Turning Up the Heat: Chapter One

There’s a feeling you get when reach home.

Good or bad, there’s a shift in your chest, a piece that slides into place when you arrive at the place that formed you. The memories might be good or bad. The lenses you see through might be rose-colored or grey.

But there’s a very distinct feeling when you reach home.

I tapped the brakes lightly to slow my car down the south side of the Cuesta grade as the soft voice of Phoebe Bridgers drifted through the speakers of my car. The sun had already dropped, and my eyes drifted to the twinkling lights of the little towns that dotted the California coastline before stopping abruptly at the lip of the Pacific Ocean. 

I’d rolled my windows down as soon as I got down the grade, and the cool ocean air and the sound of the waves followed me as I made my way down the 101 highway to Pismo Beach. 

The world around me smelled like salt and eucalyptus.


No matter how long I lived in San Francisco, the Central California coast was always going to be home. I’d already passed the ranch I grew up in miles north in Paso Robles along with the winery that my brother Josh had bought with the inheritance from our grandparents. 

Knowing my brother, he’d likely have company for the weekend, so I’d opted to stay with my best friend since forever. Talia and her husband Kurt lived in Pismo Beach. Their townhouse sat right overlooking the beach and the guest room looked out over the ocean. It was the perfect spot to quiet my mind.

I’d used the excuse of my brother’s fall crush party to escape the city this weekend, but my real motivation was avoiding Austin. My ex-boyfriend had recently decided we were soul mates, and I was getting tired of fending off unwanted texts.

I told Talia I was hoping that the weekend away might allow me some space to think about how to deal with the situation, but I might have had one ulterior motive.

My eye caught the sign for Arroyo Grande four miles before the turn-off to Talia’s house.

Chef Oskar Olson’s restaurant was in Arroyo Grande. According to my brother, he also lived there. My brother…who had just entered into a rather promising sort of partnership with the up and coming chef.

Oskar Olson was my ulterior motive.

Headlights lit up the ground-floor garage of Talia and Kurt’s house. I could see them sitting on the terrace above the garage, smiling and waving an empty wine glass at me as I climbed out of my car.

“Thank God,” I shouted. “What’re we drinking?”

Kurt laughed as Talia ran down the stairs to give me a tight hug.

“Wine of course. I missed you.” She threw her arms around me and hung there for a moment before she smacked a kiss on my cheek. “Kurt bought it. It’s some new zinfandel from up around Paso. Not as good as your brother’s, but its cheaper.”

“No joke.” I unwound her arms and threw my duffel bag at her while I grabbed my tote and my phone. “I can’t afford his wine either.”

Sisterhood had its perks, but I only drank free when I visited him at the ranch.

I shut my car door and threw an arm around Talia’s shoulders. “Whatever we’re drinking, I’m sure I’ll be able to force it down. That drive gets longer every year.”

“That’s ’cause you know you shouldn’t be living there.”

“Don’t start already.” I let my head fall back. “Give me a couple of hours before you start on the sales pitch again.”

“I’m just saying.” Talia led me toward the house. “I mean, you and Austin broke up and I have no opinion about that.”

“Thank you.” I’d heard it before.

“His hair was too fluffy. You said yourself you practically work from home now.” She caught my hands in hers and slowly pulled me up the outside stairs. “With all the restaurants, wineries and farms between Santa Barbara and Monterey, this place is like a food mecca. This is the happening neighborhood, Kelsey. Why is the most promising food writer in California sitting her butt in the middle of the city?”

I dropped my bag at the top of the stairs. “That was a record. I don’t think I’ve been here five minutes. But thanks for seriously exaggerating my writing cred.”

“Impressive, right? And the fact that you mentioned the time first tells me you’re starting to see that I’m right. And you are the most promising food writer in the state, don’t argue.”

I pinched her butt as I walked past her and went up to hug Kurt. 

He was probably my favorite man other than my brother. Actually he was more like my brother than my actual brother. Josh was a great guy, but he’d always been driven about his own plans and we often went months without talking to each other.

