Alison Barnard's A Walk in the Rain is the story of two women who meet when each is on the brink of world-wide fame and trying not to face her dissatisfaction with the life she has made for herself. It is a love story, but it is also about a journey to self-acceptance. By the end of it, both major characters have to challenge assumptions and prejudices in society and in themselves. Actress Shara travels and lives with Jessa while researching her new role - that of Jessa Hanson - in the film about the conductor's life, and they fall in love. Shara's boyfriend Derek intervenes, helped by Shara's belief that she has caught Jessa in a compromising position with a former lover. They separate. "Maestra" is filmed and Jessa records a musical poem that is a tribute to the love she has lost. When Shara hears that musical piece, goes to see her. They consummate their relationship, but is Shara ready for the kind of publicity a lesbian relationship will attract?
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Lesbian Erotic Fiction
© 2011édition el!es
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Cover Illustration: © 2jenn – Fotolia.com
“No, Lisa. I won’t do it. It’s a terrible idea.” Jessa Hanson frowned and paced the room angrily as she spoke.
Lisa Guthrie, her talent agent, looked at her over the tops of her glasses and tried not to smile, because Jessa could be so predictable at times. She leaned against the breakfast bar in the open-plan living space of Jessa’s London flat and spoke calmly to her favorite client. “Yes, it is a good idea. Just as it was a good idea to cooperate with the biography and keep some sort of creative control. It’s the best way to cut down on sensationalism. Your life story is dramatic: first openly lesbian female to be musical director of a major orchestra, one of the youngest people ever to be musical director of a North American orchestra, first classical musician to have a number one pop CD, first biography of a musician to top the non-fiction bestseller charts on both sides of the Atlantic – you’re a star.”
“I hate that word.” Jessa’s frown turned into a scowl. “And, with the exception of the fact that I’ll be musical director of the TSO, which won’t even happen for almost a year, none of that had anything to do with me. The CD was only a pop sensation because I worked with Norah Jones.”
“Your name and image were on the front of the CD . . .”
“That was a bad idea: I produced it and played on some of the tracks because she wanted to go in a new direction and I’d enjoyed writing with her, but I should never have consented to the cover photo. It gave the wrong impression . . .”
“Jessa, get over it. The photo showed your navel and caused a bit of a stir in the classical community, but you’re obviously still being taken seriously, or you wouldn’t have such a great season lined up – not to mention a two-year contract with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. In fact, answer this: as your manager, have I ever asked you to do something which turned out to be bad for your career?”
Jessa looked at the floor, embarrassed by the question. Lisa was so much more than her manager. Lisa had been a big sister, surrogate mother, agent, even financial advisor at times. It was true that she was well-compensated for that nowadays, but that had not always been the case and Jessa owed more to her than she did to anyone else in her life. Yet Lisa never mentioned all the personal things she’d done for Jessa, only ever reminding her, as now, of the professional decisions, and only when she thought Jessa was being unreasonable in reaction to one of her suggestions.
“No,” she admitted with a sigh. “You’ve made some wacky but prescient decisions about the direction in which I should take my career. And if you think I should retain creative control over the film adaptation of my life story then you’re probably right. What I object to is the way you’re suggesting I do it. The next two months are going to be busy and stressful: a week in New York, then a week in Toronto, not only conducting, but doing publicity spots when the announcement is made, then Berlin for a week and then back to London. I don’t need the added stress of an egotistical actress following me around and constantly distracting me from what I have to accomplish!” Jessa’s voice had started to rise as she’d spoken the last sentence and it ended just short of a whine.
“Jessa, you don’t know that she’s egotistical . . .”
“She’s an actress! And a successful one at that! Do you know any successful actresses who aren’t egotistical and, in a sick dichotomy, terrified of being themselves? Pretending to be someone else for a living is not a healthy impulse!”
“You don’t know Shara. She’s emotionally stable and her life is not her work. She is not her career.”
