Italian movie star Javier Russo needs to escape his Hollywood life. Isola dei Fiori is the perfect retreat—a lush island in the glittering Mediterranean. What he didn't expect was having to share his peaceful hideaway with the infuriatingly beautiful Portia Marlowe!
Celebrity reporter Portia is intrigued by her unwelcome and mysterious visitor, and the secrets he's clearly holding back. Villa Rosa isn't big enough for both of them, and soon there's nowhere to hide from their simmering chemistry!
Portia closed the door behind her and breathed as the car puttered off into the distance. Finally, peace perfect peace.
Somewhere, on the other side of the house, she could hear the chirrup of birds. After three days of being constantly surrounded by people and chatter it was music to her ears.
She leaned back against the cool wall, tempted to just slide down it.
Her sister, Miranda’s wedding was over. She could stop smiling. She could stop fending off the intrusive questions from her sisters. Miranda had looked radiant, lost in the pink cloud of love and drifting off somewhere that seemed a million miles out of Portia’s reach.
She was the oldest sister – wasn’t she supposed to get married first?
The tightness that had gripped her chest since she’d got here eased just a little.
The last wedding guest had left. Miranda was off on her honeymoon, Posy had gone back to work, and Immi had returned to her job in the family business as well as the difficult job of cancelling her own wedding. Finally, Portia could have some quiet.
It wasn’t that she didn’t love her sisters. Of course she did. It was just that being around them was so…busy. They all talked at once, and over the top of each other. And what she really needed right now was a chance to take stock, to weigh up what to do next.
Her discarded mobile phone lay on one of the gilded tables in the large entrance hall almost mocking her.
Isola del Fiore had the beauty of no mobile towers. Villa Rosa had an old phone line that didn’t currently work, and no internet.
She didn’t need emails. She didn’t need a phone signal.
The last conversation on her phone had turned her work life upside down.
What have you brought us in the last four weeks, Portia? The award ceremony was weeks ago. Your red carpet interviews are yesterday’s news. You’re supposed to be an investigative reporter. This is Hollywood. And at twenty-seven your time is almost up. Bring me a headline story in the next four weeks or your history.
She’d felt numb. Studying investigative journalism at university had been a dream come true. Finding a job in Fleet Street had been much harder. When she’d decided to hitch around the US with a friend for a few weeks she’d no idea how her life would turn out. One random conversation in a small café in Los Angeles had led to a temporary job at a TV station as a runner. When one of the producers had found out what she’d studied he’d asked her to pull some material together for their entertainment gossip show. Portia was smart and Portia was beautiful. Two months later she was still there and when the TV host had been involved in an auto accident on the way to the studio, she’d filled in with less than an hour’s notice. The audience loved her. Twitter exploded. The gorgeous brunette with tumbling curls, dark eyes, plum English accident and sense of humour attracted more viewers. Within a year the show was a hit. All for a job that Portia had landed due to a complete fluke.
Five years on she’d broken more Hollywood stories than any of her rivals. The truth was, she’d been a little ruthless at first. She’d had a natural tendency to sniff out a story at fifty paces and her boss had quickly pushed her for more and more headlines. At first, she’d enjoyed it. She’d interviewed film stars past and present with aplomb. And while she’d charmed them with her smile, she hadn’t lost her investigative edge. For the last five years she’d happily exposed liars, cheats and corruption in Hollywood. But as time had marched on the colours around her muted a little. She was becoming jaded. She’d lost the fire that had once burned in her belly. Hollywood seemed to be a cycle, with only the faces changing while the stories seemed the same. And her boss was pushing and pushing her for more scandal-led headlines – the kind that had started to make her stomach flip over.
The thing was, she did have two major stories she could break. But the conscience she’d developed wouldn’t let her. One, about an elderly well-respected actor who was gay. As far as she was aware, virtually no one knew. And no matter how much the information spun around in her brain – and even though she knew it would make headlines around the world – she really didn’t feel the urge to out him. The second story, about a major actress who was secretly crippled by depression, would also make headlines. This woman was known for her sense of humour and smile. But it was all completely fake. The thing was, Portia knew why. Her daughter was very sick. And it was a story that she didn’t think she should break either.
