Authors: SUSAN WIGGS
In memory of my dad,
âwith deepest gratitude for all the love, the
courage, the laughter, and the wisdom of a
lifetime. He lives in the hearts of those
who loved him.
can't believe we're arguing about a water buffalo.” Annie Rush reached for her husband's shirt collar, turning it neatly down.
“Then let's quit arguing,” he said. “It's a done deal.” He sat down and shoved first one foot, then the other, into his cowboy bootsâthe ridiculously expensive ones she had given him last Christmas. She'd never regretted the purchase, though, because they looked so good on him.
“It's not a done deal. We can still cancel. The budget for the show is already stretched to the limit. And a water buffalo? It's going to be fifteen hundred pounds of stubborn.”
“C'mon, babe.” Martin stood, his blue eyes twinkling like the sun on a swimming pool. “Working with a live animal on the show will be an adventure. The viewers will love it.”
She blew out a breath in exasperation. Married couples fought about the dumbest things. Who left the cap off the toothpaste? Whether it was quicker to take the Ventura Freeway or the Golden State. The number of syllables in broccoli. The optimum thermostat setting. Why he couldn't clean his whiskers out of the sink.
And now this. The water buffalo.
“Where in my job description does it say water-buffalo wrangler?” she asked.
“The buffalo's an integral part of the show.” He gathered up his keys
and briefcase and went downstairs, boots ringing on the hardwood.
“It's a crazy misuse of the production budget,” she stated, following him. “This is a cooking show, not
The Key Ingredient,”
he countered. “And when the ingredient of the week is mozzarella, we need a buffalo.”
Annie gritted her teeth to keep from prolonging the fight. She reminded herself that underneath the fight was their marriage. Even at fifteen hundred pounds, the buffalo was a small thing. It was the big things that matteredâhis effortless way of chopping garlic and chives as he cooked for her. His dedication to the show they had created together. The steamy shower sex they'd had the night before.
“It's gonna be great,” he said. “Trust me.” Slipping one arm around her waist, he claimed a brief kiss.
Annie reached up and touched his freshly shaven cheek. The last thing she needed was a dispute with Martin. He had no sense of the oddity of his idea. He had always believed the show owed its appeal to the outlandish. She was equally convinced that the success of their show stemmed from its authenticity. That, and a talented chef whose looks and charisma held an audience spellbound for an hour each week.
“I trust,” she whispered, rising on tiptoe for another kiss. He was the star of the show, after all. He had the ear of the executive producer, and was used to getting his way. The details, he left to Annieâhis wife, his partner, his producer. It was up to her to make things happen.
With the argument still ringing through her head, she braced her hands on the sill of the window overlooking the garden of their town house. She had a million things to do today, starting with the
magazine interviewâa behind-the-scenes piece about the show.
A window washer was preparing to climb a scaffold and get to work. Martin passed by on his way to the garage, pausing to say something to the worker, who grinned and nodded. Charming Martin.
A moment later, his silver BMW roadster shot out of the parking
garage. She didn't know why he was in such a hurry. The Monday run-through was hours away.
She sighed and turned away, trying to shake off the emotional residue of the argument. Gran was fond of saying that a fight was never about the thing being fought over. The water buffalo wasn't the point. All arguments, at their core, were about power. Who had it. Who wanted it. Who would surrender. Who would prevail.
No mystery there. Annie surrendered, Martin prevailed. That was how it worked. Because she let it? Or because she was a team player? Yes, they were a team. A successful team with their own show on an emerging network. The compromises she made were good for them both. Good for their marriage.
Another thing Gran would say was imprinted on Annie's heartâremember the love. When times get hard and you start wondering why you got married in the first place, remember the love.
Fortunately for Annie, this was not hard to do. Martin was a catch. He was the kind of handsome that made women stop and stare. His aw-shucks charm wasn't confined to the show. He knew how to make her laugh. When they came up with an idea together, he would sweep her into his arms and dance her around the kitchen. When he talked about the family they'd have one day, the babies, she would melt with yearning. He was her husband, her partner, an irreplaceable element in her life's work. Okay, she thought. Okay, then. Whatever.
