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Staci Rowland ran the last block and a half to the Hamilton Ramsfeld kitchen and studios. She was late, more than late she was on the verge of blowing the chance of a lifetimethe chance to be on Premier Chef. And the chance to win half a million dollars and have her own television cooking show. The chance to get back into a Michelin starred kitchen and prove that all the raw young talent she'd had hadn't been wasted.
She was running late because she was a little short of money this week, which was her own fault because she'd blown every cent of her disposable income on a new set of knives for this competition. Gas prices were high and she hadn't been able to afford a tank of gas from San Diego to Santa Monica so instead she'd had to bus it.
Now sweat was dripping down her back, she was overheated and the knives she carried in her left hand were starting to feel as if they weighed a ton. She ran through the front doors of the building, air-conditioning immediately starting to cool her damp back. She glanced at the empty reception desk.
"Damn," she said, under her breath, rushing to the desk to find a clipboard with a list of names, including hers and instructions to take the elevator to the fourteenth floor. She pushed the elevator button and opened her purse to search for the letter she'd received from the Premier Chef producers, hoping it had an exact room number on it. The bell pinged and she stepped into the elevator car, catching the toe of her shoe on the lip of the gap, which sent her sprawling forward.
Staci cursed as she tumbled through the air expecting to hit the floor and instead hit a warm solid person. She heard his curse as a stream of cool liquid washed over both of them. She glanced up, an apology on her lips, and froze as she stared into a pair of Caribbean blue eyes. She tried to push herself free but her hand slipped on his arm and he gripped her waist to keep her upright.
"Oh fudge," she said. "I'm just not having a good day."
He was tall and, she could tell from the way he was holding her, well built with a muscled chest and strong shoulders. His jaw was square with an almost bullish set to it and when he looked down at her with those brilliant blue eyes of his, they were frosty. Not frosty enough to dry the sweat dripping down her back but she felt a definite chill. Great, she thought, it was as if the universe was conspiring to ruin her day.
"I'm sorry," she said.
"It's cool," he said, his southern drawl washed over her senses and she did a double take. He had casually ruffled dark black hair that curled over his forehead. His body was lean and muscular not typical of every chef she'd met. And she had no doubt that he was a chef. "Maybe next time you should look where you are going?"
"Thanks, I hadn't thought of that," she shot back. Not in a mood to be sweet and cheery since she was overheated and as the liquid dried on her skin it felt sticky. "What were you drinking?"
"Sweet tea," he said.
Of course he was since his voice was all Southern plantations and magnolia trees she wasn't surprised. She brushed her hands over her clothes and shook her head. "Someone up there really hates me."
"Up there?" he asked, reaching around her to push the button for the fourteenth f loor.
"The universe or heaven or whatever you like to call the fickle fates," she said, tucking a strand of her short hair behind her ear.
"Why are you blaming an unseen power when you are clearly running late?" he asked. "If you'd been here on time none of this would have happened."
"Touche," she said.
Silence grew between them and Staci tried to just let it be, but she hated quiet.. always had.
"Are you here for the competition?" she asked. It was an educated guess, but one she suspected would be confirmed since he held a bag of chef knives in one hand.
"Yes," he said. "I hope you are better in the kitchen than you are in the elevator."
"Oh, you haven't seen me at my best in the elevator," she said with a wink. Then holding out her hand to him, she introduced herself. "I'm Staci Rowland."
"Remy Stephens," he said. His handgrip was firm and his hand was warm in hers. His hands showed signs that he'd been a chef for a while with burn marks and nicks that had long since scarred over. If his hands were any indication the man could cook.
She stared at his face perhaps a little longer than she should, unable to look away from the beard stubble on his face, which gave him a rugged sexy appearance. When she glanced back at his eyes she saw that he'd lifted one eyebrow at her.
She dropped his hand and rubbed hers on her jean-clad leg. What the hell was wrong with her today?
"Oh, like that little mouse in Ratatouille" she said. Her niece loved that film and after they'd watched it together Louisa had insisted on having ratatouille for dinner.
"Ratatouille? The vegetable dish?"
"No," she said. "The Disney-Pixar movie. It's about a chef who is lost and finds his culinary way with the help of a little mouse named Remy."
"Um no like my great-uncle," he said. "I don't watch animated movies."