It played on her mind. Unless she could find another story in the next few weeks she would have to find a whole new career. And what kind of story could she find on Isola del Fiore? A place with a tiny population and no mobile phone signal.
It might be time to take another look at that book she’d been writing for the last three years. Anything would be better than feeling like this.
A gentle sea breeze blew through the hallway. The back French doors must be open.
Space. That was one of the marvels of this place.
Portia wandered through to her favourite room of the house. The ceiling curved into a dome and the washes of blue, mauve and pink – even though faded – made it seem like a magical sunset was taking place right above your head. If she closed her eyes she could remember this house in its prime. It had belonged to Sofia, her sister Posy’s, godmother. Sofia had been a famous model and, a number of years ago, the then Prince’s mistress. If Portia could turn back the clock she’d love to interview Sofia. As a child it had all just seemed so normal. A godmother who lived in a huge house on a mystery island, sweeping up and down the grand staircase in a whole array of glittering gowns like some forgotten starlet.
If she closed her eyes she could remember most of the movie stars, rock stars and models of the 90’s that had filled the rooms in this house. If she could really turn back the clock she would pay more attention to some of the conversations and liaisons she could vaguely remember hearing and witnessing.
Coming to Isola del Fiore had always been such an adventure. The flight to Italy and then the journey over on the ferry had always seemed like part of children’s story complete with the image of the pale pink Villa Rosa sitting on the headland.
But Villa Rosa wasn’t quite so magnificent as it had remained her head. The pale pink stucco had cracked and faded. The exotic flowers in the gardens had been surrounded by weeds. Part of the scullery roof had fallen in and been mended by Miranda’s new husband Cleve, along with some of the ancient electrics in the house. It seemed that in years gone by each room had only required one plug point.
Portia ran her hand along the wall. Some of the plaster was crumbling. There was a crack running up wall towards the top of the dome, bisecting part of the beautiful paint work. The whole place was more than tired. Parts of it were down right neglected.
Even though Posy had inherited it from Sofia, all the sisters felt an element of responsibility. They’d all enjoyed holidays here as children. Sofia had been the ultimate hostess. Sipping cocktails and treating the girls like adults instead of children. There had been no fixed bedtimes. No explicit rules. As long as the girls were respectful and well-mannered Sofia seemed to be entirely happy.
Villa Rosa conjured up memories of lazy days with beautiful sunrises and sunsets, long hours on the private beach and by the hot spring pool, the many legends about the craggy rock arch bisecting the beach, and a flurry of fun in a rainbow of satins, silks and sequins. Sofia had the most spectacular designer wardrobe and she hadn’t hesitated to let her mini charges play dress up.
Portia leaned against the wall and sighed. The ugly crack annoyed her. Doubtless it would require some specialist to repair it. Like most of this house. Why did it feel as if the house was reflecting her life right now?
She couldn’t remember. Was Villa Rosa a listed building? Did they have listed buildings in Isola del Fiore? Miranda and her new husband had done some emergency repairs on the house. There were a few liveable rooms. But the kitchen and bathrooms were antiquated and barely functioning. The dusty filled attics would probably be an antique dealers dream. But Portia knew nothing about things like that and was too wary to even attempt to help with a clean up for fear she would throw something valuable away.
She breathed in deeply. The warm sea air was wafting through the house bringing with it the aroma of calla lilies, jasmine and a tang of citrus from the few trees along the wall of the garden. She sighed, walked through to the kitchen and retrieved a semi-chilled bottle of rose wine from the sometime functioning fridge, grabbing a glass and walking through the double doors to the glass-stained conservatory. There was a sad air about it. A few of the delicate panes were missing or cracked. At some point Sofia had commissioned a specialist stain glass maker to install some coloured panes in a whole variety of shades, randomly dotted throughout the conservatory. It meant that when the sun streamed in from a particular angle the conservatory was lit up like a rainbow, sending streams of colour dazzling around the space. The doors at the end of the conservatory opened out to the terrace and gardens which led to the sheltered cove below with bubbling hot spring. It really was like a little piece of paradise.
She settled on an old pale pink wooden rocker sitting on the terrace that creaked as she sat down. She smiled, holding her breath for a few seconds for fear the wood might split. But the rocker held as she poured her wine then rested her feet on the ledge in front.
