A Midsummer Night's Fling

by Eliza Walker

The show must go on, but the price of admission could be her heart.

Sick of her vagabond life in a Broadway touring company, Nicola is ready to settle down. She wants nothing more than to park her suitcase in California, put out feelers for local auditions, and leave her past firmly behind her. Too bad her past comes knocking on her door her first day home. All six-foot-three, beautiful man of her past named Max. Stupid Max. The mistake Nicola just can’t seem to stop making. Even before Nicola—fiery, quick-witted, beautiful Nicola—slams the door in his face, Max is in trouble. She will always be the one who got away. Three times. Which makes convincing her to play Titania to his Oberon a bit…awkward. Though she has zero desire to re-re-rekindle an old flame, Nicola can’t turn down the chance Max is offering: a lead role with the West Coast’s premiere Shakespeare company. But when their first rehearsal kiss disintegrates into a passionate liplock, she’s questioning her sanity and tempted to jump ship—before Max can break her heart again. Now it’s up to Max to convince her that the torch he’s been carrying is actually an eternal flame.

 


Chapter One

For Nicola Charles, the yellow water was the breaking point.

She had already spent several hours working her way through five years of dust as she sorted all her worldly possessions. With her throat parched from that uncomfortable effort, she’d staggered past her friend Cassie to get a drink from the kitchen sink.

When Nicola turned on the tap, a long pause ensued, followed by several ominous spit-takes from the sink. The faucet finally shot to life with a stream of dark yellow water.

Nicola stared for a long moment, then said to Cassie, conversationally, “I’m moving.” With a firm hand, Nicola flicked off the tap and retreated from the sink.

Cassie sat cross-legged on the floor and didn’t even glance up from the old clothes she was sorting. “You just got here, Charlie-girl.”

“My water is yellow.”

Cassie shot her a bright, shit-eating grin. “Welcome back to California, Ms. Charles.”

“Is it too late to go on tour with Oklahoma?” Nicola kicked her way past a graveyard of empty boxes to reach her bed, where yet another box lay half-sorted.

“Don’t whine,” Cassie said. “It’s unbecoming in a woman your age.”

“What, they revoke your whining rights when you hit twenty-nine?”

“Yes.” Cassie lifted a sweater with a sailboat on the front and held the garment against her own chest, evaluating its merits. “Why is all this stuff so dusty?”

“I haven’t touched it in five years.” Why had Nicola even bothered storing this junk while she was on tour? All this crap was just an annoyance now.

She flung a stack of old script pages into the trash, then reached into the moving box for her next armful. Her fingers bumped something metal, and her heart twisted as she realized what she was holding. She pulled the gold-framed photo of her and her ex out of the box.

Max. The name tore its way out of her back brain, half-sigh, half-groan.

Stupid Max. She scowled at his blond handsomeness, at the grin on his gorgeous face, at the strong arms draped around her in the picture. Max: the mistake she’d made at sixteen. And nineteen. And twenty-five. And—

She scowled at herself in the picture too. Five years younger. Five years dumber.

With an inner wrench, she tore her gaze off the frame and slapped the picture facedown on the bed. She whirled toward Cassie. “This is what happens when you box up your life and ignore it for five years.”

“What happens?”

“You outgrow it.” Nicola restrained an urge to throw that golden frame across the room. Stupid Max.

Cassie cocked her head to the side, black hair sliding over one pale, tattooed shoulder. “If you don’t want any of this, why did you pay to keep it in storage while you were on the road?”

Because it was easier than sorting through all this. The photo frame seemed to pulse behind Nicola. The telltale snapshot. Five years ago, it had been easier to package up all of her old life and forget it while she escaped unhindered into a new one.

Cassie was still watching her, so Nicola shrugged. “Storage seemed like a good idea at the time.”

“Uh-huh. No more tours? I thought you were up for Anything Goes. What happened there?”

“I’m sick of touring. I want to stay in one place for more than six weeks. You know how it is. You gave it up too.”

