Authors: Tracy A. Ward
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Women's Fiction, #Contemporary Women, #Romance, #New Adult & College, #Contemporary Fiction
Tracy A. Ward
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
2013 by Tracy A. Ward
. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce, distribute, or transmit in any form or by any means. For information regarding subsidiary rights, please contact the Publisher.
Entangled Publishing, LLC
2614 South Timberline Road
Fort Collins, CO 80525
Visit our website at www.entangledpublishing.com.
Cover design by Libby Murphy
Ebook ISBN 978-1-62266-136-7
Manufactured in the United States of America
The author acknowledges the copyrighted or trademarked status and trademark owners of the following wordmarks mentioned in this work of fiction:
Airstream, Animal Planet, Apple, Coke, Daddy Warbucks, DeBeers, Diet Coke, Eddie Vedder, Febreze, iPod, Jack Daniels, James Bond, Little Orphan Annie, Men’s Health Magazine, Moet, M&Ms, NYU, QVC, Rice, SMU, UT
To Ty, my real-life hero: thanks for bankrolling me, for rarely complaining, and for never doubting. To Taylor and Dylan, for making it possible to have it all.
Sitting on a ladder-backed barstool at the Double Shot, still sweaty from spending the day shut in my oven for an apartment—who didn’t have AC in Texas?—I took a slug of my gin and tonic and glanced at my watch for the eight billionth time. Seven p.m. Anxiety sat like gathered fieldstone in my stomach, all jagged and sharp-edged. Lucas Marshall was late—and given the terse voice message he’d left on my cell an hour before, telling me to meet him in ten minutes, I was naturally concerned.
As the owner of The Marshall Theater, an old limestone playhouse that was both an historic landmark and one of the most prestigious regional theaters in the country, Lucas had taken a chance on me, a playwright without a hit to my name in this type of a venue, to write three original scripts for The Marshall Theater Players. The most noteworthy thing I’d done before was help pull a small community playhouse in Arlington out of a slump. The Marshall Theater was big-time in the world of a playwright.
The Marshall Theater Players, where Lucas was also Executive and Artistic Director, performed every year at the nationally-renowned Phair Theater Festival. From producers to directors, fans to critics, people swarmed the small Texas hill country town of Phair for the festival, hoping to discover the theater world’s next big thing. The Marshall Theater Players always brought back the big wins.
A great review of my upcoming script could give me my first real shot at Broadway.
I washed down my anxiety with the dregs of the gin and tonic and pushed the empty glass across the mahogany bar. Then I nodded to Babs, the bartender. A thin wisp of a woman with bottle-black hair and too much eyeliner for someone on the upper end of fifty, Babs Blake had been a bartender with the Double Shot chain for years. She was nice enough, and friendly. Though neither of us were Phair natives, I’d actually known her since I was in high school. She’d been there for me once when I’d needed a friend. When I’d first arrived at Phair, it had been a nice welcome to see a familiar face.
“You hangin’ in there, Ashlyn?” Babs asked in her clipped, New York dialect. “You look stressed.”
I blew out a long breath before answering. “Waiting on Lucas and trying to keep my nerves under control.” I looked around the bar. Limestone walls were decorated, all depicting the Double Shot’s sixty-year history, beginning with its flagship bar in New York and ending with its most recent addition in Phair, Texas, opened nearly eighteen months ago.
With the exception of a few guys and their wives holding court in front of the big screen, a place that had the capacity for at least a hundred and fifty sat mostly empty. I glanced outside. The wide-paned front windows gave an unobstructed view to Main Street’s old-world western façade. Like the bar, the street, too, was empty. “Where is everybody?”
Babs replaced my drink before taking a drag on her electronic cigarette, the skin around her mouth puckering. “Business is slow when the theater’s dark.”
“That’ll change in a few weeks, once people arrive for the festival.” I fiddled with my stir stick. “Which means this is the calm before the storm, right?”
“Blessing and a curse.” She took another drag on her e-cig. “Listen, sweetie, I heard you got a few bad reviews on your last two scripts. Those critics, they’re just trying to mess with your head. You’re a good writer. Don’t let those bastards get to you.”
To date, fifteen of the plays I’d written had been performed in various community theaters, and two more in regional. Those regional plays had been performed at The Marshall and had earned a more than respectable amount in ticket sales. But I’d be lying if I said my confidence hadn’t been shaken after a stodgy old critic named Anderson Jones had slammed my two most recent plays. The revenue my scripts brought in was important, but the reputation gained by critical acclaim was what would keep me in the game. And get me on Broadway.
