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Veronica Howard stretched her aching muscles. Her step aerobics class had been especially rigorous today, and she knew she'd pay the price tomorrow.
Ronnie was thirty years old and a former couch potato. So when it came to exercise, her body was in a constant state of rebellion.
"After you've done it for a while, you'll start to love it," her best friend, Cara Gray, a former fitness instructor at the trendy Tower Vista health club, had often told her. But Ronnie had been working out seriously for over a year and she still hated it.
Ronnie headed from the locker room to the club's juice bar, The Big Squeeze, where she and Cara hung out after their workouts. The state-of-the-art gym in Bethesda, Maryland, was a bit of a drive from her new town house in Washington, D.C., but it was worth it to keep up their tradition. Without Cara's constant pep talks, Ronnie would have quit a dozen different times already.
Even though Cara was now helping her husband, A.J., run their computer consulting business, the women still met at the gym three times a week. But her best friend didn't need the workouts. Cara's years of physical fitness had apparently made her body fat resistant even after three kids. But Ronnie, who worked with food for a living, needed to exert herself to stay fit.
As Ronnie entered the juice-bar area, she saw that Cara was already waiting for her. Cara had placed a shot glass filled with a ruby-red juice at her seat. It looked like blended berries, so Ronnie picked up the glass and filled her mouth. As soon as the thick liquid touched her tongue, she nearly gagged.
"Ugh. What the heck is this?" she sputtered. "It tastes like beets."
Cara laughed at Ronnie's yuck-face. "And hello to you, too." She nodded to Ronnie's half-empty glass. "It's a special blend of carrots, beetroot and grapefruit juice, so good call on the beets."
Ronnie wiped her tongue on her napkin. "And you thought I would like this why?"
"Because it's good for you," Cara said with a mischievous grin. "I figured you were ready to kick things up a notch."
Ronnie shoved the glass across the table. "Well, I guess I'm not, because I'm not drinking any more of this."
"Ron-nie! You're a chef. Your highly trained palate should be able to handle a little beetroot."
"Honey, I may have a newly skinny body, but that doesn't mean I have skinny taste buds." She swiveled her neck, feeling her curly ponytail swinging at her nape. "If there's one thing I've learned in the last few months, it's everything in moderation."
She eyed the offending glass. "And some things in nada-ration."
Cara rolled her eyes, having finally learned to ignore Ronnie's affinity for making up words.
Ronnie caught a glimpse of her reflection in the mirrored panels behind the bar. It still shocked her to see that her round frame had been replaced with an hourglass. As a chef, she'd worn her extra weight as a badge of honora testimony to the quality of her food. For years she'd told all who would listen, "If I lost weight, people would think my food wasn't any good."
She'd been a member of Tower Vista for as long as her friend had worked there, but it was only recently that she'd gotten serious about working out. The good old days had been all about massages, dips in the hot tub and fruity juice-bar drinksall the perks of belonging to an upscale gym without the perspiration or sore muscles. But after coping with some harsh realities in recent years, Ronnie had realized it was time for a few drastic changes.
Her dream of opening her own restaurant had finally come to fruition, and she'd lost nearly eighty pounds. But the most significant weight she'd lost was the one-hundred-eighty-pound no-good ex-boyfriend she'd finally cut loose.
Now she was happily single, and the only male she needed was her German shepherd, Baxter. Baxter provided affection, security and above all.loyaltythe one thing she'd never been able to get from a man.
"Fine. You're off the hook for today." Cara took back the red shot and downed it in one gulp. "But I'm not giving up the battle. I'm going to turn you into a health nut sooner rather than later."
It's never going to happen, Ronnie thought, but she kept that fact to herself. When she'd decided to get in shape, Cara had been beside herself with glee. Even though she no longer trained professionally, she'd taken Ronnie's weight loss on like a job, mapping out a strict regimen of diet and exercise. Now, even though Ronnie was happy with her current figure, Cara was still trying to push her further and further into the realm of fitness fanaticism.
"Yeah, good luck with that. In the meantime, I've got some news."
Her friend's eyes lit up. "What kind of news? Are you ready to start dating again?"
