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Sudden Cinderella Bundle
By Hope Tarr, Stacy Abrams
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2012 Hope Tarr
All rights reserved.
Offices of On Top Magazine, Midtown Manhattan
September, Six Weeks Earlier
"Graham, I want your ass in my office in ten minutes. Ten minutes — got it?" Over the crackle of intercom static, Starr's pissed voice reverberated off the framed magazine cover blow-ups blanketing the walls of Macie's office.
Macie opened her mouth to answer, "Sure thing," just as the line clicked dead. Her managing editor had just hung up on her. Could a pink slip be far behind?
She jerked open a desk drawer and searched inside for something to kill the headache hammering her skull, the double whammy of too many dirty martinis in celebration of Labor Day the night before and being blindsided that morning by her latest ballsy editorial decision blowing up in her face. No aspirin, just her luck — but there was a travel-size bottle of Pepto-Bismol. Loosening the child safety cap almost cost a sculpted nail, but once she had it off, she brought the bottle to her lips and knocked back a soothing bubblegum pink swallow.
Setting the antacid aside, she faced her computer screen, loathing bubbling up like bile. "You ... asshole!"
The asshole, conservative media pundit Ross Mannon, smiled back at her from the webcast she'd paused in mid-play. With his cropped dark blond hair, chiseled features, and cerulean blue eyes, it didn't take much imagination to recognize why the female Newsweek reporter had dubbed him the Robert Redford of the Right.
The Texas sociologist had made national headlines the year before by publicizing his research study showing a strong positive correlation between the hours American teens spent online and their likelihood to engage in a laundry list of high-risk behaviors, including unprotected intercourse. The conservative media had latched onto the study's findings like a starved leech let loose inside a Red Cross blood bank. Within a week, "Dr. Ross" was making guest appearances on national news talk shows, decrying the country's "culture of part-time parenting couched in denial and politically correct double speak." Six months ago, he'd landed his own daily weekday radio program broadcast from the nation's capital. Currently, three hundred radio stations around the country had picked up "The Ross Mannon Hour" as part of their regular programming, and the show's website pulled in around 100,000 visits per day.
Until now, Macie had left Mannon alone. On Top might run some pretty candid — okay, in-your-face — copy, but taking on the latest conservative media messiah qualified as just plain stupid.
It was Mannon who'd put the kibosh on their peaceful coexistence. He'd gotten his hands on a copy of On Top's current issue, spotted Macie's feature article on the growing number of parents opting to prevent unwanted pregnancies by putting their teenage daughters on birth control before they had sex — "Forget the Fairy Tale. Teen Sex is Fact, Not Fiction" — and made the magazine the target of that morning's "Ross's Rant." He'd ended by giving out On Top's website, mailing address, and toll-free phone number, urging his listeners to make their voices heard. Within minutes the magazine's overloaded server had crashed and the switchboard had lit up like a billboard in Times Square.
Along with the phone calls, which had ranged from hostile to deranged, there'd been e-mails to the corporate Powers That Be denouncing Macie's article as trash. Macie hadn't really worried much about that. On Top's readership and Ross Mannon's radio audience were planets apart, a separate species of entertainment news consumer. But when a major advertising account, Beauté, a manufacturer of high-end hair care products targeting the "tween" to teen market, pulled the ad spread they ran in every issue, citing the morals clause in their contract and concerns over branding and corporate image, well, that was another story.
She clicked her mouse to maximize the clip. Mannon's blond head and broad shoulders filled her screen, and for a crazy few seconds she forgot why she was supposed to hate him. More than his looks, though, there was something in his eyes that brought to mind long-forgotten fairy tale fantasies about knights in shining armor, princes capable of bringing you back to life with a single, petal-soft kiss, and True Love, forever-after love, the kind of Big Love that outlasted a single sexy weekend or hot hook-up night — only, of course, it didn't really exist.
All that perfection had to be a smokescreen, a front. Picture-perfect types like Mannon invariably had a less than storybook behind-the-scenes. He was altogether too good-looking, too hot to be living the squeaky-clean life of a contemporary Prince Charming. His website bio, pared down to a smattering of innocuous factoids, stood out as a big friggin' red flag. Born and raised in Paris, Texas. A football scholarship to the University of North Texas, where he'd stayed on to earn a PhD. One daughter, Samantha, but no mention of a wife, which almost certainly meant he was divorced. Hypocrite! Do a little digging and the frog hanging out inside the pretty boy prince would leap to the surface. Just give her the chance, the access, and she could blow Mannon's cover — she knew it.
It was all about the access.
