Myles Stewart had been driven by one, single aspiration since he was eight years old: Become Perry White. Upon the disappointing discovery that he could not, in fact, go work for The Daily Planet, heâ€™d set his sights on The New York Times. The Chicago Tribune. The
|Once Upon A Setup (Meet Cute Romance) by Kait Nolan|
Boston Globe. His family had assumed heâ€™d outgrow the desire and would fall in line with their expectations by the time he graduated college. They figured heâ€™d tire of the life after he bounced from The Times-Picayune up to The Seattle Times, then over to The Philadelphia Daily News. But he never tired of the chase, of the quest to be the first in the know, of the pursuit of truth. Then the bottom fell out of journalism. Every paper in the country experienced mass layoffs and downsizing. Realizing his days were probably numbered in Philly, Myles did something that baffled his big city colleagues. He came home to Mississippi and bought a struggling newspaper in a town where, his friends were convinced, absolutely nothing happened. â€œDid you hear about the police chase in Lawley last week?â€ â€œNo. What happened?â€ â€œThis guy stole an ambulance and led them on a high speed chase out of town. Got up to eighty-five miles an hour. While he was driving, he took his clothes off and tossed â€™em right out the window. Iâ€™m not quite sure how it happened, but he ended up stopping at the Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church and walking in during the service. Heâ€™s buck nekkid, remember? The police tased him right there in the center aisle and took him to the nut house. Read it in the paper this morning.â€ â€œMy Lord. What is the world coming to?â€ Myles smiled to himself. That one had been particularly entertaining to follow up on. Okay. So The Wishful Observer wasnâ€™t The Daily Planet. But unlike their metropolitan counterparts, small town newspapers were, according to some, still a viable market. So what if Warren Buffett couldnâ€™t pull it off? He wasnâ€™t a newspaperman. As owner/Editor-in-Chief, Myles intended to bring The Observer back from the brink, along with his whopping staff of three people, two of whom were part-time. After two weeks on the job, Myles was willing to admit he mightâ€™ve bitten off a bit more than heâ€™d meant to chew, but he loved nothing more than a challenge. Right now that challenge was rapidly immersing himself in the community in order to suss out his existing and potential audiences. So far that had meant multiple artery clogging breakfasts at Dinner Belles Cafe, where, praise God, he got his first properly cooked grits since he left for college. â€œYour usual, sugar. Bowl of grits, two biscuits, and bacon.â€ The waitress slid the plate in front of him. Myles offered her a broad smile, delighted that heâ€™d graduated to having a usual. â€œThanks, Corinne.â€ â€œCan I top off that coffee for you?â€ â€œSure can.â€ She leaned over to fill his mug. â€œSo whatâ€™s your story?â€ he asked. In his two weeks coming in here, sheâ€™d been his waitress almost every day, and heâ€™d formulated his own version of what he imagined her life was out of his observations. She worked in a greasy spoon, yet was painfully thin. A faint odor of cigarette smoke clung to her clothes. She was friendly with customers, downright flirtatious with the men, in a way that said sheâ€™d been used to male attention earlier in her life and expected it as her due. No rings. He was betting on former high school queen fallen on harder times. He wanted to know how much of it was right. One carefully tweezed brow arched up. â€œMy story?â€ â€œSure. Everybodyâ€™s got one. Whatâ€™s yours?â€ â€œOh, nothinâ€™ that interesting.â€ â€œEverybodyâ€™s interesting,â€ Myles assured her. â€œYouâ€™ve got me beat on that one, Mr. Big City Reporter. Lived all over and ended up here. I canâ€™t imagine why youâ€™d want to do that.â€ â€œI wanted a different life. And good grits.â€ He spooned up a bite of his. â€œMmm.â€ â€œWell, we do have those. You enjoy now.â€ She headed off to check her other tables. As he worked his way through the grits, Myles tuned in to the other conversations around him. â€œHave you seen the new ER doctor?â€ The woman behind him almost purred it. â€œWe have a new ER doc?â€ â€œDr. Chad Phillips. I had to take my grandmother in for chest painsâ€”she was fine, by the wayâ€”and he was the one on duty. I swear, he could give me a breast exam any time.â€ Her companion snorted. â€œI thought you said he was an ER doc.â€ â€œTheyâ€™re supposed to be well-rounded.â€ Myles wondered if he could get the good doctor to agree to a profile piece introducing him to the community. From the sounds of it, if he were single, that might result in him being mobbed by all the unattached women in town. But maybe the guy could wangle an endless supply of casseroles and pies out of the deal. The bell over the door rang. A balding man Myles pegged to be in his mid-forties came inside, a stack of papers in his hand. He skipped the meet-and-greet so common with other patrons and headed straight for the counter. The kitchen door swung open and Mylesâ€™ favorite character ambled out. Mama Pearl Buckley was, heâ€™d learned, queen of two things in this townâ€”pie and gossip. Which was why heâ€™d made Dinner Belles his informal bullpen. Almost nothing went on in Wishful without her knowing about it. â€œWhat can I do for you, Nate?â€ â€œI was hoping youâ€™d put up a flier about auditions.â€ â€œSure. Whatâ€™s the show this time?â€ â€œWhite Christmas. And it may end up being our last.â€ â€œHowâ€™s that?â€ â€œThe Madrigal is in hock up to its balconies. Mr. Stantonâ€™s kids started looking into things after he passed a few months ago and the whole thingâ€™s a mess. This show is our stay of execution. If we can raise enough, we might be able to save it.â€ â€œYou know Iâ€™ll help however I can.â€ She accepted one of the fliers. Myles slid from his booth and walked over. â€œExcuse me.â€ Both of them turned toward him. â€œHi. I couldnâ€™t help but overhear. I might be able to help a bit myself. Iâ€™m Myles Stewart, the new editor of The Observer. If youâ€™ve got a few minutes to sit down with me, Iâ€™d love to run something in the paper to let the rest of the town know whatâ€™s going on.â€ â€œThatâ€™d be great. Mama Pearl, can I get a cup of coffee since Iâ€™m staying?â€ â€œCominâ€™ right up.â€ The two men retreated to Mylesâ€™ booth. Myles pulled a steno pad and pen from his messenger bag, prepared to take notes. â€œSo, tell me about the Madrigal. I gather itâ€™s a theater?â€ â€œIt is. Our community theater, over on Front Street. It was built back in 1912 as a home for vaudeville.â€ â€œSeriously? In a town this size?â€ Nate shrugged. â€œWishful has always been a home for the arts. They ran live productions until the start of World War II. There was a brief stretch where it was almost converted to a movie theater, but then Edward Stanton bought it in 1958. He performed the first restoration and expansion because he didnâ€™t believe that the people of Wishful should miss out on the arts just because it was small. Over the years, the Madrigal has earned a reputation as one of the best community theaters in the south. Weâ€™ve done everything from Shakespeare to Rogers and Hammerstein. Iâ€™ve been directing productions there for the past twenty years. Itâ€™s a real part of town history. But, like so many things around here, itâ€™s seen better days.â€ â€œI understand Wishfulâ€™s economy has been in a decline for the last couple of decades.â€ Myles had seen back issues of the paper talking about it. â€œProbably a bit longer. Itâ€™s started to turn around under the leadership of the new city planner, but sheâ€™s just one person and can only do so much. Our best shot is to put on a show thatâ€™s sufficiently popular to bring in folks from the surrounding areas, raising enough revenues to pay off the debts enough to bring them current.â€ â€œHow much will it take?â€ Nate named a figure that had Myles whistling. â€œDamn. Youâ€™ve got your work cut out for you.â€ He hoped like hell the actors in this community theater were better than most of the community level shows heâ€™d seen. â€œThe Observer is happy to help however it can. Iâ€™ll be happy to write a human interest piece to go in the next edition, as well as announcing auditions. Do you think you could make time later today to meet me and my staff photographer for a quick little tour? A pic of the stage would make for good front page imagery.â€ Nate slid from the booth. â€œI can do that. Around three-thirty?â€ â€œWeâ€™ll be there.â€ â€œI appreciate your help, Mr. Stewart.â€ â€œMyles, please.â€ â€œMyles then.â€ â€œIâ€™ll do what I can to connect everybody to the plight of the Madrigalâ€”whether theyâ€™re into theater or not. Really give them a feel for what theyâ€™d be missing if it closed its doors.â€ â€œItâ€™s a good start,â€ said Nate, heading for the door, â€œbut the only way to truly experience the theater is from the stage.â€ â€œHAVE YOU SEEN THE Observer this morning?â€ Piper Parish took a well-deserved two-minute break, dropping into a chair beside Shelby Abbott, the clinic office manager. Theyâ€™d had a rush of stomach flu and the start of a scabies outbreak from the moment the doors opened at eight, and Piperâ€™s dogs were starting to bark, even in the orthopedic shoes. â€œNo, why?â€ Shelby passed it over, tapping the front page. Historic Madrigal Theater To Close? â€œWhat?â€ Piper bent over the newspaper and devoured the article. â€œOh, no no no no. This is terrible!â€ The Madrigal was her second home. Sheâ€™d grown up there. So many of her memories were tied up with that place, Piper couldnâ€™t fathom it closing its doors or, worse, being turned into something else entirely. â€œLooks like all hope isnâ€™t lost. Theyâ€™re doing a last ditch show of White Christmas,â€ Shelby pointed out. If they were going to save the theater from financial ruin with this one last production, they needed to pull out all the stops. â€œTyler has to come out of retirement for auditions.â€ Shelby stared Piper down over the rims of her glasses. â€œYou canâ€™t be serious.â€ â€œYou know nobody in town can dance like she can.â€ â€œItâ€™s been eight years.â€ â€œHave you thought about what this could do to her?â€ Piper felt a prick of guilt. There were very good reasons Tyler hadnâ€™t set foot on stage in the better part of a decade. But it was the right thing. It had to be. Tyler needed this as much as the Madrigal did. For closure. â€œItâ€™s not going to be traumatic. Iâ€™ve got a heart, for Godâ€™s sake. Itâ€™ll be good for her to get back on the stage and remember how much fun we used to have. Sheâ€™s moved on.â€ Or she would, if she went through with the show. â€œI hope youâ€™re right,â€ Shelby said and turned back to their next patient. Another two hours and most of a bottle of hand sanitizer passed before Piper could shake free for her lunch break. She raced across town to Edison Hardware, buoyed by an optimism that Tyler wouldnâ€™t let the specter of one Brody Jensen keep her from doing her part to save the theater. She could see Tyler through the door, ringing somebody up. Shoving inside, she announced, â€œDust off your dancing shoes, we have a mission.â€ Tyler didnâ€™t even pause in giving her instructions to Mrs. Van Buren. Okay, going to be a tough sell. The older woman grinned. â€œThis is going to look so good! Iâ€™ll be sure to take pictures.â€ â€œYou do that. Be sure to tag us on Facebook!â€ Tyler called. â€œI will!â€ As soon as Mrs. Van Buren was out of the shop, Piper hopped up on the counter and swung her legs. â€œDid you hear what I said?â€ With a bland stare, Tyler began stocking cabinet hardware. â€œIâ€™m pretty sure youâ€™re the only one who remembers I ever wore dancing shoes.â€ Piper hated that Tyler had given up something she loved so much. â€œNot the truth and so not the point.