I was late. Dinner-skipping, running with twenty tons (including a tenor sax case the size, weight and maneuverability of a dead body), panting late by the time I found the theater house doors.
Chop me into sausage. My first night with the full group and I needed to make a good impression, but I had three minutes to assemble instruments and wet reeds and find my seat and warm up and--
The tuning note sounded. Chop me into sausage and slap me on a bun. Not only was I late, when I did start playing I'd be out of tune like a fifth grade wire choir. I juggled instrumentalia to free a hand, yanked open the heavy house door and ran through--
Straight into a sea of Munchkins. Which, since I wasn't Moses, refused to part.
Chop me, slap me and serve me with ketchup and a side of kraut fries.
Running, squirming Munchkins blocked the aisles, crawled over stinky-new seats and generally terrorized the otherwise empty auditorium. Not real Munchkins, of course, but local kids who hoped to sing and dance their way to fame and fortune in the new musical, Oz, Wonderful Oz. The inaugural production would open our brand-spanking-new Meiers Corners Marlene Dietrich Performing Arts Center. Actors and musicians had been rehearsing separately and tonight was our first time together. I was playing reed two in the pit orchestra.
If I could get to the pit, that was.
The house lights were at fifty percent, high enough to see two harried adults patting makeup on chubby cheeks. A couple teenage babysitters tried to run herd but were hard pressed just to keep the kids from ripping themselves or the house to shreds. Mayhem in the form of youngsters shed hats and bows and bits of costume like auto parts in a San Francisco car chase. I craned my neck for a way through the seething mass.
My future depended on getting into that pit on time. We were going to Broadway--if a certain unnamed big-bucks backer was impressed with the show on closing night. All of us, including the musicians. Including me.
If I could just get to that damned pit.
Bull my way through? At five-two, I wasn't much bigger than the rugrats. But with the tenor sax deadweight... I eyed the sea of Munchkins and sighed. It was vital I get to my seat but not at the cost of hurting a kid.
Besides, those poor harried teenagers needed help. I sloughed my cases and music stand and went to render what aid I could.
A Lollipop Guilder, scrambling to escape the auditorium, rammed into me. I snagged him by his suspenders and plopped him into a seat. Just as I straightened, a scuffling pair of boys with missing front teeth (not from the scuffle, I hoped) rolled into me. I broke them up, rescued their hats and sat them next to the Lollipopper--who Lolli-popped out of his seat. I grabbed him, but the gap-toothed boys bubbled up, timing it like a tag team. I managed to corral all three with a bear hug and wrestled them into their seats.
I huffed to catch my breath. No wonder Mom only had the one of me.
Two giggling girls darted past and bumped me into the boys. Or into their empty seats, as they'd climbed out and were now Spidermanning into the next aisle.
"Overture, please." Up front the pit director called the musicians to attention.
I forked fingers into my hair, forgetting my scalp-tight braid, and nearly tore out a chunk. Not only was I officially screwed, I couldn't even corral a few kids. Cocktail weenies on a stick, could it get any worse?
Of course it could. "I'm a filly!"
Speaking of corral. A stampede of girls playing horse galloped into me, knocking me off my feet again. I fell, trampled under their small hooves. Terrific. My obituary would now read, "Gunter Marie 'Junior' Stieg, pit musician and sausage queen, pounded flat by a herd of size-three Mary Janes." I braced myself for death, or at least a bad bruising.
Big, warm hands slid under my arms, drew me to my feet.
"Here now," said a musical baritone. "I'll take care of this, babi. You sit here, out of the way."
The hands assisted me to a plush seat. I sank in. Mmm, comfy. The city sure had gone all out remodeling the theater...babi?
I blinked. A pair of shoulders wider than a freeway waded out into the sea of kids. The leather-jacketed shoulders belonged to a man, black-haired, tall and strong-looking--but even Gulliver fell to a raging river of Lilliputians. I called out a warning too late. Kids grabbed the man's hands, his jacket, and climbed him like a tree. He was swarmed, overwhelmed, swallowed up by the horde of prepubescent terrors. I covered my eyes.
