With their illicit affair moving full steam ahead and no mention of commitment, Corri feared she'd become nothing more than Aidan's pet protégée. Once he'd taken her career as far as he could, would he discard her for another ingénue?
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What a cowardly way to say goodbye.
In total disbelief, Corinna Harris stared at the Dear Jane letter resting on the pink marble vanity in her dressing room, a nice little missive that had been couriered to her only minutes ago. She shouldn't be surprised that her erstwhile fiancé had chosen this method to break it off. After all, Kevin O'Brien was a journalist, well-versed with the written word, although this particular correspondence was simple, and to the point.
Thanks for everything, Corri, but it's time to end it. Feel free to keep the ring. It's been fun.
Fun? After an eight-month sham of an engagement, one would think he might actually have had enough courtesy to tell her in person that it was over. Not that she was at all surprised. Not that she wasn't angry.
Corri yanked the one-carat diamond off her finger and hurled it across the room like a missile, where it hit the wall and landed somewhere in the thick blue carpet. If it happened to get sucked up in a vacuum by the cleaning staff, then too bad. She wanted absolutely no souvenirs of a relationship that had basically been a lie.
The rap at the door jolted Corri back into the reality of what she had to do—her job. "Five minutes," one of the crew called.
"Okay. I'm ready."
Was she really ready? Could she actually step in front of an audience and pretend nothing had happened? And today of all days, during her first live performance, a show centered on preparing the perfect holiday meal for lovers. Six days before Christmas.
Of course she could do this. Kevin might have temporarily screwed up her life, but she refused to let his careless disregard screw up her career.
After slipping on her favorite white chef's smock, the one covered with tiny wooden spoons, Corri did another quick check of her makeup and tightened her ponytail. A few tears threatened behind her carefully painted eyes, but she wouldn't allow them to fall. Instead, she got mad. Clung to the anger as tightly as a bank robber clutching his pilfered booty.
That alone sent her out to face the crowd, a fake smile carefully in place. She glanced toward the control booth and immediately spotted Aidan O'Brien, AOB Productions'owner, and Kevin's older brother. Since the day she'd taped her first show, Aidan had always been there, serving as her champion and friend. And at a good six foot three, he wasn't easy to miss. But it wasn't only his imposing height that earned attention. He had his Armenian mother's thick brown hair and olive complexion, his Irish father's incredible green eyes, and an air of concrete confidence that made some men cower— as well as an undeniable sense of mystery that made women long to know his secrets.
Speaking of secrets, Corri briefly wondered if Aidan had known about Kevin's plan. Of course not. He would have told her. At least she thought he would. He'd served as her confidante on more than one occasion, and they'd had more than their fair share of conversations, even if she'd done most the talking. Even if she hadn't been totally honest with him about her relationship with his brother.
Corri had the strongest urge to run toAidan, cry on his broad shoulder and curse Kevin's bad timing. Not a banner idea. She had to weather this storm alone, and the first step entailed going out and giving her best to her fans.
"Thirty seconds," the stage manager called, and when he reached ten, counted down the seconds one by one, keeping time with Corri's erratic heart.
"Ladies and gentleman. Please welcome Houston's sweetheart of the stove, Corinna Harris, the star of Hot Cooking with Corri!"
Corri strode to the evergreen-bedecked stage on legs as stiff as wooden spoons, trying to take comfort from the rousing applause. But she felt only numbness, until, she considered that every time she'd walked onto this set for the past few months, she'd talked about Kevin.
Then the anger returned. She'd pretended that their relationship had been made in heaven, when, in fact, he'd given her a lot of hell.
And right then she decided that several ways to exact revenge did exist. Nothing like a woman scorned behind a stove.
The minute he saw her walk onstage, Aidan knew something was wrong with Corri. She was a tall, leggy, powerhouse blonde with as much appeal as the meals she served up to her audience, and for the past year, he'd scheduled his meetings around her popular weekly show. In that time he'd learned to gauge every move she made, every detail of her body language. Every detail of her body, period.
He probably should feel guilty that he spent a good deal of time studying Corri's finer points, particularly since she was engaged to his brother, but he didn't. No one knew he fantasized about her frequently. No one would ever know that he regretted introducing her to Kevin. But back then, he'd been in a relationship and by the time it had ended, Kevin and Corri had become a solid couple. So solid that they'd become engaged in a matter of weeks. For months he'd watched her talk about his brother during the show, and while her fan base had welcomed it, Aidan hadn't. In fact, at times he'd hated it.
