The Beast Gets His Cowgirl in the Show Me State.

Chapter 1

“And… Roll!”

The red taping light came on, and Madeline flashed a smile that showcased both deep dimples in her cheeks. It was part of what had made her famous. Those dimples.

That, and her mossy green eyes.

Well, and her classic features, which she got from her mother.

Her childhood in the UK was a long time ago and felt far away as she stood in the kitchen studio in the middle of Hollywood with a giant NFL football player in front of her. She couldn’t remember his name. Jarvis? Jarnell? Something with a J. No, wait, the J was last week. Or the week before.

Bollocks, she should at least remember the guy’s name.

“Khalil.” A quiet voice came in her earpiece. Cheryl, bless her sweet heart. Madeline had no idea what she’d do without her best friend who happened to hail from Australia.

Making a mental note to thank her later, she looked up at the giant beside her. “So now, Khalil, you know what we’re doing next, right?”

She pulled her cheeks in tighter to really make her dimples jump. She was an expert at it. It was necessary to distract from the fact that, while she was a world-famous chef, with five best-selling cookbooks out, and an even better selling children’s cookbook, and two cooking shows, she didn’t, in fact, have the slightest idea of how to cook.

She could barely boil water.

She was forever grateful for Cheryl.

Few people could resist her dimples, and Khalil wasn’t one of them. He gave her a killer smile, not anything that helped him be successful on the field in the NFL, but it probably was a huge boon to him off the field. Maybe if they’d been sitting at a bar together, that smile would’ve made her own grow real.

But they weren’t at a bar, they were in front of the cameras on her cooking show, and she had to be on her game.

“I think it’s gotta be time to eat.” Khalil clapped his teeth together, not the first time he’d done it during taping, and Madeline had almost grown used to it. She didn’t even blink that time. She’d met all kinds on her show, honestly, but this was the first teeth clacker.

“Not quite. A good meal takes time and patience.” Her British accent made her words ring with authority. Or at least that’s what people told her when they watched her show. She hoped so. Her accent was another one of those buffers, like her smile, her dimples, and her facial features that she put out there to take people’s attention off the one thing that could make her entire kingdom of cards come crashing down.

“Take the tomatoes and pour them over the top of the chicken in the slow cooker.” Cheryl’s voice came softly in her earpiece.

Madeline’s hand reached out for the bowl with the red things in them.

“No! Not the red peppers. The tomatoes. Next bowl over.”

Cheryl always had her back. Thankfully. She didn’t know why it was so hard for her to tell vegetables apart, although she did know why she’d never been able to learn how to cook.

Well, she didn’t actually know. It had something to do with her artist brain and the fact that she couldn’t concentrate for more than three seconds at a time. That made her good at seeing the next business opportunity and always staying on top of trends, but it made it really hard for her to learn anything that took more than a glance or that – even worse – actually had steps to it. It was a miracle, and a testament to her mother’s determination, that she could even read.

“We’re going to put these tomatoes with green chilis over the top of the chicken in the slow cooker. Would you like to do the honors, Khalil?” She added batting eyes to her flashing dimples.

Khalil held out his hand and took the bowl. “Like this?” He held the bowl over the chicken in the slow cooker, waiting to pour until she gave the okay.

“Yes. Just like that,” Cheryl’s voice spoke into her earbud.

“Yes. Just like that,” Madeline echoed.

She watched as the big man carefully poured the tomatoes over the chicken, never getting over the fact that she had her own cooking show and had no bloody clue what to do next.

“The bacon! The bacon in the oven! You better get that out, or it’s going to burn.”

“The bacon!” she exclaimed, startling Khalil, who dumped the last half of the tomatoes out in a blob rather than sprinkling them over the chicken like he’d been doing.

Madeline didn’t apologize. That was part of the appeal of her show. It looked so spontaneous, and she seemed so surprised when the next step needed to happen. That’s because she truly was surprised. But her audience just loved her quirkiness, and her cooking show had shot to number one, easily beating all the other cooking shows on TV.

“Would you like to get the bacon out?” Madeline asked, a little breathlessly, because it wouldn’t do for the stuff to burn. It had been a question, but moot, since she was already handing the oven mitts to Khalil and not giving him a choice.

That was another problem. She was afraid of the oven. It was hot, obviously, and she never failed to scorch her eyeballs when she opened the door, no matter how hard she concentrated. So far, her eyebrows had escaped mostly unscathed, although she had needed an eyebrow pencil to fill her left one in for about four months last summer after Cheryl hadn’t noticed she’d closed the door while broiling steak. That was the last time she’d touched an oven.

