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As Ginger pushed open the swinging glass door of Matched’s Hollywood offices, she picked up the fourth call from her assistant since rolling out of bed at five a.m. “For heaven’s sake—what, Vanessa? I’ll be at the Hacienda in an hour. If I wanted to be in constant contact with you, I wouldn’t keep hanging up the—”
“Last thing. Sorry,” Vanessa interrupted in a rush. Her assistant sounded as dangerously over-caffeinated as Ginger was. “Holden confirmed he’s got Elliot. They’re heading into the offices—ETA of fifteen minutes.”
Ginger picked up the pace to get to her desk and grab what she left behind last night. She had no desire whatsoever to be there when the new star of the season arrived. Ignoring the waving hands of assistants trying to get her attention, she stepped quickly through the open workspace. “That it?”
“Lavonne finished her walkthrough.”
“And?” The reality show’s high-maintenance relationship expert was notorious for demanding big, last minute changes.
“Thumbs-up on everything but the guesthouse. She wants blackout curtains installed.”
Ginger slipped inside her office. “Lavonne is Matt’s problem. Listen, I have other calls to make, so please stop tying up my phone. After I grab my laptop and touch base with Frank, I’ll head your way. I’ll bring tacos,” she added. Ginger knew the best taco place. It would get everyone’s day started on the right foot, and it was the least she could do for all the extra hours everyone was putting in.
“You didn’t hear?” Vanessa’s voice rose an octave, panic-style.
“Hear what?” As Ginger opened her bag to shove her computer inside, the imposing figure of her boss darkened her doorway. Before her assistant replied, Ginger cut her off. “Text me, I’ll be there soon.”
The instant she lowered the phone, her boss Marlon spoke up. “I need you, Ginger. It’s an emergency.”
Everything was an emergency the day before filming started. Ginger pulled herself up to her full five-foot-two-and-a-half inch height. Hand on hip, she lifted her eyebrows hoping to convey bored disinterest and not the internal chaos she was experiencing. She had a lot to do, and Marlon knew it. If he was calling something an emergency only she could handle, there might be some leverage to work with. “What’s up?”
“Frank turned in his notice.”
Ginger’s hand slipped off her hip. “But he’s lead producer—how—what happened?”
“Some stupid Hulu documentary.” Marlon took a few long strides into her office, stopping only when his thighs hit the edge of her desk. “Meanwhile I’ve got Hale showing up any second, and no one to produce him.”
Oh, hell no.
Ginger held up both hands to fend off the “favor” she knew was coming. “Wait—no—you have me scheduled to direct four episodes, and Kat can’t manage all the women on her own—no—Marlon. No!”
No on so many levels!
“Ginger, I get this is a lot, and those episodes are still yours—but look, you and I both know he needs a dedicated producer. I can’t pawn him off on Matt or Kat. He’s too much work.”
Of course he was too much work. He was the star. But he was also Elliot Hale!
And Ginger had specifically scheduled out the next three months of her life to have as little interaction with him as humanly possible. For—reasons.
Dread, slow-moving and sickening, climbed her throat, wrapping around it like a boa constrictor. She tugged at the collar of her shirt, but it was a V-neck and clearly not the issue.
Reading her like a street sign, Marlon gently placed his hands on her desk, leaned in, and lowered his voice. “Listen, Ginj, you’re the best producer I have. You know it, everybody knows it. You’ve heard the rumors about Australia?”
Ginger gulped, nodding.
“They’re all true. I know you don’t want to work here, for me, forever. You’re too good to be checking up on hot tubs and wrangling stoned cameramen. But I need this. I need you.”
This was the moment she’d been waiting for, wasn’t it? From the moment her ninth-grade theater teacher entrusted Ginger with the keys to the auditorium and told her to make her proud, she’d known she wanted a career in show business. It was a long way from high school stage manager to executive producer, but Ginger had put in the time. She’d done the work. She’d earned this, and Marlon was no idiot. He was showrunner. He could manipulate any situation presented to him. And he’d found her sweet spot.
Rumors of an overseas franchise had been circulating for months, and Ginger had her heart set on the executive gig. It wasn’t Hollywood, but it was a huge career move. In a year or two she’d return to California with an EP credit on her resume—poised to create her own show. Something new, something fresh—something groundbreaking. She’d done her time at Matched, doing Marlon’s bidding, working around the clock, letting her social life wither on the vine, but it would all have been worth it if she finally had a chance to make it to the top of her career.
“You deliver me Elliot Hale’s happy ending—the executive job in Sydney’s yours.”
So this was what it felt like to make a deal with the devil.
