Authors: Morgan Mandel
As always, I’d like to thank my husband, Good Paul, for his encouragement and support, as well as my good friend, Jeanne Rybarcyzk, who helped me discover Chicago-North RWA, the best critique group I could ever want.
Special thanks also go to Chicago-North RWA, particularly members Deb Rittle, Margot Justes, June Sproat, Blythe Gifford, Christina Fixemer, Ruth Kaufman, Pat White and Jennifer Stevenson, for their help and encouragement.
Also, thank you, Libby McKinmer, for being the first editor of this book.
Lastly, thanks, Stephen Walker, for your cover art genius.
© 2011 Mary A. Gruner as Morgan Mandel
Cover art licensed through istock.com, and produced by Stephen Walker of
SR Walker Designs
Published: November, 2011 (Second Edition)
Originally published, 2008
Choice One Publishing Co.
P.O. Box 1993
Arlington Heights, IL 60006-1993
This is a work of fiction. All characters in this book have no existence outside the author’s imagination and have no relation to anyone bearing the same name or names. Places, brands, media, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
GIRL OF MY DREAMS
Groaning, Hollywood producer Blake Caldwell brushed a strand of black hair from his eyes. The latest news from his assistant, Jillian Baker, was grim. Scores of contestants from his premier television show had rushed from rehearsal and were crammed into the ladies room upchucking.
“I’ve called an ambulance. Do you want me to go with them?” she asked.
Her voice was muffled. He could hear toilets flushing in the background, along with other unmentionable sounds he didn’t care to identify.
“Can you give me a head count? How many are left?”
“Wait a minute. I’ll check.”
Blake’s heart pounded. His shirt stuck to his back as he awaited the verdict. A few days ago, before the power outages, he’d had time to spare, but now he was up against the wall. It was two hours before the audience shoot. The stage and script were set for twenty-five contestants. Could he deliver them?
“Twenty-six are gone between the originals and alternates,” was the answer.
Fresh perspiration sprang to Blake’s forehead. “We’re one short. We’ve got to do something.”
The ratings were down. Mecca was dying. It could not survive another season without a hit. Neither could he. He’d sunk time, money and effort into this project. The boys upstairs had given it a go, only if he’d produce and direct it. This was his chance to prove he could make it without the connections of his actress-mother Barbara Branton. A foul-up would turn him into a has-been at the age of thirty.
“Blake, should I go with them?” Jillian asked again.
Her voice was alert and in crisis mode.
“You’re not a doctor. I need you here. We have a show to run.”
Almost as soon as he’d hung up, he found Jillian standing before him. Through all the commotion, her hair was still pushed back from her face and her glasses perched firmly on her nose. He had to hand it to her for keeping her cool.
“I’ve called food management and alerted them of the situation. They’ve closed the cafeteria,” she said.
“Good. We don’t need anyone else sick. The coordinators were hit, too. What about the survivors?”
“They’re already in Makeup.”
Blake rubbed his chin. “Fine. Now, all we need is number twenty-five.”
Thinking, he stared straight ahead. He had a feeling the answer was right in front of his nose, if he could only see it. His loyal assistant stood at attention, ready to spring into action. Hard-working, intuitive, creative, Jillian was a miracle worker. She always came through for him, but this time he couldn’t fault her if she failed.
A gleam flashed in her eyes. “I’ll do it. I’ve read the routine. It’s only one episode. He won’t pick me. Then I’ll be through.”
He stared at Jillian. She wasn’t as striking as his hand-picked contestants or their twin-like alternates, but certainly she was no dog. Sure, her suit was circa 1980 and her shoes looked like they could stick out of the bottom of a nun’s habit, if nuns wore habits any more. Okay, so Jillian wasn’t the world’s greatest dresser. Wardrobe could fix that. She had a certain charm, was over twenty-one and legal. Ditch the Coke-bottle glasses, pat on some makeup and she’d pass. But…
“It won’t work. For one thing, there’s the employment clause. Mecca employees can’t enter.” Blake stood up. “I don’t have time to round up another contestant. Can you handle it? Just grab a good-looking, legal-aged girl from the lot. Give her the quick sell. Play up the part about hooking a billionaire. We’ll dummy down the routine, stick her last in line and let her take her cue from the others. Can I count on you?”
“You’ll have your contestant,” she said.
Something a bit off kilter flickered behind her glasses, then disappeared. Blake didn’t have time to analyze it. He had a show to run.
ENTRY FORM IN hand, Jillian swung out of the revolving door of Mecca Studios, then right back in. She couldn’t do it. She couldn’t grab just anyone off the streets to be a contestant, not on such short notice.
Mecca was counting on
Girl of My Dreams
to avert bankruptcy. If the series failed, not only would Blake lose his credibility, but the remaining employees would lose their jobs. He might not realize it, but at this point, Blake needed a contestant more than an assistant.
