New York PR executive Eva Ward just won a lavish wedding on the nation’s hottest morning show—only to have her fiancé back out on-air. Then cameraman Aidan Walker makes sure her private meltdown goes viral. The only way she can save face is to star in a new “find-a-groom” reality segment. But finding Mr. Right in one month means ignoring her handsome new producer—none other than Aidan himself—and getting their undeniable attraction out of her system…
Eva soon finds there's a lot more to Aidan than his good looks and freewheeling charm. Getting closer isn’t easy with off-camera politics and on-air suitors constantly in the way. And when secrets from Aiden’s past come to light, Eva wonders if they’re simply too different to ever trust each other. So now it's time for Eva to not only flip the script, but write in a few twists no one will see coming.
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Insert Groom Here
By K.M. Jackson
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2017 Kwana Jackson
All rights reserved.
"I can't marry you."
Eva Ward knew words were being murmured over her shoulder, but for the life of her she couldn't quite make them out. The red light above the camera transfixed her, and Kevin's voice sounded like it came from somewhere far away, as if from down a long corridor. To top things off, she was fighting a chill. The temperature in the blasted television studio had to be set at fifty degrees at the highest. Eva thought about the frigid air a moment and hoped the cold didn't show on her face — or, lord help her — anywhere else on her anatomy. That would be all she needed, for her nipples to make a surprise appearance on national morning television. Eva pushed back a frown as she brought her thoughts back to that blasted red light and Kevin. Okay, focus time. What is he going on about?
"I can't marry you," Kevin repeated, and Eva blinked.
"Wait. What?!" Jim Bauer, The Morning Show's co-host, took Eva's confused thoughts and echoed them out loud, punctuated with his usual everyman laugh. But this was a bad time to laugh. In fact, it was the absolute worst time to laugh. "I don't think we heard you correctly, Kevin. It sounded for a moment like you were calling off the wedding."
Eva fought to keep her smile in place as Kevin turned from her to Jim. "That's right, Jim. I am."
She blinked again as the words really begin to sink in. He is calling off what? Anger bubbled up, heating Eva more quickly than could possibly be safe. She caught another glimpse of the red light and forced herself to push it back down. Hold on there. This is not the time to go off the rails, Eva told herself. She could do this. She'd practiced being on live TV, and she'd been put on the spot plenty of times. She was trained for these moments. Media relations was her job, for chrissake.
Eva pulled her attention away from the maddening red light that reminded her millions of people were watching this debacle over their morning coffee and toast. Instead, she plastered on a well-trained smile and focused on what her fiancé, Kevin, and the talk show's co-hosts were now saying. But try as she might, she couldn't wrap her head around the words as they trickled toward her in dribs and drabs.
Something about being "confused," Kevin said. "Just not the right time," he went on. And wait, did she really hear the words "moving too fast"?
Hold up, this was madness! It was as if she was having some sort of odd bout of both inner and out-of-body experience, and she couldn't get the two to gel. But she had to, because Kevin was talking about her as if she wasn't there, sitting by his side on TV. National freaking TV! It was time to take control of the situation.
Eva blinked again, her lashes feeling thick and gloppy from the extra coats of mascara plus the individual false lashes the makeup woman had put on her that morning. She had thought they were a bit much at the time. Now she was afraid that with all the ridiculous blinking she was doing, she probably looked like Bambi gone drag. Eva forced her eyes wide, as if that would somehow make her appear saner, and stared at Kevin. Oh hell, Mr. Smooth was starting to sweat, despite the fact that if it was two degrees colder, you'd be able to see your breath as you welcomed Satan into the studio. His sleek, ultra-groomed, dark cocoa skin was starting to glisten, and Eva now noticed a hint of fear in his eyes.
Eva's heart raced, but despite this, she caught Kevin's eye and gave him a smile that she hoped said, "Come on, honey, don't lose your cool now," as she reached over and gave his hand a pat. She could do this. Just a little damage control, and she'd reel this right in.
Eva turned to her other side and looked at Diane Parker, one of The Morning Show's other co-hosts, but Diane's blue eyes only seemed to mirror Eva's own internal confusion.
Just perfect. No help from blondie.
So Eva turned her gaze to Jim. Good ol' Jim. Surely Mr. All America would help save the day. But in that moment, a clear sound finally reached Eva's ears, punctuated by good ol' Jim's good ol' laugh. The loud, false pang rang against her eardrums. "Har, har! Good one, Kevin," Jim said, as Eva took in the obvious tension playing around the corners of his mouth, causing some of his pancake makeup to crease. "Of course you're joking."
"No, Jim, I'm not," Kevin said, his voice clear, strong, and surprisingly absolute as he turned Eva's way. "I'm sorry, Eva. I can't go through with this."
Despite her best efforts at bracing, Eva winced as the words penetrated. The full impact hit her like a crosstown bus trying to make up for lost time.
This was not happening. It couldn't be happening. Not here. Not now. Not to her.
