A Teaspoon of Desire
Tristan Delgado has talent. How else could he have landed a job working as a pastry chef for one of the most sought-after caterers in Seattle? What he doesn’t have is money. He’s barely making ends meet as it is, and when his sister escapes an abusive husband, he doesn’t hesitate to take her in. Twice the people means twice the mouths to feed, and Tristan is running out of options.
Henry Isaacson is cocky, and he’s okay with that. He has a job he loves, a successful pastry shop, and he’s been chosen to appear on Get Baked, an elite baking competition. This is his chance to prove he’s a cut above the very best and get the recognition he deserves. But his excitement soon deflates like a poorly timed soufflé when he encounters the last person he expects: his old rival, Tristan.
The prize money is just what Tristan needs, but once he realizes he’ll be competing against Henry, everything changes. Henry’s always been smug, annoyingly handsome, and even more annoyingly talented. Tristan can’t afford distractions, but the heat between them is undeniable. Someone will win, and someone will lose, but one thing’s for sure: they’re in for more than a dash of romance.
Reader discretion advised. This title contains the following sensitive themes:
References to past child abuse.
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish. Click on a label to reveal its content.
Themes: abandonment, acceptance, anxiety, celebrity / fame, child abuse / neglect, duty, enemies to lovers, family, hurt / comfort, illness / injury, mental illness, politics / power struggle, protection, self-confidence, trust issues, workplace romance
San Francisco whirred past the taxi’s windows, skyscrapers and bright sun and somehow even more people than Seattle. San Fran was the only big PNW city Henry Isaacson hadn’t visited. Until today. Bubbles danced under his skin and his belly fluttered with butterflies. He couldn’t keep the smile from his lips, not that he tried all that hard.
The cabbie—a twisted tree-trunk troll of a man—didn’t pull over to the curb, stopping instead in the street in front of the Hotel Majestic, a cracked-stucco building that didn’t even begin to live up to its name. “Here, right?”
Henry glanced up, double-checking the sign to make certain this was actually the Hotel Majestic. And it sure appeared to be, in spite of the overwhelming weight of irony. “As far as I know.” He reached into his back pocket for his wallet. “What do I owe you?”
The cabbie pointed a gnarled finger at the red-numbered counter mounted on the dashboard: $24.57.
Frisco is spendy. And I called it Frisco. Off to a great start. Henry thumbed out a ten and a twenty and handed them through the tight opening in the plexiglass shield. “Keep the change. Just let me get my suitcases out of the back?”
“Sure. Hurry, though.”
Henry jumped out and ran to the back. The trunk popped open, and he hauled out three new suitcases and a duffel bag that was embarrassingly ratty and worn. I haven’t been to the gym in two years. You’d think it would be in better condition.
A couple of people whizzed around the parked cab, middle fingers extended.
He slammed the trunk closed and waved through the back window. Off drove the beaten-up yellow chariot. Henry lugged his stuff onto the sidewalk, doing his best to make apologetic faces at everyone who had to go around him. Not easy. He could hardly feel bad about what he was doing. In spite of his churning stomach acid, joy buoyed in his chest more and more with each step closer to the revolving hotel door.
Once he reached the entrance, Henry set everything down and gazed across the tableau around him. The buildings shot up high, but a single two-story across the street was low enough to leave him a perfect view of the Golden Gate Bridge, which stood bright red against the sea, and truly massive.
“Can I help you with your bags?” An older white gentleman stepped up, pushing a faux-brass bell cart in front of him. “You look like you're laden down pretty well.”
“Thank you. Stopped to take in the city. Probably shouldn’t block up all the foot traffic.” Henry loaded his suitcases and duffel bag onto the carpeted base of the cart, then slid his wallet free again. He handed the . . . in his fifties could he be called a bellboy? He handed the man a couple of bucks. “Have a good day.”
“You as well, sir. You as well.”
There was no line at the desk—a stroke of luck. Maybe it’s a good omen. If the rest of Henry’s trip went so smoothly, he wouldn’t be caught complaining. He pushed the cart up to the front desk. “Hi, I’m checking in. Name’s Isaacson.”
The woman behind the desk—ruddy-skinned with sleek black hair—tapped her keyboard a few times. “First name?”
“Henry. I’m here for Get Baked.”
“We get that a lot since they legalized weed. Just don’t do anything stupid. Public intoxication’s still illegal.”
“No . . . Get Baked. The competition? We’re supposed to tell you when we check in.”
She finally looked at him, nodding rapidly and smiling. “Right. My bad. The coffee machine is broken, so I’m running on empty.” She glanced at the screen again, made a few more entries. “There you are. They hide these room blocks behind special codes. Stupid system, but you’re definitely here. I will need a credit card.”
“Yeah. One second.” He dug his card out of its pocket and laid it on the faux-granite laminate. He hadn’t necessarily planned on paying for the visit—a network like Eatery TV should have had plenty of money to comp a few hotel rooms—but it would be a drop in the bucket once he took home that prize money.
She ran the card. “So, big bad baker man. You going to win? Should I get your autograph now, while it’s still free?”
“I didn’t come all the way down here to walk home with empty pockets.” Henry chuckled, leaning against the bell cart. “And as for my autograph, you can always give me a receipt to sign.” He certainly wanted to win. A competition for the best bakers and pastry chefs in America, and put on by Dexter Wilson of all people? Money aside, the sheer clout that victory could award was dizzying. Not that he was about to turn down the prize money, either.
The clerk handed back his card. “Okay, we’ve got that on file in case there’s any damage, but it looks like the costs of the room are covered for your stay. So, nothing else to worry about.” She grabbed a key card and put it into the little encoding machine, then passed it across. “You’re on the fourth floor, wing two. Away from most of the noise and bustle. They booked the whole wing, so you’ll probably get a peek at who you’re up against.”
Henry grinned, both at her and at the notion that he could spy on some of his competition. “Have a nice day.”
“You too. And good luck.”
