In The Spotlight – First Chapter

Chapter 1

What do you think is the best food to eat on a date?” Montana Smith asked, staring at the bowl of soup in front of her. It was supposed to be minestrone, but at Wilder’s laid-back campus dive, the Cave, it could be anything.

“You mean the easiest thing to eat?” Nikki Bennett asked. “The thing that is the least messy and won’t fail off your fork the way this tabbouleh salad keeps doing?” She demonstrated her point by lifting a forkful to her mouth and losing half of it on the way.

“No, not the easiest thing to eat. The food that will put you, you know, in the most romantic mood,” Montana said. She leaned back in her chair, taking a sip of iced tea. Her long blond curls fell over the back of the chair.

Kara Verbeck put down her grilled cheese and tomato sandwich. “Why do you want to know, Montana? Are you planning something we should know about?”

“This wouldn’t have anything to do with a certain singer in a certain band with a certain way of making you swoon whenever he walks by, would it?” Nikki asked. Teasing Montana about Ray Johansson, lead singer of the band Radical Moves, was a favorite game of Montana’s friends.

“Don’t I wish!” Montana said. “No, it’s for our radio show. I’m trying to think of some outrageous ideas for call-in topics. And nothing gets people’s attention faster than love and food.”

“Well, nothing gets my attention faster, that’s for sure,” Kara joked.

“Speaking of love…” Nikki nodded toward the entrance.

Ray Johansson was walking into the Cave with a stack of posters cradled under one arm. He was wearing a broken-in black leather jacket and faded blue jeans that were torn at the knees. His thick black hair was artfully windblown.

Montana felt a rush when Ray looked over at her and smiled. His face alone was enough to make her weak, and his beautiful, deep voice always took her breath away.

“Ray, what are you doing here?” Montana asked as he approached their table.

Ray held up the stack of posters. “I’m on poster duty.”

Montana skimmed the announcement. “Cool! You guys are playing at Club Z tomorrow night. That’s great.”

“Yeah, we’re psyched,” Ray said. “We haven’t played at Jason’s club for a while. Not to mention the fact that we could really use the money.”

“Why don’t you have a seat and hang out with us? I could buy you a sandwich, seeing as you’re a penniless, starving musician,” she offered.

“Thanks, Montana, but I need to put up the rest of these posters,” Ray said.

“Can I help?” Montana asked. “We could get the work done in half the time. Then maybe we could go out for coffee, or — “

“I’ve got a rehearsal as soon as I’m done,” Ray said, putting one of the larger posters on the Cave’s bulletin board. “Thanks, anyway. See you guys tomorrow night at the show.” Ray waved to their table, then strode out of the Cave.

“See you guys at the show?” Montana wailed. “What kind of a goodbye is that?”

“A casual one?” Kara suggested.

“Way casual,” Nikki added.

Montana shook her head. “Is the guy dense, or does he just not like me?”

“Definitely dense,” Nikki said. “How could he not be interested in you? You two have always gotten along.”

“Yeah, only he treats me like I’m his little sister or something,” Montana said. She didn’t know how much longer she could stand this. She was totally attracted to Ray and had tried a dozen times to let him know, but he always shied away from her. “Is he afraid of getting hurt? Does he just not want to be with anyone right now — or is it me?” she wondered out loud, staring at the Radical Moves poster.

“He was involved with Ginny for kind of a long time,” Kara said. “Maybe he’s still getting over her.”

“Or maybe he’s just oblivious to the way you feel,” Nikki added.

“What do you think I should do about it?” Montana asked.

“You don’t feel comfortable asking him out and telling him how you feel?” suggested Kara.

“No way!” Montana held up a hand as if to protect herself from the mere thought of it.

“Keep trying, then, I guess,” Nikki said. “Eventually he’ll realize that you’re the right one for him.”

“Unless he’s crazy. In which case you don’t want to go out with him anyway,” Kara pointed out.

Montana laughed. “What would I do without you guys?”

“Be really, really, really confused about your love life,” Kara said. “Now eat your soup before it gets cold.”

“Okay, Mom.”

“Our show’s going to be a total hit,” said Michael Gianelli, Nancy Drew’s cohost for Headlines, the new student TV show. Michael and Nancy sat with Professor Stanley Trenton in his office, planning the premiere lead story. “It’ll be a major success. After all, I’ll be in front of the camera, won’t I?”

