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Susan Mallery, NY Times bestselling authorSusan Mallery, NY Times bestselling author

February 2019

Chapter One

California Girls, a women's fiction novel by Susan Mallery

“They’re frying bacon!”

Finola Corrado tried not to smile at the panic in her assistant’s eyes. “The cooking segment is potato salad five ways. Bacon is the cost of doing business.”

Rochelle’s horror morphed into indignation. “Yes, and right before that is the ‘What’s New in Sundresses’ segment. I’m very familiar with the schedule.” She set down her tablet, put her hands on her narrow hips and leaned forward, as if stressing the importance of her point. Her long, dark braids moved with her. “Finola, we have models in the building. Tall, skinny, hungry models. They’re starting to look feral and turn on each other. I’m convinced it’s the smell of bacon. Can’t they cook it somewhere else?”

And people assumed television was glamorous, Finola thought, still trying not to laugh.

“Move the models to the backup greenroom and tell them we have a humidity problem on set so they need to use extra hair spray. They won’t be able to smell the bacon after that. Tell the food prep person to clean up when the bacon is finished so there won’t be any more odor.”

“Oh, that will work.” Rochelle, a smart, ambitious communications graduate, relaxed. “I should have thought of that myself.”

“You will soon enough.”

Her dark-haired, dark-eyed twenty-five-year-old assistant would soon be capable of running the show, Finola thought as Rochelle left. In a few months, Rochelle would move on, taking a job that would give her more responsibility, and Finola would hire a new assistant, to begin the process again.

Getting your foot in the door in the TV business wasn’t easy. There were plenty of crap jobs, but not all of them gave the right kind of experience. Finola prided herself on hiring the best and the brightest. She was very clear with her demands—she expected a killer work ethic, absolute loyalty and 100 percent of their focus. In return, she would teach them about the business, introduce them to the right people and throw them a big party when they moved on to greener pastures.

Finola’s dressing room door opened again. One of the production assistants stuck her head in and whispered, “She’s here! She’s here. I can’t believe it. I’m so excited. Aren’t you excited?”

Before Finola could answer, the assistant was gone, no doubt to spread the joy to others.

Finola wanted to be cynical, but even she had to admit she was looking forward to meeting Treasure. AM SoCal was a successful show in a crowded media market. Being based in Los Angeles meant more access to celebrities than most shows like theirs, but even they didn’t expect to land a massive country-pop star like Treasure.

At twenty-three, Treasure was a music phenom. Her last single had a million downloads in the first six hours after release and her YouTube videos all had over a billion views. She was appearing on the show this morning for a ten-minute interview followed by a live performance of her new single “That Way.” The hungry models’ fashion show and the potato salad segments would follow.

Except for Treasure being such a big star, today’s rundown was pretty typical. Finola greeted her audience—both live and on television—with a bit of chitchat and a few jokes, then she invited her first guest onto the set. By eleven, the show was over and by noon, everyone on staff would be focused on doing it all again for the next show. Everyone but her, she thought with a smile. She was off next week.

“Hawaii, here we come,” she murmured to herself.

She and her husband needed the time away. They’d both been so busy lately, caught up in their respective careers. The week would give them time to focus on each other and their marriage. And maybe something just a little bit more.

She was ready, finally ready, to get pregnant. Nigel had been eager for them to start their family for a couple of years now. She’d been the one dragging her feet. But turning thirty-four, listening to her mother complain about having three grown daughters and no grandchild, not to mention the realization that there would never be a perfect time, had convinced her they should go for it now. In honor of the decision, she’d packed a present for Nigel to open when they checked into their suite in Maui. She had a feeling the gift of sex toys and baby booties would get the message across very clearly. Nigel was nothing if not a man of action—they were going to have fun.

She heard a knock on her door, followed by a loud, “Thirty minutes.”

Thirty minutes until showtime, she thought, settling into her makeup chair and closing her eyes.

She was already dressed and made-up, she knew her topics, had listened to enough of Treasure’s music to qualify for fan club membership, and she’d skipped carbs at breakfast so she could taste-test potato salad to her heart’s content.

“Good show,” she whispered to herself as she slowed her breathing for her preshow relaxation ritual.

She had fifteen minutes of quiet. Fifteen minutes when no one would knock on her door or burst into her room. She would collect herself and then head to the set where she would be miked and given a final dusting of powder before starting her show.

