DISCLAIMERS:Bad Girls and all it's characters are property of Shed Productions. The author implies no ownership of these characters, and they are used in the stories without permission solely for entertainment and not for profit.
COPYRIGHT:This story belongs to the author, please do not reproduce this story in any format without prior permission from the author.

Part 1

“No, Lisa. I won’t do it. It’s a terrible idea.” Nikki Wade frowned and paced the room angrily as she spoke.

Lisa Guthrie, her talent agent, looked at her over the tops of her glasses and tried not to smile, because Nikki could be so predictable at times. She leaned against the breakfast bar in the open-plan living space of Nikki’s London flat and spoke calmly to her favorite client. “Yes, it is a good idea. Just as it was a good idea to cooperate with the biography and keep some sort of creative control. It’s the best way to cut down on sensationalism. Your life story is dramatic: first openly lesbian female to be musical director of a major orchestra, one of the youngest people ever to be musical director of a North American orchestra, first classical musician to have a number one pop CD, first biography of a musician to top the non-fiction bestseller charts on both sides of the Atlantic – you’re a star.”

“I hate that word.” Nikki’s frown turned into a scowl. “And, with the exception of the fact that I’ll be musical director of the TSO, which won’t even happen for almost year, none of that had anything to do with me. The CD was only a pop sensation because I worked with Norah Jones.”

“Your name and image were on the front of the CD…”

“That was a bad idea: I produced it and played on some of the tracks because she wanted to go in a new direction and I’d enjoyed writing with her, but I should never have consented to the cover photo. It gave the wrong impression…”

“Nikki, get over it. The photo showed your navel and caused a bit of a stir in the classical community, but you’re obviously still being taken seriously, or you wouldn’t have such a great season lined up – not to mention a two-year contract with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. In fact, answer this: as your manager, have I ever asked you to do something which turned out to be bad for your career?”

Nikki looked at the floor, embarrassed by the question. Lisa was so much more than her manager. Lisa had been a big sister, surrogate mother, agent, even financial advisor at times. It was true that she was well-compensated for that nowadays, but that had not always been the case and Nikki owed more to her than she did to anyone else in her life. Yet Lisa never mentioned all the personal things she’d done for Nikki, only ever reminding her, as now, of the professional decisions, and only when she thought Nikki was being unreasonable in reaction to one of her suggestions.

“No,” she admitted with a sigh. “You’ve made some wacky but prescient decisions about the direction in which I should take my career. And if you think I should retain creative control over the film adaptation of my life story then you’re probably right. What I object to is the way you’re suggesting I do it. The next two months are going to be busy and stressful: two weeks in New York, then a week in Toronto, not only conducting, but doing publicity spots when the announcement is made, then Berlin for a week and then back to London. I don’t need the added stress of an egotistical actress following me around and constantly distracting me from what I have to accomplish!” Nikki’s voice had started to rise as she’d spoken the last sentence and it ended just short of a whine.

“Nikki, you don’t know that she’s egotistical…”

“She’s an actress! And a successful one at that! Do you know any successful actresses who aren’t egotistical and, in a sick dichotomy, terrified of being themselves? Pretending to be someone else for a living is not a healthy impulse!”

“You don’t know Helen. She’s emotionally stable and her life is not her work. She is not her career.”

“Oh, it’s ‘Helen’ is it? How do you know so much about what she’s like?”

“Because I’ve met her a few times.”

“Oh.” Nikki turned away, but not before Lisa had seen the hurt on her face. Surround Nikki with other musicians and scores and she was supremely confident, but at her core was the insecurity born of being abandoned by her parents when she had been a child-like sixteen. In the aftermath she’d become streetwise and outwardly tough, but she remained acutely sensitive to betrayal by the few people she allowed to get close to her.

“Nikki, I would never ask you to spend weeks at a time, especially at such a crucial time in your career, with someone I thought could be bad for you. At the same time, I could not dismiss an opportunity to influence this film. The only way I could be a good manager, and a good friend, was to meet Helen Stewart and see if she was the sort of person it would be worth your time to allow to see what it’s really like to walk in your shoes. She’s worked with the director before and he has a reputation for allowing his actors to have input into the projects – especially those actors whose judgment he trusts. If you allow Helen to get an honest feel for your life and career, it could make all the difference, but only if she’s intelligent and perceptive enough to see beyond the glamour and the hardship that go hand in hand with your schedule. Having spoken to her for extended periods, I can tell you, without reservation, that she is.”

“How many times did you meet her?” Nikki was distracted by Lisa’s mention of extended periods, since Lisa was notorious for sizing people up very quickly and accurately. She wondered if, perhaps, Lisa had had initial reservations about this woman, which would not be a good sign.

“Three times.” Nikki raised her eyebrows. “The first time was an introductory lunch with her boyfriend – a man named Sean Parr with the same need for attention as a small child. Since it was impossible to discuss much beyond the bare bones of what she wanted to do while he was there, especially since he wasn’t happy about having her on the road for six weeks, she asked if we could meet again. The next time we had lunch in my office and then she issued a reciprocal invitation to her home for dinner and we’d got along really well, so I accepted.”

“What, are you dating this woman?” Nikki was not happy and she knew that the jealousy she felt was unreasonable, but Lisa was notoriously antisocial, her job requiring so many business meals that she jealously guarded the time she had with her partner and her extended family. The feeling of sibling rivalry that Nikki felt towards this unknown actress who had lured Lisa into a private dinner was childish and sad, but Nikki felt it anyway.

“Nikki, don’t be a baby. Straight women don’t “date”, we have meals with friends.”

“Are you sure she’s straight? Remember the designer who wanted me to use her shirts and then took advantage of a fitting…”

“Nikki, she’s straight. I met her boyfriend. Besides, that’s part of the reason she wants to do this and live in your world. Her best friend is a lesbian, but she’s a private citizen and Helen wants to understand the added pressures of celebrity and lesbianism on the life of a musician, composer and conductor.”

“I’m not a celebrity – not in the way she is. I’m not illicitly photographed in my undies for “Heat” magazine and I don’t go to film premieres…”

“Yes, but you can’t wait for a flight in the departure lounge, shop at a department store or go to a classical music concert as an ordinary member of the audience, without causing a disturbance.”

