If only life were as simple as a good-looking guy and a great dress.
Samantha “Sam” Cathner gave up needing Peter years ago, but now her theater needs his play. She knows how fairytales end once the house lights are up, so she steadies herself to work with the brilliant playwright who once broke her heart.
Peter Everoad is back in Pasadena, the hometown he traded for the bright lights of New York as soon as he graduated. The Pasadena Playhouse, where his oldest friend and one time lover Sam works, is in financial trouble, they need him and his new play, Looking In.
Sam is flustered to reencounter this new version of Peter—as always, witty and smart, and now handsome and successful. But he’s still the jerk who crushed her happily-ever-after. She’s not going to let him waltz in and unsettle her carefully ordered life. But she’s drawn to him and intrigued by the autobiographical undertones of Looking In—is the Pasadena debutante “Sally” supposed to be her?
Can Sam ever really trust Peter again, or will the demons that drove them apart the first time, tear them apart again?
“Do you ever notice…how they stop the movie before you see the complications of the romance?”
“Peter and Sam are a likable duo, and readers will be on the edges of their seats as they wait to see if the play has a happy ending.”
“A captivating story with great, likable characters that had me rooting for them until the very end.”
“Ewens has managed to write love scenes that are nice and spicy, but not over-the-top, which gives the story class.”
—Book Club Mom
“Premiere is a beautiful story about second opportunities and the love among friends.”
“That love affair that you can’t explain in words, Tracy has written about it with her exquisite and flawless words. Her narrating style is captivating, making me swoon with the rhythm of the story.”
Samantha Cathner liked understated. She appreciated it. Certainly she believed it was better to be a quiet surprise than a loud letdown.
For this reason, and many others, the Norton Simon Museum spoke to her. She arrived early to double-check everything for the fundraiser. The Norton Simon was a special venue, part of the neighborhood. The famous umber-tiled exterior walls and the beautiful grounds blended well with the rest of Pasadena. It was simple and yet able to hold its own among the most sophisticated houses of art, even stacking up to The Getty.
Streamlined but welcoming, that’s what she had pitched to the board, and as Sam approached the main exhibit hall, she was confident they had achieved just that. The charcoal table linens worked to bring weight and warmth to the room. Deception, a magnificent bronze statue of an actor holding a mask, sat center stage in the cocktail area. Servers were filling simple hand-blown champagne flutes and placing them on muted pewter serving trays.
The museum did not normally host private functions, but they tried to accommodate at least one fundraiser a year for the Pasadena Playhouse. Pasadena had a very tight-knit arts community. Everyone worked to hold each other up during lean years. It was almost seven o’clock. A large crowd was expected.
Sam spotted her parents near the bar as the guests arrived and began mingling. Jack Cathner cut a large, engaging figure with his salt-and-pepper hair, a nose that sort of bulbed up more on one side than the other, and booming voice. He had recently put on some weight. Sam thought it looked good on him–and so did her mother–but his incessant tugging at the front of his jacket was obviously driving Susan Cathner crazy because she swatted at him again.
“Stop pulling at it.”
“I feel like I’m going to bust out of this damn thing. Maybe if I unbutton the top one.” His wife’s look was enough to stop Jack. Her kiss on his cheek brought a smile to his face.
“You look wonderful. Stop and enjoy the evening.”
“What do you make of that statue we passed on the way in? Male? Female? Unless I’m slipping, those are breasts, right?”
“It’s bronze, I think it’s the material that makes the chest look larger. That’s a male,” Susan said, looking again at the sculpture.
Sam stood quietly next to her father, enjoying their conversation.
“Sam, do I look like I’m busting out of this tux?”
“No, you look great, and the statue is neither male nor female. It’s abstract, asexual. It represents humans, male and female.”
Her parents looked at her and then back at the statue. Jack rolled his eyes. He understood creativity, but he would never understand eccentricity.
“Beautiful dress, honey. This whole event is stunning. Margaret and the rest of the bridge club are setting up the silent auction. Do you need help explaining the auction as people arrive?”
Sam looked toward the front of the museum. “No, the volunteers are here, and they’ll cover that. Mom, you’re here to enjoy.”
“So what does that make the statue, I mean if someone asks, what do I say?” her father asked.
“I doubt anyone’s going to ask you, Dad, but stick with abstract, okay?” Sam patted her father on the shoulder and turned to order a drink.