But Kevin continued, his voice getting higher with each word. The more his lips moved and the words washed over her, the more of a blur he became. His handsome features, smooth skin, close-cropped hair, fine button-down oxford shirt, new three-button jacket, pocket square — all becoming a washed-out mass of swirly rejection under the bright studio lights. For a moment, Eva felt like she might be sick, so she bent her head, her gaze hitting Kevin's highly polished leather shoes. The ones that she had picked up for him last week so he would be perfect for their big television appearance this morning. Eva felt her chest tighten as her throat squeezed shut.
"I really am sorry, babe. But I can't do it. It's all too much, and I've realized I'm not ready to get married."
It was like a physical blow. Like he had kicked her in the gut while wearing the shoes she paid for.
Eva's head snapped up then, away from the shoes and away from Kevin too. She saw the camera and the red light as it flashed before her like a beacon. She shut her eyes for a moment and thought once again about how many people watched this while they sipped their morning coffee and ate their sugar-toasted oats. What were they thinking as they stared at the seemingly normal-looking woman in her pink twinset and sharply pleated skirt? Damn it, she was wearing her grandmother's pearls. How does one go about getting dumped in heirloom pearls?
The nausea twisted at her again, and Eva had the distinct feeling that her normally caramel-hued skin was probably taking on a green cast to match the bile now churning in her belly. She wondered if the color would be picked up and broadcast in HD. Now there was ideal breakfast entertainment for you.
And then it hit her, and her worry doubled. Practically tripled. Shit. Her mother was watching this. Watching and most likely fuming. She could imagine the look on Valerie Ward's face right now. She was sure to be yelling into a phone right that moment to have her assistant and the rest of the staff come in early to get started on damage control. The thought sent Eva over the edge. Probably even more than experiencing disappointment herself, she hated the idea of letting her mother down. She'd had enough of that in her life, and though she came off as a human fire-breather, Eva knew it was mostly a mask to cover past hurts.
Not ready to get married.
Kevin's words echoed through Eva's head, along with visions of her mother's impending tirade, and she felt the heat rise. First, it was a burning in the soles of her feet, then it licked up her legs, moving on to radiate through her stomach before finally making its way to her face.
She paused, her breathing virtually stopping a moment as the stomach churning turned to a full-on boil. Was this bastard really breaking up with her on national television merely months, hell, practically weeks, before her perfectly planned wedding?
Eva finally turned and looked at Kevin, fighting hard to keep her emotions in line. She laughed. A belly laugh that would make even ol' Jim proud. It's a joke. It has to be. Diane and Jim cautiously joined her in the chuckle and bolstered her spirits. Whew. She couldn't believe she'd almost fallen for it. Of course, Kevin would never do that to her. He also had too much riding on this marriage. Too much riding on them. It must have been some silly producer thing. They were always doing something to try and jack up the ratings. And she played along and fell for it, for a moment. She should have known it was a stunt. What better fodder for the gossip mill and ratings than an on-air breakup and makeup from America's, at least for the moment, sweetheart couple? But Kevin knew how important this was. How much this wedding meant to her. To them and their future. Both personally and professionally. But he had been a fool to go for it in the first place and not let her in on the joke.
Eva strained out a smile. "Funny. But come on, sweetie. Joke's over," she said. "Now tell me you were just playing." She turned to the camera and raised a perfectly arched brow. "Tell America you were playing. We will be married and have our dream wedding right here on The Morning Show courtesy of Tied Knot Style and Bliss." Eva smiled wide. Her mother would appreciate the advertiser tie-in. One never missed out on the opportunity to thank a sponsor. It was a cardinal rule of marketing. Always keep the sponsors happy and coming back to write another check.
But instead of laughing with her and getting in on the joke, good ol' Jim clammed up and flipped through his blue cards, looking confused, and Diane, well, she was still a grinning zero as she nodded in a bobble headed way that couldn't quite be declared for or against the joke theory. And wait, was that sweat on her brow now too? Holy hell.
Eva looked back at Kevin for reassurance, and he shrugged. The bastard shrugged!
"I really am sorry, Eva. You know I always cared for you."
Cared? Did he say cared? A rock thudded where her heart was supposed to be. Cared. As in, what you do for your late grandmother, as in how you felt about your childhood dog. Cared, "ed," as in past tense?
Kevin turned to the camera and laid on that old Kevin charm, looking ever so innocent and sincere. "I'm, um, sorry, America. I'd like to apologize to you too. And this is not Eva's fault. It's all me."
Jim piped in, "Well, I'm not really sure what to say here. We'll, well, take a commercial break and be right back?" He then held his ear and with an awkward look turned to Eva. "Oh, uh, I really am sorry; it seems we can't go to commercial. Not for ninety more seconds." Jim gave Eva a look that said, "Tough break, kid."
Eva bit her lip and tried to steady her breathing, since her heart was beating so hard and fast she was sure the mics must be picking up every erratic thump. Crap! In ninety seconds, she was sure to be dead from humiliation.