“True, but it’s not because I’m a dyke. She must experience the same things on ten times the scale, so she doesn’t need to spend time with me. Case closed.”

“Nikki, it’s not just your lesbianism, it’s your schedule: travel, practice, promotion, socializing and recording. She wants to experience those things with you instead of imagining what it’s like.”

Nikki sighed. “So what’s the plan? She books into hotels wherever I am and I have to face her from the time I sit down to breakfast?”

For the first time, Lisa looked uncomfortable. “Not exactly.”

Nikki’s eyes narrowed. She knew from experience that she would not like whatever Lisa said next. “So what, exactly?”

“She’ll be living with you…”

“No! Absolutely not. My living space is critical to the way I work. I will not have some spoiled egomaniac painting her nails and whingeing when I’m trying to practice or write – or even read. No way.”

“Nikki, it’s the only way. And it’s not going to be such a hardship. You’ll be staying in Stephan’s loft in New York and that’s huge with two bedrooms. In Toronto they’ve leased you a penthouse flat that’s also got two bedrooms and in Berlin you’ll be using the guest flat on Meinekestrasse – and you certainly won’t be tripping over each other in that.”

“Lisa, I write in the middle of the night and I can’t tolerate distractions. Most people who are not overindulged actresses can’t stand hearing the same six bars played over and over again on a piano as I work out the little kinks in a composition – especially not at two or three in the morning!”

“That’s exactly the kind of thing she needs to know, if she’s going to play you in a film.”

“This entire idea is ridiculous…”

“It will make the film more accurate.”

“I mean the idea of a film is ridiculous. I’m still alive, for fuck’s sake. If anyone wants to know what I’m like they can come to a performance – unless they happen to live in Asia this year, I’m pretty damn accessible. I’m even in Argentina in February. And if they want to know more about me than they can read in the program, that bloody book has more about my life than I want anyone to know.”

“But most people don’t read.”

“Which is what’s wrong with the world today,” Nikki sneered. “We both know that my life simply is not interesting enough to keep anyone from falling asleep in a darkened theater.”

“Unless they’re enthralled by Helen Stewart,” Lisa joked.

“And that’s another thing: the woman couldn’t look less like me, if she tried! I’ve seen her on the telly: she’s twee with long hair and gray eyes.”

“They’re hazel – but that’s not the point. She’s an actress. Her hair will be cut for the role and she’s quite looking forward to wearing a cut-away coat and having camera angles make her look taller than she is.”

“God. Six weeks with an actress. Does she even understand what I do? Has she ever heard a symphony?”

It was Lisa’s turn to sigh. “You really need to let go of your prejudices, Nikki. She enjoys symphonic music from the classical period, but she prefers chamber music to music written for a full orchestra, and opera to either. Do you really think I’d ask you to live with someone who didn’t love music?”

“I didn’t think you’d ask me to live with anyone,” Nikki replied quietly.

“She’s not Trisha. She doesn’t want to be Trisha. She’s a nice woman who wants to do a good job. Perhaps you need to live with someone, even as a friend, who reminds you that companionship doesn’t always come with an expensive price tag.”

“I don’t want any new friends,” Nikki’s final objection sounded lame, even to her own ears.

“Perhaps that’s the best time to acquire one,” Lisa replied firmly. “Now, I have a meeting with a film producer about using that piece you wrote last winter in the score for his film. It could turn into a pretty major project for you and you have that gap between Buenos Aires and Toronto next year.”

“It’s called time off,” Nikki responded wryly. “You should try it some time. I’m serious, you know.”

“About what?” Lisa asked innocently.

“About everything. You need to work less, I would like to have next spring and early summer off, since I’m moving to Canada for my first steady job in autumn and, and this is important, if your actress turns out to be a pain in the arse, or interferes with my work in any way, she will be out of my life in a hurry.”

“Is that all?” Lisa drawled the question and raised one inquiring eyebrow.

“No, that’s not all.” Nikki walked over to her and hugged her. “Thank you. I know you only want what’s best for me and you are the only person in my life who that has ever been true of.”

Lisa hugged her back. “You are so welcome, Nikki.” Her voice sounded choked, because she knew that Nikki had not realized the loneliness and tale of betrayal implicit in that statement, coming as it did from a woman of thirty-three.

Part 2

Helen Stewart put down the baton and rolled her shoulders to loosen the kinked muscles, letting the second movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony start without her. In the recording, André Previn continued to do an excellent job and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra didn’t notice her absence. It wasn’t one of Nikki Wade’s signature pieces, so Helen would not be called upon to conduct it for the film, but a musician friend had suggested it as a great piece to practice on, because the tempo throughout was easier to track than in Holst’s Planets or others that had been included in Nikki’s best-selling recordings. “It will allow you to perfect your right-hand technique, so you don’t have to think about tempo and you can concentrate on everything else,” Julian had told her in what he’d thought was a reassuring tone.

At the time, all Helen could think was that what she’d thought would be the “fun” part of the project: dressing in drag and waving a baton, was turning out to be more of a challenge than faking virtuoso piano performances. She was a decent piano player and could manage simple pieces on the violin without too many mistakes, especially since she’d been practicing for months just as a way of getting an edge in the audition for the role. She’d known that she wasn’t the physical type Peter Garofolo had been looking for when he’d been working with casting directors on the principal role for his new film, but she’d never wanted anything this badly, so from the time she’d heard rumors of the film rights to Nikki Wade’s biography having been acquired, she’d engaged tutors and started brushing up on her skills. She doubted that any actor could be fluent in eight instruments as Nikki Wade was, but she was competent at one and could get by on violin and guitar, so she intended to milk that for all it was worth. She’d also worked with a voice coach to temporarily obliterate the Scottish accent that had been key to her breakthrough film role in Hollywood. Authenticity had got her her first big break and Oscar nomination, and she hoped that musical authenticity would do it again.

She sighed and turned off the music. She needed to work out the tension in her muscles, so she put on shorts, t-shirt and trainers and went for a run on the treadmill. She resented the fact that nowadays she ran more on the treadmill than outdoors, but she hated being recognized when she was running, so although this came in a distant second to running outdoors, it was slightly ahead of being pointed at or, worse, being stopped in the middle of her run.

