WYATT PARKER knew the moment he saw the “Call Now” hotline on his favorite foodie network that he’d call it eventually. He knew when he saw the advertisement in the three different hospitality periodicals to which he subscribed. By the time he actually called in, he’d talked himself into and out of it a dozen times.
When the limousine arrived to pick up the cast of “Personal Chef: Rock Star”—a title the producers hastened to remind them was a “work in progress”—Wyatt knew he would talk himself into and out of going through with this another dozen times.
The mansion at the end of the driveway belonged to the superstar drummer of Unusual Potatoes, Wyatt’s favorite band, and if he got nothing else out of this experience, maybe it would be worth it just to meet him.
Unlike the other contestants—each of them competing to be hired on as Tully Randolph’s live-in personal chef—Wyatt had no catering or restaurant industry experience. He’d never been a line chef, let alone a sous chef, but somehow he’d progressed through the audition process on his home cooking skills and what they’d assured him was a unique flavor profile in his southern comfort cuisine. If it could even be called cuisine. Wyatt spent his days at construction sites, and applying such fancy words to his simple philosophy on cooking—if it tastes good, do it—seemed pompous at best and foolish at worst.
“Out you go. C’mon.” The cast’s handler hustled the contestants from the back of the limo out onto the driveway in front of the mansion as camera crews moved into order and various set personnel shouted instructions. Wyatt could hardly believe he was here.
“You, fat boy, stand in the back,” someone yelled, and Wyatt automatically looked up, knowing they must be addressing him. He followed their pointed finger to where others of the cast had lined up with the smaller people in front and the taller (and heavier) in back. Wyatt took his place in the back row, looming over the attractive woman in front of him and feeling both too old and too round compared with the lanky young man at his side.
“All right, guys, your host is gonna be coming through those doors”—the crewman pointed—“any minute, and we’re gonna get some reaction shots. Try and look excited.”
Wyatt wouldn’t have to try. Butterflies already filled his stomach, making it hard to breathe. He wanted to scream or flail or faint, some appropriately ridiculous fanboy gesture, but instead he steeled his nerves and waited, his gaze fixed on the mansion’s front doors.
The house was nice, if more modest than Wyatt expected of a genuine rock star, especially one who presumably helped found the band and held most of the writing credits on the band’s biggest hits. But from what he’d seen in the elusive drummer’s rare interviews—loudmouth front man Kemper Smith always handled the press—he was rather understated himself. It was surprising he’d allowed a show centered on him.
If there was going to be one, though, food would be the focus. Tully’s mother, who had passed the year before, had been a chef in Atlanta, and Tully had done a couple of guest spots on reality food shows. Never in a judging capacity, just in the traveling and tasting, but he was well known to have opinions on food. Interesting ones, at that.
Before Wyatt could get much further in his ruminations and talk himself into what might turn into a serious case of self-doubt, the heavy oak door opened and there he stood, Tully Randolph. Not short, but not towering either. Angelic face with just a smudge of scruff, fashionable without trying too hard to be rugged. Blond stubble glinted in the sun. His blond locks were artfully tousled like he’d just carelessly rolled out of bed to discover he’d be on television today, but it looked like some care had gone into fixing circles under his eyes. Ah, rock star life.
Tully smiled at everyone generally first, then made sure to make eye contact with all six contestants individually before introducing himself. “I’m Tully Randolph of Unusual Potatoes, and I’m—”
He couldn’t even finish his statement before the door opened again. Kemper ran out and grabbed him from behind, laughing. “And you’re looking for someone to fatten you up!”
It took Kemper’s startling appearance to remind Wyatt to release the breath he’d been holding since Tully’s light blue eyes had sought his face. The eye contact had electrified him, and Wyatt watched the proceedings with growing excitement and determination. If he won this, somehow, some way… he could live here, with Tully, and cook for him every time he was home.
A hot flush crept over Wyatt’s neck and ears until sweat broke out on his brow. Gray hair couldn’t hope to hide that kind of moisture; he always thought he looked like such a goon in photos anyway, and now dozens of cameras were moving around, getting different angles of each of them. Looking good had never been an option, and now looking dignified wasn’t either, despite his success in not squealing at Tully’s appearance.
