She should have known something like this would happen. This was the whole premise of the show, to sabotage people. She wrote the damn idea. Part of Elo worried that they’d spring something on her, but this? Now she had to come up with a lie that would fool Nick and make sense enough for it to be a “secret” to keep from the other contestants. Maybe if she made it convincing enough, she wouldn’t have to worry about Devi finding out.
Elo collapsed onto her bed with a heavy sigh, arms sprawled out, legs hanging over the sides. Her blood raced in her veins, uneasy, fast. She shut her eyes to the draped canopy over the bed, focused on the soft breeze from the AC that ran under the window. Going out there this frustrated would only spell disaster. She had to push everything down, recognize it and let it pass.
Meditation magic, as Elo called it in her head, always worked wonders. Bad day at work? It was hard to feel bad when you gave yourself permission to feel everything and let it go. At least, it worked well for past emotions. Current ones were a little messier. The fresh thoughts and sharp pangs proved difficult to dull; Elo remained like that on her bed until someone knocked on her door.
She opened her eyes, sleepy despite the active state she sat still in.
“Yes?” she called, lifting her head.
“Are you ready?” called someone from the other side of the door. Was it Trish? Maybe Abby.
“Yes--sorry.” Elo grunted and rose from her bed. As she fluffed her hair in the mirror, she called out, “I fell asleep.” Well, she didn’t, but it didn’t feel right for “Ellie” to meditate.
“Oh!” Trish, definitely, laughed. Her giggles sounded like bells ringing, high and constant. “The guys are already downstairs. Want us to wait?”
“I’ll be right there. Just gotta put my shoes on.” Elo bent to grab them from her duffel bag, and slipped on the silver heels as she opened the door. Trish smiled at her, brilliant in a pink tea-length dress.
“You look incredible!” she gasped, covering her mouth. Elo towered over her, but still managed to shrink and blush.
“You’re too sweet. You look like a dream!”
“This feels like a dream.” With silent agreement, Elo glanced down the hall to see the other women by the stairs, chatting, twirling, showing off their shoes and earrings.
“Oh my God,” Elo called when she and Trish joined them. Brooke, especially, pulled out all the stops. She had the same, gold heels from earlier, but now wore a white, floor-length gown and piled her micro-braids in an updo on top of her head. Good lord, what was she, a graphic designer or a model? Even Abby, in a light-blue, fluffy dress, reminded Elo of when she saw a ballet as a kid and dreamed of being a fairy princess.
“I am in love with your outfit, Devi,” gasped Trish when they approached. Devi wore red again, but this time in an elegant pantsuit and a thin, black belt around the waist. She looked powerful, ready to handle anything. Her confidence was almost nerve-wracking.
“And you! Oh my goodness,” Devi cried, grasping Trish’s arm as a way of asking her to stretch out and show off. “And Ellie--wow, incredible!” Elo murmured her thank yous as the compliments went around; it was a nice, mental boost, to stand in a circle of beautiful women and exchange kind words. It made the frustration from before fizzle away easily.
“Well, let’s get down there.” Abby gestured to the stairs. “Do you think any of them are single?” It’s not a dating show, Elo thought to herself, but kept her mouth shut.
“Are any of you single? God….” Devi’s cheeks burned to a dark red as she gestured to everyone, then took the lead to head down the stairs.
“I’ve got a boyfriend,” Trish giggled.
“Shame,” replied Devi. The girls laughed as they descended the stairs, already used to ignoring the camera crew that followed them at a respectful distance. Elo tried to breathe the knots out of her stomach, struggling to return to the peace she nearly found from her meditation earlier.
Downstairs had been partially transformed for a beautiful dinner. As the sun set through the large windows, the dining table had been spread with bread rolls, wine, and champagne set against a crimson table runner. The kitchen buzzed with a few uniformed caterers and cooks putting final touches on what smelled to be a tangy sort of appetizer. It did make her stomach hurt a bit more; the nerves didn’t bode well with hunger.
