Romance anthology earns place on summer reading list
DAY 8: Every day throughout January we are spicing up your summer reading list with an extract from an Australian author. Today's offering is a three-for-one deal. One From The Heart (published by Harper Collins) is a romance anthology centred around a community theatre group and a bequeathed play. Authors Daniel de Lorne, Fiona Greene and Nikki Logan dish up three very different stories packed full of romance, secrets and lies.
Book 1 - Tread the Boards by Nikki Logan
If there was the slightest dollar to be earned from doing it, Kenzie would hand in her notice at the vet clinic, come and sit here among all her hoardings in the half-dark and never look back. Pawing over her favourite finds was almost as rewarding as discovering them in the first place, and she sat among them like a dragon on a mountain of gold - gold-painted polystyrene foam in her case - or perhaps a slightly more attractive Gollum in a subterranean lair. Slightly.
Kenzie worked the paint-sodden sponge over the frame of her papiermâché Tree of Life, rolling and squeezing, dabbing and insinuating until the paint started to build up into the texture she was after. It was easy to lose hours - days - down here and, more than once, she'd pulled out the prop bed and the prop kettle and thrown one of her prop blankies over herself for the night, and was ready to start again as the birds were waking. Today, though, she had an entire day off from the clinic, which meant she could get a heap done before the theatre started getting after-work peak-period busy. No sleepovers required.
Thinking about work made her look at her watch and looking at her watch made her realise it was nearly eleven which, in turn, made her realise how many hours it had been since she'd visited Milk'n'Honey. It wasn't hard to talk herself into taking a break: the glue needed to harden a little before she added the next mâché layer and, besides, she needed to finish the job that some courier had completely failed to - getting the flyers up to Lexi's office.
She jogged past the green room, up the handful of steps to Rivervue's backstage area then crossed the dormant, half-constructed stage and went up the centre aisle of the seating section to the front-of-house entrance doors.
But Lexi wasn't in her office. She was sitting - sagging really - on one of the stools in the foyer bar, staring at the yellow envelope in her hands. Well, that was a time saver!
In one smooth movement, the creative director's head snapped up and her fingers curled the envelope into her lap. The letter crackled horribly, only making her efforts to hide it more obvious.
'Kenzie, hi. I didn't know you were in.' That wasn't a yes, and the hedge didn't provide any reassurance at all.
'Here, this was delivered to the dock by mistake.' She thunked the parcel down on the foyer bar. 'Waiting for Godot flyers, I think.'
She could see Lexi packing something away in her mind, forcing it down deep and refocusing on the here and now. The woman had the worst poker face ever, but she got points for effort.
'Flyers …' Lexi parroted absently.
'I'm heading to Dasha's. Want a latte?'
It seemed half the director's mind was on the parcel but the other half was clearly still wherever she'd shoved the envelope away. Leaving no room for coffee. Lexi tugged on one of the bazillion bands criss-crossing the parcel.
Watching her as she began stripping them off, something flitted into Kenzie's mind and back out again. A distant knowing. Something about rubber bands …
Lexi's frown deepened as she wrestled off the last one only to find a second layer of security beneath it. Brown paper wrapping. Waxy.
'Jeez,' Kenzie muttered. 'It's theatre flyers, not anthrax.'
Lexi grunted agreement as she tugged on the inner binding.
Whatever Kenzie's mind was trying to alert her to about those rubber bands was going to have to wait. 'As much as the suspense is killing me, I have glue drying and a beverage to consume. Not too late to say yes to a latte, Lexi.'
She'd walked two steps towards Rivervue's grand entrance before she heard the exclamation.
'Oh, holy crap!'
The creative director's uncharacteristic curse brought Kenzie's attention back around. 'Is everything okay?'
When Lexi raised her head, her face was the same colour as the parchment in her hands. She held up the ream of printed sheets. Upside down, the only legible word was the massive title.
L A R R I K I N.
Stupidly, Kenzie's first thought was that an overeager someone had submitted a book manuscript for theatrical adaptation. But the longer she stared, the paler Lexi got, the more her mind made sense of all those rubber bands.
The feature piece from The Fourth Wall magazine a couple of years before came rushing back to her.
'They always come bound by rubber, like some turn‑of‑the‑century relic. Old school. Original. One copy only. Equal parts metamorphic and devastating for the Company on the receiving end.'
'That's not -'
Lexi's dark eyes widened. But she still struggled for voice and failed.
Kenzie gasped. ' - is it?'
Lexi spun the top page around, wordlessly.