The azure sea sparkled in front of her. The horizon completely and utterly empty. It was like whole rolling ocean had been made entirely for her viewing pleasure.
She closed her eyes for a second. There was something about this place. Something magical.
In her head she could see the glittering parties that Sofia had hosted. Full of film celebrities, models, producers, and Sofia’s very own special Prince. She sipped her rosé wine, letting the dry fresh flavour with hints of cherry and orange zest fill her senses as she rocked back and forward in the chair.
If she could capture just one of those moments, and bring all the gossip twenty years into the future she wouldn’t need to worry about her job anymore. Times had been different then. No instant social media. No mobile phones in every pocket or every bag.
She gave a little smile as she closed her eyes and continued to rock. A warm breeze swept over her, scented with jasmine and hugging around her like a comforting blanket. It was almost like time had stood still at Villa Rosa.
And for Portia’s purposes, that was just fine.
Javier finished nursing his last bottle of beer. He’d crossed over on the last evening ferry to Isola del Fiore and instead of heading straight to the house, he’d headed straight to the nearest bar.
Isola del Fiore had been a favourite haunt of his mother’s. Her friend Sofia’s house had been a refuge for when her manic behaviour had gotten out of control, she’d stopped eating and stopped taking her medication. His father had learned quickly not to try and intervene. Sofia’s presence had been one of calmness and serenity. A fellow model, she’d understood the ingrained eating habits and learned behaviour that his mother just couldn’t shake in later life. Even though she was always beautiful in Javier’s eyes, as his mother had aged she hadn’t taken kindly to losing modelling jobs. Each loss seemed to spark more erratic behaviour and his film producer father had struggled to cope.
Javier had been too young to understand much. He’d just learned that when his father pulled out the large monogrammed case, it generally meant a visit to Aunt Sofia’s. She’d never really been an aunt, but he’d thought of her in that way. Sofia’s air of grace could never be forgotten. She didn’t walk – she glided. She’d talked to him as if he were an adult, not a child, with no imposed rules or regulations. Instead, Javier was mainly allowed to amuse himself. Not always wise for a young boy.
But somewhere, in the back of his brain, he’d held fast the little element that this place was a sanctuary. Somewhere to find calmness. Somewhere to find peace. And that’s what he needed right now. A place where the paparazzi weren’t waiting around every corner. A place where he could nod at someone in the street without their face frowning and wondering where they’d seen him before. A place where he could have a drink in a bar without someone whipping out their phone to take a selfie with him in the background.
He left his money on the bar and picked up his bag. He’d been here for at least three hours with minimal conversation. He liked that. The hours of travel had caught up with him. He patted the large iron key in his pocket. At some point over the years his mother had ‘acquired’ a key to Villa Rosa. It was odd. Neither of them had been back since Sofia’s funeral a few years ago and he’d heard that the house, once in its prime, was pretty run down.
Maybe he could make himself useful while he kept his head below the parapet for a while. As a teenager his Uncle Vinnie – a veritable handyman - had taken him on many of his jobs – anything to keep him from turning down the wrong track. At the age of thirteen, with a mother as a model and a father as a film producer, he’d probably already seen and heard a million things he shouldn’t. After almost dabbling with some drugs his father had shipped him back to Italy and into his brother’s care for the summer. Javier had learned how to plaster and how to glaze. It appeared that sanding and smoothing walls, and cutting panes of glass were therapeutic for a teenage boy. Not that he’d used any of those skills in Hollywood…
He walked out in the warm evening. Dusk was settling around him. The port was still busy with the boats silhouetted against a purple and blue darkening sky. If he were an artist he would be tempted to settle down with some paints, a canvas and easel. But Javier Russo had never been known for his painting skills.
Instead, his name normally adorned the front of Hollywood cinemas. His latest film had just publicised by putting a 45 foot high Javier next to the D on the Hollywood sign. He’d never live that one down.
But it seemed that Hollywood loved Italian film stars. In another year it was predicted he’d be one of Hollywood’s highest earners – much to his agents delight.
