“Colleen Riley Gentry Byrne, you come back here,” Aidan called to his sister as she strode from the room dressed in breeches, boots, and a lace shirt.
“Fuck you, Aidan! I’m going for a ride.”
Aidan looked at his beta, Liam, who had served his father before him.
“My father should have worn out his strap on her when she came of age and started behaving this way,” he said, running his fingers through his jet-black hair.
Liam laughed. “Your father never raised a hand to your sister. He always said she was a spirited lass, would outgrow her willful streak, and when the right alpha wolf came calling, she’d settle down.”
“Just because our mother was willing to settle down, doesn’t mean they all are.”
“Aye, lad. What are you going to do about the lovely Gianna DeMedici?”
“I’m going to Italy and bring her home. And she will feel the sting of my strap once I’ve made her mine.”
“Are you so sure you can do that? The DeMedici are a powerful pack and her oldest brother is not a man to be trifled with.”
“No,” said Aidan with a grin, “but he’s a man who believes in fated mates and tradition. You saw her response when I called to her. I know I can convince Marco that she’s my fated mate and make her run. And when I’ve run her to ground, she’ll either submit and accept my claim or I’ll warm her backside in front of her alpha and ranking pack members until she does.”
“She’ll nay thank you for that.”
“Probably not. But once we’re alone and I have her knotted and tied to me, she’ll begin to see the error of her ways.”
Liam laughed. “You alphas and your mighty knots. Do they really enjoy it that much more in human form?”
Aidan’s eyes showed humor, love, and lust. “Not that I’d say this to her brother, but she did when I had my way with her when she was here. She’ll make a glorious mistress for the pack, don’t you think?”
“Aye, lad. And she’s built for child-bearing.”
Aidan smiled and felt his cock begin to stir at the thought of knotting his mate and putting a baby in her belly. “She is indeed. But more than that, I love her and I will not rest until she is back in my arms and calls me mate and alpha.”
“But what do you plan to do with Colleen?”
Aidan shook his head and picked up the house phone, calling down to the stable.
“Rob, it’s Aidan. My sister is headed your way. She is not to be given a horse or allowed to leave the barn. Liam is on his way.”
Liam looked at his alpha with affection. Aidan might have been more than a decade his junior, but he was a strong and capable leader. Their pack was in good hands. But Liam feared that Aidan’s sister, Colleen, was about to be taken to task for her behavior of late.
“One too many times, Liam. From now on, she gets disciplined like any other unmated female in this pack.”
“Do you want me to bring her back to her room to punish her?”
“I’ll leave that up to you as well as the extent she’s to be punished. She needs to be showered and in appropriate clothing for our guests this evening. When they’ve left, I’ll give her until I return to decide on one of them.”
“So, you mean to go after Gianna tonight?”
Aidan nodded. “Yes. Once our guests are gone, I will leave for Italy and will return with Gia as my mate… with or without her brother’s blessing.”
“I wondered about that…”
“If Marco refuses my claim, I’ll mark and claim her as mine and bring her home. If the DeMedici want her back, they’ll have to try and take her from us.”
“Yes, my alpha. I’ll leave you to deal with the DeMedici… and I’ll go deal with your sister.”
Aidan laughed. “I think I have the easier task.”
Liam joined his laughter and headed down to the barn. In the past Aidan had often stepped in and mitigated his sister’s punishment. Finding his own mate seemed to have settled a new way of thinking on the young alpha. Liam was sure he meant to put his house in order before bringing his mate home.
He hoped that Aidan would be able to convince Marco DeMedici that Marco’s sister was fated to be with Aidan. But he knew Aidan well enough to know that if the powerful Italian wolf did not give the union his blessing then Aidan would bring her home and be prepared to fight to the death for her.
Liam entered the barn to see Colleen surrounded by several of the men of their pack but fending them off with a pitchfork. He’d known Colleen all her life; she wasn’t bluffing.
“Here now, Colleen. That’s enough.”
“These bastards tried to stop me from going on a ride.”
