Read an Excerpt
"Places, everyone. Places!" Nicole Jamison shouted and clapped her hands to make sure she grabbed her small cast and crew's attention. "Five minutes 'til show time." Judging by the looks on their faces they were just as nervous about their opening night performance as she was. It was the good kind of nervous jitters—at least that's what she kept telling herself every five seconds.
Nicole smiled although every muscle in her stomach was now successfully tied into knots. This was it, the culmination of all of the blood, sweat and tears she'd put into her work for the past five years. Her first Broadway play!
Well, more like off-off-off-Broadway—but hell, it still counted. A year ago things were different. Her script, Hot Comb and Hair Grease, was all the buzz.
She and her agent enjoyed the highs and lows of a bidding war over the script. Investors were all lined up to launch Nikki's once dead-in-the-water career into the stratosphere.
No more ramen noodles for dinner.
No more battling mice and roaches for apartment space.
Most importantly—no more asking her parents for money.
Nikki, however, had underestimated her lifelong run of bad luck. In one fell swoop the bottom dropped out of the economy. Producers rescinded their offers, investors vanished into thin air and then her agent-slash-best friend flat out stopped returning her calls. The only things left were the ramen noodles, the mice and her parents' constant looks of disappointment and their checkbook.
What followed was a month long marathon of The Oprah Winfrey Show: 20th Anniversary Collection DVD. At first it was sad—no, it was still sad—but what emerged was a new attitude. Nikki, with Oprah's help, convinced herself that she didn't have to just accept this reality kick in the teeth. She could pick herself up, dust herself off and go about the business of turning this whole thing around. That's when the brilliant idea to produce the play herself emerged.
No. It was more like an epiphany—or as Oprah would say, an aha! moment—replete with a choir of angels singing in her head. And the more she thought about it, the more it made perfect sense. Everyone had loved the story once, right? So they would love it again.
All she needed was a good word-of-mouth campaign and she would be right back on top.
Well, not quite. She also needed some money.
So Nikki emptied her savings account, which was enough to perhaps buy a pair of Payless shoes. Next, she convinced her parents to invest a good chunk of their retirement money in the production. It wasn't easy. Her father laughed for about three weeks and then when he realized that she was serious, he started treating her like she had the plague.
Nikki then focused on her soft-hearted mother like a laser beam…and got a check from her. Okay, so it wasn't a very big check, but it was enough to lease a low-rent, rat-infested theater and buy a few costumes at the Salvation Army. The actors were the only thing that didn't cost money. In New York, out-of-work actors were a dime a dozen and they were willing to perform for the bare minimum: coffee.
Nikki pulled back the stage curtain and stole a quick peek at the front row. Her mom, beautiful in a cream-colored linen dress—usually reserved for Sunday morning church service—beamed with pride while her humorless father sat ramrod straight in a pair of basic brown khakis and a sky-blue open collar dress shirt. If he was excited about his daughter's opening night, it certainly didn't show.
Too many times her father had urged her to give up this whole writing thing and get a real job. Not that she hadn't tried. She had been everything from a waitress at a café to a much-maligned bill collector in order to pay her bills. What her parents and most of her friends failed to understand was that writing was her bliss. It was what she was born to do.
And tonight was her chance to prove it to the world, share her art, and let the New York theater community know that NICOLE JAMISON HAS ARRIVED.
Nikki drew a deep breath as a bright smile blossomed across her face, while her heart pounded like a racehorse.
Nicole whipped her head around to see Crystal Cummings, rushing toward her. Alarm bells immediately went off in Nicole's head when she saw her lead actress's face quickly turning puke-green.
Definitely not a good sign.
"Crystal, what is it?" Even as the question left her lips, Nikki's heart sank in anticipation of bad news. What would her life be without bad news?
"I can't—I can't go on." Crystal slapped a hand over her mouth just as a gagging, gurgling, chugging noise rose from her throat. Next, Crystal's large brown eyes bulged before she took off like a shot toward a plastic garbage can by the small buffet table.
