Title: La Bella

Author: Forever Fan

Rating: K+

Spoilers: The Man Who Came To Pasta

Category: Romance/supernatural

Disclaimer: This property belongs to David Gerber Productions and FOX Television.

I make no profit and intend no infringement. Signore and Signora Fellini referenced with great respect and admiration.

Summary: The Italian director Fabrizio Schiavoni returns with a controversial masterpiece.

Feedback: Yes, please

The quiet Friday evening began like most, the children completed their homework early and with no complaints knowing that would leave their weekend "homework worry free" Everyone was looking forward to their usual Saturday activities but for now were content to relax in the living room watching television before bedtime.

"Well," the Professor didn't look up from the newspaper he was reading, "here's a surprise: seems the latest film from Fabrizio Schiavoni is making its American debut right here. The film is touted as one of his best. " He quoted: "Another magnificent triumph from one of the world's most brilliant directors"; "A 'must-see' for anyone who loves great filmmaking"; "One of the most beautiful and richly sensual films to come from Italy. Schiavoni does it again!"

"Wow!" Hal was enthusiastic. "Can we go and see it, Dad?"

"I don't think so, Hal," his father told him and hid his grin behind the paper he held. "Schiavoni doesn't make films that kids can see."

Nanny saw the grin and turned to the disappointed children. "Also, the movie is in Italian with English subtitles. Do you really want to read a movie for two hours?"

"Not me." Butch shook his head, "I don't even like to read a book for two minutes."

"But what's the movie about, Daddy?" Prudence asked.

"Ah," The Professor scanned the article then closed the paper, "it's about a pretty lady living in Italy. Probably be awfully boring for you kids. However, I wouldn't mind seeing it. Nobody films the Italian countryside quite like Fabrizio."

"I agree, Professor," Nanny said, rising from her chair and heading towards the front door. "His films may have an overabundance of symbolism, but the scenery is beautiful. I wouldn't mind seeing it myself."

The Professor was just about to suggest they see the film together when the doorbell rang. He raised his eyebrows but was only mildly surprised when he heard the boisterous voice from the foyer.

"Ah, my Bella!" the loud Italian baritone rang, "How good it is to see you again!"

The kids scrambled up from where they were seated on the floor and the Professor followed them to the door.

"And my Professore!" Fabrizio released Nanny's hands and gestured broadly from where he filled the open doorway. "Since you have not come to see me in Italy, I have returned to visit you all again!"

He entered the foyer and embraced the Professor before kissing his cheek. "And these lovely bambinos – how they have grown! " The director hugged all three children then kissed Prudence on the top of her head calling her "my Carisima."

Schiavoni then turned to the Professor and pointed at the newspaper still in his hands. The half page advertisement for his film was visible so he remarked, "Ah, I see my surprise visit is not such a surprise. You are aware that my film premier is here tomorrow. That is why I have come to see you – to invite you as my guests."

"All of us?" Hal inquired, trying again to find a way to see the foreign film that wasn't for children.

"Oh no, no, no," the Maestro shook his head. "My apologies but this film is not for the bambini – my next one perhaps. How you say a – collaboration with your Donald Duck?" He tickled Prudence under her chin and she giggled. The boys grinned.

"Tomorrow, Maestro?" the Professor asked.

"Si, si, my schedule was so packed with interviews and paparazzi I did not even have the time to send you a wire. I hope you do not mind."

"No, no, of course not," the Professor led the way for their guest and the rest of the family to follow him into the living room. "Please Fabrizio, make yourself comfortable. Nanny…"

"I was just on my way to get some refreshments for Signore Schiavoni," she began to turn towards the kitchen.

"Espresso?" The white haired gentleman asked.

"What else?" Nanny replied with a wide smile. "With a nice anisette - and I believe some tiramisu would also hit the spot?"

"Si, si," Schiavoni smiled fondly at Nanny's retreating back. "She is such a wonderful woman. So warm, so considerate…"

"Ah, yes," the Professor had given up wondering how Nanny always seemed to know when they would be having unexpected guests – or how she knew how to prepare something special for them. However, earlier he had wondered at the tiramisu for desert that night as she had never prepared it before. Now it looked as if he had his answer.

Settling on the sofa next to the director the Professor said, "Fabrizio, from the ads in the paper it appears you have made another directorial triumph. Your picture was such a sensation in Italy – all over Europe actually – that your success here seems a foregone conclusion."

"Perhaps," the Maestro tried to appear modest, "I come with not such high expectations, I only hope to amuse and entertain. Of course so many of my entourage prays for the same enthusiasm here in America. However, I am always prepared for disappointment."

"Entourage?" The Professor's voice held some trepidation. "How large is your entourage?"

"Oh, it is enormous!" Schiavoni held out his arms as if to embrace a huge group of people. "My assistant and my cameraman, you met before – they are here with the writers, actors, and technical people of all sorts…" He scrubbed his face with his hands in exasperation. "There are so many I do not know where to put them all."

Remembering the onslaught of the director's following during his last visit, the kids looked apprehensive. The Professor attempted to sound casual. "So where did you put them all?"

Nanny walked in at that moment carrying a full tray. Schiavoni was distracted by her and after a moment jumped to his feet to help her.

"Allow me, allow me, my Bella." He took the tray from her and set it on the space Hal and Butch had cleared on the coffee table.

"Thank you, Maestro," she smiled at him. Busying herself with the coffee she picked up the conversation where it had been moments ago, "All of those people – did you say they were staying at the local hotel?"

Gazing at her, Schiavoni did not speak for several seconds, "Oh no," he roused himself, "We are not staying in town, we are staying in the city – in Hollywood. I have taken a floor of the Paramount Hotel for everyone – it is close to the theatre where the premier is being held." Still looking at Nanny he took the coffee she offered and continued, "Grazie, Bella. Oh, there is to be a big, big party tomorrow night. That is why I have come to invite you in person." He then glanced at the Professor to include him as well, "Both of you are to be my guests."

"Wow," Butch said, "will there be lots of Hollywood actors and stuff?" He reached on the tray for his glass of milk, but his wide eyes were on the director.

"Oh si," Schiavoni nodded. "Although we made the picture in Italy, two of the actors live here. And of course, many of my American colleagues will be present."

"Aw Dad, are you sure we can't come? I've never been to a Hollywood movie premier before?"

"Neither have I Butch, but I'm afraid you kids can't go this time and that's that." The Professor grinned, "Maybe for that Donald Duck picture."

"I'll wait for that one, Daddy," Prudence said, nodding. "Will you have to get all dressed up?"

The Professor knew his young daughter loved the idea of dressing up. The few formal occasions that required he wear his tuxedo always delighted her. He knew in a few years he'd be in trouble buying out stores for her prom – and goodness knows what she would want for her wedding. He wondered if his tux was in any shape…

"Your tuxedo is in your closet pressed and ready to wear," Nanny answered his unasked question.

