This month's sneak peek is chapter 1 of Designer Holiday!
Rayne Sadler stood on Main Street in front of the Holiday Pines Playhouse, feeling as if years had fallen away and he was a teenager again, about to help design the sets for his high school’s production of The Music Man.
The playhouse had been built in 1928 and reflected the Art Deco style of the era, but it was undergoing an extensive restoration both inside and out, which was why the front of the building was covered in scaffolding. The double doors of the front entrance weren’t blocked, but Rayne was hesitant to test them. He’d just gotten in town, so no one at the playhouse was expecting him. All he’d done was check in with the realtor to pick up the keys of the house he’d rented. He hadn’t even unloaded his car yet, but nostalgia had spurred him to visit the playhouse before he did anything else.
“Rayne!” The right door opened, and a portly, white-haired man stepped out of the playhouse, beaming. “We weren’t expecting you this early.”
“Hi, Mr. Watson.” Rayne went to meet Steve Watson, the manager of the playhouse, and held out his hand. “I couldn’t wait to see the place. It holds a lot of good memories for me.”
Like making out backstage with Emilio late at night when rehearsals were over and the cast and the rest of the tech crew had gone home.
“Call me Steve, please,” Steve said as he shook Rayne’s hand. “The playhouse is an important part of our town. That’s why we need it in perfect shape for this holiday season. Come on in and have a look around. Have you come up with any preliminary plans?”
“I was waiting to see the space and what condition it’s in,” Rayne said.
He’d been approached by the Holiday Pines arts council about heading the interior restoration. Holiday Pines, North Carolina, was a tiny mountain town with a population of less than five thousand people, but its proximity to the biggest Christmas tree farm in the state made it a popular destination during the holiday season, which it had capitalized on for decades by going all out from the day after Thanksgiving through Christmas Day. There were events every day thanks to local businesses, and weekends were packed with festivals, parades, and musical performances sponsored by the town.
But according to the president of the arts council, tourism had tapered off over the last few years, and the council was trying to bolster it with new events and a restoration of the playhouse, where many of the new events would take place. The council had approached Rayne because he was a former local who had made enough of a name for himself as an interior designer in Atlanta that they hoped to use him as a “claim to fame” draw.
Rayne was contracted to finish the restorations by Thanksgiving, but he’d decided to book an extended stay since he hadn’t spent Christmas in Holiday Pines in years. His trips home for the holidays had grown sporadic after he graduated from college. A few years ago, his parents had decided they were tired of western North Carolina winters and moved to a retirement village in Florida, so Rayne had no reason to visit.
But this year, he’d cleared his schedule from the last week of October through the first week of January and delegated his clients to his employees. He’d expected to feel anxious about leaving his business in someone else’s hands, but instead, he’d felt relief as the city grew smaller in his rearview window. He hadn’t realized how tired he was of Atlanta’s bustle and noise until he hit a quiet stretch of highway lined with trees that had scattered their orange, yellow, and red leaves on the road to tumble in Rayne’s wake. All he heard was the hum of his tires on asphalt, and the tension he carried in his shoulders had relaxed in response to the restful scene.
As he followed Steve inside the building, the musty scent of an aged building wafted by Rayne’s nose. The interior of the playhouse looked much like Rayne remembered it, only shabbier. The gilding was chipped, the carpet was worn thin, and the red velvet drapes were faded, but the structure appeared sound.
“She has good bones to work with,” he said, and Steve smiled proudly.
“That she does. She needs some TLC, that’s all.”
“I can give her that,” Rayne said, skimming his fingertips across the dull wallpaper. His mind was already turning over the possibilities, and he couldn’t wait to start doing research on the history of the building and its original interior design materials.
“Would you like to see the auditorium?” Steve asked. “There’s a rehearsal going on, but it’ll be fine as long as we’re quiet.”
“I’d love to.” Rayne felt a surge of anticipation at seeing the place where he’d spent so much time as a theater kid. Holiday Pines High didn’t have an auditorium, so they always used the playhouse for all their performances, including band, choir, and orchestra as well as the plays and musicals put on twice a year by the drama class students.
As they headed toward the double doors from the lobby to the auditorium proper, Rayne heard music coming from within, a recording of the fast-paced Trans-Siberian Orchestra piece “Wizards in Winter.” Steve held the door open for him, revealing several children in leotards and tights up on the stage, their hands joined to form a circle as they pranced around.
The music stopped, and a man stepped out of the wings, his back to the auditorium as he walked toward the children. He was tall and broad-shouldered, his long legs encased in lycra dance pants that outlined the hard muscles of his calves and thighs and clung to the taut mounds of his ass. His tight-fitting tank left his well-developed arms bare, and he was gesturing at the children, who watched him attentively.
“That was good, but we need to try it again. The music sounds different in here than in the studio, because of the way it echoes, so you’re all just a bit slow on the beat. Let’s take it back to the beginning. Positions!”
Rayne froze at the sound of a familiar voice. Emilio’s voice.
“Is that Emilio Rives?” he asked, trying to sound more casual than he felt.
“Yes, Emilio took over the dance studio when his mother retired,” Steve said. “He’s personally choreographing all the holiday dance shows.”
