Nothing is ever certain in show business. Productions cost money, depend on manpower and talent, which can often be evasive in and of themselves. People’s lives are at the mercy of many unknowns, causing havoc and heartaches when situations typically out of one’s control come to play. And as it turned out Emily, the star of the show, had gotten pregnant out of wedlock. She tearily confessed her plight to Mr. Arnold one afternoon a week after auditions, precisely the day when practice first started. Her boyfriend had quickly joined the U.S. Air Force to give them a better future, but she remained alone while he was in training. Mr. Arnold’s favorite singer and actress was suddenly quitting, and there was nothing he could do but pace the length of his office cursing and raging uncontrollably.
“We’ll find a replacement,” Millie said, tapping her pencil against her notepad as a result of a nervous tick she endured. “We can have another set of auditions—”
“There is no time!” Mr. Arnold was beside himself with anger, his cheeks red and arms flailing about as he spoke. “Don’t you understand we must start practice now for the February show? Where in that do you see the space for another set of auditions?”
Millie apologized in a quiet voice with her head down, biting her lip, scanning her brain for a solution. He was right even though she didn’t want to say so. She was sick and tired of being yelled at for another’s mistake. What fault was it of hers that Emily had gone and gotten herself knocked up? Her religious upbringing made her look down her nose at the girl, but such was the case in 1946. Rebelling against what was moral and decent looked bad on everyone.
“Imagine what the papers will say when they learn what she’s done,” Millie said judgmentally. “We must have a press statement ready to go for when and if the reporters come asking.”
Mr. Arnold paused his pacing just long enough to thank her. “Good idea. Write that down and have Opal get to it at once.”
“Right away, sir.”
“And phone Emily to ask if she’s all right. I just want to make sure she’s got enough money to last her until that boy returns home.”
Millie held her words, biting down on her tongue so hard she could taste the iron in her blood. Of course, all the rumors around the theater suggested Mr. Arnold and Emily had been an item even though the girl already had a boyfriend. Such a scandalous situation made for the question: was it the boss who’d sired the child?
Oh, she couldn’t possibly wait to whisper the idea to Opal.
She scribbled down a word on her notepad as a reminder. Juicy gossip always helped the work day go by faster.
“The problem is we don’t have anyone to fill her role,” Mr. Arnold said, resuming his pacing. “Luella, the lead heroine, demands an actress with fire with the voice of a lark. Do you know of any such women who could possibly fill the role Emily would have set ablaze?”
Now, Millie hadn’t cared much for Emily and instead considered the girl to be a poor actress and terrible singer. The news of her abrupt decision to quit had been a delightful one. But even so, she scanned her brain in search of a proper answer for him and couldn’t come up with a single actress she knew who would be satisfactory to her conceited boss. It was either Emily for him or no one.
“No, sir.” She shook her head and pushed in her spectacles. “Would you like me to put an announcement in the papers for a new actress?”
“You, fool! Didn’t I just say we don’t have the time?” Mr. Arnold seemed as if he’d surely blow his top. “Find me someone right away. Go. Get out of here.”
Millie groaned internally. She scrambled her notepad and pencil together and ran out of the office before he shut the door on her. It slammed hard, echoing down the empty hallway. Dealing with that man was an impossibility sometimes.
And just who would she find to replace Emily? She scratched her head, glad the girl was gone but at the same time annoyed at the new source of stress in her work day. Filling a role properly took time and although she understood Mr. Arnold’s desperation, she hoped it wouldn’t be the play’s undoing.
The first thing she did (even though calling Emily should have been it) was search for Opal. But she couldn’t find her anywhere. Not in the breakroom, nor behind the stage, in the theater, and most certainly not in the bathroom. Tapping her pencil against her chin, she marched straightaway to the sewing room and threw the door open.
“Have you seen Opal?”
Lila, instead of sewing, stood waist deep in a frilly skirt. “Yikes! Doesn’t a girl knock anymore?”
Millie blushed, closing the door and resting her cheek against it. “Tell me when you’re decent.”
A moment passed and she heard the rustling of cloth and the zipping of a dress.
“Done.” Lila hopped up on the vanity and smoothed out a stray hair with her brush.
