Whose Bride Is She Anyway?

Extended Sample

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Dakota Cassidy

Published 2016 by Book Boutiques.

ISBN: 978-1-62517-898-5

Copyright © 2016, Dakota Cassidy.

All rights reserved.

Prologue

Evanston High 1992—You want a piece of this?

An ass kicking…

Could one actually smell it when it was upon them? Cuz her nose was twitching with the scent of one.

The thick, acrid smell of a can of whoop ass being popped open

Yup, she was in for a licking. A serious tongue-lashing, and there was no escape. The predator was loose and on the prowl, just waiting to pounce on her with freshly polished nails and hair that shone so bright it made your eyes tear up looking at it.

The hunter?

Kelsey Little.

The hunted?

Tara Douglas.

Tara fought the onslaught of fear and panic that settled in her gut as the pack of Junior Miss America wannabes gathered around behind her in the girl’s locker room. The scent of her own perspiration lingered in her nose and her hands trembled as she fought to open her locker, trying to pretend that Kelsey and her crowd of perfectly flawless, rah-rah compadres weren’t cackling at her. She tucked the towel tightly between her breasts and popped open her gym locker with a jerk, keeping her back to them and her flushed cheeks hidden in the cool recesses of her locker.

Breathe…they’re just a bunch of stupid girls. That didn’t soothe her much. That “bunch of girls” were prettily disguised barracudas, looking to chew up her well-rounded flesh and spit it back out.

“Well, well, look at Tara Douglas, girls. What are you looking for in that locker? More condoms so you can help Jordon study?” Kelsey crowed, sarcasm dripping like a melting ice cream cone in the hot summer sun with each venomous word she spat.

Ah, the ever popular Kelsey Little, Tara winced. Captain of the cheerleading squad and head bitch on wheels at Evanston High, doing what she did best…reign supreme.

She clenched her eyes shut as the small crowd of pom-pom queens twittered at Kelsey’s reference to Jordon Sanders, Kelsey’s boyfriend, and Tara’s supposed squeeze.

Yeah, like Jordon Sanders could squeeze anything more than his biceps while admiring himself in a full-length mirror.

Like Tara Douglas could squeeze anything that belonged to Kelsey.

She ignored Kelsey’s hot breath on her neck and continued to root around in the locker for her underwear and bra. The palm of Kelsey’s hand slapped her locker shut with a sharp bang, just missing her fingers. She leaned forward into Tara with imposing menace, so close she almost choked on the smell of Love’s Baby Soft perfume. Tara jumped, cringing at the confrontation she knew was about to happen and was helpless to avoid. Her heart raced as impending doom lurked.

Kelsey loved a good show, especially if she had her fellow, brain-sharing goons to egg her on and participate in a little dork bashing.

Feeling none too brave, but just shy of chicken shit, Tara turned to face Kelsey, refusing to give in to the overwhelming need to push her way past the humiliation patrol and run. Kelsey had been belittling her at every turn since she’d began tutoring her stupid jock boyfriend, and she was sick and tired of being the butt of her jokes.

Not to mention—she was sick of her butt being made into a joke.

It was big.

So?

Tara didn’t need anyone to openly share that for her in large groups. She had a mirror. It came in double wide, thank you.

Yes, she was overweight—as if it wasn’t obvious. Clearly Kelsey didn’t opt for the startlingly original when it came to taking pot-shots. And wait, big surprise, she couldn’t wear short skirts or tight jeans. Not if she didn’t want rolls of doughy flesh bulging from every available outlet, anyway. Her mother told her she’d grow out of it, but she was almost eighteen and at five foot four, six foot two was looking less and less likely. Growing a foot or so was the only thing that would put her in proportion to her current weight.

Her options were becoming sorely limited according to her tape measure.

And finally, to seal the geek deal, she didn’t wield pom-poms and a flaming baton.

Sometimes, for the sheer joy of making Kelsey’s brain cells flutter, she just wanted to walk up and stick her face in Kelsey’s perfect one and yell, “I’m fat—fat, okay!”

Big deal. What was so special about being skinny anyway?

Tight jeans in a size four…A date every Saturday night…underwear that didn’t look like they belonged to Omar the tentmaker…Being on the cheerleading squad.

Whatever.

Tara tightened her towel and pulled it self-consciously over her butt. Kelsey’s teeth flashed in a wicked smile of absolute power, knowing she had Tara where she wanted her and reveling in it. Her long blonde hair jiggled as her head bobbed on her neck and she spat, “Tell me something Tara, does Jordon make you swallow?”

A profusion of color swept over Tara’s face and the heat of embarrassment lingered on her cheeks, pricking at her flesh.

Swallow what? She bit her lip. Wait, scratch that. Whatever was supposedly being ingested, it couldn’t be anything nearly as enjoyable as a plate of fries smothered in ketchup.

She didn’t have a clue what in all of hell Kelsey was talking about, but she knew it had to be sexual by the gasp of the forbidden everyone made. Fear continued to pulse through her veins, rushing in waves that left her knees weak. Her stomach was doing the Highland fling, and her teeth weren’t far from clacking their way out of her mouth, but she fought the fight of the meek anyway. “Get away from me, Kelsey. There’s nothing going on between me and Jordon. I tutor him, that’s all,” managed between tightly clenched teeth.

Oh, God, please don’t let me freak out now. Be calm, stay cool, and try not to notice that Kelsey’s face is so close to yours you could count the blackheads on her pert, upturned nose.

Kelsey had blackheads? The horror…

They might be mingled with a smattering of freckles, but they were there. Interesting. Popular girls got blackheads too. Maybe not as many as Tara, but a blackhead sighting had occurred and she wasn’t feeling nearly as inferior as she and her tube of Clearasil had a minute ago.

Kelsey flicked a stray piece of Tara’s hair with her fingers. “Yeah? That’s not the rumor I’m hearing. I hear you begged Jordon to screw you and he felt so sorry for you he mercy fucked you for helping him. Jordon told us all just last night at Candice Walker’s party, didn’t he girls?” A sea of shiny, Pert Plus heads nodded affirmatively, just as Tara expected they would. What else could they do? They were the Stepford cheerleaders, and no cheerleader worth her weight in cartwheels ignored Kelsey when a group opportunity to taunt a defenseless nerd became available.

Well, if what Kelsey said were true, and it wouldn’t shock Tara, it only went to show what a dipshit Jordon really was. Who bragged about a mercy fuck to a bunch of girls, especially his own girlfriend? In front of his girlfriends’ friends no less?

Duh.

Jordon was a moron. A waste of perfectly good, functioning grey matter. Sure he was cute, but somehow, frighteningly simple.

