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Dead by Dusk
By Heather Graham
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2005 Shannon Drake
All rights reserved.
"The others will certainly join you by tomorrow," Arturo Agnazzi said, eyes bright, words cheerful, smile exuberant.
Exhausted and exasperated, Stephanie Cahill stared at him blankly. "I'm sorry. Could you explain all this to me one more time, please?" It had been a ridiculously long day. The last thing that had gone right had been her flight from Chicago to Rome. Then, there had been a glitch in the flight from Rome to Naples. When she'd arrived in Naples, the car that was to pick her up and bring her to the southeast part of the country had failed to show up. Her international phone had failed to work. It had seemed that all the Italian she knew—and that was not at all what it should have been when she had agreed to accept this job—flew out of her head. When she tried to ask for help at the airport, words in other foreign languages would pop into her head. At last, she had gotten through to Bella Vista and Reggia Café, and discovered that her driver had arrived to get her at the airport, but hadn't found her, and after a few espressos at a coffee bar in Naples, had shrugged and headed on back.
He would return. She was grateful, of course, but after her frustrating efforts to get through, she was weary and then had another two hours to sit around waiting.
She tried walking. After all, walking around would be good. She felt like a pretzel. The airlines might have added more room to economy, but it hadn't been enough. She was five-nine, and had to wonder how those over six feet actually survived the trans-Atlantic flights without their limbs becoming permanently entwined.
Had she waited a day, she might have been able to upgrade to first class on her airlines bonus miles.
But she hadn't waited a day, because she had been scheduled to meet with the entire cast of her show here, at the club, this night, at seven p.m.
Now she was discovering that her entire cast had somehow managed to vanish for the evening. Doug Wharton and Drew Cunningham had been delayed by a car breakdown over in Sorrento, Lena Miro and Suzette Croix had gone on a tour to the local ruins, where a rock slide on the return road had caused the guide to call in with the information that they'd be camping out for the evening, and Clay Barton had yet to check in. Gema Harris was around somewhere, according to Arturo, but since the others were AWOL, she'd decided to take the night off, too.
Fair enough, Stephanie thought. But she was still frustrated, sore, worn, and ready to kick herself for being such a stickler for punctuality that she hadn't taken the later flight, and arrived in a far more optimistic mood.
At the moment, she wanted to strangle Reggie—the woman responsible for her being here. The entire project was so off the wall, Stephanie doubted she should have accepted the task, even if she did adore Reggie. After all, was Reggie here? No, of course not; she was off pushing this latest project to military personnel in Germany somewhere, assuming that when she returned, all would be in perfect order. But that was Reggie, or Ms. Victoria Reggia, who had been like a windstorm many times in Stephanie's life, blowing in and out, and turning the world upside down like a modern-day Auntie Mame. She was actually Stephanie's mom's cousin, and since she was always traveling the world somewhere, Stephanie had rarely seen her until her parents' funeral. Then, Reggie had been a godsend.
But then again, she had to admit, despite this shaky start, Reggie's offer regarding this job had been something of a godsend, as well. At twenty-seven, Stephanie could be proud of both her talent and her business acumen. An automobile accident had left her orphaned at seventeen, and she had still managed to live on her own and acquire her master's degree in fine arts, with a minor in business. She had gone from acting with the Park Street Players in Chicago to managing the small but esteemed comedy club. Yet for all her education and life-enforced maturity, she hadn't foreseen her relationship with Grant Peterson, the club's owner. Grant had been an even greater power in her life—electric, vital; from the moment she had first seen him, she had felt compelled to come closer to him. Admittedly, she mocked herself—she had been compelled just to touch him. She had never wanted anyone as she had wanted Grant, and she had known that the minute she had walked into his playhouse and watched him speaking from center stage. She had met him, and in his eyes, she had seen an equal fascination. Sometimes, she wondered why. He had traveled the world with touring groups; he was far more knowledgeable and sophisticated. And yet, it had seemed that he was in love with her.
For a year it had been a passionate if volatile relationship, but her life had seemed set. He was assertive, fair, determined, but never cruel. He didn't patronize his cast or crews, but there was no question that he was in complete control. Theater and improv were his passions, but he loved jazz and the opera, and more than anything else, museums and art and ancient civilizations. His major, oddly enough, hadn't been fine arts, but history. He played a mean guitar, and enjoyed street fairs, budding artists, as well as collecting armor and movie paraphernalia.
Stephanie's life had been nearly perfect.
