Love's Labours: Book One
John Lyonel, a long-time theater professional and teacher, heads to Virginia to play Oberon in the Theater in the Woods’s production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, intending to focus on his work. John is recovering from the tragic loss of his family and needs a break. The last thing he expects is to become captivated by Michael Hilliard, the professional actor playing Puck, especially since John has never been attracted to men, let alone one so much younger.
They rush headlong into an affair, which falls apart dramatically over secrets that John and Michael are keeping from each other. A steep learning curve, the gossipy cast of the show, and the sometimes sinister magic of the woods conspire to keep them apart. But stage lights and stars might work their magic and help them define a new future.
THE LATE afternoon sun slants through the trees as John navigates down the long and winding road that leads to The Theater in the Woods, and the cluster of camp buildings that will be home for the next three months. After six hours on the road with dubious air-conditioning, he has the windows rolled down. The air is heavy and sweet with humidity and the scent of damp foliage, along with a kind of heat that seems obscene for the end of May, even to John’s New York City sensibilities. This is, he supposes, what he gets for agreeing to do a summer stock production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at a theater tucked deep in the Virginia woods. John’s pretty sure the minimart gas station he passed twenty minutes ago is the last outpost of civilization he’ll see for the rest of the season. From what Keith’s mentioned, people don’t go into town on their day off. In fact, the population of the theater is probably as large as the town itself. For the most part, John’s okay with lurking in the forest.
Finally he sees buildings and then people through the trees, which is great, except that by the time he drives into the grounds of the theater proper there are so many people standing and talking in the middle of the road that John gives up any hope of making it to the parking lot behind the theater. He sighs and pulls in next to the nearest cabin. He can move the damn car later, or it can stay here for the summer for all he cares.
“You made it!” a familiar voice calls.
John barely manages to get out of the car before getting engulfed in a hug by Rose, the season’s Titania and one of his best friends. “I thought we were gonna have to send out search parties.”
“No, just waylaid by the jubilant masses,” John says and hugs her back. Now that he is here, or as close to here as he’s apparently likely to get for now, he lets himself relax. The late Virginia afternoon, back here in the woods, is even steamier now that he’s outside of the car. He should probably get used to the idea of heat and humidity for the rest of the season. It’s not like summer stock buildings ever come with air conditioning.
“How was the drive?”
“Long. Quiet. Good to be alone with my thoughts, but better to be here,” John says as he pops the trunk and pulls out his bags.
“Well, we’re glad you made it. Come on, say hi to Keith. He’s been freaking that you got lost, that people will get in a car crash, or the flights will be late, and someone’ll get stranded at the airport, and the schedule will get thrown off before anything even starts.”
They’re nearly to the main administrative building—that from the outside looks like all the other buildings, which is to say that it looks like a cabin, just larger—when another car pulls in, this one crammed full of more people than is probably legal. John raises an eyebrow. Arranging rides for everybody from Richmond, where almost everyone flew or took the train into, has got to be complicated, but they could at least make sure everybody has a seatbelt. But then, the kids probably don’t care.
“Oh, to be young again,” Rose observes dryly when the car comes to a stop and the occupants tumble out with shouted greetings to their various friends in the milling confusion.
“Mmm, no thank you,” John says.
They climb the steps to the admin building where Keith is holding court from an Adirondack chair on the porch. He waves to them as soon as they appear. John’s known Keith since college, and they’ve worked together almost as long. Keith lives in Washington now with his wife and kids, and works in the professional theater scene there during the rest of the year. He’s been working summers at Theater in the Woods in various capacities for as long as John has known him, and has directed the summer season here for a decade. He won’t give it up, even if there is more prestige back in the city. John doesn’t quite know what keeps him coming back every year.
Clearly, though, Keith enjoys watching all his people roll in before the real business of the camp begins.
“John. Good to see you,” he says, standing up to shake John’s hand and then offering them both chairs. “How are you doing?”
“Ready to not be asked about that for three months.”
Keith gives him a concerned look but drops it when John shakes his head. After everything that’s happened the last two years, he’s just happy to be away.
“Heyo, look who’s here!” somebody shouts, and John glances up in time to see the guy tackle a sandy-haired boy who’s just gotten out of a car.
