Lago di Como, March 2010
Ruby stepped as close to the rocky point as she dared, taking quiet joy in overlooking the shimmering, deep blue water that filled the verdant fjord stretching before her. To the north soared snow-capped Italian and Swiss peaks. On either side of the lake, palms, firs, and mulberry trees clustered in villages tucked at the base of steeply sloping hillsides, where yellow daffodils and violet crocuses bloomed in abundance.
Ruby lifted her chin to the breeze the locals called Breva, Lake Como’s afternoon winds from the south. She ran a hand over her dark red, shoulder-length coiffure. Though she had a top stylist who faithfully matched her trademark color, her hair was hardly the luxuriant, glossy mane that had earned her childhood nickname.
As a girl, her hair was so dark and shiny her mother called it ruby. The name stuck because Lucille Eunice was too long to call out. For her stage name, Ruby adopted her mother’s maiden name of Raines. She’d thought it sounded so fancy and elegant—and her talent agent had thought her surname of Smith was too ordinary for an actress.
While the small, private tour group of retired film actors chattered on behind her, she folded an arm across her torso, recalling the feeling of Niccolò’s arms twined around her as they’d stood on this very spot in Bellagio. His strong hands had spanned her narrow waist. At the memory, a fine, exquisite feeling filled her chest. Her love for him had never wavered, never dimmed.
This type of love was all that Ruby wished for her niece Ariana. Yet, Ruby feared Ariana might not have the chance.
My dearest, my Niccolò. They had met in the summer of 1952 on the set of Roman Holiday, which remained her favorite film. The story of an independent-thinking, runaway princess who scorns her duties for a magical escape in Rome and a taste of true love never grew old. That film had made Audrey Hepburn a star and, in a roundabout way, launched Ruby’s career in film as well.
Placing her hand over the hollow of her neck, she caressed the worn silver pendant that Audrey had given her. Ruby had been moved by her generosity, though that wasn’t the primary reason she’d cherished it.
That summer was imprinted on a movie reel in her brain—quite apart from the film shown in theaters.
It was June of 1952…
Wearing a full, sky-blue skirt with a crisp white shirt and a jaunty scarf at her neck—compliments of the wardrobe supervisor—Ruby stretched out her legs on the Spanish Steps in Rome. The Hassler, a grand hotel where Audrey Hepburn, Gregory Peck, and Eddie Albert were staying, loomed above the steep stone steps.
In the summer heat, Ruby rolled her sleeves high on her arms as the wardrobe assistant had instructed and tried to focus on the script in her lap. She had to memorize the lines for her short scene.
Ruby rubbed her stomach, which was tied up in knots as tight as the bowlines her father had taught her to tie on the ranch back in Texas. Here she was, living the dream she’d imagined. A real speaking part in a film in Italy! She couldn’t believe her good fortune. Ruby had her mother to thank for this adventure.
Just below her in the piazza, Mr. Wyler and his assistant director conferred. Miss Hepburn and Mr. Peck were relaxing between takes while their hair and makeup were being refreshed. Grips and gaffers adjusted equipment and lighting. Above them, people watched from railings, and smoke from their cigarettes curled into the warm air. Their chatter would be silenced when filming began again.
A shadow crossed her script.
Ruby shielded her eyes and looked up into a pair of incredible blue eyes rimmed with thick, dark lashes and a slash of eyebrows. With sculpted cheekbones and shiny dark hair that framed a strong face, he was the most breathtakingly beautiful man she’d ever seen.
“Hi,” she managed to say as her throat constricted.
“I’m a Texan. The state used to be a republic. For ten years.” Silently, she chastised herself. Why did I say that? She’d been as nervous as a cottontail rabbit ever since she’d arrived in Rome.
A smile played on his full lips. “I’m Niccolò. Do you mind if I sit with you? We can rehearse together,” he added, opening a copy of the script.
“Ruby. Pleased to meet you.” His melodic voice made her toes curl with pleasure. “Where did you learn English so well?” she asked.
“I learned a little from my parents, but mostly at the cinema, American films, English films. I love the magical way they make you feel. I’ve wanted to act—and maybe write—for as long as I can remember. Maybe we’re alike that way.” He touched her shoulder as he spoke. “And now, here we are, part of that magic, too.”
She nodded, barely able to speak. What Niccolò said was exactly what she felt in the depths of her soul, too. “So much alike.”
Ruby blinked in the breeze. That summer had profoundly changed her life. Had it really been that many years ago? Time passed so quickly. She had an urgent matter to address this summer, too—one she’d been dreading for years.
The young Italian tour guide touched her arm. “Signora Raines,” he said in a soft, respectful voice, his left eye twitching slightly. “Will you step back from the edge? We would hate to lose you.”
“I’ve lived on the edge all my life, Matteo. Wouldn’t this be a stunning place to die?” Sensing the young man’s nervousness, Ruby stepped back, her ivory silk palazzo pants rippling in the breeze. “Though not today, I promise.”
Matteo was visibly relieved. If he let a famous American film star plunge to her death, he’d probably lose his job, but what a magnificent, dramatic headline that would make. The Great Ruby Raines Flings Herself from Alpine Precipice.
Though it was actually a rolling Lombardy hill. Lovely, but not nearly as memorable.
The tour guide turned back to the small gathering. “If Lake Como looks familiar, it’s because the films Casino Royale and Ocean’s Twelve were shot here.”
Ruby tapped her custom-designed cane—a twisted, aromatic cedarwood design topped with a ruby-eyed silver eagle that she’d commissioned on a return trip to Texas. The press had once dubbed her the Fiery Texan and compared her to Maureen O’Hara and Katharine Hepburn. That was after she’d completed her first western film, Diary of a Pioneer Woman, with a famous cowboy movie star.
Actually, that actor made so many passes at her that she’d relished the scripted slaps across his face. He’d earned every one of them, but none of them wiped that self-satisfied smirk off his face. Even after she won awards for Best Actress around the world for that film. At least she had that satisfaction.
Ruby still remembered everything.
She shrugged off the memories and planted her cane on a rock. Though walking stick sounds more elegant. While that wasn’t quite correct, it was certainly more palatable. All because of an ill-timed step from a curb at home in Palm Springs that left her with a sprained ankle.
Really, she was hardly old enough to depend on a cane.
Ariana had insisted that she take it. “At least take a cane to help your balance, Auntie.”
“There’s nothing wrong with my balance,” Ruby had retorted, though she secretly loved hearing Ariana dote on her. Her sweet, strawberry blond-haired niece had the heart of an angel, though she was often too accommodating.
Ruby nestled the tip of her walking stick into the rocky ground. Here, right here, is where Niccolò and I planned our future. Dreams as big as the canopy of sky overhead, pinned in place by snow-capped peaks.
But we were so young, so naïve.
Acting had been her dream ever since she’d seen her first film, The Yearling, at the old movie theater. Her mother drove them more than an hour over rutted dirt roads in the rusty Ford pick-up they used on the ranch. They wore their Sunday best, too. Her mother made a new red-gingham dress with navy-blue piping for her.
From the first flicker on the screen, Ruby was immersed in the celluloid saga, identifying with the little boy on screen. A few years later, on a whim, her mother sent photos of Ruby to her sister, Vivienne, who lived in Hollywood and knew a talent agent. Her mother begged her father to let Ruby have a little adventure before she settled down with a husband and children. Before long, Ruby was on a train bound for Hollywood.
On the hillside, Ruby swayed a little, then righted herself with the walking stick. The past often seemed more vibrant than today. Lately, she’d found herself forgetting little things that hardly mattered, a date, or the name of an acquaintance. Not too bad for a youthful-looking woman of a certain age, she told herself. She wouldn’t admit to a day over sixty-five, at least not to the media. What difference did a few more years make? She didn’t feel old, except in her joints on rainy days.
