The months after the filming of the Masked Mistress were filled with publicity and jet hopping and Gretchen Thomas wondered why in the world she endured the task of going from coast to coast within one day to smile and nod for cameras. One day she’d heard someone say that it was her job, but she didn’t remember anything saying so. But then again, she was a superstar. What exactly was her job description—again?
The fans smoothed her rough edges over somewhat, that is, until things got a bit crazy at one particular appearance at a movie premiere (not their film, though—she’d even started to think of Mistress as their film), and a fan decided she wanted Orlando Bloom’s shoes for her own. Needless to say, while Orlando was quite charming about the situation, he wasn’t willing to give up his designer loafers. Incidents like that led Gretchen to the medicine cabinet for her stash of over-the-counter drugs while the media exacerbated the story until it seemed like a great big game of Telephone.
Pictures of the two of them were everywhere, suddenly. They were snapped idly going to the supermarket, or even strategically placed at some glossy party. The movie poster had surfaced a few weeks before the film’s worldwide release, and Gretchen found that it was quite difficult to go out in public without being mobbed. Magazines printed pictures of her and Orlando out and about and made speculation. Speculation was the thing that Gretchen hated most about her job. The media was the one place where she could be a lesbian one minute and engaged to someone on That 70’s Show the next.
She made a point to stay out of it whenever she could.
There became times when she couldn’t ignore it. The overwhelming buzz around her and her co-star found Gretchen fielding questions about their suspected relationship. She smiled and said she never knew what the hell was going on when it came to matters of love, and left it at that.
That was the truth, but no one would believe her if she said so.
She and Love had been close when Gretchen hit adulthood, but differing interests found them apart for several years; Gretchen wanted to have a boyfriend who didn’t cheat on her within three months, and Love eluded her to hang out with the Internet dating enthusiasts. After that, she and Love only crossed each other’s paths every once in a while. They ran in different crowds, it seemed.
Then Samantha died and Chris went into hiding, and Gretchen closed up, forgetting Love.
That heartbreaking incident had been three years ago. She had lost her bandmates, her best friend and cousin Samantha and her adorable British friend Chris, to a car crash she had to thank Fate she hadn’t been a part of. Twenty-six-year-old Gretchen Ashleigh Amanda Thomas had grown up and out of her old self. Sure, she wouldn’t call herself a beauty, but now she believed that she was as attractive as she was going to get. She still had a bit of spontaneity in her, but it took a lot—of liquor—to get it out. Lime-green was now a closet obsession, and she only wore pigtails in old pictures.
She felt old. Very, very old.
She lived alone. She discovered that she was neat freak and figured no one else could stand her. According to her astrological profile, it must have been a hidden attribute because Virgos were predisposed to orderliness. And the only being in the world willing to live with her was a cat. With each passing day, she felt closer to spinster status and dreaded the day she would take knitting up as a hobby and make such asinine things as coffee mug warmers as her bed grew colder and colder.
* * *
Three days before the world premiere of The Masked Mistress in Los Angeles, as they left the official press conference for the film with Emma Bunton beside them and the rest of their co-stars nearby, Orlando looked to Gretchen and said, “You know, love, you really need to smile more.”
Frowning, Gretchen looked to him, right eyebrow arched a little more than the left. “Thank you for that observation, FOB. Say, do you do palm readings for an encore?”
Orlando rolled his eyes and looked to Emma, who was trying not to snicker and smiled for a picture. “Tell me the girl’s messing me about. Here I am, trying to be a nice bloke, and she responds to my gentility with blatant and stinging sarcasm.”
The petite blonde managed to hold her smile for Orlando without laughing. “Oh, you poor baby. I have no idea what in the world would make her so ungrateful to you.”
It was Gretchen’s turn to fight a snicker. Unfortunately, she was not as skilled at this as Emma, and the sound escaped from her lips. Orlando shifted his gaze to Gretchen.
“We are still not dwelling on the underwear incident, are we?” Orlando inquired in a slightly exasperated tone. “I’ll have you both remember I was on the short end of that.”
“Or the bum end,” Emma said, voice trembling with her suppressed laughter. Remembering the sight of a red-faced Orlando in his tidy whities made Gretchen double over in laughter. She remained like that for several moments as Orlando looked on, annoyed. When she straightened, one look at Emma almost had her doubling over again.
“I’m glad that you’re getting a laugh at my expense,” Orlando said dryly.
