Cellos thrummed as Cleon swept Blondelle into a tight embrace.
“Oh Cleon!” Her laughter tinkled like a crystal chandelier, and her face took on a soft glow.
“Oh Blondelle!” He pressed his lips to her neck hungrily, his stubble failing to chafe her skin.
A soft moan escaped her glistening red lips. “Oh Cleon!”
He dipped her. “Oh Blondelle!”
Milo felt his brain doze. Part of him couldn’t believe someone got paid to write this kind of dialog, and part of him wished he was in that very scene with Jill. He shot a glance at the back of her head and tried to remember how she had talked him into skipping his 11 o’clock class to watch a soap opera. Oh, who was he kidding? She could talk him into anything. They’d been best friends since grade school, and Milo had secretly nurtured a crush ever since Jill traded the splash of freckles on her creamy pink cheeks for more … womanly attributes.
So, he watched the TV and tried not to let his eyes roll right out of his head.
Blondelle gasped and pulled away. Her diamond earrings caught the light, as did the lone teardrop on her cheek. Her chin trembled. “Oh Cleon, if only you knew how much I love you.”
He did not move, his face a picture of rugged manliness. “What is it?”
Blondelle buried her face in her perfectly manicured hands. “Oh Cleon, I have such a terrible secret.”
Cleon’s face continued to hide any evidence of thought, worry, or passion as he watched her intently. “What is it?”
Milo groaned. “Seriously? This guy has two lines he just repeats over and over.”
“Sh!” ordered Jill, not flinching from her fixed stare.
Blondelle rushed into Cleon’s arms, collapsing her expensively wrinkle-free forehead on his brawny chest. “Oh Cleon, it’s my brain.”
The cellos jerked as Cleon’s face failed to register a reaction. “What do you mean? Do you have a tumor?” He gripped her shoulders tightly, forcing her to look at him. “What is it?”
“If only it were something that easy!” she sputtered.
Distant timpani rumbled before a lilting melody rose. The scene faded to black.
Milo blinked. “What, that’s it? Does she have an alien in her brain? What?”
Jill giggled. “You’re so goofy.”
He loved making her laugh. The sound was like a drug to him. “Well, that’s quite a soap opera.” He scraped his heels off the coffee table and stretched, trying not to let his gaze linger on Jill. She sat cross-legged on the floor, close enough to touch with his knee.
With a huge smile, Jill turned and leaned her elbow on his thigh. “I know. Isn’t it great?”
His breath hitched at her touch, but he played it cool. “I skipped a chem lab for this. I’m going to bomb my final project.”
Jill straightened her legs and knocked her toes together like butterfly wings. “Wasn’t it worth it?”
She had leaned all over him for a few seconds. “Yeah.”
“I love Tides of Port Delano.”
“We could turn it into a drinking game. Take a shot for every time Cleon says, ‘What is it?’ without moving a muscle on his face.”
Jill’s lower lip pursed a little, reminding Milo more of a kiss than a pout. He really wanted to do something about that, but if he ever did something that crazy, Jill might run away, and he couldn’t bear to lose her.
“I’ve watched it every day this week.” She grabbed for the remote.
Milo held it up high and let her reach for it. He saw guys use this trick in high school to get the girl to come closer. Sure enough, she sprawled against him, grabbing for the control, and it knocked the breath out of him. He relinquished the remote and reached for his soda so she wouldn’t see him flushing beet red. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. It’s like I’m twelve, not twenty-one. He forced himself to stay on topic. “Why every day? The plot moves slow enough you could check in once a week.”
Jill shrugged. “These people are like family to me.”
Milo made a show of slurping up the last ounce of pop through his straw and reminded himself that he really wanted this relationship to progress to the next level. Don’t insult the stupid show, Milo. Be nice. “This is where you are now, Jill? Plastic millionaires are your family?” I’m such an idiot.
She practically wilted, and it twisted something in his gut. He leaned forward and tugged her ponytail with a smile. “I’m just saying you have real life alternatives.” Like me. Right here.
