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Authors: Marie Ferrarella

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“Are you sure your mother won't mind being left alone like this?” she asked.

“She's not alone,” he corrected her. “Victoria's here.”

He was referring to his daughter. She'd always liked that name. It sounded so regal, so cultured. Unlike her own name which struck her as just being sturdy. Isabelles were the workers of the world. Victorias, on the other hand, were the princesses.

Isabella was the queen who gave Columbus money, and he discovered a brand new world, remember?
she reminded herself.
Without Queen Isabella you wouldn't be standing where you are.

It made no difference.

“Your daughter,” Isabelle said with a nod.

“You've met Victoria?” he asked, surprised. Funny, Victoria hadn't said anything, and up until now, his daughter told him everything. He was going to miss that when she hit her teens and became a card-carrying stranger for the next x-number of years.

“Yes, she came in just at the tail end of my evaluation of your mother's condition. She looked more poised than she did in that photograph I saw of her in
People Magazine.”

It took him a second to remember the article the therapist was apparently referring to. “Oh, right. The four-page spread last year,” he recalled, nodding. “That was written just as
And Death Do Us Part
came out,” he recalled. “Victoria was eleven when it was written, and as she likes pointing out, she's ‘matured' since then.”

And was in oh such a hurry to grow up, he thought
as a sadness tugged on his heart. He knew he couldn't keep Victoria a little girl forever, but he'd secretly been hoping that he was going to find a way to slow time down. No such luck.

He smiled at the very thought of his daughter. He'd fallen in love with her the first moment he saw her—and could never understand how Jean, his ex, could have walked out on her. But that was Jean's loss, he thought. Right from the beginning, he'd made sure that Victoria would never feel as if she'd been abandoned—the way he had been. His ex-wife's cavalier behavior had left a scar on his heart, but from that first moment, he was determined that it would do no such thing to their daughter. He liked to believe he had succeeded.

“She keeps me on my toes,” he confided. “And her grandmother on hers. I'd say that of the three of us, Victoria's easily the oldest one.” He laughed, shaking his head. “I don't know if that speaks well of us or not, but it makes my mother happy. She has no use for numbers unless they apply to box office takes or residuals from previous airings. Definitely not when they apply to something as ‘mundane'—her word—as age.”

As Isabelle listened to him talk, she had to struggle not to get lost in the sound of his resonant voice.

Emerging from her semi-euphoric fog, she suddenly realized that, if he accompanied her, the writer would, perforce, wind up seeing her apartment. That instantly sobered her.

The idea of having someone like Brandon Slade over to her small, crammed flat when he lived in a house that could easily accommodate half a dozen of her apartments didn't exactly thrill her. She didn't consider herself vain, but neither did she like to appear poor or become some kind of an object worthy of his pity.

Isabelle bit her bottom lip, thinking. Maybe she could talk him into staying in the car while she threw a few things into a suitcase.

He's a man, not a pet to leave in the car while you run an errand. Besides, it's hot today, unseasonably hot. You want him to get sunstroke?

You're not supposed to be vain, remember? Especially when you have nothing to be vain about.

Having convinced herself, she lifted her head again, summoning a bright, breezy smile to her lips as she looked into his eyes and said with all the cheerfulness she was able to muster, “I'd love for you to come and help me pack, Mr. Slade.”

“Brandon,” he corrected automatically. “And you lie very smoothly,” he told her in a tone he could have used to compliment her choice in shoes.

Brandon took her arm as if they'd been friends forever and guided her toward the door. The grin he gave her was equal parts sexy, mischief and sunshine.

The latter felt as if it was just bursting through her, giving light to all the dark corners she possessed.

Her stomach bunched up again just as Brandon made a prophesy based on his last assessment of her ability to bend a lie to sound like the truth, something he did on the pages of his books time and again.

“Know what, Isabelle Sinclair? I've got a feeling that we're going to get along just great.”

With all her heart, Isabelle fervently hoped so.

Chapter Four

I
nstead of following her in his own car, the way she had assumed that he would, Brandon walked with her to her car and gave every indication that he was planning on accompanying her to her apartment in
her
vehicle.

Isabelle took an immense amount of pride in her little car because—apart from it being economical and reliable, as well as, in her opinion, “cute”—it was also the very first
new
car she'd ever owned. Every other one she'd driven had been secondhand, time bombs, for the most part, waiting to go off.

Those details not withstanding, she didn't see why Brandon would choose to ride shotgun in her car. Since he was somewhere between six-two and six-four, and the vehicle had obviously been manufactured with passengers no taller than five-nine in mind, seating promised to be severely cramped for the author. Even when he
pushed the passenger seat back as far as he could before attempting to get in.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” she asked him uncertainly.

“I'm game,” he told her as he began to fold himself up and angle his way into the limited space. It took a bit of doing, but he finally managed to get his entire torso inside the vehicle. As he contorted his arm to get the seat belt's metal tongue into the slot, he cracked, “By the way, when's the rest of the car coming?” This was
not
a good idea, Isabelle thought. “I'm sorry. When I bought it, I wasn't expecting having someone your height getting into it. I hope you're not too uncomfortable.” Even as she said it, she knew he was. He made her think of an early Christian martyr, doing penance.

