Show Me the Romance

No cherubs. No doilies. No crap.

Broadway High

CHAPTER ONE

Of the fifty-two girls who’d tried out for Grease, most of us didn’t have a prayer of getting Sandy—and I wasn’t about to take an elbow to the boob just to see my name listed under chorus.

The cast list had already torn loose at one corner. I stopped a safe distance from the music annex doors and watched my fellow Pink Lady hopefuls mob the list. Once the feeding frenzy waned, I’d just verify my place in the chorus and head straight home to hide my disappointment.

I twisted a black curl around one finger and settled in to wait. This whole musical tryouts thing might be new to me, but numbers and probability I had down cold.

My cousin Gretchen darted out of the pack, squealing like her messy blond topknot was on fire. “Natalie!” She grabbed me by the arms, her gray eyes wide. “You’re Sandy.”

I made a face at her. “Very funny.”

“No, I’m serious.” She didn’t blink. “I got Rizzo and you’re Sandy.”

I squinted. This didn’t even make sense. As far as the small town of Broadway, Virginia was concerned, only the opening day of deer-hunting season rivaled the importance of the annual musical. And suddenly I was the lead? No, I wasn’t falling for that one. “Only musical veterans get leads. You said I shouldn’t get my hopes up since this was my first time trying out.”

“So?” Gretchen flipped her silky shawl off her shoulders and wound it around her neck like a winter scarf. “You’ve got a great voice. They’re not completely insane for casting you.”

“But I’m only a junior. What about Scarlett, Rachel—you?”

“I told you, I’m Rizzo, which is way more fun.” She scanned my face. “Besides, Sandy suits you. You’ve got that whole untouched virgin thing going on.”

The fragile tendrils of my excitement flatlined. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

A show tune rang out from Gretchen’s bag. She dove for her phone. “Aren’t you even a little bit curious to know who’s playing Danny?”

My heart lodged in my throat. Aidan. It had to be. He was the main reason behind my tryout of desperation. When you’ve got a painful crush on the best singer, dancer, and actor in school—and you’re only average-pretty, with big, protruding gray eyes, a small nose and a lower lip too big to match the top—your options for getting his attention are somewhat limited.

But if Gretch was right . . . if I was Sandy, breathing was about to become a problem.

She rolled her eyes. “Never thought I’d see you speechless. Okay, if you won’t ask, Tom got the part. Hi, Mom? Hey, you’ll never guess.” She wheeled away to gossip with my aunt, leaving me feeling like someone had just blown me up like a balloon and popped me.

Tom was playing Danny? Tom Dempsey?

Of course she meant Tom Dempsey. We didn’t exactly have loads of Toms crawling around Broadway High School. One was enough.

No, Gretchen had to be wrong about that. Aidan Spence had a voice like melting chocolate—and he was a senior. The directors would not pass him over for a junior like Tom.

The herd around the cast list began to break apart. A few girls shot me hard looks, and one of Gretchen’s senior friends blew right by me, her eyes puffy and red from unshed tears. Two sophomores I recognized from the lower level choir offered me stiff congratulations. I thanked them, but so far, getting the lead felt like all the times I’d ruined the curve on a big math test.

My friends Emma and Beaz emerged from the crowd. Shiny strands of green tinsel winked from Beaz’s dark hair as she bent over her phone, her thumbs jabbing the keys.

Emma bounded up the ramp behind her, a brittle smile fixed to her mouth. “Oh Natalie.” She hugged me. “You got Sandy! That’s so awesome.”

Oh no, didn’t Emma get a part?

“I got Jan,” Beaz said without looking up on her phone.

Jan was one of those coveted Pink Lady roles. While I glared at Beaz for her lack of tact, Emma said, “I’m in the chorus. But that’s fine.” Her trademark one-shoulder shrug left me feeling even guiltier. I knew she’d hoped to get Miss Lynch at least, but Emma put the blond in bombshell. Not exactly spinster teacher material.

