Backstage Romance Ch. 01byikhneumon©
* Daniel *
Everyone knew Jeffrey Williams, of course. A local boy made good, he had gone in a ridiculously short time from community productions to Broadway to a long-running television series. He even had a few better-than-average movies to his credit, though none in a leading role. Not that Jeffrey couldn't have carried the mantle of a leading man—he had the looks and talent to do it. I'm not sure whether he actively avoided that kind of part, or whether the opportunity simply never came his way.
The stage was Jeffrey's first love, though, and having made enough from Hollywood to secure himself financially, he left it behind without any apparent regret, and moved back home where he could be close to his family and childhood friends. From that home base, he had a steady string of TV guest appearances and regional theater engagements around the country to keep him busy. Our production was the first in quite a while to see Jeffrey back on the stage in his own hometown, though he was plenty active behind the scenes, teaching guest seminars at the local university and performing arts school.
We first met a day or two before the first rehearsal. Jeffrey was an old friend of Scott Jenkins, the director, and they had arranged to meet at the theater to catch up with one another and discuss the role. Jeffrey had the lead, naturally.
I was relaxing backstage and chatting with Mark, the senior stage manager, and Kelly, the house manager. Mark was middle-aged and gruff; Kelly was my age, red-haired and vivacious. We'd worked together at the theater for three years now and had developed a strong friendship. We were laughing over one of Kelly's outrageous stories when a rich baritone voice interrupted us.
"Excuse me, I'm Jeff Williams. I'm looking for Scott Jenkins?"
I felt my jaw drop. I had seen Jeffrey Williams on the screen and in photos, but never in person. He wasn't an exceptionally tall man, maybe five-eleven, tops, but he had a strong athletic build that made him appear taller, as well as chiseled features, bright blue eyes, and thick blond hair complete with a goddamn Superman forelock. Even dressed casually in blue jeans and a battered brown leather jacket, with his hair tousled from the brisk wind outside, he drew the eye and held it. I quickly averted my own eyes to avoid being caught staring.
* Jeff *
The stage manager seemed a decent no-nonsense sort. He introduced himself as Mark Hopkins, his assistant stage manager as Daniel Lewis, and the attractive redhead with them as Kelly Richardson. She batted her eyes a bit when we shook hands, but she did it so with a playful twinkle in her eye that told me I had nothing to fear. She seemed the type that flirts to be friendly, and doesn't mean anything more by it.
My eyes returned to the ASM. He was a slim, fair-skinned guy a couple inches shorter than me, with reddish brown hair cut long so that it hung down over his eyes. He seemed a bit tongue-tied. Star-struck, I suppose—I had seen it a few times before, though I hardly counted as a major celebrity. I found myself wondering what those hidden eyes looked like. All I could see were his full lips, and they told me nothing about what he was thinking.
As I left, following Mark's directions to the production office where I could find Scott, I made a point to say, "Nice to meet you, Daniel." That drew a startled look from him and a quick shy smile. Well, at least it was a start. We would all be working together for the next two months. Best to get comfortable being around one another.
I found the production office and knocked on the frame of the open door. Scott looked up from a heavily marked script and bounded out of his chair. Eight years older than I, he still came across with the energy of a teenager, lucky bastard.
"Jeff, it's good to see you!" Scott embraced me and stepped back to look me over critically. "Looks like the years haven't caught up with you yet—you'll be breaking hearts in this one, let me tell you!"
I'd known Scott fourteen years, and that enthusiasm of his had never diminished. Neither had his talent for flattery and creative overstatement. I knew there were lines in my face that hadn't been there last time we met, and I owed the color of my hair as much to my discreet and talented stylist as to nature. But Scott soon drew me into an animated discussion about his vision for the play, and how he wanted to develop my character. Jesus, we weren't starting rehearsals until Thursday! But it felt good to be talking shop with him again, and I found myself relaxing as I realized he was still a director I could trust to make me look good. At least in his hands, I wouldn't come across as a fool.
We left the theater in search of a coffee shop for some more personal catching up and reminiscences. Scott was still chatting away, a steady stream of the trivial and the profound carelessly mixed together, much as he had been at thirty. Before I left the building I caught myself looking around for the elusive Daniel, but he seemed to have vanished to wherever shy assistant stage managers go in their off hours.
