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"All right, let's call it quits for today."
Vickie closed her script and yawned. First readings were seldom very exciting, especially when the play was Shakespeare's Othello, which she knew like the back of her hand, as she had used it for the basis of her senior thesis back at FSU. Running her expressive gray eyes over the rest of the cast, she decided that no one had been particularly up for any real work today. Her fellow thespians were also yawning, stretching, and fumbling with their gear.
The same voice growled, "Get with it by tonight, guys!"
Vickie gave her director, Monte Clayton, a guilty smile. They were all acting like a group of disgruntled first-year drama students. Monte Clayton's Dinner Theatre was one of the finest in the eastern United States, possibly even the country. They were not a star-oriented ensemble, but a troop of dedicated, hand-picked actors and actresses who had worked together day and night for years. They constantly strove to bring their best work to a public long attuned to knowing that an evening at Monte's was well worth the price of the ticket—the food and performances were consistently excellent.
Vickie glanced at her wristwatch, surprised to see that they had broken up early. She was not due to pick Mark up from nursery school for almost two hours. Grinning, she decided to badger Monte for a while to see if he would give in and tell her the name of their mystery guest artist who would be playing Othello to her Desdemona.
Monte often gave in to her. She was only dimly aware that she was his most respected and admired actress, and that that was the reason. Whatever homage was paid her she accepted with a quiet grace that also made her a personal favorite of the other cast members. Despite the fact that she was a private person and seldom aired her own problems, she was the one to whom the others brought their day-to-day troubles.
Amidst friendly calls of "See ya later," and "Catch ya tonight," Vickie flung her bag over her shoulder and moved toward the stage, where Monte was scribbling ideas that had come to him during the reading. He looked up with surprise as Vickie approached him, and his eyes narrowed with a wary twinkle. On a cheerfully firm note he remarked, "You can stop right there, Miss Victoria Langley. I see that shade of feminine connivery in in your eyes, and I am not giving you a hint about our guest artist until I make the announcement tonight to the entire cast."
"Monte!" Vickie declared in a hurt tone. "I'm not here to pry! I have some extra time, and I thought you might buy me a cup of coffee."
Monte gazed at her sternly for a moment before releasing a resigned sigh. "Sure, love!" he chuckled. "I wish I could believe you were after the pleasure of my company. But that's okay, I like you trying to cajole me, even if the motives are devious." Rising with a sprightly jump, he pointed to a front row table. "Have a seat, Vick. I'll go 'buy' the coffee."
Vickie smiled, headed for the table and tossed her bag on one chair while sliding into the other. She opened her script and glanced idly over it, then tossed it on top of her bag. She would have her lines down pat within the next few days, wanting to have the tediousness of that chore out of the way early so that she could concentrate on the character. At the moment though, she was in no great hurry. Glancing around the room with tender affection, she scanned the hundred silent tables and the darkened stage presently set for the evening's performance of Godspell. She had been with Monte for two years now—two good years that had given her a pleasant and comfortable livelihood and kept her happy and eternally busy. She had little time for anything but the theater and her toddler son, Mark, and that was the way she wanted it. Her social life extended to her family and friendships with the other troop members, and that was the way she wanted it. She really had no time for men, which was fine with her.
She grinned, thinking of the group's nickname for her—Ice Maiden. Like many a performer, Vickie was shy offstage, and, admittedly, just not interested in any serious dating. She enjoyed friendly outings with an occasional admirer who pursued her, but having been burned once, she was too wise to get involved with any man. Victoria Langley, illustrious leading lady of the theater, was still basically Vickie Dalton of the small town of Bradenton. She had never grown bitter, but she had developed a frame of hard steel.
Without warning, her glance around the room brought back one unpleasant memory, one so well-buried she was shocked that it had entered her mind. Foolish! she admonished herself, and yet a feeling of uneasiness persisted. Annoyed, she calmly reminded herself that what had been, was done, finished; it had no bearing on the present or future. Life always went on, and for her it went on well.
"Why the sad eyes?" Monte demanded as he returned with two cups of steaming black coffee. Setting them down, he swung a wiry leg over a chair and joined her.
"Sad?" she repeated, focusing luminous gray eyes on him, then switching back to a smile. "I'm not sad at all. I was just thinking about this place and all it has done for me."
Monte's thin features broke into a wide grin. "When I look at you now, it is hard to remember that when I first met you, you were nothing but a gangly no-account kid hanging around the stage doors." His grin slipped a little. Vickie had been one of the numerous college kids who always came his way, willing to do anything to slip a foot into the door of a professional theater.
He hadn't thought much of her, just another young girl, all saucer eyes and dark black hair, who disappeared at the end of a summer season. Then, a year later, he had discovered her again, playing a tear-jerking and incredible Juliet on a Charleston stage. After the play he found her backstage and immediately offered her a permanent, well-paying job with him, no questions asked.
