Hot Under Pressure
“Ready. Get set. Go!”
Beck ripped off his blindfold and blinked furiously to accustom his eyes to the harsh fluorescent lights of the kitchen. His focus narrowed down, the exact same way it did in battle, the world around him going grainy and slow like an out-of-focus news broadcast.
Five minutes on the timer, counting down relentlessly as he spent precious seconds assessing the situation.
It was a relay challenge. Each member of the team had five minutes to take the raw ingredients and turn them into a polished, perfect dish—with the added bonus of not being able to communicate or watch each other as they took their turns at the stove.
The stakes? An unnamed but highly desirable advantage over the other two teams going into the final round of the Rising Star Chef competition.
As soon as the RSC coordinator, Eva Jansen, had explained the challenge, the rest of Beck’s team had huddled into a circle to divvy up roles.
“Win, you’ve got the best knife skills, you start us on prep. You get us going. Max, Danny and I will muddle through the middle. You? You’re the clincher,” Jules Cavanaugh had pronounced, poking Beck in the chest. “We’ll set you up with something great, you take it home.”
Anticipation warred with Beck’s hard-won calm, forcing him to ice everything down just to stay calm.
They trusted him. His team trusted him to close out the dish and take it up to the next level.
He wouldn’t let them down.
Five chef contestants per team, each chef with five minutes to cook.
Twenty-five minutes total for the three teams to create something delicious enough to wow three world-famous food snob judges.
Beck spent the first forty minutes of the challenge at parade rest, legs braced apart for balance, hands folded at the small of his back, every sense on high alert as he worked to filter the sounds and scents of the competition kitchen.
The other two teams were ranged around him, a constant low-level distraction of chatter, noise, tension, the whiff of an achingly familiar perfume...
Ignore her. Ignore all of them. Focus. You learned to tune out gunfire and explosions, you can learn to block her out, too.
All that matters is the food.
Beck caught the rhythmic, high-speed staccato of a chopping knife hitting a wooden block with the same rapid-fire precision as a burst of machine gun fire. That had to be Winslow Jones, the East Coast Team’s own prep chef. Beck would know that signature rat-a-tat-tat anywhere.
Something light and green on the air, woodsy and fresh, with a hint of black licorice. Herbs, Beck decided. Tarragon, most likely. His tactician’s brain immediately began working through the proteins and sauces that paired best with tarragon, clicking over the possibilities, everything from chicken to lobster.
Could be chicken—Winslow could break down a bird into eight perfectly portioned pieces in less than sixty seconds flat. Time was a factor here, because the further each prepping chef took the dish, the more Beck would have to work with as he refined it and added flourishes at the end.
The scrape of a dull blade against a hard surface made Beck frown under his blindfold. Was Win shucking oysters?
The first five minutes were gone.
A sauté pan clattered onto the stovetop on Beck’s six. He tensed and tracked the movement behind him, but didn’t turn around.
He hoped to God that Jules, who was next in the rotation for their team, wasn’t getting the oysters sautéing now—they’d be ready to shoot from a rubber pellet gun before Beck got them up to the pass.
Nothing you can do about it. Wait for your chance. Be ready.
Forcing himself back into the moment, Beck kept his senses trained on the activity around him, the eddies and currents of bodies moving quickly through space, sometimes brushing against him, sometimes cursing, the air of tension and effort as palpable as if he were standing stock still in the middle of a fire fight.
Finally, it was Beck’s turn.
He blinked away the dazzle of the lights and cast his gaze from side to side, sizing up the kitchen with a single glance.
A single glance that turned into a long, time-eating hesitation when the first thing Beck saw was a woman, her strawberry-blonde hair haloed around her sweet, heart-shaped face, and an expression of excited determination firming her soft pink mouth.
In terms of strategy, if her team had set out to pit Beck against their fearless leader, they couldn’t have chosen better. Not only had Skye proved herself a formidable competitor in the last round of the competition...but Beck had proved he was nearly unable to focus when she was around.
An avalanche of emotion crashed over his head, obliterating his carefully constructed walls and gouging holes in his hard-won calm like a sucker punch straight to the heart.
Sorting out how he felt about Skye Gladwell was like trying to untangle a bowl of cooked spaghetti, but as the seconds ticked down and the pressure mounted, the red-hot coil of determination tightened his gut and overwhelmed everything else.
Skye had already raced over to the West Coast team’s table and was busily taking over dicing whatever her teammate had left lying on the chopping block. As if feeling Beck’s eyes on her, she glanced up.
Their eyes met across the kitchen, and Beck’s vision tunneled down for a short, disorienting moment where all he could see was Skye.
The one person in the entire world who could destroy his composure without even trying.
His gut clenched, his heart rate doubled, and the hair on the back of his neck stood up. In that moment, Beck was a knife’s edge away from snarling at her, at his teammates, at the unbelievable twist of fate that had brought him face to face with the one woman he’d give anything to forget.
A clatter of metal, the sound of a pot being dropped by the third competitor, jerked Beck back into the moment, and he shook his head as if he’d just surfaced from a dive.
You can’t do any of that right now, dickhead. So focus. Get your head out of your ass and move. Go. Go!
Jolted into high gear, Beck slammed the door shut on his the part of his brain that couldn’t help keeping tabs on every move Skye Gladwell made.
And why the hell did that internal voice have to sound so much like Sgt. Martino, his drill instructor back at the Naval Base in San Diego? Shaking his head clear, like a dog coming out of the water, Beck tuned out everything but the various elements of their dish in the final stages of cooking as Danny Lunden wiped his brow and jogged over to the other side of the kitchen where the rest of their team waited.
Everyone else was already running, scrambling, zooming back and forth between the pantry, the walk-in coolers, and the stoves, but Beck forced them away from his consciousness and took his time to taste everything.
He’d been wrong. That scraping he’d interpreted as Winslow shucking oysters had actually been the cracking of a mound of local Dungeness crabs.
Winslow Jones must be some kind of psychic genius to have chosen crab as the base of their team’s dish. If there was any ingredient in the world that Beck knew better, he couldn’t think of it.
