"Breathe. Just breathe." Grace took a deep breath when she entered the community hall's recreational room.
This was where she was going for her life-changing event?
The lights were bright, old harsh fluorescent tube bulbs. The room smelled like a locker room.
She took in the less-than-impressive view.
The bleachers were closed and pushed up against the walls, giving the place a large cavernous feel. If anyone yelled, it would echo off the walls.
That made Grace smile.
The slice of joy only lasted seconds.
Her new costar was about ten feet away, bouncing a red dodgeball like it was a basketball.
She cringed inside.
Those balls were made of nightmares!
"Gracie! You're here! It's about damn time! We can't get started without you. Hey! Catch!" The good looking, well-built twenty-one-year-old man threw the ball at her.
She stepped out of the way before it could collide with her.
The flying red rubber hit the wall behind her, only to roll back her way.
Grace continued to ignore it, moving closer to not only him but the others in the room.
"Seriously, Grace. Would it really hurt that much if it hit you?" Charles crossed his bare muscled arms over his chest, looking at her with mock disapproval.
If you only knew.
She forced a smile and stood by the other actors. Grace, for all her name implied, had always been clumsy.
In middle school, they'd given her the nickname, 'Graceless'. One time in gym class, she'd tried to dodge one of those red balls. She'd slipped and broken her left arm when she'd hit the wooden floor.
She'd screamed like the world had ended, and everyone laughed.
The horrible teasing was born.
That was the day she'd lost her voice, not just physically, but emotionally. She'd become an introvert, caving in on herself.
If Grace talked with no one, no one could hurt her.
Years later, the theater had helped change all that. Taking on characters, becoming someone else, her whole body changed.
She had poise and grace she'd never had before.
Her new addiction.
She always needed more.
"Everyone, please take your seats, I don't care where. Just sit and I'll pass out the scripts," Jason, the man in charge said.
He was an amazing man with a vision. At six-foot, five inches, his height alone made her uncomfortable. His sun-bleached hair and copper-tone skin shouted he spent more time outside than in a dark theater.
When he smiled, and those pearly white teeth shone, it set her at ease.
Jason had been on a massive search throughout the theater communities everywhere for actors looking to spread their wings.
He needed people that could act, sing, and dance and weren't afraid to leave their homes for an extended period.
That was what'd caught her eye and motivated Grace to drive the long distance to audition.
She took a seat next to her new costar and tried to push back memories she didn't need at the moment.
She had to focus.
The script in her hand took on a permanent curve because she kept rolling it and squeezing, then unrolling and smoothing it out.
Her nerves were getting the best of her.
I still can't believe I am here. This is really happening. Mom, I'm doing it. I'm doing this for you.
Charles bumped her shoulder, bringing her back to the moment. "Are you ready for your life to change?" he whispered in her ear, his breath warm from his earlier exertion with the damned red ball.
Two weeks earlier, she'd driven thirteen hours from Denver to Minneapolis for an audition. Grace drove because, in the Midwest, if it was fourteen hours or fewer, it was drivable.
At the Minneapolis Convention center, she'd walked the long corridor that led to her final destination. She pushed open the heavy door to the auditorium; her breath caught in her throat when she took in the surrounding scene.
The auditorium was beautiful, warm in its shades of soft green. It held over three thousand seats, and as she listened to the older gentleman singing from the center of the large stage; the dynamic acoustics swept her away.
Is he really that great of a performer, or is it the room configuration helping him along? Will I sound that good? Can I even come close?
She glanced side to side, seeing hundreds of hopeful actors, ranging in all ages and sizes. She was really there, auditioning for a musical, without even knowing the title.
What if it's in a range I can't sing in? Or, there are no characters in my age bracket? What if I step on some poor actor's foot and break his toes?
All her previous childhood insecurities came flooding back, and she tripped over her own shoes walking down the aisle towards the stage.
Luckily, Grace didn't hit the ground, and strong hands caught her; helped steady her.
"Woah, there. You gotta be more careful. You're not supposed to break a leg until the day we go on stage together." His voice was as strong as his arms, yet youthful.
She looked into the most intense, beautiful brown eyes, rimmed with hints of gold. She studied his face, from the stumble on his chin to his soft pink lips; noting the bottom one was fuller than the top.
He had a quirky smile, or maybe it was cocky?
His cheekbones were sharp, but not overly so, just enough to give his face a slender look. His hair was dark at the roots, then lightening to a sweet golden sunshine blond.
However, he couldn't be over twenty-one.
He was stunning.
His smile deepened, showing perfectly straight, white teeth, causing her heart to slam in her chest.
It was then the words he'd spoken hit her.
"We?" she asked.
"We're clearly the best choices to play Maddie and Louis," he said, vanity filled his voice like his previous words had.
"Maddie and Louis? Did… Did you say, Maddie and Louis?" Her heart had been pounding before. Her hands shook at his casual drop of the character's names.
"That is what I said. Do you know the characters, then?"
"Oh my God, yes! The Splendids? He's doing The Splendids, the longest-running off-Broadway show in history? That's my all-time favorite musical!" She was freaking out. It'd always been a dream of hers to portray Maddie, but at twenty-nine, she was getting too old to play the role of a seventeen-year-old.
The younger man stuck out his hand. "I'm Charles. And you are?"
He said something, but she missed his retort.
"Well, that was a wasted trip," she grumbled.
Charles' brow creased in confusion.
She oddly felt inclined to tell him why she was suddenly so disappointed.