â€ â€œAnd what is the point? You know I donâ€™t dance anymore.â€ â€œYou will for this. The Madrigal is in danger.â€ Tyler paused, a drawer pull in her hand and that hesitation gave Piper hope. â€œThatâ€™s terrible! But what does it have to do with me?â€ â€œTheyâ€™ve agreed to let us make one last effort to raise the money to save it. To prove that it can be a sound investment. Nate is directing a production of White Christmas. And youâ€™re going to unearth your dancing shoes from whatever graveyard you left them in to audition for it with me.â€ â€œYou used to dance?â€ Norah Burke, the new city planner, spoke up from her seat at the project table. â€œI havenâ€™t danced or sung since college.â€ Piper hopped down and pointed an accusatory finger. â€œYou lie. Youâ€™ve sung and danced with me as recently as last month.â€ â€œWhat we do in the privacy of my living room under the influence of a pitcher of margaritas is between you and me and no one else. And wipe that considering smirk off your face, Norah.â€ â€œWhat smirk?â€ â€œThe one that says youâ€™re trying to figure out how you can use that in your next community development scheme.â€ She shoved plastic wrapped hardware into the Plexiglas bins. â€œOh, come on, Tyler,â€ Piper insisted. â€œItâ€™s not like youâ€™ve lost your chops. Youâ€™d be a shoe-in for Judy. And I would make the perfect Betty.â€ â€œGive me one good reason why I should come out of retirement.â€ Piperâ€™s lips twitched. â€œLetâ€™s just say, weâ€™re doing it for a pal in the Army.â€ One hand fisted on her hip, Tyler leveled a Look in her direction. Unabashed, she shrugged. â€œWhat? It was appropriate. Weâ€™re doing it in the name of the good old days. Think of how many great memories we have of the Madrigal. Our first show. Our first lead roles. My first kiss with Robert Hudson in Meet Me In St. Louis. Where you first fell in love withâ€”â€ Piper cut herself off. Nope, do not go there. â€œOkay, so maybe that oneâ€™s not good to remind you about, but you canâ€™t hold his asshatishness against the Madrigal.â€ â€œWhose asshatishness?â€ Norah asked â€œHe who will not be named,â€ Piper intoned, with a look that told Norah sheâ€™d tell all at the first opportunity. Away from Tyler. â€œIâ€™m not holding anything against the Madrigal,â€ Tyler said. Her expression shifted to resignation before Piper could say prove it. â€œWhen are auditions?â€ â€œTonight at six.â€ â€œTonight! Piper, Iâ€™ve got to close. Iâ€™ve got nothing to wear here and no time to go home and get my shoes, not to mention Iâ€™ve got nothing prepared for an audition.â€ â€œSo tell me where your shoes are and what you want, and Iâ€™ll go by and pick everything up for you.â€ â€œI still donâ€™t have anything prepared.â€ â€œOh come on. As if you canâ€™t sing every single number from the show in your sleep.â€ The pair of them had done sing-a-long viewings of the movie for the last twenty years. â€œItâ€™s not the singing part that has me worried.â€ â€œTyler,â€ Piper drew out the plea to five syllables and folded her hands in prayer, complete with the puppy dog eyes that had, over the years, successfully convinced Tyler to go skydiving, be in a bachelorette auction for a hospital fundraiser, and add a set of very purple, very unfortunate highlights to her blonde hair. Tyler scowled. â€œYou donâ€™t fight fair.â€ â€œItâ€™s the Madrigal.â€ â€œFine. Iâ€™ll be there, but Iâ€™ll be a little late. We donâ€™t close until six.â€ Piper knew when to take her victory and run. â€œFabulous! Iâ€™ll meet you there with your shoes and your outfit. Where are they?â€ Tyler sighed. â€œTop shelf of my closet, in the blue box.â€ Piper gave a squee and wrapped Tyler in a rib-cracking hug. â€œIâ€™ll meet you there! Bye, Norah.â€ Without another word, she whirled and bounced out the door. She had just enough time to pick up Tylerâ€™s shoes before heading back to work. The Madrigal was a glorious old place. The kind of theater that told a story besides the ones being played out on the stage. As he stepped into the auditorium, Myles looked around, taking in the delightfully ostentatious woodwork and all the tiny touches remaining from an era when craftsmanship still meant something. Man, they didnâ€™t make them like this anymore. What a delightful surprise to find somewhere like this in his newly adopted hometown. A woman on the stage was running through â€œCount Your Blessings Instead of Sheepâ€. A more than passable rendition, he decided. At least on par with what he expected for community theater. He saw Nate settled a few rows back from the front, in prime position to watch all the action. Having no wish to interrupt, Myles headed about halfway down the aisle himself and slid into one of the plush velvet seats. He slid a notebook out of his messenger bag and began jotting down impressions of the building, observations of the hopeful players scattered around the room. A door to his left opened, and a woman slipped out, quiet as a shadow. Hello gorgeous. She wore one of those dance costume things that looked like a swimsuit with a long flowy skirt. A leotard? The skirt trailed behind her like the tail of a comet as she moved up the side aisle. She was clearly on a mission, looking for someone or something. From the stage, somebody launched into a painfully off-key rendition of â€œBlue Skiesâ€. Ignoring that poor guy, Myles twisted in his seat to watch the woman progress toward the back. Had she already auditioned? Before the question even finished forming, sheâ€™d come back from the lobby, headed back toward the door to the stage. Up front, Nate quietly conversed with the â€œCount Your Blessingsâ€ chick. As the ear torture ended, she rose and headed up the aisle. Myles called out softly as she came by, â€œHey, nice audition.â€ She stopped. â€œThanks. Are you auditioning?â€ â€œHadnâ€™t thought about it. Iâ€™m here doing a story for the paper. Have you got a minute to chat with me?â€ â€œSure.â€ She dropped into a chair beside him. â€œIâ€™m Charlotte Ballard.â€ â€œMyles Stewart. So is this your first audition or have you done this for a while?â€ â€œDefinitely not my first. Iâ€™ve been doing community theater off and on for about four years now. A lot of the folks here tonight have been in it a lot longer than that.â€ â€œYeah?â€ â€œThe Madrigal is important around here. Once the word hit the grapevine that it was in danger, the pressure was on to get the best of the best to auditions. Take this guy.â€ She nodded to indicate a blond guy that replaced the off-key gentleman. â€œIâ€™m Tucker McGee, and Iâ€™ll be auditioning for the role of Phil.â€ â€œWhatâ€™re you singing, Tucker?â€ Nate asked. â€œâ€˜Happy Holidays.â€™â€ The music started and Tucker launched into the number. Charlotte dropped her voice. â€œHeâ€™s been doing this since he was a kid. Heâ€™s part of the Old Guard talent.â€ Tucker was good. His vocal tone and expression were completely on point, and more importantly, he could move. Like, Danny Kaye himself kind of rhythm. â€œColor me impressed,â€ Myles murmured. â€œTucker is guaranteed to be Phil. Heâ€™s been the lead for anything requiring dancing forâ€¦well, ever it seems like.â€ Another woman passed Myles on the inside aisle, moving with slow deliberation toward the stage door, an expression caught somewhere between nostalgia and dread. There was a story there. There was, he suspected, a story for a great many of the people auditioning tonight. Individual connections to the Madrigal. â€œOh!â€ Charlotte exclaimed softly, laying a hand on Mylesâ€™ arm to draw his attention to the woman in the aisle. â€œNow this is interesting. Thatâ€™s Tyler Edison. She hasnâ€™t been on stage in eight years but she used to be amazing. Nobody in town can dance like her.â€ â€œEight years, huh? I thought you said youâ€™d only been doing this for four.â€ â€œI have. But Iâ€™m a local. Around here, Tyler is legend.â€ â€œHas she been gone?â€ â€œOh no, she runs the hardware store. Itâ€™s been in her family for generations.â€ â€œSo why the long hiatus?â€ â€œThe whole thing was really sad. She was half of the community theater power couple. From the time they were seventeen, if there was a love story, they were the leads. Which was easy for them because they were crazy about each other, so most of it wasnâ€™t acting. Everybody figured theyâ€™d get married after college.â€ â€œI gather that dream went poof.â€ â€œBoth his parents were killed in a car crash. He just wasnâ€™t right after that. One day he just up and left her, without a word. Never came back to Wishful. Tyler hasnâ€™t been on stage since. Too painful, I guess.â€ â€œApparently the theater is more important than heartbreak.â€ Perspective of the players, he thought, making another note about doing a series of interviews with each of the final cast members to give that human touch for what the theater meant to them. â€œJust you wait. Sheâ€™s going to be amazing,â€ Charlotte assured him. Myles didnâ€™t have to wait long before Tyler came out to center stage, Miss Gorgeous on her heels. The pair of them held cardboard fans and sported identical grins. â€œTyler Edison.â€ Myles could hear the smile in Nateâ€™s voice. â€œWell, itâ€™s about damn time you came back. Good to see you.â€ Tyler lifted her hand in a wave. â€œI guess I donâ€™t have to ask which number you two are doing,â€ he said. â€œGo on then.â€ The music cued up and they launched in to â€œSistersâ€. Myles forgot he was just watching auditions, so clearly did the two women slide into the roles of Betty and Judy Haynes. The gorgeous brunette played a fabulous Betty, and he found himself wishing for a Phil to banter with over her brown eyes. When the number was over, Betty gave Tyler a high five. â€œNailed it.â€ Tyler answered with a hip bump. â€œWeâ€™ve still got it.â€ If Nate didnâ€™t cast those two as the female leads, he was insane. They were perfect. Myles thought about what the director had said, that the only way to really experience the theater was from the stage. Dancing wasnâ€™t his strong suit, but he had a pretty decent voice that he tended to use only in the shower or on long road trips. If he jumped in and auditioned for Bob, he might get a chance to read with his Betty. Not that he expected to actually get the part, but itâ€™d be worth the effort just for a chance to meet her. â€œSo if I decided to actually audition, who do I need to talk to about that?â€ Charlotte pointed at Nate. â€œJust tell the director. Heâ€™ll put you on the list.â€ Mind made up, Myles slid out of his seat and went to talk to Nate. â€œHey, whoâ€™s that new guy sitting with Tucker?â€ From stage left, Piper followed Tylerâ€™s gaze to the card table set up center stage for a reading of the scene in Novelloâ€™s where the Haynes sisters first meet Wallace and Davis. The prospective Bob was a bit leaner than Tucker, but just as tall. Brown hair a couple of shades darker than her own flopped endearingly into his eyes, giving him an appealing look that was saved from being too boyish by the clean angles of his jaw. â€œI donâ€™t know, but heâ€™s cute!â€ â€œDonâ€™t get any ideas,â€ Tyler groused. As if sheâ€™d be stupid enough to try to match-make Tyler with some strange guy. She had her limits. â€œNot for you, for me.â€ â€œHeâ€™s not one of my customers. Maybe heâ€™s new or from one of the surrounding towns?â€ New or nearby were both completely acceptable options in Piperâ€™s mind. In a town of five thousand, the dating pool tended to be shallow, so the arrival of new eligible bachelors merited checking out. Which was terribly Austenesque, but such was the reality of dating in a small town. â€œWell, I guess weâ€™ll find out in a bit.â€ They waited for their cue to join the boys. Piper snaked her hand out to grab Tylerâ€™s and squeezed. â€œIâ€™m glad you came out tonight.â€ Tyler tipped her head to Piperâ€™s shoulder and sighed softly. â€œMe too. It wasnâ€™t as bad as I thought it might be.