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Biting Oz by Mary Hughes

Biting Oz

Biting Love, Book 5
by Mary Hughes

Samhain Publishing

eBook ISBN: 978-1-60928-958-4
Print ISBN: 978-1619212664

Cue the music, click your heels and make a wish for one steamy vampire romance. Marie “Junior” Stieg, stuck selling sausage, is offered the chance to play a Broadway musical. When the star’s threatened, Junior joins with the star’s sapphire-eyed bodyguard. But Glynn has a secret.

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Chapter One

I was late. Dinner-skipping, running with twenty tons (including a tenor sax case the size, weight and maneuverability of a dead body), panting late by the time I found the theater house doors.
Chop me into sausage. My first night with the full group and I needed to make a good impression, but I had three minutes to assemble instruments and wet reeds and find my seat and warm up and—
The tuning note sounded. Chop me into sausage and slap me on a bun. Not only was I late, when I did start playing I’d be out of tune like a fifth grade wire choir. I juggled instrumentalia to free a hand, yanked open the heavy house door and ran through—
Straight into a sea of Munchkins. Which, since I wasn’t Moses, refused to part.
Chop me, slap me and serve me with ketchup and a side of kraut fries.
Running, squirming Munchkins blocked the aisles, crawled over stinky-new seats and generally terrorized the otherwise empty auditorium. Not real Munchkins, of course, but local kids who hoped to sing and dance their way to fame and fortune in the new musical, Oz, Wonderful Oz. The inaugural production would open our brand-spanking-new Meiers Corners Marlene Dietrich Performing Arts Center. Actors and musicians had been rehearsing separately and tonight was our first time together. I was playing reed two in the pit orchestra.
If I could get to the pit, that was.
The house lights were at fifty percent, high enough to see two harried adults patting makeup on chubby cheeks. A couple teenage babysitters tried to run herd but were hard pressed just to keep the kids from ripping themselves or the house to shreds. Mayhem in the form of youngsters shed hats and bows and bits of costume like auto parts in a San Francisco car chase. I craned my neck for a way through the seething mass.
My future depended on getting into that pit on time. We were going to Broadway—if a certain unnamed big-bucks backer was impressed with the show on closing night. All of us, including the musicians. Including me.
If I could just get to that damned pit.
Bull my way through? At five-two, I wasn’t much bigger than the rugrats. But with the tenor sax deadweight… I eyed the sea of Munchkins and sighed. It was vital I get to my seat but not at the cost of hurting a kid.
Besides, those poor harried teenagers needed help. I sloughed my cases and music stand and went to render what aid I could.
A Lollipop Guilder, scrambling to escape the auditorium, rammed into me. I snagged him by his suspenders and plopped him into a seat. Just as I straightened, a scuffling pair of boys with missing front teeth (not from the scuffle, I hoped) rolled into me. I broke them up, rescued their hats and sat them next to the Lollipopper—who Lolli-popped out of his seat. I grabbed him, but the gap-toothed boys bubbled up, timing it like a tag team. I managed to corral all three with a bear hug and wrestled them into their seats.
I huffed to catch my breath. No wonder Mom only had the one of me.
Two giggling girls darted past and bumped me into the boys. Or into their empty seats, as they’d climbed out and were now Spidermanning into the next aisle.
“Overture, please.” Up front the pit director called the musicians to attention.
I forked fingers into my hair, forgetting my scalp-tight braid, and nearly tore out a chunk. Not only was I officially screwed, I couldn’t even corral a few kids. Cocktail weenies on a stick, could it get any worse?
Of course it could. “I’m a filly!”
Speaking of corral. A stampede of girls playing horse galloped into me, knocking me off my feet again. I fell, trampled under their small hooves. Terrific. My obituary would now read, “Gunter Marie ‘Junior’ Stieg, pit musician and sausage queen, pounded flat by a herd of size-three Mary Janes.” I braced myself for death, or at least a bad bruising.
Big, warm hands slid under my arms, drew me to my feet.
“Here now,” said a musical baritone. “I’ll take care of this, babi. You sit here, out of the way.”
The hands assisted me to a plush seat. I sank in. Mmm, comfy. The city sure had gone all out remodeling the theater…babi?
I blinked. A pair of shoulders wider than a freeway waded out into the sea of kids. The leather-jacketed shoulders belonged to a man, black-haired, tall and strong-looking—but even Gulliver fell to a raging river of Lilliputians. I called out a warning too late. Kids grabbed the man’s hands, his jacket, and climbed him like a tree. He was swarmed, overwhelmed, swallowed up by the horde of prepubescent terrors. I covered my eyes.
