Sunday, July 31, 2022
Friday, July 29, 2022
There was nothing Ava Harper loved more than the smell of old books. The musty scent of aging paper and stale ink took one on a journey through candlelit rooms of manors set amid verdant hills or ancient castles with turrets that stretched up to the vast, unknown heavens. These were tomes once cradled in the spread palms of forefathers, pored over by scholars, devoured by students with a rapacious appetite for learning. In those fragrant, yellowed pages were stories of the past and eternal knowledge.
It was a fortunate thing indeed she was offered a job in the Rare Book Room at the Library of Congress where the archaic aroma of history was forever present. She strode through the middle of three arches to where the neat rows of tables ran parallel to one another and carefully gathered a stack of rare books in her arms. They were different sizes and weights, their covers worn and pages uneven at the edges, and yet somehow the pile seemed to fit together like the perfect puzzle. Regardless of the patron who left them after having requested far more than was necessary for an afternoon’s perusal.
Their eyes were bigger than their brains. It was what her brother, Daniel, had once proclaimed after Ava groused about the common phenomena—one she herself had been guilty of—when he was home on leave.
Ever since, the phrase ran through her thoughts on each encounter of an abandoned collection. Not that it was the fault of the patron. The philosophical greats of old wouldn’t be able to glean that much information in an afternoon. But she liked the expression regardless and how it always made her recall Daniel’s laughing gaze as he said it.
They’d both inherited their mother’s moss green eyes, though Ava’s never managed to achieve that same sparkle of mirth so characteristic of her older brother.
A glance at her watch confirmed it was almost noon. A knot tightened in her stomach as she recalled her brief chat with Mr. MacLeish earlier that day. A meeting with the Librarian of Congress was no regular occurrence, especially when it was followed by the scrawl of an address on a slip of paper and the promise of a new opportunity that would suit her.
Whatever it was, she doubted it would fit her better than her position in the Rare Book Room. She absorbed lessons from these ancient texts, which she squeezed out at whim to aid patrons unearth sought-after information. What could possibly appeal to her more?
Ava approached the last table at the right and gently closed La Maison Reglée, the worn leather cover smooth as butter beneath her fingertips. The seventeenth century book was one of the many gastronomic texts donated from the Katherine Golden Bitting collection. She had been a marvel of a woman who utilized her knowledge in her roles at the Department of Agriculture and the American Canners Association. Every book had a story and Ava was their keeper. To leave her place there would be like abandoning children.
Robert floated in on his pretentious cloud and surveyed the room with a critical eye. She clicked off the light lest she be subjected to the sardonic flattening of her coworker’s lips.
He held out his hand for La Maison Reglée, a look of irritation flickering over his face. “I’ll put it away.” Ava hugged it to her chest. After all, he didn’t even read French. He couldn’t appreciate it as she did.
She returned the tome to its collection, the family reunited once more, and left the opulence of the library. The crisp spring DC air embraced her as she caught the streetcar toward the address printed in the Librarian of Congress’s own hand.
Ava arrived at 2430 E Street, NW ten minutes before her appointment, which turned out to be beneficial considering the hoops she had to jump through to enter. A stern man, whose expression did not alter through their exchange, confronted her at a guardhouse upon entry. Apparently, he had no more understanding of the meeting than she.
Once finally allowed in, she followed a path toward a large white-columned building. Ava snapped the lid on her overactive imagination lest it get the better of her—which it often did—and forced herself onward. After being led through an open entryway and down a hall, she was left to sit in an office possessing no more than a desk and two hardbacked wooden chairs. They made the seats in the Rare Book Room seem comfortable by comparison. Clearly it was a place made only for interviews.
But for what?
Ava glanced at her watch. Whoever she was supposed to meet was ten minutes late. A pang of regret resonated through her at having left her book sitting on her dresser at home.
She had only recently started Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and was immediately drawn in to the thrill of a young woman swept into an unexpected romance. Ava’s bookmark rested temptingly upon the newly married couple’s entrance to Manderley, the estate in Cornwall.
The door to the office flew open and a man whisked in wearing a gray, efficient Victory suit—single breasted with narrow lapels and absent any cuffs or pocket flaps—fashioned with as little fabric as was possible. He settled behind the desk. “I’m Charles Edmunds, secretary to General William Donovan. You’re Ava Harper?”
The only name familiar of the three was her own. “I am.”
He opened a file, sifted through a few papers, and handed her a stack. “Sign these.”
“What are they?” She skimmed over them and was met with legal jargon.
“I won’t sign anything I don’t read fully.” She lifted the pile.
The text was drier than the content of some of the more lackluster rare books at the Library of Congress. Regardless, she scoured every word while Mr. Edmunds glared irritably at her, as if he could will her to sign with his eyes. He couldn’t, of course. She waited ten minutes for his arrival; he could wait while she saw what she was getting herself into.
