How does a rule-abiding, accomplished woman fall for a rebel college dropout? It's something rare-books curator Penelope Bigelow is still trying to figure out! Regardless of what logic she tries to use, the proof remains that when celebrity chef Nicholas Rheinhardt is around, her composure takes a vacation. With all the reunion festivities, it's hard to avoid him...especially since he needs her expertise in antiquities for an upcoming episode of his cable travel show.
Too bad the past isn't what Penelope's focusing on when she's with Nick. There's more to him than his infamous reputation--and that intrigues her. Penelope isn't looking for perfection...even though Nick's coming very close!
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Harlequin Enterprises, Limited
April 01, 2012
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Excerpt from A Rare Find by Tracy Kelleher
A Former Country of the Soviet Union--Far, Far Off the Grid
Nicholas Rheinhardt lay on the hard stone table, belly-side down, and hoped like hell that the moisture on the towel beneath him came from his own sweat. He gritted his teeth to stifle a groan as a seminaked and thoroughly oiled masseur squatted above him and frog-hopped down the length of his spine.
The humiliation would have verged on the comedic if the pain weren't so excruciating. He couldn't imagine anything worse, not even a root canal--two root canals--without Novocain. But he refused to whimper and beg for mercy.
After all, the cameras were rolling.
Whose idea had it been anyway to shoot several episodes of his travel-and-food show in this country so far off the beaten track?
Up until this point, the whole television thing had been a pretty good gig.
Now life had turned into a high-definition hellhole as recorded by a sardonic cameraman and a highly sensitive soundman. Was it any wonder that Frommer's, Michelin or Lonely Planet guidebooks had failed to extol the wonders of this remote village, let alone the bathhouse?
Nick felt the vertebrae cracking in his neck as the otherwise silent masseur worked his torture. And, ironically, that's when it came to him. The jackass who'd suggested they make a trek through the mysterious eastern provinces of the former Soviet Union--countries like Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan? The same jackass who'd had this romantic notion that they'd see yaks and yurts, fiery peasants and dreadful communist architecture? It'd been him.
The bantamweight masseur chose that moment to slip his sinewy arms under Nick's armpits and force his elbows to lock together behind his back. A small ugh emitted from Nick's throat. After this workout, he seriously wondered if from now on his upper limbs would dangle uselessly at his sides. Most probably he would go through the rest of life with curious onlookers remarking, "And to think he once was able to debone a leg of lamb with the best of them."
"So, tell me. This massage you're getting. It looks pretty...ah...strenuous. Still, it's all it was cracked up to be, right?" Georgie, his jovial producer, asked from off camera.
Nick growled deep in his chest--the part that hadn't been crushed as of yet--and thought, Just wait till I do the voice-over commentary to this bit back in New York. Because now it all comes back to me, that, between multiple vodka shots the other night, you were the sly dog who suggested this bit of local color. Yes, you, Georgie.
The masseur slapped Nick's towel-covered rump, signaling the end of the session.
Georgie turned to the cameraman. "That's a wrap." Then he bounced jovially across the stone floor to his damaged on-air talent. "That bad, huh?"
Nick thought about raising his head off the table, but that small motion required too much energy. "Let's put it this way, I will absolutely, positively agree to do anything else rather than go through this again--preferably something that involves close proximity to a Nathan's Famous hot dog. I'm starving." Knowing no shame, Nick held out an arm. "Help your lord and master get upright, if it's at all possible."
None too gently, Georgie hoisted Nick to a sitting position. The towel, which was wrapped around Nick's waist, slipped to his hip bones, and his once-taut stomach muscles--once, as in a good ten years ago--sagged around the cotton terry cloth that had a thread count of about negative twenty.
Nick might have been thirty-seven in chronological years, and genetically blessed with a fast metabolism, but those had been hard-lived years. After turning thirty-five, even his long and lanky body could no longer bounce back from the harsh treatment due to overimbibing of fine food and not-so-fine drink.
Not that he regretted his lifestyle, mind you. Nick smiled at the memory of some of the more infamous escapades, at least those he could still remember.
His so-called adult life had taken a meandering path. After dropping out of college, he'd bummed around the world by scrounging low-paying jobs and harboring absolutely no ambition other than occasionally finding food, alcohol and the eye of a good-looking female. One winter in Paris, where he'd squatted in a tenement that lacked a shower--not to mention a toilet--he'd landed a job as a dishwasher in a traditional bistro in Montmartre. And voila! Nick had found his calling. Eventually he'd risen up the restaurant food chain to become a well-regarded though not quite top-tier chef.
Achieving greater fame would have required greater talent, a little more luck and, if he was going to be totally honest, a lot more dedication. Even the sudden acclaim he'd garnered for his book, a bare-knuckle look at the restaurant world, had been more of an accident than a well-planned career move. After all, he'd written the damn thing in fits and spurts after shifts at various restaurants, fueled by cigarettes and booze--more than a little, actually--and bouts of righteous indignation.
So it was hardly surprising that as Nick looked down at his body he felt a certain measure of disgust. And that was before he glimpsed his upper arm. The tattoo circling his right bicep was undulating with involuntary muscle spasms. An enormous Maori had given him that tattoo on a warm spring day on the north island of New Zealand. Now, that had been a good shoot, he recollected.
He raised an eyelid and saw Georgie silently chuckling. "What?" he asked with a snarl.
"Is that a promise?" Georgie asked, not bothering to hide his amusement, so secure was he in his worth as a producer. "That you'll go anywhere provided it's within sniffing distance of a New York hot dog?"
Nick contemplated the wisdom of getting up. "As long as it doesn't involve rubdowns."
"Last I heard, New Jersey specialized more in rubbing out than rubbing down."
"New Jersey, you say?" Nick opened his jaw slowly and experimented with trying to shut it again. He got halfway. "You know, I was born and raised in Jersey."
"Excuse me. Like I wouldn't know? I was responsible for hiring that underpaid intern to write your bio for Wikipedia."
Nick grumbled. "You know there's a reason unions were invented--to regulate the outrageous behavior of unscrupulous employers like you."
"Too bad, that's all I can say," Georgie said without any remorse. "Which is why I have decided to accept a request that came to the office last week."
"I suppose this is my cue to say, 'Could you be more specific?'"
"My pleasure. By the unfettered powers vested in me as producer, I plan to accept the offer for you to be the Class Day speaker at your old alma mater, Grantham University, this coming June," Georgie announced proudly. "Naturally we'll use it as an episode for the show--I'm not that generous."
"Come again?" Maybe his brain was also starting to fail.
"You know, the Commencement ceremonies for the graduating class? The day before they do the whole diploma-giving-out bit, you will speak with wit and with a soupcon of encouragement to the seniors."
"Soupcon of encouragement? Are you kidding me?"
"Well, their families will be there, as well. I think it's only right and proper," Georgie explained.
Nick stumbled to the dressing area and eased on his clothing. He didn't bother with the button or the zipper on his jeans. If his pants fell down, so be it. He couldn't be any more humiliated than he already had been.
He joined the others at the entrance to the dank, tiled bathhouse, nodding appreciatively to the manager, who had a severe lazy eye, which made eye contact difficult. The man would no doubt be dining off tales of the crazy Americans for years to come.