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It was the day after Christmas, and Ana Perez had worked through the holiday. Something that had happened two years in a row since she'd started hosting her reality show, If You Can't Take the Heat
She'd been taping for the next season every day, nonstop, and while the group of chef-wannabe contestants for this season were the best they'd ever had, that came with its own problems. Soon they would start their short midwinter hiatus before the taping of the finale. She was alone on the set, reviewing her notes concerning the contestants' progress so far.
Unlike the shows where players were voted off or eliminated by failing a task, on If You Can't Take the Heat. the decision about who won was always Ana's. That had been written into her contract; that had been a deal breaker. She wasn't about to have her name associated with any chef recommendation that wasn't from her directly, so winners could not be selected by chance or by personality wars. The tide was turning, however. The studio executives were being more intrusive in the show's format, and in her life. Sometimes the producers wanted her to do stupid thingslike a staged food fight on one show. Ana won a lot of those battles, but not all of them. It seemed as if the more famous she became, the less control she had over her life.
Every meeting was deteriorating into a fight. Recently, they were debating taking control of the final decision away from her.
Luckily, Ana was a fighter. No way was she giving that up.
There was a lot of pressure on her, not just from the studio but from the audience and from the contestants. Not everyone agreed with her choices; some were almost pathological in letting her know what they thought, if her email or the show's blog were any evidence.
The recent harassment she had been experiencing was also the price of success. Ana didn't pull punches or take it easy on her contestants, though she was rarely genuinely angry with them. Her tough treatment of them was in part for ratingsviewers liked the conflictand also because she was a perfectionist who demanded the best of them.
Ana couldn't be a best friend to the people she was judgingbetter that they were afraid of her or didn't like her than have them feel hurt or betrayed when she didn't choose them to win. She'd made that mistake the first season with someone who had mistaken their friendship for an automatic win. Ana took a deep breath, shaking the memory off. It was wearying, sometimes, to say the least.
If nothing else, every person on the show would benefit simply from the exposure of being here. Most got good job offers afterward, even when they didn't win. For the ones who showed real promise, she sometimes connected them with someone who might further their training, behind the scenes. For Ana, it meant a big paycheck to help people back home in Mexico, and security for her and her family.
That was important enough to put up with all the rest, she reminded herself.
Shifting her attention back to the files on her lap, she reached for the glass of wine she'd poured before sitting. It had been the pairing for the smoky mole she'd had contestants working on for the past two days. Viewers saw only the final taping of the show, but Ana worked with contestants in the kitchens every day, all week long, teaching. Preparing.
Making mole was an art in the small town on the Yucatan where she had lived until she turned twenty and came to the United States to attend cooking school, eight years before. The complex cooking project had allowed her to educate people about her home country and their traditions, as well.
Bailey Knowles was the front-runner in her mind so far, a young woman from the Bronx who had no formal training and an uncanny ability to match tastes, textures and combinations in extraordinary ways. But she also had no classical culinary background and no interest in accumulating one.
Still, Ana felt that training was an important companion to natural talent and couldn't help but hesitate at selecting Bailey as her winner for the season.
James Benois was next in line, an older contestant in his forties, making a comeback after being laid off from his corporate job two years before. He had a culinary education that he had let lapse in the eighteen years since he'd earned the degree, choosing to make a steady paycheck with a technology firm. Still, his story resonated with viewers and with Ana. He was good, solid and dependable, though not extremely creative. That could change as he loosened up a little. He was too anxious to please, perhaps too laid-back to run his own kitchen. Kitchens were busy, difficult, stressful places to worka head chef had a lot of responsibilityand James had to be able to show he could stand up to the worst of it. Still, his easygoing manner was calming, and Ana found the contrast a positive one.
There were four more, all having their own pluses and minuses, some exceptional in a particular way but less so in others.
