CHAPTER SIX

BENEATH his dark brows, Alex’s black gaze trapped Reese’s. “You fell into acting because of a fluke. So did I.”

“How did it happen?”

“I worked under a famous Greek chef at the Athena Plaza in downtown Manhattan. Someone suggested he do a pilot for a television show. He needed an assistant and asked me to help. It meant more money for me, which I badly needed to support myself.”

“That’s how you got on TV? A cooking show? Fabio Andretti?” She couldn’t believe it.

His smile reached his eyes. “Not Fabio. The upshot is, the pilot did well, but the weekly series didn’t. My boss didn’t have the personality of a Chef Emeril, who’s been a great success on American television.”

“I love his show!”

“You and everyone else who changed channels to watch him instead of my boss. But it was my lucky day because a Hollywood soap producer happened to catch a few of the episodes, and he contacted someone at the network doing our show. I was asked to fly out to LA to read for a part.”

“I’d call that destiny,” she whispered in a shaky voice.

“I didn’t know it at the time, but I do now. You’re absolutely right. It was destiny.”

She had an idea he wasn’t talking about his career alone. “Then this woman you love isn’t from Greece?”

“Who told you she was?”

“No one. But you know how people gossip. I heard you were committed to someone, so I just assumed as much.”

He leveled his all-encompassing gaze on her. “If that were the case, I would never have left Greece in the first place. As it was, I needed a total change of scene. New York seemed the right destination for me.

“When the offer came, I jumped at the chance to see another part of the country and make a decent salary. But the producer of the network in New York warned me not to do anything until I’d found myself the right agent.”

“Nobody in the performing arts should make a move without one.”

Alex nodded. “He gave me a name. That favor turned out to be critical for me. This agent wouldn’t let me sign any contracts until I’d auditioned for as many soaps as I could. He wanted me to hold out for the top salary.

“Naturally the money was important, but I also realized that if I was asked to play a part I couldn’t abide, then it wouldn’t have mattered how much I was offered.”

“I know what you mean,” Reese inserted. “If I’d been asked to play the role of Melissa, I wouldn’t have done it. I’m not an actress at heart. I couldn’t act the part of a person of whom I didn’t approve, even if it was all for pretense.”

“That makes sense. The first few scripts I read didn’t interest me either. In both cases I was supposed to play a mobster from the underworld. I didn’t want to start out like that and then be typecast forever doing the same roles.”

“You were smart.”

“Not really. The truth is, they held no appeal. I wanted something different. Out of the blue my agent asked me if I could do an Italian accent. Since one of my good friends was Italian, that was easy. I just mimicked him for my agent, and he took matters from there.”

Reese smiled. “As my aunt told me, you’re the quickest study she ever met.” She’d said a lot of other wonderful things about him, too, but Reese didn’t dare tell Alex or he would realize how deep her feelings for him went.

“It’s because of that accent I got the part of Fabio Andretti, the priest who left the monastery because his soul was conflicted.”

“Just as yours was,” she said quietly.

He studied her for a minute before nodding his dark head. “It tore me apart to leave Greece. It tore me apart to stay.”

“I’m sorry you had to be in that kind of pain, Alex. No wonder you played the part of Fabio so convincingly. Many times during our scenes I felt it and knew it had to come from someplace deep within you.”

She kneaded her hands beneath the table. “Has your sorrow diminished at all?”

“Of course. No one stays in that dark place forever. One day I took a drive and ended up here. The minute I saw this damaged gallery, I could envision my grandparents’ villa. It would be like planting an old vine in new ground.

“Once that idea took hold, I never let go of it. By December, I had enough money saved to make an offer on the property. A Christmas present to myself.”

Her eyelids prickled with unshed tears. “It’s a fantastic plan. But-”

“But what?” he broke in.

“There’s always a fire danger here. Malibu’s not protected from the worst of the Santa Ana winds like Orange County or San Diego.”

“I’m aware of that fact. The Realtor warned me I might find myself having to remodel again in a few years, or even be forced to build an entire new restaurant.”

He leaned toward her. “It doesn’t worry me. As long as I have my memories, I can rebuild anywhere.”

She averted her eyes. “I’m sorry I brought it up. Believe me, I didn’t mean to sound negative. More than anything I want your project to be a great success.”

“I know you do, and I appreciate your concern.”

“What are you going to call your restaurant?”

“Kousina Sofia.”

