Forty-nine-year-old Margot Hughes has lived and breathed theater for the past twenty-five years. After a devastating breakup with her playwright fiancé, she wants nothing to do with the industry. She has sworn off New York, theater, actors—all of it. She returns to her hometown on California’s central coast and takes a job in real estate, where she manages significant investment properties. But Margot’s suddenly thrown back into the theater world when Sally, her friend and boss, who had been restoring and funding Cambria’s historic theater, has a heart attack. Before she knows it, Margot is tapped to take over the troubled summer production of Barefoot in the Park.
But the play is no walk in the park—the leads and director have all quit, and Margot struggles to find new actors…until Max Russo arrives. Forty-five-year-old Max is a former soap opera star turned rugged cowboy on TV’s most popular western series. Max has a huge following and is the perfect hero to step up and save the play, provided Margot stars opposite him. Although adamant she would never return to theater, Margot enjoys the long hours of rehearsal with a professional like Max, who is charming, witty, and passionate. But when the curtains close, can Margot allow herself to fall for Max when he represents everything she left behind?
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
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About the Author
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Margot Hughes, while good with computers, was by no means an expert and when her desktop froze mid-task-forcing a reboot-the spreadsheet she'd been updating all day was gone.
She was finally able to locate it, but when she did, none of the changes were there. All her work that day, disappeared. Vanished.
Margot pushed back from her desk and stood, angry. Jen, the office receptionist, looked up, alarmed.
But instead of melting down in the office in front of everyone, Margot grabbed her sweater and went for a brisk walk down Main Street, threading her way through shoppers and tourists, walking as if she were back in New York with its huge blocks and hectic pace, rather than the sleepy coastal village of Cambria, California, population 5,555.
This is such a small thing, she reminded herself. The loss of a day's work isn't big. Frustrating, but not earth-shattering. Not like death, or divorce, not that she'd ever officially been married, but she'd had a long-term relationship, eleven years, and he'd proposed year two. He'd given her a ring. She'd never doubted him, never imagined there wouldn't be a wedding, and she'd made plans, had everything picked out in readiness: the dress, the venue, the flowers and music. It hadn't been easy to wait, but she had. In the end, she'd waited too patiently.
Sam had ended it abruptly, and at forty-one Margot was single. It had been a devastating breakup. She'd supported Sam for years so he could focus on his work. She'd trusted him. Believed in them. Fortunately, that was eight years ago. Unfortunately, there hadn't been anyone to replace him. At first it was because she was still working in New York, but even after returning to her hometown of Paso Robles, she discovered that dating remained hard, and finding someone special . . . well, that had proven impossible.
Now she just focused on work, and living an ordinary life among good, kind, ordinary people. It hadn't been a painless transition from actress to office manager, but after twenty-five years working on Broadway, Margot was tough. A computer glitch wasn't going to knock her off her game.
Exhaling, she dashed across the street and then slowed her pace as she passed the manicured entrance for Cambria's playhouse plaza, the 1938 stucco theater, a gem of a place, only recently reopened after two years of renovation.
It was her boss Sally's pet project. Sally had bought the entire block three years ago, spent a year getting permits and plans drawn and then a year renovating the buildings and courtyard, bringing them up to code, before finally opening in January for the theater's first season. Either Sally's expectations were too high, or local interest too low, because casting the production had been challenging, and attendance for the winter and spring plays had been dismal. Margot had gone with Sally to see both winter and spring productions and had cringed. The acting was awful. She wasn't the only one uncomfortable-half the audience left at intermission-but Margot had remained with Sally until the bitter end.
After the spring show, Sally offered to pay Margot to step in and take charge of the show.
Margot declined. When she left New York two and a half years ago, she'd left her acting career as well. She was done with theater. Done with acting, done with actors, done with writers, all of it.
She just wanted a normal life now, one with regular office hours, and regular office headaches. Like lost spreadsheets.
Smiling ruefully, Margot entered the Cambria Coast Development office. Several of the women had already left. Jen, the pretty young receptionist, was about to leave, and she mentioned to Margot that she'd already put a call in to Malcom, their IT guy, and hopefully he'd phone in the morning.
Margot thanked her, praising her initiative, before looking to the back, checking Sally's office. Sally Collins, the owner of Cambria Coast Development, was still there, on the phone. Sally was always on the phone or out in meetings, showing properties and making deals, generally big deals, as she owned significant real estate. For a woman who'd been born with virtually nothing, she'd accomplished a lot in her life and was now, at sixty-seven, very comfortable financially.