"And you, Nanny?" Prudence looked at the woman she had only seen in everyday blouses and skirts.

This appeared to be one of those rare occasions when Nanny wasn't prepared for the question put to her. "I…ah…," she stammered.

"Oh, do not worry my Bella!" Schiavoni said reaching for her hand. "Allow me to supply whatever you shall need!" He kissed her hand then said to Prudence. "Do not worry Carisima, a woman so lovely, so delicate and so refined shall not go to the ball unadorned although that will only be gilding the lily. She shall be richly robed as befits my muse."

As he kissed the backs of both of Nanny's hands again the Professor struggled not to sound annoyed. "Your muse?" he asked the effusive Italian.

Continuing to gaze at Nanny he answered, "Si, si, this beauty has so captured my artist's heart that she is the eternal muse that has inspired my humble work."

"She is?" the Professor was surprised.

"I am?" Nanny spoke at the same time sounding just as surprised.

"How did Nanny amuse?" Prudence asked.

"A "muse"," her eldest brother clarified, "is a person or a thing that inspires an artist - the thing that makes them want to write or to paint or to make movies or something."

Butch shook his head. "And Nanny did that? How? She wasn't even in Italy when the movie was made."

"Ah, my young gentleman," Fabrizio told him, "a muse so alluring follows the artist. Her image can encourage and motivate the creation of art with her soul." Bowing his head over the hands he still held he intoned, "I owe her everything."

The Professor fought the urge to roll his eyes. As much as he liked and admired Fabrizio this act was too much. Just because a man found a woman attractive didn't mean he had to fawn all over her with some line about her being his artistic "inspiration" – and hold onto her hands for so long. And no woman as intelligent and insightful as Nanny would fall for a line like that - would she? Well, would she? He watched as the director stared at his housekeeper – dropping another kiss onto her hand – and observed that she smiled delightedly at his attention.

"Signore," Nanny finally spoke, "I don't know what to say."

One last kiss on her hand and he stood. "Just say you will be at the premier tomorrow night – and that you will accept my modest gifts of appreciation. Thank you for the wonderful espresso and the perfect tiramisu. You indeed cook like the Italian that is in your spirit."

"And you Professore," the tall director took his hand and for one fearful moment the Professor thought he would kiss it, "I thank you for your hospitality again. I know you will do me the honor to escort my muse to the premier – I will send a car for you."

Schiavoni then left the household in a flurry of goodbyes and waves. All three children stood in the doorway to watch as his long limousine pulled away from the curb.

"Guy!" Butch exclaimed. "Did you see how big that limo was? I hope he sends the same one for you tomorrow night.'

"Yeah," Hal sounded impressed, "I've heard some of those limos have television sets and refrigerators for drinks and food."

Now Prudence was excited as well. "Wow! You can eat in the car and everything." She looked up at Hal. "Do you think there's ice cream in that refrigerator?"

"O.K., you guys, it's time to get ready for bed." The Professor was irritated at the lavish display from the director and he wasn't sure why. He should be looking forward to a little luxury and a night out, even if he was only the muse's "escort". Ushering the children away from the door and up the stairs, he turned to see Nanny carrying the tray of dishes out of the living room. Fighting the urge to gallantly take the tray from her, he did manage to ask:

"Need some help there, Nanny?"

"No, everything is fine, Professor."

He leaned nonchalantly against the banister and let out a half-hearted chuckle. "That Fabrizio certainly is a character." Watching her closely he said, "I hope he didn't insult you with all that talk about being his muse."

"Oh no, Professor," she smiled, "I found him very charming. I'm looking forward to seeing that film tomorrow evening."

"Yes, so am I." He really wasn't, but didn't want her to go to the premier alone. "You aren't going to accept his offer of those gifts, are you?"

Her eyes twinkled as she gave him a rather provocative look. He was often taken aback when she gave him a look like that; he was used to her domestic friendliness and not as comfortable being reminded that she was indeed a woman.

"Well, I don't know." Nanny looked very much like she was weighing her options. "I suppose that depends on what he sends."

XXXXXXXXX

The next morning the Professor left the house early for his every-other-Saturday golf game. He wasn't much in the mood for golf as he'd woken up rather groggy after a poor night's sleep. That was unusual as he generally had no trouble sleeping, and he wasn't sure why he tossed and turned the night before. He supposed it had something to do with Fabrizio's visit, but he rationalized it was due to drinking espresso so late in the evening. Still, he did keep thinking about all of the attention the director had paid to Nanny.

What did he mean she was his "muse"? He'd only met her once, and that was over a year ago. And how could he take such liberties sending her clothing for his movie premier? And how could Nanny even consider accepting his gifts? Still, he had to admit that he didn't know as much about Nanny as he though he did. Who knew how she lived her life when she traveled all over the world? She might be used to accepting extravagant attentions and presents from men. No. The Professor shook his head at the direction his thoughts were taking. He might not know all about her past, but he did know her character. She wasn't the type of woman who left a string of broken hearts and broken promises behind her. She was a decent, moral, old-fashioned girl that kept to home and family. Even her professional life was dedicated to children and families.

During his game as his thoughts wandered and his score worsened, the Professor ignored the digs from his friends about his game and did a little "musing" on his own. Even the most home-bodied woman needs a little glamour now and again. Could it be that Nanny missed being wined and dined? Her irritating fiancé seemed to be the flashy type with big romantic phrases and gestures and all of that. He was a "hand kisser" too. And she had surprised him by accepting dates with "Swinging Sam". Although at heart the guy was a down-to-earth type that wanted home and family, when she had gone out with him it was in his souped-up sports car – not exactly a station wagon with sticky handprints on the dashboard and dog hair on the upholstery.

By the time he reached home, the Professor was feeling cranky. Usually he felt great after a round of golf, but today he felt a headache beginning. He attributed it to not eating much lunch at the club and losing the game to two friends he'd beaten every other time they'd played. He just wanted his dinner and a shower and he was not looking forward to the long evening ahead. Telling himself he should just relax and enjoy squiring a lovely woman around Hollywood, he couldn't forget the words and gestures of the Italian director the night before. He tried to remember all he knew or had read about Fabrizio. Certainly the man was a genius behind the camera, and not a bad looking guy either. Sure, he was getting older, but some women liked all of that white hair. He was athletic and fun-loving and quite the womanizer. The Professor could remember that both of those marriages to two gorgeous women had ended because Fabrizio had been cheating on them with some new young actress. Opening his front door, he did recall that the director had a preference for blonds – and what young woman could resist all of that Italian charm and money?

"Daddy! Daddy!" Prudence came rushing up to him. "Wait till you see all of the things Mr. Fabrizio sent!" She grabbed her father's free hand, and just giving him time to drop his golf clubs next to the foyer closet door, pulled him into the kitchen.

