Television producer Charlie Trager spends his days working with beautiful women on a daytime talk show. But underneath his cool façade, there’s a hollow spot in his heart, waiting for the right man to ease his loneliness. Then he meets the show’s next guest, a handsome young politician with a bad case of nerves—and a secret that could turn both their lives upside down. (Short novella: 14,000 words)
During a commercial break, Charlie popped into the green room for a refill on his coffee and caught one of the show’s upcoming guests, mid-pace. The press-kit photo, in his opinion, didn’t do the man justice, but the well-cut suit did. They looked about the same age—early thirties—and stood almost exactly the same height, a whisper under six feet, although this guy was broader across the shoulders. And he had that twitchy vibe Charlie had seen so many times before. An underling in the mayor’s office probably didn’t score too many live interviews on national daytime television, but according to the network’s grapevine, he was being groomed for bigger things. Charlie smiled at him. “Adam Goldberg, right?”
“Charlie Trager. You okay there? Can I get you anything? Water? Something to eat? A fistful of Valium?” This got a bit of a laugh, but Adam still had a death grip on the cardboard cup. “Maybe you should lay off the caffeine.”
“I’m good.” Adam put the cup down and ran the fingers of his left hand through his hair, mussing the previously perfect coif of short dark waves. “Jeez. I probably shouldn’t have done that.”
“Angela will fix it before you go on camera.”
“Good.” He huffed out a breath. “I’m sorry. Just kind of new to this. I don’t look too nervous, do I?”
He did. It was kind of cute. “You’ll do great.” Charlie checked his watch. This break included a prerecorded promo, which gave him three more minutes until they needed him back on set to run the next segment. “So tell me about this program the mayor is doing.”
Goldberg started talking about the administration’s plan to help at-risk kids. Charlie prepped his usual nod-and-smile routine of putting the waiting guests at ease. What he didn’t expect was to feel moved by what the man was saying, especially as Adam’s confidence grew, reminding Charlie of a young Jimmy Stewart. He looked a bit like Stewart, too, with that earnest, intelligent charm. Then it hit him. “This program, it’s your baby, isn’t it?”
He looked crestfallen. “It’s that obvious?”
Charlie waved a hand. “I’ll never tell.”
“Should I downplay it, maybe?”
“And lose that Mr. Smith Goes to Washington appeal? Hell no.” Charlie resisted an urge to straighten Adam’s tie. “Viewers are gonna love you…um, I mean it.” He stifled a yawn. “Sorry. I need to start taking up sleeping as a hobby.”
“I hear you. Three, four hours tops and I’m wide awake. My wife thinks I’m part bat, but my kids worry. If my daughter happens to wake up in the middle of the night, she’ll fix me a cup of warm milk and tell me to go back to bed. Eleven going on thirty, I swear. Anyway,” Adam shrugged, “I get a lot of work done when the house is quiet. Your makeup person shook her head at me when she saw the bags under my eyes and told me I need a vacation.”
Either he was exaggerating or Angela had done an especially good job, because Charlie couldn’t see anything wrong with Adam Goldberg’s face. He smirked as if dismissing the woman’s concerns. “She tells me that all the time. That the baby blues need some R and R.”
Charlie’s cell phone went off and he grabbed it. “Yeah, hon, on my way.” He ended the call and turned to Adam. “Gotta run,” he said. “Apparently, they can’t survive without me.”
The man’s brown eyes, which had grown wistful as he talked about his daughter, looked suddenly like those of a lost puppy. It was so sweet and pathetic that Charlie wanted to take him home and make him soup. “Okay,” he said, giving Adam a gentle smile. “You’re on after the action hero plugs his new movie. Not the smoothest of segues, but something tells me our viewers will be sticking around. One of the PAs will fetch you in about ten and mic you up.”
Adam nodded back, his expression firming a bit, his gaze holding Charlie’s. “Thanks. I really appreciate the opportunity.”
Charlie stood transfixed for a moment. It could have been sleep deprivation or the caffeine overload, but he swore he felt something then: a familiar ache. Why were the good ones either married or straight? Or, in this case, both?
“Just doing my job.” Charlie started to leave but stopped and set down his coffee. “I’m sorry, I hope you don’t mind, but this is bugging the hell out of me.”
He reached out to straighten Adam Goldberg’s tie, taking great pains to touch nothing but the silky fabric. Adam’s chin dropped, seemingly to watch Charlie’s hands, and when he raised it again, his eyes leveled with Charlie’s. Only for a second. Which was just long enough.
Melanie Washington, the show’s lead host and self-appointed mama hen to the entire cast and crew, leaned against a cement pillar off to the side of the main set and gave Charlie the eyebrows when he returned, as if to say, “Where have you been, son?”
He gestured to his cup, mentally rolling his eyes as he realized he’d forgotten to refill it. She shook her head, the motion fluttering her copper dreadlocks, and scooted over to where he was checking his notes. “Charlie, baby, that stuff will kill you.”
“Something’s bound to, Mel, and it might as well be something that makes me happy. No one likes a grouchy corpse.”
“Hmpfh,” she said. “How’s our Mr. Goldberg looking?”
Pretty damned fine. “A little nervous. When you start the interview, though, get him talking about helping kids, and watch the magic.”