“Sit now, younglings. All in a row, that’s it. Sit quietly until it’s your turn to have makeup.”
He had a lovely accent. I uncovered my eyes. Somehow he’d freed himself from the swarm of kids and was calmly shepherding them into the first two rows of seats, adjusting a tie here or hat there as they filed neatly by.
Holy Dr. Spock. There was a handy man to have if I ever wanted kids.
I smacked myself discreetly between the eyes. No children, at least not right now. First, make a good impression on the director of this show, turn the show into a smash hit, and go to New York.
Which meant getting into that pit before the overture started. Maybe I still could. I jumped to my feet, snatched up my Manhasset stand and corpse sax, shouldered my instrument bag and trotted down the rapidly clearing aisle.
And nearly slammed into a six-kid pileup.
The adults doing Munchkin makeup had stopped the kids from filing into the third row of seats in order to fix one Munchkin’s smears. I screeched to a stop on my toes, off-balance. My bag slipped, dropped off my shoulder, jerked me into stumbling. I nearly dropped the sax, did drop my stand, tangled feet with it and had to wrench myself backward to keep from falling.
Except the sax didn’t hear about the change in plans. Momentum carried it in my original direction, popping it from of my grip.
To my horror, the tenor case pitched straight at the kids.
The man turned instantly, as if preternaturally aware of the danger. But he was behind the kids. He’d have to hurdle like Jesse Owens to get between the deadly sax and those small bodies.
Palming the wall, he levered against it to kick up and over Munchkin heads, clearing them with incredible grace and ease, landing on my side.
On the way he snatched my tenor. Midair.
I set down my instrument bag and blew out my tension. “Wow. Thanks. I…”
Straightening to his full height of six-OMG, he faced me, emanating strength and energy. Powerful chest muscles pushed into the jacket’s gap right in front of my nose.
I gaped, realized I was starting to drool and looked up.
Sondheim shoot me. His face was all dark, dangerous planes. His eyes were twin sapphire flames that hit me in the gut. My breath punched out and none came to replace it. Bad news for a wind player.
He turned to set the sax down. I started breathing again.
A tapping caught my ear, the conductor ready to start. I needed to get into that pit now.
Half a dozen kids and two makeup adults were still in my way.
I’d have crawled over the seats myself but my joints weren’t as limber as the kids’…unless I used my black Lara Croft braid as a rope. I was desperate enough to consider it.
The man, turning back, saw my predicament. He lifted my instrument bag and music stand over kids with the same strength and grace as when he’d snatched the tenor. Then he turned to me.
And swept me up into his arms.
An instant of shock, of male heat and rock-hard muscle. A carved face right next to mine, masculine lips beautifully defined—abruptly I was set on my feet beside the pit. The sax landed next to me with a thump.
“There.” His accent was jagged, as if he were as rattled as me. “There’s your instrument.” He bounded to the back of the theater and was gone.
I blinked, not sure what had just happened. A handsome, good with kids, preternaturally aware man had swept me off my feet. Literally.
Checking said tootsies, no ruby slippers or glass pumps had magically appeared. So I hadn’t sideslipped into a fairy tale, which left him being real, and, hey—I was real, which made me shiver with possibilities.
No. Oh, no.
I hauled the sax case next to the pit wall, threw it open and put the tenor together by instinct. I grabbed beat-up brass…pale gold, like his smooth skin. I fisted hard plastic mouthpiece…he had rock-hard muscles, and something else I fisted would be rock-hard too. I realized what I was doing and jammed mouthpiece onto cork without the benefit of new grease. It was tough, but I reveled in twisting it down tight.
Because I could not afford to get sidetracked by sex. I had priorities. Family duty was A-numero-uno. Plans for my future were a close second. This show was a big step toward satisfying both. Right now, any attraction would be a distraction. A huge, muscled distraction. A broad-shouldered, black-jacketed distraction… The overture started.
Lust was making me solo in stupid. I snatched up everything and ran to the pit, pushing sapphire eyes and lilting accents out of my head. Whoever the babi guy was, I’d have to stay far, far away.
Entering the pit, I slid slowly and carefully through the tightly packed musicians. We’d had a couple instrumental-only rehearsals before this (the pit didn’t join the cast until the first dress rehearsal), but not in the theater, so this was the first time I’d had to navigate the squeeze. I chafed to find my seat, but a bull in a china shop is nothing compared to a bull with premenstrual bloat wading through a pit of high-priced, handmade horns. Only in my case, it was instru-menstrual bloat, ha.
I finally found my chair and was assembling my clarinet when the oboe played a two-measure figure and paused.