Less dangerously, she had no clue how to set the timer. Which was why she depended on Cheryl to let her know when things were done.

“Make sure he’s careful with the grease,” Cheryl said in her earbud.

“Grease is hot. Keep it in the pot,” Madeline said.

Khalil’s eyes lifted to hers, a bit of humor in them, before he continued to bend over, both lips sucked in and biting down hard. Madeline would almost laugh, because he looked like this was his first time getting anything out of the oven, except she knew she would look the exact same way, only worse, because just like the big football player—was he a linebacker? A defensive back? She had no clue and couldn’t care less. She certainly didn’t follow American football. It was way too smash-mouth and violent for her – give her a good game of polo any day – and she had never gotten used to it, even if she had been in the country for over a decade.

But she could relate—she would have fear on her face too.

How she’d managed to do a cooking show without opening the oven even one single time in the last six months was a feat that should have earned her an actual acting award. But if that were ever to happen, people would have to know that she’d been faking it these last two years.

Khalil was able to get the bacon out of the oven and set it on the counter.

“Hand him the tongs, and tell him to put the bacon over the top of the chicken in the cooker.”

Madeline did as Cheryl commanded, adding her own spin of quirk to it that had the audience laughing and Khalil giving her that smile which had several ladies in the small live audience throwing phone numbers at security.

While she was doing that, Cheryl continued, “Now explain to the audience that you’re cooking the bacon, the chicken, and the tomatoes together for six hours because it will add flavor to the meat.”

Madeline fluttered her eyelashes. “Normally, people don’t cook their bacon with their chicken, because they like it to be crispy. They put it on at the end. But we want all those yummy, delicious, salty-flavored good tastes out of the bacon and into our chicken. That’s why we put it in before we cook the chicken.”

That was another thing she was good at, totally making things up. Cheryl could give her the bare bones, and she could make it into something outrageous and outlandish. Again, her audience considered her quirky and loved every second of it. That’s what made her cookbooks successful. Cheryl came up with the recipes and the directions, of course, and Madeline added the flare and dash that made it unique.

“Think the bacon would just be good if we ate it now,” Khalil said.

“Me too. Let’s save two pieces back.” Madeline didn’t bother with the tongs. She just grabbed two pieces off the tray. “Oh, these are hot.” She tossed them back and forth between her hands.

“They just came out of the oven,” Khalil said.

Madeline managed to not have a retort for that. She honestly didn’t expect any football player that cooked with her to add much to the conversation about food other than eating it. Not that she subscribed to the stereotype of dumb jocks necessarily, but Cheryl was in charge of booking them, and she wouldn’t book someone who was going to be able to figure out that Madeline wasn’t what the entire world believed she was.

She tossed the bacon around until she felt it was cool enough to put in her mouth.

“Oh yeah, this is good stuff. Here.” She handed the other piece to Khalil, who set the tongs down and took the bacon, putting the whole thing in his mouth at once before picking up the tongs again.

“Handy. To have a mouth big enough that it can hold an entire piece of bacon.”

Khalil grinned at her. “It makes everything better.”

It sure did.

Cheryl’s voice came through her earbud. “Have him put the lid on and turn it on low and tell everyone that it needs to cook for six hours.” There was relief in her tone. Every single show they taped, they ran the risk of their scheme being exposed.

“Grab the lid and put those babies to bed. In six short hours, you’ll have a meal your mum will be proud of.”

Khalil was a sweet guy, and, like most of the football players she had on her show, when she mentioned his mum, his smile got huge. He looked in the camera, waved, and mouthed a “Hi, Mom.”

She just loved it when they did that. So adorable.

“Now it’s time for you to get the chicken out of the warmer and put some on two plates for you guys.”

She had Khalil do that, relief making her a little giddy. Giddier than usual anyway. The folks at home were used to it and expected it from her show.

Brits were supposed to have a stiff upper lip and be maybe a little stuffy, but while she had the accent, she totally missed the personality. It was all because of her dad, who had been half Italian, half French and could never resist a good time. Which was probably the reason he only stayed with her mum long enough to conceive a child and not long enough to raise it. Madeline had never even met him.

She only knew him through her mum’s stories, which always seemed sad at the end, like her mother would have gone with him if she hadn’t been tied down with a baby to raise.

