There’s no way that struggling single mom Janie Young is going to lose Family Secrets. Not even to Dr. Burke Carter. The prize money and media exposure from the cooking-competition show will secure the future for her and her son, who has special needs. Sure, Burke is a talented chef with his own reasons to win, but he already has so much: wealth, a beautiful daughter, great looks…and definitely her attention. As their families become closer, Janie is beginning to care too much about him. But she can’t afford to get involved. Not when everything is riding on beating him.
From his stool at the far end of the line on the stage, Burke took in the cameras – on rolling stands – that moved around them. He counted three, but figured there might be more behind or above them. The guys and one woman working them were straight faced. Moving, as if on cue, they stared at attached screens. The woman, in jeans and a t-shirt, seemed to be the one in charge. Both men, in black pants and shirts, looked to her more than at each other.
His stomach tightened a bit. So much was at stake. He was a bit…curious, too. He’d never been in a television studio before. And while, in some ways – the intense lighting for one – it reminded him a bit of an operating room – it was also very…different. As the contestants came in one by one, each taking a solo walk across the stage for the camera footage, he got a little caught up in their excitement, too.
Competition aside, winners or losers, they were all going to be on national television!
Directions rang out. Something clanged in the distance. A door closed someplace. This portion of filming was without sound. They were just after clips.
Glancing out toward the small theater style seating that would hold the hundred or so people that would be their ‘live’ audience during each show, he tried to find Kelsey. Stage lighting blinded him to anything beyond the edge of the platform.
Number seven was on his way across the twenty-five-foot expanse between the curtain and his stool. In jeans, a black leather jacket, and biker boots, he strutted, turned toward the cameras and smiled, and strutted some more. The guy was probably going to win. The viewers, who never actually tasted any of the food prepared on cooking shows, would eat him up. They’d tune in just to see him which would boost ratings and in television everything was always about the money in the end. Everyone knew that.
I’m going to lose. He was on a road that would end with him letting Kelsey down and had no idea how to change his course. Without letting her down.
Adrenalin pumped through him anyway. Probably feeding off from the other contestants. If any of them doubted their ability to win, they sure as hell weren’t showing any signs of it.
He watched for contestant number eight to appear. Impatient for her walk to be done, their instructions given, the tour of the kitchens to take place, and get home. He had a patient file to peruse again. A delicate surgery on Monday that could determine if an athlete ever played again. A surgery that could change the entire course of a young man’s life.
But it wasn’t going to. When it came to orthopedics, Burke had all of the confidence in the world. Confidence his patients depended on.
Eight was on stage. He’d have to lean forward to see her, though, as the other contestants were blocking his view. Conscious of the camera he didn’t lean. Didn’t want to appear as stupid as he felt when the show aired. Didn’t want to give the cameras any stupidity or weakness that they would exploit to their viewers to get ratings.
Unless…ratings helped the show. He’d already pre-determined the winner had to get good ratings.
Burke leaned forward.
And froze. He knew her. Ripples ran through him.
She took another step. Moving more quickly than any of the rest of him. He’d never met her before.
But he knew her in the most private way.
He’d been dreaming about her. Had thought she was just a figment of his imagination. And other than the fact that he found it a bit odd that his partner-less brain was cooking up the same image night after night, he’d barely given her a conscious thought.
It was normal. He was normal.
Except for the part where he’d been dreaming about a real woman without knowing it. And now he knew why. He’d seen her on TV. She’d been the angel who’d infiltrated his thoughts on Thanksgiving – giving him a touch of good feeling in an otherwise dreadful day.
That was…unsettling. Damned unsettling.
She caught his eye as she neared her stool. Didn’t seem to know him from Adam. He smiled at her. To hide his supreme discomfort. Hoped he pulled it off. Looked away. And wished to God he was anywhere but on stage with a camera on him.
Was this it then? The part where he lost his mind? How could he have been dreaming about a woman he’d seen on TV and not realized it? Was it because of Lil? Was she messing with him? Making him pay for the fact that he’d ignored her last plea for help?
His hands resting lightly on his thighs, the look Kelsey had predetermined was good for him, Burke had to resist the urge to get up and leave. He had a couple of patients in the hospital, rounds he could do.
“Okay, great,” Natasha Stevens, the show’s host, and the only person Burke had expected to recognize, walked out on stage. “Welcome to Family Secrets, everyone!”
Secrets. He had a secret. Was she in on it then? This show host? Did she know what he’d done?
Get a grip, man.
He was acting like an idiot. Even if he was the only one who knew.
Because he was nervous. There. He’d admitted it. Being on television, even if only for panned camera shots with no sound, had him on edge.
He’d get used to it.
Television was the worst of his worries. He had an at risk thirteen-year-old counting on him. And a woman sitting on the other end of the line of fellow contestants with whom he’d shared very passionate kisses, without her knowledge or consent…
The Stevens woman was giving them a run-down of things he already knew. Procedures and time lines that Kelsey had read to him from the packet sent to his address by show administrators.
Was his sweat showing through the t-shirt and shirt he’d put on that morning? Stage lights were hot. Maybe his should have foregone the more formal attire as he’d first thought.
