Excerpt: Undress Me
Book 4: Reality TV Romance Series
“Want to show how little you know about me? Invite me camping.”
SHE WAS GOING to die. If the old helicopter didn’t fall apart in the sky or crash into the jagged cliffs along the island’s shoreline, Erica Reese was certain it would plunge into the Caribbean.
Be adventurous, her best friend had encouraged. Have fun and take a risk, she’d said. Well, she’d gone for it. Now she was trapped in an aircraft that belonged on a scrap heap and preparing herself to blow up, drown or become shark food. For what?
Sex with a man who would never love her.
The helicopter shook as it swooped closer to shore. The turbulence had her wishing she’d skipped breakfast, maybe even the entire trip. What was the point of it anyway? The last hurrah before she ended her relationship with Derek? As her stomach rolled and bile creeped up her throat, she leaned forward and cradled her aching belly. She didn’t want to think about that or the future. She wanted off this rickety, old, rust bucket.
Laughter came from the woman seated across from her. “These little bumps are nothing. If you can’t handle a chopper ride, I don’t know how you’re going to survive the next four weeks in the jungle.”
Bitterness had her swallowing the rising bile. She wanted to tell Bridget Gladstone to go to hell. Instead, she shifted back in her seat and kept her mouth shut. Between Bridget’s muscles, hard body and numerous tattoos, the brunette reminded her of a pint-sized warrior from an epic fantasy film. Bridget had also been a Marine, was a survivalist instructor and could probably kick her butt in less than three point two seconds. Plus, the woman was one of two contestants being escorted to Isle of Mason, a small Caribbean island known for its beautiful beaches, dangerous jungles and active volcano. Here, Bridget and the other contestant—a male who Erica had yet to meet—would spend the next twenty-eight days attempting to survive harsh conditions for the hit reality television show Bared and Scared. The catch? They would do it naked and with only a few survival tools.
Since she was raised by a single mom who detested the idea of sleeping in a tent, Erica had never been inclined to go camping. There was no way she would ever attempt or even pretend to be interested in staying in the jungle fully clothed and with access to an RV, let alone naked and expected to actually gather food and make her own shelter. With a total stranger. A naked, total stranger.
Fortunately for Derek Delmont, the creator and producer of Bared and Scared—along with several other reality shows—there were hundreds of wannabe survivalists looking for the ultimate challenge. For her, the only challenge she wanted to experience on Isle of Mason was deciding which type of cocktail she would drink while lying poolside. Derek, who was with the other half of the crew and the male contestant, had promised she could do just that once production began. She wasn’t along as a member of the crew, but as a guest.
But she worried no amount of alcohol would help her relax. Guilt had a funny way of making her stress level rise and her belly ache.
Her stomach rolled again and it had nothing to do with motion sickness or the fear of dying by shark, cliff or drowning. Nope, Derek and her arrangement with him nauseated her. He was too good looking and charming, too wealthy and connected, and gave her too many orgasms. Well, maybe not too many. Was there really such a thing?
As for their arrangement… From the start, she knew their relationship would be based on sex and go nowhere. She hadn’t cared. Work had kept her too busy to date. Because she spent most of her time building her career and keeping a careful eye on her bank account, she didn’t go out often. So, when Derek had asked her to dinner, she’d immediately taken him up on the offer. Not because of his name, status and wealth, but because he was handsome, nice and a confirmed bachelor. She wasn’t ready for marriage and Derek could give her just what she’d needed: a hot fling that would only last a few weeks.
Except…they’d been having sex for over four months, and it was becoming a struggle to keep her emotions in check. Her guilt intensified. She should have been honest and told him about the job offer. What if he was having a difficult time wading through his feelings for her? She would laugh at the idea if she wasn’t afraid of dying by helicopter. Sure, Derek liked her, but she would not mistake friendship for love, especially with a man who used some of his shows to capitalize on other peoples’ love lives rather than deal with his own.
He probably wouldn’t care if she suggested they end their affair. Then again, no one said no to a man as powerful as Derek Delmont. What if rejection made him bitter? With the amount of people he knew in the film and television industry… Oh, God, he could so easily ruin her career. Why hadn’t she thought about this before?
“Do you need my barf bag?” Bridget asked her. “You’re looking slightly green.”
