(Fresh from a grueling job in Australia, cinematographer Greg Marino is home again and lazily relaxing on his balcony.)
He slouched deeper in his chair and sipped at the scalding coffee, enjoying the pleasant coolness of the December air. It had been blazing hot in the Land Down Under, but the filming had gone well. The raw, primitive scenery had been a cameraman's dream. The images he'd captured had made up for the spoiled behavior of the movie's two stars. Actors. Couldn't live with them, couldn't live without 'em.
In mid-January he would be off to Argentina for the biggest budget, highest profile film of his career, but he had nothing booked before then. Maybe after he finished the coffee he'd call his manager to see if anyone wanted him to shoot a commercial or two. Such jobs kept him busy between feature films, paid well, and often provided opportunities to try exciting new techniques.
The cell phone played the first few notes of "Fur Elise." Wondering if a commercial had come looking for him, he answered, suppressing another yawn. "H'lo."
"Greg--is that you?"
Not his manager. The female voice was deliciously British and familiar, but surely it couldn't be... "Yep, it's me. Sorry if I'm slow, but who is this?" With his luck, she was probably a high class aluminum siding saleswoman.
"Jenny!" He came awake fast, amazed that his caller really was Jenny. As if he could have forgotten her. Trying not to sound like a slavering idiot, he said, "Nice to hear from you. Are you in Los Angeles? If you are, let me take you out to lunch."
Smart, witty, and down to earth, Jenny was the kind of actor who made up for the prima donnas. She was also drop dead gorgeous-a brunette stunner who stood out even in a business where beautiful women were a dime a dozen.
Strange things could happen on a movie set, and Greg's brief fling with Jenny was proof. Ordinarily their relationship would never have gone beyond casual chat, but she had been weeping her heart out over an actor boyfriend who'd thrown her over in favor of a high profile affair with a famous French actress twenty years his senior.
Greg had been there with a sympathetic shoulder and a willingness to do anything that would make her feel better. Though he hadn't been able to cure Jenny's broken heart, he'd done his best, and even coaxed a few smiles from her. In return, he had acquired some indelible memories to warm his nights.
Her rich chuckle interrupted his reverie. "Sorry, no, I'm in London."
Damn. "What can I do for you?"
"I have ... a proposition for you."
He blinked, then ordered his libido to quit looking for double meanings. "Are you turning director and looking for a cinematographer?"
"Not exactly. But something like that."
She drew a breath that could be heard a third of the way round the globe.
"This is a charity project. I grew up in a village in the Cotswolds-that's west of London and very pretty-and I still have a home there. The parish tithe barn was turned into a community center just after the war, and it's a wonderful place for plays and music practice and yoga classes and pottery and all manner of amusements. It's the heart of Upper Bassett."
"Upper Bassett?" Hound visions came to mind.
"To distinguish it from Lower Bassett and Bassett on the Wold," she explained with a twinkle in her voice. "To make a long story as short as possible, the village owns only the lease on the barn. The actual owner is a big soulless corporation that wants to sell the property in six months when the lease expires. Property in Gloucestershire is staggeringly expensive, and the price they're asking is far beyond our means. If the village wants to keep it, we have to raise a lot of money fast."
He received more than his share of requests for his hard-earned money, but he was willing to oblige Jenny. "Where should I send the check?"
"That's awfully generous of you, Greg, but I'm not calling to ask for money." For an actress who made her living playing the sexy, good-hearted girl next door, Jenny sounded shy. "I'm on the community center board, so I decided to stage a Christmas mummers' play to raise money. I've persuaded some of my friends to lend a hand, and I think we'll draw a good audience for the performances."
"But not good enough?"
"I'm afraid not. We'll never make enough if we rely on ticket sales, so in six months Upper Bassett will have no community center. This may not sound very important, but community is what makes life worth living, and it can be very fragile. I don't want to see the fabric of my native village come unraveled."
He backtracked. "What's a mummers' play?"
"Oh, sorry. It's one of those British things. Medieval plays, usually a combination of religious themes grafted onto ancient fertility rites. Groups of mummers used to go around giving short performances for begging money. That's largely died out, but the plays are still performed on occasion. It's quite a jolly tradition."