“Well, you did want her to smile more,” Emma pointed out. “Be careful what you wish for, mate.” A reporter called out Emma’s name and asked her about the rumored reunion with the other four Spice Girls. She went off and addressed that subject, leaving Orlando and Gretchen on their own.
Orlando turned to his leading lady and shook his head. “So, love, are we done laughing about that whole…” He made a hasty gesture with his hands. “Thing?”
“That depends if I can get the sight of you in your underoos out of my head within the next ten seconds. So thank you for reminding me.”
Orlando groaned. “Gretchen…”
At that moment, someone called out from behind them over the din. Frowning, Orlando and Gretchen both turned, scanning the teeming crowd for a familiar face. They finally found a raven-haired woman wearing a teal wraparound dress that brought out her blue eyes and trim figure. She had her arm hooked with the arm of the hairless Ace Jones, the smooth, urbane director of the Masked Mistress.
“It’s my mom,” Gretchen said with slight disbelief as she recognized the woman. She waved, hand up high so that her mother could see her. Gretchen’s mother waved back and said something to Ace in his ear so he could hear. They soon began to make their way to Gretchen and Orlando, stopping only once when a reporter called out a question to Ace. Ace paused to answer it, and Gretchen’s mother adroitly slipped her arm from his and went to her daughter.
After greetings and hugs (between mother and daughter, that is) were exchanged, Gretchen groaned when a motherly kiss was placed on her forehead. “Mama, you’re embarrassing me…”
Irene Thomas-Wolfe’s eyes twinkled with amusement and love. “If you’d like me to embarrass you, mija, I can just get the baby pictures out of my purse—”
Gretchen’s puckered up expression indicated what she thought on the matter. Orlando, hell-bent on making Gretchen embarrassed, turned to Irene and said with an impish grin, “I would be absolutely delighted to see the embarrassing photos, Mrs. Wolfe.”
Irene tilted her head and as Gretchen gave Orlando the usual I’m-going-to-kill-you-when-there-are-no-witnesses look. “You know you can call me Irene, Orlando. When you call me Mrs. Wolfe, you make me feel old.”
Suddenly, someone called out for Gretchen, and Gretchen turned around. When asked to pose, she smiled, and wrapped an arm around her co-star and her mother. It wasn’t so bad being around two people she cared about, but she had a bad feeling that more would be made of it than there needed to be. No, she mused. I need to be less pessimistic. Maybe they’ll leave us alone this time.
“Hey Gretchen!” called the photographer. “When are you and Orlando going to admit you are a couple?”
Nope. They were always the same.
“When the last circle of Hell becomes a wave pool,” Gretchen retorted dryly, earning a snicker from Orlando. Irene rolled her eyes, having grown tired of the media pestering her daughter about any romantic involvement with her co-star.
“Ain’t Hell already hot?” the saucy photographer countered with a sneer as if the world were suddenly declared as round and Gretchen was found to be the last possible person on Earth to have learned the news.
“Not according to Dante,” Gretchen shot back. Unfortunately, she said it before she could stop herself, and it sent off a round of questioning that sounded like gunfire. Felt suspiciously like it, too.
“Dante? Who’s Dante?”
“Is he your boyfriend, Gretchen?”
“Is Dante in show business?”
“When will we meet Dante, Gretchen?”
It was Gretchen’s turn to roll her eyes. Dumbass photogs. Probably weren’t paying any damn attention in world lit class because they were reading the latest issue of the National Enquirer instead. “If the aforementioned Dante was my boyfriend, I’m sure Beatrice Portinari would have something to say about that.”
Ace, who had come up to stand beside Orlando while his leading lady was addressing the subject of Dante, said in a comedically shocked tone, “Gretchen, you little homewrecker. I knew you had power, but I didn’t know you had the power to break up a centuries-old love affair.”
“It’s staggering, isn’t it, what people can try to infer from a simple comment,” Orlando remarked quietly to Ace as Gretchen tried to explain, in a patient tone, who Dante Alighieri was.
“Sometimes it takes less than that, my friend,” Ace agreed solemnly.
At that moment, Gretchen hastily turned around to end the stilted exchange she was having with the photographers, who were obviously from the tabloid magazines, and tripped on her mother’s foot. Orlando, seeing that she stumbled, reached out and caught her.
