by Cheri Ritz
When Elle Bissett agrees to go on a televised celebrity cooking competition, she’s expecting to get some television face time, not go head-to-head with Ashley Castle, an acting rival from her youth. If she could only keep her focus on the recipes instead of getting distracted by Ashley’s piercing blue eyes, she should have no problem earning the title of Celebrity Cook Off Champion.
For Ashley Castle, appearing on the cooking competition show is a surefire way for her to earn the homemaker cred she desperately needs—at least according to her agent. The fanbase of her reality show, Queen of the Castle, has been waning steadily since her divorce. The only problem is, she doesn’t know how to cook. It doesn’t help that Elle Bissett keeps dazzling her with something more than those mad kitchen skills she keeps showing off. If she could just find a way to focus, she might stand a chance.
What’s a few swapped recipes between former child stars?
FROM THE AUTHOR
"I love baking and cooking competition shows—the creativity, the pressure, the delicious looking results! Add some celebrities from favorite television shows of the aughts, and we’re really cooking with gas! That was my starting point for An Acquired Taste. I imagined a lot of those young stars ran in the same social circles back in the day, but I wondered if those relationships—and possibly rivalries—carried forward into adulthood. What if years later two of those celebrities and former rivals made a push to jump-start their stalled careers by going on a cooking competition show and ended up facing off again? Could an old rival actually become…An Acquired Taste?"
Silvia M. - …A nice, light summer read, I enjoyed this.
Cathy W. - This is the first time I've read a book by Cheri Ritz, and I wasn't disappointed. …This book was cute, with some funny moments. I found once started, it was difficult to put down, 'Just one more chapter' comes to mind.
Kaye C. - This is a fun light read that is perfect for a summer day.
Nutmeg - …The cooking in the book made me itch to start prepping, creating, cooking and eating. The visuals you get in your mind’s eyes while Elle brought Ashley on a culinary learning journey were such a plus that you can literally smell and taste the food and of them falling in love. I thoroughly enjoyed the read as the book has the same satisfying end akin to a good meal that leaves you feeling upbeat, wholesome and all around happy.
Jasmine S. - I love queer reality TV novels, and this is a great addition to the list!
Bonnie S. - …Ms Ritz has brought together two women that you will find yourself rooting for. Great characters and great supporting cast has made this a very entertaining read. Very, very good.
Elle Bissett sat on the wooden stool and slid the headphones around her neck before adjusting the mic in front of her. She’d done so many voice-over gigs in the past dozen years, the motions had all become second nature. She hitched her foot onto the bottom rung of the stool and waited for Steve, the show’s director, to join her in the studio. Why she had to come all the way down here and read for the part she’d played for five successful seasons was beyond her. Yes, Dog Tails had been off the air for nearly ten years now, but with a reboot all hyped and ready for production she’d expected a script to be delivered to her home. She didn’t think she would need to log any in-studio time until they were actually ready to record.
“I’m sure it’s just a formality,” her agent, Marigold Luxe, had told her on the phone earlier that week. “They asked that you come in for a face-to-face.”
So there she sat, trying to remain calm and cool, waiting for some dude she hadn’t seen in years to get this formality over with, when really she had a million other things she needed to be doing. She’d spent all morning going to get her hair done and picking out the perfect outfit for this face-to-face. Of course, in the end she’d gone with her standard: dark jeans, graphic T-shirt, and black blazer. Plus she’d promised her daughter she would take her swimsuit shopping since school had finished for the year. Now that Luci’s freshman year was behind her she’d declared she was ready to level up her wardrobe for the summer, which probably translated to multiple bikinis and high-end label short shorts. Teenagers, right? But Elle knew it wouldn’t be long before her daughter was off to college, leaving her home alone with no other purpose than her career. A career that had definitely seen better days.
Thank God the recording sessions of Dog Tails would be starting up again. Elle needed the distraction of steady work. She hadn’t had a recurring voice-over gig in nearly a year. She had the bit parts Marigold booked to keep her busy, but if the bit parts dried up, then what? Commercials? Her mother, who’d managed her career until Marigold took over, insisted she avoid them, so she had. She needed to do something to get her career up and running again. This Dog Tails reboot couldn’t have come at a better time.
“Elle! Hello. Thanks for coming in.” Steve reached for a handshake, but Elle had been expecting a hug. The result was a very awkward dance composed of clashed greetings in which she ended up holding his hand in both of hers while he pecked her on the cheek. He cleared his throat before introducing the man who entered the studio with him. “You know Gavin James, right? He’s stepping in as our casting director this time around.”
Casting director? Hadn’t the show been cast ten years ago?
“Oh, you’re the guy I need to kiss up to then,” Elle said in her high-pitched Fifi LaPooch voice. “Are we adding to the cast for the reboot?”