Nancy fought the urge to say that she hoped that wouldn’t ruin their chances of appealing to the audience altogether. Not that Michael wasn’t appealing. Physically, anyway. He was tall and had short dark hair and penetrating deep brown eyes with long lashes. Only his personality left a little to be desired, like humility, compassion, basic courtesy. From what Nancy could tell so far, he was an amazing flirt. Not to mention an immense pain to work with every day.

“Charismatic personalities aside, what story is going to make your first show such a hit?” Professor Trenton asked.

“The tuition hike,” Nancy said, glad to get down to business. “Our goal is to deal with issues that affect students most. Not only will the hike have a huge impact on individual lives, it’ll alter the character of the university in the long run by limiting access to only those who can afford the higher costs. We’ll interview students from different levels of income to find out how they plan to deal with the additional financial burden and then see what the president of the university has to say in response.”

Professor Trenton nodded. “Good instinct,” he said. “That’s not the story I chose for your first show, but it’s definitely an important issue. And your approach is sound.”

“I disagree,” Michael said.

“Excuse me?” Nancy asked.

“No, excuse me,” Professor Trenton said, leaning back in his chair. “I thought I was the professor around here.”

“You are, of course,” Michael said. “I just think that the tuition story will have to be done the right way to be appealing. Since it’s our first show, we want to make sure we really grab the audience.

“What are you suggesting?” Nancy asked. “We run a lottery and hand out scholarships on our first show?” She’d seen several local news stations use contests and prizes to increase their viewership.

“Hear me out,” Michael suggested. “I was thinking along the lines of grabbing them with sensational, shocking news.”

“Sensational, shocking news generally spells trash,” Nancy commented.

“You want to hear my idea before passing judgment?” Michael didn’t wait for an answer. “Instead of looking at the raise in tuition from a traditional viewpoint, we go at it more aggressively. We explore whether students are really getting what they’re paying for. We check out professors’ salaries, investigate who has tenure. Who deserves it, and who doesn’t. With higher education becoming more and more expensive, I think we have to evaluate whether the education we’re getting here is worth the cost.”

Nancy hated to admit it, but Michael’s approach did have some merit. A cost-benefit analysis was worthwhile, although she didn’t think it was so sensational or shocking. “That wouldn’t be a bad way to cover my story,” she said, “but it would take an incredible amount of research into Wilder’s finances, books — “

If you could get anyone to cooperate with you over at the Wilder registrar and accounting offices,” Professor Trenton added.

“Hey, isn’t that what journalism’s all about? Being so aggressive that sources have to cooperate with you?” Michael offered.

“According to some people, yes,” Nancy shot back. “Others would call that obnoxious.”

Michael grinned at her. “Hey, whatever it takes, Nance.”

Nancy glared at him. “Don’t call me Nance. Okay?” He didn’t know her well enough to use a nickname. “Unless you want to be called Mike. Or is it Mikey?”

“Lighten up! I get your point, Nancy,” Michael replied, shaking his head. “Some people are so sensitive.”

“And some people are very insensitive,” Nancy said, growing angrier by the second. “And arrogant and self-centered — “

Professor Trenton cleared his throat. “Make sure you two work out any personal differences off the air, all right? Now, I’d like to tell you about my idea for the first show.” He pulled a scrap of paper off the bulletin board behind his desk. “Here it is in a nutshell: successful student entrepreneurs.” He glanced at Nancy and Michael, who both looked a little less than enthusiastic. “Not sensational enough for you, eh? Well, it’s a good, solid start, and I think you should consider it — seriously.

Before Michael had a chance to open his big mouth and say what he honestly thought of the professor’s idea, Nancy charged ahead.

“Sounds great, really,” Nancy said. “In fact, I know a couple of student entrepreneurs we could start with. One of my suitemates started her own computer consulting business with a friend,” Nancy said. “And another friend of mine, Jason Lehman, is the owner of Club Z. He’s out of school, but only just.” Jason’s brother, Emmet, dated one of Nancy’s suitemates.

You know the owner of Club Z?” Michael asked pointedly.

“Yes. Why are you so surprised?” Nancy asked.

“Well, it’s just that you didn’t strike me as the club type,” Michael said.

“And what’s that supposed to mean?” Nancy said.

“Nothing.” Michael shrugged. “I just thought you were the stay-at-home-and-study-on-a-Friday-night type.”

“That just shows again that you don’t know any thing about me, and you should quit making assumptions,” Nancy said.

“Okay, okay. Time out,” Professor Trenton said. “We have a show to put together.”

Michael and Nancy sat glaring at each other.

“If you two can’t get along for more than a couple of minutes, Headlines won’t succeed. So, listen up. Your personal problems get put aside. You learn to cooperate.” Professor Trenton softened his tone a little. “You don’t have to become friends, but you do need to become effective coworkers.”

