Planning on Prince Charming Copyright © 2015 Lizzie Shane. All rights reserved.
Sidney Dewitt was a coward.
On any other night she might have been ashamed of that, but after two mini-bar vodkas she was rapidly coming to terms with her cowardice and was well on her way to acceptance.
Sure, if she refused to appear on Marrying Mister Perfect now her business wouldn’t get any of that lovely free publicity to catapult them to an elite place among wedding planners, she would never meet the man who might very well be the man of her dreams, and her mother would invariably shake her head and mutter disapprovingly about her lack of follow-through.
And then there was the bajillion dollar breach of contract suit the producers could bring against her.
But surely that was better than parading around on national television in a cocktail dress that made her look like a stuffed sausage.
Auditioning with her best friend for Marrying Mister Perfect had been a dare. Being chauffeured down to LA for the follow-up interviews and screen tests had been too good an opportunity to pass up–an actual look inside one of her all-time favorite television shows.
She’d never thought they would actually pick her.
When she’d gotten the call, her friends had screamed loud enough that the producer on the other end of the line assumed she was screaming right along, but instead of excitement, all she felt was her internal panic level being revved up to Def Con One.
She’d told herself it was just jitters. Nerves. Perfectly natural. How many nervous brides had she talked down over the years? If anyone knew how terrifying leaping into love could be, it was a wedding planner.
She’d kept telling herself it was normal to be nervous. As her friends were helping her shop and pack for the show, she’d pretended she liked being called Cinderella as they dubbed themselves her fairy godmothers. She’d played the part.
But now it was the night before the show was scheduled to begin filming, the night before the romantic adventure of a lifetime, and Sidney was facing facts.
She was a coward.
How had she thought for even a second that she could go on national television and compete with twenty-nine insanely gorgeous women to actually get the guy? The one thing she’d always been good at was being invisible–which was an asset at weddings where she could fade into the background–but she’d seen enough seasons of Marrying Mister Perfectto know the invisible girls went home the first night.
The show favored bold women with big personalities. She knew that and she’d thought she could do it–take a risk, jump in with both feet, be daring–but reality had set in as soon as the door to her hotel room shut.
The producers had taken her cell phone and tablet. No more contact with the outside world would be allowed until she was kicked off the show. Which meant no more Parvati and Victoria goading and teasing her into bravery. No more late night strategy sessions where Parvati told her to follow her heart and Victoria told her to guard it–and made her vow to stay away from the alcohol lest she become famous as the girl who puked on Mister Perfect’s shoes on national television.
Just hours alone in a room with her fears.
She couldn’t do it.
The show would have to go on with only twenty-nine Suitorettes vying for Mr. Perfect’s heart.
She might get sued for breach of contract, but what was a lifetime of debt? She wasn’t brave. She wasn’t daring. She wasn’t Cinderella. She was more comfortable as the fairy godmother herself–making bridal dreams come true with a wave of her magic wand.
But now she was supposed to be the princess and it felt odd, a glass slipper that didn’t come close to fitting.
It didn’t help that she still wasn’t one hundred percent sure who Prince Charming was going to be.
The show always closely guarded the identity of Mister Perfect until filming began, but it had to be Daniel. He seemed so genuine. So sweet and real. If it was Daniel, maybe she could do it.
Maybe even she could be Cinderella this time. Meet her Prince Charming, who would take one look at her and know she was the one. The television show would become a record of their romance… which would also boost Once Upon a Bride into the national spotlight and give them the kind of success that even her mother couldn’t scoff at.
The business would flourish and she would finally have a ring on her finger and a fiance who looked at her as if he couldn’t believe his luck… the way the best grooms always looked at their brides. It would be a dream come true.
If it was him.
If only she could be sure. Mister Perfect had to be staying in this same hotel. Sequestered in his room just like all the Suitorettes. If she could just catch a glimpse of him…
It was against all the rules. She could be kicked off the show for leaving her room, let alone trying to make contact with Mister Perfect before the cameras were rolling.
But would that really be so terrible?
Just one little peek could ease all her fears… and if she was caught, maybe it was the universe telling her she wasn’t meant to be on national television, hiding from the cameras and cringing every time she thought about them adding ten pounds.
Sidney grabbed one more mini-bar dose of clear liquid courage without looking at the label. She coughed as the kick of gin rather than vodka slammed into the back of her throat, but it did the job. Warmth and a fleeting sense of certainty ran through her veins. One way or the other, fate was going to answer her tonight.