He’d just finished four back-to-back movies taking him half way around the world. Two action movies, one romantic comedy and one sci-fi. He’d ping-ponged between the Arabian desert, the expanse of the Indian ocean, the nearby island of Santorini, the Canadian Rockies and the streets of London. For some it sounded completely glamorous. In truth it was lonely and had taken him away from those that he loved. The family that he’d failed.
Now, he was exhausted. Pictures had emerged of him attending the funeral of a family friend looking tanned and muscular – just as well nothing could reveal how he was feeling, the way his insides had been curling and dying from the fact he hadn’t been there to help.
Much to his agent’s disgust he’d reneged on some immediate future arrangements. In another four weeks the cycle would start again with publicity and interviews for the first of those films. Right now he needed some space.
He smiled as he turned the corner to Villa Rosa. The long walk had done him some good. He stretched his muscles that had been cramped on the flight over from Los Angeles and frowned at the cracks in a pale pink façade. This place was in bad need of repair. He wasn’t entirely sure about the material. Maybe he could phone Uncle Vinnie for some advice?
His back gave a crick as he set his bag down and pulled the key from his pocket. With a wiggle, the key gave a satisfying turn in the lock. He pushed the door open not quite knowing what to expect.
He frowned. Something was off. The house wasn’t as musty as he’d expected. He walked slowly through the large main hall. It was clear someone must have been here. There were small signs of life.
Large dust covers had been pulled from the furniture in the painted room and heaped in one corner. He ran his finger along the plaster, snatching it back as a tiny piece of paint flaked to the ground. In the dim light his eyes caught the line snaking up the curve of the dome. He felt his frown deepen. It would take skill to mend a crack like that. Skill he wasn’t sure he possessed.
He glanced around him. The air in here was fresh. There was a hint of something else. The rustling from outside sounded far too close. Windows were open in this house.
He strode through towards the back of the house. The conservatory had seen better days. A few of the small panels of glass were missing and others were cracked or damaged. Something crunched beneath his feet. He knelt down, a small fragment of red glass was under his shoe. He brushed it off as he heard a small cough.
His head shot back up, looking out across the terrace.
Who on earth was here?
According to his mother this place had been deserted since Sofia had died. That was why it had fallen into the state it was in. He hadn’t stood up yet. Wondering how to deal with the mysterious woman on the terrace.
Could she have broken in? Was she some tourist who had spotted the giant pale pink neglected house and decided she could squat here? He moved his head, squinting at the figure.
A brunette. In her twenties. Dressed in something short and red. He shifted uncomfortably. Whatever she was wearing, it seemed to have inched upwards as she lay in the rocking chair, sleeping with her legs stretched out and resting on the low wall. He could see a hint of black underneath. She moaned a little and shuffled in her seat, the hard wood beneath her obviously not as comfortable she wanted. The chair rocked back and forth.
He straightened up, trying to get a better look. On the terrace was an empty glass and a bottle of wine. Was she drunk?
Maybe Sofia had a wine cellar that everyone had forgotten about and some light-fingered thief was now drinking her way through the contents?
Now, he was getting angry. He’d come here for some peace. Some tranquillity. The last thing he wanted was to have to call out the local polizia.
He strode out onto the terrace ready to tackle the intruder. But his footsteps faltered. He’d only really glimpsed her from sideways. Now he could see her clearly he was surprised.
Her hair tumbled around her face, chocolate at the roots with sun or salon-tipped blonde edges. Her dress was indeed almost around her hips revealing her well-shaped firm legs blessed with a light golden tan. Her chest went up and down lightly beneath the thin cotton of her dress that did little to hide her curves.
There was something vaguely familiar about her. Something he couldn’t quite place.
His foot crunched on a stone on the terrace and her eyes flew open.
Before he even had a chance to speak she was on her feet, her eyes wide and her hands grabbing for the nearest item.
“Mi scusi, non volevo spaventarti…”
He’d automatically reverted to his native language but it did nothing to stop the wine glass being hurled in his direction and catching him squarely on his brow. It shattered at his feet on the terrace as he took another step towards her.
This time she had the wine bottle, brandishing it like a weapon in front of her.
“Don’t move buster. Take another step and I’ll…I’ll,” She glanced sideways. And he caught the wave of fear that had rolled over her.
