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"Places, everyone. We need to run through this scene one more time."
Ignoring the groans of her fellow cast members, Tanya Bledso stood downstage and waited for everyone to resume their positions. Dust motes danced in the beam from the single spotlight, and up close the floorboards were badly scuffed and worna far cry from the Hollywood soundstages she'd called home for ten years. If some of her former colleagues could see her now they'd either cringe or laugh, but she tried not to think of that. She'd come home to Crested Butte, Colorado, to make a fresh start, and if that meant shepherding a bunch of locals through an amateur production, so be it. At least she was still doing what she loved, if not on the scale she'd once aspired to.
"Is this how they do things in Hollywood?" her best friend, Angela Krizova, asked as she draped her ample figure across a chaise longue and picked up a fan to waft in front of her face. "Work you till you drop?"
"There's no such thing as a short day on the set," Tanya said. "Actors work hard."
"Yeah, but those guys are getting paid." The male lead in the production, town councilman Oscar Renfield, struck a pose at center stage. "We're all volunteer amateurs."
"You can't get much more amateur than your performance, Oscar," the man in charge of lighting, Bill Freeman, called from the shadows.
Oscar waited for the laughter to die. "Yeah, well, we're all second-string compared to Tanya," he said with a genial smile at their director.
Tanya joined Oscar at center stage. Everyone had been so kind since her return, pretending she'd been a big star, though she had only a few commercials and four years on a soap opera to show for herso-called career. It was only through luckaided, she suspected, by a few called-in favors to her parentsthat she'd landed this position as director of the Crested Butte Center for the Arts and the Mountain Theatre, which made it all the more important that she do a good job here. "Come on, everyone," she said. "One more time and that's it. I promise."
With only minor grumbling, the rest of the company shuffled into place. Tanya checked her script for Angela's line. "How do I know I can trust you, Steve?" Angela said. "It didn't work out for us the last time."
The rear door of the theater slammed against the back wall and a man stood behind a large scrim. "Where do you want this?" he asked, his voice booming in the empty darkness. Not waiting for an answer, he maneuvered the scrim, which depicted the exterior of an old-timey saloon, up the aisle. He stopped at the foot of the stage and leaned into the opening for the saloon's swinging doors. "I've got three more of these in the truck, and I need to know where to put them."
At the first sound of his voice, Tanya thought her ears were playing tricks on her, but when the stage lights hit the man's face, she knew her instincts had been right. He was older now, with the solid arms and shoulders of a man instead of the boy of her memory, but Jack Crenshaw's thick, dark hair still fell across his forehead in a careless wave, and his intense blue eyes could pierce right through a person. As a teen, he'd had the kind of looks that made every female between the ages of six and sixty give him a second glance; now Tanya found herself standing more erect and putting a hand up to smooth her hair.
The movement drew his attention and for an eternity of a moment their eyes locked, and she felt her heart plummet somewhere near her stomach. She'd successfully avoided Jack until now for this very reason. Seeing him again reminded her too much of what she'd been like at eighteenso young and full of such big dreams and easy emotions.
A slow, seductive smile formed on his lips and her knees turned to jelly. "Well, if it isn't the Hollywood princess," he said.
She flinched at the coolness in his voice, but willed herself not to show it. Yes, they'd parted on awkward terms all those years ago, but surely he'd forgiven her by now. After all, they'd both been practically children then. Something else must be eating him. Maybe he didn't like theater in general, or maybe this was his idea of a joke. "Hello, Jack," she said.
His gaze wandered over her, frankly checking her out. The hardness in his expression made her flinch. So many things about Crested Butte had changed in her absence; she hadn't wanted to believe Jack would be one of them.
"I take it you're in charge around here," he said, with as much emotion as if he'd been talking to a stranger on a loading dock. "Where do you want these scrims?"
She blinked. Yes, Jack had definitely changed, and like so many things in her hometown, not for the better. "The scrims are stored backstage," she said, nodding toward the wings.
"Maybe you'd like to show me where." The invitation was delivered with the same lazy smile, but with all the hospitality of a threat.
"I'll go." Barbie Fenton, Angela's understudy, said before Tanya could regain her equilibrium. Barbie hurried to the edge of the stage. "I'll meet you around back," she said.
"We need to run through this scene," Tanya protested.
"You don't really need me," Barbie said, and rushed backstage before Tanya could say more.
Tanya turned back to her script, hiding her annoyance and confusion. What was up with Jack? True, he hadn't bothered to look her up since her return to Crested Butte a few months earlier, but she'd told herself it was merely because he was busy. Or maybe, like her, he needed a little time to get used to the idea of the two of them living near each other again. They were adults now, so the old relationship they had didn't fit. They needed time to figure out what their new roles would be.
Laughter, deep and masculine, came from behind stage, and Tanya froze as remembered desire seared her. Ten years had passed since she'd heard him laugh and her body responded as if it was yesterday. Further proof how pitiful her social life in Hollywood had been, that even seven years of marriage hadn't cooled the heat Jack had once kindled in her.
"I'm not asking you to trust me, Roxanne, I'm asking you to work with me a little bit." Oscar read his line. "It's in our best interest to cooperate."
"That's the wrong line," Angela said.
"I didn't like the one that was written," Oscar said. "This one is better."
The actors' squabble pulled Tanya out of her daze. "What?" She flipped through the script, trying to hide her confusion.
"The correct line is 'I'll make it worth your while,'" Angela said. "'It's in our best interest to cooperate' sounds like something a banker would say."
"But I am a banker," Oscar protested.
"Your character isn't," Tanya reminded him. "Read the line as written."