Everything indicated she would not share what was discussed in the room about her potential job opportunity. It was nothing all too damning and so she signed, much to the great, exhaling impatience of Mr. Edmunds.
“You speak German and French.” He peered at her over a pair of black-rimmed glasses, his brown eyes probing.
“My father was something of a linguist. I couldn’t help but pick them up.” A visceral ache stabbed at her chest as a memory flitted through her mind from years ago—her father switching to German in his excitement for an upcoming trip with her mother for their twenty-year anniversary. That trip. The one from which her parents had never returned.
“And you’ve worked with photographing microfilm.” Mr. Edmunds lifted his brows. A frown of uncertainty tugged at her lips. When she first started at the Library of Congress, her duties had been more in the area of archival than a typical librarian role as she microfilmed a series of old newspapers that time was slowly eroding. “I have, yes.”
“Your government needs you,” he stated in a matter-of-fact manner that broached no argument. “You are invited to join the Office of Strategic Services—the OSS—under the information gathering program called the Interdepartmental Committee for the Acquisition of Foreign Publications.”
Her mind spun around to make sense of what he’d just said, but her mouth flew open to offer its own knee-jerk opinion. “That’s quite the mouthful.”
“IDC for short,” he replied without hesitation or humor. “It’s a covert operation obtaining information from newspapers and texts in neutral territories to help us gather intel on the Nazis.”
“Would I require training?” she asked, unsure how knowing German equipped her to spy on them.
“You have all the training you need as I understand it.”
He began to reassemble the file in front of him. “You would go to Lisbon.”
He paused. “It is the only Lisbon of which I am aware, yes.”
No doubt she would have to get there by plane. A shiver threatened to squeeze down her spine, but she repressed it. “Why am I being recommended for this?”
“Your ability to speak French and German.” Mr. Edmunds held up his forefinger. “You know how to use microfilm.” He ticked off another finger. “Fred Kilgour recommends your keen intellect.” There went another finger.
That was a name she recognized.
She aided Fred the prior year when he was microfilming foreign publications for the Harvard University Library. After the months she’d spent doing as much for the Library of Congress, the process had been easy to share, and he had been a quick learner.
“And you’re pretty.” Mr. Edmunds sat back in his chair, the final point made.
The compliment was as unwarranted in such a setting as it was unwelcome. “What does my appearance have to do with any of this?”
He lifted a shoulder. “Beauties like yourself can get what they want when they want it. Except when you scowl like that.” He nodded his chin up. “You should smile more, Dollface.”
That was about enough.
“I did not graduate top of my class from Pratt and obtain a much sought-after position at the Library of Congress to be called ‘Dollface.’” She pushed up to standing.
“And you’ve got steel in that spine, Miss Harper.” Mr. Edmunds ticked the last finger. She opened her mouth to retort, but he continued. “We need this information so we best know how to fight the Krauts. The sooner we have these details, the sooner this war can be over.”
She remained where she stood to listen a little longer. No doubt he knew she would. “You have a brother,” he went on. “Daniel Harper, staff sergeant of C Company in Second Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, in the 101st Airborne Division.” The Airborne Division. Her brother had run toward the fear of airplanes despite her swearing off them.
“That’s correct,” she said tightly. Daniel would never have been in the Army were it not for her. He would be an engineer, the way he’d always wanted.
Mr. Edmunds took off his glasses and met her gaze with his small, naked eyes. “Don’t you want him to come home sooner?”
It was a dirty question meant to slice deep.
And it worked.
The longer the war continued, the greater Daniel’s risk of being killed or wounded. She’d done everything she could to offer aid. When the ration was only voluntary, she had complied long before it became law. She gave blood every few months, as soon as she was cleared to do so again. Rather than dance and drink at the Elk Club like her roommates, Ava spent all her spare time in the Production Corps with the Red Cross, repairing uniforms, rolling bandages, and doing whatever was asked of her to help their men abroad.
She even wore red lipstick on a regular basis, springing for the costly tube of Elizabeth Arden’s Victory Red, the civilian counterpart to the Montezuma Red servicewomen were issued. Ruby lips were a derisive biting of the thumb at Hitler’s war on made-up women. And she would do anything to bite her thumb at that tyrant. Likely Mr. Edmunds was aware of all this.
“You will be doing genuine work in Lisbon that can help bring your brother and all our boys home.” Mr. Edmunds got to his feet and held out his hand, a salesman with a silver tongue, ready to seal the deal. “Are you in?”
Ava looked at his hand. His fingers were stubby and thick, his nails short and well-manicured.
“I would have to go on an airplane, I’m assuming.”
“You wouldn’t have to jump out.” He winked.
Her greatest fear realized.
But Daniel had done far more for her.