She stared down at Lionel Jenkins's photo. She didn't have many notes on Lionel. She knew his type and she didn't like him on principle. From a wealthy Philadelphia family, Lionel was an excellent chef with perfect references and education. He could handle himself in the kitchenshe'd give him thatand he was very handsome, which was a big score with female viewers.
Too bad he was also a total jerk. He cared about nothing but money and ambition, and while he could have walked into a lot of high-level chef positions, or probably have even started his own restaurant with his family's money, he'd pulled strings to end up on the show. He was using them for the free promotion, a stepping stone in his career. He'd as much as told her so, which was why he was resistant to her criticism.
Granted, that attitude would probably be a benefit when he ran his own kitchenmany chefs had egos bigger than their hatsbut Ana wanted her winner to care about more than money. Ambition was important, but so was some demonstrable caring about food, community, the craft all of it.
Rubbing her eyes, she took a breath and closed the files. At least they were done with the taping, and now she only had to review all of the shows, interview her contestants one more time and make her decision. But for right now, she was ready to go home.
Her heart swelled at the thought. She loved New York and the winter, which she had never known as a child in Mexico. But it wasn't home.
Soon, she reassured herself. Two weeks of heaven, where things were lovely, warm and welcoming. Where she could be herself among friends and family, with no stalkers or studio executives scrutinizing her every move.
She missed having her own small cooking show, where she had happily instructed others to make authentic Mexican dishes. When she had started doing it in collegeAna's Kitchenthey'd had one camcorder and had held the show in the dorm kitchen, uploading it to the internet.
It took off, becoming one of the most highly rated cooking shows online. She'd then been offered a real cable TV show for the Cuisine Channel and, ultimately, the reality TV gig, If You Can't Stand the Heat And here she was. The show had been on for only two years, but it felt like ten.
With a tired sigh, she packed everything up to head back to her dressing room and call it a night. A glance at her watch told her that it was actually close to being the next day.
She hadn't realized it was so late. Ana had meetings in the morningthey were foisting some protective detail on her because of the harassment issueand she was supposed to come in and meet whoever was assigned to protect her over the hiatus.
She had no intention of agreeing; she planned to leave all of this behind her. Whoever was bothering her would probably lose interest in her over the break. Things like this flared up from time to time; it was part of the business. She received all kinds of crazy letters; if she took all of it seriously, she'd have no time to cook.
Walking down the dimly lit hall of the soundstage, she dismissed the thought. She entered her dressing room and closed the door behind her. Turning, she found a man sitting on the sofa. Immediately, her fingers fumbled for the doorknob as she dropped her files, and panic rose tightly in her throat.
"Ana," he said, and she spun to face him.
He wasn't what she expected, to be sure.
A tall, broad, huge man with dark blond hairand incredibly clear green eyeslooked at her with curiosity more than anything else.
Her phone. She fell to her knees, looking for her phone among the papers, and gasped in relief when she had it, pounding out security's number, her eyes on the intruder.
He didn't seem concerned.
"This is Ana. I'm in my dressing room. There's a man here. He's broken in. Please come now," she said urgently, not taking her eyes off the guy, but then she realized she was talking to a recording.
Her stomach dropped. Where was the night guard?
The green-eyed hulk blinked at her, then smiled.
"You're Ana Perez," he said calmly, taking a seat in the chair across the room, crossing long legs as if he had nothing to worry about.
Her eyes searched desperately for something to defend herself with, landing on a little red box on the wall.
As she dived for it, he stood, putting his hand out.
"Ana, no," he said, but it was too late.
She pulled the fire alarm and let it ring.
"I am. And you're about to be arrested," she said. "No way am I letting you out of here, no matter what you do to hurt me."
He sighed and shook his head.
"Ana, I'm not going to hurt you. Quite the opposite. But security won't be here anytime soon. The fire department will, but not security."
"And why's that?" she asked, fearing he had done something horrible to Ben, their night guard. Ben had lost his wife the year before, was near retirement and was celebrating the arrival of his first grandchild. Ana chatted with him every night before she left. He was a sweet, good man.