Jill didn’t pick up on the subtext. “Oh, as if my parents are ever there for me.”
Milo grumbled to himself. Yeah, okay, there’s that whole factor, too.
Jill’s mom and dad were a successful corporate tax accountant and a commercial property realtor, respectively. They made big bucks by spending long hours at work. Milo found it hard to resent them as much as she did, because if it wasn’t for their money and regular absence, he and Jill wouldn’t have had so much time together going to the trampoline park, the exotic reptile fair, a tropical island spa, or whatever passes her parents had given them.
“Pretend I’m your family.” He kept his expression neutral enough so she could interpret that in whatever way wouldn’t make her laugh in his face.
“You are family, silly. Best brother a girl never had.” Jill sagged back against the couch. “I just love the show. I wish I could be on it. It’s so exciting.”
“Well then, come on. We’ll be late for Acting class.”
“Have I told you how cool it is that you signed up to take that with me?”
Milo’s cheeks warmed. “I needed the Fine Arts elective credit.”
“Okay, but you could have taken drawing or something.”
“And miss hanging with you? We both know you’re the only thing keeping me from morphing into a bowl of custard. You’re a good influence on me.”
Jill’s belly laugh rolled over him like a wave of joy. He loved the way Jill got him to stretch his limits. Limits of common sense. Limits of reality.
“I’ll drive,” said Milo, beeping the doors of his Corolla unlocked.
“Let’s take my Harley. It’s more fun,” insisted Jill.
“Live a little!” she coaxed.
“I want to live a long time.” He gave Jill that mature-and-grounded expression of his. “That’s why we’re taking the car.”
“You are such an old man!” Jill tossed him her motorcycle helmet, smacking him in the gut. He caught it smoothly, opened the passenger door, and handed the helmet back to her.
“Okay, I do give you props for always being a gentleman.”
“Call me old-fashioned.” He bowed.
“Yes, but without the wrinkles, and you smell better than my grandpa.” Jill paused to admire the wave of his dark hair and his patient stance. With a wink, she slid into the seat and dropped her helmet at her feet. “Old man.”
Milo got in and buckled up before starting the engine. That was such a Milo thing to do, and Jill couldn’t help smiling to herself.
He, of course, misinterpreted that. “I’m not a chicken!” he squawked. “It’s a small bike, and we don’t both fit on it well.”
“Afraid to squeeze up close to me?”
He barked a laugh and blushed at the same time.
“I swear, Milo, if a girl ever really comes on to you or kisses you or something, you’ll end up in the Emergency Room with a heart attack.” Too bad because you’ve got a cute mouth.
Milo’s eyes widened. “Not true. I have survived women coming on to me.”
Jill batted her eyes. “Maiden aunts and middle-aged grocery clerks don’t count, Milo.”
He sniffed. “There are a few things you don’t know about me.”
“We have to get to class.”
Jill grunted, but then felt a twinge of guilt. “Are you really going to flunk your chemistry project?”
“Huh? Oh.” He shrugged. “No, not really. I’ll go in later tonight during open lab hours.”
“You probably still have straight A’s, huh?”
Jill’s mind flashed back to their freshman year at Western Oregon together. They got to be lab partners just long enough for her to cause some entertaining explosions and melt his three-ring binder, but she hadn’t continued second semester. He would be done in one more year, ready to go on to an advanced degree, and she still hadn’t declared a major. “I’m sorry I’m such a distraction to you.”
Milo bit his lip. “Don’t be silly.”
“Oh well, at some point you’ll learn to advocate for yourself and kick me out of your life so you can actually get stuff done.”
“Jill. I’m not worried about the chem lab. I’m sorry I said anything. Don’t get all dramatic on me.”
“Thanks.” She gazed at his profile for a moment. He’s the string to my kite. He keeps me from flying up into space, or at least tries to. “I guess you’re a pretty good influence on me, too.”
