“Yep. Lana Melville.”
With a loud snap, Wyatt’s Italian-leathered sole began to tap rapidly on the hardwood floor. Tap, tap, tap went the shoe until both feet intertwined like a pretzel. The energy, deprived of an outlet, shot up the lean, muscular legs to a washboard stomach. Stalling just long enough to cause as much indigestion as possible in its short life, the toxic mass continued up through the sculpted chest and past a pair of broad shoulders, where it was forced to tightly compress before furiously funneling its way through bulging neck veins, causing a brief shortage of air. Pausing momentarily to gain energy and rush color into the handsome face, the entire ball of frustrated tension exploded out of his mouth in a volcanic spray of warm spittle.
“Are you out of your fucking mind, Murphy?” Wyatt screamed at the phone console in such an exasperated state his eyes watered. “I fucking can’t teach tits to dance! They have no legs! It’s impossible… tits dancing. It’s fucking impossible!”
Wyatt ended the call by slapping the console so hard he sent it hurtling across his massive desk. A flurry of dust particles jettisoned high into the air. Panting, he bounced over to the large bay window that overlooked the park. Too wound up to stay in one spot, he stomped between the window and his desk.
That was a scary thought. Damn it all, Murphy! I can’t allow those West Coast, tabloid-hungry no-talents to start calling the shots this early in the game. The minute we relinquish control of our baby, the quicker we get saddled with our own version of The Wiz.
He stopped moving for a second while his body weathered another violent, angry tremor. Shaking off the memory of the Diana Ross casting nightmare, he continued to pace back and forth. As he began to calm, the enormity of the situation came crashing down. His shoulders slumped. A dark cloud of insecurity gnawed away at his usually strong and unyielding determination. In their eagerness to conquer the world, he and Murphy might have made a very wrong decision. Perhaps exposing Dress Up—their wildly successful musical take on the world of fashion, set during New York’s madcap fashion week—to the world outside Broadway was an idea best left unexplored. Dress Up was his toy, and he found it hard to share.
Stalled in front of the expansive window, he stared out at the park and its infinite shades of green. Minutes passed, and eventually his breathing steadied itself. The extraordinary tenth-floor view never failed to give him pleasure. Central Park, the famous oasis of calm nestled in the heart of Manhattan, stretched out before him. Wyatt’s eyes followed a hungry hawk swooping and circling high in the air in hopes of a mid-morning meal. Above the tree line, the hawk made several lazy, large circles before dive-bombing down into the vast, green jungle.
His focus shifted to one of the large walkways leading into the park. Two men, approaching from opposite directions, collided into each other’s arms. Wyatt’s shoulders slumped even lower as he watched the lovers break from their embrace and move into a passionate kiss.
How long had they been together? A year… two years… one week?
Even from a distance, their passion was palpable. Strong and hungry. Was their sex as passionate as the kiss he had just watched? Were they reacquainting themselves after only being separated for a few unbearable hours? Wyatt nurtured an image of the two lovers tangled underneath the warm, soft blankets of the bed they shared. He sympathized with the reluctance with which they untangled themselves. He imagined their nakedness as they emerged from the rumpled bedcovers, their bodies steaming and tainted with the scent of hot sex. He envied the lovers as they strolled down the tree-covered pathway into the heart of the park. He felt, at once, empty and sad. Perhaps it was the call to Murphy that left him vulnerable to such feelings. After all, there was a time, not so long ago, when those lovers could have been them. To date, Murphy Smith had been his first and only real love. He longed to be in the park, walking hand in hand with someone special, someone he loved. He longed to have someone love him back. A love he could trust. Today, more than ever before, Wyatt felt terribly alone.
Realizing his right cheek had been pressed up against the glass while observing the two men below, Wyatt took a step back and looked straight down to the street. Every other car was yellow as taxi after taxi hustled their anxious contents to their respective destinations.
