently pointed the car in the direction of home. Once we were upstairs, I handed them the pizza menu and left Lara and Jules to call for pizzas and set the table while I went to pour myself a vodka. I knew I was being rude, but it felt as if I’d been maneuvered into some plan of which I was not aware. It occurred to me that this was the first time I’d had a strange man in the apartment since my ex had left. And to be honest, I didn’t like it a bit.
When I finally came out into the living room, the table was set and three deliciously warm pizzas acted as centerpieces. Jules pulled out my chair and I sat down sulkily, without saying a word. Not that anyone noticed. Lara and Jules had started chatting in the car and never stopped, and now, they kept the conversation going for nearly two hours without my input, discussing everything under the sun from acting to horses to favorite African animals and the best holidays Jules had taken with his daughter Carlotta, who was the same age as Lara. Despite my foul mood, I was intrigued to see Lara talking with such energy and verve, clearly enjoying Jules’ company.
I sipped my wine mutinously, mulling over the traitorous ingratitude of daughters. My mother had warned me, but I’d never encountered it before in my own child. Didn’t she know how much I sacrificed on a daily basis, to keep her in fancy sneakers and horse riding lessons? It was only when the last slice of pizza was gone that they paused for breath.
When he saw my thunderous face – it’s very clear when I sulk, as Margot and others have pointed out – he had the good grace to look embarrassed before he turned to Lara and said with a smirk “Lara, have you seen your mother tonight? She must have ducked out and gone to a movie or something. She can’t be here because we haven’t heard her speak at all …”
Lara guffawed, a terrible adolescent noise somewhere between a snort and a smirk, something I planned to remind her of when she was old enough to care.
“Mum doesn’t like men. That’s why she’s not talking.”
She saw him look sideways at me.
“But don’t worry, she’s not a lesbian either.”
This, if nothing else, drew my attention.
“I didn’t even know you knew that word, and I’m certainly not up to hearing you use it at the dinner table. Now,” I stood up, “if you’re both finished, I shall clear the table.”
Jules stood immediately and took the plates I’d collected from my hand.
“Let me. Lara and I have a little surprise for you, so you just stay here. Lara, would you like to give me a hand getting this back to the kitchen?”
His free hand grabbed the bottle of wine, which apparently I’d drunk almost single handedly, and topped up my glass.
I could hear them rustling around in the kitchen, and even the sound of the dishwasher being loaded, something that could only have come from Jules as Lara continued to maintain her inbuilt superstition of a machine that could supersede a task normally performed by her mother.
I sat at the table and continued to sulk, drinking my wine and brooding on rude men and annoying daughters. Finally, they came blasting through the kitchen door bearing a platter of extravagant looking pastries and sorbets, as well as a bottle of champagne, an unfamiliar ice bucket complete with ice, and three – three! – flutes.
I stood, open mouthed with astonishment. None of this bounty had come from my kitchen stores and the last time I looked, Mario’s Pizza did not deliver this kind of service.
Lara was fairly jumping up and down with excitement.
“Look Mummy, all of your favorite sorbets, and even some pastries too. Mario only had Ben & Jerrys for dessert and when I told Jules that you hated their ice-cream, he sent his driver to bring this from the hotel. Isn’t it cool? Don’t eat the millefeuille though, that’s mine.”
Jules popped the cork on the champagne bottle – a very nice bottle of Krug, most annoyingly my all-time favorite champagne – and topped up two and a half glasses.
“I’d like to propose a toast,” he said, passing a glass to me, and a half to Lara.
“To an amazing actress, surely a girl who will succeed no matter what she does.”
He turned to smile at me.
“And to her lovely mother, who has clearly done something very right. Cheers!”
As we clinked our glasses together, Lara uncharacteristically quiet and seemingly very proud of herself, I felt my surliness slip away. However he had wormed his way into our house, he’d certainly made up for it with wonderful food and what seemed to be very genuine kindness to my daughter. I watched them chatter away as I tasted the amazing passionfruit sorbet and tried to imagine the last time I’d seen my daughter joyfully and expressively engaged in conversation with a man. I’d even had to have her change classes to a homeroom with a female teacher after her father left, so bitter was she towards the male gender in general. Although she seemed to be coping better now, I knew that she’d been even more hurt than me, if such a thing was possible, when he left. It made sense. As the shrink had pointed out, I’d lost a husband, but she’d lost the only man she’d ever loved.
At half past midnight, when my angel had been yawning solidly for an hour, I told her it was time to go to bed, hoping Jules would take the hint. He’d been sweet, but I still didn’t want to have to deal with him by myself. Despite my rather pointed hints, he offered to make coffee while I put my Lara to bed.
When I returned, he was waiting in the living room.
“I took the liberty of stoking the fire for you. Here’s your coffee.”
He handed me a cup and smiled guilelessly. Everything about him said “I mean no harm”. I took the coffee and gently but firmly pushed him towards the door, grabbing his coat on the way.
“Look, you’re a very nice person, I’m sure. But we come from two totally different worlds. And while I appreciate the interest you have shown in my daughter, quite frankly, the last thing in the world she needs is someone like you showing some interest and then buggering off, so let’s just stop this now, shall we? Good night and good luck.”
I closed the door firmly on both his stunned look and my terrible guilt.
I have to say, I didn’t sleep well that night. Being disagreeable is not my forte. I don’t enjoy it, and even less so when my mouth runs away from me, which has occasionally happened in the past. As I tossed and turned, I tried to work out why I was so perturbed by Jules, and more importantly, why he bothered with us. It wasn’t as if he’d stuck his hand down my knickers – in fact, he’d been unfailingly polite and helpful on all three occasions that we’d met. He’d also been adorable to my child, when there was absolutely nothing for him to gain. And bought us food, which was always great.
Nevertheless, my innate anxiousness became a ticking bomb when he was around, which seemed to indicate that I should be careful. The last time I’d felt like this was when I’d found my husband’s stash of American Express statements with his girlfriend’s name on them from when he’d flown her for a romantic break in the Maldives.
And why on earth would Jules bother with us anyway? I’d had enough to do with celebrities over the years – thanks to Margot’s lovely brother who was a stylist to the stars – to know that the narcissistic personality that went with the job description meant that they rarely did something for nothing unless there was a camera in view.
The worst thing was that he was so much part of me, on paper, as I continued to write, that having the real person in front of me made for too much reality. It wasn’t that I was starting to feel something for him. No, it was the character I’d created who was in love with him. And I didn’t want any confusion between the two. The last thing in the world I needed was to fall in love with a fame-obsessed actor who best thoughts probably ran to how many papers he had his name in on any given day.
When the sun came up, just as my first coffee of the day was going down, I decided to close the chapter as firmly as I had closed the door. Lara and I were doing just fine, and we really didn’t need anyone else around to confuse us. In any case, the novelty had most certainly worn off for our intrepid move star and I was certain that after such a firm dose of rejection, we wouldn’t be seeing anymore of him.
It wasn’t until I was returning home from taking Lara to school that I saw the envelope poking out of my letterbox. It had been hand-delivered – no stamp – and I only saw the elegant insignia of the hotel on the back once I’d turned it over. There was no doubt as to the identity of the writer.
When I was fortified with more coffee and three cigarettes, I opened the letter, although I still couldn’t get a grip on why a simple letter could have me shaking. Probably too much coffee.
My dearest Grace,
First of all, let me say how much I have enjoyed meeting you. In the madness that is my life, I felt a connection with you that I truly cannot explain. I think – I hope – that you feel it too.
This feeling that I have for you, or about you, is something rare and I can honestly say I have never felt it before. If it were up to me, we would spend some time together and see where this takes us. Maybe friendship, maybe more.
However, I understand that something about this, or me, troubles you. I don’t know what has gone on in your life, only that you seem uncomfortable around me. The last thing in the world I want is to upset or bother you, so I won’t contact you again. But know that I am here, and that you can call me anytime, day or night. I’d really like to be your friend. I do have another request: I would like to keep in touch with Lara, if she wants. Would you mind giving her my number? She’s such a special little girl and I’d hate to disappear without having said goodbye.
Anyway, all of my numbers are listed below. Take good care of yourself and please, do call, whenever you are ready.
And of course, he signed it:
I folded the letter slowly and put it back in the envelope. In terms of expression, it was elegant, and I appreciated his concern for Lara, and his grace in defeat. Situation solved. I would not have to deal with him again. I could tell Lara that he had to go away for work and give her his number, so that she didn’t feel dumped again. And I could return to my simple, uncomplicated world, where any romance stayed exactly where it belonged, on paper.
The day picked up speed after that, and despite my fatigue, I worked hard and fast all day to finish a big job for my most important client. Lara was sleeping over at a friend’s for the evening, and Margot was attending a dull charity dinner for one of her father’s functions, so I was at a loose end. After dinner, I sat down and read my notes for my little novel in progress. And started to write. The more I wrote, the more my characters came alive and when I finally looked up at the clock above my desk, it was two thirty in the morning. And I was well into a story that was writing itself to a happy end, much happier than the one in my life, to be sure.
The next morning, for some reason, I woke up sad, threw on my horrible old sheepskin boots – comfort food for my feet – and took my coffee over to the computer to read what I had written previously.
The story was really taking shape. A young woman meets a celebrity, they fall in and out of love, and then in love again as both fight to deal with the malfeasant presence of the paparazzi while their every movement is tracked and dissected. Funnily enough, the main character seemed to become the Jules I gleaned from our meetings, not the Jules of Internet gossip and movie openings, but a real person, struggling to reconcile a privileged but complicated life with reality.
I wrote all day, watching the story evolve almost despite myself. I was still in a strange mood when Lara came home, and by the time Margot arrived, I was desperate for a drink and some distraction.
“OK, so give me all of your sharp instruments. Any sleeping pills in the house?”
Margot smirked at me before she even got in the door.
“Why? You don’t look depressed,” I answered smartly. In fact, she looked radiant. Gorgeous clothes, as always, and enough bling to blind a camel, but there was something else. She looked happy.
“OK, come in and start talking. You look like the cat that got the cream. Who is he?” I asked.
“Nope, you first. Why are you suicidal?”
She looked down at my battered old sheepskin boots.
“You only wear those when there’s something absolutely tragic going on.”
Margot looked stricken for a moment.
“You haven’t had news from your ex, have you?”
I shook my head.
“No, thank heavens, and I’m not depressed either. I just felt like being … comfortable.”
She looked at me scornfully.
“Comfortable is cashmere, not those dreadful things you have on your feet. I know you and the last time you put them on, it took me a month, a spa day and a bottle of vodka to get them off you. So tell me why you are sad.”
It wasn’t the moment to burst her bubble, and anyway, I really had nothing to complain about. What could I say? I met a nice movie star, we had dinner, I told him to go away and he did? Out loud, it sounded nuts.
After ten minutes of reassurance from me and a glass of wine each for us both, she finally let it go and then it was my turn to prod her. It didn’t take much prodding.
“He’s gorgeous. Nice, calm, not all full of air like some film types. He looked me in the eyes when we talked, not the boobs. Not so rich, I think, and absolutely terrible shoes, but he seems honest. He didn’t even ask me out, so he must not be too much of a letch. And he’s gorgeous. Really clumsy but gorgeous.”
After many questions from me, and a great number of “he’s gorgeous” from Margot, I finally managed to work out that she’d met a man who seemed to be less odious than the usual suspects. Of course, he didn’t meet any of her criteria either, which certainly made him different. Margot had a strict set of dating rules, and she never derogated, so I figured that this guy – Luther – was something else.
Apparently, they had met when she had presented him an award for a short film he’d directed about the charity. After the presentation, they’d talked for hours and hours. “About life,” said Margot dreamily, when I asked her what they’d talked about. She was absolutely entranced with the notion of him, even though he was too old for her, not nearly rich enough either, or sporty or an excellent dancer, and somewhat of a klutz. From her description, he sounded like a cross between Antonio Banderas and one of the three stooges. Apparently he’d knocked over the lectern when he came on stage to accept his award. At dinner, he’d managed to spill his burgundy into her handbag, which gave me a good indication as to how much she liked him, because Margot was obsessive about her handbags. Any other man would have been sentenced to death. She twittered on for another few minutes about how dreamy he was and then returned to the conversation I was waiting for her to have.
“You know, he probably didn’t ask me out because he noticed that I am shy.”
I laughed out loud. Margot, shy? Not likely.
“Or maybe he is shy? So if he is too shy to ask me out, I think I need to make the first move. Let’s invite him to dinner tomorrow. Not at my place, it will scare him. Let’s invite him here! You can be here too, it will take the pressure off.”
She grinned at me.
“And don’t worry, I will get my mother’s cook to do everything…we don’t want to poison him!”
I knew she was up to something with this guy. Margot never asked men out – she didn’t have to as they were already lining up. And while she had lots of first dates, and even a few second dates, it was rare that she returned for thirds. No one ever met all the criteria on her list. And yet here she was, doing everything in her power to set up what appeared to be a serious date, with me as backup, with someone to whom she normally wouldn’t give the time of day. This begged to be seen.
I agreed to help, if only out of curiosity, and we settled on my apartment as the venue. Margot’s place was entirely too decorated for a first date; after all of these years, I still felt like taking my shoes off before walking on the Persian carpets, and I’d never been brave enough to smoke there, in case I accidentally set a Klimt or Pissaro on fire.
The following evening, after a day of wardrobe consultations and panicked calls to stylists and massage therapists, and lots of furniture arranging, I stood Margot on my balcony, turned her to face the sea, and made her take ten deep breaths.
“Remember, and repeat after me, ‘he’s just a guy’.”
I intoned her date mantra but she turned back to me with a look that I saw rarely in her eyes. Fear.
“You know, I think maybe he’s not just a guy.”
I had figured as much but just gave her a hug and went to put on some music while we were waiting for our guests to arrive. One of the minor panics during the day had been when he’d called. After a minute of “Is he canceling? What do you think he wants? Should I answer?” I finally answered the phone for her and took a message. Apparently – and I have to say, he sounded quite normal on the telephone, if a little embarrassed – he wanted to know if it would be OK to bring a friend with whom he was working in Monaco at the moment. I quickly reassured him that neither Margot nor I would mind, and that more was always merrier. I was thinking that another person besides me and the lovebirds might lighten things up for a bit.
Having spent the afternoon primping and pampering Margot as if she were a virgin bride, and watching my messy apartment be transformed into a flowered bower, we sat outside and sipped our Dubonnets and listened to Ella Fitzgerald sing the blues.
Margot was unusually quiet and I prayed that this evening and indeed, this guy, would not be a disappointment. Despite her bravado, she’d been devastated when she’d discovered that her husband and the father of her child was in fact already married and that he’d quietly been embezzling her art gallery. People tended to date her for her father’s extraordinary wealth, and as a result, few got to know her for the wonderful woman she was. She joked about it but I knew how lonely she was, and how much she longed to be loved for herself.
When the doorbell rang, I let Margot answer it while I stayed on the balcony. I heard the greetings as I quickly sent a text message to Lara, who was at a friend’s house for the weekend. When I looked up, I nearly fell over. At that moment, Ella Fitzgerald started singing “It Had to Be You” and it was all I could do to stop laughing.
He held up his hands and said, “I know you’ll never believe me but until we were downstairs, I had absolutely no idea. I swear.”
As it turned out, Luther was the reason Jules was in Monaco. Apparently they were working on a script for a film that Luther wanted to direct and which Jules would act in and produce. They’d been friends since drama school and were clearly very close.
The rest of the evening passed in a blur of laughter, excellent food, thanks to Margot’s mother’s cook, even better wine, and even a mad game of Twister, with Margot taking every opportunity to get close to her beau, who to my eye, seemed quietly enamored of her too. Luther appeared to be a really nice man. Indeed, his only failing seemed to be that he was extremely clumsy around Margot. He dropped his fork during the main course, and knocked over his chair when he bent to pick it up, taking his plate with him. He sent a vase flying when he stood up to change the music for me during dessert, and tripped over the dog when we left the table for coffee on the terrace. Every mishap gave Margot the ideal opportunity to be solicitous and when he fell on top of her during Twister, I noticed that they were both very slow to get up.
When things finally drew to a close, I suggested it was time to take the Evil Dog for a quick walk and Jules gallantly offered to accompany me – a heavy-handed but gratefully accepted way of letting Margot and Luther have five minutes of alone time together.
We walked quietly along the beach, watching the dog gambol along in the moonlight, not speaking. It seemed so comfortable and for once I was content to be with him. Just to be. It had been a revealing evening.
Watching Jules in the light of his friendship with Luther had really helped me to place him in a context beyond his public persona. He was genuinely funny, clearly very creative and smart, with a dark streak that ran through and gave him enough edge to make him interesting.
He and Luther shared a long history, dating back to when they were roommates in their early drama school days, and listening to them tell tales, laughing and finishing each other’s sentences, I had plenty of time to watch Jules. It was clear that they were both implicated in each other’s careers, and invested in the success of the other – no ridiculous macho rivalry there. Instead, it was easy to see that they both genuinely respected each other, and the few comments that Jules made concerning his personal life and the death of his wife from an overdose made it clear that Luther had truly been a friend through the hard times as well as the good ones.
I glanced over to look at his profile in the silvery light. He seemed deep in thought. The face that launched a million women’s magazines was, I mused, more than handsome. Beyond the planes of his cheeks and the lush lower lip, there was a peacefulness that spoke volumes more than the features for which he was lauded.
He seemed far away and I was content just to walk in the glancing light and enjoy the presence by my side. As we headed back, he stopped suddenly and turned to look at me.
“Thanks for tonight. I had a wonderful time. It was almost like being married again.”
I looked at him, aghast.
“No,” he hastened to add. “In a good way. You know, hanging out with close friends, being so comfortable with each other. It was really nice. Even if you are hopeless at Twister.”
I poked him in the ribs and laughed.
“Yes, well, you weren’t so great yourself. Thanks to you, we lost the game when you made us topple over.”
“Well, I had to get you to fall for me somehow.”
I shook my head.
“Well, if that’s how you hit on women, no wonder you’re still single. Come on, let’s go see the love birds.”
We walked companionably back to the apartment, just in time to find Margot and Luther sharing a tender kiss.
The following morning, I woke to see Margot sitting on the edge of my bed, her eyes red and puffy from crying. She looked at me and sniffed, and passed me her coffee.
“I’m in trouble,” she sobbed. I sat up and put the coffee cup down.
“What do you mean? Why? What’s wrong?”
She shook her head and wailed, “I think I’m going to have to move to London. Luther lives in London and I hate London. And I’m in love.”
I took her in my arms and laughed.
“It’s not the end of the world, my darling. It’s just the beginning of a new world.”
The rest of the week was a blur of fun. While Luther and Jules worked on their script, I quietly worked on my paying work and novel, and Margot did her thing. Late afternoon, we’d meet for cocktails while the girls did their homework and played. Somehow, we ended up mostly at my place, in the kitchen, taking turns to cook the dinner.
The girls adored this sudden extended family, and it was touching to see Luther talk Lara and Maria quietly through their math homework while Jules tried to teach the Evil Dog new tricks or help me improve my admittedly poor cooking skills. On the last Sunday evening, after a subdued farewell dinner, the girls disappeared to Lara’s room to prepare for school the following day, and Margot and Luther sat quietly, heads together in the living room, gluing a frame that Luther had broken when he went to put his arm around Margot. All of a sudden, it seemed sad to imagine that everyone would return to real life the following day. The routine and loneliness of times past came back to me like a ball on an elastic string, and I had to get out.
I grabbed the dog’s leash and headed to the door.
“I’m taking the Evil Dog for a walk, back soon.”
Jules came out of the kitchen and grabbed his coat from the stand near the door.
“Want some company?”
I didn’t, but it seemed churlish to refuse.
Neither of us said a word as we walked down the hill. On the beach, I let the dog off his leash and threw a stick into the water, watching as the Evil Dog bounded in and swam effortlessly after it, his splashes echoing in the silent bay.
“You’re very quiet tonight.”
I smiled at him.
“It’s been a good week.”
“It has. You have a great life here.”
He stopped so abruptly that I bumped into him, and turned to look at me.
“I meant what I said in the letter. I won’t push you but you have to know how I feel.”
He shook his head and smiled.
“I could do with a script for this. Look, I really, really, really like you. There’s something there, between us, and I think …”
I held up my hand to stop him.
He put his hand on my shoulder and I trembled through and through, as if the warmth from his touch had gone straight to my heart.
“I know. Margot told me about what you’ve been through, and I understand … but even so, I hoped that, oh, what the hell?”
The dog – soaked through with icy sea water – pushed between us, wetting us both but me more. We moved apart and Jules took off his sweater and passed it to me.
“Here, dry yourself off with this.”
I accepted it gratefully and patted ineffectually at my clothes, trying to find a nice way to tell him that I wasn’t interested. Every part of me wanted to hear him out but I knew that it would be foolish of me to get too carried away. This was life, not a story I was writing. He was a dream man – too good to be true – and I couldn’t bear the idea of how much it would hurt when I inevitably found out that he was just like my ex. The week had been a bubble of joy but I knew that reality was lurking just around the corner and if I was certain of one thing, it was that I didn’t have the emotional strength to deal with the fallout when he finally showed that he was just like every other man in the world. All I needed – needed in every sense of the word – was to keep him on paper, if it was the last thing I did.
“Listen. I like you too. You’re a nice guy. But you live in London. I live here. You live a high profile life and I live very quietly. Lara and I finally have a peaceful life again. We’re happy. And safe. There’s no point in messing it up for something that can’t possibly go anywhere.”
He interrupted, reaching out to put his hands on my shoulders.
“We could try. How can you be sure…”
I gently stepped back, putting some much required distance between us.
Jules shook his head, trying to understand. To his credit, he wasn’t petulant about being turned down; rather genuinely curious.
“So you’re really being honest when you say you won’t go out with me?”
He shook his head in wonderment and then smirked at me, his blue-green eyes twinkling from under his thick dark lashes. Really great eyes, I thought, and kicked myself for getting sucked into his beauty.
“Doesn’t happen often. You’re a most unusual girl. Unless,” he continued, “this is all some sort of sneaky ruse to seduce me.”
I caught his quirky smile in the moonlight and tried to feel grateful for his gentle capitulation and not disappointed that he wasn’t fighting harder for me.
I turned to face him.
“Don’t get me wrong, you’re a very cute guy and I’m sure you are a nice person, underneath all that smarmy charm of yours.”
I smiled to show I was joking.
“But honestly, I don’t date. I don’t have the patience for it. I can’t bear the games and the subterfuge. It’s taken me ages to get back to some kind of normality, in my head and my heart. I don’t have the courage to date. I just don’t see the point. I like my little life calm and I just don’t have the emotional resources … I just can’t go back there.”
I stopped for a moment, wondering if I should tell him about my book, and how much a part of my life he was already. He’d been incredibly supportive of my desire to write, and had even read the first part of my old novel, telling me enthusiastically that I had talent and had to finish it as soon as possible. Margot, to her credit, had shut up about my novel in progress, and I hadn’t said anything either, not wanting to add fuel to a fire that was already burning quite hot. I already had my best friend banging on about serendipity – I really didn’t want to give him any reason to think I might care. I thought back to that first dinner at my place and how Margot had taken down my photo of Jules from next to my computer before they’d arrived, telling me jokingly I was too old for a crush on a movie star. No, better to say nothing. He was already quite convinced that the fates were throwing us together for a reason, and I saw no reason to add more arguments to his cause.
When I turned to look at him, I saw him studying me seriously for a moment and then he nodded.