Maybe that gave her daddy issues. Maybe that’s why she sought the limelight and what had started out as a YouTube sensation with Cheryl sitting on the floor behind the counter telling her what to do while Madeline stood and flashed a grin while putting together whatever recipe Cheryl would come up with.

Their quirky popularity had eventually landed them a contract and a ride to Hollywood.

She and Khalil both took a bite of the chicken on their plates, declared it good, and smiled at each other.

She mentioned the special guest in a hook for the next show, then Stella, the director, called, “That’s a wrap.”

Another one in the books and still not outed.

“Thanks for being such a great sport, Khalil. And for coming on the show,” Madeline said, holding out her hand. Khalil switched his fork to his left hand and grabbed her right.

“This stuff is actually pretty good. It didn’t even seem that hard to make. I think I could do it. Can I take the rest of this home and maybe that stuff in the crockpot, too?”

She often sent the leftovers home with guests or stagehands. Whoever wanted it. Whatever was left went to homeless shelters. “I’ll make sure that you get all that we have, and I’ll have the staff get you a printed and autographed recipe.”

“Thanks,” he said, his fist out.

She bumped his fist, and they grinned at each other.

“I thought this would be boring, but you’re kinda cute. What’re you doing Friday night?”

“She’s busy,” Stella said as she walked out and put her arm around Madeline. “And she’s leaving now. She and I have to talk about the new show that’s in development and just had the schedule moved up on it.”

Madeline’s heart stalled and seemed to hang suspended in her chest for long moments as her stomach gesticulated in ways that had nothing to do with the food that was in it.

She swallowed, and her voice came out harsher than what she’d expected. “They moved the schedule up? By how much?”

“They want to start filming in two weeks.”

Unconsciously, Madeline’s hand went to her middle, and her mouth hung open. What was she going to do?

Thankfully, Cheryl came stepping down from the overhead room from which she always watched. It gave her a better view and helped her to see exactly what Madeline needed at all times.

But her mother had been ill, and after they taped the next and last show of the season, she was headed back to Australia to spend two months with her. She’d already put the trip off once and had been very clear about the fact that she did not want to do it again.

“I’m not sure that’s going to work,” Madeline said, trying to project confidence into her voice and British upper-crust manner. It was all she had, because she had no excuse not to start filming in two weeks. Just because Cheryl wasn’t going to be there, no one would think that she would turn it down.

“I’m afraid we don’t have a choice. The decision was made three days ago, and they have already put a ton of advertising money into it. They assumed it would be okay with you, since originally, you had committed to working with a local LA charity for the next two months. We just flip-flop those dates. I’ve already taken care of it for you.”

“You did a great job, honey,” Cheryl said, gliding in and giving her a hug. “What’s wrong?” Her brows furrowed in concern as she looked between Madeline and Stella. Cheryl knew her better than anyone and had obviously picked up on her internal panic.

“Maybe there was something bad in that bacon.” Stella shook her head. “I can’t believe you guys just took two pieces of bacon and ate them. Right in front of the camera. Your shows are just crazy.”

Madeline pulled her lips back, but she knew that the expression on her face couldn’t even begin to be termed a smile. She felt like her entire torso was bubbling like the inside of a volcano.

“Madeline?” Cheryl asked.

By now, Madeline no longer had her breathing under control, and she was panting like a dog on the sidewalk in the middle of summer. At least her tongue wasn’t hanging out. That she knew of. She almost put a hand up to check. She felt like she was floating and physically out of touch with everything that was going on around her.

“They want to move Cooking in the Country up. They want to start filming in two weeks. They’ve already started advertising it.” She felt like she was saying each line breathlessly and fatalistically. It was like nails in her coffin. There was no way she could do this without Cheryl. No way.

But as much as she wanted to beg her friend, drop to her knees right now and plead with her friend, she couldn’t. Cheryl had been putting off seeing her mother for a while. And Madeline could not live with herself if her mother died before Cheryl got to see her one last time. She couldn’t take that away from her friend. Not even to save their cooking empire.

Cheryl immediately grasped the implications, as Madeline knew she would, and her blue eyes clouded and narrowed in concern while compassion filled her face.

“Maybe I could put off my trip?” she said softly and slowly, hesitantly, like she was afraid that Madeline would say yes, please do.

But Madeline couldn’t be that selfish. She wanted to be, and it was on the tip of her tongue to be, but she couldn’t ask her friend to give up visiting her cancer-ridden mother. She straightened her back, even though she knew she wouldn’t be fooling Cheryl, but she could put on a good front.

