FALLING FOR MISTER WRONG

Falling for Mister Wrong Copyright © 2015 Lizzie Shane. All rights reserved.

Chapter One

Her hands were shaking. That was normal, right? After all, it wasn't every day a girl had a fifty/fifty shot of getting engaged or getting dumped on her ass on national television.

Caitlyn curled her flawlessly manicured hands into fists to still the trembling, wincing a little when the nails bit into her palms, but grateful for that nip of pain. She'd been drifting, floating in the surrealness that had become her life, until that pinch gave her something to focus on. Something real.

Real was in short supply lately.

She squeezed her fists tighter, wondering how far she could go before she broke the skin. She wasn't used to wearing her nails so long--as a former child-prodigy pianist, her nails were always neatly trimmed to prevent clacking against the keys. She was probably already leaving marks--would one of the production staff notice and stop her?

As if on cue, Miranda--the producer the other producers feared--appeared over her shoulder, crossing to stand behind her, both of them facing the mirror.

"Lovely as ever, Caitlyn. How are you feeling? Excited?"

Caitlyn decided the question was rhetorical as Miranda pointed out a red lock that had come loose from Caitlyn's up-do and a hairstylist rushed forward with a comb to tuck it away. Miranda's gaze evaluated every inch of her, scrutinizing every seam of the designer fabric that hugged her figure, pausing for a moment on her fisted hands--she didn't miss much--and Caitlyn forced her fingers to straighten.

"You're doing great, hon." Miranda's hand came to rest on Caitlyn's bare shoulder, giving it a gentle squeeze. "Not much longer now."

Caitlyn nodded, unable to make her vocal cords form words. She almost hoped she was the one Daniel decided to ditch. At least then she wouldn't have to croak out a response to a proposal.

No. That wasn't what she wanted. She loved Daniel. Jitters. That was all this was. Stage fright. She'd had it before and never let it defeat her. She would master this.

Caitlyn vaguely heard the crackle of voices through Miranda's headset, then the producer gave her an eager smile and another shoulder squeeze. "Are you ready?"

No. Please God, don't make me do this.

She wondered what the producers would do if she made a run for it. Just up and bolted, sprinting out of the hair and make-up suite and not stopping until she was curled up on her couch at home, swaddled in her favorite comfy PJs.

They'd probably follow her with cameras, trying to get the best angle on her freak-out. This was reality television, after all. And they were good at what they did.

"Caitlyn?"

"I'm ready." Huh. Her voice sounded so normal. How did that happen?

She didn't remember getting to the beach. Only the vaguest impression of a long stone staircase and circling cameras penetrated her haze.

The setting was breathtaking. The producers would have made sure of that. The scent of tropical flowers in full bloom permeated the air and Caitlyn's nose twitched as she sniffed back the urge to sneeze. A wooden walkway had been built over the sand so she wouldn't sink and break an ankle in her heels. Every detail had been seen to--even the weathering of the brand new walkway so it blended in with the rusticity of the secluded tropical resort. The walkway stretched the last twenty meters to the dock that thrust out over the lagoon.

He would be waiting there, surrounded by the still Tahitian waters. Daniel.

Caitlyn's stomach clenched painfully and she stopped at the foot of the steps up to the dock. One of the production assistants rushed forward to help her lift her skirt and then faded back to let her navigate the steps herself--lest the PA be caught in the shot and ruin the magic of the moment.

Her chest felt tight and heat pressed against the backs of her eyes--she'd promised herself when she came on the show that she wasn't going to cry. Unfortunately she'd broken that promise three weeks ago and once the seal had been broken couldn't seem to stop weeping at the drop of a hat. She wasn't even sad. It was the pressure. All the stress seemed to push against her tear ducts with an alarming frequency.

She swallowed thickly, refusing to cry today. He was either going to pick her or he wasn't. He was going to propose or he wasn't. There was nothing she could do about it now. The score had already been written--all that remained was for her to play her part.

She flexed her fingers, moving them in the opening bars to Flight of the Bumblebee. The music playing in her head calmed her and Caitlyn stiffened her spine, lifted her chin--and saw him.