â€ Oh thank God. Piper had been terrified that sheâ€™d made some mistake forcing Tyler into this. â€œGood. I want to save the Madrigal, but not at the expense of legitimately hurting you.â€ â€œIâ€™m not that breakable anymore.â€ Piper had her doubts about that. â€œThatâ€™s our cue,â€ Tyler said. Saved by the script. Piper slid into character as they approached the table, adding a layer of restrained propriety to her usual manner as she introduced herself and her â€œsisterâ€ before taking a seat. Unlike the others, she and Tyler didnâ€™t have scripts in their hands. Given Nate had pulled the dialogue straight from the movie, they didnâ€™t need any. Bob didnâ€™t seem to need to check his often and his aggrieved expression toward Tucker as Phil suggested he had a solid familiarity with the source material himself. Points for him, she decided. As Tucker-Phil and Tyler-Judy got up to go dance, Piper fixed an earnest expression on her face, prepared to come clean. â€œYou know, I was so surprised to get that letter from Benny,â€ Bob said. â€œMr. Wallace, Iâ€™m afraid youâ€™ve been brought here under false pretenses.â€ Bob watched her as she went through the explanation, outlining Judyâ€™s deception. His eyesâ€”which were a lovely shade of caramel brown, fringed by those long lashes so often wasted on guysâ€”fired in challenge and amusement as they verbally sparred, scooting their chairs closer together. They were completely in sync, fixed in the roles, which was the best kind of stage chemistry to have. It made the role less like acting and more like just living under really bright lights. â€œMr. Wallace, since the chances of our seeing each other again is extremely remote, I donâ€™t think itâ€™s important to go on arguing.â€ â€œIâ€™ll drink to that,â€ Bob said, and laid his hand over hers. Piper felt the zing all the way down to her toes. Maybe not just stage chemistry. â€œGood!â€ Nateâ€™s praise from the auditorium floor shattered the moment, making it too weird to flip her hand over to lace with his, which she couldâ€™ve blamed on the part if the director hadnâ€™t spoken. Bob let her go and rose as she did, while the next quartet got set up to read. He followed Piper into the wings. â€œThat was well done,â€ she told him. â€œAre you a White Christmas fan?â€ â€œItâ€™s my sisterâ€™s favorite Christmas movie, so itâ€™s been part of the holiday rotation forever. Iâ€™m Myles by the way.â€ He smiled at her, and Piper felt a pleasant flutter in her belly. Nerves? This guy was making her nervous? Holy crap, when was the last time that had happened? â€œPiper.â€ â€œSo are you new or part of the Old Guard?â€ Myles asked. At her questioning look, he said, â€œI was chatting with Charlotte earlier. She mentioned a lot of the people coming out tonight were long-running players in WCT productions.â€ â€œOh, well, yes. I grew up in this theater. Iâ€™ve been acting since elementary school.â€ â€œNot surprised. I figure youâ€™re a shoe-in for Betty.â€ Piper was inclined to agree, but it wasnâ€™t the kind of thing you said out loud. It was both rude and bad luck. â€œWhat about you? I know youâ€™re new in town.â€ His brows lifted. â€œDo I have a sign?â€ She grinned. â€œYouâ€™re either new in town or you have the best immune system this side of Jackson.â€ â€œHuh?â€ â€œIâ€™m a nurse. If youâ€™d lived in Wishful any real length of time, youâ€™d have eventually rotated through my clinic. Everyone does.â€ â€œOh.â€ He gave a self-deprecatory laugh. â€œYeah, guilty as charged. Iâ€™ve only been here about two and a half weeks. Still finding my footing in the community.â€ Thereâ€™d been no ring on his finger during the reading, but some people mightâ€™ve taken it off to stay in character. She wasnâ€™t about to come right out and ask. â€œAre you new to theater?â€ â€œI am. This is, in fact, my first audition ever.â€ Piper felt a pang of disappointment. Heâ€™d done well, no question, but for this show they needed the absolute best of the best, and that meant an actor with more experience. Too bad. Sheâ€™d have enjoyed playing Betty to his Bob. As the second quartet finished the reading, Nate hollered for her to come back out as part of a new group. She shot Myles a flirtatious smile. â€œDuty calls. Welcome to Wishful, Myles. I hope to see you around.â€ â€œCount on it,â€ he called after her. She held in the instinctive fist pump and took her place on stage. Heâ€™d won the lead. Myles was reasonably sure no one was more shocked about it than him. His whim had just claimed his nights and weekends for the next three months. But given those nights and weekends would be spent playing opposite the lovely Piper Parish, he couldnâ€™t find much reason to complain. Heâ€™d wanted to get to know her. Hell, as Bob to her Betty, heâ€™d even get to kiss her. Were stage kisses different from real kisses? He didnâ€™t know. But, he looked forward to learning. The auditorium was full of cast, crew, and musicians, all overflowing with an infectious, effervescent optimism. The general mood made him feel like whistling a tune and executing a little dance step as he strode up the center aisle toward the stage. Not that he really knew any dance steps outside the waltz, foxtrot, cha cha, and swing, and he wasnâ€™t sure how much heâ€™d retained since eighth grade. Cotillion didnâ€™t exactly prepare one for this brand of choreography. But as Bob, he didnâ€™t have that much dancing to do. That was all on Tucker McGee. He and Tyler were already executing some kind of complicated dance move on one side of the stage. Piper strode out from one of the wings. Stage right, Myles reminded himself. Part of doing this was learning the right lingo. He headed up on stage via the orchestra pit stairs, trying to decide whether to shoot for nonchalance or Iâ€™m-a-newb-please-help-me-navigate-unfamiliar-waters. She looked up as he approached and whatever clever thing he mightâ€™ve said bled right out of his brain. â€œHi.â€ Oh brilliant, Stewart. Way to impress the girl. â€œSo you survived auditions,â€ she said. â€œCongratulations.â€ â€œThanks. It wasâ€¦unexpected. But Iâ€™m excited. Glad to be here. Hopefully you can share your greater experience and keep me from mucking anything up.â€ But Piper wasnâ€™t paying attention to him anymore. Silence fell around them. Myles looked around for the reason, thinking maybe Nate had come in and the actors were going automatically silent out of respect or something. Across the stage, Tyler had stopped, having obviously just come out of a turn. She stared at something in the back of the auditorium. As the silence stretched out, more of the cast seemed to follow her example. Myles looked toward the back, seeing a guy standing just inside the lobby doors. He seemed suspended, waiting for something. The waves of tension between the newcomer and Tyler were almost strong enough to push Myles back a step. This had to be the heartbreaker Charlotte told him about. The floorboards of the stage popped, and the tableau unfroze. Finding out the details about what the hell was going on seemed like a good excuse to keep talking to Piper. Before he could make an attempt, Nate requested an attention grabber on the piano. The pianist banged out a little riff, calling rehearsal to order. â€œâ€¦choreographer will be here on Friday, so the name of the game this week is to learn all your music and start learning your lines. The schedule is in your script packets.â€ Nate picked one up, waved it. â€œNow, if any of you are familiar with the actual stage production of White Christmas The Musical, you will know that it bears little resemblance to the movie we all know and love. I chose this show based on nostalgia. White Christmas is my favorite Christmas movie, and itâ€™s incredibly well-known. People hear weâ€™re putting on a production, thatâ€™s the story they expect to see. So I contacted the Irving Berlin estate and requested permission to make my own adaptation of the movie script. Given we are a town of less than five thousand, they donâ€™t have a lot of fear this will become a raging success, so they actually said yes. That said, itâ€™s a one shot deal. We get one three week run of the show, and thatâ€™s that. Permanently retired after that. But at least weâ€™ll be adhering as faithfully as possible to the actual plot and script of the movie, with minor changes to facilitate our set limitations. So come and get â€™em and letâ€™s get started.â€ Myles headed to the back of the line, intending to position himself beside Piper, the better to pick her brain. She stood close to Tucker, her voice low. â€œWe have to do something. Weâ€™ll never pull off the show if Tyler isnâ€™t at the top of her game.â€ Instead of butting into their conversation, Myles hung back, shamelessly eavesdropping, which was a reporterâ€™s default setting. â€œWhat exactly do you propose we do? Brodyâ€™s back after all this time. Heâ€™s got as much right to be here as any of us,â€ Tucker said. She gave him a withering look. â€œWeâ€™ll agree to disagree on that.â€ â€œIt should be fine. Heâ€™s just my understudy. I can run interference, keep them separated, if need be.â€ â€œTo keep this from being a blood-letting, that might be wise.â€ The two of them looked across the stage to where the guyâ€”Brody presumablyâ€”was attempting to talk to Tyler in the line. Myles could practically see clouds of condensed air rolling off her for all the luck the guy was having. His writer brain began churning. No question, this was the guy whoâ€™d broken Tylerâ€™s heart. And she was all kinds of pissed to be seeing him again. Potential scenarios flew through his head, how heâ€™d construct the story, what kind of ending heâ€™d expect. Would Wishful be getting a show within a show? Given the way small towns seemed to operate and the fact that people still remembered what had happened close to a decade later, it seemed like a good possibility. Not that heâ€™d be airing their personal conflicts in the paperâ€”he was a journalist, not a gossip columnist. But he couldnâ€™t stop wondering whether Tyler and Brody would be able to put aside their personal crap in the name of saving the theater, or if Tyler would bail, leaving the role of Judy to her understudy Charlotte. Time would tell. In all her years living in Wishful, Piper had never actually been to the offices of The Wishful Observer. Sheâ€™d seen the doors, of course, facing Oxford Street, but sheâ€™d never had reason to go inside or even much wonder about the people who worked there. She read the paper like everybody else and just kind of accepted that it would come out when it came outâ€”which, the last few years, was three times a week. But now she had a face attached to the paper. A very nice face sheâ€™d been running lines with for two weeks now. And she was curious. She was also on a mission. An older woman looked up as Piper stepped inside. â€œCan I help you?â€ â€œIâ€™m looking for Myles.â€ â€œHeâ€™s on the phone just now, but if you want to take a seat just over there, youâ€™ll be able to see him when he gets off.â€ She gestured to a small waiting area across from a glass wall. Piper thanked her and sat. Myles moved beyond the glass, pacing around his desk with some kind of headset on, a Slinky rolling from hand to hand as he talked. She wasnâ€™t sure what sheâ€™d expected the office of a newspaper editor to look like, but his wasnâ€™t it. A variety of toys sat around the room. More things like the Slinky that he could play with while he thought. Framed posters of comic book women lined one wall. Not the over-sexed, busty kind sheâ€™d seen in her cousinâ€™s comic books, but sharp, smart-looking women. She wondered who they were. Myles himself was a strange contradiction, in an untucked, French-cuffed button-down and jeans. Deliberate or the product of a failure to do laundry? God, he was adorkable. He put her in mind of a much younger, much sexier Perry White. Not that she needed to find her costar sexy. Sexy absolutely wasnâ€™t the name of the game with Betty and Bob. They were wholesome. But as she watched, he leaned over to look at something on a computer screen, slipping a pair of horn-rimmed reading glasses on. Piperâ€™s mouth watered. Oh, she had a real soft spot for the sexy geek look. Very Jude law from The Holiday. Myles finished his call and removed the headset and glasses, tossing both in the midst of the piles of paper on his desk and running a hand through his thick, dark hair. Catching sight of her, his serious expression shifted to a smile, and he crossed to open the door. â€œWell this is a pleasant surprise. Come on in.