He’d grown up eating Dungeness crab, setting his own traps and checking them, boiling water over an illegal open fire on the rocky beach and steaming the spiny brown crustaceans. He’d hacked them open with a pocket knife, cutting his fingers on the jagged edges of the shells, the only thought in his mind to get at the briny, shockingly juicy sweetness of the crab meat.
His team’s crabs were all prepped and ready to go, white-tipped claws stripped of meat and piled in a small mountain to the side of the stainless steel work surface beside shallow prep bowls filled with garnishes.
Beck lifted the bowls in turn, inhaling deeply and identifying the contents by smell. Fresh tarragon; chopped ginger; thinly sliced shallots. Beside the bowls lay stacks of peeled, seeded cucumber in perfect two-inch batons, crisp and faintly green.
Spinning to check out the stove, he found a sauce reducing on the back burner of the stove, glossy and pale yellow. A quick dip of a clean spoon, and he tasted egg yolks and cream. It needed something more, another flavor element to bring the whole thing together...
Plus, it was getting thick, and would need to be thinned out for the dish he already had in mind. He could use the cooking water from the crabs, he decided as he checked the enameled cast iron stockpot bubbling merrily beside the sauce.
The pot held plain boiling water, he ascertained from a sniff test, which was a good strategic move on someone’s part. If Beck wanted to blanche a vegetable as a base for the crab, or make some very al dente pasta, he was all set up to do it.
An idea flickered to life, and without questioning his instincts, Beck snagged a bottle of champagne vinegar, a canister of sugar, and a clean, small saucepan. Carefully ladling out a cup of the boiling water into the new saucepan, he added an equal amount of vinegar and cranked the burner up to ‘high’ so he could dissolve the sugar into the mixture as quickly as possible.
The already hot water came back up to the boil in seconds while Beck put the cucumber into a wide-bottomed bowl, hesitated a brief second, then added the ginger and sliced shallots to the mix, along with a few red pepper flakes for kick. Then he poured the hot brine over the vegetables and rushed the steaming bowl of quick pickles to the blast chiller to cool down.
On his way back to the stove, he snatched the tarragon from the prep table. Adding it to the sauce, Beck tasted and corrected for flavor, thinning as he went with the salty fish stock, until he had a delicate, savory sauce, rich with fatty egg yolks and redolent of summery tarragon.
It was still missing something, though—and with the brine at the top of his brain, Beck got a flash of inspiration. Darting to the walk-in cooler, he searched the shelves for the bottle he was sure he’d seen earlier.
Ah ha! There it was, the green glass beaded with condensation. Beck grabbed it and hustled back to the stove where he popped the cork with a satisfying, festive burst of bubbles.
Champagne would add a light tang to the sauce, especially if he tamed the yeasty, acidic flavors by quickly reducing it to a thin syrup. Pouring a small amount of the sparkling wine into another saucepan, he cranked the dial and let it foam up and then back down again before stirring it into his sauce.
Another taste...Beck grabbed a clean spoon and dipped, then had to remind himself not to double dip.
Damn, that was tasty. Clean and bright, but with a creamy fattiness that would contrast beautifully with the simple crab.
Then it was quick, back to the blast chiller to rescue his pickles, which he drained on paper towels before portioning out between three appetizer plates, carefully cross-hatching the cold, crispy cucumbers into squares dotted with the dusky purple-pink of the shallots, which hadn’t spent enough time in the hot brine to lose their color, just enough time to soak up enough sweet-sour flavor to offset their sharp, oniony tang.
Each plate got a mound of snowy white crab meat on top of the pickled cucumber and shallot, and Beck flicked his eyes up to check the wall clock.
Thirty seconds left. He became aware of the chef contestants who’d already had their turn cooking standing on the kitchen sidelines, chanting along with the dwindling numbers on the timer, counting down the seconds in a frenzy of encouragement.
Adrenalin pumped into Beck’s blood, and he felt the same odd reaction he always got. His heart slowed, every beat like the tick of the second hand in his ear. The hot air of the kitchen felt cool against his temples as the sweat there cooled.
When he lifted careful spoonfuls of his champagne sauce and swirled it into artful semi-circles around the edges of his plates, his hand was rock steady.
Beck dusted the chopped tarragon from his fingertips onto the last of the judges’ plates just as Eva Jansen said, in her official announcer voice, “Time! Step away from your plates.”
The physical act of backing up a pace seemed to cut the cord that had bound him to his work, and Beck felt the rest of the world come back online, background noise and awareness of the other two chefs who’d finished their teams dishes flooding his head in a rush.
Skye Gladwell was right next to him, her heady, earthy scent of nutmeg and cream hitting him like an open-handed slap to the face. Beck had to close his eyes for a long moment to thank his combat training for giving him single-minded focus and drive.
Because this particular challenge was perfectly calibrated to tap into Beck’s primal fight-or-fuck instincts.
Skye? He’d had ten years to get over her, but apparently that wasn’t long enough to blunt the edges of his desire for her.
He didn’t love her anymore, obviously, but damned if he didn’t still want her as badly as he had at the age of twenty. It had been a surprise to him in Chicago, that unexpected surge of physical need, but he was over the shock of it now, and working to kill the desire as dead as his softer feelings.
Until he managed it, though, he had to acknowledge he was pretty fucked in the head when it came to Skye Gladwell.
The third contestant in this final challenge, however...Beck’s feelings on that guy were a whole lot less complicated.
On Beck’s left stood Ryan Larousse, the cocky, smarmy head of the Midwest Team. They’d already gotten into it once or twice during the competition, to the point where Beck had humiliatingly and completely lost his cool and actually knocked the skinny little weasel on his ass.
Drawing calm blankness around himself was like strapping on body armor, and it helped as Beck worked to slow his breathing and return his heart rate to normal. Eyes straight ahead, waiting for the judges to come over and pronounce a winner.
Feel nothing. Feelings are for people who have the luxury of acting on them. You do your best and accept the rest.
It was a decent mantra, as far as survival went, but Beck couldn’t help but feel a mirroring tingle of the excitement in Skye’s eyes as she shot him a sideways look.
