"M-Mr. W-Winters?" Gloria stood from her desk as Chuck Winters came into his office. Her face was flushed, eyes bright. "You have a v-visitor."
The thick cream sauce from his linguini at lunch curdled in his stomach while his mind raced over who it could be. Whoever had come in and decided to wait during his lunch meeting, it couldn't be someone angry and dangerous. Not if Gloria looked like she had been offered the keys to heaven.
"In my office?" he guessed, since the waiting room was empty. He didn't wait for her frantic nod before he opened the door and stepped through.
Carlo Vincente sat on the edge of his desk, looking through a portfolio of location shots the agency was putting together. He lifted his head and regarded Winters a moment, then a slow smile spread across his weathered Mediterranean features.
"Chuck, it's nice to see you after so long. How are you doing?" Even after forty years in Hollywood, Carlo still had a soft trace of accent that gave dignity to the elder statesman and patriarch roles he played nowadays.
That dignity and a touch of disappointment stayed in his large, dark eyes. His smile never reached them. He stood and held out a hand, which Winters shook.
"Keeping busy. You're looking good. Just in from golf?" he asked, gesturing at the sky-blue polo shirt and tan slacks Carlo wore. Winters wondered, yet again, how the other man could stay looking so trim and youthful despite the silver frosting his close-cropped black curls.
"No. Jeanette and I just drove in from Palm Springs." Carlo watched Winters settle in at his desk. "It's been too long since we've seen you. I wonder why, now."
"Busy." Winters tried to smile. He knew what was about to happen. He wished he could predict how it would happen, to ward off as much damage as possible.
"Too busy to return my calls? Or because they concerned Max and Emily Keeler?" He settled in the chair facing the desk. "I find it rather curious you're representing Emily's son."
"Let's take this one step at a time, Carlo." He settled back in his chair and took a deep breath. "First, I've been in contact with Emily since she left. Why didn't I ever tell you? Well, you were in France five years. You never asked about her when you returned. Emily asked me to help her vanish. That's all there is to it."
"And her son? It wasn't hard to put the pieces together. He lives in the same city where Emily lives and was injured. As chairman, I have access to all the forms and biography sheets for the Gabrielli judging. Someone remarked on the name coincidence when Emily was injured. Then I saw the boy's birth date."
"Uh huh." Winters grinned wider despite the tension running through his body.
"Max Keeler is Emily's son."
"I don't know what kind of a joke you think you're pulling--" Steel cooled the usual warmth in his voice, thickened the Italian accent.
"It's no joke, Carlo. It's very serious."
"That big grin of yours says otherwise." He sat forward, leaning his elbows on the front of the desk. "Max is my son."
"Wrong again." Winters took a few deep breaths, staring down Carlo, willing his expression into neutral. It amazed him that he wanted to laugh. Finally he relented. He knew he had to say something before the accusations gleaming in his visitor's eyes spilled out in words they both might regret. "You ask for so much information on those forms, but do you ever ask about gender? Even just for statistics?"
"Gender?" Carlo shook his head, looking confused for a moment.
"Max is short for Maxine. Emily's daughter. I told her she was headed for trouble if she let that misconception continue."
"Misconception. Interesting choice of words," he murmured.