The two had been in close contact for months. It was no secret that they didn’t like each other at first, something that had stemmed from a past meeting that Orlando himself had barely remembered. (Gretchen was the one who remembered, naturally.) But recently, the two had been spotted together, hanging out, prompting many whispers. Neither one of them ever came out and admitted anything, but at that moment, something happened between them that the people close to them could not ignore.
Gretchen stumbled backward, and Orlando reached out and saved her from imminent embarrassment. He helped her right herself, and while it seemed, on the surface, that this was nothing but friendly contact, it could be argued that Orlando held Gretchen a bit too long, his fingertips lingered too long, too sensually on Gretchen’s bare arms. However, if you asked Gretchen and Orlando what they thought, well, you probably wouldn’t have gotten a coherent answer.
Gretchen found herself staring up into Orlando’s brown eyes. She was startled by their intensity, as if seeing it for the first time. Literally it was not the first time Orlando’s eyes bore into hers like this, but usually they were in character—as Armand and Genevieve. It inspired a liquid pull in her belly, and she couldn’t catch her breath.
She took in his scent and became enthralled by it. She noticed the line of his mouth, the pucker of his lips. Had she really kissed those lips before? Why did it seem like nothing then? And why would it seem like something now?
Somewhere, someone was calling her name. Gently. Tenderly. Was it coming from Orlando’s mouth? Was it him that was saying her name like he was caressing it, savoring it in his mouth—?
“Gretchen? Hello? Are you alright?”
Gretchen shook herself out of her reverie and tried to find her senses. She realized that the person talking to her, calling her name repeatedly had been Emma. She had only imagined Orlando murmuring to her amorously. Imagined. Why?
“Gretchen…?” Emma pressed in a voice that made you instantly remember she was Baby Spice.
Gretchen broke her gaze with Orlando and looked to Emma. The petite blonde was peering at her with a mix of impatience and concern. Gretchen mustered up some impatience and nonchalance to show that she wasn’t as shaken as she felt on the inside.
“I’m fine, Emma,” Gretchen reassured her. “I just stumbled a bit, but Orlando here was gentleman enough to catch me before I fell.” She looked to him, eyes dancing with amusement this time. “I suppose I owe you, now, FOB.”
“I suppose you do, love,” Orlando agreed. “And someday I’ll come around to collect.”
It seemed like a simple, innocent comment, but there was an undertone, an inner meaning in his voice that only Gretchen heard. And understood.
Or at least she thought she was the only one. As the group moved along, trailed by Ace and Irene, Ace looked at the back of Orlando Bloom’s curly, dark-brown head, wondering just what was on his mind at the moment.
Well, Ace contended silently, I think I know what’s on his mind. It’s not a huge leap to make, considering the way he looked at Gretchen. He was grown-up enough to know what had been going on behind those knee-buckling brown eyes.
And Irene had seen it in her daughter’s eyes, too, the fiery hot frisson of lust that intensified the green in her irises. Emma had not noticed, and neither did the crowd, but Irene, knowing her little girl…well, she noticed it.
The sight of it filled her with trepidation, a fear so virulent that it prompted a little voice inside her which hissed, You must kill whatever is developing between them, and kill it. Now.
* * *
When Jessica Thomas Corcoran got the call from her mother that evening, she immediately closed the door to her study and feared the worst.
Jessica was thirty years old, but she respected her mother’s opinion more than she did her own at times. She revered the woman who had taken her to see the Nutcracker on a cold December night before her fifth birthday, the self-same woman who had bought her first pair of ballet slippers. She adored the woman who had gathered up her six children on a humid afternoon in March and moved them away from their philandering, unfaithful father. So, hearing her concern, Jessica was ready to do anything to erase the worry from her mother’s tone.
“I’m concerned, mija,” Irene admitted after she’d explained the reason for her sudden call. “She has so many fragile moments, and I think she might rush into something with him without thinking.”
Jessica sighed and picked up a pen, playing with it idly. Damn. What was that about anything, again? “Mama, she’s twenty-six years old. As much as I agree with you, I think we should leave her alone and let her make her own mistakes. And I hope you’re not believing what the media says, because it’s pure and total bullshit.”
“What if she ruins her life with him? What if there’s something we don’t know about him and it comes out and demolishes her?”
Jessica pinched the bridge of her nose. She could sense the tension headache way before it was to begin. Love thy mother… “Mama, this isn’t like the last time. I don’t think Orlando Bloom would be a threat to her, physically or emotionally.”
