The young woman in the pink smock smacked Zack’s face with a powder puff, oblivious to the low growl rumbling in his throat.
“Mr. Bailey, we have to talk about the script.” Megan Danbury, the host of “Do It Herself,” appeared at his side and waved a sheaf of papers in front of him.
“What script?” He stood and ripped off the lavender sheet the makeup woman had fastened around his neck. Lavender with little flowers.
“I know my show looks spontaneous, but every segment is planned ahead. You won’t have to memorize the exact words, but...”
“Stop right there. All I agreed to do was refinish an old kitchen cupboard.”
His brother was going to pay for getting him into this. Cole was the one who’d agreed to be a guest on the local cable program. It was supposed to be good free publicity for their construction business but Cole had ducked out of it. He was in Wyandotte that day preparing a bid on some school renovations. The financial end of the business was his twin’s responsibility, but Zack would rather shovel dirt all day than do this TV bit.
He’d had enough of showbiz already, but the Danbury woman was too fired up to notice his lack of enthusiasm.
“I have all the steps worked out,” Megan said. “If you’ll just scan this...”
“What do you mean, all the steps worked out?”
“I’ve assembled all the materials and planned the procedures.”
“Then why do you need me?”
He was hoping she’d tell him to get lost. He had enough trouble without making an idiot of himself on television. Baily Construction could always use a publicity boost, and his grandfather was holding Zack’s shares in Bailey Baby Products over his head to pressure him into getting married. Zack wanted nothing to do with the company but keeping the shares in the family meant his CEO mom would keep her job.
“It’s just good programming to have guests,” she said lamely.
He raised one eyebrow, a little trick he could do but his fraternal twin couldn’t.
“Actually it was my producer’s idea,” Megan admitted.
“Oh, yeah, your brother-in-law, Ed Garrison. He sent some business our way last year.” Which was why Zack felt obligated to be there, as powdery as a sugar doughnut and awkwardly out of place.
Zack looked her over and liked what he saw better than what he’d heard. She was a generic TV type, definitely a photogenic performer with long ash-blond hair and intense blue eyes. A tiny scar above one eyebrow was her only imperfection.
“We’re on a tight schedule here,” she said, as they walked toward the main set. “Normally we tape live before a studio audience and the edited show airs the next day, but the set was being remodeled earlier this week, and we’re behind schedule.”
“You’re gorgeous.” He said it matter-of-factly so she wouldn’t misinterpret. “You don’t need me.”
“My show is geared to women, and Ed thinks the audience will respond well to a male expert.”
“If I’m the expert, why do I need a script?”
“Please.” It was an order, not an appeal.
“Okay, I’ll take a look at it.”
“Let me go over it with you.”
“Ms. Danbury, I can read.”
“Yes, yes, I’m sorry. I get a little hyper before a show. Be sure to call me Megan. We try for an informal atmosphere. If you have any questions...”
“I’ll raise my hand.”
She was wearing jeans—designer jeans too nice to mess up doing a refinishing job—and a pale blue shirt with the sleeves rolled up. She’d left enough buttons open for her cleavage to tease without being blatant. When she turned away to give him a moment’s peace with the script, he wondered whether she could bend over in her tight pants. If she did, he wouldn’t mind watching the view.
He skimmed a few pages and swore softly to himself. She must have done her research in a thirty-year-old home handicraft book. If he followed her cumbersome directions, he really would look inept.
The studio was a barnlike room with lights and cables everywhere. The audience clustered together on metal folding chairs. Did they get paid to watch the show?
For no logical reason at all, his palms were sweating, and his stomach felt funny. True, he’d been dreading his TV debut, but he hadn’t expected pregame jitters.
He couldn’t bolt now without looking ridiculous. He dug his nails into his palms and tensed every muscle in his body, then forced himself to relax. He wasn’t going to be stripped naked and tortured with hot pokers. He could walk a steel beam ten stories up, so he certainly could bluff his way through this, no matter that he couldn’t remember a single word from her script.
Ed scurried around waving a clipboard but not consulting it. He gave Zack a pat on the shoulder and a jumble of instructions that boiled down to pay attention and take your cues from me.
The cupboard Zack was supposed to transform was a shabby section ripped from the wall of a kitchen that was being remodeled on the show. Most builders would scrap it. He had a few questions but didn’t get a chance to ask them. Ed hustled him behind a chalk line to keep him out of camera range until his time came.
“Make your entrance when Megan says, ‘Let’s welcome our guest to “Do It Herself.’ “ Timing is everything in TV. Move briskly. Smile like you’re glad to be here.”
That hit close to home. The last time he’d been this reluctant to do a job was when he flushed a skunk out of a garage he and Cole were building.
Ed told a few stale jokes to warm up the guests, who were already squirming on the metal seats, then had them practice applauding. Lukewarm didn’t cut it with the producer. He wanted thirty pairs of hands to resound.
The timing was tricky. Megan strolled onto the set just as Ed finally got some volume out of the hand clappers.
She was smooth. He had to give her that. Her smile came across as genuine, and she managed to sound enthusiastic without phony perkiness.
Zack resented Ed’s nudge in the small of his back, then realized Megan was waiting for him.
“Our guest is a little shy. Let’s give him a big welcoming hand,” she said.
