“TWENTY-FIVE SECONDS until air time!”
Dimi ignored both that and the makeup woman powdering her face and concentrated on Suzie instead. “You think I haven’t tried hard enough?”
Suzie consulted her clipboard, snapped her fingers at two people standing idle, both of whom leapt to attention and ran off, and then sighed at Dimi. “Look, babe. The truth hurts.”
“But I have tried. I’ve tried everything!”
Suzie’s expression was pure doubt. “Have you placed a personal ad?”
Dimi didn’t take her eyes off Suzie. “Only nutcases place personal ads. But I’ve tried everything else. Online dating services, in-person dating services, the grocery store, the zoo, everywhere. I’ve made dating a virtual spectator sport, and nothing.” It was frustrating, this failure. She hated to fail. Maybe it was her father’s seven divorces or her mother’s controlling nature. Or maybe it was the fact that everyone she knew had someone to go home to except her, and she didn’t know how to fix that.
Pathetic. “No Mr. Right anywhere.”
Suzie shook her head. “I’ve seen you at happy hour.”
“So you’re far more concerned with the appetizers than the beefcakes at the bar.”
Okay, she liked her food. A lot. “The beefcakes at the bar are only interested in one thing, anyway.” Dimi stopped talking to purse her lips so the makeup woman could apply lip gloss.
“And so are you, after only one thing.” Suzie adjusted the microphone on Dimi’s collar. “After all, we are talking about getting laid, right?”
Dimi nearly swallowed her tongue.
The makeup woman let out a laugh.
“Not exactly laid,” Dimi muttered, avoiding some interested sidelong glances from her eavesdropping crew.
The truth was, she wanted more, much more, than any physical release.
Although, in retrospect, that would be nice, too. Embarrassing as it was to admit, especially for a single, relatively successful woman in the new millennium, Dimi wanted the minivan, the white picket fence, the two point four kids. She wanted to be held by warm, strong arms at night.
And yes, maybe she also wanted someone to take out the trash. So what? She wanted it all.
“If not sex, what then?” Suzie lifted a brow. “I know for a fact it’s been years for you.”
“Hey! Only two.”
“Years,” Suzie repeated, as if Dimi had committed a crime. “Honey, a body like yours was made for hot, down-and-dirty sex.”
Dimi tugged at her rather severe business suit, which had been the only thing to fit that morning without having to suck in her breath all day long. Not eating doughnuts for breakfast would help greatly, but that meant she needed to go grocery shopping, and that was worse than taking out the trash.
“Have you tried the Laundromat at about eight o’clock, any night of the week?”
Dimi blinked. “What does that have to do with anything?”
“It’s a regular men buffet.”
“The Laundromat? It’s desperation city. No one goes there to pick up guys anymore.”
“Wanna bet?” Suzie leaned close, inspecting Dimi’s face. She tsked and pointed, and before Dimi could blink, she was getting her nose powdered. Again.
“And five, four…”
“I’m done trying,” Dimi announced.
“You’re far too serious.” Suzie’s eyes were kind but firm. “In both life and getting a man. Relax a little.”
“Maybe I’m too serious, I’ll give you that one, but I’m not changing my stance on this. No more losers. No more dates.”
“Clear the set!”
The crew scrambled away. Everyone but Dimi’s persistent assistant.
“You can’t give up,” Suzie protested.
“Watch me.” Dimi straightened in her chair. “I mean it, Suzie. No more men, not ever again,” she vowed for once and all, at the exact moment Suzie finally backed off the set.
And just as the director punched a finger into the air, signaling they were live. The red light was on the camera. The camera pointed right at her.
The camera to which she’d just announced, on live television, no less, that she’d permanently sworn off men.
From just off the set, Suzie was shaking with silent laughter. Oh, yeah. Funny. But Dimi Anderson, former high school beauty queen and homework aficionada for the football team, hadn’t gotten to where she was today by giving in to public humiliation.
Host of the live cable cooking show Food Time, for the serious chef, Dimi forced a smile into the camera and said, “Just seeing if you’re awake, folks.” She cleared her throat and went resolutely ahead. “Welcome to today’s show.”
