Twenty-four-year-old Jen Reid had her life in good shape: an okay job, a tiny-cute Seattle apartment, and a great boyfriend almost ready to get serious. In a flash it all came apart. Single, unemployed, and holding an eviction notice, who has time to remember trying out for a reality show? Then the call comes, and Jen sees her chance to start over—by spending her summer on national TV.
Luckily The Fishbowl is all about puzzles and games, the kind of thing Jen would love even if she wasn’t desperate. The cast checks all the boxes: cheerful, quirky Birdie speaks in hashtags; vicious Ariana knows just how to pout for the cameras; and corn-fed “J-dawg” plays the cartoon villain of the house. Then there’s Justin, the green-eyed law student who always seems a breath away from kissing her. Is their attraction real, or a trick to get him closer to the $250,000 grand prize? Romance or showmance, suddenly Jen has a lot more to lose than a summer . . .
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
America's Next Reality Star
Reality Star Series
By Laura Heffernan
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2017 Laura Heffernan
All rights reserved.
DO YOU WANT TO WIN $250,000? ARE YOU OUTGOING, VIVACIOUS, AND ENGAGING? DO YOU ALWAYS HAVE TO BE RIGHT? DO YOU LOVE PUZZLES AND TRIVIA? DO YOU USUALLY FIND YOURSELF SURROUNDED BY LESS INTELLIGENT PEOPLE? WE'RE LOOKING FOR SMART, SPUNKY 21 TO 25-YEAR-OLDS, FOR AN EXCITING NEW REALITY COMPETITION FILMING THIS SUMMER! E-MAIL STEPHANIE WITH YOUR NAME, AGE, 2-4 PICS, AND A LITTLE ABOUT YOURSELF FOR MORE INFORMATION.
I huddled at my desk, wrapping a blanket over my hoodie. Maybe one day management would trust employees to turn the heat above sixty degrees. Until that glorious day, I held my caffeine molecule-painted mug close to my body, futilely trying to gain warmth from the steam pouring off the top. The coffee tasted like pencil shavings and feet; drinking it wasn't an option.
With my right hand, I scrolled through my Facebook newsfeed, scanning the jokes, cartoons, and mindless banter. It was against the rules, but everyone did it. "Marketing assistant" apparently was code for "exhausting bursts of activity punctuated with lots of sitting around." The irony wasn't lost on me. After working insanely long days all week to include last-minute changes on a major project, I appreciated a few hours' break while my boss reviewed it. The craziness would start again soon enough. I turned up the volume on my computer to project my music over the howling November storm. My toes tapped the linoleum floor.
A message popped up at the bottom of my screen, informing me of a new email. I hit alt-tab to switch programs, expecting the feedback I needed before starting my workday.
No such luck.
It was Seattle General Hospital's billing department. "Dear Ms. Reid, Thank you for your payment ..."
Silently, I cursed them for the reminder.
If only the debt could be erased with the same easy click that sent the message to trash. I'd been in perfect health during my high school and college years. So, naturally, my ankle broke a week before my insurance with McCain & Webster kicked in while showing off my impression of Miley Cyrus's latest MTV Music Awards performance. When I slipped on the wet grass and fell, they'd laughed until my tears started. No one realized the fall wasn't part of the act.
Despite my efforts to tough it out ("Unless the bone sticks through the skin, it's fine!"), my boyfriend had dragged me to an Urgent Care facility. Dominic swore it would be affordable. He was half-right: urgent care might have been cheaper than an ER, but the necessary surgery to reset the bone cost a lot. My eyes crossed at the first bill. With my salary, this stupid thing would haunt me until my unborn kids graduated high school. To add insult to (literal) injury, I couldn't figure out how to turn off the automatic e-mails they sent every month.
