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A Midsummer Night's Fling
The show must go on, but the price of admission could be her heart.
Sick of a touring actor’s vagabond life, Nicola returns to California to put the past firmly behind her. It would help if the six-foot-three-inch beautiful man who is her past didn’t come knocking. Max. The mistake Nicola can’t seem to stop making.
Though she has no desire to re-re-rekindle their old flame, Nicola jumps at his offer to play Titania to his Oberon. But when their first rehearsal kiss disintegrates into a passionate liplock, she’s tempted to jump ship before Max can break her heart again.
Unless he can convince her that the torch he’s been carrying is an eternal flame.
I used to be an actress, and I performed in two productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream within a couple years. I played Hermia once and a fairy once. I can still quote almost the entire play, and if you poke me I can still do a bunch of Hermia’s lines. (Ask me sometime, I will totally do it!) So this play and the theater in general are really near and dear to my heart. I also love romances with actor heroes who actually do their job in the course of the book (as opposed to just swanning around being famous.) I can never find enough actor romances*, though, so I decided to write my own!
*”Prank Night” is an actual thing among theater-folk. Sometimes people are playing pranks on each other throughout the run of a show, sometimes it’s confined to one night on the last weekend. I remember flashing my bloomers at someone during An Ideal Husbandright before they had to go onstage and act seriously. Eating onions and garlic right before kissing scenes is also very popular. I was once on a show where a male actor hid naked behind a potted plant just out of sight of the audience but in sight of one of the other actors who had to do the scene knowing he was there. Naked.
Theater folk are weird.
- I spent many years as an aspiring actress myself; I did a bunch of plays and some small films with friends.
- I interviewed several working actors from a local repertory theater company The Theatricum Botanicum.
- I watched all the productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that I could get my hands on. My favorite ever was actually a production I saw live a million years ago at another local theater, A Noise Within, where Demetrius actually ran up the wall and flipped in a tiny, tinyblackbox theater.
- For Henry V I think Kenneth Branagh nailed the play overall with his version in the 1980s. I also love how he handles the meta-stuff with the narrator. HOWEVER, Tom Hiddlestonmade me cry when he did the St. Crispin’s day speech. I haven’t had opportunity to see this live yet, and that makes me sad.
Photo courtesy of Ariel Sands
If you liked A Midsummer Night’s Fling, here are some things you might also enjoy:
- Slings & Arrows, a hilarious Canadian TV show about a floundering classical theater festival. Shakespeare references, romance, and hilarity abound.
- Again by Kathleen Gilles Seidel, my favorite “actor romance” ever. The book features a Regency era soap opera, the hero is an actor and the heroine is the head writer/creator of the show. Fabulous romance and so much juicy acting stuff! This is one of my favorite romances period. Seidel is a very talented author.
- All Over You by Sarah Mayberry, another great “actor romance”. The heroine is great. She’s sassy and a fan of vintage fashion. The hero in this is smoking hot.
- Jocelyn O’Roarke murder mystery series by Jane Dentinger. These are mysteries with a dash of romance. The amateur sleuth is a professional theater actress. The behind the scenes theater elements on this series are wonderful. I’ve reviewed the series before if you’re interested.
- Smash TV series is about a Broadway musical on the life of Marilyn Monroe. The show is very uneven, and it only lasted two seasons. But, for all that, when this show gets it right it gets it really right; the pilot and the last few episodes of the first season are particularly good.
*Suggestions for this section are welcome, by the way. I’m always looking for more good actor/theater related books and movies.
For Nicola Charles, the yellow water was the breaking point.
She had already spent several hours working her way through five years of dust as she sorted all her worldly possessions. With her throat parched from that uncomfortable effort, she’d staggered past her friend Cassie to get a drink from the kitchen sink.
When Nicola turned on the tap, a long pause ensued, followed by several ominous spit-takes from the sink. The faucet finally shot to life with a stream of dark yellow water.
Nicola stared for a long moment, then said to Cassie, conversationally, “I’m moving.” With a firm hand, Nicola flicked off the tap and retreated from the sink.
Cassie sat cross-legged on the floor and didn’t even glance up from the old clothes she was sorting. “You just got here, Charlie-girl.”
“My water is yellow.”
Cassie shot her a bright, shit-eating grin. “Welcome back to California, Ms. Charles.”
“Is it too late to go on tour with Oklahoma?” Nicola kicked her way past a graveyard of empty boxes to reach her bed, where yet another box lay half-sorted.
“Don’t whine,” Cassie said. “It’s unbecoming in a woman your age.”
“What, they revoke your whining rights when you hit twenty-nine?”
“Yes.” Cassie lifted a sweater with a sailboat on the front and held the garment against her own chest, evaluating its merits. “Why is all this stuff so dusty?”
“I haven’t touched it in five years.” Why had Nicola even bothered storing this junk while she was on tour? All this crap was just an annoyance now.
She flung a stack of old script pages into the trash, then reached into the moving box for her next armful. Her fingers bumped something metal, and her heart twisted as she realized what she was holding. She pulled the gold-framed photo of her and her ex out of the box.
Max. The name tore its way out of her back brain, half-sigh, half-groan.
Stupid Max. She scowled at his blond handsomeness, at the grin on his gorgeous face, at the strong arms draped around her in the picture. Max: the mistake she’d made at sixteen. And nineteen. And twenty-five. And—
She scowled at herself in the picture too. Five years younger. Five years dumber.
With an inner wrench, she tore her gaze off the frame and slapped the picture facedown on the bed. She whirled toward Cassie. “This is what happens when you box up your life and ignore it for five years.”
