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Authors: Marie Ferrarella

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“Trust me,” Isabelle told him, “I'm as big as I need to be, Mr. Slade.”

He really had his doubts about that, but if she had any trouble, he intended to be around to lend a hand, so he supposed it was all right.

“If you say so,” he murmured. “C'mon, I'll take you to her. She's waiting for you.”

Isabelle could feel the butterflies in her stomach multiplying as she followed him. It was a first for her. She'd never felt nervous about meeting a client before.

Brandon led the way to the place his mother was currently presiding over: the living room. Ushering the physical therapist in, he withdrew to give his mother the center stage he knew she both needed and loved.

“I'll be right down the hall if you need me,” he told Isabelle in a soft murmur.

The sound of his lowered voice caused a chaotic ripple effect that involved every part of her body. The man was just too handsome for her own good, Isabelle thought.

The next moment, thoughts of the writer's chiseled profile were forgotten as she found herself looking into Anastasia Del Vecchio's violet eyes.

The single word undulated through her.

“Tell me about yourself, dear,” Anastasia instructed with a regal wave of her hand that would have made Queen Victoria proud.

Anastasia was lying on an oversize sofa in the living room, where she had taken up court, choosing to be “in the thick of things” rather than “cooped up” in the guest room, a room that had been sumptuously decorated
according to her dictates for those times that she needed to stay overnight rather than return to her own home. The actress lived in a mini-mansion approximately ten minutes away by car—if that car happened to be speeding all the way. And when she drove, it usually was.

As Isabelle appeared to do her best to meet her scrutinizing gaze, Anastasia did a succinct evaluation. Not of a therapist, but of a young woman for whom she had plans.

She had a nice smile, Anastasia thought, and lovely skin and hair, but she definitely needed a little work and patient guidance as far as making the most of her appearance. She supposed that was a good thing. It meant that the girl was dedicated to her work, which was, after all, why she was predisposed to hiring her.

I hope you're right, Cecilia,
Anastasia silently cautioned.


This was Anastasia Del Vecchio,
Isabelle thought, trying her best not to act like a starstruck groupie. The
Anastasia Del Vecchio.

She could hardly believe it.

Granted, this was Southern California, and movie and TV stars did cross paths with mortals on a somewhat regular basis, but that didn't make this moment any less awe-inspiring for Isabelle. As a native to the area, she'd encountered more than a couple celebrities herself, but no one of this magnitude and definitely not someone who had captured her heart at a very young age, when fantasy and escape had been so important to her.

“You can speak now,” Anastasia told her.

Honesty had always been Isabelle's best strategy. So rather than say she was busy mentally reviewing the woman's case—something she had already done before
coming here—she admitted the reason her tongue had remained so unnaturally—for her—dormant.

“I'm sorry, Ms. Del Vecchio, I'm a huge fan of yours—”

Anastasia sat up a little straighter, pleased. Preening. Her eyes smiled first. It was a magnificent sight and she knew it. “Nothing to be sorry about, dear.”

“It's just that it's going to take me a few minutes to get used to be being in the same room with you,” Isabelle confessed. She did her best not to take any noticeable deep breaths.

Anastasia's pleased smile deepened, going clear down to the bone. “I understand, dear,” she sympathized, then tried to lean closer but found that her hip prevented any fluid movements on her part. Silently cursing the impediment, she asked, “Tell me, which of my movies have you seen?”

“All of them.”

“Really.” Anastasia stretched the word out as she absorbed the young woman's meaning. A slightly canny look came over Anastasia's still amazingly youthful features. After all, Isabelle Sinclair might just be paying lip service, saying what she assumed someone of her stature wanted to hear. “And exactly how many was that?”

Again, there was no reason for Isabelle to even pause to think. She had the answer at the tip of her tongue. She rarely forgot facts she'd learned. “Fifty-three movies, three TV series and two miniseries on PBS,” she recited.

