Seeking Crystal (Extract)

When fate throws Crystal into the path of Xav, the personality clash is explosive. It's hate at first sight. As their families gather in Venice, a powerful enemy seizes the opportunity to attack. Can Xav and Crystal unite to save their loved ones?

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1. Chapter Five

Realizing things had not gone well between us, Xav tried to be nice to me for the next two days but I didn’t make it easy for him. My response to the situation was to become the master of disappearing either to work or for a run. But I was touched, though, when he left a little bunch of silk violets in my bedroom, which some street seller no doubt conned him into buying for far too much money. Still, it was the thought that mattered to me, even if he was doing it just so I didn’t spoil his brother’s wedding by fighting with him all the way to the big day.

The first time we spent any time together was at the crack of dawn on Sunday morning when I went into his bedroom to wake him at five. I discovered he was not a morning person, which pleased me no end, as I was the one that got to drop a cold flannel on him.

‘Hrr-murph!’ He flung the flannel into a corner and buried his head under the pillow. I would have normally tried to ignore the display of tanned arms and glimpse of toned midriff this flailing about revealed, but, hey, I have hormones like the next girl. Some things in life are worth seeing.

‘Rise and shine, cupcake. Hollywood awaits.’

His answer was a grunt.

‘Oh well, that’s fine. I’ll go on my own then. Shame, I made coffee—I’ll just have to drink that too.’

‘There’s coffee?’ A face appeared from under the pillow.

I put the mug down on the bedside table—my version of a peace offering as I recognized it had taken two of us to fall out. ‘Just don’t think I’m making a habit of it.’

I went back to my own bedroom to get ready. Lily had already warned me not to do any make-up or hair myself, as the make-up artists wanted a clean palette to work on. I left my hair loose which of course meant it was spiralling all over the place as if I’d just stuck my finger in the power socket. My dream of modelling had never seemed more ludicrous.

Xav had shambled into his clothes by the time I returned to the kitchen. Why do boys just look gloriously rumpled when we look as if we’ve been dragged through a hedge backwards?

‘Thanks for the coffee. I can’t get going without a shot of caffeine.’

‘Me neither.’

He clapped a hand to his chest. ‘Stop press: we have something in common!’

‘Yeah, yeah, hold the front page. Now, have you got a coat?’

He grabbed his jacket. ‘Yes, mother.’

‘Wellington boots?’

‘What? Ah no, I haven’t. That would be because I was packing for sunny Italy, not rainy England.’

‘Hmm, Diamond really should’ve said. You will need them.’ I stuck my own feet into my favourite pair of polka dot ones.

He thought I was joking. ‘Must you?’ He gestured to the boots.

‘I really must.’

‘C’mon then, fashion disaster—let’s go.’

I was the one to be laughing once we were outside. The early morning tide was high and the pavement outside our courtyard was awash. His trendy boots were going to be toast.

‘Piggyback?’

He looked grimly at the toes of his leather Timberlands.

‘Like you could carry me, Beauty.’

‘I’ll give it a go—just to the bridge. Then there should be walkways all the way.’

‘Don’t tell my brothers.’ He stood on a garden chair and I took his weight. He was pretty heavy, I must admit, and I staggered a few paces before getting my balance. We managed to cross the short distance without falling into the canal. I dumped him on the dry ground by the bridge.

He gave me a jaunty salute in thanks. ‘How much do you charge?’

‘What, for rescues? You couldn’t afford me. That’s your one freebie. After this the Timberlands will have to be sacrificed.’

We made our way through the streets back to the Accademia Bridge over the Grand Canal.

‘Where are we going?’ Xav had only now really woken up.

‘Filming is taking place at the Piazza San Marco. I don’t think they’re going to actually do any proper stuff until it gets dark this afternoon. We’ve got to be there so they can set up the shot.’

‘You mean I could’ve stayed in bed?’

‘If you are Steve Hughes, you probably are still in bed. We extras are done first so the stars don’t have to wait around. Lily warned me it might be a bit boring.’ I rather hoped Xav might turn back. ‘You could bow out if you want—no one would mind.’

‘No way. If you can put up with standing around, so can I. It’ll give us a chance to talk.’

‘Hmm.’ I didn’t want to mention in our little ceasefire that I had arranged to spend my spare time with Lily’s photographer friend.