“It’s because my roommate on that last tour was so annoying.” Cassie winked.

Nicola stuck out her tongue. “I’m not the one who snores.”

Cassie flapped her hand, brushing aside this inconvenient truth about herself. “Do you have any auditions out here yet?”

“I’ve got my feelers out.”

“Like a giant fire ant.”

“Sure.” Nicola put her pointer fingers on each side of her forehead and wiggled them like antennae, crossing her eyes at Cassie.

But her friend was not to be distracted. Cassie’s face was gently compassionate. “Nothing?”

“I’ve got prospects.” Nicola popped the lid on yet another banker’s box to avoid her friend’s sympathy. Things would turn around. Soon. Soon. I’ll get a job soon. This was the national anthem of the actor’s life.

“What’s the picture of?” Cassie asked, nodding toward the frame on the bed, obviously hoping to break the depressed silence with a new topic.

Nicola snatched up the infamous photo frame. “Doesn’t matter.” Without letting Cassie see the picture, and without glancing at Max, Nicola hurried to the kitchen trash and dumped the photo in with her empty pizza box from the night before. The picture thunked heavily into the bottom of the bin. “I’m done with the past!” Nicola proclaimed, flinging her arms wide in triumph.

Someone rapped on the door. Nicola jumped at the sound. Cassie raised a questioning eyebrow.

“Probably the landlord.” Nicola crossed to the door and yanked it open.

“Hi, Nicci,” Max said.

At the sight of him, her blood rabbited through her veins with a dizzying, painful thrum.

Max?

Here?

She stared at him in simple, stupid shock, worried he was some kind of stress-induced mirage.

But no, he was real enough—all six foot three of him standing on her doorstep.

Max. Here.

He was still spectacularly good-looking. Handsome, chiseled face. Thick, wavy blond hair that had grown long enough to brush over his ears and forehead. Strong jaw with a scruff of stubble inching into a full-blown beard. A sensuous, mobile mouth. Piercing, sea-blue eyes, and those damn laugh lines around them that added an extra layer of charm to his every smile.

Just your basic All-American, Grade-A, prime beefcake demigod.

Noting her prolonged perusal, a lopsided grin tucked itself into the corner of Max’s mouth.

The smile—that same teasing grin he’d always used to charm her out of being mad at him—that stupid smile broke his spell. “You always did have impeccable timing,” she said.

And then she slammed the door in his face.

Cassie blinked. “That wasn’t very neighborly.”

“What?” Nicola shook her head, dazed. She recognized Cassie had made sounds, was looking at her, expecting her to say…something. But communication, processing words, parsing social cues, the basics of human discourse… These skills all deserted Nicola as she stood with her spine pressed against the front door.

“Charlie?” Cassie asked.

Nicola winced as a knock sounded through the door, the noise loud and right behind her ear.

“Nicola, please open the door,” Max said. “I only want to talk to you.”

Cassie padded to the door, shoving Nicola to the side so she could peer through the peephole. When Cassie eased back, she shot Nicola an atta-girl grin. “Are Jehovah’s Witnesses getting cuter, or has it been too long since I got laid?”

Nicola smacked her friend’s arm and retreated, her heart hammering as if a grizzly bear stood behind the front door and not her incredibly hunky—and annoying—ex. “That’s not a J-dub.”

“Selling subscriptions for the Evening Post?”

“No.”

“Girl Scout cookies?”

“I wish.”

A furrow appeared between Cassie’s eyebrows. “Are you all right? Should we call the police?”

Nicola pressed a hand to the knot under her sternum and waved that offer away.

Just the sight of Max could still drive her crazy? Unfair, but all right. Anyway, she could definitely hide that fact from him. Maybe she’d botched her opening move with the whole door-slamming thing, but she could recover. She was a professional actress! This sort of thing was her bread and butter. Or would be if she ever got another acting job.

She sucked in a deep breath and fumbled for the doorknob, turning it as she whirled to peer through the crack she had made between the door and the jamb.

He beamed at her, big and handsome as he ducked down to lean against the door so their faces were close.

