For months I stood by, an understudy waiting in the wings, preparing for my time to shine.
I never imagined he would watch in the audience that night. Canon Holt. Famous film director. Fascinating. Talented. Fine. Before I could catch my breath, everything changed. I went from backstage Broadway to center stage Hollywood. From being unknown, to my name, Neevah Saint, on everyone’s lips. Canon casts me in a star-studded Harlem Renaissance biopic, catapulting me into another stratosphere.
But stars shine brightest in the dead of night.
Forbidden attraction, scandal and circumstances beyond my control jeopardize my dream. Could this one shot—the role of a lifetime, the love of a lifetime—cost me everything?
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Keep reading for the very first excerpt from Reel!
When the show reaches its climax, at the very end, the song pries the final note from my diaphragm, pulls it from my throat and suspends it—leaves it throbbing in the air. The theater goes quiet for the space of a breath held by 800 people and then explodes.
The relief is knee-weakening. I literally have to grab John, the lead actor’s arm for support. He doesn’t miss a beat, pulling me into his side and squeezing.
“Bravo,” he whispers, a broad, genuine smile spread across his face. The last song made me cry, and my face, still wet from those tears, splits into a wide, disbelieving grin.
I did it. I survived my first Broadway performance.
The lights drop and we rush backstage, a cacophony of laughter and chatter filling the hidden passageways. When the curtain call begins, the cast return to the stage in small waves, the applause building as the principals take their bows.
And then it’s my turn. On legs still shaky, I leave the safety of the wings, the long skirt of my costume belling out around me. I take center stage. The applause crescendos, approval vibrating through my bones and jolting my soul. Someone thrusts flowers into my arms and the sweet smell wafts around me. Every sense, every molecule of my being strains, opens, stretches to absorb this small slice of triumph. I can’t breathe deeply enough. The air comes in shallow sips, and I’m dizzy. The world spins like a top, a kaleidoscope of colors and light and sound that threatens to overwhelm me. The whirl of it makes me giddy, and I laugh. Eyes welling with tears, I laugh.
These are the moments a lifetime in the making. We toil in the shadows of our dreams. In the alleys of preparation and hard work where it’s dark and nothing’s promised. For years, we cling by a thread of hope and imagination, dedicating our lives to a pursuit with no guarantees.
But tonight, if only for tonight, it’s all worth it.
I’m still floating when Takira bursts into the dressing room.
“Neevah!” she screams, throwing her arms around me and rocking me back and forth. “You did it. You chewed that performance up and spat it
out. You hear me?”
I laugh and return her squeeze, new tears trailing down my cheeks.
“Thank you.” I pull back to peer into my friend’s face. “I can’t believe it.”
“Well, believe it. You served notice.” She snaps her fingers and grins. “Neevah Saint is
“Now to do it seven more times.” I laugh and start taking pins from the wig, which is as hot as a herd of sheep on my head.
“Oh, you got it, unless Elise hears how amazing you were and cuts her vacation short.”
“Not happening. She was ready for a break, but she’d never missed a show.”
I strip off the costume and stand in only panties, unselfconscious. Modesty is one of the first things to go in this business. I’ve undressed hurriedly in a roomful of actors and dancers in smaller shows where there was
a dressing room, so we get real communal real fast.
I tug on skinny jeans with a tight-fitting orange sweater, and layer it with a brown leather jacket, scarf, boots. I wipe away the heavy stage makeup. It feels like my skin can breathe for the first time in hours. I assume there will be some fans at the stage door, even if it’s just a few. They’ll have to get the real Neevah because I don’t want anything more than a slick of lip gloss and a bit of mascara. A brown, orange and green plaid newsboy cap covering the neat cornrows I wore under my wig is all I’m doing for hair. Slim oversized gold hoops in my ears finish the look.
“Ready?” I ask Takira, hefting a slouchy bag on my shoulder.
“Let’s do this. Hopefully your adoring fans won’t take all night, ’cause your girl is starving.”
We’re still laughing, and I’m so preoccupied with my empty stomach, I’m completely unprepared for the crowd at the stage door. Are they here for John? For some principal player because surely they’re not all here for the understudy.
“Neevah!” a young girl, maybe ten or eleven, calls. “Can you sign this?”
She thrusts a pen and a
Splendor playbill toward me. She glows, her smooth brown cheeks rounded with a wide grin. Her eyes shine with . . . pride?
