Authors: Marie Ferrarella
Isabelle didn't answer immediately. Instead, she appeared to seriously consider the matter. Putting her
hands out as if she were actually weighing two things, she lifted first her right hand, then her left, murmuring under her breath in what was a stage whisper, “Hmm, doing my laundry, scouting out a location for a new Brandon Slade thriller. Hard call, but I think the scouting thing has a slight edge.” Dropping her hands, her eyes crinkled as she laughed. “Let's go.”
For the first time, he noticed that Isabelle had a dimple in the corner of her mouth. It was only on the right, and it was damn near delectable, Brandon caught himself thinking.
Trying not to dwell on that, or the thoughts about her mouth it brought with it, he led Isabelle toward the six-car garage.
The temperature-controlled enclosure currently housed only three vehicles, his two rather expensive cars and the vintage Mercedes that his mother favored.
He'd had the latter brought over in case his mother felt like going for a drive as part of her recovery program. He judged that they were at least two weeks away from her getting behind the wheel at this point.
The rest of the garage, Isabelle noted as they entered, was devoted to an entertainment center, a pool table and all the possible accessories belonging to a first-class gaming area, including a fully-stocked refrigerator.
“You throw a lot of parties here?” she asked, looking around in awe.
“A few,” he conceded. “After I finish working on a book, I like to touch base with my friends. Actually, a lot of them are also my mother's friends,” he admitted. He liked keeping in touch with that eccentric crowd. There were many fond memories associated with them. “I was like their mascot when I was growing up. Writing can be a very lonely experience and I like balancing it out by
socializing with people when I can. Besides, talking to peopleâ” and by this he included anyone who crossed his path “âalways gives me fresh ideas.”
“Right, you cannibalize everyone,” she said, remembering what he'd told her the other day.
“I've got to find a better word for it,” he decided, bringing her over to his SUV.
Because it was a customized white SUV, there was a regal quality to it that made it look like more than just a fun car.
Opening the passenger door for her, Brandon waited until Isabelle got in. Then he closed it again before rounding the hood and getting into the driver's side.
“Notice the leg room,” he couldn't resist pointing out.
“I notice it,” she answered, then looked up at him. “Another six inches and I could probably go bowling in it.”
He laughed as he put his key in the ignition. “Wise guy.”
She smiled to herself as Brandon pressed the remote control attached to the sun visor that was above his side of the windshield. Directly behind them the garage door silently slid upward until, tucked away, it seemed to completely disappear from view. The garage was instantly bright with sunshine.
“Do you have to be back any particular time?” he asked her.
She hadn't gotten around to giving Anastasia the schedules she'd drawn up, so she felt she could be forgiven a small white lie, uttered in hopes of extending her time with him a little longer.
“Nothing specific,” Isabelle answered. “Just to exercise your mother again.”
“Perfect,” he pronounced with an affirming nod. “That means the afternoon is completely wide open. She's running lines with Victoria, and whenever she does that, Mother gets completely consumed by the character she's learning to inhabit. Knowing her, she won't be up for air for hours.”
Isabelle thought of Victoria. The girl might behave maturely, acting years older than what was written on her birth certificate, but at bottom, she was still a twelve-year-old.
“Is your daughter up to that? Running lines with her grandmother for hours?” It seemed like a lot to ask of the girl.
“She's up to it all right.” There was no small amount of pride in Brandon's voice as he added, “Victoria's a very exceptional girl.”
Being exceptional obviously ran in the family, Isabelle couldn't help thinking as she slanted a covert glance at Victoria's father.
The next moment, the SUV picked up speed, and they were off.
As was, Isabelle noted, her pulse. Again.
he road leading to Laguna Beach ran through various beach communities that dotted the coast. Brandon drove along unhurried, lightly skimming around Pacific Coast Highway's twists and turns, as comfortable as a man visiting old friends to seek out their advice.
Except that it was different this time.
Different because this time, he had someone with him. Someone he could talk to. Someone he could, if need be, bounce half-formed ideas off of.
With songs from a bygone era softly playing in the background on the oldies station he had preset on his radio, Brandon did his best to focus, to home in on some kind of a kernel of thought that would start the process finally moving in the right direction for him.
He refused to believe that, after ten well-received bestsellers and a new one about to hit the shelves in a couple of weeks, that he was suddenly dry. Refused
to entertain the thought that his best work was now behind him.
Still, he had to admit that he was more focused on the young woman in the passenger seat next to him than he was on anything he could put down on the page.
Was it her fault he couldn't thinkâor had he brought her along to give himself an excuse for not thinking?
At this point, he wasn't sure. It was a “chicken or egg” sort of question.
Thinking it might help seed the barren terrain that was his ordinarily fruitful mind, Brandon decided to get a conversation rolling.
Turning down the radio, he asked Isabelle, “What made you become a physical therapist?”
