I already knew that was going to be difficult, considering I was a nervous talker and flying made me extremely nervous. And that, against all odds, the featured TV show blinking at me when I booted up the in-flight media center on the screen in front of me was 'Chef Supreme'. "No way!" I yelped, then immediately glanced at the seat next to me. Good. Nobody was sitting there. Ideally, nobody would sit there at all and I'd get two seats all to myself to stretch out and prop up my feet and pretend I was on my couch at home, with the exception of the pantsless part.
Not that I actually needed the extra space. 'Chef Supreme' had been kind enough to bump me up to business class, which marked the first time I'd flown not crammed up against a stranger with a peculiar smell ranging from strong onions to dirty diapers. I had a big, cushy blue chair the size of a recliner all to myself, with leg room for days (at least for me, who was not particularly tall) and only one person next to me on the aisle. There was enough room between our seats and the row in front of us where, every time I had to nervous pee, I wouldn't have to ask them to get up so I could get by. The height of luxury.
Maybe 'Chef Supreme''s presence on the screen was a sign. A sign from the universe, or, as my mom would say, a sign from Grandma Ruth that she was thinking of me from her heavenly abode and would probably try to rig the contest in my favor, because as small and frail as she was, she was not above arguing with the Almighty to help her grandchildren get ahead. Would help from your ghostly grandmother be considered cheating?
Hopefully not. And hopefully, I wouldn't be the chef going home first, a major badge of shame. Fear coiled cold in my heart. I would probably be the first one going home. I didn't need to actually win: while the title of 'Chef Supreme' and a big cash prize would be nice, finishing in the top few or distinguishing yourself from the competition in some way was often enough to attract interest from investors, which was my goal.
But if I went home 'first'? I could just see my old boss Derek shaking his head with disappointment. 'I knew Sadie didn't have what it takes to survive in the food world.' Kaitlyn clucking her tongue with feigned sorrow, her eyes lit up with glee. 'So sad, I was totally rooting for her.' Investors frowning and saving their money for literally anyone else.
Somebody cleared their throat next to me. "Excuse me, are you okay?"
I realized I was shaking, my elbow jumping up and down on the armrest. "Fine." My voice sounded tinny. "Just nerves."
"I'm not a fan of flying, either." My seat shifted as they sat down beside me. I turned to get a better look at my seatmate. It was a guy probably my age. A 'really cute' guy. "But I find it preferable to the forty-three-hour drive from Seattle to New York."
"Wow, you've driven it before?"
"No, I looked it up beforehand to remind myself why I'm on this plane." A smile tugged at the corners of his lips. "If you're wondering, it's also a three-day bus ride, a thirty-nine-day walk, or an eleven-day bicycle trip."
He looked vaguely familiar, but that might have been because he was so handsome, and all extremely good-looking people seem vaguely familiar since they're the ones splashed all over ads and billboards and the media. He had lush black hair, eyes that suggested East Asian ancestry, and broad shoulders. The black line of a tattoo poked out from beneath his black T- shirt, which seemed almost as if it had been tailored to his trim form. I was wondering if people got T-shirts tailored, but I was wondering more about the tattoo. I eyeballed it, ready to ask, but then hesitated. Was it rude to ask people about their tattoos?
Then I remembered his comment. "I was not wondering," I said. "But thank you anyway."
He shoved his laptop bag under the seat in front of him, then straightened up, folding his hands in his lap. And smiled. It was truly a glorious smile, but it was the hands that demanded all my attention. Not that I had a hand fetish (though really, as far as body part fetishes went, I could do worse than hands). No, his were covered in scars: a ropy one probably from a knife on his left middle finger and another one on his thumb; thick, rough burn scars on the backs. A current burn, shiny with healing, winked at me from his palm. I knew those hands. They looked like mine.
"Hey, you're a chef," I blurted.
He cast his eyes downward, trailing from my face to my chest to my lap. Under other circumstances I might tense up, but his gaze finally settled upon my own hands. "Hey, so are you."
Possibilities hit me, one after the other. He was very photogenic: you might even say the perfect person to put on television. Where did chefs go on television? Chef Supreme, of course.
What if we were both going on Chef Supreme?
He was flying in the same day and time as me. On the exact same flight Chef Supreme had booked for me. Sitting next to each other, meaning our tickets had probably been booked at the same time.
Oh my God, we're both going to be on Chef Supreme!
I took a deep, shaky breath. I couldn't tell him I was going to be a contestant this year. That was breaking the rules. If I was wrong about him being one, too, or if he was a stickler for the rules, ...
This excerpt is from the hardcover edition.
Monday we begin the book A DUKE, THE SPY, AN ARTIST, AND A LIE by Vanessa Riley.