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"NEXT!" NICK RHODES GLANCED at the man sitting beside him and added in a much lower voice, "That makes eleven we've seen, and the last three could have–"
"No." The voice was deep, rich; the dark eyes twinkled gently in a benign face. "I haven't seen her yet."
Sighing, Nick nodded toward his assistant to bring the next potential Rapunzel onto the stage. He wanted to swear over the lengthy selection process, but the old man beside him possessed the trick of making those around him mind their tongues. Besides that, he was putting up the money for the play–which meant that he called the shots. Nick glanced at Cyrus Fortune again, thinking that he probably got chased down streets by children. Put him into a red suit, and he'd be the image of Santa Claus.
"This is a small town," Nick reminded Mr. Fortune. "Not many actresses to choose from, and half of them are completely wrong for the part. If we don't find her soon–"
"There she is." Mr. Fortune was gazing toward the stage. He was beaming happily. "There's our Rapunzel."
Nick's head swiveled toward the stage. He was prepared for almost anything, since Cyrus Fortune struck him as such an odd man. Now, seeing the young woman onstage, cautious relief was his strongest emotion. She waited somewhat nervously for instructions and could have been any age between twenty and thirty. She matched his mental vision of Rapunzel. She was petite, almost fragile, her pale gold hair pulled back from her face and held with a ribbon.
Nick studied her with the critical eye of a director. A lovely face, he decided judiciously. And there was something about her, a quality he could see or sense even from his seat in the empty, darkened auditorium. Wariness? A look of loneliness? His gut reaction was that she would know just how to play a forlorn maiden locked in a tower. If she could act, of course.
He leaned forward, propping his forearms on the seat in front of him. "What's your name?" he called.
"Lara." Her voice was soft but curiously clear and distinct, reaching him easily. "Lara Callahan."
"All right, Miss Callahan. If you'll read page twenty, please? Tim will cue you." He nodded toward his assistant. Then he settled back and listened as Rapunzel pleaded with the witch to allow her to go free. Lara Callahan's voice was sweet and unbearably sad, her plea so eloquent that Nick felt a feathery chill brush his spine.
Cyrus Fortune was nodding, beaming. Above the bushy white beard, his cheeks shone like polished apples. He was leaning forward slightly in his seat, his elegant hands resting on the gold-handled cane between his knees. "There," he said softly. "There."
There, indeed, Nick thought. He wondered why Lara Callahan had never auditioned for him before. Was she new to the relatively small town of Pinewood, Virginia?
"Fine, Miss Callahan," he called as soon as she had finished the scene. "Rehearsals start day after tomorrow. Monday, six p.m."
She looked almost comically startled. "You mean I got the part?"
"Didn't you want it?" Nick laughed a little as Tim, clipboard in hand, led the bemused Rapunzel into the wings. "Tim," he called, "ask the crew to wait for a few minutes, will you?"
"Sure, boss," Tim replied.
Turning to face Mr. Fortune, Nick said, "The biggest part cast. Now we just have to worry about the parents and the witch."
"And the prince," Fortune reminded him.
Nick was conscious of his impatience, and tried to repress it. "Four actors showed up to audition for that part, and you dismissed all of them. We have to pick one of them–"
"You replaced the notice on the front of the building?"
"Yes," Nick admitted. "You told me to. But I don't see what you hope to gain by it. We ran a notice in the papers for three days setting today only for auditions. No one will wander in off the streets to read for the part, not this late."
"You never know," Cyrus Fortune murmured. "I'll make my decision by the end of the day. Have you assembled the stage crew?"
Nodding, Nick said, "Of course. Most of them are people I've used before, though I couldn't get my usual foreman. They're moonlighting, like the actors. Most of the sets will be built while we're rehearsing in the evenings, and on Saturdays. As usual. You've approved the set designs and the script; I have the costume sketches in my office, if–"
Cyrus Fortune heaved himself to his feet with a considerable effort. "Certainly, certainly." His voice was a gentle baritone. "Your wife is an excellent designer and seamstress, Nick. I'm sure I'll have no complaints."
Following the impressive bulk of his backer down the aisle toward the stage, Nick reflected that Susie had indeed done a fine job with the costume designs–but what was Fortune's knowledge of her reputation based on? Nick had certainly never heard of the man, not until he'd appeared at this theater a few weeks before with a proposition. He would provide the financial backing for a production of Rapunzel, he'd said, with all profits going to local charities.
