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'Zach? Where the hell are you? You'd better not bail on me because I don't think I can do this without you. Any moment now I'm going to give in and eat carbs and that is going to be the end of this dress. When you get this message, call me.' The phone almost slipped from her sweaty palm and Taylor gripped it tightly. It was just a wedding. Just a bunch of people she didn't care about and who certainly didn't care about her. It shouldn't be enough to put her in this much of a state. She was only here because the producer of her latest film had insisted on it.
She tried to take a deep breath but the dress wouldn't allow her chest to expand. The designer had sewn her into it and then told her to send a text when she needed a bathroom break.
The Sicilian heat scalded her bare back and Taylor rolled her eyes at the absurdity of the situation. It was too hot to be sewn into anything and she'd kill before she allowed someone in the bathroom with her, which basically meant she couldn't eat or drink. Not that she ate much anyway. The discipline instilled by her mother at a young age had never left her. She was used to feeling hungry but lately the cravings had got worse and she knew it made her irritable. She was likely to snap someone's head off and if that happened she was going to make sure the head belonged to the member of the Corretti family responsible for her current discomfort.
She'd wondered if he'd had done it on purpose. This film was his baby. He'd probably briefed the designer to make sure no man could remove her dress and ruin her big comeback.
Zach was going to laugh when he saw her. She'd lived in jeans for so long and he'd never seen this side of her.
She'd stayed away from this for so long she'd forgotten how much she hated it. She hated the falseness, the agendas hidden behind air kissing and polished smiles.
Resisting the childlike temptation to bite her nails, she glanced at her slick manicure and was depressed to see her hand shaking.
She didn't dare hold a glass of champagne. She'd spill her drink on her dress. Or, worse, on someone else's dress and she knew how that would be interpreted.
Irritated with herself for caring what people thought, she dropped the phone into her bag.
It was pathetic to be reacting like this about something so trivial. The past couple of years had taught her what mattered in life. There were people out there with real problems and hers were all of her own making and all in the past.
She'd made bad decisions. Trusted people when she shouldn't have done, but she was a different person now. Given time, she'd prove it.
And that was what today was all about, of course.
She was supposed to prove it.
No mistakes. No spilled drinks, however innocent the reason.
It didn't matter if someone threw oil on the path in front of her, she wasn't allowed to slip.
This was the price she had to pay if she wanted her acting career back—and she wanted it desperately. Desperately enough to star in the publicity circus that was part of the job. This was the price she had to pay for doing what she loved.
The thought had her dragging her phone out of her bag again. 'Hey, Zach?' Her voice shook. 'Just letting you know that the women here are really hot. Even you can't fail to get laid so hurry up before you miss your chance. And if that isn't enough to get you here then I can tell you that I can't pee unless someone removes the stitches from my dress. You are going to laugh yourself sick when you see me. Call, will you?'
She was frightened by how much she needed him here.
Zach was the one who had encouraged her to follow her dream and return to acting, but some dreams came with nightmares attached. If she couldn't cope with this, how was she going to be able to cope with the attention of being back on a film set? She missed acting, but she didn't miss this.
'Taylor!' Santo Corretti, head of the film production company who was reputed to have slept with every single leading lady of his past five films, strode towards her across the perfectly manicured grass. 'You're late.'
'I was being sewn into the dress you chose.' She didn't mention that she'd been outside for half an hour trying to summon the courage to walk through the gates. That was too embarrassing to admit to anyone. She was terrified he'd see through her perfectly groomed exterior to the shivering wreck beneath. 'In my experience the paparazzi are all the keener if you make them wait and work for it.'
'Just remember you're here to promote my film, not yourself. I want publicity and when I say publicity I mean good publicity. I don't want anyone raking up your past.'
There it was. Just two minutes into a conversation and already the topic was her 'past.'
There was no escaping it. Her mistakes had been played out so publicly they were branded into her so that now it was the first thing people saw, including him.
Her stomach growled a reminder that it was empty. 'In a wedding packed full of various members of the Corretti dynasty, I'm sure the press will have plenty of alternative headline options.' A different version of Taylor might have found him attractive but these days she avoided trouble instead of seeking it out. And she especially avoided the type of trouble that came shaped like a man. She'd learned that lesson and she'd learned it well.