But Ruby remembered everything that had happened in Italy. Reveling in her memories, she lifted her face to the sunshine. A moment later, she felt a tug on her sleeve and turned around.
“Scusi, Signora.” Matteo was by her side again.
Ruby lifted a brow. “I promise I’m not contemplating offing myself.”
The guide chuckled. “Honestly, I needed a moment myself. Sometimes I forget what a beautiful home we have here.” After gazing over the windswept lake, he turned to her. “Did you enjoy yourself in Rome?”
Another guide had led the tour there. “I did. I had a chance to relive an important chapter of my life. My first film, even though my part was cut in final editing. It starred Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck, but you’re probably too young to know it.”
“Vacanze Romane, or as you say in America, Roman Holiday.” Matteo grinned, tenting his hand against the sun. “It’s still very popular here. That must have been an enchanting time.”
Ruby smiled. But not in the way you think. Securing her emerald-green, print silk scarf that was fluttering in the breeze, she said, “It certainly was. That was the first Hollywood film shot entirely on location in Italy. During those magical weeks, it seemed all of Rome buzzed with excitement. And we had a wonderful group of talented actors and technicians. Everyone knew Gregory Peck, of course. He was already a big star. In fact, he was in the first movie I’d ever seen, The Yearling.”
“Who directed the film?” Matteo touched her elbow to steady her.
“William Wyler—Willie to his friends, but Mr. Wyler on the set,” Ruby said. “He risked casting a relatively unknown actress who’d been working in England. Roman Holiday had been Audrey Hepburn’s big break. Mr. Wyler knew she had the potential to be a huge star.” Ruby paused. “I miss her so much. I really looked up to her on the set. Aside from being a brilliant actress, Audrey was such a fine woman with a huge heart.”
Matteo smiled at her comment. “If you don’t mind my saying, you seem awfully young to have been in that film.”
“You flatter me.” Ruby laughed. “I was barely seventeen, but that film paved my path to success. And after Roman Holiday came out in theaters, I went home to Texas and took my family to see it.” Amused, she shook her head. “I was in a few scenes as an extra, and you’ve never heard so much whooping and hollering about that.”
Her mother had been ecstatic, though her father didn’t approve of her acting. Her mother, Mercy Raines Smith, had spent weeks cajoling her husband to let Ruby go.
“In Rome, did you see any of the places where the movie was filmed?” Matteo asked.
“Oh, yes,” Ruby replied, tucking her hand through the crook of his elbow for balance. “We visited the Palazzo Colonna, the grand palace in the last scene of Roman Holiday. I strolled the cobblestone streets of Via Margutta, where all the bohemian artist studios were located and found the flat used as Joe’s apartment in the film. And then I had lunch at a café with a view of Castel Sant’Angelo and the Tiber River, the Tevere. You might remember that setting. It was the scene of the melee on the barge, where Audrey smashed a guitar over a policeman’s head.”
“It must have been fun to be there for that.”
Ruby chuckled. “We’d had a long night of filming. I was in the scene as an extra, just one of the people dancing. We were all hot and tired, and after Audrey and the other actors crashed into the water at the end of the final take, we all jumped in for a late-night swim in the Tiber. What fun we had.”
“Sounds more like a magical summer holiday than work,” Matteo said, joining her in laughter.
“Indeed, it was.”
In Rome, Ruby had also left the tour group to find the pensione where she had stayed during filming. Outside, she’d gazed up at the second floor, locating the sunny room that had been hers. The building had been renovated, but the narrow staircase where she and Niccolò had chased each other up the stairs was still there. As she’d rubbed her hand over the worn railing, she could almost hear their peals of youthful laughter.
Matteo’s phone buzzed, and he silenced it. “I wish I could hear more of your stories, but that’s our signal to move on. Maybe you’ll share some over dinner tonight?”
“I’d be happy to,” she said, smiling.
“It will take me a few minutes to gather everyone,” Matteo said.
“I’ll wait here if that’s okay.” She tapped her cane on the ground. “Don’t worry. I’m on stable ground.”
As much as Ruby loved Rome, the highlight of this trip was Lago di Como—Lake Como—or Lario, as the Latin poet Vergilius or Virgil referred to the magnificent Y-shaped lake. Its beauty had endured through the centuries.
To Ruby, the romance of the region was palpable. Bellagio was perched at the tip of the Larian Triangle. As she recalled, the evening lights glinted like diamonds in the moonlight dusting the surrounding slopes. On either side, the lake’s graceful arms cradled the village while orioles trilled their songs.
Ruby lifted her nose to the breeze as it swept across the lake, carrying the scents of a thousand gardens.
Glancing across the lake, she saw villas from centuries past hugging the shoreline. To one side was the village of Tremezzo with the lovely Villa Carlotta. Farther south on the lake, she recalled the stories of Cernobbio with the exquisite Villa d’Este. Yet the other shore and the sweet comune of Varenna, where a modest bell tower marked the location of a small church, drew her attention.
So many memories.
Ruby rubbed her arms and turned away, unable to look too long.
Surely a goddess had smiled on Lago di Como, long before humans had discovered its stunning beauty. A memory flitted across Ruby’s mind as she recalled Niccolò’s description of Lago di Como.
It’s a culture of beauty. La cultura del bello.
Ruby had left her heart here long ago. Instead, she had devoted her life to acting, theatre, films, television. When talent agent Joseph Applebaum had gambled on her, he’d guided her into a rapid succession of films. Besides movies, Ruby had also lent her image to cosmetic and fashion advertising campaigns and starred in a long-running television series, racking up awards as she went. Even her signature perfume campaign won a Clio award. Now, she still welcomed occasional roles.
“If only Ariana could experience this,” Ruby whispered into the soft breeze. Ariana was her grandniece or great-niece, although Ruby seldom made that distinction because it made her sound ancient. Appearances counted in her industry.
As a child, Ariana had played in Ruby’s closets and developed a superb eye for fashion and costume detail. Ariana’s mother hadn’t condoned her daughter’s education in fashion. To tough-minded Mari, only a degree in science or business or engineering was worthy of investment.
When Mari refused to pay for Ariana’s study in fashion design, Ruby stepped in, despite Mari’s protests. Ruby paid for Ariana’s attendance at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Los Angeles, where the young woman had blossomed.
Now, Ariana worked long hours at a studio as a costume designer for an ungrateful, emotionally abusive boss. And her boyfriend wasn’t much better.
There was nothing Ruby wouldn’t do for Ariana, the child of her heart whom she loved more than life. If only Ariana knew, or could accept, how truly gifted and loved she was. To Ruby, it was critical that she intervene in Ariana’s off-track life. She wanted her final gift to Ariana to be happiness.
Ruby was desperate to set things right with those she loved. Her sister Patricia’s death last year—and the instructions she left—made it imperative that Ruby address lingering issues. She owed that to Mari—and sweet Ariana, who loved her for who she really was, not the Technicolor characters she’d played. Patricia had left the most difficult task to Ruby.
Placing a hand at her neck, Ruby recalled the letter she’d read so often that she had memorized it like a script.
My dear Ruby,
By the time you read this, I will be resting peacefully. As I write, I am still grappling with my diagnosis but thought I should take measures while I can. You have my gratitude for whatever decisions you’ve had to make on my behalf. But I have one more private request that I cannot bring myself to face. I have left a letter and personal items in a safety-deposit box for dear Mari. Please understand that these are only for Mari’s eyes. I’ll leave it up to you to decide the details, Ruby, as to when, or even if, you want to share this with her. Be gentle; her will is as fierce as yours and her heart just as soft.