A light dawned. "Once I saw a show like that in Boston. Lots of singing and dancing and melodrama. It was a great evening."
"Ours will be, too. A couple of days ago, it occurred to me that the best way to turn our Revels into more money is to film the show so we can sell videos and if we're lucky, license it to the telly."
"I think I see where you're going with this, but there are plenty of great cameramen in England. Can't you draft one of them?"
"Probably, but you're my first choice. You're known for being able to do marvelous work quickly, and your name will add value to the project." Her voice turned portentous. "The Upper Bassett Holiday Revels, filmed by Academy Award winning cinematographer Gregory Marino."
"That's shameless flattery." He grinned. "Keep it up."
She had the sexiest chuckle in the Northern Hemisphere. "Very well. This production will be a bit of a hodgepodge, so we'll need your talent as well as your reputation. It won't be easy to make my Morris dancers and children's choir look dramatic instead of like amateur night. That's why I thought of you."
He toyed with the handle of his mug, thinking that it sounded like a hoot-the kind of wildly improvised project that he'd loved doing in his student days. But he hadn't been a student in almost two decades, and he was tired to the bone. "You're talking this Christmas, aren't you? Like, in the next week or so? I just got back from Australia yesterday and I'm in no mood to climb on another airplane and spend the holidays with strangers."
"You only just got home? Sorry-I thought you'd had more time to recover from the last job." She hesitated. "I know this is a lot to ask, but if you're willing, you could be the making of this project. What would it take to persuade you to come over?"
"Your fair white body," he muttered under his breath as he sipped some coffee.
"That's negotiable," she said without missing a beat.
He swallowed the wrong way and went into a coughing fit. When he could breathe again, he said, "Jeez, Jenny, you shouldn't make jokes like that when I'm drinking my first cup of coffee of the day."
"Sorry." She sounded stricken. "That was a silly comment. I'm serious about this project, but not to the point of giving my all for queen and country."
"Sleeping with a cameraman is a sacrifice no one would ask of you," he agreed. "How long do you think this would take? I assume you want the production to be magical and exciting and intimate, not just a static record of a stage show."
"Exactly." Sensing that he was weakening, she continued, "If you're willing, I'll buy you a plane ticket and you can stay in my guest room. This would only take a week or so. You can be home by Christmas, though if you'd like to try the holidays English style, it would be lovely to have you. You can borrow my family if you want marvelous people who will simultaneously make you feel welcome and drive you mad."
He chuckled. "Sounds just like my family." The sprawling Marino home in Ohio would be full of kids and food and relatives who thought of him as the beloved oddball. They were proud of him, but he was a goose out of water, and a target for his mother, aunts, and sisters, all of whom wanted him to marry a nice, normal girl, not a Hollywood type, and settle down. He spent every Christmas fending off their good intentions. Mostly it was fun.
But Jenny's job sounded like fun, too. How long had it been since he'd done any filming purely for the pleasure of it? He had been working like a lunatic for years, first taking any project he was offered to build up his credits, then, as his reputation grew, doing movies back to back to consolidate what he'd achieved.
It would be wonderfully relaxing to do a project where multimillion dollar budgets weren't resting on his shoulders. On the minus side, working with Jenny would be a mixed blessing. He loved being around her, and unless she had changed-and she didn't seem to have-she didn't have a snobbish bone in her.
Unfortunately, he liked her a little too well. Prom queens-did they have them in English schools?-didn't pair off with oddball technogeeks like him no matter how many years had passed. Hell, she was a friend and former lover of Kenzie Scott, superstar and possibly the handsomest man alive, while Greg was Joe Average at best. Their brief affair had been a fluke. She had made it clear that he was being offered a guest room, nothing more. If he recalled his trade gossip correctly, she was currently involved with some rich international businessman. Unavailable.
But he was good at what he did, and quite capable of working with a woman he wanted and couldn't have. Shooting Morris dancers-what were Morris dancers?-and Christmas in England would be a nice change from his real life.
Afterward he could fly home to Ohio. There was always leftover turkey when his mother was in charge of a kitchen. "Okay, Jenny, you've got a deal."