Rayne had thought about the possibility of crossing paths with Emilio when he’d accepted the job, but he didn’t think it would happen so soon, and his stomach clenched with a roiling mix of apprehension and anticipation. He walked down the aisle to get a better look at the man who had been his first boyfriend. They’d given each other a lot of firsts when they were desperately horny teenagers, and that old, familiar attraction flared up anew as he watched Emilio now. Emilio was a little taller, a little broader, and much more filled out than the lanky teen Rayne remembered, and he’d grown into solid, sexy manhood.
“Rehearsals won’t get in the way of your work, will they?” Steve asked, keeping his voice low.
“We might have to close the auditorium off,” Rayne said, forcing himself to stop ogling Emilio and pay attention to the auditorium instead. He made some mental notes as he looked around. “But we could schedule it so the work in here is finished first so the performers can work in the renovated space no later than mid-month.” He glanced at Steve, one eyebrow raised. “All of this is contingent on how big my work crew is and how experienced they are. You’re asking for a lot of work with a tight turn-around time.”
“We’ve got plenty of volunteers,” Steve said. “We’re trading free labor and materials for free advertising. Any local business or craftsperson who helps with the restoration will be recognized with a plaque in the lobby, and we’ll make their flyers and business cards available at the concession stand.”
“I guess they’ve got sentimental reasons for helping out too,” Rayne said with a wry smile. He was taking a greatly reduced fee for this particular job, but he didn’t mind. He didn’t need the money, and he was attached to the playhouse.
“That they do,” Steve said with a knowing smile.
Rayne glanced at the stage, debating whether he should approach Emilio yet or wait until Emilio wasn’t in the middle of a rehearsal. He wasn’t sure what kind of reception he’d get. Their break-up hadn’t been acrimonious. To Rayne, it had felt inevitable once he left for college, but that didn’t mean Emilio would be happy to see him.
“I can come back and take notes later,” he said. “I don’t want to get in their way.”
Emilio had stopped his dancers again to correct some problem with the choreography. The group of girls were made up of tweens and early teens, and one of them, an older girl, watched Rayne with a shy smile. Emilio used to say dance was thousands of hours of practice and rehearsal for only a few hours on the stage, but he’d loved dancing so much that he’d never complained.
“Annabeth! Attention on me, please!” Emilio said.
Startled, Annabeth looked back toward Emilio with a guilty expression, but Emilio glanced out at the auditorium as if to see what had distracted her. Rayne knew the moment Emilio recognized him, because Emilio went still, his dark gaze fixed on Rayne as though he was seeing a ghost.
Since he was busted, Rayne decided to make the best of it. He walked closer to the stage and waved to Emilio.
“Hi,” he said, offering a friendly smile.
Emilio had a killer smile that had gotten them both out of trouble more than once, but there was no evidence of it now. Emilio’s demeanor was frosty, but he acknowledged the greeting with a curt nod. “I heard you were doing the renovations.”
“I am,” Rayne said, keeping his smile pasted on despite the lead weight sinking to the pit of his stomach. “I’ll try to inconvenience you and the other performers as little as possible.”
Emilio gave an expressive shrug. “I’ve already blocked all the dances, and we’ve started rehearsing on stage earlier than usual so the performers can learn their marks. As long as we have three days before the first performance, we’ll manage. Far be it from me to stand in the way of progress.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Rayne was puzzled by the remark, which Emilio’s tone made sound like a dig.
“Nothing at all.” Emilio shrugged again. “If you will excuse me, I have work to do.” With that, Emilio turned his attention back to the dancers and clapped his hands. “Places! Back to the beginning! We have enough time for one more complete run through before class is over!”
“Okay, I think I’m done here for now.” Rayne turned his attention back to Steve, trying to sound more cheerful than he felt after being stung by the blatant dismissal. “I should probably unpack and get settled in anyway.”
“Of course!” Steve walked with him back to the lobby. “If there’s anything I can do to help, let me know.”
“To start with, you can get me any existing photos, newspaper clippings, or notes from when the playhouse was built, if you have them,” Rayne said. “If not, I’ll check with the library and newspaper archives, but I was hoping there was some kind of archive at the playhouse itself.”
“We do have one,” Steve said, nodding. “I’ll pull whatever I can find and have it ready for you tomorrow.”
“Perfect,” Rayne said, his smile becoming genuine again. “If you could include color photos from the early decades plus any invoices that show what materials the designer used, that would be great. I want to keep the playhouse as close to its original appearance as possible.”
“So you aren’t planning to give it a more modern look?” Steve asked, raising a questioning eyebrow, and Rayne stared at him, shocked and a little affronted.
“God, no! Why would I do that? The Art Deco style is part of the playhouse’s charm as well as its history,” he said. “I don’t want to change it. I want to make it beautiful again.”
Steve grinned and clapped him on the shoulder. “There were a few people who were concerned you might want to make too many changes. I’ll be glad to let them know that’s not the case.”
“Please do,” Rayne said, irked that anyone would think such a thing.
At the main entrance, he and Steve shook hands again, and then Rayne headed back to his car and typed the address of his rental house into the map app on his phone, ready to get settled in his temporary new home. As he drove down Main Street, the comforting warmth of familiarity filled him as he took in the sights.
For the first time in a long time, he felt as if he’d come home.