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Cooking Up Love – Free Sample

CARINA_0614_9781426898440_CookingUpLove

Chapter One

 

The only thing less inspired than the bouillabaisse at The Green Door was the broth itself, which was thin and devoid of flavor. I believe my mother warmed up cans of condensed soup that were more authentic than what was served to me last night. I will say my water was superb and the glass it was served in was hardly dirty at all.

 

An omelet! It’s the first class. He can’t really be expecting an omelet, can he?

Holly looked to her kitchen partner in horror. Her best friend, Marisol, stood nonchalantly, her hip against the laminated countertop, clearly not in the least concerned about the prospect of burning down the community college’s kitchen classrooms.

“Is he kidding?” Holly whispered, fidgeting in her Manolo Blahniks. Maybe the shoes were a little high for domestic use.

“I’m guessing not.” Marisol shrugged one shoulder and nodded toward the teacher, who was walking around the kitchen spaces distributing eggs out of a Styrofoam carton. “We’ll be fine.”

“Two eggs for each of you. Don’t crack them yet.” The teacher, who only moments ago had given his name as Mark Bennett, announced  this to the class as he carefully placed four eggs on the counter next to Holly’s purse. He paused at their station. “You’ll want to stow that away or you’ll get food on it. Besides, that’s not very sanitary,” he told her with an arched brow directed at her brand-new Kate Spade leopard print clutch.

“Oh, of course.” Holly grasped her bag in both hands. She remembered how the housekeeper had kept their kitchen, full of cousins and dogs and, often, toys on the counter. She didn’t recall anyone dying from it. Okay, so he’s a bit of a stickler. No big deal. A cutie patootie stickler.

She looked around the little area that was her kitchen space for an out-of-the-way place to put her bag. Seeing nowhere, she glanced around the classroom to find out where the other women had placed their purses. Only there weren’t any other women, well except the two girls in flannel on the other side of the room, and they didn’t seem to be carrying purses. Every other student besides those two, Holly and Marisol, was male. There were a  lot of thirty-something guys in baseball caps. Also, one old guy, gray-haired and stooped, paired up with a young guy in the space to their left.

“Where did you put your purse?” she asked Marisol.

“I left it in the car.”

Sigh. Poking around the cabinets under the counter, she shoved the bag in with some skillets and straightened up just in time to hear the teacher instruct everyone to pull out the tools they’d need to make an omelet.

“How about a to-go menu and a cell phone?” she suggested to her friend, who giggled.

“Pick out an omelet pan, a whisk, knife, cutting board, and a bowl,” the teacher said, tossing out hints while he roamed the classroom.

“I’ll get the pans,” she told Marisol. She ducked back down to where she had shoved her bag and pulled out a bunch of flat skillets of various sizes. Small? Large? Or enormous? She grimaced.

“You’ll want the small ones,” said a voice connected to a pair of black Chuck Taylors. She tracked upward along a pair of khaki cargo pants encasing long legs, past a trim stomach hidden inside a black polo shirt, over wide shoulders until she was looking up into the face of the instructor. “Unless you plan to make an omelet for an army division.”

Holly shoved the other pans back inside the cabinet with her purse and stood. “Thanks, Mr. Bennett.” She smiled at him.

“Just Mark.” This time she got a wee  smile, really just a glimmer of one.

Words tumbled from her mouth in a burst of nervous energy. “I like egg white omelets. Well, I don’t like them necessarily, but they’re better for you. No one likes egg white omelets—kind of dull—but less cholesterol, you know?”

Even with her stacked heels she only just came to his shoulder. His dark brown hair curled at his ears and the collar of his shirt. Matching brown eyes blinked at her a few times before he prodded, “Then you need an egg separator.”

An egg separator? Separator. Separator… She pulled open a drawer housing various instruments of torture. There was a mashy thing and a scoopy thing and something pokey. There were measuring spoons—hey, those she could identify with some degree of certainty. Egg separator. She pulled out a likely suspect.

“Pastry blender,” he told her with infinite patience.

“Oh.” She put that back in the drawer. If I were an egg separator… She chose a round metal thing with graduated circles.

“Very good.” He touched her shoulder with warm fingers. “Spatula?”

“Oh, I know that one.” She grasped a silver-handled spatula and held it up in triumph, inordinately proud of herself.