Off camera, but still in Dimi’s line of vision, the determined Suzie held up her clipboard.
A woman needs regular orgasms! it said.
Dimi faltered but, always the ultimate professional, covered it up with an unfortunately stiff smile. “Today we’re making—”
Suzie was busy scribbling, and she held up the clipboard again.
And not from anything battery operated!
Dimi choked, covered it with another smile, but she still had to repeat herself to get back on track. “Today we’re making—”
We’re making sure you get some. In this millennium!
“Carbonada Flamande and a lemon tart to die for,” Dimi said firmly, refusing to look at Suzie again.
* * *
Somehow Dimi managed to finish the show, in spite of Suzie’s occasional very obscene clipboard suggestions. She’d created a new twist on the Carbonada Flamande and had made the lemon tart look interesting and challenging—she hoped. It tasted fabulous to her, anyway.
She should know, she’d put away three pieces of it, not a good thing. Not that any man would ever notice an extra few pounds on her hips, because she’d given up on men.
Things were fine. Really. She had a nice place to live and a job that let her eat all day long. What more could she want?
Plenty, apparently, given the odd sense of loneliness coursing through her as she drove home through the small historical town of Truckee toward Donner Lake and her town house. She could, as she always had, go to her twin sister’s town house, just down the path. They could share an entire bag of barbecue potato chips, or maybe chocolate chip cookies. That is, if Cami had gone food shopping.
But even that wasn’t the same anymore. Cami had Tanner now. He kept her happily fed, and given the constant expression of bliss on her sister’s face, it wasn’t with just food. It was a miracle, really, as Cami hadn’t been any more lucky in love than Dimi had been until a series of blind dates from hell had changed the tide for her.
Dimi didn’t begrudge her sister’s newfound happiness. She didn’t. She just wanted some for herself. Not likely, not now.
Oh, well. She had Brownie, her hamster. She also had the leftover tart.
Because she hadn’t yet bought furniture after having moved out of Cami’s place several months before, Dimi sat on the floor in her bare kitchen, the tart tin in her lap. Ready for her very own invitation-only pity party, she grabbed a fork.
Stuffing her face, she turned her head and looked into Brownie’s cage, which sat on the floor next to her. “You should know, I gave up men today. No daddy for you.”
The white and brown hamster poked her nose out of her little wooden hut and stared curiously at Dimi.
“On live television, no less. Should have seen it. Emmy-winning performance, no doubt.”
Brownie’s nose wriggled, and her dark eyes darted to the pie tin in Dimi’s lap. “Ah, the important stuff. Smart girl.” Dimi took a tiny piece of crust and offered it.
Nabbing it, Brownie quickly vanished into her hut.
“Not even a hamster wants my company,” Dimi said to no one in particular, wondering in her sugar-induced stupor where on earth she’d gone so wrong. What exactly was missing from her life?
But she knew the answer to that.
Love. True, heart-stopping love. That’s what was missing.
She polished off every last crumb of the tart, all the while telling herself she couldn’t miss what she’d never had.
* * *
Having given up her dream of wedded bliss in front of the entire world actually had a benefit, Dimi discovered. She couldn’t have been lonely that evening if she’d tried, since everyone she knew called her.
First her friends, one by one, all of whom thought her little proclamation was hysterical.
Oh, yeah, just hysterical.
Then her sister. “Way to go,” Cami said. “Way to ruin any prospective relationship you might have had.”
“There was no prospective relationship,” Dimi reminded her. “Now go back to your fiancé.” She took some joy in hanging up soundly.
No peace, though; the phone immediately rang again.
“Oh, my God, you’ve given up men,” her mother wailed. “How could you?”
“Well, of course I watched. I always watch.”
That was so unexpectedly sweet, Dimi was speechless.
“I watch during Debbie Dee’s commercials.”
Dimi’s competition. The Debbie Dee Trash Talk Show. Dimi put her head to her knees. “Gee, thanks, Mom.”
