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Chapter 7

Gourmet Network did not sponsor the rest of the meals, it turned out. Maybe they only sponsored large events that would undoubtedly be included in the episodes. But it was really nice to live with a chef. Shane didn’t seem to mind the attention or the opportunity to cook for everyone, either. Plus, the publicity could be good for his career, if everything went well. His food was certainly delicious. She’d consider leaving him a Yelp review, if it would help him later, and if he kept it up like this.

Elo spent the next couple days splitting her time between Shane and Quin and the girls. She didn’t actively avoid Nick, but she didn’t actively seek him out like she did everyone else, either. It seemed like Ehan either hung out with Devi and whoever she was with, or specifically hung out with Trish. When Elo sat in the music room with Abby and Brooke, the trio couldn’t help but gossip--or, at least, they couldn’t help but gossip when Elo prompted them. It wasn’t really much to talk about, but if she could get some random suspicions going, it would help her spread rumors later.

“Maybe Trish and Ehan feel like our parents,” Abby mused with a laugh, “because they’re both the only ones in a relationship.” She mindlessly played with her hair over her shoulder, braiding and unbraiding it in her hands.

“That is a little weird,” said Brooke, shaking her head. “Do you think it just happened that way, or do you think it was on purpose? Casting so many single people?” Oh, it was on purpose.

“And one that’s cheated,” Abby added.

Elo lifted a finger. “You mean one that we know of.”

“Oooh! Good point!”

Brooke decided to continue, “I mean, it makes for good TV, if there’s this, like, tension between people.” Elo had to try really hard to stop herself from looking amused. “And I don’t know, maybe there are people whose secrets are that they are in relationships that maybe their loved ones don’t know about!” Now that was a fun idea. Elo shifted herself.

“Who do you think is in a secret relationship?” she asked. She slipped off the couch cushion to join the other two girls on the white, plush rug. Brooke had been on the piano bench, and Abby was standing, but eventually they made their way into a seated circle on the floor that wasn’t unlike the high school sleepovers she went to.

At Elo’s question, Brooke looked to Abby.

“I think,” she started, pointing to her, “that you have an online relationship with someone. I think that’s why your key was on a cameraman, showing that whoever you’re with is watching.”

“Oh,” Elo sounded, raising an eyebrow. “Good theory.” A way more innocent theory than the truth of “camgirl.” Abby looked to the ground, holding her knee a little closer to herself.

“Ellie, do you think that, too?” she asked shyly. The sound of ripping followed her nervous fingers tugging at the rug. Elo sucked her teeth before shaking her head.

“I have a feeling it’s not quite so nice,” was all she decided to say. Brooke’s smile faded.

“Hey,” she said quietly. Her dark hand reached over, laying on Abby’s arm to try and get her to relax. The ripping stopped. “It’s okay. I won’t pry. We all have secrets.” The girls shared a meaningful look, nodding to one another. Well, that wouldn’t do, thought Elo.

“Is yours also illegal?” she whispered to Abby. It was a useless whisper, she knew, because there was a microphone right under the piano seat they sat beside, and a cameraman with boosted gain levels with his camera off in the corner. Abby shook her head.

“Technically, no. It’s not legal everywhere. Yours was illegal, Brooke, right?” Brooke sighed at this. “I mean,” Abby continued, looking to the ceiling, “I mean, it’s out there, now, right? Because we all had to admit our secrets in that challenge.” It was as if she had to convince herself over Brooke, though. Elo frowned in pity. Maybe Abby’s family didn’t know about her antics. Elo’s certainly didn’t.

“I guess you’re right,” Brooke answered, glancing to the piano. “Well, okay. You know what? I’ll tell you guys. That doesn’t mean everyone else has to know!” The girls shared a laugh and scooted into the circle a little tighter, even though the cameraman in the corner approached all the same. Elo took the time to wonder what kind of secret she could conjure up that they would buy, with the added thought that they might share it with Devi, the other holder of Elo’s key, later. Something to do with a mirror, identity….

Brooke waited for both Elo and Abby to meet her gaze before she started her story.

