The Last Guy Page 1

Author: Ilsa Madden-Mills

Genres: Romance , New Adult


SCRATCHY PINK TULLE hits me square in the face, and I jerk away as a shrieking tornado of blonde curls bolts past me. I am in hell, more specifically pageant hell, the deepest and darkest level.

“Petal Boo Bishop! PETAL BOO BISHOP!” A large woman stomps after the child, shoving me as I dodge to avoid being tackled. “Get back here and put your tutu on this minute!”

My camera-guy Kevin snorts as I regain my footing. He gets a brief, snappy glare. Let him try interviewing tiny humans in the middle of chaos.

Clearing my throat, I smile and hold the mic down to the four-foot beauty queen I’d been addressing before the interruption. “And what will you do if you win Miss Planetary Princess, Kaitlyn?”

She pushes her helmet of golden-brown hair away from her face. It’s bigger than her head and strong enough to withstand any climatological distress. My hair, by contrast, is completely wilted and flat in the Houston humidity that blasts through the room every time a door opens.

“First, I wanna eat chicken nuggets then pizza with pineapple and a Coke—oh, and some taco bells. I haven’t had a taco since I was three years old. Mama says tacos are bad for business.”

Mama gives Kaitlyn a warning look.

“That sounds like my kind of fun!” I laugh, giving her a fist bump and then winking at the camera. The wink is my trademark, along with my pencil skirts.

Kaitlyn’s mama charges me, putting her hand on the mic alongside mine and giving it a tug. I tug back—while pretending I’m not—as I smile through clenched teeth. I refuse to let go, and she hunches in front of me to speak.

“After we win here, we’re heading to Little Miss Galaxy at the San Francisco Zoo,” she states. “We’ll go straight to catwalk training and poise. The girls in Little Miss Galaxy come from all over the country, you know. Their bodies are streamlined and toned—no baby fat. We’re on a healthy but strict diet.”

I blink in horror as I absorb her speech. Think about the anchor job, Rebecca. Smile. “Wow. That seems rigorous for a five-year-old.”

Mama rakes her eyes over me. “I’m sure you wouldn’t know anything about it.”

I jerk the mic away, ignoring her body shaming. “Kaitlyn, how do you feel about being Miss Galaxy?”

“Little Miss Galaxy,” her mother corrects.

Huge brown eyes gaze up at me. “I’ll be Princess Leia!”

Mama bursts out laughing. “With that honey-bun hair! You are not Princess Leia. Except for maybe those chubby cheeks, but we’re working on that.”

The child’s eyes land on her shoes, and I swallow the knot of anger in my throat. I might be a hard-boiled newswoman, but I’m fighting a deep desire to steal this little cutie and give her a normal childhood—tacos and all.

Looking straight into Kevin’s lens, I do the wrap. “There you have it, folks. Miss Planetary Princess is just the latest preschool pageant feeding into the Miss USA circuit. Catch all the taco-worthy drama tomorrow night at eight, right here at the Houston Expo Center. I’m Rebecca Fieldstone, KHOT News.”

I hold the smile a beat longer until Kevin gives me the signal. “We’re clear.”

He lowers the camera, and my shoulders drop. This assignment is soul sucking.

I need to get back to the station and edit the story, but I can’t help sneaking a last look at Kaitlyn. Her shoulders are also slumped, and her mom steers her in the direction of the Channel 8 news team set up in the corner across from us. I hope she gets a taco soon.

“You ready?” I tuck the mic under my arm and pick up my bag.

“Miss? Excuse me, miss?” The large woman who had almost knocked me down earlier touches my shoulder.

I don’t stop walking.

The woman keeps my pace, breathing heavily as she jogs. “Sorry about earlier, but you haven’t talked to Petal Boo. We’d really like to have her on camera for her résumé.”

Not another one, I groan inwardly. “I’m sorry. I can’t guarantee what goes on air—”

The lady shoots out a hand and grips my arm, stopping me. “Oh, you’ll want to talk to Petal. She’s not like the rest.”

My eyebrow arches, and she releases me. Still, her face is pleading. “Just take a look. Please?”

Something about her gives me pause. Maybe it’s the sweat lining her brow—I can totally relate. As per usual, it’s a steamy late-September day in southeast Texas, and I left my blotting papers back in the news van. I’m sure my face looks like a red Solo cup right now.

Giving Kevin a quick nod, we follow her. My mic is out, the light goes on, and Kevin points the camera at a fluffy little girl in a white-blonde wig styled with long ringlets around her oval face.

“Hi, there,” I say with a smile. “What’s your name?”

She throws back her shoulder and tilts her chin. “My name is Petal Boo Bishop, and I’m from Meridian, Mississippi!” She’s practically shouting in her clipped country accent, but her execution is polished. “I got started in the pageant circuit after I won the Beautiful Child competition. You’ve probably heard of the Beautiful Child pageant. It’s famous.”

“I’m afraid I haven’t—”

“From To Kill a Mockingbird? You haven’t read To Kill a Mockingbird?” Her tone is astonished disapproval.

The camera trembles with Kevin’s suppressed laughter, and I smile, knowing good footage when I see it. I bend down to her level, sucking in my gut. From this angle, it’s more of a challenge to hide the extra few pounds I’ve picked up these last couple months.

“It’s been a while,” I say, and she charges on.

“It’s been voted one of the greatest novels of all time. It concerns the evils of racism.”

“You’re a smart girl, Petal. How old were you when you won Beautiful Child?”

Her face snaps to the camera. “I was four years old when I won my first contest. After that my mama said I could win a bunch of money in pageants, so we hit the road. We’ve been to Atlanta, Tampa, Nashville, Baton Rouge, and now we’re here in the great state of Texas to claim Miss Planetary Princess.” Her arm goes straight up, victory style, and she says it all without even pausing for breath.

“Okay, then.” I stand, taking the pressure off my back. “Good luck to you, Petal.”

“Thank you, Miss Fieldstone.”

This kid knows my name? “How old are you now?”

“Seven and a half. I’m right slap in the middle of the playing field.” She does a little hip-cock—as much as possible in her fluffy pink dress. “This is gonna be my year, just you wait and see. I’m gonna take home the tiara.”

Her mother rocks back on her heels, arms crossed, beaming with pride.

“In that case, I’ll be watching for you, as will Houston tonight at six and ten. Do you have a special message for our Channel 5 viewers?”

“You bet your butt I do.” She looks into the camera. “People of Texas and the world, don’t settle. You deserve the best, just like me. Work as hard as you can and have some fun too.” She gives the camera a thumbs-up. “Y’all take care now!”

I watch her prance off, tutu flouncing with every step, and I confess, I’m a little envious of her confidence. That’s exactly the kind of attitude I need when it comes to getting the weekend anchor position. It’s been on my radar ever since Maryanne announced she isn’t coming back from maternity leave. She wants to start a family, and her decision is my chance to get off this underpaying, exhausting reporter’s beat. Please, God, I pray silently. I need that anchor job.

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