My dear sister, we have lived through the most heartrending times together. My deepest gratitude to you for the gifts you shared—not only with me but our entire family. You have all my love forever. Now, as to my instructions—
Matteo was motioning toward Ruby. Herd-like, the group had shifted toward the van. It was time to leave. Flinging her scarf across her shoulder, she strode toward the van.
“Signora Raines, if I may.” Matteo offered his hand to help her slide into her seat.
“Grazie, Matteo. Such exquisite manners.” Bestowing a radiant smile upon him, she slid her hand into his as she lifted her skirt, extended a long leg, and made her entrance into the touring van.
As Matteo smiled, Ruby lowered her eyes and inclined her head as Mr. Wyler had once suggested she do, making her entrance like a queen. The great director wasn’t known for giving much direction, so that guidance had made an impact. Usually, his instructions had been simple. Again, again. Or, Do better. Still, she adored him, and they’d grown close over the years.
Matteo held her hand and beamed.
Ruby smiled. She still had it.
After Matteo took the wheel, they started off. Ruby gazed from the window, delighting in the scenery. Oleanders, roses, and bougainvillea blossomed in profusion. On a small lane close to the lake, Matteo eased the van to a stop. Outside, a low stone wall covered in a jumble of jasmine and pink climbing roses partly obscured a tile-roofed villa from another era. Chiseled into the stone arch above the gate were the words, Villa Fiori.
A villa of flowers. What could be more romantic?
A small, bright yellow sign tacked to the wooden gate caught her eye. Vendesi. Scribbled numbers beckoned to her.
Ruby’s skin tingled foresight, just as when that first spotlight had warmed her face. She leaned forward. “My dear Matteo, would you write down that telephone number for me?”
“That one needs a lot of work, Signora, but I’ll take a photo for you.” He gestured toward the phone in a sleek leopard case she carried. “Posso?”
Matteo pulled to the curb, and she handed him her phone. While he took photos, she craned her neck, trying to see more of the property. Stone walls. Tall windows. An overgrown garden. It was intriguing. But at her age, she reminded herself, it was only a dream.
Or was it?
The guide climbed into the van and handed her the phone. “Bellissima,” he said, touching his fingers to his lips. “Now you have beautiful photos to remember it by.”
Through the window, the sun shone warm on Ruby’s face. The van wound along the hillside, with the rhythm of the switchbacks lulling her to sleep.
Seated on the wide Spanish Steps near pots of purple bougainvillea, Ruby and Niccolò took turns practicing lines in their small scenes. Ruby was intrigued by how many different ways Niccolò could deliver his lines. He used voice inflections, facial expressions, and gestures to alter the tenor of his scene, often making her laugh.
After trying a few different approaches for her part, Ruby stopped and fanned herself with her script. She rolled up the sleeves of her white shirt another notch and loosened the scarf knotted at her neck.
“Hotter today than usual,” Niccolò said. “How about we get some gelato?”
“Sounds perfect.” Ruby pushed off the stone steps. Other people on set were taking a break, too.
Taking her hand, Niccolò led her along a busy cobblestone sidewalk. His grip was sure and confident. Holding hands seemed like the most natural thing to do, and his touch sent thrills through her.
As they passed small restaurants, a flurry of aromas jostled in the air—the scent of fresh bread, Italian herbs, and baked cheese. Ruby inhaled, savoring the intensity.
“How were you hired for Roman Holiday?” Ruby asked while they walked. She’d discovered that many cast members had worked together on other films.
“I answered a casting call,” Niccolò replied. “I acted in school, and my old teacher encouraged me to try out. She told me this was a big opportunity. How about you?”
“It was kind of a lark,” Ruby said. “My aunt lives in Los Angeles, and she knows a talent agent. On a whim, my mother sent some of my photographs. The agent liked them, so I took a train from Texas to meet him. Do you know, he sent me out for an audition the very next day?”
She shook her head, still surprised at her luck. “I don’t think I was any better than others, but the casting director told me I had the right look. My agent arranged a few acting classes for me, and the next thing I knew, I was boarding a ship for Italy. It’s all been so exciting.”
Ruby had been thrilled and amazed—especially that her father let her go to Italy. Her mother had begged him to let Ruby have a little adventure before she married and settled down. If only her mother could have come, but the fare to Italy was too costly. Her mother emptied her secret pin money earned from selling eggs that she kept in a boot in the back of the closet. Mercy Smith bought her daughter a camera and film to capture what she would never experience. Ruby promised to return with pictures.
Niccolò stopped at a narrow shop open to the street with a sign that proclaimed, Gelato fatto in casa.
“It’s as good as homemade,” Niccolò said as they ducked under an awning. “Salve, come va?” Niccolò said to the gelato vendor, an older teenager.
“Bene,” the boy replied.
While the two spoke in rapid Italian that Ruby couldn’t follow, she gazed over bins of the most luscious swirls of a frozen treat she’d ever seen.
Niccolò turned to her. “What would you like? Limone, fragola, cioccolato, pistacchio?”
“What’s fragola?” she asked.
Niccolò grinned and pointed to a rosy pink bin. “Strawberry. And that’s pistachio.”
“I can’t decide,” she said. “I like them all, but I definitely want to try pistachio.”
Niccolò said something to the other boy, who began to scoop out several flavors onto wafer cones. “You can try several,” he said. “We can share if you don’t mind.”
Balancing cones, they strolled along the strada until they reached a fountain, where they stopped to sit. The water cooled the air.
After Ruby had tried every flavor on their cones, Niccolò asked, “Which one is your favorite?”
She wanted to say, you, but instead, she said, “Pistachio. I love it.”
“Better than American ice cream?”
“Different,” she said. “But absolutely delicious.” Her cone began dripping in the heat, and she quickly licked every delectable drip.
Niccolò laughed. “Come here.”
Ruby felt a cold spot on the tip of her nose.
“Mi permetta,” he said, kissing the tip of her nose. “Like a puppy, no?”
Ruby dissolved into gales of laughter, and then, taking her finger, she swiped strawberry gelato across his nose. Making funny faces and crossing his eyes, he tried to reach it with his tongue. Finally, she swiped the gelato off with a napkin, giggling as she did.
The rolling motion of the van ceased, and Ruby shifted in her seat.
“Scusi, Signora,” Matteo said. “We have arrived at the hotel.”
“I guess I dozed a little.” Ruby blinked and sat up.
“Signora, per favore.” Matteo stood by the open door, ready to assist her down the little stone steps to the entry. Bellagio was primarily a walking village—or comune—with narrow lanes that led down the hillside to the lake.
Ruby stepped from the van. She wasn’t ready to return to her room. A cool drink at the terrace bar would be perfect, she thought, straightening her shoulders to make her entrance. She’d grown a head taller than her mother, but Mercy Smith had always insisted that Ruby hold her head high. Even now, her mother’s words rang in her mind. Her mother was named Mercy—Mercy Raines—at birth, because of the torrential downpour that had broken a drought on the day she was born. No matter how dark the day, her mother always looked on the positive side.
Ruby walked through the marbled entryway.
Years ago, paparazzi might have lurked near the entry, but not today. Tossing the long edge of her scarf over her shoulder, she strolled through the hotel to a table outside overlooking the lake. The view was so exquisite that it made her heart ache with memories. Though she’d had her share of romantic partners along the way, none had ever compared to Niccolò.
A waiter appeared by her table, and Ruby ordered a Bellini with prosecco.
“Pane e olio?” The waiter asked.
