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Set the Stage

By Karis Walsh

Smashwords Edition

Copyright 2017 Karis Walsh

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Set the Stage

Emilie Danvers wins a place in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s company and gets a second chance to launch her acting career. She’s vowed never to repeat the mistakes she made the first time: no following her heart, no putting herself second to someone else, no relationship drama. She won’t let any woman keep her from reconnecting with her dreams.

Arden Philips has stood on the outskirts of the festival for years, tending the gardens of nearby Lithia Park. She’s seen actresses come and go and only allows herself the occasional dalliance. But when she comes across Emilie rehearsing on a mossy riverbank, Arden realizes her heart might not listen to her head.

The stage is set, the house lights dimmed. Is true love merely make-believe or can these two women write it into the script of their lives?

Praise for Karis Walsh

Blindsided


“A jaded television reporter and a guide dog trainer form an unlikely bond in Walsh’s delightful contemporary romance. Their slow-burn romance is a nuanced exploration of trust, desire, and negotiating boundaries, without a hint of schmaltz or pity. The sex scenes are sizzling hot, but it’s the slow burn that really allows Walsh to shine.”—Publishers Weekly

“Karis Walsh always comes up with charming Traditional Romances with interesting characters who have slightly unusual quirks.”—Curve Magazine


Sea Glass Inn


“Karis Walsh’s third book, excellently written and paced as always, takes us on a gentle but determined journey through two womens’ awakening…The story is well paced, with just enough tension to keep you turning the pages but without an overdramatic melodrama.”—Lesbian Reading Room


Improvisation


“Walsh tells this story in achingly beautiful words, phrases and paragraphs, building a tension that is bittersweet. The main characters are skillfully drawn, as is Jan’s dad, the distinctly loveable and wise Glen Carroll. As the two women interact, there is always an undercurrent of sensuality buzzing around the edges of the pages, even while they exchange sometimes snappy, sometimes comic dialogue. Improvisation is a true romantic tale, Walsh’s fourth book, and she’s evolving into a master romantic storyteller.”—Lambda Literary


Wingspan


“As with All Karis Walsh’s wonderful books the characters are the story. Multifaceted, layered and beautifully drawn, Ken and Bailey hold our attention from the start…The pace is gentle, the writing is beautifully crafted and the story a wonderful exploration of how childhood events can shape our lives. The challenge is to outgrow the childhood fears and find the freedom to start living.”—Lesbian Reading Room

Set the Stage

© 2017 By Karis Walsh. All Rights Reserved.


ISBN 13:978-1-63555-086-3


This Electronic Original is published by

Bold Strokes Books, Inc.

P.O. Box 249

Valley Falls, NY 12185


First Edition: November 2017


This 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 persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.


This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.


Credits

Editor: Ruth Sternglantz

Production Design: Stacia Seaman

Cover Design by Sheri (graphicartist2020@hotmail.com)

By the Author

Harmony

Worth the Risk

Sea Glass Inn

Improvisation

Mounting Danger

Wingspan

Blindsided

Mounting Evidence

Tales from Sea Glass Inn

Love on Tap

Amounting to Nothing

You Make Me Tremble

Chapter One

Emilie Danvers stripped the damp orange kerchief off her head and tried to restore some order to her tangled, greasy curls, but eight hours of close proximity to industrial-sized deep fat fryers had done more damage than her weary fingers could undo. She gave up the attempt to make herself presentable—only a lengthy scalding shower and half a bottle of shampoo would do the trick—and pulled the polyester-blend tunic over her head. She kneaded the tight knots on her right shoulder and let her head fall back in a gentle stretch. The image of a massage table, complete with the soothing scents of eucalyptus oil and patchouli candles, flickered through her thoughts. A heated blanket, expert fingers to unravel the tension in her back and neck…

She sighed and returned to the reality of the cramped and cluttered break room. She tugged on a yellow T-shirt that had an image of galloping giraffes on it and reached for her jeans. She struggled for several moments, sucking in her stomach and holding her breath, before she was able to button them. Her curves had filled out after four months on a strict diet of fast-food hamburgers and fried bits of chicken, but she hadn’t been able to turn down the free meals at work. She patted her hip pocket. Her wallet was the only lean thing on her person.

Would you like fries with that? Only two more weeks of asking that classic question, and then Emilie hoped she never had to cook, serve, or eat another french fry. She wouldn’t complain, though. Because of this job, she had managed to pay her rent and utilities this fall, and she had certainly paid her dues for being a fool. Now she had another chance at the career she was born for, and she’d be damned if she’d ever allow herself to get back to the state of destitution she’d been in for the past months. She’d been in purgatory here, atoning for past transgressions as she slapped microwaved patties on buns and squirted them with ketchup, and the time had been good for her. After two years of doing next to nothing for herself and everything for someone else, she had been thrilled to have a job and paycheck of her own. This had been a time to regroup, and soon she’d be out of limbo and back to life, but she had to give her notice first.

She peered around the manager’s half-open door and saw Ted Carver sitting at his cluttered gray Formica desk, his black-rimmed glasses resting on the tip of his nose. She’d jokingly thought of him as her prison guard while she did her time at the restaurant, but he’d been a benevolent one. Kindly and gentle, with a bad comb-over and pasty complexion, he’d seemed more like an indulgent uncle than a boss. His soft-seeming exterior hid a sharp sense of humor that Emilie would miss. As much as she disliked some of the parts of her job, she didn’t like to disappoint him by quitting. It was time to move on, though. In the past, she’d stayed too long in the wrong place out of a sense of obligation—or a fear of moving forward?—and she’d learned her lesson. No more. She knocked on the door with resolution.