Tara stiffened at the implication she’d had anything more than a tutoring session with him. Her response reflected her astonishment, squeaking on its way out, “I did not have sex with Jordon. He’s not even my type.” He would need to at least have a higher grade point average than my pet rock collection.

Tara gripped the towel tighter as her legs trembled and Kelsey’s green eyes narrowed, boring into hers.

“Your type?” Kelsey screeched her grin of malice widening. “What is your type? Do they have types for slobs like you? You slut! Why would he lie about something like that? I guess fat girls get off too, huh, Tara? Do you really think Jordon is going to actually take you somewhere in public if you screw him? Like maybe you’ll actually get to go to a party with us?”

“We—are—not—screwing!” Tara half screamed, panic rising in her throat. “We just study, that’s it. Now go away. Don’t you have to practice pyramid building or something?” Kelsey’s pretty face turned ugly at Tara’s rebuttal.

Oh, oh, oh…maybe that might have been a wee bit overboard in the slam department. She swallowed hard, waiting for retribution. No one dared crack wise at a cheerleader, especially if the cheerleading wonder of the world was Kelsey Little.

Kelsey suddenly laughed and it wasn’t because she found Tara amusing. It rang with the sound of evil. “I’m not going away until you tell the girls and me what you do while you’re with Jordon. Admit it, you fucked him.” The word fuck came out of her mouth like sludge from a sewer.

The group of perfect faces that made up the “in crowd” at Evanston High became a blur over Kelsey’s shoulder, as Tara’s eyes zeroed in on Kelsey’s face, only inches from hers. “I—I told you,” her voice quivered, to her embarrassment, “We study…that’s all. Jordon ju—just needs help in Trig.”

Kelsey twisted a finger around a stray black strand from Tara’s ponytail and yanked it. “Do you help him jerk off while he does his algebra?”

Tara might have rolled her eyes if her scalp wasn’t pulled so tight any movement at all was impossible. She might even giggle if Kelsey didn’t yank it harder, so hard tears came to her eyes. Algebra had nothing to do with trigonometry, you waste of good oxygen. Like Kelsey would know anything but the formula for mixing moisturizing creams.

Shit, she wished she had the guts to actually say that. Instead, she opted for the very-effective-thus-far, “Go away, Kelsey! Jordon needs to pass Trig if he wants to graduate. I’m just helping him. Don’t you want him to be able take you to the prom?” God, she hated Kelsey Little, and she hated her even more because Kelsey was quicker than she was. She hated that she even had to waste time defending herself over something so ridiculous. As Kelsey delivered slam after slam, the side of Tara that shoved those dateless Saturdays and cruel words off into the far recesses of her brain began to emerge like an evil twin who’d been put up for adoption at birth.

Kelsey snorted hard, her nostrils flaring. “I don’t want him, not after he’s screwed with a porker like you.” The pom-pom sextuplets all snickered their agreement. Tara briefly wondered if they all shared the same brain, occasionally renting it out to a cheerleader in need.

Her face was now flaming as everyone laughed over Kelsey’s stab at a complete sentence that involved more than “go team, go!” Jerking her head up, she ignored the sting of her scalp and the strands of hair Kelsey lost her grip on as the tendrils pulled free. Her gut burned and for a nanosecond, she saw red. The color represented her last frayed nerve. For every cruel joke Kelsey had made, for each time she walked down a hallway and had to hide behind a corner to avoid her nemesis, it spilled to overflowing and for a mere moment, overwhelmed her. Suddenly, nothing mattered but striking back as hatefully as she could. It didn’t matter that she would pay later, at the moment she could see nothing but the person responsible for keeping her from being free to do as she pleased.

Kelsey Little…

Tara’s thick tongue finally found movement and a sneer came out of her mouth before she could stop its rapidly gaining momentum. “I guess I can’t be that much of a porker, can I, Kelsey? Jordon sure didn’t scream out your name when he was doing me.”

The locker room became deadly silent, seething anger permeated the sweaty stench, and for a mere moment Tara was horrified at her words, seeing their faces change from evil glee to mortification. Her gut heaved as the implication of what she’d just spewed sunk in. She wanted to take it back—sort of—and then, as her courage outweighed sanity…she didn’t want to take it back. Not even sort of.

Wham! Take that, Barbie!

Ooooh, that was good! Tara silently congratulated her efforts. Whew, where had that kind of rare form of venom come from?

It came from Kelsey taunting her, day-in and day-out, over this stupid tutoring thing with Jordon. Jordon Sanders couldn’t sharpen his pencil without studying for it and most sessions he spent talking about how many inches around his thighs were. Doing anything more with Jordon than imagining how hard it must be to have his tiny brain helplessly floating adrift in his head, was just…well, it just left Tara utterly confounded. Why in the world would Kelsey think she wanted to have sex with Jordon when he couldn’t even think without breaking into a mental sweat? Tara liked her boys complete with IQs, please.

Why would Jordon say he had sex with her? It was absurd and most likely a lie Kelsey made up so she had a reason to terrorize someone. Did she really need a reason?

The opportunity to find out never presented itself because Kelsey jammed her fingers into the top of the towel wrapped around Tara as her face turned crimson too. The ugly mottled color crept over her neck and her green eyes turned dark emerald. Tara’s hands were numb from clinging to keep the flimsy towel in place. Kelsey jerked her forward and she began to lose her desperate grip. Her fingers clenched tighter as she dug her nails into the thin terry cloth; they began to bend painfully while she clung harder. “Listen up, you fat, ugly pig! You better shut up, or you’ll regret it.”

Wow, that was insightful—a huge revelation. As if Tara didn’t regret it already. Her ears burned as Kelsey’s words rang in her ears and her picture perfect friends began to chant, “Fight, fight!”

Tara’s stomach heaved. Kelsey wouldn’t physically fight with her, would she? Nah, she might break a nail or worse still, lose the bounce and behave in her flaxen curls.

But Tara would live to regret how wrong she was as Kelsey dragged her forward, and pairs of hateful hands tore at her towel, twisting and turning her until it was yanked rudely away from her body. Naked, she shivered as the cool air hit her clammy, fear-soaked skin and the towel was left in a puddle at her feet.

The throng of girls half-pulled, half-shoved Tara toward the locker room’s double doors. Hands gripped her roughly, digging into the flesh of her arms and ramming into her back. The heels of Tara’s shoeless feet dug into the concrete flooring as she fought to keep from being thrown out into the hall. It loomed in front of her and she struggled violently to stop the shoving. Screaming until she was hoarse, she begged them to stop as the noise around her became a muted roar and in a matter of seconds, she found herself in the outer hallway, confronted by a gawking bunch of Evanston basketball players.