Tucking her room key into the pocket of her yoga pants, Sidney reached for the door handle. Quick. Decisive. One way or another.
* * *
Josh Pendleton, beloved television personality and World’s Biggest Hypocrite, was on a mission to get roaring drunk.
Tomorrow he would resume his duties peddling the illusion of love to the gullible masses, but tonight his marriage was officially, legally over and he figured if ever a man deserved oblivion, he did. Unfortunately, oblivion was slow to arrive and he was out of ice.
Hence his ancillary mission to replenish the bucket.
It was an insult to good scotch to water it down, but since the bottle of six-year old scotch room service had delivered so he could toast the end of his six-year marriage was a distinctly crappy vintage with notes of cardboard and a subtle hint of mold, it needed all the dilution it could get to make it palatable.
Hence the paramount importance of ice.
People really should say hence more often.
Josh gripped the freshly filled ice bucket with one hand, the other braced on the wall to keep him from going off course as he made his way back to his room. Or what he hoped was his room. The halls were twisty and it was getting harder to keep the details straight… except for the ones he would just as soon forget.
Like the fact that tomorrow he would resume his hosting duties for the new season of Marrying Mister Perfect, guiding another poor bastard toward true love, reality TV style.
A job he’d once loved.
A job he’d only landed because he was a shining example of happily married life.
A job he was going to lose in a heartbeat when his bosses found out about the divorce.
It ought to be a four letter word.
His hand slipped off the wall as he hit the corner and he stumbled, catching himself and correcting course.
The corridors were empty–no surprise there. The show had bought out the Beverly Hills boutique hotel for the night before filming began. All of the Suitorettes were in residence, packing on the beauty sleep in preparation for tomorrow when they would be herded over to the Suitorette mansion and paraded before Mister Perfect on camera for the first time.
A handful of crew members were also staying at the hotel–mostly to make sure the girls stayed safely locked in their rooms and didn’t accidentally make contact with one another before their sanctioned on-camera meetings.
Miranda–the show’s executive producer–had insisted that Josh take one of the spare rooms at the hotel so he would be within an easy commute to the mansions in the morning and in her control, rather than risking the traffic he might encounter driving himself in from his Malibu beach house to the pair of back-to-back Beverly Hills estates where the show filmed.
Josh had acquiesced without an argument. It had saved him having to explain that he no longer owned the Malibu beach house and was now living in a block of depressing divorcee-filled apartments in Studio City.
The longer he could go without Miranda discovering he was no longer a paragon of wedded-bliss, the better the chance he might actually keep his job for one last season.
It had been a good gig, Marrying Mister Perfect, he thought with nostalgic fondness, even if he was the World’s Biggest Hypocrite for selling love on national television.
The hours could be insane–especially during the marathon Elimination Ceremonies that lasted past dawn–but the work was easy. And there was never a dull moment in the world of reality television. Every season had its own scandals and tears, but it was also awe inspiring, in a way, to see each new batch of romantic hopefuls arrive at the Suitorette Mansion, ready to throw themselves headlong onto the pyre of love, praying the fates and reality television gods would be in their favor.
Most of them would go home heartbroken, sobbing their eyes out for the cameras, and even the winners didn’t have an impressive track record of making it all the way to the altar.
And even if they did, what chance did anyone have of going the distance these days?
Josh staggered to a stop, bracing his weight on the door in front of him and squinting blearily at the number. Had he been in 312? Or 321? Why did everything have to be so damn complicated?
He fumbled with his key. Down the hall, a door opened and closed. He swung toward the sound, and the world blurred, his vision taking a moment to catch up to the movement. He had only the vague impression of a blonde blur before something soft and warm slammed into him and he went down like a redwood, ice flying.
His arms closed instead around feminine curves as he landed on his back with a grunt–and those feminine curves landed on top of him in a tangle of limbs. A feminine yelp filled his ears as ice rained down around them.
“Holy crap. You’re Josh Pendleton. I flattened Josh Pendleton.”
His alcohol-blurred vision cleared and he found himself staring into the most striking eyes he’d ever seen. Teal. Her eyes were freaking teal.
She squirmed, wriggling off him, and the blood in his body made a detour away from his brain as her delectable curves rubbed everywhere. “I’m so sorry. I wasn’t looking. Are you all right?”