â€ â€œThanks. I read your article in the paper this morning. The interview with Barbara Monahan. It was really poignant.â€ â€œIâ€™m working on a series of interviews with various members of the cast. I want to really bring home to the community how much the Madrigal means to people.â€ â€œI think itâ€™s a great idea.â€ She dropped into a chair opposite his desk as he leaned back against the front of it. â€œI really appreciate what youâ€™re trying to do here. Especially since youâ€™re new to Wishful.â€ â€œGood journalism is about people, about community, and I took over the paper here because I wanted to be at the heart of a good one.â€ Dozens of questions rolled through her brain. Personal stuff better suited to a date than a business meeting. But she wasnâ€™t quite ready to get down to business. Instead she smiled and jerked her head toward the posters on the wall. â€œWho are they?â€ â€œMy inspirations. Thatâ€™s Lois Lane, Brenda Starr, and Vicki Vale.â€ â€œOkay, Lois Lane I know. Who are the other two?â€ â€œTheyâ€™re all kick ass female reporters from the comic world. Lois from Superman, obviously. Brenda had her own comic series, and Vicki is from Batman.â€ Piper angled her head. â€œWhy them instead of, say, Perry White or that editor guy from Spiderman? The one with the mustache?â€ Myles grinned. Damn but he had a great smile. â€œJ. Jonah Jameson. Well, for one, the ladies are more fun to look at. And for another, they were the ones who put their butts on the line to get out there and report the truth. I find that more appealing than just sitting behind a desk.â€ â€œAnd is getting out from behind the desk why you decided to audition? Nate said you had come that night just for a story.â€ That was edging into the personal again, but she couldnâ€™t help herself. â€œWell, partly. I did decide that telling the story from the perspective of one of the performers would be another way to engage people. But honestly? I wanted to meet you.â€ Piper blinked, surprise and pleasure diffusing her cheeks with warmth. â€œThatâ€™s...flattering.â€ â€œI donâ€™t want to overstep any boundaries or make something weird. Are you seeing anybody?â€ She wasnâ€™t quite sure what to think about his candor. â€œNo, Iâ€™m not. But you should know, I have a rule.â€ â€œA rule?â€ â€œI donâ€™t date my costars.â€ He didnâ€™t look perturbed. â€œWhyâ€™s that?â€ â€œA couple reasons. For one, the show comes first. If you start dating your romantic lead and everything goes south, itâ€™s a lot harder to sell the part. Iâ€™m not going to do anything to endanger the quality of this show.â€ â€œFair point. And the other reason?â€ â€œActing as romantic leads tends to engender a false sense of intimacy. The nature of the roles often means you fall into feelings of a relationship without going through the right order of things. So, you may start seeing each other during the show, keep seeing each other after, and then find out that what you thought was real attraction ends up being just a part you played that became familiar.â€ â€œThat sounds like the voice of experience.â€ â€œOh, it is. I have been burned before. So, while Iâ€™m incredibly flattered and not a little intrigued by your interest, Iâ€™m not going to pursue it while weâ€™re acting together.â€ It was as direct and soft a put down as she could manage. She expected a flicker of irritation or something. Instead he asked, â€œDo you have a waiting period?â€ â€œA waiting period?â€ â€œSure. If you think thereâ€™s false intimacy or whatever, do you have some standard waiting period for after the show is over to let it wear off? Because, if you do, Iâ€™d like to mark it on my calendar.â€ â€œSeriously?â€ she laughed. â€œIâ€™m nothing if not dogged in pursuit of the things that interest me.â€ â€œI can see that.â€ The frank interest combined with the easy way he respected her boundaries made him all kinds of appealing. And that had her wanting to break her own rules. Before she could go down that path, she said, â€œThree months.â€ â€œSo, three months after the show closes, youâ€™d entertain the idea of going out with me?â€ â€œSure.â€ He picked up his phone. â€œSiri, remind me three months from December 20th to call Piper up for a date.â€ â€œOkay, Iâ€™ll remind you.â€ Piper couldnâ€™t hold back the grin. â€œYouâ€™re incorrigible. I shouldnâ€™t find that appealing.â€ â€œIâ€™m just gonna put it out there that if you change your mind, I have no such rules.â€ â€œNoted.â€ He pushed away from the desk and circled around behind it. â€œSo, since you obviously didnâ€™t come here for purposes of charm or seduction, what can I do for you?â€ Piper pushed the flirt aside and pulled out the ad copy for the show. Time to get down to business. â€œWhatâ€™ll you have?â€ Myles asked. â€œAnything,â€ Piper replied. â€œWell, tell me what you want to dream about, and Iâ€™ll know what to give you.â€ The pause stretched out as Myles waited for her to return the line. â€œOh, whatâ€™s that?â€ she asked. His Bettyâ€™s brain was not at all on the task at hand. She kept glancing out at the loading dock, where Tucker and Brody were horsing around, fencing with PVC pipe and egging each other on in assorted accents. Did she have a thing for Tucker? Maybe he was the reason she had that rule about not dating your costars. Certainly heâ€™d been around the theater almost as long as she had. But Myles simply hadnâ€™t gotten that vibe between them. â€œI got a whole big theory about it. Different kind of food makes for different kind of dreams. Now, if you have a ham and cheese on rye, youâ€™ll dream about a tall, cool blonde. Peanut butter and jelly, you get a nice comfortable, average Joe. And a turkey on wheat with barbeque potato chips sandwiched in will get you a shape-shifting marmoset from Pluto.â€ Not even a flicker of response. â€œItâ€™s a little chilly in here, isnâ€™t it?â€ she returned. Yep, that confirmed it. Head totally not in the game. As Myles started to speak, he caught a flash of Tucker leaping off the loading dock in some kind of spin kick. â€œTucker!â€ Piper screamed and raced to where he now lay, curled in a ball, arms wrapped protectively around his leg, swearing a blue streak. Myles was right behind. Piper crouched down, voice brisk and efficient. â€œLet me see.â€ Red-faced and faintly breathless, Tucker didnâ€™t want to unbend. â€œIt hurts. Christ, it hurts.â€ â€œWhat happened?â€ Nate demanded, coming out from the stage doors. â€œWe were just fooling around,â€ Tucker groaned. â€œDoing spin kicks off the back of the truck.â€ Tyler crouched on his other side, rubbing his back in a soothing gesture. â€œYou are aware you arenâ€™t twenty-one anymore?â€ â€œBrody can still do it.â€ Over Tuckerâ€™s head, Tyler fixed Brody with a glare that placed all the blame squarely on him. He held his hands up in a How could I have known? gesture. â€œItâ€™s broken,â€ Piper announced. â€œI can feel the bump in the bone.â€ â€œIt canâ€™t be broken,â€ Tucker argued. â€œI have to dance.â€ He tried to stand, using Brody and Piper to lever himself up. But the moment he put weight on it, the leg buckled and he howled. â€œGet him in my back seat,â€ Piper ordered. â€œIâ€™ll take him to the emergency room.â€ â€œI donâ€™t wanna to go the ER.â€ â€œThen you shouldnâ€™t have broken your leg on a Saturday,â€ she said practically. Tucker looked miserably at Nate. â€œSorry. I would never have tried it if I didnâ€™t think I could pull it off.â€ Nate scrubbed both hands over his red and gray beard, as if he could somehow rewind the last few minutes. â€œItâ€™s all right. You just get yourself taken care of. This is why we have understudies.â€ Tyler went pale at that. â€œSomebody take him. Iâ€™ll go get my car.â€ Myles stepped in. â€œHere, let me.â€ He swapped positions with Piper, taking Tuckerâ€™s weight. She scurried down the alley. â€œYou want to sit down?â€ Brody asked. â€œIf I go down, youâ€™ll just have to haul me back up. Itâ€™s not so bad as long as Iâ€™m not putting pressure on it.â€ â€œYou can thank the adrenaline for that,â€ Myles told him. â€œItâ€™ll hurt like a sonofabitch later.â€ â€œPersonal experience?â€ Tucker asked. Piper backed her car down the alley. â€œSki accident back in college. High point was the ski bunnies who felt compelled to entertain me the rest of the week since I was lodge-bound.â€ Tucker laughed. â€œPerhaps some of our cast members will take pity.â€ â€œIt wonâ€™t be me,â€ Piper told him, opening the door to the back seat. â€œIdiots donâ€™t get special caretaking.â€ But her hands were careful as she, along with Myles and Brody, managed to get him into the seat. â€œWeâ€™ll all sign your cast, man,â€ Brody told him. â€œNo profane drawings,â€ Tucker ordered. â€œIâ€™m an attorney. Iâ€™ve got a reputation to uphold.â€ â€œAw, whereâ€™s the fun in that?â€ Brody teased. Regret and concern flickered over Piperâ€™s face as she glanced over at Tyler. â€œWeâ€™ll keep you posted.â€ â€œJust take care of him,â€ Tyler said. As soon as the alley was clear, Nate hollered, â€œLetâ€™s get this truck unloaded.â€ The rest of the cast members, whoâ€™d been hanging around the loading dock watching the drama unfold, sprang into motion again. â€œThank God it happened early so weâ€™re not having to pull a substitution right before opening night,â€ said Nate, heading back inside. Myles could see the indecision on Tylerâ€™s face. She wanted to quit. And, really, Myles kinda couldnâ€™t blame her. Piper had been right about the intimacy engendered by playing love interests in a show. To do that with someone who used to be an actual love interest had to be tough. Her shoulders squared up, her eyes hardening. Decision made then. Good for you, Myles thought. Brody crossed over to her on the loading dock. â€œIâ€™ve never seen him miss the landing before.â€ â€œA lotâ€™s changed in the last eight years,â€ she said. â€œTuckerâ€™s not quite as spry as he used to be.â€ She wasnâ€™t talking about Tucker. Brody obviously knew it and was wise enough not to comment. â€œTruckâ€™s empty,â€ said Nate. â€œLetâ€™s get to rehearsal.â€ Brody gestured toward the stairs, a sweeping, courteous motion. â€œAfter you, Miss Haynes.â€ So it was to be a show in a show after all. Bringing up the rear, Myles hesitated at the threshold, thinking back to Tuckerâ€™s fall. Piper had screamed before he ever hit the ground, almost as if she knew he was going to get hurt. â€œâ€”unless I was to get myself engaged or something real fast,â€ Tyler said. â€œYeah but where you gonna find somebody way out here?â€ Brody asked. The lines were right but the body language for the scene was all wrong. Instead of snuggling up next to him as she tried to convince her â€œPhilâ€ that he was the best candidate, Tyler looked like she wished she was on Mars. â€œCut!â€ shouted Nate. Obviously, Piper wasnâ€™t the only one noting the problem. She gnawed her lip wondering if this would get better or if sheâ€™d made a huge miscalculation. â€œPiper.â€ She turned toward Myles and realized it wasnâ€™t the first time heâ€™d said her name. They were supposed to be running lines in the wings, and she was falling down on her part in a spectacular fashion. She turned her back to the stage and put her attention fully on her co-star. â€œIâ€™m sorry. Iâ€™m sorry.