EDITOR’S NOTE:  The following is an excerpt from Talk of the Town by Lisa Wingate (Bethany House Publishers).

Chapter 1

Mandalay Florentino

There is that famous moment in Casablanca when Bogart looks at Bergman and, in that steely way of his, delivers a penetrating question about life, about circumstance and fate.

Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, why did she have to walk into his?

Bogie's question was on my mind the moment I laid eyes on the tiny town of Daily, Texas. Of all the places in all the world, why did I have to end up here?

I had a disquieting sense of something dark and life-altering hovering just beyond the sleepy, sun-drenched main street. The only explanation for my being sent on assignment to this middle-of-nowhere little burg was that my boss was setting me up for a full-scale F-5 disaster so she could fire me. Ursula Uberstach would do something like that. Ursula breathed in human suffering the way most people breathe oxygen. Which made her a great reality TV producer and a lousy boss. Now that she'd finished toying with the underlings on the staff, she was sniffing around me, searching for signs of weakness, honing in on a point of attack. Ursula delighted in messing up other people's lives just when they were supposed to be the happiest.

If my parents had named me Ursula, Swedish or not, I would probably have been mad at the world, too, which would have made me perfect for reality TV. As it was, six months into my dream job with American Megastar, I was struggling to acquire Ursula's taste for blood. At the beginning of the season, she'd swept into the studio like a svelte, perfectly dressed force of nature, while by comparison, I'd fumbled my way through the door wearing the sensible shoes, brown polyblend suit, and slightly maniacal chestnut curls of a woman accustomed to scrambling behind the scenes in the unpredictable world of broadcast news. I'd thought the move to a weekly show would be just the ticket for a working girl with a slight case of daily-broadcast burnout, a yen for job advancement, and a desire to do something glamorous for a change. Mandalay Florentino, Associate Producer looks great on the desk nameplate, but unfortunately, when you get right down to the business of creating a show that trades on, and treads on, hopes and dreams, the job is not so easy.

The trip to Daily, Texas, wasn't helping my morale. Twelve years ago, when I'd started into the news business, I dreamed of being the woman who exposed wrongdoing, defended the defenseless, changed lives. Now here I was, helplessly watching the ruination of my own life, and probably someone else's. The fact that our fifth finalist, nineteen-year-old dewy-eyed gospel singer Amber Anderson, came from a town that looked like Mayberry-well-preserved-on-a-studio-backlot only made my job that much more painful. Amber's slow descent into the Hollywood muck was the hottest thing to hit American Megastar in three seasons. It couldn't have come at a better time, since the ratings for season two were abysmal. Amber's sweet, innocent, country-girl-in-Hollywood act was just what the doctor ordered. Everyone loves to see a would-be saint fall off the straight and narrow. That kind of drama sells magazines and brings in TV viewers by the hundreds of thousands. What an act!

Now, taking in the sun-speckled main street of Amber's birthplace, I had the startling realization that Amber might be for real. The thought was followed by a sudden and intense burst of guilt and the perverse idea that having Amber make the Final Five on the show was like throwing a lamb into a pit of hungry lions. She would be torn to pieces while all of America watched her close her big blue eyes, throw her head back, and belt out gospel music as if her heart and soul depended on it.