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Fool Me Once
Pier 23 Rehearsal Rooms
New York City
Tingles up my spine. Blood hot and fast beneath my skin.
Goddammit. This isn’t good.
Why is this still happening to me after all of these years?
I’m not a girl who swoons easily. I’m really not. If I were to describe myself I’d say I was passionate but logical, fiery but methodical, spontaneous but organized. All of these traits might seem like contradictions, but they make me a damn good stage manager, and I’m not too humble to say that at the age of twenty-five, I’m one of the most respected show runners on Broadway. Producers know they can depend on me to stay calm in a crisis. I run my shows with military precision, and I demand strict professionalism from everyone, especially myself.
My rules for a stress-free work environment are non-negotiable: treat everyone with respect, be firm but fair, and do not ever get romantically involved with someone in the show I’m running. For most of my career, I’ve had no problem following my own rules, but there is one thing that can derail my equilibrium in one fell swoop.
Well, not so much one thing as one person.
As I sit in the private cinema with my production team and watch the shirtless man on the screen take down an overwhelming number of enemies, I’m embarrassed by how hot my skin feels. How my breathing is shallow, and my thighs are pressed together. How I drink in every angle of his face and body. How I thrill to the flex of every perfect muscle.
But even more than that, I’m embarrassed how the passion of his performance makes me fantasize about doing passionate things to him. Not just sexual things, but they’re certainly high on the list.
To put it simply, he makes me swoon like it’s his damn job.
He’s the only man who’s ever affected me like this, and it’s safe to say I hold it against him. It’s inconvenient and rude.
He runs toward the gorgeous redhead on the screen and pulls her into a passionate embrace. The redhead is Angel Bell – recent cover model for People’s ‘Most Beautiful Women in the Known Universe’ and basic all-round Goddess. Perfect body. Perfect boobs. Perfect face. She’s playing a Seraph Princess. Liam is her scorching hot demon slave. They’ve just about destroyed the world trying to be together, and now Liam’s kissing her like he’ll die if he doesn’t.
Goddamn, that man can kiss.
I cross my legs and sigh. This is insane.
I’m not against being aroused in general, but being aroused by this particular man is a recipe for disaster. The last time I let myself have these feelings for him, it didn’t end well.
I feel a hand on my arm and turn to see one of Broadway’s most respected directors, Marco Fiori, leaning over. His eyes are bright with excitement, and it’s clear I’m not the only one a little hot under the collar.
“Quite the specimen, isn’t he?” Marco whispers.
I shrug. “If you like that sort of thing, I suppose.” My raging hormones scream that we do like that sort of thing. We like it a whole helluva lot.
The only trouble is, we can’t like it, because Liam’s an actor, and we don’t date actors. Also, in a few weeks, I’ll be his stage manager. Also, he’s engaged to his gorgeous co-star.
Oh, and perhaps most importantly, once upon a time, we had a short but passionate-as-all-hell relationship and I’ve never recovered.
Somehow, I’ve managed to lock away the heartache he caused, possibly because I blame myself as much as I blame him. But the desire? That’s still roaming free, storming through my composure like a bull in a china shop.
This is going to be an interesting project. It will be a miracle if my professionalism and I make it out alive.
* * *
Half an hour later, after a thunderous climax in which Liam saves the world then has panty-melting sex with his leading lady, the movie ends.
When the lights come up, we all head into the nearby conference room. Our production team is small and consists of our producer, Ava Weinstein; our director, Marco; the designer, as well as the production manager; and finally, my assistant stage manager and best friend, Joshua Kane.
“You okay?” Josh asks as we take our seats at the table. “You’re flushed.”
“I’m fine,” I say. “Just warm. It was hot in there, right?”
Josh shrugs. “It was pretty damn hot when Angel was topless in the bath house, but other than that, I was freezing my balls off. I think the A/C was set to Arctic Blizzard.”
I pick up the folder in front of me and fan myself. Despite Josh’s chilly nuts, my blush is set at Surface of the Sun.
Josh smiles to himself.
“What?” I ask, defensive.
“Nothing. Just finding it funny that after all of these years, one glimpse of Liam Quinn can still turn you as red as my credit card balance.”
“I notice that wasn’t a denial.”
“Double shut up. And if you breathe a word of this to Marco, I’ll rip off your icy balls and use them as earrings.”
He laughs. “Marco doesn’t know you two … know each other?”
“Or that every sexual fantasy you’ve had in the past five years has revolved around Liam?”
I glare at him.
He holds up his hands. “Fine. My lips are zipped. But if you latch onto him in rehearsals and hump his thigh, I expect to be absolved of all responsibility.”