It was a single plane ride to get to Lisbon. One measly takeoff and landing with a lot of airtime in between. The bottoms of her feet tingled, and a nauseous swirl dipped in her belly.
This was by far the least she could do to help him as well as every other US service member. Not just the men, but also the women whose roles were often equally as dangerous.
She lifted her chin, leveling her own stare right back. “Don’t ever call me ‘Dollface’ again.”
“You got it, Miss Harper,” he replied.
She extended her hand toward him and clasped his with a firm grip, the way her father had taught her. “I’m in.”
He grinned. “Welcome aboard.”
Wednesday, July 27, 2022
An enemies-to-lovers mash-up of THE HATING GAME and THE GREAT BRITISH BAKE-OFF, in which two rival hosts of a massively popular cooking show have to fake a relationship to save their careers after an explosive on-air fallout, only to find their feelings for each other becoming real.
Their feelings are about to boil over...
Chef Nina Lyon dreams of cooking her way to culinary stardom and becoming a household name. She thought hosting The Next Cooking Champ! was her golden ticket, but she and her co-host/arch-nemesis Leo O'Donnell go together like water and oil and he undercuts her at every turn.
So when Nina unexpectedly quits the show--on live TV, no less--to focus on her restaurant, she doesn't anticipate the he-devil himself showing up at her door begging her to come back. Nor does she expect the paparazzi to catch them in what looks like a passionate kiss, but is actually Leo tripping into her. When the fans go crazy over Nina and Leo's "secret romance", keeping the ruse going might be the only way to save both their careers. That is, if they don't kill each other first…
Perfect for fans of THE HATING GAME and Netflix's GREAT BRITISH BAKE-OFF (…if Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood were hot thirty-somethings), FOR BUTTER OR WORSE is the escapist enemies-to-lovers romance we all need right now.
The Ripped Bodice (signed copies!): https://www.therippedbodicela.com/book/9781335506344
Nina Lyon stared into her dressing room’s vanity mirror. Her palms were planted firmly against the table, but she bounced on the balls of her feet—the same way she did whenever she was nervous. And she was borderline vibrating with unease. The average at-home viewer would never notice, because her glam team, who’d become experts at giving her the “natural” look—despite the false lashes, bronzer and endless eyebrow filler—had done a superb job. Her stylist had zipped her into a classic black jumpsuit accessorized with a gold statement necklace and slim python belt that cinched her waist and showed off the roundness of her hips. Even if she didn’t feel confident, she looked as flawless as a mirror-glazed cake. She was iced perfection.
“I can do this. I. Can. Do. This,” she said out loud.
“Hell yes, you fucking can!” Her sister Sophie’s voice burst through the phone. “Hell yes, you fucking can!”
Nina looked down at her best friend, Jasmine, and her sister on FaceTime. If anyone could pump her up, it was her minihype team.
“Repeat after me,” Jasmine commanded. “I will not fall in my heels.”
“Now that you’ve cursed her by saying it out loud, she’s definitely going to fall,” Sophie chided.
“On this very helpful note, I should probably go.” Nina raised a playful eyebrow. “Nothing, and I mean nothing is going to go wrong!” Sophie said.
“Just remember these words—do not fall—”
Nina interrupted her bestie, “Okay, ’bye!” Then she ended the video chat.
She exhaled sharply. Normally, she wouldn’t give Jasmine’s comment more than a passing thought. But tonight was deeply important, and something as innocuous as tripping could actually be a problem.
I can do this, Nina reminded herself. It was the taping of the finale of the third season of The Next Cooking Champ! and she’d worked her entire career to get to this point.
While most chefs cooked in obscurity, people knew her name. She was also a female chef, a minority in the restaurant world, and the producers had taken a chance on her. But she’d earned her spot. She’d built Lyon—a successful restaurant—on her own, and had won awards while growing a loyal clientele. To her, food was more than a meal. Food was everything.
“We need a hair-and-makeup check on Nina,” Tiffany, a producer on the show, said quickly into her headset. She had one of those inscrutable faces that meant getting a read on how she was feeling was nearly impossible until she actually spoke. “What do you think?” Nina cautiously spun to show the full effect of the costume designer’s wardrobe choice.
“You’re sweating.” Tiffany stared at Nina’s hairline.
Okay, well, that wasn’t the answer she’d hoped for. “Wait, I’m what—”
“Walk with me,” Tiffany said, cutting her off, then turned on her Converse-sneakered heel. Nina trailed after her.
They left the cocoon of Nina’s dressing room and made their way to the soundstage, which was outfitted with cooking stations, KitchenAid mixers, multiple burners, mixing bowls, measuring cups and an alphabetized spice rack. The setup wasn’t dissimilar from her own restaurant’s kitchen…except for the reality-show part.