Brandon began to wave away her concern and discovered that he really couldn't—at least, not literally. There wasn't enough space available for him to execute the movement.

“Don't worry about it. This is roomy compared to some of the seats on the rides I've gone on with Victoria. There was one once at Jamboree-land where I thought I was going to have to fold my legs up around my shoulders, if not over my head.”

She'd begun driving the second he'd managed to close the passenger side door. “You don't live very far away, do you?”

“You don't consider Oxnard far away, do you?” The unguarded look of dread that slipped over his face had her hastily negating her response. “I'm kidding, I'm kidding,” she assured him with feeling. “I'm just up the road in Bedford.”

“Bedford,” he repeated, letting the city's name sink
in. He took as deep a breath as he was able, under the circumstances, and released it. It was a lucky thing he wasn't claustrophobic. “Okay. That's not far.”

She wasn't sure if he was agreeing with her or actually saying that in an attempt to comfort himself.

“Not far at all,” she promised, stepping on the gas a little more aggressively.

The needle on the speedometer jumped to reflect the increase.

Brandon slapped both hands on the dashboard, bracing himself as the speed kept increasing. Glancing at the numbers on the gauge above the steering wheel, he saw that she had passed the speed limit and was now on her way to liftoff.

“You don't have to break the sound barrier to get us there,” he told her. “I can play the part of a pretzel a little while longer if it means you won't get a ticket from some revenue hungry motorcycle cop.”

Because it seemed to make him just a tad nervous, Isabelle eased her foot off the pedal, but only marginally. “Don't worry, I always watch for them in my rearview mirror.”

He wouldn't have pegged her for a speed demon. “Get into many accidents?”

One eye on the road, the other on her rearview mirror, Isabelle shook her head. “Not yet.”

“Impressive,” was the only word he could summon for the situation.

 

Within a short amount of time, Isabelle was taking the freeway off-ramp and making her way to the garden apartment complex she'd called home for the past couple of years. It wasn't located very far from the main thoroughfare.

The white daisies that had been so plentiful on both sides of the entrance less than a month ago were now bowing their heads listlessly, surrendering to the hot mid-July sun. Even the asphalt path within the recently painted development threatened to be sticky upon contact in today's heat.

As she drew closer to her ground floor apartment and the carport that stood directly opposite it, noise from the pool area some hundred yards away behind her own apartment grew progressively louder. It seemed as if anyone who was home at this time of day had opted to find some sort of relief from the heat in the complex's large pool.

It was predominantly a very young crowd that took up residence in the Sunflower Creek Apartments. Mostly they were students or recent graduates just starting out in the business world. At twenty-eight, there were days Isabelle felt like an old-timer here. She was definitely one of the older tenants, if not
the
oldest one in the complex.

She felt rather out of sync with the other tenants because she rarely had time to mingle with her neighbors and had ignored the one or two flyers that had been jammed between her doorknob and the wall, inviting her to an “all-night party” at the pool.

The parties were usually scheduled to begin the moment that the complex managers closed their office and went home. The rentals were handled by a retired couple who had nothing in common with the people they accepted as tenants. The duo usually left at the first sign of dusk, which the renters, as a whole, considered fortunate. It was a crowd that loved to party.

Pulling up into her space, Isabelle began having second thoughts about the wisdom of what she was
doing. Not about accepting the job—she both needed and wanted that—or even about moving into Brandon Slade's cavernous home for the duration of his mother's therapy sessions. She'd already decided that might even turn out to be fun. Lord knew living on the premises would be a great deal less stressful than hopping into her car every morning and bucking the commuter traffic as she worried about not getting to the session on time. There was nothing she hated more than being late.

No, the wisdom she was doubting was in bringing Brandon here, to what had to seem like a doll-size apartment. He'd probably think she was some kind of pauper. She didn't see herself that way, of course. She was frugal, and she knew how to live within her means. But to Brandon Slade, she had to seem like someone who was about two steps removed from a homeless shelter.

She did
not
want to be the object of the man's pity. But how could she not be? After all, look at where he lived. The house could easily have a railroad running through it, and it would go largely unnoticed.

Getting out of her car, Isabelle waited for Brandon to pull himself out of the passenger side. She did what she always did when she anticipated something uncomfortable coming her way. She tried to head it off at the pass.

Leading the way to her door, she unlocked it, and, as she allowed him to walk into her apartment first, she made light of its size.

“It's a wee bit cramped in here, too, so be careful not to hit your shins on anything. I know what you're thinking,” she told him, shutting the door behind them. “This whole place could probably fit into one of your closets.”

Instead of agreeing with her assessment, or being
polite about it not being so bad, Brandon took his time answering. From where he stood by the door, he could see the kitchen, the living room and the entrance to her bedroom in one small, less-than-panoramic scan.

He surprised her by laughing as he turned to her. “You should have seen my first apartment. Two of them would have fit in here—with a couple of feet to spare.” He saw the disbelief in her eyes. “What, those interviews you read didn't mention that I started out as a struggling artist? Living on a shoestring—sometimes nibbling on that shoestring—are the kind of dues you're supposed to pay before you can make it as anything in the entertainment world. That includes writers.