Margot had become Sally's right hand and rarely left work before Sally did. It wasn't that Sally expected Margot to work late, but Margot didn't feel right leaving Sally alone, all too aware that Sally didn't know when to quit and would continue making calls and following up on leads when she should be home, or at least off with friends, doing something relaxing.
Not that Sally knew how to relax.
Like tonight. Sally had a chamber of commerce meeting to attend. And then there was a dinner with some Los Angeles investors who'd come to town to explore opportunities in Paso Robles, and Sally owned significant property there as well. Ranch land, wineries, commercial real estate.
Eventually, Sally hung up the phone, and Margot left her desk to stand in the doorway of Sally's office. "The chamber mixer is starting soon," Margot said, folding her arms across her chest, and giving Sally a meaningful look. "You don't want to miss it. You insisted I get you there on time."
Sally glanced at her watch, shook her head. "I'm already late."
"Not too late if we leave now."
"There's not enough hours in the day," Sally said, rising from her desk to slip on her unstructured blazer. She glanced into the framed mirror on the sidewall, fluffed her silvery-blond hair, which today was more blond than gray. "Are you still going to the cocktail party with me?"
"Of course. I agreed to be your date."
"But not the dinner after?"
"Not tonight. After the mixer, I just want to go home, relax, and get my eight hours of sleep. Don't know how you do it on five or six."
"Sleep is overrated. I'll have plenty of time to rest when I'm dead."
"So morbid, Sally."
"But true." Sally took her oversized purse from the chair near her office door and turned off the light. "Taking my car?"
"Sure." Margot would just walk back for her own car later. The Fog Horn was only a couple of blocks away, and Cambria was safe.
"Jen mentioned your computer. Do we need to get you a new one?" Sally asked. "Maybe a laptop you can take home at night?"
The last thing Margot wanted was to spend her evenings working at home. "Let's just see what Malcom can do. It might simply be a software update, something easy to fix."
"We could also have someone take over data entry jobs, freeing you up to join me for more of the sales meetings."
Margot shook her head. "I'm not a salesperson. I don't have your teeth, either. You're comfortable with these high-powered investors. I'd be lost."
They'd stepped outside, and the sky was clear, the sun still high since summer was coming. Sally used her key to turn the dead bolt. "I can teach you."
"I know, and I'm grateful." Margot smiled at her boss, one of the most generous, smart, successful women Margot had ever met, and that was saying a lot. Sally could have been a Broadway producer in New York. Sally knew everyone, was incredibly skilled at getting people to do what she wanted, and never took no for an answer.
"It's all about listening," Sally said. "You have to make people feel heard."
"And then convince them that what you want is what they want," Margot teased.
Sally shrugged as she unlocked her white Cadillac, an older model she'd bought used, fifteen years ago. "I never can resist a challenge."
"Which is why you're the boss, and I'm your assistant." Margot opened the passenger door and sat down. After buckling the seat belt, she popped the mirror open on the sun visor, applied fresh lipstick, brushed her long blond bangs into a tidier side sweep, wishing yet again she hadn't been persuaded to add bangs to her style, before closing the mirror. At the time, adding bangs seemed wiser and less invasive than trying Botox, but she'd gone ahead a couple of months ago and done that, too, after noticing how tired her face looked all the time. The Botox had definitely "brightened" her eyes, and she'd do that again. The bangs? Never.
Sally started the car. "Someday you could be the boss."
Margot reached over, lightly placed her hand on Sally's before removing it. "Thank you, but no. You need someone a lot smarter than me. Maybe that's my next task. Finding you the person who could head up Cambria Coast Development for when you're ready to retire."
"Which won't be for twenty years at least."
Margot grinned. "Fair enough."
An hour and a half later, Margot maneuvered through the crowded private room at the Fog Horn restaurant, trying to reach the exit without getting drawn into another conversation. She’d promised Sally she’d stay for an hour, and had stayed an hour and a half. Surely it was safe to slip out now, especially as Sally was engrossed in conversation with the mayor of Cambria. Sally loved people, was an extrovert to the core, and did not need a wingman.
"Ditching me already?" Sally asked, catching Margot near the door.
"You were talking to Bill," Margot said. "I didn't want to interrupt you."
"We were talking about you. He has a crush on you."
"Sally, stop. He must be what? In his sixties?"
"I haven't even hit fifty yet. Don't rush me."