Nina carefully ran a finger along the top of her forehead. She was sweating, and not just because of the bright, overhead lights or the row of cameras that would soon be trained on her.
Sharp footsteps approached the soundstage, and Nina turned to see the real source of her jitters: Leo O’Donnell.
Her cohost on the show was as annoying as a piece of spinach lodged in between her front teeth. He wasn’t a chef. He was a businessman, and his only accomplishment was turning his father’s charming Italian restaurant, Vinny’s, into a bland chain. Unlike Nina, he wasn’t passionate about food—all he cared about was the bottom line.
Her cohost on the show was as annoying as a piece of spinach lodged in between her front teeth. He wasn’t a chef. He was a businessman, and his only accomplishment was turning his father’s charming Italian restaurant, Vinny’s, into a bland chain. Unlike Nina, he wasn’t passionate about food—all he cared about was the bottom line.
However, not yelling would be difficult, because Leo—aka the person whose face she pictured when she needed to pound out some dough—always knew how to provoke the worst in her.
After tonight, though, the show would wrap for the season. She’d return to the day-to-day running of her restaurant, and trade in bowls of prop food for the real thing. Instead of working with Leo, where she had to control her gag reflex, she’d be in the kitchen with Jasmine. Just the thought of her old routine was like a warm cup of cocoa—comforting and extremely necessary. As much as Nina loved mentoring the budding chefs and working with the insanely talented behind-the-scenes crew…she needed the time off. From Leo the man-child, to be more specific.
A stylist soundlessly appeared at Nina’s side and worked on the unruly flyaways that always erupted from her head under the heat of the on-camera lighting, while a man with a compact dabbed over her forehead.
“How’s my hair and makeup?” Leo stopped and cocked his chin at the exact angle for the overhead light to accentuate his immaculate swoop of dark hair. It was as if someone had marked, with an X, the exact spot for him to stand so he’d look his absolute best. He was close to being six feet tall and carried himself in an overly confident way that gave him even more height. He wore a crisp white shirt, unbuttoned just enough to reveal the faintest whiff of his chest hair—a touch she’d bet a hundred bucks that he’d made, and not the stylist. As he came to stand next to her, he studied her face.
“Are you sweating?” he finally asked.
“What?” Of course, he’d noticed. “No.”
She self-consciously touched her hairline again.
The makeup person gave him a once-over, then smiled. “You’re set.”
Nina rolled her eyes. One of his many flaws was that he was physically flawless. The kind of man who only got right swipes and never had to pay for a drink in his life. And if anyone claimed they weren’t attracted to him, well…they’d be lying. Like people who said they hated cake. Liars. Even Nina would never deny that he was handsome, in a certain light, if you squinted hard enough. Luckily, his habit of “playfully” undercutting her canceled out any urges she might have toward him.
“It’s a good thing they can get your hair big enough to hide the witch hat.” Leo absentmindedly rolled up the cuff of his shirt, like he hadn’t even noticed she was there.
Nina ignored how seeing a hint of his skin made her mouth twitch, just slightly. Stop drooling.
“Don’t you want to use a little powder to take the shine off his cloven hooves?” Nina asked the makeup person, but she couldn’t help but notice that Leo’s lips twinged at her comment.
“We’re back in sixty!” Tiffany called out loudly to the crew, then turned to Nina. “Should I be worried?”
“If he can play nice, I will, too.” Nina eyed Leo, who either didn’t hear her or, more likely, chose to tune her out.
She understood why Tiffany was twitching, just like everyone else on set. For the first time in the history of the show’s three seasons, they were taping live. A ploy to boost the ratings, which had been steadily declining thanks to all the new reality shows cropping up…or so the network executives had explained. They needed to attract viewers to remain on the air, and stay relevant, even if it meant entering dangerous territory by taping live.
Which meant there were no editors to cut around the indignant stink eye Leo made every time Nina gave a food critique. The director couldn’t call “Cut!” so the audience wouldn’t hear the fake retching sounds Nina made when Leo attempted a lame dad joke. While nuanced editing created the illusion that Leo and Nina were occasionally cheeky toward each other, rather than mortal enemies, this time they wouldn’t have that luxury. They had to pretend to be absolutely delightful together—two sublime cake toppers for their audience at home. The stakes were high, and it was Tiffany’s job to keep them both in line.
“Don’t worry. I’m channeling Betty White.” Nina squeezed Tiffany’s shoulder. In classic Tiffany fashion, she returned the gesture with a blank look.
“We both know I’m not the problem. Only one of us has an official nickname,” Leo said offhandedly, like he hadn’t just turned the stove up to high.
And now Nina was truly about to boil over, but instead she bit the inside of her cheek to keep what little cool she had.