â€ â€œYouâ€™ve been awfully distracted the past week.â€ â€œI know. I suck. Iâ€™ll be better, I promise.â€ Instead of exasperation, he offered her a smirk. â€œYou know, you might have a better time running your lines if you werenâ€™t busy plotting interference with your best friendâ€™s love life.â€ She froze, her heart giving a panicked lurch. Only years of training to speak calmly despite nerves kept her voice from shaking. â€œWhat?â€ He crossed his arms and gave her a busted look. â€œI know what you and Tucker did.â€ Casting a fast look around to see that they were alone, Piper yanked him into a prop closet and shut the door. Of course, that closed them in to blackness. â€œDammit, whereâ€™s the light?â€ She began to pat the walls around the door, aware of Myles shifting against who knew what behind her. She heard the sound of metal scraping ceramic as he found the pull chain and turned on the anemic bulb above them. He shouldâ€™ve looked ridiculous, standing there with a fake palm tree at his back and the tentacles from a purple foam octopus dangling above his head. Instead he looked just a little bit dangerous with that oh youâ€™re in trouble now expression. â€œWhy would you think Tucker and I did anything?â€ she demanded. â€œWell, the fact that you dragged me in here for something other than making out like teenagers kind of screams guilt. I was guessing before, but you just confirmed my suspicions.â€ Piper cursed her impulsivity. But maybe this was still salvageable. â€œWhat is it you think we did?â€ â€œYouâ€™re pulling a Phil and Judy on Phil and Judy. Handy that youâ€™re a nurse. Did you bring anybody else in on things or did you put the cast on yourself?â€ Oh God. Oh God, he really had figured it out. â€œBut...how did youâ€¦?â€ â€œIâ€™m an investigative reporter by training, sweetheart. And as good an actress as you are on stage, subterfuge isnâ€™t your forte.â€ Oh no. Did Tyler suspect? No, surely not. She wouldnâ€™t hesitate to come kick Piperâ€™s ass into the next county if she knew. Another spurt of panic kicked her into motion. She flew at Myles, pressing him back against the palm tree. â€œYou canâ€™t tell a soul. This is too important.â€ â€œIs it important for the show or important for your friend?â€ Frustration bubbled. â€œBoth.â€ He didnâ€™t know the history, couldnâ€™t understand what this was really about. â€œAnd exactly how does that fit in with that personal code of yours? You told me you wouldnâ€™t do anything to endanger the show. And Iâ€™m thinking this setup is a ticking time bomb of potential nasty.â€ He wasnâ€™t wrong. Watching for signs of disaster was why sheâ€™d been absolute crap with learning her part. â€œYou donâ€™t understand,â€ she insisted. â€œYouâ€™re right. I donâ€™t. But Iâ€™ll give you a chance to plead your case over dinner.â€ Surely she hadnâ€™t heard him right. â€œDinner?â€ â€œAt my place,â€ he continued, â€œso we wonâ€™t risk being overheard, since thatâ€™s a concern for you.â€ â€œYouâ€™re blackmailing me?â€ â€œTechnically this is extortion.â€ The bastard had the nerve to offer a cheeky grin. â€œSo whatâ€™s it going to be? Dinner or do I blow this whole thing sky high?â€ â€œYouâ€™d seriously march out there right now and tell them?â€ â€œWhat do you think?â€ Piper stared at him. That was the thing. She didnâ€™t know whether heâ€™d do it or not because she didnâ€™t know him. Not really. Sheâ€™d very carefully kept her distance since that day in his office, to try to limit her own temptation. She wanted to think he wasnâ€™t monster enough to expose her treacheryâ€”and Tyler would see it as treachery, no questionâ€”but she wasnâ€™t willing to call his bluff to find out. He had a helluva poker face. â€œOh for Godâ€™s sake. Dinner. Then at least Iâ€™ll get the chance to explain.â€ â€œOkay then. Tomorrow night? After the afternoon rehearsal?â€ â€œFine.â€ Sheâ€™d just chew her nails down to nubs in the meantime. â€œIâ€™ll cook,â€ he said. Could he cook? Piper decided it didnâ€™t matter either way. It wasnâ€™t likely sheâ€™d feel much like eating once she got through telling the tale. â€œDeal.â€ She meant to offer her hand to shake on it but realized that it was pressed to his chest. Apparently had been since sheâ€™d shoved him back against the palm tree. She started to jerk it back, but he covered her hand with his, holding it in place. â€œDeal.â€ Jesus Christ, this closet was really freaking tiny, and they were really freaking close. Was he radiating all that heat or was it her? Mylesâ€™ lips curved into a devilish smile. â€œYou wanna keep running lines from in here?â€ â€œWhat?â€ Dammit, her voice was breathless. â€œI mean, itâ€™s nice and cozy and all, but I expect weâ€™ll be missed before long. Unless youâ€™re into the making out like teenagers part. Iâ€™m completely amenable to that, show be damned.â€ Piper snatched her hand away and stumbled back. â€œYouâ€™re impossible.â€ But she was forced to admit, as she snuck back out of the closet, he was also very, very tempting. Back ramrod straight Piper marched past Myles into his living room and tossed her purse in a chair. â€œLetâ€™s get this over with.â€ Oh, this was starting beautifully. After heâ€™d gotten the cold shoulder all through rehearsal, Myles suspected heâ€™d made a serious miscalculation. Time to fix that. â€œOkay, before we go any further with this, Iâ€™ve had a little time to think about how I came off yesterday, and I want to assure you that Iâ€™m really not an asshole and have no intention of pressuring you for anything. This wasnâ€™t meant to force you into a corner or to break your personal rule about dating co-stars.â€ She narrowed her eyes. â€œThen what was it?â€ â€œTeasing and curiosity. If youâ€™d been cooler-headed, I wouldnâ€™t have known for sure I was right. But instead you dragged me into a closet.â€ Where heâ€™d had to exercise considerable restraint to keep his hands to himself because what else was he going to think about when trapped behind closed doors in an itty bitty space with a beautiful woman? Piper studied him with speculation. â€œSo youâ€™re saying youâ€™re letting me off the hook?â€ Myles cringed. â€œAt the risk of leaving my incorrigible curiosity unsatisfied...yes. I wonâ€™t say anything to anybody. But you should know, the unsatisfied curiosity of a reporter is like the intellectual equivalent of blue balls. Iâ€™m hoping youâ€™ll have mercy on my brain.â€ She snorted as heâ€™d hoped she would. It was such fun saying outrageous things to get a reaction out of her. â€œItâ€™s such a fine brain, I hate to be that cruel. Especially about something that you could probably dig up yourself if you knew the right people to ask. The back story isnâ€™t too much of a secret around town.â€ â€œThen youâ€™ll stay for dinner? Tell me the story, while I cook for you?â€ â€œIâ€™ll stay for dinner and tell you the story, while I help you cook. I canâ€™t just sit with idle hands.â€ â€œI can work with that.â€ Myles led her back to the kitchen and began pulling ingredients out of the fridge and pantry. â€œWhat are we having?â€ â€œI figured a nice simple stir fry. Easy to customize based on personal preference and fast. What do you like?â€ â€œEverything. But not too spicy.â€ â€œNo Thai chilies then.â€ He grabbed a bamboo cutting board and pulled a vegetable cleaver from the knife block. â€œCan I trust you with this?â€ She arched those delicate brows and put on an innocent face. â€œI donâ€™t know, can you?â€ â€œIâ€™m watching you, Parish.â€ He set an onion, bell pepper, zucchini, and some mushrooms beside her, and turned away to start rice in the cooker. â€œSo, you already know that thereâ€™s history between Brody and Tyler.â€ â€œCharlotte told me they were the theaterâ€™s golden couple, and then he up and broke her heart.â€ â€œThatâ€™s the short, very uncomplicated version. Iâ€™ve known Brody forever. We started in theater around the same time. Tyler came later.â€ The steady crunch, thunk of the knife punctuated her narrative. â€œOur senior year of high school, she won the role of Laurie in Oklahoma. Brody was Curly. Theyâ€™d known each other for years. This is a small town, so that was unavoidable. But theyâ€™d never actually thought about each other like that until they hit the stage together. That show was...unparalleled. Because they really did fall in love as Laurie and Curly did and the audience could feel it. Their chemistry was undeniable. People still talk about that performance all these years later.â€ Myles set the oil to heat in a large wok and began slicing pork chops into bite-sized pieces. â€œI guess that wasnâ€™t one of those false intimacies.â€ â€œNo. It was the real deal. They were inseparable after that. And so freaking perfect for each other, it was hard to remember they hadnâ€™t always been together. Seeing them dance together, hearing them sing... Iâ€™m good. Tuckerâ€™s good. Tyler and Brody, when they played together, were professional quality. If theyâ€™d wanted, they couldâ€™ve taken Broadway by storm.â€ What heâ€™d seen this last week hadnâ€™t come anywhere approaching professional quality. As if sensing his thoughts, she looked up from the thin strips of bell pepper. â€œI can see that look of doubt on your face. You have to remember that this was before.â€ â€œWhat happened?â€ Piper sighed. â€œBrodyâ€™s parents were killed in a car accident our senior year of college. He fell apart. Went to a seriously dark place. Tyler took care of him, handled all the details, even though it gutted her, too. Sheâ€™d lost her mom to breast cancer in high school, so sheâ€™d been really tight with Mrs. Jensen. We thought, maybe, things were getting better when she convinced him to go out for Grease. Of course they got the leads. That was the default back then. By the time the show was over, Brody seemed more like himself, like he was finally starting to heal. And then a week after the show closed, he just disappeared. No note, no phone call, no nothing. Tyler actually called out the police, sure something awful had happened to him. It was months before she had proof he wasnâ€™t dead in a ditch. And it wasnâ€™t because heâ€™d contacted her himself but because heâ€™d arranged for a management company to deal with leasing his parentsâ€™ house.â€ â€œOuch.â€ He slid the meat into the waiting oil, listening to the sizzle and pop. â€œShe was devastated. And until this show, she hasnâ€™t set foot on stage since. Itâ€™s been eight years, and she hasnâ€™t moved on.â€ â€œSo when Brody showed back up...?â€ â€œAt first Tucker and I thought the best tactic would be keeping them separated. Iâ€™m the one who pushed her into auditioning. Iâ€™m the one who got her in this position in the first place.â€ She passed him the bowl of chopped vegetables, separated out by how long each would take to cook. Fishing out the pork and setting it aside, Myles began adding veggies to the wok. â€œWhat changed your mind?â€ â€œHe did. I can see how he looks at her. I donâ€™t know why he left or even, really, why he came back. But he still looks at her with his heart in his eyes. And Tyler wouldnâ€™t be so upset if she felt nothing. As long as Brody was the understudy, she could more or less avoid him. Avoidance wasnâ€™t going to fix anything. They need to work out their crap. Whatever the hell it is. So Tucker agreed to take one for the team so that Brody would have to take his place and Tyler would finally have to face him.â€ â€œThe theatrical equivalent of locking them in a room together until they kill each other or learn to play nice.â€ He added the meat back to the pan. â€œHere, stir this for a bit while I throw together sauce.â€ Piper took the wooden spoon. â€œSomething like that.â€ â€œSo what is it you hope to accomplish with this little ruse?