Harlequinade Book One-Theater of Seduction
coming February 15, 2018

  
“Carnival? What a goofy name for a play,” Mike handed me a plastic glass of pink wine. I took a sip, and my mouth twisted as I turned to the cast list.

I was one of the few actresses I knew who hadn’t used a stage name. I liked the way my name looked on the program—always at the top of the cast list and usually longer than the other actors’ names—and I liked the way it stood out on the marquee. I even liked the sound of it.

Catherine.

Catherine is a drawn-out name, a name with a predetermined history, a name that provides a mental image of Russian queens and Heathcliff’s obsession. I tried hard to live up to the name of Catherine. I never mentioned my plebian middle name; no thanks, the Ann could stay at home.

When I write, introduce myself, sign checks or leave my name with a concierge, my name is Cat.
But on the stage? On the stage, my name is Catherine.

No wonder I was bitter. Catherine was nowhere to be seen on this cast list. Regardless of what Mike thought, all this theatrical experience would do was to remind me of my failure. Even now, I could feel the familiar tingle of pre-show nerves burning my skin. In my mind’s eye, I could picture what was happening backstage. The actors were in their places in the wings, their hearts beating a little faster at the prospect of a full house, their costumes immaculate and their props in their hands.

The lights flickered and the laughing, chattering crowd turned like a choreographed dance troupe for the theater doors. I was embarrassed for the overeager ones who pushed past elderly women, shoving their tickets at the ushers. I frowned.

Why would all these people be so excited to see a show?

Mike was observing the restrained frenzy of the audience with an intent look on his face. I knew that look. He was sensing a story.

The pulse of anticipation surging through the crowd was abnormal, heightened by some other factor I couldn’t identify. The feeling was insidious, like a barely audible drumbeat beneath the low murmur of people now hastening into the auditorium. I drained the last of my wine, threw the plastic glass into the trash and joined Mike at the door. My pulse slowed, echoing the rhythm now creeping through the theater.

I was very surprised to see an orchestra in the pit. This show wasn’t a musical, so why the live music? It didn’t make sense. On top of that, no one in the audience was talking. Not one person. The silence was uncanny, with twelve hundred people trying very hard not to make a sound. The house lights dimmed as I slid into my seat. Mike took the seat to my right. By the time I settled that peculiar silence you only hear in a theater fell over the crowd, the same hush that presaged the opening curtain of any show. I had never seen an audience file in so eagerly…so fast, so quiet.

I took my cell from my purse so I could turn it off as the lights slowly dimmed to black. While we were still in darkness, the opening strains of music scattered the pre-show anticipation with the croon of violins and cellos.
A nervous flutter twisted my stomach.

The music rose in volume, twining languorously around me as the scrim lights came up. Their glow silhouetted several tall tree trunks that twisted to the bottom of the proscenium arch. As the stage lights rose, the scarred gray trunks came into sharper detail and the leaves heaped upon the stage stirred in a low drifting haze. The effect was silvery, as if the moon hovered just behind my head so I couldn’t see it. The tendrils of mist curling suggestively around the tree trunks were mesmerizing.

My toes curled in my boots.

I let out a shaking breath. Without really thinking about it, I shielded the glare of my cell phone with my scarf so as not to distract anyone and activated the video camera. I turned the phone lens to the stage.

Fog swirled around the tree furthest stage right and a man stepped out from the wings. He was tall, his lean body garbed in a red satin frock coat trimmed with gold lace. As he turned to face the audience, my heart sped up.

Drop. Dead. Gorgeous.

Damn.

I don’t call men ‘beautiful’ but handsome just didn’t begin to describe this guy. At first glance, all I saw was his gorgeousness but as he began to turn toward the audience, a twist of his lips revealed something else.

Cruelty?

Despair?

Regret?

I couldn’t tell. 

He was staring in apparent dejection at the ground near his feet. He hesitated, as if he was afraid to take another step, when suddenly his head snapped up and he pivoted to face the audience. To my surprise, he shattered the fourth wall, the invisible wall that separates actors from the audience. He was deliberately searching for something—someone in the audience—and then he looked dead at me.

