Appearing on a reality dating show was not the best way to make some extra money, but being fat severely limited Aileth Mulligan’s options. Stripping was out since no one was going to pay to see her shuck her clothes and parade around naked. She knew she had a slamming body, but it wasn’t a body for everyone. According to all the very helpful older ladies AJ had ever encountered, her face was her biggest asset. A yard sale was out. She had nothing worth selling for a quick buck. Given her dating history and lack of social life, there was very little stopping her from giving the tv thing a real shot.
AJ made enough to afford her half of rent and utilities if she worked sixty-hour weeks with no vacations and took on every teaching gig offered to her, but she was sick of working so hard that she didn’t have time for anything else. It would be nice to get a little ahead financially. Maybe she could take a few less shifts, maybe she could take a vacation, and maybe she could finally finish the novel she’d been working on for almost a decade.
Working as a background extra had seemed like a fun way to earn some extra money. Especially since she could fit gigs in between subbing, the after-school program, and the shifts she picked up at The Bar. A quick profile with a local casting agency, some new headshots taken by her photographer roommate, and AJ waited for the next big thing to come film in Boston. So far she’d sipped coffee in a tiny café for a cop drama, walked in The Common for a documentary on the duck statues, and eaten a giant cannoli in the North End for some romantic comedy that was supposed to hit theaters next year. She’d gotten used to the emails looking for bodies, but she’d still almost fallen off of her chair and needed her roommate to deliver back blows as she choked on her bite of Mac and cheese when the TSM email had come through.
Dear Ms. Mulligan,
We would love to talk with you about an opportunity to appear on one of the new reality dating shows filmed and produced by TSM. Your headshots and profile prove that you would be the perfect addition to our pool of candidates. Your unique look is the perfect way to diversify some of our shows. We would love to talk more about what a contract with us would entail. It would be quite lucrative.
Sincerely, John Stern & Gary Porter
“You have to go.” Alainna vibrated on AJ’s purple bedspread. “I know reality shows, dating shows, aren’t your thing, but you have to do this, AJ.”
“You’re just saying that because you take obsession to a new level.” AJ pointed a finger at her roommate. “You just want to live vicariously through me.”
“Guilty,” Alainna agreed, flopping back onto the bed with her arms spread wide. “It’s basically a vacation with good-looking people.”
AJ frowned. “No, it’s a job, probably one with coworkers who’d stab you in the back while smiling for the camera.”
“You don’t know that.”
To be fair, AJ was not the connoisseur of dating shows, but they were routinely on in the apartment with Alainna glued to the couch. AJ had seen the nastiness between contestants as they tried to one-up each other. She’d seen the blubbering tears for the camera that melted into simpering smiles when the lead appeared. The catty arguments and fake love sent AJ searching for the Advil.
“Most of it is editing.” Alainna said, “Look at all the contestants who stay friends years after the show ends.”
“Yes,” AJ rolled her eyes, “Because social media is so honest.”
Alainna sat up and steepled her fingers. “Look, I know this is probably so far outside of your comfort zone you can’t even see it, but this could be fun. You’d finally get a break. You could meet some new people.” She glared before AJ could open her mouth. “I bet some of them will even be nice, and I’m not sure what they meant by contract, but it sounds like you could get paid.”
“I’ll ask for more information,” AJ said, “But they probably sent that email to a million women, so don’t get your hopes up.”
“Too late,” Alainna said with a laugh. “My hopes are through the stratosphere. Mostly because you’re gorgeous and they are definitely going to hire you.”
AJ fought a laugh and spun her desk chair in a lazy circle. “Gorgeous, yes, but I’m also fat, Lainey. These types of shows don’t do fat people.” Alainna opened her mouth in outrage and AJ cut her off. “I know, I know. I’m curvy, plus-size, bigger, voluptuous. It all still means fat. I’m fine with that. I’m happy. I like my body just the way it is, but reality television rarely shows or respects people who look like me.”