The guys conglomerated near the bar closer to the kitchen, with Shane behind the counter, shaking a silver tumbler over his shoulder. He spotted them first, and gestured with his elbow to indicate to the other guys to turn around.
Quin finished his martini first, which for whatever reason, Elo found extremely funny, and used that to fuel a welcoming smile.
“Don’t you all clean up nice,” Shane said when he finished shaking the tumbler. Even though he no longer wore a jean jacket, there was something casual about him in the way he wore his suit. His tie loose and crooked, top button undone. It softened his edges, the complete opposite of Ehan, whose outfit somehow boosted in formality from earlier. His shoes shined, bow-tie straight and perfect. This was the marketing guy, right? Made sense for him to look flawless.
Quin looked just as immaculate, though completely unbothered. While Shane’s disheveledness made him look cool and collected, Quin was colder. His relaxed smile, the way he didn’t ogle the girls, was actually rather smooth, in and of itself. Elo couldn’t help but get the impression that his collected composure completely reflected his personality. Had he actually said a word when not prompted by Isaiah yet?
Elo tried not to look at Nick at first. His style landed somewhere between Quin and Shane, in that he went without a tie, but seemed far more nervous about it. He was the only one that deviated from the expected colors of white and black, and instead donned a black shirt under his jacket. She could tell that he watched her out of the corner of her eye.
As the girls started the small talk, Elo cocked her head to the side, and slid into a stool next to Quin, stealing Shane’s massive smile.
“Bartender, too? Not just a chef?” she asked. Quin regarded her politely, but didn’t add to it.
“Sous Chef for now,” Shane corrected, but grinned at her. “Everyone starts somewhere. What’s your poison?” Elo shrugged.
“Usually just wine and champagne,” she said with a laugh. She didn’t think about what Ellie would drink. But if things in this competition were going like she thought, the last thing she wanted was to get drunk. Her soft rejection didn’t phase him, and instead Shane glanced up to someone else to take their drink order as he poured his current concoction into a glass.
Elo jumped when a shout rang behind her: “Appetizers to be served in ten minutes. Please make yourselves comfortable.”
“Thank you!” called Ehan loudly for the group. Elo glanced over her shoulder to watch a blond waiter bow ceremoniously before he returned to his work. “Shall we sit?” Ehan gestured to the large dining table, and slowly, the contestants made their way to their chairs.
With four chairs on either side, and one chair at the head, everyone settled in, with Shane last and at the head. The centerpieces were low and thoughtful, rectangular potted succulents with twinkling lights wrapped around them for an elegant ambiance. Elo opted to sit near one of the ends, across from Brooke and between Shane and Devi. Nick filled in the spot next to Brooke, and made a point to steal Elo’s gaze for a moment. She offered him a polite smile, but the way he looked at her made her heart ice over. Maybe he changed his mind from earlier today and decided he wanted to throw her under the bus after all.
“Wine, then?” Shane asked her, holding up the Merlot from the table. Elo nodded and offered her wine glass, and struggled to listen in on everyone else’s conversations.
Brooke started strong, and opened the discussion with “Who here is single?” Shane flinched during his pour, dripping a drop right on the tablecloth.
“Happily married!” Ehan announced. “I’m missing our two year anniversary for this show, though.”
“Ah, so she’s expecting you to win, then?” Abby blurted from across him. The group gave a courteous laugh.
“I just celebrated my six-month anniversary with my boyfriend last week,” answered Trish, looking for others to reply. No one else admitted to a relationship. Shane kept his head down, Elo noticed, and replaced the bottle of wine. She stared.
“You?” she prompted. His key was in a bed.
“Healing from a bad breakup,” he admitted sheepishly. He shrugged too hard. Elo frowned, then took her wine glass.
“That have to do with your key?” Upon her question, Shane laughed loudly.
“Woah, going there already? I need to be a thousand percent drunk to breach that topic.”
“Sorry,” she said with a nervous giggle. His smile indicated no hard feelings, but her question did prompt some questions from the other contestants.
So far, at least while everyone was on their first drink, and while waiters served the appetizers, no one wanted to open up yet. That didn’t stop people from theorizing, though.