A figure in a dark coat caught his eye. There was something familiar about the man, but he couldn’t quite place what it was. Wyatt watched as the person in the dark coat ran across the street and then, to his profound horror, turned into the soft morning sun. Oh my God! It was Jason Lambert. Wyatt clenched his stomach with both hands as he watched the arrogant prick walk briskly toward the entrance to the park.
“Lambert! You sorry-ass conniving piece of runny shit,” Wyatt screamed at the window.
Feeling his heart begin to race, Wyatt forced himself to take several deep, even breaths. The last thing he wanted was to allow Lambert another victory. Ever since their nasty split, Wyatt had begun to experience panic attacks. In addition to the embarrassment Lambert had caused him, when it became clear to Wyatt the only reason Lambert was acting the part of a lover was to secure financial backing for a pet project by misappropriating Wyatt’s name and reputation, Lambert had left, as a legacy to their time together, these awful, debilitating disruptions to Wyatt’s otherwise predictable life.
Lambert was scum in its purest form. A master opportunist who had bamboozled Wyatt into thinking he had found the love of his life. And for a short time, Wyatt believed this. It never once occurred to him Lambert’s intentions might not be what they appeared to be. Despite the warning signs, which Murphy had called to his attention on more than one occasion, Wyatt had let his almost-impenetrable guard down and allowed himself to fall for this asshole.
He forced himself to watch Lambert head into the park. Before he was completely out of sight, Wyatt wished every vile disfigurement on Lambert he could think of. A huge goiter, shingles, elephantiasis of the testicles—which, come to think of it, on Lambert wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing.
“Your nuts were tiny!” Wyatt shouted out.
If only one of Wyatt’s wishes caused this slimeball even the slightest bit of discomfort, it would at least be something. He’d take what he could get. Staring out at the horizon, a feeling of emptiness overwhelmed him.
Take deep breaths! Take slow, deep breaths. Do not let him win!
A series of annoying beeps announced an incoming call, snapping him out of his spell and bringing him away from the window. Without even looking down at his caller ID, he knew it was Murphy getting back to him. Murphy couldn’t tolerate any friction between them. Neither could he. If Murphy hadn’t gotten into the habit of calling back right away, Wyatt would certainly call, no matter how frustrated or angry he had been or, in this case, how sad and depressed he felt about his life. Although he was the one with the shortest fuse, Murphy never held it against him. Wyatt still loved Murphy with all his heart. He benefited greatly from his ex-lover’s undying friendship, calm demeanor, and keen business sense. He understood the value of their relationship and cherished it above all others.
“Hey,” the familiar voice chirped.
“Hey,” Wyatt answered into the air, barely above a whisper.“We’re not doing very well, are we?” Murphy asked knowingly.
“I’m a mess.” Wyatt struggled to keep his emotions in check. “I don’t think I can do this.... It’s just coming at the worst time. The very worst time, Murphy.”
“Buddy, I’m so sorry. You and I… we’ll get through this. I promise. You’re not alone in this one, Wy. It’s you and me, like always. I know this isn’t the entire reason you’re so blue right now, but try and forget about the Lana thing. I’m putting together a list of casting alternatives I can pitch in place of her.”
That was the great thing about Murphy. He always came back from a disagreement with an idea that worked, Wyatt thought as he listened patiently.
Breath in, breath out.
“There’s a boatload of talent these guys out here haven’t even considered,” Murphy continued. “I’ll e-mail the list to you this afternoon or early tomorrow. Once you’ve had a chance to look it over, you can give me a call to discuss. I’ve got some good ideas, I think. Sometimes I have to be reminded what is negotiable and what isn’t. Sorry for ruffling your feathers.”
“I’m really trying to be flexible, Murph, but it’s hard for me… you know.”
It was true. Wyatt was trying. He really was. He knew going into this it wasn’t going to be easy. Transferring Dress Up to the screen couldn’t compare to how he was used to working in New York. He and Murphy were the new kids moving into a well-established neighborhood of movie geniuses and fierce sharks. They hoped that, between the two of them, they would be able to tell the good guys from the bad.
“E-mail me the list and I’ll look it over. I need a singer-dancer who can own the part. And… I have to remember no matter who we choose for the lead, the show is the star and we can’t lose track of that.”
