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Authors: Kasey Michaels

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BOOK: High Heels and Homicide
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Arnaud stayed where he was, his back to the woman. “What do you want me to do with it? Wave my hands at the sky and yell ‘cut'?”

“I think I like him, even with his ‘only the writer' crack,” Maggie said. “Marylou? Is showing me to the nearest bathroom outside your job description?”

“Heck, no, that's fine. This way. And there's piles of bedrooms. I know who's in each one, so we can sniff out three more for you guys, okay? The rooms are big, but the plumbing sucks.”

As Joanne, Marylou, and Maggie walked away, Perry Posko moved across the room so quickly, and slid to a halt so sharply, that he nearly left skid marks. “
You're
Sterling Balder? Really? Oh! Oh! And he's right—we even look alike! Why didn't I see that? Oh, this is great. This is terrific. Can I watch you? Can I follow you around? I mean, I want to
be
Sterling Balder. I want to eat, drink,
breathe
the character. I want to
be
you!”

“Well, um…well, you can't,” Sterling said, then looked at Saint Just. “Can he? I mean, I'm Sterling Balder. I've always been Sterling Balder. I don't want to be anybody else—why does he want to be me? Is that allowed?”

“Oh. Oh, no, no,” Perry said quickly. “Not identity theft or anything like that. Gosh, I wouldn't want you to think that. Nothing strange, nothing kooky. But this part is a real break for me. If the first movie goes over, I'm set for the next five, six years. There's already talk of a series, you know. It's not like I'm ever going to be anything but a character actor, not looking like this. Um…no offense. I just want to get it right, and I know you could help me. Will you help me?”

“Saint Just?”

“Go, Sterling. Enjoy yourself. Teach Perry here to be you. There cannot be too many good-hearted gentlemen in the world. You already possess your own fan club on the Internet. Perhaps Perry can bring that good heart of yours to an entire new audience.”

“Well,” Sterling said, blushing, shuffling his feet. “I suppose we could…we could talk.”

“There you go, Sterling. I'll be here, praying Sir Rudy keeps a tolerable cellar as I sample his wine. Oh, and while you two are talking? Perhaps you can toddle after Maggie and Miss Keppel, and find out which bedchambers have been alloted to us. I feel the need to change out of my dirt before the dinner gong goes. There's a good fellow.”

Perry pointed a finger at Saint Just. “Oh, you're
good
. Just the way you stand, just the way you said that—the accent, the way you almost threw away the line, yet at the same time it was so clear you expect to be obeyed. Troy should be watching you, taking notes.”

“Really,” Saint Just said, chancing a look at the man who would portray him, to see Troy Barlow chewing on a handful of nuts, his mouth open, before he wiped his salt-greasy hand on his trousers. This…this
buffoon
was going to play the Viscount Saint Just? “I do believe it's possible you're on to something there, Perry. Thank you.”

Chapter Five

M
aggie heard the knock on the door and let the drapery slide back into place, blocking out the depressing view from her bedchamber window. Ugly scaffolding and rain. Rain and more rain.

She crossed to the door and pulled it open, then turned and headed for one of the pair of wingback chairs on either side of the unfortunately cold fireplace. “Do you believe this, Alex?” she asked as she settled into the chair. “This place is like something out of a book. Only it's the
before
picture in a remodeling book. You don't want to see the plumbing. Oh—we're sharing a bathroom, all three of us, even though we've each got our own room. Marylou said this wing hasn't been touched since the forties. She said the nineteen-forties, but I'm betting on the eighteen-forties. And we have to make up our own beds, since all the maids went home early because of the rain. Do you know it's been raining for a week?”

“I appear to be learning quite a lot since entering this room. The state of your mood being uppermost, of course.”

“Sorry.” She stood up again, hugging herself, rubbing her hands against her upper arms. “I'm cold, Alex. Do you know how to make a fire?”

Alex eyed the wood piled inside the fireplace. “I most certainly do. You yank on the bellpull over there, tell whomever comes to serve you that you desire the fire lit, and
voilà
.”

“Not funny. I already told you, everybody's gone home. Go look out that window, Alex. The road we drove in on? The creek, stream, whatever you want to call it, is nearly flooding it.”

“And that I do know, my dear. Before I could make good my escape from the main saloon, dear Arnaud emptied his budget of woes on me. The rain, the mud, the damp, the food, the plumbing, his filming schedule. Do you recall, Maggie, that nearly half our story takes place out-of-doors? I hadn't realized I was such a devotee of nature.”

Maggie, who had sunk to her knees in front of the fireplace and was staring at the wood, hoping for some spontaneous combustion, sat back on her heels and looked up at Alex. “You're too happy. Why are you so happy? Or doesn't it bother you, that
only the writer
baloney?”