“I found Devi’s key in the fridge,” said Trish. “Did you poison someone? Even by accident.”
“No!” Right as she said this, the attention of the group divided to the sliding doors across the room.
“Hello, contestants!” called Isaiah. He wore the same outfit from earlier, and entered with a glass of champagne. “Hope you’re enjoying the party so far?” He strode to the unoccupied end of the table, smiling brilliantly as he adjusted his thick-rimmed glasses. “Wonderful. Celebrate, get to know each other, and just relax for tonight. Your appetizers are brought to you by….” Elo tuned out a bit there. She wasn’t too much of a foodie, and everything they ate and drank tonight was sponsored by Gourmet Network, so most of the stuff Isaiah spilled was marketing bullshit. Ehan seemed pleased by all the buzzwords, though, and Shane looked like he was going to faint.
“And with that, I now announce that the Confessional Hut, visible just outside the back yard gate, is open for any of your decompression needs. The room is set up so that when you flick on the light, the camera and microphone will automatically start recording, and there will be a little light over the door so no one will interrupt you. You don’t have to worry about anything. We’ll have a producer on standby during waking hours, too, if you need anything.” And, Elo thought bitterly, to prompt tear-jerking questions like, “Do you miss your family” and “Do you think you’re a failure.” She tried not to look too expectant. “I’d like to make a toast!” Isaiah lifted his champagne glass, and the others at the table followed suit, all while giving him their full attention. “Welcome to the show, and good luck. Drink and be merry tonight. You have no idea when you’ll get the chance next!” He laughed, boisterous and addictive, so the contestants followed suit, and bid Isaiah farewell when he left through the sliding glass doors.
“What do you think that meant?” Trish asked, obviously a little nervous.
“That the challenges are going to be really hard,” answered Nick. Oh, he had no idea. Elo didn’t get to work on the details, but she did get to outline them. They weren’t supposed to be easy. She tried to spread out the challenges so that they would be difficult for anyone of any background or caliber, made sure to include different requirements for skills from physical to mental to creative.
“Your appetizer, Miss,” declared a waiter to her side. Elo jumped from the sudden voice, but thanked the man nonetheless. The waiters began to pour out of the kitchen, each holding some sort of mandarin orange salad-thing.
“Vegan, right, Miss?” one of the waiters asked Devi before setting the plate down.
“Me? Oh, um, thank you.” Elo watched Devi turn a dark shade of red as the waiters continued distributing the food, first to the women, then the men. It was pretty cool that they had all the diet information taken care of without even asking them.
The contestants let out their various sounds of surprise, cheerful to be attended to with such a careful eye. The salad wasn’t anything Elo found too fancy, but Shane analyzed it as if he was going to write an essay about it.
“The sunflower seeds are a nice touch, but I wish they were unsalted before they were added,” he said after his second bite. “I like this vinaigrette. I can’t fully tell what it’s made of, though. Not orange, that would be overpowering.” Admittedly, listening to him rattle on about something he liked so much was quite entertaining. Brooke kept laughing at him, and he loved every moment.
When she wasn’t making fun of Shane, though, Brooke looked over to Nick and engaged him in shallow conversation, looking at him up and down with a brilliant smile. Elo tried not to pay too much attention, but Brooke’s melodic laugh was hard to ignore.
The appetizer didn’t take long to eat, since it was such a simple salad. Elo tried not to be the first to finish, but she didn’t talk all that much to Devi, aside from the “oh, this tastes nice” and all that.
“The entree will be served in approximately twenty minutes,” called the same waiter from before.
“Maybe I’ll go get my confessional in,” Elo said, shrugging to the other contestants.
“Oh! Tell me how to use it when you get back!” Abby cried when Elo rose from the table. She let out a courteous laugh, then excused herself out the back.
Elo took no time to get to the hut, since she had been there once today already. The light that indicated someone was in there was on, but since she literally just saw everyone...well, maybe it would be a producer. She pulled open the door, and stopped when she found Grace in the producer chair, waiting.
“Oh, you got the hint! I was going to leave if you didn’t get here by the entree.”