“If I get close enough to him to do any humping, you will have failed as my platonic life partner. Just remember that.”
“God, woman,” he says with a frustrated sigh. “Keeping you in line really is a full time job.”
Even when my anxiety levels are higher than James Franco, I love that Josh can still make me smile. This is why he’s been my bestie since our sophomore year in high school. Predictably, we met in drama club. He was one of the few straight boys there, and even though we both loved theater, we weren’t great at the onstage stuff. After a less-than-stellar acting assessment in which we played the world’s most awkward lovers, we decided to tread the less glorious path of backstage crew. It turns out my talent for organization and general bossiness is a plus in theatre, and it wasn’t long before I became the school’s youngest ever stage manager.
For some reason, Josh was content to play Robin to my backstage Batman, and we’ve been a dynamic duo ever since. People are always confused that we’re friends and not lovers, but that’s just the way it is with us. Besties ’til the end.
“Okay, team,” Marco says when we’re all seated. “That was the final movie in the Rageheart series, starring Liam Quinn and Angel Bell, our soon-to-be leading couple for my fabulous re-imagining of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew.”
I love Marco’s concept to update Shakespeare’s classic comedy. His work is clever and current, and I’ve been a fan since I worked on his most recent Broadway hit. The play just happened to also star my brother, Ethan, and his gorgeous now-fiancée, Cassie Taylor. After we’d been open for a few months, Marco poached me to run this project. Of course, at the time I had no idea it would star Lord of My Underpants, Liam Quinn. If I’d had that little nugget of information, I would have run in the other direction. Working with a man who lights up my libido like the Vegas strip isn’t my idea of a good time.
“Now,” Marco says. “unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few years, you’ll know that Liam and Angel are Hollywood’s current golden couple. They dated for a couple of years then got engaged, and judging from their regular public displays of affection, they’re revoltingly in love.”
I remember the day I found out they were dating. I’d never felt so stupid in my entire life. Or so heartbroken. Those photos were proof that even men as spectacular as Liam Quinn can be fickle bastards.
Marco points to the folders in front of us. “Those dossiers will familiarize you will our stars. They contain their official resumes, as well as quirky facts, likes, and dislikes.”
As if I need any of that. I’ve been cyber stalking Liam for years. Not my proudest achievement.
“At the back of the dossier,” Marco says, “is a copy of Liam and Angel’s production riders.” A production rider is a list of things companies are requested to provide to keep stars happy. The can range from the simple to the ridiculous.
“Please keep in mind these aren’t your regular theatre actors,” Marco continues. “They’re movie stars, so they’re used to having all of their outrageous demands met. Let’s try not to disappoint.”
I sneak a peek at Angel’s list.
It would seem Miss Bell’s happiness depends on her dressing room being completely white – white carpet, furniture, drapes, and flowers. Her food and beverage requirements are straight out of Gourmet Traveler.
I flick over to Liam’s rider. It lists only four things
Chocolate chip cookies
I smile. I remember his fondness for cookies and milk. He used to taste delicious after eating them. Cookies and cream is still my favorite flavor.
Josh frowns. “Are we really providing everything in Angel’s rider? I wouldn’t even know where to look for a Columbian Day Lily.”
Marco laughs. “Of course not. With our budget, we can barely afford bottled water, let alone a private chef or personal trainer.”
Our producer, Ava, clears her throat. “I’m currently in negotiations with Anthony Kent, Liam and Angel’s agent, and intend on vetoing the more ridiculous demands. Anthony needs to manage his clients’ expectations about the differences between working in theater and film. Movie stars have no idea about how humble theater budgets are. I fear Angel and Liam are in for a rude awakening.”
“Liam’s done theater before,” I say before thinking.
Ava raises an eyebrow. “Really?”
“Uh … yes. It’s right there on his resume. Six years ago. Romeo and Juliet. Tribeca Shakespeare Festival.”
Marco narrows his eyes. “Wasn’t that the same production you and your brother were involved with? It was your first fully professional show, yes? You were only nineteen.”
Damn that man and his elephantine memory. “Oh. Uh … yes. It was.”
“So you know Liam Quinn?” Ava asks, surprised.
At least, I thought I did. The man I knew was different from the short-tempered bad boy who now shows up in the gossip rags every few weeks.
“Will he give us any trouble?” Marco asks.
I shrug. “He was very professional as our Romeo, but that was before he became Mr. Bigshot Hollywood Icon. Now, he has a history of aggression toward paparazzi. I haven’t heard about him being difficult in a professional capacity, but it wouldn’t surprise me.”