I hooked my arm through one of Beaz’s elbows and steered my friends up the ramp. “So who got the other parts?” I asked, hoping to take Emma’s mind off my incredible good luck.

“Hm, okay,” she said, “you probably know Tom got Danny and Aidan got Kenickie—”

“What?” It wasn’t a shriek. Not really.

The light returned to her eyes. “I know, right? Scandal!” she sang out.

“Aidan’s going to be furious,” Beaz added.

I swung my gaze to her and found her still thumbs-deep in her phone. I’d never told them how I felt about Aidan, and the echoing school hallway was no place to start spilling my secrets.

“Tom’s audition was great,” Emma said, “I just always thought Aidan would be Danny.”

Beaz snorted. “A blond Danny? Please.”

“Well Natalie’s going to be a Sandy with black hair. Curly black hair. Not everything is going to be like the movie. Ooh, aren’t you excited?” Emma turned a clumsy pirouette in the hall.

“If I don’t think about my Prince Charming co-star.”

“Hey.” Beaz used her phone to point at my face. “You just got the lead your first time trying out. Act more excited. There are girls who would give their left nut to be in your shoes.”

“Ew.” Emma stopped her twirling to stare at her best friend. “You are so inappropriate.”

But they did have a point. “You’re right,” I said quickly, “I am excited. I just must be in shock.” Specifically, shock over how my brilliant plan to get Aidan to notice me had landed me a part the seniors would resent, in a stage romance with the guy I once nicknamed Tom Dirty. This was supposed to be the year I got a boyfriend . . . the year I finally shed my identity as Outspoken Gal Pal and started going on real dates. Dates with Aidan.

“Anyway,” Emma said, “we still have to clean up our bio lab stuff. Are you going home?”

I fished my phone out of my backpack. “Yeah, after I call Libby with the news.”

Beaz grinned. “She is going to be excited. Bet we hear her scream from Charlottesville.”

“Maybe. Thanks you guys.” My cousin and friends had helped me survive the semester since my best friend Libby moved away, but now I was a lead in the musical. How could I cope with the spotlight and all that pressure without Libby cheering me on from the wings?

“No problem. Say hi for us,” Emma called over her shoulder. They walked away.

Hanging my hopes on Libby’s excitement, I dialed her number. The phone went straight to voicemail. I hit ‘end’ and leaned my head back against the concrete wall. Leaving my best friend a message was like shining a flashlight into outer space—a waste of energy.

Speaking of waste . . . I was going to have to kiss Tom Dirty.

Just as that demoralizing thought forced its way through my defenses, I noticed slouchy boots shuffling to the edge of the ramp. A huffing sigh broke the stillness. I looked up.

An Asian girl with geek-chic glasses and a model’s bone structure jammed her fists into her coat pockets. She had to be new. Apart from a few Latinos, Broadway’s ethnic diversity split along three lines: farmers, rednecks, and all the other white people. I hadn’t seen her in tryouts. And I wanted those boots.

“Hi,” I said. When her glare shifted from the herd of girls to me, I countered it with a smile. “Something wrong?”

“They’re blocking the door.”

“Oh, uh—” I pointed down the hallway. “Is the side door locked?” At her blank look, I started toward the door. “Here, let’s check. I’m Natalie, by the way.”

Her feet scuffed as she walked. “Megan.”

The brass knob didn’t budge when I reached the door. I rolled my eyes and flipped my backpack off my shoulder to dig out my wallet. “This door shouldn’t be locked right now. Someone’s idea of a joke while everyone’s trying to read the cast list, sorry.”

Megan winced behind her designer frames. “So I’m screwed? And what cast list?”

“For the musical. That’s what all those girls are looking at. Hang on a sec, and I’ll get us in.” I held up my Virginia learner’s permit. The old wooden door frame had a gap beside the latch, worn down from years of band and choir kids having their way with the lock. I wedged the hard plastic into the gap while turning the knob with my other hand. It slipped open. “Voilà.”