Too close. She let the door fall open wider and stepped back. “Hello, Max.”

His grin inched up a notch, laugh lines crinkling. Those damn laugh lines. “Nic, I’ve got a proposition for you—”

She slammed the door.

“I’m confused,” Cassie murmured.

“Me too,” Max said through the door.

Nicola stalked into the living room, digging into a box at random. “‘I’ve got a proposition for you’? Who does he think he is?”

“Who is he?” Cassie asked.

“Five years and he uses that cheesy line!” The sparking anger inside Nicola made her yell the words loud enough so she could be certain Max had heard her.

Hey!” he called through the door. “That was not cheesy.”

Cassie paused, squinting back and forth between Nicola and the front door. “Um.”

“Nicola!” Max pounded on the door.

Glowering, Cassie pounded right back at him, the flesh of her arms jiggling from the force of her knocks. “Watch it, buddy, or I’ll call the cops!

Observing her friend’s furious performance, thinking of Max baffled on the other side, and realizing her own irrationality wasn’t exactly mature, Nicola pressed a fist against her mouth, hoping to stifle the giggle that bubbled up. But then Cassie turned to face her and Nicola burst out laughing, defeated by her absurd situation.

Cassie’s lip curled, flashing her dimple, then she was laughing too, crumpling to the floor and resting her forehead against her knee as she gasped.

“You guys are laughing,” Max said through the door, sounding disgruntled. “At me.”

Still laughing, wiping her eyes, Nicola opened the door, facing Max. “And me.”

He glared at her, brawny arms folded. Although the door was wide open, he did not step inside.

Somehow the laughter had worked the tension inside her loose, and Nicola wasn’t worried about seeing him anymore. “What’s up, Maxim?”

He grinned at the use of his old nickname, and for a flash, one searing moment, the years peeled away. He was a cocky seventeen-year-old playing Romeo, making goofy faces at her, trying to get her to break character while they performed the iconic balcony scene together. Something in her heart trembled at that memory, stumbling toward darkness, and she braced herself, pulling her gaze from his face.

Her mood must have been contagious. He shifted on his feet, and she could actually hear the grin leave his face as he angled his body toward Cassie. “Hello. You do a very intimidating yell.”

Cassie sidled forward with her hand out. “You do a fine knock, my good man.” She darted a questioning glance at Nicola, which Nicola chose to ignore. “I’m Cassie Xu.”

“Max Fiesengerke.”

“Fiesengerke?” Cassie asked, blinking free from her starry-eyed adoration of Max. “Isn’t that the name of that actor?”

Trying to be stealthy, Nicola turned her back to Max and made a throat-cutting-shut-up-Cassie motion with her hand.

Cassie burbled on, oblivious, “The guy in that pirate movie.”

“Orlando Bloom?” Nicola chirped out, hoping to derail this topic.

Cassie sent her a WTF? face. “No, the other pirate movie. Fortune’s Fool.”

“Peter Fiesengerke,” Max said through gritted teeth.

“Yeah. I love him. Are you guys related?”

“That would be my brother,” Max said in a dry, dead tone, like the butler in a gothic novel announcing the Master had died of a bad case of bloody murder.

Nicola pressed a palm to her aching forehead. Landmines carpeted the ground where she and Max walked together, and poor Cassie was the innocent pedestrian who’d stepped right on top of one.

Cassie, catching on quick, puffed out a small, “Oh.”

“Cass, do you mind leaving us alone for a sec?” Nicola asked.

Judging by how Cassie fled into the bathroom and closed the door, she didn’t.

“Why are you here?” Nicola asked Max, keeping her voice quiet but sharp.

He retreated a step, and any lingering warmth in his voice faded. “I wanted to offer you a job.”

She frowned as she stared at his handsome, now expressionless face. That’s it?

They hadn’t seen each other in five years. They’d been childhood sweethearts, best friends, he’d been inside her, and his big opening salvo after years of estrangement was a job offer?

She slammed the door in his face.

 

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