“You outgrow it.” Nicola restrained an urge to throw that golden frame across the room. Stupid Max.
Cassie cocked her head to the side, black hair sliding over one pale, tattooed shoulder. “If you don’t want any of this, why did you pay to keep it in storage while you were on the road?”
Because it was easier than sorting through all this. The photo frame seemed to pulse behind Nicola. The telltale snapshot. Five years ago, it had been easier to package up all of her old life and forget it while she escaped unhindered into a new one.
Cassie was still watching her, so Nicola shrugged. “Storage seemed like a good idea at the time.”
“Uh-huh. No more tours? I thought you were up for Anything Goes. What happened there?”
“I’m sick of touring. I want to stay in one place for more than six weeks. You know how it is. You gave it up too.”
“It’s because my roommate on that last tour was so annoying.” Cassie winked.
Nicola stuck out her tongue. “I’m not the one who snores.”
Cassie flapped her hand, brushing aside this inconvenient truth about herself. “Do you have any auditions out here yet?”
“I’ve got my feelers out.”
“Like a giant fire ant.”
“Sure.” Nicola put her pointer fingers on each side of her forehead and wiggled them like antennae, crossing her eyes at Cassie.
But her friend was not to be distracted. Cassie’s face was gently compassionate. “Nothing?”
“I’ve got prospects.” Nicola popped the lid on yet another banker’s box to avoid her friend’s sympathy. Things would turn around. Soon. Soon. I’ll get a job soon. This was the national anthem of the actor’s life.
“What’s the picture of?” Cassie asked, nodding toward the frame on the bed, obviously hoping to break the depressed silence with a new topic.
Nicola snatched up the infamous photo frame. “Doesn’t matter.” Without letting Cassie see the picture, and without glancing at Max, Nicola hurried to the kitchen trash and dumped the photo in with her empty pizza box from the night before. The picture thunked heavily into the bottom of the bin. “I’m done with the past!” Nicola proclaimed, flinging her arms wide in triumph.
Someone rapped on the door. Nicola jumped at the sound. Cassie raised a questioning eyebrow.
“Probably the landlord.” Nicola crossed to the door and yanked it open.
“Hi, Nicci,” Max said.
At the sight of him, her blood rabbited through her veins with a dizzying, painful thrum.
She stared at him in simple, stupid shock, worried he was some kind of stress-induced mirage.
But no, he was real enough—all six foot three of him standing on her doorstep.
He was still spectacularly good-looking. Handsome, chiseled face. Thick, wavy blond hair that had grown long enough to brush over his ears and forehead. Strong jaw with a scruff of stubble inching into a full-blown beard. A sensuous, mobile mouth. Piercing, sea-blue eyes, and those damn laugh lines around them that added an extra layer of charm to his every smile.
Just your basic All-American, Grade-A, prime beefcake demigod.
Noting her prolonged perusal, a lopsided grin tucked itself into the corner of Max’s mouth.
The smile—that same teasing grin he’d always used to charm her out of being mad at him—that stupid smile broke his spell. “You always did have impeccable timing,” she said.
And then she slammed the door in his face.
Cassie blinked. “That wasn’t very neighborly.”
“What?” Nicola shook her head, dazed. She recognized Cassie had made sounds, was looking at her, expecting her to say…something. But communication, processing words, parsing social cues, the basics of human discourse… These skills all deserted Nicola as she stood with her spine pressed against the front door.
“Charlie?” Cassie asked.
Nicola winced as a knock sounded through the door, the noise loud and right behind her ear.
“Nicola, please open the door,” Max said. “I only want to talk to you.”
Cassie padded to the door, shoving Nicola to the side so she could peer through the peephole. When Cassie eased back, she shot Nicola an atta-girl grin. “Are Jehovah’s Witnesses getting cuter, or has it been too long since I got laid?”
Nicola smacked her friend’s arm and retreated, her heart hammering as if a grizzly bear stood behind the front door and not her incredibly hunky—and annoying—ex. “That’s not a J-dub.”
“Selling subscriptions for the Evening Post?”
“Girl Scout cookies?”
A furrow appeared between Cassie’s eyebrows. “Are you all right? Should we call the police?”
Nicola pressed a hand to the knot under her sternum and waved that offer away.
Just the sight of Max could still drive her crazy? Unfair, but all right. Anyway, she could definitely hide that fact from him. Maybe she’d botched her opening move with the whole door-slamming thing, but she could recover. She was a professional actress! This sort of thing was her bread and butter. Or would be if she ever got another acting job.
She sucked in a deep breath and fumbled for the doorknob, turning it as she whirled to peer through the crack she had made between the door and the jamb.
He beamed at her, big and handsome as he ducked down to lean against the door so their faces were close.
Too close. She let the door fall open wider and stepped back. “Hello, Max.”
His grin inched up a notch, laugh lines crinkling. Those damn laugh lines. “Nic, I’ve got a proposition for you—”
She slammed the door.
“I’m confused,” Cassie murmured.
“Me too,” Max said through the door.
Nicola stalked into the living room, digging into a box at random. “‘I’ve got a proposition for you’? Who does he think he is?”
“Who is he?” Cassie asked.
“Five years and he uses that cheesy line!” The sparking anger inside Nicola made her yell the words loud enough so she could be certain Max had heard her.
“Hey!” he called through the door. “That was not cheesy.”
Cassie paused, squinting back and forth between Nicola and the front door. “Um.”
“Nicola!” Max pounded on the door.