Even after years of having “Nasty Nina” trend on Twitter, be used in tabloid articles and left in comments on her IG posts, the fact that she had that as a nickname genuinely hurt her feelings. She was Nasty Nina, and the word nasty was definitely not a compliment. Especially not when trolls on Twitter lobbed it at her any time she so much as forgot to smile as the end credits rolled.
“I guess I should thank you for coining the nickname?” He was the reason she had one, after all.
“It was a joke. How was I supposed to know people would run with it?” He shrugged off her annoyance, like he couldn’t understand why she’d even be bothered.
That moment, captured in the holiday special during the show’s second season, was one she’d never forget. She could replay the clip on YouTube—it had over three million views and counting—whenever she wanted. His comment had caused their relationship as coworkers to turn from placid to a raging hellfire.
A contestant had baked a cake into the shape of Santa’s naughty-or-nice list. Unfortunately, the iced cursive letters weren’t easy to read. So when Leo bent down, he’d said, “Nasty or nice? We all know I’m on the nice list, but Nina…”
In response, she’d made a face. More specifically, her nostrils flared, her eyebrows raised nearly up to her scalp and her mouth had twisted open into a horrified grimace as if trying to swallow Leo whole.
The Nasty Nina meme soon followed. His offhand “joke” resulted in #NastyNina trending on Twitter for a whole weekend. And the nickname had stuck, further adding to her current reputation problem.
Well, “problem” was more of a euphemism for “nightmare.” When the show first started, patrons had flocked to her restaurants in San Francisco, Napa and Los Angeles. But after multiple seasons in which she’d been the harsh judge, the crowds had waned. As it turned out, people didn’t want to give money to a chef who made everyone cry. Nina was never proud when one of her comments hit a nerve, but she didn’t want to sugarcoat her reactions, either. She knew women were expected to be nurturing and sweet, but that just wasn’t her style. While she liked to think of herself as a mentor, ultimately, she preferred to give honest critiques that would help the contestants improve their craft. Was being candid really so wrong?
The novelty of her being a celebrity had worn off, too, and as of last month she’d quietly closed her Napa location. Her San Francisco spot had closed the year prior. All she had left was her Los Angeles restaurant—the first one she’d opened. At this point, using the show’s platform to turn her reputation around was critical.
And going down as the female Gordon Ramsay had never been part of the plan. She was ambitious, worked hard and saw this as a massive opportunity. She’d signed on to the show with the hope that she could become a household name and brand herself so she’d be in every living room in America. Eventually, she’d get her own show and open more restaurants. Maybe even bring her food to the east coast. A chef could dream!
But how could she accomplish any of that with Leo by her side? The truth was, he wanted her to be seen as the mean judge. From day one, he’d taken advantage of the fact that she was blunt, so he’d cranked up his own charm. When asked about how he “managed” working with Nasty Nina in interviews, he never came to her defense. And while she couldn’t completely prove it, she was fairly certain he’d even talked a producer into giving her the smaller dressing room. How else to explain that she got ready in a broom closet while he had enough space to fit a sectional sofa? “We’re back in thirty!” Tiffany shouted to the set. Then added to Nina and Leo, “Remember, don’t step on each other’s lines. That last rehearsal was a disaster.”
“I’m happy to deliver Nina’s lines, since she seems incapable of reading off a monitor.” Leo glanced beyond her and directly at Tiffany, just as easily as discarding a wilted garnish.
Whatever—she wasn’t going to let his petty antics distract her from fixing how the viewers perceived her. Well, maybe she was… “The real problem is that you think your voice is the only one worth hearing.” Nina enunciated every word, and he finally looked at her. She glared back.
“My voice is preferable to the screeching banshee noise that comes out whenever you open your mouth.” He smiled widely, his teeth as white and sparkling as a clean countertop.
“I use a pitch only dogs can hear, so no surprise that includes you.” Nina squeezed her arms tightly across her chest to keep from lunging for his throat.
“Children, this is live. And you promised to behave.” Tiffany listened to her headset. “Back in fifteen!” Tiffany walked away from them, disappearing behind the wall of cameras pointed their way.
“Did you miss a Botox session? I see a line.” She reached up to touch a finger to an imaginary spot on his forehead, and he swatted her hand away.
Her breath caught in her throat at the unexpected warmth of his skin against hers. But she immediately shook it off.
“Back in ten!”
“Why don’t you take your broom and ride off to the local coven meeting?” He ran a hand through his unfairly thick hair.
“Back in five!”
“That would be great for the show’s ratings. All alone, you’d rock that demo of viewers who love watching paint dry.” Nina smirked, happy to have the last dig before they went on-air.
“Three, two…” Tiffany’s voice faded and the red light on camera C blinked back to life.
“Welcome to the finale of The Next Cooking Champ!” Leo said in his fake, shellacked-on TV voice, which was smooth and measured in a way his natural one wasn’t.