But the comedy of the moment hadn’t escaped him. He stepped forward and took the empty wine bottle firmly from her hands and smiled, “You’ll spring vault backwards past the hot spring and straight down to the beach and the lover’s arch?”
Her eyes widened even further. If it were possible they were the biggest brown eyes he’d ever seen. Like a dark whirlpool that could suck you right in.
Waves of confusion were sweeping her face. The obvious change from Italian to English seemed to have caught her unawares. Her head flicked sideways to the lover’s arch. He could almost read her mind. Only someone who was familiar with this property would know about the hot spring and private beach beneath.
And there was still something vaguely familiar about her…
Her body was still stuck in the vaguely defensive stance. “You know about Neptune’s arch?”
The accent. That’s what it was. And those eyes. The plummy accent had sounded strange when she’d shouted so quickly. A bit like a member of the British royal family yelling at him. He smiled again and set the bottle down on the terrace folding his arms across his chest.
He was around ten inches taller than her. He didn’t want to intimidate her. She didn’t look like the cat burglar type.
He let out a laugh. “I invented it.” Then shook his head, curiosity peaked even further. “I didn’t tell you it was called Neptune’s arch.”
She jerked. As if she were getting used to his Italian accent speaking English to her.
Her gaze narrowed. Now, she looked angry. She planted her hands on her hips. “Who on earth are you, and what are you doing in my house?”
“Your house?” He raised his eyebrows. “Are you Sofia’s goddaughter?”
She shook her head. “Yes. Well…no.”
“Well, make up your mind. You either are, or you aren’t.”
She gritted her teeth. “No. Posy is Sofia’s goddaughter. She’s my sister.” She frowned again. “But who are you? And how do you know Sofia?”
The more she spoke the more he felt the waves of familiarity sweeping across his skin. She wasn’t an actress. He knew every British actress that spoke like she did.
The hairs on his arms stood on end in the cool coastal breeze. Realisation was hitting home. Chances were this English siren was staying here. All hopes of hiding away on this island in peace and quiet were gently floating away in the orange-scented air.
“Sofia was a good friend of my mother’s. We stayed here often when I was a child and a teenager.”
She mirrored his position and folded her arms across her chest. “Well, you’re not a teenager now and Sofia’s been dead for two years.”
“I was at her funeral. I never noticed you.” Even as he said the words he was struck by the realisation that he wasn’t likely to forget a woman like this. She was downright beautiful. As beautiful as any one of his Hollywood leading ladies.
In fact, she was much more natural than most of them. No botox. No obvious surgery. And skin that was clear and unblemished. If only the public knew just how much airbrushing went on in film studios.
It made him smile that she didn’t remember him. Didn’t recognise him.
But right as that thought crowded his brain, he saw the little flicker behind her eyes.
“What’s your name? Who is your mother?” It wasn’t a question it was a demand.
Something sparked inside him. It had been a long time since someone had spoken to him like that. Being a Hollywood movie star meant he was usually surrounded by ‘yes’ people. Part of the point of coming here was to get away from all that. He just hadn’t expected to reach the opposite end of the spectrum.
He sucked in a breath. “You tell me yours, I’ll tell you mine.”
Her beautiful face was marred by a deeper frown. He could sense she wasn’t used to being lost for words. She drew herself up to her full height. In bare feet the top of her head was just above his shoulder. The perfect height for a leading woman.
“I’m Portia. Portia Marlowe.” She tossed her hair over her shoulder, glancing over at the azure sea, then rapidly sucked in a breath and spun around to face him as the recognition struck.
She pointed her finger. “You’re Javier Russo.” Her voice had gone up in pitch.
There it was. Anonymity gone in a flash. He sighed and walked over to the edge of the terrace. The beach looked inviting, even if it was a bit of a scramble to reach it. As a child he hadn’t given it a moment’s thought.
He almost laughed out loud at the thought of the film insurers’ opinion on him staying in such a place. They’d want to wrap him in cotton wool. What on earth had his last action movie insured his legs for – 10 million dollars?
The sun was dipping lower in the sky, sending dark orange streaks across the water. It was a beautiful sunset. He understood why she was sitting out there. But he still didn’t know what she was really doing here. More importantly, was she staying?