For their final acting project, Professor Wilson assigned Milo and Jill the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet, so on Friday, Milo found himself at Jill’s apartment with a bag of Tasty Taco. “Want to practice our lines over lunch?”
“You are the best!” She grabbed his hand and pulled him inside.
Five minutes later, she perched precariously on the back of her couch with a crunchy taco in one hand and her script in the other. “Ooh, you’re good at this, Milo. You totally look like you want to kiss me!”
Duh, he thought. Not in the script yet. “You have sour cream on your lips.”
For a second, Jill crossed her eyes as if to spy the dollop. Milo chuckled. Then she wiped her lip with her finger and licked it off. Milo felt his left knee lose all strength. He needed to stop staring at her mouth or he was going to kiss her, or explode. Or both, which would really ruin the mood.
Like that time he’d tried to kiss her while they rode a roller-coaster at the State Fair a couple of years ago, and she’d puked before he could get angled just right. He’d taken that as an omen that the timing was wrong.
Consulting his script, Milo moved in closer. Jill gazed off over his shoulder and her eyes grew wide. With a squeal, she jumped down and sat on the floor, leaving Milo straddling the arm of the couch like a cat burglar caught in the act. He tried to smooth out the move, but ended up toppling sideways on the couch. His clumsy pratfall proved genius because his head landed right next to her face. “Was it my burrito breath?”
She turned and sniffed his mouth in a way that only lifelong friends can do. “No, silly. Tides of Port Delano is on!”
Milo grabbed another taco and stuffed it in his mouth to mask the moan. At least he could smell her coconutty shampoo from this position. Careful to stay close to her, he shifted so he would be able to memorize his script while she watched her soap. There were worse ways to spend a lunch break. But like an annoying jingle, the show pulled him in.
A stinging note from a bassoon announced a woman’s covert arrival on the scene. She listened with narrowed eyes that spewed venomous hatred in Blondelle’s direction. The woman chuckled wickedly and stepped out from behind the potted ferns. “Your little affair is over!”
“Leticia!” Cleon almost looked surprised.
Swilling a cocktail glass, Leticia slinked closer, her marble-sized diamond rings casting sparks of light across the room. “You thought I didn’t know? Do you really think she loves you?” She slammed her glass down. “Irving!”
“Your lawyer?” Cleon took a step back.
An abnormally attractive bald man entered carrying a black valise.
Milo began to doze, but was pretty sure he heard Leticia give an evil laugh and say something about a double-bypass lobotomy. Or maybe that was just how he felt about the show.
Jill nudged him awake, her face only inches away. “Wow! This is the best episode ever!”
Milo blinked slowly. “That guy’s a lawyer and a surgeon? What’s he going to operate with? A fountain pen and an affidavit?”
Jill snorted and slapped his arm playfully. “You shouldn’t nap after eating that much Tasty Taco. It’ll give you nightmares.”
Milo shifted to where their heads nearly touched, resisting the urge to brush his cheek across hers. “Shall we tune in next time and see if I’m right?”
“It’s a date.”
For two seconds, Milo thought he saw something inviting in her eyes, and he latched on. It was as romantic a moment as it could get with the speedy spokesperson for Aller-Gone listing off all the horrible side effects and safety warnings. He tried to tune out something about hallucinations, oozing pus from ears and ‘not for people who wear glasses or eat chocolate.’
Just when he sensed Jill drifting closer, she grabbed the remote to crank up the volume. “Jay Walker!”
“I love that guy!”
I hate that guy.
“Hey everybody, this is Jay Walker, introducing a new reality show coming this fall. It’s called Who Wants to Be a Soap Star?—where reality TV meets daytime drama! The creators of Tides of Port Delano are looking for the next Emmy-Award-winning talent.” He pointed to the viewing audience. “It might be you!”
Jill sucked in a gulp of air as if he’d pointed to her in real life. “It could be me! Wasn’t I just saying I wanted to do this?”
Milo kept a straight face. “It’s a sign.”