“Oh, it’s ‘Shara’ is it? How do you know so much about what she’s like?”
“Because I’ve met her a few times.”
“Oh.” Jessa turned away, but not before Lisa had seen the hurt on her face. Surround Jessa with other musicians and scores and she was supremely confident, but at her core was the insecurity born of being abandoned by her parents when she had been a child-like sixteen. In the aftermath she’d become streetwise and outwardly tough, but she remained acutely sensitive to betrayal by the few people she allowed to get close to her.
“Jessa, I would never ask you to spend weeks at a time, especially at such a crucial time in your career, with someone I thought could be bad for you. At the same time, I could not dismiss an opportunity to influence this film. The only way I could be a good manager, and a good friend, was to meet Shara Quinn and see if she was the sort of person it would be worth your time to allow to see what it’s really like to walk in your shoes. She’s worked with the director before and he has a reputation for allowing his actors to have input into the projects – especially those actors whose judgment he trusts. If you allow Shara to get an honest feel for your life and career, it could make all the difference, but only if she’s intelligent and perceptive enough to see beyond the glamor and the hardship that go hand in hand with your schedule. Having spoken to her for extended periods, I can tell you, without reservation, that she is.”
“How many times did you meet her?” Jessa was distracted by Lisa’s mention of extended periods, since Lisa was notorious for sizing people up very quickly and accurately. She wondered if, perhaps, Lisa had had initial reservations about this woman, which would not be a good sign.
“Three times.” Jessa raised her eyebrows. “The first time was an introductory lunch with her boyfriend – a man named Derek Finch with the same need for attention as a small child. Since it was impossible to discuss much beyond the bare bones of what she wanted to do while he was there, especially since he wasn’t happy about having her on the road for six weeks, she asked if we could meet again. The next time we had lunch in my office and then she issued a reciprocal invitation to her home for dinner and we’d got along really well, so I accepted.”
“What, are you dating this woman?” Jessa was not happy and she knew that the jealousy she felt was unreasonable, but Lisa was notoriously antisocial, her job requiring so many business meals that she jealously guarded the time she had with her partner and her extended family. The feeling of sibling rivalry that Jessa felt towards this unknown actress who had lured Lisa into a private dinner was childish and sad, but Jessa felt it anyway.
“Jessa, don’t be a baby. Straight women don’t ‘date’, we have meals with friends.”
“Are you sure she’s straight? Remember the designer who wanted me to use her shirts and then took advantage of a fitting . . .”
“Jessa, she’s straight. I met her boyfriend. Besides, that’s part of the reason she wants to do this and live in your world. Her best friend is a lesbian, but she’s a private citizen and Shara wants to understand the added pressures of celebrity and lesbianism on the life of a musician, composer and conductor.”
“I’m not a celebrity – not in the way she is. I’m not illicitly photographed in my undies for ‘Heat’ magazine and I don’t go to film premieres . . .”
“Yes, but you can’t wait for a flight in the departure lounge, shop at a department store or go to a classical music concert as an ordinary member of the audience, without causing a disturbance.”
“True, but it’s not because I’m a dyke. She must experience the same things on ten times the scale, so she doesn’t need to spend time with me. Case closed.”
“Jessa, it’s not just your lesbianism, it’s your schedule: travel, practice, promotion, socializing and recording. She wants to experience those things with you instead of imagining what it’s like.”
Jessa sighed. “So what’s the plan? She books into hotels wherever I am and I have to face her from the time I sit down to breakfast?”
For the first time, Lisa looked uncomfortable. “Not exactly.”
Jessa’s eyes narrowed. She knew from experience that she would not like whatever Lisa said next. “So what, exactly?”
“She’ll be living with you . . .”
“No! Absolutely not. My living space is critical to the way I work. I will not have some spoiled egomaniac painting her nails and whingeing when I’m trying to practice or write – or even read. No way.”
