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They were waiting for him to fail.
Nathaniel Wolfe, bad boy of Hollywood and focus of millions of women's erotic fantasies, stood alone in the wings of the famous London theatre, listening to the excited hum of conversation from the waiting audience.
He knew they could roughly be divided into two camps. Women who had come to see if his face and body lived up to the promise of the big screen and men who had come to see whether he could really act.
The knives had been out for him since it had been announced that he would play the title role in a modern interpretation of Shakespeare's Richard II.
They thought he couldn't do it. They thought that the awards, the plaudits, the box office successes were all a result of clever camera work and a handsome face. They thought he had no talent.
A cynical smile tugged at the corners of his mouth.
He was going to blast their prejudices into the stratosphere. By tomorrow morning no one would be questioning his talent. The headlines wouldn't be Can the Big Bad Wolfe Really Act? but Big Bad Wolfe Silences Critics with Outstanding Performance. He was going to show them an emotional range that had never before been seen in the theatre.
The director was hovering in the wings and they shared a single brief glance. It had been a stormy collaboration with Nathaniel insisting on playing the part the way he wanted to do it and the director fighting back. Between them they'd produced magic that both knew would go down in theatre history.
As the moment approached, Nathaniel closed his eyes and blocked out the outside world. It was the ritual he always used. Within moments, Nathaniel Wolfe ceased to exist.
He was Richard, King of England.
This was what he did. He turned a role into reality. He didn't just act that character, he became that character. At the age of nine he'd discovered it was possible to slip into someone else's skin and hide there. It had been a way of escaping from the dark that had licked around the edges of his life. He could be whoever he wanted to be. A knight, a ninja, a dragon slayer, a vampire, a superhero. Desperate, he'd given himself the strength and power to fight back. To protect those he loved. Acting had begun as an escape and quickly become a disguise. And that was how he lived his life. Alone and in disguise, depending on no one.
He had no trouble being someone else.
It was being Nathaniel Wolfe that gave him problems.
'The dress does not make you look fat.' Katie tightened the corset over rolls of flesh. 'The colour is really flattering, I think you look great. And anyway, you're the Duchess of Gloucester. You're supposed to look' She broke off as the actress glowered at her. 'Statesman-like,' she finished. 'You're supposed to have gravitas.'
'So you're basically saying I look fat and old?' 'No! I picked the costume really carefully.' Realising how that could be interpreted, Katie braced herself for more abuse. 'You're playing the part of a grieving widow so you're not supposed to look bright and cheerful.'
'Are you trying to tell me how to act?'
'No. I'm telling you that you look perfect for the part. Please try and relax.' 'How can I relax when I'm cast alongside Nathaniel Wolfe? He is sarcastic, cutting, moody Yesterday when I made that one simple mistake'
'He just looked at you,' Katie said soothingly. 'He didn't actually say anything.' 'You don't know how much can be conveyed by the eyes, especially when those eyes belong to Nathaniel Wolfe. When he looks at you it's like being zapped by a laser.' Increasingly agitated, the older woman waved her hand towards the door. 'Go. I need to be around people who understand my temperament.'
Crabby and irritable? 'I still have to zip up your dress.' Katie discovered that her hands were shaking. 'Look, we're all stressed'
'What do you have to be stressed about?'
'Well ' For a moment Katie almost told her about the meeting she had with a top British costume designer and how much was riding on it. She almost blurted out that her debts were so scarily huge she spent her nights creating mental spreadsheets, trying to find a way of paying everything she owed. But if all went well tomorrow, then that would change. This was her big break.
Misinterpreting her silence, the actress made an impatient sound in her throat. 'You have no idea what it's like acting opposite a Hollywood star. You have no idea how it feels to know that every single person in that audience has come to see him.' She turned the full force of her wrath onto Katie. 'My dress could split and everyone would still be looking at him! I could be naked and no one would notice!'
Horrified by that thought, Katie took several deep breaths. 'Please calm down. It's just opening-night nerves. Everyone feels the same.'
'Everyone except Nathaniel Wolfe,' the actress snapped.
'He's as remote as Antarctica and every bit as icy. No one dares get too close in case they injure themselves on all that ice.'
'And then they'd sink like the Titanic.'