A slow smile broke over Megan’s face. “Cool.”

Farther down the hall, the loading dock door slammed. Megan turned.

Six feet of heartbreaker jogged around the corner, looking healthier than any guy with his dating record had a right to be. Tom Dempsey whipped off his knit cap, grinning as he rubbed a hand through his brown hair. “Hey Natalie.” His coffee-black eyes skimmed right past me to zero in on Megan. He lowered his eyelids. “And who is this?”

CHAPTER TWO

Of course he wanted to meet Megan. Tom loved new girls—especially pretty ones who hadn’t been warned that his bedposts had so many notches they looked termite-ridden. Not that I had seen his bedposts.

I shot him a warning glare. “This is Megan. I was just helping her break into the music annex.”

“No longer hiding your criminal tendencies? Megan, hi.” His grin melted into the naughty smile he used for latching his hooks into girls’ hearts. “I’m Tom.”

“Hi.” Megan dug her hand out of her pocket and gave Tom a vague sort of wave. She looked over at me. “I’d better go now, thanks for the help.”

What, no fawning over Lover Boy? Right then, I decided Megan was my new best friend. “I’ll come with you. Bye,” I chirped at Tom.

“Wait—hey, Natalie, did they post the cast list yet?”

I turned, one foot already on the steps leading down to the annex hallway. “Yeah, but I haven’t looked.” I was not going to be the one to tell him we were an on-stage couple.

“Okay, later then.” He jogged by, and then called back, “I hope you got a good part!”

Why did he have to be so natural and nice every time I caught myself being bitchy to him in my head? I managed a polite “You, too,” and went to find Megan.

I found her climbing the instrument room shelves. With her feet resting at the same height as my head, she wrapped one arm around a cross-brace and reached deep into a shelf.

Craning my neck, I swallowed hard. “Do you need help?” I said, hoping she’d turn me down.

“No, I—” She yanked, and a leathery case swung into view. “I got it.”

When she had both feet back on the nice, sensible ground, I sprang my question. “So, you’re new here?”

She flipped her curtain of wavy hair over one shoulder and shifted the case to her other hand. “Yeah.”

“Do you want to come over to my house for a bit? My grandma has every kind of cookie you can imagine stockpiled in our freezer. Chocolate chip, peanut butter, gingerbread, oatmeal raisin . . . they nuke really well. Oh, and her sugar cookies,” I mimed drooling, “so good.”

Megan took a quick, assessing glance at the exit. Okay, so maybe my cookie bait came off a bit strong. Forcing down the wattage, I gave her a hopeful smile. “It isn’t far.”

She hesitated, but then a wannabe dimple appeared in her cheek. “Sure, yeah. Let me call my parents.”

I led the way out through the choir room, sifting through possible conversation starters while Megan told her dad she wouldn’t be home till dinner. Outside, the crisp January wind forced me to tug my zipper up past my chin. My shoulder-length curls swirled across my face. On days like this, I really needed to use more hairpins to keep them contained.

As I tried to catch a whipping curl, I saw him. My heart kicked in my chest. He had stopped to talk with his friends by his car, a black Jetta I knew by the sound of its engine alone. He stood taller than his friends, and as I watched, he shook his surfing-magazine hair out of his eyes and laughed. In this town of “huntin’, guns’n trucks,” Aidan Spence was an exotic creature—a good-looking straight guy who excelled at the performing arts.

But I wasn’t going to stare. I wasn’t going to be that weird girl who watched from afar and never did anything about her feelings. I’d gone out for the musical hadn’t I? Now he just had to get to know me, see how fun I could be . . . not like those princesses he’d dated in the past.

We were midway across the parking lot when Megan ended her call. “Do you mind if I drive? That way I can leave straight from your house later.”

Icy walk home or ride in a warm car? “That would be awesome.”

“So, I have to say,” Megan said, once we were seated in her little red Civic, heater blasting, “that guy was hotter than a young Johnny Depp.”