In the center of the dining table was an enormous arrangement of flowers. Roses, lilies, and irises spilled color out of a beautiful antique vase. Looking at one of the loveliest floral displays he had ever seen, the Professor thought it reminiscent of an English garden. Fragrant and delicate, abundant yet somehow understated, it was obvious an artistic eye had chosen that arrangement indeed – specifically with Nanny in mind.

"And wait till you see this," Prudence dragged him to the refrigerator where she took out a white box and gingerly opened its lid. Inside was a fragile looking white orchid with a pale lavender center. The corsage was wrapped in fine, white lace. A hand written note was also in the box sporting a black scrawl that the Professor knew must belong to Fabrizio. Resisting the urge to read the note, he closed the box carefully and replaced it inside the fridge.

"Aren't all of these flowers beautiful?" His daughter breathed. "I've never seen any like the white one – an orchid Nanny said."

"Yes, Darling," the Professor told her, "they are all very lovely."

"But wait – you didn't see the other surprises." Now Prudence led him back into the foyer and opened the closet door. Inside was a white fur wrap carefully draped on its padded hanger. The little girl stroked the fur. "I never felt anything so soft – feel it Daddy."

Obliging her, the Professor touched the wrap. His daughter was right – he had never felt anything so soft before either. And he couldn't imagine how much something like that must have cost. Several months of his own salary – if not an entire year – that was certain.

"And he sent other things – like a dress and jewelry and even shoes!" Obviously his daughter thought all of this was something out of a fairy tale. He agreed, and he had just the name for it: Cinderella and her Designing Flashy Godfather.

"Did you see all of the stuff, Dad?" Butch asked. He and Hal came in from the back yard looking as if they needed to clean up before supper.

"Yeah, sure," the Professor's headache was now fully developed. He didn't want to discuss Fabrizio's elaborate gifts so he changed the subject. "Why are you guys such a mess?"

"Well, we were working on some things that needed fixing on Arabella," Hal explained. "Took us longer than expected, but she should run o.k. for awhile now, Dad."

"And we washed her inside and out." Butch added, proudly.

Their father nodded his thanks. "Great. But shouldn't you guys get cleaned up before dinner? Mrs. Kelley will be here soon too."

"Why do we have to have a sitter again, Dad?" Hal complained. "I thought I did a pretty good job those times you let me sit for Butch and Prudence."

"You did an excellent job, Hal," his father told him, "However, this evening is likely to end extremely late, and I don't like the idea of the three of you asleep and alone in the house. Mrs. Kelley has agreed to stay very late – even overnight if necessary – so you'll all be safe."

"Gee, Dad," Butch complained, "but she's really strict about bedtime, and it is Saturday night."

Herding them towards the stairs the Professor told them, "Well, maybe I'll talk to her about letting you all stay up a little later. Now hit the showers."

"They can't, Daddy," Prudence told him. "Nanny is using the bathroom to get ready. She's been in there an awfully long time and she told us not to disturb her unless it was an emergency."

The Professor remembered the times he'd spent waiting for his wife to come out of the bathroom when they were going out on a special evening. And as annoying as it was, the wait was always worth it. He wondered if it would be worth the wait tonight, and somehow thought it would be. Again, he was thinking of Nanny as a woman – and not just as their nanny – and wasn't sure how comfortable he was with those thoughts. Or the obvious thoughts of a certain Italian film director.

"Just use my bathroom for now, kids," he told them. "But hurry up and don't make a mess – I have to get ready for this evening too. Prudence and I will have dinner on the table by the time you're finished."

The Professor put his golf clubs away and organized Prudence to set the table. Taking the casserole from the fridge, he again spied the white corsage box. As his temples began to pound he realized too late that the boys were in his bathroom with his much needed aspirin.

XXXXXXXXX

A few mouthfuls of casserole, two aspirin and a hot shower got rid of the headache, but not the uneasy feeling in his stomach. As Professor Everett carefully dressed for his evening out at the American premier of Italian director Fabrizio Schiavoni's latest film masterpiece "La Bella", he knew he should feel great. Escorting a beautiful woman to an international film premier and the lavish party afterwards was an exciting prospect. After all, he had never before allowed himself to enjoy the idea, let alone the reality, of taking Nanny anywhere alone. And although this was an arranged evening out to celebrate the success of an old friend, the fact was they were on a date. He had to admit to himself that he was looking forward to going out with her – even if the whole thing implied that he may be only a third wheel. Still, it wasn't really possible that Nanny was interested in the director, was it? He was so much older, but he was also intelligent, sophisticated, wealthy, well-traveled, successful…

"I'd better watch it or that headache will return." The Professor muttered to himself as he made his way down the stairs.

The doorbell rang and he opened the door. Mrs. Kelley stood there clutching her purse, a well-worn knitting bag and a small overnight case.

"I don't know who you're expectin'," she said with a tiny trace of Irish brogue from her birthplace over sixty years ago, "but they look like they're puttin' on the dog to me."

The Professor looked past the babysitter to the long, sleek black limousine in front of the house. A uniformed driver stood beside the car and his sons were chattering excitedly with him. Prudence was on tiptoe trying to peek inside of the darkly tinted back windows.

He sighed. "Ah, yes, Mrs. Kelley. That car is for us." The Professor closed the door on the out-of-place sight of a limo in front of his suddenly very modest home. "Although I don't know if we'll need it after all."

"Not need the car, Professor?"

He turned towards the familiar voice to find a very unfamiliar woman standing on the stairs behind him. Although the face was the same, serene and beautiful one he'd seen everyday for years, the rest of the picture she presented was as incongruous as it was lovely. This beauty was "Phoebe" not "Nanny", and she looked like the goddess for whom she was named. His eyes took in the long, clinging lines of the white silk. The strapless dress was fitted to her curves as if tailored for her, and fell in waves against her perfectly shaped legs to the tips of her golden high-heeled sandals. She moved gracefully down the stairs, the dazzling figure of an artist's muse. But what was distracting him, despite those alluring contours, was all of that soft, blond hair caressing pale, satin smooth shoulders. He thought he might grow faint from viewing that sight all this evening, and knew he would never want to cover those shoulders tonight – even with the softest, white ermine imaginable.

Mrs. Kelley spoke before he could find his voice.

"How lovely you look, Nanny," the elderly woman said. "That dress is so elegant! Don't you think so, Professor?"

"Yes." Finally able to speak, he was surprised at how deep his voice sounded. Always aware that she was a very beautiful woman, he fully acknowledged to himself in an instant that he did them both a disservice to ever try to deny that fact. True, he did so to keep his sanity and his propriety, but now he regretted every moment of it. How could he have ever seen this woman as anything other than the exquisite feminine creature that she was? And how could he never have pursued her?

