by Sheryl Wright
Can love found on television become true love?
When the producers of the new TV reality show, Queen of Hearts, receive a last minute cancellation by one of the show’s contestants, they know their show is in jeopardy of never airing at all. Desperate for a solution, they set out to convince helicopter pilot Ally Parker to join her cousin Pam on the program. Ally reluctantly agrees, but only after being assured that she’ll be eliminated in the first round.
Erin Bogner isn’t looking for love either. Convinced by her employer to be a secret plant on the show, Erin’s job is to weed out the contestants only looking for money and help Pam find true love. Erin has no interest in anything beyond making her employer happy.
But things seem to change for everyone once the game begins. Ally finds herself meeting a contestant that stirs something deep inside. And Erin discovers it may be difficult to fulfill her mission of helping her employer at any cost.
What happens when the game they’re all playing becomes real? The world is tuning in to find out…
FROM THE AUTHOR
"Imagine if a reality TV producer decided to make something bigger, bolder, better? Welcome to the Queen of Hearts.
A note from the author, Sheryl Wright:
One of the aspects I cherish most about being married to the woman I love is our ability to talk through anything. Sometimes these things are important and sometimes just fun conversations. One amusing debate was about the Bachelor and Bachelorette-style reality shows. Neither one of us is a fan but for different reasons. Dawn doesn’t like the sometimes-bad behavior these competitions bring out in people. I don’t like that they become a competition.
When I raised my concerns that a healthy relationship could not be built on an ego driven, winner takes all style showdown, she asked how I would fix it. How indeed? “Switch it up,” I offered, explaining, “I would introduce more than one Bachelor or Bachelorette and make the primaries work just as hard to prove they were worthy of the women’s attention and establish choice on both sides of the equation.” Dawn was sure it would get too complicated. Maybe; but I was sure it could be done from a production standpoint. And I was sure viewers would get it too. She wasn’t as confident and challenged me to turn my ideas into something. In her mind, I should either pitch my idea to our TV production contacts or write the book while exploring the production challenges and the human equation from an author’s perspective.
In other words, she wanted to know if I could write a compelling romance with so many moving parts? “Just watch me.” And I did it in record time. One interesting note, beyond how fast this story came was the romance between the protagonists wasn’t even planned. I wanted the TV show to finish with a secondary character as the final bachelorette, but as always, it’s the characters themselves who dictate the story. I’m just the messenger or in TV parlance, maybe the location scout or camera operator. Either way, telling this story was more of a reveal than plotting or laboring over a manuscript. For that, I’m enjoying a genuine affinity for this one. Queen of Hearts breaks a few rules but none more so than the ones we make for our skeptical heart.
Who knew falling in love could be so much fun?"—Sheryl Wright
“What? No! No way! Have you lost your mind?”
“Allyson, really?” Pamela Parker questioned with an insincere grin. “It’s not like you’ll last long, so what’s the problem?”
Connie, eighteen years younger than her brilliant and successful sister, gave her the look of death before turning her attention and her doe-like eyes back on their cousin, pleading, “Allyson, please! We can’t proceed without four queens. It’s the premise of the whole show. Come on Ally, I need you, and I promise to make up for this. Please,” she begged again.
“Think about our investment,” Pam offered, more kindly than her insult that Ally would fall at the first elimination.
Pam and Ally had been born only weeks apart but how different could two cousins be? Growing up, Pamela Parker was pretty, smart, outgoing—The Everything Girl. And still was. Her cousin Allyson Parker was—well, her mother had spent most of the girl’s childhood making excuses for her. It wasn’t like she hadn’t any achievements of her own. Pam might be some highfalutin’ attorney in Chicago, but Allyson was successful too, just on her own terms. She was a pilot and ran a helicopter charter company out of Toronto. No, she wasn’t a conventional beauty like Pam. No, she wasn’t a partner in the biggest law firm in Chicago. No, she would never rake in the big bucks like her cousin. But she managed her trust fund with brilliance and had invested so wisely she could claim the same income as Pam if she were the type to compare tit for tat. But that wasn’t Ally.
“It’s not being eliminated first that worries me. It’s the opposite. What if I’m not eliminated first? I have a company to run, and we just acquired a commuter airline. KC and I already have our hands full. I can’t dump everything on her.”
Pam started to laugh. It was that arrogant laugh that made Ally angry and had since they were kids. Before she could think of some stinging retort, young Connie intervened. “Look, I know this is a lot to consider, but we’re screwed if you don’t. And Pam is right about one thing. You each invested a hundred grand in this project. If we start production without four Primaries, the network will pull its contract. I’ll end up on the TV and film convention circuit trying to flog this and with everyone knowing we bailed on our network agreement. I’ll never sell another show. And as for directing, well, I’ll be the example they use in every film school of what not to do.”