“What’s this about no more men? I want grandchildren, Dimi!”
“Your sister is such a good girl, falling in love. Why can’t you do that?”
Desperate times called for desperate measures. So she simulated static through her teeth. “Gosh, would you listen to that? Bad connection on the cell, Mom! Gotta go.”
“Dimi Anderson, you don’t have a cell phone in your town house!”
“Hey, did you hear that? It’s my doorbell.” But just as Dimi disconnected, her mother sighed.
“You can’t fool me,” she grumbled. “I know you don’t have a doorbell, either.”
* * *
When Dimi arrived at the studio the next morning, she found her staff huddled in the parking lot, unusually solemn.
“Hey, guys. Cheer up. Just because I gave up men—”
“For once, men are taking a back seat,” Suzie informed her.
“Wow, really?” She studied the quiet faces. “It must be bad then.”
“Ratings are down,” Ted the cameraman told her. “Down, down, down.”
“How can that be?” Dimi thought of all the calls she’d taken over yesterday’s show. “Everyone I know watched.”
“What?” Ted asked. “All of two people?”
“Hey, I know more than two people,” Dimi said, insulted.
Grace, their cooking consultant, was wringing her hands. “You giving up men is the least of our problems. It’s rumored heads are going to roll. Today.”
“It’s fact, Dimi,” Ted agreed. “We’re in bad shape.”
She didn’t waste her breath wondering why everyone always knew these things before she did. The gossip mill in show business was in a league all its own, and being five hundred miles away from Hollywood only made it worse.
Everyone looked to Dimi, as if being host made her their leader. “Well, that’s what happens when they pitch us against the Debbie Dee Show,” she said, bemused. “Yesterday her show was How My Brother Married My Sister and Gave Birth to Puppies. We can’t compete with that.”
“Yeah. And today it’s How Making Porn Videos Rejuvenated Our Marriage.” Suzie shook her head mournfully. “We’re going to lose to that for sure, unless…” She eyed Dimi speculatively. “Got any more exciting announcements?”
From somewhere behind them came a roar like thunder, as if the heavens were agreeing with the dismal outlook of their beloved show.
But not a cloud marred the sky. Just bright, optimistic sunshine.
That’s when the Harley came into view, rounding the corner. The rider, leather-clad and broad-shouldered, cut the engine and coasted into a parking spot some distance away.
Silence fell again, and the staff stared morosely at each other.
“Maybe we can change the tone of the show,” Leo, their set designer, suggested. “You know, go with something more…” A small, unusually pretty man, he gestured with his hands as he spoke. “I don’t know. Adventurous.”
“No,” Dimi said quickly. “People depend on a serious cooking show from us.” And plus, she liked serious. She was serious.
“Come on,” Ted cajoled, warming to the cause. “How does this sound? Food Time goes new age! Cook with us in the nude today!” He grinned lecherously at Suzie, who rolled her eyes.
“Just don’t fry bacon. Not in the nude.” This from Leo, ever safety conscious. “Bad plan.”
“It’s not the tone of the show dropping our ratings,” Dimi protested. “It’s the brass forcing us to make those frothy, fattening, decadent meals that have only a total of four bites to them, when what our viewers really want to see are low-fat, healthy, simple but fabulous-tasting cuisine they can easily whip up after a long day at work.”
This was a huge pet peeve, and Dimi wondered when the powers that be would get a clue. Probably after the show was canceled. Damn them. Didn’t they know that since she’d given up men, all she had left was the show?
“Ritchie isn’t here yet.” Suzie lowered her voice, looking over her shoulder to make sure no one of importance could overhear her. “They say he’s been…fired.”
There was a collective gasp.
“They said,” Suzie continued, “that we’re getting a new producer.”
“Who?” everyone asked together, in the same reverent tone.
Everyone but Dimi, who hadn’t heard of him, groaned.
“Ooh, he’s wicked,” Grace whispered.
“He’s gorgeous,” Leo murmured, fanning himself.
“Gorgeous, but mean. Real mean.” Ted looked terrified. “He likes to fire people, man.”
