Balancing a bag of groceries in one arm, Amanda let herself into the house. She radiated happiness. From outside came the sound of birds singing in the spring sunshine. The gold of her wedding ring caught the light. As a newlywed of three months, she was anxious to prepare a special, intimate dinner as a surprise for Cameron. Her demanding hours at the hospital and clinic often made it impossible for her to cook, and as a new bride she found pleasure in it. This afternoon, with two appointments unexpectedly canceled, she intended to fix something fancy, time-consuming and memorable. Something that went well with candlelight and wine.
As she entered the kitchen she was humming, a rare outward show of emotion, for she was a reserved woman. With a satisfied smile, she drew a bottle of Cameron’s favorite Bordeaux from the bag. As she studied the label, a smile lingered on her face while she remembered the first time they’d shared a bottle. He’d been so romantic, so attentive; so much of what she’d needed at that point in her life.
A glance at her watch told her she had four full hours before her husband was expected home. Time enough to prepare an elaborate meal, light the candles and set out the crystal.
First, she decided, she was going upstairs to get out of her practical suit and shoes. There was a silk caftan upstairs, sheer, in misty shades of blue. Tonight, she wouldn’t be a psychiatrist, but a woman, a woman very much in love.
The house was scrupulously neat and tastefully decorated. Such things came naturally to Amanda. As she walked toward the stairs, she glanced at a vase of Baccarat crystal and wished fleetingly that she’d remembered fresh flowers. Perhaps she’d call the florist and have something extravagant delivered. Her hand trailed lightly over the polished banister as she started up. Her eyes, usually serious or intent, were dreamy. Carelessly, she pushed open the bedroom door.
Her smile froze. Utter shock replaced it. As she stood in the doorway, all color seemed to drain out of her cheeks. Her eyes grew huge before pain filled them. Out of her mouth came one anguished word.
The couple in bed, locked in a passionate embrace, sprang apart. The man, smoothly handsome, his sleek hair disheveled, stared up in disbelief. The woman—feline, sultry, stunning—smiled very, very slowly. You could almost hear her purr.
“Vikki.” Amanda looked at her sister with anguished eyes.
“You’re home early.” There was a hint, only a suspicion of a laugh in her sister’s voice.
Cameron put a few more inches between himself and his sister-in-law. “Amanda, I . . .”
In one split second, Amanda’s face contorted. With her eyes locked on the couple in bed, she reached in her jacket pocket and drew out a small, lethal revolver. The lovers stared at it in astonishment, and in silence. Coolly, she aimed and fired. A puff of confetti burst out.
Dr. Amanda Lane Jamison, better known as Ariel Kirkwood, turned to her harassed director as the couple in bed and members of the television crew dissolved into laughter.
“Sorry, Neal, I couldn’t help myself. Amanda’s always the victim,” she said dramatically while her eyes danced. “Just think what it might do for the ratings if she lost her cool just once and murdered someone.”
“Or even just seriously injured them,” she went on rapidly. “And who,” she continued, flinging her hand toward the bed, “deserves it more than her spineless husband and scheming sister?”
At the hoots and applause of the crew, Ariel took a bow, and then reluctantly turned over her weapon to her director when he held out his hand.
“You,” he said with a long-suffering sigh, “are a certified loony, and have been since I’ve known you.”
“I appreciate that, Neal.”
“This time the tape’s going to be running,” he warned and tried not to grin. “Let’s see if we can shoot this scene before lunch.”
Agreeably, Ariel went down to the first floor of the set. She stood patiently while her hair and makeup were touched up. Amanda was always perfection. Organized, meticulous, calm—all the things Ariel herself wasn’t. She’d played the character for just over five years on the popular daytime soap opera Our Lives, Our Loves.
In those five years, Amanda had graduated with honors from college, had earned her degree in psychiatric medicine and had gone on to become a respected therapist. Her recent marriage to Cameron Jamison appeared to be made in heaven. But of course, he was a weak opportunist who’d married her for her money and social position, while lusting after her sister—and half the female population of the fictional town of Trader’s Bend.
