The VIP Doubles Down
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The room was filled with light slanting through the three tall windows on the front wall. Like the hallway, the walls were paneled, but here the wood was lighter. Low flames flickered in a fireplace framed with carved rose-colored marble. The rest of the decor was surprisingly modern, yet it harmonized with the Victorian bones of the house.
A look of aversion tightened his jaw as he glanced toward the windows. It took her a moment to realize he was reacting to the desk placed there. It was a beautiful modern piece: polished rosewood inset with rectangles of ribbed silver-gray leather, so it evoked the leather-topped desks of old without imitating them. On the desktop sat a sleek computer monitor and keyboard, their brushed aluminum-and-leather casings clearly custom-made. An ergonomic chair was swiveled away from the desk, as though he had left in a hurry.
Turning his back on the desk, Gavin walked to an armchair upholstered in steel blue fabric and gestured toward the leather sofa it faced. “Make yourself at home.”
Allie slid onto the edge of the couch cushion and pressed her knees and feet together.
Gavin sprawled into the armchair. He rolled his head around backward with his eyes closed. “God, it feels good to move like this.” When he lifted his head and opened his eyes, annoyance flitted across his face. “You look like a bird who’s ready to fly off at the slightest provocation.”
Pulling out his phone, he tapped a button. “Ludmilla, would you bring hot tea to my office with two mugs? And steep some of that herbal stuff labeled Calm. My therapist needs it.”
Allie cocked an eyebrow at him. “So you fell for that Starbucks marketing ploy.”
“No, but I was hoping you would.” He rested his elbows on the chair’s cushioned arms and let his hands dangle from the wrists. However, his relaxed pose couldn’t counteract the focused desperation in his gaze. “Now, tell me who you chose for Julian Best’s ideal woman.”
Allie looked down at the spray of burgundy orchids artfully arranged in a glass bowl on the coffee table. She twisted her fingers together on her knees before she met Gavin’s avid green eyes again. “Me, of course.”
“You?” The surprise in his voice was harsh. He must be disappointed.
“I told you it was just a silly story Mama and I made up.” She shrugged. “Julian needed someone normal, and I’m about as normal as they come.”
“You.” This time he sounded reflective rather than shocked. He let his head fall back and stared at the coffered ceiling. “A flame-haired physical therapist for Julian.”
She snorted at the poetic description of her carroty hair before she looked down at her hands again. “What we had fun with was imagining how Julian and I would meet. Sometimes it was while I was on vacation in Venice or Rome, because I always wanted to travel to Italy. Or I’d take a trip to New York, and Julian would jump into my cab. Or at an airport when he was trying to get out of the country and needed a fake wife for cover.” She lifted her head. “It was never in Sanctuary, because we couldn’t think of any reason for Julian to come there.”
He angled his head down to pin her with his gaze. “So I’m curious. Julian falls for a so-called normal woman who’s modeled on you. Did this normal woman come to New York for the job or for the adventure?”
She stared into the flickering fireplace and lied. “For the job. I outgrew my need for adventure during PT school.”
“I sense I’m not getting the whole—”
Raised female voices wafted in from the hallway.
Allie swiveled toward the sound as Gavin launched himself out of his chair and strode toward the door, muttering, “What the hell is she doing here?”
Ludmilla and a stunningly beautiful brunette burst into the room together. The Polish woman was waving her hands as she protested in her native language. The brunette kept walking as though Ludmilla didn’t exist.
“Gavin, darling,” she said in a British accent, “are you all right? You look as though you’ve been dragged through a shrubbery backward.”
Allie rose slowly, her eyes riveted on the scene unfolding in front of her. The exquisite woman was Irene Bartram, the actress who played Samantha Dubois, Julian’s manipulative love interest. It was disorienting to see her in person, looking exactly like the character in the movie.
Irene was also Gavin’s ex-fiancée.
Gavin dodged the air kiss the actress aimed at him. “You look like you just came out of the hair-and-makeup trailer,” he said with a snarl that indicated it wasn’t a compliment. “Now get out.”
Allie gasped, which swung both of their gazes around to her. The actress scanned Allie from head to foot and dismissed her without comment, turning back to Gavin and resting one graceful hand against his chest. “I know we had a little spat the last time we were together, so I came to apologize.”
Gavin stepped around Irene to approach Allie. “We’ll resume our discussion tomorrow under the same terms. And you’ll receive payment for the hour I didn’t use today.” He rubbed at the back of his neck. “Let’s hope Irene doesn’t undo all your good work.” He turned away. “Ludmilla, will you help Allie with her coat?”
Allie felt Irene’s gaze on her as she walked to the office door. It made her acutely aware of her soiled shirt, her messy hair, and her lack of makeup. Honestly, though, even on her best day ever, Allie couldn’t compete with the actress’s glossy raven locks, huge brown eyes, and perfect porcelain skin. So what did it matter that Allie looked the worse for wear?
She lifted her chin and met Irene Bartram’s gaze straight on, giving the actress a friendly smile. Irene’s reaction was to narrow those doe eyes.
As she and Ludmilla stepped into the hallway, Allie heard Irene ask, “Who’s the little nurse?”
“She’s none of your business,” Gavin said as he spun away from the door to face Irene, triggering a spasm in his back. He gritted his teeth until it passed. “And you and I did not have a spat. We had a knock-down, drag-out fight, during which I told you to remove yourself from my life permanently.”
He paced to the fireplace and picked up a poker, jabbing at the fire before he looked at her again. “You do understand the meaning of the word permanently.”