Rationally, I knew he couldn’t see me. An actor can’t see past the third or fourth row of a darkened theater and we were sitting a good twenty rows from the stage. And yet, his searching gaze tore right through me.

He was looking at me—

I turned swiftly to say something to Mike. Only…only he wasn’t there.

The breath left my body in a rush. The theater dissolved around me, fading back into a dark, dark place. Cold, fresh air brushed against my skin, smelling sweetly of the end of summer, the last blooms of the flowers and the first, tiny hint of snow. I froze as terror gripped me, sliding a cold hand around my throat.

I wasn’t in the theater.

I turned, shocked to my core when I realized that not only was I outside, but I stood alone beneath a crisp, cold night. Stars shone through the tatters of the clouds, providing just enough light for me to look around.
But before I could figure out what exactly was going on, I heard a sound I identified with ease—the crunching sound of footsteps crushing frost-rimed blades of grass. I stumbled back against the nearest shape, barely swallowing a scream when I realized what it was.

A tombstone.

“Who are you?” The man in the red frock coat was standing a foot away. He spoke gently, his hands extended in a calming gesture. “Don’t be afraid. Allow me to offer my assistance.”

I backed hurriedly away and nearly toppled over another tombstone in the process. In the faint light of the cemetery, he looked puzzled and concerned. The graveyard brightened abruptly as the moon shredded through the lingering clouds.

“Don’t be afraid; I know who you are. You are Odette.”

Odette? Who the hell is he talking to?

He stepped closer and I immediately put a hand onto the grave marker at my side to steady myself. This man made me jittery. He glanced around as if he was afraid someone else was watching us. My eyes met his, and recognition flashed across his face.

He leaned closer, like he was going to kiss me, and his breath brushed the small curls at my ears. “I brought you back to my proper time to warn you. He can’t see or hear us here. Try to avoid catching his notice when you return to yours. Get out of the theater as fast as you can.”

I stared at him like he’d lost his mind, even though it was very apparent that all the mind-losing had gone on in my head.

“Remember what I’ve said.” He lifted my hand from the tombstone and brought it swiftly to his lips. “After the play, run and don’t come back. That is the only way to save yourself.”

Then he spun on his heel and strode from the graveyard, not bothering to look back once. I turned desperately toward where the audience should be, searching for the lights, the edge of the apron, the wings—any of the familiar landmarks I usually saw during a show.

But darkness swallowed me up…
 
A joyful crash shook me to awareness. I was clapping loudly, my entire body thrumming with excitement and a strange energy that almost felt sexual. What an awesome show! I’d never seen anything like it, even on Broadway—

Wait a second. Just a moment ago, I was outside in a cemetery.

I shook off the blackness and confusion. I was the only person sitting in the middle of a theater audience that was busily giving the cast of this show an ovation and I felt…strange. Bizarre. While my mind was trying to process everything and identify the odd feeling reverberating under my skin, I was absolutely convinced that…convinced that…

Wait—what? Why do I feel aroused?

I peered sharply at the stage, ignoring the applause and shouts from the audience. I needed to see the cast. The man I’d met a few minutes ago…he was in the company, wasn’t he? The tall man in the red coat.
Unfortunately, this was the end of the show, not the beginning. Whoever my daydream was about, the actor had obviously changed costumes, and all the men now had powdered wigs. The cast took another bow, keyed by the man in the center of the line. The audience clapped louder, demanding another curtain call.

Oh my God. I don’t have a clue what this play was about. I don’t remember a damn thing about it except—Where is the man in the red coat?

I stared at the actors bowing on the stage intently, trying to recollect something—anything!—about the show I’d evidently just seen. To be honest, I was pretty disgusted with myself. This whole situation felt like I’d had the world’s most memorable one-night-stand but forgotten every damn minute of it anyway.

Story of my life.

I checked my watch—10:17 pm. I’d lost two hours and seventeen minutes.

I was half-afraid that Mike wouldn’t be there when I turned but he was on his feet next to me, clapping
enthusiastically along with the rest of the audience. Mike glanced at me and his brows furrowed in sudden confusion. I stood up, my legs trembling underneath me.

My cell phone fell to the floor with a clatter.

Holy shit. I'd filmed the show.