â€ Soy sauce, brown sugar, some melted butter. Myles whisked the combination together before adding it to the pan. Piper gave the lot of it a good stir before setting the spoon aside to let the sauce bubble and thicken. â€œI donâ€™t know. A happy ending would be nice. God knows she deserves it. But...resolution at the very least. Closure. Whichever way it goes, she never got that before, and sheâ€™s never going to move on with her life until she gets it.â€ Myles considered the situation. â€œYour heartâ€™s in the right place, and I agree, the chemistry is apparently there, but thereâ€™s too much bad history between them. They need to be reminded of the good.â€ â€œHow?â€ The first inklings of a plan began to percolate in the back of his brain as he pulled out plates, dishing up rice and dumping the fragrant stir fry over the top. â€œWell, youâ€™ve already manipulated them this far. Are you up for a little more?â€ â€œPossibly.â€ She followed him over to the table and picked up chopsticks instead of the fork heâ€™d set out, just in case. â€œWhat did you have in mind?â€ They toasted with chopsticks. â€œWeâ€™ll need to loop in Tucker.â€ Speakeasy was packed. Every table was full, and dozens of other patrons crowded around, waiting for the show. Whether Mylesâ€™ plan worked on Tyler and Brody or not, Piper was forced to admit that the fund-raising aspect of it would definitely help out the Madrigal. The cast had commandeered the row of tables closest to the tiny stage. Brody sat camped out dead center, but there was no sign of Tyler. Myles materialized out of the crowd. â€œEverythingâ€™s set. The request list is pre-populated with duet requests for Tyler and Brody, and the donation jar has been seeded with some cash already to get things rolling.â€ â€œThatâ€™s great. But what happens if Tyler doesnâ€™t show?â€ What the hell had Tucker been thinking, sending Brody to break the news about the fundraiser? â€œDonâ€™t worry, sheâ€™ll be here. Tuckerâ€™s on it.â€ â€œWhat if weâ€™re wrong?â€ â€œWeâ€™re not,â€ Myles assured her. Piper caught her lip between her teeth. â€œBut what ifâ€”â€ He gripped her shoulders. â€œHey. Itâ€™s going to be okay.â€ Those hands slid down her arms and squeezed her hands. The gesture comforted her, reminding her that she wasnâ€™t in this alone. Grateful, she turned her hands to clasp his and squeezed back. Someone moving past bumped into her, sending her stumbling into Myles. His eyes met hers and his lips curved in that slow, melted caramel grin. It was the prop closet all over again. Heat and humor and that damnable pull. You have the rule for a reason. But as she looked up at him, mouth not more than an inch from his, Piper was having a really hard time remembering what that reason was. Before she could do something stupid, like lean in to kiss him right in the middle of the pizzeria in front of God and a goodly portion of the population of Wishful, a cheer rose up from the door, spreading through the crowd. â€œAnd thereâ€™s our girl,â€ said Myles. Piper took a deliberate step back, missing his touch the moment he released her hands. â€œItâ€™s show time.â€ Tyler looked dazed as she trailed Tucker and his crutches through the crowd, blindly accepting handshakes and well wishes. Sheâ€™d clearly forgotten how beloved sheâ€™d been. Tonight would be a good reminder, Piper decided. â€œHey there, everybody! Whoâ€™s ready for some music?â€ Tucker, official emcee for the night, grinned at the crowd. More cheers and claps. Piper and Myles joined the rest of the cast and a handful of other folks sheâ€™d acted with in the past as Tucker launched into his spiel, waving a hand at the marker board mounted on an easel beside the stage. â€œSo hereâ€™s how this is gonna work. Weâ€™ve got our performers listed in tiers. The more you love â€™em, the more itâ€™ll cost to have them sing for you. The bottom tier will cost you five bucks per song per person. The top is pricier. Twenty bucks per song, per person. You want a duet, you get to pick who sings it and pay for the pair. Group stuff, same deal. We encourage you to pool your funds and remember that this is for a good cause, so donâ€™t be shy! You can pick anything in the book over here. Weâ€™ll start off with a freebie to kick off the night. This oneâ€™s for everybody.â€ On cue, Piper and the others crowded onto the stage. People were already lining up, cash and checkbooks in hand. At least half a dozen people stuffed money in Tuckerâ€™s jar as they kicked things off with a rousing rendition of â€œAny Way You Want It.â€ Piper was first on deck after the group dispersed to the clutch of tables up front. As she launched into â€œDiamonds Are a Girlâ€™s Best Friendâ€, she was gratified to see Brody drop into a chair next to Tyler. They had actual conversation without trying to kill each other. Progress. In response to whistles and applause, Piper took her bow and handed off the mic to Tyler for her first solo of the night, â€œMaybe This Timeâ€ from Cabaret. Off to the side, Rick Stevens figured out how to operate the lights on the tiny stage and spotlit her for it. Piper shot him a thumbs up and fell into Tylerâ€™s vacated chair. â€œI didnâ€™t think sheâ€™d come.â€ â€œYou know sheâ€™s not going to let the Madrigal down,â€ Brody said, not taking his eyes off her. â€œItâ€™s too big a part of her history.â€ It was too big a part of her history with him, which was why sheâ€™d worried. But Piper wasnâ€™t going to open that can of worms with Brody. Even without the pre-seeded list, the crowd kept Tyler and Brody steadily busy. Tyler started off a bit stiff during â€œWe Go Togetherâ€ from Grease. But she made Ethel Merman proud as she dueled with Brody on â€œAnything You Can Do.â€ By the time they rotated into Garth Brooks/Trisha Yearwood duets, sheâ€™d hit her stride, having fun and playing the crowd, sparking off Brody in a way she hadnâ€™t done in years. Piper guzzled a glass of lemon water and leaned toward Myles. â€œI think itâ€™s working!â€ â€œCâ€™mon. Weâ€™re up.â€ He tugged her to her feet. â€œWe are? Singing what?â€ â€œâ€˜Quando, Quando, Quandoâ€™. BublÃ© and Nelly Furtado.â€ â€œWho signed us up for that?â€ she asked. Myles grinned back at her and offered a mic. â€œWho do you think?â€ She couldnâ€™t help but laugh. â€œSo itâ€™s like that, is it?â€ His only answer was to take her hand and jerk her into him with a spin. As he began to croon, he began to move. Following the subtle pressure on her hip, Piper fell into his rhythm, grinning as she recognized a slow cha cha. He wasnâ€™t smooth like Tucker or electric like Brody, but for an improv number, Myles was pretty damned good. She sang her response, getting into the dance with some undulating hip action that had the crowd whistling. He upped the ante again, taking a firmer grip on her hip and following the motion of her body, and Piper forgot about the crowd, able to focus only on the man and the music. As they sang the final notes, Myles brought Piper to a stop. Her eyes were dilated, the pulse in her throat hammering, and it took everything he had not to take her mouth right then and there. Applause broke the spell. She recovered first, turning toward the crowd with a laugh. â€œMyles Stewart, ladies and gentlemen! Our Bob Wallace is a man of hidden talents.â€ Understanding his cue, Myles gave a sweeping bow. They vacated the stage for Tucker. Myles wanted to pull Piper into the hallway, outside, anywhere but in the middle of all these freaking people. But she went back to her seat. Resigned, he followed. After doing Nat King Cole proud with his rendition of â€œL-O-V-Eâ€, Tucker made way for Tyler. As the opening notes of â€œItâ€™s All Coming Back To Me Nowâ€ began to play, she looked out at the audience and arched a brow. â€œReally?â€ Somebody cheered from back near the door. Tyler just shook her head and offered up a little wave as she launched into the song, hamming it up, and wringing every ounce of parodied emotion out of the piece. Brody didnâ€™t seem to be amused by the performance. The poor guy looked like heâ€™d been gut punched, white-faced and a little sick. What was that about? When Tyler finished, Brody met her at the edge of the stage to take the mic. He murmured something that had her frowning before she returned to her table. The music started and something in the room palpably shifted as Brody fixed his gaze on Tyler and began to sing, â€œIâ€™ll Stand By You.â€ This. This is what Piper was talking about. Myles watched, as captivated as everyone else in the room, while Brody serenaded Tyler with a sincerity that evoked all the feels, as his sister would say. Through it all, Tyler sat, cheeks flushed, twitching in her seat. When he finished, the crowd went nuts, rising to a full-on standing ovation. Eyes still on her, Brody stepped off the stage, passing the mic off to Myles. Tyler was up in a second, jerking her head toward the fire exit and the alley. Without a word, Brody followed. â€œOh boy,â€ muttered Piper. â€œThatâ€™s either really good or really bad,â€ Myles observed. â€œI canâ€™t stand it.â€ She broke away from the crowd of singers and cut toward the front door. Myles tossed the mic to Charlotte and trailed after her. â€œPiper, youâ€™re going to freeze in that dress.â€ â€œDonâ€™t care.â€ â€œYou canâ€™t just eavesdrop on them.â€ â€œThis from a newspaperman?â€ She spared him a bare glance of disbelief. â€œWhat kind of reporter are you?â€ She had him there. Giving up, he followed her outside, sneaking around to the alley that ran behind Speakeasy. They peered through the space between one of the employeesâ€™ cars and the wall as Tylerâ€™s laugher rang out. Hands clasping hers, Brodyâ€™s face was serious. â€œI hardly think this is a laughing matter.â€ That just elicited another round of giggling. Oh Jesus, he didnâ€™t do something stupid like propose, did he? Tyler managed to choke down her mirth long enough to get out, â€œBrody, Ollie is my dog.â€ â€œYourâ€¦dog,â€ Brody said. â€œBut I heard you talking, at the shop earlier, saw the toys, and I thoughtâ€¦â€ He trailed off. The smile was still in her voice as she said, â€œYou thought he was my son. That he was our son.â€ â€œIâ€¦yeah.â€ There was no mistaking the disappointment on his face. Tylerâ€™s laughter died. â€œBrody, honey, did you honestly think it was possible that I couldâ€™ve had a child, your child, and somehow you wouldnâ€™t have known about it? That I would have kept such a thing from you, if it were true?â€ He released her to scrub both hands over his face. â€œOkay, yeah, when you put it that way, it does sound ridiculous. But I justâ€¦from what you said it sounded like you were talking to a child. And then he was seven. Andâ€¦â€ â€œYou leapt to some really impressive conclusions. Why didnâ€™t you just ask outright? If not me, then Tucker or Piper. They couldâ€™ve told you otherwise.â€ â€œI figured if they hadnâ€™t told me, it was for a reason. Same with you. Iâ€¦ Iâ€™m sorry for making things weird. God, you must think Iâ€™m an idiot.â€ In the face of his supreme embarrassment, something in Tylerâ€™s expression softened. â€œDoesnâ€™t have to be weird if we donâ€™t let it be. Come on, Iâ€™m sure thereâ€™s a list another mile long of requests waiting for us.â€ She held out a hand, probably the first gesture of peace and welcome sheâ€™d made to him since he got back. When he took it, she pulled him in for a hug. â€œThank you.â€ â€œFor what?â€ â€œFor wanting to do the right thing.â€ As soon as the door slapped shut behind them, Piper surged up from her crouch, flinging her arms around Mylesâ€™ neck and hugging him tight. â€œYour plan worked!