Glowering, Cassie pounded right back at him, the flesh of her arms jiggling from the force of her knocks. “Watch it, buddy, or I’ll call the cops!”
Observing her friend’s furious performance, thinking of Max baffled on the other side, and realizing her own irrationality wasn’t exactly mature, Nicola pressed a fist against her mouth, hoping to stifle the giggle that bubbled up. But then Cassie turned to face her and Nicola burst out laughing, defeated by her absurd situation.
Cassie’s lip curled, flashing her dimple, then she was laughing too, crumpling to the floor and resting her forehead against her knee as she gasped.
“You guys are laughing,” Max said through the door, sounding disgruntled. “At me.”
Still laughing, wiping her eyes, Nicola opened the door, facing Max. “And me.”
He glared at her, brawny arms folded. Although the door was wide open, he did not step inside.
Somehow the laughter had worked the tension inside her loose, and Nicola wasn’t worried about seeing him anymore. “What’s up, Maxim?”
He grinned at the use of his old nickname, and for a flash, one searing moment, the years peeled away. He was a cocky seventeen-year-old playing Romeo, making goofy faces at her, trying to get her to break character while they performed the iconic balcony scene together. Something in her heart trembled at that memory, stumbling toward darkness, and she braced herself, pulling her gaze from his face.
Her mood must have been contagious. He shifted on his feet, and she could actually hear the grin leave his face as he angled his body toward Cassie. “Hello. You do a very intimidating yell.”
Cassie sidled forward with her hand out. “You do a fine knock, my good man.” She darted a questioning glance at Nicola, which Nicola chose to ignore. “I’m Cassie Xu.”
“Fiesengerke?” Cassie asked, blinking free from her starry-eyed adoration of Max. “Isn’t that the name of that actor?”
Trying to be stealthy, Nicola turned her back to Max and made a throat-cutting-shut-up-Cassie motion with her hand.
Cassie burbled on, oblivious, “The guy in that pirate movie.”
“Orlando Bloom?” Nicola chirped out, hoping to derail this topic.
Cassie sent her a WTF? face. “No, the other pirate movie. Fortune’s Fool.”
“Peter Fiesengerke,” Max said through gritted teeth.
“Yeah. I love him. Are you guys related?”
“That would be my brother,” Max said in a dry, dead tone, like the butler in a gothic novel announcing the Master had died of a bad case of bloody murder.
Nicola pressed a palm to her aching forehead. Landmines carpeted the ground where she and Max walked together, and poor Cassie was the innocent pedestrian who’d stepped right on top of one.
Cassie, catching on quick, puffed out a small, “Oh.”
“Cass, do you mind leaving us alone for a sec?” Nicola asked.
Judging by how Cassie fled into the bathroom and closed the door, she didn’t.
“Why are you here?” Nicola asked Max, keeping her voice quiet but sharp.
He retreated a step, and any lingering warmth in his voice faded. “I wanted to offer you a job.”
She frowned as she stared at his handsome, now expressionless face. That’s it?
They hadn’t seen each other in five years. They’d been childhood sweethearts, best friends, he’d been inside her, and his big opening salvo after years of estrangement was a job offer?
She slammed the door in his face.
The door coming toward his face was not a total surprise, or, at least, it shouldn’t have been judging by the previous few minutes. Unfortunately, this time Max wasn’t far enough back and the door connected smartly with his nose.
He didn’t get smashed hard, just enough to make his pride hurt.
Yes, it had been a while since he’d seen Nicola. When things had ended between them, she’d basically said, Don’t call me. And I won’t be calling you. But still, they’d never been only a couple—they’d been good friends too. They’d grown up together from teenagers to young adults to stupid twenty-somethings. Well, stupid in his case. You’d think after all this time, she might have been even a little happy to see him.
Were you happy to see her?
He grimaced. A fair point. If his boss hadn’t told him to get Nicola or else, he wouldn’t even be here. Wouldn’t have come within ten miles of Nicola. Still, despite the difficulties between them, he thought by now he and Nicola could be friendly to each other. Maybe even actual friends.
How long has it even been? He counted back… Five years. “Shit.” He scrubbed a hand over his face and stared at the dingy whiteness of her door. The door did not move. “Shit.”
Low voices sounded from the other side: Nicola talking with her friend, the tattooed Asian girl.
Clearly, his original strategy was not working. What could he say or do to get Nicola to open the door? He tapped one knuckle against the wood, not knocking, just thinking.
An image of Nicola as the door had first swung open distracted his mind’s eye. Seeing her had been like stepping back in time. Five years, but she still matched his memories of her. Soft brown hair, longer than she used to wear it in grad school, now grown past her shoulders and falling in waves to frame her heart-shaped face. A pair of very fine brown eyes, large and glinting with intelligence. High Grace Kelly cheekbones marred slightly by a small scar from childhood chicken pox. And her lips, bow shaped and full, pursing when she stared at him, then scrunching in a frown right before she swung the door closed.
Just…beautiful. Even working in the entertainment industry, even being thrown together with beautiful women as a matter of course, Nicola was still the most breathtaking woman Max had ever seen. Beauty on a whole other level. Grace and poise you could float in. Statuesque as Galatea come to life.
And still with the single most perfect ass ever created by God. Or man, for that matter.
Max rolled his shoulders, trying to shake the feelings off, but awareness of her itched under his skin, insistent and accompanied by a crashing wave of simple, profound pleasure, which had swamped him at the sight of her.
I’m in trouble.
He wasn’t here for that. Not for anything approaching that. In fact, he’d thought he’d shaken that particular brand of feeling altogether, or he wouldn’t have come.