She moved next to him. “You’re Javier Russo,” she repeated. Her voice was getting quicker, “Javier Russo. Italian movie star.” She gave him a sideways glance. “Thirty. Just finished filming a sci-fi film in the Arabian desert, and last year the second highest paid action movie star.”
The hairs prickled at the back of his neck. He’d met hundreds of fans over the last few years. Some verging on slightly obsessive. But he couldn’t imagine he’d be so unlucky to end up staying with one of them on Isola del Fiore.
“How on earth do you know that?” Something else flashed into his brain and he gave a half-smile. “And what’s with the look you gave me when you said I was thirty.”
“Is that your real age, or your Hollywood age?” she shot back cheekily.
She waved her hand. “Oh, come on, you know. Most Hollywood stars take a few years off their age. Some even more than ten.” There was the hint of a teasing smile on her face. She seemed to have regained her composure. “But once you get up close and personal, you always know if it’s an extension of the truth or not.”
He laughed out loud and turned back from the view to meet her head on. There was a sparkle in her eyes. She’d obviously moved from the initial fear factor, to the having fun factor. She wasn’t flirting. That didn’t seem like her agenda. But she certainly seemed much more comfortable around him. And she wasn’t tugging at her dress or hair. Often, once people recognised him, they frantically tried to get a glimpse of their own appearance, sometimes cursing out loud that they didn’t look their best.
Portia didn’t seem to care. Her simple red dress – which looked like it came from any high street store – stopped mid-thigh. The only remnants of make up on her face was a hint of red stain on her lips.
He moved a little closer. “So, what do you think?”
His chest was only a few inches from her nose. She looked a little surprised. She lifted her hand up and he wondered if she was going to push him away.
Her hand stayed in mid-air. “Think about what?” Her voice had quietened and as she looked up at him, the sun was in her eyes, making her squint a little.
It was like a wall of silence fell around him. He was in a movie now. A glass panel had just slid around the two of them and cut out all the surrounding noise. No lapping waves. No breeze. No rustling leaves or tweeting birds.
All that was present was a girl in a red dress, with tiny freckles across the bridge of her nose and dark chocolate eyes. It was that tiny moment in time. A millisecond, when something reached into his chest and punched him square in the heart.
He’d met dozens of beautiful women. He’d dated some of them. Had relationships with others. But he’d never felt the wow factor. That single moment when…..zing.
And he couldn’t fathom what had just happened. It was that single look. That single connection.
She licked her lips.
And the sci-fi glass portal disappeared, amplifying all the noise around him. He swayed a little.
“Do I think that you’re really thirty?” She threw back her head and laughed. “Well, if you are – you’re the only film star who doesn’t lie about their age.” She lifted one hand, “And don’t get me started on their diets, workout plans or relationships.”
The wind caught her dress, blowing it against her curves. He took a step backwards.
“How do you know all this stuff?” His curiosity was definitely piqued. He’d heard that Sofia had a god-daughter. But he didn’t know anything about her – or the fact she had sisters. Now, this sister – Portia, seemed weirdly knowing about Hollywood’s poorly-kept secrets.
“Do you work in Hollywood? How come I’ve never met you?”
Something glanced across her face. Hurt?
“I have met you,” she answered quietly.
“Where?” He tried to wrack his brains. Somehow if he’d met her before he assumed he’d remember.
Her tone had changed. He definitely annoyed her. “I met you at the award ceremony. I interviewed you on the red carpet about the pirate movie.”
She didn’t even call it by its name – even though it had made $1.5 billion at the box office and counting.
The award ceremony – the biggest in Hollywood. That had been March. And reporters lined the red carpet in their hundreds all hoping for a sound bite from a film star. Trying to remember anyone in amongst that rabble would be nigh on impossible.
It was like someone had just dumped the biggest bucket of ice in the world over his head. He stepped back. “You work for a newspaper?”
A reporter. Just what he needed.
The plague of the earth. At least that’s what his mother used to call them. They’d harassed her to death when she’d been unwell. He had clear childhood memories of their home in Italy surrounded by people holding cameras and brandishing microphones, while his mother wept in her bedroom.
He’d learned early on to tell them nothing. Not a tiny little thing. Anything that was said could be twisted and turned into a headline full of lies the next day. Nothing had affected his mother’s moods more than the press.