Completely naked…As in buck…

Tara whirled around, her cheek pressed flush against the door, and began to pound furiously on it. She didn’t know what to do first. Cover her exposed flesh, or try to push her way back in. Shrieks of laughter echoed from behind the firmly shut door, as tears flowed down her face in salty bubbles, falling to her bare feet and splashing on the tiled floor.

Tara pounded harder with her fists against the heavy metal, but to no avail. Rivulets of blood began to seep between her knuckles and her hands throbbed, but she kept hammering on the door, begging.

Vaguely she heard the comments from the crowd of boys as they swirled above her frantic wailing.

“Look at that fat ass,” someone yelled with disgust in his tone. “Maybe she’s hungry, is it feeding time at the zoo? Hey, want a cheeseburger? Mooooo!”

Tara’s world narrowed to the small point of escape the door had become as she hit it repeatedly with her fists. “Please,” she sobbed, her mantra hoarse and dry, “please, let me in!”

The shrill sound of a metal whistle pierced the catcalls and taunting. Heavy footsteps scattered, assaulting her ears as they thundered through her head.

The door finally gave way with a deafening creak as Tara fell into it and collapsed on the floor, sobbing. Soothing hands helped her up and guided her to the gym teacher’s office, covering her naked body with towels.

Tara couldn’t remember much after that but her swollen hands and the clucking concern of her mother as she drove her home and tucked her into her bed. She only remembered staring at her ceiling and praying for death. Her mother assured her only angst riddled teens did that and this too would pass…

She never told a soul who pushed her out of that locker door, because telling would make her not only a bigger geek, but a snitch too. Nor did she give it up when the video tape of her degradation was played at graduation rehearsal. If she thought she’d suffered before the locker room incident, she could never have fully prepared for that video tape to be shown to the whole senior class of Evanston High. She’d forgotten about the video camera in the hall used to monitor any hanky panky between locker rooms. The remainder of her senior days were spent with her head hung low, zipping in and out of classes as fast as she could, repeating the words over and over in her head as she was taunted endlessly. It doesn’t matter, I’ll never have to see them again in six months…four months…three…

Thankfully, no mention was made in the yearbook via strict instructions from Principal Clark, but the few who dared labeled it covertly as the “moo incident” in their class memories under their photos.

There were no dates, no size-four jeans, only Tara, her books and her wish to see Kelsey Little vanish from the face of her planet.

Or at the very least be really uncomfortable.

But she vowed that one day she’d exact some skinny revenge on Kelsey Little. Someday she’d show her what Tara Douglas was all about. She’d be successful and more importantly, thin. She’d walk right up to Kelsey and say, “How do you like me now?”

She’d show Kelsey…

Senior class bitch, cheerleader from hell and homecoming queen of Evanston High.

Chapter 1

Do I look fat in this?

Whose Bride Is She Anyway?”

Hell’s bells, Tara couldn’t believe she’d made it this far in the auditions for, of all things, the reality television show her old high school nemesis was the star of. Here she was in California, sitting in a crowded reception area after twelve rounds of interviews, smiling until her lips stuck to her teeth to get on the most popular reality show this side of planet earth. This was it. The last interview—the big showdown for the top spot as jury foreman on “Whose Bride Is She Anyway?”

She took a deep breath and watched as people came and went from the ominous mahogany door labeled “Producer”. As in the man who would call all the shots and held the key to Tara successfully pulling off the payback of the century.

A woman to her left whispered something about the “contestants”, making Tara turn to see if they too were stuffed in that office, but she hadn’t seen too many hunks come out.

Water, she needed water. Her throat was dry and scratchy and she’d been at this interview crap all damn day.

Tara clung to the number in her hand. It labeled her as potential jury member number two-twenty-three and it held her place in line. They were only on interview two-hundred or so…it was going to be a long wait with each interview at fifteen minutes apiece, so she could afford the time to go find some water. She clung to her number as she went in search of a water fountain.

Slipping out the door, she headed down the hall and saw a man bent over at the waist drinking from a fountain in long gulps.

Tight buns in faded blue jeans—damn, they got hotter and tighter as she closed the gap between herself and the fountain. Lord, that was the last thing she should be thinking of at a moment like this. Every bun from here to Beverly Hills was tight. So what?

Tara cleared her throat and a head popped up…the head that eventually led to those tight buns.

A ruffle of shaggy blond hair fell over his forehead, streaked from the sun, thick and shiny. His blue eyes locked with Tara’s and his mouth was slightly ajar. A bead of water trickled down lips that were firm, but full. “Um, I’m sorry, I was hogging wasn’t I?” His deep voice was like a waterfall of chocolate, trickling down over Tara in a cascade of shivers. She stared back at him, simply because words failed to produce much more than a caveman-like grunt under her breath.

He grinned, a flash of perfectly aligned white teeth and stood up. Fully erect, he was…well fully erect…Tall and solid, thickly muscled, but not plastic like she’d seen so much of since she’d come to California for this audition. Tara blinked and took a long, slow breath. “It’s okay—ta…”she cleared her throat again because she sounded like an armadillo in mating season. “Take your time. I—well, I—can wait. I mean they’re only on number two-hundred, so I have loads of time. Really, drink all you want. It’s okay, you look thirsty and I don’t blame you. I mean it’s hot here, right? The sun is…”

“No, I’m done, you go ahead,” he interrupted, backing away from the fountain and offering her his spot with his hand. His big hand…He looked confused and who could blame him? She was running off at the mouth, something she did often when she was nervous.

Tara forgot she was thirsty, forgot everything but this big man’s chest, staring her in the face. “Th—tanks,” Oh, God…”I mean, thank you.” Accent on the letters t-h.

Jesus!

He smiled back at her, but continued to stand his ground, unmoving, and unblinking. His blue eyes just wouldn’t let go of hers. Was he an actor? Was this eye contact thing like a technique you were supposed to practice on complete strangers? Cuz it was workin’.

She was not bending over in front of this man to drink from the fountain. He would see her ass.

And?

What the hell was wrong with her? Who cared if he saw her ass? As asses went, hers would pass. She wasn’t sure what it was passing, some silent test she’d made up in her head, but nonetheless, it would fare all right. She stomped over to the fountain and pushed the button to make the water come out. Nothing…she pushed again…still nothing.

“Here, let me help. You have to push slowly if you want a steady stream.”

Magically the water sprayed up and out and Tara took small sips, quickly, standing back up and using her thumb to wipe the excess water from the side of her lips. “Tank…” argh!Thank you,” she said slowly, avoiding his gaze.

“My pleasure,” his scratchy grumble pierced the quiet of the hall.