The film crew had taken over one corner of the piazza for their costume and make-up marquees. We checked in with an assistant director and then joined a queue. Xav and I took one look at our fellow extras and burst into laughter. It was odd being with so many other tall people, as if the world had suddenly divided into us normal folk and the munchkins who dressed us. There were lots of good-humoured quips between the two sides. I wasn’t even the tallest girl; there was one who must have been well over six feet.

Xav was led away to the men’s side of the marquee, his lack of Italian meaning that the locally hired make-up ladies pulled and prodded him like a child where they wanted him to go. They were enjoying the opportunity to have such a good looking boy at their mercy and he looked a little bewildered by their attentions.

‘Be gentle!’ I heard him plead as he was pushed into a chair in front of a mirror.

From the giggles that comment provoked I guessed they understood more English than they let on.

When my turn came, the make-up artist explained that the cosmetics would be applied quite lightly as most of our faces would be hidden by masks. Emphasis was on blood-red lips and glitter on the eyelids.

‘But Lily asked me to do you a special treatment as you are having some photos taken, yes?’ Marina, my artist, dusted my cheeks with a faint blush. ‘Nothing too heavy, just a little emphasis to bring out your features.’ She stood back, pleased with the final effect. ‘Hmm, Lily was right: there is something about you. After costume, go to Paolo in wigs and hair: he knows what you need.’

I rejoined Xav in the next bay, which was devoted to the costumes I had helped make. As we arrived together we got a matching set: his consisted of a dark gold jacket and breeches with crimson waistcoat and cape, mine the reverse, crimson gown with gold accents and cloak. I was handed the mask I’d already seen: the one made up of a lace of red words; Xav’s was a simple gold demi-mask that made him look like a very high class cat burglar.

Last was the hair department. As we both had long hair we were spared the need to wear a wig. Xav’s was tied back in a ribbon, which completed the eighteenth century gentleman look nicely. Mine took much longer as the artist wanted to pile it up on my head in an intricate arrangement.

‘You have amazing hair, Crystal,’ Paolo exclaimed, running his fingers through my curls. ‘Such body, such structure. You won’t even need any padding for what I have in mind.’

He twisted my hair so that it tumbled from the tiara he had kept for my costume like some kind of wacky waterfall. He softened the effect around the face by letting a few wisps escape and one long lock to stray down my neck and onto my décolletage. He finished the whole arrangement with a sprinkle of gold dust so that hair and skin glowed subtly. With the mask in place I did look like an exotic creature.

I stepped out from behind the curtain to find Xav waiting for me at the coffee point. Seeing him standing nonchalantly with the other guys, cape flung loosely over one shoulder, did make my heart pick up its pace. Modern clothes were so boring by comparison. He was unfairly handsome in his outfit—a Mr-Darcy-cum-wicked-highwayman dream—but I would prefer to have my toenails pulled out than admit that to him.

‘What do you think?’ I did a spin, enjoying the unfamiliar sensation of masses of petticoats swirling around my legs.

The Italian extras lived up to my expectations and piled on the compliments, offering outrageous praise and undying devotion, all with the twinkle in their eye of professional flirts. Italian men are raised from birth to flatter females. Xav frowned at them, not understanding what they were saying but getting the gist.

‘Xav? What’s the verdict?’ I tapped the mask. ‘I helped make this one myself.’

‘Yeah, it’s great.’ He looked over my head.

‘And what about me?’

He forced himself to look back at me. ‘Cupcake, you look good enough to eat as I’m sure you know. Be careful: I don’t want to have to rush to your rescue when you get overwhelmed with admirers. I don’t trust these guys.’

‘Hey, Xav, we are good boys!’ protested a rogue by the name of Giovanni. ‘We make-a no move on your lady.’ He gave me a wink and lapsed back into Italian. ‘At least, not while he is watching, agreed?’

I laughed. ‘I’m not his lady, Giovanni. He’s . . . ’ What was Xav exactly? ‘He’s family.’

Giovanni wiggled his eyebrows. ‘Ah, even worse. We have to be very, very careful. He may call us out if we impugn your honour.’

Xav hadn’t understood the exchange. ‘What did he say?’

‘He’s taking this whole eighteenth century costume thing too far—expecting a duel if he flirts with me.’ I grinned at Giovanni. ‘Pistols or swords?’