“Come in…Oh, hello, Millie. I have your paycheck right here.”

“Thanks, Mr. Carver.” She waited while he rooted through the stacks of papers and invoices on his desk and smiled when he handed her a slim envelope. During her orientation, he had tried to pronounce her name with a French accent—emphasizing a different syllable each time—until she had given up asking him to simply say it like he would the Americanized Emily and had suggested he call her Millie instead. She’d never used the nickname before, but she decided it fit the persona she’d adopted to keep her sanity while on the job. In the weeks that followed, she’d amused herself by developing an entire character bio for Millie and playing the role whenever she put on her orange and brown uniform. Like Ted, Millie lived for her role in the food service industry. Unlike Emilie, Millie didn’t want to burst into tears at the end of one of those frustrating days filled with demanding customers, constant heat from ovens and fryers, and the relentless smell of near-rancid oil.

“I need to talk to you, sir,” Emilie said when Ted seemed about to return to his endless paperwork.

“Of course, Millie. Is everything all right? How can we help you?” The corporate we. Even though he probably made little more than the minimum wage Emilie earned, he took his managerial role seriously. She had seen the way he took care of his employees, always willing to give them time off to study for high school finals or to take sick children to the doctor, even if it meant he had to step in and cover shifts. Millie never asked for time off and she never said no to overtime.

Ted pushed his paperwork aside and gestured for her to sit in the chair opposite him. He laced his fingers together on top of his desk and gave her the feeling of having his full attention. Emilie sat on the edge of the chair. The waistband of her jeans pressed into her belly, and she used the discomfort to keep her focused on finishing the unpleasant task of quitting.

“Everything’s been fine.” Not really a lie. The job sucked at times, but Ted and some of her coworkers had kept it from being too bad. There had been more laughter and camaraderie behind the scenes than she would ever have expected. “But I need to give my two weeks’ notice. I’m going to be acting in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and rehearsals start in the beginning of January.”

“You’re going to be…” He paused and stared at her. Emilie could read the obvious doubt on his face. She must have played the part of Millie—part fast-food aficionado and part Dickensian waif—better than she’d thought. She must not have been allowing Emilie the professional actress to shine through at all.

Ted put his index fingers together and tapped them against his lips. “We respect the work you’ve done for our restaurant, Millie, and we want to do what it takes to keep you here. Although you haven’t reached your six-month mark yet, we can make an exception—just this once—and give you your raise ahead of schedule.”

“I appreciate the offer, but it’s not the money.” Emilie hated to think how much the extra dollar an hour he was offering would help her in her present circumstances. She should have threatened to quit a month ago. “I’ve signed a contract with the company and I start rehearsals soon.”

“Of course you do,” he said with an indulgent smile. He dropped the royal plural and leaned closer. “Look, I can’t make any promises, but let me talk to my supervisor about moving you into an assistant manager position. The benefits are excellent.”

Emilie felt a brief pang of guilt, but she shook it off. Since she’d worked at the restaurant, employees had come and gone with startling frequency. She’d signed on as temporary, seasonal help—never promising her life and soul to the fast-food chain. When she’d first taken the job, she hadn’t known whether she’d be cast with the company or not, but she’d stayed close to Ashland, Oregon, because she needed to cling to the hope of reviving her near-dead career. She didn’t blame Ted for doubting her claim to be headed for Ashland, because she sometimes suspected that she had only dreamed the phone call with the assistant director of the company, telling her she had the job. She had signed contracts and had her parts, but maybe those experiences had been grease-fume-caused fantasies. She wouldn’t truly believe she was back in the business until she got her scripts. Or maybe, until she stepped onstage for her first rehearsal. Or for the first performance…Then she’d believe it was true. Until she was 100 percent sure, she’d go on faith. She stood up.

“I’m sorry, but no. You’ve been a great boss, and I’ve appreciated getting to work with you, but acting is my career. My passion.”

Ted stood, also, and shook her hand. “Very well. But if this acting thing doesn’t work out, you have a place here with us.”

“Thank you,” Emilie said, but inside she cringed with superstitious anxiety. He had spoken her great fear out loud. She had left the business after making a successful debut off-off-Broadway, before she’d either proved or disproved her ability to live up to the potential some critics saw in her. She had spent the past two years answering the question What if I had stayed? in a variety of ways, sometimes with regret because she might have been a success and sometimes with relief because it was better to have quit than to have tried and failed. The latter response had been more comfortable to face than the first one, but she could never make herself fully believe it. Deep inside she knew she regretted not trying, whether she would have failed or not. But lately, as her time to go to Ashland loomed closer, her old doubts had resurfaced with a vengeance.

“I’ll miss you, Millie. Be sure to let me know when your play is on, and maybe my wife and I will come watch you perform.”

He didn’t look like he believed she’d be acting, any more than he’d believe it if she’d come to tell him she had been elected to the Senate and was heading to Washington, DC. “I’ll do that,” Emilie said. She walked out of the room and felt the emotions connected with quitting slough off. She was moving forward. One step closer to becoming herself again.

Emilie shivered when she stepped out of the restaurant and onto the rain-soaked sidewalk. The night was artificially lit along this row of chain restaurants and strip malls, and the raindrops glistened green, red, and yellow in the glow of neon signs. Many of the businesses were open twenty-four hours a day, the constant flow of people and traffic making the neighborhood merely loud and undesirable rather than downright unsafe, and Emilie felt comfortable on the streets no matter what the hour. She was never alone out here—luckily, since she often volunteered for shifts at the odd hours when most other people didn’t want to work, even with the late-shift premium. She dodged puddles and cracked cement as she walked the three blocks from work to her apartment, wrapping her arms and thin gray hoodie tightly around herself and trying to pull as much warmth from the cotton fabric as she could.