“OK. OK. I guess I’ll just have to accept that. In which case, I have nothing to lose if I…”
He pulled me close and before I could protest, his mouth came down over mine, his tongue tracing the contour of my lips while his hands held my face gently, close. I wanted to pull away but I couldn’t bear to, and when his tongue searched out mine, I fell into him. The kiss seemed to last an eternity, and I lost myself in the feel, the scent of him. His body was exactly the right height for me and we fit so well. He smelt of soft leathery cologne underneath a particular scent that was his own, a lovely masculine smell that made me want to bury my face in his skin. I kissed him back, reveling in this kiss, the first in years and one I never wanted to stop. It seemed that he felt the same way too, as his arms tightened about me and his hands roamed down my back and sides, causing me to tremble and drown further in his embrace.
Finally, we moved apart and I shook my head to clear it.
“Wow. What was that?”
“You said you didn’t want to date. You didn’t say anything about kissing.”
He grinned at me, cheeky as a kid with a hand in the cookie jar, and then his face darkened and he muttered “fuck” and he grabbed his sweater from me and hid his face in it.
“Come on, let’s go. We’ve been spotted.”
I turned to call the dog and saw the photographer perched on the wall behind the beach, his telephoto lens glinting in the moonlight.
Back at the apartment, he was quiet but said his goodbyes to Lara, making sure she had all of his numbers. At the door, he pulled me close and kissed me on the forehead.
“I’m sorry. It’s been truly lovely.”
He turned and walked away.
When I went back in, Margot was sitting on the couch with the bottle of brandy cradled between her legs. When she looked up, I saw that she’d been crying. I went over without a word, took the bottle from her, and drank a swift slug. She took the bottle back, put the lid on, and looked up at me through mascara stained eyes.
“We’re a fine pair, aren’t we? Mine’s married. What’s your guy’s excuse?”
I tried to smile but my heart felt leaden.
“Well, I guess he’s won and now he can move on. We kissed on the beach. A photographer saw us. As soon as he knew he’d been spotted, he couldn’t get away fast enough. I am assuming that I was his little distraction away from the bright lights of the cinema, someone to do why he was stuck here in Monaco. And that now the thrill of the chase is over, he’ll go back to dating fellow movie stars.”
“I didn’t think he was like that. Luther told me he hasn’t dated anyone seriously for a year, and that he was really into you. I can’t believe that he’s that much of a rat. Especially after I told him about everything you’ve been through.”
I looked up at her through glistening eyes.
“They’re all like that, Margot.”
“Hurry up, Lara!”
I shouted down the hall to my recalcitrant daughter, gathering up my keys and her backpack as I shoved my feet into my horrid old boots.
“We’re running really late for school and then I have to get back for my meeting.”
I had slept terribly, my dreams filled with menacing photographers chasing me down with rifles that looked like cameras, and a commotion outside the house in the early morning ensured that I didn’t go back to sleep. Half the night, I tried to talk myself out of my depression. It was just a kiss, I wasn’t planning to have any kind of relationship, and I didn’t date on principle, so why was I so upset at his abrupt change of attitude? If anything, I should be relieved that he’d gone, so I could get back to writing.
Around five, when the noise started up, I gave up tossing and turning, and decided that it was simply because I’d liked him as a person and yet he’d behaved like a man, that is to say, badly. I was furious at myself for letting him off the page, where he belonged, and for being stupid enough to think we could be friends. Because a friend doesn’t kiss you and then say thanks and goodbye … which led me back to the kiss. All of which to say I was now tired and grumpy and annoyed at myself, at him, and the world at large. And running late for school and work.
I grabbed Lara’s coat and hustled her out the door, trying to remember if I’d turned the coffee machine off or whether I was going to come home to a flood of watery coffee, since the automatic thing that stopped the jug from overflowing had snapped off in my hand as I was filling the pot earlier that morning.
When we opened the large door onto the street, the reason for the cacophony became all too apparent. Milling in front of the house were what seemed like a million photographers, all shouting and jostling for attention.
“There she is! Miss, miss, is it true that you and Jules are engaged?” “When’s the wedding?” “Who’s the little girl, is she his love child?” “Can you tell us how you met?” “How long have you been together?” “Are you pregnant?”
I quickly shoved Lara back inside and closed the door. What on earth was going on? Before I could think, my mobile rang. Margot spoke in a blur.
“Honey, you’re on the front page of the newspaper and on the morning news. That must have been some kiss. You’re big-time famous!”
I quickly filled her in on the current paparazzi situation and then burst into tears. This was madness. She shushed me and promised to send her father’s car and chauffeur – an ex-Israeli army commando – to come and take us to school. But when we got to school, it was worse. If half the world’s press had followed us, it seemed like the other half was waiting in front of the gates. The chauffeur frayed a way through to the entrance, where a severe looking Mrs. Spencer greeted us.
I tried to apologize for the commotion but she quickly informed me that she would prefer that the social lives of parents did not impact the education of their children, and then hustled Lara off to class.
When I got home, the phone was ringing off the hook. After it transpired that the first few callers were press, requesting comments, I turned on the answering machine and tried to work but it was impossible. How on earth had this happened? One stupid – although admittedly very good – kiss, and I was news. I had no idea how to handle this, and more frustratingly, I didn’t understand. There was world conflict in Sudan, Iraq, East Timor, and Afghanistan. People were dying of hunger, thirst and disease in Africa and Asia. Europe was defining a pivotal role as a global entity in world relations. There was a presidential election going on in America. So why on earth was anyone interested in whether a nobody like me had been kissed by a film actor? Even taking into account Jules’ celebrity – he’d been voted Most Beautiful Man of the Year by a trashy magazine two years in a row, I remembered, bitterly swallowing my cynicism – there was no logic at all as to why this story was worthy of all the attention it was getting.
The day went from bad to worse. One of my main clients cancelled their contract due to the unfortunate attention I was drawing to their high security software development project. Lara came home in absolute hysterics and for the first time ever, we had a fight. I tried to explain that it had been one unexpected kiss between grownups (not an easy concept for a pre-adolescent daughter at the best of times), that he and I didn’t have a secret relationship, or indeed any kind of relationship, and that she’d been party to practically every meeting we’d ever had, but given that her parentage had been questioned on the evening news, while other reports suggested pregnancy and imminent marriage, and when your school mates have teased you to tears, I could see why she was so upset.
The attention reached a pinnacle early that evening, when I received a registered letter from my ex-husband’s lawyer, suing me for an as yet undetermined sum, for unreasonable behavior. Apparently, some bright spark in the press corps had dug him up and asked him some questions about Jules and me, insinuating that Jules was the cause of our breakup.
When Margot turned up that night, she was furious.
“We can sue the press, you know. Make them retract…”
I shook my head wearily.
“There’s really no point. It’ll just make it go on longer.”
The phone rang again and we waited for the service to pick up. Jules’ voice came though, strangely disembodied and low.
“Hi Grace, Lara. This is Jules. I am terribly sorry for all the unwanted attention you’re getting right now. I really hope you’re OK. This is completely my fault and …”
I grabbed the phone.
“You’re damn right, it’s your fault,” I yelled. “One stupid kiss and thanks to you, I’m world news. Lara had a terrible day, she is barely speaking to me and I’ve lost a client because of you. I hope you enjoyed your cheap thrill. Congratulations, you won, you got some extra press and you got me too. Good work. I wish I’d never met you.”
I went to hang up.
“Wait, Grace, wait. Please let me explain.”
Jules took a deep breath and I could hear the quaver in his voice when he spoke.
“You have to understand. I really, really like you. There’s a feeling between us, a connection I felt the first time I saw you. I told you. I would have stayed away – I know you don’t want to date and that you’ve been hurt, I know that – but when I turned up at your house the other night with Luther, and saw you, a light went on. I knew that this was something big, something meant to be. And on the beach, I just couldn’t help myself. I had to kiss you. But when I saw the pap, I suddenly realized that you wouldn’t want any part of my life. It’s like this all the time. I get photographed going to buy milk, for God’s sake.”
He paused for breath.
“So I walked away. It killed me but I did it. And I would have stayed away but I had to apologize. To say sorry for all the problems I’ve caused and to see if there is anything I can do.”
I didn’t say anything, and he went on.
“And also to tell you that I’m falling in love with you, which is probably the last thing you want to hear right now.”
When I saw Margot’s eyes widen, I realized I’d been on speakerphone the whole time.
I could hardly believe my ears.
“I think I knew it when we sat together on the plane, but it was really the night that you threw me out that I understood that I was falling in love with you. This is going to sound mad, but I’ve dreamed of you for years. I know you. There’s something really strong between us. You feel it too, I know you do, underneath your fear. I felt it when we kissed.”
I dropped the phone onto the cradle and sunk into the lounge. I couldn’t listen, didn’t want to hear, but everything he said was exactly what I felt. From the minute I had started to write him, he became a part of me. I knew him, knew his heart. Writing him or being with him was like being home. It wasn’t lust or star worship. It wasn’t delusional either – I didn’t just go out and choose a celebrity to idolize.
Margot just sat there, looking at me.
She smiled at me.
“This is the Fates telling you that you can run but you can’t hide. People Magazine will find you even if you go to the ends of the earth.”
“Margot, this is not funny. My daughter was harassed mercilessly by her friends today, her teacher thinks I’m some kind of society slut, and I lost a client who doesn’t want his product development security compromised by my romantic life. All for what? Some sleazy actor who likes to kiss and run?”
Margot grabbed my arm and shook it firmly.
“Stop being such a bitch. When did you get so stupid? It was obvious from the first time I saw you together that there was an attraction between you. Both of you. Would it kill you to admit that you like him? He’s a nice guy. It’s not his fault the media tracks him. Did you dump me when they were investigating my father and there was press all over?”
It was true. When Margot’s father had been investigated by an international commission about financial corruption, the press had been so invasive that Margot had moved into my place while press releases sent out had her in Switzerland. It hadn’t helped and we’d had a month of press camped on the footpath, along with dark glasses and “no comments” and security. But this was different – this time it was my family, and I’d had no choice. Relationships were fraught enough with danger, without the added complications brought about by public scrutiny. The last thing Lara needed was all the speculation and drama that went with her mother having a relationship with a high profile actor, a relationship that would not, could not go anywhere anyway.
Things got even more complicated the next day. Margot took the kids to school while I hid inside, obsessively working and wearing my grungy comfort boots. At midday, the phone rang and it was my agent. When I picked up, his tone told me that this was not going to be a chatty call.
“I’m sorry to tell you this, but I hope you have a good lawyer.”
He was curt and I felt my heart clench; by now, it was a more or less permanent cramp and I grabbed for a cigarette, another of far too many since morning.
“Why, what’s going on?”
“Apparently your recent escapades have somewhat enhanced your popularity. Remember that novel proposal you sold a couple of months ago?”
“Oh no,” I groaned, sinking low into my chair.
I remembered it particularly well, given that I was still writing it, trying to finish a final draft for the publisher. I’d sent it off in response to a bet with Margot that no one would be interested in my funny little love story, and although my agent had agreed that it was pretty banal and not worth shopping around, a small publisher had actually bought it.
“Well, someone has put two and two together and optioned it. They want you to finish it quickly. And then they want to make a television film out of it. But that’s not the worst part.”
I waited, heart in mouth.
“They’re going to make a big thing out of your relationship …”
I practically screamed.
“We kissed on the beach. Once!”
“Hey, don’t shoot the messenger. Anyway, it’s been turned around and now the line is that you were cheating on your husband with this actor fellow. As far as publicity goes for the book and telefilm, it’s pretty good. They’ve already got an interview lined up with your former husband as the wounded party. And I heard that they’ve dug up some old friends who are prepared to back him up. I’m sorry, there’s not a lot we can do, other than some damage control. I have you booked on Newsline at Night next Thursday, and we’ll get some print press lined up for the end of the week. And you’ll want to get onto your lawyer so we can check out the residuals on this contract. Hey, are you there?”
My agent was doing his best to hide his excitement but this was a whole lot more interesting than negotiating technical writing contracts and he was making the most of it.
I mustered my voice and croaked, “I’ll call you back” before I dropped the phone and slid to the floor. This was ridiculous. One kiss and my entire life was turned upside down. This was beyond ridiculous. I had to do something. If I let the book go ahead, I was signing a death warrant on my peaceful life. Anyone reading the story would take it for the truth, particularly in light of the current press. Jules would think that I was a typical groupie profiting from his celebrity. Most importantly, all the time and energy and love I’d invested in my daughter, helping her to learn to trust adults again after the betrayal of her father, would amount to nothing. And the last thing in the world Lara needed, on top of everything else, was to hear her dad tell the world her mum had cheated on him. Even if I could prove my innocence, the damage was too ghastly to imagine.
I had to think. I called Max, my lawyer, and left a message. After a while, I decided to go get some fresh air to help me clear my head, but as soon as I opened the door, the paparazzi swarmed towards me like the flock of ill-shaven vultures they were. I hastily slammed the door and rushed back upstairs, intent on murder.
Jules answered on the first ring.
“Thank God you called. I’ve been going out of my mind with worry. How are you? Is Lara OK?”
“Listen, you bastard. You have absolutely ruined my life.”
I spoke furiously into the phone, pacing my living room and fighting the urge to break something.
“You have no idea, no idea, of the trouble you’ve caused. I told you I wasn’t interested. I told you clearly that I didn’t want a relationship with you. I don’t like you.”
My heart ached at the lie but I was so mad I couldn’t stop myself.
“I told you outright that I was not interested in becoming one of your playthings. And yet you still thought it would be a good idea to kiss me in public, knowing full well it would get into the press …”
“Grace,” he interrupted urgently. “Don’t say that. You felt it too, I know you did. Don’t let this lunacy make a lie of my feelings for you. You’ve got to believe me when I say I never intended for any of this to happen. I never thought there’d be press on the beach that night.”
He lowered his tone.
“Please believe me when I tell you that this will soon blow over. You wait and see.”
“You’ve got to be kidding. This is just the beginning.”
I heard the worry in his voice.
“What do you mean?”
I bit the bullet and told him about the novel, about him being my muse and how I’d created a story around a love affair before I’d ever even met him.
To his credit, he did not accuse me of any of the things I accused myself of; instead, he was quiet for a moment and then asked, “Do you want to go ahead and publish it? I know how hard you’ve been working.”
I searched his voice for sarcasm but there was none.
“Of course I don’t want to publish this! Can you imagine the level of lunacy it would provoke?”
I took a deep breath and continued.
“It was only ever meant to be an exercise, something to get me writing again. I never thought anyone would buy it. And I never thought I’d meet you.”
I drew a breath and continued.
“I’m more than embarrassed about it, but no one would have taken any notice of the book if you hadn’t kissed me on the beach. All I want is to keep my daughter safe. I just want things to go back to how they were…”
My voice caught on a sob and I lay back on the couch, too tired to continue. It was so unfair, and I really had no idea what to do. A stupid love story on paper and a chance encounter with Jules had managed to screw up the peaceful life I’d spent so much time constructing.
Jules was silent for a moment.
“Look, let’s meet up and talk about this. There’s got to be something I can do. Listen, stay home and I’ll call you back …”
I slammed down the phone and burst into proper scalding tears, and cried myself dry of all the frustration and sadness and fury and desolation that had built up inside since that first, fatal kiss.
When the doorbell rang after my bath, I looked carefully through the peephole and saw Jules standing there, holding a walking stick in one hand and a grey beard in the other.
I opened the door and let him in, suddenly conscious of my ugly grey sweatpants and uncombed hair. I wanted to be furious but a part of me was so happy to see him that my eyes welled up again.
“What are you doing here? And how did you get past the hordes?”
He smiled tiredly at me and waved the beard.
“Disguised. Occupational hazard.”
I went over and collapsed onto the couch. He pulled up a chair and sat opposite me.
“Listen, I know you’re upset. You’ve got every right to be. I know you didn’t write that story to gain anything. It’s a cute story, but without my … input … it would have been just that. A story. I don’t regret kissing you, but I do regret how it’s turned out. This is not fair on you and Lara and I am truly, profoundly sorry. I’ve spent all afternoon with my agent and lawyer, trying to see if we couldn’t get you out of your contract but it’s pretty airtight.”
I scowled at him, wiping my eyes with the corner of my sleeve.
“Thanks for telling me something I didn’t know.”
He leaned forward.
“So here’s the thing. If it’s going to go forward, I think the best thing to do is go with it. But under your terms.”
I wanted to throw a heavy object at him. Where was a silver ice bucket when you needed one?
“That’s the whole problem. I can’t impose anything at all.”
He looked at me seriously.
“That’s because you don’t have any leverage. Here’s the deal. I think we should contact the producers and tell that I’ll play the lead, on the condition that you get to doctor the script. With me in it, it automatically goes from being made for television, to a big guns movie, which means more money for them, and more books sales too. Then we can use that to pressure the book people to do the right thing, regarding the publicity. No interviews with sleazy ex-husbands, for a start.”
I looked at him incredulously.
“How on earth is making this a bigger deal than it already is going to help? Other than get you another job?”
For a moment he looked angry.
“Listen, in order to do this, I’ve had to back out of another commitment. It’s a big deal.”
I started to tell him that he could keep his damn deals, when he grabbed my arm.
“Think about it. Instead of a crappy made for television film, they get to make a movie with me in it. Which, believe it or not, is a pretty big selling point. You can rewrite the script to something that you’d want to write – and get yourself a new career while you’re at it. You told me you hate writing the technical work you do now, and anyway, I read the book. It’s great.”
He gave me a wry smile.
“I particularly like the happy ending. And I think you write far too well to be wasting your talent. We can renegotiate a new deal for you. And best of all, we’ll make it conditional that the press is handled correctly. No interviews with ex-husbands or vicious friends.”
I struggled to take it all in.
“That’s all very well for the mainstream press. But how would it stop the rabid paparazzi from going after the dirty stuff?”
He made a dismissive gesture.
“They’re like sheep. They’ll buy into the official line because it makes a better story. You’ll see.”
“I need a drink.”
I stood up and stomped off to the kitchen.
While I was waiting for the kettle to boil for tea, I laid my head against the cool windowpane and tried to think. He was right – the whole idea made sense. Making a film with him as the lead took the focus off the idea of a relationship between us, because the whole thing would be clearly a fiction, starring an actor and actress. Even if it meant being beholden to him, I really had no choice. For Lara’s sake, I couldn’t let our lives be dragged through the mud again, and I’d lost another client that afternoon, so I really needed the money. I hated what I did anyway, and this was the perfect opportunity to start a new career that I actually enjoyed.
The only downside was that I’d have to deal with him for the duration of the work, but otherwise, it seemed like a reasonable solution, indeed the only solution.
I walked back in and handed him a cup of liquorice tea. He took a sip and grimaced.
“OK,” I said slowly. “It’s a good idea. I’ll do it, on one condition. Clearly we are going to have to work together, but I don’t want one single iota of gossip about you and me. We will work together as professionals, and that’s all. No kisses, no flirting. Nothing. Just a script writer and an actor.”
His face froze over and for a moment I thought he was going to leave. Instead, he looked at me sadly and said, “If that’s what you want, then I’ll do it. But nothing’s changed for me. I love you, and I’m going to keep on loving you. I think you’re making a mistake but I understand.”
He looked so glum that I relented.
“Listen, I really appreciate what you’re doing. And I do like you. That was one hell of a kiss. But if I’ve learned anything from the last few days, it’s that I’m not built for a life of public scrutiny. I couldn’t bear that kind of attention and I don’t want Lara exposed to it either. You must understand, you told me yourself how hard it is on your daughter, to have the press spying on her constantly. Losing her dad hit Lara hard. She’s been through enough already without having to deal with that.”
He was silent for a moment, and then he nodded.
“OK. I understand that. But what about you? Can you really tell me that you don’t feel anything for me? I know you feel it, this link between us.”
He smiled merrily.
“And you’d have to be a complete heathen to ignore the fact that we seem to be thrown together.”
Again my eyes welled up and I struggled to control my voice. I didn’t want to lie. He deserved better than that, but I couldn’t tell him that maybe I was starting to fall in love with him too. I wasn’t even sure myself. I knew that I loved the character I’d written, the man who seemed so close to the one sitting next to me, his arm warm and loving around my shoulder. But I wasn’t ready to fall in love. It had taken me two years to rebuild myself after the failure of my marriage, and if there was one thing I was sure of, it was that I didn’t have the emotional resources to do that, again, ever. If Jules and I started something and it didn’t work out, where would I be then?
I took a deep breath and turned my head to face him.
“I’m sorry. I really am. Maybe if we’d met in other circumstances. Or if you didn’t do the job you do. But the thing is, you live in a world that I can’t bear and don’t understand. I don’t want to live with photographers stalking my every move. I don’t want to find myself in the celebrity pages because I’m your arm candy of the moment. I don’t want people speculating about my daughter because she’s in the public domain. I’m sorry but I just can’t deal with any of that. I think that kind of press is immoral, and I am nowhere near strong enough to live life like that, always in the glare of the bright lights.”
I touched him lightly on the face, ignoring the sudden burn in my fingers.
“But we’re friends, right? Can you be satisfied with us being friends?”
He smiled at me, the sadness in his eyes nearly breaking my heart.
“Of course. We’re friends…and colleagues, I suppose. They can’t crucify us for being friends, right?”
He stopped for a moment.
“You know, if it were anyone else, I’d say that love conquers all. That my job or the stupid things that go with it are only a part of life. And that while being famous for the wrong things has its downsides, my life has lots of good to offer too. This is what I tell my daughter. She might hate being trailed by the paparazzi at the park, but she also gets to go places no other kids get to go. If it were anyone else, I’d say, let’s just fall in love and let the rest work itself out. I’d say, don’t penalize me for something that is not my fault. I’d say, let me love you, let me love you until the day I die.”
He drew a breath and continued.
“But it is you. I know that you love me, even if you’re not sure yet yourself. And I have to believe that things will work out. If this is what you need for now, then so be it. I’ll be your friend. All I ask is that you don’t close me out. Be my friend too, OK?”
He stood up to go.
“I’ll get Bernie to call you tomorrow to hash out all of the details. I really think this is the best solution for the book.”
“Even if I would have preferred it otherwise for you and me.”
When I woke up the next morning, the press had gone from out front, and the local newspaper bore headlines about the upcoming local elections, not about me sleeping with Jules Lorre. It seemed as if the storm had blown over, and I for one, was very grateful. By midday, I had a new agent – Bernie, Jules’ agent – and a contract to write a new script. When Margot turned up after collecting the girls from school, I was well into a script based on the novel I’d started to write before all this madness had begun. The words flew across the page, as if all the love I had in my heart, all the feelings I had for Jules now had a legitimate home. The story developed of its own accord and I fell deeper and deeper into him with every phrase I wrote.
Margot dropped the girls’ school bags on the floor and sat down on the arm of the couch next to my desk. She picked up the copy of the contract to write the script and fanned herself with it.
“So I guess you’ll be seeing a lot of Jules when the shooting begins,” she said with a smirk. Margot knew I was contracted to work on set until the completion of the filming in London, because she’d agreed to come along and mind the girls. And shop, this being Margot.
“I will,” I returned shortly. “But you can stop shopping for hats because it’s not what you think. We’re friends, nothing more. We agreed that we’d be professional, so there’s not a wedding in sight. Unless,” I smiled, “It’s yours. Guess who’s directing?”
“Yes, Luther. Jules called to tell me today. Apparently they’ve been looking for a project to work on together for a while, and Luther really liked the book. I’m sure that the fact that you’ll be in London with me did not influence his decision at all. And before you get all het up, you might like to know that his divorce will be final in August, so bear that in mind the next time you speak to him.”
She looked as if she was going to cry.
“That won’t be happening any time soon. When he told me he was still married, I sent him to hell. He won’t be back.”
I looked at my friend in amazement.
“Didn’t he tell you he was going to get a divorce?”
A defiant nod from Margot while she pretended to look for a tissue.
“Yes, but how many times have we heard that before? Yet another guy promising to leave his wife. I thought he was lying and I told him so in no uncertain terms.”