There, he had verbalized one of the biggest challenges they faced: how to bring Dress Up to film and keep the integrity of the piece. The script itself was strong, and Wyatt would have to admit if they were forced, it could weather substantial alterations. Hopefully, they would stay in control. That was the plan.
“I understand, Wy. Sometimes I let these guys out here get the best of me. I have to remember, we own the golden egg.”
The sound of Murphy’s voice on speakerphone had a comforting, nurturing effect on him. He took a couple more deep breaths. “Before you called back, I saw Lambert walk into the park.”
“Is that asshole pestering you? Is he? I hate that motherfucker so much! I’m just itching for an opportunity to make his life miserable. Say the word. I’ll squash him like a bug. I’ll slice off his balls and make a coin purse out of his sac. Swear to God! We’ll get my old friend Stuart to incorporate it into one of the holiday windows at Barneys.”
“Stop!” Wyatt couldn’t suppress his delight in Murphy’s eagerness to get even with Lambert for all of the pain he had caused. “I’m never going to be able to look at a holiday window at Barneys again without thinking about Lambert’s ball sac.” Both Wyatt and Murphy laughed hard.
“Listen, here’s the deal. Dress Up is going to clean up at the box office,” Murphy said. “No doubt about it. There’s so much interest here in the press already, it would blow you away. I’ll start sending you some links so you can get a feel for what we’re sitting on.”
Wyatt smiled at Murphy’s enthusiasm. When wound up, he could sound just like a little kid on Christmas morning. It was part of his charm and an important tool when deep in negotiation. It was hard as hell to buck the Murphy train once it picked up steam.
“I couldn’t do what you do, Murphy,” Wyatt admitted with a sigh. “I don’t know how you navigate around all the bullshit and still come up positive. You’re incredible. Don’t sweat the earlier call. More than anything, I’m very tired. I need to find a way to recharge my batteries before jumping into this Hollywood thing. I’m scared to death right now.”
Wyatt wasn’t able to disguise the weariness in his voice no matter how hard he tried. He was just starting to become aware of how spent he was. He had been going nonstop, jumping from one demanding project to the next with sometimes less than a week or two to collect his thoughts and gather up the necessary energy to make it happen all over again. What weighed heaviest on his mind was that hundreds of people now relied on him for their livelihood, and it would only get worse once this movie got going. It was a terrifying responsibility.
“Well, that’s the other reason I called.”
Murphy had some kind of plan up his sleeve. Wyatt crossed his arms and sat on the edge of his desk as he awaited the details.
“Remember the pictures you saw of the beach house I built in Maine? Remember you said how great it would be to have a place like that where you could get away from the busy city and not worry about anything other than sitting naked on the porch, soaking in the surrounding beauty? Here’s what I’m thinking.”
“Just for the record, I never said the part about being naked on the porch. I hated being naked until I lived with you,” Wyatt pointed out.
“Whatever,” Murphy continued unfazed. “Your calendar is relatively quiet this summer. The folks out here need some time to organize before they start preproduction and handing you stuff to review and approve. Why don’t you pack up a bunch of your precious can’t-do-withouts and spend the summer in Maine. I’m a tad biased here, I know, but the house is gorgeous. The cove is quiet and private. You don’t have to put a stitch of clothing on from the time you get there until you leave. I know people who can keep you stocked in exotic cheeses and expensive bubbly like you’re used to. Wy, all you need to do is relax and enjoy your time away. Replenish that fabulously creative mind of yours.”
Before Wyatt had a chance to say anything, Murphy added, “Don’t say yes or no right now. I sprang this on you and I know you need some time to noodle it. Call me in a few days. I’m going to be so busy out here negotiating there’s no way I’m going to have the time to enjoy the place. It would make me feel good to know you were enjoying it, naked.”
“Yeah, I have to go too,” Murphy answered back. “Give me a call in a few days.”
“No, butthead. I’ll go to Maine,” Wyatt barked into the air. “I’ve made up my mind. I’ll take you up on the beach house. I need a break.”
