Authors: Marie Ferrarella
“Earlier than that,” was all he said as he began to drive back up Pacific Coast Highway. Quaint little shops whizzed by in reverse as he made his way back to MacArthur Boulevard and Newport Beach.
That only left one thing. Her eyes widened in amazement. “You think I'd quit because you kissed me? Or because you stopped?” she added, a whimsical smile playing on her lips.
When she mentioned the latter, he knew he was on safer ground. A note of relief slipped into his countenance. Granted, he could always find another physical therapist for his motherâit wasn't as if Isabelle was the only one available on the North American continentâbut his mother liked the woman, and that in itself was a rarity. Besides, he liked her, as well, and it wasn't exactly a hardship having her around for a while longer.
“Then we're okay?” he asked for form's sake.
“We're fine,” she answered. “Trust me, if you'd done something I didn't like, I wouldn't have meekly let it
happenâor held my tongue. I might look like one, but I'm not a shy wallflower.”
He thought of the way she'd driven like a speed demon to get back to his house so he could start getting feeling back in his legs. “No,” he agreed, “you're not. And for the recordâ”
He stopped abruptly as he began to maneuver his vehicle around a moving truck that hogged the entire road.
Impatient, Isabelle forced herself to wait until he cleared the truck, then pressed, “Yes?”
“For the record,” he repeated, “you don't look like any wallflower I ever encountered.” Slanting a glance in her direction, he glimpsed her grin. “Why would you even say that?” he asked. “Who told you that you look like a wallflower?”
“Zoe. My sister,” she added in case he'd forgotten her sister's name.
“I know who Zoe is,” he told her. He had a great memory when it came to names, people and places. “What you didn't mention, however, was that she was blind.”
Her smile blossomed into a full, wide, pleased grin. “She just worries about me,” she said by way of excusing her sister. “She wants me to make âthe best' of my âassets' so that I don't wind up growing old alone.”
“I think you're alone because you want to be,” Brandon told her, making a judgment call. “
because you have to be.”
That was all very sweet, but he was missing a very salient point. She knew it wasn't exactly prudent to make the admission, but she'd never been one to play games. “I'm not exactly beating off men with a stick here.”
Having temporarily put himself in her place, some
thing he did whenever he was trying to understand someone's motivation, Brandon had an explanation.
“That's because you've been burying yourself in your work.” He spared her another glance. “By choice, I'm guessing.”
Was that a lucky guess, or was he just being polite? Either way, the man had managed to hit awfully close to the actual truth. She thought of denying it, but she had a feeling it would do no good. He was right, and she sensed that he knew it. But, she was willing to bet, he didn't know why she wasn't in the market for a relationshipâand she intended to keep that to herself.
“When did I tell you that I wanted my fortune told?” she asked wryly.
“Consider it a bonus for working with my mother. Or,” he went on, giving her another way to view this, “you could consider this as the result of being around a writer who likes to stay on his toes by dissecting situations and people.”
No, she thought, “bonus” was the way she viewed the outing they'd just hadâand most of all, it was the word she applied to the kiss they'd shared. Both, in their own way, were precious to her.
And, more than likely, a one-time-only kind thing. She didn't foresee circumstances arranging themselves so that she found herself on the receiving end of affection any time in the near future.
“I'll keep that in mind,” she murmured.
It occurred to Brandon that he had never heard that particular sentence sound so very pregnant with possibilities before.
But then, he reminded himself, he'd only known Isabelle for a very short amount of time.
fter that initial foray into Brandon's creative process, much to her surprise and delight, Isabelle found herself being drawn further and further into the man's literary world.
To her the whole process was exciting beyond words. But, at the same time, she didn't want him to think of her as some sort of a wide-eyed groupie. To that end, she'd already made up her mind to turn down his next invitation.
Except that the next one was to attend a reception scheduled to be held directly after his book signing at one of the local branches of a large national bookstore chain. When he asked her if she wanted to attend, the word “no” hovered on her lips. However, it never actually emerged. She'd swallowed it the moment Brandon began to describe the event to her. Within moments she knew that she couldn't pass up something like this.
There would never be another opportunity to attend a reception like this as a guest of the author.
Besides, she discovered that refusing him was next to impossible for her.
Especially since he began by saying he'd take her attendance as a personal favor because she would be keeping an eye on his daughter
his mother, both of whom were coming to the signing and the reception.
She couldn't say no after that.
And that was why the following afternoon, during a break between Anastasia's morning and afternoon therapy sessions, found her in the nearby shopping mall. Since the reception was taking place after five, she was in the market for a simple black dress that promised to be anything
There was nothing simple about the price tag attached to the dress. But, since this was a once-in-a-lifetime situation, Isabelle closed her eyes and thrust her credit card toward the sales clerk. The slinky little number, which fit her as if it had been created with her in mind, easily cost almost as much as the rest of the clothes hanging in her closet put together.
But as Isabelle surveyed herself in the mirror the evening of the big event, she felt it was worth the price.