"What did you do to Ben? If you hurt one hair on that man's head, I'll" she threatened as she took a step forward, then stopped. She had no idea what she would do.
The man reached into his pocket, pulled out a small black phone. "Your security guy left his phone on the front desk when he went to the men's room," the man said laconically. "The studio definitely needs to beef up the night watch. It was easy as kittens to get in here. I could have been anyone. Someone who does want to hurt you."
She blinked. "What do you mean?"
He walked toward her and put out his hand, and she had another chance to appreciate the solid mass of muscle that allowed him to move with a dangerous kind of masculine grace. Cocky, self-assured, powerful and not at all worried about being caught. Certainly not afraid of her.
She was dismayed to hear a panicked squeak emit from between her lips.
As if he was dealing with a frightened animal, he bent down to her level.
"Ana, my name is Chance Berringer. I'm your bodyguard," he said, holding out his hand just as she heard the sound of heavy footsteps landing outside the door.
Chance stood at the end of the hall near Ana's dressing room, watching her sign autographs for some of the firemen who gathered around. The least she could do, she said, after dragging them out for a false emergency. One guy suggested filming their show at the firehouse one week, feeding all the guys, and Ana seemed to seriously consider it.
The men were rapt. Chance didn't blame them. She was even more striking than in her picture.
Petitenot more than five foot two, topsAna Perez packed every inch of her small frame with succulent curves and intriguing angles that he enjoyed studying as she worked the crowd.
Too bad she's a client, he thought with a sigh. Hands off. Chance liked womenlots of women, all women, in all shapes and sizes and colorsand he never experienced a shortage of female company. But clients were always off-limits when they were on a job.
Well, unless you counted how all of his brothers had met their wives and current significant others, he thought with a smirk. All of the women had been principals, or clients needing protection, when they'd met.
Not that Chance was looking for a wife. Women were wonderful and he loved them, but he had no intention of ever putting anyone through the experience his friend Logan had just suffered. That had affected him more than he liked.
Chance had never actually seen such a serious injury up close; Logan had almost died. So much violence done to the human body as his friend lost control and plummeted down the icy ridges of the mountain they had been skiing, landing in a patch of trees. It had been one of the few things that had ever truly frightened Chance. Luckily, Logan hadn't hit any of the big pines or he would have died on the spot.
Chance had stayed with him through the helicopter ride out and had listened to Logan's earnest, painful request for what to tell his wife, Jillian, if he didn't make it. Chance had to call her and had picked her up at the airport, had taken her to the hospital.
Jill was one of the exceptions. A former Olympic athlete herself, she understood competition, drive and the need for adventure. She not only understood but encouraged Logan's need to do the things he did, whether it was extreme skiing or any of the other potentially life-threatening adventures he enjoyed.
Sometimes she even went with him.
But Chance still remembered how her legs had weakened, how she'd started to sink, as if her life had fallen out from under her when they had been let in to see Logan for the first time after surgery. Chance had done what he needed to, helping her stay strong for Logan, but it hadn't been easy.
It had shaken him to the core. He knew his family worried about him, and that was hard enough. It was the kind of thing that could get in your head, hold you back, make you hesitate. That was what could kill you.
Chance didn't want to ever hold back, and if he thought he could cause anyone the kind of pain that Jillian had suffered, he would have to quit living his adventurous lifestyle. And then, well, what would be the point?
Better to keep things loose. A woman in his bed but not in his life was what he often said.
Logan was going to be okay. He might never be able to extreme ski again, but he'd recover. He'd live to be with Jillian. Chance never told her what Logan had said on the plane. It hadn't been necessary, but it was in his head for good.
Now Chance needed to do something to stabilize that place inside him that had tilted off its axis. The accident had happened to Logan, not to him, right? He was fine. He was on a job doing work he loved. By the sound of it, the threat was local, and once they were in Mexico, it was likely that he would largely be on a babysitting vacation. Given the principal and the location, he wasn't complaining.
But they weren't there yet.