by Melinda Wells

Chapter 1
Through my earpiece, I heard the director’s voice: “Take your place, Della. Thirty seconds to air…”

Emerging from the Better Living Channel’s backstage shadows, and faking   confidence I didn’t feel, I strode onto the TV kitchen set to polite applause. So far, so good; I didn’t stumble, as I had during the last rehearsal. Now I just had to get through the next forty-six minutes—a TV hour minus commercials—without making a fool of myself.

I stood in my designated spot behind the food preparation counter, and tried not to imagine that the two big television cameras facing me were actually a firing squad in disguise. As instructed by the director, I sent a cheerful smile at the thirty people in the studio audience and raised my right hand in a “hello there” wave.

Uh oh

My hand froze in mid-gesture when I saw Mimi Bond sitting in the middle of the first row. Impossible to miss, she was in her late fifties, and had platinum hair piled high in a meringue-like swirl on top of her head. The seams of her purple satin dress strained against her ample curves, making her look somewhat like an eggplant.

After the fit Mimi had thrown at me less than an hour ago, I thought she had gone home, or headed for the nearest bar. No such luck.

Tonight would be the biggest challenge I’d ever faced. If I failed, I’d lose everything I’d worked for, and the presence of this angry woman threatened to make me so nervous that I could ruin what would likely be my only chance. I forced myself to continue the wave and the smile past Mimi, as I replayed our bizarre scene in my head.

I had been alone in the tiny dressing room behind the set, trying to keep my hands steady enough to put on TV makeup, when she burst in without knocking. Reeking of alcohol, she’d shouted, “You ruined my life!”

Although I’d never met her, I knew this was Mimi Bond. Until recently, she’d been the Better Living Channel’s Cooking Diva. The rumor was that she’d been fired for putting too many 100 proof liquids into the food she made on camera. I had been hired to replace her.

“You must be sleeping with him,” she screeched.

That accusation surprised me more than her sudden appearance because there hadn’t been a man in my life since my husband died two years ago.

Genuinely puzzled, I asked,  “Who?”

“Don’t try to deny it.  Mickey Jordan is who. Why else would he give you my TV show?”

I saw a hint of wildness in her large and slightly protruding brown eyes. Even though I was more than ten years younger, and in pretty good shape, this woman was scary. I hoped that if I stayed calm and spoke in a gentle tone, it would pacify her. “I’ve only seen Mickey Jordan four times,” I said, “and his wife was always with him.”

She wasn’t pacified.

“Well, you must have slept with somebody to get my job—that’s how I did it. When I find out which s.o.b. is taking care of you, I’ll make him pay.”

She’d grabbed the leopard print makeup bag with the initials M.B. that lay on the end of the table and stomped out of the room, slamming the door behind her.

The seconds were ticking down toward broadcast time. I told myself firmly: Forget Mimi Bond.  If the public likes this show, I’ll be able to keep paying the rent on my cooking school space in Santa Monica. I needed this additional source of income because I’m a better cook than businesswoman, and I’ve strayed into the danger zone of debt. Don’t think about that now.

A two-woman rooting section was here tonight to support me. One was sitting in the audience in the chairs set up between the two big cameras in the Better Living Channel’s low-tech, no-amenities cable TV production facility. That was Iva Jordan, a relatively new friend. I’d met her about a year ago, when she enrolled in my cooking school. Iva is the much younger third or fourth wife of Mickey Jordan, owner of the network—the man Mimi had accused me of sleeping with. A glance at Iva didn’t give me much encouragement; she looked as anxious as I felt. Beneath her cap of pale gold hair, cut in a pixie-style, her face was tight with tension, and she was chewing her bottom lip. It was Iva who had talked her husband into hiring me for television. If this show failed, she would only be embarrassed in her social circle—I would lose my entire business.

My other friend was Liddy Marshall. With her twin sons in college, for fun she worked as an extra in movies, so she was used to being on sets. Standing a few feet behind Camera Two, she was smiling at me like a proud parent and giving the “thumbs up” sign. An attractive honey blonde with big green eyes and a smile so warmhearted it was contagious, Liddy had been Miss Nebraska twenty-four years ago. She’d come to Hollywood to be a movie star, but she’d switched goals when she fell in love with a sweet Beverly Hills dentist who told great jokes and she traded the life of an actress for a happy marriage. Liddy had been my best friend for more than two decades.

In my ear: “Five seconds to air, Della… Four…three…”

Pre-recorded theme music was piped into the studio. It was almost surreal: I have theme music. Under the heat of the powerful TV lights, I shivered with anticipation.

Camera One’s red light came on, signaling that my face was now appearing on thousands of TV screens. I hoped viewers weren’t reaching for remotes to switch channels.

“Hi,” I said. “I’m Della Carmichael. Welcome to In the Kitchen with Della. Tonight, I’m going to make a main dish, a veggie side, and a really fabulous dessert, and all three won’t take any longer to fix than the hour we’ll be spending together. First up, because it has to chill in the refrigerator after we put it together, is my own special chocolate mousse. A woman who took my cooking course nicknamed it ‘Killer Mousse’ because she said the taste was ‘to die for.’ Don’t worry if you can’t write down the instructions while you’re watching. Just go to my web site: You’ll find all the recipes there.”

As I explained what ingredients I’d be using, Mimi Bond stared at me with the intensity of a vulture waiting for something to die. Much as I tried to ignore her, she succeeded in rattling me. The stainless steel mixing bowl I was holding slipped from my fingers and clattered to the studio’s concrete floor.