“No. Don’t you change a thing. You will be on a plane three days from now, and you will be seeing your mum not long after that. I won’t have it any other way.”

“Cheryl is always around to hold your hand, but it looks like you’re going to have to start doing some things on your own.” Stella tapped a few things on her iPad and then tucked it under her arm. “I’ll send you the details as soon as I have them. I believe Chandler Hudson has his brother in Missouri talked into allowing us to use his place. He lives on a real farm and actually works it, but also happens to have a world-class kitchen because his hobby is cooking. We scored big time with that, and this show is going to be a smashing success. You’ll just have to adjust a few plans.” Stella raised her eyebrows and pressed her lips together. She was used to dealing with diva moments, although typically not from Madeline.

Madeline was far more likely to be off dreaming up a new idea or goofing off in the break room or hanging out with any kids that were brought to the set that day than she was to be having a diva moment.

But, no doubt, right now, make no mistake, she was definitely having a major diva moment. Only she had to pretend she wasn’t, or at least she had to keep the real reason for the diva surfacing under wraps.

Stella walked away, leaving Cheryl and Madeline alone in the corner.

“That really threw a spanner in the works.” Madeline tried not to look too awful. She was not going to guilt Cheryl into staying.

“I really can cancel my trip if it will help you.”

She would. The Empire was theirs, not just Madeline’s, and Madeline didn’t forget it for one moment. They split everything equally, even though Madeline was the face.

Cheryl had never tried to take center stage. First of all, Cheryl freely admitted she didn’t have the looks to be in front of the camera. Which was sad, since the person with the talent should be rewarded with the contract, but they’d known from the start things would never be that way.

Cheryl had been fine with it. She was self-conscious about her looks and hated to be photographed, let alone videoed. She was also quite humble, perfectly content to let Madeline be the face of everything, happy to be able to spend all of her time creating recipes the entire world could love and that Madeline could put her quirky personality into and earn them both a comfortable paycheck.

“No. Maybe I can practice some of these recipes…enough to get me through.” She tilted her head and bit her lip. “Could you make them simple, please? Like, really simple?”

Cheryl nodded, her face scrunched up, as though trying to remember what recipes she had planned for the show. “I don’t think I did anything too hard. Although, I did have some breads in there, because it’s a country theme, and of course, you have biscuits and homemade bread and rolls and…” Her voice trailed off, probably because her words had caused horror to well up hot and cold alternatively in Madeline’s chest, and she was struggling to keep breathing.

“I’ll take the bread out. No bread. We’ll do carb-free meals. That’s a way around the bread. It’ll be trendy.”

Madeline tried to breathe. A deep, slow breath, hold it, then let it out slow and easy, blowing, and again a slow breath. She could do this. She would not be a whinger.

Except…no. There was no way she was going to cook bread or make bread or bake bread or whatever a person did with bread. No way.

If Cheryl took the bread out and just had her, oh, pour cereal, she could do the show.

If they worked on her cooking abilities…and she practiced…maybe she would actually learn to cook in the next two weeks.

Ha. Doubtful. Since she hadn’t learned in the last two years, it probably wasn’t going to happen in the next two weeks. Even if she applied all of the brain cells she possessed to mastering life in the kitchen.

“Do you think you could work with me for a night or two before you leave? Maybe I can get the bread thing figured out anyway?” She managed to get those words out, although they sounded strangled, like someone had grabbed her throat. It did kind of feel like someone had a hold of her throat. Because she knew that it didn’t matter how much Cheryl worked with her; she was never going to be able to bake bread or anything of the sort. They’d been trying for years to get her to be better than what she was—able to boil water and maybe dump pasta in it. Nothing more.

“You know I will. I’ll cancel my flight.”

“No!” Madeline held her hand up. “I will not allow you to do that. If you miss this time with your mother, I will never forgive myself. Whatever you can do before you go, that’s what we’ll do. And,” she lifted her shoulder, forcing her lips to turn up, “if everything falls down around us, it will be embarrassing for a little bit, but it will be fine. We have enough money stashed away to live comfortably, and our cookbooks sell. We’ll write more.”

“We can. Are you sure?” Cheryl bit her lip, clearly more concerned Madeline was sure about Madeline than about the loss of money.

Madeline nodded her head decisively.

“Okay then. You spend the next couple of days with me, because we’re going to try to bluff our way through this. If that fails, then we’ll go down together.”

They exchanged determined looks while Madeline put her arm around Cheryl and hugged her. “Thanks, mate.”