The skinny kid had matured into a brilliant and hard-working actress, now shapely with a mane of long, gleaming hair. She wasn't exactly beautiful; her nose was a trifle too tilted, and the gray eyes, with thick inky black lashes, were still too big for her fragile bone structure. But she arrested one's attention with sheer vivacity. Many a greater beauty could sit in a room, but all eyes would turn to Victoria, and hearts would thud at her soft-spoken, gracious manner. Like my own! Monte thought wistfully. He, the cool director, had fallen head over heels in love with her, only to be crushed when she nicely informed him that if he had anything in mind other than a professional relationship, she would leave.
Swallowing his ego, pride, and desire, he had insisted she stay. The years had proved him wise. Unwilling to give her love, Vickie gave him her tireless energy. She expended her multifaceted resources faultlessly for the theater and him, pitching in with a good-natured cheer to help in any circumstance. She earned the regard of the crew and the restaurant employees as well as the cast—building, painting, sewing costumes, and cleaning tables if needed—a sterling example for anyone associated with Monte's. Although it was clear she would never be his wife or lover, she was his friend, a valued one.
Vickie widened her smile and remarked, "I was such a stage-struck kid! And I grew up lucky. I got to live my dreams. I remember ..." Her voice trailed off suddenly as that unbidden memory replaced the one she had been about to relate. Damn! she told herself, thoroughly disgusted and annoyed. What was the matter with her today? Taking a sip of her coffee and lowering murky lashes over her eyes to hide them, she determinedly pushed the discomfort back where it belonged—out of her mind!
"Remember what?" Monte asked, eyeing her quizzically.
"Oh, nothing. Well, lots of things, really!" She resolutely laughed. "Remember when we did The Heiress and Patty Shaffer lost her contact lens in the tea set?"
Monte threw back his graying head and practically roared with laughter. "Unfortunately I do! How about the night Harry Blackwell was making his dramatic exit in Blood Wedding and the door fell in on him?"
As they chuckled over each disastrous absurdity, Vickie totally forgot her uneasiness. Her natural exuberance brushed it aside, and she felt smug with her life. It was a good one, and she loved it. She even forgot her original reason for cornering Monte as they talked. Finally she realized she had fiddled away far more time than she had intended, and unless she got going, she would be late in picking up Mark.
Jumping hastily to her feet, she wailed, "Darn your hide, Monte. I had meant to cajole that name from you, and you made me forget all about it. Now I have to go!" She gave him a beseeching look, arching her brows. "Come on, Monte, how about giving me a clue at least?"
"No way!" he responded with a firm grin. "Not this time. You are going to be enthralled along with everyone else!"
"Turkey!" she snorted teasingly. "Okay," she sighed in a martyrlike tone. "Make me suffer!"
"It won't be for long," Monte promised. "I'll tell you everything after tonight's show. Might as well"—he shrugged—"he'll be here tomorrow."
"Just as you say, boss man, see you tonight!" Vickie swung her bag over her shoulder, grabbed her script, and kissed his weathered cheek.
"I'm glad to hear you remember I'm the boss!" he chuckled gruffly.
Wrinkling her nose at him, Vickie waved and walked out the doors, blinking beneath the glare of the blinding sunlight. It was going to be a hot summer. It wasn't the first of June yet, and already they were hitting temperature readings in the nineties. But she was a Floridian, accustomed to the heat, and an avid fan of the endless white beaches of her native state—a happy, often barefoot waif on the sands.
Settling into the driver's seat of her sturdy old Volvo, she hummed a tune for the night's show. Godspell was fun to do. She would be sorry when its run ended, although she truly loved to do Shakespeare, especially with a director like Monte. He brought so much to a play, listening to and respecting the opinions of his players. Of course, though, his word was final.
Parking outside her son's small nursery school, she waited only seconds before she saw Mark coming out with his teacher. Her heart took another unexpected lurch as he looked for her, found her, waved, and with his beautiful lopsided grin, ambled to the car. She had been lucky in a way. Mark was the spitting image of her. Except for two things—his eyes were brilliant blue like his father's, and he had the same killer grin.
"Mum!" he chortled happily as Vickie buckled him into his car seat and waved an okay sign to the wary teacher who made sure her charge was safely in his mother's hands.
"How was your day, my darling?" Vickie crooned, kissing his raven head. "What did you do?"
"Play," Mark said happily. "Play."
Vickie chuckled. He was only twenty-seven months old—not much of a conversationalist. But he grinned happily when she suggested ice cream.