“You’re supposed to be fixing those hems not trying on the frocks.” Millie could hardly disguise the irritation welling up inside of her. “Aren’t you done with these costumes yet? You’ve had them for over a week.”
“Don’t you want them to look nice?” Lila asked with a light shrug. “It takes time sewing them properly. And no, I haven’t seen Opal in ages.”
“You mean, since this morning?”
“Sure.” Lila hopped off the vanity and slipped into her black pumps. “Want me to give her a message?” Millie couldn’t contain herself. She knew it was improper to gossip (and proper ladies didn’t participate in such girlish activities) but this secret couldn’t be contained within her any longer. She blurted out the first thing that came to her mind. “I think Mr. Arnold may have knocked up Emily Perkins.”
If Lila’s jaw could have made a sound when hitting the floor, it would have. “Stop kidding with me.”
“I don’t know it for certain,” Millie answered, giddiness swelling in her head. She told Lila everything about Emily quitting and crying in Mr. Arnold’s office. “The worst part is he’s worried about her. It just seems strange to me.”
Lila didn’t react in the way Millie thought she would.
“Me. Tell him to pick me. I’ll do it. I’ll sing in the best voice any of you have ever heard. Oh, please, you must run to him and tell him I should be the replacement.”
There was a light to her eyes, a spark of hope, if you will, which made Millie realize what a mistake she’d made in opening her big blabber of a mouth. Mr. Arnold didn’t care much for Lila and considered her to be lacking in talent. “How could she possibly have scored a role on Broadway?” he had once questioned. And his words were playing again in her head like a broken gramophone.
“I don’t know if he’ll go for it,” Millie said right away. Why beat around the bush? Doing so would only serve to hurt Lila’s feelings.
“He has no one else to hire on a moment’s notice. All I do is sit here throughout the day locked away in a closet, my soul perishing. Don’t you understand how important acting is for me? It’s my life, Millie. I’ve given up everything important to me to pursue a career on the stage. Even true love.”
“Don’t you even care how outrageous of an exit Emily has made? What will her family think? And imagine raising a baby at such a young age. No, thank you.”
“I don’t care,” Lila insisted, hand clutching the neckline of her blouse. “Emily isn’t my problem. My life is. And right now it’s the most tiresome, boring existence any woman has ever lived. Give me this once chance. Please, as a friend. Look, I promise not to ask you for anything else in the entire world again besides just this one favor. Do tell me you’ll talk to him.”
Millie weighed the options in her head. In fact, Mr. Arnold had screamed and gone on and on about how another audition wasn’t possible. Just who did he expect her to find on such short notice? Perhaps having blabbed to Lila had been her saving grace. They could help each other out and solve two problems all in one go.
“Your audition didn’t necessarily spark.” Millie chewed on her pencil’s eraser. “For someone who’s worked on Broadway, you seemed rather nervous.”
Lila shrugged off her comment, her blonde curls bouncing excitedly as she talked. “Come now, I’ve been off the stage for months. Don’t you think actors get rusty? This is a huge production Rex Theater is putting on. Besides, Robbie distracted me.”
“And what are you going to do on opening day if he catches your eye then?”
“I’m over him.” Lila plopped back down on her seat and picked up the dress she’d been sewing. “As of a week ago. We’ve passed each other in the hallway on numerous occasions and haven’t said a word to one another. He’s no longer a problem.”
Millie still caught the twitch in her lip. “Are you sure about that?”
“You do realize his step-daughter will be playing a small role in the play, right? Meaning, his soon-to-be-wife will also be in the audience opening night.”
“I won’t be swayed so easily.” Lila held up her stitching to the light, narrowing her eyes. “Besides, my interest lies elsewhere.”
More gossip was always good.
“As if I’m going to tell you, Chatty Millie. The last thing I need is you alerting the entire world to my secrets and piling on to my confusion.”
“Maybe I can help. After all, I have been known to dabble in some dating in the past.”
And it was true. Millie had been the belle of the ball, as some would say, back in her high school years. Of course, once she had been hired as Mr. Arnold’s assistant her life had grown too busy for men. Age twenty-two rolled around without a husband. One day, she dreamily thought, I’ll date again.