"I'd just as soon trust a grizzly," Angela said.
"I'm a lot more cuddly," Oscar responded with a leer. "Or don't you remember?"
Tanya made it to the end of the run-through, then hurried backstage, hoping to intercept Jack and talk to him. She should have looked him up long before now. Maybe he was upset about that. Fine. She was big enough to apologize. The important thing was there was no reason the two of them couldn't be friends again.
She needed something familiar in a town that had changed so much in her decade away. During her brief visits to her family she hadn't registered that the sleepy mining village she'd left behind had blossomed into a bustling tourist attraction. The mountainsides had filled with ranks of condominiums, and the main street had spruced up with brightly painted shops, restaurants and bars into which tourists and locals alike crowded every night of the week.
She hurried around a stack of old scenery and skidded to a halt when she heard the low murmur of voices. Before her, in the dusty glow of an overhead bulb, Barbie stood with her back to the saloon scrim, Jack leaning over her. As Tanya watched, he reached up and tucked a stray lock of hair behind Barbie's ear, an intimate gesture that left Tanya dry-mouthed and embarrassed. She quickly turned away, her cheeks hot. What had she been thinking, running after him that way, as if no time at all had passed since they'd last spoken?
As if a man like Jack had spent the past ten years waiting for her to walk back into his life.
Jack heard a noise and looked up in time to see Tanya disappearing into the darkness. Sighing, he gave Barbie a smile of apology and said, "I'd better go see what the boss lady wants."
Barbie made a face. "Just because she acted in Hollywood for a few years, everybody thinks she's such hot stuff," she said. "But if she was all that, why didn't she stay there?"
Why didn't she? he thought. He'd heard through the rumor mill that Tanya Bledso was back in town, but having successfully avoided seeing her for weeks, he'd let down his guard. Curiosity over what Tanya was like now had gotten the better of him. The theater had been the obvious place to find her. She'd practically grown up here. He could still remember watching her, at seventeen years old, as she'd wowed everyone with her portrayal of Laurey in Oklahoma!
And then she'd practically laughed at the idea of remaining in town after graduation and had caught the first bus headed west. She'd had big plans for fame that didn't include a small-town construction hand like him.
"Jack? Are you okay?" Barbie tapped his shoulder.
He blinked at her. "What?"
"You had this funny look on your face. Like you don't feel so hot."
"No, I'm fine." He straightened and forced a smile. "I'll catch you later, Barb. Take care."
Then he hurried toward the front of the auditorium, where he found Tanya sorting a stack of scripts. "Hey," he called.
She whirled, cheeks flushed, the scripts clutched to her chest like a shield. "Oh, hi, Jack," she said, composing her features into a mask of coolness. "You surprised me."
"Not as much as you surprised me, showing up back here." He crossed his arms over his chest and leaned against the end of the first row of seats. "The last time I saw you, you said you were done with this place forever."
She turned away and began shuffling the scripts once more. "I've grown up some since then. I have a daughter now and I realized this is a good place to raise a child."
Leave it to Tanya to keep catching him off guard. She had a daughter? The idea of a miniature version of her did funny things to his insides. "I didn't know that," he said. "What does her father do?"
"He's an actor." She stacked the scripts on a table in an alcove beside the stage and turned to face him. "We're not married anymore. I'm living with my parents until I can get on my feet again. Anything else you'd like to know?"
Yeah. What happened to the sweet girl I used to know? He didn't see much of her in this polished woman with her artfully streaked hair, silk blouse, designer jeans and brittle demeanor. "How long are you staying this time?" he asked instead.
"Forever," she said. "This is my home now. It's where I want to raise my daughter."
"It's changed a little since you lived here last," he said.
Her expression clouded. "Yes, it has," she said. "I'd like to find the person responsible for all those condos spoiling the view."
"That would be me," he said, with a sense of grim satisfaction.
She stared. "You?"
"Yes, me." He straightened. "I built most of those condos, and made a good profit doing it, too." He might have stayed behind while she went off to the big city, but he'd made a success of himself in spite of that limitation.
Her expression darkened. "What did you want to do something stupid like that for?" she demanded. "This was a beautiful place and people like you have almost ruined it."
"People like me? You're one to talk, considering you couldn't wait to get away from here ten years ago."
They glared at each other, the only sound the creaking of a timber as the old building settled and the soft sigh of her breathing. The intensity of his anger caught Jack off guard. That night ten years ago, when she'd told him she was leaving, he'd been too stunned to say much to her. The anger had come after she was gone, but he'd believed he was long past feeling anything for her.
She was the first to look away. "This is stupid," she said. She took a deep breath and held out her hand. "Let's try again. Hi, Jack. It's good to see you again. Thank you for helping with the scenery."
Her hand in his was as soft as silk, the nails long and tapered and painted pale pink. He caught a whiff of a floral perfume, and fought the urge to pull her closer, to see if she tasted as good as his memory recalled, if her lips were as sweet as he remembered. "You're welcome," he said instead, releasing his hold on her and taking a step back. He had to get out of here before he saidor did something he'd later regret. "I'd better go now."
"Our next rehearsal is Tuesday," she said. "I hope I'll see you there." As if to prove she really was a great actress, she even sounded as if she meant it, though Jack doubted she did. Whatever the two of them had in common had died a long time agoright about the time she'd gotten on that bus and made it clear Crested Butte had nothing to offer her. The question now wasn't so much why she'd returned, but how long she'd hang around before restlessness and her desire for fame drove her on to the next territory to conquer.
Meanwhile, he'd stay right here, building those condos she hated, living in the one place that would always be home for him.