My brand new shoes bite into the back of my heels and squish my toes. I fill a paper cup with water and set it aside without ingesting so much as a sip.
Shayna takes my elbow as I pass by for the fifteenth time. “For Christ’s sake, sit down. I wasn’t nervous until you started pacing.”
I press my finger to the twitch at the corner of my left eye. “This is going to be a disaster. I know it.”
“It’ll be fine. Relax.” My best friend for the last three years fluffs my corkscrew curls around my shoulders and grasps my upper arms. “A live studio audience will be good. I promise. You’ll be so happy you did this.”
“Somehow I doubt it. Why couldn’t you have kept your mouth shut when Sam called?” Blah blah blah, that’s what she did. Info dump right into my agent’s ear, and that was the cannonball on the catapult that shot me straight to the gates of Hell.
Shayna was the first to be invited on the show, and after she talked to Sam, I got a call too.
Shay whirls me around to face a blank wall. She holds her hand up as if she’s painting a scene. “Picture this: You’ll sell a million books, and then you can take me to Cancun. We’ll sip fruity drinks with tiny umbrellas, delivered to us on golden trays by hot cabana boys who don’t speak our language. We’ll say the rudest things and smile and still get laid at the end of the day.”
A smile pulls up the corner of my mouth even as I rub the ache between my eyebrows. “If you say so. Let’s just hope Jackson Tremaine is feeling charitable tonight.”
She sticks her tongue out. “Jackson Tremaine can go fuck himself.”
I straighten her platinum blonde, not-quite-human-hair wig and tip her bug-eye sunglasses down enough to stare into her baby blues. “You think all men should go fuck themselves. You know, most of them want the same things we want. To be loved. To be respected. You just have to give them a chance.”
“Every year, I offer about a hundred of them a ‘chance’. All but three have failed, and those already belonged to other women.” Shay quirks her auburn eyebrow. Good thing the shades hide the dead giveaway that she isn’t really a blonde bombshell.
A sad sigh escapes before I can catch it. “I’m so sorry, sweetie, but maybe you need to consider another career path?”
Even though her eyes are hidden again, it’s as though I hear them rolling.
“Thanks for the advice, but I make an excellent living in my current line of work. As much as I love you, Ronnie, you and I have two different philosophies when it comes to men. I’m good with that.”
A petite woman pops into the room. “Ladies, he’s going to bring you out one at a time, starting with you, Ronnie. In five.”
My stomach grabs hold of my esophagus and trembles as the second hand ticks away the moments. My first live appearance on television is tying me into knots.
Appearing on the Up Late with Jackson Tremaine show should be a boon, but it’s probably going to blow up in my face. Like a big fat dirty bomb. Lights out.
My instinct says that he’s a shark and I’m a guppy. He’s going to chew me up and spit me out. That’s if I’m lucky, and he doesn’t swallow me whole.
No. I won’t let him. He’s a man, like all the other men I’ve studied since I was twelve and Dad skipped out on my overbearing, never-to-be-pleased mother. If she’d have shown him some love and compassion, he’d have stayed. I’m sure of it.
I have to remember that about Jackson. Underneath his Armani suits and Rolex watches, he wants the same things as everyone else—respect and love. That’s all. Show him some respect, and he’ll return the favor. And, after tonight, I can move on and watch my book sales skyrocket as I ring in the new year, and my bank account will follow suit.
Shayna stands in front of the full length mirror in the corner and applies a fresh coat of the blood-red lipstick she purchased specifically for tonight. “Can you tell that it’s me?”
I rub my finger along my bottom lip. “Well, I can tell it’s you, but I’d know you with a bag on your head. That sassy sway of your hips and the way you talk with your hands would give it away. But, I think you’re all right. Most people don’t pay that close of attention. I’m certain your secret’s safe.”
“I only want to ensure my potential clients can be assured that their unsuspecting, cheating bastards won’t know what’s coming when I make my move.”