I peeked at the empty desk behind me. My officemate would've told me to pretend to work until I got my next assignment. However, he'd left to bond with his newborn daughter. For the next eleven weeks, three days, our tiny office belonged solely to me. I'd been freed from Pete's obnoxious laughter, disapproving looks, and fried fish lunches. With my hall monitor gone and nothing work-related to do for the moment, I checked the bankruptcy qualifications — again — before clicking back to Facebook.
Wait a minute. What was that?
An old college drama professor posted an ad that caught my eye.
A reality show designed for smart people? How intriguing.
Voices buzzed outside my closed door. I glanced nervously over one shoulder. Being located next to the kitchen had its perks, but sometimes I couldn't tell if people were about to burst in on me or just picked an unfortunate spot to gossip.
After deciding my coworkers had gathered to make an early lunch, I read the description again.
DO YOU WANT TO WIN $250,000?
It sure beat filing for bankruptcy. There would probably be enough left to go back to school and get a degree in something more interesting. Or maybe put a down payment on a place bigger than a shoebox.
ARE YOU OUTGOING, VIVACIOUS, AND ENGAGING?
Well, I liked to think so. All through grade school, I took it upon myself to reach out to new students and make them feel welcome. Now, I hosted parties to celebrate big and small holidays. And I had no problem striking up conversations with random people on the Metro.
DO YOU ALWAYS HAVE TO BE RIGHT?
Hmm. I didn't have to be right, but I frequently was. I happened to have a good memory. Being able to repeat anything I'd heard came in handy during trivia, mostly. And basement bar debates. Maybe I'd found another use for it.
DO YOU LOVE PUZZLES AND TRIVIA?
Did owning four themed copies of Trivial Pursuit or spending Metro rides playing Pic-a-Pix and Hashi on my phone count?
DO YOU USUALLY FIND YOURSELF SURROUNDED BY LESS INTELLIGENT PEOPLE?
I didn't judge other people. But, I competed on the math and science teams in high school. Some people (those who'd met me) would've said I was kind of a geek. I hoped the show considered that a bonus, since it did nothing for my social life. I didn't go on a single date until my junior year of college.
WE'RE LOOKING FOR SMART, SPUNKY 21 TO 25-YEAR-OLDS.
I was a twenty-one to twenty-five-year-old. Twenty-three, to be exact, turning twenty-four in a few weeks.
As I read through the ad yet again, the little voice in the back of my head piped up. You should do this, it said. E-mail them.
What? That was silly. I wasn't an actress — marketing and academics were my bag.
The little voice spoke again. I did love puzzles. I was good at them. The money would be extremely useful. Plus, I couldn't remember my last vacation.
My boyfriend worked as a traveling nurse, which made him less-than-enthusiastic about taking trips with me when he wasn't away on an assignment. I understood. Still, it would be nice to get away, even on my own. What was the time commitment for something like this?
I needed more information before making a decision.
Before I could chicken out, my fingers opened a new e-mail and began to type as if of their own accord.
My name is Jennifer Reid, and I'm writing to request more information about your puzzle-based reality show. It sounds like something right up my alley. I'm 23 years old. I live in beautiful Seattle, Washington. It's important to me to live life to the fullest and to grab opportunities when they present themselves.
Since I was a little girl, I've loved puzzles. I chose a career in marketing because I like figuring out what the consumer wants and how to give it to them.
Can you send me more information about the show and when you're looking for someone? Thank you for your time.
Best, Jennifer Reid
Next step, pictures. Which ones to attach? Something showing my face, obviously. But also something fun.
Thanks to the Internet, essentially every picture of me taken over the past six years sat at my fingertips. Thanks to my older brother, Adam, some older and more embarrassing pictures were also there. I bypassed those. The casting director didn't need to see me, at ten, with chocolate cake smeared across my face or four-year-old me waving a cape as I pranced around in Wonder Woman panties, a pink tiara atop blond hair that hadn't yet darkened with age. Thanks, Adam. Twelve-year-old Jen's first attempts at wearing makeup also didn't need to be shared with the world. What had made me think purple eye shadow smeared up to my forehead brought out my blue eyes?