She shrugged. "It's cute. You should give it a try."
She stepped further back to look at him. "Sorry again about bumping into you."
"No problem. I get messier in the kitchens," he said. "I'm just thinking about cooking today."
"Me, too," she said with a half-smile. "I'm the co-owner of Sweet Dreams, a cupcake bakery in San Diego."
"The cupcake girl," he said. "I read over the profiles of the other chefs this morning."
"Cupcake girl? My partner and I own a very profitable bakery I'd rather not be referred to as the cupcake girl." She wished she'd thought to read the profiles as well, maybe then she'd know more about Remy. But as she'd been running late she hadn't had time.
Now he was the one to step back and gave her a low bow. "My most humble apologies, baker."
"Where do you work?" she asked.
"I'm sort of between gigs right now but I've worked in the best kitchens in New Orleans."
"I suspected as much," she said.
"That slow Southern drawl of yours gave you away."
He gave her a slow steady smile that made her pulse kick up a notch. She couldn't put her finger on what it was but there was something familiar in his smile. Also something so damned sexy that she wondered if she should just get off at the next floor.
Some women were into men in uniforms, others into men with power and money but for her it had always been the earthy sensuality of a man who could cook.
"Do you like it?" he asked, his drawl even more pronounced than before.
She grinned back. "Maybe."
He arched one eyebrow at her. "Most people find my accent charming."
He gave her a measured look and then winked at her. "Cupcake girl, it's a big part of my personality," he said. "Some people underestimate me based on it, but I use that to my advantage in the kitchen. I can be very demanding."
She knew he was talking about cooking but a part of her was thinking he'd also be demanding in the bedroom. She cleared her throat.
"I am, too," she said. Running the bakery with Alysse was hard work and they'd only become successful by making sure the bakery always came first.
"If you call me cupcake girl again I'm not going to be so nice."
"This was you being nice?" he asked.
And though the tone was still there in his voice she glanced up at his eyes and saw a hint of a sparkle. She liked him and looked forward to kicking his butt in the kitchen.
"Guess you're not the only one who is more spice than sugar," she said.
The door opened and they were met with a long line of folks waiting to sign in.
"I'm surprised to see so many people here today," she said.
"I'm not. The prize money is going to bring out everyone from executive chefs to prep cooks," he said. "I'm going to wash up. See you in the kitchen."
She watched him walk away before giving herself a mental slap. She wasn't here to repeat the mistakes from her past, but to fix them. This time she was going to do it right and that meant no falling for another chef even if he did have a killer smile, sexy ass and a charming accent.
Remy Cruzel had grown up in one of the most famous kitchens in New Orleans. Gastrophilethe three Mi-chelin starred restaurant that raised the bar and set the new standard for American Creole cooking. His grandfather and great-uncle had shocked the culinary world by getting three Michelin starssomething hard to achieve outside of Paris and even harder to do when you weren't French by birth. But the Cruzel brothers had done it and then passed that expertise on to their children.
Everyone quieted down as three men walked into the main room. He recognized Hamilton Ramsfeld, a popular American chef who his father said was a pompous ass who'd lost his love of food in his quest for notoriety. But then his old man was a hard man to impress.
"Hello, chefs, I am the head judge Hamilton Rams-feld and the other judges in this competition are Lorenz Morelli executive chef and owner of a string of successful highend Italian restaurants and Pete Gregoria, the publisher of American Food magazine."
"We look forward to tasting the dishes you prepare for us," Lorenz said in his heavy Italian accent. "Everyone on the left side of the room will come with me," Lorenz instructed. "Everyone on the right will stay here with Hamilton."
"Good luck to you all," Pete said.
The field of chefs here today was as diverse as he'd expected it to be and he wasn't surprised when the judges immediately divided the room in two.
He saw Cupcake Girl go with the other group and gave her a mock-salute. She was cute and funny but he wasn't here to flirt with women, he was here to prove he had the cooking chops to take over as Chef Patron at Gastrophile in New Orleans. His family name was legend in the food world and it wasn't Stephens. He'd lied on his application.
It was hard to know how much of the praise heaped on his head was due to his last name and how much was due to his skills. So Remy Etienne Cruzel had become Remy Stephens. He didn't know how long he could keep up the ruse, but on his side was the fact that none of the celebrity chefs were friends of his father and Remy had kept a rather low profile at the Culinary Institute of America and while working at Gastrophile.