Anastasia raised one perfectly shaped eyebrow. “Fifty-two movies,” she corrected generously.

“You had an unbilled walk-on in
It Takes Two,
” Isabelle reminded her, unfazed.

Highly impressed, Anastasia declared warmly, “You're hired, Isabelle. So when can you move in?”

Isabelle blinked. Had she missed something? “Excuse me?”

“I'm going to need round-the-clock work,” Anastasia explained, not accustomed to having to explain herself. “None of this ‘an hour here and I'll see you Tuesday' nonsense. I have a play I'm going to be in, Isabelle,” she told her with deadly earnest. “I've a key role in the revival of
A Little Night Music.
I sing ‘Send in the Clowns,'” she said with a proud toss of her head, adding, “I have put in a great deal of work on this play and I'm not about to have them give my part away to that understudy Channing brought in because of a silly little fall.” Her famous eyes became narrow slits as she confided, “She reminds me of Anne Baxter's character in
All About Eve.”

Isabelle hesitated for a moment. This was an opportunity of a lifetime, and every fiber in her body wanted to shout “Yes!” to the suggestion about moving in for the duration—
my God, living with Anastasia Del Vecchio!
—but it wasn't a decision she could arbitrarily make on her own without at least informing Zoe about it. Otherwise, her sister was going to set her up with other clients as well, and Anastasia apparently intended to monopolize her.

“I'm going to have to check in with my sister, Miss Del Vecchio. Zoe runs the business,” she added when the woman looked at her incredulously.

Obstacles were meant to be plowed through, not circumvented. Anastasia had been doing it all her life. “I'm sure it'll be fine with ‘Zoe.' I'll pay twice the going rate,” she added, confident that would seal the bargain. She took her cell phone out of the pocket of her bed
jacket. “Giving me the agency's number, please,” she instructed.

It was at that point that Brandon walked back in. Something had told him that perhaps he should come to the physical therapist's aid—his mother could be utterly overwhelming, and the petite therapist brought out the protector in him.

“So, what's the verdict?” The question was directed toward the physical therapist, but it was his mother who answered first.

“She's delightful and she's moving in.”

That was twice he was confronted with the unexpected, all in the space of less than an hour. “Run that by me again?”

It hadn't occurred to Anastasia that there might be a problem on either side, especially not on what she considered her end.

“I need her on call, Brandon. I can move back home if you want to play the hermit, dear,” she added, knowing that was the best way to get him to agree to her terms. “But my public is waiting and I have to be able to go on tour with the play. We're to leave in six weeks, which means that I have to be able to gracefully and effortlessly walk across a stage in six weeks. Preferably dance across it, but I'll settle for walk.” She turned her attention toward the young woman who had been sent to her. “Isabelle here is going to make sure that I am my flexible young self again.” She smiled beatifically at her. “Aren't you, dear?”

Isabelle opened her mouth to say that flexibility all depended on how fast the icon's body bounced back and how much and how hard she was willing to work, but she never got the opportunity. Playing all the parts came naturally to Anastasia, so she answered for her.

“Of course she is. Now, the question is, will she be moving in here, or into my humble abode—which does have a little more room,” Anastasia added in a stage whisper meant as an aside to Isabelle.

“Of course she can stay here with you,” Brandon countered. “I didn't mean I was going to send you packing, Mother, but—”

They were deciding everything on their own, without her, Isabelle thought, acting as if she didn't even get a vote in the matter. And she still needed to inform Zoe of this latest twist. She was fairly certain that there wouldn't be any problem, but she knew that Zoe wanted to be kept apprised of any deviation from the norm when it came to working with a client.

She needed to get a word in edgewise before the conversation got too out of hand. So, taking in a deep breath, Isabelle cried,
in the loudest voice she could summon, knowing that they wouldn't take note of anything softer.