It was difficult for her not to allow her imagination to take flight, creating fanciful scenarios that had built on that afternoon they had spent at Laguna Beach.
She had to keep reminding herself that she was going to the signing and the reception afterward not as Brandon's friend, not even as a fan of his work, but in the capacity of his mother's physical therapist. She was going for a very legitimate reason: to help Victoria keep an eye on her grandmother because Anastasia Del Vecchio had a tendency to overdo things and none of
them wanted the actress to jeopardize the progress she'd made so far.
It was a given that the world-famous cinema icon did nothing by half measures. Since she hadn't fully bounced back from her surgery yet, getting overly tired was definitely not advisable. Which meant that she, Isabelle Sinclair, would have to watch the woman like a hawk. She knew that definitely would not endear her to the actress. Anastasia balked at restrictions, even those implemented for her own good. It was obvious that she still thought of herself as a woman in her early thirties, able to do whatever it was she set her mind to do.
But nothing, Isabelle thought, turning around slowly to view herself from as many different angles as humanly possible, said she couldn't look good while acting as Anastasia's keeper.
The reflection looking back at her was
Rather than the utilitarian style she wore most days, with her hair pulled back away from her face, Isabelle kept her hair down. And, except for one small ornamental comb strategically positioned over her right ear, her hair was free to swing about.
“This is as good as it gets,” she declared under her breath. No amount of extra fussing would improve on what she saw.
Not that there was a need for improvement.
Stepping into black sling-back sandals that added four inches to her height, Isabelle picked up her small black purse and slipped the thin strap over her shoulder. She would have preferred a clutch purse, but there was no way one of those would accommodate the absolute minimum of things she considered vital for functioning.
The next size up barely did that, but, with some strategic packing and squeezing in the right places, the
purse accommodated what she needed and still allowed her to snap the clasp shut.
Isabelle paused for a second just shy of the doorway, took a deep breath to center herself and then let it go.
Okay, here I come, ready or not,
she silently declared.
Stepping out into the hallway, she heard Brandon, already downstairs from the sound of it, calling for everyone to come together.
Clapping his hands, he called up the stairs. “Let's go, let's go, ladies. I don't want to be late for my own signing.”
“Why not?” Anastasia asked. She took the stairs down seemingly without effort, which pleased Isabelle no end. Going up and down the stairs was actually a good form of exercise for the womanâas long as she was careful not to move too fast. “This way, you can make an entrance. An entrance with a beautiful woman on each arm,” she added with a flourish as she came to stand at the bottom of the stairs.
“Dramatic entrances are for you, Mother,” Brandon answered with patient affection. “I'm just happy nobody's throwing any rotten fruit or vegetables at me.”
“They never did that,” Victoria spoke up loyally, then paused, curious since her father
brought it up. “Did they?”
“No.” He laughed, about to ruffle her hair, then remembered that it had been painstakingly arranged by Olga, his mother's hairstylist these past ten years and the only one she would even
to touch her hair. Ever tactful, Brandon dropped his hand to his side. “Okay, I count two. Where's Isabelle?” he asked, glancing at his watch again.
“Right here,” Isabelle answered, addressing him from
the top of the stairs. It was no easy feat considering that her heart was in her throat, as well.
“Good,” he declared, “because we have to getâ¦going.”
The last word came out in slow motion because he'd just looked up, following the sound of her voice, and had completely lost the thread of his thoughts. And lost his breath as well, at least temporarily, as his eyes traveled up and down the length of her. The slinky black garment stopped several good inches short of her knees, caressing her thighs with each step she took down. Making him long to do the same.
She smiled, pleased at the expression on his face. “You're staring,” she pointed out.
“That's because I've never seen your legs before. I mean, without pants on.” That didn't sound right. “Your pants.” That sounded even worse. “I meanâ”
Anastasia shook her head. “Listen to the world-famous writer, tripping over his own tongue.”
Isabelle saw the mesmerized look in Brandon's eyes, and it triggered an excitement within her she hadn't been prepared for. “I don't mind,” she said, her voice low as her eyes met his.
“Were your legs always that long?” he asked, still very much captivated by the image she projected.
“Always,” she assured him.
Brandon took in a long breath, then let it out again. Slowly. His pulse beat erratically, but mercifully, began to settle down. “Funny, I would have thought I would have noticed that,” he commented.
Anastasia was the one to finally break the spell. She let out a deep stage sigh. “Of course her legs are the same length as always. Really, Brandon,” the older woman chided, shaking her head. “Now, if you're
finished fantasizing, you have a signing to get to. The one you didn't want to be late for, remember?” his mother reminded him with just a touch of sarcasm.
The venerable actress gave no indication that she was pleased at his reaction to the young woman she had already given her seal of approval to. Anastasia knew her son well enough to realize that if she appeared to be pushing Isabelle toward him or him toward her, Brandon would find a reason to suddenly take off, leaving the house and the vicinity for long, long stretches of time.
