It’s EAST IN PARADISE by Tif Marcelo! Now that our favorite summer guilty pleasure is nearly over (#TeamDean4Evr [Ed. note: a portion of the XOXOAD team feels that Dean has revealed dangerous f*ckboi tendencies]), we’re in serious need of a romance fix. In Tif’s new book, a business owner has to fake a romance with her brooding landlord on a reality show… and finds out that what goes on in front of the cameras just might be what she needs behind them. Keep on reading for an exclusive excerpt!
“What did you do to that man?” Victoria swishes the ice in her water so it crackles against the glass. She’s peeking out of the kitchen window, eyeing Mitchell on a ladder as he clears the rain gutters of leaves.
“Absolutely nothing.” I pull her by her back pockets— and hopefully her mind from the gutter—and she stumbles toward me. I give her the look that reminds her she’s wearing a mic and everything she says is being streamed and can be used against her in the court of the public. “Don’t you know it’s rude to ogle?”
As usual, she doesn’t listen. “It’s not ogling if he’s right in front of me. What am I to do? Look away?”
I’ve discussed repeatedly with Vic that while I want to be as honest as possible through the live stream, private and intimate thoughts shouldn’t be expressed while the cameras are here. I received enough flak from my family and friends after my sleepover with Mitchell through texts like:
My dad: Why did that boy have your keys?
My undergrad BFF: Why in the hell are you in a Berkeley shirt? That is just sacrilegious.
My cousin Drew: Hey. You don’t get to start dating without the dude getting an okay from me. It’s payback for the shit you gave me with Camille.
No, I can’t have another situation when words and actions can be taken totally out of context. Especially not with Mitchell Dunford, who in a weird twist of plot switched from spar partner to accidental drinking buddy to our mainstay handyman. He’s been here every day this week—since the night we spent together—making himself available for any kind of work.
And frankly, I don’t have the heart to tell him no, because not only is he saving me some money, but I find comfort having an extra person around, since my sister’s travel schedule is sporadic. Sure, I wanted my retreat in the midst of peace and quiet, but admittedly, I’m still getting used to being away from the bustle of the city.
I’m just grateful he’s not only agreed to let the live stream occur, but consented to be in it as well. I’m getting tired of hearing myself talk.
But I have to watch myself; I need to moderate my body language and my instinct to flirt with this man with whom I shared the hottest kiss of my life. My focus is Paraiso, not my nonexistent love life. I refuse to turn this live stream into reality TV—the sole reason I agreed to a live stream was to make the retreat a success.
I can never re-create the kiss because of our business relationship anyway, so what’s the point?
But it doesn’t mean I can’t relive the moment in my head, because I do . . . at night, during the day, while I’m painting our accent wall in the living room. But that’s where it stays—in my head.
If only I can get my sister to keep her thoughts to herself. The doorbell rings, and I shove our work journal into Victoria’s hands, its pages thick with cut-up pictures, articles, and brainstormed ideas. “How about we try not to scare our new chef away?”
“I hope we like each other.” Worry punctuates Vic’s words as she puts her glass down on the island, the only structure left standing in the kitchen. The cabinets were demo’d and the appliances were removed yesterday, and we’re back to a blank canvas.
The rebuilding is the fun part, and if things go well, we should have a kitchen up by the Fourth of July, well before our target opening of August 12. I just hope this chef won’t be scared away by the mess.
I nod, wholeheartedly agreeing. Hiring staff is much like finding the right property. It’s a process of prioritizing wants, needs, and nonnegotiables, and a whole hell of a lot of luck. There’s no time to dillydally on making the final decision—managers must rely on their instincts. Just as I took a risk taking on Paraiso despite its steep price tag, I hired this chef without meeting her in person first. With her impeccable résumé, her availability, and her stellar Skype interview, I knew I had to commit before some other establishment swept her up first.