She could hardly wait to give up her leased house in the Hollywood Hills and head back to London, despite the fact that Sean loved it here. He’d given up his gardening business to be near her and because he didn’t need the money, but his constant presence was starting to grate. A month ago when she’d taken a three-week stretch in London as an opportunity to speak to Nikki’s agent about access to the subject of the film, he’d invited himself along and proceeded to behave like an absolute prat. She really needed to do something about him, but he did provide companionship and sex when she needed it, and he wanted nothing from her that he wouldn’t have wanted if she’d been an unknown civil servant with a modest salary. She knew it was a terrible reason to stay in a relationship, but she hated the thought of being single and dating.

“Hiya babes.” As though conjured up by her negative thoughts, Sean appeared at the door to the exercise room, his hair flopping boyishly over his forehead and his lean body looking California casual in blue jeans and a translucent white cotton shirt. His feet were bare and he was holding two of his healthy yogurt-shakes in his hands. “I thought I’d make you an after-workout treat.”

“Thanks,” Helen said, polishing off the bottle of mineral water she’d taken from the small fridge in the corner of the room and reaching for the shake. “What’re you doing today?” Sean’s professional idleness fascinated her, despite an innate distaste for people who didn’t work for a living that would no doubt make her very pedestrian and working-class in the eyes of Sean’s friends in England and the little clique he spent time with here. They weren’t famous, but they were rich – the children and grandchildren of Hollywood legends and powerful investors, who rated their acquaintances according to the table they were assigned at the trendy restaurant of the moment.

“Brent is driving up the coast to visit an artist he’s sponsoring for a new show.” Brent Heywood owned an unprofitable art gallery in Venice Beach that Helen thought was little more than an excuse to have parties to celebrate the openings of exhibitions which were raved about in unprofitable boutique magazines run by people with names like “Tiffany” “Tory” and “Justin”, but ignored by the mainstream art world. Those patrons of the arts, avant-garde “journalists” and the artists themselves, all seemed to be part of a Southern Californian elite of beautiful young people with trust funds. Despite the difference in nationality, it was disturbing how easily they and Sean had found each other and how seamlessly he’d integrated into their social sphere.

Helen imagined that the drive to “the coast” meant a beach house owned by the artist’s parents, where Brent, Sean and at least one flawlessly tanned female would sip champagne, or indulge in a discreet amount of some recreational drug and listen to music by an unknown band with a demo CD that had been paid for by patrons such as Brent and which was highly acclaimed in a small, glossy (but largely unread) music magazine whose editor was one of Brent’s social acquaintances. Sean would get home just before dinner, exhausted and withdrawn, or energetic, chatty and horny, depending on the drug and the company. There was no doubt that Sean attracted the attention of the women he socialized with, but she was sure that he never cheated on her. Sean loved her, so she tried her best to appreciate that and not dwell on the emptiness she sometimes felt in their relationship.

She was convinced that she just wasn’t the “relationship” type, because this restlessness had been a characteristic of her interactions with all her previous boyfriends. Sean, at least, was just the sort of person she’d have come up with if she had to imagine a personality that balanced hers. He was laid-back where she was intense, he would rather do something physically demanding whereas she was happiest with things that were cerebral. He enjoyed the spotlight and loved having her on his arm at red-carpet events and she hated that aspect of her career. He thought little about appearances and she was completely paranoid about the way she appeared in public, he thought work was something you did because you had to and she had a tendency to focus on it to the exclusion of everything else; he was outgoing and social while Helen always preferred to stay home with a book and good music on the stereo. On any given day their differences balanced each other out or caused almost unbearable friction.

“What about you?” Sean asked. “Any plans? You know you’re welcome to join us for the drive if you’re not doing anything.”

Helen felt a moment of panic, then she remembered that she had a legitimate excuse. “Thanks, babe, but I’m still preparing for my new role. I have a piano lesson this afternoon and then I’m probably going to watch some DVD’s of Barenboim and Karajan.”

“Isn’t it enough that you’re going to spend six whole weeks following that woman around? How much can it possibly take to play the role of a lesbian who dresses in men’s clothes for work?”

Helen pressed her lips together and her nostrils flared. Sean was often disdainful of her work, but normally he hid it better than this. She struggled to control her impulse to snap at him. “I’ll be playing someone who is still alive and who isn’t even at the peak of her career. I want to be true to the role and I want my performance to be respectful of the woman I’ll be pretending to be. That means musical training and understanding the life of the woman herself. All of that is time-consuming, but it’s an honor to be allowed this opportunity and I want to be as close to perfect as I can get.”

“That’s the story of your life in a nutshell, isn’t it, Hels? As close to perfect as you can get?”

“Is that a criticism?”

“No, not really. But it’s a tall order for mere mortals to live up to.”

“Sean, I’m working hard to get ready for a challenging role. Have I asked anything more of you than to understand why I have to go away for a while?”

“A while? You’ll be gone for six weeks! And, as I understand it, you’ll be living with a lesbian.”

“I won’t be ‘living’ with her in any sense but the technical one, as well you know. I want to understand the routines and pressures of her life and how they affect her emotionally. It’s a miracle that someone as private as she is has consented to allow me to do that, because it certainly won’t be convenient for her.”

“Well I’m glad you considered her convenience, because I don’t recall your having considered mine when you took this role.”

“Is that what’s bothering you? That I didn’t ask your permission before reading for a role that has fascinated me from the time I read the biography it’s based on? Since when have you shown the kind of interest in my career that would encourage me to discuss future roles with you? Correct me if I’m wrong, but whenever I talk to you about scripts I’m studying, your eyes all but glaze over.”

Sean looked slightly guilty, obviously having thought that he’d hidden his boredom better. “Look, all I’m saying is that a six-week absence is something we should have discussed beforehand.”

“It’s a six-week absence during which you can visit me as often as you like. I can’t have overnight visitors, but I understand the woman practices piano for two hours a day, spends time writing music and has two to four hours of orchestra rehearsals every weekday, not to mention two performances a week, so it’s not as though I won’t be able to get away. Do you want me to be the kind of woman who asks your permission before she takes a trip? We’ve been together for five years and I’ve never been that kind of girlfriend.”