She let herself in a gate leading to a small courtyard and then climbed the steps to her second-floor studio apartment. She had only had three requirements when she started looking for a place to live: short-term, short commute, and low price. She got what she paid for, but it was home. Her home.

She turned on both overhead lights as she traveled the few steps from her door to her air mattress bed. She was living like a college student with only a few pieces of makeshift furniture and without any decorations on the walls or on shelves. Since she was a child, she had loved making her room her sanctuary, with personal touches and favorite colors spread everywhere, but she hadn’t had a place of her own for too long. Once she was settled in Ashland, she’d get something sturdier than milk crates and particleboard. A real bed, maybe a desk, a few bookcases. Photos and prints on the walls. Even the basics seemed luxurious after a few months of feeling temporary.

Emilie shed her wet clothes and took a long shower, sudsing away the residual odor of the restaurant from her skin and hair. She combed the worst tangles out of her blond curls and braided her hair to keep it out of her face, not wanting to fuss with her hairstyle any more than necessary. She put on a pair of warm sweats and a thick wool sweater before going into the kitchen—or the corner of her apartment where the tiny appliances lived—and she sliced a Granny Smith apple and layered it on bread with crunchy peanut butter and a sprinkle of cinnamon. She craved texture in her food since at least two of her meals each day were soft and greasy fast-food burgers. She took her dinner over to a folding chair she had placed near the window and perched there with a book and her sandwich, unable to see much beyond the rain splatting against the windowpane. She preferred it this way, because the view was less attractive than the weather, and it consisted mainly of the back side of a Taco Bell.

She looked around her room as she chewed a huge bite of her sandwich, letting the juicy tang of the apple wash away the stale, oily flavor of the day. For all the shortcomings of her life here in Medford, with her less than ideal apartment and job, she had been happier here than she had been during the past few years as she had traveled across Europe with her ex-girlfriend. The accommodations and food had been pleasant there, but she hadn’t been able to work much because they moved frequently with touring plays. Emilie had felt lost and directionless, but she hadn’t realized how truly miserable she had been until she got here, with a place of her own and work to do. She had spent far too long trying to salvage her relationship, desperate to prove that she hadn’t made such a huge mistake in agreeing to follow Leah on tour. Once she accepted that she had made a monumentally bad decision, the choice to move back to the States—after spending most of her savings and allowing her contacts with the American acting world to wither and fade—had been a surprisingly simple one.

She had been lucky to get the job with the OSF, and fortunate to have found a job in the meantime with a kind boss and plenty of hours. Her weariness at the end of the day blended with the peace of living alone and not in a hotel room full of the tension of unmet expectations and unspoken arguments, and she had slept soundly and deeply here for the first time in years.

She finished her sandwich and licked peanut butter off her fingers. She was thrilled to have the opportunity to act again, especially with a prestigious and interesting company, but she was almost equally grateful for these past few months of labor and solitude.

She was finally starting to forgive herself for giving up on her dreams, and to heal from the negativity of her failed relationship. Still, the upcoming months would set the course for the rest of her life, and those weeks of blissful sleep had come to an abrupt end about a week ago, when she had looked at the calendar and had seen less than a month between the day she was x-ing out with a red pen and her first day of rehearsals. Soon she would either discover that she really did have a talent for this career, or she’d be back here, begging Ted to give her the assistant manager job.

Chapter Two

Arden Philips pulled her red Kawasaki Mule off the paved trail and onto the gravel shoulder, even though there were too few visitors in the park at this time of year to worry about blocking some pedestrian’s way. She parked and grabbed a rake and a bucket of pruning shears off the back shelf of the utility vehicle before heading toward the torii gate that marked the entrance to the Japanese garden. The wooden archway was dark from soaking up the steady supply of southern Oregon rain, and she laid her hand on one of the posts, scratching gently with her short fingernail. The moisture hadn’t penetrated too deeply. As soon as they had a dry spell—if they had one before summer—she’d scrape away the buildup of mildew and treat the wood again.

She continued under the arch and into the small Japanese garden, pausing for a moment before she walked any farther along the path.

“Hey, Gramps,” she whispered. This had been his favorite section of the entire ninety-three-acre Lithia Park. He had been a groundskeeper here, and she had been his shadow since she was a toddler, following him as he worked and eventually getting her own job in the park. She felt closest to him here, partly because his influence was everywhere in the plants and landscape elements of this garden, but mostly because she had scattered his ashes at the foot of his beloved gingko tree. Her actions had been strictly in violation of the municipal park’s rules, but nearly the entire staff had been present at her impromptu service. Everyone who knew Delaney Philips knew he belonged here in life or death.

Arden walked along the path of spaced pavers. In the summer, the gaps between stones would be filled with ground-covering herbs and moss, but in January there was only slimy, slick mud. She paused now and again to wipe mucky leaves off identifying plaques. They were everywhere in the park, naming trees and plants in gold lettering on brass. She cleaned off the ones marking a photinia and one of the park’s saucer magnolias. They didn’t look like much right now, but soon they’d be covered in contrasting flowers, one with tiny, cascading showers of them and the other with large, impressive blooms. She turned away from them and continued on to a stand of Japanese maples, where she set down her bucket. She pulled out a pair of shears and started snipping off the tips of its bare branches.

She loved this time of year, when her work required more imagination than skill. The maples were beautiful now, with branches in a variety of reddish hues, but they would be even more stunning in the spring. Then their delicate and lacy leaves would start to unfurl against a backdrop of larger trees full of pink and white cherry blossoms. And in autumn, toward the end of the festival season, this whole garden would be a chaos of color, rivaling any state’s fall foliage. She was pruning now, not to get the maple to a desired shape, but to get it to grow into the shape she wanted.

