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Amelia stood on the balcony of the Hassler Hotel and gazed at the twinkling lights of the Spanish Steps. She could see the dome of Saint Peter's Basilica and the dim outline of the Vatican. She took a deep breath, inhaling exhaust fumes from the endless stream of yellow taxis, and tried to remind herself she was in Rome.
Amelia smoothed the folds of her pink satin Balenciaga evening gown and checked that the borrowed Harry Winston diamond clip still held back her hair. She stroked the white silk gloves and fingered the diamond and sapphire choker around her neck. It was all a fairy tale: the ivory Bentley that picked her up from Rome Airport, the elegant suite at the Hassler with its black-and-white marble floors, the Spanish Steps at her feet and all the places she read about in guidebooks: the Sistine Chapel with its intricate frescoes, the Via Condotti with its string of elegant boutiques, the Colosseum and the Pantheon and the museums with long, flowery names.
Amelia tried to recapture the thrill when the concierge welcomed her with a bouquet of two dozen yellow roses and her own personal butler. She tried to remember the first glimpse of her suite: the silver ice bucket, the gold tray of chocolate truffles and petit fours, the mahogany four-poster bed. But her legs were shaky from jet lag, her head throbbed from too much champagne and not enough food, and her mouth was frozen in a permanent smile.
For the last two hours she stood in the grand ballroom, her large brown eyes coated with thick mascara, her cheeks powdered, her lips painted with pink lipstick, and answered the journalists' questions.
"How does it feel to go from being a complete unknown to being nominated for a Spirit Award for best supporting actress for your first role to starring in the remake of Roman Holiday? Warner Brothers invested a hundred million dollars in this picture, do you feel the pressure with your name above the title?"
Amelia had tilted her head and answered in the way Sheldon Rose, her producer, taught her.
"Why, Mr. Winters"-squinting so she could read the reporter's name tag and then waiting so the journalists focused on her white shoulders and creamy skin instead of her words-"when you put the question like that, I don't feel any pressure at all."
The room erupted into polite laughter but the questions kept coming.
"Variety quoted you as saying 'Audrey Hepburn is my idol and I can't imagine ever hearing my name in the same sentence.' Are you nervous about playing the role that made her famous?"
"Is it true you were premed at USC and Spike Jonze discovered you when you drove a friend to an audition?"
"Are you and Whit breaking up? Does he really wish you'd give up acting and pursue a career in medicine?"
Amelia paused again, longer so that she didn't say what she was thinking: it's none of your business how Whit feels, I could never give up acting, we're madly in love, he bought me these gorgeous teardrop earrings before I left for Rome. Instead, she touched her earrings gently, smoothed the folds of her gown and smiled.
"There's a reason why they call it one's 'private life,' Mr. Gould"-again reading his name tag, trying to look him in the eye so he wouldn't fire off some scathing article that she refused to answer personal questions, and finally a slow genuine smile-"because it's best to keep it private."
Then more champagne plucked from the trays that floated past carrying crystal champagne flutes and silver goblets filled with plump prawns and slices of melon. She smelled tomato sauce and garlic and longed to sit down to a plate of steaming ravioli and thick bread dipped in olive oil. But her dress was so tight it was almost spray-painted to her hips, and it was impossible to answer questions with a mouth full of pasta, so she guzzled champagne and waited for Sheldon to say, "Thank you all for coming, Miss Tate cherishes each and every one of you, but if she doesn't get her rest she'll miss her six A.M. call."
But Sheldon seemed to have disappeared and Macy Smith, editor of Vogue, came gunning down the Oriental runner. Amelia remembered her vicious critique of her choice in Oscar dresses and desperately needed some air. She ran out of the ballroom, down one flight of marble stairs and onto the balcony. Now she stood, wishing she had grabbed a puffed pastry or at least a stone wheat cracker, and gazed at the ancient, glittering city.
Amelia had always been fascinated by Rome: the elegant restaurants opposite cramped trattorias, the modern stores flanked by stone arches, the women wearing sleek dresses and smooth pageboys and large gold earrings. She had only been once, on a school chorus trip in the eighth grade, but she loved the creamy fettuccine and sweet gelato and the boys wearing leather jackets and driving Vespas. She remembered standing in the middle of the Via Appia and a boy with curly brown hair driving around her in circles and never wanting to leave.
