Excerpt

Some Like It Hot

Chapter 1

So this is what it’s like to leave home, Danny mused, narrowly avoiding a collision with a woman who seemed to have forgotten she was pulling a wheeled carry-on case behind her.

La Guardia was packed with post-holiday travelers. Every bank of waiting room benches sported at least a couple of people sleeping off their turkey and stuffing, or maybe their holiday hangovers, while the terminal seethed with chaos and confusion as flights were called, boarding was announced, and everyone rushed to find the right gate.

Danny Lunden, who’d never been out of Manhattan, took it all in and tried to figure out why the hell he was getting chills of excitement down his back.

They were on their way.

A panicking voice rose above the din of bustling passengers and PA announcements about not leaving bags unattended.

“Where’s my ticket? Please tell me one of you—oh, there it is. Okay. Thanks, Danny.”

Patting his jittering friend’s shoulder was a little like grabbing hold of the business end of a hand mixer. “Winslow, cool it. We’re all good. We’re at the gate in plenty of time.”

Which had to be some sort of miracle after the adventure of wrestling luggage and carry-ons through the New York City public transit system and pushing through airports crowds walking slower than the tourists in Times Square. Danny did a quick head count to make sure he hadn’t lost anyone in the subway tunnels or security lane.

Beck, their resident master of fish cookery, was always easy to spot in a crowd, since he topped the mere mortals around him by about four inches. The big guy caught Danny’s eye and gave him a silent nod of acknowledgement. Beck was solid, as always, standing like an oak planted in the middle of a rushing river, carrying everything he’d packed for this adventure in one single duffel bag.

Next to him was Danny’s oldest friend in the world, Jules Cavanaugh. Her dark blonde hair was caught up in a messy ponytail, and her eyes glittered with the thrill of finally embarking on this trip they’d been anticipating ever since they won the chance to take on the Rising Star Chef competition.

She all but glowed with happiness, spilling her warm light all over the guy beside her, who was busily soaking it up like a sponge cake doused in amaretto.

Max Lunden, Danny’s brother. His older brother, in fact—and Danny had teased Jules about him for years before her unrequited crush turned into completely requited forever-hearts-and-flowers love.

And wasn’t that a rolling pin upside the head, because Danny never thought he’d see the day when his wandering prodigal brother would settle down and commit to anything—much less to winning the RSC, his family, and a woman all in one fell swoop.

But Max had.

Danny watched the way they leaned into each other, their wheeled bags bumping and threatening to trip them when they got too close, and tried to be glad the team had two such passionate, inventive chefs in charge, and ignore the unidentified tightness in his gut.

It wasn’t jealousy—knowing about her longstanding crush on his clueless brother, Danny had never been able to see Jules as more than a friend. Hell, the fact was that Jules had been the next best thing to a sister for years, long before Max swooped back into town. The fact that Max would eventually be the one to make it official didn’t bug Danny.

He wasn’t sure what was bugging him, really, so he shoved it aside and turned to the guy next to him: Winslow Jones, the fastest knife on the team—and the one who’d nearly been grounded by security for pleading to be allowed to carry his knife roll on the plane with him—was still vibrating under Danny’s palm.

And Danny was the pastry chef. So that was everyone. He relaxed minutely, a fragment of tension going out of his shoulders.

The gang’s all here.

A nasal voice over the loudspeaker broke into Danny’s thoughts.

“We are now boarding flight number fourteen twenty-two to Chicago O’Hare International. First class passengers only, please.”

“Well, that ain’t us,” Beck said, settling onto his heels with the look of a man accustomed to waiting.

“Have you ever flown first class?” Jules asked, staring up into Max’s eyes.

He laughed. “Hell no. An airplane with toilets on it is a luxury to me. I did most of my traveling through Asia on crowded buses or in the back of a truck transporting live goats or something.”

“Sounds smelly.” Winslow wrinkled his nose, making the darker freckles stand out on his light brown skin.

“You have no idea,” Max told him. “But this.” He gazed around the busy airport. “It’s something else.”

Danny looked around, too, at the walls of glass and metal, at the reasonably clean floor and the people chatting as they rode the moving walkways, and figured he knew what Max meant.