“Maybe that’s the problem. Maybe if your status were more formal, you’d feel more connected with me and you’d discuss things more.”

Helen frowned, genuinely confused. “Sean, what are you on about?”

“I mean, if we were married, you’d be my wife, not my girlfriend, and perhaps then you’d consider how your career decisions will affect me.”

“I’m an actress. I was an actress when you met me. Most of the work I do is in film and that means location shoots that last for weeks and even months. Even when I did guest spots on television, you knew, and accepted, they could be on either side of the Atlantic. When did that start to become a problem for you?”

“I’m thirty-two now and when we were home last month, I realized that most of my friends had settled down and started families. Even over here people are moving on. Brent and Soraya are engaged, did you know? It’s just all made me think about things and about the hints my parents have been dropping for years.”

Helen put down the glass with the shake, her stomach suddenly feeling sour. “So your friends get married or decide to have children and, as a result, we should do the same and I should start running my career decisions by you for approval. Have I missed anything?”

“You’re twisting my words. That’s not what I meant…”

“So tell me what you meant, Sean. We’ve been living together for almost four years, I thought we were reasonably happy, things have been going well and my career has taken off more than I could have hoped for or predicted. Suddenly you seem resentful of what I see as a huge career opportunity and you see my being a mere girlfriend, when your friends have fiancées or wives, as a problem.”

“I don’t want to fight about this; I just think it’s time to take our relationship to the next level…”

She shook her head in disbelief. “Is that a proposal?”

“Yes, I suppose it is. I want us to be married, Hels, and interact with each other the way married people do… and have a couple of kids. You’d make a great mother.”

Helen felt the half-digested shake rising into her throat and forced herself to take deep breaths. “I can’t talk about this now. I’ve just made an enormous commitment and worked for months to earn the privilege of being allowed to make it. If what you’re asking is for me to change my focus now and undo everything I’ve worked for, then I just can’t.”

“It doesn’t have to be right away, but surely you didn’t think we could continue this way indefinitely?”

As a matter of fact, I did. “Can we talk about this when I get back to London? I really need you to bear with me right now. This project means a lot to me.”

“Helen, I’ve just asked you to marry me.”

“I know,” she said miserably, before stepping around him and hurrying out of the room.

Part 3

Helen couldn’t believe how nervous she was as she approached the reception desk in the converted warehouse. She’d been expecting Nikki to have a swanky Mayfair address, or a mansion in Highgate Village, so she’d been surprised when the cab had dropped her off in front of the block of flats in Clerkenwell, on the northern border of the City of London and the Barbican Center. The Barbican was the home of the London Symphony Orchestra and the entertainment complex hosted art, film, theater and musical events year-round, but while the surrounding area was popular with City traders, bankers and other professionals, it remained more convenient than prestigious, despite the trendy restaurants and galleries that had sprung up all over it during the last ten years.

One expected people like opera divas and world-renowned conductors to live in absolute luxury and wear formal clothing to breakfast, but Helen realized that people probably also expected the same of actresses who they only saw out of character on chat shows or at film premieres – and that was quite silly, really. So Nikki Wade choosing to live in an inconspicuous building whose only distinguishing features were the floor-to-ceiling windows that dominated the red brick façade, shouldn’t be any more surprising than the fact that she preferred to cook for herself.

She hesitantly walked up to the reception desk, no doubt already having attracted the attention of the man behind it by loitering outside for several minutes. She wasn’t worried about being recognized, because she looked as unlike her movie-star persona as Nikki’s address was from a Mayfair mansion.

“Good afternoon, I’m here to see Nikki Wade?” She heard the hesitation in her own voice.

The doorman made little effort to hide his skepticism. He gave her a quick once-over. Her hair was short and artificially darkened, worn like a sable cap that moved softly when she did. She was wearing lightly tinted Armani sunglasses that disguised her signature hazel eyes and her face was bare of makeup except for the translucent gloss that emphasized the soft fullness of her lips. She was also more casually dressed than she ever was during promotional appearances, in low-slung jeans worn with a wide black belt and thonged sandals with three-inch heels. It was a warm day and she wasn’t wearing a jacket, just a white cotton top that followed the contours of her body from elbows to collarbone, its wide neck showing off the flawless skin of her throat and the gold cross hanging from a fine gold chain that she wore whenever she wasn’t working. The top hugged the shape of her breasts and her flat stomach, stopping just short of her navel to reveal the small silver hoop that pierced the skin just above it and glinted in the recessed lighting of the lobby. There was a cavernous bag slung over her shoulder.

Helen knew that she looked younger than her twenty-nine years and flushed faintly as the doorman’s reaction made her wonder if Nikki Wade had female groupies who regularly tried to gain unauthorized access to her home.

As though reading her mind, the doorman said politely, “Good afternoon, Miss. I’m afraid all visitors must be announced. May I have your full name and Miss Wade’s unit number, please?”

“It’s Helen Stewart and unit seven.” Helen knew she sounded slightly haughty, but that was just in defensive reaction to her embarrassment at having been mistaken for some kind of stalker.

“Oh… right.” It was the burly doorman’s turn to look slightly abashed and Helen wasn’t sure if it was because he recognized her name or because he was thinking about his previous attitude towards one of Nikki’s guests. “I’ll just ring ahead and announce you.” He picked up a phone that had been hidden by the desk and said, “Miss Helen Stewart is here,” then listened for a few seconds before adding, “Right away, Miss Wade.”

Now the soul of discreet professionalism, he looked back at Helen. “Miss Stewart, if you’ll just go through the door on your right, you’ll see the lift straight ahead. Take it to the penthouse level and Miss Wade will meet you there.”

“Thank you,” Helen said, before turning towards the previously unnoticed door. There was a mechanical click as the doorman released the lock and Helen realized that despite the casual appearance of the building, security was closely attended to.

She fidgeted in the short, silent ride up to the fourth floor, looking critically at her appearance in the tinted glass mirror that made up the back wall of the spacious lift. Suddenly, she felt naked without proper makeup and the rest of her hair. She’d been pleased that the dye hadn’t dulled the healthy shine of it, but she still barely recognized herself, even though it had been four days since the drastic instructions to her hairdresser.

