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The Competitive Edge

Less Than Three Press LLC

Heat Rating: SWEET
Word Count: 88,000
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It's been six months since Alex became Sous Chef at Schulze's, and in that time Alex has been working strenuously to improve and expand his skills, working toward the goal of becoming Nik's equal. He is kept motivated by the occasional breakfast shared with Nik, flirting and talking and offering tender bites of his culinary creations.

But just as his hard work seems to be paying off, a new challenge is thrust upon him. Selected to be one of five challengers on a new cooking competition, Alex is quick to accept the offer, certain that winning will prove his abilities to Nik and everyone else.

Except that to win, he will have to beat not only a handful of strangers, but also Nik, thrusting them right back to the ruthless competition of their school days—and quite possibly ruining any hope of a future as lovers.

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Six months flew past like six favorite tracks of his mp3 player; he enjoyed himself so much, he was so immersed in it, that the time was there and gone. Alex learned the ins and outs of Schulze’s kitchen menu, working with Günther and Johann to master every aspect of every dish. He woke up at five A.M. to make market runs to get the best product. He spent more time at the restaurant than he’d have thought possible, from long before the doors opened to well after they closed. He should have better appreciated the leisure he’d had as a prep cook because sous chef barely left him time for sleeping.

And of course, every moment he could spare, he devoted to Nik.

The promise of the slow kiss they had shared only strengthened Alex’s resolve. He’d felt Nik’s lips yield beneath his own, and he wanted more of that. ‘Some day’ was no longer good enough.

There was still the inconvenient detail of needing a bed, however.

He met Nik for coffee every morning they weren’t caught up in other endeavors, which tended to be once or twice a week.

Alex pushed open the door to his neighborhood coffee shop, smiling at the cheerful jangle of the bell above the doorway. He still grabbed coffee and a croissant every day on his way to the restaurant, but it was a brighter occasion on those mornings when Nik was able to join him.

Inside, Nik was already there and had secured a place at one of the two large, somewhat shabby-looking velveteen chairs near the window, and he lifted a slim hand in response to Alex’s nod. Alex grabbed his coffee and croissant from the counter and hurried over, keeping his messenger bag tucked to one side of his body. It had his knife kit and clean chef’s whites, embroidered now with his name in small block letters beneath the Schulze’s logo, but there was also one more item carefully packed away inside.

“Alex,” Nik greeted him with a cheery smile, the likes of which Alex had never seen him direct at someone else. It seemed to light Nik up from within, and drew Alex in over and over again.

“Good morning.” Alex settled into the deep-backed chair beside Nik and placed his messenger bag at his feet. “You’re looking gorgeous today.”

Nik pursed his lips. “Flatterer. Drink your coffee.”

“I will, because everything tastes better in your presence,” Alex replied, unable to resist bestowing praise freely now that he was allowed.

Nik averted his face, but not before Alex caught the flush rising to his pale cheeks. “Stop it, we’re not even dating.”

“We meet for coffee dates all of the time!” Alex set his coffee to one side and reached into his messenger bag. “Unless you’re dating someone else now, and you’re not telling me?”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Nik said sharply, jerking his chin up. “You know that I—” He cut himself off.

“Not really,” Alex replied. He was careful to keep his tone light, teasing. Nik wanted them to be on equal footing, and for the past six months Alex had been working hard toward that goal. “You haven’t told me how you feel about me.”

“Maybe I have no intention of feeding your ego!” Nik flared, crossing his legs.

Alex drew himself up, feigning offense. “If you are not nice I won’t give you your surprise.” He reached for his coffee after shredding a piece of croissant and popping it into his mouth. He knew Nik well enough now to recognize when he could tease, and when Nik was actually mad. And then there were the occasions for flat out bribery.

Nik sat up too, leaning forward over his knees. “Really? You have a surprise for me?”

Alex smiled a shade too widely before immersing himself in his coffee.

“Alex,” Nik said in a coaxing tone. Instead of outright asking, though, he appeared to change the subject. “How’s the menu this week?”

“Great,” Alex replied, puffing his chest out. He couldn’t help but give Nik a sort of sly sidelong glance. “Not merely good.”

Nik produced a scoffing noise and plucked his coffee from the armrest beside him. “If we’re going to have this argument so early in the morning, I may as well be on the way to Collette’s. I have a bouillabaisse stock to get started…” He uncrossed his legs as though he were about to get going.

“No, no,” Alex said hastily. Nik had out-bluffed him, this time. He set down his coffee again and reached into his messenger bag, bringing up a small paper box, the type used to transport expensive black truffles for cooking, or objects of similar delicacy. “I made you something.”

Nik relaxed back into his chair, giving Alex a grin of unfettered glee. “For me?” he said, his brown eyes catching the light and appearing to glow as he regarded Alex. He fluttered his fingertips together.

Alex passed over the paper box, not even being subtle about the way their fingers touched as Nik took the box. Nik ducked his head, biting his lip over a grin as he shook his head briefly.

“What have you got for me today…?”

Over the past several weeks as they had met for coffee, Alex had taken to bringing certain kitchen products home. He would wake early and cook and assemble a little something the next day. He put together amuse bouches for Nik to prove his increasing prowess. Nik accepted each morsel with delight, but each time Alex asked him if he’d crossed the threshold, Nik would only give him a mysterious smile. Then he would promptly dissolve Alex’s higher brain functions by doing something like licking his fingers.

“Ohh,” Nik exhaled.

Skewered on a bamboo toothpick was a marrow-enriched veal cheek atop a petite potato rosti, drizzled in rich sauce made with marrow, wine, and veal stock. Alex watched avidly as Nik popped it between his lips in a single, deft bite. His eyes fluttered shut with pleasure and he held a hand over his mouth as he chewed slowly.