Below is an excerpt from my novel Sink or Swim, which is a cross between a cozy mystery and a romantic suspense novel. I hope you enjoy it!
Cassidy sat poised in her chair as former contestants filed onto the soundstage at WBC in New York. Together, the studio audience and television viewers had watched the recorded footage of her walking the plank. Gabriel would now interview the competitors from the inaugural season one final time. More importantly, he would announce her prize. If it erased most of her debts, then it would at least make this whole embarrassing experience worthwhile.
Cassidy’s heart kicked in her chest and sweat moistened her brow.As one of her old teammates entered, her heart rate skyrocketed for a different reason. Josh Sanchioni slid into a bucket seat, carrying himself stiffer than normal in his sharp gray suit. Studio lights caught his sunbleached strawberry blonde waves, brightening the reddish gold tints.
Cassidy slipped her gaze to his leather shoes. If Josh hadn’t been engaged, they could have been an item. Instead, they’d been good friends until that one evening when the cameras were off and they almost kissed. They’d both realized their mistake and backed away. Things were strained until Josh walked the plank a week later. Tonight, not only did Cassidy have to face Josh, she would probably meet his fiancée.
Her cheeks heating, Cassidy focused on the competitor beside Josh as a distraction. Adam Horton sat erect, hands folded in the lap of his olive green khakis. He wasn’t military, but he dressed like an Army wannabe. His reptilian eyes drilled into Cassidy, his angular face revealing the shape of bones underneath. A blond goatee darkened his pointy chin.
Cassidy shuddered involuntarily. Adam never said much, but he made her uncomfortable just the same. She’d sense someone watching her on the ship and Adam would be lurking in the hatches. Luckily, he only lasted on the show two weeks.
“Before we catch up with our former contestants, I’d like to congratulate Cassidy on a job well done,” Gabriel said in the middle of the circle.
Applause thundered from the audience and a wave of excitement crested over her. Cassidy offered a smile for the cameras as Gabriel finished, “I’m proud to present you with your prize – a luxury vacation for two to the Bahamas on a real cruise ship with $3,000 spending money!”
Dumbfounded, Cassidy watched as a video depicted a
majestic ocean liner on the large TV screen. “Set sail with us to the Bahamas, where you can swim with dolphins in turquoise waters, relax on sugar white beaches and explore the island’s history as a haven for pirates,” said the female announcer in a voice-over. “On your voyage, you can enjoy our ten lounges, two outdoor pools, luxury spa, casino, cinema, dynamite shows, and glass walls and elevators that get you up close to the ocean views.”
Another boat? More ocean views? Were they friggin’ serious? A frozen smile hovered on Cassidy’s lips. Too bad she’d already seen the counselor that afternoon and he’d attested that all her screws were still in place. This travesty might be enough to unhinge her.
As the video montage ended, boos erupted from the crowd and several people jumped to their feet.
“Give her a real prize!”
The thrill of the jeers rippled down Cassidy’s spine, their zealousness stunning her. Granted, her little brother had been the heckler to yell “Cheapskates,” but the other supporters weren’t relatives.
“You seem to have some disappointed fans,” Gabriel remarked as a camera panned the crowd. “What do you have to say about the prize, Cassidy?”
She bit down her real opinion and replied, “I’m overwhelmed people care, but this cruise looks a lot more relaxing than my time on Sink or Swim.”
“We knew you’d enjoy it,” Gabriel said. “Who wouldn’t welcome an opportunity to be pampered on a luxury ocean liner?”
Cassidy scoffed inwardly. Perhaps someone who’d been trapped on a schooner for three months.
After the broadcast, Cassidy escaped the sound stage before she blurted out something ungrateful. She glimpsed a production assistant leading her mother, brother, and other special guests off the set, weaning them away from the audience members who’d obtained free tickets for the taping but weren’t invited to the cast party.
When Adam touched her arm in the hallway, the hairs bristled on end.
“I missed you, Cassidy,” he said. “I’ve been counting the days till this reunion.”
“Hi, Adam,” she said with resignation. “Good to see you.”
Reggie lumbered by them in a dark brown suit befitting a Mafia hit man with his broad shoulders and sunken neck. He pivoted and walked backwards. “Hey, Horty, I’m surprised you showed. What’d you last, two episodes? Remember when you spilled paint on the deck and cost our team fifty points? What a klutz.” Laughing, he swaggered down the hallway.
