Prepare to turn up the heat with the final book in the sizzling "Rising Star Chef" trilogy from romance author Louisa Edwards.
Henry Beck thought he'd already faced the toughest kitchen challenge of his life. After all, what could top sweating it out as a Navy cook on a submarine? But when he learns his competition for the title of Rising Star Chef is the sweet hippie girl he married...and left...ten years ago, the heat is on.
Now Beck and Skye Gladwell are going head to head in the finals...and sparking up old flames every time they touch. But Skye wants more than a win over the man who abandoned her when she needed him most--she wants a divorce! Then her sexy almost-ex makes a deliciously dangerous proposition. He'll give in to her demands, but if his team wins the RSC, he has a demand of his own...one last taste of the only woman he ever loved.
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St. Martin's Paperbacks
March 27, 2012
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Excerpt from Hot under Pressure by Louisa Edwards
"Ready. Get set. Go!"
Beck ripped off his blindfold and blinked furiously to accustom his eyes to the harsh fluorescent lights of the kitchen. His focus narrowed down, the exact same way it did in battle, the world around him going grainy and slow like an out-of-focus news broadcast.
Five minutes on the timer, counting down relentlessly as he spent precious seconds assessing the situation.
It was a relay challenge. Each member of the team had five minutes to make the raw ingredients into a polished, perfect dish--with the added bonus of not being able to communicate or watch each other as they took their turns at the stove.
The stakes? An unnamed but highly desirable advantage over the other two teams going into the final round of the Rising Star Chef competition.
As soon as the RSC coordinator, Eva Jansen, had explained the challenge, the rest of Beck's team had huddled into a circle to divvy up roles.
"Win, you've got the best knife skills, you start us on prep. You get us going. Max, Danny and I will muddle through the middle. You? You're the clincher," Jules Cavanaugh had pronounced, poking Beck in the chest. "We'll set you up with something great, you take it home."
Anticipation warred with Beck's hard-won composure, forcing him to ice everything down just to stay calm.
They trusted him. His team trusted him to close out the dish and take it up to the next level.
He wouldn't let them down.
Five chef contestants per team, each chef with five minutes to cook.
Twenty-five minutes total for the three teams to create something delicious enough to wow three world-famous food-snob judges.
Beck had spent the first twenty minutes of the challenge at parade rest, legs braced apart for balance, hands folded at the small of his back, every sense on high alert as he worked to filter the sounds and scents of the competition kitchen.
The other two teams were ranged around him, a constant low-level distraction of chatter, noise, tension, the whiff of an achingly familiar perfume ...
Ignore her. Ignore all of them. Focus. You learned to tune out gunfire and explosions, you can learn to block her out, too.
All that matters is the food.
Beck caught the rhythmic, high-speed staccato of a chopping knife hitting a wooden block with the same rapid-fire precision as a burst of machine gun fire. That had to be Winslow Jones, the East Coast team's own prep chef. Beck would know that signature rat-a-tat-tat anywhere.
Something light and green on the air, woodsy and fresh, with a hint of black licorice. Herbs, Beck decided. Tarragon, most likely. His tactician's brain immediately began working through the proteins and sauces that paired best with tarragon, clicking over the possibilities, everything from chicken to lobster.
Could be chicken--Winslow could break down a bird into eight perfectly portioned pieces in less than sixty seconds flat. Time was a factor here, because the further each prepping chef took the dish, the more Beck would have to work with as he refined it and added flourishes at the end.
The scrape of a dull blade against a hard surface made Beck frown under his blindfold. Was Win shucking oysters?
The first five minutes were gone.
A saut? pan clattered onto the stovetop on Beck's six. He tensed and tracked the movement behind him, but didn't turn around.
He hoped to God that Jules, who was next in the rotation for their team, wasn't getting the oysters saut?ing now--they'd be ready to shoot from a rubber pellet gun before Beck got them up to the pass.