It took Wyatt a few moments to zone back in on the words spoken around him—more directions about which camera to look at, and the host, Brent Baker, a well-known foodie network personality, explaining the prize for the home audience. The lean-muscled hottie beside Wyatt had to elbow him before he realized he’d been called upon to introduce himself.
“Uh, sorry, I’m Wyatt Parker. Uh, big fan, obviously” was all he managed before triggering laughter from the woman in front of him. Wyatt didn’t have time to decide whether she was making a fat joke at his expense or just thought his discombobulation was comical, because Baker cut back in.
“Well, then you’re in for a treat! Tully, why don’t you tell our contestants about our first minichallenge that decides who gets a significant advantage in this first competition?”
Maybe it was Wyatt’s fevered imagination, but it sure seemed like Tully was eyeing him especially. It was probably a trick of the light, and he was actually making eyes at the guy, Pierre, beside him.
Tully grinned, teeth flashing in the morning sun as he crossed his well-muscled arms. His thin, white T-shirt spread gracefully over his otherwise fairly thin body. “I know you guys know food. You have to know something to have gotten this far. But to get the advantage in this first challenge, you need to know a little something about me.”
Next to him, Kemper, in typical loudmouth fashion, cupped his hands over his lips and shouted, “Briefs!”
Rolling his eyes, Tully shook his head. “You’re a bad guesser.”
There were, of course, rumors and many, many stories about the two, but while Tully was openly gay, Kemper was—other than being attached at the hip to Tully—straight. Until now, the idea of the two together had been alluring. Suddenly it made Wyatt feel irrationally jealous.
When the titters from the other contestants died away, Tully continued. “Unusual Potatoes is the first band that Kemper and I have had that’s made a Top 40 hit. But it was not our first band. What is the name of the first band we formed and what age were we?”
“Fourteen!” Wyatt blurted, overexcited and unwilling to give anyone else a chance to answer, not because he wanted the advantage but because it was a chance to talk to Tully. “You were fourteen, and it was called Far from the Tree because Kemper’s mom thought the apple hadn’t fallen far from the tree when she heard him singing in the garage. He was so loud he reminded her of herself.”
The weight of the others’ stares on him made Wyatt shut his mouth with a click of teeth and step backward as if anyone his size could hide so easily. He waved a meaty hand in front of his face as if to deflect the attention and stared at the ground, ears burning.
“Great job!” Apparently surprising everyone, Tully crossed to Wyatt, brushed past the attractive woman and Pierre to give Wyatt a handshake that he pulled into a quick, one backslap hug. “All right, Wyatt, you have immunity for this first challenge. Takes a little pressure off, right?”
“Huh?” Wyatt’s bones had all but melted at that unexpected embrace, and his head swam with the sudden arousal of being held by his fantasy object, even so briefly. He gazed at Tully in what felt like slack-jawed awe before pulling it together and hoping he hadn’t looked as dopey as he thought he had. “Oh yeah, I mean, this is—I need the help. These guys are pros.”
“That they are. Wyatt Parker is our only hobbyist, but he’s off to a great start thanks to his love of Unusual Potatoes.” Baker laughed as if that was hilarious and grinned a million-watt smile for the cameras.
It was all so surreal Wyatt found himself acting as if in a dream, giving Tully a sidelong smile and daring to clap him on the shoulder before he could once again move out of reach.
The crew directed Tully into the shot with the host, and he dragged Wyatt with him, waggling his brows before turning his attention to the camera. “All the education in the world can’t make up for good taste. You know my mama didn’t go to school for cooking, and she did okay. Think Wyatt’s got some passion for music, and that’s got him through the first challenge already.” He dropped his arm around Wyatt and gave him a squeeze.
Everyone looked at him for comment.
Wyatt felt the stares from the other contestants behind him, could sense their envy and disbelief. They probably thought it was some casting stunt, some way to keep the viewers cheering for the underdog.
That would explain so much. The hugs, that look earlier.
Trying to manage his expectations and revel in the moment, Wyatt grinned and leaned into Tully, careful not to knock him over with his bulk. “Being compared to Mama Grace is gonna be good inspiration going forward. I’ll try to live up to that.”
“Ah, yes, Mama Grace Randolph, famous for her down-home comfort food served with style and a smile,” Baker intoned, giving the camera a sorrowful look. “After Mama Grace’s tragic passing due to a heart attack last year, her son, Tully Randolph, took some personal time off between tours for Unusual Potatoes, giving us the chance to record this extraordinary glimpse into the private life of the foodie community’s favorite musician.”
