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Chapter 1

Cover_Rev_MD-2“Presentation is everything. Look your best, achieve your best.”
~ Candace Bradford (from her new book, Total Mastery)

“So tell me, Candace. How would you describe yourself?” asked the budding reporter on the other end of the phone. I’d been weaving through traffic, sipping my latte, and praising Bluetooth technology when we neared the end of our interview. “Other than tall, dark and gorgeous that is.” I rolled my eyes and glanced at my reflection in the rearview mirror.

“Well, I’d say strong-willed and always in control.” The title of my book’s Total Mastery for God’s sake. Did she even read it? I heard her pause to jot down the obvious.

“And how do you think you’ll feel when you’re an international phenomenon?” she continued.

Okay, maybe I’d misjudged her. “Hard to say, but let’s chat again a year from now, and I’ll let you know.” A cocky response maybe, but I had no doubts about my pending boost in celebrity.

Calls from reporters, like this upstart from Portland, had doubled from out of state since the book release, and I embraced the idea of added exposure. I’d gained a significant following since my radio show had hit national syndication a year prior, but now I’d made my way into print. I could set my sights on the New York Times bestseller list.

“I love your attitude,” she chirped. “And we love your show here in Oregon. I’m sure you’re getting stopped in the streets now that you’re becoming famous.”

“Well, no more than usual here. You’ve got to remember that I’ve been on the Chicago airwaves for several years and a life coach for even longer. My face has been on a few billboards in my day, so Chicago’s probably sick of me if anything.”

“Oh, I highly doubt that,” she teased. “One last question?”

“Shoot.”

“Your dedication reads, ‘To my greatest inspiration. I miss you.’ Can you tell me who that’s for?”

A small drop of coffee fell from my lip and plopped on the lapel of my white Armani jacket. “Shit!”

“Excuse me?”

“Oh, sorry,” I said, peering into my purse for anything resembling a napkin.

I glanced up as the driver in front of me slammed on their brakes. I did the same, and braced for an impact that never came. An orchestra of honks crescendoed from behind. “Traffic’s insane,” I added, as a familiar shadow crept over me.

My mother. She’d been my greatest inspiration. She’d inspired me not to be like her – not to fail. Not to lose control and swan dive from the fifth floor balcony of a hotel room. Not to leave a seven-year-old kid behind to try and make sense of it all. And yes – despite it all – I missed her. I missed her like a lost limb.

“Well, I think I prefer to keep that name to myself,” I said, adjusting my earpiece. “But I can honestly say that I wouldn’t be who I am today without their influence.”

The call ended, and I tossed the memory of my mother back where it belonged. Traffic warranted my full attention. I couldn’t risk being late – not ever. I took side streets to avoid heavy traffic and left my latte tucked safely in the cup holder. Water from now on; just water.

I drove up to Perkins Public Relations with five minutes to spare. I looked down again at the lapel and let out an audible sigh. With nothing but a flimsy camisole under my jacket, I’d have to make do. I yanked the bobby pins from my up-do, shook my hair out, and pulled it down over my shoulder to cover the offending stain. After a long deep breath, I strutted into the building with all the confidence of a full-fledged celebrity. When I reached the fourteenth floor office, the receptionist waved me through with a smile.

“Candace,” said Geri Perkins from behind her desk. “Have a seat. I just need to wrap up this email.”

I perched myself on the edge of her overstuffed chair and watched her pound the keys with authority. The glow of the computer screen reflected a pale blue in the lenses of her designer specs, and while her posture demanded attention, her suit guaranteed it. I’ll bet she never spills coffee on her–

“Okay, done,” she said, setting her laptop aside and adjusting her glasses. “You look great by the way. I’ve never seen your hair down like that. I think I like it.” She didn’t smile.

“Ah, yeah well. I like to have it down when I wear white. Shows off my chestnut coloring.” I patted the ends of my hair over the lapel.

“Hmm. I’ve always wanted long hair myself,” she said, fingering the bangs of her boyish auburn cut. “It gets any longer than two inches, and I lose my professional edge.” She smirked. “Now, let’s get down to business, shall we?”

Geri moved her chair over beside mine and spread a calendar out on her desk. We eyeballed each other’s heels and shared an approving nod.

“Now, before we get started, I just have to tell you how excited I am about this whole collaboration. If it wasn’t for that little book of yours, I never would have left that wretched firm and gone out on my own. You gave me just the psychological boost I needed, and I’m thrilled that you agreed to come on as my first client.”

“Hey listen. Working with someone who believes in the message? I’m the one that’s thrilled.”

She smiled and looked back at the calendar.

“So, I’ve brought you in here to share some good news. We’re going to ramp up your exposure and really make you a household name. If I do say so myself, I’m working some marketing magic.”

“Perfect,” I said, inching my chair in closer. “Tell me more.”

“National television spots, interviews, speaking engagements, you name it, and I’ve coordinated everything so that cities and dates correspond with your existing book tour.”

“God,” I said, peering down at her masterpiece. “You’re amazing.”

“Oh, and this is just the beginning. I’m going to work this whole thing into a frenzy, and we’re going to kick it all off right here in Chi-town.” She tapped her finger on the next day on the calendar.

“Tomorrow?” She must be kidding.

