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"HOW soon could I come to Rome?" Kate Mulhoon's fingers turned white as she clutched the telephone receiver. I'd go anywhere on earth for you, Caddy, but not Rome
But even as the words played out in her mind Kate knew she could no more leave her beautiful cousin Cordelia in need of support on a film set in Rome than she could than she could what? Take the risk that she might come face to face with Santino Rossi again?
An icy blast chose that moment to rattle the office window reminding Kate of another night when she had been working late five years before. But that night seemed like another life, another person living it
And that person didn't exist any longer, Kate told herself fiercely, fixing her concentration on the computer screen.
"Kate, are you still there?" Caddy said anxiously. "Just saving my files."
It was cold in the officethe heating went off at sixand Kate wished she could be bundled up in a woolly jumper rather than her customary office uniform of tailored suit and thin white blouse. She was often accused of dressing older than she should, but Kate had her reasons.
Satisfied her work was safe Kate skipped straight to flight information. Caddy wasn't just one of her favourite people in the world, she was the film star Cordelia Mulhoon, and as such one of the agency's most important clients. It was Kate's responsibility to look after those clients. She saw all types coming through the revolving doors and Caddy was no self-infatuated wimp. If Caddy called for help, then she needed it.
Without Caddy's mother, Aunt Meredith, to take care of things at home Kate wouldn't have considered leaving the country, but Aunt Meredith was like a rock and wouldn't blink at the sudden disruption to her routine. Even so it wouldn't be easy to leave Kate's litte girl, Francesca, behind. It would have to be a short stay
Kate brushed a strand of hair from her face as she studied the list of flight departures to Rome. It had been a long day, and a long time since she had last consulted a mirror. Kate wore her dark blonde hair pulled back for the sake of neatness rather than fashion, and the glossy waves fell almost to her waist. She might work in a so-called glamour job, but glamour had passed Kate by. She was a very private person who liked nothing more than going for long walks with Francesca or baking cakes together in Aunt Meredith's cosy farmhouse kitchen. She would plead guilty in a trice to not spending enough time on her looks, and thought her tall, slender figure unremarkable. In fact Kate thought everything about her unremarkable. She was glad of it, because unremarkable was safe safe from notice, safe from discussion, safe from gossip.
Kate's eyes were her most compelling feature. They were a deceptively soft shade of grey, but it was her gaze that was so expressive, and that had been known to turn steely when there was something or someone to defend.
"I feel bad about this already," Caddy said anxiously. "Then don't," Kate murmured distractedly. She had just identified a suitable flight.
"I wouldn't ask you to come unless I really needed you"
"You don't have to tell me that,"Kate said gently to reassure her cousin.
Caddy's emotional bank was always threatening to overflow, which was why she was such a remarkable actress. Kate had always been considered the steady cousin, the thoughtful cousin, which had made her break-out behaviour five years ago all the more remarkable. As far as her parents were concerned she had gone from golden girl to outcast in the time it took her to tell them she was pregnant. Only Aunt Meredith had stood firmly in her corner. And now it was Meredith's daughter, Kate's beloved cousin Caddy, who needed Kate's help. There wasn't a chance she would let Caddy down and send someone else in her place, though Pandora's box was a kiddy's lunch-box in comparison to the trouble Kate knew she could start in Rome. Rome was Santino Rossi's home town, and Santino Rossi belonged to that night from the past. By some cruel twist of fate Santino was also the producer of Caddy's latest film.
What were the chances she wouldn't bump into Santino Rossi at the Cinecitta studios where Caddy was filming?
Zero, Kate accepted grimly.
All her instincts might scream caution and urge her to stay at home, but loyalty wouldn't allow her to take the coward's course and so in order to know what to expect when she arrived she delved a little deeper.