I remembered a couple of years before my own marriage had broken up, when I’d flown down to Monaco from Paris to console a broken hearted Margot who had discovered that the father of her child had in fact never divorced his first wife and was busy embezzling Margot’s art gallery. It didn’t take a master’s degree in psychology to work out why she was so upset. The problem with trusting in love was that when that trust was abused, it seemed to leave scars that not even time could heal.
As I watched my dearest friend sitting with her head in her hands, looking for all the world like a lost child, I wanted to tell her what I knew, but Jules had sworn me to secrecy. Apparently, the day after that first famous dinner with Margot at my house, Luther had contacted his lawyer and accepted every single one of his soon to be ex-wife’s unreasonable financial demands, on the condition that the divorce be fast tracked.
I wanted to believe that Luther was a good guy, but until Margot was convinced of it, I wasn’t going to say a word. Margot didn’t know what was in store for her, and I wasn’t going to spoil the surprise.
The two months of pre-shoot preparations flew by as I finished putting the final touches on the script. Luther and Jules had been in constant contact by email and telephone, organizing the millions of details that making a film required, and when I’d delivered the final shooting draft, they’d both sent flowers and chocolates and, in Jules’ case, a gorgeous diamond broach in the shape of a typewriter. I, of course, had wanted to send it back, but Margot stopped me. I think that she’d have thrown herself across the door to stop a FedEx man taking it, had I insisted.
“You never, ever send back jewelry,” she told me seriously. “You keep it. If you don’t like the guy, you can throw it at his head or sell it, but you never send it back.”
I laughed at her and she gazed at me with the air of a parent who wonders if their child will ever grow up.
“Seriously, Grace. The poor guy’s doing his best to keep his distance, just like you wanted him too. He’s got you a wonderful job and put his career on the line to help you out. The least you can do is accept a gift.”
I concurred, even if I had no idea where on earth I could wear such a fabulous piece of jewelry.
“On the red carpet, if this film ever gets made,” laughed Jules, when I called to thank him.
The only hitch to the casting had been finding the right actress to play Jules’ love interest, at such a late date. Most of the actresses he and Luther liked for the part were booked solid for a couple of years, and they really wanted a big name, to help carry the film’s romantic comedy angle.
Two weeks before the shooting was to begin, they’d narrowed it down to two popular young actresses. One, with whom Jules had already worked, was interested and did well in the test, only to be uninsurable when the front page of a British newspaper showed her doing lines of cocaine on a table at a Music Awards party.
The other was Jules’ least favorite, Laura Halcyon. Although gorgeous and with quite a body of work behind her for one so young, she’d made no bones about her desire to catch Jules in the past, and he was less than enthused about having to deal with her for the duration of the film.
Luther finally convinced him that she was the only viable option, and sent me her biography and a selection of her films, so that I could tailor the script accordingly. I watched everything he’d sent assiduously, and had to agree that she was perfect for the part. In fact, she was perfect, full stop. I sat up and sighed, just as Margot came into the room with yet another swatch of fabric to show me. Apparently, our occupying her father’s favorite apartment meant redecorating it too, even though I would have been content to sleep in a tent, so excited was I to start the film, and see Jules again.
“Oh my God, is that her?”
Margot sat down next to me and took the remote control from my hands. She flipped through some of the scenes and paused on a tasteful nude shot that showed Laura to her best advantage. I grabbed the remote and turned off the set.
“Yes, that’s Jules’ new costar. They’ll make a beautiful couple, don’t you think?”
I said in my most diffident tone. Margot poked me in the ribs and laughed.
“Maybe you should have slept with him when you had the chance.”
I scowled back at her.
“Yes, that’s definitely what I should have done. Slept with him and then waited for him to dump me when he started working with her.”
My darling daughter walked into the room just in time to hear the last part of my sentence.
“Mummy, I really don’t think you know anything about men at all,” she said firmly, her hands on her hips. “Jules is very nice and he wouldn’t like someone just because she’s pretty or famous. You’re the one who always tells me that boys prefer brains to beauty in the long run. You should take your own advice.”
She shook her head at me and walked out, undoubtedly muttering about the stupidity of forty something parents.
Margot smiled at my daughter’s retreating back and said, “She’s got a point.”
I laughed a tad bitterly and retorted, “No she doesn’t. You know as well as I do that kind of wisdom is reserved for the under twenties. No right minded man would choose a middle aged housewife over a gorgeous young movie star.”
Margot thought for a moment and then handed me the remote control and stood up.
“Maybe not. But he might choose you.”
Later that night after my bath, I stood naked in front of the full-length mirror in my bedroom and stared relentlessly at my reflection. The advantages of being petite had certainly diminished over the years. My legs, I thought dispassionately, were still acceptable, but my stomach poked out unless I held it in, whereby it just showed the ravages of pregnancy. As for my boobs, perky had transformed into droopy, and gone down a size I could ill afford to loose. I took a deep breath and searched for the positive. My arms and shoulders were elegant, at the right angle, and my face was pretty if you discounted the crow’s feet. I was still blonde enough to ignore the grey that was creeping in. It wasn’t a total horror story but I still wasn’t going to be taking my clothes off in front of strangers any time soon. Just as well Jules would soon be flirting away merrily with Laura, I thought to myself somewhat bitterly, because he would have been dreadfully disappointed by my middle-aged carcass.
The following days were a mad rush to organize our departure and make changes to the script. While I was busy working, Margot flew to London to finish setting up her father’s apartment in Kensington, which was to become our home for the duration of the shoot. I left it all up to Margot, knowing that we would be in good hands, and happy to have her distracted by the temporary move, instead of sulking over Luther or hassling me about Jules.
We arrived in London a week before I was due on the set, and we spent that week having a great old time discovering the city and getting into gear for the summer months to come.
Margot had set up the apartment perfectly, so perfectly that I wanted to live there forever. Lara and Maria were thrilled, particularly when they realized that there were stables and a riding club only minutes away, and that Jules had pulled strings to get them enrolled with his daughter for the summer.
Time went by all too quickly, and finally, the day I was waiting for arrived.
I woke up early with a cotton wool mouth and butterflies in my stomach. Today was the first day of shooting and the first day that I’d be on the set. Luther preferred not to do rehearsals, on the premise that it modified the chemistry between the actors, so I hadn’t met anyone yet, other than Jules.
By the time the studio car turned up to collect me, I was a nervous wreck. It was one thing writing a script in the privacy of my home, but another thing entirely to hand it over to a director and actors who knew perfectly well that this my first script ever, and the first time I’d ever had anything to do with film making. I was scared that I wouldn’t be able to write on command, and that my script wasn’t up to par.
There’d been a lot of speculation about the film, the working title of which was “Love Conquers All”. Luther had gone to great pains to keep the story under wraps, and the talk was that Jules was about to tackle a romantic role that could make or break his career as a serious actor. The pressure to write an extraordinary script was huge, but more than anything, I was terrified of seeing Jules. Terrified. Excited. Terrified. Thrilled. Terrified. Love struck. I tried to concentrate on the idea of work but it wasn’t helping, as my mind kept flashing back to the kiss on the beach that had started it all.
I hadn’t seen him since the night he’d come over to my place and proposed doing the film. True to his word, he hadn’t contacted me for anything other than work-related conversations, although I knew that he and Lara spoke on the phone almost daily, which would have been weird except that she clearly enjoyed talking to him, a male member of the species. Even though I knew I’d made the right decision, somewhere inside I regretted that the only man I’d fancied, OK, more than fancied, since my husband had left was the one man who was totally impossible for me.
When the car pulled up to the studio entrance, I wanted to tell the driver it had all been a terrible mistake and to take me home. I stumbled out of the car and almost into the arms of the director’s assistant, a snippy young man called Daci, who rushed over to me and dragged me onto the set. When I saw Luther, I breathed a sigh of relief at a familiar face.
“Hi Grace. Glad to see you. How are you feeling? Ready to work?”
Gone was the taciturn, timid and completely klutzy man I’d met in Monaco. In his place was a cool and collected fellow who was evidently more at home on the set than in a social setting. He settled me into an office and introduced me to some of the other people milling around. Everyone had something to say and after ten minutes, I had meetings set up with the costume and makeup people, the set manager and my two junior writers. I had to pinch myself – junior writers! – but as the day went on, I forgot where I was and got busy with the work.
The first day went by in a blur, and I watched in amazement as they shot the background scenes for the nightclub and restaurant, the set a hive of activity that barely corresponded to real life. When I finally made it home that night, it occurred to me that I had completely forgotten to be nervous. And learning that Jules wasn’t due on the set until the end of the week had certainly helped. When Luther had announced that Jules was still in Los Angeles, doing some outtakes for his previous film, I had breathed a sigh of relief. After I got past the initial disappointment of not seeing him, I realized it meant that I could really focus on what I was here to do, and that was work. I knew that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity, and I was determined not to mess it up. My future and that of my child depended on it.
I worked with the cast and crew all day, until the last shot of the day’s script was in the can. It all went admirably well, and even though I was exhausted at the end of the day, I was excited to return the following morning.
The next day was more of the same, as was the following, and by Wednesday, I was an old hand at rewriting lines on the spot. When my services were not required, I took to standing quietly by the back camera and watching the scenes as they were recorded. It was extraordinary to see the action framed in the viewfinder. I could hardly believe that my words were being filmed for posterity, and I was so totally engrossed that I jumped when someone tapped me on the shoulder as the crew set up the following scene.
I turned to find Jules smiling at me, standing far too close for comfort. I wanted to hurl myself into his arms and beg him not to fall in love with Laura, to kiss me and hold me and never let me go, but I smiled back, trying not to get lost in his scent as he studied me.
“You’ve let your hair get longer,” he said. “It suits you. How are you?”
The assistant director shouted, “Quiet on the set” and Jules grabbed my hand and smirked.
“Come into my lair, said the spider to the fly.”
I grinned back at him and followed him over to the side room with his name on the door.
“What, no star on the door? I thought you were the talent here?”
When we were inside, he closed the door and drew me too him. I stiffened and he poked me.
“Relax, it’s a friendly hug and I’ve had the room scanned for stray photographers.”
It was wonderful to be in his arms. Something about his body fit so well with mine, which, I reminded myself, was simply because I hadn’t been held by anyone in the longest time. This wasn’t attraction, it was comfort, and I’d do well to remember that.
I drew away and smiled at him.
“So what brings you here? I thought you weren’t due on set until the end of the week.”
“Well, I wanted to come and see how things are going. I had to see you. I missed you. And Lara. How are you settling in?”
I told him about our magnificent abode, thanks to Margot, and how kind everyone on the set was being. We chatted for a while about our kids; clearly, he was very proud of his own daughter and told me he’d asked her to watch out for Lara and Maria at riding school. The west coast sunshine must have agreed with him, because he looked tanned and rested and sexier than ever. At one point, when he leaned over to touch my arm, I caught the glimpse of a new tattoo peaking out from under the sleeve of his tee shirt. He caught me looking and flushed.
“I didn’t know you had a tattoo.”
I quite liked tattoos, as long as they weren’t too garish or evident.
He rolled up his sleeve on the other side and showed me his daughter’s name in simple English script – no trendy Maori or Celtic designs for him, and then pulled his collar back to show me a line drawing of the first character he’d ever played on the back of his shoulder.
“So what’s the new one, then?” I asked, curious to know what was so important that he’d ink it onto his skin for posterity.
He shrugged and pulled his sleeve down.
“Oh, nothing very exciting. I’ll show you when it’s healed properly.”
His tone was evasive but I let it go as he quickly changed the subject.
“I’m also here to meet my costar, Laura Halcyon. Have you met her yet?”
I hadn’t met her and to be honest, I wasn’t looking forward to it. Gorgeous, twenty-six going on nineteen, she was the darling of the popular press, known as much for her acting ability as for her fabulous clothes and frequent turnover of lovers. Almost every eligible bachelor on two continents and a few who were not had passed time on her arm, and apparently, in her bed. Add in a reputation for being a diva, and I was thinking that life was about to get interesting.
“No, I haven’t met her yet. But I have had … communications … with her assistant. Apparently she was a little concerned about some of her lines, so we’ll meet to talk about it on Friday.”
The knock on the door made us both jump guiltily, and I moved away from him as the door opened and the set assistant came in.
“Grace, they need you to check a line.”
As I headed out the door, Jules grabbed a large white envelope from the bench behind the couch and passed it to me.
“Would you mind giving this to Lara? I promised I’d send it to her but I figured I might as well just give it to you here. You’d better go. See you later.”
I waved him goodbye and returned to the relative safety of the set. As far as meetings go, it had been relatively innocuous, especially once I had managed to slow my heartbeat to a rhythm approaching livable.
When I got home at the end of the day, I was greeted by two familiar little faces, and another that was oddly familiar, even though we’d never met.
“Mum, this is Carlotta, Jules’ daughter,” Lara told me excitedly before I’d put my bag on the table. Margot poked her head around the door and said “Cocktails in five. I assume you’ve met our guest?”
“Nice to meet you, Carlotta. How was riding today, girls?”
There was a burble of giggles and a tumble of happy conversation about horses, horses and more horses, before they disappeared off to their room.
Margot came out of the kitchen and handed me a martini, every bit the fifties housewife, except that her pearls were once worn by the Duchess of Windsor and her sky-high heels spoke more of Studio 54 than the kitchen.
I told her about life on the set, careful not to mention Luther or Jules. We had a pact, extracted forcibly by Margot after I had yelled at her for not calling him, not to speak of Luther until, if ever, he was a free man. As for Jules, I wasn’t in the mood to be told again what an idiot I was for letting him go.
“Fine. Busy. Really good, actually. Now, do you want to tell me what Carlotta is doing here?”
She held out the shaker and refilled my glass, cackling like a crazy woman.
“You should have seen your face.”
“Well, I was hardly expecting to see her. I saw Jules today and he didn’t mention anything about play dates.”
She stopped clearing things from the dining table and stared me down.
“That should have been the first thing you told me when you walked in! How was it? How did it go?”
I smiled at her, trying not to show my excitement, particularly as she knew perfectly well how wound up I had been about seeing him again.
“It was fine. He was fine. He looked good, actually. Really good. We talked. It was great to see him. Now tell me what Carlotta is doing here.”
She laughed at my obvious discomfiture.
“Relax, the girls organized it. He probably doesn’t even know. We called the nanny and she said she’d come and get Carlotta later on. She’s a lovely kid and it’s good for our girls to have a friend here.”
I breathed out.
“Do you think it’s wise that they spend time together? What if the press …”
She cut me off.
“There’s no story here, the press won’t be interested. It’s just kids, playing together. She’s a nice girl. The nanny will come to get her and that will be that. Now go shower, dinner will be ready soon. We’re having mussels. And believe it or not, I cooked!”
She looked so proud of herself that I bit back any comments about food poisoning and took myself off to bathe.
When I came out of the shower, Jules and Margot were sitting together and the table was set for six instead of four.
Before I could accuse him of anything, he held up his hands in defense and said, “Don’t say a word. The nanny had a flat tire and when I got here, the girls begged me to stay. In fact, between your daughter and mine, I didn’t stand a chance.”
There wasn’t much I could say to that – I knew perfectly well how persuasive my Lara could be. Margot stood up and said, “Well, now that I’m sure you’re not going to kill each other, please excuse me while I go check on my mussels. Dinner will be ready in five minutes.”
I grinned at him and pointed out that if he got food poisoning, it would be his own fault. He laughed and told me about the time he’d decided to make chicken in red wine and ended up sending three of his best buddies, including Luther, to the local emergency ward because he’d mistaken a small packet of rat poison for the bouillon, and was afraid they were going to die in the night.
When Margot gave the signal, I called the girls and we all sat down, waiting for the queen of the kitchen, as Jules dubbed her, to appear.
When we were all ensconced at the table, Margot came out, proudly bearing a large crock-pot overflowing with steaming shellfish. She served us and there was dead silence while we all took a mussel. Maria was the first to speak.
“Mum, these are really good.”
She sounded so surprised that we all burst out laughing. We ate with gusto, listening as the girls related their exploits at the stables as Margot vaunted her hitherto undiscovered cooking skills.
When dessert was served, I suddenly remembered the envelope that Jules had given me for Lara. She took it and smirked when Jules winked at her.
“I’ll open it later,” she said primly. “It’s rude to open mail at the table.”
I didn’t have time to question her because Jules immediately engaged the girls in an animated conversation about the correct age to own one’s own horse. There were many diverging viewpoints, ranging from Jules’ reasonable “fourteen and when you can earn enough pocket money to contribute” to my unrelenting “absolutely never, that’s why you can rent them”. Margot chimed in with enchanting stories about all the ponies she’d owed until she was eighteen and left for finishing school, thereby exchanging the equine species for boys. When we’d finished our coffee, Jules and Margot cleared the table while I went and reviewed my notes for the following day’s shoot.
Jules popped his head around the door to my bedroom just before ten.
“We’re off now. Thanks for dinner. And thanks for letting me stay for dinner. See you tomorrow at the studio. And don’t worry about Laura. I’m sure it will be fine.”
I blew him a kiss absentmindedly and returned to my computer screen. I wanted to be more than prepared for my meeting with the diva the following day. She might have youth and beauty on her side, but I had the power of the pen.
When I walked onto the set the following day, it was as if someone had died. People were speaking in hushed tones and looking nervously over their shoulders. I made my way to the coffee machine and grabbed Daci as he hustled by.
“What’s going on?”
He sighed histrionically and raised his eyes to the sky.
“Madame has arrived and she’s not happy.”
I must have looked confused because he leaned in towards me.
“The other star of this show is here and she’s raising hell. Her trailer is too small, we ordered the wrong brand of water, she doesn’t like the wardrobe, the script, the set or anything else. Except her co-star,” he finished bitchily.
I smiled and he looked at me as if I were mad.
“She doesn’t much like you either, so I’d watch my step if I were you.”
“She doesn’t even know me,” I said defensively.
“That doesn’t matter. She’d knows about you and that’s more than enough for her. She requires undying devotion from every male around,” he shook his head bemusedly. “Even me, and I don’t do women. She knows about you and Jules, and that’s enough to get her blood up.”
I choked on my coffee.
“But there’s nothing to know about me and Jules. We’re friends. Surely she can’t have believed all that paparazzi nonsense?”
He looked over his shoulder and then whispered, “She saw you two together yesterday and she wasn’t happy at all.”
“But we were just talking.” I squeaked. “There’s nothing between us. We’re just friends.”
“If you say so,” he said, shaking his head, but it was clear he didn’t believe a word I said. I moved on before he could say anything I’d regret.
“If she’s so out of shape about everything, why did she sign on?”
“Honey, the more you talk, the more I realize just how naïve you really are. She’s been after Jules for years and there was no way she was going to let this opportunity go by. The way I see it, you’re shooting a love story, and between you and me, she’s going to use every chance she gets to turn fiction into reality.”
A hysterical wail rose up from the other side of the studio, followed by the sound of shattering glass.
“Oh God, I’d better go. You watch out for yourself, missy. She fights dirty.”
I finished my coffee and contemplated the mysteries of stardom. Quite frankly, Laura sounded like she needed a good smack, but given that my mortgage payments depended on this job, there was no way I was going to be the one to give it to her.
I put my cup down and wandered over to the other side of the set. As I drew closer, I saw the diva standing in the middle of the restaurant scene, surrounded by lackeys. Luther was standing off to the side, conferring with a well-dressed young man who was shaking his head and looking worried.
I took my courage in my two hands, straightened my face and walked over. She wasn’t the only one who could act.
“Miss Halcyon, my goodness but you are even more beautiful in person than in real life. Pictures just don’t do you justice. I’m Grace Tabberer, the scriptwriter. I’m absolutely thrilled to meet you and I know you’re going to be just perfect in this role.”
I leaned in and said confidentially, crossing my fingers behind my back, “You know, you were my inspiration for the part.”
She looked me up and down slowly, and for a moment I thought I would have to slap her, just for being so arrogant. Then she smiled confidently and said, “Of course I was. Nice to meet you.”
She held out a dainty, limp hand and I shook it gently. She withdrew it quickly, as if the touch of my hand was somehow unclean, and I watched, flabbergasted, as she took an anti-bacterial wipe from a box proffered by a sweating assistant and carefully wiped her hand, before dropping the wipe on the floor, where another assistant hurried over to pick it up and place it in the bin less than a meter away.
She turned back to me.
“We will have to change a few things, of course, but don’t worry, I’ll tell you what to write. I understand that you’re very new at this, so you’ll obviously need help.”
She looked at my old jeans and tee-shirt – I’d made an effort to look presentable the first day but quickly realized that the best way to get on with the crew was to be one of them and so I’d dressed accordingly.
“And it looks like you need help with a few other things as well. Maybe I can have a talk with wardrobe and get them to give you a few hints. You are representing me, in a way, and we can’t have you wandering around dressed like a cleaning person.”
I clenched my fist behind my back and saw Luther smirk out of the corner of his eye.
“That’s very kind, Miss Halcyon. But I am sure you’ll have better things to do than worry about me.”
I was thinking of adding “like learn your lines or take a course in personal relations” but I restrained myself. There would be plenty of time to put her in her place when the filming was over.
She rose gracefully and strolled off without another word to me and I slumped in relief. Luther came over and patted me gently on the back.
“Nice work. You’re quite the diplomat. And a talented actress too, if I may say so.”
“Thank you sir. Do you think it worked? I just wanted to diffuse the situation a bit.”
He laughed out loud and for the first time, I realized how attractive he was, especially when he wasn’t breaking things; I could see why Margot was hooked. I wished that there was something I could do to get them together, but Margot was adamant that if he wanted her, he was going to have to be divorced first.
“Don’t be silly, this hasn’t changed a thing. And when she realizes that you and Jules are an item, there’s going to be merry hell to pay.”
I started to protest but he was called away to check a camera position before I could tell him that he’d got it all wrong. Jules and I weren’t an item, nor were we going to be. Honestly, between Daci and Luther and Margot, Jules and I might as well have been married.
Shooting the pivotal scenes began in earnest the next morning and everyone was tense, waiting for the two major stars to come out of their rooms. Because we were shooting the main shots in a linear fashion, the story would evolve along with the characters, and we all knew that the chemistry between the two had to be there, right from the beginning.
Finally both stars emerged at the same time, and I actually gasped as I watched Jules re-enact the first scene in the nightclub where he kisses the girl’s boob. If possible, he was even more gorgeous in the viewfinder than in life, which surprised me because until then, I’d found him to be much more attractive in real life than on celluloid.
It was magic watching my words come out of the actors’ mouths. Somehow, it hadn’t seemed real until I saw Jules and I suddenly realized how lucky I was to have him starring in my first ever script. And I remembered how I’d set out, what seemed ages ago, to write the perfect love story and now here it was, in front of me. And then I saw the camera pan towards Laura and it struck me that my perfect love affair was going on without me.
She was absolutely sublime, there was no doubt about it. Her skin glowed as if lit from within. Enhanced further by three hundred dollar a pot creams and excellent lighting, my own inner diva bitched. No baggy elephant tummies for her, I thought, standing up straighter. Looking at her reminded me of my own physical imperfections and no amount of remembering my beautiful child and fourteen extra years of life experience was helping. I’d never been particularly obsessed by my looks before but something about knowing that youth and beauty were about to trump my age and wisdom, again, took me right back to the dark days when I’d learned that my husband preferred a teenage aerobics instructor to the woman who’d born his child. Abruptly, I turned and stomped back to my little office, furious with nature for the passing of years, with men for their limited attention spans, and above all, with myself for caring that Jules would fancy her when I wanted him to fancy me.
At the close of shooting, I checked with Luther that he didn’t need me and then rushed off before anyone could stop me. I knew that the day’s scenes had gone well; I didn’t need to hear how wonderful Laura was or how charming she looked with Jules.
My thunderous mood was evident at home and everyone stayed out of my way until Margot finally cornered me and asked me what was wrong.
“I’m old,” I finally admitted. “I look old and I feel old. I’m not cute anymore, and I don’t like it one little bit.”