Allyson groaned, but Connie was right. If they didn’t find and vet a new Primary for this ridiculous reality TV production Connie had created, her money was gone and the kid’s career was over. She slumped back in her chair, defeated. “What do I have to do?”
* * *
Connie stood on the broad, grand entry to Glendennon Castle Academy for Young Women, the Toronto location for most of The Queen of Hearts shoot and the backdrop for the show’s opening scene. Beside her, Tommy Proulx, Fashionista and Toronto International Film Festival goddess, had been tapped to act as narrator and on-camera personality. “Everyone’s ready, Tommy. Are you?”
“Oh sweetie, I was born ready. Are you?”
Connie just smiled.
“Don’t be nervous, honey,” he offered with a side hug. You’ve blocked everything out perfectly and the women, oh the women! My goodness, they’re raring to go. So, let’s get to it, baby girl. The day’s a-wastin’.”
Connie smiled again, returning to her place beside the camera operator and the sound tech. She set the bullhorn down; she didn’t need it for this unless she had to call cut and that would piss her off. They had rehearsed this opening most of the previous day. The only thing different this time was instead of a stand-in for the four queens walking over to be introduced to the contestants vying for their hearts, the true Primaries, the actual four queens, would each make a spectacular entrance and be introduced to the women for the first time. She wanted this shot to work without retakes. She needed her audience to see the look on the women’s faces. See their interest and be able to speculate on just which Primaries would be selected to compete for the heart of each contestant.
This was the big reveal and the detail that had sold her show to the network. They loved how she had turned the whole bachelorette thing on its head by creating a show where the women had some choices and power. Four Primaries or queens would be introduced and given time to get to know the contestants before the women began whittling down the pool. From that point, the show would run pretty much along the same format as any of the reality TV bachelor-style competitions, with contestants focused on their favorite bachelorette or queen. And she had incorporated one more hitch: contestants could switch allegiances at any time. Again, putting the pressure on the bachelorettes, or queens as she had named them, to up their game too.
Taking one more look across the wide grand lawn of Glendennon Castle, she sucked in a deep breath. This was it. Beside her, the assistant director called, “Quiet on the set! Roll sound.”
“Welcome to historic Glendennon Castle and the Queen of Hearts!” Tommy began his intro, explaining in simple terms and with great enthusiasm how the game was played. Then he turned to the two uniformed valets standing as side-boys and waved grandly for the doors to open. The contestants exited the grand foyer one at a time, allowing Tommy to capture each woman and introduce her in a few words.
Connie knew she’d have to edit this section with an eye for time, but that wouldn’t happen until they were down to the final six and knew on whom to focus. For now, it was Tommy’s show, and she let him have fun and take the time he needed. Once all the women vying to earn the affection of the Queen of Hearts had been introduced, she called “Cut!” before moving to the group and helping Tommy get them lined up. Now they looked more like a group of alumni lining up for a class shoot. Not happy with that, she took some time, moving women from spot to spot until she and Tommy were pleased with the on-camera look.
Back beside the camera operator, she called “Action!” again, then waved to the wrangler responsible for getting the Primaries, the four women bachelorettes competing for the love of one of these stunning women, on the move. Thirty seconds later a super car, a Mosler MT900S, ripped past the ornate entry gates, racing up the drive, skidding around the oval to the grand entry, and squealing to a stop. Some of the women in the line of contestants jumped back, but the driver, obviously skilled and confident, had never placed them in danger. A hush fell as they waited expectantly for the first of the Primaries vying to be the Queen of Hearts to step from the extravagant supercar.
Rene Santos-Dumont, a tech millionaire and Queen of Hearts Primary number one, opened the low-slung door, easing her lithe, six-foot frame from the vehicle, dressed in racing leathers that fit like a second skin. Her short-cropped black hair and designer shades added to her adrenaline-fueled grin as she strode with purpose to where Tommy was standing and boldly offered her hand. There was no question this woman liked to be in charge, and she was hot if you liked the lean, fearless-butch type. Judging by the reaction of the thirty contestants in line, some very much did.
Tommy was aghast. “What an entrance! Heavens me, I can hardly breathe!”
“It’s exciting to be here and wow, what a group of women,” Rene offered, with a slightly wolfish grin as she tipped her head in admiration of the contestants. Tommy spent a few minutes interviewing Rene for the audience and the contestants. Then he moved her to her mark as the camera panned back to the big entry gates and Connie signaled for the next queen to make her entrance.
Instead of some high-performance supercar ripping up the grand drive, a timeless Rolls Royce ambled up, looking very much at home against the classic design of the Castle’s grand lawn. Reaching its mark it stopped majestically, and they waited breathlessly as a uniformed driver circled behind the classic ride and opened the rear door for its passenger.
