Authors: Beth Ciotta
. If I rushed home I could pack and be on my way within thirty-five minutes.
Michael chucked the files back into the drawer with a curse, scraped a hand over his cropped hair. “Either they don't have the right look or they're not qualified. What the hell am I going to tell Arch?”
Arch Productions? Never heard of the company, but if they were clients of Michael's they had to be reputable. I stood, looped my travel tote over my arm. “Tell them I'm on my way.”
He met my gaze, bit the inside of his cheek. He wasn't sold.
“I'm a quick study, Michael. If you're worried about me learning my linesâ”
“No script. There's a character profile, but mostly this job hinges on improvisation.”
He peeled back his shirt cuff, checked the time. “You'd have to participate in passenger activities.”
“What, like bingo and shuffleboard? Is that supposed to scare me? Me, who's led many a conga line not to mention limbo and hula hoop contests?” I rolled my eyes. “I can't believe you're hesitating. This job has me written all over it.”
Visibly frustrated, he braced his hands on his hips and raised one brow. “You'd have to room with a man.”
That was a problem
I knew only headliners rated private cabins. So my roommate would be a guy. So what? If he was a dancer, ten to one he was gay. If not gay, he was probably in his twenties, which also nixed hanky-panky. Although I hadn't had sex in a year, good sex in even longer, I couldn't imagine screwing around with someone young enough to be myâ¦well, I just couldn't imagine. That didn't mean I wouldn't appreciate the company and the view. I'm divorced, not dead.
I matched his stance and expression. “Not to repeat myself, but, bonus.” I waited a beat. Two beats. Three.
Not a flicker of jealousy.
Irritated, I narrowed my eyes. “I'm perfect for this job and you know it.”
My ex-husband, soon to be ex-agent if he didn't buckle, sighed. “This isn't a normal gig, Evie.”
a gig. I shifted my weight, wishing I'd had time to swap my high-heeled sandals for my high-top sneakers. My feet smarted as badly as my conscience. I still hadn't told him about my botched audition. The words wouldn't come. Instead I said, “I need to get out of town for a while.” I pictured Michael and that barely legal model doing the horizontal mambo, let the hurt and anger swell. I nabbed his yellow-and-blue-striped tie and jerked him down to my eye level. A considerable distance since I was a foot shorter than his six foot two. “You owe me.”
Hunched over and momentarily frozen in his calfskin oxfords, he stared me down for a full minute. I don't know what won him overâmy persistence or my thinly veiled desperation. Maybe he'd read my mind and was feeling the teensiest bit guilty about Sasha. Or maybe he was considering my mental stability. After all, I had a death grip on the silk fabric looped around his neck.
Seemingly considering my sanity, he pried loose my fingers then smoothed his shirt and tie. “You do favor Pam in coloring.”
I performed a victory happy dance, giddy with excitement and relief. Eight days far and away from the city that no longer considered me an asset. Eight days to contemplate my future, padding my bank account in the process. Pam's misfortune was my blessing.
Ignoring my comical jigâa routine that
to amuse himâMichael glanced at his watch, the phone. “You'll be stepping into the shoes of a free-spirited newlywed.”
“A comedic role. My specialty.”
“Except we're not talking eccentric kook.”
“What are we talking?
“Think Judy Holliday in
The mental image was crystal clear, the irony priceless. “Ditsy ex-showgirl?”
He smirked. “You'd need to provide your own wardrobe. Miniskirts, microshorts, crop tops and stiletto heels. A Wonderbra wouldn't hurt.”
It never did. Since I was dead set against a boob job, I owned several bust-enhancing brassieres. On occasion I've been hired to portray a zaftig, although usually zany, character. As a freelance entertainer I often provide my own costumes, although in this instance it struck me as odd. A low-budget production show? On a cruise ship? Maybe it was an interactive murder mystery or improvisational theater like
Tony n' Tina's Wedding.
I started to ask specifics but was sidetracked by Michael's cocky expression. Clearly, he expected me to back down. Clearly, he thought he knew me, which he did. Familiarity used to make me feel special. Just now I felt predictable, boring and somewhat ill.