“Jessa, it’s the only way. And it’s not going to be such a hardship. You’ll be staying in Stephan’s loft in New York and that’s huge with two bedrooms. In Toronto they’ve leased you a penthouse flat that’s got two bedrooms as well and in Berlin you’ll be using the guest flat on Meinekestrasse – and you certainly won’t be tripping over each other in that.”
“Lisa, I write in the middle of the night and I can’t tolerate distractions. Most people who are not overindulged actresses can’t stand hearing the same six bars played over and over again on a piano as I work out the little kinks in a composition – especially not at two or three in the morning!”
“That’s exactly the kind of thing she needs to know, if she’s going to play you in a film.”
“This entire idea is ridiculous . . .”
“It will make the film more accurate.”
“I mean the idea of a film is ridiculous. I’m still alive, for fuck’s sake. If anyone wants to know what I’m like they can come to a performance – unless they happen to live in Asia this year, I’m pretty damn accessible. I’m even in Argentina in February. And if they want to know more about me than they can read in the program, that bloody book has more about my life than I want anyone to know.”
“But most people don’t read.”
“Which is what’s wrong with the world today,” Jessa sneered. “We both know that my life simply is not interesting enough to keep anyone from falling asleep in a darkened theater.”
“Unless they’re enthralled by Shara Quinn,” Lisa joked.
“And that’s another thing: the woman couldn’t look less like me, if she tried! I’ve seen her on the telly: she’s twee with long hair and gray eyes.”
“They’re hazel – but that’s not the point. She’s an actress. Her hair will be cut for the role and she’s quite looking forward to wearing a cut-away coat and having camera angles make her look taller than she is.”
“God. Six weeks with an actress. Does she even understand what I do? Has she ever heard a symphony?”
It was Lisa’s turn to sigh. “You really need to let go of your prejudices, Jessa. She enjoys symphonic music from the classical period, but she prefers chamber music to music written for a full orchestra, and opera to either. Do you really think I’d ask you to live with someone who didn’t love music?”
“I didn’t think you’d ask me to live with anyone,” Jessa replied quietly.
“She’s not Stephanie. She doesn’t want to be Stephanie. She’s a nice woman who wants to do a good job. Perhaps you need to live with someone, even as a friend, who reminds you that companionship doesn’t always come with an expensive price tag.”
“I don’t want any new friends,” Jessa’s final objection sounded lame, even to her own ears.
“Perhaps that’s the best time to acquire one,” Lisa replied firmly. “Now, I have a meeting with a film producer about using that piece you wrote last winter in the score for his film. It could turn into a pretty major project for you and you have that gap between Buenos Aires and Toronto next year.”
“It’s called time off,” Jessa responded wryly. “You should try it some time. I’m serious, you know.”
“About what?” Lisa asked innocently.
“About everything. You need to work less, I would like to have next spring and early summer off, since I’m moving to Canada for my first steady job in autumn and, and this is important, if your actress turns out to be a pain in the arse, or interferes with my work in any way, she will be out of my life in a hurry.”
“Is that all?” Lisa drawled the question and raised one inquiring eyebrow.
“No, that’s not all.” Jessa walked over to her and hugged her. “Thank you. I know you only want what’s best for me and you are the only person in my life who that has ever been true of.”
Lisa hugged her back. “You are so welcome, Jessa.” Her voice sounded choked, because she knew that Jessa had not realized the loneliness and tale of betrayal implicit in that statement, coming as it did from a woman of thirty-three.
Shara Quinn put down the baton and rolled her shoulders to loosen the kinked muscles, letting the second movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony start without her. In the recording, André Previn continued to do an excellent job and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra didn’t notice her absence. It wasn’t one of Jessa Hanson’s signature pieces, so Shara would not be called upon to conduct it for the film, but a musician friend had suggested it as a great piece to practice on, because the tempo throughout was easier to track than in Holst’s Planets or others that had been included in Jessa’s best-selling recordings. “It will allow you to perfect your right-hand technique, so you don’t have to think about tempo and you can concentrate on everything else,” Julian had told her in what he’d thought was a reassuring tone.