A gap went by. My solo, missed. Stuff me in a tuba and blast me into space. Late and now this. I slammed music onto stand, flipped a page and found my place. We were at Dorothy’s entrance. I jammed clarinet into my mouth so fast I nearly broke teeth, and sucked breath to play.
“Stop-stop-stop!” Six feet of coral chinos, cravat and Fuh-Q cologne sashayed onstage, clapping his hands. With a coral-and-chartreuse silk scarf wrapped around his head like a fashion patrol Rambo, the man reminded me of Darren Nichols in Slings and Arrows, or a bendy fashion doll. Or a metrosexual Gumby. Obviously the show’s director, the guy who called the shots—like whether I got to New York or not.
Act professional, act professional… Distracted, my sucked breath released—into the clarinet. My note squawked into the sudden silence like a skewered pig.
“What, exactly, was that?” The man loomed over the pit. I fussed with my music, pretended not to notice him. This is not the cantina droid you’re looking for.
He receded, tapping an impatient, silver-capped toe. “Where is the offstage choir? They must be in place before you start. And who said you could start?” He pointed into the pit. “Did I say go?”
Our music director, Takashi Ishikawa (no relation to the wrestler), fingered his short white stick. “I—”
“Did you hear me give the go on your headset? Do you have a headset? Who has their headset? Soundboard? Light board?” The director tapped his toe faster. “Come on, people. I know this isn’t Broadway, but that’s where we’re supposed to be headed. Everyone must have a headset and use it. Steve! Where is that boy?”
A skeletal young man slunk sullenly from the wings. His head was shaved except for a fringe of bangs, and ripped jeans hung from his bony ass. He looked like a deathmetal Gollum from The Lord of the Rings. “The name’s not Steve. It’s Shi—”
“Steve. Do we have headsets distributed or not? How else am I to make such a large endeavor a brilliant success? Because only Brilliant Successes go to New York.” The director whirled, glared at Takashi. “Turn on your headset.”
Takashi obediently clicked, then surreptitiously clicked again. His set had already been on.
“Good.” The director very deliberately clicked the button on his control set. “Ready? Then—go.” He spun offstage.
We started from the top. My sax was only slightly sharp from jamming the mouthpiece to the hilt. No time to fix it now, not with all my fingers engaged in low B-flats and Cs. Five measures in, I switched to flute. This time the “oohs” of the offstage choir joined us, and when my clarinet solo came, I dropped it in perfectly. (If this sounds like the movie or Royal Shakespeare Company version of The Wizard of Oz, well, the instrumentation was the same. Oz, Wonderful Oz was a completely new production, but you gotta sound like the movie or patrons get weirded out.)
We segued into “Dorothy’s Got Trouble”, and the house doors opened. A spotlight clicked on, catching traditional ankle socks, gingham and braids.
Our Dorothy. The lynchpin of the show. If she was good, we were headed for New York. If she was bad, we’d be playing dinner theater in What Cheer, Iowa, and then only if we offered free soft-serve.
She glided up the aisle, something furry in her arms, and spoke her first lines. And then suddenly I was there, in Kansas, and here was Dorothy worried about her dog and her mean neighbor.
The girl wasn’t simply good. She was stunning.
We went through the plot setup, the wicked old witch neighbor threatening Dorothy’s only friend, Toto. Nobody on the farm seemed to care, too busy with their own work.
Leaving Dorothy to sit on the stoop of her farmhouse and sing her hopefully-soon-to-be-famous lament, “Dreams Beyond the Rainbow”. Hearing her rich voice, filled with longing, I shivered, and I don’t shiver easily.
The girl used the wavering, pouting Judy Garland alto but imbued it with something more, something that made it her own. She took traditional Dorothy and layered it with her own interpretation, making it fresh. I wondered how old the girl was, really.
As she sang, a shadow appeared in the wings. A big shadow with shoulders that brushed the curtain on either side. The babi guy. His sapphire eyes were intent on Dorothy.
Another shiver hit me, this one down low, and I missed my changeover. No big loss as all ears were on Dorothy—except for Takashi’s. He gave me a short, meaningful stare. For a grad student, the guy heard everything. Even without this Oz, he’d make Broadway someday.
Me, I wouldn’t even make the soft-serve follies unless I got my head out of my panties and focused. I put flute to lip and concentrated on playing the tag, a little triplet fillip. That segued into “Mean Old Nieghbor” (Neighbor to the rest of the world, but Nieghbor on the hand-notated, hand-lettered part. Welcome to the world of pit music). The change to clarinet took my full attention. When I looked up again at the end of a menacing chord, Mr. Babi was gone.