Marco nods. “Agreed. In contrast, his fiancée seems so sweet in interviews it makes my teeth ache. I think we should all be prepared to tread carefully and massage some difficult attitudes.”
For the rest of the meeting, I keep one ear on the conversation as I think back to the Liam of Christmases past. He used to be passionate, attentive, and hot as hell, and he awakened a part of my sexuality I never knew existed. I should have realized it was too good to last. There isn’t a man on earth as perfect as he was pretending to be.
Even after all of this time, I hate how he played me. And I still wonder why he did it. To prove he could? To make sure I had both feet firmly on the rug before he pulled it out from under me?
Whatever the reason, what’s done is done. I can’t go back and change things. But I can make sure Liam Quinn never gets the chance to fool me again.
Three Weeks Later
Pier 23 Rehearsal Rooms
New York City
I hear a barrage of screams. Either Liam and Angel have just arrived, or hundreds of people are being tortured right outside the building.
My pulse kicks into overdrive, and I take a deep breath as I remind myself to stay cool. I just need to detach my emotions. Compartmentalize. It’s usually my specialty.
Knowing he’s near, my dormant romantic fantasies spark like half-lit fireworks, threatening to ignite all over again.
The screams downstairs get louder. They do nothing to help my state of mind.
I cross the rehearsal room and look out the window onto the street below.
Sure enough, down on the pavement is a huge crowd of salivating women, and a few men. Climbing out of a black Escalade in front of them is the object of millions of sexual fantasies. My heart rate speeds up as the tall man with the perfect physique smiles and waves at his fans. He looks good. Better than he has any right to.
His sandy-brown hair is artfully tousled, and although a lot of men spend ages trying to emulate the look, what they don’t realize is Liam rolls out of bed like that. It only adds to his sex appeal. Any man who naturally looks like he’s just gone ten rounds in the sack is right away bumped up the hotness meter. His high cheekbones and square jaw bump him up even higher, and that’s before we even make it to his lips and eyes, both of which launch him into the stratosphere of beyond stunning. I thank the gods his crazy-beautiful blue/green eyes are hidden behind sunglasses, and that I’m too far away to get the full effect of the rest of his face.
Pity I can’t say the same thing about his body.
I’ve never met anyone with a body like Liam’s. It’s my definition of perfection. Every muscle is defined and sculpted but not huge or bulky. Broad shoulders and a narrow waist. The best butt I’ve ever laid eyes on.
I didn’t know I had a thing for muscles before I met Liam, but boy, I do now.
His T-shirt pulls tight across his shoulders as he reaches into the Escalade and helps a statuesque redhead out of the car.
Angel Bell. Beauty queen, socialite, fashion maven, and Hollywood princess. Daughter of senator Cyrus Bell, and sister to award-winning journalist, Tori Bell.
Josh appears beside me. “Angeeeeeeel,” he whispers in a reverent tone. “Leave that muscled loser and let me love you. We’d make beautiful babies.”
“Oh, ew,” I say.
Josh leans closer to the windows to get a better look. “So you’re allowed to lust after Mr. Tall and Ripped but I can’t have an innocent crush on lovely Leggy McRedhead?”
“Josh, none of your crushes are innocent.”
He chuckles. “Okay, fine. I want to do bad things to her. But can you blame me? I want to wrap those long legs around me and make her mewl like a kitten.”
“Isn’t she a bit vanilla for your tastes?”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about. She seems like a perfectly nice girl.”
“Exactly. You don’t date nice girls.”
Josh has a thing for actresses. More specifically, wildly ambitious actresses who are two neuroses short of batshit crazy. His girlfriends tend to have a lot in common with Broadway shows: they’re always high maintenance and filled with drama.
“You’re right,” he says. “I do usually prefer girls who challenge me.”
“You say challenge, and I hear, scare the crap out of.”
“That reminds me – tell me again why you and I have never dated?”
“Because we made out that one time in sophomore year and both thought it was weird as hell.”
“Well, you thought that. I was into it.”
He crosses his arms over his chest. “Elissa, I don’t know whether you realize this, but you are a smoking hot female specimen. Yes, I’m your best friend, but I’m also a man. Kissing a chick who looks like Scarlet Johansson’s younger sister is going to give me masculine stirrings. Have no doubt.”
I laugh. I really didn’t want to hear about his stirrings, masculine or otherwise. Josh is like my brother. Well, a brother I get along with.
I pat his arm. “Okay, let’s drop any talk of stirrings. We’re on the clock now. Professional faces, please.”
He nods. “But just to be clear, I can tell you my pornographic fantasies about Angel when we get home, right?”
“If you must.”