“Oh, sure,” I mumble dazedly, taking the pen and signing my name.
She’s the first in a long line of girls, all shapes and colors and ages, saying what it meant to see me onstage. Mothers whispering how impactful it was for their Black and brown daughters to be in the audience tonight. The impact is on
me; what could feel like a weight or burden or responsibility feels like a warm embrace. Feels like strong arms encircling me. Supporting me. The first time I saw someone who looked like me onstage, it planted a seed inside of me. It whispered a dream.
That could be you.
It makes me emotional to think I might have done that for any of these girls tonight, and I spend the next twenty minutes scribbling my name on playbills through a film of tears.
“Neevah!” a deep male voice calls from the back of the now-thinning crowd.
I squint at the tall man, frowning until I place him.
“Wright!” I take a few steps and he meets me halfway, giving me a tight hug. “Oh, my God. You were here tonight?”
“Was I here?” When he pulls back, a warm smile creases his handsome face. “You blew it out of the water. I knew you were good, but damn.”
Laughter spills out of me and I don’t think this night could get more perfect. I randomly met Wright Bellamy a few weeks back at a gig when he subbed for the pianist, giving the audience more than they bargained for with such a famous musician tickling the ivories that night.
“Thank you.” I step away and shove my hands into the pockets of my jeans, huddling in the leather jacket against the chill of an October night. “I was nervous as hell.”
“Didn’t show. Your voice is spectacular. I knew that from the gig we did, but I had no idea you were
that good. Wow. Glad I saw your post on Instagram or I would’ve missed it.”
I’m stone-still, shocked that he came tonight specifically to see me perform. “I’m so glad you made it. You’re still in LA, right?”
“Yeah, but I’m here for some stuff. Heading back home in a few days.”
Takira walks up, linking her arm through mine. “Girl, if we don’t get some food,” she whispers.
“Oh, yeah. Sorry.” I turn back to Wright. “Takira, this is Wright Bellamy. Wright, my friend Takira.”
“Nice to meet you,” Takira says. “You got any food on you? I’m about to eat your hat.”
As usual, Takira never meets a stranger and has us laughing right away.
“We’re actually headed to Glass House Tavern,” I tell Wright. “Come if you want. It’s a group of us from the show. Just some of the cast celebrating, but you’re welcome. We can catch up.”
A small frown dents between his thick brows and he glances over his shoulder.
“I mean, no pressure obviously,” I rush to assure him. This is one of the biggest names in music, and here I go, inviting him to dinner with a group of strangers.
“No, it sounds cool,” he says, looking back to us. “Lemme check with my boy. Can he come?”
I glance over his shoulder and spot a tall man turned away from us, his broad shoulders and back straining a wool blazer, a hoodie pulled up to cover his head and face in the cold. His hands burrow into the pockets of his blazer and he’s nodding like he’s talking to himself.
“He’s on the phone,” Wright explains. “But lemme see if he wants to roll.”
He steps away toward the man and Takira immediately squeezes my hand and squeals.
“Neeve.” Her eyes are wide and bright. Mouth dropped open. “That’s Wright Bellamy.”
“I know. He’s cool as a fan.”
“You know him? How—”
“We’re in,” Wright says, stepping back up beside us. “He’s finishing a call, but we’re ready. Lead the way.”
It’s just a few blocks, and the three of us chat about the show and what Wright’s been doing in New York. All the while his friend’s deep voice rumbles a few paces behind. I don’t want to be rude or nosy and look back, but the rich timbre, his towering height, his face obscured by the hoodie—I’m intrigued. He hangs back on the sidewalk, still on his call, when we enter the restaurant.
Our friends already have a table and a shout goes up, congratulating me on popping my White Way cherry. My three understudy buddies came. John’s here, too, and one other principal. A few from the stage crew. Our little troupe has become a family and, as if eight shows a week isn’t enough time together, we gather and eat every chance we get.
“You’re not paying tonight,” John says, holding out the seat beside him. “And drinks are on me.”
“Awwww.” I plop into the chair and drop my bag to the floor. “You’re so sweet. You don’t have to do that.”
“You were fantastic,” John says, baby blue eyes sincere and smiling. “Let’s do it again tomorrow.”
Takira is already sitting beside me, so Wright takes the seat next to her.