She inhaled to the count of four, held her breath for a count of eight, then exhaled—

She heard her door open, followed by, “Finola, we have to talk.”

Her eyes popped open. Nigel was standing in front of her. He grabbed her chair by the arms and stared at her intently.

“Nigel, what are you doing here? I go live in less than thirty minutes. What’s going on?”

Nigel, a Beverly Hills plastic surgeon, didn’t see patients on Fridays and they were leaving on their trip in the morning. What was so important that it couldn’t wait until after the show?

He looked at her. “I’m sorry.”

It wasn’t the words that got her attention so much as the tone, and maybe the stricken expression on his face. Her stomach clenched.

“What happened?”

Visions of her sisters or her mother lying prone on the road filled her mind. Or maybe there had been a fire. Or a—

“I don’t know how to say it,” he began, only to stop.

Bile rose in her throat. Her heartbeat jumped a thousandfold and there was a ringing in her ears. Someone was dead—she knew it.

“I’m having an affair.”

As he spoke, Nigel released the chair and paced the length of the room. He was still talking—she could see his lips moving—but for the life of her she couldn’t hear anything. The roaring, rushing sound was too great.

The words repeated over and over in her head until their meaning sunk in. Years ago, she’d fallen off a tall porch onto the grass below. She’d landed on her side and all the air had been forced out of her lungs. This felt like that. She couldn’t inhale, couldn’t stop the surge of panic that swept through her as her body began to tremble. The lack of breath was followed by a sharp gut-wrenching pain in her heart.

How could he? When? With who? Why? They were married. They loved each other. He was her best friend. She was going to get pregnant on their trip to Hawaii.

No, there had to be a mistake. He couldn’t have. Only as she watched him watch her, she knew he wasn’t lying and that he really had, with four simple words, shattered her and their marriage.

“You have to understand,” he said, his voice low. “I’m sorry to have to tell you now. I know the timing is less than optimal.”

“Less than optimal?” she shrieked, then had to consciously lower her voice. “Less than optimal? I’m about to go on live television. It’s not enough to dump this on me, but you had to do it right this second, to screw with me even more?”

“I’ve tried to tell you so many times over the past few weeks, but you’re too busy to listen. There’s always another show.”

She felt a flicker of rage and reached for it with both hands. At least anger would provide temporary strength.

“You’re blaming this on me?” she demanded. “You waltz in here and announce you’re having an affair and it’s my fault you waited until just this second to tell me?”

“It’s not like that.”

“Oh, really?” She brushed away tears. “What’s it like?”

He turned away. “I thought you needed to know.”

Before she could figure out if she was shaking too hard to stand, he walked out. Just like that. She was alone with the nausea, the aches, the broken life and a ticking clock that warned her she had eighteen minutes and twelve seconds until she was live.

None of this is real, she told herself frantically. It couldn’t be. It wasn’t happening and Nigel hadn’t just told her about an affair. He couldn’t have. Not her Nigel. Not the wonderful, warm, loving husband who was always there for her. She knew him, not the cold stranger who had just left.

If only her ears would stop ringing, she thought desperately. If only she could breathe or cry or scream or run. An affair. Another woman had been in his life, his heart and his bed. Their bed. No. No! He’d slept with someone else, had whispered to someone else, had touched someone else, had orgasmed with someone else.

Her mind refused to believe even as her heart began to bleed. Betrayal and sadness and disbelief churned together until she choked. She had to get out of here. She had to go home and—

Her gaze settled on the clock. No, she told herself. She couldn’t leave. She had a live show in fifteen minutes. She had to go on the air and act as if nothing was wrong, as if she were fine and the world hadn’t just fallen off its axis and into a black hole from which it would never escape.

She sucked in air, being careful not to hyperventilate, then hurried to the mirror. After flipping on the harsh, unforgiving lights, she studied herself for a second before reaching for a tissue, then concealer. She looked wide-eyed and shell-shocked. As if she’d just seen something horrific. Or maybe just experienced it. Dear God, she couldn’t do this.

“Finola?” Rochelle knocked once before entering. “They need you on set.”

Finola nodded without speaking. She added a little more powder, then took one more breath before forcing a smile. “I’m ready.”