Despite concentrating on the music, I was still shivering. That worried me. I’m a musician but also a businesswoman. Emotions tempered by, as Pop puts it, hard-headed dollars and sense. Ha.
My part had nothing until the tornado, so I had a few scenes to try to figure it out. Did I want to? Hell no. I poked around in my own innards with dread. But the missed cue said it was eating me bad enough to throw me off. I had to poke or potentially screw up this pit gig.
And the gig was bottom-line, underscore-underscore, red ink important.
So. What was throwing me? Being so blasted late? Squirting a clarinet fart in front of the show’s director? Dorothy and her soul-shredding voice?
Surely my shivers weren’t from the gorgeous hunk of sapphire-eyed male who’d watched her.
Not thinking about him. I latched on to my last thought, Dorothy’s voice…yes, that alto certainly was haunting, especially singing about her rainbow dream.
Emotion hit me so hard I gasped. Rainbow dream. That was it.
I’m an only child. Not the doting-parents-smothering-with-money-and-affection kind. The you-have-a-duty kind. I’m rather of proud of that.
Duty to my parents was vital to me. They raised me and gave me food and a roof, not to mention the whole gift-of-life thing. My mother even gave up her career for me (although that’s another issue). They’re older, maybe a decade from retiring, but they can’t because they run their own business and sink every spare pfennig into it.
So I help them in the store and I’m glad to do it. I love them; they’re my world.
But sometimes I want…more.
Dorothy’s rainbow dream resonated deep. Like Kansas, my home is small. Meiers Corners is just west of Chicago in miles, but it’s worlds removed in attitude. In some ways, the Corners is even smaller and more black-and-white than Dorothy’s Kansas. I feel trapped in my small backyard, knowing there’s a big, wide, Technicolor world out there, just waiting for me.
New York is my Emerald City. That’s why this pit gig was so important. The director was aiming to do a Rent,go viral and get to Broadway. My friend Nixie, who had recruited the pit orchestra musicians, managed to work an agreement out that if the show went, the Meiers Corners’s musicians would go along.
That was when I signed up. Not only would I get to New York—I’d get there with a job that’d support me and have cash left over for my parents.
If the show did well. If I was a professional and could cut the part.
Takashi raised one finger, our cue that the tornado was coming. I checked my music for the proper instrument (pig squeal ain’t nothin’ on honking a flute part out on tenor). I used color highlights to reinforce instrument name, and in this case CLAR was highlighted in blue, like eyes as blue as an Irish sea…
Dammit, I had to concentrate on my part, not blue-eyed hunks. Business Truth #2 was “Focus on the job at hand”. I couldn’t get distracted, not with my dreams so close I could taste them, like tasting beautifully defined lips…crap.
I lifted my clarinet, concentrating on fingering the upcoming tornado, not fingering gorgeous…shizzle. Concentrating on the music, not musical baritones murmuring babi sweetly in my…phooey.
This was going to be harder than I thought.
By the time we got our break two hours later, I decided I’d overreacted. The guy couldn’t have been as gorgeous as I thought. I’d been swept off my feet, waking romantic fantasies and understimulated hormones (being the dutiful daughter means I don’t date much).
I’d test his nongorgeousness by giving him another look-see. Snatching up my water bottle, I stood.
Next to me, the woman playing reed one rose too and stretched out her back, throwing her pregnant belly into relief.
Nixie Emerson is the only person in my world smaller than me. At five feet even, wearing clothes bought in the kids’ department at Target before she got pregnant, she could have doubled as a Munchkin—until she opened her mouth. A punk rocker, Nixie could swear like a Marine. When you could understand her. She used a mishmash of cultural metaphors and punkspeak, a kind of a Star Trek: TNG “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra” for the terminally tattooed and pierced.
“Hey, Nixie,” I said. “I’m going to find a water fountain. You want anything?”
“Nah, I’m chill,” Nixie said. “Want some aitch-two, Julian?”
That was to her husband, on her other side, wiping down his cello. Talk about gorgeous—Julian was the original poster boy for Yowsa. He said, “After that first half? Beer, maybe.”
“You talking about rehearsal? Or that thing with Dumbass?”
“Dumbass?” I asked.
She turned to me. “Yeah, Director Dumbass. You know, the guy who dinged Takashi about the headset, then screeched all his directions voice-naked?”
“He was rather colorful.”
“The rehearsal,” Julian said. “Missed light cues, sound cues, lines dropped. Tin Man’s plate sliding off his bony body. Kids behaving like rampaging monkeys. I can’t believe we open in just four days.”
