GRILL ME, BABY
by Sophia Knightly
So this was the infamous Paolo Santos.
Michaela sized up her opponent in the waiting area of the producer’s office. The seriously hot Argentine seated across from her looked so relaxed, nobody would have guessed he was vying against her to host the hottest new celebrity chef TV show, Miami Spice. A confident smile spread over Paolo’s rugged face as she assessed him. His large, muscular body was sprawled across the sofa, with one tanned arm draped across the sofa back and long legs stretched before him. A crisp white linen shirt revealed a hint of hard chest beneath a tailored buff suit. He looked like a perfectly caramelized Argentine churrasco steak. Good enough to eat—damn him!
Michaela’s stomach growled so loudly that Paolo raised an amused eyebrow. A gentleman would have acted like he hadn’t heard it and discreetly looked away.
"Hungry?" he asked with a brazen grin. His deep voice and sexy Latin accent sounded as delicious as he looked.
"Maybe just a little," she replied breezily. She was trying to relax before her meeting with the producer, but cocky Paolo Santos was doing his best to disarm her with steady, smoldering looks.
She smiled coolly and looked away.Focus, she told herself. In a few minutes, she would have to sell herself to Mr. Blumenthal, the producer, in order to land the host spot. If she did, she’d become an instant celebrity chef and her almost finished cookbook would rack up lots of sales. She would also be able to pay back her parents every cent they had shelled out for her education. Her parents, two successful partners in the same law firm, still hadn’t forgiven her for dropping out of Duke Law School in her third year. Adding insult to injury, she had chucked it all to become a chef. Their grimace of shame when friends asked about Michaela’s new career never failed to make her stomach churn. At thirty years of age, it still felt awful being a failure in their eyes.
She needed to use her nervous energy to show she could hold her own alongside celebrity chefs Paula Deen’s zaniness or Rachael Ray’s perkiness or Bobby Flay’s wise guy banter. But she wasn’t the only one competing. She had Santos to contend with, and for the life of her, Michaela couldn’t help staring at his mouth. It wasn’t just the pair of deep-slashed dimples that drew her attention; it was his full lips that were probably great at kissing…Stop, she told herself, concentrate on the upcoming interview.
Michaela focused on the stark, modern painting on the wall before her, but the image of Paolo’s white teeth gleaming against his bronzed olive skin invaded her thoughts—strong teeth poised to take a bite out of her chances for the job. From the corner of her eye, she caught his black-as-sin eyes giving her a slow and thorough once-over.
Were all Latin men so forward? Could be a cultural thing, but he might be trying to seduce her into losing her focus. She had to be on her toes around this one. From the moment he’d stepped off the airplane from Buenos Aires and burst upon the scene at Flamingo Island, an exclusive country club residence island, Paolo had built up quite a rep as a player. Oh, she’d heard plenty of gossip about the executive chef’s prowess, but today was the first time she’d seen him in action.
During the past half-hour, Michaela had watched Paolo chat and flirt with the young, blonde receptionist, and then with the producer’s middle-aged secretary, Ellie. His sexy accent and exotic looks had captivated both women, as he charmed them with his impressions of Miami and its beautiful inhabitants—meaning them, of course. They hadn’t even met yet and Santos’s attitude was a bit too familiar this morning. She already knew about his magnetic appeal, especially with the wealthy socialites of Flamingo Island who had standing reservations at Bella Luna. But bad boy types didn’t tempt her anymore, not after her break-up with Jeff Convers, tennis bad boy extraordinaire. That regrettable part of her life was behind her.Don’t think about Jeff, the two-timing player, she told herself. She took a deep breath and forced her thoughts back to meeting Edwin Blumenthal.
"Don’t look so worried, Maki." One corner of Paolo’s mouth quirked up as he regarded her with interest. "Relax."
"If I were any more relaxed, I’d be asleep." She gave him a raised brow look. Usually that squelched the over-confident types. Distance was needed with this one. His smile alone could charm the shell off an escargot. "My name is Michaela. Maki sounds like a girlie cocktail, and I’m anything but."
He cocked an eyebrow and she took instant note of the twitch at the corners of his lips. Paolo had glossy, jet-black layers cut like Keith Urban’s, except he wasn’t an Aussie country star—he was a hot chef and a major player."Michaela?" he repeated, drawing her attention to the shrugging gesture of his upraised hands. He gave her hair an assessing glance. "You should have been named Penny, it suits you better. Your hair shines like a new copper penny."
