Read an Excerpt
"Go, 344. Go 345." Sophie Curtis spoke sotto voce into the microphone protruding from the headpiece she wore. She stood in the pitch-black area left of stage, reading the sheet on the podium by a penlight. Just three more cues and
"Fade lights. Go curtain." The heavy, velveteen drape slid quickly down.
Dancers, singers and actors scrambled, bumping into each other, cursing, mumbling, then, three seconds later, fell into place, a perfect shape of bodies and colors, all smiles and glitter and
"Go lights. Go curtain."
Applause thundered through the large, Midwestern university theater, the crowd at this January fund-raiser growing louder with each carefully choreographed bow. The sound rumbled inside her. Like bilious waves on a rocky sea.
The applause reached excruciating heights when Damon Adrian, off Broadway's newest heartthroba sure star for the silver screenstepped forward.
One minute. Two. And then
"Go curtain. Go house lights."
Sophie pulled off her headset, dropped it on the podium, then desperately pushed her way through the throng of moving bodies high on adrenaline. Pushed all the way through the dancers' dressing room, to the restroom then to the farthest stall.
Where she promptly threw up.
Funny how bathroom tile all looked the same. Did the world have an agreementeveryone use the same tile so people would immediately recognize the place for what it was? Feel at home there? Or was it simply the cheapest flooring material that could withstand public use?
This stuff needed to be re-grouted. But then
Recognizing her friend's voice, Sophie grabbed some toilet paper, wiped her mouth againthenpulled another wad for her eyesand stood. Prayed she was done.
"Hey." There was a tap on the stall door. Annie's blue-tipped tennis shoes, her strong dancer's ankles, were planted on the other side. "You okay?"
"Yeah." Sophie swallowed. "I'm fine."
But she wasn't. She was scared to death. And as soon as Annie saw her face, she'd know it.
"Soph? Open the door."
Déjà vu. Like old times. Sophie had thought she was done with all that. Had confidently told Annie so just the night before.
How concern and authority could blend so painfully in one word, Sophie didn't know. Had never known.
But she recognized the tone as though she was still that twenty-year-old undergrad at Montford University in Shelter Valley, Arizona, rather than the twenty-eight-year-old successful theatrical producer she'd become.
Like that twenty-year-old she'd once been, she opened the door. And couldn't meet her friend's eyes.
How many times, during those years of doing shows togetherAnnie as a dance major and Sophie majoring in theater productionhad she had to face her friend on the other side of a stall door?
"Oh, Soph. You said you were done with all that. That it had been years"
She glanced up. "It has been."
"Show me your finger."
Sophie's long nails were legendary, though they were shorter now than they had been in college, and the bold colors they used to be adorned with had toned down to pale pinks. She held out her right palmmiddle finger extended straight up.
"It's not broken off." For years the nail of that finger had been a short stub necessitated by Sophie's addiction to sticking it down her throat. Tonight, it was even with the restan eighth of an inch beyond her fingertip.
"I didn't consciously do it," Sophie said, fighting panicand myriad other emotions that were what got her into trouble in the first place. And every place after that, as well.
If she could keep the different parts of herself neatly packed away in their respective compartments, she'd be fine. It was only when the emotions took over, spilled over, that she had problems.
They hadn't spilled over in years.
"I really I didn't know what was happening." At least not that she'd been able to acknowledge to herself.
She wanted to go home.
To lock herself inside her two-bedroom stucco abode on her acre of desert and sleep until she was better.
Frowning, Annie grabbed Sophie's still-extended finger, holding on. "So you didn't do it to yourself? You have the flu?"
One shouldn't sound quite so happy at the possibility that one's friend was sick.
Sophie couldn't answer.
"It didn't feel like the flu," she finally admitted.
"You were able to control it," Annie said, knowing the signs, having gone through all the symptoms with Sophie the first time. "Your thoughts made it happen."
When she'd been distracted with the show, the nausea had gone away. Did that count?
Sophie could have said the words aloud, but she knew the answer. Yes, it counted.
"I brought it on myself."
Which was ridiculous. Most particularly hereat a show. Here she was a successful, confident woman. Period.
With Phyllis, her Shelter Valley friend and onetime counselor, Sophie could let the little girl inside come to the surface. Maybe. If she had to.
"Ah, Soph, I thought things were great. These past two weeks, working on the show, you've seemed so happy. Why didn't you say something? We could have taken time away, really talked."
Why hadn't she said something? Why hadn't she told her friend the whole truth? Why hadn't she told Annie someone who'd known her before, who would understandthat she was struggling? Why hadn't she admitted, even silently, that she'd allowed herself to return to a place she'd vowed never to revisit?
"I didn't know." Sophie answered her own last question first. "I swear, Annie, this is the first time. And it really wasn't a conscious choice. I just I guess old habits really do die hard. Or don't ever die. They just lie there, waiting to attack you when you're at a weak point."
"You know the signs, Soph. The symptoms."
Nodding, Sophie thought over the past few months. The past two years. When her sexual being had come back to life.
She thought of Duane. And quickly shut that mental door.
"I didn't see it coming," she said. "I'm older. Successful. I have many reasons to feel good about myself. I really thought I wasn't susceptible anymore."
Another dancer, a guest performer in the evening's closing performance, pushed through the door from the dressing room, said, "Sorry, I gotta pee," then, with a smile in their direction, dashed into a stall.
"Let's go find a place to get something to eat," Annie said, pulling Sophie in the direction of the door.