Arden trimmed the end of another branch and shook her head. She always got a little sentimental in this garden. She wasn’t Michelangelo, releasing a sculpture from a block of clay. There wasn’t any magic involved in what she was doing—just decades of experience from watching her grandfather and doing the work herself. She knew where to cut because she had been observing the way these trees grew since some of them were first planted.

She finished shaping the maples and raked the area underneath them and around a stone memorial bench, brushing twigs and debris off its surface even though no one would likely be sitting there for a few more weeks. She enjoyed the privacy of these days, separate from the bustle and crowds that came with the festival, but she couldn’t stop the feeling of anticipation from catching in her throat. Everything she and the other groundskeepers did from mid-November to mid-February was in preparation for the tourist season. And everything they did during the other months was designed to keep the visitors happy and help them enjoy the park. Her work life revolved around the theater schedule.

She knelt on a paving stone and used a trowel to dig up some weeds near a bamboo and stone fountain. The park was silent, except for a few birds singing in the trees, an occasional car driving down Granite Street, and the distant sound of some local children in the playground near the park’s entrance. She wanted to be fully present here in the quiet, to stop thinking ahead to the shouts and laughter and intercom announcements that came with the theater crowd, but she could no more stop hearing those future sounds than she could stop seeing the way the maples would grow.

Arden tossed the weeds into her bucket and stood. Like it or not, she owed her livelihood to the festival. She smiled to herself. Actually, she owed her life to this small town’s annual celebration of Shakespeare and his plays. Her dad had been a director here for years, until the lovely Rose Canton, otherwise known as Mom, had come to play Ophelia. He fell in love, and for a few years, according to Arden’s grandparents, they had been happy here, producing many acclaimed plays and one small daughter. Until bigger and better roles called, and they left her and the festival with barely a backward glance. They still kept in touch in their offbeat, unpredictable way, but Arden knew more about their lives from reading reviews of their plays in magazines than by talking to them.

She stopped next to one of her grandfather’s best contributions to the park, a series of narrow, primitive wooden troughs that were filled with white stones of varying sizes. The fountain was gorgeous in its simplicity, and the sound of water running through gaps between stones and dropping from trough to trough was musical. During the season, they offered Tai Chi classes here, and plenty of people came to sit on the surrounding benches and meditate to the sounds he had created.

Did she regret living here with her grandparents? Never. She had been happy with them, and she felt their loss deeply. She had considered them to be her true parents, and her birth parents were more like flaky older siblings. Would she have preferred that her parents had chosen to either stay here or take her with them? She didn’t want to answer that question. She couldn’t imagine what her life would have been like if they had stayed here.

She rested her fingers on the rough timber of the highest trough and yelped when a sudden gush of water sprayed over her hand. She turned at the sound of laughter coming from a maintenance shed hidden behind some dense rhododendrons.

“Way to ruin a contemplative moment, Jacob,” she called. Her supervisor came out of the shed, where he had turned on the fountain, looking anything but sorry for scaring her.

“I owed you, Little Philips,” he said, shaking his finger at her. He and her grandfather had been close in age and had worked together for most of their adult lives. Jacob was nearly a head shorter than Arden, with thick gray hair that made him look like Einstein. He had become her self-appointed guardian when Delaney had died four years ago, even though she was thirty-two at the time. He freely gave her advice about her love life and her career choices, whether she wanted it or not.

“Consider this step one in my evil plan to get back at you for the viburnum incident,” he continued, shaking his head at the memory.

Arden couldn’t keep from laughing. He had started this series of pranks months ago with a fake spider in her lunchbox, but he still hadn’t found a way to get back at her for last year’s elaborate hoax. He had brought a delicate viburnum to the park and planted it with as much care as if it had been his child. Arden promptly dug it up and replaced it with a dead plant she had salvaged from the local nursery’s dumpster. He had tried four more of the shrubs in succession with the same result, determined to prove her wrong when she kept saying, I told you that spot is too shady. She wasn’t sure how long they would have continued the game if he hadn’t stumbled across the thriving patch of his plants that she had placed alongside the road. Her garden had been a gorgeous mass of cranberry and pink flowers in the fall, while the last one Jacob had planted in his original spot—threatening her job if she dug it up—had never grown as well as its transplanted cousins.

“Well, you sure startled me today, so I guess we’re even now,” she said.

“Hardly. I’ve repaid you for one single shrub. I’ll work on the rest over the season.”

Arden grinned. “Well, good luck. You’re gonna need it.”

Jacob picked out a few stray leaves that had been dislodged when the water flowed over the pristine white stones. Both fountains in the garden had been drained and shut down over the winter season. “Were you talking to your gramps just now?”

“I was just thinking about him and my parents,” Arden admitted. “But sometimes I come here and talk things out with him.”

“Me, too.” Jacob gave the wood trough a pat. “I see signs of him everywhere in the park, but nowhere more than here. Sometimes I talk to him about you, and he gives me advice to pass along.”

Arden rolled her eyes. Great, here it came. What was today’s lecture? Probably the find a nice woman and settle down one. She heard it every year before the festival started. She didn’t have trouble finding women during the season, but finding a settling-down type was another story. She had a weakness for passionate divas, even though they were destined to leave just like Rose and her dad had. She had tried to focus on locals, or even tourist theatergoers, but she couldn’t seem to resist the actors with all the accompanying drama and high emotions they brought into her life. Maybe because opposites really did attract, and Arden didn’t consider herself to be the passionate type. The only thing she was sure of was the need to keep her heart carefully under control during these relationships. They were fun while they lasted, but they didn’t last long.