Her skin knew he was there before her mind had a chance to catch up. Even after all this time, all these years, he could still change the air she lived in.
“Well, look who’s here. Peter, my boy, how are you?” her father boomed, extending his hand.
“I’m good, Mr. C. It’s good to see you both.” Peter shook hands and kissed Susan Cathner on the cheek. “Mrs. C, you look fantastic.”
“Thank you, Peter. Are they taking care of you in the big city? We can’t thank you enough for bringing your new play here. Your mother is so proud.” Peter’s mind tripped for a moment at the thought of his mother and her pride, but he moved on.
“Oh, no thanks are needed. It’s the perfect venue for this particular play. New York is great, but it’s nice to be home, at least for a little while.”
“Well, we hear you’re quite the success,” Jack said, patting him on the back.
“I’m making my way, thank you, sir.”
Sam’s back was still to all of them while she pretended to be incredibly interested in the bartender revealing what made his Manhattan so special. She tried to steady her breath, but it was really no use. She likened the moment to that time in Phys Ed when she saw the softball coming toward her but froze and was unable to stop the impact. Sam took another large sip of wine, and a shallow breath, before turning slowly with her father’s drink in hand. Her hair tousled over one bare shoulder, Sam looked right at her father’s face.
“Dad, your drink.” She smiled, hoping she appeared casual. She was grasping for casual.
“Thank you, Button. Look who . . .”
Their eyes met, and Sam’s knees softened. She gently took her father’s arm for balance and willed herself to stop being obvious.
They stared at each other for seconds that seemed longer. Neither of them heard Jack and Susan discussing the last time Peter was in town.
Sam let out a slow breath and allowed herself to look at him. His hair had grown out; it curled slightly around his ears. And facial hair, more than a shadow, but not quite a full beard. Eyes that were still that indescribable green hooded by dark lashes. She remembered them, those eyes. One minute bright and sparkling; the next, a dark forest of hidden secrets. Sam had never met another pair of eyes like Peter’s. After he left, she spent a good year looking for eyes to replace his, before she learned to settle for men with different eyes.
Sam was taken aback, she would admit it: looking at him was much more than she imagined it would be. She tried to see Peter as her friend, tried to conjure it up. The little girl buried inside her desperately wanted go back to being best friends. Her pulse was pounding now with the realization that nothing could be done; with one look she knew Peter would never be only her best friend again. She had to get out of the room.
“Peter, welcome home. Good of you to, well, it’s great. Thank you so much for what you’re doing to help the theater. Speaking of which, I really should check on the auction.” Peter’s mouth opened as Sam nodded to her mother, turned with her very best professional purpose, and walked away. The casual observer would see it as an employee diligently attending to an important event detail.
Peter smiled at Mr. and Mrs. Cathner, took a sip of his drink, and saw it for what it was. While he hadn’t expected her to turn and bolt, he had known for months this wasn’t going to be easy. Her rejection tonight felt like a punch. He was sorry their first new meeting made her uncomfortable, but after what he’d done to her, Peter was relieved to see a reaction at all.
She was more beautiful than he remembered–and his memory was perfect when it came to Samantha Cathner. She was older now, more fluid and polished. Sam had always had that scrubbed, girl-next-door look, but she had never been ordinary. Her lips had a perfect bow, like in a painting, and her eyes were so open and vulnerable. She had always hated that Peter could tell what she was really thinking. It was the eyes. They often betrayed her, even when her tongue was wicked.
Her hair was shorter, but still that ink-dark brown. He wondered if summer still kissed her hair with gold and brought freckles to her nose and shoulders. Back in New York, when he allowed himself to remember Sam, he had always pictured her in jeans. This Sam was in all that black silk. He let out a deep breath he hadn’t realized he was holding. She was different.
She had never been more grateful for something to do in her entire life. The caterers were two people short; six invited guests had shown up with an extra person, throwing off the food count; and they were dangerously low on champagne. Candice, the creative director of the Playhouse and Sam’s boss, had arrived thirty minutes ago and asked for help. Sam was secretly thrilled. Details, she loved the details, the problems to solve. Right now, calling the local liquor stores to see how many bottles of Krug Clos d’Ambonnay she could scrounge up was a welcome distraction. There were answers to these problems, solutions. By the time Sam sent someone to pick up two more cases of champagne she was halfway to normal. Walking out of the kitchen, she told herself she was Samantha Cathner, assistant creative director for the Pasadena Playhouse. She did not cower or hide, and apart from her quick exit from Peter, she never ran. That was Peter’s game, but Sam was a sticker. Was one, always had been, always would be a sticker. This was her home.