Nancy nodded. “I understand.”

“Hey, I can work with anyone,” Michael said.

Nancy groaned inwardly. Maybe he could work with anyone, but faced with Michael Gianelli, she wasn’t sure she could say the same.

“I can’t believe opening night is three days from now,” Brian Daglian said. “I’m psyched, aren’t you?”

“I’m psyched, but I’m also completely wiped out.” Bess Marvin sat down beside Brian on the stage. She had just returned from changing out of her costume after the first dress rehearsal for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

Bess had won the lead role of Maggie in the play and Brian was her leading man, Brick, an alcoholic ex-football player. Their characters were trapped in a bad marriage. Since Brian and Bess were super-close friends, they had a lot of fun goofing around, pretending to be a couple.

“I’m glad we’re finally about to stage this thing,” Bess said with an exhausted smile. “I don’t know how much longer I could deal with this rehearsal schedule.”

“I’ll be happy to fill in,” Daphne Gillman offered in a snide tone. “If the work’s too much for you, Bess.”

Daphne, who felt she deserved the lead in every Wilder production, had also auditioned for the role of Maggie. She deeply resented Bess for getting cast, especially since Bess was a freshman. Unfortunately for Bess, Daphne was the understudy for Maggie, which meant they had to spend a lot of time together in rehearsals and meetings. It also meant that Bess was constantly subjected to Daphne’s stream of insults and complaints.

“Bess has a ton of energy,” Brian said, standing up to Daphne. “And even if she were dying of consumption, she’d make a better Maggie than you.”

Daphne glared at him. “I was talking to Bess.”

“Go ahead,” Brian said. “Talk. Just leave out the insults and innuendos.”

“I didn’t mean to insult you,” Daphne said, turning to Bess. “But if you do feel sort of run-down, I can understand. What with your eating problem and all…”

Bess was stunned. How did Daphne know about her bulimia? No one knew except her closest friends — and her roommate, Leslie King. “Where did you hear about that?” Bess spat the question at Daphne.

“Bess,” Daphne said, syrupy sweet. “I care about you. I pay attention to what’s going on in your life.”

“Meaning you’re a gossip hound,” Brian said.

“You,” Daphne said, pointing at Brian, “stay out of this conversation.”

“Stop!” Bess cried. “I don’t care what you heard. It’s none of your business. I am just fine, so stop paying attention to my life.”

Daphne gave her a cool, calculating look. “Bess, I only want what’s best for the play. I don’t want to let the audience down.”

“And Bess won’t disappoint the audience,” Brian told her. “So quit worrying, if that’s what you call it.”

“Fine.” Daphne swept her scarf around her neck. “See you guys at rehearsal tomorrow.” She left with a flourish, as if she were making a grand exit off the stage.

Brian walked after her, imitating her strut. “Fine!”

Bess cracked up. “You have this incredible way of making me laugh just when things are getting rotten. You know that, don’t you?”

“I love making you laugh,” Brian said. “Especially after all that serious stuff in the play, about how I hate you and everything.”

“Almost as much as I hate you.” Bess gave him one of what Jeanne Glasseburg, the director, called her “angry Maggie” looks.

“Hey, some of us are going over to the Student Union. Want to come?” Brian asked, putting a hand on Bess’s shoulder.

“That depends,” Bess said under her breath. “Is Daphne going?”

Brian laughed. “Hel-lo-o! I don’t think so.”

“Then I’ll meet you guys there in a half hour or so. Jeanne wants to work on some technical stuff with Mr. Light, Mr. Sound, and Ms. Star.”

“Maybe you are a bit overworked, Bess. What are you talking about.”

“You know. Justin Beckett, the lighting director? Max Ridgefield the sound man? And, me, the star?”

Brian put on his mortician’s face and patted her shoulder sympathetically.

“How come I’m never as funny as you, Brian?” Bess asked half seriously.

Brian broke up laughing. “Oh, no. I’ve created a monster. And to think I had to convince you to audition for anything.”

Bess laughed. “See you at the Union. Save me a seat, okay?”

Half an hour later Bess headed out the back door of the Hewlitt Center for the Performing Arts.

She wondered for a second whether she should be going to the Student Union after all. What if everyone there was pigging out? She might not be able to resist. It might set off her eating disorder.

As Bess turned the corner of the building, deep in thought, a dark figure leaped out in front of her. Before she could register what was happening, Bess heard a hissing sound and suddenly her eyes seemed to be on fire.

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