Under a warm, gray sky, a calm street went about its business. The sound of tires gliding along the damp asphalt lulled the cup full of Tuesday afternoon customers into the security of a small town. Carly stepped out of the recently bought used SUV into the gravel parking lot that she mused would be full if this were anywhere near Seattle. The bag of intended Christmas gifts in her arms wasn't heavy as much as bulky, and she found her way into the little apartment building with little effort.

Though only a week had gone by since she'd moved in, the place already felt like home. Instead of appearing grimy or uncomfortable, the peeling white paint and quaint, narrow steps brought on a mild nostalgia and a fuzzy view of her great grandmother's house - a feeling that only intensified when you added the smell of cookies wafting into the stairwell from her landlady's door. Nutmeg, cloves, and cinnamon; how she loved those spicy scents. A quick glimpse at the mailboxes told her she was too early yet. She happily skipped the last two steps in her comfortable flats and turned the key. In her giddiness and cookie-scented heaven she revelled that the action was already muscle memory.

Dumping the packages on the covered sofa along with her Prada knockoff, she shrugged out of her scarff and wondered vaguely when the Pacific mist might turn into a fluffy white blanket. It was only the beginning of December, she berated herself. And if she'd wanted to move for weather, well, she would have chosen a much different part of the continent, wouldn't she? Coos Bay, though beautiful and kind, had a high reputation for overwatering its outdoor plants. Plants that she thankfully didn't have to look after. Out here, she could have as many trees as she wanted - they just didn't live in a backyard that belonged to her.

Besides, she thought, glancing at the sheer cream curtains of the front window, she came here for the ocean. Sand in her toes warmed her, and the passion of the everchanging waves excited her. The beach on the coast was where she could go to calm herself or to provoke, to enliven or subdue. When you needed it, the ocean would always be there. There was far too much of it for the entire human race, let alone one person, and wasn't that spectacular?

But in her current contentedness and satiated thirst for change, she didn't need the ocean. Carly was saving her first visit to the dunes as a permanent resident for a special occasion. Maybe her two week anniversary, she thought with not a little grin. For now, all she needed was to finish unpacking the last of the boxes for her bright little kitchen, decide on some simple noodle dish to make, and then wander around her own personal apartment on the second floor of a little old building in the middle of an uncrowded main street. If she did that with a celebratory mimosa, who was there to care? As an afterthought, she lit a Christmas candle for atmosphere.

While she busied herself with the act of unwrapping dishes, she went over the next day's schedule. She had to be at the theater by seven because call for actors was at nine and she wanted some time to learn the backstage tunnels and quirks before meeting with the director. Tomorrow was her first day of rehearsal. She'd somehow managed to single handedly land herself the last job available in theater production on the Oregon coast that wasn't within an hour of Portland, and wasn't it convenient that it just happened to be in the city near her brother's house? Maybe some would have called it coincidence, but not Carly. She was very glad that fate agreed with her in her choice of location, and that was why it had handed her the perfect opportunity: stage managing for Guys and Dolls at Little Theater By the Coast. The Trial of Ebenezer Scrooge had just finished, and it was time to begin rehearsal for the winter musical. She'd missed auditions - those were back in mid November. In small towns, as she'd come to find, a little bit went a long way. One day you walk to the grocery store for bagels, wind up having a free coffee with a woman two streets over, then the next day you've got a call from her husband's cousin about the show he's doing, and he needs someone eager with your experience for the position you were born to fill, and that's a coincidence? She didn't think so.

She set about boiling angel hair pasta just as the streetlamps outside her window came on, illuminating the ribbon edges of her sheer curtains. Spaghetti always reminded her of romantic comedies. She thought of what her mother would say about wasting a good meal on herself, not cooking for a nice young man. Her eyes closed, as they often did when she smiled on a memory. The last time she'd discussed her love life with Anna Louise Anderson, it had ended with her using a fake date as an excuse to leave. She didn't particularly enjoy telling white lies to her own flesh and blood, but working in an acting world it was just a skill you picked up. She wasn't good at weaving tall tales, so she figured that balanced it out well enough.

After collecting the remainder of the dish in tupperware for lunch tomorrow, she thanked the powers that be for the dishwasher she'd put in her personal living requirements. The two years she spent washing pots and pans had left her with a wonderful appreciation for them, but she was ready to go back to the easier life.