My self-esteem plummeted by the nanosecond. The need to escape Michael, this town, my life, was excruciating. I shrugged. “So I'll have to flaunt my body. I don't have a problem with that.”
“Since today.” This was it. Time to 'fess up. I waited until he turned his back in search of his briefcase. “Just so you know, I flashed the execs at the audition.”
He snapped the lid closed. “What do you mean, you flashed them?”
“They were looking for T & A, so I showed them T.”
He smiled. “Yeah, right.” Shaking his head, he leaned over, signed on to the Internet and speed-typed an e-mail.
I squelched a smug retort. I wasn't the only predictable one in this room.
I thought, as he signed off AOL, snagged his briefcase and shooed me toward the door.
“What time am I expected at the airport?” I asked, more than happy not to elaborate on the botched audition.
“In three hours. You'll have to haul ass. I'll call you on your cell with details.” He followed me out the door, down the stairs and onto the buckled sidewalk.
I glanced over my shoulder, cursing myself for wanting to impress him even as the words left my mouth. “You won't regret this, Michael.”
“It's not you I'm worried about,” he said as we moved toward separate cars, separate lives. “It's Arch.”
later I was packed and on my way to Philadelphia International Airport.
Arch, it turned out, was my contact. Arch Reece. An acquaintance of Michael's, although not once in the fifteen years that we'd lived together had he uttered the man's name. Michael hit the highlights of the gig during a cell phone call as I sped west on the Atlantic City Expressway. Details were minimal and cryptic.
“Arch has your ticket. He'll be waiting for you at American Airlines.”
“What's he look like?”
“Today? I'm not sure.”
Cryptic statement number one.
“Don't worry about it, Evie. He'll approach you.”
“How will he know what
“I e-mailed your head shot, along with a brief explanation about Pam. Be sure your phone's charged. You always forget andâ”
“It's charged,” I grumbled. So I forgot once in a while. So what? My world, unlike Michael's, did not revolve around phones and the Internet.
“He's not going to like the last-minute switch,” he said, blowing over my snippy tone, “but he's desperate and he trusts me and I trust you. You're anal when it comes to nailing a gig.”
My sarcasm garnered an exasperated sigh. “That was a compliment.”
Actually, it was. Michael respected my work ethics. He considered me a rarity. He'd told me so hundreds of times over the years.
I wish every performer was as conscientious as you, Evie.
Too bad you can't retire on stellar ethics, I thought moodily. Although rebelling hadn't secured my future, either.
My cheeks burned with contrition. Even though my anger was righteous, I regretted my rash behavior. A spotless reputation tarnished in one bonehead moment.
Flash. Poof. Tah-dah!
Optimistic professional turns into cynical hoyden. It felt scary. Like I'd contracted a mysterious disease.
I knew was dying.
If I wasn't me, the girl who brightened people's lives with a skit, song or dance, who was I? All my life, I'd felt as if I'd been put on this earth for one reason. To entertain. Even when my marriage crumbled, I still had purpose.
“Are you all right, hon?”
No. My world was falling apart, and my jaw hurt due to some hearty teeth grinding. I opened my mouth as little as possible for fear my jaw would lock. “I'm peachy.”
I squeezed the steering wheel, punched the gas. Must. Escape. Town. “So about Arch.”
“He'll prep you for the job before you board the ship. When he relays specifics, just remember I warned you.”
Cryptic statement number two.
Suddenly I wondered about the outrageously high but wonderful salary quote. “Meaning?”
“There's a small level of risk.”
“Just follow Arch's directive implicitly, otherwiseâ¦”
A pregnant pause raised the hair on my arms. “What?”
“Never mind. Just don't deviate from Arch's script and everything will be fine.”
“I thought there was no script.”
“You know what I mean.”