“Besides,” he went on, “I wanted to be on my own. Mother was on her fourth husband, or, more accurately, he was on her—some Russian poet she'd picked up while filming near St. Petersburg—and they needed their privacy. And I needed to hold down my breakfast. So I got this tiny hovel of an apartment and started paying my dues and suffering for my craft.”

He flashed her another lethal grin—she began to realize that she would
never
accumulate any sort of immunity to them—and she could feel the charged energy that ran through his veins. “Why aren't you complaining about the clichés?” he asked. After all, he'd thrown several at her.

It never occurred to her to point out something as mundane as that. He belonged on a higher plane than having his gift for words assessed by his mother's physical therapist.

“I didn't think you wanted me to be critiquing your conversation,” she admitted honestly.

“Talented and compassionate.” He nodded, looking impressed. “Nice combination.”

The compassionate part was easy. It was out there for the world to see, and she took pride in that, in being kind when she didn't have to be. When there was nothing in it for her but a good feeling.

But that other part—
that
made her have doubts about how sincere this man really was. “How do you know I'm talented?” she asked.

Was he hitting on her? Because of course he shouldn't be, since he was her client's son.

But, oh, he was Brandon Slade, author of ten bestselling thrillers, and gorgeous to boot. That definitely placed him in the irresistible column. And if he was hitting on her…

Life would be difficult for the next few weeks, no matter which path she wound up taking. She reminded herself that both Brandon and his mother belonged to the creative world of make-believe, and nothing they said or did could be taken seriously or to heart.

No matter how much she wanted to or how exquisitely wonderful it sounded.

“I know you're talented at what you do because I heard Mother howling in pain but she wasn't throwing you out. That means she thought you were doing her some good. Believe me, if she thought you weren't, you'd be out on your—ear,” he said, changing the word he was about to use at the last moment, “in a heartbeat.

“That also,” he continued, moving closer to her as if his eyesight had suddenly dimmed and he needed to be able to assess her more clearly, “puts you in a very exclusive class. Mother likes a lot of men, but there aren't too many women she likes, apart from Victoria and her own mother—and only one of them is still alive.”

Brandon paused to look around her apartment for a
second time. “Actually, this is kind of charming,” he pronounced.

“It's kind of cluttered,” Isabelle countered, underscoring her words with a quick, dismissive shrug of her shoulders.

He regarded her thoughtfully. “Do you always do that?”

She wasn't sure what he was referring to. As far as she knew, she hadn't “done” anything, at least, not in the past couple of minutes. “Do what?”

“Deflect compliments when you get them. It's okay to accept them, you know. Doesn't make you sound vain or whatever it is that you're afraid of.”

He was surprised to see, just for less than a split second, a flash of annoyance in her eyes. And it was gone so quickly, it was as if it had never even happened. But her words, uttered in no uncertain terms, testified that there had indeed been annoyance for a moment. “I'm not afraid of anything.”

“And that makes you a very rare woman indeed. The brave little physical therapist,” he said half to himself, as if he was considering the idea for a short story. But then he shook his head. “Gotta be a better title than that,” he decided.

“Title?” she questioned.

“For a story.”

Seriously? A story about a physical therapist? No, he had to be pulling her leg, she decided. She couldn't think of anything less exciting to write about, and he was known exclusively for his thrillers. Well, that and his wit. Maybe a wry sense of humor went along with that. “You're kidding, right?”

Rather than confirm or deny that he was, Brandon looked at her for a long moment. There was amusement
in his eyes—and something more, something she couldn't begin to place.

“Didn't anyone warn you about writers?” he asked her.

“Warn me?” She didn't understand what he meant. “What about writers?”

“That we cannibalize everything and everyone we come in contact with, saving the best parts for the next story, keeping everything to be used in one fashion or another. Kind of like the Cheyenne did with the buffalo.” He saw the blank look on Isabelle's face, so he explained his analogy. “They used absolutely every part of the buffalo they hunted, including the skin, the intestines and their—for the sake of delicacy shall we say their waste by-products? The Cheyenne used it to burn in their campfires.”

Isabelle wrinkled her nose involuntarily. “Must have smelled just wonderful.”

“I don't think trying to capture the scent of pleasing incense was really on their minds at the time. They were just focused on survival and feeding and clothing their families. More succinctly put, they were just trying to make it through the day.”

She'd had days like that. Days when she didn't think she could make it from one end of the day to the other—and all she wanted to do was survive. And somehow, she did.

Damn it, she thought, she was letting her mind drift. Or rather, letting
him
make her mind drift.

Isabelle forced herself to focus on getting her things and getting out—as quickly as possible.

“Why don't you sit down?” she suggested, nodding toward the faux suede sofa that molded to the posterior of anyone who sat on it. “I shouldn't take too long.”

He glanced at the sofa and decided he'd had enough of digging himself out of trouble for the time being. Especially since there was still the prospect of the trip back to endure.

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