I turn back to the windows to see Angel stumble in her heels. When Liam pulls her tight against him with a look of concern, the whole crowd awwws before getting back to their dedicated screaming.
“I love you, Liam!”
“Sign my arm!”
“Marry me! Pleeeeease!”
“Angel, you’re beautiful!”
They’re right about that. She really is beautiful. While I’m 5′ 3″ and curvy, she’s tall, svelte, and elegant. My hair is blonde and shoulder-length, hers is long, auburn, and looks like she should be appearing in a shampoo commercial. My eyes are basic blue, hers are a striking green. The only thing I have over her is my boobs. Hers may defy gravity, but mine are real.
I grudgingly admit I understand what Liam sees in her. She’s far more in his league than I ever was. Their children will be so genetically blessed they’ll probably develop super powers.
I watch as Liam and Angel continue to sign autographs and pose for pictures. Every action is accompanied by frenzied squeals. I wonder what it must be like to star in something as huge as Rageheart and have millions of fans all over the world. Liam’s portrayal of the passionate, mostly-shirtless demon Zan, who leads a slave uprising and falls in love with the Seraph king’s daughter has ignited countless pairs of panties. I think it’s safe to say he’s the biggest movie star in the world right now.
“Dammit,” Josh says. “Does the chiseled Adonis really have to taint my wife-to-be’s lips like that? It’s fucking gross.”
He’s referring to Liam planting a soft kiss on Angel’s mouth as she leans against him. The bunch of paparazzi who were already snapping up a storm go into a frenzy. Nothing sells more magazines or gets more website clicks than pictures of Liam and Angel demonstrating their Epic Love. No doubt an explosion of dollar signs just flashed before the paps’ eyes.
Marco comes to my other side and peers down. “That grossness, dear Joshua, is what’s we’re banking on. Liam and Angel’s rabid fan base will make sure our production the hottest ticket on Broadway for months. Mark my words.”
Josh nods. “Unless of course she recognizes her overwhelming attraction to me during rehearsals, and breaks up with him before we open.”
Marco looks like a vampire who’s been burnt by holy water. “Don’t even joke about that. Any rift between these two would mean disaster for our sales, which is why we must handle both of them with kid gloves. Remember, they’re used to everyone kissing their backsides, so pucker up, kids.”
I sigh. I remember a night when I kissed Liam’s backside. And his frontside. And all the parts in between. The memories are so vivid, it’s as if it happened yesterday.
I seriously consider if it’s too late to resign.
Marco puts his arms around me. “Can you feel it, Elissa?”
Yes. Nausea. Anxiety. An overwhelming urge to rush out and buy a one-way ticket to Nepal.
I give him a wan smile. “Oh, I feel it.”
“Theatrical greatness, dear girl. We’re about to create it. Thank you for being my right hand woman. I couldn’t do this without you.”
So, that’s a no to Nepal I guess.
I give him a squeeze and then go back to the production desk. My section is impeccably laid out. Script. Pencils. A rainbow of highlighter pens.
I put my hands on my hips and sigh.
Nope. Not buying it. Screw you, positive thinking. Of all the days to let me down.
When I hear chatter in the hallway, I tense up. Liam’s deep voice carries through the walls and vibrates into my body.
“Lissa?” I turn to find Josh looking at me with concern. “You know that not breathing is bad for your health, right? Please chill.”
I blow out a breath and nod. “Sure.” I roll my neck and it cracks. “I’m good. Bring it on.”
As our tiny tall-haired publicist, Mary, sweeps into the room with the stars, I half hide myself behind Josh. Subjecting only part of my body to the full force of Liam’s presence seems like the thing to do.
“And this is our production team,” Mary says. “Of course you both know our director, Marco. I believe he’s spoken to you on the phone.”
Marco smiles and shakes their hands. “Delighted to meet you both in person. Welcome.”
Mary points to the quivering black girl by the windows. “Over there is our production intern, Andrea.” Andrea melts into the floorboards when Liam smiles at her. I think her crush on him rivals my own.
“And here’s our choreographer, Martin.”
“It’s a pleasure,” Martin says, barely sparing Angel a glance before holding onto Liam’s hand for several seconds too long to be anything but creepy.
“And last but not least, our illustrious stage management team, Joshua Kane and –”
“Elissa Holt.” Liam says my name as if I’m some sort of mythical being he never expected to encounter in real life. I try to keep my smile steady as he blinks in surprise. “You’re our stage manager?”
I nod. “Yes. Hello, Mister Quinn. Good to see you again. And it’s nice to meet you, Miss Bell.” I hold my hand out to Angel. “Please let either me or Josh know if you need anything.”
