IT ALL started with bananas. I can’t believe it, but it’s true. I hate the things with a passion, and I won’t deny it. But what I can’t fathom is that my life would turn on that hatred. See, I usually keep the foods I don’t like a secret. When I dine with friends, I tend to keep quiet and eat the things I don’t care for so I don’t hurt anyone’s feelings. I have become quite adept at cutting my food into small pieces and swallowing them whole so I don’t have to taste it. But there are some things that I just cannot stand, like bananas—not even the smell of them.

Clare, my assistant, leaned over my shoulder. “Are you writing about them again? I know you hate them, but more on bananas? Just give it a rest, Luke.” She smacked my arm.

“But it’s the third anniversary of the blog, and I need to write something about the post that started it all.” I knew what it was that my readers wanted to hear, and as long as I kept the post funny and a little irreverent, they would be pleased.

“Come on. You know I love you, but I still can’t figure out how you can write a blog about the food you don’t like and talk about restaurants that make a mess of everything, and become a huge internet sensation.” She read from behind me. “You know, I think you should include pictures of all the banana stuff that people have sent you over the years. Show them that you got the gifts.”

I liked that. “Go take the pictures for me, please. I’m going to finish this post, and we can include the pictures.” I flashed her a smile, but Clare glared back. “Is there something else? You are my assistant, after all. Are you going to stand there and watch me write or actually assist me?”

She rolled her eyes. The truth was, Clare was a gem, and I was lucky to have her to help me. “I’ll be off to do that.” She set three slips next to my computer on the desk. “You can return these calls when you’re done.” She hurried away, closing the door to the back room of my home, which I used as an office.

I finished the written portion of the entry and then hit Save before letting my attention wander. I didn’t want anything to happen to what I’d already written. Few things were more irritating than having to rewrite something.

Writing wasn’t a skill that came naturally to me. It never had. The only reason I even started the blog was because I was so tired of hiding behind a mask of civility regarding the foods I don’t like, and the blog gave me an outlet. What I didn’t expect was to find so many people who either thought I was kidding or felt the exact same way.

I returned the first two calls, and was surprised to see the third was from an old friend from college. I hadn’t heard from him in three or four years at least, but he and I had always had such a good time, so I called back right away.

“Justin,” I said with delight. “How is the big television mogul?”

He snorted. “I’m just an assistant to the assistant of the mogul.” Damn, it was good to hear his voice. “Beth asks about you all the time, and hopefully you’ll be able to pay us a visit before the baby comes.”

I swallowed. “Holy hell, you’re going to be a father?” Now that was worth making a trip all the way across the country, even if the thought nearly made me ill. Airline travel always upset my stomach. I took enough medication just to get on the plane, and I always had to hope I didn’t get sick anyway. If I was lucky, I just fell asleep. “I’ll have to put it on my calendar. Maybe I can stay a few weeks to make it worth my while, but I really want to see you and Beth.”

“Well…,” Justin drew out. “I’m hoping I can entice you out here for a little longer than that. I have a new job working for the Cooking Network, and I know you’re a fan because I read your blog. It’s so hilarious, and I’ve learned so much about you, including why you were so thin all through college. Did you eat a danged thing the entire four years?” He laughed. “Anyway, we’re mounting the next season of Cooking Masters, and we need a new guest judge. We bring someone new in each season to enliven the show and shake things up. This year we’d like you to be that judge. The network will fly you out and provide you a place to stay. We’ll film fourteen episodes in about four weeks, once taping actually starts. There will be two weeks of preparation and rehearsal once the contracts are signed.”

I was speechless, which was a situation I rarely found myself in. “You want me to judge a cooking competition?”

“Yes. You’ll be fabulous, and you have a face and, if I might say so, a body for television. The ladies will all be drooling over your wavy blond hair, huge blue eyes, and your flawless complexion whenever you’re on camera. They are going to absolutely love you, and I know you are going to have plenty of fans. And once you get used to being in front of the camera, I think you’re going to be a natural.”

I was more than a little shocked. “You’re serious?”

“Yes. Absolutely. We would love to have you as part of our team for the season. Please think about it and let me know, but don’t take too long. I need to have your answer in two days, and if you agree to come, then I’ll make all the travel arrangements. Our producer has access to a private jet, so I believe I can arrange for you to come to Los Angeles in real style.” He sounded so excited.

“Justin, I’m not qualified for something like that. I’m not a chef, and I don’t have real cooking skills. I’m just a guy who snarks about the food he doesn’t like.” I really didn’t understand where this was coming from, and I didn’t want to make a fool of myself week after week on television for everyone to see. But it was hard to turn down an opportunity like that.

“You know what you like, and you have a great way of expressing yourself. Besides, this is TV—you don’t need to be a great chef to know good food. What works is personality, and you definitely have that. So stop worrying, think about it, and let me know right away. If you agree to do this, I need to get everything in motion.”

I cleared my throat. “How many people have you already asked?”

Justin laughed. “I knew that question was coming. Believe it or not, you are the producers’ first choice. They love your blog and think you’ll make a great judge for the season.”

