Nothing Like Love

Chapter One

Was that really the time?

Simone Oliver stared at the clock for one horrified second before struggling to rise from the too-soft depths of her couch.

This was what she got for letting herself take a nap. Now she was late for her meeting with Zach, and he already thought she was a flake.

She wouldn’t have time to shower and change, either, which truly sucked. She’d been up all night finishing the set for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and after coming home and falling asleep in her clothes, she looked like she’d been ridden hard and put away wet.

Her appearance should have been the least of her worries, and if she were going to see anyone else, it would have been. But Zachary Hammond always looked like what he was: a former movie star/heartthrob turned theater director/heartthrob, and every straight woman and gay man in the company was suspiciously well made up and coiffed these days.

Zach wasn’t or anything—he’d never been a George Clooney or Robert Downey Jr.—but he’d played Orlando in the film version of As You Like It, and he’d been so deliciously perfect that Simone had seen the movie five times—four of those times by herself.

A fact that she’d shared with no one in the company, and especially not him.

Simone had made it a point of personal pride not to do any out-of-the-ordinary primping for their guest director, but that didn’t mean she was eager to show up at this meeting looking like she’d just finished a twelve-hour shift at a construction site.

And so, naturally, that was just what she had to do.

She shoved her feet into her Chuck Taylors, grabbed her purse and keys, and made it out of her apartment in record time. She texted Zach while she headed for Second Avenue, ignoring several Where the hell are you messages from Amy and Norbert.

On my way. Fifteen minutes.

Send.

A minute later, she received the following:

“I am to wait, though waiting so be hell,

Not blame your pleasure be it ill or well.”

Having said that, let me add that if you’re not here in ten minutes I’m leaving. I’ve been waiting half an hour, and somewhere in this city is a Guinness with my name on it.

Simone shook her head as she broke into a jog. Only Zach Hammond could accomplish so much in a single text. He’d pulled a Shakespeare quote out of his ass and followed it up with an I’m-pissed-off-but-I’ll-give-you-a-chance-to-redeem-yourself message.

The question was, could she redeem herself? What would the award-winning London director think of her set design? This morning at ten, strung out on coffee and no sleep, it had seemed every bit as magical as she’d envisioned. But what would it look like to a man who’d commissioned world-famous artists, musicians, and costume designers to work on his productions?

Amateur hour, probably.

Well, fine. So what if he did think that? Simone was proud of the work she’d done on this set, and she was proud to be part of the Ariadne Performance Group. They might be relative newcomers to the venerable New York theater scene, but they’d gotten some great reviews, and they managed—mostly—to stay in the black, which was no small achievement.

It had been a huge coup for them when Zachary Hammond had agreed to direct their production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream here in Manhattan, and an even bigger coup when he invited them to follow up their New York performances with a two-week run at a theater in Ireland.

Since he’d arrived a few weeks ago, Zach’s focus had been on the actors. Today was the first time that Simone’s work would be front and center.

She’d had a whole plan for presenting the set to Zach. The curtain would be closed when he took a seat in the middle of the house. Then she would adjust the lighting, put Amy, the stage manager, into one of the fairy costumes, and open the curtain.

Now that was shot to hell. The best she could hope for at this point was to make it to the theater before Zach took off.

She was only a block away now. As she hurried down the busy sidewalk, weaving her way through the crowd of East Village pedestrians enjoying the June weather, she could visualize Zach waiting for her in front of the theater.

He’d be wearing something casual—jeans and a polo shirt, probably. His brown hair would be tousled in that I-don’t-bother-to-comb-my-hair-I-just-wake-up-looking-like-this way. His mouth would be curved up in that half smile of his, but to balance out the oh-so-British ironic detachment, his intense blue eyes would be snapping with energy and impatience and restless intelligence. And when he saw her, he’d say—

Simone came to an abrupt stop in front of the theater.

Nothing. He’d say nothing, because he was gone. She’d made it here in nine minutes, but he’d taken off anyway. Why, that—

The door opened and Amy stuck her head out. “It’s about time. Get in here, will you? Zach’s already inside.”

Damn.

“But he was supposed to wait out here! I had a whole thing planned. I was going to—”

“I know, I know. You were going to set up the lights and open the curtain and be all ta-da. It was a swell idea, but in order for it to work, you would’ve had to be here on time.”

Simone sighed. “You make a fair point.” She followed Amy into the lobby, blinking at the sudden darkness after the bright afternoon sunlight.

Amy was frowning at her. “There’s paint on your face and your hair’s sticking up on one side. Don’t you have your friend’s rehearsal dinner tonight?”

Her friend Jessica was getting married tomorrow, and she was a bridesmaid.

“I’ll have time to go home and change.” She stared at the doors leading into the theater. “Oh, God. What if he hates it?”

“Then we’ll deal. Get your ass in there.”

Amy was right. Simone was the set designer, and it was her job to go in and talk to the director about the set.

And she would.

Any second now.

* * *

Zach hit Send and slid his phone back into his pocket.

“Was that a text from Simone? Is she coming?”

Norbert Jones, the lighting designer, was looking understandably anxious as the two of them waited in the theater lobby.