As Ruby sipped the refreshing concoction of sparkling wine and peach puree, she studied the photos that Matteo had taken on her phone. One was of the for-sale sign, while others were of the villa and its gardens. Maybe this wasn’t such a far-fetched thought.
She tore a small piece of fragrant rosemary bread the waiter had brought and dipped it into the olive oil, reveling in the taste. Gazing at images, she wondered how her life might have turned out. She might have lived with Niccolò in that very villa overlooking the lake. Sipping her cocktail, she let the story play out in her mind, imagining their children, boating on the lake, leisurely dinners spent gazing at the Alps. Making love under clear, starry skies or rainy nights.
A story. Only a story. One that was never destined to come to life.
Sighing, Ruby took another drink. If she hadn’t been an actress, she might have become a writer. Still, she was proud of her work and her ability to provide for those she loved and others.
While her parents’ property in the Texas Hill Country wasn’t anywhere near as large as the nearby Hillingdon ranch, Ruby had eventually erected a new house for her parents. She’d also built a new barn, invested in the ranch, and supported her older sister and her husband when they needed it. That was only right, all things considered.
Ruby blinked back tears that lined her lashes at the memories. They were all gone now. She’d done the best she could for her family. In her heart, she’d made the only decision she could at the time, although it hadn’t been easy.
She’d promised her parents she’d never sell the ranch. After their deaths, she hadn’t visited as often as she thought she would, so she converted the ranch into a nonprofit organization for underprivileged kids from the city to have a break and learn outdoor life skills. She’d taken Ariana there when her niece was younger to ride horses, appreciate authentic, melt-off-the-bone barbecue, and sleep under stars that crowded the night sky.
Suddenly, Ruby’s phone chirped a tune, surprising her. She assumed it was Stefano, her Palm Springs houseman, though it was still early in California. He’d be having coffee, or maybe working out at the local gym. She checked the number that appeared on the screen and smiled. Ariana.
“I’m glad you picked up, Aunt Ruby.” Ariana let out a little squeal. “I’m so excited I’ve hardly slept. You’ll never believe it, but Phillip and I are finally getting married.”
Should Ruby try to be happy for her niece? Ariana knew how she felt about Phillip.
“He proposed?” Ruby asked, stalling. Obviously.
“Yes, and we’re getting married right away. At that little church in Studio City you used to go to.”
“It’s quite charming,” Ruby said.
“They had a cancellation. How soon can you return?”
“Tell me your date, and I’ll be there.” The tour could continue to Venice without her.
Ariana did and then hesitated on the line. “And I’d really like for you to give me away.”
“I’d be delighted, but why not ask your mother?”
“I tried,” Ariana spat out, sounding hurt and angry. “Mom went off on her marriage rant again, saying that marriage is an antiquated system. Just because she got divorced doesn’t mean every marriage is destined for that. She refuses to take off work.”
“Wall Street is demanding, darling, especially at your mother’s level,” Ruby said, trying to diffuse the situation. Mari was still bitter over her divorce, but Ruby was dismayed that she refused Ariana’s need for her. “Sweetheart, I’ll be honored to give you away.”
As Ruby hung up the phone, she shook her head. Ariana’s mother had erected a brick wall around her heart after she’d divorced. Ruby’s elder sister Patricia, Mari’s mother, had started exhibiting symptoms of early-onset Alzheimer’s that same year. And Ariana was just a little girl in grammar school. By then, Patricia couldn’t be trusted to look after Ariana. Bitter and determined to start over, Mari took a job in New York.
Unable to break through to Mari, Ruby had committed herself to being there for Ariana. The poor girl had lost her father when he left her mother for another woman. In turn, her mother had slammed the door to her heart. At least Mari allowed Ruby to dote on Ariana.
As if compensating for her failed marriage, Mari Ricci threw herself into her work, earning her way through the ranks to become a successful investment banker on Wall Street. Ruby had to admire her commitment and drive, but success and the long hours required grated on her relationship with her daughter.
At first, Mari’s housekeeper looked after little Ariana. But soon, Mari began to travel extensively for work, so she put her daughter in a boarding school. On Ruby’s request—and offer to pay in full—Mari acquiesced and sent her to a boarding school in California on the relatively quiet outskirts of Los Angeles.
When Ariana tired of returning to New York to see her mother, Ruby organized her schedule around Ariana’s breaks. Her niece had a room at Ruby’s house in Palm Springs, just an hour’s drive from the school.
As for Ariana, perhaps Ruby had overcompensated, but it was what Patricia would have wanted, too. Besides her hyper-focused, business-minded mother, who else did Ariana have? Ruby certainly wasn’t counting Ariana’s boyfriend, that self-centered man-child Phillip, even if they were getting married. Phillip was an overambitious filmmaker whose primary focus was his career—not the relationships in his life. Ruby feared that might include Ariana, too.
Had Ruby been ambitious when she was young? Naturally, she hadn’t had much choice, but she’d always valued her relationships. Even when forced to make the ultimate choice, she had chosen her family over herself.
Despite Phillip’s shortcomings, Patricia would have wanted Mari to go to Ariana’s wedding, too.
Ruby sipped her cool drink. Had it been almost a year since Patricia’s death? She blinked against the emotion welling in her eyes. Her sister was the only one who knew the price Ruby had paid for her success.
Ruby dabbed her eyes with a linen napkin. Although Patricia had lingered for years, her illness had stolen her from them long ago.
Almost a year. Patricia had left one crucial task to her—if she chose to do it. The safety deposit key was still tucked in Ruby’s purse. Although Ruby didn’t know the exact contents of the box, she could guess. This year, the days had slipped by, none of them quite the right one to share the story that had happened so long ago.
Ruby took another sip of her Bellini. She picked up her phone again and found the number in New York she wanted. After tapping it, she waited.
A young woman answered. “Mari Ricci’s office.”
“May I speak with Mari, please?”
Sputtering erupted on the other end of the line. “I’m sorry, it sounded like you said…well, never mind. Your name again?”
“You heard correctly,” Ruby said pleasantly. “Mari is my niece.” Who clearly hasn’t briefed her new assistant very well.
“I’m sure she’s available for you, Ms. Raines. She’s not taking calls, but I’ll tell her it’s you.”
“Oh, let’s surprise her. It will be fun.”
“Great idea. Hold, please, Ms. Raines.”
A few moments later, her niece answered, her voice crisp and efficient. “Mari Ricci. Who’s calling?”
“Mari, it’s Ruby. Ariana just gave me the news.”
Mari let out an exasperated sigh. “Let’s talk about this later.”
“Later seldom comes,” Ruby said, trying to be conciliatory. “Won’t you please come to her wedding? She’d love for you to give her away.”
“If she’d been more organized and planned farther ahead, I could have,” Mari said. “I won’t reward her for selfish behavior.”
“Mari, it’s her wedding.” Ruby was trying to be patient. Where is Mari’s heart? She tried again. “It won’t be complete without you there. And Ariana will remember this for the rest of her life. You don’t want to regret your decision.”
“There’s a lot I regret,” Mari shot back. “Like her father. This won’t be one of them. Besides, marriages have what, a fifty-percent chance, if that? I like better odds. And no, I don’t feel the emotional need to attend. She’s a grown woman; she’ll be fine. Besides, she has you.”
“Mari, dear, I wish you weren’t still so angry.” Ruby held her breath.
“I’m not angry. I’m realistic. Ariana doesn’t need me there to do anything, and I have prior commitments with clients who do. Now, I have to return to work. You have no concept of what’s going on here.”
“But Mari—” Click. With a sigh, Ruby placed her phone on the table. At least she’d tried. She wouldn’t tell Ariana she’d spoken to her mother. Why wound the poor girl twice?