It would be great to see Justin again, and as long as I got there in one piece, I’d be on the West Coast for a longer period of time, so I could get settled and relax between bouts of motion sickness. I really did hate to travel. Even in the car, I had to watch out the windows, no sleeping or reading, nothing to pass the time except listening to music or an audiobook, or otherwise lunch made a reappearance all over my shoes.

“I’ll think about it, I promise, and I’ll call you tomorrow.”

“Great. Talk to you then,” Justin said, then ended the call.

I looked up, counting to ten in my head. Clare burst in just as I finished counting. She was worse than the gossip in an old movie with a party line to listen in on.

“What cooking competition?”

“Did anyone ever tell you it’s not nice to listen in?” I glared at her, but as usual, she ignored it. Clare was completely unashamed about her eavesdropping. She said it was because I was such a yutz that if she didn’t keep an eye on me, I’d probably forget to eat and waste away to nothing.

“Yeah, you, at least once a week.” She rolled her eyes. “Now spill.”

What the hell? She knew most of it already. “That was Justin Marsh. He and I went to college together, and apparently the producers of Cooking Masters want me as their guest judge for the upcoming season.”

She was speechless. Hell, I thought she might have fainted and forgotten to fall down. Clare was never silent, and she certainly wasn’t still. Unfortunately, the quiet only lasted for about two seconds before she let out a scream that nearly broke my eardrums.

“Oh. My. God. You have got to do this. It’s perfect for you.” She hurried around to stand next to where I was sitting.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m about to push you out of the chair so I can write your acceptance letter and then get it sent off to this Justin Marsh before you have a chance to do something really stupid—like say no.” She tilted her eyebrows as she scowled at me. “I’ve known you for two years, and you turn down chance after chance because you don’t like to travel and get motion sick.” Again with the major eye-rolling. “Just get over it, drug yourself up, and go. It will be a blast, and if it weren’t for Maggie and Phillip, I’d finagle a way to go with you.” Her expression softened, and she went back around the desk and sat in the comfy chair that she’d pretty much claimed as hers. “Why aren’t you excited about this?”

“I am in a way. But what if I’m a total wet fish once they turn on the camera?”

Clare shook her head. “You’re a little shy, I get that. But you have never been a wet fish. As soon as you pull yourself out of that hugely thick shell of yours, you shine. So just let it go, stop worrying, and do the show. Your followers love you, the site is doing amazingly well, and this is only going to stoke more interest, which is even better.”

“I know,” I whispered, even as my stomach did a little unsettled dance.

Clare leaned forward. “What’s really the issue here? Does this have anything to do with Meyer Thibodeau?” The way she said that name and the glazed look in her eyes was almost more than I could stand. Thankfully it only lasted long enough for me to start grinding my teeth. “It does. I still can’t believe the two of you used to be together.”

“I told you that in confidence, and you had better not be spreading it around.” It was my turn to fix her with the scowl of death. “But yeah, I guess.”

Three years ago, about the same time that I’d started the blog, Meyer had been an executive chef in Philadelphia. He and I had been dating for nearly two years at that point. I knew it was a disaster waiting to happen, because Meyer hadn’t been willing to step out of the closet. The warning signs were there—I should have seen them. I really should have. Honestly, I can’t even blame Meyer, because it was my own damn fault. I fell in love with him.

Meyer had been doing a regular spot on one of the local television channels, and he’d gotten a call from the Cooking Network to come out so they could talk to him. Since then, he’d been all over the network and had become a television celebrity as well as a restaurateur, with customers packing every table in his restaurants each night.

“Did he shatter your heart into little pieces?” Clare asked.

“No. I can’t say that he did. I broke my own heart.” I sighed. “It would be so easy to blame Meyer, but he had been up front with me about what he was willing to do and how far he was willing to go. It sucked, but I was the one who kept hoping he would change and realize I was there and would be there when he allowed himself to be true to who he was.” I had been a fool of the highest order. “Then he got a call that was too good to pass up, and that was that. He was gone in a few weeks and went on to much bigger things and people than me.” I tried not to admit it, but I thought about him sometimes. I’d be flipping channels and catch one of the shows he was hosting, and I couldn’t help stopping just to watch him. Of course I didn’t tell Clare that. She didn’t have much time for “what could have been.” That wasn’t her thing, and I wished I could be more like her sometimes.

“That is the biggest bunch of bullshit I think I have ever heard in my life. A stand-up kind of guy would have broken it off. But I’m willing to bet that Meyer kept coming back to you even when you backed away.” She sighed, and I couldn’t deny it. “I know the type. I’ve dated plenty of losers in my life. The good ones are in hiding somewhere, or up in their apartments, blogging, and are gay.”

I nodded. She pretty much had a handle on what had happened, all right. I had told myself that I wasn’t going to be angry and bitter, but I hadn’t meant to shift all the blame to me and internalize it. “Thanks,” I said softly. Meyer was half a country away, and I could hate the guy if I wanted. Heck, if I ever saw him again, maybe a swift knee in his closeted nuts would be appropriate. Who knows?