She said the last of it to his back as he pushed his cart to the elevator doors. Henry pressed Up and the doors slid open. No wait there, either. Auspicious. He tapped Four. The whole carriage shuddered and a faint smell of smoke filled the space. Henry only spent a few seconds imagining himself hurtling to his death.
Eventually, the doors slid apart to reveal a tacky hallway: Overactive party-vomit wallpaper and muted, paisley floors bedecked with the odd divot or cigarette burn to break things up.
Henry followed the faded signs to Wing Two, then he checked the key sleeve for his room number: 4208. Down toward the end of the wing. It did seem fairly quiet, though. God knew he’d probably need his sleep if he was going to keep up with the competition.
Henry was good at what he did. He’d built a successful pâtisserie in Seattle with his own damn hands and a pastry bag. That was apparently why the network had approached him in the first place. Young, gay baking entrepreneur with a well-reviewed business and a handful of awards under his belt. What wasn’t to like? But he was facing the worst sort of opponents he could imagine: the unknown. Maybe all of them had gone to Le Cordon Bleu or worked at Le Cinq or did something else French that he couldn’t translate.
Then again, the whole point was to overcome the impossible foe. He wanted to test his mettle against the best of the best. That was what Eatery TV had promised him when he’d gotten the invite. That was what they’d promised in that promo trailer making the rounds online too. So they could throw all that at him and more: Henry was there to fight. And he liked his odds.
Henry nodded at his own thoughts, thankful no one else was around to see him. He rounded a corner toward the single-digit rooms and, at last, wasn’t alone. Someone else was crouching down in front of one of the doors. Henry’s eyes bobbed straight down to a pert ass wrapped in navy denim. Have company and a view. Nice. He stared longer than polite society would have allowed, but there was no harm in window-shopping.
His gaze raked up to a gray and fuchsia long-sleeved shirt, riding high at the hem to reveal a Hanes waistband and a small—but definitely present—barbed-wire tramp stamp. Higher still, those striped sleeves hugged tight to the stranger’s biceps, and cleanly coiffed chocolate hair swirled atop his head. A cigarette sat behind Mr. Surprise Sexy’s right ear.
And finally, Henry looked to the bags piled by his door. He could learn plenty about someone by seeing what they carried with them. One in particular was halfway unzipped with chef’s whites peeking out. At least I’ll have some eye candy while I’m here. He wasn’t so hopeful to think he’d get laid, but he wasn’t so hopeless to squash that dream yet.
Henry cleared his throat, earning a jump of surprise from the stranger. “You need a hand?”
“No, no, I’m fine.” Surprise Sexy waved off the offer, still not turning. “Need to stop trying to do forty-seven things at once.”
Sexy voice too. Familiar? Maybe. Sounded like one of those Hollywood hunks. It was rough with barbs, the kind of voice that hooked the listener in and refused to let go.
Henry stepped closer. “Let me hold the door open for you.”
“Well, thanks.” The stranger righted, pulling the hem of his shirt down. But when it looked like he was about to finally turn around, he jerked back and ducked to zip up the bag with the chef’s whites. “You here for the show? Or you just unlucky enough to be put out in the middle of bumfuck Egypt?”
“Show. My flight got in today.”
“Mine too.” He hauled his bag up onto one shoulder, then slipped his key card into the slot.
Henry stepped over and held the weighted hotel door open . . . right as Surprise Sexy shifted himself around again to grab a piece of luggage. So still no face. Henry sighed. “Well, we’ll probably be seeing a lot of each other.”
Sexy shrugged. “Unless one of us gets sent packing week one.”
Henry snickered, smashing himself as far back against the door as he could manage. “I would have to change my name and disappear for a while if that happened.”
The stranger’s laugh held onto Henry tight and left a trail of warmth in its wake. “Solid plan.” He loaded in his last two bags, then stepped back into the hallway. “So, I should probably introduce myself.”
At last, he faced Henry head-on. Smiling . . . and then not smiling anymore as his eyes locked on, hardening. “Isaacson. I guess we’ve already met.”
Henry couldn’t keep his jaw from dropping. Casablanca played through his head. Of all the cooking competitions in all the hotels in all the world, you had to walk into mine. “Tristan.” As quickly as it had dropped, Henry’s jaw clenched tight. “Congrats on making the cut.”
“Yeah. Thanks.” Tristan closed his eyes and sighed. “How’s the shop?”
“Fantastic, as usual. How’s the catering?”
“Going well. Word of mouth.”
Yeah, no shit. “I should get into my room. Shower off the plane funk.”
“Well . . . bye.”
Tristan slipped inside with no other word than that. Henry stared at his door as though he might be able to bust it down by force of will. Tristan goddamn Delgado. The pastry chef who had put Carlita’s Catering Services at the top of the list for wedding season . . . and knocked Henry to the wayside before he could establish a foothold in the Seattle catering world.
Henry headed for his room, a couple of doors down. What were the odds? Had the showrunners picked the pair of them on purpose, figuring two Seattleites inside the industry would know each other? Had they somehow known that there might be drama with the two of them? Right. I’m sure these TV execs are following internal Seattle catering happenings. It wasn’t even like he and Tristan had a real feud. Not up to Bette Davis and Joan Crawford levels, at least. They simply had . . . animosity.
A healthy dollop of animosity, which the Seattle high-life circulars, newsletters, and magazines did their part to keep alive, intentionally or not. For the past three years, Henry and Tristan had traded back and forth for various awards and recognition from all those stupid publications.
They were mainly stupid because Tristan was up by two awards on Henry.
The first time Henry had run into him had been at an awards event. It had been just after he’d started to get his feet under him at the shop, when he’d already been setting the groundwork to bust into catering. A small awards ceremony, because it wasn’t like the Washington LGBT Culinary Society had been about to rent out Benaroya Hall. But pleasant enough, and he’d been happy to get the nod.
It had been nice hobnobbing with his peers. He and his boyfriend at the time, Lance, had been checking out the local sexy chefs, and they’d both—of course—been drawn over to Tristan. Not only because he was lovely, which he undoubtedly was, but because he was lovely and had been standing by himself, tucked away in a corner.