“The stars are exceptional,” I said. “That’ll help.”
“And the pit’s fearsome great.” Nixie grinned and popped another vertebra.
“Maybe, but the rest was a train wreck.” Julian set his cello on its ribs. “All those sugar-rush Munchkins chasing Toto didn’t help. The director’s screeching and cajoling made it worse.”
I shrugged. “It’s the first rehearsal with all the players. Not everyone is professional, and there’s a lot to coordinate.” I reveled in it all, even the flubbed lines. The pulse and thrum of life past the edge was so un-Meiers Corners. “It’ll be miraculously wonderful by Thursday night.”
“It had better be.” Julian’s tone was dark.
“True dat,” Nixie said. “I’m not planning on NYC but I know a lot are.”
“The backer’s not coming until closing night. We have time.” I double-checked my flute and clarinet on their homemade pegs. “At least long enough for me to find some freeway-broad shoulders…I mean water.”
As I set my sax on my chair, flutist Rocky Hrbek leaned up, her wealth of shining chestnut hair falling forward. She pushed it back as if it was an annoyance instead of a hunk-magnet. “Um, Junior…” She shoved at the bridge of her clunky glasses. “Not to be presumptuous or anything. But I could use some water too. Can I go with you?”
I shook my head at her “presumption”. Rocky had been overweight and acne-ridden in high school and still saw herself that way. Though she was slim and gorgeous now, nobody in the Corners had bothered to correct her. She was just as shy and unsure of herself as she’d been in the black cesspool known as seventh grade.
Fortunately it didn’t matter when it came to her playing. Hell on wheels in band, first-chair flute her freshman year, she’d only gotten better.
“Sure. C’mon.”
She grabbed her water bottle, tucked her flute case under her arm and followed me out of the pit. I’d left my flute on its stand, but mine was a thousand-dollar Armstrong and hers was a twenty-thousand-dollar gold Miyazawa. Or maybe she just saw it as one of her few faithful friends.
“Do you know where the water fountain is?” she asked as we hit the aisle.
“Probably near the restrooms. Let’s try the outer lobby.” The PAC had two lobby areas, outer and inner. The building’s main entrance led to the outer lobby, with ticket counters and restrooms. Straight through the outer lobby was a set of doors leading to the inner lobby. The inner lobby had two sets of double doors leading into the audience section of the theater, or the house. As we made our way up the house aisle, a couple of Munchkins zipped past, knocking into me. A harried-looking teenager ran after them. “How’ve you been?”
“Good.” Rocky swayed to avoid the worst of the Munchkin meteors. “How’re things at the sausage store?”
I pushed through the house doors and we schussed over the thick red carpet of the inner lobby. “Working our asses off to make ends meet, but that’s par for a mom-and-pop shop.” I shouldered open the outer lobby doors, revealing two stories of new sage walls, contemporary art and recessed natural light. “Somebody put real money behind this remodeling. You’d never know this used to be a toilet paper factory.”
Rocky slid her glasses up on her nose and looked around. “Mayor Meier did some tax credits and a special loan program at the bank. He’s pushing to get all the city’s empty buildings retenanted. Oh look, there’s the drinking fountain.”
The hiss of water zeroed my attention on the far wall. Dorothy had just bent her beautiful, graceful head to take a drink.
Standing behind her like a personal shield was Mr. Couldn’t-Be-That-Gorgeous. He wasn’t.
He was more.
A glow of sapphire eyes, a flash of dangerous planes, the impression of broad shoulders. Glimpses through lowered house lights and dark wings hadn’t prepared me for seeing him in full light for the first time.
Big became huge, several inches over six feet, deceptive because he was perfectly proportioned, like Tom Cruise in reverse. Broad shoulders were really acres wide, flaring from a narrow, flat waist. He had perfectly chiseled features, his five o’clock shadow emphasizing a honed jaw, his perfect skin taut over sharp bones, his lips masculine yet bold. His black hair gleamed under the lights, thick and lustrous.
Great Braunschweiger, he was beyond gorgeous, as in punch-out-my-heart-and-use-it-to-club-me-senseless stunning.
A sudden, searing need to know his name pushed me toward him.
Rocky’s hand on my shoulder stopped me. “Junior, wait. They’re busy.”
“How do you know?” And busy doing what?
“Look at her back. It’s bowed. Whatever she’s hearing, she’s not liking it.”
Rocky was right. Shove a trombone up my ass and play “Yankee Doodle”. I’d violated Business Truth #6 of my parents’ Eightfold Business Path—“Keep your eyes open and on the customer”. It told a savvy shopkeeper what the customer was looking for. And what would Mr. Gorgeous be buying, Junior? I shook myself.
