Excerpt: Pick Me
Book 1: Reality TV Romance Series
WHY DID I LET them talk me into this?
Money. Valentina Bonasera tapped the question cards against her outer thigh.
The career opportunity of a lifetime. She drew in a ragged breath and, from behind the heavy velvet curtain, stared at the two hundred plus people in the audience.
The chance to have her screenplay read by the biggest television producer since Aaron Spelling. Her heart pounded as if she’d just sprinted up ten flights of stairs, two steps at a time. Were any of those things were worth the potential humiliation she could face on national television?
Sweat trickled down her back and coated her face. She took a breath and turned away from the curtain. She didn’t want to be placed center stage in front of a live studio audience. She fanned her overheated cheeks with the cards and swallowed the bile tickling the base of her throat. Her head tingled with a wave of dizziness and she closed her eyes and took several deep breaths.
You can do this. Just breathe. Forget about the audience. Breathe. In through the nose, out through the mouth. In through—
“Val, you’re on in two.”
She stopped mid-fan and opened her eyes. As her gaze locked onto the audience, her stomach flipped, flopped, then knotted. “I don’t think I can do this. The people, the cameras…”
Danny Webber, Pick Me’s Production Manager and her dear friend, laid a gentle hand on her shoulder. “C’mon, Val. You’ve done this show for what, four years?”
Widening her eyes, she turned. “That was from behind the scenes as Production Assistant. Not as the talent.”
“Look, I know you think this show is beneath you,” he said, irritation flashing in his soft brown eyes and reddening his plump cheeks. “But if Pick Me tanks, we’re all out of a job.” He eyed the sexy red halter dress she wore, courtesy of the show’s producer, Derek Delmont, with disdain. “Well, everyone but you.”
Like she needed this now. Of all the times for her one and only friend on the set, not to mention in Dallas, to give her a hard time over a decision she’d been pigeonholed to make. An absolute nervous wreck, she needed Danny’s support. “I did what I had to do,” she said. “You of all people know I wanted nothing to do with this.”
He nodded and squeezed her shoulder. “I know, and I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have—hang on.” He cupped the headset closer to his ear. “She’s ready. No, there’s no problem, just a little cold feet,” he said, then winced. “Gotcha, I’ll tell her.”
“Yeah, and he’s antsy.”
“You mean going ape shit.”
“Can you blame him? If the show’s cancelled, he’ll be out of a job, too.”
She pursed her lips. While she understood why Jonas Michaels, Pick Me’s director, worried over this season’s ratings and pending cancellation, a part of her wouldn’t mind seeing him cancelled from the film business altogether. “I don’t know why you make excuses for him. He treats you, along with everyone else on the set, like garbage,” she said, then jumped and sucked in a deep breath when the show’s theme song blared from the speakers. “Oh, no, Danny, I…I…”
Gripping her shoulders, he turned her toward him. “I’ve never met a ballsier woman in my life. You can do this, Val.”
She mustered a smile, grateful for his encouragement, but was still terrified to walk out on the stage. If she screwed things up, people would lose their jobs. Pick Me would be cancelled.
Laying her hand on his, she drew in a shaky breath. “Did I make the right decision? Or did I sell out?”
Danny sent her a rueful smile. “Val, I think any one of us would have jumped at the opportunity Derek threw at you. And you know I’ve always got your back.”
Her throat tightened as she kissed his cheek. “Thanks, I needed that.”
The music kicked up, and the audience cheered as the show’s host, Shepp McCord, ran out on stage. “Welcome to the fifth season of Pick Me, the show that’s turned the dating game upside down. Now, let’s meet our beautiful bachelorette, the lovely Val.” Shepp’s voice boomed throughout the studio and the crowd cheered.
She grabbed Danny as sudden stage fright grabbed hold of her nerves. “Oh, shit. I can’t, I can’t…”
“You have to do this,” Danny hissed, as he spun her around and gave her a shove.
Bright lights needled her eyes. She could no longer see the audience, only Shepp. He held his hand out toward her, wearing his syrupy trademark smile. The scene was way too surreal for her. She turned her head toward the curtain, caught Danny’s nod of encouragement, and remembered this wasn’t just about her.
With a smile plastered on her face, she let Shepp help her to the lone bachelorette chair. Although the lights were bright, she caught sight of Jonas as he waved his arms toward one of the cameramen.
Jonas had hated the idea of using her as the show’s talent, but after considering the timing and the cost of recruiting a replacement, he’d settled on her.
She’d always been told that to break into the film and television industry, whether you were in front of the audience, behind the scenes, or writing the scripts, achieving those opportunities came by timing and luck. Lucky her to be the only single woman in Pick Me’s crew, and talk about timing…
The woman originally scheduled as Pick Me’s bachelorette had cancelled yesterday. The parochial school where she’d taught had learned she would be appearing on a “trashy” reality show and had threatened to fire her. To try and scramble to bring in a replacement within twenty-four hours would have been a logistical and financial nightmare. The studio had been paid for, the other contestants were ready to roll, and the sponsors were all in line.