“Hi. I’m Henry. You all alone?”
“Yeah.” Tristan stared at a nearby centerpiece as he spoke, not at Henry. Didn’t even try to make his lack of eye contact covert. But Henry was persistent, and they’d eventually gotten talking, mostly about food, of course.
They must have been standing there talking for an hour when Henry reached out to take his arm, lead him back to Lance, since they were getting on so well.
And that’s when Tristan freaked, shoving Henry’s hand away, and darting out of the room.
After that, he’d avoided Henry the rest of the night. For what? Fucking nothing. Daring to try to be nice, that’s all Henry had done. It hadn’t been as if Tristan had suddenly had to run home or something He’d reappeared ten minutes later. But he’d patently avoided Henry at every turn.
Triple the slight when Tristan had won the Culinary Society Award for Best New Pastry Chef.
Henry forced himself to leave everything behind when he walked through door 4208. Leave the competition and ego and strife out there for when they would be useful instead of bringing them into his one place of respite.
The room was okay enough. Nothing worth posting about—not that he could post a damn thing until the competitors were announced, anyway. Media silence or he’d be tossed out. He’d had to tell everyone but Carrie he was taking an extended vacation down in California. Only she and Athena knew what was really going on, out of pure necessity. Athena because she had to run the shop, and Carrie because she was his roommate and best friend in the entire world. He hadn’t even told his parents why he was going down.
His phone buzzed, apparently prompted by the universe. He slipped it from his pocket to see a message from Carrie. You make it in one piece?
Henry tapped back a quick response. Of course. Don’t you think I’d be haunting your ass if I’d died in a fiery crash?
He could be playful with her, act like himself. Something that felt normal. She was trustworthy, too. She wouldn’t spill. Henry sighed and unloaded his bags on the foot of the bed, then pulled the blinds aside. A somehow better view of the Golden Gate Bridge and the silver, sparkling water crashing against the pylons. He could have done with tighter quarters, though. The room felt massive, like it would swallow him. Massive . . . and lonely. Henry didn’t live alone. He’d tried it once and had barely made it through his lease. Alone, he could only distract himself so long, then he had to face his thoughts.
And chances were high that those thoughts would be drifting toward Tristan a lot, whether he left that all outside or not.
It figured things would turn out this way, didn’t it? He’d assumed the worst part of the competition would be the unknowns: his opponents’ pasts, their training, their raw talent.
But now he was faced with Tristan, who was definitely not an unknown. Who was a damn good pastry chef. And that drove home the reality of the whole contest: he was going to need to work his ass off to prove himself.
The hopeful bubbles in Henry’s stomach slowly popped.
“Henry’s here. Henry fucking Isaacson.” Just when Tristan had left Seattle behind for the moment, here he was, presented with a constant reminder of the city and all the stresses it brought with it. He unpacked his bags, sliding his clothes into the drawers beneath the flat screen. He’d tossed the Bible into the closet to make room for more important things. He’d try to remember to put it back before checkout so the cleaning staff didn’t have to locate it.
“Henry fucking Isaacson!” As though saying it louder could make the universe understand his indignation better. Henry owned a perfect little pâtisserie, right in the U District. He ran it, he controlled it. And damn it all if it wasn’t successful . . . and if the baking he put out of that shop wasn’t completely fucking delicious. Delicious baking that Henry got to decide on himself, day in, day out.
On the other hand, Tristan worked for a curt, semi-militaristic woman, making wedding cakes and petit fours and everything else with sugar in it for the bride’s special day. He knew he was good enough to run a shop, but with his bills stacking up faster than his paychecks lately, there was no way he could even take a swing at owning his own business. And with his sister now living with him indefinitely, those bills would be stacking even faster and higher.
Which is why I can’t let Henry get into my head. He needed the money—both the winnings and the money Eatery would pay for his appearance on each episode . . . and the bonus Carlita had offered him for going on the show. Since the publicity from this show was likely to be strong, she’d promised him five hundred bucks for every episode he appeared on. With his student debt, it was hard to say no to any of that.
Most importantly, he didn’t want to leave any excuse for Lucia to go back to Robert, and if she thought she was a burden on his finances . . .
Tristan packed away the last of his clothing, then sat gingerly on the edge of the bed. He slid his phone out of his pocket and dialed home.
One ring. Two rings.
“Hey, I made it in.” Tristan pulled the cigarette from behind his ear and twiddled it between his fingers. “You doing okay?”
“You’ve only been gone for four hours,” Lucia’s voice creaked out. “I think I can make it four hours without my big brother.”
“I know you can. It’s your big brother’s job to worry anyway.”
“I’m okay. Karen’s coming to stay with me for a while.”
Thank God we held on to her after high school. Most of their friends had peeled off, as tended to happen, but not Karen. Which was a blessing for both of them. She had a reasonable head on her shoulders. She’d been right there alongside Tristan, telling Lucia to leave that bastard husband of hers for the last couple of years. Plus she was a cop’s daughter. “And you know what to do if he tries to contact you.”
“Come on, Tristan.”
He pressed the issue. “Don’t pick up. You promised me you wouldn’t talk to him while I was gone. That was the deal.”
“I remember. I don’t need you to keep bringing it up.” A bit of her old fire still peeked through. Robert hadn’t totally beaten that out of her. “Stop thinking about me. You keep your head in this thing, not back home. You promised me you’d try if I stayed.”
“I haven’t even seen the kitchen yet. I only got to the hotel ten, fifteen minutes ago.”
“Still: you promised.”
“And I’ll keep my promise.” When she’d shown up in tears at his door again, he’d nearly canceled on the competition. Family was family. Period. He’d have found a way to make ends meet, even if it had meant more debt and credit cards and who knew how many more years working for Carlita with his creativity on a choke chain. But Lucia had made him swear, said she’d walk right out the door if he put off this trip for her. And there’d been too much of a chance she could have ended up back at her old house if she’d walked out. At Robert’s house.
At the mere thought, he clenched and unclenched his fingers around the phone. “I’ll keep my ringer on the whole time.”