“First,” Alainna ticked off her fingers, “You are beautiful. I have intense hair envy of your curls. You have the perfect number of freckles, the most unfair set of lashes I’ve ever seen, a heart-shaped-”
“Heart-shaped!” Alainna slammed her hand down on AJ’s bed. “Face, and don’t get me started on your body, because I’ll turn myself on. You’re like Barbie Ferreira but with curls.”
AJ’s laugh surprised both women. “Maybe you should talk to them for me, be my agent.”
“Done,” Alainna said and threw herself back down on the mattress. “By the way, I’m totally jealous.”
“Jealous?” AJ hadn’t even spoken with the network yet. While the opportunity sounded intriguing, there was also the matter of zero privacy, constant crowds, and judgment of thousands of viewers.
“You’re going to fall in love, again,” Alainna said. “I’d give anything for that chance.”
Fall in love. Right.
“Lainey, no.” AJ’s heart thudded against her breastbone. “I’m not ready for that.”
“It’s been eight years,” Alainna said and AJ set her mouth into a grim line. “Look, I’m just going to say this once, then I’ll drop it. Okay? I know you had your heart broken and I know you don’t like to talk about it. I also know that his mother said some awful things that she had no right to say.”
“That’s not entirely fair,” AJ said. “She was mean, but her concerns were valid.”
“And you’re still moping almost a decade later. You don’t date, you don’t meet up with anyone, you don’t have sex. You basically re-virginized.” AJ winced. “I’m not saying that you need to do anything you aren’t ready to do, but maybe it’s time to stop living your life for the memory of someone who probably isn’t doing the same for you.”
Slim arms wrapped around her shoulders, and AJ leaned into them. She focused on dragging air into her tight lungs.
“You told me,” Alainna’s voice was quiet as she rested her cheek on AJ’s curls. “That you broke up so you could both be with someone whose dreams and goals matched your own. If that’s true, you don’t want him pining for you, and you don’t want to be pining for him. You want to find yourself a perfectly nice partner who supports your writing so that you can settle down and have some beautiful, round babies.”
“No babies,” AJ reminded her.
“Right,” Alainna regrouped, “No babies for you, but you still deserve the rest and it’s okay to let yourself work towards that.”
By the time the plane touched down and the captain turned off the seatbelt sign, AJ was pretty sure she’d made a horrible mistake. After a brief pep talk that included her inability to afford a spontaneous, cross-country flight, AJ decided she’d grin and bear it. She slid her phone out of the pocket of her leggings and checked her nonexistent messages before collecting her yellow bag and striding down the plane’s aisle towards her life for the next month.
In theory, she’d known that the network was sending someone to pick her up at the airport, but the man in a black suit holding a pristine white sign still surprised her.
“I feel like the Fresh Prince,” AJ said, and smiled up at the bearded man. He even had the little black hat she’d only ever seen in the movies or on set. The man’s expression did not change.
AJ pointed to the sign. “You’re here for me.”
“You’re Aileth Mulligan.” The man looked down at her, a small crease appearing between his brows. It wasn’t a question, but AJ answered anyway.
“You can call me AJ. Aileth sounds like a little old lady.”
The driver said nothing, but he looked her up and down, from her banana yellow sneakers to her frizzy braid. His gaze was unreadable, but it still put AJ on edge because she knew what he was thinking.
“Obviously I’m not a little old lady,” AJ said. She hoped he would take the hint and they could get going. “But I’m still Aileth Mulligan, so…” She gestured towards his sign again.
“I’m sorry.” The chauffeur didn’t seem mean, just confused. “I’ll need to see some identification.”
Her wallet was at the bottom of her messenger bag and it took her a few seconds to wiggle her pointer finger under the clear protective cover and actually remove her license for him to peruse.
“Aileth Jane.” She offered a smile along with the card that showed her in miniature.
“Thank you, Miss Mulligan.” The chauffeur tucked the sign underneath his left arm. “I apologize for the confusion. I was expecting…” He offered her a smile but didn’t meet her eyes. “Let me grab your bag. Are you waiting for anything else?”