She looked taken aback and then laughed.
“This, from the woman who was giving me pep talks about the age of reason only a few months ago. What’s brought this on?”
I sat down heavily.
“I watched Jules and Laura in action today together. She’s gorgeous, he’s gorgeous. They match, and I hate it.”
“But I thought you’d sworn off him? I mean, I know you like him but I thought you had decided to remain a nun.”
I frowned at her.
“I don’t want to be a nun. I just didn’t want to drag Lara into a world of paparazzi madness when I knew that it wouldn’t ever go anywhere.”
She started to interrupt but I continued.
“Let’s face it. He’s a movie star. He’s handsome, world famous. His wife was a Miss World. His last relationship was with a stunning, twenty year old actress. He’s an actor, not a species renowned for fidelity, and he’s younger than me. Say what you like but you know as well as I do that it was a story destined for failure.”
“Ok,” she admitted. “Maybe it was destined for failure. And maybe it would have played out in the public eye. And perhaps Lara would have been embarrassed by it all. But the point is, you’ll never know if it could have worked because you never tried.”
She leaned forward and took my hands.
“Darling, you’re more closed than an oyster. But even oysters open up, they have to, to live. I’m scared that if you don’t let someone in soon, you’ll stay closed forever. Is that what you want? And what about Lara? Isn’t it better that she sees you living your life and taking chances, than being afraid to risk anything for fear of being hurt? Is that what you want to teach her about life? To give up if she doesn’t succeed the first time?”
“Margot, this isn’t learning to ride a bicycle!”
I raised my voice.
“You of all people should remember how hard it was for me to pick myself up after the Lara’s dad left…”
She drew me close and rubbed my back.
“Of course I remember. But my sweet, you got back up. You didn’t die. And that’s because you love life too much to die. But the thing is, life without love is just another definition of death.”
Margot patted me consolingly and stood up.
“You can’t turn back the clock and you wouldn’t want to if you could. But don’t count Jules out just because you’re afraid that you’re not worthy. He’d be lucky to have you and I’m pretty sure that he thinks you’re wonderful, just as you are. Now try to get some sleep. Looking haggard is not going to help!”
On that useful note, she walked out, fluffing a pillow as she went.
I gave up tossing and turning after about three hours and finally took a sleeping pill. Knowing Margot was right was one thing, but admitting to myself that Jules was the one I wanted took more courage than I had. And competing with Laura would take more than courage, much more indeed.
There was no shooting the next day, and when I finally emerged from my room, I was ready for battle. The girls had gone with Carlotta and her nanny to an equestrian show and wouldn’t be back until later that night, and when Margot asked me what I wanted to do with myself for the day, I had my answer ready.
“I want to go shopping. For clothes.”
She choked on her coffee.
“But you hate clothes shopping.”
I nodded, absolutely determined to give Laura a run for her money, or at least equal the playing field a tiny bit.
“Yes, but I hate looking like an old hag more. I want to go shopping. I want to get a facial and a haircut and a mani-pedi…I want the works. Everything except Botox. Are you with me,” I said dramatically. “Or against me?”
She stood, letting her newspaper slide to the floor.
“With you, my general. Lead on in the fight against youth!”
Six hours later, I dragged Margot into the nearest café, slumped into a chair and begged the waiter for a double expresso.
“My God, I am exhausted. This is harder than childbirth.”
“Aah, yes,” sighed Margot, looking at the plethora of shopping bags at our feet. “But infinitely more satisfying.”
Actually, I had to admit that it had been fun, kind of. At Margot’s insistence, we’d hit Gucci first, where she’d dressed me “appropriately” for shopping. “Otherwise no one will take us seriously.”
After Gucci, it was Prada, then Temperly, then McQueen, then YSL (because apparently every girl needs a little YSL to keep her grounded, which I didn’t understand until I saw my bottom in a tight, laced from behind pencil skirt in charcoal grey). I lost count of the designer names by hour three. By the end of the day, I owned everything from two hundred dollar jeans that were worth every cent, given that they saved me a trip to Brazil and a bottom lift, little floating tops that made me look positively ethereal, and knock me down and do me shoes with red soles that Margot bought me as a gift if I promised faithfully never to wear my sheepskin boots again, to the world’s most perfect little black dress.
When I’d begged and pleaded for mercy, she’d dragged me into Sabia Rosa and allowed me to sit on an obscenely plush chair while she collected lingerie that looked like it would drift away on a breeze, giving stray birds erections as it went by. And when I swore I couldn’t walk another step, she pulled me into a beauty salon where, as part of her clearly organized strategy, I was bleached and plucked and prodded and painted until I actually started to like the pain. Even the waxing was good pain, because I had to admit there was no point in paying one hundred and fifty dollars for a pair of silk knickers if, as Margot so charmingly pointed out, your bits looked like a hairy old sow’s ear.
When we were finally seated in a place where the only thing for sale was the over-priced coffee the waiter brought over, Margot smiled at me.
“Enjoy the caffeine while you can. Tonight we are bleaching your teeth, so no more coffee, red wine or ciggies for you, I’m afraid.”
I looked at her, horrified.
“Breathe, you can still drink champagne. And tequila.”
When I walked into the living room the next morning, Lara and Maria nearly fell off their chairs in shock, and Margot looked so self-satisfied that I wanted to slap her.
I was wearing the slinky charcoal skirt and the red soled heels, which together made my legs look as if they went well beyond my arse, teamed with a clingy black short sleeved shirt that I’d left undone just enough to show a glimpse of the bright red silk bra underneath. I’d grabbed my grandmother’s pearls and let them hang down into my now existent cleavage. The hairdresser had put some kind of gunk in my hair that made it amazingly easy to artfully tussle, and I’d actually managed to copy the makeup on the cheat sheet they’d given me at the beauty counter (I’d always been good at tracing things at school, so I’d simply held it over my face and drawn faint marks with the lip liner and then gone over it in the required colors).
“Wow, Mum,” breathed Lara. “You look hot.”
“Thank you, I think.”
I kissed my daughter on the top of the head and glided out the door before Margot could say a word. When I got downstairs, I had to whistle to get the attention of my regular driver, who had been busy leering until he realized it was me. Then he was just plain embarrassed, particularly as I knew his wife. Really, this sexpot stuff was fun.
When Daci saw me, he skidded to a halt, almost scalding me with his hot coffee.
“Careful, my friend, I haven’t paid for this stuff yet,” I warned him, holding out a hand to ward off the caffeine.
“Yeah, and you probably won’t be able to when Laura sees the competition and has your backside fired out of here.”
He looked me up and down and let out a squeal of excitement when he saw the shoes.
“Louboutins,” he murmured adoringly. “Miss Grès, this season.”
He looked up at me.
“Who would have thought you’d had it in you?”
He shook his head wonderingly and walked away.
Even Luther did a double take when he saw me walk into the production meeting. He looked me up and down with clear approval, and started to make his way over to me. And then we heard her before we saw her. Miss Layton was on her way and she did not sound happy.
She stomped into the room and did an abrupt double take when she saw me. Luther took her arm and gently guided her to a chair. She started whispering furiously in his ear while he nodded calmly. At one point, she looked at me with such an evil glance that I shuddered involuntarily, and sat down as far away from her as possible.
Jules jogged in the door just as the script girl was placing the day’s scenes in front of us.
“Sorry I’m late everyone, I just … holy shit!”
He stopped dead as I stood and walked elegantly over to the coffee machine. He quickly gathered himself and continued.
“Sorry, sorry, I was in my trailer and I didn’t see the time.”
He quickly busied himself by sitting down next to Daci, making a show of organizing his shooting script, while sneaking peeks at me when he thought no one was looking.
Luther stood, cleared his throat to get our attention, and looked down at his notes on the table.
“Right everybody, big day today, we’ve got a lot to get done, so let’s just run through the shooting order…”
We quickly reviewed each scene, making notes about any changes. At Laura’s request, Luther had modified the schedule so that her big scene didn’t happen until the end of the day, something I knew wouldn’t suit Jules, as he liked to be free to go and pick up his daughter when possible. Laura made any number of fairly pointless comments during the run-through, mainly to make the recipients feel like they didn’t know how to do their jobs. Luther let her speak, according her the same politeness as every one else, but it was clear that the rest of the cast was losing patience with her, and I wondered how she’d got so far in her career by being so very odious and not very smart.
When the meeting was over, Jules began to make his way towards me, wonder in his eyes, but I stopped him with a nod. Laura had been scowling at us both throughout the entire meeting and I didn’t want to add fuel to what was clearly going to be a bonfire. As I walked out, my phone buzzed with an incoming text message:
“You are the most beautiful woman I have ever known. Ever.”
A minute later, another message came through.
“Dinner tonight? Your place, our kids?”
I smiled to myself. Apparently yesterday’s shopping expedition had been money well spent. I fairly skipped back to my desk, ready for work, and a ridiculous smile on my face. My little bubble of self-satisfaction didn’t last long, and when Daci popped his head around the corner to say that Luther needed to see me, I knew that Laura was up to something.
He was pacing his office when I walked in.
“Hi Luther, what’s up?”
He looked at me, clearly upset.
“Look, this is ridiculous but Laura’s having a fit. She’s decided that her lines are not well-written and that she deserves a more experienced writer.”
“Of course, what she really means is that she wants an ugly writer. You look great, by the way.”
He looked up at me, a little desperation in his eyes
“Do I sense Margot’s fine hand in this?”
I smirked back at him.
“Absolutely. Shopping is not one of my gifts. Are you going to come around anytime soon?”
Luther looked at me sorrowfully and shook his head.
“Between the shoot and the editing, I’m going to be very busy until August.”
“August 27, to be precise.”
I looked at him and remembered what Jules had said about the divorce coming through then, so I let it go. Poor Luther had enough on his plate without adding the drama that Margot would surely bring unless he was legally unbound, and not married to another woman. Not to mention the wreckage that would surely occur; the last the we needed on the set was vandalism, inadvertent or not, and Luther couldn’t be in the same room as Margot without breaking everything in view. It astounded me that such a capable and elegant man became such a physical incompetent when the love of his life was within arm’s reach. I asked Jules what it was all about, and he was equally as baffled as me. According to him, Luther had never been this clumsy in previous relationships, so we attributed it to Margot’s hold over him. A tangible manifestation of true love, as it were.
I sat down in the chair that he gestured to and asked the big questions.
“What do you want me to do about Laura? What exactly doesn’t she like about the script? Should I talk to her?”
Luther thought for a moment.
“Honestly, I’m not sure that talking to her is going to be terribly helpful. Why don’t you let me handle it for now? We really need her on-board. The public adores her, the producers insisted, …she’s the cross we have to bear. If it’s OK with you, I was thinking that we could make some token changes, just to keep the peace, and that maybe I’d get the PR folk to get a little buzz going about you…”
My face must have betrayed my fear, because he immediately leaned toward me and said, “Don’t worry, nothing personal. I just think that if I build you up a little, she’ll be more … accepting. Let me work on it.”
I left his office with my heart sinking. I knew that I’d have to do some kind of press at some stage – even I knew that nothing got done in this industry without publicity – but I was dreading it. I walked around the corner toward my office, feeling the fear build in me. What if they brought up all that old stuff about Jules? What if they focused on Lara? What if they tried to make the story into something it was not?
I slammed into someone, who immediately screeched as if she’d been shot.
“Ouch! Oh my God, if you have bruised me, I’ll sue…”
In my daze, I’d walked straight into Laura, who was coming back from makeup.
Apologies rushed to my mouth but before I could speak, she leaned in so close that I could see the powdered pores of her perfect jaw line.
“Don’t think I don’t know what you’re about. You think that you can just swan in here and become somebody. Housewife to fame and fortune? Maybe snatch yourself a movie star husband while you’re at it? Well, you know what?”
She stared me down, the menace clear in her eyes.
“I don’t think so. I just don’t think so.”
From that moment on, it was clear that Laura had declared war on me, and the week went from reasonably calm to catastrophic. On Tuesday afternoon, Laura stormed off the set after fluffing her lines with Jules so many times that even he began to loose patience. She refused to come back until the set was closed and Jules and Luther had each spent a hour groveling and reminding her of what a talented and extraordinary actress she was.
I could sense the tension rising in Luther as we fell further behind in the shooting schedule, and it got to the point where Laura plainly refused to work if I was anywhere near the set, although she never said anything outright. There was always something wrong, always some small reason to delay her scene, until I finally figured that the best thing to do was to stay in my office until she’d finished. I missed watching the action and being part of the camaraderie, and most of all, I missed watching Jules at work. We’d fallen into a rhythm whereby he and his daughter ate with us most nights, but I still loved to watch him say the words I’d written for him, and pretend he was saying them to me. Sad but true.
As if all the drama around Laura wasn’t enough, the next day, we arrived to find that the set had been sabotaged beyond repair. When I walked onto the sound stage, the police and studio security were conferring and Luther sat, his head in his hands, listening to them. Laura stood on the other side of the set, looking interestedly at the proceedings while her immaculately dressed assistant, the ever present and ever obsequious Marley, spoke quietly and urgently to her. She brushed him off impatiently and moved closer to Luther and the police.
“What happened?” I asked Megan, the set designer, who had become my friend. She was a first timer too, in that this was her first big job. When our schedules permitted, we would meet for lunch on the other side of the lot, at the cafeteria where all of the less than cool studio staff met, and discuss the latest intrigues: who was dating, sleeping with or cheating on whom. Her little brother was one of the mad, lad about town electricians, so she always had the latest gossip and we had a ball watching all the silliness that went on when a group of people spent far too much time with each other.
Megan looked at me with tears in her eyes.
“I don’t know. I left the set at about ten last night. I’d been painting the backdrop again.”
According to Luther, Megan’s only fault was that she was such a perfectionist that she often did things over after her assistants had finished, but no one minded because she was so very good at what she did.
She dabbed her eyes with a piece of rag, leaving a dash of blue paint on her cheek.
“Everything was fine when I left. I called security and they locked up after me, so I just don’t know what happened.”
She sniffed loudly and as I went to pass her a tissue, I saw Jules walk in and go straight over to Luther.
“They say it was an inside job, but only Luther and security have keys to the set.”
I saw Laura turn her head towards us and when she saw me looking at her, she stormed over to Luther and exploded.
“I cannot work under such conditions, the lack of security, the amateurs…”
She looked in my direction again before returning to her diatribe.
“It’s just not fitting for actors of our stature.”
With that, she grabbed Jules by the arm and hauled him out off the set. Her ever-present assistant hurried after them, casting a worried glance back at the mess that surrounded us. Something in the way he looked at the destroyed set bothered me, but I didn’t have time to dwell on it as Luther beckoned me over.
I gave him a hug and he smiled dejectedly at me.
“We’re going to have to shoot around this mess until Megan can get it sorted out. I can’t lose another day’s work. We’re already behind the black ball. If we lose much more time, we’ll be so far over budget, they’ll fire me off this disaster.”
After much reorganization, Luther decided to continue shooting the scenes that did not require the main actors on the back set, and the rest of us waited around, wanting to be of help. I found myself painting scenery with Megan and her crew, and sweeping and cleaning until she could at least see what the damage was and how best to fix it quickly.
I didn’t see Jules for the rest of the day, and when I finally made it home, I was in the bath, trying to scrub off the sky blue paint I’d somehow managed to get all over me, when the nanny came to pick up Carlotta.
When I turned up at the coffee machine the next day, everyone was huddled around the computer, gazing at a popular celebrity gossip site. I eased in to look and found myself confronted with a full screen shot of Jules and Laura kissing passionately. The headline was “True love: from screen to reality”, and the copy noted that the two actors who played characters who fall in love, had actually fallen in love. Apparently, a source close to one of the actors had confirmed the story, saying that both actors had realized the depths of their sentiments the first time they had shared a screen kiss. Worst of all, the dateline said that the photo had been taken the previous night. Which made sense, I thought with a horrible sinking feeling, given that for the first time since we’d been in London, the nanny – and not Jules – had picked up Carlotta. I looked at the screen again but it was too dark to see where the photo had been taken, and just close enough to see that it was a full on lip lock, and that both protagonists were clearly enjoying it.
Darci straightened and shook his head in disbelief.
“And here was I thinking he was an OK guy. What’s he doing with that skank?”
There were murmurs of assent as people slowly drifted away. I stood, gazing at the screen in disbelief. Darci put his arm around me consolingly.
“Keep the Louboutins and never trust an actor,” he said to me gravely, as if imparting a profound philosophy.
My thoughts exactly. I went back to my desk, and tried to concentrate on work, but I was furious with myself. How stupid was I, to imagine that he might be different? How could I possibly have thought he was interested in me, when he could have Laura?
I kicked off my sexy but dreadfully uncomfortable shoes and groaned. What an idiot I was to have spent a mortgage payment trying to look like someone I’m not. He must had a right old laugh about my gullibility, especially when he saw how gussied up I was. I took a deep breath and tried to control the ache in my heart. No sense getting angry or upset, better to take stock of the good things. At least I had a new job I liked, and an interesting summer break. Lara was discovering a wonderful city and making progress with her riding, both of which were good for her. And then my heart sank. If Laura had her way, maybe I wouldn’t get to keep this job, and if I didn’t do well here, it seemed pretty unlikely that anyone else would hire me.
And without Jules and Luther to back me up, I figured I’d be out the door quicker than lightning. I felt a rush of rage and wished more than anything that I had never laid eyes on the man who’d done nothing but screw up my life from the moment I met him.
I spent the rest of the day in my office fine-tuning the script. If they fired me, it wouldn’t be because I hadn’t tried my best. As I read and reread the script, I tried to think positively. I was actually good at this. The dialog rang true and even the actors – with the exception of Laura, of course – had praised my work. The director was happy too. Maybe now that Laura had won Jules, she’d let up on me. We could only hope, and meanwhile, I ignored the desperate ache in my heart. How could I be upset over losing something – or someone – I never had?
I stayed out of everyone’s way for the rest of the day, and when I got home, I took a hot bath and crawled into bed. Margot had left me a note saying that she’d taken the girls to the cinema, so I scrawled a love note to my angel and then fell into bed, to sleep.
I woke in a panic to a siren going off and it took me a moment to realize that it was the door buzzer. Thinking that Margot had forgotten her keys, I buzzed her up and opened the door. Five minutes later, Jules stomped through the door, his cerulean eyes ablaze.
“What are you doing here?”
I scowled at him, clutching my dressing gown around me.
“I might ask the same of you. What the hell possessed you to give that interview? You of all people should have known how they’d twist it.”
He paced the floor, clearly furious.
I shook my head, trying to clear the sleep.
“What interview? What are you talking about? And what the hell are you doing here? Shouldn’t you be with your girlfriend?”
The bitterness crept into my tone, and I hated myself for it.
He strode over to me and grabbed me by the shoulders.
“She’s not my girlfriend. How could you even think that?”
He relaxed his grasp on my shoulders and stepped back, trying to get a grip on what was evidently a very bad mood. Either that or he was a truly extraordinary actor.
But I wasn’t going to fall for his stories this time; I’d already been far too gullible with the man and I wasn’t about to start again.
“Listen, we all saw it. The big picture in Variety and on the Fixpix website, you and Laura kissing. All you had to do was say that you liked her, that’s all. You didn’t have to make me feel …”
I trailed off when I saw him looking at me with a troubled frown.
He spoke slowly.
“OK, I don’t get this. I checked with the website and Variety and both said that you had emailed the information in, off the record, with the photo, for a fairly modest fee. Are you telling me you didn’t sell that picture or give that interview?”
I must have looked fit to kill, because he backed off, raising his hands in defense.
“Alright, I should have known better. Of course you didn’t give any interviews about Laura and me. But who did? And where did the photo come from?”
I looked at him with all the disdain I could muster.
“I really don’t know, and what is more, I don’t care. I don’t care what you do with Laura, or anyone else. I don’t care if they publish photos of you two procreating. All I care about is that you stop telling me you love me, when you’re obviously very busy elsewhere.”
He ignored me, lost in his thoughts, and all I wanted to do was throw something at him, make him hurt like I hurt.
“I’ve got it!”
He said so suddenly that I jumped.
“The photo was stolen from the stills the production director took for the film’s promotion. They must have taken it during the break-in. No one would miss just one photo. It’s from the restaurant scene. You were there, hell, you wrote that scene. Now the question is, who stole it and why did they send it out? And why would they try to pin it on you?”
Suddenly I was exhausted. I turned my back on him and walked into the kitchen, letting the door slam behind me. I turned on the coffee machine and leaned my head on the counter. Why was it that life got complicated whenever he was around? If there was one big lesson I’d learned over the last few years, it was that if you kept encountering obstacles, it was that you were probably on the wrong path. When things were supposed to work out, life generally flowed. It had become my life philosophy, as such. Everyone from the Sufi masters to the Pope had a version of this, and I believed. I heard the door swing behind me and I stood up and quickly wiped my eyes. Jules came up to me and lifted my chin to look at me.
He spoke softly as he put his arms around me.
“Look, I’m sorry I jumped all over you. I was stupid. And … well, I was stupid. I knew you wouldn’t ever sell me out.”
“Then why did you accuse me? And why should I trust you?”
The hurt was making my throat ache.
He pulled me to him and even though I wanted to resist, it felt so good to be in his arms, to be held, that I let myself sink into him. Part of me hated him for being an untrustworthy son of a bitch man, and the other yearned to leave a trail of kisses down his neck to his collarbone and beyond.
“I accused you because I was angry. It’s already hard enough trying to keep Laura happy and off my back at the same time. The picture depends on her not walking. If the advance press hadn’t already gone out, and if the production money didn’t depend on her participation, I’d just walk myself; it’s not like I need this film. But you do. I messed up your life and now you’re trying to make a new career. This film can make you a star in your own right, in what you do, and I want that for you. I want you to be happy and fulfilled.”
He took a deep breath and continued.
“I guess only you can decide if you want to trust me or not. But you have to know in your heart that I’m in love with you. I feel right when I’m with you. More right than I’ve ever felt with anyone else, ever. If it were up to me…”
He stopped and looked into my eyes, searching for an answer, and I felt something inside me shift and rise.
Leaning in, he kissed me gently, his lips caressing mine, drawing me into his mouth as he pulled me tight against him.
“I can’t not kiss you. I can’t work every day and not be with you. There’s something about this that feels so good, so right. Please tell me you feel it too?”
Not trusting myself to speak, I nodded, trying not to cry. I couldn’t lie. Every fiber of my being ached to be with him. Not Jules the movie star but Jules the man in front of me, naked in his desire to love me. Suddenly, the doorbell rang and I jumped back as if scalded.
“That must be Lara and Margot and Maria.”
I walked quickly away to the door, my mind shorting out. Overload. Was I going mad? Developing a Hollywood split mentality? A moment ago I had been ready to strangle him for falling for Laura, but as soon as he put his arms around me, I was ready to cede to his – and my – every desire.
I opened the door just as Margot was reaching for the buzzer again, her face thunderous. The girls were scowling and Lara’s eyes were red from crying. When she saw me, she burst into tears and rushed into my arms.
“My darling, sweetheart, what is it?”
I held her tight as I looked at Margot questioningly.
“We had an … incident … with the press,” she said shortly.
“What kind of incident?” Jules asked, as he appeared in the kitchen doorway.
“A disagreeable one. They were waiting for us as we came out of the show, and they were all yelling at Lara and asking her how it felt to have a mother who was stalking a movie star.”
Margot looked ready to kill.
“I don’t know what’s going on here but I suggest you two find out and stop it at once.”
She turned towards the drinks cabinet and poured herself a vodka.
“There is press downstairs too. The doorman had to come and get us. They’re all shouting that you cheated on your own husband, then broke up Jules’ marriage and that you’re trying to do the same with him and Laura.”
“It’s true, Mummy,” sobbed Lara. “They were horrible. They even asked me if Jules was my Daddy. I don’t like this. I want to go home.”