The men exchanged an uneasy glance.
“Yeah, Elle, that’s kind of why we asked you to come in.” Steve shoved his hands in his pockets and rocked back on his heels. “We’re going to go in a different direction with Fifi this time around.”
Elle’s knees shook and she edged back onto the wooden stool. What was Steve saying? “Do you want me to change up her voice? Maybe it’s gotten a little deeper with her age. Maybe the years haven’t been kind to Fifi. Is she a chain smoker? Who’s to say? I could do something like that.”
“That’s clever, Elle. Funny stuff. But it’s funny you should mention age.” Steve’s gaze darted around the room, looking anywhere besides at Elle. Her stomach twisted. This couldn’t be a good sign. “Gavin, do you want to tell her?”
Elle stood up and balled her fists on her hips. These two jackasses needed to get it together and spit it out fast. “Just tell me, Gavin. What the hell is going on?”
Gavin opened and shut his mouth twice without producing any words. Like a trouty-mouthed fish. He looked at Steve when he finally answered. “We’ve decided to go with a younger voice for Fifi in the reboot.”
“A…younger voice. Okay, I got you.” Elle blew out a breath. That ol’ Hollywood go-to: younger. Sure she was zipping through her early thirties, but Elle knew she still looked good. She kept up a strict skin-care regimen, wore sunblock, worked out, and drank plenty of water. She’d always had a youthful glow about her. Hell, she’d auditioned to play high school students well into her twenties. On top of it all, Fifi LaPooch was A FUCKING CARTOON CHARACTER. They could draw her as young or old as they wanted to.
“Yes.” Steve seemed to find his voice finally. He extended his arm toward the studio door, indicating that the meeting was over. The decision had been made. “But listen, if anything else pops up, I’m sure Gavin will keep you in mind.”
“Yes. Um, please do.” Elle’s mind was sputtering responses as she reluctantly shuffled toward the exit. Was he really showing her out? Just like that? What bullshit. “I mean, I put a shit ton of money in your in your wallet as the voice of Fifi. I’m sure there’s something I could bring to the table.” She bit the inside of her cheek to stop herself from saying anything else. To keep from letting her anger bubble over in front of these men.
Everyone came to LA to chase their big dreams, but once you were inside the community it could feel very small. Everyone knew everyone. At least everyone who was anyone. Bridge burning was ill advised if you wanted to continue to work. How many times had her mother said that to her? It was especially true if you were holding on to the tatters of your career for dear life.
“Sure, sure.” Steve’s hand on her shoulder could have been a friendly gesture, but Elle was pretty sure he was shoving her out of the studio. “We’ll call you if there’s anything we think you could—”
He shut the door on her before he even finished the sentence.
Elle didn’t look at a soul as she left the building. She needn’t have worried—everyone was just as busy avoiding her. It was just so damn humiliating. They all knew she’d been replaced by someone younger, and most likely, cheaper. She’d walked into the building thinking this was a sure thing for her and now…ugh.
As she stepped outside into the sunlight, she tried to recall what Marigold had said when she told her about the meeting. Just a formality. Right. They’d formally kicked her off the show. Had Marigold actually said “formality,” or had she done that thing where she’d said half a sentence then waved her hand in the air and let you fill in the rest? Seriously, if Marigold wasn’t her best friend from childhood and good agents weren’t so hard to find…
Still, Elle had been counting on this gig and the potential it had to get her name out into the world. Now she needed to find something else. Something that would get her out there again and jump-start her career.
She stabbed at her phone screen, unsurprised when Marigold didn’t pick up. Mari would know to give Elle a little time to cool off after the Dog Tails news. Regardless, there was business to take care of, so she left her agent a message. “Dinner. My house. Tonight.”
After bikini shopping with her daughter and a quick stop at the market, Elle settled herself in her favorite room in the house: her kitchen. She pulled up the show-tunes playlist on her phone and got to work. While the bacon cooked in the Dutch oven she chopped the carrots, minced the garlic, and sliced the baby portabella mushrooms By the time she was preparing the chicken to go in the pot, Luci had come Fosse-stepping into the kitchen in time with the “Overture” from Chicago.
Her beautiful, enthusiastic, surfer-girl daughter. Her mere presence brightened the room, even with Elle’s lingering foul mood hanging in the air. Her long, poker-straight brown hair was drawn back in a loose ponytail, and big, expressive blue eyes flashed with laughter as she shook her jazz hands in time with the music. Her cut-off denim shorts and cropped T-shirt showed off the muscle developing on her skinny frame from the hours of swimming and surfing she’d put in over the past year. Newly sixteen, Luci managed to walk the line with charm and grace between sweet little girl and wannabe grown-up sarcastic teen, and Elle couldn’t be prouder.