If he didn’t need so badly for her to cooperate, he would have already turned tail and run. She was beautiful sure, sweet when she wasn’t pissed at him, but the two of them…
He pressed his thumb and middle finger against his eyes, then circled his fingertips in to pinch his nose. Forget that. He wasn’t falling into this tiger trap. No way. He had a mission, and he knew—he fucking knew—that despite her feelings about him as the messenger, Nicola would want to hear what he had to say.
Also, he was screwed if she didn’t listen to him. So he really had to get her to open the door. His cell buzzed inside his pocket. He glanced at the number, then accepted the call. “Hi, Rita.”
“Mijo, did she say yes?”
Rita made a disgusted sound on the other end of the phone. “You did it all wrong.”
“I’m trying, boss, but she slammed the door in my face. Twice.” Well, three times. But no need to tell Rita everything.
“You did break her heart, mijo,” Rita pointed out. “Twice. What’s a little door slamming between friends?”
He rubbed his nose, which was still not quite happy after being banged with a door. “How am I supposed to convince her to play Titania for you when she won’t open the door?” He hunched his shoulders against the wooden frame in defeat. “I didn’t get any further than ‘I have a job for you.’” And damn if that didn’t hurt more than a door to the face. Were things so bad between him and Nicola they couldn’t even talk to each other?
Silence prevailed on the other end of the phone. When Rita did finally speak, her voice was slow and low, which made the hair on Max’s neck prickle in warning. He recognized a pre-rant voice when he heard it. “Let me get this straight,” Rita said. “You go to talk to your ex, a woman you dated off and on—”
“More on than off.”
“—off and on for eight years. A woman you proposed marriage to. After five years of not seeing her, you try to make nice to her with, ‘Mi belleza, you want a job?’”
“Ay dios mio.”
“Rita, she was being impossible. Slamming the door in my face. Screaming.”
“Maxim, I need her. I trusted you with this because I thought you were ready for more responsibility. How can you be my assistant, how can I teach you anything if you can’t even talk to an actress?”
He swallowed, sourness in the back of his throat. Rita was the first person to trust him with a good opportunity since he’d been blacklisted by the studios all those years ago, and now he was blowing it. “I am ready, Rita. I won’t let you down. I won’t let the company down. I’ll…” He trailed off, abruptly aware of the intense quiet on the other side of the door. He wasn’t yelling, but he was an actor. His voice was deep. Sound carried.
Rita had started another rant about social niceties, empathy, putting yourself in the other person’s shoes, but Max rode over her Atticus impression. He pitched his voice louder than before, angling his head toward the door and making sure the juicy tidbits of his offer were emphasized, “Yeah, Rita, Nicola wouldn’t let me tell her anything about the project. She wouldn’t listen when I tried to tell her she’d be playing Titania. At the Rosalind Shakespeare Festival. For you, Rita Payan de Nunez.”
The apartment door swung open behind him, and he fell backward, pretty much ass over elbows. Lying on his back on the apartment’s hard floor, he stared up into his ex-girlfriend’s face.
“You win,” Nicola ground out. “Tell me more, Fiesengerke.” She paused. “And say hi to Rita for me.”
“Hi, Rita,” he said into the phone, watching Nicola.
“Bye, Max.” Rita clicked off, her satisfied smirk practically beaming through the phone to him.
He sat up, draping one arm over his knee, and grinned at his ex-girlfriend. “Hello again, Nic.”
The Rosalind Shakespeare Festival. Wow. Just wow. Nicola could barely process anything Max said after that. The RSF was one of the best renowned theater companies in California, on the West Coast period. It was a performance of Romeo & Juliet at the RSF, watching Isabella Elton perform Juliet, which had made Nicola realize she wanted to be an actress. Basically, here was Max offering Nicola her dream job on a silver platter.
But what was the catch?
Nicola allowed Max to pass over her threshold, wondering as she did so if, like inviting a vampire into your home, she had compromised the integrity of her apartment.
As he stepped inside, she became aware Max was bigger, more ripped than he’d ever been in the past. He’d always towered over everyone, but now he seemed built on an entirely different scale than the rest of humanity. In his jeans and fitted dark blue shirt, it felt as if Hercules were trying to run around masquerading as a mortal man, costumed in faded Levi’s.
Oblivious to her discomfort, he pushed aside the stack of papers she’d been sorting and sank onto the foot of her bed—the only guest seating her miniscule studio apartment had to offer. Besides the toilet.
He explained that the actress who’d been cast as Titania had had to drop out when she landed a small but prestigious film role that required her to leave the country.
Cassie went to lean against the bathroom door, hovering near Max and listening. But mostly ogling Max.
Ignoring her friend, Nicola frowned at Max as he stared guilelessly back at her. “All right, Max. Why me? There must be actresses already in the company who want this part.”
He shrugged, his massive shoulders rising and falling like some kind of geological event. “This is the tent-pole production of the company’s summer season. We need A-level talent, and none of the girls already in the company are up to snuff. Rita knows you, she’s had you in a lead role before, and you’ve played Titania—”
“In grad school.”
As Nicola said it, Cassie shot her a shocked look from the bathroom door, which was basically, Why are you sabotaging yourself?
Nicola pretty much felt the same way: furious with herself for being so childish. Still, as juicy as this opportunity was, Nicola didn’t want anything to do with anything that had to do with Max.
Max was a trap, a dungeon, a freaking oubliette. She’d barely managed to survive leaving him five years ago. She didn’t know how to process this, how to deal with him. She was swimming in cognitive dissonance. Part of her was glad to see him. Part of her was squealing with joy at the opportunity he was offering her.
