ROMANCING MISS RIGHT

Romancing Miss Right Copyright © 2015 Lizzie Shane. All rights reserved.

Prologue

"I'm sorry, Marcy. I think you're an amazing woman and any man would be lucky to have you as his wife, but I'm afraid my heart is engaged elsewhere. I just didn't feel that spark, that connection-"

On the screen, the footage of Mr. Perfect's perfect face twisted into an expression of contrition cut to Marcy's reaction shot. Or rather her lack-of-reaction shot. Miranda grimaced-she knew what was coming.

"Emotionless," Wallace barked, hitting the pause button so the jumbo television that dominated the wall of his office froze on Marcy's pretty face, gazing back at the man billed as the most eligible bachelor in America without even a glimmer of a tear in her stunning green eyes as he was supposed to be breaking her heart on national television.

"Frigid." Wallace flung his iPad toward Miranda so it landed on the desk blotter with an audible thunk in time with his next adjective. "Unfeeling. Robotic."

Miranda obligingly studied the focus group data that had turned her boss into a walking thesaurus. "They also say she's gorgeous, clever, and witty."

"They don't like her," Wallace snapped, Marcy's face still looming over both of them from the wall.

"Sure they do," Miranda argued, tapping the spreadsheet. "Eighty-seven percent approval."

She was the whole package. Lustrous brown curls, classic good looks, and striking green eyes with the slightest hint of a wicked sparkle.

"Fine, they like her, but they don't feel for her. How am I supposed to market the girl who didn't even blink when Mr. Perfect dumped her? No protestations of love. No begging for an explanation. No sobbing uncontrollably in the rejection limo. America loves the fucking sobbing."

"She isn't an idiot. She knew Jack was in love with Lou from the first time she saw them together."

"I wish she were an idiot. America likes idiots. Idiots make good television."

"Marcy will make good television. Trust me."

"I don't trust people," Wallace snapped.

"Then trust the ratings," Miranda countered just as forcefully. She hadn't clawed her way to executive producer at such a young age because she was meek and retiring. "The finale of Marrying Mister Perfect was the most watched episode of a reality dating show in the last six years. We not only beat all our previous seasons, we flat out spanked American Dance Star and Matchmaker Express. We're talking Idol style numbers."

"You caught lightning in a bottle last season, no one can argue with that," Wallace acknowledged. "And you got the promotion to prove it. But no one cares about last season's success. Audience retention is the name of the game and the girl who shrugged off her shot at true love isn't going to have people rushing to their televisions every Tuesday night."

"Marcy understands the show. The camera loves her and she's a dream to work with-"

Wallace reached for the iPad, flicking through the focus group data. "Guarded. Has walls around her heart. Uses her intellect to keep men at a distance. Can't allow herself to be vulnerable."

Miranda glowered. Who'd let the amateur shrinks into the focus group? "Okay, yes, she's a little emotionally reserved, but the situation will be different when she's playing Miss Right. She'll be in control and more willing to show how she feels-"

"I want her to cry," Wallace said, brutal and hard. "America loves criers. Give me messy emotional breakdowns I can promo the hell out of and you might keep your shiny new office for another season."

Miranda bit back the urge to tell her boss exactly how wrong he was about America loving criers. They'd had a girl who'd cried at the drop of a hat three seasons ago who was among the most hated Miss Rights in living memory. What America loved was a good love story. That was why they'd fallen in love with the saga of Jack and Lou, why Miranda had gotten her promotion from supervising producer to executive producer, and why they would fall in love with Marcy. All Miranda had to do was make sure Miss Right fell in love. Seeing a guarded, snarky woman show her softer side would bring the audience in droves.

But Wallace knew shit about love, so instead Miranda promised, "She'll cry. Trust me. Marcy Henrickson is ratings gold."

"Stop saying trust me. There is no trust in television," Wallace growled. "There's only success or unemployment." He stabbed a finger at the remote, making the screen on the wall go black.

Miranda didn't flinch at the threat. The uber boss of Marrying Mister Perfect and its companion show Romancing Miss Right was a bully and a prick who liked his television with cheap theatrics and easy hits. She'd known that before she started working for him years ago, fighting her way up from segment producer all the way to EP. Wallace's official title was EP too, but he surveyed events from on high in his office, connected to the show only by reports and rundowns.