Still, he firmly believed mixing business with pleasure could lead to problems in the workplace. But there had been days when he'd wondered about what might have been. Right now, he still wondered over Corri's mood. She made it through the first three-quarters of the show without a hitch, but she'd sounded overly cheerful. Normally she cracked a few jokes, connected with the audience, but today she looked as if she only wanted to get it over with. Probably a solid case of nerves brought on by the live telecast.
Following the final commercial break, Corri resumed her show to conduct the usual question-and-answer session. But instead of calling on an audience member, she said, "We're going to do something a little different today in the time we have left."
She moved behind the island workstation and propped both palms on the edge. "Now that we've discussed a holiday meal guaranteed to jingle your partner's bells, we shouldn't forget those who don't have a lover during the season. Particularly the unfortunate few who have been jilted by some jerk at the worst possible time."
When Corri grabbed two hot pads, Aidan noticed the stage director standing offstage, flipping through the script and looking altogether confused. Corri pulled a pan from the oven, turned and slammed it down onto the butcher-block counter. "I suggest you go ahead and make this chocolate soufflé because you're going to want to eat the whole thing, and that's okay. But for the sake of your health, I also suggest you make a salad first."
After she tossed the hot pads aside, Corri turned to the refrigerator, and the production assistant muttered, "What in the hell is she doing?"
"Don't panic, Parker," Aidan said. "Corri's a professional. Let her go."
The control-room director didn't appear to care for that answer. "We can't just let her go when we don't know where she's going on live TV."
Aidan held up a hand to silence everyone when Corri returned to the counter with an armload of vegetables that she dropped onto the surface, seeming not to care when a tomato rolled onto the floor.
She held up a large cucumber. "Let's start with this. Just remember, it's not anatomically to scale, even if most men would have you believe it is."
Parker shot a forlorn look at Aidan. "She didn't just say that."
"Yeah, she did," the sound engineer said.
And something told Aidan she wasn't quite done. Following a spattering of laughter, Corri slapped the cucumber onto a cutting board, then picked up a nearby cleaver. "When you're thinking about the idiot who's left you high and dry, just imagine this is..." She looked up and grinned, and that's when Aidan saw the hint of tears. "Well, you catch my drift."
Then she began hacking away at the vegetable with a vengeance, leaving the studio's occupants stunned and the director demanding a fade-out.
But before the commercial could be cued, one young woman called out, "What are you and Kevin doing for the holidays, Corri?"
Corri looked up, cleaver still in hand, and sent the lady a withering look. "I'm not doing anything with Kevin over the holidays, because the jackass dumped me."
For someone who prided herself on composure, Corri had just hit an all-time low on the no-self-control scale.
She didn't know what had gotten into her, why she'd perhaps let Kevin's little stunt ruin the best job she'd ever had. With several whacks of a cleaver, she'd shredded any possibility of a wider syndication beyond the region. And when the knock came at the dressing-room door, she expected to find a band of studio executives swooping down on her like a flock of hungry hawks.
She snatched a tissue from the holder and removed what she could of the mascara smudges beneath her eyes. "Come in."
"What's going on with you?"
Corri wasn't all that surprised to see the mirrored reflection of Aidan standing at the door. He was in charge of the studio, which meant he was in charge of her.
She spun around on the stool and shrugged. "I just made a total fool of myself."
He strolled into the room, hands in pockets, and stood there, silently studying her. "Go ahead, Aidan," she said. "Tell me I'm fired. Tell me you're going to cancel the show. Tell me a team of censors is waiting outside to wash my mouth out with soap. Just say something."
He took a couple of slow steps toward her and stopped, as if he feared she might go after him with the metal nail file set out on the vanity. "First, you tell me what Kevin did to you."
She slid the letter off the counter and offered it to him. "This came about ten minutes before the show."
Aidan took the paper and scanned it before muttering, "Son of a bitch."
Corri pulled the band out of her ponytail and began to brush her hair with rapid strokes. "I knew this was inevitable. I just didn't think he'd handle it this way."
Aidan laid the letter down and leaned a hip against the vanity. "You two been having problems?"
She tossed the brush into a drawer, which she slammed a little harder than necessary. "Our entire relationship has been one big problem, Aidan. But I really don't want to talk about that now. I want to talk about the repercussions I'm going to suffer because of my behavior."
"We won't know for a few days," he said. "Whatever happens, I'll handle it."
She had no doubt he would, or at least try. "And that means determining what segment of my audience was most offended. The more conservative viewers, or the men."
"I'd say your male viewers. Every man in the control booth crossed their legs simultaneously when you went after that cucumber." He topped off the comment with a half smile.