“This is amazing. I can’t believe we’re both here,” she breathed, her wide, cornflower eyes tracking the progress of the judges, who’d started at the other end of the table with the Midwest Team’s plate.
All the work Beck had done of slowing his pulse and regulating his body temperature went up in smoke. “I can’t believe you still look at the world that way,” he said.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” The sudden ramrod tension of her body said more than her stiff words.
Beck shook his head. He’d always loved the innocent pleasure she took from life—but it drove him crazy, too, the way she refused to see the world as it really was, in all its harsh, ugly reality. Especially considering what she’d gone through while their relationship was imploding.
Let it go, he told himself, gritting his teeth. You’re over this, remember?
“Nothing. Forget it. Congratulations on making it to the finals.” Beck thought that was safe. Polite, distant.
“You too,” she muttered as the judges exclaimed over Larousse’s hand-made gnocchi with pea shoots and shiitake foam. “And hey, congrats on finally finding your balls again.”
Beck felt his head snap back on his neck as if she’d spit on him.
Skye turned to get a better look at his face, brushing the flyaway softness of her red-gold curls against his arm. Beck fought not to flinch, not to grab her and shake her, not to betray his agitation by moving a single muscle.
“Your balls,” she said clearly, eyes flashing darker than he’d ever seen them, even that last, awful night. “You must’ve found them, if you finally got up the guts to show your face in this city again.”
The bitterness in her voice stung like lemon juice in an open cut, and Beck had to fight with everything in him not to react.
“Nice talk,” he said, unable to help the hoarse thickness of his voice. “You kiss your mother with that mouth?”
She looked away, back to the judges, who were finishing up with Larousse. “I’m not the sweet kid you left ten years ago, Henry. Don’t think for even a second that I’m going to go down easy. I’m here to win, not to make new friends or relive ancient history.”
“Don’t worry,” Beck snarled under his breath. “Once this is all over and my team has won, I’ll be ditching San Francisco and heading back to the east coast.”
“Perfect,” she said. “Except my team’s going to be taking home the prize money and the Rising Star Chef title. And before you run back to New York, there is one little thing I’m going to want from you.”
The judges were thanking Larousse and sauntering down the table toward Skye as Beck said, “What’s that?”
He didn’t know what he expected—money, maybe, or a demand that he go to hell. In the furthest, undisciplined depths of his mind, there might’ve even been a hint of a thought that maybe she’d ask him for one last night together, for old time’s sake.
Instead, what she whispered out of the corner of her mouth just before smiling brilliantly and greeting the judges knocked Beck off balance and stopped his heart.
“I want a divorce.”
How in the hell did we get here?
Skye closed her eyes, but that just made it worse—the heat of Beck beside her, the wild, masculine scent of his skin, like pine needles and the wind off the water—and suddenly, without warning, vivid memories rose up and enveloped her.
The sign said “Day Use Only”. Skye squinted up at the amber orange clouds over Kirby Cove.
It was sort of daytime. Okay, maybe the sun wasn’t technically still up, but the moon and stars weren’t really out yet, either.
Staring at the metal gate blocking the steep trail down to the cove, Skye tried to imagine what Annika Valanova would say if a Golden Gate National Park Ranger called her to come bail her daughter out of park prison.
She could practically here her mother’s throaty, dramatic voice pronouncing all rules petty and unimportant in the face of Art.
Annika always said the word ‘Art’ like that, with the kind of emphasis that let you know she meant it with a capital ‘A’, as serious as breathing.
For sure, more serious than a piddling little park regulation or two.
And then there was her father. Peter Gladwell had made a career out of breaking the rules and defying expectations. If he could see Skye now, waffling around and wringing her hands over going against posted signage, he’d probably disown her.
Promising herself she’d get the images she needed and get out of the park before dark, Skye ducked under the metal bar and hurried down the path.
When it came right down to it, she’d rather get a slap on the wrist from a park ranger than face her parents’ disappointment when she proved, for the zillionth time, that she hadn’t inherited their dedication to Art and civil disobedience.
An hour later, she was still perched on the flat rock she’d found near the edge of the water, sketchpad abandoned beside her as she gazed out over the bay. The lights blazed up along the Golden Gate Bridge, a bright, straight line leading to the city of Skye’s dreams.
She sighed, curling tighter over her knees as a crisp breeze swept the rocky beach. The skyline beckoned her, so close and yet so far, promising freedom. Anonymity.
Man, what she wouldn’t give to walk down the street and be just one of the crowd, instead of the love child of a scandalous artist and a famous playwright.
A sharp, shocking rustle in the bushes behind her startled Skye out of her daydreams. The city might be nearly close enough to touch, but the park was still home to a surprising array of wildlife. On walks with her mom, Skye had seen raccoons and skunk, and she’d heard of campers running into bigger stuff like bobcats, coyotes, mountain lions...
Heart drumming in her chest, Skye scrambled to her feet, eyes on the dark tangle of tall grass and thick brush up the side of the hill. Why hadn’t she stayed on the trail?
The bushes shook again, the crackle of twigs snapping and leaves crushed underfoot reminding Skye of the hiker who’d told everyone in town she’d seen a bear last summer.
Skipping backwards, the heel of Skye’s flat sandals slipped against the rock and she toppled off, arms pinwheeling in a desperate bid for balance. She hit the ground below the rock, air rushing out of her with a woof as her back slammed into the gravelly sand.
“Hey! Are you okay?”
Skye blinked up at the moon dazedly, wondering if she was having an auditory hallucination. Bears didn’t talk, right?
“God damn,” the voice swore. “Hello?”
Although if they did, they’d probably sound a lot like the voice, Skye thought, lifting a heavy hand to probe at the spot of warm pain radiating out from the back of her skull.
The voice was deep and a little rough, with a velvety earthiness that made Skye think of thick, luxuriant fur rubbing against her skin.
Enough with the bear stuff, already.
“I’m okay,” she called, sitting up and putting a tentative hand to her throbbing head. “Ouch.”
She squeezed her dazzled eyes shut and wished she dared shake her head to scatter the strange cobwebs from her brain, but she had a feeling that would hurt.
“Ouch doesn’t sound good. Here, give me your hand.”