Her work was her life's dream and Grant was her heart's desire.
Then it had ended. Maybe it had been as much her fault as his. But it had been difficult to ignore his sudden state of distraction, though he had claimed he hadn't understood quite what was plaguing him himself. He'd been up at all hours of the night; he'd gone out at all hours of the night. They were both accustomed to working with ensembles, so she had first scoffed at the idea that she was suspicious or jealous. But then she had thought about Grant. He had everything he needed to succeed—in business, and in his personal life. He was six feet, two inches of lithe muscle and mobility, since his intrigue with the theater had taken him into any number of pastimes including fencing, kick-boxing, riding, and some stunt work. He also possessed more than a fair amount of charm and sensuality, which had been wonderful for the success of his business, and horrible on a personal level, once Stephanie had decided that there was something seriously wrong.
Then the dreams had started, or the nightmares, and they had been very strange. Sometimes he had tossed and turned. And sometimes, he had come to her with a volatile urgency that had been both exhilarating and terrifying, the latter because she wasn't sure when she came down whether he was actually awake during it all.
From the depths of sleep one night, he had cried out another woman's name.
Despite the fact that he was drop-dead gorgeous and incredible in bed, the last had been a slap that went into her soul. She felt that she wasn't what she wanted to be in his life, and never would be. They had argued bitterly because she couldn't tell him why she was leaving—he would have claimed that she had been mistaken, or worse, that the name didn't mean anything to him. Their last argument had been volatile.
But she had still worked for him.
To say it was a strained relationship was sadly understating the current of hostility that seemed to evolve around them. Worse. Anger could be volatile, and far too quickly turn into something else.
Still, not being independently wealthy, she had needed work. So, in a burst of spontaneity, Stephanie had jumped at Reggie's offer without really thinking it through. Ironically, immediately after her resignation, she heard from a mutual friend that Grant would be gone for some months as well, doing some kind of work somewhere else. If she'd stayed on, she could have managed the company in his absence.
Too late. She'd agreed to come here, and here she was.
Arturo, the club's general manager and ever the optimist, didn't even sigh as he began to explain the whereabouts of Stephanie's missing troop members once again. "You must understand where you are, and what is going on here, of course. The ladies, they meant to cause no trouble—they simply wanted to see the ruins. Everyone wants to see the ruins! The archeologists bring new things to light on an almost hourly basis! Ah, but then there was the rock slide, so the ladies were stuck. The gentlemen—the two of them, anyway—have had car trouble. Mr. Barton is lost in transit somewhere, which you must surely understand yourself. And so, the lovely Miss Gema thought that she would spend the evening at leisure, so she could come to you fresh and ready to work hard tomorrow!" His smile faded and he frowned suddenly. "My English is well spoken, isn't it?"
Stephanie waved a hand in the air, smiling, and ruing her own impatience. "I'm so sorry, Arturo. Your English is excellent. Better than mine, maybe! I just tried so hard to get here on time myself. I'm tired. Please forgive me."
He nodded brightly again. He was a small, balding man, compact, with a reserve of energy that seemed apparent in his every movement. Reggie had assured her that his English was far more than fluent, and that he would like her right off the bat. She might be taller than he, but he would fall all over himself to please her. He had a thing for women with dark hair and blue eyes, so Reggie said. He wasn't a lecher in the least, just a lover of women in general, especially those who were young, light-eyed, and dark-haired.
He was wonderful. Polite, concerned, and sweet. And he did speak English excellently. Stephanie was so glad, because she was so tired that trying to remember even the simple courtesies in Italian seemed absolutely daunting at the moment.
"You'll be happy to know that you'll have a full audience next Friday night. Reggie has arranged for a tour group of over fifty American military men and women and their spouses, if they choose, to come for a three-day vacation," Arturo informed her.
"Next Friday night!" The news snapped her back into full wakefulness. It was Sunday afternoon. "And will this place hold that many people? What about the fire laws?"
"Si." Arturo was beaming with pleasure to give such information. "This is—"
"Yes, yes, this is Italy."
"We'll easily get enough tables in here."
"Let's hope we're easily ready," she murmured. Stephanie felt ill. A week. One week to get together a cast of performers she had yet to meet.
"We'll have to start first thing in the morning," she said.
Arturo shook his head. "First thing in the afternoon!" he told her.
"The campers will not be back until at least eleven—they have no choice but to wait for the road to be cleared. And the car over in Sorrento?" He shrugged. "It will take a bit. But you mustn't worry. This is Italy. All will be well."
