Today's Reading

Wardrobe mistress Caroline White and her minions were waiting for them when they arrived at the warehouse, and the actors had barely cleared the doorway before multiple hands began removing their expensive costumes—sashes, tiaras, medals, and jewels, Bianca's elaborate wig. Bianca and Rudy chatted comfortably as they were stripped down to their underwear. As soon as the costume elves disappeared with armfuls of clothing, they made their way to their individual dressing nooks to don street clothes and remove their makeup with buckets of cold cream.

Before walking all the way from the backlot to the front offices to meet with the studio publicist, Bianca telephoned to warn that they were on the way. They were told to stay put until a guard could arrive to drive them across the acres of studio lot. If they legged it, they were liable to be so delayed by adoring fans, aspiring actors, and other admirers that they might not make it to their appointment at all.

The head of United Artists' publicity department, Marty Levinson, didn't wait for his starstruck assistant to drool over Rudy before he ushered them into his office, where he proceeded to drool over Bianca.

Bianca withdrew her damp hand none too gently from Levinson's grasp. "What do you want, Marty? It's been a long day and we're both beat."

Levinson pouted a bit but got down to business. "Listen, Miss Pickford thinks that Grand Obsession is going to be a blockbuster. But this is a damned expensive shoot..."

"What, expensive?" Bianca interrupted. "If we were shooting in Vienna, like we ought to be, that would be one thing, but on the Santa Monica Boulevard backlot?"

Levinson was not cowed. "Yes, expensive. The cost for the sets and costumes is astronomical. You know how Mary demands quality. Besides, the salaries for the two of you are through the roof."

"As they well should be." Bianca slid a glance at Rudy. He looked every inch the matinee idol, clad in plus-fours and an open-collar white shirt, his black hair slicked back and shiny as a mirror. He had crossed his legs and relaxed into his chair with his elbows on the armrests and his fingers steepled before him, letting her do the talking. She was more than willing to do so. Rudy was too easygoing about this sort of thing. Bianca returned her attention to Levinson. "You know very well our names are going to make the studio a bundle. Now, what did you want to see us about?"

Levinson sat down on the edge of his desk, amused at Bianca's immediate power maneuver. The two veteran actors knew that they were about to be hustled into cooperating with some publicity stunt, and she was reminding him that they were too big to be strong-armed. He was just the publicity guy. It was no skin off his nose.

"Here's the deal, Bianca. Since Rudy and Pola Negri have tragically broken up, and since you are a famous virgin..."

Bianca and Rudy burst into laughter at the same time.

"Why not?" Levinson said. "A romance between you two would sell a million tickets worldwide."

"Why do you think I have broken with Pola?" Rudy said. Pola Negri was a fiery Polish-born screen vamp whom he had been dating off and on for several months.

"Louella Parsons wrote in the Examiner that you two broke up in April."

Rudy gripped the chair arms and leaned forward. "Pola and I are still seeing one another. Besides, Natacha and I may never be together again, even if I do still love her. How will it look to her if Bianca and I..."

"Both Pola and Natacha know how things work around here. Just tell them it's a sham. Better yet, have Bianca tell her, whichever one you really want. In the meantime, what a story for the public. Bianca comforting you, soothing your broken heart. Two lonely people finding one another in this cold, cruel world."

Bianca didn't offer an opinion. She had been paired in the industry journals with infinitely less appealing men than Rudolph Valentino. It never meant anything. But in this case, Rudy really was suffering from a broken heart, so as far as she was concerned it was up to him whether or not to go along with this particular illusion.

"You are both too pretty to do a project together and have people believe the sparks don't fly. This way you can control the narrative."

"Oh, bullcrap, Marty," Bianca said. "You know that no one can control the narrative in this town."

"I don't want to do it," Rudy said. "I love Bianca, but not like that."

Levinson shrugged. "Look, the rumors are going to fly whether you play along or not. 'LaBelle and Valentino together at last,' and all that. I'm just offering you the chance to have something to say about it."

"I'd like to think about it," Bianca said, and Rudy nodded his agreement.

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