There they were. Right below the title and right above the date. Those six little letters that had the power to change everything.
D R A V E N.
The twenty-first-century equivalent of literature's Anonymé. The Banksy of performance arts. Theatre's version of a freaking golden ticket, except instead of gifting a whole chocolate factory to some desperate, needy kid, Draven gifted freshly authored plays to down-on-their-luck theatre companies.
'We're not needy!' Was it wrong that Kenzie's first reaction was to feel insulted? To come out in defence of the theatre she loved?
Lexi managed to give her the look even through all the shock.
'Well … We're not desperate,' she clarified. 'We get by. Why would Draven pick us? Some tiny theatre in a tiny backwater in Australia?'
But an equally tiny part of Kenzie already knew. It was as clear as the polished wine glasses stacked up behind Lexi in Rivervue's interval bar. Ron de Vue. Town patron. Post-war Hollywood star. All-Aussie larrikin. The man this theatre was named for. The man adored by the whole town. The whole world.
The part that didn't know him, anyway.
Ugh. Could she not keep away from his memory for just five minutes?
'Why does Draven pick anyone?' Lexi managed. She started flipping through the stack of pages as though the answer might be printed within.
The black USB drive that came with it nearly slid off onto the floor. 'It's part of his mystique.'
'Maybe this is the council?' Kenzie hedged, hoping to be right. 'Could they have done this as part of their plans for the bicentennial? A commission or something? An opportunity to help raise the profile of Brachen?'
Bitterness stained Lexi's voice. 'I don't think Brachen Shire has the imagination for this. Or the pull.'
'Besides. If this is a Draven, then it's probably not going to end well for Brachen. He's about the last person you'd commission to celebrate something.'
Yeah. The playwright didn't exactly pull punches. He'd made a career from stripping things painfully bare.
Assuming Draven was even a 'he'. Could be a 'she', could be a 'they'- no-one knew. That was the whole point.
Lexi separated the wad of script midway like a magician cutting cards and read for a moment.
'It's gotta be a forgery, though,' Kenzie mused. 'Or a publicity stunt?'
Lexi kept reading. 'I don't think so.'
'Why? Because it came correctly parcelled up?' The internet abhorred a vacuum. When so little was known about someone it was easy to fill it with trivialities. Like rubber bands and wax paper. 'That's all public information; anyone could know that. It's a hoax.'
'I … I can't explain it. It just feels right.' Lexi gathered it all to her chest and stood. 'I'm going to read it. Now. It's the only way to know for sure.'
'Are you familiar enough with Draven's work to be able to tell?'
The look made an encore. 'I've read them all Mackenzie. All of them. Show me a theatre director who hasn't.' Then she sagged against the closest bar stool, out of breath. 'This is like winning the lottery. I don't know how to be.'
If this was about Ron de Vue … If this was going to stir everything up again just as things were starting to settle down, then it was no lottery win.
Not for her. It was a curse. Equal parts devastating and metamorphic …
'I'll be at my desk.' Lexi stumbled towards the stairs that led up to the control room, office space and upstairs lounge. The level that afforded the best views of the river and the prettiest valley streets in all of Brachen. Where the beautiful people liked to sip their wine and be seen.
Give me the sub-stage basement, any day. Down there where it was so easy to lose time, to forget where she was and who the building was named for.
'Give me a couple of hours,' Lexi called from halfway up. 'And, Kenzie …?'
She turned her gaze up.
'Say absolutely nothing about Draven - to anyone - until I decide what we're going to do. Okay?'
She'd seen all the Lexis in the years they'd worked together - sad, happy, stressed, frustrated, excited - but she'd never seen this one. Deadly, completely, chillingly serious Lexi. It certainly got a person's attention.
She owed Lexi. The woman who automatically let her work on every single show produced here. Who let her just do her thing down below the stage, well and truly out of the limelight, who made sure she always had a bit extra in her props budget, and who never made demands beyond expecting a professional product even from a community volunteer.
Obliging her was the least she could do.
Book 2 - Set the Stage, Daniel de Lorne
He twisted his pencil into the paper, gouging a hole.
How could he do this? Sure, the theatre was in an excellent location, the alignment on the banks of Brachen River an inspired choice as the sunrise burst upon its eastern face. The big windows would stay, as would the odd curves from the '70s. But the exposed brick would have to be softened and the approach modified to be more user-friendly and open. He scrolled through the photos and the plans. His hand drew while his mind wandered, sketching out where to put the supports, which walls to knock down, the shape of the living spaces and how they'd integrate with the existing building. Buzzwords flashed through his head-'organic', 'context', 'facade'-though they didn't blare loud enough to blot out what this was really about.