At the time, all Shara could think was that what she’d thought would be the “fun” part of the project: dressing in drag and waving a baton, was turning out to be more of a challenge than faking virtuoso piano performances. She was a decent piano player and could manage simple pieces on the violin without too many mistakes, especially since she’d been practicing for months just as a way of getting an edge in the audition for the role. She’d known that she wasn’t the physical type Peter Garofolo had been looking for when he’d been working with casting directors on the principal role for his new film, but she’d never wanted anything this badly, so from the time she’d heard rumors of the film rights to Jessa Hanson’s biography having been acquired, she’d engaged tutors and started brushing up on her skills. She doubted that any actor could be fluent in eight instruments as Jessa Hanson was, but she was competent at one and could get by on violin and guitar, so she intended to milk that for all it was worth. She’d also worked with a voice coach to temporarily obliterate the Irish accent that had been key to her breakthrough film role in Hollywood. Authenticity had got her her first big break and Oscar nomination, and she hoped that musical authenticity would do it again.
She sighed and turned off the music. She needed to work out the tension in her muscles, so she put on shorts, t-shirt and trainers and went for a run on the treadmill. She resented the fact that nowadays she ran more on the treadmill than outdoors, but she hated being recognized when she was running, so although this came in a distant second to running outdoors, it was slightly ahead of being pointed at or, worse, being stopped in the middle of her run.
She could hardly wait to give up her leased house in the Hollywood Hills and head back to London, despite the fact that Derek loved it here. He’d given up his gardening business to be near her and because he didn’t need the money, but his constant presence was starting to grate. A month ago when she’d taken a three-week stretch in London as an opportunity to speak to Jessa’s agent about access to the subject of the film, he’d invited himself along and proceeded to behave like an absolute prat.
She really needed to do something about him, but he did provide companionship and sex when she needed it, and he wanted nothing from her that he wouldn’t have wanted if she’d been an unknown civil servant with a modest salary. She knew it was a terrible reason to stay in a relationship, but she hated the thought of being single and dating.
“Hiya babes.” As though conjured up by her negative thoughts, Derek appeared at the door to the exercise room, his hair flopping boyishly over his forehead and his lean body looking California casual in blue jeans and a translucent white cotton shirt. His feet were bare and he was holding two of his healthy yoghurt-shakes in his hands. “I thought I’d make you an after-workout treat.”
“Thanks,” Shara said, polishing off the bottle of mineral water she’d taken from the small fridge in the corner of the room and reaching for the shake. “What’re you doing today?” Derek’s professional idleness fascinated her, despite an innate distaste for people who didn’t work for a living that would no doubt make her very pedestrian and working-class in the eyes of Derek’s friends in England and the little clique he spent time with here. They weren’t famous, but they were rich – the children and grandchildren of Hollywood legends and powerful investors, who rated their acquaintances according to the table they were assigned at the trendy restaurant of the moment.
“Brent is driving up the coast to visit an artist he’s sponsoring for a new show.” Brent Heywood owned an unprofitable art gallery in Venice Beach that Shara thought was little more than an excuse to have parties to celebrate the openings of exhibitions which were raved about in unprofitable boutique magazines run by people with names like “Tiffany” “Tory” and “Justin”, but ignored by the mainstream art world. Those patrons of the arts, avant-garde “journalists” and the artists themselves, all seemed to be part of a Southern Californian elite of beautiful young people with trust funds. Despite the difference in nationality, it was disturbing how easily they and Derek had found each other and how seamlessly he’d integrated into their social sphere.
Shara imagined that the drive to “the coast” meant a beach house owned by the artist’s parents, where Brent, Derek and at least one flawlessly tanned female would sip champagne, or indulge in a discreet amount of some recreational drug and listen to music by an unknown band with a demo CD that had been paid for by patrons such as Brent and which was highly acclaimed in a small, glossy (but largely unread) music magazine whose editor was one of Brent’s social acquaintances.