She heard her mother sigh and gripped the pen in her hand for a long moment, listening to the silence on the other end. In the fragile state of the aftermath of Samantha’s death and Chris’s self-imposed exile, Gretchen had coped with her grief by dating a music producer—which would have been fine had he not been a drug addict. While she had never tried drugs herself, the experience had harmed her emotionally and physically, prompting a family intervention and four months in her mother’s care.
“She needs more time to herself,” Irene was saying. “She’s just finished this movie, and she probably thinks she’s bonded with Orlando which is nothing but the result of the two of them working together.” The next part she said more forcefully. “She lusts after him, mija. And he after her. That can not end well if they…”
“Oh Mama,” Jessica broke in, exasperated now. “Why are you so obsessed with Gretchen’s virginity?”
“I think if she’s had it for this long, she shouldn’t waste it on some random man,” Irene replied. “Especially with her emotions so fragile—”
Jessica chuckled sardonically. “I see. So Gretchen’s your little virgin daughter and the rest of us are going to Hell with our wanton sexual appetites. Thanks, Mother.”
“Jessica,” Irene said sternly, “You know that’s not what I mean.”
“What do you mean then? I guess you failed with me, and with Claud. You definitely failed with Danie, because she got pregnant at sixteen, and Moira-Selene, while she’s married with kids, still managed to miss the criteria for the Innocent Virgin Award because she’d slept with the father of her children before they got married, hence the reason why they had to get married. Oh—and we’ll excuse Eric because he’s a boy and a boy’s virginity isn’t a commodity and doesn’t mean shit to anyone anyway.”
On the other end, Irene sounded like her ire was up, and a bit of the Spanish she had long since buried since she had assimilated into American culture surfaced. “Jessica Kathleen, stop talking nonsense.”
“I will if you do the same.” When her mother started to protest, Jessica barreled on. “Is it really that bad if Gretchen wants to screw the brains out of Orlando Bloom because she likes the way he fills out a pair of jeans? I mean, who wouldn’t? Shit, if I weren’t married to Kai, I’d screw him every day of the week and twice on Sundays.”
“Para el amor del Dios, Jessica Kathleen!” Irene cried, outraged.
“Yeah, I’m starting to think that’s what this is for. So has your Catholic upbringing finally caught up with you and you want to make nice for having such blaspheming daughters?”
Irene swallowed back the lump in her throat before she spoke. “Jessica, I am only concerned with Gretchen’s welfare. I do not want her to regress. She has come so far, but anything, just anything, can take her back and make her unwell.”
Jessica pursed her lips together, fought the wave of resentment and exasperation, then spoke. “Look, Mama. Like I said, I can see where you’re coming from. But don’t you think you owe it to Gretchen to leave her be and let her live? How is she supposed to learn anything if you’re holding her hand.”
“I know,” Irene said, sounding tired now. “I just want to make sure she has the best.” And I’m not sure Orlando Bloom’s the right thing…
“I agree. But right now, let’s just sit back and watch what happens. If it gets to the point where we should step in, then and only then shall we do so. Okay? Estas de acuerdo, Mama?”
Irene didn’t, but she voiced agreement anyway. She and Jessica spoke for a little while longer about mundane things then ended the conversation.
Irene sat by the window of her own study, staring out at the starry late spring night. It may not have made any sense to Jessica what she was saying, but it made perfect sense on her own, here, when she was by herself. Her protectiveness of Gretchen was not unfounded. Here, the suspicions of Orlando made perfect sense.
But the lawyer in Irene couldn’t ignore rationality. What if Jessica was right? What if she was overreacting?
And the mother in her usually trumped the lawyer. No. She was right. Gretchen needed to be protected, needed to be kept. It was the only way it could be.
So Irene squelched guilt, gave the little demon a push, and vowed to have a little chat with Orlando Bloom.
* * *
Meanwhile, Melanie Smith plopped down next to her British friend with a fruity drink and didn’t waste time getting to the point of the matter.
“Alright. I’m sick of this shit. What the fuck is wrong with you, Bloom?” Melanie demanded.