And while most anything Derek Delmont touched turned to gold, last season’s show had produced the lowest ratings in four years. Rumor had it that if this season didn’t meet the quota demanded by World Entertainment, the company that produced the show, they’d pull the plug.
Now Derek, and even Jonas, along with the rest of the crew were depending on her to boost their ratings. The show’s fate rested on her shoulders. Not only did she have that pressure, she would also be dating strangers on national television.
Yep. Just her luck.
“So, Val,” Shepp said with a bright, white smile. “Are you ready to find true love?”
She caught Jonas’ glare and Derek’s nod. “That I am, Shepp.”
Shepp faced the audience. “Isn’t she gorgeous, folks? Once our bachelors meet Val, they’ll all be screaming…”
“Pick Me,” he and the audience shouted in unison.
Fighting an eye-roll, she stacked the question cards in her lap. Gorgeous was the last word anyone would use to describe her. Had they seen her two hours ago, before the show’s make-up artist/hair stylist, Goldie, had taken hold of her, they would have thought she’d stuck a wet finger into an electrical outlet. Dallas in July did not bode well for her unruly hair.
Chuckling, Shepp moved to his podium. “Okay, Val, here’s how the show works. We have three eager bachelors anxious to date you with the hope of finding love.” He pointed to the flimsy partition wall where the bachelors sat concealed on the other side. “Their identities will remain confidential until the end of tonight’s show when you’ve chosen one of these gentlemen, based on the questions you’ll ask them, for the coveted first date. After tonight, you won’t be dating just one of these men, but all three and for the next four weeks. Multiple times.
“Here’s the kicker, Val.” Shepp sent her a ridiculously grave look that would have been comical if she weren’t on the verge of a panic attack. After working as Pick Me’s Production Assistant for the past four years, she knew what was coming next. “You’ll have to be careful when choosing your bachelor, because one of these men isn’t who he claims to be.”
A collective gasp came from the audience. The crowd murmured and pointed toward the bachelors as if already trying to decide which man was the fraud.
“One of these men,” Shepp continued with theatrical flair while thumbing toward the concealed bachelors, “has agreed to take on a false identity for the duration of the show. So, during your journey, Val, you’ll have to exercise extreme caution. Because if you fall in love with our imposter, you risk losing it all. The prize money. The ten-day, all-inclusive vacation to Jamaica. And true love if, your heart can’t handle the truth and you decide to not accept the bachelor should he end up as Pick Me’s imposter. Do you understand?”
Her face heated as she nodded. Did she ever, considering she used to brainstorm with Derek to help him come up with outrageous fake jobs and backgrounds for the show’s imposters.
“Great. Then we’re all set. Do you have your questions ready for our bachelors?”
The question cards had been handed to her as she’d walked out of the green room where Goldie had performed her magic. They weren’t her own, but written by Derek and Jonas.
“You betcha, Shepp,” she said with fake gusto, thinking only of Danny and the others on the crew whose jobs were on the line.
Shepp slapped the podium. “Then let’s begin.”
For a moment, she wasn’t sure what to do, which was completely stupid, because she knew how the show rolled. As she was about to read from the question card, she stopped when she realized she should at least acknowledge the bachelors. “Hi guys,” she said, her voice squeaky and off-pitch. Could she sound more like an idiot?
“Hi, Val,” came their reply, and she forced herself to maintain her camera face. Why did it sound like only two men when there were supposed to be three? Shrugging, she looked to the first question card and tried not to wince while wondering who the hell came up with this question—had to be Jonas.
“Bachelor Number Two,” she began. Hating the nervousness in her voice, she cleared her throat. “If you could be an animal, what would you be?” As the final word came out of her mouth, she looked to Jonas, who preened with satisfaction. Yep, it was his dumb question.
“Well,” Bachelor Number Two chuckled. “That’s easy. A panther. They’re sleek, powerful and intelligent.”
Don’t roll your eyes, the camera is on you. She clutched the question cards. “Thank you, now Bachelor Number Three, same question.”
“Um, I was going to say the same thing,” he said, and the audience laughed.
“What about you Bachelor Number One, were you going to say the same thing, too?” she asked, now genuinely amused. The casting crew had really picked some winners this season, she thought with a bit of cynicism. If the show tanked, the blame should be put on them.
She waited for a second, then realized he wasn’t going to say anything more. “All right, if not a panther, then what?”
When he didn’t elaborate why, she shuffled to the next card. “Okay then, next question. Bachelor Number Three, you’re stranded on an island—what three things do you wish you had with you?”