“Nice.” He nodded and moved on to the next hopeless case.

Holly turned to Marisol, who had been watching the exchange while holding a cutting board with a bowl and knife, her gorgeous face smirking.

“Shut up,” Holly told her.

“I didn’t say anything.” Now Marisol was openly laughing at her, which of course only made Holly giggle too. “If you really want an omelet this badly, I’ll take you to Denny’s.”

“Oh come on.” Holly nudged her friend with her hip, which meant she hit Marisol somewhere in the thigh. Even with her four-inch heels, she was only just under five and a half feet, and Marisol was almost six feet tall in flats. She poked her friend. “We’re gonna have fun.”

Marisol looked skeptical. “I know how to cook.”

“You are the queen of paella.” Holly bowed to her friend. “I, however, cannot cook and it seems a bit ridiculous to me—a food critic who can’t cook.”

Can’t cook was an understatement. She was damned near lethal in the kitchen. She’d famously given an ex-boyfriend food poisoning with bad chicken, caused a major fire when she’d tried bravely to make a meatloaf a couple of years ago, and scorched spaghetti to the bottom of four different pots. She could barely open a can of soup without causing damage. Just once in her life, she’d like to be assigned a dish to bring to a potluck that didn’t involve a Jell-O mold or rolls. She could buy the hell out of a dozen rolls.

“Why bother? No one who reads your column cares if you can’t cook.”

“But I feel like a bit of a fraud,” Holly confessed.

Before the debate could continue, the teacher invited everyone up to the front of the class to select some vegetables to go in their omelets. Of course, Marisol was immediately surrounded by a sea of testosterone as most of the guys in the class gathered around and suggestively squeezed vegetables. That was fine. Holly rolled her eyes. She could certainly pick out produce on her own, though the selection was a tad overwhelming.

What goes in a Denver omelet? She’d certainly eaten plenty of them. Onion, check. Green bell peppers, check. Zucchini? Ugh, no, not in an omelet. She loaded up her arms with veggies.

“Are you a vegetarian?” The voice was deep, soft and friendly. She turned to find the hunky teacher sizing up her selections.

“Um, no.”

“Then maybe some ham if you’re going for a Denver omelet,” he said, obviously taking note of what she’d already selected.

“Oh, of course.” Ham. Duh. “Thanks.” She added a slice to her pile of food, then inspected the cheeses. A Denver omelet called for cheddar, but she noticed a container of feta and picked it up.

“Are you going to try feta?”

“I do love feta.” She looked at her ingredients. “Maybe I’ll switch to a Greek omelet. It’s one of my favorites.”

“Hmm.” He furrowed his brow. “Sorry. I think those guys over there already took all the spinach. Next week, when you all bring your own chosen ingredients, you’ll have everything you need. Will you do all right making a Denver omelet for now?”

Holly snorted. “I haven’t successfully made anything before.”

“Right.” He was probably remembering the egg separator incident from a few minutes ago. “I’d just go with cheddar, then.” This time she got a real smile, friendly and broad, revealing perfect straight teeth. Oh, when Mark Bennett smiled he went from a cute seven to a hot eight.

Holly restrained herself from skipping back to her little kitchen. Maybe this class wouldn’t be so bad even if he couldn’t teach her how to cook. She hadn’t even considered the proposition of fun. She was taking this class so that she could hold up her head with a little self-respect. What kind of food critic couldn’t cook? It was embarrassing, and she lived in fear of being found out and losing all her hard-fought credibility.

The problem was, being in the kitchen held no good memories for her. Most kids’ parents fought out of sight, behind closed bedroom doors. Not hers. They’d fought everywhere—the bedroom, for sure, but also the living room, the bathroom, while walking down the hall. Even once on the street, where the entire neighborhood could take note. But the best fights, the ones where there was real damage, occurred in the kitchen. Pots and pans, even knives, would end up flying and crashing to the tile. Complete dinners would be thrown across the room. One horrifically memorable Easter, the ham had dented the refrigerator when it was hurled at a drunken velocity by her irate mother after her father made some off-color remark about where her mother had hidden the candy from the Easter bunny.

The kitchen was where the divorce had been hammered out.