“Do I smell bacon?” Luci danced over to the stovetop. “Mom! Mom, are you making coq au vin?”
“Yep. Aunt Mari is coming for dinner.” She swooshed Luci out of her way and added the veggies to the pot.
“Oh! Are we celebrating?”
“Possibly holding a wake,” Elle mumbled.
“She didn’t get the reboot.” Marigold appeared in the doorway. Her curly red hair bounced around her full face and her bright red lips hitched into an apologetic smirk.
Elle added the last of the ingredients into the Dutch oven before turning to face her best friend. “That’s right. I just got the plain old regular boot. Right to the ass.”
Marigold swooped through the kitchen, pausing only to kiss Luci on the top of the head on her way to the cabinet where Elle kept the wineglasses. She poured two glasses of red without missing a beat. “I’m sorry about that, honey. I thought maybe if you went in there and they saw your face it would snap him out of this cheap-ass decision.” She leaned over Elle’s shoulder to try to get a peek at dinner.
“Well, you were wrong.” Elle swatted her away and clapped the lid on the pot. “They did not give one damn about my face. Hand me my wine and I’ll think about forgiving you.”
“You made coq au vin?”
“With those cute little pearl onions I like?”
“Yep.” Elle sipped her wine. “Even though you sent me into the lion’s den without so much as a heads-up.”
Marigold hitched her hip up on one of the stools at the kitchen island. “Okay, are you done with that yet? It’s the business. You know how it goes.”
Elle took her time sliding the pot into the oven. It wasn’t about going for a part that didn’t work out. Marigold was right—she’d been there before. Many times. It wasn’t even about being left out of the reboot. The truth was she just plain needed a job. Any job. Well, almost any job.
She brought the bottle of cabernet as she settled in across the counter from her best friend. “Yeah, I’m done.” She topped up their glasses.
Luci looked up from her phone long enough to steal a sip of Marigold’s wine. Elle shot her a warning glance which was met with an innocent raise of the eyebrows before her daughter turned her attention back to her phone. It was hard to believe in three years her little girl would be going off to college. Luci had big plans to either take the business world by storm someday or become a champion surfer. Either way, college came first. But once her baby flew the nest Elle would be all alone for the first time since…well, forever.
After a two-year battle with cancer, her own mother had passed away almost six months earlier, and the place still felt her absence. Hell, it probably always would. The three of them had lived there together in the home in which Elle grew up. Elle’s father had died suddenly of a heart attack when she was only two, leaving her mother to raise her daughter alone, just like Elle was doing with Luci now. She wasn’t ready to think about what she would do once Luci left home. She’d definitely need something else on which to focus. Some raison d’être. She was only thirty-three. She still had a lot of acting-career life in her, no matter what those Dog Tails dudes thought. A new direction was just the thing her career needed, and landing a solid acting gig seemed like a stepping stone to that path.
“I’m not really mad about Dog Tails.” Elle sighed. “At least I’m not mad at you. That Steve, though, what an asshole.”
Marigold made sympathetic sounds through a mouthful of wine.
“But, Mari,” Elle continued, “you gotta find me something. There’s gotta be a part out there that I’m perfect for. Just not—”
“I know, I know.” Marigold held up a halting palm. “Not commercial work.”
Luci snorted but kept her gaze trained on her phone.
“I don’t need your opinion, Lu. I’ve been in the business. I know what I like and what will destroy my soul. Or at the very least make Grandma spin in her grave.” Elle turned her attention to her best friend. “I need to get my face back out there. Give me something, please.”
Marigold tapped one denim-blue-tipped fingernail against the side of her glass, silent for a moment as if grappling with a thought. “Okay, Elle, I might have something that would get your face on television, but it’s kind of a reality type of thing.”
“Reality television?” Elle groaned. Would she have to sing or eat gross things? Some type of celebrity death-match scenario? “Reality television is so ten years ago. I mean, who even does these shows anymore?”
“Mom.” Luci looked up long enough to roll her eyes. “People who want to get their faces out there, obvs. Like you, DUH.”
“The kid is right.” Marigold shrugged. “Look, I need to check on a few things before I can set up a read for you, but if it works out it could be a good way to get you back in the game.”
“Reality television?” Elle repeated before draining her glass.
“Don’t say it like that.” Marigold frowned. “It’s not like that. This could be just the kind of thing you need. You’ll be on TV with recurring potential. But, Eleanor, I swear if I pull these strings and get you on this, you’d better play nice or I’ll have nothing to send you on but commercials.”
A recurring part on television and all she had to do was promise to play nice? Absofuckinglutely. “I can do that. I’m in.”