"Are you a hairdresser too?" she asked, smoothing the sides of her long hair that were pulled half up.
Paolo flashed a dazzling grin. "No, just a chef." He leaned forward and gave her a hearty handshake. "Paolo Santos." Strong grip. Nothing wrong with that, Michaela thought as she snatched her hand back the moment it touched his warm, callused palm. "Nice to meet you."
"Encantado, likewise." He leaned back on the sofa looking a little too pleased with himself. "I can’t wait to tell Mr. Blumenthal about my gimmick for the show."
She eyed him suspiciously. "Nobody said anything about coming up with a gimmick. Did you just make that up?"
His brow furrowed. "Why would I do that?"
She shrugged as if it didn’t matter. "No gimmick can substitute for fine cooking." She had certificates from The Culinary Institute of America and Le Cordon Bleu in Paris to prove it.
Paolo snorted. "Is that what you call your rabbit food?" He gazed up at the ceiling with a pained expression. When he looked back at her, his eyes twinkled with mischief. "I can’t imagine anyone feeling satisfied after eating only birdseed."
She felt like pelting him with birdseed after that comment. Given his lean waistline and muscular physique, Paolo had to possess a high-octane metabolism that counteracted his rich, Italian-Argentinean cooking.
Not everyone was so blessed, certainly not she. She had been chubby until age nineteen when, to her shock and her family’s, she’d found out she had high cholesterol and high blood pressure. She’d had to drastically modify her eating habits and start exercising. As a bona fide foodie, she adored food and every nuance of preparing it. After years of experimenting, she’d found ways to prepare delicious, healthy meals—including desserts—and she was eager to share them with others. She was about to set Paolo straight in defense of her spa clients who gained weight merely by sniffing his fattening cuisine, when Ellie interrupted her."Mr. Blumenthal will see you both now," Ellie said. "Please follow me."
"Both of us? Together?" The last thing Michaela wanted was to share her interview with Paolo.
Ellie looked mystified by Michaela’s less than enthusiastic reaction. "Yes, he wants to see both of you—together."
Michaela nodded and covered her disappointment with a friendly smile. She stood and smoothed the skirt of her jade green, wrap-style dress.
Paolo rose beside her and it was all she could do not to gawk at him. He looked to be about six foot three with wide shoulders and hard muscles that tapered in to a lean waistline. He probably sported a six-pack under his white shirt too. She straightened to her height of five foot seven on her three-inch high-heeled pumps, not wanting to feel at a disadvantage beside Paolo who was so much bigger. She watched him cross his fingers for luck and make a comical face at Ellie. Squaring her shoulders, Michaela blocked out the woman’s delighted giggle.
Paolo reached for the door and opened it with a flourish, allowing Michaela to enter before his towering form. "Thank you." She caught a whiff of citrus and soap and inhaled deeply in spite of herself. Startled by her heady reaction to his clean, masculine scent, Michaela looked at Paolo and caught him giving her behind an admiring glance. They locked eyes and he winked. She raised her chin and turned her attention toward the producer.
Edwin Blumenthal, a gentleman of medium height and graying hair who appeared to be in his early sixties, stood behind a massive, granite-topped desk. His sky-blue golf shirt and khaki pants made him look as if he’d just finished teeing off. Lucky man, his spacious office overlooked beautiful Biscayne Bay, currently occupied by massive luxury cruise ships queued up to leave port.After introductions, Michaela and Paolo stood facing the producer across the desk.
"Please sit down." Mr. Blumenthal motioned toward the gray leather seats before his desk. "We have a lot to cover this morning, so I’ll be brief. Although Miami Spice will be filmed and produced locally, it will appear nationally on the Food Network in the coveted Saturday morning line-up." Paolo propped both thumbs up in a gesture of enthusiasm. "Fantastic!"
Mr. Blumenthal nodded. "You two are the final contenders for the competition. Since you both work on Flamingo Island, it would be fitting to feature your cooking talents together in one pilot episode."
"Are you looking for two chefs for the series?" Paolo asked, giving Michaela a quick glance.
"No," he replied. "The show will have only one host, with visiting chefs from area restaurants occasionally making appearances."
"Then why do we have to go on together?" Michaela asked, keeping her tone light.
"After eliminating the rest of the competition, the producers watched your audition tapes again and narrowed it down to the two of you," Mr. Blumenthal said. "They’d like you to do one episode together to see how our viewers react. You, Miss Willoughby, have an elegant style, as opposed to Mr. Santos’s earthy approach.""¿Sí?" Paolo’s white teeth flashed happily. "Gracias. We both thank you, right, Maki?"
