Charade (Page 1)

Wicked Games (Games #1)
Author: Jessica Clare

by Jill Myles, Jessica Clare

Chapter One

I’m looking forward to the competition. Test myself against elements… and the other players. Romance the ladies? If I need to. Anything to come out on top, but I’m not specifically looking to meet a girl. I’m looking to win.—Pre-Game Interview with Dean Woodall

In the four years that I’d worked for MediaWeek magazine, my boss had never seemed pleasant. I suspected she wasn’t the smiley type unless she was signing your pink slip. Seeing that many white teeth in her mouth at once as I entered her office? I’d be lying if I didn’t find it a little bit creepy.

“Hello, Abigail,” she cooed at me. “So very nice to see you again.” She took me by the elbow and led me into the room, shutting the door behind her.

Another ominous sign. Well, that and my full name. All my friends called me Abby. My boss? She only called me Abby when… well, come to think of it, she’d never called me Abby.

I noticed another man was sitting in the room, a wide-brimmed adventurer’s hat in his hands. He wore a shirt that looked like it had been yanked off of a safari tour and grinned at me, flashing more white teeth in my direction.

All these teeth. I was surely in trouble.

“Hi,” I said lamely, not sure what else to do, and plunked down in the only open chair. My palms were sweating already, and I wiped them against my jeans. “What’s going on?”

Jeannie trotted back around to her side of the desk, her heels clacking on the tile floor. She sat in her chair delicately and swung around to face me, clasping her hands in front of her and giving a sidelong glance to the stranger in the room. “Abigail, I’ve called you in because… we might have an interesting assignment for you. What’s your current workload look like?”

Oh boy. If the boss had an ‘interesting’ assignment for me, I was totally doomed. I smiled through my pain and tried to sound busier than I really was. “I have a couple of editorial pieces I’m working on, and that two-page spread for the fashion article next week—”

She waved her hands at me. “Oh. That stuff? Thank goodness. We can put you on something important, then. Mr. Matlock here will be working with you on this assignment.”

The man in question looked over at me, and I could have sworn he was checking out my legs. “She’d be good, I think. Seems to be in decent shape, young, and reasonably attractive.”

“Reasonably? You sweet talker you,” I said before thinking better of it. “I bet you tell that to all the ladies.”

To my relief, he laughed it off. “And a personality. Even better.”

Why the heck was my appearance some sort of criteria for the job? I did book reviews for an entertainment magazine, for Pete’s sake. I shot my boss a confused look. “What sort of assignment are we talking about?”

The man leaned forward and grinned again, as if sharing a secret. “I’m Jim Matlock.”

Obviously I was supposed to know who he was. I racked my brain, thinking.

The look on his face grew vaguely insulted as moments passed and I remained blank. He glanced at Jeannie before sitting back again.

“Jim Matlock,” Jeannie stressed. “From Endurance Island. Executive producer.”

“The game show?” I was surprised. “Really?” I’d caught a few episodes here and there of the first season—it had been all about pretty people on the beach, jumping through colorful hoops and eating bugs to win a big cash prize. Not really my thing, but I’d heard bits and pieces about it here and there. Mostly about how last year’s finale had been a total letdown. Not that I could say that to him. “I hear you’re about to start shooting season two,” I said, deciding on tact.

“In the Cook Islands,” he agreed, and the mega-watt smile returned. “I’m afraid the network is a little concerned about ratings, however, so we’re resorting to a couple of different strategies in order to create a bit more buzz about the second season.”

“Oh?” I said politely, wondering how this led to me. “And you want me to give you a favorable review?” I guessed, though a few things didn’t add up. The show was for the fall season and we were just hitting spring at the moment—far too early for a review. And a fake gushing review? Jeannie knew I hated those—I was known for my scathing book reviews and not my glowing ones. They didn’t call me ‘Abby the Book Bitch’ for nothing.

“We want you to write, but not really for a review,” Mr. Matlock began slowly.

Jeannie cut to the chase. “Jim has had a high-profile player drop out at the last minute, and filming starts in three days. The parent company of his network—you know they own the magazine, darling—has decided to stick an insider into the show to give a ‘first hand’ exclusive experience to the thing.”

“Can you run? Swim?” Matlock asked me.

My heart sank and my stomach gave a nervous flutter. “I don’t really want to be on TV.” God no. See my name mocked and reviled in the same magazine that I wrote in every week, mocking and reviling others? No thank you.

“There’s a rather lucrative book deal attached to this after the show,” Jeannie added in a sly voice. “With a guaranteed push at all major media outlets.”

“And a TV special,” Jim added.

A book deal? I swallowed hard at that. It would be a lot of money. A lot. And infamy. Money and infamy, always hand in hand. I glanced over at Jeannie, but her slender jaw was set in a firm manner that told me that if I refused, I wouldn’t find myself with very many more assignments at MediaWeek. Not that she could fire me if I didn’t do it… but she could conveniently edge me out the door over time.

