Perfect Timing, Excerpt

Chapter 1

Providence, Rhode Island

There was nothing enticing about waking up to a three-hundred-pound man who smelled faintly of cheese—even if he was a silver-tongued veteran. Worse, he’d managed to utter the name Aidan Royce before Isabel could untangle mascara-laced lashes, prying open an eye. Her hand groped for the volume as radio DJ Chip Wrangle wrapped things up, Isabel hearing a velvet-timbre mention of the Grammy-winning, mega-selling music icon. But that couldn’t be right, she wagered, sitting upright. “Hey, did he just say—”

Rico ignored her, responding to the DJ’s voice as he always did, lazily stretching and vacating the bed. Isabel cocked her head at the radio. As the content manager for 98.6—The Normal FM for Easy Listening, she’d put a firm moratorium on celebrity gossip. But the aromatic Chip made no other reference, moving on to their Monday-morning salute to the ’60s. “Just a dream,” she said, flopping back onto the pillow. A hazy gaze floated upward, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons crooning “Walk Like a Man” as Rico and his virile gait disappeared into the kitchen. He insisted on his breakfast and she rolled into reality, yelling, “I’m coming!” The two had met while Isabel was vacationing in Key West, Rico a refugee she’d picked up near the Hemingway House. He was the definition of machismo, excessive manliness an inbred trait. Dangling her noticeably more feminine legs over the side, Isabel tucked a thick thatch of hair behind her ear. She did a fast double take of the radio before rising. On her way out of the bedroom she grabbed a robe and a glance in the mirror. “Oh, good gosh! Seriously?” She wet her fingertips, only managing to smear a smudge of mascara, doubly relieved that it was just Rico.

Following the sounds of his disgruntled demand, before daring to fill a coffee cup, Isabel set about preparing his breakfast. But she did turn on the television as she passed through the living room. There she picked up a telltale trail: necktie, camisole, sport coat, flouncy skirt, undershirt, one black high heel. She brushed by an empty wine bottle, a mediocre merlot that had instigated last night. Rico called again, squashing an amorous visual. “Enough already!” There was a death stare in the kitchen where two sets of cat-green eyes pulsed. The TV blared. Just to make her point she smiled and hesitated. “Say again? Matt Lauer is drowning you out!” But it was smell, not sound, that dominated as odor penetrated from beneath a popped tin top. She couldn’t deny him, even as she gagged, Rico’s cries morphing into a loud purr, rubbing lovingly against her leg. She set the bowl of stinky fish on the floor, scratching a tufted ear as he gobbled hunks of vacuum-packed sardine. “Bueno, Rico? Sí, bueno,” Isabel said, having mastered a couple of words in what she assumed to be his native dialect.

From her squatted position Isabel listened. She waited for national media to repeat local radio news and confirm that Aidan Royce was, in fact, dead. It was the only fathomable reason for it to have made the 98.6 morning-host chat. Not dead, as it turned out. Just under arrest. Rico wriggled out from ardent strokes as Isabel absorbed Lauer’s words about Aidan Royce and a high-speed chase, driving drunk, and assaulting an officer. She flipped him off, stalking back to the bedroom.

The ride to work was work, Isabel listening for another 98.6 update, mentally composing a strongly worded email to Chip Wrangle. But the seven-fifteen chat slot was filled with their bimonthly visit from Eleanor Papp, who ran the Providence Humane Society. She only talked about adoptable pets and donations the shelter needed. While 98.6 listeners were old school, conventional to the point of mundane, they were not without a heart. Isabel found the radio station offices quiet, beating Tanya and Mary Louise to work. The sound system wasn’t on and she made no effort to correct the matter. Whether it came from Chip Wrangle, CNN, or two soup cans tied to a string, Aidan Royce would dominate the airwaves and Isabel wasn’t interested. Before shifting gears she crafted an email to Chip where she bolded the words miscreant media blight. A Sunday-night ratings dilemma would dominate Isabel’s morning, though she did take time to call Nate. He’d bounded out of her bed at an ungodly three a.m. leaving most of his belongings behind. “Hey, sorry you had to run away to the hospital. I’m guessing you found your shirt. I, um . . . I had a really great time, Nate. Despite some miscreant radio business,” she said, brusquely hitting Send, “I’ve been thinking about what you asked.” Isabel paused into the empty air of voicemail. “We’ll definitely talk about it later.” She hung up, smiling, feeling less peeved at Chip as Tanya breezed through the door. She was an impish gust of human energy. With doughnut in mouth, she waved a free hand, a double, whipped cream mochaccino in the other, immediately turning on the TV.