She pulled at the ends of her waist-length hair, now straightened and colored jet black, and clicked on the pause button to pick up where she'd left off viewing the video.
Mannon's deep-timbered Texas drawl blared from her Boston speakers. "Folks, I don't usually bring up personal stuff on the air, but I'm gonna go ahead and make an exception. Looks like my fifteen-year-old daughter, Samantha, is going to be living with me twenty-four-seven for the foreseeable future, and the plain truth is I'm not much of a cook or a housekeeper ... "
The plain truth. Ha! I'll bet you wouldn't recognize the truth if it bit you on your uptight ass.
"But what my Sam needs more than any of those things, even more than someone to chauffeur her around — and believe me, that kid's schedule is packed tighter than the president's — is a role model, a lady who models the kind of core values we talk about on this show."
Macie fought the urge to gag. Poor kid. Sight unseen, she felt an affinity with Mannon's daughter, whose situation struck her as eerily similar to her own childhood. It hadn't been easy growing up as a precocious free-spirit. But when you were born to people — trolls — whose idea of parenting meant crushing independent thought at every turn, holding onto your self-worth, not to mention your sanity, was a constant struggle.
"Last Sunday," Mannon continued, "I ran an ad in the Washington Times online. 'Wanted: woman with old-fashioned values to serve as live-in housekeeper, child care provider, and female role model for precocious fifteen-year-old girl. Salary and benefits negotiable; values firm.' You'd think ad copy like that would make it pretty clear what type of person I'm looking for, and yet would you believe I must have interviewed a dozen applicants this past week, and the last one showed up with green hair and a nose ring?"
Macie slid a hand over her stomach, feeling the small gold belly button hoop below her cropped body-hugging black angora sweater, and listened on.
"Okay, that's enough about my domestic issues. This show is first and foremost about you. If any of you listening out there have a topic you'd like us to address in a future Ross's Rant, shoot me an e-mail and put 'Rant' in the subject header. Again, that's r-o-s-s at r-o-s-s-m-a-n-n-o-n dot com."
Macie stared at the screen, feeling as if steam must be jetting out of her ears. Pretty clever — make that devious — getting his listeners to come up with the content for his upcoming broadcasts. Slacker!
She had her middle finger pointed to the ceiling when it hit her. Holy shit, it really was all about the access. Mannon had just handed her the proverbial keys to the kingdom.
Adrenaline pumping, she signed off from the On Top local area network and logged on to her personal account. Typing Mannon's e-mail address into the Send box took balls, but still, it was the easy part. Crafting a message he would buy was trickier. Sticking to the K.I.S.S. rule, Keep It Simple, Stupid, she pounded out a few simple sentences aimed at balancing the requisite background information with just enough bait. She read it over one last time, clicked Send, and darted a look at the chrome-encased wall clock. 4:28. Two minutes to spare — damn, I'm good.
She shoved her feet into her Jimmy Choo platform sling-backs, grabbed her iPhone, and shot up from the desk. Stepping out into the neon-lit hallway, she pulled the office door closed behind her. Fairy tales were for kids. Exposing a fake prince for his true frog self — real grownup life didn't pack more magical mojo than that.
* * *
Watergate Towers, Northwest Washington DC
"Sam, I'm home." Ross Mannon stepped inside the condo foyer and pulled the door closed behind him. He wasn't ordinarily home by five p.m., but then this had been a special day.
No answer came, not that he'd really expected one, but the backpack dumped by the door told him that Samantha was home. Still, the place was so quiet an ice cube cracking would have sounded like a siren. Ice wasn't far from the truth, either. His daughter was dishing out the classic cold shoulder treatment — and he was definitely being served.
He dropped his keys on the marble-top foyer table and headed down the beige-carpeted hallway to her bedroom, the scene of his latest parental crime cop bust. Her door was closed — no big surprise there. His fourth knuckle-bruising knock finally brought her to answer it.
She opened it a crack, just enough for him to make out one watery eye and a sliver of pink-rimmed nose. Shit, she'd been crying. Call me Father of the Year — not! "What do you want now?"
Taking a breath, he reminded himself he was the adult in this situation. "You and I have some talking to do."
The door widened another notch, revealing a ribbon of stiffened upper lip and a sliver of white wire from her iPod headphones. "I don't feel like it."
"Feel like it or not, we're going to settle this thing once and for all. Be in my study in five minutes or you're grounded for the week."
She backed up and drew the door closed on what skirted a slam.
So much for starting fresh.
