Six months earlier …
“I came here instead of Dartmouth specifically to avoid classes like this one. The horror. The humanity! Where did I go wrong?”
Wes shook his head at the plaintive tone. He thought about laughing, but he didn’t want to throw fuel on the fire. Once Nathaniel Goodwin started bitching, it took an act of Congress to get him to stop.
True to form, Nate was undeterred by the lack of response. “No, seriously. I’d rather be in a class on serving techniques or what ever, front-of-the-house, waiting-tables type stuff,” he said, naming every culinary student’s least favorite learning track. “I’d be all over it. I’d be down. But no.” He shuddered theatrically. “It’s chemistry. My dad always wanted me to be a doctor. Dude, I could be premed right now if I wanted to take a bunch of chemistry classes.”
Wes stuck his tongue in his cheek to keep from saying what his dad wanted him to be. Also to keep from popping the snot-nosed kid a good one.
Sometimes it royally sucked to be the oldest guy in every classroom. Most of these kids were here at the Academy of Culinary Arts fresh out of college. Some were even younger. The only school Wes had ever attended regularly was Hard Knocks U, or as his father liked to call it, the School of Experience.
Trust a con man to put a good spin on a life of petty crime and ignorance.
“At least you’re not failing,” Wes said, wincing at the memory of his last exam score. He didn’t know why he couldn’t seem to grasp these concepts; it was as if his brain simply refused to see food as a collection of molecules. “Quit whining, princess. You just have to get through it and ace the final in a few weeks. Then you can ditch this Popsicle stand for the bright lights of Atlantic City and your choice externship gig.”
“Externship,” Nathaniel breathed, in tones normally reserved for spiritual revelation. “God, that’s going to rock.”
Wes scowled. “I can’t believe we’re on different rotations. You get to leave in three weeks, you scumbag. I have to wait another six!”
The Academy of Culinary Arts schedule wasn’t structured like an ordinary university; students entered on staggered rotations all through the year. Every student completed two full years of study, eighteen months of academics with six months of externship sandwiched in between, but there was a new crop of graduates and a new batch of incoming newbies every three weeks.
“That’s right,” Nathaniel crowed. “I’ll be working in a real restaurant, learning from the best, while you slave away here writing book reports and stuff. Suck it, beeyotch!”
“It’s not fair. They ought to schedule it by age—old-timers like me should get first dibs, since young’uns like you are barely mature enough to handle doing your own laundry for the first time.”
“Half a year in a top restaurant,” Nathaniel mused, focusing in on the fun part of the conversation with his usual laser precision. “Hot damn, I’m glad I’m gonna be a chef. This beats med school all to hell.”
“Come to think of it, the externship’s not all that different from a med student’s residency, except without the hospital. Unless you slice off a finger or something, which I wouldn’t be surprised if you did. Klutz.”
“Speaking of which, have you heard back from any of the restaurants you applied to?”
Externship slots at top restaurants were few and therefore were fiercely coveted. The Ivy Leaguers had nothing on culinary school kids when it came to fighting and backstabbing for a chance to scrub floors in the kitchens of the greats. Wes had thrown his hat in the ring for Daniel Boulud, Tom Colicchio, and Devon Sparks.
“Nothing yet.” Wes shrugged, tried to act casual. “I’m not worried, something will come through. Maybe not my top choices, but I’d be happy anywhere in New York City, really.”
“Dude, you should totally apply in A.C.! Then we could hang after dinner service.”
Wes suppressed a wince. Nate was a nice enough kid, but, unlike him, Wes had more on his mind than having a good time and pissing off his old man.
That second part was more in the nature of a perk, as far as Wes was concerned. Mostly, he wanted a real life as a real chef, and he was willing to do what ever it took to get there.
Including Food Chemistry 101. The bane of his existence.
“What’s up, bitches?”
Nathaniel’s face lit up like he just got parole. “Hey, Sloane’s here!”
The lanky brunette rolled her eyes and slid onto the stool next to Nathaniel. She immediately started giving him a hard time, which he grinned at and ate up like she was doing dirty talk or something.
Wes tolerated their schoolyardish brand of flirtation for about half a minute before he was forced to tune it out in self-defense.
“Hey, did either of you ladies hear anything about the new prof?” she was asking.
Wes and Nate exchanged clueless looks. “What happened to Prentiss?”
“Gone,” Sloane said. “Some kind of medical emergency or something.”
“Wow.” Wes blinked. The implications swirled around his head. “Who the hell did they find to replace him on such short notice?”
“Our illustrious president didn’t have time to search around much, that’s for sure,” Sloane said. “God only knows who we’re going to end up with this late in the term. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Todd the janitor up there talking about carbohydrates and lipids.”
“Awesome,” said Nate. “Bet Todd won’t give us any homework.”