She touched his arm and he snapped out of his momentary stupor, muttering an apology and stumbling to his feet. It was only when they were both upright and he was relatively steady that he realized he still had a three-quarters full ice bucket tucked under one arm.
“The ice survived unscathed. I think I’ll live. How about you?”
“No injuries to report.”
Pink lips twitched in a smile and dim recognition flickered in the inebriated recesses of his mind. Something associated with the show. Makeup artist perhaps?
“I know you.”
Her grin broadened. “Well, we haven’t been properly introduced, but I am up on the auction block this season. Sidney. Sidney Dewitt.”
Distracted by the way the sheer, pale green fabric of her threadbare Tinkerbell T-shirt clung to her slight curves in a way that was surprisingly erotic for such a modest style, it took a moment for her words to register through his liquor-slogged thoughts.
A Suitorette. Crap. She was one of the Marrying Mister Perfect Suitorettes. One of the thirty extremely eligible young ladies who would be vying for Mister Perfect as he made the journey to true love, reality style.
She was here for Daniel. The lucky bastard. And therefore officially off limits.
She thrust out her hand and he took it automatically, shaking without conscious direction from his brain. “Josh Pendleton.”
She smiled and he felt his IQ drop ten points. Jesus, she was gorgeous when she smiled. “I know who you are. One of my best friends wants to move to Utah with you and become your second wife.”
I’d have to have a first wife for that. He dropped the hand he was still shaking, bitterness streaking through him at the thought. “You aren’t supposed to be out of your room,” he informed her, doing his best to sound stern, rather than drunk off his ever-loving ass. “You’re gonna get yourself kicked off the show.” Her gaze slid guiltily to the side and he frowned. “Are you trying to get kicked off?”
“I just wanted to see who Mister Perfect is,” she said, but she wouldn’t meet his eyes. “Would they really kick me off the show just for being in the hallway?”
“Yes.” Just like they would fire his ass for standing here talking to her. The producers loved their rules and they didn’t make exceptions. “Ever since Season Three when we were nearly two Suitorettes short thanks to food poisoning, they keep spare Suitorettes on hand just in case.” Hell, they probably had a spare host waiting in the wings. Miranda was nothing if not prepared.
“Could you tell me if it’s Daniel?” The Suitorette–Sidney–wheedled. “Then I’ll go back to my room like a good girl and no one will ever know the difference.”
A muted bing from around the corner interrupted his reply–and shot chills through his blood.
The show had bought out the hotel and all the girls were supposed to be tucked away in their rooms. The elevator could only hold one of the producers or production assistants. And here he was, drunk off his ass in the hall with a Suitorette.
A jolt of adrenaline crashed through his system to clear his thoughts as voices carried around the corner–one of them feminine and cracking with authority.
The executive producer of Marrying Mister Perfect was a dragon in skirt suits, with a sleek, edgy haircut and a terrifying efficiency that didn’t negotiate or accept less than perfection.
He could talk his way out of this. All he had to do was tell the truth. He’d gone for ice and she’d run into him. He could throw the Suitorette under the bus and walk away from this with his job intact–at least temporarily. But she would be booted from the show so fast her head would spin.
Her teal eyes flared with panic as she heard the voices too. And damn if his instinct to save the damsel in distress didn’t kick in like never before.
Acting on instinct more than thought, he grabbed her arm and tucked her between his body and the door of 312 so she wouldn’t be as obviously visible if Miranda came around the corner. He waved his keycard in front of the sensor, hoping he wasn’t actually staying in 321. If this wasn’t his room they were so screwed, but after only a second’s hesitation the door beeped and popped open. Hallelujah.
Together they stumbled inside, Josh snapping the door shut behind him with his foot. He held his breath, listening against the door for some indication that he’d been seen smuggling a Suitorette into his room.
Shit. What had he been thinking?
“Was that…?” the girl whispered.
“Miranda,” he confirmed direly.
“What happens if they find us together?”
“I get fired and you get kicked off the show. And the tabloids run the story for weeks.”
Teal eyes widened. “I can’t go out there.”
“No,” he agreed, without hesitation.
To his left, the abandoned half-bottle of six-year-old scotch taunted him from the wet bar.
To the right, a light illuminated the bed like a spotlight, casting a glow over the massive expanse, piled high with pillows and an overstuffed comforter.
And in between stood the picture of temptation in pink yoga pants and a freaking Tinkerbell T-shirt.
If Miranda came to check on him, there was no way he’d be able to explain this away now. This day just kept getting better and better.