'Are you saying I look like the Titanic?'
'No!' Katie decided it was safer not to indulge in conversation. 'You look gorgeous and the dress fits perfectly.'
'Not for much longer. When I'm stressed I just want to eat. And acting alongside Nathaniel Wolfe stresses me. You're young and pretty. Why aren't you backstage wearing a pushup bra and a plunge top like all the other girls?'
'I look ridiculous in a push-up bra and I'd die on the spot if Nathaniel Wolfe actually noticed me. Fortunately he doesn't know I exist. He calls me "wardrobe." Even when I was fitting him for his costume he didn't talk to me. He was on the phone the whole time. Breathe in ' Katie struggled with the zip, praying that it would hold. She didn't want to be the one to point out that eating a truckload of doughnuts between costume fitting and opening night wasn't helpful. 'Nathaniel Wolfe is so famous I find it impossible to act normally around him. When he walks into the room my stomach churns, my mouth falls open and I stare like an idiot, which is not a good look. And anyway, he is the ultimate bad boy and I prefer men who are a little less scary.' She fastened the hooks at the neckline. 'There. You're ready. Good luck.'
'It's bad luck to wish an actress good luck. You're supposed to say "break a leg" or something similar.'
Katie sighed. Break a zip? 'I'm in charge of wardrobe, if anyone breaks anything it will be a problem because none of the costumes will fit over a plaster cast. And now I have to go and check on John of Gaunt.'
She escaped to the wardrobe department where her close friend and assistant, Claire, was munching a bar of chocolate and reading a celebrity magazine hidden underneath a costume. She glanced up guiltily as Katie entered the room. 'Oops. You caught me peeking into other people's lives all for the purposes of research, of course.' Her grin turned to a frown as she looked at Katie's face. 'I'm guessing you've just come from sorting out the Duchess of Grizzly Ghastly Gloucester. Did she fit into her dress?'
'Just.' Katie flopped into a chair. Pain stabbed behind her eyes. 'Dressing her in deep purple is great for the character she's playing, but dark colours are very unforgiving against exposed flesh and I have a horrible feeling that her dress is going to split. Do we have any headache pills left?'
'I just swallowed the last. And talking of headaches ' Claire passed her the magazine. 'I don't know if you're going to want to see this, but there's a huge feature on your sister in here. Is Paula Preston the Most Beautiful Woman in the World? Well, duhno, she's the most airbrushed woman in the world. How come you're Field and she's Preston? Why don't the two of you have the same surname?'
'She doesn't want anyone to make the connection. She likes to pretend her family doesn't exist.' Katie stared at the picture of her sister and then thought about how much their mother was struggling. Part of her just wanted to get on the phone and yell. She wanted to remind Paula about family loyalty and priorities. But she knew there was no point. 'When it all came out about Dad's gambling problem, she was horrified. I was horrified, too, obviously, but Paula was just so angry with Mum for forgiving him and staying with him all those years. She blames her for the fact we had no money when we were growing up and says that if Mum loses the house now, then it's her own fault. She doesn't see why she should pay for what she sees as Mum's weakness.'
'Sometimes I can't even believe we're related.' Katie chewed the corner of her fingernail and then caught sight of her sister's perfect nails and let her hand drop into her lap. 'It
was all too grubby for her. She's created this perfect image for herself and she doesn't want it tarnished by Dad's sins.'
Claire snatched the magazine back from her and ripped out the offending article. 'There.' She scrunched up the pages and threw them in the bin. 'She's where she deserves to be. And now I'm going to watch the wicked Wolfe onstage. It's a once-in-a-lifetime thing. Are you coming?'
'No. I need to look at my drawings again and go over the script before tomorrow.'
'You'll never be able to work in Hollywood if you're star-struck.'
'I'm not star-struck.'
'Yes, you are. When you took his inside leg measurement, your face was like a tomato.'
'OK, maybe I'm Nathaniel Wolfe-struck.'
'The guy is smoking hot, that's for sure.'
Katie twisted the cap off a bottle of water. 'Yes, but he isn't real. How well can you ever really know an actor? How do you know when they're acting?' She sipped her water. She knew only too well how easy it was to think you knew someone and then discover you didn't. 'I mean, if Nathaniel Wolfe ever said "I love you" to you, are you seriously going to believe him?'
