“Mark my words. Someday Julia Roberts will be bragging that Broadway star Crystal McCord used to serve her sandwiches.”
“Right, Mia,” Crystal drawled into the phone as she looked out the dingy cab window at the small theater. Distance-wise, the green awning was a stone’s throw from Broadway. But on days like this, that stone seemed to weigh a ton. “Julia Roberts came into the diner one time, and I was so nervous I messed up her order. I can’t really see her bragging about knowing me. Besides, you’re my agent. You have to say that.”
The cabbie made a left and swung around to the back of the building. Crystal balanced the cell phone against her cheek and fished his fare from her purse.
“You’re too modest. Why do you think I took you on?” Part of Mia’s magic as an agent was her supreme confidence in her clients. She counted on it being contagious. And usually it was. “Look. You’re a fantastic actress. If this play hadn’t closed so quickly—”
“My daddy always said ‘if’ is the biggest little word in the English language.” Crystal put her hand to her mouth. Where had that come from? Apparently her brother’s email had made her more homesick than she’d realized. And that’s why she had to put it out of her mind for now.
“Yes, well,” Mia replied, without missing a beat or questioning the quote, “your daddy isn’t in show biz. Here we deal in ‘ifs’ on a daily basis. And like I was saying, IF this play hadn’t closed so quickly, it would have been your fast track to Broadway.”
A weary smile lifted Crystal’s lips. “Fast track?”
At least Mia had the grace to laugh. “You and I both know you’ve put in a hard six years here. But the media loves an overnight success. So when you do hit Broadway with a bullet, we’ll spin it that way.”
“Almost seven years actually. And I wish I had your confidence.”
The cab driver eased his car up to the back door of the theater and stopped.
“Closing nights are always tough.” Sympathy laced Mia’s voice. “Just get through tonight. I’ve got leads on several auditions. You’ll have a new play by next—” Mia gasped. “Crys, listen to this late review I just found.”
Crystal shifted her hand, preparing to flip the phone shut. “I’ll have to read it after the performance. I’m here. Besides, good or bad, I’d rather not hear it right now.”
Mia sighed loudly. “Fine. Spoilsport. Call me later. Oh, and Crystal?”
“Break a leg.” Mia snickered at her own tired joke.
“Haha.” Crystal closed the phone and shook her head. Why had she ever told Mia how sick she got of hearing that?
The cabbie cleared his throat.
Her gaze jerked to meet his impatient eyes in the mirror. “Sorry.” She dropped her phone back into her bag, fumbled his fare into his hand, and jumped out. “Thanks.”
Crystal waited for an oncoming cab to pass then crossed the street. She jumped as the cab honked at the car in front of it. An answering honk came quickly. She wove her way around a parked moving van.
She was always amazed by how easily plays came and went. Two weeks ago, Making a Splash had opened to great expectations. Then the bad reviews had started. As a supporting actress, she’d been lucky enough to escape mention by name, but guilt by association was bad enough.
The aroma of fresh-cooked hotdogs drifted to her from the small vendor by the door and her stomach growled. She nodded to the white-capped man.
He gave her a toothless grin. “Half-price for you,” he called.
She laughed. “You only say that because you know I don’t eat before the show.”
He sent her a broad wink. “When the curtains close, the cost doubles.”
“I’ll have to take my chances.” Today she bantered almost on automatic pilot. She just felt so tired inside. With two fingers she caressed the tiny daisy pendant that hung around her neck. Brad had picked a fine time to be a no-show. Some wannabe fiancé he was. As if on cue, her purse vibrated. She stepped over to the edge of the sidewalk and retrieved her phone from the big red bag. She pressed a button to read the text message. Text me later if you want me to meet you for the cast party.
She started to hit reply, but accidentally landed on the message that had irritated her an hour ago. Helping Dennis move tonight. Don’t freak out. After all, I saw opening night and you were great. Break a leg.
Her lips tightened and she shoved her phone back into her purse. She could text him at intermission and he’d have plenty of time to make it for the cast get-together. Right now, she needed to concentrate on the show.
“It’s been nine months.” Jeremy Buchanan slammed his fist on the old oak table and pushed to his feet. “Why can’t we find her?”
Sam gave him an uneasy look and stood. “Being patient is never easy. This time it was a dead-end lead. But next time. . .”
Jeremy stared at the private investigator whose Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed.
Shame coursed through him. The situation he was in was no one’s fault but his own. Yet here was a grown man half-afraid of him. He nodded and slapped Sam. . .gently. . .on the shoulder. “I’m sure next time will be different. I appreciate your not giving up.”
