Those words never failed to send a shudder down Shannon McKenna's spine. She adjusted her headset in a nervous gesture as her eyes scanned the crowd. They were already on their feet. They cheered, they applauded – some even jumped up and down. The air was electric.
And for good reason. The person they were there to see, all two hundred and forty eight of them, had that kind of effect on people, whether it was in a crowd like this one or her one on one interviews. Dixie, "Just Dixie" as she had become known, set folks on fire and had taken over America with a bigger than life personality. From her large mane of red hair ("The bigger the better," she would describe in her hearty southern drawl) to her hundred megawatt smile, she seemed to grab everyone up in a big bear hug, a generous Georgia Peach who never met a stranger. As her top rated daytime talk show "part dish, part diva" dominated the airwaves, she never lost what made her so popular with her core audience.
She was down to earth and real, and you knew that the minute she walked into the room.
That was why all these ladies, and even a few men, were on their feet. Even Shannon, who had worked as Dixie's production assistant for a good nine months, couldn't stop her own jitters every time they taped a show. It was just another reminder she was better off behind the camera than in front of it.
That and the camera notoriously added ten pounds, and those were ten pounds Shannon didn't need added to her already ample sized frame.
Dixie swept past her with flourish, in a gardenia scented breeze. More like a hurricane. A six foot tall redhead who looked more than at home in a size sixteen wasn't meant to be missed. Society may not have had a place for Dixie, but that didn't stop her from barreling through and making one anyway. Shannon always envied her that.
"How y'all doin?" she bellowed into the crowd. They responded with more wild cheers and applause. That wasn't enough for Dixie. Not only did she enjoy life, she demanded others around her do the same. "I said... how are y'all doin?!"
The roar was deafening. Dixie smiled at their enthusiasm. "That's better."
She controlled the room from the moment she stepped onto the stage. Even more remarkably, she managed to make every single person in that audience feel like they were her only guest at an afternoon tea party.
Or a Saturday night at the local pub, it just depended on the subject matter of the show.
Shannon glanced down at her clipboard. "Women Fed Up With Their Men."
Installment number six hundred and twenty seven.
Every single show Dixie did had the same running theme. Frustrated Women, and the Men Who Frustrated Them. Whether it was the housewife who couldn't get her husband to pick up his dirty socks, or the career woman who couldn't get her main squeeze to commit, every woman who sashayed across the Dixie stage had one main beef.
This particular show dealt with women who were frustrated with the romantic choices made by the men in their lives. Mothers, sisters and friends alike recounted similar stories. The men ultimately would choose fluff over substance, their hearts broken by the newest looker who paid them any mind, instead of listening to the wise women in their circle and finding true love the good old fashioned way.
Being told how.
Each woman had a lot to say about the clueless men who sat next to them, sheepish and embarrassed, but certain none of their beer buddies would be caught dead watching "Dixie".
Plus it was a good way to meet women, considering the audience was about 98.999% female.
Shannon herded them out and shuffled them back in, the picture of efficiency as she remained what suited her best. Invisible.
It was easier to stay in the shadow of someone like Dixie than be in the spotlight herself. In fact, invisibility suited Shannon so well that her ultimate dream, to be a writer, meant she could stay in the shadows and live vicariously through all the pretty people who loved and lost, succeeded and failed. Her words would fall from the lips of people like Julia Roberts and George Clooney, and she could sit in a dark audience completely anonymous to it all.
Of course, invisibility had its limitations. In order to get those words spoken, one actually had to "take meetings", "network" and eventually step out from behind the computer.
The thought made Shannon ill.
Instead, she would find new reasons to rewrite her scripts. They weren't perfect, she reasoned, and certainly couldn't stand up to what "real" writers submit.
It made her good friend Jake Dalton want to throttle her on a daily basis.
Jake had befriended a shy Shannon in the tenth grade. He liked her offbeat humor and the fact that she seemed perfectly happy being a geek or a dork. Though she couldn't see it, he thought she was very comfortable in her own skin and he admired her for that. Too many girls tried to be what guys wanted them to be just so they could be a part of a couple. Shannon was fine being an individual.
