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Hot & Sweet by Sean Ashcroft (1)

Chapter One

Being summoned to the producer’s office always made Wyatt’s stomach knot up, and today was no exception. He trudged through the maze of corridors that wound their way around the production studio, eyes watering under the uncovered fluorescent lights, his feet heavy with fear of what lay ahead.

His head was spinning with thoughts of all the possible ways this meeting could go, and none of them were good.

They were cancelling his show. By the time he rapped his knuckles against the chipping paint of the door to Donna’s office, his eyes level with the gold-and-black Producer plaque fixed to it, he knew that as surely as he knew the back of his own hand.

They were cancelling his show, and there wasn’t going to be another contract, and he’d given up his job years ago because the TV work had taken up all his time. Even one episode a week and a few publicity appearances was enough to suck up all his time. Prep work and coordinating with suppliers and directors and Donna and everyone else who was involved took up hours and hours of his time. He couldn’t have held down a job in a bakery on top of all of it, and he couldn’t afford to own one, either.

He’d have to go back home to Kansas.

The thought made him shudder.

“Come in,” Donna called from the other side of the door.

Wyatt pushed the door open, slipping inside and then pausing as he took in the sight of a tall, thin man with a long black ponytail, cheekbones that could cut steel, and ice-blue eyes standing on his side of the desk.

Kai Jones. So-called spice master, and even Wyatt had to roll his eyes at that title.

Not that king of sugar was much better, he supposed. If there was anything The Culinary Channel loved, it was dumb names.

“Finally,” Donna said. “Take a seat.”

Wyatt glanced at Kai, whose arms were folded across his chest and his lips pursed to a thin line. “I’ll stand,” he responded.

Donna rolled her eyes, but leaned back in her chair, one leg crossed elegantly over the other. Wyatt liked Donna, personally—she wasn’t cruel, she was relatively easy to work with, and she was good at her job.

Her job just also happened to involve having direct control over his job, so she made him nervous.

Wyatt could feel Kai’s gaze on him, sizing him up like a man about to buy a horse.

“I think you both know why you’re here,” she said.

“Renewal season,” Wyatt responded. He knew why he was here, he just wasn’t sure why Kai was here at the same time.

“Right. And both of you had significant ratings drops this year.”

Wyatt opened his mouth to provide an excuse—any excuse, any chance to save himself—but Donna held a hand up to stop him.

“I don’t wanna hear it. Thing is, and this is where you’re lucky—I like both of you, so you can stop looking like you’ve been dragged into the principal’s office.”

A tiny bit of the tension Wyatt was carrying in his shoulders eased off. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Kai’s arms drop to his sides.

“I know ratings don’t just drop in a vacuum. I know there’re a million reasons why, and I’m here to fix them, not lay all the blame at your doorsteps.”

Wyatt glanced over at Kai nervously, and found the other man doing exactly the same. He suddenly had an even worse feeling about this.

“So you two are getting a seven-part mini series. Together.”

“What?” Wyatt said, at the exact moment Kai did as well.

At least they could agree on that.

They’d been competing for the same audience demographic for a long time. Their shows were similar in tone, if not in content, and they were both done in the same studio kitchen, so people obviously compared them.

Not to mention competing for promo spots and show budget and filming times. It wasn’t as though Wyatt ever really had to deal with Kai, but he knew about him, and he was sure Kai felt about the same way.

In the network’s eyes, they were approximately the same product.

Which, Wyatt realized a moment later, was the point. Combining their audience share and focusing it on one show. That meant more money from advertisers and sponsors.

That didn’t mean he liked it.

“We’re calling it Hot and Sweet,” Donna said, apparently not about to acknowledge their joint objection.

Wyatt saw Kai wrinkling his nose. They could agree on that, too—it was another in a long line of terrible names.

“It scored well with focus groups,” Donna said. “Filming starts next week. Any questions?”

“I am not working with him,” Kai said, pointing a long finger at Wyatt.

As much as he also shared that sentiment, Wyatt was insulted. He was a delight to work with. Every guest he’d ever had on his show said so.

Kai rarely had guests, and they tended to walk away muttering under their breath about him. Wyatt knew, because his filming time was directly after Kai’s. Or had been.

His show had been cancelled. That was just starting to sink in now. They were cancelling it, and they were giving him a new one, but not by himself. He wasn’t enough.

The thought tasted bitter in the back of his throat.

“You sure? Because we can give Wyatt the slot by himself. He scores a lot better with women twenty-eight to fifty-five.”

Wyatt smiled at that. Of course he did. Women loved him.

Men loved him too, but he doubted the network was worried too much about the men-Wyatt-had-slept-with demographic. It wasn’t really big enough to make a dent in the ratings.

“Then why not cancel his show and let his audience come to me?” Wyatt asked.

Kai glared daggers at him. Wyatt didn’t even need to look to feel his pale blue eyes boring into his soul.

“He has his own audience that we’re hoping to capture by combining the two. But let me be clear: if either of you walk away from this, we’ll just go on with whoever stays. This is the only offer you’re getting. Take it or leave it.”

Wyatt paused. If it was this or nothing, then this was the better option. “Fine,” he said.

Kai kept glaring at him for a few moments, and then turned to Donna. “Fine,” he echoed, more a growl than a word.

He wasn’t happy. Wyatt wasn’t happy.

But they both still had jobs, and that was better than not having a job.

Probably.

“Then you’ve got until next Thursday to figure out how you’re running the first show. You both have control over whatever dishes you make, but… try to coordinate. The success or failure of this show will mean getting a new one next season, or not.”

“Play nice, you mean?” Kai said. He didn’t sound like he liked that idea.

“Right,” Donna confirmed. “You too, Wyatt. Kai’s got the reputation for a mean streak, but I know you’ve got it in you to screw this up, too. Don’t. Take my advice. Play nice for the next seven weeks, make the show a success, and then you can both go your separate ways.”

Wyatt glanced over at Kai, then at Donna. “Okay,” he said, defeated. This was his only choice, after all. Kai wasn’t going to throw in the towel and just let him have the slot. “Yeah, fine. I’ll play nice.”

Until Kai gives me reason not to, he didn’t add aloud.

“Good. I knew you two could see eye to eye for long enough to salvage both of your careers. You’ll get information packages by email no later than Friday. I assume you can see yourselves out?”

Wyatt held the door for Kai on the way out in a kind of weaponized act of chivalry.

Kai said nothing to him, so he wasn’t inclined to strike up a conversation. He could behave for six episodes if Kai could.

At least it meant he wasn’t going home with his tail between his legs just yet.

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