When Jen Reid escaped a reality TV cruise with her relationship intact—if not her hair—she swore she was done with the cameras for good. Sure, she and Justin met, had their first kiss, and got engaged with tape rolling, but manufactured drama and ruthless producers have shaken them up more times than she can count. With Jen’s reality-themed bakery just getting started and her brand-new lawyer fiancé in a pile of debt, they’re a long way from glitz and glamour, and that’s fine by Jen. Until the Network calls and tells her that unless she says “I do” to a wedding special, Justin will be out of a job.
Now Jen has two weeks to plan an all-expenses-paid “dream wedding”—and dodge the tricks and traps of a showrunner happy to mess up her future in the name of ratings. Luckily for Jen, she’s got plenty of experience with cake and popcorn. But when real-life drama and reality TV twists collide, the cliffhangers may just follow her right down the aisle . . .
Praise for America’s Next Reality Star
“Smart, witty, and really freaking good, America’s Next Reality Star is a fun read that has you cheering from the first paragraph through the last page. Laura Heffernan spins an entertaining tale, expertly mixing the main character's real life events with the reality show's challenges. With enough drama to not only satisfy fans of reality TV shows, but readers who thrive on a good story with humor and romance, this book is a perfect read.” —Kerry Lonsdale, Wall Street Journal bestselling author
“Reality TV fans, this is your book! Laura Heffernan captures all the drama and over-the-top craziness in this fun and flirty romance.”
—Amy E. Reichert, author of Love, Luck, and Lemon Pie
“America’s Next Reality Star is one sweet, sexy brain-candy read! You won’t be sorry you indulged.” —Leah Marie Brown
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
THE NETWORK requests the honor of your presence at the marriage of their stars AMANDA LEE HUNTLEY
BRADEN ANDERSON Saturday, the tenth of June in the year two thousand seventeen at one o'clock in the afternoon at The Marrying Kind mansion Black tie Invitation required for admission Reception to follow
Unlike most brides, nearly every milestone of my relationship with my future husband, Justin, had been captured on video and broadcast to America as part of season one of The Fishbowl: our growing attraction, our first fight, our first kiss, the proposal. So I shouldn't have been surprised when I answered my phone in the middle of a lull at work to find my favorite reality show producer asking if we wanted to get married on TV.
Shouldn't have been surprised, but Connor's question stopped me in my tracks. I stared at my phone, watching the timer tick upward. Five seconds seemed an eternity. Then ten seconds passed. The bustle of the bakery continued around me, but all I saw was my phone. That timer ticking.
"Jen?" His voice sounded tinny. Far away. With effort, I returned the phone to my ear and found my voice.
"Hold on," I said, ducking through the kitchen and out the back door for some privacy. I didn't want anyone to overhear this conversation. "You want us to get married in Los Angeles? On what, a special episode of The Fishbowl, season three?"
"No, no, no. That season doesn't start filming until July. We want to give you your own show. Jen & Justin's Reality Wedding. J&J's Big Day. Becoming Mrs. Taylor. The title's still a work in progress," he said. "Anyway, we'll film everything: cake tastings, dress fittings, meetings with the officiant. Then we'll film the ceremony in a two-hour special. The viewers will eat it up, and it'll be a great lead-in for The Fishbowl's new season."
While theoretically, having your own reality show sounded awesome, this wasn't my first rodeo. I wasn't sure how I felt about having every last detail of my wedding broadcast to the world. This seemed more personal than solving puzzles or taking a cruise. The stakes were higher. I didn't want the Network interfering in my relationship again.
"Being on TV last time almost broke us up."
"And being on TV the first time brought you together," he said. "You'd never have met if not for the show."
That was true, but when Justin proposed, we both swore to leave the reality TV community behind forever. No more pop-up appearances. No more reality fun runs. Maybe a fundraiser or two for the right charity, but absolutely, positively No More TV Shows.