One of them took advantage of what he thought was a momentary lapse in her attention and rushed her. She speared his forearm with one of the tines of the pitchfork before drawing it back and warning off the others. It wasn’t a deep gash, just a shallow puncture. Still, she had drawn blood and that was enough to give the others pause in trying to disarm her.
“That is enough. Your brother, our alpha, has said you are not to go for a ride and expects you back at the house.”
“My brother expects me to play nice with several alphas who have come sniffing around my tail. He’s in for a nasty surprise, Liam. I have no interest in any of them.”
“You’ve never met any of them. You might at least want to spend some time with them before you reject them.”
“I don’t want to be anyone’s mate.”
“That is not your choice. Now you put that pitchfork down and I’ll forego the spanking that is your due for your disrespect and for wounding a pack mate until after your guests have gone. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself seated on a pillow at dinner.”
Liam walked forward and Colleen snaked the pitchfork in his direction. But Liam had been in far too many battles and barroom brawls in his lifetime. He caught the pitchfork and wrestled it away from her. Once he had disarmed her, he grabbed her by the forearm, sat down on a bale of hay, and pulled her over his lap.
“No,” she cried, dismayed more at the thought of being subjected to a punishment spanking in front of others than the spanking itself.
“Yes,” Liam said with calm authority.
He raised his hand and began to pepper Colleen’s rump with hard swats, causing her to buck and fight to get away. The harder she fought, the harder he spanked. The men that she had been threatening stood back to enjoy the show.
While not as painful as being spanked on her bare backside, the thin cotton breeches did little to protect her bottom from the force of Liam’s skilled paddling. She vowed to get even with each man who stood and watched her humiliation.
Once Colleen ceased struggling, Liam let up and helped her to her feet.
“Now, little wolf, you apologize to these men and then you and I will finish this up in your room.”
“Mother fucker,” she hissed.
Liam quickly bent her over one of the saddle stands and once again applied his hard palm to her backside, making her dance from the pain.
“And you, little wolf, are going to stop cussing like a stable hand and will behave more like the sister to one of the most respected alphas in Ireland. Your brother has done more to bring this pack greater prosperity and power since he assumed the mantle of leadership than the last ten before him. You need to be a credit to his family and to his pack. You learning to act like a lady starts right now. Are you ready to apologize or should I take a riding crop to your backside?”
Liam gave her time to decide. He’d known Colleen all her life. She had been a willful child and had grown into a headstrong, independent, and stubborn she-wolf. The fact that she too, like her brother, was an alpha did nothing to help her temperament… nor did the red hair that bespoke of her temper.
“No. Let me up and I will apologize.”
“Apologize and I will let you up,” said Liam.
Liam landed another ten painful strikes to her bottom, which now felt as though it was on fire.
“One more swear word, little wolf, and I’ll wash your mouth out with soap when we get up to your room. You apologize right now or I’ll have Rob bring me a crop.”
“I apologize. I was angry at my brother and our beta. I should not have threatened or hurt any of you.”
Liam let her up, but did not release his hold of her arm.
“You have a choice; you can behave yourself and walk up to the house for the rest of your spanking or I can carry you slung over my shoulder. Which is it to be?”
Colleen searched his face. There was nothing there to indicate that he wouldn’t do precisely as he had threatened if she didn’t capitulate. She knew her time with her pack was drawing to a close. She understood that Aidan expected certain things of her and he had a right to expect them. But much as she loved her brother, she did not have it in her to simply fall into line and become a good mate to an alpha of another pack.
She knew that Aidan had become convinced when Gianna DeMedici had visited them on an errand for her brother, Marco, that she was his fated mate. Colleen had formed a strong bond of friendship with the beautiful Italian she-wolf. They were both of the same opinion—that the time of women not being in complete charge of their own destinies needed to be coming to an end. Gianna had returned Aidan’s feelings and had shared his bed, but when he pressed her to speak with her brother, she had bolted.