"What's happened, Caddy? Can't your manager handle the problem for you?" But even as she asked the question Kate knew it was wrong. What sort of question was that to ask someone she thought of as a sister? Only exceptional circumstances could have prevented Kate from securing the first flight she found. And Santino Rossi was exceptional circumstances.
But Caddy was her dearest friend. "I'm booking the flight now, Caddy"
There was a gasp of relief from the other end of the line. "Oh, Kate, I'm so relieved. Marge Wilson has been a useless manager. I wish I'd listened to you in the first place and never hired her. She's drunk all the time, and"
"We all make mistakes," Kate cut across Caddy firmly. "And don't thank me. I know you'd do the same for me."
While she was speaking Kate's mind was racing. Taking her annual leave from the agency a month early wasn't a problem. She had recently trained up a shadowa bright girl with all the enthusiasm, thick skin and grit it took to take her place. She just had to keep chanting a silent mantra that Meredith would take care of everything while she was away and that Francesca wouldn't miss her too much. It should only take a few days to straighten things out on the set and find Caddy a new manager "Try not to worry, Caddy. I'll be with you in less than a day"
"I wouldn't ask you to come, but it's a shambles here. And it's not just Marge. Without someone in charge half the crew is high on booze"
"What about the director?" Kate interrupted. "He spends most of his time in his trailer with his girlfriend snorting coke," Caddy explained with disgust. "Santino's out of town, and we're way behind schedule"
Santino's out of town? If she had needed a deciding factor that would have been it, Kate realised, feeling instantly relieved. If Santino Rossi was out of town maybe, just maybe, she could get everything back on an even keel and return home before he even knew she had sorted out his studio. "Okay, that's it," she said, logging off. "I'm on my way."
It didn't take long for doubt to settle over Kate's thoughts. The film industry was only one arm of Santino's massive empire, but it was his most public enterprise. Kate couldn't imagine Santino would be far behind her if he got wind of the fact that things were going wrong on the set of his latest blockbuster. He wasn't the type of man to allow rumours from the frequently scandalous world of film to taint his reputation in the wider business arena. Films might be Santino's passion, but he was known as the Ice Man when it came to cutting deals. He left nothing to chance.
A shudder ran through Kate as she thought about it, and, as if sensing her concern, Caddy started to have doubts too.
"I wish there was some other way, Kate. I wish I didn't have to ask you to do this"
"Let me see what I can do before you build up your hopes." Kate was careful to make her voice upbeat and keep Caddy's expectations within reasonable limits. "With the best will in the world I don't have the authority to start throwing my weight around on someone else's film set."
Especially when that someone else was Santino Rossi. But Kate kept that thought to herself. This was Caddy's first major role and she deserved her chance. If Kate had anything to do with it Caddy would get that chance. "Whatever happens, you'll be all right," she told Caddy firmly. "I'll make sure of it. And don't worry about Santino where I'm concerned, it's been a long time. Five years," Kate added needlessly as if either of them could forget.
"If you're sure "
"I am sure," Kate said briskly. "All right. I'll leave a message at the gate. When you arrive just say you're my new manager"
"Your new manager?"
"I sacked Marge before I picked up the phone to you."
"You did?"A smile of approval touched Kate's lips. It was an unwritten rule that Caddy did any dirty work that had to be done. "We'll stay in touch. Keep your phone handy and I'll let you know when the plane lands."
Back at the small company apartment Kate occasionally used when she was working late during the week she stuffed some clothes into an overnight bag. Everything she was taking to Rome was of the rinse-out-and-hang-over-the-bath-to-dry variety, and she didn't plan on staying long. Time was tight if she was going to catch the flight, but that wasn't the only reason her heart was thundering. Thinking about Santino was all it ever took to do that.
It was over five years since Santino and his film crew had breezed into the small English town where Kate had lived with her parents. Five years since the most darkly dangerouslooking men Kate had ever seen had invaded Westbury with a view to using it as a possible location for their next film. All that swarthy Italian testosterone had cut a swathe through the local whey-faced youths. What competition could Wellington boots and anoraks provide to stylish jeans and snug-fitting tops? Shifting eye-lines of uncertain boys to the fierce, full-on stare of a confident Latin male?