Finally raising her eyes, they appraised one another

Then, silence and nothing but the pounding of her heart in her ears, yet they continued to stare at one another, his eyes holding hers until someone yelled in their direction.

“August!” A thin man came running down the hall, waving his hands and heading in their direction. “August, I told you—you have to use the fountain in Hall B.”

August? What kind of name was August? He was an actor, Tara decided. They all had names that were farfetched and hid something awful, like their real names. His was probably Bubba or Cletus.

August wasn’t apologetic as he looked over his shoulder one last time at Tara, his eyes lingering for a moment on her face before he turned to the thin man. “If you’re going to keep us holed up in there like that the least you can do is give us water. How was I supposed to know where Hall B was? I just found the water. I didn’t care what hall it was in.”

The man put his hand on August’s back and directed him back down the hall as he spoke in a rush. “I know, I know. I’m sorry, we’re on overload here and I should have been more careful…” Their voices faded as they took the turn at the end of the corridor.

He must be on an audition, hence the eye thing, Tara figured. But he didn’t look as fake as most of the men she’d run into since she’d come to California. He was vivid in the way most actors—she supposed—should be, yet raw and edgy with all that silent eye contact. Definitely had presence…

A shiver like spider’s legs skittered up her spine. It was all technique, or whatever actors called it, designed to make women’s libidos go “whoa”, and hers had responded in typical teeny bopper fashion.

As Tara walked back down the hall she wondered about his name. He really should think about changing it.

August? Well, it was…a month, for crap’s sake.

* * * *

Now that she was back in the waiting room, watching interviewees for the jury come and go from her corner chair, she gave some thought to Kelsey Little while trying to set aside her encounter with that August person who was much more like an Adonis than a man named after a month.

Out of the blue a thought occurred to her, one in a long string of paranoid thoughts that made her squirm with discomfort. Was there a lie detector test on this show? Because if so, she was doomed.

She fidgeted and refused to acknowledge the very idea that she’d been lying boldly about knowing Kelsey. It wasn’t a lie. She did know her. Sorta…

Hookay, so she’d told a wee white lie to get this far.

Oh, all right, she conceded mentally, she’d lied a lot. Yep, she’d told a really big white lie, but the end justified the means, she reasoned with herself. So Tara Douglas and Kelsey Little weren’t really friends, per se, in high school. The producers of “Whose Bride Is She Anyway?” didn’t need to know that. All the rules on the show’s website said were that the potential jury foreman had to be a friend from high school.

Define friends.

Tara sighed. Okay, so she and Kelsey weren’t even acquaintances.

Jeez, so they came from two completely different worlds if she allowed brutal honesty to reign supreme.

What of it?

“I did know Kelsey Littman in high school!” a woman’s voice protested loudly as it was ejected from the producer’s door.

Tara almost laughed aloud from her corner of the room. Littman?

The nice secretary smiled serenely at a woman as she motioned her out the door of the producer’s office. “That’s lovely, but not according to our records, dear.” The disgruntled woman stomped out of the waiting area with a flounce of hair.

Oh hell. They were checking records? Guilt chomped at Tara’s intestines like a round of Pac Man. She glanced around the room nervously as if at any moment someone from her past might out her. She hunkered further down in her chair and grabbed a magazine from the table beside her, covering her face with it so she could get in touch with the vibe that had brought her here in the first place.

Some much overdue payback for Kelsey Little.

Kelsey Little didn’t know Tara had existed in high school. Not in the way you acknowledged someone friend-to-friend, anyway. Kelsey instead had taunted and tormented her all through high school and then, she’d been responsible for the most humiliating event in Tara Douglas’s life.

Bar none.

Tara was Kelsey’s complete polar opposite. Short and overweight, president of the trigonometry club, debate team captain and home every Saturday night her entire high school career.

Alone. As in just Tara and her bag of pork rinds.

Definitely not a candidate for the illustrious Evanston cheerleading squad.

She wondered if Kelsey was as evil now as she’d been in high school. Evil like Kelsey’s was inherent, inbred, a defective mean gene.

Tara shook off the bad karma that attacked every time she thought of high school. All she wanted to do was get on this stupid show as Kelsey’s jury foreman, but as the waiting room continued to fill up rather than empty out, she was becoming skeptical.

“I think I did it!” a large man with a thick moustache touted as he left the interviewing room. “I think I’m going to be a jury member!” He cracked his knuckles confidently and smiled at the whispering crowd gathered on the far side of the room.

The jury members were comprised of people responsible for choosing Kelsey’s eventual groom-to-be. Kelsey would pick from two of the men the jury offered her, based on their month-long assessment of chemistry with Kelsey and willingness to win her heart via videotaped dates. The jury was in charge of grilling these helpless contestants to be sure Kelsey ended up with the right guy.

Hah! That was exactly where she wanted to be, at the helm of this choice made in Kelsey’s honor. She’d get a paid vacation at a tropical resort and the ability to revel in the payback of the millennium. Because she was going to help all of America see just what a selfish, conceited, backstabber Kelsey was.

Another potential jury member sat beside Tara, a chair away, making her peek out over the top of her Time Life. Thumbing the pages, Tara pretended to read while noting it wasn’t anyone she knew.

“Interviewee number two-hundred and twenty,” the secretary called from the office door. A short, round woman with red hair jumped up and waved her number.

Tara’s stomach heaved again. Only three numbers away from a shot at nabbing the jury foreman spot and possibly on her way to big time payback.

Revenge on national TV—exposing Kelsey for the bitch she was—was Tara’s ultimate goal. She’d also take the opportunity to show off her new bikini, if her balls got just a little bigger and half-naked suddenly became life-affirming rather than a traumatic battle of flesh over mind. Maybe she’d prance around in front of Kelsey in a thong just because she could. Flash her some newly sculpted Tara booty or something.

Look, Kelsey! It’s me, Tara Douglas. See this ass, you rotten bitch? It ain’t the one you threw out of the locker room door anymore. Wanna see my thong, thong, thong?

Well, okay, no thong, just some cute shorts or something.

If her self-esteem would quit freakin’ on her she’d do just that, because Tara Douglas was no longer the fat geek. She wasn’t sure that was ever going to be possible, but she wasn’t the meek girl Kelsey remembered. Tara was still just as organized, maybe compulsively so, still just as smart, she just looked better for it. Speaking of organized, had she brought her lip gloss?

A guy wandered in from the outer door and nodded at her with a wink as he drifted toward the secretary’s desk. The attention she garnered from men still surprised Tara.

“I think he likes you,” the girl two seats away giggled.

Even now she had trouble reconciling herself with the new and improved Tara. The Tara men now eyeballed with lust in their hearts and hard-ons in their shorts. She’d come a helluva long way since high school and she was proud of that, but the old Tara, insecure, her self-esteem jar half empty—reared her ugly head from time to time. Sometimes it was harder for her to be pretty than it ever had been being what polite society called unattractive.