Angel takes my hand and tilts her head at me. “You and Liam know each other?”
Her suspicion is clear. I go into evasive maneuvers. “Not really. Josh and I worked on Mister Quinn’s first Broadway show, many years ago. He just has a good memory.”
She relaxes a little and gives me a smile. “He does. Sometimes I envy it. Especially his ability to learn lines.”
I glance at Liam to find him staring at me. I can’t decipher his expression. Anger? Bewilderment? A bit of both? There’s a heat in his gaze that makes me think he’s not entirely unhappy to see me, and I fluctuate in deciding whether or not that’s a good thing.
Josh steps up beside me. “Hi, Mister Quinn,” he says as he and Liam clasp hands. “Welcome back to New York.”
Liam gives him a quick smile. “Josh. Hey. How’ve you been, man?”
“Not as good as you, Mr. Hollywood. Congrats on all the stardom and adulation, dude.”
A wry grin lifts Liam’s lips. “Yeah, well it’s not as much fun as it seems. Believe me.”
Liam glances at me, and when Josh moves over to talk to Angel, I offer my hand. Liam looks at me for a moment before he grasps it. Then he steps forward and towers over me as his fingers curl around mine, warm and electric. I try to hide the shudder that runs through me. No one needs to know what a single touch from this man can do to me. Especially not him.
I plaster on a smile as the heat of his skin sinks into my bones. “We’re thrilled to have you and your fiancée starring in our show, Mister Quinn. I’m sure it’s going to be a huge hit.”
“God, Elissa, I …” His fingers tighten, and I shiver as he rubs his thumb over my knuckles. He looks down at our hands and then back up to my face. “I’m a bit lost for words here. Seeing you again is …”
I wait for him to finish the sentence, but he seems to be struggling to express himself.
By now, my hand is burning, so I pull it back and try to swallow around my too-thick tongue. “It must be nice to be back in New York. I understand you haven’t been home in a while.”
He fixes me with those incredible aqua eyes. His expression seems way too intimate considering how long it’s been since we’ve seen each other, not to mention that his fiancée is standing right next to him. He catches himself staring and clears his throat. “Uh … no. I haven’t been home for a long time. Too long. Every day I’ve been away, I’ve missed it.”
He looks like he’s about to say something else when the rest of the cast starts arriving.
I use the distraction to move away. It’s not easy. I feel like a space ship escaping the inexorable pull of a black hole.
As people fill the room, I go onto autopilot. I sign people in, hand out information sheets and rehearsal schedules, and busy myself dealing with anyone who isn’t Liam.
It doesn’t escape my attention that an hour later when we’re ready to begin rehearsals, Liam still seems shell-shocked by my presence.
* * *
There’s an air of excitement in the room as Marco talks the cast through his ideas for the show. Everyone listens and nods, and most people jot notes onto their scripts. Liam, however, isn’t even holding a script, but he’s leaning forward and frowning in concentration.
He has an energy about him these days that’s new. Sort of an aggressive simmer, like there’s a dark cloud following him around, drawing down his brows and putting tension in his jaw. I know it’s become part of his sex appeal, but I’m intrigued to know what’s causing it.
He sits next to Angel without touching her. In fact, when she leans over to whisper something in his ear, a flash of irritation passes over his face before he pulls away. Angel looks around to see if anyone noticed. When she glances in my direction, I diplomatically go back to tapping notes into my laptop.
It’s heartening to know they’re not always as blissful as they seem in their pictures. It makes them seem more human.
I can’t even imagine what it must be like to be engaged to the world’s most lusted-after man. It’s no secret that Angel regularly receives death threats and abuse on social media from Liam’s more rabid admirers. If I were her, I’d be paranoid as hell, but she always seems perky and upbeat. It must be exhausting to stay as positive and put together as she does. Even when she’s caught exiting a spin class, she looks like she stepped out of the pages of a glamorous fitness magazine.
Fitness is just one more thing she and Liam have in common. I know they’re in the business of looking good, but really, no one needs to exercise as much as they do. It’s wrong and unnatural. My idea of working out involves yoga pants without the actual yoga. In fact my yoga pants should be called sitting around eating cheese pants. A longer title, sure, but more accurate.
“My final point is this,” says Marco. “Even though Taming of the Shrew is a play which can easily be seen as chauvinistic, we’re aiming to dispel that perception. Angel will portray a Katherine whose bitterness stems from her unwillingness to conform to society’s definition of a woman’s role, as well as a reaction to her father’s blatant favoritism for her sister. Petruchio will not be her tamer as much as her partner in crime. My goal is to show our audience a couple who bring out the best in each other, who feed upon each other’s unusual sexual desires, and who manage to poke fun at those who are trying to make them something they’re not.”