Ruby took another sip of her chilled cocktail. Dear Ariana. If only she could bring her great-niece here for a break before it was too late.
For all of them.
But maybe there was another way. Villa Fiori loomed in her mind. She raised her hand to the waiter, who hurried to her.
“Would you ask the concierge to join me?” Ruby asked. “I have an urgent request.”
Beverly Hills, 2010, Two Weeks Later
In the Rodeo Drive jeweler’s private viewing room, sunshine poured through a clerestory window above, illuminating the filigreed canary diamond necklace in Ariana’s hands. Of all the jewelry that Ariana had chosen for her casts and clients, this piece exuded the greatest warmth. The shimmering golden hues would beautifully reflect her client’s expressive amber eyes.
After studying the impressive necklace, Ariana raised her gaze to Yasmin, the jewelry executive seated across from her at the polished, antique desk.
“Solani Marie would wear this for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival,” Ariana said. “Would there be any trouble transferring it to France?” The studio had mounted a major campaign for Solani Marie’s latest film. While these yellow diamonds certainly couldn’t compare to the astounding 128-carat Tiffany diamond that Audrey Hepburn had worn for the jeweler’s advertising campaign years ago, they were dazzling, nevertheless.
“We can ship it to our office there,” Yasmin said. “They’ll handle security for it.”
Ariana held the necklace up to the natural light, examining it. The stars would walk the red carpet in the afternoon hours, so she was concerned that the color might wash out in the sun. But the stones blazed brighter than ever.
“This is a stunning piece.” What excited Ariana was not the value of the stones nor mingling with celebrities, but the sheer joy of creation and respect for artistry. She loved envisioning a look for a character—or a real person—and bringing that vision to life. The glow of gems, the drape of fabric, the brilliance or subtlety of color. These elements and myriad details infused actors with the confidence and power to convey emotional stories.
While some—like her mother—had called fashion design frivolous, Ariana knew the power behind it. She loved helping women blossom with the right clothes. That edge was often enough to help them conquer their corner of the world.
Ariana lowered the necklace, satisfied with how the sunlight illuminated the stones and brought out the color. She held the necklace against the black matte jersey of her dress—one she’d designed and made. The yellow diamonds popped against the black fabric.
“This is one of the most stunning necklaces we have,” Yasmin said, leaning forward.
Ariana had worked with Yasmin for several events. The company that Yasmin worked for—one of the oldest jewelers on Rodeo Drive—often lent jewelry to stars. This consideration of jewelry worth millions was business as usual for them.
Ariana detected the jewelry store’s signature orange blossom perfume wafting from a nearby candle. The scent might have made some women in her condition queasy, but not her. Not yet, anyway. She breathed in, appreciating the aroma. Underfoot was an antique Persian rug probably worth six figures. Opulence was evident in the French antiques surrounding them. And behind them, a uniformed security guard with a wired earpiece stood by the office door.
Presumably, if Ariana were to bolt for the high windows, she wouldn’t get far.
Yasmin’s eyes shifted to Ariana’s left hand and bare ring finger. It was subtle, but Ariana caught it. She noted the look of concern in Yasmin’s eyes and shifted in her chair under the scrutiny. Before Yasmin could say anything, Ariana asked, “Has anyone ever worn this on the red carpet? Or for other events?”
Yasmin clasped her hands. “It’s a brand new piece.”
“You’ll have excellent media coverage for it,” Ariana said, pulling a swatch of fabric from her purse for comparison.
This morning, Phillip had been in a mood. Upset over budget pushbacks on a film he was set to direct, he’d snapped at her when she’d asked him to look at flowers for the wedding over the weekend. Why can’t you make a decision without me? She was quite capable of that, she assured him, but her defense only fueled his anger. She’d merely wanted his involvement. He’d finally apologized—sort of—by telling her that he understood her hormonal changes were probably at fault. Just thinking about their argument made her head throb again.
“That’s why we’re offering your client this opportunity,” Yasmin said, discreetly checking her slender platinum and diamond watch.
“This piece works quite well with the fabric I’m using,” Ariana said. “And to be the first to wear significant pieces of jewelry matters to my client.” As a multi-award-winning actress, Solani Marie was exacting in every aspect of her clothing and accessories. Having fired a succession of stylists, the star asked Ariana for help after she’d designed costumes on Solani Marie’s last film.
“Even though Solani Marie is young, she’s hot on social media,” Ariana said. “You’ll have extensive media exposure and a good chance of selling this necklace soon after the awards show.” That was the business value of lending jewelry worth staggering amounts of money.
Ariana recalled the old days of Hollywood when actresses wore their personal jewelry or borrowed from the costume departments. Elizabeth Taylor had incredible jewelry, as did Ginger Rogers, who’d been the highest-paid actor of her time.
One of the most talented costume designers had been Edith Head, who’d dressed stars onscreen and off for decades—and won more Oscars for costume design than days of the week. Edith Head had dressed Audrey Hepburn, Greta Garbo, Mae West, and hundreds of others.
Ariana loved photos of Grace Kelly in Edith Head’s understated, ice-blue elegance for the 1955 Academy Awards. The costume designer had explained, saying, Some people need sequins, others don’t. Ruby once told her that when Edith Head dressed her, she felt a magical transformation—as if she could inhabit the character she needed to play almost without effort.
Yasmin’s eyes darted to Ariana’s hand again.
“This is a classic Hollywood piece,” Ariana said, musing over the necklace. Ruby had a closet full of such clothes and jewelry that Ariana had often raided as a teenager for parties. She’d grown up understanding how people could transform themselves through clothing and costumes. Ruby was a prime example. From a dusty Texas ranch on the Edwards Plateau in the hill country to the pinnacle of Hollywood—her aunt could play any part with aplomb.
Ariana let the necklace spill through her fingers, imagining how the drape would mirror the neckline of the dress she’d designed for Solani Marie. Ariana designed the young star’s costumes for her breakout television series, then for her hit movies, and now, for the red carpet. From costume designer to red carpet stylist, Solani Marie trusted few others for her look.
“Our security will accompany this piece,” Yasmin said. “We’d prefer it returned right after the show.”
“So would I.” After the last event in which Ariana had styled a celebrity, the actress had slipped out to a party, losing the guards in the process. Ariana had received a blistering call from the head of the studio. Thankfully, the jewelry had turned up, but it was nerve-wracking.
Not a scene Ariana wanted to reenact.
Thanks to her Aunt Ruby, who had taught her to sew and introduced her to the head costume designer at the studio, Ariana had been working there since she’d been in college. She began working as an intern in the costume department while she completed her studies in downtown Los Angeles. The Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising had a long relationship with the studios, often mounting Hollywood costume exhibits in conjunction with the awards season. Ultimately, Ariana progressed to a senior role, and just last year, she’d receive her first award nomination.
Yasmin’s gaze rested on Ariana’s left hand. “I don’t mean to pry,” Yasmin said. “I noticed you’re not wearing your ring. If there’s a problem with the fit, we can resize it.”
“It fits perfectly, thanks.”
Yasmin frowned. “Are you happy with it?”
“It’s beautiful.” Ariana shifted in the burgundy velvet wingback chair. After the initial shock of the pregnancy test had worn off, Phillip proposed by saying somewhat begrudgingly, I suppose we might as well get married.
Under pressure from his ultra-competitive friends, Phillip had made a big deal about buying a ring from Yasmin. The ring he chose was showy and ostentatious. Ariana would have preferred a more delicate design. But Phillip, as always, had to outdo his friends.