“If Erica doesn’t want it, I’ll take it.” Steve, one of the show’s cameramen, dragged in a deep breath and rested his head against his seat. “I shouldn’t have eaten those eggs before we left.”
Bridget grinned. “You mean those runny, yolky eggs that kinda look phlegmy?”
“That’s just mean.” The other cameraman, John, shook his head, knocking his bangs out of his eyes. “In about a week, you’ll be wishing for a dish of phlegmy eggs.”
Steve squeezed his eyes shut as the pilot took them over the beach and toward the jungle. “Please don’t say that word again.”
“Phlegm?” Bridget asked with feigned innocence.
“Oh, God,” Steve groaned.
“If you puke it, you clean it,” the pilot, who had a British accent—like all residents on the island—shouted over his shoulder. “So, swallow it down. We’re almost there.”
While Erica sympathized with Steve, Bridget stared out the window. As she did, the woman rapidly flicked her index fingernail along the pad of her thumb and darted her gaze over the jungle as if attempting to memorize the lay of the land. Erica also looked to the landscape and immediately fought a shiver. Below them was nothing but an endless sea of green. There were so many trees, she couldn’t see the jungle floor. Ahead, Mount Somna, an active volcano which had erupted twenty-two years ago, loomed in the distance. Sections of the volcano were covered with trees, but the majority of Mount Somna was coated with ash and mud.
Bridget touched the window when they flew over Osman Town, the former capital of Isle of Mason. “Oh, wow,” she gasped.
Erica looked to the ground and didn’t bother fighting off the next shiver. A church steeple jutted from beneath the mud. Cars had been frozen in time. Homes were buried, their rooftops the only indication they’d ever existed. Three-story buildings had been turned into ranch-style homes. The volcanic eruption had decimated the capital city, leaving behind an eerie, post-apocalyptic ghost town.
“Why are we landing?” Bridget called to the pilot. “We’re not starting here, are we?” She looked to her, then the two cameramen and the assistant producer, Joyce. “It’s ninety-five degrees, one hundred percent humidity and it’s only eight in the morning.”
“I emailed you the agenda and information about the island,” Joyce said.
Bridget’s eyes were filled with alarm. “But you didn’t say anything about being dumped at the bottom of an active volcano.” She met Erica’s gaze. “I can tell you about the beaches and what types of animals and marine life are there, along with whatever you need to know about the plants. Same with the jungle.” She glanced at the ghost town again. “This…it’s going to shred my feet. I don’t want to go home because I cut myself and ended up with an infection.”
Erica kept her focus on Bridget in order to stop herself from looking at the strappy sandals she’d stupidly chosen to wear. In her defense, this was supposed to be a short stop before she and Derek headed to the resort on the other side of the island. He’d explained that he liked to be there for the beginning and ending of each Bared and Scared episode. But only for an hour or two. From the little Derek had told her about his past, it sounded as if he’d been raised in the city and wasn’t much of the outdoorsy type, either. When she considered some of the show’s crazy, formidable locations, she couldn’t blame him for not wanting to stick around with the crew and contestants. Too bad he wasn’t the type to stick around in a relationship.
It doesn’t matter. You don’t want one. You’re leaving and career comes first.
But would she still have much of a career by this time next week, or would Derek use his influence to ruin her name? The idea was dumb. She was a good judge of character and hadn’t been sleeping with a vindictive, heartless jerk. She was simply in her head. She’d never been a fan of flying and was certain her nerves were to blame. Once she saw Derek, everything would be fine. They’d enjoy this time together and, being mature adults, go their separate ways without bitterness or regret.
As she looked out the window, dust kicked up and swirled around the helicopter, blocking her view. “Where’s the rest of the crew?” she asked Joyce while the pilot landed.
“We’re meeting them the same time Bridget will meet her partner.”
“In a vehicle of some sort?”
The assistant producer shook her head. “We’re walking.”
Erica curled her bare toes. “And how far away is that?”
Joyce shrugged. “About a half mile.” She shifted her gaze to Erica’s feet. “I just noticed your shoes. Please tell me you have something sturdier in your bag.”
