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Drama was Anastasia Del Vecchio's life. In the spotlight since she'd been three years old, the venerable actress could be forgiven if at times she indulged her inner child and fell back on being a drama queen, something that had been deemed "adorable" by the movie reviewers when she was three, four and five, but seen as a tad grating on the nerves when she hit her teens and twenties.
Ever the trouper, she'd reinvented herself a handful of times since then and was now considered one of the acting world's last true icons.
For the most part, the actress refrained from giving in to this whim. Although, by no stretch of the imagination could the terms "shy" or "retiring" ever be applied to Anastasia Del Vecchio, not even when she slept. At this point in her career, everything about the legendary star was considered to be larger than life. She made a point of greeting both life and people with enthusiastic gusto.
If something couldn't be done in a big way, she saw no reason for it being done at all. Her energetic approach was the hallmark of her life, her five marriages and her numerous affairs. That aspect of her personality would never change. So it was no surprise that when an unexpected fall from the stage where she was rehearsing her latest play necessitated her being rushed off to the hospital, Anastasia was quite vocal about her pain. And she fiercely fought off the suggestion that any sort of drugs be introduced to alleviate her suffering.
"I can use this," she declared, batting away the paramedic's hand as he hovered over her with a syringe containing a measured dose of morphine. There were genuine tears of pain in her eyes as she gritted her teeth together. "I can remember this when I have to portray a woman in the throes of dire physical agony."
Anastasia had witnessed too many falls from grace to be complacent about taking any drugs. Drugs would wrestle the control she treasured so highly away from her.
As it turned out, these words were the last the renowned actress said in the ambulance before the pain succeeded in knocking her unconscious.
At the time of his mother's accident, Brandon Slade had been in the midst of wrestling with a completely unfamiliar foe. Writer's block. Like any writer faced with this demon, he had welcomed any distraction. So when the phone had rung, he'd snatched it up and found himself summoned to the theater by a very shaken and distraught director, Tyler Channing. He'd been in his car less than three minutes later and managed to arrive just in time to climb into the back of the ambulance with his mother as the doors were shut.
The paramedic slanted a nervous look at him as he administered the injection to the now unconscious actress. "She always like this?" the man asked.
A fond smile curved Brandon's mouth as he held his mother's hand. "Always."
Brandon Slade, a media darling in his own right, was Anastasia's only child, the product of his mother's second marriage. Head over heels in love, she'd married a passionate Australian actor whose ardor, sadly, was not restricted to the woman he'd exchanged vows with.
Unable to overlook the mounting number of women her husband slept with, Anastasia, with a secretly aching heart, had sent him packing eighteen months into their marriageand eight months into her one and only pregnancy. The rather pedestrian actor, one Kevin Slade, had made one more appearance to take a look at his son through the nursery window and then disappeared from both their lives.
Brandon was raised by a succession of nannies, some good, some not-so-good. But he never felt the lack of his mother's love even as she wove in and out of his life like a darning needle, taking work close to home when she could, leaving him behind with a nanny and under the watchful eye of her own mother when she couldn't.
Despite this chaotic upbringing, Brandon never felt neglected, never acted out, never felt desperate for attention. For a child born into the acting community, he was a rarity. He grew up centered and well-adjusted. He bore no resentment toward his mother for her less-than-orthodox behavior. She was Anastasia Del Vecchio, and that was just the way she was, a hurricane blowing in and out of his life.
For his part, Brandon enjoyed his life and enjoyed his mother whenever he could. And when he sought to make his own way in the world, there was no one who was more supportive of his effortsand his chosen fieldthan his mother. He loved her dearly for it.
Just how much was brought home to him when his own wife had walked out on himcoincidentally before he'd sold his first successful thriller and landed on the New York Times bestseller list. She'd told him just as she'd packed up and left that he, and the life he wanted, bored her. He'd been heartbroken and struggling to put the pieces of his life back together, not for his own sake, but for Victoria's. His daughter had been a little more than a month old at the time, and he hadn't known the first thing about taking care of a baby. When she'd heard what had happened, Anastasia had deliberately restructured her life, accepting a lesser part in a cable series that was being filmed in Los Angeles just so that she could be there to help with Victoria.