Miranda would be the one in the trenches, pulling love out of thin air, and Miranda understood her audience. She knew what America really wanted to watch and she knew how to manipulate situations and emotions to make it happen.

Miss Right was going to fall in love this season. Whether she wanted to open herself up to it or not.

And it all started with finding the right man to woo her.

 

Chapter One

"And the last entry into the Where-the-hell-is-Craig-disappearing-to-for-eight-weeks sweepstakes is from Penny in Santa Clara..." Craig braced his forearms on the desk and leaned into the mic, crooning into it in his trademark almost-too-suggestive-for-the-morning-commute style as he read the entry his producer had just sent to his tablet, "A monastery in Spain where you'll be taking a vow of celibacy." He chuckled darkly into the mic. "Good guess, Penny, since I did say it was the last place you'd expect Your Favorite Bad Influence to go, but no there are no monasteries in my future-Spanish or otherwise. Though it would probably take me eight weeks just to confess all my sins."

Through the glass, his producer spun his hand in the wrap-it-up signal and Craig's eyes flicked automatically to the clock-his last thirty seconds of air time for the next two months. An unidentifiable pang tightened his chest, but he shook it off.

"Keep submitting your guesses at K-Rock dot com and Marta at Midnight-who will be Marta in the Morning until I get back-will read them on the air." To make sure she doesn't forget whose show this really is. "Until then, this is Your Favorite Bad Influence, Craig Corrow, reminding you to be naughty, boys and girls, and keep listening to 105.6 KRRK, K-Rock in San Diego, your station for classic rock."

He tapped a key on the console and Ozzy screamed, "All aboard," as the distinctive opening strains of Crazy Train blared through his headphones. The light over the mic went dark and Craig tipped off his headphones, hooking them over the mic and rolling his chair back. Edwin, his mostly mute producer, threw him a thumbs up through the glass, already packing up for the change-over as the All Request Lunch crew prepared to take over the studio.

Craig normally bounded out of his chair, high on the adrenaline from the show, but today he lingered, keenly aware that there was a chance-however slight-that Marta would kill it while he was gone and he wouldn't have a job to come back to. He liked K-Rock. The two years he'd spent here had been decent enough-though he'd never really gotten close to anyone at work. He'd always known that this was just a stepping stone for him. He was too ambitious to spend his entire life as a radio personality, no matter how widely syndicated. Craig wanted more. He'd bided his time, building his name and his audience but when the chance had come to get his face in front of a national audience-even if it meant going radio silent for eight weeks-the decision had been a no-brainer. Network television trumped a moderately sized classic rock station in San Diego any day.

Those two words-network television-stomped on any nostalgia he might feel for leaving K-Rock and Craig bounded out of his chair, turning his cell back on as he gathered up his empty coffee mug and tablet. Hooking the mug over one finger and tucking the tablet under his arm, he shoved open the door with his shoulder and strode into the hall, thumbing through the messages on his phone, nodding but not pausing as his coworkers called out cheerful-but not overly personal-farewells.

The first two messages were from his agent-doubtless having another panic attack at the risk of leaving his established audience to go play the villain on the latest iteration of reality dating bullshit. Craig paid him to worry so he didn't have to, but the man needed to get onboard. The contracts were signed, pre-taping complete. He was leaving tonight to go to the Romancing Miss Right mansion for the duration, so it was too late for second thoughts, even if he was inclined to have them, which he wasn't.

The third message was from his mom, reminding him that he was supposed to come over for lunch before he left and Craig shot her a quick text to confirm that he wouldn't miss it before tossing his phone, tablet, mug, and the limited contents of his desk into his backpack. Hooking the bag over his shoulder and grabbing his leather jacket, he strode past a life-sized poster of himself smoldering over a pair of mirrored sunglasses while leaning against his Harley with the words Be Bad splashed across his ankles. He left the building without a backward glance. Onward and upward.

He unlocked the storage compartment on his bike and exchanged the backpack for his helmet, propping it against the seat as he shrugged into his jacket.

"Craig!"

He spun back to face the front of the building and groaned aloud as Marta at Midnight bounded toward him, as eager as a puppy. "Marta. Hey. Did I forget to leave you the keys to the liquor cabinet or something?"

Marta giggled a little too enthusiastically for the lackluster joke. She had the kind of fierce, ever-present smile that couldn't quite conceal the rabid opportunism beneath. She wanted the brass ring just as badly as he did. If she'd been more naturally talented, he would have been worried for his job. As it was, he was more worried she would lose half his audience and he'd never get it back.