Daniel. Movie-star gorgeous Daniel. Waiting for her at the end of the dock, surrounded by tropical flowers and a single high pedestal. A pedestal that would hold a ring.

Prince Charming couldn't have been more handsome. He smiled, and even though she was too far away to see it, she knew his blue eyes would be sparkling. His dimples would be flashing, emphasizing his air of boyish sincerity.

Mister Perfect. Sure, it was the title of the show--Marrying Mister Perfect--but she hadn't expected him to actually be perfect. That he would want all the things she wanted, and say all the right things. Caitlyn really hadn't thought she would get this far, but she'd been swept along, caught up in the fairy tale of dream date after dream date until here they were. The finale. The moment of truth.

She'd wanted this, dreamt of this. It was the reason women auditioned for the show--the promise of that elusive prize, true love. And Caitlyn had more reason than most to crave it, but this might not be her happily ever after. She might just be the obstacle to Elena's dreams coming true.

Her stomach rolled. She forced her feet to keep moving toward the end of the dock. One heel caught on an uneven plank and she wobbled for a fraction of a second before righting herself. Don't fall into the ocean. Don't be that girl.

In the water to either side, cameras were set up on strategically placed platforms, so they could capture every angle without ruining the illusion that it was just the two of them, alone in a Tahitian lagoon.

Illusion. She felt the weight of the cameras pressing on her, bearing down on her shoulders until it became a battle to keep her spine straight. At first she had been one of many Suitorettes and it had been easy to blend into the crowd, but these last few weeks it felt like every eye in America was on her. Homebody Caitlyn Gregg, on display for all the world to see.

She'd had to fight her natural urge to shy from the cameras. For him.

Caitlyn lifted her gaze, eyes on the prize. Daniel.

He was worth it. He was. Mister Perfect.

He smiled and the buzzing in her ears receded. He took a half step forward, reaching out to catch her hands as soon as she was within range, and her heart rate dropped back down to non-life-threatening levels.

"Together," he mouthed silently and Caitlyn remembered how to breathe. He was her eye of the storm. The still oasis of calm that kept her sane amid all the insanity of the show. We're in this together, he would say whenever she confessed how much the constant attention wore on her, how often she thought about giving it up and going home.

She could do this. Just a little more. One last moment. One last scene. And then it would be done. Over.

The relief of that thought almost drowned out her fear that she might be about to become America's most famous dumped girl--until the next reality television cycle rolled around.

Daniel was speaking, she realized distantly. Okay, maybe she wasn't as together as she'd hoped. The words seemed to be passing through some sort of distortion tunnel before they reached her ears and all she could make sense of was the occasional snippet.

"...journey together...never imagined...feeling so strongly..."

She couldn't seem to focus on his face. It seemed broken into disproportionate pieces like a Picasso. A nose. A mouth. An eye. A cheekbone. An ear.

Caitlyn reminded herself not to frown as she concentrated on figuring out whether this was the pre-proposal speech or the pre-break-up speech. She'd seen enough of these shows to know those speeches often sounded almost identical to one another with the exception of one very crucial word.

But.

As soon as the but came, she would know she was getting ditched. She strained to catch the words swirling around her head, wondering if Daniel had any idea the depth of her panic at this moment. His hands were cool and smooth and strong. Hers were a hot, sweaty clench gripping him.

She realized she was holding her breath and forced herself to inhale. Thou shalt not pass out on national television had become a favorite mantra and she repeated it to herself now.

Christ on Crutches, how long could this last? Wasn't he done enumerating her many wonderful qualities yet? Didn't he know she couldn't concentrate on a word of it until she knew whether it was yes or no? Glory or heartbreak? Euphoria or national laughingstock?

"...all this time my feelings for you have been growing stronger, but--"

Caitlyn sucked in a breath so hard she nearly choked herself. There it was. The infamous but. Suddenly the words were crisp and clear and as loud as if they were coming through a bull horn.

"--I haven't been able to tell you how I feel. Thank God, I can finally shout it from the rooftops. I love you, Caitlyn. It's you. From the very first moment I saw you, it's always been you. You're perfect."

