“Don’t take this wrong, but I really need you to take off your shirt.”
Pallas Saunders winced as she said the words—this was so not how she usually conducted an interview. But desperate times and all that.
Nick Mitchell raised his eyebrows. “Excuse me?”
A valid semiquestion and certainly better than simply bolting which, hey, he could have done.
“It’s an emergency,” she said, waving her hand in what she hoped was a can we please move this along gesture.
“I’m going to need more than that.”
“Fine.” She drew in a breath, then began talking. Fast. “I have a wedding in less than an hour and I’m one Roman soldier short. J.T. ran off to LA because his agent called about an audition. Note to self. Do not hire actors during pilot season. Anyway, I need a Roman soldier. You’re about the same height as the other guys and you’re here because you need a job, so take your shirt off, please. If you look halfway decent, I’ll sponge tan you and you’ll carry a very skinny girl in on a palanquin.”
“One of those sedan chair things. I swear, she probably doesn’t even weigh a hundred pounds. I don’t think she’s eaten in three months. You look strong. You’ll do great. Please? There’s a check at the end.”
Not a very big one, but money was money. And Nick Mitchell had answered her ad for a part-time carpenter, so he must be at least a little desperate for money. A feeling Pallas could so relate to.
“You want me to carry a girl in on a palanquin for her wedding?”
Why were the pretty ones always dumb, she wondered with a sigh. Because Nick certainly qualified as pretty. Tall with dark hair and eyes. His shoulders were broad and from what she could see, he looked to be in shape, so what was the big deal?
“The name of my business is Weddings in a Box.” She gestured to the walls around them. “This is box-like. People come here to get married. I do theme weddings. The couple today want a Roman wedding. You’d be stunned at how popular they are. The Roman wedding includes the palanquin for the bride. Please, I beg you. Take off your shirt.”
“You’re weird,” Nick muttered as he unbuttoned his shirt and tossed it onto her desk.
Hallelujah, she thought, walking around to view him from the back. As she’d hoped, he looked good—with broad shoulders and plenty of muscle. No massive tattoos, no ugly scars. Not that she objected to tattoos, but so few of them were Roman wedding appropriate and she really didn’t have time to do her thing with concealer. As it was, Nick would fit in with the other guys perfectly.
“You’re hired, but we have to hurry.”
She grabbed him by the hand and dragged him down the hall toward the male cast dressing room. Because themed weddings required a cast of, if not thousands, then at least three or four. Roman weddings had the palanquin carrying crew and all the servers were dressed in togas. Not original, but the clients were happy and that was what mattered.
She pulled Nick into the large, plain room with racks of costumes at one end and a counter with lit mirrors above at the other. Three guys in various states of undress were already there. Two were stepping into white togas while the third was studying himself in the mirror.
Alan glanced up from his self-appraisal and smiled. “Hello, stranger.”
“Not for long,” Pallas muttered. “Please help Nick get ready for the wedding. Nick, Alan. Alan, Nick.” She glanced at her watch and shrieked. “We have less than an hour, people.” She turned to Nick. “Ever done fake tanning?”
“Do I look like I do fake tanning?”
Until that second, the man in front of her had been little more than a capable shoulder upon which she could rest one quarter of a bride. Now she actually looked at him. At the dark eyes watching her with a combination of disbelief and wariness. The firm set of his oddly attractive mouth. He had big hands, she noted absently, then did her best not to laugh.
Big hands? Seriously? Because she had time for that in her life?
She walked over to the counter and opened a drawer. Inside were gloves sealed in plastic. Gloves coated with fake tanning product she could buy in bulk for a very happy price.
“I’m about to rock your world,” she told him cheerfully. “Let’s go.”
Nick Mitchell felt as if he’d stepped into an alternate universe. One where the crazy people ruled and the rest of the citizens were left to stumble along, trying to keep up.
Before he knew what was happening, the woman who was supposed to be interviewing him for a carpentry job was rubbing some weird-ass glove thing up and down his back.
“Even strokes,” she said as she worked. “It takes five minutes to dry, then you check for streaks. Do your arms and chest, then your legs. Front and back, please.”
She slipped off the gloves and held them out to him. “Can you do this?”
Her expression was two parts earnest and one part frustrated—as if the world conspired to make her day more difficult.
He thought about repeating that he was just there for the carpentry job, but realized she already knew that. Okay then—fake-tanned Roman soldier it was. If nothing else, he would have a good story to tell his brothers.
He put on the gloves and began rubbing on the fake tan goop. It was less gross than he’d thought. Pallas showed him his toga costume and asked the other guys to get him in place.
“I have to go get changed,” she said as she hurried to the door. “If you need anything, ask Alan. He knows all.”
Alan winked at her. “That’s true.” Once the door was closed, Alan turned back to him. “And your story is?”
Nick took off the gloves, wiped his hands on a towel sitting on the counter, then stepped out of his jeans. “I’m a carpenter. I answered an ad.” He put the gloves on again, bent over and rubbed up and down his legs.
“I see. Want some help with that?”
Nick didn’t bother looking up. “I’m good.”
“Well, I’m Alan, as you heard. Those two are Joseph and Jonathan. I call them the J’s. They’re high school students earning money on a Saturday. They play football.”
One of the teens looked up. “It’s basketball, Alan. We keep telling you.”
“Whatever. It’s sports and they’re all the same.” Alan turned back to Nick. “I’ve been on Broadway. That’s how I met Gerald. He was my mentor, and then he retired and moved here. I came for the winter weather and stayed. After Gerald died, I moved to LA, but when I’m here, I do this because it’s fun.”
As he spoke, Nick realized that the other man was a lot older than he’d first thought. At least in his late forties.