"My," Mrs. Kelley continued, "but what a handsome couple you make. I've never seen a man wear a tuxedo quite that well before, Dr. Everett. You'll be the best looking couple there even with all of those Hollywood fancy people. I hope there's dancin' so you can show yourselves off a little. And in that big car out there you should make quite an entrance."

The Professor thought Nanny's smile was imperceptible to anyone but him. He smiled back until he noticed the diamond earrings, the gold bracelet, and the gold and diamond necklace at her throat. Unfamiliar possessiveness rose inside of him.

"No," he said in a tone that meant his mind was made up. "We will not need Fabrizio's limousine tonight. I will drive us downtown."

"But…" Nanny began as she descended the last few steps.

"No," the Professor said again. "You can go in his car if you wish, but I am taking Arabella. There's no need for any more of his favors tonight."

Nanny gestured towards the front door. "The car is already here. Isn't it foolish to…"

"Foolish or not, I'm taking our car."

"Won't Mr. Schiavoni think it rude if we don't accept his hospitality?"

His brilliant eyes flashed blue fire at her. She would have been startled if she didn't see the pained look hidden there.

"Then by all means don't hurt Mr. Schiavoni's feelings." The Professor gave her a tight smile, picked up his car keys and headed for the back door. "Thank you, Mrs. Kelley – I shouldn't be late this evening."

He turned once more to the beautiful woman in the foyer. Maybe he didn't know her very well after all. "I'll see you at the premier."

Mrs. Kelley and Nanny stared after him in silence. "Now," the older woman shook her head and intoned wisely, "isn't that just like a man?"

XXXXXXXXX

The soft, tan leather seats were deep and comfortable, and at only five-feet-two-inches tall, Nanny found the back seat of the empty limousine had more than ample leg room. Darkly tinted windows shaded the powerful slanted rays of the sun, and the temperature was set at a perfect seventy-two degrees. The privacy window was up between the driver and the passenger area, and it was nearly silent but for gentle music from the stereo system and the light tinkling sound of glass bottles jostling one another in the refrigerated mini-bar. The driver had been as solicitous as a waiter at any four star restaurant, pointing out all of the amenities at her disposal, but Nanny wasn't interested in cocktails or hors d'oeuvres. Thanking the driver politely, she refused both food and drink and settled back for her ride into the city.

To say she was surprised by the Professor's reactions that evening wasn't entirely true. She knew he didn't approve of Signore Schiavoni's attentions to her, she just didn't know how vehemently he disapproved. The evening before he had seemed amused by the Maestro calling her his "muse", although she could see all of his complements and hand kissing had bothered the Professor. She was aware he became irritated by any man's interest in her – even her lifelong fiancé. In fact, his reaction to Cholmondeley seemed so singularly negative – in contrast to his behavior towards her other visitors – that she avoided even bringing up his name to the Professor. She hadn't even told him when she and Cholmondeley had ended their commitment to one another. There never seemed to be an appropriate time to announce that fact.

Nanny glanced out the window at the passing traffic and subdued a sigh. The smooth ride was very pleasant, and she wished she could be enjoying this rare evening out in luxury with the Professor. She had liked the way he looked at her that evening – as if he had never imagined her so desirable before. The very thought made her blush. She was not a self-absorbed woman obsessed with fashions or cosmetics, but she was feminine enough to enjoy being admired by a man she found attractive. And she did find the Professor very attractive – particularly when he was dressed so elegantly for an evening out. She was certain he would be the most handsome man at the premier in spite of all of those European and American actors. Oh, he could have gone straight from the golf course or directly from his shower in his bathrobe and still be the most attractive man there!

Flustered, Nanny looked down at herself. The silk dress was certainly beautiful, as were the shoes, the jewelry, the flowers and the furs. She enjoyed wearing the lovely gifts tonight – more for the Professor's benefit than to please the Maestro. In fact, she was going to return everything to the director tomorrow – with the exception of the lovely flowers – with thanks. She could never accept such expensive and elaborate presents from a man. Especially a man who seemed enamored of her and to whom she did not reciprocate those feelings. Admiration and fondness were the strongest feelings she held for the signore, although she admitted to feeling a tiny bit flattered at being considered such a creative filmmaker's "muse".

Now if the Professor…quickly Nanny admonished the thought. How silly to think she would ever be the Professor's muse, or that he would ever buy her such costly and frivolous gifts. She didn't want or need such attentions from the Professor and… Of course! That was what Mrs. Kelley had been referring to when she said he behaved "just like a man". No man wanted to see another man shower gifts and praise on a woman he…had feelings for. Although he had never said anything to her, he did act possessive about her at times. And now he was upset thinking she had chosen not to hurt Schiavoni by accepting his generosity while wounding his ego by not going to the premier in Arabella with him. The Professor was indeed acting childish and irritatingly "just like a man" to rush off like that and sulk.

Leaning back into the seat cushion, Nanny enjoyed the ease of the luxury ride and allowed herself a small smile. If he were going to act "just like a man" then she would reciprocate by acting "just like a woman".

XXXXXXXXX

Professor Everett sat in stopped Hollywood traffic and mentally kicked himself. He honestly didn't know what had come over him. All he knew was seeing Nanny – his Nanny – all dressed up in finery bought by another man – well, he just couldn't take it anymore. And the idea of sitting in some limousine with leather seats and drinking champagne – Fabrizio's' champagne – made that uneasy feeling in his stomach even worse. No, this way was best. If she wanted to stay on at the party all night, that was her business, and he could come home whenever he wanted – with or without her – as she wished. After all, Fabrizio had bought her clothes and jewels and flowers and furs – he had bought her company tonight. Somehow he knew the director had only invited him along as the escort to bring her to him – and that he couldn't do. She was safe – or relatively safe – and besides, she was a grown woman who could take care of herself.

A grown woman. That was certain. She was a beautiful, sensual, warm and loving one-hundred-percent woman. What was he doing? Trying to torment himself to death? She had lived in his home for over two years and he had taken her totally for granted. Sure, he appreciated her, and he needed her desperately to keep his home as happy as it had been since she arrived. She was the perfect surrogate wife and mother and…wife? Who was he kidding? She may fill all of his needs for a wife – but one – but she wasn't his wife. He never treated her once – not once – as a lovely and loving woman deserves to be treated. Yes, she was engaged, but did that mean he didn't even try to…

He'd never told her that she was often the hidden, guiding force in his work: His "muse" as well as Fabrizio's. Over the years whenever he had been faced with a new set of data, or began research for an article, he would often hear her voice inside of his head: "But how do you know that isn't possible?" "What about the "unknown factor"? "No one has actually proved that hypothesis is true, you know?" And her influence would make him rethink a problem, look deeper at evidence, and generally work harder for his conclusions. She made him a better and more thoughtful scientist, had kept him from making some errors, and also kept his work fresh and interesting.