Thanks, Adam, for posting my diving meet pictures where anyone can see them.
It only took a few minutes to find what I wanted. A few years ago, my friends and I went bungee jumping. Someone under the bridge snapped each of us as we took the plunge. My picture showed me falling through the air, head tilted back, arms spread, pure joy on my face.
I had no idea how they caught that expression. I'd been terrified, thought I was going to pee my pants. My breakfast had climbed into my throat, and I'd tamped it down using sheer willpower.
There must be a split second of bliss a person experiences between "Oh, please God, I don't want to die!" and "Why am I doing this?" They happened to click the picture at exactly the right time.
Another great one showed the mess I created trying to cook Dominic dinner for his twenty-fifth birthday (before ordering birthday takeout), but the image focused on the burnt paella, not me. Then I found the perfect shot. While on a trip to New York City, I'd found a sign reading, "This is a library. Quite, please!" My head tilted toward the sign, mouth twisted into a grimace. One hand underlined the word "quite."
I attached it to the e-mail, along with the bungee picture and a regular close-up. Before stopping to consider any potential consequences of my actions, I took a deep breath and hit "send."
* * *
A few hours later, my keys jingled as I struggled to unlock my front door. Rainwater dripped from shopping bags balanced on one raised knee. My purse dug into my armpit as I pushed against my apartment door. It stuck. Again. I braced myself against the jamb. One good shove usually did the trick.
My phone, cradled between my chin and shoulder, beeped, startling me. Bags, purse, and umbrella crashed to the floor. An orange rolled out of one bag and down the hall.
As I scrambled to pick everything up, the door swung open. I tensed for a second before my boyfriend's voice sounded from the doorway.
"Oops. So ... you got my text?" He crouched beside me and gathered bags.
"Only if it said, 'Hey! Drop everything!'"
As always, seeing Dominic brought a smile to my face. Although we still crouched in the hallway, I leaned over and kissed him.
When we separated, garlic and basil scents wafted by my nose.
Dominic stood and pushed his wavy black hair out of his face with one hand. "Actually, it said, 'When are you going to be home? I have a surprise for you.'"
A grin stretched across my face. He knew how I loved surprises. "You know, you're not supposed to use your key to jump out and scare me."
"What? That's half the fun." His hands now full of my stuff, Dominic stepped through the door, holding it open as he nodded toward the interior. "After you, gorgeous."
As soon as I entered my four-hundred-square-foot apartment, I spotted the surprise. Freshly baked garlic bread steamed on the two-person wooden table, next to a tossed Caesar salad and spaghetti with homemade meatballs. My mouth watered.
I popped on to my toes and planted a kiss on his cheek. "You are the best boyfriend ever."
"I know. I'm having a T-shirt made."
Dominic's lips hovered over mine. My arms wrapped around his neck, and I rose up to meet him before allowing myself to sink into the kiss. After a moment, he picked me up and spun me on to the kitchen counter. My legs wrapped around his waist as his hands cupped my face.
God, I loved him.
We'd met my last year in college, when he was a graduate student. I'd been attracted to his rugged good looks and liked that he wasn't clingy or demanding. We had fun together, but he didn't complain when I worked overtime or spent time with my girlfriends. A year later, I'd already caught myself looking at engagement rings.
Er ... just the one time, though. We had plenty of time for that later.
Dominic's hand found the clasp to my bra — we hadn't seen each other in more than a week. However, my body interrupted the kiss by emitting a sound that was less a growl of hunger and more the howl of a wild animal being murdered. Dominic pulled back, gave me one last kiss, then set me on to the floor.
I gazed at the tiles, hoping he didn't see the mortification on my face. "Sorry. I took an early lunch."
"Don't be sorry." With a sweeping bow, he indicated the table. "Your feast awaits."
A piece of garlic bread disappeared into my mouth as I sat, surveying the table. "This looks amazing! Thank you!"