“Your grandfather made some big changes in this park, Arden. We both know every plant and every stone he placed here.”

Ah, the career lecture, not the romance one. Jacob must be serious this time if he was calling her by her first name instead of the Little Philips nickname only he was allowed to use with her. “Gramps was a gifted visual designer,” she agreed. He could have been an artist, but he had chosen flowers and mulch over oils and watercolors. Her dad had the same kind of vision, but he used his talent in the theater.

“You’ve inherited those same gifts,” Jacob said, as if reading her thoughts. More likely it was because they had had this same conversation a hundred times before, and they each knew the other’s views and arguments. “But I don’t see you anywhere in this park.”

“Well, I’ll go to the nursery and pick up some geraniums,” Arden said. “I can plant them so they spell my name in orange letters, and you’ll think of me whenever you look at them.”

Jacob laughed—in spite of himself, apparently, because he quickly erased his smile. “The park is a living being, Arden. We create it anew every year, and we each put our stamp on it. It’s time you did your part.”

“The park is a living being? Seriously?”

Jacob shook his head. “Come up with something of your own to add to the park. It doesn’t have to be a centerpiece fountain or a new themed garden. Just a patch of ground that is different because you were here.”

“Are you okay?” Arden asked, suddenly worried. She had been feeling her usual exasperation at the lecture, but was he getting serious because he was sick? “Have you been to a doctor?”

He patted her arm. “I’m fine. Just passing along a message from my dearest friend to his beloved granddaughter. Now think of something before the season is over, or I’ll fire you.”

She laughed with him, somewhat satisfied that he wasn’t sick and trying to get her life in order while he still could. “Sure thing, boss. I’ll come up with something to make you proud.”

He nodded toward her and toward the trough fountain, as if assuring her grandfather that he was doing his part to whip Arden into shape. She sighed as he left, and picked up her bucket and rake again. She liked tulips and daffodils—maybe she’d plant a line of bulbs near one of the ponds and get Jacob off her back at least until next year.

She loaded her equipment on the Mule and got in the driver’s seat, but didn’t start the engine right away. She wasn’t sure why she fought Jacob’s attempts to get her more involved in the evolution of the park, but every time he brought up this subject she felt tension twist inside her stomach like the coil of stripes on a candy cane. She had been happy to create designs of her own while she was getting her degree, but she couldn’t feel the same flow of imagination and vision when she was here at the park. Right after her grandfather died and Jacob had started on this particular mission to get her more involved, she had tried to convince herself that she didn’t want to make changes to the park because so many of her memories of Gramps were tied to this place. But that wasn’t a good enough excuse because the park was practically unrecognizable from the one she had known as a child. It changed all the time.

She just wasn’t like the rest of her family. Visionary and ambitious and always looking for new horizons. Her grandfather had managed to balance stability with creativity, but Arden’s parents had chosen one over the other. Over her. The women she’d dated from the acting company had been the same.

But she loved Jacob. He was her family now, and she’d do whatever it took to make him happy. She had planted some herb gardens in her own backyard. They had a pleasing mix of scents and textures, and they were small. She could buy some seedlings and tuck a similar one in a corner somewhere in the park. Problem solved.

Arden started the engine and drove to her next pruning job.

Chapter Three

Emilie drove her used Subaru from Medford to Ashland. The small, boxy car might have been a nice shade of forest green when it was first painted, but now it looked a bit sickly. At least the shade seemed appropriate given the odd groans and noises the car made while pulling the tiny U-Haul with all her worldly belongings in it, as if it had the flu and would rather be lying in bed than speeding along I-5.

The trip only took twenty minutes, but the two cities were worlds apart in style. Medford had an industrial, sometimes seedy look, and little imagination had been put forth in the design of its blocky buildings. Ashland was all small-town charm, with unique shops and restaurants in quaint converted houses and an abundance of Tudor-style facades. The town was filled with shrubs and trees, making it seem like an extension of the beautiful park Emilie had discovered on her initial visit here.

Another thing she had learned on that trip was how much her cost of living was about to increase. Cheap and easy meals were a staple in Medford, but not here. The nearly year-round season of the festival brought a healthy tourist trade to Ashland, and the prices and styles of the restaurants here were an indication of their taste and disposable income level. At least Emilie would be likely to lose some weight without even trying, once her burger and fries diet came to an end and she was reduced to eating ramen noodles in her apartment.

She drove down the main street, past the site of the festival and the touristy stores around it and toward the campus of Southern Oregon University. Emilie had found this quiet area when she was here to audition—because she had gotten lost, not because she was feeling adventurous. When she had started looking for an apartment to rent, she had decided to avoid the main part of town and focus her search near SOU. The relative peace would give her a chance to get completely away from the festival and recharge when she wasn’t onstage or rehearsing. She had also decided to room with a group of graduate students instead of choosing one of the places where several company members were looking for an additional roommate. She didn’t want to listen to other actors reading lines through thin walls, more because she didn’t want to compare herself to them than because the noise would bother her.

Emilie’s confidence had run the gamut from hopefully optimistic at auditions to ecstatically positive when she was hired to waveringly inconsistent after that initial elation. It had settled somewhere near nonexistent over the past week as she had packed up her meager belongings and prepared for the move. She hoped today’s welcome meeting with the company director would help her feel more settled here, like she really belonged.

She followed the directions to her new home and parked in front of the two-story blue-and-gray Craftsman. The yard was small but neat, and the neighborhood seemed quiet and pleasant. Of course, being this close to the university might mean it turned into Party Row on the weekends, but she didn’t mind. It couldn’t be much louder than her place in Medford had been.