Colleen knew that Aidan planned to travel to Italy and hoped to obtain Marco’s blessing for a pairing with his sister. Aidan had vowed that if he didn’t receive it, he would bring Gianna home without it. Colleen knew that Gianna had heard her brother’s call. Gianna had admitted it to her. She didn’t envy Gianna the next several weeks. Aidan was a strong and capable alpha. He would not take no for an answer regardless of whether it came from Gianna or Marco.
Colleen believed her best chance to escape her own birth pack was while Aidan was gone to Italy. She would have to make her way to an international airport. From there she planned to fly to Canada and then to make her way south to the Outer Banks of North Carolina. It was whispered among the younger women that an all-female pack had formed under the leadership of Skylar Owen. Colleen, who had obtained a passport in a new name planned to ask for sanctuary. When she left her home, her pack, and her brother, Colleen Riley Gentry Byrne would cease to exist. Riley Gentry would emerge, like a phoenix, to live a life on her own terms.
By the time she had finished that last thought, Liam had guided her into the house and was headed up the stairs to her suite of rooms.
“Aidan,” she called. “Aidan!”
“Nay, little wolf, your brother won’t intervene this time. This time, I mean to finish and you can bloody well meet your potential mates with a well-spanked backside and seated on a pillow.”
“Liam, no!” she cried. “I’ll behave. You spanked me in the barn, in front of the stable hands…”
“That I did. You’re lucky I thought enough of your modesty not to bare your backside in front of them.”
He opened the door to her room and propelled her forward.
“Into the corner with you, little wolf,” he continued.
Colleen whirled on him. “I won’t.”
“You will, lass, or it’ll be my belt that finishes your punishment. I know you’ve never been subjected to a welting and it’s probably high time you were. Either you submit right now, or when I put you back over my knee, it’ll be my belt that connects with your bare bottom.”
“I hate you.”
Liam laughed. “As do all the females in our pack when they’ve done something to deserve a spanking. Corner. Now.”
Colleen calculated her chances of getting by him and realized they were slim to none. She turned around and walked over to the corner. Maybe Aidan would come. He’d always come before when she’d been made to stand in the corner and exempted her from getting punished. But Aidan did not come and the bed creaked as Liam sat down on its edge.
“All right, little wolf, let’s get this over with. You come out of the corner and come here to me to submit to your punishment.”
“I am alpha…”
“Which is a terrible burden for a woman, but it changes nothing. You are not alpha here. Here you are sister to our alpha and you’re a badly behaved one at that. You know you deserve to be spanked and I mean to see it done. Now, come here, Colleen.”
Colleen approached him slowly and when he held out his hand to her, she took it, grateful that at least he would allow her the thought that she hadn’t placed herself over his knee. She stood between his legs and he turned her to her side. He reached up and unfastened her breeches, pulling them and her panties down over her rump and halfway down her thighs.
“Please, Liam. My butt already hurts and I said I’d behave.”
“Aye, I know you did. And you will behave. But you’ll behave with a properly paddled backside.”
Gently he put her into position over his knee and patted her already sore bottom with affection. He raised his hand and commenced spanking her in a way she wouldn’t forget anytime soon. Colleen struggled and cried and Liam continued to spank her. He didn’t seem angry at her, but more resigned and disappointed that her behavior had led her to this.
Liam covered her bare bottom repeatedly with hard swats that captured both of her lower cheeks, as well as her sit spots and upper thighs. Colleen tried to endure it without a sound but couldn’t do so. Liam had been beta to their pack for decades and knew far too well how to spank disobedient females so that they at least thought twice before misbehaving again.
In the same way as he had down in the barn, the more she struggled, the harder he spanked. Once her rump felt on fire and she was certain it was starting to swell, Colleen lost her battle with her tears and began to cry.
“Liam, I’m sorry,” she wailed. “I’m sorry. I’ll behave. Please stop, please?”
He stopped and began to rub her bottom soothingly.
“There now, that’s a good girl. I’m going to let you up and you will go back and stand in the corner.”
“Can I pull my breeches up?”
“Nay. I think they’re better left where they are for now. Up you get.”