"I'm sorry, Connor, but we can't. Justin and I have retired our reality show personas."
"Are you sure?"
"I'm afraid so. But I appreciate the thought. And you and Ed better still come to the wedding when we have it." My best friend Ed, The Fishbowl's official runner-up, lived with Connor in Los Angeles, where he'd built a successful stand-up career after our appearances on two reality shows.
"We wouldn't miss it for anything. You sure I can't get you to change your mind?"
"If you want, I can ask Justin to be sure, but I'm guessing the answer is no. I'm sorry."
"What if we offer to pay for everything?"
My ears perked up. "Everything?"
"Including the honeymoon."
Now that was tempting. Sweet Reality, the bakery I co-owned with Justin's sister, Sarah, was doing fine, but we wouldn't be able to afford a real vacation any time soon. People thought we had loads of money because we'd done a reality show, but that couldn't be further from the truth. Most of my Fishbowl winnings went into launching the business. The second show we did, Real Ocean: Caribbean, was only a week. We made almost nothing beyond the free vacation.
Justin was still a first-year associate at his law firm, and we'd spent most of our incomes in the past year on his parents' medical bills and paying down his student loans. To call our wedding budget a shoestring stretched the bounds of the English language. We were on a dental-floss budget, unless we wanted to wait three years to get married. And we could. We could wait for the big, fancy wedding. Or we could have a small ceremony now, and a big, fat vow renewal on our tenth or twenty-fifth anniversary. There were many options. The world was our oyster.
Then another thought struck me. "Wait a sec. The honeymoon? I mean, you're not asking to film the honeymoon, right? Because that would be a hard no."
He laughed. "No, of course not. But we will send you on a two-week tour of Europe, all expenses paid, if that's what you want."
The balloon of hope that had been growing inside me deflated as the reality of those words sank in. "Unless you're also paying someone to run Sweet Reality for me while I'm gone, that could never happen."
It had been bad enough when I'd ducked out for a week to film Real Ocean right before our opening last year, though I'd made it back for the big day. Now, the bakery was thriving, but until we hired a full-time manager, I couldn't disappear for several weeks to film a show and then take a luxurious honeymoon.
Sarah needed me. Sweet Reality needed me. I couldn't walk away from my business less than a year after it opened. Not when we were starting to turn a profit.
Connor sighed heavily into the phone. "Okay, look. I'm not supposed to tell you this. Promise you won't mention it?"
"I'm in a bind here. Remember Braden from the cruise?"
"Sure." Braden had come in third in a baking competition Justin and I helped judge on the show. He'd starred in some dating reality show where he'd winnowed a pack of beautiful women down to one bride, who I hadn't met. We weren't exactly friends, but he'd seemed nice enough.
"Well, this was supposed to be his wedding," Connor said. "The Network has already scheduled everything, and most of it's paid for. He and Amanda broke up last week, so now there's a hole in the TV schedule. I need someone for a wedding-themed reality show, and I haven't been able to come up with anyone else. Besides, you and Justin are perfect. You're reality stars, and you met and got engaged on Network shows. The public has followed your relationship since the beginning."
"I appreciate that, but that's exactly why we'd like some privacy now. We want to start our life together as a married couple away from the public eye."
"I completely understand, Jen, absolutely." He took a deep breath. "But Braden & Amanda's Big Day was my shot at being first associate producer instead of a cameraman or assistant. This is my show. All eyes are on me. If I can't come up with another couple, I'm fired."
A pang of guilt hit me. I didn't want to ruin a friend's career any more than I wanted to ruin my own life. Connor had been a good friend over the past couple of years, but I wasn't sure if his career needs were more important than the health of my relationship. Then a thought hit me. Justin and I weren't the only couple that hooked up on The Fishbowl and stayed together.
"Why don't you and Ed get married? You've been dating as long as me and Justin. Longer, actually, since we never snuck away on the show to make out. And America loves Ed. He's hilarious."
