Read an Excerpt
Taste the Heat
A Love and Games Novel
By Rachel Harris, Stacy Abrams
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2013 Rachel Harris
All rights reserved.
When the bright red and white Taste the Heat banner fluttered in an abrupt and unseasonable gust of wind, then collapsed onto her head in an undignified heap, Colby Robicheaux figured it had to be an omen. Of what, she didn't really know. But considering the subject matter of both the banner and the multi-colored sign she had tripped over on her way up from the parking lot, she had a hunch it was a cosmic premonition of something.
"Lady Irony, you have a wicked, wicked sense of humor," she muttered, plucking the banner for the St. Tammany Parish Firefighters' Cajun Cook-off from her head. She glanced back at the aforementioned sign she'd tripped over, now standing askew in its staked position in the ground. It boasted the event's connection to the world famous New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival beginning the following week.
Food, music, and heritage—the trifecta so many people born and raised near New Orleans held dear. And the very things Colby had fled from twelve years ago. Lifting her eyes into the late May sun, she squinted and said, "Well played, Big Guy. Well played."
A passing snort from an event-goer made her wince. Right. So maybe talking to herself in public wasn't the best approach for her to prove that their family restaurant, Robicheaux's, was still in capable, non-crazy hands.
Forcing a casual, sane smile onto her face, she set the offending banner on the ground near the entrance of LeBeaux State Park and willed her feet to step through the gate. They refused to budge. Families and couples strolled past on their way inside, deep in conversation, hands waving dramatically as their thick accents proclaimed dawlin' and yea, you right. Others broke out in spontaneous, carefree dance to the lively Zydeco tune carried on the wind.
A memory of a similar beat hit Colby with the power of a hurricane- force wind. Suddenly she was no longer outside the park but back in her childhood kitchen, stirring a pot of gumbo as her parents danced around the butcher-block island. Her father twirled her mother in a multi-step move, and Mom's infectious laughter echoed off the oak cabinets.
Not now, please not now.
Coming home was always a tug and pull—warm memories warring with apprehension. Since she left her Las Vegas restaurant three weeks ago, Colby had yet to venture anywhere outside their small suburban town of Magnolia Springs, population 1,100. She hadn't even seen anyone beyond the restaurant staff and her siblings. In hindsight, taking a few baby steps would've been a much smarter move.
Colby gave herself a mental shake and firmly placed the ghosts of her past in the locked trunk of her memory. Back where they belonged. She straightened her shoulders, smoothed her clammy hands along the sides of her crisp linen pants, and told herself she could do this. She owned this.
She took a deep breath, then another for good measure, and lifted her head and marched herself through the wooded arch. Immediately, the sights, sounds, and smells of her childhood engulfed her. A large stage dominated one half of the open field with the promised Zydeco band. A woman in a brightly checkered dress sawed an accordion in and out, and a young man in crawfish-patterned suspenders sat near the edge playing a washboard. To the side, a mile-long line stretched before a photo booth with an old pirogue, crab net, and fake alligator set in front of a backdrop of the swamp. And surrounding her, encompassing the rest of the large field in a wide semi-circle, were countless booths filled with fragrant food, each representing a different St. Tammany parish firehouse.
Reading the menus posted beside the closest ones, it appeared as though they all sold jambalaya and gumbo by the Styrofoam bowlful, along with each fire station's own unique Taste the Heat twist, such as fiery fried jalapeno peppers, habanero nachos, and at least a dozen different forms of chili, each declaring their own to be the parish's absolute best.
The punch of spicy cayenne and fried okra assaulted Colby's senses, and the fresh onslaught was simply too much. She clamped her stinging eyes shut. She couldn't tell if the turbulent sensations rolling through her stomach were from anxiety, regret, or extreme nausea—but there was a very good chance she was about to be sick.
Oh, please God, don't let me puke in public.
She could just hear the news report now. Big city chef returns home and tosses her cookies at local heroes' feet. Full report at ten.
She bet that would get customers filling their tables.
At the soft inquiry, Colby's eyes snapped open. "Ah, yes?"
The older woman standing in front of her nodded, causing her thick bob of salt-and-pepper hair to swing around her shoulders. "Thought so," she said, offering her hand in greeting. "I'm Mary Lemoine, co-organizer of today's event."
"Oh, yes. Pleased to meet you, Ms. Lemoine." She took the woman's cool hand in her own, grateful for the diversion from the emotional roller coaster, and discreetly compared her pressed linen suit with Mary's dark jeans and event T-shirt combo. She was starting to get the impression she was a tad overdressed. "Was it my Yankee attire that gave me away?"