But those negative reviews had cracked the foundation of my Broadway dreams.
My only option to save my career now was to rally my nerves and write a killer script for the festival. No pressure.
I gave Babs a wide smile in thanks for the support. The kitchen door flew open and Noah Blake, the owner and Babs’s stepson, appeared.
My back went up as my smile turned down.
With his lean, hard body that could only be gifted from God, dark hair, olive skin, and eyes the color of melted chocolate, Noah was often the subject of most women’s fantasies here in Phair.
Girls might get their panties all wet at the sight of him, but I disagreed with the mainstream. My own private nickname for Noah was the Patron Saint of Assholes. His cold attitude to me made all that yummy maleness easy to look past. If he hadn’t been my brother Quinn’s college roommate at Columbia, we never would’ve met.
Too bad my brother hadn’t gone to Stanford.
Too bad, also, that I’d taken a job in Phair the same time Noah was overseeing the opening of a new Double Shot bar. It meant I had to see him more than I would have liked. But with the Double Shot directly across from The Marshall Theater, where I both worked
lived, I found it tough to avoid him. There weren’t a lot of other places in Phair where one could get a decent gin and tonic.
Noah strode through the bar, a crate of glasses on his shoulder. “Why the sour face all of a sudden, Training Wheels?”
I groaned at the hated nickname but refused to show him my irritation. He’d given it to me after I’d gotten drunk for the first time, sneaking mimosas during Quinn’s college graduation brunch. After two glasses of Moet-spiked OJ had caused me to throw up in a bowl of fruit salad, he’d deemed me forever in need of training wheels—unable to hold even the mildest of liquor.
While Quinn and Noah were in college, Noah and I had shared an affectionate relationship. Me being the little sister of his best friend and him being an only child with a tumultuous family life and therefore always at our house on college breaks, we’d bonded. But that was before he’d gone and ruined everything.
He passed me, then set the crate of glasses on the counter behind the bar.
“Since when does the majority shareholder of a multi-million dollar company empty the dishwasher?” I asked, adding a little snark to my tone, just to needle him.
“Since the bartender who was supposed to work tonight left town for a funeral.” His gaze settled on my face. “The Double Shot is a family-owned enterprise, Wheels. No task is too menial.”
Noah had climbed the ladder of his family’s company since his father’s death a while back. He’d taken the few bars his dad had founded around New York and turned them into a major chain, with locations throughout the US. Prior to coming to Phair seven months ago, I hadn’t talked to him in five years—and only then because he’d come to my Grandma June’s funeral in Dallas. Quinn had invited him for moral support, I supposed.
Babs cleared her throat and caught her stepson’s attention. “Excuse me,
, but speaking of menial tasks…” She jerked her thumb toward the other end of the bar. “Why don’t you do us all a favor and fix the leaky pipe under the sink? Or are you too busy wheeling and dealing with investors?” When Noah ignored her, she shook her head and turned back to me, drumming her acrylic nails against the waist-high prep counter. Then she looked over my shoulder, past me, and straightened.
I followed her gaze. Lucas had arrived. Finally.
“Uh-oh,” Babs said. “He isn’t looking so good. What is it you Texans say?”
I filled in the blanks with my best native twang. “Looks like someone kicked his dog.”
Dressed in a tweed jacket and bolo tie, Lucas also wore a defeated attitude that put a good ten years on the sixty-five he’d lived so far. I couldn’t tell if his wrung-out appearance was because of the hundred-and-ten-degree late-August heat or if my earlier suspicions were true—something was majorly off.
Wearily sitting in the stool next to mine, he pulled out from an inside jacket pocket the script I’d e-mailed earlier and set it on the bar in front of me. “I may have made a terrible mistake,” he said.
A ball of dread formed and sat lodged somewhere beneath my windpipe. Babs, sensing tension, did the decent thing. She excused herself to check on three locals at the opposite end of the bar who were glued to a preseason Cowboys game playing on the oversized screen. Noah, however, stayed in place under the pretext of sliding glasses into an overhead rack, perfectly positioned to eavesdrop.
Though I hated the fact that I noticed, Noah’s backside in those jeans drew my attention in a way I couldn’t get past. He might be nosy and a pest, but damn it all, the local women were right—he was sexy as hell. Only right now, I didn’t need the distraction.
“Should we grab a booth?” I asked Lucas.
“No need,” he replied. “This will only take a minute.”
