Why did I sign up for this? Michelle fidgeted, surrounded on all sides by cameras. She knew they were recording her every move, capturing each facial expression, each deep breath she took trying to calm herself down. They would use any tiny sign of nervousness as part of the television show.
It sounded fun at the time. She’d been at the mall when the reality show Love Letters was holding casting calls for their upcoming season. Michelle sat in the audience and watched hopeful girls come and go, flaunting themselves in front of the producers, decked out in makeup and expensive clothing.
The host of the show, Rachel Gibbons, scanned the audience, stifling a yawn, and met Michelle’s gaze. They locked eyes, and the corner of Rachel’s mouth lifted. She leaned toward the guy beside her, and soon both of them were staring at Michelle, whispering and sizing her up.
Michelle shifted in her seat and set her shopping bag next to her. She wiped her sweaty hands on her jeans and pulled her eyes away. When she looked up again, they were walking toward her.
Suddenly she was shaking hands with Rachel and a producer named Bruce, and they were asking her questions about whether or not she was single, if she’d ever heard of the show and if she’d ever considered coming on and being their leading lady.
She had the “right look” they’d said. She was “girl-next-door” cute and innocent. They’d find her some great guys, and she’d meet the man of her dreams, and get to fly to Los Angeles.
Those were the magic words. She’d always wanted the chance to leave Colorado and go on an adventure.
Michelle knew she wouldn't meet her forever husband on a reality show. This was just for fun.
Now, six weeks later, here she sat in a mansion in L.A. in a fancy dress, surrounded by strategically-placed cameras and lighting, waiting for twenty guys to arrive in limos. Twenty guys who had been hand-picked just for her. She couldn’t decide if she should be excited or throw up. The way her stomach was clenched, it wasn’t out of the possibility.
The makeup artist hovered over her one more time, dusting her forehead and nose, then brushed her lips with one more sheen of gloss. Michelle could imagine the lady as a young girl playing with a Barbie doll, dressing her up and fixing her hair. The visualization brought out a tiny smile and she allowed herself one more deep breath, willing herself to relax.
Michelle sensed a shift in lighting and the boom mic lowered closer. She fought the urge to cringe away from it. The stage manager, crew members, and producer all seemed to tuck themselves behind the cameras, instinctively retreating off set. This is it. No going back.
“Action,” the director called.
Rachel shifted in her seat, all business. Michelle tried to pay attention to everything Rachel was saying, welcoming her to the show, telling her how excited they were to have her on as the leading lady, and assuring her that they’d hand-picked twenty eligible bachelors just for her.
“Are you excited or nervous?” Rachel asked. “You look nervous.” Rachel still used her on-camera sticky-sweet, fake voice, and Michelle knew she wasn’t really concerned. It was all part of the act.
“I’m excited,” Michelle lied, forcing her smile to look natural. “I’m ready to find love and start this journey.” Did I get the lines right?
“Here’s how the show works,” Rachel said, as if Michelle didn’t already have the script. “Each week the guys will write love letters explaining why you should keep them on the show. You will then write love letters back to the guys you feel a connection with.”
“I hope I can narrow it down fast, because my wrist is going to get sore!” Michelle snickered. This was all for show anyway. The producers had advised her to make it look good for the cameras, which were suddenly more intrusive than they’d been just moments before.
“We’ll actually give you a set number of guys you need to eliminate every week.” Rachel said it with a straight face.
“This is going to be harder than I thought.” Michelle gulped. She wasn’t acting anymore.
“But you can use a computer and type the letters.” Rachel reached out and patted Michelle’s knee. “The guys are not allowed to type theirs, however. Theirs need to be hand-written and from the heart. We’ve found that you’ll be able to tell right away which guys are just saying what they think you want to hear rather than actually have a connection with you.”
“That sounds good.”
“Are you ready to meet the men?” There was a twinkle in Rachel’s eyes.
“As ready as I’ll ever be, I suppose.” Michelle stood, shook Rachel's hand, and grumbled as she followed Rachel to where she would wait for her guys. “Here goes nothing.”
“Ooh, she is smokin’ hot!” One of the guys leaned over so far, Ashton thought his breath would fog up the window of the limousine.
There she stood in an emerald gown with capped sleeves and a modest neckline. Her light brown hair was swept up in a million curls clipped into place by little flowers.