Johnny Depp? Aidan didn’t look a bit like—uh-oh. She meant Tom. I prepped myself to deliver a serious warning. “Tom’s also dated half the girls in my grade. Except now he’s run through all the ones willing to become the next two-week Mrs. Tom Dempsey, so lately he’s been going after underclassmen. Turn right at the bottom of the parking lot.”

Megan laughed, and her dimples went full-on cute. She’d be beating the Broadway guys off with her trumpet. “I thought he looked too gorgeous for his own good,” she said. “Did you date him?”

“Hell no!” But my pride goaded me into adding, “I refused to be his girlfriend in third grade and he never asked again.” Never looked again was more accurate. Not that I cared.

“Third grade? Don’t most boys think girls have cooties at that age?”

“Maybe the ones who aren’t natural born charmers.”

She turned down my street. “Are we close?”

“Yeah, that one there.” I pointed at the two-story house with blue siding and a deep front porch. When Libby, Gretchen and I were kids, we pretended we were squirrels and cleaned out the entire underside of the forsythia bushes around the porch, weaving the trailing branches into our own little series of dens.

Libby. She’d better pick up when I called her tonight.

Megan’s tires crunched over the loose gravel in the drive. She pulled the parking brake and I climbed out, noting the absence of my mom’s car. Just Grandma and Dad here, then.

Speaking of Dad. He appeared around the right side of the house, a welding mask flipped up above his short, tightly curling hair, the welding-wand thingy in one hand and a long bar of angle iron in the other. He waved to me with the angle iron. “Tally, can I get your help here?”

“Uh, Dad, I have company. This is Megan.”

“Hi there.” He gave Megan the angle iron wave. “It’ll only take a second, I don’t have three arms, and I have to finish before dark.”

Resigned, I cast Megan an apologetic look. “Sorry.”

“No, it’s fine. What’s he doing?” she asked, falling into step beside me.

“Welding something. I can’t keep track of his projects. He’s a professional carpenter, but he dabbles in other things and always has twenty projects going concurrently, usually helping someone else.” We crossed around to the back of the house, where Dad’s old red power supply sat perched on the cistern cover. A collection of saw horses held up a Christmas star the size of a Suburban. Mom was going to spit cats. “Where did you get that?”

“It’s David Showalter’s silo star. One of the joints broke in that wind we had over the weekend, and I told him I’d fix it, but the bar keeps popping up and I have to steady this loose piece. Here, put these gloves on—” he tossed me a spare set “—and hold that end down. Close your eyes. Megan, you might want to step back and close your eyes, too.”

I heard the crackle of electrified metal and my eyelids flickered red. The sizzling stopped.

“You can open your eyes.”

While he flipped up his mask to check his work, I wondered if I should wait till Mom got home to tell them all my big news. Or should I just blurt it out to my dad? Blurting won. “They posted the cast list today.”

His head shot up. “And?”

“I got Sandy, the lead!”

Hooting, he set down his welding stuff and crushed me to his big barrel chest. “Wonderful, sweetheart,” he said. “I can’t wait to see you perform.”

As much as I relished his praise, I hadn’t forgotten my guest. “Thanks, Dad.” I gave him a squeeze and extricated myself from his arms. “Are you done with us? I bribed Megan with promises of cookies and she can’t stay long.”

“Sure.” He waved us off. “I can get the rest of this. Be sure to flatter your grandmother.”

“I will.” I led Megan up the back steps, waiting until we were safely inside the kitchen and out of his hearing range to say, “Sorry about that. Dad did a lot with theater back in the day, so he’s always wanted me to do something onstage.”

“Oh don’t worry. My parents would still be mauling me while calling all the aunties in the Philippines and trying to make me eat something.”

I laughed at the image. “Is that where you’re from?” Er, oops. Megan’s accent was pure American. Way to be ignorant, Natalie. “I mean . . . your family is from?”