Virginia Hazelton-Jackson, the young and infamous lesbian debutante, emerged with feline grace. She wouldn’t need an introduction to anyone who read the gossip rags. She offered her hand to Tommy in that classic manner of ladies expecting it to be kissed. Tommy, always the perfect gentleman, bowed before taking her hand and doing exactly that.
Connie, curious to see the reaction of the contestants, noted that a few looked to almost swoon over the blond beauty. Perfect. While Tommy began his mini-interview she signaled for the next entry. This one would require a longer lead time. Connie had staged the cars just outside the gates and out of sight of the women, but this one had needed to be miles away to keep the noise from interfering with the sound.
Right on time, Tommy moved Virginia to her mark just to the left of Rene and smiled while the cameras turned toward the entry gate. As the women and cameras panned back and forth, waiting in excitement for the next queen to arrive, the sound of a helicopter grew louder and louder until it passed just over the ornate gates, hovered over the lawn, and finally set down a few hundred feet from the grand entry. Some of the women wrestled with their hair or dress to keep them from being disheveled, but it wasn’t really necessary. The sleek executive helicopter was just far enough away to prevent any real upsets. Two women dressed as side-boys made their way to the chopper, ducking as they moved under the spinning blades. Opening the rear door, a tall, statuesque brunette stepped down from the helo, accepting the arm of the castle guard. Once clear of the rotor arch, the helicopter lifted off and quickly sped away, taking its noise and whirlwind with it. By the time this next queen was at Tommy’s side, all noise had vanished, and they could chat on-camera normally. “Let’s welcome Pamela Parker to the Queen of Hearts,” Tommy gushed. “Pamela, what an entrance! Tell us, is that how you normally travel?”
Poised and confident, the tall beauty was a natural on-camera. “Not always, Tommy, but when it makes sense why not skip the traffic altogether?”
Tommy practically snorted in delight. “I can’t tell you how wonderful it is to have you here. Now, I know all about you, but let’s share a few tidbits for these ladies and our audience at home. Tell us about your practice. I understand you’re a criminal defense attorney and partner with a prestigious firm in Chicago. What inspired you to take up the law?”
“Oh Tommy, since I was a little girl I’ve wanted to help those less fortunate than myself. I can’t tell you what a privilege it is to save the wrongly convicted from a life in prison. Every day I meet young men and women who are victims of circumstance. The small part I play in helping them regain their freedom gives me the inspiration to work harder and help as much as I can.”
“You say it’s a small part you play, but if I were in the shoes of some of your clients, I would thank my lucky stars to have you on my side.”
“I was raised to understand that those born to privilege have a responsibility to society. Some of my clients are accused of heinous crimes they didn’t commit. If saving their lives and ensuring they get the chance they deserve takes everything I have, then it’s well worth it.”
“Said like a true champion of the downtrodden. Brava!”
While they chatted on, Connie signaled for the last queen. Secretly she worried that her cousin’s arrival would be a bit of a letdown after the building excitement, but she also knew she could cut the digital recordings any way she wanted and, if she kept Ally in the last slot, it would give the network something to cut if they decided to increase the commercial break.
Moments later the same helicopter approached. Already the women were speculating. Luckily for her, many of them had sound packs on, and she had several cameras fixed and mounted around the grand entry to pick up their reactions. Yes, the speculation was on, and she could use it.
When the helicopter landed a second time the side-boys opened the rear passenger door, but no one was aboard. They looked confused, as did all the women. While Tommy speculated for the audience, the helo’s main rotor squealed to a halt, and the sound of the engine died too. Moments later the pilot stepped from the sleek machine. Dressed in a sapphire-blue flight suit and pristine white helmet, she walked toward Tommy and the women with the two castle guards trailing her and still looking confused. When she reached Tommy, she removed the helmet and ruffled her short curls back into order before offering her hand. “Allyson Parker. Pleased to meet you.”
Tommy, aghast and practically beside himself, let out an excited squeal, “Oh my God. You were flying that thing?”
She smiled at him, her grin lopsided and cute. “It’s what I do.”
Aware of who the fourth queen was and what to do, Tommy welcomed her quickly then turned back to the camera. “There you have it. Ladies, please meet your four queens, Rene Santos-Dumont, tech millionaire; Virginia Hazelton-Jackson, debutant and heir to the Jackson family fortune; Pamela Parker, defender of the people of Illinois; and Allyson Parker, pilot extraordinaire.” He eased Ally into place then stepped toward the thirty women contestants. Moving to his next mark, he was in front them all and ready to explain the rules. One of the women dressed in the ornate costume of a castle guard moved to his side with a silver serving tray in hand.
“Ladies and our wonderful home audience, let me explain how the competition will work. As you see, we have four women competing to find love amongst you beauties, but there’s a hitch. Only one will become a finalist and the Queen of Hearts. You women will be choosing the one whom you most want to get to know. To begin with, we will assign a card to represent each of our four queens, and each contestant will receive the four cards representing all four queens. When the time comes, you will each cast your votes, eliminating one queen at a time, until only one remains. Yes, these queens will have to compete against each other for your affection!”