I rocked her in my arms and tried not to cry myself. I looked at Jules, who seemed to be as upset as my darling daughter.
“Jules, you’d better go. Call down and get the doorman to bring your car around the back,” I said coldly.
He looked at me a long moment, nodded, then turned to Lara.
“I’m sorry, Lara. I promise you that I’ll get to the bottom of this. It’ll be OK.”
She shook her head and buried herself in my shoulder.
He grabbed his coat and touched me briefly on the shoulder.
“I’ll see you tomorrow at the studio. Try to get some sleep.”
I turned my back to him and held Lara tighter. I didn’t know what was going on but I knew that I had to stay far away from him if I wanted to keep my daughter safe. At the end of the day, it didn’t matter whether he was telling the truth about Laura or not. All that mattered was keeping as far away from him as possible, so that the bullets that kept flying by hit neither Lara nor me.
The following morning, before I had even put my coat down, Luther stuck his head in my office, looking uncharacteristically serious.
“Morning. Can we have a chat?”
He came in and closed the door. I pushed the spare chair over to him and he slumped down with a sigh.
I nodded toward the coffee machine I’d installed on my desk.
He grimaced and shook his head.
“No thanks, I’ve already had about twenty.”
He looked at his hands for a minute and then said, “I heard about last night. I’m really sorry that Lara and Maria had to go through that. Was Margot OK?”
“Pretty angry. The doorman told me this morning that she’d threatened to cut some photographer’s privates off with a penknife if he didn’t get out of the way.”
He nodded, as if that made sense.
“The thing is, the press office has been inundated with requests for interviews. They all want to know about you and Jules … and Laura.”
He laughed briefly.
“Apparently you’re a love triangle.”
He looked at me soberly.
“And you’re not the odds on favorite. I’m afraid it’s going to get nasty unless we do something.”
I shook my head despairingly.
“I don’t know what you want me to say. Jules must have told you – we’re not together. All we ever were was one lousy kiss on the beach.”
Even as I said it, I wanted to cry. In another world, with another man, that kiss would have been the start of a love story far better than anything Hollywood could have cooked up.
I looked at him earnestly.
“I am so sorry but I don’t know what to tell you. I’m thrilled to have this job.”
My eyes welled suddenly with tears.
“I love working on this movie and I need to work on this movie. I don’t have a relationship with Jules and I’m not looking for one either,” I said fiercely, ignoring the pang in my heart. It was the truth. Even though I could admit that my feelings for him were powerful, and even though I was so lonely I could die some days, no relationship that started out so badly could possibly go anywhere, particularly when we came from two such different universes.
Luther stood up and came over to put his arm around my shoulders.
“Look, I know this has got to be hard on you, and I really am sorry. It’s none of my business, but Jules’ been my best mate since forever, and I’ve never seen him like this about someone before. Whatever you two decide is up to you, but meanwhile, we’re going to have to do something because all of this gossip about you and Jules is impacting the film. Not to mention the problems it’s creating with certain … cast members.”
I knew he meant Laura and I wondered just how far she’d go to get me fired. I thought back to the night before. When I had finally got Lara off to sleep, I stayed up late talking to Margot, trying to decide what was the best thing to do. After a good hour spent sobbing my eyes out over the fact that I loved someone who was completely unsuitable, while Margot passed me tissues and patted me on the back, I had tried to examine all the options that might prevent my daughter and my heart from becoming casualties of the popular press.
We both agreed that giving up and going home to Monaco was not an option. I really couldn’t afford to give up the job – I didn’t receive child support, and I’d lost all my other clients. And anyway, there was going to be press, with or without Jules, no matter what I did. We’d finally both gone to bed without finding a solution, agreeing only that we’d have to keep a close eye on the girls and choose carefully where we went.
Luther’s soothing voice pulled me back to the present.
“What I propose is this: I think we should have a press conference, with you and Jules and Laura. You can say clearly that you’re not involved romantically with Jules. Jules can back you up, and we’ll get Laura to ask for calm so that we can all go back to work like the professionals we are. What do you think?”
I shivered, trying to imagine speaking to a crowd of rowdy reporters, all hell bent on discovering how I spent my nights.
“But what if they ask questions. Like about the kiss or about my marriage?”
Luther shook his head.
“You haven’t met our public relations woman yet. She’s a dragon. She won’t let anyone hassle you. And Jules and Laura are experienced enough to take the limelight if it gets out of hand. What do you say? Can I set it up for the end of the day?”
I nodded warily.
“Have the others agreed?”
Luther smiled at me.
“Not yet, but they will. Laura will do anything for her career, and when I tell her that all this bad press is detracting from her seriousness as an actress, she’ll do it in flash. As for Jules, if I tell him it’s the right thing for you, he’ll swim to the North Pole and back.”
He looked up at me, all joking aside.
“You know, you’ll have to be careful once we’ve done this, because the press will be on the look out for any signs of you two, together. Any signs. You won’t even be able to have lunch together in public until things calm down. In fact, I wouldn’t even have coffee onset alone for a while. Make sure there’s always an assistant with you…”
If I had been looking for a sign about Jules and me, this was it.
“I understand, Luther. I can’t have Lara targeted like she was last night.”
It was devastating, but true. I couldn’t have Jules at the expense of Lara, no matter how much I wanted to be with him.
I gave Luther a hug and swiped at my eyes, and he squeezed me back.
“Cheer up,” he said kindly. “It isn’t always like this, you know. You just got lucky. A very challenging lead actress, a lead actor who loves you whether you want him to or not, a pack of rabid photographers watching your every move, and a maniac who wants to close down our set.”
I stifled a laugh.
“So this isn’t the normal film making process? I’m relieved.”
“And I’ll be relieved when this is all in the can. Did you know there was another break-in last night?”
My jaw dropped.
“No, no one told me. What happened?”
Luther walked over and closed the door.
“Keep it under your hat. We can’t afford any more bad publicity. Or any more drama from Laura. Someone broke into the set photographer’s office last night and stole all the stills he’s taken so far. They also smashed a console in the sound suite and tried to start a fire in the makeup room, but fortunately it didn’t take.”
He wandered over to the coffee machine and scowled at it.
“I’ve been here since early this morning with the police and the producers. Hence the numerous cups of coffee. I just don’t get it. It’s got to be someone who knows what we’re doing, but none of the cast or crew would want to stop the film because they’d lose their jobs. And if it’s outsiders, security can’t figure out how they get in. Or what’s going to happen next.”
I poured him a cup of coffee while my brain tried to turn over. Something Luther had just said bothered me but I couldn’t work out what it was. Luther took the cup from my hand and absent-mindedly added four sugars.
“We’re lucky we haven’t had any press about it in today’s papers. This is the kind of stuff that those horrible websites adore. ‘Director’s set cursed!’ headlines all over the place.”
And then it hit me. I turned to my computer and quickly clicked on the link that led to the trashy site from the day before, but when I clicked on the page, there was an error message saying, “this page has been removed”.
“Luther, did you happen to actually see the photo of Laura and Jules on the Fixpix site yesterday?”
Luther put his cup of coffee on top of my filing cabinet and walked over to me, taking me by the shoulder.
“Listen to me, Grace. There’s nothing going on with Jules and Laura. He only cares about you. If you won’t believe him, you’re going to have to believe me.”
I pointed at the page.
“I know, I know. It’s just that Jules said the picture that was in Variety and the website was a still from the movie, but I thought that we didn’t give out stills until the film was completed. And now it’s gone from the site…”
I trailed off, as Luther stood up sharply, dropping the photo of Margot and me and the girls that I kept on my note board, dislodging some papers from my desk and making the coffee cup wobble dangerously close to the edge of my keyboard.
“Well, my little detective, that’s very interesting indeed. Are you sure it was one of our stills?”
I shook my head.
“I can’t be absolutely certain but Jules told me that you could see part of the scenery that we used for the restaurant in the background. But who would steal the photo and send it to the website?”
Luther looked at me gravely.
“I don’t know but I’m guessing that it’s the same person who has a vested interest in stopping our little film from being made.”
When shooting had finished that afternoon, we gathered in the studio’s media room to meet the press. I nearly ran straight out screaming when I saw the number of photographers and television cameras vying for space with journalists, but the firm hand of Magda Libovitz, the studio’s Head of Publicity, propelled me straight to center stage.
As soon as I sat down, my body desperately sinking into the chair along with my heart, Jules and Laura came through the door and fortunately, everyone focused on them. The questions started before they were even sitting down.
“Jules, is it true that you’re dating Laura and Grace?”
“Mister Lorre, can you confirm that you have a relationship with both women?”
“Laura, Laura, how does it feel to be sharing your man with…?”
Magda stood up and raised a hand, and miraculously, the press corps fell silent.
“Ladies and gentlemen. I suggest we inject some order into the proceedings, otherwise my people are going to walk out. Now, shall we begin with you, Sally, from People Magazine?”
The reporter nodded her assent and turned towards Jules.
“Mister Lorre, our readers are very anxious to know the truth. Are you really dating your costar Laura Halcyon and your screenwriter, Grace Tabberer?”
I turned to look at Jules, who for a brief moment appeared to want to smack the homely, middle aged reporter. He quickly composed his face and spoke slowly and clearly.
“As you know, I generally make it my policy not to speak about my personal life in public. I’m making an exception today because my colleague,” he emphasized the word, “has been seriously inconvenienced by the rumors concerning our supposed relationship.”
He looked at me, and then looked out sternly at the press.
“Let me be clear about this. I am most categorically NOT dating Grace Tabberer. She is a friend and a colleague, and that is all …”
There was a buzz of chat and the reporter started to speak again when Laura leaned over and spoke into the microphone.
“If I may speak?” she smiled charmingly. “Like Jules, I normally prefer to keep my private life private.”
She dipped her head coyly and then looked up.
“But I’ve seen how terribly upsetting all of this attention has been to our dear scriptwriter.”
She smiled over at me and only I could see that the smile went nowhere near her eyes.
“So I feel that I just have to break my own rules for once. Jules is most certainly not dating Grace. Now, I can’t tell you why I am so certain of that, just let me say that I know for a fact that he’s not. I really can’t say anything more other than …”
She leaned closer to Jules and placed her hand on his, smiling up at him lovingly.
“I trust him implicitly and I know for a fact that he’s in love with someone else.”
The room erupted into questions and Jules stood up and stormed out of the room. Magda looked disconcerted for a moment before she strode to the front of the stage.
“OK folks, that’s all for today. Thanks for coming.”
She ushered Laura and me out of the room and as soon as we were outside, she turned to Laura with her eyebrows raised.
Laura smiled winningly at her.
“Well, I think that cleared things up. Now you’ll have to excuse me but I have lines to learn.”
I stood there looking after her, unsure of what exactly had happened. Had she just announced to the world that she and Jules were an item? And where had Jules gone? Magda shook her head, clearly furious. “Talent!” She muttered under her breath and then turned to me.
“Well, that takes the heat off you, I would think. They’ll be falling over themselves to get more about Laura and Jules because, let’s face it, it’s a story that sells. I have no idea how I’m supposed to handle that, because Mister Lorre did not look happy. Excuse me but I’d better go and give Luther a heads up on this latest development.”
She hurried off towards Luther’s office and I turned and headed back to my office.
My email inbox was flashing as I sat down at my desk. There were four messages from Jules, all marked “urgent”. The phone rang and I picked it up.
“That little bitch.”
I could hear the fury in Jules’ voice.
“I wouldn’t put it past her to be behind this whole mess. I’m sorry that she insinuated that she and I are an item. I’m going to speak to Luther in a moment and get him to make a disclaimer before it all goes too far. Little bitch.”
I interrupted his rant.
“If I were you, I’d let it ride. It will make her happy, which will make the shoot go easier. It will also keep her off my back and it’s not like you and I have a relationship of any kind …”
His voice softened on the other end of the line.
“Correction. We have the beginnings of a lifelong relationship. I agree that it will keep her off your back, but I’m going to have to watch mine. She’ll be all over me, and so will the press. And I don’t want to let her get away with this …”
“Jules, let her get away with it. Please? I don’t want the press back at my house, I don’t want them bothering Lara…”
There was silence at other end of the line.
“But what about us? And don’t say there is no us, because you know there is. We have to see each other, there’s got to be a way.”
I was silent for a moment. It was too risky. There was nothing I could say that would help. Even if I could admit to him that I cared for him, what good could it do? The media frenzy around Lara had been more than enough to scare me off, and I couldn’t risk losing this job by putting the film in jeopardy. I said softly, “I think we both know the answer to that. It’s not just the Laura situation, it’s everything that goes with your life. It’s just impossible.”
I felt tears well up and I struggled to keep my composure.
He was so quiet for a moment that I thought he’d hung up.
“I’m sorry too.”
I quietly replaced the phone and put my head on the desk. If I’d had any energy to laugh, it would have been at the utter irony of it all. I had wanted to write the perfect love story, and instead I’d ended up with a broken heart.
On Friday, the press outside the studio was multiplied by hundreds, but the good news was that no one noticed me at all as they all waited for more news on the “greatest love story since Burton and Taylor”. Someone – in all probability someone from Laura’s camp – had been leaking stories about Laura and Jules’ romance, and the rumors were running fast. Luther had convinced Jules, if not to play along, at least not to deny the burgeoning story, and Laura was playing it for all it was worth.
Jules had barely spoken a word to me since the phone call after the press conference, and I knew he was hurt. But what could I do? I hated hurting him, hated seeing photos of him and Laura looking for all the world like they were in love. I could barely bring myself to be civil to Laura during the script meetings, and had taken to eating lunch by myself in my office and avoiding the sound stage so I didn’t have to see them together. Even if I knew it was fiction, it still hurt like hell.
I was sulking in bed on Sunday, trying to gather the energy to get up and do something constructive instead of wasting the day away in bed, wishing Jules was a plumber or a doctor, anything but the world’s most famous actor, when Margot called me into the living room while breakfast news was on TV.
“Grace, get in here, you have to see this.”
I pulled myself out of bed and went into the breakfast room where Margot was watching television.
Sure enough, there was Jules being led away by two policemen while a photographer lay on the ground, clutching his bloody nose. Margot turned up the sound.
“This is a breaking story. Actor Jules Lorre has just been arrested for assault and battery outside his London home, where a freelance photographer working for the celebrity photo agency Flixpix was allegedly badly beaten by the actor. A spokesman for the police confirmed that the actor has been taken into custody. A spokesperson for the actor has no comment. We’ll have more on this story as it progresses, so stay tuned.”
The channel’s logo faded and Margot turned the sound down just as the phone rang. It was Luther.
“Have you seen the news this morning? It looks like trouble. Can you get down to the studio now?”
I told him I’d be there as soon as possible and hung up.
When I walked into the studio, Laura was already sitting in Luther’s office, her eyes red from crying. Her assistant stood close behind her as always. She scowled at me as I entered and shouted, “This is all her fault.” Marley leaned over and hushed her like a small child, and Luther came over to me.
“Apparently the paparazzi was waiting outside of Jules’ house for Laura to emerge…”
I started visibly, and Luther rushed to carry on.
“She wasn’t there but someone had tipped them off that she’d spent the night. Jules told a particularly aggressive reporter to go away but he was insistent and Jules ended up throwing a punch.”
Luther took a slug from his coffee cup and as he filled it up again, I saw that his hands were shaking. The poor guy was clearly at the end of his tether.
“I just don’t get it,” he continued. “Jules is about the least violent person I know. It must have been pretty bad for him to get so wound up. The problem is, the reporter is pressing charges. And if Jules is locked up, we’re going to have to scrap the film. We’re already over budget and if we lose him, we’re done.”
Laura sniffed and dabbed delicately at her non-teary eyes..
“I offered to say that I was there and that I didn’t want to be photographed, that it was provocation, but Jules won’t have any of it. Even Luther tried to get him to listen …”
Luther looked at me, his brow furrowed with worry.
“He’s just been released on bail. Will you go and talk to him? Convince him to accept Laura’s explanation? Take my car, in case there are still photographers there. You should be OK because apparently the police sent everyone home, but you never know.”
His phone started buzzing again, just as Magda popped her head through the door.
“Are you ready, Luther? I want to get this out for the midday news.”
Luther stood up, knocking over his coffee cup.
“Grace, I’ve got to go and tell the press something. Probably ‘no comment’ at this stage, until I’ve spoken to Jules again. Can I count on you to go and talk some sense into him?”
I wanted to cry. No job was worth this much. Now I had to convince the man I was beginning to love to tell the world he’d spent the night with another woman? Luther was pale and upset and had burned a hole in his jacket with a cigarette that he didn’t smoke, while Laura looked like the cat that had the cream. I knew she was enjoying the whole thing, and all I wanted to do was scream at her that she had no chance, that Jules was mine, but the future of the film depended on my holding my tongue. It wasn’t just my job that was at stake, but the jobs of all the cast and crew, not to mention Jules’ and Luther’s careers. The very last thing in the world I wanted to do was tell Jules to tell the world that he loved Laura – hell, there was no guarantee he would even listen to me – but I knew I had to at least try. I reassured Luther the best I could, ignored Laura, and swore to myself that one day, Laura would find out just how far she’d pushed me.
An hour later, I parked the car at the back entrance to Jules’ home, scanning the street for photographers. I had never been there before and despite my sinking stomach, I was happy to be seeing him, away from prying eyes. I knocked on the door, and a moment later it opened. Jules looked furious until he realized it was me, and quickly pulled me inside.
As soon as the door was closed, he pulled me to him and kissed me hard, his mouth crushing mine as him arms held me tight against him. His tongue ravaged my mouth, his stubble rubbing my skin raw as he whispered my name over and over. I fell into him and moaned when he bit my top lip as his hands ran up and down my body, fumbling at the buttons on my shirt as I tried to unbuckle his belt. He moved away from me for a moment and undid his belt and pants as I shoved my shirt over my head, and I gasped as I felt his hardness against me.
“I have to have you now. I want you so much, tell me you want me too.”
And in reply, I kissed him back, groaning with pleasure as he drew my tongue into his mouth.
We struggled out of the rest of our clothes and he pushed me back onto the table in the kitchen, shoving aside the newspapers and the coffee mug that went crashing to the floor. I raised my legs and nearly cried with joy when he rubbed against me. All I wanted was to feel him enter me and I told him so, but he drew back and gazed at me, his eyes dark and desperate.
“If I make love to you now, there’s no going back. You know that, don’t you?”
I raised myself up from the table and kissed him, running my tongue around his lips and the entrance to his mouth, drinking him in.
“Yes, I know.”
He smiled at me suddenly, the smile that made women all over the world swoon, a beautiful smile that filled my heart so full of love I felt I’d burst.
“Then we’ll take this slow. I intend to savor you. This is our first time, and it’s going to be the best you ever had.”
He kissed me again, more slowly this time, his fingers running down the side of my neck to my nipple. He teased and nipped and sucked at my tender breast, my hand clenching and unclenching in his hair, pulling him closer too me, wanting all of him now. He pushed me further up the table as he moved down my stomach, running his fingers though the tiny patch of hair, before he opened me with his fingers, and stopped, breathing on me, his hot breath a whisper of what was to come. When his tongue touched me, I screamed, and when he slid two fingers in deep, I came so suddenly, the waves submerging me so rapidly that I could barely breathe. He moved with me, pushing me higher with his tongue as his fingers slid in and out, spreading the wetness as they touched off another explosion, this time from within.
He slid up and his gaze was intent as he spoke.
“I want to be inside you, feel you around me. I want to make love to you, make you come again and again and then I want to come with you, I want us to come together…”
He rubbed his member hard around the entrance to me and then, slowly, he penetrated me, taking his time to let me get used to his girth, never taking his eyes off mine. I wrapped my legs around him and moved with him, feeling the delicious stretch as he withdrew and pushed in again. I could feel his heart beating against mine as he picked up the rhythm until his breath was coming hard and fast and so was I. He pushed deeper and harder with each turn, and I could feel the energy rising to power over me. Jules pulled my knees up further, moving faster as he hit that elusive but magical spot, until I cried out. He bit my lip, repeating my name like a mantra as he came into me, his hot seed spilling and filling me like I’d never been filled before.
When we caught our breaths, still holding me tight to him, he kissed me softly.
“You know I love you, right?”
“And I love you. I tried not to but I do. I love you.”
“Good. I wanted to die when I thought I’d lost you. That’s why I knocked over that photographer this morning.”
“He made some derogatory comment about my choosing Laura over you and I just saw red.”
I suddenly remembered why I had come.
“Jules, I came here today to tell you that Luther wants you to let the press know that you were with Laura …”
He slammed his hand down on the table.
“Then Luther will have to find another story. You’re mine now and I’m not letting you go.”
I drew his hand to my mouth and kissed his palm, savoring the scent of us.
“Darling, you couldn’t let me go because I won’t go. But I have to protect Lara. And we have to toe the line for the film. We can’t let it all fall to pieces now. Too many people depend on us.”
He frowned at me.
“What are you suggesting?”
“I think we should stick to the story, to Laura’s story.”
He started to interrupt but I sat up and wrapped his shirt around me.
“Listen to me. If we let the press – and Laura – think that you’re with her, then they’ll all leave us alone. We can still see each other – if we’re careful – and no one will be the wiser. But,” I added soberly, “ we have to keep this under wraps until the film is done and we can handle it properly. I don’t want Lara to get messed up by all of this.”
I looked at him for a long moment.
“And I don’t want to get messed up either.”
He held me tenderly and whispered my name, a caress across my skin that gave me goose bumps.
“I promise here and now that I will never hurt you. I want to love you and take care of you and Lara for the rest of your lives. Ok for your plan, even if I hate the very idea of it.”
Another cheeky grin.
“Now come to bed. This table is not big enough for all the things I want to do to you.”
We spent the rest of the day making love and talking, learning about each other and loving each other all the more for it. Late in the afternoon, we both decided we were ravenous and when we sat down at the table to eat the omelet Jules had prepared, we grinned at each other, giggling like teenagers.
“I’m going to keep this table forever,” declared Jules, pouring the champagne. “I’m going to keep the table, and I’m going to keep you.”
He raised his glass of champagne to mine, clinked lightly and said “Love conquers all” and I had to laugh. Who knew that the title of the film would be so prescient? For the first time in a long time, I felt complete, loved, safe. All my demons conquered, all thanks to this wonderful man in front of me. I took a sip and then remembered his new tattoo, the one he wouldn’t show me, on the first day on set. I quickly leaned over and looked closely at it. Sure enough, it said “Love conquers all”, and underneath, entwined together, were our names.
I gazed at him in amazement.
“What on earth would you have done if we hadn’t got together?”
He walked around the table and pulled me so close that I could feel every hair on his chest against my skin.
“I just always knew we would be together.”
He whispered softly.
“I wasn’t being cocky. I just knew, more than I’ve ever known anything, that we were meant to be together. It had to be you.”
As the night fell, I realized I had to go, and remembered that I hadn’t spoken to Luther. The question was, did we take him into our confidence or not?
Jules shook his head.
“I can’t lie to him, he’s my best friend. And we’re going to need an ally if we’re going to make this work.”
I hugged him tight.
“You’re right. And I can’t lie to Margot. Or my daughter. What are you going to tell Carlotta?”
He reached over and kissed me softly, once on each corner of my mouth and once in the middle, a benediction.
“The truth. That I’ve fallen in love for the first and last time of my life.”
I felt a sudden chill.
“But that’s a lot of people to keep a secret. Even if they all mean well, it’s pretty much destined for public exposure.”
I shook my head despairingly.
“What are we going to do?”
We were both silent for a moment and then he smiled and pulled me to him.
“Listen, the worst thing that can happen is really nothing compared to what else goes on the world, right? It’s not war or famine. It’s just two people in love. Our priorities are to protect our kids, ourselves and the film. So I propose that we shoot for discretion. We play the game in pubic. We’ll ask Luther and Margot and the girls to help us. And we say a prayer to the gods that it all works out. But whatever happens at the end of the day, you and I will be together. That’s all that counts.”