He pushed on, unable to stop the ideas pouring forth. This was always the exciting bit, when he got lost in flow and sketched while the world faded into the background. Some trees would be removed; trees that had stood for fifty years or more. Light needed to get in-and so did the trucks and cranes.
Inside was the hardest, turning it into the five levels they demanded. The foyer gone, easily the ugliest part of the building. Carpets gone, stage gone, green room and workshops gone. Wardrobe …
He stopped like he'd slammed into a brick wall.
What would happen to all the costumes when it shut? And what would happen to his mother, Sofia? She'd become Rivervue's costume designer soon after they'd moved there nine years earlier. Desperate for a way to involve herself in the community, she'd answered an ad to be a seamstress then became their costume designer. Later she added the role of set designer to her repertoire. And now he was on the demolition team. Wrecking her life.
He couldn't do it. Not again. He was the reason she'd had to leave her old life behind in the first place.
Pages of his notes and scribblings spread out across the desk as he'd ripped the heart and guts out of Rivervue. He had to refuse to work on the project. And if that meant quitting Y Studio, then that's what he'd do. If the people back home discovered he was within a whisker of the company engaged to turn their beloved Rivervue Theatre into luxury apartments …
He dropped the pencil and pushed back from the desk, gathering up the pieces of paper into a neat stack ready for shredding. Andrew sat in his office, the door open, staring at his screen. He'd taken Gabriel on even before he'd finished his degree and mentored him, but Andrew wasn't family. He took a deep breath that struggled to reach his belly and calm the swell. He had to do it before Y Studio got further behind. He stood up and his mobile rang.
His mother's name flashed on the screen.
In the middle of the day?
He sat back in his chair and answered the call. 'Mamá, what's wrong?'
A pause. 'Gabriel, it's Bruce Clifton.'
Bruce's resonant voice vibrated at the base of his spine and radiated into his groin. Bruce Clifton. It'd been years since they'd spoken more than two words to each other but it was still a voice that did things to him. Lucky he wasn't standing in front of the whole six-foot-five package.
'Are you there?'
'Yeah, sorry, hi Bruce. What's up? Why are you calling from Mum's phone?'
'Your mum's in the hospital. She's okay but she collapsed earlier today.
Did you know she was unwell?'
The vibrations crystallised to needles and shot into his chest. Sofia? Sick?
She never got sick. He'd spoken to her the day before and she'd sounded fine.
'No, I didn't. What's wrong with her?'
'Hmmmm.' That didn't sound good. And there was something in his tone, something he was holding back, and it wasn't the diagnosis. 'I think she should be the one to tell you. When did you see her last?'
There it was. Guilt. Disapproval. All because he'd run away to Sydney five years earlier. If Bruce hadn't stopped talking to him, he would have known how often he went to Brachen to see Sofia.
'I visited last month.' She'd seemed in good health, though a little tired.
She said she'd not been sleeping well. When he'd pressed for more, she'd brushed aside his worries. 'Is she awake? Can I talk to her?'
'She's asleep. They're monitoring her. I'll level with you. Her health's not good. They say she'll be fine to go home soon, but I think you should get down here. If you can.'
Gabriel was already shutting off his computer, distracting himself from Bruce's passive-aggressive guilt trip. He didn't need it; he'd bought tickets for his own, printed with enough questions to last him the journey. How long had she been sick? Why hadn't he known? Why was Bruce there and not him?
'You still there?' Bruce's tone pushed him to the edge of a cliff face.
He resisted. 'I'm trying to leave as quickly as I can.'
'I meant are you still on the other end of the phone.' Another shove.
'Of course I am,' he snapped. 'I'm sorry. This is a shock.'
'I don't understand how you didn't know.'
'She didn't tell me!' A couple of colleagues lifted their heads. He dropped his volume. 'Look, I'll be there by four.' Three if he ignored the speed limits. 'Which hospital?'
'Right. Thanks for being there, Bruce. I appreciate it.' Though not the condescension.
'Someone's got to.' Bruce hung up before he could reply. Suddenly the long stretches of silence on Bruce's part were more preferable. What the redheaded giant had to disapprove of, he didn't know. He'd never known.
Ever since he'd left Brachen, Bruce's jaw had shut tighter than a tradie's toolbox on Friday afternoon. Their old friendship had been locked inside and the hinges turned to rust. But that didn't matter now. He had to get to his mother. He'd sort Bruce out later.