Nothing you can do about it. Wait for your chance. Be ready.
Forcing himself back into the moment, Beck kept his senses trained on the activity around him, the eddies and currents of bodies moving quickly through space, sometimes brushing against him, sometimes cursing, the air of tension and effort as palpable as if he were standing stock-still in the middle of a firefight.
Finally, it was Beck's turn.
He blinked away the dazzle of the lights and cast his gaze from side to side, sizing up the kitchen with a single glance.
A single glance that turned into a long, time-eating hesitation when the first thing Beck saw was a woman, her strawberry-blonde hair haloed around her sweet, heart-shaped face and an expression of excited determination firming her soft pink mouth.
In terms of strategy, if her team had set out to pit Beck against the chef most likely to make him choke, they couldn't have chosen better. Not only had Skye proven herself a formidable competitor in the last round of the competition ... but Beck had proven he was nearly unable to focus when she was around.
An avalanche of emotion crashed over his head, obliterating his carefully constructed walls and gouging holes in his focus like a sucker punch straight to the heart.
Sorting out how he felt about Skye Gladwell was like trying to untangle a bowl of cooked spaghetti, but as the seconds ticked down and the pressure mounted, the red-hot coil of determination tightened his gut and overwhelmed everything else.
Skye had already raced over to the West Coast team's table and was busily taking over dicing whatever her teammate had left lying on the chopping block. As if feeling Beck's eyes on her, she glanced up.
Their eyes met across the kitchen, and Beck's vision tunneled down for a short, disorienting moment where all he could see was Skye.
The one person in the entire world who could destroy his composure without even trying.
His gut clenched, his heart rate doubled, and the hair on the back of his neck stood up. In that moment, Beck was a knife's edge away from snarling at her, at his teammates, at the unbelievable twist of fate that had brought him face to face with the one woman he'd give anything to forget.
A clatter of metal, the sound of a pot being dropped by the third competitor, jerked Beck back into the moment. He shook his head as if he'd just surfaced from a dive.
You can't do any of that right now, dickhead. So focus. Get your head out of your ass and move. Go. Go!
Jolted into high gear, Beck slammed the door shut on the part of his brain that couldn't help keeping tabs on every move Skye Gladwell made.
And why the hell did that internal voice have to sound so much like Lt. Martino, his drill instructor back at Navy Boot Camp? Shaking his head clear like a dog coming out of the water, Beck tuned out everything but the various elements of their dish in the final stages of cooking as Danny Lunden wiped his brow and jogged over to the other side of the kitchen where the rest of their team waited.
The other competitors were already running, scrambling, zooming back and forth between the pantry, the walk-in coolers, and the stoves, but Beck forced them away from his consciousness and took his time to taste everything.
He'd been wrong. That scraping he'd interpreted as Winslow shucking oysters had actually been the cracking of a mound of local Dungeness crabs.
Winslow Jones must be some kind of psychic genius to have chosen crab as the base of their team's dish. If there was any ingredient in the world that Beck knew better, he couldn't think of it.
He'd grown up eating Dungeness crab, setting his own traps and checking them, boiling water over an illegal open fire on the rocky beach and steaming the spiny brown crustaceans. He'd hacked them open with a pocket knife, cutting his fingers on the jagged edges of the shells, the only thought in his mind to get at the briny, shockingly juicy sweetness of the crab meat.
His team's crabs were all prepped and ready to go, white-tipped claws stripped of meat and piled in a small mountain to the side of the stainless steel work surface beside shallow prep bowls filled with garnishes.
Beck lifted the bowls in turn, inhaling deeply and identifying the contents by smell. Fresh tarragon; chopped ginger; thinly sliced shallots. Beside the bowls lay stacks of peeled, seeded cucumber in perfect two-inch batons, crisp and faintly green.
Spinning to check out the stove, he found a sauce reducing on the back burner of the stove, glossy and pale yellow. A quick dip of a clean spoon, and he tasted egg yolks and cream. It needed something more, another flavor element to bring the whole thing together....