He kissed me on the nose.
“Now, as much as I hate to see you go, you’ve got to call Luther, and go take care of your daughter. The nanny’s dropping off my daughter later on, so I’ll talk to her then, and we’ll find a way to all meet up tomorrow. Meanwhile, I love you.”
I stopped and turned, raising my eyes to his. Until now, I thought they’d just been words to him, but now I felt those words vibrate in the very heart of me. He grabbed my hand and held it to his lips.
“It’s true, you know. I love you.”
I stood on tiptoes and kissed him gently.
“The funny thing is, I love you too.”
One last hug and then I closed the door and walked out to the car, but not before checking carefully for hidden paparazzi.
When I arrived on the set the next morning, Luther was waiting for me in my office. I hug up my coat and said hi, nervously. I knew that Jules had spoken to him last night – he’d called me after he’d given his friend a heads-up on our situation – but I still didn’t know how he was going to react to me. In truth, I hadn’t slept a wink and I felt both overwhelmingly happy and absolutely terror stricken by my new circumstances.
Margot had given up trying to reassure me sometime around one in the morning, and the only saving grace to the day thus far was that Lara had already left for riding school before I got up, strangely unsurprised but absolutely thrilled by the idea of Jules and me and eager to go and discuss it with Carlotta. That and the fact that Jules had called me fifteen times before I’d arrived on the lot. Even just hearing his voice made my heart beat faster and I longed to be in his arms again.
Luther pushed a chair in my direction and said firmly, “Sit.” I did, crossing my legs and desperately wishing for a cigarette.
He said nothing for a moment, only looked at me with an unfathomable gaze until I was sure he was preparing to fire me for ruining his film. I looked around. Nothing appeared to be broken, which was a reassuring sign – he only got clumsy and broke things when he was nervous or upset – but that didn’t mean he wasn’t happy about giving me the boot.
“Well,” he said finally. “I guess I should welcome you to the family.”
I smiled, unsure of what he meant until he leaned over and grabbed my shoulders.
“This is going to be a bloody nightmare, but I have to thank you for making my friend so very happy. Jules is like a brother to me, and it’s been heartbreaking to watch him love you from afar. I don’t know how we are going to work this, but I wish you both all of the love in the world, and I’ll do anything I can to help you guys, absolutely anything.”
I breathed an audible sigh of relief.
“Then I still have my job?”
He looked perplexed.
“Of course you still have your job. The script’s great.”
I thought for a minute.
“Do you really mean it when you say you’ll help us?”
“Of course. Why?”
The beginnings of an idea were coming to me. Ever since we’d been in London, Margot had been unsuccessfully hiding her depression about the fact that Luther hadn’t called her. Even though I’d explained about his upcoming divorce, and how he’d taken her seriously when she’d said she didn’t date married men, I could see her sinking further into the blues, and it worried me. When Margot was depressed, she behaved very erratically, and I wanted to avoid any more ice bucket throwing episodes.
I grabbed Luther’s hand and spoke as firmly as I knew how.
“Hear me out before you say no, OK? How about if you were publicly seen to be dating Margot?”
He started, dropped his cup of coffee, knocked the telephone off the desk as he reached for something to wipe the mess, and shook his head at me, despair in his eyes.
“Before you say no, listen. If people knew you were seeing Margot, then it would be OK for your car to be at our place all the time. The press would think that you were coming for dinner and so on, and so Jules could use your car to come and see me, and I could use Margot’s car too…”
I warmed to my theme as my ideas began to fall into place.
“You and Jules could swap houses for a while, and that way, we could spend some time together without anyone knowing. And you’d get to see Margot.”
I smirked at him.
“Come on Luther, it’s win-win all around. Say yes, you know you want to…”
He looked at me shyly and as he ran his fingers through his hair, he accidentally knocked over the potted plant next to him.
“Has Margot agreed to this?”
I smiled at him, crossing my fingers behind my back.
“Of course. You know she cares about you.”
Luther stood up.
“I’ll think about it. Meanwhile, we need to get to work. Can you come down to the set today? We’re going to have to rework a few of Laura’s lines.”
“What seems to be the problem today?”
Apparently my lines for her were not passionate enough, and I knew that it was going to be a bitch convincing her otherwise. Despite my best efforts at self-effacement, I knew she hated me with a passion that appeared to be visceral, and I also knew that if I wanted to keep this job – and get others – I was going to have to convince her that I was the best writer for the job. When we arrived on the set, Jules was sitting in a corner, his face dark and furious, and Laura was sitting opposite him, dabbing her eyes delicately with a tissue while makeup artists, hairdressers, and various other assistants swarmed around her like flies to, well, better not go there.
Jules’ face lit up when he saw me, and I quickly signaled him to stay seated, but not so quickly that Laura didn’t regard us both with an air of suspicion. She started to rise but I walked over to her and smiled as widely as I could.
“Laura, you look gorgeous today, as always.”
I lowered my voice.
“And I know that Luther has already thanked you for everything you did at the press conference, but I wanted to thank you myself, for taking the heat off me and my daughter. I’m really grateful, and I know that it puts a lot of extra pressure on you.”
She looked up at me through narrowed eyes, and I forced myself to maintain an innocent regard although all I really wanted to do was kick her. Jules was watching me with interest, and I could feel Luther’s eyes on me too, from the edge of the set.
Finally, she spoke.
“Yes, well, a true professional sacrifices for the greater good of the film. Even if it is at great personal cost.”
She turned to smile at Jules, who smiled back, a forced smile, which made me hope he was a better actor on celluloid than in life.
“Of course, there are rewards.”
I bit my lip, and then smiled tightly.
“Luther told me you have some questions about the shooting script today? How can I help?”
She looked at my severely, clearly now in her role as the great actress wronged.
“Indeed, I have some questions. I feel strongly that my character must react with greater feeling as she acknowledges her passion for Jules, um, I mean Jules’ character.”
I bit my tongue and winced involuntarily. I wanted to ask her if she’d actually read the script through, but figured that would be less than tactful, so I pretended to consider the question seriously, trying to find a polite way to tell her that she was an idiot.
Thankfully Jules, who was listening from the sidelines, stepped in and put his arm around her shoulders, winking at me surreptitiously.
“Laura, I understand totally what you’re getting at but I know that Luther is really anxious to get started today, so how about you and I try to convey our … passion … through our craft? You’re such a great actress, I bet you can show the depth of our feelings emotionally. Shall we go try?”
She simpered at him sweetly and sighed.
“Oh Jules, it’s such a pleasure working with a fellow professional.”
She cast a withering glance back at me as he wheeled her away, making sure that I heard as she leaned into him.
“It’s such a trial, working with amateurs, as you know…”
I made a rude sign in her direction while her back was turned and Luther smothered a laugh.
“Nice work. I’m off to get this scene in the can before the end of the day.”
He leaned back and spoke loudly.
“I guess I’ll see you tonight when I come to get your friend Margot for dinner. We’re going somewhere really romantic.”
It was all I could do not to laugh out loud. If Luther was acting in this movie, we’d all be lost. Talk about stilted delivery. I grinned back at him and said, equally as loudly, “OK but don’t be late. Margot hates waiting for dinner.”
The rest of the day went peacefully enough, and for once, we finished early enough for me to go and watch the girls at riding school. All three girls were making great progress and I watched in admiration as they jumped obstacles with a grace that belied their years. After they had finished grooming their horses, I took them all for a hot chocolate in the clubhouse, taking careful note of the lone paparazzi standing outside. He kept a close eye on us but didn’t raise his camera and I took that as a good sign.
When Jules’ daughter’s nanny took Carlotta home, I walked the girls back to my car, and quietly reminded them of our new press ploy, careful to emphasize that this was a trick designed to keep the press off their backs and allow Jules and Luther and Margot and me to be friends without all the fuss.
Lara, as usual, saw right through me and started in with the teasing, making jokes about geriatric love and wrinkly kissers. When she’d finished making fun of her elderly mother’s dating potential, she grew serious for a moment.
“Mum, it’s OK. I know you didn’t cheat on Daddy. He left us. You’re still here. And I want you to fall in love and get married again. One of these days, I’ll be gone and I don’t want to worry about you. And Jules is a nice guy. He’s a dork, but a nice dork.”
Coming from Lara, this was the highest of praise, and I hugged her to me, more grateful than ever to have been gifted with this amazing child.
She was especially adorable with Jules when he turned up that night, with Luther in tow, and she joshed him about getting me home before midnight. Luther stood quietly in the living room, waiting for Margot, and the look on her face was priceless when she wandered out after her shower, her hair in a towel and an old but habitually chic cashmere tracksuit clinging to her voluptuous curves. I hadn’t told her he was coming over, because I knew she’d yell, but the way her eyes lit up as he stepped over to kiss her, for once not breaking a thing, made it clear I’d done the right thing.
Luther immediately turned bright red when he realized that we were still there, as did she, and so I grabbed the keys and pulled Jules by the arm.
“Come on, let’s go see this really romantic place you have lined up.”
Outside, in the elevator, he pulled me to him and held me tight, before kissing me so hard and long that I had to struggle to come up for air. He seized my hand as I went to push the button.
“Can’t we just stay here in the lift? We could order a pizza and I could …”
I grinned, even though I was sorely tempted.
“Ah no, my friend, we’ll have none of that until you’ve fed me. If you think that I’m a cheap date, you’ve got another think coming.”
He laughed and draped his arm around my shoulders in an easy way that belied the tension I’d felt in his pants a moment earlier.
“Like that, is it? OK, let me escort you to our carriage, my princess.”
As we drove out of the garage, I peeked out of the window to see if there were any stray photographers, but all I could see was the darkened street, and a lone man, apparently without a camera, waiting a the bus stop across the road.
“Where are we going?”
“My surprise,” smirked Jules, as he skillfully maneuvered the car through the back streets of Kensington. After another fifteen minutes, we pulled up in front of an elegant set of tall wrought-iron gates. He pointed a remote control at them and they slowly eased open to reveal a stunning Georgian mansion surrounded by a magnificent English garden. Jules turned to me and gently removed my scarf from around my neck.
“Close your eyes,” he whispered.
I giggled, slightly nervous although I trusted him with my life.
“I didn’t know you were into bondage.”
“Oh yeah baby, let me tie you up with your Hermes scarf. Get your mind out of the gutter, I have a surprise for you.”
I let him time the scarf around my eyes, trying to imagine what he was cooking up. He’d spent hours on the phone all day, between takes, muttering at someone cryptically and hanging up whenever I drew close. The only thing I’d heard was “no chintz”, which meant nothing to me.
He drew me out of the car and led me up the garden path. While he fumbled with his keys, I wondered what on earth he was up to, and then he opened a door and led me up the steps. I heard the door close behind me, and then he stood close and gently undid the scarf. I opened my eyes and looked around at a gorgeously decorated, cozy, candle-lit living room. Plush and plump as ripe fruit, two dark red velour couches sat in front of a large stone chimney in which there was a roaring open fire. A deliciously intoxicating scent of spices and orange floated in the air, and a bottle of champagne sat chilling in a silver ice bucket. I turned to look at Jules.
“This is fabulous. Whose place is it?”
He drew me close and whispered in my ear.
“What do you mean, ours?”
He smiled at me, so proud of himself that I had to smile right back.
“I bought it the week after I met you. I wanted to have a home for you, in case you ever said yes. Your friend and our very clever set designer Megan decorated it for us. Kind of an early wedding present.”
My heart stopped still and I nearly fell over.
He patted my back, clearly amused by my shocked face.
“Breathe, woman. We don’t have to get married this week. I just thought it would be a way for us to be together while the girls get used to us. I didn’t want Lara to just wake up one morning and find me there, in her space.”
Jules walked over to the champagne bucket, gently twisted off the cork, and poured two glasses of champagne. He brought them over to the couch in front of the fireplace and I sat down beside him.
“To us. May this be the first of our homes together.”
I clinked with him, and leaned closer.
“Thank you. Thank you for this lovely sanctuary. And thank you for thinking of Lara and Carlotta. But most of all, thank you for doing this for me, for us.”
We sat quietly for a moment, savoring the crackle of the wood against the silent night. Finally, Jules spoke.
He reached over and grabbed a small red package from his coat pocket.
“This is for you.”
I slowly opened the box and gazed in awe at the breathtakingly beautiful platinum and diamond ring inside.
“It’s not an engagement ring. I will propose one of these days, and it’s going to be as romantic as hell. But I don’t want to pressure you…”
“So you just bought a house instead? Well, I guess we’ll never accuse you of doing things by halves.”
He pulled me to him and kissed me deeply, lovingly, a promise of things to come.
“Speaking of which, you’ve only seen the living room. May I show you the rest of the house?”
I kissed him back as he slid the ring onto the ring finger of my right hand.
“Show me the bedroom first.”
He stood up and led the way, and once again, I gasped when I saw the room. It was the room I had always dreamed off, a room to love and be loved in. To say it was a love nest would be the understatement of the century. The walls were draped with magnolia and blood red silk, and a stunning Murano chandelier glowed softly, casting a moonlit aura across the king-sized, pillow-strewn bed. Beautiful handmade candles like dusky pink twisted ribbons illuminated each corner of the room, while a small fire in the Victorian grate sent out a heat that only underscored our own.
“So madam, what do you think?” asked Jules, and in response, I slid my hands under his shirt, luxuriating in the warmth of his skin. He leaned in and kissed me softly, whispering my name as I pulled him towards the bed, and when we made love, it felt as if we were sealing our souls forever.
Later, as he rolled out of bed and walked naked to the fire, picking up a log on the way, I gazed at him and tried to remember why I had fought the idea of him. He turned and smiled at me, and my heart felt like it would explode with love.
“Happy?” he asked.
I agreed, and reached out my hand to him. “Very happy. Now come back to bed.”
Sighing loudly, Margot put down her copy of Vogue and picked up the coffee pot.
“You know, I barely recognize you these days.”
She passed me a cup of coffee and I looked up at her curiously.
“Why, what’s wrong?”
She smirked cheekily, her dimples dancing in the morning light.
“Nothing is wrong. It’s all right. That’s my point. Just look at you. Your hair’s done. You have lipstick on. No mascara, but still, lipstick. You’re nicely dressed. You even have jewelry on, for heavens sakes.”
I blushed. Only she and Luther knew that Jules had given me the ring that I wore day and night. It was the most gorgeous piece of jewelry I’d ever owned, even more amazing than the brooch he had given me when we started the film, and just looking at it reminded me of my lovely man, how he’d slid it on my finger, warning me that it was only temporary, until the day that he would propose for real.
“What’s the problem?” I said, a little defensively. “You were always hassling me. ‘Make an effort’. How many times did I hear that? Well, now I’m making an effort.”
“I know, darling. It’s wonderful. That’s what I meant,” she said, adding another sugar to her coffee. “It’s like you’re back from that dark place you used to live in. No more horrible boots!”
She shuddered at the thought.
“What I mean is that you look happy, all over.”
I giggled. Being fluent in English, French and Italian gave Margot the license to mutilate all languages equally, in a lilting international accent, but occasionally she spoke so sweetly that you couldn’t help but be charmed. Especially when she was saying nice things about me.
“Well, I’m glad you approve. I’m assuming that means that you don’t mind that I borrowed your red Fendi spy bag?”
She clasped her hands to her heart and pretended to faint away.
“Is it possible? You know the brand and the name of a designer bag? Oh, there must be a fashion god after all.”
I made a very rude gesture at her.
“Yes, I know that it’s a fancy bag. That would be because you went on about it for the entire six months you were on the waiting list. If you recall, you made us take the bag out to the Hermitage for lunch, to welcome it to your world. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a movie to write. The set calls!”
She threw the magazine at me, and cackled like a mad woman as I grabbed her bag and my coat and headed off to my enchanted little world.
Shooting was progressing well, as Luther worked us all double time to make up for the days of shooting lost to the various strange occurrences that haunted us. Cameras had cables cut, light boards were disconnected, and even Luther’s work computer blew up when he turned it on because someone had poured a glass of water into the works. Security could never work out who was behind the harassment, and we’d all learned to live with it, whilst being as careful as we could about protecting the set.
Jules continued to make extraordinary efforts to be charming to his costar, and only Luther and I knew the difficulties he went through to stay just the right side of flirtatious. Laura, of course, pushed it to the edge, dragging him off for whispered consultations, insisting that he take lunch in her trailer so that they could “discuss the script”, and once, attempting to get him naked by sharing a massage. “A bonding experience”, she called it, but Jules refused categorically to go, claiming he had a bad back and that only his own osteopath was authorized to touch him.
Thankfully, because even though we were spending almost every night together, at least for dinner and often more, and even though I trusted him implicitly, Laura’s obvious claims to my man were beginning to drive me insane. What was worse was that even though, to all public intents and purposes, she had won Jules, her attitude to me was becoming even more poisonous than ever, to the point where the crew took special pains to ensure that we were never alone.
It got so bad that after one particularly disagreeable incident in which she’d hysterically accused me of stealing her favorite shoes, I cornered her assistant, Marley as he headed down the corridor on yet another errand for his employer. Even though the crew made fun of him for being such a lap dog to Laura, I almost admired his quiet devotion to her, not to mention his staying power, because she was even more odious to him than she was to me, if such a thing was possible.
I could see him composing his usual litany of excuses for her, and I held up my hand before he could launch into the million and one reasons as to why Laura was such a bitch.
“Save it, Marley. I know you work for her but something has got to be done. Is she mentally unstable, because there’s something very clearly wrong?”
He blanched and stuttered.
“Mentally unstable? Don’t be ridiculous, of course she is not unstable. She’s just very highly strung …”
He started in with the standard array of excuses about artistic temperaments and the pressure she was under, and I froze him with one of my special, instant death stares, the ones that worked so well on my daughter when she was being particularly recalcitrant.
“Marley, we’re all worried about her. She’s getting weirder and weirder. I don’t expect her to be my best friend, but she’s got to stop the screaming. It’s not like I’ve ever done anything to her. There’s absolutely no reason for her to be as manic as she’s been towards me, and I want to know how I can get it to stop.”
He sighed and then leaned in confidentially towards me.
“I know she’s been exceptionally difficult lately. She has some … personal issues … at the moment. I’ll try to keep a closer eye on her, but do try to be patient. I know everyone thinks she’s just the worst kind of diva but really, she’s very kind when you get to know her.”
I raised my eyebrows and he added defensively, “Well, she is, when you are close to her.”
I patted him on the arm.
“I don’t care if she’s Mother Teresa in private. I just want her to stop being such a bitch to me,” as I walked away.
As I left the studio an hour later, I saw Laura emerge from the back entrance to the sound stage. It was difficult to recognize her, given the cashmere hoodie pulled up over and her face, and the outsize sunglasses, but her tone was a strident as ever. She strode up to one of the perpetual paparazzi and gave him an earful about not respecting his obligations, before she threw a small bundle of something that looked suspiciously like cash at his feet.
I moved back a few steps and watched as she turned on her heel and returned to the set, checking over her shoulder to see that she hadn’t been spotted. At least the mystery of how the press came by such regular photos and bits of insider information became clear. We had all suspected Laura or Marley of feeding the popular press juicy tidbits, but she had denied it categorically.
The press was having a field day with the budding romance between Laura and Jules. Not a day went by without a request for interviews with the two lovebirds, and while Luther and Jules did their best to stonewall, Laura basked in the limelight. It was curious to watch her, and if I didn’t dislike her so much, I would have felt sorry for her. She managed to construct, in the eyes of the public, a love affair to equal any of the great Hollywood romances, completely out of thin air and the photographs her personal publicist took of Jules and Laura as they were working. What I didn’t understand was why she was so keen to make something out of nothing when she could have had almost anyone she wanted. Margot thought that it was the thrill of the chase, and that Laura wanted Jules because Jules didn’t want her, but I didn’t agree. Something in the way she looked at Jules, a kind of visceral hunger, made me realize that whatever she felt for Jules was much stronger than a crush or a game to be won.
At dinner, after a particularly frightful day, when Laura, in a clear effort to kick things up a notch with Jules, had had her hands all over him, even going so far as to try to prolong a kiss after Luther had called “cut”. Jules was obliged to hurry off the set and hide in the geeks’ canteen until she’d given up and gone home, shepherded off the set by the ever-obsequious Marley.
“Doesn’t she have any pride?” Margot asked later that night, as she served the salad. “I can’t imagine running after any man like that.”
Luther put an arm around her as she sat back down next to him.
“You, my darling, would never have to run after any man. We run after you.”
She smiled at him and kissed the top of his head.
“I might have run after you. Just a block or two, until you came to your senses. And only if I had proper shoes for running.”
Lara and Maria and Carlotta made vomiting noises.
“God, elderly love, it’s revolting, isn’t it? Get a grip, Mum.”
Maria cringed as Margot leaned over and kissed Luther again.
Margot smirked at her daughter and poked out her tongue.
“Take notes, sweetheart, because one of these days it’s going to be your turn.”
The girls made the wonderful guffawing noises teenagers make when dismissing parental wisdom, and asked permission to take their dessert in the television room, where the second half of National Velvet awaited them. Luther had been horrified – it was the only time I’d ever seen him actively exercised about something – that none of our horse-mad girls had ever seen the movie. So far, they were enthralled, although mostly with the horse and less with the gorgeous young Liz or the stroppy but delightful Mickey Rooney.
When the girls had left the table, Margot returned to the subject of Laura.
“All of this subterfuge is working out well for us now, but the further Laura goes with her imaginary romance, the more drama it’s going to be when the film comes out and you two with it.”
“Actually, I’ve been thinking about that too. I’m worried that when she eventually finds out about you two, she’s going to make a major drama and it’s going to have a negative impact on the film. The public loves that the film’s romance carries over into real life. It’s going to look pretty bad when it turns out the Jules has been secretly carrying on a romance with the writer the whole time.”
Jules and I looked at each other worriedly. We’d had the same thought, but neither of us knew what to do about it. Jules had been all for us revealing all, and to hell with the rest. He figured that the film was too far along for Laura to drop out now, but I wasn’t so sure. The wrath of a woman scorned, and all that. I didn’t want anything to disrupt the lovely relationships that were developing around us. Not just ours, but also between my Lara and Carlotta, and of course, Luther, Margot and Maria. And, to be honest, I wanted to enjoy Jules, away from the spotlights I knew where going to hit us in the near future when the film was released.
Margot poured us all another glass of wine and we sat quietly, each contemplating the problem. Finally Margot spoke up.
“What we really need is for Laura to fall out of love with Jules.”
She smirked at him.
“Maybe you should try being really gross. You know, farting and belching …”
“Body odor,” chimed in Luther.
“Believe me, I’ve tried. After her last little stunt with the kiss, I’ve been chewing raw garlic before each take. Didn’t you wonder why we’ve all been eating so much Italian?”
It was true. Almost every meal we’d eaten together contained massive doses of garlic. I was working on the assumption that if we all ate it, Jules wouldn’t feel like an outcast. Not that I would have stopped kissing him – I couldn’t imagine anything other than a deadly communicable disease to prevent me from wanting to press my lips against his, and even then I had my doubts.
“And he burped in her face after lunch in her trailer yesterday,” I added helpfully.
Jules looked momentarily chastened.
“It’s not like I enjoyed doing it. But she was getting all gushy.”
“No,” I said. “We need something bigger. Something that will really disgust her and make her think it’s her own idea to leave him.”
“But not so disgusting that the press will hate us,” said Luther.
“Well, that rules out bestiality or pedophilia,” smirked Jules. “It’s hell being so irresistible.”
“What about if you chased her?” suggested Margot.
“No, she’s a actress, she likes being pursued. She needs to discover something about me that she really hates, something that even she couldn’t live with…”
I thought for a minute.