Wes hooked his long legs around the bottom rung of his stool and frowned. He was already not doing so great in this class—would a new instructor make his life harder or easier?
Wes wasn’t used to getting bad grades at the academy. He worked hard, he excelled, he went above and beyond. He was at the top of his rotation.
Food Chem might change that. If he didn’t bring up his grades in this class, he was looking at the number two slot, which could affect whether or not he got one of his top choices for the externship.
It was the subject, he mused. Food Chemistry … such a cold, distant way to look at something as vibrant and full of life as the magic that happened in a kitchen.
He shrugged to himself. Didn’t seem likely that a new instructor was going to make much of a difference, one way or the other. Wes would just have to work harder.
He leaned his elbows on the high table to watch the rest of the students trickle in, yawning and slouching. Food Chem wasn’t held in the lecture hall, with its auditorium seating and cooking demo capabilities, nor was it in one of the class kitchens lined with cooktops and ovens, sinks and racks and counterspace.
It was just a room, with windows along one wall that looked out over the tranquil lawn rolling down from the academy’s front doors. Four long metal tables were set up facing an honest-to-God chalkboard. It was like being back in high school.
What Wes could remember of his sporadic public school attendance, anyway. Which wasn’t much.
He and Pops hadn’t really stayed in one place long enough to formulate what you might call good study habits.
Wes frowned, thinking about his dad. He tried to calculate how long it had been since he’d heard from the old man—at least a year. Which meant it wouldn’t be too much longer before he popped up again to try and pull Wes back into the life with a well-planned investment fraud or a watertight piece of identity theft. He sighed. Or maybe just a request for a little ready cash to tide him over until the next big score.
The past few years, their interactions were a lot closer to loan applicant and bank officer than father and son.
It was always feast or famine with Pops and money. The man was damn good at swindling it out of people—but holding onto it? Not so much.
The classroom door opened, jarring Wes from his thoughts, and admitting a young woman Wes didn’t recognize. He frowned. Most of the students in his section had been in overlapping rotations together, through the thicks and thins of the grueling culinary arts program, for the past eight months. They’d wrestled with pasta dough together, learned basic hygiene and kitchen safety together, broken down flocks of chicken and fabricated countless fish and brewed up gallons of stock together.
He knew most of their secrets, their histories and their hopes, even if none of them knew Wes’s. Gathering potentially useful info like that was an early survival tactic that he’d never quite lost.
But this chick? Was so brand-new she practically squeaked.
Or wait. That was her shoes.
Wes stared at her feet, realizing all at once what was so strange and different about her.
She was out of uniform.
The Academy of Culinary Arts had a strict dress code. The place was famously well run and hyperregulated; there were severe consequences for breaking any of the myriad rules and regulations set forth by the academy’s president. Some of the worst penalties came from code-of-dress infractions.
Everyone at the academy wore black pants, a white chef’s jacket, and regulation black leather kitchen clogs. Every single person, from the chef instructors to the students on up to President Cornell. No exceptions.
Except, apparently, New Girl.
Who was clad in what looked like regulation geekwear. Baggy khakis that made her appear even shorter than she was, topped with a beige T-shirt featuring … Wes’s feet slipped off the rung of his stool.
Whoa. Is that a freaking Wookie?
And on her feet, squeaking against the sterile tile floor with a noise like she was wearing Styrofoam pan ties, were black Converse sneakers.
Wes stared in silence. In fact, the whole classroom went dead quiet, as one by one, the sleepy culinary students registered the stranger in their midst.
New Girl didn’t appear to notice, at first. Clutching a stack of note pads and papers to her chest, she shuffled quickly, head down and shoulders hunched, up to the front of the classroom. But instead of taking a seat at one of the student tables, she kept going.
Wes watched, fascinated by this tiny stick figure of a person, all jerky movements and shiny blond hair twisted into two messy braids down her back.
Until she reached the podium next to the chalkboard, where she paused, appeared to take a deep breath in, and turned to face the class.
And Wes got his first good look at her face.
Wide-set blue-gray eyes. Her bottom lip was plumper than the top, giving her a permanent pout. And her nose … damn it. Wes had to swallow hard. Her nose was interesting rather than perfect, and it was enough to take her face from merely pretty to knockout striking.
She looked like the beautiful starlet they cast to play the smart girl; the one who transforms by the end into the gorgeous woman she always was, with the help of contact lenses and pants that fit.
And obviously, she was the newest addition to the teaching staff.
Wes stared. Food Chem had just became his favorite class.
“Oh,” she said, her wide eyes going even wider at the sight of the class sitting there, silently watching. It was as if she were surprised to see them. “Um. Hello. My name is Dr. Rosemary Wilkins.”
She paused, glanced at the chalkboard.