“Not really.” Approaching a toll booth, I eased left and zipped through the EZ-Pass lane, my imagination soaring. “Oh, jeez, Michael. Is this a variety act? You said I'll be playing the free-spirited newlywed. Is Arch the daredevil groom? Is he going to saw me in half or shoot an apple off of my head?” Visions of Folies BergÃ¨re sashayed through my head. “Please tell me this doesn't involve a rhinestone G-string and sequined pasties!”
He snorted. “As if you would bare your breasts for art.”
I smirked, slowing from seventy to sixty-five. The last thing I needed was a cop on my tail. I couldn't afford the time or the ticket. “You think you know me so well.”
“I know I know you.”
“Because you lived with me for fifteen years?”
“Meaning I'm predictable. Boring.”
“Meaning you're a creature of habit. Jesus, Evie, what's gotten into you? I've never known you to pick a fight.”
“On second thought maybe this gig is a blessing in disguise. Time away and a change of scenery can do wonders for the soul.”
He was worried about my soul? About me? Just as my blood started pumping with old, mushy feelings, his phone blipped with an incoming call.
“I've got to take this, hon. It might be Sasha.”
Cold resentment replaced the warm fuzzies. What was left of the professional me bid Michael a pleasant goodbye. The new cynical me, her voice growing ever louder, mentally shouted,
screw you, you traitorous bastard
The bastard called back three minutes later. His tone was clipped. “You flashed your tits for half a dozen execs?”
“And I didn't even get any beads.” This time it was me who hung up.
the Walt Whitman Bridge I spent the rest of the drive navigating heavy traffic. Two accidents on I-95 South, a bumper-to-bumper nightmare. Finding an opening in the airport's economy parking lot proved difficult. After driving up and down several long aisles, I spied a space. Finally.
As I pulled into the tight spaceâwhy don't people park between the appropriate lines?âit occurred to me that I should contact the client to let him know I was on the way. Yes, it would be close but I'd make it.
Exceptâ¦I didn't have Arch's number. Michael hadn't given it to me and I hadn't asked. He did say he gave Arch my number, intimating
â¦which he hadn't. What if he'd refused to take me on as a substitute for Pam? Although if that were the case, Michael would've called me. My phone hadn't rung, soâ¦
I rooted through my purse, snagged my cell phone, andâ¦Crap! No juice. Surely, I hadn'tâ¦
But of course I had.
I'd forgotten to charge it last night. This was all Michael's fault. He'd jinxed me.
I hurriedly plugged the phone into the cigarette lighter.
Come on, come on
Meanwhile, I climbed out of the idling car, dragged my supersize cherry-red suitcase off the backseat and positioned it by the driver's door. With my luck, check-in would charge extra for being overweight. Not me, the suitcase. It couldn't be helped. The zipper on my second suitcase busted, so I had to cram everything into Big Red. Thank goodness it was one of those expandable jobs. Something I'd spied on QVC. Still, it weighed a ton. Again, not my fault. I'd packed for two. Me and my alter egoâthe ditzy, sexpot newlywed.
Cursing the brisk temperature, I plopped back down in the driver's seat and powered on my cell. I punched speed dial to retrieve my messages. There were four. Three from Arch. One from Michael. I ignored Michael, who only ranted that Arch was trying to get in touch with me.
I searched my purse for a pen. Settling on an eyeliner pencil, I relistened to Arch's last message and scribbled his number on a fast-food napkin. Gosh, he had a sexy voice, and that accentâBritish? Scottish? I couldn't put my finger on it, but,
Heart racing, I punched in his cell phone number.
He answered on the first ring. “Where the bloody hell are you?”
As far as greetings went, I'd heard better. “The airport parking lot. Economy. I'm so sorry, Mr. Reece. As you know, I didn't have much notice and there was an accidentâ”
“You, too? Bollocks. Are you all right?”
I blinked as a transport shuttle breezed by, hoping another was directly on its tail. The economy lot was a good five minutes from the actual terminal, and that's after you actually got
the minibus and hit the highway. “What? Oh, no. Not me. I wasn't involved in an accident. I was delayed by one. Two actually. Traffic was a mess and then parkingâ¦I didn't think I'd everâ”
“The plane, our plane, boards in twenty minutes. I need you here, yeah? Now.”