“What is the most important thing in the world to her? What couldn’t she bear to lose?”
“That’s easy. Her career. She’s been working on world domination since she was five. Take her fame away from her and she’s nothing.”
“That makes sense. Being famous is what defines her. That’s why she wants Jules. Two of the biggest stars in the world, together, makes for a whole lot of publicity.”
“But how does that help us?” asked Jules. “She’s a popular actress. She has four films coming out over the next six months and she’s nominated for an Oscar for two of them. There’s no way she’s going to do anything to endanger her personal popularity.”
I left them chatting and went to the kitchen to make some coffee. I had an idea, but I needed to think it through. I packed the coffee into the filter and placed the pot onto the stove. Margot was right. The one thing that would kill Jules for Laura was if he could hurt her career. But how could we make that happen without destroying Jules’ career or harming the film?
Jules came in, balancing plates in one hand and the breadbasket in the other.
“You’ve gone quiet. Everything alright?”
He put everything down on the counter and drew me to him, brushing away the wisp of hair that had fallen into my eyes.
“Don’t take this Laura thing too seriously. It’s driving me nuts, but at the end of the day there’s you, so it’s worth it.”
I leaned against him, feeling his strong arms hold me tight and the beat of his heart against my breast.
“I know it’s driving you mad. Believe me, it’s not so great watching that woman go after you eight hours a day for me either. If we weren’t all working for the greater cause, I’d have a contract taken out on her.”
“Don’t do it. We’ve used up all our insurance on the vandalisms. Only a couple more weeks of shooting to go and then we’ll be free. Which reminds me, don’t make any plans for the week after the shoot ends.”
“What do you mean?”
“You’ll see. Now, where’s that coffee? We’d better take it in or the love birds will be having sex on the table before too long.”
It was true. While restraint had never been Margot’s strong point, the normally reticent Luther had become a regular sexy beast too, barely able to keep his hands off Margot for more than a minute at a time. Jules and I had become their unofficial keepers, ensuring that they did not jump each other at entirely inappropriate moments, although no amount of preventative surveillance had stopped them from shocking the doorman when they’d blocked the lift to the car park, or getting them banned from the local video store when they’d been caught making out in the stacks at the back of the shop. Even The Ivy gave them a back booth now so that the other diners wouldn’t be put off by their overt displays of affections.
As we carried the coffee into the living room, I mulled over my plan a little more. It was risky, all right, and I didn’t know if Jules would go for it. But it was the only idea I had for the moment.
When the coffee was poured, I cleared my throat.
“I’ve been thinking.”
Jules laughed indulgently.
“Yes, I could hear you thinking from out here. Come on, spit it out.”
“Well,” I started. “We all agree that the only thing that Laura really cares about is her career. And if she’s got Jules, then she automatically becomes one of the most famous women in the world, married to one of the world’s most famous men.”
I stopped for a moment. Suppose Jules accepted what I was about to propose, and suppose my plan backfired. He’d lose everything, all because of me.
I faltered for a moment, but Jules took my hand and kissed it.
“Speak, my love.”
“OK, what I was thinking is that you propose to her.”
He dropped my hand and looked at me as if I’d lost my mind.
“Ask her to marry you.”
Even Luther looked shocked.
“Don’t you think that might be a little counter productive?”
I hesitated and then blurted it all out.
“The idea is that you take her somewhere really private – last minute, so that she can’t get any press there, and somewhere that’s so totally out of her normal experience…somewhere like a leper colony would be good. You tell her that you have been struggling with your love for her and that you are afraid it would never hold up in the glare of all the publicity you two would generate.”
I gathered speed, sure now that I was onto something.
“Quote all the examples you know of failed Hollywood marriages. And then drop the bomb: tell her you’ll marry her but that you want both of you to quit acting and that you want to go and work with refugees in Darfur. Be specific. Tell her that you are sick of the whole celebrity thing, how the only thing you really want is to go with her and start a new life, somewhere you can both do some real good. Not just open a fancy association or do a press tour, but go and de-worm orphans in the Niger, help amputees in Uganda, and so on, the grosser the better. Insist that you’ve reached a turning point …”
“She’ll never believe it,” said Luther.
I took a deep breath.
“That’s why you have to tell her that you’ll give her a few days to think it over, but that you’d like an answer as soon as possible. The next morning, call a press conference and announce that you are leaving acting to concentrate on your charitable causes. Don’t be specific. Just say that it’s a private initiative. When she sees that you are really serious, she’ll run a mile.”
I turned to Luther.
“This could be excellent publicity for the film. If people thought it was Jules’ last film they’d rush to see it.”
Jules broke in.
“All of this is fine, but what if she says yes anyway? Apart from the fact that I was hoping to have a couple of good years in me still …”
I put my hand on his.
“That’s where the next part of my plan comes in. Once the film is released, you announce a sudden change of heart. You’ve been given a script that was written specifically for you – the writer won’t allow anyone else to play the part and you feel sure it’s a story that must be told. That way, you are coming back to serve the public and a just cause. By which time Laura has moved on, and you get a medal for being a hero …”
The table was quiet for a moment, then Luther spoke.
“And I think I have a good ending: as it turns out, Grace writes the script.”
He turned to look at Jules.
“She could write the story about the Afghan girl we started working on in Monaco, the redemption tale. It’s perfect because it really is a tale that needs to be told. You know we both wanted to bring some light to the problem of education for girls in Afghanistan and we all know that Grace is an amazingly talented writer.”
He turned back to me and smiled
“Then you and Jules realize that you are meant to be together. Happy ending all around.”
I blushed and turned to Jules.
“It’s just an idea. I hadn’t got as far as Luther …”
He interrupted me with a wry smile.
“It’s actually not a bad idea. Like something out of a book. And God knows I’m willing to consider anything that gets me out of Laura’s clutches.”
He thought for a minute.
“OK, let’s do it. But we’re going to have to work on the details carefully. I don’t want her to say yes and then have to dig myself out of an engagement.”
Luther shook his head.
“This is madness. Clever madness but madness all the same. This is your career, Jules. Are you sure you want to play this game?”
Luther was right. I knew how much Jules loved his work and I could never forgive myself if I ended his career, even if it was for us.
Jules took my hand and squeezed it gently.
“Yes. Yes, I do.”
Margot got up abruptly and returned a few moments later bearing a bottle of champagne.
“Shall we drink to the end of Jules’ career as an actor, and the beginning of his career as a superstar?”
We all laughed and only I felt a faint flush of disquiet as we clinked glasses.
The following nights saw us plotting and planning like generals in a land war. Margot was dispatched to acquire as much information as she could about various war-child charities, and to scout suitable locations for Jules’ proposal to Laura. Given that a leper colony wasn’t immediately available, we decided on a soup kitchen in the worst part of London – and not the fancy one that celebrities usually worked in front of St Paul’s. Meanwhile, Jules spent his spare time appearing to cede to Laura’s advances, and she was clearly thrilled, as her cat that got the cream smirk became wider.
The extent of his success became evident a few days later when I overheard Laura telling her loyal celebrity journalist that things had never been so good with Jules and that he’d been hinting around at something, that he was going to be asking her a “big question” soon. The journalist lapped it up and soon enough, the press was buzzing with the soon to be announced engagement of two of cinema’s greatest stars.
Poor Jules – the subterfuge was clearly taking its toll. Not only was the press stalking his every move – we hadn’t spent a single night together since we’d decided to start our Get Rid of Laura campaign – but he was being pursued on the set by Laura, her press secretary and her ever-faithful assistant Marley, as well as being castigated by the rest of the cast for seemingly going over to the dark side, as Laura was termed. Her diva antics and disagreeable attitude had earned her this moniker, and no one liked seeing the previously popular Jules linked to such a poor excuse for a human being.
Laura’s ultimate downfall in the eyes of the cast and crew occurred on the day that the soundman bought his young son, an eight-year-old darling with terminal bone cancer, onto the set. Laura had thrown a huge hissy fit when the child asked for an autograph, and had insisted that the boy be removed from the set. Even Marley had the good grace to be embarrassed, insisting that Laura was simply terribly upset over the child’s state, when in fact we had all heard her screaming that the boy had to go before she caught something. Fortunately Luther and Jules had taken the poor child off to see the editing suite to try out some of his own special effects, and the rest of us just went back to work, doing our best to ignore Laura.
The end of the week came and went, as we rushed to make up the shooting schedule we’d lost when the sets had been destroyed for the fourth time. Some of the cast was making noises about the set being cursed, but Luther and the studio security were certain it was someone with a grudge, an insider, although we were such a tight team that it seemed impossible. The producers were putting extra pressure on Luther to finish up before anything else went wrong, and there was so much security around the set that when we came in on the Monday to find the editing suite devastated, it seemed as if invisible forces had indeed found some way to make their curses come true.
When Laura arrived on the set, traditionally late, she hurled herself into Jules’ arms, sobbing hysterically.
We were used to her being overwrought but this time she was absolutely hysterical, insisting that Luther close the set until things were safer, that we were all going to die, and that she couldn’t live with risk. Luther tried to reassure her but she became more and more strident, until finally Marley came to get her and took her away. Both Jules and I saw him slip her a white tablet and a bottle of water, and then they disappeared into her trailer. She didn’t emerge at lunchtime, and only came back to the set, vague and strangely calm, for the last shot of the day.
The evening before the last day of shooting, Jules stopped by Laura’s trailer to invite her out. She accepted with alacrity and they arranged for her to meet him a couple of hours later.
He came to my office immediately afterwards, hurrying in and closing the door behind him. He slumped on the couch and I sat down next to him.
“I can’t believe I’m doing this. She’s completely mad. I think she’s on drugs.”
He pulled me into the curve of his arm.
“You saw how zoned out she was this afternoon. She was practically catatonic but when I turned up in her trailer, she was bouncing off the walls again. I could barely get a word in edgewise, and when I finally asked her to dinner, she literally – literally -fell at my feet and started kissing them, telling me that she always knew we were made for each other.”
He shuddered and pulled me closer.
“Honestly, if Marley hadn’t turned up, I don’t know what would have happened. It’s almost sad. There’s something very wrong with that woman.”
I hugged him and looked at him seriously.
“It’s not too late to back out. You don’t have to do this, you know. We can always find another solution.”
He shook his head.
“No. After seeing her behavior tonight in her trailer, I’m more convinced than ever that we have to do something. She is just so manic. If I don’t find a way to repel her, she’s going to make us all pay. But I can tell you one thing. I’m not looking forward to two hours alone with her.”
I rubbed his neck and he leaned back into my hand.
“My poor man. Shall I make it up to you afterwards?”
His face brightened immediately.
“Can I come over? I thought you didn’t want me around until we were done with all of this nonsense.”
I took his hand and kissed each finger, lingering at the feel of his skin against mine.
“It would be wiser if we didn’t see each other, but I just can’t wait. I miss you.”
He smiled down at me and bent down to kiss me, just as a horrifying scream echoed throughout the lot. We rushed to the door, just in time to see Marley come belting down the corridor, with Laura in hot pursuit, brandishing a walking stick from the props department and looking even more lunatic than ever. She screeched to a stop when she saw Jules, and rapidly broke into fixed smile.
“What are you doing in there with her?”
She indicated me with a grimace.
“I thought you’d already left.”
I stepped back as Jules moved towards her and gently took her arm.
“I was just checking something in the script for tomorrow. What’s going on? Why are you chasing Marley?”
She frowned at her assistant and made a dismissive gesture. He quickly faded away down the hall, throwing worried glances back at her. I eased my way back into the office, curious to know what the fuss was all about but anxious not to distract Jules.
“Oh Marley, he’s … well, it’s just so hard to get good help these days, you know how it is.”
She leaned into him and I saw her look up at him, adoration and something else, even darker than possessiveness, shining in her eyes.
“Where are we going tonight? I’m so excited, just to be with you.”
She stood on tiptoes as if to kiss him, and he stepped back, patting her gingerly on the arm.
“I have to go and get ready for tonight. Remember to wear something warm. And comfortable shoes. I’ll see you later.”
He turned and strode briskly down the hall and she looked after him longingly until he had disappeared from sight, then she scowled at my office door for a moment before returning in the direction from which she’d come. I waited until she’d gone and then snuck out of my office and set off in search of Marley.
I found him lurking in a corner of the coffee room, nursing a coffee and a nasty looking scratch and bruise on his cheek. He shrank back into the corner when he saw me and I smiled reassuringly.
“Hey Marley. What was all the fuss about? It looked as if Laura was getting ready to kill you.”
I took a paper towel from the catering table, wet it with cold water from the dispenser, and reached to softly wipe the blood from around the bruise. He flinched when I touched him and I realized that the cut was deeper than it looked.
“It looks like she almost succeeded too. Are you OK?”
He waved my hand away and shook his head.
“It’s nothing. She was just upset about something. She’s an artist…”
I cut him off.
“I know, she’s an artist, she’s creative, she’s temperamental. I get it. But you have to admit, her behavior is getting worse. And no one has the right to treat you like this.”
I lowered my voice.
“You take such good care of her that I think you can’t see what’s going on. We’re all worried about her, Marley. And I’m worried about you.”
Marley looked at me and for a moment I thought he was going to break. He wiped his eyes and shook his head, then raised a brave face to mine.
“There’s nothing wrong with Laura. She’s a star. She’s the most amazing actress in the world. She’s absolutely perfect, and it was all my fault.”
I could feel him slipping away and I grabbed his arm.
“What was all your fault? What could possibly be so bad that it required her to hit you?”
He blushed and put his cup into the bin.
“Nothing. I just did something to annoy her and she was right to punish me. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go find her. She might need me.”
He hurried out of the room and I sank down into a chair, more perturbed than ever. There was something seriously wrong and I knew that Marley knew it too. He was protecting her but from what? I thought back to the first time I met Laura and realized that I had never seen her without Marley hovering nearby. No matter where we were shooting and even when we were not, he was always standing discretely next to her, hovering like a mother hen. Even with my limited experience of personal assistants, I knew that he was acting above and beyond the call of duty. It was almost as if he was afraid to let her out of his sight.
I remembered how he strangely he had acted the first time the set had been vandalized, how he’d been so quick to offer an alibi for Laura, even though no one had asked. He done the same every other time, to the point where Luther had joked that it was almost suspicious.
And then I remembered how he discretely gave her the strange white tablets every few hours, always when he thought no one was looking. It was very odd. Could he possibly be drugging her? Surely not, but then we’d all heard of personal assistants who wanted to control their stars, to own them. But Marley appeared to adore her, and he was so subservient that it was difficult to imagine him controlling anyone, let alone someone so strong willed as Laura.
Something was seriously off but I just couldn’t get it. I stood to go and when I pushed the chair in, it grated on something on the floor. I bent down to see what it was and found a small vial of white tablets. I remembered Marley fumbling with something in his pocket when I walked in. They must be Laura’s tablets. I looked at the vial but the pharmacy label had been torn off and I had no way of knowing what the pills were. I was just about to open the vial to see if by chance there was a stamp of some kind on the tablets, when Marley came hurrying back in. He stopped dead in his tracks when he saw me holding the tablets.
“Oh. I see you found my pills.”
He reached out his hand and I passed them over, but before I could speak, he muttered something about getting terrible migraines and rushed out of the room.
I followed him, deep in thought. There was no way that they were really his pills – it was exactly the same bottle he had for Laura. He was definitely hiding something. I bumped into Darci, who immediately started rattling on about tomorrow’s scenes and some small changes that Luther and the chief cameraman had made. I stopped thinking about Marley and brought my mind back to work as best I could. Apart from my worry about Jules and how he was going to handle Laura tonight, tomorrow was the last day of shooting and we all knew that it had to be perfect. It was one of the biggest scenes in the movie, and we all wanted it to go well, for Luther’s sake, as well as our own.
I said goodbye to Darci, sat down at my computer, and lost myself in my work until the knock of the security guy who was doing his rounds before locking the set startled me out of my reverie. He asked me if I was staying but my head ached with trying to concentrate and anyway, the script was as close to perfect as it was ever going to be, so I closed my computer down, grabbed my coat, and headed out to the car.
In the interests of privacy, I had renounced the chauffeured town car that the producers had allocated me, for a small hire car of my own. I walked to the car in the dimly lit parking lot, pondering the mystery of Laura and Marley, and wondering how Jules was going to get on with our drama queen later that night. As I was nearing the car, I jumped when I heard a sudden noise behind me. I turned but there was nothing to be seen. Obviously the breakages on the set were getting to me. I grabbed my keys from my bag just as someone stepped out from behind the truck parked next to my car. I screamed in fright as his hand shot out to grab my arm and I tried to wrench away but he had an iron hold on my arm and his other hand went out to steady me.
“Don’t scream. It’s me, Marley.”
I jerked away from his grip, furious that he had frightened me like that.
“What the hell are you doing, sneaking up on me like that? Are you out of your mind?”
I was so mad I could have hit him myself.
He made an appeasing gesture.
“I’m sorry. Really. I didn’t mean to scare you. I just wanted to make sure that you were alright.”
I rubbed my arm where he’d grabbed me.
“Why wouldn’t I be alright? Unless Laura sent you to scare me into a heart attack.”
Marley looked at me, fear evident in his eyes.
“Laura doesn’t want to hurt you. She wouldn’t hurt a fly. She’s an …”
“I know, she’s an artist. I understand. She wouldn’t raise a hand to me.”
I looked pointedly at the bruise on his cheek, now quite a lump.
“So why were you following me?”
He looked at the ground.
“I told you, I just wanted to make sure you were alright. I’d better go now.”
He took my keys from my hand, opened the car door and gestured for me to get in. I got in and he closed the door, but not before admonishing me to lock the door. I started the engine and watched as he scurried away, looking nervously over his shoulder. What was that all about? And why wasn’t he in his usual position, watching over Laura?
As I waited for the security man to open the gate, my phone rang and I saw there was a message from Jules. I smiled to myself when I read it.
“I love you more with every breath I take. Can’t wait to hold you in my arms in just a few hours. Yours forever, Jules.”
I drove home with a smile on my face. Happily ever after, just like in the movies.
When Jules came quietly into my room a few hours later, I woke with a start, having fallen into an uneasy dream about Laura chasing Jules with an ax while Marley held me hostage.
I sat up and stretched, as Jules came over and sat down heavily next to me.
“How did it go tonight?”
“If ever we needed confirmation that she’s off her rocker, tonight sealed it.”
He shook his head.
“For the first hour, I don’t think she heard a word I said. She rambled on non-stop about how we were destined to be together, how she’d known for years that she and I were supposed to conquer the world. Honestly, I could barely get a word in edgewise.”
“But what about the soup kitchen? Didn’t she wonder what you were doing there?”
Jules smiled wearily.
“Thank God for misery, huh? I finally dragged her over to the table and got her serving soup to shut her up. She wasn’t particularly gracious but she served for half an hour with me while I told her about my plan. Of course, then she completely ignored everything I had said and spent the next hour telling me that I couldn’t possibly be serious, that together we could be the most famous couple in the world.”
He leaned back and was silent for a moment.
“So I proposed. We took a coffee break and I told her that we could be together but that I wanted to leave everything behind and that if she wanted to be with me, that was how it would have to be. I told her not to answer right away, to think about it until tomorrow. But …”
He fell silent again and then turned to me.
“It was completely horrible. I knew she was nuts but this was insane. I never thought I’d say this but thank God for Marley.”
I stared at him.
“Marley? What was Marley doing there?”
He shook his head, bemused.
“I have no idea. He must have followed us. He really does take his job seriously. I’m not complaining though, because if he hadn’t been there, I don’t know what would have happened. When she realized that I was serious about giving up my career, and more to the point, asking her to give up hers, she went completely crazy. She started screaming obscenities at me and throwing whatever she could get her hands on. It took three of the soup kitchen staff to control her and even then she didn’t go down without a fight.”
He shuddered, remembering the madness.
“At one stage she got hold of a knife and was brandishing it around, threatening to kill herself if I didn’t marry her.”
He leaned forward and I noticed the scratches on his cheek. I gasped and he hugged me.
“It’s OK. She was just trying to hold onto me. A little too firmly. But Marley turned up just in time. I don’t know what he said to her, but it seemed to work because she calmed down a bit. He gave her a drink of water and kept talking to her until she followed him back to his car. Amazing, the turnaround. One minute she was screaming obscenities and the next minute, she was a docile as a lamb. That assistant of hers deserves a raise. Or a medal for bravery.”
I felt tears spring to my eyes and I rubbed at them, suddenly furious with myself.
“I’m so, so sorry. I don’t know why I thought this could work. I knew she was crazy and I put you in the most horrible situation, all because I was scared that she’d take you away from me. Oh my God.”
I burst into tears, feeling all the more stupid for the ridiculous rush of emotion that had overtaken me. I didn’t know if it was the realization that he had done all of this for me, or the fact that I’d put him in such a dangerous place, but all of a sudden, I was completely shaken, and worst of all, feeling like a complete fool.
He drew me to him.
“Hey, it’s OK, it’s over now. Believe me, she won’t be bothering us anymore. She made it very clear that she wouldn’t be giving up her career, and she wasn’t very complimentary to me either. I think we can safely assume that her crush is finished.”
He kissed me gently and wiped away my tears.
“It’s over now. One last day of shooting tomorrow. It will be interesting to see how that goes, although I’m willing to bet that if Marley has anything to do with it, she’ll be fine. There’s the cast party afterwards, and then it’s just you and me. For the rest of your life.”
I smiled shakily through my tears, and he leaned in and kissed me a little deeper.
“Now didn’t you say something about some consolation? Care to make good on that promise?”
Later, he kissed me goodbye and snuck out quietly to go home before Lara woke up, and the bed felt empty without his warmth. I pulled his pillow close to my chest and breathed in his scent, the scent of us, and fell back into an uneasy sleep, filled with dreams of chasing Laura but never quite catching her.
“And that’s a wrap!”
Luther spoke quietly and firmly, and there was a moment’s silence before the entire set broke into shouts and cheers. Everyone was dancing around, hugging each other in mad merriment. Even Laura smiled and coldly accepted a hug from Marley, although no one else dared go near her. She’d been taciturn and icy all day, only coming to life when her performance was required. She was as fluttery as ever with Jules, as if nothing had happened the night before, but whenever she looked in my direction, I felt the violence in her regard.
The chief cameraman and the sound guys hoisted Luther up into the air, while the makeup girls handed out party hats and favors.
We were all thrilled that the shoot was finally over. Between the frequent vandalisms, the temper tantrums of the leading lady, and the intrusive press and paparazzi, we’d all been struggling to make it though to the end. From what I’d heard, this was one of the weirdest sets ever experienced by cast and crew alike, and everyone was glad to know that our lovely film was safely finished. Now that the last scene was in the can, it was time to party, and everyone intended to let down his or her hair. Luther stood on a box in the center of the set and shouted to get everyone’s attention.
“Ladies and gentlemen, and all of you others.”
He indicated the electrical technicians on the edge of the sound stage who’d kept us amused with their tales of drunken misbehavior throughout our stay in London.
“I just want to say thank you. Thank you for working so hard, for giving your all, and for being such a great crew. If this doesn’t turn out to be a fabulous film, it won’t be because of you. You’ve been great, and I hope to work with each and every one of you again.”
Everyone clapped and cheered and Luther raised his voice to be heard.
“I also have to say a couple of very special thank yous. First of all, to our extraordinary writer, Grace, for giving us such wonderful material to work with, for her dedication to this film.”
The crew cheered and hooted and Darci nudged me and whispered, “Not so bad for a woman who didn’t know which Louboutin to put in front of the other when she arrived.”
I grinned, stuck my tongue out at him and whispered back, “Thanks in large part to a snarky queen without whose assistance I would have been completely lost.”
Luther cleared his throat and continued.
“Next, to our lead actors, Laura and Jules, for showing us what truly great craftsmanship is all about.”