A horn behind him sounded angrily and he stomped on the gas pedal and jerked through the intersection. Then he stopped. Damn traffic. Yes, taking the limo with Nanny would have been less stressful than stop and go Hollywood traffic, but getting slightly drunk (which he would have been inclined to do) with that gorgeous goddess in the backseat with him wasn't such a good idea. He had already done something quite foolish tonight. What he needed to do was act cordial and solicitous this evening and get out of there as soon as possible.

By the time the Professor had reached the theater the sidewalk was full of paparazzi and fans of all types. He groaned at the valet parking bill, but if he'd tried to park the car himself he'd be driving all night until Arabella ran out of gas. And traffic had him already running late. Heading for the theater entrance he suddenly realized he didn't have his ticket. Panicked, something made him reach into his inside tuxedo pocket and there they were. Nanny must have put them there earlier. With a pang of guilt he realized she didn't have her ticket – but that probably wouldn't matter. He was certain Fabrizio would meet his "muse" at her limo door and keep her in the limelight with him all night. And that was all he needed – being a third wheel was nothing to feeling like a court eunuch.

Glancing through the crowd, the Professor would have been impressed at the celebrities he recognized there if he hadn't been so distracted. Suddenly he felt a hand take his arm and he looked down. For years he had been convinced that particular shade of deep blue only existed in one place in the world: Nanny's eyes.

"Here you are," she said softly. "I was beginning to worry about you in all of that traffic. Or that perhaps Arabella had given you some trouble."

"Ah, no," he paused, feeling awkward after the way he had acted at the house earlier. "And I see you've gotten here in one piece."

Her skin was glowing in the last rays of the sunset, and in the slight breeze the white fur seemed to caress her shoulders. Her honey colored hair gleamed and the tasteful set of the diamonds dangling against her neck and her throat seemed a perfect complement. How could a woman this refined be so capable with all of those domestic tasks she handled everyday? Were those small, smooth, pale hands the same ones that were so efficient when cooking, baking, gardening and taking care of all of those animals?

"Yes," Nanny nodded.

He blinked at her as if she had answered his unasked questions.

Then she continued, "A limousine maneuvers traffic quite well. Shall we go inside?"

"I thought you'd already be in the theater."

"Go inside without my escort?" She smiled at him gently and he felt something melt inside of him as it always did when she looked at him that way. Glancing around the crowd, the Professor couldn't see Fabrizio anywhere. Maybe he could enjoy this evening and not be a third wheel. He certainly wasn't feeling like a eunuch any longer.

XXXXXXXXX

At the after film party the glittering crowd moved around the elegant ballroom with practiced ease. They were all engaged in an elaborate dance they seemed to have performed together many times. Hollywood premier parties – and especially those involving a European film debut – were affairs to see and to be seen. The men were either in tuxedos or carefully underdressed as if their artistic talents could not have them involved in the trivialities of dressing to social convention. And the women were in gowns and expensive jewelry designed specifically to show the other women how to dress. As expected, Fabrizio Schiavoni was an imposing figure towering over everyone not only due to his impressive height, but his overbearing and effusive nature. Also, as expected, he had taken Phoebe's arm and steered her through the crowd with introductions while posing for any number of photographs. Hal watched, from a safe distance, and tried to steer clear of any introductions or cameras.

Although trying to keep out of the way of such famous company, Hal did find himself drawn into a few superficial conversations, mostly full of praise for "The Maestro". And somehow he was included in a heated discussion between three critics. However, even after several written reviews were thrust into his hand for perusal; he had little to contribute regarding his opinion on surrealism or political satire. Especially when two of the critics spoke little English and his Italian was extremely limited from disuse. Hal excused himself politely wondering how so many copies of favorable reviews found their way into a party atmosphere. Then he reminded himself that this was as much of a commercial occasion as an artistic celebration.

He only failed once at appearing unmoved and unimpressed with the glamour of the party or at Schiavoni's monopolizing attentions to Phoebe. The ballroom entrance doors flew open with a bang and there was an audible gasp from those assembled.

"Ah! Federico!" Schiavoni's voice sounded out over the awed crowd. "My dearest, dearest friend – how wonderful it is that you have come!"

The two men crossed the room to meet. They embraced and kissed one another on both cheeks, then held onto each other's arms and exchanged smiles. To Hal they looked less like two famed Italian directors meeting at a party and more like two boxing opponents facing each other in the ring.

"Fabrizio!" The world famous director Federico Fellini was even more impressive in person than Hal could have imagined. Although physically not as tall, somehow the new arrival appeared to dwarf Schiavoni. And it seemed everyone in the room held their breaths to hear what these two competitors would have to say to one another. Only the clicking of dozens of cameras was heard.

Schiavoni's smile was stretched painfully. "Federico, I did not know you would be here tonight! If I had – I would have met you at the airport myself."

"On the night of your American premier? I could not let you do such a thing – everyone is here to honor you tonight mio fratello*!"

"And yet you have come!" The wide affectionate smile didn't quite hide the irritation in Fabrizio's eyes. This was supposed to be his night and Hal supposed he didn't like the winner of numerous Oscar statues to be present to remind him he had not yet won the coveted award.

Fabrizio turned to include the assembled party. "Look everyone! See who has come to view my humble film – my closest friend and colleague – the world's greatest director who needs no introduction - Federico Fellini!"

Everyone in the crowd seemed to be talking at once as they gathered closer to the famous new arrival. Camera lights flashed at blinding speed. Hal was pushed close enough to the directors to realize Signore Fellini's lovely wife was also present. One of Hal's favorite actresses, Giulietta Masina was a wonderful and accomplished performer who had often been referred to as Fellini's "muse". Now he began to realize Schiavoni's obsession with finding a "muse" of his own. Whether a conscious effort to imitate his competitor or not, the attempt was exploiting Phoebe and he didn't like that fact one bit. Watching as Fabrizio introduced her to the gracious couple; Hal saw her smile warmly at them before she looked up and met his concerned look. Their gaze held for only a moment before Fabrizio maneuvered her away and the two couples headed for the Maestro's reserved table. Fighting his way through the impressed crowd Hal headed towards an exit.

*mio fratello – my brother

XXXXXXXXX

Together with Signore and Signora Fellini, Phoebe was escorted to Schiavoni's table while the tall director talked non-stop. He was full of praise for his friend, and spouted mock-modesty through several champagne toasts. Streams of the famous and the not-so-famous walked past the table to meet and greet and generally drop their own names into the ear of the award-winning Italian actor-writer-director.