This was something outside of all their experiences. Because they weren’t just embarking on some little pleasure jaunt to see the sights in the Windy City.

They were headed to meet the teams they’d be up against in the Rising Star Chef competition, the other chefs who’d be cooking their hearts out and giving it their all in the hopes of coming out on top.

The significant cash prize didn’t hurt anything, either.

The newly minted East Coast team stood in a loose huddle staring at each other nervously. Someone ought to say something, Danny realized, with a visceral pang of yearning for his dad’s gift of effortless inspiration, or his mom’s serene calm in the face of any crisis.

“I wish Gus and Nina were here,” Jules said, in one of those weird moments of reading Danny’s brain like an open cookbook. She’d been doing it since they were in elementary school together, and it still freaked him out.

Shaking off the emotion as if he were flicking whipped cream off the end of a whisk, Danny did what he did best.

“Mom and Dad wish they could be here,” he soothed. “But somebody’s got to stay home and run Lunden’s while we’re off winning the Rising Star Chef and bringing glory to our restaurant. I know this is kind of a crazy situation, and we’re all a little worked up, but we just have to stay focused on bringing home the prize. For Lunden’s. For my parents. For all of us.”

As Danny glanced around the team, making sure to lock eyes with each person in turn, he could see them shedding their nerves and standing up a little taller. And a bit more of the tension rolled off his back, because if he could keep them all together and zeroed in on the goal, they were going to be okay.

Danny knew he’d have to work hard to take his own advice.

Stay focused. This is for the family, for the restaurant, for the future.

To Danny, they were interchangeable.

When it was their turn to board, he herded his group over to the flight attendant, produced all five tickets, and got his team and their assorted carry-ons down the jet bridge and onto the plane.

After some confusion over the seating arrangements—Max and Jules weren’t technically seated together, but were still in that phase of the relationship where they couldn’t bear to be parted for the hour and a half it would take them to fly from their home base of New York City to the unknown wilds of Chicago—Danny had everyone situated.

Max, Jules, and Winslow were clustered on one side of the plane so Max could talk Win through his first takeoff and landing, while Beck and Danny were in the slightly more spacious pair of seats on the other side of the aisle, although Beck had asked to sit by the window.

Danny readily agreed, buckled himself in, stowed his satchel holding the precious tools of his trade under the seat in front of him, and was ready to go by the time the rest of the passengers finished boarding.

But they didn’t go anywhere. The plane just sat there. And sat there. And sat there.

Danny craned his neck out into the aisle to get a better view of the front of the plane. What was the problem? Were there electrical issues?

Finally one of the flight attendants, a skinny young dude with unlikely yellow hair and an earring, grabbed the handheld microphone and stood in the aisle to make an announcement.

“Sorry for the delay, ladies and gentlemen,” the male attendant said smoothly, “we’re just waiting on one passenger, then we can get underway.”

Blithely ignoring the ripple of exasperated sighs and groans, the flight attendant hung up the mic and went back to passing out blankets and pillows.

“Well, this sucks,” Danny said, impatience simmering under his skin. “Let’s get the hell off the ground, already.”

“If they’re lying about waiting for a passenger, and there’s actually some kind of systems failure, I’d personally rather they figure that shit out while we’re still on the ground.”

Blinking, Danny turned to study his seat partner, taking in Beck’s rigid posture, the cold sweat dotting his hairline.

How did I miss this?

“You’re afraid of flying,” Danny said, disbelief sharpening his tone.

Beck stiffened even further. Danny experienced a moment of fear that the big guy might Hulk out and break the arm right off the seat between them.

“I’m not afraid of flying,” Beck grated out. “I’m not even afraid of falling—that would at least be a quick and relatively painless way to go.”

Danny went into caretaker mode. “Okay, you’re a tough guy, everyone knows that. I didn’t mean anything by saying you were afraid.”

Beck shook his head, the loose waves of his longish dark hair hiding his face for a second. “It’s not that I don’t—look. Everyone’s afraid, sometimes. I’m no exception. Fear is a survival response; it’s healthy. It can keep you alive. I just meant, it’s not the flying that wigs me out so much as it’s...” He swallowed audibly, his Adam’s apple moving in the thick column of his throat. “It’s kind of cramped in here. Not a lot of air movement. I don’t like that.”