When all was in clean enough sorts, she set about on her evening ritual. She wandered through the entryway that connected the kitchen to the living space, remembering the packages she'd left there, and then on down the hall to the bathroom. Here she'd placed a ship in a bottle on top of the medicine cabinet, with the matching sailboat paintings on either side. The wallpaper was nautical stripes, which she would have changed to a solid seafoam green if she owned the place, but since it went with the theme it could be dealt with for the time being. Above the small bath was a bronze colored bar that came out from the walls on which she'd hung a last minute impulse buy. The smiley faces on the translucent plastic weren't exactly a great compliment for the rest of the room, but they were cheerful. The really great thing about the place was that it had real tile - clean, healthy, honest to God tile - in the kitchen and bathroom.

She saved the bedroom for last, practically waltzing through the narrow doorway. Cream walls kept the room light and open, while the heavy purple curtains gave depth. Her bed was large but simple, with white pillows and a mint green quilt. She kept a large antique dresser in the far corner next to to the closet. A long oval mirror hung above it, its edges encased in elegant oxidized copper. Deciding she was just as satisfied as she'd been a week ago, she finished her glass of champagne and orange juice. As she finished her roam through the apartment, ending as she always did in the kitchen, tidy and dazzling in its warm yellows, she toasted herself one more time. "Congratulations on a job well unearthed." She amused herself by conjuring a mental pro and con list to decide on the kind of bubble bath she'd use tonight, then contemplated a cup of cocoa before bed when she would read over the script one more time.

Carly chose to walk to the theater three streets down instead of driving. It would leave more room for other people, and she would get to see the sun rise up from the tree covered hills. Upon seeing the vivacious pink when she stepped out onto the sidewalk, taking in the air, she remembered the old adage. 'Red sky at night, sailor's delight. Red sky in the morning, sailor's take warning.' She smiled, despite the threat of bad weather to come. She'd be indoors when it hit anyway.

The sidewalk was far from busy, though Pete's bakery and the two coffee shops were open. She stopped in at Pete's for a maple bar.

"Good morning, Pete." She flashed him one of her supermodel smiles and leaned over the counter to see him in the back.

"Well hey there, little girl. How are you doing this morning?" He slid the two trays full of deserts onto a couple of racks as though they were nothing. The large biceps were certainly not a disguise.

"Oh, I'm doing wonderfully. The sunrise is beautiful. Have you seen it?" Then she remembered he probably saw it every day.

"Not yet. Got in here early today. Wanted you to have the best selection before you wondered off to the little show house." He approached her, drying his hands on a towel he kept in his apron. "What can I get for you?"

She left with a light heart and the free small coffee he'd promised for her first day of work. As she continued the stroll through the crisp winter morning she considered what that first day might be like.

Unlike the high school shows she usually worked up in King County, this was much more professional, despite the diverse age range. It may have been a small venue, but people didn't audition here to slack off. Once they were cast, the actors were off book by the time rehearsal began, and thank God for that. She would have her work cut out for her as it was. Learning a new theater was time consuming and challenging, but worth it. It was always worth it. Theater and the people that went with it were her life. Everything she would ever need was nestled between the ticket booth and the back door of every playhouse, amphitheater, music hall, and arena.

She used the side entrance to the hallway that would lead around the back of the stage and took the steps down to the greenroom. In the stairwell she indulged in a quick visual scan of the walls that held signatures of the different generations. Her grandfather's name was on here somewhere. She made a mental goal to find it before the show finished in March.

In the green room she found a ridiculously comfortable squashy couch, three long hangers on wheels, one already half filled, and a wide counter. Two doors were open on the far wall; she guessed, correctly, that these were the dressing rooms. Wasn't it beautiful, to see a place like this? You'd never find something so personal, so homey, in a big city. That was one of the many reasons she left.

Sometimes it still hurt, cutting off that part of herself. She'd grown up in the greater Seattle area, and changing from suburbanite to small town had been hard to fathom. She looked at it like a getaway, a vacation, when she planned the move. It was the only way to ensure that she would love it, and she wanted to love it.

Getting away from the city had been crucial to her health. She needed to get out of Des Moines and find a new community, something different. She needed to learn, and she wanted a fresh start. In a smaller area, it was more likely that people would be more worried about one another than they were about getting a Christmas bonus or vacation time. They weren't preoccupied with big business meetings or climbing up the company ladder. It was a real Mom and Pop kind of place, family oriented with a nice helping of TLC on the side. They took care of each other here. She didn't even know the people three houses down in her old neighborhood. Here, she already knew nearly every store owner in downtown by first name.