It was pressure. Lipstick and mascara and cellulite cream and all sorts of crap to keep her body flab free. If she had just one more round with the “thigh-master,” she’d bust or her thighs would explode, whichever came first.

She fought a sigh when the girl to her right asked what number she was. “Two-twenty-three,” she mumbled from behind her magazine, hoping to avoid conversation.

“God,” the girl said, “I feel like I’ve been waiting forever for this moment.”

Tara nodded, understanding fully what that was like. Everything she’d done in the name of perfection was all for this moment.

A moment Tara didn’t consciously know she’d craved anymore, but found once she’d had a sampling of, left her wanting more.

Kinda like opening a bag of revenge potato chips. You couldn’t have just one.

It was a moment that cropped up out of the blue, and not in the way of your typical high school reunion. Tara hadn’t realized how much she still despised Kelsey until she got wind of the fact that she was going to be on this reality show and then, it all came back in a rush of clarity. Crystal clear and rife with a vengeance she could taste.

But even now, newly sculpted as she was, as improved as she’d like to think she’d become, when she looked in the mirror she still saw the ghost of the same old Tara Douglas from the class of nineteen-ninety-two.

Chubby and ugly. Nary a date in all of her high school history and just a little freaked out about how much she loathed Kelsey for making her senior year miserable. And making her the Evanston senior class joke.

Hate however, was indeed a powerful motivator.

Kelsey Little deserved to rot in flawless hell for Tara’s humiliation, and she couldn’t wait to be the one who blew the air that fanned the flames licking at Kelsey’s perfect cheerleader behind.

“I’m up next!” a far-too-enthusiastic contestant said as he held up his number.

A sharp pang of fire ripped through Tara’s already upset stomach; reaching for her purse she dug around for her bottle of antacids. Popping it open, she threw a handful in her mouth and crunched them in an attempt to repress her burning intestines.

James Bond she was not.

Shoot, she wasn’t even a very good liar. All of this cloak and dagger crap seemed far better suited to a Charlie’s Angel, because she was an undercover Kelsey hater, masquerading as a former high school friend.

Crunching harder on the antacids, she hoped to fend off the guilt eating her guts up and spitting them back out like a Fear Factor contestant for just a while longer.

Looking around, she tried to focus on the other people who were looking to cash in on her ticket to walloping Kelsey. The room was packed. What if someone from high school was here and recognized her? She eyed the short chubby red-head in the corner of the reception area. She looked familiar, Tara thought as her stomach took a nose dive.

Oh, hell…it was Candice Walker. Not a cheerleader in high school but a wannabe, always trailing behind Kelsey like some damn dog cleaning up her path of leftovers. She’d hand Mr. Perfect over to Kelsey and ask if she could cook dinner for the happy couple too. Suck up. Suddenly, Candice looked up and directly at Tara. Well, she could say hello…”Hey, Candice, long time no see. I’m here to fuck with Kelsey. Wanna play?” Instead she lifted her chin and pretended she didn’t know who Candice was.

Not that it mattered, because Candice didn’t seem to know who she was either. Fine, it was just as well. She didn’t need anyone horning in on her op to weave a web of deceit.

She’d waited a long time for this opportunity.

Okay, maybe not exactly this particular kind of opportunity. Honestly, Tara really thought she and Kelsey would run into one another in like the local grocery store and Tara would wander up to her, look her in the eye, and ask, “How do you like me now? Not such a fat ass, am I?” Neener, neener, neener.

This op was a just a smidge bigger in epic “look at me now” proportions.

Tara gnawed on the inside of her cheek. She sounded like every scorned geek looking for revenge from here to eternity. It was like a bad episode of “when geeks attacked”.

Another candidate plopped down in the seat next to her. “It’s packed in here,” he commented.

Tara nodded again and ignored him. He was intruding on a good internal battle and she couldn’t focus with endless personal chatter. She blew out a long breath. God, what she was planning to do was cruel, but then again, so was Kelsey and she had to cling to that if she was going to go through with this.

Rushes of guilt assaulted her as she continued to wait to be called for her interview, watching as people wandered in and out of that door that led to the interviewing. Remnants of the girl she used to be, no doubt.

A good girl—a good fat girl.

The mahogany door popped open and a young woman in low-slung jeans wandered out and she wasn’t looking too happy. Another girl similarly dressed flew up to her and asked, “How did it go?”

The young woman shook her head, but Tara couldn’t hear what she was saying.

Tara’s stomach sank. Oh shit, who was she kidding? This was awful. She was an awful person to want to go through with this. Maybe she should just forget it. Who gave a damn if Tara Douglas spent her senior year hiding in her bedroom because Kelsey had video of her naked butt in the hallway outside the locker room?

While a bunch of sweaty jocks roared with laughter and made cow noises. No, that incident was something Tara would live with forever.

No one cared. Only Tara did.

Her face burned again as if she were right back in high school, pounding on that damn door for all she was worth. Her hands clenched tightly in her lap and wrapped around the bottle of antacids. She could still remember the sharp throb in them as she begged to be let back into that locker room.

Bitch. Kelsey Little was a selfish, overblown, egotistical big mouth who needed a good dose of her own meds. Tara would happily pry her mouth open and pour them directly down her throat.

Tara Douglas wasn’t timid and mild mannered anymore and she wasn’t a fat ass either.

She reminded herself—again—that revenge was sweet and Kelsey Little deserved this in sticky, cavity like portions. She needed to toughen up if she was going to be a bigger bitch than Kelsey. She’d waited a long time to see the likes of Ms. Little squirm in humiliation. Tightening her jaw, she regained her focus.

Her Mission Impossible, if you will.

Duh, duh, da da, duh, duh da da. The theme from the movie played in her head. Her mission: pick a freak of nature for Kelsey so she’d at least have to spend a year in hell with him to win the million dollar cash prize. Taunt her, remind her that Tara Douglas, Evanston High nobody, was the Captain of the humiliation squad now.

Yeah…

So screw the girl she used to be and screw guilt with a capital “S”.

The man next to Tara left and another girl took his place, svelte and sleek in tight fitting clothing. She smiled absently at Tara. “Hi,” she murmured.

Tara smiled back and ran her hands over her own tight jeans, feeling self-conscious. Tugging at the area where her phantom belly used to be, Tara unconsciously sought to tent her shirt, covering the roll of flesh that she fully expected to seep out from underneath her T-shirt, between the top of her jeans and ooze from just below her breasts. Of course, that didn’t happen, because there was no roll of anything anymore, but old habits die hard. Her habits kept stalking her from the grave.