Derek would get home just before dinner, exhausted and withdrawn, or energetic, chatty and horny, depending on the drug and the company. There was no doubt that Derek attracted the attention of the women he socialized with, but she was sure that he never cheated on her. Derek loved her, so she tried her best to appreciate that and not dwell on the emptiness she sometimes felt in their relationship.
She was convinced that she just wasn’t the “relationship” type, because this restlessness had been a characteristic of her interactions with all her previous boyfriends. Derek, at least, was just the sort of person she’d have come up with if she had to imagine a personality that balanced hers. He was laid-back where she was intense, he would rather do something physically demanding whereas she was happiest with things that were cerebral. He enjoyed the spotlight and loved having her on his arm at red-carpet events and she hated that aspect of her career. He thought little about appearances and she was completely paranoid about the way she appeared in public, he thought work was something you did because you had to and she had a tendency to focus on it to the exclusion of everything else; he was outgoing and social while Shara always preferred to stay home with a book and good music on the stereo. On any given day their differences balanced each other out or caused almost unbearable friction.
“What about you?” Derek asked. “Any plans? You know you’re welcome to join us for the drive if you’re not doing anything.”
Shara felt a moment of panic, then she remembered that she had a legitimate excuse. “Thanks, babe, but I’m still preparing for my new role. I have a piano lesson this afternoon and then I’m probably going to watch some DVD’s of Barenboim and Karajan.”
“Isn’t it enough that you’re going to spend six whole weeks following that woman around? How much can it possibly take to play the role of a lesbian who dresses in men’s clothes for work?”
Shara pressed her lips together and her nostrils flared. Derek was often disdainful of her work, but normally he hid it better than this. She struggled to control her impulse to snap at him. “I’ll be playing someone who is still alive and who isn’t even at the peak of her career. I want to be true to the role and I want my performance to be respectful of the woman I’ll be pretending to be. That means musical training and understanding the life of the woman herself. All of that is time-consuming, but it’s an honor to be allowed this opportunity and I want to be as close to perfect as I can get.”
“That’s the story of your life in a nutshell, isn’t it, Shara? As close to perfect as you can get?”
“Is that a criticism?”
“No, not really. But it’s a tall order for mere mortals to live up to.”
“Derek, I’m working hard to get ready for a challenging role. Have I asked anything more of you than to understand why I have to go away for a while?”
“A while? You’ll be gone for six weeks! And, as I understand it, you’ll be living with a lesbian.”
“I won’t be ‘living’ with her in any sense but the technical one, as well you know. I want to understand the routines and pressures of her life and how they affect her emotionally. It’s a miracle that someone as private as she is has consented to allow me to do that, because it certainly won’t be convenient for her.”
“Well I’m glad you considered her convenience, because I don’t recall your having considered mine when you took this role.”
“Is that what’s bothering you? That I didn’t ask your permission before reading for a role that has fascinated me from the time I read the biography it’s based on? Since when have you shown the kind of interest in my career that would encourage me to discuss future roles with you? Correct me if I’m wrong, but whenever I talk to you about scripts I’m studying, your eyes all but glaze over.”
Derek looked slightly guilty, obviously having thought that he’d hidden his boredom better. “Look, all I’m saying is that a six-week absence is something we should have discussed beforehand.”
“It’s a six-week absence during which you can visit me as often as you like. I can’t have overnight visitors, but I understand the woman practices piano for two hours a day, spends time writing music and has two to four hours of orchestra rehearsals every weekday, not to mention two performances a week, so it’s not as though I won’t be able to get away. Do you want me to be the kind of woman who asks your permission before she takes a trip? We’ve been together for five years and I’ve never been that kind of girlfriend.”
“Maybe that’s the problem. Maybe if your status were more formal, you’d feel more connected with me and you’d discuss things more.”
Shara frowned, genuinely confused. “Derek, what are you on about?”
