The saucy-looking redhead, one of five similarly dressed women in the VIP room of Harts nightclub, licked her lips, leaving them shiny. She pouted, her message clear. Pick me! Pick me! Rafael de Almeida, receiving it loud and clear, threw her a sly wink in acknowledgement, making sure the other women in their split skirts, waist-cinching belts and laced leather corsets over low-cut white blouses didn’t see. He turned to the waiting fan club president who was overseeing this meet-and-greet. He’d been doing this long enough to know the best practice.
“Kath.” He’d studied the information that his PA, Lourdes, had given him, and now made sure to pronounce this woman’s name correctly, despite the th sound being tricky for a Brazilian. She’d made the effort to say his properly, sounding the R farther back in her throat, almost like an H. “Kath, you wouldn’t be so cruel as to make me choose just one of these beautiful ladies, would you? Especially when they’ve all taken such trouble with their Marisol costumes, hmm?”
He plucked the red rose from the basket that Nita, the fan club secretary, was carrying. “This should go to Kath, for organising this, don’t you think, ladies?” He presented the sweet-smelling, long-stemmed flower to her, making her blush, before grinning at the five women dressed like the female lead in his former series. “And there’s something for all of you, for all your hard work as regional club leaders too.”
Only half of them asked for a kiss on their cheeks as he signed each of them a glossy new photo from the shoot Lourdes had set up especially for his first foray into Europe, making for a relatively calm atmosphere in this club. He hadn’t heard one hyena-like shriek, seen fat, glistening tears in any eyes or felt any pincer-like fingers squeezing his ass all evening.
Maybe English fans were more inhibited than Latin or South American ones? In which case, thank God. Or maybe they were overawed by this South Kensington club, one of London’s most exclusive—not a place they’d be likely to frequent, making it an extra bonus for the fan club organizers and the fans who’d won the contest to meet him. He wondered why Lourdes had chosen Harts. She’d probably googled ‘chic clubs, London’ and gone with the venue judged the most ‘in’ or snootiest. It was tame, compared to some of the wilder places he’d been to in his native Rio, or in South America, but he liked it. Lourdes would too, if she were here.
He made sure the secretary got plenty of photos for the fan mag, as well as the few members of the press who were there for their magazines or papers, and paid extra attention to the guy from Taffeta, who was writing a feature.
The wet-lipped redhead from earlier looked from him to the life-size cut-out of him that was part of the temporary décor of the chic VIP area. “Hoped you might come in your costume,” she murmured.
Rafael followed the direction of her gaze to the cardboard version of him. Its leather boots showed off long legs, its tight breeches clung to toned thighs and the mostly unlaced flowing poet’s shirt showcased firm abs and broad shoulders. His hair had been longer then, left messy in careless waves well over his collar, for the lighter tones of sandy brown near his face to highlight his dark green eyes. He tilted his head from the historical Valentin to the cardboard figure on the other side of the cordoned-off space. The costume drama Valentin had been followed by the contemporary Heart of Valentin, with him glossier and sleeker, but still dedicated to taking from the rich and greedy and distributing it to the poor and downtrodden.
“I got a new designer suit and shirt!” he joked. “Ones Valentin 2.0 would wear.” He was tieless as usual, his shirt open at the neck, but the pocket square sticking out of his breast pocket made up for that lack.
“It’s…nice,” the woman agreed.
Rafael wondered what adjectives were really running through her mind. These sorts of events were difficult enough as it was—for all he made them look easy—without the added cringe factor of appearing in a costume from a long-running historical TV drama that had been off the air for three years. Gone but not forgotten…
Well-trained but a little restless, he stood as soon as he’d finished signing photos and strode deeper into the roped-off VIP space, which wasn’t in a side or back room here at Harts, but up ladder-like steps from the main floor of the club. The second part involved greeting the competition-winning fans.
Seeing that one of the guests was a guy made him stop. “Are you a reluctant plus-one?” he asked the man.
“No. No. I mean, no.” The young guy clapped a shaky hand to his breast, beating it as if in time with an accelerated heart rate. He shook his spiky blond head. “I’m a fan! Got the poster and everything. Brought it for you to sign…”
Rafael closed his eyes. He bet he knew which poster the guy was referring to before he unrolled it—Valentin sitting on the ground against a bale of straw, one leg stretched out and one bent, shirt mostly undone. Yep. He fingered the holes in the corners from where the poster had been thumbtacked to a wall.
“Didn’t you know you had an LGBT following?” the guy asked, his tone faltering as Rafael paused.
“LGBTI,” Rafael corrected with a grin, signing the poster. “Yeah, there’s a lesbian and gay chapter of the fan club. Oh, and two years ago, a drag queen float in the carnival chose Marisol and Isaura—if you remember that character—as their theme and invited me as the guest of honour. Great fun. I wasn’t aware I was popular with gays in the UK, though.”
The guy scoffed. “What, the guy judged the Sexiest Man in Brazil?”
“That was a few years back,” Rafael demurred.
“Well, Sexiest Man on TV, three years running?”
