Today's Reading

"Rudy, you've been having stomach problems for months now. Did you see Dr. Moore about it, like I told you to do two weeks ago?"

"Yes, of course. Do not scold me. He says nothing new that he can find. Not to worry because I shall irritate my ulcer. To rest. To not eat spicy food. Ha! I cannot rest, and food is my only pleasure since Natacha left me. My new house, Falcon Lair, it is torn to pieces with the renovation, and reporters, fans, they will not leave me alone..."

"Look, why don't you spend tonight at my estate? In fact, you're welcome to stay at Orange Garden for as long as you want, at least until the remodel is done on Falcon Lair. I know just how to take care of a tender stomach. Besides, Fee is off tonight, and I'd be glad of the company."

"Such a generous offer, cara. Yes, maybe just for tonight. You have always taken good care of me."

Bianca smiled. Rudolph Valentino may have been known worldwide as the greatest Latin lover to ever grace the silver screen, but in real life, poor Rudy had always had singularly bad luck with his romances. Bianca knew why, too, and had never been shy about telling him all about it. Rudy was drawn to the wrong kind of woman—or wrong for him, at least. He was attracted to strong, independent, artistic women, and fell madly, instantly, into the throes of amore. But as the relationships advanced, his stubborn, old-world expectation of what a woman should be like—gentle, compliant, Madonna-like—ended up driving her away.

Bianca had informed him more than once that you can't tell a woman you admire her for being one way and then demand she change into something else. In her experience, too many men fell into that trap. Especially Italian men. Especially this particular Italian man.

Rudy just laughed at her. "You are one to talk," he'd accuse. Bianca LaBelle, a world-renowned beauty, never had relationships at all, at least not one that hadn't been specifically set up by a studio publicist to promote her image as a woman of mystery and dangerous allure.

Bianca and Rudy had been friends for years, but nothing more than friends. They had both come to Hollywood broke and in trouble, and though he was a decade older than she, each by their own lightning-strike of fortune had gone from completely unknown to incredibly famous at about the same time. For Rudy, one sultry tango in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse had vaulted him into the stratosphere. For Bianca, one fantastic, swanlike leap from the queen's balcony in The Three Musketeers led to a series of wildly popular adventure pictures about the indomitable world traveler, journalist, and sometime spy, Bianca Dangereuse.

Valentino and LaBelle had met at a party. There was always a party involved in Hollywood. That fateful shindig had been at silent screen legend Alma Bolding's house back in 1922. Rudy was newly divorced from actress Jean Acker (or so he thought) and living with set designer and his eventual second ex-wife, Natacha Rambova (née Winifred Shaughnessy), in a tony house down the hill from Alma's Whitley Heights mansion. He and Natacha had owned a lion cub then and walked it on a leash around the neighborhood every evening, which said a lot about their mutual disregard for convention.

Bianca was Alma's protégé at the time, still living with the star while Bianca's own Beverly Hills mansion was being built, just down the road from Mary Pickford's and Douglas Fairbanks's place, Pickfair.

Bianca had liked Rudy right away. They were alike, both headstrong and restless, eager for adventure, and loved dogs and horses. She appreciated the fact that he didn't have a giant ego like many of the men she dealt with in Hollywood. He was sweet and rather naive and told terrible jokes that she didn't get. The two of them had been trying to navigate their newfound fame, and both were still a bit shell-shocked, unsure of who to trust. They were the hottest new faces on the Hollywood scene. The fact that they both had "it," whatever that was, gave them a kind of kinship.

Now, four years later, their stellar fame had not lived up to its shining promise, and Valentino and LaBelle were like old war buddies. No one who had not lived through the same bloody battles they had could understand their bond.


FAME, AS IT TURNS OUT, IS NOT ALL IT'S CRACKED UP TO BE

After resting on the brocade bench for a few minutes, Valentino declared himself better and walked with Bianca off the stage and across a short alley to the costume and makeup bungalow. The sight of a beautiful, regal, green-eyed woman in a fake diamond tiara and purple sateen Hapsburg-era ball gown, and a striking man with smoldering dark eyes, dressed in tails with a medal-encrusted red baldric across his chest would normally be no occasion for remark here on the Pickford-Fairbanks Studio lot, where actors of every imaginable stripe wandered the grounds. But these two were not ordinary mortals and passersby who caught sight of them stopped to gawk and whisper behind their hands. Bianca and Rudy no longer noticed. They both were accustomed to being admired, or at least to being objects of intense scrutiny.
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