A tall blonde in tight black jeans and an oversized leather jacket stormed down the stairs just then, interrupting her thoughts. The woman stopped short at the bottom, paused in the middle of gathering her hair for a pony tail. "Hey." She quickly finished and held out a hand. "Linda Foley, rail, lighting, and gaff tape extroardinaire." She gave a friendly grin.

"Nice to meet you. Carly Anderson. New SM." She smiled almost apologetically.

"Well." Linda looked her up and down. She must have decided she liked what she saw, because she smiled again, sincerely. "Welcome to LTBC, Boss. We're happy to have you on board." And that, Linda thought, knowing they'd be inseperable even as Carly braced herself for so much open enthusiasm, was that.

Two hours southeast, a very angry man was scowling at his Honda's engine. He had no idea what he ought to look for, or what he might do about it if he found a problem. Assuming there was a problem that could be fixed. At this rate, he may as well put it in neutral and shove the damn thing off a cliff.

"Stare long enough, it might wake up." Adam turned abruptly toward the skinny old man in dirty jeans and an old baseball cap. "Or maybe I can take a look at it for you." The man smirked at him.

"Ah, I'd really appreciate it, thank you." He backed out of the way.

"Oh yeah, it's no problem. I got a garage up in North Bend. Used to this kinda thing. Name's Dennis."

Adam stood back and watched the top half of Dennis the car inspector disappear under his hood. "Adam. Mahoney." He thought he ought to shake the man's hand, but Dennis didn't seem to think it necessary. A couple of odd grunts punctuated the occasional twang or shift of metal and plastic.

Dennis straightened. "Alright, what I need you to do is get b'hind the wheel there and turn her on." Adam complied, wincing as nothing but a series of clicks answered. "Okay, okay, one more time, real easy, on the count of three." Dennis leaned his head toward the car and closed his eyes. He muttered something about a battery and wandered around to Adam's door.

"Well," the man said. "Where you headed?" The question had a tone Adam didn't like very much.

"Coos Bay. That bad?" He slumped back on the seat.

The man chuckled. "Sounds like you got a problem with your fuel injector, or maybe a bad fuse." He paused. "Tell you what. I'm headed to the coast, I can drop you off in Coos Bay. You let me call my nephew Jack, he can tow you to my place, we'll give you a good discount, and I'll fix your car right up."

This time they did shake. "That sounds like a great offer. I really appreciate the help, Dennis. I'm already late."

"We're goin' to the same place," he said, as though it were as simple as lending someone a hammer. "All right then. Let's give Jack a call." The man went to his car to grab an old cell phone. Two minutes later they were on the highway.

Fink scanned the crowd before him. A petite, orange haired woman sat in the back row doing her chemistry homework, while a couple of giggling girls three rows in front of her exchanged notes. A man near the front was lounging across two chairs, almost asleep, and the guy four seats behind was snoring. He was not surprised to see such; a group of theater students - because when you were in theater, you were always a student - had about four things in common: sleep, food, sex, and a personal vendetta against the highly formal, provided it wasn't part of a costume.

"Who're we missing? Where's our Obadiah?" he asked, as though knowing the answer had anything to do with asking the question. Danny Finkerton not only directed community, high school, and professional theater in his spare time, he was a chef, a fiction writer, a painter, a journalist, a poet, an actor, a security guard, a mathlete, two-time champion bauffer, and even a school counselor for a time. On top of that, he'd exceeded in college as witnessed by his degrees in advanced physics, law, and teaching. He was forty-seven. Being goofy and intelligent had led to his great popularity. The students and staff wherever he went always ended up calling him Fink.

Carly, like most people who met the man, loved him immediately.

"Mahoney. Adam Mahoney." Carly put a tiny dot next to his name on her cast list for a reminder, then slipped the Disney princess pen she hadn't needed but that Fink had given her into the top of the clipboard she held. "I imagine it won't be long. Everyone I've met so far has been very curteous." She couldn't help smiling, because it was all true.

Fink finished his strawberry yogurt and studied Carly's face. "Mahoney'll be here. Always show's up late the first day, bit of a trouble maker." His eyes twinkled, but didn't give him away. "If he's not here in an hour or two, let me know." Then he walked out onto the stage to address the cast, careful not to chuckle.