“Yeah.” If Megan minded, she did a good job of hiding it. “Back to this show though, I thought you told Captain Jack Sparrow you hadn’t seen the cast list.”

Captain Jack Sparrow?

Oh right, Tom and his ‘young Johnny Depp’ looks. She meant the olive skin, strong cheekbones, narrow nose, and dark eyes version—not the beard and nasty pirate teeth. “Uh, just avoiding some awkwardness. Grandma?” I called out, tossing my backpack on a chair in the dining room and peeking into the living room. How could I turn this conversation back around to Megan? “I’d just go grab some cookies for us but Grandma gets upset if she finds we’ve been sneaking them without her knowing. Grandma!” I shouted again.

“It’s fine. Why would there be awkwardness?”

Lord. New Girl wasn’t easily distracted, was she? I returned to the kitchen and kicked off my green sequined flats before scooting onto a barstool. “We’re doing Grease, and he got Danny Zuko. Which means we’ll be singing together, dancing together,” I rolled my eyes, “making out at a drive-in together . . . ”

Megan smirked. “All the fun and no emotional commitment. Sounds win-win to me.”

Funny how her take on stage romances matched Tom’s approach to “real” relationships perfectly. I had very strong opinions about my new co-star, but since I didn’t feel like detailing the history, I just laughed. “I guess so.”

She climbed onto the stool next to mine. “So,” she said, her legs swinging between the rungs, “what happens when you see him again?”

“That would be first thing Monday morning.” I shrugged. “But since I don’t find U.S. History particularly stimulating, I might not be awake enough to feel awkward.” I hoped he wouldn’t decide to tease me about it before class. Messing with me before nine a.m. would be dumb on an epic scale.

We clammed up the moment my grandmother shuffled into the kitchen. Beneath bedraggled white curls in dire need of her hairdresser’s magic, a warm smile broke over her face. “Who wants cookies?”

#

            Megan left right before dinner. Once I’d had my fill of lasagna, I shot up to my room and dialed Libby’s number. It went straight to voicemail—again. I flopped back on my red striped bed covers to stare at the posters on my ceiling. One corner of my fractal poster dangled from the drywall. I needed to fix that.

This was really unlike her. Usually by now Libby would have called or texted me back. I rolled over on my stomach and pulled my computer out from under the bed. Might as well goof off online.

I was in the middle of a TV show when my phone lit up with a number I didn’t recognize. Usually, I ignore those calls, but my thumb punched the answering button and I was stuck. I held the phone to my ear. “Hello?”

“Tally! Hey.”

“Libby?” I scooted up against my headboard. “What number is this?”

“My grandma’s. Dad switched my phone and his to prepay this morning, so they’re only for emergencies now.”

Inside, I called myself some rather unflattering names for being so annoyed with her and not considering this possibility. The whole reason Libby moved to Charlottesville four months ago was because her dad lost his job and they had to go live with her grandmother. Money had to be tight.

Here I was worried about kissing Tom Dirty.

“And,” Libby went on, “since I still haven’t convinced Nana to bring her internet connection out of the nineties, you may want to save this number under my name. But don’t call me on it. I’ll call you. I just have to wait till it’s after 9 o’clock so she doesn’t jump all over me for eating up her minutes.”

“Got it.” The last thing either of us wanted was to get on Nana Everley’s bad side.

“Now are you going to tell me what part you got or am I going to have to come over there and beat it out of you?”

I laughed. Much better to stick with the good news than to mention Tom’s part in all of this. “Well . . .” I said, savoring my news, “actually, I got Sandy.”

“What?” Libby made a sputtering noise on the other end. “Did they mistake you for someone else?”

“You’re so funny!”

She laughed. “Someone has to keep you grounded. Seriously though. Sandy, huh? I can’t believe your plan actually worked. That’s the part you wanted, right?”