Who could fluff this damn shirt out anyway? It was like a second skin, as sleek and as supple as her midriff had become.

Tara squirmed in her seat, shifting positions and crossing her legs. No one from her past would ever recognize her, not now, and she wanted to keep it that way. The shows producers would only choose one high school friend to be on the jury and Tara planned for that friend to be her.

No matter what.

The secretary popped her head out of the door again and called into the crowd, “Contestant two-hundred and twenty three…”

Chapter 2

The Contenders

Bah ba bah, ba ba ba bah ba bah (work with me here). Can you hear the Rocky theme song?

Tara squirmed in her seat as Henry Abernathy, the producer of “Whose Bride Is She Anyway?” flipped through his clipboard of applications. She ran her tongue over her bottom lip slowly, waiting to see if good old Henry reacted. His eyes certainly were not glazing over with untamed lust.

Maybe she still didn’t have the seduction thing down pat? The heavens above knew she’d practiced enough in front of the mirror.

A vixen you ain’t, honey. Well, Hell. Okay, one more shot at this.

Thrusting her breasts forward, Tara pretended she was disinterested and bored. Henry’s eyeballs were not responding with the usual pop. He never once looked up from those damn papers.

He was gay.

Okay, scratch the big seduction scene. No amount of cleavage and booty was going to catch this guy’s attention. She’d have to rely on her brain, not something that was foreign to Tara. Not by a long shot, but to a degree, she rather took personal pleasure in her newly acquired looks, and wasn’t above using them for personal gain. She remembered a time when she’d scorned the pretty girls for using their looks to get what they wanted. If she’d only known the benefits she would reap as a result. Tara took a quick peek at her thighs to make sure they weren’t splitting the seams of the jeans she’d poured herself into.

No, she reminded herself, that didn’t happen anymore. She could wear her clothes as tight as she liked and it made no difference, nothing was ever going to bulge on her body again if she could help it.

By all things Richard Simmons, I do solemnly swear.

Henry Abernathy’s chair creaked as he tilted it back and fired his first words since she’d entered the room. The hum of the video camera droned in the background. “You do know the show requires the jury foreman to know Kelsey Little, right?”

Tara nodded and took in his gaze solemnly. Oy

“So, Tara, tell me how well you know Kelsey Little.”

Well enough to know I hate her guts, how’s that? “We didn’t talk on the phone every night, but we hung out in school.” Not a total lie, Tara soothed herself. They did hang out. At least in the same science class when they’d passed papers to one another. She sat behind Kelsey every day for a year, that sort of constituted hanging out, right?

“Were you on the cheerleading squad with her?” Henry tapped his pen on the desk in front of him.

Click, click, click.

Tara tried to keep from visibly cringing. The cheerleading squad…

Hah! Yeah, that was me on the top of that pyramid, all thighs and cellulite.

“No, I wasn’t a cheerleader.”

Remember, less is more. Just say as little as possible about your relationship with Kelsey and you might skate through this unscathed.

“So, exactly what was your relationship with Kelsey?” Did Henry seem a bit skeptical here? Well, shit. How did you define their relationship?

Tormentor and the tormented? Hunter and the hunted?

Tara battled another cringe as a bead of sweat popped out on her forehead.

Play it cool. It wouldn’t look good to have sweat marks under her armpits. “We hung out together, went to a party or two. Did the girl-thing.” ‘Nuff said.

“Hung out together?” Henry drawled. “Were you a close personal friend?”

Define close. “We were friendly enough for me to know what she likes in a guy.” Tara followed that statement up with a smile, a slow, upward tilt of her freshly glossed lips. It was, after all, the truth. She did know what Kelsey liked in a man. It wasn’t a difficult task. Low on brain fuel, big on six-pack abs; hold the grammatically complete sentences, if you don’t mind.

“What makes you think you’re qualified to pick a potential husband for Kelsey?”

Tara almost snorted. She wasn’t qualified to pick her nose, let alone a husband for Kelsey. That’s what would make this fun. She tried to keep her expression composed.

She cocked her head in thought and pondered how to answer. “Well, Kelsey and I had very similar tastes in high school, in guys anyway. We liked a lot of the same things. I want the best for her. I want her to have the man of her dreams.”

And a good dose of universal, televised humiliation. Her stomach lurched. Damn, there was that pang of guilt again, sucking up all of her revenge energy.

Henry didn’t look too impressed with her answer. His blank stare mirrored her own. Okay, she was tired of this stupid, inane crap and her mind kept wandering to the guy in the damn hall. It was time to show Henry that she wasn’t the least bit interested in his lame show because her focus was drifting.

Reverse psychology and all.

Tara leaned forward, letting her breasts rest against his desk because it was unlikely it would make the slightest difference to him. She eyed Henry closely, making him noticeably shift in his big producer chair. “It’s like this, Henry—I’d love to be on your show, who wouldn’t want a free tropical vacation for a month? But, I’m not going to try to sell you anything here. I’m smart enough to know there’s a line of salivating wannabes a country mile long just looking to be on this show. Everyone has their own personal reasons, I’m sure. I think mine are clear. I knew Kelsey in high school, even if we didn’t socialize in the same circles very often. I’m hoping to help her choose a husband because she obviously wants one and we had similar tastes in beefcake. So either you want me or you don’t. It’s as simple as that. I’m probably the only one with an IQ higher than a tomato plant and I’d say that makes for interesting television, wouldn’t you?”

Her ears burned at her rather bold answer. It sounded so vain. Conceited even. A bit too confident?

Henry narrowed his eyes. Tara watched his mental wheels spin. “Thank you, Ms. Douglas. We’ll be in touch.”

You are officially dismissed. Vamonos. Scram.

Tara rose slowly and ran her hands over her legs. Maybe her thighs didn’t look as good as she thought they did after all. Sticking out her hand, she offered it to Henry Abernathy, behaving as though it didn’t matter one way or the other if she was chosen for his stinking show. “It was nice meeting you, Mr. Abernathy.”

Henry offered her a limp shake and looked back down at the pad on his desk. He was scribbling away as Tara made her exit.

As she stood outside the door of the audition room, her legs felt weak. She’d screwed it up and now she’d never have the chance to toy with Kelsey the way Kelsey had toyed with her.

She slowly headed down the long hallway that led back out to the parking lot and caught sight of the large blond guy with the name of a calendar month leaning against the wall in all his hunkiness. He was so damn hot, Tara thought, and he’d have to be to still catch her attention after a whooping like the one she’d just taken from Henry Abernathy.

Catching a glimpse of herself in the windows that lined the corridor, Tara decided today was a “fat day”. It must have been, because all of a sudden, she was seventeen again and Kelsey was taunting her because she couldn’t even make the cut for a brainless reality TV show.