A group of them were hanging out in the dim elegance of Ace’s den. It was most of the cast and some assorted crew of The Masked Mistress…with one conspicuous exception: Gretchen. Despite Emma’s and Melanie’s protests that Gretchen knew about the little get-together, Gretchen was more than an hour late. He couldn’t quite explain why, but he wanted her there. Orlando had only come because he wanted to talk to Gretchen, and now she wasn’t here. He supposed his disappointment was becoming noticeable to everyone else. Well, he didn’t have to suppose very much because the Melanie drove the point home—right between his eyes, it seemed.
“I guess I’m tired or something, Mel,” Orlando responded, lying quite badly. It didn’t help that Melanie had a special sense for this sort of thing, especially when it had to do with her friends. She just stared at him for a long moment before speaking, shrewd brown eyes boring into his own. Orlando didn’t like the feeling and looked away.
“I can’t imagine what would be causing you to lose sleep,” Melanie remarked. “I mean, I know it’s not work because most of the hard work for Mistress is done.” Melanie paused and sipped her drink. “Is there something bothering you, Orlando?”
Is there something bothering you, Orlando? Boy, was there ever. But he wasn’t going to admit that aloud. It would cause nothing but trouble for them all.
But why would it? he mused silently. What would be the harm in me liking Gretchen? We’re both single, and unattached. It’s not like we would be committing a great and deadly sin by pursuing a relationship.
Melanie’s voice brought him back to the present scene. Orlando finally looked up into Melanie’s face and responded, trying to inject some nonchalance in his tone.
“I’m fine,” Orlando assured her. “Honestly, love. I don’t know why you’re acting so concerned about me. I’m the same as I’ve always been.”
Melanie gazed at him dubiously. “You mean to tell me that you sitting off to the side here, saying nothing to anybody, is the same as you’ve always been?” Orlando didn’t answer. “Alright, what is it?” She tilted her head. “It’s a girl, isn’t it?”
Orlando smiled, but was afraid that the blush had already shown itself on his cheeks. “You women have a knack for causing us blokes an immense amount of heartache.”
“Right back atcha,” Melanie said wryly in a slow tone that indicated she was processing the information that she had newly acquired. She tapped her glass idly, then added, “So do I know this girl? Have I met her?”
“In a sense,” Orlando said vaguely. For some odd reason, even though he had just rationalized that a relationship with Gretchen would not be a horrible thing, he didn’t want to let Melanie in on the secret just yet. As if it were ordained, his gaze shifted and rested upon the door just as Gretchen walked in.
Her long black hair was pulled back and up loosely from her face, exposing the vulnerable skin of the nape of her neck. The v-neck top she wore exposed her chest, hinting at enough cleavage to have Orlando swallowing hard.
He took a sip of his drink to wet his throat. What the hell was wrong with him? He had seen Gretchen many times, and the costumes she’d worn during filming…well…had enhanced her bust more than that simple shirt she wore. So what had happened between the last take and this very moment?
Gretchen’s green eyes were distracted as she glanced around the room. Was she looking for me? Orlando wondered silently before he could control himself. Ace soon noticed that she stood there by herself and led her into the room. She greeted both Emma and Sienna Miller, who would be playing a role in Ace’s next film, with a hug, the legendary Nora Grayson with a kiss on the cheek and a squeeze on the hand. Jack Davenport, the actor who had played Orlando’s older brother in Mistress and would be playing Sienna’s love interest in Ace’s new project, from beside Nora said something witty to her to make Gretchen smile and she laughingly kissed him on the side of the mouth. She took a casual glance around the room as if she were looking for someone and didn’t want anyone to notice. Ace offered her a drink and her eyes fell upon him.
Something passed between them. It was like that heat-filled moment that day after the press conference. It dragged out for too long, and Gretchen was the first one to look away as a red blush crept up on her cheeks.
Melanie, being the shrewd person she was, noticed the look that passed between Gretchen and Orlando. Her eyebrows raised as Orlando climbed to his feet without a word to her and went toward Gretchen.
Gretchen, meanwhile, told Ace she’d get her own drink and went to make it herself after she’d made him sit back down. She didn’t even flick a glance in Orlando’s direction, which made Orlando more determined to catch her attention.
“This ought to be interesting,” Melanie observed, sipping her drink.
Gretchen was pouring a honey-colored Pinot Grigio from a bottle into a wineglass. When it was half-full, she stopped pouring and put the bottle securely away. Orlando stopped at her elbow, so anxious to get her attention that he didn’t even weigh the consequences of being that close to her at that particular moment.
Not knowing that Orlando was so near, Gretchen swung around quickly and bumped into him.
