The F Word
When a holiday romance, falling for your boss, and a reality TV show aren’t enough of a challenge—just add a pandemic!
Personal assistant Jen Parker is eager to start her new job on North Carolina’s Outer Banks, supporting Noah “The Casanova Cook” Ryder, a temperamental chef who is judging a blockbuster television cooking show. But Jen, a widow, has a secret mission at the beach—a personal, emotional goal she must accomplish by Christmas Eve.
Noah is famous for seducing a starlet every new season. But with Home Cook America filming during a coronavirus quarantine, the Restaurant Romeo is off his game. The stress of lockdown—not to mention his own long-held secret—has Noah struggling to launch his make-it-or-break-it newest restaurant. And that’s before his longtime business partner turns into his worst frenemy (or is that just a plain enemy?)
Soon, Jen and Noah’s budding attraction is tested by vegan Thanksgiving, the world’s ugliest charm bracelet, and a possessed elevator. Every passing day—and night—ups the ante on their secret pasts. But if this culinary couple can’t stand the heat, there’s no way out of their COVID-locked-down kitchen!
If you fell hard for the feel-good rom-coms of Emily Henry, Christina Lauren, and Tessa Bailey, then grab a seat, because The F Word is the perfect romantic comedy escape for you.
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Deep in the weeds in the middle of the dinner rush, I had no idea I was about to be a hero.
“Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go!” I shouted to Rebecca. She was my best saucier, when she hadn’t just broken up with her boyfriend. Unfortunately, tonight was a Saturday, so she was in relationship hell. I didn’t have time to wait around for their regularly scheduled Monday reconciliation. “That sorrel beurre manqué should have been up five minutes ago!”
She snapped out of it enough to start whisking the sauce. I crossed the kitchen in ten long strides, reining myself in by the dessert station. The new pastry chef cringed before I had a chance to open my mouth. I hadn’t bothered to learn his name. He wasn’t going to last the weekend.
Sure enough, he was cutting cinnamon butter into the glaze for the quince tartin. “Cardamom!” I shouted, reaching across the marble countertop to shove the spice under his nose. “A fucking Girl Scout could use cinnamon!”
The kid started to cry.
“Heathcliff!” I shouted for my sous-chef, who materialized in his usual circle of calm. “Fire ’em all, and let HR sort ’em out.”
“Take a break, Noah.” Heathcliff’s voice was perfectly even. I’d already fired the entire staff twice that week. He knew it never stuck.
But that so-called pastry chef had to go.
Before I could launch into a tirade about how my taking a break wouldn’t earn Wind Rose a goddamn Michelin star, my phone rang. My personal phone. The one I kept in the breast pocket of my chef’s coat, with the ringer volume set to stun.
I only gave that number to people who mattered. I always answered my personal phone, even for ex-girlfriends who’d been out of touch for months.
I trounced into my office and slammed the door behind me. Immediately, the noise level of the kitchen chaos dropped to a runway at SeaTac. I barely had to shout as I answered the call, lapsing into an endearment by habit. “Hey, babe.”
It was a damn good thing I still had Summer Marks’s number in my contacts. I sure as hell wouldn’t have recognized the clogged voice that sobbed my name. We hadn’t talked for eight or nine months, not since the fifth season of Home Cook America wrapped.
I glanced at the over-size institutional clock on the wall. It was 7:42 here in Seattle. Oahu was three hours behind. Summer’s shooting Lost Flight in Hawaii was prime entertainment news—important enough that even I’d picked it up.
“What’s wrong, sweetheart?”
“I’m so embarrassed,” she sobbed. “I couldn’t think of anyone else to call.” I’d seen her Oscar-winning performance in Love on the Front Line. She’d trained hard to cry on command. But this was different. This was real.
I plugged my free ear with burn-calloused fingers, catching my breath so I could hear better. “Calm down, babe. Tell me what happened.”
“Jean-Pierre wanted me to drop another ten pounds.”
I grimaced. Summer didn’t have extra weight to lose. But the industry rags already said Lost Flight put her on the short list for another gold statuette. And the Academy loved actors who suffered for their roles.
“Come to Seattle when you’re done,” I said. “I’ll cook whatever you want. Shooting wraps in what? Ten weeks?”
“That’s just it!” she wailed. “Oh my God. I shouldn’t have called. We aren’t even dating anymore. This is mortifying!”
“Sarah.” I used her real name, the one she let me say in bed. “Whatever’s going on, we’ll take care of it. We’ll make it all work out.”
“Shooting’s on hold. I need surgery,” she said.
My stomach dropped. “What’s wrong?”
An apocalyptic crash came from the kitchen. A quick glance showed that the pastry chef—definitely no reason to learn his name now—had knocked over a cooling rack, wiping out bread service for the rest of the night. Heathcliff shot me a resigned look, and I drew my index finger across my throat.
Fighting a twist of nausea that had nothing to do with the soon-to-be-jobless asshole ruining my restaurant’s reputation, I returned to what was really important. “Sweetheart, tell me. What type of surgery?”
She sniffed long and loud before she quavered, “Hemorrhoids.”
“What?” I couldn’t help shouting.
“My system got so out of whack with the crash dieting, and the extra workouts, and the dehydration regimen to make my triceps pop in the scene where I shift the airplane door off my dead twins—”
“The doctor says it can’t wait. Production’s going on hold for a week. The paparazzi are already sniffing around. This film is going to be big, really big. When they find out I’m in Queen’s Medical Center, having an operation on my ass—”
“They won’t find out,” I said.
“The paps are already here—”
“We’ll give them a different story.”
“This isn’t like my drinking too much malbec at HCA’s wrap party. We can’t buy them off this time. All it will take is one camera catching the sign for the gastroenterology department, and—”
“We’ll tell them I’m having the surgery.”
“We’ll say my hemorrhoids are acting up. I’m such a bastard no one else would be there for me, but my astronomically kind and sympathetic ex-girlfriend stepped up. My only option was to meet her in Hawaii to go under the knife.”
It took her a moment to respond. “You’d do that? For me?”
“Let me text Kayleigh. She should be able to get me on a flight tonight.”
“Noah… I don’t know what to say.”
“Say you’ll try to get a good night’s sleep.”
“You’re my hero,” she said. “Remind me again why we thought it was a good idea to break up.”
“Because you were going to Prague for six months to shoot Tricolor Tristesse. And because I have the attention span of a Jack Russell terrier on speed.”
“I’ve always heard Jack Russells are loyal.”
“When we aren’t trying to tear apart the rug you’re standing on.”
A new round of shouts rose from the kitchen. Antonio was stripping off his apron by the salad line, unloading a torrent of Spanish on the kid who was supposed to be doing vegetable prep.
“I have to go,” I said. “Kayleigh’ll send you details as soon as everything’s set up.”
“Thank you,” Summer said, so simply, so sweetly that for just a second, I also wondered why we’d broken up. But then I remembered I was crap at long-term relationships. Six months was my outer limit. Seven if she’d won an international beauty pageant.
I shot a quick text to my assistant asking her to set up my flight to Hawaii, knowing she’d be in the middle of wrestling her three brats into bed. And then I headed back into battle, hollering at Rebecca across the length of the kitchen. “Thai basil for the halibut beurre blanc! Why is that so hard to remember? Here. I’ll write it down. Print it. In big block letters.”
I loved my fucking life.