Carly, far too concerned with being on top of the details of first rehearsal to notice his dishonesty, set up her little workstation down in the first row of seats to listen to the opening day speech. Blocking was always fun and resulted in a large number of laughs. It also meant the formation of cast-wide inside jokes. She could afford to sit back and relax during those moments, but when the scene was on, so was her pen. Shorthand could record quickly, and she imagined that secretaries must understand her situation. Blocking shorthand was much different than that found in most business offices, though, as it was often filled with X's and lots of doodling.

By the time Adam showed up they'd been through the entire first two scenes. He noticed the girl with the wavy dark hair in the front corner, house right. Her eyes were focussed on the dancers before her, pen moving across the page on her desk. If he didn't know better, he would have assumed she was still in high school, except for the fact that she seemed so well concentrated. Fink stopped hiring kids when Bobby Laine accidentally misrepresented the treasury and the community thought he was stealing. Fink had stood up for the boy completely, but thought it best to do a changeover, so as not to anger the public. Now, it looked like he'd brought in an outsider.

She was pretty, he thought. She had very pale skin, warm eyes, and a small beauty mark near her nose on her right cheek. The hoop earrings she wore accentuated high cheek bones and a strong but feminine jawline. She looked strong-willed and smart, and would probably be really angry at him if Fink hadn't mentioned his good character. Adam thanked the sky that he knew Fink would never let one of his pupils down. He approached with hands in his pockets. Carly glanced once in his direction and did a double take.

The man in the aisle reminded her vaguely of a movie star. She found it both embarrassing and comical. His hair was short, a dark brown, accentuating the few freckles across his face. Broad shoulders and a strong build, not too skinny, she noticed. He'd rolled up the sleeves of his relaxed, open button down shirt, and he was scratching the back of his neck in an offhand way that screamed confidence. His eyes took hold of her, something tightened in the middle of her abdomen. Briefly, she wondered what chakra was supposed to be located there.

"You must be Mahoney." All charm and composure, she offered a hand. Somehow she managed to sound powerful while maintaining a barely audible whisper. "I'm Carly."

"Adam," he corrected politely. His voice, even quiet, crept into her system and very nearly made her shiver. Thank God she'd had the warning of his appearance to block her reaction. He met her hand exactly halfway between them. For a moment neither of them moved. In the half light and overly warm building, her cool hand felt wonderful to him. When it could no longer be excused as acceptable, he released her. "I want to apologize-"

When his voice sounded rough and upset, she twitched with concern. "What happened?" she interrupted, unable to help herself.

He stared, astonished, having mistaken the concern in her voice for anger. Before he could do anything about it, his voice quiped up. "I just told you I wanted to apologize!" he blurted out, more in shock than temper. She flinched, and before she could explain herself, he was up on the stage.

Adam was disgusted with himself. It wasn't like him to make a woman uncomfortable, or to cause commotion outside of a show. He tried to point the blame toward Fink, but found it impossible. The incident would have to be put aside, and he'd just have to quit worrying about it until he could apologize. He hoped someone would put in the good word for him by then. He didn't want to spend the next four months dealing with a bitchy Stage Manager with a grudge.

"Adam!" Fink called, loudly. "Good to see you're not dead. Let's get a move on, you're almost up," Fink ushered him along, skilled in the art of preventing unwanted scenes. It almost worked. Only a handful of people stared.

Carly began writing furiously in an attempt to get up to speed, but Linda was very suddenly beside her. "So." Crunch, crunch. "What happened?" She offered the bag of cheese crackers. Carly took two, if only to help settle her stomach.

"Funny choice of words." She let out a low laugh. "It was just a misunderstanding. I was worried, and I did something stupid, and he thought I was mad, and then he was mad, and then everyone was looking at me." Her voice carried a mildly hysterical edge.

"Not everyone."

"You were." Carly pointed at her with her left hand without looking up. Her right hand continued on without pause.

Linda nodded her head in agreement. "True. But I'm biased. They haven't met you yet."

"Which is exactly why I'm worried." Carly scribbled through a page and a half, grasping at fleeting memories of instruction.

"Bah. They won't even remember it in an hour. You worry too much."

"Hah. I haven't heard that one before." She sacrificed a moment of time to give her a look.

"What? I'm just saying." She shoved another handful of crackers into her mouth.

"And stop eating over the carpet."

Linda's eyes glistened with the effort of restrained laughter. Oh yes, she knew what Carly's weakness was. "Stage Manager," she teased. Carly glared. It brought some of the color back into her face, but she couldn't keep it up for long. The laughter reached her eyes first. She snorted.