"You've got a cast party to get to." She'd been here two weeks and had managed to avoid any one-on-one personal conversation with the woman who'd once been such a close confidant. "And I really should hang around while they tear things down."
"The local techies are going to get all of that." Annie pointed out what they both knew. "And you've got time to finish up paperwork in the morning before your flight back to Phoenix."
Sophie allowed herself to be pulled into the bustle of a quickly emptying dressing room. "But your party"
"Is nothing compared to you," Annie said softly. She approached her seat at the long, lighted dressing table, throwing things in her bag with an unusual disregard to orderliness. "It's not like I haven't performed with these people before, or like I won't again."
Sophie went to collect her things.
Lifting his glass, Duane peered at the small, select group of men and women gathered in the living room of his Phoenix high-rise condo. The party was unofficial. A Saturday-night get-together of friends.
The friends just happened to be the most powerful political movers and shakers in the state of Arizona.
"You're the one, buddy," Robert Anvil said, touching his glass to Duane's as the rest of the small group nodded.
Looking to Will Parsons, the one man in the room he truly trusted, one of the few people in the world he considered a friend, Duane waited. And only drank when he received Will's quiet nod.
Any other evening he and Will got together it was at Will's home in Shelter Valley, a small town an hour's drive from Phoenix. Shelter Valley had been home to Will Parsons all his life, and a regular stopping place for Duane the past two years.
The two men had met in collegeat Montford University, the Harvard of the West. Will was now president of the renowned educational institution. His wife, Becca, standing next to him tonight, was mayor of Shelter Valley.
Neither of those facts was the reason Duane considered them friends.
Toast completed, talk broke out among the twenty people who'd come together to informally offer Duane their party's nomination for the senate seat in Arizona's state election the following fall.
Relief seemed to suffuse the room, as though blown from the heating duct. Relief and anticipation, judging by the buzz of conversations Duane was catching. They'd made a good choice. Or seemed to think they had.
Duane wasn't so sure.
"You don't look like a man who's in the process of realizing his greatest lifetime goal."
Turning, Duane grimaced at Will, who'd maneuvered them into a corner of the room where they could speak without being overheard.
"I can do this job." Hands in his pockets, Duane looked his friend straight in the eye. "After twenty years of applying the laws in this state, I know where we need changes, and how to go about getting them. I know our weak points and our strengths"
"Yeah." Will might be a fifty-something university president, but he was also a very involved fatherone child five and another one eightand more and more his vocabulary was relaxing.
"I just "
"You're worried about Sophie."
Duane's eighteen-years-younger-than-him girlfriend was no secret between the two men. She was the reason for his frequent visits to Shelter Valley.
She'd been a student at Will's school not all that many years ago.
"You know as well as I do that half the people in this room would change their minds about backing me if they knew about her," Duane said.
His relationship with Sophie didn't come to Phoenix.
"When's the last time you asked her to marry you?"
"Before she left for Chicago." Two weeks ago.
"And she turned you down?"
Will, the only man in the room wearing a suit jacket, sipped from his glass of soda water. He rarely drank these daysone of the many changes that had accompanied Bethany's advent into his and Becca's lives when, after twenty-plus years of trying, they found out Becca was finally going to have a baby.
"Better be careful, man," Will said. "She might surprise you one of these times and accept."
Now there was a thought. One that brought more reservations than the party decision to back him.
Will's eyes narrowed. "What would you do if she did?"
"I honestly don't know."
"Maybe you'd better figure that out before you pose the question again."
It sounded so easy.
With a quick glance over his shoulder at the men and women milling behind them, Will asked, "Do you love her?"
"You know I do."
"I know you're attracted to her. That's a far cry from loving her."
"Give me a break, man. I'm forty-six, not fourteen. And it's been two years. It's more than just lust."
"So could you picture yourself spending the rest of your life with her?"
Who knew answers to such questions?
"I can picture myself at sixty, when she's forty-two. In my mind, Sophie is full of energy and beauty and bored with me."
"You don't trust her."
"It's more than that, Will. I love my time with her, crave more time with her. But when we're together we're alone. The rest of the world, and things like generations, don't matter. Can you honestly picture her here tonight? Hell, these guys would think she's my daughter. Or they'd look at her like she's on the hunt for a sugar daddy."
Will seemed to commiserate with his chuckle.
"You don't hold too high an opinion of the moral composition of our peers."
Duane took in the room, the casually dressed men and women, and saw them for what they were. Intelligent, confident, successful. Many of them would do whatever it took to get where they were going. Use who they could. Stab who they had to. Some were quick to judge each other, while justifying, at least to themselves, their own sometimes questionable actionsand would blame others if someone got hurt.
He didn't want to join the crowd. He simply wanted to change the world.
"I don't want to make Sophie look like a whore." He and Will talked straight. Which was one of the reasons Duane valued the friendship so much.
"Marrying her won't do that."
Whereas visiting her warm and vibrant home, leaving his car parked outside all night, did.
"And that's not really the problem, is it?" Will asked softly, moving them a little farther away from the others.
"You of all people know her past, Will." In his official capacity, Will had been apprised of the troubles of one of Montford's most promising scholarship students. The invitations she'd offered to too many guysincluding one of her instructors. The eating disorder that had almost killed her.
"It bothers you."
"How could it not?"
"So you don't trust her."
"I don't know." Downing his Scotch, Duane turned away from a love life he couldn't control, and stepped back into the persona he'd grown comfortable with over the years. The intelligent, confident, successful attorney who'd worked his entire life for this chance to make a difference. And who really believed he could.
Make a difference, that was.