She had to spend five minutes ringing the doorbell and knocking with increasing firmness before someone finally answered the door. The woman held the door open a few inches, and Emilie could only see one of her blue eyes, a partial halo of short, mousy brown curls, and the ragged ends of an old red sweater with a rolled neckline.

“Hi, I’m Emilie,” she said. Apparently the name wasn’t enough to gain admission to the house. “I’m your new roommate,” she added.

“Oh. The actress. I’m Olivia.” She opened the door fully, then, but still blocked Emilie’s way.

Emilie shook her hand. “It’s nice to meet you. And I prefer actor to actress.”

Olivia nodded. “Gotcha. No diminutives. Come in.”

Emilie came into the dark, narrow foyer, feeling as if she had just passed some sort of test. They walked into a living room filled with mismatched chairs and sofa and a small TV.

“This is the common room. If you’re obsessed with a particular show, you’ll need to reserve the channel. Otherwise, the first one to get the remote gets to choose.” Olivia gestured toward an end table that had a remote on it and a clipboard with a pencil tied to it with a piece of orange yarn.

Emilie hadn’t bothered with cable during her short stay in Medford, so she doubted she’d be fighting over television rights. She followed Olivia through a small dining room with someone’s textbooks and notebooks strewn across one quarter of it, and a partially finished jigsaw puzzle covering the rest. The picture was nothing but hundreds of candy corns, and Emilie was tempted to sit down and finish the border.

“Here’s the kitchen,” Olivia said, continuing the tour without a puzzle break. “You can use anything in the cabinets, but we each buy our own food. This is your cupboard, and you get the bottom shelf of the fridge.”

The kitchen was sorely in need of an update and probably hadn’t been renovated since the seventies. Everything was clean, though, from the laminated yellow countertops to the cream-colored cabinet doors. Olivia opened one of them, and then the fridge, and Emilie saw her name clearly printed on labels, marking her grocery territory.

“Everyone’s responsible for cleaning up after themselves. No dirty dishes in the sink, and no stealing food. Seriously. If Steph finds so much as a tub of yogurt missing, she’ll turn psychotic. That’s how we lost our last roommate.”

Lost her. Emilie wasn’t sure if Olivia meant she had moved out, or if this Steph person had psychotically killed her. Was she buried in the backyard, with nothing but an empty container of blueberry yogurt marking her grave?

“Your room is on the first floor. The bathroom down here is for guests, too, but mostly you’ll have it for yourself. You’re right in here.”

Emilie paused as they passed the back door and got a peek at an overgrown yard with spindly, climbing plants covering the faded wood fence. A few chairs were scattered around a small brick patio, and the area looked pleasant and private enough. She continued on and joined Olivia at the door to her room.

She walked inside and set down her overnight bag. It was a square room with nothing more than a bed in it, but it was big enough for the bits of furniture she had bought in Medford. It would do.

“This will be nice,” she said to Olivia.

Olivia shrugged. “It’s a good place to live. We’re all busy with classes, and Mary is working on her thesis, so we’re usually quiet. Steph throws an occasional party on the weekend, and you’ve got a standing invite, but other than that we focus on school.” She paused, as if appraising Emilie. “We weren’t sure about having an actor join us,” she said, drawing out the word actor with a haughty accent and a smile to let Emilie know she was teasing. “But I convinced the others to give you a shot.”

Emilie grinned. “Well, thank you. I won’t let you down.”

“I’m sure you won’t. And maybe you can repay the favor someday.”

“Of course.”

“Good,” Olivia said with a smug expression, and Emilie wondered what trap she had just walked into. “I’m working on my master’s in psychology. Maybe you can let me interview you for a project I’m working on for one of my courses.”

Emilie gestured around the bare room. “Is this where you usually keep your lab rats?”

“Only the ones who don’t steal yogurt. The thieves have to live in cages in the lab.”

“I’ll keep that in mind when I’m scampering through the house looking for a midnight snack. What’s the topic?”

“I’m doing a study on people who pursue acting careers as a way to compensate for low self-esteem and a lack of security in childhood.”

Emilie had to laugh. “That should make you popular here in Ashland, home of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.”

Olivia just smiled. “Your key is on the kitchen counter. Do you need help moving your stuff?”

Emilie shook her head. “No, I have to get to a meeting, so I’ll do it later. Besides, if you do me another favor, you might expect the chance to dissect my brain as repayment.”

“We’ll start with the interview and worry about dissection later. Nice to meet you, Emilie.”

“You, too.”

As soon as Olivia left the room, Emilie shut the door and changed into a green shirt and a pair of black pants, with a thick black jacket over the top. She was tempted to flop on the bed and let her mind process all the changes and newness she was facing, but she didn’t have time. She couldn’t be late for her appointment. She grabbed her new key, checked herself in the mirror as she walked past the small bathroom, and left the house. She could easily walk the short distance from home to the theaters, but not today, when a light rain was starting to dot the sidewalk and she didn’t dare make a bad first impression by being late. She got in her car and drove instead.

For all its grandeur and its prominence in Ashland, the main theater space wasn’t immediately visible from the main street. It was tucked on a side street, bordering the park, and gave the feeling of being somehow separate from the rest of the world. A brick courtyard and a high, dark brown fence surrounded the huge, open-air Allen Elizabethan Theatre, and the gift shop, administrative offices, and Angus Bowmer Theatre were clustered around this area that was aptly called the Bricks. Across the street was the smaller Thomas Theatre, where Emilie had auditioned last September, reciting her monologues amid the set pieces of ship and palm trees for the evening’s performance of The Tempest. She managed to find enough room to parallel park her Subaru-plus-U-Haul along the street, but she knew this would be an impossibility once the season started.