Unlike some parents when they made sacrifices and in complete departure from her public persona Anastasia never made any mention of the inconvenience this restructuring necessitated. She also never told him that she'd passed up a part that landed the woman who took her place an Academy Award. Her best friend, a hairstylist named Olga Newton, had let that little gem drop five years after the fact, which was the only way Brandon ever found out.
Now it was his turn to help her, Brandon thought, still holding his unconscious mother's hand.
As it turned out, the fall resulted in a cracked left hip. When she finally woke up eleven hours later, it was all over but the healing. The horrified actress was less than pleased to discover that she'd had to have emergency surgery and that where there'd once been bone, she now had titanium.
"Like the Bionic Man?" Her voice boomed with displeasure as she absorbed the news.
"Something like that, except you won't be able to run that fast," Brandon informed her, amused. "But the good news is that the surgeon used the newest approach to this surgery on you"
"You let them experiment on me?" Anastasia cried, alarmed.
"Not experiment, Mother. This was a proven method. It's called Anterior Hip Replacement and what I'm trying to tell you is that you're going to bounce back faster because there were no muscles cut with this approach. They were just stretched. You'll be walking by the time I get you home," he promised her.
By this time, twelve-year-old Victoria had been brought to the hospital by his agent and had sat, looking worried, until her grandmother had opened her uniquely violet eyes.
Brandon rested his hands now on his daughter's slight but sturdy shoulders as they both faced his mother with the news. "Oh, and by the way, I'm having your things moved into the guest room."
Anastasia frowned, then sighed wearily. Numbed and a little fearful, she fell back on what she knew. Drama and bravado. "You don't know what things to move."
Brandon took her resistance in stride. He was on familiar ground. "No, I don't," he admitted. "But I'm sure you'll tell me if I've forgotten something."
Sullen, Anastasia reached out for Victoria's hand. Her granddaughter was quick to respond. The role reversal was obvious and unselfconscious. "It's easier just leaving me at home and getting me a nurse."
"You know no one would be able to put up with you on a round-the-clock basis but me," Brandon pointed out, suppressing a grin. "Besides, who will you have around to help smooth out all those feathers you're going to ruffle?" His mother was far from the easiest person to deal with when she wasn't feeling at the top of her game, and this circumstance promised to keep her from that height for at least a month under the best of conditions. Undoubtedly more. "No argument, Mother. It's a done deal."
"I'll disrupt your well-ordered life," Anastasia protested for form's sake. It was easy for Brandon to see that he'd already won the argument. But his mother being what she was, she had to go through the motions so she had something to point to later, should he have a complaint about her staying at his home. "People will be coming and going. Loud people," she emphasized.
"I'll make the adjustment," he promised. "Now, the surgeon said we needed to make arrangements for you to begin physical therapy sessions as soon as possible."
Anastasia balked at the image that suggested to her. "That's for old people," she protested, this time in earnest.
"No," Victoria told her in her quiet, wise voice. "That's for people who take one too many steps backward off a stage."
Also in the room while this verbal three-way tennis match was going on was Cecilia Parnell. Initially just providing a cleaning service, she'd transformed into something more: Anastasia's occasional confidante and friend.
"You know," Cecilia began, "I know the name of an excellent physical therapist. She's very dedicated and comes with a long string of recommendations," she threw in for good measure.
This was his only mother, and as blase as he could sometimes sound, Brandon wasn't about to take a chance when it came to the woman's well-being.
"I'd like to see those recommendations," Brandon told Cecilia.
"Oh, Brandon, don't be so uptight," Anastasia chided. "If Celia says she's good, she's good. You want to be useful, make the arrangements," she dictated. Her violet eyes shifted to the woman who cleaned her house to a spotlessness beyond reproach. "They promised me I could go home in two days. See if this miracle lady can be at the house by Wednesday morning. I need to be on my feetand able to dancein six weeks. There's a bonus in it for her if she can get me there in less time."
"It doesn't work like that, Mother," Brandon said patiently, exchanging looks with Celia.
"I am filthy rich, Brandon. It works any way that I tell it to work," Anastasia countered with complete confidence.
Cecilia smiled as if to convey how a little miracle was about to be set in motion.
