Excerpt

Unscripted by Natalie Aaron and Marla Schwartz

Chapter One

The only dates I go on these days are the ones I get paid for. Okay. I’ll admit it, if it wasn’t for the paycheck, I’d be home, snuggled on my couch, watching TV and eating something with three times the amount of fat grams recommended for any woman who is trying not to let her slowing metabolism get the better of her.

Instead, I’m sitting in one of Hollywood’s trendiest restaurants, Okonomi, a painfully hip sushi experience. I have a laptop propped in front of me, a camera man to my left, a sound man to my right and a field producer who keeps prodding me in the back to make sure I got down the latest, most ludicrous thing the couple we’re filming says.

“Do you mind if I take the liberty of ordering for you? I’ve been here a few times and I consider myself an expert on the menu. The Kobe filet with foie gras is delectable.” Brian cocks his head as he tentatively slides both menus toward his side of the table.

“I’m a vegetarian,” says Brian’s date, Jenny. “And I don’t need anyone to order for me. I want the Agedashi tofu, and vegetable tempura.”

If these two are bickering within the first fifteen minutes of meeting each other, this will either be a short work night or a really long one. And let’s face it, I’m praying for the first option. My couch beckons.

“I don’t know if I trust a woman who doesn’t eat meat.” Brian smiles as he runs his fingers through his thickly gelled black hair.

“I don’t eat anything with a face,” replies Jenny.

Brian laughs sarcastically. “So you won’t eat a face, but will you sit on one? Ha ha, just kidding.”

The dull light in Jenny’s eyes flickers as she tries to think of a comeback. “Too bad you’ll never know.”

Good one. Jesus, where do we find these people?

For the past year I’ve been working as a segment producer on a reality dating show called Matchmaker. Basically, we set up complete strangers and film every moment of their awkward date. From production logistics to dealing with problem cast members, it’s my job to make sure everything runs smoothly. Nine times out of ten it doesn’t.

Since it’s early on a Thursday night, we were able to rent out the private party area of Okonomi on the cheap. It’s perfect for us, secluded and open with easy access to the bar. The food here is amazing (and amazingly overpriced), but they went a little over the top with the sexy Geisha-inspired theme. Backlit images of overly glossed red lips and smoky eyes dominate the walls, constantly reminding us that we’re in a very trendy place.

I look at my watch and attempt a quiet stretch, straightening my back against the silver chair. Sitting in forced silence for too long makes me fidgety.

“Okay, let’s change gears,” says smarmy Brian through his bleached-white teeth. “Enough about you, Jenny, let’s talk about me. Ha ha, just kidding.”

Grant, our field producer, leans over and whispers in my ear, “I thought her name was Jackie.” I stifle a laugh, which turns into an old-man hacking fit, seeing as my diet cola has suddenly shot down the wrong pipe in my throat. The traitor leans away from me, covers his mouth and laughs.

“You suck,” I splutter as quietly as possible. “I could be choking to death.” Grant shrugs his shoulders but rubs me sweetly on the back.

Sean, our soundman, taps his headphones, his special little sign for, shut the hell up, I can hear you on the mics. I smile sheepishly, point at Grant and mouth, “He did it.” Nodding in agreement, Sean flashes me a grin.

At the last production meeting, our boss, Rob, gave the staff a lecture on what not to do when the camera is rolling. Unfortunately, he used footage from one of our dates as an example. Grant and I were mortified to hear our cackling during the bar segment. In our defense, the couples can be so outlandishly obnoxious that it’s almost impossible not to laugh. If I didn’t witness some of this stuff firsthand I’d never believe it was real. But it’s real all right.

Rob teased that he was going to have to separate us, but I knew there was a kernel of truth behind the joke. So I have to be more careful. I don’t want to be separated from this crew. There are three teams that film five days a week, and I’ve heard the other two aren’t nearly as fun.

“So I left a successful family law practice. I mean, I was making a quarter mil easy. But there was something missing from my life. A cause, per se. Granted, I’m now doing corporate law, but once in a while we’ll do a pro-bono case. For instance, and this is hush-hush, my company is working on a case to save the Madagascar lemur mouse from extinction. We’re working with the World Wildlife Fund on this one.”

Jenny shakes her head. “What’s a Mag-as-car…um…mouse?”