Rapunzel, of all things! Susie had been delighted by the opportunity to design romantic costumes for a fairy tale, but Nick had nearly torn his hair out over the script. He had persevered, mainly because his generous backer had made a large deposit to the theater's bank account and–except in the area of the principal players–was placidly uncritical and did not interfere.
And so, the Pinewood Community Theater was due to stage a production of Rapunzel in less than a month.
Provided, of course, that a prince could be found.
Nick hardly shared his backer's sublime belief in the intervention of providence to supply them with a suitable prince, but he was somehow unsurprised the following morning to look up from his desk at the sound of a knock–and behold Rapunzel's prince.
"Yes?" Nick rose to his feet. "What can I do for you?"
"One of the workmen said to see you. Have you completed auditions for your play? I saw the notice out front."
Nick hoped that Fortune wasn't the type to say I told you so. "We have one part left," he admitted. "The prince." Nick half-expected this big, powerful-looking man to turn and leave, for he didn't seem the type to contemplate with anything but a sneer the idea of playing the role of a prince in a fairy tale.
"May I read for it?"
Nick decided that he was getting old; his intuition wasn't what it used to be. "Certainly," he murmured. And, again, he was unsurprised when Cyrus Fortune beamed happily upon seeing the dark prince.
"Now then," Fortune said softly, nodding. "Now then, we'll see."
Nick didn't have the nerve to ask what they would see.
On Monday evening, Lara sat on one side of the stage, not quite in the wings. She had meant to study the script, which she hadn't yet read since Nick had just handed her a complete copy, but found her fascinated attention on the stage crew milling about. What they were doing–hammering, bellowing at one another, carrying bits and pieces of lumber here and there–looked like total chaos, but she assumed there was a logical pattern to the activities. She reminded herself that there were at least three very different sets to be constructed, and wondered how on earth they could be built in the time available.
"You're sitting on our tree."
Startled, she blinked up at an extremely handsome masculine face in which blue eyes danced merrily. He was standing, hands on slim hips, directly in front of her.
"I beg your pardon?" she managed to say.
"Our tree." He gestured to the bogus log she had chosen to sit on. "I wouldn't bother you about it, but we're trying to build the garden first, and we need the tree."
Lara got up hastily. "Oh. Sorry."
"No problem." His deep voice was cheerful. "I'm Luke Brady, by the way, foreman of the stage crew."
"Lara Callahan," she said.
"I know. Rapunzel. Lovely golden hair and all."
"Are you sure your last name isn't Blarney?" she asked dryly.
He grinned. "I'm sure."
"But you do admit to being Irish?"
"Oh, of course. Would I be tryin' to deceive a fine Irish lass like yourself, darlin'?"
She couldn't help laughing; the brogue was marvelous. And with his flaming red hair and wicked blue eyes, he had doubtless been a heartbreaker for years. "I wouldn't bet against the possibility," she told him.
Luke Brady assumed a wounded expression. "It's cruel you are," he said sadly.
"Luuuke!" one of the other men wailed desperately.
Moving quickly out of his way, Lara said, "You'd better get your tree before somebody over there has a fit."
Chuckling, he bent and got the tree, tucking it easily under one brawny arm. "I am the foreman. you know," he said, dispensing with the brogue. "If anybody has a fit, it's going to be me."
Lara watched him stroll back toward the other side of the stage, carrying the tree. She knew it was hollow, of course, little more than a shell with the appearance of solid wood, but he looked as though the real thing would have presented no problem.
"Lara?" Nick appeared from the wings looking harassed. "We're going to try a read-through backstage, so–" He broke off, staring across the stage, then yelled, "Luke! The tree's for the outside of the tower, not the garden!"
"Sorry," Luke called back, standing the tree on end and leaning it against the skeleton of a cottage. He sent Lara a wink.
She felt herself flush. Had it been an excuse to talk to her?
"Study the set designs, people," Nick requested in a voice that held despair. He took Lara by the arm and began drawing her backstage. "Half those guys don't know what they're doing," he said under his breath.
Lara glanced at him as they made their way through a tangle of ropes and electrical cords, props and lumber. He was a man somewhere in his forties with a salt-and-pepper beard and dark eyes; he was fast-moving and prone to get excited about things. Lara didn't know what kind of producer and director he'd be, but his script for the play was just beautiful, she thought. He had taken a brief fairy tale and fleshed it out, giving it humor and substance. She liked him for that alone.