Michaela smiled at Mr. Blumenthal. "They could tell all this from a videotape?"
Mr. Blumenthal nodded. "We’re not in this business for nothing.""But my cooking is totally different from Paolo’s." She paused, noting that Paolo had leaned forward in his seat. "His cooking is rich and spicy," she said, refraining from calling it bad for you. "Mine is light and quite innovative. I have an amazing gimmick planned," she blurted out, avoiding eye contact with Paolo. Why had she said that? She never used that word and now she regretted it, especially when she saw Mr. Blumenthal’s surprised reaction.
"A gimmick? Haven’t heard that word in a while. Well, good for you," he said, beaming. "Good for you."
She started to panic over her fib, but she covered it up with a confident smile. "Won’t you reconsider and allow me to present a show that focuses on delicious, health-conscious cuisine—one which everyone in the audience can enjoy without worrying about calories?" she asked Mr. Blumenthal.
Paolo let out a robust chuckle. "Why ruin good food by counting calories, eh, Mr. Blumenthal? We’re not here to lecture our audience. This is supposed to be a fun show, isn’t it?"
"It will be fun, just not…high in calories," she said, trying not to let Paolo’s comments annoy her.
Mr. Blumenthal gave her a measured look. "I’m sorry, Miss Willoughby, but my mind is made up. I’m sure you can come up with a menu together to complement your individual styles. We’ll need a complete meal that you will prepare together before the audience."
"No problem," Paolo said, before Michaela could answer. "We would be happy to, right, Maki?"
"Right…Paulie," she countered. If he insisted on calling her a nickname, she might as well do the same.
"Good," Mr. Blumenthal said. "I can see you two are well acquainted."
Paolo threw his arm around Michaela’s shoulders. "No, we just met in the lobby. But I can tell we’re going to be good friends."
Did he have to smell so good? Paolo’s muscular arm around her was making her feel as wobbly as one of his flan desserts. She moved away from him and put some steel in her backbone. "After the pilot, one of you will be chosen to come back to make a solo tape. And may the best man—or woman—win," Mr. Blumenthal said. "Based on the results before the live audience, we’ll make our final decision. Any questions?"Michaela had many questions she wanted to ask, but Paolo beat her to it.
"Just one." Paolo leaned forward eagerly. "Actually, it’s not a question, but a suggestion. My gimmick is sure to be a hit."
Mr. Blumenthal looked delighted. "That’s the type of enthusiasm I’m looking for, but save the gimmicks for later. If you’re invited back, you can use it on your solo show."
Michaela wondered what Paolo’s gimmick was. He was quite the performer, with a growing fan base. She had heard from her clients about the sexy way he wore a white shirt rolled up at the sleeves and tucked into black jeans, with a bandanna tied over his jet-black hair as he prepared food behind a glass panel in full view of the Bella Luna patrons. The showman didn’t only prepare food, he did little dance steps and sang tangos as he sliced, chopped and flambéed.
"We’ll tape live before an audience next Monday morning at ten sharp. You have a week from today to prepare," Mr. Blumenthal said briskly. "Ellie will put you in touch with Ted Marton, the culinary producer. He’ll need the menu list so the kitchen staff and supporting chefs can prep your ingredients."
Mr. Blumenthal stood, signaling that the meeting was over. Raising bushy brows, he peered at them through steel-rim glasses. "If you have further questions, don’t hesitate to call Ellie any time this week." Michaela extended her hand. "Thank you. It was a pleasure meeting you."
"Yes, likewise, Michaela," Mr. Blumenthal replied, shaking her hand.
The ever-inappropriate Paolo gave Mr. Blumenthal a man hug. "Great meeting you, sir. You won’t be disappointed. Maki and I will plan a menu sure to make the audience’s mouth water."
Michaela’s left eye began to twitch out of control.
Paolo winked at her. "Let’s go, Maki." He gently nudged the small of her back with his big hand.
She shrugged his hand away from her back as she strode to the elevator. When the doors were shut, she pressed the lobby button and turned to him. "Listen, Paolo, this is a professional arrangement and we need to get along. You can start by calling me Michaela, not Maki."
He quirked an eyebrow. "Why were you winking at me?"
"I wasn’t. You winked at me!"
He pointed at her eye. "Your left eyelid was moving up and down. Don’t deny it."