Wyatt could hardly believe they were discussing this, right here in front of Tully. He could practically hear the maudlin strings that would no doubt accompany it when it aired. Then the host moved on to describing the first challenge, and the crew gestured for Wyatt to return to his mark.
With a sympathetic glance at Tully, Wyatt stepped back into his place and tried to concentrate as Baker attempted to make witticisms and get some of the other contestants to offer bon mots worthy of the inevitable commercial spots. A crewman with cue cards appeared off to one side, making ready to provide Tully with his dialogue to describe the first challenge. One of those stationed off to the side glared at Wyatt and pointed to her smiling mouth, reminding him he was supposed to look happy to be on TV.
But it was difficult to smile when he looked at Tully, who’d gone very pale and was staring off into space as if he’d found another place to be mentally while the commotion took place around him.
Next to Wyatt, Pierre jabbed him in his side and whispered, “You could be a professional eater, I bet.”
Those in earshot snickered as Wyatt forced a smile.
Kemper crossed to Tully, play punched his shoulder, and ducked in to meet his eyes, apparently trying to get him to smile too. It had been a year, but that wasn’t enough time to process the death of a loved one. To him it probably seemed like the blink of an eye. Wyatt, though this hadn’t been his idea or his choice, felt strangely exploitative and looked away as Kemper whispered in Tully’s ear.
Then the cameras were zooming and the cue card guy was moving closer to Tully, and he had to pull it together to announce the terms of the first elimination challenge. The cue cards indicated that each of the elimination challenges would be based around a different mealtime.
While the mansion’s kitchen only had two ovens and two range tops, it also featured a grill and various small appliances. The chefs would race to see who gained access to which cook surface, and that would impact the recipes they could prepare. It was daunting to say the least, and if Wyatt hadn’t gotten immunity, he’d have sweated through his shirt by now.
The first meal challenge would be breakfast, and they were limited to the stock on hand in the pantry. As the winner of the minichallenge, Wyatt would get a ten-second head start on pantry items before the others crowded in and started grabbing things. Maybe for once his size would prove an advantage. Judging by the way the others were glaring at him, they were thinking the same thing.
With the preliminaries out of the way and the terms set, the handlers began herding everyone inside.
Tully went first and led the way to the rather magnificent kitchen. Magnificent, of course, for an individual to work in, though Pierre and some of the others already seemed to be quietly remodeling to each other in whispers. Getting to remodel didn’t sound like it was part of the prize package offered, but Pierre was bringing out the beast in everyone. Each petty remark seemed to require one-upping the others with still pettier complaints about what was—to Wyatt, at least—a truly remarkable experience. They were standing in a rock star’s kitchen, about to cook for him and a few world-renowned food critics, and all these people could do was bitch about the size of the kitchen island.
Wyatt stepped away, almost bowling over the only other person who didn’t seem interested in the pile on, a very tall, dour older lady. She looked down her nose at him but didn’t move away, as if she simultaneously judged him but didn’t find him any more unworthy than anyone else on the planet.
“Good luck.” She patted his shoulder and pointed. He’d missed his cue to step forward in advance of the others to raid the pantry.
“Don’t worry….” Wyatt didn’t need to look behind him to recognize that snooty accent as Pierre’s. “It will take him the extra ten seconds just to waddle across the floor.”
Wyatt immediately glanced at Tully to see if he’d heard it, but Kemper was distracting him, thank God. That dampened the burn of humiliation.
Beside Wyatt, the older woman folded her arms and shook her head. “It’s all that meat-eating. Makes them aggressive. Jerks.” Not that she was disagreeing with them, but at least someone thought they were being dicks.
Before there was too much more time to ponder, the director was calling action and Tully held up a stopwatch with great drama. “Ready, Wyatt? Your ten seconds… starts… now.”
Despite the teasing, Wyatt was quick on his feet. Construction sites weren’t safe workplaces for slowpokes, and despite his size, he moved nimbly around the counters and into the impressive pantry. It took him a second to understand its layout—spices and the like at the top, bulk goods at the bottom, and an array of canned goods between—and he stared in consternation, at a loss for what to take. Before he knew it, his head start was up and the others crowded in around him, shoving to get past his obscuring bulk.