Not for the first time, Phoebe sensed the insecurity that she knew existed in the Maestro. The man who was afraid of the dentist and suffered bouts of gout was just beneath the surface of his effusive bravado. She knew that the Professor believed she was somehow being taken advantage of, and wished she could address the concern she had seen in his eyes. Now when Fabrizio showed her off as his "La Bella" she felt less self-conscious. She realized his need for her presence as his muse stemmed from his lack of confidence – not from any real deep affection or desire.

Fellini seemed to genuinely like and admire Schiavoni, and spoke highly of his latest film. The men talked cinema technique for awhile, both complaining about the intrusion of the press and the misunderstandings and simplifications of the critics. Phoebe knew his friend's enjoyment and praise pleased Fabrizio more than he would have liked to admit, and he was particularly shy about taking any acting credit.

"Of course my first love was the theatre," Fabrizio explained, "although I had little success there. No one could accuse me of being your rival Federico – or yours my beautiful Giulietta – but after "Wheels in the Afternoon" I could not resist one last time in front of the camera."

Sounding surprised, Giulietta Masina asked, "Your last time?"

"Si, si," Fabrizio gestured at himself, "I am becoming too old to play the hero – this film was my – swan song – as they say."

Giulietta smiled at Phoebe. "But with such a lovely muse to inspire you – "

"Oh, I'm afraid Signore Schiavoni must take all of the credit for his own creations," Phoebe smiled fondly at him, but carefully avoided his reach for her hand.

"But I thought you had been Fabrizio's sole motivation for "La Bella"?" Federico said. "The lovely actress in the film…"

"A vague resemblance only," Phoebe told the director. "So much of Maestro Schiavoni's brilliance is due to the fact that he can find inspiration anywhere and from anyone. And he has such a keen eye – as do you Signore Fellini – for talent both in front of and behind the camera."

"Si," Fellini seemed thoughtful, "one of your early masterpieces Fabrizio – "The War of the Computers" was a tremendous undertaking and quite prophetic.'

Obviously enjoying the admiration, Schiavoni brushed off the tribute. "That was the first time I had found such excellent advisors for my work – an outstanding, young student who – Hey!" He stood and looked around the crowded room. "Where is my brillante Professore?"

"I believe he is nearby," Phoebe stood and addressed the famous director and his wife. "If

you will excuse me I will find the Professor. He is a great admirer of both of you and I am sure he will be honored to meet you."

As she gracefully made her way through the crowd Giulietta Masina looked after her and commented insightfully, "That Professore, did he also inspire your present work, Fabrizio?"

XXXXXXXXX

One summer when he was eleven years old, Harold Everett had made a tree house with his best friend, Buckley Miller. Buckley lived across the street, was a year older and two classes ahead of him in school. He was sick a lot of the time with asthma, but was very smart and challenged Harold in ways the friends in his own class couldn't. And because Buckley was sick, and couldn't play sports most of the time, Harold was one of his only friends.

The first month of summer vacation they spent working on the tree house so they would have somewhere with a great view to watch Fourth of July fireworks. Then, on the night of the forth they went to their tree house to find it was taken over by some older boys and their girlfriends. When Harold and Buckley protested, the older boys poured beer on them and threw lit firecrackers at them. They tried to fight back, but ended up getting chased and having to run all the way back home. When they got to Buckley's house he had an asthma attack so serious his parents had to take him to the hospital. The next day, while Buckley was still in the hospital, Harold went back to the tree house and found the older boys had destroyed it. He was so angry he spent an hour kicking at the remains and crying. He was angry at the senseless destruction and waste, and for those boys making his best friend get sick. And for years that was the incident Harold always remembered when his anger got the best of him.

But even the deep felt fury of an eleven-year-old railing at his first taste of injustice in the world couldn't compare to the anger he felt now.

Now, Harold Everett stood on a balcony outside a boisterous ball room party at the Paramount Hotel in Hollywood, California and stared out at the glittering skyline. The night was cool for the late spring, and he stood there alone with a scotch and a cigarette and thought about Buckley Miller. Of all of his friends from childhood, Hal only kept in touch with Buckley. Buckley was a successful architect, had a wonderful wife and four great kids, and was still one of the smartest people and gentlest souls Hal had ever known. He had forgiven those bullies all of those years ago, but Hal couldn't, even now – not completely. He wondered how Buckley did it – they'd grown up in the same neighborhood, gone to the same church – he shook his head and ground out his cigarette on the balcony floor.

Loud laughter burst from inside the ballroom. Hal looked at the door. He wanted to leave, but also felt he needed to stay there for Nanny. As he'd felt at eleven years old, he wanted to protect his friend. He was as angry for her as he was for himself. Maybe she wasn't even angry, but if he had felt violated he thought she might feel that way too. In any case, he would stay until she wanted to leave, or if she wanted to stay he would make certain it was her decision.

The French doors opened on another bout of laughter from the party. Hal glanced up to see Nanny close the doors behind her. She was without her white fur wrap and for a moment he wondered if she'd be too cold in the open air. She smiled at him.

"I was wondering where you had gone." She stood next to him and gazed out at the City of Hollywood spread far below them. "Fabrizio was asking for you – he wanted to introduce you to Signore Fellini. I told him you are a great admirer of his work."

He didn't look at her either. In fact, they hadn't spoken or really looked at one another since the film began. "I'm also a great admirer of Mr. Fellini's muse."

"Yes. His wife is a marvelous talent, and a very, very gracious lady. You would enjoy meeting them." Nanny motioned towards the door. "They are inside…"

"Did they enjoy meeting Fabrizio's muse?" He emphasized the last word almost as if it were an insult.

She sighed and turned to him but didn't answer.

"He certainly seems to be using this film premier to promote his artistic image of inspired actor-writer–director. And the picture wouldn't be complete without a beautiful, blond muse dressed as a goddess on his arm." Hal looked at her then, an appreciative look that went far beyond admiring. "I'm surprised Fabrizio even let you out of his sight at all this evening with your role to play."

Nanny spoke in a soft voice, "I was looking for you."

"I'm just taking the air."

"I think it smells more like you were taking a smoke."

"Nothing wrong with that, no children to influence." Hal reached into his pocket and took out a nearly full cigarette packet. His good manners forced him to offer her one but she shook her head. Lighting the cigarette he inhaled deeply then let out the smoke slowly.

Nanny studied his face. Her eyes were unreadable, but not the concern in her voice. "Those are very bad for you, you know."

He held her gaze as he breathed out another trail of smoke. "I live dangerously. Or didn't you realize that from the movie tonight."

His eyes had narrowed against the smoke and glittered in an unfamiliar way. In that moment he did look dangerous. She forced herself to sound dismissive. "Oh, you aren't going to take that movie seriously…"

"No? Let's see: it's a movie about a beautiful, blond, innocent nanny living in the home and caring for the three children of some older, cold, womanizing, heartless professor who uses and brutalizes her then throws her out into the cold – pregnant no less – for some older, white haired, kind, gentle, and generous artist to find and rescue."

