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Ready? he mouthed at her.
Yes. Her eyes softened, and the tiny smile she gave him seemed to set a hook in his heart and pull.
A million memories surged through him, hitting like a train into the side of a mountain. This scene was so familiar, so precious. Nicola across the stage from him, ready to spar and tease and challenge. Ready to play.
Ready to be in his life again?
Just do the scene, idiot. He inched his shoulders back as he eased into the physicality of Oberon, but after those stolen seconds of fussing, he still wasn’t ready. The closeness of Nicola, the potential in being near her had set his body humming in a steady buzz, which had nothing to with theater.
But what the hell? The curtain was up. Judith was watching. Game on. “‘Ill met by moonlight, proud Titania,’” he rumbled out, deepening his voice and adding the hint of an accent. So he’d sound all kingly and shit. He strode down the short stairs toward her.
Nicola, as Titania, narrowed her eyes at him and raised one eyebrow. “‘What, jealous Oberon?’”
He crossed the stage in three easy strides, invading her personal space. She stood on the step above him so he found himself face-to-face with her, close enough to kiss. She startled, jerking her head back, and he didn’t know if that was Nicola or Titania. She made to turn away from him.
“‘Tarry, rash wanton.’” He slid an arm around her waist, holding her without pulling her closer. “‘Am not I thy lord?’”
She cocked her head sideways, her mouth a smirking, sensual promise. “‘Then I must be thy lady.’”
Yes, you are. Having her in his arms felt so right, like he’d been missing a piece of himself and not known it until he touched her again. He was near enough to see the ring of dark brown around her irises, to count the freckles scattered across her nose, to smell the spicy fruit scent of her hair. To feel her breath sigh over the skin of his face.
He closed the few inches left to her mouth, but she ducked, twisting free of his arms before he could kiss her.
As Oberon, he was infuriated.
As Max, he was almost ridiculously disappointed.
Keep your head in the work. Focus. If he blew this opportunity for her because of his overeager libido, then she would never forgive him. And he would never forgive himself for ruining yet another thing for her.
Nicola continued the scene, taunting him, playing Titania as the most alluring of sirens. Rita had told them to ratchet up the sexual tension, of course, but Nicola was on exactly the same page as him. The whole scene they each found excuses to stand near the other, to touch and tickle like this was all foreplay. The chemistry between them crackled, and she obviously felt it too, getting as much of a high from this performance as he was. Her cheeks were flushed, her eyes sparking in a way he remembered well.
He could think of only one other thing the two of them had done together better than this.
Don’t go there, Max.
Really hard, though—heh—not to let his mind wander there as she crossed to sit on one corner of the stage and laid herself out, her lovely, petite body displayed for him to admire.
They had reached the part of the scene where Titania refuses to give Oberon her adopted son. “‘I will not part with him.’” She stretched her legs out and pillowed her cheek on one hand to study him with simmering, heavy-lidded eyes.
Somehow, even though Nicola sat on a bare stage in blue jeans and a white blouse, somehow she managed to appear decadent, lush, pure temptation made of sweet, supple flesh. Venus waiting in her bower for Mars to ravish her. Cleopatra inviting Antony to negotiate terms for his surrender.
The sight of her was too much to resist. He maneuvered around behind her and sat. Resting an elbow on his knee, he reached forward and tucked a strand of soft brown hair behind her ear. He let his fingertip linger against the skin of her neck, and she shivered at the contact. He didn’t know if that was Nicola or just Nicola acting, but the sight had heat building low in his gut. “‘How long within this wood intend you stay?’” His line came out throatier than he’d intended, the low rasp of a desperate man.
And, dammit, he was desperate. You’d think five years would have done something to dim his desire, but he found himself swamped by it, awash in images, wants.
Like right now, he imagined everyone else gone. To lunch. To hell. Wherever. Didn’t matter. Just away. Then he’d be free to kiss Nicola until her mouth was swollen, to touch her skin and smell and taste her until she was trembling against him, then he’d ease her back flat on the stage and—
“‘Perchance till after Theseus’ wedding-day,’” she said, cutting into his thoughts. She tossed her head, shaking out her curtain of soft brown hair, projecting indifference, but it was a fragile façade to hide how much she wanted him to stay here with her.
As Oberon, or maybe using Oberon as an excuse, Max leaned into her shoulder and pressed a kiss to her collarbone. She shivered again, the instinctive tremble of a woman who was just as turned on as he was. That wasn’t acting, or not only acting.
“‘Give me that boy,’” he murmured, “‘and I will go with thee.’”