Stephanie had already learned that the last two sentences Arturo had offered were his catchall comments, and part of his eternal optimism. This is Italy. All will be well.
She sure as hell hoped so. At the moment, she couldn't begin to see how, or why.
Her luggage was still strewn by the chair where she sat with Arturo in the club room where her troop would be performing. Nice room. The stage was ample, but intimate. Tables were arranged throughout, with a bar at the far rear of the room and chairs along either side, so that a good number of people could be accommodated. The basic skit for the troupe revolved around the fact that they were a group of world scientists who gathered together at The International Club to converse, share information—and brag. The comedy was built around the fact that none of them ever really had anything to brag about, and therefore, they most frequently had to make up their stories. Audience participation was an integral part of the fun. It was the kind of show that Stephanie loved, and despite the strange circumstances—doing a show in English in a small town in southern Italy that was just beginning to draw tourists—she had at once been enthused about the project.
But getting together a group of unknown variables—actors—in the time given was a bit daunting.
"Would you like to see your room?" Arturo asked brightly. "You must be very tired, traveling all night—and then all day."
"Yes, of course, thank you," Stephanie said, rising. She started to gather up her various bags, but he shook his head. "No, no, we have help! Leave your things, and Giovanni will come for them."
She smiled, but took her backpack anyway. She never left her passport lying around. But she touched nothing else, determined that she wouldn't let these people think that she might even begin to imagine that something could come up missing.
"You are outside, in one of the beach houses—cottages, bungalows, whatever you'd like to call them. You have the best one, naturally, but since there are twenty-two of them and we're not at anything near capacity, we've got your cast in them as well." He winked. "Honestly, though. I chose them. Yours is the best! And closest to the back, or theater side entry to the club. Reggie thought you would like that," Arturo informed her.
"Whatever Reggie says," she murmured.
He grimaced ruefully. "Come this way. There is a door that leads to the beach, and your little cottage. It is delightful. And you can slip back into the theater area without having to go around or come through the rest of the club. You will love it."
He was so delighted with the arrangement that she nodded and forced a smile. "Sounds wonderful."
She followed him up the few steps to the stage and then into the backstage area. There was a loading dock, and a regular doorway. Arturo opened it and moved on out. A small, paved area gave way to the beach and, not fifty yards away, a scattering of small cottages that sat right on the water. The sea scent was strong on the air, but pleasant. The breeze was light, wafting, and felt magnificent against her cheeks.
A short walk brought them to the door where Arturo handed her a key. She accepted it, opened the door, and stepped into her little cottage.
Reggie had done well. It was delightful. There was a living room with a light Berber carpet and modern furnishings to match. The draperies were beige with soft blue sea patterns—mermaids, starfish, and other delicately drawn little creatures. Steps led to the loft—the bedroom, she assumed—while the living room went straight into a dining area, and back past that, a kitchen with doors that opened directly to the beach. She could faintly hear the fall of the waves against the shore.
She turned to Arturo. "Wow!"
He nodded, very satisfied. "Brilliant, yes? Not so much money into development as you might think, either! Of course, unlike the great structures in Rome, these little places will probably not stand for several thousand years. But! They are new, clean, clever, and very nice, yes?"
"Very, very nice." Stephanie made a mental note to quit damning Reggie in her mind. Her living quarters were beautiful.
"You must go up to the loft. You will like it even better," he told her.
"I'm pretty happy right now," she told him.
With a broad gesture, he indicated the stairs. "I'll leave you to that exploration alone," he told her. "Giovanni will bring your things, and I will certainly be here first thing in the morning. The kitchen has a few basic needs, but if you wake and wish to have a truly fine espresso, the morning room with its little coffee bar is open from six a.m." He gave her a modest shrug. "Your actors may not be together by then, but you need only ask, and I will be happy to join you."
"Thank you, Arturo. You are very kind."
"Buonasera, e buonanotte!" he told her, and with a deep smile and low bow, he left her.
Stephanie looked up at the painted wrought-iron steps that led to the loft, then hurried up them. The area was even better than the downstairs. The same light tones and decor had been used throughout the entire cottage, but here, there were more of the sea blues used in the carpet and bedspread. There were ample pine dresser drawers, the bed itself was queen-sized, a half-wall looked down to the living area below, and huge sliding glass doors opened to a wide, railed balcony that looked directly over the sea.
Excerpted from Dead by Dusk by Heather Graham. Copyright © 2005 Shannon Drake. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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