“Really? You’re serious! You’re not going to regret it, I promise. Give me a couple of days to put all the pieces together. How soon before you can leave?”
“I’ve got a couple things here I need to take care of.…” Wyatt ran through a list of various obligations, the ones he could remember. “Hmm… let’s shoot for next Monday. That gives me a week to clean things up here. Where do I fly into, Barn Swallowville?”
“Sport, I don’t want you to spend a minute planning this. I’ll have a driver pick you up Monday morning, say eleven? All you’ll need to do is clear your calendar, and I’ll do the rest.”
“This feels like the right decision, Murph. Thanks for… well you know, all you’re doing for me.”
“Wyatt, don’t forget the motto we trust and live by. When you’re happy, I’m happy, the world’s happy. It’s the golden rule, my friend.”
“Why is it you always seem happier than I am?” Wyatt asked in mock despair.
“I take time for sex. Lots of sex. It’s that simple,” Murphy answered without skipping a beat.
“Is it called sex when it only involves your hand and a computer?” Wyatt volleyed right back.
“Easy, easy my friend,” Murphy cautioned, “I’m this close to going to bat for Lana and her dancing knockers.”
Wyatt squealed into the phone before punching the End Call button. Only Murphy could pick him up and put him back together again so quickly. They had some of the best characteristics of lovers without any of the tension. He was lucky to have someone always covering his back, he thought, as he returned to his window above the park.
It was hard for Wyatt to believe—a good portion of the summer without any pressure, imagine that. He deserved this time away. No one could argue the fact. Would he get bored and want to come back, he wondered? It was a possibility. He wasn’t known for his talent to slow down and relax. He vowed then and there he wouldn’t allow himself to fall into the same traps that had plagued his ability to pause and enjoy life in the past. In the next day or two, he would make a list of books he had always wanted to read but never had the time. He would have his assistant track down all the movies he had missed over the years because of his intense work schedule. He would cook. There were a million things he could do with a summer on his own. Murphy had not only lifted the dark cloud of doom surrounding him, he had blasted it out of the universe.
Wyatt sat down at his computer and began making some notes. As he typed away, he fought off the nagging urge to remove his clothes. That could wait. He had a whole summer of nakedness ahead of him. He chuckled as he reached across the desk and hit speed dial.
Ryan peered up from his computer screen to see his boss, Murphy, explode into his office. He’d been typing up Murphy’s atrocious handwriting onto a spreadsheet for a production meeting scheduled later that afternoon.
“I’m not done yet,” Ryan said, returning to his work. “Your scribble sucks, and I’m trying to figure out what you’ve written without having to bother you.”
“It’s that take-charge attitude of yours that sets you apart from the herd.”
Murphy plopped down on the small plastic chair across from Ryan and took a huge swig from the bottle of water he’d walked in with. “I like what you’ve done in here. It’s impressive,” he added, after giving the tiny corner office a once-over.
“So… you like it better now than when it was filled with mop buckets and cleaning supplies?” Ryan asked as he continued to type without looking up.
“It was?” Murphy asked, amazed. “I find that hard to believe. Wow, you have a knack. Is this new?”
In hopes of getting Murphy out of his hair, Ryan looked up from the tattered legal pad he’d been squinting at long enough to identify the object of Murphy’s attention.
“You’re asking me if my lunch bag is new!” Give me a fucking break here! I’ve got less than two hours to hand this back and your pestering is the last thing I need right now.
“Murphy, I’m not sure why you’re here… in my office… right now. I’ve worked for you for almost eight months and this is, let’s see… only the second time you’ve made the trip down the hall. The one other time, you were on a hunt for chocolate, and because you’d struck out with everyone else, you were forced to wander down here. Listen to me.…” Ryan looked across his desk in desperation. “I couldn’t be more serious when I tell you I’m going to be right down to the wire on this assignment. I beg you, please leave me alone.”
“Don’t sweat it. I cancelled my meeting for today. The notes can wait.”