“As I'm the creation, not the lowly writer, I believe I can contain my outrage, at least long enough to remind you that we measure ourselves by our own yardsticks, not by the opinions of others.” Alex reached past her, lifting the lid of a small brass box. “Ah, I could be wrong, but this little pile could be called kindling. And matches as well. Aren't we the lucky ones. If you'll excuse me?”

“Be my guest, knock yourself out.” Maggie stood up, backed up, watched as Alex stuck some small bits of wood beneath the logs, then struck a long match against the stone hearth. “
Only the writer
. And opinions do matter, Alex. Do you know how sick I am of hearing that line?”

“I believe I do, yes. But do go on.”

“I will go on. The only reason that motley crew downstairs is even here is because I
wrote
the damn book.”

“Damning your own work?”

“Don't get cute. You know what I mean. Without writers? There'd be no books, no magazines, no movies, no television.”

“No commercials.”

“Yes! Even commercials. Do you think they write themselves? ‘When shifting gears, think Boffo.' Oh, yeah, I've seen Miss Boobs in those commercials. Somebody had to write those words. Somebody with very little talent, but still.”

The flames small but growing, Alex stood up, brushed his hands together. “About Miss Boobs, as you so rudely referred to her. How can I put this? Are—”

“Are they real? Oh, yeah. Sure. And I'm William Shakespeare.”

“Oh. Pity. But do continue, my dear. I believe I interrupted you in midrant.”

“I'm not ranting. I was
saying
that writers are underappreciated.”

“Absolutely. I couldn't agree more.”

“And underpaid.
Grossly
underpaid.”

“Again, absolutely.”

“And we're going home tomorrow.”

“Absolutely not.”

“It's raining and miserable and—hey. You were agreeing with me here. What do you mean by ‘Absolutely not'?”

Alex motioned for Maggie to seat herself once more, then sat down across from her. Smiled that to-die-for smile that affected its creator as much as she hoped it would affect her loyal readers, damn it.

“Arnaud—Mr. Peppin, that is, although actors and their ilk seem to be such informal creatures, so that we're all on a first-name basis. To continue—Arnaud and I had a mutually advantageous chat downstairs. He got to vent his spleen on matters of his general unhappiness, and I was most happily able to take some of the burden from his shoulders.”

Alex polished his quizzing glass against the sleeve of his sweater. “I'm amenable that way.”

Maggie knew his tricks. She'd
invented
his tricks. When Alex fiddled with his quizzing glass, he was either trying to deflect somebody's attention or he was just the slightest bit uncomfortable with whatever it was he had to say. Not that anyone else in the world would ever know that. “What…did you…do?”

“Volunteered my services, of course. Sterling's and mine both. And without thought of monetary remuneration, which seemed to please both Mr. Arnaud Peppin and Miss Pertuccelli all hollow. Ah-ah, don't pout. It's true. As of now, Sterling and I will be coaching our television-movie counterparts in, shall we say, the manly graces. Indeed, even Mr. Pottinger has come aboard, once Arnaud agreed to the extremely reasonable proposition that Mr. Barlow and Mr. Posko would feel more at home in their roles if they were to be allowed to accustom themselves to the proper wardrobe of two well-dressed Regency gentlemen.”

“Why does everyone's last name begin with a
P
?” Maggie waved her hand, rubbing out the question. “Never mind—like you say, we're all going to be California-friendly, on a first-name basis. Whoopee…not. And let me guess. In order to show the actors how to behave, how to dress, how to move—–all that bilge—
you
are also going to dress in costume. How the
hell
do you do it? How do you keep getting away with murder like that?”

“Never murder, Maggie. We leave that to the villains, remember?
I
am a hero.”

“And I think I'm going to be sick,” Maggie said, resigned to the inevitable. “Okay. So I'll pitch in, too. Sam asked me to look over the script, and I am dying to get my hands on it. You know he royally screwed it up, don't you?”

“That's my sweet Maggie, ever the optimist,” Alex said, getting to his feet. “Allow me,” he added, walking to the door to answer the knock Maggie hadn't heard. She'd been too busy listening to the blood rushing in her ears, playing catch-up to her perfect hero sometimes getting on her nerves more than it should.

Sterling entered the room, then stopped, gave a flourish of his arm as he bowed, and Bernice Toland-James and Tabitha Leighton swept into the room.

“Maggie!” Tabby cried, coming toward her, arms outstretched, shoulder-length blonde hair flying, a long silk scarf tied loosely around her neck and flowing out behind her. “Give me a hug. Wonderful! Now tell Bernie you're not going to change a word of that marvelous manuscript. I told her, over and over again as we flew here, as we fought Heathrow together, as we drove through this monsoon—over and over again—that the book is brilliant.”

