A PopSugar Must-Read for October!
In this finger-licking good rom-com, two is the perfect number of cooks in the kitchen.
Nikki DiMarco knew life wouldn’t be all sunshine and coconuts when she quit her dream job to help her mom serve up mouthwatering Filipino dishes to hungry beach goers, but she didn’t expect the Maui food truck scene to be so eat-or-be-eaten—or the competition to be so smoking hot.
But Tiva’s Filipina Kusina has faced bigger road bumps than the arrival of Callum James. Nikki doesn’t care how delectable the British food truck owner is—he rudely set up shop next to her coveted beach parking spot. He’s stealing her customers and fanning the flames of a public feud that makes her see sparks.
The solution? Let the upcoming Maui Food Festival decide their fate. Winner keeps the spot. Loser pounds sand. But the longer their rivalry simmers, the more Nikki starts to see a different side of Callum…a sweet, protective side. Is she brave enough to call a truce? Or will trusting Callum with her heart mean jumping from the frying pan into the fire?
Release date: October 13, 2020
Print pages: 336
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Listen to a sample
Ocean air has a funny effect on me. Maybe it’s the salt.
I inhale while driving along the lone main road in southern Maui. The briny moisture hits my nostrils, coating the back of my throat and lungs. I wince at the slight burn. A handful of breaths and I wonder just how close I am to reaching my daily allotment of sodium. Leave it to a food truck owner to view everything around me—including oxygen—in terms of food.
But that’s how all-consuming food truck life is. It’s my work, my thoughts, the air I breathe. It seeps into everything. I’ve only been doing this a year, but that’s one of the first things I’ve learned.
I shove aside the thoughts of saline air. Instead I run through my mental checklist like I do every morning while navigating the slow-moving traffic to my parking spot near Makena Beach, one of the most popular tourist spots on Maui.
Chicken adobo wings are chilling in the fridge. Check.
So are the papaya salad and fruit salad. Check.
Pansit is freshly made as of this morning and ready to dish up. Check.
A fresh batch of vegetable oil sits in the fryer, ready to heat. Check.
Waiting for the oil to warm should give me just enough time to prep everything for the day. Check.
For a split second I’m smiling, satisfied at the menu I’ve put together for today with a shoestring budget and limited supplies. Everything’s ready to go. The garnishes, the utensils, the napkins, the whiteboard with today’s menu written on it. Check, check, check, and . . . damn it.
I groan while gripping the steering wheel. I forgot the menu board at the commercial kitchen where I prep the food every morning. Again. I sigh, my cheeks on fire when I think about what an amateur mistake I just made. That means I’ll have to recite the daily specials and prices in addition to the standard menu items to every customer who comes to the window to order, an annoying and unprofessional act.
I shake my head, disappointed that I’ve tainted the workday before it’s even started. It’s only marginally worse than my typical mess-up with the menu board. I wince when I remember how I almost always forget to display it until after sliding open the window, which signals that I’m open for business. And when I remember it, I spin around, usually knock over a rogue sauce bottle or metal bowl, scurry out of the truck, prop it up at the front, and run back inside. That’s when I typically trip up the stairs while customers gawk. It’s like the cherry on top of a hot mess sundae, a dead giveaway that despite all my planning and all my checklists, despite my year of hard work, long hours, and on-the-job learning, I don’t belong in this food truck world.
I slouch in the driver’s seat as I begin to deflate. No other food truck I’ve been around seems to struggle with the basics like I do. A whole new checklist slides to the front of my mind. My very own life checklist that I never, ever thought I’d have.
I’m twenty-nine years old and struggling to make a living in the most popular tourist destination in the Pacific Ocean. Check.
I started a food truck business with zero food truck experience. Check.
I mistakenly thought that all my years working in high-end restaurants would be all the prep I needed to run a food truck. Check.
I share a condo in Kihei with my mom—a condo that was meant to be my parents’ retirement haven. Check.
A familiar sinking feeling hits, one I haven’t felt in weeks. It’s a heavy dose of doubt mixed with good old-fashioned insecurity, reminding me just how out of my element I am.
Another lesson I’ve learned? Life doesn’t always care what you have planned. Sometimes it pulls the rug out from under you and takes one of your parents with it, leaving you and your only living parent under a mountain of medical debt, your savings ravaged, and with zero viable options on how to dig your way out. So you and your mom pick up where she and your dad left off. You take the used food truck your dad bought because it was his and your mom’s dream to run their own food truck in Maui during their retirement. You put the only professional skills you honed—your cooking and restaurant skills—into fulfilling your dad’s last wish. You put your heart and soul into that food truck, cross your fingers, and hope for the best.
I silently recite my other checklist, the one I mentally skim in my head each day, whenever I need a reminder of why I’m here and why all the struggle is worth it. It’s the one checklist I’m eternally grateful for.
My mom is alive. Check.
I get to see her every day. Check.
Even when I mess up, I’m fulfilling the promise I made to my dad. Check.
I focus, crossing my fingers around my grip on the steering wheel, hoping for a good day. I hope I sell out during today’s lunch service. I hope that weird grinding noise that emanates from this rickety truck is just a fluke, and not a sign that I need to replace the brake pads, something I can’t afford. And I hope the gas in the tank is enough to last me until the end of the week, because I can’t afford that either.
With every new concern that hits this mental checklist, worry bleeds into my gratitude. I sigh, gazing out my window at endless palm trees and sand, homing in on the soothing crash of the waves. At least I can count on the stunning beauty of Maui to put me in a pleasant mood most days. My heartbeat slows, my jaw relaxes, and my hands loosen around the steering wheel.