"Sit now, younglings. All in a row, that's it. Sit quietly until it's your turn to have makeup."
He had a lovely accent. I uncovered my eyes. Somehow he'd freed himself from the swarm of kids and was calmly shepherding them into the first two rows of seats, adjusting a tie here or hat there as they filed neatly by.
Holy Dr. Spock. There was a handy man to have if I ever wanted kids.
I smacked myself discreetly between the eyes. No children, at least not right now. First, make a good impression on the director of this show, turn the show into a smash hit, and go to New York.
Which meant getting into that pit before the overture started. Maybe I still could. I jumped to my feet, snatched up my Manhasset stand and corpse sax, shouldered my instrument bag and trotted down the rapidly clearing aisle.
And nearly slammed into a six-kid pileup.
The adults doing Munchkin makeup had stopped the kids from filing into the third row of seats in order to fix one Munchkin's smears. I screeched to a stop on my toes, off-balance. My bag slipped, dropped off my shoulder, jerked me into stumbling. I nearly dropped the sax, did drop my stand, tangled feet with it and had to wrench myself backward to keep from falling.
Except the sax didn't hear about the change in plans. Momentum carried it in my original direction, popping it from of my grip.
To my horror, the tenor case pitched straight at the kids.
The man turned instantly, as if preternaturally aware of the danger. But he was behind the kids. He'd have to hurdle like Jesse Owens to get between the deadly sax and those small bodies.
Palming the wall, he levered against it to kick up and over Munchkin heads, clearing them with incredible grace and ease, landing on my side.
On the way he snatched my tenor. Midair.
I set down my instrument bag and blew out my tension. "Wow. Thanks. I..."
Straightening to his full height of six-OMG, he faced me, emanating strength and energy. Powerful chest muscles pushed into the jacket's gap right in front of my nose.
I gaped, realized I was starting to drool and looked up.
Sondheim shoot me. His face was all dark, dangerous planes. His eyes were twin sapphire flames that hit me in the gut. My breath punched out and none came to replace it. Bad news for a wind player.
He turned to set the sax down. I started breathing again.
A tapping caught my ear, the conductor ready to start. I needed to get into that pit now.
Half a dozen kids and two makeup adults were still in my way.
I'd have crawled over the seats myself but my joints weren't as limber as the kids'...unless I used my black Lara Croft braid as a rope. I was desperate enough to consider it.
The man, turning back, saw my predicament. He lifted my instrument bag and music stand over kids with the same strength and grace as when he'd snatched the tenor. Then he turned to me.
And swept me up into his arms.
An instant of shock, of male heat and rock-hard muscle. A carved face right next to mine, masculine lips beautifully defined--abruptly I was set on my feet beside the pit. The sax landed next to me with a thump.
"There." His accent was jagged, as if he were as rattled as me. "There's your instrument." He bounded to the back of the theater and was gone.
I blinked, not sure what had just happened. A handsome, good with kids, preternaturally aware man had swept me off my feet. Literally.
Checking said tootsies, no ruby slippers or glass pumps had magically appeared. So I hadn't sideslipped into a fairy tale, which left him being real, and, hey--I was real, which made me shiver with possibilities.
No. Oh, no.
I hauled the sax case next to the pit wall, threw it open and put the tenor together by instinct. I grabbed beat-up brass...pale gold, like his smooth skin. I fisted hard plastic mouthpiece...he had rock-hard muscles, and something else I fisted would be rock-hard too. I realized what I was doing and jammed mouthpiece onto cork without the benefit of new grease. It was tough, but I reveled in twisting it down tight.
Because I could not afford to get sidetracked by sex. I had priorities. Family duty was A-numero-uno. Plans for my future were a close second. This show was a big step toward satisfying both. Right now, any attraction would be a distraction. A huge, muscled distraction. A broad-shouldered, black-jacketed distraction... The overture started.