Staying For Good Page 2

Double-wide and smelly sofas . . . that’s how.

Zoe shot up in bed with enough of a gasp that her friends opened their eyes.

“What the hell, Zoe?” Jo squished the tiny pillow she was slobbering all over and shoved her head back into it.

Mel reached over, started to pat Zoe’s arm, then squeezed. “You’re stone cold. What’s wrong?”

Zoe felt the rise and fall of her chest moving too quickly.

“I have to break up with Luke.”

Her declaration woke both her friends up.

“What?” Jo and Mel both asked at once.

Chapter One

Eleven Years Later

“Cut!”

“It’s a soufflé, Felix. You can’t say cut.” Zoe felt the heat of the open oven flow up her face as the lights from the studio shone down. She held herself in suspended animation while the camera crew scrambled with enough noise for her to know they weren’t filming.

“Zoe, don’t move.” Felix held his hands in the air as if he had a supernatural power that would keep her from shuffling her feet. Truth was, he kinda did. While the five-foot-six, two-hundred-pound balding man might be able to keep her from moving, the chocolate soufflé in her oven-mitted hands was not going to comply.

She couldn’t shove the thing back into the oven to keep it puffed up, and removing it completely would make it deflate quicker. Hence the reason the low heat of the oven was cooking her stage makeup to a glowing 120 degrees. Huddled close to the oven, Zoe felt her brow growing damp.

“Felix!”

“Camera two, zoom in on the soufflé. Someone dust Zoe’s face!” And when that someone didn’t move fast enough, Felix yelled, “Now!”

Zoe’s didn’t let the tractor beam of her eyes leave her creation. The crown of her soufflé was perfect . . . just the right amount of brown on the edges, the perfect smell of mouthwatering calories no one needed but everyone wanted. The countdown for the damn thing falling was ticking like a clock on a bomb, and she was holding still as if said bomb were strapped to her waist and one move would set if off.

Someone shoved a fat-bristled makeup brush on her face, dusting away the glistening moisture so she didn’t shine on camera.

The middle of her dessert started to breathe, and Zoe’s heart rate shot up. “Hurry!”

Felix clapped his hands several times. “Quiet . . . everyone quiet on the set!”

Zoe painted on her smile and awaited her cue.

Yet her baked masterpiece was the one that followed her director’s instructions.

The second Felix yelled action, Zoe opened her lips to deliver her lines about the proper care of a soufflé when removing it from the oven, and poof! The middle collapsed and at least three people on set said damn at the same time.

“Cut!”

Zoe straightened her back and hit the oven door with her knee to slam the thing shut.

“Damn it, Felix.” Cussing out the director might prove detrimental to a celebrity chef with lesser clout, but Zoe had earned her stripes and often called the shots. Besides, Felix loved her.

No longer caring if the food looked awful, Zoe all but tossed the dish on top of the counter and moved out of the hot lights of the staged kitchen.

No less than a dozen sets of hands scrambled around the cameras and the microphones hanging from long booms hovering above.

Felix stood in front of camera two, quietly scolding the man behind the lens.

It was Zoe’s second soufflé of the day, and she wasn’t sure there was another one in her.

She waited patiently while Felix finished his direction before turning her way. “Darling, I’m sorry.” He had to reach up to pat her face.

“Cut is not a word we use when removing this from the oven. I told you that.”

“The angle was all wrong. The finished dish is what makes everyone think they can do it . . . makes your audience think you’re a goddess of the kitchen.” It was hard to stay mad at a man who had a slight lisp and made grand gestures with his hands as he spoke. He called himself the Vanna White of the director’s chair. The only things those two had in common were their taste in men and their expansive shoe collections.

Zoe removed the tiny apron that was mostly for show and handed it to him. “I told you soufflés were a bad idea.”

“The harder the dish, the better the ratings, darling. Now stop complaining and start mixing.” He gently nudged her apron back into her hands.

She handed it back.

“I need to eat.”

Felix swiveled to the counter and picked up the crock with the soufflé. He dropped it back on the counter almost as soon as his fingers touched the thing. He blew on his fingertips like a three-year-old. “Eat that.”

“If I ate everything I cooked, I’d be as big as you.”

He shrugged without argument and patted her slim hip. “We can’t have that.” He turned to the crew. “Everyone, we’re back in thirty. Princess Zoe has to eat.”

Zoe grinned, kissed Felix’s cheek. “One more shot at this today. Get it right.”

He was already turning away. “We will, darling. Rupert!” he yelled in the opposite direction.

She walked past the cameras, out from around the fake walls of the set, and down the narrow hall to her dressing room, which sounded more glamorous than it was. A lighted mirror and a rack to hang her clothes on sat in one corner, while two chairs that once sat in a nearby office building surrounded a tiny table. A locker suitable for the gym at her old high school was used to lock up her purse. As much as she’d love to think her belongings were safe, there were too many nameless people running around who might be more than willing to lift her wallet.

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