“Hey,” he says to Janie across the table. “Could you hold that seat beside you for my friend? He’s wrapping up a call, but’ll be in soon.”
“Sure.” Janie blushes. “I love your work, by the way. The score of
Silent Midnight . . . gah.”
“Thank you. That was a special project. Lots of fun,” Wright replies with a smile. “Now tell me about the show.”
Wright’s a genius, but he’s so unassuming and modest. A man as famous as he is could easily make this conversation about him, let everyone at this table give his ego a real nice hand job, but he doesn’t. He talks about our show, compliments the performance, asks John about his process. I liked him when we did that last-minute gig, and we’ve interacted some on social media since. My impression of him holds up. He’s a good guy.
Not to state the obvious, but also fine. Like
He has this Boris Kodjoe vibe. Real smooth. Kind of golden–brown. Clean-cut, close-cut. I can objectively recognize his appeal, even though he’s not my type.
Not that I have a type lately. I’m so deep in this dick drought I’m past the point of thirst.
At first I thought it was merely the grind. Auditioning constantly, taking craft classes, doing commercials and voiceover work to not just keep bills paid, but to save. This business is feast or famine. I’m eating now, but I’ve been hungry before. Not again. I’m thirty. Too old to still be living gig to gig and buying into that starving artist thing. I need health insurance and regularly scheduled meals, thank you very much. So yeah, the grind could account for my semi-disinterested libido, but I suspect it’s more.
I need a man who doesn’t think that because he has a dick and I don’t that I should defer to him—shrink my dreams down to a more manageable size. I’m cautious not only about who I share my heart and body with, but I’m also protective of my dreams; of my ambition. I won’t endanger my future for a man who can fuck. Though . . . a man who can fuck? I wouldn’t turn it down, but it will take more than that to pique my interest.
“What are you getting?” Takira asks, leaning over to read my menu instead of hers. “Anything here meet your high standards?”
My standards aren’t that high. I’ve just cut out red meat and stopped drinking as much alcohol. My health demands it.
“I’m thinking about the salmon, but I—”
A chair scraping across the floor catches my attention. Wright’s friend has finally come inside to join us. The table shrinks immediately when he settles his imposing frame into the seat beside Janie. He peels the hood away from his head and I bite off a gasp.
It’s Canon Holt.
the Canon Holt.
The director I, and probably every actress at this table and in this dining room, would sacrifice a pinky toe to work with. Canon Holt is at my table sitting across from me.
Takira’s expression doesn’t register this massive earthquake of a revelation, but she kicks me under the table and hisses from the corner of her mouth. “Did you know?”
I pretend I need to reach for something on the floor so I can whisper back, “Do you think I would have kept my shit together this long if I knew?”
“True. True.” Takira casually glances up from her menu and smiles in Canon’s general direction, but he’s not looking at her. He’s studying his screen. He’s apparently in an exclusive relationship with his phone, and no one at this table tempts him to stray.
Which means I can look at him.
He’s not that handsome, but that’s irrelevant. Some might even call his features, examined on their own, unremarkable.
They’d be wrong.
It’s a Maker’s sleight of hand. Now God knew this man did not need lashes that long and thick, a paradox against the hard, high slant of his cheekbones. Canon hasn’t looked twice at anyone here as far as I can tell, but I’ve stolen enough glances to know there’s a fathomlessness to his dark eyes that is arresting. His unsmiling mouth is wide, the lips full in the blunt elegance of his face. A five o’clock shadow licks the ridge of his jawline. There is a geometry to him—angles, lines, edges—that disregards the individual parts and illuminates the compelling sum.
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A USA Today and Wall Street Journal bestselling author, Kennedy Ryan and her writings have been featured in Chicken Soup for the Soul, USA Today, Entertainment Weekly, Glamour, Cosmo, TIME, O Mag and many others. A RITA® Award winner, Kennedy writes empowered women from all walks of life and centers those who have found themselves perennially on the margins of traditional storytelling.
Her Hoops Series (Long Shot, Block Shot and Hook Shot) and All the King’s Men Series (The Kingmaker, The Rebel King and Queen Move) have been optioned for television.
An autism mom, Kennedy co-founded LIFT 4 Autism, an annual charitable initiative, and has appeared on Headline News, Montel Williams, NPR and other media outlets as an advocate for autism families. She is a wife to her lifetime lover and mother to an extraordinary son.