Lucia sighed. “They won’t let you do that. You could be cheating somehow.”
“I’ll work it out. You call me if you need anything. I can be home in a few hours if you need me.” He’d still get however much pay he’d already earned. From the show and Carlita. “You call me, Lucia. I mean it. I’ll take the signing bonus, flip them off, and head back.”
“I’m pretty sure you’re lying. But thanks.” Her voice softened slightly. “And you’ll call me every night?”
“Of course. I’ll find out when we finish up every day and we’ll plan from there.”
“Thank you.” Another little crack in her voice. “I mean, I don’t know where I’d go—”
“I’m your brother. It’s what family does.” Anything to get her away from Robert. Even a temporary fix was preferable to the alternative. “Now go on and enjoy your day. I need to get in the shower before they call us down to tour the kitchen. You have no idea how disgusting I look.”
“I’m sure you look fine.” She sighed. “Good luck, Tristan. I know you’re going to do great.”
“We’ll see. Maybe I’m up against Julia Child reincarnated.”
“You could smoke Julia Child. Unless they ask you to roast a chicken. Then I don’t know.”
He chuckled. “I love you.”
“I love you too. Night.” She hung up.
Tristan set his phone down and flopped back on the bed. A king-size, where he could actually stretch out. A room where he could spread out. No one else to bother him—thank God they weren’t sharing, because with his luck he’d have ended up with Henry fucking Isaacson—just a place to relax and sleep.
That was the intention, anyway. But after two seconds, Tristan snatched up his phone to watch the promo trailer yet again. He knew almost nothing about the show he was walking into. Not really. The producers had reached out to him through Carlita a few months prior—apparently his awards and write-ups had caught their attention—and he’d had an interview with them over video call. Some basic info had been traded back and forth, about his past employers and his training. Then seven weeks ago, a representative from Eatery TV had flown out to Seattle to talk with him in person and try his food. After that, he’d been signing contracts and getting the rundown on what they were willing to tell him. Which hadn’t been a lot. Filming dates, location, compensation. Nothing that would “give away the game,” as the rep had said, but a baseline. If not a very useful one.
However, he had access to their teaser trailer. Fifty-three seconds of heavily edited footage that he kept watching and watching, hoping he’d be able to glean something from it that hadn’t shown up the last half-dozen times.
One last attempt. He queued up his obsession once again. An acid-green background, followed by a glint of silver. A butcher knife whistling past before slamming through a big, white-frosted cake and revealing the pale brown interior. The knife stuck into the green wall behind it with a satisfying thud as the words began to flash by.
America’s Top Bakers
Competing for a Quarter Million
Nine Won’t Make the CUT
One Will Rise to the Top
The knife was pulled out, smeared with white frosting and little brown crumbs. Probably spice cake or carrot cake. Which still tells me nothing.
A sharp musical sting gave way to the next bevy of words floating past.
An All-American Baking Showdown
Judged by Dexter Wilson
That was the most concrete fact the trailer provided, but it was info he’d also gotten from the Eatery TV rep. It wasn’t that useful. Dexter Wilson was famous for writing Everything You Need to Know About Baking. Which meant his competition show could be pulling from anything.
The show’s logo pushed onto the screen for the last few seconds, followed by Coming Soon to Eatery TV. And that was it. Still providing no clues, but it brought up all his worries about competing yet again. In front of Dexter Wilson, no less. Plus two other judges yet to be revealed.
Honestly, the only thing this trailer made clear to him was that they were trying to sell themselves as bigger, bolder, and more American than any other big baking show on air. Sounds like a perfect fit for my personality. And while I’m lying to myself, maybe I’m queen of the lizard people.
Tristan shook himself and shut the phone off, placing it facedown against the pillow for good measure. This was his only sanctuary during his time here. He needed to stop polluting it. Relax and sleep, don’t fret and overthink.
Relax and sleep and shower. He needed to wash up and change clothes before he had to head to the studio for the first time. His outfit was cute enough, but hardly professional. Plus his shirt rode up in the back, and the last thing he wanted was to show skin and maybe have to answer uncomfortable questions if the hem went a little too high. Not here.
Tristan rose and strolled into the bathroom, which was right by the door. He shook his head up at the universe. “Henry fucking Isaacson.”
The TV station’s white kidnapper van trundled along the San Francisco streets. Tristan kept his gaze fixed out the window at the endless industrial expanse of neutral-toned buildings and jerky traffic, patently ignoring Henry fucking Isaacson sandwiched right against him. All hot and muscular and smelling tantalizingly of coconut.
The contestants had been packed into two of these Free Candy vans, five apiece. Tristan and Henry, along with three women in this one. Three guys and two women in the other van. Tristan took a deep breath—trying not to speculate too much about his competition—and fucking coconut filled his lungs. It had to be a smell he loved, didn’t it?
Tristan wasn’t blind or stupid. Henry was a sexy son of a bitch. He had been as long as they’d been running in the same circles. Expressive, nutmeg eyes, perfect teeth, the right amount of scruff on his chin, and fit. Very fit. If he wasn’t so infuriatingly successful—and if his ego wasn’t quite so large—Tristan would have been happy to hit him up for a roll in the hay. After enough vodka sodas to get him into a hookup mood, anyway.
Vodka sodas in his own house where he didn’t have to deal with crowds, preferably.
He might have had the chance at that first meeting if he hadn’t blown that introduction, and Henry hadn’t shown his true colors after that. They’d had such a nice conversation, then Henry tried to lead him somewhere—by the arm. And he’d wrapped his fingers around one of Tristan’s scars, launching him into a panic attack. He’d realized it was irrational after a breather in the bathroom. But when he tried to come back out and apologize, there had been no opening, just icy indifference . . . which had only intensified when Tristan had beaten him.
The van stopped and so did Tristan’s train of thought. The driver, a rotund, gray-haired man, turned his head and smiled back at everyone. “Okay, let’s load out. You’ve all got a busy day ahead of you.”