Charlie’s favorite moment of the day involved kicking off his Italian loafers and sitting down to that first post-work sip of scotch. His second favorite part was when the live broadcast cleared. He would let out his breath, count his blessings that no one had dropped any f-bombs or messed up in any number of ways, and touch base with the guests he hadn’t already thanked.
As soon as the PA gave the sign they were off the air, he darted a glance across the set, hoping to spot Adam. He was sitting with Melanie and two of the other hosts in the show’s “conversation pit,” a grouping of brightly colored pleather chairs and a sofa. Adam, chatting easily with the women, looked comfortable under the lights. Then he caught Charlie’s eye and gave him that shy smile again. Charlie felt heat rush to his cheeks along with a flutter of panic in his belly. He ducked off to the craft table, dipped a napkin in some ice water, and pressed it to his face, hoping to stem the feeling that he was about to faint. Mere seconds later, he heard Melanie sing out his name in the butter-soft alto that had won her seven Grammy awards. He took a few deep breaths, set his features into a professional mask—what he hoped was the picture of cool—and followed the sound of her laughter back to the set. Melanie beckoned him over. “Sit over here with me, Mr. Producer Man. Ya look like you’re ready to damned fall down.”
“I’m fine.” Still a bit wobbly, he lowered himself onto the cushion beside her and took the bottle of water she offered. After a few gulps he felt better. He turned toward Adam and said, “You did really well. I hope the mayor was watching.”
“Someone in the office was recording it, I think. And I know my kids set the DVR before they left for school.”
“We can send you a clip, no problem, if you want to check it out sooner.” His eyes. Something about his eyes. Like he’s… Charlie had seen that look before. In clubs. On guys who used to write their phone numbers on his hands. Catching it at this moment, so out of context, upped the wattage in his nerve endings, and a clammy sweat broke out on the nape of his neck. “Or, we can go to production, and you can see how it came out. Unless you have to get right back.”
“I have a few minutes,” Adam said. “That would be great.”
Avoiding what were probably the knowing glances of the three women, Charlie slugged his water down and gestured toward the right with his head. “This way.”
He led Adam off-set to the production area. “I’ll give you the cheap tour while we’re at it.” He pointed out the shop where the union carpenters built and modified various sets. The places where the interns hid from the hosts. Where the hosts hid from their assistants. It was quiet backstage, with the show broken and nearly everyone gone to lunch, their offices, or their dressing rooms. Charlie had stopped the tour to show Adam the archive room, which he realized was probably dumb because one, who gave a rat’s ass about the archives, and two, his brain had apparently checked out.
“And you don’t care about any of this, do you?” Charlie said.
Adam suddenly focused as if caught daydreaming, and his cheeks paled. Holy Hannah, if he were a dog, he’d be shaking. He swallowed. “I…um…you’ll probably think this is crazy.”
“Trust me. You’ve met the lovely ladies I work with. I’ve seen crazy.”
Adam continued to contemplate Charlie with not just those big, brown, sad eyes but his entire face. Charlie felt paralyzed; even the breath in his lungs froze, although his heart thumped at near full-court press into his ears. Then Adam drew closer. He smelled nice, of something citrusy and woodsy that reminded him of the old-time sailing vessels he’d read about in books. Charlie barely registered the touch of the palm that cupped the back of his neck, because his attention had been captured by Adam’s mouth: softening, lips slightly parted, and moving toward his. When those lips met Charlie’s, he felt his own hands, as if by reflex, reaching for the man’s shoulders, and for a second, everything in the universe froze.
Just as quickly, though, Adam darted backward like he’d been scalded.
Had that really just happened? Charlie thought. The wife who thought he was a bat, the daughter fixing him warm milk, was that…?
“I…I have to go,” Adam said. He turned.
Charlie reached for his arm, getting nothing but a brush of his sleeve, but it was enough to stop him.
“No, really, I…” Adam thrust his fingers through his hair, messing up what Angela had fixed twice. “I don’t even know you, it just…”
“Hey,” Charlie murmured. “It’s…hey, it’s okay. Look, if you ever feel like talking…”
A bit of color returned to Adam’s face. Charlie pulled a business card from his wallet and pressed it into the man’s cool damp palm. Without reading it, Adam slid it into his breast pocket. “Thank you,” he said, the last words either man spoke until Charlie walked him across the studio and out into the main lobby.
“So…” Chagrined that his voice had suddenly come out so loud, Charlie cleared his throat and continued, lowering his volume. “I’ll send a link for that recording to your office.”
Adam nodded, one hand curling around the handle of the glass door leading out to the street. He hesitated, like he wanted to say something but couldn’t piece the right words together, and then he pushed on the pane and walked out into the bright afternoon.
Charlie watched until the midtown crowd swallowed up the broad-shouldered man in the well-cut suit. He thought about returning to the studio but didn’t feel like answering Melanie’s eyebrow. Not yet, anyway. He wanted to replay that moment, the frightened courage in Adam Goldberg’s eyes, which in many ways he found more astounding and passionate than the act of a stranger’s lips landing on his own. That was what he wanted to press into his memory, mainly to assure himself the silent conversation had actually happened.