“Oh God, who’s the twelve-year-old?” John asks as the kid turns around, smiling, to hug his tackler. He hugs several other people who have gathered around too, chatting animatedly with all of them. Whoever he is, he’s clearly a favorite among the company’s veterans, at least the ones under forty.
Keith chuckles. “That is our Puck.”
HIS NAME is Michael, and he’s not twelve, any more than everyone under thirty looks twelve to everyone over forty. But he’s ridiculously slight and not terribly tall, especially compared to John, who can’t help but be surprised to find out he’s actually twenty-five.
Some of that is the guy’s looks, but more of it is his unwillingness to stop climbing on furniture, people, and sets, even during their first read through.
“I don’t think I was ever that young,” John says.
“You were certainly never that happy,” Rose mutters beside him.
The idea that maybe he’s always been a little bit melancholy is, after the last two years, an odd relief. He smiles at Rose as Keith yells at Michael to stop walking on the damn table.
“Indoor Puck today, please.” Keith sighs heavily, as if Michael represents an ongoing and somewhat tedious battle.
“Pathetic human laws,” Michael mutters. He tilts his head, gives Keith a wry look, and jumps down from the table with a grin, upsetting John’s glass of water as he goes.
“It’s going to be a really long summer, isn’t it?” he says to Rose as he halfheartedly mops up the spill.
KEITH KEEPS the big, wobbly machine of the company moving forward. The days quickly dissolve into rehearsals and set building and what is, in the evenings, probably too much drinking around the big campfire for so early in the season.
The camp is split vaguely into two halves. There’s the front, public half, where the theater itself is, along with the admin building, the props shed, and the costume shop. But behind the theater are paths that run back a little way into the woods, until the forest opens up again into a clearing filled with the cabins they lodge in and the dining hall. The firepit is at the far end of the clearing, up against the woods.
The cabins, which house the sixty-odd people it takes to make the Theater in the Woods productions run every summer, are rustic but far more civilized than any of the summer camps the corps attended as children. The mattresses are still terrible, but braided rugs, ceiling fans, large porches, and reasonably timely repairs make it livable—when the spider population hasn’t reached critical levels. John’s glad the union requires its members have single rooms. The nonunion staff and some of the interns aren’t so lucky.
The worst part about the whole experience, aside from the spiders, is the heat.
“My script is melting,” Michael notes one afternoon, amused, from where he’s getting a piggyback ride from Scott, who plays Lysander, while they run lines together. It’s so humid, the pages aren’t just warping but growing faintly translucent from the moisture in the air. When John tries to make a note in his, the pencil goes right through the paper.
When they paint sets, John pulls off his shirt because it is too damn hot, and the paint is getting everywhere anyway. He winds up with a sunburn. That, along with the itchiness of the beard he’s growing for Oberon, makes him uncomfortable all over.
John needs the fan turned up high to be able to sleep, but the heat apparently doesn’t deter Michael from seeking out all the physical human contact he can. Or, for that matter, anyone from welcoming him. Night after night John watches, amused, as Michael flits from lap to lap around the fire, eventually snuggling up with somebody different every evening.
“I get Michael tonight!” Jeremiah—one of the techs—crows one evening by the fire, when Michael, sweaty and smiling, worms in under the crook of his arm.
“I don’t think any of us were ever that young,” Rose notes dryly as she puts on another coat of bug spray. John chuckles and then can’t stop coughing when he inhales a mouthful of it.
“CINDY SAYS hi,” says Keith one morning, sliding in across the table from John in the dining hall. It’s early enough that most of the rest of the company isn’t awake yet, but John enjoys the quiet of the mornings before everyone is up and about.
John sips what is really terrible coffee. “How’s she doing?”
“Great. She’s thinking of coming down to see the show, but with the kids, it’s probably not worth the hassle.”
John nods, while Keith watches him carefully.
“Stop looking worried, or ask,” John prompts, weary and amused, setting his coffee cup down.
“I talked to her before I left. She’s doing okay.”
“And your moves went all right?”
John shrugs. The moves had, in fact, been awful, but he has no desire to touch on leaving the apartment in which he’d lived with his now ex-wife for almost a decade. “It was fine. I’m down by the Gowanus Canal now. You should come visit my fantastic bachelor loft.”