He walked into the glare of the lights, conscious of a trickle of sweat between his shoulder blades. Already his blue plaid flannel shirt was sticking to his back. He couldn’t remember a word of the script, and his mouth was so dry his tongue was sticking to the roof of his mouth. What in blazes was wrong with him? He hadn’t felt this whipped when the Shanghai flu knocked him off his feet for a week last winter.
“Tell us, Zack, what’s the first thing you’d do?” She waited expectantly.
“Haul this piece of junk to the dump.” He hadn’t intended to be so blunt, but the rickety old cupboard was no antique.
She laughed. “That’s not what we’re about, Zack. Our viewers enjoy turning castoffs into treasures. Now if you’ll show us how to begin stripping off this unsightly green paint...” She poured paint stripper from the can into a metal mixing bowl, expecting him to take it.
“There’s a lot to do before we begin stripping, Megan,” he said, glad his well-stocked toolbox was on the floor beside the cupboard. “First we take off the doors and remove the hardware.”
“I’m sure that isn’t necessary, Zack.” Obviously that step wasn’t in the script.
A few people in the audience must have thought their difference of opinion was funny. Or maybe they were laughing at her tone of voice. She was definitely not pleased.
He started to remember the script. He was supposed to smear on some stripper so it would cut through the paint during the commercial break, not that it would work that fast.
He flipped open his big box and took out a battery- powered tool to remove the screws holding on the hinges.
“I’ll have one of these doors off in a minute. You can get a table ready for stripping, Megan.” He was starting to get into the swing of it. Giving her orders helped. “If you do this at home, folks, always remove the metal hardware before using any kind of paint remover. And remember, wear rubber gloves. You’re dealing with some powerful chemicals.”
Zack resisted an impulse to glance at his watch. He didn’t need to look at the beautiful blonde to know she was seething with disapproval. She didn’t like last-minute script changes, but she was pretending to go along, hovering beside him with the bowl of stripper.
“We’ll be right back to show you the easy way to remove old paint,” she said in her professionally chipper voice.
Ed called out that they were off.
“You’re ruining my show,” she said angrily, forgetting the audience leaning forward on their chairs, maybe hoping for a brawl. “I gave you a script.”
“You invited me here to show how an expert would do the job.”
“So you know more than the people who write books?”
“Assuming I’d do a stupid project like this—and I wouldn’t—my time is money. It takes less time to do a job right.”
Ed hustled a couple of guys to set up a folding table and cover it with newspaper and a sheet of plastic. Megan whispered to the producer but didn’t seem to get the answer she wanted.
Zack wanted to walk away, but when the program credits rolled, their company name would be listed. He had to get through the rest of the show. He put a cupboard door on the table and steeled himself for round two.
When they were on again, she was still holding the bowl of stripper as though she’d forgotten she had it. He did give her acting credit for turning on the charm. She gave him a two-hundred-watt smile and launched him into the next segment of the program.
“Do this in a well-ventilated place,” she said, as Zack stood over the battered old door on the table. “You’ll need an inexpensive brush and a...ugh.”
The big shaggy dog streaked toward them just as Megan was handing Zach the stripper. Prince wanted to play, and he picked her as his playmate. He bounded into her and sent the bowl flying.
Megan shrieked, the trainer scolded and lunged for the dog, and Zack took a direct hit. The thickened chemicals spilled across the front of his shirt.
He reacted instantly and ripped off all the buttons in his haste to shed the shirt before the stripper soaked through to his skin.
“Oh, oh, my.” Megan said.
“I guess we’ll need more stripper,” he said mildly, feeling more in control now that he’d handled a situation that definitely wasn’t in her script.
He was sure of one thing—this was his first, last and only appearance as a guest expert.
“Of course, there’s no reason to waste all this.” He picked up the ruined shirt and applied it directly to the cupboard door.
“Oh,” Megan said again.
The dog was led away, Megan rallied and launched into mostly accurate directions on removing paint, and Zack stood bare to the waist trying to pretend he cared a rat’s rear about stripping wood that was pitted and scarred by hard usage.
The lights were hot, his chest itched, and he wanted out. Too bad the stripper hadn’t landed on her. The show would be a lot livelier if she’d had to rip off her shirt.
“Don’t you think so, Zack?”
“What?” He’d missed most of her lecture, probably straight from the script.
“There’s no reason a woman can’t renovate her home without help from a male,” she repeated.
“No reason at all, Megan. Just hire someone for the tricky stuff and go to it. But any man in his right mind should take cover if he sees a woman with stripper.”
The audience laughed. She didn’t take it lying down.
“The only stripper most men care about is one who takes her clothes off,” she said wryly, getting a laugh of her own.
“If you mean no sensible man wants to waste time on a beat-up old board...”
The audience roared. He looked at his watch.
“Our guest has been Zack Bailey of Bailey Construction. Thank you for being with us today, Zack,” she said with a noticeable lack of enthusiasm. “We’ll be right back with hints on staining stripped wood.”
He bolted, grabbing his toolbox and leaving the TV studio, indifferent to the cool spring rain pelting his bare shoulders. He never again wanted any part of a fiasco like that. At least none of his friends would watch that home-handicraft-for-girls show. He certainly never would, not even to see its easy-on-the-eyes host.
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