* Daniel *
As soon as the imposing Mr. Williams had disappeared, Kelly was all over me. "Dan, I've never seen you play coy before in my life! What's going on? Is it love at first sight?" I rolled my eyes. So did Mark. He's pretty much OK with gay people—he does work in the theater, after all—but sometimes I think he doesn't like to be reminded we have sex lives. Even though mine was pretty much theoretical. I hadn't been with anyone since the disaster that was Brian two years ago.
Kelly's the only person in my life who's allowed to give me shit like that, by the way. We've known each other since college, and we were roommates until she moved in with her boyfriend a year or so back. She's still like a sister to me, and like most sisters, she can annoy the hell out of you even though you love her to death. Fortunately, I think she was a little thrown off her game by Mr. Williams's stunning charisma, and too busy covering her own feelings to probe a little deeper.
I was trying to hold back the shivers running up and down my body. I could still feel those movie star blue eyes seeking out my face. I said goodbye to Mark and Kelly and left the theater before Mr. Jenkins and Mr. Williams emerged from the production office. I hadn't responded like that to a man in a long time. This could make things awkward working in the same intimate space for nine weeks.
I meant to be good, to get some housework done and make an early night of it. Instead, I found myself hunting through my DVD collection for a movie Jeff Williams had made some eight years ago. I told myself I was just curious if he burned up the screen the way he did in real life. The answer, sadly, was no. His acting was fine, even better than fine, but his image on film was just another good-looking face. The body, on the other hand... I caught myself pausing the DVD on his totally gratuitous shirtless scene, wondering if his body was still as good now as it had been then, and realized I had just crossed into forbidden territory. He was a co-worker now, and I had to think of him in those terms. I turned the TV off and went to bed.
It took me a long time to get to sleep.
* Jeff *
"OK, enough about the play," Scott finally said. "I can see your eyes glazing over from here. Give me the scoop. What's been going on with you? How've you been? I've been trying to get you into one of my plays for years, why'd you finally say yes to this one?"
I sipped at my coffee, smiling. Scott could circle a question for hours, but he never missed his mark when he finally landed.
"What's up with me? Nothing besides being a doting uncle to my niece and nephew, a loving son to my mother, God bless her wicked heart, and a fine upstanding member of my profession and community."
"That's a fine-sounding list, but I think noticed one glaring omission."
I braced myself. Here it came.
"I didn't hear any mention of a partner, spouse, lover, boyfriend... heck, even a fuck buddy."
I winced. "Could you keep it down?"
Scott laughed. "Jeff, it's an open secret in the acting world that you're gay. I don't care what sort of equipment they've got. I just want to know if you've got someone in your life."
I was still bristling. "Maybe it's an open secret in the acting world, but around this town I'm still Judy Andrews' boy, and I don't want her learning about my sexuality through neighborhood gossip. Besides, my orientation's been kind of a moot point for a few years, anyway."
It was Scott's turn to wince. "I wish you'd let that go. If I know your mother, she's already got his-and-his towels and a nice assortment of lubes picked out and set aside for the day you finally man up and tell her you're bringing your boy toy home to visit."
My mind recoiled from that image, but I was used to hearing outrageous statements from Scott. "Well, there's no boy toy for me to bring around, so she'll just have to hang on to that stuff a while longer."
What I wasn't used to hearing from Scott was the concern in his voice. "Timmy really did a number on you, didn't he?"
I couldn't answer. Timothy didn't deserve that accusation, at least not completely, but Scott would never believe me if I tried to defend him.
"Jeff, it's been six years. Has there really been no one since him?"
"It's not a big deal, Scott. I've just got other priorities."
"Uh-huh. My best friend goes and becomes a monk on me and tells me it's not a big deal. At least tell me you've got a prospect in mind, man!"
Even as I smiled and shook my head, a fleeting vision of chestnut hair passed before my eyes. Where had that come from?
"Well, before I leave town, my mission, apart from making half this town's population fall in love with you on the stage, is getting you laid."