As if Dorothy had heard our whispers all the way across the lobby, she turned toward us. Without stage lights washing her out, she was as stunning as he was. Her eyes were the bright green of spring leaves, framed by coal-black lashes and filled with intelligence and determination that made them even more striking.
Here was no little girl, but a young woman of consequence.
Her expression eased into a welcoming smile. “Please, come have a drink. Don’t mind Glynn and me.”
Her soft voice carried across the lobby, great acoustics or a truly brilliant actress. As we approached, she stepped back from the water fountain, leaving her hulking male no choice but to do the same.
“Thanks,” I said.
“You’re in the pit, aren’t you?”
“Yes.” I eyed Glynn (such a lovely, musical name, lyrical as his deep baritone…phooey, when did I go poetic over names?). If he wanted to be alone with her, he didn’t give me any nonverbal hints. Of course, if he wanted to be alone with her, he shouldn’t have hogged the water fountain to do it.
The drinking fountain activated with a side lever handle. I turned it halfway to get a moderate stream and sipped.
Rocky said, “I like your Dorothy.”
“Thank you.” The young woman gave a silvery laugh. “I have to admit, she’s a bit of typecasting for a small-town Iowa girl like me.”
“Iowa?” I backed off for Rocky. “I thought all the stars were from New York. Where in Iowa are you from?”
“Coralville. I’m not quite New York yet.”
“I bought my flute in Coralville,” Rocky said between sips. “It’s not so small. Just a few miles from the University of Iowa.”
The girl gave Rocky a dazzling smile. “Most folks think we’re all corn and cattle. I’m Mishela.” She held out a hand.
Rocky shook. “I’m Rocky. This is Gunter Marie, but everyone calls her Junior.”
“My parents’ idea,” I said. “Hey, it’s better than a female Gunter.” Mishela’s hand, when I took it, was slim yet strong. I nodded nonchalantly at Mr. Gorgeous. Well, trying to be nonchalant. “And your shadow?”
Mishela gave me a rueful smile. “Glynn Rhys-Jenkins. But I call him Warden.”
“Mishela.” The warning in his tone was plain.
“Custodian? Keeper?” She smiled at him, a playful beaming that, aimed at anyone else, would have turned him into a pile of mush.
Glynn just glowered. “Seventeen is not too old to spank.”
Her smile turned saucy. “Some might say it’s the perfect age to spank.” She touched a finger to his massive chest. “If you were my type.”
Glynn’s glower darkened. “Just because Elias lets you get away with your sass—”
Oh great, a lovers’ quarrel. I suffered a rush of heat, backed away. “Nice meeting you both. But, um—”
“I’m sorry. Please don’t go.” Mishela turned from Glynn to touch my arm. “It would be nice to talk to other women. Especially other performers.”
Her tone caught at me. She seemed…lonely. Even if she was older than I thought, she was still a young woman away from home. I heard myself say, “Want to do something after rehearsal? Sodas at Nieman’s Bar?”
She perked up immediately. “I’d love to. If you don’t mind the looming watcher.”
Big, muscular Glynn, watching us… My belly heated and my panties felt a little too tight. Which annoyed the crap out of me (I had goals), so I said, “He doesn’t have to come.” And promptly flushed. Come. Perfectly innocent, except in connection with this hunk of striding sex…in the same sentence…much less the same room…uh. “We’re adults, Rocky and I. We’ll chaperone you.”
“Mishela doesn’t go anywhere without me.” Glynn crossed arms, pumping his bold chest into the opening of his jacket. Mounds of muscle strained against cotton and leather. My eyes fell out my head and my panties shot directly to broil. Phooey.
“Glynn speaks. End of discussion.” Mishela sighed. “My guardian would agree.”
Rocky and I exchanged a glance. So who was Glynn, beyond being insanely gorgeous? Her brother? Bodyguard? Lover?
A clap sounded behind us. “Places, ladies.” Coral-and-chartreuse buzzed past and through a side door.
“Yes, Mr. Dumas,” Mishela called after him.
Ah, Dumas. That explained Nixie’s Director Dumbass.
“You heard the man.” Glynn took Mishela’s elbow and hustled her toward the theater.
She called back to Rocky and me, “Nice meeting you both. See you after rehearsal.”
“Well, that was interesting.” I saw Rocky juggle flute case, water bottle and fountain handle and automatically stepped in to help, twisting the handle so Rocky could fill her bottle…all the while trying not to panic. Glynn was even better than I remembered. How could I focus on duty and goals now?