The first time she’d heard that tone was the day they met, in a truly unglamorous casting office. When he’d walked in she’d assumed he was in the building for a different audition—leading man in an upcoming rom-com or handsome doctor in a future Shonda Rhimes drama. He had the good looks of an actor, and the arrogance of someone who wasn’t used to being told no. But, incredibly, he was there for the cooking show. He was in tailored, dark-wash jeans and a snug black shirt that fit him like poured chocolate ganache. He had thick chestnut waves, well-groomed facial hair and a distinguished nose that bent ever so slightly at the top. He was lean and defined, like he put in effort, but wasn’t about to say no to a slice of pizza. Or three. Which Nina preferred. She couldn’t get involved with someone who didn’t eat. Of course, now that she knew him, she would never ever, ever, ever consider being with someone like Leo.
Not that she dated. She didn’t have the time, unless you asked her sister, who thought it was more that Nina didn’t make time. Most men were intimidated by someone on television who had a reputation for being “difficult,” and her last relationship had been, well, an absolute failure.
“For those just tuning in, I’m Leo O’Donnell.”
“And I’m Nina Lyon. We have two contestants competing for the prize of two hundred thousand dollars, a cookbook deal and the title of The Next Cooking Champ,” she said, reading off the teleprompter.
She smiled for the cameras, but a big shot of genuine dopamine hit her at the same time. This was the finale of the third season. Her job was hosting a beloved cooking show, and she had the privilege of helping to change someone’s life for the better. She was damn lucky to be in this position. And she was a good mentor and chef. She wasn’t going to let the fact that Leo was standing next to her diminish any of what she’d achieved.
“That’s right,” Leo chimed in. “Our contestants have one hour remaining to present us with their appetizer, entrée and dessert courses. They’re cooking live so you can really get a sense of the pressure they’re currently under.”
She would definitely get through the taping. Why had she been so stressed about being with Leo? The night wasn’t about him, or her, really. She was just excited to see the dishes the chefs made for them. She could do this.
“Let’s check in on our two finalists!” As she turned to move toward a cooking station, she caught Leo’s eye. He winked at her, a move so subtle she wasn’t even sure if the cameras caught it. But she did, and a quick flutter rose in her belly that then caused her to blink rapidly. A move she was absolutely sure the cameras did catch. He is so irritating, she told herself.
“Tell us about your entrée, Samantha.” Leo leaned across the counter, something he always did to endear himself to the contestants. “It looks like a dish I’d want to eat with a tall pint of beer.”
Samantha visibly relaxed at the comment. For all of Leo’s faults, Nina couldn’t deny how quickly he made the contestants feel at ease. He wanted them to succeed just as much as she did. Maybe she could remember that one positive trait whenever she wanted to stab daggers at him with her eyes.
Then he tap-tap-tapped his foot at Nina. He’d started this “fun” new tapping code during dress rehearsals. His way of signaling that he was waiting for her to speak. As if she couldn’t do her job fast enough for his liking. He’d found a secret way to irritate her, even though she’d asked him repeatedly to stop during rehearsals.
The response flowed out of her as if the tapping from his foot had turned on the faucet in the sink. “Speak slowly and simply so Leo can understand what you’re saying.”
She instantly regretted the dig. Hadn’t she just talked herself into trying to be nice to him? Being rude wasn’t who she was, not really. Only Leo brought out this side of her. When she watched clips from the show, she sometimes barely knew whom she was watching. She just couldn’t fake being polite with him, no matter how hard she tried. Still, this version of herself wasn’t who she wanted to be, or what she wanted the fans to witness.
He raised one thick eyebrow at her, a challenge. She’d tossed out the first grenade, and now he’d probably return with a cannon.
Shit. So much for not reacting to him. Being enemies was their dynamic—it was how they were. She just hoped they could make it through this live taping without destroying each other, and the show, in the process.
Excerpted from For Butter or Worse by Erin La Rosa, Copyright © 2022 by Erin La Rosa. Published by HQN.
is a writer living in Los Angeles. As a writer for BuzzFeed, she frequently writes about the perils and triumphs of being a redhead. Before BuzzFeed, Erin worked for the comedy websites Funny or Die and MadAtoms, as well as E!s Fashion Police, Wetpaint, and Ecorazzi. Erin has appeared on CNN, Headline News, Jimmy Kimmel, and The Today Show on behalf of BuzzFeed. She is the author of Womanskills and The Big Redhead Book.
Author Website: https://www.erinlarosacreative.com/
Recently returned to England, Leo, the new Earl of Salcott, discovers he's been thrust into the role of guardian to an heiress, the daughter of a notorious rake. Even worse, his wealthy ward has brought her half-sister, the beautiful but penniless Isobel, with her. Leo must introduce Clarissa to London society and find her a suitable husband, but her illegitimate half sister, Izzy, is quite another matter. Her lowly birth makes her quite unacceptable in aristocratic circles.