'Are you blushing?' His eyes raked her face. 'Taylor Carmichael, wild child and sex kitten, able to blush when the situation demands it. I'll take that as a sign of your acting abilities. And I approve. The public loves vulnerability. They might even be prepared to excuse your shocking past.'
'My past is no one's business but my own.' But it was stuck to her, like a dirty mark she couldn't rub out. 'So who do you want me to charm first?'
'Weren't you bringing someone?' His eyes scanned the immediate area and Taylor managed to turn clenched teeth into a smile.
'My friend Zach, but he's been held up.' And she was going to kill him.
'Just remember your job today is to mingle with the people who matter, not nurture your love life.'
'Zach isn't—' She stopped in mid-sentence, wishing she'd stayed silent but already he was nodding approval.
'Good, because your messy love life has no place on my film set.'
'My love life isn't messy.' She could have told him her love life was non-existent but she didn't.
'There are two reasons this film is going to pull in a big audience. The first is because it's my film—' his smile was cool '—and the second is because you're starring in it, Taylor Carmichael. People are going to pack out movie theatres to see your big comeback because you're a train wreck and everyone loves ogling a train wreck. If I'm right about you, they'll leave knowing you can act. Don't screw up.'
Despite the heat, she shivered.
This was what she hated. The press intrusion and studios who believed they owned her, not just on set, but in every area of her life. As a young star it had almost broken her, but she wasn't that naive girl any more.
There was no way she'd let that happen to her again.
There was no way she'd screw it up or let them screw her.
They could fix their damn camera lenses to her ass and they still wouldn't be able to catch her misbehaving. She was going to be so perfect the press would die of boredom. She was going to rub that dirty mark off her image until she shone like silver in sunshine.
'So who is the most important person here today? Give me a brief.' Brisk and professional, she was all business despite the fact the dress was all Hollywood. 'Who am I supposed to impress?'
'All of them. Every guest at the wedding is waiting for the chance to talk to you. Taylor Carmichael, finally back from exile. Everyone wants to know the details. The grapevine is buzzing.'
'You've made sure of it.'
'You're my biggest asset and I know how to use my assets. Don't give them details. No interviews until I say so.'
'No problem.' She'd pushed her past into a drawer and locked it and she hadn't opened that drawer for years. The thought that others might be trying to uncover her secrets made her feel sick and his next words didn't help dispel that feeling.
'They'll be persistent. After all, you're the girl who fired her own mother.'
'I fired my manager. The fact that she was my mother had nothing to do with it.' But it should have done. It shouldn't have been that easy to get rid of a mother, should it?
'People have a morbid fascination with the way you crashed your own life.'
'Thanks.' The pain rose and she pushed it down again, alone with it as she was always alone.
'So what have you been doing the past few years?'
Taylor watched as a bee hovered over a flower and then carefully landed on the fragile petals. 'I was keeping a low profile.'
His eyes narrowed at her evasive answer. 'Just as long as that profile isn't going to suddenly pop up and hurt my movie.'
'It won't.' She shifted her weight to ease the pain in her feet. She'd forgotten how uncomfortable stilettos were. Still, at least it took her mind off her growling stomach. 'You can relax. If there is any scandal attached to your movie, it won't come from me.'
'It's your first public appearance since you disappeared.' His tone was hard. 'Everyone is waiting for you to slip up, you know that, don't you?'
'Then I predict they're going to have a very boring time.'
'Is that why you had me sewn into the dress? So I can't use the bathroom?'
'The dress shows your body. Your body is one of your assets.'
There had to be some benefit for being permanently starving. 'And there was me hoping you wanted my acting skills.' The bitterness leaked into her voice and he narrowed his eyes.
'I do, but I'm not so naive as to think your looks don't help. It's all about the film, Carmichael. Don't answer any questions about the past. You are the Mona Lisa. All they get is an enigmatic smile.'
'I can tell you now there is no way Mona would have smiled if she were sewn into her dress. If she were forced to wear what I'm wearing she would have been the Moaning Lisa. And now we've established the ground rules, point me towards hell.'
'Wait. You didn't answer my question—' He caught her arm. 'What have you been doing with yourself for the past two years? You just disappeared. Were you in rehab or something?' Rehab.
Of course they would think that. It never occurred to anyone that there could be any other explanation for her absence.