Now Rome was her home for two glorious months. They were shooting the whole movie on location, at the Trevi Fountain and the Piazza Navona and the Castel Sant'Angelo. Sheldon had given her the Villa Medici suite-the same hotel room where Audrey Hepburn stayed more than fifty years ago. Amelia remembered standing in front of the gilt mirror in the pink marble bathroom and picturing Audrey Hepburn brushing her hair and fixing her lipstick and slipping on a floral dress with a tiny waist and full flared skirt.
Amelia heard laughter on the street below and heels clicking on the sidewalk. She imagined late-night dinners of spaghetti and red wine and brisk morning walks to the Colosseum. Then she remembered everything she heard about Sheldon Rose: he arrived on the set when the sun came up and didn't release anyone until nighttime. She thought of the paparazzi who would trail her after hours, hoping to catch her without makeup in sweats and sneakers. Suddenly she had a desperate desire to slip out of the borrowed Balenciaga gown, unstrap the jeweled Prada sandals, and disappear into the street.
She ducked into the hallway and down the staircase. She walked quickly to the back of the hotel, past the sumptuous Imago restaurant and ornate conference rooms and dark, elegant library. She ran through the kitchen door, past the huge granite islands and giant chrome refrigerators and double sinks. She took the back stairs to the basement and searched for a door that would empty into the street.
Amelia blinked in the dark and realized she was in the laundry. She saw massive washing machines and dryers and rows of silver irons. She saw tall lockers and piles of neatly pressed uniforms. She stopped to catch her breath and suddenly had an idea.
She unzipped her gown and carefully folded it into a square. She slipped it into a laundry bag and added her sandals and sequined evening bag. She buttoned the starched black maid's uniform and tied a white apron around her waist. She covered her hair with a cotton scarf and stored the laundry bag in a locker. She found the back door and ran onto the street.
The night air hit her like an electric current. The air was damp and the clouds hung low over the rooftops. She glanced around to make sure no one was looking and dashed down the Spanish Steps and onto the Piazza di Spagna.
Amelia skipped along the cobblestones like a child released from Sunday school. She pictured Macy Smith waiting to grill her about her wardrobe and wanted to collapse on the sidewalk in a fit of giggles. She smelled espresso and cinnamon and amaretto and longed to sit at a café until her head stopped spinning.
She saw a couple leaving a restaurant; their heads pressed together, the man's arm looped around the woman's waist. Suddenly she missed Whit so much, it felt like an invisible weight pressed against her chest. She remembered their last dinner before she left for Rome, at Alembic in the Haight. She flew up from Los Angeles and they had two glorious days in San Francisco.
Whit took a whole day off work and they rode bicycles in Golden Gate Park and visited the Legion of Honor. Amelia gazed at the paintings by Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael and shivered. She couldn't believe in forty-eight hours she would be surrounded by Italian art and architecture.
Amelia remembered sitting across from Whit and holding hands in the candlelight. Whit wore a white collared shirt and a navy blazer and tan twill slacks. His dark hair touched his collar and he smelled of Hugo Boss cologne.
"Do you remember our first date?" he asked, eating a garlic baked potato fry. "We lined up to see Titanic at the campus theater and laughed that an engineering major and a premed student could never sit through a three-hour movie. We'd fall asleep before we finished our first bucket of popcorn."
Amelia looked at Whit's clear blue eyes and remembered the first time she saw him. She was camped out in her usual corner of the science and engineering library cramming for a physics exam. Her calculator clattered to the floor and she reached down to pick it up. When she looked up she saw a young man with eyes as clear as a lake. He wore a baseball cap over curly dark hair and had a day's stubble on his chin.
"Just think," Whit mused, eating chicken pavé with beet gnocchi, "if you stayed with medicine you'd be finishing your residency at San Francisco General. We'd eat Chinese takeout every night and you'd be living in Gap sweatpants and my Adidas T-shirts. Instead we live in different cities and you own couture gowns by Valentino and Dior."