Danny processed that quickly. There was a lot they didn’t know about Beck, the taciturn chef who’d joined the Lunden’s kitchen crew only a few months before Max came home. There had been rumors—mostly started by Winslow and his overactive imagination—that ranged from ex-con just out of prison to foreign prince in exile. Danny had never paid much attention to them. So long as Beck did his job, banged out the straightforward, excellent fish dishes on the Lunden’s menu, and got along with the rest of the crew, Danny didn’t much care where he came from.

The claustrophobia, though, was starting to lend a little credence to Win’s jailbird theory.

Setting that aside for the moment, Danny said, “Would it be better if you were on the aisle? Might give you a little more room to stretch out.”

Gratitude flashed in Beck’s hooded eyes, but it must’ve been for the lack of further interrogation on his issues, because he said, “Nah, that just puts me in the middle of the big metal tube with no escape hatch. At least here, I can look out and see the open air, even if I can’t touch it. I’ll be fine, man. As soon as we take off and get on our way, I can start counting down the minutes until we’re in Chicago.”

Danny returned the tense smile with the most reassuring expression he could manage—and when it came to reassurance, Danny was the ninja master. Usually he’d start with a pep talk, but from the way Beck was white-knuckling it, the guy needed action more than words.

Unbuckling his seat belt, Danny stood up, the familiar comfort of a sense of purpose filling him with determination.

“Where are you going?” Beck asked.

Danny straightened and stepped into the aisle. “To get some answers.”

The blond flight attendant with the earring was fooling around with the coffee maker when Danny marched up the aisle to the front of the plane, but when he saw one of his passengers bearing down on him, his eyes widened.

“Sir, you need to sit down.”

Danny had a couple inches on the kid, but he did his best not to loom in the cramped confines of the airplane’s prep area. “Listen. My friend’s not a great flyer and he’s starting to get anxious. Is there anything I can tell him about when we might be taking off?”

“We’re nearly finished with the boarding process, and we can’t push back from the gate until all passengers are seated, with their seat belts securely fastened,” the attendant parroted.

“Yeah, but see, we’ve all been doing exactly that for the last twenty minutes, and the plane’s still parked at the gate. What, exactly, are we waiting for? I mean, you’ve already made, like, four pots of coffee. I bet you’re getting sick of the smell of burnt coffee beans.”

The flight attendant’s gaze flickered, and Danny pressed his advantage with a smile.

“I don’t really know,” the kid finally said. “I got a call from ground control to hold the plane for a late passenger; she’s supposed to be on her way.”

Danny stared. “You’re serious. You weren’t lying, trying to keep us calm while we waited to find out there’s a pigeon in the engine or something?”

“We’re pigeon free, as far as I know.”

It obviously wasn’t this kid’s fault, but Danny was starting to get pissed. One of his guys was stuck feeling like shit for an extra half hour, and as far as Danny could tell, there was no legitimate reason for it. “Is this standard practice, holding up a whole plane full of people for one single passenger?”

Earring glinting as he shook his head, the kid shrugged helplessly.

“It is when the passenger is me,” purred a low voice from behind them.

Danny whirled, nearly clocking himself on the jutting refrigerator cabinet, to see a svelte woman dressed in something complicated and elegant that wrapped around her stunning body like some sort of chic lady mummy costume, only in dark blue.

The color set off her pearly smooth skin, making her a study in rich jewel tones, from the scarlet curve of her smirking mouth to the shiny brown hair angling bluntly down to her chin. She looked as if she were on her way to opening night at the Met, or something, not a commuter flight to Chicago.

Recognition fired one instant after the instinctual spark of visceral desire, and Danny clamped down on the dizzying combination.

Clenching his teeth, he faced the woman whose billionaire restaurateur father had founded the Rising Star Chef competition twenty years ago.

“Thanks for waiting,” she was saying to the flight attendant. “God, Daddy getting on the airline’s Board of Directors is the best thing that ever happened to me. Unlike everything that happened this morning! I had to avert a professional disaster, then there was a mix-up with the car service and I had to take a taxi. My assistant is so fired. Well, not really, I’d be a mess without him, but I’m cutting his chocolate budget. No more candy on his desk until he figures out how to get me to the airport on time!”