'Sorry,' Taylor murmured, disengaging her arm from his grip, 'I'm absolutely not permitted to talk about my past. Your rules.'
'You're a beautiful woman. There won't be any shortage of men interested, not in you but in the potential to make some money from selling a story. You screwed that up before.'
The pain was so intense he might as well have punched her. 'I was young. Trusting. I'm not any more. And as for men—' Taylor managed a careless shrug '—I can assure you there isn't a man out there hot enough to tempt me.'
Luca Corretti downed another glass of champagne to numb the boredom of behaving well.
For the past twenty-four hours he'd driven under the speed limit for the first time in his life, declined seven party invitations and made it to bed before dawn. The fact that he hadn't been alone at the time didn't count. As far as the outside world was concerned, his behaviour had been impeccable. The only thing he hadn't done in his quest for instant respectability was kissed a baby and even he wasn't prepared to descend to those levels of hypocrisy just to impress the board of directors who'd decided his lifestyle wasn't compatible with running another chunk of the family business. Apparently business flare counted for nothing, he thought savagely, wondering whether he could get away with swapping the champagne for whisky.
And now, to add insult to injury, he was expected to sit through his cousin's wedding.
Was he the only person who hated weddings? All that happy-ever-after crap that everyone knew was a temporary illusion. Or maybe it was a delusion. Luca didn't know and he didn't intend to find out. He was going to be out of here at the first opportunity, preferably with the brunette bridesmaid he'd spotted on his way in.
'Luca! I've been looking everywhere for you. Where have you been?'
Before he could react, Luca was enveloped in soft bosom and a choking cloud of perfume. At any other time he would have thought it wasn't a bad way to die, but he was conscious that heads were turning and, when heads turned, disapproval was bound to follow. It irritated him that he had to care. 'Where have I been?' He disentangled himself. 'Avoiding you, Penny.'
'My name's Portia.'
'Seriously? No wonder I didn't remember it.'
She giggled. 'You are a wicked, wicked man.'
'So people keep telling me.' Luca put down his empty glass, trying to think of a method of stress reduction that didn't involve sex or alcohol.
Portia lowered her eyelashes. 'About last night—'
Aware that his one indiscretion was about to be made public, Luca removed the drink from her hand and swapped it for orange juice. 'Last night? I have no idea what you're talking about. Last night I went to bed with a book.'
She gave a snort of laughter. 'Well, you certainly turned my pages. I'll never forget it. How could I?' Her eyes on his mouth, she leaned towards him. 'You were amazing. It's never been like that for me before. You're a genius.'
'So I keep telling the board,' Luca said in a flat drawl. 'Unfortunately my opinion doesn't seem to count. For some reason they seem to think activity in the bedroom saps my mental abilities so for the time being I have to prove I can keep my pants zipped.'
'We could be discreet. Leave the wedding.'
'I love weddings and I love my cousin,' Luca said immediately. 'I couldn't possibly leave until he's married mar-ried—' what the hell was her name? '—the woman of his dreams.'
'You love weddings? Honestly?'
'Weddings never fail to make me cry,' Luca said truthfully. 'The thought of two people promising to love each other for ever makes me want to break down and sob like a baby.'
'Oh. I had no idea you were so romantic.' Her eyes misted. 'And I'm so pleased that all those rumours that you hate your cousins are wrong. You're nowhere near as bad as everyone says.'
'Bad?' Luca adopted his hurt expression. 'I'm a saint compared to some people.' He hoped she didn't ask him to name someone as bad as him because he knew he'd struggle.
'You're quite a softie—' she stroked his arm with her fingertips '—except in the one area that counts.' She'd moved closer to him again and Luca stood up, cursing his lack of thought in picking up a guest at the wedding.
What he'd taken to be a few moments of fun, she'd taken to be a future.
Now he had to shake her off before the Corretti board gave him another black mark.
Unfortunately Portia didn't want to be shaken anywhere. 'Will I see you tonight, after the wedding?'
'The definition of a one-night stand, angelo mia, is that it lasts one night.'
'You were keen enough last night.' She pouted. 'What's wrong? Don't you like me in this dress?' The words robbed him of breath.
Do I look good, Luca? Do I look better than her? Will he love me if I wear this?
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