Surprised by the volume that had emerged from the diminutive woman, both sets of eyes turned toward Isabelle Sinclair. And, at least in Brandon's case, they held a new measure of respect.

Chapter Two

sabelle Sinclair knew that when people met her for the first time, it usually brought a host of pleasant terms to mind, such as unassuming, laid-back and unpretentious. Those labels, however, did not automatically mean that she was also a pushover or that she was anyone's doormat. Because she wasn't.

She was so soft-spoken that people were naturally surprised to discover she also possessed a backbone made of steel and the quiet determination of not only the “little engine that could,” but the never-swayed-from-his-path tortoise of
The Tortoise and the Hare

This latter character trait came in particularly handy whenever she worked with clients who were ready to give up and morosely give in to whatever malady had brought them to Healing Hands in the first place.

They might be willing to surrender, but Isabelle wasn't. She wouldn't allow her clients to stop until every
single goal laid out was met. Only then, when the disabling condition was conquered, did she feel free to consider the case closed and move on to the next client.

This tenacity also applied to her life insomuch as she would not allow herself to be pushed aside or ignored when the matter directly involved or affected her. And this subject that was being bandied about between mother and son most definitely involved and affected her. More important, it involved Zoe. Nothing brought out her protective instincts more then when someone she cared about was at risk or in need. She considered it her personal mission to come to their aid.

So when Anastasia Del Vecchio and Brandon Slade just took her acquiescence for granted and went on to debate which house would be her temporary place of shelter for the next six weeks, she had to stop them. To that end, she had raised her own voice to far louder decibels than was her custom, effectively bringing Anastasia and Brandon's escalating debate to a skidding halt.

They were both staring at her now as if they hadn't really seen her before. And, from her standpoint, they most likely hadn't. As a rule, on first sight, people tended to regard her as a quiet, reserved shrinking violet. But they soon learned otherwise. She could more than hold her own with the best of them, even if one of those “best” was the dynamic Anastasia Del Vecchio, a woman who could project her voice to the back row of any theater without the benefit of a microphone or any other electronic device.

Two sets of eyes were looking at her, waiting. “I already told you, Ms. Del Vecchio, that I need to check in with my sister and make sure that this arrangement—my living here with you—is acceptable to her. She might have me down for something else.”

Anastasia waved a dismissive hand at the words. “Of course it'll be acceptable to her,” she insisted confidently. “I said I'd pay you twice the going rate. Three times if I have to,” she added. “And since you're going to be here 'round the clock, I'll be paying for your time for that, as well. What businesswoman doesn't like seeing that kind of a profit coming in?” she added.

Isabelle dug in, answering politely but firmly. “I still have to call her.”

Anastasia was not above manipulating both circumstances and people to get what she wanted. She could wield basic psychology like a sharply honed sword and had said as much more than once.

“Doesn't your sister like you making independent decisions when it comes to your own work?” Anastasia asked with feigned innocence.

Though he loved her dearly, Brandon knew what his mother was capable of. He didn't like the idea of an unfair confrontation and placed himself on Isabelle's side.

“Mother, I know that you don't know the meaning of the word, but other people do have to follow
Let Isabelle make the call,” Brandon urged—and with that one single sentence instantly became Isabelle's secret hero.

She flashed him an appreciative smile. Not that she wouldn't have called Zoe with the news no matter what Anastasia intended to the contrary, but it was a great deal easier if the woman wasn't attempting to impede her efforts to contact her sister.

And Brandon was handling that detail for her, acting as a diversion and forcing Anastasia to focus her attention elsewhere.

Isabelle turned away from the duo to create the sem
blance of privacy and called her sister's private cell number.

After four annoyingly long rings, the answering machine kicked in. Isabelle waited as the instructions to “leave a message at the tone” ran its course. The sound of the “beep” made her come to life.