With Talia and Kurt, hardly a week passed that I didn’t talk to one of both of them. I loved them to death, and the reasons for not moving home were starting to seem a little thin the longer I stayed away. Not that I would ever tell Talia that.

Relentless pusher. I love her.

Talia went into the kitchen to grab me some munchies. 

“We actually killed that zin,” Kurt said in his low, growly voice. “But don’t worry, I got my girls covered.”

I leaned back into a chair while Kurt opened the new bottle. “You are a flannel-clad prince among men.”

“You know, I hear that all the time.” He handed me the glass.

I couldn’t stop the smile.

The wine was nice and clean with a spicy nose and without a heavy finish, which made it perfect for a fall evening. The sky was clear and surprisingly fog-free, so I could see the moon reflected on the water.

The weather would turn cloudy and cool in a couple of months and I would want to start drinking heavier reds; but right now, the days were warm, the nights were chilly, and a Pinot Noir was just right.

I took another sip of the red. “Talia still won’t drink whites?”

“She says the plethora of imported Italian whites with so little variation in flavor is insulting to the American wine palate, and she can’t stand Chardonnays after they’ve been abused by oak.”

“So that’s a no, then?”

“Yeah, still reds only.”

“Even with fish?”

“Yeah. I’ll order a white at restaurants because I know she won’t make a scene in public, but I do hear about it later. Not that it’s a bad thing.” He wiggled his eyebrows.

I shook my head. “You two are probably the only couple I know that have fights necessitating make-up sex over wine.”

He shrugged. “It’s our thing.”

It was, seeing as they were both wine marketers. Their company sold Central Coast wine throughout the state, but they were starting to market it all over the west coast as the area grew in popularity.

“So, what’s up with you guys?”

Talia came out from the house with a cheese plate in hand, and I did a short, delighted booty dance before I dug in. She had three different cheeses on the plate along with some fresh figs and some champagne grapes.

I looked at one cheese with a slight gasp. It couldn’t be. I spread some of the soft yellow cheese onto a cracker, bit down, and groaned in happiness. 

Heaven. It was heaven.

“This is that Toma cheese from that factory in Sonoma, isn’t it?”

“Yep.” She blew me a kiss. “You’re welcome.”

“When did you get it?”

“I was up there a few days ago for work and I knew you were coming. It’s your favorite.”

I leaned over and smothered her cheek in cheesy kisses. There may have been a few crumbs down her cleavage, but I couldn’t stop myself. 

“I love you.” I mumbled around the cheese. “Leave Kurt and run away with me. We’ll be sexually unsatisfied, but we’ll eat well.”

Talia laughed at me as Kurt grabbed her and snuggled her onto his lap. I looked at them enviously as he curled his arms around her and wedged his chin into the crook of her neck. As the waves crashed and the tide came in, we sat in the dark, drinking our wine and nibbling the figs when the cheese was gone.

They’d always been together. As far back as I could remember, they had each other and they had never seemed to want another. I sighed and smiled at them fondly. Talia looked over and a small smile flitted across her lips.

“One of these days, Kelsey. You’ll find him one of these days.”

“You two make it look too easy.”

“Ha.” barked Kurt. “You do know who I’m married to, right?”

Talia elbowed him. “You know you love an ornery woman. You’d get bored getting your way all the time.”

Their familiar banter started up again and once it started to lean in that direction, I took it as my cue to turn in. “Okay, you two. I’m leaving you to your marital debauchery and I’ll see you in the morning.”

“No…” Talia gave me a weak protest and held out an arm. “Stay. Please.”

I couldn’t stop the snort. “You can’t even say that with a straight face.” I put a hand over my eyes. “I’m not old enough to witness this, I’ll see you in the morning.”

Kurt started to get up. “Wait I’ll get your—”

“Nope. Got it.” I grabbed my overnight bag and my laptop case before Kurt could beat me to it, and kissed both their cheeks before I walked inside to their cozy guest room.