The other actors scattered out of the way, but the sound of Crystal vomiting had a domino effect, causing a few more actors to turn green. That was the beauty of throwing up—either the sound or smell was all it took to spark a real outbreak.
"No. No. No." Nikki covered a hand over her heart as if that was going to stop everything from falling apart. It took a few more seconds for her to realize that she needed to do something. She rushed over to the garbage can and held Crystal's long wavy hair away from her face. It was the least she could do. But the stench wafting from the trash can now had the knots in Nikki's stomach flopping around.
The understudy. Nikki's gaze whipped around as she looked backstage for Crystal's understudy. "Where's Grace?" she shouted, but her question was met with blank stares from the other actors. Then she caught a quick glimpse out of the corner of her eyes. "Grace!"
The woman froze.
A second set of alarm bells went off when she noticed Grace looked like a deer caught in headlights. Definitely another bad sign.
Nikki released Crystal's hair and raced over to Grace. "You're gonna have to go on tonight." She may as well have told the understudy that she had terminal cancer from the look of sheer horror that blanketed Grace's face.
"I can't. I can't." Grace stepped back until her small frame was pressed against the back wall.
"What do you mean?" Nikki grabbed the young, pencil-thin actress by the shoulders, but then reminded herself at the last second that it was illegal to snap the woman in half. "We don't have a choice. You have to go on."
"B-But I didn't learn the lines," she confessed in a high-pitched whine.
"What?" Nikki's heart sank deeper in the pit of her stomach. "What do you mean you didn't learn the lines? You're Crystal's understudy."
"I know…. But Crystal is such a good actress I didn't think anything could go wrong. Not to mention my college courses are really kicking my ass this quarter and my boyfriend and I have been fighting and—"
The young understudy snapped her jaw shut. But then Grace's eyes started blinking so much, Nikki was afraid that she was in the middle of an epileptic fit.
"The bottom line is that you didn't bother to learn your lines," Nikki said, feeling as if the floor was spinning beneath her feet. "I don't believe this. In a few minutes I'm about to be the biggest joke on Broadway."
"You mean off-off-Broadway," Grace corrected.
Nikki's eyes narrowed. "Don't push it. You're already on my bad side."
Grace teared up. "I'm really, really sorry." And with that weak-ass apology, she scampered off.
"Curtain in two minutes," Barbara, Nikki's stage manager-slash-assistant-slash-baby sister, announced as if everything was all sunshine and roses.
Barbara caught sight of Nikki's horror-stricken face and rushed right over. "What's wrong?"
"I don't have a lead actress," Nikki choked out. She checked over her shoulder to see Crystal still hunched over the garbage can and dry heaving into it. "You don't happen to have a gun on you, do you?"
Barbara steered her sister's attention away from the sick actress. "C'mon now. She's not worth it."
"It's not for her. It's for me. I'd rather do myself in than have the critics do it."
"C'mon. It's not like Ben Brantley is out there."
"Please. Who needs The New York Times when you have this little bitty thing called the Internet?"
The desperation of the situation seemed to finally hit Barbara because she clammed up for a few seconds. "But what about—?"
"She didn't learn her lines," Nikki answered in a flat tone. "An understudy that doesn't study…." She smacked her palm against her forehead—which seemed to flip the switch on a lightbulb. Nikki looked at her sister with renewed hope.
Barbara's eyes bulged as she inched away. "Don't look at me. I'm not an actress."
"But you know the lines."
"Just because I read the script doesn't mean I memorized the lines," Barbara stressed, trying to pull her arm out her sister's grasp. "You're not going to get me to go out there and make a fool of myself."
Nikki's hopes plummeted as fast as they had risen.
"What about you?" Barbara suggested. "Nobody knows this script like you do."
"I'm not an actress," Nikki protested with the same horror her sister displayed just moments before.
"Yeah, but you seem to be a little short on those tonight," Barbara reminded her.