The next few moments happened in slow motion. Gretchen’s right hand, which held the wineglass, slammed into Orlando’s chest. The golden-hued liquid sloshed onto Orlando’s white shirt and soaked the front of it. Gretchen sucked in a deep breath and could only watch for a long second as Orlando was soaked through to the skin. That feeling was back again, that too-warm feeling that told her that she needed to look away. Look away! Now, stupid!
The glass shattered on the hardwood floor, diverting everyone’s attention away from conversation and fun to the fractured mess on the floor next to Orlando and Gretchen.
Jack came up then with a stack of paper napkins and offered them to Gretchen. Since she was so preoccupied with the glimpse of Orlando’s chest she was getting from the thin, wet white cloth, it took Jack calling her name repeatedly before she snapped back to the situation at hand. Well, at least the napkins in hand.
“Gretchen, are you in here? Earth to Gretchen! Are you coming in for a landing soon, love?”
Her head whipped around to Jack as the sound of his voice sank in. “I’m sorry?” she blurted.
Jack’s eyebrows arched with a combination of amusement, bewilderment, and concern. “Um, I brought some paper napkins.” She frowned at him quizzically as if he were speaking Chinese. “For the mess,” he added emphatically.
Mess? Gretchen’s eyes drifted to the floor (she wouldn’t dare look at Orlando again…at least for a little while) and she gasped. “I. Am. So sorry,” she said hastily, trying like mad to keep her voice level even though her heart was thumping like a set of speakers at a dance club. She quickly took the paper towels from Jack and bent to wipe up the mess.
“It’s fine, Gretchen,” Ace assured her as he stood. “It’s just a glass.”
Gretchen furiously mopped up the mess with the thin towels as if it were her penance for her amorous thoughts. She cursed herself for being so silly. It was just a shirt, and she had seen Orlando’s bare chest before. What was so different this time?
Um, hormones, again?
It took a moment before Orlando spoke. When he did, his voice came out huskier than usual. “Gretchen love, you’re going to cut yourself with all that glass on the floor. Let us sweep that up.”
“No,” Gretchen insisted. I’ll be—” Not quite as careful as she was about to profess she was being, Gretchen winced and hissed a curse under her breath as she found a shard of glass in the palm of her left hand. Blood dripped on the floor and mingled with the spilt Pinot Grigio.
Orlando and Jack, being the closest, bent down at the same time to examine Gretchen’s hand as Ace left the room to get the first aid kit. Orlando took Gretchen’s hand to examine it, causing a little chill to go up Gretchen’s spine. After a few beats, his eyes raised to hers. She did not move nor speak.
“I’m going to have to take the glass out, Gretchen,” he told her softly. “And it might hurt a bit.”
“Maybe we should go to the hospital,” Jack suggested, staring at Gretchen’s bleeding hand worriedly. “Perhaps that is something for the medical professionals to work out.”
“Go to the hospital?” Nora inquired from across the room. “Is it that serious?”
Getting worried, Emma spoke then, too. “Gretchen, are you okay?”
“She’s fine,” Orlando responded, not allowing Gretchen to speak or breaking his gaze from her (which was most of the reason why she couldn’t speak). “I’m just going to gently pull this out, alright love? Try not to move.”
“Do you need something to bite down upon, dear?” Nora wanted to know.
“It isn’t childbirth, Nora,” Sienna commented in an ironic tone which would have been aimed to annoy Nora under any other circumstances, but here she wanted to alleviate the tension. “I’m sure it isn’t that painful.”
“If it were, I’m sure Jack would tell her that she needs drugs,” Emma retorted, earning an exasperated look from the green-eyed actor. “Forget breathing deeply, eh?”
“Oh very funny, Emma,” Jack shot back easily. “But I don’t quite see myself telling her to zig-a-zig”—Emma made a face at him and he nearly lost his composure—”ha.”
While their fellow actors bantered and laughed around them, Orlando still held Gretchen’s gaze and her bleeding left hand. “Just hold my gaze,” he instructed. “Concentrate on the sound of my voice. I am going to be gentle, love. I promise.”
“Gentle,” Gretchen murmured aloud. She frowned as a thought occurred to her. “What if I bleed to death?”
Orlando glanced down at her hand for a second then back up to her eyes. “You won’t bleed to death, I promise. I have more finesse than that.”
“How can you promise me that?”