Mary laughed, a free and open sound that instantly put her at ease. "Not at all. When your brother said you'd be stepping in as judge, I looked you up on the Internet," she confided. "Quite the impressive resume you have there. But I'd have recognized you even if I hadn't seen your picture on that fancy restaurant website of yours. You're just the spitting image of your daddy, aren't ya?"
A vision of a man beaming with pride as she created recipes beside him, while other girls her age were off playing with Barbies, flashed in her mind. It used to be that hearing people say that very thing delighted Colby like nothing else.
But those days came to an abrupt end twelve years ago.
"Here, let me show you to the judge's table." Mary gave her a sympathetic smile and motioned toward the open field, and Colby fell in step beside her. As they walked, she willed away the hurt and anger roiling inside. She knew Mary meant well, but she probably assumed Colby was upset over her father's recent passing and had no idea the real reason Colby was upset. No one did, not even her own siblings. And Colby intended to keep it that way.
As they cut a path through the sizable turnout, Mary filled her in on the details of the new venture. Colby had to admit she was impressed. All the proceeds from today's ticket and food sales went toward the St. Tammany Parish Adopt-a-Family program, an initiative co-sponsored by the local fire stations that helped people in need of clothing and basic necessities.
To help raise the needed money, event organizers had pulled out all the stops. A slew of bands were scheduled to entertain the crowd. There was face painting, a bounce house, a huge inflatable slide, and what appeared to be a wildly popular Dunk-a-Fireman booth. But the true highlight of the day, the reason she was there, was the Taste the Heat cook-off featuring three of the area's self-declared best culinary captains.
Colby listened to Mary go on about all the wonderful things the firefighters were doing for the local community, and found herself looking forward to the dishes the captains had created. Not so much tasting them, but rewarding them for their efforts. Moreover, she was thrilled to discover the painful thoughts of her past diminishing as the minutes ticked by.
Hell, she even caught herself nodding her head in time with the band's familiar beat.
Maybe today wouldn't suck so badly after all. And if today went well, then maybe everything would go well. Maybe it would be sooner, rather than later, that she'd get the family restaurant running smoothly, her siblings on solid footing, and herself back to her own life in Vegas.
With the table in view, Mary left to attend to a last-minute microphone issue and Colby made her way solo across the uneven ground. Watching her step, and not the path ahead of her, she was jolted when a preteen ball of hair plowed into her.
"Whoa, you okay there?" she asked, grasping the girl by the shoulders to steady them both.
"Yeah." The young girl flipped her blond ponytail, revealing an adorable face and bright smile. "Sorry about that. We're playing Kiss and Catch," she explained, eyes leaving Colby's to focus on the crowd around them. "Well, the girls are playing Kiss and Catch. The boys are just running."
Colby laughed aloud. Some things never changed. When she was a preteen, the kissing variation of tag was more popular with the girls, too. A wide smile broke across her face as she remembered chasing her brother's best friend Jason across this very park during a particular crawfish festival. And the one time he let her catch him.
The young girl spied and then took off toward a young boy with marked intensity, tossing a smile over her shoulder. Taking her seat behind the judge's table, Colby watched the next generation of crushes, her smile growing wistful at the boy's halfhearted attempts at escape. Perhaps for the young girl, her crush wouldn't be as unrequited as Colby's had been.
* * *
Good food and even better people. Those were only two of the reasons Captain Jason Landry loved living in New Orleans, but they happened to be his favorite. And on days like today when the hellish humidity wasn't killing you, the beer was flowing and plentiful, and the sound of music and laughter surrounded him, he couldn't think of any place else he'd rather live.
"Now see, that's a woman for you."
He screwed the cap back on his half-empty water bottle and shook his head with a grin. So far, in just the few short hours they'd been at Taste the Heat today, his fellow captain Gavin Morris had made similar comments about at least a dozen different women—although he had to admit, the man did have impeccable taste.
Once upon a time, Jason had been right in the thick of it with him. Carving his way through the dating scene and leaving a trail of satisfied women in his wake. But those days were long gone. Lately, any free time he had that wasn't spent working at the station or teaching classes at the gym he owned was filled with reading books about prepubescent hormones, shaving legs, and PMS. Not that he was complaining. Not really. He loved Emma, and he wouldn't trade the experience of raising his daughter for anything in the world. But being a single dad didn't exactly leave a lot of time for enjoying beautiful women.
And that was a damn shame.
On stage, the band ended their set and Mary Lemoine grabbed the microphone to announce that the cook-off would begin in a few short minutes. Good thing, too, because the warming trays they'd set up to keep their dishes hot weren't doing that great of a job.
"Yeah, she's super fine," Gavin said, still eyeing the woman in question.
The hungry crowd surged toward their end of the open field and Jason leaned forward to give his prize-winning crawfish étouffée a stir. "Oh yeah? And what's so special about this one?"