“When she wasn't telling me what a rat bastard David the Fornicator is,” Bernie said, sighing. “And Tabby here really liked her manicurist, too, until she found out David was, shall we say, getting his cuticles buffed by the girl. God knows where she'll get her manicures done now. I mean, if she tries Lee Press-On Nails, she might glue herself to the bathroom sink, where she'd be stuck, now that she's tossed David out again. Yet again. Honest to God, Mags, I'm really broken up for her. Really.”

“Bernie, be nice,” Maggie said, trying not to laugh. She'd be upset for her agent if David Leighton wasn't such a total loss. She could only hope that one day Tabby would figure that out, too, and dump him. Like in the ocean.

“It's all right, Maggie. You know I just ignore her. Back to the manuscript. You can't throw it away. It's brilliant. Just brilliant!”

“You haven't read it,” Maggie pointed out, once more enveloped in Tabby's hug and her expensive scent. She blew at the blonde hair that tickled her nose and gently disengaged herself from the embrace. “I didn't send you a copy.”

Tabby laughed her nervous laugh. “I don't have to read it, Maggie. I
know
it's brilliant. You're
always
brilliant. Tell her, Alex.”

“Yeah,” Bernie said, searching in Maggie's purse and coming out with the plastic case holding her nicotine cylinders and inhaler. “Ah, here it is. I left my cigarettes in my room. I'm more used to carrying a flask with me, not a pack. Anyway, you read it, Alex. You tell her.”

Maggie grabbed the inhaler from her friend and pointed it at Alex. The man was
so
lucky it wasn't a dart gun. “You read my manuscript?”

“A gentleman never tells,” Alex said, taking the inhaler from her and giving it back to Bernie. “You don't need that.”

“Don't tell me what I need. Besides, I've got a spare,” Maggie said, chin thrust out, and rummaged in her purse for the thing before turning to her creation once more. “I put a security password on my computer, Alex. To keep you
out
.”

“I thought that, at first, and then dismissed the idea as beneath you. But the work was probably a healthy exorcism for you, and now you can begin again.”

Maggie was seeing red. Blue. Green. All the colors of the rainbow, and they had turned into bright little stars and were circling her head. Yes, stars. Or maybe M&M's, because she sure could use some chocolate about now. She waved them away with her hand. “You read my manuscript. You freaking
read
my manuscript! Don't you feel guilty?”

Alex seemed to consider this. “In what way?”

“In what—in
every
way. About snooping, for one thing.” She grabbed his elbow and all but frog-marched him over to the fireplace. “And…and about what was in it. How Saint Just had done something terribly wrong, and how he…how he felt this need to…to atone…to—oh, hell, who am I kidding. You don't feel guilty at all, do you?”

“Truth to tell, my dear, I was actually rather…bored. All that unnecessary breast-beating over a perfectly understandable descent into physical violence. So sorry.”

“Ha! You hear that, Maggie?” Bernie said. “Clearly one third of your readers are males between the ages of twenty-five and sixty-seven. You've seen the demographics, the survey results, the focus groups. And you would have
bored
them. You had Saint Just contemplating his navel for three fourths of the story. Boring!”

Maggie lowered her voice so only Saint Just could hear her. When Saint Just had appeared in her life, he'd appeared with a bullet scar on his shoulder, a gift from a duel she'd written about in
The Case of the Pilfered Pearls.
“When I rewrite, you're getting a broken leg. Very possibly a compound fracture. Be ready for it.”

“You wouldn't dare,” he said, smiling his most charming smile, which she ignored. Tried to ignore.

Now she whispered. “Just tell me you feel guilty. Just a little bit guilty. And tell me you didn't realize that you could have been killed, damn it. Did it ever occur to you that you can
lose
at something? That you could have been the one who ended up on a slab at the morgue?”

“Ah, the truth. At last. You worry for me, don't you, my dear. How very gratifying.”

“Bite me,” Maggie said, then turned to face Bernie and Tabby once more. “Okay, okay, we trash the book. I know when I'm beaten.”

“There's a reasonable puss,” Alex said, and this time his smile told her that he knew how very close to the edge he was treading with that typically Regency Era lack of sensibility to the equality of the sexes. “Although I imagine Sterling would rather you kept some of it.”

“Me?” Sterling piped up from the window, where he'd been looking out at the rain. “Did I, I mean, did Sterling get to do something wonderful? And what does that mean—to contemplate one's navel?”

Maggie glared at Alex, then finally relaxed. She'd fought her battle, won what she could, and nobody was going to say she wasn't gracious in defeat. “Later, Sterling. I take it you're impressed with the view?”

“No,” Sterling said, pressing his forehead against the glass and turning his head so that he could, in his mind, at any rate, look at the outside of the building. “Can't really see anything, with it coming on to dark and still raining. The scaffolding's out here, Saint Just. Just like it's outside your room and mine. It must extend completely around this wing. I think if this window opens, I could walk outside on the thing all the way from one end of the wing to the other.”

BOOK: High Heels and Homicide
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