She smiled, perfect white teeth flashing. Before the dazzled flight attendant could gather his wits off the floor, Danny had stepped between them.

At a deep gut level, all he could think was mine.

And, close on the heels of that thought, Uh oh.

Chapter 2

“Nice of you to finally join us,” said the hottest pastry chef Eva had ever seen—and she’d seen plenty.

This one, though? Was pretty memorable. “Where’s your seat?” His sensual upper lip curled in a slight sneer that sent a zing through her nervous system. “I’m assuming it’s one of these empty ones in First Class.”

She resisted the urge to tuck her hair behind her ear and struggled not to let on that she was out of breath from her mad dash through the airport.

Holding out a hand she desperately hoped wasn’t sweaty, Eva gave him her most brilliant smile and said, “Daniel Lunden, right? I remember you from the East Coast team finals. Is your whole team here? What a wacky coincidence!”

Lunden narrowed his gorgeous blue eyes at her, his firm, chiseled mouth flattening to a straight line.

Whoops, looks like someone’s a little ticked.

“Um. Maybe we could save the joyous reunion for after we’re in the air?” The young blonde guy who’d held the plane for her suggested it with the air of someone used to being ignored.

Eva turned the brilliant smile on him, since it didn’t seem to be working on Lunden. “You’re absolutely right,” she peeked at his name badge, “Patrick. I apologize. I’d like to make it up to everyone. How about mimosas for the whole plane, on me?”

“But that’s...five dollars per person for everyone in coach,” Patrick the flight attendant stammered. “Even not counting the minors, it’s going to be at least five hundred dollars!”

Cheap at twice the price, Eva thought, feeling her embarrassment at being late ease. “That’s totally fine. Do you want my credit card now?”

Patrick beamed at her, apparently undaunted by the task of opening fifty half-split bottles of mediocre sparkling wine, but Eva could feel the stiff disapproval radiating off of the man at her right shoulder.

Or maybe that was his body heat. The man must have converted his body to some sort of furnace, with the amount of warmth he was putting out.

Eva wasn’t short, especially in her favorite five-inch bronze patent leather platform Louboutins, but Daniel Lunden was taller. Leaner and harder, too, she thought, casting a practiced eye over the way his black Henley shirt pulled across his broad shoulders and gaped at his sturdy collarbones, showing a tantalizing slice of smooth, tanned chest, to the way his faded blue jeans hung low on his narrow hips.

Nice.

“As far as I’m concerned, the apology alone would’ve done it,” Lunden said. “That, and an acknowledgement that your time isn’t more valuable than everyone else’s.”

Not so nice.

“Look,” she said, spreading her hands. “I said I was sorry. And I’m happy to pay for my crimes! I’m a businesswoman—let’s put a dollar amount on the time everyone’s spent waiting here at the gate for me. Less than an hour, correct?”

“About thirty minutes,” Patrick put in.

“Minimum wage would be seven twenty-five for the full hour.” Eva furrowed her brow, pretending to count on her fingers. “So...how about five dollars per person, in the form of a nice glass of champagne and orange juice? I think that’s reasonable for punitive damages.”

“More than reasonable!” Patrick was starting to lost patience with the negotiation.

Lunden cocked his head. It was entirely unfair that even in the harsh, unforgiving fluorescence of the airplane lighting, he looked golden and perfect, from the tips of his spiky light brown hair to the hint of a cleft in his well-shaped chin.

He clearly wasn’t buying it, but all he did was turn to Patrick and say, “My team and I are in row fourteen. You can skip the mimosas for us, thanks.” Giving Eva one last stern glance and an ironic twist to that decadent mouth, he said, “Enjoy First Class,” and sauntered back up the aisle.

Lowering her lashes over what she knew was probably a smoldering look, Eva paused for a moment to enjoy the view.

It was distracting enough that she almost didn’t notice her best friend, Claire, giving the group of them one of her patented wry looks from the window seat in the second row.

Not for the first time, Eva envied Claire Durand her smooth air of sophistication and maturity. Nobody did suave like a forty-something French woman.