Plus, it was getting thick, it and it would need to be thinned out for the dish he already had in mind. He could use the cooking water from the crabs, he decided as he checked the enameled cast iron stockpot bubbling merrily beside the sauce.
The pot held plain boiling water, he ascertained from a sniff test, which was a good strategic move on someone's part. If Beck wanted to blanche a vegetable as a base for the crab, or make some very al dente pasta, he was all set up to do it.
An idea flickered to life, and without questioning his instincts, Beck snagged a bottle of champagne vinegar, a canister of sugar, and a clean, small saucepan. Carefully ladling out a cup of the boiling water into the new saucepan, he added an equal amount of vinegar and cranked the burner up to high so he could dissolve the sugar into the mixture as quickly as possible.
The already hot water came back up to the boil in seconds while Beck put the cucumber into a wide-bottomed bowl, hesitated a brief second, then added the ginger and sliced shallots to the mix, along with a few red pepper flakes for kick. Then he poured the hot brine over the vegetables and rushed the steaming bowl of quick pickles to the blast chiller to cool down.
On his way back to the stove, he snatched the tarragon from the prep table. Adding it to the sauce, Beck tasted and corrected for flavor, thinning with the salty fish broth as he went, until he had a delicate, savory sauce, rich with fatty egg yolks and redolent of summery tarragon.
It was still missing something, though--and with the brine at the top of his brain, Beck got a flash of inspiration. Darting to the walk-in cooler, he searched the shelves for the bottle he was sure he'd seen earlier.
Ah ha! There it was, the green glass beaded with condensation. Beck grabbed it and hustled back to the stove where he popped the cork with a satisfying, festive burst of bubbles.
Champagne would add a light tang to the sauce, especially if he tamed the yeasty, acidic flavors by quickly reducing it to a thin syrup. Pouring a small amount of the sparkling wine into another saucepan, he cranked the dial and let it foam up and then back down again before stirring it into his sauce.
Another taste ... Beck grabbed a clean spoon and dipped, then had to remind himself not to double dip.
Damn, that was tasty. Clean and bright, but with a creamy fattiness that would contrast beautifully with the simple crab.
Then it was quick, back to the blast chiller to rescue his pickles, which he drained on paper towels before portioning them out between three appetizer plates, carefully cross-hatching the cold, crispy cucumbers into squares dotted with the dusky purple-pink of the shallots, which hadn't spent enough time in the hot brine to lose their color, just the right amount of time to soak up enough sweet-sour flavor to offset their sharp, oniony tang.
Each plate got a mound of snowy white crab meat on top of the pickled cucumber and shallots, and Beck flicked his eyes up to check the wall clock.
Thirty seconds left. He became aware of the chef contestants who'd already had their turn cooking standing on the kitchen sidelines, chanting along with the dwindling numbers on the timer, counting down the seconds in a frenzy of encouragement.
Adrenaline pumped into Beck's blood, and he felt the same odd reaction he always got. His heart slowed, every beat like the tick of the second hand in his ear. The hot air of the kitchen felt cool against his temples as the sweat there cooled.
When he lifted careful spoonfuls of his champagne sauce and swirled it into artful semi-circles around the edges of his plates, his hand was rock steady.
"Five ... four ... three ... two ... one!"
Beck dusted the chopped tarragon from his fingertips onto the last of the judges' plates just as Eva Jansen said, in her official announcer voice, "Time! Step away from your plates."
The physical act of backing up a pace seemed to cut the cord that had bound him to his work, and Beck felt the rest of the world come back online, background noise and awareness of the other two chefs who'd finished their teams' dishes flooding his head in a rush.
Skye Gladwell was right next to him, her heady, earthy scent of nutmeg and cream hitting him like an open-handed slap to the face. Beck had to close his eyes for a long moment to thank his combat training for giving him single-minded focus and drive.