She’d known this season would be a personal challenge, but not this personal. Not this important. It figured her one-night no-strings fling would come back to bite her.
Ginger took a deep breath, willing her pounding heart to calm the hell down so she could consider what was at stake. No more student loans, no more bosses to answer to, no more LA gridlock. Ratings, deadlines, and sleepless nights she could handle if it meant a ridiculously big paycheck and a chance to make her dreams come true. She nodded once, tightly, barely.
“Great. Meet us in the conference room in ten.”
Marlon left her office with a spring in his step. Ginger stared at the slowly closing door and reached for her half-empty four-shot latte. Her heartbeat stuttered irregularly, and she was perspiring all over, but she downed the rest of her drink, damning the consequences. If the latte didn’t kill her, then her fate was set.
She’d be producing Elliot Hale. Side by side. For twelve weeks, she’d be guiding him on his journey while he and his Panel decided between his fifteen gorgeous, intelligent, hand-picked options. An unwanted image of him locked in a romantic embrace with Daisy, the easygoing yoga instructor from Portland, clouded her brain momentarily before it morphed into the memory of their own embrace in the limousine six months ago—the heat of his breath against her neck, his swallowed groan of pleasure as she’d found his mouth with hers.
How the hell was she going to pull this off?
Tossing her cup into the trash can, her fingertips lingered near the drawer that held Elliot’s pocketknife. She mentally checked herself. Of course she could do this. She’d never once backed down from a challenge, and she’d never had an opportunity like this. One regrettable night months ago was not about to stand in the way of a future she’d worked so hard for. After all, it clearly hadn’t stopped Elliot.
Finding the Swiss Army knife, she dropped it into her bag. They’d both managed a clean break, and now it was time for a fresh start.
Ten minutes later, armed with her laptop, a pen, Elliot’s personal file, and a fresh cup of coffee, Ginger entered the conference room. It faced east. Since it was insanely early, the shades were drawn to prevent the morning sun from blinding everyone.
Marlon sat at the head of the large oval table next to Davis Riley, the host of the show. Beside him, Elliot Hale, fresh off the red-eye from Chicago, adjusted his tie. Ginger didn’t look directly at him. No need to. His presence was glaringly obvious. “Good morning!” she said brightly as she made her way around the table to sit on Marlon’s left, across from Elliot.
“Hey, Ginj,” Davis said.
“Good morning, Ginger,” Marlon replied.
Elliot pulled at the cuffs of his white dress shirt but didn’t make a sound.
Attention carefully trained on her things, Ginger set down her laptop and placed Elliot’s file on top. She put her coffee down gently lest it spill everywhere and therefore prove that her hands were shaking and she was in no way, shape, or form mentally prepared for this meeting.
Once she took her seat, Marlon kicked things off. “Welcome back, Elliot. We all know it wasn’t an easy decision for you to return, but we’re glad you did. The buzz is incredible. The team and I have put an enormous amount of planning into making this season everything you could possibly hope for.”
“Thanks, Marlon,” Elliot said, his voice low and quiet.
Why was he being so quiet?
With her tension mounting, Ginger, still not ready to look at him and come to terms with the reality of the situation, flipped open the file containing all of Elliot’s demographic information, his measurements, dietary preferences, psych evaluation, and medical records.
One form in particular stood out. Her eyebrows lifted with interest.
Marlon continued. “I’ll turn it over to Ginger. She can answer any questions and go over some of the specifics.”
Still mentally reeling, and near desperate to gain some control of herself and this impossible situation, Ginger made a choice. Removing the lab report from Elliot’s file, she arranged it to face this season’s star and slowly slid it across the conference table. With his attention on the paper, she dared a look at him.
Someone had cut half his hair off. Someone turned America’s favorite bad boy into every impatient executive she’d ever stood in line with at Starbucks. When had this happened? Had the network even been informed?
Caffeine could have been causing the sudden flutter in her chest, but it was bitter resentment making her fingers twitch. Truth? She couldn’t blame hair and makeup for this impending shitshow. She was entirely at fault. But she and Elliot were in it together now.
And there was no reason he should get to have all the fun this season… She found her voice. “As you can see from the lab report, all your STD results came back A-OK.”
Glaring down at the paper, Elliot Hale’s angular jaw betrayed his agitation with a clench.
Her confidence making a comeback, Ginger suppressed a grin as she tightened her ponytail. “Physical contact is, as always, optional, but as of today, everyone’s clean.”
Powered by a deep breath, Elliot pushed the page of test results away. “I appreciate your attention to detail.”