Which Claire proved once again by responding to Eva’s bounce down the aisle with a mere arched eyebrow and a laconic “If you’re quite finished ogling one of your contestants?”

“One of your contestants,” Eva was quick to stress. “Unlike some people, I’m not a judge—merely the lowly panel moderator, there to set up a nice patter and keep the action moving. I’m the Vanna White of the Rising Star Chef competition! There are no rules about me keeping my hands off the chefs. And I should know. I was there when Dad wrote the rules.”

Claire snorted. It was another one of those things she could only get away with by being French. “Yes, I’m certain of that. Your father would never make a rule that disallowed him from chasing after any segment of the female population.” Skewering Eva with an ice pick glare, Claire continued, “That doesn’t signify that you are obliged to emulate him.”

Eva pouted. She couldn’t help it, even though it hadn’t worked on Claire since Eva’s nineteenth birthday. Despite the gap in their ages, it had been years since Claire had bothered to treat Eva like a child.

“Thank you, Patrick,” Eva said while the flight attendant fell all over himself to help her stow her beloved Louis Vuitton tote bag in the overhead compartment.

She settled into the deep leather comfort of her First Class seat, head still full of the stern set of Daniel Lunden’s indescribably luscious mouth, the firmness of his clenched jaw.

As Patrick stepped smartly into the aisle to do his safety dance, the plane pushed back from the jet way and the passengers in the back started a cheer that only got louder when he paused in his demonstration of the oxygen masks to tell them they were all being offered complimentary mimosas to make up for the delay.

Satisfied that she’d compensated for at least some of the annoyance she’d caused with her tardiness—and ooh, her assistant, Drew, was in big time trouble—Eva picked up the conversation where she and Claire had left off.

“There’s just something about a male pastry chef,” she tried to explain.

“Pastry chefs are like any other man in the professional kitchen.” As Editor-in-Chief of Delicieux, an internationally renowned food magazine, Claire knew from chefs. “The successful ones are arrogant, overbearing workaholics with egos large enough to crush innocent bystanders. If you’re as smart as I’ve always thought, you will not allow yourself to be sucked into it.”

Eva, who’d started learning the business of opening and running restaurants at her father’s knee, knew a lot of chefs, too. “In my experience, people who deal with the delicate chemistry of desserts tend to be perfectionists. Regular chefs have their charms, of course—creativity, passion. But pastry chefs...” Eva smiled. “They take their time. They’re meticulous. Thoughtful. Focused.”

And those qualities sometimes spilled over into...other aspects of their lives.

Allowing herself a delicious little shiver as she recalled the electrifying moment when his body had brushed hers as they maneuvered in the cramped confines of the airplane, Eva tried to remember the last time she’d had a pastry chef in her bed, with all his delightful thoroughness aimed at her. It had been a while.

Maybe it was time to remedy that.

“I know that avaricious look in your eye.” Claire clicked her buffed nails on the armrest, sounding resigned. “It’s the same expression you get in the Bergdorf’s shoe department. My little cabbage, don’t you have enough stress and drama to suffice you already? Running the most prestigious national culinary competition on your own for the first time isn’t enough?”

“Oh please.” Eva waved a dismissive hand. “A little seduction is a stress reliever, Claire, everyone knows that. The thrill of the chase, the joy of the hunt—it’s invigorating! And the fact that, at this moment, Daniel Lunden thinks he doesn’t want to be caught? Well. That just adds an extra spice to the whole thing. And you know how much I love spice.”

“Doesn’t want to be caught? My darling, deluded girl, your handsome pastry chef looked to me as if he couldn’t wait to leave your company. I don’t think you impressed him very much.”

“No,” Eva sighed. “He doesn’t like me at all. He thinks I’m a spoiled brat who kept a whole plane full of people waiting, just for funsies.”

“Why were you late, incidentally?”

Slumping back, Eva experienced again the sickening vertigo that had dizzied her the moment she took that panicked phone call from one of her RSC judges.

“Devon Sparks’s new wife got pregnant right after he agreed to be an RSC judge. So now she’s getting close to popping, and of course he’s freaking out about leaving town. Even though he’s known about it for months! Men. He actually tried to back out of being a judge. Can you believe it?”