Tommy turned to the second uniformed woman as she began handing each of the thirty contestants four oversized playing cards. The logo of the program was printed on the back with standard card deck queen illustrations on the front. Once the contestants had their cards, Tommy called for the four Primaries to choose a card from the four on the silver tray.
Rene was first and drew the Queen of Clubs. She smiled and held it up for all the women to see.
Virginia was next and drew the Queen of Spades. She took it with grace, holding it up for the others to see.
Pam was next and drew the Queen of Hearts. When she held it up there were a few cheers, so she blew a kiss to the excited group. That left the Queen of Diamonds for Ally. She thanked Tommy and displayed her card unnecessarily, but as directed. There were no cheers, just polite applause. Without prodding, Ally took her place back at the end of the four-woman line for the cameras while Tommy waxed on about the competition to come.
“Cut!” Connie called with the bullhorn. “That was perfect, women. Now let’s move to the ballroom for the meet and greet. Contestants first. Primaries you’re with me.”
While Tommy corralled the contestants toward the entry door and the grand foyer, Connie marched to the Primaries. “Excellent work, women. All right, this is how the next part will work. I’ll take you one-by-one to the Ballroom Terrace. Once there we will tape you having your initial meeting with each contestant. You get two minutes to sell yourself to these women. Make it short and sweet. It’s going to take most of the day to shoot this scene so if you’re not on camera, get your kiesters to the green room.” Connie pointed to the women dressed as castle guards. “The PAs will show you to your rooms and keep you on schedule.”
“Who’s up first?” Virginia asked.
“Queen of Diamonds, Queen of Spades, Queen of Hearts, then Queen of Clubs. Any other questions?” When there weren’t, she clapped her hands like they were pre-schoolers who needed to be rushed. “All right then, chop, chop, we have a schedule to keep.”
When the four turned to follow the production assistants costumed as historical Irish Borderland guards, Connie called to Ally. “Not you, Diamond. You’re with me.”
Ally stopped, looking confused. “Don’t I get to change?”
“No time,” Connie insisted.
“What about my hair? You don’t want me to go around all day with helmet head, do you?”
Connie, eighteen years younger and a few inches taller than her cousin, reached over and gave the short dark curls another tousle. “There you go. Hair fixed.”
Ally wasn’t pleased, but what the hell could she do? It wasn’t like she had expected to last, but she did expect to be given an even chance. Judging by the response, or non-response, to her arrival, she was pretty sure she was already out. Might as well give the women time to confirm their disinterest. This is worse than getting picked last in high school!
* * *
Erin Bogner walked with the other women to the ballroom, listening intently to their gossip and speculation. Word was out that Ally Parker was a last-minute replacement and she was surprised to see how quickly she’d been dismissed. She knew of Ally, but had never met her. As Pamela Parker’s legal assistant and secret spy, she was long familiar with the stories of Pam’s adventurous cousin and had seen all the photos of the three of them, sisters Pam and Connie and cousin Ally, that rested on the office credenza. No, Ally wasn’t a great beauty like Pam, but she did feel they weren’t giving her a chance. She knew the two had always been competitive, but this was unfair and certainly not right for the defender of the people, as the host had called her. When she got her chance to speak privately with Pam, she would bring it up. Just when that would happen was a good question.
In the ballroom, contestants fussed around the craft services table pretending not to be interested while they scoffed down the gourmet offerings. It had been like that last night. They had arrived by limousine in groups and been given tours of the castle-turned-girls-school. Erin knew of the place, having heard stories from Pam. All the Parker girls had attended this Glendennon Castle Academy for Young Women, an exclusive boarding school in the English style. Originally the production had been scheduled to take place at Purple Mountain Ski Lodge, but even off-season the place was packed, and they had lost their spot to a movie-production company with deep ties to the skiers’ paradise. With only days before the production was scheduled to begin shooting, Pam and Ally had called in favors to get the closed-for-the-summer castle opened for them. In her mind, Connie was lucky to have them both come to her rescue, and Erin couldn’t help but wonder just how much they would each have to shell out to this year’s alumni fundraising drive.
Across the ballroom, one of the production assistants who had led them on the tour yesterday walked Ally across the room and out onto the terrace for the next scene. That seemed unfair too. You would think they would at least let the woman get changed. She knew all about the wardrobe selected for each of the queens because she’d helped Pam choose hers. Connie had provided a list of every scene, and the attire desired, and Pam had wasted no time shopping the best of Michigan Avenue for new clothes just for this occasion. Erin didn’t have to worry about wardrobe with the production company supplying the designer dresses and most of the outfits they would need. Because Erin had no intention of winning, she hadn’t jumped into the fray to get the best of the lot like the other women when the dress racks were rolled out last night. For the opening scene, the production designer had selected dresses and a few slacks suits in all the colors of the rainbow. Later it was clear Erin regretted her indifference when she was forced to accept the only dress left on the rack that would fit her, a tangerine that emphasized her freckles and red hair and would make her look like a walking carrot. It was also clear to Erin that Ally was praying to all the gods to get this part over.