â€ She kissed him, a quick smacking thing, ended on a bubbling laugh almost before it was begun. Myles was out of self-restraint. As he slid his arms around her, Piperâ€™s delight shifted to confusion, then awareness. He didnâ€™t give her time to pull away before capturing that mouth heâ€™d been dreaming about for weeks. If sheâ€™d pushed him away, heâ€™d have let her go. Reluctantly, but heâ€™d have managed. Instead she slid her fingers into his hair and opened for him on a sigh. That almost instant acquiescence fired his blood, had him wanting all of her in fast, greedy bites before starting all over again. But heâ€™d been waiting too damned long for this, so he forced himself to slow down, keep the tone slow and easy, with just a hint of an edge to remind her that he wasnâ€™t the mild-mannered music producer he played on stage. Heâ€™d wanted this, wanted to taste her mouth in private, before they crossed that line in whatever fashion Nate deemed appropriate for the show. She tasted of the lemon water sheâ€™d been drinking all night. There was nothing of the timid Betty Haynes about her now. She was the one who dove deeper, pulling him under with a sexy little moan that had his control fraying. Myles had just enough sanity left to remember where they were. In an alley, only a few dozen feet away from their entire cast of co-stars and a good portion of the entire town. With his last shreds of control, he eased back. Piper stared up at him, cheeks flushed, lips wet and red. Her breath wasnâ€™t altogether steady. As he watched, awareness seeped back in for her, too. Before she could say anythingâ€”like This was a mistakeâ€”Myles spoke. â€œTyler and Brody arenâ€™t the only ones who make a good team on stage and off.â€ For the first time since heâ€™d met her, Piper Parish was speechless. And it was pretty damned adorable. He chucked her under the chin and stepped back before he dove back in where theyâ€™d left off. â€œIâ€™ve got a late night to put the paper to bed properly, but Iâ€™ll see you at rehearsal, Betty. Meanwhile, Iâ€™ll be dreaming of March 20th. And so will you.â€ Whistling, Myles walked away, leaving his lovely leading lady staring after him. Copyright 2015 Kait Nolan Just For This Moment Wishful Romance # 4 Read the exciting continuation of Myles and Piperâ€™s romance! * * * A madcap modern marriage of convenience tale sure to leave fans begging for more * * * Maybe there hasn't been actual blood, other than a few paper cuts, but Myles has put plenty of sweat into his independent, local newspaper, and he's even willing to admit to a few manly tears. Certainly, the paper has been his mistress since he moved to the small town of Wishful, Mississippi, and he doesn't feel it's hyperbolic in the least to say it owns a piece of his soul. He's building his dream, independent of the life laid out for him by his family, and that means everything. There's nothing he wouldn't do to ensure its success. * * * Piper fell hard for Myles when they co-stared in the production of White Christmas that saved Wishful's historic Madrigal Theater. Not in love, she's careful to remind herself, but into very serious like, and certainly outrageous, chemistry-fueled attraction. But Piper knows that the bright lights of the stage can wreak havoc with perspective. She's been burnt by them before, when an on-stage passion fizzled into disappointment and heartache. That's why she put on the brakes with Myles, and she admits to herself that the fact that he played by her rules and waited only adds to his appeal. * * * When Myles tells her that a major investor is pulling out of the paper, leaving him with a huge loan to repay or lose his control over what he's built, Piper is devastated for him. But when he jokingly admits that the best option he's come up with is to marry a showgirl to gain access to a trust fund, well, that just sounds like a plan to Piper. After all, why not take this great guy on marriage test drive? He's worth having just for this moment, however long it lasts. But as their fake marriage turns alarmingly real, they'll have to decide if they're in it for the moment or forever. Chapter One WELL? WHAT DO YOU think?â€ Myles Stewart sat across the table, trying to read the inscrutable face of his lunch companion. Simone chased the bite of muffaletta with sweet tea and lifted her arm to get the attention of their waitress. Corinne wandered over, more sass in the sway of her hips than sheâ€™d had when Myles moved to Wishful seven months before. He hadnâ€™t gotten the story on her yet. â€œGet you a refill on that tea, hon?â€ â€œIâ€™d like to speak to the cook.â€ â€œSomething wrong with your sandwich?â€ Corinne asked. â€œIâ€™d just like to speak to the cook,â€ Simone said evenly. With a worried frown, the waitress headed back to the kitchen. â€œWhat are you doing, Simone?â€ She just lifted a sardonic brow and continued to sip her tea. Myles glanced back to the kitchen where Mama Pearl Buckley, Goddess of Pie and Gossip and owner of Dinner Belles Diner, stepped through the door. Her brows drew down in thundercloud formation as she looked Simoneâ€™s way. Oh, this is not good. Not good at all. â€œSeriously, if somethingâ€™s wrong, theyâ€™ll fix it. Thereâ€™s no need to call Omar out.â€ â€œOmar, huh?â€ Omar Buckley, master of the kitchen and Mama Pearlâ€™s youngest son, pushed into the room, a grease spattered apron stretched across abs that were just as flat as theyâ€™d been when heâ€™d played on scholarship as running back for Ole Miss eight years agoâ€”before the knee injury that blew his football career. Myles had heard that sad tale over coffee several months back. Omarâ€™s face was a twin of his motherâ€™s, and he had the shoulders and arms to back up his displeasure. Shit. The last thing Myles needed was Simone making enemies her first day on the job. Myles could see the headline now. Out-of-Towner Earns Buckley Wrathâ€”Banned From Diner for Life. The lunch crowd went silent as Omarâ€™s shadow fell over the table. Everyone waited with baited breath to see how things would unfold. â€œSomethinâ€™ I can do for you? Maâ€™am.â€ This last he added after a pause. Simone tipped her head back, blatantly scanning him from head to toe and back again, her lovely, mocha-colored face absolutely deadpan. â€œOmar, I presume?â€ â€œYeah.â€ â€œI just wanted to shake the hand of the man who made the best damned muffaletta Iâ€™ve had outside the French Quarter.â€ Myles released an audible breath. The tension in Omarâ€™s face smoothed into a grin. â€œThat a fact?â€ â€œI lived there for close to ten years, so Iâ€™m in a position to know.â€ She offered her hand. â€œSimone Grayson.â€ Omar took it, his bigger palm swallowing Simoneâ€™s. â€œYou visiting?â€ â€œNew in town. Glad to know Iâ€™ll be able to satisfy at least some of my culinary cravings for Nâ€™Awlins.â€ Now that the threat was past, Omar made his own lazy survey of Simone, ending with an expression that said heâ€™d be happy to satisfy any craving she had, culinary or otherwise. And Simone wasnâ€™t shutting him down. Wasnâ€™t that interesting? As the silence stretched out between them, charging like a freaking Duracell, Myles fell back on old social training for proper introductions. â€œSimoneâ€™s the new full-time reporter for The Observer.â€ â€œThat right?â€ â€œOmar does a bi-monthly food column for the paper. He rotates out with Tom Thatcher from The Spring House.â€ â€œI look forward to testing out some of your recipes.â€ â€œYou do that. And if you have a hankering for somethinâ€™ in particular, you let me know. I might can do somethinâ€™ about it.â€ Simone smiled, and Myles was put in mind of a cat thatâ€™d cornered a particularly tasty form of prey. â€œIâ€™ll keep that in mind. Thanks.â€ As Omar headed back to the kitchen, Simone dove into her muffaletta in earnest. â€œYou need a cold shower?â€ Myles asked. â€œBecause Iâ€™m pretty sure you just cranked up the temperature in here a good fifteen degrees.â€ She shrugged. â€œLetâ€™s just say Iâ€™m more than a little glad I let you talk me away from The Times-Picayune.â€ â€œAnd I consider that one of my greatest coups. I told you youâ€™d love it here.â€ His phone dinged, signaling a reminder. Myles slid it from his pocket and glanced at the screen. Call Piper up for a date. Myles couldnâ€™t stop the grin from stretching ear to ear. Finally. Heâ€™d met Piper last September, during auditions for the Wishful Community Theater production of White Christmas. As Bob to her Betty, heâ€™d held her, kissed her, spent hours with her on set and off. And heâ€™d gone more than half crazy for her in the process. But the lovely and talented Piper Parish did not date her co-stars. Some B.S. about the false intimacy of the stage, which had seemed reasonable at the time heâ€™d agreed to it. Heâ€™d been waiting three months. Months where they didnâ€™t get to hang out or talk more than the occasional text. Well, and the monthly karaoke night up at Speakeasy Pizzeria. The woman loved her karaoke and damned if he hadnâ€™t gone and learned half the music from Broadway just for the chance to sing with her. But that was more a group thing, not a one-on-one hang out opportunity. So heâ€™d kept waiting. Ninety long, lonely days for her self-imposed edict to pass. And now, time was up. Hot damn. Maybe he could swing by the clinic where she worked to ask her in person before he headed back to the paper. â€œYouâ€™re looking awfully happy.â€ â€œWhy wouldnâ€™t I be happy? I stole one of the most talented reporters Iâ€™ve ever had the pleasure of working with from one of the best papers in the country, Iâ€™m having a damned fine cheeseburger for lunch, and the paper is finally turning an actual profit.â€ â€œA good thing, too, as Iâ€™d like to actually get paid.â€ No sooner had Myles shoved the phone back into his pocket, then it beeped again, this time with an incoming text. He fished it out and read the message from his general Jill-of-All-Trades, Patty Hamilton, who heâ€™d inherited when he bought The Wishful Observer. Patty: Your investorâ€™s attorney is here. Myles frowned. â€œSomething wrong?â€ Simone asked. â€œNot sure.â€ He texted Patty back. Did we have a meeting scheduled? Patty: No. He wonâ€™t say what itâ€™s about. He? Not the usual woman? Patty: No. Never seen this one. According to his card, heâ€™s one of the partners from her firm in Atlanta. That wasâ€¦odd and more than a little disconcerting. What could he want? Be there as soon as I finish up lunch. Looked like he wouldnâ€™t get the chance to swing by the clinic to see Piper after all. Because he didnâ€™t want to wait, he thumbed a quick text to Piper. Timeâ€™s up, Buttercup. When can I see you? Like some love-struck teenager, he stared at the phone, hoping to see the little gray bubble with dancing ellipses that would indicate an immediate reply. But there was nothing. And hell, the clinic could be under a rush with God knew what. They were smack dab in the middle of prime-time sinus infection season. She wasnâ€™t about to be texting when she was supposed to be taking blood pressure or temperatures or giving somebody a shot. Calling himself an idiot, he put the phone away and finished inhaling his lunch. Simone got the rest of hers to goâ€”which came complete with Omarâ€™s number scrawled on the Styrofoam boxâ€”and they hot-footed it across the town green and down the street to the humble offices of The Wishful Observer. Myles didnâ€™t let himself get uptight or worried. His investor probably just wanted another progress report or additional explanation of some of the expansions Myles wanted to make. The hot-shot lawyer out of Atlanta was probably just stopping by because he was on his way to somewhere else. Right, because Wishful is so on the beaten path? By the time he stepped through the doors, Myles was willing to concede he felt a little bit nervous about the drop-in meeting. Those infantile nerves turned into awkward tweenagers at the sight of Pattyâ€™s face. â€œWhat?â€ he asked her. â€œHeâ€™s in the conference room. Just sitting there like an extra in a Terminator movie.â€ â€œAre we talking T-800 here or T-1000?â€ â€œTough call. I wasnâ€™t brave enough to try to kosh him over the head to see if he liquefied to fix himself.