Skye tipped her head back and opened her eyes as the world swirled around her in a dizzy rush of stars and clouds and moon, all blocked by the tall, broad-shouldered silhouette looming over her on the rock.
She blinked, dazzled again, but this time in a much less cerebral, more low-down-in-the-body kind of way. Skye sucked in a breath, feeling everything inside her tighten up and throb a heated pulse of excitement through her jarred system.
The man, because he was certainly a man and not a bear, leaned over one knee and held out a long-fingered hand. Everything about him was in shadow, with the moonlight behind him, outlining him in black, but Skye could see that he was big. And dark. Not all of the darkness came from the gathering night, either—his hair made wild, black waves around his face. Even his clothes were black.
He was like something out of a novel, Heathcliffe on the moors, and that thought had Skye scrambling to her feet without taking his hand, because she’d never really understood the attraction of a surly, bad-tempered, violently aggressive roughneck—even if he was smokin’ hot.
And what kind of guy wandered around off-limits parks after hours, dressed all in black?
Conveniently ignoring the fact that she, herself, was wandering around the park after hours, Skye dusted off her jeans-clad rump, unusually grateful for her extra padding back there. Packing a lot of junk in the trunk meant she’d have nothing worse than a bruised behind. That skinny bitch from school, Laura Hayden, would probably have broken her tailbone, taking a tumble like that.
Not that anyone other than Skye would ever be such a gigantic klutz as to fall off a perfectly flat rock.
“I guess you’re okay, then,” the guy said, straightening up. Skye narrowed her eyes, trying to make out some details of his face. She was supposed to be an artist. She was supposed to be good at this kind of thing.
Too bad she’d never been very good at “supposed to.”
“I told you I was.” That sounded kind of ungrateful. She didn’t really want to antagonize the guy, did she? “Thank you for stopping by, though. It was nice of you to make sure I wasn’t dead or concussed or something.”
There. Polite, even in the face of potential mugging.
“Oh, I don’t know.” The earthy voice sounded a breath away from laughing at her, and Skye wondered if she’d been right about him being a man.
Well, he was definitely male, but maybe not as old as she’d originally thought. Crossing her arms the way that squashed her too-big boobs down a little, Skye lifted her chin. “on’t you know?”
The guy lowered himself to the rock and kicked his legs out in front of him, leaning back on his hands. “ght still be concussed. I’d better sit here with you a while, just to make sure.”
Skye did some more waffling. He sounded reasonable, nice even, but he was wearing black jeans and clompy leather boots, and every time he moved, moonlight glinted silver off the zippers and safety pins holding his leather jacket together over a black t-shirt. He looked tough, in a way that no one Skye went to school with in tiny, artsy fartsy Sausalito, ever looked. But as her eyes adjusted to the dim light and she began to make out his features, she saw that he was young, too. Probably not any older than she was. Maybe a year older. He could be eighteen.
Feeling jittery and weird, Skye glanced back in the direction of the path. He wasn’t blocking her escape in any way. And with him sitting like that, she could make a break for it, no problem. Skye was shorter and rounder than cheerleaders like Laura, but she was fast.
“I’m not going to hurt you, if that’s what you think.”
Skye whipped around at the guy’s quiet voice. He sounded...sad. Or something. Disappointed, maybe, and guilty shame flooded Skye’s chest. He’d been nothing but nice to her, and here she was, judging him by how he dressed and looked, just like those dumb girls at school always judged Skye, with her peasant blouses and paint-stained corduroys.
“I don’t think that,” Skye denied stoutly. “I’m sure you’re a very nice person. It’s just that it’s getting late, and I should probably head home.”
“Whatever.” The guy shrugged and leaned back on his hands again, looking off to the side, away from Skye, exposing his sharp, chiseled profile.
Skye felt a little like she’d fallen off the rock again, the world tumbling around her for a brief, disorienting moment before she caught her breath.
He was gorgeous. And all big and dark and scary. And gorgeous.
The moon was higher in the sky now, casting a blueish light over everything. Skye could finally make out his expression, the way resignation had twisted his hard, sensual mouth into flat line. He tipped his head down, just a little, and the shadows lengthened over his strong, uncompromising face.
It was the face of a man Skye would’ve said she’d never want to meet in an alley, or alone on the moors, or in a deserted public park—but as she stood there and watched him realize that she hadn’t run off yet, watched the softening of his lips and the widening of his dark eyes turned back to find her still there, Skye knew this guy was telling the truth.
He’d never hurt her.
A surge of confidence had her rounding the rock and scrambling up the loose dirt and gravel of the hill to get to the top again. She plunked herself down right next to him, pulling her knees in to her chest and giving him a sidelong look.
“d I’d better not risk it.”
Confusion narrowed his eyes and made her notice his short, masculine eyelashes, black as soot when he blinked. “hat?”
“sion.” She shrugged. “Not to mention how dangerous it is to run in the dark over bad terrain. Knowing me, I’d find the one rain gulley and sprain my ankle, or fall off a cliff into the bay.”
“A little accident prone, are we?” The smooth amusement was back in his voice, and a warm glow filled Skye with fluttering wings of pleasure.
The hottest guy she’d ever seen in real life was sitting in a secluded, romantic cranny of nature with her, talking to her. Maybe even flirting with her!
“More than a little,” she said, aware of how breathless she sounded, but utterly unable to get a good, deep gasp of air into her giddy lungs. “My mom won’t even let me in the studio with her anymore, I’ve knocked over her easels so many times.”
“Your mother’s an artist? That’s cool.” He said it so simply, like he was interested, but didn’t really care all that much.
Skye strove to match his detached tone. “Yeah, she paints. Sculpts a little, works with metal. Whatever she feels like when the muse takes her.”
His mouth twitched again, quirking one cheek into winking a dimple at her, so fast she almost missed it. “The muse. Is that what you were looking for out here?”
“Who, me? What makes you say...hey, give me that back!”
Skye snatched at her composition book, but the guy held it up, his long arms easily keeping it out of her reach.
“Are you an artist, too?” he teased, waving the notebook.