As a Hollywood star he couldn’t possibly avoid them. But he could manage them.
And he always had. Two minute press junkets. Any longer interviews done in writing by his press officer, along with a legal declaration about misquotes.
All press were to be kept at a distance. Even the pretty ones.
No, especially the pretty ones.
Her eyes narrowed a little. “No, I work for Entertainment Buzz TV. Have done for the last 5 years.” She held up her hand and rhymed off on her fingers. “I interviewed you after your first appearance in the Slattery action movies. I’ve met you at probably half a dozen film premiers and I met you on the red carpet in March.”
He was surprised she was offended. Every TV reporter in the world knew what press junkets were like. Each person given an allotted time frame – usually around 2 minutes – along with a long list of questions they weren’t allowed to ask. It was like speed dating – usually with a really boring outcome, because all the questions that were asked you’d already answered 60 times before.
He felt himself bristle. A reporter. Absolutely the last person he wanted to be around right now. Not when he wanted some privacy and some head space.
“Are you staying here?” He couldn't help the pointed way his words came out.
She blinked at the change of conversation and stuck her hands on her hips. The sea air swept across them both echoing the instant chill that had developed. “It’s my sister’s house. Where else would I be staying?”
“But this place is supposed to be deserted.” Frustration was building in his chest. He turned around and gestured at the fading building behind him. “I mean, look at it. How long has your sister had it? She hasn’t done any work at all. This place is falling apart at the seams.”
Portia’s dark eyes gleamed. “I think you’ll find that this place has been like this for around the last fifteen years. When was the last time you were here, exactly? Sofia, let things fall by the way side. She didn’t keep up the house maintenance. After her relationship with King Ludano ended, I’m not sure she had the means.” Portia glared at him. “My other sister Miranda and her husband Cleve have made some temporary repairs to the roof and electrics. I was hoping to tidy up a bit while I was here. My sister Posy is a ballerina. She doesn’t have any spare funds right now, let alone enough money to carry out the extensive repairs that this place will need.” It was obvious she was on the defensive.
But so was he.
“Last I heard no one was staying here at all.” All the hairs on the back of his neck were standing on the offensive. Press. He had to get rid of her. How on earth could he sort things out with someone like her around?
“So you thought you would just break in?” she shot back.
He pulled the ancient large key from his pocket. “I didn’t break in. My mother has a key to Villa Rosa – she has done for years.”
“And that gives you the right to just appear here and let yourself in? My sister inherited this property. It’s hers.” She placed her hand on her chest and raised her eyebrows. “I know that I’m supposed to be here. But I’m quite sure you haven’t asked her permission. Particularly when you don’t even know her name.”
Javier was stunned. He wasn’t used to people treating him like an unwanted guest. He certainly hadn’t expected anyone to be here. He did want the place to himself. But it was clear that wasn’t going to happen.
It was too late now to go anywhere else. The last ferry to the mainland had left hours ago. There weren’t any hotels nearby.
If Ms Portia Marlowe wanted to toss him out to the kerb, movie star or not, he was in trouble.
It was time to use the old Italian charm. He’d won awards for his acting. He might not mean a single word of it, but that didn’t matter right now. He needed a bed for the night and could sort the rest of this out in the morning.
He smiled. He already suspected she might have had a few drinks. Maybe it was time to play on the situation.
He put his hand to his forehead and gave it a rub, throwing in a little sway for good measure. He wasn’t an actor for nothing. “Yeow.” He squeezed his eyes shut, then opened them, giving his head a shake.
She frowned. “What’s wrong?”
He gestured to the glass on the terrace. “I didn’t notice at first. But that glass packed a bit of a punch.” He shot her a smile and shook his head again. “I’m fine. Just dizzy for a second.”
For the briefest moment her eyes narrowed, almost as if she suspected she was being played. But then, guilt must have swamped her. She moved forward and pointed towards the rocking chair behind them. “Do you want to sit down? Will I get you some water?”
He gave a nod, and stepped backwards to the chair. It creaked as he lowered himself into the wooden frame and he prayed it wouldn’t splinter and send him splatting on the ground.
Silence surrounded him.