He refused to be manipulated, and in that, he was very much his mother's son, she thought with pride. Fortunately, she was better at manipulation than he suspected.
So, for now, it would appear to be business as usual for her. That meant focusing on herself and the world as it revolved around her.
Not too much of a stretch, Anastasia silently granted. But Lord, she really did feel impatient. More than anything else, she wanted the blinders to be lifted from her son's eyes so he could
for himself how very perfect this young woman was for him.
After all, he wasn't getting any younger, and she wanted to make certain that both he and Victoria had someone in their lives who was looking after them while she was away.
She couldn't be expected to put her own life on hold indefinitely, Anastasia thought. The public would grow weary of waiting and find someone else to adore. And she absolutely
to be replaced so easily.
So she pretended to glance at Isabelle and gave her only a short, distracted nod of approval. “You look very nice, dear. As do we all.” She smiled at Victoria to make her point.
Her granddaughter looked so grown up, Anastasia thought. Where had that adorable, pigtailed little girl gone? And who was this mature-looking young lady who'd come in her place? Time went by too quickly.
“Now, can we get going before the people waiting on you decide that they like someone else, someone more punctual,” Anastasia emphasized, “someone better?”
“Yes, Mother,” Brandon murmured, amused since, for the most part, he and Victoria spent a great deal of time waiting on her.
With a gallant little bow, Brandon offered her the crook of his arm for support.
Anastasia sniffed and waved him away.
“I am perfectly capable of walking out the door on my own,” she informed him haughtily. “Besides, if I do need someone's assistance, I have Victoria.” She smiled at her granddaughter. “If you really want to play the role of a gentleman and a scholar, offer your arm to Isabelle there.” The actress waved him toward the other woman. “She's the one wearing impossibly high heels.” Even as she made the observation, the older woman critically narrowed her eyes as she looked down at the strappy footwear her physical therapist sported.
“You heard her,” Brandon said to Isabelle, moving to the side in order to offer his arm to her.
“If you're waiting for a pratfall, I'm afraid you have a long wait,” Isabelle informed him as she slipped her own arm through the crook of his. “I've gotten pretty good at moving rather quickly in high heels.”
He was grinning at her before he realized it. “I'll challenge you to a foot race after the reception,” he offered.
Amusement rose in her eyes. “All right, Brandon, I'll just take that challenge.”
Anastasia hung back by several steps, observing what she considered to be her handiwork, even if it began by accident because she had complained to the right person. She had to remember to send more business Cecilia's way, Anastasia told herself, making a mental note.
“They make a nice couple,” Victoria whispered to her.
The actress glanced at her granddaughter. There were times she forgot that the girl was actually as young as she was. But that was only chronologically. Anastasia was certain that, at birth, Victoria had been granted an old soul.
It was, she supposed, a consolation prize of sorts, to make up for the fact that the woman who had given birth to Victoria chose to turn her back on the small miracle she'd brought into the world.
The little witch has no idea what she's missing out on,
Anastasia thought, not for the first time. And she, for one, was glad that Jean was gone. Both Brandon and Victoria deserved better.
She smiled at her granddaughter. “Yes,” Anastasia whispered back. “They do.”
Isabelle had no idea that a bookstore this sizeâand it was by no means tinyâcould actually pack in this many people. It seemed as if every possibly available space in the store had been taken up by adoring Brandon Slade fans.
For the most part, Isabelle observed, the crowd was comprised of women. And not just women of a certain age, but of all ages. Young ones, old ones, tall ones, short ones, fashionably dressed or looking as if they'd just jumped out of bed or had come running over from their local gyms, sweaty and eagerâthey were all here.
Here and clutching Brandon's newest hardcover to their chests as they stood in what appeared to be an extremely long, winding and seemingly endless line. They were all patientlyâor not so patientlyâwaiting for their ten seconds of one-on-one time with Brandon Slade. At this point they would get a personalized autograph jotted down within the front pages of this newest tome, which they would treasure and sigh over in the days to come.
Several times Isabelle found that if she hadn't staunchly held her ground where she wasânear Brandonâshe would have been either elbowed or pushed outright to the side by some overeager fan. Apparently they all wanted to get close to, if not their favorite author, at least the best-looking one they'd seen up close and personal.
Anastasia gestured for her to stand beside her and Victoria, directly behind Brandon's table. Bypassing another handful of fans, Isabelle managed to get over to where the actress and her granddaughter were standing.
“The madness is all taking place in front of Brandon, not back here,” Anastasia assured her confidently. “This isn't my first signing,” she added.
Isabelle noticed the way Brandon's agent, Maura Reynolds, hovered close to his side, a position she'd been in for the past ninety minutes. The other woman had assumed that place immediately following the reading he'd given from the first chapter of his new book. Isabelle couldn't help wondering if Maura, who was clearly older than her prize client, had a crush on Brandon the way so many of his fans appeared to.