Colleen got up and without further prodding, went and stood in the corner. She knew better than to reach back, but it took every ounce of self-control not to do so.
“Aidan won’t really force me into a pairing I don’t want, will he?”
“Your brother means to see you mated, but no, I think he will search until he finds your fated mate. But he is under no obligation to do that. Best you show him some respect and gratitude.”
Colleen sighed. “I’ll try.”
Liam crossed over to her and kissed the side of her head.
“Good girl. You’re not to leave your room until you come down for dinner. I expect you to shower and change into appropriate clothing and to be on your best behavior. If not, you and I will return to your room and you’ll get your first taste of my strap. Understood?”
“All right then, your punishment is over. You can pull your breeches back up. And you’re to find some time this evening to apologize to your alpha for your behavior and language this afternoon.”
Dinner had been dreadful. Other than her brother, all of the alphas who were in attendance were arrogant and boring, which seemed an odd combination. She looked up and caught Aidan’s eye at one point and he shook his head ever so slightly and smiled at his younger sibling.
Colleen had taken his hand, pulled him closer to her, and whispered, “Thank you and I’m sorry about this afternoon.”
“Forgiven,” he said before kissing her forehead. “You behave while I’m gone.”
Colleen could not look him in the eye. She very much doubted she’d ever see Aidan again. Her plan violated every rule of pack protocol for a woman. Aidan would move heaven and earth to find her, but he would fail. Colleen knew she would miss him.
Three years later; Outer Banks of North Carolina
Skylar Owen hugged Riley Gentry close. The early morning fog had yet to begin its recession from the beach into the ocean. The sun was beginning to cast its first rays of light and played among the clouds; the fog and filtered sunlight turning the sky the most amazing shades of pink, purple, and orange.
“Are you sure I can’t persuade you to stay longer?” she said, truly sorry to be losing the young, red-haired alpha female who so reminded her of herself.
“No. It’s time for me to go. What you’ve done here at Bae Diogel is amazing. But no pack needs two red-headed alphas,” said Riley with a bemused, peaceful expression.
“Oh, I don’t know. If the Ruling Council comes calling it might be good to have another alpha wolf around. And unlike the boys, I don’t mind sharing.”
Riley laughed. She was genuinely going to miss the women of Bae Diogel… Skylar, Roz, and Darby most of all.
“Won’t you at least stay for breakfast and say good-bye to the others?” asked Skylar softly.
“I don’t like goodbyes, Sky. It’s time for me to move on. There’s a rundown warehouse in Galveston calling my name and whispering to me that it needs me to turn it into an upscale bistro.”
Skylar looked at her fondly. “You will be missed. You know Cameron Nichols is alpha in Galveston. He’s not going to be inclined to allow an unmated female to just live in his territory without being part of his pack.”
Riley grinned. “That’s why I don’t plan to ask him. I figure if I keep to myself, there’s no reason for him to know.”
“Riley, that’s foolish. You’re going to open an upscale bistro. I can’t imagine you being anything other than a smashing success. Nichols is one of the largest suppliers of Wagyu beef in the country, not to mention his commercial fishery in the Gulf of Mexico.”
“He’s too busy to take notice of one stray wolf chef, especially if I’m not bothering anybody.”
Skylar snorted. “You’d best keep a sharp watch on him and have an exit strategy. With the growing shortage of female shifters, you’d be a prize he’d want to integrate into his pack… and don’t forget he’s unmated.”
“Is he good-looking? Great in the sack? Maybe I’ll set my cap for him.”
Skylar laughed out loud. “Oh, now there’s a match I’d like to see—a sassy Irish alpha female who abandoned tradition and left her birth pack and a cowboy alpha shifter. If it happens, I get pick of the litter. Careful he doesn’t rope and hogtie you!”
“He’d have to catch me first.”
“What do you think the rope is for?”
“Would he tie me up? Kinky!”
Skylar laughed again. “I am truly going to miss you.”