Another evil plan foiled again…

* * * *

As Henry Abernathy watched the broad, well-muscled back of August Guthrie disappear out of his office door, he flipped through his application one last time. This piece of mouth-watering hunk was perfect, short on words and an even shorter fuse. To sweeten the pot, he knew Kelsey from high school. A scorned boyfriend maybe? That always made for exciting television. Maybe August could be the secret bomb he dropped on Kelsey’s picture perfect world, smashing it to smithereens and checking the selfish bitch’s attitude with a big black mark. What a diva that one was.

Henry had been against her as the final choice all along, but he was out-voted in the end. Everyone on staff thought she was vain enough to make America spend every Tuesday night at ten p.m. glued to their television sets, just waiting to see what she would do next. There was nothing Henry would like more than to see Kelsey Little wallow in her own load of crap.

Ruffling a feather or two kept things very interesting, add to the mix that August Guthrie was hot and you had the makings of a hit. All shaggy blonde hair and flaring nostrils, a hard line to the set of his mouth and biceps like bowling balls.

Hot, hot, hot.

Then there was the very pretty Tara…Tara Douglas didn’t know Kelsey Little from a hole in the wall, Henry mused, as his callous producer’s mind raced to make something sordid of this opportunity. Of course, he’d have his people check to be sure they’d at the very least graduated in the same class. He could do that in minutes. It was a requirement to be a jury foreman on the show, but no one said they had to be best buddies.

Just friends. Sort of. And Tara was the perfect jury foreman. She was more than just great looking. Fans of the show would eat up her wholesome yet sultry looks. You could strike a match on those cheekbones of hers.

Henry scribbled bikini on his notepad by her name. Tara should definitely wear one on camera. The male viewing audience would be hard pressed to keep from having their flags waving at full staff while watching her. She was better looking than Kelsey—that was for sure. He was going to wet his knickers just waiting to see if the contestants liked Tara better than Kelsey. Though he couldn’t afford any more controversy after the last season. Unless he used the hullabaloo to his advantage…

Something about Tara Douglas made Henry’s heart go pitter-pat and it wasn’t her ass. Though he supposed from a heterosexual point of view, her ass was rather pleasing to the eye. She was up to something and that was A-okay with Henry. He could smell controversy like little boys could smell cookies baking in the oven.

It meant payola.

This season was going to be a hit for Henry Abernathy, bigger than last year’s ever was. He swiped at the drool forming in the corner of his mouth. Life was going to be very sweet if he could pull this baby off. Tara rather reminded him of the volatile August Guthrie. Quiet and introspective one minute, then whaling him with this aura of insecurity he couldn’t quite put his chubby finger on. Henry buzzed his secretary, grinning smugly at his sheer brilliance. He checked August off as one of the twenty men who’d better hold onto their hats, because he was one of the final twenty contestants and he’d better be prepared to hit the friendly skies ASAP. Leaning back in his chair, Henry chuckled and thought, let the games begin…

Chapter 3

What was I thinkin’?

As Tara headed out to the parking lot to grab her rental car and spend the night sulking in her hotel room before she had to go back home and live with the agony of defeat, she heard her name called from across the studio’s big parking lot. Turning, she cupped a hand over her eyes to block the sun and scan the surrounding area.

“Ms. Douglas! Wait!”

Tara caught a glimpse of Henry Abernathy’s secretary running in heels, waving a big manila envelope.

What now? She just wanted to go home and forget she’d ever considered this. More paperwork maybe? Did you need to fill out “loser” paperwork? Sorry, Tara Douglas, you just didn’t make the cut, but could we trouble you to sign on the dotted line, sealing your loser deal?

“Oh, Ms. Douglas!” Henry’s secretary gasped, fanning her face with the envelope. “I’m so glad I caught up with you. Mr. Abernathy would have my head if I didn’t.”

Tara smiled vaguely and furrowed her brow. “I’m sorry. I missed your name when I was waiting to be interviewed.”

“Oh,” she chuckled, “I’m Linda. It’s a pleasure to meet you. I have some exciting news!”

You too can be excited about being a loser…”Um, I’m not sure what you mean. Did I forget something? Did I miss a disclaimer?”

“Oh, no it’s nothing like that. Guess what?”

Okay, she’d play. “What?”

Linda bobbed her pretty head in disgust and stomped her foot. “No! You have to guess!”

Guess? What was this, trivial pursuit? “Guess?”

Linda shook the envelope she held in exasperation. “Yes! Guess!”

Tara was tired and plumb not interested. Maybe if she answered the “guess” correctly, she’d get a nice parting gift. “Oh, I couldn’t even venture to. If it’s not more paperwork, then I’m plain stumped. I’m all guessed out,” she said flatly.

Linda looked disappointed that Tara didn’t want to play. “I know, all those interviews and tests and stuff are grueling, huh? Okay, so I’ll just tell you.”

At this stage of the game, that might be a right fine idea. Tara leaned against her rental car and folded her arms over her breasts. “Okay.”

“See this?” Linda waved the envelope under Tara’s nose.

“Uh-huh.” She nodded.

“Know what it is?”

Her loser certificate? Ah, yes to make it all official and all. She could frame it. “I have no idea and no, I can’t guess.” Tara smiled.

Linda thrust it at her. “Well, silly, open it.”

She threw her purse through the open car window and tore open the envelope, peeking inside she pulled out the official “Whose Bride Is She Anyway?” letterhead and began to read it.

Tara’s expression went from wary to shocked. A grin spread over her lips in astonishment, then a frown, then another grin. Holy Shit!

Linda put her hand under Tara’s chin, clapping her mouth shut. “Cool, huh?”

Indeed. She nodded wordlessly.

Hell’s bells…they’d chosen her as the jury foreman.

Tara’s knees began to shake as her eyes blurred from the long day and an end to her goal in sight.

“Did you read the small print?” Linda shook Tara’s shoulder.

She squinted and looked to the spot where Linda’s finger pointed, reading the smaller print below her acceptance letter.

Oh…

Well, that was just silly. Who could possibly leave at this very moment to go to Hawaii? I mean, really, she thought as her head spun. Who could just up and leave with no notice whatsoever to anyone? She had a job and an apartment. A fern that needed watering…

Bills to pay…a more definitive blueprint for “Kelsey Little disaster” to design.

But the letter said if she wasn’t prepared to board a plane tonight, then she would be excluded from the competition.

Well crap. If she didn’t sign this now and go, she wasn’t ever going. What a friggin’ crappy thing to pull. All this high-and-low emotional stuff was going to be the death of her. How could she possibly prepare mentally for this if she didn’t have time? Humiliation was a craft best given one’s single-minded efforts.