The sound of his voice set off memories like fireworks in her head. His presence burned exactly as much as she’d expected it to, but it was now more important than ever to forget the night they’d spent together at the end of last season and focus on what mattered: Sydney. If this was how she had to do it, then fine, but she’d set the rules.
Davis, the host of Matched, clapped a hand on Elliot’s shoulder, countering Ginger’s ice-cold approach with some warmth. Having hosted everything from national radio, televised talent competitions, and a few short-lived game shows, Davis found his niche in reality TV. With his ageless good looks, laser-sharp wit, and a gleaming smile that charmed a nation, he was able to get any situation back on track, provided he showed up on time. “I got a chance to meet with some of The Panel last night, Elliot. You nervous at all? Putting your fate in the hands of friends and family? Your mom’s kind of a trip.”
Elliot folded his hands on the conference table, the sleeves of his shirt exposing tanned wrists and the barest edge of the midnight-blue tattoo Ginger knew traveled all the way up his arm and around one of his broad shoulders. His eyes met hers with the suddenness of a lightning strike. “They can’t do any worse than I’ve done so far.”
Ginger’s pulse jumped as his insufferably magnetic slate-blue gaze narrowed in on her. She forced herself to bite back the words threatening to fly out of her mouth in front of her boss and everybody: What’s that supposed to mean?
Instead, she stuck to the meeting agenda. Doing her job was all that mattered, not his long, strong arms, his eyes, her doubts, or the sickening sense of unease creeping through her. This needed to stay business-y. With production scheduled to start the following night, she needed to establish the ground rules. “The schedule we forwarded you is subject to change at any time. Don’t make any appointments you can’t cancel if the show needs you somewhere at the last minute. If you have an emergency, you need to contact me immediately.”
His face brightened unexpectedly. “I’ll have a phone?”
Ginger smirked. He knew better than that. No one really got a phone once filming began. She reached into her open messenger bag and pulled out an old, clunky flip phone. She slid it toward him, bringing the test results back to her side of the table.
Mouth twisted into a grimace, Elliot stared at the phone with open derision. “Are you serious?”
She was dead serious and not even sorry about it. He wanted to do the show again? Well… Welcome back, Elliot Hale. “The only number in there is mine. You can text me, call me, or dial 911. You can keep your own phone for now while you take care of any loose ends, but when you show up on set tomorrow night, hand it over to me. I’ll keep it safe.”
His cold stare wavered at the edges. Enough for Ginger to get the sense he was questioning what he’d agreed to. If that was the case, he wasn’t the only one.
“Wait.” He blinked, a crease of anxiety forming between his brows. “You’re my only point of contact?”
She scowled but managed not to squirm. “Yes.”
Fair question. But she didn’t look to Marlon to explain Frank’s abrupt resignation. Instead, she said as clearly as she could manage, “Because I’m the lead producer now, Elliot. You’re my job.” And she refused to screw this up because they had a little “history.”
However, as they sat there, looking directly into Elliot’s eyes had Ginger’s bones hovering in the state between melting and freezing. Producing him wouldn’t be easy. His intensity was alarming. He should have been excited. All his freaking dreams were about to come true.
“There a problem, Elliot?” Marlon’s question caused panic to shoot through Ginger’s veins at a dizzying speed. “Ginger’s a genius. She’ll keep everything moving smoothly. You’ll forget you’re on camera half the time.”
Ginger willed Elliot to be cool. Try not to ruin my life right this second. He had no idea how much she needed this to work, how much she needed to prove to herself and to everyone who’d ever counted her out that she could pull off something truly amazing.
His Adam’s apple bobbed with a hard swallow. He blinked first and gave a nod to Marlon. “Ginger’s great. I trust her completely.”
It wasn’t the most convincing line, but if Marlon’s widening smile could be believed, her boss was satisfied with the answer.
Elliot turned abruptly to Davis. “We done here?” Sitting straight in his chair, he tugged at his tie, the muscles of his chest tensing and twisting beneath his unforgivingly well-fitted shirt. He ran a hand over his shorn locks, and Ginger died a little inside. How is anyone supposed to grab a fistful of it now?
She shook off the thought, not allowing herself the extended visual. The professional thought she’d meant to have was that the camera loved him last season with all his grown-out, scruffy good looks. She wasn’t sure how this network version of him would play on screen. Polished, clean, and so totally…
America had fallen in love with him last year while he vied for Jenna Gibson’s heart. Women applied in droves when the show announced that the dark-haired, tattooed bad boy with the world’s most seductive smile would be returning as the new season’s star. Applicants from all over the country crashed the network’s website eager to right Jenna’s wrong when she and her Panel had picked Eric, the charismatic youth minister from Houston, leaving Elliot heartbroken. The response on social media had been swift and brutal.