“So in high school, I took this graphic design class. It’s what kind of awakened my passion for it. Anyway, um, they don’t offer that extra curricular to freshmen anymore.” Elo squinted at her. “I got in a lot of trouble, to the point that my parents were fined quite a lot of money.” She laughed nervously. “Um, so my key was hidden in this piano, actually, because I--” She sucked in a breath to prepare herself. “I would find concert tickets, and I’d...sort of…counterfeit them and sell them again.” She immediately covered her mouth with her hands as Abby and Elo burst into laughter.

“Oh my God,” Elo sounded, shaking her head. “You’re a genius!” Brooke joined their laugh for a short moment.

“Yeah, well, it worked for about three years. I made a lot of money, but when I was caught, it uh….” She sighed. “I had to change schools because I got a little expelled.” Elo’s jaw dropped. “And my parents had to pay all the money that I made to the music department of the county as recompense.”

“That’s actually a very fair punishment,” Abby said, nodding. “At least the labels didn’t go after you.”

“Oh, they did. That was the settlement.” She shrugged. “They took a lot of pity on me because I can cry on cue. Never did I think that skill would come in handy.” Good thing to keep in mind, too. Brooke leaned back against the leg of the piano, sighing. “It nearly ruined my chances for college. But community college doesn’t really care, and my records got sealed, so….”

Elo nodded. “That kind of wipes out everything you did in high school. And I assume you must be really good, then?”

Brooke smiled. “I really am.”

“You didn’t have to share that,” Abby said, now suddenly hyper-aware of the camera. Brooke shrugged.

“It’s not, like….” She frowned. “It’s not something my work doesn’t currently know about. And it’s sealed for the courts, so only people I tell can really know…. And it was ages ago. But anyway, I think it’d be worse if I wasn’t any good.”

“I don’t think you’d make any money if you weren’t,” said Elo, nodding and nudging her. Brooke’s smile lit up the room.

“Thank you, though,” Abby said, smiling. “Mine was...a year of desperation while attending school in Nevada. I had trouble making rent because I lost a scholarship.” She put up a hand before Brooke or Elo could even make an expression. “It was just online. And it’s not illegal there. But I did okay with it, made enough to make rent, and I was able to pull my grades up.” She signaled with her hands like a conductor, indicating that was that. “And then I stopped. So I mean, there’s a chance the viewers could recognize me. Everything on the Internet is forever. So I guess it’s no use to keep it a secret.”

Elo frowned. “I still won’t tell anyone. That’s intimate.” Well, she wouldn ’t tell anyone now. Or maybe she would, if it gave her an advantage. (She couldn’t imagine herself doing it, but she wasn’t naive enough to make alliances like that quite this early.) But the girls were right in their assessment: everyone knew everything now. At least on the outside. The other contestants would learn everything soon enough, or at least after the competition was over and they had access to all the episodes.

“Thanks, girls,” Abby said, smiling softly. “It’s nice that we can have something kind of like this,” she said, gesturing around them, “even when we’re all competing against each other.”

Brooke scoffed. “Well, none of us won any points.”

“That you know of,” Elo was certain to add. “One of us could be a Favorite.”

“As if it isn’t Quin or Shane,” Abby mumbled, pulling another fiber out of the carpet. “The audience loves a twinky gay and a chef.”

“It could be you,” Elo decided to say as she gestured to the girl dressed in a pink crop top and skirt. “You’re frickin’ adorable.”

“Agreed,” said Brooke, nodding. “You came out of those double doors, and you were one of the few people I didn’t immediately think, ’Ugh, I have to share a house with you?’” The three shared a laugh, but Elo hesitated.

“Did you think that about me…?” she asked carefully. She knew that Brooke at least didn’t seem to connect with Shane or Ehan as much.

“I thought you looked kind of badass, with all your piercings,” she said, laughing. Elo scrunched her face.

“My ears, my nose, my cartilage?” Not all that many, compared to some.

“That we can see!” giggled Abby.

“Oh my God, we are not going there--!”