Sure, the music would absorb me during rehearsal, but what about after? We were going out for drinks together, for pity’s sake. How could I avoid seeing him, wanting to touch, to kiss…no, Rocky would stop me. And Mishela. She’d joked about Glynn the Warden, but how could any woman not want such a prime male? If I got too familiar with Glynn, she’d intervene. “Mishela sure doesn’t look seventeen.”
“She doesn’t. I wonder when she figured out she’s gay.”
My hand jerked on the handle, spraying water. “What? How do you figure that?”
“Didn’t you catch it?” Rocky pushed her nose piece. “The comment about ‘if you were my type’?”
“Well, yeah, but…wasn’t she flirting with Glynn?”
“More teasing him, like a sister.”
“And his sticking to her?”
“Protective hovering.” Rocky capped her water, only half-full because of my ham-hand on the handle, and started back. “Maybe he’s her bodyguard.”
My underwear roller coaster had evidently made me miss some things. I felt strangely lightheaded and lighthearted—missing yet another obvious fact, this one about me.
Then I thought of a downer. If Mishela was gay, only Rocky would stop me if I slid my hands under Glynn’s black jacket to pet those broad shoulders…panic flared and I ran to catch up.
Rocky said, “So how do you know Glynn?”
“I don’t.”
“Oh.” The normally neutral syllable was lengthened and pitched high, filling it with her skepticism.
“I don’t,” I repeated, as if saying it again would convince her. “I just met him tonight.”
“So I only imagined he was looking at you ‘that way’?” She elbowed open the house doors and trotted down the aisle.
“What way?”
“Like he wanted to eat you up. Which reminds me, did you see Rob brought pit chocolate?”
My voice wouldn’t work. Glynn was looking hungrily at me?
Panic flared anew. More people. I needed more people between me and Glynn. Rocky, and…and… “Rob brought chocolate?” Speaking of hungry, I’d worked my folks’ register right up until time to go and hadn’t had dinner. I couldn’t think. “Chocolate goes straight to my pads.”
“Think that’ll stop Nixie?”
“No. But with her tiny body, if she doesn’t eat every hour she’ll implode.”
“Her metabolism,” Rocky agreed. “Worse now that she’s pregnant. Good thing Julian feeds her regularly.”
Hey. Nixie and Julian were more people. I could ask them to come to Nieman’s.
And Takashi, who stopped me outside the pit.
But before I could harangue…I mean ask him if he wanted to go out, he said, “Dumas noticed a solo missing. I didn’t tell him specifically it was you but…” He fingered his baton. “Try to be on time tomorrow, hai?”
I winced. “Of course.”
Could have been worse. At least Takashi had covered for me. But Dumas had noticed, a ding against my professional image. I sank into my seat. Then I straightened, determined to play my ass off.
Next to me, Nixie was chowing down on Rob’s bag of chocolate bars. Seeing me, she offered the bag.
“That’s cruel,” I said. “You know I can’t have any until we’re done. Not unless I want a two-hundred-dollar repad.”
She snatched the bag back, chomped down another bar and heaved a contented sigh. “Shoulda brought a toothbrush.” She grinned, showed me her foldaway.
“Buy me one for Christmas. Hey, I’ve got a new joke.”
Her husband Julian groaned, but Nixie stopped chomping. “Feckin’ awesome. Lay it down.”
“A conductor and a viola player are in the middle of the road. Which do you run over first, and why?”
“The conductor,” Nixie said. “They’re all puffed with their authority. Except for Takashi.”
“The violist.” Julian set his bow on his stand. “All your jokes are bad viola jokes.”
“Nope,” I said. “The conductor. Business before pleasure.”
Nixie laughed. Julian’s head jerked up.
Steve, the Gollum-like assistant, darted from stage right across the proscenium. He had what looked like a pair of pink and green bikini underwear dangling from his hand. A dark jacket arrowed after, Mr. Chiseled ‘n Sexy. I frowned. Nixie half-rose.
“Stay here.” Julian snapped to his feet, one hand on her shoulder. “Stay out of trouble.” He vaulted onto stage and dashed after Misters Gollum and Gorgeous on very long legs of his own. Nixie sat.
“What was all that about?” I asked.
She shrugged. “They’re trying to catch Steve to ask for a headset? It’s theater people. Who knows?”
“Julian is theater?”
“No. But if there’s any trouble, he’s the suit who’ll have to deal with it with his Lawyerly Loquaciousness. He’s probably just mitigating the risk factors or whatever has more syllables than is healthy.”
“I see.” I didn’t, but had given up figuring out the weirdness that seemed to follow Nixie around. “Speaking of trouble, how much can you cause, weighed down by ten pounds of kid?”