We'd passed back from treacherous emotional waters back to joking camaraderie. I relaxed in my chair with relief. "Well, from your lips to... someone's ears. Meantime, you wanted to know about the play. It's pretty simple, really: I haven't trodden the boards in a while, I was looking for something that didn't take me away from home this close to the holidays, and I got lucky with the perfect combination of a director I believe in and a role I love."
Scott smirked back at me, lifting his cardboard coffee cup. "Here's to getting lucky, then."
I'd left myself wide open for that one.
* * *
When all the cast gathered for the first read-through, I realized I had lucked out in more than just a part and a director. This group clicked right away. We were all pros, and enthusiastic about our material. Angela Freeman, who would be playing my love interest, was a knockout, but she kept it real. That would make the romantic scenes a whole lot easier to rehearse. Christina Fernandez, in the comic supporting role, gave a convincing enough impersonation of a ditz both in real life and in the play, but she didn't fool me. You don't get killer timing like hers with air for brains. Joseph Hamilton and Heather Burke, the remaining cast members, were all solid and easy to work with, though I shared fewer scenes with them. Yes, I was looking forward to the next eight weeks.
At the break, I noticed Daniel hovering by the coffee cart. I greeted him as I strolled up. "Daniel, isn't it?" Why am I pretending that I don't remember his name? He looked up at me for the first time, and responded with a tentative smile, "That's right, Mr. Williams. Can I fix you some coffee?"
"No need, I can help myself, thanks. And please, call me Jeff."
He smiled, but didn't respond. I groped for something else to say, to draw him out. One of the curses of being an actor in social situations is I either know my lines too well to say them sincerely, or I can't think of a damn word. Improvisation was never my strong suit. I needed some cues, and Daniel wasn't giving me any. At least he was still looking at me, through ridiculously long lashes. I took another look at his eyes, and like an idiot, immediately blurted out, "Hazel."
He cocked his head at me. "Excuse me?"
"Your eyes. They're hazel. I was wondering. They're really nice. Do you always keep them hidden behind that hair of yours?" I watched him retreat behind said hair again. Oh, that sounded like a come-on. Jeff, get a grip!
"My eyes are brown," was all he said. I didn't think so. Timothy's eyes had been—were—brown, and I was pretty sure Daniel's were nothing like his. Thinking about Timothy was a mistake. It brought up too much old baggage. This conversation wasn't going any direction I wanted. I was either going to start an argument with Daniel or push him further into his shell if I contradicted him. I settled for saying, "Well, whatever you want to call them, they're very attractive. You should share them with the rest of us more often." Ouch. Great, now you're lecturing him! Just shut up and act professional, Jeff.
Just then Angela called to me and mercifully drew my attention away from Daniel. I said, "Excuse me," and started walking toward her. A few steps away, I couldn't resist it. I looked back. He was watching me sidelong with a half-smile on his face. Well, at least he didn't look pissed off.
The initial read-throughs were fun, but it soon turned out that the major challenge of this production was going to be the blocking. Scott had always liked to keep things moving as a director, but he had outdone himself on this one. Walk here, sit there, stand back up, pick up that prop, exchange it for another one, all without tripping over your fellow cast members or flubbing your lines. It was almost as bad as the crazy play within a play in Noises Off. Joseph in particular was having a rough time of it. He was the least physically coordinated of us all, and it took him forever to get a scene into his head so that it would stick. His line delivery suffered badly in the meanwhile, making it difficult for the rest of us to play off him.
The stage and props managers must have been going crazy, too, mostly from having to reset everything when Scott had us start a scene over from the beginning, but if they grumbled, it was never in front of us. I was beginning to learn some real respect for both Mark and Daniel. They were always there, always organized, and infinitely patient with us clumsy hams and our whimsical director. I had managed to coax a few more fleeting smiles out of Daniel, but though he was always unfailingly pleasant, courteous, and professional, he remained a little wary around me. I was beginning to think of it as a challenge, to try to break down that reserve and find out what was really going on inside that head of his. I suspected there was a lot more there than met the eye. At least I hoped so. Something about those smiles made me want to see more of them.