And part of her wanted to punch him in the head and throw him out of her apartment.
“Which one is A Midsummer Night’s Dream?” Cassie asked, turning toward Max with a polite smile.
Traitor. Nicola glowered.
“It’s the play with the fairies,” Max explained. “Puck. The two couples run into the forest, and the fairies meddle so people keep falling in and out of love with each other. Nicola would be playing the fairy queen—”
“I didn’t say I’d do it!”
“Whose estranged husband, the fairy king, casts a spell on her so she falls in love with a man who’s got the head of a donkey. And much wackiness ensues.”
Cassie frowned, thinking. “Wasn’t Christian Bale in that movie? He took his shirt off.”
Max gaped at Cassie in horror.
Nicola bit back a grin. “Cassie isn’t much for Shakespeare. You didn’t used to be either, Max.”
“I’m a reformed character,” he said, his voice going warm and low.
Nicola shifted, feeling her cheeks heat. Liar.
“You love this play, Nicola,” he said. “You know Titania’s lines.”
She folded her arms, annoyed by his calm certainty that he still knew anything about her. “It’s been years. I’ve forgotten the lines.”
He cleared his throat, then said, “‘But if I had wit enough to get out of this wood, I have enough to serve mine own turn.’”
The answering line from Midsummer leapt into Nicola’s head. She fisted her hands against her sides. After a brief struggle with herself, she murmured Titania’s responding line, “‘Out of this wood do not desire to go: Thou shalt remain here, whether thou wilt or no.’”
Cassie gaped at her easy recital, but Max nodded, gloating because he had won the point. “We have three weeks of rehearsal left, then it’s Dress and Tech. We need someone who can hit the ground running.”
“Three weeks? How many weeks of rehearsal does the RSF do?”
“That’s pretty nice.” Every moment they spent talking, Nicola’s adrenaline spiraled higher and higher, leaving her light-headed with excitement.
Titania. With Rita. With the RSF. Seven weeks of rehearsal? Sometimes you only got three, which left barely enough time for everyone to get the lines memorized, never mind perfect their performances. Oh, she wanted this job. Bad.
Clawing for sanity, she stared at Max, her mind clicking over options, ripple effects. Rita wouldn’t have sent Max if he wasn’t in the show himself. He was in the thick of this plot. No doubt.
Nicola wanted to jump headlong into this opportunity, ignoring any potential consequences. Longed to, really. But after five years of striving to be wiser and not just older, she had learned to look down and think hard before she leapt. “Who’s playing Bottom?” she asked Max, suspicious. Titania had most of her scenes with Bottom, the character who gets turned into a donkey. Max was the wrong type for Bottom, who was usually performed by a character actor, but Rita often played around with expectations in her casting choices.
“Gilbert Dodgson is playing Bottom,” Max said promptly. Too promptly. “He hasn’t done much theater, but he’s a stand-up comic. Really funny guy.”
Nicola stepped closer to Max, staring him down. The other character who had several scenes with Titania, including what could be termed a “love scene” depending how the director staged it, was Oberon, king of the fairies. “If I did this, who would be my Oberon?” Nicola pitched her voice high and sweet, smiling at Max even while her eyes glared.
An expression of almost bovine innocence covered his face. “Oh. Well. That would be me.”
Max watched her reaction to the news he would be Oberon. Even as the words left his mouth, he second-guessed himself. Did she need that bit of info, after all? Well, she’d probably already guessed, and anyway, he’d confirmed it. Now she was pale, tight-lipped as if restraining anger. He braced himself, squaring his feet in preparation for the storm of her antagonism. Just like the good old days.
Instead, her face fell and her brown eyes pinched with worry. “Is that a good idea, Max? Really?”
He blinked, mentally stumbling over the fact that she wasn’t yelling at him. “Sure!” He chirped out at last, maybe a bit too loud. “We always had good chemistry onstage.” And off.
Her mouth twisted ruefully. “Offstage too.”
She not’s gonna do the play. His chest constricted, and he stepped toward her, brushing her arm. He couldn’t pinpoint why, didn’t even want to guess at why, but he wanted Nicola to play Titania with him. And it had nothing to do with Rita ordering him to. “Nic, the only thing on the table here—the only thing anyone expects from you—is a great performance as Titania. No strings.” He lifted his arms out to the side and waved them in the air, pantomiming a puppet. “See? No strings.”
He held his breath as she paused for a long, long moment. When his lungs were ready to burst, she sighed. “I’ll do it.”
He blew out his breath. “Good—”
“On one condition.”
Not good. “Yes?”
“You and I. We…” She broke off with a small, violent headshake, as if trying to rattle the words out of her mouth. “This isn’t like the good ol’ days. If I do this, our relationship will remain, at all times, strictly professional.” She didn’t appear quite satisfied as she finished, as if half of what she’d wanted to say remained percolating unformed in her brain.
He stuck his hand out to shake. “Total professionals.”
“Forgive me if I remain dubious about the man who mooned me backstage right before my death scene.”
He drew himself straight and tall, projecting an air of outraged dignity. But inwardly he remembered the adorable expression of shock on her face every time he used to prank her right before her big scene. Or kiss her. He hesitated. The kissing is probably what she’s worried about here, genius. “I’ve changed a lot over the years.”
“So have I.”
Yup, worried about the kissing. Unfortunately, no good or tactful way existed to tell his ex-girlfriend that kissing her was the last thing on his mind, and the very last thing he wanted to do. His gaze darted to her lips as she wet them nervously. Especially because that would be a lie.
