"He'll see you now," said the executive assistant, her blues eyes energetic behind the red rims of her designer glasses.
She reminded Sarah of herself three years ago, when she'd finally landed her first Hollywood gig as an assistant. She guessed the woman hadn't been in show business long; her countenance lacked the familiar lines of cynicism.
Sarah zipped the front of her hoodie before entering the Executive Producer's corner office. Phillip sat pounding something out on his laptop, the sleeves of his crisp white shirt rolled up to his elbows. Sarah admired his massive oak desk and picturesque view of L.A. beyond the floor-to-ceiling windows. If she played her cards right, she'd be sitting in his Italian leather chair within a year.
"How's our girl?" Phillip asked, not bothering to look up from his laptop.
The feminist in her tried not bristle whenever he referred to grown women as "girls." Phillip came from oil money and she struggled not to hold his strictly conventional upbringing against him.
"Exceeding my expectations," Sarah said.
When Mikki had been selected as the Bachelorette, Sarah struggled to accept the decision. The lawyer was confident, gracious and smart as a whip - the exact woman she had been fighting to bring on the show since she became a producer. But she was well into her 30s - and African-American. She initially had no idea how to market Mikki to middle-aged housewives in the Midwest, the bread and butter of their audience. Her biggest challenge was to to highlight her intelligence and beauty, while retaining her down-home charm. The line between admiration and jealousy was thin.
"Good to hear," he said, finally gracing her with his attention, though his gaze went straight to her breasts before moving upward. He smiled to himself. Or was that a smirk?
"The men we expected to fall for her are right on track," Sarah said. "The Mikki-Ronnie chemistry will definitely appeal to career women."
"What about Peter?" Phillip asked, throwing her for a loop. "We haven't seen enough of him on screen."
Peter had been a last-minute addition, Phillip's only pick among the candidates. She had been in a rush to get everything ready for the first shoot and had barely given the crude man a thought. She figured he was just there to appeal to the corn belt audience. Now, she wished she'd paid more attention. He was turning out to be a sharp thorn in her ass.
"Considering he's drunk most of the time, I doubt he's a forerunner," she said.
"Maybe you should reconsider." His smile failed to reach his eyes.
It was more of a request than a recommendation. A buzz interrupted them before she could respond.
"Steve is here," the assistant's voice blared from the intercom.
"Send him in," Phillip said.
Sarah was sure if she'd been the late one, Phillip would have made her wait until the meeting ended before granting her entrance.
"Sorry I'm late," Steve said, dropping into the seat next to her. "I had to put out a quick fire for Mikki, but all's been handled."
Sarah noticed his slightly flushed cheeks and the beads of sweat along his brow. "Anything I need to worry about?"
"Not at all." Steve avoided her gaze.
She made a mental note to find out what was up with him. The last thing she needed was for her host to go rogue. She planned on this being the highest rated season yet and not even Steve would get in the way of that.
"Now that we're all here," Phillip said, leaning forward, "there are a few things I'd like to discuss."
Sarah suppressed a sigh. Phillip had many talents, but producing a reality show wasn't one of them. His suggestions usually led to longer hours for her and the crew, only for him to change his mind when it came for the final cut.
"As I was saying before, Peter has been noticeably absent and I can't quite figure out why," he continued. "He's the most screen-worthy of the bunch."
"If by screen-worthy, you mean prejudice and rude," Steve said.
A smile lilted on Sarah's lips. Steve was usually easygoing and laidback, able to build a rapport with strangers with almost no effort. But behind the amiable exterior was a man who refused to take anyone's shit. She hoped to one day do the same without the threat of being labeled a bitch by her male counterparts.
"This is reality TV," Phillip said, abandoning the fake smile. "Diplomacy makes for dismal ratings. We need to spice things up a bit and Peter is the only one capable of doing that. Plus, everyone's got a right to express their personal opinions."
Sarah noticed a slight shift in Steve. She jumped in before he said something he would regret and ruin his chances of becoming a producer, which she wanted for him almost as much as he did.
"Given the current climate, we might want to steer away from any confrontations about beliefs and the like," she said. "Our audience is here for romance, not politics."