I shake my head. “One of these days, Shay—”
“I know. I know.” She brings her tone up an octave, mimicking me. “‘One of these days, you’re going to meet the man of your dreams. You’re going to read my book. You’ll fall in love. And wah,wah, fucking wah.’ Save it, Rons. I am perfectly happy with my life. I’ll let you do the loving. I’ll stick with fuck and release, thank you.”
Offstage, the silent monitor flickers in the dark. On screen, two insanely gorgeous men smile at a shared joke and holiday lights twinkle in the background. The host tidies his stack of note cards, tapping them on the desk and tucking the one at the front behind the others.
Jackson’s voice has a velvet covered rasp, even sexier in person than on television. “Eleven days to Christmas, and a brand new year waits just around the corner. Many will make and break resolutions. How about those resolutions to find love or dump a dead weight relationship?”
His smile widens as he holds up his hands, trying to calm the masses as they cheer.
When the crowd quiets, he says, “The ladies who make up this duo are actually very best friends. The livelihood of both women depends on love, in one capacity or another. I call them Love ‘Em and Leave ‘Em, if that tells you anything at all about their respective career fields.”
He brushes his fingers through chocolate-colored hair. “Let’s meet Love ‘Em first. How many of you gals have your eye on a man who seems to stay just out of reach, or one who doesn’t want to commit?”
Someone in the audience cat-calls about her guy.
“And we’re glad you’ve got a man who’s hung like King Kong.” Jackson answers the bawdy lady while he winks at the camera. “Anyway, our next guest thinks she knows men. Love ‘Em’s got us all figured out and has put her wealth of knowledge into book form.”
My stomach takes a plunge to my feet. Here we go.
He holds up my book and exchanges a knowing look with his first guest as he stands. “This guide for women is supposed to help you ladies catch and keep your dream lovers. Please welcome the author of Decode the Man in Your Life, Ronnie Fitz.”
The handler ushers me toward the stage’s side entrance. “Watch—”
Applause drowns out whatever he’s saying as I clear the edge of the royal blue curtain. The clipboard-wielding guy gives me a shove toward Jackson Tremaine who waits three feet ahead with his hand held out in greeting.
Jackson has the clearest sage green eyes I’ve ever seen, dark around the edges but almost white at their center. They crinkle at the corners as he smiles at me, sending my heart into an abnormal rhythm. The hand he holds out to me waves me out, drawing me to him like a—
Something grabs my ankle. Crap. A cable running across the floor is wrapped over my beautiful new shoe. I try to compensate with my other foot, but it makes it worse. I stumble forward, losing my balance as my plastered-on smile falters. Instead of shaking his hand, I fall against Jackson Tremaine’s muscular chest.
Strong arms come around me, pulling me up and tight against him. His scent, something like sandalwood and cinnamon, envelopes me. His laugh vibrates through my breasts, now pressed firmly against his pecs.
The audience goes bat-shit wild with applause.
Oh my—Hell. In Hell. Right now. This can’t be happening.
Mr. Tremaine hangs on tight until the crowd quiets.
“Well, that’s a great start to a new relationship. But I’m afraid I’m happy in my bachelorhood, Ms. Fitz.” He sets me away from him, adjusting first his tie and then his junk right in front of God and everybody.
Heat floods my face, and I don’t know where to look. “Oh, I’m—so sorry. I tripped.”
He tosses a sly look at the closest camera. “No worries. I don’t mind at all. I enjoy a beautiful woman in my arms any time—but only for a short time.”
Jackson takes my hand, sending tingles up my arm. “I’ll hold on to you until we get you safely into your seat.”
He leads me to the chair between guest number one and the side of the desk.
Jackson stage whispers to the other man. “Be careful of this one, Bax. Love ‘Em’s quite a handful.”
Casino mogul Baxter Ransom nods as he offers his hand. “Nice to meet you, Ms. Fitz.”