Because this particular challenge was perfectly calibrated to tap into Beck's primal fight-or-fuck instincts.
Skye? He'd had ten years to get over her, but apparently that wasn't long enough to blunt the edges of his desire.
He didn't love her anymore, obviously, but damned if he didn't still want her as badly as he had at the age of twenty. It had been a surprise to him in Chicago, that unexpected surge of physical need, but he was over the shock of it now, and working to kill the desire as dead as his softer feelings.
Until he managed it, though, he had to acknowledge he was pretty messed up in the head when it came to Skye Gladwell.
The third contestant in this final challenge, however ... Beck's feelings on that guy were a whole lot less complicated.
On Beck's left stood Ryan Larousse, the cocky, smarmy head of the Midwest team. They'd already gotten into it once or twice during the competition, to the point where Beck had humiliatingly and completely lost his cool and actually knocked the skinny little weasel on his ass.
Drawing serene blankness around himself was like strapping on body armor, and it helped as Beck worked to slow his breathing and return his heart rate to normal. Eyes straight ahead, waiting for the judges to come over and pronounce a winner.
Feel nothing. Feelings are for people who have the luxury of acting on them. You do your best and accept the rest.
It was a decent mantra, as far as survival went, but Beck couldn't help but feel a mirroring tingle of the excitement in Skye's eyes as she shot him a sideways look.
"This is amazing. I can't believe we're both here," she breathed, her wide, cornflower eyes tracking the progress of the judges, who'd started with the Midwest team's plate.
All the work Beck had done to slow his pulse and regulate his body temperature went up in smoke. "I can't believe you still look at the world that way," he said.
"What's that supposed to mean?" The sudden ramrod tension of her body said more than her stiff words.
Beck shook his head. He'd always loved the innocent pleasure she took from life--but it drove him crazy, too, the way she refused to see the world as it really was, in all its harsh, ugly reality. Especially considering what she'd gone through while their relationship was imploding.
Let it go, he told himself, gritting his teeth. You're over this, remember?
"Nothing. Forget it. Congratulations on making it to the finals." Beck thought that was safe. Polite, distant.
"You too," Skye muttered as the judges exclaimed over Larousse's handmade gnocchi with pea shoots and shiitake foam. "And hey, congrats on finally finding your balls again."
Beck felt his head snap back on his neck as if he'd taken a clip to the chin.
Skye turned to get a better look at his face, brushing the flyaway softness of her red-gold curls against his arm. Beck fought not to flinch, not to grab her and shake her, not to betray his agitation by moving a single muscle.
"Your balls," she said clearly, eyes flashing darker than he'd ever seen them, even that last, awful night. "You must've found them, if you finally got up the guts to show your face in this city again."
The bitterness in her voice stung like lemon juice in an open cut, and Beck had to fight with everything in him not to react.
"Nice talk," he said, unable to help the hoarse thickness of his voice. "You kiss your mother with that mouth?"
She looked away, back to the judges, who were finishing up with Larousse. "I'm not the sweet kid you left ten years ago, Henry. Don't think for even a second that I'm going to go down easy. I'm here to win, not to make new friends or relive ancient history."
"Don't worry," Beck snarled under his breath. "Once this is all over and my team has won, I'll be ditching San Francisco and heading back to the East Coast."
"Perfect," she said. "Except my team's going to be taking home the prize money and the Rising Star Chef title. And before you run back to New York, there is one little thing I'm going to want from you."
The judges were thanking Larousse and sauntering down the table toward Skye as Beck said, "What's that?"
He didn't know what he expected--money, maybe, or a demand that he go to hell. In the farthest, undisciplined depths of his mind, there might've even been a hint of a thought that maybe she'd ask him for one last night together, for old time's sake.
Instead, what she whispered out of the corner of her mouth just before smiling brilliantly and greeting the judges knocked Beck off balance and stopped his heart.
"I want a divorce."