Amanda was about to be confronted with the truth. The story line had been leading up to this revelation for six weeks, and the letters from viewers had poured in. Both they and Ariel thought it was about time Amanda found out about her louse of a husband.
Ariel liked Amanda, respected her integrity and poise. When the cameras rolled, Ariel was Amanda. While in her personal life she would much prefer a day at an amusement park to an evening at the ballet, she understood all the nuances of the woman she portrayed.
When this scene aired, viewers would see a neat, slender woman with pale blond hair slicked back into a sophisticated knot. The face was porcelain and stunning, with an icy kind of beauty that sent out signals of restrained sexuality. Class. Style.
Lake-blue eyes and high, curved cheekbones added to the look of polished elegance. A perfectly shaped mouth that tended toward serious smiles. Finely arched brows that were shades darker than the delicate blond of her hair accented luxurious lashes. A flawless beauty perfectly composed—that was Amanda.
Ariel waited for her cue and wondered vaguely if she’d turned off her coffeepot that morning.
They ran through the scene again, from cue to cut, then a second time when it was discovered that Vikki’s strapless bathing suit could be seen when she shifted in bed. Then came reaction shots—the camera zoomed in close on Amanda’s pale, shocked face and held for several long dramatic seconds.
The response was immediate. The lovers bounded out of either side of the bed. In his bathing trunks, J. T. Brown, Ariel’s on-screen husband, took her by the shoulders and gave her a long hard kiss. “Look, sweetie,” he began, staying in character, “I’ll explain about all this later. Trust me. I gotta call my agent.”
“Wimp,” Ariel called after him with a very un-Amandalike grin before she hooked her arm through that of Stella Powell, her on-screen sister. “Pull something over that suit, Stella. I can’t face the commissary food today.”
Stella tossed back her tousled mass of auburn hair. “You buying?”
“Always sponging off your sister,” Ariel mumbled. “Okay, I’ll spring, but hurry up. I’m starving.”
On her way to her dressing room, Ariel walked off the set, then through two more—the fifth floor of Doctors Hospital and the living room of the Lanes, Trader Bend’s leading family. It was tempting to shed her costume and take down her hair, but it would only mean fooling with wardrobe and makeup after lunch. Instead, she just grabbed her purse, an outsize hobo bag that looked a bit incongruous with Amanda’s elegant business suit. She was already thinking about a thick slice of baklava soaked in honey.
“Come on, Stella.” Ariel stuck her head in the adjoining dressing room as Stella zipped up a pair of snug jeans. “My stomach’s on overtime.”
“It always is,” her coworker returned as she pulled on a bulky sweatshirt. “Where to?”
“The Greek deli around the corner.” More than ready, Ariel started down the hall in her characteristically long, swinging gait while Stella hurried to keep up. It wasn’t that Ariel rushed from place to place, but simply that she wanted to see what was next.<
“My diet,” Stella began.
“Have a salad,” Ariel told her without mercy. She turned her head to give Stella a quick up-and-down glance. “You know, if you weren’t always wearing those skimpy outfits on camera, you wouldn’t have to starve yourself.”
Stella grinned as they came to the street door. “Jealous.”
“Yeah. I’m always elegant and always proper. You have all the fun.” Stepping outside, Ariel took a deep breath of New York. She loved it—had always loved it in a way usually reserved for tourists. Ariel had lived on the long thin island of Manhattan all of her life, and yet it remained an adventure to her. The sights, the smells, the sounds.
It was brisk for mid-April, and threatening to rain. The air was damp and smelled of exhaust. The streets and sidewalks were clogged with lunchtime traffic—everyone hurrying, everyone with important business to attend to. A pedestrian swore and banged a fist on the hood of a cab that had clipped too close to the curb. A woman with spiked orange hair hustled by in black leather boots. Someone had written something uncomplimentary on a poster for a hot Broadway play. But Ariel saw a street vendor selling daffodils.