I do the best I can to swallow my embarrassment. “Likewise.”
Jackson returns to his seat. “So, Ronnie—you don’t mind if I call you that? You’ve put together this instruction manual, if you will, for women.”
I brush my wild curls away from my face with trembling fingers. “I suppose you could call it that. It’s really only common sense things that most of us already know but fail to put into practice in our everyday lives.”
“I read the book last night—well, parts of it—and I’m not convinced.”
The lead weight in my gut grows.
No, it’s okay. He’s playing Devil’s Advocate. It’s his job.
“Oh? What part do you need help with?” I smile, but inside my heart is shriveling into a raisin.
He’s making me out to look a fool, and no one is going to buy my book by the time he’s done with me.
He leans back in his chair, propping his feet on his desk. “Well, this whole idea that a woman can get the guy she wants, simply by showing him deference and respect…”
I take a quick breath, heat simmering in my stomach. Dumbass is twisting my words. “I didn’t say deference.”
He laces his fingers across his flat belly. “Oh, maybe I read that incorrectly. Don’t get me wrong. I like the idea of a woman who shows a man respect. I don’t buy that it will get him to commit.”
The fire in my gut stirs. “Well, think about it, Mr. Tremaine. What man doesn’t want the woman in his life to tell him how amazing he is on a daily basis?”
I wait, but he just sits there, smugness poised on his too handsome face. It’s as if he didn’t hear the question I asked.
“Well?” I prompt.
His eyebrows go up, fake surprise in his expression. “Oh, that wasn’t rhetorical?”
No wonder he’s still single.
I let out a huff of air. “How many men get the respect they want and deserve from the women who profess to love them? The principals in my book all come down to one thing: men aren’t as complicated as ladies think they are. They want love just like women do. The biggest difference is what they perceive as love.”
He squints as though considering my words. “Well, they do say perception is ninety percent of reality. My ninety percent says this is a load of rhino dung.”
My jaw drops.
Did he really just say that—about my book, my magnum opus, in front of billions of people?
I snap my mouth shut and glare at him. “Maybe your perception is what’s full of shit.”
His eyes widen, and his gaze darts to a man on the sidelines with a clipboard and an apoplectic vein popping out on his forehead.
“Oops, probably shouldn’t have cursed. All those pesky FCC regulations.” I smile sweetly at my asshole of a host.
Jackson nods to the vein guy, whips his feet off his desk, and holds my book up once more. “And there you have it, folks. Want to know how to get a man? Buy the book and have him in the bag by Valentine’s Day.”
He tosses the book aside and smiles directly at the camera set in the middle isle of the gallery of seats. “Our next guest, BFF to Ms. Fitz here, is pretty much her polar opposite.”
In ways he will never understand.
Jackson grins. “Leave ‘Em—remember that’s her nickname. Sorry, I can’t reveal her true identity, because she needs the anonymity to run her business. Leave ‘Em claims she doesn’t believe in true love. Well, I suppose not, considering it’s her job to prove it isn’t out there.”
Jackson stands and claps. “Please welcome our next guest. She’s the person other women hire to test the men in their lives.”
Shayna glides onto the stage—no tripping for her. She’s much too graceful as she waves and blows kisses Marilyn Monroe style. Maybe she’s taking that wig too seriously.
Shayna takes Jackson’s offered hand in both of hers as Baxter and I shuffle chairs to make room for Shayna in the seat I vacated, closest to the host.
Jackson seats my friend and takes his own chair. “So, you’re the temptress who actually tries to get men to cheat before you report back to your clients.”
“I suppose you might describe my work that way.” Shayna’s lacquered fingernail taps out a rhythm on the arm of her chair.
“You set up and ambush unsuspecting men?” Mr. Ransom shifts in his seat.
She licks her bright red lips. “I only make an overture they could easily ignore. It’s only a trap for those men already predisposed to cheat on their significant other.”