Maybe I’d been overreacting earlier. If our conversation was supposed to only take a minute, the news couldn’t be
bad. Could it? Plus, Lucas hadn’t made a definitive statement.
I may have made a mistake
wasn’t the same as
I made a mistake
. No sooner had the ball of dread sunk in my gut than it lurched back up to my throat. What if the dreaded reviewer Anderson Jones had signed on to be a judge in the upcoming festival?
“This…” Lucas said, gesturing at the script in front of me. “The Phair Theater Festival is four weeks away and this script still isn’t finished.”
With every word Lucas uttered, I shrank deeper and deeper into the back of my stool. I’d warned Lucas before I hit send this morning that the script for
Midnight in Summer
was not only unfinished, but also wasn’t representative of my best work. My two main characters, Andy Rich and Caroline, weren’t cooperating with me. But at the same time, I wasn’t totally panicked about the script being incomplete. We were on target for the production for the Phair Theater Festival. Due to recycling from a previous show, the set was nearly complete, casting had been made, and the first act was close to perfection. With the actors already learning their lines to act 1, we were in good shape for when rehearsals officially began next week.
Evidently, Lucas saw things differently.
“I’m afraid, Ashlyn, I may have no choice but to look elsewhere for a script. Too much is at stake to risk—”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” Noah said, butting in.
If only I could get another five years of silence out of him…starting now. Damn him. I could handle this. I opened my mouth to protest, but he waved me off.
His gaze locked on Lucas. “Think this through. You’re not the only one affected if The Marshall Theater Players production doesn’t succeed at the festival.”
What the hell was Noah talking about? And who did he think he was, interfering in my business?
The ball of dread turned to a flare of anger. “This is a private conversation, Noah. Butt. Out.” I turned back to Lucas. “Look, there are four weeks until the festival. Let me keep working on the script. I’ve pulled off bigger miracles in less time. I’m confident I’ll do it again.”
Lucas’s normally kind eyes settled on me. “How well did the critics receive your last two plays?”
Now he was hitting below the belt, invoking the only critical flops in my dossier. “You said yourself the theater made more money during the run of my plays than it has with any other playwright in ten years,” I protested.
“That doesn’t negate the fact that
are the ones judging the contest.”
“Aren’t you the man who always says ‘no two critics see the same show?’ There are five judges, Lucas. As long as Anderson Jones isn’t on the panel, we’ve got a good shot at taking top prize, even with an average script.”
When Lucas raised his eyebrows at me, desperation took over, and I babbled on. “Regardless of the reviews—or maybe because of them—people among the theater crowd are talking about me. About us.”
“Ashlyn’s right,” Noah said, interrupting again. “You didn’t bring her here to play it safe.”
“No.” Lucas reached for the Jack and Coke Noah set in front of him. “I brought her because of the brilliance she displayed in Arlington…which, I might add,
brought to my attention.”
My gaze shifted from Lucas to Noah. I raised an eyebrow.
Arlington Community Theater had been on the brink of closure and needed a revitalization of public interest. My play
had been edgy and controversial, but not so much that it deterred the humbling amounts of donations and ticket sales once word of it spread. It had been my only play under serious consideration of being published. But how did Noah know about any of that?
“Quinn told me you were on the brink of something special,” Noah said, explaining the question he must’ve read in my arched look. “He wanted to see for himself, but couldn’t leave Seattle at the time. I was curious and went.”
My brother had talked about me to Noah? Told him about my play in Arlington? And Noah had gone—to see my play?
Wait… The dread that lined my gut gave way to bitterness as I realized the truth: the fact that I’d been hired by The Marshall Theater in the same town as the famed Double Shot had opened its most recent location was no coincidence, the way I’d thought.
How dare Noah help me land this job, especially after I’d been so clear with him years before that I didn’t need his help? Or his interference.
I reached for my drink and drained half the contents, hoping the alcohol would miraculously calm my fury with Noah and allow me
to blow my one shot at Broadway by saying something stupid in front of Lucas.
“The theater is facing bankruptcy, Ashlyn,” Lucas said.
Bankruptcy? That got my attention.
Lucas nodded. “We make enough money in ticket sales and donations to pay our operational costs, but city inspectors are being forced to close us down due to building safety issues. Because the costs of repairs are so extensive, there is a very serious risk we’ll have to close our doors for good.”
The Marshall Theater had been in Lucas’s family for well over a hundred years and was the heart and soul of the company. Without The Marshall Theater, there’d be no Marshall Theater Players.