“Yeah.” But the plan hadn’t worked. Not the way it was supposed to, anyway. “Gretchen says it’s because I’m the ‘untouched virgin’ but what’s that supposed to mean? I’m not some boring goody-two-shoes.”

I could practically hear Libby thinking about her response, and as the seconds ticked by I started to get kind of annoyed. She was supposed to leap in and agree with me.

“Maybe since you haven’t dated anyone and you hide your crushes so well?” she said at last. “If you hadn’t told me you liked Aidan, I still wouldn’t suspect. Sorry, man, I don’t understand half the things your cousin says. So does this mean you get to hook up with Aidan on stage now?”

“No that’s the killer. Tom got Danny.”

“Ohmigod,” she breathed. “Tom?”

“Yeah.”

“Oh honey, I’m so sorry.”

I closed my eyes. Thank you, Libby. I hated letting people see this part of me—the vulnerable side. All my friends knew my general aversion to Tom, but only Libby knew how I felt about Aidan. She knew because she told me everything, and if I didn’t share something in return, I’d feel like a complete ass. As for my other friends, Gretchen teased, Emma didn’t listen, and Beaz didn’t share, which was just fine with me. I swallowed the lump in my throat. “At least now Aidan will know who I am.”

“You’re in choir together. I’m sure he knows who you are.”

“We have, like, fifty people in honors choir. He doesn’t know.”

Neither of us said anything for a minute. Had we talked too much about me? “So, how’s life on the other side of the mountains?”

“Actually, Charlottesville’s gotten kind of fun. You need to come visit soon.”

“I will. As soon as your grandma stops eating people for breakfast.”

Libby snorted. “She’s not that bad.”

“Are we still talking about the woman who keeps a spit cup in the dash of her car?”

“Fine, point taken, but we can’t all have Cookie Monster’s Grandma at our beck and call.”

I grinned. “And she’s making peanut butter cookies tonight.”

She gasped. “You are evil!

“The aroma . . . mmm it’s wafting upstairs as we speak.”

“I’m hanging up now.”

“I’ll mail you some?”

“You are forgiven, my child. And throw in some oatmeal raisin.”

The door to my room swung open. “Knock knock,” my mom said, as if that somehow made her barging in more tolerable. Her lawyerly pencil skirt and blue pin-striped blouse told me why she’d missed dinner. Again. “Oh, you’re on the phone, sorry,” she said. “I just wanted to let you know I heard your big news. I’m really proud of you.”

I crossed my ankles. “Thanks.”

Threading her fingers through her sleek, black-brown bob, she crossed into the room. “Is that Libby?”

I angled the phone away so Libby couldn’t hear. “Yes.”

“Say hi for me. And don’t stay up too late. Grandma Faye has a hair appointment at eight tomorrow morning and I need you to take her.”

“Ugh, Mom it’s Saturday! Why can’t you or Dad?”

She folded her arms across her body and shrugged. “I have a meeting in Staunton and your father is supposed to see about a project—a paying project—in Harrisonburg.”

Libby’s voice filtered from the phone. “Should I say goodbye?”

I flipped it back to my mouth. “No, just hang on.”

“It will be good driving practice,” my mother added with an impatient flick of her hair. “You’ll have to get your license one of these days.”

I ducked my head and muttered an “okay” just to get her off my back. The moment the door swung shut, I said, “Sorry. My mom decided our phone call was a good time to tell me I have to drive Grandma to a hair appointment tomorrow.”

“Good. You need all the driving practice you can get.”

“Um gee thanks, Mom?”

“I’m serious. Get your license and then you can come visit me. Charlottesville may not be half bad, but there’s still no Tally.”

I grinned to myself. It was nice to be missed. “Miss you, too. The musical won’t be the same without you.”

“Hah. The musical won’t be the same with you as a lead. And if you’re worrying about the whole Tom thing, don’t. He’ll get a new girlfriend soon, and then there won’t be any weirdness. Trust me.”

End of first two chapters,  Broadway High by Michelle D. Sinclair

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