Jackson Tremaine leans forward, his elbows on his desk, chin in his hands. “So, Ms. Leave ‘Em, do you actually screw these cheating guys?”
Shayna grins. As usual, she’s unfazed by direct barbs. As a matter of fact, I’m fairly certain she likes it.
“No, I never go that far. I’m not a prostitute. I simply do my best to lure the men to willingly place themselves in a compromising position. I always stop before anything too serious happens.”
Baxter rubs his chin, as though contemplating what Shayna has said. “Never?”
“Never.” Her shades hide her rolling eyes, but I’m certain that’s what she did.
Baxter lifts one eyebrow. “Hmm.”
Jackson barks a laugh, which he unsuccessfully tries to cover with a cough. “Excuse me. I—oh hell, I can’t lie. I just had a fantastic idea.”
Our host sends a sly look toward the camera to his left before he turns his full attention to me. “So, Ms. Love ‘Em—Ronnie—would you be willing to wager that should a woman use the techniques in your book, her man won’t have the propensity to cheat, because he’d be so enamored of her and happy at home?”
Baxter Ransom coughs, and Shayna whips around to me, her mouth slightly agape.
My throat goes bone dry. “Um—well, I mean—I—”
Shayna jumps to my rescue. “A cheater will cheat, no matter how wonderful his woman is. Some guys are scum. Cheaters cheat, no matter what.”
I lay my hand on her arm. “Wait. No. I believe most people cheat because something in their relationship is lacking.”
Shay elbows me. “Shh.”
I toss her a look.
She ignores me. “No. A cheater is a cheater is a cheater—no matter what.”
The mischief coming off of Jackson Tremaine is almost palpable, and the audience goes silent. It’s as though they know he’s going to do something outrageous, which he probably will. And they’ll all think it’s epic, only I’ll probably be shoved to a lower level of Hell. Even the slight shifting and shuffling that usually goes on in a crowd dies down as he continues to study me and my friend.
He looks around both of us. “Bax, you’re a gambler.”
Mr. Ransom draws back. “Well, my business is gambling, but—”
“Let’s make a wager, shall we? Right here on live television.”
My bladder twitches. Nervousness makes me need to pee. I could probably fill up three adult diapers at this very moment. Whatever Jackson has in mind is bound to be bad for me, terrible for my book, and probably horrible for my long-term career goals.
Baxter leans closer to Jackson. “Go on.”
“Let’s see which of these two ladies’ juju works best.” Jackson wags his eyebrows like he’s a villain in a cartoon.
Shayna pops up out of her seat. “That’s not how I run my business.”
“Aw, c’mon, now, be a sport.” Baxter grins, his eyes trailing from her fake hair all the way to the five-inch heels of her platform fuck-me boots.
Jackson looks straight into the main camera. “What do you think, America? Shall we wager that Love ‘Em can’t use the techniques in her book to keep Leave ‘Em from taking her man?”
Shayna falls into her seat with a thud. “She doesn’t even have a man.”
And there it is. I let out a sigh. All of America knows I’m a love specialist who’s not in love and has no man. No hint of a man in my life—not even an old toothbrush still haunting my medicine cabinet from a man I once had. I’m sunk.
Jackson cocks his head, as though he can hardly believe what he’s heard.
I open my mouth to rebut her statement, only to be interrupted.
“Do you not have a significant other, Ms. Love ‘Em?” His green eyes are too beautiful for someone like him. Nasty, evil people shouldn’t get to be gorgeous. Not fair. They should be ugly as a warning to children not to become emotionally corrupt.
I close my eyes. I so hoped this wouldn’t come up. Of all the things, why this?
I clear my throat. “That has absolutely no bearing on—”
He holds up one finger. “Wait. Hear me out. I take it from your reply that the answer is no?”
Panic sweeps over me in a rush of hot tingles up the back of my neck and across my face. I fight the urge to jump up and run off stage. “No significant other at this time.”