Annie checked the time and looked at her work e-mailâall her e-mail was workâto discover that the scissor lift they'd rented to install new on-set lighting at the studio was having mechanical problems.
Great. One more thing to worry about.
The phone rang, and the screen lit up with a picture of a cat. “Melissa,” said Annie, putting her phone on speaker. “What's up?”
“Just checking in,” said Melissa. She seemed to check in a lot, especially lately. “Did you see that e-mail about the cow?”
“Buffalo,” Annie corrected her. “And yes. Also, I have a note about a lift that's not working. And I've got CJ from
coming. So I guess I'll be in late. Like, really late. Tell everyone to sit tight until after lunch.” She paused, bit her lip. “Sorry. I'm cranky this morning. Forgot to eat breakfast.”
“Go eat something. Okay, gorgeous,” Melissa said brightly. “Gotta bounce.”
Annie turned back to her computer to double-check the meeting time with the reporter. CJ Morris was doing an in-depth piece on the showânot just its stars, Martin Harlow and Melissa Juddâbut the entire production, from its debut as a minor cable program to the hit it had become. CJ had already interviewed Martin and Melissa. She was coming over this morning to visit with Annie, the show's creator. It was an unusual slant for a magazine article; casual readers craved gossip and photos of the stars. Annie hoped to make the most of the opportunity.
While waiting for the reporter, she did what a producer didâshe used every spare minute to handle things. She studied the rental agreement for the lift to find a phone number. She and Martin had quarreled about that piece of equipment, too. The cost of the lift with the best safety rating had been much higher than the hydraulic one. Martin insisted on going with the cheaper oneâover Annie's objections. As usual, she'd surrendered and he'd prevailed. Since they'd blown the budget on the water buffalo, she had to skimp on something else. Now the hydraulic lift was malfunctioning and it was up to Annie to deal with the issue.
Enough, she told herself. She thought again of breakfast and opened the fridge. Bulgarian yogurt with maple granola? No, her empty stomach rejected the idea of yogurt. Also those French breakfast radishes that had looked so enticing at the farmers' market were past their prime. Even a piece of toast didn't appeal. Okay, so no breakfast. One thing at a time.
She went to the powder room and ran a comb through her long, dark hair, which had been flat-ironed into submission yesterday. Then she
checked her lipstick and manicure. Both cherry red, perfectly matched. The black pencil skirt, platform sandals, and flowy white top were cool and casual, a good choice in the current heat wave. She wanted to look pulled together for the interview, even though there wouldn't be a photographer today.
The buzzer sounded, and she hurried to the intercom. Yikes, the reporter was early.
“Delivery for Annie Rush,” said the voice on the other end.
Delivery? “Oh . . . sure, come on up.” She buzzed the caller in.
An enormous bouquet of lush, tropical blooms came teetering up the steps. “Please, watch your step,” Annie said, holding open the door. “Just . . . on the counter there is fine.”
Stargazer lilies and white tuberoses trumpeted their spicy scent into the room. Baby's breath added a lacy touch to the arrangement. The delivery woman set down the vase and brushed a wisp of black hair off her forehead. “Enjoy, ma'am,” she said. She was young, with tattoos and piercings in unfortunate places. The circles under her eyes hinted at a sleepless night, and a fading yellowish bruise shadowed her cheekbone. Annie tended to notice things like that.
“Everything all right?” she asked.
“Um, sure.” The girl nodded at the bouquet. “Looks like someone's really happy with you.”
Annie handed her a bottle of water from the fridge along with a twenty-dollar bill. “Take care, now,” she said.
“Will do.” The girl slipped out and hurried down the stairs.
Annie plucked the small florist's envelope from the forest of bloomsâRosita's Express Flowers. The card had a simple message:
I'm sorry. Babe, let's talk about this
Ah, Martin. The gesture was typical of himâlavish, over-the-top . . . irresistible. He'd probably called in the order on the way to work. She felt a wave of affection, and her irritation flowed away. The message was exactly
what she needed. And then she felt a troubling flicker of guilt. Sometimes she worried that she didn't believe in him enough, didn't trust the decisions he made. Could be that he was right about the water buffalo after all. It might end up being one of their most popular episodes.