“Nope,” AJ said. She understood what he had left unsaid.
I was waiting for a contestant; he had wanted to say. An actress.
I didn’t think you were an actress.
“Nothing else,” she said, because the network had said to only bring essentials. They’d cover everything else. AJ had had to provide her measurements, something she’d braved the local bridal boutique for. The network assured her she would have the proper wardrobe waiting when she landed. She’d stuffed a couple of t-shirts, some leggings, and underwear into her yellow carryon. Oh, and her size Double G bras because they were a feat of modern day engineering and she couldn’t risk going anywhere without them.
Most contestants would have had the agonizing decision of packing blind. They wouldn’t know how long they’d be on the show or what they were packing for. Not AJ. The network was providing clothes for every event, every scene, every show, and they knew exactly how long she was going to stay. The arrangement took quite a bit of pressure off her. She’d make it into the top five, and then the leading man would ax her so that he could pick a real winner. AJ would go home with a hefty bank balance and free time to devote to her writing.
The chauffeur led her out of the sliding glass doors and into the warmth of the California sunshine. Despite the exorbitant number of cars rushing through the carpark to pick up passengers, a black Cadillac idled by the curb. AJ reached for the handle on the passenger door of the SUV. Before she could hop in, the driver opened the back seat and held it for her. For a heartbeat, AJ considered climbing into the front seat anyway.
“Thank you,” she said, and slid across the buttery soft backseat.
The half hour drive to the hotel felt long thanks to early afternoon traffic, and the sun warmed the dark interior of the vehicle until AJ felt her eyes droop. The ride was incredibly smooth and each curve of the highway tugged AJ further towards sleep. She regretted not napping on her flight. She’d planned to. AJ always planned to sleep on flights, but she never could. Not with the arms of the seats pressed painfully into her thighs and literal strangers close enough to check her tonsils when she yawned.
Then there were the occasional dips of the plane as though it were bobbing on the waves of an angry sea, and sleep was a distant dream. No matter how many times AJ flew, she never could shake the worry that the entire plane would simply drop out of the sky. But, in the back seat of that comfy car, AJ sorely wished she’d managed even a power nap before going to meet her new boss. She hoped there would be at least a minute for her to unpack and splash some water on her face before the meeting.
The driver, she should have asked his name, but hadn’t thought of it until they were on the highway, pulled the Cadillac up in front of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel and left the engine running. He popped open the back door and offered a hand to help her out of the vehicle. AJ scooted towards him and slid out to stand on the tiled walkway. Another black-suited man help open the heavy glass doors at the front of the building. Both smiled politely and purposefully overlooked her older leggings or her Mordor Annual Fun Run t-shirt. At least she’d thought to undo her haphazard bun and twist her thick brown hair into a braid on the plane.
AJ thanked the driver and supplied a sizable cash tip.
“It was no trouble, Miss Mulligan. Mr Porter and Mr Stern will meet you in the Polo Lounge.” Then he was putting space between them to climb back into the driver’s side of the car.
The Polo Lounge. Right. That sounded expensive and definitely like the perfect place to show off her Middle Earth novelty shirt and yellow converse high tops.
Mr. Porter was as short and squat as Mr. Stern was tall and thin.
And here I go, talking in nursery rhymes. AJ bit back a private grin as she approached their table. Neither man stood, but they did smile at her as she took a seat opposite them. The execs from TSM both sat in a plush, semi-circular booth, alternating between glancing around the room and then sharing hushed commentary back-and-forth. They wore matching gray suits and polka dot ties and it was adorable how in-sync they were.
“Hi,” AJ said. She stuck her hand out and narrowly missed Mr. Stern’s water glass. “I’m AJ Mulligan. I’m here for—”
“The plus-sized one!” Mr Porter said. He completely ignored her offered hand. “Isn’t she perfect, John? I was telling you just this morning how she’s going to resonate with the viewers of a,” he cleared his throat, “specific body type.”