Tristan opened the door without hesitation. Anything to get away from the overbearing coconut and all the useless thoughts that came along with it.
They were in a crowded parking garage, now, under bright white fluorescent lights. It smelled slightly of exhaust and tar, but not too bad.
The three women piled out along with Henry. They'd all exchanged names on the drive over, but otherwise, it had been pretty silent inside. Hezzie was dusky-skinned, middle-aged, with broad hips. Willa brought to mind a scarecrow, with frizzy silver hair framing a wrinkled, pink face. The last one, Nina, had red hair and was so pale she could have burned in the moonlight.
“You’ve all made it, that’s wonderful!” A tiny white woman in a business suit scurried into sight, wringing her hands and wearing a slightly manic grin. Blonde hair hung in a tight ponytail between her shoulder blades. “Come on, no need to stand out here in this smelly old garage all day.” She waved them toward the door as the second van pulled in, and that was their entire introduction.
Tristan still hadn’t talked to anyone other than Henry, but there was no time right now. The squirrelly blonde had already darted through the door. Tristan made sure to hang back and fall out of coconut range from Henry. Of course, that was perfectly inside of stare-at-his-ass range, which really didn’t help matters any. The khakis hugged Henry’s curves very well. Those taut, squeezable curves. Maybe I should bang him and get it out of my system. Then I can move on.
They tracked through a lot of dark, cluttered hallways. Tristan could barely see their guide darting around ahead of the group. People rolled huge stacks of boxes and chairs at dangerous clips, celebrity chefs he recognized from overpriced cookbooks strolled around, and a general miasma of noise and unpleasantness floated through the space.
“It’s right over here, guys.” The blonde’s squeaky, overly adorable voice carried all the way back, as though she were standing directly in front of Tristan. “Now remember, smiles make for happy judges, and happy judges let you stick around longer!”
Tristan forced his lips to curve up. After all, what could it hurt to try to act personable if it made him money? Sure, his baking should be what made him stay, but when in Rome.
They exited the dark backstage and walked into the cleanest kitchen on Earth. There was no ceiling. Instead, scaffolding hung with huge, bright lights. Other than that, the whole space was beyond perfect. Ten individual stations, each with an oven, a range, a proper KitchenAid mixer—probably product placement—and an array of other appliances. The space was decorated in lurid, candy-bright colors, including the big acid-green Get Baked logo at the back of the set, looming high above everything else. The walls, a dark teal, made a workable backdrop, but largely faded amidst the vivid cacophony.
His eyes skated around the kitchen and over to the empty front. Empty of any cooking stations, anyway. Four people stood there. Two men and a woman grouped together and a second woman off to the side, with a massive camera, snapping away.
Squirrel Assistant cleared her throat, the least threatening sound Tristan had heard in his life. But four heads turned. She stepped up to the three getting their pictures taken. “Your contestants are here.”
“Perfect.” The most recognizable of them stepped away from the herd. Dexter Wilson: six feet of dark Jamaican baking prowess. He patted the assistant on the shoulder. “Thank you, Kristin.”
“Not a problem, Mr. Wilson. This is what they pay me for, after all.” She winked at him. “I’ll leave them with you.”
He nodded and she scurried off. Then he smiled wide at all ten of them. “Well, I’m Dexter Wilson, and we’re going to be spending a lot of time in this kitchen.” He stepped aside and waved the other two up. “These are your other judges. I’ll let them introduce themselves.”
As though they needed introduction. The culinary world was only so large, and even smaller when you drilled down to pastry and baking. The Indian woman smiled gently. “You know Dexter, I’m sure. I’m Rita Prasad. I own Rita’s on Sunset.” A high-end pastry shop in Los Angeles. Well-reviewed, well-regarded, and expensive enough to sit on Sunset Boulevard. “And I promise I don’t usually wear heels in the kitchen.” She rolled her eyes. “I only wore them today because the publicists practically shoved them onto my feet this morning.”
Their final judge nodded curtly. Eli Castle. The pretty boy of the NYC pastry scene. He was white, in his early twenties, clean-shaven. A little too clean-cut for Tristan’s tastes—he preferred someone a little rougher and scruffier and more like Henry, unfortunately—but pair his looks with his talent and Tristan could definitely see the appeal. “I’m Eli Castle. I’m currently the pastry chef at La Bernardin in New York.”
Dexter scanned them again, his smile never once faltering. “I want you to know you’re here because you’re not merely good. You’re incredible. Each and every one of you. Good news for me, and for the show. But maybe bad news for you, because there can’t be any slacking off. Not with competition this steep.”
Tristan shifted uncomfortably beneath the weight of that reminder. Dexter was laughing, along with a few of the other contestants, but it didn’t seem funny at all. Seeing Eli and Rita, that gave him a little more idea what caliber of contestants they might be expecting—neither of them had the celebrity pull more amateur shows tended to lean on for judges, which drove home the stakes. Still, he kept his forced smile on. Whether he thought it was fair or not, he’d grin like an idiot if it might actually get him a couple of more days. He was here for the long haul, here to get this money. For his loans. For his piling bills. For his credit card debt.
For Lucia’s extra expenses and Lucia’s moving costs and Lucia’s divorce lawyer, God-willing.
Dexter took them all in with one final turn of the head, then sighed. “Right. While we have the photographer here, we need to get the publicity shots done. Then we can get into the fun stuff.” He pointed behind him. “There are full chef whites back there. Just slip those on long enough to take the picture, then you can get back out of them and be comfortable the rest of the day.”
I would have brought mine if they’d told me. Wearing borrowed whites, and over his jeans no less? Why not add one more layer of discomfort?
Henry smiled for the flashing camera. Four shots. Five shots. Then the lens dipped down, and he wiped his forehead on the underside of his sleeve. They’d been standing in different configurations for fifteen minutes. He was hot—no amount of Borax was going to get the sweat stains out of this jacket, and Tristan wore the whites way too well for Henry’s comfort. No one should look sexy in chef’s whites. Sophisticated, put together, high class, often uncomfortable . . . but not sexy.