Orlando said nothing. After a beat, he held up a shard of glass as big as his thumbnail, tinted red with Gretchen’s blood. He wrapped it up with a napkin and put it aside with his free hand. His other hand gripped Gretchen’s hurt one, and after he had discarded the glass, he picked up a clean napkin and pressed it to the wound to staunch the blood.
Ace rushed up with the first aid kit and some rubbing alcohol. “I think we should probably put some alcohol on it,” he remarked.
Gretchen winced then. “Look, it hurts enough. Let’s not pour that shit in it.”
“So what’s a little bit more?” Gretchen gave him a green-eyed glare. “Look, I don’t want you getting an infection. I would have rather you gotten this taken care of in a hospital but your knight in shining armor over here insisted on taking care of it.”
Something flickered in Orlando’s eyes and Gretchen rushed to speak before he could. “Look, I can take care of myself.” She climbed to her feet and took the bottle and first aid kit from Ace and stuck them under her arm as she held her wounded hand close to her body. “If I’m going to pour abrasive liquid on my wound, I’d rather do it in private.”
Raising an eyebrow, Sienna found herself glancing at Emma, whose lips twitched but no words came forth. Gretchen strode out of the room, aware that everyone was looking at her. She didn’t care. She had to get out of there before she did something she wasn’t supposed to do.
She enclosed herself in Ace’s bathroom and stood over the sink with the alcohol. She took the napkin off of her hand and threw it away. After uncapping the alcohol, she took in a bracing breath then poured a bit on her wound.
The pain that assaulted her senses made her yelp in agony. Tears sprang to her eyes and she gritted her teeth against the others that were trying to fight their way out. She could only stand there as the pain ebbed and she fought the tears of misery.
It startled her when the door swung open and Orlando, who now wore a different shirt, hurried in. The alcohol was knocked from its perch and into the sick where half of its contents were surrendered to the sewer system. Gretchen spun around to face him, wet emerald green eyes wild.
Orlando opened his mouth to speak, but she spoke first. “What’s the matter with you?”
“I heard you,” Orlando told her. “I heard you screaming and I wanted to make sure you were okay. You don’t need to be so defensive.”
“Well, maybe if you would—” Gretchen clamped her mouth shut and pursed her lips together. She leaned on the sink again as he took a couple of steps in her direction and closed the door.
“Would what, Gretchen?” Orlando pressed. “Maybe if I would ‘what’?”
“Just leave me alone,” Gretchen finished, the floodgates coming open. She didn’t know why she all of a sudden felt like she wanted him to go away, why she began to cry. Much to her dismay, Orlando embraced her.
“You have to smother your pride, love,” he murmured against her hairline. “Remember? That’s what got you in trouble before. When Mistress was in pre-production…”
Damn. Did he have to bring that up? So yeah, Gretchen had been a bit mad at him for an incident that happened between her and Orlando several years ago. She had gotten over it, and now… What? How did she feel about him now?
She assessed things quickly while she was in his arms. She was attracted to him. Very much so. She could feel that familiar ache beginning, knowing now what it meant. She wanted him. However, as the day’s events had shown her, the feeling was mutual. Orlando wanted her, too. But, to make things even more complicated, they were good friends and they both lived in the limelight, whether they wanted to be in it or not. Getting involved with one another could spell trouble for their friendship—and their careers.
It seems, she said to herself, that something might have already happened. After all, you are standing here in a room alone with him locked in a potentially amorous embrace.
Wanting to dispel her uneasiness, Gretchen shifted so that she was looking at him. His intense gaze stole her breath again, but she could see the questions she had in her head mirrored in his deep brown eyes. She decided to break the ice and ask the first question.
“Orlando,” Gretchen said in a barely audible voice, “what’s going on between us?”
“I don’t know,” Orlando responded in a voice that was not much louder than hers. “I don’t know. But…is it so bad? Should we be ashamed of it?”
“Of course not,” Gretchen whispered. Her eyes drifted to his mouth, which was so close to her own… “We’re just afraid because others don’t want it to happen. But it’s between us. And…”
They were barely a centimeter apart. She could smell the aroma of the Pinot Grigio she didn’t get to drink mingling with his regular scent. She could almost feel the texture of his lips on hers. They were breathing the same breath. She wanted to kiss him now. She needed to kiss him now. She was going to kiss him now.
He leaned in and closed the gap, pressing his lips to hers.
And then the door burst open again.