In sync, their watches beeped. A hush came over the whole theater.
"It's showtime," Barbara said, whispering the obvious.
Nikki felt ill, but she knew what she had to do. "Go out there and stall," she instructed Barbara. "I need two minutes. I'm going to have to go on."
"Are you sure?"
"You have a better idea?" she asked, in a voice that was ironically tinged with both sarcasm and hope.
Barbara gave Nikki a sympathetic smile, the kind you give when someone tells you that they only have twenty-four hours to live. "Okay. Break a leg, kid."
Nikki took off toward Crystal's dressing room—a janitor's closet—and quickly changed her clothes. As bad luck would have it, Crystal was a size smaller than Nikki and she was forced to cram her size eight hips into a size six dress.
It wasn't pretty.
She quickly tunneled her fingers through her hair to give it a very tousled and unkempt look, grabbed her antique hot comb prop, and then had to waddle like a penguin on crack back toward the stage. Standing stage left, Nikki took a deep breath and then waved frantically at her sister to let her know to wrap up her rambling speech.
Barbara brightened with relief. "And now…on with the show!"
There was a respectable applause as Barbara curtsied her way off the stage.
Nikki started praying and she kept on praying well after the house lights dimmed and the curtains parted.
The last thing in the world Hylan Dawson wanted to do was to go to a play—especially one entitled Hot Comb & Hair Grease. This artsy-fartsy stuff was never his thing. Nevertheless, one of his New York playmates, Shonda, was calling herself an actress these days and she kept insisting on dragging him from one bad production to another. It was a high price to pay to get into her Victoria's Secrets, but a man had to do what a man had to do.
Shonda squeezed his hand as the house lights dimmed. "I'm so excited. My friend Crystal is the lead actress," she boasted in a low whisper. "I just know that you're going to love her."
Oh joy. Hylan smiled to camouflage his despair. If this Crystal chick's acting was as bad as Shonda's then he was truly in for a very long night. He turned his attention to the stage, drew a deep breath and prepared himself for anything.
Well, almost anything.
A woman waddled out on stage in a dress so tight he swore the entire front row could hear the seams screaming. Hylan didn't mind so much since the actress had an incredible body. She was stacked like a priceless work of art with full breasts, slim waist and rounded hips. If this play involved nudity it was definitely going to get two thumbs up and a couple of toes from him.
"That's not Crystal," Shonda hissed, frowning.
Good. That meant that Hylan could avoid a sticky situation between girlfriends when he slipped this black angel his number after the show. Sure the slick move would make him what women called a dog, but to him and his fellow Kappa Psi Kappa brothers it was what they considered exercising his options. Which for the record, he did on the regular. And why not? He was single, handsome and rich. Why shouldn't he shop around and play with all the toys his lifestyle afforded him?
Hylan smiled, wondering what her back view had to offer—something lush and squeezable he hoped. He took his time committing every curve of her incredible body to memory. When his gaze finally reached the actress's face, he sucked in a sudden breath at the sight of what could have only come straight out of his dreams. Her glowing oval face, plump full lips, crescent-shaped cheekbones and large doe-shaped eyes were a lethal combination to his heart…and his libido. Immediately, he started imagining how sexy she'd look draped in diamonds and writhing on a bed of black satin sheets.
Suddenly, his pants felt tight. He shifted in his chair and hoped that Shonda wouldn't notice.
"Isn't she going to say something?" Shonda whispered.
Hylan's brows jumped. Until that moment, he hadn't realized that while he was ogling the actress, she had been on the stage for at least a full two minutes and hadn't uttered a single word. In fact, she looked paralyzed—frightened.
Someone coughed in the audience, probably hoping that it would jar her out of her trance. When that didn't work, he could hear people shifting and grumbling. Still, his frozen angel stood in the center of the stage. A low murmur rippled around him. He watched as the woman's bottom lip trembled and her eyes watered. Clearly she was just seconds away from a breakdown.