Jumping to her feet, Skye lunged for the book, her only thought to get it in her hands before he opened it and saw her embarrassingly horrible chicken scratch drawings.
The guy gave it up easily with a “Hey, okay! Sorry. Shit, I ought to know better—” but having braced for a struggle, Skye overcompensated and lost her balance.
She clutched the notebook to her chest and squeezed her eyes shut, the words “Not again!” flashing through her brain as her entire body braced for impact—before she realized she hadn’t slammed into the hard, cold ground.
In fact, she was sprawled on something hard, but warm. A firm surface that gave when she pressed her hand to the cool leather of the guy’s jacket...
Oh my god.
“I’m so sorry,” she squeaked, mortified, as she tried to heave herself up off the poor guy she’d just flattened. “I must be crushing you.”
“Don’t apologize. You’re not crushing me at all.” His voice sounded strained, though, and Skye’s cheeks went scorching hot with a mixture of arousal and humiliation. She felt enormous and ungainly, wallowing in his lap like a walrus, unable to get her balance back and get off of him—but part of her wanted to stay right where she was, for the rest of her life.
“Besides,” he continued in that same, tense voice, “it was my fault. I was being a dick.”
Annoyance rushed back in, overwhelming her embarrassment momentarily. “Yeah, you were. An artist’s notebook is sacred, okay? You never, ever mess with that. Ever.”
Never mind that Skye wasn’t an artist and never would be, no matter what her parents thought.
“I’m sorry,” he said again. “You’re right. Hey, I’ve got shit I wouldn’t want some stranger poking through, either.”
“Please.” She couldn’t help but scoff. This boy radiated ‘cool’ like it was seeping from his pores. “What could you possibly have to be embarrassed about?”
“Right.” He looked away, out over the water. “Because a guy like me couldn’t possibly have depths.”
Now Skye felt bad again. The yo-yoing of her emotions was wearing her out. “No, I didn’t mean—...”
“Well, I have depths,” he declared, swiveling his head suddenly to give her a narrow stare. “You’re not the only one with a secret notebook, all right?”
Skye felt a quickening of excitement. Something in common! “You’re an artist, too?”
Fake it till you make it, baby. And if it would give her more to talk about with Tall, Dark, and Deep, here...
But he shook his head. “Nah, can’t even draw a good Spiderman. But I...write stuff. Sometimes.”
Skye couldn’t believe how nervous he seemed all of a sudden. But kind of defiant, too, like he expected her to laugh. Deliberately keeping her voice very serious, she asked, “What, like stories?”
He shrugged, staring down at his fingers picking at the frayed hole in the denim over his left knee. “Not really. More like...poetry, I guess. It’s lame, I know.”
“It’s not lame!” Skye clambered up to her knees beside him. “It’s amazing.” Bracing herself to take a flying leap, she said, “Would you maybe read me one of your poems sometime?”
There was a swooping feeling in her belly, as if she’d tumbled off the rock again, but it stilled when he glanced up at her from under his long, dark lashes. His hair fell over his forehead, almost hiding his eyes, but she could still see the way they crinkled when he smiled.
“Yeah? Maybe. Sometime. Anyway, sorry again about trying to steal your notebook. But you look really freaking cute when you’re mad. Like a kitten with its fur rubbed the wrong way.”
Skye huffed. Great. She was a kitten. Kittens were fluffy, roly poly little balls of fluff—definitely not sexy at all.
Skye gave him a disgruntled frown. “Yeah, thanks. And thanks for keeping me from falling to my death again, but I’ve got to go.”
“Wait, don’t leave. I promise I’ll be good. What’s your name?”
She paused, torn. She didn’t really want to leave—and it wasn’t like she had a curfew or a set of parents waiting at home for a family dinner or something. “I’m Skye,” she said, bracing for recognition. “Skye Gladwell.”
“Cool,” the boy said, sitting up. He was watching her with interest, but nothing flared in his gaze at the mention of her famous father’s last name.
Skye got a little tingle of excitement down her spine. The anonymity she’d always wanted, that she stared out across the San Francisco skyline and dreamed about, was sitting right in front of her. Embodied in the broad-shouldered, muscled form of a truly, knee-shakingly hot guy.
Skye thought maybe she’d found her muse.
“You live near here?” he asked.
Settling back down beside him, Skye felt the heat of his tall, young body all along her right side. “Pretty close. Sausalito.”
He leaned in, his face right next to hers, close enough that she felt the delicate scratch of his unshaven cheek against her temple. Pointing out over the water with his long arm, he said, “I live way over there. A place so different from this, you can hardly imagine.”
“Where?” She could barely breathe, shiveringly, achingly aware of every inch of him. “Oakland.”
“I’ve never been there,” Skye confessed, a little ashamed. It seemed stupid—not like Oakland was some faraway country or something.
“You’re not missing anything,” he told her. “Don’t bother. No, seriously, don’t—sweet little thing like you’d get eaten alive in my neighborhood.”
Skye stiffened, knocking him back a bit. “I can handle myself. I’m tougher than I look.”
You had to be, when every kid in school wanted to make fun of you for your parents being crazy, and not married, and sewing you weird hippie clothes to wear.
“You’re a cream puff,” he said, and she felt his fingers stroking through her hair. “What’s a nice girl like you doing out here? Looking for trouble?”
The tender, careful caress distracted Skye from the extremely unflattering comparison to fat, round pastries, and a delicious shiver skimmed over her skin, raising the fine, pale hairs on her arms and tightening her nipples into tiny pinpoints of sensation.
If she turned her face just the eensiest bit to the right, she’d be looking right into his deep, dark eyes. Their mouths would be close enough to brush together. His hand was in her hair.
The moment hung suspended and brilliant, like one of the stars overhead, while Skye’s heart pounded out a new, terrifying rhythm. She wanted to kiss him. Did he want to kiss her?
Gathering all her courage, she closed her eyes and turned her face, lifting her mouth to his...and he handed her a twig with a bright green leaf attached to it.
“This was tangled up in your hair,” he said.
Skye died, right then and there, of humiliation.
Or at least, she wished she could. But no, stubborn life had to keep marching on, trampling all over her hopes and dreams and dragging Skye with it.