“I mean, if we were married, you’d be my wife, not my girlfriend, and perhaps then you’d consider how your career decisions will affect me.”
“I’m an actress. I was an actress when you met me. Most of the work I do is in film and that means location shoots that last for weeks and even months. Even when I did guest spots on television, you knew, and accepted, they could be on either side of the Atlantic. When did that start to become a problem for you?”
“I’m thirty-two now and when we were home last month, I realized that most of my friends had settled down and started families. Even over here people are moving on. Brent and Soraya are engaged, did you know? It’s just all made me think about things and about the hints my parents have been dropping for years.”
Shara put down the glass with the shake, her stomach suddenly feeling sour. “So your friends get married or decide to have children and, as a result, we should do the same and I should start running my career decisions by you for approval. Have I missed anything?”
“You’re twisting my words. That’s not what I meant . . .”
“So tell me what you meant, Derek. We’ve been living together for almost four years, I thought we were reasonably happy, things have been going well and my career has taken off more than I could have hoped for or predicted. Suddenly you seem resentful of what I see as a huge career opportunity and you see my being a mere girlfriend, when your friends have fiancées or wives, as a problem.”
“I don’t want to fight about this; I just think it’s time to take our relationship to the next level . . .”
She shook her head in disbelief. “Is that a proposal?”
“Yes, I suppose it is. I want us to be married, Shara, and interact with each other the way married people do . . . and have a couple of kids. You’d make a great mother.”
Shara felt the half-digested shake rising into her throat and forced herself to take deep breaths. “I can’t talk about this now. I’ve just made an enormous commitment and worked for months to earn the privilege of being allowed to make it. If what you’re asking is for me to change my focus now and undo everything I’ve worked for, then I just can’t.”
“It doesn’t have to be right away, but surely you didn’t think we could continue this way indefinitely?”
As a matter of fact, I did. “Can we talk about this when I get back to London? I really need you to bear with me right now. This project means a lot to me.”
“Shara, I’ve just asked you to marry me.”
“I know,” she said miserably, before stepping around him and hurrying out of the room.
Shara couldn’t believe how nervous she was as she approached the reception desk in the converted warehouse. She’d been expecting Jessa to have a swanky Mayfair address, or a mansion in Highgate Village, so she’d been surprised when the cab had dropped her off in front of the block of flats in Clerkenwell, on the northern border of the City of London and the Barbican Center. The Barbican was the home of the London Symphony Orchestra and the entertainment complex hosted art, film, theater and musical events year-round, but while the surrounding area was popular with City traders, bankers and other professionals, it remained more convenient than prestigious, despite the trendy restaurants and galleries that had sprung up all over it during the last ten years.
One expected people like opera divas and world-renowned conductors to live in absolute luxury and wear formal clothing to breakfast, but Shara realized that people probably also expected the same of actresses who they only saw out of character on chat shows or at film premieres – and that was quite silly, really. So Jessa Hanson choosing to live in an inconspicuous building whose only distinguishing features were the floor-to-ceiling windows that dominated the red brick façade, shouldn’t be any more surprising than the fact that she preferred to cook for herself.
She hesitantly walked up to the reception desk, no doubt already having attracted the attention of the man behind it by loitering outside for several minutes. She wasn’t worried about being recognized, because she looked as unlike her movie-star persona as Jessa’s address was from a Mayfair mansion.
“Good afternoon, I’m here to see Jessa Hanson?” She heard the hesitation in her own voice.
The doorman made little effort to hide his skepticism. He gave her a quick once-over. Her hair was short and artificially darkened, worn like a sable cap that moved softly when she did. She was wearing lightly tinted Armani sunglasses that disguised her signature hazel eyes and her face was bare of makeup except for the translucent gloss that emphasized the soft fullness of her lips. She was also more casually dressed than she ever was during promotional appearances, in low-slung jeans worn with a wide black belt and thonged sandals with three-inch heels. It was a warm day and she wasn’t wearing a jacket, just a white cotton top that followed the contours of her body from elbows to collarbone, its wide neck showing off the flawless skin of her throat and the gold cross hanging from a fine gold chain that she wore whenever she wasn’t working. The top hugged the shape of her breasts and her flat stomach, stopping just short of her navel to reveal the small silver hoop that pierced the skin just above it and glinted in the recessed lighting of the lobby. There was a cavernous bag slung over her shoulder.