Half the network feared that after ten successful seasons, the nation’s outrage at Jenna’s final pick would tank the entire show unless Elliot agreed to come back. And voila. He had. So Ginger had to play nice, even if the idea of quitting her job and moving into her sister’s basement in San Francisco to be a full-time nanny to her nieces suddenly seemed a far less humiliating fate than coaching Elliot on how to find his perfect life mate.
As he and Davis left the room together, Ginger, who refused to spare a single glance at Elliot’s well-formed backside, swiveled her chair to face Marlon.
“Remember we want to keep him happy, Ginger,” he said, but his appraising nod told her she’d nailed the meeting.
“Of course he’ll be happy. He’ll be meeting the women of his dreams tomorrow night.” She forced her grimace into a smile. “The shitty phone is your rule anyway.”
Marlon stroked his perfectly groomed goatee. “You’ve met all the contestants. Anyone look like she could carry her own season?”
If Ginger managed to pull this off, the star of next season wouldn’t be her problem. On second thought, she should have gotten Marlon’s offer in writing. “They’re all lash extensions and spray tans to me right now. I’ll let you know after night one if I see any rising stars.”
“Whoever it is, I want her to have some sex appeal. Think Jenna Gibson.”
“Right. I got the memo.” Jenna’s love affair with Elliot last season had drawn in a lot of new viewers. Their unexpectedly physical connection had raised the bar for what started as a practical show. Initially, Matched had been all about what it took to make a long-term relationship work—compatibility, communication, compromise. But what Elliot and Jenna tapped into was chemistry, and the audience ate it up. It was a delicate balance, always trying to walk the higher road of reality TV. Other shows had trash and scandal covered. The producers Ginger worked with all liked to think this show had more gravitas.
Elliot, by far, was the sexiest man they’d ever cast as the star. With his brooding good looks, slow, sensual smile and tall, protective stature, the production team had designed the challenges this season to involve more body contact and intimacy. Still—Matched wasn’t a cheap kissing show. And last season, Jenna had proven it by defying all expectations and making the safe choice with Eric. Technically, she’d done the creators of the show a big favor. Jenna got practical and decided not to risk her heart. In doing so, she proved once again that Matched transcended lust and first impressions.
And she’d left Elliot free for the taking.
No one could have blamed Ginger for getting a little carried away that final night. Anyone with a pulse and an even vague attraction to men would have done the same thing.
But that was months ago, and it had been a fantasy. Now she had to face the harsh reality of Hollywood. Billie Holliday said it best: There’s no damn business like show business. You have to smile to keep from throwing up.
Ginger checked the notifications on her phone. Her day was just beginning.
“I’d like to narrow our choices down as soon as possible,” Marlon continued.
Positioning someone as the next star was no easy feat, and once they picked her it would be one of Ginger’s jobs to keep her in the mix, but off Elliot and The Panel’s ultimate happy ending radar. “Anything else? I need to get to the Hacienda.”
Marlon uncrossed his long legs to stand. “How’s Kat holding up?”
Sweeping a side-eye his way to find him facing the window like the question was a throwaway, Ginger wound up addressing his back. “She’s busy. We’re all busy.”
“Good.” He gave his jacket a quick tug, snapping the fabric more tightly around his tense shoulders.
“Anything else before I go?”
Her boss shook his head absently, continuing to stare at the closed blinds.
Ginger gathered her things and beat a hasty retreat. While Kat and Marlon’s disastrous affair had been over for several months, this was the first time they’d have to be on set together since things ended. Ginger needed to do a gut check with her fellow field producer before filming started. In the meantime, she had about eighty other items on her to-do list.
Returning to her office, Ginger stuffed everything she needed for the rest of the day into her messenger bag while she mentally ran through her schedule. Priority number one: finalize the order of arrival for the women. It needed to be perfect. If she was in charge, she wanted Elliot excited. Open. He was dark and edgy on a good day, so casting him as the star had always been a risk. It was what the audience wanted, but his tendency to go rogue last season had all the producers anxious about whether he’d take direction this time around. They’d had like, four meetings about it already, but Frank had assured the team that their new star would shine now that he wasn’t competing with fifteen other men.
Which was exactly what an insecure man would think about another man, but Elliot had never struck Ginger as insecure. Of course, Elliot also never struck Ginger as someone who would come on this show in the first place, much less twice, so…showed what she knew. But Elliot’s reasons for coming back weren’t her problem. If this was what he wanted to do and how he’d chosen to do it, fine. She’d get him his happy ending, and he’d catapult her all the way to her own.
End of Excerpt