The lift dinged softly before the doors hissed open to reveal a small foyer with a dried flower arrangement on a marble-topped cherry table. The walls were papered in white linen and the floor was carpeted in hunter green pile so deep that it made her want to take off her shoes and wriggle her toes in it. The front door was of the same deep cherry wood as the table and just before it opened, Helen realized she had no idea what to expect. She’d read Nikki Wade’s life story, read the script that covered the years from age eighteen to twenty-six, with flashbacks to sixteen, listened to recordings of her musical performances and seen dozens of still photographs of a pretty woman with large dark eyes, a polite smile and a petulant frown, but she’d never seen a moving image of that woman. Nikki had been videotaped for numerous news and music channel features, but all the video footage was being compiled on a DVD that should arrive at Helen’s home the following day, leaving her with no realistic physical impression of the woman she would be pretending to be in less than two months.

Nikki opened the door and felt as though her heart had suddenly stopped. She’d known that Helen Stewart was pretty: her face had been plastered on movie posters all over London and Nikki had seen news footage of her arriving at the Academy Awards ceremony, although she hadn’t won. Nikki had been battling a bout of the insomnia that periodically plagued her and she’d rented the DVD, curious about the Brit who had made such a splash in America. The film had been good and Helen had been superb as the abused wife of an English physicist who ended up tried for treason after she’d sold the results of his research to the highest bidder. Nikki admired the talent of the actress who’d taken home the best actress award, but she still thought Helen should have won instead.

When the door had opened, she’d prepared herself for the sight of shiny dark blond hair, framing beautiful hazel eyes and pretty lips. She’d prepared herself to see a spoiled actress, egotistical enough to think she could portray the most painful years of Nikki’s life, despite the fact that they looked nothing alike and had nothing in common. Instead she looked at a woman whose eyes were of indeterminate color behind smoky gray lenses, but the near-terror in their wide depths communicated itself clearly to Nikki. Her hair was shiny and short and her full pink lips were curved into a hesitant smile that dimpled her cheeks. Nikki’s heart seemed to stop beating and her breath caught in her throat.

“Hiya, you must be Nikki. I’m Helen.” Her voice was lower than Nikki had expected, although she’d heard it before on the best that Bang & Olufsen had to offer. Nikki’s heart started to pound and despite its distracting internal noise, Nikki forced herself to focus on not making a complete prat of herself.

“I am. Thanks for stopping by today. I know it’s short notice, but I wanted to get our first meeting out of the way and I have so much to do before I go on tour.” She stepped aside. “Come on in.”

Helen was sure she looked as gormless as she felt. Why hadn’t someone told her that Nikki Wade was gorgeous? And even if she was gorgeous, why did seeing her make Helen feel as though the world had tilted on its axis? She lived in LA where the proportion of abnormally stunning people was ridiculously high, but this had never happened to her before – and certainly not when she’d met another woman.

She walked through a short hallway and into a wide open living space, catching a whiff of a subtle perfume as she passed Nikki. At first she didn’t even notice her surroundings because she couldn’t get past her original impression of Nikki.

Nikki had answered the door wearing bronze linen trousers and a white, lacy tank top that hugged her body. She was tanned and her skin was smooth and healthy. Helen could see the lean muscles under the skin of her slender arms and strong shoulders, and the tank top left a lot of her smooth abdomen bare. In fact, Helen worried that the drawstring trousers would slip off Nikki’s slim hips. She was surprised to find that the thought had an odd effect on her heart rate.

But what had really stolen Helen’s breath away had been her first look into Nikki’s eyes. They were brown, but despite the tint of her sunglasses, Helen could see that they were a different kind of brown from what she’d expected after looking at photographs. They were like molten chocolate with cinnamon and Helen wondered what they would look like in the sunlight. Nikki’s eyelashes were long and dense and Helen suspected that that owed nothing to artifice. She’d found herself wanting to take off her sunglasses to look more closely at those amazing eyes, but the impulse terrified her. However improbably, the woman had taken one look at Helen and Helen had lost the plot.

She’d assumed Nikki was saying something sensible in response to her greeting, but she couldn’t hear it, because Nikki Wade’s beautiful eyes held deep apprehension as she’d faced the woman who would haunt her life over the better part of two months. Being the cause of such apprehension had touched Helen deeply. She’d read enough about her to know that Nikki was a bit of a loner, so the loss of privacy involved in agreeing to Helen’s proposal would be huge. Suddenly Helen had been scared that she wasn’t doing the right thing: she’d wanted to apologize; she’d wanted to say that she’d changed her mind and would find another way to research the role. But Nikki had stood aside and gestured for Helen to precede her into the flat and Helen’s legs mindlessly obeyed before her brain could come back on-line and direct them to do otherwise.

Helen’s first impression of the room was of light and space. It was much larger than she’d expected. One wall was dominated by floor-to-ceiling windows and at the end of the room closest to the doorway through which they’d entered, was a grand piano. There were plants strategically placed between the windows, and the almost imperceptible movement of their leaves added to the impression that the room was open to the outdoors.

The gleaming cover of the piano reflected the light and the outlines of the plants and the room was silent despite the cool air that, along with the motion of the leaves, suggested the flat was centrally air-conditioned, although the ducts were artfully concealed. At the far end of the room from where they stood was a breakfast bar and, beyond that, an open-plan kitchen, but had it not been for the traditional Tibetan rugs scattered on the polished oak floor, Helen could have imagined that the room could be used for rollerblading – it was that large. Several feet short of the breakfast bar there were low, caramel-colored sofas and off-white recliners around a carved wood coffee table more or less near the windows and Helen noticed high-end stereo speakers placed throughout the room. No effort was made to conceal them, because their design fitted in to the casually modern feel of the place.

The wall opposite the windows – to Helen’s left as she entered the room – was curved and covered in custom-made bookcases. There seemed to be an eclectic collection of scores, reference books and CD’s on it – the only indication of Nikki’s profession, apart from the piano. At the lip of the curve was a sleek, almost impossibly slim, stereo system, and in a gap in the bookcases, in middle of the wall where it was almost flat, was a wide, rectangular mirror that added to the sense of space. Although intrigued by the books and CD’s, Helen found herself being drawn to the windows. She’d noticed the high brick wall across the street when she’d alighted from the taxi and she’d assumed it closed off the grounds of yet another dull office block. Instead, the inside of the wall was ivy-covered and it enclosed gardens and perfectly preserved historic buildings, including a church, between which wound centuries-old cobbled walkways. Helen gasped and took off her sunglasses to better appreciate the unexpected sight.