She lost herself in her stories and the stories of others. She spent many a Saturday seeing every new movie that opened that weekend, accumulating enough theater points to finance a pretty hefty popcorn addiction. When he'd join her, Jake always felt that his presence was consequential. She needed no date, her one and only love was the movie playing on the screen.
It was no wonder she wanted to make movies her career. He pushed her to pursue it even when she insisted she wasn't ready. He convinced her to take classes, intern and take jobs like working as Dixie's PA. He was the voice in her head that told her every situation was educational. Whether it was meeting new people she'd eventually incorporate into her characters, or meeting real people who could eventually help her make her writing dreams come true, he was the one who gave her the confidence to try.
It was what made him her very best friend in the world, even when his relationship with her sister hit the skids.
If Shannon was good at living in someone else's shadow, it was because she had a lot of practice. Taylor was the golden child. She had the perfect face that a pimple never would have dared to invade. She had the perfect body that didn't require rigorous exercise to keep trim. She had the smile, the friends, the boys, the grades, romance, success.
Shannon was convinced that she'd been hatched, not born.
Either that or left on the doorstep by some insanely perfect gypsies.
Regardless, Taylor would always shine the best and the brightest, and Shannon found her comfort in being the sister no one noticed.
No one except Jake.
He was really the only boyfriend Taylor ever dated who took an interest in Shannon. He invited her along when they went to the movies, he'd always bring her a single daisy whenever Taylor got the handful of roses.
And he never looked at her like all the other boys looked at her. When Shannon met guys she usually got one of two reactions. They either saw right through her, or looked at her like she'd grown a second head. There is something about being a two digit dress size in high school, kind of like being in a social leper colony.
Thankfully Jake met her in her sophomore year and was able to buffer a lot of the unkindness. There were slight skirmishes but generally she flew just under the social radar. She'd learned early on it was just safer that way. She skipped things like homecoming and prom, there was really no point. Those things were better left to Taylor, who glided through high school the perpetual queen of adolescent royalty.
If Shannon were the kind to hold a grudge, she'd have been bitter. But that was hard to do when Taylor was not only beautiful, but kind as well. Taylor loved her sister, even though Shannon thought she remained pretty clueless to what life must be like for normal girls. She just believed that if Shannon wanted those things, she could have gotten them too.
Shannon never bothered to educate her. That's just the way things were and Shannon was okay with that.
When Taylor chose to go to school in the east, she and Jake broke up more out of practical reasons than emotional ones. Both families were convinced a wedding was in the future, but Jake and Taylor both decided they were too young to commit to such a serious relationship.
Instead they'd go their separate ways. If fate brought them back together, then they'd know. Until then they wanted to know who they were as individuals before they ever tied down as a couple.
So far fate had not intervened and secretly Shannon was glad. In a weird sort of way Jake belonged to her now. He was her rock, her soft place to fall. His not dating anyone worked well for Shannon. She didn't have to share.
But it wasn't like she had romantic designs on him. If nothing else, Shannon understood her limitations. Jake was entirely out of her league. He was bronzed and buff from his hours of labor on his family ranch. He had the bluest eyes she had ever seen, that stood out even more because of his jet black hair. His Native American heritage gave him a sinewy body and an almost sculpted face. He was far better looking than a lot of guys who get paid to be good looking, but he was blissfully unaware – which made him all the more attractive.
His esteem came from the work he did on the ranch, the friends he made and the family whom he cherished. Looks change, he decided. Seemed like a waste of time to concentrate on something so temporal. It was more important to him to evolve emotionally and spiritually.
He read various books, learned about several religions. He was a perpetual student of life, eager to learn from and embrace each new experience.
Being his friend gave her courage to do the same. So even though he never had a shortage of female admirers, he always made sure she knew that she was his best girl. And he was her Jake.
Though she knew that's all they would ever be, that was good enough.
Any more than that and she'd lose her invisibility.
One thing she knew beyond all else, is that she never, ever wanted to do that.