He clasps his hands together and smiles. “So, with all that in mind, let’s see what we can create together. Let’s work through the first scene. Places!”
Over the next few hours, we block out the first three scenes in the first act.
At first, Angel is way too nice as Kate. After Marco asks her to be stronger, she goes too far in the other direction and plays Kate’s scenes with her sister and father like a screaming banshee who’s likely to hack them to pieces, Lizzie Borden style.
I’m no director, but I think Marco’s going to insist on a little more subtlety.
Liam, on the other hand, is excellent right off the bat. His Pertruchio is passionate and charismatic, and he has great chemistry with the actors playing his servant and friends.
Being in the rehearsal room with him again reminds me how mesmerizing he is up close. I’m embarrassed to say I’ve watched the Rageheart series too many times to count. But as powerful and intense as Liam is on screen, he’s even moreso in the flesh. It’s refreshing to see him play a character so different to a brooding and violent demon. His version of Pertruchio is a loveable rogue, and I’d almost forgotten how stunning he is when he smiles. He didn’t do it much while he was massacring all those sadistic angel overlords.
As I look around, I notice that every single person has their eyes glued to him, and this is why he’s a star. Liam is one of those actors who just has it. It’s part talent, and part confidence, and just enough raw vulnerability to make you want to fuck him and hug him at the same time. At least, that’s how he affects most women.
Despite being a six-foot-three wall of rippling muscle who could no doubt beat anyone who messed with him into a bloody pulp, he makes you want to take care of him.
“Did you know he was this talented?” Marco asks when I release the cast for a coffee break.
“He was excellent as Romeo,” I say. “I wasn’t sure how he’d handle this role, but it fits him like a glove.”
Marco nods. “I only wish Angel were as good. I’d hoped she’d bring some level of complexity to Katherine. But she’s playing her as a two-dimensional screamer.”
“Art imitating life,” our production intern, Andrea, mumbles beside me.
“Watch how you talk about my woman,” Josh says. “Hating her just because she’s beautiful and rich is not the least bit cool.”
“Oh, please,” Andrea says. “Even if she ate someone alive, you’d defend her because she gives you a boner, right, Josh?”
Josh opens his mouth to protest but thinks better of it. “I decline to answer.”
Andrea snorts. “Josh, I love you, but look at you and then look at Liam Quinn. Who do you think she’s going to pick to have babies with?”
Josh sneezes, “Fuck you,” and flips her the bird, and I have to laugh. It’s not that he’s not attractive, because he totally is in a hot-geek sort of way. Six foot tall, brown, wavy hair, brown eyes, handsome face. He’s broad-shouldered enough to look great in clothes without needing to work out, and girls seem to find his hipster horn-rim glasses sexy. But the harsh reality is, if he and Liam were cast in a movie together, Liam would be the superhero, and Josh would be the sidekick.
“Doubt all you like,” Josh says with a shrug. “But that woman is going to be all over me in a few weeks. Mark my words.”
“Sure she is.” I pat his shoulder and then head out into the hallway to round up the cast from their break. When I find Liam at the water cooler, I try not to look directly into his eyes. “We’re starting again, Mister Quinn.”
He mutters a quiet, “Thanks, Liss,” and I walk away before he can say anything else.
When everyone’s back, we continue where we left off, and apart from Angel screeching her lines like a medieval fish merchant, we’re all pleased with how things are shaping up by the time lunch rolls around.
As usual, I eat at my desk.
I have a small office down the corridor from the rehearsal room. It’s not the Ritz, but it suits me fine. When I’m not rehearsing, I’m usually in here, catching up on paperwork while everyone else is relaxing.
Ah, the glamorous life of a stage manager.
I’m working on adjustments to the rehearsal schedule when Josh rushes in. His cheeks and ears are bright pink. That only happens when he’s really angry or really turned on.
“Hey. What’s up?”
“Nothing. I need money. Angel needs something else to eat.”
To avoid trying to push through the throng of fans and paps to get Angel and Liam to lunch each day, we’ve turned our conference room into a private dining area, and have arranged some of New York’s finest restaurants to deliver their meals. Josh and Andrea have the pleasure of being their waiters.
I smile. “Then why the blush? What did Angel do?”
“Nothing. She’s fine.” I raise my brow at him and he shoves his hands in his pockets. “She used this sort of flirty, sexy tone to explain she’s gluten-free this week, and then, at the end, she stroked my arm and smiled.”