Let’s see—fame and fortune and six weeks of island misery and eating bugs? Or no fame, no fortune, and one severely pissed off boss?

I swallowed hard. “Why me out of the team? Why not Roger? Or Tim?” Both were handsome, young, athletic, and gay. Tim was my best friend and a media darling if there ever was one. Me, not so much. I tended to blend in with the wallpaper, and I preferred it that way.

“We need a female contestant,” Matlock said without hesitation. “The one we lost was female, and we need the teams evenly balanced. Young and reasonably attractive helps as well.”

That did narrow down the staff quite a bit. Old Mabel that did the crossword and Gertie that set the TV listings probably wouldn’t be good picks. All the others I could think of had small children, so I was the only candidate. It really grated that they kept saying ‘reasonably,’ though. Jeezus. Way to make me feel like their last resort. “Uh-huh.”

“Here’s the deal, Abigail,” Jeannie said in a blunt voice. “You go out there and join their little game show and don’t tell anyone about the deal. You’ll meet up with production assistants—that will allow you to record a video diary every day, exclusive for MediaWeek’s usage. You stay until you’re voted out, and when you come back, you do the press tour like a good girl, write your articles that give us an exclusive inside look, and then you write your book. It gives MediaWeek a nice bit of leverage and free advertising, and Matlock’s show gets a boost as well. That’s how the parent company wants it. Do you understand?”

I understood. It kind of sounded like the entire thing had been decided long before I even went into the room. I glanced over at Matlock and found him studying my figure again, and I resisted the urge to wrap my arms around my torso and hide myself. “I’m uh… not a hundred percent familiar with the show. How long would I be out there?”

“Six weeks if you stay the entire time. Someone will be voted off every four days. The show starts with twenty-four people with fifteen elimination rounds total. After seven group eliminations, we’ll go down to singles for the last ten and two will go to the final vote for the two million dollars.”

Holy shit. Two million dollars on the line—I felt dizzy. “Can I win the millions?”

“Possibly. You’ll have to be really good.” He gave me a faint, smug smile.

Interesting. They were going to give me a shot at two million? Suddenly I was a lot more interested. “What if I’m the first one voted out?”

“You won’t be,” he said. Again, the patronizing smile. “Other than that, it will be played out as the game goes. If you’re eliminated early, you can give everyone a behind-the-scenes look at the Loser Lodge.”

A six-week island getaway and a book deal any way I looked at it. I glanced over at Jeannie and she was giving me a death glare. Islands or Boss from Hell. Coconut Hell or Editorial Hell. Sand in my swimsuit crack every day for two months, or Jeannie up my ass for the rest of my life.

I looked over at Matlock and gave him a game shrug. “Let’s give it a shot, then.”

“That’s a girl,” he crowed, and Jeannie smiled smugly.

Yeah, joy. Yay. Me on TV.


The next two days were a whirlwind, but the magazine was there to help out. There were things to be covered for and trained on (my weekly articles), a cat to be boarded (dropped off at Tim’s), utilities and rent to be paid ahead of time (so I wasn’t homeless or without lights when I returned), and an endless round of physicals and vaccinations for the actual show. Just when I needed a nap—or to run away screaming from all of it—I was shuffled onto a charter plane and flown out to Auckland, New Zealand. One of the assistants continually shoved objects into my hands as we rode on the plane. She asked me a million questions and continually handed me release forms and waivers. No piece of information was sacred—from the last time I’d had my period to my blood type to my swimsuit size to did I need a bikini wax before the show filmed?

I admit I freaked out a little over the bikini-wax thing. Exactly how much were they going to be showing on this game show? But I sucked it up and got waxed because the alternative was worse.

It went downhill as we progressed. Every time I made a concession, I had to give three more. While we were on the plane, the assistant sidelined me with something else. “And here’s your bag of clothing for the next six weeks.”

It looked really, really small. Unnerved, I picked it up and began to dig through it. The fabrics that touched my hand felt soft, lycra-ish. Swimsuits, I guessed, and a shirt or two. Nothing warm, nothing concealing. Too kind of them. “Great, thanks.” My enthusiasm was evident in my voice.

“You need to change before we get on the plane,” she chirped at me, beaming, and led me toward the nearest bathroom. “Strip off all of your old clothing and put on what’s provided for you. We have corporate sponsors and you have to wear their logos.”

Made sense, even if I wasn’t crazy about it. But, yay bathroom. Of course, I discovered a few minutes later that the show was going to be a bit of a lesson in humility and identity.

The shirt I pulled out? Bright, vivid pink with my name—ABBY—emblazoned across both the front and back in bold white letters. I suppose that was to help the audience figure out who we were easily. Lovely. With a grimace I tossed the shirt aside and dug into the bag again. A string bikini—same pink. Same garish name across the backside of the panties. Yeah, well that wouldn’t be getting much use, despite my new (and painful) hair-free bikini line. I tossed it aside as well.