Lila winked. “I can handle it myself. For now, go and talk to Mr. Arnold for me. A favor for a favor, my friend. You can call on me for anything you need, even if he doesn’t accept me as the replacement for Luella.”
Millie didn’t think the conversation with him would go so well, but she did have a bit of persuasive magic up her sleeve. If he wanted a new actress now then he need look no further than the basement of his theater. At least her search was over and she was again free to find Opal and fill her ear with gossip.
“Fine, fine,” she said reluctantly. “I’ll go and speak with him. But no promises. You know how annoyed he was that you had to restart your song so many times when you auditioned.”
“It was a fluke.”
“If you say so.” Millie strutted to the door. “By the way, if you see Opal let me tell her the news. She’ll be floored. She forever deemed Emily as the virtuous type. I want to be the first one to shock her back into reality.”
* * *
In a hardware store a few blocks away, Kent followed Opal down the paint aisle. He enjoyed frequenting this place and running errands for the theater. It broke up the monotony of his day but on this occasion, shopping with the secretary wasn’t exactly what he considered fun.
“Let’s see here,” said Opal as she held up a sample shade of the color Mr. Arnold ordered painted in the women’s restroom. “A bit too blue, don’t you think?”
“Blue as in depressing? Or...”
“No, silly. As in too dark a shade of blue. Women prefer soft, subtle colors that speak to our feminity. I wouldn’t expect you to know this, of course. Given your obvious lack of experience with females in general.”
“I know more than you realize,” he retorted.
She tossed him a coquettish grin. “I’m only teasing. Maybe you could show me what you mean someday. Now, I think this pretty sky blue ought to do the trick.”
Kent knew when a woman was coming on to him but he didn’t much care for Opal in the romantic sense. “I’ll be in the nuts and bolts section.”
“But we haven’t finished selecting all the colors.”
“You choose them and I’ll meet you at the cash register.”
“Come on now, Kenny,” she said sweetly. “Don’t you want to do this together?”
He resisted the temptation to say something rude. “My name’s not Kenny.”
Leaving her alone in the aisle felt good for a moment but he still had to walk all the way back to the theater with her. As he browsed the shelves of hardware screws and bolts, he wondered what Lila was doing. She hadn’t come out of her sewing closet all day and it had been over a week since they’d last spoken a word to each other. There had been plenty of glances and stares cast each to each other but that could hardly be considered communication.
He scratched his head upon trying to decide which set of screws to purchase for the stubborn door to the music room. It didn’t shut properly and so he’d changed the doorknob assembly but somehow misplaced the hardware it had come with. When he finally decided on the right one, the sickeningly sweet scent of thick lavender perfume alerted him to Opal’s presence. She stood behind him with a giddy grin.
“I’m ready to have the paint mixed. Wanna come with me?”
“You don’t need me to tag along.”
“Sure I do,” she said, twirling a strand of her auburn hair around one of her fingers. “How can I possibly know what to ask for unless I have my fellow handyman by my side?”
Opal, by all accounts, would have been a fine girl to date. She had a good looking face with shoulder-length auburn locks curled into fashionable rolls. Tiny freckles dotted the landscape of her pink cheeks, raised on high bones with softly carved features. Her teeth were large and white, her smile stretching the length of her face. In another life, he might have been tempted, but Lila persevered in his thoughts, making it impossible for him to even consider being with someone else. And in fact, the longer he spent away from the blonde bombshell, the more he liked her.
“Sure, I can help,” he said, mentally promising it was only because he was trying to be nice.
Yet her chatty nature was set ablaze. “Did you know Mr. Arnold’s birthday is on Friday? Millie and I will be throwing him a little party at lunchtime. Will you be there? I’ll be making the cake.”
“Yellow with vanilla frosting.” She paused in front of the paint counter. “Do you like that kind? Because I can always make another.”
“Isn’t it for him though?”
Opal blushed. “You’re right. Silly me. Here I was thinking I should make cake everyone would like.”
She hustled to the counter and asked the attendant to mix a sky shade of blue, her mannerisms nervous and somewhat awkward. As they waited, she blew a breath up to her bangs, glancing around where she stood as if investigating other things, not Kent.
He knew better and briefly considered asking her if everything was all right. The gentleman half of him tugged, prodding him to spark up simple chatter with her while they killed time. But people don’t always do what they think they should, and so he remained quiet, tapping his fingers against the counter while he whistled.