Earlier that morning, after they’d reached the island by puddle jumper, her luggage had been sent to the resort. She’d kept her satchel with her, since it contained important stuff…cell phone, hand sanitizer, gum, mints, makeup, comb, hair spray, wallet, along with gummy bears—for her sugar fix—and cheese crackers she’d bought before leaving Los Angeles. “I don’t, but these soles are…” She sighed and knew she couldn’t even lie to herself. “I see a major pedicure in my near future. Like this afternoon.”
“Wait, you’re not staying in the jungle?” Bridget asked.
“She’s the producer’s girlfriend,” John said. “So, while we’re covered in sweat and bug spray, she’s going to be pampered at the island resort.” He grinned at Erica. “Have a margarita for me, and make sure it’s a double.”
Erica’s cheeks heated. She’d assumed the crew knew she had come along as Derek’s guest, but to refer to her as his girlfriend? She’d never met these people until today and didn’t understand how John had come to that conclusion. She couldn’t be the first woman Derek had brought with him to one of the show’s more exotic locations, and doubted she would be the last. Or maybe she was reading too much into it.
“You’re dating Derek Delmont?” Bridget eyed Erica’s clothes, which weren’t name brand. She didn’t care about that sort of thing. Cotton was cotton. Even if she did care, California’s cost of living kept her on a strict budget. “That must be pretty cool. Why aren’t you with him now?”
“When the other contestant went through customs, he ran into a problem,” Joyce answered for her. “Derek had to stay behind to fix it.”
Erica hadn’t been happy about the situation, but had gone with the flow because, by noon, she would be having fun at the resort. She hoped to stay out of her head in order for that to happen. She also hoped the dark clouds moving over the sea and toward the island shifted away from them. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d taken a vacation, and hoped it didn’t rain the entire time.
“It’s too bad you couldn’t have met him at the resort and saved your feet from unnecessary torture.” Bridget gave Erica a nervous smile. “While you’re having your toes done, make my appointment for twenty-eight days from today. What size shoe do you wear?”
The woman couldn’t be taller than five two. There was no way they wore the same size. “Eight.”
Bridget frowned. “Damn. I’m a six and a half. Do you want to try to squeeze into my boots anyway?”
“Thanks. That’s very nice of you, but it won’t work. I’m sure I’ll be fine. Are you worried?”
The dust died down once the rotors stopped moving. The pilot opened the door and, while the crew gathered their things, Bridget exited. “Yes, but I’m excited, too,” she replied after Erica joined her on the ground. “This is the craziest thing I’ve ever done. I know I have the mental endurance to do it, but—don’t tell John and Steve—I’m worried lack of food is going to send me home.” She wrung her hands and glanced toward the helicopter. “I’m also nervous about my partner. I hope he’s a solid guy and can stick it out until the end. I don’t want to spend a month alone. Joyce said you’re the casting director. Can you tell me about him?”
“I am, not for Bared and Scared, though.” While she’d served as casting director for several of Derek’s reality shows, the agency she worked for was currently not employed by his company. Instead of reality shows, she’d been working with other movie and television producers. Which had been how she’d ended up with a job offer from Manos Elite, New York City’s number one casting agency. She ignored the nervous flutter in her stomach, and added, “I don’t know anything about your partner, but I’m sure you’ll get along fine. He could end up becoming a lifelong friend.”
“That would be nice.” Guilt crossed Bridget’s face. “I’m sorry for teasing you earlier. I’m trying to maintain a badass image. Now that I’m here, I’m afraid it’s going to crack.”
John hopped out of the chopper and slipped on a pair of sunglasses. “Damn, it’s sticky.” He turned three hundred and sixty degrees. “This place is amazingly creepy. Was anyone killed by the volcano?” he asked the pilot.
“One woman,” the other man responded. “Her name was Kristine Mason. She was the last living relative of the island’s first settler, Thomas Mason. Now, the folks in town don’t believe such nonsense, but the tribespeople say they hear her at night. Sometimes she’s crying. Other times she’s laughing. Mostly she whispers. They also claim to occasionally hear singing and dancing. As if someone is throwing a party, or one of the restaurants were still open. Interestingly, Ms. Mason owned the most popular club in the city. She would have shows, bands, dancers and…” He shook his head. “Now the club and Ms. Mason are buried beneath forty feet of mud.”