From up here he could hear the lapping ocean. Hear the rustling leaves. Hear the occasional chirrup of a bird. Tranquillity. This is what he’d come here for. This was what he’d hoped to find.
Aldo would have loved this place. He wished he’d had the chance to bring him. He would have adored the waves crashing into the cove. At one point Aldo had fancied himself as a surfer, but the sea had other ideas. As young guys, every holiday Aldo had hired a surf board and spent hour after hour wiping out. Most of the time they’d nearly drowned laughing. His fists clenched. Why had he never taken the opportunity to bring him to Sofia’s? It spun around in his head, adding to the list of things he ‘should’ have done. Instead, time had just slipped away. Life had been too busy. There was always tomorrow.
Until there wasn’t.
A fact he was going to have to learn to live with.
Too busy. Too busy filming. Too busy in meetings. Too busy to answer the phone to an old friend. He’d meant to call back that night. But after sixteen hours on set it had just slipped from his mind.
The next call he’d received had ripped his heart out.
That’s why he’d come here. To find space. To find peace. For a reality check on the life he was living.
Instead, he’d found Portia Marlowe. A beautiful woman, but a Hollywood reporter. It was like a romance and a horror movie both at once. He would have to manage this situation carefully.
He closed his eyes and let the chair rock back and forth. Maybe she was due to go home in the next day or so? This might actually be okay. He only planned to stay here for a few weeks. Just enough time to give him some space. Some alone space.
There was a tinkling noise. Portia was on her knees sweeping the broken glass up with a dustpan and brush, her face a little pink. She caught his gaze and shrugged. “I didn’t know who you were. You caught me unawares.”
“So did you.”
The answer came out before he had time to alter it. She looked surprised. Her dark gaze locked with his. Against the backdrop of the now purple and pink sky Portia almost looked as if she were standing inside the painted ballroom. A cameraman would wait hours for a shot like this. But right now, Javier was the only person with this view. Portia blinked, breaking their gaze and picking up the bottle of water she had next to her feet. “Here, it’s not too cold. The fridge seems to be a temperamental teenager right now. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t bother.”
He nodded and took the lukewarm bottle of water, his fingers brushing against hers. A film director would have added a little twinkle and sparkling stars to match the pulses that just shot up his arm.
He pushed the feeling aside. Being attracted to Portia Marlowe wasn’t an option. Not for a second. The sci-fi glass portal would have to remain a figment of his imagination. It couldn’t go anywhere. He had enough to sort out without bringing a Hollywood reporter into the equation.
She leaned forward, the soft curves of her breasts only inches from his hand. Her thumb brushed his forehead. “There’s not even a mark. I should probably be relieved.” She gave a nervous laugh, “Can you imagine the hoo-ha if I’d damaged the face of one of the world’s most famous film stars?”
Her face paled and her hand gripped the edge of the rocker. His stomach sank. The enormity of her actions had just hit her – him too. A scar would have resulted in his agent and publicist probably having some kind of fit. In the space of a few seconds, he could see the headlines, the plastic surgeon consultations, the juggling of schedules and the threatened law suits all from an action that hadn’t really been intentional. It had been reactive. Not pre-planned. When he feigned feeling dizzy it had only been for his own ends. He didn’t want to spend the night sleeping on the street when he’d come here uninvited. Now he felt like some kind of cad.
He breathed in slowly, inhaling some of her rose perfume. It was tantalising. Or maybe that was just Portia. He gave his head a quick shake, trying to realign his senses. “I think maybe I just need to sleep. I’ve been travelling for a long time. I’m sure after a good night’s sleep I’ll feel fine.”
He let the words hang in the air. She opened her mouth to start to speak then closed it again. He could practically see the thoughts tumbling around in her brain. Her English sensibilities and good manners were obviously bubbling underneath the surface.
“I’m sure I can fix up a bed for you. One of the other bedrooms is almost cleaned. I did some laundry the other day.” There was hesitation in her voice.
Javier shot her his best smile. “That’s really kind of you. Thanks very much.”
He closed his eyes again as he heard her walk back into the house. He rocked back and forward in the chair. This was almost therapeutic.
And he needed that right now.
Because his time at Villa Rosa had just changed beyond all measure.
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