The question came out of the blue, catching Isabelle off guard. It took her a second to realize Brandon was talking to her. He'd been quiet since they'd turned onto Pacific Coast Highway, and she just assumed that he was plotting a scene in his head or something along those lines. She hadn't wanted to interrupt him.
But now that he'd addressed her, she felt she was free to talk to him. She started by answering his question. “Well, my sister would tell you it's because I like to order people around and make them do what I tell them, but the truth is simpler than that. I like helping people. I have an aptitude for it. I can motivate people, get them fired up to try again instead of giving up. Having a small part in their healing makes me feel good,” she told him honestly.
“You're a very persuasive woman.” Brandon wasn't trying to flatter her. There weren't many people who could hold their own with his mother. The fact that she could said a great deal about her strength of character, and that impressed him.
She moved her shoulders in a vague shrug, dismissing his assessment. “No, not really, but for some reason, I can tap into their innermost feelings. I can find that hidden spark that'll make them try again and again until they conquer that particular hurdle and move on to the next one.”
Brandon nodded, understanding. “You mean like with my mother.”
Anastasia Del Vecchio was opinionated and stubborn, but the woman, despite her complaints,
wanted to get back to her former self. That gave her something to work with, Isabelle thought.
“Your mother's one of the easier cases,” she told him. When he responded to that with a laugh, she explained. “No, really. She wants to be pushed. I think if I played it strictly the way she makes it âappear' that she wants itâstopping for a break every few minutes and taking the easy way outâyour mother would complain even louderâand really mean it. She'd probably demand to know why I was giving up on her. For her, it's all part of the process. She
me to ride roughshod over her so she can grumble and complainâand get back to her old self. You know, for a woman her age, your mother's in fantastic shape.”
Amused, Brandon laughed softly under his breath. “You know, if you value your life, I wouldn't mention that part about âa woman her age' anywhere that she can overhear you. My mother's age is a secret guarded only a little less zealously than security at the White House. How do you know how old she is, anyway?” he asked. Even he wasn't a hundred percent certain that he had the right year.
“I've been a fan of your mother's ever since I can
remember,” she told him. “Back then, she didn't care if people knew what year she was born.”
Shaking his head, he laughed. “Now there you're wrong. Anastasia Del Vecchio
cared about keeping her age off the record. My mother wanted to be thought of as âtimeless' and âeternally young.' To be honest,” Brandon went on to admit, “
not even sure if
know how old she is.”
She studied his profile for a moment. “Doesn't that bother you?” She knew that it would drive her absolutely crazy not to know.
“Not really.” Brandon shrugged away the question. “It's just part of what makes her Anastasia Del Vecchio. She's quicksilver. Mercurial. Someone who can't be pinned down.” He glanced over to his right. They traveled along another stretch of beach, passing an RV camping area. In direct contrast to the RVs, some of Laguna's most expensive homes were nested on his left. “What matters more to me than any chronological number is that when I really needed her, she was thereâwithout my having to actually say a word to her.”
“When you found yourself suddenly being a single father.”
The road ahead was empty. Brandon allowed himself a moment to glance at her. “So you know about that, too.” It was obviously not a question, but neither was it an accusation.
Still, she blushed just a little at having verbally intruded into a private matter. “You were always an extension of your mother's life, so bits and pieces of yours made it into stories that were written about her. And then you wrote your first thriller and became famous in your own right. Interviews followedâ¦”
Her voice trailed off as she realized that might have
sounded a tad obsessive to him. She hadn't been keeping tabs on him, she was just mildly interested in her favorite author's life. And she had
been interested in Anastasia Del Vecchio. It was still difficult for her to grasp that she was giving the legendary star physical therapy and living within shouting distance of the woman.
Isabelle pressed her lips together. There were so many questions popping into her mind, things she wanted to know about the man, the writer, firsthand. “Mind if I ask you something?”
They were coming to a sharp turn. He kept his eyes on the road. “Go ahead.”
Since he'd asked her about her work, she thought that allowed her to ask him a question about his. “Did you always want to be a writer?”
There'd been a few other choices: cowboy, astronaut, but those had faded by the time he was nine. The only serious career he'd ever considered was the one he had now.
“Well, seeing the world I was part of, creating fantasy just came naturally to me. I was always making up stories in my head, exciting storiesâor so I thought,” he qualified with a self-deprecating grin. “Stories where I was the hero, saving the girl, and coincidentally, saving the world as well. Modest little stories,” he added with a soft laugh. “When it came time to earn a living, there was nothing else I wanted to be except a writer. The idea excited me. Fortunately for me, I had gotten better at making up stories.”
Part of his skill had been honed to near perfection in the process of making up alibis for why his assignments weren't in on time, or why he'd missed attending one class or another.
There'd been a teacher, a dour looking professor with thick gray hair and an even thicker Scottish brogue, who'd told him that he might be better off putting his fertile mind to some sort of productive use that didn't involve fabricating elaborate excuses. After a bit, he'd decided to take the professor's words to heart and, as people liked to say, the rest was history.