Feeling as exhausted as if he'd just butted heads with Rita Mae Brown, Ross turned and headed down the hall to his study, his sanctuary in an apartment that otherwise felt too super-sized, too sleekly trendy, and entirely too beige to ever really suit him. That's what came of hiring an interior designer, he supposed. At least he'd stuck to his guns and kept her out of his study. The room's mission-style furnishings, terra cotta colors, and Navaho woven rug were purely him ... as were his books, leather-bound editions of American literary classics from Nathaniel Hawthorne to Mark Twain to Arthur Miller, all of which he'd had shipped from his ranch back in Texas. After six months in the city, the study still smelled slightly of ... home.
A stab of homesickness struck. Determined to ignore it, he stepped behind the desk, took out his computer, and hit the power button. Logging on and scrolling through his e-mail inbox, he promised himself that unlike the magazine mishap that morning, which he'd bungled badly, he wouldn't lose his head. If the kid was angry, then let her be angry. Any emotion, even rage, was preferable to the smoldering silence she dished out most days.
A huff drew his gaze to the door. Sam stood on the threshold, one bare foot braced out in the hallway as though she was already planning her exit strategy, her escape.
In a single glance, he took in her mousse-spiked hair, belly-baring T-shirt, and low-rise jeans and felt his parental self-esteem sinking like the Titanic. His baby girl, where had she gone, and who was this sullen, slouching stranger? Heavy black liner rimmed angry blue eyes, taking him back to the month before when she'd shown up in the lobby of his Watergate condominium post midnight, a backpack slung over one bony shoulder and rivulets of mascara running like muddy rivers down her cheeks.
"I'm not going back to Mom's, and you can't make me," were the first words out of her mouth, her chin — shaped just like her mother's — pointed due north.
He hadn't been sure what to do first: shake the shit out of her for talking to him like that or hug her because she was, after all, safe and not lying dead in a Dumpster. He'd opted for the hug, squared things with the doorman, and then hurried her upstairs to his apartment. As soon as he'd closed the door behind them, her tough-girl exterior crumbled like a cookie.
"Oh, Daddy ..." she cried in that little girl voice he remembered so well, the voice that not only pulled on his heartstrings but threatened to snap them clean through.
And that's when he'd known Sam wasn't just acting out. For her to run away, something had gone wrong, very wrong, back in New York.
Just when he sensed she was on the brink of opening up to him, his BlackBerry belted out the first few bars to Madonna's "Material Girl," the ringtone he'd assigned to his ex-wife, Francesca.
Sam had closed up like a clam. Sobbing, she made a beeline for his spare bedroom, the one earmarked for her when she came to stay.
The opportunity lost, Ross picked up the call. "Frannie, listen up. Sam's here. She's safe." He spent the next thirty minutes calming her down while trying to figure out what had gone so terribly wrong
Only, Frannie was clueless, too, which scared the crap out of him. Until now, his ex had always been the cool parent, the confidante, the cross between a best friend and a big sister. If she was in the dark, then whatever had gone wrong with Sam wasn't small. It was major. Learning that she'd apparently shoplifted a bullshit charm bracelet a few weeks before had stunned him to his core.
"How the hell did that happen?" he'd demanded. "And why am I just hearing about it now?"
"Don't interrogate me, Ross," Frannie snapped, her British sangfroid on the cusp of a major meltdown. "I know you think I'm a bloody poor parent but — "
"That's not true."
Frannie was no Mrs. Cleaver, that was for damned sure, but she loved Sam with all her heart. He might disapprove of her travel schedule and crazy work hours — he did disapprove — but she was a good mom. And a kid, a girl especially, needed her mother, which was why he hadn't fought for shared custody, settling instead for seeing Sam during summers and every other holiday.
He drew a deep breath and dropped his voice. "Look, whatever went wrong for Samantha went down in New York, and it's obvious she sees DC and my apartment as her haven — for now, anyway. Let me get her calmed down, enroll her in school here, and see what happens. Just before you called, she was close to confiding in me. I could feel it."
That last statement had won Francesca over. In the end, they'd agreed he would keep Sam with him, but only until the winter break. In the meantime, he had his work cut out for him. He hadn't been a full-time parent for years. Hell, he hadn't been much of a part-time one, either. Still, he'd always thought his relationship with his daughter was pretty solid. Staring at her now, he admitted he'd been kidding himself. Just how well did he really know her? What was she into? Who were her friends? What were her plans for the future, her dreams? Did she even have any? More than the all-black clothing and the tongue stud, it was the dull, dead look in her eyes that had him worrying. Just last summer she'd seemed so bright-eyed, so ... happy.
Excerpted from Sudden Cinderella Bundle by Hope Tarr, Stacy Abrams. Copyright © 2012 Hope Tarr. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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