Lily came up behind me and tapped my shoulder. She must have heard part of the exchange because she was smiling. ‘Sorry, guys, no duels: health and safety won’t allow it. You all look fabulous. Boys, if you wouldn’t mind going over to the lighting director, he wants to test his colour scheme on your costumes.’ Xav, Giovanni and the others obediently headed for the set, which had been rigged in part of the colonnade that ran around the edge of the piazza. ‘Crystal, come with me. Joe’s got his camera set up and has half an hour free.’

I thoroughly enjoyed my brief photo call with Joe. As the production’s official photographer, his role was to record the proceedings for the website and DVD extras but as Steve Hughes had not yet arrived on set, Joe was free to snap what he liked. A weather-beaten Scot, the photographer had a wrinkled face that would have suited a highland shepherd used to squinting into a northerly wind; his concentration was totally absorbed as he lined up the shots he wanted. I sensed that I became almost abstract to him—lines, shadows, and highlights interacting with my background of gondolas and palaces. I did the same when I thought of fabric designs, blurring out the foreground details and seeing the image as a whole.

Finally, Joe checked his watch. ‘Sorry, Crystal, that’s all I’ve time to do today. Steve Hughes is due to arrive at eleven. You’ve been wonderfully patient with me—a natural. I’m sure I’ve got some great shots.’

‘Thanks, Joe, for sparing the time.’

‘It was a pleasure—really it was. I’d enjoy working with you again if there’s time. Perhaps we could try it with your normal clothes—a good contrast to this dramatic look you have here.’

‘If you think you can manage it, I’d love that.’

He shook my hand. ‘It’s a deal then. I’ll give you a call when I know I’ve a spare moment. There should be time at the end of this location shoot.’ He changed the lens on his camera, glancing towards the canal in case Steve Hughes’s boat was already approaching.

‘Where are you off to next?’ I decided to hang around, hoping to get a glimpse of my hero.

‘The Alps. The next location is a big action sequence involving helicopters and all sorts of stunts.’

‘Wow.’

‘Yes, it should be exciting to watch but these things are tedious to set up as you have to get every detail just right.’ Joe smiled at my expression. ‘As you are probably already aware, movie making is ninety-nine per cent boredom and one per cent action. We are at the mercy of the camera and lighting people, not to mention the director.’ The rumble of an engine alerted him. ‘Ah, here’s Steve now. Things will move more quickly once he’s on set.’

I stayed at Joe’s shoulder to watch the white motor launch slip into the moorings. I couldn’t see Steve at first but then I realized he had driven himself. A very famous crop of blond hair emerged as he handed the skipper’s hat back to the pilot. How cool was that! He jumped up on to the landing stage and waved to the little gaggle of fans who had gathered at the edge of the roped off area the city authorities had allowed the film company to commandeer. He strode towards us, heading for the costume marquee behind.

‘Hey, Joe, how’s it going?’ Steve asked the photographer as he swept by.

‘Fine, Steve, fine.’ Joe didn’t stop taking photos as he replied.

‘Whoa, that’s one amazing costume.’ Steve had spotted me—not hard as I was a very obvious confection of red and gold standing among people in ordinary clothes. ‘Are all the extras dressed like that?’

My mouth went dry as I realized he was addressing me.

‘Er . . . ’

‘Steve, this is Crystal.’ Joe dipped between us, snapping the moment of my meeting my idol. ‘She helped make the costumes.’

‘That’s great. And you look great, sweetheart.’ Steve’s attention was already moving on. ‘Where’s James?’

One of the director’s assistants took him by the arm and led him away, briefing him on the sequence they were planning to shoot.

Joe grinned at my stunned expression. ‘Remember to breathe, Crystal. Costume department would get me sacked if I had to cut your corset strings.’

I patted my chest. ‘He’s . . . amazing.’

Joe put his camera back in its case. ‘Yeah, he’s nice enough for an actor. Always remembers names, which says a lot about him.’

I wandered back in a daze to the extras’ green room—another marquee where a refreshment table was laid out for us to keep ourselves fed and watered until we were called. Xav pounced as I  entered.

‘Where’ve you been?’ he asked. ‘I was beginning to worry you’d changed your mind about this whole thing.’

‘No, no, nothing like that: I just met Steve Hughes.’