"You're welcome." A slow, lazy smile spread across his face. My stomach flip-flopped. "You've been working so hard, I figured you probably weren't eating right."
I speared a meatball with my fork. "You're a smart man. It's been mostly canned tuna or Lunchables in my office at ten PM."
Dominic shuddered. "Lunchables?"
"Eight days in a row. Luckily, I get a few days' reprieve before it picks up again."
"Ew. You poor thing. Well, I brought a ton of food and Tupperware, so you're set for at least a week."
Reaching across the table, I took his hand in mine and squeezed. My skin tingled at the contact. "Thank you. That helps a lot."
We didn't talk about it, but Dominic knew I couldn't afford to eat well. The fact that he'd gone out of his way to make me lunch for several days sent butterflies fluttering in my belly.
"You're welcome, babe. Next time things get crazy, promise you'll call me so I can bring you a real meal? Or have one delivered so I don't interrupt you?"
Cheesy-noodle-and-marinara-saucy-goodness glued my mouth shut, so I nodded. His twinkling brown eyes captured mine. A spark of lust sent my thoughts away from dinner and on to a more interesting path. Dominic's dilating pupils told me his thoughts followed the same route. I chewed faster as a familiar thrill of anticipation spread through my body.
Dominic's hand wrapped around mine. I pushed the plate away and stood. Our lips met. We didn't quite make it to the bedroom.
The reminder that I had a good thing with Dominic in Seattle pushed my reality show application out of my mind. There were other ways to make extra cash. I arrived at work the next morning dreaming about the next step in our relationship. We'd been dating for over a year, and he'd had a key to my apartment for months. I'd have his, too, as soon as I figured out where it had disappeared to, hours after he'd given it to me.
Lost in thought, I walked to my desk and opened my e-mail. A new message appeared from someone named Stephanie Long. Who? I didn't know anyone named Stephanie.
Subject: Re: Casting call.
Oh. My. God.
My heart beat faster.
Thank you so much for your interest in our new series. The Fishbowl is a fast-paced reality show with physical and mental challenges to push the contestants on every level. What makes this different from other shows is that viewers vote on aspects of the game. With things always changing, you'll never know what to expect!
Filming will start at the beginning of June. We estimate that contestants could be on the show as few as a couple of days or as long as ten weeks.
Our team is interviewing applicants across the country now. We'll be in Seattle next week and would love to meet you. Please call my assistant at 323-555-1258 to set up an interview.
The viewers would tell us what to do? On live television? Huh. What if they made us eat bugs? I'd have to ask the interviewer. But otherwise — up to three months in LA? New people and new experiences? It sounded interesting, but I wasn't sure I could afford to take that much time away from work. Or my boyfriend.
On the other hand, it would be fun to surprise Dominic if I made the show. And our relationship had never been stronger. We could handle time apart. Between my overtime and his traveling to care for patients, we didn't exactly hang out every day.
Hey, honey, your girlfriend's going to win loads of money on a reality show so we can buy a house ...
I reached to call Stephanie's assistant practically before I finished reading.
* * *
On Wednesday morning, I showed up at the address they'd given me. Peeling paint, boarded up windows, and several "Space for Rent" signs against a backdrop of drizzle and gray morning light welcomed me. Trash spilled out of the can next to the front door. A rat scurried away down an alley. It seemed odd to think my fate might lie within this dilapidated building.
Sure, Jen, lots of women's fates lie in old, run-down buildings. But is that the way you want to go?
I double-checked the address on my phone. Google informed me I stood in the right spot. As I hesitated, remembering that guy who picked up women on Craigslist and murdered them, the front door opened. A girl about my age walked out wearing red tights and a blue shirt that didn't look as much like a dress as she must've thought. Sunglasses covered the top half of her face, so I couldn't tell if she noticed me as she tottered past on five inch turquoise heels, chatting on her phone.
Excerpted from America's Next Reality Star by Laura Heffernan. Copyright © 2017 Laura Heffernan. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.