"I just wanted to wish you good luck," she exclaimed, beaming at him as if she wouldn't crawl over his rotting corpse for a permanent shot at the drive-time gig.

Gotta love showbiz. Everyone's so sincere. "Thanks. You too."

"You sure I can't convince you to tell me where you're going?"

"Sorry. Confidentiality clauses. You know how it is." He shrugged, sweat beginning to slither down his spine beneath his jacket. He needed the leathers for protection against the wind-and road rash if he took a spill-but San Diego in September was too damn hot to be wearing them if he was just standing around in the sun talking to Marta at Midnight. "I should hit the road."

Her eyes gleamed feverishly at the hint that he'd landed some gig that required confidentiality clauses, but she didn't argue as he straddled the bike.

"Take care of my baby."

"Aye, aye, sir." Marta saluted and watched him affix his helmet and start the engine. She watched him drive away, probably to convince herself that he really had left and dropped the first big opportunity of her career right in her lap.

If things went well, she could keep drive-time radio. He was on to network television.

The drive to his mom's house didn't take long. Her neighborhood was safe and relatively clean, but beyond that offered nothing in the way of luxury. The houses were small and close together, the tidy yards a testament to the fierce pride of the owners rather than the dedication of expensive landscaping services. Her two-bedroom hacienda-style cottage was two years past needing a coat of paint, but the leaking roof had been a higher priority when he'd gotten his last bonus check from the station.

Craig parked his bike beside the Ford Focus he'd bought her when he got his first job. He'd wanted it to be a Mercedes-after raising him on her own, she deserved one-but radio personalities weren't paid like movie stars and the Focus had been all he could afford. The front door opened as he was coming up the walk.

"Eight weeks to confess all your sins?" his mother called out archly as he approached, proving she'd caught the end of his show.

"Just the major ones." He grinned and bent to fold her into a hug.

Most days Elaine Corrow looked closer to forty than her actual fifty, but today she appeared faded and tired. Given the fact that she worked nights at the local hospital as a pharmacy tech and would normally be sleeping at this hour, Craig tried not to read too much into her apparent exhaustion. If the next few months went the way he hoped, he'd be able to pay for her to quit her job and go lounge on a beach in Cabo until she couldn't even remember what a night shift felt like.

"Are you all packed?" she asked as she stepped out of his arms, leading the way down the narrow hall to the eat-in kitchen where all of his home-cooked favorites were spread out in a gluttonous buffet.

"All set." He grabbed a plate and began piling meatloaf and lasagna and mousaka side by side. "They fly me up to LA tonight and tomorrow we meet the girl."

"Have they told you who she is yet?"

"Does it matter?" He handed her the plate and began serving an even more heaping one for himself.

"I hope it's Natalie. Or Ally. Anyone but that Marcy. She seemed so... I don't know. Cold or something."

"Mom. It doesn't matter who she is. I'm not going on the show to fall in love."

She settled across from him at the narrow Ikea table. "I know, I know. It's for your career, but if you were to find someone special, think what a bonus that would be."

"I'm not the guy who gets the girl, Mom. I'm the bad boy America will love to hate. That's what going to get me national exposure. Falling in love isn't going to turn me into the next Carson Daly. The next Dick Clark. The next David Letterman or Stephen Colbert. I'm not going to be a radio personality forever. This show is the fast track to national exposure."

"Even if it means toying with some poor girl's emotions to get there?"

"She knows what she's signing up for. And if she doesn't then she's a moron. I've studied these shows. I'm going to be the one everyone is talking about-and that isn't the guy that gets the girl. But I'm not going to lie to her." He laughed, brief and abrupt. "That's why I'm going to lose. Dating is all lies and I'm not going to play their game."

"How did I raise such a cynic?"

He shrugged. "Just lucky, I guess."

"My son, the heartless wretch."

"Your son, the famous heartless wretch."

Her lips pursed with disapproval, but there was a smile lurking beneath. He'd been working for that smile for as long as he could remember, trying to coax it out of her, and it still felt like a victory every time. Soon, hopefully, the smile wouldn't be so slow to appear. She'd be lounging on a Mexican beach, beaming at everyone who wandered by and bragging about her wildly famous son. Soon.

 

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