Connor sighed. "I wish. The first gay couple getting married on live TV? It would be amazing. I pitched it, but Leanna shot me down hard."
"Leanna's running this show?" My voice moved toward a range only dogs could hear. "When were you going to mention that?"
He must be desperate to ask me to get involved with that woman again, after she arranged for me to miss the cruise ship from Jamaica, leaving me stranded with my ex-boyfriend while Justin sailed away with my archrival. She only agreed to bring me back aboard after I promised to create more drama. Drama that nearly broke up me and Justin for good.
"After you agreed," he said sheepishly. "But, I swear, I will be your only contact with the network. We've set up the whole thing. You won't see or talk to her at all. She's the show runner, meaning she'll be in the background the entire time, but she'll be dealing with everyone else."
"Right. Of course she will. Let's go back to you and Ed. Are you guys getting married?" Nothing would make me happier than seeing my friend and twice costar make a lifetime commitment to the man who cherished him and had encouraged him to follow his dreams. After moving to LA, Ed rode the fast track to stardom, becoming the most famous (only famous?) former member of The Fishbowl.
"Eventually. When the show said no, I decided to take time to plan the type of proposal he deserves," Connor said. "So, back to you. We're going to film the show over ten days, so you won't have to be gone from the bakery for too long."
"The Network pays for everything?"
"Everything. Picture the dream wedding you always wanted."
Unbidden, an image of Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge, swam before my eyes, pulling up to the church in a horse-drawn carriage. Walking down the aisle in that gorgeous white dress. Not puffy or overwhelming, classy. A simple veil down her back. Carrying a bouquet of white flowers before driving off with her prince while the crowd cheered. I'd watched the entire wedding with my mom, and we'd gone through half a box of tissues.
Some small part of me wanted that. I never would have thought myself the type. I always figured I'd have a fairly low-key wedding. On a beach, at sunset. A simple, lacy sundress. Flowers braided into my hair.
Or no flowers, since I shaved my head on the cruise after losing a bet. Six months later, my hair was still pretty short. Extensions weren't exactly in our budget, but the Network had much more to spend than me and Justin. My excitement started to grow. I never thought I wanted a princess wedding until Connor said I could have anything.
Reality burst my bubble as I pictured the producers at my wedding, interfering. I shook my head. Justin and I didn't need a fancy wedding. It didn't matter whether I had long hair, short hair, or no hair. All we needed was each other, a marriage license, witnesses, and someone ordained by the state of Florida.
Connor must have recognized my silence as indecision. His words tempted me, although I wished they didn't. "Please think about it?"
"When do I have to decide?"
"Tomorrow. No pressure."
A bark of laughter choked me. "Right. No pressure at all. One more thing: if I do this, I am under no circumstances consuming any food I did not physically see being prepared, unless it comes from Ed. Neither is Justin."
"You think we're going to drug you?"
"I don't know. I didn't expect anyone to give me pot brownies while filming Real Ocean, did I? Or cupcakes with breast milk in them?"
"Fair point," he said. "Deal. I'll get Ed to move into the house with you for the duration. He can be your personal chef."
"In that case, yes, I'll think about it. Let me talk to Justin."
"Thanks, Jen. You're the best." He hung up.
Leaning against the brick wall of the building, I nibbled one thumbnail while I debated whether to call my fiancé before heading back inside. I should say no. We didn't need to get married on national television. Sure, it would be nice not to go into debt to fund our wedding, but we were never going to do that. When we first got engaged, Justin's mother had been suffering from cancer, so we'd expected to have a short, quick ceremony, possibly at her bedside. The plan never had been to spend a lot of money, and that was fine with us.
My future mother-in-law had miraculously gone into remission in January, so she could now join us anywhere we tied the knot. But did we want to get married in Los Angeles? And not needing to get married quickly didn't automatically translate to spending a lot of money. Did we want a big, fancy wedding? The poufy white dress, a dozen attendants, all that jazz?