“Pick up, Zoe, pick up.” She gave it to the count of ten and then surrendered to the inevitable. “Since you're not there, I'm going to have to make a decision without you. Anastasia Del Vecchio is every bit as dynamic in real life as she is on the screen and she's going to want an answer
” Isabelle paused for half a second, trying to think of a reason that would cause Zoe to object to what the actress was requesting. She couldn't come up with a single one. “Okay, she says she wants me to move in with her for the duration of the treatment and is willing to pay up to triple my usual rate, plus expenses. That should go a long way to soothing your bruised ego over having your authority usurped,” she said. “You know where to reach me if you decide you want to give me a lecture for old times' sake.”

With that, Isabelle terminated the call.

What she'd just said to her sister replayed itself in her head. She still couldn't believe this was happening. It really did seem more like a dream. Anastasia Del Vecchio, her all-time favorite childhood idol, was insisting that she move in with her. Granted, it was in the capacity of a servant—or so the woman thought, Isabelle amended—but the bottom line was that she was still moving in.

Moving in with Anastasia Del Vecchio. It definitely had a nice ring to it.

So did living in Brandon Slade's house, even if he
been her all-time favorite author. But he was.
She'd read every one of his ten thrillers, several at least twice. Once for pleasure and once to scrutinize whether or not there were any small holes in the fabric of his plot that she might have missed the first time around. There never were. The man was incredible.

And good-looking enough to stop a woman's heart, she added now.

The call over, Isabelle closed the clam shell, slipped the cell phone into her pocket and then turned around. If Zoe wanted to get in touch with her regarding having her authority cavalierly usurped, to put it in her sister's terminology, all she had to do was call. Her phone was always on.

But for the life of her, Isabelle couldn't think of a single reason her sister would object. Having Anastasia Del Vecchio listed as a former client would do wonders for their references. And their website.

Mentally, Isabelle crossed her fingers that Zoe—once her sister got around to listening to her messages—wouldn't find some flimsy reason to object to her living on the premises.

The moment she'd put the cell away and turned around, Anastasia was on her. “Well?” she demanded, the violet eyes pinning her in place.

“Looks like I'll be moving in for a while,” Isabelle replied with a soft smile.

It was obvious by Anastasia's manner that she had expected nothing less. “Wonderful.” The actress smiled regally, a queen prepared to be magnanimous with her subjects. “Brandon, why don't you be a dear and show Isabelle just where she'll be staying? And if she needs help bringing her things over—”

Working with this woman, Isabelle thought, was going to definitely be a challenge. If she wasn't careful,
the living legend would just roll right over her and flatten her without even realizing she was doing it.

“If you don't mind,” Isabelle said, interrupting the woman before the actress got even further carried away, “I'll take a look at the room later. Right now I'd like to get started working with you.” Slipping off the light jacket she was wearing, she mentally rolled up her sleeves. “I want to assess just what we need to do so I can work up a proper schedule.”

Anastasia didn't see the need for all that foreplay. Not when she knew exactly what needed to be done. “We need to get me upright and dancing, of course.”

Out of the corner of her eye, Isabelle caught the smile that curved Brandon's mouth. Ruggedly handsome, he still had very fine features, and his mouth was just short of being described as delicate. Something, she noted, that he had obviously inherited from his mother.

“Good luck with that,” she heard him tell her almost under his breath.

And just for the space of a breath, they shared a moment as his eyes made contact with hers—and then he winked.

Isabelle felt the ripple of that wink right in the pit of her stomach. Dedicated and no one's pushover, she was still very much a novice when it came to socializing outside of her work. She could hold her own in any conversation as long as certain parameters were in place. As long as she was Isabelle, the physical therapist, talking to a client or a member of the client's family, she was fine. More than fine. She was sharp, knowledgeable, even witty at times. But always as Isabelle, the physical therapist.

Once that comfortable aura was taken away from her, once she was just Isabelle Sinclair, single female,
in a one-on-one situation, she was tongue-tied and self-conscious, at a definite disadvantage inhabiting a world where she had little to no experience.