Nanny flushed. "I'm sure he didn't mean…"

Hal tossed his cigarette to the ground and crushed it out. "He didn't mean what? That his "La Bella", his "muse" wasn't some delicate, pure flower being battered by some evil despot of a scientist – only to be saved by art?"

"Yes," she started to explain, "That was his point really: Only art and emotion – human feelings – can save our over-mechanized, scientific society. And if – "

The Professor rolled his eyes. "I read that review too. Only I read it too late – someone at the party gave me a copy. I certainly wish I had read all of those reviews sooner – I never would have come here to be humiliated."

"Oh, Professor," Nanny laid a gentle hand on his arm. "Fabrizio never meant it in that way. He's an artist and he sees things very differently. He only used the symbolism of certain societal roles to make his point. And you have to admit the film was very beautiful."

Taking a deep swallow of his drink Hal thought over her comment. Rationally, he would like to have said the film was aesthetically beautiful, technically inventive, well-written and well-acted. Even the music was lush and emotive. Of course, he had been right not to allow his children to see it, even now he found himself flushing over what European cinema called "art" scenes. Very realistic, yes, but hardly something American audiences wanted to see as regular fare. At least, Hal hoped, not yet.

She must have read his expression, or maybe his thoughts, because Nanny blushed and her hand dropped away from his arm.

"Of course, those scenes are what Fabrizio is famous for directing. In his other films…"

Hal interrupted. "Why are you calling him Fabrizio now?"

"That is his name."

"Well, my name is "Hal" and you never call me that." Why did he think that sounded so petulant? He stepped closer to her suddenly aware that he had had too much to drink to be starting this particular conversation with her.

She didn't respond to his comment and turned away. An abrupt breeze brushed the hair off of one tempting shoulder and his eyes followed the curve of her neck and the line of her jaw. When looking at her like this he had difficulty thinking of her as "Nanny" and wanted very much to call her "Phoebe". She looked like Phoebe now, and he wondered if Fabrizio called her by her given name now too.

In a gentle voice he said, "You know, the actress who portrayed you in the film…"

"That wasn't me," Phoebe protested.

"All right," Hal began again, "that actress who played "La Bella" certainly did look like you. Even now, in this dim light, I can see that she had your petite figure, your exact coloring, your delicate skin…"

"She comes from a very traditional acting family back home and is very well known actually." Phoebe faced him and gestured towards the door. "She's right in there."

He nodded. "I know. I saw her. The resemblance is uncanny. And of course since the actor playing the artist was none other than Fabrizio himself…"

"What about the actor who was "Il Professore"?"

He frowned. "What about him?"

She smiled. "Well, in spite of what you thought of the character, you must admit he found a very handsome and charismatic actor to play that part."

"Handsome?" He hid his grin by taking another sip of his drink.

"Yes, Hal," She waited until he met her gaze again. "And that resemblance is uncanny also."

Covering his embarrassment he said, "He's pretty well known here – been doing movies and television for years." Motioning towards the door with the hand holding his drink he continued, "He's just in there too." Then his eyes widened as he looked at her. Did she just say he was handsome? Did she just call him by his first name?

"Yes," she smiled there seemed to be a sparkle of humor in her eyes.

Hal didn't allow himself to consider his passing thoughts. What did that matter? All of those rich and powerful men vying for her attention – any one of them could give her anything she wanted: travel to those exotic places she loved, gifts of flowers and furs and jewelry, even marriage, home and family – although in lush and lavish surroundings.

"And I'm sure he'd be very interested in having "La Bella" to talk with – in fact, all of those actors, producers, directors and writers in there seemed to be very intrigued – and possibly inspired too - by Fabrizio's muse." Hal looked towards the door again. "Evidently the paparazzi have wanted to get a glimpse of you since the film opened months ago in Rome. And it must have been why he dressed you like a goddess tonight – his gilded lily."

She looked down at herself. "I suppose it is a little vain and silly to be all dressed up like this tonight. I had no idea what all of this was about, and Fabrizio certainly makes a fuss. However, all of his gifts will be returned tomorrow."

"Of course you should be dressed like that. Why shouldn't a beautiful woman be made to feel even more beautiful? Why shouldn't you be admired and fussed over and appreciated?" Still, Hal was secretly relieved she would be returning all of that finery to Fabrizio tomorrow. He didn't know if it would make a difference to the Maestro, but it would certainly send a message.

Hal finished his drink and set the heavy crystal tumbler on the balcony's wide ledge. Again he looked at her with his dangerous gaze. "You deserve the best life has to offer, and luxury and elegance is part of that. There is more to life than domestic drudgery, you know."

Phoebe met his gaze honestly. "I have considered that. A jet set life full of travel and film premiers and elegance. Meeting rich, powerful, talented and creative people…"

The Professor's stomach felt slightly ill again. Whether from drinking after very little dinner, the unfamiliar cigarettes, or the way the conversation had turned he wasn't certain. His attempt to sound disinterested failed, "Fabrizio offered you that?"

"No," she gave him a small smile, "But he did offer all of his guests' overnight accommodations in the hotel if they do not wish to return home after the party."

"You were included?"

"Yes, of course."

"And you are the only one with a key to your room?" Hal couldn't stop himself from asking the question or keep the anger out of his voice.

"Yes, I made sure there was only one key." Phoebe replied. "But Fabrizio does seem quite infatuated. I would guess his impetuous nature will have him proposing more glamorous things momentarily."

"Proposing," Hal said, grimly, "or propositioning?"

"I'm not certain he understands the difference."

"Do you?"

His incredible brilliant blue eyes seemed suddenly full of boyish insecurity. Phoebe decided to answer his question with directness. "You must think me very inexperienced and innocent. You forget that I have made my way in the world for quite a few years and have met many people – many men. I am not so naïve as to not discern male motivation in these matters."

Hal wondered what she could discern in him. Not just now but the entire time they had known one another. Certainly no special talent was required to see what a jealous ass he was being tonight – no intuition beyond just being a woman.

"Do you really want to know?" Phoebe stepped closer to him and answered his unasked question. Her familiar fragrance was a reminder that this unfamiliar goddess really was the loving woman he had known for so long.

Looking up in to his eyes she spoke quietly, "I know you have always thought of me with and treated me with respect. I know that some of my ways have confused you, yet you always tried to understand and accept me for who I am – and never tried to change me. I know that you have – admired – me but in spite of your having the emotions and desires of a healthy man; you have valued what I have offered your family – and you – and allowed me an esteemed place in your life. I have been honored by the trust and friendship we share – beyond what I have ever experienced in any other position in any other household I've lived."

He was touched but unsatisfied. Dryly, he replied, "Sounds like an ideal domestic relationship."

