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Lexi Sloane pushed her designer sandal hard onto the brake pedal as a pair of long-eared brown and white nanny goats tottered out in front of the car as she drove around a bend, and bleated at her in disgust.
'Hey, give me a chance, girls. I'm new around here,' Lexi sang out into the silent countryside, snorting inelegantly as the goats totally ignored her and sauntered off into the long grass under the olive trees on the other side of the road.
'Which girls? Lexi? I thought you were working.' Her mother laughed into her earpiece in such a clear voice that it was hard to imagine that she was calling from the basement of an historic London theatre hundreds of miles away. 'Don't tell me. You've changed your mind and taken off with your pals on holiday to spain after all.'
'Oh, pleasedon't remind me! Nope. The agency made me an offer I couldn't refuse and I am definitely on Paxos,' Lexi replied into the headset, stretching her head forward like a turtle to scan the sunlit road for more stray wildlife. 'You know how it goes. I am the official go-to girl when it comes to ghostwriting biographies. And it's always at the last minute. I will say one thing' she grinned 'I stepped off the hydrofoil from Corfu an hour ago and those goats are the first local inhabitants I've met since I left the main road. Ohand did I mention it is seriously hot?'
'A Greek Island in June I am so jealous.' Her mother sighed. 'It's such a pity you have to work, but we'll make up for it when you get back. That reminds me. I was talking to a charming young actor just this morning who would love to meet you, and I sort of invited him to my engagement party. I'm sure you'd like him.'
'Oh, no. Mum, I adore you, and I know you mean well, but no more actors. Not after the disaster with Adam. In fact, please don't set me up with any more boyfriends at all. I'll be fine,' Lexi insisted, trying desperately to keep the anxiety out of her voice and change the subject. 'You have far more important things to sort out without worrying about finding me a boyfriend. Have you found a venue for this famous party yet? I'm expecting something remarkable.'
'Oh, don't talk to me about that. Patrick seems to acquire more relatives by the day. I thought that four daughters and three grandchildren were more than enough, but he wants the whole tribe there. He's so terribly old-fashioned about these things. Do you know, he won't even sleep with me until his grandmother's ring is on my finger?'
'I know, but what's a girl to do? He's gorgeous, and I'm crazy about him. Anyhow, must goI'm being dragged out to look at gothic chapels. Don't worryI'll tell you all about it when you get back.'
'Gothic? You wouldn't dare. Anyway, I look terrible in black,' Lexi replied, peering through the windscreen and slowing the car at the entrance to the first driveway she'd seen so far. 'Ahwait. I think I've just arrived at my client's house. Finally! Wish me luck?'
'I will if you need it, but you don't. Now, call me the minute you get back to London. I want to know everything about this mystery client you're working with. And I mean everything. Don't worry about me. You just try and enjoy yourself. Ciao, gorgeous.'
And with that her mother hung up, leaving Lexi alone on the silent country lane.
She glanced up at the letters carved into a stone name-plate, then double-checked the address she'd noted down over the phone while waiting for her luggage to come off the carousel at Corfu airport, some five hours earlier.
Yup. This was it. Villa Ares. Wasn't Ares the Greek god of war? Curious name for a house, but she was here and in one piecewhich was quite a miracle.
Checking quickly for more goats or other animal residents, Lexi shifted the hire car into gear and drove slowly up a rough gravel driveway which curved around a long, white two-storey house before coming to a shuddering halt.
She lifted off her telephone headset and sat still for a few minutes to take in the stunning villa. She inhaled a long breath of hot, dry air through the open window, fragrant with the scent of orange blossom from the trees at the end of the drive. The only sound was birdsong from the olive groves and the gentle ripple of water from the swimming pool.
No sign of life. And certainly no sign of the mystery celebrity who was supposed to have sent a minion to meet her at the hydrofoil terminal.
'Welcome to Paxos,' she whispered with a chuckle, and stepped out of the car into the heat and the crunch of rough stone beneath her feet.
The words had no sooner slipped from Lexi's lips than the slim stiletto heel of her favourite Italian sandal scraped down a large smooth cobblestone, her ankle twisted over, and she stumbled against the hot metal of her tiny hire car.
Which left a neat trail of several weeks' worth of grime and bright green tree pollen all down the side of the Italian silk and linen jacket.
Oh, no! Grinding her teeth, she inspected the damage to her clothing and the scrape down her shoe and swore to herself with all of the fluency and extensive vocabulary of a girl raised in show business. The dark red leather had been completely scraped into a tight, crumpled ball down the heel of her shoe.
This project had better be a real emergency!
Even if it was so totally intriguing.
In the five years that she'd worked as a contract ghost writer this was the first time that she had been sent out on a top-secret assignment on her ownso secret that the publisher who'd signed the contract had insisted that all details about the identity of the mystery author must remain under wraps until the ghost writer arrived at the celebrity's private home. The talent agency was well-known for being extremely discreet, but this was taking it to the next level.
She didn't even know the name of her client! Or anything about the book she would be working on.
A tingle of excitement and anticipation whispered across Lexi's shoulders as she peered up at the imposing stone villa. She loved a mystery almost as much as she loved meeting new people and travelling to new places around the world.
And her mind had been racing ever since she'd taken the call in Hong Kong.
Who was this mysterious celebrity, and why the great secrecy?
Several pop stars just out of rehab came to mind, and there was always the movie star who had just set up his own charity organisation to fight child traffickingany publisher would be keen to have that story.