With effort Isabelle forced herself to clamp down on her reaction to the wickedly handsome writer and focused on the one reason she was here in the first place. To get Anastasia Del Vecchio “upright and dancing.”

“All right, Ms. Del Vecchio,” Isabelle said briskly. “Let's get to work and see what you can do.”


Forty-five minutes later, Isabelle knew exactly what her client could do. She could hit high Cs as she registered her distress each time pain—or the promise of pain—shot through her.

The last, particularly loud, protest had brought them an audience. A very concerned-looking audience.

“Gemma, are you all right?”

The question came from a worried-looking young girl who appeared to be around fifteen. Victoria Slade was actually younger. Twelve going on twenty-one was the way her father had described her in a recent interview, done in the name of publicity for his last book.

Mature in a way that young ladies had been decades ago when such development was necessary, Victoria was the light of both her father's and her grandmother's lives, and neither made any secret of it. Incredibly enough, Victoria continued to be exceedingly levelheaded.

“Gemma?” Isabelle questioned, looking quizzically from the girl to her client, waiting for an explanation as to why Victoria referred to her grandmother by a name that wasn't hers.

Loving any sort of audience, Anastasia complied. “When she was little, Victoria couldn't say ‘Grandmother.' Or even the shorter, somewhat mundane name,
‘Gamma.'” Anastasia sniffed, clearly at odds with the label. And then she smiled as if the end of the story symbolized some sort of breakthrough. “‘Gemma' was the closest she could get. So I became Gemma.” Finished, Anastasia briefly laced her fingers together in her lap, then turned toward her granddaughter to finally answer the girl's initial question. “I'm being tortured, my darling. But other than that, I'm fine.”

There was love here, Isabelle thought. She could hear genuine affection in every word the famous actress uttered when speaking to her granddaughter. Heard, too, that affection being reciprocated in spades.

The girl with the long, flaxen hair nodded, as if taking the explanation seriously.

“As long as I know,” she murmured. Then Victoria walked up to the one person in the room she didn't know and introduced herself. The smile on her lips was a direct copy of her father's, except that there was a shred of shyness woven through it. “Hi, I'm Victoria Slade.”

Isabelle was accustomed to children who made noise when they played and had to be physically ushered out by a family member in order not to get in the way.

Impressed, Isabelle took the offered hand and shook it. “I'm Isabelle Sinclair, your grandmother's physical therapist.”

“She's going to have me dancing around the stage,” Anastasia announced happily, then added with a studied pout, “once she gets tired of torturing me.”

“That torture is going to be what helps get you supple so that you
dance around the stage,” Isabelle informed the older woman in a patient voice.

The actress's goal was a lofty one. Most patients only wanted to be able to walk without a limp. But it was always good to have something to aspire to, Isabelle
thought. The line from a poem by Robert Browning floated through her head:
A man's reach should exceed his grasp or what's a heaven for?
applied to both men

Victoria, it seemed, had appeared just at the right moment. They would stop here. “All right, I think that's enough for our evaluation session,” Isabelle told the woman.

Already back in a horizontal position on the sofa, Anastasia sighed dramatically and fanned herself with a magazine from the coffee table. One that, conveniently, had a flattering photo of her on the cover. The caption, Beloved Icon Down But Definitely Not Out, ran along the bottom of the cover.

“Thank God,” Anastasia declared. “I don't think I could have gone on another moment.”

She not only could have, she would have, Isabelle thought. The woman wasn't fooling her. She was a born trouper—even if there had to be a lot of noise and fanfare accompanying her every effort.

“By the way, Ms. Del Vecchio,” Isabelle began, her eyes sweeping over the woman's long, still very attractive legs, legs that had once been the subject of an enamored famous stage actor's poem. The man had gone on to become one of the actress's many lovers, if she remembered correctly. “Where are your white cotton surgical stockings?”

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