They shook. Her palm was small and cool as it was swallowed by his larger one. A tingling burn started along his arms when he touched her. Unbidden, Shakespeare lines began running through his head. ‘Palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss.’
She grinned as they shook, joy breaking over her face. “Max, you’ve got yourself a Titania.”
‘Dear saint, let lips do what hands do…’
He dropped her hand, shoving a friendly smile onto his face while his pulse hammered with panic. Max, you’re in trouble.
After mastering the suicidal urge to kiss his ex-girlfriend, Max bolted from Nicola’s apartment, barely shy of outright rudeness. On his way down to the street, he called Rita. “We’re in business. You can tell the big boss lady we have a Titania.” He tried to sound chipper and excited instead of sick with panic.
“Oh no, mijo,” Rita said. “I am booked absolutely solid today. You call Isabelle for me. I don’t have time for it myself.”
“Rita, it’s your job.”
“Yes, but you see it is impossible.” Something metallic rattled on the other end of the line. Probably Rita playing with the mess of silver bracelets she perpetually wore on her wrist. She was fidgeting, nervous.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
Rita sighed, her breath shushing over the speaker into his ear. “I did not exactly tell Isabelle what our plan was.”
Max winced, and a vision of himself stabbed and stuffed away in the prop closet danced in his head. His artistic director, the big boss lady Isabelle, was going to kill him, and he didn’t think she’d waste a good dead body when it might be a useful prop for some future show. “You went behind Isabelle’s back? Are you crazy?”
“She was going to foist one of the little fairy girls on me. At least she’s given up on playing Titania herself.”
Max grimaced. Isabelle had been playing Titania at the RSF for the last fifteen years. She hadn’t taken the rejection gracefully when Rita had suggested using a younger actress this season. Yet another reason recasting Titania was a huge pain in his ass.
“You charm her, Maxim,” Rita cooed. “Isabelle never gets mad at you.”
“What are you going to do if Isabelle says no? I put my nuts on the chopping block to get Nicola, and you’re telling me there might not be a part for her at all?”
“No such thing. You talk to Isabelle, use your pretty face for some good, and there won’t be a problem.”
Rita hung up.
He furiously redialed, but her number went straight to voice mail. Swallowing a vile oath, he bounded the rest of the way to his car. He had to reach Isabelle before some bigmouthed idiot in the company blabbed Rita’s plan. If he talked to Isabelle first, if he was able to soothe her ego and massage her business side, then there wouldn’t be a problem.
But if Isabelle heard of Nicola’s casting through the creeping grapevine of theater gossip, then Max was well and thoroughly fucked.
Not in the good way either, he thought, Nicola’s image hovering on the edge of his mind.
Snap out of it, Fiesengerke. Your career is on the line. The career he’d smashed to pieces five years ago. The career he was only now putting back together with any kind of success. Don’t screw up again. With that sobering thought, he threw himself into his car, burning rubber toward the theater.
Despite having made the drive countless times before, Max was continually surprised just how schizophrenic an area Pasadena was. Every block he passed seemed to have a different aesthetic. One minute he was cruising through a charmingly upscale shopping district, the next he was in a poor urban area. One minute small family homes and apartment buildings filled the street, then the next block had million-dollar mansions like Max’s brother’s house. One street had the quintessential line of California palm trees, but, when he turned another corner, the yards were more classic American suburb with pines and ivy on every corner.
This confusion of neighborhoods seemed, alarmingly, to mirror Max’s inner turmoil.
Not Nicola. Not again. The end of their relationship had nearly killed him last time. He hesitated, fingering the hands-free Call button in his car, wondering if he should dial Peter. His brother was an ass, but he was good at talking Max out of doing insane things.
Like falling for Nicola again.
You’re overreacting. Nothing existed between him and Nicola anymore. So there was nothing to worry about. Right.
Normally, Max liked to admire the scenic grounds surrounding the theater complex. Today, he barreled over the dirt roads and passed the theater sign fast enough to leave the metal sheet trembling in his wake. He parked and hurled himself out of the car, trotting the back way around the theater and taking the winding staircase to the artistic director’s office two stairs at a time.
The door was half-open, so he flung himself inside without knocking. Isabelle Elton, a stylish woman in her mid-forties—who always tried very much to appear as a stylish woman in her mid-thirties—glanced up from the stack of costume sketches fanned across her desk. Her wild cascade of reddish brown curls sat piled atop her head in a messy bun. “Max. Hello.”
He glanced about the room to make sure it was empty of other supplicants. Isabelle had two bookshelves with plays and reference materials occupying one corner. Several different set design maquettes sprawled on top of the bookshelves, like a train of conquered cities in miniature.
He gulped in a deep breath, then turned his grin on, the one he’d been told could transform any woman’s knees to water. “Isabelle—”
“Ah, Max, I’m so glad you came,” she said, drawling the words.
Her voice was her great claim to fame—a childlike rasp yet still lyrical, perfect vibrato, beautiful technique, and utterly distinctive. Isabelle always made sure to use her voice to best advantage however she could. In this moment, she slapped her hands on the desk and scowled, making him feel like a cornered rat. “You cast Titania without me.” Her rich voice picked out every consonant in the sentence, like small sword stabs of articulation.
He sighed. “Which loudmouth in the company told you about the Titania thing?”
“Rita was being shifty with me, so I tortured the truth out of her five minutes ago.”
Figures. So much for the smooth strategy he’d laid out to woo Isabelle.
She studied him, steepling her hands against her mouth. Then she smiled, but her dark eyes were cold as she motioned him to a chair.