Steve pulled his bag from the aircraft. “That’s sad and all, but can we go back to the tribespeople?”
“Yes, please.” Bridget stepped forward and folded her arms across her chest. “I didn’t read anything about tribes.”
“There’s only one,” Joyce said, glancing at the darkening sky when the breeze kicked up a notch. “It’s made up of about fifty people. They’re harmless.”
“As long as you don’t step foot on their territory.” The pilot opened a water canister. “Or kill a sloth. Those animals are sacred to them.”
“What happens if you accidentally do one or both?” Bridget asked, her eyes banked with worry. “Not that I would hunt a sloth. They’re too cute, and I think viewers would hate me if I did.”
“You wouldn’t want to, anyway. Those animals use their long nails for self-defense. A few years back, we had a tourist try to get close with one he came across during a jungle tour. When his wife tried to take a picture, the sloth slashed the man across the face. The encounter resulted in dozens of stitches, but the guy had been lucky. Another inch to the left and he would’ve lost his eye.”
Steve winced. “Ouch. Good to know.”
“As for the Nosam tribe… They mostly keep to themselves, but occasionally barter with villagers who farm near the jungle. The good news is it’s been decades since we’ve had an incident with them. At that time, their leader was a ruthless, territorial man. He had beheaded an explorer who made the mistake of stumbling onto their land. Afterward, they used his body as bait for caimans. At least that’s what local villagers claimed.”
“Caimans?” Erica asked.
“They’re basically small alligators.”
“Whatever.” John shook his head as he readied his camera. “You’re full of it, man.”
“Could be rumor or a story to spook people from coming around them. But test your luck.”
“We won’t be doing that.” Joyce strapped on a backpack. “The Nosam territory is marked on the map, and we’re going to steer clear of it.” She turned to Bridget, who looked ready to jump back into the helicopter. “John and Steve are about ready to begin filming. I just got a text from the assistant producer with the other crew. They’re on the ground and are ready to head to the meeting point. That means it’s time for you to get naked.”
“I wouldn’t dilly-dally.” The pilot looked to the sky. “I can smell the rain.”
“I hate starting off in the rain,” Joyce said, frustration crossing her face. She focused on Bridget. “He’s right. We need to get moving. You and your partner are going to want to get in the jungle as soon as you can and make your shelter.”
Bridget released a shaky breath. The worry in the woman’s eyes had Erica’s stomach somersaulting and wondering why Bridget would put herself in this position. If the contestants made it to the end of the twenty-eight days, they received ten thousand dollars, a pat on the back and bragging rights. Even if the show offered one hundred grand to the winners, Erica still wouldn’t do it. There were way too many body crevices tiny bugs could get into and—gross—lay eggs. She only liked being wet in a shower or pool, and preferred to buy her food from the grocery store.
“I’m ready.” Bridget wiped beads of sweat from her brow and straightened her shoulders. “Let’s do it.”
While John and Steve finished preparing their cameras, Joyce instructed Bridget to say a few words once she began undressing. Nervous energy worked through Erica as Bridget gripped the hem of her T-shirt. How could anyone do this? She was comfortable being naked in front of Derek, but couldn’t imagine having her body and all its flaws aired on television.
As Bridget stripped and talked to the camera, Erika looked at her pink toenails. She wasn’t a prude, but this was plain weird. She didn’t want to see Bridget’s breasts, bare butt or know if she trimmed her pubic hair. That was too…personal. Intimate. When she reached the resort, she might have to skip sex in the suite and go straight to the bar and let alcohol remove this from her memory.
“Good job,” Joyce said, once Bridget finished talking. “Time to head for the rendezvous point.”
The humid air had sweat trickling down Erica’s back and she hadn’t taken a single step. She followed behind, taking gingerly steps to avoid sharp rocks that might pierce the pathetic soles of her sandals. As they moved forward, she tried to focus on the time she would spend with Derek. With the exception of a brief trip to Las Vegas for dinner and drinks, they’d never gone away together, but she frequently spent the night at his mansion. Although his place was beautiful and something out of a magazine, the majority of it was cold and uninviting. Not warm and homey like her small apartment. Plus, when she left in the morning, sometimes wearing the clothes she’d worn the night before, her makeup slightly smeared, shame followed her to the car. She was too old for that nonsense. Going home with a guy after clubbing it, then leaving the next day carrying her heels had been what she’d done during college. She knew better now. Knew to have more respect for herself.