Upon their return to the theater, as he carried the paper bag of paint, it was Opal who broke the ice with the hopes of luring Quiet Kent out of his shell. Their walk ended on the sunny yet chilly patio, barely warm in the cool and crisp November air.
“Do you want to see a picture sometime?” she asked, wringing her hands. “I have Saturdays free.”
He didn’t know how to answer. She was a lovely girl with a sweet disposition but the insides of him were drawn to someone else. To agree would be to betray what he wanted. To disagree, well, sometimes one had to let others down.
“I’m sorry, Opal. I work on Saturdays.”
“Oh.” Her hand waved a brush and her words came out stuttered. “What about Sunday then? I have those days off, too.”
Was there any escape? He didn’t want to be rude but feared hurting her feelings just the same. They’d worked together for a year now and he respected her. Perhaps it was best to—
“There’s a cinema just down the road a ways,” she said, inching closer to him. “Maybe we could meet here at noon and catch the afternoon matinee.”
The heaviness of her perfume made his nose itch. He wiggled it and suppressed a sneeze long enough to give her an answer. “Sundays are my rest days though.”
She batted her eyelashes. “And what a better way to spend it than having fun together? Wouldn’t it be nice to have company for once? I notice you going home alone every day. I have for a long while now.”
“Yeah, well, I really enjoy my solitude,” he said and cleared his throat. “It’s nice of you to ask and while I appreciate the gesture, I can’t say that...that...”
She smiled sweetly at him, her body drawing closer to him with every word he spoke.
And he didn’t quite know what to do. Her mouth was so close he could smell the peppermint of the hard candy she sucked on, and her heel accidentally stepped down on his big toe.
“I’m sorry,” she gushed, resting a hand on his shoulder. “Goodness, I’m so clumsy. Are you all right?”
Pain pierced his toe, making him cringe a little. “Yeah, don’t worry. I’ll be fine.”
“So what about the movie?”
He was going to have to tell her the truth. Let her down. And just as he prepared the proper way to make his statement Lila walked out onto the patio with a fresh cigarette firmly placed between her cherry red lips, Millie following closely behind.
Millie gasped in delight. “Opal! I’ve been looking everywhere for you. You won’t believe what happened just now. Where have you been? Kent, what are you doing out here? Didn’t Mr. Arnold ask you to get the music door fixed? He’ll blow his top if he comes out here and sees you standing around doing nothing.” Kent locked eyes with Lila. His insides warmed when she fixed him a grin.
“Don’t treat him with such contempt,” Opal answered haughtily. “He helped me choose the proper color Mr. Arnold wants for the bathroom walls. And besides, we were talking about something mighty important, weren’t we?”
Lila lit her cigarette and blew out a smooth cloud of smoke, her gaze still firmly connected with his. He handed Opal the bag of paint.
Millie coughed. “Can you smoke that nasty thing elsewhere?”
“About that movie.” Kent went over to Lila and lightly brushed the back of her arm. “I’m sorry, Opal. Me and this doll here kind of have a thing going. I wouldn’t want to be known as a no-good, two-timer. Just not in my nature.”
Lila raised an eyebrow. “Since when—”
“We’ve been wanting to keep quiet about it so as not to start any rumors,” he interrupted, widening his eyes to prompt her into following along. “Right, dear? We just like our privacy is all.”
Her lips stretched into a thin line, the red tip of her cigarette releasing smoke faster than the rising tide of her anger. “Now, you listen here. I never—”
Kent kissed Lila on the cheek. Her skin was soft, smelling lightly of musk, and the feel of her so close it hastened his heartbeat. He couldn’t pull away, nor did he want to, and he didn’t care about rumors or lies anymore. All he wanted was her.
Such a bold move from his end threw her off, and she sucked in a drag with a shaky hand, saying nothing contrary to what he claimed.
Millie cackled with gusto. “You have got to be kidding me. The handyman with our famed Broadway actress? Why, I never would’ve guessed—ah, nevermind. It makes sense to me that you’d want a man with more humble roots than that bastard Rob. It all makes sense to me now.”