“I live in hope,” Zach said. “You know, it’s usually actors who are unreliable. But in this company the actors are punctual, responsible, and to all appearances, emotionally stable, while your set designer is an enormous flake who sees fit to blow off a meeting with her director.”

“Simone’s not a flake. Honestly, she’s not. She was up all night finishing the set, and—”

Zach held up a hand. “I appreciate the fact that you’re willing to defend her. I also appreciate the fact that she sacrificed a night’s sleep for the sake of this set. But I’m tired of waiting out here, and I’d like to go inside and see the bloody thing.”

Norbert looked alarmed. “Simone won’t want you to go in without her. She wanted the lights up and someone in costume so you could see the effect against—”

“Miss Oliver has chosen to be late to this meeting. That means she has lost the prerogative to dictate the terms of the meeting.”

Norbert’s brown spaniel eyes pleaded with him. “At least give me a minute to turn on the stage lights. Please?”

Zach sighed. “Fine. I’ll wait in the lobby for sixty seconds, but then I’m going in.”

As Norbert hurried off to the control room, Zach wondered what it was about Simone that inspired such loyalty in her colleagues. It couldn’t be her appearance, which didn’t exactly scream “competent professional.” She tended to dress like a punk rock musician, and when he’d first met her, he’d assumed she was someone’s teenage daughter or an intern from a college theater department.

Then he’d learned that she was twenty-eight years old, one of the founding members of the Ariadne Performance Group, and their primary set and costume designer.

A designer who’d kept him waiting for forty minutes.

Norbert came scurrying back into the lobby, puffing to catch his breath.

“Okay,” he said. “The lights are good to go, and Amy’s going to put on the Mustardseed costume. You can go in now.”

“I can’t tell you how delighted I am to hear it.”

Norbert held the door open and Zach went inside.

The house lights were down and the stage lights were up. At his first glimpse of the set, Zach caught his breath.

He’d been in theater all his adult life and he didn’t use the word “magic” lightly. That was what actors, directors, and designers tried to create in every show, while so often missing the mark.

Simone had done it.

He’d seen her preliminary sketches, but they hadn’t prepared him for this. The stage looked like a forest in a dream or a forest underwater. As he walked slowly down the aisle toward the proscenium, he saw what she’d done to create that illusion.

Panels of cobweb-fine silk hung from the loft. Some ran from wing to wing; others were only a few yards wide. They were almost, but not quite, transparent. Each one alone would have been the palest wash of color—violet, indigo, turquoise; silver gray, moss green, periwinkle. Layered in front of one another, they became an impressionist landscape in blues, purples, and greens.

Along the backdrop and near the wings, Simone had constructed the trees and bowers of her fairy wood. The trees were fantastical, their branches twisting and intertwining like the intricate knotwork of Celtic calligraphy. The lights were low, and a pale, diffused spotlight evoked a full moon.

Then the flowers. Against the muted colors of the silk panels, the painted and sculpted flowers shone like jewels—ruby red, topaz, amethyst, sapphire.

Zach spoke into the silence, his words echoing in the empty theater.

“I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,

Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,

Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,

With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine.”

He didn’t realize anyone but Norbert was there until a female voice behind him said, “Act two, scene one. Oberon to Puck.”

He spun around to face Simone, his movement so sudden that she took a quick step back and stumbled.

“Whoa,” she said, grabbing one of the red velvet seats to steady herself. “You’ve got fast reflexes. I bet that comes in handy during sword fights.”

She looked like the survivor of a natural disaster—or possibly a kindergarten teacher on the losing side of a finger-paint battle. But in spite of her unprepossessing appearance, he found himself fascinated.

He felt as though he were seeing her for the first time.

Simone was small and slender with brown eyes that seemed to take up half her face. Even with her skin covered in paint smudges and her short black hair sticking up in all directions, it was her eyes he couldn’t look away from.

But this woman was more than a scruffy waif with a luminous gaze; she was the mind and soul behind that extraordinary set.

“Did you do this?”

She looked wary. “Did I do what?”

He gestured toward the stage. “This set. Is it yours?”

She looked down, her long sable lashes hiding those eyes for a moment. When she looked up again, her expression was resolute, as though she was bracing herself for something.

“I had a lot of help putting it together, of course. But it’s my concept. If you don’t like it, I’m the one to blame.”

He frowned down at her. “It’s the best design for A Midsummer Night’s Dream I’ve ever seen.”

Her eyes widened and a glow came into her cheeks. “I—that’s—”

He turned back toward the stage. “Mr. Jones said Miss Sutton was putting on one of the costumes. Mustardseed, I think.”

Simone nodded. “Amy offered to—”

“I’d like to see more of the fairies onstage. Are the Puck and Titania costumes ready? Or Cobweb and Peaseblossom?”

“Yes, but—”

“Then get people to put them on.”

Simone took a deep breath. “None of the actors are here right now. They’ve got the night off, remember? Amy will fit into the Mustardseed costume, so she’s putting that one on. But the other fairy costumes are small, and no one else—”

He waved her objection aside. “You’re small. Go get changed.”

“Me?” She shook her head vigorously. “I’m not an actor. I—”

“I don’t need you to act. I just want to see the costumes against the set.”

“But—”

“, you were forty-five minutes late for this meeting. Are you really going to waste more of my time by arguing?”

She bit her lip. “No.”

“Good answer.”