They'd entered Laguna Beach proper, with its tiny, artsy shops, a couple of minutes ago. Brandon hadn't even noticed. He took a second to orient himself. A pinch in his gut told him what time it was.
“Are you hungry?” Brandon asked.
The question had come out of left field. She glanced at her watch and realized that they had been driving around for almost an hour. If anything, she would have assumed he'd turn around to go back, not suggest staying out longer.
didn't want to go back and stare at his blank computer screen, she thought. If that was the case, she was happy to play along and give him an excuse. Besides, she really
hungry. “Why, is my stomach growling?”
“No, but I just realized we're coming up on The Enchanted Cottage, and I don't know about you, but I left without having any lunch.”
She hadn't eaten lunch, either, and breakfast was a blur. But she was more interested right now in the name he'd just casually dropped. “The Enchanted Cottage?” she repeated. “Isn't that an old movie with Robert Young and Dorothy McGuire?”
They were at a light, and he took the opportunity to stare at her in wonder. “I've never met anyone else who'd ever heard of the movie. Did you even
a childhood?” he asked.
“Yes, and that was it, watching old movies.” Getting lost in stories that were larger than life had helped her deal with a cold upbringing.
“Well, I'm impressed,” he freely admitted. “So, are you hungry?”
She could literally
her stomach tightening in both protest and anticipation. She nodded. “I could eat, yes.”
That was all he wanted to hear. Brandon grinned. “Great.”
As it turned out, the restaurant, which looked like a quaint cottage, was just up ahead, nestled on the corner to his left at the next traffic light. It was timed to turn red as he approached and then took its own sweet time turning green again, despite the fact that there was no through traffic to merit the long wait.
The moment it turned green, Brandon drove down the side street and searched for a place to park. Half a block later, he found it. He carefully slipped his vehicle between a truck and a sports car with an ease she couldn't help admiring.
“You parallel park.” There was no missing the note of awe in her voice. She was lucky to manage head-in parking. Wedging a vehicle between two tight places was definitely
one of her favorite activities. She was fairly certain that she couldn't do it.
“I also know all the stanzas to âThe Star Spangled Banner,'” Brandon quipped as he pulled up the emergency brake and turned off the ignition.
“A man with endless talents,” Isabelle remarked with only partially feigned admiration.
Getting out of the vehicle, he laughed. “I guess that accurately sums me up.”
The next moment, the laugh faded as he quickly
jumped into action. Grabbing Isabelle by the shoulder, he yanked her back, away from the street.
Caught off guard, she stumbled, and her body slammed into his. All their parts fitted together splendidly, leaving no space for even a glimmer of daylight.
The reason for the sudden action was to prevent Isabelle from being hit by a careening, all-but-out-of-control sports car whose driver had obviously taken to celebrating heavily a little early in the day. The sound of tires screeching and wailing as the driver narrowly avoided smashing into several parked cars on the next block vaguely registered along the outer perimeter of her mind.
What registered in the foreground was heat.
Lots and lots of heat.
None of which was emanating from the beach a mere block away as the crow flew. It was being created from the very firm, very enticing contact of their two bodies momentarily sealed against one another in the most natural, albeit the most sensually provocative, of ways.
Was that his heart beating like a wild drum, or hers? At this point, she couldn't tell. She only knew that she was in very real danger of melting as the feeling of excitement all but roared through her veins like a charging rhino.
“Sorry,” Brandon murmured, looking down into her eyes, making no effort to pull away.
“Nothing to be sorry about,” she replied, the words leaving her mouth in what felt like slow motion, in direct contrast to the wild throbbing of her pulse. It beat so hard, she thought it would shatter her wrists. “You just saved me from being flattened,” she managed to
conclude. She congratulated herself on not sounding too breathless.
Shaking himself free of the spell that she'd woven around him, he pretended to look up and down the rurallike street.
“Never a cop around when you need one,” he complained under his breath.
She was just now coming to grips with what
have happened. “Good thing you were here.”
His eyes skimmed over her body, none the worse for wear, he decided. “Yeah. Good thing,” he parroted.
God, but the conversation was inane. It had to be brought up two notches before it could even qualify as “lame.”
He could do so much better on paper, Brandon told himself.
done so much better in real life. But that was when his brain was functioning, capable of forming complete sentences. Right now, all he could think of was that he wanted to kiss this woman. Wanted to kiss her in the very worst possible way. Kiss her for a very long time.
But she was his mother's physical therapist, and some how, kissing her just didn't seem right.
The next moment, he rebelled at the restriction. The hell with right.
The last phrase echoed in his head as he cupped the sides of Isabelle's face with his hands. By turns he saw the surprise, the wonder and then the surrender in her eyes. She tilted her head back ever so slightly.
The silent invitation was clear.
Brandon brought his mouth down on hers.
Her pulse was already fast because she'd just barely escaped being struck by the careening sports car. But it might as well have stopped beating altogether in
comparison to its speed the moment Brandon began kissing her.