Nikki saw her looking and said, “It’s the Charterhouse. A medieval monastery that was almost completely destroyed by the Great Fire of London, but which has been meticulously restored. Most people don’t know it’s here,” she added unnecessarily.

Helen turned towards her, her eyes sparkling. “Your home is gorgeous.” She said it simply and sincerely.

Nikki’s mouth opened and then closed without emitting a sound. She was captivated by those eyes. Helen Stewart’s eyes were like nothing she’d seen before. They looked gray, but with a hint of green and there was a suggestion of gold around the pupils. No, you’re gorgeous, Nikki thought. She’d opened her mouth to say the words, then realized that Helen probably heard them every day, given what she did for a living. She willed herself to thank Helen politely for the compliment, but when she spoke, the words that came out were, “Your eyes… they’re like a sunrise.” She had no idea where that had come from and as soon as she’d finished speaking, she blushed in a way she couldn’t remember having done since the onset of puberty.

Helen couldn’t speak. Nikki’s words had made her feel as though she’d received a jolt to her system, warming her skin and making her heart race. She looked up at Nikki, now without the barrier of her sunglasses and feeling much more vulnerable, but seeing the mortification in Nikki’s expression, she knew she had to say something. “You make me want… to… to say thanks.”

Nikki’s humiliation turned to anger. “Well, don’t do me any favors…”

“No!” It was Helen’s turn to look embarrassed. “I meant that when someone says something nice about the way I look, it always makes me feel like a fraud to thank them for it. After all, my appearance is to a very large extent a genetic accident. I have eyes like my father along with his fine, baby hair. I have a smile like my mother and I’m short, the way she was. If those things happen to be appealing to someone else, I never feel as though it is my place to accept the compliment… but with you, I want to deserve it.” As she lamely trailed off, Helen’s initial embarrassment escalated to mortification that matched Nikki’s.

Part 4

“Now you know how easy you Hollywood types have it,” Nikki teased. She’d joked more in the last hour than she had in months, simply for the reward of hearing Helen laugh.

After the initial awkwardness, Helen had said quietly, “Why don’t we start again? I’m Helen. Thank you for agreeing to let me follow you around this summer. I’ll try not to get in your way, but I really want to be true to what you accomplished in your early twenties and the life you live now.”

Nikki had smiled ruefully. “I’m Nikki. I won’t tell you I’m enthusiastic about your following me around, but I do want you to accurately portray what my life is like now.” She hadn’t mentioned the portrayal of what she’d gone through in the years that would be the focus of the film and Helen didn’t say anything further. She knew, instinctively, that that was the part of her job that triggered Nikki’s lack of enthusiasm. She also knew that she could be very persuasive. She had every intention of winning Nikki over, but she had enough insight to know that saying so would not help her efforts with Nikki.

“Good,” she’d said instead. At the time she’d thought that the natural thing to do after declaring an unofficial truce would be to shake hands, but she’d been reluctant to initiate physical contact of any kind. It was an odd wariness that made her have to concentrate on schooling her features to avoid frowning. Helen was a tactile person, probably because of her determination to overcome a childhood where displays of physical affection – hugs, kisses, reassuring touches – had been scarce. Her father was what could kindly be described as old-fashioned, one step removed from “spare the rod and spoil the child”. But while he hadn’t been physically abusive, but he was definitely of the opinion that “children should be seen and not heard”, should “speak when spoken to” and should “get on with their studies” without input, beyond criticism for any perceived drop in standards, from the adults in their lives. He’d been emotionally absent, except to provide his brand of advice on how a life should be conducted: frugality, austerity and faith, just about summed up his value system. As a minister he spoke about love and Helen knew he felt it for her, but it had never been mentioned between them. She supposed all that would have been mitigated by the presence and affection of her mother, but her mother had died when she was seven and her father had never remarried.

“May I offer you a drink?” Nikki had noted the anxiety that Helen thought she’d hidden and she acknowledged to herself that Helen was in a bit of an awkward situation – even if it was one of her own making.

“Yes, please,” Helen had looked relieved and Nikki’s attitude softened further.

“I know it’s only afternoon, but I’d suggest something alcoholic. All this meeting of new people can be nerve-wracking. I’d join you, but I’m driving later.”

Helen’s smile made Nikki glad she’d made the offer. Over the next hour and a half, Helen had had two glasses of wine and Nikki had gone over her travel itinerary. They’d expressed surprise that they’d never run into each other in New York because they enjoyed many of the same restaurants. They’d chatted about Toronto that each had spent several weeks in, Nikki while she’d considered the job with the TSO and Helen while she’d been filming a TV movie in “Hollywood North”. They both looked forward to seeing Toronto again, although that was obviously the performance series that caused Nikki the most anxiety.

“I’m sure the audience will love you,” Helen had assured her, the empathy in her hazel eyes warming Nikki. “Where will you be staying and will you have time to play?”

Nikki grinned. “On to the important stuff? I have no idea. They’ve rented me a furnished flat… apartment.” She’d shrugged. As long as the piano they provided was properly tuned, she could adjust to most things.

“So, not the Sutton Place, then?” Helen had mentioned the name of a Toronto hotel that was popular with visiting film stars, especially during the annual international film festival, eliciting the “Hollywood types” comment.

“Och, don’t try to pull the ‘deprived musician’ stunt. You’re a conductor. That’s the job with the highest percentage of prima donnas outside the opera world.”

It was Nikki’s turn to laugh. “My profession is almost 100 per cent male. Can men be prima donnas?”

“The worst.” Helen said, her eyes wide. Nikki loved the way her Scottish accent made the two words sound. “I once worked with an actor who would not come to the set because there was the wrong brand of mineral water in his trailer. We were filming in Colorado, almost a hundred miles from the closest town – and believe me, that town, population seventy-five, did not have San Pellegrino in stock. We had to film around him for half a day while they hired a helicopter to fly in bloody water.”