The show wrapped and after a brief Q&A Dixie headed backstage where Shannon waited with her bottle of water. "So what did you think?"
Shannon smiled. "Changing lives like always."
Dixie gave her a hearty chuckle. She liked the quirky girl who hid behind dark framed glasses, her long brown hair pulled into its signature ponytail. "Did you hear about Elise?"
Shannon's smile faltered just a bit. Of course she had. It had been the talk of the set. Elise held the PA job before Shannon, and had just landed a writing gig for a hit drama on another network.
A drama that Shannon herself had written no less than five spec scripts for, but she didn't mention that to anyone. Only Jake knew. And only Jake had read them.
Despite what he said, Shannon knew they weren't ready, and neither was she. But apparently Elise was.
"She's a lucky girl."
"Luck had nothing to do with it," Dixie told her in a firm voice. "She's been preparing for this break for years. Hard work opens doors. Don't forget that."
Shannon gave her a dutiful nod.
"How's your writing coming along?"
Shannon cringed a bit. She was sorry she ever fessed up to that in the initial interview for the job. But that was Dixie Magic. She could make anyone anywhere open up and discuss their inner most feelings and desires. That's what made her such a huge success.
"It's going well," she lied. Actually she hadn't written anything more than a grocery list for about three months.
"One of these days you're going to have to let me see what you're working on."
Shannon nodded, yet another lie. There was never any way she'd be presumptuous enough to ask her boss to read her scripts. She could barely ask for a day off. That's just not the way it worked in the Shadows.
Though she didn't call her on it, Shannon suspected that Dixie read her thoughts. The boisterous redhead simply saluted her with the water bottle and turned to go. "Pow wow at four. Don't be late."
It was a joke. Shannon was never late. In fact, she'd show up ten minutes early and help get things in order. That's just the kind of girl she was.
At precisely 3:49pm (and ten seconds), Shannon entered the conference room. She set out the pitchers of water, and passed out the folders. No one had to tell her what to do. This was her comfort zone and she was happy there. She even hummed to herself a little.
"I can name that tune in three notes," joked Rex Cantrell. She sent him an impatient glance, she wasn't really in the mood to deal with him.
It wasn't that Rex was a bad guy. It was just that he slithered instead of walked. He was entirely too smooth for Shannon's taste, and she got the distinct impression that nothing that fell from his lips even remotely resembled the truth. In fact, he fell into a completely different category of men. He didn't look through her, and he didn't look disgusted by her. Instead he gave her a thoughtful look that a more cynical person might even say was calculating. It felt painfully familiar.
So she handled Rex with care. He talked to her as though they were fast friends and joked with her – sometimes he even flirted, but she kept her guard up.
"Any idea what has Big Mama fired up?"
Shannon grimaced at the term, it seemed so disrespectful. Dixie didn't seem to mind, but Dixie didn't put a whole lot of stock into anything anyone said or did. It was Dixie's world. They were just living in it.
Shannon shrugged. "I'm just the PA."
"Not just the PA. You're her favorite."
Shannon liked hearing that. She knew that Dixie had a sweet spot for her, but she likened it to the fact that were both the same dress size.
An unintentional sisterhood.
"In fact, there's a rumor going around that she's got her eye on you for her new project."
"If I'm lying may lightning strike me dead on the spot."
Shannon backed up. Just in case.
"Fine, fine. Just remember us little people when you get promoted."
Shannon shrugged it off as the conference room began to fill. As with her audience, Dixie swept in and took charge, captivating her staff just as easily as she captivated millions of Americans each day.
"Four hundred and sixty five thousand. Any idea what makes this number so significant?”
Hands flew up around the room. “That's how many times you ended up in the tabloids this year.”
Dixie chuckled. “Funny. But thankfully an overestimate.”
Rex piped up. “That's how much money you made in the last five minutes.”
She turned her twinkling blue gaze his direction. “Funnier, but an underestimate. No, that's how many letters and emails we got when we put today's topic up on the website. Do you folks know what this means?"