She went into Carpenter Hall, where the sales office was already a hive of activity, and asked how to get to the artistic director’s office. She was sent down a long corridor, the thick maroon carpet giving this part of the hall a hushed feeling, especially compared to the loud and active tiled sales space. Jay Winder’s door was open, and he was sitting at his desk surrounded by head shots, stacks of scripts, and an overflowing box of fabric samples. She stood in the doorway and knocked.

“Come in, come in,” he said, gesturing her forward without looking up from whatever he was furiously writing in a thick notebook. He held his hand out, palm toward her, and she assumed he meant he’d be with her as soon as he was done spilling his thoughts onto the paper. She sat in an ornately carved chair upholstered in a heavy brocade and waited for him to finish.

She had met him when she auditioned, and had liked him immediately. He had a palpable sense of energy about him, and an infectious enthusiasm for the festival and the plays they produced. She had auditioned for several roles in plays across the country, but only here for a place in a multi-play company, and she had received a few offers for her efforts. After meeting Jay—and comparing him to the somewhat blasé directors in the other theaters—she had quickly made her choice.

She knew he was in his late sixties, but his fashionably styled and highlighted hair as well as his mobile and active demeanor made him seem ageless. He was wearing a long-sleeved powder-blue polo shirt and faded jeans, and after every few words he wrote, he paused and tapped his fingers restlessly on the desk. Finally he turned his attention to her with a suddenness that made her startle.

“Emilie Danvers. Great to see you again. Have you settled in? See Bennie in the sales office if you need a place to stay. He can get you a room somewhere. You’ve got your scripts? Good. Rehearsals start next week for the openers, and not until March for the summer plays. Let’s see, I just had your packets here a minute ago…”

Emilie had barely lowered her handful of scripts—which she had held up in answer to his question about them—before he was tossing stuffed manila envelopes at her while he rattled off her parts.

“Titania, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, February to November. Understudy Cassella, Skywriting, February to July. Have you read the book? Sidman did the script, too, but you should read the words he originally wrote.” He paused and rooted around on his desk until he found a three-inch-thick trade paperback of the bestselling book Skywriting. She caught it when he lobbed it in her direction, but the two envelopes she already had in her lap slid to the floor.

“Anne Page, The Merry Wives of Windsor, February to November. Lady Anne, Richard III, April to October.” He laughed. “Two Annes! Try not to forget which one you’re playing. What a disaster to get them mixed up.”

Jesus. For all the potential catastrophes Emilie’s too-active imagination had been concocting, that particular one had escaped her. Until now. Surely she’d remember whether she was playing a virginal teenager or a widow who was being courted by her husband’s killer, wouldn’t she? She shoved the new fear out of her mind and caught the next envelope.

“Martha, Toxic, July to August. Those are the main parts, but it’s not uncommon for others to come up midseason. You’ll have your rehearsal and performance schedules in the folders, as well as an updated script for each play. Any changes made from the earlier ones will be marked in red. You also have appointments for costume and wig measurements this week, and those departments will let you know when to come back for fittings. Needless to say, get these on your calendar and don’t miss any of them.”

“Of course. I mean, I won’t,” Emilie said, but he had already moved on to another topic.

“All members of the company do a minimum number of tours throughout the season, but if you want extra ones, let me know, and I’ll add your name to the on-call list. It’s a great way to make more money, and to feel like you’re part of the festival. We don’t want actors who say their lines and go home. We want company members who become part of the OSF family.”

Emilie nodded, not so much at his last statement as at the making money part. The rare times when she had been in one place long enough to work in Europe, she had found jobs as a tour guide. She enjoyed doing them, with the set scripts, the chance to embellish with personal anecdotes, and the absence of the debilitating stage fright she felt when acting. Tours offered the joy of performing without the anxiety of being responsible for bringing someone’s words and ideas to life.

She decided not to share all of this with Olivia. She wasn’t prepared to have her mind and motives studied right now.

“I’m happy to be involved any way I can,” she said.

“Good. You were stellar in your auditions, and you have a wide range of parts to cover this season. Show us what you’re made of, Emilie.”

Yeah, no pressure there. Emilie stood when he did, and shook the hand he offered. She resisted the urge to shake some feeling back into her fingers when he let go.

“The keyword here is communication. Schedules, fittings, performance notes. We communicate our expectations, and you communicate if you have any questions, concerns, or personal issues that might get in the way of your ability to perform at your peak. I’ll be dropping by rehearsals over the next few weeks, so I’ll see you soon.”

Emilie thanked him and bent down to pick up the material he had given her. When she left with her armload of scripts and schedules clutched to her chest, he was already back at his desk, writing again.

She walked to her car and stowed what would be her life for the next eleven months in the trunk. He had talked about communication but hadn’t given her long enough to take a breath and ask a question. He probably wouldn’t have liked any of the ones coming to her mind. What the hell am I doing here? Why did I agree to play four characters and understudy a fifth instead of taking a nice, easy bit part in a civic playhouse somewhere farther out of the spotlight? How exactly do I get out of this contract without needing to repay the advance that I already spent?

Emilie got in her car and sat behind the wheel for a few minutes. She could go back to her new house and work on the puzzle. Go shopping so she wouldn’t need to steal anyone else’s dairy products. Instead, she got out of the car again and locked it before crossing the Bricks and going past the Elizabethan theater. She hadn’t even seen inside the theater, except in pictures, and it would be the site of her very first performance here. Would she be a success or a failure? Or, possibly even more horrifying, just okay? She walked down a flight of brick steps and toward the park. Maybe a walk through the bone-chilling rain would clear her head and get her ready for what lay ahead.