At ten o'clock Wednesday morning, when Brandon opened the door to admit the physical therapist that Cecilia Parnell had recommended, he wasn't exactly certain what to expect. Subconsciously, he had just assumed that Isabelle Sinclair would be a woman of the sturdier variety, big-boned and strong enough to be able to catch an average-size patient. He knew it would probably be viewed as stereotyping, but, like most people, he associated strength with size.
The woman he stared at could probably catch a falling chipmunk. A small one.
He definitely was not expecting a petite, delicate young blonde who looked as if she would blow over in the first high wind that blew through the Newport Beach community. So he could be forgiven if he came to the conclusion that this willowy woman on his doorstep was here for some other reason than to begin his mother's physical therapy regimen.
Maybe this was a nurse sent by the physical therapy agency to assess his mother's needs and condition before the actual therapist could be dispatched to begin her work, he thought.
At first, Isabelle didn't recognize him. Oh, she was aware that she was looking up at a tall, dark-haired, charmingly handsome man with a definite boyish streak going for himand that he was giving her a very deep, thorough once-over almost down to her bonesbut she didn't actually recognize his face for at least a good thirty seconds.
And then it suddenly clicked into place.
He was Brandon Slade. The Brandon Slade, author ofat last countten bestselling thrillers. And that was in addition to being the son of the movie icon she'd been sent to work with. She didn't know who she was more bowled over byher client or her client's son.
In awe of Brandon Slade's talentshe'd read every single one of his books at least once if not moreand definitely not unaffected by his looks, Isabelle Sinclair felt as if she'd just won some kind of fortuitous celestial lottery.
So this is what you meant by saying "Happy Birthday" when you handed me this assignment, Zoe.
At the time, she'd just thought it was her sister's very strange sense of humor kicking in. Now she understood. She was being sent to the home of a writer she admired to work with his mother, an actress who had been her personal heroine when she'd been a child laid up in a hospital bed for an intolerable number of months, thanks to a car accident that had left everyone else with scratches and had all but broken every one of the bones in her bodyor at least it had felt as if all her bones had been broken.
Watching Anastasia Del Vecchio take command of every situation she was in had provided her a vicarious thrilland had ultimately given her a role model to attempt to emulate.
Since the woman in the doorway wasn't saying anything, Brandon asked, "May I help you?"
Oh, God, yes. In so many ways. But, for the sake of decorum, she kept that response to herself, and instead, Isabelle smiled and said, "Actually, I'm here to help your mother, Mr. Slade." Extending her hand to him, she introduced herself. "I'm Isabelle Sinclair. Helping Hands sent me. I'm the physical therapist."
The response came out before he could stop it. "You're kidding."
She looked at him a little uneasily, puzzled by his reaction. "No, I'm not. Why would I kid about something like that?"
This had foot-in-mouth written all over it, but he felt he had to at least try to talk his way out of it. "Shouldn't you be, you know bigger?" He used his hands to emphasize his point.
She smiled, and he immediately noticed that it was one of those impossibly sunny smiles that seemed to light up a room. The kind of smile that came with its own wattage. Brandon caught himself smiling back. "Trust me," Isabelle told him, "I'm as big as I need to be, Mr. Slade."
He really had his doubts about that, but if she had any trouble, he intended to be around to lend a hand, so he supposed it was all right.
"If you say so," he murmured. "C'mon, I'll take you to her. She's waiting for you."
Isabelle could feel the butterflies in her stomach multiplying as she followed him. It was a first for her. She'd never felt nervous about meeting a client before.
Brandon led the way to the place his mother was currently presiding over: the living room. Ushering the physical therapist in, he withdrew to give his mother the center stage he knew she both needed and loved.
"I'll be right down the hall if you need me," he told Isabelle in a soft murmur.
The sound of his lowered voice caused a chaotic ripple effect that involved every part of her body. The man was just too handsome for her own good, Isabelle thought.
The next moment, thoughts of the writer's chiseled profile were forgotten as she found herself looking into Anastasia Del Vecchio's violet eyes.
Wow. The single word undulated through her.
"Tell me about yourself, dear," Anastasia instructed with a regal wave of her hand that would have made Queen Victoria proud.
Anastasia was lying on an oversize sofa in the living room, where she had taken up court, choosing to be "in the thick of things" rather than "cooped up" in the guest room, a room that had been sumptuously decorated