by Gina Ardito
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April Raine was married and pregnant at eighteen, divorced ten years later, and has struggled to provide for her children. Now a successful businesswoman, she accepts a challenge from a daytime talk show to compete in a thirty-day battle of the sexes. April is up against a television psychologist who claims her organization hurts the very people she alleges to help.
Dr. Jefferson Prentiss, television's Dr. Jeff, is haunted by the loss of his wife and newborn son, and by his role in their deaths. To atone, he's dedicated his professional life to the ideals of family. The talk show challenge presents him with the opportunity to prove not only the sagacity of his self-help book, but the inherent danger of paying strangers to perform those family tasks that should be done out of love and nurture.
Once inside an isolated cabin filled with videotaping equipment, April and Jeff learn from each other, tackle their demons, and discover a new awareness between them: love.
April stole one last look at the sun, light paling as dusk gobbled up the sky bite by bite. And so went her freedom. With a deep sigh, part regret and part irritation, she followed Dr. Jeff through the front door and met chaos head-on.
Men and women scurried everywhere in the living room, shouting orders to one another. Boom mikes hung from exposed rafters. Ladders, secured on the floor of the loft, allowed the lighting crew to adjust spots mounted near the thirty-foot ceiling. Thick cables littered the hardwood floor and hand-woven area rug, creating a giant obstacle course of black snakes.
"May I?" Jeff stood over her, his hands on her shoulders.
"May you what?" The tornado of activity around her commanded her full attention.
"Your coat," he said. "I'll take your coat."
She shook off whatever stupor had overtaken her and mumbled, "Thanks." After unzipping her jacket, she allowed him to remove it from her shoulders.
She waited while Jeff hung her jacket along with his expensive-looking wool coat in a closet by the door.
A smiling young man bounded toward them, hand extended in welcome. "Oh, good. You guys are here. Dr. Jeff." He shook the man's hand. "Good to see you again. Your timing couldn't be better. You must be Ms. Raine. I'm David Darwin, executive producer of 'Taking Sides.' I'll be in charge of the competition."
Executive producer? He barely looked old enough to have graduated high school. "Please, call me April," she replied, shaking his hand.
"It's a pleasure to meet you, April. Wow, your hands are cold. Why don't you two go warm up by the fire while I have someone bring your things inside." He turned to shout at a burly man near one of the ladders. "Tony? You wanna help the driver with the luggage, please?"
The youthful exuberance in his tone reminded April of Becky and her friends. Perhaps due to that kindling of memory, he shot straight up on her approval scale.
"You got it, Dave," the man replied in a voice that boomed deep enough to shake the rafters.
With Tony gone, David returned his attention to April and Jeff. "There's coffee and pastries in the kitchen, if you're interested. When you're ready to get underway, start going through the pantry and decide what kind of groceries you'll need for the next week. Get a list together so Maggie can do the food shopping before the stores close."
Halfway toward the welcoming fire, April stopped at David's last instruction. "Can't we shop for ourselves?"
"No," he replied. "Once you're here, you're here for the duration. You won't be allowed to leave for any reason--except an emergency, of course. Whatever you need will be brought in for you by staff members."
"'I'm only a bird in a gilded cage...'"
April gasped as shivers ratcheted up her spine. Jeff was singing in her ear, his warm breath dancing across her nape.
"'A beautiful sight to see,'" she whispered the next line.
He burst out laughing, and she joined him, enjoying the break in their impasse.
David obviously didn't get the joke. He cleared his throat, his expression showing disapproval. "Once things quiet down, I'll take you on a tour of the house. Then we'll go over the shooting schedules and what you can expect during the next thirty days. Sound good to you?"
Jeff nodded. "Yes. Thanks, David."
David clapped, and then rubbed his hands like a child promised ice cream. "Great. In the meantime, I'll have somebody get your things and bring them into the bedroom."
Wait a minute.
The breath left April's lungs. "I think Dr. Jeff and I would like to choose our own rooms before you bring our things inside." She turned to the man beside her. "Isn't that right?"
David's gaze slipped from one to the other, his brow puckering in confusion. "Oh, but there is no choice. Harmony House only has one bedroom."
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