I’ll give Jenny this one. What in the hell is a Madagascar lemur mouse?

“It’s some kinda tiny primate,” answers Brian.

“Wait, I’m confused. How is a mouse a monkey?”

Oh dear God let me die.

“It’s just called a mouse because I guess they’re small or something. But enough about monkeys, let’s talk about you. So, are you originally from L.A.?”

“No, I moved here from Austin about two years ago to become an actress.”

“Oh yeah? So where do you wait tables?”

“Very funny,” says Jenny tersely. “I’m not a waitress, I’m a receptionist for a production company in the Valley.”

“In the Valley? What, are you in porn or something?”

“What do you mean?” asks Jenny, looking puzzled.

“You know, the Valley…porn capital of the world…I just thought by the size of your breasts …I mean, I look at you and I think porn. Am I right?”

Bad, bad, oh very bad.

“Screw you,” snaps Jenny.

“Jesus, can’t you take a joke? It was a compliment.”

“You’re an asshole. You obviously have no idea how to treat a lady.” Jenny rips off the microphone attached to her low-cut tank top and throws it on the table.

“Lady? When was the last time you looked in the mirror, sweetheart?”

Grant stands up from our table. “Okay, guys, you’re doing awesome. Jenny, you need to keep your microphone on, the cameras are still rolling.”

“I’m outta here.” Jenny turns to me. “I don’t think you guys even tried to find my perfect match. Where did you find this dick?”

I glance down at my production notes, which all of a sudden seem terribly important. “Umm, he had a very good bio,” I mumble more to myself than to Jenny.

All of our daters look good on paper. It’s not until you get a gander at their audition tapes that you see the crazy shit. Our casting department’s motto is Shrinking Violets Need Not Apply. Think Type-A, brash, crass extroverts with some form of addiction who don’t mind taking off their clothes for the entertainment of several million viewers.

And Brian’s bio was especially deceptive. He met all of the criteria for an eligible bachelor. It wasn’t until I saw his casting tape that I learned the successful attorney who likes hiking, surfing and long walks on the beach also enjoys brandishing his Prince Albert upon request.

Grant strolls over to the dinner table and takes a seat next to Brian. “Come on, kids, the night is young, we’re going to the hottest bar in town, and then afterward maybe a little trip to the Hot Tub Hut if you’re good.” Grant turns his head toward me. “Hey, Abby, can you get us two shots of tequila here, please.”

“Absolutely,” I say as I head to the bar, dodging the arty glass boxes on metal stands that house floating silver chopsticks.

Grant’s motto is Sober Bad, Shit-faced Good. If tequila doesn’t do the job, Grant moves on to stage two, the Ego Massage. This is where I come in. Being a teacher’s pet all my life trained me well in working as the show’s resident sycophant. And finally, if that doesn’t work, we move on to stage three, Blackmail. We hardly ever have to resort to stage three. This is where Grant pulls the daters aside and gives them some spiel on how they are under contract, and could be sued for breaking the date. This is a complete fabrication, but usually most effective.

A few minutes later I return with the shots. Judging by Jenny’s body language, Grant hasn’t made much progress.

“Let’s not freak out here, it’s all good,” says Brian as he downs the shot. “Jenny knows I was just fucking with her, don’t you, Jenny? So why don’t you be a good girl and sit on my face.”

Jenny slams her hands firmly on the dinner table in front of her. “You’ll never fuck with me, you’ll never fuck me, and you’re a fucker.”

To my horror, Jenny pulls down her neckline and reveals the largest breasts I have ever seen in person. Seriously, they look like mutant tonsils attached to her collarbone.

“And you can kiss the twins goodbye,” she hisses as she turns to the camera and does what my best friend Zoë calls a hoochie shake. Lance, our cameraman, zooms in to get a closer shot. Jenny adjusts her top and we all watch with little surprise as she storms off to the bathroom.

“Damn!” laughs Brian. “Maybe I should go apologize.”

“Abby, you’re up,” says Grant.

Giving me a hearty two thumbs-up, Sean hands me the mic. I reluctantly push my chair aside, close my laptop and trudge after Jenny. Christ, I hate stage two.

I push the bathroom door open. “Jenny, are you in here?” My voice echoes as it bounces off the stainless-steel walls.

“Yes. I’m not going back out there. He’s a total dick,” Jenny calls from the last stall.