As Wyatt backed out empty-handed, the chefs within began exclaiming and complaining, their questions rising in volume as those who had been most aggressive in shoving past Wyatt were pressed deepest into the pantry. Turning on his heel, Wyatt was confronted with a cameraman watching his failure to score ingredients and Tully’s curious gaze. Blushing, Wyatt gestured to the refrigerator with a questioning look and received a broad grin and nod from the producer-type person hovering around behind the rock star. Wyatt’s shoulders sagged with relief as he threw open the refrigerator, blocking it with his body as the distinctive sound of the seal releasing drew the other chefs.
Eggs, tomatoes, red peppers, garlic, fresh shrimp, bacon, cheese, butter, lemon. As Wyatt stepped away from the fridge, the others piled in, shoving around him and only reinforcing his resolve not to aid them in their rudeness. Someone jammed an elbow into his gut, he couldn’t tell who, and he grunted in pain and hustled away to stake his claim to the biggest stovetop burner and a huge cast iron skillet. He cranked the burner’s temperature, set the skillet to heat, and started sorting his ingredients.
The cameras stayed on the edges as the contestants cooked, their presence intimidating but unobtrusive. As it was a breakfast challenge, and most breakfast foods wouldn’t take long to cook, it was a short enough time that apparently Tully didn’t feel the need to leave.
There was the noise of filing steps and hushed conversations, but for the most part the room was filled with the sound of cooking and expletives from other contestants having trouble preparing their food.
Tully sat at the counter, watching everyone buzzing around, sometimes cocking his head at what chefs were doing but otherwise appearing as quietly interested in the process as he was, perhaps, in the results.
The rock star’s presence was distracting, and Wyatt just wanted to stare at him, to drink in how gorgeous the man was, but he couldn’t afford to indulge. Instead, he worked swiftly to caramelize the bacon. Its salty, porky savor filled Wyatt’s nostrils the second it hit the hot iron, and as soon as the bacon browned and curled at its edges, he scooped it out, set it aside to turn crunchy, and tossed in the lemon-marinated shrimp alongside the garlic, frying up both in the bacon grease.
The shrimp pinkened swiftly, plumping and glistening, and Wyatt set it aside with the bacon before it could overcook and grow tough. He tossed in the diced tomato and red pepper with the caramelizing garlic, blending the elements and letting them heat just enough to meld before pouring them over the shrimp to keep it warm.
Behind him, the host was keeping tabs on their cook time, warning them that only ten minutes remained to plate their dishes. A wealth of ribald and despairing comments rang out, but Wyatt remained focused aside from the occasional sidelong glance to Tully.
Farther down the counter, the tall woman was cutting up kale, and beside Wyatt, the pretty redheaded lady was frying eggs inside of pieces of toast. When she saw him looking, she proudly explained, “Toad in the hole.”
Tasty as that sounded, Wyatt kept his eye on the clock and his ingredients. He didn’t want them to overcook. Pierre and another man stood at the other stove and appeared to be arguing bitterly over something, while another dark-haired man was at the oven looking anxious.
Kemper had apparently given up trying to pull Tully away and sat next to him with his chin on his hands, looking as sulky as a cat who’d gotten a bath. Tully seemed to take no notice. He rose as the time ticked down to five minutes and walked through the kitchen, peeking as everyone moved around him trying to plate their dishes.
Wyatt’s omelet was nearly done, fluffy and golden and perfect, glowing with clarified butter and filled with melted, fresh-grated Fontina and the strips of crunchy bacon. He plated it the moment the edges sealed atop a base of diced tomato, red pepper, and garlic, spooned on its topping of lemony, beautiful shrimp, and threw up his hands to mark his completion.
Looking around to the others, he saw them at varying stages of finesse. Some had achieved a full plating and others seemed to have rushed it badly enough that their presentation suffered for it. While Wyatt’s was far from the restaurant perfection he’d hoped, it looked good enough, in a home-cooking kind of way.
Tully had disappeared in the last rush, removed to the judges’ table to sample the food. According to the handler’s instructions, each plate would go out in its turn to be tasted, and the chef would be expected to stand and hear commentary, then speak for their dish if asked. Because he’d won the minichallenge, Wyatt was up first.
That didn’t make him sweat. At all.
He took a moment to wipe his face on his sleeve and wash his hands before he picked up his plate and followed the handler into the dining room.