I plugged in my phone and opened my laptop to check my e-mail. I didn’t have anything except a nagging reminder from my editor Octavia about not forgetting to get material on “my little weekend jaunt” for the next newsletter that would go out the middle of next week to all our subscribers.

The offices of The California Food and Wine Journal were in San Francisco, but we covered the entire state. I had started out writing for my local paper and then an obscure online magazine before applying for a job at the Journal. I now had a regular column on local and seasonal food and which restaurants were incorporating it more in their menus. I did restaurant reviews and chef profiles as needed.

It was, without a doubt, my dream job. 

I loved the people I worked with and my editor had been a mentor as well as a boss. I traveled a lot in Northern California, but didn’t make it down to the Central Coast as much as I wanted. There was always something happening in the city…or in Marin County…or Petaluma or Napa or Sonoma.

What could I say? The Bay Area was a great place to eat and drink and it kept me well-supplied with material for the magazine. Having grown up in ranching and farming, I had a “unique perspective connecting the producer to the consumer”.

Or whatever Octavia had put in my byline.

To tell the truth, though, I was getting tired of it. Because of the high-stakes nature of the Bay Area food scene, there was a lot of back-biting, politics and snobbery. The tech business always seemed to be lurking on the edges of our magazine, and according to whispers in the office, we were on the edge of being bought out by one app or another, depending on the month.

At twenty-seven, I was seen by some at the magazine as the cute, blond country girl playing with the big boys and girls in the city. I hadn’t been to any kind of culinary school or worked in a restaurant.

How could I be expected to be taken seriously?

Luckily, readers loved me and my columns produced more comments and spread faster online than any other writer. I’d mastered the social media game faster than most of my older colleagues and they couldn’t argue with the quality of my writing.

Secretly, I think my editor liked antagonizing the snottier chefs who pretended to look down their noses at me. Personally thought a lot of them were probably just staring at my cleavage.

I closed my e-mail after sending off a quick note to Octavia. A small icon indicated a page that I had saved to my desktop, and I clicked on it for possibly the ninetieth time.

The window popped open and with it, I stared into a striking face. The photo had obviously been taken after or in the middle of dinner service. The shaggy, golden blond hair was mussed and falling in his eyes a little. The sharp white of his coat set off his dark blue eyes, and his jaw was lightly covered in a rough stubble. He looked hot, tired and very annoyed at the photographer. 

This did not, in any way, detract from the fact that Chef Olson was ridiculously attractive.

“Hel-lo, Chef,” I whispered. “What are you doing in my home town?”

I read the headline again: New Chef Makes Central Coast Town a Food Destination.

The article detailed much of Oskar Olson’s background—he was from Denmark originally—and all the awards he’d won out of culinary school. He had worked in some of the toughest restaurants in London and was on a dozen lists to be the next big thing in haute cuisine.

And then he came to Arroyo Grande.

The article detailed his cooking philosophy. “Local and seasonal,” I muttered as I read. “All good.” What he was serving that summer. I narrowed my eyes. “Seems a little tomato heavy to me, Chef.” And where he saw fine-dining going on the Central Coast.

“‘I object to the term fine-dining.’” I whispered his terse quote from the article and tried to imagine what his accent sounded like. “Of course you do.”

It did not once mention why he’d picked Arroyo Grande to start what seemed to be a top-notch restaurant that would have found backers anywhere in his home country or any major city.

I didn’t know whether the interviewer hadn’t asked or he hadn’t answered, but ever since I’d read the article I’d been pondering the question. 

I really wanted to know. I wasn’t even sure why it seemed so important to figure out why he had picked one of the smallest towns on the Central Coast to settle in and build his restaurant. 

I tried not to think that I was intrigued because he was so handsome, but that probably had something to do with it. He was an unexpected wrinkle in the tapestry of my home town, and I was curious.

I stared into his intense eyes in the photo for a little while longer before shutting my laptop, plugging it in and going to bed. I cracked the window open and almost immediately the sound of the waves crashing lulled me into a deep, deep sleep.