Although it was a relief to hear he was off the hook, Ryan refused to let down his guard until he knew for certain what this impromptu meeting was all about.
“Take a deep breath and relax,” Murphy said as he demonstrated for Ryan how to breathe deeply, adding with a mischievous wink, “We never get quality time like this to shoot the breeze.”
Murphy was up to something, Ryan was sure of it. However, with the pressure off, at least for the time being, he allowed himself to sit back and relax. Ryan enjoyed the rare opportunities when he could spend time with Murphy. Murphy was a terrific boss, and Ryan felt blessed to be part of his organization. Over the course of the last couple months, Ryan felt he’d won Murphy’s respect by delivering quality work, on time, with little or no direction. He’d cautioned himself not to read more into it, but perhaps as a reward for his quest to be perfect, Murphy had begun taking more time with Ryan, supplying background information and providing him a welcomed glimpse of the big picture. Murphy made him feel like he was part of the team. The Dress Up Team. Most nights he went home from work convinced he was in the right place at the right time. And work was fun. A spirited banter had developed between them, and Murphy seemed delighted when Ryan shot back an unexpected zinger.
“It’s strange the things that stick in my mind.” Murphy offered, crossing his hands behind his head. “Didn’t you tell me your parents sent you to a camp somewhere in Maine?”
“It is strange, the things that stick in your mind, but yes, I did tell you that. It was kind of a Ranger Rick camp designed to teach kids a respect for nature. I had to go several summers when I was in my teens. I detested it from the minute I got there until I boarded the plane back home. No television, no computers, just shitty food, and the camp counselors… fuck, what a bunch of hayseed geeks. Why?”
“I’m curious, if you hadn’t had to go there for camp, do you think you would have liked it… being in Maine?”
Easy, this could be a trap. Murphy’s office was filled with pictures of Maine, and Ryan was well aware he’d built some kind of dream home there as a retreat. This little visit was starting to make him feel uneasy.
“I thought it was… okay.” Ryan answered, only to correct himself a second later. “No, I didn’t think it was okay. At the time, I hated it.”
It was better to be truthful until he had a better idea of what this was all about. “I was a rich city kid from Beverly Hills, who had a houseful of electronics to babysit me. Being yanked from home and shuffled off to Maine each summer… it felt like Siberia.”
Murphy smiled back. Ryan couldn’t tell if he was annoyed by his candor, or appreciative of it.
“I have a huge favor to ask. I need you to do a solid for me. I need you to spend the next several months in Maine.”
“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me. Are you fucking kidding me?”
“I wouldn’t fuck you.”
“Well… maybe after a few really stiff cocktails. It’d have to be kind of a spontaneous thing.”
The smile was still there, but any hope Murphy was yanking his chain was diminishing rapidly.
“You’re serious? You want me to go to Maine?”
“It’s a very important mission, my friend, and if you choose to accept it, I will be forever grateful. Wanna hear more?”
“Oh, do I,” Ryan answered, barely able to disguise his disappointment.
“Wyatt Stark, who is sort of your other boss, in a strange, incestuous kind of way, is going to be spending the summer at my house there.”
“Please don’t ask me to stay there with him. Please don’t ask that,” Ryan pleaded, leaning across his desk for added emphasis.
“I’d never even dream of asking such a thing.” Murphy appeared hurt Ryan had jumped to such a conclusion. “Honestly! Sit back! Relax! It’s nothing like that.”
“What’s it like then?” Ryan asked with an overabundance of caution.
“Wyatt has been operating at breakneck speed the last couple of years. He’s been under tremendous pressure, and he’s tired. He’s in no position to be taking on this movie right now. He’s close to being worthless, and that’s not a good thing… for any of us.”
Ryan held his breath as he waited for Murphy to elaborate.
“Here’s where you come in.… I’ve just got to ask, where on earth did you purchase that lunch bag ensemble?”
“Excuse me?” Ryan found himself completely caught off guard.
“The thermos… it’s purple just like your lunch bag. A very tasteful approach to meal time on the go and snappy too! I bet people comment on it when you’re strolling through the commons. They do, don’t they. ’Fess up! I would, that’s for sure.”
