Today's Reading

Stuart repeated his eye roll from earlier and then returned to his spot. He repositioned his headset and called out, "Ten seconds!"

First there were eight. Now there are two. Who will be crowned America's Fiercest Chef? Will it be Maxwell Cavanagh, the legendary restaurateur who, at thirty-six, is the youngest-ever recipient of nine Michelin stars, or will it be Hadley Beckett, the sweet and sassy Southern belle of the kitchen? We're about to find out.

My eyes flew open, and for a moment, I thought I heard a familiar bubbling. I briefly wondered if Max or I had left a burner on, but I quickly realized it was only my blood that was boiling.

Cool your jets, Hadley, I warned myself. Sure, I had been downgraded from landmark and on-the-brink-of-legendary to "sweet and sassy," but all I really wanted was to wrap up the shoot, move on with my life, and leave Max and his nine stars to marinate in their pomposity.

A camera-ready smile still plastered on my face, I tilted my head to look at him and his dish. Well, that should be enough to feed a three-year-old. Are Michelin stars awarded by toddlers, Chef? I caught a groan as it threatened to escape. I'd never understood the gourmet food industry's propensity for starving its customers while charging them the price of a month's worth of groceries.

As my gaze wandered upward, however, and I observed the smug expression on his face, I resigned myself to his soon-to-be-announced victory. There was a part of me—a pretty big part, if I were being honest—that really wanted to win. I mean, of course I wanted to win. From the beginning. I wouldn't have left Nashville and flown to New York in the first place if I didn't intend to win. I got paid handsomely and publicized excessively win or lose, of course. But to be named Fiercest Chef? I'd already outlasted some of the greatest chefs in the country, and if I could defeat Max Cavanagh—the "Playboy Gourmet" as he was "affectionately" called by the media—well...that was the kind of validation and reputation- builder money couldn't buy.

Plus, I really wanted to see that smug, infuriating smile melt off his face.

Chef Beckett. Chef Cavanagh. Please bring your dishes forward.

I was pretty sure I would never get used to being a chef on television, no matter how long I did it. My competitor, on the other hand, seemed to feed off of the attention like one of those hungry toddlers eating their tablespoon of duck ballotine. Or, you know...something a toddler would actually like. As soon as it was his turn to present--his creation or himself—he shifted into a higher gear.

Eh...maybe not higher. Higher implies better. And as awful as I had discovered him to be when the cameras weren't rolling, he was so much worse when they were.

"Okay, hold it there, please," Glenn instructed as soon as we had approached the judges' table, like two attorneys on Law & Order approaching the bench.

My mind wandered as Stuart and a production assistant adjusted the angles of our hands and dishes, and the cameras zoomed in to capture various shots of the way we had each chosen to plate. I held perfectly still, as instructed, and wondered if Law & Order was still on the air. When was the last time I had watched TV? Had they launched any additional Law & Order spin-offs? Was Law & Order: DMV a thing yet?

"Hadley, we need you to look at camera two, please," Glenn stated.

I nodded and did as I was told, until I heard Max sigh. Not a restless sigh.

An exasperated sigh.

I turned away from camera two and glanced at him, and wasn't surprised to see him looking right at me.

Don't engage, Hadley. You're so close to the finish line. Go back to looking at camera two, stop your hands from shaking so you don't have to reset your garnish, and just let it all finally be over!

"What! What is it, Max?" I asked, blatantly disregarding my inner sage's wise advice.

He looked me straight in the eye and had the audacity to say, "It's been a long day. Could you please stay focused on your cues so we can get out of here?"

Apron. Blender. Carafe. Dutch ov—

"Hey, Glenn, can you get me another bourbon? And grab one for Hayley too. She seems uptight." He winked at me, and I squirmed in disgust.

"You've been drinking?" I asked.

I was shocked, but I don't really know why. If anything, it made everything about the day make more sense. Yeah...nothing about the lack of decorum shown by Max could surprise me at that point. I guess I was just disappointed to be part of a project that had allowed such unprofessionalism to rule the day.

"We're almost done, Chef," Glenn replied. "Think you can hang in there just a few more minutes?"

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