Shara knew that she looked younger than her twenty-nine years and flushed faintly as the doorman’s reaction made her wonder if Jessa Hanson had female groupies who regularly tried to gain unauthorized access to her home.
As though reading her mind, the doorman said politely, “Good afternoon, Miss. I’m afraid all visitors must be announced. May I have your full name and Miss Hanson’s unit number, please?”
“It’s Shara Quinn and unit seven.” Shara knew she sounded slightly haughty, but that was just in defensive reaction to her embarrassment at having been mistaken for some kind of stalker.
“Oh . . . right.” It was the burly doorman’s turn to look slightly abashed and Shara wasn’t sure if it was because he recognized her name or because he was thinking about his previous attitude towards one of Jessa’s guests. “I’ll just ring ahead and announce you.” He picked up a phone that had been hidden by the desk and said, “Miss Shara Quinn is here,” then listened for a few seconds before adding, “Right away, Miss Hanson.”
Now the soul of discreet professionalism, he looked back at Shara. “Miss Quinn, if you’ll just go through the door on your right, you’ll see the lift straight ahead. Take it to the penthouse level and Miss Hanson will meet you there.”
“Thank you,” Shara said, before turning towards the previously unnoticed door. There was a mechanical click as the doorman released the lock and Shara realized that despite the casual appearance of the building, security was closely attended to.
She fidgeted in the short, silent ride up to the fourth floor, looking critically at her appearance in the tinted glass mirror that made up the back wall of the spacious lift. Suddenly, she felt naked without proper makeup and the rest of her hair. She’d been pleased that the dye hadn’t dulled the healthy shine of it, but she still barely recognized herself, even though it had been four days since the drastic instructions to her hairdresser.
The lift dinged softly before the doors hissed open to reveal a small foyer with a dried flower arrangement on a marble-topped cherry table. The walls were papered in white linen and the floor was carpeted in hunter green pile so deep that it made her want to take off her shoes and wriggle her toes in it. The front door was of the same deep cherry wood as the table and just before it opened, Shara realized she had no idea what to expect. She’d read Jessa Hanson’s life story, read the script that covered the years from age eighteen to twenty-six, with flashbacks to sixteen, listened to recordings of her musical performances and seen dozens of still photographs of a pretty woman with large dark eyes, a polite smile and a petulant frown, but she’d never seen a moving image of that woman. Jessa had been videotaped for numerous news and music channel features, but all the video footage was being compiled on a DVD that should arrive at Shara’s home the following day, leaving her with no realistic physical impression of the woman she would be pretending to be in less than two months.
Jessa opened the door and felt as though her heart had suddenly stopped. She’d known that Shara Quinn was pretty: her face had been plastered on movie posters all over London and Jessa had seen news footage of her arriving at the Academy Awards ceremony, although she hadn’t won. Jessa had been battling a bout of the insomnia that periodically plagued her and she’d rented the DVD, curious about the Irish actress who had made such a splash in America. The film had been good and Shara had been superb as the abused wife of an English physicist who ended up tried for treason after she’d sold the results of his research to the highest bidder. Jessa admired the talent of the actress who’d taken home the best actress award, but she still thought Shara should have won instead.
When the door had opened, she’d prepared herself for the sight of shiny dark blond hair, framing beautiful hazel eyes and pretty lips. She’d prepared herself to see a spoiled actress, egotistical enough to think she could portray the most painful years of Jessa’s life, despite the fact that they looked nothing alike and had nothing in common. Instead she looked at a woman whose eyes were of indeterminate color behind smoky gray lenses, but the near-terror in their wide depths communicated itself clearly to Jessa. Her hair was shiny and short, and her full pink lips were curved into a hesitant smile that dimpled her cheeks. Jessa’s heart seemed to stop beating and her breath caught in her throat.