"Here we are," he said briskly as they reached a long, scarred wooden table placed as far out of the path of chaos as possible. "You've met everybody, Lara, except for your prince. Lara Callahan–Devon Shane."
He's going to climb up a rope made of hair? was Lara's first thought, as the big, dark, coldly handsome man with brooding sapphire eyes rose politely from his chair.
"Hello, Lara," he said, studying her with a detachment that made her feel as if she'd been stripped naked, weighed and measured, and was about to be examined coolly under a stark fluorescent light.
"Hello," she murmured, taking the chair Nick indicated on the other side of the table from Devon. She felt wary, disturbed–and couldn't have said why, except for that dispassionate sapphire stare. She'd been instantly comfortable with everyone else she'd met since getting the part, but Devon Shane made her acutely uncomfortable.
She eyed him cautiously as they got ready for the read-through of the script. Shane . . . another Irishman. But this one wasn't cheerful and fiery like Luke; this man was Black Irish–a dark, brooding Celt, with all the signs of a dangerous temper only an insanely reckless person would willingly rouse. He was hardly the pretty, charming prince of fairy tales, despite being so handsome. Yet Lara knew this man would appeal to any woman far more than a bloodless fairy tale prince would.
They wanted happily ever after, Lara reflected of her own sex, but there was that part of every woman that longed wistfully to tame the heart of a savage man.
As for herself, Lara wanted nothing to do with savage men. She'd seen enough violence, too much. She wanted peace, wanted a normal life without the darkness of potential danger hovering over her like a vile shadow.
"All right," Nick said as his nervous hands smoothed open the plastic-bound script on the table before him. "Let's get started. Act One, Scene One . . ."
Lara paid little attention, since her own part didn't begin until the second act. Instead, trying to keep herself from becoming too absorbed with the dangerous-looking man across the table, she studied the other players as they spoke their lines.
The parents of Rapunzel were played by Sonia and Pat Arnold, a couple in their thirties with an obvious passion for amateur theater. Nick had explained that they often acted in the plays he produced, delighted merely to have minor roles. Sonia was a cheerful blonde with a trim figure, and Pat was a handsome man with a friendly smile and an amazing baritone voice.
Melanie Stockton, a newcomer to the area, was slated to play the witch. Melanie, with her black hair and exotically slanted brown eyes, had a deep and sultry voice that could sound utterly wicked. Nick had chosen her to play the part because he'd given the part a neat, modern-day twist–his witch wouldn't be an old crone, but a woman of evil glamour.
As for herself, Lara had no idea what she was doing in this theater. She had come to the audition on impulse. The walls of her apartment had been closing in on her, as they so often had these last months, and she had wanted badly to escape, to find something radically different for her life. She was tired of being alone, tired to being wary and afraid.
And here, in the midst of this noisy turbulence, she felt more alive than she had in a long time. She had never thought of herself as an actress and had been certain she'd suffer from stage fright, but from the moment she'd begun reading at the audition she had felt natural, comfortable. She hadn't been Lara Callahan; she'd been Rapunzel, alone and lonely. Pleading to be set free, to be allowed a life outside her dark tower.
Lara felt her lips twist as she silently admitted just how well the role fit. The difference lay only in Rapunzel's ability to plead her case; Lara had to bear her own isolation in silence, because no one could simply open a door and set her free. But at least she could pretend.
"Great, great," Nick was saying happily. "That was fine. Act Two, Scene One. Lara, can you sing?"
Turning the pages of her script to get to the right place, Lara said distractedly, "I don't know, Nick. I've never tried."
He grinned at her. "Okay. I hadn't planned a song anyway. We'll use some kind of music to lure the prince, though. Do you play an instrument?"
Lara started to tell him she'd competed as a teenager, then remembered that it had been in her other life. A long time ago. She felt a flash of pain, but ignored it. "Well enough," she answered briefly.
Nick nodded and made a note on the legal pad lying beside his script. "We'll get a piano, then, and dress it up to look fancy. We'll decide on the right music later."
She half-nodded an agreement, and then a prickle of awareness made her glance across the table. Devon Shane's eyes were fixed on her face. Lara tried to look away, but she felt curiously trapped by his sapphire gaze, caught by something she couldn't define. For an instant she thought of the fascination people had with gems, with their coldly luminous glow. . . .