Claire blanched, satisfyingly horrified. “You managed to talk him out of it, surely! It would be a nightmare to replace our celebrity chef judge at this late date.”

“Yes, thank goodness, I did, although it took some fancy footwork and a lot of soothing—Devon’s kind of dramarama, isn’t he?—but finally I convinced him that, you know, women have babies all the time and everything would be fine for the next couple of months.”

She’d also had to promise Devon would have several long weekends off to fly home to New York for visits, which would take some intensive schedule juggling and might cost some crazy money in terms of production time with the television crew, but that was okay.

She’d make it work. She had no other choice. She couldn’t risk losing her biggest Cooking Channel draw, especially if that might mean the television producers deciding not to film or broadcast the RSC.

Her father had been very clear when he handed over the reins of the competition this year. It was her job to increase the RSC’s visibility, and getting on TV was a big part of that.

Eva tightened her fingers on the stem of her champagne flute. She refused to let him down. Whatever it took to convince the Cooking Channel that they wanted to air the RSC, she’d do it.

“Thank God,” Claire said fervently.

“Yeah. Major catastrophe averted.”

Narrowing her eyes, Claire asked, “So why did you not explain these circumstances to your handsome pastry chef? It was certainly in his best interests as a contestant that you keep all three judges happy and willing to work!”

Eva screwed up her face. “I don’t know. I didn’t want to tell him! It would’ve sounded like making an excuse, or something.”

“It would’ve been a good excuse!”

Crossing her arms over her chest, Eva set her jaw. Her father hated excuses, and Eva had learned early on that the best way out of almost any infraction was to own up to it.

Claire shook her head, the overhead lights glinting off the threads of silver just starting to appear in her luxuriously thick chestnut hair. “It makes no sense, this fondness you have for men who disapprove of you.”

“What can I say? I enjoy a challenge.”

In fact, the challenge Daniel Lunden presented fired her nerves with more energy than she’d felt in the last two months, months she’d spent traveling from New York to Atlanta, San Francisco, Austin, and Chicago to hand pick the teams of chefs that would represent their regions in the Rising Star Chef competition.

It had been more grueling than she’d anticipated, the endless traveling, and Eva wasn’t normally one to stay put for longer than it took to unpack a suitcase. Maybe it was the eliminations—it was a lot tougher than she’d ever thought it would be, telling hundreds of chefs they wouldn’t be moving on to the next round.

Crushing dreams was hard work, as it turned out.

And then there was the second guessing, trying to convince herself she’d made the right call when she’d picked the judges, that the judges were choosing the best chefs, that the ever-present tension between Claire and her fellow judges was still at a low simmer rather than a dangerous boil, that the television producers weren’t going to back out on their promise to film the competition for the first time...really, Eva felt as wrung out and twisted up as a discarded string bikini, and the RSC hadn’t even really started yet.

But when she’d seen Lunden standing in the doorway of the plane, long-fingered hands on lean hips like an avenging warrior, all the exhaustion and nervousness and self-doubt went up in a firestorm of excitement and lust.

The way the chill of condemnation clashed with the unmistakable glitter of instantaneous hunger and sparked his eyes to a bright, sizzling blue called to the fighter in Eva. She wanted to stoke the fire of that hunger, feed it craftily and carefully until it flamed up and overwhelmed the disapproval.

Until he couldn’t help himself, and he had to let go and enjoy her.

Claire’s sharp voice burst the happy bubble of Eva’s fantasy. “That’s what Theo always says. You are certainly turning out to be your father’s daughter...in more than one aspect.”

Neither the azure blue Michael Kors wrap dress or the delicate lace unmentionables beneath it were armor against Claire’s disdain. Her oldest friend and mentor never seemed to have trouble finding the tenderest spot on Eva’s well-defended underbelly and digging in, hard.

Eva loved her father madly, had explicitly modeled herself after him—but Claire had been pretty vocal over the years after Emmaline Jansen’s death about Theo’s parenting skills.

Or lack thereof.

“So?” Eva demanded, snatching the latest issue of Restaurant USA from her white leather satchel purse, her movements jerkier than she liked. “I don’t see why that’s a bad thing. My father is incredibly successful, both personally and professionally. Why shouldn’t I try to be like him?”