Riley sobered. “And I you. I’m grateful for the respite you gave me. I left a pan of cinnamon rolls proofing. All you’ll need to do in about an hour is bake them.” Riley turned to leave and then impulsively turned back and hugged Skylar again. “If you or Bae Diogel ever needs me, you know how to get hold of me. Thank you again for everything.”
Skylar watched her leave with a sinking heart. Riley would be missed not only by Skylar herself but by the other women at Bae Diogel, the rogue all-female pack Skylar had founded.
Skylar raised her hand in farewell as Riley jumped into her vintage MG roadster and headed off the island.
“Fair wind and good fortune,” she whispered.
Present day, outside of Belgrade, Serbia
Riley Gentry glanced at her watch. She was cutting it close. It would take at least an hour for her to return to the old-world mansion turned resort in order to start cooking for the final round of a local competition whose goal was to raise the level of cooking in Serbia, not known for its culinary expertise. When she wasn’t competing in various cooking competitions or taking lucrative executive chef gigs, Riley ran a successful farm/sea to table restaurant along the seawall in Galveston, Texas—the Sea Wolf.
She was currently concealing herself in the woods adjacent to an old, rundown manor house. There had been rumors circulating that packs desperate for females had been raiding other packs and turning human women against their will. Riley had been at a cooking competition in Mexico when a planned assault on the United States was foiled and repelled by the combined strength of the wolf-shifter packs in New Orleans and Galveston.
Riley was a lone wolf. As far as she knew, Cameron Nichols, the alpha of Galveston, was unaware of her presence in his territory. It was considered a serious breach of protocol for an unattached wolf to take up residence in an occupied territory without the permission of the area’s alpha. Riley didn’t much care for protocols or following the rules, especially ones she had no input in making.
She was about to make her move toward the house and getting the three women who were being held there against their will when a slight movement caught her eye. She secreted herself back into the bushes and watched as a male figure dressed all in black sprinted across the small, open space and began to climb the corner of the house. Riley had to smile; she had planned to do the same.
Her attention was divided between the grounds of the house to spot any potential combatants and the balcony where the figure in black had managed to get to safely. Riley silently shifted to her wolf form in order to access her heightened senses. She could see or hear nothing to cause her any concern as the man entered the room.
Again, Riley scanned the house and the land around it. She looked to the balcony to see the figure lowering each of the women from the balcony to the ground. It seemed he had directed them to run to a specific place. All three had made the safety of the woods before the man lowered himself to the ground and joined them. The exploding incendiary devices and resulting fire startled her for a moment and then she grinned. Well done, she thought.
She picked up her clothes in her powerful jaws and allowed the group of women and their rescuer some breathing room. Quietly, she followed them back until she saw them get in a waiting vehicle and speed off into the night. She ran toward her own stashed mode of transportation, a stolen lorry from the city. If all went well, she would be able to return it to its parking place with no one the wiser. She shifted back, turned over the motor, and headed in the opposite direction of the man and the three ex-hostages.
Unless she was sadly mistaken, and she didn’t believe she was, she’d just seen the Welsh wolf, Griffin Owen, snatch the three women to take to safety. They were in the same line of business… only Griffin didn’t know it.
Riley made it back with a bit of time to spare. She’d had a good laugh when she returned the lorry. Apparently, its absence from where it had been parked had been noticed. By the time the police got there, however, it was once again sitting waiting for its normal use. She’d had to suppress a giggle as she heard the lorry’s owner trying to explain to the cops that he hadn’t wasted their time and that it really had been missing. When one of the cops pointed out that it had a full tank of petrol, the truck owner seemed to be mollified and quit complaining about his disappearing truck.
Riley slipped back into the resort’s kitchen with time to spare. This competition was at a resort wishing to improve its image for providing upscale food. No television was involved, a must as far as Riley was concerned, but the money was good as was the exposure for a young female chef. The other chefs stumbled in, grateful that once again Riley had turned on the coffeepot.
“The semi-final round—not sure all of you needed to get up,” she teased them.
“Knock it off, Riley,” groused Charlie from the San Francisco Bay area.
Grace, the only other woman left in the competition, said, “How do you manage to look so good and so wide awake at this God-awful hour?”