“Is that your secret?” Brooke howled, shoving her shoulder. Elo covered her face to laugh into her hands, and Abby gasped loudly.

“Oh--Devi said she found your key in the mirror! Your nose!” What? “You--you got a nose job!” Abby shrieked so loudly, and with Elo covering her face, Brooke took this to mean that this was absolutely the truth, so Elo decided to sell it by doubling over and laughing, but never taking her hands off her nose as if it was something she was insecure about. That was almost a small compliment, though. Did it look like she had a fake nose?

Interrupting their loud antics was Shane as stood in the doorway, hands clasped somewhat regally.

“I would like to announce to three of the five most beautiful women I’ve ever seen in my life that dinner is served!” he announced shamelessly.

Brooke snorted. “He definitely poisoned us.”

Shane looked offended, hand on his heart as he said, “I didn’t let Devi touch the food!” The laughter fueled the girls to rise from the ground, helping each other as they added a few more quips at Devi’s expense.

The house gathered at the dining table, which seemed to be the only place everyone stuck together, now. It was a little much to constantly have company, to always have to be seen; the group understandably spread out throughout the mansion without getting in one another’s way. Still, it was difficult to go anywhere without running into a housemate. Or a camera. The tension was bound to skyrocket as everyone’s nerves were pulled taught like a string.

There didn’t seem to be any major arguments yet, though. There was a small squabble over the showers, but it didn’t last. The dinner, some sort of pasta, kept everyone in relatively high spirits, despite the nerves.

“We find out our next challenge tomorrow,” said Trish, glancing around the table. “What do you think it could be?”

“We find out a hint at our next challenge,” Nick corrected from across from her. He passed on the plate of sourdough bread to Quin on his left. Elo nodded, but didn’t say anything. She figured it would be a physical thing, but didn’t want to let anyone else in on that.

Shane, without warning, let out a loud gasp and slapped the table. The plate of bread wobbled on the table from Quin’s jump.

“Wait!” Shane shouted. His chair scratched harshly against the wooden floor as he stood. “Devi, stop!” Devi glanced over to him, mouth already surrounding the fork, before she took it out slowly and continued to chew the lump of pasta in her mouth.

“What the hell?” muttered Elo, staring at him.

“I’m so sorry, Devi,” he started, brows furrowed in distress. “I’m so, so, so sorry!”

“Hm?” she asked as she swallowed. “What?”

“The noodles--the noodles, I told you earlier I planned to make them from scratch, but I ran out of time! I didn’t make these!” It took Elo a few seconds to understand, before she realized--

“Oh, there are eggs in noodles!” realized Abby at the same time.

“I’m so sorry, Devi! I completely forgot you were vegan, and I was just so panicked for time, I just--it totally slipped my mind!” Devi hesitated, fork still in hand, as she watched Shane continue to pour out apologies over and over again. “I’ll never cook for you again, I swear! Or I’ll make only vegan things from here on out! I’m so sorry!” He covered his face as silence fell over the table. Everyone stopped eating, watching Devi carefully. She didn’t say anything, just froze, staring at everyone else that stared at her.

“How long was your streak?” Ehan asked quietly, pained. Devi glanced down to her plate, sighing.

“Two years,” she muttered. Shane sounded like someone stabbed him. “But….” She sighed, her shoulders sagging. “But--Shane, um….”

Ehan, in the world’s fastest shift ever, gasped, straightening. “Oh my God, you’re--”

“I’m not fully vegan….”

“You’re not a real vegan!” Ehan realized loudly, nearly at the same time. Though that was a weird way to put it.

Shane fully gripped the table, as if he couldn’t handle the notion. Was he being dramatic, or was he really like this about food? “What?”

Devi cleared her throat, and lifted the napkin in her lap to dab at the corners of her mouth. “I’m--” She sighed. “I’m not actually vegan at all.” She gave a sideways glance to the camera before she continued staring at her plate. “I guess it’s out, now, so….” Devi rolled her shoulders back. “A couple years ago, I said I was going vegan so I didn’t have to try my mother’s new quiche recipe. I didn’t mean it, I just blurted it out as an excuse, and she kept remembering. So I...kept...using it.” Devi flinched a bit toward Shane, who slowly lowered himself back into his chair as if someone told him something a bit more shocking than a simple lie.