So, why had she kept saying yes to him? Why had she never suggested he come to her apartment where she could be comfortable and more herself? What did it matter now? She didn’t know why she was suddenly questioning her choice to be with him. She was a grown woman who knew what she wanted. And she’d wanted to have fun with Derek.
“Ouch!” Bridget stopped and looked at the bottom of her foot. “I can’t wait to meet my partner and get into the jungle. These rocks are awful.” After Joyce gave the contestant a thumb’s up, Bridget continued on, walking a good twenty feet ahead of them.
“You’re looking uncomfortable,” Steve said, lowering his camera as he came alongside Erica. “Doing okay?”
“Considering I’ll be out of here in a couple hours, I’m not going to complain.”
He grinned. “No one would care if you did. If it wasn’t a cool gig, none of us would be here. The pay is too good to pass up and I get to travel to places I never knew existed.”
“The money and travel would be nice. But I don’t know if I could get used to looking at naked people. It’s just…weird.”
“So, no nudist colony for you? I get it. The first show I did was weird for me, too. The contestants were uncomfortable, which made me uncomfortable. Now? It’s hard to explain, but I don’t see two naked people. I see two people willing to do whatever it takes to make it through the challenge.” He shrugged. “It’s also interesting to watch total strangers learn to work together and depend on each other for survival.”
“I can appreciate that. I can also see how you’d get used to the nakedness. I’m sure gynecologists look at so many vaginas they’re probably numb to what they see.”
Steve laughed. “I don’t know about that.” He pointed ahead. “I see another naked person.”
Joyce slowed and answered her phone. “We see him,” she said. “John’s filming, as well.” She nodded to Steve who readied his camera again. “Steve is, too. Do you see Bridget?”
Erica wasn’t interested in the other contestant. Now that she knew Derek was nearby, she searched for him. Because of the contestant’s customs issues, Derek had been forced to leave on a later flight than hers, and she hadn’t seen or spoken to him since yesterday morning. She foolishly missed him when she shouldn’t. After all, this weekend was the series finale for the Derek and Erica Show.
“What the hell?” Steve held the camera in place. “John are you seeing this?”
Joyce had told them to remain in place, and for Steve and John to do a distance shot, since the other crew could take one closer. Erica watched the male contestant make his way toward Bridget, but wasn’t sure what Steve was bent about.
“Yeah, I’m seeing it,” John said, amusement in his tone. “The guy is a freak.”
“Freaky how?” she asked.
Joyce raised her binoculars. “That he’s freaking hung. Holy hell.” She grinned. “The editing department is going to have fun blurring all that.”
Since Derek did it for her, she wasn’t interested in another man’s penis. At that moment, she finally spotted Derek standing between a handful of crew members. When he stepped away from the group and faced her, she caught her breath. Although he was at least fifty yards away, her body responded and ached for his touch. With the way his short-sleeve, button-down shirt hugged his big biceps and chest, her fingers tingled with the urge to help him out of it and his khaki pants. She couldn’t wait to run her hands over his body, mess up his thick, dark hair and taste his kisses. While most of the people around him walked toward where the contestants would meet, he pushed his aviator sunglasses onto his head and continued to focus on her. Distance made it impossible to read his brown eyes, but they drew her to him anyway. Anxious to be with him, to leave the dusty ghost town and lock themselves in their suite, she stepped in his direction.
“This way, Erica,” Joyce said. “We’ll meet up with Derek in just a few.”
Her cheeks heated. If the terrain hadn’t been littered with sharp rocks and she hadn’t worn sandals, she’d been ready to make a mad dash to close the distance between them. She might not be ready for commitment, and would likely be in New York City by this time next month, but she couldn’t deny her attraction to him, or her addiction to his touch and kisses. Which was why she would spend the next three days selfishly indulging her desires. Because after that, she planned to go cold turkey and kick the Derek habit. No more sex. No more sneaking around to avoid the paparazzi. No more Derek. Her plan gave her a sense of empowerment and control.
Then why do you feel like throwing up again?
She glanced over her shoulder to where Derek still stood.
Because like any good junkie, she would miss her fix.