But in the course of trying to escape Opal’s seductive grip, Kent had to let her down anyway, and the look on her face was of someone who was trying very hard to keep it together.
“Suppose I’m happy for you,” said Opal, her tone carrying a noticeable slither. “That’s all you should have said when I asked you out to the movies.”
“The movies?” Millie repeated. “Why ever would you ask Quiet Kent on a date?”
“Because he’s as sweet as any gentleman can come,” Lila offered a rebuttal in her smooth, damsel of a voice. “He treats me good and we have fun. Don’t we, darling?”
“Speaking of which,” he said, gently tugging on her hand. “I got a little surprise for you while we were out.”
“For me?” Lila sounded enchanted, her acting reaching quite a peak. “You shouldn’t have, dearest. How many times must I ask you to save your money for our date nights instead of gifts? You’re going to spoil me rotten and then I’ll misbehave because of it.”
“So, you two are really going steady?” Opal swallowed in distress. “Gee, I’m sorry, Lila. I had no idea. You’re not mad at me, are you? It’s just that, you know, well, I was clueless.”
“She forgives you,” Kent said, placing his arm around Lila’s waist. It was curvy yet firm and fit right into his hungry embrace. “Don’t you sweetheart? Opal didn’t mean any harm.”
“Yes, yes, we’re fine.” Lila waved her hand dismissively at Opal as she followed Kent back inside the theater. “Toodle-doo, girls! Here’s to my baby having bought me something good.”
And once they were inside, she turned on him faster than a bullet. “I’m ready to flip my wig, mister. Tell me what the heck is going on.”
“Please, don’t lose it on me,” he said and ran a hand through his dark hair. “She was coming on to me and I didn’t know what else to do. When I saw you, I recalled the conversation we had at the diner and—well, yes, okay? The answer is yes. I’ll help you.”
“After you told me off and refused my apology? Ha!”
“I’m sorry, all right? It was wrong of me to have treated you that way. It kind of hurt my feelings when you just laid it on me like I didn’t matter. Maybe I like you more than you think.”
Lila stiffened. Crossed her arms. Took a step back.
“Kent,” she spoke his name softly. “We can’t then.”
“Because I don’t want either of us to get hurt.”
“It was your idea.”
“I know. And not my brightest one either.”
He latched on to her hand before she could walk away. “Hold on. We just told a big fat lie out there. Are you really willing to be called out on it if we break up all of a sudden?”
She snatched her hand back. “We’ll just tell them it didn’t work out and better luck next time.”
“What? And miss the chance to make dear ‘ole Robbie jealous?”
“He’s past history.”
“Right. And I’m Queen Elizabeth’s long lost brother.”
“As if you care about anything I feel.”
“I care more than you realize.”
Her nostrils flared. “All you’re doing is flapping those lips of yours so fast they’re about to take flight. Face it, buddy. You lost the opportunity to play pretend with me when you were a jerk about the whole matter.”
“What about Opal? There’s no way I’ll get her off my back without you in the picture.”
“You’re the one who insisted in not lying to Robbie. Sorry, I can’t help. You’ll have to deal with her crush all on your own.”
He needed her. In more ways than he cared to let her in on. Yet, the more she fumed the more turned on he got, and finally he gave in to the threatening smirk at the corner of his mouth. Slowly, he approached her, uncrossing her arms and easefully peeling back each layer of her anger with the gentlest tone he could manage. He eyed her carefully, understanding her heavy dose of thinking as he spoke.
“You’re right. I was a fat-headed, temperamental jerk and I regret it immensely. Fact is, doll, we’re better off sticking to our act for now. Really think about it. At least we can fake it until we both get what we want out of this situation.”
Her body softened in his hold. “I only want Robbie to believe I’ve forgotten all about him. Even if he never speaks to me again.”
“And I want Opal to leave me in peace.”
Lila stifled a laugh. “Is she really so scary? She’s a nice gal and seems to really like you.”
“I’m already rationed,” he said. “And you’re my portion.”
A mischievous purse of her lips accompanied her narrowed eyes.
“Then you have a deal.” She shook his hand, her grip warm and firm. “I’ll be the best fake girlfriend you’ve ever had.”
“I can’t act worth a damn though.”
“Just let me take the lead on this. I promise you won’t regret it for a moment.”