The twinkle in his eyes makes me want to scratch them out of his skull. I’ve never met a man I liked less.
I toss my purse onto the counter in the kitchen. “Worst. Day. In. History.”
“I don’t want to hear it. You could’ve avoided that entire exchange.” Shayna drops into a chair at the table and unzips her thigh-high boot.
My jaw falls almost to my navel. “I could have avoided it? What about you?”
Shay kicks off one boot. “Not me. You’re the one who should’ve said no.”
“You should have, too.”
She tilts her head to the side, glaring. “No. I couldn’t. My work depends on women trusting the fact that if their guy is a cheater—if he’s going to cheat at all—it would be with me. If I were to say I couldn’t possibly entice your guy—whoever the fuck that ends up being—into cheating, then why would anyone ever hire me?”
“Who’s going to buy a book on how to catch and keep their man from a woman who isn’t confident enough to say that she can keep her man enthralled enough that he’ll turn down the opportunity to go at it with a blonde dressed like a prostitute?”
“Prosti…” Shayna looks down at her outfit and giggles. “Yeah, I guess I am kind of dressed to head down to the boulevard and hawk my ample wares.”
She shimmies her tits in her too tight black leather jacket. “Day-umn. I didn’t even get the big O from that one. How about you?”
She makes no sense to me sometimes.
Shay extricates herself from her other boot. “I mean, Jackson Tremaine fucked us both, and good.”
“I guess he did.” I drop into the chair adjacent to hers. “It’s not exactly like we can bail—not now that the entire country is waiting to see which one wins.”
She side-eyes me. “We could tell Jackson to fuck off, and dust off our hands and move on.”
I let out a weary breath. “No. We can’t.”
“Because millions, if not billions, of people saw us on that show. You’re fine if you bow out. You’ll continue to do your thing. But me? If I back out, I’m screwed six ways to Sunday.”
She rubs the teensy crease between her brows. “Aw, c’mon, Rons. Your book’s success isn’t completely dependent on Jackson Tremaine’s show. You just don’t want to rock the boat.”
“Rock what boat?”
“The boat where everyone does what’s expected and no one does what they shouldn’t. The viewers expect you to be part of this bet. You’ll do it, if for no other reason than that you’re afraid to break the rules.”
I huff. “What rules? I don’t know what you mean.”
“Girl, you’ll fall in line behind whatever perceived rule there is in any given situation. I hate to break it to you, but you, my friend, are a goody two-shoes. In your mind, there’s some invisible rule that states the gauntlet has been thrown. Therefore, you must meet the challenge.”
Goody two-shoes? Gauntlet?
“I break plenty of rules, thank you. It’s only that I happen to know this particular thing can sink my career faster than the Titanic went down. I’ve worked too hard for that to happen.”
Shay cast a skeptical glance at me. “What rules have you broken lately?”
The answer eludes me. I search through my recent memory. Nada.
I scratch my head. “I—I don’t know. Who keeps a journal of broken rules? Just… ugh, stop already. We have to do this bet.”
“Oh whatever. I’ll do it, because you’re my friend, and I’d cut off my right arm for you—that’s my masturbation hand, just so we’re clear about what I’d be giving up.”
Only Shay would point that out.
I can’t help but smile. “At least this way only one of us will be screwed.”
“Well, if I’m the one who loses, please make sure you throw me a pittance when you see me lying outside your gate with my tin cup.” She unpins her wig.
When she shakes her red hair down her back, it cascades like a waterfall. The slight wave in it is probably there from being rolled up under her Marilyn get-up. It’s moments like this that I hate her.
“I’d almost kill to have your hair,” I lament for the umpteenth time.
She shrugs. “Well, I would kill to have your curls. So you’d best sleep with one eye open, bitch.”
Shay’s African Gray whistles and squawks in the living room. “Bitch. Who you callin’ bitch?”