“Um,” he began again, “whey protein, my iPod, and I guess, maybe a blender.”
“Bro, you’re stranded on an island, wouldn’t you need electricity for a blender?”
That comment had to have come from Bachelor Number Two, because she easily recognized his “surfer dude” voice.
The audience laughed and she didn’t like how that must have made Bachelor Number Three feel. Even if the guy seemed like kind of a himbo he didn’t deserve to be publicly humiliated. “True, but what about you Bachelor Number Two?”
“Easy, my toothbrush, surfboard, and drum set.” He did some sort of drum roll noise with his tongue, then shouted, “Pa-pow.”
Shifting his rear on the uncomfortable wooden stool, Colt Walker eyed Bachelor Number Two, Trent Something-or-other, as he finished doing his air drum solo. Dylan Macavey was going to pay total hell for putting him in this position. Then again, a bet was a bet.
“Thank you, Bachelor Number Two for that performance. What about you, Bachelor Number One, what three things would you bring to an island?”
Shit, his turn again. While Colt thought the show was dumb, there was no way in hell he’d give an answer like the other two boneheads. “A hunting knife, rope and a box of matches.”
The bachelorette released a low raspy chuckle. “Ah, a survivalist.”
Great. He’d hoped his last curt answer about the animal thing would deter her from picking him, but now this one seemed to only intrigue her. He’d make sure the rest of his answers were so awful, she’d choose one of these other guys for the first date that would officially kick off the show. He wanted to keep a low profile. After all, he had his career to consider. Who was he kidding? The guys he represented would think this was hilarious, and Macavey was his boss. But his family, and the small community where he lived…oh, man, he was going to catch so much shit.
“Back to Bachelor Number Two,” she said, then went on to ask Trent what he looked for in a woman.
Could this be any worse? Colt didn’t want to answer that question or any others she might shoot his way. All he wanted to do was hightail it back to his ranch. He missed the fresh air, working his horses, the rolling acres and the comforts of his home. He’d been gone for nearly a week and was sick of staying at his downtown condo. As a sports agent, he kept flexible hours and was able to work from home. When he had to come to his Dallas office, though, at least he had the condo. While the place was too modern and stifling for his taste, it beat living out of a hotel room.
“What about you, Bachelor Number One?”
He tried to come up with a quick answer, but nothing popped into his head, so he took the easy way out. “What Bachelor Three said,” he said, not really knowing how Brad What’s-his-name had actually answered the question.
“So you also look for a woman with toned calves and arms, who’s a vegetarian and likes watching action movies? Interesting.”
Wincing, Colt ran a hand through his hair. Good Lord, he was going to catch holy hell for that one from his brothers, Ruger and Barrett, considering they raised cattle for a living.
The questions came and went until Shepp finally interrupted the bachelorette. “Val,” his made-for-radio voice boomed in a dramatic tone, “final question. Make it the best, because after this, you’ll have to choose who you want to pick for your first date.”
Colt’s entire body went slack. Thank God this was almost over. One more question, one more half-assed answer, and he could quit for a bit. His ranch was calling him, and with the answers he’d given the so-called lovely bachelorette, he doubted she’d pick him for her first date. If everything worked to plan, he’d have at least a few days’ reprieve before he had to face the cameras again.
“Okay,” she said. “Let’s start with Bachelor Number Three. What is your ideal first date?”
“Um, I’d take you to a nice restaurant. Maybe find a local fair or carnival. We could walk around and stuff.”
Conscious of the cameras, Colt carefully shifted his gaze to Brad. Was this guy for real? Maybe the muscle-bound vegan was trying as desperately as he was to avoid being the first date. With his golden pretty boy looks and all of those muscles on top of muscles, Colt bet Brad had auditioned for the show hoping to break into acting or modeling, not for love.
The bachelorette cleared her throat. “O-okay. And you, Bachelor Number Two?”
Trent tossed his long poker-straight hair over his shoulder. He waved his hands, and the tattoos lining his arms became a blur of black, red and blue. “Dinner, then we’d hit the clubs, where we’d rock all night. Pa-pow,” he finished, and did a quick encore to his earlier air drum set.
Good Lord, where did they find these guys? The only reason he’d ended up on the show was because he’d lost a bet, and Macavey’s niece worked in the casting department. Pick Me’s casting people must have chosen Trent and Brad for some sort of shock factor. Trying to pair either a wannabe rocker or a muscle-bound blockhead with this woman just seemed wrong. On so many levels. Then again, the bachelorette was probably a former beauty queen using the show to enhance her career, so what did he care?
“Wow,” she said with another raspy chuckle, and Colt had to admit, he liked the sexy, teasing quality of her voice that held a hint of a Midwestern accent. “Ah, let’s move on to Bachelor Number One. What is your ideal first date?”
