Join Josh's Newsletter and receive an exclusive audio book! Exclusive audio offer!

There is always a certain tartness about a Josh Lanyon story, a little wryness to go with the sweet, a little savory for balance and that keeps the characters and their situations feeling believable and human without being saccharine.

Melanie M. for Scattered Thoughts and Rogue Words
Talk about Kitchen Nightmares! TV Chef Rocky and Foodie Blogger Jesse have been pals forever, so it should have been the most natural thing in the world to kick their relationship up a notch.
Instead, it turned out to be a disaster. But Christmas is the season of love, and someone’s cooking up a sweet surprise…

(Available in the holiday print collection If Only in My Dreams)

“No,” Rocky said. “Oh hell no.”

“Merry Christmas to you too,” I said. “And for your information, this wasn’t my idea.”

“Where’s Poppy?” Rocky peered past me into the rain, looking for my grandfather, Fausto Poppa—of Poppa’s House. You’ve seen the program. Everyone’s seen the program. It’s America’s longest running cooking show. It’s been on the air longer than there’s been a Food Network.

I said tersely, “Poppy’s sick. He’s got the flu. Why else would I be here?”

Rocky drew himself up to his full height. Which is…my height, which is medium. Yes, he wears it better, although why assorted piercings and tattoos should make a guy look taller, I don’t know. What I did know was that his green eyes were level with mine—and it was very weird to be this close to him again.

Two months.

That’s how long it had been. Eight weeks since we last spoke. If spoke is the right word. We’d been speaking at the top of our lungs.

“Who knows with you, Jesse,” Rocky said. “Maybe you’re looking for fresh content for your blog. Or maybe you got some crazy idea to come by and peek in my windows to see who I’m banging this week.”

“Yeah right. Maybe I’m trying to steal your secret sauce recipe. Dream on. And I never peeked in your windows!”

“That’s right,” Rocky said. “You didn’t bother with shit like proof or evidence. How could I forget? Oh! Maybe you’re here because it finally occurred to you, you owe me an apology.”

I laughed. Loudly. The sound sailed through the pine trees and ricocheted off the surrounding mountains. Assuming there were mountains behind that ominous wall of cloud and mist. “Have you been hitting the eggnog? I’m here because if I hadn’t agreed to this, Poppy would have dragged himself out of bed and tried to drive up here. That’s the only reason I’m here.”

Here being the rain-slick deck of Rocky’s A-Frame in Big Bear. Big Bear or Big Bear Lake is a summer and ski resort located in the San Bernardino Mountains. It’s surrounded by national forest, which is not my natural habitat. But Rocky grew up here. His first real gig was prep cook in a ski lodge. He calls the cabin his “hideout.”

Warmth and the smell of woodsmoke and coffee wafted out from behind Rocky’s sturdy form. I shivered. There’s nothing like rain down the back of your neck to make you feel unloved and unwanted.

Rocky eyed me for a long, scowling moment. His curly brown hair was looking wilder than usual and he hadn’t shaved in days. Going for the whole mountain man vibe, I guess. “I don’t think this is a good idea,” he said at last.

“I think it’s a terrible idea,” I agreed. “But this is what the client wanted.”

If there really is a client.”

I gaped at him. “If there really is a client? I hope you’re kidding because otherwise you’re delusional and that might freak out the network honchos.”

I was probably overdoing it. Anyway, I could have been talking to myself. Rocky held up a hand as though to tick off a very long list. “First of all, you can’t cook your way out of a paper bag.”

That stung. “I can cook. I don’t have my own show or my own restaurant, but most people don’t. I know my way around the kitchen.”

“You always knew where the door was, yeah.”

I curled my lip. “Forget the cooking gig, you should do comedy. So do I get my gear out of my car or are you canceling? There’s no refund for your friend. That needs to be understood.”

His blunt features tightened. Even the tiny gold studs in his eyebrows seemed to bristle. “Who is this supposed friend? I want to know his name.”

“Are you so sure it’s a he?” I asked slyly.

Rocky looked startled and then alarmed, and I laughed. Rocky is out. Out on TV and out in real life, but it’s surprising how many women see “teh gay” as a challenge.

Of course my laughing irritated him all the more, which I guess was kind of what I intended. He said stubbornly, “I’m still not convinced there is any friend.”

“I admit I can’t see why anyone would want to do something nice for you,” I said. “But you do have your fans, as we both know.”

His eyes narrowed, but he didn’t bite. He continued to stand there, scowling at me and thinking whatever it was he was thinking. Rocky’s the methodical type. Not slow, but never impulsive. He can’t be rushed. He doesn’t get mad easily, but once he is mad, he pretty much stays mad forever.