“Good DNA,” quipped Riley.
The first round of this week’s competition wasn’t supposed to start for another forty-five minutes, but suddenly Jemma, the female judge, bounded in and surprised them with the news that the round was starting now and they had ninety minutes to prepare a high-end brunch entree.
One chef started to try to make the perfect omelet, one a flavorful chile relleños, one a soufflé, and one a version of eggs benedict. Riley went with her tried and true quiche. She made a perfect piecrust and par-baked it. Then she added cevapi, a traditional small grilled sausage-like meat, leeks, cheese, fennel, and minced red pepper. She made her custard for the quiche and poured it over her ingredients. She set it in the oven to bake while she made a quick hash of several different types of potatoes, red peppers, and chopped onions.
The omelet was a complete failure—overcooked and scorched. The chile relleños was a flop as there were no chilies available and so the chef had tried to substitute green pepper, and the soufflé never rose. That left the eggs benedict and Riley’s quiche. The eggs benedict was deemed good, but not inspired. Riley’s dish, having used some local ingredients, was judged the winner. Riley would have an additional ten minutes to cook in the main round.
This competition, as well as several well-paid celebrity chef gigs all over Europe, had been the perfect cover for Riley’s work liberating women who were being forced into packs and worse. So far, she had only been able to locate and set a few of them free. Part of the problem was tracking them down, but she now had a line on one of the main traffickers out of Mexico and felt that her ability to make a real difference was about to pick up considerably. She always timed her extractions to coincide with the end or a break between her gigs. That allowed her time to get the women to safety.
Her brother’s pack was part of a small group of packs, known as the Coalition, who had recognized the threat that this trafficking of female shifters posed. She’d been able to get a list of those members that she felt would take these women in and give them a safe home… Aidan’s pack being among them.
She missed Aidan and all the others from home. She’d managed to glean from her contacts that Aidan had been successful in bringing Gianna home. Riley knew that she was already an aunt to one nephew and there was now another on the way. Marco DeMedici, Gianna’s oldest brother and her alpha, had allowed Aidan to force Gianna to run and then honored his claim as her fated mate.
Marco had taken a turned human as his mate. One of the missing women was rumored to be her younger sister. Riley knew the DeMedici villa was a safe place to take former hostages in order for them to find refuge. Both their Madonna, Marco’s mate Catherine, and their midwife, Ashley, were sympathetic and supported Riley’s cause. She hoped at some point she’d either find Catherine’s sister or at least information that led to her being recovered.
The final or elimination round of the competition here in Belgrade was to serve a unique take on a traditional Serbian dinner entree. Two of her competitors went with goulash. The other two went with moussaka. Riley went with a spin on sarma—cabbage leaves stuffed with minced meat and potato. Instead of cabbage leaves, Riley opted for vine leaves and used minced pork and sweet potatoes with a wine reduction sauce, cooked and served in a traditional cooking pan. The three judges who traveled with the show as well as a local judge gave the win to Riley… her fourth elimination round win.
Thus far Riley had been able to fly under the radar of the Ruling Councils and packs on both sides of the issue. The competition was beginning to garner some interest from some television producers who thought it might make a good competition/reality series. She began to wonder if she should finish the competition or feign illness and drop out. The prize to win was a quarter of a million dollars. That money would go a long way to giving her a nice nest egg for her restaurant and also to fund her extracurricular activities. Riley made the decision to stay, with the option that if someone suggested filming, she would suddenly need to depart.
Begrudging congratulatory remarks were made as the chefs headed back to the waiting room. If the show followed true to form, Jemma would come in and give them their next destination city. Some contestants used knowing the location to travel ahead of the show and play tourist including eating at the finest restaurants. Riley liked to research the indigenous cuisine as well as see if there were any of the rogue packs operating nearby that she could raid and destroy.