“Hiya, you must be Jessa. I’m Shara.” Her voice was lower than Jessa had expected, although she’d heard it before on the best that Bang & Olufsen had to offer.
Jessa’s heart started to pound and despite its distracting internal noise, Jessa forced herself to focus on not making a complete prat of herself. “I am. Thanks for stopping by today. I know, it’s short notice, but I wanted to get our first meeting out of the way, and I have so much to do before I go on tour.” She stepped aside. “Come on in.”
Shara was sure she looked as gormless as she felt. Why hadn’t someone told her that Jessa Hanson was gorgeous? And even if she was gorgeous, why did seeing her make Shara feel as though the world had tilted on its axis? She lived in LA where the proportion of abnormally stunning people was ridiculously high, but this had never happened to her before – and certainly not when she’d met another woman.
She walked through a short hallway and into a wide open living space, catching a whiff of a subtle perfume as she passed Jessa. At first she didn’t even notice her surroundings because she couldn’t get past her original impression of Jessa.
Jessa had answered the door wearing bronze linen trousers and a white, lacy tank top that hugged her body. She was tanned and her skin was smooth and healthy. Shara could see the lean muscles under the skin of her slender arms and strong shoulders, and the tank top left a lot of her smooth abdomen bare. In fact, Shara worried that the drawstring trousers would slip off Jessa’s slim hips. She was surprised to find that the thought had an odd effect on her heart rate.
But what had really stolen Shara’s breath away had been her first look into Jessa’s eyes. They were brown, but despite the tint of her sunglasses, Shara could see that they were a different kind of brown from what she’d expected after looking at photographs. They were like molten chocolate with cinnamon and Shara wondered what they would look like in the sunlight. Jessa’s eyelashes were long and dense and Shara suspected that that owed nothing to artifice. She’d found herself wanting to take off her sunglasses to look more closely at those amazing eyes, but the impulse terrified her. However improbably, the woman had taken one look at Shara and Shara had lost the plot.
She’d assumed Jessa was saying something sensible in response to her greeting, but she couldn’t hear it, because Jessa Hanson’s beautiful eyes held deep apprehension as she’d faced the woman who would haunt her life over the better part of two months. Being the cause of such apprehension had touched Shara deeply. She’d read enough about her to know that Jessa was a bit of a loner, so the loss of privacy involved in agreeing to Shara’s proposal would be huge.
Suddenly, when she was still standing outside the door, Shara had been scared that she wasn’t doing the right thing; she’d wanted to apologize; she’d wanted to say that she’d changed her mind and would find another way to research the role. But Jessa had stood aside and gestured for Shara to precede her into the flat and Shara’s legs mindlessly obeyed before her brain could come back on-line and direct them to do otherwise.
Shara’s first impression of the room was of light and space. It was much larger than she’d expected. One wall was dominated by floor-to-ceiling windows, and at the end of the room closest to the front door was a grand piano. There were plants strategically placed between the windows, and the almost imperceptible movement of their leaves added to the impression that the room was open to the outdoors.
The gleaming cover of the piano reflected the light and the outlines of the plants and the room was silent despite the cool air that, along with the motion of the leaves, suggested the flat was centrally air-conditioned, although the ducts were artfully concealed.
At the far end of the room was a breakfast bar and, beyond that, an open-plan kitchen. Had it not been for the traditional Tibetan rugs scattered on the polished oak floor, Shara could have imagined that the room could be used for rollerblading – it was that large. Several feet in front of the breakfast bar and more or less near the windows there were low, caramel-colored sofas and off-white recliners around a carved wood coffee table, and Shara noticed high-end stereo speakers placed throughout the room; no effort was made to conceal them, because their design fit the casually modern feel of the place.
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