Six weeks later
My stomach was churning.
The sun was beating down overhead, my yellow shirt was blinding me, the backpack on my shoulders weighed a ton, and I was pretty sure I was going to throw up as one of the off-camera assistants pointed us toward the starting line.
"Here we go," Brodie said with excitement, shaking my arm. "This is it. Are you ready?"
"I’m going to barf if you keep shaking me," I muttered.
"You should have eaten something," Brodie said, not an ounce of sympathy in him. He put a hand to his eyes, shielding the sunlight, and watched for the other teams to arrive. "Think we’re the fittest ones in the race?"
"Don’t know, don’t care," I told him. "We get paid the same if we come in second or dead last, except if we come in dead last, we get a three-week vacation in Acapulco." Apparently as you were kicked off of the race, you were sent to a private beach house in Acapulco so no spoilers would leak onto the internet. As soon as I’d heard that? My motivation to compete had pretty much disappeared. Money and the chance to lounge on the beach for weeks? Who wanted to sleep in airports when I could sleep in freaking Acapulco?
He shot me a nasty look, as if reading my thoughts. "Katy, you’d better race like you’ve never raced before, or so help me—"
I raised a hand. "I will. Just don’t expect me to be excited right now, okay? The only thing I’m going to be racing for is some Pepto."
He was right, though; I should have eaten something that day. Of course, I hadn’t counted on being quite so nervous.
We’d arrived for the casting call last night and had been sequestered in the hotel rooms given to us. No contact with the outside world for the next three weeks, according to our non-disclosure agreements. No cellphones, no email, nothing. I’d had to temporarily put my business on hiatus, and it rankled a bit, but I just thought of that twenty grand. I’d make it up to the customers I’d disappointed somehow.
As soon as we’d woken up that morning, we’d been dragged into a whirlwind of preparations for the show. A casting assistant had been assigned to us and had gone over our bags one more time, removing everything that might interfere with ‘the experience.’ No sunglasses. No hats unless approved first by the network. No clothing except the mandatory gear they’d given us. One backpack apiece. No food or drink, nothing that would set off airport security, and for me, no bright lipsticks. They’d even gone so far as to assign me a hairstyle – the two dorky pigtails I’d worn for the initial casting call. They wanted to create a ‘look,’ they’d told us. We were characters on a show, and characters needed a memorable look. It was in the contracts, and I’d had no choice but to comply. My look, unfortunately, seemed to be backwoods cowgirl.
That was probably my fault. Stupid pigtails at the audition.
Our clothing was not so bad. The show had an athletic sponsor, and so everything we wore was branded with the same logo, right down to my sports bra and panties. Each team was assigned several shirts with the name written across the back, and a color for their team. Brodie and I were yellow, and I had black leggings with a yellow racing stripe, a yellow t-shirt with KATY written in big letters across the back, a matching hoodie, and a puffy yellow jacket for colder climates.
Once we’d been patted down, we were dragged to pre-show interviews. The network itself took at least an hour’s worth of interview footage with me, one with me and Brodie together, and then we’d been rushed around to a few different radio and TV press junkets for use in the future.
And then we were dashed into a sedan and drove to where we currently stood – a football stadium. Not just any stadium, but the Cowboys Stadium. Row after row of seating loomed over us as we walked out onto the field, cameramen circling us.
We stopped in the end zone, like we’d been instructed, and waited for the other teams to slowly trickle out. We were the first ones on the field, which would give us a prime opportunity to gawk at the other teams as they arrived. Nearby, cameramen tested their equipment while others filmed us for intro shots. In the distance, the host sat in a director’s chair getting his makeup touched up.
I already wanted to collapse from nerves. Who knew that a game would be so stressful?
Brodie nudged my arm again. "Look. Here comes the first team."
I couldn’t help but look, since Brodie was trying to drive his elbow into my upper arm. We’d marathon-watched the two previous seasons of The World Races to try and figure out the kinds of people they were going to cast as our opponents. Like casting had mentioned, they definitely had a type of character they liked to cast: newlyweds, guy best friends, girl best friends (which they wanted to hook up with the guy best friends, naturally), a dating couple, siblings, a child-parent relationship, a g*y couple, a D-list celebrity couple of some kind, and then a ‘comic relief’ couple. Sometimes the comic relief was a pair of rednecks. Sometimes they were nerds. They always did terrible in the challenges, since they weren’t picked for athleticism.
Sometimes the team dynamics overlapped. The comic relief could be siblings, and then that would leave room for another couple or another celebrity or something. I was told from a gushy assistant that the producers liked to mix things up a little, but they stuck to stereotypes overall. We were creating a ‘story,’ she reminded me.
Like I was going to be able to forget? Characters. Story. Everyone in casting mentioned it every five minutes.
"Girl besties," Brodie murmured at my side. "Or lesbians. They look pretty strong."
"Way to be a creep, Brodie. Now you sound like casting." But I admit, I tried to figure out their stereotype, too. They did look strong. I didn’t recognize them, which meant they weren’t the celebrities, so they had to be the female best friends team. One wore a shirt that said ‘Summer’ and the other said ‘Polly.’
They stood at a marked spot a fair distance from us, and the next team came out.