"It twitches sometimes when I’m stressed out." She shouldn’t have admitted it. He probably thought he had the upper hand now.
"I thought you said you were relaxed. You don’t act like it, Maki."
Normally she could relax, but he had the unfortunate ability to rile her up. They rode the elevator in silence. As soon as they descended to the lobby and the doors opened, she rushed out.
"Hey!" he called. "Slow down."
Michaela didn’t stop until she reached her car and her eye had stopped twitching.
"Nena," he said once he reached her. "What have I done to upset you?"
"First of all, stop calling me nena."
He threw his hands up in exasperation. "Why? It is an endearment in Spanish."
Endearment? "We just met, so there’s no need for endearments. And don’t call me Maki. You did it again after I told you to call me Michaela."
Paolo's roguish dimples snagged her attention. "I couldn’t help myself. I think Maki is cute—like you. It suits you."
She looked away from the seductive twinkle in his eyes. That was a first. Nobody ever called her cute. Her sister Tiffany was cute, but not Michaela. "Save your charms and gimmicks for someone else, Santos. I’m on to you."
Paolo laughed out loud. "Is that the worst you could come up with?"
She lifted an eyebrow. "Would you like me to curse?"
He gave a casual shrug of his wide shoulders. "It works for me when I’m mad. Let me warn you, little spaghetti—" Paolo’s genial expression turned serious, "—I don’t get angry easily or often, but when I do, you won’t want to be there. And you won’t like hearing me swear in Spanish."
"Ooh, I’m terrified. I don’t care if you curse in Spanish or Japanese."
He smiled, his dark eyes crinkling at the corners. "Good."
"We need to come up with a menu as soon as possible."
"I’ll leave my sous chef in charge tonight. How about we meet at my place at seven?"
His place? Uh uh. "Can’t tonight. Let’s meet tomorrow…at my apartment."
He chuckled. "Pretty bossy aren’t you?" He surprised her by handing her his business card. "Call me."
She read his card aloud, "Paolo Santos, magnificent chef." She chuckled. "We’ll see about that."
"I’m not bragging. It’s true."
She waved his card. "Who came up with your title?""My immigration lawyer. I came to this country with a visa that states I have extraordinary ability."
His gaze turned sharp and his smile faded. "I’m planning on winning," he stated as if it was a done deal.
"I plan to knock ’em dead," she said confidently. "I want this job more than anything in the world."
Paolo’s eyes glinted like onyx stones. "Me too, and I always win."
"You hadn’t met me yet," she said, poking his chest with her pointer finger.
He rubbed his offended chest. "Your cooking is more suited to anorexic socialites. Mine is purely for pleasure."
"I guess the sky’s the limit when you’re clogging arteries," she retorted.
"I don’t only prepare Italian and Argentinean cuisine. I can make everything and it is delicious." He kissed his fingertips with a resounding smack. "Grilling, or parrillada as we say in Argentina, is my specialty. Now you’re probably going to say that grilling isn’t healthy." "Scoff all you like, but my conscience is clear. My clients eat well and feel great. Many of them have serious conditions such as diabetes and heart disease."
"You forgot boredom and too much money," he said, with a wry twist of his mouth. "What can you do that Weight Watchers hasn’t done?"
The man was getting on her last nerve.
"My cooking wins hands down," he added blithely.
"Ha!" she huffed. They were getting nowhere exchanging barbs. She spun on her heel and stalked away.
Paolo caught up with her in two strides. "Until tomorrow. Ciao, Maki. Can’t wait to see your gimmick." His dimples flashed to taunt her as he turned and ambled toward his tomato red Alfa Romeo convertible. How fitting that he drove that car; he was an Alpha Romeo, all right.
Michaela watched him take off his jacket and fling it on the back seat, her gaze drawn to his broad shoulders and wide back that tapered into a lean waistline above a compact butt. Try as she might, she couldn’t stop staring as he got into the car and drove away. Damn the man for looking so hot as the wind ruffled his thick hair.
As Paolo exited the parking lot, he turned to wave good-bye with a confident grin. Michaela quickly looked away and got into her car. She glanced up at the June sky and noticed a cluster of purple clouds closing in on the clear blue expanse. It would be fitting if he got caught in the downpour. Smiling to herself, she took great pleasure in an image of Paolo, sopping wet and bedraggled as he drove his flashy convertible back to Flamingo Island.
He was so full of himself, she was itching to take him down a few pegs and roast him over his own parrillada.
Magnificent chef, indeed!