Amelia's stomach clenched and her throat closed up. She remembered when Whit received his first round of funding. It was a year after graduation and they lived in a studio apartment in Santa Monica. Amelia just finished filming Hannah's Secret and Whit spent his days trying to secure investors for his electric car company.
"I met with Caufield Perkins." Whit dropped his briefcase on the coffee table. "They're ready to write us a check."
Amelia glanced up from a pile of scripts and saw Whit's navy suit and white shirt and black leather shoes. She smiled, thinking she still wasn't used to seeing him in anything except Adidas T-shirts and running shorts.
"They want us to move our operation to San Francisco," Whit continued, loosening his tie.
"San Francisco?" Amelia raised her eyebrow.
"We looked at an industrial space in Potrero Hill, they want to keep an eye on their investment." Whit shrugged. "We can rent an apartment on Russian Hill and eat at Italian restaurants in North Beach."
"I'm an actress." Amelia bit her lip. "I need to live in Hollywood."
Whit drummed his fingers on the coffee table. "I thought after this movie you might go back to medicine."
"Why would you think that?" Amelia asked.
"It was all just a fluke," Whit mused. "You got it out of your system."
"I love acting, I don't want to give it up," Amelia said slowly.
"We haven't gotten any other offers," Whit replied. "This is our one shot, I need to be in San Francisco."
Amelia pictured a quaint apartment on Russian Hill. She saw sidewalks filled with bougainvillea and corner groceries stocked with gourmet coffees and cheeses. She imagined preparing dinners of spinach salad and stuffed ravioli and sourdough bread. She saw nights spent on the roof-deck, sipping a Kenwood Cabernet and gazing at the twinkling lights of the city.
She loved visiting San Francisco. She loved the steep hills and the white houses and the wide views of the bay. She loved the outdoor markets in Chinatown and the vintage clothing stores in the Haight. But if she was going to be an actress she should live in Hollywood, where producers could bump into her at Coffee Bean & Tea.
"I'll fly up every weekend." Amelia blinked away sudden tears. "We'll go wine tasting in Napa and eat at Chez Panisse in Berkeley. We'll spend Sundays in bed with the New York Times and mugs of Peet's coffee."
The first few months were one long honeymoon. They flew kites on Crissy Field and hiked to the top of Mount Diablo. They ate at trendy new restaurants on Union Street and in the Castro. But then Whit started working longer hours and complained he was tired of playing tourist. He wanted to curl up with Amelia in front of the television and eat pizza and watch CSI.
* * *
"The lead in Roman Holiday is the chance of a lifetime." Amelia brushed her brown hair behind her ears. She wore a green cotton sweater and beige capris and flat Tory Burch pumps. Her face was free of makeup except for mascara and a hint of clear lip gloss. "After the movie wraps I'll take a month off. We'll drive up the coast and stay in a bed and breakfast in Mendocino."
"I'm proud of what you do." Whit cut beef tendons with white truffles. "I just wished we didn't live five hundred miles apart and the paparazzi didn't write down our orders at Starbucks."
"They'll find some new ingenue." Amelia nibbled shishito peppers with anchovy salt. "Soon I'll be newspaper wrapping for old fish."
They drank vodka gimlets and listened to soft jazz and Amelia turned the conversation to Whit's new prototype.
"I think it's ready for the road." Whit stirred melting ice cubes. "We're going to drive from San Francisco to Santa Barbara without recharging."
Amelia gazed at Whit's bright eyes and hard cheekbones and thought he was lit by some inner fire. She sipped the bitter vodka, feeling his fingers press into her shoulder, and wished he understood how much she loved acting.
They paid the check and walked onto the sidewalk. They passed sushi restaurants and smoothie cafés and oyster bars. Amelia felt Whit's hand on her back and suddenly wished she wasn't going to Rome. She wanted to spend every weekend at dark restaurants sharing plates of baked fries. She wanted to listen to Whit's dreams of a whole fleet of electric cars.
