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A Sudden Engagement and The Sicilian’s Surprise Wife

By:Penny Jordan


CHAPTER ONE


THEIR play was going to close. Somehow Kirsty knew it; she could taste the bitter flavour of defeat, had sensed from the audience response that all was not going well. Her meagre savings were almost exhausted and unless she found an office job to tide her over she would have to go tail between her legs back to her parents.

If only Chelsea and Slade weren’t away in Italy! Much as she loved her parents, her mother was inclined to fuss, and indeed had never wanted her to become an actress. Her aunt, though, understood. An actress; Kirsty grimaced wryly, slipping out of the theatre without bothering to join the others in the green room. If it hadn’t been for Drew Chalmers’ biting criticism of her in her last play she might still have been appearing in it; might indeed have gone with it to New York with the rest of the cast.

As the icy cold wind, unseasonal in September, funnelled down the collar of her suede coat she shivered and tried to huddle deeper into it. The coat had been a present from her aunt and her new husband the previous Christmas, and a very welcome one. The soft cream suede suited her dark curls and faintly olive-tinged skin and the expensive cut flattered her curvy shape; slightly less curvy of late. The salary she was being paid by the small theatre group she was now working for barely covered her rent and the basics; and just for a moment she allowed herself to think weakeningly of her mother’s delicious cooking; of the meal that had always been waiting for her when she lived at home.

She was the one who had wanted to leave, she reminded herself. If her mother had had her way she would still be living in Melchester, still going out with the boy next door, marriage ultimately on the cards when he finished university, but much as she liked him she hadn’t wanted that.

For as long as she could remember she had wanted to act, had dreamed of acting, but always the very great parts, she acknowledged ruefully, and she had firmly believed that she could succeed in her chosen career. Her drama school teachers had encouraged her, and she had been over the moon when she had got her very first role; a small part, admittedly, but in a very prestigious work by an up-and-coming playwright. Now she could acknowledge that she had never felt truly at home in the role—that of a street-wise teenager, cynical and worldly. It had called for a depth of experience she now realised she lacked, and although she had done her best, and had been reasonably satisfied with the result, the sardonic and powerful critic who had reviewed the first night had been scathing in his denunciation of her interpretation of the role. ‘Small-town and small-time’, had been the most least offensive of his comments, and after reading his harsh denunciation of her Kirsty hadn’t been surprised to learn that she was no longer needed on the cast.

Since then she had spent six long months looking for work before she had got her present part; a very small walk-on one in fringe theatre, and strangely enough she now felt that she had gained the experience needed to play her lost part far better.

Quite why Drew Chalmers had made her the object of his acid attack she didn’t know; she would have thought herself far too lowly to merit such attention. One of the cast had suggested it might have something to do with the fact that he and the playwright Nigel Evans were acknowledged rivals. God, how she had hated him! Still hated him, she acknowledged honestly. But for Drew Chalmers she would now be appearing on Broadway, gaining the experience she needed if other theatrical doors were not to be barred to her. Chelsea had sympathised, but sympathy only went so far, and Kirsty knew anyway that her aunt did not have her passionate love for the stage, for all that she had originally trained for it. What hurt the most was that she knew that he had been right; she had not been up to the part, and his condemnation of her as a ‘small-town girl incapable of convincing any audience that she was anything other than exactly that, and second rate small town into the bargain’ still rankled.

It was almost a mile from the small dilapidated theatre the group had hired to Kirsty’s lodgings, and as she waited to cross the main road she noticed the long, sleekly expensive car hurtling past her. Its occupants would be going to dine and dance at the exclusive hotel on the edge of the town, made famous by its superlative golf course, no doubt. A small smile twisted her pretty mouth, as a sudden impulse took root in her mind. Why not? She needed something to cheer herself up, and there was still that birthday cheque she had received from Chelsea and Slade which she had been carefully hoarding for a rainy day. Why not go mad and splurge the lot? Caution and impulse warred and suddenly impulse won. She deserved a treat, Kirsty told herself firmly. She would go back to her lodgings, change, then take a taxi to the hotel and treat herself to a first-class meal and a night in the most luxurious accommodation the town could provide!

