Today's Reading

PROLOGUE
HADLEY

"Okay, everyone! We're back in twenty. Places, please."

"You okay, Had?" Stuart, my longtime friend, collaborator, and, on this set, the assistant director, asked me with concern as he crossed from Max's kitchen space to mine.

I smiled. At least, I attempted a smile. My competitor was rapidly taking away my reasons to smile, one by one. But that wasn't Stuart's fault. "I'm fine, thanks. I'm less sure about our friend Chef Cavanagh over there."

Stuart rolled his eyes and nodded. "I'm so glad this is our last segment." He backed away from me with a grimace and then shouted, "Ten seconds!"

I cleared my throat and straightened my apron, looking down at my coconut-curry chicken and naan waffles one last time to make sure I wasn't missing something important, like the chicken. Or the waffles. I figured I could make just about anything else work for the judges—and with how stressful the day had been, thanks to my fellow chef's antics, I figured if the main ingredients made the plate, I could call the day a success.

Stuart's verbal countdown ended after four, and I kept my eyes on his fingers—three, two, one. I was ready to hear the outcome of a long day in the kitchen, and I was more than ready to put an end to a miserable two days of filming alongside Max Cavanagh.

First there were eight. Now there are two. Which of these landmark, on-the-brink-of-legend chefs will be crowned America's Fiercest Chef? We're about to find out.

I tried to listen to the host, Xavier Stone, as he gave a quick recap of all we had been through over the course of our two days of filming, which would play out as six separate episodes, spread out across six weeks of Culinary Channel can't-miss viewing. But, as I had been for the entirety of two days, I was too distracted by my competitor to focus on a single thing happening in the moment.

"I'm sorry," Max muttered, actually turning and facing my direction, not seeming to care one little bit that the cameras were on us. "Did he just say 'on the brink'? Did he say we're on-the-'brink'-of-legend?"

"Oh my gosh, please stop!" I seethed through my teeth.

"Cut!" The director called out the command, and everyone in the studio groaned. It was a familiar call-and-answer of which we'd all had enough. We'd all be professionals and prepare to do our jobs, Max Cavanagh would decide not to be a professional and not do his job, then we'd all have to stop and repeat the cycle from the top—over and over for two days, like a chicken on a rotisserie grill.

"Chef, what's the problem this time?" Glenn, the director, asked from his chair.

Max shoved his knives aside and hopped up on the counter. As he did, the knives tumbled to the ground, taking a beautiful cut of unused Wagyu ribeye with them.

"The problem is, Glenn, that it's insulting for you to refer to us as on-the-brink. I mean, considering the ratings we get for this network, and considering my nine Michelin stars, I'd say we deserve better. You're with me on that, right, Hayley?"

Oh, where to begin.

I shook my head and opened my mouth to speak. I was prepared to tell him that I most assuredly was not with him. I couldn't have been less with him.

Until two days ago, I had looked up to him as a brilliant chef and a masterful businessman, not to mention an engaging television personality. At thirty-six he was only three years older than me, but he'd reached pinnacles in his career that I didn't anticipate reaching until I was no longer young enough to enjoy them, if I ever reached them at all. It was amazing how quickly the awareness that he was a complete and total jerk had gotten in the way of my esteem. He wasn't legendary. Jacques Pépin was legendary. Wolfgang Puck was legendary. Julia Child was a legend among legends. Maxwell Cavanagh was a spoiled little boy with a haircut he stole from Hugh Grant, circa 1994, and a propensity toward underseasoning his stocks and bases.

"It's Hadley," I mumbled as I crossed to his kitchen space to pick the gorgeous, expensive meat off the ground. And I have two Michelin stars of my own, thank you very much. I didn't say that, of course. How pretentious that would have sounded.

"Hadley, Stuart's got that," Glenn called out.
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