Sarah wasn't afraid to push the envelope and do what needed to be done to create the petty, drama-filled moments people loved to chat about on Twitter. But Peter was a ticking bomb. She couldn't be sure what kind of garbage he would spew if they actually gave him more time with Mikki. She'd already spent hours editing his personal footage and had found only a few minutes of him not being a complete asshole.
"Who said anything about politics?" Phillip asked.
Sarah harbored no misconceptions about her boss's political leanings. She wouldn't be inviting him to have dinner with her feminist colleagues any time soon. Which was all fine by her, as long as his primitive beliefs didn't interfere with her job.
"In the end, this is about the ratings," Steve chimed in. "The popularity of the first two episodes has surpassed our expectations by a mile. Mikki is the reason people are tuning in every week and we need to keep her happy. If she's going to have more time with Peter, it should be of her own accord."
Steve had been an advocate of Mikki's from the very beginning. Even when Sarah had doubts, he organized a diverse focus group of housewives and professionals to prove how popular Mikki would be among a broad spectrum of demographics. She looked between the two men. Steve and Phillip were at an impasse, neither likely to budge an inch. She wondered at the former's insistence. He usually disagreed with these kinds of tactics, but she'd never seen him this adamant before.
Phillip leaned back, throwing his hands up in mock surrender. "Looks like it's two to one. I'll back off, for now." And with that, he went back to his laptop. She and Steve took their cue to leave. Sarah doubted this was the last she'd hear about Peter, but for now she was satisfied to just to get back to wrangling insecure men.
"Thanks for your support," Steve said as they headed to the elevators outside of Phillip's office. He sounded kind of surprised, which annoyed her for some reason. It wasn't like she'd never had his back in the past.
"Don't worry about it," she said flippantly. "You were right about the ratings and at the end of the day that's all that matters."
They boarded the empty elevator together. His spicy cologne filled the small space, making her wish the elevator was crowded so she'd have an excuse to get closer to him.
"You don't fool me," he said. "Behind that indifferent exterior is a true romantic. You can't work on this show for as long as you have and not believe in love."
"It's not that I don't believe in love. I just think anyone who comes on a reality show expecting to find it is either a moron or still believes in the tooth fairy."
Steve laughed wholeheartedly. "Well, if anyone can break through that wall of cynicism, Mikki can. I'll be the first to admit that some of the Bachelorettes have joined the show for less than sincere reasons, but she's not one of them. Her heart's in the right place. She really is an extraordinary woman."
The elevator doors opened and Sarah's heart dropped. Steve had a thing for Mikki.
"Wow," Terence said as Mikki joined him. For their first date, she'd chosen a shimmering gold number, reminiscent of a flapper dress from the 1920s. She had always been on the conservative side when it came to her wardrobe, but she trusted her stylist, who often pushed her toward bolder choices. Judging by Terence's reaction, she'd chosen well.
In the hills of L.A., they had a perfect night view of the city skyline and lights. He pulled out a chair for her. White china plates and delicate silverware adorned a linen-covered table, accentuated with fragrant vanilla-scented candles.
"You're radiant," Terence said as she took her seat.
"Thank you," Mikki said. "You look incredible as well."
And she meant it. In a charcoal suit tailored perfectly for his wide shoulders and thick biceps, she wanted to run her fingers along the silky material and feel what he was packing beneath the suit.
The first course arrived, a creamy sun-dried bisque with perfectly toasted croutons. "Looks delicious," she said, digging in. She was a foodie to the bone and as eager to enjoy the exquisite five-course meal as she was to get to know Terence.
He watched her closely as she savored the first bite, moaning and licking her lips. He chuckled. "I see you're as much of a foodie as I am."
"I'm highly suspicious of people who aren't," she joked, relieved that he was a man who delighted in a woman with a healthy appetite. "I only got into fitness so I could eat whatever I want, whenever I want."
"It's paying off." He roamed her body with his eyes. "We'll have to workout together sometime. I'm sure you could teach me a few things."
"I'd like that." Mikki tried to ignore thoughts of Steve and their run together just that morning, leading to an intense make-out session behind a tree in the park. She let go of the memory of his hands rubbing up and down her spandex-covered behind and focused on the handsome man sitting across from her.