Soon the road transitions from smooth pavement to pockmarked concrete. I pull into that perfect semicircle of dirt overlooking the ocean that I just happened to stumble upon back in December. Once again, I’m grateful. For the last three months, this has been Tiva’s Filipina Kusina’s go-to parking spot. Because of that, we have a steady flow of customers from Big Beach, which means a reliable income most days. Which means we’re that much closer to being out of the hole.
As I turn off the engine, I fix my gaze on an unfamiliar silver food truck situated right next to where I normally park. I climb out and walk over, zeroing in on the Union Jack flag decal that rests on the left side of the window. Over the window reads “Hungry Chaps” in bold black letters. On the right side of the window is a cartoon image of a plate of fish-and-chips and some half-moon-shaped pastry.
I sigh. Hungry Chaps must be a new addition to the island food truck circle. They must not be aware of the unofficial policy of not encroaching on another truck’s territory. I practice a smile and stroll to the closed window of the truck. It’s my turn to offer a friendly welcome and a polite explanation of Maui’s unspoken food truck etiquette to this newcomer, just as the established food trucks did for Mom and me when we first started. The rules are simple: no parking in spaces that other trucks have occupied long term, and no parking too close to another truck unless you have their permission.
Living on an island makes competition fiercer—there’s only so much space to begin with. When we first started out, we couldn’t find regular parking and had to drive all over the island from open spot to open spot. It was impossible to build a customer base that way, never having a consistent location where people could easily find us. It meant months of unsteady income, which meant we were barely breaking even.
I knock on the cloudy glass window. A lightly tanned face pops up from behind the counter. The window is so smeared that I can barely make out the person.
“Hi there! Do you have a sec?” I say.
“Absolutely! Just a moment,” an English-accented male voice answers. I smile. His accent sounds a lot like that of my uncle, who lives in London with my auntie Nora. I wonder if this guy’s from London too.
A thud sound and the clang of metal dishes crashing to the floor echo from inside the truck. Out of the corner of my eye, I see a man exit from the back.
He strolls up to me, kicking up clouds of dirt with his heavy steps. He’s a tall, sun-kissed drink of water with honey-hued hair cropped close to his scalp and a few days’ worth of dark blond scruff on his cheeks. I tilt my head back to get a proper look at his face. That’s a new one. I’m nearly five feet ten inches, and my neck is perpetually sore from having to peer down at people. But this guy has to be pushing six feet three inches, maybe even six four.
He looks familiar, even though I know for sure I’ve never seen him before. Probably because he looks like a hybrid of Michael Fassbender and Zac Efron. In other words, impossibly good-looking.
He flashes a smile at me, and I promptly forget what I was going to say. Instead I respond with what I assume is one of the dopiest grins I’ve ever beamed at another human being.
“So nice to finally meet you,” he says.
“Oh, um, thanks,” I stammer, thrown off at how friendly he is to me, a complete stranger.
When he blinks, it’s like I’ve been dazzled by the shiniest peridot gem. His eyes boast the most perfect shade of hazel green I’ve ever seen. But it’s more than just the color leaving me tongue-tied. There’s a genuine kindness behind them I don’t often see when I make eye contact with someone I don’t know. The way he stares catches me completely off guard, like I’m the only thing worth looking at in the surrounding area. It’s impressive, considering the landscape is the very definition of breathtaking with the nearby lush green hills, cloudless blue skies, and multitude of palm trees. Not even the expansive lava field across the road, which appears practically endless as it stretches all the way to the horizon, seems to capture this guy’s attention. Even I stop to gawk at it at least once a day.
I let my gaze linger on his eyes a second longer than what is considered polite. My stomach flips. I could fall damn hard for eyes like that.
For a fleeting moment, the Neanderthal part of my brain takes over. An image of me under him appears. Those hazel eyes pinning me, those thick lips stretched in a smile. A slight shake of my head erases the decidedly dirty thought like the drawing on an Etch A Sketch. What in the world is wrong with me? A friendly greeting from a handsome man shouldn’t send me into an X-rated daytime fantasy. I silently scold myself. This is apparently what eighteen months of self-imposed celibacy will do to a woman.
He sticks his hand out and I shake it, appreciating the firm yet gentle gripping method he employs. I’m so used to men offering weak handshakes that feel like a dead fish in my hand. But I dig this guy’s style. He doesn’t automatically assume I’m too weak to make his male acquaintance.
When he lets go of my hand, he looks back at his truck. “Apologies, I didn’t think you were coming for another hour.”
“What do you mean?”
He points his thumb at his truck. “It’s all ready for you. Just be careful when you walk in because I tripped and knocked over a few metal bowls on the way out here.” He runs a hand through his hair. “Afraid I’m still getting used to navigating my tall self within the confines of a van. Sorry, I mean ‘truck.’ ” He holds a hand up. “I can assure you, everything is up to code.”
I squint up at him, thoroughly confused. “That’s great, but why are you telling me all this?”
“Well, I thought you’d like to know. You’re the health inspector after all.”
“Oh . . . no, I’m . . . I run a food truck.”
I point to my truck, which is parked behind his. He pivots his frown to it, narrowing his stare, like he’s just now noticing the giant food truck parked nearby.
“You’re not the health inspector?”
I shake my head, hoping the movement comes off as good-natured and not dismissive. “Sorry, I’m not.”
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