Realizing Yasmin was still waiting for an answer, Ariana hastily added, “I forgot it this morning.” That much was true. Phillip’s temper tantrum had frazzled her nerves. Her chest grew tight at the thought.
“I hear that a lot,” Yasmin said. “It’s only been a week. You’ll get used to wearing a ring that size.”
Will I? Ariana wondered.
Now in her early thirties, Ariana knew she should be overjoyed at her engagement. Maybe only younger brides experienced giddy happiness. She and Phillip had been dating off and on for years. As many of their friends married, he’d become more serious about their relationship.
I’m ready for a family now, he’d told her one morning as if an alarm on his cell phone had gone off. Although she’d wanted a family, too, she’d remained noncommittal. Until her pregnancy test came back positive.
Phillip often talked about how she could provide costumes for his films. Working together, they’d be a Hollywood power couple. This is what she wanted, right?
“Are you free for lunch today?” Yasmin asked. “I’ve love to hear all about your wedding plans. A friend of mine married at an incredible castle in France, but she’d considered a lot of venues. I can put you in touch with her.”
“I can’t today. I have another meeting.” Ariana returned the necklace to the velvet-lined tray on the French desk before her. She couldn’t face another deluge of questions.
Yasmin’s eyes widened. “You have to do something amazing. That enormous ring just screams big wedding plans.”
“We’re planning something small and intimate.” And fast. Not that being pregnant on your wedding day was the issue it would have been in her grandmother’s day. Still, Ariana was old-fashioned. Her pulse raced, just thinking about the wedding. Without her mother there, the event was already fraying at the seams.
“You’ll reserve this necklace for me?” Ariana asked, needing to exit this conversation.
“Thanks. I’ll see myself out.” Ariana hurried past the security guard.
As Ariana emerged into the bright California sunshine and the sound of traffic, the reality of her future gnawed at her. Los Angeles—or most any city where she could make her living—was a busy metropolis.
After her parents divorced, Ariana shuttled between boarding school and her great-aunt Ruby’s home in Palm Springs. While her friends flew home to extended families, Ariana often felt lonely without her mother. If not for Ruby, and Stefano, her aunt’s devoted houseman, she would have had a miserable childhood.
Phillip allayed that loneliness with his presence. And when they had children, she’d finally have the family she craved.
On the sidewalk outside the jewelry store, Ariana started for the garage where she’d parked. Cutting through the crowded walkway, Ariana recalled how she used to spend a few weeks in the summer in New York with her mother. Even then, she felt like a burden. Mari told her that to make it on Wall Street meant working harder than every man around her. As a result, Ariana often had dinner with the housekeeper.
As Ariana grew older, her visits to New York grew shorter. She spent the long hot summers in Palm Springs with Ruby—or wherever Ruby was. Sometimes her aunt was filming a series in Los Angeles or performing on the dinner theatre circuit across the country. They’d have pajama parties at the Drake Hotel or tea parties at The Huntington. Aunt Ruby loved to work, but she always made time for fun with Ariana.
While Ariana waited on a corner to cross a busy street, she thought about her parents. Her father had a second family and hadn’t contacted her in years. And when Ariana had called her mother with the news about the wedding, Mari’s reaction disappointed her.
“Two weeks? Oh no, you’ll have to postpone it if you want me there,” Mari had said in her brittle, business-like voice. “You should have planned farther ahead.”
Ariana heard no excitement or apology in her mother’s voice. “That’s the only date available at the church until next year.” It was a small church, but perfect for the intimate ceremony Ariana wanted.
“Then find another venue,” Mari retorted. “I’ll have my new assistant check my calendar and give you some dates. Six months out, at least, I should say.”
Once again, Ariana’s time with her mother was dictated by someone else. “Mom, Phillip wants to get married now.” She didn’t mention why.
“Come back east,” Mari said. “If you’re determined to do this, maybe I can fit in a weekend. I’ll have to cancel an event, of course. My assistant can—”
“Check your schedule. I know.”
Her mother’s brittle voice crackled over the line. “You can’t expect me to shift my schedule due to your lack of planning. And you know how I feel about marriage. I honestly don’t know why you feel the need to possibly destroy your life.”
“Maybe you’re right.” Ariana tried not to let on how hurt she was. Still, she felt like screaming, even though she knew from experience that would be futile.
Would her mother have come if she’d told her she was pregnant? No, that wouldn’t have made a difference. Likely, that news would have generated another lecture on Ariana’s failure to protect herself.
Now, as Ariana wove through the throng of tourists on Rodeo Drive, she felt her chest constrict, and her pulse quicken. With her heart pounding, she hurried up a flight of concrete stairs to her car. A flush of heat blazed on her neck, and she pushed back her hair. By the time she reached her car, she’d broken out in a cold sweat.
She attributed this sudden attack to fluctuating hormones. However, she’d had intermittent episodes for at least a couple of months before her pregnancy.
Ariana slid into her vintage MGB convertible—which she’d probably have to trade for a practical mom-car—and fumbled open the thermos bottle she kept there. After taking a long swig of water, she drew measured breaths until she felt her heartbeat slowing. She rested her head against the steering wheel and kept breathing. In, two, three. Out, two, three.
In her purse, her phone rang, and she dug it out. “Hi, Phillip.” She tried to keep the distress from her voice.
“Babe, glad I caught you. There’s this thing—big producer in town from New York with his wife. They want to meet us. You’ll have to leave right now.”
She caught her breath. “Phillip, I’m working.”
“You sound like you’ve been running,” he said. “Take the rest of the day off. Kingsley will understand.”
She’d never thought to put those two words together. Her boss wasn’t a man known for being understanding about anything. Kingsley once berated a woman for missing work to take her little boy to the hospital for an emergency appendectomy. Wasn’t there anyone else you could get to do that?
“Phillip, I’ve already taken time off to select Solani Marie’s jewelry. And I still have to fix the sleeves on her outfit.”
“Don’t you have an assistant to do that?”
She did, but that was beside the point. Phillip didn’t ask her to drop everything for him. He expected it. And her boss, Kingsley Powers—what kind of parents strapped a kid with a name like that?—wasn’t understanding. Quite the opposite. She’d come under increasing pressure from him. What Ariana had always found relaxing—designing, sketching, draping, and even sewing fine stitches by hand—was now a source of anxiety.
“Just meet us for a cocktail.”
On the other end of the phone, Phillip erupted. “Don’t you know how important this is to me?”
“Like my work isn’t?”
“Come on, babe. How much longer are you going to stay at the studio? You said yourself you wished you could do something else.”
Something else. Yes, she had. Ariana closed her eyes.
A horn blared in back of her, jolting her. A man in an expensive, growling sportscar waved his hand. “Hey lady, are you coming out of that space or what? I don’t have all day.”
“What’s going on?” Phillip demanded.
Ariana turned the ignition and shifted her phone to hands-free. “I’m in a parking garage. Some guy’s getting anxious.”
“You always let people get to you. Tell him to—”
“Stop telling me what to do, Phillip.” Her heartbeat sped up again. Reversing, she pulled out of the space. Another horn blared.
“Phillip, I have to go.” She tapped the phone off while he was still in mid-reply.
An angry voice rang out. “Look first, why don’t you?”
As Ariana slammed on the brakes, another wave of heat coursed through her. This is too much, she thought.
I. Can’t. Do. This.
Ariana escaped the garage and pulled to the side of the road. Panting through another attack, she sent a message to Kingsley that she wasn’t feeling well and another one to her assistant. Undoubtedly, Solani Marie would pout because Ariana wasn’t there for the star’s umpteenth fitting, but a fingerbreadth off the sleeves was certainly something Ariana’s assistant could handle.
I have to get away.