Tristan looked sexy. Maybe they were a size too small and that was why the coat seemed to hug his biceps and his shoulders. And maybe the way he filled out the uniform accounted for some of his popularity at weddings. He might be off-limits to the bride, but there would still be plenty of bridesmaids—and maybe even some groomsmen—who would appreciate the extra eye candy on top of the sweets.
“I think that’s enough.” The photographer lowered her camera. “I’m going to get this back up to the big wigs, so you’re done for today.” She slipped a pair of Coke-bottle glasses onto her nose. “Best of luck, everyone.”
She scampered over to her lights, and Henry immediately loosened the collar of his jacket to let in a little air. Dexter stood up and walked over to the group. “Okay, you never have to wear those again if you don’t want to. Unless the execs want another picture for something.”
Immediately, all ten chefs stripped off their jackets. Shoes flew from feet and pants shimmied down . . . There was that waistband again. Why do I keep watching Tristan? Not helpful, dude. Not helpful. But his gaze lingered, staring at the flash of ridged spine and the gray and white Hanes logo beneath barbed wire.
When they’d all shucked their whites and carried them to the waiting bin in the back, Dexter handed a sheet of paper to each of them. “Now, this has everything you’re going to be expected to make during your stay here. Each round will be filmed in a single day, with three individual sections so that we can fully put you through your paces. We’ve got the times listed next to each item so you know what to prepare for. You’ll get three days in between each filming session for you to test and develop your recipes. You’ll all have access to the kitchens here for practice, but the crews will want a couple hours to clean up and test the equipment before we actually begin shooting, so make sure you’re not cooking right up to the wire.” He rubbed his chin, gaze pointing upward. “I’m likely forgetting something vital. But I suppose if it’s important enough, word will get around. For now, you’re all free to go.”
The group dispersed throughout the studio . . . leaving only Henry and Tristan before too long. They locked eyes—Tristan’s were a stark hazel, flecked with hints of gray and gold and Stop it—then went to stations on opposite sides of the room.
But that didn’t mean Henry got left alone. A little old white lady with a curly perm tottered over to him, smiling wide and warm. “You’re a young thing, aren’t you?”
“Not as young as our judges, apparently.”
She chortled like a bird. Her voice bore out the tiniest hint of an accent. Southern? Probably Southern. “I’m Bertha. Hideous name, I admit, but it’s the one I’ve got to work with.” She moved to the other side of his otherwise private station and set down her list. “Pie’s coming up. Not my forte, but I can manage. No self-respecting grandmother could fail at pie.”
Henry looked at the list himself. Round one: apple pie, lemon meringue, and a three-course meal, all in various pies. That last one would be tricky, but the other two he could make blindfolded. Nothing else seemed scary either. Not for a while. Cakes for round two, then cookies, bread . . . and Germany? What the hell is bienenstich?Have to research a bit. Individual pastries, choux pastry products, chocolate, and then the grand finale.
“You’re not going to introduce yourself?” asked Bertha.
“I’m sorry. I got caught up reading. I’m Henry.” He smiled at her. “What’s your background, anyway?”
“Oh, I’m just a cake lady down in Georgia.” She chuckled softly. “Not anything fancy like the rest of you, but seventy-some years floating around should have taught me one or two things. I guess we’ll see.” She brushed a stray curl back into place. “What about you?”
“I have a pâtisserie in Seattle.” He couldn’t fully commit to the conversation with Bertha. Not only because he didn’t put much stock in her career, although that was certainly part of it. But, mostly, because his mind was whirring through ingredients and possibilities and flavors that could dance across his tongue. Nothing mundane would do, of course. Apple pie, but not mundane. As American as apple pie. Non-American apple pie. Swedish with rolled oats and breadcrumbs. French tarte tatin. Too obvious. Everybody and their dog makes tarte tatinnowadays.
Something. Something would click into place.
Lance used to love when I made a tarte tatin.
The sudden arrival of his ex into his thoughts was the terrible icing on this already substandard cake of a day. Shouldn’t have been too much of a shock. Henry wanted to prove himself to the world, but a part of him also wanted to prove that he was worth the effort, even though Lance hadn’t thought so. Luckily, Henry had a year’s worth of practice shoving Lance back into whatever dark corner of his mind those memories occupied, so he could keep that little burning seed of spite to fuel himself.
A new voice helped pull him back into reality. “Well, looks like there’s someone else my age here.” Willa, with her explosions of frizzy silver hair, slinked over, smiling wide at Bertha. “And what’s this, hitting on the young’uns? Is that even allowed?”
“Oh, I don’t think she’s hitting on me.” Henry chuckled. “I’m sure Bertha knows better. I mean, when was the last time you saw a straight man working in a bakery?”
“Yesterday, but that’s because I hired him.” The new woman winked. “See all sorts of strange sights in New York City, though. Even straight pastry chefs.”
Henry laughed. “So, you must be in one of those fancy restaurants, living in the Big Apple?”
“Oh God, no one calls it the Big Apple. And no, it’s just me and my bakery, plodding along in Brooklyn.” She laughed at her own . . . misfortune? Joke? Nervous chatter? Henry didn’t know, but he put on his best fake laugh all the same.
“So we got New York, Seattle, and I rode over here with a young man who got sniped out of Ireland to come work in the states too.” Bertha shook her head. “I’m going to go out on a limb and say you won’t see me around long.”
Henry certainly hoped so. He was here not solely for the money, but to prove himself against real chefs and bakers. The tradition of cake ladies had its place in the Southern states, and no doubt she made delicious cakes. But cards on the table, all things being even, she was a hobbyist, not a pastry chef.
Willa waved Bertha’s concern away. “Little old Southern ladies aren’t exactly slouches in the kitchen. May not be high-class, but we’ll see how the challenges play out.”
Ouch. Henry got grazed by that shade as it shot past him. Like, damn. He at least had the civility to not say it out loud. Willa apparently . . . didn’t.
Bertha had definitely felt it too, her smile deflating a second before she caught herself again. “I’m just happy to have been asked on here.”