“Thanks,” she managed to get out, even though her voice sounded like someone had a choking grip on her vocal chords.
His face was still really close to hers. She could feel the warmth of his breath against the tip of her nose; he smelled like the salt breeze and smoke, like from a bonfire.
From this close, now that her vision had adjusted, Skye thought his eyes were deep brown, the rich, pure color of the paint her mother mixed in with gold to make the perfect shade to capture the cedars she loved to paint.
“You’ve got pretty eyes.”
For a moment, it was as if he’d read her mind. But it only took Skye a second to catch up and realize he was walking about her own boring blue eyes. Disappointed, she lowered her gaze and fought to keep the tremble out of her lips.
“Thanks,” she said again, more subdued this time.
Everyone complimented her eyes. Or her strawberry blond hair, or her creamy skin, or her great personality. Those were the things people talked about when you were heavier than the other girls in your class. She could just hear her mother’s bewildered voice as her sharp gaze sketched over Skye’s lackluster appearance: “You could be so pretty, if...”
“No, I mean it,” the guy insisted, scooting closer until Skye’s hopeful heart picked up its pace again. “I’ve never seen eyes that change colors. And your mouth...”
His stare dropped to her lips, which parted on a startled gasp. This was new! No one ever talked about her mouth. Or looked at it like that.
Was she about to get her very first kiss?
A stack of dirty pans toppled to the counter with a crash, jarring Skye out of that moment of infinite possibility and back into the present.
The shitty, depressing present that tasted of nothing so much as bitter failure.
She’d finally confronted Henry Beck.
This was supposed to be an empowering moment. Skye had always imagined it that way. She’d expected to feel strong, independent, even righteous. Instead, all she felt was a clutch of nausea and the burn of bitter tears behind her eyes.
Beck’s face, of course, showed nothing. No reaction, other than a slight widening of his unreadable dark eyes. She could hate him for that alone, if it weren’t against Skye’s life philosophy to hate anyone, ever.
Even the husband who’d abandoned her when she needed him most.
The hardest part is over, she told herself, slipping a hand into the pocket of her chef’s coat. And there’s plenty of time.
Paper crinkled between her fingers, the printed-out email already creased and worn from her nervous fidgeting and rereading. At this point, Skye had it memorized.
Keeping it short because internet is spotty out here, but I miss you so much, Sunshine. I think about you all the time. I’m going to try to make it back stateside to watch you compete, and when I get home, there’s a question I want to ask you...
All my love,
Mustering up a smile for the judges was easier when she thought about Jeremiah’s email. He always made her feel good—and this particular email, with him dropping that hint about a question, made her heart thump hard against her ribcage.
Was he going to ask her to marry him?
The question rolled around her brain like a ball of bread dough in a mixing bowl, sticky and thick with potential. Potential joy, sure—but also potential problems.
Since Skye was already married. And had never quite gotten around to telling Jeremiah about Henry Beck.
That sucked the smile right off her face, so Skye had to work extra hard to get it back and make it convincing; somehow, the sight of Beck’s sternly impassive features reminded that she’d never really learned to fake...well, anything. But especially emotion.
Feeling uncomfortably like a liar, Skye plastered on a bright grin and hoped her overheated cheeks would be attributed to the warmth of the kitchen and the excitement of the timed challenge.
“Hello, Chef Gladwell,” Claire Durand said, in her cultured, French way. “It’s lovely to see you again. What do you have for us today?”
Skye swallowed down the messy wad of adrenaline, bitterness, and grief clogging her throat. It took her a moment to even remember what they’d just done, but finally she managed. “My team and I did pan-roasted quail with a carpaccio of baby zucchini, strawberries, and avocado.”
“Very pretty,” observed the distinguished older gentleman who’d temporarily joined the judging team just before the finals, when celebrity chef Devon Sparks had to leave. Theo Jansen was a legend in culinary circles, although more so in New York than on the west coast, since that’s where his restaurant empire was based.
But every chef in the nation recognized him as the founder of the Rising Star Chef competition. The fact that he’d complimented anything about her food gave Skye a thrill that chased some of the gut-wrenching negativity out of her system—even if he might not be a judge for much longer. There was a rumor floating around that Eva Jansen was looking for someone to replace her father on the judging panel.
Until then? Skye was going to take the compliment and enjoy it. “Thank you,” she said. “I hope you enjoy the flavors.”
The third judge, Kane Slater, had been silent until now, but he was the first to grab a fork and dig in.
“Nice color on the bird,” he said as he cut through the crispy, brown skin of the quail with a satisfying crackle. “Wow. The strawberry! I wasn’t expecting that.”
A trickle of sweat tickled its way down Skye’s spine. She cast a nervous glance at the rest of her teammates. The strawberry had been her addition.
“I thought the dish needed a little more color and juice,” she offered, twisting her fingers into a knot behind her back. “And fruit is traditional with game birds.”
“Yes. Usually the fruit is cooked, however.” Claire leaned over to cut a small bite. Skye noticed how meticulous she was about getting a tiny sliver of every single element of the dish onto her fork. “Hmmm.”
Theo Jansen tried it too, and gave Skye a smile before thanking her and moving down the table toward Beck.
Before she could freak out too much that she couldn’t tell what Ms. Durand and Mr. Jansen thought of her dish, Kane Slater gave her a quick wink and a surreptitious thumbs up. It wasn’t enough to totally melt the tension in her shoulders, but it helped. Skye smiled at him gratefully, and mentally promised to go out and buy every single one of his albums, even though she was more of a jazz girl, herself.
Now that the judges had moved on, Skye’s teammates crowded closer, reaching for spoons to snatch bites of the dish they’d collectively created.
Skye’s best friend, Fiona Whealey, licked the bowl of her spoon and scowled. “It’s good. No thanks to me. Damn it, what am I doing here?”
Fiona was the resident baker at the Queenie Pie Café. Baker, not pastry chef, and God help you if you called her by the wrong job title. Fiona was proudly self taught, and no one made bread like Fee’s, but her talents were wasted on these short, timed challenges.