Rafael laughed and shook the guy’s hand before moving on. He suddenly wished Lourdes were with him, but her being eight months pregnant had taken that off the table. And no—he’d wanted to come alone. To take a break. Or…make this the forerunner to a break. He paused near the balcony railing of this raised section and looked down over the club floor. The place had been decked out for Valentine’s and gleamed with the requisite hearts-and-flowers décor. The tables behind him sported crystal dishes containing heart-shaped chocolates in shiny pink and red wrappers, and the tables below held fat pink and red roses.
“Is Diana with you?” a reporter called out behind him.
“They split up,” half a dozen voices answered, the duh loud in their tones. “Amicably,” at least two people added.
It wasn’t a line for the press—it was true. Didi—Diana—a model and now an Instagram influencer, whatever that was, and he were both busy and had barely seen each other towards the end. All his splits had been amicable. Mimi, his Marisol, who’d sadly been deemed too old now to be his love interest in Valentin 2.0, and he remained friends, meeting up for dinners regularly. Joana, the rally driver who’d competed in the Dakar race, and he still went to each other’s events. Oh, his relationships were heated, hot and heavy, as his friend Ro liked to say, just not…deep. The way he liked it.
“Does that mean you’re free to dance?”
He turned back to the group at that invite, delivered by the hopeful redhead, and, grinning, held out his hand to her. He answered questions from the press in between dances. Yes, he was looking forward to seeing a little of London. Yes, he was here for a Valentine event in Europe. Yes, he was here alone…
Which made him pause. There was supposed to be an agency PA or handler or something. The efficient and organised Lourdes had set it up, and he doubted she’d have made a mistake. He’d been meaning to call her and ask but hadn’t wanted to worry her, and he was managing fine by himself. He’d found the hotel from the airport—okay, the driver waiting for him had. He’d found this club. Well, all right, the cab the hotel porter had whistled up from the rank had. But he’d been doing this for so long that he knew the drill. He’d been doing this for so long that he needed if not a break, then a change…
As if his thoughts had become a wish, he spied his quarry. Franz Peterson. “Excuse me.” Rafael kissed the hand of his current partner and left her at the bottom of the VIP stairs, then waved at the short, squat, balding London director and the taller woman with him. “We meet at last. So pleased you came.”
Franz gave a crooked-toothed slash of a grin that was more like a grimace. “After you badgering me nonstop on the phone to set up a meet? Yeah, we do. Oh, and you’ve got her to thank.” Her was the woman he was with, if the jerk of his thumb towards her meant that. His new wife, his long-term casting director in the string of gritty, often gangland, movies he made. “She loves you. I should hate you,” Franz added.
“Well, I hope you don’t, seeing as I want to work with you.” Rafael stared him in the eye before taking his wife’s hand and kissing it. He ordered them all a drink while Franz was still grating out a rusty laugh at what he’d said.
“Lemme see I got this straight,” Franz said a few minutes later, swirling his glass, making the ice cubes clink. “You wanna audition for my next film? You know I make movies about schemers, criminals, crooks, gangs, con men—underworld figures in general, where nobody comes off well, right? Films with a lot of action, a lot of fights, a lot of blood…”
“I do and I like them all. You’re an excellent director and storyteller and deserve every one of the accolades you’ve won.”
“Well, thanks, I guess, but I dunno.” Franz looked him up and down. Rafael knew what he was seeing—the perfect white teeth, the tan complexion, the glossy hair, the expensive suit. “You looking to change your image? Think you can pull off gritty Latino from the streets, yeah?”
Rafael had to laugh. The guy had no idea. “Oh, I might be closer than you know.” The short but powerful man didn’t intimidate him in the least. “And what have you got to lose?” Rafael held eye contact, so the director was the first to drop his gaze.
“I’ll give it some thought,” he muttered. “Amy?”
“It…could be interesting…” his wife replied, slowly.
Rafael kissed her cheek this time, as he saw them both off. Franz had been wavering, swayed by the publicity of Rafael de Almeida auditioning for one of his signature hand-grenade-to-a-fist-fight movies, and Rafael bet he’d let the news leak, and soon. Good. He’d miss the Ouro TV Network that had been his home since he’d started working in the industry, and its owner, Alberto Marchal. Both had treated him well, Alberto something of a surrogate father, but it was time to move on.
Inviting him to audition would be more than a publicity stunt—Rafael thought Amy Peterson had seen beyond that. She excelled at her job, and her husband bowed to her expertise. Rafael had grown up having to hustle, to work hard for what he wanted, and had no scruples about doing so now, using every weapon at his disposal.
A woman waiting in line to enter the club caught his attention. It wasn’t her looks or appearance that made him pause—although the pretty brunette was nicely, if a little conservatively, dressed—but her manner. The way she moved her head slowly, taking everything in about her surroundings, but not like a first-timer at a glitzy place might, trying to impress it all on her memory. More like a soldier might, say, scanning, assessing for threats or danger. Interesting.
As if feeling his scrutiny, she turned her head slowly and caught his eye. Intrigued, Rafael raised an eyebrow in invitation, to be met with a narrow-eyed glare. He laughed, then inclined his head—it was her turn to speak to the door guardians and they’d indicated as much, twice. She scowled at him and hurried forwards. He almost walked up to help, but someone called his name from inside.
Duty calls. Pasting on a smile, he went to answer it.