“Your grandmother’s name.” Her eyes lifted to his face once more.

“That’s right. Sophie’s Kitchen.”

“She’ll be overjoyed.”

One black brow lifted expressively. “You believe in the afterlife?”

“Don’t you?”

“Yes. As a matter of fact I do.”

Reese was enjoying their exchange too much. “So…how will you fulfill your dreams to run a busy restaurant and balance your acting career at the same time?”

He closed the cover of the looseleaf binder before flashing her a piercing glance. “No one told you yet?”

She frowned. “Told me what?”

“I didn’t renew my contract. I’ve left the show, just like you.”

Alex had left the show?

“Today was my last day, too.” He answered the question she hadn’t voiced yet because she was so stunned.

“Your news has to be this year’s best kept secret-” she blurted.

“That surprises me. Usually everything leaks out.”

“Not this time!”

She took a deep breath while she tried to sort through this new development. Except that what he did or didn’t do was no longer supposed to be of any consequence to her. He was in love with someone else!

“What are the writers going to do about Fabio?”

“As I told you earlier today, he’ll go back to the monastery. Melissa will manage to infiltrate, believing she is torturing Fabio. But when he finally removes his hood, she’ll discover she’s been harassing the wrong monk.

“He’ll tell her Fabio has gone, and no one knows where he went.” Alex spread his hands. “That’s as much as Stan would tell me.”

Reese started to laugh. “Oh, boy. I can’t wait to watch when she hears the news.”

Alex chuckled. “I can’t either. Leah’s the best at being the worst.”

Though they shared an amusing moment, Reese was dying inside. He wouldn’t be on the show anymore. From here on out the woman who loved him and had the right to love him would claim his undivided attention.

It was still too much for her to process all at once. She had dozens more questions to ask, not knowing where to start first.

“H-how soon do you expect to open for business?” she stammered.

“Two months. Hopefully six weeks, but that would probably be pushing it.”

“I see. Are you going to live in Malibu, or commute from Culver City?” Her aunt had contacted a friend who’d helped him find a good apartment there.

“That depends on a variety of factors. I’ll worry about it later. Right now my main concern is to get this place ready. I’m of two minds how to treat the windows. I’ve known you quite a while and have discovered we have similar tastes in a lot of things. I’d like your opinion.”

“But I’m not Greek!”

“You’re a woman with a woman’s instincts for what works.”

“What does your girlfriend think?”

“I’m asking you,” he asserted. “When you walk in here two months from now, do you want to be able to see the ocean through a wall of glass?”

“That sounds very contemporary.”

“It would be a concession for those tourists who’ve come from all over the world to visit Malibu and eat by the water.”

“That’s true. But I thought the whole idea was to reproduce your grandparents’ Greek villa.”

“It is.”

She frowned. “Don’t you see that the great charm of their home lies in the small-paned windows peeking out from plants and flowers growing all around?”

“Then much of the ocean view would be shut out.”

“They’ll get the view coming and going from your place. But when I think of Greece, I imagine an inn that’s a little darker on the inside. You know. Cozy and intimate. Take a look at this one picture.”

She reached for the looseleaf binder and opened it to the page she wanted him to see. “It’s so delightful to discover this adorable patio room partially hidden by all the greenery.

“That’s the secret of a place like this. You feel like you’ve come across this rare treasure suddenly. The element of surprise causes you to forget what’s outside. You want to go in and shut out the world for a little while. The small-paned windows give it the feel of an enchanted cottage.”

“Enchanted is an interesting choice of word.”

“People love to be transported by the atmosphere when they dine out. If I were you, I’d reproduce every square inch of their wonderful house. Let your guests get a real taste of what it’s like to eat in Sophie’s kitchen.”

“So you believe my idea will work?”

“You don’t need me to tell you that. After they leave your restaurant, they’ll savor the memory of it while they watch the ocean on their way to wherever they’re going.

“As for the locals, they live next to the water. They see it every day and crave a different ambience while they eat. I think I’d be a lot more concerned about finding me the best landscape artist there is to make your slice of Greek living look exactly like it does here.”

“That’s the next item on my agenda.”

“You shouldn’t have any trouble finding a good one. California’s nurseries are the best! They have everything you’ll need to make this authentic. Dad and Mom had one of the most beautiful yards in our neighborhood where I grew up.”

“Did you help?”