Nixie unwrapped chocolate. “If I put my mind to it, or just on instinct?”
“Sorry, forgot who I’m talking to.” I snorted. “By the way, Rocky and I are meeting Dorothy at Nieman’s after rehearsal. Want to come?”
She stopped mid-unwrap. “You guys and Mishela? Going out at night…with Mishela…uh-uh. Not a good idea.”
“What? Why not?”
“Well, because…um.” She hesitated, not at all like herself.
“Why not?” I repeated.
At that moment, Mishela emerged stage left and stalked across the stage, something pink clenched in her fist. As she disappeared into the wings, Takashi gave a short, hissed “Entr’acte” and raised his baton to start the second half. “Why not” would have to wait.
We ran the second half of the show minus Munchkins, sent home at nine. They’d have to stay for the full run tomorrow, if only to get them used to being up past their bedtimes. That, and we still had to choreograph the bows.
Good thing the kids had gone, though. With the secondary characters and even some of the stars flubbing it, Director Dumbass harangued us until midnight. By the time we played the last note and packed up, I was more than ready for that drink, whatever Nixie’s “why not”.
Which remained unexplained. The instant Takashi laid down his baton, she abandoned her instruments and dashed out of the pit. I leaned over to ask Julian if he wanted to come to Nieman’s, but he was turned from me, face pressed to his phone, talking earnestly and inaudibly.
So I disassembled and cleaned my instruments. Even with three, he was still on the phone when I finished, so I gave up.
Rocky and I were trudging up the aisle (thankfully with less equipment than when I came, as my stand and light would stay for the duration of the run) when Julian stopped us.
I blinked. “You’re off the phone?”
“A bit of a problem with my household.” Julian’s voice was a deep, cultured baritone that slipped over a woman’s skin like pearls, so it took a moment for his words to filter through my primitive slobber-brain. Not only does he have a voice set on sex, the man is inhumanly gorgeous. Black hair, startling blue eyes, aristocratic features, and a body that, when he chooses to show it off, can turn a woman’s chair into a Slip ‘N Slide. But he’s so totally in love with Nixie that he has the letters VT stamped on his forehead: Very Taken. Not really. Almost, though. His devotion to his wife only makes him more attractive.
Black hair, blue eyes, unnaturally handsome…actually, Julian reminded me of Glynn. Though there were subtle differences. Julian’s eyes were laser-sharp, Glynn’s were dark jewels. Julian’s hair was perfectly trimmed, Glynn’s was spiky and a bit too long. Julian’s nose and jaw were exquisitely honed, the Renaissance noble; Glynn was the druid prince—watchful, secretive, yet possessing great power and able to fight when necessary.
I flashed a mental image, a tall, broad-shouldered figure swathed in a dark cloak, twirling on a nighttime battlefield, huge silver blade dancing in the moonlight…ooh. That made me hot.
Julian cocked a brow at me.
I flushed. What had he been saying? Oh yeah, trouble with the household. Julian owned a set of townhouses, so I mentally substituted “apartments”. He occasionally used odd words, probably because he was old Boston money. At least that’s what Nixie said. “We’re going to Nieman’s,” I began.
“Yes. I heard you’re going out with Mishela.” His tone was unusually cool.
“Her and Glynn. Want to come?”
“Junior, the thing is, Mishela and Glynn aren’t like you and Rocky.”
He was warning me off, just like Nixie…no, not just like Nixie, because of Nixie. The bricky titch had pulled a Sales Maneuver—siccing a well-meaning relation on me. (Cousin Liese had tried to get me to talk her mom out of marrying a reformed bad boy. It backfired because I kind of liked Race.) “Not like us? Are they brain-sucking zombies? Space aliens?” I gasped. “Mimes?”
“No, of course not.” He looked away. “Not exactly.”
“Then what? Exactly.”
“Well, I…” Frustration shaded his features. “I can’t say.” His eyes returned to mine and they were an eerie shade of violet. “But be very careful.”
Though I mostly ignored Nixie and Julian’s weirdness, that shook me. Smiling to cover it, I latched on to Rocky’s arm and pulled her out the door. He watched me with those strange violet eyes the whole way.

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2 Responses to Biting Oz by Mary Hughes

  1. nancyg5997 says:

    I always enjoy visiting Meiers Corners and this one is especially fun to read. Thanks for all your books, Mary.

    nancyg5997@gmail.com

  2. maryhughesbooks says:

    Hey Nancy! Thank you for stopping. You’re my winner :) Congratulations!

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