“Why should I let you and Rita foist this girl on the company without an audition?” she said. “I’ve never even heard of Nicola Charles, and her résumé is mostly musicals and TV commercials.”
Dredging up a load of confidence from somewhere deep in his gut, Max sprawled himself out in her guest chair, looking casual, unconcerned. “She’s has her MFA, and Nicola did Antigone with Rita, so she does have experience with classical theater.
Isabelle, bottom line: what will it take to get you on board with this?”
Someone knocked on the door behind them. “Isabelle?”
Max turned. The speaker was a refined woman, maybe a few years older than Isabelle, with white-blond hair and a great hourglass figure.
“Oh, hey, Jude,” Isabelle said, a laugh in her voice.
The woman wrinkled her aquiline nose at the greeting. “Darling, are you ever going to get tired of that joke?” The newcomer had a slight British accent. Max’s roommate, an Englishman named Lachlan, would love her. Of course, Lachlan loved all women.
Isabelle crossed around her desk to make the introductions. “Max, this is Judith O’Fallon. She was in the company with me when we were teenagers. She directed a couple of plays with the RSF a few years ago. She even played Titania that year I was too pregnant with Tierney.”
Judith grinned. “I played Titania in New York too.”
“Bragging, Jude?” Isabelle laughed. “Anyway, Judith is going to direct the first main stage production this fall.”
“Oh.” Max turned to Judith, mentally flipping his charm dial to Full. If Judith was directing the fall play, it was never too early to make nice.
Judith was tall for a woman, and as they shook, she met his gaze with an unsettling directness, her gray eyes unblinking.
“Pleasure to meet you. Max, was it?”
“Oh.” Her eyelids fluttered. “Any relation to that movie star? Peter Fiesengerke?”
“My older brother.” He managed to get the information out without actually growling. I should have changed my last name.
Especially if he was going to get upset every time anyone asked him about Peter.
“I see good genes run in your family.” Judith raked her gaze over him, her mouth quirking with pleasure or maybe amusement.
“You’re just in time, Judith.” Isabelle ever so slightly moved between them. “Max, you’re among the first to know: I’ve asked Judith to be co-artistic director for the company. She’ll be overseeing Midsummer for me.”
Max gritted his back teeth, trying to stay standing after that hammering set of blows. A new co-artistic director. A stranger overseeing Midsummer. He knew Isabelle had felt overwhelmed by her workload, but bringing a stranger to oversee half the company seemed a bit extreme. “Does Rita know?”
Judith sailed into the room and settled herself into the spare guest chair. “Max, I do like the direction Rita intends for this Midsummer. The younger cast and everything.”
Isabelle shot her a funny look, opening her mouth in question. Judith, oblivious, continued, “I have some concerns, though, about this Charles girl. Isabelle tells me she’s never heard of her.”
“Nicola can do this part, I promise you.” It was himself he was worried about. Shit, just seeing Nicola had him so wound up, he was practically having a heart attack.
But here were the artistic directors giving him an out. He could easily—well, maybe not easily—go to Rita and say Isabelle had put her foot down. And that would be that.
So why was he still fighting so hard for Nicola?
Because I promised her. And Rita. He cleared his throat and leaned forward. “Rita wants Nicola. What will it take to get you two on board?”
“An audition,” Judith replied. “I want this girl of yours to read for me. With you and with the actor playing Bottom. If she’s any good, then we’ll see.”
He hissed out his breath. Maybe Judith wouldn’t be so difficult to work with? It might annoy Nicola to audition for a part she thought she’d been offered fair and square, but he was counting on Nicola to be the more reasonable party here. He’d convinced Isabelle and this Judith woman as far as he was likely to. “Sounds fair.”
“Bring your girl in,” Isabelle said. “Tonight. As soon as possible. We need to get Midsummer back on its feet.”
At this dismissal, Max hopped to his own feet so quickly, he nearly toppled the chair as he retreated toward the door.
“By the way,” Isabelle said, freezing him in his tracks. “Is your brother coming to opening night?”
“I don’t know.”
“You invited him, didn’t you?”
“I invited all of my family,” Max said, smiling while inside he burned. Do you have me in your company because of my talent or my connections? he wanted to ask.
But he didn’t. He wasn’t sure he’d like Isabelle’s answer. She’d hired him years ago when no one else would have. The only reason he had a career at all anymore was because of her. He liked to think that was because she respected his talent. He didn’t want to know if it was because she’d been angling after his brother the movie star all along.
Anyway, Max needed to hustle if he was going to get Nicola in to audition. Tonight. His head ached. Oy. “Judith, nice to meet you, I’ll see you tonight. Later, Isabelle.”
Isabelle waved him away with a shooing motion, and Max allowed himself to be thrown out. He had an audition to arrange, after all.
And an angry ex-girlfriend to deal with once he had arranged the audition, no doubt.
Cassie was half-sprawled on the bed and staring at the front door through which Max had abruptly made his exit. “Man, I didn’t know they made them like that in real life.”
“Like what?” Nicola asked.
“Like a Greek god had babies with a Ken doll. Only better looking. I mean wow.” Cassie gaped at her. “He’s Peter Fiesengerke’s brother? You dated Peter Fiesengerke’s brother? You know Peter-fucking-Fiesengerke? The Sexiest Man Alive?”
Nope, the sexiest man alive just left my apartment. Nicola popped to her feet, fighting to appear nonchalant even as her insides writhed. “We all went to high school together. I thought I’d mentioned I knew Peter once upon a time.”