My phone buzzed with a text. An image filled the screen. The same picture of the Duchess of Cambridge I'd already formed in my head. A smile spread across my face as I pictured myself in that gown. Connor knew exactly how to tug my heartstrings.
Aw, man. I did want My Beautiful Princess Wedding. Or whatever they decided to call it.
Sure, we didn't need a big wedding. But we could also let the Network pay for it. We could have everything we ever wanted, now. If his mother's cancer returned, she'd have the joy of watching us get married before she got sick. Possibly over and over, watching us get married On Demand. Every mother's dream, right? My mother would certainly be overjoyed.
My phone buzzed again with another image. This one of Kate with her sister/bridesmaid, both in their white dresses. The text came seconds later. You and Sarah? You and Rachel? We'll fly in whoever you want.
I promise, I'll talk to Justin. We'll call you tonight, I replied.
The phone went back into my apron pocket as I went inside and dove back into the bustle of the bakery. The rest of the morning flew, but as lunchtime approached, I thought more and more about Connor's offer. Finally, about twenty minutes before my lunch break, I pulled Sarah aside.
Her mouth dropped when I explained the offer. "Holy crap, that's huge. They're going to pay for everything? Like, including my maid-of-honor dress?"
"I told you, you don't have to buy an expensive dress."
"Of course I do. Especially if the Network's buying." She winked at me.
"We can afford to close for a week while you come out, right?"
"I don't need an entire week. You know me and reality TV. I'll just come out for the wedding." Her response came as no surprise. Sarah and I met during my audition for The Fishbowl, when I found her crying in the bathroom because Justin talked her into trying out for the show with him. She'd never wanted to be on TV, even after seeing how the experience changed my life.
"But you'll still be in the wedding, right? Even though it's televised?"
"I wouldn't miss it for the world." She held my gaze, strong and steady. "Does this mean you're considering it?"
"Depends. Can you make it for a couple of weeks without me?"
At the front of the store, a cashier took and filled orders for a growing line of customers. If anyone else walked in, she'd need to grow a second set of hands. Back in the kitchen, Sarah's assistant iced cupcakes. Someone needed to mop and sweep the floors, and a stack of phone orders waited for Sarah by the back sink. Running the bakery wasn't a one-person job.
"We'll be fine," she said. "It may be time to promote Betsy to assistant manager and find someone new to cover the front. I've been stalling because I have trouble trusting other people to get the work done when we're not here, but you have to cut the cord eventually."
"You're serious? You don't mind?"
"Of course I don't mind! Hiring more people means we can both take regular days off. Besides, your fame is half the draw of this place! Actually, you're most of the draw."
"That's not true. People come for your cupcakes."
"There are a thousand cupcake places in Florida. We get Internet orders from Fort Lauderdale and Atlanta because of you." She gestured at the walls, which were adorned with reality TV stills, mostly me and Justin and other friends from The Fishbowl. "Go. Be famous. Talk up the bakery. Sales will skyrocket, both when they announce the show and when it airs. I don't mind leaving Betsy in charge for a couple of days while I fly out for the ceremony. It'll be a good test to see if she can handle the job full time. When are you leaving?"
"If all goes well, the end of the week."
"That's so exciting!" She threw her arms around me. "Why aren't you ecstatic about this?"
I hesitated. "Because I still have to talk to Justin."
"Oh, right. Justin."
Right. The man who swore on his grandmother's antique engagement ring that we were done with reality television forever. He wasn't going to be happy that I was considering another show.
"I'm going to go to the courthouse for lunch." Justin and I had a standing Wednesday lunch date when he had to appear in court, which was more often than not. The walk would give me time to figure out what I wanted to say to him.
"Hold on a sec." Sarah stuffed a white cardboard box into my hand. "Lemon meringue cupcakes. You might need 'em."
Excerpted from "Reality Wedding"
Copyright © 2018 Laura Heffernan.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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