Linda leaned over her shoulder and asked, “So what are you going to do?”

Tara ran a hand through her hair and started putting her brain into neatly filed compartments of organization. Call mom, call work, return rental car, go to hotel, and pack bags…Clothes, she didn’t have any clothes but what she’d brought with her for a couple of days. They couldn’t make her go without clothes. That settled that.

“But I have nothing to wear. I can’t just jump on a plane for a month and have no clean underwear with me. I mean when I watched all of the other shows the jury talked about how they had weeks to plan to leave. How can I go without clean underwear…”

“We take you shopping. You have two hours to buy what you’ll need and a budget the size of two of your paychecks. This is a new twist they added, sort of a catch-you-off-guard thing. It’s happening to the contestants too.”

“Well, the contestants don’t need anything to wear but a Speedo! I mean all it is—is some suntan lotion and a thong.”

Linda laughed at her obvious anxieties. “Those are the rules and,” she looked at her watch, “you have five more minutes to give me an answer. Your flight leaves tonight.”

“But my stuff at the hotel…”

“We’ll send someone to get it. Four minutes…”

“And my rental car…”

“Staff will take it back for you. Three and a half minutes.”

“My fern…” Tara said weakly.

“Can’t help ya there. Two minutes.”

She grabbed Linda’s arm and covered her wrist watch in frustration. “Oh, all right! I’ll go!” Tara grabbed the pen Linda held out and signed the release, scribbling her name quickly before she freaked out. “There,” she said with a matter-of-fact tone, “now what?”

Linda smiled. “Now you get whatever you have in this car and come with me.”

She lost her focus on Linda for a moment as she caught the large body of that August guy weaving between cars in the parking lot. Damn, he was hot.

Tara popped open the back door and began digging around for her spare pair of shoes. Her thoughts were jumbled and her head ached. How the hell was she going to put this all together in her head in one plane ride to Hawaii?

Could one plan in enough time—on a flight to Hawaii—to destroy someone?

* * * *

August Guthrie swaggered in and out of the cars in the studio parking lot and paused, trying to remember where the hell he’d left his rental twelve hours ago.

Damn, he felt stupid. Well, his best friend Greg couldn’t say he didn’t take him up on his dare. Greg had triple-dog dared him to try out for the show when he’d found out from his cousin that Kelsey Little was on it. August couldn’t help it if the people responsible for helping him make this dare happen didn’t want to play.

Henry Abernathy had grilled him like a piece of shrimp on the barbee. What kind of question was what makes your heart sing?

Yes, he’d known Kelsey in high school. Lying about that would have sunk him like the Titanic because it was easily checked. Yes, he was a competitive man. No, he didn’t need the money the show offered.

Locating his rental car, August ignored the replay of his interview with Henry in his head and took a few more weary steps toward it. Maybe he’d just go back to the hotel, sleep and drive back home. He hated to fly. He needed time to think about this newest rejection in a long list of them where Kelsey Little was concerned.

Some guy was leaning on the trunk of his car, legs crossed, dressed perfectly and eyeballing him as August went to the driver’s side and ignored him.

“August Guthrie?”

August turned to stare at him. “Yep.”

Tall, dark and Hollywood held out his hand. “I’m Darren, Mr. Abernathy’s assistant.”

August’s face registered recognition. “Sorry, I didn’t recognize you at first. It’s all kind of hazy, ya know?” Like coming off a two-day bender.

Darren chuckled, “Yeah, I do know. It’s a long couple of days going through all of the tests and interviews, but I think you’re going to find it’s paying off for you.”

August cocked his head. “Huh?”

Darren stuck out his hand and slapped the other across August’s back. “You’re in.”

He was in? In as in—in the final cut in?

Darren read his mind. “Yeah, you’re a contestant on ‘Whose Bride Is She Anyway?’.”

August’s eyes flew open. “Wait a second. I thought they weren’t choosing anyone for weeks?”

Darren’s dark eyes smiled. “It’s a new twist we kept close to our chests and here’s the real catch, you have to leave today.”

“What?”

“Watch my lips,” Darren said and pointed to his mouth, his pinky ring glistening in the sun. “If you want to be a contestant on the show, you have to leave today.”

“Today?”

“Today.”

August began pacing the length of the small parking space, his head filling with a “to do list”. How could he friggin’ leave today? He had a business to run and a goldfish to feed. He didn’t have enough clothes with him for a month. Or a plan to win Kelsey. How could he practice winning her if he didn’t have time to do anything but get on a plane? You couldn’t win a woman without a plan—he had to get his head into the game first.

He stuttered, “But…”

“It’s now or never,” Darren assured him.

“My rental…”

“The staff will get it.”

“Um, clothes?”

“Bought and paid for by the show. You don’t need much, a few bathing suits, some T-shirts, sandals.”

“My goldfish, Jerry…”

“He has water.”

August finally laughed. “Can I call home? I’d have to make some arrangements.”

“Yep, one call.”

“Like jail?”

Now Darren laughed, “Yeah, like jail.”

Well shit. If he didn’t do it, Greg would call him a chicken-shit bastard. If he did, he could well be on his way to getting married in front of a live audience. He gulped for the first time since he began this crazy venture, his throat was tight.

Marriage to Kelsey Little. Holy hell. And there was no backing out either. If you signed you couldn’t leave unless you were voted off by the jury. There were clauses and crap in that contract.

August saw the value of the show catching them off guard. It made you make snap decisions you might not if you had more time to rationalize. That was what the show was all about, wasn’t it? Making a life-altering choice in a month. What was the worst that could happen? He’d lose and go home. No big deal. Losing wouldn’t be as bad as backing out on Greg’s triple-dog dare.

“You have like five minutes, August,” Darren warned, “and then I need you to sign this contract. The one you reviewed before the final interviews.” He pulled it out of his back pocket and slapped it in the palm of his hand.

Five flippin’ minutes? Who decided to leave town in five minutes? For a month, no less? Didn’t these people care that he had a life—a company to run? And most importantly, a goldfish to feed? Of course they didn’t. They cared about putting you on the spot and dangling the Kelsey carrot in front of your interview-weary eyes.

August walked toward the front of the car and sighed, absently watching a woman in tight jeans, three rows ahead of him, ass end out of the trunk of her car.

Nice ass…

He straightened immediately. What kind of thought was that to have when he was pondering boarding a plane to compete in a reality show for the woman of his high school dreams? Jesus…

August Guthrie, you are swine, even if she does have a nice ass.

“So…we on?”

He turned back to Darren, determination all over his face. “Yeah, you’re on.”

End of Extended Sample

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