Gavin elbowed him in the side. "Why don't you take a look for yourself."
Jason re-covered the pot and glanced in the direction his friend lifted his chin toward. It took a moment for the crowd to settle and his view of Gavin's future conquest to clear, but when it did, only two words came to mind. "Hot damn."
Gavin chuckled under his breath. "My thoughts exactly." He rested his hip against the table and said, "And I've got just what she's looking for."
Jason chuckled. "She's way out of your league."
Looking back at the brunette stunner, Jason admitted she was out of his league, too. The woman was five-alarm gorgeous. Her long dark hair hung loose around her shoulders, and her pouty lips were lifted in a contemplative smile. She bit the edge of a polished fingernail, lost in thought, and the effect was like a punch to his gut.
When was the last time he'd had such a visceral reaction to the simple sight of a woman? His fingers actually itched with the desire to wrap her hair around his palm. He bit his lip, wondering if her mouth tasted half as good as it looked.
He'd definitely been out of the scene too long.
Jason cleared his throat. "She's sitting in the judge's seat."
"And your point is?"
"My point is that if she's turned on by food, then you're shit out of luck." Pulling his attention away from the hot judge, he shot his friend a smirk. "Because my dish is gonna kick your ass."
Gavin scoffed. "In your dreams, fire boy." He pointed at the pot before him. "It so happens that my crab bisque is known for melting the panties off women." Then he grinned and gave the judge's table a pointed look. "But today, I'll settle for it working its magic on one in particular."
Jason's eyes snapped back to the brunette. That was all the prompting his imagination needed to fire up a vision of the kind of panties the woman had on—silk black thong, if he had to guess—and all the creative ways he'd like to remove them. With his teeth.
Yep, definitely been too long.
"Captains, are you ready?"
Mary's animated inquiry burst through the portable microphone, knocking the image out of his head. He quickly shifted his attention to the crowd, skin hot, knowing his eleven-year-old daughter was somewhere watching. A familiar whistle came from the far edge of the crowd and Jason followed the sound, smiling when he found Emma. Blond hair up in its trademark ponytail, legs folded like a pretzel in his black and gold lawn chair, she held a handmade sign declaring Étouffée ROCKS ... and So Does My Dad. Laughing, he sent her a thumbs up.
"Our three brave captains, willing to let their culinary prowess speak for itself, come from all over St. Tammany parish," Mary told the crowd. "Captain Eric Dufrene has brought his Cajun Shrimp and Grits all the way from Mandeville."
"I'm amazed I didn't get lost," Eric joked, referring to the ten-mile drive from his station to the park. Eric accepted an apron from her hands and slipped it over his head.
"And Captain Gavin Morris has brought us Crab Bisque from Covington," Mary continued, handing Gavin a black apron. Par for the course, his friend hammed it up for the crowd, flexing his muscles and smack talking as he tied it around his waist.
Jason cracked his knuckles. During all of this, the beautiful judge's eyes had followed Mary down the row. She'd offered Eric a warm smile, and laughed when Gavin bowed his head in mock-adoration. He was next. And as juvenile as it was to admit, Jason was eager for that same attention. Would she smile at him? Lower her lashes? Run her tongue along those lips?
Mary grabbed a third apron and walked toward him. The brunette glanced at her phone. Jason ground his teeth.
"And finally, our last contestant from right here in Magnolia Springs."
At that, the woman's head snapped up. Her gaze locked on him for the first time and her eyes widened as if in recognition. Her lips parted.
"But don't worry, folks," Mary continued. "There are no favorites here today. Everyone enters this contest on equal footing, including Captain Jason Landry and his Crawfish Étouffée."
Emma let out another sharp whistle, and Mary thrust out the apron. As Jason took the garment from her fingers, his mind churned.
They couldn't have met before. He might not have lived like a monk in the years since his wife died, but he was sure he'd remember a woman like her. He rubbed his chin, trying to recall if Mary had mentioned the judge's name when he agreed to participate, and drew a blank. Things were crazy at the station and he was dealing with Emma's newfound obsession with boys. But why hadn't he thought to ask Mary who the judge would be?
"Here's how this is gonna work." Mary nodded at a group of volunteers waiting to the side, and they came forward. "Each of our captains made enough of his dishes for everyone to have a sample, along with the tasting plate for the judge. Our volunteers will hand you a small cup of each dish and a comment card. After you've tried them all, please rank them in order of preference. Don't worry; your vote will be completely anonymous. We will tally the results and, with the judge's selection for Best Bite, the captain with the most votes will be announced the People's Choice. Make sense?"
Excerpted from Taste the Heat by Rachel Harris, Stacy Abrams. Copyright © 2013 Rachel Harris. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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