Chapter Four

Arden leaned her elbows on the stone railing of the Atkinson Bridge and watched Ashland Creek rushing beneath her. The small river was swift and deep, already swelling from runoff from the melting snow in the nearby mountains. She wasn’t sure what she was hoping to find while staring at the water, but some inspiration would be welcome.

She had spent two weeks avoiding Jacob because she still didn’t have any idea what he expected from her. She took good care of the plants and trees in her park, and she loved her job for its simplicity and the satisfaction she felt when everything was healthy and in full bloom. Why did he need her to do more than she did?

Luckily, they had a few inches of snow a week ago, and the entire crew had been kept busy clearing paths, breaking ice off branches and limbs, and making sure the more delicate shrubs and bushes were still heavily mulched. Basic care took precedence over innovation.

But now the weather had warmed a few degrees. Heavy rains had melted the snow practically overnight, and the sun had even made a rare appearance this morning. For all of five minutes. Arden had gotten jumpy again, expecting Jacob to appear at any moment and demand some sort of signature showpiece from her.

Arden sighed and pushed herself upright, crossing to the theater side of the park and climbing a hill that led to a little-used jogging and bike trail. She remembered when those labyrinth circles were popular. Did people still walk around them and pretend they were meditating? She wasn’t sure where they would be able to fit one, but the flat surface of the tennis courts came to mind. She could suggest they spray paint one there. Or maybe Jacob would prefer a gnome garden near the first duck pond? They could dress the small statues in period costumes and pretend they were performing one of Shakespeare’s plays. Macbeth, starring gnomes. Or maybe they could plant a corn maze and charge admission for tourists to try to find their way out again.

Arden counted chain link panels in the fence until she came to the fifth one from the trailhead. She reached behind the metal post and made sure the tiny magnetic box was still in place. The park was full of geocaches, and even though it wasn’t part of her job, she checked them regularly. During the season, she’d often see plenty of people wandering through the park, staring at their phones not because they were texting or searching online, but because they were following GPS coordinates and trying to find the hidden caches.

She was about to head back to the main trail when she heard a woman’s voice coming from somewhere ahead of her. The sound was too faint for her to pick out any words, and she walked quietly toward the source. Probably a couple of teens making out behind some bushes and needing to be shooed out of the park.

She recognized the lines from a play as soon as she was able to hear a complete sentence. She wasn’t hearing amorous high-schoolers, but a fairy queen. Titania, from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The play was one of her favorites, probably because it was the first one her grandparents took her to see. She had only been six at the time, but they had talked to her about the language and story for several weeks before the play opened, so by the time she saw the performance she was able to understand most of what she was watching. Even if her theater-loving family hadn’t prepped her, though, she would have been carried away to a magical forest that night.

She paused for a moment, uncertain whether she should continue eavesdropping or walk away and let the actor practice in peace. She closed her eyes and let the words move through her. The woman’s voice was soft, but powerful. Haughty, yet playful. She was speaking quietly, but her voice carried with a resonance that made Arden assume she was a professional, one of the company members most likely.

Arden couldn’t make herself leave but instead was pulled toward the woman. She crept to the edge of the path and peered around a heavy oak tree trunk and into a small clearing where the speaker was standing on a tree trunk stage, about two feet across and a foot high. She was facing away at an angle, and Arden stared at her profile. Here we go again, she thought. The woman had an elegance about her, a queenly grace befitting the role she was practicing, even though she was dressed in modern, businesslike clothes. Her look was softened by gorgeous blue-green eyes and by the thick blond curls that had pulled loose from her braid and were now framing her face and matching the curve of her cheekbones. She was beautiful, and Arden felt herself falling, heading toward a new infatuation and the inevitable end-of-the-season crash.

Normally, Arden would be ready to step out of hiding right now. Turn on the charm, ask her out, rush into the relationship—such as it would be—as quickly as possible. Before common sense had a chance to make a case against another ill-advised tryst with an actor. This time, though, she wasn’t in a hurry to break the spell the woman was casting around her tiny stage.

Once Arden stopped her own internal monologue about the should I or shouldn’t I ask her out debate, she stopped feeling like an observer and had the sensation of being drawn out of the park and into a different place altogether. She rested her hand on the rough bark of the trunk and just listened. When Titania called for her attendants to come forward, Arden took a step before she could stop herself.

A twig snapped under her foot, and the woman whirled to face her.

“Hey. Sorry. I’m Arden. I work here…in the park, I mean. I was walking by and heard you…” Arden sighed. Smooth. She cleared her throat and started again. “I didn’t mean to interrupt, but you’re amazing. You transported me.”

She was rewarded with a smile that made her breath hitch in her throat. “Thank you for the compliment, but I haven’t really worked on the part yet.” The woman walked closer and held out her hand. “I’m Emilie.”

Arden shook her hand, her attention focused on the texture of Emilie’s skin against hers. She needed to get her imagination under control and to stop imagining Emilie’s hand moving over the rest of her body. Either get control or ask her out and make her daydream come true. “Are you playing Titania here in Ashland?”

Emilie frowned. “Yes. Among others.” She stepped away from Arden and sat down on the stump.

“Who else?” Arden leaned against the tree she had been hiding behind only moments before. She usually avoided all talk of the festival when she was with one of the company women she wanted to date, but she was fascinated by the expressions shifting across Emilie’s features, and she wanted to learn more about her. She seemed in control of her emotions when playing a part, but adorably transparent when she was being herself.

“I’m an understudy for the lead in Skywriting and the alcoholic older sister in Toxic. In the Shakespeare plays I’m Anne Page and Lady Anne. And please don’t make any jokes about getting the two Annes mixed up when I’m onstage.”


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