â€ Simone looked impressed. â€œYou know Terminator?â€ â€œPlease. I have three sons. I donâ€™t know what he wants, Myles, but be careful in there.â€ Wanting to reassure her, he squeezed Pattyâ€™s shoulder. â€œItâ€™ll be fine.â€ Stepping into the small conference room, Myles thought perhaps this guy shouldâ€™ve auditioned as an extra for The Matrix. He looked like a better dressed Agent Smith, and Myles half expected to see an earwig partially covered by the perfectly cut brown hair. â€œMr. Stewart.â€ When the words didnâ€™t come out with the same measured tone as Mr. Anderson, Myles was almost disappointed. This guy had a cultured, country club Southern drawlâ€”the kind of accent Myles could imagine him practicing in front of a bathroom mirror, while quoting Atticus Finch. â€œThat would be me. Iâ€™m afraid you have me at a disadvantage, sir.â€ â€œIâ€™m John Bondurant, from Bondurant, Meadows, and Leach. Iâ€™m here on behalf of your investor.â€ He didnâ€™t offer his hand to shake, so Myles dropped into a chair. â€œOf course. What can I do for you, Mr. Bondurant?â€ â€œMy client has reviewed the latest progress reports you forwarded on and is, quite frankly, disappointed in the profit and loss statements.â€ As unease slithered through him, Myles wished desperately they were in his office, where his desk was covered in toys he could pick up to occupy his hands. What he would give for a Slinky just now. â€œI realize the profit margin is a bit thin right now, but Iâ€™ve had less than a year to get the paper turned around. Some of the equipment needed updating, and Iâ€™ve had to expand my staff to accommodate the increased workload.â€ If you could call moving from three employees to four and adding a high school intern a real staff expansion. â€œNevertheless, my client is concerned that your rather...ambitious plans are more optimistic than realistic.â€ â€œChange takes time. And businesses of any variety require solid investment before they really have an opportunity to grow.â€ How many times had he heard that refrain growing up? Damn it, he knew business, and he knew newspapers. What he was doing here was working. Rome wasnâ€™t built in a frigginâ€™ day. Mr. Bondurant pulled a folder from his shiny leather briefcase. â€œMy function today is as messenger, Mr. Stewart. You neednâ€™t justify yourself to me.â€ Eying the folder like it would bite him, Myles slowly reached out and took it. There were only a few sheets inside. He pulled his reading glasses from his inside jacket pocket and read through the papers, feeling his cheeseburger congeal and harden with every word. â€œThis is insane. I canâ€™t possibly have the full payment on the loan by then. Thatâ€™s not even two months! This isnâ€™t what we agreed to.â€ â€œOn the contrary, my client is exercising the right to pull out of the investment. In light of last quarterâ€™s returns, my client is well within rights according to the original agreement.â€ â€œWell, we need to revisit the damned agreement, then. This is ludicrous. I want to talk to your client. Directly.â€ â€œThatâ€™s not possible. My client deals only with proxies. Iâ€™d be happy to take your counter offer back and present it, but I advise you, Mr. Stewart, to begin looking for other investors. The loan payment is due at the end of the forty-five days or you forfeit ownership of the paper.â€ â€œTheyâ€™ll make such beautiful babies, with her pretty face. Better hope for a boy first because those girls will be so pretty, theyâ€™ll need a big brother to beat the boys off.â€ Why did I let Mom and Leah talk me into this? Piper Parish sat in the middle of a long table at the Wishful Country Club, as black-and-white clad wait staff wove around the bridal party, removing the salad platesâ€”spinach and strawberry salad with poppyseed dressing, of courseâ€”contemplating whether it might be more enjoyable to stab herself in the eye with her salad fork, as she listened to her Great Aunt Beatrice extol the virtues of the bride-to-be. Carrie Jo was a jobless, twenty-two-year-old, barely out of college, who had no actual aspiration in life beyond getting her MRS degree, which sheâ€™d be achieving on Saturday. She was also Piperâ€™s cousin, which was exactly how Piper had been roped into being part of the bridal party. Considering she had actually changed Carrie Joâ€™s diapers, that was a little bit demoralizing. As the main course appearedâ€”nothing but chicken salad would do for a bridesmaidsâ€™ luncheonâ€”Piper wondered if she could get away with ordering a mimosa or three in the name of celebration. Given this was the Southern Baptist side of the family, she thought not. Moreâ€™s the pity. â€œI heard Richard wants her to stay home so they can go ahead and start trying for a family.â€ Yeah, thatâ€™s because they already got started on that part. Not that Carrie Jo had mentioned it. But as a nurse, Piper was well-attuned to the signs. That glow sure as hell wasnâ€™t wedding happies. She wasnâ€™t showing yet, and Piper was reasonably sure no one else in the family knew or suspected. Considering the holy hell that would break loose if they found outâ€”at least before Saturdayâ€”Piper wasnâ€™t about to be the one to reveal that secret. Let Carrie Jo have her day with as little drama as possible. â€œSo, when are we going to be hearing wedding bells for you, Piper?â€ Aunt Bea asked. â€œYouâ€™ve already let Leah beat you on that one.â€ Piper sipped at her sweet tea and muttered. â€œLast time I checked, marriage wasnâ€™t NASCAR.â€ Not that anybody in her family recognized that fact. Her baby sister had beat her in the race to the altar three years prior, at the ripe young age of twenty-four. And sheâ€™d delighted the entire family by immediately providing the first grandchild a year later. A boy, Preston, who, Piper was forced to admit, was cute as the dickens. Leah was winning points left and right. The remark earned her an aggravated look from her mother. It was an expression Piper was intimately familiar with. â€œWhatâ€™s that, dear?â€ her great aunt asked. â€œNothing. No wedding bells for me any time soon, Aunt Bea.â€ â€œOh, thatâ€™s a shame. But surely thereâ€™s someone special?â€ Because the idea that her life could revolve around something other a man certainly didnâ€™t compute. Before Piper could think of a snark-free reply to that, her phone vibrated. It was purely verboten that she had it out of her purse at all, but if she was caught, she had the excuse of being on-call at the clinic. Not that she actually was today, but they didnâ€™t know that. She slid the phone from beneath her napkin and swiped to unlock the screen. Myles: Timeâ€™s up, Buttercup. When can I see you? Piperâ€™s cheeks warmed, and she had to fight back the grin tugging at her lips. Speaking of someone special. The new-in-town and very sexy Myles Stewart had been her unexpected co-star in last fallâ€™s production of White Christmas. Heâ€™d been at auditions to write a story about the show and decided to audition himself just for the chance to meet her. Sheâ€™d spent the last months of autumn fighting the zing between them, sticking to her self-imposed rule about not dating her romantic lead. He hadnâ€™t blinked when sheâ€™d issued a cool-down period so that whatever intimacy engendered by the show could fade. Instead, heâ€™d spent the entire three months sending her outrageous texts and a daily notice of the countdown. Sheâ€™d done her best not to respond too often, encourage him too much. But those texts had been the highlight of her days, keeping that zing alive and well and impatient. And then there was karaoke night. She lived for the chance to sing with him. Theyâ€™d been carrying on the subtle flirtation through song all these months. And now the wait was over. Thank God. Her thumb hovered over the screen, prepared to tap out a replyâ€”Is now too soon? â€œPiper!â€ The sound of her motherâ€™s voice almost made Piper drop the phone. â€œAre you on your phone?â€ â€œNo maâ€™am. I was just checking in with the clinic.â€ Reluctantly, she slid the phone back into her purse beneath her motherâ€™s disapproving eye. Sheâ€™d be hearing about this later. Just as well she hadnâ€™t answered yet. Between work and all the wedding events, she wouldnâ€™t actually be free until after Saturday. Maybe Saturday night if the reception didnâ€™t run too late. â€œWhat were you saying about who you were dating?â€ Aunt Bea asked. Of course she hadnâ€™t lost that line of questioning. Piper considered saying something about Myles, but the last thing she wanted was any of her nosy relatives going to bother him at work to find out who his people were. Besides, they werenâ€™t dating. Yet. â€œI havenâ€™t had a lot of time for dating lately. We just recently wrapped the production of The Mousetrap.â€ She didnâ€™t usually go out for the non-musical roles, but sheâ€™d needed the distraction to keep from giving in to the temptation to blow her rule all to hell and jump straight into things with Mylesâ€”which, given the level of that zing, would likely have led straight to bed, thus breaking another personal rule. â€œWere you able to make it out to see the show? We got rave reviews.â€ â€œThatâ€™s nice, honey, but you really should devote more time to finding yourself a husband. That biological clock is ticking and you donâ€™t have all that much time left.â€ â€œRight, because my ability to pop out babies is my only valuable attribute as a woman, and, at twenty-nine, Iâ€™m ancient and my uterus is populated by dust and cobwebs.â€ â€œPiper Elizabeth!â€ Her motherâ€™s middle name invocation brought all conversations at the table to a screeching halt. Nearly a dozen pairs of eyes fixed on her. At Twylaâ€™s look of censure, Piper ducked her head. â€œSorry, Mama.â€ This was her longest standing and most challenging role to date. Pretending to give a damn about what the rest of her family thought she ought to be doing with her life. Because certainly what she actually wanted didnâ€™t matter to any of them. God forbid she be anything but the traditional, dutiful, meek Southern daughter. Carrie Joâ€™s mama jumped into the conversational breach. â€œPiper, Iâ€™m just going over some last-minute details with the caterer,â€ Jolene waved her own cell phone and nobody got on to her. â€œI think your reply card got lost in the mail. Do you have a plus one for the reception?â€ This just keeps getting better and better. She nearly said yes. For two long seconds, Piper considered asking Myles if heâ€™d be her plus one. She doubted heâ€™d say no and, God knew, his company would make the wedding less of a misery for her. But then her family would know about him. And heâ€™d know about her family. Neither of those things seemed likely to lead to a desire for him to spend more time with her. Better to suck it up and admit the truth. â€œNo maâ€™am, I donâ€™t.â€ â€œOh, thatâ€™s a shame.â€ Piper called on all her acting chops to keep her smile fixed in place and set in polite rather than feral lines. Carrie Joeâ€™s Aunt Rae spoke up. â€œI could set you up with Forest Langford. Heâ€™s getting out again since his divorce.â€ â€œWhat about Quincy Blackmon?â€ Libby Newsom, the maid of honor, suggested. Piper lifted a hand to stop the commentary and offers of pity dates. â€œNo, really, itâ€™s all right. I avoided having a plus one on purpose.â€ They all stared at her as if sheâ€™d sprouted a second head. â€œI just thought I could be of more help if I wasnâ€™t having to entertain a date. Thereâ€™s so much to manage, after all.â€ A blatant lie, but it effectively turned the tide of pity. â€œWell, isnâ€™t that just the sweetest thing?â€ Jolene declared. â€œSince youâ€™reâ€¦unencumbered, can I get you toâ€”â€ As Jolene took advantage of Piperâ€™s slip up to pile on additional wedding duties, all Piper could do was grin and bear it. Three more days. Three more days and this insanity is over.