They drove Whit's Prius to the underground garage and took the elevator to his apartment. Whit opened the door and Amelia saw her Coach luggage stacked neatly in the entry. She saw her light winter coat and her Burberry umbrella and her carry-on packed with an Italian dictionary and a stack of magazines. She gazed into the small living room and saw a ceramic vase filled with pink roses. She saw a bottle of champagne and two crystal champagne flutes and a silver tray of chocolate truffles.
"What's this?" Amelia asked.
"You didn't think your last dinner would be beef tendons and vodka gimlets in a smoky bar?" Whit drew a black velvet box out of his pocket. "This is for you."
Amelia sat on the navy Pottery Barn sofa and snapped open the box. She saw sparkling diamond teardrop earrings and her eyes misted over. "They're beautiful! But you can't afford this, they must cost a fortune."
"We got our second round of funding." Whit poured champagne into chilled champagne flutes. "You're going to be playing a princess, you have to look like one."
Amelia felt Whit's lips on hers and her shoulders relaxed. She reached for Whit's shirt and slowly undid the buttons. He kissed her harder, biting her lower lip and tracing her mouth with his fingers.
Amelia leaned against the cushions and felt Whit's mouth on her breasts. She unzipped her capris and let them slip to the floor. She sucked in her breath, guiding Whit's hands between her thighs. She slid off his shirt and buried her face in his chest.
Whit put one hand under her panties and slid his fingers inside her. He pushed his fingers in deeper, sending shivers down her spine. Amelia strained toward him, rubbing his chest with her palm. She gripped his shoulders, feeling the deep throbbing and the long, infinite release.
Whit took her hand and led her to the bedroom. He unzipped his slacks and slipped off his socks. He pulled Amelia's sweater over her head and unsnapped her bra. He turned down the white cotton sheets and lay down on the bed.
Amelia kissed him on the lips, tasting champagne and chocolate. She wrapped her arms around him and drew him on top of her. She dug her fingers into his back, catching his rhythm, feeling the slow build, the delicious pause and then the final bolt of pleasure.
Amelia tucked herself against his chest and thought about the brochure of the Hassler Hotel. She pictured the Villa Medici Suite with its marble bathtub and gold brocade curtains and wide stone balcony. She heard Whit's soft breathing and closed her eyes, wishing they were lying in the four-poster bed with the windows open and the sound of music and laughter floating up from the piazza.
* * *
Amelia felt a raindrop on her forehead and shivered. She had been walking for an hour and didn't recognize any street signs. She wanted to ask directions to the Spanish Steps but suddenly the rain fell harder and the sidewalks were deserted.
She hurried to a taxi stand and stood next to a man wearing a trench coat and holding a large black umbrella. She searched for her purse and realized she left it in the laundry bag with her evening gown and her jeweled Prada sandals.
"You take the cab," the man said when a yellow taxi pulled up and the driver honked impatiently.
"I don't have any money." Amelia bit her lip. "I forgot my purse."
The man shrugged and got into the cab. The driver was about to pull away when the man put his hand on the driver's shoulder. The taxi skidded to a stop and the man opened the door.
"You look like a drowned rat. We'll share the cab, you can pay me later."
Amelia climbed into the back and smelled wet vinyl and stale cigarettes. Suddenly she felt sheepish for running away. She should be relaxing in her suite at the Hassler, wearing a silk robe and drinking hot tea and eating scones with butter and strawberry jam.
"Where are you going?" the man asked. He was in his early thirties, with dark brown hair and a slightly crooked nose. He carried a black briefcase and had an American accent.
Amelia gazed at the damp maid's uniform and frowned. She could try to slip in the kitchen door but someone might see her. She imagined her picture plastered over tomorrow's papers and shuddered.
"I don't know."
"You don't know where you live?" The man wrinkled his brow.
"I don't know where I left my purse," Amelia hesitated. "Could we drive around until I remember?"
The man shrugged and said something to the driver in Italian. The driver mumbled under his breath and slammed on the accelerator.
Amelia shut her eyes, suddenly woozy from the champagne and jet lag. She pictured Sheldon and the throng of journalists waiting for her at the Hassler. She felt a great weight pushing her down, like a strong current carrying her out to sea. She fell sideways and everything went black.
Copyright © 2015 by Anita Hughes