“Well, guys,” said Jemma in her best game show host imitation, “it seems we’re to have a truly inspired guest judge. As you know one of the best boutique vineyards in the world is that of the DeMedici. We’ve been able to get their master vintner to agree to come and judge this next round…”
Riley utilized all of her masking skills not to react. Granted she’d never met Marco or even heard of this master vintner, but she was pretty damn sure Aidan would have enlisted his brother-in-law’s help in trying to find his wayward sister and bring her back into the fold.
The other contestants started buzzing around her. Riley sat sipping her Diet Coke, trying to calculate the risk versus reward of going forward. The reward was that she had a good chance of winning the competition. The risk was that winning meant she would be operating very close to the DeMedici sphere of influence… not necessarily the best place for a lone she-wolf on the lam.
Grace flopped down beside her. “Congrats again, girlfriend. You are on a roll. This sounds great, don’t you think? They say DeMedici is one of the wealthiest men in Italy? Wonder if he likes blondes with pixie haircuts?”
Riley smiled. “He likes blondes all right. He’s married to one. I believe they just had a baby and she is said to be a force to be reckoned with.”
“Well, maybe she got fat and he’d like to take a nice toned, athletic body out for a spin.”
Riley snorted. “That’s just nasty, Grace, and frankly beneath you. Besides the story is he is mad for his wife and sees all other females as gender neutral.”
“Bummer. Wonder if he has any brothers?”
Riley laughed. Grace wasn’t really mean spirited, but her biological clock was ticking. While she loved being a chef, she wanted nothing more than to find a husband and to start having babies. Riley was a bit concerned that she might find more than she bargained for if the competition got heavily involved with the DeMedici. Grace was the kind of woman who would attract a lot of wolf attention.
Grace looked at her friend. “You feeling okay? You sure don’t seem pumped to have beaten the boys… again.”
One of the male chefs, Julian, plopped down beside her and put his hand on her knee. Riley growled menacingly and he removed his hand.
“She’s right. Normally you love nothing more than to win,” he said.
“There are a lot of things I love more than winning,” Riley said quietly. “But beating you doesn’t rise to that level. Did you really think you’d win with the two pathetic dishes you put out today? I realize early on you decided that you could just phone it in, but the easy pickings have been eliminated. Josh is a great chef and you got lucky. It could just as easily have been you that got sent home. Step up your game, Julian.”
The head judge had stepped into the waiting room.
“Riley’s right. She was the clear winner today because her dish was the only inspired one of the bunch and she cooked it with passion to perfection. I know that Serbian food may not be in most of your wheelhouses but that’s what’s supposed to make you great chefs—that you can elevate even the most mundane food to something special. The judges will be meeting this afternoon. The final five may be whittled down to a final three or four.”
Julian jumped to his feet. “You can’t do that. You can’t just change the rules…”
“Sure he can,” said Riley. “There was that pesky little clause in the contestant contract about their being able to eliminate anyone for any reason if they felt it was in the best interest of the competition.”
Julian turned on her. “When did you get to be such a supporter of the rules?”
Riley grinned, “About the same time you served woefully under-seasoned eggs benedict to chefs with refined palates.”
Riley watched as Julian balled his fists.
Smiling, she said quietly, “Take your best shot, Jules… you’ll only get one.”
The head judge stepped between them.
“Okay, let’s everybody take a deep breath and a step back. Julian, why don’t you head on up to your room. Riley, why don’t you join the other judges and me for a wine tasting with the DeMedici vintner.”
“If it’s all the same to you, George, I’d rather head up to my room too. Those of us who actually competed today are tired.”
George’s face showed understanding, respect, and amusement. “And that way no one can accuse you of cozying up to the judges.”
Riley stood. “They know better. I’m about as cozy as a cactus.”
Everyone in the room laughed and the tension started to defuse.
Riley turned and started toward the door passing by Julian. He reached out and grabbed her upper arm, removing his hand quickly when once again she growled.
“Hey, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean anything by what I said earlier.”
“Sure you did, Jules. You’re just sorry you got called out. And I meant what I said. If you come at me, you’d better bring your A-game. If you don’t, I’ll drop-kick your ass all the way back to Vegas.”
With that Riley headed out the door.