* * *
Ally planted her bottom on the silly rattan loveseat as ordered and let the makeup person manhandle her with a tight grip on her jaw.
“I’ll need at least twenty minutes if you expect me to cover this scar and even out the tan lines from her sunglasses.”
“Leave the scar,” Connie ordered. “Just even out the tan lines and get rid of the shine on her forehead. We don’t have time for a makeover, and besides, we want the audience to see her the same way the contestants do.”
“Fine,” the makeup woman said. “That will give me more time for the others.”
As she quickly applied makeup, Ally fussed, “I don’t like it. It’s making my face itch.”
“Don’t touch your face,” Connie warned, with iron in her voice. “You can scrub it off as soon as we’re done.” Turning her attention to the PA, she ordered, “Get the first one ready for her entry. We shoot in two, people. Time’s a-wastin’, and we only have so much daylight. Let’s go!”
Ally forced herself to sit still and not let the itchy makeup drive her nuts. Just get it over with, and you’re out of here. It felt like only seconds had passed when Connie called “Action!” and the first of the contestants walked out. Ally began to stand and offer her hand when Connie called, “Cut!”
“Allyson, for frig sakes, keep your ass on the couch.”
“But, it’s rude not to stand.”
“And it’s rude to contradict your director.” For a moment there looked to be a test of wills going on, then Connie explained, “It’s how we blocked the shot, okay? So just do it this way for me, okay?”
“Okay,” Ally agreed without joy. Oh, this just gets better and better.
The production assistant had already moved the first woman back to her starting mark, and Connie wasted no time. “Action!”
She sauntered her way to Ally’s side, pausing for the camera before slipping into the spot beside Ally. She offered her hand with practiced grace, then proceeded to tell her life story in two minutes flat. Ally had yet to get a word in when Connie called, “Cut! That was perfect. Okay, folks, reset for the next contestant, let’s go!” she said, rushing them.
The next two hours passed pretty much the same for each woman. Some were more polite with Ally and asked a few questions, but nothing to indicate they were interested. By the time they finished shooting the scene, her face hurt from smiling and her heart was aching from the clear disinterest from so many pretty women. Yes, she was plain looking. Yes, she didn’t get to change out of the unflattering flight suit and show off her trim figure; yes, she wasn’t a beauty like Pam, or glamorous like Virginia, or a hot, dangerous butch like Rene, but she wasn’t a complete loser. Was she?
“Great job everyone. Okay, Ally, you’re done. Why don’t you head up to your room and get ready for tonight’s ceremony?”
“I have to get the helo back to the island.”
“What?” Connie looked like she would blow a gasket.
“Relax, I’ll be back. KC’s going to do the drive home traffic report. I’ll just get the helicopter back and drive right back.”
“Why can’t KC fly you back?” she demanded.
Ally shook her head. “Will you stop worrying? I’ll be all of two hours. Now go shoot your other queens in the heart, and I’ll be back.”
Connie just grunted, “Famous last words!” before turning her attention to setting up the next sequence with Virginia, who had just joined them.
One of the PAs still in the costume of the Borderland castle guard, minus the sword, had her flight helmet. “I’ll show you out.”
“It’s okay, I know my way around here, and I can bypass the ballroom.”
That bit of news pleased the PA, who promptly returned to take care of some other concern.
Ally walked with her head down. They had made it plain they expected her to be the first queen eliminated, but she didn’t expect it to hurt this much. Trying to console herself, she remembered back to when she was a student here. She’d been a favorite because of her skill on the lacrosse field, but Pam had always been the one the girls on the team swooned for. If they didn’t want to have her, they wanted to be her. Ally had accepted that back then and resigned herself to the preferences of the group. At least everyone loved her when the school won lacrosse games. It was even like that up north when she would take her turn flying during the firefighting season for the company contract. Her business partner, KC, was not the most attractive of women, but she was the life of the party and all the lesbians, the women firefighters and fire jumpers, fell for KC and her larger-than-life personality. When it was Ally’s turn to fly fire patrol they loved her too, at least when she was in the air and saving their lives. On the ground, not so much. Considered too cerebral and not a lot of fun, she didn’t get the same attention, much less action, KC would see every season.
She took her time with her pre-flight knowing her head wasn’t in the game. It was time to forget about the Queen of Hearts and all the women who didn’t go for her. It was time to concentrate on her job and make sure her aircraft was airworthy, and that’s what mattered. Finally, in the air, she began to relax. Flying was what she was good at. Flying was what she was amazing at. It might not make women swoon, but it did save lives. That had to count with someone. Pam might get all the credit as a champion of the falsely accused, but Ally’s vocation was exciting, dangerous, with far more immediacy. Too bad no one was interested in getting to know any of that.