Adam’s mouth pinched into a scowl and red flushed up to his peach fuzz crew cut. “You should have gotten first place. Not him.”
It was nice to be supported, but this guy was too intense. Still, he didn’t deserve to be the butt of Reggie’s ridicule.
“Thanks,” Cassidy said. “Don’t listen to Reggie, he’s a creep. We all thought so. Catch you later, okay? I’ve got to find my family.”
She ducked downstairs to the cafeteria. Balloons and streamers transformed the surroundings into a glittering cascade of blue and gold, the colors in the Sink or Swim logo SOS.
Cassidy accepted a wine glass from a black-coated waiter and glanced around for her mother and fourteen-year-old brother. They’d reunited briefly at the hotel that afternoon, sharing a few hugs and a quick lunch, then Cassidy had to rush off for counseling, hair and makeup. Her family was probably getting a VIP tour of the studio.
Cassidy found herself near a blue and gold decorated table, showcasing an elaborate sheet cake of the Atlantic Devil, her home for the past several weeks. She downed her white wine in one long gulp.
Gabriel slithered up beside her. His dark tailored sports coat hugged his slender build. “I’ve been meaning to tell you, I’m sorry for your loss.” He sounded as if he was extending condolences at a funeral. He hadn’t been that sorry when he’d ordered her to the plank.
“Thank you,” Cassidy said.
“Sorry I had to be rough and ask you all those questions. The audience expects me to be cutthroat.” Gabriel laughed his silky laugh.
“That was the deal when I signed on. Life in a fish bowl.”
“If you ever want to visit a larger fish bowl, look me up in L.A. I’ll show you around the hot spots. We could have some fun.”
Cassidy didn’t miss the innuendo. “I doubt I’ll get out there.”
“Maybe someday. Until then, have a great time on your cruise.” Gabriel smacked a wet one on her cheek and disappeared into the crowd. As he left, Cassidy grimaced and wiped off his saliva.
“Cass!” Josh threaded his way toward her with a willowy blonde lagging behind in a navy designer business suit. The couple’s light hair and perfect tans were straight out of California.
Terrific. Cassidy should have enticed Gabriel to stick around rather than stand here alone, like, well, a loser.
“Great to see you!” Josh started toward her as if he were going for a hug, then stopped short like he’d thought better of it.
“Last time I saw you, buddy, you were jumping off a plank,”
Cassidy said in her most casual tone. She mentally cursed herself. Buddy?
His companion edged closer, manicured burgundy fingernails digging into his hand, thin sandy eyebrows puckered into a frown. Josh made the introductions.
“It’s nice to meet you, Shannon,” Cassidy said. “Josh has told me a lot about you.”
“That’s funny.” Shannon’s cultured voice held a note of coldness. “I don’t recall either of you mentioning my name when you were slow dancing at that party in week three. Or, on any of the other episodes, for that matter.”
Cassidy shoved her drained wine glass to her lips. Apparently, their chemistry hadn’t been as invisible as she’d hoped, but she and Josh had never acknowledged it. Even after that almost-kiss, they hadn’t discussed their feelings. How could they, with microphones listening 99 percent of the time?
She reminded herself that Shannon didn’t know about their near-indiscretion unless Josh had been dumb enough to tell her. And why would he? Nothing had happened.
“You’ve got to remember, they did a ton of editing,” Cassidy said. “I’m guessing they took out a lot of stuff.”
“Yeah, Cassidy wasn’t my only partner the night we danced,” Josh said. “I danced with everyone on our team. I had to, I was the only guy on the team.”
“Then why didn’t that get on television?” Shannon asked. “All they showed was a close-up of you two.”
“I don’t know why they edited things the way they did,” Josh said with a shrug.
“I don’t know either,” Shannon shot back.
Cassidy’s hand tightened around her wine glass. She hadn’t won the big money. She hadn’t won the guy. All Cassidy had gotten out of this deal was a cruise she’d gladly give back. “Let me explain it to you. Ratings. Sex sells, even when it isn’t there. Trust me, you have nothing to worry about with Josh.”
Shannon snorted, but didn’t respond. A waiter hefted over a platter of mozzarella sticks and Cassidy snatched one, relieved for the interruption. Josh and his fiancée weren’t exactly the lovebirds she’d imagined. Bad for Josh, good for her. If he and Shannon had been all kissy-kissy, Cassidy might have needed a lot more wine.
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