However, the girls are determined to enter society together. They’re devoted to each other and despite the risk of scandal and ruin if Izzy’s parentage is discovered, they refuse to be separated. Much to Leo’s frustration, nothing he says or does will convince them otherwise. To further complicate matters, sparks fly every time Leo and Izzy interact.
Called away for a quick visit to his country estate, Leo instructs the young ladies to stay quietly at home and consider their position. But when he returns, he's infuriated to discover that Clarissa and Izzy have launched themselves into society—and with tremendous success! There's no going back. Now Leo must enter society himself, protect Clarissa from fortune hunters, and try not to be driven mad by the sharp-witted, rebellious Izzy, and the rich, unworthy men drawn to her beauty.
I'm sorry, my lord, it may well be a mistake, but it's definitely legal."
"It's definitely a mistake, and I don't want any part of it," Leo, Lord Salcott, said firmly.
The lawyer, Melkin, tightened his lips. "I'm afraid you have no choice, my lord. Sir Bartleby Studley's will quite clearly stipulates that his daughter Clarissa is to be taken under the guardianship of Josiah Leonard Thorne, sixth Earl of Salcott—which is you."
"I understand that," Leo said impatiently. "But he meant my father, not me. My father was also named Josiah Leonard Thorne. It's a family tradition—the firstborn son of each generation is given the same name, but Papa was known as Josiah while I am called Leo. Presumably if I choose to follow the tradition, my first son will be called Joe by his school friends, and his son will be Leo."
"Indeed, my lord. Nevertheless, you are the sixth Earl of Salcott," Melkin said gently. "And thus the will stands."
"It's perfectly clear to me that he intended my father to be the girl's guardian. He simply made a mistake, that's all. He was probably drunk at the time and forgot that Papa was the fifth earl, not the sixth."
"Possibly so, but your father predeceased him by several months, and it cannot be denied that all the legalities have been met." The elderly lawyer tapped the document with a bony, ink-stained finger. "Miss Clarissa Studley is, for better or worse, your responsibility until she is married. You could, of course, contest the will in the courts, but that would take time and money, and in the meantime you would still be responsible for the young ladies." He gave Leo a shrewd look, then added, "My advice is just to accept it."
Leo blinked. "'Ladies'? What do you mean 'ladies'? I thought there was only one daughter."
"Yes . . . and no." The lawyer cleared his throat. "Miss Clarissa Studley refuses to be parted from her, er, relative, and thus your duties will effectively extend to both girls."
"What the devil is an er-relative? Some kind of companion, I presume."
Melkin pursed his lips. "It's rather irregular, my lord, but the second girl is Sir Bartleby's natural daughter."
"You mean I'm also to be landed with one of his bastards? As well as his legitimate daughter? Damn the old lecher."
The lawyer winced slightly at Leo's plainspokenness and sifted through the documents before him. "I wondered whether it might have been some private agreement, my lord," he murmured. "Between your father and Sir Bartleby."
A private agreement? That'd be right. He sighed. His father had made all kinds of arrangements he'd never told Leo about. Untangling his spendthrift parent's tangled affairs had taken Leo years. He thought he'd finally broken clear of them. Apparently not.
Though acting as guardian for two young women was a new one to him. Lord, how his friends would laugh.
He'd never had much in common with his father, and he'd disliked most of his father's friends, especially Sir Bartleby Studley. How spoiled would these girls be?
"I suppose if Studley has provided for the girl—"
"No provision my lord. Not so much as a penny."
"What?" Leo was shocked. "Then what the devil was he playing at, to sire a child and make no provision for her support? He wasn't a poor man."
"I cannot speculate, my lord. It is most irregular." He pursed his lips and added apologetically, "The cousin who inherited Studley Park Manor allowed the girls to see out their mourning year in their childhood home, but he is about to get married and has served them notice to vacate the house."
"And?" Leo prompted. He disliked the look in the man's eye.
"And thus Miss Clarissa Studley and her, er, relative will be coming to London. To you."
The lawyer shrugged. "They have nowhere else to go."
Leo swore under his breath. It was one thing to oversee financial arrangements for a pair of young women, quite another to have them landing—in person!—on his doorstep.
He had a good mind to walk out and catch the next boat back to the continent. But he was nothing if not a realist. He'd dealt with every other problem his father had left him with, and he could deal with this.
He perused the documents in front of him. "Very well then, surely we can find the funds to pension the er-relative off. Studley should have done that in the first place." Leaving the girl without means of support was an utter disgrace.
Melkin nodded. "That would seem the best solution, my lord, only where would the money come from?"
"How is she currently supported?"