Rene Santos-Dumont took Erin’s hand in hers, “It’s a pleasure to meet you, beautiful.”
Erin smiled for the camera while the hair on the back of her neck stood on end. If she thought Virginia was over the top trying to play the femme-fatale, Rene was her perfect opposite playing the super-butch card. It was too bad too. Rene was a good-looking woman. The suit and tie she had changed into from the leathers she arrived in were not off the rack, but they lacked any femininity. Then there was the woman herself. Between the wolfish grin and the overt familiarity, cuddling into her like they knew each other, Rene just gave Erin the creeps. Erin knew some women loved that kind of confidence or forwardness. While she was waiting her turn, many of the women ahead of her had returned to the ballroom all gaga over the woman. Erin suspected the million-dollar car sitting in the front drive, and Rene’s purported personal worth, might be influencing their opinions. She didn’t care though. It was her job to nose around the contestants and learn what she could for Pam.
When Rene asked about her, where she was from, what she did for a living, she explained on cue that she was a legal assistant and from Wisconsin. That wasn’t a lie. She was from Wisconsin. She just didn’t live there anymore. It was something Pam had come up with, worried the women would naturally be curious to know if their paths had crossed if they both said they worked in Chicago. She listened as Rene shared a funny story about her single pass through her home state, then thankfully the director called “Cut,” and she was marshaled back to the ballroom to rejoin the other women. At least Rene had asked her something. Virginia had been a complete diva, never so much as asking her name. Pam, of course, had a whole routine they had planned, so that was easy, although having her boss’s arm around her did feel weird. Then there was the cousin, Ally. That had been her first one-on-one, and she had been so nervous, her legs shaking as she made her entry walk for the camera. Thankfully, Ally was more down-to-earth. While Erin had worked for Pam for more than five years, she only knew Allyson Parker by reputation, hearing many of Pam’s stories of their teenage adventures. Of course, Pam was always the hero of those stories and Ally the voice of reason. Today she had been a gentlewoman, giving Erin her personal space, asking her more about herself than the others had. For their two minutes, she had concentrated on Erin and her only.
Ally’s face had lit up when Erin explained she was from Wisconsin. “Wisconsin’s amazing! I used to go to Oshkosh every year for the EAA Air Show.”
“Really? I grew up not too far from there. My hometown is small. It’s a good thirty miles east. And right on Lake Michigan.”
“Let me guess, Sheboygan?”
More than surprised, Erin couldn’t keep the shock from her voice. “No, but you’re so close. I’m from Manitowoc.”
“It’s great growing up on the Great Lakes. Isn’t it?”
“I would have disagreed until I went to college. After four years in Minneapolis, I knew I had to live and work somewhere closer to Lake Michigan, I missed it that much.”
“Cut!” Connie called. “Great work Erin. Okay, let’s keep it moving, folks.”
As one of the costumed production assistants scooted her back to the ballroom, Erin chanced a look back. Ally was smiling and gave a friendly wave. So much nicer an experience than the two that followed. Finally done with all her screen calls for this scene, Erin headed for the food. She expected it to be picked over, but the caterers had everything topped up so she grabbed a plate, intent on filling up now, since she didn’t know when they would eat again. With her plate piled high and her water bottle in hand, she made for one of the few folding chairs that sat unclaimed. As she sat, another of the contestants joined her, a slender, vivacious brunette.
“This is so exciting! I just love it. What about you?”
With her mouth full of chicken salad, Erin smiled politely, trying to swallow without choking. Finally, she answered, “Yes, exciting.” She didn’t know what else to say, then remembered she wasn’t a contestant as much as a spy. “What do you think of the Primaries?” The woman looked confused, and for a moment she panicked remembering that was the pre-production term, not what they were using today. “Queens, I mean queens. What do you think of the queens so far?”
“Aren’t they incredible? I mean wow, Rene and that car! I had goose bumps when she drove up, and what about Pamela, she’s the lawyer, right? My mother always says to stay away from lawyers but boy oh boy, I’ve never seen one who looked like that!”
Before Erin could think of what more to say, other women began pulling their chairs over and sharing in the conversation. It did make it easy for her just to sit back, eat her lunch—or was it an early dinner now? She had no idea. They had all been relieved of their watches, cell phones, tablets, and any other electronic devices. A few had even been asked to relinquish their sex toys. Connie, the director, was adamant they not consider self-relief. She wanted them excited and if they got a little edgy, more the better.
“I like the quiet one,” one offered.
“She’s okay,” another said, “but that flight suit…I mean, really? Couldn’t she think of something else to wear?”
“What else would you wear in a helicopter?” another asked.