She bought two bunches and handed one to Stella.
“You can never pass up anything, can you?” Stella mumbled, but buried her face in the yellow blooms.
“Think of all I’d miss,” Ariel countered. “Besides, it’s spring.”
Stella shivered and looked up at the leaden sky. “Sure.”
“Eat.” Ariel grabbed her arm and pulled her along. “You always get cranky when you miss meals.”
The deli was packed with people and aromas. Spices and honey. Beer and oil. Always a creature of the senses, Ariel drew in the mingled scents before she worked her way to the counter. She had an uncanny way of getting where she was going through a throng without using her elbows or stepping on toes. While she moved, she watched and listened. She wouldn’t want to miss a scent, or the texture of a voice, or the clashing colors of food. As she looked behind the glass-fronted counter, she could already taste the things there.
“Cottage cheese, a slice of pineapple and coffee—black,” Stella said with a sigh. Ariel sent her a brief, pitying look.
“Greek salad, a hunk of that lamb on a hard roll and a slice of baklava. Coffee, cream and sugar.”
“You’re disgusting,” Stella told her. “You never gain an ounce.”
“I know.” Ariel moved down the counter to the cashier. “It’s a matter of mental control and clean living.” Ignoring Stella’s rude snort she paid the bill then made her way through the crowded deli toward an empty table. She and a bull of a man reached it simultaneously. Ariel simply held her tray and sent him a stunning smile. The man straightened his shoulders, sucked in his stomach and gave way.
“Thanks,” Stella acknowledged and dismissed him at the same time, knowing if she didn’t Ariel would invite him to join them and upset any chance of a private conversation. The woman, Stella thought, needed a keeper.
Ariel did all the things a woman alone should know better than to do. She talked to strangers, walked alone at night and answered her door without the security chain attached. It wasn’t that she was daring or careless, but simply that she believed in the best of people. And somehow, in a bit more than twenty-five years of living, she’d never been disillusioned. Stella marveled at her, even while she worried about her.
“The gun was one of your best stunts all season,” Stella remarked as she poked at her cottage cheese. “I thought Neal was going to scream.”
“He needs to relax,” Ariel said with her mouth full. “He’s been on edge ever since he broke up with that dancer. How about you? Are you still seeing Cliff?”
“Yeah.” Stella lifted her shoulder. “I don’t know why, it’s not going anywhere.”
“Where do you want it to go?” Ariel countered. “If you have a goal in mind, just go for it.”
With a half laugh, Stella began to eat. “Not everyone plunges through life like you, Ariel. It always amazes me that you’ve never been seriously involved.”
“Simple.” Ariel speared a fork into her salad then chewed slowly. “I’ve never met anyone who made my knees tremble. As soon as I do, that’ll be it.”
“Just like that?”
“Why not? Life isn’t as complicated as most people make it.” She added a dash of pepper to the lamb. “Are you in love with Cliff?”
Stella frowned—not because of the question, she was used to Ariel’s directness—but because of the answer. “I don’t know. Maybe.”
“Then you’re not,” Ariel said easily. “Love’s a very definite emotion. Sure you don’t want any of this lamb?”
Stella didn’t bother to answer the question. “If you’ve never been in love, how do you know?”
“I’ve never been to Turkey, but I’m sure it’s there.”
With a laugh, Stella picked up her coffee. “Damn, Ariel, you’ve always got an answer. Tell me about the script.”
“Oh, God.” Ariel put down her fork, and leaning her elbows on the table, folded her hands. “It’s the best thing I’ve ever read. I want that part. I’m going to get that part,” she added with something that was apart from confidence. It was simple fact. “I swear, I’ve been waiting for the character of Rae to come along. She’s heartless,” Ariel continued, resting her chin on her folded hands. “Complex, selfish, cold, insecure. A part like that . . .” She trailed off with a shake of her head. “And the story,” she added on a long breath as her mind jumped from one aspect to the next. “It’s nearly as cold and heartless as she is, but it gets to you.”