By the time she had reached her lodgings, a terraced house set in a miserable terrace of similar houses, bleak and unwelcoming on this unpleasant September evening, caution had prevailed to the extent that she had promised herself that if a phone call to the hotel elicited the response that no rooms were available she would forget the whole idea. However, she was in luck, or out of it, dependent upon one’s view, and the receptionist assured her cheerfully that yes, indeed, they had a room and that of course it was possible to book it for a single night.

Mrs Larch, her landlady, looked pained and curious when Kirsty told her she was going out to dinner and wouldn’t be returning that night.

‘Boy-friend, is it?’ she enquired, eyeing Kirsty assessingly. ‘Like I told you when I gave you a room, I don’t hold with those sort of carryings on. Always been a decent house, this has, and always will be.…’

In spite of her landlady’s avid curiosity, Kirsty managed to escape to her room without giving anything away.

Her mother would throw a fit if she could see her room, she reflected ruefully as she opened the door. The wallpaper was shabby and faded, the room heated by a miserly two-bar electric fire. The bed was narrow and lumpy; an old-fashioned wardrobe far too large and dark for the small room. No cooking was allowed in the rooms, but despite that Kirsty had managed to smuggle in a toaster, which together with her electric kettle meant that at least she could always have a cup of coffee and a piece of toast. But she was going to do better than toast and coffee tonight—much better! Now, what was she going to wear?

She opened the wardrobe and surveyed its contents thoughtfully. Thanks to her aunt she had several attractive outfits. One of them in particular caught her eye—a soft cream silk dress. Her mother had protested that at barely twenty she was far too young to wear anything so sophisticated when she had seen it, but she had fallen in love with it, and had refused to be placated with anything else.

She was lucky enough to find the bathroom unoccupied and the water almost warm—tonight she would lie for hours and hours in her very own bathroom, she promised herself, simply soaking in lovely hot, perfumed water. The silk slid softly over her newly washed and perfumed skin, the front dipping almost to the waist, revealing the swelling curves of her breasts, the cleverly draped neckline making the plunge alluring rather than obvious. The deep vee was repeated at the back before the dress teased and tantalised with full-length, close-fitting sleeves and a skirt that moved against her skin in silken ripples, caressing her body from hip to knee.

It was a dress that to another woman was instantly recognisable as very sexy, but to a man, conditioned to equate ‘sexy’ with ‘little black numbers’, it was quite plain, until it was seen on, preferably on a woman who knew how to walk properly, as Kirsty now did.

Her dark hair curled naturally and normally she left it down on her shoulders, but tonight she swept it upwards into a softly flattering style, adding the pearl and diamond earrings and the matching necklace that had been a bridesmaid present to her on the occasion of Chelsea and Slade’s wedding.

Kirsty smiled impishly as she thought of her aunt—nearer her own age than her mother’s and a close and valued friend. She wished they weren’t quite so far away, but her small godson’s arrival had left his mother a little tired and her doting husband had swept mother and baby off to Italy for peace and quiet before ‘the whole family descend on us for Christmas’, as he had put it succinctly to Kirsty before they left.

Kirsty liked Slade. Her aunt needed a man strong enough to curb her wilful streak and compassionate enough to understand her more vulnerable side, and in Slade she had found one. She and Chelsea were very alike, Kirsty admitted. She too had that same impulsive wilfulness that could flare up out of nowhere, and sometimes change the whole pattern of planned events. Like the time Chelsea and Slade had first met, and Chelsea had mistakenly thought that Kirsty was in love with him, and had decided to rescue her. A grin curved her mouth, bringing warmth to the sparkling brown depths of her eyes. Her skin, naturally matt and smooth, needed no foundation, but her training had taught her the importance of good make-up, so she applied blusher, and added mascara and the merest hint of coffee eyeshadow to add a mysterious allure to the slightly Oriental slant of her eyes, darkening her lips with a pretty gloss before slipping on slim-heeled leather shoes and picking up her red coat.

The taxi arrived on time, and Kirsty had to repress another grin as she saw the betraying movement of the lace curtains at the front window as she was driven away.

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