Another female extra heard my comment. ‘Oh, you lucky thing! What’s he like?’

I mock-swooned. ‘He’s gorgeous.’

Xav’s expression soured. ‘I’ve heard he’s short.’

‘He’s average height, but that doesn’t matter; he’s perfect.’ I sat down on a bench, careful of my costume. ‘Don’t mind me: I’m just going to savour the moment.’ I waved Xav away. He stomped off to the other end of the tent where some others were engaged in playing cards. He couldn’t be jealous, could he? Well, if he were, it would be good for his soul as usually he would be the one the girls swooned over.

Filming began properly in the late afternoon as darkness fell. The director called the extras together for a briefing.

‘OK, ladies and gentlemen.’ He spoke through a translator going from English to Italian. ‘This is the Carnival. You have to imagine you have been up all night enjoying yourselves and have reached the hours just before dawn, the darkest and most sinister period when emotions are at their height. You are not so much individuals but symbols of what the Carnival means to Venice. I’m going to split you into groups. Green and black—that couple there—you are Anger. I want you to stand over by that column and pretend to be having one enormous row about something. I want lots of arm waving and threatening gestures—you’re Italian so I don’t have to teach you how to do extravagant body language.’

The Italian extras laughed at that.

‘The men in the black cloaks and plague doctor masks, I want you to be walking through on the prowl, restless, the kind of gang looking for trouble and finding it. That’s what you are: Trouble with a capital T. Girls in silver and blue, you take the chairs and benches over there: you are looking to attract the guys to join you. You are Seduction. Lady in white—you are Loneliness. I want you drifting, looking tragic as if you’re just about to throw yourself off a bridge. Red and gold—you are the Lovers. I want you standing on the steps doing romance—you got that?’

What! I glanced up at Xav. He looked as horrified as I did. Neither of us replied.

‘Red and gold—oh, it’s you, Crystal.’ James’s tone became warmer, less businesslike. ‘You can handle that, can’t you?’

From the murmurs behind me, I could tell that the other extras were impressed that I was on first name terms with the director. There was only one possible response now we’d come this far.

‘Yes, no problem.’

‘Great.’ James swept us all with a keen gaze. ‘Be careful what you say to each other. I know you are wearing masks and it gives the illusion you can get away with anything but there are lip readers out there who will be writing to me like a shot if you don’t keep in character. No wisecracks; no discussion of what’s for supper. Decide what your character’s story is and remain in it until I say, “cut”.’

I bumped shoulders with Xav. ‘You OK with this? It’s a bit more than I expected. Lily said we just had to stand round looking impressive.’

Xav had recovered some of his usual confidence after the shock of finding some acting was required. ‘Sure. Like you said: no problem. I have a good imagination.’

We took our positions for the run through. The star wasn’t even on set yet and we all knew we’d be doing this several times so it would be perfect for him. Xav and I took our place on the flight of steps, adjusting our stance as James directed from behind the bank of cameras. I couldn’t help thinking how much more enjoyable this would be with anyone but Xav as my partner. It would not have mattered with Giovanni or one of those guys; we could have laughed about it and put on a show. I couldn’t find the same light-heartedness with Xav’s arms around me.

He bent his head to mine. ‘You know the theory of infinite universes?’

A blast of dry ice bubbled through the set to make a predawn mist.

‘No, what’s that?’ Had we ever been so close before?

‘It’s one of the explanations of how our universe is like it is as all others exist somewhere else.’

I wrinkled my brow. ‘What’s this got to do with acting?’

He shifted so that his arm angled across my back and he bent towards me. ‘I was just thinking that that means somewhere there’s a universe where you and I are lovers and this would be real, not make-believe.’ His mouth hovered above mine.

I licked my lips, feeling the warmth from his skin on my cheeks even though he wasn’t touching my face.

‘And cut! How did that look?’ James was checking the lighting for the rehearsal with his chief technician.

I broke away from Xav, unsure how to make a landing after that free-fall of an embrace. ‘If that theory is correct, then there’s also a universe where you have purple spots and I’ve green skin.’

‘True.’ He squinted at me, pretending to line me up for the camera. ‘Yeah, green would suit you.’

Steve came on set with his entourage of assistants, his entry drawing all eyes among the extras. The girls all perked up, voices louder, gestures more feminine; the guys looked at each other and shrugged, doubtless wondering what he had that they didn’t. I could have told them: charisma. There was only one other on set that had it and he was standing next to me.