Ronnie rolled her eyes. Sure, three years was a long dry spell without a man, but she still hadn't reacquired her thirst. And the time on her own had done her a lot of good.
"Believe me, this has nothing to do with any man. I've been invited to participate in another Gourmet TV Food Fight."
Cara blinked. "That's great, Ronnie, but you do those all the time."
Ronnie smiled. "Yes, but this one is special. It's the first ever All-Star Food Fight. They're taking the top winners from the last two years and pitting us against each other in a three-part challenge. The prize is one hundred thousand dollars!"
Cara's eyes widened with surprise. "You're kidding me. That's ten times what you usually win."
"I know, and that's not all. Each round takes place in a fabulous placeLas Vegas, Hawaii and Paris."
Cara clutched a hand to her heart, her almond eyes taking on a dreamy expression. "You lucky girl. I've always wanted to visit Paris."
Ronnie's posture collapsed. "Well, there's no guarantee that I'll make it to Paris. The challenge starts out with five contestants. With eliminations after the first two rounds, only the top three will get to go to Paris."
Her friend, loyal to the end, waved off her concerns. "Oh, don't worry. I know you'll make it to the final three. One, because none of those chefs have the creativity and flair you have. And two, because I'm so going to visit you in Paris for the finale."
Ronnie released a tense breath, and Cara reached across the table to give her hand a reassuring pat. "Crave has been open for almost two years, and it's already received four-stars. You have nothing to worry about."
"Thanks for the vote of confidence, but there's going to be some pretty stiff competition. In fact, against most of these celebrity chefs, I definitely qualify as an underdog."
"Really? Who are the other chefs?"
"First, there's the queen bee herself, Etta Foster."
Etta Foster, a cross between Martha Stewart and Sarah Lee, was a household name. She had the most extensive line of cookware and frozen foods of any chef in the business. That was aside from her franchise of cooking shows on Gourmet TV. Yet despite her vast culinary empire, she still evoked the down-home image of a Southern grandma baking in her country kitchen.
Cara shrugged. "Etta Foster is a powerhouse, but she's old-fashioned. Your modern approach will blow her out of the water."
"Okay, but I'll still have to face off with Ann Le Marche and Stewart Compton."
Her friend, who only watched GTV when Ronnie was on it, was unimpressed. "I've never even heard of them."
"Well, I'm certain you've heard of my biggest competition, Ace Brown."
Cara gasped. "Ace Brown? The Sexy Chef himself?
Now you're talking. Finally a chance to prove yourself against your old culinary-school rival. Wiping the floor with him will put the icing on your victory."
Ronnie laughed. She and Ace had always been friends, but there had been an air of unspoken competition between them. They'd gone head-to-head many times in school, but unfortunately he had more points in the win column than she did. Since graduation, his career had grown to overshadow hers entirely.
Ace had been on the fast track, landing himself a show on Gourmet TV called The Sexy Chef soon after building his reputation on the Manhattan restaurant scene. His show had focused on romantic meals prepared from ingredients considered to be aphrodisiacs. Despite the show's popularity, when his contract was up, he'd decided to leave television to travel the world.
Ronnie hadn't seen Ace in nearly two years, and she couldn't help but feel a tad excited to show off her recent successes.
Every woman in culinary school had had a crush on Ace, herself included. But since she'd had a boyfriend at the time, Ronnie had been able to pretend she was the lone female on earth immune to his charms. As a result, they'd become good friends.
Ace's face flashed in her mind. Back then he'd had a full head of curly hair, a clean-shaven baby face and a leanly muscled body. When Ronnie had started catching The Sexy Chef on GTV, she'd noticed that Ace had become so buff he'd needed to cut the sleeves off his chef's jacket to free his massive guns. He'd also shaved his head and grown a neat mustache and goatee.
Combine his smoking hot physique and his natural charm in front of the camera, and you had the recipe for sexy. His show had been aptly named, and Ronnie suspected that when it had been on the air, his female viewers tuned in more for the tasty sight of Ace than for his romance-inspired haute cuisine.
Ronnie had never really been immune to his charms, but a guy like Ace had his pick of women. So why would he have gone for the pretty but pleasantly plump version of her? There were plenty of men who'd appreciated her voluptuous curves. But judging by the swarm of skinny women that had surrounded Ace, she didn't have any reason to believe he was one of them.
