Watch enough episodes of any cooking competition show, and you begin to wonder about what might be happening behind the scenes. In her new romance novel, Battle Royal, Lucy Parker imagines one particularly tantalizing possibility: enemies to lovers. The book’s hero and heroine met as judge and contestant on a somewhat more cutthroat version of Bake Off. He’s stern, grumpy, traditionalist in his pastry technique; she’s a chaos agent who loves glitter, color, and whimsy in her work. They’re oil and water—until they meet again, four years later, when she returns to the show as a guest judge as they begin competing for the very high-profile job of designing and completing a royal wedding cake. And it turns out neither one is entirely the caricature to which they’ve reduced each other, and they might actually get along very well indeed.
But first, in this passage, she accidentally hits him in the face with a big, glittering chunk of unicorn cake.
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Sunday: For the many of us who grab something deliciously calorific and head to the couch for our weekly fix of Operation Cake, this Sunday night will see our favorite British bakers return to their stations for the semifinal. Will cakes rise? Will soufflés sink? Will judge Dominic De Vere really end up with a face full of frosting? Don’t miss it.
It was the exploding unicorn that finally broke him.
Until she accidentally brained the most eminent pastry chef in London with a projectile hoof, Sylvie Fairchild had been casually speculating whether—like her ill-fated unicorn cake—Dominic De Vere also contained a hidden robotic mechanism. If so, his internal programming didn’t seem to have grasped that the catalog of human expressions offered more options than Arrogant Disdain and Asleep.
He had remained stony-faced through her polka-dot tart that turned his tongue every color of the rainbow. While Sylvie chewed on her lower lip and waited for the verdict from the judging panel, he chewed on three hours of her hard work as if it were a piece of cardboard.
“The bottom,” his dark, silky voice intoned at last, “is soggy.” Behind the cameras, the Operation Cake production team beamed. They loved a soggy bottom in this competition. Or a cracked surface. Or preferably when a contestant just dropped the whole thing on the floor. Perked them right up.
The voices in the three judges’ earpieces obviously told them to stick their tongues out and display the technicolored stains, because Mariana Ortiz and Jim Durham obliged with enthusiasm. Dominic turned his head and skewered the executive producer with a look so wintry that her berry coulis almost became a sorbet.
“I think it’s delicious.” Mariana’s smile was blinding and her charisma tongue-tying. Unlike Dominic, the renowned food writer was a natural on-screen. Sylvie could only assume that Dominic’s gold-plated status in the industry was a big enough draw to the network that they were prepared to overlook his stiff body language.
And the unsolved crime attached to his name. The puzzle beyond the abilities of Nancy Drew that would stump even the little gray cells of Hercule Poirot.
The Mysterious Case of the Missing Personality.
Or, alternatively, he’d been chosen as the requisite sex symbol. Sylvie studied him critically as he moved to the neighboring station and forked a mouthful of tepid-looking lemon pie into his mouth. With those wickedly intelligent eyes and strong forearms, he was a visual treat, if you fancied your men large and stroppy.
Personally, she’d forgo muscles for an occasional smile.
Seven episodes in, and if he acknowledged her existence at all, he was dividing his cold stare between her pastel-painted fingernails and the streaks of pink in her brown hair. He’d started visibly bracing every time he had to visit her station.
She’d upped the amount of sparkle in her bakes this week, for the sheer amusement of watching him shudder. Bonus points when he actually closed his eyes against the exquisite horror of edible glitter.
Sylvie had seen dozens of his own, incredibly expensive cakes in his London bakery. His preferred color palette covered a diverse range from white to ivory. Sometimes he really pushed the boat out and ventured into the realms of cream. Once at a black-tie event, she’d spotted a De Vere cake on the banquet table that actually had gold accents, and assumed he was either extremely unwell or suffering an early-onset midlife crisis.
He went in for elegant minimalism. She rarely saw an object that couldn’t be improved with sequins.
She was, aesthetically, his worst nightmare.
His control started to waver in round two with her witch’s cauldron, a Black Forest gâteau that spilled out sinuous curls of smoke, teasing the taste buds with an elusive hint of . . . toffee? No, bourbon. Honey?
“Caramel brandy.” Dominic severed the speculation of the other judges. He was correct. She had infused the dry ice mechanism with caramel brandy. Bending in a very limber motion for a man with those shoulders, he examined the exterior of the cauldron, breaking off a tiny piece with a satisfying snap. She’d meticulously assembled the structure from white chocolate that she’d hand-painted to mimic rusted iron, using a customized pigment of a powdered food coloring mixed with—
“The chocolate has a bitter aftertaste.” Again, he cut short her explanation, rising to his feet. “Did you taste-test the pigment first?” His face was still carved marble, but as usual when he looked in her direction, his eyes were shooting out darts of irritation.
There was a weak sort of compliment in that. If a contestant had a baseline skill level and made a mistake with an otherwise promising dish, he cared enough for impatience. If you were just irredeemably shit, he plastered on the haughty android stare and mentally went to sleep.
Sylvie had experimented with his signature expression herself this morning, on the neighbor who kept snipping herbs out of her window boxes when he thought she was still in bed. He’d flushed all the way up to his hairline, stammered an apology, and offered her cash.
And a very poor lesson in life that strutting about, nastily eyeballing people, netted results.
Dominic’s brows rose slightly when she didn’t immediately respond, and Sylvie suddenly remembered listening to a radio interview with one of his professional rivals, who’d sarcastically referred to him as the puppet-master.
My right hand and foot are attached to that brow bone by invisible strings. One twitch upward and my fist and boot want to follow suit.
Fatally, with the echo of that acerbic remark in her head, she smiled right in the middle of his continued critique.
And it happened. His controlled demeanor chipped. She was looking straight at him, and she saw it, felt it down to her bones. The driving instinct in his body. His gaze went to her hair and locked there. He wanted to touch it. In that instant of time, he obviously desired nothing more than to slide his long fingers into the fine strands, cup her head with that huge palm, tug her forward, take a slow breath . . . and sling her out the window by her ponytail like the Trunchbull.
She couldn’t help it. She outright laughed, and he continued to visibly loathe her.
Most of the Operation Cake contestants were petrified of him. They all but dropped their piping bags and scuttled under their benches when he stalked past.
Unless someone she loved was being targeted, in which case she would fight like a lioness, Sylvie was not a very confrontational person. If her meal was too cold in a restaurant, she ate it anyway. Unfair parking ticket? She’d probably just pay it. She’d peeked through the curtain and watched the herb heist for days before she’d tried out the De Vere Glare.
Yet there was not one single second on this set that she’d been intimidated by the man himself. She flatly refused to shy away from a person she found about as likable as a stubbed toe. He was totally devoid of empathy and warmth, she bet he was a bloody nightmare to work for, and she’d wear her apparently “garish, style-over-substance” cauldron cake as a hat before she’d let her knees so much as quiver in his presence.
She was a favorite with the other two judges, so she thought she might scrape through another week despite Dominic pacing around the studio like a sweet-toothed Grim Reaper.
Unfortunately, the final round put the casting vote in his hands.
And Sylvie put a shit-ton of glitter in his hair.
Excerpted from the book BATTLE ROYAL by Lucy Parker. Copyright © 2021 by Laura Elliott. From Avon Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.