“Yes, tomorrow,” she said. “I have a friend in the biz who owes me a favor, and I just found out that he has a small press gig set up in the morning for one of his clients who’s launching a financial advice read. That shouldn’t be hard to upstage.” She raised her eyes toward the ceiling and back. “Anyway, I asked if we could get some time with the reporters. He made arrangements, and we’re down for the first 15 minutes. Short and sweet, but every interview counts, right?”

“They agreed to that?”

“Trust me. The favor I did for him pales in comparison,” she said, with an exaggerated wink. “Can you be there?”

“Ah, sure. I have a meeting scheduled, but . . .” My knee began to bounce at a steady pace. “I-I’m sure she won’t mind rescheduling.”

“Okay, good. It’s going to take place in a small conference room at the Marriott on North Michigan. Just a quick Q&A thing and some pictures. Mostly local reporters, but it’s Chicago, right?” She smiled. “You can tell them all about the upcoming tour dates, talk about your life since syndication, and really plug the book.”

I looked down at the schedule again. My finger ran down the list of cities and events. Seattle, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Dallas. “Wait. Rockford? You’ve got me going to Rockford?”

“Sure do,” she beamed. “You’re speaking at the Rockford Social Club. I read in your bio that you were from there, so I made arrangements. Thought I’d sweeten the pot a little. Surprised?”

“Well, it’s true my family’s there, but . . .” My knee bounced a little faster and just a tad bit higher.

“Oh, come on. Don’t you want to rub your success in a few hometown faces?” she asked. “Besides, if they know you, it’s a pretty sure bet they’ll buy the book. Think of it as a good business move.” She patted my knee twice and pushed down hard to steady it.

Truth be told, I did want to rub my success in a few hometown faces. Especially the ones who’d teased me when I’d started coaching fellow students in high school. They’d been merciless back then, and if any of them could afford my services now, I’d be shocked – but Rockford? I loathed Rockford.

Geri tapped her pen on the calendar to refocus my attention. “This will put you out of town longer than previously planned. Is hubby going to mind?”

“You mean Ross?” She’d met him twice and still couldn’t remember his name. “I don’t think so, but I’ll go regardless. I’ll do whatever it takes to make this book fly off the shelves. Besides, he’s got a couple of high profile cases he’s working on right now. He’ll be plenty busy.”

Would he mind? Considering our career obsessions, and meeting in bed over laptops most nights, why would he?

“And your producer at the station?”

“Karen? She definitely won’t mind. We’d already arranged the time off for the book tour, and I’m not scheduled to start taping live spots again for a few months. Besides, the exposure does nothing but boost ratings. She’ll love this. We can work around it.”

“Anything else that might stand in the way?” she asked, glancing at me over the top rim of her glasses.

“Well, I have my clients. I mean, I haven’t taken on any new ones since I started in radio, but I still have my core group. They’re supportive though – for the most part.” I repositioned myself in the chair. “I’ll video conference with them or make it up in other ways. It will be fine.” I glanced back down at the schedule. “I’ll make it fine.”

“Okay good. So, tomorrow it is. You’re on at ten in the morning, and bring a small stack of books for the photo-op. I’ll be there too, so not to worry.”

“I’m not worried. In fact, I can handle it on my own if you have other things to do.” I never liked copilots.

“What? My first client on her first interview? Wouldn’t miss it.”

“It’s hardly my first–”

“Well, you know what I mean. I’m just excited, so humor me,” she smirked. “So I’ll meet you there at 9:45 sharp?”

She folded the calendar and pushed her chair back.

“I’ll be there,” I assured her.

“Good.” She rose and moved back behind the desk. “And I’ll have my assistant email you all the details you’ll need for the coming months: where you’re going, what your schedule will be when you get there, who your contact people will be. You don’t have to do a thing except get your game face on and pack your bags,” she said. “Oh, and pick a few of your more powerful excerpts to spout off tomorrow. Maybe something from that chapter on health and wellbeing. One of my personal faves for what it’s worth.”

“Will do.” Key paragraphs ran through my head vying for attention. I stood and extended a hand toward her.

“Oh,” she squealed. “I almost forgot.”

She opened her desk drawer and removed a small Tiffany box. Handing it to me, she added, “A celebratory gift.”

“Geri, you didn’t have to do that.” I took the box in hand.

“It’s nothing, really. I just wanted to commemorate our partnership and show my gratitude. Perkins PR is counting on you as much as you’re counting on us. We’re in this together.”

I removed the lid of the box to find an etched crystal globe on a red silk ribbon. Radiant beams of color shot from its north pole as I lifted it into the office lighting.

“Bright like your future, Candace Bradford,” grinned Geri “See? You’ve got the world on a string.”

I truly believed it and that nothing – I mean nothing – could stand in my way. “I-I don’t know what to say,” I gushed.

Geri smiled and placed a hand on my shoulder. “You don’t have to say anything. Just get out there and make us famous.” She pulled her hand back, and her ring snagged on a piece of my hair. She grabbed the ends of it to untangle herself, and the brown stain on my lapel jumped out screaming for attention. I gasped and reached up with a jerk.

Geri shook loose. The globe slipped from my fingers and spun through the air between us. I lunged forward as it rotated out of reach. The north pole headed south. The red ribbon swung out like the tail of a comet.

I threw a hand over my mouth and held my breath. The globe bounced three times on an area rug and rolled into the corner behind a plant. Without hesitation, I dropped to my knees and dove in to retrieve it. Grateful to find it intact, I held it high in the air for Geri to see.

“Jesus, Bradford.” she remarked. “I hope for both our sakes that you handle your real world better than you just did that one.”

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