Elo rolled her eyes. “Grace, what the hell is going on?”
“Spit it out.” Elo shut the door behind her, her arms crossed. “I just ruined my good shoes climbing down here to do that stupid ‘tear-jerk’ bit, the least I deserve is some honesty with what this shitshow was.”
“Yeah, alright, come sit.” Grace gestured to the wicker chair across from her, in front of the camera. That damn camera...the only window to normalcy she had; this stupid room with that stupid camera were the only ways she could be herself.
“So this was expected, then?” she asked when she gestured broadly. “Springing this whole Nick thing on me.”
“Not to all of us, honestly.” Grace waved her hand to try and get her friend to calm down as she sat. “Apparently, he was cast before the team found out that you guys worked for the same company. Your resume has it listed as a different company because they re-branded after you left. He has it under the new name. It was an honest oversight.” Elo hated how reasonable that sounded.
“But to keep it secret?”
“Apparently, him commenting on your LinkedIn sparked someone to actually look it up, and they didn’t tell the rest of us, really. So until this afternoon, it was really just a couple producers and the camera-people that knew.” Grace sounded so genuine, like she was actually a little bit sorry. Elo sighed, her shoulders slumping forward a bit.
“But this whole secrets charade….”
“That mini-challenge was always in place. You weren’t in the loop on that because it would give you an unfair advantage,” said Grace. The girls frowned at each other. “Did you at least like Nick when you worked with him? He’s not a weirdo, is he?”
“Oh, yeah. He’s fine.” She shook her head. “I--we were….” Possibly a little too close for comfort, flirting a little too much. Well, Elo was fine with it. Nick was fine with it. Elo’s girlfriend at the time didn’t like it. Nothing actually happened, but…. “We were friends.” It didn’t seem like Grace caught her fumble. “It was just--just really surprising. And I don’t know what I can tell him that he’s going to buy.”
“You have a little more time for that, at least,” Grace said. “Well, can I get your confessional about the rescue, though?”
Elo rolled her eyes. “No guarantee about the tears.”
“Then maybe get drunk and come back?” The girls shared a laugh.
“I don’t cry when I get drunk, and I don’t plan on getting drunk in the first place.”
Grace raised a brow, a mischievous smile spreading across her lips. She leaned forward, as if spreading gossip. “Afraid you’ll blurt out something you’re not supposed to?”
“No, actually. I’m an excellent liar when I drink. I just...don’t think I want to start off the competition that way. I do actually want to win.” And she had a feeling something else was coming, with the way Isaiah left tonight. She couldn’t put her finger on what, but in any case, she didn’t want to start her first morning in a new house hungover. She’d have a hard enough time sleeping in a new bed, in a new place, without the usual sounds of her neighbors fighting or the racoons digging in the bins.
Grace sighed. “Okay, so tell me about the rescue.”
Elo adjusted herself on the chair to face the camera a little more sincerely, and gave a few beats to make it easier for the editors to cut.
“Second Chance at Life Rescue is really important to me. I’ve been volunteering for them since I was legally allowed to, really. My mom and dad met there, fell in love as volunteers. If I had the grades, I would have gone into vet medicine and become a doctor for one of their facilities.” Elo gave a sad smile. “But anyway, that wasn’t in the cards for me.
“Second Chance played a big part in my life once when I was really little, maybe six or seven. A neighbor dog, a husky, bit me while we were playing.” Elo gestured to her lower lip. “I still have the scar. I needed ten stitches, and I just….” She blinked, looking away from the camera. “I remember a lot of blood, but not much else. We asked the neighbors to help cover the medical expenses, but--” She sighed. “They wanted to put the dog down. If it weren’t for Second Chance, Star would have died, just because I got too rough when playing with him.” She’d repeated the memory so many times, she should have been quite distant from it. But really, she hardly knew what happened, not until she was sixteen and saw him again.