Kingsley and Solani Marie could manage their tantrums without her. Ariana turned her car toward the highway.
And so could Phillip.
As if on autopilot, she set her course toward the distant mountains to the east of Los Angeles.
Two hours later, Ariana cleared the mountain pass into the Coachella Valley, where the temperature rose several degrees. Passing the windmill farms that blanketed the desert, she veered from the highway toward Palm Springs.
Her aunt lived in a quiet, historic section known as the Movie Colony, where film stars had sought refuge from the glare of stardom. The area had been home to Marilyn Monroe, Cary Grant, Jack Benny, and Dinah Shore. Most of the houses were built between the 1930s and the 1960s, including her aunt’s sprawling mid-century compound, which she’d bought after one of her early big movie deals.
Ariana tapped her entry code on the keypad, and the gates swung open to reveal a shady desert-scape under softly rustling stands of palm trees. Ruby’s vintage Cadillac convertible was parked in front under the porte-cochère. Ariana pulled in behind it.
Moments later, Ruby’s houseman Stefano opened the door. A smile lit his face. “What a surprise. Is Ruby expecting you?”
Ariana flung her arms around the solid man who’d looked after Ruby and her home for years. Now in his fifties, Stefano had once been a serious bodybuilder and still had the muscles to prove it. With Stefano around, Ariana never worried about her aunt’s safety. He was Ruby’s houseman, chef, and confidante.
“Is that who I think it is?” Ruby’s voice rang out, and she appeared behind Stefano. “Didn’t expect you, darling, but always delighted.”
“I took the rest of the day off.” Ariana hugged her aunt, noticing how vital she seemed, even at her age.
“Come on in and kick your shoes off,” Ruby said, a slight Texan drawl still evident. She cast an appraising eye over Ariana but did not comment on her obvious distress. “Up for a cool Bellini? I had the most magnificent one in Bellagio. Stefano has everything we need to make them.”
“Sounds perfect.” Ariana stepped inside the high-ceilinged house. “Would you make mine without alcohol? A little early for me to start drinking.”
Ariana hadn’t told Ruby she was pregnant. A part of her was still in disbelief. She couldn’t be more than six weeks right now, and she wanted to make sure she didn’t have an early miscarriage. The sort of queasiness her friends experienced hadn’t hit her yet. But she was definitely pregnant. The doctor had confirmed the home test.
A thought taunted the frayed edges of her consciousness. Would I be getting married if I weren’t pregnant?
That was a question Ariana didn’t want to think about.
Opposite the entry was a wall of glass that framed the nearby San Jacinto mountains. The pool glimmered in the sun, looking inviting. Ariana’s chic black dress and heels—perfect for the city—now felt restrictive and overdone.
“I’m going to change,” Ariana said. “And Aunt Ruby—thanks for coming back from Italy so quickly.”
“Sweetheart, you couldn’t keep me away from this wedding if you tried,” Ruby said.
After kissing her aunt on the cheeks, Ariana slipped off her heels and padded across the cool tile floor toward her old bedroom. When she reached the room, she slid open a glass door, drinking in the clear desert air. Inside, the décor was classic Palm Springs. Pale pink walls with white furnishings and a turquoise duvet with shell-shaped pillows. Her aunt’s home was stylish, yet frozen in time. Still, Ariana loved it. It was home.
Ariana shimmied out of her dress and into an orange one-piece swimsuit she preferred for lap swimming. Glancing in the mirror, she placed a hand on her abdomen.
Not much sign yet.
After scooping up a fluffy white towel, she made her way toward the pool and draped the towel over a chaise lounge. She stepped to the edge of the pool, raised her arms overhead, and dove into the cool water.
Instantly, the world around her fell away. Focusing on her rhythm, she swam the length of the pool with a vengeance, flipped with a kick against the tile, and raced toward the other end. After several fast laps, her muscles had awakened, and she’d regained control of her breathing, though she was winded. She felt good, cleansed of the turmoil she’d left behind in L.A.
Ariana swept back her wet hair and pulled herself from the pool before toweling off.
Ruby sat at a table in the shade watching her. “You sure attacked that water.”
Stefano served a pair of chilled cocktails in champagne glasses. “And your virgin cocktail,” he said to Ariana.
“Thanks, Stefano.” Ariana slid into a comfortable stuffed lounge chair and took a long sip, feeling grateful that she had a place to run away to—not that she was proud of what she’d done. As Ariana sipped her drink, she noticed Ruby’s unusual pendant. It was a curved, filigree design accented with a small ruby. “I’ve never seen you wear that necklace. Did you get it in Italy?”
Ruby touched it with reverence. “Years ago.”
“It’s not your usual style,” Ariana said, detecting a deeper meaning in her aunt’s voice, though Ruby did not elaborate.
After Stefano left, Ruby leaned forward and changed the subject. “What’s bothering you, honey?”
“I just got overwhelmed. Between my work, the city…” Ariana hesitated. She didn’t want to tell her she was pregnant. Not yet. She wanted it to be special. After the wedding, she decided. Yet, after she and Phillip were married, she couldn’t just flee on a whim and hide out here.
Ariana fidgeted with the edge of her towel. Ruby was waiting. “It’s Phillip.”
“Ah, yes. The great director,” Ruby said.
Her aunt had once told her that Phillip put on airs he hadn’t earned. Ariana gazed toward the mountains. “He’s been after me to design and manage costumes for his new film. He put an extravagant amount into the budget for it.”
“Would that mean leaving the studio?”
“You always wanted to be independent.”
“Then I would be.” Ariana knew she should be pleased about this plan.
“No. You’d be dependent on Phillip.”
For everything. Ariana leaned over, putting her elbows on her knees. The constriction around her ribcage started again, and she tried to breathe against it.
“Darling, are you okay?” Ruby lowered her sunglasses to peer at her.
“Just a flush of some sort.” Ariana straightened in her chair, trying to alleviate the pressure. Next came the racing heartbeat, then the heat that began in her torso. She wrapped her towel around her.
“Maybe,” Ariana said, although she hadn’t had anything to eat. She sipped the icy mocktail.
Ruby leaned forward and placed a smooth hand over Ariana’s. “I have a lot to tell you about my trip to Lake Como.”
Heat ripped up Ariana’s neck and face, and her pulse throbbed in her temples. She passed a hand over her forehead. “Can we talk about it later?”
Staring at her, Ruby drew her finely arched eyebrows together. “You don’t look well.”
Ariana jerked her hand back. “I’m fine. Just stressed over…everything,” she said, finishing with a wave of her hand.
Ruby stared at her, which elevated Ariana’s heart rate even more. “You don’t have to do this,” Ruby said evenly.
“No? Then what else could I possibly do? This is my life.” Ariana pushed back from the table and lurched toward the pool. Feeling light-headed, she stumbled on a step. Flailing, she felt herself falling. From the corner of her eye, she saw Ruby racing toward her.
When Ariana came to, Stefano was kneeling beside her. His fingers were pressed on her wrist, monitoring her pulse, while Ruby was adjusting a cushion from a chair beneath her head.
“You fainted, and you nearly had a hard fall,” Ruby said. “Have you seen a doctor for this?” When Ariana shook her head, her aunt pressed on. “Could you be pregnant?”
Ariana squeezed her eyes shut, though hot tears slipped from her eyes. “I hadn’t meant to tell you like this.”
Ruby’s face lit with joy. “A baby! Oh, my stars, think of that. We’ll have a little one toddling around here in no time. Come, let’s sit in the lanai.” Ruby helped Ariana to a covered area open to the breeze, where fans in the shape of palm fronds spun lazily overhead.
Stefano brought her a thick, terry cloth robe and a fresh towel for her hair.