"True, it is a wonderful relationship and very rewarding," she held his gaze as her hands smoothed up his tuxedo lapels, "but hardly ideal."

Even standing close on tall heels, Phoebe still had to stretch up to meet his lips. Surprised Hal was still for a moment until the warm, tender touch of her mouth demanded a response. Slipping his arms around her in a close embrace, he returned the press of her lips gently and steadily until they parted under his in a sigh. Then she reached her arms around his neck. Only when he heard her moan did he pull her nearer to him possessively.

Phoebe could taste the rich scotch and burnt tobacco on his tongue and far from being offensive it lured her with its decidedly masculine flavor. Warnings against smoking and drinking were impressed upon her at an early age, and infrequent indulgences in her late adolescence and early adulthood still found the smell and taste tempting and forbidden. And that combination along with being held in Hal's arms and being kissed so passionately…

She pulled away to catch her breath only to find her neck and shoulders then under the assault of his burning kisses. Unable and unwilling to turn away Phoebe marveled at what sort of internal beast of his she had unleashed. She giggled at both the thought and the tickling sensation of his moist breath in her ear.

"What's so funny?" Hal's baritone murmur sent chills dancing along delicate nerve endings all through her body. "What else have you discerned in me?"

Still breathless, Phoebe clung to his neck and lifted her shining deep blue eyes to look into his. "Just what is very obvious from your kisses and your embrace."

"Oh?" He was smiling down at her, both his voice and his soft kisses teasing now. "And is that a proposal or a proposition?"

Ever the proper Englishwoman, she lowered her eyes. "That's not for me to say."

Hal cupped her face between his large, gentle hands. Encouraging her to meet his gaze, he said, "Maybe that's not for me to say either – to an engaged woman."

"But I…I'm not…I'm not engaged any longer." Phoebe's words came out in a rush. "Cholmondeley and I ended our betrothal months ago."

"Why?" He seemed to hold his breath while waiting for her answer.

She blushed. "Oh, Hal…"

Taking her into his arms again, he asked, "Why didn't you tell me?"

"There never seemed to be the right time."

"Well, the time is certainly right now." Hal kissed her again before she could say anything more. He knew he would want to know more about her broken engagement sometime, but for now it was enough to know that she was free and there with him. But if the way she was kissing him back was any indication, she wouldn't be free very much longer – he had every intention of turning her back into an engaged woman – no, a married woman – as soon as possible.

Phoebe ended the kiss by smiling against his lips. Playfully she asked, "Proposing or propositioning?"

"I can't speak for men like Fabrizio, but I could only desire an honorable relationship with my muse."

"Your muse?" Phoebe sounded as surprised as she had the evening before.

"Who else has been my inspiration? Who else has opened up my heart – and my mind – to seeing the world in new and different ways? Who else has taught me to always keep an open perspective – to truly believe that while there are some things that are improbable – no thing is impossible?" He kissed her lips tenderly. "Although I wouldn't have put it quite so – poetically – as the Maestro did, I honestly don't think I could have achieved what I have achieved at work these past few years if it hadn't been for you."

Her eyes were sparkling with tears. "Me? I was your inspiration?"

Hal pulled her closer, then whispered into her ear, "Yes, you. So now you know – you inspire artists and scientists. And even if I could never direct love scenes like the ones in that film…"

Phoebe smiled and her cheeks warmed. "I think Fabrizio intended to "inspire" – or he wouldn't have reserved all of those rooms for everyone."

Hal turned to look towards the still active party indoors. Schiavoni's film premier parties were almost as legendary as his films. His scientific brain turned over the facts: that many "beautiful people", flowing alcohol, and free hotel accommodations had to add up to some truly decadent behavior. He gazed at the beautiful woman he held in his arms and saw her slightly apprehensive expression.

"La Bella may have been compromised by Il Professore, but I would never place you in those circumstances. And the Maestro may want his muse to show off to the glitterati around the world, but I want simpler things." Hal stepped back and took both of Phoebe's hands in his. Looking at her dressed as a goddess, he could only see the striking beauty and goodness in her. Her finery seemed simple and her jewels dim next to her own radiance.

"You know there are men in there who can offer you the world. Men with fortunes that can give you anything – take you anywhere – and men who would be willing to take my place here with you in a heartbeat." He squeezed her hands then brought them to his lips to kiss her fingers. She smiled at the gallant gesture. "You know what I have to offer – my home, my kids, and my demanding job – but I love you. I haven't been able to tell you before, and maybe I shouldn't tell you now – but I love you and want you in my life forever. So if you can consider losing your place among the rich and famous…"

Phoebe broke in. "Why would I lose my place among the rich and famous? There are many world famous mathematicians and you will be counted among them. And I will have my place beside you as your wife. As for riches…" She put her arms around him again and now it was her turn to whisper teasingly into his ear, "…in love we are already rich beyond compare."

Hal's kiss claimed more than just her lips. With one deep and enticing kiss he pledged to her his undying love as well as his desire. He couldn't imagine his life without her, and now she would be his forever. Knowing the cruel tricks fate could play, it had been years before he had even allowed himself to consider loving again. But he had fallen in love with this incredible woman long before he could admit it to himself and now he knew he had her love. He could hardly believe it, and after waiting so long to kiss her and tell her he loved her, he didn't know how he was going to be able to wait…

Loud party noises caused them to break off their impassioned kiss. Both looked towards the door as Hal remarked:

"I can't believe Fabrizio hasn't come looking for you."

"Perhaps he's found another muse." Phoebe rested her cheek on his chest. "The poor man needs to find one desperately, you know."

"After you? Impossible." Hal kissed the top of her head.

She looked up at him. "Just as long as you never find another muse."

Watching as the satin sheen of her white shoulders gleamed in the moonlight, Hal shook his head. "Impossible."

"That is one time I agree with 'impossible' as an answer."

"Ah, the exception that makes the rule." Hal grinned. "Let's go home."

Phoebe stepped away from him and again her expression was unreadable. Then she held out her hand. On her palm was the key to her room at the Paramount Hotel.

"Mrs. Kelley said she was prepared to stay overnight with the children," she said demurely, "and it is already after midnight." Before a surprised Hal could respond, she held out her other hand. On that palm were the keys to Arabella.

Automatically, he patted his pocket. The keys were missing.

"How did you…?" he stopped himself.

"How indeed?" The goddess was suddenly before him again. Beautiful, self- possessed, magical, loving and soon to be his wife - she was offering him a choice. If they went home now, they would be delaying gratification until after their wedding. And who knew how soon that could be arranged. However, if they stayed at the hotel tonight they could indulge in making love all night until the sun came up. After years of suppressed desire the possibilities were overwhelming. And his La Bella, his muse loved him and trusted him enough to give him the choice he knew she had never given to anyone before. He looked at her open palms and the two sets of keys there.

And he made his choice.