Dabbing the corners of my mouth, I looped my bag over my shoulder and followed her out. "I have to be pragmatic. I work in reality TV."

"I liked you better back in the old days when you were writing copy in the newsroom." Paula and I had started out at a local LA affiliate twelve years ago. Two babes in the woods, fresh out of broadcasting school. Paula had always been more interested in landing a boyfriend than building a career, which was why she was still on the writing end of the business, albeit now for a prime-time soap. In soap opera land, a belief in hexes and a cursory knowledge of tarot cards was a professional advantage.

"You love me anyway," I said, then hip-butted her off the curb.

She caught a heel in a storm grate and twisted her ankle.

By the time Paula dropped me back at the studio, Ursula was waiting with airline tickets to Texas and the news that I would be the advance man for Amber's hometown segment. Given Amber's recent media glow and the fact that the Final Five had not yet been revealed, secrecy was paramount. This was too big to trust to a low-level staff member.

What Ursula wants, Ursula gets, and less than twenty-four hours later I was standing at Third and Main in Daily, Texas, watching as the secret Final Five news was broadcast on a banner over Main Street. How could people in Amber's hometown possibly have found out the results of the semifinals already? Even Amber hadn't been told, and wouldn't be told until Friday, the afternoon before she was scheduled to fly to Texas. Tomorrow, at the regular Friday lunch meeting, the camera crew chiefs would receive their marching orders, but for now, the identities and hometown locations of the Final Five were known only to Ursula, two other associate producers, the director, and me. It was a closely guarded secret ...

The Doom-o-meter screamed like a panic alarm in my head. Somewhere in there, Madame Murae whispered, "I see negative energy surrounding the travel card."

From the parapet of the old Daily Bank building across the street, gargoyles laughed down at me, their narrow grins saying, Who are you to thumb your nose at fate, Mandalay Florentino?

I should have left the roast beef and Swiss alone.

Excerpted from Talk of the Town by Lisa Wingate; Copyright © 2008; ISBN 9780764204906; Published by Bethany House Publishers.  Used by permission.  Unauthorized duplication prohibited.