‘How’s it going, James?’ Steve asked in a carrying voice, slapping the director on the back.

‘We’re almost ready for you. I want you to enter from that arch over there and walk through the Carnival crowds. You’ll be carrying this.’ James passed him an open bottle of champagne from the props table. ‘Remember, your character has hit rock bottom, doubting his motivation, doubting his soul—these extras are an externalization of your inner demons.’

I gripped Xav’s arm and whispered: ‘And that’s what makes these films so great—a bit of magical realism threaded through a gritty plot! Isn’t it amazing to see it being created before our eyes?’

Xav shrugged. ‘I just like them because they blow stuff up.’

I slapped him lightly in the stomach. ‘Huh, boys!’

He tapped my nose, not daring to disturb my elaborate styling with a hair ruffle as he might otherwise have done. ‘Huh, girls!’

‘OK, ladies and gents, this time we’re going for a take. Steve, are you ready?’

The star gave James a thumbs-up from his position at the far end of the colonnade.

‘Cue mist . . . and action!’

Xav held me to his chest and smiled down at my upturned face, finger stroking along the edge of the mask. There was something in his expression I’d never seen before, something incredibly tender. I found that I was falling into his dark eyes, totally unaware that Steve Hughes had just swept by. Steve who?

‘Cut.’ James huddled over the monitor with his star, heads together as they muttered over the effect of the staging. ‘Right, ladies and gentlemen, men in black I want you to enter a few seconds earlier—you were in Steve’s path and I want you clear by the time he reaches the second archway. Woman in white—excellent—keep on doing that. Lovers—that was sweet but I want passion. Kiss the girl, for heaven’s sake, man. Think: you’ve got a babe in your arms, looking a million dollars and I’ve given you the excuse you need to lay one on her lips. What are you waiting for?’ The extras laughed as Xav gave a sheepish wave to say he understood. ‘We’re going again. Positions!’

My heart was pounding; I could hear it and I feared Xav could too. I wished I’d remembered to suck a mint since my last cup of coffee. I felt all awkward limbs and aircraft carrier mouth; I was sure I’d get the romance wrong, bump noses or giggle at the wrong moment.

Xav must have picked up on my tension. ‘Shh. It’ll be fine.’

He rubbed my back in a little circle. ‘It’s just make-believe. He’s right. You do look incredible. A princess. I’ve been dying to kiss you for days now.’

I told myself he was just doing this for the lip readers, but the cameras weren’t rolling yet.

‘And action!’ shouted the director.

This time I promised myself I’d resist Xav’s spell and notice Steve Hughes going past but then Xav’s lips touched mine and all other thoughts fled. His kiss was incredibly soft and tender. Tingles ran from my mouth and down my spine, radiating to every inch of my body. My bones seemed to melt and I could do nothing but hold on to him with that perfect point of contact joining us. Cold dry ice whirled around my ankles. Warm arms enfolded me, keeping me upright. A hand cradled my head in just the right position to deepen the kiss, lips exploring, touching the curve of my jaw, the column of my neck. I was so enthralled that I had not even heard James shout ‘cut’. Xav lifted his head; I stepped back only to find us in the centre of some very amused technicians.

James cleared his throat. ‘OK, guys. I’m so pleased some of you really take my direction to heart. Well done, Lovers, that was very . . . convincing. Let’s go again from the top.’

I put my hand on Xav’s arm. He was trembling and I was feeling pretty shaken myself. I was relieved I hadn’t been the only one affected; it would have been horribly embarrassing to find him shrugging the moment away as of no account.

‘That was . . . ’ I broke off, lost for words.

‘That was the most amazing kiss I’ve ever had.’ He touched my collarbone with the tip of one finger and toyed with the stray strand of hair. ‘Thank you.’

I looked down to where my hand rested on his linen shirt. ‘That was my first ever kiss. A proper one, I mean.’ I was beginning to feel sad that this was all just acting.

Xav sighed. ‘With kisses like that, I wish this was the universe where you were my soulfinder.’ He leant his forehead against mine, steeling himself for the onset of yet more incredible emotions as we kissed again for the cameras.

‘I do too,’ I breathed, letting his lips meet mine.

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