Cheryl Tate, one of the producers, popped up. "It means that guys would be lost without us."
The mostly female staff chuckled. Rex laughed, but a little too loud.
Dixie indulged them momentarily before she jumped right back on task. "It means we have done unintentional consumer research. As some of you know I've been looking around for a new venture, and I think we should market to our strengths. Relationships. Hot men and the women that love them."
Barbara Johnson, the A.D, spoke up. "What? Like a sitcom?"
Dixie mulled that over. "It could be. It could be anything. That's the point of this meeting. I hired you all because you're the best and the brightest – and not just for a daytime talk show. I want each of you to come up with a possible show idea. The one I like best, you get to help me produce." She glanced around the stunned crowd. "That's right. A promotion. And all you have to do is be what you already are. Brilliant."
She briefly glanced over Shannon before she continued, "I don't want to lose you all to other shows and networks. So dust off all those projects you're sitting on. You never know. In a few weeks you may just be producing your very own show."
She left them all gaping at the news. This was the brass ring for a group of people who came to work simply to pay their dues. No matter how good they all had it under the Dixie umbrella, every grunt in the chain was just biding their time while they waited for their big break.
And this was huge. Some already twittered amongst themselves the possibilities. Some had screenplays and television pilot ideas, and each wondered aloud how to cater those to fit Dixie's current need.
If this worked out, the opportunities were endless.
They would no longer work for Dixie. They could be Dixie.
Shannon thought herself into a brain cramp as she finished up for the day and merged onto the 405 freeway toward her small apartment in Santa Monica. She had several ideas; some were even already written. But none of them felt right. None were perfect. She knew that with the steep competition among her more qualified coworkers, it had to be.
She came up with and dismissed several ideas as she heated her diet microwave dinner. When she sat down in front of the computer to eat, a horse whinnied at her. It was Jake's custom instant messenger.
"How's it going?" he wrote. She loved that he spelled it out instead of using IM shorthand. She knew he cared about language as much as she did. Things like "u" and "ur" would never come from his keyboard.
"Interesting," she shot back.
"How interesting?" he queried back just as quickly.
Her fingers flew over the keyboard. "Big time interesting. Like promotion interesting."
The phone rang almost an instant later. She smiled as she answered.
"Spill," he instructed.
"I told you that Dixie has plans to produce more than just the show, right?" He murmured his affirmation. "Turns out she's giving all of us first dibs to come up with an idea. It has to be about relationships or romance, but aside from that it doesn't matter if it's a drama, a sitcom or anything else. And just to make sure the carrot on the stick is big enough, whoever comes up with the winning idea, gets a promotion - to producer."
"Fantastic! Did you did you dig out that pilot you wrote a year ago?"
She laughed. Even though no one was around she blushed beet red. She'd be way too embarrassed for anyone to see that project. It was romantic, indeed, but it clearly demonstrated – at least to her – that she was hopelessly naïve to such things. "God, no. Not only would I miss out on the promotion but she might just fire me altogether."
"Not likely," he assured her. He'd been on the set, he knew how fond Dixie was of her. "So what else do you have?"
She shrugged, and even though he couldn't see her do it, he knew.
"Too bad the Bachelor has already been done."
He laughed. "Well, if today's “Dixie” is any indication, it's not a great idea to leave romance and relationships in the hands of men."
"You saw the show?"
"My mom called me and made me watch. I think she was trying to tell me something."
Shannon grinned. She knew Mama Dalton all too well. No one was good enough for her son, except maybe Taylor. "Well maybe when you go on the Bachelor, your mom should go along."
Despite their giggles over the absurdity of the idea, the seed took root in her subconscious. In fact, the more they talked about it, the less absurd it sounded. Without even concentrating on it, by the time she turned in she had worked it out into an outline for a new reality show where there would indeed be a bachelor and even several possible Miss Rights.
But this time there'd be a catch. This time he'd have a mole in the Bachelorette pad to help him make the right choice. A friend. A sister. An ex. Didn't matter, as long as it was a female the other girls could buy as a cast mate.
It'd be Love.