“Yes. My parents might have been workaholics, but when they took time off, they were outside weeding and making the garden more beautiful. I spent hours with them going to nurseries looking for the right plants and ground cover.

“If you let a professional study these photographs, I know you could make this one of the most sought after dining spots in Cali-”

Reese stopped talking because it had just dawned on her she’d been babbling on enthusiastically for the last couple of minutes. Alex couldn’t have gotten a word in if he’d wanted to. A smile lurked around his lips. She felt like an idiot.

“Sorry, Alex. I got carried away. When you asked for my opinion, you didn’t know you were going to be treated to a full-blown lecture.”

His hand reached across the table to cover hers. He squeezed gently before letting it go again, but the warmth of his touch remained.

“After playing opposite the timid Carly, who was always fearful of letting herself go, it’s refreshing to be with Reese Bringhurst, whose zest for life is contagious. Your instinctive response was exactly what I needed to hear. I happen to agree with you about everything you said.”

“I’m glad. What you’re going to achieve here will automatically guarantee you success.”

His white smile turned her heart over. “A majority of two. That’s all I’ve been waiting for to go full speed ahead with the rest of my plans. Come on.” He got up from the table and came around to help her. “Let’s make use of the rest of this day and find me a landscape artist.”

He took the looseleaf binder from the table and tucked it under his free arm. “After we’re through with our business, I’ll take you to dinner as my way of saying thank you for your input.

“I know a place near the Santa Monica Pier that fixes the best mahimahi you ever tasted. I remember how much you and Lilian liked it when the cast ate at that seafood restaurant in Laguna.”

Alex kept astonishing her with what he knew and remembered about her and her aunt. For him to go to this much trouble to help her get through this difficult day, he truly must have felt indebted to Lilian.

But since Alex was in love with someone else, Reese decided that their going out to dinner together was the wrong thing to do for everyone concerned.

“If you really want to pay me back, I can think of a better way to do it.”

She felt his body tauten. “Name it.”

“Why don’t you bring your girlfriend to my condo this evening and cook us a real Greek meal? Not only do I want to test out your chef skills, I’d like to meet the woman who captured the heart of the man behind Fabio Andretti’s persona.”

There-now he would know Reese wasn’t living in some fantasy world where he was attainable.

His eyes seemed to glitter for a moment. “You’d really like to meet her?”

“Of course. More important, I would imagine she would like to meet me. At least I would if I were in her shoes.”

“She’s never said.”

“Maybe not, but it couldn’t have been easy to watch you kissing me all these months.”

“She doesn’t watch soaps.”

“I wouldn’t either if the man I loved were acting in one. I could forgive it because it was the career he’d chosen. But I couldn’t forgive him for going out to dinner alone with his romantic costar. Not even if he felt obliged to be nice to her because of Lilian Jaynes’s kindness to him.”

His chest heaved. “You’re an exceptional woman, Reese. Are you acquainted with authentic Greek cuisine?”

“No. Only fast food gyros. What about your girlfriend?”

“Her experience has been the same as yours.”

Reese was stunned. “You haven’t cooked for her yet?”

“I’ve been waiting for her to ask me.”

“But you’re a chef!”

“There’s an expression in English. A prophet is without nobility in his own country.”

“You mean ‘honor.’”

“Thank you. That’s the word. I still make a lot of mistakes.”

“Your English is remarkable. Did you study it in school?”

“Twelve years. My grandparents insisted.”

She bit her lip before looking at him. “Has it hurt your feelings that your girlfriend hasn’t shown an interest in your cooking?”

He hunched his broad shoulders. “We’ve had more important things on our minds than food.”

“But it’s what you do! It’s part of who you are!” she cried as he helped her across the courtyard into the truck.

“I’m touched that you care.” He placed the looseleaf binder between them.

“Of course I care! We’ve put in full days together at the studio on a weekly basis for the past year. I’ve spent more time with you than any boyfriends who’ve come and gone from my life.”

“Have there been many?”

“A few, but naturally you’re important to me in a completely different way. I can’t wait to taste your grandmother’s cooking.”

Her comments seemed to make him happy. “In that case, I can promise the three of us a real treat.”

The three of us.

You’ve done it now, Reese.

But meeting the woman he loved was the only way to cure her illness. In war time you cauterized a wound to prevent death and infection on the battlefield.

That was what she had to do. Walk through the fire tonight so she’d be able to survive the rest of her life.

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