Her part in the show’s preparation was done. She’d gone over the script, knew the routine and was best qualified to fill in. In all the commotion, Blake must have forgotten she wasn’t really an employee of Mecca. The temporary agency paid her, not the studio.
She’d hoped to be hired permanently when the assignment was over. Now that would never happen, nor would she see Blake again. That would hurt.
The phone on her waistband rang, and she reached for the ear bud.
“Any luck?” Blake asked.
He sounded worried. She didn’t blame him, but soon his troubles would be over.
“I’ve got someone. As we speak, she’s on her way to Hair and Makeup,” Jillian said, forcing a note of cheer to her voice.
“You’re a lifesaver. See you after the show. Oh, and what’s her name?”
“Veronica, uh…Baker, same last name as mine.”
Jillian clicked the phone off before he could ask if the girl was any relation to her. With any luck, he wouldn’t call back. To be sure, she’d better switch off the phone.
When he discovered she’d defied him, he’d not be happy. A shiver of apprehension ran through her at the thought.
It was the right thing to do. Blake would realize it later and be eternally grateful.
Squaring her shoulders, she grabbed the pen nestled in her hair. One of the lobby chairs was empty and she headed toward it. With barely a glance at what she was filling in, she completed the application and signed all the papers with her full legal name, including the contract, release and addendums Blake had specified to make sure the studio was protected against contestants who got cold feet.
Biting her lip to keep it from trembling, she took a last look at the signature that would change her life. She’d done it and there was no turning back.
No more behind-the-scenes madness of pulling a television show together. No more walking into the studio to find Blake’s brilliant blue eyes red-rimmed from lack of sleep and his begging-to-be touched raven hair rumpled because he’d pulled his hands through it. No more staying late Fridays while he used her as a sounding board to brainstorm over pizza.
She’d miss his wit and his glances of appreciation when she offered a suggestion, along with so many other things she’d grown to love about him in the last six months. She dare not think of them all, or she’d cry.
Whether or not the gamble paid off, she’d never lay eyes on Blake again. That in itself would almost kill her, but it wouldn’t be half as bad as knowing she’d failed him in his time of need if she didn’t do this.
Blake must get his golden opportunity. The studio must be saved, even if it meant sacrifice on her part.
“I wish there were some other way,” she said, as she pressed the down button for Hair and Makeup.
She disliked calling attention to herself, yet soon she’d let strangers examine every pore and treat her like a lab specimen. And that was just the beginning. The worst was yet to come when she faced the cameras. Jillian shuddered, but her feet did not falter as she stepped off the elevator.
Jillian’s duties as Blake’s administrative assistant had kept her removed from the other departments. Blake had made the contacts, while she typed his observations and directions, formatted the scripts, fielded telephone calls and did whatever she could do to lighten his load. Now she’d witness the world she’d read about.
As she stepped into the Hair and Makeup Department, she glanced with interest at the mass of hairpieces, brushes, lipsticks, blushes and other beautification paraphernalia. The studio certainly didn’t skimp. Should the array be found wanting, she’d heard of a warehouse crammed with additional miracle aids at the back of the lot.
Jillian stepped up to the spiked hair receptionist. “I’m Veronica Baker, the fill-in for
Girl of My Dreams
“Right this way, Ms. Baker. Blake Caldwell himself called. We know all about you.”
That was debatable, but Jillian would not belabor the point.
Immediately, a tall man with a high pompadour introduced himself as Larry and pointed to a vinyl seat facing a bright mirror. “Sit.”
“These must go.”
In one fell swoop he lifted off Jillian’s glasses and thrust them onto the counter. A helpless feeling washed over her. She’d suffered from rotten vision since high school and never took off her specs, not even for a glass of water in the middle of the night.
Everything looked fuzzy. She opened her mouth to protest, but then shut it. The purpose was to pass inspection, so she’d comply.
In a blind fog, she felt the stylist’s deft hands unwind her carefully constructed French braid. She kind of made out the kinky strands of her long, brown hair before a rubbery gown was thrust over her navy blue suit.
She was whisked to a sink. Spray splashed onto her head. If she weren’t so wound up, the movement of his hands caressing her scalp would feel soothing.
Back at the mirror, Larry attacked the strands, pushing them here and there, peering at Jillian’s hairline. She didn’t envy him his task. After numerous attempts to gain control over her tangled masses, she’d given up and confined them to braids and barrettes.
To his credit, the hair stylist didn’t seem daunted. He even hummed as he went along, clipping and examining.
All of a sudden the humming stopped. Larry stared at Jillian’s hair. He must have hit a roadblock. She could console him, but he had the easy part. She was the sacrificial lamb who would step in front of the cameras.
“You’re done,” he said, as if she were some sort of roast.