“I know,” I say sympathetically. I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror. My curls seem particularly out of control tonight. I twist up my hair in a bun and lean on the granite-and-stainless-steel counter in the corner. “You’ll never have to see this guy again after tonight. Just two more stops and the date’s over. Did Grant tell you we’re going to Hyde? I was there last week and I saw Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.”

Okay, so I’ve never been to Hyde, and the closest I’ve been to Brad Pitt was when I stood behind him at a Starbucks in Brentwood eight years ago. But it’s stage two, and the longer we’re in this bathroom, the farther away I am from my couch.

Jenny steps out of the stall and starts putting on her lipstick. “Really? That’s so cool. Did you get their autographs?”

“No, but they did send a round of drinks over for us.” And then a magic genie appeared and granted me three wishes. “Plus,” I add for emphasis, “celebs are there all the time.”

“Well I can go to Hyde anytime, I don’t need you to get me in. Look, I’m done. My friends convinced me to go on this show and I knew I shouldn’t have listened to them.”

“What made you decide to come then?”

“I wanna be an actress and they said this would be great exposure.”

Oh it will be, but not if you want to be an actress.

“Well, millions of people do watch. It’s a great way to get your face out there.” Ooooh, feel dirty. Bad Abby!

“I guess, but he’s not even my type. Like I would ever sit on his face,” she says as she adjusts her black pleather miniskirt which could actually double as a belt.

“He’s a jerk. Don’t let him ruin your chance to be on TV. You’re gorgeous, and I’m sure you’re totally talented, this is a great opportunity for you.” Blatant lie. If she’s lucky, she’ll end up on another reality show.

“Awww, you’re so sweet,” she says as she puts on the finishing touches to her cherry-red lipstick. “I guess you’re right. Why let him ruin this for me? Believe me, he’ll be the one to look like a loser, not me. And at least I’m getting free booze out of it.”

“And dinner,” I tack on, even though I know she’ll probably get rid of it during the next bathroom break.

“Thanks for being so sweet.”

I smile tightly and hand her the mic. “Come on, let’s go.”

I really wish she hadn’t thanked me. She’s not exactly going to get the next starring role in the newest CW line up out of this. Grant always tells me you’re not lying, you’re just doing your job. But it’s starting to really get to me. Don’t get me wrong, I usually like what I do, but this is definitely an aspect I could do without.

“Hello, I’m home,” I call out as I open the front door to our Spanish duplex. I can hear the sound of the TV in the background.

Zoë and her boyfriend Jeff are in prime viewing position, cuddled up on the right side of the couch, miles away from the dreaded hot lamp. Built in the thirties, our West Hollywood home lacks any kind of overhead lighting. Zoë was thrilled when she found a faux Tiffany lamp at the Rose Bowl Flea Market. It’s gorgeous, but melts the head of anyone unfortunate enough to sit under it.

“What a night,” I groan.

They both look up at me, and Jeff puts his finger to his lips. I’ve just broken the cardinal rule: No Talking Until Commercial. Even though we have a DVR, Jeff refuses to stop a show until the commercial break. Rolling my eyes, I walk into the kitchen to get some ice cream.

“Commercial break!” yells Jeff from the living room. “You have approximately three and a half minutes. Let’s hear it.”

I plop down under the Tiffany cooker, throw my feet on the coffee table and sigh. “Where do I start? You want to hear about fake naked boobs, or the make-out session in the hot tub?”

“Make-out session!” Zoë barks.

“Naked boobs,” chimes in Jeff.

“Make-out session it is.” I smile at Jeff. “Well, for starters, this couple hated each other. The girl almost walked off. Next thing you know, after two dirty martinis, a shot of tequila and two shots of Jägermeister, her tongue was halfway down his throat.”

“Was she a stripper?” asks Zoë.

“I don’t think this one was. I think she just likes to drink.”

“Did they go to the Hot Tub Hut?” Jeff, an avid viewer of Matchmaker, knows all of the show’s regular hot spots.

“Oh yeah. The Jungle Room.”

“Is that the one with the safari theme?” Zoë asks.

“No, it’s the one with the waterfall and leopard-print towels,” Jeff answers.

“Do you think they hooked up afterwards?”

“All I know is that when we finished our post-date interviews, he went back to her apartment.”