"Don't make me laugh!" she hissed, grinning. Linda stuck one cracker in her mouth and crunched pointedly.

They spent the rest of the afternoon trying not to giggle. Linda felt satisfied.

Adam scanned the house for the source of his guilt. His eyes moved over talkative blondes, tired college students, and the like. When he finally found the bouncing brunette, she was slapping a newsboy cap onto her dark waves and walking out of the back door arm in arm with Foley. He never would have expected that. Maybe there was hope for him yet. As it was, he couldn't chase after her, and if he did, at this point it would look bad. He had to wait until tomorrow.

With the knowledge that he couldn't worry about it anymore tonight, his jaw relaxed. He said his goodbyes and collected his coat and bag. The walk home would be cold and wet.

He lifted his hood up as he stepped out onto the sidewalk. A glance to the north told him Foley was taking - Carly, was it? - home on her bike. It was a nice one. He smiled, remembering her first motorcycle. He'd been there for the lesson. Drew was a good friend of his, and his baby sister Melinda, tall, shiny and sixteen, had a slight grasp around his hormones. He grew out of it. She was still tall and shiny, though, and he still felt protective of her. He found himself deciding that she was a good choice for the new Stage Manager to befriend. Linda would make sure she was accepted into the community and had a good time while she was in town.

He made fairly decent time, even though it was dark when he reached the building. He trudged up the steps to his second floor apartment and slammed the door behind him. Beads of water dripped to the hardwood floor. He winced as a thought ocurred to him. "Shit." He sprang back out into the hall. A pair of familiar eyes stopped him in his tracks. Standing in front of the door on the square five steps down was a cute girl with brown hair in a black jumper dress and a newsboy hat. He expected another onslaught of guilt, as well as the potential of annoyance. What he hadn't counted on was the excitement and joy.

"No way," he said, about both her presence and his reaction. "No! That's not what I meant-" he started, hands out in front of him. He really didn't want to offend her again.

"You live here?" Carly didn't register the first part, only the fact that he must have the key to the door at the next corner, and that must mean he was the tenant.

"You... live here?" He repeated, equally as astonished.

"Well, actually," she began.

"You?" he waited. She nodded. "I see."

"Um." She giggled. "Yes." They both laughed. "Oh! I'm really sorry about today! I didn't mean to-"

"Me too!" Adam jumped down two steps. "It wasn't -"

"I was just concerned!" She stepped forward slightly. "I wasn't angry. You looked so upset."

"I wasn't mad. I was just really surprised. You looked so nice." Her eyes widened. "Kind. You looked kind. I mean you looked nice too." He scratched the back of his neck again. She suspected this might be a nervous habit. "Right. So, no hard feelings?" His eyes were doing that puppy thing, God help her.

"Um. Yeah. Right. No hard feelings. I'll see you tomorrow? In rehearsal."

"Right!" He backed up the stairs. He almost made it inside when she turned back from her door.

"Weren't you... headed somewhere?" She looked puzzled.

"Oh! Right. Yeah. The mail." He laughed. "I guess I'll," he motioned in her direction.

"Right." She backed into her apartment. "Well, goodnight."

"Goodnight." Smooth, Ace, he thought. Real smooth. Shaking his head, he jogged down the steps to the grouping of mailboxes. He noticed through a small window in the box next to his that she had a few letters and some junk mail. "What, are you stalking her now, too?" he muttered. "Jesus."

By the time he made it to the shower, he had almost convinced himself that not only was she distant, but probably almost plain-looking. He couldn't quite believe she'd been ugly, not when he still had the image of her bouncing out of the theater fresh in his mind. And her eyes! They were so misleading. One minute she was fragile, the next on top of her game. But when caught off guard... that was it. That was the door he'd been looking for.

Was it? He thought he'd been trying to discourage the thought. The thought of her. She was, afterall, ahead of him in command. Barely. But it was there. Sure, he had seniority, but she was next under Fink.

Fink. He grunted, stepping under the hot water. Now why in the hell hadn't Fink just told her it was okay? If he had, maybe they wouldn't be in this whole mess. The only reason he was attracted to her so damn much was because they'd started out on uneven footing. Conflict and a bizarre coincidence had planted the idea in his head, that's all. She was off limits, she puzzled him, and she was physically attractive. If he could rationalize it, maybe he could overcome it. Mind over matter. No problem. He had this. It was all good.