“Right. Of course. No problem.” Great. I was botching this gig before it even began. “I'll be there inâ”
“What are you wearing?”
“I know what you look like. I need to know what you're wearing,” he said in that Sean Connery-esque accent. “My wife has a distinct style.”
“Why does my style need to complement your wife's?”
It took a minute to sink in. “I'm playing your wife?” A fantasy reared. Bulging biceps. Rippled abs. A delicious accent to boot. Evie and the hunk.
“I thought Stone told youâ”
“He did. I mean, he said I'd be playing a ditzy newlywed. He just didn't specify that
be playing my husband.”
“Now you know, Sugar.”
Flirty, too. I quirked a brow, grinned. “Gotcha, honey.”
“That's your name,” he said, and my smile slipped. “Sugar Dupont. My alias is Charles Dupont.”
I wasn't sure which was more disconcerting: my name, Sugar, for cryin' out loud, or the fact that he'd called a stage name an alias. Must be a foreign thing. “Charles and Sugar Dupont. Got it.” I glanced at my phone, noted it was somewhat charged, pulled the plug and cut the engine.
“I'm an eccentric novelist and you're a Vegas showgirl. Retired.”
“Me or you?” I asked, lest he think I wasn't paying attention. More and more this was sounding like an improvisational murder mystery. The kind where you mill about all day with the patrons, only you're in character the entire time. One of the cast members kicks the bucket and it's the patrons' job to determine the identity of the killer. I'd acted in a few of these over the years and they were always a hoot. “Which one of us is retired?”
“You, Sugar. I'm merely in between books.”
I knew he wasn't flirting but, between the low timbre of his voice and that accent, he had a devastating effect on my libido. It had been aeons since I'd felt this sexually charged. Please, I thought, as I looped my purse and Lucy tote over my shoulder and abandoned the car, let him be in his midthirties at least. No way could I fool around with a twenty-year-old, but a guy in his thirties? A gorgeous Brit, Scotâwhateverâwith a hunky body? I'm pretty sure I could get down and dirty with a
younger man, especially if he had a mature outlook on life. “Are you by chance my roommate?” Buzzing with anticipation, I locked the car door and pocketed the keys.
“As we are married, it would make sense, yeah?”
I pumped my fist in the air.
Smiling, I grabbed my bulging suitcase and, juggling tote, purse and phone, dragged Big Red toward the shuttle vestibule.
“Are you on your way yet?”
“Yup. Should be there inâ”
“What are you wearing?”
Back to that. I glanced at my shuffling feet. “Lime and pink-flowered sneakers, khaki capris and a lime-green T-shirt. Although, you can't see my T-shirt because of my coatâa pink trench. Oh, and I have an aqua wool scarf wrapped around my neck.”
After a long pause he said, “You call that sexy?”
“I call it comfortable.” I'd be spending the next couple of hours on a plane and then transferring onto the ship. Who gets sexed-up to travel?
“Sugar Dupont is an ex-showgirl. A fun-loving exhibitionist.”
“I know. Michael told me. I packed appropriate costumes for when I'm onstage.”
“In this business, the world is our stage, Ms. Parish. You'll be
the moment you meet me at check-in. This is a round-the-clock performance. If you have a problem with this, tell me now. I
“No problem.” I did a one-eighty and racedâas much as one can race when lugging one hundred pounds of luggageâback to my car. I couldn't afford to lose this job. I would not,
face working a nine-to-five. Then there was the flashing incident. Must. Escape. Town. “I'll call you back in two minutes.”
I severed the connection before he could argue, whipped open the bulging suitcase right there between my car and the blue van parked next to me. I rooted out a Sugar Dupont ensemble and hunkered down in my backseat for a quick change. I'm no stranger to quick changes, but usually these occur in a dressing room or a curtained, or at least darkened, space backstage. Wiggling in and out of clothes in the backseat of my compact four-door, in broad daylight, was a new experience.