"I'm too old to play Maddie."
"Okay, let's back up a moment. I'm Charles, and you are?"
Heat suffused her cheeks. She was ashamed of herself for her lack of manners. "Sorry. I'm Grace."
"Well then, Grace. Let's get you signed in to audition." He took a few steps forward, before looking back to see if she was following.
She hadn't moved.
Charles shrugged and his hands were palms up. "Aren't you coming?"
"Didn't you hear what I just said? There's no point. They're not gonna offer the lead role to an old lady."
"If you're an old lady, I'm Moses. You know what, you'll never know if you don't try."
"Seriously? You're gonna give me that stupid saying? Clichés are death; just don't go there." The muscles in Grace's back went slack.
"That stupid saying is as true today as it was when… well, whoever said it first. You'll live the rest of your life wondering if you could've had the role if you'd only had the courage to try. Come on, Grace. Step up. If you don't go, I don't go. You wouldn't want to ruin my career too, do you?" He smiled again, and she had a feeling he often got his way. "Really, Grace, what do you have to lose?"
"Besides my dignity?" she asked.
"Well, you did literally fall into my arms."
"Oh, all right. You win."
They went the rest of the way down the aisle, and when Charles offered her his arm; she took it.
Better not to trip again when she stepped closer to where the director was sitting.
The tall man was in the front row, along with four other people; three women and one other man. They had a table placed in front, covered with resumes and headshots, where they seemed to be deep into discussions.
Grace stepped up, pulled her profile folder from her handbag and handed it to the first person, an older lady with beautiful short Easter-egg-pink curled hair. "We'll call you when it's your turn. Just join the talent in the upper-tier seats."
The others at the table didn't even glance her way.
Not that they needed to, she really didn't matter until she was up on the stage.
Her mother had drilled proper etiquette into her and not being acknowledged dropped her spirits.
Grace felt defeated already.
"Hey, it's gonna be all right. Shall we join the others up in the nosebleeds?" Charles reminded her he was by her side.
She'd barely heard him, lost in her disappointment.
He took her hand and led her to two empty seats in the highest tier of the auditorium.
She was grateful for this guy, helping her out in those first minutes in the theater.
She enjoyed having him sit beside her, but soon enough they called him to the front.
Grace gave his thigh a pat, quietly thanking him for his support. Although he wasn't always on stage, he never returned to her.
She glanced at her watch.
It's only been three hours, but it feels like forever.
She was one of the last, which she was grateful for.
If I was just a few years younger, I'd have a real chance at this role. I swear, less than a third of these actors have ever heard of this musical, let alone known any of the songs.
Grace knew it intimately.
Her mother had introduced as a child. They had an old vinyl LP of the London production from the mid-1980s. They played it whenever they could, dancing and singing along as they cleaned house and did laundry.
Who needed the television when you had The Splendids to listen to!
As a child, she'd envisioned what the sets would be like, the costumes, and the magic. She'd hoped one day to see it performed live, but to date, hadn't had an opportunity.
When they finally called Grace, it felt like an eternity walking the distance from the back of the theater, down the long-declining isle.
She took her first step onto the hardwood floor of the stage, filling her lungs with air, and allowing Maddie to take over.
Her body relaxed, like that of a youthful girl in love. She felt seventeen at that moment; she reached for it.
Grace closed her eyes and released the breath.
The music began and a beautiful male voice started off the song.
* * *
"Once the sky was new,
Once the spring had come
Once the scene was set for a night of fun.
The stars adorned the night
Then clarity was sung:
It was true.
It was true.
It was true."
* * *
Imagining all the times she'd dancing around the house with her mother to that song, her feet moved her to the center of the stage, coming up to the man who was singing.
Without taking a moment to see his face, Grace allowed him to take her into his arms in a tender embrace. He turned her away to face the audience, his arms wrapping around her waist protectively. In the breath she took before dazzling the audience with her lines, Grace's nose received a hint of heady musk from the man holding her so lovingly in his arms.
It was oddly comforting. She relaxed into him without thought.
She sang the lyrics to the crowd when they swayed back and forth with the music in perfect time.
* * *
"Once the fun died down,
Once you went astray,
Once I ran to hunt things so far away.
The stars upon the night,
Disappeared from sight:
It was true.
It was true..."
* * *
The man behind her slipped his warm hands across her ribcage so he could grab her waist. The heat of his touch lingered when he lifted her off the ground as they danced, spinning around.
He gently set her down, the music fading away; she turned to face her Louis.
Still completely in the mind of Maddie, she placed a tender hand on his cheek, not surprised when his larger hand covered hers.
She'd been so wrapped up in being Maddie; she took a moment staring into his intense brown eyes to realize one very important thing.
Grace was wrapped in Charles' arms.
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It was only a rose, left to show affection.
To Grace, it brought terror…
Grace Harrison stepped out of her comfort zone, traveling a great distance to audition for a musical with a high profile theater company, she was filled with excitement and fear. She had never left her home state before.
Climbing the ranks through auditions, one step closer to playing her dream role, she finds that things aren’t always as they seem. Then, mysterious roses begin appearing, with no hint of who they are from.
Charles Ford had spent most of his youth in the limelight. To him, this was just another show he would headline, nothing special. He never expected his life to change when one woman kissed him during an audition.
He fell quick and hard for this woman, his desire to have her, not only as his costar, but as his lover taking over his sensibilities.
Whether she meant to or not, her careless kisses would be his undoing.
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