“Don’t give me shit. Seriously, I’m not in the mood. This woman could flirt me into committing murder, I have no doubt. Now, give me cash. I have to get her a different lunch.” He holds out his hand.
I pull out the petty cash tin and hand him a fifty. Surely that’s enough to cover whatever Angel wants. Josh grabs a second fifty and shoves the money in his pocket. “Back soon.”
Dammit, our budget is so screwed.
I put the cash tin away, and I’m about to go back to my rehearsal schedule when there’s a knock on the door.
The door swings open to reveal Liam. Within seconds, my palms are wet.
I stand to face him. “Mister Quinn. Do you need something? Is your lunch acceptable? If not, I’d be happy to go and get you something else.”
He lingers in the doorway before moving into the cramped office and closing the door behind him. He looks too big for the small room. His shoulders seem broader than I remember, and traces of ink peek out from the right sleeve of his t-shirt. That’s something he didn’t have last time I saw him up close and shirtless.
He glances around the room before coming back to my face.
He just stares for a few seconds, and dammit, I can’t believe the years haven’t diminished his effect on me. Time’s supposed to heal everything, right? Well, it hasn’t educated my heart to stop wanting a man who doesn’t want it back.
I clear my throat. “Mister Quinn?”
He takes a step forward, and I have a moment of panic because in this enclosed space, my usual tactic to avoid and ignore is impossible.
“Mister Quinn, if there’s something you need –”
“Stop calling me that.”
“It’s your name, sir.”
“God, Liss.” He sighs and looks me up and down. “I can’t believe you’re here.”
“It’s my office. Not that hard to believe.”
“I meant on the show.”
“Marco asked me to run it.”
“I would have thought that as soon as you heard my name, you would have run a million miles. I’m glad that you didn’t, though.”
I don’t mention I’ve considered it. “When I accepted the job, I didn’t know you would be the star.”
The muscles in his jaw tense. “Of course you didn’t. That makes sense.” He lets out a bitter laugh and rubs the back of his neck. “If you’d known, you wouldn’t have taken it, would you?”
I try to find a nice way of saying it, but there really isn’t one. “No.”
He nods. I’d say he looks hurt, but why would he? He’s been living the Hollywood high life without any contact from me. I doubt he’s even spared me two thoughts over the past six years.
“Well, however you got here, I’m grateful.” He looks down at his hands. “I’ve missed you. More than you know.”
I almost laugh. Of course you have. In between making mega-buck movies, earning millions of dollars, and banging one of the most desired women on the planet, you’ve had plenty of time to pine for the short, cheese-obsessed stage manager you once had a thing for. That makes perfect sense.
He reads something on my face and frowns. “What’s that look?”
“You don’t believe me?”
I shrug. “I wouldn’t dare question you, Mr. Quinn. That would be very unprofessional.”
There’s that look again. Hurt or disappointment – I can’t decide which. “Yeah, well. I guess I haven’t given you much reason to have faith in what I say, have I? Just one more thing I regret about us.” There’s laughter out in the hallway, and he looks over his shoulder before coming back to me. “Speaking of us, does anyone here know about our … history?”
“Not even Josh?”
“He knows we’ve been … intimate. That’s it.”
“Intimate.” He says it like it’s funny. “Doesn’t really do justice to what we had. Does it?”
This conversation is veering off into uncomfortable areas. So is how I’m staring at him with what I’m quite certain is obvious desire. I shake my head. “Mr. Quinn–”
“Mr. Quinn is my father.”
“Your agent requested we address both yourself and Miss Bell in a formal way.”
“My agent likes to make people think we’re more important than we are. That’s his job. Don’t listen to him about anything. Especially not about me and Angel.”
God, just hearing him say that phrase ties my stomach in knots. Me and Angel.
“Liss, about Angel –”
“If you’re concerned that our past will cause you any discomfort, in either a professional or personal capacity, I’d like to assure you that I’m going to do everything in my power to make this experience as stress-free as possible. For both you and your … fiancée.”
I nearly choke on the last word. Finding out he was engaged didn’t snuff out the tiny flame of hope that we’d somehow be together one day. It just stifled it in the most painful way. “I realize this situation isn’t ideal,” I continue. “And if you tell me your concerns, I’ll be sure to address them.”
“Jesus Christ.” He rakes his fingers through his hair. “Could you please stop talking to me like you’re my bank manager? Like we don’t even know each other.”
“I don’t know you anymore.”
“You’re the only one who’s ever known me. Fuck, Liss –”
“I’d rather you call me Elissa.” He’s the only person in the world who calls me Liss, and it feels way too intimate for our current situation.
