Read an Excerpt
‘If you’ll open your grocery sacks you’ll see that the mystery ingredient is …’
Jill Calvert opened her bright green plastic sack to find a lone bottle sitting at the bottom.
‘Cardamom!’ Kat Stephens, the announcer for Best Chef, crowed cheerfully.
Cardamom. What the fuck am I supposed to do with cardamom?
Jill’s eyes shot to Cole who was grinning like an idiot. Like an idiot? He was an idiot … or so she wanted to think. She couldn’t like him. He was her only true competition in this cooking game. She’d known coming in that the only person she really had to focus on beating was Cole Roberts, the chef at Twisted Squid, a swanky restaurant a mere hour from her Baltimore based Lime.
He waggled his eyebrow at her and she fought the urge to throw her small glass bottle at him. He was roughly six foot six so it was doubtful such a small projectile would do any good, but still. It was an urge.
‘You have forty-five minutes, Chefs, to wow us with your dish. Your time begins now!’ Kat crowed.
Jill had to force herself not to focus on the damn cameras. They still freaked her out even though Best Chef was in its final week of competition. There were only four of them left, hence a super difficult secret ingredient. A spice. Nothing more, nothing less.
Freaking spice. And you just know Mr Fantastic Glasses over there is going to whip up something to wow the judges and …
Jill cut herself off in mid-thought and ran to the pantry. Immediately she grabbed rice and set a pot of water to boil. Thank God for industrial burners and the quick boil. Jill dropped her rice and raced back for milk and cinnamon, some beautiful peaches she peeled and macerated in sugar.
It was all a blur. Forty-five minutes was nothing at all and all along her own journey of cooking a killer sweet rice pudding with peaches and cardamom she had to worry about … him.
Jill glanced up at Cole and he had the nerve … the gall … the balls! to wink at her and smile.
Something in her stomach sizzled and dipped and it had very little to do with stress or food.
‘Don’t think about that … man. And his glasses. And his muscles …’ she whispered. Then remembering the mic pack on her back and the fact that it had possibly just picked up her ramble, she blushed hotly. The heat in her face had nothing to do with the insanely hot TV cameras.
‘Sorry, Jill, what was that?’ Kat Stephens cooed for the camera.
‘But we didn’t hear –’
‘It was just me rattling off ingredients!’ she called, laughing a forced laugh just for whoever might be watching.
But Cole wasn’t fooled. He gave her another wink and put the finishing touches on whatever he was cooking. When he started plating, she felt that burn-sizzle-jolt of last minute anxiety and rushed to finish her (hopefully) killer rice pudding. Everyone had been doing tons of savoury dishes of late and Jill was hoping against hope that a sweet dish that showed off the mystery ingredient would woo the judges.
And lucky for the contenders, it only took a million years for judging. Oh sure, on TV when you were watching from home it was over in a flash, but in reality, they sat in that damn blue room for an eternity waiting for the panel of judges to argue and fight and duke it out.
Hours. In a room. With Cole.
She almost lost her rhythm and didn’t make it but at the very last moment she nestled her ripe sweet peach slices in her creamy rice pudding – rich with vanilla and cardamom and cinnamon – and threw her hands up in the air.
‘And time!’ Kat sang.
Jill let her head drop and as she passed by to file into line for the judges, Cole, that ass – that headstrong, cocky son of a gun – swatted her. On. The. Ass.
Jill gritted her teeth and stilled her expression.
Don’t focus on him. Don’t think of him. Don’t look at him … or his muscles.
She stood through the initial tasting. The comments from judges, one being Max Sheldon of Yellow Wall restaurant. He made her nervous, so Jill plastered a fierce grin on her face and tuned out everything that was said. It was hard for her not to react viscerally to criticism, so during week one, she had learned to focus her attention elsewhere and simply respond to tone and then throw out the occasional ‘yes, Chef’ when needed.
‘Thank you, Chefs,’ Kat Stephens said. ‘You can go to the pantry and wait for the final elimination.’
Her stomach clenched and her fingers twitched. Jill knew her stomach would be a ball of knots until the verdict was laid down. It wasn’t so much the 50,000 dollar prize she was interested in – it was the title of Best Chef. And that was because of the hoopla with her sous chef Tom, who was also the person who handled purchasing. She’d fired Tom when she found he’d been buying inferior ingredients than stated on the menu. And pocketing the difference.
It had been an embarrassment, one she’d like to get past even if everyone else in the world had gotten past it already.
‘Don’t sweat it, Calvert. It’ll only be four hours or so.’ Cole said it right into her hair as they all filed out. She even felt the tickle-tug of his lips catching on some of her pony-tailed strands.
There was a hot rush of moisture from her body and she tried her best to ignore it. It was nothing more than a chemical reaction. Stress and adrenaline and OK, so he wasn’t hard to look at, but still.
‘Yeah, yeah. You sweat it,’ she snapped and moved faster. But not before she felt the slight brush of his hand on the flare of her hip. Even her bulky chef’s coat couldn’t buffer her from that.