“Great, we’re meeting little miss priss.” The dark-haired guy named Mason sneered and turned away from the window. He’d already had a few too many glasses of champagne on the ride over from the hotel.
“That’s kind of rude,” Ashton said. “She’s beautiful.”
“Elegant,” a guy named Victor said.
“And look at those long legs. Mmm, mmm, mmm,” the stocky guy added. Ashton couldn’t remember his name.
“She can wrap those babies around my waist anytime,” another guy said.
“Gentlemen, show some respect.” Ashton shook his head. “We’re about to go in and meet her as if we want to date her, maybe marry her.”
“I am too young to think about marriage yet.” Victor sank back into the leather seat and folded his arms. “Besides there are many more women out there for me to conquest between now and the day I tie the knot.”
“How old are you?” Ashton asked. He looked to be in his thirties, with neatly-trimmed dark hair and an expensive suit.
“I’m twenty-seven and already feel like I should have been married a long time ago. My dad’s breathing down my neck about it.” He shifted in his seat, craning his neck to see better.
“Bummer,” Victor said. “I’m not ready to limit myself to sleep with one woman for the rest of my life. I’m still playin’ the field.”
“That’s disgusting.” Ashton shook his head and mumbled under his breath. He’d been with one woman, and that was a drunk mistake he vowed never to do again. He’d learned by his second year of college to limit himself to a couple beers a night and stay away from the hard liquor. He didn’t want to mess up his life any more than he already had.
Coming on this show was just supposed to be a fun publicity stunt anyway. He had reached the championship level as a pro-surfer and was in between seasons. His agent had nudged him to capitalize on this chance to be on television in front of a national audience. Although Ashton had approached this stunt with low expectations, seeing this gorgeous woman made him reconsider.
Finally, the limo driver got the okay for the first guy to head out of the car and go meet this mysterious beauty standing near the entrance of a stately mansion. The combination of the twinkling lights with the ocean in the background was breathtaking.
Ashton waited his turn. After the fourth guy had sauntered up to her, spent a few seconds introducing themselves and then strutted into the house, Ashton was sweating.
He stepped out of the limo and immediately his foot slipped, and he nearly fell back into the car. Ashton heard her giggle from all the way across the driveway. He felt his face and neck heat up. Great first impression. Real smooth, Ashton.
“Falling for me already?” Her playful eyes teased him, and his breathing increased.
“Maybe I should just get down on one knee right now and we can skip the formalities,” Ashton suggested as he walked toward her. “Tell these other guys to go home because the man of your dreams has already fallen for you.”
She giggled again and reached her hands out for his. Ashton decided he could listen to that laugh all night long and vowed to make sure she had a smile on her face for the rest of the evening.
“I’m Ashton, and who might this lovely enchantress be?” He took her hands in his and squeezed gently.
“I’m Michelle. Nice to meet you, Ashton.” The blush on her cheeks was beautiful.
“Oh, I’m in trouble…”
“Where are you from, Ashton?” Her long lashes brushed her reddened cheeks and she squeezed his hands back.
“Ashton from Arkansas,” Michelle said. “Very cute.”
“Yeah, what were my parents thinking?”
“They must have been thinking how adorable their son was.” Michelle bit her lower lip.
“Adorable Ashton from Arkansas. I like it.” He fought the desire to stare at those lips. I’d better get inside before I do something incredibly reckless like pull her into my arms and kiss her. He chose to lean in and kiss her cheek, then stepped back, releasing her hands. “I’ll see you in a few minutes.”
Oh… my… gosh. Wow. Michelle watched Ashton walk toward the house, his hands tucked into the pockets of his casual slacks. He was the only guy so far who was wearing a suit coat and tie rather than a tuxedo. Sandy blond hair with a hint of a curl hung down just low enough to touch his collar, and his blue eyes sparkled when he teased her.
Ashton turned one more time to glance back at her before stepping out of sight through the grand front door, a hint of a smile playing across his lips.
A man cleared his throat right next to her and Michelle turned on her heel, almost forgetting she had fifteen more guys to meet. She was ready to call it a night and skip to her date with Ashton tomorrow.
Until she met Victor. His dark eyes pierced into hers and he raised his eyebrows seductively. Everything about him made her feel weak and fluttery. His sultry voice caressed every word that came from those pouty lips. She had the strange desire to know what kissing him would feel like. A chill ran down her spine. Dangerous. In a good way.
What was that other guy’s name again?