“Booth DeWitt,” Stella mused. “It’s rumored that he based the character of Rae on his ex-wife.”
“He didn’t gloss it over either. If he’s telling it straight, she put him through hell. In any case,” she said, as she began to eat again, “it’s the best piece of work that’s come my way. I’m going to read for it in a couple of days.”
“TV movie,” Stella said thoughtfully. “Quality television with DeWitt writing and Marshell producing. You’d have our own producer at your feet if you got it. Boy, what a boost for the ratings.”
“He’s already playing politics.” With a small frown, Ariel broke off a chunk of baklava. “He got me an invitation to a party tonight at Marshell’s condo. DeWitt’s supposed to be there. From what I hear, he’s got the last say on casting.”
“He’s got a reputation for wanting to push his own buttons,” Stella agreed. “So why the frown?”
“Politics is like rain in April—you know it’s got to happen, but it’s messy and annoying.” Then she shrugged the thought away as she did anything unavoidable. In the end, from what she knew of Booth DeWitt, she’d earn the part on her own merit. If there was one thing Ariel had an abundance of, it was confidence. She’d always needed it.
Unlike Amanda, the character she played on the soap, Ariel hadn’t grown up financially secure. There’d been a great deal more love than money in her home. She’d never regretted it, or the struggle to make ends meet. She’d been sixteen when her mother had died and her father had gone into a state of shock that had lasted nearly a year. It had never occurred to her that she was too young to take on the responsibilities of running a home and raising two younger siblings. There’d been no one else to do it. She’d sold powder and perfume in a department store to pay her way through college, while managing the family home and taking any bit part that came her way.
They’d been busy, difficult years, and perhaps that in itself had given her the surplus of energy and drive she had today. And the sense that whatever had to be done, could be done.
Ariel glanced up to see a small, middle-aged woman carrying a take-out bag that smelled strongly of garlic. Because she was called by her character’s name almost as often as she was by her own, she smiled and held out her hand. “Hello.”
“I’m Dorra Wineberger and I wanted to tell you you’re just as beautiful as you
are on TV.”
“Thank you, Dorra. You enjoy the show?”
“I wouldn’t miss it, not one single episode.” She beamed at Ariel then leaned closer. “You’re wonderful, dear, and so kind and patient. I just feel someone ought to tell you that Cameron—he’s not good for you. The best thing for you to do is send him packing before he gets his hands on your money. He’s already pawned your diamond earrings. And this one . . .” Dorra folded her lips and glared at Stella. “Why you bother with this one, after all the trouble she’s caused you . . . If it hadn’t been for her, you and Griff would be married like you should be.” She sent Stella an affronted glare. “I know you’ve got your eyes on your sister’s husband, Vikki.”
Stella struggled with a grin and, playing the role, tossed her head and slanted her eyes. “Men are interested in me,” she drawled. “And why not?”
Dorra shook her head and turned back to Ariel. “Go back to Griff,” she advised kindly. “He loves you, he always has.”
Ariel returned the quick squeeze of her hand. “Thanks for caring.”
Both women watched Dorra walk away before they turned back to each other. “Everyone loves Dr. Amanda,” Vikki said with a grin. “She’s practically sacred.”
“And everyone loves to hate Vikki.” With a chuckle, Ariel finished off her coffee. “You’re so rotten.”
“Yeah.” Stella gave a contented sigh. “I know.” She chewed her pineapple slowly, with a wistful look at Ariel’s plate. “Anyway, it always strikes me as kind of weird when people get me confused with Vikki.”
“It just means you’re doing your job,” Ariel corrected. “If you go into people’s homes every day and don’t draw emotion out of them, you better look for another line of work. Nuclear physics, log rolling. Speaking of work,” she added with a glance at her watch.
“I know . . . Hey, are you going to eat the rest of that?”