Sam nodded, but Jeremy was pretty sure he didn’t imagine a bit of hurry in the man’s step as he let the screen door slam behind him.
Jeremy crossed the kitchen and stood by the cordless phone waiting for the call he knew was coming. Five, four, three, two, one, he counted down. The phone chimed loudly and he lifted it off the cradle and hit the TALK button. “Hi, Mom.”
“Actually, it’s me,” a deep voice said, embarrassment evident.
Jeremy couldn’t resist a sad grin. That had been the way for forty years. His mom had always suckered his dad into doing her dirty work. “Oh. Hi, Dad. Sorry.”
“That’s okay. Your mom—”
Jeremy heard a murmur in the background.
“We. . .” His dad cleared his throat. “We wanted to know what you found out.”
“Nothing. Dead end.”
The silence on the phone line hurt almost as bad as the news from the P.I. had.
“I figured it was.”
“Yeah, me, too.”
“Hang on, your mom wants to talk to you.”
Jeremy tightened his fingers on the phone.
“Hi, Mom. Sorry the news isn’t better.”
“Don’t give up hope, son. God hears our prayers.”
Jeremy nodded, even though she couldn’t see him. “I know.”
“Your dad wants to know if you want to come over for supper.”
“Nah, I’ve got soup in the refrigerator. I think I’ll read a while and turn in early tonight. I promised Jonathan I’d check the hay crop in his bottom field and see if the cold snap the other night got it. But you better have coffee ready when I get done with that,” he teased half-heartedly.
“Yeah, we know how cranky you are without your caffeine.” Her teasing was as forced as his, but at least she tried. “See you then. Love you.”
Crystal slipped inside the backstage area. She closed her eyes and let the familiar smell of turpentine and the noise of sound checks calm her like a cup of chamomile tea. She might be tired, but there was no denying her love for the theater.
She jerked her eyes open.
Zee, the stage director, frowned at her, his gold eyebrow hoop lifting. “You okay?”
She smiled. “I am. It’s just been a long day, and you know closing nights are always rough.”
“Hmph,” he grunted. “Especially when they’re forced on you. But you’ll be great. Just like always.” She was surprised he didn’t ruffle her hair. He wasn’t much older than she was, but in spite of the fact that she was twenty-five, most of the show people still treated her like she was a teenager. The joys of being short.
“Thanks, Zee. You’re sweet.”
“Tell that to Tink. I need all the help I can get with her.” A grin flitted across his tan face, the long scar from his ear to his chin puckering slightly.
“I’ll put in a good word for you.” Crystal laughed and hurried into the crowded dressing room.
Her friend and castmate, Tina, or “Tink” as Zee called her, waved from an empty station. She ran both hands through her dark spiky hair and finished with her arms straight up in the air in a ta-da motion. “There you are.”
Crystal motioned toward Tina’s hair. “Turquoise, huh? Cool.”
Tina fluffed her multi-colored spikes. “Yeah, thanks.”
Every few weeks, Tina’s highlights changed color. Tonight, they matched her blouse and her eyeshadow.
“I’m all done with my hair and makeup. Want me to do yours?”
“Thanks. I’d love that.” Crystal sank onto the chair and closed her eyes.
Tina briefly massaged her shoulders. “Girl, you’re tighter than a fiddle string tonight,” she said, in her thick Texas drawl.
“I know.” Crystal sighed and tried to relax.
Tina’s hands flew as she brushed through Crystal’s shoulder-length hair. “Why do I think that sigh isn’t all because the play’s closing?”
Crystal jerked her head up to meet the woman’s gaze in the mirror.
The heavy black eyeliner around Tina’s eyes didn’t hide the compassion there. “What’s wrong?”
Crystal shrugged. “Nothing really.”
Tina snorted. “Nothing, my foot.”
Those blue eyes never missed a trick. Crystal sighed again. “Isn’t it enough that the play is closing? And that you, Zee, and I will have to try to find another job Monday? What if we don’t get one together?”
Tina grabbed a folded-up newspaper and stuffed it into Crystal’s bag. “I know you don’t want to see it now, but read it after the show.”
Crystal laughed. “Must be some review. First Mia, now you.” She held up her hand. “But you’re right. I don’t want to know.”
Tina snatched a pick off the counter and attacked Crystal’s hair, artfully styling it into the homeless look necessary for the first scene. “Don’t worry, we’ll get a gig together. You audition where you want to and we’ll tag along. We’ve done it before. What else?”
“Brad texted to tell me he couldn’t make it tonight. Something came up.”