Hoping my instincts didn’t fail me and after taking a breath, I open the front door to Chef Ellie Reyes. My appraisal is systematic: she’s petite, shorter than me, probably five feet tall. Pixie cut with long bangs swept to the side. Her appearance is neat, with bright stained-glass- style sleeve tattoos up her right arm. Jeans and flats. The small square bump of the mic transmitter on her hip tells me Joey’s already spoken with her. Her brown eyes are bright, and she greets me with a warm smile.
My body relaxes at her easy disposition. I offer her my hand. “Hi, I’m Bryn Aquino.”
“Ellie Reyes.” Her voice is smooth, and her handshake is confident despite the camera off to the side that’s trained on us.
I welcome her in, and my sister gives Ellie a hug. We start chatting right away, and the vibe is informal and professional as we take her on a tour. The topics range from her flight from Dallas, what her family is like, to which other chefs she knows in the area. Ellie answers candidly; she’s an open book and straightforward.
I like her already.
I end the tour in the kitchen and spin the chaos to her advantage. “Unfortunately, the smaller house out back, where we’ll eventually live, won’t be done for another month, but this gives you the opportunity to put in some of your touches in the kitchen. Do you have any suggestions about equipment?”
Ellie taps a finger against her chin. “Um, ideally we should have enough burners so every person has two, so we’ll need twelve burners. And maybe three ovens so two students can share one?”
“Should the chef have her own?”
“Nah. I can share with a student. That’ll get me to move around the kitchen.” Ellie cocks her head to the side. “Thinking on it, though, if only one stove can fit, we can always use countertop electric burners. It won’t be as efficient as gas, but students can work on the kitchen island with me. Or we can take it outside and cook on tables.”
“Ah, great idea.” It’s official. Chef Ellie is a good fit.
She’s practical and unpretentious.
I reach for the coffeepot from the island, and without thinking about it I gaze out the window. And seeing the sweating man right outside, rolling a hose around his arm, I’m pulled into a quiet reverie.
Mitchell’s wearing his standard outfit—cargo shorts and a white T-shirt; baseball cap and hiking shoes. But to my eyes, he may as well be naked, onstage doing a Magic Mike show. Every move, bend, pull, and stretch could be timed to music. Thanks to my brief stint as a bio major with a human anatomy class under my belt, I can easily count out every muscle. Name them, even.
Biceps brachii. Trapezius. Pectoralis. Gastrocnemius. “Ate.”
I respond with with a dreamy, “What?”
“Who’s that?” Ellie joins my sister and me at the window. Vic snorts. “That . . . is our landlord.”
“Anywaaay.” I draw out the word and turn my body so my back is to the window. “Ellie, would you mind taking a look at our marketing plan so it jibes with your vision for the classes?”
“I’ll look at everything you want to throw at me. This culinary retreat is a great concept. As soon as I got wind of it, I knew I wanted to be a part of it.” Ellie takes a sip from her cup, then coughs and gestures toward the window. “Wow. He’s . . . stripping.”
Vic’s voice lowers to a whisper. “Yum.”
That’s it. I can’t ignore the pull. I allow myself another look, and rake my teeth over my bottom lip. Mitchell’s slipping on a new T-shirt he grabbed from his duffel, and I spy the last bit of abs as they disappear under cotton fabric. Darn.
Though I don’t remember him holding me through the night, I’ve filled my sleepless nights thinking of it. Did his hand rest at my waist, or did he sling his arm around me in protectiveness? Were we spooning, or was I nuzzled into his chest, in the crook of his neck? “He says he’s here because he can’t stand to see us paying for stuff he can do easily,” I say.
“You know that’s just an excuse to get close to you.” “Pfft.” The sound I make is exaggerated, but my tummy feels like it’s floating, like at any given moment it’s going to drop to my feet.
And yet, what if Vic’s right, and Mitchell’s here at Paraiso to get to know me? There’s no missing the electricity between us, the awkwardness laced with something more, something born of our kiss.
EAST IN PARADISE is now available wherever eBooks are sold.