“I don’t get it. Are you afraid of stepping on his toes or something?” She shook her head once again.

“No. It’s just that the whole television thing is his world, not mine.” And I’d learned that it was best if I stayed in my own world. I could play there, even expand the boundaries, but making the jump to television wasn’t something I thought I was willing to do. Even my thoughts were becoming convoluted, and I needed to figure things out for myself.

“So what? You have a presence and a gift all your own. There’s no reason to be worried about him. It’s been three years, and he made his choice. You need to make yours, and I think this is the right thing for you. Get out of your shell and wake up, have some fun. And if you end up shaking up his little world, then enjoy it, smile, and know you’re evening the score. Besides, you’re going to be a judge, which means you’ll get to eat a whole lot of good food and tell people what you think about it. That’s right up your alley. Be honest and have a good time. How long do they want you?”

“I’ll probably be out there six to eight weeks while they prepare and film the season.”

“Then go. It isn’t like they are going to want you to fly out tomorrow. Tell your friend that you’ll do it, and then you can figure out all the other details. I’ll be here to watch over things and make sure that Rosco is fed and gets some loving each and every day.”

My cat—I had completely forgotten about him. He was my buddy and my companion. “I told Justin I’d think about it, and I will.” That was the end of the story as far as I was concerned, at least for now. “Did you get those pictures?”

“Sure did.” She smiled and handed me a memory stick.

I added the pictures of the stained glass window depicting a banana, and the banana squeaky toys and games that had been sent, and got the post uploaded. Within minutes there were a few comments from loyal followers, and I answered them before stepping away and letting the community take over. It was cool when the posts generated their own life and the comments went in their own direction. I tried not to interfere unless comments became rude, political, or just offensive. It was best to let things take their course.

“Is that it for the day?”

“I hope so. I already have tomorrow’s post set and ready to go, and other than today, we’re two weeks ahead, so it’s all good unless something really unusual happens.” I yawned and was already switching my attention over to work I had for clients.

Professionally, I was a graphic artist, and I had a small number of clients that I worked with. Each of the businesses had been very successful but didn’t have the need for a full-time graphic artist on staff, so I fulfilled that role for them.

“Cool.” She opened the door to leave. “I’ll be at my apartment”—which was right downstairs—“if you need anything.”

She breezed out, and Rosco poked his gray tiger head around the corner. He blinked, then pranced up to the desk and jumped on my lap before curling into a ball and starting to purr. I stroked his silky head for a few minutes and then got back to work, trying not to think about Justin’s offer.

After a couple of hours, I was nearly caught up, and my mind decided now would be a good time to take a little trip to the internet. I told myself that I was going to check out past episodes of Cooking Masters. I had watched almost all the seasons, but seeing a few favorites would maybe help me figure out what I was going to do. But as soon as I clicked on the channel’s website, there was Meyer, smiling out at me and the rest of the world. God, he was still gorgeous, with his mane of black hair that cascaded down to his shoulders and those dark eyes that called to me.

I knew this was a bad idea and life would be so much easier if I could be angry with the man. Hell, if I thought about it, maybe I was, and what I’d told Clare was just lip service. I mean, he’d moved to California, for Christ’s sake. What was the big deal about coming out there? He could be himself, and I could work from anywhere. So why in the hell hadn’t he asked me to join him? Maybe I wasn’t good enough for him.

I closed the lid on the laptop, glad now to have banished his face. Screw him and his fear and ridiculousness. I couldn’t believe that I was willing to stay away from a real opportunity just so I wouldn’t accidentally run into him. That had to be the stupidest thing I had ever thought.

Rosco’s motor ran loud, so while he purred and slept on my legs, I called Justin back.

“You’re going to turn me down,” Justin said.

“What? No. I’ll do it.” I needed to get the words out so I didn’t change my mind. “Will you email me all the details of what I have to do and where I’ll need to be? Oh, and I’m going to need to bring Rosco.” He traveled fairly well, and at least I could have a little bit of home along with me. “By the way, are they going to pay me for this?” I probably should have asked earlier.

“Yeah. It’s a hundred thousand for the entire season. So this will be worth your while. It’s just a flat appearance fee. No residuals or things like that.”

I wasn’t going to complain about that kind of money for a couple months’ work.

“Let me send you the schedule and all the details. I’ll have the producers’ office send over a contract. Get your lawyer to look it over, sign it, and get it back to us so we can finalize everything and get you out. Things move a little fast around here, and I’m thrilled that we’re going to get to see you.” I thought he was going to hang up, but he paused. “By the way, who is Rosco?”

“My cat. He’ll be coming with me.” I stroked Rosco’s head, and he purred louder, lifting his head to blink at me. “That’s right, you’re going to come with me.”

Justin chuckled. “Okay. That shouldn’t be a problem. I can arrange for that too. Talk to you soon.” And just like that, Justin was gone.

My email indicated that I had a message, and then another. I read over the emails, and everything looked pretty good to me. I forwarded them to Vince, my lawyer, who messaged that everything was good. So I signaled that I was ready to move forward. Maybe this could be fun after all.