'I overheard him telling the director that love is a four-letter word and he never uses four-letter words. Do you know that the tickets for this sold out in four minutes? Four minutes. Incredible. Particularly when you think that Shakespeare is gobbledegook to lots of people. Macbeth talking to skulls'
'Hamlet.' Katie slipped off her shoes and flexed her toes. 'It was Hamlet.'
'Whatever. I was rubbish at English at school. I used to think Chaucer was something you rested your teacup on.'
'That's saucer, not Chaucer.'
'My point exactly. Anyway, what I'm saying is that he could be reading his tax return and it would still be a full house. This is Nathaniel Wolfe we're talking about. The man has won every award going, except the Sapphire Screen Award. That's the big one.' Katie thought about the massive hype that surrounded the most prestigious film award in the world. 'He's been nominated three times.'
'I guess it's every actor's ultimate goal. He certainly deserves it this time round.' Claire looked dreamy.
'Even when he's spouting Shakespeare and I don't understand a word he's saying, I still can't stop listening.'
'That's what I'm trying to tell youit's mind control. It's the voice. And those incredible blue eyes.'
'Can you imagine what it would be like to actually have sex with him? I wonder if you'd stare with your mouth open all the way through?'
'That's one question I'm never going to be able to answer. He doesn't even know I'm alive. Thank goodness.' Katie put the top back on her water and returned the bottle to her bag. 'Listen, about tonight'
'You are not backing out, so don't even think about it. It starts at eleven and we need to look really sexy. Wear something that shows your cleavage.'
'No way. I still have no idea how I let you talk me into speed dating.'
'You're gorgeous, Katie. You only think you're fat because your sister is Paula Preston, supermodel.'
'I feel so unfit. When this play is over I'm going to be more disciplined about exercise. I want to be toned and sleek. It's depressing watching Nathaniel Wolfe. His body is packed muscle.' Gloomy, Katie flexed her biceps. 'I barely have the strength to lift my water bottle.'
'He looks deadly in that leather jacket you picked out for him. You are utterly amazing at knowing exactly which costume will work best.'
'The costume is supposed to mimic the character's emotional journey.' Katie glanced down at her ripped jeans. 'I dread to think what my clothes say about my emotional journey but I definitely travelled economy.'
'Your clothes say that you're an overworked, underpaid costume designer with no time to worry about your own wardrobe.'
'And with huge debts.'
'You're incredibly talented. One day someone is going to discover you.'
'Well, I wish someone would discover me quickly.' Panic streaked through her. 'The house sucks everything I earn. It's like a monster.'
'You have to tell your Mum how much you're struggling. She doesn't really need three bedrooms, does she?'
'It's the home she lived in with Dad. It's full of memories.' Emotionally and physically exhausted, Katie closed her eyes. 'Every time I go there she tells me that living in the house is the only thing keeping her going since we lost him. Despite everything, theirs was such an incredible love story. Anyway, if I get this job it will all be fine. Another step up the ladder.'
'I bet your sister would be interested if she knew you were working with Nathaniel Wolfe.' Claire stretched out her legs. 'Do you prefer him in Alpha Man or Dare or Die?'
'Seriously?' Claire frowned. 'Alpha Man was about a Special Forces soldier. I didn't think it would be your sort of thing.'
'I loved the fact he thought he had no heart and then when he met the daughter of his enemy' Katie's eyes misted 'that bit at the end when he sacrifices himself to save her. I cried for days. I must have watched it a hundred times. Nathaniel Wolfe was crazily good in that movie. And totally gorgeous. If they awarded a Sapphire for Best Physique, he'd win.'
'Talking of the Sapphires' Claire threw her the magazine 'flick through the rest of that when you get a minute. There's an article on dressing for the big night. They're predicting who will wear what at the ceremony in two weeks' time. You might be interested.'
'Why? I'm never going to be invited to the Sapphire ceremony, which is just as well because I don't think you're allowed to wear holey jeans.' Katie slipped the magazine into her bag to read later and Claire glanced at her watch and jumped to her feet.
'Whoa, look at the time. Less than five minutes to go. Sure you won't change your mind and come?'
'No, thanks. You can drool for both of us.'