Nicola swallowed, aroused heat and brittle fury burning together in her eyes. “‘Not for thy fairy kingdom. Fairies, away!’” She shot to her feet, striding offstage without a backward glance, the muscles in her shoulders taut, her hands clenched into fists. Their small audience erupted in applause. Tierney even whistled.
Max rolled to his feet. Nicola emerged from the stage left wings, looking shaken and pale. He tried to catch her eye, but she was staring into the audience at Judith.
Gil distracted him, patting Max on the arm. “You two were wonderful together.”
Tierney gave Max a rough slap on the back. “I think I just got a contact high from all the pheromones you two were pumping out.”
Nicola flashed a wild look Tierney’s way, then wiped her face blank. Except her mouth, which tightened into a grimace.
Max’s stomach dropped. Crap. Nicola was pissed.
Her gaze slid his way, and her eyes were dark, actually smoldering with wrath.
Make that really pissed.
Which, the more he thought about it, pissed him off too. He’d played his part for her, and pretty damn well, all things considered. Nothing he’d done had been out of character for Oberon. Nothing had been over the line.
Maybe kissing her neck was tiptoeing close to the line, but Max felt he was on the side of right there. She had a great neck. Sometimes a guy’s gotta do what he’s gotta do.
For the scene, of course.
Everyone froze as Judith stood, the sound of her seat flipping up oddly loud in the large theater.
She was the unknown quantity here, and Max prayed she would act for the good of the show. Isabelle had been known to let her ego get in the way at times. Please, let Judith be different.
Judith started down the aisle, glancing at a small notebook as she scribbled things. Tierney rolled her eyes. Gil shrank into himself, trying for invisibility. Rita twisted the silver bracelets on her arm.
Nicola folded her arms and waited, cool and collected as a queen.
That’s my girl.
Judith stopped at the foot of the stage and, without even glancing at Nicola, said, “I’m sorry, but I need to cut this short. Ms. Charles, can you come into read for me again?”
Max gaped. What is wrong with this lady? Sure, artistic directors were allowed to be prickly divas. They ran the show, after all. All the shows. Nicola had nailed the audition, the director wanted her, so making Nicola audition again just felt like some weird power play.
Nicola worked her jaw, clearly offended but fighting to stay professional. “Of course. What time?”
“No. Nonono no nono no.” Rita sliced her arm through the air. “No, Judith. That is not acceptable. We need to settle this today.”
“We need a Titania,” Max put in, not glancing at Nicola as he said it. “Ms. O’Fallon, do you honestly think you’ll find someone better for our production than Nic—than Ms. Charles?”
Judith’s nostrils flared, her cool gray eyes narrowing to slits. Finally, she flung her hands up. “All right. You, Nicola, come into sign your equity contract.” With a dramatic flair not quite on par with Isabelle’s, Judith whirled around and pretty much stormed out of the theater.
Rita let out a shrill victory cry and threw herself on Nicola for a hug. Max grinned, big and goofy. He had a Titania again. He had Nicola again.
Her gaze met his over Rita’s back, and Nicola stilled, her face blanking out.
Nicola had the part. She should be thrilled. So why did she look like she had to barf again?
She eased away from Rita and murmured something. Rita pointed to the backstage area. Giving the group at large a reassuring wave, Nicola hurried off stage left toward the dressing rooms.
“Maxim, I need you to—”
He waved Rita to silence. “Give me a second?” Gut churning with unease, Max jogged backstage, f
ollowing—okay, maybe chasing—Nicola.
ollowing—okay, maybe chasing—Nicola.
He found her in the green room, leaning in the doorway, half-in, half-out, with a faraway expression in her eyes. In his younger days, Max had learned to recognize that look and put as much distance between himself and The Look as possible. Avoidance had always been his favorite way to solve conflicts. But not now. Five years hadn’t only made him older.
When she saw him, she held a hand out to stop him walking closer. “I’m fine.”
She flashed him an irritated glance but didn’t say anything.
“Nic, what’s wrong?”
She looked up, her eyes soft, her mouth half-parted. Awareness of her body flamed over him. Memories of the taste of her skin and the softness at the base of her throat had his lower self springing to attention.
Real professional there, Max. He shifted, uncomfortably aware of what a schmuck he was. Still, he wasn’t going to walk away. “Nicola. Tell me.”
She sucked in a deep breath and, when her gaze flicked to his mouth, he thought he might explode. “This, Fiesengerke.” She cupped the back of his head, yanking his face down to her. “This is what’s wrong.”
Then she kissed him.
As her mouth touched his, he thought, This is a bad idea.
But still Max grinned against her lips. After all, he’d sort of been hoping this was the problem all along.