Tina shrugged. “Wedding-Proposal Ken can’t make it tonight, huh? That’s a little irritating, and you know the right answer to his question anyway, you just don’t want to admit it. I’m pretty sure there’s something bigger wrong, unless I’m way off-base.”
A smile tugged at the corners of Crystal’s mouth, but she was careful not to show it. Tina got a kick out of calling Brad “Ken” as in “Ken and Barbie” but other than that, she had good instincts. In every way.
Tina paused with the teasing comb above Crystal’s head. “Might as well tell me, you know you want to.”
“Maybe you need to go to work for one of those psychic hotlines,” Crystal drawled.
“Very funny. You know I don’t believe in that mumbo jumbo. I just know you. Nice try changing the subject though. And if you really don’t want to talk about it, far be it from me to be pushy.”
Crystal grinned. “Pushy? You?” She considered taking the out. But Tina was her safety valve and right now she really needed that. “I got an email from Aaron.”
Tina tapped her lip with the comb and stared at the ceiling for a second. Then her gaze met Crystal’s in the mirror again. “Aaron. Got married a couple months ago. Right?”
“You amaze me.”
She shrugged. “I don’t have any family but my grandpa to keep up with. So keeping your six brothers and sisters straight is a challenge. Besides, it was an event worthy of you going home for a visit. That, in itself, is rare enough to make me remember it.”
“I visit.” Crystal heard the defensiveness in her voice, but she couldn’t seem to help it. “Holidays are a bad time to get away in this business. You know that.”
Tina opened her mouth then shut it again. She took a deep breath and smiled. “So what did Aaron have to say?”
Crystal closed her eyes for a second as she remembered the email. “He and Bree have gotten a chance to move to inner-city Chicago for a year and do some mission work with at-risk boys.”
“Ah, that’s sweet.” Tina slapped Crystal’s arm. “Too bad they don’t want to move to the Big Apple. We could use a little more gospel around here, don’t ya think?”
Crystal nodded absently. “I guess.” Tina and Zee were always trying to get her to go to church with them. In a way, that was probably what had drawn her to them in the beginning. Even though she’d quit going to church when she moved to the city, she still believed in God. She just wasn’t sure He cared about people who had turned their backs on Him. “This is a special houseparent program that Aaron and Bree have a chance to participate in.”
“Good for them.”
Crystal looked in the mirror at the dark smudges under her eyes. “Aaron was twelve and just about to initiate into a Chicago gang when his grandmother died and we got him. So he feels a strong need to do this. Stop boys from getting into gangs. Provide a place where people care about them and give them boundaries.”
Tina smiled. “And introduce them to Jesus.”
Crystal ignored her comment. “Anyway, Aaron called a family meeting for tomorrow.”
Crystal snorted. “To Arkansas? I’ll be auditioning and you know it.”
“All next week. It would be a waste to just fly there and fly back. Not to mention annihilating my tiny savings.”
“So everyone but you is going to be there.”
She shrugged. “Probably. But they know I can’t make it.”
“Can’t or won’t?” Tina muttered. Before Crystal could respond, she spoke in a normal voice. “So what’s the problem with Aaron leaving?”
“He’s Dad’s right hand man.”
“Don’t some of your other sisters and brothers live nearby?”
“Yeah, but they’re busy with their own lives. Aaron’s been the main one who takes care of the cattle. And Mama and Daddy are going on an overseas trip in a week. I think he’s afraid they’ll cancel.”
“Mission trip?” Tina asked, her voice dry, as she deftly started on makeup.
Crystal nodded. “With a second honeymoon tacked on for good measure.”
“Honeymoon or no honeymoon, your family’s so holy, the Hallelujah Chorus must burst out spontaneously every time they’re together. I bet they bug you worse than we do about going to church.”
Crystal frowned. “Not really so much.”
“It’s not because they’ve given up on you, honey,” Tina drawled as she smoothed in the foundation on Crystal’s face.
Heat spread from Crystal’s neck to her face. Tina had an uncanny way of taking the words right out of Crystal’s mind and speaking them aloud. She glanced in the mirror and cringed inwardly. Not much chance her embarrassment would escape unnoticed since the pale makeup clashed violently with her red face.
Tina made no comment about the color change. “Your biggest sin is you’re too hard on yourself.”
“I’m not hard on myself.”
“Yeah, and I’m not from Texas,” Tina drawled as she unfastened the Velcro at Crystal’s neck and whipped the white cape off her with a flourish. “Ta-da. The most beautiful homeless woman I’ve ever seen.”