AJ pulled her hand back but forced her smile to stay in place. There was nothing wrong with being plus sized. Even Mr. Porter seemed excited by her. His comment was most likely meant as an observation, not a criticism.
“She is certainly a pretty one. Great pick, Gary. We should probably remind our lead that she can’t be part of the finale. Heh heh heh.” John Stern’s asthmatic chortle merged into a cough and he reached for his water glass.
“Obviously you can’t be the winner, Miss Mulligan,” Mr Porter said. As if AJ could forget that caveat in her contract. Paid to stay, not to win.
“No worries.” She forced an even brighter smile. “I know why I’m here, and it’s not for love.”
“Nonsense,” John, the chortler, said. “You can always find love if you look in the right places, my dear.”
AJ actually thought Mr. Stern was on to something. Love always seemed to pop up in unexpected places at unexpected times. At least, hers did. But it would not happen again, despite what her roommate and coworkers thought. She was on the show to find a job. She was not here to meet a man.
“That may be true, Mr. Stern, but I’m not looking to have my heart broken either. Since I’m only contracted to make it to the top five, I think we both know that falling for Mr. Perfect would leave me bloody and bruised when I leave.”
“What an astute observation.” Mr Porter pulled a file of papers out of a briefcase that AJ hadn’t noticed sitting by his feet. “Insights like that will make you a standout this season.” He held the file out until AJ took it in her hands. “Your contract is in there, along with the show’s tag line and some information about the planned episodes. Contact information for your handler is also in there, along with your first check. You’ll receive the second half after you’re eliminated. If you uphold your half of the non-disclosure, then you’ll receive a small bonus when the season airs.”
AJ tried discreetly to thumb through the file to touch the edge of the security envelope.
“Thank you,” she said and felt the heavy weight on her chest lift just a little as she slipped the check to rest on top of her headshot. “I may not be an actress, but I promise I won’t let you down.”
Mr. Stern pinned AJ with a look. “Sweetheart, if we wanted an actress, we’d have hired an actress. We wanted a nobody. That’s why we hired you.”
AJ supposed he meant that as a compliment, too. Sort of.
“And don’t forget that she’s the right size to pull in our larger audience,” Mr. Porter said.
Good thing AJ was proud of her body.
“Your wardrobe is already at the mansion, waiting for you to move in. It’ll be in a suitcase labeled with the name Jane,” Mr. Stern said.
“We thought it best for this project if you used your middle name. Aileth is so uncommon and AJ doesn’t have the right…” Mr Porter’s eyebrows practically met in the middle of his forehead as he searched for the words he wanted.
“It’s not the right fit,” Mr. Stern supplied.
“I understand,” AJ said. They were paying her enough to call her Wilbur if that’s what they wanted. “I’ll look through this file tonight and call my contact with any further questions.” AJ tapped the file against her thigh. “I look forward to being a part of this love story.” Even if the story wasn’t hers.
Mr. Porter and Mr. Stern both stood and extended their hands for her to shake. Mr. Porter’s was soft and warm while Mr. Stern’s was bony and cold, but both men shared kind smiles.
“Oh, and Miss Mulligan,” Mr. Stern said, settling back down into his plush seat. “We’ve made some artistic changes to the show. Taking it in a new direction.”
“A classy direction.”
“I’m sorry,” AJ furrowed her brow. “I’m not here to film The Soul Mate anymore?” Her contract had said they could change the project at any point in time, but this close to filming, she’d assumed they’d settled everything.
“Not anymore,” Mr. Porter said. “We’re going to film a new show for our winter season. We think this will pull in a whole new demographic.”
“The details are in that file.” Mr Stern motioned to the one clutched in AJ’s left hand. “But we’re very excited about this new idea. It’s all about love. And family.” Mr. Stern looked directly into AJ’s eyes. “Tell me, Miss Mulligan, have you ever heard the phrase ‘Mother Knows Best’?”