Zoë leans over and taps me on the leg. “Was he cute?”

“No, he was a total asshole.”

“Just like you, honey.” Zoë kisses Jeff on the cheek.

“I’m perfect. I’m the perfect man,” he says as he blows a raspberry on her shoulder. Zoë screams and tickles his sides.

Jeff really is the perfect man. His hair is blond, but not the streaky blond as if he’d been sitting in a hairdresser’s chair for two hours like most of the men in L.A. It’s the color of cornflakes; simple and wholesome. The first time I met Jeff, in true best-friend fashion, I wanted to hate him. This was Zoë’s first serious boyfriend in the seven years I’d known her. I was afraid our weekly ritual of pancakes at The Griddle, shopping and an early movie would either disappear altogether, or even worse, I’d be relegated to the third-wheel status on our outings. Turns out, when the day came, I heard myself inviting Jeff and meaning it. They’re the only couple I know who make me feel like I’m in on their secret.

They met at a premiere party for a movie Zoë had worked on. She was the stunt double for the lead actress and he was gate-crashing. Before I met Zoë, the words stunt woman always conjured up images of a muscled female with an Adam’s apple who jumps out of moving cars and takes fake bullets. However, Zoë’s a tiny little thing; she can’t be taller than 5’2” or weigh more than one hundred pounds. Most of her stunts involve minor fight scenes, and simple falls that most actresses (who aren’t insured to the hilt) could easily take. Zoë’s dad is major stunt coordinator in the business, and would never let his baby get hurt. That’s why Zoë spends most shoot days as a stand-in, while the actual star is napping or getting her makeup done. I’m not sure about her salary, but she buys real Prada bags, while I settle for the knockoffs from downtown.

At the next commercial, Jeff bounces off the couch to take a bathroom break.

“Guess what?” Zoë beams once Jeff is out of earshot. “I found the perfect guy for you.”

I sigh deeply. “Thanks, that’s sweet. But I’m really not interested.” Definitely not interested. The last blind date I went on was eight years ago right before I moved away from Kansas. I ended up paying; he ended up vomiting in my hydrangeas.

“Come on. We can double date,” Zoë whines.

I spoon the last dregs of ice cream from my bowl and consider getting more. “Still not interested. I go on enough blind dates as it is.”

Zoë eyes me suspiciously. “Please tell me you’re not still hung up on Matt. That was like three years ago.”

I pretend to give this some thoughtful consideration before standing up. “It’s not that. I’m over Matt. I’m just too busy. You know I have no life when I’m working on a show,” I reply, creeping ever closer to the safety zone of the kitchen. “Maybe when I’m done with this job.”

“Okay, well I’m holding you to that,” she says, pointing her finger at me.

“Yes, yes, I’m sure you will. Tell Jeff I said good-night and to put the seat down,” I say as I walk into the kitchen, put my dirty ice-cream bowl in the sink and head to my room.

I really am well and truly over Matt. But the thought of letting my guard down with another guy is as painful as the root canal I had last month. Yes, he was the first and only boyfriend I’ve ever had that I could honestly say I was unabashedly in love with. Yes, we dated for a year and two months (my personal Guinness world record). Yes, we talked about what we’d name our kids and the type of house we’d one day buy together. And yes, he broke my heart when he told me that he needed space because 1) he wanted to focus on writing his screenplays and 2) he wasn’t ready to settle down with just one woman. I guess then, it’s safe to say, I’m still a little gun shy when it comes to dating.

It probably doesn’t help that I’m coming into contact with some pretty base characters thanks to Matchmaker. It’s not that I don’t want to meet anybody…really, but I don’t want to open my heart to just anyone again. And I’m pretty damn sure Zoë ended up with the only normal, loyal, down-to-earth guy in L.A.

People always say that the best birth control is an afternoon spent with your friends’ kids. Well, I think I’ve definitely found the best antidote to dating: working in reality TV. It’s enough to make you celibate.

Text Copyright © 2011 by Natalie Aaron and Marla Schwartz. Reprinted by permission.

Cover Art Copyright © 2011 by Harlequin Enterprises Limited Permission to reproduce text granted by Harlequin Books S.A. Cover art used by arrangement with Harlequin Enterprises Limited. All rights reserved. ® and TM are trademarks owned by Harlequin Enterprises Limited or its affiliated companies, used under license.