“Ten years later, I started volunteering at Second Chance at Life Rescue, and was reunited with Star once again.” Thinking about him did make her face burn a little. “He was kind of a mascot for them, since my parents were so heavily involved. He was the poster child.” She laughed to herself. “When I saw him again, he remembered me.” The way his coarse fur felt beneath her fingertips when he rushed up to the kennel, the way he rolled onto his back to expose his belly. His tongue lolling out the side of his mouth, getting drool on the concrete. She smiled. “I got to care for him, clean his kennel every morning before school, feed him, play with him under the supervision of the officers, for one last year.” Elo glanced back to the camera with a breath, suddenly remembering that this was a performance, not just a walk down memory lane.
“I got to hold Star when he died. Cancer.” That part of the memory did sting quite a bit more. It was the first time she ever experienced death. She stared into the lens, not quite seeing the camera, but more the cloudy blue eyes of one of her first childhood friends. Elo pursed her lips.
“He died old, like he was supposed to.” Elo took a moment to look up to the ceiling lights and blink the away moisture that gathered in her eyes, a moment she was sure they would keep in after editing, but it was enough of a breather to let any potential tears recede. She straightened her shoulders and continued, “Second Chance gave him ten more years.” Her eyes still stung with emotion, though. “And they gave me my first friend back.”
It took Grace quite a few moments before she moved, and nodded to Elo.
“I think that’s good,” she said softly. “And because of all the great content you gave us earlier today, I’m not going to make you re-do it with actual tears.” It was sort of a joke. Elo gave her a small laugh anyway, then shook her head.
“Okay, I’m done. Going back out there.” Grace let her stand up to leave, and only offered her a little wave.
Elo shut the door behind herself and glanced up to the beautiful manor, only to raise her brows in surprise when she saw Nick make his way down the hill on the dirt path. The sun barely lit the hills in the distance, making him look more and more like a shadow the more he descended.
“Oh, I was just about to get you,” Nick called. “Entree is being served.”
“Oh, yeah, I’m on my way.” She smiled and gestured ahead.
“You left the light on.”
“No, there’s a producer in there. They were wrapping up and asked me questions and stuff.” He still walked toward her as she made her way up the hill, and didn’t turn around until they met up.
“Asking you questions, like, who are you, what’s your name….” He hesitated giving her a smile, as if asking permission to joke about it. Elo gave him a short chuckle and tucked some of her hair behind her ear as she started the way up the hill with him.
“So--” Something he would buy, something he would buy…. Elo glanced over her shoulder; the light was still on, Grace was still inside. And there weren’t any cameras around. Another moment she could maybe be herself, and she had to fill it with lies. She sighed. “Ellie is a stage name, obviously. I’m doing a character study.” Oof, that sounded weak.
“A character study?” Nick echoed.
“For a part. I’m, um, pitching an idea for a show, and my--my agent said that I needed more proof that it was a good concept.” What in the world was she saying?
“Agent--you got an agent?” They approached the gate, but didn’t go inside, instead opting to hesitate where the cameras left them alone for a little while. Except for the security cameras. But if they didn’t catch the first part of the conversation, Elo was doubtful they’d try to include this bit in the episode.
Instead, she smiled at Nick, and continued with her bullshit story. “I’m pitching a character-driven story. And, well, I got the time off work, and the show pays as long as it airs, and I could use the money to fund production….”
“That’s way more reasonable than I thought,” Nick admitted with a laugh. If only it was. “Wow, an agent! That’s really cool. I know you were looking for one of those for a while.” Back when she thought she had a sliver of a chance of being an actress and had a bullshit job at that tech company? Yeah. Different times...different dreams. Elo shrugged.
“Well, there you go. I applied as Ellie--and obviously, they know I’m not her, but the persona I gave them meant that it would be good for TV.”
Nick nodded, smiling gently at her. “Wow. We really need to catch up.” He laughed, then grabbed for the knob of the gate. “And did I hear right, that you’re no longer with…?” Elo could have laughed if her nerves weren’t pulled taut like a string.
“Yeah. After I got let go, all the stress….” She shrugged. “Couldn’t handle the strain.”
“Nothing to do with jealousy?” She opted not to respond to that, and instead led the way inside.