Only one thing was certain: this was going to be someone special.
Lexi brushed most of the pollen from the rough silk-tweed fabric of her jacket, then straightened her back and walked as tall as she could across the loose stone drive, the excitement of walking into the unknown making her buzz with anticipation.
A warm breeze caressed her neck and she dipped her sunglasses lower onto her nose, waggling her shoulders in delight.
This had to be the second-best job in the world. She was actually getting paid to meet interesting people in lovely parts of the world and learn about their lives. And the best thing of all? Not one of those celebrities knew that she used every second of the time she spent travelling and waiting around in cold studios to work on the stories she really wanted to write.
Her children's books.
A few more paying jobs like this one and she would finally be able to take some time out and write properly. Just the thought of that gave her the shivers. To make that dream happen she was prepared to put up with anyone.
Swinging her red-leather totewhich had been colour-matched to her now-ruined sandalsshe shrugged, lifted her chin and strode out lopsided and wincing as the sharp stones of the drive pressed into the thin soles of her shoes.
Hey-ho. They were only sandals. She had seen too much of the flip side of life to let a little thing like a damaged sandal annoy her. Meeting a client when she didn't even know their name was a drop in the ocean compared to the train wreck of her personal history.
It was time to find out whose life she was going to share for the next week, and why they wanted to keep their project such a secret. She could hardly wait.
Mark Belmont rolled over onto his back on the padded sun lounger and blinked several times, before yawning widely and stretching his arms high above his head. He hadn't intended to fall asleep, but the hot, sunny weather, combined with the latest bout of insomnia, had taken its toll.
He swung his legs over the lounger, sat upright, and ground the palms of his hands into his eyes for a few seconds to try and relieve the nagging headachewithout success. The bright sunlight and the calm, beautiful garden seemed to be laughing at the turmoil roiling inside his head.
Coming to Paxos had seemed like a good idea. In the past the family villa had always been a serene, welcoming refuge for the family, away from the prying eyes of the media; a place where he could relax and be himself. But even this tranquil location didn't hold enough magic to conjure up the amount of calm he needed to see his work through.
After four days of working through his mother's biography his emotions were a riot of awe at her beauty and talent combined with sadness and regret for all the opportunities he had missed when she was alive. All the things he could have said or done which might have made a difference to how she'd felt and the decision she'd made. Perhaps even convinced her not to have surgery at all.
But it was a futile quest. Way too late and way too little.
Worse, he had always relished the solitude of the villa, but now it seemed to echo with the ghosts of happier days and he felt so very alone. Isolated. His sister Cassie had been right.
Five months wasn't long enough to put aside his grief. Nowhere near.
He sniffed, and was about to stand when a thin black cat appeared at his side and meowed loudly for lunch as she rubbed herself along the lounger.
'Okay, Emmy. Sorry I'm late.'
He shuffled across the patio towards the stone barbecue in his bare feet, watching out for sharp pebbles. Reaching into a tall metal bin, he pulled out a box of cat biscuits and quickly loaded up a plastic plate, narrowly avoiding the claws and teeth of the feral cat as it attacked the food. Within seconds her two white kittens appeared and cautiously approached the plate, their pink ears and tongue a total contrast to their mum. Dad Oscar must be out in the olive groves.
'It's okay, guys. It's all yours.' Mark chuckled as he filled the water bowl from the tap and set it down. 'Bon appetit.'
He ran his hands through his hair and sighed out loud as he strolled back towards the villa. This was not getting the work done.
He had stolen ten days away from Belmont Investments to try and make some sense of the suitcase full of manuscript pages, press clippings, personal notes, appointment diaries and letters he had scooped up from his late mother's desk. So far he had failed miserably.
It certainly hadn't been his idea to finish his mother's biography. Far from it. He knew it would only bring more publicity knocking on his door. But his father was adamant. He was prepared to do press interviews and make his life public property if it helped put the ghosts to rest and celebrate her life in the way he wanted.
But of course that had been before the relapse.
And since when could Mark refuse his father anything? He'd put his own dreams and personal aspirations to one side for the family before, and would willingly do it again in a heartbeat.
But where to start? How to write the biography of the woman known worldwide as Crystal Leighton, beautiful international movie star, but known to him as the mother who'd taken him shopping for shoes and turned up at every school sports day?
The woman who had been willing to give up her movie career rather than allow her family to be subjected to the constant and repeated invasion of privacy that came with being a celebrity?
Mark paused under the shade of the awning outside the dining-room window and looked out over the gardens and swimming pool as a light breeze brought some relief from the unrelenting late-June heat.
He needed to find some new way of working through the mass of information that any celebrity, wife and mother accumulated in a lifetime and make some sense of it all.
And one thing was clear. He had to do it fast.
The publisher had wanted the manuscript on his desk in time for a major celebration of Crystal Leighton at a London film festival scheduled for the week before Easter. The deadline had been pushed back to April, and now he would be lucky to have anything before the end of August.
And every time the date slipped another unofficial biography appeared. Packed with the usual lies, speculation and innuendo about her private life and, of course, the horrific way it had been brought to an early end.
He had to do somethinganythingto protect the reputation of his mother. He'd failed to protect her privacy when it mattered most, and he refused to fail her again. If anyone was going to create a biography it would be someone who cared about keeping her reputation and memory alive and revered.
No going back. No compromises. He would keep his promise and he was happy to do itfor her and for his family. And just maybe there was a slim chance that he would come to terms with his own crushing guilt at how much he had failed her. Maybe.