The gate security buzzer sounded again, signaling CJ's arrival.
Annie opened the door and was hit by a wall of intense heat. “Come on in before you melt,” she said.
“Thanks. This weather is insane. I heard on the radio we're going to break a hundred again today. And so early in the year.”
Annie stepped aside and ushered her into the town house. She'd fussed over the housekeeping, and now she was grateful for Martin's fresh flowers, adding a touch of elegance. “Make yourself at home. Can I get you something to drink? I have a pitcher of iced tea in the fridge.”
“Oh, that sounds good. Caffeine-free? I'm off caffeine. And the tannin bothers me, too. Is it tannin-free?”
“Sorry, no.” No matter how long she lived here, Annie would never get used to the myriad dietary quirks of Southern Californians.
“Maybe just some water, then. If it's bottled. I'm early,” CJ said apologetically. “Traffic is so unpredictable, I gave myself plenty of time.”
“No problem,” Annie assured her. “My grandmother used to always say, if you can't be on time, be early.” She went to the fridge while the reporter put down her things and took a seat on the sofa.
At least Annie could impress with the water. A sponsor had sent samples of their fourteen-dollar-a-bottle mineral water, sourced from an aquifer fifteen hundred feet underground in the Andes, and bottled before the air touched it.
“What a great kitchen,” CJ remarked, looking around.
“Thanks. It's where all the delicious things happen,” Annie said, handing CJ the chilled bottle.
“I can imagine. So, your grandmother,” CJ said, studying a vintage cookbook on the coffee table. “The same one who wrote this book,
right?” She put her phone in record mode and set it on the coffee table. “Let's talk about her.”
Annie loved talking about Gran. She missed her every day, but the remembrances kept her alive in Annie's heart. “Gran published it back in the sixties. Her name was Anastasia Carnaby Rush. My grandfather called her Sugar, in honor of the family maple syrup brand, Sugar Rush.”
“Love it.” CJ paged through the book.
“It was a regional bestseller in Vermont and New England for years. It's out of print now, but I can send you a digital copy.”
“Great. Was she trained as a chef?”
“Self-taught,” Annie said. “She had a degree in English, but cooking was her greatest love.” Even now, long after her grandmother had died, Annie could picture her in the sunny farmhouse kitchen, happily turning out meals for the family every day of the year. “Gran had a special way with food,” Annie continued. “She used to say that every recipe had a key ingredient. That's the ingredient that defines the dish.”
“Got it. So that's why each episode of the show focuses on one ingredient. Was it hard to pitch the idea to the network?”
Annie chuckled. “The pitch wasn't hard. I mean, come on, Martin Harlow.” She showed off another cookbookâMartin's latest. The cover featured a photo of him looking even more delicious than the melty, golden-crusted marionberry pie he was making.
“Exactly. He's the perfect combination of Wild West cowboy and Cordon Bleu chef.” CJ beamed, making no secret of her admiration. She perused the magazines on the coffee table.
All had featured the show in the past six months. “Are these the latest articles?”
“Yes. Help yourself to anything that catches your eye.” Annie's other prized book lay nearbyâa copy of
Lord of the Flies,
a vintage clothbound volume in a sturdy slipcase, one of three copies she possessed. She hoped the reporter wouldn't ask about that.
CJ focused on other thingsâa multipage spread in
featuring Martin cooking in his signature faded jeans and butcher's apron over a snug white T-shirt, offering a glimpse of his toned and sculpted bod. His cohost, Melissa, hovered at his side, her pulled-together persona a perfect foil for his casual Ã©lan. The caption asked,
Have we found the next Jamie Oliver?
Food as entertainment. It was a direction Annie hadn't contemplated for
The Key Ingredient
. But who was she to argue with ratings success?
“He has definitely come into his own on the show,” CJ remarked. “But today's about you. You're in the limelight.”
Annie talked briefly about her backgroundâfilm school and broadcasting, with a focus on culinary artsâwhich she'd studied under a special program at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts. What she didn't mention was the sacrifice she'd made to move from the East Coast to L.A. That was part of Annie's story, not the show's story.