Daniel sank down to one knee and released one of her hands to reach over and pluck the ring box off the pedestal. She blinked at him, confused.

Wait. You just said 'but,' she wanted to protest. You're supposed to be breaking up with me.

But he popped the ring box open one-handed and Caitlyn's heart rate accelerated rapidly back toward critical levels.

Beethoven's Sainted Ass, that was some rock. A massive emerald cut diamond caught the late afternoon sun, all but blinding her with bling.

"Caitlyn Marie Gregg, will you marry me?"

Oh shit.

She'd been so busy worrying about being dumped, she hadn't really thought about what she would say if he actually proposed. She'd thought if that happened she would just speak from the heart, but her heart was conspicuously silent--other than racing faster than Hussein Bolt.

She needed to say something. Yes. She needed to say yes. They'd talked about their future together. She'd hoped he meant everything he said, hoped he would get down on one knee. She had to say yes. Cinderella said yes to Prince Charming. That was how it worked. But now the words caught in her throat.

"I..."

Daniel gazed up at her, earnest, adoring and almost impossibly good-looking, his heart in his eyes and the world's biggest diamond in his hand. Tahitian water lapped against the posts supporting the dock. Tropical flowers crowded into her peripheral vision and filled the air with their intoxicating scents. It was the perfect scene, carefully crafted to get a single answer--but she couldn't speak.

Did she love him? Was that what this feeling was? It felt an awful lot like panic, but maybe the two weren't so far apart. If she might love him or even if she could love him someday, didn't she owe it to both of them to say yes? How could she hurt him by saying no when he'd only ever been good to her?

Caitlyn snuck a glance to her left out of the corner of her eye--to the large reflective panels angled just so to redirect the sunlight at the best possible angle. To the producers and production assistants and interns and lighting guys and make-up girls and stylists all lined up on the beach--most looking businesslike though one or two leaned against one another, sniffling and dripping sappy romanticism.

She felt the weight of America's collective desires pressing on her, urging her to say something. Anything. This episode wouldn't air for months, but she could feel them already. All those million eyes hungry for the drama of her life. Ravenous for it. They wouldn't care whether it was happiness or heartbreak, they just wanted the payoff.

But who would she be to them if she refused him? The girl who thought she was too good for the perfect man? He always said the right things. He was the man every woman in America had fallen in love with last season.

She saw Miranda--ever-present tablet tucked under one arm and headset mashed over her short, platinum bob. The producer seemed to sense the direction of her gaze and gave a slight, encouraging nod. An echo of a conversation they'd had a few weeks ago fluttered through her thoughts. Don't be afraid to go with it.

Was that what this was? Fear? Caitlyn had her fair share of baggage. In one of her teary moments, she'd confessed to Daniel--and the entire freaking home viewing audience--that she was afraid of love, afraid of making herself vulnerable to that kind of hurt, even as she longed for it desperately.

Was this her moment of truth? The moment when she would either overcome her fear or doom herself to a life alone? The perfect man was on one knee for her, all but begging her to say yes. The life she had always wanted was being handed to her on a silver platter. She would be a fool not jump at it. A spineless, pathetic, ungrateful fool.

This was her happily-ever-after. They didn't come along every day.

But what if it was just a carefully crafted illusion?

"Caitlyn?"

She met bluer-than-blue eyes. Don't be afraid to go with it. "Yes, Daniel, of course I'll marry you."

The collective sigh from the crew made it seem like even the island released its held breath.

Daniel beamed and the world which had ground to a halt kicked into warp speed again. The ring was on her finger, he was leaping to his feet, sweeping her off hers, swirling her around, kissing her, laughing, proclaiming his love--and then doing it all again on cue when one of the sound guys announced one of the mics was acting up and they weren't sure they'd caught the first take.

"We can get married on the reunion finale!" Daniel exclaimed and she felt herself nodding. Smiling.

Caitlyn held on tight when he hugged her, laughing, echoing the words of love, crying--with joy, she told herself, not relief--admiring the flash of the rock on her finger, and telling herself over and over again that this was it. Her husband. Her future. Her happy ending. It was real.

If she said the words to herself enough, she might even begin to believe them.

 

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