“That’s…,” he started breathlessly, but Trish interrupted.

“I really thought you poisoned someone. That’s not that bad of a secret.”

Devi shrunk in on herself. “You don’t know my family. It got really out of hand last reunion.” She sighed. “Well, some bridges were...damaged, in my family. It fueled an argument that led to some people saying some things that they won’t take back, and it just--it got out of hand.” As everyone waited for an explanation, she hesitated. “Um. Anyway. You’re--you’re sweet, Shane, for worrying. But it’s okay for this instance.”

“Why do I only feel like that’s part of the story?” murmured Brooke next to Elo. She nodded, but didn’t say anything to acknowledge it otherwise.

Shane, at the end of the table, took a moment to process.

“Uh,” he said carefully, “I--I, um…. I’m...s….” He stopped, troubled. “I don’t know if I’m supposed to apologize or not? I mean, I’m sorry, because I think that if you were actually vegan, that would suck, but--I also don’t feel that bad, because you’re kind of a liar…?”

Devi sighed. “I think that it all cancels out. Agreed?” She was a bit terse about it, so everyone just kind of shut up and nodded. Conversation was a little difficult to come by after that. It seemed like Shane really felt that bad about the whole thing, as if he really ruined her diet, but struggled to come to terms with the fact that it wasn’t that big of a deal at the end of the day. Elo helped him clear the dinner table, so that Quin and Nick could do the dishes, and decided to ask him about it.

“So, do you, um, feel that bad about it?” she whispered. Half a dozen plates lay on her arms as she waddled to the kitchen. Shane held the giant pot of pasta under one arm, the bowl of salad on the other.

“I do,” he responded, shrugging. “It--I know it doesn’t look like it, or like it’s that big of a deal, but--like it’s my job to care for that sort of stuff. For a second, I really thought I fucked up.” That was sweet. Maybe he was the Social Media Favorite after all. If he cared that much about something, anyway. Only the audience would be able to know for sure, watching the confessionals.

“So does it piss you off that she was lying?” Elo set the stack of dishes down by the sink, and Shane set the serving bowls on the counter by the fridge. He wiped his hands on his pants, frowning.

“I think it would hurt a lot more if I actually knew her. Like if this came out next week, and I’d been cooking for you guys this whole time, I think I’d actually be a little pissed.” Maybe a lot pissed.

“Her mom’s going to be pissed,” Elo said with a grin as they returned to the dining table for the remaining dishes. The rest of the group moved outside to hang around the pool, while Quin and Nick took a set of dishes to the kitchen as well.

As the four of them rejoined in the kitchen, Elo nodded and mouthed “Thanks” to Quin and Nick while she waited for Shane to rejoin her.

“Yeah,” Shane said through a sigh as he rounded the island counter. “I guess I’m not feeling that upset about it, especially comparatively. But--this is my love language!” He gestured and laughed, seemingly pleased to talk about it. Nick looked over his shoulder from the sink to see what it was all about...and Elo took the opportunity to smile widely at Shane, to ignore Nick completely (physically, anyway), as she said, “You’re really a sweetheart. It’s cute you’re so genuine. You don’t get that much these days.” And, before she could watch Nick’s reaction, she joined Shane’s side to walk out into the cold nighttime air.

She wasn’t sure what she was going for, saying something like that. Was she trying to make a jab at Nick? He didn’t even know that she knew what he said to the camera. Was she trying to make him jealous? It wouldn’t work, if his whole goal was to try and play her. Maybe it was a little bit of both. Maybe he would feel bad for trying to use her, and maybe if he had any genuine feelings for when they were “friends,” he’d feel a little defensive at this.

And it wasn’t like she lied. She didn’t have to lay it on that thick, to the point that Shane actually blushed and fumbled attempting to say something nice back on their way outside. She tried not to think about it, though, as they walked outside to join the rest of the group.

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