She was no longer the overly confident woman whose first step into the “real world”–as her brother put it–had been full of bluster. Sam knew it. She had recognized long ago that she had moved on from the disappointment and become a new, more humble person. It had taken her a while, but she had discovered what she was good at and what mattered. She could not let anyone, especially not Peter Everoad, drag her into a past she had worked so hard to forget.
Sam went to let the bartender know he would not have to explain any champagne shortage. He was grateful and offered her another glass of wine. She turned to rest her elbows on the rich, polished wood bar. Grady’s father, Senator Malendar, had made his entrance and was working the room. Grady, her other best friend growing up, was now officially late. Sam watched as the senator glad-handed through the crowd. He exuded confidence. She wondered if he’d felt that self-assured all his life or if a solid sense of self was something to look forward to with age. The jazz band glided in to play behind a soulful singer Candice had chosen for the evening, and with that, the mood was complete.
“Would you like to dance, gorgeous?” Her heart skipped a beat. But it was only her older brother, Henry.
“Where did you come from?” Sam attempted a smile.
“Were you expecting someone else?” Henry asked, brushing his naturally curly hair off his face. He was dashing in his tux.
“No, you’ll do just fine.” She kissed him and smoothed the shoulders of his jacket. “Very nice tux, black on black, I approve. I’d love to dance.”
Henry put his hand out as Sam joined him on the dance floor. He stood a full head above her, even when she was in heels. Sam could feel the other women in the room looking at him as she rested her head on his shoulder. She was used to the looks, her brother was a handsome man. Henry had recently broken up with his long-term girlfriend. Sam could only assume there were women at the fundraiser hoping to take her place.
As his sister, Sam didn’t care what Henry looked like, all she knew was that he was her rock. He protected her, always had. No strings attached. He had been her fortress when she was younger and life was not so kind. Sam had slept on Henry’s couch in Los Angeles when she couldn’t yet bear to return home a failure, and he met her in Paris for a week when she went off to “find herself.” She was her own woman now, but spinning in Henry’s arms was a nice break. She felt safe.
Across the room, with his hands in his pockets, Peter had just finished listening to Mr. Callaway, his former high school principal, talk about “the fly fishing trip of a lifetime.” Mr. Callaway swiped another canapé off a passing tray and asked Peter what he thought about the future of Broadway.
“I mean with the commercialism and the melding of theater and movies, especially Disney. What do you think the future holds?” Mr. Callaway inquired.
Peter found it strange that people he had known all his life now regarded him as an adult with knowledge and valuable insight. The power of a little recognition, he thought to himself as he answered in the most authoritative tone he could muster. They had no idea he was still the same messed-up kid they’d watched leave for New York, all of them secretly anticipating his failure. Now older and more removed from all he had grown up with in Pasadena, Peter wondered if these people had actually expected his failure or if he had imagined it all because distain was easier to deal with than pity. Above all, he hated pity and the holier-than-thou bullshit that came with it.
Peter pulled at his collar, amazed at how quickly the past could seep into his consciousness. Clamping down on his thoughts, he tried to–as his father used say–”Remember who you are, son.” Right as he was preparing to suck up to another set of deep pockets in the hopes they would help the Playhouse, he turned and his eyes fell onto swirling melting movements of his past. Christ, she still undoes me every time, Peter admitted to himself, watching Sam dance with her brother. The moneymen would have to wait. Peter took a deep breath and made his way to the dance floor. It was time to talk. If that meant getting past Henry, then so be it.
“Hey, may I?” Peter asked, tapping Henry on the shoulder.
“Well, Mr. Big Shot. Long time no see.” Henry pulled Sam around to get a better look at Peter.
“Hair’s longer,” he observed.
Peter ran his fingers through his hair and looked away. Henry was confident, always had been. He was older than Peter by two years and enjoyed giving him a protective brother’s once-over.
“You want to dance with my baby sister? I don’t know. She was pretty messed up when . . .“
“Henry!” Sam interrupted. “I’ll be fine. Go find your rebound girlfriend.”
“All right, but you keep your hands where I can see them.” Henry passed Sam’s hand to Peter while she rolled her eyes.