"Welcome to Premier Chefthe Professionals Audition. A love of food has brought you here today but we will only be accepting those of you who have real skill and ability in the kitchen. You might be the king of the kitchen back home, but here in this competition you will have to earn everything. Every new day will bring another chance to prove yourself and at the end of the 12 weeks if you have what it takes you will be the new Premier Chef," head judge Hamilton Ramsfeld said.
Remy nodded knowing this was exactly what he needed to hear.
"Chefs, each of you will prepare a dish from our pantry in 15 minutes that demonstrates your culinary point of view. When the time is up your dish will be judged and only half of your number will make it onto the show."
"Yes, chef," was chorused by the cooks waiting to get in the kitchen. They'd set up a line of tables in a big circle around the room and Remy was anxious to get to his station and start his mis en place. He knew what he could cook well in 15 minutes and already he was prepping in his head.
Remy didn't really care who the judges were as long as they scrutinized him for his dishes and not his pedigree, and by lying about who he was he'd ensured they would. They called start and the chefs all ran to the pantry to gather ingredients. It reminded Remy of a game his grandfather used to play with him when he was little. Hiding ingredients in the cupboard and then making him wear a blindfold to see if he could sniff out the items.
He had an image of Cupcake Girl in a blindfold and little else as he directed her around his kitchen back home. He shrugged off that thought and forced his mind back to the competition. It'd be embarrassing if he were sent home before filming even began.
He gathered his ingredients and prepared his dish, cooking easily under the pressure of the clock.
"Dude, this is intense," said the shaggy blond guy next to him. "I'm used to working under the gun but not with this many people around."
"It is crazy, but I think they do that to rattle you," Remy said.
"It's not shaking you," the guy said.
"I've worked under some shouters in my day so it takes more than this to rattle me," Remy said, thinking of his father who didn't let blood temper his tongue when Remy screwed up.
"Me, too. I'm Troy, by the way."
"Remy." He didn't want to chat but needed to get his dish finished and plated. A quick glance at the clock confirmed that he was right on schedule.
Troy kept up a constant stream as he cooked and Remy had worked with talkers before and had to be honest and admit he didn't like them. The kitchen was for cooking not for talking. He didn't trust a chef who was busy rattling on instead of focusing on his dish.
Remy put his hands up and stepped back from his station. The judges came around to taste and he wiped his sweaty hands on his pants, as they tasted his dish. He couldn't remember being this nervous since his first day at the CIA.
"Good. Nice balance of sweet and heat. I like it," Hamilton said.
"Thank you, chef."
The other judges also complimented him. And he realized he was good. He'd known it, but it was nice to hear it from someone else.
They called names of the contestants going home. Troy didn't make the cut and gave Remy a wave as he walked out the door. Remy wasn't surprised. This was a serious competition meant for those who were serious about their work. The other group rejoined them and he noticed Cupcake Girl in the center of the pack.
She was cute with her pixie haircut and her delicate features. Her hair was jet black and her figure petite but curvy. As Hamilton started talking to them again Cupcake Girl's cute ass and the way her jeans fit distracted Remy.
" teams," Hamilton said.
Dammit. He should have been listening instead of staring at the woman. He had a feeling his sweet tooth was going to be his downfall. "What'd he say?" he asked the man next to him.
"We're going to be put on two person teams and will cook against the other teams, at the end of the round half of us will go home and the remaining chefs will be going onto the show."
"Come forward and take a knife from the cutting block. There are 15 teams, you will be given a number and A or B. The A knife is the head of the team. You will have thirty minutes to plan your dish and then an hour to execute it."
Everyone moved forward to take a knife and Remy drew 7B. "My lucky number."
"Mine too," a soft feminine voice said from behind him. "And I get to be in charge. My fate has definitely changed since the elevator."
"Cupcake Girl," he said. "I hoped you'd make it through. I think I should be in charge since I'm a trained chef and you are a baker."
"Southern boy, I'm the leader on this mission you can either follow me or perish in flames, but either way I'm not about to screw up a challenge."
He liked her spunky attitude, but he wasn't about to risk going home because of her. He'd let her think she was in charge but no way was he putting his fate in her hands. "What did you have in mind?"