I stared right back at him. My gaze flicked to his full-lipped, sensual mouth. I made myself meet his eyes again. I read emotion there, but I wasn’t sure what the emotion was. Probably wariness, distrust, suspicion. Turnabout was fair play after all.

I said, “Okay, fine. And when your date shows up and there’s no romantic dinner for two, despite the generous fee he paid, you can explain why.” I turned to go.

Rocky said, “Just a minute.”

I turned back, shoved my hands in my pockets, rocked back on my heels like it didn’t matter to me one way or the other. My heart was pounding so hard I’m surprised he couldn’t see it beneath my jacket.

“Why would you agree to do this?”

I said, “I told you. So Poppy wouldn’t have to make a two-hour drive when he’s sick.”

“He could have asked anyone. He could have asked Louisa.”

Louisa is my mother. She’s the Louisa behind all those Bella Louisa Cooks books as well as the Beverly Hills restaurant.

“First, that would be disrespectful to you to just hand it off to anyone. As I’d think you would be the first to point out, given how highly you think of yourself. Even if Poppy could find someone on Christmas Eve. Which he couldn’t. Secondly, there’s no way my mom can leave the restaurant tonight. As you well know.” Christmas Eve at Bella Louisa’s is a major event. All hands on deck. Even Poppy makes an appearance. Rocky had helped to cook his share of holiday feasts back in the day.

“Thirdly?”

I scowled. “What thirdly?”

Rocky watched me, waiting.

I drew a deep breath. “Thirdly,” I said, “maybe I wanted to do this—” he began to shake his head in what looked like repudiation and I hurried to finish, “because there’s no reason we can’t be friends, right? I mean, even if—though—the other is over. We can be friends. It’s easier on everybody if we’re friends. And friends…cook for friends.”

“Not if you’re the one cooking.” But he was grinning that big evil grin of his like a cartoon red devil. Some people found it sort of charming. I used to be one of them.

“You really are an ass, Senate,” I said.

“Apology accepted,” Rocky said graciously, and beckoned for me to go get my gear.

Which I did, trotting back down the wet stairs and sloshing across the muddy clearing that served as the cabin’s front yard. I hadn’t brought much in the way of utensils or gadgets. I didn’t have to. Even Rocky’s mountain getaway had a fully equipped kitchen.

The rain had turned to sleet. It had a sloppy, slushy feel to it. Maybe we—Rocky—were in for a white Christmas. Not that I was any expert, but they did get snow in Big Bear this time of year. I briefly considered what would happen if Rocky and I got snowed in together. If nothing else, we’d have plenty to eat.

I grabbed a bag of groceries in each arm and lugged my stuff back across the ragged yard and up the stairs. The front door was ajar, and I nudged it open with my boot and carried my supplies inside. The house was toasty after the wet cold outside.

“Hey,” I called.

There was no answer and no sign of Rocky, so I continued down the hall to the kitchen.

The cabin seemed unchanged. But then there was no reason it wouldn’t be. I’d been here a few times through the years—twice during those brief months Rocky and I had tried to make the jump from friends to lovers—but I hadn’t spent enough time to put my mark on the place. “Mark” being another term for a plate of scrambled eggs hurled against the wall. It’s that temper of mine. I take after my dad in my looks—blue eyes and fair hair—but my temper is pure Sicilian. More eruptions than Mount Etna, my dad used to say about my mom. He found it funny back then. Later, not so much.

Anyway, the cabin was the same as I remembered: rustic but comfortable. All golden knotty pine and picture windows and space. There were a few Indian print rugs and the lighting fixtures were frosted glass and pine cone art stuff. The furniture was barnwood and leather. A tourist’s idea of how to furnish a mountain cabin, not the kind of thing Rocky had grown up with. Money had been scarce in Rocky’s family. His mom had been a waitress and his father a bartender. Having the dough to afford nice things meant a lot to him.

I dropped my paper sacks on the counter and stared out the rain-starred window. It was only about three o’clock, but the stormy sky was so dark that it could have been nightfall. The towering pines swayed in the wind like tipsy sentinels after a nip or two.

I turned back to the kitchen. It was the one room in the cabin where rustic charm took a backseat to convenience and stainless steel functionality. I took off my jacket and began to unpack the groceries, running over the menu in my mind. There was no dish that was too challenging on its own, but put them all together and… Well, organization was everything in a kitchen.

I dumped out the coffee that, knowing Rocky, had probably been stewing all day, and made a fresh pot.

I was putting the bottle of champagne in the freezer when Rocky said from behind me, “What are you planning on cooking?”

I couldn’t quite hide my jump, but I managed to say calmly, “It’s a surprise.”

“Well, always with you. But what are you hoping to cook?”

“Steamed mussels in white wine and garlic.”

His green eyes lit up. They almost glowed.

“Someone knows what you like,” I said.