Her assistant frowned. “What happened?”

“Nothing. I’m fine.”

“It’s something and it’s not fine.”

Finola faked another smile and hurried past her. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

She made her way along the corridor toward the studio. She wove her way around false walls, backdrops and cables. The show’s producer smiled at her.

“Have you met Treasure yet? She’s gorgeous. I only saw her from a distance, but wow.”

Finola didn’t bother to say she had yet to meet the star. She’d been too busy watching her marriage collapse around her. Not that Treasure had asked for an intro—her request had been that they meet in front of the live audience so the experience “was more spontaneous.” As far as superstar demands went, it was easy and doable, and it beat one singer’s request for “six snow-white kittens to play with before I sing.”

Gary, the sound guy, handed her a small microphone. She clipped it on her jacket’s label while he snaked the thin cord over her shoulder. He clipped the battery pack to the waistband her skirt.

Usually she joked about him touching her. Their friendly banter was a regular part of her “get ready” ritual. But today she couldn’t think of a single thing to say. And in eight minutes, that was going to be a big problem.

Breathe, she told herself. She would breathe and trust herself to know what she was doing. She’d done this show for nearly four years. She was good at it. She loved her work and she would be fine. If only she didn’t hear the echo of the screams she didn’t dare give in to.

Gary smoothed her jacket into place, winked at her and smiled. “You’re good to go, Finola.”

“Thank you.” She cleared her throat. “Testing, testing.”

The mike would have already been checked, but she always confirmed it was working.

Gary gave her a thumbs-up before handing over the earpiece that would connect her with the control room. Theirs wasn’t a news show, so she wasn’t getting breaking information, but she still needed to be linked to the control room in case a major story broke. Then she would be able to smoothly transition her viewers to the fact that New York was going to interrupt the show.

She adjusted the earpiece then heard the soft voice of Melody, the director. “Finola, good morning. We’re at five minutes. Good show.”

“Good show,” she said automatically just as someone touched her on the shoulder.

She turned and came face-to-face with Treasure. The country-pop star was about Finola’s height, with long, dark red hair worn in cascading ringlets. Her eyes were deep green and even with heavy TV makeup, her skin was amazing.

Finola blinked in surprise.

“Hello. I thought you didn’t want to meet before the interview.” She managed a smile and held out a hand. “It’s lovely to meet you, Treasure. I’m a big fan.”

The twenty-three-year-old smiled at her. “No, you’re not,” she said softly. “Or if you are now, you won’t be.”

She ignored Finola’s outstretched hand. “You’re older than I thought. Thirty-four, right? You couldn’t be my mom, but you wouldn’t be an older sister, either. Maybe an aunt.”

Finola had no idea what she was talking about. “Okay,” she said slowly. “I need to go out and greet the audience. Everyone is so excited to see you and watch you perform.”

Before she could turn away, Treasure grabbed her upper arm. Her fingers dug in just enough to be uncomfortable.

“It’s me,” she whispered, leaning close. “I’m the one he’s sleeping with. I’m the one who’s done things with him you can’t even imagine. It’s not just the sex, you know. It’s all of it.” She rolled her eyes. “He didn’t want to tell you about us, like he could hide me, but I had my manager book me on your show so he didn’t have a choice.”

Treasure’s smile turned cruel. “And now you know.”

Finola could only stare at her, even as her mind rejected the words. This isn’t happening, she thought desperately. It can’t be. Nothing the other woman was telling her could be true. Before she could react in any way, Treasure released her and walked away. Finola pressed a hand to her stomach, hoping to slow the bleeding just enough to not die that very moment.

She had to run, she told herself. She had to get out of here. She had to—

“Finola?”

Melody’s voice competed with the very loud buzzing in her head.

“Finola, you need to get on set now.”

The show. She had to do the show. It was live, so there was no second chance. She had to walk out there and face the two hundred people in the audience, not to mention the million or so in their homes. AM SoCal was hugely popular. She was well liked in the community and today they had on a massive star. Ratings would be huge.

“Finola?”

“I’m here.”

She drew in a breath and dug as deep as she could for every ounce of professionalism, not to mention self-preservation, she’d managed to accumulate in her life. She had to survive sixty minutes. Just sixty minutes and then she would be able to collapse. Just the next hour. That was all.

She walked out to face her audience.

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