“No, I mean, she should have taken the time to change, like the other queens. And good God, do something with that hair.”
“She was nice,” another defended, “But lordy, lordy, that Virginia has everything you could ever ask for.”
“Are you talking ’bout her figure or her money? You do know who she is, don’t you?” While some of the women made as if they knew, the speaker elaborated for the rest. “She’s the heiress to the Jackson Cosmetics Company. She must be worth billions. You can’t tell me a pilot or even a lawyer has that kind of money.”
Erin made a note of the women who took an interest in Virginia’s pending fortune and dismissed Pam and Ally for the same reason. It was all she could do to stifle her laugh. If they only knew.
* * *
Allyson stood in the hangar watching KC maneuver the power cart towing in the executive Jet Ranger they had borrowed in place of their bird painted with the Channel One logo and colors. The Billy Bishop Airport was one of the few truly inaccessible facilities once the Tower closed, situated on the western edge of the Toronto Islands chain. Before World War II, the field had been the home of Toronto’s first major league baseball team, the Maple Leafs. In 1940 the old wood stadium was torn down and repurposed as an airfield to house the displaced Royal Norwegian Air Force. Today, modern hangars crowded the harbor channel along with the quaint one-time WWII headquarters and tower, now turned air terminal and administration offices. In Ally’s mind, the airport manager had the best office in the world, ensconced in what was once the old wood-framed and brass-trimmed control tower.
If it was an easy airport to find, it was horribly complicated to reach. Between the lakeshore condos on the north side, the bird sanctuary to the southeast and the gay nude beach that ran parallel to runway 33 and right up to the threshold of runway 08, one’s approach had to be taken carefully.
With their flying day in full swing, Ally knew she had to risk Connie’s ire and make sure KC had everything under control before she drove back out to Glendennon Castle. Once the borrowed helo was parked in the hangar and the power cart returned to its charging station, KC and Ally headed for their tiny operations room. They shared this space with the pilots from the local commuter airline and weren’t surprised to find a few there, completing their flight plans for the day.
“Hey guys,” KC offered genially. “How come so late?”
“Still waiting for Sierra X-Ray Foxtrot to arrive. They got held on the ground at LaGuardia.”
“What’s that about?” Ally asked, trying to sound casual.
They shrugged, either not knowing or uncomfortable sharing company gossip with the two charter pilots. Instead, the First Officer changed the subject. “How’s the traffic?”
“Chock-a-block,” KC warned. “For what it costs you in gas to drive out to your parents’ house in Hamilton, you could probably find a place in town to share with one of the guys. I mean, that traffic alone would make me crazy.”
“Yeah but my parents are right on the lake, and we have an indoor pool.” He said it like it made sense.
Trying to help, KC offered her usual, “I don’t think a pool is the chick magnet you imagine. Maybe what you should do is suggest they buy one of these new condos facing the lake for when they come into town?”
“There’s an idea,” the other pilot said, perking up at the suggestion. “If they buy a condo, talk them into something big enough for me too. I’d dump my girlfriend and leave Scarborough forever for a chance to live down here.”
“Nice,” Ally commented. “I’m going to tell her that.”
He laughed. “Like you wouldn’t dump a girl for a chance to live down here. Wait, where do you live?”
Ally shook her head, but KC, always open with information and ready to share, did so. “I live in Port Credit. Not right on the beach, but just a few doors down. But Ally here lives over there.” She signaled east as if from the windowless room they could see where it was she was pointing. “Right on the lake and on the south side of Queen’s Quay.”
“South?” they both asked in confusion.
“KC,” Ally growled.
“What? You live over there in what used to be the Admiral Hotel. Pretty cool, huh?”
The other pilots nodded, finishing up their flight plans and offering their farewells. Ally knew they would endlessly speculate. Who lived in a hotel? She knew they would ask about it and the gossip would be relentless. Who lived in a hotel? People who own a major share, that’s who, you dorkwads!
Once they were out of hearing range, Ally wheeled on KC, only to witness her mischievous grin. “You’re a pain, you know.”
“’Course, I am. It’s my specialty. That and reporting the traffic. About which by the way, we have an offer to consider. The network reporter was a no-show this morning. Well, he did show up, but only about an hour after I took off. I whipped back in and picked him up, but for the first hour I had to wing it and do the reporting thing. Actually, they tricked me. I thought I was just giving the details to the anchor off-air, and she was just asking questions to get all the details, but it turns out they aired the whole thing, and they want me to do it again.”
“Wow, that’s huge. Congrats.”
“I know! But here’s the thing. They want to talk with us. Maybe do a little training for the on-air stuff, you know, stuff like that. What do you say?”
“What do I say? I…” She had to think about it for a minute. “Right now, I have to get my ass back to Glendennon. I don’t know how much longer they’ll need me, but I’m stuck for now. If you’re comfy doing this reporting thing, then go ahead and get the new terms worked out.”