Diane shifted her eyes away before speaking to the camera. Her voice took on a funereal tone. "We are truly sad to hear of this development. We were all looking forward to your wedding. But I guess now, given the circumstances, and as per the rules of the competition, we'll have to choose another couple." Diane smiled and changed her voice on a dime. "Luckily, we still have Sherri and Brad from Des Moines, who are our runner-up couple. Hey, as they say, it's for the best to find out before the marriage that the two of you don't suit. Don't you think?"
Just perfect. It's now that she turns into a freaking all-star chatterbox, spouting rules and crap.
The word came out before Eva could stop to think about what she was saying.
"Excuse me?" Diane asked, her wispy brows drawing together. "Maybe you didn't hear what Kevin said. He does not want to marry you."
Eva shot Diane a look that said Thanks, but no thanks for the clarification, then turned back to Kevin as he piped up again.
"Yes, Eva." Kevin put his hand across her forearm. "What are you talking about? I said I won't marry you. There won't be a wedding." He rubbed his hand gently across her forearm. Eva looked down at it, not knowing if it was supposed to be comforting or controlling. It didn't matter.
It wasn't either.
She looked up at him, eyes blazing, and jerked her arm away. Then, catching the red light out of the corner of her eye, Eva thought briefly of her mother, before giving Kevin a huge smile that would probably make the most venomous snake proud. "I don't give a damn what you said. I will have my wedding with or without you." It was like a fire had ignited and was rushing through her veins, threatening to burn out of control.
Kevin pulled back, shaking his head. "Eva, come on. Stop, you're not making sense." Then he lowered his voice to a stage whisper, as if the mics still couldn't pick him up. "Plus you're embarrassing yourself."
For the second time that morning, Eva laughed inappropriately on national TV. Goody, maybe hysterics are setting in. She supposed it was natural, given the circumstances.
"Oh, really? Tell me, how can I embarrass myself any more than you already have? Freaking all of America is watching my national dumpation!" She waved her hands wildly in a gesture to the studio. Beyond them there were multiple cameras and overhead lights, and you could see the silhouettes of the burly cameramen nodding their heads in the distance. Behind Eva, Jim, Diane, and Kevin was a large window with people jockeying for their moment of fame, holding up signs saying hi to mom. Eva blew a guy in a cheese hat a kiss when he made an obscene gesture toward his crotch.
She turned back to Kevin and nodded. "See there! I'm already fielding promising offers."
A mumble of laughter traveled throughout the studio. Kevin looked down at the floor. Coward. She should have known he wasn't up to the challenge when she had to push him to retake the bar exam. No, he was ready, after one little setback, to squander it all and spend his life living between her couch and his rich stepfather's bungalow, making it party-hopping off his good looks and charm. Well, no more.
Eva jabbed a finger into his chest, and Kevin looked back up. This time satisfaction nipped at her as she saw a glimmer of anger in his eyes. "Six years! I have wasted six years dealing with your wishy-washy indecisiveness, and here we are about at the finish line, and you go and back out now. Stopping in the fourth quarter? Eighth inning? On the last lap? What kind of man are you? Well, I'll tell you. You're the type to use up all the best years a woman has, and then when it's time to commit, you bail." As she said the words, she felt a lump form in her throat and tears well in her eyes.
Oh hell no. There was no way she would let that happen. No way would she let Kevin know he'd gotten to her.
She swallowed and then continued, "Well, I've got news for you. There are plenty of men who I'm sure would be happy to take your place. Just ask Cheese Head." Eva looked back to the window, but Cheese Head was gone. She guessed the cheese was fine, but apparently pointing out your sausage was a bit much for morning TV. She turned back to Kevin and continued, "No matter, I will still have my wedding. You are replaceable. The question is, Who's got next? I will have my wedding! And I'll have it on the date as planned!" She pointed to the empty spot beside her. "All I have to do is just insert groom here!"
It was then that Eva detected a murmur going through the studio. Oh crap. Did she really say what she had just said out loud? She looked up and saw the red light flashing like a beacon out to New York, Chicago, Iowa, and beyond. And did she really just say it to not only Kevin, but to Jim, Diane, and the rest of America?
Eva closed her eyes. Oh God. Please make this a bad dream. It has to be. But when she opened them and focused on everyone around the studio, the same people who had smiled at her with admiration moments ago were all staring at her now like she was the Wicked Witch of the West or someone ready for a straitjacket. Shit. This dream is way too real.
Panicked, Eva jumped off the raised stool; pushing back sharply, she heard it crash to the ground behind her as she ran off the set.
"Well, um, that was spirited. We'll be right back, folks, and in our next half hour, bringing romance back into the kitchen!" The irony of Jim's words almost had Eva cringing as they echoed through the studio's speakers. His ridiculous "Har, har, har" laugh kept time with the clanking of Eva's retreating heels.
Excerpted from Insert Groom Here by K.M. Jackson. Copyright © 2017 Kwana Jackson. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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