Wes knitted his brows. Surely she wouldn’t … okay, maybe she would.
Dr. Rosemary Wilkins stepped to the board, grabbed a piece of chalk, and wrote her name in careful, looping script.
Dusting off her hands, she turned back to the class and continued. “I have a bachelor’s degree in organic chemistry from Yale, a Ph.D. in physical and analytical chemistry from the University of Virginia, and a Ph.D. in biological chemistry from Bryn Mawr. I’m here at the academy to study food. By which I mean, of course, the chemical processes and interactions between ingredients under controlled conditions. The ACA has unparalleled facilities for the kind of research I’m interested in conducting …”
She trailed off, mumbling something down at her notes. Wes was pretty sure he caught the words “wish I were there right now …”
Visibly bracing herself, Dr. Hot Stuff’s vague gaze found the class again. “At any rate, your previous professor had to leave unexpectedly, so I’m stepping in. To teach you. Somewhat … unexpectedly, as I said before.” She cleared her throat, eyes darting left and right. “So. What do you want to know?”
Wes looked around the room. He could practically hear the crickets chirping.
A wash of red suffused her cheeks, but she pressed onward. “I mean, here you are. At one of the premier culinary schools in the United States. From that, I infer that you all want to make good food. Don’t you want to know the reasons behind what works and what doesn’t? Unless …” She paused, looking uncertain. “Oh dear. You don’t think of cooking as a creative endeavor, as ‘art,’ do you?”
Wes propped his head on his hand and watched her wring her hands. He couldn’t understand why the combination of her nervous speech and jerky gestures was hitting him right in the libido.
As a simple reflex, his brain started cataloguing what he knew about her, sizing her up.
She looked about Wes’s age, maybe even a little younger. She certainly wasn’t older. Which meant she must’ve been in her teens when she got that first degree.
Dude. Prodigy alert.
One of the students, Bess, a plump blonde who’d proven multiple times over the course of this class that she was categorically not a prodigy, said haltingly, “Are you really a teacher?”
Wes winced. Well, at least she hadn’t asked if Wilkins was a real doctor.
“No.” Dr. Wilkins looked bewildered at the very idea. “I’m a scientist. I thought I already said … at any rate, this may be my first time in front of a class of real live students, but at least you won’t be stuck with me for very long, since this rotation is almost over.”
Another long silence. Wes watched their new teacher shift her weight from side to side, fingers gripping the podium so tightly they went white at the tips.
Wes studied her. He noted the curve of her pink cheek, the quickness of her breath. She was short, he decided, but perfectly proportioned. Her skin was like the porcelain tableware they used at La Culinaire, the academy’s student-staffed restaurant, creamy white and so fine it was almost translucent.
Not that Wes was any kind of expert on school, but even he could tell that little Miss First-Time Teacher was bombing this class in a big, bad way. It was painful to watch her try to untangle her tongue enough to get to the actual sharing of information, and his classmates’ deep and abiding silence wasn’t helping.
One good question would probably get her going, Wes thought. But when he sat up and raised his hand, he knew deep down that he didn’t deserve the grateful look she shot him.
As much as he wanted to tell himself he was heroically stepping in to save her from the humiliation brought on by her absentminded-professor routine, he couldn’t.
Because Wes had never been very good at lying to himself. And when he looked into his delectable new teacher’s blue eyes, he saw more than a brilliant, beautiful, painfully awkward woman.
He saw someone who held his grade—his future—in the palm of her little hand.
Shit, Wes, what are you doing? Don’t be that guy.
He dropped his arm hastily back to his side, but it was too late. She’d already zeroed in on him.
“You have a question?” she asked eagerly.
“Yeah,” Wes said, licking his lips. “Sure. What I wanted to know was what you meant by what you said earlier. About not seeing cooking as an art form?”
“Oh!” She looked surprised. “I’m not sure what you mean. Can you elaborate, Mr.… ?”
“Murphy,” Wes supplied, adrenaline buzzing up his spine. It was weirdly intoxicating to have her full attention. “I was interested because it seems like you don’t think there’s anything creative about cooking.”
“Well, wouldn’t you agree that the process you know as cooking is truly little more than the chemical reaction of ingredients to each other, to heat, et cetera?”
“Sure, but there’s more to it than that.”
She frowned. “What did you say your name was?”
“Murphy. Wes. And I mean, I couldn’t tell you the chemical reasons behind it, but cooking is more than boring, set formulas playing out in some predictable pattern.”
“Chemistry isn’t boring.” She bristled, clearly stung. “Only an idiot would dismiss the importance of the fundamental building blocks of our world.”
Excerpted from Just One Taste by Louisa Edwards.
Copyright © 2010 by Louisa Edwards.
Published in September 2010 by St. Martin’s Paperbacks.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.