“You should be.” Willa’s smile was saccharine and sharp. “That’s an honor in itself, right?”
There was that New York attitude. Tell it like it is. As Henry turned to lean against the counter—and get himself squarely out of Willa’s sights before she came for him—he saw Tristan standing alone, poring over the list with furrowed brows. Of course he was that hot guy, too good to even pretend to mingle. Henry rolled his eyes. Maybe it wasn’t nice, but there’d certainly be some appeal in trouncing Tristan. Partially because he was so good. But, also, it would once and for all put them into a hierarchy. If Henry won head to head? There’d be no question who was the better baker.
Now all that remained was winning.
Tristan stood under the hot, pelting flow of water, letting it drain in rivulets off his hair and down his body. The hotel soap and shampoo smelled like coconut. That explains Henry. Everyone would probably smell like coconut while they were here, which was a way better option than just Henry.
He leaned his forehead against the stone-tiled wall. The issue at hand wasn’t who smelled like what. The coconut scent was an inconvenient coincidence. He was attracted to Henry fucking Isaacson because the pastry-shop-owning bastard was sexy as hell, with chocolate eyes and skin the color of slivered almonds and clove-colored hair. He was a piece of cake Tristan wanted to eat. And he could bake. Damn it, he could bake. That skillset didn’t make Henry less sexy, to be sure. The thought of him flexing his arms while kneading dough or whipping the crap out of some cream . . . maybe in nothing but an apron . . .
Tristan turned the water off, grabbed a towel, and dried himself enough that he wouldn’t slip and die walking out. He stopped in front of the full-length mirror next to the door. Without his glasses, even his own reflection was slightly blurry. A better view. No scars showed up when he was blurry. All the cigarette burns and deep-cut belt marks vanished.
Oh, it’s late and I’m alone. Of course my brain’s dredging up the past. He pulled a white, fluffy bathrobe out of the closet. Let’s try to relax. He slipped it over his shoulders, then dropped onto the bed. He grabbed his glasses first, then his phone. On with the glasses and he dialed the house again.
It picked up after one ring. “Hello?”
“Hey, it’s me.”
“I know, you have caller ID.” Lucia sighed. “Long day?”
“Not too bad. I wanted to hop in the shower before I called, though.”
“Are you talking to me naked?”
“I’m in a bathrobe.” He rolled his eyes. “Did Karen show up?”
“Yep. It’s like a big slumber party, now.” Her voice dripped sarcasm. “How did everything go? Come on, you’re on a TV show, you’re in California. Who cares about what’s happening in the boring old Seattle apartment?”
“Well, I do. It’s my house, and my little sister’s living there while I’m gone.” He chuckled. “But okay. I met Dexter Wilson today. Kind of.”
“The Everything You Need to Know About Baking guy?”
“Yeah. And he’s as gorgeous as in his pictures.” Not Tristan’s type—like Eli, Dexter was too put together and clean around the edges—but he was objectively attractive. I guess I like them scruffy. And infuriatingly arrogant. And maybe I like it when they own stupid pastry shops too. “They gave us the rundown of what we’re going to have to cook, so that’s helpful.”
“The bread round might be a bit of a challenge.” He was a pastry chef. He worked in sugar and chocolate and spices, not yeast and rye. “I’ll make it work, though. They give us a few days to practice, so I think I can figure it out.”
“You’ll do great. You know how to make bread, Tristan. I’ve been eating your homemade bread all weekend.”
“That’s with a bread machine.” His best garage-sale find, bar none. “I don’t see them letting us use one here.”
“Hey. Don’t psych yourself out. You didn’t make it in because you’re bad at baking, right?”
“Right, Tristan? If you’re going to lie, make me believe it.”
“Make me believe it and we’ll talk.”
“Oh, come on. You do this all the time. Something good happens and you sit there and worry the fun out of it. You got picked to go be an awesome pastry man on national TV. Enjoy yourself for a little bit. Take in the sights. Get blisteringly high. Sleep around, maybe. Something. Or else I’ll find my way down there and yell at you in front of the fancy chef people.”
Tristan stifled a laugh. There wasn’t a ton of sightseeing time in his schedule, and he didn’t partake of weed often enough to ever get “blisteringly high.” And as for sleeping around . . . he didn’t need to spread the clusterfuck that was the Delgado family’s track record with men across state lines. Besides, he was currently swearing off men again, specifically to avoid winding up with a bastard like his father or Robert. “I’ll do my best. But no promises.”
“I’ll let it go this time.”
“So can I talk to Karen real quick?”
Of course about you. “I want someone to check in with Carlita. I haven’t been able to get hold of her and she wanted updates.”
“It can’t be me?”
“I don’t want to put any extra pressure on you. This is your vacation.” Until Robert inevitably figured out where Lucia was staying. No more vacation once he started trying to worm his way back in. Tristan didn’t want to say it, but he couldn’t help wondering if he’d convince her to return again. Karen or no Karen, would Lucia still be there when Tristan got home? Robert had always managed to get a new foothold in her life, and Tristan could only hope this time would be different. “Can you just put her on?”
A moment of silence. “Yeah. Sec.”
Tristan waited until a thick, heady voice rasped over the line. “You rang?”
“Yeah. Thanks for being there.”
“No problem. Andre has the kids under control, so I’m here as long as you two need me.”
“Good. I officially owe you more than I could possibly pay back.”
“I know. Don’t worry, I won’t let you forget it either.”
Tristan offered a weak laugh. “I don’t want to take up a whole bunch of your time, but . . . look, if anything happens, I want you to call me. I don’t care if Lucia wants you to, you call me. And please keep this between us, because I don’t need her stressing out over this while she’s supposed to be relaxing and recuperating.”
“Of course. It’s not a problem.”
“And if Robert shows up at my house, you call the cops. He’s not welcome in my apartment. He’s trespassing or harassing or— I don’t know, maybe he’s not doing anything, but the cops will scare him off.” Karen had plenty of contacts with the local cops, so even if there was no actual crime, she’d be able to get someone to show up with a badge. Being friends with a sergeant’s kid had its perks.