Before Skye could move in for a comforting pep talk, her grill man stepped up. Hugging Fiona close with an arm around her narrow shoulders, Rex Roswell said, “Shut it, Fee-wee, you know we couldn’t get anywhere without our flour puff girl.”
It was an old joke, but a reliable one. Fiona laughed and ducked away from Rex to smooth down her perfectly straight, extremely non-puffy hair. The platinum blonde locks were as baby fine and soft as ever, Skye observed, glad of the long years of practice at denying her own envy.
She didn’t even want to think about what her crazy red hair was doing while she was talking to Beck.
“I still think we woulda won if we’d gone vegan.” Their resident hippie health nut poked morosely at the perfectly crisped skin stretched golden and tantalizing across the quail’s breast. Nathan Yamaoka, the only Asian Rastafarian Skye had ever seen, was on a perpetual, if lackadaisical, campaign to turn the Queenie Pie Café into a vegetarian restaurant.
“I had you all set up for a nice little veggie dish,” he went on.
“Who added the quail?” Skye interrupted, looking around at her team.
Oscar Puentes raised his hand, totally unconcerned by the scowling of his shorter, much skinnier, dreadlocked teammate. “That would be me.”
Skye waited until Nathan had turned away, muttering something about dead baby birds, before she gave Oscar a discreet thumbs up and a grin.
Nathan was a genius with vegetables, and they had a huge number of vegetarian customers who were kept extremely satisfied and enthralled by his many innovative uses for kale, but they were in the RSC to win it.
And glancing around at her competitors’ dishes, Skye knew a salad wasn’t going to cut it.
The judges walked back to the front of the kitchen, snapping Skye out of her unhappy thoughts and prompting her to make a grab for Rex, who was deeply involved in the second half of the Flour Puff Girl routine, which consisted of him trying to get his hands into Fiona’s hair and rub her head until he’d generated enough static electricity to power a small city while she squawked a protest, but secretly loved it.
“Guys! Quit it! The judges are about to announce the winner.”
Get a room, was what she wanted to say, but Skye restrained herself.
Eva Jansen swiveled her slinky hips to the front of the judges’ group, her shiny brunette bob swinging smoothly against her chin. Why was it Skye’s fate to be surrounded by gorgeous size-two women with perfect, bouncy, straight hair? This wasn’t exactly how she’d pictured the restaurant business.
“Thank you, chefs, for some lovely small plates. Midwest team, the judges loved your gnocchi—I actually heard the phrase ‘light as a feather’, which is not something I often associate with tiny balls of potato dough. But they’re getting a little tired of the foam, and felt it should’ve had more shiitake flavor to really add something to the dish.”
“Oooh, somebody’s mad,” Fiona muttered out of the side of her mouth, her pale blue eyes avid as she watched Ryan Larousse’s reaction to the critique.
Skye bit the inside of her lip. Yeah, the Midwest team had made some mistakes, but it was down to the final three, now. The small stuff was where it would all play out, and perfect dishes were rare.
“Chef Beck,” Eva Jansen said, moving on. “Your local crab with tarragon champagne sauce seems to have been a favorite with the judges. According to my notes, it was the quick pickled cucumbers and shallots that tipped it over the edge from a nice, if uninspired, French-inflected dish to something new and uniquely yours. Good job.”
Sneaking a glance at Beck, Skye wasn’t surprised to find him looking entirely unmoved by the whole thing. Of freaking course. She wondered, as she had so often during their brief, tumultuous year together, what it would take to truly move Henry Beck.
She’d certainly never cracked the code.
And if there was a part of her that thrilled with quiet pride for Beck at hearing such positive feedback from the judges, Skye squashed it just in time for Eva Jansen to turn to her with that feline smile curling up the corners of her too-red mouth.
Skye bit her lip again, never more aware of the fact that her all-natural tinted lip balm, while cruelty free and completely organic, didn’t have as much staying power as whatever industrial strength lipstick slicked Eva’s scarlet mouth.
“And last but not least, we have the West Coast team. The team with home field advantage, here in San Francisco.”
When Skye reflexively stretched her mouth into a smile, she had to hide a wince as the expression pulled against the sore worry spot inside her bottom lip. For the millionth time, she vowed to stop biting her lip at the first sign of stress.
Tension coiled through her ribs and slithered down into her stomach, making it hard to catch a breath.
“Want to know what the judges thought of your pan-roasted quail? They enjoyed it very much. But even more than that, they enjoyed the inventive use of fresh fruits and vegetables, and the way you helped those simple ingredients to sing through the dish.”
Relief flooded Skye, even as the wildly triumphant look on Nathan’s tan face made her want to groan. He was never going to let them hear the end of this.
The rest of her team was smiling and hugging, patting each other on the back, and Skye had to grind her molars together to keep from shaking them. It’s not over yet, she wanted to scream. They haven’t announced the winner!
Or the prize, come to think of it.
“You all put up wonderful dishes, but the dish all three judges agreed they’d go back to again and again—...”
“I wanted to lick the plate,” Kane Slater put in, with his usual infectious enthusiasm.
“Is that a euphemism?” Eva shot back, a mischievous twinkle in her eye. “Anyway, as I was saying, the judges ranked on team’s dish the highest out of all three, and that team was...”
Skye had been holding her breath so long, her lungs burned.
“The East Coast Team, from Lunden’s Tavern!”
Beck’s teammates whooped and shouted, all but tackling him to the ground, while Skye stood there feeling like a punctured helium balloon.
“Settle down, chefs. There’s more. The last two teams—it was neck and neck, and we couldn’t get a unanimous decision. But the majority vote went to the Midwest Team for second place.”
Now Skye was a helium balloon that had been punctured, deflated, and run over by a streetcar.
Last place. Her team was in last place.
Eva’s pointy features softened a bit as she looked at the Queenie Pie gang. “You had strong support,” she said. “But in the end, the judges felt that the Midwest team was more inventive, pushed a little harder, took more risks.”
That’s not true, Skye wanted to argue. We took the risk of not actually cooking our accompaniment. We took the chance that you’d see that food doesn’t have to be a science project to be delicious and exciting.
What the hell was risky about doing a foam, when practically every chef in the nation was experimenting with liquid nitrogen and agar-agar?