“I know conductors who are musical prima donnas and have walked out on rehearsals for various reasons – and I was in the audience when Kurt Masur walked out of a performance of the New York Philharmonic at Avery Fisher Hall because the audience was coughing too much, but I don’t have a story even close to that.”

Helen chuckled. “Can’t say I blame him. I’ve wanted to walk out in a strop a few times myself. Attending a concert is not a basic human right. If you have the flu and can’t stop hacking, your attendance is not mandatory. It’s so bloody selfish to force other members of the audience to listen to you clear your throat, cough and sneeze, especially during quiet passages where we want, need, to be completely focused on the music.”

She was so earnest when she said it that Nikki felt something melt inside her. She desperately wanted to maintain her dislike of everything Helen Stewart stood for, but the woman was gorgeous, funny and spoke about music with genuine passion. “Look, if you don’t have any plans, would you like to come with me to my afternoon appointment? It’s at a school in Stoke Newington, where I’ve been sponsoring an extra-curricular music program. Well, it’s an arts program, but my focus is on the music.”

Nikki couldn’t believe she’d made the offer and Helen looked startled. Nikki immediately grew defensive. “You don’t have to come, you know. I was only...”

“I’d love to,” Helen interrupted, while her mind calculated how late she might be getting home and how she was going to explain to Sean that, rather than showing up late for the barbecue with friends that he was hosting, she’d be missing it altogether.

“Really?” Nikki’s eyes sparkled, but then she sensed Helen’s carefully hidden ambivalence and realized she’d put her on the spot. “I don’t want you to feel an obligation to come just because I’ve suggested it. I try to drop in on them once a month, schedule permitting, so if you want to have an idea of the sort of things I get up to in my spare time, you can come next month. The only difference is that today I have to give a talk to a group of parents with children who aren’t in the program yet. It’s very casual and I always have instruments available so the kids can touch them and listen to them. It’s nothing particularly exciting, so if you have other plans…”

“Nothing that can’t be changed,” Helen said firmly. From a research perspective, seeing Nikki promoting her art with a group of youngsters and parents would be invaluable. She ignored the nagging thought that Sean was going to see her absence as symbolic and punish her emotionally for it. And the even more troubling thought that more time spent in Nikki’s company was possibly a greater factor in her decision than any desire to do more research. Helen’s professional life isolated her and she had few close friends. To make it worse, the ones she had were scattered across two continents and they, too, had busy lives, so she didn’t often get to spend time with them and it was hard to make new friends when people looked at her and saw the famous actress rather than the woman underneath. With Nikki there was no doubt that the offer to spend more time was aimed at the woman not the actress, whom Nikki seemed to despise on principle. Nikki had extended the invitation as a professional courtesy and Helen had accepted it as such, but both knew it was more of an offer to prolong an afternoon of good company into the early evening for two people who were surprised by how well they got along.

“And another thing,” Nikki’s voice interrupted Helen’s thoughts, “I don’t want you taking the piss out of Petula.”

Helen looked huffy. “You think I would make fun of a child who’s learning to play an instrument?”

“Petula is not a child – although she’s less than a year old…”

Helen’s eyes grew wide. “You have a baby?” Her mind boggled at the idea that someone so famous had hidden a pregnancy from the world. She looked around the room and frowned. There was none of the paraphernalia associated with having a baby in the flat. Nor did Nikki’s body look as though she had had a baby in the last year. Helen flushed slightly at the realization that she’d noticed that much.

“Petula is not a baby… although I think she’s a babe.” She was openly teasing now and Helen glared at her. She laughed at Helen’s annoyance before she relented. “Petula’s my car. Very 60’s retro and probably not what you’re used to, but she’s fun to drive. I know you live in Hollywood where it’s all Ferraris and DeLoreans…”

“I drive a very ordinary BMW,” Helen replied and Nikki laughed. Helen immediately knew what she was laughing at and smiled. “Ok, so it’s not all that ordinary to be able to afford a BMW, but it’s a small one that didn’t cost the earth.” She frowned. “I hate being conspicuous.”

“Odd choice of career then, wasn’t it?”

“I can’t say that I started out to be a, quote, “movie star”. I fell in love with literature, especially plays like those of Chekhov and Pirandello – and yes, Shakespeare. I was your typical geek who wanted to act. I expected, no hoped, to end up as a crusty, ageing former West End character actress giving acerbic quotes to acting students at a good drama school. Most of all I wanted to crawl out of my life into someone else’s for minutes or hours at a time.” She looked away, hiding a sudden vulnerability.

“Anyway, I never expected to be able to afford the Hollywood lifestyle and Sean says that I still haven’t accepted that I can. I prefer to think of it as not wanting to change who I am because of what I do. When I was attending cattle calls for bit parts in BBC dramas and apprenticing as a stage manager so I could have a day job that kept me closer to the profession than waiting on tables, I couldn’t afford a car. I promised myself that if I ever got a steady gig, I’d buy myself a shiny black BMW with heating that worked and which would not leave me stranded by the side of the motorway as my last car had when it finally died.” She shrugged and then turned back to Nikki. “But I have to admit that I’ve never named the bloody thing.” Her teasing statement again lightened the mood, but Nikki remained moved by what she had said.

“Hmm, well, have you ever considered that your car left you stranded because she felt used? Because you’d never loved her enough to name her?” Nikki teased

“Even if I’d considered it, I would have dismissed it as neurosis.” Helen gave as good as she got, making Nikki laugh again and Helen found that she liked being able to do that.

“Come on, let’s get out of here. Do you need to use the phone?”

“No, I can use my mobile. I’m so used to the stupid thing that I no longer remember people’s telephone numbers.”

“Petula’s in the basement car park. By the way, she’s named after Petula Clark, who I was introduced to during my formative years by a mad Swedish nanny who loved British pop, but who had moved to Germany in 1971 where her access to British pop was limited, leaving her in a sort of musical time warp. My fondest musical memories of that time are of my music teacher playing Beethoven’s Sonata Pathétique to me, because I was sad and he wanted to show how music can express our feelings, and of Pia dancing around the drawing room to Downtown. I’ve loved Petula Clark ever since.”