“Hey, Isabel. Mornin’, sweetie.” She sat, adjusting a leopard-print scarf as she arranged herself behind her desk.

“Morning, Tanya.”

“Look at you,” she said, an overly tweezed eyebrow arching. “Is that a little Monday-morning afterglow I see?” Isabel didn’t answer. Tanya was always on the lookout for a love connection—Isabel’s, her own, or anyone else’s. They exchanged a smile, Isabel’s fading as Tanya raised the volume, though she couldn’t really argue. Working in the promotions/scheduling/content department of a sizable radio station made current events relevant and real news important. Aidan Royce was neither in Isabel’s opinion, just another self-absorbed celebrity, acting contrite for the cameras and aghast when the world paused to gawk.

Aside from monitoring real news, it was their job to make the yesteryear station go, dream up the giveaways and organize reunion concerts. An anomaly, the 98.6—The Normal FM audience thrived on AM classics and an occasional tribute-to-soft-rock weekend, a dash of country before country went mainstream. Of course, she did wonder what might happen when their baby boomer listeners died off. That or satellite radio squeezed them out. Isabel was a few years younger than her co-workers, although she supervised the three-prong department. While their jobs were important, they didn’t translate into talent, meaning they didn’t rate separate offices like the DJs. It was fine. They were a great team and good friends. Isabel liked sharing with Tanya and Mary Louise most days. Maybe, just not so much today.

Gliding in as silently as a librarian, Mary Louise would give anyone the first impression of prim and proper. But after three years at the radio station Isabel was still peeling back layers. A kale and flaxseed smoothie was in one hand, while clutched in Mary Louise’s other was last week’s In Touch magazine. She got it for free, i.e., swiped it from the recycle bin at the convenience store on Madison. Her polar-opposite co-workers filled each other’s gaps. The reckless squall that described one complemented the other’s curious albeit structured life. Tanya was a three-time divorcée that polite company might refer to as overly social. Tanya had been to church, been to bars, and been to bed in hopes of meeting Mr. Right there. But she was also adept at repurposing that well of emotion, making up as a mother what she lacked in man sense. She had plenty of practice with a child from each marriage. Mary Louise, on the other hand, was a serial monogamist, married and childless for seven years. She’d married a man named Joe Bland. No kidding. They’d met while stocking up at the Dollar Tree in Woonsocket, though frugality had come at a price. Last month Isabel rushed to meet an unusually frazzled Mary Louise in the emergency room. In an attempt to tap in to mature audience movies via an overhead cable wire, Joe took a tumble off the roof and broke a number of bones. Like standard radio and last week’s gossip, Joe’s wife felt certain avenues of entertainment should be free. But as those layers revealed, Mary Louise’s naughty habits ran deep, quickly joining Tanya’s tabloid-television vigil.

“Have you seen this? The drunk-driving thing, you’d expect that from somebody like him,” she said, crossing to her neat-as-a-pin desk. “But a high-speed chase and assaulting an officer? That’s bad behavior even for a known bad boy!” Her arm flailed so fervently it was look or be struck. Isabel recognized old news footage, a nightclub brawl that had involved the rock god years before.

“Aidan Royce tied to the whipping post of fame—go figure.” Isabel rolled her eyes, saved from further comment as an email from Nate popped up. Definitely did not want to run away. An unavoidable hazard of that medical oath. I was looking forward to a sleepy you. More important, I was looking forward to an answer. You know how to keep a guy in suspense. She smiled, wondering how she might have discretely engineered a six a.m. makeover. Admiring the email for a second longer Isabel went back to work, but not before seeing Aidan Royce hustled past frothing media and into a police station. It was only the half of it, a boisterous swell of female fans having assembled in his defense. Isabel guessed they let him tweet the urgent call to action from the cruiser.