“Hmm. Perhaps because he’s miserable?”

That brought Eva’s head up, but when she found Claire’s gaze, it wasn’t mocking or sardonic, despite her tone.

“What makes you think Dad isn’t happy?” Eva asked, her silly heart jumping into her throat.

The softness in Claire’s gaze made her look tired, and a little sad. “I have known many men like your father, none of them happy. When first I came to America, I worked for a man very much like Theo—powerful and confident. Older than I. He was my first affair of the heart...and very nearly my last.”

From the way Claire’s mouth turned down at the corners, Eva didn’t think it was because the guy was so wonderful that he ruined her for all other men. “It ended badly?”

“It ended predictably. The man was married; I was nothing more than a bit of fun, something to brag about, a demonstration of his prowess to the other men at the magazine.” Voice sharpening with her need to make Eva understand, Claire turned in the seat to face her more fully. “That is why I caution you about starting something with this pastry chef, Eva. Romance is distracting, at best...catastrophic and humiliating at worst.”

Eva sat frozen, starting at her oldest friend. A zillion questions zipped through her brain, too many to ask. “You never told me any of that before.”

“About the affair? But no, it was not my finest hour. I tell you now only so that you may learn from my mistakes.”

“Mistakes like dating my father.” Eva pressed her lips together, instantly wishing she could call back the words.

But Claire didn’t get upset. “I can never regret my time with Theo, because it gave me you. Even if, yes, in many ways your father reminds me of my first lover—a man who seeks only the thrill of passion, not the comfort and steadiness of love.”

It would’ve been easy for Claire to make that a criticism of Eva’s recent—and future—behavior. But all Eva saw in her friend’s face was sympathy, concern, and the warm affection that had sustained Eva for most of her life.

“I’m sorry that first love affair sucked,” Eva said, not even trying to hide the hoarse rasp of emotion in her voice. “And I’m really, really sorry it didn’t work out between you and my dad.”

Overcome with the need to give Claire something in return for the secret she’d shared earlier, Eva took another sip of her mimosa and said, “You know, I was mad at him for a long time for screwing things up with you. I’m not sure I’ve forgiven him yet, actually.”

She flipped blindly through the magazine in her lap, page after glossy page of restaurant industry news, food trends, and insider gossip.

“You should forgive your father.” Claire laid one hand on Eva’s, stilling her manic page turning. “I forgave him long ago for not being what I needed. However, I admit I still get angry, sometimes, when he is not the man you need him to be.”

When she was sure she could keep her voice even and steady, Eva said, “It was hard for us after Mom died. You know that. Hard for me—but for him, too. Everything at home reminded him of her, including me. I understood.”

Claire’s voice was as soft as her face had been. “I forget, sometimes, how sweet you are beneath the spoiled-princess-of-the-restaurant-world fašade. Darling girl, I don’t want to dispute with you. I only want you to be happy.”

Eva forced herself to meet Claire’s sympathetic stare. Calling on years of training, Eva arranged her mouth into her brightest smile and said, “Happy and sweet, that’s me. Or it will be, once I get a little sugar from that hot pastry chef.”

Claire’s lips tightened, and for a breathless moment, Eva was afraid she wasn’t going to let her get away with it. But then, mercifully, all Claire said was, “I give up. There is no reasoning with you. Simply promise me you’ll take care, and do nothing you’ll regret.”

The heaviness of those last words made Eva pause and eye her friend with concern. “Don’t worry,” she said slowly, studying Claire’s shuttered expression. “I won’t do anything to mess up the competition. The RSC is my top priority. No matter how hot Daniel Lunden is, he’s just a bit of fun on the side. Like whipped cream! Fluffy and light and sinfully tempting. That’s all.”

“A little whipped cream can be fun and harmless. Too much will make you unhappy—and it’s not always so simple to know when you’ve had enough.”

Eva wasn’t blind. She’d seen the way their young celebrity judge, rock star and famous foodie Kane Slater, looked at Claire. Fifteen year age difference or not, Eva had known she needed to monitor the situation, and she thought she had.

Choosing her words, she said, “You’re starting to sound a little dire. Is there something I need to know?”