Over gooey fudge sundaes, they shared precious time together. Vickie's only remorse over her chosen career was it took so much time away from Mark. Although Monte's was "dark" on Sundays and Mondays, the rest of the week was hectic. Vickie's daily schedule would cause a weaker person to wince; she dropped Mark off by eight at his school so that she could be at the theater by eight thirty, rehearsed the upcoming production until two, retrieved Mark by two thirty, and had to be back at the theater by seven to makeup and dress in costume for the current play. Those few hours in the afternoon she devoted to Mark.
Tousling his silky hair, she marveled at what a wonderful child he was. Shaking her head slightly, she wryly thought that blessings did often come in disguise. Mark had been such a blessing. Discovering her pregnancy had been the greatest trauma of her life, but his birth had brought her the most profound joy. He was more than her child now; he was her companion, critic, and friend.
"Finish your sundae," she directed him. "We'll scoot over to the beach for a bit."
"Beesh!" he repeated happily. "Beesh."
Sarasota, to Vickie, was the epitome of all that Florida should be. The city was quaint, clean, and bright beneath its year-round sun. Winters brought a mild snap of cold weather, never harsh, but just right for a subtle change of pace. Around November the population drastically increased as part-time residents, deserting the ice and snow of their northern habitats, ventured south. They helped to keep the city financially sound and also helped to fill the four hundred seats at Monte's.
Sitting on a patch of bleached sand while Mark played on the foam-flecked shore, Vickie luxuriated in the feel of the salt spray around her, her skin vibrantly attuned to its gentle caress, her toes tickled by the lapping touch of the encroaching tide. A fiddler crab sidled by her and disappeared into a small black hole as it sensed her movement. Smiling, she lay back on an elbow and grimacingly compared herself to the crab. She always disappeared at the slightest hint of danger. Maybe it was time for a change. Maybe she should become a little wilder, get out more.
"Hey, tiger." She softly called her entranced son. "We have to go now." At his crestfallen look she added, "We'll have burgers and french fries, okay?"
Vickie was never quite sure just how much her two-year-old understood, but "french fries" was as familiar as "beach" to him. He smiled again and she swept him up in her arms to head back to the car. "We have to hurry a bit, sweet pea," she murmured. "I have to have you all fed and set for bed before Mrs. Gilmore arrives. We don't want to lose her!"
She smiled at the thought. Harriet Gilmore, the plump matron who cared for Mark five nights a week, adored him. She probably wouldn't leave Vickie's employ even if she were beat over the head with a poker. A natural with children, the kindly lady loved Mark, and although Vickie knew she was prejudiced, she could understand why. Her son was blessed with a cheery disposition that seldom failed. He had never been a crier or whiner, and although he did have a temper tantrum now and then like any normal child, his basic nature was beguiling and endearing.
A charmer with a temper, Vickie thought a touch dryly. Like his father.
But, like his father, he usually displayed his temper only to himself. When a toy would frustrate him, he would flounce his sturdy little body into his room, where he would often stay despite her cajoling until he could emerge bubbling again.
At first Vickie had often attempted to deal with his moods. But as time and experience had taught her to control her own mixed feelings, she had accepted that he was like his father, and that that father had certain commendable traits that she should appreciate in her son.
Even at two Mark needed to deal with his problems in his own way. Vickie was wise enough now to simply be there when he decided that he needed her.
They drove into a sterile, fast-food restaurant, where Vickie bought hamburgers, french fries, and shakes. She didn't usually like to eat at burger places, and the strange uneasiness she had felt during the day seemed to stay with her, making her nervously lazy. She didn't believe in premonitions. She felt as if she should know something, realize something, but she couldn't put a finger on what it was she should know.
Well, one thing she did know, she told herself, was that she was going to get out more. She chuckled suddenly at that thought. She had had dinner a few times with last year's summer guest artist, and that had been a disaster. Monte always brought in a "star"; in doing so he could guarantee filling the house in the customary offseason. Last year's "star" had been the popular hero of a motorcycle cop series—handsome and rugged on the screen, devoid of personality off. He had difficulty lifting a two-by-four in the shop and his egotistical immaturity drove Vickie to boredom.
Granted, she could remember being devastatingly immature just a few short years ago. But she had been naive. No, stupid was more like it! Okay, stupid, naive, overly sheltered—a pathetic twenty-two. And now an ancient twenty-five.
It wasn't really fair for her to judge anyone, her own mistakes had been so vast. One day she would have to explain to her son why he didn't have a father. Stop! she wailed to herself. Mental torture didn't solve anything. This was a hell of a time to worry about what she had long reconciled herself to anyway. Besides, the moral standards of the world had relaxed quite a bit. Mark would fare well, even if he never knew his father. But Mark could never know. No, Mr. Langley would have to stay dead. Better a dead loving parent than a living legend who would never recognize one's existence.
Excerpted from Tender Deception by Heather Graham. Copyright © 1984 Heather E. Graham. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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