Stevens was talking about ingredients. They’d all submitted their recipes and would find all necessary ingredients in their kitchens on the days of their competitions. “In a few minutes we’ll be taking a walk back to the kitchens so that you can familiarize yourselves with the area…”
She caught his eye as she mentioned the kitchens and nodded. He assumed because she knew he’d already seen the area during his audition.
But he smiled at her. Trying to live up to expectation. She was a beautiful woman. With long auburn curls, a figure that could easily grace a fashion magazine, a confidence that reeked hard-earned, and success written all over her.
Why in the heck didn’t he dream about her? She’d been on television that day, too.
And why not develop some hots for her now, with her parading back and forth in front of them? She was the one he needed to please. The one who could ultimately determine whether or not he disappointed his daughter.
She had his fate in her hands. At least one very important part of it.
“So now, let’s get to the introductions. You’ll have some time to get to know each other over the next weeks. You’ll find that your kitchen quarters are compact, necessary so that we can get shots of all of you at once, and you’ll all do much better if you go into this with an attitude of healthy competition. In other words, get along with your neighbors, ladies and gentlemen.”
She’d already gone over the part where any contestant who purposely interfered with or in any way sabotaged a fellow competitor would be immediately disqualified from the show, and fined an amount commiserate to all costs the show incurred on his or her behalf.
“This is a show about families, for families,” she said – not for the first time, either. “As such, my introduction of each one of you will include pieces of the family history you submitted in the packets you returned. For this next portion of today’s business, we are going to have sound as well as video. Quiet on the set please!”
Burke’s stomach knotted as the sudden silence. It was like they’d been transported into a world all their own.
There was no big call for ‘roll em’, or a board being clapped loudly in front of a camera. All eyes were on Natasha Stevens. She glanced at the female camera operator. Nodded. Paused while cameras moved, whirring like a spring breeze and…
“Burke Carter!” With all the over-abundance of material and instruction and build up, there was absolutely no warning that he was going to be first. He was pretty sure he was smiling though, when several cameras pointed at him at once. He hoped so. And figured out, too late, that Ms. Stevens had purposely called on him without warning. Getting reaction.
“Burke is a single father, of 13-year-old Kelsey. He’s an orthopedic surgeon and is from right here in Palm Springs, California! He learned to cook while in medical school. Cooking class was date night with his school teacher wife, who went on to become a master chef. Unfortunately, Dr. Carter’s wife passed away. He is going to be competing with her recipes.”
He kept smiling in spite of the fact that he sure as hades hadn’t put date night or deceased in his very brief hastily written responses to the show’s questionnaire.
He nodded at Natasha, thinking about the talk he was going to have with his daughter. It was one thing to do his best to win this competition, but he would not have his wife’s death exploited in order to do so.
The woman next to him was from Las Vegas. When he was sure the cameras were off from him and he could move, Burke noticed that television monitors had come on and he could see a close up of Showgirl. Somehow she’d gone from show girl to restaurant owner. Natasha didn’t explain that one. What was very clear was that she ran a very successful little romantic diner in one of the upscale resorts on the strip. Reservations required. A sure win.
And…a show girl. Taking his gaze from the monitor, Burke studied the beautiful, though modestly dressed brunette seated next to him. Figuring he should feel some kind of attraction.
Next to Showgirl was a grandmotherly type with two kids and six grandkids whose husband was a retired farmer. Burke figured her for some fabulous family recipes. Another good possibility for the win.
The guy with slicked back hair was neither married nor with children. He had an Italian restaurant in Manhattan, above which he lived. Listening to his cooking credits, Burke figured him for the win.
Short, pleasantly grinning woman was the mother of seven children. She was also a home economics teacher. And an artist. Burke figured if she could manage to be accomplished at all of that she was definitely their winner.
The bountiful black-haired woman had four children, three baby daddies, and a slew of younger siblings, too. She was the head chef in a prominent Phoenix restaurant and was commuting the three and a half hours back and forth for every taping.
Then there was biker dude. A stay at home dad of three elementary aged boys. His wife was mayor in their southern Kentucky town. He did all of the cooking for a church kitchen and a homeless shelter, in his home, while his boys were in school. Cooking under pressure was obviously not going to be a challenge for him. Burke knew Karma was going to make sure he won.
He stared at the monitor. Felt…too much…which brought a wave of shame for having somehow featured this woman in his night time unconscious mental wanderings, and…
“Janie is a single mother of a little guy most of you will remember from our Thanksgiving…”
Burke didn’t hear the rest due to the ringing in his ears. The wave of embarrassment that sloshed over him. The things he’d done with her…He felt exposed, like everyone could read his mind…
Her recipe for dressing had won the Thanksgiving day competition. But as he sat there, the rest of it came back to him. She’d been in the audience for that special live show, one of several contestants whose recipes had been chosen for Natasha to prepare that day. The judges voted on their favorite recipe. In the audience, her son had been bouncing around on her leg gesturing and hollering out, having seen himself and her on the television monitor. What he remembered was the look on her face as she’d sat there, containing an overly excited little boy, and still managing to have nothing but love in her eyes as she watched him.
Not the screen.
She hadn’t even known she’d won.
She’d clearly cared more that her son was having a good time.
And Burke had been having a good time with her in his dreams every night since.
She was going to win.
And he was the show’s biggest loser.
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