But she clenched her jaw and smiled through the frustration. Arguing wouldn’t solve anything, and would only serve to make her look like a sore loser.
Which, okay. Maybe she was, a little bit.
This day was so not turning out the way she’d hoped.
# # # #
It had been a few years since basic training, but Beck still knew how to stand tall with a hundred-and-sixty-pound weight on his back.
And a good thing, too, since Winslow Jones was clinging like a monkey and showed no signs of wanting to come down from his favorite perch.
“You the man,” he crowed directly into Beck’s ear.
“All right boys...and girl,” Eva Jansen said, with an amused glint in her eyes. “Settle down. Don’t you want to find out what you’ve won?”
All of Beck’s senses went on alert. A valuable advantage in the upcoming challenge, she’d said when first explaining the relay. With a roll of his shoulders and a quick torso twist, Beck managed to dislodge Winslow and set the kid back on his sneakers on the solid ground. He needed to focus for this.
“Thank you.” Eva was being as carefully bland and polite as Beck had ever seen her, obviously conscious of the fact that she was addressing a group of chefs who all knew she was dating one of the men in their ranks.
Beck shot his teammate, Danny, a quick, assessing glance. The guy was mirroring Eva’s sleek, satisfied glow.
Things had gotten dicey back in Chicago when Eva had taken her quest to get the RSC televised too far. But now that she’d ditched the Cooking Channel and sent the cameras home, Beck thought everything should work out fine for her and Danny.
For a while, anyway.
Not that he thought Eva and Danny were mismatched—in fact, the millionaire playgirl and the family-oriented pastry chef were weirdly perfect for each other. But Beck didn’t have a lot of faith in forever.
“As you all know,” Eva began, “the next few days will be pivotal. The next challenge will decide which team goes home, and which two will continue on to the final round, choosing two representatives to go head to head for the title of Rising Star Chef.”
A rustle of nervous murmurs and shifting bodies blew through the crowd of chefs like wind stirring up sand. Beck kept his eyes front and center, all his attention lasered on Eva.
“Up until now, the challenges have been very teamwork oriented. But for the finals, we’ll be judging the work of individuals. So to prepare for that, in the next challenge, we will be asking each team to essentially give us a bio. We want one signature dish from each chef on the team, one dish that sums up your cooking style and tells us who you are as a chef.”
This time the murmurs through the crowd were excited, and Beck felt his own heart rate increase by a few BPMs. This was a good assignment, one that would allow each chef to really stretch and showcase his or her talents.
“You’ll have tomorrow to shop and prep, and the morning of the following day to cook. We’ll expect one small, amazing plate from each of you tomorrow afternoon. But there’s a twist. East Coast team, are you listening? This is where your win comes in.”
Beside Beck, Winslow nodded vigorously, bouncing up onto the toes of his white sneakers. Beck repressed a grin.
Eva didn’t bother, letting her lips stretch into a pleased, proud smile for just one moment before she went back to her professional face. “Each team will be doing their shopping in a different location around San Francisco. There are three choices, and the East Coast team gets to pick first. Then the Midwest Team, then the West Coast team.”
This was a big deal. A chef was only as good as his ingredients. Beck glanced over to where Skye Gladwell stood with her team.
Her face was frozen in a small, strained smile that didn’t reach her blue eyes, and he had to turn away before the wave of sympathy swamped him. Yeah, it sucked that she got last dibs, and he’d much have seen that douchetruck Larousse ranked third, but there was nothing he could do about it now.
Eva paused dramatically, flipping her short brown hair off her face with an imperious head toss. “The shopping destinations are: the Ferry Building Farmer’s Market, the brand new Fresh Foods store in the Mission, and Chinatown. You may discuss.”
Beck turned to his group as they huddled up, but there was little or no discussion to be done. Basically, they all took one look at each other and said “Ferry Building.”
Well, duh. A farmer’s market, especially one as comprehensive and amazingly stocked as the one at the San Francisco Ferry Building, was a no brainer. The best, freshest produce, all of it local and seasonal and perfect—it was hard to imagine choosing any of the other options. Grinning and relieved, they left the huddle and waited for the other teams to make their choices.
Eva Jansen wasn’t kidding—this was a major advantage. Beck watched as Skye stood silently with her team, lips pressed into a thin line. There wasn’t much point to them debating, was there? They were stuck with whatever the Midwest team didn’t choose, by default. He wondered what she was hoping for as she squared her shoulders and reached up to corkscrew a few red-gold curls back into the knot on top of her head.
Ten years ago, Beck would’ve known the answer to that without even thinking.
Finally, Larousse and his team resurfaced, high fiving each other and looking smug.
“Ready with your choices?” Eva asked.
When everyone nodded, she looked to Jules Cavanaugh, Beck’s team leader. In a clear, firm voice, Jules said. “We’ll take the Ferry Building Farmer’s Market.”
Beck, who was watching for it, saw the way Ryan Larousse wrinkled his nose in annoyance, but apparently he’d been prepared for that answer, because when it came to his turn, he didn’t even hesitate. “We’ll go with the Fresh Foods in the Mission district.”
Interesting. And not what Beck would’ve chosen if he’d had command of the Midwest Team.
Cocking his head to catch Skye’s reaction, Beck thought he was probably the only person in the kitchen who could read the tug of pleased surprise at the corner of her mouth.
“Guess that leaves us with Chinatown, then,” she said, neutral as grapeseed oil, but Beck knew. She was happy.
There wasn’t time after that to analyze just why the he left the kitchen filled with a certain warmth.
He tried to convince himself that it was nothing but the job-well-done, mission-accomplished satisfaction of having won the day with his team. There was certainly plenty of back slapping and jubilating going on around him as they decamped for the hotel where the Jansen Hospitality Group had secured rooms for the competing chefs.
But deep down, part of him knew that at least an ounce of that warm, liquid pleasure sloshing in his belly was the knowledge that even after all these years, he could still read Skye Gladwell like a step-by-step recipe.
Now all he had to do was figure out how to use that knowledge to win the Rising Star Chef competition.
On Sale March 27, 2012