“People really have Roman weddings?” he asked.
“You have no idea. There are cowboy weddings, too, but I don’t do those.” He shuddered. “Horses are the worst! And they smell. I do like a good princess wedding though. I’m a very handsome courtier, if I do say so myself. But today we’re Romans. All hail Caesar.”
Ten minutes later, Nick stared at himself in the mirror. He was wearing an honest to God toga. Or at least a costume. The short white skirt came to midthigh. The top tied over one shoulder and Alan had given him a circlet of grape leaves to stick on his head. Now, as he laced up sandals, he thought maybe he wouldn’t be telling his brothers what he’d done, after all. They would never let him live it down.
“It’s very simple,” Alan told him when he was dressed. “The bride sits on the palanquin. We lift it up, carry her in. She gets off and we carry it out. The J’s and I also serve at the reception, but I doubt Pallas expects that of you. So you’re free to go.”
Nick didn’t bother pointing out that he’d yet to have his interview. To be honest, he was having his doubts about the job. He’d wanted something to fill his day while he figured out what he was going to do about his commission. While this place offered plenty of distraction, it wasn’t exactly what he was looking for.
Pallas returned. She’d replaced her jeans and T-shirt with a simple dark green dress that brought out her hazel eyes. Her long brown hair was still in its fancy braid and he didn’t think she was wearing any makeup. Of course she wasn’t the bride—she was here to make the bride’s dreams come true.
She walked up to him and nodded in approval. “You look great. Thank you for doing this. I would be in so much trouble if you hadn’t agreed to help out. Did Alan tell you what was going to happen?”
“We carry in the bride, then quietly leave.”
“Right. Oh, we still have to do our interview. I have no excuse for scheduling it so close to a wedding except to say I must have gotten the days wrong. There’s just so much to do.”
Emotions filled her eyes. He read worry, panic and more than a little determination. An interesting combination.
She squared her shoulders. “One crisis at a time, as Gerald always said. We are ready for the wedding. Gentlemen, if you’ll take your positions, please.”
She led the way downstairs. Nick wasn’t sure what to expect, but quicker than he’d anticipated, they were in a room with a frazzled-looking bride, several bridesmaids dressed in what he would guess were Roman-inspired gowns and an honest-to-God palanquin.
He moved closer to the sedan chair and studied the carving on the sides. They were hand done, then attached to what he guessed was a lightweight metal frame.
Pallas got everyone in position. The bride took her seat. Alan took the front right position, which Nick would guess meant he was in charge.
“On three, gentleman. We lift slowly, in unison and with our knees.” Alan smiled at the bride. “Not that we have to worry about you, darling. You’re no bigger than a minute and so lovely in your gown. It’s designer, isn’t it? Lucky, lucky you.”
The bride visibly relaxed. “Thank you. I love my dress.”
“It loves you back. Shall we? On three.”
Nick waited for the count, then raised the bride. The crossbar had a padded, curved notch for his shoulder. He found he only had to use his hand to steady it, not support it. As Pallas had promised, the bride was light and the weight easy to bear.
He went with the others down the hall. A photographer snapped pictures. Huge double doors opened for them and they walked into a massive room with at least a twenty-foot ceiling.
Guests lined up on either side of the large aisle and a groom in a fancier version of toga waited up at the carved altar. Despite the fact that it was the middle of the afternoon, flickering torches provided light.
They reached the end of the aisle. Alan directed them to lower the bride. When she was with her Roman groom, they carried the palanquin back out. Alan ushered them to a huge outdoor courtyard set up for the reception. The palanquin was set down in a corner.
“People love climbing all over it for pictures,” Alan told Nick. “All right, you’re free to go.” He pointed to a door. “Go through there. You’ll find a staircase that will take you up to the second floor. The dressing room is at the end, on the right.”
Nick followed his directions. When he went inside, he saw the staircase. Before he reached it however, he spotted a partially open door.
“No way,” he murmured as he moved closer.
He opened the door wider, swore under his breath and stepped inside.
Several large carved wooden panels hung from tracks where they could slide into place. He stepped to the side and visually followed the track. He would guess it led to the big ballroom he’d just been in.
These panels—easily ten feet tall and twice as wide—were exquisite works of art. The carvings depicted what he would guess was early palace life. There were several tableaux of a royal court and a few outdoor country scenes. Sure, the arrangements were cheesy, but the carving was incredible. Each of the characters in the first relief seemed ready to come to life. He traced the etched lines that created dimension in a few elegant strokes only to feel rough edges. He looked more closely and saw the panels were dinged, dry and in need of some serious TLC. Was this the job Pallas wanted a carpenter for?
He went back out the way he’d come, circling around the now-empty courtyard. He crept into the back of the ballroom and saw the carved Roman panels in place on the walls. They were as brilliant as the other ones and even from a distance, cried out to be restored.
And here he’d thought Pallas was looking for someone to repair windows or build cabinets. To work on something like this… Had Atsuko known about the panels? Was that why she’d suggested Nick apply for the job? Because while he’d grown up working with glass, in the past decade he’d fallen for wood.
Glass was cold and mercurial, but wood was alive. Wood had a soul.
He retreated back the way he’d come and headed up the stairs. The whole carry-a-bride-after-being-fake-tanned thing had put him off the part-time job, but now that he’d seen the panels, he knew he didn’t have a choice. He had to restore them and make sure they were in good enough shape to last for future generations.
Dramatic much, he thought to himself as he entered the dressing room. Except the panels were worth the drama and oddness that was Pallas’s wedding business. They deserved the very best of him and he was determined that they would get it. As much as he might want to deny it, he was, down to his bones, an artist. His father’s blood ran through him and with it came the need to create. Or in this case, restore.