Keith looks dubious. “Isn’t that a Superfund site?”
John chuckles and picks his coffee up again. “They’re cleaning it up! And I have houseplants!” He knows it sounds pathetic, but then, the apartment is kind of pathetic. Certainly it’s lonely and strange. He still hasn’t adjusted to living by himself yet.
“Yes, and they’re plastic,” Rose puts in, sitting down next to him with toast and coffee.
John looks sideways at her. “You don’t know.”
“I know you.”
John looks to Keith for help.
Keith shakes his head. “I would put money on her being right.”
JOHN REALIZES that Michael’s predilection to view the world as a jungle gym may be a feature and not a bug when they start working on some of the more elaborate staging. Puck is meant to be climbing all over both the set and the structure of the theater itself, and Keith has made it clear that Puck is not the only fairy character who will be demonstrating a strange, insect-like otherworldliness. He has planned a number of athletic and, at times, elaborate lifts for him and Oberon.
“Because Oberon should be able to just pick him up and carry him wherever he wants to go,” Keith tells John, then explains how Oberon both loves and fears Puck. Oberon may have incredible power and majesty as the king of the fairies, but Puck is all mischief and chaos and random magic. Physically grabbing him and hauling him around is, sometimes, the only way to control him, and Oberon is the only one capable of doing even that.
“So don’t drop me,” Michael warns with that wry tilt of his head.
They draw an audience, mainly because their cast mates are assholes and always looking for entertainment at the expense of others. The prospect of two of their leads completely wiping out is a pretty good inducement to loiter.
John’s not ripped, but he’s a tall, solid wall of muscle, and he’s plenty confident that he’ll be able to lift Michael however he needs to. Assuming Michael feels like following directions.
Michael, however, has other concerns. “I dress left, so if you don’t angle your arm to the right I’m going to punch you,” he warns as they get set for their first attempt. Michael has to run and leap at John, so John can snag him around the waist and under one thigh and hold him out parallel to the ground and stranded in midair. The problem, and the comedy, is that John has to interrupt Michael’s momentum so that he twists in the air. Puck wants to go in one direction while Oberon’s hauling him away in the other.
John chuckles, but then Michael runs at him and suddenly John has him three feet off the ground. Catching him around the waist is easy; getting his arm hooked around Michael’s upper thigh and keeping him balanced turns out to be a lot harder.
“Not audience right! My right! My right!”
John cracks up and lowers him gently.
Michael hops down and backs up a few steps, ready to go again. “You’re lucky that was just a really close call.”
Someone in the little crowd whoops. “Don’t ruin everyone’s fun this summer, John!”
Michael does a little spin around to glare at him. “Nolan, you can call me a whore when you bring any joy to anyone ever.”
Their audience loves that, and it’s to cackling laughter and the heckling of Nolan that Michael turns back to John with a grin. “Let’s try this again. And be more careful. I’ve got a date tonight.”
“Not with Nolan, I hope,” John teases.
“Why, are you offering?” Michael asks with a grin.
When John can’t come up with a comeback to that fast enough, Michael raises an eyebrow. “Look, I have to run and jump into your arms. You want me to watch my aim too.”
“Boys,” Keith scolds wearily.
“Ready?” Michael winks at John.
John grins back. “Ready.”
KEITH MAKES them practice until he’s sure they’re not a danger to themselves or others. They’ll get the finer details down as the rehearsals go on, but by lunch Michael can be hauled happily around in a couple of different positions as they shout their mostly memorized lines back and forth.
Then Keith makes them work on the kisses to make sure nobody breaks anybody’s nose, especially when a couple of the kisses involve lifts.
“Less danger to my junk,” Michael muses from where John has him hoisted up onto his hip with Michael’s arms around his neck. Michael’s not short, exactly, but John’s six two and has a good six inches on him. “More danger of falling flat on my back.”
“I thought you ended up there on purpose,” John says dryly. He half expects Michael to yell at him too, but he looks delighted to play.
“When I want you to put me on my back,” he says, “I’ll let you know.”