* Daniel *
Six days into rehearsals, I was starting to go crazy. Everywhere I turned, I saw Jeff Williams. What's worse, he seemed to have made it his agenda to be extra nice to me, always making a point of saying hello or sharing some idle chatter. He never appeared to be outright flirting with me, or harassing me. In fact, he seemed like a genuinely nice guy who just wanted to be friendly. Normally, I'd be thrilled to make a friend like that. People who look like they just stepped off a movie poster usually aren't exactly approachable. The gorgeous people like to hang out with other people just as gorgeous, so they can, I don't know, compare beauty tips and look down on the rest of us mere mortals. Williams wasn't like that at all.
And here I was practically creaming my pants over him every day. I had taken to wearing uncomfortably tight briefs instead of my usual boxers to restrain my erection, and leaving my shirt untucked to keep the pre-cum spot from showing through. What was I, some kind of stalker sex maniac? The guy was good-looking, sure, and personable, and pretty clearly not interested in anything besides being agreeable. Why couldn't I accept that and enjoy what he was offering without either panicking or wanting more?
Wednesday was Halloween, and being actors and natural exhibitionists, the cast had decided they wanted to do a costume competition. Some directors probably wouldn't have allowed that kind of distraction from the rehearsal process, but Scott was as enthusiastic about the idea as the rest of them. Something about bonding as an ensemble, I gathered. At the end of the afternoon, they all bolted for the dressing rooms to change while Mark and I hauled out some fresh drinks for everyone. They were just going to hang out for a bit and show off for each other, then go out to dinner and probably go bar-hopping afterward. I was supposed to be joining Kelly for our traditional Halloween karaoke night.
They must have agreed that theme would be eighties night or something. Angela was the first one out, dressed in one of those leotard getups that you see ABBA tribute bands wearing. She definitely had the figure for it, and had even teased out her hair and done her makeup to match. Next out was Christina, rocking Madonna's Material Girl look. Then Joseph, poor guy, trying to pull of the Miami Vice look with the pastel T-shirt and the rumpled linen jacket. It didn't suit him at all, but you had to give him points for trying. And I was definitely digging the Ray Bans.
Heather had a bit better luck tackling the Joan Collins look from Dynasty, complete with giant shoulder pads. I thought she and Christina really should have switched costumes, but they were both clearly having a blast, so I kept my mouth shut. No one was asking for my opinion, anyway.
I swear I nearly swallowed my tongue when I saw Jeff Williams make his grand entrance. He had come in tennis whites, and I mean the kind they wore back when men's shorts were cut all the way up to the crotch. I'd always thought that look was stupid, but I nearly dropped my Coke when I saw those muscular legs rising up to a major bulge. A few curls of golden chest hair peeked out of the collar of his polo shirt, and his superhero forelock fell fetchingly over the sweatband across his forehead. I moaned and backed as far into the shadows as I could get. This was too good to miss, but I didn't dare let anyone see how turned on I was. The ladies in the cast, on the other hand, had no inhibitions about cat-calling to him and generally acting like teenage groupies.
He was clearly enjoying the attention, playing it up by miming forehand and backhand strokes. At least, I think that's what they're called—tennis was never really my thing. I could definitely see myself getting into it now, though. Williams reared up in a make-believe serve, his shirt pulling free of his shorts to give a tantalizing flash of skin, and hit the imaginary tennis ball right at me. Then he straightened, looked right into my eyes, and winked. Oh, fuck, he knew I was there watching him!
"Good God, am I glad I showed up early for this!" Kelly spoke from behind me, nearly giving me a heart attack. I hadn't realized she was even at the theater yet. I turned and glared at her.
"Jesus, Kel, you mind announcing yourself or something? I just about jumped out of my skin when you spoke up out of nowhere like that!"
She laughed, then gave one of her cute-annoying mischievous looks. "Dan, you were too wrapped up in the view to notice if I'd tap-danced in here. I didn't stand a chance next to that display." She nodded toward the stage, where Williams was now seated as if holding court amid the rest of the cast. "Not that I blame you."
"They should be breaking for dinner in just a few minutes, then we can go do our thing," I said, changing the subject. "Want anything to drink?"
"Sure, a Dr. Pepper would be nice, if you've got it."