The screen became a montage of Tides of Port Delano cast members as Jay’s voice crooned a la used car salesman. “Representatives of the studio will be traveling to four different cities around the country to form regional teams. They’ll compete for the national slots, and then you’ll choose one hot new hunk and one glamorous gal to be the next soap sensations!”
“Oh my gosh, this is so cool!”
Milo rolled his eyes. “Yeah, if you live in New York or L.A. or wherever they’re—”
“Oh my gosh, that’s right here!” She pointed to the screen, where an image of the Moda Center in Portland flashed with an 800 number for more information.
“Two hours with traffic,” he corrected.
Jill vaulted the coffee table and started jumping around the room like she’d just won the lottery.
“This is so exciting!”
“Jill.” Milo stood up.
“I’m going to try out. I am so going to do this!”
“Jill.” Her body parts threatened to disassemble themselves with all the flailing.
She grabbed Milo’s arms, suddenly intensely still. “Milo, you have to come with me when I try out!”
“Please, Milo! I need you for moral support.”
“But it’s not real acting. You do real shows on the stage. You’re good. Soap stars are so fake.”
“Come on, I’ve never tried something like this before! It’ll be so fun!”
Milo took a deep breath and placed his hands on her waist, afraid to break the spell of her closeness, but equally afraid of doing something stupid. “Earth to Jill?”
Her eyes glistened. “I’ll give you twenty bucks if you come with me.”
Milo laughed. “I don’t want money.”
“Okay, got something else in mind?”
Oh Jill, you have no idea. Milo dared to tilt his head so their foreheads touched. “Time watching something other than Tides of Delano, my choice.”
She snickered. “Boring, but it’s a deal!”
Without letting go of her, Milo shifted towards the couch. “Now can you get back up on your balcony, Juliet? You might be a future soap star, but I’m going to bomb Acting if you don’t help me out here.” Maybe we’ll get all the way to the kissing part this time.
“It’s okay, you don’t have to kiss me until we do it for the final.” Jill didn’t want to make Milo more uncomfortable than necessary, after all. She had to admit, though, that he said his lines with a surprising sincerity. Who knew science geek of a best friend could act?
“Oh. Right. Okay.” He grabbed a pencil from his backpack. “So, we’ve got the blocking down. Should we just drill lines ’til they’re memorized?”
“What, just sit here and read lines over and over? Boring.”
“Boys can never multi-task. Come on.” Jill grabbed her keys. “You’re done with classes for the day, right? Let’s zip out to Lincoln City.”
“What, it’s only a 45-minute drive. If we take my bike, I can get us there in 30.” Jill snatched his script from his hand, folded it in half, spun him around and slid it into the pocket of his jeans. “We’ll take it with us and practice on the beach. It’s perfect weather.”
Milo’s hand went to the script in his back pocket, pulling his t-shirt taut across his chest. Jill noted that his weight-lifting P.E. credit was paying dividends. He shook his head. “Not the Harley.”
“Why not?” whined Jill.
“Because there’s no place to put the bags.”
He dropped his eyelids to half-mast. “For whatever you end up buying at the outlet mall to wear when you audition for Who Wants to Be a Soap Star?”
“Oh my gosh, you’re the best! I forgot about that!”
Jill scrambled to put her shoes on. When it came to shopping for clothes, she had never known a more patient person for watching her model each outfit. Her parents always said, “Just buy it if you like it. If it doesn’t fit, we’ll return it later.” Milo made it more fun, applauding like she was on a fashion runway.
“But …” He held his finger up.
“If I’m paying gas, you buy the onion rings.”
“Milo, you are such a creature of habit.” The clam chowder at Mo’s restaurant rocked, and they always shared one of the giant orders of onion rings. “All right,” she agreed. “Let’s time it so we can see the sunset over the waves from the windows. Don’t want to miss that.”
The corner of his mouth turned up in a sly grin. “A sunset dinner with you? How could I refuse?”
Jill snorted. “Stick to science, Romeo. Your comedy stinketh.”