The shrug Claire gave rang alarm bells in Eva’s head—jerky and stiff, it lacked all of Claire’s habitual Gallic grace.

“Nothing you need to be concerned about. Only a slight unpleasantness between Kane Slater and me.”

“Unpleasantness,” Eva repeated, trying not to push too hard.

Claire ran a hand through her hair, disordering the loose auburn waves. “It is my own fault. I blame no one more than myself. Oh, don’t look at me like that, it’s nothing apocalyptic. Only...let us say I indulged in too much whipped cream, and it didn’t agree with me.”

There was definitely a story there, but it would have to wait for another time. Eva could tell by the tightness around Claire’s mouth that she’d said all she was going to—for now.

“Speaking of your father,” Claire said, in an unusually clumsy subject change. “He’s been calling me without cease.”

“Oh, really?” Interest prickled along Eva’s nerves. Claire was one of the first women Theo Jansen had dated after his wife’s death—and she remained the only one Eva could stand. Probably partly because Claire had been too smart, savvy, and career-minded to put up with Theo’s bizarre approach to grief management for long. But as the years went by, and neither Theo nor Claire married or found love, Eva had started to wonder if she should’ve encouraged their relationship more. The idea of having Claire as a stepmother wasn’t as horrific as it once would have seemed.

“Yes. He is worrying about you and the competition. You know that he wants to fly to Chicago to check on us?”

Eva told herself the tightness in her throat was disappointment that Claire and Theo weren’t carrying on a secret flirtation, not hurt that her father didn’t trust her abilities.

“I hope you told him we didn’t need any handholding.”

Claire crossed her legs. “Yes, I told him. I don’t know that he listened, but I told him. He seemed concerned that the television filming might fall through.”

“It won’t.” Eva had to fight for a calm, even tone. “I told him I could make it happen, get the RSC on the Cooking Channel, and I will.”

“Well. That’s good, then.”

Rolling her eyes at her friend’s bland disapproval, Eva said, “It will be good. I know you’re not into it, but I think Dad’s right. This is the way to take the competition to the next level.”

Claire snorted. How did she make even that noise of disdain sound elegant? “So long as ‘the next level’ involves ridiculous grand standing, fist fights and backbiting, and all those other lovely reality show staples.”

Eva’s stomach clenched in automatic denial. “No way,” she protested. “We’re going to keep it classy. The show is going to be all about the food, all about the craft and technique of some of the most talented chefs working today.”

Claire sat silently for a long moment as the engines throbbed to life, filling Eva’s head with white noise.

“I hope you’re right,” Claire finally said, her gaze searching Eva’s face.

Eva, who very much hoped she was right, turned on her most brilliant, confident smile—the one that banished the doubts from every potential restaurant investor and made the local health inspectors blush.

“Come on, you know I’m going to pull it out. It’s the RSC! My family’s thing. I’m not going to let it go to pieces, or turn to shit, the very first year Dad lets me get involved with it.”

Meanwhile, Patrick the flight attendant appeared at Eva’s elbow like a wonderful magical sprite, holding a tray of long-stemmed champagne flutes.

Eva accepted her mimosa with a conspiratorial wink, and passed one to Claire.

“Drink up, ma cherie,” Eva said, purposefully using her ugliest American accent to make Claire grimace, then laugh. “We need the fortification before the RSC starts in earnest.”

Clinking the cheap glasses together put a little sparkle back in Claire’s brown eyes. “Yes. Here’s to overcoming all our challenges.”

“And to throwing down some challenges of our own.”

Tipping her head back to let the a sip of tart-sweet cocktail slide down her throat, Eva enjoyed the blend of dry sparkling wine and sweet orange juice. This early in the morning, the tart, sugary alcoholic goodness gave her a bigger lift than the air under the plane’s wings.

Somewhere back in coach, Daniel Lunden was sipping a plain old ginger ale, surrounded by giddy passengers swilling down their mimosas. She pictured him glaring at them, those brows drawn down tight over his brooding blue-gray eyes as he silently condemned them for letting her buy their forgiveness with brunch drinks.

Eva drained her glass and licked the sharp taste of anticipation from her lips.

“Let the games begin.”


 

 
On Sale November 29, 2011







 

 
 

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