Book 3 - Take a Bow, Fiona Greene
Six months earlier
Lexi Spencer sat back in the fading light, rubbed her neck and stared at the papers on her desk, no closer to a decision than she had been an hour before.
To her left, the double-sided page with its government-yellow envelope, bearing the distinctive crest of the Brachen Shire Council. To her right, an inch-and-a-half-high brick of paper, also delivered that morning. But there was no sender neatly stamped on the outside of this package. Heck, it wasn't even a package. Just the best part of a ream of paper typed single sided in standard manuscript format, wrapped in waxy brown paper and bound in rubber bands. Lexi pulled her laptop closer and scanned through the article that summarised everything the theatre world knew about these packages.
They always come bound by rubber bands. Old school. Original. One copy only. So many rubber bands.
She sank down into her chair and swept them into the trash. Her gaze flicked between the two stacks of paper and she took a long, long breath. It didn't help. Having finished her first high-level read of the manuscript to her right, she had no doubt what she'd been sent.
Even if she still couldn't say it out loud. She kept reading the article. Equal parts metamorphic and devastating for the Company on the receiving end.
Lexi snorted. Well, that described both of the documents on her desk right now. The question was, which one did she fight for, and which one did she just accept?
The resin paperweight that had shared her desk, and her journey here at Rivervue, caught her eye. A bespoke piece, it comprised two streams of molten resin, intertwined by some dextrous wristwork, then frozen forever in the yin-yang design. She turned it over to the inscription, recited it by heart: Ageless beauty, running wild.
Again and again, as she tossed up her options, she kept going back to the manuscript.
Rivervue had been gifted the best thing a theatre company could ever receive. The theatrical equivalent of winning Australia's premier horserace, the Melbourne Cup. Being creative director at Rivervue Theatre Company had challenged her in so many ways over the last few years but this …
This was going to take everything she had. And then some. A Draven.
She mouthed the words, not willing to even whisper them to her empty office, in case the spell, the magic, was broken.
Lexi glanced over at the single sheet, its distinctive crest seemingly eyeballing her and her talented, hard-working team with contempt.
And in that second, she knew. Council be damned. Rivervue would be staging a Draven.
Lexi used the intercom to call down to the props room. Mackenzie Russell answered midway through the first ring. 'Hey Kenzie, it's Lexi. Do you have a moment? Is there any chance you could pop up?'
'Sure thing.' Kenzie didn't hesitate. 'I'm already moving.'
'See you soon.' Lexi's gut churned as she set down the receiver. Now the decision was made, she was calling in the only other person there who had any inkling what was going on. The person who'd found Draven's parcel on Rivervue's back dock steps just that morning. Someone had to confirm she wasn't going batshit crazy.
There was a gentle knock at the door and Kenzie popped her head around, anticipation dripping off the little blonde.
'Come in. You'd better shut the door.'
Kenzie closed it, then crossed the office on silent feet. At the last second, she abandoned her plans to perch on the desk and returned to the door. The snick of the lock echoed loud in the office.
Their eyes met as she dropped into her chair. Practically leaning over the bundle she'd accepted delivery of that morning, Kenzie breathed. 'So … is it?'
'A Draven?' Lexi nodded. 'Without a doubt.'
Kenzie let out a strangled squeal before clapping her hand over her mouth.
'O…M…G'. She jumped to her feet, as though to run through the theatre, cheering, then froze halfway to the door. 'A Draven.' Her whisper gave it exactly the mix of reverence and rock star it deserved.
Lexi blew out a relieved breath. Not batshit crazy after all. Watching Kenzie's reaction was refreshing and the nervous exhaustion that had dogged her across the afternoon started to lift. She, too, wanted to jump up and down and scream like a tween at a boy-band concert. Instead, she grinned conspiratorially at Kenzie.
'We've got an actual Draven.' Finally, the courage to say it out loud. 'Is it fabulous?'
'That's one word for it.' She considered her words. 'It's a retelling of the Ron de Vue story. Titled Larrikin.'
Some of the excitement sagged out of Kenzie's shoulders. 'Of course it is …'
'Oohhh.' Kenzie stiffened. 'Warts and all?'
'There's definitely warts. We'll have to do some fact checking. None of this,' she gestured around the room to the building that housed the Rivervue Theatre Company, 'would be here without Ron de Vue. I'll need to be sure before I go ahead.'
Kenzie nodded, and both women were silent for a second as they pondered what that might mean.