“When I heard Chip say his name,” Tanya said, coming around to stand beside Mary Louise, “I thought for sure he was dead.”

“I thought the same thing!” she gasped, grasping her arm. “Couldn’t you just see it? Sheer California cliffs, a drug-induced sex-capade, maybe an encounter with a deranged fan . . .” She paused, finishing her smoothie. “What did you think, Isabel?”

“I thought it was a fatal fall off his ego.”

“Well, there’s no excuse for driving like a maniac and endangering other people or punching a cop. I wouldn’t be surprised if he got real time.”

Reopening the email from Nate, Isabel debated a reply. She glanced up, half listening. “You really think he’ll go to jail?”

“Maybe.” Her slim shoulders shrugged, clearly intrigued.

Isabel looked between her co-workers at the TV. Media outlets were already on the scene, catching a probing glance of Aidan Royce’s backside at a booking desk, his hands cuffed. She sucked in a breath, wondering how many times people needed to see a scene like that. How many times did she? “Confined reflection might do him good.” She wanted to type YES! YES! YES! in reply to Nate but opted for a winking smiley instead. Big moments were better in person.

“He won’t do a day in jail,” Tanya said. “Maybe some cushy community service.”

“That’s true. Celebrity like his is so above the law,” Mary Louise lamented, more disappointed than miffed. She filled the coffeemaker, her peripheral glance on the TV. “But that’s what happens when you wear the triple crown of fame—talent, looks, and filthy rich. With this,” she said, gesturing, “you can add the fantasy element of wickedly untamed.”

“A scandalous lifestyle suits him, that’s for sure.” Tanya remained one with the TV, absently brushing doughnut crumbs from a fuzzy fuchsia sweater. It was a fitting complement to her bright red hair. “Aidan Royce is a textbook man crush and all women find him irresistible.”

“Not all,” Isabel insisted, teeth sinking into the eraser tip of her pencil.

“Your average movie or pop star, it wouldn’t be such a big deal. But when it’s someone like Aidan Royce, it’s way . . . way more . . .”

“Titillating?” Mary Louise suggested, Tanya nodding. “Barring an international crisis or freak weather phenomenon, it’s all we’ll hear for days.”

“Super,” Isabel muttered, studying the segments for Sunday Evening with Country’s Best.

“Who knows what else will turn up? I heard they strip-searched him and his car. There could be drugs, maybe a sex tape. Camera equipment is so discreet nowadays and user friendly.”

While “You work in radio, you would know that how?” ticked through Isabel’s head, she prudently stayed on task.

“Wouldn’t surprise me,” Tanya said. “Did you see the woman he was with? Last October’s Miss October.”

“I saw the dress she was wearing. I own dish towels made of more fabric,” Mary Louise said, mashing the remote only to come up with the same loop on channel four. “His publicist said she wasn’t anybody, that Aidan was just ‘giving her a ride.’ But Fox News reported that he kidnapped her!”

Tanya’s head cocked. “He’s Aidan Royce. Why would he have to kidnap her?”

Riding the tidal wave of sensationalism, Mary Louise paused. “Good point.”

“And his publicist can spin it however she likes. Nobody’s going to believe the ‘giving her a ride’ story,” Tanya said, punctuating the air with quotations marks. “Certainly not his current girlfriend.”

“Oh that’s right. I forgot about her.”

“So did he, apparently,” Isabel said, a hand gripping around her neck, vigorously erasing segments for Sunday Evening with Country’s Best.

“And she’s no centerfold—a lawyer from New York, I think.”

Isabel glanced up, though the eraser kept moving.

“No way,” said Mary Louise. “Centerfold is much more believable.”

“It’s true. Actually, I read they were engaged.”

The back-and-forth motion of the eraser stopped, Isabel eyeing them. “Really?” she said, a droll smile curving over her mouth. “Engaged?”

“It was all over the tabloids a couple of months back.”