It made Kate shiver even now to think about it. It was as if some fabulous circus had breezed into town. It was no wonder the local girls had swooned no wonder she had thrown caution to the wind and joined them.
Some cruel trick of fate had compounded her foolishness when the film crew had chosen to stay at Slade Hall, the manor house where Kate had been working part-time as a waitress to fund her studies. She'd had no idea that the tallest and most stunning of all the men was in fact the film producer and Italian industrialist, Santino Rossi. She knew now from the newspapers that Santino liked to remain anonymous whenever possible. That was how he had come to hear her confiding to one of her prettier colleagues at the hall that there was one luscious Italian male for each of the girlsKate had counted them.
Her own fate had been sealed the moment Santino Rossi had walked up to her and smiled. He had chosen her? It had seemed incredible to her at the time impossible. And how was she supposed to resist the opportunity of a lifetime? Was virginity so precious you couldn't spend it on a man who looked as though he had been born to please a woman? It had taken Kate about two seconds to decide she didn't want to lose hers to some spotty youth on the back seat of his car. If Santino Rossi was the only highlight in her life and no others came along she would die happy.
But she had been only eighteen, and reckless. She hadn't paused to consider the consequences. She'd been too hungry for adventure.
Kate couldn't even pretend to put a veil of respectability over her actions now. She had been quite shameless. She had watched Santino all night as she'd worked, and when he'd vetoed the bar after dinner in favour of going straight to his room Kate had slipped away and followed him. Snatching up a tray with a jug of coffee and a cup and saucer, she had made that her excuse to knock on his door. Widening her eyes, she had informed him that the manager had sent her up with the coffee Signor Rossi had neglected to order in the restaurant.
Laughing black eyes had suggested Santino knew she was lying, but he had invited her in anyway.
Showing no more subtlety than she had, he'd told her where to put the tray down and then backed her up against the wall. Planting one arm either side of her face, Santino had kissed her in a way she had only seen in films gently ached for him, and then deepening the kiss until all possibility of stepping back from the brink had been erased from her mind.
The fire that had flared between them that night had been so great that at no time could Santino have guessed she was a virgin. And if it had hurt for a moment when they had come together, it had been worth it for the pleasure that had come afterwards. Pleasure that even now had the power to make her long for his touch
And it was time that dangerous daydream was over, Kate told herself firmly, locking the catches on her case. Thinking about Santino Rossi's touch was out of bounds if she stood the remotest chance of catching her flight. Taking a last glance around to be sure she hadn't forgotten anything Kate swung her bag onto her shoulder and set off for Rome.
He'd got the word about the trouble from Carlo, the sparks on set. Santino's hard mouth firmed even more as he pictured Carlo, a man in his seventies, making the unpalatable decision to blow the whistle on his colleagues. Things had to be bad for the old man to make the call, which was why he had cancelled all his meetings and was heading out to the film studio now.
He had Carlo to thank for the information that, on top of a negligent director and a leaderless crew, his leading lady's new manager had turned up and thrown her gauntlet into the ring. He didn't need a second warning that everything would descend into chaos if he didn't get back fast.
Santino's mouth set in a grim line as he contemplated what the next few hours held for him. As he never tired of reminding himself, artistic types were unpredictable and difficult. The director he had hired for the film was said to be the best. The best what? Santino wondered now. He would have to fire him as soon as he got to the set. Fortunately he had now been able to hire his original director of choice after the film she had been working on had finished ahead of time. So until she arrived Santino would take charge. Inconvenient but unavoidable.
Receiving the go-ahead from the control tower, Santino nosed his Gulfstream G550 into position on the runway. Opening the throttle on the twin Rolls-Royce BR710 engines, he released the brakes.