"You'll be fifty in a year, and he owns two big car dealerships. He has money, and he'd be able to take care of you-" Sally broke off, seeing Margot's shudder. "But wouldn't it be nice for a change? Having someone take care of you?"
"I don't need anyone to take care of me."
"Well, Sam certainly didn't."
"You never even met him. Leave him alone. You promised." Margot smiled at Sally. "Now pretend you didn't see me slip out, as I'm dying to get home, kick off my shoes, ditch my bra, and watch the new episodes of-"
"You won't meet a man crashed on your couch," Sally objected.
Sally, with five ex-husbands, was still a big believer in love. Margot, with no husbands, not so much.
"I'm not hunting for a man. If a good one falls into my lap, I'll deal with him then." Margot shouldered her purse. "Drive home safely-"
"Wait, Margot. Please. I need advice."
Margot eyed her boss suspiciously, because Sally never needed advice. Sally had a golden gut. She made decisions swiftly, effectively. "What's happened?" Margot asked.
"Cherry, the director, quit. Just as we arrived here tonight."
"She called you?"
Sally shook her head. "She quit through a text."
"Not very professional," Margot said.
"Cherry wasn't happy with the leads, and she told them that. In front of the entire cast. So they quit-"
"Tonight at rehearsal?"
Sally nodded. "And then after they quit, Cherry quit. So as of the last hour, we have no director, no Paul, no Corie, and the show opens June ninth, less than a month from now. What do I do?"
"You refund the tickets, skip the summer season, and concentrate on your September show," Margot answered.
"I can't do that. The show must go on."
"Sally, Barefoot in the Park has been nothing but a headache since you announced the summer season. Let it go. Hold the auditions for Next to Normal and use this summer so that opening night late August will be wonderful."
"Margot, people are expecting a summer season."
"This is Cambria, not Ashland. After COVID, no one's surprised by anything."
"Which is why we're not scrapping the summer season. You had a twenty-five-year Broadway career. If anyone can save this show, it's you."
Margot had loved theater ever since she was a little girl. She'd performed in every community theater production in Paso Robles she could while growing up. She'd been a dedicated theater geek at Paso Robles High School. And as soon as she'd graduated from PRHS, she'd flown to New York, found a tiny studio room-in a dark basement, no less-and began juggling jobs while auditioning. She'd been on the East Coast eighteen months when she was cast in her first off-Broadway play. She'd never looked back, working hard, so hard that she'd been able to later support her talented playwright boyfriend, thrilled to have someone to share her love of theater with.
But when he disappeared on her, she'd thought-hoped-he would realize he'd made a mistake. He was having a midlife crisis. Sam was in his midforties, the age for it. She kept working, giving him time, giving him space, but Sam never missed her, and he never returned. At forty-three, Margot had waited long enough and was forced to accept she was single, without financial security, and paying rent for an apartment she was never at.
It took her another year and a half to realize she was burnt out, sick of acting, sick of traveling, sick of hotels, sick of being one of the older cast members, and most of all, sick of pretending to always be someone else. Sam had broken her heart, but performing had sucked her dry.
Margot's eyes burned and she swallowed hard, pressing the memories back. "Sally, no. I can't. I love you, but I can't. You know I can't."
Sally wagged a finger at her. "That's all in your head, you know. The past shouldn't own you. You're stronger than that."
Blinking, Margot looked away. "You're merciless at times," she said huskily.
"I'm realistic. Everyone has a price. You have yours. I know you're saving for a house. Help me on this, and I'll help you with your down payment. No strings attached-"
"There is a string. A huge string!"
"Just this one production. I won't ask again."
"This isn't advice, this is bribery." Margot struggled to smile but couldn't. "I can't act anymore. I'm burnt out."
"What about direct?"
"Just this one time."
Margot held her breath and looked from Sally's hopeful expression to the chamber members mingling behind them. She glanced back at Sally, the most fearless person she knew, as well as the hardest-working person she'd ever known. "You're killing me."
"You might discover you enjoy it."
"Ha!" Margot reached up and wiped the moisture from her eyes. "Let me think about it tonight."
"You'll love directing. You're a natural."
"I haven't agreed yet."
"Just remember I need to tell the cast and crew something tomorrow, especially since we'll need to hold new auditions for the lead roles of Corie and Paul."
"How can I forget? You won't let me."
Margot slipped out the exit and inhaled deeply. The night had cooled, and a breeze rustled through the trees, tugging at her hair.