Isabel returned to her work and penciled in Delilah, thinking listeners might tune in to the syndicated melodrama.

“Triple crown or not, good luck to the woman who ends up with him. Married to a rock star, it’s glamorous but fatal.” Mary Louise poured herself coffee, smirking at the TV. “Seriously, when does that ever work out?”

“And don’t you mean women? Celebrity marriages are more disposable than mine,” Tanya said. “There’ll be three or four wives between stints in rehab.”

“Maybe he’ll do a reality-TV show, Polygamy and the Rock God. Heaven knows, I’d tune in,” she said. “It would draw huge ratings when two or three end up pregnant.”

On her words, the point to Isabel’s pencil snapped, piercing her paperwork.

“Some women are so blind.” Tanya lamented. “Clearly, he’s a womanizing scoundrel.”

Clearly, Tanya didn’t recognize her own lack of foresight when it came to this particular character trait. Shifting restlessly, Isabel admonished the unkind thought.

“You said it,” Mary Louise agreed, swirling Splenda and skim milk.

“I mean, just look at that tattoo on his neck. It only emphasizes his twisted boundaries.”

The comment drew Isabel’s attention, her gaze veering from Tanya’s squint onto Aidan Royce’s latest mug shot, his blond GQ looks forever marred by a coiled snake. It traveled from the base of his collarbone upward, its sharp tongue splitting at edge of a Boeing-inspired jaw.

“Reminds me of a Japanese bondage rope,” Mary Louise said, tipping her head at the screen. “And not a very realistic one. He probably dabbles in the basics, thinks he knows something.”

“And if he was really into it?” Tanya queried.

Mary Louise sipped her coffee, shrugging. “Had he wanted to make a real S&M statement, he could have gone with a nipple clamp, combo riding crop—maybe a slave collar.”

There was a hum of wonder from Tanya, Isabel murmuring, “Please make it stop.” Abandoning Sunday night’s ratings she moved onto next month’s teasers, which led up to their big summer giveaway, Fruit of the Month Club for a year.

“Though I will say, whatever his motivation, a tattoo like that took nerve.” Popping on her glasses, she peered harder. “I bet his record label made him do it.”

“No way,” Tanya said. “Everybody knows the tattoo was a symbol of Aidan’s commitment to Fiona Free, the British blonde with the sitcom.”

“Oh, that’s right. How long were they together?”

“Until her show got canceled and she moved back to London. Two episodes in, I think.”

Instead of just snapping the point, Isabel snapped the pencil right in two. “That’s not true.”

“What’s not true?” Mary Louise said, her steaming coffee cup frozen midair.

“That’s not how he got the tattoo.”

She smiled, bemused. “And how would you know that?”

“I . . . I read it somewhere.”

“No you didn’t. You hate gossip magazines. More to the point, you don’t know the first thing about celebrity lifestyles, particularly someone like Aidan Royce.”

“I might know more than you think, Mary Louise.” She meant to end there, but found herself caught between two intent stares, her mouth moving ahead of her brain. “Maybe he wasn’t always what you see. Maybe miscreant media blight didn’t always define him. Maybe once, a lifetime ago, there was some substance to Aidan Royce.” She rose as she spoke, her co-workers looking as if, maybe, Isabel had lost her mind. “Anyway,” she said, sitting, grasping at self-possession and a defense theory that would have made his publicist proud. “I can’t speak for high-speed chases, drunk driving, or punching a cop. But you’re wrong about the tattoo.”

“Have you been watching Access Hollywood, maybe sneaking some after-hours TMZ? It’s okay to admit you’re susceptible, Isabel.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. I wouldn’t waste my time.”

“So how is it you know something like that?”

“I just do.”

“But how?” Mary Louise pressed, skepticism bearing down.

“It’s irrelevant. Can’t you just take my word for it?”

“Not really. Besides, you brought it up. So how do you know?”

“Because . . .”

“Because how? Just tell me.”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“Oh, but I think it does.”

“I know,” she said, swallowing hard, grabbing up the pieces of the broken pencil, “because I was there when he got it.”