Their conversation was as light as the cheese soufflé. She learned he had two sisters and a 10-year-old niece whom he adored. He attended church with his mother every Sunday. He'd provided medical care to countless children in eastern Africa for two years with Doctors Beyond Borders, which had been the most fulfilling experience in his life.
Terence was the ideal man, someone she'd love to take home to meet her family. He said all the right things, impressing her at every turn. But something was missing. She didn't quite feel the spark she was hoping to.
Ending their world-class meal with glasses of dessert wine, the conversation turned to more intimate matters. "I know you must get this a lot, but I have to ask. How is a fine, educated brotha like you not married? I'm sure the church ladies are all over you on Sunday morning, bringing you pies and introducing you to their daughters." Mikki kept her tone light, but her chest constricted in anticipation of his answer.
He nodded. "You're right, I do get asked that a lot. To be honest, black women have never been all that interested in me."
She squinted in disbelief. "I find that hard to believe. No offense, but look at you. And you're a doctor. Come on now."
He shook off the compliment. "It's true. I've only dated women who've shown interest in me and so far, that's only been white women."
"Hmmm," she said, nodding through the shock. "So you've only ever dated white women, I see."
Mikki had no qualms with interracial dating. She'd been dating whoever struck her fancy since high school, which naturally included men of all races. The majority of her exes were black men, whom she found just as attractive as any other race. She had a hard time believing that Terence dated only white women because no one else was interested in him.
"Uh oh, I know that look." Terence's observational skills were apparently as keen as hers. "You're starting to have doubts."
"There's no look," she said, becoming a little defensive. "It's just surprising, is all."
"Well, let me see if I can dispel those misgivings." He swooped in, planting a gentle kiss on her lips, easing her mouth open slightly. He smelled so good and just as she was beginning to feel something, he pulled away. She felt confused and uneasy, not sure if she should feel thankful he was such a gentleman or mildly insulted.
"That was nice," he said, almost shyly. "Your lips are so soft, like pillows."
"You too," she said, already analyzing the gnawing feeling in her gut. She only had an older sister, but she imagined this was exactly how it would feel to kiss her brother.
"So," Mikki said, picking up the rose that had been sitting on the table all night. Her next decision would either send Terence back to the mansion or on the first plane back home. "You're an amazing man, both inside and out." The hope in his eyes crushed her, making her next words all the harder. "You're going to make a wonderful husband some day...for the right woman."
His face dropped. "Wait, I don't understand." He grabbed her hand, his palm clammy.
"We have a lot in common and share a similar perspective of the world. My family would adore you, but my feelings for some of the other guys are stronger."
One in particular.
"Is this because of my dating history? I am really attracted to you, Mikki. We could be exceptional together. Why don't you see that?"
Was this really about chemistry? Was she punishing him for never having dated a black woman? Or even worse, did he just pale in comparison to Steve, a man who might not even want to marry her?
"You'll find the right woman in no time. They'll be lining up at your door. I'm just not one of them."
He just nodded slowly, his disappointment turning to thinly veiled anger. She rose from her chair, Terence standing with her. She hugged him, his body tense beneath her embrace.
"Can I walk you to the car?" she asked, not looking forward to the awkward silence that would likely prevail.
"I'd rather you didn't." He kissed her hand. "I hope whoever's captured your heart is worth it."
She almost called out to him as she watched him go, but kept her hands tightly clasped in front of her. It felt likely that she'd made the biggest miscalculation in her life.
"Pretty," Judith said, pointing to Mikki, who was in the process of getting her makeup done.
"Yes, very pretty," Steve said.
Steve wasn't surprised Judith had been drawn to the woman he was enchanted with. He'd brought Carl and Judith to join him backstage on the set of The Ellen Show. The talk show host was a huge fan of The Bachelorette and had invited Mikki and six of the guys to participate in a few segments designed specifically for the show.
"Carl," Steve called to his son, who was busy chatting with a teenage girl dressed like a reality show celebrity. Receiving no response, he added some bass to his voice. "Carl!"