“Good. Listen. I can handle the network. Why don’t you stick your nose into the delays our crews are facing at LaGuardia? We can’t afford to have them wasting hours on the ground when we need that bird for the afternoon flight to Ottawa.”
Ally nodded. “Let me get on the horn with LaGuardia bright and early tomorrow. If we can’t solve the issue at the source, then we need to look at the numbers and decide if the route is worth all the trouble.”
They were interrupted by the airline manager. “You just had to tell them you own the Admiral!” he challenged.
“That was all KC. I’ve kept my mouth shut, as agreed.”
“Hey!” KC stepped in, arms crossed and tone as menacing as her dark expression. “I spilled the beans. What’s the big deal? It’s not like I told them we own the airline too.”
“That’s not the point!” he protested. “I just…I thought you wanted to observe and evaluate the staff before you made any announcements.”
“We still do,” Ally assured him. “Our restructuring plan is based on them no longer having access to the top brass. That’s what this whole transfer period is about.”
The manager slumped into one of the stools around the flight planning table. “There’s something else. The new kid was towing Sierra Charlie November from the hangar and broke the trailing arm off the nose gear.”
“What the…” KC started but stalled, seeing the look on Ally’s face. If Ally was mad, that was something.
“Explain why a cabin attendant was towing an aircraft?”
“I told you, our guys get called on to do everything,” he answered in a sheepish tone.
“And I told you, ‘No more!’” She leaned hard on the table toward him, making sure he understood her completely. “I specifically explained why the jack-of-all-trades-and-master- of-none approach was hurting our bottom line and this just underscores my argument.” She stepped back from the table, pacing the small space. Finally, she stopped, asking the most important question. “Damages? And I want to know everything right down to scratches on the paint.”
He nodded. “It was PP3. He ordered the kid to tow the Dash-8 out so he could hangar his personal aircraft.”
Hangar 1, used solely by Triangle Airlines, was a huge brick monstrosity built during the Second World War, but it was small by the standards of any major airport. The hangar could only accommodate two of the eight DeHavilland Dash-8’s they operated. Because of that fact, only aircraft scheduled for maintenance were allowed in the hangar. After all, this was Canada, and repairing and maintaining an aircraft outside the hangar in winter was no fun, no fun at all. And because of the need for room and conformity to the maintenance schedule, only the aircraft maintenance engineer in charge could order aircraft into or out of the hangar. Personal aircraft were not allowed. Even KC and Ally hangared their helicopters in the Avatar Hangar downfield.
KC interrupted the confrontation, warning the manager, “Don’t call him that. He may be an asshole, but drop the PP3 thing.”
“Sorry. It’s just, well, most of the guys still kowtow to him. They know his grandfather sold the airline, but without a head honcho to take his ego down a notch, well…” He handed KC the damage report and waited for Ally to lower the hammer. For all the world it looked like he expected he’d be fired.
Ally nodded. Turning her attention to her business partner, she asked, “How bad?”
“It’s not too bad. Looks like we need to replace everything below the oleo. We have those parts in stock, so we’re covered there.” She blew out a hot breath, something she always did when she was thinking. When they’d made a play for Triangle Airlines no one, especially themselves, believed they had a chance, but old man Pringle had thought them plucky and fresh—his exact words. And that was all he needed to see. He even underwrote a large portion of their purchase financing. He wanted them to succeed.
To manage their new enterprise, they’d divided their responsibilities. Ally would oversee flight operations, admin, and finance. KC would oversee maintenance, ground operations, and spares. “How much will this cost?” Ally asked.
KC shook her head. “Fifty grand, easy. And that doesn’t take in the time the aircraft will be on the ground and out of service.” Taking a quick look at the damage report again, she swore under her breath. “They broke the tow bar? How the hell…” KC was trying to clean up her language and had an almost full swear jar to prove how challenging it was.
The manager grimaced. “I don’t know, but the connection was completely sheared off, and the bar itself is twisted somehow. I mean you can barely pull it with the mule, and that’s without an aircraft attached.”
“I’ll phone DeHavilland.” KC grabbed her phone and moved to the weather station to give Ally room to continue her discussion.
“Ma’am, about PP3, I mean Peter Pringle the Third. I’ve tried to rein him in but, well, this guy’s such an ass, and he doesn’t listen to anyone. He’s still acting like he owns the airline and it’s really hard for everyone to think any different until they see some changes.”
Ally nodded, checking her watch. She and KC had asked to keep their identities confidential while they observed and decided what if any changes needed to be made. Four months had been more than enough time for them to learn who was a problem, like Peter Pringle the Third, and who needed their support. She hadn’t made her decision about the operations manager just yet, but at least he didn’t waste time bringing them gossip and speculation, which was in his favor. “Okay, here’s what you are going to do…”