Feeling cared for, Ariana managed a wan smile.
Ruby tucked the robe around Ariana. “That explains why you didn’t want any alcohol. No wonder you fainted.”
“It’s not that.” Though Ariana’s first inclination was to minimize her symptoms, Ruby was the only one she could talk to without reservation.
“This began before I found out I was pregnant,” Ariana said, bringing her hands to her torso. “It begins with this vise-like grip around my ribcage, and then I get extremely hot. Dizziness sets in, and I feel like I might faint.” Twisting her lips to one side, she added, “This time I actually did. Anyway, the feeling passes in a few minutes, but I feel weak afterward.”
Ruby nodded. “Stress can cause panic attacks. I had something similar years ago during my first live Broadway show run. Stage fright, which hit me off-stage, too. Still, you should be examined. Dr. Espinoza—Lettie—is still practicing in Palm Springs. Stefano can make an appointment with her right away.”
“I should return to work. And Phillip…” Ariana sighed. “He wouldn’t be happy.”
“It’s almost the weekend,” Ruby said. “Take Friday off. A break from Phillip won’t hurt.” Ruby hesitated. “Is he pleased about the baby?”
“That’s why he proposed.”
Ruby pursed her lips and nodded.
“I’ll stay.” While Ariana hated missing work, she dreaded the morning drive back to Los Angeles. As for Phillip, Ariana needed this time with Ruby more.
On a table beside her in the lanai sat an open box of vintage photo albums and mementos. Ariana peered inside, anxious to avoid further comments Ruby might have about Phillip. “What are all these photos?”
“Those are from early in my career,” Ruby said. “I haven’t looked at them in ages. Stefano found that box when he was cleaning out the storage room. Now, about Phillip. Are you sure this is what you want? Today, you don’t have to get married.”
Deflecting Ruby’s interest in her relationship, Ariana rifled through the box. “These are really old.” She pulled out a faded cigar box. “Why are you looking through all this stuff now?”
Ruby didn’t answer her, but Ariana heard her aunt suck in a breath. The brand name of King Edward the Seventh was emblazoned across the gold printed top, with the word, Invincible. Ariana lifted the lid. A portrait and miniature crowns graced the interior lid, which proclaimed, A Distinctive Blend of Fine Tobaccos. “What’s all this?”
“Souvenirs,” Ruby said.
Stefano appeared beside them with a tray. “Herbal tea for Ariana, and the rest of your Bellini.”
Ruby beamed at him. “Stefano, you’re a dream. Thank you, darling.”
“Look at this,” Ariana said. “Aida at Terme di Caracalla, 1952.” She lifted out an old opera program. “You must have enjoyed it. You drew hearts on the program.” She handed it to her aunt, who held it in her hands as if it were a rare artifact.
Ruby pressed the program to her chest. “In the summer, the world-renowned opera company, Teatro dell’Opera, performs at Terme di Caracalla, the ancient Roman baths in the middle of Rome. I remember this performance so well.” Her hands sketched out the scene in mid-air. “Maria Pedrini’s magical voice soaring through the balmy night air, the stage set between the enormous propylaea of the calidarium. Utterly colossal. An enchanting evening…” Her voice trailed off.
“I’ll never forget it,” Ruby said softly.
Her aunt’s voice held a note of melancholy that Ariana seldom heard, aside from Ruby’s onscreen performances. Studying her aunt, she saw her blink back raw emotion. This was real, not manufactured for directors or cameras. Ariana reached out to her, smoothing her hand over Ruby’s shoulder. “Did something happen there, Auntie?”
Ruby sniffed in annoyance. “Reminiscing doesn’t accomplish anything. Live in the present, that’s what you must always do.” She returned the program to the cigar box and brushed her palms together as if she were finished with the conversation.
Now Ariana’s interest was piqued. She picked up the program. “1952. Aunt Ruby, I didn’t know you made any films in Italy back then. That would have made you about—”
“Seventeen.” A look passed between Ruby and Stefano. “My performance didn’t make the cut, but I managed to gain a part in another film as soon as I returned to Los Angeles. That was Moonlight Dance.”
“And what a film that was,” Stefano said with a smile.
Ruby chuckled. “Had to learn how to dance for that one.”
“You sure did,” Stefano said.
“And then I made Diary of a Pioneer Woman.”
Ariana was used to her aunt’s rambling train of thought jumping the tracks. “Back to 1952.”
Ruby’s eyes sparkled. “That was the most amazing year of my life.” She blinked rapidly and seemed to slip into a memory of a faraway time.
Stefano cleared his throat. “Since Ariana is here, I could make a nice dinner for us.”
Ariana felt a sudden urge to get out. She glanced at her aunt. “I know you’ve been dying to try that new restaurant in Rancho Mirage. We could go there. You, too, Stefano.”
Ruby smiled, shaking herself from her memories. “Only if you’re up for it.”
Ariana shifted. “I’m feeling better just thinking about it.” Ruby loved to dress and go out. “Then you can tell me all about your trip to Italy. Phillip has talked about going. Maybe you can tell me where to go.” Ariana noticed Ruby’s smile dissipated at the mention of Phillip’s name.
“I love all of Italy, but my heart lies in Lago di Como and the villages that line its banks. I saw such a sweet old villa in Bellagio, and I thought it would be so lovely to have—”
“But having a second home there would be difficult at your age,” Ariana said.
Ruby pressed her lips together in a thin, perturbed line. “Not you, too, Ariana.”
“I know very well what you mean. Dr. Lettie uses the same words.” Ruby huffed. “My ankle is nearly healed now. Anyone could step off a curb the wrong way. You forget that my grandmother lived to one-hundred-and-two, and that was before the advent of fancy antibiotics and such. She swore by a shot of tequila after supper. And I have every intention of outliving her.” She picked up her cocktail for a sip.
“Point taken,” Ariana said sheepishly.
Ruby stood. “If we’re going to dinner, we’ll have to bathe and change.” She peered at Ariana. “You’re sure you’re feeling better?”
Ruby hesitated and motioned to the box of photos and mementos. “You’re welcome to go through those albums, but please keep everything together. I haven’t been through that in years.”
Ariana promised, and Ruby sashayed from the lanai bent on a new mission, giving Stefano instructions along the way. Shaking her head, Ariana opened an old album and sipped her drink. As she’d told her aunt, she was feeling better, but she was still concerned. If these episodes were stress-induced, what could she possibly change in her life? She’d worked hard to create the life she’d dreamed of living.
And with a baby on the way…
As Ariana sorted through the mementos in the cigar box, she couldn’t help smiling at the assortment Ruby had saved.
Coins imprinted with Repubblica Italiana, paper lire, train tokens, curled black-and-white snapshots of people she didn’t recognize. She unfolded a few pieces of paper.
“A script.” Ariana smiled at the notes pertaining to movement and inflection scribbled on the side. “Must have been Ruby’s scene.”
A red-and-blue corner of a thin envelope marked Per Via Aerea peeked from the stack. It was addressed to Miss Ruby Raines at a Hollywood address. The faded red stamp read Poste Italiane with the postmark, Roma. Ariana ran her fingers over the faint writing.
She opened the envelopes, but they were empty, long ago robbed of their contents. Ariana sighed, thinking about the lost art of letter writing. She had little to cherish from Phillip. Texts and emails were often deleted, though she had plenty of photos on her phone.
Ariana thought about the necklace Ruby had on. It was clearly old and cherished, yet she’d never seen her wear it. Her aunt usually favored more extravagant jewelry. Maybe it had some significance, like the scattered tokens and opera pamphlet Ruby had saved. Ariana decided to ask her aunt about these things later.