“You most certainly did not.” Cassie yanked her arm so Nicola was forced to fall back onto the bed. “So, Peter Fiesengerke’s brother is an actor too?”
“That’s right.” Nicola glanced at her digital clock and feigned shock. “Oh no! Don’t you have to get to work?”
Cassie turned her wrist over to look at her watch face. She narrowed her eyes, then leaned back like a woman who would not be easily moved. “I have a few minutes. And you are being evasive. Nicola, why didn’t you ever mention tall, blond, and hunky before?”
“I don’t talk about him.”
“Yeah, but why?”
Because talking about him reminded Nicola how much she used to adore him. Because talking about him, thinking about him, the two of them—us—hurt. “Bad breakup,” she murmured.
“A bad breakup means you mainline chocolate ice cream and stop washing your hair for three weeks. You don’t pretend your ex never existed.”
Nicola gave a brittle chuckle, feeling herself teeter near the ragged edge. “We had an extinction level breakup, then. How’s that?”
“Don’t push this, Cass. Please.”
Cassie folded her arms, her eyes unhappy. “All I was going to say was if the situation is that bad, are you sure you want to work with the guy?”
Yes. God, yes. The answer surged through Nicola, blazing with certainty. Dating Max had been frustrating, exhilarating, wonderful, heartrending. Acting with Max was pure pleasure. “He’s not a bad guy. Just the wrong guy for me.”
“Can I ask what happened with you two?”
You can ask, but…
But Cassie was still worried, her mouth twisted, eyes pinched. Nicola sighed. If she didn’t give Cassie some scraps, her Mother Hen of a friend would worry herself sick.
Nicola snagged one of her pillows and hugged its softness against herself as her stomach churned. “So, me and Max. We dated in high school.” Ugh their stupid prom picture was buried somewhere in all her mess too. Dammit. Dredging through the muck of her old life had suddenly become a lot more painful. And it had already been painful enough before Max’s visit.
Nicola squished her pillow and continued, “Back then, Max and I were always on and off. We’d break up a lot, but only for a day or two.”
“Couldn’t stay apart.”
“Trite, but yes. I always felt safe with him, brave, kind. Like the best version of myself. And no one made me laugh like him. I guess we just…understood each other, had each other’s backs.” Her throat felt thick, remembering. Max holding her as she made herself sick sobbing after her father cheated on her mother, then left with the other woman. Her holding Max, watching him fight so hard not to cry when his own estranged father died. They’d grown up together in a lot of ways, been through so much—
Stick to the facts, Nic. Remembering all the emotional stuff would only hurt more. “Max drank a lot, and then he got into fights when he drank. He was a bit of a flirt, and I hated that. I didn’t like his friends, so he started partying with them more than spending time with me. That got worse when he started working more. He chose work and networking over me a lot.”
“Yeah. Max was already a professional actor in high school when we started dating. He had a few walk-on movie roles. Some guest spots on TV. Then the summer after I graduated high school, he got a supporting role in The Last Quarter.”
“The tearjerker about the high school football team. With the dog.”
“Oh, yeah. He’s the one who dies in the car crash before the big game.” Cassie blinked, her expression going reminiscent. “Wow. He sure grew up nice.”
“Yes, dear. Anyway, he fell in with a bad crowd on that movie. The drinking and the fighting got much worse. He was drunk more often than not.”
A sea of unpleasant memories seemed to lap against Nicola’s heart now. Max dropping out of college to make more silly B-movies. Him trying to seduce her by drunkenly quoting Romeo & Juliet. Him barfing on her mom’s porch. Paparazzi following them, scaring her, taking those horrible pictures of him drunk that always ended up in the magazines, on the Internet. “My big deal-breaker was one night he crashed his car coming home drunk from a party. I thought he was going to get himself killed. I didn’t want to be there to see it.”
Cassie whistled. “That’d do it.”
“Yeah.” The first time. Nicola fought not to look like she was withholding information. But she could barely talk about this first breakup. Wading into the mess of the second time Max broke her heart might kill her. She hugged her pillow. “We were together for years. Well into our twenties.” She swallowed. “Ah, first love. It’s always traumatic out of all proportion to the rest of your love life, right?”
At this, Cassie gave her the fish eye, suspicious.
However, Nicola was saved from further interrogation when her phone buzzed on the kitchen counter, drumming against the box of pans she hadn’t unpacked yet. She snagged the phone. “Hello?”
“Mi esperanza! My beautiful girl! Maxim says you will do the part for me.”
Nicola beamed, unable to maintain her doomy mood under Rita’s bright enthusiasm. “Yes, Rita. I’m so happy to be working with you.” And Max. She flinched at the thought. Shut up, brain.
“Oh, mija, I cannot wait. You will be the most beautiful, the most brilliant Titania. There is only one small, insignificant detail Maxim maybe forgot to mention to you.”
Nicola listened to Rita for several long minutes in increasing indignation.
Cassie, perhaps observing her expression, entered the kitchen nook, a worried frown on her face. What? she mouthed.
Nicola waved her hand, In a minute. She grabbed the magnetic pad from her fridge with its attached pen, then scribbled directions as Rita rattled them off.
Cassie glanced at her watch. Her eyes widened. She pointed to the door in an I-gotta-go sort of way. Nicola waved bye while inside her stomach writhed.
“So you can come in tonight?” Rita said in her ear.
“Yeah, Rita. No problem.” Nicola said bye to Rita, hung up, then slammed her phone down on the counter. “Son of a bitch.”
Cassie came skidding back into the apartment, looking startled. “What? What?”
“I have to audition. Tonight.”
- COMING SOON!
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