“I’ll take care of it. No worries.” Her voice grew quieter, a bare whisper nearly swallowed up by telephone static. “She’s in really bad shape, Tristan.”
The words stung, even though he already knew it. Someone else confirming it somehow made the truth wriggle deeper under his skin. “Yeah. We made an ER visit when she showed up.” What else could he say that he and Karen hadn’t talked about a dozen times already? They both wanted Lucia away from Robert. They’d both be there for however long it took her to find her own way out. They both hoped this was the time that path would make itself clear. And this competition could give Tristan the chance to make it easier on her. “If I can win this thing, I’ll have enough money to help her out, you know?” He didn’t know how much of a hurdle her finances were, but he knew Robert had a firm grasp on the purse strings, and he hadn’t let her get a job. He “liked the house kept nice,” which had meant she’d better damn well stay home and clean. Or else.
A couple seconds of silence before Karen came back, her voice still soft. “Then you better rest up and make sure you win this thing.”
Yeah. No pressure. Tristan’s shoulders slumped as he blew out a long, slow breath. “Thank you. Like I said, I owe you. And if it comes up, I asked you to get Carlita a message for me, since I couldn’t get hold of her.”
“Got it. I’ll take a trip down there when she opens up.” Her voice was back to normal, thankfully. Serious time over. “Go kick some butt.”
“Bless you, sweet virgin.”
“I’ll take the blessing, but I’m no virgin. At least not according to my kids. You want Lucia again?”
“Yeah. And thanks.”
Lucia’s voice came over once more. “You finish your plotting?”
“Plotting for her to talk to Carlita, I told you.” Tristan flopped over on the bed, staring at the ceiling. “I’m gonna get off the phone, but I wanted to say I love you before I go.”
“You don’t need to tell me all the time.”
“Yeah, I do, Lucia.” He pulled the bathrobe a little tighter around his middle, holding in the warmth as long as he could. “I love you.”
“I love you too. Now rest, please. And stop worrying about me.”
“Not going to happen. But I’ll talk to you tomorrow. Let’s make it five o’clock?”
“I’ll be here.”
“And I’ll be here. Possibly in a bathrobe.” He hung up the phone to a disgusted laugh from his sister, then set it aside and stretched his arms out wide. Stop worrying about you? They both had scars on their bodies from their father. But Lucia had plenty of new marks from Robert too. Including fresh bruises. Thankfully no breaks this time. “I don’t think I ever could stop worrying about you.”
His family had poor luck with men. Sure, there was a whole stock of good ones out there somewhere. Karen had managed to find one. But his father was an abusive son of a bitch. Lucia had gotten caught up with the same kind of bastard, and even though he knew better than to blame her for what had happened, it was painful to hear her make the same excuses as their mother had.
Tristan shook his head, trying to dislodge this old, too-familiar stream of thoughts. He was already doing all he could, including being here to try to make up the difference in the bills. All he could do now was wait. Wait, and vow to never get caught in the same trap. Eighteen years with his father had been more than enough.
Tristan rose and stripped out of his bathrobe. He was ready to leave it there on the floor . . . but this was his home. If he let it get messy, it would just lead to clutter in his head that he couldn’t afford. So he grabbed it and hung it up, then slipped into his lounge pants.
He pulled out his laptop and started in on his brainstorming. “What are we going to make for that three-course pie dinner?” That was a much better topic than the constant failures of the Delgado family’s romances. “I wonder if chicken pot pie would be too trite?”
Henry stood in the back row, waiting as the basket of numbers went around. He took a little folded piece of paper when it came around to him but, as instructed, didn’t open it yet.
When everyone had received one, Dexter clapped his hands. “All right, check your number to see which station you’re at. We’ll keep you there as long as we can manage, but when people start to leave, we might have to move you around. Production crew likes you more evenly spread out.”
Henry unfolded his paper: station six. He walked along the aisle bisecting the room and slid into the middle right station.
So of course Tristan took the one in front of him. He wasn’t in that entirely too-tempting gray and fuchsia top, but his jeans still hugged tight and his arm muscles still bulged in all the best possible places under a black long-sleeved T-shirt, and none of that was conducive to Henry winning this competition. Even when Henry won, Tristan just appearing on the show would bring more fame and notoriety and business to the sexy son of a bitch and his damn catering business.
It’s pretty ridiculous to hold a grudge against him because he’s getting the catering gigs. And I’m not. Or because of the awards. But acknowledging that didn’t make the grudge suddenly disappear. If anything, it locked his distaste harder into place.
Right as Henry had started to get some real clientele built up for his own wedding services—cakes, petit fours, all that stuff people wanted to feel fancy on their big day—along had come this hotshot new pastry chef for Carlita’s, and there had gone Henry’s chances of chipping out a spot for his own shop. It had been the first major stumble since he got the shop off the ground, and falling after such a long run of successes had hurt. Bad. Then to have Tristan constantly lauded up at the same level as him? Yeah, it was annoying on the best of days.
It didn’t help that Tristan was so damn desirable. A pastry chef with a body like that? Henry knew firsthand that hauling wedding cakes was a good arm workout, and it showed on Tristan in a perfect way. Running back and forth between stations kept your legs working. Dealing with annoying customers stressed you out, which probably burned calories too. It better. That’s my whole excuse for eating as much ice cream as I do.
Tristan likely had a lot of other muscles worth experiencing up close and personal. And, looking around as the other guys passed him on the way to their stations, Henry could confidently say Tristan was the sexiest one of them all. And he was for sure into dudes. And sleeping down the hall from Henry’s hotel room.
Stop it. Last thing I need is another fuckboy. They were cheaper than disposable piping bags back home. All the “marrying types” seemed to be either paired off already or frustratingly not into dick. Henry wasn’t likely to get the kind of relationship his parents had. Not never, but certainly not with Tristan.
Word Count: 97,000
Page Count: 227
Cover By: L.C. Chase
Release Date: 05/16/2022
Release Date: 05/16/2022