He hated to be that parent yelling at his kids on the set, but he wanted to introduce both of them to Mikki. Carl shot him a dirty look, but wrapped up his conversation, taking his sweet time walking over to them. The divorce had been quite ugly at times and the constant shuffling between two homes had been hardest on his son, who'd been especially temperamental lately. He hoped the therapy sessions he was paying an arm and a leg for would help his oldest child work through some of the emotions he must be struggling with.
"Thanks a lot, Steve," Carl said.
And he'd also gotten into the habit of calling him by his first name. "Dad," Steve firmly corrected him. "I want you to meet someone."
"I already met someone, but you had to cockblock me."
"Watch that language, son," Steve said, on the verge of losing his professional composure.
Steve sighed, not sure how to handle this new version of his usually obedient son. He knew he was partly to blame, having failed to keep their family together.
Finished with makeup, Mikki headed their way, that gracious smile on full display. She looked stunning in a short blue Chiffon dress and black stilettos. The tension in his shoulders instantly melted away.
"And who are these two?" she asked with genuine interest, though he caught an inkling of fatigue in her expression. He knew last night had been rough on her, having to send Terence home so unexpectedly.
"Mikki, this is my daughter, Judith and my son, Carl." He'd introduced his kids to a handful of his co-workers, but never to any of the participants on the show. He'd always made a point to keep the showbiz aspects of his life separate from the personal. Mikki was changing all of that.
"Hi," Carl said, shaking her hand.
At least his manners are still intact.
Judith reached for Mikki, whining softly. "May I?" she asked, holding her arms out to his daughter.
Steve was pleasantly surprised to see how easily his kids were taking to his new love interest. He handed Judith over happily. She went straight for Mikki's locs, gripping as many as would fit in her tiny hands.
Her laugh was like music. "You're lucky you're so cute, I don't let just anyone touch my hair."
"Judith doesn't let just anyone hold her. She likes you," Carl said, looking to be impressed despite his detached exterior.
Steve took in the scene, his heart warming at the sight of Mikki with his kids, like they were...family.
"Hopefully we won't bore you to death with all the romance games," she told Carl.
His son responded to her candor. "It's cool. As long as it's not like the soap operas dad-"
Steve coughed. "Okay, son. We should let Mikki go, they're starting soon." He passed Judith over to Carl. "Head back to the green room and I'll be there in a second."
Mikki raised a finely arched eyebrow as they departed. "Soap operas, huh? I can't wait to find out what that's about."
"Not now, not ever," Steve said, smiling.
She took a step closer to him. "I like a man who's in touch with his feminine side."
Steve inhaled her spicy scent, his mouth watering. He wanted to run his tongue along that sensitive spot on her neck. He closed the distance between them and whispered, "How about I come to your hotel room later and show you just how many other sides I've got?"
She smiled mischievously. Steve's eyes went to her fruity, shiny lips and it took all he had not to lean forward and find out which flavor of lip gloss she was wearing. The air between them grew humid.
"I hope I'm not interrupting anything," Sarah said, from over Steve's shoulder. He and Mikki separated with lightning speed.
"Not at all," he said. "Just filling Mikki in on the talent show segment. She's really looking forward to seeing what the guys have to offer."
Mikki nodded. "I prefer a multi-talented man." She snuck a knowing look his way before leaving them.
"Is there something I need to know?" Sarah asked Steve, her arms crossed.
"Not that I'm aware of," Steve said, not appreciating her line of questioning.
"I get it. Any guy would fall for her." She paused. "But as your friend, I need to advise you not to risk your career for a roll in the hay."
Steve steamed, from embarrassment or anger, he couldn't quite tell. "Let's get a few things straight. First of all, we're not friends. I'm sorry if you had that impression. Secondly, my relationship with Mikki is none of your damn business."
Noticing the tinge of hurt in her eyes, Steve regretted being so blunt.
"If it affects the show, it most certainly is." She wasn't the type to back down easily and he respected her for it. But he refused to let her come between him and Mikki.
"There's nothing you need to be concerned about and I would appreciate you not bringing this up again - with anyone. I've invested years of my life - time that could've been spent with my family - in order to make this show what it is today. I'm not going to throw it all away."
"I hope that's true," she said before leaving him alone with his thoughts. He hoped it was true too.