In retrospect, she always thought it was strange that with all that activity going on in the kitchen, none of it involved making anything edible. Nevertheless, she’d managed to develop quite a love of food—an “unhealthy attachment” her high school gym teacher had called it. She couldn’t cook it, but she could write about it with style and verve. She knew good food when she ate it—obviously.

She smoothed her hands down the skirt of her cute cherry-red vintage-Halston wrap dress .

“While we chop the ingredients you chose for your omelets,” Mr. Yummy announced from the front of the classroom, “let’s introduce ourselves. Tell us who you are, what you do, and say what brought you here tonight.”

Holly glanced over at Marisol, who was chopping some vegetables like nobody’s business. On second thought, it might have been a bit ridiculous to make her take this class. Holly picked up  the knife and stabbed at the green bell pepper while Mark began the introductions.

“As I said before, I’m Mark Bennett. I graduated from Le Cordon Bleu in Los Angeles and completed several semesters in Paris. I owned my own restaurant for a while and now I teach.”

Holly paused midwhack with her knife to glance up at Mr. Bennett. He didn’t seem very enthusiastic about his resume. There was a note of disgust in his tone and the smile was definitely gone from his eyes.

The guys at the top left counter confessed they’d signed up for the class in the hopes of meeting women, and most of the rest of the dudes admitted that had been their motivation as well. There were several winks and suggestive looks in the area of Holly’s kitchen. Those weren’t for her. Her best friend, the former beauty queen, was rapidly chopping some peppers and God only knew what else with rapid competency, completely ignoring the guys.

The two other women in the class, obviously a couple, claimed to have enrolled as an opportunity to build their relationship. The old man to her left broke Holly’s heart when he said he was taking the class because his wife had recently died, and the young man with him was his grandson.

Marisol captivated everyone’s attention when she told them with no qualms at all that she’d been muscled into attending.

“Not muscled, it was a favor,” Holly explained to the class with a flourish of her knife. Marisol made a subtle move farther down the counter. “I’m a writer. I’m taking the class as a survival tactic. I’m lethal in the kitchen.”

Mark nodded as if he’d already made that assumption. “Careful with the knife, there, Jane the Ripper.” Holly was not as amused by his joke as the rest of the class, but she did lower the blade. “Once all your vegetables have been chopped, go ahead and crack your eggs into the bowl, then beat them with the whisk  until they’re fluffy.”

Holly glanced down at her mangled peppers, then set them aside. She cracked her eggs in the bowl and then fished out a piece of shell with her pinky. As they made their omelets, Holly did her best to follow Mark’s instructions—it was helpful that he was willing to repeat them as many times as she needed—and paid careful attention to his demonstration. Between his help and indiscriminate spying on Marisol, by the end of the class she had a mostly identifiable omelet that might or might not be claimed by the city of Denver. More significantly, it didn’t taste awful; the tannic bitterness of the pepper was nicely mellowed from cooking and there had been just enough of the sharp cheddar without it being overpowering.

“I did it.” She held her plate up to Marisol. “Don’t show me your perfect omelet. Just look at mine and tell me you’d be willing to eat it.”

Her friend peered down at Holly’s plate. “It looks edible.”

“I know, right!” Her crazy grin was a bit over the top for an omelet but, honest to God, with the exception of toast, which could still be a bit dicey, this was the first edible breakfast item she’d ever cooked.

“Very nice,” Mark admitted. He gave her a nod of approval.

“Thank you.” She knew she was beaming at him, but she couldn’t help it. “I feel like an idiot.”

Mark shrugged his broad shoulders and flashed the “hot eight” smile again. “It’s alright to feel a little smug. I’ll be honest, I thought it was touch and go there for a while. Your flipping technique is…vigorous.”

“Hey.” She smacked his bicep with the back of her hand. There was a good solid thwack.

Again with the megawatt smile. Wow, maybe an eight and a half.

“I’ll see you next week?” he asked and touched the back of her arm with the tip of his finger. It was a fleeting stroke, but she savored the tingling sensation tickling along her skin.

“Yeah, I really had fun.”

Who would have thought—fun cooking? Maybe it was the teacher. Holly watched Mark Bennett as he walked away. The material stretching across his butt showcased a Grade A rear end. Man, he was cute. More than cute actually, he was also calm and patient in the face of her apprehension. At the very least scoping out the teacher would be worth the time spent in class, even if she never made anything better than the omelet.

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