“Please! Get to the point,” Ryan begged, exasperated by Murphy’s playful diversion. “I’m seconds away from tears. I’m happy… comfortable right here in my little world. I enjoy working here, right here. I love it… working right here, turning your crappy handwriting into beautiful, organized memos. Life is good!”
“I want you to be my safety net. I want you close to Wyatt in case something happens to him.” Murphy was at once serious and businesslike.
“What do you mean, in case something happens?” Ryan sat motionless.
“For your ears only, Wyatt’s had some panic attacks recently,” Murphy offered in a hushed voice. “I hope by getting him out of the city and away from a few other nasty-nasties, he’ll start to regain his strength, and these attacks will be history.”
“I still don’t understand. What are you asking me to do?”
Ryan was surprised at how direct his questioning had become. There was nothing even remotely appealing about the prospect of spending a couple months in godforsaken Maine with a famous Broadway director who was having mental issues.
“Be close. I want you to go out there a few days ahead of him and get the house ready. I want you to pick him up from the airport and make sure he gets to my house safe and sound. You’ll shop for him when he needs things. For lack of a better way to put it, Wyatt is a very precious commodity whom I happen to care deeply about. I need someone I can trust to be there with him in case he finds himself in the weeds.”
Ryan frantically worked to process what he was being told. This was by no means anything close to what he’d expected his day to be like.
“You don’t know Wyatt,” Murphy continued, “he’s not going to need his hand held. He’s not needy that way. He’d probably starve to death before he asked you for food. Ryan, you’d be doing this for me. To him, you’ll probably be just some guy who is there to run errands. And honestly, that’s all I need you to be. If all the planets are in the right orbit, hopefully, Wyatt will figure out a way to relax and get himself into shape for this film.”
“Wow… this is heavy. I mean.…”
“You’re right! It’s heavy because it requires our very best shot. You being out there ensures me I’m… we… are giving it our best shot. I can’t be there myself, or, I would be.”
Ryan wasn’t sure how to respond. When put in those terms, only an asshole would have the bad sense to push back.
“I see something in you,” Murphy added kindly, “a quality… it tells me if you’re out there looking after him, somehow, we stand a good chance of making this plan work. So, what do you think? Will you do this for me?”
“Of course. I’ll do it.”
“Thank you. For one of the only times in my life, I don’t have a plan B.”
“I won’t like it, but I’ll do it.”
Ryan was pleased to see Murphy was once again all smiles.
“There’s nobody else I can send. A friend would only get on his nerves. It has to be someone who can stick in the background and be, like I said before, a safety net. You have no idea how much I appreciate this. I’ll make it up to you, I promise! Any questions?”
Ryan knew there were a million questions he should ask, but to save his soul he couldn’t manage to get any of them to surface.
“I’m in the process of making arrangements and putting together some notes for you. You’ll have access to my cell phone. Never hesitate to call if you think you need to.”
“When do I leave?” Ryan asked, reaching over to rearrange his lunch ensemble, a feeble attempt to show his boss he hadn’t lost his sense of humor when, in fact, he had.
“Tonight!” Murphy announced as he bounded out of his chair.
“Tonight?” Ryan asked in disbelief as he jumped to his feet.
“You’re flying out first class, and I’m making arrangements for you to stay at the Bridgeport Hotel—which, by the way, is by far the best digs my precious money can buy. You can bank all of your salary until you’re safe and sound back here in Lalalalalaaa. I expect you to expense anything you need.”
“And I’d thought about calling in sick today.”
“Wyatt’s a very nice guy and nothing like you’d think he’d be. He’s a sweetheart, and he needs this time away more than he knows.
I’m going to be sick!
“Listen,” Murphy said. “I realize I’ve dropped a bomb on you. Leave! Get out of here! Get as organized as you can. I’ll have a car pick you up later this afternoon. Ryan, thank you!”
Ryan clutched his chest as Murphy left his office. He was certain this was the closest he’d ever been to experiencing his own panic attack.