Helen grinned. “And Beethoven, no doubt.”

Nikki winked at her. “He’s not bad, but I was not about to call my beloved Mini Cooper ragtop anything that sounded even remotely like “Ludwig”.”

Part 5

Despite her display of nerves before they’d set off for the school, Nikki seemed completely at home as she chatted to a group of opinionated pre-teens about the joys of classical music. Helen, still in her “disguise” and introduced simply as Nikki’s friend, observed from a chair near the wall, tempted to write notes with regard to Nikki’s body language as she responded to challenging questions from the children. Nikki had draped a white cotton blouse over the tank top, but Helen thought that she still looked more like a rock musician than a classical conductor.

The parents in the room were largely silent. Some of them were fans of Nikki’s and somewhat intimidated, or just pleased that she would even talk to their musically reluctant offspring, others were clearly uncomfortable with the matter, having earlier asked questions about the costs of instruments and lessons, or the time required away from academic studies. The woman who’d introduced Nikki had stepped in to answer the more general questions explaining sadly that the instruments would be provided by the local council and the program's sponsors, but the lessons would require some financial commitments from the parents, despite the assistance of volunteer professionals such as Nikki.

Helen hid a smile as one particularly persistent boy spoke up again, “So to be a conductor, you have to read the music of all the musicians, but if they’re reading it too and playing it, what’s your job?”

Nikki didn’t bother to hide her own smile. “Music, written music, is not as exact as, say, physics.” There were mocking murmurs of relief from the older children. “It seems that way when you first start to learn it,” she went on quickly when her original interrogator seemed about to argue with her, “but there is actually a bit of room for interpretation with things like tempo. The conductor’s job is to interpret everything that is written by the composer and work with the musicians to bring his or her interpretation to life. So the orchestra could play without a conductor, but it would take many hours of practice to agree on all the different interpretations that each brings to the practice and, even then, the final performance will differ from what a particular conductor might have envisioned. It would be technically correct if we’re talking about a major professional orchestra, but it would be different.”

“Does that mean you have to be able to play all the instruments in the orchestra?” a girl at the front asked in wonder.

Nikki shook her head. “Certainly not as well as the members of the orchestra play them, but I have to understand what they sound like and how they work together in the musical composition.”

“And you have to make sure everybody plays it all properly?” There was grudging respect in the voice of the boy who’d originally thought conductors were redundant.

Nikki smiled at him and winked, “Well I like to think of it that way, but, in fact, every one of those musicians is a consummate professional. They don’t need help from me to play properly, but to provide a uniformed interpretation that is the same for every other musician in the orchestra.”

“What would be so different?” Another boy was frowning, still confused.

“Ok,” Nikki said, “who can whistle?” Almost every hand shot up in the air. “I’m the composer and I’m going to write down an instruction for the whistlers.” She reached for a notepad and wrote on it, then pointed to one of the girls near the front. “Your hand was up, do this.” She gestured towards the notepad which said, “whistle loudly”. The girl pursed her lips and whistled.

Nikki nodded appreciatively. “Thank you.” She turned to the group again and picked out a girl at the back. “Now you. Please follow this instruction.” The girl put four fingers in her mouth and whistled loudly.

Nikki nodded and turned to the boy who’d asked the question. “Now you.” The boy formed a circle with his thumb and forefinger, inserted it between his teeth and produced a shrill, deafening whistle. There was a smattering of spontaneous applause.

“So there you have it,” Nikki explained. “Three people whistling without making any effort to be quiet, yet we have three completely different sounds. A similar thing happens with any subjective instruction like “pianissimo”. Do you know what that means?” Three or four hands went up and Nikki allowed a boy from the back row to answer.

“Yet, even among professionals, there might be very slight differences in what is understood as “pianissimo” and those differences can change the sound of one instrument relative to the rest – and thereby the emotion that it being expressed by a piece of music.”

“How do you become a conductor?” The question came from a girl seated on the side of the group, whom Helen hadn’t noticed previously. “Only, my dad has all these classical CD’s and I’ve never seen a lady conductor before you; and I’ve never, ever seen a black conductor, lady or man.” The girl’s dark eyes were fixed on Nikki, the expression in their depths a mixture of curiosity, skepticism and hope.

“There are some black conductors,” Nikki confirmed, “but not nearly enough of them.” She mentioned a young black conductor who had recently appeared at the Edinburgh festival. “The reality is that if you lived in Germany instead of the UK, you’d probably have heard of him, although he’s British. We need more young people of all races, and both sexes, to get excited about music and about conducting. That’s one of the reasons I think this program is so great.” She looked at the girl, who looked less skeptical following Nikki’s honest, if not reassuring, answer. “Are you learning to play an instrument now?”

The girl nodded. “Piano, but I’m teaching myself the guitar, with information I got on the Internet.”

Nikki grinned. “Well I hope we don’t lose you to rock stardom.”

“Especially when you can become a classical star like Nikki,” Helen teased, making a few people look around to see who had spoken, although most just laughed – especially when Nikki blushed at the comment.

“I admit to being well known within the relatively narrow circles of classical musicians, but nothing like my friend who made the comment.” Turnabout was fair play, Nikki thought. “Ladies and gentlemen, in case you didn’t recognize her, that was Helen Stewart, academy award nominee for Against the State.”

There was a collective gasp and then everyone turned to look more closely at the petite woman with the Scottish accent. Nikki grinned as Helen fumbled around fielding questions and giving self-deprecating responses to lavish compliments. Eventually, Nikki rescued her. “The point is, “stardom” is an artificial state, largely created by the media. Miss Stewart is an actress, who trained for years and worked on relatively obscure projects in order to perfect her craft. The most enduring stars – in any creative medium – tend to have a talent that they work at and nurture. Most have made tremendous sacrifices for their art.”

The conversation wandered back to music, but there was renewed excitement and Nikki thought the minor detour had added glamour to an endeavor that, at its heart, was intended to persuade a group of kids that they should give up time spent doing things with their friends, playing games or watching television and dedicate it to learning a craft which promised only moderate compensation if taken up as a profession, and whose rewards would only come years later with proficiency.

Part 6 >>