"Here’s someone else. They’re obviously mother and son," Brodie told me, nudging me and staring at a couple walking in behind the two female athletes. ‘Wendi’ and ‘Rick’ were easy to pick out, I decided. Wendi had gray hair and a matronly figure, and Rick, well, Rick was a skinny kid with long hair in his face, big glasses, and skinny jeans. The entire effect was supposed to make him look trendy, but it just made him look incredibly awkward instead.
More teams flooded out of the entrance, pair by pair. We saw Hal and Stefan, dressed in flaming pink shirts, holding hands as they walked in. Cute. I liked them already. Then there was a pair of blondes with enormous hair and loud voices that talked with their hands – Steffi and Cristi. Myrna and Fred were the elderly couple, though they looked pretty fit despite the white hair. There were a pair of alpha males named Joel and Derron that went into a military stance as soon as they arrived, which made Brodie frown. My brother didn’t like competition, and that pair looked like they’d be tough to beat.
I was relieved to see a man and a woman with matching mullets, cowboy boots, tight wranglers, and kerry green team shirts. Kissy and Rusty. Thank god. The comic relief wasn’t us.
"Hey, isn’t that Dean Woodall?" Brodie leaned in to my ear. "The Olympian?"
I perked up. I’d seen him on TV before. "You think so?"
"Yeah. Not happy about that. They sure did cast a lot of athletic people this year."
"I think he’s retired," I told Brodie. I remembered him from Endurance Island last year. I’d been addicted to the TV, fascinated by the romance that played out between him and a fellow contestant. Sure enough, Abby was at Dean’s side, dressed in a purple shirt to match his. Her curly hair was pulled into a loose ponytail on top of her head and when they came into line, Dean’s arm went around her waist. Double cute. They were clearly the newlyweds and the celebrities.
Or so I thought.
I tore my gaze away from Dean and Abby to glance at my brother, Brodie. "What now?"
"The celebrities," Brodie breathed, staring down the field. "Holy shit, they got Finding Threnody."
"Huh?" The name sounded vaguely familiar, but I was more of a country girl. I was short and couldn’t see around Brodie, since he’d moved and was now standing directly in front of me and blocking my view. "Who’s Finding Threnody? It’s a band?"
"They’re huge," he told me. "Don’t you know the song ‘Dark Stars?’ ‘Worm in the Apple?’"
Um, okay. "Doesn’t sound like my kind of thing. I don’t like rock." When he paced in front of me again, I pinched his arm. "Stand still, damn it. You’re not a freaking window."
Brodie sighed and moved back a step, giving me my view. Of course, it wasn’t an unobstructed view, because the camera crew was hovering around them as they sauntered down the field, toward the starting line. It was clear that they were designated to be stars of the show. That was fine with me. I studied them. Both were wearing black as their team color, and the woman had hair that was dyed black with bright red ends. Her nose was pierced and she had small tattoos along her neck and sleeving her arms. The man had lip piercings, eyebrow piercings, and his arms were just as heavily tatted as hers. The man frowned at the group, while the woman gave us all an arch smile.
Their t-shirts read LIAM and TESLA.
Of course. Total rock star names. I could feel myself giving a mental eye roll as the woman sauntered up to the starting line and stuck her hip out, revealing jeans covered in chains and zippers. Naturally. "I can tell you right now I’ll be glad when they’re gone," I told Brodie. I’d taken an instant dislike to the two rockers. Maybe it was their attitudes, or the way the cameras crawled all around them, but they didn’t seem to have the fun sort of spirit that the others brought. Hell, even Dean and Abby – who I’d thought were the celebrities this round – had seemed genuinely excited to be here.
Those two? Just acted a bit like they were slumming it to be around the rest of us. Which got on my nerves. Contrary to what everyone thinks about country girls, I’m not the most friendly and open type. I may have my hair in pigtails and wear jean shorts, but that’s as far as the stereotype goes. You’ve got to prove yourself to me before I like you. And right now? Liam and Tesla were on my ‘do not like’ list until proven otherwise.
I glanced around, but no one else was coming out of the stadium. I quietly counted teams as the cameras did another pan of us lined up on the starting line, scoping each other out. Ten teams. Ten men, ten women. I wouldn’t be the fastest woman, I guessed, judging by the competition, but I wouldn’t be the slowest, either, so that was fine with me. And Brodie was fit. Our odds were decent.
"Makeup! It’s hot as piss out here and my forehead is shining. Where’s the goddamn makeup artist?"
All eyes immediately turned in the direction of the angry voice. My jaw dropped a little as I saw Chip Brubaker, the normally smiling host of this show and Endurance Island. As I watched him stalk down the field, he grabbed a powder puff out of a woman’s hand and dabbed at his forehead. “When I say makeup, you come running. Understand?” he yelled again.
I leaned in and told Brodie, "Guess his smiles are just for the camera.” I saw Abby roll her eyes at the host’s antics.
Chip finished patting down his face, examined it in the mirror held up for him, and then strode past the scurrying assistants. Someone pointed for him to stand on an X marked on the grass, and he did. As soon as he stepped there, it was like a light switch was flipped. His face lit up in a friendly smile and he grinned at us as if we were his new best friends. Cameramen immediately circled, filming.