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.

Ratings would skyrocket. Viewer votes might keep her in the running until the very end, assuming she didn't self-destruct before then. Over the past three months, Amber had turned my job into something between a waking nightmare and a tightrope act. Just about every week, she gave the tabloids something delicious to print and me some bizarre incident to carefully spin-doctor to the show's benefit. In her defense, Amber pleaded that every single faux pas was an innocent mistake. American Megastar's Good Girl Detained at LAX—Amber claimed she had completely forgotten the box knife was in her coat pocket. She'd used it to help her grandpa cut open feed sacks back home. Gospel-Singing Goody-Two-Shoes Linked to Hollywood Brat Pack—Amber claimed that when the gang at the studio next door invited her out clubbing, she thought it was some exotic sport, like polo or croquet. She had no idea drinking would be involved. Gospel Girl Nabbed in Prostitution Sting—Amber was lost and she'd only stopped to ask directions. How was she supposed to know those ladies on the corner were ... were ... She actually blushed and stammered and took a full minute to whisper the words ladies of ... ill repute.

If it was an act, Amber was an actress worthy of an Academy Award. The show's crew even had an "Amber pool" going—a harmless little bet on when Amber's innocent façade would finally crack. Everyone except Rosita, the cleaning lady, was in. And that was only because Rosita didn't speak English. Not one crew member believed that Amber's farm girl act could last forever. Nobody short of Elly May Clampett could be that naïve.

It looked like the Amber pool might pay off pretty soon. Five days ago, Amber had been linked to Justin Shay, and reporters were hiding in bushes everywhere, trolling for pictures and details. Could the fresh-faced gospel girl really be dating a Hollywood bad boy almost twice her age?

Even I had no idea how to spin-doctor this one. When the latest Amber rumor crept into my office, I'd accepted it with a sense of resignation. She'd finally gone too far—embroiled herself in the kind of smarmy Hollywood relationship that even her honey-covered southern accent couldn't sweeten. I wasn't sad about it, really. When all was said and done Amber was an opportunist, like everyone else in LA. Why should she be any different from the rest of us? It was a cynical thought, and in the back of my mind, I was bothered by how easily it came to me, how quickly I accepted it, how I'd suspected it all along. There was a time when I was more like Amber and less like Ursula.

The lost idealism of my youth drifted back to me at the most unusual and inconvenient times, like the whiff of something sweet passing by. As I took in Amber's hometown, it left behind a vexing question—if Amber really was as innocent as her quiet little hometown appeared to be, then what did that say about those of us who were using her loss of innocence, the ultimate destruction of her dreams, to boost ratings?

If I was unsure where to stand on the issue of Amber Anderson, her hometown seemed to have no question. Hanging proudly over Main Street was a huge banner that said,

WELCOME!
DAILY REUNION DAYS FIRST WEEKEND IN APRIL

Below that, two workmen with ladders were tacking on a hand-lettered addition that read,

Birthplace of Amber Anderson,
American Megastar's Hometown Finalist

Vote for Amber!

A sick feeling gurgled in my throat and drained slowly to my stomach, producing the fleeting thought that I should have brought along the prescription ulcer medication Mother tried to give me before I left LA. She said I looked like I needed it, and now I knew I did. The Tex-Mex breakfast taco I'd eaten before taking an aerial tour of Daily in a network affiliate helicopter was rolling around in my stomach like hot lead.

My sixth sense, the one my best friend, Paula, jokingly called the Doom-o-meter, was in full emergency warning mode, which could only mean that disaster was headed my way like a freight train. I could feel it in some vague way I couldn't explain. If Paula had been standing there with me on the corner of Third and Main in Daily, Texas, she would have—after making some joke about the Doom-o-meter—filtered through her Buddhist-Kabala-New-Age spiritual philosophy and told me this place contained bad Karma. She would've dragged me off to her favorite soothsayer, Madame Murae, who told fortunes in her sandwich shop when she wasn't busy making roast beef on rye. Yesterday when Madame Murae gave me my sandwich, she turned over the love card.

"Ah, love awaits," she mused, squinting at the card as she grabbed a styro cup and put it under the Diet Coke spigot without looking.

"I'm engaged." I felt the giddy little tickle I always got when I said those words. I'm engaged. I'm engaged. Thirty-four years old, and finally I'm engaged. I'm going to be a June bride.

He's gorgeous, by the way.

Madame Murae turned over another card. "Ah, I see travel."

"We're going on a honeymoon right after the wedding. In a little less than three months"—After I wrap this season of American Megastar and the teasers for next season, hopefully with my job and my sanity intact—"I'll be sailing the California coast for nineteen days." Ah, heaven. Did I mention that he owns a boat?

Frowning at the card, Madame Murae halted the flow of Diet Coke at exactly the right moment, once again without looking.

Paula quirked a brow at me, as in, See, I told you she has special powers.

I rolled my eyes. Paula knew what that meant. I'm historically an Episcopalian, from a long line of Episcopalians, drawing all the way back to the pioneer days. Episcopalians, even the nonpracticing kind, do not believe in tarot cards or soda shop mysticism. Such malarkey is for people like Paula who are spiritually searching but without the benefit of any ancestral religious foundation whatsoever.

"I see travel by air." Madame Murae took a lid from under the counter, popped it on my soda, pulled my hot roast beef and Swiss from the oven, and stood speculatively studying the curlicues of slightly browned cheese. "Soon."

A sharp-edged lump formed in my throat and descended slowly to my stomach. I wasn't supposed to be traveling. I was supposed to be picking out wedding gear, reserving the Chapel-by-the-Sea's reception room, deciding how to have my hair done. "I'm not scheduled to be traveling these next three months, but with my job, it could happen." With Ursula, anything's possible.

"Ah." Madame Murae continued surveying my sandwich. "I see negative energy surrounding the travel card."

That would be Ursula Uberstach. Five feet eleven inches of blond, blue-eyed negative energy, with a size four waist, a perpetual tan, and men constantly groveling at her feet.

"Change, I see change."

Maybe Ursula's leaving the show. Then again, maybe I am.

"An ending, a begin—"

Setting a ten on the counter, I snatched the sandwich away in what, for me, was a surprisingly impolite maneuver. Twelve years in Episcopal school and a lifetime of competing with four disgustingly perfect older siblings had taught me manners, if nothing else. "Paula and I had better get moving. We want to do a little shopping over lunch." Madame Murae slid her hand under mine as she dropped the coins one by one and listened to the sound, her dark eyes fixating as she stroked a finger across my palm.

"Be careful," she said. "For you, the path to happiness travels uphill."

"Thanks," I muttered. Tell me something I don't already know.

"Isn't she great?" Paula chirped as we headed for a table on the sidewalk. "You'd be amazed how often she's right. Every time she tells me something, it happens, I swear."

Stepping into the sunshine of a beautiful LA noon, I followed my best friend and future maid of honor to a patio table. "You know I don't believe in that stuff," I said. "And you shouldn't, either. If Madame What's-her-face is so good at foretelling the future, what's she doing running a sandwich shop?" Just to prove my point, I ate a big bite of the hexed roast beef and Swiss.

Paula gave a snarky sneer and shook her head at my hopeless self, then started in on her Cobb salad. We talked about wedding plans as I consumed my Madame Murae sandwich. Pinching the last bite between my thumb and forefinger, I popped it into my mouth, smiling at Paula, who rolled her eyes and reached for her purse. "You're so ... pragmatic."

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.