Therefore, it had been easier for her to pretend that she wasn't interested. To sell the lie she'd joked that she was more woman than he could handle.
"Wow" Cara said, snapping her fingers in front of Ronnie's face "the mere mention of Ace Brown sends you into a dream state."
"I wasn't daydreaming. It's been a while since I last saw him. I'm hoping he'll be thrown off his game when he gets a load of all this," she said, presenting her body with a flourish worthy of Vanna White.
Cara laughed. "I'm certain he'll be so intimidated by your hot body and restaurant success that he'll lose all ability to function. Then you can whisk the floor with him."
"How can I expect him to be impressed with my one little restaurant opening? He has two bistros in New York, a television show in syndication and a new cookbook coming out. The only way I'm going to earn his respect is by kicking his butt in the Food Fight."
Ace Brown stacked his canapes, delicately balancing Serrano ham, roasted tomatoes and shaved Parmesan cheese on thinly sliced crostini. He garnished each layer with a leaf of cilantro and carried the platter out to his guests waiting in the living room of his Manhattan loft.
He'd spent the majority of his career creating dishes for two, but tonight his apartment was filled with six of his closest friendsall of them foodies and one of them his sous chef for the upcoming competition.
"I can't believe you've just returned to the country, and you're already running off again," Devon said as Ace held the tray out to her. A polished hotshot lawyer, she wore her short hair slicked to her scalp, light makeup and a casual pantsuit.
"That's right," her husband, Ace's oldest friend, Spence, said. "We've gone almost six months without a decent meal. Now you're asking us to hold on for another three weeks?" A light-skinned pretty boy, Spence had done his friend a favor when he'd married Devon. Ace did a lot better with women without the added competition.
Ace offered the tray to the remaining couples in the room, his sous chef Marcel and his wife, Simone, and Garett, his publicist, and Garett's date du jour.
"Relax. Tonight I've planned a feast that should tide all of you over until Marcel and I return home from battle."
Garett squirmed in his seat. "I still think we should have accepted the television deal. Gourmet TV offered you a minimum of six episodes to cook your signature dishes in front of a live audience. You're getting too big for these little competition shows." Garett slapped the knee of the girl he'd brought. "Talk some sense into him, sweetheart."
Ace exchanged smirks with Marcel and Spence because he knew they were all thinking the same thing. One, Garett had called his date sweetheart because he probably didn't remember her name. And two, he'd chosen a perfect stranger to reason with Ace over a roomful of friends he'd known for years.
The beautiful Asian woman smiled at him tentatively.
"I'm sorry, Garett" Ace said, letting her off the hook, "I'm just not ready to commit to another TV show. I want to promote my upcoming cookbook, and then see what happens after that. I've been driving in the fast lane for so long. It would be nice to take some time to regroup."
"I thought that's what you were doing on your extended vacation," Garett said, raking his fingers through the dark locks that hung just below his ears.
"That was work. In addition to researching my book, you had me doing press everywhere I stopped." Garett always wanted more, and he always wanted it now.
The two men had become friends years ago when they were both starting out their careers. Back then they'd had two things in commonskirt chasing and a driving hunger for success.
Since Ace had returned from his travels, he'd changed considerably. He'd visited some of the most romantic cities in the world, and even though he'd experienced good times, his share of romance and a lifetime of culinary inspiration, he'd never been more lonely. For the first time, he wished he could have shared those things with someone special.
That fact had never been as clear as it was tonight. He'd invited his closest friends over, and it wasn't until they'd walked through his door that he'd realized itthey were all couples and he was single.
Although Garett didn't count. He was part a couple, but with a different woman for each occasion.
After returning to his empty apartment, Ace had to face that he was tired of avoiding long-term relationships. But thanks to the memories of his parents' rocky marriage, he still wasn't sure he could make one work.
"At least we'll be able to watch you two on television," Marcel's wife, Simone, said, helping herself to another hors d'oeuvre. She and Marcel were both French Creole from Louisiana. Marcel had joined Ace's staff when the couple had moved to New York after Hurricane Katrina.