“He’s a troubleshooter type,” Suzie explained to clueless Dimi. “Called in by our parent company when a show is on its last legs. He axes everyone, then starts from scratch.”
“Yeah.” Leo fanned his face. “He’s bad, baby. Bad to the bone.”
“He’s a holy terror, is what he is,” Suzie corrected. “And they say he’s coming here. Today.”
“That would be correct.”
The very male voice came from behind their huddled group, and when they all turned, there stood the Harley rider. He was built in a way that suggested maybe he beat up cooking show crews for a living, all big and rugged and edgy. His dark wind-mussed hair fell to his shoulders, and a diamond stud winked at them from his ear. His aviator sunglasses gleamed back their own startled reflections. Beneath his open leather bomber jacket he wore a black shirt and even blacker pants. As a package, and definitely as a producer—their producer—he seemed…dangerous.
Dimi couldn’t speak for the others, but looking at this man gave her a funny feeling deep down, like maybe she was sinking.
At their utter lack of response, Mr. Harley Rider lifted a hand and waggled his fingers at them. “Anyone awake?”
Everyone but Dimi took several steps back, then separated, as if they’d never been talking to one another. Guilty expressions abounded.
The man nodded at Dimi, since she alone stood there, like Bambi caught in the headlights. Dimi wished she was wearing reflector sunglasses, because she felt the need to hide the fact that her eyes had all but devoured him. She couldn’t seem to help herself. His jacket spread across wide shoulders. His pants, dark and soft looking, covered what appeared to be very not-so-soft, powerful, long legs. Despite his motorcycle ride, there wasn’t a spec of dirt on that body, not anywhere.
Everything about him screamed attitude. Confidence. Danger. Funny, but she’d never really gone for the I’m-a-rebel look, and yet she was going for it now.
Or at least her hormones were.
Bad timing, since she’d given up on the male species as a whole, but she consoled herself with Suzie’s mantra—most gorgeous men were poor lovers, anyway.
Then he slowly tugged off the sunglasses. Dark eyes stared right at her. His face was lean, tanned. Lived-in. Gorgeous.
And he didn’t so much as crack a smile.
“Mitch Knight,” he said. “Your new producer.” He glanced at Ted. “I liked the nude show idea. Probably wouldn’t fly with the FCC, though.”
Dimi fumed. This was not a joke!
“Keep trying,” Mitch suggested.
“What happened to Ritchie?” Dimi asked bluntly.
He cocked his head at her and still didn’t smile. “Do you really want to know?”
Probably not, she decided. Ritchie had yelled a lot and thrown his weight around—which at two hundred plus pounds on a five-foot frame had been considerable—but at least what you saw with Ritchie was what you got.
Her new producer slipped his sunglasses into his chest pocket. He stood there with legs spread wide, hands on his hips, looking like he owned the world.
And he did. Her world.
“I don’t suppose you’re interested in low-fat California cuisine?” she asked hopefully.
“I’m interested in ratings.” His voice was low and direct and full of authority. “What do you know about getting good ratings?”
“Apparently not much.” She sent daggers to her so-called staff, who were slinking off like worms, every last one of them.
“Well then, we have a lot to discuss. The show needs some serious spicing up.”
She turned her attention back to Mr. Producer. “Spicing?”
“I thought we’d try humor, among other things.”
“I don’t do humor.”
“You did yesterday when you announced your impending shriveled-up-old-maid status.”
Dimi felt the blush creep up her face. “You said humor ‘among other things.’ What things?”
She felt her eyes bug out of her head. “Excuse me?”
“Humor and sex. That’s what you need.”
Dimi didn’t gape often, but she did now. “That’s what I need?”
“On the show,” he clarified, his mouth quirking slightly.
He glanced at his watch. “See you in my office in, say, five?”
As if he was really asking her! Nope, this was a definite demand. A subtle one, but a demand nevertheless. “Are you going to fire me?”
He lifted a brow. “I don’t usually discuss business in the parking lot.”
Oh, definitely. She was toast. Burnt toast.