"By Miss Clarissa Studley, my lord. She intends to share her own fortune with her-" Leo frowned. "Can she do that?"
"No. Miss Studley's inheritance doesn't come to her until she is married, after which it will be in the control of her husband, so there's no danger there. In the meantime, the trust that her maternal grandfather set up pays for whatever she needs, including an allowance for pin money. It's a very generous allowance, and she shares it equally with her half sister. And since Sir Bartleby left nothing to either girl . . ." He spread his fingers in a helpless gesture.
Leo's own fingers curled into fists. "So in effect Miss Studley is supporting her father's natural daughter as her father did not?"
He could barely believe it. A disgrace for a young girl—both young girls—to be put in such a position. The sooner Leo made arrangements for the half sister, and freed Miss Studley of the burden of her support, the better.
Melkin produced a sealed letter. "Sir Bartleby left this private letter for you in which, I presume, he explains."
Leo broke open the seal and read the letter. It was dated shortly before Studley's death.
Salcott, apologies for leaving my bastard brat to your offices, but I have been unable to pry her loose from my daughter. The witch has her claws in deep. Isobel has shown every sign of being as immoral and manipulative as her whore of a mother. Perhaps in London she will finally fulfill her aim of becoming a courtesan. Even as a young girl, she was attempting to work her wiles on my guests.
I trust you will find more success than I in freeing my daughter from her unholy influence.
Leo read the letter again. It left a nasty taste in his mouth. For a man to talk so about his own daughter, illegitimate or not. Still, she must have done something to provoke such vitriol. And a deathbed request was not something to take lightly.
But Studley's cheek was unbelievable! He should have dealt with his own dirty blasted washing, not palmed it off on another man, let alone a man whom—assuming he'd intended the task for Leo's father—he hadn't seen in a decade or more. Leo's father had been bedridden for the last ten years of his life.
But now things began to make more sense. If the bastard daughter had immoral tendencies and was planning to set up as a courtesan—and if the man knew she was battening on her sister—Leo could understand why Studley might be reluctant to settle money on her. Though it was still wrong.
He crumpled the letter in his fist. Immoral and manipulative, was she? As it happened, he was well acquainted with the designing kind of female, and dammit, it would definitely take money to get rid of her.
And Studley had left Leo with no option but to pay her out of his own pocket.
He hoped the man was roasting in hell.
He sat back, eyeing the documents broodingly. "So, two girls, one legitimate and with a fortune, one without name or means. Regardless of any moral failings she may have, the illegitimate girl nevertheless has a right to some support. Studley raised her in his own home along with his legitimate daughter, so it's poor form to simply toss her out in the cold with nothing. No wonder she depends on her half sister for support."
Melkin nodded. "Quite so, my lord."
"Now, what the devil am I supposed to do with Miss Studley?" It was a rhetorical question, spoken half under his breath, but the lawyer thought he was asking for advice.
He beamed at Leo. "Introduce her to society, my lord. Get her married and off your hands."
Leo stared at the man, appalled. "Introduce her to society? You mean take her to balls, routs, the opera? Almack's?" He couldn't think of anything worse. He'd fled to the continent to escape all that society fuss and bother.
"Exactly, my lord. You will, of course, need a suitable female not only to chaperone her, but to sponsor her in society."
Curse it. He didn't know any suitable females. Nor any unsuitable ones—not in England, at any rate. "You're not suggesting I get the er-relative to be the chaperone, are you?"
Melkin looked shocked. "Oh, no, no, no, my lord! Quite unthinkable. That girl cannot, of course, have anything to do with polite society."
Leo pondered the problem. The illegitimate girl would be no problem—he'd pay her off and make it clear she was not to batten on her half sister any longer. Whatever she did after that wouldn't bother him.
But the other one . . . he was damned if he'd squire her to ton parties and balls. He'd entered that circus once and had no intention of doing it again. No, Miss Studley's social life was a task for a woman.
"I suppose I'll have to hire someone." Yet another expense he'd have to cover.
The lawyer kept a prudent silence. He tidied the documents, tucked them into a folder and said diffidently, "I believe the girls will be arriving in London quite soon, my lord."
Leo, who had been lost in thought, glanced up sharply. "What? Already?"
"A year has passed since Sir Bartleby's demise, my lord. Had you not been absent from England for the last year, it would not be such a surprise to you. "
"I was traveling," Leo reminded him. The faint reproach in the lawyer's voice was irritating. Dammit, Leo had been entitled to his time away. During the last decade or so his schoolfellows had traveled, had adventures; some had joined the army, others ventured to exotic foreign countries. Leo had barely left the family estate.
His father's apoplexy twelve years before had forced him, then aged sixteen and trying to decide between a commission in the army or university, to abandon all his plans and take on the responsibility for his father and the family estate.
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