JOHN WANDERS out onto the lawn when they get a break from rehearsal, and then flops onto his back. It is really fucking hot, and the outdoor stage means there’s no relief from either the heat or humidity, even while they’re working. The grass is also itchy, but now that he’s down here, sitting back up seems not worth the effort.
“I was hoping we’d get a breeze today,” Michael says, appearing above him, hands on his hips as he looks out at the still and soggy woods. “There’s no breeze.”
“How many summers have you been here?” John asks.
“Two. Three, counting this one,” Michael says, plonking down in the grass next to him.
“Has there ever been a breeze?”
Michael props a fist under his chin and considers it. He’s shirtless in the afternoon heat, and far more tan than he was just a couple of weeks ago. With his light brown hair, he’s almost eerily monochromatic now, except for his eyes, which are green and glinting with fun as he grins at John. “There was a tornado once.”
“I am not.”
John scoffs, and Michael laughs. He picks up his script and fans John with it. “Thirty neurotic actors and crew. It stormed all night. It was great, but everyone went crazy.”
“Did anybody get hurt?”
“No, they were fine. At least ’til the next night. Nobody had slept. And the theater was a little torn up.”
“What was the next night?”
“Opening.” Michael grins.
“Oh God.” John lets his head fall back into the grass.
“Mhmmmm. Now I have the best summer-vacation story and the best opening-night disaster story. Can’t get worse than that.”
“Shh, don’t jinx it,” John says. God knows what disasters will find them all this year.
“Puck,” Michael says. He smiles and gives the script one last flick of his wrist, then jumps to his feet. “I make my own luck.”
“That’s the best you could do?”
“I wasn’t trying to be clever,” Michael says, turning around to walk away backward. “My luck is really good.”
As soon as he’s gone, Rose drops into his place. “What on earth was that?”
John folds his arms behind his head and watches a cloud drift slowly by overhead. “It’s very hot.”
“…What’s very hot?”
“Okay,” Rose says warily. “Michael’s flirting with you.”
John chuckles. “Michael flirts with everybody.”
“Yeah, and you’re flirting back.”
“The forty-two-year-old straight dude with the ex-wife is flirting with the town bike who is a boy.”
John rolls his head to the side to raise an eyebrow at Rose, who raises her eyebrows right back at him. “It’s summer stock. Theater camp for grown-ups. Everybody flirts with everybody.”
“Yeah.” Rose gets to her feet a little more slowly than Michael had and offers a hand down to John. “That’s totally going to end well.”
LIGHTNING BUGS blink under the trees, and the chorus of crickets and peepers is thunderous as some of the guys drag a cooler out of a cabin down to the firepit. Jasmine lights some of the massive citronella candles and sets them between the logs everyone uses for seating, not that they ever do much to keep the mosquitoes away.
John sips at his beer and chats with Keith and Cat—their Hermia—as the sun sets completely and the dark under the trees fades into a deeper night.
He’s startled briefly out of laughing at a story of Cat’s when Michael appears, out of nowhere, and drops into his lap. John chuckles, wraps an arm around his waist, and carries on with the conversation. He’s worked around theater people his entire life and is used to boys and girls of all orientations draping themselves all over everybody. Michael is bound to hop up and bounce away into somebody else’s lap in about three minutes anyway.
Michael doesn’t leave, though. He also doesn’t move, which is unusual for him as far as John can tell.
Eventually, John realizes he’s lost track of the conversation entirely, and is just watching Michael’s face and the way the light of the campfire makes his skin glow and the shadows settle in the hollows of his throat and shoulders. He looks happy, the way he always does, but he also looks peaceful. That’s new.
Michael turns his head slightly, enough to meet John’s eyes, and gives the smallest smile before turning back to look at the fire. John tries to continue with the conversation like all of this isn’t faintly bizarre, until Michael stretches, rolling his shoulders against him before standing up in one fluid motion like the very dedicated amateur acrobat he clearly is.
John opens his mouth to offer small talk or wish him good night, but Michael drifts off so quietly, it seems strange to say anything at all.
Nolan does call after him, but he either ignores it or doesn’t hear it, and then he’s gone. Nolan stares after him, and then turns to look around the circle and finds John staring too. John’s startled, but strangely not surprised, when Nolan glares at him.
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