Laura smiled, a strange rictus that made it seem as if she were in the grip of a far grimmer emotion, and waved regally. Jules bowed like the clown he was and everyone cheered and hooted some more.
The Luther took a deep breath and the room suddenly became silent in anticipation.
“And finally, to someone incredibly special, without whom I wouldn’t have made it through what has been a fairly arduous journey. Margot, would you come out and take a bow?”
I heard my friend gasp and watched as she most uncharacteristically blushed with pride. I gave her a gentle push.
“Go on, it’s not like you to avoid the limelight.”
She walked shyly over to Luther, tripping slightly on a cable as she made her way over to stand next to him. The crew cheered and whistled as he kissed her passionately. When they finally broke it off, Luther hugged her and spoke quietly into her ear. She looked at him in shock, and then whooped with joy, wrapping her legs around his waist as she jumped up to hug him.
Luther raised his fist in a power salute, which made everyone laugh.
The cast and crew started cheering and raising their glasses as the happy couple blushed like the newly weds they were about to be.
“His final divorce papers came through this morning.”
I jumped as I heard Jules speaking quietly into my ear. I looked around out of habit to see if Laura was around but she’d been hustled off by Marley, and Luther had closed the set to the press, so we were safe.
“Ok, let’s clear out of here and go party! See you all at the Palladium, and remember, we’ve got town cars for everyone so leave your vehicles here.”
Luther stepped down from the box, his arm still tight around Margot as if he were afraid to loose her in all the pandemonium.
Jules drew me into the shadows.
“Almost there, my sweet. We’re almost free. We’ve got the final press conference in an hour. I’ll stand up and say my piece. Luther is going to tell them about our next project and I’m going to tell the world that I’ve found the love of my life and that she’s convinced me not to renounce my career. Are you ready?”
I nodded, too choked up to speak. It had been a long and crazy ride, but I’d grown to love our secret little world, and I was terrified of coming out into the glare of fame. Jules and I had talked to our Lara and Carlotta that morning, alone and all together, and we were all prepared for what was going to be a lot of focus before the press moved onto fresh meat.
Although they were clearly happy about our relationship, neither of the girls seemed particularly worried about how or where we were going to live. Lara loved her school in Monaco and I wasn’t at all sure she’d want to live in London, no matter how much she adored Jules and Carlotta. It was odd, because my daughter was obsessive about always knowing our plans and exactly what was happening next, and yet she hadn’t so much as uttered a word about how Jules and I were planning on working out the future. And just as well, because although I knew we were going to spend the rest of our lives together, we hadn’t had time to work out exactly how. I’d been bemused by the girls’ calm acceptance until Margot pointed out that our kids took the plane like we took buses (which made me laugh because I’m not sure that Margot had ever taken a bus in her life), and that if London seemed a world away from Monaco for us, for them, it was just a hop away.
I brought myself back to the present as Jules hugged me and said, “OK, let’s get this show on the road. I’ll see you at the party after the conference.”
We’d agreed that it was wiser for me to avoid the press conference and go straight onto the party, especially as Luther had hired extra security to ensure that we’d all be press free for the evening. I gave him a long hug and an even longer kiss.
“I love you. Thank you for doing all of this for me.”
“For us, my darling. It’s all for us. Now go grab a glass of champagne. You’ve earned it.”
Jules kissed me lingeringly on the lips one more time and then headed off with a jaunty wave, and I watched him as he melded with the crowd heading out the door, everyone in high party spirits. The stage emptied quickly and I turned to go and join Margot and Luther, when I remembered that I had left my handbag – or rather, Margot’s red Fendi handbag, which I’d taken quite a shine to – in my office. Given that she loved that bag almost as much as she loved her child, I hurried back to get it before the set was locked up for the last time.
As I stepped off the soundstage, a hand gripped my arm. I turned to find myself facing Laura, who looked as if she’d completely lost her mind. Gone was the polished princess from the set, and in her place was a crazed woman, all torn clothing as if she’d rent the fabric herself, her hair disheveled and her eyes glaring with rage.
“I suppose you think you’re smart, trying to grab Jules now that shooting is over.”
She spat the words at me and I tried to wrench my arm away but she held it in a death vice, her nails digging into my skin.
“You bitch. I know you’re hatching some stupid little plot to steal him away from me.”
Her voice careened between hysteria and ice.
“You just don’t understand that he could never fall for someone like you. He needs someone with emotion and passion, someone who understands him as an artist. You are just a cheap little wannabe and you’re deluding yourself if you think…”
Using all my strength, I tried to take a step back, torn between fury and fear. There was no one else around and I even though I didn’t think she’d be crazy enough to try to hurt me, there was a look in her eye that sent shivers down my spine. The stress of the past weeks caught up with me and I raised my voice to be heard over hers.
“Look Laura, just leave me alone. If you have something to say, say it to Jules, not to me. I don’t particularly like you but that’s only because you’ve been utterly odious to me from the minute I set foot on this film. Live and let live is my motto. If you think that you and Jules are meant to be together, go tell him.”
I felt fairly safe sending her off to search out Jules, knowing full well that she wouldn’t find him until after the press conference was over, and everyone knew about us.
She stepped closer to me and it was then that I saw the knife glinting in the reflection from the lights behind the stage.
“Don’t think I know what you’re up to. You’ve been putting words into his mouth all throughout the film and you’re still doing it. Now I’m going to make sure you don’t put words in anyone’s mouth, ever again.”
She wrenched my arm even harder and waved the knife in front of my face.
I tried to step back but I’d somehow backed onto the stage door, and unless I pushed past her and her blade, there was nowhere to go.
I took a deep breath, trying to think past the fear.
“Laura, this is crazy. Have you thought about…”
She lunged forward, the knife waving erratically as she tried to gouge my face. I screamed and ducked as she swore and came after me again.
“I’m going to make sure that you won’t be putting any more words in Jules’ mouth, you little bitch. I’m going to kill you now and everyone will think it’s the same vandals that messed up the set.”
She laughed hysterically.
“That was me, you know. I wanted to draw it out, make the film last longer, to give Jules the time to see how wonderful I was, but he wouldn’t take any notice. That was your fault, of course, prancing around in your new outfits, trying to seduce him with your words!”
She rushed at me again and I leaped sideways, falling over a pile of cables on the floor. Just as she was poised to strike again, I heard a movement behind her and I screamed as a dark figure lurched out of the curtained area towards us, landing on the floor next to her with a grunt. I reached to the side and grabbed the first thing that came to hand – a wooden mallet that the electricians used to hammer in the clips for the cables.
I swung wide, catching Laura a glancing blow on the side of the head, enough to stop her in her tracks for a moment. She looked up at me with demonic eyes and hurled herself towards me as the mystery attacker grabbed at the air where she’d been. I closed my eyes and swung the mallet with all of the force I could muster, my stomach lurching as I heard it make contact with something, or someone. I slowly opened my eyes and saw Laura on the ground, out for the count, and the mystery assailant lying next to her, gasping for breath.
“Don’t move or I’ll swing again!”
I shouted, trembling with adrenaline as the figure sat up shakily. He drew the hood back and I saw that it was Marley, Laura’s assistant. He looked down at her and then up at me.
“Oh God. I’m so sorry.”
He shook his head sorrowfully.
“I am so terribly sorry. I can’t believe I let this happen.”
He struggled to his feet and removed his jacket, placing it gently under Laura’s head.
“Please, please don’t tell anyone,” he begged, the panic evident in his voice. “Let me handle this. I’m going to call her doctor. This should never have happened. It’s all my fault,” he repeated mindlessly.
I knew that he has some kind of twisted love for her but this was beyond logic.
“What do you mean, this is your fault? The woman is a nutcase. She tried to kill me. She’s treated you like an animal for the whole shoot, she destroyed the set and she tried to kill me. She’s unhinged.”
“Yes, yes, she is. I’ve known for quite a while. She’s fine while she’s on her medication, but she stopped taking it at the beginning of the shoot because she wanted Jules to fall in love with the ‘real’ her. I’ve been watching her, but she’s been getting worse…”
All of a sudden, the lights came on, blinding us both. Luther and Margot came rushing over to me, while three large policemen grabbed Marley by the arm.
“No, no, it’s not him, it’s her.”
I pointed to the comatose woman on the floor as I tried to catch my breath.
Margot hugged me and I fell into her arms, suddenly dizzy and sick to my stomach.
“I knew there was something off about that woman. Are you OK?”
She pulled me closer and shook her head.
“We saw Jules on the way out and we were waiting for you, to take you to the party, but when you didn’t come out, Luther and I went looking for you. But that stupid cow had locked the doors. That’s when Luther called security and the police. Oh my God, what a nightmare.”
I don’t which of us was more upset. Margot was white and shaking like a junkie, while I felt as if I’d run a marathon. My legs felt as if they were going to give out at any moment, and when the policeman came over to take my statement, I could barely speak. I started to tell my tale when Jules came barreling over, practically knocking over the security guy guarding the door in the process. Both policemen immediately drew their guns and pointed them at Jules.
“Stop right there, sir.”
Jules seemed not to hear them as he came running directly toward me and without the intervention of Luther, we would have had another casualty on our hands.
Jules grabbed and pulled me to him so tight that I suddenly became aware of all of the bruises and scrapes I was going to have tomorrow, souvenirs of what could only be considered a rather adventurous afternoon. He looked down at me, searching my face as he caressed my scratched cheek.
“Are you alright? Are you OK? Oh my God, what did she do to you?”
I leaned shakily on him and shook my head, trying to slow my heartbeat down.
“I’m OK, darling, really, I’m OK. Marley stepped in again, just in time.”
I looked gratefully towards the troubled star’s assistant. Even though any normal person would have had her locked up, after a few months in the wild world of filmmaking, I understood the perverse logic that made Marley think he had to handle this by himself. He loved her, for reasons of his own, perhaps star-worship, perhaps more. Whatever the reason, he lived to serve her with a devotion that belied belief. I understood, even if I still wanted to strangle him for letting her wreak havoc that almost cost me Jules, not to mention my life and that of the film.
Luther came over and patted Jules on the back.
“A close call but at least now we know who was creating all the problems these last few months. I was actually beginning to believe that the film was cursed. But how did you know what was going on?”
Jules slumped down onto a bench, still clutching my hand.
“I was at the press conference, answering the usual stupid questions and preparing to make my announcement, when one of the journalists asked me when I was getting married to Laura. I have to admit I was pretty short with him but the apparently the poor guy had received a call from Laura herself this evening, saying that I was going to announce our wedding. I didn’t get it until one of the other journalists told me there was a problem over at the studio. They listen to the police radio, and as soon as I heard that, I knew something was up.”
He shook his head, looking at Laura still lying on the floor while the ambulance officers tended her.
“I never imagined this, though.”
“I can’t believe I let you walk into this. From now on, I’m not leaving your side.”
He looked deep into my eyes, oblivious to our audience.
“I love you and I intend to protect you and take care of you from this day on…”
Margot and Luther and the policemen all burst into laughter as they chorused, “until death do us part.”
We laughed too, and then Luther pulled Margot to him and said, suddenly serious.
“Me too. I promise to love you and protect you and take care of you from this day on, until death do us part. Will you marry me?”
Margot’s jaw dropped and she stood so still I wondered for a moment if she’d heard him. She took a deep breath, and said simply, “Yes.”
This time, we all cheered. Luther kissed her passionately, as if he intended never to stop, and she kissed him right back.
When all the strum and angst had been dispatched at the studio, and Laura was safely on her way to the local psychiatric ward for evaluation and treatment, the ever-faithful Marley by her side, we took the town car over to the party.
The entire crowd of cast and crew and their partners cheered when Luther walked in. Jules and I got cheers too, and no one raised an eyebrow at the fact that we were clearly together. Over a glass of champagne, one of the technicians told me that everyone had pretty much guessed from the first day, and that there was an unspoken pact on the set never to mention our relationship, indeed to categorically deny it to the press if any questions were asked. Which made me feel like a complete idiot, because now I understood all of the lingering looks and strange comments around the coffee machine, not to mention the solicitous attitudes when everyone thought that Jules was seeing Laura too. Apparently the chief sound technician had set up a book, taking bets as to whether Laura or I would win out, and I was so happy to learn that I was an odds on favorite that I went up and kissed the sound guy so loudly on the cheek that he blushed and dropped his beer.
I looked over at Jules, surrounded by technicians and lesser cast members, and smiled. It was easy to see what the public saw in him. Beyond his physical perfection – and he truly was a beautiful man – he exuded a kind of light and energy that drew people to him. Everyone felt better being around Jules. Most especially me. He turned and grinned his usual cheeky grin at me, and beckoned me over, and I went, eager to have his arms around me once again.
“I was just telling the guys about our plans for the next few weeks.”
I looked up at him. In all of the rigmarole, we hadn’t had time to discuss the details of what came next. I knew I had to get Lara back to Monaco to start school for the beginning of September but we still had two more weeks of school holidays in front of us.
“And would you like to tell me exactly what those plans are?”
“Let just say, it involves getting out of town while all of the madness hits, and while Luther gets the film edited.”
“Well, may I at least know if I need to pack anything in particular? Like our children?”
He bent down so that his eyes were level with mine.
“Do you trust me?”
I looked at him seriously, knowing he’d understand the importance of what I was about to say.
“Yes, I trust you, with my life, but also with Lara’s life.”
And I did. Even though I knew there were no guarantees in the world, and that falling in love with an actor, the idol of women and men all over the planet, seemed like crazy odds, every fiber of my being knew that this man was mine, for the rest of my life. Even if I hated the parts of his life that involved public exposure, I’d come to realize that how the press and the public behaved had nothing to do with him. It wasn’t his fault if the culture we lived in found it acceptable to be impolite and invasive, and it wasn’t part of his job description either.
But most importantly, I knew that he was a loving, focused and present parent with his own daughter, and he’d already proved to be a serious presence with Lara as well. For all of these reasons, as well as the all-defining gut feeling of safety that I had when I was with him, I knew that trusting him was the right thing to do. Not to mention that I fancied the pants off him and suspected I always would.
And so I did what came naturally, and kissed him, and he kissed me back.
The band started playing “It Had to Be You.”
“Our song,” said Jules, offering me his hand.
And then we danced the night away, together, until I convinced Jules that no one, certainly not Lara, and least of all me, would mind him spending the night in my bed.
The girls woke us up seemingly minutes after we had gone to bed. Lara called through the door a number of times, telling me to get up, but I resisted all calls to action until Margot pounded on the door, shouting.
“The car is downstairs. Coffee is in the kitchen. You’d better get a move on or you’ll be late.”
I groaned, got out of bed and opened the door to her, ready to question her sanity. Jules disappeared into the bathroom and I could hear the shower running as I pulled my dressing gown closer around me and tried to focus.
“What car? What are you talking about?”
I clutched my head and glanced at the clock.
“Are you mad? It’s seven in the morning and we got in at five. Why are you up? Why am I up? And why is everyone shouting?”
Luther was loudly informing the Lara and Carlotta that they had clearly over-packed for a week away, but before I could ask what was going on and where the girls thought they were going, Margot shoved me towards the shower while heading towards my wardrobe.
“You go freshen up while I get your clothes out.”
She grinned at me.
“No funny business in there or I’ll come and get you. If you hurry, you might even have time for a quick coffee.”
I stood stubbornly in the middle of the room.
“Margot, I can’t go anywhere. I’m not packed. I don’t even know where I’m supposed to be going….”
From the back of the wardrobe, Margot drew out her Louis Vuitton suitcase and another unfamiliar brown one.
“Of course you’re packed. I packed for you and I think you’ll be very satisfied.”
She looked very pleased with herself and I suddenly remembered all the mysterious shopping trips of the past few weeks. Normally, Margot lived to share her finds and purchases with the rest of the world while we oohed and aaahed and applauded her excellent taste, but recently we’d been treated to nary a fashion parade, indeed not the slightest comment as the shopping bags had disappeared without a word into her lair.
“Please tell me you haven’t been shopping on my behalf again?” I begged, but Margot just shook her head.
“Consider it an early wedding gift. Now go shower or you’ll ruin everything.”
I chose to ignore the wedding comment and staggered into the bathroom, bumping into Jules on his way out, a towel draped sexily around his lower half.
“Would you like to tell me what’s going on?” I demanded, trying to clear the sleep fog from my head. He shook his own head, smiled mysteriously, and strode purposefully out of the bathroom.
When I emerged from the shower, there was a steaming cup of coffee waiting on the nightstand. I took a blissful sip and looked at the clothing laid out on the bed.
Alongside my all time favorite jeans, freshly pressed, I saw a new cashmere sweater in the palest blush, along with a matching cashmere and silk throw. A glorious lacy wisp of a bra and matching knickers lay next to the ensemble. A brand new pair of soft, sexy as hell cowboy boots stood at the foot of the bed. Even my handbag had been changed. Margot had clearly reclaimed her Fendi bag but I wasn’t going to complain because she’d replaced it with a lovely leather tote from Cartier, in exactly the same shade as the boots. I opened it cautiously and found everything I needed for a holiday, including makeup, perfume and my passport.
I quickly got dressed and made my way out to the living room, where everyone was lined up, apparently waiting for me, including a man in a cap who was surely the driver of the car. It took me a moment to notice that there were flowers absolutely everywhere, on every available surface, and that Megan was standing shyly in the background, holding a small bouquet in the same tones as my sweater.
“About time, Mum. We were wondering whether you were ever going to come out,” said Lara impatiently. I looked around at everyone and suddenly felt very stupid, as if I’d turned up at a party to which I was not invited.
“What’s going on? Hi Megan. And what’s with the indoor garden?”
The man took off his cap and scarf, and I suddenly noticed that he was wearing a priest’s collar. Our suitcases were stacked in the corner near the door and all of a sudden, the room was very quiet.
Jules got down on one knee in front of me.
“This might not seem like the most romantic way of doing things, but…”
He faltered for a moment, then added, tears in his eyes, “I wanted us to be married before we go on our honeymoon.”
Luther looked at him, incredulously.
“You mean you haven’t asked her yet? You have the tickets, you organized a wedding, but you haven’t asked her to marry you yet?”
Jules shook his head sheepishly.
“No, not yet. And if she doesn’t want to, that’s fine. We can wait.”
Then he smiled, impish as another twelve year old who was hovering excitedly at the edge of the room, a delighted grin eating up her face.
“But Lara told me she’d say yes, so I wasn’t too worried.”
I burst out laughing, unable to help myself.
“Of course I’ll marry you. Now, yesterday, tomorrow. Whenever you like, as long as it’s you.”
“Now,” he said firmly and kissed me just the same. And we got married on the spot.
Outside the tent, I could hear the sounds of the camp stirring, the melodic hum of African voices against the early morning birdsong. Next to me, Jules stretched and I gazed at him, my heart overwhelmed by tenderness. Gently, I placed a kiss on the curve of his smile.
Without opening his eyes, he pulled me to him and kissed me.
“Good morning, my beautiful bride. Ready to ride into the sunset with me again?”
I winced as he patted my aching backside.
“Yes, my handsome prince. How about you?”
“My body says no but my mind says yes. Somebody should have warned me that honeymoons were such hard work.”
I poked him and giggled.
“You’re the one who chose a riding holiday through Africa’s savannahs. That’s what you get for letting our horse-mad teenage daughters select our honeymoon.”
He smiled back at me with such love that my heart melted all over again.
“Well, Lara and Carlotta deserve some kind of recompense for putting up with their lovesick parents. And all the press commotion. Carlotta’s used to it but Lara’s been a regular trooper,” he said, remembering the mania at the airport as we left London for Africa. Luther had called us to warn us that Laura had given a press conference from the hospital. According to Luther, she’d taken credit for our entire relationship, saying that she was the one who suggested to Jules that he ask me on a date, after she decided that she preferred to concentrate on her career rather than marriage, and that she was thrilled that it had all come together for us.
After a little digging, we finally worked out that this was Luther’s wedding gift to us: instead of pressing charges against Laura, he’d convinced her, with the help of Marley, to suggest that our relationship was all her idea. It worked marvelously, because not one of the press reports vilified me or Jules, and Luther was thrilled that there wouldn’t be any of the negative press that would have occurred once the papers found out that his leading lady was loopy and that his leading man had eloped. And although I was assuming she was either heavily doped or still suffering from the bang on the head to have accepted his deal, I was grateful that Laura would be getting the help she so obviously needed.
I heard the horses whinny in their enclosure outside the tent and the girls chattering excitedly to their mounts. Lara and Carlotta were in seventh heaven and I reflected again how lucky I was to have found Jules.
It was one of the great mysteries of life that Lara had known long before me that Jules and I were made for each other. Any other kid in her position might have been justifiably nervous about her mother hooking up with another man after the pain of being rejected by her father, but Lara and Jules, and of course, Carlotta, Jules’ lovely daughter, had all made a family before I ever consented to join.
It was the girls’ idea to plan a riding holiday in Africa for the end of the shoot. Lara took great joy in reminding me that she’d held the airline tickets in her possession since that famous first day on set when Jules had given me a white envelope for my daughter. I could never have envisaged that my daughter would fall in love with Jules as much as me, and I thought again how wonderful my husband was to have had so much faith in me, and us, before I had any myself.
“Mum, wake up.”
“Dad, get up, it’s breakfast time.”
Two little shadows loomed outside the tent. The girls were clearly anxious to begin their day’s riding, which was understandable, given that we’d already seen some lions, a herd of buffalo, and a white rhinoceros and her calf, which left two of the big five to spot before we left the following day.
Around the camp table, we feasted on a continental breakfast that spoke wonders for the talents of the chef – croissants so fresh that I was tempted to look for a Parisian bakery behind the scrub, rich steaming bush coffee and orange juice that was positively perky. The girls chatted excitedly about the day ahead, and Jules and I smiled at each other. The day before, we’d overheard them planning all sorts of activities for our return to our new life together in London.
Life worked out in the most extraordinary ways. Just before we left, Jules had secretly taken Lara to see Carlotta’s school, which of course, she adored, particularly when she discovered she would be in Carlotta’s class. Along with Carlotta, they’d been working with Megan to decorate their rooms in the house that Jules had bought for us. All of this without a word to me, of course, which would normally have driven me mad, except that it was all done with so much love that I couldn’t help but be as excited as they were. Luther had even give me the notes to the screenplay that he and Jules had been working on in Monaco, along with the promise of a new contract to write the script.
The only tragedy in my life was that I was going to miss Margot more than I could say. We’d never lived more than five minutes away from one another in our twenty plus years of friendship, and while Monaco and London might only be an hour or so apart by plane, I was so used to sharing my daily life with my best friend that I couldn’t bear to think about it.
“Ma’am? I have a letter for you from the Internet.”
One of the camp guides proffered a printed email on a silver platter. Any mail presented so sweetly could surely not be the harbinger of bad news, but my stomach still clenched in fear. Everything was so perfect; I was terrified that it was too perfect and that the fates would have the last laugh.
Gingerly, I picked up the page and unfolded it.
“Dearest newlyweds. We thought you might like to know that we are going to be neighbors as we just bought a house ten minutes’ walk from your new home. Also, I wondered if the girls might like to earn some pocket money babysitting? In about nine months from now, we’re going to need a hand… See you very soon and much love from Luther and Margot and Maria.”
I passed it wordlessly to Jules. He read it and smiled at me.
“That’s wonderful news.”
He looked down and then up at me mischievously.
“Sounds like it might make a good script. You already wrote our story. Why don’t you write the next chapter?”
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Grace Tabberer has sworn off men and is happy to let her glamorous best friend Margot do the dating thing - the closest she wants to get to romance is the love story she’s writing in her spare time. But when a series of chance encounters with a sexy world-famous movie star send her hurtling off towards a new career, she begins to think that falling in love might not be such a bad idea, at least until a horde of rabid paparazzi and a possessive lunatic actress convince her otherwise … and then it’s a case of truth being stranger than fiction!