Excitement pumped through his veins. Now he had the opportunity to free himself from the show’s nonsense for at least a few days. But he would have to lay it on thick. Otherwise he’d end up stuck in Dallas longer than he wanted.
“Welp,” he purposefully drawled, hoping the tone would add to the backcountry hick persona he’d decided to go for. “I’m really into huntin’ and just bought myself a varmint rifle I’ve been itchin’ to try out on the coyotes terrorizin’ my fillies. So I was thinkin’ you and me could head out and do some shootin’.” He thought about adding that he’d bring a picnic basket filled with beer and beef jerky, but that seemed a bit over the top. “If we bag one of those critters, I’ll even have Ol’ Red, the local taxidermist, do his magic and you’ll have yourself a work of art you can display in your livin’ room.”
The silence that ensued made him want to burst out laughing. Especially when he pictured the director splicing in sound bites of chirping crickets. Yeah, after that answer there was no way she’d pick him for the first date. Hell, there was no way she’d pick him period.
After a pause long enough they could have taken a commercial break if the show had been live, she cleared her throat. “Really? A varmint rifle? I’ve never shot one of those. Do you go with a twenty-two caliber or a twenty-five?”
“A Hornet or a Remington?”
“With a tri-muzzle break?”
The woman actually knew about guns? He shook his head. You’ve got to be kidding me. He’d thought bringing on the good ol’ boy gun-toting talk would have been a surefire way to keep her from picking him. But it appeared his plan was about to backfire on him.
“Yeah, it has a tri-muzzle break.”
“Hmm. Interesting. I shoot left, is that a problem?”
“N-no,” he stuttered when he caught the bald-headed director waving his arms in the air.
The music kicked up and Shepp broke in, silencing anything else he had to say about the rifle.
“Okay, Val,” Shepp began with unnecessary drama. “You’ve asked questions, received answers…now it’s time for you to decide which one of these bachelors will receive the coveted first date.”
“You mean, right this second?” she asked, and the audience laughed. Colt couldn’t help cracking a smile, too. She sounded as if she didn’t want to make a choice at all. He almost felt sorry for her. She had her pick of a tattooed wannabe rocker, a blockhead Neanderthal, and a gun-toting hillbilly. Oh, well, that was just the price she had to pay for her fifteen minutes of fame.
“Val, I need an answer,” Shepp said as if this were a life or death situation. “Who will you choose?”
The studio darkened, then spotlights shifted over the stage. “Will it be Bachelor Number One?” Colt squinted when the beam hit him square in the face. “Or Bachelor Number Two.” The light focused on the rocker, Trent, then zipped to Brad. “Or Bachelor Number Three?”
Music infiltrated the studio as the lights flitted back and forth, to him, to the other bachelors. All the while, he kept thinking…don’t pick me.
“I’ve made my decision,” she said, and the flickering lights stopped.
Don’t pick me.
“And which bachelor have you chosen for your first date, Val?”
Don’t pick me.
“All of the bachelors seem like…interesting guys.”
Don’t pick me.
“But I’m going to have to go with Bachelor Number One.”
The audience erupted, clapping and shouting, while all Colt wanted to do was run out of the studio, jump in his truck and head for the peace and solitude of his ranch. But he was on camera, and there was no way he could back out of this now.
“Congratulations, Bachelor Number One,” Shepp shouted. “Now let’s meet the other bachelors Val will be dating over the next four weeks. Meet Trent, a dentist, who has big dreams for his rock band.” The tattooed rocker did another air drum thing with his hands, then shot his fist in the air as he moved past the partition to greet the bachelorette. Although the guy wasn’t exactly ugly, and some women liked the edgy rocker type, Colt would have loved to have seen the beauty queen’s reaction.
“And,” Shepp said, “here’s Brad, a personal trainer, who hopes to open his own gym some day.” The beefcake’s muscles bunched as he pushed himself from the stool. Colt swore the guy flexed his biceps as he waved to the crowd.
“Finally, the lucky bachelor who has received the coveted first date…” Shepp waited while the music switched to a deep, over-dramatic rhythm.
Colt wanted to cringe, but ever mindful of the cameras, he refrained. Another ten minutes, and he’d probably be free to leave. Not to his ranch, but at this point, he’d take the solitude of his uncomfortable condo where he had a bunch of cold beers waiting for him and a big screen TV with every sports channel imaginable. He eyed the cameras. Forget the TV. The beers would be enough.
“Val, meet your date…Colt, a sports agent.”
Ignoring the cheering crowd, Colt shoved off the stool. With purposeful strides, he rounded the partition and stopped cold.
The only woman who had made him stand up and take notice, in more ways than one, was standing in front of him. And this time, he wasn’t going to let her run away.