He walks forward, and I have no room left to retreat. He stands so close, I can smell him. The entire space fills with an intense energy that makes my heart pound erratically against my ribcage.
When Liam stares into my eyes, I’m torn between pushing him away and grabbing a handful of his t-shirt so I can force him to kiss me.
“Elissa, I’m sorry. That day … the last time I saw you. I … I wish I’d handled things differently. I hurt you, and I hate that. If I could go back and do it all differently, I would.”
I can’t cope with the way he’s looking at me. It brings so many emotions rushing back, my legs go weak, and I curse myself for still being so needy around him.
Taking in a deep breath, I clench my jaw and force everything back down. He’s an actor, and I’m his stage manager. That’s all there is between us. That’s all there should have been in the past, and it’s sure as hell all there’ll ever be in the future. I need to remember that.
When I speak, my voice sounds so much calmer than I feel. “Don’t concern yourself with our past. There were faults on both sides. We weren’t even in a relationship.”
“We both know that’s not true.”
“You don’t owe me an apology.”
“Yes, I do. What we shared—”
“Was a long time ago. We were young and stupid. Everything seems epic at that age, and we both got carried away. I knew it at the time, and I know it now. I’m over it.”
His eyes bore into me. “It?”
I straighten my spine. “You.”
He blinks a few times. “I should be relieved about that, I guess. Because I want you to –” His expression is conflicted, and whatever he was going to say next goes unspoken as he shakes his head. “Never mind. What’s done is done.”
I take in a shaky breath. “Exactly. Now you’re engaged to one of the most beautiful women in the world, and I …” Come on, Elissa, say it. Even if you don’t mean it. “I couldn’t be happier for you.”
He studies me. “Is that so?”
“Yes.” If I were Pinocchio, my nose would be poking his eye out right about now. Well, okay, I’m too short for the eye, but his chest would be getting a bruising. “No matter how it happened, I’m glad you two found each other. It’s obvious you love her.” I risk looking at his face. “Right?”
As soon as the words leave my mouth, I regret them. Do I seriously expect him to say ‘no’ and take me in his arms? As usual, my unrealistic romantic expectations are way off.
“Yes, I love her,” he says quietly. “I’m lucky to be marrying my best friend. Not everyone gets that chance.”
A knot of tension coils in my stomach. I really wasn’t prepared for how much those words would hurt. But maybe that’s a good thing. He’s just decimated the last tiny corner of my heart that was hanging on to him. Perhaps now I can move on.
I nod and let out a breath. “Well, I wish you both all the happiness in the world.” The words feel flat to me, but I hope one day to be a big enough person to mean them.
“And what about you?” he asks, his voice quiet. “Are you … with anyone?”
It sounds like he’s asking if I have a terminal illness. I guess if stubborn singleness were a disease, I could be said to have a chronic case.
What do I tell him? That since our time together, I haven’t had a steady boyfriend? That I never go out with a man for more than a couple of weeks at a time? In general, men disappoint me. Yet another thing for which I blame Liam Quinn. He was the only man who not only met all my expectations, but also exceeded them.
“I’ve been seeing someone,” I say. Several someones, really. None worth mentioning.
His stare is intense. Like he’s trying to see straight into my soul.
Can he tell what a liar I am? What a lovesick deceiver I’ve become?
“Does he treat you well?” he asks.
I almost cave and tell him the truth, but my pride takes over my mouth. “Like a queen.” The last thing I need from the man who has everything, including my heart, is sympathy.
The tension in him gives way to something else. Relief, perhaps. “Good. You deserve happiness. You deserve … everything.” When he looks back at me, there’s such raw longing there that all the air in the room disappears, and for the first time in my life, I feel claustrophobic. I lean back against the wall, and hope he can’t tell.
“Was there anything else before you go, Mister Quinn?”
“Yes. Stop calling me Mister Quinn. Everyone else can call me whatever the hell they like, but not you. Please, Elissa.”
“Okay, Mr. Qu–” I take a breath. “Sorry. Liam.”
The second I say his name, something shifts in the air. My skin prickles and his entire posture changes. In that moment, he’s not a movie star, and I’m not his stage manager. We’re the same two desperately connected people who fell down a rabbit hole years earlier and climbed out forever changed.
He takes a step toward me, eyes intense, jaw tight. His hands are clenched into fists, and I can see the thrumming of his pulse in his throat.
For a moment, I think he’s going to touch me, and I brace for the contact. But after looming over me for several long seconds, he turns on his heel, opens the door, and strides down the corridor.
When he’s out of sight, I collapse into my chair and drop my head onto the desk.
That went well.